Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In Consideration of Age

    By Renee Bess                                 

   Do you tend to write about what you know, or do you expand your body of knowledge and research topics heretofore unknown to you? Do you create characters who are racially or socio-economically different from yourself, or do you avoid taking the risks inherent in that task?
     Many of the lesbian novels I read when I first came out offered me a mirror, but that mirror yielded an incomplete and somewhat distorted reflection of my realities. Within those books I found teachers, lawyers and bartenders, butch identified and femme leaning characters aplenty. But it wasn’t until I discovered the work of Audre Lorde, Ann Allen Shockley, Becky Birtha, Alexis DeVeaux, and Jewelle Gomez that I found a more accurate reflection of myself. During the black power era I neither read nor heard about Langston Hughes’ and James Baldwin’s true identities. And had I known Alice Walker was family, I would have enjoyed “The Color Purple” more profoundly than I did the first time I read it.
     When I began to write, I did what seemed natural. I wrote stories about the world I knew; stories with multi-ethnic casts of characters. My main characters were/are African American lesbians. In seeking a publisher, I figured I had two dilemmas. Would a non-black publisher offer me a contract?  Would white readers as well as black readers buy my book? The answer to both questions was “yes.” I would estimate my work has as many non-black readers as African-American readers. I’ve been told for the most part, my characters and their stories have universal or cross-over appeal. This is a good thing, especially if one subscribes to the theory that race is an artificial construct. Of course, the consequences of recognizing and reacting to racial differences are not artificial. They are genuine and quite concrete. They shape people’s lives.
     Do you tend to create only young characters, or do you mix it up and write about older lesbians also? I ask this because the issue of age emerged recently in one of the Yahoo writers’ groups to which I belong. A spirited discussion with a variety of opinions went back and forth for two or three days. Some folks rejected the notion of writing older characters, especially in romance novels, while others welcomed including them. The online discussion prompted me to think about my work and the ages of the characters I’ve drawn.
     My first RCE novel, “Breaking Jaie,” featured twenty-something years old graduate students from different socio-economic classes. My second book, “RE:Building Sasha,” involved women in their late thirties and early forties. The protagonists in my third book, “The Butterfly Moments,” were in their fifties. One had retired from an urban police department and the other was in the process of becoming a retired parole officer. It appears I’ve followed a pattern. My characters have aged with each book I’ve written. In writing about older women I’ve tried to appeal to an underserved readership, the “mature” lesbian who just might want to read stories about herself and others like her.
     One of my best friends has a framed poster hanging in her home office. The poster depicts an older woman and bears the words: “When I am old I shall wear purple.” The first time I saw that piece of art, I left my friend’s home practically chanting the older woman’s quote. “When I am old I shall wear purple. When I am old I shall wear purple.”
     I am older now, more mature and full of thought than I was years ago when I first examined the sentence on that poster. My general attitude about age has changed. Accordingly, I’ve decided to do a wardrobe change for myself and most of the mature characters who unfold their stories in front of me. Here is the change…
     “When I am old, I shall wear red.”
     Red is vibrant. Red represents a life force. Red is daring. It takes risks and demands to be seen and heard. Red does not live with one foot in the grave. Red provokes intrigue and blatantly suggests its wearer continues to appreciate all that is sensual. Red has survived and has more than a few stories to tell.
     Will I continue to weave older women in whatever books I may write?
     To paraphrase an important LGBT civil rights slogan, “We’re here. We’re older and queer. Get used to it!”

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  1. Great post about growing and maturing and learning as we get older. I, for one, am going to wear red . . . *and* purple. And blue. And black. And a lot of hot pink!

    1. I am thinging of stripes with plaids myself.

    2. Hmm. I just entered a new decade this summer. I may just go back to wearing all black.

  2. Rene, thought-provoking post. Thank you for it. Here's the poem behind that quotation. I agree that red is all the things you say it is.

    Warning - When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple

    By Jenny Joseph

    When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple

    with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.

    And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

    and satin candles, and say we've no money for butter.

    I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired

    and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells

    and run my stick along the public railings

    and make up for the sobriety of my youth.

    I shall go out in my slippers in the rain

    and pick the flowers in other people's gardens

    and learn to spit.

    You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat

    and eat three pounds of sausages at a go

    or only bread and pickles for a week

    and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes.

    But now we must have clothes that keep us dry

    and pay our rent and not swear in the street

    and set a good example for the children.

    We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

    But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

    So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

    When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

  3. I've read a book whose main character's nickname was Red.
    She was vibrant. She represented a life force. She was daring. She took risks and demanded to be seen and heard. Se did not live with one foot in the grave(not at first anyway). She provoked intrigue and blatantly suggested her lover continued to appreciate all that is sensual. She had survived (and probably would for a very long time) and had more than a few stories to tell.
    One woman I'd gladly wear... out on occasions ;)
    Red's better off than Purple, indeed.

    Please, Renee, do continue to tell us about how red suits older women :)

  4. Excellent points, Renee. I'm going to throw out the topic again on Lesfic_Unbound with some new information I have. I'm going to reference your blog and see if we can draw out some more voices.
    I started wearing red a few years ago and didn't realize what a political statement I was making. :)

  5. Interesting post. I tend to write about characters that are older than I am at the time. In my current project my heroines ate in thee 40s. Older women have always fascinated me.

    1. I write Young Adult, so the characters I write are younger. Of course, there are a smattering of adults in the stories and they tend to have a wide range.

  6. And, of course, there is the amazing speech "Ain't I a Woman?" by Sojourner Truth given at the Women's Rights Convention (1851) in Akron, Ohio. I think about this speech and the courage it took for her to give it whenever someone says, "They can't or they shouldn't."

    Here's a taste: "That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?"

    Here's a couple of references:

  7. Thought provoking blog, Renee. Makes me wonder if I should broaden my scope. So far I've written what I know and my characters (pretty much in the same age range) have been composites of the people I've known or based on what I know of human nature and behavior. I've considered writing about older lesbians since I am one but haven't done it yet.
    I love the color red! I drove my mother crazy when I was young because I wanted everything in red. The last straw was that red Easter coat I insisted on having. She said, "Can't you pick out another color?"
    My first car was red (a candy apple red MG Midget with wire wheels and racing stripes. I used to ride around in that car like I was the living end. Now I like a lot of colors in addition to red like most blues, deep purple, orange, and even lime green. At any rate, at my age, I wear whatever I please.