Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
"... But an equally basic passion of mine ab initia was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite... I was from my early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands."
I first read this quotation from a letter J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldman published in a recent edition of The Silmarillion when I was about twelve years old. At the time I was too young to appreciate its full content, yet it stuck with me. Somehow I knew there was more to this plaintive, peevish paragraph than usual for english prose, so that it stuck in my mind for more reason than that I was feeling starved of half-decent stories myself. By then I had been a writer almost since learning to make letters, much to my mother's chagrin. The house copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking -Glass and What Alice Found There was getting more tattered as I caught on to more of the word plays and puzzles in it. So I was primed for a fruitful encounter with Tolkien's love of language, and his written expression of it enthralled me. However, my relationship with Tolkien's work was not destined to be an uncritical one.
In time I became a faithful re-reader of Tolkien's books, expanding beyond the "core works" to things like Leaf by Niggle and Farmer Giles of Ham. But on one fateful day, settled in again with The Silmarillion and a cup of tea, I finally threw the book down in frustration. This was great stuff, sure, but I still wanted some real stories. There were almost no female characters in the book, and those few almost exclusively stay-at-homes or temporarily feisty people. The stay-at-homes apparently went dormant and still as soon as the male gaze left them, reanimating as soon as the men came home. The temporarily feisty ones were usually "tamed" by "a good husband" which we know is a grim euphemism for something else.
Not that this is a surprise, considering when The Silmarillion was written, and Tolkien soared above what he may or may not have considered flaws himself. Still, I was tired of stories almost exclusively about men, and I was tired of depictions of women that were nonsense. For one thing, my mother may have been a real life stay-at-home, but my experience was that she became reanimated as soon as my father walked out the door in the morning, and collapsed into dormancy again when he came back. My real life feisty and awesome fifth grade teachers Mrs. Pelletier and Mrs. Wallace may or may not have been married, I honestly have no idea but they were two of the most untame women I had ever met, and that's a fact.
Having been taught that nothing comes by sitting and complaining even if that's fun, I had what could be considered a heretical thought: There's no reason women couldn't be at the centre of a cycle of myths, fairy-tales and heroic legends on the brink of history. "A" cycle because there's no such thing as one size fits all, or my copy of The Silmarillion wouldn't have been tossed. Anyway, this is a Feminist age, somebody ought to try it.
I also was taught to always try replacing "somebody" with "I" whenever I came up with an "ought to be done" statement (thanks Mrs. Pelletier!). Having talked myself into trying this out, it was time to decide how to go about it. Taking another page from Tolkien, who was informed by the real stories and deeds of Celts, Vikings, and Finns, I opted to use the stories and deeds of a familiar group of strong women as a starting point. There are many possibilities, but in this age of Xena: Warrior Princess, Amazons were the obvious choice and yes, I watched Wonder Woman too.
Therefore I went about collecting the stories and mythology already associated with the Amazons, together with relevant archaeological and anthropological data. After all, before trying to even pretend to write a myth cycle, it is necessary to uncover and/or build its substructure first. That is the ultimate purpose of this book. It doesn't simply recount all those materials, nor is it a scientific study. Probably the best way to refer to it is as "speculative fiction" which doesn't limit the expectations of what will be written in quite the same way as the "science-fiction" or "fantasy" labels. Few people realize that there are Amazon stories beyond the familiar Graeco-Roman ones, stories from independent Chinese, Cherkesian, and Ukrainian traditions, although Adrienne Mayor's recently published book Amazons is doing much to change that. They were all impressed by the Amazons' bravery, honour, and their undefeatable city.
Originally I planned to simply include my "apparatus" in terms of footnotes, references, and so forth. However, several emails made it clear to me that this was accidentally encouraging a mistaken impression that this is intended to be a literally scholarly work, analogous to Adrienne Mayor's. It isn't anything of the sort, and isn't intended to be. A key reason I wanted to include the "apparatus" was to deal with my own great frustration with Robert Graves, who wrote many interesting things in The Greek Myths, and then provided what seems to be an extensive set of pseudo-references. This means there is no simple way to tell what he made up as part of his creative retelling, and what he incorporated from other sources. To be fair, this may not be his fault, because I can find no edition of the work that includes a bibliography, and it does seem like he meant for there to be one. So I still think it is worth providing a full bibliography, and citations of direct quotes and paraphrases. But otherwise there will be no footnotes, although if any reader would like to verify the source of a specific idea, they have only to email me and I will provide the information as indeed the people who wrote those several emails did.
