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Saturday, December 1, 2007


no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion looks out on the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. And yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.
-- St. Teresa of Avila

Friday, October 26, 2007


In an online context, I was "eavesdropping" recently on a conversation about how, not to say whether, writers should write about characters different from themselves.

Hard to believe, isn't it? After all, fiction, by definition, is a made-up story. Characters, by definition, are made-up people. Even if a character is based on someone you know, it's still your version of that person. Heaven knows, we can never really know what's going in inside another person's head. That's what fiction is for.

Nonetheless, some readers (and non-readers) don't like it when they see writers "appropriating the voice" of a character different from themselves. One example given was some women--no doubt on university campuses, whence I've been absent too long--who disapproved of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, written in the voices of women including a real writer, Virginia Woolf. I wonder if these women want to claim Woolf for themselves, or only parts of her? The anti-Semitic parts, for instance?

Michael Cunningham, an incredibly gifted writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, doesn't need me defending him. But he is a white, U.S.-based man, and that's a pretty privileged group to belong to, isn't it? At least he's gay.

So, incidentally, is Camilla Gibb, who took a little flak for her Giller Prize-nominated novel, Sweetness in the Belly. Gibb is also white, a British-born Canadian, and an atheist. Nonetheless, after years of research living in Ethiopia, she dared to set her book there, and to write it in the voice of another white woman--a devoutly Muslim Ethiopian. Through the richness of her imagination, Gibb portrayed a character's religiosity and the conflicts surrounding it with a sensitivity I rarely see in fiction. Good thing she didn't let her inner censors disqualify her from trying!

One of the first adult novels (as opposed to children's books) I ever read was Clyde Egerton's Raney, and it's still a favorite of mine. Raney is a country girl in 1970s North Carolina who marries a more liberal guy from Atlanta. The story of their marriage is told in the strong, opinionated, and sometimes ignorant voice of Raney, and it is hilarious. Egerton said he wrote in the voice of the wife because in his family, stories were always told by women, and it just felt natural. I'm glad he didn't talk himself out of it by worrying about whether some readers might dislike it. No story can work for everybody.

I enjoy seeing myself in fictional characters, especially when we don't share surface, demographic criteria. Some of the books I've found most memorable have taken me deep into the mind of a character I could never possibly be. And I have read about many fictional characters who share my sexual orientation or race or religion, yet are nothing like me in personality.

As a white, U.S.-born, lesbian reader, I've observed that most white American characters never notice that they are white Americans or acknowledge the effect of those prejudices on other people's lives. Kind of like straight characters who almost never acknowledge their heterosexuality; it's just the default setting.

I think an extremely useful and diversifying thing for writers to do, next time [they] [we] are creating a cast of all or almost all white characters set in the USA--for example--is to have at least some of those characters aware of their nationality at least some of the time. No appropriation required.

Another of my favorite writers since youth, Jill McCorkle, wrote a novel called Carolina Moon (not to be confused with Nora Roberts's novel of the same title). All of the important characters in McCorkle's Carolina Moon are straight, and sexual orientation isn't a theme of the novel. But at a couple of subtle points, one of her characters, a woman named Denny, gives a nod to the fact that she has a sexual preference, and that it is hetero. That little nod of recognition--that there are other kinds of people in the world, and the character has thought about this--can deepen a story and make it more effective.

As always, a sense of humor helps too.

© J. E. Knowles

Friday, October 12, 2007


M. Y. T.

hello cerb my old dark friend
your three heads roaring at the gates of hell
the last outpost of living at the door of death
death eternal stretching behind you
black bleak river styx and ferryman before you
i come to you before i die
i have paid tribute to the gods on the mountain
i have wandered searching all over the earth
i have come under the earth to hades's house
i have crossed the styx and paid the ferryman
and now i want to know,
what makes it grey? because the sky is grey
most of the time, and even when it's black or white
it's grey, grey-blue, grey-red, but always grey
and the earth is grey, and even when it's brown
or morning-green or colour-feasting fall

