Review of How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler

How Far the Light Reaches cover
How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures
Sabrina Imbler
Hachette Book Group, Back Bay Books, 2024, 288 pages

Reviewed by Dot Persica

I was in Brooklyn waiting for an audition when I stepped into Greenlight Bookstore to pass the time. How Far the Light Reaches immediately seized my attention. I didn’t know it would be a Queer book when I picked it up; I was just captivated by the cover illustrated by Simon Ban. I can’t help but think it’s no coincidence Queer people keep finding each other in the midst of the world’s attempts to isolate us. Something at my fingertips must have known before I did why, once I picked up this book, I could not part with it.

How Far the Light Reaches has everything. Imbler takes us on a journey of self-discovery by connecting ten sea creatures with peculiar characteristics to events in the author’s life: they dive into their relationship with their mother and disordered eating through the story of the octopus mother who starves in order to protect her eggs; they travel back to their grandmother’s youth guided by the Chinese sturgeon; they look deep into their present and future, exploring what it means to be different and to be part of a whole through creatures like hybrids and salps. Imbler’s experiences with sex, race—specifically being biracial and Asian in America—their gender nonconformity and the constant discovery of who they have been and who they are becoming are explored alongside each creature, connected seamlessly. The isolation of being racialized in a predominantly white context, the overwhelming joy of discovering spaces in which they are no longer the minority, the pain and the solace found in being who they are, navigating the aftermath of sexual assault, finding love and losing it and finding it elsewhere, everywhere—are all experiences that coexist and overlap. They cannot be separated but are dissected in this book like little animals, part of Imbler’s quest for answers.

This is the strange and beautiful, perfectly crafted child of the memoir and the encyclopedia.

As I was reading, I felt as though I was shifting from egg to larva to juvenile to adult, like one of the creatures described by the author: I was part of their delightful, excruciating, rewarding journey of growing up, and I felt as though I was going through all those changes myself in a strange time loop of my own making, pausing whenever I was forced by the outside world to look up from the book, and resuming my metamorphosis as soon as my eyes returned to the page.

Imbler digs to the root of painful topics in a gentle way. Their retelling of their trauma is for those who understand it: it’s an embrace rather than a slap; it doesn’t seek to spark compassion in the disinterested perpetrators. Imbler’s vulnerability is for those who have had similar experiences. In doing so, they hold not only their readers but also their own younger self (all their selves) in an embrace that lasts until the final page of this book, past the acknowledgements, and up to the last citation, maybe longer. This is a love letter to Queer people, an ode to the perpetual survival of marginalized communities against all odds.

I got through this book in two days because I am an autistic lesbian who wants to know the secrets of the ocean but was too bad at science to try to go into marine biology, but it would have been hard to put down regardless. The creatures chosen by Imbler for this personal and poetic work span from ordinary to almost mythical; we learn about the incredible adaptability of the goldfish and the surreal habitat of the yeti crab, living in conditions we consider absurd. Queerness is defying expectation, making it through, the same way nobody teaches ontogeny reversal to the immortal jellyfish, but somehow they know how to do it. Making sense of your existence on your own terms in a world that wants you docile and compliant because you are a “woman,” because you are Asian, is defying expectations. Loving someone who is like you when you are consistently told that the way you are is wrong: defying expectations. With each creature, the concepts of “natural” and “unnatural” are redefined—each creature is a key unlocking a facet of the human experience; each human experience is transposed into something greater, a whole that we are all part of.

How Far the Light Reaches is a window into each other, which means ourselves, through Imbler’s work. What a gift.

Dot Persica (any pronouns) is a lesbian performer born in Naples, Italy. They are a classically trained soprano with a vague dance background; they have experience directing opera, helping out here and there on film sets, and doing stand-up. They are a co-founder of the Italian lesbian+ collective STRASAFFICA*, with which they have organized community events, raised funds, and created beautiful bonds. They also write poetry, like all lesbians.

Review of Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead by Hayley Singer

Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead cover
Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead
Hayley Singer
Upswell, 2023, 176 pages

Reviewed by Darla Tejada

Abandon Every Hope is a poetic meditation on violence. The title of Hayley Singer’s book of essays may conjure up Dante’s words, yet while “Abandon all hope, ye who enter” serves as an ominous warning, Singer’s “Abandon every hope” is more plaintive advice. Though hell is evoked through explicit descriptions of inhumane acts to which non-human beings are subjected, the horror of violence is never crass. Grief and introspection are allowed to take up space—a silence concomitant with the racket of violence.

Singer wields this silence in a way that amplifies the cruelty and tragedy inherent in the subject matter of the book—violence against animals, including human ones—without rendering their discourse cliché. The structure of the thanatography, with its pockets of pause between paragraphs embodied by ellipsis, allows for silence to be represented on the page. For Singer, in order to write about violence against animals, one must chart a “language of abandonment” (37). And since abandonment is a “mode of disappearance” (42), its language requires silence. But even as silence stands for the void left behind, it also echoes the means of mass death that causes these absences. These silences are the colourless, odourless carbon monoxide used by meat processing corporations to gas thousands of pigs to deal with the COVID-19 “backlog” (147-155). These silences are the “mediating apparatuses” that “disfigure[] (and shield[] us from) violence” (130). These silences are the non-language of non-human animals that render their pain invisible and unheard.

