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Get to know queer literary icon Adrienne Rich

New bio presents her as vibrant, 3-dimensional human being

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‘The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography’
By Hilary Holladay
c.2020, Nan A. Talese
$32.50/478 pages

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” declared the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Many who love poetry believe this to be true.

Yet, few would argue that poets, apart from queer bards Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, are household names.

Except for Adrienne Rich. Rich, the lesbian poet and essayist who lived from 1929 to 2012, was as famous as a rock star. Her death was front page news. A queer icon, Rich was beloved by poetry aficionados and all who worked for justice. (Rich donated $1,000 to Split This Rock, a poetry organization that works for social change.)

“I contain multitudes,” Whitman said.

Rich gave Whitman a run for his money. During her life, Rich, born in Baltimore, was many things: a poet, scholar, teacher, married woman, radical feminist and an out lesbian. Baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, Rich later in life discovered her Jewish identity.

Rich’s fans ranged from renowned hetero poet Robert Lowell to lesbians and gay men who stood in line to hear her read. Looking into her eyes as Rich signed your book at a reading, you felt as if this distinguished, award–winning poet cared about you.

“The Power of Adrienne Rich” by Hilary Holladay is the first biography of this iconic poet. Writing a bio of an icon is a tall order. How do you present your subject with their talents, heroic qualities and failings without falling into hagiography or smackdown?

Holladay, a biographer, novelist, poet and scholar of modern and contemporary American literature, deftly pulls off this daunting hat trick. With the skill of a novelist, she illuminates Rich’s life from her birth in Baltimore in 1929 to her death in Santa Cruz, Calif, in 2012.

From early on, Rich had a life filled with privilege and success. Her father Dr. Arnold Rice Rich was a prominent Johns Hopkins pathologist. From early on, Dr. Rich considered his daughter to be a “baby genius.” By age 4, she was playing Mozart on the piano). She wrote a small volume of poems when she was six.

Rich graduated from Radcliffe in 1951. Queer poet W. H. Auden chose her first poetry collection “A Change of World” (published in 1951) to be published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. Soon after receiving this honor, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and was studying at Oxford.

She taught at universities and colleges — from the City College of New York to Swarthmore and wrote more than 24 poetry collections and six volumes of prose. At the same time, she engaged in political activism. In 1997, Rich refused to accept the National Medal of Arts, the U.S. government’s highest award for artists. In her letter declining the award, she deplored the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice.”

Rich’s husband, Alfred Haskell Conrad, killed himself shortly after he and Rich separated. Rich came out as a lesbian in the 1970s. Her poems “Twenty-One Love Poems” were among the first lesbian love poems to be widely read. I’d wager that every lesbian remembers where she was when she read them when they were published in 1978. Later, Rich became a staunch supporter of queer men who had AIDS. Rich and the late writer Michelle Cliff were partners for more than 30 years.

In the midst of her complex and busy life, Rich, who for most of her life had rheumatoid arthritis, endured pain and surgeries.

The many honors Rich received include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994, a National Book Award in 1974 and the National Book Foundation medal for distinguished contribution to American letters in 2005.

Like everyone, Rich had her quirks. She could be imperious. Sometimes Rich drank too much or abruptly dropped friends she’d been close to.

Poetry for Rich “was as close to a religion as anything she would ever know,” Holladay writes.

In the “Power of Adrienne Rich,” Holladay helps us to know a queer literary icon – not as a god, but as a vibrant, three-dimensional human being. Amen to that!

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‘Fiona and Jane’ an enticing look at lifelong friendship

Two women bicker, fall distant – then meet again

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘Fiona and Jane’
By Jean Chen Ho
c. 2022, Viking
$26/275 pages

“Fiona and Jane,” a new short story collection by Jean Chen Ho is an enticing New Year’s present. The captivating volume features secrets, family conflict, queerness, astute cultural observations, and above all, friendship.

We long to fall in love. So we lose our hearts to our lovers and go to pieces when our relationships break up.

Yet, especially, if we’re women and/or queer, we want a best friend as much, maybe more, than we do a lover.

