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Monday musings on Australian literature: Some queer Australian writing

June 10, 2019

Well, it’s Gay (or LGBT) Pride month in the USA, and since I don’t think we have a specific national month here, I thought I’d give a little shout out to some of our queer writers. Now, I’m not sure about labelling, but Readings bookshop posted three years ago on “queer reads”, while Wikipedia has a category called LGBT Writers from Australia and the Australian Women Writers challenge has a list for Lesbian and Queer Women Writers. I have settled on queer for the title of this post, which I hope is acceptable.

That was the first decision. The next concerned how to narrow this post down to something that would be interesting but not too long. This involved some arbitrary decisions. One was to focus on fiction (including verse novels). This means no memoirs or other forms of writing. The other was to focus on content rather than the writer. In other words, I think it’s worth sharing some works that put queer people in the picture, because too often their stories are hidden. The more we see that everyone’s stories have similar truths – recognising of course that some of us don’t have to hide, or face discrimination and abuse – the better our world can be. However, even with this narrowing, there are too many books, so I’ll be focusing mostly on books I’ve reviewed here, with a ring-in!

So, here’s a small selection in alphabetical order:

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone’s Bodies of men (my review): The most recently reviewed book in this list, Bodies of men is primarily a story about men and war, about what being a man is. But it is also a love story between two men, at a time when such relationships were taboo. However, while the relationship and its challenges are important, they are not, really, the defining issue that the two male protagonists confront in the novel.

Susan Hawthorne’s Limen (my review): A verse novel about two women on a camping trip, this focuses on issues and challenges external to the nature of their relationship, on changes and thresholds, physical and perhaps spiritual, to be faced.

Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stonesMargaret Merrilees’ Big rough stones (my review): Spanning roughly three decades from around 1970s on, this novel tells the lives of Ro and her lesbian sisterhood in Adelaide. While Ro’s romantic relationships form part of her story, this book more widely encompasses the feminist activism and sociopolitical concerns of those decades.

Dorothy Porter’s Monkey maskFirst published in 1997, this verse novel can, I think, be called a classic. Because I haven’t, to my shame, read it, I’m going to quote for you part of the blurb at GoodReads: “Fuelled by homicide, betrayal, and a femme fatale to go to hell for, The Monkey’s Mask is an erotic mystery novel written in verse. But forget what you know about poetry. This is not a love sonnet. From one of Australia’s most innovative writers, The Monkey’s Mask drives headfirst into murder, manipulation, and the consuming power of sex, and is a thriller to make other whodunnits seem mild”.

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverEllen van Neerven’s Heat and light (my review): This complex book, with its three separate sections, explores all sorts of indentities, with, in the middle section, a very clever exploration of “othering”. The Readings post mentioned above describes it as follows: “Many of the characters are queer and Neerven writes about sexuality with a light touch that never feels forced.”

So, a small selection, but a varied and, I think, interesting one.

Now, before I conclude, I want to discuss what was really the first decision I made in writing this post – whether to write it at all. I’m still not sure it’s the right thing to do, and yet, promoting “diversity” is seen as a good thing. Diversity, in this sense, means, recognising that people vary in such ways as “race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs”. And promoting “diversity”, of course, is seen as a good thing because, historically, the majority – white heterosexual men, in particular – have controlled the stories that are told about who we are. I get this. It’s why I like to read widely. But I’m also uncomfortable labelling people, because it feels like slotting people into boxes, suggesting that that label is all they are. So, in the interests of balance, I refer you to this excellent post by novelist Andrea Goldsmith on her blog on the whole practice of labelling LGBTQI people. She makes sense to me, and makes me almost decide to pull this post. But, I’ve written it, and I’m hoping it serves a purpose, so I’ve decided to leave it here.

What do you think?

28 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2019 11:40 pm

    To start at the end, ie Goldsmith, “LGBTQI” is often used by conservative politicians and journalists as box to be ticked. They pretend that by inserting “LGBTQI” into a discussion they have dealt substantively with the isssue.
    I agree entirely with all your post, for reasons that we have discussed elsewhere. Literature has various interesting subsets based around how authors identify themselves, and it is valid to discuss their work on those terms as well as more generally.

    • June 11, 2019 12:04 am

      Thanks Bill … it’s tricky isn’t it, but on balance I think that if the writers (of whatever “diversity” we are talking about) self-identify then there must be value in promoting their work (as long as that’s not the only way we talk about works).

