Tuesday, January 31, 2012

booknotes: inseparable

Recently, thanks to Danika the Lesbrarian, I became aware of novelist Emma Donoghue's Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). A perfect read for the winter holidays! While I've long been aware of Donoghue's nonfiction work as a literary historian, my previous encounters with her work have been her more widely-read fiction -- specifically the cross-cultural love story Landing (2007) and just this month Kissing the Witch (1997), a collection of re-visioned fairy tales "in new skins." I really enjoyed my foray into her nonfiction writing, and am looking forward to checking out her other works of literary-historical exploration.

Inseparable is a fairly quick -- yet still substantive -- read, charting the themes of "desire between women" in Western literature from 1100 to the present. I recently wrote a disappointed review of Phyllis Betz' The Lesbian Fantastic, a similar project of analysis which focused specifically on lesbian genre fiction. The biggest problem I identified in Fantastic had to do with the issue of defining "lesbian" authorship, a question which Donoghue jettisons immediately in her introduction by observing, "I do not much care who wrote [stories of desire between women], nor why. What interests me is the stories, and the ways they connect" (7). She also cautions against reading her work in search of historical examples of lesbians past: "I will be looking at relations between women, rather than the more historically recent issue of self-conscious sexual orientation ... The past is a wild party; check your preconceptions at the door" (5). The result is a delicious and illuminating romp through nearly one thousand years of literary tradition in which Donoghue identifies six distinct narrative clusters: (1) "travesties," narratives where cross-dressing by women and/or men which results in a same-sex pair, (2) "inseparables," passionate friendship between two women in the face of forces attempting to separate them, (3) "rivals" in which a man discovers the rival for his beloved's affections is another woman, (4) "monster" lesbians who seduce and destroy an innocent, (5) "detection" of the criminal sort results in the discovery of a same-sex relationship, and (6) coming "out" narratives in which a girl or woman discovers her capacity for same-sex desire and finds her life irrevocably changed as a result.

I was tickled (and somewhat abashed) to realize how many of these durable themes I'd unwittingly picked up and re-tooled for my f/f slash fiction involving Sybil and Gwen from Downton Abbey. A young upper-class woman seduced by her maid? Check. The awakening of same-sex desire as a pivotal moment of personal growth? Check. The haven of an urban environment/queer subculture? Check. The attention to creating a domestic "gone to housekeeping" environment for one's protagonists? Check. The devil-may-care lesbian, who understands her precarious social status, but embraces her desire anyway? Check. The incorporation of early sexological terms and frameworks in the characters own self-understanding? Check. I could go on. It's sort of comforting even as it is a little embarrassing, to realize how in debt we all are to literary tradition for our own vocabularies of passion and intimacy.

What I most appreciate, in the end, about Donoghue's expansive approach to reading "desire between women" in literature is that her reading as a critic mirrors the way so many of us read as, well, ordinary readers. I understand the social-historical forces that have led people to bemoan the invisibility of "lesbian" literature, or the dearth of queer characters in fiction, and the preponderance of unhappy endings to the fictions that do exist. At the same time, I think there is a place to recognize the way in which readers engage with -- and retool -- what literary narratives are available to them. The passion expressed before the final death scene may be more important to the reader than the tragic ending. The deux ex machina of a last-minute gender-swap (so that the lovers can marry/procreate) often matters little, in Donoghue's examples, to the lovers themselves whose passion for one another is unshaken by the reveal of the cross-dressing character's "real" sex. By setting aside identity categories as a selection tool, and instead focusing on the words and actions of actual characters, Donoghue shows us how persistently women's desire for other women has appeared in Western literature, even as the writers and readers of such literature denied knowing such passion could, in fact, exist.

What this suggests, intriguingly, is that on one hand we (at a cultural level) realize and acknowledge that same-sex desire and intimacy exists ... while on the other we fairly consistently write around it, insisting it is something unspeakable, invisible, and materially impossible. Sexual desire between women is, in other words, doing a bang-up job of hiding in plain sight. Obviously stories about same-sex desires and relationships between women per se do have more cultural legibility in the early twenty-first century than they have been in previous eras. Yet reading Inseparable I couldn't help but think of my own frustration in locating f/f fan fiction, whereas m/m pairings are so ubiquitous that the term "slash fiction" is often used interchangeably to mean the pairing of two male characters in a sexual relationship. While Inseparable makes the persuasive argument that women's passion for one another is there if only we look for it, the outstanding question in my mind is why it seems so perennially difficult for us to see.

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