looking back/looking forward (from where we are now)

it's been a busy and oft-times exhausting year!
Over the past couple of weeks I've been feeling more aware and more thankful than usual of all the ways our life feels more settled than last year and -- while still containing its stresses -- just generally better on the well-being front. So here are a few notes on what happened in the Cook-Clutterbuck household this year.

The Good:
  • Last December I completed my library science degree which, hooray!
  • On the first Monday after New Years, I began my full-time position at the MHS.
  • Hanna took the leap of leaving a workplace that had been steadily eroding her health -- a particularly brave move given the current economic climate -- and has been rewarded by steady gainful employment at the Center for the History of Medicine and the related Medical Heritage Library with a fine group of fellow archivists. As I type this, she's looking forward to two more years of grant-funded archival processing and digital projects.
  • I've been blogging at The Pursuit of Harpyess since January 2011, an opportunity that has led to slightly more active participation in the feminist blogosphere than I had the energy for during graduate school -- and certainly kept me more engaged during my first year of post-grad employment than I might otherwise have put in the effort to sustain.
  • I finished my thesis in May 2011 and brought my graduate school career to a thankful close. 
  • Also in May, I finally had a chance to take Hanna to visit my hometown in Michigan.
  • With neither of us in school, we've had more time to settle into life here in Boston, which appears to involve a lot of coffee shops, used bookshops, libraries, and hosting dinners for a few close friends.
  • 2012 will mark the fifth year of living in this apartment and neighborhood, both of which we're pretty happy with. We keep talking about moving at some point (a bigger kitchen would be nice; and space for more bookshelves), but thankfully moving isn't an urgent need.
The Not-So-Good:
  • In the event anyone wants to know, depression still sucks. I'm so, so thankful for Fenway Health and the wonderful medical and mental health care providers we work with there. And I am continually amazed at Hanna's strength and patience, with her willingness to put one foot in front of the other (particularly on the hard days), and her determination to hold onto hope we'll build a life worth sharing.
  • While Hanna and I are more securely situated than many vis a vis our employment and financial stability, carrying a joint burden of some $160,000.00 in student loans -- even if they're our only form of accumulated debt -- is a vulnerability we're just learning to live with. Even as we scrabble around to start long-range savings and consider the possibility of paying for things like travel abroad or a mortgage. I'm thankful the issue of educational debt continues to be a topic of conversation and concern on a national (and international) level, since it's not going to get better without significant structural change.
  • Given our limited ability to travel, living far away from family and close friends continues to suck. We've got loved ones in Texas, California, Oregon, Michigan, and Maine. All of whom are missed dearly. Social media helps, but I don't think I'll ever get used to the distance between us.
The Possible Future:
  • Thanks to Hanna's continued employment in the Harvard University library system, she'll be eligible to take a history seminar in the spring, virtually free of charge (hooray!). While they don't offer courses specifically in her area of interest, Irish history, she plans to enroll in a course on intellectual history that she hopes will give her a chance to continue her research on the history of Irish nationalism.
  • I'm working on a paper for the New England Historical Association and the MHS on a 1914 case of alleged sexual assault here in Boston documented by the New England Watch & Ward society as part of their ongoing efforts to eradicate vice. 
  • In March, I'll be traveling back to Michigan (hopefully with Hanna for company!) to take part in the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the Hope College Women's Studies program, of which I am a proud graduate.
  • Hanna and I are knocking around the idea of starting a joint review blog, tentatively titled stuff + things, which will roll out in January. Watch for further details coming soon.
  • As if that weren't enough, I'm still working on oral history transcription and hope to start posting final versions of interviews on the project blog later in the new year.
I'll obviously be writing about all of this as time and energy allow, so stay tuned ... I look forward to sharing all that's to come in 2012 and beyond. 


quick hit: belfast project oral history lawsuit

Earlier this year, the British Government requested the audio recordings and transcripts of interviews from a Boston College-based oral history project documenting the history of conflict in Northern Ireland. The oral history narrators who participated in the project originally granted interviews on the condition (agreed to in writing) that the interviews remain sealed until after their death. English officials are arguing that the interviews are required as part of an ongoing criminal investigation and claiming that the United States government is under treaty obligation to obtain the materials from BC and hand them over.

After initially resisting the request, Boston College appears to be on the brink of complying with a Judge's order to hand over select interviews. This decision not only represents a breach of promises made to human beings whose lives (and the lives of countless others) will now be under renewed threat, but will have a widespread chilling effect on the practice of oral history in situations where, perhaps, the oral historical record is particularly vital: sites of conflict where normal modes of documentation are lost or never created.

You can listen to an interview with the former director of the Belfast Project, Ed Moloney, on WBUR's Radio Boston.

You can read more about the lawsuit at Boston College Subpoena News (a blog set up to follow the story, which is unaffiliated with BC), as well as access many of the publicaly-available legal documents related to the case.

Neither the Oral History Association nor the American Historical Association have weighed in on this issue recently -- at least that I can find -- although the AHA did acknowledge back in May that the issues are "murky" and raise complex ethical questions about the practice of oral historical research.


wishing you a restful holiday

As I write this post, Hanna and I are listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King's College, Cambridge, England and eating cornmeal molasses pancakes. I put in my last hours of work for 2011 yesterday afternoon at the MHS and now both Hanna and I will be on holiday until January 3rd -- all, the luxury of slightly anachronistic academic schedules! Later this afternoon we might wander down to the Boston Public Garden to check out the Christmas bustle before returning home to prepare cinnamon pull-apart bread for Christmas morning and possibly a screening of White Christmas

And then possibly reading some picture books before bed. Because I don't know about you, but Christmas isn't really complete until you've read your favorite Christmas stories. Such as:

The Conscience Pudding, by E. Nesbit (available as a free audio file from Librivox!)
The Story of Holly and Ivy, by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 
The Tomten and the Fox, by Astrid Lindgren (see illustration above)
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson

What are the favored Christmas and/or winter holiday stories in your house? Share them in comments!

