by Jean Roberta

Once in awhile, I read a book of non-fiction that pulls me in like a vivid story about desire, frustration, and ecstasy.

Recently I agreed to review Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger by Kelly Cogswell,* a history/memoir by a former member of an inventive group of women in New York City in the early 1990s. They performed public actions (including a circus act they learned, “eating fire”) to make lesbians visible, and to draw attention to homophobic and anti-woman violence. Mostly, the group existed to bring lesbians into the general cultural consciousness. For a short time, they seemed wildly successful, and spinoff groups of “Avengers” sprang up in numerous other cities and towns in the U.S. and Canada.

As they became publicly visible, however, the Avengers were seriously criticized, not only by conservatives, but by “allies” and fellow-members. The core group, a marvellously multicultural blend of New Yorkers with chutzpah, began to splinter. Discomfort with the in-fighting drove members away, and the group fell apart.

OMG. Although in some ways, Kelly Cogswell’s story seems characteristic of radical New York on the eve of the new millennium, parallel events were happening at the same time in places very far from there.

Hindsight provides a certain perspective, but it doesn’t erase the discomfort of yesteryear.

In the small city where I live on the Canadian prairies, I was pulled into two locally-famous conflicts involving “women of colour” in 1992-95. One woman had been hired to edit the journal of a federally-funded feminist organization, of which I was a board member. The other case involved a woman who had been fired from a research/writing position with a Canadian government department misleadingly named Secretary of State (usually called “secstate”).

As a supervisor (or part of a supervisory collective) of the editor, I learned almost immediately that any suggestion I could make about her work could be interpreted as an attack, and not only by the editor herself. Over a period of about two years, approximately thirty board members left the organization because of the tension caused by the editor’s ungrammatical writing, her apparent lack of an editorial policy or an understanding of the goals of the organization, and her refusal to accept direction.

I circulated an open letter to the rest of the board, explaining my conception of the editor’s job and asking for feedback from fellow board-members. None of them responded, but a representative of the union to which the editor belonged served me with a grievance claiming that I was attacking the editor’s competence by suggesting that she was “not a feminist.” (I had done no such thing. I had asked fellow board-members – not the editor, our employee – to respond to my own working definition of the term “feminist editor.” I wanted to know if we were all on the same page, so to speak.)

The editor then circulated her own letter to the board, in which she accused me of being the ringleader of a conspiracy to force her out of her job. Instead, I was forced off the board on grounds that my “personal” feud with the editor was harming the organization.

Meanwhile, the woman who had been fired from “secstate” had a growing number of supporters who pressured the government to re-examine her case. I was completely in favour of this. I hadn’t seen her work, so I had no opinion of its quality, but I thought there would be no harm in getting it reconsidered by someone other than her former supervisor.

I wasn’t willing to say that the firing had been unfair, or motivated by racism. I just didn’t know.

(Postscript: the woman who had been fired won her case, but she passed away from cancer in 1995. “Secstate” was dissolved by the Canadian government.)

Looking back, I can see what troubled me most about claims made by the supporters of both these women. Even before I was targeted as a racist, elitist, oppressive anti-sister, I was told that it didn’t matter whether two women who were employed as writers could write well or not.

Apparently, writing ability was not the issue. Or worse, eloquence on paper was a sign of bourgeois privilege.

Since then, I have heard numerous variations on this theme. By now, I have taught mandatory first-year English classes at the local university for a quarter-century, and many of my students speak English as a second or third language. When I dare to complain to anyone outside a small circle of my peers that too many of my students (including some who were locally-raised) are unprepared to write essays in clear English, I am usually told that this must be very hard for anyone who didn’t grow up speaking it, and even for some who did, and therefore I should give all my students a break – which seems to mean a passing grade. I’ve been told not to be judgmental, even though evaluating student assignments is part of my job.

We live in an age when culture is largely transmitted in written words. The spread of computers hasn’t counteracted this trend. On the contrary. Written words can now be exchanged faster than ever before, throughout the world. The accuracy of written language damn well matters.

At the same time, no language is universal – except, possibly, the “language” of science or math. Written words evolve out of specific cultures. No writer or teacher of literature and/or composition can really avoid being ethnocentric.

Why am I saying all this? Because writers need to be aware that all writing is controversial, even aside from its content. (When it includes explicit sex scenes, it attracts a whole extra gang of howling critics.)

Skillful writing can transport the reader out of her current time and place, and Kelly Cogswell did that for me. An inarticulate witness could not have described the complexity of a movement for social change in a way that would resound so well with someone who never lived at Ground Zero.

Erotic writers have a reason to be social activists too, especially if they are any shade of queer. Freedom to tell the truth about feelings and lifestyles can’t be completely separated from freedom to live honestly. In some ways, however, writing is exactly opposite from social action. Writing is usually done best alone, in a quiet room. Public displays of protest or solidarity require groups that grow into crowds. Filling the streets in support of an idea is a statement in itself.

There is so much to do, and so little time to do it. Sometimes I feel as if I have missed a chance to be successful at any activity, public or private. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes feels perverse in the worst sense, doomed to be politically incorrect from every angle in every situation.

But then a book comes into my hands that shows me that others have felt the same way. That’s the strength of the written word.

The poet Percy Shelley claimed that poets are the uncrowned legislators of the world. I would say that writers are revolutionaries, even when no one recognizes this fact. May all the writers who read this take heart.


*This book was published by University of Minnesota Press. You can also find it on Amazon.