marshtide: (Mist)
[personal profile] marshtide
I'm perpetually amazed by the things people don't mention about books and authors. I know that for a great many years I had an impression of Virginia Woolf as some Classic Author who probably wrote very dry and dull things which no-one really liked but literary snobs claimed to. This can probably partly be blamed on the uneasy interaction between my mother's literary taste and my aunt's literary taste (the latter being rather more self-consciously high-brow than the former and clashes between the two being fairly common), which left me confused about a lot of books, really.

But also: no-one ever mentioned what they were about. If they did, they left things out. Things that I would have been interested in knowing, even quite a few years ago! Things like "Orlando is about the construction of gender" or "Mrs Dalloway is partly about sexuality, actually."

A lot of people - really a lot! - told me throughout my teens that I should read The Colour Purple, which I think was described as "about race" or possibly as "important" without elaboration. (Where to even start with this one...)

These are just the ones I can remember fastest. You've probably got more.

Do we just not mention the queer stuff? Is it not the done thing in polite conversation? Because really...

(Apropos of: thinking some more about Emma Donoghue's Inseparables - still recommended - and also suddenly remembering that I started reading Virginia Woolf finally because a few years ago Val said that she was a really good writer and also that there was stuff to be had on the gender and sexuality front there. And that I had this oh my god I had no idea moment.)

...and I'm going to go to class right now (and am totally going "oh my god and my teacher will have looked at my practice paper over the weekend and I know I spelt that one word wrong oh my god!" because I am ridiculous) so you get left with this mess of half-thoughts. Have fun!

Date: 2010-09-13 10:44 am (UTC)
cimorene: A black-and-white vintage photograph of 1920s singer Helen Kane in profile, with a dubious, side-eye expression (Default)
From: [personal profile] cimorene
In the US we have to learn a lot, A LOT, about Emily Dickinson, but nobody ever tells you that she was a lesbian. Like, we know. There are letters!

Date: 2010-09-13 07:45 pm (UTC)
pulchritude: (14)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
But was she a lesbian, or did she have a very intense romantic friendship? (I'd use the term 'just', but I don't want to discount the importance of romantic friendships.)

I'm really uncomfortable with the lgbtq community trying to claim same-sex romantic friendships as same-sex romantic relationships because we just don't know. I've had very intense romantic friendships - the language I've used in correspondence to those friends could be taken as what one woman would write to another woman with whom she is in love, but to characterise those relationships as lesbian would be a complete misinterpretation and would, imo, actually be diminishing the value of those relationships in my life.

Of course, if there are things in those letters that would explicitly mark Emily Dickinson as lesbian, then I apologise, but the portions I've read solidly support nothing more than romantic friendship.

Date: 2010-09-14 11:32 am (UTC)
pulchritude: (5)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
I apologise for anything I've said that implies there can be no overlap. I agree that same-sex romantic friendships can and at times do overlap with 'lesbianism' - however, to claim a historical figure is a 'lesbian' as the term is constructed today makes me wary. Not to say that there aren't people who were exclusively interested in people of the same sex/gender in the past, but to use modern terms and all their baggage on historical figures is something that I'm quite wary of.

My argument for devaluation comes from my identity as a demi-romantic asexual. Society elevates romantic relationships at the expense of friendships, and I've experienced this with my own friends. So to me, relationships construed as purely romantic in order to explain their depth of meaning totally erases my reality, and any romantic friendship of mine that is interpreted as purely romantic would, to me, be devaluing the meaning of a non-romantic relationship by insisting that it must be romantic in order to be so meaningful.

(But then, I don't know where asexual romantic relationships fit in because maybe the specific case of Emily Dickinson is an example of that, and we just can't know. The line between asexual romance and romantic friendship seems to depend completely on how each individual constructs it, especially when both concepts are so nebulous and dependent on rigid dominant discourses.)

Yes, I agree that historical queer figures have had their queerness erased, and I get that reclaiming them is partially about legitimizing and celebrating queerness, but at the same time...I'm uncomfortable about the ways this reclamation has been done, especially by mainstream white homonormative people.

Date: 2010-09-14 04:41 pm (UTC)
pulchritude: (2)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
Oh, I absolutely agree that all the terms we've used are bound up with our own understandings of gender and sexuality. But then, the very boundaries of these discussions are framed this way. I don't know if we even can move beyond them.

I take your point about women's sexuality and the origins of the idea of romantic friendship. My own asexuality blinds me to the ways women's sexuality are devalued, I admit. But I don't know how we can counter heteronormative ways of looking at the sexualities of historical figures (which I apparently have been using in this discussion, for which I apologise) while not projecting our own ideas about gender and sexuality upon them.

Date: 2010-09-15 12:00 am (UTC)
cimorene: A black-and-white vintage photograph of 1920s singer Helen Kane in profile, with a dubious, side-eye expression (she's so refined)
From: [personal profile] cimorene
It was presented as fact, I believe, in Graham Robb's highly acclaimed Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, but I haven't read any myself, not being a fan. On the other hand, I feel that debates over homosexuality vs "romantic friendship" in historical interpretation and particularly the insistence on proof are somewhat problematic given the well-known necessity of camouflage.

Date: 2010-09-15 12:39 am (UTC)
pulchritude: (2)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
Yeah, I've realized that my insistence on proof in my previous comment to you implies an assumption that people are 'straight' until proven otherwise, which is very problematic and contributes to a lot of queer erasure in history. However, I dislike that the discussion is typically framed in a binary way, in this case heterosexual/homosexual, and it's actually that rigidity that prompted my insistence on proof previously. So really, there's no perfect way to go about discussions like this.

