On Losing Toni Morrison

I discovered Toni Morrison in 1987, the year Beloved was published. But rather than jumping straight into that volume, freshly minted as a masterwork by critics, I decided to approach her work chronologically. So I read all of her extant novels in order—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby—each time marveling at the language and the profound way she captured the inner lives of her characters and their very specific worlds. By the time I reached Beloved, I was already in love.

But still, I wasn’t quite prepared. From the unforgettable, mysterious opening line—“124 was spiteful”—I knew I was embarking upon a unique reading experience. Beloved is that rare book that seems written by an unseen hand, as if Morrison were channeling a force as profound as the ghostly character of Beloved herself. If her subsequent books were a bit disappointing, it was only by comparison. Masterpieces like that one have no sequels.

When we talk about the Great American Novel, I think we’re talking about a story that epitomizes an aspect of the American experience—books like The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Absalom, Absalom! Books like Beloved. These are novels that talk daringly about fundamental truths of the American character, books that make the reader engage with our understanding of what it means to be an American. Hawthorne made us confront our sense of morality—whether it was to be found in religion or more simply, in every human heart. Fitzgerald asked whether the American dream was just a romantic illusion. Faulkner questioned the idea of power, whether any person’s success is worth what he has to do to other people to achieve it.

Like Faulkner, Morrison examined the original sin of America. Slavery is the immediate backdrop for Beloved, and its aftereffects haunt even Morrison’s novels that take place in the 20th century.

But no novel is great simply because of its content. Many people have written about slavery, as well as other classic themes of literature. A great writer brings those themes to life through powerful language. Morrison’s work is so moving and resonant because of the writing itself, the way the words move on the page. She created a language of her own, just as much as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. Her neologisms still live in my memory (the “crawling-already baby” of Beloved); the poetry of her sentences and the astuteness of her insights can leave me breathless. Her work is meant to be read aloud, like the words of an oral poet, or the proclamations of an oracle.

I learned of Toni Morrison’s death on the New York Times web page, her majestic profile painfully displayed under an article about domestic terror in El Paso, 22 innocent people murdered by a white supremacist. The juxtaposition was chilling, and telling. So many of Morrison’s characters are the victims of hatred, and the stench of racism permeates her work, in novels spanning from the antebellum period to the present day. Her work celebrates the power of resistance and is grounded in the life and words and music of the African American community, in particular—as American as jazz.

I was shocked by her death, shocked again to learn that she was 88 years old. It hadn’t really occurred to me that she had reached that age. I suppose I thought of Toni Morrison as somehow immortal. She was a giant—for me, the greatest novelist of her time, and mine.

So I’ll take back the shock. She is immortal, as immortal as the ghost of 124, albeit without the spite.

And the books are still on the shelf, speaking to us all.

 

Pride and the Middle-Aged Homosexual

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It’s Pride today in San Francisco, and for the first time in years I wish I were a part of it.

Friends are posting photos on Facebook—rainbows, drag queens, men in short-shorts—and I have a sudden longing to be there, in the middle of the throng in the city I called home just 15 months ago. But I also know that, if I were still living in San Francisco, I would probably stay away from the parade. And my curmudgeonly hackles would go up when the post-parade revelers spilled into the Castro, making too much noise and leaving too much mess behind.

As I learned last year, Pride in Minneapolis is a much quieter affair—a shorter parade, a festival in Loring Park that is reasonably easy to walk through—but I wasn’t moved to go there either this time around. Instead I stayed home in my quiet neighborhood, in my even quieter back garden, where the only in-your-face creatures are my cats. That’s one of the reasons I moved here, after all: to have a simpler, quieter life, without all the drama on offer in a metropolis like San Francisco.

Truth be told, of course, I miss the drama. Perhaps not as much as the gorgeous view from Corona Heights or the overflowing cocktails at the Twin Peaks Tavern, but enough to provoke a nostalgic pang.

