by William Dean
"You fall in love...You're all alone with that great big miserable feeling
and she's driving you out of your mind. Every time you look at her, every time
you're near her. Finally you give into it..." --Ann Bannon, I Am A Woman,
It's tempting to consider Ann Bannon a living legend. In many ways, all of
us who write about sexual issues and erotica are descended from this remarkable
woman who helped openly pioneer the lesbian novel in 1957 with her frank depictions
in Odd Girl Out. She followed her success with what are now considered
classics: I Am A Woman, Women in the Shadows, The Marriage,
Journey to A Woman, and Beebo Brinker; all published before 1963.
After her own time “in the shadows," Ann Bannon is now enjoying a newly-found
readership with the reprint by Cleis Press of her novels. Her originals are
collected, studied, and, perhaps, revered in university collections. I feel
privileged to have had the opportunity to interview her.
WD: In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the general impressions of Americans regarding sex seemed to be polarizing between "Betty Crocker" and "happy homemaker" vs. more awareness through the Kinsey studies, "Peyton Place" exposés, and the Beat generation's more open sexuality. Did you feel you were part of an "underground" or "social outlaw" group?
AB: I didn't just "feel" part of a socially outlawed group: I was in such a group, and it was legally outlawed, too. I have no doubt that somewhere there lurks an FBI file from the 1950s with my name on it. When the sanctity of one's private consensual habits becomes the focus of official condemnation, life can turn pretty scary. The government's attitude toward homosexuals was self-righteous and censorious, and worse yet, it had the authority to ruin our lives. As with most government initiatives, it was huge, stupid, and relentless. One did not want to get caught in those jaws. But one had a life to live and aspirations, like everyone else. I think we all became Artful Dodgers in that pursuit.
As for the tenor of the times, there really was a lot of tension between the
"nice girls" in the ruffled aprons, at home making babies and tuna casseroles,
and the uncontrollable, adventurous, curious, and sometimes naughty girls out
there looking for jobs, looking for fun, looking for a life, and looking, sometimes,
for each other. A lot of the latter had served in the women's military auxiliaries
in World War II, or in the factories, and had discovered a big world out there
they wanted to explore. The joys of home and hearth pulled a lot of them back
-- but not everybody. And many who went home and did the "nice" thing for a
number of years were empathizing with their sisters who refused to follow suit.
Whole armies of "nice girls" broke out in their mid-lives to acquire an education
and professional skills, and find an identity outside the home. Given what the
young generation of the postwar years had learned, the conservative forces were
starting to lose ground, even when they seemed at the peak of their influence.
WD: After you'd published Beebo Brinker, did you have any contact
with the "Beat Generation" of writers and performers? Did you feel your novel
(Beebo Brinker) should have had more recognition among the critics and
AB: Beebo Brinker was the last of a series of five gay and lesbian
novels, and found an audience in 1962 mainly with those who had read the earlier
books. At the time, I would have warmly welcomed connections, far beyond the
few I had, among my fellow writers. I was actually of mixed emotions, however,
about the critics. I wasn't very sure of my talents -- still in my twenties,
and with virtually no critical feedback -- and feared a heavy hand from any
who did deign to read my stories. My readers were wonderful, supportive, enthusiastic
-- and after such an outpouring of affection and goodwill, I was leery of what
formal critical recognition would do to me. It seemed too much to hope that
someone writing for the New York Times or the Saturday Review
would take me seriously, empathize with my themes, or enlighten either me or
my readers. Also, that sort of publicity would have forced me into the public
glare, and I was genuinely shocked at the prospect of that kind of inadvertent
"outing." I had two little children and no intention in the world of abandoning
them or subjecting them to anxiety about possibly losing their mother's care.
So -- I was torn. Had I been alone, sans family, on my own, I would have sought
critical feedback. Indeed, I would almost certainly have kept writing until
somebody did notice me.
I did not meet any of the Beats in the Fifties, although they were all around me in Greenwich Village -- alas, an opportunity lost. Many years later, when we were both pioneer honorees at the first Outwrite Conference in San Francisco (1990), I met and talked with Allen Ginsberg, and was surprised and touched that he knew about my work. I had had the honor of defending "Howl" as legitimate fare for a college English class back in the 1960s, and he, for his part, was pleased to learn that I had done him that small favor. So, many years after our youthful work was done, I did connect with one of the Beat Generation luminaries.
WD: As with all "social evolutions," today's lesbians may have a difficult time visualizing what it was like to be one in the 1960s. How "underground" was the lesbian lifestyle then compared to today? Was there a genuine fear of "getting outed"? What were the effects on lesbians who were publicly known?
AB: The differences are stunning to one looking back at those earlier
times. In the Sixties, we guarded our identities, even from coworkers, even
from close friends, even -- the worst -- from family members whose support would
have given us so much courage. We had to find one another any way we could,
and take desperate risks to do so. It was probably the major reason why so many
young GLBT people flocked to the cities, where at least the chances of connection
were greatly enhanced. The great public dialogues about the origin and determinants
of sexual orientation, the place of prominent gays and lesbians in history,
the roles of homosexuals in modern politics and society, were not yet launched
or only just being broached in a few small forums. There were so few places
one could go for information -- we needed The Idiot's Guide to Lesbianism! --
that our feelings of isolation were acute. And always there was the specter
of police interference in one's life -- a humiliating disaster we would have
done almost anything to avoid...almost anything but give one another up. It's
no wonder that most of the lesbian writers I knew of in those days used a pseudonym.
