Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lesbian Pride: a love letter to Monica Nolan

That subject line is false advertising. I do love Monica Nolan but this won't take the form of a love letter as I'd originally intended. See, I can't pull it off, no matter how I try. I'd wanted to do a version of what she does, what she's done in her books that are beyond fabulicious. I'd planned to write an early-1960s-style missive, one lit gal to another, laying out the whys and wherefores of my adoration. Every time I tried, however, it came off false. Full of gee's and gosh'es and an assortment of other strained back-in-the-day-isms. A patent pastiche. Utterly devoid of the breezy panache with which she pulls off her wondrous feats of homage.

For that, at least partly, is what Monica Nolan's novels are. An homage to 1950s-60s lesbian pulp fiction, three so far in the lesbian career girl series. The covers are juicily delightful.

I've read them all. My best friend gave me this first one, Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, a few years ago. I squealed with delight when I first saw it. For I too am a lesbian secretary and yes I could tell you a tale or two of lesbian secretarial shenanigans, especially in an office I worked in some 30 years ago where by some miracle of the goddesses almost the whole clerical crew was of the Sapphic persuasion and we all persuaded each other if you know what I mean. Ahem. Anyway. This is the book that introduced me to Monica Nolan and her craftily inventive comic fiction.

I've read more than a few of the originals of these types of books, and I can tell you that Nolan knows her stuff. She pulls it off masterfully, winkingly telling tales of innocent girls landing in the big city and being led happily astray, tales that are true in language and spirit to the old-school books. Yet while these novels parody the originals--and in laugh-out-loud ways--they also lovingly salute them and manage to be touching at the same time. And tell fun, exciting, and, yes, romantic stories. You root for the protagonist in each and feel well acquainted with all the characters. My best friend also gave me this second one, Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher, a couple years ago. Loved it!

Now, a couple weeks ago, my friend alerted me that a third book in the series had just been published. In fact, she called me from San Francisco asking me to help her with a conundrum. What to read? She was in the midst of a very good novel but had just come from the bookstore where she'd picked up Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante, Nolan's newest. She'd started reading it on the bus ride home, and now she couldn't decide whether to keep reading Maxie or go back to the very good other book she'd been reading. The hell with my friend's dilemma--now that I knew there was a new Nolan out, I ran to the store myself and picked it up. I read it last week. Enjoyed it equally to the first two.

There are so many delectable bits to savor in these books. Nolan's penchant for hilariously alliterative names, not limited to the title characters. The wide-eyed-innocent colloquialisms her characters mouth, as well as the yummy sexual euphemisms. But she also embeds some serious stuff, and many nods to historical reality, more so as the series proceeds. The second book referred to communists and the red scare. This third one has one of the characters gone off to Mississippi with the Freedom Riders. Best of all is Nolan's version of the early-60s lesbian proto-activist San Francisco scene. She's got the girls volunteering at a newsletter called The Step Stool, modeled after The Ladder, the first national lesbian publication. She's got the "Sisters of Sappho" standing in for The Daughters of Bilitis. And so on.

Peppered throughout, too, are hints of the beginnings of consciousness, an urge toward fighting oppression, the start of something like pride. Keep going, Monica Nolan! Take us all the way to Stonewall, and beyond! I'll stick with you every step of the way. For the fun and the lesbian kick of it, and yes for something like the pride of it.

See y'all on Fifth Avenue next Sunday. Happy LGBTQ Pride Month!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I wish I could have heard Ethel sing

June 19, 2013, is the 60th anniversary of one of the most heinous crimes of the U.S. government, which has committed many many heinous crimes: the execution of Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg, two communist workers who were the victims of a monstrous mendacious frame-up. They were wholly innocent of the concocted charge of providing the "secret of the atomic bomb" to the Soviet Union. But they were friends to the USSR, and to all people worldwide fighting for socialism, and they did what they could to aid in this fight. For that, their courageous acts of internationalist solidarity; for their lifelong devotion to the cause of justice, liberation, anti-racism, and working-class struggle; and of course for their noble refusal to submit and "confess," to betray their beliefs or their comrades, to lie, to sell out, even at the cost of their own lives—the Rosenbergs will always be remembered as true heroes. I believe that in the pantheon of heroes of the ages, heroes of the world's workers and oppressed, a pantheon made up not of imaginary supernatural beings but of merely human beings, people who did their best to their last breath, there will always be a place of honor for the Rosenbergs.
I was born a year after they were killed, and I can see now what I couldn't know then as a little kid in the 1950s. How along with the obvious anti-worker, anti-communist, anti-union, anti-struggle McCarthyite message it was meant to send, the Rosenbergs' execution also cast a specifically anti-Semitic chill that I believe partly explains the sense of siege, of threat, that my parents gave me to understand hovered over our Jewish household in suburban Detroit 10 years and more after the defeat of Nazism in Europe. I'll never know, but I wonder whether the fear engendered by the Rosenberg case didn't play a role in my mother's eventual rightward shift over the years. As for me, I didn't learn about the case until I was in high school, probably 1969 or 1970, a time of protest and rebellion that was bringing me to political consciousness. From then on I've always had a deep feeling of awe, love and respect for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. For the sacrifice they made. For the good comrades they were. As millions of others worldwide felt, and feel, and will continue to feel.
And so this past Sunday evening I was thrilled to be at Town Hall for a wonderful event sponsored by the Rosenberg Fund for Children to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the execution, celebrate today's families of resistance, and raise funds (which I hope it did!) for the RFC's good work of supporting and aiding political activists, especially imprisoned activists, and their families. It was called Carry It Forward: Celebrate the Children of Resistance. I'd attended a similar event 10 years ago on the 50th anniversary. That night I was pretty weepy the whole time. This night not so much, hooray! Yes there were tearful moments, primarily when actors Eve Ensler and Cotter Smith read from Ethel and Julius's prison letters to their children Robby and Michael, letters full of love, full of life, full of hope not for themselves but for the world. But overall it was a joyous evening, an evening of affirmation, of defiance and solidarity and music, and I left feeling strengthened and buoyed.