  2. June 11, 2019 12:10 am

    Great post, and thank you for reminding me that I need to hunt down a copy of Heat and Light.

    My best friend, who is queer, and I keep a list of the books that we read every year and one of the “diversity” categories that we keep track of is “queer content”. I think it’s really important to recognise that there are different human experiences (as well as many, many similar ones) and highlight the impact that discrimination has had and continues to have on the LGBTIQ community.

    With all due respect to Andrea Goldsmith, and acknowledging her own lived experience, I disagree with her blog post. I think that making a blanket statement that using/identifying with the LGBTIQ community is erasing individuals and somehow contributing to/analogous to the sexualisation of women:

    a) misunderstands that T (transgender) and I (intersex) are not sexual orientations but are about gender identity and sex characteristics,

    b) fails to fully acknowledge that people who identify as part of the rainbow ARE united by their experiences of discrimination, exclusion, marginalisation and violence (see e.g. transwomen/transmen who were forced to choose between registering a change of sex on their official documents and divorcing their spouses prior to same-sex marriage being legal), and

    c) doesn’t fully appreciate that people haven’t had the label LGBTIQ foisted upon them, but rather it and the pride movement have emerged from grassroots level as a means to fight for equal rights and recognition.

    I note that she refers to “not black” or “not tall” as extreme examples of this, but people commonly use the phrase “people of colour” to refer to a range of experiences of being discriminated against directly or indirectly due to not being white, or “little person” as someone who is diagnosed with dwarfism.

    I can see where people are coming from when they say words to the effect of “identity politics gone mad”, but unfortunately, while people continue to be directly and indirectly discriminated on the basis of race, gender, orientation, disability etc. etc. I think that using labels is an effective way of understanding, describing and targeting that particular kind of discrimination as well as giving people in those communities a way to share their experiences. Of course people are more than a letter in the alphabet, but unfortunately in the society we live in they are often reduced to their orientation or gender identity and I think they deserve the language to describe their experiences and to have those stories heard.

    • June 11, 2019 12:40 am

      Thanks Angharad … you have eloquently explained why I decided to post my post anyhow. And, I completely agree with you regarding “identity politics”. I avoid using the term because it now has such pejorative connotation, but I support people arguing for their rights and have no desire to make it harder for them by using such a now-loaded term while inequities and discrimination still exist.

      It’s tricky though – and I do also understand Goldsmith’s point about not wanting to be generalised into something rather two-dimensional. Labelling has such pros and cons!

  3. June 11, 2019 12:48 am

    I had the same dilemma when I set up my diversity page. Somebody was running a ‘Diversity Bingo’ and I wanted to support the push for diversity by listing books I’d reviewed that ‘ticked those boxes’ but then I balked at the idea of labelling people by disability or skin colour. So now it just covers ethnic heritage…
    When it came to sexual diversity, I hesitated again. In addition to books that are specifically about LGBTQI life (e.g. relationships, coming-of-age &c). I think books should just include variations in sexuality as ‘part of the furniture, so to speak, and I’m noticing that this is what’s happening. I’ve just a book where a Muslim guy comes out as gay in his university year. The book’s not about him, he’s just a minor character, but his orientation is a problem for one of the major characters because he holds such rigid views and loses the friendship, (to his cost). The way this is portrayed is that gay relationships are normal and the character who won’t accept that is the one who’s not normal. I like to think that this kind of inclusive characterisation will become the norm and that eventually we won’t notice it any more because everyone will be doing it.
    Still, if someone for whatever reason is seeking out books which feature LGBTQI characters, I want to help them to find them, so I’ve got a category called gaylit/LGBTQI. It’s a bit discombobulating to read Andrea Goldsmith’s article about this, but I’m going to leave things the way they are for the time being…

    • June 11, 2019 8:05 am

      Exactly Lisa… I think as librarians we have a particular take about categorising. The tension between doing it and not, and then the actual label used if you do.

  4. June 11, 2019 6:19 am

    I feel about this issue exactly as I do about feminism.

  5. buriedinprint permalink
    June 11, 2019 6:42 am

    It’s so much more about individuals than communities, when one comes down to it, isn’t it. Hopefully, if we do offend someone, in an attempt to amplify voices too-long muted, that individual can see that it is just as likely that there is someone else who is feeling seen/included/acknowledged by the same effort/language/action.

    • June 11, 2019 8:16 am

      Exactly, Buried… And yes, you hope that people see the intention was good, though intentions can be loaded too I realise.

