Sara Duell (born in Stockholm, 1987) works at the intersection of art and graphic design, with a focus on visual literacy and social justice. Working within a feminist, antiracist framework, Sara uses design to disrupt normative discourses* and create transformative, pleasurable spaces. She also writes about the hidden politics of visual language. She has a bachelor degree in design from Emily Carr University of Art and Design (Vancouver, Canada) and lives in New York City.
WMN have been invited to participate in the Everpress’ first ever Holiday Collection 2020. Designed by WMN co-editor Florencia Alvarado inspired by The shell as a lesbian icon and 80s punk zine aesthetic.
Everpress supports independent creators to produce shirts and clothing in a sustainable way, by using a pre-sale method. They only print and ship the amount of shirts ordered and therefore eliminates waste. The t-shirts will be available to order until November 19th, and will be shipped about a week later.
Storytelling archivist and founder of the Black Lesbian Archives Krü Maekdo sat down with wmn editor Sara Duell to talk about the importance of home, ownership of your own stories, grassroots organizing and how term lesbian is an Aries from New York. Featured photos are from her recent archive highlight about Aché: a Bay Area journal for Black Lesbians from the 1980’s.
Most of lesbian history is so hidden and obviously Black lesbian history is even more so. Can you share how the Black Lesbian Archives came to be and what it is?
One day in 2017 while I was staying with my Auntie in Williamsburg VA, I saw this documentary The Last Lesbian Bars, about how some of the lesbian bars have been disappearing around the world. Once I finished watching, something inside of me sparked: if these lesbian spaces shut down then we don’t have places to connect and commune besides the internet. Don’t get me wrong I’m always talking about the internet, I appreciate it, but meeting in person is a completely different kind of energy.
I started researching and realized that there wasn’t a lot of information on Black lesbians even online. A lot of what I found about Black lesbians was diluted into other gay and lesbian history, I was just like “hell no! I know I’m not the only one out there searching for this info”. So, I immediately set up the Black Lesbian Archives Instagram, Facebook, website, and twitter. I was just mad and wanted to see what I could do about it. I’m that kind of person. I’ll definitely talk about shit, but best believe that if I’m talking about that shit you are going to see me doing something about that shit.I’m not all talk and no bite, I’m talking and I’m biting, too! I knew that Williamsburg, VA wasn’t the place for me to be able to grow while doing this research, so I went from Williamsburg to Chicago. I was between moving to DC, New York, or Chicago. I wanted to go to New York, but it was just too much for box. I love DC, but couldn’t see myself living there. I had been to and lived in Chicago, so I moved there.
As I was settling into Chicago, I happened to find Tracy Baim, one of the co-founders of Windy City Times, a LGBTQ+ newspaper. I emailed Tracy and I was like “Tracy! Where is the black lesbians history in Chicago? Where are they at?” She hit me back, and I always say this because I thought it was funny, because this is the culture that we live in: she was like “Is this a threat?” And I was like “No no no, no threat, I’m just really genuinely interested.” She told me I should come to this exhibit going up at Reunion Chicago called Lost & Found – the dyke spaces of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s with Kristen Kaza and Ruby Western. The exhibit was beautiful, but I wanted to see more black lesbians. I wanted to know more history about the black lesbians that I knew were at the front lines of a lot of these movements. It went from me seeing the exhibit, connecting with Tracy, connecting with Imani at the Black Gold Affair fundraiser, and research by talking to people that were in the community. We ended up doing an exhibit at Affinity Community Services (a non-profit organization serving Chicago’s black lesbian and bisexual women’s community) on June 14, 2018. At the exhibit we had Yvonne Welbon, a dope filmmaker, producer, and screen writer, doing a book release for her book Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making, and, we had a room for what I call the BLA confessional so you could sit in there and tell a story. I had a list of questions if you got a little stuck. On the other side I had a movie room, where you could go in and see the reels of people in the community being played; then the archives were plastered all over the building at Affinity. We had a film screening with Coquie Hughes’ films The Homestretch and My Mama Said Yo Mama’s A Dyke, a mixer so people could come in and mix, and a panel discussion with Chris Smith, Anna Deshawn and Pat McCombs. At the end, in August we also had an archiving on-on-one workshop. It was a full course meal! Then we did a nine day pre kick off tour the next year with an opening reception at Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. After that, we also went to D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. We were going on the Grassroots 2020 tour starting in March but then shit hit the fan.
