BY KELLY COGSWELL | These days I mostly read to entertain myself and kill time, though books are still what I turn to when I need to understand my own life or try to lend it meaning. After I gave up on the Bible, I obsessively read “The Black Unicorn,” Audre Lorde’s collection of poetry. Later on it was James Baldwin’s essay “The Fire Next Time.” Both helped me survive in a world that hated queers, black ones especially, but white ones, too.
I found Dorothy Allison’s “Trash” when I was trying to digest what it meant to be a Southern lesbian, a Kentucky dyke in New York. And David Wojnarowicz’s pure queer rage in “Close to the Knives” destroyed me, inspired me, made me want to make art, or maybe harm myself — and others.
A couple years ago, when I was thinking about the Lesbian Avengers and trying to remember the New York they emerged from, I re-read “After Delores” (1988) by Sarah Schulman. Before I read it the first time, I’d seen her around. Gotten to know her a little in our small queer activist world. “After Delores” was a revelation. A lot different from her recent books like “Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.”
Still, I’d kinda forgotten about it. Blocked it out, really, because the book was too uncomfortably true. And reading it again, I not only remembered an East Village full of queers and artists that would maybe colonize a bar or create a gallery or theater, I remembered the pleasure of the book itself. How natural it was, how full of a dykeness that was merely taken for granted. The narrator is nothing we’re used to. Not some cute, cuddly lesbian dying to please or the usual mess of a victim with yet another terrifying story of incest and rape, drug addiction, suicide attempts, and redemptive therapy. Not even a deadpan postmodern observer of hetero families.
No, what you get is a young East Village dyke waiting tables in a crappy diner. She’s a little awkward, maybe even self-loathing. She doesn’t know what to wear. Drinks too much. Can’t quit thinking about her snaky ex-girlfriend Delores who dumped her for a woman with prospects. She has moments of thinking she looks pretty good. Other times, she’s a little disgusted, or disgusting. She has issues of personal hygiene when she’s miserable, and flashes of tenderness. She’s honorable. Or would like to be. That’s why she tries to solve the murder of another, younger dyke.
In many ways, the narrator could be me. Me then, in the ‘90s, bumbling my way through relationships and crappy jobs. Broke. Messy. Which is why I’d put it out of my mind. Reading this was a little like poking myself with a sharp stick. Schulman brought lesbians alive right there on the page.
You’d need dozens of books to convey the same information if you turned to nonfiction. And all the social scientists and gender theorists still wouldn’t capture either the complexity or simplicity of identity. That thing you are when you go out of the house without a thought for the straight world, or even the judging queers. When you do what you do and are what you are. Pre-verbal.
Here, Schulman pulls it off, writing as if she was entitled to, as if the battle was won and queers were human and as universal as Philip Marlowe or Augie March. Maybe more so. This should have been the beginning of something. But it wasn’t, really. Of the dozens of dykes writing about our lives in the ‘90s, only a few like Eileen Myles have persisted. Only a few new ones have begun. Or been published. Because we’re just not wanted.
So when lesbian writers want to be taken seriously, we often abandon our lives for more lofty subjects. And if we want to make money with dyke characters, what is there but porn or cozy mysteries? And any dyke that tries to do something else — good luck with that. Dyke presses have their bottom lines and are not always more welcoming than the mainstream.
Then of course, there’s queer theory. Where lesbians are deciphered and deconstructed nearly to death. I’m told we don’t even use that word anymore. We’ve been declared obsolete before we’ve even had a good chance to look at who we are, describe our lives from many points of view, digest them. That simple act of description is incredibly radical. It keeps our feet in reality. Entertains ambiguity. Our humanness. It is the necessary jumping off point.
I suppose this means lesbians don’t have a future. Not because we’ll be exterminated as an entire class, instead of individually. But because we haven’t imagined that future. How can we without books and art — and lives lived consciously as dykes?
AFTER DELORES | By Sarah Schulman | Arsenal Pulp Press, 2nd ed. (2013) | $15.95 | 176 pages
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published this year by the University of Minnesota Press.