What if there was a substantial queer literary canon that dripped with defiance, with ferocity; with dykes? One that was sharp but accessible, traditional yet diverse, and, at once, political and a pleasure to read? And what if such a body of work wasn’t some futurist pipedream, but already in existence? To hear lit scholar Jaime Harker tell it, we’re in luck. This yearned-for library is already at our fingertips. Along with the Civil Rights Movement, the blues, and the Moon Pie, we also have the American South to thank for a 50-plus year bounty of lesbian literature. What’s more, a number of its lesser-known titles like June Arnold’s Sister Gin and Bertha Harris’ Lover are still as relevant as when they first rolled off the indie feminist presses. These works of fiction, along with queer staples like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and canonical Southern darlings like Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, are touched upon in Harker’s survey, The Lesbian South. It’s a well-researched book on an under-discussed literary movement that, despite its title, doesn’t get caught up in identity politics’ tripwires: the terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ are used interchangeably; ‘being Southern’ isn’t exclusive to those with birthright.
Harker charts the rise of the South’s lesbian writers through four realms: the burgeoning second wave Women in Print Movement that resulted in Naiad and dozens of other others feminist presses across the States; the region’s complex sexual and racial politics, so often mined in regional storytelling; the queer ideologies and reverence for ‘the other’ that underpinned Southern lesbian feminism before queer theory was even a thing (for example, a substantive plotline in Rita Mae Brown’s Southern Discomfort centers on a resilient trans woman); and queer and women’s spaces — communal (womyn’s land), commercial (the Whistle Stop Cafe), and domestic (Sutpen’s Hundred).
When reading The Lesbian South, it occurred to me that there’s a fifth space that encouraged these literary fruits: the grapevine. Gossip remains an ineradicable part of culture, both Southern and queer. As does resourcefulness: this little jig between tittle-tattlers and scrappy, messy folk that others love to talk about feels evolutionary, a symbiotic way of forging an oral history of society’s most forgotten. This ‘manner of speaking’ is an essential part of figuring out why queer culture is so indebted to the region. Gossip might not have its own chapter in The Lesbian South, but its spirit is palpable throughout. Harker, an academic and researcher worth her salt, sounds like a down-home Liz Smith when recounting South Carolina feminist publisher June Arnold’s taboo sale of The Rubyfruit Jungle to a mainstream press, Florida’s Barbara Grier stealing The Ladder’s mailing list to use for her own venture (the prolific Naiad Press), North Carolina’s Dorothy Allison’s epistolary spat with Alabaman Mab Segrest over the role of the grotesque in Southern feminist writing (Segrest hated it; Allison relished its use to illustrate queerness, violence against women, sex work, and poverty). Harker also freely draws from her personal experiences to make sense of the progressive South. The book is peppered with anecdotes on moving to Atlanta as a teen and her long-term relationship with a Gulf Coast lesbian chef. The Lesbian South leisurely embodies the platitude ‘the personal is political’ — a phrase which, as luck would have it, was coined by a Southern woman.
The Lesbian South’s greatest lesson isn’t on the books we’ve all yet to (and better) read, but the tolerance and common ground today’s queer writers must find in order to weather our own present moment of upheaval. The women who formed the backbone of lesbian Southern lit had wildly different strategies for liberation and ideas for what constituted ‘good work.’ Barbara Grier, for example, prided herself on publishing accessible and representationally positive novels at Naiad and frequently turned her nose up at pulp writers like Violette Leduc, comparing their work to ‘fecal matter.’ And yet, she still championed their right to publish and find an audience. The more of us, the better:
Despite all I have said, the book must be read, if only to see what the current literary image of lesbianism is like.