  6. June 11, 2019 7:29 am

    I’m glad you posted this. Anything that gets people of differing backgrounds to ‘meet’ each other, through literature, or anything else, is a positive thing. And I’m always glad to be informed of good literature that I’ve not yet come across.

  7. June 11, 2019 9:59 am

    I’m glad you did publish it – thank you! What Andrea Goldsmith says is true, of course. And she’s well enough established to be able to afford a spit. But while discrimination continues I think we alphabet dwellers (in more ways than one) need all the support we can get!

    • June 11, 2019 3:56 pm

      Thanks very much Margaret – I love the term “alphabet dwellers”. You have confirmed, at least, my thinking that “while discrimination exists” there is value in providing support to those discriminated against. There’s value too, though, isn’t there, is being very conscious of what we are doing and the useful and not so useful implications of it.

    • June 11, 2019 4:13 pm

      Hello Margaret, I loved your last book… (and the first one)… (and the one in between)… are you writing something new?

      • June 14, 2019 9:28 am

        Thank you Lisa! That was timely – I was needing an encouraging word. I’ve got a second short collection coming out in November (Further Fables Queer & Familiar) – once again illustrated by Chia Moan. They’re mainly for fun. Meanwhile, more seriously, I’m working away on another novel.

        • June 14, 2019 10:57 am

          Well, I’m glad I spoke up then!
          Happy writing:)

        • June 14, 2019 11:49 am

          Great to hear Margaret. I missed the Fables when it came out but I still remember The first week!

  8. June 11, 2019 12:03 pm

    Thanks for posting this, Sue, including your misgivings, though I don’t suppose my opinion as a heterosexual man counts for much here. But I can point to a reassuring precedent: Out of the box: Contemporary Australian gay and lesbian poets (Puncher and Wattmann 2010, my blog post at https://shawjonathan.com/2010/05/11/out-of-the-box/). I guess it predates the ascendancy of the non-acronym that Andrea Goldsmith dislikes, and that if it were compiled now would expand to embrace queer, transgender and intersex people. (Some bisexual people already counted as gay or lesbian enough!)

  9. Meg permalink
    June 13, 2019 6:47 pm

    Hi Sue, a very interesting blog, and I see the need to promote LGBT writers. Like you, I don’t like labelling people. But I also understand and agree with Goldsmith. I do like to know about good writers, and I don’t care if they are Heterosexual, or LGBT.or whatever. Monkey Mask is a brilliant read, and I did enjoy Heat and Light.

    • ian darling permalink
      June 13, 2019 7:23 pm

      I recently read a biography of Gore Vidal who battled all his life against the dictatorship of the heterosexual (his essay Pink Triangle and Yellow Star is such a fiercely scorching essay)…but was unhappy being pigeonholed as a gay writer. According to his biographer, Vidal called himself a degenerate (was he serious?) but I think he was right to point out that sexual orientation is perhaps not always central to the writer…

      • June 13, 2019 10:01 pm

        Thanks Ian … you are always a mine of information … I think that points out beautifully, doesn’t it, the challenge for gay writers. I hope he wasn’t serious but was reflecting on how others see him. I’m sure things are better now – at least it seems to me to have improved over the decades that I’ve been sentient – but we also know that there is still discrimination around.

    • June 13, 2019 9:56 pm

      Thanks Meg … it seems like most of us feel similarly. We see the point of the labelling but also wish that point didn’t need to be.

  10. June 14, 2019 12:24 pm

    What a great post – thank you. Am very happy and proud to use labels when needed or as an act of solidarity and saying this is how I experience the world and it might be different to how another experiences it, given the historical and continuing penchant for ‘othering’. There are so many intersections with other elements class, socio-economic status, disability etc that remain invisible to those who don’t need to negotiate those things. Sometimes it’s just nobody’s business. As a writer ‘dwelling in the alphabet’ (thanks Mag Merilees!) I love finding books and writers I can relate to – it’s a short cut – no need to ‘explain’ my life etc. and also to hear voices silenced, marginalised, erased, exoticised, stereotyped for so long. Let’s all of us keep talking and reading, learning and re-evaluating – what better way than through literature and through blogs like this. Thank you.

    • June 14, 2019 5:01 pm

      Ah yes, Emma, that’s really important, isn’t it – I mean being able to find books we can relate to. We all, I’m sure, like to read about experiences not our own – which is why I find categorisation useful – but I also want to read about people similar to me, to be reassured that I’m not as weird as I fear (!), or to help me understand the gamut of feelings people like me might be confronting, etc. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

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