Toni Morrison towered over literature. Though older than me by a generation, her early novels became my lodestones, magnets pointing me toward a new kind of literature. Her writing cracked open a world I hadn’t read on the page before, a vibrant world where Black women were accorded center stage, absent “the white gaze.” I knew how corrosive the white gaze could be from going to school in the Bahamas, and how complete, complex and nuanced were the worlds beyond its acid brow.
“Beloved” eventually became my most cherished title.
I started writing in about 1985 as an out lesbian, using mostly male protagonists. I snuck one story with lesbians into my first collection, a story about two women and their adopted autistic child. My second story collection had lots of queer protagonists, and my second poetry collection was all queer. By the time I wrote those books, I was done pretending just to get published. I understood that I’d been pandering (to use Claire Vaye Watkins’ word), though all the while I had been reaching for something else, the bravery to make up tales my way, from a queer gaze, a non-binary gaze, a disabled gaze, and to insist that mainstream Canada hear me. I honed my skills so that they would have to listen. When they wouldn’t, I submitted to literary awards, and I won contests.
That never translated, for me, into publishing contracts, and so, broken-hearted, I distanced myself. I’m sorry to have to say that we have a long way to go in Canada before parity for queers is reached.
I loved Toni Morrison, and I loved her writing, and the lessons of her writing resound with me even today. I’m grateful her literature is available to us all, and particularly grateful it and she stood as beacon and exemplar for generations of Black womxn. I’m going to be doing what many people around the world are doing now, reading her novels again, reading The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Song of Soloman, letting her literature soak back into me with all its strength and wisdom.
A white person, even one marginalized, cannot begin to understand the meaning of Toni Morrison to Black womxn. Here is a link to a touching and important eulogy by Dr Roxane Gay, NY Times. The Legacy of Toni Morrison.
At Medium, the Zora team has re-printed Toni Morrison: In Her Own Words; Cinderella’s Stepsisters, her commencement address to the Barnard graduating class of ’79.
“The Pleasure Scale,” my contemplation on disability, pleasure and pain, is up today at Gay Magazine. Be forewarned that it is sexually explicit.
I realize there’s so much more to be said about pleasure, mine, and, of course, that found by others.
“I want to feel my body opening in the way it can open, like it is split, and is yawning in two pieces like a knifed watermelon, when it can take not only a fist but a globe, it can take every war, every famine, every mining disaster, every broken child behind bars, every river of tainted water into itself and it can turn water clear and take the broken children onto its lap and cause weapons to be laid down and corpses to rise and people to laugh again.”
South of what is Canada’s southern border, reactionary events are afloat that may, or may not, be brought back from their facist brink by the upcoming mid-term election. Numbers will make or break this day at the polls. There are more progressives than there are retrogressives.
The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Dr Martin Luther King made this sentence famous and I have thought of it thousands of times in my life, wondering whether, in fact, he was right. Does it? Does it?
In the meantime, this has been a weak and quivering seven days. A domestic terrorist mailed pipe bombs to prominent Dem targets, while another DT shot up a synagogue in Pennsylvania. Two developmentally delayed brothers were killed, and a generous doctor who worked with the first AIDS patients.
I think often of the Holocaust. I was born only ten years afterwards, when people were still counting their losses. Never again, we said. Never again a Holocaust. Never again will we stand by and allow harm to come to Jews. (We did not talk about the slaughtered disabled. We never knew of the murdered LGBT community.) Never again a Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Never again an Internment.
This was my childhood, ducked under my school desk against the fear of nuclear bomb from Cuba: Never forget. These words were bellowed, sung, whispered. Friend to friend. Parent to child. Principal to assembly. Pastor to congregation. And we didn’t forget. We new children who hadn’t been there, we didn’t forget. Our homes were full of the old tendrils of war, the ways our grandparents and parents had been affected, and we didn’t forget.
People who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it, said George Santayana, a Spanish poet, and here we are, here we are, at the yawning cusp, at the mouth of the beast, at the bared yellow teeth.
What are we going to do? How are we going to respond? This beast hates us. He’s never met us, but he hates us on a theory.
