This week, I taught Katherine Forrest’s Curious Wine in my GLBT lit course. It’s about a group of women who are staying in a cabin on Lake Tahoe over a long weekend. The main character, Diana Holland, becomes “drawn” to one of the other women, Lane Christianson, and the two soon take their love of Emily Dickinson’s poetry to new heights of mutual discovery.

For the most part, my students were unimpressed. I tried to talk about the novel as lesbian romance. We discussed its evocation of a specific time, 1978. And we talked about it in terms of second wave feminism. Still, they were mostly unimpressed.

I really like Curious Wine. I think it’s sweet and romantic. And it’s a good read. As we continued to discuss it, it became clear that one of the issues many of the students had with the novel is its description of lesbian sex. Here’s a brief example:

She gasped from fingers touching lightly, gently inside her thighs, and pleasure and desire came together and focused intensely, powerfully. Her body surged against Lane, her breath coming quickly, her body trembling as Lane’s hands began to pull down her pajamas.

While I think this language is fairly evocative, my students found it too flowery, euphemistic, and elliptical. As we talked more about it, the word that eventually summed up their reaction was “unrealistic.” They wanted a more realistic portrayal of how real people have sex.

Chrystos So, on Wednesday I brought in a poem that I thought that they would like, “I Suck” by Chrystos, pictured here. I love this poem. It graphically and playfully presents two women’s sex together. It’s a fun poem, a hot poem, and an artistic poem. Its language is both very concrete and very “poetic.” You know exactly what’s happening in the poem and exactly which body parts it’s happening to. But it’s also very much a poem — word choice, imagery, and rhythm all work together to create a desire representational effect. It is a fabulous poem.

Needless to say, my students loved it. This is apparently what they’ve been waiting for — explicit, realistic lesbian sex!

I had added Curious Wine to the syllabus in order to give them more lesbian lit and to illustrate the romanticized description of lesbian sexual activities. So, in that respect, it worked.

In the past I’ve taught Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Audre Lorde’s Zami, and Dorothy Allison’s Trash in the 70s/80s slot. I love all of these novels. Patience and Sarah is actually from the 60s. It’s another lesbian romance, which also didn’t go over all that well. Students quickly began to parody its description of female orgasms as “melting.” Rubyfruit is a classic, and students generally love it, but it’s not really very deep. Trash is a collection of short stories, many of which are amazing. But students complain that they’re not all “lesbian” enough. And Zami didn’t interest most of my students last year. It’s too deep. (I also worried that it might be latent racism as well, in the sense that my students just weren’t all that interested in Black lesbian experience.)

So, I thought I would try Curious Wine. I had thought about teaching Valencia by Michelle Tea, but it may be a little too disturbingly graphic in its depiction of lesbian sex — once knives are involved, I start to worry about teaching a text! I had also thought about teaching Rebecca Brown’s The Last Time I Saw You, which is a great collection of short stories, but also a little too deep, I thought. We still have Fun Home to read. It’s one of the most amazing books ever written, so they had better love it or I’ll know who the problem is!

I guess I’ll be reading up on my lesbian fiction in the coming months. Or maybe I should switch over to drama and poetry. Or maybe I should look into an anthology of lesbian short fiction. We’ll see. But whatever I choose for next year, it’s going to have to be hardcore!

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