What was your goal for the planned 2020 grassroots tour?
The grassroots tour was something I planned that would allow me to go to different cities and research how Black lesbians have done grassroots organizing in the past. Giving out flyers, being able to communicate with people face to face, building centralized places where people come and meet, organize, talk, connect, and be able to distribute information without having to distribute it online. Everyone does that differently no matter where you go; the south does it way differently than the west coast does it, and the north, the east coast, mid-west; we all do our shit differently. But there is one connecting factor that we’re all connected, right?
Even though the internet is a great way for us to connect , we don’t have control over it, the power of the internet is not in our hands and it could go at any time. I want to find out how we can build efficient communities between each other right now, as we’re seeing each other’s faces, as we’re riding these things out, as we’re communicating with each other, because if the internet were to ever shut down – what would we have? I want to be able to give people enough information on the internet, and I want people to be able to come and experience the archives for themselves in person. We live in such a scrolling, quick, fast and in a hurry of information that we are not actually taking the time on the internet to read, to really read the information that is in front of us.
I’m not sure when the grassroots tour will come back up, I said 2021, but honestly, the way things are looking right now I don’t know, we’ll have to see!
You’ve mentioned wanting the Black Lesbian Archives to be housed in a home in the future, can you share more about that vision. For example, what and where do you foresee that to be?
When I first started thinking about the vision for Black Lesbian Archives long term and what it would look like, I envisioned this home that everybody could come to. I see it as a place where people would come in and feel comfortable. A lot of archives that I have visited are very cold. I get it, because of the temperature and the way the materials need to be preserved. But the insides of a lot of these archives are just very cold, and they don’t have any life, it’s very dead, and it’s no shade to all the archivists out here doing the work. When I think of my culture, when I think of my people, and where I’m from, there is so much life and energy that goes through us and I need that in a space. I need a space to feel inviting. I need a space where when you come there your worries are gone, and I want that space to be somewhere you’re not only coming to meet, but that’s your home.
Now as far as a central location? I feel like that could be multiple homes. I’m going back and forth on that. Yes, I want it to be a place where Black lesbians can come but I’m thinking about even making it multi-cultural and having a full spectrum of lesbian history in one place. I’m all for building community in different places, but we still need these spaces where we are able to collaborate with people who don’t look like us, that’s how we learn. A skill set one person might have, or a gift could be something you do not and you can teach each other Regardless if it seems like things are changing, we still need spaces for lesbians to commune, and think, and take action.
What are your short term plans?
Right now, I’m starting to expand the archives. I don’t want to do this alone. I am not saying that I have been doing this solo the whole time, because there have been people that have been coming in and out. I do not want to carry on the legacy of these women alone, because these stories are very sacred. I’m seeing myself as a storytelling archivist; these stories need to be told, and they need to be told in a way that is respectful. I’m in a place right now where I’m looking to find a council, committees and volunteers for the Black Lesbian Archives so that we’re able to expand.
I’m also hoping to build out a mobile history van. I see it as a group of us being able to travel to different cities in this van with people showing us around their cities and how they’ve done grassroots organizing. I see it as the pretense to the actual home. Teaching and learning to story tell; how to build an archival collection. My short-term goal is really to buy this bus, gut it out, build it, and take small trips to different places to get information and do more research. This will give people a glimpse of what Black Lesbian history is and has been.
What are some of your favorite pieces or stories out of the archives?
Vernita Gray, I will always tell the stories of Vernita Gray! Tracy Baim, gave me a book she wrote about her: Vernita Gray: from Woodstock to the White House and she was a Sagittarius soldier! She had a home for those who had gotten kicked out of their house for living their truth. She also had a hotline for people to call in, and it was on the FBI list; that’s a whole other story. She had people living in her home and sleeping in her tubs. She kept her home open to people in the community who didn’t have nowhere else to go.
There is also this story of how she and her roommates had a party at University of Chicago, it was the first gay lesbian party that they had, and they didn’t think nobody was going to come. At that time people were very much in the closet, it was a hush-hush thing, so when they had this dance, all these people showed up and it got so wild and out of hand they had to shut it down. Even though they didn’t know the outcome of what that would be they still did it anyways. They still strived to create that space for people who were, regardless if they knew what it was or they were questioning, all those people came to connect to other people. I love that sense of community building and people risking it all. Risking it all to change shit and do something that is beneficial to the community.
