I’m on a small Portuguese island right now visiting family and doing research for the sequel to When Butches Cry. My wife and I have an extraordinary friend here. Poverty stricken and born deaf, a woman in her 40s I will call Joba for this post, is a hell of a fisherwoman, making her living by selling bait she gathers endlessly day after day while feeding her mother, daughter, and grand-daughter with fish she catches herself. She has only four or five teeth left and her face is weather-beaten from salt water and sun. She is tall for a Portuguese woman and whipcord thin from walking many miles to find good fishing.
Although nearly everyone on the small island of Terceira knows her, very few use her real name. Everyone refers to her as the Mute. I have watched people cheat her of the few euros she charges for the crabs and biting sea worms she gathers at night to sell for bait, and too often she has to dodge rocks thrown at her by vicious young men. Joba learned to fight dirty, striking low and hard without let up, after being raped as a teen (which resulted in her daughter’s birth). She’s earned a formidable reputation as a fighter, instilling fear if not respect in her enemies.
The cruelty of her situation is beyond my ken. She is deaf, but most certainly not mute. Somehow or other, with absolutely no education (she went to public school for a few days as a child but the other kids laughed and tormented her so badly she refused to go back), Joba has watched lips enough to simulate words and with broad gestures and facial expressions is quite good at making herself understood by those who take the time to watch and listen. But besides her immediate family, almost no one does.
Traf and I always bring her a present of new jeans, shirts, or jackets when we visit because she spends what little extra money she makes on batteries for the flashlight she uses to work at night, fishing gear, and little pleasantries for her family. While Joba appreciates the gifts, they are a pale second to seeing and recognizing Traf, apparently her only friend in the world who enjoys sitting and hearing her stories. Although I speak almost no Portuguese, she always includes me in her conversations, never leaving me out and pausing as Traf translates the parts I don’t understand. To my utter amazement she seems to understand my English (meaning if not words), supplying extra information to make herself understood. She tries to hide her tears when we leave but through mine, I’ve witnessed hers.
Her loneliness is deeper, wider, and more intense than any human being’s should ever be. She lives with her guard always up, expecting to be treated as sub-human, or worse, no better than an abandoned animal. Although clearly gifted with an amazing intellect, no one understands just how smart this young woman is to have self-taught herself to speak, fish, swim, and even rescue foolish fishermen who fall into deep water.
About ten years back, she earned enough money to buy herself a small rowboat. That expanded her ability to catch bigger fish for sale to local restaurants and gave her some mobility. She proudly hand-lettered her own name on the small vessel, but within the year someone(s) destroyed the boat, hacking it to pieces unable to be repaired.
I could never have written this type of cruelty into a book if I hadn’t seen it for myself in Joba’s life. Yes, part of her story will be in my sequel to When Butches Cry, but most readers will assume I’ve invented the very real torment of this woman’s everyday existence.
I only wish I had.
Why do you think the many, many lesbian writers out there aren’t recognized? Is it simply because they haven’t made it to the ‘mainstream’? Is it because they aren’t generally with the big corporate presses? Or is it a genre vs literary thing? Or is it something else altogether?
Ah, c’mon. It’s sexism. Men will read books written by men and almost never read a book by a woman (unless it’s about male domination as in 50 Shades). How do I know? I travel a lot and always look at the cover of books people are reading around me. Women will read women’s books and men’s books, but they look for women to provide soft, comforting romance stories and men to provide action/sci-fi/horror/paranormal/et.al ad nauseum. Oh sure, I’m generalizing and there are a lot of exceptions on both sides, but that’s it in a nutshell.
I’m a lesbian who writes YA literature about kids in rainbow families (with one or more members of the family LGBT). Right away, my audience is narrow, and then narrowed again. I want my books read by EVERYONE, because they touch on shared human themes. However, realistically speaking, only a handful of lesbian women raising kids buy them. Marginalized, much?
THEN, let’s talk about the all important number of reviews needed to be seen by potential buyers as worthy of their hard-earned money. I need reviews, but the people who buy my books (parents) don’t often read them but instead are purchasing for their kids. Kids don’t have Amazon and Goodreads accounts.
And as for sex, what’s up with straight women and their passion for reading/writing gay male erotica, but NOT crossing over to read lesbian erotica? They read cozy straight romances, but not lesbian cozy romances where the exact same emotions/frustrations/trust issues abound? Sexism, plain and simple. Starting in school with the literature used to teach, we’re taught that men authors are worthy and talented and their male characters significant changers of society. Women authors aren’t introduced until you take a special Women’s Lit course in college and those are almost always filled with women while the men are taking courses in Western Lit, or Classic Lit, or World Lit where the booklists are heavily slanted with men. When questioned, professors who make up these lists always say, “Well, there just aren’t that many significant women’s authors.” They never seem to realize they’re part of that very problem.
And lesbians have been sent to the back of the bus by both two significant social movements in recent history:
1) Right from the start, gay men tried to reject our participation in the whole movement (until AIDS devastated them and only their lesbian sisters stepped up, but that’s another story). For instance, did you know that the very first stone thrown at police during the Stonewall riots was hurled by a butch lesbian? A true, but obscure fact.
2) The women’s movement, during the 70’s, came right out and told us to step away from the whole cause because our participation somehow lessened their arguments for equality. We were visually distracting, our sexuality driving away male and Christian supporters. Huh, what, how?!?
Everyone seems to want us to be invisible, and since lesbians are the ultimate symbols of women resisting male domination I once again call SEXISM.
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