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Saturday 11 April 2015


Bookworm picks: lesbian/bi memoirs

Posted in: Books
By Compiled by Jacqui Stanford - 14th June 2013

Looking for some real life stories to sink your teeth into this winter? With the help of our readers, we at GayNZ.com have come up with a list of some must-read memoirs. Here are our lesbian and bi-women selections.

When We Were Outlaws by Jeanne Cordova

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A sweeping memoir, a raw and intimate chronicle of a young activist torn between conflicting personal longings and political goals. When We Were Outlaws offers a rare view of the life of a radical lesbian during the early cultural struggle for gay rights, Women’s Liberation, and the New Left of the 1970s.

Brash and ambitious, activist Jeanne Córdova is living with one woman and falling in love with another, but her passionate beliefs tell her that her first duty is "to the revolution”---to change the world and end discrimination against gays and lesbians. Trying to compartmentalize her sexual life, she becomes an investigative reporter for the famous, underground L.A. Free Press and finds herself involved with covering the Weather Underground and Angela Davis, exposing neo-Nazi bomber Captain Joe Tomassi, and befriending Emily Harris of the Symbionese Liberation Army. At the same time she is creating what will be the centre of her revolutionary lesbian world: her own newsmagazine, The Lesbian Tide, destined to become the voice of the national lesbian feminist movement.

If you wished you lived through these revolutions, Cordova can drag you along on the wild ride!

Beth Ditto’s Coal to Diamonds, penned with Michelle Tea

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A raw and surprisingly beautiful coming-of-age memoir, Coal to Diamonds tells the story of Mary Beth Ditto, a girl from rural Arkansas who found her voice.

Born and raised in Judsonia, Arkansas—a place where indoor plumbing was a luxury, squirrel was a meal, and sex ed was taught during senior year in high school (long after many girls had gotten pregnant and dropped out) Beth Ditto stood out. Beth was a fat, pro-choice, sexually confused choir nerd with a great voice, an eighties perm, and a Kool Aid dye job. Her single mother worked overtime, which meant Beth and her five siblings were often left to fend for themselves. Beth spent much of her childhood as a transient, shuttling between relatives, caring for a sickly, volatile aunt she nonetheless loved, looking after sisters, brothers, and cousins, and trying to steer clear of her mother’s bad boyfriends.

Her punk education began in high school under the tutelage of a group of teens—her second family—who embraced their outsider status and introduced her to safety-pinned clothing, mail-order tapes, queer and fat-positive zines, and any shred of counterculture they could smuggle into Arkansas. With their help, Beth survived high school, a tragic family scandal, and a mental breakdown, and then she got the hell out of Judsonia. She decamped to Olympia, Washington, a late-1990s paradise for Riot Grrrls and punks, and began to cultivate her glamorous, queer, fat, femme image. On a whim—with longtime friends Nathan, a guitarist and musical savant in a polyester suit, and Kathy, a quiet intellectual turned drummer—she formed the band Gossip. She gave up trying to remake her singing voice into the ethereal wisp she thought it should be and instead embraced its full, soulful potential. Gossip gave her that chance, and the raw power of her voice won her and Gossip the attention they deserved.

Marked with the frankness, humour, and defiance that have made her an international icon, Beth Ditto’s unapologetic, startlingly direct, and poetic memoir is a hypnotic and inspiring account of a woman coming into her own.

If you love Beth Ditto you will love this book.

Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, by Portia de Rossi

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Portia de Rossi weighed only 82 pounds when she collapsed on the set of the Hollywood film in which she was playing her first leading role. This should have been the culmination of all her years of hard work—first as a child model in Australia, then as a cast member of one of the hottest shows on American television. On the outside she was thin and blonde, glamorous and successful. On the inside, she was literally dying.

In this searing, unflinchingly honest book, Portia de Rossi captures the complex emotional truth of what it is like when food, weight, and body image take priority over every other human impulse or action. She recounts the elaborate rituals around eating that came to dominate hours of every day, from keeping her daily calorie intake below 300 to eating precisely measured amounts of food out of specific bowls and only with certain utensils. When this wasn't enough, she resorted to purging and compulsive physical exercise, driving her body and spirit to the breaking point.

Even as she rose to fame as a cast member of the hit television shows Ally McBeal and Arrested Development, Portia alternately starved herself and binged, all the while terrified that the truth of her sexuality would be exposed in the tabloids. She reveals the heartache and fear that accompany a life lived in the closet, a sense of isolation that was only magnified by her unrelenting desire to be ever thinner. With the storytelling skills of a great novelist and the eye for detail of a poet, Portia makes transparent as never before the behaviours and emotions of someone living with an eating disorder.

