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Nadine's blog

Reflecting Back / Sinister Wisdom 103 Celebrating the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival & 110 Dump Trump Interview

Reflecting Back on Sinister Wisdom issues 103 Celebrating the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and 110 Dump Trump with Red Washburn.

Photo credit: Elektra KB

Tell me about the issue of Sinister Wisdom that you edited. What were you most proud of in the issue? What was most challenging?

I co-edited two issues of Sinister Wisdom, “Celebrating the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival” and “Dump Trump: Legacies of Resistance.” I was most proud of the breadth of the submissions. It was wonderful to have so many diverse voices represented across a range of both genre and identity. It was challenging to reject writers and artists. While I was grateful to Julie Enszer [Sinister Wisdom’s editor and publisher] for her flexibility and generosity, I wish we could have included more voices.

What impact do you think your issue had?

For “Celebrating the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival,” the impact is significant in continuing conversations about legacy, testimony, and memory of womyn’s spaces that challenge heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and other systems of power using music and culture. We had stunning pieces about building the land, honoring spirituality and healing, preserving nature and community, and conducting trans allies in understanding workshops, in particular. It also was important for grieving Fest. For “Dump Trump: Legacies of Resistance,” the impact is imminent and incendiary. This is the apex of political rage for me, and I was overjoyed to see so much intersectional work on immigration, exile, fascism, and transphobia by lesbian/ queer writers across racial and ethnic differences. I was delighted that we had a good balance of seasoned and new writers as well as included trans lesbian/queer artists.

What does Sinister Wisdom mean to you?

Sinister Wisdom is one of the longest and finest markers of good lesbian/queer feminist writing, art, and cultural work. I have been reading it since college, and it has greatly shaped my understanding and appreciation of lesbian/ queer art and why we must continue to do work about our lives in our own voices. I tell my own college students about it!

Is there anything about the issue you edited that you would change now?

Besides including more writers and artists, the only change I wish I made was to publish the Michigan issue under my name Red Washburn, but I did not for professional reasons at the time.

What lesbian literature or creative work has impacted you since working with Sinister Wisdom?

I have been reminded of my ancestors, including Adrienne Rich. I was very much affected by the death of Leslie Feinberg and and Michelle Cliff. It was great to do a tribute for them at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and I was honored to write a piece honoring the life and work of Michelle Cliff for Sinister Wisdom’s “Moon and Cormorant” issue. I have really felt stimulated working with the other Board of Directors, especially editing and other writing work with Julie Enszer, Cheryl Clarke, JP Howard, and Tara Shea Burke. I am indebted to Julie for all her work with Sinister Wisdom, which would not exist without her untiring devotion to sustaining it.


Reflecting Back / Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations Editor Interview

Reflecting Back on Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations (2016) with Alexis Clements

Tell me about the issue of Sinister Wisdom that you edited. What were you most proud of in the issue? What was most challenging?

At the time that I was working on Variations, the Sinister Wisdom issue I edited (Sinister Wisdom 101), I was also working on a documentary film project titled All We’ve Got, which focuses on LGBTQ women’s spaces. I’m excited to report that the film will be premiering this fall at NewFest, but when I started work on Variations, I was only about a year into the documentary. I was still conducting interviews and steeping myself in research about the history and present of LGBTQ women’s communities. I was also participating in two different such communities at the time, the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the WOW Café Theatre.

All of this had me asking big questions about what it means to create spaces tied to aspects of our identities and how we define those identities. Having spent about five years volunteering on and off at the Lesbian Herstory Archives at that point, and having had the privilege of participating in Flavia Rando’s Lesbian Lives class there, I also had developed a pretty rich sense of the layered complexity of lesbian identity. Not all people who identify as lesbian sleep only with women, for instance. Not all people who identity as lesbian identify as women. Differences in the labels people use to identify themselves vary in significant ways across race and ethnicity and class. I was also very well aware at that time that there were some lesbian-identified people who were trying to revise history and claim that there was only ever one way to be a lesbian, that all lesbians had somehow agreed about that, and anyone who deviated from that supposedly agreed upon identity should be kicked out.