"The truth about stories is... that's all we are."
– Thomas King"
In 1999, still unsure where the Amazon thread was leading, I finished the first draft of what would become Chapter One. Being an early laptop adopter because I was both a lousy typist and a frequent traveller, all of my research, notes, and drafts resided on an oldish laptop, an external hard drive, and a pile of disks in storage. My travelling was encouraged by dire economic straits and the difficulties of finding a real job. In the course of one work term, budget cuts killed my chances of longer term employment, and my landlord stole my entire computer set up to pawn for gambling money. Before I left the building, the landlord handed me fifty bucks. I suspect that was all my ancient computer system was actually worth to a pawnshop owner, who couldn't have cared less that over five years of research and writing was piled haphazardly on the counter of his shop. This was still early days, when back up disks could only be read by the specific machine that had made them, so in fact I had lost everything. I would have to start all over again. The starting over took a long time, not least due to the need to get out of the dire economic straits already mentioned and reconstruct all that research.
One day, I stumbled on a recording of The Truth About Stories, a series of lectures given by author and teacher Thomas King. At the start of each lecture, he would repeat the quote at the head of this section. It's so important it bears repeating right here: "The truth about stories is... that's all we are." He didn't mean just passively received stories, insofar as there is such a thing. He also meant the ones we all create and retell, recreate and tell, whether we consider ourselves writers or not, the stories that tell us where we are in the world and how to behave in it. Every story does this, even the ones we don't take seriously or even like very much. King's lectures helped me unpack that peculiar, plaintive, peevish, paragraph Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldman. And, it helped clarify for me just what I was writing for, let alone why I was writing this specific book.
Tolkien's paragraph is more than just peculiar if you're an Indigenous two-spirited woman, as I am. From my perspective, that paragraph is downright bizarre. Here is a privileged white man of a colonizing culture that actively destroys and appropriates other peoples' stories, bemoaning his lack of access to stories he likes. Think about it. In his time, Tolkien lived immersed in a world of stories where every story he read, saw, or heard, was about him or at least, the sort of image he was expected to freely relate to and emulate. The stories he misses, the stories he wants made accessible to him, are Indigenous stories, stories "bound up with tongue and soil." Tolkien's beloved country is itself the product of repeated invasion and colonization. Colonizers act to destroy those stories, because they are the stuff of survival of the Indigenous peoples they expect to eliminate and replace so they won't feel like colonizers anymore. Furthermore, those stories encourage an attachment to place that colonizers despise, because there is always more colonizing to come, somewhere else.
By now you may be thinking, look, everybody knows stories matter. That's why we worry about censorship and despise book-burning. Unfortunately, this limited perspective misses the point. (This isn't a criticism of those who hold it, I used to hold it too.) Stories are the stuff of our very selves, so we allow the power of story-making to be taken from us at our peril. As long as we are able to make stories for ourselves and share them freely, we have the power to question and change stories that have become warped and destructive. Any member of an oppressed group has learnt this lesson first hand, and gets free refreshers every day without trying. Women have the dubious fortune of being an oppressed group across all those cultures that have been colonized by adherents of patriarchal mores. Women are encouraged to forget these human origins of their oppression by a combination of erasure of memory and independent stories plus new stories with different messages. The newer stories claim a deity said so, and anyway women are in some way inherently inferior, limited beings, not that women can help that, especially Indigenous two-spirited women.