still at dawn it's grey and dusk is grey
it's grey underground and the river is grey
and the old mean ferryman is shrivelled grey
and you, yes even you black dog, are grey
what makes it grey? is that why people bleed
and scream and breathe and sleep
is that why it rains and tears and there are
wars and fears and footsteps and people hear
why not black and white and easy and hard
and serious and fun and heaven and hell
and war and peace and safe and dangerous and
life and death and gods and men?
why grey? and for goodness' bloody sake
why pain and fire and frightened children?
and why do ragged voices cry desperation
and why does mister hell play chess with men
and why can i barely speak from the ripping
tearing bleeding burning pain of love
why do i need and hurt that something as deep
and calling as a restless soul is empty,
empty as my arms and a thousand thousand
miles from a night of sleep
why is it so dark? and why is there light in the
dark? and why did the love break when mama's
maid swept it off the dresser? it broke, you know
why did it break and destroy? i didn't want it
to destroy anybody, i never meant to fail

what, oh what now has torn up everything
and made the separation of the little storms
i was only misguided, only misguided
and it is cold and there is only a very slight chance
that truth will win out in the end
and there are very few rivers in the desert
and i don't have time to wait for then, i want
then now because otherwise i will be dead
tomorrow i could be gone and i don't have time
to wait before i wonder why and what makes it grey
in the same way that if you jump from the sears
tower to a patch of grass it is harder than
jumping from a chair to concrete
although concrete is harder than grass
and chairs and concrete and the sears tower are all
greyer than grass
i knelt in the stained-glass filtered air
of the chapel and i prayed that the gods would
live and that earth would be blessed
i have only now to live
and i have found that life is a crucifixion
in which each one of us must sacrifice one hand
to the nails
we must reach as far as we can before the
un-nailed hand crumbles to dust

because life like time is only a brief history
in the midst of infinity
and the gods after all are only life
and one day even time will be old
well if this is my life i accept it
i love it
and i will live it to the best of my ability
even if that means that which it may not
i shall go back to earth now
thank you
but cerb, first tell me in a whispered sound
what makes it grey

Monday, September 10, 2007

Shooting star

Madeleine L'Engle, 1918-2007
"I'm going home like a shooting star."--Sojourner Truth

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Immigration equality

Last night Rachel Tiven, the director of Immigration Equality, was a guest on Bill O'Reilly's show on Fox News.

Bless her heart.

Immigration Equality is the organization working for the rights of gay and lesbian and HIV+ immigrants to the United States. This means they are working at the nexus of two burning issues in the U.S. today, or, to put it another way, two hated groups: LGBT people, and immigrants.

Until about 1990, gay and lesbian people were banned from entering the U.S.--even as visitors. (A booklet printed in 1989 explained that you are not allowed to cross the border of the United States if "you are mentally ill or homosexual," even though homosexuality had not been classed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association since 1973!) This ban still applies today to people with HIV.

There has been a bill floating around Congress for years that would enable thousands of U.S. citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners, instead of what happens to us now--deportations, bannings, and families and livelihoods abandoned as we have to leave our country. Every year, many of us come to Canada. Not because our partners are Canadian, but because a third country is the only way.

If you need options now, check out Immigration Equality.

If you are an American with a minute on your hands, go to their site and ask your members of Congress to pass this bill.

Thank you.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Those never met

*Note: Unrelentingly Drawn: The Editorial Cartoons of Danny Sotomayor is open at Gerber/Hart Library in Chicago for the summer of 2007.

When Larry Kramer came to Toronto last year for the International Festival of Authors, I was interested to read Xtra's interview with him. He said some surprisingly hard-hitting things about what has happened in the last twenty years. "It’s as if all those people in the ’80s died in vain," he was quoted as saying. "I don’t see a lot of us fighting and campaigning, I see a lot of us dancing and going to the gym."

Now if anybody else said that, he or she would probably be dismissed as a nagging big sister, like someone who says everybody should quit smoking. But this was Larry Kramer, the founder of ACT UP. His comments made me start thinking about those earlier days and who "all those people" were.