Schaerer family Christmas tree (Dec. 2003)
photograph by Anna
Best to you and yours this season, and warm wishes for the turn of the year.



booknotes: the lesbian fantastic

Back in October's batch of LibraryThing Early Reviewer books, I won Phyllis M. Betz' The Lesbian Fantastic: A Critical Study of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, and Gothic Writings (McFarland, 2011). The Lesbian Fantastic is the third volume Betz, a professor of English literature, has written for McFarland examining genre fiction written by lesbian authors (a slippery category that I'll talk more about below). The previous installments in the series look at lesbian detective fiction and lesbian romance novels.

At a slim two hundred pages, including chapter notes, bibliography, and index, The Lesbian Fantastic -- as the subtitle claims -- takes on the ambitious task of exploring the history  and themes of fantastical literature written by and about lesbians. The brevity of the volume is, indeed, one of its problems, since each aspect of fantastical literature Betz covers (science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, and gothic) could take up a book of its own. I was certainly thankful that Betz refused up-front to play genre border patrol and police the boundaries between, say, "gothic" vs. "paranormal," but that decision left her with a vast landscape of literature to summarize, analyze, and place in some measure of socio-historical context. The inevitable result is that corners are cut and I was left wanting a meatier discussion on many fronts.

Likewise, Betz fails to strike a comfortable balance between examination of lesbian authorship, readership, and the lesbian as character in fantastical literature -- whether or not that character is written by a self-identified "lesbian" or otherwise non-straight woman author. All of these aspects of genre fiction by and/or about lesbians would have been fascinating subjects to explore in-depth, but given the length of their treatment in this study, I felt all three topics came away muddled and short-shrifted. Was this book a study of lesbian authors? Not entirely -- in part because not all authors' sexual orientations are known and/or fit into modern-day identity categories. Betz also weaves back and forth between writing narrowly about lesbian-authored works (however she defines them) and women generally and authors in the genre generally. Was this book about lesbian readers? That category, too, suffers from a high degree of volatility ... are we talking about readers of fiction involving lesbian characters? Readers who identify as lesbian? Who engage (or have engaged) in same-sex relationships? Who experience some measure of same-sex desire? While categorization is always going to be somewhat arbitrary for the sake of a study such as this, I would have appreciated a clearer sense of whom Betz herself is including under the umbrella of lesbians who read genre fiction, and what her sources are for those voices.

Finally, Betz could have used a good editor with knowledge of the genre who might have caught, for example, the fact that China Miéville does not identify, as far as I know, as a lesbian or a woman. Or could have gone over the manuscript and deleted the repetitious author introductions (Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland is re-introduced almost every time it appears). 

Overall, The Lesbian Fantastic is a book on a fascinating and potentially rich (and heretofore under-studied) topic that suffers from over-vague parameters and a frustrating simplification of lesbian identity. I think Betz' subject might have been better served had she chosen to focus on the treatment of lesbian/queer characters in fantastic fiction. In that context, she could have constructed some interesting compare-and-contrast arguments about lesbian characters in genre fiction generally versus genre fiction written by lesbian writers and/or for a lesbian/queer audience. Or, she could have focused more specifically on queer female readership and fandom, discussing the genre fiction pitched specifically to non-straight readers and the ways in which those readers interact both with "lesbian" genre fiction and its mainstream counterparts. Reader voices are notoriously difficult to locate and analyze, but online forums and fan-created transformative works (fan fiction, videos, art, etc.) have made the possibility of hearing the reader's voice in much more depth.

The Lesbian Fantastic will be useful to other scholars in the field who will, hopefully, take Betz's arguments in more complex directions.


new fic + nano recap

I've put off writing a recap of National Novel-Writing Month because, sadly, a brutal migraine caught up with me over the Thanksgiving weekend and put the kibosh on meeting my (until then quite reasonable) personal goal of 25,000 words for the month. Still, I clocked in at just over 20K.

But meanwhile, thanks to participation in NaNo, I made writing erotica a top priority in November and completed a ~13,000 installment of my ongoing How She Loved You series featuring Sybil and Gwen from Downton Abbey. I finally had a chance to take Hanna's beta suggestions into account and code the piece for AO3 this past weekend.

So if fic be your thing, head on over and check it out:
Like Sorrow Or a Tune
by ElizaJane
Fandom: Downton Abbey
Pairing: Sybil/Gwen
Summary: Six scenes that trace the contours of Sybil and Gwen’s relationship from the first morning after to the night of their reunion in London, in the flat where they will make their home. This is the inevitable “five times” fic. Five times Sybil and Gwen parted before dawn and one time they didn't have to.
Now I should head back to reading Gayle S. Rubin's 1980s essays on the porn wars, which I have to say are an incentive like few other things to get into the business of writing and reading smut. Because really, people, really. Politics of disgust like crazy and that's just not cool. Life is short. Write good porn.


in which we write letters: stop SOPA

Depending on your level of involvement in things internet-political and techy, you may or may not be aware of the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) now making its way through congress. Introduced by representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), this bill mandates widespread monitoring of internet activity and has the potential to cause the internets as we know them to be fundamentally altered as blogs and other social networking sites are shut down for supposed acts "piracy." You can read more about the act at the Organization for Transformative Works, TechCrunch, and the American Library Association. The letter Hanna and I sent to our representatives is heavily cribbed from the ALA talking points.

