Monday, 18 August 2014

Women of the Left Bank Series Part 4: Djuna Barnes

Read the rest of the series

I was devoted to Djuna and she was very fond of me in her own superior way…’

So goes Janet Flanner’s reminiscence of Djuna Barnes, and it’s one that seems to speak for most of those who knew this extraordinary writer. Barnes inspired devotion in her friends, and it was a devotion that saved her life on various occasions. 

Janet goes on to tell a story about how Djuna gave her one of her manuscripts to read. Janet read it, and returned it, admitting she was baffled by the content. Djuna responded in her magnificent way:

Oh Janet. I never expected you to be as stupid as Tom Eliot.’ 

Born in 1892 in New York State, Barnes had a terrible and traumatic childhood, something she explores in her picaresque Elizabethan epic, Ryder. Her father was a failed composer, musician and painter who was unable to support his family financially. And he had a big family – moving in his mistress when Barnes was five and fathering eight children. Barnes spent most of her childhood caring for the kids. Barnes was raped as a teenager, and when she was 17 she was married off to the brother of her dad’s mistress, in what was not a consensual match. She remained with him for two months. 

Barnes’ violent and unsettled childhood influences much of her writing. As I mentioned, Ryder deals with the impact her father’s sexual antics had on her family, and it also obliquely references her rape. She later deals with this latter subject more explicitly in her furious play, The Antiphon

In 1912 Djuna Barnes moved to New York, where she pioneered a new kind of journalism – documenting her own experiences of the stories of the time. She volunteered to be force-fed so she could document the trials of the hunger-striking suffragettes, and was rescued by a fire fighter from a skyscraper. Barnes joined the thriving bohemian community in Greenwich Village and in 1915 published her book of poetry ‘The Book of Repulsive Women’. 

But like many women of the time, Barnes believed that in order to live the life she wanted to live, she needed to be in Paris. And so, in 1921, she travelled across the Atlantic and arrived in the City of Light. 

One of the things everyone remembers about Djuna is her incredible beauty. She was stunning. And she knew how to make the most of her gorgeous looks. She was always immaculately made-up, with red lips and red nails, wearing the fashions of the day. But her beauty was a double-edged sword. Gertrude Stein dismissed her talent because she didn’t believe such a beautiful woman needed to be taken seriously. Whilst other raved about her work, Stein merely referred to her as having ‘beautiful legs.’ It was not a compliment Djuna took kindly. 

In Paris, Barnes became a member of the expat community, and one of Natalie Barney’s circle. She had a brief affair with Natalie not longer after her arrival (but then, who didn’t?). 
Natalie eagerly promoted Barnes’ work at her salons, and was a lifelong friend and patron. Barnes later went on to pay a tribute of sorts to Natalie in her privately-published ‘Ladies Almanack’. This hand-illustrated book was a satire of the lesbian circle that orbited Natalie. Stars of the Almanack include Janet Flanner and Solita Solano as ‘Nip and Tuck’; Dolly Wilde as ‘Doll Furious’; and Natalie herself as ‘Dame Evangeline Musset’. 

Djuna’s reputation as a writer went beyond the lesbian Paris scene. Despite Ezra Pound calling her a ‘baboon’ (Fuck You Ezra!), her talent was hugely respected by the leading modernists of the day. She had a very close relationship with James Joyce. She saw him as her equal, and would talk with him about her writing and her work. TS Eliot was a great admirer – he would go on to edit and write the introduction to her masterpiece, Nightwood. And Ford Madox Ford championed her work in his Atlantic Review. 

Which brings me on to Nightwood – Djuna’s 1936 novel that, among other things, tells the story of her relationship with the artist Thelma Wood.  But before we deal with Nightwood, we should deal with Thelma. 

Born in 1902 in Kansas, Thelma and Djuna began a relationship in 1921 that would last for eight years. Thelma was very tall and boyish looking – a very attractive woman who dressed in androgynous clothes and pursued ‘silverpoint’ art. At first, the relationship was very happy. ‘They were so haunted of each other’ is how Barnes described the intensity of their attraction to one another. 

But over time, the relationship started to show cracks. Thelma was a drinker and unable to remain sexually faithful to Djuna. And that was what Djuna wanted, and needed, from her lover. A drinker herself, the pair became lost in a painful spiral of drunkenness and infidelity, until they could no longer sustain their relationship. When Thelma began an affair with Henriette Metcalf, Djuna ended it for good. 