In my life, the people who died were not often those I had known personally. More of them were people whose paths I probably would have crossed eventually, had their lives not been cut so short.

These relationships are defined by their absence. Someone I might have known, I did not know, and the opportunity has been lost forever.

A decade ago, as a newly out lesbian, I discovered that I was a member of something called "the gay and lesbian community." "Gay and lesbian" had a particular meaning in the 1980s and early 1990s. It meant a degree of cooperation between queer women and men that had not happened before, and which has probably not happened since.

That cooperation was around one particular issue. AIDS was seen by those outside our community as a problem for us alone. It was not recognized as a problem for heterosexuals, let alone for the developing world, where it is now an unprecedented catastrophe.

So gays and lesbians responded to AIDS. There was caretaking within the community, and outrage directed at those outside it who expressed indifference or revulsion. The impetus to community was hard to deny: People were dying. Men, many of them young, were dying around us in disastrous numbers, and if "the gay and lesbian community" did not do something about it, who would?

Now there are drugs that did not exist a decade ago. These treatments are "good news," in the way that chemotherapy is good news to someone with cancer. They keep something deadly and incurable at bay. They do not restore any of us to the world of the 1970s, when no one knew about AIDS. And nothing can bring back all the people we lost.

There can be no nostalgia about that period, because it was a time of death. As in a war of self-defence, people really were fighting for their lives. Great love and great art came out of that time, because that was all we could do. What we really wanted to do was to change the way the world was, to open the bathhouses and not have to worry about a deadly disease.

The gay playwright Scott McPherson, who was living in Chicago at the same time I was, wrote about the caretaking that was going on in the gay community. He described the presence of AIDS in his life, in the life of his lover, Danny Sotomayor, and in the lives of their friends.

I wish I had known this writer, but I never met him. He died ten years ago. Danny Sotomayor, a gifted cartoonist and AIDS activist, also died. There is no collection of this man's work.* He should have been drawing for many more years, but instead, he gave his energy to the political fight for AIDS funding and research.

Not enough is left of these men. There is not a lifetime of work for us to appreciate. There should be many more plays and cartoons and other works of art, and they should be about the many joys of life, not just the pain of loss. There is nothing redemptive about the loss of so many people, so many relationships cut short or never started. It is a massive tragedy.

Because there was so much death that could not have been expected, gay and lesbian people were forced to deal with mortality--our own, as well as others'. In many cases, these were people whose families or communities of origin had rejected them, who did not have the comfort of traditional faith. Instead, women and men who may not previously have considered themselves allies came together and supported each other.

It should not have taken tragedy to bring us together. Community life should not be one more life we've lost, along with so many other lives. Art and memories are not enough.

I hope we can continue to love those around us as if it were, as it can be, a matter of life and death.

Published 2003 in Xtra!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Pride in the Month of June

2003 Writer's Digest Writing Competition
Inspirational Winner

In English translations of the New Testament, Romans is the first of Paul’s letters to appear. Scholars believe, however, that Paul’s letter to the Romans was one of the last he wrote, late in his life, to the church in the city where he would ultimately die. It has been my habit for many years to read through the Bible, and around June I always find myself reading Romans. It is one of Paul’s most difficult letters to read, but also one of his most gracious.

Eighteen years ago I was baptized into the Christian church. It is the custom of the branch of Christianity in which I was raised to baptize people when they are supposed to be old enough to choose faith for themselves. In those eighteen years I have veered from one extreme to another in my faith or lack thereof, but I have always managed to be reading the Bible. It has been the literary constant to my variable religion.

I have tried, for at least that long, always to be honest about Christianity. And for the last twelve years, I have tried also to be honest about being gay. In the gay and lesbian community, we call such honesty “coming out.” It is a process that never really ends, and it can be just as traumatic with the person who has never heard it before as it was the first time.

I came out in the early part of 1991, to some people I knew, then in public and in print. And it was a heady time to do so. “Come out in spring. Everything else does.” I decided to be open about something I had known for a long while because I saw people around me, openly gay students at my university, being harassed with death threats and attacks. People of all sexual identities rallied around these students and demanded that the administration do something to respond. Before I graduated three years later, I would see that university grant equal benefits to same-sex partners. At the time, however, coming out was an act of some defiance.