These silences bored into the body of the text are points of expansion, “drill(ed) holes into language” (81) that allow for “the place of erasure, absence” (83) to take up space in the present. In Singer’s prose-poetry, silence is part of meaning and expression—a harkening to their practice of “writing at the edge of what’s publishable.” As Abandon Every Hope traverses the boundaries segregating human and animal, presence and absence, life and death, it challenges the “immunitary defence(s) against animality” (62) we’ve used to impose—and justify—our supremacy.

Just as silence becomes an integral part of the language of abandonment, so too does it become part of the language of return and reconciliation. Here, silence also stands for Singer’s immobility in the face of such ubiquitous violence, even the violence to which they subject themself. Weaving in their struggle with alcoholism and depression lends a personal, vulnerable bend to the interspecies harm perpetrated by the animal-industrial complex (AIC). We are drowned, just as Singer is, in a perpetual cycle of coping against the atrocities surrounding us and the escalation of these atrocities, driving us to “navigate the infinity between wanting and doing with sharper instruments” (58). The vulnerability of their failure is a point of connection with the reader, just as it shows how deeply connected Singer is to animal liberation. Despite drawing parallels between their personal struggle and the violence inflicted on animals and those most affected by the AIC, Singer never veers into self-indulgence. Singer recognizes their privilege and acknowledges that the “meat processing workforce… is largely made of immigrants and refugees” (149), those most vulnerable in our white-supremacist and racist societies. Many human animals, as critical race studies scholars Eve Tuck and C. Ree write, “have been (and continue to be) made killable” (76), just as non-human animals are.

There is no comfort at the end of Singer’s book. No hope for change or a better future. The last sentence of the final essay, an unnamed company’s slogan—“A cut above the rest” (155)—insinuates violence coming from a place of such height and power that it can never be stopped. But hopeless as these essays may be, they marry literary invention and political imaginings. Singer displaces comfortability as a locus for political thought and action, insisting that fighting for collective liberation—even when abandoned by every hope—must be done.

Darla Tejada is a Filipino reader and writer based in Naarm. Her work has been published by Archer Magazine online and Kill Your Darlings (KYD), among others. You can find her reading queer books on the 58 tram, going for aimless walks, and eating camembert stuffed croissants.

Review of We Set the Night on Fire: Igniting the Gay Revolution by Martha Shelley and Coming Out, Becoming Ourselves: Lesbian Stories from the Daughters of Bilitis, 1969-1999 by Lois Johnson and Sarah Boyer with Laura Catanzaro

We Set the Night on Fire and Coming Out, Becoming Ourselves covers
We Set the Night on Fire: Igniting the Gay Revolution
Martha Shelley
Chicago Review Press, 2023, 224 pages

Coming Out, Becoming Ourselves: Lesbian Stories from the Daughters of Bilitis, 1969-1999
Lois Johnson and Sarah Boyer with Laura Catanzaro
Savvy Press, 2024, 302 pages

Reviewed by Julia M. Allen

Two important new books chronicle the deep lesbian feminist histories often occluded by our June celebrations of parades and rainbows. Reading Martha Shelley’s We Set the Night on Fire in tandem with Lois Johnson and Sarah Boyer’s Coming Out, Becoming Ourselves, one becomes aware of the linkages between the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) and upstart groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and Radicalesbians, linkages that led to increased lesbian activism and visibility. Johnson and Boyer offer a history of the Boston chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, while Shelley narrates her own development from studious daughter to militant writer and strategist in the radical feminist and gay rights movements.

Both books began in a shared moment in 1969. On June 28, two women from Boston arrived in New York to consult with DOB member Martha Shelley about starting a chapter. (Although readers may find it confusing that the names in the two accounts do not match, this is an artifact of the era, when women often used pseudonyms in lesbian organizations, as a matter of protection.) Shelley took them on a tour of Greenwich Village, whereupon they ran smack dab into the Stonewall riot. This alarmed the Bostonians, although Shelley dismissed the uproar, thinking it was a protest against the war in Vietnam.

At that point in the books, the two narratives diverge. We learn that when Shelley realized what they had witnessed, she began agitating for a response, and a month later, five hundred people marched in protest against the police raids on gay and lesbian bars. Johnson and Boyer say simply, “[The trip to New York] was the same weekend as the Stonewall uprising.”