The end of the relationship was devastating for Djuna. She locked herself away and drank solidly. Finally, increasingly concerned for her welfare, Natalie Barney brought her to her home on rue Jacob and her housekeeper, Berthe, who fondly recalled Djuna’s elegance, nursed her back to health. 

As she recovered, Djuna poured her heartache into Nightwood – a novel that remains one of the greatest and most beautiful works of the modernist period. 

I first read Nightwood as a teenager and it is a book that has haunted me throughout my adult life – a book I return to year after year, each time discovering something new and frightening and beautiful. That is its power. 

Nightwood tells the story of Felix Volkbein, an Austrian trying to uphold the traditions of European nobility – a section of society which he doesn’t really belong to. He marries the androgynous Robin and she has a child, but Robin leaves him and their son in pursuit of her own wandering adventures. She meets Nora, and the two fall in love, but Robin constantly seeks out affairs with strangers. In an appallingly frightening and intense chapter, Robin meets a woman called Jenny – a grasping bitch who is intent on stealing the happiness of others. Jenny grabs at Robin, who leaves Nora. 

Nora desperately tries to find Robin and bring her back to her, searching for her across Europe and America. She looks for her in the bars and the ports, tries to love the girls Robin has loved, but only finds women who Robin has left. The descriptions of her search are among some of the most heartrendingly painful and beautiful passages in the novel. 

Central to the narrative is the character of Dr Matthew O’Connor, a transvestite who opines on the nature of the night (in my fantasy film version, I always imagine him played by John Hurt). His babbling monologues on night, sex, history, philosophy and Robin are the heart of the novel. Despite not taking part in any of the main action, he is the observer. Through Matthew we understand everything that is happening in the novel. 

It is impossible for me to put into words the extraordinariness of Nightwood and its impact on me as a reader. There is no other book like it. Although it is seen as a cult gay novel, it really is so much more than that. It is a novel about gay characters, certainly, but it is also a novel about pain, despair, the encroaching fascism taking over 1930s Europe, of misfits and strangers, of love and loss, and of life. Its prose is poetry – rich with visions and intense, sensual descriptions. It is grotesque and beautiful all at once. 

Nightwood was a success, yet the applause didn’t bring Djuna happiness. She continued to drink and drink, and she was broke. But the devotedness she inspired in her friends never faded. With war approaching, her friends recognised the need to get her out of Europe. Worried for her safety, Peggy Guggenheim paid for Djuna’s passage home to America. She was so ill that Peggy worried she wouldn’t survive the journey. 

She did survive. After returning to New York, Djuna became increasingly bitter and reclusive. In fact, she lived a very long life – dying in 1982. Throughout she maintained correspondence with Natalie, the pair reminiscing on their life in 1920s Paris. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Think same sex parents are inherently worse than straight ones? Then sorry, but you are homophobic.

I was really upset to read Kellie Maloney’s comments, reported in Pink News, where she stated that she didn’t believe same-sex couples can or should raise children. As regular readers will know, this is an issue that is very close to my heart, having been raised by my mum and her partner, and my dad and his wife. So I wanted to respond to Maloney’s comments, and to those who agree with her that there is something wrong with the way I was raised.

I find it utterly confounding that today people still believe the gender of a parent determines their ability to parent. That a family of a mum and dad is inevitably better than a family of a mum and a mum, or a dad and a dad. That in spite of everything we hear about abuse, neglect and violence within heterosexual marriage, people still believe that a husband and wife are innately better parents because one has an XX chromosome and one has an XY.

Children don’t need a mum and a dad to flourish and be happy. They don’t need a mum and a mum, or a dad and a dad, either. What children need is love. They need love, and care, and support, and to know they are safe. They need to know they are listened to, that they have parent/s or carers they can depend upon. They need boundaries and affection and cuddles. They need love.

A husband and wife are not immediately better at providing these things than two women parents, or two men parents. In fact, studies show that children raised in gay families are doing just as well, if not better, than their straight-raised peers. Anne Goldberg, quoted in the article, says that this could be because gay parents tend to be more committed and motivated than their straight counterparts.

