‘Loving Her’ – Ann Allen Shockley is a Pioneer of Lesbian Fiction

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Ann Allen Shockley and her writing, complicated though it may be, are part of the spectrum of lesbian stories out there in the world – and deserve to be acknowledged as such.

I was browsing the Feminist Library’s bookshop when I found it. The lurid red edging to the pages caught my eye, and the cover art – a hazy Mills & Boon style depiction of two women in a field of flowers – did the rest. It was, to put not too fine a point on it, exactly the kind of gay trash that calls to me like a beacon: Loving Her, by Ann Allen Shockley. The blurb boasted of an “intense, erotic novel of a Black woman’s discovery of love and awareness in the arms of another woman.” I was immediately intrigued. Since getting a card at Glasgow Women’s Library, I had developed a mild obsession with lesbian romances of the ‘70s and ‘80s, borrowing book after book after book with a sense of embarrassment that faded with each story – and yet Loving Her was the first full-length work of lesbian fiction from that era I’d found with a Black author and a Black protagonist.

Ann Allen Shockley broke barriers within lesbian representation, yet her writing is typically overlooked when we talk about books that changed the course of lesbian literature. In 1974 she published Loving Her, the first known novel to explore – in no uncertain terms – an interracial romance between two women. Given the significance of her work, it seems unthinkable that Ann Allen Shockley should go unrecognised as a ground-breaking lesbian writer. Jewelle Gomez wrote that “…for Black Lesbians”, Loving Her “…was like reading The Well of Loneliness [Radclyffe Hall, 1928] for the first time as teenagers and realizing there were ‘others’ out there.” Yet Shockley is not often credited as a pioneer of lesbian fiction, whereas Hall is.

While the ever-present issue of lesbian erasure plays a part in covering up Shockley’s significance, there are other factors standing in the way of her being acknowledged as a trailblazer. The first of those factors is race.

During the 1970s, when the second wave of feminism was in full flow, there was a golden era of lesbian fiction – and, unlike the pulp fiction that came before it, pretty much all of these romances were written by lesbian women. For the first time ever, significant numbers of women were in a position to publish stories inspired by the way they lived, loved, and had sex with other women. And while many of these novels had more than a dash of melodrama in them, Shockley’s included, this added a certain charm to the character of lesbian fiction – a quality that is alive and well within the genre today. A little camp, a lot of drama: these books continue to be intensely readable, partially due to their cultural significance to lesbian women but mostly because they’re such good fun. And yet they’re not all remembered as game-changing.

Of that era it is the writing by lesbian authors like Katherine V. Forrest (Curious Wine), Jane Rule (Desert of the Heart), and Isabel Miller (Patience and Sarah) that is cherished – books you could plausibly pick up and read from start to finish without ever once encountering women of colour as minor characters, let alone a protagonist or love interest. Ann Allen Shockley not only wrote Black lesbian main characters, but put them in situations where race was visible, relationships where race had to be dealt with as part of the dynamic. Then and now, much of the lesbian fiction written by white women has a tendency to pretend that race doesn’t exist by making everybody white: if only white lesbians are present and accounted for, the messy business of racial politics doesn’t get in the way of a straightforward – if protracted – love story. Shockley defied white literary convention just as surely as she flouted the straight narrative of love.

Interracial love doesn’t magically solve racism any more than biracial babies dismantle the workings of white supremacy, and yet it was an explosive subject even within the context of straight relationships – so there is something remarkable about Shockley, an African-American woman, weaving this theme into her lesbian fiction.

Though interracial relationships still generate a level of controversy, Loving Her was published only a few years after the Loving v. Virginia case, which led to the Supreme Court making interracial marriage legal in the USA. Interracial love doesn’t magically solve racism any more than biracial babies dismantle the workings of white supremacy, and yet it was an explosive subject even within the context of straight relationships – so there is something remarkable about Shockley, an African-American woman, weaving this theme into her lesbian fiction.

Another reason Shockley isn’t recognised in the same way as her peers is because her writing can be uncomfortable to read. Part of lesfic’s popularity as a genre comes from the promise of light, escapist love stories. Whereas Shockley, in a style that is sweeping and uncushioned by subtlety, uses her writing to explore unsettling, challenging politics. No lesbian romance has ever made me feel half as uncomfortable as a tale within The Black and White of It, Shockley’s short story collection, which shows a relationship between the white mistress of a plantation and an enslaved Black woman who is quite figuratively her property.

Loving Her is a difficult read, too. The novel begins with a pianist named Renay fleeing her abusive husband, Jerome Lee. And while it is essential to acknowledge and challenge male violence against women, Jerome Lee at points seems like a parody of Susan Brownmiller’s take on Black masculinity: a hypersexualised, bestial rapist. Renay leaves him for her lover, a wealthy older white woman named Terry, and an outlandish romance begins.

There are contradictions in this book, just as there are in life. From start to finish, it’s uncomfortable that a white woman being framed as a saviour from violence when, if anything, Terry is a conduit for the racism Renay experiences at the hands of her friends, neighbours, and acquaintances. The differences in their wealth and status mean that Renay feels she is losing herself in the relationship. Although Terry is horrified by the overt racism of assumptions that Renay is her live-in maid, she is content to work on her writing while Renay cooks their meals and cleans the apartment. Terry asks Renay to give up her job as a pianist, a source of fulfilment as well as financial security, and buys an expensive piano so that she need not leave their home to play – all the while celebrating that Renay is free from a controlling relationship. There are some questionable power dynamics here, with race a consistent fault line, which isn’t easy reading from any perspective.

Black women face relentless pressure to ‘pick a side’ with feminism and anti-racism, despite both sets of politics being connected and vital to our survival in this world. It’s like a tug-of-war game between white women and Black men, with us in the middle. So ultimately I could understand why Shockley came down on the side of white women, and empathise with her as a writer, even as I feel conflicted by the way she positions white women as the truly worthy subjects of Black lesbian love.

At multiple points during the story I’d catch myself wishing that Renay could live independently, have the space she needed to process the trauma of an abusive marriage, and maybe even find love with another Black woman later on. This was not to be. Black women face relentless pressure to ‘pick a side’ with feminism and anti-racism, despite both sets of politics being connected and vital to our survival in this world. It’s like a tug-of-war game between white women and Black men, with us in the middle. So ultimately I could understand why Shockley came down on the side of white women, and empathise with her as a writer, even as I feel conflicted by the way she positions white women as the truly worthy subjects of Black lesbian love.

In many ways, despite of the interludes of sex and drama, Loving Her is a challenging book. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We have to engage with lots of different lesbian perspectives, not just the ones that are easy or comfortable because they mimic our own sensibilities – otherwise, we lose something in the breadth of lesbian experience. If we don’t look at lesbian perspectives outside of our own, we risk falling into the trap of believing there’s a single authentic lesbian story, that there’s just one way to live a lesbian life, when in fact we are a rich variety of women. Ann Allen Shockley and her writing, complicated though it may be, are part of the spectrum of lesbian stories out there in the world – and deserve to be acknowledged as such.

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