That’s definitely one of the stories I love to tell, because to me it really shows her heart; shows where her mind was. The reason people were in that house was because she genuinely cared about these people who literally didn’t have a place to go. What does home look like when you don’t have it? Or what does home look like when you do have one, but are still searching for that community base?
What does the word lesbian mean to you?
A lot of people have a hard time identifying with the term lesbian. But to me there is something so revolutionary about the term. I feel like the word lesbian, the term, it’s bravery, coming from nothing, like the rose that grew from the concrete. I think of the women who weren’t afraid to be who the fuck they were, and just be out with their shit and not give a damn. That was very in your face. I think of that Lilith energy, I think of an Arian energy. If the lesbians had a zodiac sign it would probably be Aries, because it’s just so much “yeah, I’m here. I’m not going to rely on you”. It takes charge, stating your claim you’re not shying away from who you are. The term is more than just who you’re sleeping with, it came from the concrete! It probably came from New York, yo!
A lot of us wouldn’t have been able to integrate in bars if it wasn’t for the lesbians. I wouldn’t even be talking to you right now! Or I probably would, because I’m that motherfucker. I could talk about the lesbian term all day. Honestly I’ll probably do an exhibit about it. Not just the Black Lesbian Archives but the term lesbian, and the roots that this term comes from. And digging into that. It’s powerful, it’s a powerful word to use. It’s a powerful way to state your claim. I love it, it’s amazing.
Are there lesbians that you look up to? From the past or current, living?
Oh yes, Chris Smith from Affinity, Imani Rupert-Gordon out of Affinity, and Pat McCombs, for sure. These women aren’t typical women, and I hate to use the word typical, but they ain’t no basics. It took a tribe; it took a community of people to make shit happen. They knew the odds were against them; they knew what they would be going up against, but they still chose to do it anyway.
Affinity would not be here if you didn’t have a group of women, who we’re having meetings, having meetings and trying to dodge bullshit to create this space for lesbian women to come together and commune! If they hadn’t been looking around realize that we need these spaces, how are we going to get it? Not having much but still being able to manage and create a space that is still living and breathing. Affinity is on its 25th year this year, and it’s the only Black lesbian organization that I know that is still living and breathing our history.
You have to know your past before you can shoot fast forward into the future! You have to understand it, you have to really sit down and tune in with that it before you can just carry on or you’ll forget where you come from. I could talk about all these things: me being Black, me being lesbian, me being a woman, I could talk about these things all day but if I don’t know where I come from? All of this shit don’t mean a goddamn thing. It really don’t!
These women that have been doing this work, I commend them all, I pay my respects to them and I always will even, if they are still living, or gone.
What kind of support does the Black Lesbian Archives need right now?
I would definitely say that funding is one of the biggest things, because this work is a lot. I have also been trying to adjust the scope of how I’m bringing in the archives. When I first started, I encouraged everyone to just submit their archives, but we hadn’t created a submission process of how we were getting the archives, the dating, getting that contact info and scanning. I’ve been learning that as I’ve moved on, but I came into this from a storytelling perspective, so I have been able to piece together enough to share a story, however, the backend stuff is what I’m really trying to figure out. I want to make sure that wherever we are putting our archives, it goes to a place where people are actually going to take care of them, and preserve them. I think that’s why I want to expand too; so we can have more conversations about how to build archives with other people as well.
I talked to Bay Area lesbian archives and even though they have been in this game for a long time, they just started off on their first 5 years of actually archiving the stuff that they have. I want to learn from other people and figure out what would be the best method for the BLA. I get that there are resources out here, but it is important for us to establish and create our own. That’s another reason why I want this in a centralized place because we need to be sharing our own stories versus other people sharing and telling our stories for us.
Tell me more about the importance of Black lesbian telling Black lesbian stories? Is it so it’s not just pushed away in mainly white archives or becomes a subsection of that?
You need the people that were there telling the stories, and not letting other people tell those stories for you. What happens is that we go through these periods of time where we have other people telling our stories and we go off thinking that these things are true, but then when we go back to the original texts and say “wait a minute”. That’s one thing that I love about archives because I can go back and I can follow up. We have to be able to interpret and tell our stories, the honest to god truth, no matter how scary that shit is, no matter how fucked up or great that shit was. We have to share it and we have to tell it.
