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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!

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