We wore pink triangles, the symbol the Nazis had used to identify homosexuals in the concentration camps. I didn’t know, when I was eighteen, that a pink triangle stood in Amsterdam as the first memorial in the world to gay victims of the Nazis. I knew it as the symbol of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, one of the groups active in the early 1990s. Gay people were angry then because so many men, young men, in our community were dying, and few other people seemed to care because AIDS was a “gay disease.” We know AIDS now as the scourge of heterosexual communities, an epidemic in the developing world. But in those days many people told us that the plague was sent by God on our community of sinners.

I think about these things every June because June marks Pride, commemorating the first modern demonstration of defiance by gay people in public, at Stonewall in New York City. Stonewall happened in 1969, the year of the moon landing and Woodstock. It was also the year Penelope, whom I met and fell in love with in 1992, was born.

The past twelve years have been tremendously exciting and frustrating, for the gay and lesbian community and for me personally. We have gone from being “everywhere spoken against,” like the early Christian church, to gaining some measure of equality, in law and/or in fact. I have seen one community I am a part of, the gay community, lose so many bright members to disaster, and I have heard HIV statuses both negative and positive, in waiting rooms and over phone lines. I have seen another community I am a part of, the church, bitterly divided over “gay issues,” with clergy and laity of many communions turning their backs on one another and walking out because they could not stand him or her or them. I have lost some friends and gained others.

I have walked in a Pride parade in London, protesting for the right to live in the same country as my British partner (something we only achieved in Canada, after nearly eight years). I have celebrated Pride in Oxford and Chicago. I have walked with Integrity, an Anglican group, at Pride in Knoxville, Tennessee, where the only Integrity members who dared to walk beside me were either straight (God bless them) or self-employed, and so had less to fear. And one year, I walked with the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, in front of close to a million people, only one of whom overtly challenged us:

“Stop sinning,” his poster said, “or burn forever in the lake of fire.”

Twelve years “out,” and still my heart beats faster when I see this man--because there are many of him. A dozen years of telling people, and yet so many still don’t know, or I don’t know they know. All those years and immigrating to another country and living in its largest and most diverse city, and still there’s only one weekend of the year when I feel safe walking hand-in-hand with the woman I love, a public display that has earned women death in Appalachia, where I’m from. I was in high school when two lesbians were shot on the Appalachian Trail by a man who couldn’t stand to share the wide world with their sexuality. I didn’t learn this until I read it in a poem by Adrienne Rich, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Chicago the year I first came out.

I say I came out twelve years ago, but there is so much more to do. There will be so many more moments when I am forced to choose: do I confront this “issue,” or do I take the easy way? Do I tell you whom I choose to spend my life with, or do I mention “someone,” a “friend,” a really good friend--who crossed the world to be with me? When I walk down the street at Pride Toronto with gay and supportive Christians, with Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays, with the politicians and the workers, the hedonists and hangers-on--who am I? Am I a lesbian? A Christian? Or just a human being?

For make no mistake about it: There is a choice to be made. To be openly gay, to be “out,” to be proud, is a choice. To confess or deny. To stand with Jesus, who despised the shame, or to despise and shame. Christians, of all people, should be familiar with the need to choose.

That Pride Sunday, before the parade, we had a visitor in church, a woman from Virginia. She looked much like any older woman I might meet in the South, except that she was dressed in rainbow colours, and during the prayers she thanked God for this congregation and for leading her to celebrate with us this morning. After the service I went to talk with her and she explained that her husband was in Toronto for a conference. She was originally from Ohio, and I told her about my connection with the States. When we were getting ready to leave, she said to Penelope and me, “I bless you in the name of Jesus.”

I came home from Pride both elated and disturbed. Christians, like gay people, are familiar with proclaiming victory year after year and yet never really seeing it come. My reading for that Sunday was from Paul’s letter to the Romans. I turned to chapter 8 and read:

“What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I bless you in the name of Jesus.