I have had so many people come up and tell me that if they would have seen the Black Lesbian Archives years ago, they probably would have been out. We have to be on the front end, whether we’re writing or we’re organizing. When you have someone telling a story that is like you, or that has been in the same shit that you’ve been in, you will connect to that person and you will listen.
We have to understand how vital and important it is to be able to share stories, to be able to preserve them, and keep doing that work of passing them along. Itt can change the scope of the world.
Krü Maekdo (make-do) is a multi-media artist known for her work as an archivist with the Black Lesbian Archives. An ongoing archival herstory project to uplift the voices of Black Lesbians. To educate, preserve and bridge inter-generational gaps between communities. Kosmic Rootwork Astrologist @ Aranae Storm and CEO of Maekdo Productions. A multi-media production company producing media & event programming. Serving women’s arts, community & culture in the LGBTQ+ community.
Join WMN for an artist talk with artist Phoenix Lindsey-Hall (She/Them). This evening will center around a discussion with Lindsey-Hall who works with sculpture, ceramics and photography to focus on contemporary queer issues and culture. Register for the event below!
Phoenix Lindsey-Hallis a Brooklyn-based mixed media artist. Lindsey-Hall holds a MFA in Photography from Parsons The New School of Design in 2012 and a BFA in Photography from Savannah College of Art in 2004. She has held solo shows at Victori + Mo Gallery (New York, NY) Christopher Stout Gallery (Brooklyn, NY) Brown Gallery at Duke University (Durham, NC), Gallery Aferro (Newark, NJ) and shown in group shows in various galleries in New York, NY, Philadelphia, PA, Louisville, KY, Savannah GA and in Pingyao, China. She is New York Art Residency and Studios (NARS), Studio Residency Recipient, and a participant in the Emerge Program with the Aljira Center for Contemporary Arts in conjunction with Creative Capital. Her artwork centers on violence in queer communities.
An interview with art historian Ksenia M. Soboleva
In late may 2020 Soboleva sat down with in WMN co-editor Sara Duell over a video chat discussing lesbian invisibility, being a grumpy dyke, and the value of criticism. Soboleva is currently PhD Candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU where she is writing her dissertation on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in New York (1981-1996), framing it within a larger genealogy of lesbian (in)visibility.
Would you describe a bit of your background and how you ended up in New York?
I was born in Moscow, but I mainly grew up in Arkhangelsk, Northern Russia—I lived with my great-grandmother. When I was eight my mother and I moved to the Netherlands, and that’s where I came of age. I studied art history at Utrecht University for my undergrad, but I didn’t find it to be very rigorous or exciting, so at the time I had no intention to pursue grad school. It was only when I visited Madrid in 2012 and saw the Sharon Hayes exhibitionHabla (curated by the brilliant Lynne Cooke) at the contemporary art museum Museo Reina Sofía that I realized what art and exhibition making could be. I didn’t really learn that much about queer history or queer artists during my undergrad, so I would say it was really this exhibition that made want to pursue grad school. But I knew that I didn’t want to stay in the Netherlands, and I had this dream of moving to New York to study with Linda Nochlin, who wrote the famous essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, so I applied to the Institute of Fine arts, NYU. I got in, came to New York, but unfortunately Nochlin retired a year later. I was fortunate enough to see her lecture, but sadly never got the opportunity to take a class with her. But anyway, that’s how I ended up in New York; I loved it, so I stayed and pursued my PhD.
I’m assuming your interest in lesbian artist started well before grad school.
The interest definitely existed, but I was a huge closet case until well into college. Funny story; when I was six years old, I took drawing and painting classes at an art gallery in Arkhangelsk, of which my aunt was the director at the time, and I had a huge crush on my art teacher, who kind of looked like Liza Minneli in Cabaret, with short black hair and bright green eye shadow. It’s such a cliché, but I just adored her. The way I decided to make sense of it at that time, was to conclude that the passionate feelings I was having were not for the art teacher, but for art itself. So if I hadn’t been a lesbian, I might not have become an art historian. But I only started seriously studying queer art and culture in grad school.
How did you end up focusing on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in New York for your dissertation?
