In Their Own Words: Part 1


In poems, short stories,
graphic novels — really, in just about every genre you can imagine — LGBT
writers tell stories that make us laugh, cry and, occasionally, feel a little
more at home in the world. On May 29, some of this year’s best LGBT writing
will be honored at the 20th Annual Lambda Literary Awards.

To join in the
celebration, we asked 12 of the world’s best lesbian/bi writers to talk about
the genres in which they tell their stories. They answered our questions via
email, and we’re presenting their responses here in their own words.

Our two-part article
begins with today’s interviews with young-adult novelist Nancy Garden, short-story
writer Amy Bloom, comic-book author and illustrator Ariel Schrag, poet Joan
Larkin, novelist Charlotte Mendelson and romance author Karin Kallmaker.

Nancy Garden: Young Adult Literature

Best known for the young-adult classic Annie On My Mind, Nancy Garden has written more than two
dozen works, including nonfiction, mystery and fantasy for children and young
adults. Name a
few YA books or authors that inspired you to write in this genre.

Nancy Garden: Way back in the 1950s when I was around 16, in love with a
girl (to whom I am now legally married and with whom I’ve been living for
nearly 40 years), and beginning to realize I might be lesbian, I searched
largely in vain for books that might help me figure myself out. But there were
none available for kids, and for a while all I could find were cheap paperback
novels with lurid covers in which the lesbian character ended up committing
suicide, dying in a car crash, being sent to a mental institution, or being
wooed and won by a straight man.

I know now that many of those books were written for men, but by adult
lesbians, and that the only way such books could get published was for the
lesbian character to be in some way "punished" at the end. Even so,
many books of that kind were read and enjoyed by lesbians who were grateful to
find any books at all about characters like themselves. But although I read
them avidly as a teenager, they disturbed me and made me angry and discouraged.

Finally, though, I found The Well
of Loneliness
, written by Radclyffe Hall and published in England in
1928. It’s melodramatic and sentimental, but it’s also honest, and gave a
picture of lesbian life in that era that showed that lesbians were good people
(and that there were quite a lot of them!).

Radclyffe Hall made it clear that when lesbians were downtrodden victims
it was because of the ignorance and bigotry of others, not through any fault or
defect of their own. The Well of Loneliness
ends sadly, but with an impassioned plea for justice and understanding that
made me vow to write a book someday about a lesbian that would end happily.
After several false starts, I finally did — Annie
On My Mind,
published in 1982. How
has YA literature developed or changed in recent years, especially in regard to
portrayals of lesbians and bisexuals?

NG: There are very few YA books or stories with bisexual characters,
unfortunately. Sarah Ryan’s Empress of
the World
is the only one I know of with female characters; this is
certainly an area that needs expanding! The same, by the way, is true of
transgender characters, although there’s a bit more now for them.

The good news is that now, at last, more and more YA books are being
published in which the lesbian character is in no way a victim. Even if a
lesbian character encounters homophobia, she usually comes through it with
strength and pride. Our books, too, are beginning to deal with universals as
much as they deal with being gay — universals as experienced by young lesbians.

Also, more LGBT books are being published now for teens than ever before.
But the bad news is that books for and about gay boys outnumber those for and
about young lesbians — as (sigh!) they just about always have. Do you
have any suggestions for women aspiring to write YA novels?

NG: First of all, read YA
novels — lots and lots of them. Read whatever YAs intrigue you when you browse
in bookstores and libraries (which of course you do regularly!), and also read
Printz Award winners, Margaret A. Edwards Award winners, and everything you can
find that’s been on ALA’s Best Books lists.

Stay as closely in touch with teens themselves as you can, especially if
you want to write contemporary fiction — but beware of sticking too closely in
your writing to fads in language, dress, music and other elements of popular
culture. Remember that they all go out of date quickly and you want your books
to last!

But most important of all, write what you truly want to write — write
about what moves you, about what’s close to your heart, what you yourself would
like to read.

And be careful that your characters are individuals, not types, and not
mouthpieces for your "messages" about gay rights and homophobia. It’s
tempting to have one’s characters preach about how cruel homophobia is and how
unfairly lesbians often get treated, but your job as a novelist is primarily to
tell a story. Show injustice if that’s what you want to write about. Don’t just
tell about it and point out how bad it is. Show how it happens to your
characters and how they handle it.
Remember that the book belongs to your characters, not to you. It’s their story
and you need to let them act it out.

Next page: Amy Bloom on short stories

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