I first read the Jeanette Winterson novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit early in my second semester of college, which means it was also early in the year—February, say, or sometime in the awful attenuated Februariness of an East Coast winter, when the trees look as skeletal and unlikely to revive as the dead at Flanders Fields—and therefore early, too, in my first serious crush on a woman, which seemed, back then, equally, tragically unlikely to bloom. It was the first coming-out story I ever read.
Oranges was part of a de facto lesbian curriculum, word of which filtered down to my generation of gay girls through the low-tech distribution mechanisms of the nineties: pseudo-samizdat literary zines, published at the ubiquitous campus Kinkos; fringy lit seminars taught by hot young grad students; the cool upperclassmen whom we definitely did not call upperclassmen but did call, unironically, BDOCs: Big Dykes on Campus. Offhand, I recall that this curriculum included, among others, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, and a lot of fifties lesbian pulp fiction of the Beebo Brinker variety.
In retrospect, this list has a kind of literary “fuck, chuck, marry” quality to it: These books are, in varying degrees, hot, expendable, and enduring. Beyond representing lesbian desire, they have essentially nothing in common. (The same goes for the music we listened to back then. Somewhere in a landfill, our mix tapes are unspooling their fabulously confused guts: Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill.) At the time, though, I was so hungry for these books that my critical faculties fell into a kind of awed silence. By day, I studied literary theory, mainlined semiotics, and compulsively “unpacked texts.” By night, alone with my stash of queer literature, I read like a kid again—which is to say, for the plot, the sense of identification, and the sex scenes.
Reading books that affirm one’s identity is hardly unique to queers. A friend told me that while I was reading Winterson and coming out as a lesbian, he was reading Martin Amis “and coming out as a pompous dick.” It is, however, uniquely challenging for queers, or was, anyway. If you’re coming out as a pompous dick and wish to see yourself reflected in books, you have, to a first approximation, infinite options. Until Stonewall, lesbians had … what? Maybe a few dozen. And most were grim: Well into the sixties, publishers refused to back gay and lesbian books with happy endings.
The next two decades, however, heralded the arrival of what could be called the first generation of out lesbian writers—those who published under their real names, wrote both as and about lesbians, and did not feel compelled to make their characters suffer hideous fates. I was lucky: By the time I came out, it was possible to see my lesbianism reflected in a book and not want to throw either the book or myself out a window.
Now, almost twenty years later, two of that generation’s leading lights have produced memoirs that trace their own early literary influences, their origins as writers, and—especially—their relationships to their mothers. The first of these, Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, came out this month. The second, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, will be published in May.
Until recently, Bechdel was best known as the author of Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic strip of uncommon political, interpersonal, and visual acuity. (Imagine a collaboration among Rachel Maddow, Charles Addams, and Charles Dickens, and you’ll get the gist.) Then, in 2006, she published Fun Home, a graphic memoir about her father—a distant, demanding, closeted gay man who pursued underage boys and died of an apparent suicide when Bechdel was in college. Fun Home became a national best seller and met with widespread acclaim; Time magazine, which does not anagram to “mainstream mag” but feels like it should, named it the best book of the year. Are You My Mother?, also a graphic memoir, is Bechdel’s maternal follow-up.
My initial reaction to Bechdel’s and Winterson’s new books was astonishment at their surface similarity: two mom-focused memoirs by literary lesbians who rose to prominence in the eighties, published almost simultaneously. In fact, though, what’s most remarkable is how different they are.
Implicitly or explicitly, every memoir is about not just a self but the self: In telling our own stories, we inevitably draw on one or another cultural story about what it means to be an “I.” Taken separately, Why Be Happy and Are You My Mother? present two specific and remarkable people. Taken together, they present two strikingly different ways—indeed, two of the only ways—we in the contemporary West know how to tell a story about the self.