When I look deeper at this feeling, though, it’s not so much that I want to be in San Francisco today. I think what I want is to be in San Francisco in 1999—or, for that matter, Boston in 1989. Not that those places were different then, but that I was. When I think about Pride, I think about my first one—sitting with friends on Boston Common after the parade. A stranger joined us, a man wearing a clerical collar and a string of pearls who referred to himself as a “Lesbyterian minister.”

I think of the tourist family who walked past our blanket on the grass and asked, in thick Asian accents, what was going on.

“It’s Gay Pride,” we told them.

The parents looked stunned. “Are you gay?” the man asked.

And one of my friends raised an arm and gestured at the thousands of people sitting and walking through the park. “They’re ALL gay!”

I’ll admit that I was as surprised that day as that innocent couple. For the first time in my life, I saw just how big my community was. That moment gave the lie to every time someone on television or in my personal life had ever shaken their head with feigned concern and told me I was doomed to spend my life alone. I was alone no longer. I was with my family, and my family was legion.

I went to the parade religiously every year after that, whether in Boston or New York or San Francisco—until 10 or so years ago, when it came to seem more trouble than it was worth. The crowd along Market Street was so thick, it was hard to find a good vantage point—unless you arrived early enough to grab a spot on the curb (which meant rising far earlier than my aging body wanted to on a Sunday morning). So my attendance became spotty, and most years, we would simply get together with friends for brunch or to walk around the Castro in our brightest colors, wearing T-shirts whose logos became less and less scandalous over time.

I never stopped loving Pride, but as I grew older, I came to feel more comfortable expressing that love from a distance. I had my community now—my friends, my husband, my home in the Castro. For 30+ years, I have lived a completely uncloseted life—25 of those years in the gayest place on earth, a predominantly gay neighborhood in a city where gayness is an asset and homophobia is a source of shame.

The celebration of Pride is essential, as important now as it ever was, because the struggle continues. On the surface, it looks like we’ve won. We can get married, we can serve in the military, in many places we are protected from discrimination. And one of the top contenders for president of the United States is one of us. But we are also under siege. And now that I no longer live in the gayest place on earth, I can see that more clearly. Minneapolis is a very liberal town, but it’s not quite the bubble I knew for a quarter-century. In Minnesota, I actually think before grabbing my husband’s hand on the street—an act that was second nature to me in the Bay Area.

So we need Pride because the world has not changed enough, because the race is still being run.

What makes my heart surge at the images of Pride parades, however—no matter where they are in the world—is the knowledge that every single one of them is someone’s first Pride. There are young people in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and all around the world who need the same experience that I had all those years ago on Boston Common. They need to see their tribe come together and realize just how large it is. And they need to feel the joy of being with their people, the joy of being who they area and loving whom they love.

I don’t miss Pride per se, but I do miss the novelty of it. Coming out wasn’t easy, and the first few years after it had their challenges, as I learned to find my place in a new world. But when I think back to that period, it’s not the struggle that I remember so much: it’s the sense of liberation. Freedom, of course, isn’t free. But it is, undoubtedly, priceless.

Happy Pride to all, whether it’s your first or your fiftieth!

 

Ironing with Mom

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My mother ironed everything. Socks, underwear, sheets, even towels succumbed to her persnickety need for neatness. She was the epitome of the old grammatical joke: Being a mother, my ironing board is always open.

Such are the dangers of dangling modifiers and an obsession with housework.

For years, every Sunday evening I unfolded my own ironing board and laid out a stack of shirts for the week. When the iron was primed and hot, the first shirtsleeve spread on the board, I would dial my mother’s number. I spent the next hour ironing as I talked to her. Listened would be a more accurate way to put it—listened to the minutiae of her week, amusing anecdotes about the grandchildren, her complaints about ailments and doctors’ visits, the compliments she received from strangers and friends alike about how young she looked, the inevitable recounting of how a complete stranger asked if she was from Boston (it must have happened once a month). “How did she know I’m from Bahstahn?” she would ask innocently.

How, indeed.

The cord snaked across my ironing board with each movement, as if the iron and not the phone were the real source of the connection.

