Cynthia Bond on the bisexual themes of “Ruby” and the Oprah effect

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Cynthia Bond is the out bisexual author of the best-selling novel Ruby. The book saw massive success after being selected as part of Oprah’s Book Club in March, and Cynthia’s life is now so busy, she jokes she knows why people say “I need a wife!”

“I’m going to Abu Dhabi in May,” she said after an appearance at the LA LGBT Center’s Women Health & Wellness Fair. “I got invited. The royal family has a book club and they want me to come and speak at their book club!”

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For the last 15 years, Cynthia has been teaching writing to homeless and at-risk queer youth at the LGBT Center, and says parts of her experience with the teens wove their way into the tapestry that is Ruby. The novel (which Cynthia said was originally 900 pages and is now being split up into a trilogy, Ruby being the first) follows the characters of Ruby Bell and Ephram Jennings as their lives intertwine in a small, mostly black town in rural Texas during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. It’s a brutal book at times, with a lot of physical and sexual violence against women (some as young as six years old), but beautifully composed. It’s largely a love story, as readers hope Ephram and Ruby will conquer the demons (both imagined and in human form) to find a way to be together in one of the only truly loving relationships either one of them has ever had.

Interestingly, no reviews of discussions of the book have touched upon the bisexual themes that are mentioned throughout, which is likely because the major relationship is heterosexual.

“My character is bisexual, I mean she’s involved with men and women, ” Cynthia said. “There was a short story that my book was basically based on and that was in an anthology of lesbian writing, published by Anchor. And so there was a kind of political thing, I think, among some of the writers because it is a love story between a man and a woman. But these are the characters that came to me and Ruby’s first love is Maggie, who is her cousin. And Maggie stays with her throughout the entire book, in one form or another.”

Ruby spends a part of her life in New York City where she meets a woman, Abby Millhouse, who becomes her lover. Although she never addresses being bisexual, Cynthia said it’s more to do with the time she was a part of than any shame or denial.

“You don’t have these defining conversations [back then],” Cynthia said. “Although there’s a whole section dealing with the whole Stonewall gay/lesbian clubs in New York and there are these cops called Batman and Robin, and those cops, actually—I took them from the young people I worked with [at the Center]. Those cops really existed and they used to beat up the homeless, gay and lesbian kids—specifically the gender outlaws. They would really, really beat them up. Ruby’s partner, Abby Millhouse, has been beaten up by Batman and Robin before and they almost killed her. So there’s a scene with Ruby and Abby and these cops. Ruby actually says on one page—she talks about the butches in that area and how they were the best men she’d ever known. Really the only real sex scene in the book is between two women so it is kind of odd [no one talks about it].”

Ruby’s time spent in gay New York was inspired, Cynthia says, by one of her teachers, author John Rechy.

“[He] was a teacher of mine for many years and his book City of Night was a seminal book about gay life,” she said. “[That section] is really an homage to John Rechy.”

Most of the sex in the book is rape and non-consensual, and Ruby is severely abused by both men and women throughout her life. It’s hard for her to trust Ephram, who has the best intentions for her.

“It is their love story,” Cynthia said. “They love each other, they are connected, but it has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with soul and spirit.”

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Ephram also has a sexual relationship with a male friend when he’s younger, but once caught by his father, is quick to learn those kinds of feelings are unacceptable. 

“He’s with his friend Gubber. Nobody ever talks about that but part of it is that, at that time, those distinctions weren’t that clear in this sort of anachronistic town,” Cynthia said. 

There’s also a story told in town about a woman who left her family for the “homosexual lifestyle,” and how her family tricked her into coming home so they could give her a kind of exorcism.

“[She] went off, left her home and started living with a woman and the church kind of captured her and kept her in a basement and basically tried to brainwash her into coming back,” Cynthia said. “She ended up dying because of this. The Christians in this book are very very oppressive and I really pulled that from the Christian right.”

Cynthia said that being bisexual, just like her being black, factors into everything she writes, but that she’s also a “craftsperson…[who wants] to create a strong story.” She credits out playwright Jim Pickett with telling her “When you’re writing, you don’t write to promote a message; you write to create a book and a piece of artwork. But through that, all that you are and all of your messages wind through.” Which is exactly what you can expect from Ruby, which is semi-autobiographical but also a work of gorgeous literary fiction.

And now that Oprah has taken notice of Ruby, Cynthia’s life has changed.

“I was teaching class and I stepped out and got this phone call: ‘Cynthia, this is Oprah Winfrey,'” Cynthia said. “I screamed and everybody stared at me like I was crazy. But then I talked to her and she told me she loved it and I couldn’t tell anyone except my mom. So I couldn’t tell my kid! I couldn’t tell anyone. And then I started, when it came out, we went from being I think like #60,000 on Amazon, to get on the New York Times bestsellers list, #7 in a week.”

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And while she’s still working on the follow-up to Ruby, Cynthia is also about to start writing the screenplay. (The film adaptation has been optioned by Harpo.) 

“I’m learning to balance my life in a new way,” Cynthia said. “I’m a mom! It doesn’t matter if god calls me, I have to make it to the violin recital.” 

It was great to see Cynthia still make time for the LGBT Center that has inspired her (and vice versa) for last several years of her life, as she spoke to a theater full of women earlier this month, encouraging them to use art and writing to not just be survivors of life, but thrivers, no matter what kind of personal pain they might have endured. She especially wants queer women to know these kinds of things, because, Oprah success or not, she is one of us.

“I’m a bisexual woman, my partner and I have been together five years,” Cynthia said. “I met her at the Center. We have kids, we have promise rings, we want to get married. That’s my life!”

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