Stone Butch Blues

139569Leslie Feinberg ([1993] 2003)

This was beautiful and brave and I so loved it. It wasn’t easy to read though, if only because we live in a society that reacts with horrifying fear and violence to difference — something that thankfully is changing, and all because of women like Leslie Feinberg. I moved this to the top of my to-read list after seeing the outpouring of love and grief after her recent death from among so many of my friends, and now I too can mourn her properly. I wish I had read it long ago.

It opened up a whole new world to me, one that must have taken such immense courage to share with strangers. I know it’s fiction, but it contains the same searing honesty that the best autobiography offers up. In that sense Feinberg embodies what I most value about writing, activism and intellectual thought and she writes it here, sharing what I too most love about writing:

I discovered Norton’s anthology of poetry in the patients’ library–it changed my life. I read the poems over and over again before I could grasp their meanings. It wasn’t just that the words were musical notes my eyes could sing. It was the discovery that women and men, long dead, had left me messages about their feelings, emotions I could compare to my own. I had finally found others who were as lonely and I was. In an odd way, that knowledge comforted me (22).

This is what is universal, what will touch all of us who have struggled with difference and exclusion and found comfort in the words of others fighting through this in our respective ways. But really it is in its courageous particularity that this book shines brightest. This set of experiences transformed my understanding of this struggle, even though I thought I had well-developed empathy and a fairly good grasp on such things. Instead this ripped my heart wide open in ways I was not expecting, especially as it had none of the cushioning layers of privilege that have always stood between me and other narratives of non-hetero experience. It’s all union all the way, but working-class Buffalo, damn. I hadn’t fully owned the fact that there were others with even more reason than myself to fear public toilets growing up, and for whom those spaces never ever became safe. For whom public spaces themselves were (are) never safe, and the cops always the greatest predators.

Stone Butch Blues lays out all the pain of difference, the limited places and communities of safety and the intensity of loneliness separating them in time and space. How so many others are forced for their physical and mental safety to navigate workplaces, cities, domestic spaces. How they have been forced always to fight, change, flee, or give up and die. There is none of the simple being in the world that I take too much for granted.

Above all it points to the broader social changes that Stonewall began to make possible, as well as a map of how social relationships and loving relationships could and should be. For all of its pain it has something of wish-fulfillment to it. But I appreciated that it never allowed itself to fall into despair and violent oblivion in spite of the fact that it keeps you always terrified — one wrong step, one unlucky chance could send Jess¬† to the abyss, taking you with her. It is written with purpose, its words of fire calling to a better way of being, of doing, of living. One that can only be created collectively. The last lines:

I heard the beating of wings nearby. I opened my eyes. A young man on a nearby rooftop released his pigeons, like dreams, into the dawn (301).

As a writer and activist, the afterword (written 10 years after) contained individual words to cherish,¬† just as I do the whole of the story and struggle of Jess’s life that the novel offers like a gift. I loved the following passages about the relationship between fiction and life, the relationship of the author to both:

Now, a decade later, I am surprised. Astonished to be reintroduced to characters I birthed, who like anyone’s grown children developed fictional lives of their own, independant from mine. I discover a journey not identical to my life’s path and yet blazed with the intimate familiarity of my own life experience. I locate theory–the way it is lived in motion and in interconnection. Not hard to understand; hard to live (303).

This is amazing:

“Is it fiction?” I am frequently asked. Is it true? Is it real? Oh, it’s real all right. So real it bleeds. And yet it is a remembrance: Never underestimate the power of fiction to tell the truth (304)

And this, rescuing authorship from the vaguely megalomanic ‘high art’ definitions so often pinned upon, and embraced by, writers:

But with this novel I planted a flag: Here I am–does anyone else want to discuss these important issues? I wrote it not as an expression of individual “high” art but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet–a call to action. When, at my first public bookstore reading, someone asked me to sign a copy of the book for a friend who was too shy to speak to a published author, it broke my heart. My life’s work is about elevating collective organizing, not elevating individuals (305-306)

And this about how words and struggle relate:

Recovering collective memory is itself an act of struggle. It allows the generational currents of the white-capped river of our movement to flow together–the awesome roar of our many waters. And the course of our movement is not fixed in its banks like the Hudson River–it is ours to determine. From Selma to Stonewall to Seattle, we who believe in freedom will not rest until every battle is won (307).

Like songs and marches and struggle in the face of overwhelming odds, this made me cry. It explored the intersections of our oppressions in ways so many fail to do, it worked to build a broader movement of all us to create a world we can live in. I am so glad I share the world and the struggle with such women:

I can say this with certainty: If your life is being ground up in economic machinery and the burden of oppression is heavy on your back, you hunger for liberation, and so do those around you. Look for our brightly colored banners coming up over the hill of the past and into your present. Listen for our voices–our protest chants drawing nearer. join us in the front ranks. We are marching toward liberation.

That’s what the characters in Stone Butch Blues fought for. The last chapter of this saga of struggle has not yet been written (308).

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