From her lowest point, Portia began the painful climb back to a life of health and honesty, falling in love with and eventually marrying Ellen DeGeneres, and emerging as an outspoken and articulate advocate for gay rights and women's health issues.

In this remarkable and beautifully written work, Portia shines a bright light on a dark subject.

A crucial book for all those who might sometimes feel at war with themselves or their bodies, Unbearable Lightness is a story that inspires hope and nourishes the spirit.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister by Anne Lister, Helena Whitbread (Editor)

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Anne Lister defied the role of womanhood seen in the novels of Jane Austen: she was bold, fiercely independent, a landowner, industrialist, traveller, and a lesbian. She kept extensive diaries of her life and loves, written partly in code. Made up of Greek letters mingled with other symbols of her own devising, Anne referred to the code as her "crypthand," and the use of it allowed her the freedom to describe her intimate life in great detail. Her diaries have been edited by Helena Whitbread, who spent years decoding and transcribing them.

While this work can be pretty tough reading, and Lister is not the most endearing person, her diaries are a fascinating and revealing piece of history.

Happy Accidents by Jane Lynch

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Best-known for her role in Glee, this is the hilarious and inspiring story of how Jane Lynch changed from a real-life Sue Sylvester to the happy and fulfilled actress she is today. In 1974, a fourteen-year-old girl in Dolton, Illinois, had a dream. A dream to become an actress, like her idols. But it was a long way from the South Side of Chicago to Hollywood, and it didn't help that she'd recently dropped out of the school play, The Ugly Duckling. But the funny thing is, it all came true. Through a series of happy accidents, Jane Lynch created an improbable -- and hilarious -- path to success. In those early years, despite her dreams, she was also consumed with anxiety, feeling out of place in both her body and her family. To deal with her worries about her sexuality, she started drinking almost every night and developed a mean and judgmental streak that turned her into someone similar to Sue Sylvester. Then, at thirty-one, she started to get her life together. She was finally able to embrace her sexuality, come out to her parents, and quit drinking for good. Soon after, a Frosted Flakes commercial and a chance meeting in a coffee shop led to a role in the Christopher Guest movie Best in Show. Then, of course, came the two lucky accidents that truly changed her life. Getting lost in a hotel led to an introduction to her future wife, Lara. Then, a series she'd signed up for was abruptly cancelled, making it possible for her to take the role of Sue Sylvester in Glee, which made her a megastar.

This is a book for the rabid Glee fan and for anyone who needs a new perspective on life, love, and success.

Valencia by Michelle Tea

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Valencia is the fast-paced account of one girl's search for love and high times in the drama-filled dyke world of San Francisco's Mission District. Michelle Tea records a year lived in a world of girls: there's knife-wielding Marta, who introduces Michelle to a new world of radical sex; Willa, Michelle's tormented poet-girlfriend; Iris, the beautiful boy-dyke who ran away from the South in a dust cloud of drama; and Iris's ex, Magdalena Squalor, to whom Michelle turns when Iris breaks her heart.

Not one for people who like their lesbians clean cut and behaved, this memoir lets everything hang out.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterson

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In 1985 Jeanette Winterson's first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It tells the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents. The girl is supposed to grow up and be a missionary. Instead she falls in love with a woman. Disaster.

Written when Jeanette was only twenty-five, her novel went on to win the Whitbread First Novel award, become an international bestseller and inspire an award-winning BBC television adaptation.

Oranges was semi-autobiographical. Mrs Winterson, a thwarted giantess, loomed over that novel and its author's life. When Jeanette finally left her home, at sixteen, because she was in love with a woman, Mrs Winterson asked her: why be happy when you could be normal?

This book is the story of a life's work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a tyrant in place of a mother, who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an northern industrial town now changed beyond recognition, part of a community now vanished; about the Universe as a Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how the painful past Jeanette Winterson thought she had written over and repainted returned to haunt her later life, and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her real mother. It is also a book about other people's stories, showing how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life-raft which supports us when we are sinking.

Funny, acute, fierce and celebratory, this is a tough-minded search for belonging, for love, an identity, a home, and a mother.

Have you read lesbian/bi women memoirs you think other bookworms should know about? Email jacqui@gaynz.com and she will add your picks!

 
Compiled by Jacqui Stanford - 14th June 2013

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