Find your U.S. Representative here

Find your U.S. Senators here.

18 December 2011

Dear Representative Capuano,

As librarians, bloggers, and registered voters in Allston, Massachusetts, we are writing to ask you to vote against the proposed Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), H.R. 3261.

This bill, if it becomes law, will cause a widespread “chilling effect” on use of the Internet for commerce, communication, and participation in democratic society. The bill strikes at copyright protections currently granted to libraries and educational institutions by creating the possibility of criminal persecution of institutions and institutional representatives. for online streaming and other use of online resources in library and classroom space. SOPA's requirements to monitor internet traffic violate free speech and privacy protections and may create new forms of government surveillance of private activities within and outside the United States. The predicted consequences of SOPA are far-reaching. If passed, the potential for new jobs, innovative new ventures, and economic growth will be stifled.

Citizen engagement in online spaces depends on the ability to share and discuss a wide variety of media content across multiple social networking and other Internet platforms. SOPA will effectively shut down the vibrant creativity and vital political discourse that has been made possible by the World Wide Web. On behalf of ourselves, our online community of bloggers, and our library patrons, we ask you to vote against H.R. 3261, and support alternative ways for protecting legitimate copyright interests online.


Anna J. Cook & Hanna E. Clutterbuck


booknotes: one and only

Cleis Press recently sent me a review copy of One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road and Lu Anne Henderson, The Woman Who Started Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on Their Journey by Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos (Berkeley, CA: Viva Editions, 2011). Here are a few thoughts.

In 1978, Beat biographer Gerald Nicosia had the opportunity to interview Lu Anne Henderson twice – once her a hospital in San Francisco, when she was recovering from surgery, and shortly after her release when she invited him to the house where she was recovering for a lengthy recording session. Over thirty years later, One and Only brings us these oral historical narratives in the form of heavily edited autobiographical vignettes. The sections of One and Only drawn directly from the interviews are framed by Nicosia's contextual commentary and supplemented by other historical material about the Beats and their milieu – including a number of photographs and an essay by Henderson's daughter, Anne Marie Santos.

I have, I will admit upfront, never been drawn to the Beat movement either in terms of its literary output or its place in American twentieth-century history. I have had passing acquaintance with its main personalities and the echoes of their work in 1960s and 70s cultural critiques. But I come to this work largely without preconceptions about the personalities of the individuals or the nature of the relationships between the main players. Therefore I'm not the best person to comment on the contribution this autobiographical narrative adds to the field of Beat studies. What I would like to talk about is the way in which Nicosia frames the oral history, and how one might approach reading the text with a skeptical eye -- yet still gain a valuable personal perspective on some fairly iconic historical people and events.

Nicosia's introduction does not inspire confidence in One and Only either as a work of oral historical scholarship or as a meaningful portrait of Lu Anne Henderson and her experience of mid-century American bohemia. Nicosia leans heavily on qualitative descriptions of his subject that came across  in my reading as tasteless objectification – he introduces her as “beautiful fortyish woman” who has a certain “homespun charm” and retains “touches of … charming innocence” (24; 33). Given his position as a younger (at the time) man requesting an interview about Henderson's life and sexual relationships, I find the focus on her simultaneous sensuality and almost childishness to be a little creepy.

Nicosia walks a fine line between asking his readers to recognize Henderson's agency – even as a fifteen-year-old teenage girl, she situates herself as a person who made choices about how to live her own life – and eliding the power dynamics borne of age and gender. While still a young man when he married Lu Anne, Cassady was in his early twenties, with more travel experience and a stint in the military under his belt. While not all such relationships need be inherently exploitative, this dynamic is never unpacked either by interviewer or interviewee. While Lu Anne's interview emphasizes their shared youthfulness and complicity in continuing to live in or on the edge of poverty, readers can't help but observe how Henderson is often forced into the position of providing for her husband and his friends, by hook or by crook, as in 1946 when Neal and Lu Anne, newly wed, arrive in New York City:
It was up to me to support us, so I found a job at a bakery. I had just gotten the job that morning, it was my first day, and Neal told me to steal some money! We didn't have a penny, and Neal told me, like, 'Bring some money home!' Well, the woman who ran the bakery caught me [and] dismissed me. It really put me through a traumatic experience (67).
Henderson passes over these incidents with a light touch, often turning them into amusing anecdotes. Similarly, she glosses over the emotional and physical abuse threading through her relationship with Cassady and, later, Kerouac, and subsequent husbands. “Neal was not a violent person,” she observes at point point, and then immediately qualifies this by saying, “except with me. And when Neal would hit me, that was simply emotion” (87).

Nicosia acknowledges that Henderson herself had an agenda in granting him an interview, as did he in seeking her out. She was unhappy with contemporary accounts of her place in the constellation of Beat relationships, approached the interview as an opportunity to correct historical memory. He was collecting material for a biography of Kerouac eventually published in 1983 under the title Memory Babe. To a great extent, Nicosia's focus on the high-profile male personalities in Henderson's circle persists in One and Only. He observes with unselfconscious approval that “Unlike so many of the other women who have written about Kerouac, [Lu Anne] resists the temptation to shift the focus of the story from Jack (or in this case, Jack and Neal) to herself” (27). In the context of a biography of Kerouac or Cassady, such an on-task informant might be an asset to the researcher – in the context of a book that places Lu Anne Henderson front and center, the observation tastes a bit sour on the tongue. Really, Nicosia? You make it sounds like Henderson's life story is only valuable to the degree she keeps herself in the background and focuses on the menfolk in her life? I really hope you didn't mean that the way it came out.

