reading the (lesbian) classics: annie on my mind
Welcome to the first installment of a new series, "reading the (lesbian) classics," in which Danika Ellis of The Lesbrary and I read our way in a very haphazard manner through queer literature (our method is basically picking out the books that sound like a fun time and taking it from there!) and chat about it, and then post our conversations on the interwebs. So here's the first installment. This time around, we read Annie On My Mind, by Nancy Garden, first published in 1982.
Warning! Mild plot spoilers ahead for those of you who care!
Anna: So [rubs hands together] ... how shall we begin our conversation?
Danika: I'm not sure, I feel like I must have forgotten half the book... might as well start with first impressions and just see where it leads us.
Anna: [laughs] Had you ever read it before?
Danika: I have, once before. I remember when I first read AOMM I thought there was something a little bit off about their relationship. And now I think I know what bothered me. I don't know if it's because it's set in the 80s, or if it's Nancy Garden's writing, but they both seem a lot younger than what they're supposed to be.
Anna: Yes! They're supposed to be, like, headed for college and they act like they're in middle school.
Danika: I know it's in a sort of self-conscious "girls our age aren't supposed to do this" way, but I still liked it a lot better once I started thinking of them as 13-year-olds instead of 17-year-olds. And it's not just them: even her little brother seems at least 4 years younger than his given age! And her classmates!
Anna: Yeah. I don't think I noticed it so much when I was younger, because I read it when I was about thirteen myself? It was about the only lesbian YA novel my library had (early to mid-90s). To be fair, that was before the real boom in queer YA fiction. AOMM was probably one of the few available. And not a bad one to have if you're only going to have one (no one dies!) ... but yeah, I agree with you that, especially this time around I was left thinking, "wow, and these are supposed to be seniors?"
It's not even Annie's imaginary world ... it's more the school politics and so on. Like, no one has a real sense of a world beyond the microcosm of the prep school.
Danika: Yeah, the ear-piercing! Again, I was thinking "Well, maybe it's just because this was 30 years ago...?" But it definitely seemed a bit off
Anna: Part of it probably is the era ... and the fact that Nancy Garden was probably, on some level, harkening back to her own teen years which would have been in, what, the 1950s? 60s? When maybe ear piercing was more risque?
Danika: Aaah, yeah, that might have been part of it.
Anna: I also wondered if maybe part of it was an attempt to make the drama center around something other than the fact that Liza was discovering her sexuality? So she invented another drama about the prep school that seemed kind of forced?
Danika: Maybe, but it turns into it being about her sexuality anyway.
Danika: I remember when I first read AOMM I thought the girls' meeting seemed really forced. And I definitely agree with that the second time around. The singing, the sudden friendship... again, it's the sort of way children interact, not teenagers.
Anna: Yeah -- teenagers are more self-aware, and self ... restrained? I made instant best friends with kids in art class when I was, maybe, six! Not when I was seventeen. At seventeen I was like, well, maybe going for coffee after class and see how that goes. But since NG wanted the girls not to be at the same school, she had to find a way for them to run into each other.
Danika: Still, I think she could have done better than "Don't stop [singing]. Please." "Oh, you startled me!" That just sounds really forced.
Anna: I'd forgotten how much class is an implicit part of the story. The way Annie comes from a "bad" part of town and everything.
Danika: I forgot that, too!
Anna: I was thinking, vis a vis reactions to queer teens, that it was interesting that Liza's sexuality was more controversial in her upper-class world than it seems to be in Annie's world.
Danika: Yes, because everything was controversial in Liza's little world. The ear-piercing I guess was supposed to highlight that, but it seemed odd anyway. The only question with Annie was whether she was going to tell her family or not, so I don't think we ever see how her school would have handled it, but presumably they have more important things to worry about.
Anna: It would have been irrelevent in Annie's school (I'm assuming); no one cared about her there. I got the sense she was nervous about telling her parents, but her family was portrayed as fairly accepting and encouraging. I got the sense that they would have been baffled and maybe a little worried or hurt, but there wouldn't have been all the drama that Liza had in her family and at the school.
It was interesting to me how it was almost reversed ... or maybe that's not quite what I'm thinking of. But today, we think of urban upper-middle-class folks as fairly cool about queer sexualities, etc. Whereas we think of lower-class people as reactionaries. Culturally. And in this story, the opposite was the case. I doubt those stereotypes would hold up [in real life], but it's interesting that she chose to write it like that.
Danika: That is the framework we generally use. But Liza's privilege paralyzed her. Her school was so caught up in itself that no one could step out of line. It was a weird relation between them.
Anna: Yeah. Maybe I'm just too midwestern to understand the world of elite prep schools!