Fiona and Jane, Asian Americans, grew up in Los Angeles. They’ve been best friends since they met in LA in second grade. Jane’s family emigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan. Fiona, with her mother, came to LA from Taiwan when she was a young child.

In “Fiona and Jane,” Ho’s debut collection, the two friends over 30 years grow from second-graders to 30-somethings. Ho’s linked stories draw us into Fiona and Jane’s friendship as they become, at different times, incredibly close, then distant (both geographically and emotionally) from each other.

Ho, 41, has more writing chops than you can imagine. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. Ho has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing has been published in The Georgia Review, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Ho was born in Taiwan, grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. But, “none of the things that happen to Fiona and Jane are autobiographical,” she said on the podcast “All of It with Alison Stewart,” “I didn’t mine my particular life experiences and put them in the book out of respect to my oldest and dearest friends.”

Fiona is hetero, smart  and attractive. As a teen, she earns enough money to buy a secondhand car (named Shamu, Ho writes, “after the Sea World killer whale because of the corroding white patches all over the black paint.”).

While Fiona’s mother isn’t religious, Jane’s Mom is devoutly Christian. Jane is bisexual. When she and Fiona are teens, they kiss  “to practice” – what kissing’s like. Though she doesn’t tell her Mom, Jane, when a teenager, has a romantic relationship with her female piano teacher.

When she’s young, Jane often does what Fiona does. Because Jane’s tall, she’s often thought of as “Fiona’s bodyguard.” As she grows older, Jane begins to rely more on herself.

Fiona is eager to leave LA. She goes to college, then moves to New York City with her first boyfriend. She enters law school, then drops out.

Jane stays in Los Angeles. She opts to take a gap year between high school and college. The gap year morphs into a couple of years. Jane has relationships with women as well as with Julian, a vet who has PTSD.

Though Fiona and Jane are quite different from one another, they keep circling back to each other. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they both have lost their fathers.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “The Night Market,” Jane speaks of her visit before she graduated high school to Taiwan where she has come to see her Dad. Her Dad has gone from LA to Taiwan for a temporary job. Jane learns that he’s going to stay in Taiwan because he’s fallen in love with a man there. Her Dad asks her to keep this a secret. But, in her pain at his revelation, she outs him. Jane blames herself for his suicide.

Fiona discovers as a child that she’s never known her father. Her mother raises her on her own.

Over the years, Fiona and Jane bicker, fall distant – then meet again. As teens, they help each other get fake IDs so they can drink. As adults, they help each other through moving apartments, love affairs and mourning.

 “Sixteen years since my father died, and I was still alive,” Jane thinks, “I got up, every morning. I lived, day by day. I had my best friend, Fiona Lin.”

Check out “Fiona and Jane.” Then, text your best friend.

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Books

Seeking love and community in Nicaragua

‘High-Risk Homosexual’ explores author’s youth, coming out

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(Book cover image courtesy of Soft Skill Press)

High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir
By Edgar Gomez
c.2022, Soft Skull Press
$16.95/304 pages

Here. Try this.

It fits you, but the color isn’t flattering. It’s too long, too short, too tight, too loose. That’s not your style, so try something else until you find the thing that looks like you. The perfect thing is out there. As in the new book “High-Risk Homosexual” by Edgar Gomez, when something’s right, it’s right.

He was 13 when he figured out that he was a problem to be solved.

Edgar Gomez’ mother had left him in her native Nicaragua with his tíos, just for a while because she had to return to Florida to work. He wasn’t there without her for long, but it took years for him to understand that his time with his uncles was meant to make him more masculine.

In retrospect, he says, nobody wanted him to be a man more than he did. He wanted to be liked by other kids and so he told lies in school to make himself stand out. He wanted his mother to see his love of pretty things and say that it was OK. He wanted his brother to acknowledge that Gomez was gay, and to tell him that he loved him.

Instead, after his brother left for college, Gomez got his first boyfriend, a boy he came out to but who couldn’t come out to himself. He was called names in school. He came out to his mother, who freaked out about it. He befriended a drag queen, but “Princess” used him.

