If this essay were a burlesque dancer, she would speak with pasties and feather boa, full-bodily bumping to display all the ways the best writing doesn’t fit the mold, bending back so far it hurts, asking if you like her, then whispering she does not need saving, is not really dancing for you, though she’ll never stop smiling as wide and hard as a girl on a gas station calendar. If this essay were a drag king, she would ask you to watch as the best writing applies facial hair and stuffs a bottle in his pants, asking you to notice, forget, then notice again what is a body, what is not a body, wishing for you to see which dance steps evoke the body as it is, which remake the body. If this essay were one of those straight guys who doesn’t see the ways a woman remakes her body for her own use, he would not know how to dance on this post male-gaze stage where part of the job is to perform mockery to power, because no matter how, or where, or with what authority he had or had not lived, audiences don’t come to the show expecting him to apologize for his body.
This essay is, as it happens, none of the above, but is rather a plea, from a literary nonfiction writer who believes women’s memoir is not telling the whole truth if it claims the past is ever something a woman can fully leave behind. I begin here with burlesque and drag because both, like my identity as a high-femme queer woman, are performance modes which embrace the old and the new, and in doing so subvert the old-school male gaze and celebrate, upset, complicate, obscure and remake women’s bodies. All of which I look for in women’s memoirs, essays and nonfiction lyrics—women’s voices resisting redemption, complicating, rather than apologizing for, sex. When sexuality in women’s nonfiction narratives, queer or straight, is relegated to the redemption or recovery arc we suggest that women are unable to intelligently embrace the full and messy spectrum of sexuality, and need only to write the erotic as mea culpa.
While I agree with Audre Lorde’s notion that the erotic is the life force we wish to permeate the rest of living, I also use the term erotic here to mean sex—unrepentant, life affirming, body-banging sex, but also the unredeemed parts of ourselves that shadow sexual joy, because one rarely exists without the other. When I ask women’s memoirs to resist redemption, at least some of the time, I mean I wish to write, and read, a better erotics of sexuality—Lorde’s call for an embodiment that permeates everything but also the erotic absorption of the rest of life into the gritty corporeality of sex. I mean that if nonfictional representations of female sexuality were less the province of cable TV exposés of the “secret” lives of women and more the subject of un-sensationalized, uncensored and witty discourse, we might all be able to better comprehend what women’s many ways of representing sexuality mean to women’s identities, intimacies, and ways of organizing our worlds.
Visceral, transformative, and hot sexual writing by women, queer or not queer, as well as gorgeously rendered women’s memoir and essay on many subjects, is certainly abundant. Yet too many memoiristic renderings of sexuality are bound to the confessional mode, particularly those written by women, including queer women publishing outside of the ever shrinking Lesbian-Gay-Bi-Transgender-Queer [LGBTQ] press world (and I include aspects of my own past works here). Our personal, nonfictional depictions of the actuality of sex which define sexuality as only a mistake, or only healing, or only love, or abuse, or pleasure, or regret, do a disservice to women’s desire, even when otherwise brilliantly written. Female sexual experience is all of the above and more, every one of our erotic urges steeped in what individual women, and women throughout time, have done, and have had done to them, in cars, in their fantasies, in open fields, in dormitory rooms, in professor’s offices, in strange or known houses, in their childhood bedrooms, on the phone or online, at the prom, in the alleys behind bars, in their love affairs and marriages, in their own apartments, on the pages of their diaries, and under the bright lights of any chosen or un-chosen stage.
By resisting redemption I mean embracing the way Alison Bechdel writes (and draws) an ecstatic coming out story in a book that begins with her father’s apparent suicide, or the way Mary Cappello writes of the intimacy of cancer treatment by imagining her oncologist penetrating her with her fist. All the big abstractions—grief, love, loss, hope, fear, bravery, despair, ecstasy —happen in actual life at the same time as sex, and if these simultaneities are more often evident in memoirs by queer women this may be because LGBTQ writers writing since Stonewall have written within a countercultural expectation of an out-of-the-closet sexuality, in which sex is just another landscape writers are charged to bring to the page.
Alternative lesbian, bi, genderqueer arts communities formed themselves in social spaces free of the conventional male gaze. The ways female sexualities are expressed in these off-center cabaret-style settings is through explicit use of sexual language, ironic costume, drag lipsynching, burlesque poetics, sequined back-bending, mustachioed male impersonation, clowning, miming and aerial acrobatics, mixed up with storytelling and lyric monologue, work which may never be fully translatable to the literary page. Yet these spaces—often alternatives to the bars, geographies free of both the self-defensive stances necessary for any woman living within the structures of misogyny and of expectations of apology for past sexual experience—are where many queer women artists’ identities are made.