Consensus around how to be a lesbian has never existed. From as early as the 1950s, there were women who felt forced to conform to butch/femme identities in lesbian spaces and there were those who felt rejected by others because they embraced butch/femme identities. There were people who were welcomed into organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis and those who were excluded. There were women who felt pressured in the 1970s to conform to certain ways of dressing and wearing their hair in order to fit into communities of politically active lesbians. There were the sex wars. There were intense conflicts wiithin lesbian communities about whether or not it was okay for lesbians to bcome mothers. There were ardent separatists and those who didn’t want anything to do with separatism. There are the longstanding challenges faced by women of color participating in majority white lesbian spaces. There are women who love women who wanted nothing to do with the term lesbian. There are people who think of being a lesbian as something altogether different than being a woman. And there are the many attempts to limit trans lesbians’ participation in lesbian communities going back as far as the early 1970s, including threats of physical violence and even death lobbed by cis lesbians at trans lesbians, all in an attempt to limit lesbian identity to something that it never was.

There is no one way to be lesbian, there never has been. For me the rich complexity of lesbian identity is something to be celebrated and embraced, and it speaks the rich complexity of every identity.

This is a subject I obviously feel passionately about and am fascinated by. I, myself, feel both limited and confined by terms like lesbian, while at the same time I am energized and enriched by legacies of lesbians pushing against what it means to be a woman and also playing critical roles in driving political change in this country across the past century. Those contradictions are fraught and exciting. After all, there’s no good sex without friction. ;-)

All of that made working on this issue incredibly challenging and rewarding. It’s impossible to represent the full breadth of lesbian identity, let alone in a single issue of a journal. But the conversations I had in putting this volume together, including some difficult conversations, helped me, and, I hope, helped Sinister Wisdom and its community of readers to remember that the purpose of participating in community is not to seek out only those people we agree with in order to nod along in sameness, but to love one another enough to move through the inevitable conflicts we face and build a wider, ever-evolving community that can not only embrace but also instigate change.

I call myself a lesbian because I want to claim the political power attached to that word. I don’t embrace that identity to draw lines around who I fuck or how I represent my gender.

What impact do you think your issue had?

It’s very hard to get a sense of the impact the volume had. I know what conversations I was interested in, but with written text, it’s harder to know what conversations readers might have had after reading it.

That said, I can speak to what I did witness or experience, and that includes the launch event for the issue, which we held at Dixon Place here in New York City. It was an incredibly fun evening that represented a chance to connect some of the writing and ideas in the volume with actual people. It also represented an opportunity to build, at least for one night, the kind of broad and open lesbian community I aspire to be part of. I remain grateful to everyone who participated.

The other impact that I can speak to directly is the impact of the portrait on the cover.

It’s with sadness that I share the news that Janie Martinez, the woman depicted in Clarity Haynes’ gorgeous painting, passed away this summer. This was particularly sad news when thinking about the impact of that volume because more than any other comment, I heard from people about that portrait. People expressed such gratitude for it, such love and affirmation in seeing a reflection of aspects of their own bodies or those of their lovers.

After posting about Janie’s passing on social media, Clarity reminded me that Janie, a talented performer and an ardent activist, joined Clarity on stage at that launch event for a reading of texts from Clarity’s Breast Portrait Project (the series of paintings that includes Janie’s portrait). And it was from that reading that I got the sense of Janie’s incredible generosity and joyous spirit.

What also strikes me about that portrait, and was a big reason for wanting to include Clarity’s work in the volume, was the depth of the relationships that Clarity forms with many of her sitters, including Janie. While some people encountering her work on gallery walls may only ever know it as painting, the reality is that Clarity's work is drawn from and directly engaging with questions of community, identity, and human connection. Her Breast Portrait Project has been ongoing for over 20 years now, engaging people at women’s music festivals, at community events, and in lengthy sessions in her studio. It confronts the complexities of who we are, how we’re perceived, how we are affirmed or not affirmed, our gender, our well-being, and so much more. And each painting represents an ongoing conversation and relationship with both her subjects and her audience. All of which is to say, I can take no credit for the impact of that portrait, but I can call attention to the fact that it very much had one, and for that I am deeply grateful to both Clarity and Janie.

What does Sinister Wisdom mean to you?

Sinister Wisdom is an access point for me, to a community of people that I have not been able to be in a room with, but whose work and ideas I get to sit down with and consider because this forum exists. It’s an access point to history. It’s an access point to things that make me uncomfortable and frustrate me - an integral part of all communities. And it is also a signal of Julie Enszer’s incredible determination, energy, and love in continuing the work of keeping this journal going and helping it to evolve and bring generations together.

Is there anything about the issue you edited that you would change now?

Of course I wish I could have made it a bit longer, but constraints are productive, and, in the end, I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to the volume. Although it was sometimes tough to juggle the work of putting together the volume with the film and my day job, the reality is that it was incredibly productive for me to work on this volume while thinking about the topics in the film. The volume became part the process, part of a long and ongoing conversation I feel engaged in, around identity and community, that has taken many forms, from the play I completed in 2012 titled Unknown (which will also have its world premiere this fall with the 20% Theater Company in Minneapolis), and now with the film. I suspect it is a conversation that will continue to come up in my work.

