I was reminded of the quote from the late poet Muriel Rukeyser -- ''What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open'' -- when I read Judith K. Witherow's collection of essays, Strong Enough To Bend, Twin Spirits Publishing, 2014. Then when I read The Rules by S. Renee Bess, a novel published by Regal Crest Enterprises, 2014, I was reminded of this quote again.
Judith and Renee are both lesbian writers who bring their truth home through their writings.
In her collection of essays, Strong Enough To Bend, Judith K. Witherow describes herself as a "back up writer, one of many who stand in the background, providing the harmony and staging the recognition for those whose names are on the covers of the books or the mastheads of the publications."
She describes Strong Enough to Bend as her solo performance. And what a performance it is. I found that I could not put Strong Enough To Bend down -- except for time to recollect how much the essays reminded me of friend's lives and my own.
Native American lesbian and truth teller, Witherow starts her collection with essays on her background being raised poor in the northern Appalachian mountains.
"We never lived in a place that had screen doors or screens in the windows. This allowed everything, including snakes, to come and go at will. We learned at an early age to pound on the floor before getting out of bed."
In the second section, Judith talks about how she came out with three sons that she gave birth to during a marriage to an abusive man. Raising her sons in the 1970s a time when lesbians were losing their children to custody battles with ex-husbands, presented Judith with an ongoing dilemma of when to officially come out to her children. It's not surprising that her three sons, who were raised by Judith and her long-term partner, Sue, knew that their mother was a lesbian far before she told them and were fiercely protective of their two mothers.
She devotes another section of the book to her multiple health issues which stem, no doubt, from her poverty ridden childhood, and to her struggles with the medical establishment. In 1979, Judith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Judith's health issues are numerous and it is clear that we are lucky to have her with us on this planet. Hers is a voice that we were not meant to hear.
A strong feminist, Judith is a role model for valuing herself. In the 1996 U.S. presidential election, Judith was a write-in candidate prompted by her belief that she "was the best qualified of any of the candidates. Her belief was bolstered by,
"Clinton's first shot at four years of Democratic leadership...Don't Ask Don't Tell sounds like a warmed over version of the Reagan's 'Just Say No.'"
When I read The Rules, a novel by S. Renee Bess, I was reminded that truth can be found in fiction. Ranee is a Black lesbian and in these pages we meet an assortment of characters, most of them Black lesbians, at least one of whom lives by the rules -- meaning that she lives her life by a certain code of ethics but sometimes she is confused by what the rules are. The protagonist, a woman by the name of London, defends herself to her long-term lover who is leaving her.
"What do you mean?"
"You don't seem sure about your blackness."
"What are you talking about. I know I'm black."
"Do you? You could have fooled me. Most of your friends aren't black. You don't talk like a black person. You couldn't even keep working for a black-owned construction company."
"My friends are all different colors. I speak the way I was taught to speak, and I left Clive Wittingham's firm because I wasn't climbing the ladder there, not because I didn't want to work for a back man's company."
Two of the characters are profoundly influenced by their childhoods -- and in fact we meet them as children when they were friends. As adults they are joined by a cast of characters complicated by intrigue and lesbian love. Equally intriguing to me was the prism of race and class.
I read this lesbian duo back to back and when the last page was turned, I felt the world split open -- just a little.
You can learn more about Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters here.