© J. E. Knowles

Monday, June 4, 2007

Washroom police

By now, the story is a familiar one. A youthful woman, marooned in the 905, heads for the door marked "Women." The usual skirted pictogram is missing from the door Of course, this woman bears no resemblance to the pictogram anyway.

"This is the women's room," says the self-appointed washroom monitor who meets her. Perhaps she thinks the woman cannot read.

"I know, that's why I'm here," comes the testy rejoinder.

Really, that should be the end of it, but no. "What do you mean, that's why you're here?"

In the past, I have been flabbergasted by such incidents. Why am I the one who feels uncomfortable, although it is the other person who is being incredibly rude? Later, I have thought of many things to say in return. But this time, I gave her four sweet words: "Mind your own business."

Sure, I could have said worse, much worse. I have been storing up these insults since I was fourteen years old and still not wearing makeup or the right kind of earrings. This was in the American South, and Southern speech, like French, is laced with small courtesies. So I've been called "sir" more times than I can count. But is that rudeness, or just misplaced politeness? I always want to say "Thank you, ma'am" (if it's a man). Many times, however, it's the women who are the rudest ones. (Incidentally, I've never known a French speaker to make this mistake.)

Maybe it's my Southern background, but I think courtesy is undervalued. So it really isn't my natural instinct to be insulting. I'm still surprised, and offended, when grown human beings flout the rules of adult interaction. If you have a problem with the way someone else looks or acts or what s/
he does, at least keep it to yourself!

I have no interest whatsoever in imagining what it is about my appearance that causes someone else to lose all manners. This goes beyond rudeness, though. For lack of a better word, it's really sexist.

Sexism is often reduced to mean discrimination by men against women. I think that definition is itself sexist. What I mean by sexism is anytime one person can't handle another's failure to conform to gender expectations, whatever they may be. Anyone can be sexist, in this sense. And anyone can be the target of sexism.

For the washroom monitor, who clearly doesn't get out much, a baseball cap was enough to send her running for the smelling salts. But other gender expectations can have more serious consequences.

There is a Peggy Seeger song based on the statement "You can't be an engineer because you are a woman." I think this sounds an awful lot like "You can't be her lover because you are a woman." "You can't be his lover because you are a man." "I won't let you go about your business, because I can't decide what I think your gender is (as if you owe me an explanation)."

Homophobia is a particularly virulent form of this, because everyone gets heated up when sexuality is involved. Centuries of history have accustomed people to dictating the sexual behaviour of others, and they get especially offended when their gender expectations in this area aren't met.

But intolerance for any sexual minority is intimately tied up with sexism. The basic problem is making gender an issue in all kinds of areas that are nobody else's business. Is being told that you can't marry the person of your choice because you are a woman fundamentally different from being told that you can't wear skirts because you are a man? In my fantasies, if everyone (including me) could get over their own sexist expectations, homophobia would disappear.

But I am realistic enough to know that prejudice is not just going to disappear. Some attitudes really will change. Ignorance can be overcome, but prejudice remains. If people cannot get comfortable with the existence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in their world, then the least they can do is shut up about it. This is where courtesy could really make a comeback.

If I have nothing better to do than guess the gender of someone going into a washroom, I'll decide based on which door the person actually goes in. If my guess turns out to have been wrong, it's my mistake.

We want to be out and proud. We want to hold hands, kiss, wear gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered on our T-shirts and be "in your face." We want to say, in the words of the old hymn, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!" But truly, there are some people out there who are just beyond hope. The best they deserve is a good old-fashioned "Mind your own business!"

Originally published in Xtra!
© 2002 J. E. Knowles

Thursday, May 3, 2007

There go the ships

Howard Moltz, who died a year or so ago, was a professor at the University of Chicago.

His field was biopsychology, but he had a side interest in the Hebrew scriptures, which is how I ended up in two of his classes. He taught two of the most radical parts of the Bible: the books of the prophets, and Job and Ecclesiastes, which challenge the goodness of God in a world of evil and seeming futility.

