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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.

"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

"Your silence will not protect you."

Audre Lorde

"Live your lives, honorably and with dignity."

Andrea Dworkin