Despite my (many!) frustrations with the framing of Lu Anne's narrative by Nicosia, there will likely be value to Beat scholars in the publication of Henderson's perspective on the oft-chronicled historical events that inspired On the Road and other Beat works. Until now, the interview was unavailable to the public, for reasons Nicosia doesn't elaborate on – only hinting that he was “forced” to bring a lawsuit in order to open the archive. I certainly found Henderson's narrative compelling, and while her portrait of life on the economic and cultural edge was at times heartbreaking, I think it's an important antidote to those who might romanticize the outsider while forgetting the real material and social costs of socioeconomic and philosophical marginalization ... even if some aspects of that marginalization are, at least partially, by choice.

I look forward to seeing what future scholars do with the published work as well as the raw interviews, which I hope will be made available to scholars and the general public for research purposes.


from the neighborhood: christmas tonttus

This past weekend, Hanna and I were up in Maine celebrating an early Christmas with the folks. This involved a lot of good food, a Christmas carols service at nearby Colby College, and the creation of our very own tonttu for the apartment. Tonttu are Finnish house spirits that Hanna's mother learned about from her Finnish parents and grandparents. Here are some photographs that we took of the process of making two tonttus. It took the better part of Sunday morning.

these fellows were our model tonttus
here are some of the supplies Linda provided
We started with a base of cardboard, Styrofoam, and felt
all self-respecting tonttus need hats
Mine is on the left, Hanna's is on the right.
Hanna named hers Ibrahim; mine is named Helga
We brought them back to Boston on Monday to grace our Christmas shelf
While tonttu is the Finnish term for house spirits, some of you may be familiar with the Astrid Lindgren picturebooks which tell the story about a gentle tomten who cares for a family farm in Sweden. This is essentially the same folk character, though seen through the lens of a slightly different Scandinavian tradition.

I hope all of you are finding small and pleasurable ways of preparing for the holiday season ...


multimedia monday: purity myth trailer

Via @courtwrites (and lots of others by now, but that's where I first saw the link!):

I read and reviewed Jessica Valenti's Purity Myth when it first came out back in 2009 and in my opinion it's the best of her published works to-date. I'm definitely going to check out the documentary version.

See also: my review of Hanne Blank's Virgin: The Untouched History.


four years ago today: "personal canon"

It's been awhile since we did one of the four years ago today flashback posts. So here's a fun one I pulled from the Gmail archive. My friend Joseph and his brother had generated lists of the top ten novels in their "personal canon" and Joseph emailed to ask what mine would be. After some thought, this is what I came up with. Looking it over today, I can't say there are any huge revisions to this list. 

From: Anna
To: Joseph
Date: Tue, Dec 11, 2007 at 10:22 PM
Subject: Re: Personal canon of books


My canon is decidedly more "lowbrow" and than yours, but I am squelching my impulse to apologise for it on Nick Hornby's firm orders (even though he loves Dickens' and writes tedious novels about men who refuse to grow up, so I am not sure how much I trust him . . .)

I have artificially controlled against all non-fiction and children's literature (well, below the teen level).  Not sure if that's quite what you had in mind, but there we are.  I discover my criteria are a) enduring "good read"--something I will go back to over and over again, as well as b) things that have had deep impact on how I answer the question, "how to live?" . . . these categories don't always overlap.  There are books that have had great impact on how I think about the world, but which I've only read once . . . and books that I read habitually, but that I don't really think of as life-shaping in any explicit way.  Maybe they're just sneaker at it? And of course these change over time . . . I was just thinking today how His Dark Materials has really grown on me over the years.  And even though I have issues with some of his didacticism, his theological imagery really speaks to me.  And, I mean, who could resist the idea of a reversal of the whole Genesis/Fall/Eve story? (Um . . . wait . . . that's right . . . a LOT of people ;) ).

That long introduction completed, here are my nominations. The top ten in a strictly alphabetical order. I figure once you make top-ten I'm not going to be judgmental. ALTHOUGH I do sometimes find myself paralyzed by the question of which book I would become if I were a character in Fahrenheit 451 . . . possibly a clear indication of how troubled I actually am :).

Top Ten:

1. E.M. Forester. A Room With a View.
2. Shirley Hazzard. The Great Fire.
3. Haven Kimmel. The Solace of Leaving Early.
4. Robin Lippincott. Our Arcadia.
5. Michelle Magorian. Not a Swan.
6. Robin McKinley. The Blue Sword, et al.
7. Audrey Niffinegger. The Time-Traveler's Wife.
8. Dorothy Sayers. Gaudy Night.
9. Martin Cruz Smith. Rose.
10. Tom Stoppard. Arcadia.