Things he wanted: a real boyfriend. Love. A ban on the stereotype of a macho Latinx man.

Things he still had, while in college: his mother and older brother. A tormentor-turned-mentor. A part-time job. His weirdness. His virginity.

Things he wanted to lose, while in college: his room at his mother’s house. His virginity, but that wouldn’t happen until later, during a painful one-afternoon-stand with a hot man who said he had a girlfriend. That hurt, both physically and emotionally but like so many things at so many times, Gomez tried not to think about it.

If he never considered what he didn’t have, he says, “I wouldn’t miss it.”

In a way, you could say that “High-Risk Homosexual” is a book in search of a point. It’s really quite random and told (mostly) linearly, but not quite. It has its peaks, but also low valleys. And you won’t care about any of this, because you’ll be enjoying every bit of it.

Yeah, this memoir is good: author Edgar Gomez’s literary wandering makes it feel much like an honest conversation with readers. There are wince-worthy moments that allow empathy here, and experiences that are unique but oddly ubiquitous, that leave space for a sense of sympatico. There are passages that are so wistfully uncomfortable that you might squirm, or start “snort-laughing,” or want to stop a moment and just think.

And there’s room for that, too, so take your time. “High-Risk Homosexual” is an affable book with just enough seriousness to make it worth a try.

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Books

A lesbian Baby Boomer’s relatable story

‘Audacity of a Kiss’ a warm, familiar biography

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The Audacity of a Kiss: A Memoir
By Leslie Cohen
c.2021, Rutgers University Press
$24.95/235 pages

Don’t move.

Stay entirely still, don’t even breathe. You’re about to become a symbol of something that’s bigger than you are, something you’ll be proud of for the rest of your days. Don’t flinch, scratch, or sneeze, just don’t do anything. Don’t. Move. Unless it’s to turn the pages of “The Audacity of a Kiss” by Leslie Cohen.

Behind every statue is a story, and the one behind those representing four people in Christopher Park in New York’s Greenwich Village is no different. But to explain how this monument came about means also telling a long love story and a tale about a nightclub.

Leslie Cohen’s mother was her very best friend, although there were misunderstandings in the relationship. Seven-year-old Leslie couldn’t see why she received pink girly things for her birthday. In later years, she couldn’t understand why her mother deferred to Leslie’s father and endured his abuse.

The one thing Cohen did understand was that once puberty hit, the boys in her neighborhood were no longer pals to roughhouse with. She was supposed to want to date them and it didn’t entirely make sense, but Cohen went along with it even after she left home for college. She went out with boys and lost her virginity to one, but meeting Beth was the most remarkable thing about higher learning. She was sure she was in love with Beth, but Beth was obsessed with a boy and so Cohen moved on.

She moved on to other men and then women, at a time when women loving women was unthinkable, and the Summer of Love. Cohen embraced her lesbianism, fell in and out of love, and went into a partnership with three other women to open New York’s first lesbian club, where lesbians and straight feminists were welcome to dance and drink.

To be sure, it was a heady time. Cohen worked nonstop, gained confidence and learned to run a bar business. She was busy, but happy.

And then Beth came back into her life.

Let’s face it: author Leslie Cohen’s life story is basically like that of a lot of lesbians born at the beginning of the Baby Boom. A solid childhood, confusion, self-awareness, entrepreneurship all make a somewhat familiar story set apart by one abundant thing: warmth.

Indeed, “The Audacity of a Kiss” is an easy tale. It’s comfortable, like a crackling fireplace and a glass of wine on a cushy sofa.There are accomplishments here, told so that you really share the pride in them. Readers are shown the struggle that Cohen had, too, but experiences are well-framed by explanations of the times in which they occurred, with nothing overly dramatic – just the unabashed truth, and more warmth. Opening this book, in a way, then, is like accepting an invitation to own the recliner for an evening, and you won’t want anything else.

Younger lesbians will get a lot from this book, but anyone who’s been there will relish it. Get “The Audacity of a Kiss,” then sit down and don’t move.

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