It was Mr. Moltz (no one at the U of C went by "Prof." or "Dr.") who introduced me to the Biblia Hebraica and the Oxford University Hebrew-English dictionary, both of which I would eventually study myself. He pointed out many interesting things in the Bible that another reader might have overlooked.

Recently I was reading Psalm 104, and came across this verse about God making the sea and its creatures: "There go the ships, and Leviathan that you made to sport in it."

Leviathan is the mythological sea monster, but from the divine perspective, he is like "God's rubber duck."

That's what Mr. Moltz said.
May his memory be a blessing.

Reading: The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon is a movie ("The Big Chill for the '90s") about an ensemble of people, all of whom go to the Grand Canyon in Arizona and experience something bigger than themselves.

It is also a song by Susan Ashton, in which the Grand Canyon represents the gulf between the human and the divine.

I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on Holy Saturday, the day when, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was harrowing hell. From down there, in the heat, looking up, I heard Susan Ashton's song a different way. It felt to me like being somewhere so big was rather like being very close to God.

Reading: Dupont Circle by Paul Kafka-Gibbons
The Gospel of John
The Vision of Theodorus Verax by Bryce Blair

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The eighteenth century

I am not a formal student of literature. In fact, I've taken exactly one English class since high school, and that was only to impress a girl.

The "long" eighteenth century (starting in the 1660s) was a great time for literature, though. Women were back on the stage, Nell Gwynn was running around with the king of England, the novel was invented, and satire bloomed. The comedy of manners (with character names like Flit and Flounce, the women of the town) came over from continental Europe. Life was good.

Reading: William Wycherley
The Gentleman Dancing-Master
The Country Wife
The Plain Dealer
(not to be confused with the Cleveland newspaper of the same title)

Friday, March 9, 2007

Blessed Assurance

A Moral Tale
by Allan Gurganus

You've got to hand it to this guy: he can do titles. Naming this story after a Fanny J. Crosby hymn is a stroke of something close to genius. And a book called Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, well...

Read. Read, read, read.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Everything that rises must converge

What can I say about Flannery O'Connor? Known for one novel (Wise Blood) and some of the most admired short stories certainly of twentieth-century America, she was a Southerner who almost never left home, except for a brief stint in New York as, of all things, an advertising copywriter.

She was Roman Catholic and a fierce moral sensibility infuses her work, but it can't be called "religious" or even hopeful.

Her stories are terribly bleak, yet a descriptive line can cut so sharply I find myself laughing out loud.

She had autoimmune disease and died at the age of thirty-nine.

She's quotable as hell, but I will limit myself to one: "What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can't believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God."

- Habit of Being

Much more at

Reading: The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers' Workshop
The Gospel of Luke

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

High tech

For someone who learned to type on a Royal manual standard typewriter that weighed about as much as I did at the time, computers are a wonderful thing.

To be sure, I can't quite get over the feeling that a computer is *work*. Spending my evenings downloading music files, or "surfing the Net" (a phrase that is now years old and so might as well date from ancient Greece), holds little appeal. The usefulness of computers for the business of writing, though, is undeniable. Researching anything is much easier with the Internet than it ever was before. There is no excuse for not knowing an editor's name when the publisher has a Web site.

And, of course, there's the unprecedented and amazing possibility that someone I've never heard of--or have, and admire--or someone who wouldn't write me a letter if you tied a pen to his or her hand--will see a blurb or a post and e-mail: Hey, how interesting, what else have you got?

Reading: Mark

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ash Wednesday

"Surely, if there is sin, it must be that--to throw life away as if it were nothing."
--Tomorrow's Promise

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Here is the real statistic to watch:

According to a March 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, down from 63 percent in February 2004.

Fifty-one percent is a bare majority. Canada was there in the last 10 years.

Twelve percentage point drop in two years is amazing.