My mother taught me to iron—to start with the sleeves, then move on to the back of the shirt before finishing with the front, so that the most important part is the last gone over and therefore the safest from inadvertent wrinkles. She taught me to drape the shirt over the square part of the board and ignore the useless pointed end.

Ironing not only gave me something to do while we talked. It also felt like something we shared. Aside from family business and a few favorite movies, my mother and I didn’t have all that much in common. We didn’t need to have much in common, other than love and time.

The last time I combined ironing with our conversation was an evening last spring. The next morning, she awoke with severe stomach pain and was brought to the hospital. I raced to see her on the next flight. She was 97 years old, so I knew that any incident could be the last. And this one was.

I got there in time to have a good chat, though she was heavily medicated and didn’t say very much. She fell asleep an hour or so later, and never woke up. At 6:00 the following afternoon, she left us.

The next day, after she’d gone, I woke into a new world. It was like waking up to find that the sky was yellow, that up was down and left was right. This, I thought, is not how it’s supposed to be. This is not the universe in which I have always lived.

On the day my mother died, I hardly left her side. It wasn’t Terms of Endearment or Brideshead Revisited or any of the other deathbed images Hollywood had engraved upon my memory. She slept soundly throughout the day, as her organs began to fail one by one. It wasn’t ugly, it wasn’t beautiful. It was life.

Until it was death.

I held her hand through it all, my own hand at the end of the sleeve of a wrinkled shirt I had pulled out of a hastily packed suitcase. I remember feeling oddly self-conscious about the shirt. And for the rest of the week, as I continued to live out of that suitcase, it seemed wrong—vain—to bother ironing any of its contents. I spent the week in wrinkled shirts, shirts I didn’t even launder between wearings.

We inherit unexpected things, some genetically, others that worm their way into our personalities by less predictable means. I have my father’s hairline, my mother’s smile, his codependent streak, her fear of change. The cleanliness, the obsession with those hard creases as she ironed, was perhaps a way of exerting control in a world that otherwise seemed beyond her grasp. It was, I suppose, a way of fending off the inevitable. If she could keep her home in order, that alone was testament to her health, her usefulness. It was her edge against time.

So what is it, then, for me?

What I learned on my own, on those Sunday nights with the phone’s headset against my ear, was the meditative quality of ironing. There’s a Zen to the repetitive back-and-forth of the iron against the fabric, the intermittent hiss of steam. Or maybe these qualities came out for me because I had ritualized the activity, because the regularity of all this is as close as I come these days to church.

I no longer go to an office every day, so T-shirts have become my stock in trade and there’s less ironing to do. But a month or so after she died, I had an event to attend for which I needed something a little dressier. I screeched open the ironing board for the first time in weeks and set it up by the window. It felt like the first trip to the gym after time away, muscles just remembering movements that used to be routine. But it was the silence that struck me most: no headset in my ear, no one telling me about her day while I smoothed the wrinkles out of an errant sleeve.

I finished the shirt quickly and put it on, still warm, and went off to whatever event it was, I can no longer remember. But I didn’t put the ironing board away. It stood open in a corner of the bedroom for days. It felt like a shrine of some sort. I was disinclined to disturb it, yet afraid to pick up the iron again, as if that act were testament to a conclusion I didn’t feel fully inclined to embrace: that life goes on.

I’ve heard people say they can’t go on after a loved one’s death. I’ve heard people say they don’t want to go on. Irrational and myopic as it may be, such feelings are a testament to the bonds we make as humans.

It’s been just over a year since my mother’s death. So I guess I’ve survived. But not by forgetting. I’ve survived by remembering.

And this weekly chore—her favorite chore—is part of that. Even if I don’t need the shirts, I need the ritual. Maybe the answer is, every Sunday evening, to lay out a shirt and press it flat. And listen closely. Listen closely, even if now all I hear is a puff of steam.

Reality Is Overrated

At a recent writers’ conference, I got cornered by a Famous Novelist (let’s call him FN1). We were waiting together for an elevator when he turned to me and said, “I read your latest novel and really enjoyed it.”

