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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why Not Travel Stories with a Lesbian Twist

Title: Something to declare: good lesbian travel writing
Genre: Nonfiction: Travel
Edited by: Gillian Kendall
Publisher: Terrace Books
Pages: 219
RRP $19.95
ISBN 13 978 029923354 9

Reviewed by Deborah Sheldon

Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing is neither travelogue nor tourist guidebook. The nineteen essays in this collection take the armchair traveller on a jaunt around the globe, featuring stories set in places such as Chile, Mexico, Vietnam, Ireland and Italy, and various cities within the United States, but you won't find hotel recommendations or restaurant reviews. Instead, editor Gillian Kendall has brought together an eclectic mix of essays from travellers who invite us to share their deeply personal experiences.

Each writer happens to be lesbian, but it is the writer's emotional journey rather than her sexuality that takes centre stage in each story. As Kendall remarks in her introduction, "...I had to wonder exactly What Makes a Lesbian a Lesbian when I got pieces that contained no reference to sexuality or orientation: they were just about places and people". Despite the strident subtitle, this is a collection for every reader, not just for lesbian readers.

Overall, expect top-notch writing. This is a literary collection, and you may find yourself pausing here and there to linger over a finely wrought sentence or image. A few caveats: at least one story is pure fiction; some essays appear to be a mixture of fact and fiction; and a couple of pieces, by comparison, feel amateurish and clunky. This is a mixed bag of lollies; as Kendall writes in her introduction, the book is like "meeting new friends at a good late-night party, where lesbians have gathered to laugh, eat, flirt, show off, sympathise, and - mostly - tell stories".

One common theme is coming to terms with home truths, no matter how uncomfortable or painful. The hardships of negotiating love feature strongly. A foreign place, which takes the writer out of her comfort zone, typically makes her face something she's been trying to ignore or repress. In Bashert, Leslea Newman tells of a sexual awakening in an Israeli kibbutz that comes as a total surprise to her although, perhaps, not to us. In Oaxaca, Suzanne Parker writes about the difficulties of travelling to a place she had previously visited with an old lover, and the disquieting mix-up of memories that can occur:

Who was it who bought me the lemon ice? Who made love to me in a room with a wall of windows? I was in a constant state of translation, of revision. Who was it who lay down ten years earlier and who wakes up now to the sound of different breathing?

Prejudice, or the fear of it, runs like a fine thread through many of the essays. Unexpectedly, the prejudice isn't always strictly confined to lesbianism. In Sheila Ortiz Taylor's beautifully written piece Outrageous, the narrator Glenda, who is white, and her black male friend, Topaz, have stopped for lunch at a diner while they are ferrying her belongings to hger new home in Florida. Ortiz writes:

Topaz unrolls his paper napkin, sending knife and fork skittering across the table. In the silence that follows, his eye falls on a truck driver in a faded red cap, holding his barbecued pork sandwich in two enormous hands as if the bun is the steering wheel of his truck. The man's eyes bore across the room trying to fix him in the crosshairs of his attention.

"Oh shit," says Topaz. "I was afraid of this. He thinks you're a white woman and he knows I'm a black man, and he assumes the everybody here is heterosexual, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. Now he's wondering exactly where his responsibilities lie."

The honesty of each contributor in revealing her soul makes this collection a voyeuristic experience too, as if you were dipping into the intimacies of a hidden diary.

Not every story appeals, of course, but that is typical for all anthologies. Choosing which stories to keep and which to leave out is a calculated risk that each anthology editor must take, but there's more than enough talent and feeling in Something to Declare to carry the reader over the odd bump or two. Challenge, pain, revelation and spiritual growth are the hallmarks of this book. You won't learn much about the various cities and towns listed in the stories, but you will gain an interesting insight into the human experience.

~Reviewer Deborah Sheldon is an Australian writer whose credits include television scripts, magazine articles, nonfiction books and medical writing. Her fiction has appeared in magazines including Quadrant, Pendulum and Island. Her short story collection, "All the little things that we lose", was released January 2010

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CS said...

Great review, Deb. I can't wait to get Gillian Kendall's book and read it for myself.

DC said...

Maybe this is a case of not jumping to conclusions about the content on the basis of the title? Certainly sounds like this book is well worth looking out for.