A young lesbian in the early Sixties, told that one day people would declare
their identities free of fear of official punishment; that there would be gay
and lesbian bookstores, television programs, newspapers, holiday cruises, political
organizations, whole neighborhoods in great cities, proud parades and demonstrations,
dazzling literature and achievement in the arts, athletes in every sport,
and representation revealed in all of the major professions, would have passed
out with amazement halfway through the list. People are writing books under
their true names. People are telling their parents who they really are. People
are working openly with straight colleagues, and for the most part, finding acceptance.
What is truly remarkable is that our young people don't think this is remarkable!
It is! And wonderful.
WD: Do you read much lesbian literature today? Who are some of the authors you
consider especially poignant?
AB: I read as much as I possibly can, and still feel I have missed
a lot. We are immensely lucky to have so many wonderful writers -- truly an
embarrassment of riches. And it is certainly satisfying to know there are many
who have been so successful that they can devote themselves exclusively to their
craft. One cannot think of contemporary lesbian authors without doing honor
first to Katherine V. Forrest, with her brilliantly realized science fiction
and mysteries, and the exquisite romance of work like Curious Wine. She
is a true heroine of the community, both for her artistic contributions and
for her eloquent support of it in all its endeavors. I find the work of May
Sarton, Isabel Miller, and Jeanette Winterson especially touching, as are the
essays and poetry of Joan Nestle and the lovingly crafted work of Jane Rule.
The dazzling wit of Rita Mae Brown, the heartfelt narrative of Audre Lorde,
the moving poetry of Jewelle Gomez -- they all grab me. You would have to look
far and wide to find a more compelling book than Dorothy Allison's Bastard
out of Carolina -- she is simply a knockout of a writer. And Patricia Nell
Warren, although her stories center on gay men, is one of the most powerful
and consuming storytellers we have. This leaves out scores of authorial heroes.
Bless them all, and all the other wonderful writers I should have mentioned
-- they have given us a mirror in which it is a pleasure to find oneself reflected.
WD: There seems to be a kind of schism developing among lesbians and
lesbian writers between those who want to be simply accepted into "mainstream
society" and those deeply concerned with maintaining a much more visible, separate
identity, even at the risk of "stereotyping." Is it still important in today's
society to make that open declaration: "I am a lesbian"?
AB: Of course it's important, and I hope more women will be strengthened
and encouraged to step forward by those of us who are already in the public
eye. The weather out here is fine! I fully recognize, however, that it remains
an act of bravery on the part of many women, who face rejection or even condemnation
from families, children, parents, religious institutions, professional colleagues,
and others. Very few had the guts to do it when I was young (case in point:
our use of pen names), but so many now have taken the plunge that I hope it
lends resolution to those who are still wavering.
As to the issue of mainstreaming vs. proud separatism, I have never taken a position on that issue. But it seems to me that there is a place for both philosophies. Some lesbians truly feel free to be themselves, to express themselves, and to live in felicity only in the company of other women.
And other lesbians are at ease with men and straight women in a range of social settings. Trouble only seems to arise when one group tries to direct the behavior of the other. Sometimes, we are tempted to think we know what's best for others; there ought to be room for all, and for each as her needs dictate.
WD: Do you have favorites among your novels? Which one do you think is your best?
AB: As Katherine V. Forrest says when asked this question, "It's like
being asked to choose among your children!" But looking back, I think I like
the more upbeat ones best: Odd Girl Out for its youthful naiveté and
hopefulness, and Beebo Brinker for its zest and humor. That said, however,
I guess my favorite (at the risk of making the other "children" jealous) is
I Am A Woman. It's the story that brings Beebo to life, it's the first
story set in Greenwich Village, which came to mean so much to me, and in some
ways, it's the sexiest of all the stories. I will say, though, that I think
the writing in Journey to a Woman is probably the most polished. And
the social issues raised in Women in the Shadows (interracial romance,
gay & lesbian marriage) were pretty much unheard of at the time.
WD: Some of the pulp novels had pretty lurid covers, yet the first printings of your novels seem tame, even sedate in comparison. Did you have a hand in the selection of the cover art?
AB: The cover art is one of the most conspicuous features of the old pulp paperbacks. People were fascinated by its suggestion of adventurous sexuality and licentiousness. But very few of the stories lived up to the promise of those flaming ladies with their pillow lips, overburdened bras, and long, insolent legs -- certainly not the stories that we women writers were putting out. Nonetheless, those covers did the job for which they were designed -- they sent the books flying off drugstore kiosks and bus station newsstands and
into the hands of millions of hot-eyed customers.