Date: 2010-09-13 12:35 pm (UTC)
annotated_em: a hillside in winter, with snow and trees covered in hoarfrost (Default)
From: [personal profile] annotated_em
I think you put your finger on it, actually: we don't talk about queer stuff, not openly. We might hint at it, if we feel particularly daring, but to come out and say it--that's just not done.

And I think there's a sense of "You can't accuse people of that!" that goes along with it, especially for those people who (by our standards) were not out and proud--if it's possible to claim that a figure was passing as straight, then it's possible to just go ahead and claim that figure as a straight person. So by just not talking about queer things, we cloak queer figures in a quasi-heterosexual patina that then gets assumed to be genuine, and yeah. It's depressing.

Date: 2010-09-13 12:45 pm (UTC)
laughingrat: A detail of leaping rats from an original movie poster for the first film of Nosferatu (Default)
From: [personal profile] laughingrat
Oh yeah, people totally erase that stuff. Funny, really. Except not.

Date: 2010-09-13 03:48 pm (UTC)
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] branchandroot
I swear this is the truth: I have known people who /didn't realize/ The Color Purple was basically about sexual awakening as a lesbian and far-out healing lesbian sex. They just... didn't get it. Didn't see it. I think they actually /blanked/ those passages, which is a trick considering how much of the book that is. To this day I am deeply puzzled by this, with a side order of infuriated.

Date: 2010-09-13 08:05 pm (UTC)
silveradept: A kodama with a trombone. The trombone is playing music, even though it is held in a rest position (Default)
From: [personal profile] silveradept
Most of the queerness just gets erased, because you study Classical Authors in high school and if someone might have been queer, the thundering herd of religious and other conservative parents and/or staffers will scream "INDOCTRINATION OF CHILDRENS IN THE SINFUL HOMOSEXUAL LIFESTYLE!"

Unless it's Whitman. Whitman can be as queer as he likes, because he's sort of the Token Queer Classical Author.

In college, however, you can talk about those things, but by then most people have been turned off of the Serious Classical Authors because they were treated as such with boring literary themes and books that were designed to squeeze any enjoyment of reading you might have.

It's like trying to get people interested in Shakespeare. Most of his comedies are full of rude jokes, Jew-baiting, sexual references, murder, revenge, and more than a few insult duels. But most people can't make it past the language to get to it, because they haven't been taught how to read it to see them. Hamlet is a tragedy, but there are sex jokes everywhere, and not just with the gravediggers.

Date: 2010-09-14 03:14 pm (UTC)
silveradept: A kodama with a trombone. The trombone is playing music, even though it is held in a rest position (Default)
From: [personal profile] silveradept
Well, in those situations, I've usually noticed if one parent gets up to be the public front for it, we find lots of parents nodding along but not saying anything and then supporting the vote to remove those authors because they're gay.

Since I come from a challenged book perspective, I know how much Just Not Quite Polite can become the avalanche against you if you're trying to preserve right to read in school and accurate representation of what the students are.

And I agree that students are being presented with Important Classical Authors at entirely the wrong time. I think it would be interesting (although the students would hate it) to have the same book be repeated across grades, but each grade gives them a different lens to look at it with. A sort of structured way to introduce to them that there are multiple ways to read books.

Date: 2010-09-13 08:16 pm (UTC)
chairman_wow: picture of my faaaace (Default)
From: [personal profile] chairman_wow
Haha, I pretty much have Virginia Woolf filed under "Classic Author" in my head, as well. (Never read anything of hers.) I think it's because her books get the same sort of This Is A Classic Work Of Great Ficiton covers as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novels and so on. I guess I should remedy that sometime, then. >____>

Date: 2010-09-13 08:21 pm (UTC)
chairman_wow: picture of my faaaace (Default)
From: [personal profile] chairman_wow
PS: While I'm being ignorant, what is The Colour Purple about? Actually no, I should probably just find it and read it instead, without spoilers. It was on some of my high school summer reading lists, but I always went for Douglas Adams and PG Wodehouse instead. I had that one vaguely categorised under Books American Kids Read, with stuff like Old Yeller and The Giver. I guess I should remedy that, too.

Date: 2010-09-14 11:46 am (UTC)
dancing_moon: Jadeite / DM / Me (Default)
From: [personal profile] dancing_moon
Orlando I have always heard of as "fantastic tale with gender-changing main character" but otoh, I've hung around a lot on the edge of queer/feminist aware and/or studying circles... My very first exposure to Virginia Woolf was through the ads for the musical (or is it a play?) Vem är rädd för Virginia Woolf? (Who's afraid of VW?) which was staged in Stockholm when I was a kid. So, I've always pictured her as a "feminist classic author" when I encountered her again because, err, that's what I imagined her to be due to the name of the play.

And then I read A room of ones own and realized that she was Pretty Damn Snarky, which was a nice discovery.

Date: 2010-09-15 06:22 am (UTC)
dancing_moon: Jadeite / DM / Me (Default)
From: [personal profile] dancing_moon
They eh, didn't need to mention it. Because women people maky punny plays about being afraid of = feminists, in my youthful brain. I... am not sure if I should be more disturbed or not, about how perpective a kid I must have been

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