Sarah Horner Interviews Dianna Hunter

Dianna Hunter
Sarah Horner Interviews Dianna Hunter
Dianna Hunter’s Work and Its Ties to Midwestern Lesbian Culture

Sarah Horner: The Midwest is seldom perceived as a place where LGBTQ+ culture is preserved and cultivated, but your work and life prove otherwise. What is it about the Midwest that encouraged you to live, write, and teach here?

Dianna Hunter: The Midwest is a diverse place, with braided histories that include labor and civil rights organizing, farmers’ co-operatives, Indigenous sovereignty, feminist organizations, LGBTQ activism, and more. I grew up in a working-class home in Minot, North Dakota. Mom and Dad were union members, liberals, and DIYers in the 1950s and 1960s. They worked for wages, and they allowed me to be what people now call a “free-range” kid.

Most of my friends free-ranged. We wore jeans, got our hands dirty, and roamed the town on our bikes. Some of us played softball. That’s one place you could find lesbians, even in Minot. We had an Air Force base and missile silos that made us a nuclear target, but Mom chose to warn me about “queers” on a women’s softball team that I admired. She meant to shelter me, but she unknowingly alerted me that some women loved other women—not that I knew what to do with the information back then. Heterosexist programming had most of us mystified.

I didn’t wake to my sapphic identity until college. The expense of sending me to a liberal arts school in Saint Paul stretched my parents’ budget, but they let me go. I found feminism and lesbian identity there. One of my history teachers gave me a copy of the “Redstockings Manifesto,” where I first encountered the concepts of female oppression and male privilege. This set off a progression of discovery. I found the original Amazon Bookstore Co-op in Minneapolis and, along with it, women’s liberation and lesbian writing. I taught a course on feminism as a student and came out in 1971. A friend started the Lesbian Resource Center in Minneapolis the next year, and after trying to farm on women’s land for eleven years, I moved on to graduate school, college teaching, and writing.

Sarah: You have a new novel, Clouded Waters, that follows a journalist searching for a missing environmental scientist while mourning the loss of her wife. How did this project begin?

Dianna: Before the virus arrived, I’d been working on a mystery novel. I had a rough draft, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. When Covid came along, the shutdown gave me time to catch up on my reading. I wanted to know more about an environmental controversy that was (and still is) going on here in northeastern Minnesota. Three companies—all tied to international mining conglomerates—want to mine for copper and nickel. So far, none of them has managed to get through all of the legal and regulatory obstacles, and locals are split between the promise of prosperity and concern for the environment. The ore deposits run through sulfide rock that can leach sulphuric acid and heavy metals into the environment when exposed to water. We’re a wet state, and our watersheds drain to Hudson Bay, the Mississippi River, and the Atlantic by way of Lake Superior. In other words, they drain to the world, so there’s a lot to be concerned about.

I started asking myself, “Why not connect the story to these issues? Why not make the main character the publisher of a small, multi-generational newspaper? Why not make her a mature person, balancing grief for her wife and loneliness for their grown kids against her need to keep that struggling newspaper alive in the age of disinformation and political corruption? Why not have her personal struggle happen at a time when her community is also struggling over this potential new mine? Why not connect the crime to the controversy? Oh, and why not add a little romance to the mystery and have a new woman come to town?” The answers led to the story I tell in Clouded Waters.

Sarah: Clouded Waters features Indigenous and Métis (mixed racial ancestry) characters. Why was it important to you to include them in your book?

Dianna: Clouded Waters makes clear that the place we now call the Mesabi Range of Minnesota was home to the Dakota and Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa) before SB’s [SB is Susan B. Ellingson, the protagonist of Clouded Waters] people arrived, but it goes deeper than a land acknowledgement. The characters cross binaries, borders, and bloodlines, and we learn through their stories that people have been doing this for a long, long time.

The Indigenous people have not vanished from this place, and they are still enacting their own personal and cultural histories. SB keeps all of this in mind as she tries to work out her responsibility to her community, the earth, and her deceased Indigiqueer wife’s (Ramona’s) people, including the children she and Ramona raised together. In real life, by federal treaty, the Anishinaabe are guaranteed rights to hunt, fish, and gather across their homelands in northern Minnesota. When environmental degradation threatens to harm water, plants, and wildlife, they have unique legal standing to fight in court for the earth and water, and they have played a major role in holding off multinational mining corporations and oil pipelines.

In Anishinaabe culture, women are traditionally the water protectors. Their work has been spiritual, cultural, political, and effective, and Indigenous people are doing this dangerous work around the world. That’s why, in Clouded Waters, I have Ramona’s mother, Alberta Desjardin, leading a group of water-protecting grandmothers who protest against the environmental dangers posed by the mine. Without her, the story would be incomplete.

Sarah: How have your own experiences with back-to-the-land life influenced your fiction writing, particularly Clouded Waters?

Dianna: As a writer, I’ve been able to draw on my experiences, failures, and successes, and there have been plenty of all three. In my twenties, I lived with other lesbians on farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota. To make ends meet, I got a job working with dairy farmers and often stayed overnight with farm families so that I could collect milk samples at evening and morning milkings. Later, I bought my own dairy farm and worked as a farmer’s advocate, trying to help my neighbors keep their land during the Reagan-era farm crisis. I’ve met a wide variety of people, taken it all in, and used it in my fiction—filtered, transformed, and tied to made-up events through invention and imagination.