Danika: Yes, it was really weird seeing into that strange boxed-off world.
On a slightly different note, I was writing down some thoughts as I went, and on page 49 of my version, I thought Garden was foreshadowing the reaction to her coming out. It was when the parents found out about the ear-piercing, and the mom is pretty accepting, but the dad freaks out. So it surprised me later when he was actually really great about it.
Anna: Good point. I was really intrigued by a number of the adults in the story, actually ... and the way in which adults were portrayed in relation to the young people.
Danika: How so?
Anna: Well, I was impressed that the adults at the hearing were not portrayed as monoliths, as monsters, and that a couple were standing up to the schoolmistress, even if for their own reasons. And I thought it was an interesting (and positive) choice to give the girls such human mentors, themselves lesbians of an elder generation.
Danika: Yeah, that's very true. The thing that stuck with me most about AOMM has always been the teacher couple (oops, spoilers).
Anna: (warning! warning!)
Danika: Actually, the thing that stuck with me the most was their book collection. Lesbian books inside my lesbian book! Wow! Their presence really made the story. (The teachers, not the books.)
Anna: I agree about the teachers. In contrast to the charicatured headmistress and the reactive parents, the two teachers came across really human, but also kind and supportive, generous, and sheltering without being controlling. I wondered in my notes whether this was a conscious attempt to counteract the specter of the gay/lesbian predator?
And yeah, it was fascinating to have the books play such a role in a couple of key scenes ... from what I've heard from queer people of earlier generations, that was often the case! that they first discovered language for who they were from books ... all the more reason to be a librarian-advocate for lgbtq teens!
Danika: Aaah, I hadn't considered that! Of course! Because the lesbian teachers were fantastic teachers. If I may quote my favourite line from the dad's reaction (though he goes on to say he doesn't think gay people can be truly happy), "Oh, look. What difference does it make if a couple of teachers are lesbians? Those two are damn good teachers and good people, too, as far as I know." I mean, wow! Surprise acceptance!
Anna: Hehe. Yeah, exactly. Because there's that interesting conversation between the girls and the teachers after the teachers have been fired where the women acknowledge that if they don't press charges, they should be able to get good references ... because the school won't want to admit that they fired the women for being lesbian ... but they also fear for their ability to be hired if they were really out. So a real catch-22.
Since we've talked a lot about where the story felt kind of forced ... one of the ways in which I was really impressed with it was the fact that it a) had a couple of really sweet scenes in which the girls clearly make love, even if off-screen (so to speak) and b) that this is really seen as 100% a good thing, despite what happened with their teachers. Their sexual exploration doesn't spell doom for them as individuals or for their relationship. I don't think many YA romances with straight couples were that whole-heartedly enthusiastic about young love back in the late 1970s ... Even Judy Blume's Forever, despite the positive sexual experience, ends with the relationship ending.
Danika: That's true. It's a bit of a bittersweet book, because Liza gets suspended, nearly expelled for being gay, the teachers get fired, and we know the whole time that they end up drifting apart after they leave for university. But it's also a lot more positive than most of the queer books (YA or not) available at the time. They do end up together at the end, and there's a lot of support of same-sex love. I also liked reading it for all the tropes and patterns that young queer love, young closeted love takes. Like how you could totally tell they were in love with each other before they knew. Like the classic game of "how much physical contact can we hace before it means something?" (shoulders touching, hand holding, etc.)
Anna: Yes! Which I feel like is something that is still confusing to kids (or perhaps I only speak for myself) ... since you're trained, culturally, to expect that opposite-sex intereactions are laden, but not same-sex ones, so you aren't so self-conscious and things kind of sneak up on you way more than with opposite-sex relationships.
Oh, and it was also nice that neither of them really "went straight". Annie was pretty sure she was gay, and Liza wasn't sure, but was definitely leaning towards accepting it.
Anna: I agree! That actually seemed a little dated (in a nice way?) to me, since I feel like if this book had been written today, you'd get this whole "am I bi? am I gay? am I just questioning?" thing going on. Which is absent entirely: Liza comes to the realization she's "gay" full-stop.
Danika: That's true, it definitely has that all-or-nothing mentality that we've (thankfully) shaken off a little more by now
(Oh, wait, I take it back: Annie did try to be straight! Back when she was younger. In her words: "It was ridiculous." That made me laugh.)
They are super cute when they are together and happy.
Anna: Yeah, and as you say there was that added element of the reader being "in the know" in part because Liza's spoilered it for us at the very beginning with the framing narrative.
What do you think of the function of the framing narrative as a literary device? Do you think it adds anything to the narrative that we kind of know it ends badly (at least in the short-term) before the story begins?