The literary influences of the queer realms are not always recognizable in mainstream settings where lesbians might now be welcome, but where little is known about the alternative worlds we’ve made. And while much of the margin will never cross over into the center—the margins being worlds unto themselves, not for everyone, made up of individuals who wish to not be invaded or assimilated or appropriated—some aspects of any underground can speak out to other realms, and might themselves deepen if more often invited into respectful conversation and exchange regarding the formal concerns of the conventional literary world.
Out queer women writers work today at an intense intersection. We are deeply embedded into college and university classrooms and administrations; we work in positions of power in publishing, theater and media; we speak at mainstream male-dominated literary conferences. We are no longer only speaking to ourselves, but we are permeating into the rest of American letters. We come with sexualities made of unapologetic wit, provocation and campy self-rendering—a presence created within an unashamed and sub-culturally supported embrace of our own desires.
This queer world sexual expression made by-and-for women often contains a charge that is, to us, normal—but which, seen outside of our own spheres, is often skewed as too bodied, too porno, too gratuitous, too unrepentant, too angry, too un-publishable, too un-tenurable—by too many of the venues writers depend on for recognition, validation, citizenship. This means useful alternative models of women’s essays and memoirs that vex the boundaries between female sexual experience and the rest of life remain in a countercultural domain very few beyond the queer world know exists.
Which is a shame, because the self-defining ways we discuss female sexuality in the lesbian-queer world might help transform how female sexuality is explored in all women’s creative nonfiction, and might be of use to any woman in search of a smart, witty rethinking of erotic expression. I say this as a challenge to myself, as well as to all CNF writers and their publishers. It’s easy to write for emotional response, harder to radically remake the form and content of the work, therefore our bodies, therefore women’s lives.
Which leads me back to resisting redemption, or resisting a reliance on only redemption, or complicating the meaning of redemption. Book editors so often use the word redemption when describing what they are looking for in women’s literary nonfiction—which even some independent presses want to squeeze into the classic conversion narrative arc dating back to St. Augustine, an admittedly lovely story form replicated in every AA meeting in which the teller is asked to tell what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now, but which assumes that a sexual past is something to recover from.
The landscape of the women’s memoir will never broaden, and the sass, irreverence, and re-inventive power of the contemporary queer-lesbian aesthetic will always have problems finding its way into the publication fray, if we don’t take apart expectations placed on women’s autobiographical stories. At stake is the integrity of not just women’s bodies but the contributions of women to a literature of actuality, a genre in which actuality itself is a kind of character. When our stories rely too heavily on the victim-turned-hero structure we perpetuate an illusion of actuality that is dangerously less than actual.
It’s comforting to believe that women can struggle toward a moment of crisis and change, and then, redeemed, move forward. Such is compelling mythology, and humans need mythological foundations in order to abide. But linear redemption is a fiction and the purpose of nonfiction art (too often a separate category than the bestselling memoir) is to continually remake and deepen ways we see actuality. Actual life is never purely redemptive, and we never fully recover from what happens to us, particularly the erotic surprises, and violations, that occur when we’re young.
I don’t dismiss recovery itself as a valid woman’s experience. Twenty years since the start of my own story of change and remaking, what I know is that the path out is no easy arc, but rather a cyclone cluttered with usable furniture, broken utensils, the family jewels, all manner of keepsake and detritus— my past, like all forms of history, continually returning and receding again—which is part of why I understand the trap of allowing an always forward-moving recovery journey to pose as actuality. The too simple redemption narrative might sell well, but is work that entertains rather than elucidates, and so fails to contribute to a lasting literature that breaks open the truths of women’s lives.
What I want to see in all women’s memoirs, essays, and nonfiction lyrics, including my own, is less linear confession and more attempt, in form and content, to embrace brilliant, funny, excruciating, spangled, garish and yes even intentionally titillating contradictions, including the motion and feel of smart-mouth unrepentant women, bumping and grinding any number of desires, challenging all our uncertain histories, a nonfiction literature which, like real life, might make us happy and uncomfortable at the same time.
Barrie Jean Borich
Essayist and creative nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review