2019 TBR Pile Challenge, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Poetry, pride month, Sarah Henstra, Young Adult

A Lesbian Classic & Walt Whitman

I wrap-up my Pride Month reading with two final pieces of fiction, one a classic adult novel of lesbian literature, the other a young adult novel inspired by Walt Whitman. Please feel free to check out the rest of my pride month reads. I had planned to read 5 LGBTQ books this month but managed to read 7, and I wasn’t disappointed at all!

Don Juan in the Village

Jane DeLynn’s novel, Don Juan in the Village (1990), is a classic of lesbian fiction. It follows the escapades and sexual conquests of its female protagonist, a lady Don Juan, as she travels the world and sleeps with as many women as she can. The narrative spans the course of 20 years, beginning sometime in the 1970s and ending sometime in the 1990s. There is a clear and stark, sometimes painful, contrast between the freedom of the post-1960s sexual revolution and the advent of what the narrator labels, “the plague.”

Each chapter is titled with the name of a different place to which the protagonist travels. Within, she describes not just the place she is visiting, but the women—and types of women—she meets there and makes love to. These experiences range from the soft and sensual to the nearly sadistic, but in any case, the narrator is almost always “very wet.” Yes, indeed, the story is that bold, that graphic, that open about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular. As a gay male, these experiences are about as far removed from my own as is possible, and yet the importance of this kind of text, particularly in the cannon of LGBTQ+ fiction, particularly in the canon of women’s literature, and particularly at a time when AIDS was devastating the gay community, is not lost on me.
So, while the writing style did not particularly appeal to me (rather dry, like a kind of Gertrude Stein meeting Ernest Hemingway at the middle of an intersection), it also makes sense: what better way to share taboo experiences to the widest range of readers as possible than in a clinically modernist way, as if “these are the facts, and if you can’t handle them, you’re the problem.” So, upon consideration, it’s an incredibly smart approach by an obviously talented writer. I think many readers will respond to this one, though it wasn’t right for me. That said, readers of LGBTQ fiction and those interested in LGBT literary history, as I am, should not pass it up.

This book is also one of my TBR Pile Challenge reads for 2019.

We Contain Multitudes

Sarah Henstra’s We Contain Multitudes (2019) is one of those rare novels that catches my attention right away, keeps it word-for-word, line-for-line, and page-by-page, and then upends everything just as I’m wondering if I could possibly love a book more. Somewhere about 75% into the novel (no, let’s be honest, I counted the pages and it was exactly 75% of the way in), the story takes an unexpected turn, one that I was not prepared for and one that I did not appreciate. It felt like my world was shattering. I understand how hyperbolic that must sound. IT’S JUST A BOOK, MAN, you’re probably thinking. Except that’s just it. This wasn’t just a book. This novel, these two young Whitman lovers, these two young Walt Whitmans, indeed, are much bigger than a story.

The novel is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters written between two high school boys, a sophomore and a senior. They are given an assignment to write to each other, typically with some kind of prompt from their English teacher. As they are in different classes, of different ages, and in wildly different social circles, they had never spoken to each other before, though they each knew who the other one is. This is because, in their own way, they are both wildly inconspicuous. What begins as a series of assigned letters, though, quickly drifts away from a mandatory task and into true, good old-fashioned letter-writing. Henstra adroitly creates two different styles and voices that match the two different teenage protagonists.

One struggle is that, given the design, the boys must re-tell each other the events to which they were both a party (otherwise, how would the reader know about them?) That said, even the author recognizes this complication and manages to address it through the characters’ letters as well. This is perhaps the only place where the author’s identity (or narrator’s, if we want to be more academic) can be felt. That said, a benefit to this is that the boys recount their shared experiences from their own perspectives, which turns out to be revealing to the reader, but also to the other person involved. A significant question that comes about, then, is how much can we really know another person?

I won’t reveal what happens at that three-quarter mark, except to say that it crushed me. The book resolves in a mostly satisfactory way, in my opinion, but I personally had been so distraught over the major conflict, that I was—I still am—left reeling. In a way, this speaks to the brilliance of Whitman, first of all, and to the brilliance of this novel and its characters, too. Upon reflection, I realize that Adam Kurlansky is deeper and more complex than he is given credit, and far crueler than I am or could ever be. I realize that Jonathan Hopkirk is stronger and more flawed than he seems, and far more forgiving than I am ore ever could be. And so, in this way, the point is proven: they do contain multitudes. We all do. The poetry is the point, and the poetry is in us all.

I haven’t felt this connected to Whitman or to myself since, well, since reading Whitman. It is not without its pains, nor without its fearsome joys. When I finished reading, I could only think of Whitman’s poem, “To You,” which, unless I’m mistaken, does not make an appearance in this novel. And yet…

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,

I whisper with my lips close to your ear,

I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you. O I have been dilatory and dumb,

I should have made my way straight to you long ago,

I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.

-Excerpt, “To You” (Walt Whitman)

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3 thoughts on “A Lesbian Classic & Walt Whitman

  1. Pingback: July Checkpoint! #TBR2019RBR | Roof Beam Reader

  2. Pingback: August Checkpoint! #TBR2019RBR | Roof Beam Reader

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