In hindsight, I'm glad that I wound up learning all these things about stories, about how we live by them, how powerful they are, how they can be used and abused. (That said, I would have liked a less distressing path to get there!) Otherwise the chances I could do better than an "add women and stir" approach to yet another Tolkienesque fantasy series would be nil. Perhaps my chances are still small, but there's no way to take a different path if you have no idea there are others to be taken, and it's those others I'm most interested in. In any case, I'm well aware of how bitterly disappointing it is to read the "add women and stir" approach (e.g. the Dragonlance series by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, compulsively readable though it is) versus the joy of finding an author who takes one of the roads less travelled (e.g. Amazon by Barbara G. Walker).
"The Lesbian writer is one who re-envisions female reality. She is one who imagines beyond her own fear."
– Cy-Thea Sand"
If I wasn't an Indigenous two-spirited woman committed to resisting and ending oppression in all its forms, matters could stop right here. After all, this seems a fairly complete introduction and explanation of the rationale for this Amazon project already. We could even summarize it as: put women at the centre of a cycle of heroic stories, set up the substructure of those stories, avoid the add and stir approach. Except for the fact that two-spirited woman translates to "lesbian" in non-Indigenous terms, and the Amazons are the most famous lesbians ever, except maybe for Sappho. Sort of. Plenty of writers have decided Amazons were not lesbians, and I have more to say about that in this book. Whoever Amazons turn out to be interested in sexually, to be an honest storyteller, to really take the path not travelled, it's important that whatever I write at least be lesbian fiction, not lesbian fiction pretending to be straight fiction with a few names changed. Just what lesbian fiction is then is a question answered courtesy of the wonders of the internet and the agonies of asynchronous chat.
The question of what lesbian fiction is tied up a mailing list I occasionally post to for several days at least twice a few years ago. The debate was very postmodern and defensive for the most part. There was even a tone of tragedy, maybe even tragicomedy, and a sense of noble suffering because lesbians could not define something presumably so important to them. I found these tones a bit hard to take myself, although I can see a little where the participants invoking them were coming from.
Of course, the likelihood of a tiny, skewed subset of the population of women-identified-women knocking together a sturdy definition of any kind for lesbian fiction is slim under such circumstances. That's a lot to ask of people who are labouring under the disadvantage of not even being in one room discussing it in real time. I suspect that as a general rule any group of lesbians who set out to come up with such a definition would be small in numbers and skewed relative to the general lesbian population, simply because debating literary categories just isn't a common pastime.
Which is not to say no definition was developed, and I will give it here as I understand and understood it, because it does appear to reflect what is actually being published today. To wit, "lesbian fiction" was defined as what we usually consider fiction so long as somewhere in it two women are "having sex." This is not quite as helpful as it may seem, since "having sex'"is vague, so vague the women could be having sex with anybody but each other. But for now, let's assume it means some form of genital contact between two women where one or both women involved have orgasms. In other words, the sexual derring-do has to be between women, not women and men, to count.
More than a few folks, myself included, found this definition unsatisfactory. It hardly seems enough to throw in a couple of women "being naughty with each other's genitals" to paraphrase from Sheila Jeffreys, to make "lesbian fiction." But defining it as being a story where a lesbian romantic relationship is at the centre of the story seems too restrictive, and could easily flunk the "sex test" if we try to combine it with the original proposed definition.
Some effort was put into trying to define "lesbian culture" in order to see if that would point to a better definition. Not a bad idea, quite a good one, in fact. But as soon became clear, even if attempts are made to restrict the definition of "lesbian culture" to one continent and assuming at least implicitly culture is given not built, defining lesbian culture also soon hits a dead end. In the end what did all "lesbians," whether they'd use that term or not, have in common? They relate sexually to women, declared the majority. Well, this is starting to sound like a broken record, and its starting to sound eerily familiar. Compare the results of the defining process so far to this:
"We're just like anyone else. We build families, hold down regular jobs, pay our taxes, vote. The only way we're different is that we're not heterosexual." This is the general liberal-style argument, deployed most famously and persistently by gay men, and not a few lesbians. "We aren't threats to the status quo. We kind of like it except for the discrimination and fear for our lives and bodily integrity part." Not such an unreasonable position, if the status quo serves you, or at least seems to serve you. If this position propagates into what is currently called "lesbian fiction" as indeed it seems to have done, this leads directly to the definition of "lesbian fiction" already given, in which "lesbian" is a particular sexual proclivity, and nothing else — neatly rendering the concept of "lesbian culture" stuff and nonsense.
