“We needed more to read on, to feed on, more writing to satisfy our greedy maws.”
This sentence is from the very first “Notes for a Magazine” in the first issue of Sinister Wisdom. The ‘we’ is founding editors and publishers Harriet Desmoines and Catherine Nicholson. They started publishing after they identified their need for more reading to feed them and satisfy their “greedy maws.” Forty-one years later, we live and read in a richer world of lesbian literature. Many words, many volumes, many books have been published since Harriet and Catherine wrote those words. In fact, my nightstand is overflowing of books by and about dykes. Sometimes I fear there are more books that I want to read than time will allow.
In spite of this reality, in spite of living in a world rich with books by and about lesbians, the words of Harriet and Catherine still resonate. This sentence is a touchstone to which I return time and again. I am compelled to write, edit, and publish more lesbian writing. Why?
The easy answer is: there are always new readers and readers are always looking for the next book. A market and readers are present; writers, editors, and publishers fill the needs of readers.
The more complex answer is: lesbians and the literary works continue to be undervalued, marginalized, and minimized in broader literary communities. The humanizing work that lesbian literature does in our world—humanizing lesbians, complicating the human story with different modes of living, being, and experiencing the world—continues to be necessary, even urgent.
Writers, editors, and publishers all participate in a broad conversation about literature through their work. One area where the conversation is particularly thin, even nearly silent, is in the editing and publishing of letters and journals by lesbian writers. The archival work necessary to publish letters and journals by lesbian writers is an extraordinary commitment of time and energy, but to hear lesbian writers in conversation with one another and being witness to some of the internal conversations that lesbians have with themselves in journals brings a vital new layer of understanding to our world about both the writer of letters and journals and also the lives of lesbians.
To state it plainly: we need more books that feature lesbians’ journals and letters.
Why? They offer an entry into the interior lives of queer people. They help us map the hopes, dreams, and desires of lesbians in different times and spaces. The restrained poems of Bishop and the life story that accompanies her changes when we read her letters. The poems of Gertrude Stein open in new ways reading her correspondence with Picasso and Thompson.
Part of the reason that I have been thinking about this lacuna is that currently I am working on one epistolary project, editing letters between two lesbian poets, and recently I have been dipping into the extraordinary letters between Jane Rule and Rick Bébout, the editor of the Toronto-based Body Politic. I commend this collection of letters to you.
Letters and journals help us to understand the lived experiences of lesbian identities—and we have too few volumes for sustained exploration. In times of trauma and times of triumph, lesbians have picked up pens to document themselves and their lives. As readers, we deserve more books that capture these vital, life-affirming actions.