After providing readers with a brief summary of the political climate in the US during the 1950s and the founding of the DOB in 1955 by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Johnson and Boyer devote the first half of their book to describing, with justifiable pride, the thirty-plus years of the Boston DOB, explaining the range of activities offered by the group and the political and educational work done by members. They focus on the most significant—the “rap” groups, where participants could talk about any aspect of lesbian life in a congenial atmosphere. They also point to the joyous Thanksgiving dinners hosted for years by Johnson and her partner Sheri Barden, offering community to those whose families of origin may have been less welcoming. Following this overview, Johnson and Boyer give us glimpses into the lives of DOB members, offering over fifteen edited transcripts of oral history interviews, almost all now with real names. Many of the stories follow a recognizable arc, from trauma, fear, and loneliness to safety in the DOB. The book is generously illustrated with color photos.

Like Johnson and Boyer, Martha Shelley also takes us back in time, narrating her own pre-Stonewall life in New York City, documenting the crescendo of humiliations endured by girls as they reached adolescence and thus setting the scene for her subsequent actions. From there, she traces the routes of her activism as it exploded after the post-Stonewall march she had instigated. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front; she joined Rita Mae Brown and others in carrying out the Lavender Menace action at the National Organization for Women’s Second Congress to Unite Women; she wrote for and typeset Come Out!, the publication of the Gay Liberation Front; she organized women to protest the incarceration of Angela Davis at the Women’s House of Detention; and then she moved to Oakland, California, joining Judy Grahn and others in the Women’s Press Collective.

While narrating these extraordinary efforts and achievements, both Shelley and Johnson and Boyer take care to recognize the accomplishments of others. Who among us knew, for instance, that NYU Student Homophile League member and GLF activist Ellen Broidy, with Craig Rodwell, owner of Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, first proposed what have become the annual Pride marches? And how many of us recognized the courage of the rank-and-file DOB members who came out to march carrying the DOB banners?

Although I appreciated the many life stories offered by Johnson and Boyer, I did find certain elements could be repetitive, and variations in voice seem to have been muted in many cases. I also wish that the authors had supplied an index. Likewise, I wish Martha Shelley had included a selection of her writings from the era, as many are now difficult to locate.

Nonetheless, Johnson and Boyer do provide a useful appendix with directions for rap leaders, a timeless document that current organizers can now consult, and Shelley has packaged her own hard-won advice for future activists. They offer these gifts because they know, as we all do, that our work is far from finished.

Julia M. Allen is Professor Emerita, English, Sonoma State University. She is the author of Passionate Commitments: The Lives of Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins, SUNY Press, 2013 and co-author with Jocelyn H. Cohen of Women Making History: The Revolutionary Feminist Postcard Art of Helaine Victoria Press, Lever Press, 2023.

Review of A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces that Shaped Queer Women’s Culture by June Thomas

A Place of Our Own cover
A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces that Shaped Queer Women’s Culture
June Thomas
Seal Press, 2024, 304 pages

Reviewed by Judith Barrington

June Thomas is a terrific journalist whose Slate Working podcast is beloved by a wide audience. This well-researched piece of lesbian history is a great contribution to the story of our times.

For those of us older queer women, June Thomas’s detailed and engaging trip into the 1970s and 1980s is something of a nostalgia trip. Where are those women’s bookstores that spread generously across the United States? Where are the bars? Where are the lesbians growing themselves and their food on lesbian land? Of the six categories described in this book, I imagine that softball and sex-toy stores might have endured the longest, although I haven’t looked for either in quite a while. The most obvious surviving category is lesbian “vacation destinations,” which have long been promoted in the mainstream by the travel industry, making big bucks from our itchy gay feet.

The loss of places that were vital in connecting us to our community and the social movement that grew from it can be seen as a loss. At the same time, we must weigh up the gains we made as a result of those networks. Much of the social change envisaged by second-wave feminists, often with lesbians in the forefront, has been successful.

Younger lesbians who grew up in a queer culture friendlier than its predecessor may not realize the struggles that took place before gay marriage was won; they may not know that some of us were threatened with violence, institutionalized for “treatment,” or separated from our lovers through deportation. In those days, the spaces so clearly described in Thomas’s book were places of refuge, places of friendship, and places in which to foment revolution. Even now, we cannot take for granted that our hard-won progress is securely embedded; the attacks on abortion rights and access surely speak to that. I hope that young lesbians will find our history exciting and inspiring. Lesbian spaces may be different now, but we must not forget how much we need each other in order to keep progressing.

Judith Barrington is a poet and memoirist. Her book, Virginia’s Apple: Collected Memoirs, will be published by Oregon State University Press in September 2024. Her previous memoir, Lifesaving, won the Lambda Literary Award. She is the author of five poetry collections and lives with her partner, Ruth, in Portland.