For those of us with a political bent and/or omnivorous reading habits, these arguments should be sounding eerily familiar. As Sheila Jeffreys has pointed out, this definition practically comes straight out of sexological literature. In its early days, sexologists focussed on telling everyone that gender was biological destiny. It is to such stuff that we owe the "inversion model" featured by Radclyffe Hall. Then and now, sexological literature is really about teaching us how to behave properly when we have sex, and thereby in society at large. The proper state of society in the sexological eye, is patriarchal and heterosexual. And if lesbians can't be forced to at least pretend to be good heterosexual women with men, they can at least be persuaded to do so with other women. Sexological literature is profoundly antiwoman stuff, among the fundamentalist texts of patriarchy and heterosexism, as Jeffreys notes.
Jeffreys proposes a radical definition of heterosexuality that makes some people so angry that she is evidently on the right track. Indeed, if fiction mimics life or illustrates the way the author believes life is meant to be, and we have no real reason to think otherwise, then she has turned a spotlight on what "heterosexuality" really means, and how it co-opts efforts to end patriarchy. In brief, Jeffreys defines heterosexuality as the eroticising of power differentials. Dominance/submission is therefore rendered an ever-present subtext, even if it is never a maintext.
Jeffreys' definition was published before email and the explosion of fan fiction on the internet, but right at the start of a new wave of "lesbian fiction" that is still playing itself out. It's remarkable how well her definition has stood the test of time and the range of writers it could be applied to. Take a look at almost any popular author of "lesbian fiction" as defined above, be they internet published as "fan fiction writers" or hard copy published as "authors." One iconic series has the boss sleeping with her immediate underling in the corporate hierarchy (no pun intended). Another features a wealthy woman who ultimately takes up with a poor woman whom she nearly kills in a hit and run accident. Then there are the specialists in stories of blue collar, working class women in perhaps unconventional careers in relationships with upper class, older women who don't need to work. It almost goes without saying that the woman on the more empowered end of the spectrum is white. Sex scenes seem obligatory in such stories, interrupting the flow with imitations of penis in vagina sex, or other modifications on staples of men's pornography. (I can't say I've read a lot of hard copies to survey what people have told me is "lesbian fiction"; it's so much mercifully easier to skip the dull parts on-line.) There's a lot of rubber, plastic and silicon, enough that many lesbians with budgets to respect would be priced out of the running if this was all that lesbian sex was or could be. I've also been struck by a weird trend among authors who don't have overt sex scenes; they have rape scenes or the destruction of a character by a rape instead.
This strikes me as a painfully hollowed out version of what I hope "lesbian fiction" could be. In fact, it seems an awful lot like high class pornography for men. Writers follow the models they have the greatest access to on average, especially when they are finding their feet, so it is no surprise that this is the sort of material many end up turning out. Like it or not, pornography is still where most "lesbian" sex is depicted, and its primary audience is not actual lesbians. At first, we're all primed to use whatever ideas are ready to hand when we get started at something with many potential unknowns. (It's that substructure thing again.) Alongside Jeffreys' definition of heterosexuality, these trends suggest why it was so hard to talk about "lesbian fiction" or "lesbian culture" on that email list. In fact, they even suggest why the debate had such a helpless, postmodern tone.
In a nutshell, the problem was that most people discussing the question were avoiding politics and any potential whiff of lesbian bread and butter: Feminism. You cannot change a patriarchy a racist, capitalist, slavery-loving patriarchy by tweaking the bad stuff a little here and a little there. That isn't change. That's a thing called "relieving the pressure," great for bare survival, and important as bare survival is, no use at all for serious change.
So, what is my definition of "lesbian fiction" then? Here it is; your mileage may vary.