If Ethel and Julius had lived, I might very well have known them, for I travel in the same circles they did. Perhaps I would have had the chance to hear Ethel sing--she was by all accounts a lovely singer--at some rally or movement program. Wouldn't that have been something.

The Town Hall program the other night ended with a rousing rendition of the great Bob Marley/Peter Tosh song "Get Up Stand Up," performed by Latino hip hoppers Rebel Diaz with folk duo Mike & Ruthy. Gathered onstage singing along were the evening's narrator Angela Davis, the Rosenberg sons Michael and Robby Meeropol, Carry It Forward writer Ellen Meeropol, Ethel and Julius's granddaughter Jenn Meeropol who's the new head of the RFC, and all the actors and performers who had brought the evening to life with their portrayals of activist targets of government repression who have been RFC beneficiaries. 
We the audience, including many elders who were the Rosenbergs' contemporaries, who marched for them, who wept at their deaths, who still know which side they're on, and the rest of us, we got up, we stood up, we sang too, and at the risk of sounding mawkish I think we all of us felt an echo of Ethel and Julius singing along with us, our martyrs whose voices have never been stilled.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Paterson Silk Strike pageant

Today is the 100th anniversary of a great event in the history of political art in this country: the magnificent Paterson Silk Strike Pageant, organized by the workers and their supporters including, among others, John Reed.

I'd hoped to have time to write a substantive post here about this event, such a stirring and important moment, such a shining example of solidarity, such a beacon to artists who want to serve the class struggle. No surprise, nope don't have the time. So, in hopes this doesn't slip into solipsism, I'll just say that as such a person myself--a writer who aspires to create literature of and for the struggle of the workers and oppressed--I'm using the occasion of this anniversary as a wake-up call, a reminder, a renewal. To set aside the tasks and to-do lists, the applications and submissions that take up too much time and divert my mind from its imaginings, and dive back into the work of creation. That's my summer resolution. To write, and write well. Through a series of twists and turns--waitlisted at one, accepted at one but only for a longer period than I have vacation days available, accepted at another but not for free--it turns out that the idyllic writing residency at an arts colony I'd thought was on the horizon is not to be. So it's all up to me. To sit down at my desk, flip open my laptop, shut out the dirty stinky NYC summertime waft, and get this novel done.

And my muse? Let it be them, the women and men of the Paterson Silk Strike who took to the stage at Madison Square Garden 100 years ago today to tell the world the story of their struggle. That's the spirit to imbue in people's art.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Dog Stars

I just read The Dog Stars, a novel by Peter Heller. It's a good enough book, saved by moments of lyricism and genuine emotion scattered throughout. A good enough read, especially as I seem to be descending into a summer-reading exhaustion mode, which requires nothing too challenging.

But here's the thing. I'm so very sick of the tired, capitalist-fostered, wholly false assumption that pervades every one of these post-apocalyptic fictions, and The Dog Stars is very much in this standard The Road mode. I'm talking about the assumption that it'll be dog-eat-dog, every man(!) for him(!)self, kill or be killed in the hard bad days after the sure-to-come pandemic/world war/climate disaster(s).

All evidence in every catastrophe that has ever hit shows just the opposite about humanity: that people pull together. This, banding together for the common good, is the human default setting and is in fact what people always do when disasters hit. Why lie and portray a descent into dystopia as the inevitable? Don't tell me it's for story's sake. What a fabulous story the truer version would be, if only some truly imaginative author could take off the blinders of bourgeois consciousness and create a vision of workers uniting to build a new society.

I know I've grumbled about this before, so, well, I'm grumbling about it again. Where is the writer with real imagination? Imagination enough to break beyond the bounds of the petit-bourgeois mindset inculcated in all of us in this country and really imagine a whole new future?

I'm not even touching here on the more basic problem, the deeply passive, pessimistic, yes unimaginative assumption that there is no alternative future but disaster. Alternatives like, oh say, socialist revolution, that could avert a slide all the way down to infernal horrors, mass suffering and death. Leave that aside for now, let's not debate the likelihood that it'll all go to hell in a handbasket before the workers and oppressed can rise up and save the day. Fine: but why can't a single goddamn one of these writers ponder the possibility that the workers and oppressed will rise up and rebuild--rise up and save the future--after the disaster strikes?

As always, I'm left guessing, hoping, speculating, that there is just such a writer working on just such a story out there somewhere. Whether it'd have any chance at publication in this society is another question.