Some possible future candidates/honorable mentions:

Isabel Allende. Daughter of Fortune & Portrait in Sepia.
Jane Austen. Persuasion.
A.S. Byatt. Possession.
Sheryl Jordan. The Raging Quiet.
Laurie R. King. The Beekeeper's Apprentice, et al.
Barbara Kingsolver. Bean Trees.
David Levithan. The Realm of Possibility.
Gregory Maguire. Wicked, Son of a Witch
Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials.
Margaret Whelan Turner. The Thief, Queen of Attolia, King of Attolia.



booknotes: when we were outlaws

In many ways, Jeanne Córdova's memoir, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution (Midway, Fla.: Spinster's Ink, 2011), couldn't be more different than the last memoir of the 70s I reviewed here at the feminist librarian: Patricia Harmon's Arms Wide Open. Harmon's memoir told the tale of a self-trained hippie midwife who moved with sons and male lovers through several different rural communes before entering medical school for formal nurse-midwifery training. Jeanne Córdova, by contrast, spent the 1970s in the Los Angeles area free-lancing as a journalist and activist in what were then referred to as the women's and gay liberation movements. A self-identified butch, she came of age as part of the lesbian bar culture of the 50s and 60s, then discovered gay liberation and feminism in 70s. Córdova was the founding editor of The Lesbian Tide newsmagazine and the human rights editor of the L.A. Free Press, interviewing radicals on both the left and the right on the run from the law. As she observes in her introduction, "this memoir visits many outlaws, some freedom fighters, and a few who would be called terrorists ... I needed to know and sort out these outlaws in my mind in order to discover the perimeters of my own moral compass ... Outlaws takes place at the intersection of shadow and shade that differentiate between persona and principle" (vii).

Yet I found myself, while reading Outlaws, thinking often of Harmon's memoir and the parallels between both works in scope and tone. And in the relationship (in text, at least) between the authors and their own personal and political pasts. Like Arms Wide Open, When We Were Outlaws seeks to tell a specific slice of the authors life, rather than starting with childhood and moving through the years in an orderly progression. Both authors chose, as their time-frame, the turbulent years of the 1970s when the heady, optimistic social change movements of the late 1960s led to more complicated lived realities for those who championed leftist causes and a counterculture way of life. Córdova focuses on her life and work between 1974-1975, with some flashbacks and flash forwards to help us make sense of the dense web of associations -- political and personal -- that characterized that time, both for Córdova specifically and her fellow activists in what was then called "the Movement" more broadly. Like Arms, Outlaws gives us an in-the-moment perspective on the life of someone struggling to live out her political convictions in her personal life. For Jeanne Córdova this means an up-close, and in many ways unshrinking, view of her involvement with lesbian separatist politics in relation to the gay liberation movement more broadly. It also means intimate portraits of her trial-and-error practice of open relationships, as she paints a portrait of her involvement with two women -- the long-term relationship in which she and her partner have negotiated non-monogamy, and the quickening of an intense love affair with a fellow activist that threatens the stability of her more permanent ties.

It has become a commonplace, since almost before they began, to identify the leftist social movements of the 60s and 70s as enthusiasms of youth, as romantic idealism (or destructive self-absorption, depending on your political persuasion) that necessarily gave way to realistic politicking and material concerns. In some ways this is true. Many of the individuals who populate When We Were Outlaws are young adults in or just out of undergraduate or graduate school programs, young professionals or struggling under-employed twentysomethings. They don't (yet) have dependents to care for, and are geographically mobile, often living on the economic edge. They're at the point in their lives where they're developing a sense of what kind of life they want for themselves and those they care about -- what kind of work they find meaningful, what values they hold dear, what kind of relationships they want to build and maintain. Often, their answers (however tentative) to these questions are at odds with the answers their parents or the activists of the previous generations gave.

Yet despite the youth (and youthful perspective) of its protagonist, I would argue that Outlaws pushes us to re-examine our assumptions that the moral dilemmas and vision for a better future that Córdova and her cohort were immersed in are solely the province of the young -- impetuosity that will necessarily give way as one grows into more seasoned adulthood. One of the most interesting narrative threads in Outlaws traces the relationship between Córdova and her political mentor/substitute parental figure Morris Kight. Kight was a mover and shaker in L.A. gay political activism, someone with whom Córdova worked closely and fell out publicly over the place of women in the gay liberation movement. Their differences aren't so much conservative elders vs. radical youth but something more complicated -- a difference in experience, of power, of privilege. In the very personal (yet also political) struggle between Kight and Córdova we can see all the complications inherent in working for social justice, complications that don't get, well, less complicated -- or less relevant -- as we grow older.

Córdova reflects back on her younger self with a sometimes-critical, yet always compassionate eye. While the narrative style is "novelized memoir" (to use the author's own choice of phrase), one nevertheless gets the sense that the author both knows well her protagonist's faults and cares very deeply for her younger self, no matter how flawed her present self may find that person of the past. "I was not born knowing how to love," is how she open's her introduction. "It came to me late in life" (vii). In the pages of Outlaws we see her be cruel to lovers, ideologically ruthless, politically short-sighted, and cripplingly addicted to booze and prescription drugs. At the same time, we see a heart-breakingly young woman who's been physically evicted from her childhood home (for bringing home a lover), is living with serious and intermittently-treated depression, experiences chronic under-employment, and who nonetheless is working hard to build a meaningful life for herself and a better future for us all. Whether you agree with the young Córdova's means and visionary ends doesn't necessarily detract from the import of such a closely-rendered self-portrait.

I suspect we're only in the early years of a richly textured new wave of 70s-era autobiography which will shed new light on the particularity of growing into adulthood during a period when even the most fundamental of questions concerning how we organize our personal and political lives seemed to be in real, material flux. I am also happy (quite selfishly, I admit!) about the way these personal perspectives will provide unique, and accessible, primary source material for historians of the period, even while many historical sources remain in private hands (and therefore often invisible-to-researchers). Córdova's memoir would provide a rich jumping-off point in a course that sought to explore this era in all its rich historical realities -- and I hope it prompts many readers to re-examine what they think they know about the political contours of the decade.