I was dumbfounded. We had been on a panel together a couple of years ago, so I knew he knew who I was, but the idea that someone I had read and admired for years had actually read and enjoyed my own work was a lot to take in.

Before I could manage to murmur a humble “thank you,” FN1 went on, his eyes alight with curiosity. “So,” he said, “I figured that the writer in the book is [insert Famous Novelist 2’s name here], but who’s the actor?”

I felt my eyes widening, my stomach clenching. “Um, no,” I stammered, “it’s not FN2. It’s a composite. They’re all composites.”

He scoffed with a jovially haughty wave of the hand and got into the elevator. Clearly he wanted dirt, and I was no longer any fun.

The title character of my novel, Channeling Morgan—the actor FN1 referred to—is a closeted movie star. Early on in the book, he hires the main character, Derick, to ghostwrite his autobiography. But Derick’s real ambition is to be a novelist—and his role model, Graham Whitcomb, is the famous writer in question. That is, the famous writer in the book, not to be confused with FN2.

I had indeed met FN2 (whether FN1 knew that, I have no idea). So there are pieces of Graham Whitcomb that were informed by him—the charm that mesmerizes his students, something in the way he holds himself. But the character also contains pieces of other famous writers I’ve met, as well as not so famous writers, and people who aren’t writers at all. And sprinkled in among his qualities are things I made up out of whole cloth.

The truth, of course, is that all my characters are composites. Even the ones who seem to spring forth from my imagination like Athena from Zeus’s forehead: when I look more closely, I can always see a germ of someone real, even (and most disturbingly) myself. I hadn’t written a roman à clef. Though Channeling Morgan is a satire, I had no agenda to spear any particular fish.

So it really threw me that FN1—who almost certainly knows FN2 personally—had seen him in the character. What piece of Graham, I thought, had he been reacting to?

Graham Whitcomb’s signature trait is that he’s a bit of a sell-out, giving up his authentic voice in order to achieve fame and fortune. That’s not at all how I see FN2 or any of the other real people who may have influenced the character. That’s my addition to the story, my way of turning Graham into a cautionary tale for Derick (a tale he spends the entire novel ignoring, of course—hence, plot).

I don’t know any movie stars personally, so Clive Morgan has no such origins in real life. Rumors about closeted movie stars go all the way back to Charles Laughton, though, so there was plenty of secondhand material to choose from to flesh him out.

When I met my husband, he enthusiastically and quickly read my first novel, Chemistry (ah, the early days, when you’ll do anything to impress). When he started to ask questions about it, I confessed that it was autobiographical, based on a previous relationship. That got him even more interested, and he read it a second time—not out of delight with the story, but in an attempt to understand me better.

I tried to convince him that it wouldn’t matter. In fact, my contention was that reading the book as fiction would give him a deeper insight into me. After all, even a novel I call autobiographical contains tons of invented scenes, characters, and settings, so to the outsider’s eye, there’s no telling what was transformed on the way to the page. The advantage of fiction is something else entirely: even when the author him- or herself doesn’t realize it, fiction has a tricky way of highlighting the internal stuff—the emotional and spiritual underpinnings that reveal truths far more profound than who did what when.

As Kellyanne Conway might say (if she were literate), novels offer alternative facts. To be more precise, real life is full of facts—what color a person’s hair is, what they do for a living—while literature offers truth: what it all means, the values and psychological influences that underlie the chaos that constantly surrounds us.

James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, was infamously berated by Oprah Winfrey when she learned—after recommending his memoir to the world—that it was actually mostly fiction. Readers felt misled by the book, as if its impact were somehow lessened by the knowledge that it wasn’t simply a litany of facts, that each scene and each bit of dialogue and each described smell wasn’t a faithful representation of the actual events that had occurred in Frey’s life.