Now, as it happens I don’t pay much mind to these studies, although it does provide a smug sense of satisfaction that so much research proves the bigots wrong over and over again. But anyway! I don’t think creating a hierarchy of parenting is helpful. Why? Well, for all the reasons above. I don’t believe sexuality creates good or bad parents. I believe that good parents are ones who love and care for their child, regardless of who they choose to have sex with.

If you believe that straight people are always better parents than gay people because they are straight then I am sorry to disappoint you, but you are homophobic. And if there is one thing that causes pain and distress to the children of gay parents, it’s not their parents’ sexuality. It’s the homophobia of other people.

I grew up in a loving and stable home with parents who loved me. Of course, like any family, we had our ups and downs, our rows and our spats. But fundamentally, I was loved. I lived in a home that was full of love – mum and her partner’s love for me and my brother, and for each other. And when I stayed at my dad’s, it was the same – a home of love. That’s what matters to children. Being loved.

Sadly, I have friend who didn’t have that care and stability. I have friends who grew up in very unhappy and violent homes. And guess what? Their parents were straight. And happily, I have friends who grew up in loving and supportive homes. And their parents were straight too. Because sexuality isn’t an indicator of your ability to parent. You can be straight and an abusive bully. You can be gay and an abusive bully. You can be straight and a kind and loving parent. And you can be gay and a kind and loving parent.

The only thing I found difficult growing up around having gay parents was other people’s homophobia. And that was not a problem caused by my mum’s sexuality, but by the bigotry and cruelty of others. I cannot emphasise this enough. The problem children of gay people face is other people’s homophobia. And that was not a problem caused by my parents. It is a problem that homophobic bigots cause, and it is a problem that is solved by tackling homophobia  - not by condemning gay parents.

I don’t understand homophobia. I don’t understand how someone can be so cruel as to sit in judgement of my family, and tell me that the way I was raised was wrong, with no consideration of how that might make me feel. Why would anyone want to make a child feel that their family is second-rate? Why would anyone want to go on TV or stand in a pulpit or in the House of Commons and tell a child that they have been raised wrong, simply because of who their parents fell in love with? Why would anyone care so little about children that they would happily and deliberately make a child feel unhappiness and anxiety that there is something wrong with their family?

So I’ll say it again. If you believe that straight parents are innately better simply because they are straight then you are homophobic.

All people like me are asking for is for people to stop telling us our families are inherently worse, simply because of the sexuality of our (in my case one set of) parents. To let us live our lives, free from bigotry and judgement. Which - as it happens - is what Maloney is asking for, in coming out as a trans woman. It has been heartening to see the overwhelmingly positive response she has received - a real wonderful signifier of changing attitudes. 

In 2014, it really shouldn’t be much to ask, should it?

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

12 years ago my hair was set on fire. Yesterday I published a Kindle Single short story about it.

You may remember that earlier this summer, I wrote about the 'die in a fire' meme and what it meant to me, as someone who had her set on fire by violent boys.

I have been working on a short story about this incident for nearly a year now, inspired by a conversation I had with two other writers about bullying and violence. I wasn't really sure what to do with it. And then another conversation with another writer gave me the answer - a Kindle Single!

So over the weekend I ventured into the world of Amazon self-publishing and published 'The Boys on the Bus: A Short Story'.

The Kindle Single includes two short stories - the title one, 'The Boys on the Bus', and a second story called 'Anna's Interlude.' Here are the blurbs:

The Boys on the Bus

A writer attending a literary dinner recounts the traumatic experience of having her hair set on fire when she was a schoolgirl 12 years earlier. As she confronts the memory, she realizes how through telling stories, we try to find closure from the trauma caused by violence. This short story explores the nature of violence, memory and trauma in a sensitive and lyrically written way. 

Anna's Interlude

A married woman living during the Second World War embarks on an affair with a young man in the Navy. Through their affair she discovers how unhappy her marriage has made her. She becomes determined to leave her husband and build a new life, a life that is true to herself. But when the letters from her lover come to an abrupt end, she finds she is trapped all over again. 

The Boys on the Bus: A Short Story is available to you for the BARGAIN PRICE of £1.53, and can be downloaded on to your Kindle, or your Kindle app on your smartphone or tablet. 

I really hope you buy it and enjoy it. 

Buy The Boys on the Bus: A Short Story NOW!