Romeo, Romeo, Where Art Thou?
I wander through the women’s bookstore in Toronto. My eyes fall on a title, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. I read the description, dip into the first chapter, and buy the book. My discovery of Jeanette Winterson comes early in her ascendancy and, really, it is only by chance (and luck) that I picked up this particular book. Soon all my friends will be reading it because I will be telling them how brilliant it is and loaning my copy to them.
Winterson inspires me both because she is a crackerjack writer with depth, audacity, and wit, but also because at that time the choices available for lesbians to see themselves portrayed were rare. To be represented—burdensome as it can be to queer writers—is a deep, sweet pleasure. Winterson continues to be unpredictable, thought provoking, and intelligent. Just like I like my women. She represents well.
Chrystos. A First Nations, queer poet who speaks rage against colonization and who voiced many of the internal lesbian community conflicts and contradictions taking place in the late eighties. Published by Press Gang of Vancouver—our own feminist press. Her characteristically blunt voice urged both action and contemplation, both love and rage. And if my memory serves, she is a femme queer.
More representation, more sweet pleasure.
My queer transgressions have turned from identity to form these days and transgressing genre is currently saving my writing soul. For several years I have been omnivorously consuming Anne Carson. Carson isn’t a queer writer but her writing queers genres, and this audacity, in combination with her wry humour, accessible voice, and deep intelligence brings me great pleasure.
Queer identity when wrought with complexity, intelligence, and risk is still a compelling attraction to me. Maggie Nelson’s memoir, The Argonauts is currently on my table. Nelson’s project of minutely deconstructing the implosion of her own and her partner’s identities and bodies through pregnancy, birth and gender transition speaks to my own wrestling with the crippling restraints of identity politics and the physical and identity transformations and challenges that my aging body is putting me through.
Ah sweet, to meet one’s own, specific, queer struggles on the page.
Today I attended a college production of Romeo and Juliet. The director had made the inspired choice of casting Romeo with a female actor. I took my family, which consists of my partner and our two daughters ages 11 and 14. I also invited my oldest daughter’s friend to join us. After extending the invitation to my daughter’s friend, I suddenly wondered if this was something that should be discussed with her parents. Should she see two women as Romeo and Juliet? Should she be exposed to lesbian representation without parental consent? I first saw Romeo and Juliet when I was fourteen and it socked me in the gut. Would I scar this girl for life?
In that moment of doubt, when I felt that those parents might be uncomfortable with their child witnessing an act of gender transgression, I knew that although I don’t need it as much as I did back in the eighties, lesbian representation is still powerful stuff. And even though I am fifty-five now and a long time queer, the learned habit of sensing for danger when stepping into the light, of needing someone’s permission (whose????) to be visible, still rings through my body.
I didn’t ask permission. I took all the kids without explanation. And when young Romeo made her entrance into the light, all boyish and tense, at exactly the same age as my daughter and her friend, at exactly the same age I was when I first witnessed this literary master work, now queered to represent my pleasure, tears sprang to my eyes.
Queer representation is still necessary, still powerful and still, oh, so sweet.
Nicola Harwood is a writer, theatre and interdisciplinary artist. Her work has been published in Plenitude, ROOM, Event, Geist, and various other magazines. Her plays and projects have been produced in Canada, the US, and Europe. A book of creative non-fiction, Flight Instructions for the Commitment Impaired, is due out in 2016 from Caitlin Press; her play, Buffalo Girls: Remix, will be produced by Frank Theatre in Vancouver in 2017.