Review of Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion by Eleanor Medhurst

Unsuitable cover
Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion
Eleanor Medhurst
Hurst, 2024, 344 pages

Reviewed by Darla Tejada

Unsuitable is a fitting title for fashion historian Eleanor Medhurst’s debut. As Medhurst illustrates, lesbian fashion—regardless of where it falls on the masculine-feminine spectrum—has always been transgressive. Throughout the book, we see how the donning of the lesbian closet’s unsuitable clothing is almost always penalised. Though far from a comprehensive history of lesbian fashion due to its geographical limitation (a more suitable subtitle would be A History of North American and European Lesbian Fashion, With a Brief Layover in Japan), Unsuitable remains an accessible and important introduction to lesbian sartorial history.

The book begins with the trinity of European lesbian historical figures: Sappho, Queen Christina of Sweden, and Anne Lister. Though their inclusion is integral in showing that “We Were Always Here,” these chapters almost make the emptiness of pre-1900s lesbian history starker and highlight how western-centric lesbian history is. This centering is ameliorated in the section’s chapter on 1910s Japan, our first glimpse of lesbian fashion’s ties—through the literary publication Seitō —with feminist politics and a broader lesbian community. By wearing the more masculine “umanori hakama” (the first iteration of Japanese girls’ school uniform, later replaced by the more feminine “andon hakama”) Hiratsuka Raichō, Otake Kokichi, and their Seitō society assert both cultural and gender/sexual identity, proving that one need not be sacrificed for the other. Medhurst shows how these garments were a revolt against the patriarchal ideal of the “ryōsai kenbo” (‘good wife, wise mother’)” (48), which emerged as education was opening up for Japanese women.

Part two pays homage to the 1920s, and though the chapters could have benefited from showing how the different locales’ (Britain, Paris, Berlin, and New York) fashion zeitgeists influenced each other, Medhurst nonetheless illuminates the immense contributions of lesbians to fashion—within and without their community—through the promotion of gender subversive styles in literary magazines. Lesbian fashion was literally in British Vogue. And publications like Frauenliebe and Die Freundin testify that trans identity and experience have always been a part of lesbians’—and their clothing’s—history.

The butch-femme interlude, unfortunately, left more to be desired. While Medhurst recognised that butch-femme dress codes went beyond expression and “were a means to express community and difference, push and pull, attraction and competition” (118), she did not delve into how these clothes were worn, touched, and presented in a manner unique to butches and femmes. Clothing was foundational to the courting rituals of the mid-century lesbian bar, and readers are left wanting for Medhurst’s insights and opinions on this phenomenon.

Those incensed by how undervalued and underappreciated drag kings’ artistry is will revel in “Miraculous Masculinity.” Here, we understand breeches’ roles and how other forms of male-impersonation performance art flourished in the UK and eventually in the US. Medhurst also captures how Black artistry and resistance went hand-in-hand, in the latter half of the section dedicated to Gladys Bentley and Stormé DeLarverie. Structuring Bentley’s chapter around excerpts from “I Am A Woman Again,” Medhurst acknowledges the cultural and socio-political climate during which Bentley penned the essay and recognised—without bitterness and without letting the piece eclipse the bold bravery of Bentley’s legacy—that Bentley had the right to protect herself amid growing hostility and persecution of queer people. Readers will also appreciate how Medhurst renders DeLarverie in sartorial three-dimensionality, “her stage self, her street self, and her softer, personal self” (157). In each iteration, we see DeLaverie’s determination to live—as much for herself as for her beloved queer community.

Sartorial choices in feminist/lesbian movements are akin to donning a suit of armour. From the suffragettes campaign for (some) women’s right to vote, to the different positions people took during the lesbian sex wars, fashion has always been wielded in the battle for rights. Fashion was a means of putting theory to action, like the androgynous “dyke uniform” meant to remove the “materially manifested gender hierarchy” (182). Medhurst also shows how t-shirts on dyke bodies are more than just a declarative statement, but a record of how lesbians made spaces for ourselves. Unsuitable weaves a powerful story of a lesbian fashion past that leaves readers hopeful for the future.

Darla Tejada is a writer and reader based in Naarm/Melbourne whose work has been published in Archer Magazine and Kill Your Darlings, among others. Her greatest achievement thus far is her 800-day Duolingo streak.

Review of When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes

When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold cover
When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold
Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes
Coffee House Press, 2022, 256 pages

Reviewed by Henri Bensussen

Alia Trabucco Zerán grew up in Chile and decided at a young age to be a lawyer. She graduated from law school in spite of the barriers against women. She also knew she wanted to write. With a Fulbright scholarship, she earned a master’s at NYU in creative writing in Spanish. Her first book, a novel, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019 and was translated into seven languages. In When Women Kill, she searches for facts but, along the way, explores alternative forms of fiction.

Delving into the lives of four Chilean women who committed murder, she researches old files and any other sources that provide the clues she’s looking for. She discovers how these women were portrayed by the press, quotes their statements, considers their motivations, shows how their cases were presented to the court, and the scope of their verdicts and sentencing. Trabucco Zerán acts as a detective, uncovering clues and evidence long buried. She presents her findings to the reader as a story written from a feminist viewpoint. She brings in her own thoughts and experiences to link these stories, not only to their own time but to ours as well. It was as entertaining and informative as reading a literary, engaging mystery. Like a good mystery, each woman’s story ends with a surprise.