I once heard a rumor that Frey had originally intended the book to be a novel, but was advised that novels don’t sell. (Wherever would he get that idea?) Memoir was the hot genre (when will its 15 minutes be up?, I keep asking myself), so he presented the book as a record of his own experience rather than fiction inspired by his own experience. Best-sellerdom and scandal ensued. (This version of the story may be an urban legend, but it adds a whole level of meaning. See what I mean about fiction vs. “reality”?)

There’s something prurient about humans. Everyone wants to know the “real story”—the dish, the dirt. The ubiquity of social media, of course, has only made a bad thing worse. Now 7 billion people seem to think their stories are all fascinating (even if 80% of what you read on Facebook is still a lie). And the other 6,999,999,999 scroll through their phones and read the lies as if they were the word of God.

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. But that’s only because people are less willing to suspend their disbelief for something that’s labeled fiction. A novelist has to make everything sound probable, lest readers scoff and call it “unrealistic” (which has oddly become the worst of literary insults), even though real life is full of coincidence and paradox and absurdity.

On the other hand, if you take nonsense and lies and label them reality, you can get away with anything. Look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So there’s the reality before your eyes and the reality reimagined by a novelist and printed between the covers of a book. To my mind, a novel is more honest because it admits to being a personalized, incomplete reflection of the world. Anyone who tells you “this really happened, exactly this way, because I saw it with my own eyes” is a liar or a fool.

For me, the deepest truths are most potent when they’re furthest from actual events. As one of the characters in Channeling Morgan puts it, “Sometimes, to be yourself, you have to be someone else first.”

The Disappointment of Glenn Close; or, The Absurdity of Competition

When Glenn Close lost the Oscar for the seventh time, I flashed back to her most-quoted line, from Fatal Attraction, my favorite of her films: “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan.” But ignored she was. Again.

I’d waited all night for her acceptance speech, to see her holding a gold statuette to match the gorgeous gold gown she was wearing (42 pounds, she’d told an interviewer on the red carpet). Hell, I’d waited 30 years to see her hold one of those things.

Truth be told, her performances are always great, but each time she’s been unlucky enough that there was another performance in the same category that was, arguably, just a little bit better. So, as much as I’ve always wanted her to have an Oscar, I can’t say anyone ever stole it from her. Not even this time. The Wife is probably her greatest role, and she played it with brilliant ferocity. But Olivia Colman. Yeah, I get it.

I’ve been obsessed with the Oscars since childhood, when I would watch the telecast with my mother and make a party of it, complete with every snack in the kitchen. By the time I was 20, I’d started making up my own ballots—creating my own nominations in the top categories, making up for the Academy’s oversights. On Best Picture alone, over the years I’ve disagreed with the Academy at least half the time.

So I’m used to being disappointed by the Academy’s choices. Art Carney over Al Pacino? Crash over Brokeback Mountain? (I could go on.)

I like to keep a running list of the Most Overlooked Actors—the great ones who never won an Oscar. People like Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. But for the ones who are still alive, there’s always the hope that they’ll finally win. Glenn Close is at the top of that list for me.

So this time, I felt particularly invested, and then particularly disappointed. At least it’s not as bad as when Chariots of Fire beat Reds for Best Picture. That one sent me into a week-long grouchfest.

But watching the moment unfold—along with my feelings—I suddenly felt the absurdity of competition. When I saw The Favourite, I was blown away by Colman’s performance. Just as blown away as I was by Close in The Wife. How can I honestly say which one was “better”? What on earth does “better” mean in such a subjective thing as art?

And the thought occurred to me: Well, all things being equal (and assuming these performances are of equal quality), why not err on the side of history and give the award to Glenn? And the next thought was: Then what’s the point of this little competitive farce in the first place?

I have never been a fan of competition. I enjoy playing games, as long as no one’s keeping score. And the ubiquitous fascination with sports has always completely escaped me: If the Patriots play on a Tuesday, they win. If they were to play the same game on a Wednesday, and the wind was at a different speed or the sky was cloudier, they might lose. Even in sports, winning doesn’t mean you’re better; it means your talent and hard work put you in the running, and the rest has as much to do with the alignment of the stars as anything under your own control.