We who wrote the books had little or no input into either the titles or the
finished cover art. We could suggest things to our editors, of course. But what
actually met our eyes when we tore the plain brown wrappers off our complimentary
copies rarely had any resemblance to what we had requested. I used to fulminate
about this, but my editors, Dick Carroll of Gold Medal Books, and his successor,
Knox Burger, were clever and successful promoters; they knew what they were
doing and their job was to move masses of original paperbacks into the hands
of consumers. They had no "respectable" authors whose names would guarantee
sales. Instead, they had those covers to spark interest. Much as I, and many
others, deplored the sexy little twinkies beckoning on the fronts of our books,
we were grateful for the audience they brought us. I was lucky -- most of my
covers are pretty tame, considering what might well have happened to them. Only
one of the original Gold Medals is truly god-awful, and that's Beebo Brinker.
The cover artist, Robert McGinnis, was a gifted and experienced commercial artist
who did hundreds of clever and eye-catching paintings for the pulps. But he
clearly hadn't the first clue about how to make a butch like Beebo look authentic.
Instead, he gives us the 1962 version of a Cosmo cover girl, but in men's brogans
and pink(!) bobby sox, posed under a street sign reading "Gay Street" with
a one-way arrow below it. This is a case of hitting the reader over the head
WD: I remember as a teenager buying a copy of Beebo Brinker in the mid-1960s and thinking "Wow! This
is powerful. So this is how some people live." Did you have a sense then that
you were helping to educate "average people" that lesbianism wasn't just among
the Virginia Woolf/Bloomsbury social set or the "glitterati" of 1920s Paris
high society (i.e. Gertrude Stein/Nathalie Barney/Nazimova/Djuna Barnes, etc.)?
AB: I can imagine that the rarefied worlds of Edwardian Bloomsbury
and 1920s Paris must have seemed hopelessly out of reach, however much a young
gay or lesbian in America might have yearned to join them. And at the same time,
the rather fabulous people who inhabited these privileged places were living
lives we couldn't possibly emulate in Peoria and Dubuque. There was little available
to young people then who knew they were "different." One of the striking effects
of the gay and lesbian original paperbacks of the Fifties and Sixties was their
widespread penetration into every village and hamlet in the country. It wasn't
just in the large urban centers, where GLBT youth had at least a fighting chance
to find each other. It was in Economy, Indiana and Wagontire, Oregon, where
they were isolated and in real need of connection, assurance, and just basic
information. For better or worse, and depending on what books such readers were
able to find at the local drugstore, they learned from us. And the most important
things they learned were that 1) they weren't unique and doomed to lifelong
isolation, 2) the lurid cover art to the contrary notwithstanding, they weren't
"abnormal," and 3) there was hope for a happy life. They wrote to me in
thousands, asking me to confirm these wonderful things, which I gladly did --
even though I felt only marginally better informed than they were.
WD: As we say now, "back in the day" how important did you feel it
was, through your books, to get the message out to lesbians that "you are not
alone, you're not the only one"?
AB: I knew myself how it felt to be "the only one." It's not that I
was too young and naive to understand that there were others. I at least knew
that somewhere in the world, there were women who shared my feelings, there
were men with romantic attraction to other men. Of course they had to be there
-- I just didn't know where to look. For all I knew, within my own circles of
family and friends, I was indeed the only one. After my books began to appear,
I was shocked to learn, through the letters sent to me by readers, that they
had no such insight. Their lives were so insular, their access to information
so restricted, that they were convinced they were an isolated mistake of nature.
So it was the really important and affirmative message that my books carried
out to the farthest nooks of this nation to people who most needed to hear it:
You have company! You are okay! As Max Ehrmann said in his lovely essay, Desiderata,
"You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you
have a right to be here." They needed to hear some validation of their lives,
and I tried to give them that.
WD: On the paperback shelves, today, we see novels about lesbian private
eyes, lesbian policewomen, lesbian "villains," and lesbian "heroes." The "lesbian
presence" in bookstores seems to span many genres as well as the literature
of writers such as Jeanette Winterson. How does all this make you feel when
you reflect that you were there "in the beginning?"
AB: It's breathtaking and wonderful to see the range of lesbian literature
today. When I was young and writing feverishly, it seemed the most important
purpose our stories could fulfill was to alert women sequestered in the dark
corners of their communities that they were part of a worldwide sisterhood.
Inevitably, with a burden like that to carry, our novels concentrated on portraits of
self-discovery, self-acceptance, and interconnection between women. Bit by bit,
and almost in spite of ourselves, we found that we were simultaneously informing
the world at large that we were here, that we were fully human, fully lovable,
and fully competent human beings, that we were not going to go away. With our
art, we were in the front lines of those helping to lay a social and political
foundation for the Gay Rights Movement of the next decade, and all the extraordinary
benefits that followed from it. Surprisingly, our work also made it possible
for those who followed to write about lesbians who were not so lovable, not
so goodhearted or well-motivated. We moved away from the original, rather stereotypical
butch/femme characters, to fully formed women with the whole panoply of human
flaws. While one would always like to think in terms of the heroic lesbians
who have inspired us, the women who soldier through their lives in spite of
their own shortcomings are in many ways more like us and more interesting. That
younger authors have found the courage to write about them, warts and all, has
more accurately reflected our community and taught us to accept our humanity.