People often ask how I come up with three books about or for
lesbians to feature in this column each month. Though at first I thought it was
going to be a daunting task, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the
opposite is actually true. If there is a theme to this month’s column, it’s
simply that there are in fact a lot of genuinely rich, interesting and engaging
books out there to pick up from. I wish I had time to read more of them.
For now, here are some of my recent favorites, published in
the last few years: Babyji by Abha
Dawesar; Miss McGhee by Bett Norris;
and The Niagara River, a collection
of poetry by the recently appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan.
Babyji by Abha Dawesar (Anchor Books)
You know the kind of book that interrupts your life? You’re
supposed to be doing work or washing the dishes or going to bed, but you just
can’t put down the book. You’re sitting at a dinner party surrounded by lovely
people and good conversation, but all you can think about it is how you want to
go home, cuddle up on the couch and jump back into this imaginary world. Abha
Dawesar’s Babyji is that kind of
Set in Delhi, India, Babyji
is the coming-of-age story of Anamika Sharma, an extremely clever student getting
ready to graduate from high school. Anamika tries to use her vast knowledge of
quantum physics to make sense of her world, and like many people her age, she
is filled with plenty of questions.
What ultimately makes Anamika such a compelling narrator is
how she goes about trying to find the answers — answers to questions about the
difference between love and lust, good and evil, the effects of class and
gender, and what it means to live life to its fullest.
The book opens with Anamika taking on three (yes, three) lovers:
her family’s beautiful servant, who is of a lower caste; an older divorcée whose younger son is applying to
Anamika’s school; and the prettiest girl in Anamika’s class.
Certainly all three women keep Anamika busy. Dawesar deftly weaves
Anamika’s attempts to manage the relationships — and the secrecy each requires for
very different reasons — with the other pressing questions in her life.
In the midst of everything, Anamika’s last year of school is
interrupted when students from all around the country begin to set themselves
on fire to protest the Mandal Commission, which is considering a program that
would require universities to offer more spots to students of lower castes.
Though Anamika is the head prefect of her school and an
accomplished student, her privileged status as a Brahmin could now jeopardize
her chances to get into a good university, and she must consider her other
options, including ones that may lead her away from home.
Anamika’s gift and primary tool is her intelligence, but she
is also extremely young and naïve. She makes mistakes, some that are
destructive. She takes advantage of people and situations. She tries to save
everyone in her life, especially a particularly vicious classmate of a lower
caste whom she can’t help but relate to. All of this makes her that much more
interesting and complex.
Dawesar is also the author of That Summer in Paris and Miniplanner.
She has won numerous awards, including the American Library Association’s
Stonewall Award in 2006. Babyji was
the recipient of the Lambda Literary Award in 2005, and French
producer-director Claude Berri optioned film rights for the book. Keep your
Miss McGhee by Bett Norris (Bywater Books)
Bett Norris’ debut novel, Miss McGhee, is also a hard one to put down. The book follows Mary
McGhee, a young woman trying to find herself in the wake of World War II, through
the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In her late 20s and still struggling with the past, Mary
attempts to create a new life for herself by moving south to Myrtlewood, Ala.,
a sleepy town where it’s hard to get away with just about anything.
Mary is an outsider in nearly every sense of the word —
she’s an unmarried Northerner with a funny accent. Nonetheless, she is able to
find work as a secretary at the local lumber mill where she soon realizes that
the job will require more than she expected. The deceased owner’s inept son,
Tommie Dubose, manages the mill, and it falls on Mary to keep things afloat — quietly,
of course, so as not to stir any of the millworkers who are threatened by her
being a woman.
In her efforts, Mary recruits the help of Tommie’s wife,
Lila. Though the women are very different, many people in the town also
ostracize Lila because of her husband’s wealth and status. The two quickly form
a bond that turns intimate. Lila is an intelligent woman, but her experience is
limited, and it takes Mary’s influence to get her thinking about the world in a
Norris tells the story of these two women falling in love
and navigating the enormous restrictions surrounding their relationship against
the backdrop of the town’s segregated African-American community. After years
of living in secrecy and fear, Mary and Lila eventually join forces with the
civil rights movement.
Miss McGhee is a
tender, complicated love story filled with real hurdles and triumphs. It is an
absolutely engaging read that captures the pulse of our country during a very
unique moment in its history.