In the infamous words of Jerry Seinfeld and his crony George Costanza, “I’m NOT gay! Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” And there is nothing wrong with a collection of writings which is defined as “lesbian” or “cultural” or “post-colonial” – if the collecting principle is informed by a standard of excellence as well as that of sexual preference. Car Maintenance, Explosives and Love and Other Contemporary Lesbian Writings is an anthology of writings which encompass several genres and concerns lesbian life, love and the cultural influences which define a writer’s connection to Australia or New Zealand. This is both an expansive and limiting collecting principle that works, somehow, to showcase a few excellent pieces within a framework of sometimes insipid and less-than-stellar works.
The introduction to Car informs the reader that lesbians have become “cultural amphibians,” by which I understand the editors to mean that they are capable of living (figuratively speaking, of course) both on land and in water. It continues with the statement that “Antipodean lesbian writing exhibits, and therefore, makes a difference,” meaning, I’m guessing, that this is lesbian writing that exhibits qualities of direct or diametrical opposition to writings by other lesbians, homosexuals or heterosexuals. All true statements, though not earth-shattering. After all, simply surviving as a woman living on the cusp of the new millennium is to be a cultural amphibian, whether one is straight or gay.
After laboring through a tedious poem written to k.d. lang, by the infamous “Anonymous, twentieth century,” and a metaphorically challenged little ditty called “Cycles Per Second,” by Urszula Dawkins, in which the narrator likens her libido and her mobile phone to the chirrups of crickets, complete with references to “clitoris antennas” and “dripping walls” and “the sound of my finger on the rim of an empty wineglass,” I came to “Atawhai,” a respectable short-short story which piqued my interest. “Atawhai,” by Powhiri Rika-Heke, is about a Maori girl who has moved from Queen Victoria (the Maori girls boarding school where she had begun to feel stifled intellectually) to a new school where she is the only Maori, a lone “teke-face” amidst a sea of smirky white masks. She copes by letting the other girls know that she can and will fight if necessary. After several lonely months, a new girl arrives and befriends Atawhai, much to the chagrin of the other white girls. Frances isn’t merely slumming; she seems genuinely interested in Atawhai, and Atawhai can foresee an end to her lonely school days. “Atawhai” appeals to the reader in its simple telling, in the spare but sparkling details of Maori life, and in its lack of hyperbole. Ms. Rika-Heke presents an age-old story set in a marginalized culture. In her tale, the reader can see every Jane Eyre who has ever been stuck at an unpleasant school and endured mental torture, whether by her `mates or a tyrannical headmaster, before finding friendship with another girl whose differences, whether shiny curls or different skin color, are a source of both fascination and comfort. The reader is not told if Atawhai and Frances will develop a lesbian relationship, nor is the possibility even alluded to in the writing. As every woman who has ever been a lonely girl knows, intimacy between girls is about many things, the least of which may be sexual intimacy. Kudos to Ms. Rika-Heke for not bludgeoning us with what is better left to our imaginations.
Ngahuia Te Awekotuku tells the story of “Kurangaituku,” a huge birdwoman who presides over a family of exotic creatures in a messy cave overlooking a forest. Kurangaituku decides to find herself a wholly human friend to help keep the place clean and help her care for and love the other animals. While searching the forest one day, she hears a strange and unusual voice singing through the trees. Following it, she finds a beautiful young man named Hatupatu whom she recruits to help her mind her pets. Hatupatu, coveting Kurangaituku’s glittering, feathered cloak, agrees to help her. It doesn’t take too long for Hatupatu to trick Kurangaituku into leaving the cave. He kills all her pets and steals her cloak. Kurangaituku catches up with Hatupatu but isn’t able to capture him. He loses his cloak in his escape from her, andd later goes back to find it. Kurangaituku, who has been waiting for just such a moment, surprises him in the forest. In a brazen effort to escape, Hatupatu smiles and begins to sing. Kurangaituku rips his throat out in an act of ultimate, bloody vengeance, silencing his voice forever, killing him without killing him. In “Kurangaituku,” Ms. Awekotuku offers a timeless fable that tells a story, teaches a lesson, and thrills a reader with its unvarnished account of wrongs righted and justice served. The human man who sacrifices love and friendship for material possessions is a theme common to all cultures, but particularly pertinent to most native or aboriginal cultures which have been “colonized” into annihilation.