Reading: Tyrannic Love, or The Royal Martyr by John Dryden

Monday, February 5, 2007

Left Behind

I haven't read more than a few pages of the LaHaye/Jenkins series (just shelved many, many copies at a public library). And it is probably my literary (as opposed to theological) bias, but I don't find the popularity of this series quite as alarming as many commentators, particularly in Britain, seem to. It looks to me like a parallel to the phenomenal success of other "Christian/inspirational" genre publishing, such as romances.

Genres like thrillers and romances are enormously popular as entertainment, but there is a large market of folks who are uncomfortable with certain conventions, like the context of sex in a traditional romance. So they buy these other series. I think readers buy these apocalyptic books because they want to read thrillers, but regular thrillers make them uncomfortable, so they substitute Satan and God for the bad/good guys in, say, Tom Clancy.

Certainly, if large numbers of individuals actually want to provoke Armageddon in the Middle East then that is alarming, but even most of those "true believers" are not active participants in the destruction. After all, like non-Zionist Jews before 1948, they hold that this is all in the hands of G-d and we have nothing to say about it at all.

I don't think that most readers are buying fiction because they want to enact it in their actual lives. They buy it because they are bored.

Reading: Paradise Lost by John Milton
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Fear and dread

Our text for today is a verse from Isaiah. I say it over to myself frequently, especially in recent days and weeks:

"Do not call conspiracy all that this people call conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD your God, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread."

I never used to understand the idea of "God-fearing." It seemed that fear was something very different from trust, and weren't we supposed to trust rather than fear God? But now, plagued by years of adult anxieties, I have a somewhat different idea.

We all have fear and dread; the question is, is it worth it? Do we direct it towards something like nuclear war (how twentieth century of me), which we cannot control and which may never happen? What a waste of worry that would be. (Thanks to my seventh-grade language arts teacher for pointing this out.)

One of the points of having a God is that "he" is big enough to be worth our fear and trust. Yes, of course I hear Richard Dawkins saying this is a delusion. I respect Dawkins, but as an evangelical preacher--which, for atheism, he is--not a practicing scientist. He hasn't done original research in years.

The point of this delusion, if that is what it is, is that it is insulated from time. The fear and dread are not linked to today's conspiracy theories or the woes of this particular generation. There is far more at stake in this universe of grace than that.

Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle
Sidney Godolphin

Thursday, January 18, 2007

In other words

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in America last week. Reading (let alone listening to) MLK's sermons, sometimes called "speeches," is a reminder that others often say it better than I do. So, from the sublime to the ridiculous, here are a few others' words:

(MLK on his opposition to the war in Vietnam) "This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men…?"

Lillian Hellman in her memoir, Scoundrel Time: "The traceries from what you were to what you became are always too raw and too simple."

Reading: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

"In my experience, the world's happiest man is a young professor building bookcases"

Finally, I suggest going to Opinionated Lesbian and scrolling down to February 28, 2005 11:03 AM
Shallow book reviewers

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Why'd you come to Canada?

I am asked this question probably more often than any other, once people realize that I'm American. (Clarification: Although I now have Canadian as well as U.S. citizenship, I have a hard time thinking of myself or my writing as anything other than American. It's just where I'm coming from.)

The people who ask this are themselves Canadian, and I wonder if Americans would ask a version of this question. I can't imagine, back in the U.S., asking an immigrant "Why'd you come to America?" In the first place, it seems rude to me, but beyond that, Americans tend to assume that everyone would live in the USA if they could. While this is not true of lots of people, there's a kind of American confidence that takes for granted what a great country the U.S. is. And, while there are also huge problems there, I do miss that confidence.

To answer the question I go one of two ways, depending on how much I want to go into it with the particular person asking:

(Short answer) Because my partner lives here.
(Long answer) I would still live in the U.S. if Penelope (the "partner" referred to above) had an unrestricted right to live there with me (and if she wanted to). Unfortunately, one of the problems with the U.S. is that federal law (which governs immigration) does not recognize any relationship whatsoever existing between two women, although we have shared our lives for more than fourteen years. For the first half of those years, we did not share a home, or indeed even a country. She is British, and Britain is where we met. In those days, Britain was almost as unwilling to recognize a same-sex relationship as the U.S. still is. Other people have found other solutions, but ours was to find a country where 1) at least one of us could immigrate in her own right, and 2) the other, if necessary, could be recognized as the first one's partner so that we could end up in the same country together.

