Les­bian-fem­i­nist poet and schol­ar Julie R. Ensz­er has been blog­ging for The Pros­en­Peo­ple this week on poet­ry, loss, and the pio­neers of Amer­i­can Jew­ish les­bian writ­ing. In today’s post, she deter­mines the authors respon­si­ble for the sec­ond half of the les­bian-fem­i­nist midrash.”

Ear­li­er, I wrote about how much Eve­lyn Tor­ton Beck’s anthol­o­gy Nice Jew­ish Girls means to me as a poet. My new poet­ry col­lec­tion, Sis­ter­hood, is in con­ver­sa­tion with Nice Jew­ish Girls, but that isn’t the only book that’s part of the dia­logue. Two books from the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry are also a part of this con­ver­sa­tion. Gertrude Stein’s The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Alice B. Tok­las and Jo Sinclair’s Waste­land are both impor­tant parts of my imag­ined Jew­ish, les­bian, fem­i­nist world.

Jo Sinclair’s Waste­land is one of the great, under-rec­og­nized nov­els of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Sin­clair is bet­ter known for her nov­el The Changelings, pub­lished in 1955, but Waste­land, which won the 1946 Harp­er Prize with a $10,000 award, tells the sto­ry of Jake Brown (Jacob Braunowitz) and his strug­gle for accep­tance in the depres­sion-era Unit­ed States. Nar­rat­ed by Jake and his ther­a­pist through a series of psy­chother­a­py ses­sions, Waste­land also pro­vides an ear­ly por­trait of a les­bian, one who is com­fort­able with her les­bian­ism: Jake’s sis­ter Debby.

Deb­by encour­ages Jake to enter ther­a­py to address his own self-hatred. Jake loves his sis­ter, but he does not par­tic­u­lar­ly like that she is a les­bian; then again, Jake doesn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly like many things about his life, includ­ing that he is Jew­ish and that his fam­i­ly is poor. Although we nev­er hear Debby’s voice direct­ly (she is a shad­owy sec­ondary fig­ure), in my mind she looms large. She works as a writer for the WPA to help sup­port her fam­i­ly. Deb­by is a young woman who is les­bian, Jew­ish, and poor, three con­di­tions that stig­ma­tize her. In spite of this, Deb­by seems to embody a joie de vivre that inspires even the dour Jake. Deb­by rep­re­sents pos­si­bil­i­ty: the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new life through hard work, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being a les­bian. While writ­ing Sis­ter­hood, I thought about rela­tion­ships between sib­lings, par­tic­u­lar­ly rela­tions that are vexed. Non-sac­cha­rin por­tray­als of sib­lings inter­est­ed me most; I like sto­ries about sib­lings that are chal­lenged, com­plex, messy, dif­fi­cult, imper­fect. So does Sin­clair. Our work express­es this sisterhood.

I first learned about Waste­land while read­ing let­ters of les­bian-fem­i­nists from the 1970s and 1980s in the archives at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty. A few decades ear­li­er, Jew­ish les­bian-fem­i­nists found Sinclair’s Waste­land as cap­ti­vat­ing as I lat­er did. Through Jake, Sin­clair pro­vides us an image of our­selves in an ear­li­er era, an image that is both mean­ing­ful and nurturing.

Trac­ing back my per­son­al lit­er­ary his­to­ry of Jew­ish les­bians, the stop after Sinclair’s Waste­land is Gertrude Stein’s The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Alice B. Tok­las (1933). Stein’s Auto­bi­og­ra­phy made her a pop­u­lar icon in the U.S. I love the idea of Gertrude and Alice, two nice Jew­ish ladies, trav­el­ing around the coun­try pro­mot­ing The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy and lift­ing bel­ly in hotel rooms in the heartland.

Unlike Sinclair’s Waste­land, where we nev­er read direct­ly the voice of Deb­by, Stein’s Auto­bi­og­ra­phy speaks open­ly in a les­bian voice, even if through an elab­o­rate con­ceit in which Stein as the author writes as if she were her lover, Tok­las. This dra­mat­ic lin­guis­tic con­tor­tion gives us an explic­it les­bian voice, but it is still a voice seen through a mir­ror with the wink of an eye. Nonethe­less, the phys­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al inti­ma­cy of the two women is present on every page.

Togeth­er, these nov­els open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being les­bian in the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, in a time not our own. They remind me that les­bians are not new or con­tem­po­rary cre­ations, but they also remind me that speak­ing in our own voice was not always pos­si­ble. Some­times our voic­es need­ed to be medi­at­ed through broth­ers or through an elab­o­rate ruse to deflect or re-frame the truth.

In the 1970s, women’s lib­er­a­tion and gay lib­er­a­tion brought to les­bians the pos­si­bil­i­ty of speak­ing in our own voice; they gave us the abil­i­ty to occu­py the cen­ter of the frame. The excite­ment of the per­son­al and imme­di­ate I,” the asser­tion of this sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, by les­bian-fem­i­nists was cru­cial to my writ­ing. My work, includ­ing my new book Sis­ter­hood, embraces the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of les­bian-fem­i­nists from the 1970s, but when I think back to the moth­ers of my work, Sin­clair and Stein are among them. The strug­gle to write, to express lives that have been denied and den­i­grat­ed, is an impor­tant part of our lit­er­ary his­to­ry. I hon­or and engage the work of Sin­clair and Stein as part of my les­bian-fem­i­nist midrash.

Julie R. Ensz­er is a schol­ar and poet. She is the author of four col­lec­tions of poet­ry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sis­ter­hood, and Hand­made Love, and is the edi­tor of The Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er and Milk & Hon­ey: A Cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish Les­bian Poet­ry