Over the past week, I’ve read two novels that I enjoyed very much: Katherine Forrest‘s Curious Wine and Michelle Tea‘s Valencia. I’m making a concerted effort to read some lesbian fiction over the next several weeks in preparation for my Lesbian and Gay Lit class in the spring.

When I read my evaluations from last winter recently, a few of the lesbian students mentioned that they thought we should read more works by women than we did that term. I usually include Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues as an honorary lesbian text, but at least one student thought that wasn’t right: she argued that this novel was really about being transgendered, not about being a lesbian. That’s kind of debatable, but I take her point. Last year, we read Feinberg, Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah, and a few poems by lesbian writers. (One of these poems, by the poet Chrystos, is one of my favorite poems ever: “I Suck” is the title. I highly recommend it. I also love Susan Griffin’s “In Response to a Man’s Question ….”) We also read a chapter from Song of the Loon, a chapter from Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Larry Kramer’s Faggots, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. So, the number of texts by women and by men were roughly the same, but the amount of class time spent on “lesbian texts” and “gay male texts” favored the men a little.

Ultimately, there are three problems that make this favoring difficult to address. First, OU is on 10-week quarters. This means that we simply don’t have time to read as much as I would like. So, I tend to change the reading list from year to year to address the changing demographics and tastes of my students. Of course this means that I’m always a year behind: this year’s class will address last year’s suggestions for improvement. Second, I know less about lesbian writers and texts than I do gay male authors and their works, and the lesbian texts I do know about don’t always stand up in quality and importance to the male-authored ones. I recognize my own bias in making that assertion — to some degree, I’m sure that I think some of the male texts are better and more important than some of the female-authored texts because I’m a gay male, but it’s not just that inherent bias. As much as I like Rubyfruit Jungle (a novel that I teach from time to time), it’s simply not in the same league as Angels in America or Stone Butch Blues. And finally, I am the only member of my department that teaches this course. If someone else taught the course, students would undoubtedly get a different take on Lesbian and Gay Lit, one that might include more (or at least different) knowledge and discussion of lesbian works.

So, to improve my own knowledge and potential syllabus for the spring, I’m reading some works by lesbian authors. I began by rereading Curious Wine, which has recently come back into print. I really liked this novel when I read it a couple of years ago; now I love it. It’s a lesbian romance that focuses on the “combustible circumstances that bring Diana Holland and Lane Christianson together,” as the back cover states. These two women meet while they are vacationing at a cabin with a group of women at Lake Tahoe. Most of the women are straight, and Diana would certainly identify herself as part of that group at the beginning of the novel. But as soon as she meets Lane, she is drawn to her beauty and self-assurance. The two women share a bedroom at the cabin, so we can all see where this is headed.

I like the unabashed romanticism of Forrest’s novel. (Patience and Sarah is also a sweet romance, but my students last year thought it wasn’t sexy enough — they especially disliked that novel’s metaphor for sexual pleasure: “melting.”) I tend to like romantic novels and movies in general, and I think it’s important to read GLBT romances in this class. Curious Wine is also sexy and political, two other qualities I like in my novels.

I like that Forrest captures the historical moment of her story. The book was published in 1983 and takes place sometime around the end of the 1970s/beginning of the 1980s. Its depiction of the women staying at the cabin is very much of this time (and reminds me a bit of the play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove by Jane Chambers).

The second book I read this week is quite different. Michelle Tea’s Valencia is an autobiographical novel, and the main character is named Michelle Tea. One of my students asked me to find and start teaching a lesbian version of Faggots. This request worries me a little — while Faggots is very graphic in its depiction of sex, it’s a fundamentally anti-promiscuity novel. Valencia is fairly graphic in its depiction of sex, so it might be the kind of novel this student had in mind, but I’m not sure that it shares Kramer’s condemnation of experimentation, for lack of a better word. Tea certainly leaves her main character open to criticism — and Michelle the character often supplies that criticism herself — but we don’t get the same kind of didactic epiphany that free love and drugs are killing the GLBT community that Kramer’s protagonist has. Ultimately, contrasting these two texts might lead to an interesting class discussion.

Valencia is an interesting novel. I kept thinking that it shares a lot of the qualities of picaresque novels. The novel’s protagonist makes a brief trip to Georigia, but mostly she travels around San Francisco, going from bar to bar, party to party, and girl to girl, usually while high or drunk. By the end of the novel, Tea does seem to get someplace important, though. I thought that the last chapter was poetic, and, kind of like Curious Wine, brings us to think about lesbian community. How do women like this protagonist bond with other women? If life is all about sex and drugs, what sort of community can one really form? Tea answers these questions, but not simply or too obviously. I found it to be a very moving work. (Afterellen.com has a good interview with Tea.)

I don’t know if I’ll teach either of the works next quarter. But I’ve enjoyed reading them and recommend them to anyone else interested in lesbian fiction.

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