Who Was that Woman Anyway? Snapshots of a Lesbian Life, by Aorewa McLeod (Victoria University Press, 2013), 222 pp., $35
In a prefatory statement to her ‘novel’, Who Was that Woman Anyway? Snapshots of a Lesbian Life, Aorewa McLeod invites the reader to wonder about the extent to which the novel is fictional: ‘All of these stories are inspired by real life events. Some details happened in real life, some did not. The characters are fictionalized and given fictional names.’
It is not surprising that there is often a thin line between fiction and memoir in gay and lesbian writing. Lesbian lives are lived against the grain and those who record them are faced with particular challenges in writing about themselves, their lovers, friends and communities. Lesbian identities are hard-won, treasured by their owners and validated by their communities, yet in public life they are routinely ignored, feared, even despised. Their identities are fluid not fixed, are self-assigned in the most personal manner and are normally visible only by choice. Gay and lesbian communities reinvent themselves, changing and being changed by the cultures around them, reaching for a continuity that is hard to achieve when histories are subversive and hidden. Adrienne Rich, American lesbian poet and National Book Award winner, aptly wrote in a poem: ‘I have to cast my lot with those / who age after age, perversely, / with no extraordinary power, / reconstitute the world.’ (‘Natural Resources’, from The Dream of a Common Language, 1977)
How, then, do lesbian and gay writers approach the problem of portraying these shifting worlds of personal identity and community? Fiction offers the writer possibilities that memoirs, as non-fiction, do not, even though contemporary memoirs, considered as creative non-fiction, stretch the boundaries of the genre. Advantages of fictional techniques include allowing imagination to trump memory, unproblematic use of dialogue, less inhibition in writing about sex and other personal matters, and the ability to impose a satisfying plot structure on the messy chronology of a life. Fiction can speak truths about a life, even when surface details are invented and the events portrayed have a cloudy relationship to lived personal history. Importantly, the identities and privacy of real people, including the writer, can be camouflaged. For the lesbian writer this protective device may allay deep concerns around ‘outing’ women lovers, friends and acquaintances. A downside is that when memoir masquerades as fiction, the historical record of lives is less well served. But then, subterfuge has always been an integral part of lesbian and gay culture (think of Gertrude Stein’s classic memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, where she writes of herself in a voice disguised as that of her real-life partner).
Lesbian memoir has come out of the closet in recent years, with increased social acceptance opening up the territory. Jeanette Winterson supplanted autobiographical fiction with memoir, using her early life as material for her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit yet decades later covering the same ground in the autobiographical Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Memoirs from lesbian writers tend to focus on childhood, family relationships and the identity struggles of coming out. Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoirs Are You My Mother? and Fun Home are contemporary examples, as is the lesser known but equally accomplished memoir, Name All the Animals by American writer Alison Smith.
Memoirs of lesbian identity emerging through personal struggles and in the context of family life are less of a minefield than portrayals of lesbian lives where they are lived, enmeshed in friendships and communities, simply because there are fewer people to ‘out’. In Aotearoa New Zealand it is interesting that, although coming-out stories have been published in both memoir and fictional formats, the full-length works have focused on lives in and around lesbian communities and have taken the form of novels. Renee, Frances Cherry, Pat Rosier and Sandi Hall have all produced lesbian novels, and there are also examples, once again very few, of novels with central lesbian characters, such as Julie Helean’s The Open Accounts of an Honesty Box. A light-hearted approach to their subject matter is what they tend to have in common, perhaps a relief given that classic lesbian literature in the tradition of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness portrays the lesbian’s lot as unhappiness, failed relationships, madness and suicide.
Who Was that Woman, Anyway? adds to our small New Zealand tradition of lesbian novels. It is lively, direct, sensual, evocative and very funny, yet has an underlying seriousness. Its heroine, Ngaio, is given to us in ‘snapshots’: chapters situated in different stages of her life and historically different eras, beginning with student days and moving on to the near present. In all these situations Ngaio is immersed in friendship circles – in student days, her girlfriends and workmates, then the rough-edged lesbian communities of the 1960s, followed by lesbian feminist worlds of the 70s and 80s, and the more diverse sexual identity communities from the 1990s onwards. These networks are to the fore as ‘snapshots of lesbian life’, while Ngaio’s relationships within family and her academic world form a kind of backstory.
Ngaio is something of a chameleon, taking on the colouring of her changing communities, fully engaged yet a little removed, an observer and questioner – a stance that invites humour and sharp observation. Her hilarious coming-out story exemplifies this. Psychiatric-aiding in Nelson as a holiday job, Ngaio discovers a compelling community of women:
I was a wide-eyed innocent compared to the psychiatric nurses – really wide-eyed, staring at their style and flamboyance and insouciance. They were probably no older than Liz and me, but they seemed so much more sophisticated and they were undeniably tough … Once the nurses realised that both Liz and I would drink as well as play pool, they asked us to their evening soirees. Ten or so would crowd into one of their rooms, cram on the bed, sit on the desk and floor, put the record player on and smoke and drink and drink and drink. They joked about the patients, matron, their jobs and one another. They laughed at us – ‘little scared white rabbit student girls’ – but affectionately, so I felt included and even loved. They all rolled their own which seemed both tough and suave. And dance! Wow, thought Liz and I, could they dance.
Here she observes lesbian relationships and finds her first love, Susie, whose whanau lands, romantically, are on a remote island in the Sounds. Then, as a postgraduate student at Oxford, her ‘spiritual, intellectual, aesthetic’ and moody Amabel contrasts unfavourably with the ‘ribald, dashing psychiatric nurses of Nelson’. On her return Ngaio finds that the academic world ignores single non-heterosexual women. The ‘rather rough bar dykes of Auckland’, on the other hand, are kind and supportive of her as reluctant caregiver for her alienating mother who has suffered a stroke. Her friends regard Ngaio’s academic interests as quirky but not too off-putting and she, no snob, is capable of being just one of the girls. As the decades move on, Ngaio’s wry take on the world of radical politics is amusing, with her somewhat sceptical immersion in lesbian feminist politics, her comradeship with Māori land struggles, and the need to brace herself against the challenges of postmodernist and queer theory.
Ngaio’s academic career, with the course on women writers that makes her reputation, serves as a counterpoint to the alcohol narrative which also weaves through the story, where she contrasts her ‘sad, inner self’ and her ‘confident, external lecturing self’. Drinking has been an integral feature of lesbian communities and for Ngaio, it has become a problem. Her youthful search for meaning comes to the fore again as she struggles with the concept of ‘a higher power’, central to the AA model. However, the warmth she gives and receives from her fellow battlers in addiction – ‘these are my people,’ she exclaims with wonder – speaks to the ease she has developed with outsiders. The final chapter, covering Ngaio’s experience of a rehab programme, is particularly moving in its portrayal of the supportiveness of her relationship with her long-term partner.
Aorewa McLeod has given us a life, lived against the grain to be sure, but universal in its character’s search for acceptance, love and meaning. It’s a great contribution to lesbian writing and a novel for lesbian communities in New Zealand to treasure, but it also should be read and enjoyed by anyone who is interested in women’s lives, whether imagined or recorded, and how women reconstitute their worlds.
HILARY LAPSLEY is an author and researcher who lives in Auckland. She is currently the National Convenor of the Women’s Studies Association of Aotearoa New Zealand.