What lesbian literature or creative work has impacted you since working with Sinister Wisdom?

There’s too many to name, so I’ll just share the three most recent books I’ve read written by and/or about lesbians that impacted me:

"All We Got" will have it’s world premiere on Friday, Oct 25 at NewFest, New York City’s LGBTQ film festival. There will also be an encore screening on Sunday, Oct 27.


Reflecting Back / Sinister Wisdom 94: Lesbians and Exile Editors Interview

Reflecting Back on Sinister Wisdom 94: Lesbians and Exile (2014) with Joan Nestle and Yasmin Tambiah

How did Sinister Wisdom 94: “Lesbians and Exile” come to be?

Yasmin and Joan: We met over twenty-five years ago at the first literary awards night of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation in New York City. At that time, we were both living in the United States. In 2003, we talked about working on an anthology on the theme “Questions of Home: Lesbians and Exile,” but no publisher was interested. Joan was living in Australia by then, and Yasmin was based in Sri Lanka and traveling widely for work. Yasmin communicated with Joan about the consequences of the war between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE), and the fallout on Tamils in the country as well as on people of other ethnic groups. Yasmin later moved to Australia, where her family had sought refuge as a consequence of the war. When the opportunity arose for us to be guest editors for Sinister Wisdom, we saw the chance to finally explore a topic that had been on our minds for so long.

What were you most proud of in the issue?

Joan: Wonderful to look down at the cover art by Naina Ayya, and to know the issue exists. The privilege of having the opportunity to create a little world in collaboration with Yasmin, and to be part of extending the world of Sinister Wisdom into new geographies. Meeting writers new to me, to us. It is an experience we would highly recommend–not without its challenges for editors and contributors alike but well worth it. It was the enactment of a vision, an exploration compelled by our life experiences and our political, cultural positioning.

Yasmin: “Lesbians and Exile” afforded us the opportunity to explore whether and how the term “exile” could be opened up to reflect on different types of alienation, not only the one we are most familiar with, namely alienation from geological formations and geographies, as well as related histories and genealogies. Naina Ayya’s exquisite cover image for the issue, titled “Travelers on a Journey”, reflects beautifully the idea of continuous motion, often towards unknown or uncertain destinations, while signalling the attendant transformations to survive and recoup, which are at the core of exilic experiences. Like Joan, it was wonderful to engage with the range of representations/voices from around the world, to be surprised and moved by the unexpected, and to co-witness and co-midwife (including with the support of Julie Enszer) the conscious internationalization of Sinister Wisdom.

What was most challenging?

Joan: What I have learned over the years, both in my thinking and in my actual living place, is that once I left the white American center, things I thought were worse than ever are actually long continuing histories of dispossession. Yasmin often brought me up short by her quiet question, why does this seem so bad to you now, Joan? Working together from our different cultural histories, bridged by our late twentieth century lesbian experiences, I learned to deeply appreciate the questions that shake certainties. Working on the topic of exile is not a comfortable undertaking, and we hope that the reader from time to time also experienced some decentering, some shift of the lesbian expected. We were not satisfied with our exploration, we know there are many more voices to be heard, to be encouraged, we know more fine writing is waiting to be shared, we are curious about how younger writers read the word exile, if social media changes the experience—so much more.

Yasmin: Co-editing with Joan was an invaluable experience. We challenged and accommodated each other. And compromised when needed – after lots of debate. Laughter is so essential to such engagement! As is nourishment: Joan’s wonderful cooking in Melbourne when I visited; and refuge in the foyer bar of a hotel while planning the issue during Joan’s visit to Sydney, where we drank copious amounts of coffee and cucumber-infused iced water. I was reminded by Joan of the need for balance – how to include novelty and unfamiliar perspectives while also offering some views that were more familiar to the existing Sinister Wisdom readership. There were some submissions we thought we should have included but weren’t able to because of the word count and deadlines. For instance, there was a short story we could not possibly have asked the author to trim because it would have compromised that piece. Perhaps it’s time to do a second issue on the theme, also because of where the world is at now?

What impact do you think your issue had?

Joan: If the issue reached new readers from countries outside the American center, if it encouraged lesbian writers and artists from the Middle East, from South East Asia, from Eastern Europe, from Russia, from the Asian diaspora, from Australia to see the pages of Sinister Wisdom as a possible home for their creations, we feel the issue was a success. Many of our writers were in transit, looking for safe places to continue their lives, writers like Samar Habib and Mariam Gagoshashvili, who amidst their travails, sent us markings of their journeys. Having their work in the world makes this issue a success for us.