Of the many poems included in the volume, one of the few that really grabs me is “The Promise,” by Lisa Bellear. The speaker wants to learn to drive a big, flashy, red car before she dies, but instead of speeding past the bus and tram stops where brothers, sisters and friends wait in all kinds of weather to get to their supermarkets, she will slow down. She knows how it feels to wait and watch “the brothers, the sisters who sped past tram stops / in their big flash red cars / with gubbament number plates.” She doesn’t want to be one of the sisters without “time / to stop. their sardonic / laughter was crueler / than any Melbourne winter.” How many of us haven’t once longed for the fine house or the flashy car, knowing we’ll be different, kindlier, more aware of those we’ve left behind? This poem puts envy in a proper, natural perspectiveâ€¦in a refreshing but touching way.
Donna Jackson’s play, “Car Maintenance, Explosives and Love,” is one of those pieces I would love to hate, but find myself liking in spite of my initial misgivings. On a set which includes a car chassis with seat, steering wheel and visible motor, work bench, ropes, sink and various tools, a lesbian mechanic stomps, runs and yells, performing various acrobatic moves on the car and the ropes, as she tells the story of a woman she saves from the lascivious advances of a man. The woman becomes her lover, and the relationship begins on terms most would recognize: her new lover starts out fascinated with the mechanic’s unusual preoccupation with cars, sex is great between them, and the woman gets her car overhauled. But as is the way with all relationships, the new wears off, little things begin to irritate, the lover decides to sell her overhauled car, and the mechanic begins taking lessons from a “Fast Eddie” on how to become a demolition expert. The relationship between the mechanic and her lover ends when the lover decides that the one aspect of the mechanic that she likes is her physical strength, and invites the mechanic to knock her around a bit while they have sex, just playing, of course. The mechanic says no even as she grabs her lover by the throat, frightening her into running away. I would love to hate Car Maintenance, Explosives and Love because some of its writing is so cliché, such as “the tough chick is a game I play to cope with boys. And rich women.” Or “she bends down, leans towards me and lowers her head admiring the dash. Slips one leg in. Lowers herself onto the seat, and slides in . . . really slow.” But I like the play nonetheless. After all, some of the clichés make a lot of sense, and isn’t life sometimes like a cliché? “Sometimes it’s better to blow things up than to service and tune them,” the erstwhile mechanic and demolition aficionado tells us in the end. With both cars and relationships, “the small things are the most important. If you drive too far without water or oil, you have to replace the whole motor. Which is an expensive way of learning to check it regularly.” Wild drama. Wise words.
In “Being,” Heather Nix cleverly tells a story with a variety of endings from which the reader can choose; in sequential order, the stories are labeled L, E, S, B, I, A and N, or, respectively, Incompatibility, Malice, Coming Out, Mystery, Two-Sided, Humiliation and Jealousy. At the end of each mini-story, the reader is invited to read on, or is given a suggestion for skipping around. Each story tells of some aspect of a relationship that proves its undoing. Especially poignant is “A Coming Out Storyâ€¦” in which the narrator reveals to her friend of twenty-odd years that she is a lesbian. Needless to say, her friend dumps her after her revelation. Using a wonderfully apt simile, the narrator comments that, “friendships are like being connected to an effective septic system. The relationship remains functional and you wonder whatever you did without one. Until one day, you discover the tank is choc-o-bloc and the sh-t starts oozing out around your feet and you know it’s time to step away but you find out you’re not wearing your gummies.” So true! And in “A Story of Jealousy . . .” the narrator encounters a different kind of rejection. Having established a friendship with another lesbian, the narrator invites the woman and her partner to go out one evening. Sincerely believing that now she will have two new friends, the narrator is disappointed when the two neglect to ever call again. “She thinks you’re too nice,” the friend tells the narrator when she calls to find out if she has offended them. “She thinks you’re trying to hit on to one of us. That’s why we only mix socially with other couples.” A nice way of saying three’s a crowd, no matter what your sexual preference. With her inventive stories-within-a-story framework, Nix provides piercing insight into what makes so many relationships eventually flounder.