Trabucco Zerán began this project wanting to know how these women were “treated, viewed, construed, depicted.” Were their trials fair? What happened after being found guilty? She wants to retell their lives to a modern audience and try to make sense of their history. Murder is a common problem in Latin America, she says, so she was surprised that when she talked to people about her project, she was often misunderstood. It was “easier for people to imagine a dead woman, than a woman prepared to kill.”

Women killing doesn’t happen. “For a man. . . violence even helps confirm his masculinity.” To remember women who dare to be bad is a “task of feminism.” She wants to “expand accepted ideas to include men who don’t base their masculinity on violence and women who express rage without having themselves portrayed as somehow less human.”

She selects four women of the twentieth century whose acts incited the most extreme reactions in Chilean society and draws parallels between them and feminist history. None of these women were executed; they served relatively short times in jail or prison. Why? As Trabucco Zerán realizes, if a woman is less than human, then she is incapable of the kind of violent acts that are done by men. Each of the women described in this book was sentenced to death or long prison terms by lower courts but pardoned or given shorter sentences at top-level ones.

In 1916, aligned with the first wave of feminism, Corina Rojas hired a man to murder her husband. Accused of adultery as well as murder, a “double transgression against both the law and her gender,” the newspapers turn it into an act of love and passion. Small chapbooks are published that change Rojas from a criminal into “any old woman who now laments her crime.” A movie is made based on these stories, but censors do not allow its showing; a movie about a woman transgressor—it would not reflect well on Chile. Her lawyer appeals to the President of Chile to spare her life. And so, it is spared; she is freed after six years in jail.

In 1923, news vendor Rosa Faúndez Cavieres slaughtered her lover, which raised fears about women who worked, especially in a man’s job. Faúndez Cavieres was defended as a “defective woman and in no way comparable to. . . docile, feminine wives.” Discovering her husband had given her week’s wages to his mistress, she literally wrings his neck as he lies in a drunken stupor. She cuts up his body and drops pieces along a river. The court judged it a case of jealousy and sent her to a women’s prison staffed by nuns for twelve years. While there, she incites a riot when denied a cup of coffee. Seven decades later, she “reappears as The Lady Ripper” in a play, The History of Blood, that echoes the killings that happened under the military regime that overthrew Salvador Allende. “Lady Ripper is no longer the feared masculine killer of 1923. . . but instead the equally terrifying femme fatale.”

In 1955, when women won the right to vote, the writer María Carolina Geel shot the man who wanted to marry her after they ordered tea and cake at a popular hotel. She had not planned it, she says, she herself felt unhappy. She admits to the murder but refuses to provide a motive, she refuses to answer the question posed by the court: “Who are you?” Doctors and psychiatrists can’t agree on a motive. Her lawyer presents it as hysteria, a momentary madness. About to be freed, she publishes a story about jailed women-loving women. She wants to control her story, writes Trabucco Zerán, and not be described as “mad.” Amid the response to the story, the Court of Appeals sentences her to three years in prison. A letter from Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s Nobel prize winner, asks that Geel be pardoned, and she is. Geel spends only one year in jail.

In 1963, the “decade of women’s sexual liberation,” María Teresa Alfaro, a servant and nursemaid to three children, poisons them and their grandmother because she herself was not allowed to marry and had been forced to endure abortions. She was angry. The judge would not accept that a servant could be angry at her employer and sentenced her to death for the act of jealousy. The Court of Appeals reduced that to nineteen years in prison; she was released for good behavior after ten.

Trabucco Zerán points out that newspapers and photographs supported the courts in their attempt to “chasten. . . the insubordinate woman.” Judges didn’t want to turn women killers into martyrs or saints by putting them in front of a firing squad. She calls us to “incorporate the disobedient woman into our history.” Female violence requires that we question gender norms, the “invisible gender laws that equate femininity with weakness and submission.”

Henri Bensussen writes on themes of inter-personal/inter-species relationships, aging, and the comic aspects of the human condition from the viewpoint of a birder, biologist, and gardener. Currently, a book-length memoir is her focus, and she continues to publish poetry and creative non-fiction.

Review of Communists in Closets: Queering the History 1930s-1990s by Bettina Aptheker

Communists in Closets cover
Communists in Closets: Queering the History 1930s-1990s
Bettina Aptheker
Routledge, 2022, 270 pages

Reviewed by Julia M. Allen

In an elegant, seamless fusion of memoir, oral history, and archival research, Bettina Aptheker offers us and future generations the gift of our history. Perhaps we recognize the names of Lorraine Hansberry, Eleanor Flexner, or Harry Hay. But how much do we know of the multidimensionality of their lives? And why have we probably never heard of the accomplishments of Betty Millard, Maud Russell, David Graham DuBois, or Victoria Mercado?

