by Jean Roberta
Halloween is approaching, and this means (according to some) that the veil between this world and the next is growing thin.
For the ancient Celts, October 31 (or approximately this date in their own calendar) was called Samhain (pronounced sow-in), and it was the last day of the year. When Christianity was spreading throughout Europe and giving new names to old seasonal festivals, a Pope declared November 1 to be the feast day of all the saints, which made October 31 All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en. November 2 was declared All Souls Day, and it is still celebrated in Mexico as El Dia de Muertos, the day to honour all your loved ones who have passed on. (Picnics in cemeteries!)
‘Tis the season to think about the spirits of the dead, and whether they still contact the living.
Writers, in particular, tend to haunt their readers during their lives and long afterwards. William Shakespeare died on his own birthday in 1616, but his plots have circulated far and wide ever since. A writer’s death doesn’t change the relationship of readers to his/her words, but it ends the possibility of discussing them with their source, except in a séance. (“Will, when you wrote Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech, that wasn’t your own cynical manifesto, was it?”)
Too many writers have died since 2000, and I’m sure they are all missed by their fans. Since space doesn’t allow me to honour them all, I’ll just mention a few whose lives brushed mine, and who left us too soon, IMO.
In February 2003, I spent Reading Week (an annual break from classes for students and faculty in the university where I teach) in New York, where I took part in a reading from Best Women’s Erotica of that year in Bluestockings Bookstore. One of my fellow-readers was a writer and singer-songwriter known simply as “zonna.” She read from “What You’re In For,” an intense story of seduction in a women’s prison, and she invited members of the small audience to read the parts of minor characters. “Zonna” was clearly a performer, and she owned the stage. I was taken aback to hear that she passed away several months later. I haven’t been able to find much information about her, but I hope she is at peace.
In 2005, I was writing book reviews for an on-line site, “The Dominant’s View,” having been invited by “Kayla Kuffs,” whom I met in the Erotic Readers and Writers lists. I reviewed a witty book of non-fic, Painfully Obvious: An Irreverent and Unauthorized Manual for Leather/SM by Robert Davolt, a gay man and former Mr. Leather, who co-owned a bar in San Francisco. I spent Reading Week in that city that year, and took part in a reading from Best Lesbian Erotica. I was impressed when Robert Davolt showed up, and invited me to a queer bar down the street for a drink. He was perfectly sociable, and not intimidating. Later, I learned that he was diagnosed with cancer in April of that year, and by May, he was gone. When I first got the news from Kayla, I wasn’t convinced, especially since her informants all seemed to be people from BDSM chat rooms with single names like Slavegirl.
I took the liberty of contacting Patrick Califia, another famous BDSM writer from San Francisco, and he snail-mailed me a copy of The Bay Area Reporter, a newsletter-style journal that included a long, respectful obituary of Robert Davolt. I hope he was welcomed to the Other Side by a chorus of adorable slave-boys.
In 2010, a famously reclusive American writer passed away, leaving a small but well-known body of work. J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories made such an impression on my daughter when she was in high school that she decided to name any future daughter she might have after a precocious young girl in the story “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.” My granddaughter, Esme Stang, was born in February 2010. (I travelled to Toronto during Reading Week, when I met her two days after her birth.)
In 2011, the world lost a legendary pioneer in the world of modern lesbian literature when writer/publisher/archivist Barbara Grier passed away. I’m so sorry I dropped her torch.
I’ll explain. For six months in the early 1980s, I was a full-time employee of a collectively-run “alternative” bookstore which was literally underground, with a display window at ground level. I wanted to order more lesbian titles, including romances from Naiad Books, the company founded by Grier and her partner. I called the Naiad office in Florida and reached Grier herself. I placed an order, and we discussed ways to get the books across the Canadian border without interference from government censors.
I mentioned that I had typed up a list of lesbian books published since the latest edition of her own annotated bibliography, The Lesbian in Literature, came out in 1981. (The first edition of this list was compiled with Marion Zimmer Bradley in the 1970s.)
She said she was too busy to produce a new, expanded edition, and she hoped someone (me?) would continue this important work. For awhile, I actually tried to do this. I kept book titles and brief descriptions on file cards. In 1988, I ran off photocopies of my own typed, unofficial version of the new Lesbian in Lit to hand out at a local LGBT conference. Note that I had no access to a computer. By the 1990s, I realized that I couldn’t possibly keep up with all the new publications, and I hoped that information about writing with lesbian content was more accessible than when Grier and Bradley began compiling a list, beginning with the poet Sappho (circa 600 BCE).
Another notable lesbian writer, Victoria Brownworth, wrote a moving remembrance here:
Two other important women writers (both authors of fantasy/sci-fi) passed away in 2011. One of them, Anne McCaffrey, wrote a series of novels about the “dragonriders of Pern,” which I read in second-hand paperback editions. (Actually, there are 20 books in the series. I’ve only scratched the surface.) I loved her explanation in an interview that she moved from the eastern U.S. to Ireland because it was thousands of miles away from her ex-husband.