Yasmin: Julie reported that the issue sold out quickly. Given the inability to more closely assess its impact, I’d like to think it’s because it was an unusual theme and the voices in it, whether familiar or new, whether American or from elsewhere in the world, were compelling and provocative in their articulations. Existing Sinister Wisdom readers took a punt, which I hope was rewarding, and we know Sinister Wisdom 94 made its way to new readers courtesy of the published contributors and others they shared their Sinister Wisdom issue with.

What does Sinister Wisdom mean to you?

Joan: Publications like Sinister Wisdom, like Azalea, like Lesbian Connection, like Conditions, like Heresies, like 13th Moon, helped inspire the founding of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in 1974. We knew how precious these volumes were, mappings of our cultural imaginations. When Yasmin and I finished Sinister Wisdom 94, put it to bed, so to speak, I carefully cataloged all the manuscripts, correspondence, putting them in an archival acid-free box for their eventual home in the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. But the box is an illusion. These writings will continue to do their work in the world as visitors, researchers, writers, adventurers find them. Because of my life-long connection to LHA, I do not share the worries that our lesbian cultures are disappearing in a broadening of all the ways we can be gender and sexually different, in the expanding alphabet of our communities. I have seen the vitality of our creations, the complex richness of our visions, sometimes as important in their failings as in their accomplishments. Now so many years later, I am so grateful that Sinister Wisdom is vibrantly alive and has given Yasmin and me another chapter in our friendship.

Yasmin: Sinister Wisdom is a grand old dame of the feminist dyke literary and creative scene. Its editors have included transnational and American feminist lesbians whose writings have inspired and sustained me, such as Michelle Cliff and Adrienne Rich. It’s wonderful to have special Sinister Wisdom publications such as The Complete Works of Pat Parker, and those “Aha” moments of recognition on reading Cheryl Clarke’s words in Sinister Wisdom over the years. Sinister Wisdom offers the possibility of seeing both new and familiar voices growing a tradition, and taking it down unexplored cataracts and through unmapped gorges, travels that could expand its readership and keep connecting lesbians across borders and transnationally.


Reflecting Back / Sinister Wisdom 98: Southern Landykes Editors Interview

Merril Mushroom, Rose Norman, and Kate Ellison are the editors of Sinister Wisdom 98: Landykes of the South. Sinister Wisdom 98 is a special issue of Sinister Wisdom where memoirs, interviews, essays and artifacts from the Southern Lesbian Feminist Activist Herstory’s Project, a project of Womonwrites, the Southeast Lesbian Writer’s Conference were featured. The collection of Landyke stories begin in 1969 with the possibly first Lesbian land group in the country, and comes to an end through the storytelling present at the end of the twentieth century, more specifically 1998 with Maat Dompim.

Merril, Rose and Kate responded to these questions about Sinister Wisdom 98: Landykes of the South and the challenges and pride that came with editing it.

1. Tell me about the issue of Sinister Wisdom that you edited. What were you most proud of in the issue? What was most challenging?

Merril: Getting herstories of landykes into print so women who didn't know about this, would. We have a whole new generation that this is new for. Difficulties were getting folks to meet deadlines and, most especially, cutting these wonderful stories so they'd fit within the even extended wordcount.

Rose: From our interviews with landykes living in the South, we pulled together stories of 19 different women’s lands, eleven of them still going concerns, plus stories about culture that supports and connects the women’s land movement—Maize, Shewolf’s Directory, Lesbian Natural Resources—and related topics, such as Naj’s story of being a traveling dyke and Merril’s interviews with young lesbians’ more recent experiences with collective living.

The timeline of 51 women’s lands in the South was the most challenging to create and also the thing I’m most proud of in the issue.

Kate: Sinister Wisdom 98: Landykes of the South contained beautiful, compelling stories of lesbian lives lived in community, with careful intention to create something new. It contained my story, and it was the first time I was challenged to write the whole story of my land, from my point of view. It had to be cut deeply (from 4000 down to 1500 words) to fit, and that was terribly difficult. I had to put together one of my friend’s stories from an interview, and then drastically cut it, and that was hard. The reward is that finally I got to share this story with a wide group of lesbians. Beyond my story, it was extremely rewarding to work with Rose and Merril to create this tangible, readable volume from our imaginations.

2. What impact do you think your issue had?

Merril: Many lesbians, especially younger ones, didn't know about the landdyke movement. They've learned something about our herstory and struggles. Also, several of the younger lesbians I know who are currently trying to live collectively on the land were interested to find that we had the same struggles back then that they do now. Then, the fact that ALL the material can be accessed through the archives makes it available to impact lesbians who may be interested in the future.