As she narrates these lives, Aptheker extols all that they achieved through their devotion to anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and feminist projects through the Communist Left—Lorraine Hansberry’s plays that contain echoes of her studies with W.E.B. DuBois at the Communist Party-supported Jefferson School; Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle that grew from the syllabus that she constructed for the same school; Harry Hay’s courageous founding of the first gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, based on the Communist theory of a “historically oppressed cultural minority.” She also reveals and celebrates the partnerships that sustained these remarkable women and men.

At the same time, she mourns the damage done and the losses caused by the mid-century insistence on silence, a silence that was embraced and enforced by the Communist Party as well as by almost all legal and medical authorities. In some cases, the closets are so deep and the closet doors so tightly closed that she can only speculate on the pain contained therein. In other cases, she quotes from letters and diaries attesting to the range of injuries. She puzzles over the party’s unusually long failure to understand and include a range of emotional and sexual expressions among members. Beginning in 1938, some members were deliberately expelled on the basis of homosexuality; others chose to leave for a variety of reasons, some unable to continue living “under deep cover.” Aptheker shares her own years-long struggle to maintain both her fidelity to the social justice work of the Communist Party and her awareness of her attraction to women, a struggle that finally ended when she left the party—though not her work for social justice—and began to build her life with her partner Kate.

Communists in Closets bears reading more than once to absorb all that it has to offer. That said, Routledge has apparently decided to jettison their copy editors, a disrespectful move that has made the reading experience unnecessarily difficult. Future researchers will have to be aware, for example, that if they want more information on the McCarran Act, they will not find it under “McCarren Act.” They may also wish, as I did, that the book included a bibliography and a separate listing of archives consulted.

Such wishes notwithstanding, Communists in Closets is a mind and heart-opening gift from a brilliant scholar, providing a solid foundation for future research with which we can continue to build a more inclusive history.

Julia M. Allen is Professor Emerita, English, Sonoma State University. She is the author of Passionate Commitments: The Lives of Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins, SUNY Press, 2013 and co-author with Jocelyn H. Cohen of Women Making History: The Revolutionary Feminist Postcard Art of Helaine Victoria Press, Lever Press, 2023.

Review of Águila: The Vision, Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Two-Spirit Shaman in the Ozark Mountains by María Cristina Moroles and Lauri Umansky

Águila cover
Águila: The Vision, Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Two-Spirit Shaman in the Ozark Mountains
María Cristina Moroles and Lauri Umansky
The University of Arkansas Press, 2024, 208 pages

Reviewed by Rose Norman

“Always remember that you are proud. You are proud first because you are an Indian; second because you are a Mexican; and last, because you are an American.” With these words, María Cristina Moroles’ father sent her off to first grade in Dallas, Texas, adding this warning: “They are going to say things to you. Do not ever believe them.” Having crossed the border undocumented twenty-seven times, José Moroles knew hardship but did not anticipate just how hard those Dallas schools would be on his oldest daughter, who quickly learned how to fight and not back down.

Raped at twelve, giving birth at thirteen, in foster care and on the Dallas streets thereafter, María Cristina Moroles overcame many obstacles before dying and being reborn as SunHawk in the Ozark mountains. Along the way, she had a conventional marriage to a man and a daughter Jenny whom she kept with her through subsequent adventures (having given up the rapist’s baby for adoption).

Her life took a turn for the better when she left her husband after following a vision from Texas to Fayetteville, Arkansas. There, she worked as a truck driver for an all-woman food co-op near a women’s land collective called Sassafras. Then, a local hepatitis epidemic brought her sick and dying to Sassafras, against her explicit wishes. Sassafras is where she died and was reborn as SunHawk.

SunHawk and another woman of color, Leona Garcia, were only twenty-three when the Sassafras women voted to give them the rugged land on the mountain next to them, 120 rocky acres accessed by an overgrown and deeply rutted logging road. This property would become Arco Iris, Rainbow Land, later Rancho Arco Iris, and finally Santuario Arco Iris, a sanctuary for women and children. Over time, many things changed. Leona left, other women and children came and went, some of them partners, but SunHawk remained. Always living gently and in sympathy with that rugged earth, SunHawk was not in good relation with the Sassafras women or her straight neighbors. She writes, “these mountains have harbored some women’s drama” (75). But she stuck it out, eventually making peace with her “archenemy,” Diana Rivers, who owned the neighboring Sassafras land and wound up giving those 450 acres to the nonprofit land trust that SunHawk had set up for the purpose of sustainability. After that, through another spiritual journey, SunHawk became Águila, or eagle, her shaman name and highest rank as a shamanic healer.

This memoir tells a special story, an important one to be told in these days when the earth and humanity are in great need of healing. It is a complicated story, full of earth magic and visions and healing energy. When I interviewed SunHawk in 2014 for Landykes of the South (Sinister Wisdom 98), our transcribed two-hour phone interview took many drafts to produce a short essay about the Arco Iris story. Lauri Umansky, Águila’s co-author for this book, transcribed fifty hours of interviews followed by years of back-and-forth revision. In an Afterword, Umansky describes the process and does not attempt to name the genre of this first-person memoir. This is not an “as told to” story, and Umansky is no ghostwriter; her name is on the title page, along with Águila’s birth name.