Joanna Russ, who also left us in 2011, was a more explicitly feminist and openly lesbian writer. She is probably best known for a novel, The Female Man, published in 1975, when Second Wave feminism was gathering strength. Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman named his annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction, “Heiresses of Russ.” I was honoured to be chosen as co-editor of the 2015 edition. (For more on the cultural significance of Russ’ fiction and non-fiction, you could read my introduction, or Google her name.)
In 2012, I was shocked to read that writer/publisher Bill Brent of San Francisco had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge some time on the weekend of August 18-19. I had met him shortly after 9/11, in October 2001, when new copies of Best Bisexual Erotica 2, co-published by Bill’s small press, Black Books (and Circlet Press of Cambridge, Mass.), were available to contributors, including me. He had stories in the Best Gay Erotica series from Cleis Press, and he also wrote The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Men for Cleis. The bankruptcy of Black Books and of Bill’s zine, Black Sheets, must have been a blow, but after that, he moved to Hawaii, and all those who knew him hoped the change of scene would do him good. On visits back to SF, he apparently didn’t seem suicidal to friends. I wish them comfort.
In 2013, Rhodesian-born “British” writer Doris Lessing passed away. Although she moved to London in 1949, she always thought of herself as a colonial, an outsider with little formal education and no connections with the literary establishment. Nonetheless, when I began writing my Masters thesis on her five-novel “Children of Violence” series, I discovered a horde of fans, critics and academics who had discovered her before I did. When the final version of my thesis was handed in, it had a 12-page bibliography (single-spaced, 10-point font).
I always hoped I would meet her someday, and possibly even get her opinion of my analysis of her work. Now this can only happen on the Other Side.
I first encountered the fantasy writer Eugie Foster of Atlanta, Georgia, when we both had stories accepted for a doomed anthology of noir fantasy, Blasphemy, which was never published. By the time several other contributors pulled out of this project because it was taking too long, we were all exchanging messages in our own chat group, set up by the editors. I was the only one in the group who wrote erotica primarily; all the rest were writers of spec-fic. I found them intriguing, and they treated my genre with respect.
Later, I befriended Eugie on Livejournal and Twitter, where she posted updates about her beloved pet, a de-scented skunk named Hobkin. When Hobkin caught a respiratory infection, Eugie described her efforts (with her husband Matthew) to save him, but Hobkin passed away. Soon afterward, Eugie reported that she had been diagnosed with a rare form of sinus cancer.
Eugie’s passing on September 27, 2014 (which I remember because it was the day before my own spouse’s birthday) was unnerving, since she never lost hope of recovery, and continued to post tweets about her treatment almost until the end. Matthew Foster posted a brief announcement that she was gone, and added:
We do not need flowers. In lieu of flowers, please buy her books and read them. Buy them for others to read until everyone on the planet knows how amazing she was.
Here is a bibliography: www.eugiefoster.com fiction
Eugie and Matthew were both organizers of Dragon Con, an annual fantasy event in Atlanta, and Matthew has continued in that role. This con now features a Eugie Foster Award for the year’s best fantasy story of 20K or less.
On the theme of fantasy fiction, a giant in the field was Tanith Lee of England, who claimed in introductions and interviews that writing was the only thing she ever did well enough to earn a living at it. (She was living with her parents when her first novel, The Birthgrave, was published in 1975.) I taught her novel, Night’s Master (first of the Flat Earth series) in my fantasy literature class, Sympathy for the Devil, until the beautiful latest edition of that book suddenly became unavailable when the boutique publisher, Norilana, went out of business. (This version of the book featured stained-glass artwork by the author’s husband, John Kaiine.)
I was able to find numerous second-hand mass-market copies (with cheesier cover art), but since I couldn’t keep selling dog-eared paperbacks in class, I reluctantly replaced Nights Master with a steampunk mystery by two other writers.
I always hoped to meet Tanith Lee in a writers con some day, and discuss the publishing biz with her. Unfortunately, she passed away from breast cancer in May 2015. How ironic to die in the spring! However, she achieved an enormous amount before leaving this world.
In 2011, I received an email out of the blue from a legendary (at least to my mind) radical dyke of the 1970s, Jeanne Cordova. I recognized her as the editor of an early lesbian journal from California, The Lesbian Tide, which folded in 1980.
Her autobiographical book, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution, was published in 2011, and she wanted me to review it. She had read my reviews in The Gay and Lesbian Review, and she thought I could do justice to her story. I was delighted.
I explained that neither of us could let the editor know we were in contact, since his policy was to let his stable of reviewers choose titles from lists of books received, and not to allow collusion between a writer and a reviewer. (In principle, I admire the integrity of this position.) I wrote the review, asked the editor if he could find room for it, and he did.
Later, Jeanne wrote to me from an email address under the name of her partner, Lynn Ballen, saying she enjoyed finally meeting me at a literary event. I was mystified. I wrote back to say that I was sure she met many people there, but I was not one of them. I hoped we could actually meet someday.
And then I read that Jeanne Cordova passed away from cancer in January 2016.
If I ever meet all the writers I would love to meet, it will probably be at a literary con on the Other Side that will be more fabulous than anything put on by mere mortals. I really hope that all the writers I’ve mentioned have vanquished the inner and outer demons they wrestled with in this world, and that they are enjoying what used to be called their “reward.”
For those of us who are still here, their work is waiting to be discovered.
Eugie Foster and Hobkin (together forever?)