Ours is a world yearning toward love, I swear it, I swear it. I watch it each day in the coo of the babies I see weekly. I see it when a hummingbird mother brings her two young to sit with her on my round feeder, teaching them about bird and human interaction. I see it when my parrot tucks himself on the side of my glasses and begins to preen and hum, happy in my warmth. I see it when people kneel down and render apologies. I hear it all the time, for my family, both its Caucasian members and its JC members, is a family engaged in social justice. I’m sorry, we say to each other when we’ve erred. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Will you forgive me? Our striving to do better for each other is utterly human. Human and beast, both, adult and child, both, we long for safety, for shelter, for food, for acceptance, for this restoring power of generosity, compassion, empathy, humility, respect and love.
Once, I stood under the railing in Tennessee where Martin Luther King Jr stood as a sniper shot him dead, and I wept. I touched the bed where he had slept, peered from the window to see the path of the assassin’s bullet, and I broke inside, over and over, as I had broken over and over moving through the rigours of the National Civil Rights Museum.
“The arc of the moral universe,” said King, “is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Is it bending toward justice? It is, when transgender rights are protected in Canada. It isn’t, when transgender rights are threatened in the US. It is when the abled world works to fix accessibility issues for the disabled; it isn’t when US police drag protesting disability warriors out of their wheelchairs to arrest them. It is when we host annual Missing and Murdered Women’s Days; it isn’t when again and again white men go free after murdering BIPOC. It is when we get the right to same-sex marriage; it isn’t when homophobia moves underground like a hot spring, and bubbles up to burn us.
The opposition to social justice is fierce now. The blowback isn’t coming. It’s here.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” – Elie Wiesel
We must interfere.
It was a new thing in TV news in the 60s that we could watch assassinations almost live, so I watched the replay of President Kennedy dying over and over on our scratchy black and white console, and a few years later, I watched Dr King crumple.
All my life, and fiercely for the last 40 years, I’ve fought for social justice through a stretchy and gorgeous feminism. My feminism was never a solid block, but a curious, questing, alive thing. My feminism was always encompassing, and it stretches to encompass even now our foibles, our mistakes, our minor offenses, our sloganeering and academic thought. It fights against violence against womxn and children; it fights racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism. No one can be left out of our fight toward love.
In my justice, no one will be left at the bottom of the stairs looking up.
It’s great to get thoughtful and lengthy reviews of one’s work. Thanks to Casey!
“There’s a lot to revel in in Weekend, just purely from a representation angle. When was the last time you read a queer novel about people in middle age, let alone a novel that has extended sex scenes featuring queer people in their 40s and 50s? Older queers getting it on feels revolutionary in and of itself, but Hamilton also features a character who is disabled and black (Ajax has a heart condition and grew up in the Bahamas), a trans masculine character who uses they pronouns (Logan), a masculine-presenting polyamorous character who uses she pronouns (Elliot), and a kinky couple (Logan and Ajax). None of this feels forced or for the sake of diversity itself, but simply a portrayal of some real people with various intersecting identities.
“As you’re probably guessing, this is a highly character and relationship driven novel. You know at the beginning that shit of many kinds is going to hit the fan for both couples. Hamilton takes you there slowly while letting you get to know all the characters, their dynamics, and histories. The only other work I can think of that has so much authentic dyke processing in it is Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. Logan, Ajax, Joe, and Elliot talk about their gender and sexual identities (I found Ajax’s ruminations about her lesbian identity in the face of Logan’s in-flux gender identity particularly fascinating), sex, feelings, their exes, illness, and relationship practicalities.” -Casey, the Canadian lesbrarian
Here is the rest of her review:
I’m delighted to be one of the editors of the new Many Gendered Mothers!
Shirley Jackson by Jane Eaton Hamilton 2016
From the site description:
“many gendered mothers is a project on literary influence featuring short essays by writers (of any/all genders) on the women, femme, trans, and non-binary writers who have influenced them, as a direct or indirect literary forebear.
This project is directly inspired by the American website Literary Mothers (http://literarymothers-blog.tumblr.com/), created by editor Nadxieli Nieto and managing editor Nina Puro. While we hope that Literary Mothers might eventually return to posting new pieces, this site was created as an extension and furthering of their project (in homage, if you will), and not meant as any kind of replacement.