This review was made possible by the generousity of Lynn Ballen at Spinster's Ink who provided me with an advance review copy of the book. The book is available now for purchase online or at your brick-and-mortar bookstore of choice. You can read more about the memoir and its author at www.jeannecordova.com.


from the neighborhood: athan's bakery

Yesterday, Hanna and I branched out from out usual weekend haunts to try out a new spot for weekend brunch: Athan's Bakery in Washington Square, Brookline. It turned out to be a great place for people watching, reading (Hanna: Freud's collected letters to Wilhelm Fliess, Anna: The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin), and nursing our morning espresso. Here are some photos I snapped while we were there.

The front room, full of sunshine and sugary things.
Cookies sold by the pound
Not exactly breakfast food, but ...
There were lots of students with laptops working away
Hanna's left arm, lovely earrings, and
Abandoned coffee cups at the espresso bar.


third thoughts: conversations about sex + identity

As promised, here are some "third thoughts" about my participation in Holly Donovan's comparative research on social interactions between straight and non-straight folks in urban and rural areas. 

For my first thoughts and second thoughts, if you haven't already seen them, follow the links.

To read more about participating in Holly's research project, check out her call for participants (PDF). If you live in the Boston area and identify as queer in any way -- or know someone who is and does -- do check the project out; she's still actively searching for participants. She mentioned particularly needing to hear from non-academics and people who hail from working class communities.

So. Now that the "signal boost" portion of the post is complete, on to my own further reflections.

we sat down to talk over coffee at Pavement Coffeehouse
Even though Holly indicated that the second-round interview typically lasts about thirty minutes, she and I talked for a good hour and a quarter (are you surprised? if you know me, you aren't surprised). Here are a few things that Holly's response to my project journal (see second thoughts) prompted in my own thinking.

Holly noted several times the way in which my journal observations "emphasized the positive." She was actually pulling that phrase from a section in my journal where I talk about a tricky interaction with someone who was kinda luke-warm about the lesbian relationship thing.  I was describing how I chose to emphasize the positive with them, verbally pointing out the steps this person made toward acceptance and thanking them for being willing to acknowledge my relationship with Hanna. We talked quite a bit about this, both as a conscious strategy for interactions with a potentially hostile environment, and also as something that simply is for me when it comes to my queer identity.

Let me try to explain (warning: it's a work-in-progress). As I've talked about in the previous posts -- and as should be overwhelmingly evident from everything I write about sexuality and relationships on this blog -- I experience my sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual relationships in a really enthusiastic way. Because my sexuality is fluid in many respects, you could say that I didn't really have a sexual orientation/identity until I was in a relationship of my choosing. A relationship which I entered as an adult who was enthusiastic about being partnered with this particular person (Hanna). Prior to that moment of becoming part of a couple, I was sort of a blank slate, socially, for other people to read whatever the hell orientation they wanted to onto me. It wasn't an active component of my self-presentation until I wanted it to be.

So basically, by the time my sexuality became visible and people could react to it in more public settings (outside of conversation with intimate friends), I had pretty clear convictions about what was and was not out of bounds, and how I wanted to handle any resistance to who I am, who I'm with, and how I choose to enjoy my sexuality. I have two basic ground-rules for myself about handling less-than-optimal social interactions:
1. I won't be dishonest about who I am. This is largely pragmatic, since I'm terrible at dissembling. But it's also a decision rooted in my personal ethics. Since I can remember, the way my family (and later I, as an individual) chose to live has made some people uncomfortable -- even angry. If I had grown up trying to manage other peoples' discomfort about my non-conformity it would have been a losing battle before it began. Aside from the fact that managing other peoples' emotions is a) doomed to fail, and b) the worst energy sink ever.  So I just won't. I am who I am, and if that's a problem for someone then we're probably going to need to figure out how not to be in much contact, or simply put on our grown-up pants and deal with the fact we have differences.
2. Whenever possible ignore the negative crap and give a shit-ton of positive reinforcement for anything constructive. This strategy, too, stems from my childhood ... where I realized somewhere along the line that I could use my time/energy critiquing institutional education or I could focus on the instances of high-quality mentoring and learning where and when I saw them happening. I like this approach because it doesn't allow the opposition to frame the debate, and it allows you the freedom to focus on building the sort of future you want rather than constantly re-hashing how less-than-ideal the present it. 
"Ignoring" the negative crap doesn't mean pretending it isn't there, or letting it go without noting it and pointing out it's not cool. But when it comes to people-to-people interactions, particularly, I'd rather spend my time giving positive feedback for the good and a cool reception to the bad. The less attention unhelpful interactions get, the better.

So "emphasizing the positive" is both a manifestation of the social privilege and aspects of my personality that made growing into my adult sexuality and sexual relationships overwhelmingly positive* and a conscious political choice for how I think I'll best be able to use my limited energies and resources to effect change in less-than-optimal social situations.

