The historic Women and Children First Bookstore witnessed an equally historic and unique family literary event when Jennifer Brier and Elana Dykewomon co-presented their separate and recent works March 20.
Dykewomon has written several books and appeared in numerous anthologies, but she is best known for her 1997 historical novel Beyond the Pale, a lesbian story set in Russia and New York City in the late 19th century. It won the Lambda Literary Association Award for Best Lesbian Novel. She was in Chicago to read from her latest novel, Risk, which has already garnered her the James Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists' Prize. The protagonist is from Chicago, where Dykewomon spent a short time as a teenager.
As it turns out, that is not Dykewomon's only connection to Chicago. She and Brier, an associate professor of history and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, are first cousins once removed, although they did not know each other too well when Brier was growing up in New York City and Dykewomon was settling into life in California and becoming an influential lesbian writer. Brier, presenting on her recent book, Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis, said that she first encountered her cousin's work at college, “in my Lesbian Cultures class one summer; it was like lesbian summer camp. When I came out, I called her and her response was, “I knew there would be one more of us.”
Brier went on to read excerpts from her book, which details community and political responses to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. She emphasized the role of lesbians in the period. Writers like Larry Kramer and Randy Shilts have described lesbians as the natural caretakers of dying gay men and also approvingly portrayed them as examples of non-promiscuous and essentially sexless lives. Kramer and Shilts represented a part of the gay community that advocated for a reversal of a lifestyle of promiscuous sex which they felt was the leading cause of deaths from AIDS, whereas several critics and historians have pointed out that government apathy was the reason for the decimation, not sex.
Lesbians had a profound and political role to play in the midst of such redefinitions of sex and sexuality, according to Brier, who said that they advocated for a return to gay liberationist and feminist principles. In an article for Boston's Gay City News, the only such paper to have an explicitly feminist editorial viewpoint, the activist Cindy Patton wrote, as quoted by Brier: “What we are experiencing in the gay community right now is ‘It's not political until it's personal…We have to … say: this society is not going to kill us any more.’” Patton’s explicit reference to the popular feminist slogan was a signal to gay men that they needed to think of women as political agents, while pointing out that straight people have systematically oppressed queers.
Brier said that gay liberation was extended by AIDS, not ended by it, and the thrust of that extension was taken up by lesbians “who insisted they had a particular way of intervening about sex and love. They made the case that love could be fleeting, as in a one-night stand, but you would still want to make that person safe.” In this way, contrary to Kramer et al’s insistence that they taught gay men how to be monogamous, “lesbians were providing new models of sex.”
In the later years of the epidemic, lesbians developed healthcare models through publications like Our Bodies, Ourselves and communities of care. This combination of writing about sex and health while also creating resources rewrites a history where lesbians have been relegated to being a support system when, in fact, “they were making historically grounded arguments for what change should look like.”
Dykewomon read from a poem in an earlier anthology, Nothing Will Be As Sweet As The Taste. She also read from Risk, whose protagonist, Carol, is an idealistic, Berkeley-educated, Jewish lesbian; her life is overshadowed by the trauma of losing her father, a fighter pilot missing in action in the Vietnam War. She described Riskas a “novel about lesbian relationships and an anti-war novel, about a fat, Jewish femme from Chicago.”
A discussion session followed the readings. Asked why she chose to write a contemporary novel this time, Dykewomon said that part of the reason was the greater and more detailed amount of research required for historical fiction. Some amount of historical research was still required during the writing of Risk, such as finding out details about the songs playing on the radio during periods of the character's life. But it was not to the extent required for Beyond the Pale, where Dykewomon had to research minute details like whether or not pencils had erasers at the ends in the late 19th century (they did, but such pencils were of poor quality and only used in public schools).
Dykewomon and Brier also discussed an essential difference between writing historical fiction and historical research. Dykewomon said she could start at the end of her narrative, and find the research to support the narrative trajectory she wanted to follow. Brier said that in contrast historical research requires the author to follow the facts and “read as much as you can [because] in history, you don’t let sources determine your research.” Both women emphasized that lesbian history needed to be rewritten. Brier pointed out that lesbians needed to written back into the history of AIDS as agents of change instead of only being seen as caretakers. Dykewomon said that her work was about forming lesbian communities “even while we have been living under war for so long.”