This month we feature three books that explore the fluidity of gender and sexuality, including Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, Lynn Breedlove’s Godspeed and T Cooper’s Lipshitz 6, or Two Angry Blondes. Woolf’s classic was published 80 years ago, but as our understanding of gender continues to grow, contemporary writers such as Cooper and Breedlove, among others, add new insights and perspectives to the discussion. In all three books, gender is not assumed, nor is it a burden. Rather, gender, like sexuality, is something to discover, define and, at times, redefine.
"But listen; suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita; and its (sic) all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind?" The quote comes from a letter that Virginia Woolf wrote to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, as she was beginning her famous gender-bending novel Orlando.
Orlando was published in 1928, the same year Radclyffe Hall was charged with obscenity for the lesbianism depicted in her book, The Well of Loneliness. Woolf was able to escape persecution primarily because Orlando changes from a man to a woman.
The book spans four decades — from 1588 to 1928 — though Orlando ages only 36 years. As a young man, he is brought into Queen Elizabeth’s court to work and to serve as her lover. He is a poet, however, who spends most of his time gallivanting around London and trying to amuse himself at pubs. During the Great Frost he notices and eventually falls in love with the androgynous princess Sasha (based on West’s other lover, Violet Trefusis). When Sasha betrays Orlando, he travels to Constantinople, where he becomes a duke.
It is here that Orlando falls into a trance and emerges as a woman. Everything about her other than her body, though, is the same, and Orlando is not distressed. One of the many assumptions Woolf challenges is the idea that people are either completely female or male. Orlando uses this transformation as a way to experience the world from a different perspective — "It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of woman’s dress and of a woman’s sex."
Orlando next finds herself in the 19th century. It’s the Victorian Age — oppressive and prudish — and she decides to follow the reigning traditions of the day and marry a man. Shortly after the marriage, she wakes up and it is the year 1928 — Woolf’s present day.
In this last section, Orlando considers her multiple lives, and as she tries to discover her true identity begins to see that she is actually composed of different selves. She has had the unique opportunity to experience the world as both a man and a woman. Additionally, by embodying these different selves, she knows what it means to love a woman and to love a man.
Throughout the novel, Orlando is neither exclusively feminine nor masculine — s/he "detested household matters" and did not have "a man’s love of power," yet "could not endure to see a donkey beaten or a kitten drowned." As a man, his soft complexion and “shapely legs” are admired. As a woman, she is equally androgynous. Still, the change in her wardrobe has a profound impact on how she experiences the world and, perhaps more significantly, how the world experiences her.
In the format of Orlando, Woolf mimics traditional biographies and their attempt to capture an entire life. But Orlando is a sprawling and witty epic, a complex and yet oddly straightforward exploration of sexuality and gender.
"The difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity," Woolf writes in the book. "Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the make or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above."
Godspeed by Lynn Breedlove (St. Martin’s Griffin)
There are certain topics that are difficult to write about — for example, love, sex, family and, I imagine, the rush of speed as it charges through your veins. In Lynn Breedlove’s Godspeed, speed addict and butch bike messenger Jim reflects on all of this and more while navigating San Francisco’s hilly terrain.
Jim uses the male pronoun — "gender’s a box you turn inside out, tear up, and sew a gown out of" — and though he is in love with a stripper named Ally, he can’t kick his addiction despite her threats to leave. After an argument involving 20 dollars spent on drugs rather than Chinese takeout, Ally finally makes good on her promise, and the two split up.
The separation fuels Jim’s downward spiral and sends him to New York City as a band roadie. He settles down with a group of transfolk and begins to date other women, but he can’t stop thinking about Ally and tries to sober up — besides, he observes, "they don’t do speed here because NYC itself is speed."