Holly was interested in my reflections (which I wrote about at the end of my second thoughts post) on getting something out of living on the cultural margins. In addition to what I'd already written in that earlier post, we discussed how the experience of choice and agency which I describe for myself -- of being drawn toward non-conformity -- is different from the language of being "born this way," and then pushed to the margins by others who reject who you are. I actually don't see myself as choosing marginality (though existing on the margins feels familiar). What I experience myself choosing is the situations that will best allow me to flourish, that will best support my well-being as a person. Given the culture in which we live, I've discovered that these happen to be marginal spaces. It's been an incremental journey in a lot of ways, wherein I made a series of decisions about this and not that which have led me to a place very different from the majority culture. I didn't choose sexual fluidity and desire, didn't choose to fall in love with another woman, but I chose to recognize and honor that sexuality, that love, and make a space in my life for those desires and that relationship. I don't feel shoved unwillingly out of the mainstream -- I feel like I chose (am in the process of choosing) the life that works best for me and my partner, and the mainstream has sort of parted ways around us. It's not really here nor there, to me, whether or not my life path is ever "normal" or acceptable in the eyes of the majority.

Holly observed that I wrote comparatively about my experiences in Boston and in Holland, and asked how things would be different (in relation to sexual orientation) if I were living in Holland rather than Boston right now. I wrote comparatively about Holland and Boston in my journal in part because I know Holly's study is looking at regional differences and queer-straight social interactions in urban vs. "rural" locations. So it's not like I spend a lot of time comparing the two places specifically in relation to queer issues. But when she asked about what would be different, my first thought was It's less tiring to be myself here. Less tiring, because less oppositional. When I lived in Holland until 2007 I wasn't visibly queer, but I was more or less myself in politics, interests, and values. And living out those values, expressing those interests and politics, just took a lot of work. 

Or, at least, I learned to expect that when I opened my mouth (or when people with similar values opened their mouths) it would trigger the angst and the anger and the defensiveness and the soul-searching re-evaluation of values and yadda yadda yadda ad nauseum. Who I was and what I believed caused people existential angst and precipitated crises. It got really tiring. And boring.

So when I picture being in Holland now, on the one hand it would be awesome to be closer to the friends and family I know and love there. But it also just sounds like a lot of work: work to find a queer-friendly therapist, work to find a doctor who's cool with lesbian sexuality, work to advocate for same-sex spousal benefits (which, you know, currently illegal in my home state). All of which are just givens most of the time here. And that's on top of swimming up stream against the gender essentialism and anti-feminism and opposition to social welfare and any number of other issues that aren't directly tied to sexuality but are nonetheless about who I am and how I want to live.

I know plenty of friends and relations who manage to live and even thrive in that environment -- and part of me is envious that they've managed to build lives in a hostile climate. But I did that for 26 years and it's really nice not to have to right now.

As I myself observed in second thoughts, Holly noticed how many of my intellectual and social interactions concerning sexuality center around reading and writing (on- and offline). She asked what I look for in my reading and interactions in these areas. I didn't have any ready answer for her, other than that I've found the resources I do consult mostly by link-hopping and footnote following ... I identify a resource I do like, and mine it for further reading in whatever way it appropriate to the medium. I follow the network, whether it's a blogroll or a bibliography. At this point, I have enough sources of information that I can sit back fairly passively -- skimming my feeds, reading book reviews, taking note of workshops and presentations -- and monitor the flow of sexuality information that's being generated and analyzed by the people whose ideas and opinions I care about.

What sort of people are these? Well, I actually think a good list of criteria can be found in a post I wrote over at Harpyness about sexuality education and things I wish I'd known when I was younger about human sexuality. Those five things are a pretty good outline of what I'm currently interested in exploring, and the sort of attitudes about human sexuality I gravitate towards. I generally look for writing on human sexuality that's descriptive rather than prescriptive -- I like reading about how humans behave and why, and what they do that fosters well-being, rather than about how we "ought" or "should" behave according to some external set of rules (religious or otherwise). I prefer research and writing on human sexuality that doesn't presume human sex and  gender are oppositional and binary, and it's probably redundant for someone who's titled their blog "the feminist librarian" to say she wants her resources to demonstrate feminist awareness and to critique systems of oppression that constrain our ability as individuals to experience pleasure and wellness.

I don't really care how the individuals behind these sources of information identify sexually. I follow blogs and read books by people whose own experience of human sexuality ranges across the queer spectrum as well as falling squarely within heteronormative boundaries. I'll talk and think sex with people who are asexual, poly, abstinent until marriage, gay men, trans* folk, hetero married, celibate due to religious vocation, etc. At rock bottom, my only criteria are that a) you acknowledge and embrace human sexual diversity, b) believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sexual ethics, c) but take sexual ethics seriously as a topic of conversation; d) that human sexuality, to you, is seen as a potential source of human pleasure and connection; and obviously e) you enjoy exploring both your own experience of sexuality and the cultural narratives we've constructed around those personal experiences.

*I've been thinking since we talked about how my cisgender presentation made my smooth (sexuality/sexual identity-speaking) adolescence possible. In part because I'm reading a book right now about the lives of transgender people and the gender policing they experienced as teenagers. As a girlchild with parents who worked not to gender stereotype, I was given wide, wide latitude to be a person first and a girl/woman second. Feminism also granted me license to be myself, however I wanted that to manifest. This, in conjunction with simply taking myself out of the active dating/partnered pool, made a buffer for my sexuality to develop and space for me to discern what I wanted on my own terms. This deserves its own post ... so I'll see what I can do in the near future.


second thoughts: my "sexuality and society" journal

This is the second post on my participation in a Boston University study of urban and rural queer folks and their social interactions with non-queer folks. You can read about my initial interview with researcher Holly Donovan in the first thoughts post I wrote back in October.

This past Monday I sent Holly the journal I'd been keeping since our initial meeting. I'm not going to make the journal publicly available because I wrote it for Holly's research specifically and also because it contains details about my interactions with third parties that can be kept anonymous in the context of a PhD dissertation where I'm not identified -- but not in this blog space, where I'm pretty transparently me.