The country that met those criteria, at that time (2000), was Canada. We do not know if our relationship was taken into account when we immigrated, or if we simply both qualified.

I get very, very tired of people born in Canada, invariably white like me, making comments about "immigrants" when they clearly haven't the first idea what it takes to get into this country. I feel that I have more in common with others who have come to Canada in search of a better life than I do with these people. Just because we look alike and our first language is English, they spout this xenophobia. It reminds me of the things people say about gays when they aren't aware the person they're speaking to is gay.

Because people rarely know these things unless they've dealt with them personally, here are a few important facts:
1) Immigrating even to a relatively welcoming country like Canada is a long, hard, expensive process. Laws change all the time and then you have to start over. In fact, under current regulations, with the education and experience I had in 2000, I would probably not be allowed in myself.
2) Some of the United States, and some cities, have started to recognize same-sex relationships and even marriages. Unfortunately, this does not help anyone whose partner is not American. Immigration law is federal and the federal government is not particularly keen on either gays or immigrants right now.
3) A good organization working to change these laws is Immigration Equality.

Reading: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Monday, January 8, 2007

Conception and birth

No, this is not a comment on that highly politicized subject of when life begins. I am talking about an altogether different kind of giving birth--to a story. At this very earliest of stages, there is no story yet and no guarantee that there ever will be one. It is more like flirting in a bar. I'm there with a character or two, our eyes meet, and I wonder, Who are they? What is their story? Will I get to find out? And, on a long and possibly tortuous (and torturous) journey of meeting and dating, we just may get to the point of conceiving a new book.

Or not.

There may be a faster, better, more efficient way of getting through this process, but I can only trust that the way that's worked for me in the past will work again.

Reading: The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton
"Let me tell you, scholar, that Diogenes walked on a day, with his friend, to see a country fair; where he saw ribbons, and looking-glasses, and nut-crackers, and fiddles, and hobby-horses, and many other gimcracks; and, having observed them and all the other finnimbruns that make a complete country fair, he said to his friend, 'Lord, how many things are there in this world of which Diogenes hath no need?'"


Poets & Writers magazine

The mystery novelist Anne Perry reminds us to write not what we know, but what we care about. We can always find out what we don't know, but if we don't care, how can we make anyone else?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

A reading year

My main concerns, here as in life, are reading and writing. In that order, because readers make writers. This is true in two senses. First, writers are writing for readers. We may not get them but we all hope for them. I doubt anyone is satisfied doing it solely for him- or herself.

Second, I will bet that most, if not all, writers got into this habit because we love (or loved) to read. We loved a book that would take us somewhere, or make us forget how boring our life otherwise was, and we dream of doing this for some stranger. If you are a writer and have gotten out of the habit of reading, get back in! Call it "research" if you must--if your Protestant ethic is even more troubling than mine--but have a book on your bedside table. One that, unlike some presidents, you are actually reading.

Waging a rearguard struggle against forgetting all the other languages I've ever studied, I try to spend a few minutes each day reading biblical Hebrew. For years now, I've been laboring through the Psalms. The Psalms, of course, are poems, and poetry is notoriously difficult to translate; its forms are specific to the language it's written in (not that this isn't true of all literature). If you're familiar with any Psalms in English translation, for example, you may know that one of the structures of this poetry is parallel lines; for example:

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

There are also acrostics and all sorts of other difficulties that are lost in translation. I manage about three verses a day.

Whereas a Psalm such as the twenty-third has sustained generations through experiences like trench warfare, a thriller or romance can be relied on to entertain us during tedious journeys or sleepless nights. I've (belatedly) discovered both in Radclyffe's Honor series. A writer can get away with a heck of a lot if, no matter what, the reader has to keep turning the pages. If I'm engrossed in the story, if I have to know what happens next or how the heroine and heroine are going to get together...The other end of the spectrum from poetry, as it were.

Like the sugar on raisin bran.