The AIDS crisis in an art historical context only entered my consciousness when I visited the 54th Venice Biennial in 2011 (this was during my undergrad). The Norwegian pavilion that year was taken over by the artist Bjarne Melgaard, whose project Baton Sinister centered on the stigma around HIV and AIDS. One of the pieces was this poster that said “Don’t get fucked up the ass. Period.” It addressed the government homophobia and what the solution to AIDS was according to the government, basically: don’t be gay and you won’t get AIDS. I was really captured by the project, I guess because I hadn’t really been confronted with AIDS in an art context, and especially not in a language context before, and it really resonated with me.
At the time, I didn’t think twice about the fact that the project presented HIV/AIDS as a gay male issue. It wasn’t until I moved to New York, when I was doing preliminary research on lesbian artists of that generation, that I kept encountering references to the AIDS crisis in their biographies, in catalogue essays on their work; they were all crucially informed by the AIDS epidemic. But then when I would read art historical scholarship on art of the AIDS crisis, the lesbian was almost entirely absent. Even the most recent large survey exhibition on art and AIDS: Art AIDS America (Tacoma Art Museum in partnership with The Bronx Museum of the Arts’) barely mentioned lesbian artists, and only included a few women artists. I thought that was strange and that’s how I first started thinking about it. The first conference paper I ever gave was about the lesbian activist art collective fierce pussy, and their role during the AIDS crisis.
I was very drawn to the sense of community queer people who lived through the AIDS crisis all seemed to have felt, and that was something I personally had not experienced in my life. My dissertation is driven by a profound admiration for that community; doing research on it was a way to getting closer, and also making sense of my own identity.
What are some interesting takeaways from your research?
It’s been a challenge to study a history of visual culture that is so rooted in invisibly. You can’t underestimate the extent to which lesbian contributions just tend to magically disappear both from feminist discourse and from queer discourse. Lesbian invisibly is no joke. There is a lot of contemporary stuff happening on lesbian visual culture which I think is wonderful: Instagram accounts dedicated to lesbian culture, TV shows, films. I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the first truthful depiction of the lesbian gaze. But if popular culture doesn’t somehow bleed into academic scholarship, then there is still a real lack. Especially in the field of art history, there are surprisingly few serious considerations of art and lesbian identity. Lesbians also haven’t held the same amount of tenure track positions in academia, or prominent museum-jobs, as gay men. It’s not only lesbian artists who haven’t received enough career opportunities throughout history, but also the lesbian historians who are most likely to write on them. Whereas gay men have always had a network, a support system. Historically, the art world was one of the few spheres in which gay men could get prominent positions. It wasn’t the same for lesbians. When Harmony Hammond organized “The Lesbian Show” in 1978, many lesbians declined the invite to participate, because it was still dangerous to come out and it could really hurt your career. One lesbian artist was even threatened by her gay male gallerist that he would drop her from the gallery if she participated in the show. Harmony Hammond’s Lesbian Art In America is a great source for lesbian art history, by the way. She was really one of the pioneers for creating a context for lesbian art.
Which historians do you look up to?
My go to is Catherine Lord, who is just a brilliant writer, curator, and artist. She has written a ton about art and lesbian invisibility; there’s an essay on Louise Fishman’s Angry Paintings that I could probably quote from memory. Then there is Terry Castle, who is an English Professor at Stanford. She wrote The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (1993), which was a great starting point for my research. Ann Cvetkovich has made an invaluable contribution with An Archive of Feelings, which explores lesbian trauma and has an entire chapter on ACT UP’s lesbians. Elisabeth Lebovici, who’s in Paris, recently wrote a great book on how AIDS affected her life, with a particular emphasis on lesbian artists as well. She maintains this very personal voice throughout her scholarship which I really admire. Also, Helen Molesworth is a big inspiration in terms of curating, and also a wonderful writer; the exhibition catalogue of This Will Have Been is a staple on my desk. My scholarship is also very informed by queer theory; I love Sara Ahmed and Heather Love’s work.Last but not least, there’s Jan Zita Grover and Laura Cottingham, who don’t write on art and lesbian identity anymore, but were powerful voices in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I actually dedicate an entire chapter of my dissertation to the disappearing lesbian, or the lesbian who drops out. So many people who were actively writing about lesbian visual culture during the AIDS crisis just sort of seem to have dropped out.
Why do you think that they dropped out?