It is an artfully crafted story combining narrative, poetry, and prayers, and including a photo essay about the death and green burial of an old friend who came to Arco Iris hoping to be healed, and ultimately to die.

Above all, it is a story of resilience and healing on women’s land. We have few books about women’s land communities. This is an important one.

Rose Norman is a retired professor of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where she co-founded the Women’s Studies program and was its first director. She later chaired the English Department. After retiring, she co-founded the Southern Lesbian Feminist Activist Herstory Project and is its general editor.

Review of Jewcy: Jewish Queer Lesbian Feminisms for the Twenty-First Century Edited by Marla Brettschneider

Jewcy: Jewish Queer Lesbian Feminisms for the Twenty-First Century cover
Jewcy: Jewish Queer Lesbian Feminisms for the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Marla Brettschneider
SUNY Press, 2024, 173 pages
Hardcover $99; Paperback $31.95

Reviewed by Emily L. Quint Freeman
©May 2024

I always try to read books with an open heart so I can gain new insights, as well as admire the writer’s craft. Just this year, a non-fiction collection of scholarly essays, personal stories, and poetry was released, edited by Marla Brettschneider. This book explores the diverse backgrounds and experiences of being a Jew, queer, and, for some, having a non-traditional gender identity. As a Jewish lesbian, I was particularly interested in this book.

People respond to a book differently based on their background and point of view. So, here is a two-paragraph capsule of me, the reviewer:
My grandparents and great-great grandparents were immigrants on crowded, smelly steamers to New York during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century from central and eastern European countries (known as “Ashkenazi” Jews). If they had not emigrated to America, it is highly likely that I never would have been born, as during the Holocaust, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews – and roughly 200,000 queers.

I am a Reform Jew, which is one of the branches of Judaism that has adapted traditional Jewish laws and practices to respond to the social/cultural conditions of the modern world. As a lesbian, I would call myself an intellectual butch, attracted over a lifetime only to women. I guess in today’s lingo, I am some shade of non-binary. I had plenty of challenging times when my birth family pulled the financial rug after I would not abandon my “choice” of a lover. Thankfully, within Judaism, I did not have to leave a fundamental part of my identity behind.

The most accessible parts of this book for the non-Jewish reader (and many Jews) would be the personal essays and poetry. I particularly liked a story called “ID Please” by Vinny Calvo Prell about her personal angst about claiming her complex family heritage. Her mother hailed from the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and her father was Ashkenazi Jewish. She grew up with a deep connection with the Jewish community and came out as queer. Only as an adult did she begin to explore her mother’s indigenous heritage. As she became more open with her Jewish friends about her Pacific Islander roots, she started to feel uneasy, even unwelcome. Prell must have been raised in either the Orthodox or Conservative branches of Judaism, which follow Jewish law, deeming people to be Jewish only if their mother was Jewish or if they underwent a conversion. She would have been fully welcome in my synagogue as a Reform Jew. The pain of trying to embrace various aspects of herself was well described, and the story was worth several reads.

Another personal story called “Life on the Borderlands” by A.S. Hakkari discusses her heritage as a trans woman and Mizrahi Jew – meaning her ancestors either lived in the land of Israel or Muslim North Africa/Middle East. Her essay explores the marginalization of her gender and religious identity in a very moving way. Hakkari vividly described how trans women are a target for abuses of many sorts.

Hakkari’s story informs the reader that Jews are not monolithic but have diverse cultures and practices. This fact is due to the “Diaspora,” that is, the expulsion and/or dispersal of Jews by conquerors of the ancient Jewish states of Israel and Judea. An interesting fact to note – forty percent of Israelis are Mizrahi Jews, who were expelled from Muslim Africa or the Middle East after the birth of the Jewish state in 1948. They form a vibrant part of the multi-cultural framework of Israel.

The book contains a memoir segment from a Black Jewish lesbian, Carol Conaway. I wanted to read more of her memoir so I could better understand her experience and path to Judaism. The segment centers on her attraction to urbane white women, particularly “The One,” who would later become her life partner.

The essays in this book tackle ancient Jewish religious texts, seeking to explore different interpretations of what is acceptable. The traditional answer was only cisgender, heterosexual sex. However, “Deconstructing the Binary, or Not” by Sarra Lev provides a learned analysis of early rabbinic literature to postulate an openness for an intersex personal life.

Another entitled “Remembering Sinai” by Sabrina Sojourner is a reconsideration of the book of Exodus, which analyzes ancient Hebrew and the traditional patriarchal image of G-d. The essay “Postmodern Concepts of Sex, Gender and Sexuality in the Framework of the Jewish Lesbian” by Rona B. Matlow seeks to deconstruct the assumption that only cisgender males and cisgender females are acceptable in Judaism. She does this by offering different interpretations of religious texts and commentaries.