Basically: which female ,femme, trans or non-binary writer(s) made you feel like there was room in the world for you and your artistic temperament, or opened up your understanding of what was possible, either as a writer or a human or both? Perhaps you were closely mentored by a particular writer or editor, or perhaps their work was highly influential, even if not in the most obvious ways.”
The other editors are: Adèle Barclay, Natalee Caple, Klara du Plessis, Sonnet L’Abbé, rob mclennan, Hazel MillAr, Jacqueline Valencia + Erin Wunker. Please submit your short essays to me, to them, or directly to email@example.com.
I’m so glad to see After Ellen managing to continue after their status changed in September. I surely never thought anyone would find cause to put me and Barack Obama on the same page. In their year end wrap-up, After Ellen via Beth Reynolds calls WEEKEND “The Book.” (All the same, I’d probably rather be “The Writer” since Glennon Doyle Melton sounds like she’s making money hand over fist. 🙂 jk)
sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014
When I say that our community has known the sting of homophobia, I mean all our community, every single one of us who identifies somewhere in the LGBTQIQ2 label, has experienced transgressions against us dozens or hundreds or thousands of times (dependent on locale/our age/our circumstances/whether we are POC and other variables). There have been the community ones–the massacre in Orlando, arson in New Orleans in 1973, bombings at Little Sisters bookstore in Vancouver, and countless murders, lately especially of trans people. These events end up in the news, are discussed and analyzed and mourned. But there have been indivdual encounters with hates, too: street harrassment, times we have lost our housing, our jobs, our dignity, been disowned and disinherited, beaten, spit at, been followed and stalked, lost our kids, been harrassed online, had our weddings boycotted by loved ones, been scared, horrified, appalled, nervous, anxious, terrified, paid more taxes. We’ve been told we should be lowered in cages until we drown; we have been told we should all be dead; we have been told that we’re immoral, illegal, unethical, disgusting. We have been shunned. Religions and politicians have called for our deaths time and time again. Called from the fringe, calls from the zealots, sure, but the same policies and ideas exist in a watered down version in our offices, our schools, our policy makes, our homes. Being queer has cost us so much, cost our children so much: our families, so much income, our mental health, our courage, our resilience, our tears. As I write this, our lives and loves are still unbelievably illegal in 77 countries. Not counties. Countries. We have been hung, we have been decapitated, we have been stoned, we have been imprisoned, we have been thrown from cliffs, we have been flogged, we have had to hide for our lives. We have been slaughtered.
All of these things that have happened to us as queers for the years I’ve been out (since 1982), and before, all of those things are cumulative. Did you know that? Sometimes they are the microaggressions that we’ve been hearing of from the intelligent Black Lives Matter fight, and sometimes they are bigger, more florid, and tragic. But it is always death from a thousand paper cuts for the LGBT+ community. It is always a rolling, increasing snowball.
There are as many ways for queers to cope with harm as there are for straights, and we find them all. But we also learned to celebrate our survival. The blows have made us strong, very strong. Our knitted back together bodies and minds and spirits are resilient. Our spines are concrete, most of them.
These dead children were our babies. These were the babies for whose rights we fought–those of us who were activists. We fought so they could forget their world used to be dangerous. We fought because we were mothers, and we could not bear the idea that our own children, and our children’s children, would have to know even a smidgeon of the pain we had known.
You’re so upset, people say. It’s like you knew someone there.
We did know someone there, whether we had met them or not. We knew everyone. We counted the dead, the animated, dancing, celebrating dead, as family because we know so much of their experience–that experience of living in a world animate with homophobia–intimately. Yes, there is less hostility now. Yes, we won some battles. Yes, those battles made real differences in our visibility, our access to safety, our babies’ access to safety. But it is not over. It is so far from over. That the kids were slaughtered in one of our havens–one of the places we seeks out when we’re in Orlando, just as we go to similar places in Paris, in Cartagena, in San Francisco, in London, in Montreal, in Nashville–only makes us feel the agony the more acutely. We go to bars to find our people so we don’t feel so alone in the world. We go to bars to be visible. We go to bars to forget. We go to bars to dance the hate out. We go to bars to celebrate sound and life and gaiety and company.