Other stories I enjoyed included “Blue,” by Jan Marsh, in which a woman with children resists her lover’s attempts to cajole her into “going with the flow,” eventually pushing her away and losing the warmth of the relationship to her need to be in control. Annamarie Jagose’s “My Dearest Navaz” is a well-crafted story of a young woman who becomes involved with two lesbians (Lillian, a sophisticated photographer, and Navaz, a translator of novels) and finds herself in a relationship that she cannot fathom living without, even as she unwittingly manipulates herself out of it. In a story based on the first chapter of her unfinished novel, Sarah-Line Letellier writes about Jewish identity and sexuality. “The Taste of Marrah” is about a young Jew who finds himself in a Nazi concentration camp, bunked with a homosexual, a nasty “arschficker,” someone he never would have associated with before the war. His bunkmate is eventually castrated for the cause of Nazi medical experimentation. The narrator ruminates on the forced color-coding of the homosexuals during the war, and the color-coding homosexuals use now to identify themselves to each other, such as the different colors of the hankies they strategically place in their back pockets to indicate either dominant or submissive. “In those days there was no question of who was passive and who was in control. There was no friendly fluctuating line between masochist and his passionate torturer.”
Unfortunately, even in the face of the narratives I found worthy of merit, most of which I’ve discussed here, many of the stories and poems in the collection bored me with their juvenile overuse of words such as f-ck and c-nt, sounding more like little kids trying to shock than writers with the entirety of the English language at their command. In Susan Hawthorne’s “Unstopped Mouths,” eight pages of narrative can be distilled into four or less when one takes away the annoying footnotes explaining no less than twenty-one allusions in the text, highlighting for the reader everything from the significance of the word “gymnasium” to phrases such as “topmost bough” and “limbs loosening.” When read without the footnotes, the piece might be considered a nicely wrought little bit of stream-of-consciousness (written too, too cleverly in lower case and without punctuation) about the need for lesbians to have a community to belong to and the necessity of remaining hidden. Read with the footnotes, it is simply annoying. And then there is “Cave of Tongues,” by Cathie Dunsford, in which a woman named Karen, in a kayak, enters the V of a current where the water foams, “licking the sides of her kayak” and “long, moist tongues slide along the bottom of her craft.” Her photographer friend, Anna, shoots frame after frame, describing to herself how Karen should “harness [the wave’s] power within her wide embrace” and the erectness of Karen’s nipples. The two women then share a feast of mussels, each watching the other’s tongue as it “moves under the flesh and she savours its strong aroma, sucking the juices in.” All this and I’ve only reached the third page of the story! Inside a cave, entered (of course) by a slit, are “pink and green stalactites…like large tonsils.” Karen “imagines she is surrounded by pink tongues each sucking her sensuously,” and what follows is a description of said tongues as they move up her body to her “shivering bulb,” resulting (of course) in a mind-shattering orgasm, expanding from “the cave of her vagina, spiraling into every crevice of her body as the volcano erupts.” Enough said.
To be a writer is to express universally appealing themes in diverse but recognizable ways. We all want to see ourselves in the words we read, whether such words are written by men or women, or for men or women. When the writing is so narrowed by the titillating details of the author’s sexual preferences that the reader cannot see herself (or himselfâ€¦) in the words, then it is simply bad writing. After reading the anthology twice, the pieces I enjoyed both times involved themes of universal humanness and humanity; the works which were laughable or merely bad were those that presented lesbian love and passion as somehow different and superior to the love and passion of which all humans are capable. If this sentiment could have been expressed with fewer inanities and trite hyperbolic metaphors, I might be more inclined to believe it.