Lesbian fiction is speculative writing that wrestles the questions of how to dismantle patriarchy and the complex of additional oppressions used to maintain it. It visualizes alternatives to patriarchy and how they would work. It portrays a world where women and children are not prey or dirt but respected human beings. That's what "lesbian fiction" is. The rest is just outliers of mainstream fiction or pornography. In addition, this gives us a definition of "lesbian culture": cultural forms lesbians develop as constructive alternatives and resistance strategies to patriarchy and its complex of interrelated oppressions.
Many authors of what they feel is "lesbian fiction" will be deeply offended by this definition. They may or may not consider themselves "cutting edge," "brave," or even "transgressive." And indeed, to speak positively about women at all, let alone women-identified-women in anything let alone fiction is these things, at least to a non-threatening degree. It seems to me that many such authors have become skilled at deploying certain tropes that are titillating for the audience most publishers are really selling to: men. Heterosexual men, to be precise, in the Jeffreys sense of the term. It's a remarkable, but unsurprising, irony that mainstream lesbian fiction is apparently not for lesbians.
There is a certain logic to this. Women, heterosexual or no, are disproportionately poor, and somehow these books are always acutely expensive. Then there is the "oh thank god" factor. Lesbians are often so starved for positive reflections of themselves in damn near anything, that damn near anything that comes remotely close will do (the creators of Xena: Warrior Princess dined off of this for at least four years). Even if the thought-provoking, heart-building, visionary stuff never makes it to them because of "economics," lesbians can at least get by on thin gruel. Frankly, I'd like to hear what "economics" had to do with the publication of the works of men like William Burroughs.
But here I think we hurt ourselves by accepting the mainstream rules. My point of view is, lesbians are not going to get time off for good behaviour in this crazy society any more than Indigenous people or women in general are. We do ourselves no favours playing by rules set up to see us lose. From what I can see, the "economic argument" for the diluted version of "lesbian fiction" is a cop out at best, a face saving statement at worst. A cop out is at least more honest; it may be a little shamefaced, but it doesn't hide.
Having thought the matter through in this way, it becomes much easier to understand why "lesbian fiction" is so important to lesbians, and how we can end up trapped in hopeless frustrating circles discussing it. We need to leave off our attachment to that well-worn air of "noble suffering" and the cringing fear of the disapproval of others, to paraphrase Jeffreys. We're going to be disapproved of anyway, so let's take a stand for a real lesbian fiction fiction written for lesbians and an end to the structures that oppress them. Ultimately, that is the sort of fiction that the material gathered up in this book is meant to support and inspire.
With that background information laid out, a brief overview of who the Amazons are in this book is provided below, to make quite clear what's coming next. For real life Amazons though, your best introductory sources are Adrienne Mayor's Amazons, and Jeannine Davis Kimball's Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines.
– Somewhere on Turtle Island, 2015
The Premise of This Book:
The Amazon Nation consisted of numerous all-women, Goddess-worshipping tribes. Typically they worshipped aspects of Goddesses or Goddesses (a semantic difference rather than a real one) solely concerned with women and their interests. Those interests originally included such 'masculine' pursuits as sports, hunting, fishing, scholarship, science, and religion. As pressure from invading patriarchal groups increased, the warlike facets of these Goddesses, best exemplified by Artemis and Athena, became more emphasized. The martial nature of the Amazons was emphasized by the invaders in turn since this is understandably what they encountered, and their ability to defend themselves differentiated them sharply from the women absorbed into those groups. Contrary to what the invaders tended to assume, the Amazons were not necessarily all lesbians, or completely disconnected from non-Amazon societies. This is one possible reconstruction of the Amazon Nation's history, culture, and mythology.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. 'The Silmarillion,' HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1999. Page xi.
- King, Thomas 'The Truth About Stories,' House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2003. Page 2.
- Sand, Cy-Thea 'Lesbian Writing: Adventure in Autonomy,' pp. 97-10 in Fireworks: The Best of Fireweed (1978-1986), The Women's Press, Toronto. Page 108.
- Jeffreys, Sheila 'The Lesbian Heresy: A Feminist Perspective on the Lesbian Sexual Revolution,' Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 1993. Page 114.
- Hall, Radclyffe 'The Well of Loneliness,' Virago Modern Classics, London 1982.