These academic essays may prove daunting for non-Jews or Jews who are not familiar with fundamental Jewish texts or the Hebrew language. Another essay entitled “Leslie Feinberg’s Complex Jewish Lesbian Feminism” by the book’s editor did challenge me as the reader due to its language walls based upon leftist dichotomies. As a result, this essay did not accurately portray the complex story of Ashkenazi Jews in America and their acceptance or non-acceptance in non-Jewish society. This is especially important during the present time, given the trauma and pain of the whole Jewish community after the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust on October 7, 2023, and the taking of innocent hostages.

The umbrella of self can be difficult to navigate. This book offers ideas and stories of Jewish lesbians seeking acceptance rather than marginalization. It points to a more inclusive world for writers with different family backgrounds and gender identities.

Emily L. Quint Freeman is the author of the memoir, Failure to Appear, Resistance, Identity and Loss (Blue Beacon Books) and numerous creative non-fiction articles appearing in digital magazines including Salon, The Gay & Lesbian Review, Syncopation Literary Review, Open Democracy, The Mindful Word, and Narratively.

Review of My Withered Legs and Other Essays by Sandra Gail Lambert

My Withered Legs and Other Essays cover
My Withered Legs and Other Essays
Sandra Gail Lambert
University of Georgia Press, 2024, 152 pages

Reviewed by Kali Herbst Minino and Darla Tejada

My Withered Legs is Sandra Gail Lambert’s new memoir essay collection observing shifting relations between the different facets of her life–including writing, disability, aging, and autonomy.

Throughout, Lambert conceives of and interrogates power through a spectrum of in/dependence. Due to the societal and familial context of her upbringing—pre-Rehabilitation Act America in a military family—Lambert, particularly in her youth, equates power with a masculinist idea of strength.

Even in its mere recounting, the machismo attitude Lambert displays—one that values strength and abhors vulnerability—is off-putting, a testament to her evocative writing and presence on the page. Yet the moments when she feels most powerful because she exerts an inordinate amount of physical, mental, and emotional strength become especially poignant when contextualised within the dominant capitalist culture.

A careful reader will recognise that Lambert’s attitude in insisting to navigate, without help, a society that does not consider—and therefore was not built—for her needs is a symptom of living in a culture where (perceived) ability is currency. In a hyper-individualist America where humanity is reduced to a tokenistic autonomy, isolating independence is valued above community.

Lambert’s narrative triumphs in subtly challenging her own entrenched ideas of power. Illustrated by the shifting dynamics of her relationship with her mother and with her partner Pam, readers experience Lambert’s hard-won self-acceptance of being cared for. Her depiction of care work is nuanced, riddled with guilt and triumph, fear and freedom, and caring for is irrevocably intertwined with taking care of. Throughout this process we see how Lambert comes to understand that, just as “Disability was different from illness,” so too is vulnerability different from weakness.

Despite the specificity of Lambert’s perspective and experience, her writing is bound to resonate with readers of all kinds. Artfully covering topics of independence, the writing process, aging, and familial and romantic relationships, the collection of essays is about much more than the title suggests—her legs.

It is surprising that the collection is titled My Withered Legs. In the essay of the same name (though with the addition of “what is lost” in parenthesis), Lambert details a public obsession with her legs, with editors demanding to hear more details about them. Following this advice would erase the original point of her writing.

Choosing My Withered Legs as the collection’s title serves a dual purpose. It satiates the editor’s and the public’s obsession with her legs, which then drives the point of the titular essay home. I imagine an able-bodied reader—picking up the book because they are infatuated with the idea of reading about Lambert’s legs and struggles with disability—having a rude awakening when they realize they’ve played into the exact issue the author is critiquing.

The challenges Lambert faces in publishing her writing leave questions about what didn’t make it through the editorial filter, i.e. “My Withered Legs (what is lost),” and whether or not her wide appeal is something to be celebrated. In “Crip Humor,” Lambert explains that people using wheelchairs and their community would find the story funny. Explaining the joke makes the essay understandable to a large audience, but it became Lambert’s role to make that kind of understanding possible. If Lambert hadn’t had to cater to an able-bodied audience, how would the essay differ?

Readers can only speculate the answer to that question, and can only imagine exactly what was lost. In the meantime, Lambert’s collection is a perfect read for anyone pondering power—inside or outside the pages.

Kali Herbst Minino is a freelance journalist based in Seattle who works primarily for Seattle Gay News. They use a restaurant job to help fund their freelance journalism habit and love reading about labor movements, feminism, and media studies.

Darla Tejada is a writer and reader based in Naarm/Melbourne whose work has been published in Archer Magazine and Kill Your Darlings, among others. Her greatest achievement thus far is her 800-day Duolingo streak.


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