In Clouded Waters, I created a mid-sized town like, and yet also unlike, towns that exist on the Mesabi Iron Range. I filled it with the kind of villains, heroes, ne’er-do-wells, and everyday, well-meaning people you could meet in a mining town. The main character, SB Ellingson, runs a multi-generational newspaper that’s on the verge of going broke, as so many actual small-town newspapers have already done. She refuses to accept failure and decides to seek the truth about the proposed new mine and a missing water scientist. As she investigates, she mourns her dead wife, Ramona, a Two-spirit Anishinaabe/Ojibwe person. SB returns to the natural places they experienced together and is reminded of the ongoing relevance of their conversations about identity, land ownership, white accountability, and corporate environmental destruction.

Sarah: How do you perceive the connection between lesbians and the land/environment?

Dianna: In my memoir Wild Mares, I tell my own nonfiction story of living several years with lesbians in experimental land projects in the 1970s. We saw the land as a place to connect with nature, grow wholesome food, remake ourselves, and live sustainably. We wanted to get free of misogyny and gender oppression. That meant living just with women, becoming self-sufficient, and exploring our love and passions for one another. Most of us had few financial resources, so we tried to invent ways of living together that bridged private ownership and collective responsibilities.

It wasn’t easy, and the sustainability of lesbian land and lesbian community continues to be a point of discussion, struggle, and mentoring. I’m skeptical of some kinds of lesbian woo-woo, but I’ve been taking myself to nature and grounding myself in wild spaces since I was a child. That’s where I’ve found the sacred and recognized my roots. It’s complicated because my ancestors farmed, gardened, foraged, and hunted on this continent as immigrants, colonizers, and settlers.

It has to be said that we appropriated the lands we love from Indigenous people—Lakota, Dakota, and Anishinaabe, in my case. We have to find a way to account for land theft and help the Indigenous Land Back movement. And yet, the natural world still speaks to us and through us. As a young lesbian, I took myself to the land to heal and grow, and at seventy-four, I still look to nature for these gifts. My duty as a writer is to give back, to contribute to the restoration of the earth and to help foster a just and loving human community.

Sarah: As a college student and intern for Sinister Wisdom, I’ve learned a lot about lesbian history and how writing has allowed generations of lesbians to express and feel confident in their identity. From your perspective, what does writing/literature do for the LGBTQ+ community?

Dianna: Writing is a tool for reshaping the world. Besides giving enjoyment, one of the main uses of literature is teaching empathy. A writer creates a world for the reader to step into and experience through the eyes of others—that is, the characters the writer has created. It’s hard to enter another’s world so deeply without gaining insight and a sense of commonality. In our case, as lesbians and other queer-identified people (and even as women, for those of us who identify that way), we’ve found our true selves in literature by writing ourselves into it. Like BIPOC people, we were misrepresented in the old white male canon, and without accurate representation, no one is truly seen. Representation is a necessary condition for shaping a more empathetic world. So is the unmediated voice. We need to speak for ourselves and represent ourselves, not just for the sake of accuracy (though that’s part of it), but to make ourselves be seen as plausible, strong, primary characters, not just sidekicks, buddies, neighbors, and villains. We need to tell our own stories.

Sarah: Who are some of your own personal lesbian literary heroes/inspirations?

Dianna: There are so many to choose from! Where do I start and end? Patricia Highsmith, Jane Rule, Rita Mae Brown, Pat Parker, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Rosemary Keefe Curb and Nancy Manahan, Audre Lorde, Paula Gunn Allen, Starhawk, and Emma Donoghue—to name just a few in a long and cherry-picked list. Most recently, I appreciated Emma Donoghue’s novel Learned by Heart, a searingly emotional re-imagination of Eliza Raine’s first love with the diary-writing Anne Lister (subject of the TV series Gentleman Jack) at their girls’ boarding school in the early 19th century.

Sarah: How does your work fit into the larger conversation of lesbian representation and/or environmentalism?

Dianna: My work fits somewhere between ‘eco-feminist lesbian writing’ and the literature people are calling ‘Queer Ecology’ or ‘EcoQueer.’ My novel is a genre-crosser that normalizes the blurring of binaries and borders. It’s a whodunit, a romance, and a serious exploration of what a small collection of strong women, lesbians, genderqueer people, and allies do to uphold each other when their community breaks down in the face of economic desperation, industrial greed, racism, homophobia, and the threat of environmental ruin. My memoir tells the nonfiction story of actual young lesbians in the mid-1970s pioneering our own real-life versions of the kind of eco-feminist, speculative, back-to-nature community Sally Gearhart imagined in her 1978 novel, The Wanderground.

Sarah Horner is a writer, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, and an intern at Sinister Wisdom. Her poetry and fiction are published or forthcoming in places such as Across the Margin, The Minnesota Review, Defunkt Magazine, and The Bitchin’ Kitsch. She lives in Minneapolis with her cat Goose.

Dianna Hunter is a writer, lesbian, farmer, and educator based in Duluth, Minnesota. Hunter’s experience growing up in rural North Dakota informed her memoir, Wild Mares: My Lesbian Back-to-the-Land Life, a finalist for the 2018 Minnesota Book Award. She has taught writing and gender studies at four universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Hunter’s recent novel, Clouded Waters, is described as “an environmental thriller/whodunit/Sapphic romance.”

"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

“And the metaphorical lenses we choose are crucial, having the power to magnify, create better focus, and correct our vision.”
― Charlene Carruthers

"Your silence will not protect you."

Audre Lorde

“It’s revolutionary to connect with love”
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― Leslie Feinberg

“The problem with the use of language of Revolution without praxis is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same. “
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