But although we have been schooled by prior losses to be vigilant, we still didn’t expect this. I can guarantee that every one of the people mowed down this weekend had recently been thinking about America’s gun rage. Every one of them. Every one of them had recently been considering the epidemic of hate in America and its body count, because it is impossible to miss the news with a mass murder there every day of every year, with every murderer trying to up the number of slaughtered. Every one of those dancers with time to react figured out that a man with an assault rifle was targeting them.
And they knew why.
And they told their moms that they loved them. They told their moms they loved them before they were gunned down.
It gets better, we say, hoping to help suicidal teens make it to the adulthood these 100 mostly young adults were enjoying the beginnings of on Saturday night.
Over the years since Stonewall, we’ve forced heterosexual policing units to stop raiding our spaces. We’ve forced hetersexuals to change some laws in some countries around the world. We’ve forced you to leave your prejudices at the door and actually see us all fully human.
And you have, a lot of you. Thank you for every time you open your arms, every time you stand up for us. Pass it on and ask your friends to pass it along, too.
But if you still hear It’s so gay used as a slur and you don’t act to stop it, you’ll know we have a whole lot further still to go. If you hear about the death of yet another transwoman, especially of colour, you’ll know we have continents still to go. If you care who uses your bathrooms instead of that a man is pointing an assault rifle over the stall to kill our babies, you’ll know we are, still, nowhere.
Mourn, we are. We are heaving and weeping and screaming and holding candles aloft and considering action plans to increased safety.
Let me ask you–will you stand up for us?
Let me ask again–will you stand up for us?
When you hear a joke, a comment, a slur against us, will you act to stop it? A slur against brown or black people? Will you act to stop it?
Will you help us, please, feel safe? Will you nurture us, hug us, feed us, give us back rubs? Will you help us change unprogessive laws? Will you fight for our community’s right to immigrate from unsafe countries to yours?
Is it any wonder that we leave your community and make our own? We’ve had to count on each other because you weren’t there for us.
Remember that what happens to one of us happens to us all, and until we are all safe, none of us is safe.
We haven’t heard about ourselves from birth, or kindergarten, the way you have. So talk about our wonderful lives–single and married and parents and children–to every youngster. Find an age-appropriate queer book and read it to your kids. Tell them, “There are many kinds of families. They are all great. Some of your friends at school will turn out to be gay and they need to feel just as welcome as you do.” Say, “Gay is good. Gay is very, very good.” Ask for curriculum changes to include us. Ask for anti-homophobia training for teachers, for textbooks, for kids. Make sure you don’t have a hierarchy of gays–good queers and bad queers. Make sure you include us all. Make sure you tell your kids about the massacre and our mourning in the same light you would talk to them about other massacres. Make sure you talk to their teachers so they know it’s important to you that an assembly is held, that the classrooms do projects. Make sure you make a point of saying how critical it is that bathrooms are inclusive (the heartbreaking stories of little kids forced to pee themselves at school after being kicked out of both genders of washrooms are dunning).
There are pragmatic ways you can help. Volunteer for us on crisis lines. Join PFLAG. Dismantle systems of oppression wherever you discover them. Fundraise for our causes.
We have hated ourselves and hurt ourselves because we grew up bathed in your aversion. We have swallowed homophobia until our guts were swollen with it. We have shit it. We have burped it. We have vomited it. We have bled it. We have fucked it and fucked it and fucked it out of us. We have turned a million incidents into literature, into art, into film, into theatre, into the frocks you wear, into science, into medicine, into law, into jokes and a million other wonderful, generative, productive things that straight people consume, count on and cherish.
So cherish us, too, will you?
I am delighted to announce that I’ve been short-listed for the CBC Literary Award (there were a staggering 3200 entries). You can click through from this link to find the 5 short-listed stories (word count a strict 1500) along with interviews with each writer, and you can vote for your favourite if you’re inclined to that sort of thing. The winner will be announced in late March.
I won this award in 2003 with my short fiction “The Lost Boy.”
(Link didn’t link, but hopefully now it works.)