CLAGS and PEN Co-host Two Evenings on Gay and Lesbian Literature

“When I was growing up and telling people in my family about the bad things happening to me, they said I
was making it up,” novelist Blanche McCrary Boyd told a standing-room crowd at the The Graduate Center, CUNY on
February 19th. “So now that’s what I do.”

This was just one of the how-l-got-started remarks offered by eight writers at “An Evening of Lesbian Literature.” On the evening’s first panel, “Heroes Looking Back,” lesbian literary luminaries Jill Johnston, Barbara Smith, Bertha Harris, and Maria Irene Fornes described the passions, perils, and often the penury of writing lesbian literature not only before it was fashionable, but before most publishers would even look at it. Of course each writer’s perspective was different, making for lively,and on occasion even heated, exchange.

Village Voice arts editor Usa Kennedy moderated, asking the panelists to address such topics as how one can be an out lesbian writer without being pigeonholed, what makes a work “lesbian,” the decision to publish with a mainstream or an independent press, and how writers deal with the demands of audiences hungry for stories and images the authors just might not be inclined to write.

Each writer gave a substantial introductory talk, touching on these subjects and others. Smith discussed the need for and impact of her own publishing firm, Kitchen Table Press (and other houses like it), and also invoked the late Audre Lorde as both an artistic and political model (Lorde’s influence was felt all night.). Harris described how she discovered herself as a lesbian and as a writer in her college years, while Johnston focused on her stylistic development. Fornes talked about her process as a playwright and about how her experience as a Cuban-American affects her sense of disenfranchisement.

After a short supper break — during which the lobby buzzed with discussions about the first panel – film critic B. Ruby Rich introduced the second panol, which she moderated: “Lesbian Literature Now and Tomorrow.” More of a roundtable discussion, the session began with brief statements from panelists Dorothy Allison, Nicole Breedlove, Blanche McCrary Boyd, and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz.
They picked up on many of the themes addressed by the first panel, adding such questions as “what kinds of tensions or expansions can be felt in their work as a result of their various identifications?” In this respect, Boyd and Allison talked movingly of working within a tradition of southern fiction, while Kaye/Kantrowitz spoke of the influence of Jewish culture on her work, and Breedlove, of

the commitments she expresses in her poetry as an African-American. (She gave a stirring example of what she meant when she recited a poem in response to an audience member’s request).

Describing the imperative she feels to be as out as possible, Dorothy Allison brought down the house by declaring, “I say over and over that I’m a lesbian. It’s kind of like Tinkerbell. If I don’t, a baby lesbian somewhere will fail to come out.” “I guess,” Breedlove, barely in her 20s, replied, “I’m that baby lesbian.”

The companion event, “An Evening of Gay Men’s Literature” was held in The Graduate School Auditorium on April 20– also before a packed audience. The program, like the February event on lesbian literature, was cosponsored with the PEN American Center of the International Writers’ Association and also consisted of two panels, one of older established writers and another of younger authors. There was some discussion by both panels as to whether there were genuine generational differences and whether sometimes two writers from different generations might not have more in common with each other than with their immediate contemporaries. Nonetheless, one generational difference was clearly visible – without planning, all the members of the first panel wore jackets and ties, while everyone on the second was in shirtsleeves.

The first panel was composed of Samuel Delany, Sanford Friedman, Allen Ginsberg, and Edmund White (who is to give CLAGS’s annual Kessler lecture this November 12), and moderated by queer theorist/critic Michael Warner. The second panel had Christopher Bram, Dennis Cooper, Assotto Saint, Michael Cunningham, and Dale Peck, and was moderated by African-American literary critic Robert Reid Pharr.

On the first panel, Sanford Friedman told of his difficulties in getting his pioneering gay novel, Totempole. published and distributed; but a question from a younger member of the audience showed that the novel was still known and read. Edmund White remarked that AIDS had significantly changed gay writing by providing a new tragic
theme•to balance the coming-out story that had previously dominated the gay novel.

During discussion by the second panel, Christopher Bram was questioned at length (to the discomfort of some in the audience) on his use of minority • characters in his novels. For some, though, the most interesting question came when Robert Reid Pharr asked how the writers dealt with sex in their books. Bram replied that he was comfortable in writing extended sex scenes; Michael Cunningham said he found it difficult to do this because there was no useful language available; and Dennis Cooper claimed that since he found sexual encounters in real life problematic, he used them in his novels to represent the social alienation of his characters.