It’s only on Oscar night that I seem to care. The Gay Super Bowl, as it’s called. But in the end, it’s not really about who wins and loses. It’s about the spectacle and the emotional impact: Louise Fletcher signing her acceptance speech so her deaf parents can know what she’s saying. Nicole Kidman slaying in couture. Some random dude streaking behind David Niven. It’s a party.

And that’s enough for me.

Donald Trump Is Killing Me

I never call him “President.” I don’t even like to use his actual name. I prefer to refer to him as the Orange Menace, Hitler Lite, Dump, or—my new favorite—the Unindicted Co-conspirator.

But whatever I call him, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s killing me. And I don’t mean in the sense you use to praise a favorite comedian: “Stop it, Joan Rivers, you’re killing me!” No, I mean it literally. My mental and physical health have not been the same since November 8, 2016. The anxiety, the sleepless nights, the daily stress of keeping up with his alternately cruel and incompetent antics—have had tangible effects.

My stomach is in knots half the time, and my ability to deal with day-to-day stress—you know, real life, like traffic jams and the lid that refuses to come off the pickle jar—have been known to send me over the edge. And I can’t tell you how many hours I have donated to Morpheus that really should belong to me.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Donald Trump is shaving days off my life expectancy every month.

And he probably likes it that way. After all, it’s not his life; it’s mine. And clearly he doesn’t care much about anyone’s life but his own.

People tell me to chill out, to get off the Internet, stop watching Rachel Maddow, stop reading the Times. And if my health were the only concern, they’d be right.

But that’s part of the grand scheme, isn’t it? The intent of these people (and it’s not just Trump; one man could not do all this shit by himself, even if he weren’t a certified idiot) is to wear us down. So we must stay vigilant, right? Or maybe we should just take turns being vigilant. Like campers, or soldiers in foxholes who take shifts guarding against danger.

You watch MSNBC for me today; I’ll watch it for you tomorrow. You unplug in Maui for the week; I’ll spend the next one in Sitjes.

Long ago I learned a valuable strategy for calming my nerves: imagine the worst-case scenario. The idea is to help you see that a) the worst-case scenario is highly unlikely; and b) it wouldn’t be so bad, anyway.

That works fine when you’re worried about not getting into the right college, or being dumped by a boyfriend. It’s less successful as an antidote to existential crises.

Personally, I imagine that my marriage will be annulled, that Social Security and Medicare will be dead by the time I’m eligible for them, that I’ll be put into a concentration camp, that nuclear bombs will go off all over the world. Those fears are in increasing order of seriousness and decreasing order of likelihood. But know this: none of them—absolutely none of them—is out of the question. Not anymore.

As the old joke goes, Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. I prefer to think about paranoia the way Pascal thought about religion: believe in it just in case.

He’s killing all of us. But only some of us are paying attention to the pain as it comes. Ignorance is bliss, but it catches up with you eventually.

Friends, Lovers, and Cats: Hopefully Ever After

Yes, the cliché is true: writing is a lonely business. At the moment, I’m sitting at my desk, alone in a house where the only sound other than the striking of keys is the persistent mewing of my cat. His demand to go out several times a day—under supervision; the boy cannot be trusted—is a continual reminder that I need to get my butt out of this chair from time to time, too. Ah, the wisdom of felines.

The antidote to literary loneliness is forging a community. I meet other writers at conferences, at readings, and, of course, online. As I noted last time, I met novelist Beth Burnett at this year’s Saints & Sinners Literary Festival, where we shared a panel on humor in fiction. And so a friendship was born. If you want to win my heart, just laugh at my jokes. (Ask my husband.)

Beth’s latest book, Coming Around Again, is available from Amazon and Sapphire Books. I’m thrilled that she has offered to write something for the blog today. As you’ll see, her brilliant sense of humor is matched by wisdom and heart. Please also check out her website here.