Rose: I think it was a positive for women’s lands. Since then, and directly because of this issue, Full Circle Farm got new residents who found it from reading our issue. After they moved there and had lived there awhile, Lynn Hicks decided to will them her share. The story of Maat Dompim –a land group started by the women who created the women of color tent at MichFest and intended as permanent space for women of color to gather--may be coming back out of dormancy under new ownership (see a 2017 update here)

Kate: I know it was well-received because it had to be re-printed!

3. What does Sinister Wisdom mean to you?

Merril: What SINISTER WISDOM means to me is that there is hope for the future for lesbian-feminists to persist even though so many lesbian-feminist publications are defunct. SW provides hope, support, information, enjoyment, and a sense of home for us in the cultural alphabet soup we seem to be disappeared into. I was present for the conception of SW at a meeting with Catherine & Harriet (see my Knoxville writing group piece this issue and also my piece in the 30th anniversary issue) and had a story in the very first issue of SW which motivated me to do much more writing for lesbian publications.

Rose: I had been a subscriber for several years before seeing SW as a place to publish the stories of lesbian feminist activism that we have been gathering. Like the women’s land groups, SW supports and sustains lesbian culture, much in the way that Maat Dompim was intended to sustain women of color.

[NOTE: In talking with Merril and Kate about this, I thought it interesting that though Merril and I were both subscribers—Merril since the very beginning of SW—neither of us thought of publishing our herstoirs there. Kate didn’t even know it was still in print. Barbara Ester was the one who suggested we pitch the stories to you. Merril adds that part about being in on the conception of SW in a followup email, and she has written about that for SW twice, the second time in her Knoxville Writers Group story for SW117.]

Kate: Before the Southern Lesbian-Feminist Activist Herstory Project, I was not aware that Sinister Wisdom was still publishing. In the past, I viewed it to be out of my reach, yet as a result of this issue and the on-going series, it has become part of my life. I have been in contact with skilled writers and editors, and I am grateful.

4. Is there anything about the issue you edited that you would change now?

Merril: The only thing I would change about the issue is for it to be even longer, and I know Julie (thank you) bent the word count requirements so we could do as much as we did.

Rose: I learned about at least one more Southern women’s land I wish we had included, Yellowhammer, 80 acres in northwest Arkansas, which Trella Laughlin contacted me about after she read the issue.

Kate: Hard to imagine what I would do differently besides allowing it to be twice as long! We so appreciate that Julie allowed it to run long, and she had to do extra fund-raising to accomplish that! Yet we could easily have filled two volumes.

5. What lesbian literature or creative work has impacted you since working with Sinister Wisdom?

Merril: Not a whole lot actually impacts me that much anymore, but I wallowed in the pleasure of reading a beautifully written novel by Edith Konecky, A PLACE AT THE TABLE, because it was about an old Jewish lesbian writer which I, too, am, and finding all of that in one character is rare.

Rose: I’m very immersed in the Southern Lesbian Feminist Activist Herstory Project. The Pagoda interviews I did for the Pagoda story that Merril wrote for the Landykes issue led me to start working on a book about this lost lesbian treasure, once known as “lesbian paradise” by the sea in Florida.

Kate: I take myself more seriously as a writer now. However, I have primarily immersed myself in the task of growing the Democratic Party in a small, rural, conservative county. It has been hugely rewarding and hugely frustrating. One of the rewards is to know and work with local community leaders, who are primarily African American. Democrats here are a mix of African Americans who have lived here most of their lives, deeply rooted in their communities and churches; and white people who (ALL) moved here from somewhere else for the beauty and space of rural living, and the affordable land. I never bring up my sexual orientation. Well, I did once, and the woman I was talking to said her pastor tells her to abhor the sin and love the sinner. She went to the AME church, which I thought might be more progressive. So, Democrats voting, that is the focus.

It takes a very long time to knock on doors and find people who will register to vote, intend to vote for Democrats, and get them actually voting. It takes hours to call them and urge them to vote. Active Democrats in my county were those who showed up for a meeting once a month, and worked on voting for a couple of months before each election. There is so much more to do and so few hands on deck.

Today, we were four Democrats in blue t-shirts at an African-American neighborhood event, to register people to vote, and collect signatures on the ballot petition to expand Medicaid (because Flori-duh). It was very productive for us, with six voter registrations (new or change of address) and 29 petitions signed!

Order Sinister Wisdom 98: Landykes of the South today!

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