Journaling. I used to do a lot of it, but the demands of the past few years and my own shifting priorities have caused me to stop keeping such a detailed and in situ account of my daily life. So it was kind of a familiar novelty (to coin a term) to find myself keeping a daily journal again. Journal writing is liberating in that the pressure to have finished and connected thoughts is erased -- at least for me. In this case, I was writing on a particular theme: my social interactions and the way those interactions did or did not actively engage my gender identity and sexual orientation. Yet I still felt that I could keep notes that were in bullet-point format, with sentence fragments and open-ended observations.

What were some of those observations?

I spend more time thinking and talking about sexuality than I do sexual orientation. A significant portion of the notations that I made in my journal had to do with conversations I had with friends, family, my therapist, my colleagues, people online, with authors (via reading their work), about human sexuality. I spend a significant portion of my waking time thinking about human sexuality because it's one of those things that makes me happy to ponder. I did this before I found language to articulate my own sexual identity as such, and before I was in a sexually intimate relationship with anyone. I love that I move in circles where sexuality is part of casual conversation, and that our conversations are often intellectually stimulating, enthusiastic, and joyful rather than full of shame and angst. Yes, we all have emotional and physical struggles that sometimes need conversation to work through -- but I'm grateful that that is only part of the discourse surrounding sexuality that I am a part of.

I don't feel in physical or emotional jeopardy in the spaces I live, work, and move through around Boston. This is a complicated one with lots of layers of class, race, gender presentation, and the rest tangled up in it (as I observed in my first thoughts post). But keeping my journal these past three weeks reinforced the fact that there are no spaces in my daily life where I feel the need to self-censor the fact I'm in a lesbian relationship. My colleagues know, my family knows, our friends know, our bank knows, our doctors know. We hold hands on the walk to work, we doze on each others' shoulders on the T, kiss goodbye when parting at our favorite coffee shops. We've never experienced anything stronger than a glare from a random passer-by (and even then, perhaps they were just having a bad day?). I don't know if it would be different if we lived in West Michigan. I know when we visited Holland last spring I felt comfortable behaving in public the same way we do in Boston -- but Hanna points out that I have a talent for ignoring negative vibes. So perhaps if we lived there full-time, we'd have more run-ins with homophobic weirdos. Like I said, I don't know all the factors at work here -- but I'm glad that our social experience has been so positive.

A significant part of my social interactions, particularly around sexuality themes, take place through reading and blogging. There were a number of entries in my journal that began with phrases like, "Received and advance review copy of ... on trans* sexuality today" or "Wrote a blog post about forthcoming collection of erotica ..." or "Finished writing 3K words of lesbian erotica ...". Outside of my professional writing and reading, a significant portion of my intellectual exploration right now has to do with sexuality -- and a lot of that takes place in conversation (see observation one, above) and through reading articles, books, and blog posts, listening to podcasts, and engaging in discussion in comment threads. A lot of this is mutually reinforcing, since the more I read and review work in this area the more likely I am to get offers of advance review copies, virtual book tour requests, and other quasi-professional offers in a similar vein. I welcome these engagements with open arms because it's stuff I love to talk and think about. I do think it's note-worthy that I feel comfortable making this a quasi-professional part of my life, and that I feel comfortable pursuing it online in ways that are tied directly and openly to my actual identity.

And, as something that came to me toward the end of my journaling (though I've thought about it before), I get something out of existing on the margins of heteronormative society. That is, there are material ways, obviously, that Hanna and I (and our other non-straight friends) experience discrimination based on our sexuality, or relationships, and our gender expression. And I didn't, obviously, choose to be attracted to Hanna because being in a lesbian relationship would be transgressive. I just desired her. But I made choices about following through on that desire, about building a life with another woman, and part of the reason is that I like living on the cultural* margins. I feel comfortable and energized here. I feel less claustrophobic. I feel like choosing to live my life in some basic, categorical ways that disqualify me from the norm give me freedom from other peoples' expectations that I will conform to mainstream expectations of femininity, or American middle-class ambition, or heterosexuality. I think (and this is a very tentative hypothesis) that perhaps growing up home-educated, in an era when that was far from mainstream, primed me for feeling most at home in spaces that folks around me considered "weird." And so I think I gravitate toward people who are willing to think and live outside the boxes. It feels familiar and it feels good to exist in that space.

I think that's counter-intuitive for a lot of folks, who assume that non-normative relationships and/or a "weird" sexual identity would be cause for anxiety and stress. I remember the transition being somewhat stressful -- going from thinking of myself as "mostly straight" to thinking of myself as bi/fluid/lesbian/queer. But it was actually an incredible relief in a lot of ways to feel I had legitimate feelings of attraction that would support moving into queer spaces and identifying that way socially. Because those spaces called out to me as welcoming psycho-social spaces for years before I felt I had enough evidence of my own sexual desire to claim them as my own. I know this sounds kinda backward to many folks for whom sexual orientation/identity works differently or more decisively. But for me, that seems to be path I needed to take.

I meet with Holly this evening to do a follow-up interview, based on my observations in the journal. If any new insights crop up during our conversation I'll be back with "third thoughts" on this process.

*And I choose the word "cultural" deliberately here because I realize that the aspects of my self and my values which are marginal to the mainstream are largely self-chosen rather than imposed upon me. In terms of my race, my able-bodiedness, my socioeconomic status, etc., I'm far from existing on the material margins of American society.