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Hopefully Ever After

by Beth Burnett

I was a little worried when Lewis touted me as being funny in his last blog post because as I was writing this post, I realized it wasn’t funny at all. In fact, it gets a little depressing, but ultimately hopeful. Sort of like my books – not happily ever after, but perhaps realistically hopefully ever after. (Which, let’s be honest, is probably why they don’t sell well. Who wants to be depressed and then… kind of uplifted? In a real life, I guess it doesn’t suck as bad as I thought sort of way?)

I wanted to write about why there isn’t more and better lesbian representation in mainstream media. I think gay men have had more representation in mainstream media than lesbians. Remember that show on one of the pay movie channels back in the 80s? Brothers. They all loved each other, even as they dealt with the very controversial subject of one of the brothers coming out and living openly as gay.

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Not that it was easy for men. As I was coming out in the mid to late 80s, the men I loved, the men with whom I formed strong, emotionally intimate relationships were dying. And that wasn’t being addressed in the mainstream media. It wasn’t really being addressed anywhere except in our own communities. Even within our communities, there was distrust and ignorance. I remember one man picking up a wine glass with rubber gloved hands and tossing it in the garbage after the guest who had been drinking from it had left. I heard he’s sick, the man had stage-whispered.

I was a little in love with my group of gay male friends back then. I think it was a way of being in the gay community without actually admitting I was gay. Maybe it was because I was so immersed in gay male culture that it took me so long to find my own. The first LGBT book I read was about male lovers and was called, I think, As If During Sex, though Googling it now brings back nothing. Did it have lackluster sales and go quickly out of print? Was it not worth being catalogued somewhere so some middle-aged lesbian, thirty years later, could find a picture of the cover and somehow bring back the memory of what it was about? Quite possibly, all the pot I smoked in the late eighties and early nineties means the book was called something entirely different.

The point is I didn’t know lesbians existed. And it wasn’t until I moved across the country and started dating women in my mid-twenties that I was introduced to lesbians in groups. There were a lot of us! I read lesbian books and discovered the joy of potlucks. I bought Birkenstocks and shaved my head and discussed Mary Wollstonecraft with tattooed academics.

I watched an awful lot of softball.

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I became enthralled with the power of women when men are removed from the equation. We’re strong. We’re beautiful. We don’t have to shave our legs or lose weight or wear makeup. (Though we can if we want.) I thrived in women’s spaces, I grew. I found my confidence. And somewhere in there, I published my first book.

A book that mostly centered on women.

I published my second book.

A book that focused almost exclusively on women.

Somewhere along the line, I started thinking about representation and how much it mattered to me and how little of it I saw. And it occurred to me that a book doesn’t have to be lesfic to have a healthy lesbian relationship in it. And it doesn’t have to be labeled as gay to have a healthy gay male couple. We can give role models to our readers, no matter who our readers might be. It’s time for all of us to start branching out into creating diversity for young, queer, people of color or older lesbians finding love as senior citizens. It strikes me as a particularly heinous insult to assume that we should only write what we personally know. I mean, one of my characters is a very believable racquetball player and I’ve never even held a racquet.

I guess somewhere in my subconscious, I thought I was already writing diverse books because I AM a diversity category.

It doesn’t work that way. Life isn’t meant to be lived in a circle of exclusion. It’s meant to be rich, vibrant, and full of – well – characters. How can we write deeply diverse and realistic novels if we aren’t living a diverse life?

I guess I had an epiphany somewhere between book one and book four. In Eating Life, my circle-of-friends, slice-of-life novel, one of my characters is a straight man called Ben. He was almost deleted from the book and he’s turned out to be a favorite among my readers.

In my latest release, Coming Around Again, two of the main characters are Carter and David, an interracial gay couple who adopt David’s niece when she’s kicked out of her home for being queer.

Representation matters. I like to think that no matter who you are, you will find something that speaks to you in one of my books. And maybe someday, thirty years from now, you’ll be writing a blog about that lesbian book you read back in 2018 – what was it called? Coming Again?

Coming Around Again cover.jpg