Danika: I was pondering that the whole book. I kind of get why she did it, because she needed the drama to keep the story moving through the happy couple parts, but it did add this element of doom that, frankly, no queer book really needs any more of. I guess it works overall, because we get the (spoilerspoiler) happily ever after following the long(ish) separation and we process it with Liza as she processes (and processing is a classic lesbian thing to do), but I'm a little divided on it. What did you think?
Anna: Hmm. Tough question. Retrospective narratives can sometimes work pretty well, but I agree with you that the last thing any queer teen book needs is more angst! That's why I adore David Levithan's work so much -- his love stories are so ebullient. As a kid, I always felt like the way Liza blamed herself for the punishment exacted on the teachers (or, more accurately, for having made love in their home while she was house-sitting ... what the hell was so shameful about that?) was really exaggerated. Like, shouldn't she have been pissed at the secretary who had the vendetta? And the schoolmistress, etc.? But maybe that's a personality thing -- I always had an over-developed sense of self-righteousness as a child :)
Danika: Ah, I loved Boy Meets Boy for that! It's like a combination of cotton candy and sinking into a hot tub. It's just so refreshing to read a happy queer love story. I still want my lesbian version of that.
Anna: Totally! I feel like YA lesbian fiction is still waiting for its Daniel Levithan (if you have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them!)
Danika: I don't know of anything quite so positive, though I have read some good ones. Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie is my favourite.
Well, I can see why they were a little ashamed. In the teachers' bed...? That's bad taste. What I couldn't see, though, was why they opened the door! They didn't have to answer! -sigh- The secretary was definitely over-the-top. The absolute poision she was spitting out was painful to read.
Anna: ... I guess. I did a lot of house-sitting in high school and college and I always slept in the homeowner's bed (clean sheets, granted) so it didn't feel so weird to me. but that wasn't in the deal Liza made with the teachers, so I guess that is a little different. Oh, totally with the door! [headdesk] Why oh why did she have to answer????
Danika: Especially before getting dressed!
Anna: Despite the secretary's religiously-motivated poison, I was actually surprised by how little religious conservatives and the religious right as a force opposed to sexual expression appeared in the novel (contrasting, again, with the way it figures in some Levithan stories) ... I think that's another way this dates the story, since it was set just as that force was gathering.
Danika: True, I mean, when she faces the commitee/council/whatever that was, they basically say "Hey, this is none of our business", which is pretty good for the circumstances.
Anna: Yeah, I think it's interesting how the battle-lines are drawn ever-so-slightly differently than we're used to in our generation. The religious element not quite so strong, the class element more so. Being queer still being a threat to one's overall reputation/status even in secular society. (Not saying that's totally gone away, but you wouldn't think in Liza's New York or at MIT it would be an issue!)
Danika: Hmmm, yeah, I can see that...
Honestly, I'm kind of surprised Liza wanted the school to survive. I know she has sentimental attachment to it, but even before they knew she was queer, Poindexter (go to love that name) was absolutely heinous, from the patronizing way of talking to running the meetings when Liza was supposed to be running them.
Anna: Yes. Again, another way in which they seemed young for their age. By 17, you'd think she'd have more perspective. I can see a younger child being invested in the school that had been a second home, but most seventeen-year-olds I've known (including myself!) are a bit more jaded!
Danika: Very true. By 17 I had distrust for all authority, definitely including my school.
I don't know if you read my review and conversation about Well of Loneliness, but I saw a couple of comparisons between it and AOMM that surprised me.
Anna: Do tell!
Danika: Well, for one, both the protagonists were horrified at people hating them being gay, because they both felt that their love was the "best part" of themselves, or some variation on that. Also, both have a scene with the couple being happy that is described as an "illusion". It's just funny because WoL is mentioned in AOMM as part of the teachers' book collection.
Anna: Yes, it was fun to see the lesbian classics appear on their shelves :)
Danika: Especially Patience & Sarah, because Liza and Annie read it, and this time I have, too!
Anna: I read once an essay that was talking about how generations of queer folks locate themselves in history through alternate means than family ties, since so many of them don't come from families where the parents are themselves queer -- and literature was one way.
Danika: That's exactly why I feel that queer lit is so important. It is a foundation to the queer community.
Any last thoughts?
Anna: Not that I can think of -- other than that I really enjoyed the chance to re-read this with someone else, and I'd totally be up for doing it again!
Cross-posted at: Danika @ The Lesbrary | Annie On My Mind Conversation.
Watch for the next installment in reading the (lesbian) classics sometime in late September of early October! At Danika's suggestion, we're reading Hello, Groin, by Beth Goobie (2006). We thought we could use the book as a chance to consider where lesbian YA fiction has come since the "early days."