At the beginning of each summer, I excitedly make a list of what I want to read in the two and a half months I am free from reading hundreds of student essays.
Last summer, I read everything I could find by Octavia Butler and about the Vikings (no connection to Butler). The summer before that, I read books I had never read but knew I should, like My Antonia and Anna Karenina. This summer, I have an eclectic list, which is fast becoming an actual teetering stack with the help of the Denver Public Library, with the general theme of “lesbian.” It’s been awhile since I wandered the stacks of books by and about lesbians, and—since I’m attending the Golden Crown Literary Society Conference in Vegas this summer—I thought I’d immerse myself a little early. Here’s my list for the summer (a mix of new and old, compiled solely because they consider topics and/or genres that interest me):
- A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe (the keynote at the GCLS Con!)
- The World Unseen by Sarim Sarif (I’m re-reading that one)
- The Ada Decades by Paula Martinac (I just finished it last week)
- Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong
- Art on Fire by Hilary Sloin
- Hoosier Daddy: A Heartland Romance by Ann McMann
- Lesbian Pulp Fiction: the sexually intrepid world of lesbian paperback novels, 1950-1965
- American Romances: Essays by Rebecca Brown (a re-read)
- My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years by Sarah Schulman
- Zami by Audre Lorde
- The Dime by Kathleen Kent
- The PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson (a re-read)
- Patience and Sarah by Isabelle Miller (a re-read)
- Across an untried sea: discovering lives hidden in the shadow of convention and time by Julia Markus
- Depths of Blue by Lisa MacTague
- Bend by Nancy J. Hedin
Because lesbian lit considers a marginalized group of people in some way, it possesses its own unique qualities, which, I would argue, makes it its own genre. Lesbian lit almost always features main characters who are lesbian, it often seeks to subvert the dominant societal narrative, and it often does that subverting in a fascinating, cross-genre way. Some of the most experimental books I have read have been lesbian books. Consider everything by Jeannette Winterson, or Rebecca Brown’s essay (nuns, Oreos—wow).
Lists like this one move beyond a summer reading list for me. Already, just making the list made me feel more connected to the larger lesbian community out there (and the prospect of attending an lesbian literary conference in July makes me excited to be in that community awhile, too). Of course, my daughter Mitike rolled her eyes at me when I told her my summer reading plans: “So you’re just going to read romance all summer?” I tried to explain that these books are about all kinds of themes, from romance to oppression to politics to lived life to science fiction, but she shook her head. “Mom, all these books are about women who love women, right? That’s romance.”
Yes and no. The older lesbian books, like The Price of Salt (made into the 2015 film Carol) focus primarily on the love between two women, because the main conflict was that the women were trying to love each other at all. The same is true about historical fiction, like The Ada Decades, a lovely little book that carries the reader through eight decades of the life of a woman living as a lesbian in North Carolina, or The World Unseen, which considers a forbidden love between two Indian women in South Africa. However, some more recent lesbian books merely feature a lesbian main character, like the lesbian detective in Kathleen Kent’s The Dime. The more acceptable it becomes for women to love women, the more we’ll see this shift in lesbian literature.
Shelving lesbian literature as a separate genre matters most to women who have just come out. When I came out in 2005, at age 28, I felt incredibly alone. I knew only one other lesbian, a friend from college who had moved to New York City, fallen in love, and held a civil union with her girlfriend. I called her and she invited me to visit. It was late October; the gingko leaves in Central Park were turning yellow. My friend and her legal partner showed me around lesbian New York by bringing me to bookstores. At Oscar Wilde (now closed) and Bluestockings, I stood in the stacks and, trembling, picked up book after book after book in the section marked LESBIAN, my face hot because now everyone in the bookstore knew that I was a lesbian because I was touching and opening lesbian books. I bought my first Jeanette Winterson book (Written on the Body) and my first Sarah Waters book (Tipping the Velvet); I bought the classic Patience and Sarah by Isabelle Miller and I bought the classic Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden. When I returned home to Alaska, to my little apartment three blocks from the ocean, and started to read, I felt comforted. I wasn’t the only one.
Later, reading lesbian literature became more about research. What kind of lesbian was I, anyway? An Adrienne Rich contemplating the unfurling of fern fronds in the forest? A Dorothy Allison, swearing loudly through my fear? A Jeanette Winterson, diving into rabbit-hole wanderings? I wanted to know about the community I had joined. I read Joan Nestle and Lillian Faderman, to discover my history (and I learned the word “HERstory”). I subscribed to Sinister Wisdom and Curve.
Still later, I just preferred reading lesbian stories to straight ones because they experimented more, dared more, surprised me more. Some of my favorite books are not lesbian ones, of course, but they are favorites for those same criteria (The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich, for example). I love the book in which a character suddenly time-travels into a different body, as happens in The PowerBook, and as I expect to happen in Sappho’s Leap. I love experimentation with language and structure; I love flipped roles and surprising historical details. Lesbian literature offers all of that.
This summer, immersing myself in lesbian literature is not about a desperate search for recognition or about research (although I expect to learn something), but a cozy familiarity. As I relax on the deck of our little rented cabin on the Oregon coast this June with my wife and our daughter, I want to lose myself in books about characters that look a little like us. And yes, Mitike, I’m excited to read a fair bit of romance, too.
About Sarah Hahn Campbell
Sarah Hahn Campbell is a lesbian essayist and novelist who lives in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches high school English and parents a beautiful little girl with her fiancé, Meredith. Campbell has published work in a variety of publications, including Curve, Room Magazine, Sinister Wisdom, Iris Brown Lit Mag, and Adoptive Families Magazine. Her novella, The Beginning of Us, came out in January 2014 from Riptide. Originally from a farm in eastern Iowa, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and writes a monthly column called “Subversions” for Brain Mill Press.