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In Honor of Gay History Month

Tribute:

noun 1. a gift, testimonial, compliment, or the like, given as due or in acknowledgment of gratitude or esteem. 2. a stated sum or other valuable consideration paid by one sovereign or state to another in acknowledgment of subjugation or as the price of peace, security, protection, or the like. 3. a rent, tax, or the like, as that paid by a subject to a sovereign. 4. any exacted or enforced payment or contribution. 5. obligation or liability to make such payment. I feel an obligation to pay, subject to sovereign, a testimonial given in acknowledgment of gratitude or esteem. This past week I learned that  a recently discovered manuscript found in Jane Rule’s papers will be published on November 8 as a memoir of the first part of her life. Taking My Life, a title Ms. Rule surely knew would cause consternation, disturbing assumptions, and generate interest. I did not make that initial leap to a false conclusion, though. I though about the active verb. I thought about taking control of my own life, taking my life where I wanted it to go, and I thought about how much Jane Rule’s work helped me to do that. In a very real, practical sense, I would not have been able to take my life into the place it now is, a writer with two published novels, had it not been for the beautifully written books, novels and short stories as well as essays, that Jane Rule provided. Here I post my tribute, written in 2007, upon learning of Jane Rule’s death.

Jane Rule died on November 27, 2007. To quote Katherine V. Forrest, from her email notifying me of this sad loss, Jane Rule was an “extraordinary writer—perhaps the most significant lesbian fiction writer of the 20th century.” While I am sure I should never disagree with Ms. Forrest, in my opinion, if you remove the modifier “lesbian” her statement is much more accurate.

My passion for Jane Rule runs deep, and unabashed. I have been in awe of her talent since the first time I read one of her books. I have them all. They sit on my bookshelf on honor’s row, where I display all my favorites. For those unfamiliar with Rule’s talent, I recommend you begin with the 2005 edition of The Young in One Another’s Arms reprinted by Little Sister’s Classics, an imprint of Arsenal Pulp Press. It starts with an introduction by Ms. Forrest, who had the pleasure of editing what is perhaps the finest of Rule’s novels, Memory Board. I find it hard to believe that anyone who hungers for literature featuring lesbians, or literature written by lesbian authors, would not know of the immense contribution Jane Rule has made to our culture.

To place her firmly in your minds, and within the context of her work, I again quote Ms. Forrest, from her excellent foreword:

Against the Season and The Young in one Another’s Arms, which were Jane’s third and fourth novels, mark a distinct and permanent departure from the specific lesbian focus of her first two books, Desert of the Heart (1964) and This is Not For You (1970). With Against the Season and The Young in One Another’s Arms, she would begin to work with an ever-expanding canvas, and if her lesbian and gay characters appear somewhat lesser, it is because they are portrayed in fuller context against the larger society and culture. Her fifth novel, Contract with the World (1980), set amid a segment of Canada’s art world, is a particularly majestic work, powerfully written, richly textured, multi-faceted. The three-character novel Memory Board (1987) is, I would argue (with prejudice), Jane Rule’s finest and most mature work. After the Fire (1989), individually rewarding in its own right, seems an extension and argumentation of the brilliant delineation of character and long-term relationship first revealed in Memory Board.

Jane’s portrayals of people breaking out of the isolation imposed on them by estrangement, and the complexities and confusions, the potential and the rewards involved in reaching out for human connection—these are among the great gifts of her work.  

And later in her introduction, Forrest writes: “The books of Jane Rule are not only groundbreaking in their historical context, they hold some of the wisest, most eloquent and passionate writing in our literature. . . Jane Rule should finally be given her full due and the judgment she deserves: she is one of our finest writers—surely the most significant lesbian writer of the twentieth century.”

I can still quote lines from some of my favorite works. I was moved and inspired and daunted by her writing, intimidated and encouraged to aspire to a higher level.

I am very sad about this. We have lost perhaps the best one of us, from our community of writers. I wouldn’t now belong to this club of published authors were it not for both the example and the inspiration of Jane Rule’s work.

Most people know what an admirer of Jane Rule I am. If you Google her name, you will find 2 excellent articles, one in the Toronto Globe and Mail, one in Xtra.ca, written by Marilyn Schuster.

But the best tribute and the best look at Jane Rule’s career and her influence can be found in Little Sister’s Classics’ 2005 edition of The Young in One Another’s Arms, in the introduction to this reprint, written by Katherine V. Forrest, who not only met and knew Ms. Rule, but also edited Memory Board, perhaps Rule’s best novel. Ms. Forrest considers this the highlight of her editing career.

So, how do I feel now that I am published? On this day, very, very proud and grateful and sad. I remember that I keep all Ms. Rule’s novels and other works on my bookshelf, and that I call them my “rulebooks.” They taught me more about writing, about living my life honestly, about pursuing  dreams, about persistence, about love and community, than I can ever explain. Jane Rule set the bar very, very high, and I am pleased about that. While I doubt anyone will soon reach her mark, I know that if I aim that high, I am bound to stretch and grow and extend my reach, because of her work, some of it courageous, most of it beautiful prose, all of it immensely human and intelligent and moving.

“Privately and together we grieve the loss of our friend who helped us know that clarity and candour are far more important than uncritical sentimentality to build and nurture our communities. Her like will not walk this earth again, but we will all continue to learn from her courage and her eloquence.”
Marilyn Schuster, Xtra.ca, 11/27/07.

Several years ago, when I despaired of ever getting my first novel published, a friend advised me to keep writing. I replied that the only writing I was doing at the time was eulogies for famous dead people, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and there were others. I wrote of the impact these people had on my life, though sometimes that impact was minimal, sometimes a stretch of the writer’s fool in me to make any connection at all. But the announcement of Jane Rule’s death hit me deeply and personally.

I feel like I have lost a dear and treasured and important friend who affected my life in a substantive way. I am a published writer in part because of Jane Rule. I live openly as a lesbian in part because of Jane Rule’s wonderful writing, the good and sometimes hard ideas she wrote about, the images of community and family and the strength that comes from living who we are.

I can sit and read those strong words, see all those images she conjured for me of possibility and real human dignity. It does occur to me that the treasured and important friend I feel I’ve lost is not the person of Jane Rule, but her books, and I still have them all, old and worn, sitting comfortably on my shelf as I sit and write, trying for that bar so high, for that clarity and candor and courage mentioned by Marilyn Schuster, striving for the eloquence to defeat the “uncritical sentimentality” that so many times we all fall into as we miss the marks she set for us.

“Fidelity to any human place, except the heart, seems to me a dubious thing.”– Jane Rule, Desert of the Heart.