It has a lot to do with trauma, as Ann Cvetkovich argues as well. I also think that they didn’t receive the recognition they deserved, and when that period of the AIDS crisis started to be historicized, lesbian contributions were excluded. Even though it was the lesbian sex wars that informed much of the theory during the AIDS crisis. Cindy Patton was crucial to Douglas Crimp’s scholarship, for example, which he acknowledges. A lot of queer theory emerged out of AIDS activism, and AIDS was informed by lesbian writings of the sex wars. Lesbians brought so much to AIDS activism, because they had already become politicized during women’s liberation and then the sex wars. They knew how to organize. I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but people tend to forget, overlook, or just not care about the lesbian contributions. Everybody knows who Douglas Crimp is. How many people remember Cindy Patton? I’d be interested to know.
Anyway, I can’t reach Jan Zita Grover, I think she opened a puppy rescue and wrote a children’s book about dogs. I also heard she was teaching cooking class somewhere. I have no idea where Laura Cottingham is, last I heard she was traveling through Egypt. But what’s sort of comforting is that other queer scholars of my generation seem to have the same issue. In Spring 2019, I organized this symposium, Queering Art History, which is how I met a lot of other young queer scholars working on similar stuff. After the symposium we went out for drinks and as we were chatting we realized that we all were running into the same issues with the same people, like: “this person won’t talk to me”, or “I can’t figure out where this person is,” or “this person emailed back but they seemed kind of rude.” It was hilarious, and a good reminder that we shouldn’t take things personally.
And even though you might encounter more gay and queer art today than before, I find that it’s harder to just come by lesbian art, which was one of the reasons I started WMN with Jeanette and Florencia because I realized I knew very little about lesbian art and history. I’ve learned a lot over the last year, but it takes a lot of research even just for something as simple as posting on Instagram.
To me that’s the beautiful thing about being queer. Coming out tends to incite this passion for research, for a lot of queer people at least, it is the way we make sense of ourselves. Most of us don’t have queer parents, or any queer family members, but queer ancestry extends beyond familial and biological relationships. So we go to the library, or I guess today you can look under the queer category on Netflix. We look at history to show us proof of our existence, that others like us existed before we came along.
What does the word lesbian mean to you?
So many things. I think it’s a common misconception that lesbian is a fixed identity, while queer is so fluid. I think that the term changes over time, it means different things to different people in different places. It’s funny, when I tell people in New York I’m a lesbian it comes across like I’m using this super outdated term and am like a 75 year old lesbian separatist or something. When I tell people in Russia I’m a lesbian, it’s super shocking and radical and just like “whoa she said the L word out loud.” The reason I insist on the meaningfulness of the term lesbian is because of the history that it carries, a history that hasn’t been sufficiently documented. Studying the ways in which lesbian identity has shifted over time is absolutely crucial to the history of queer identity. Lesbian and queer aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s not an either or. A lot of people assume that if you identify as a lesbian you must have some problem with the term queer or you must be essentialist, which is not at all the case. I hope that my own scholarship shows how lesbian can exist alongside queer, and how the two contribute to one and another, how they can strengthen each other, and how both have flaws and challenges.
Another fun fact, thanks to Terry Castle. The first time the word queer was used in a gender sexuality context, it was used as a code word for cunt, by Anne Lister in her coded diaries from the 19th century. So queer has this inherently lesbian origin, yet it has somehow swallowed up the lesbian. I’m constantly asked why I identity as a lesbian instead of a queer woman, and none of my gay male friends seem to get the question why they identify as gay instead of queer. The lesbian is such an awkward term to many people, which is sort of what I love about it. You know, my yoga teacher always says something like “the way we become comfortable in uncomfortable positions, is if we stay in them.” I like meditating on the awkwardness of lesbian.
Which makes me think of your article about artist and AIDS activist Tessa Boffin in Hyperallergic, where you mention how scholars who started writing about gay history intentionally focused on the fun parts, but how important it is to also to highlight the darker aspects of LGBTQ history.
Yes, and I should mention that it’s Heather Love’s book Feeling Backwards that truly shaped my approach to this. People tend to act like we always got along, and were one big happy family. And sure, on one hand there has always been a strong sense of community to some extent. But queer history is full of exclusions and frictions. It’s valuable to study those messy histories just as closely as the histories of pride and victory.
What are your thoughts on lesbian visibility currently and for the future?
I co-chaired a panel The Return of the Lesbian? Examining Lesbian Visibility in Art History’s Present, Past, and Future at the art history conference CAA with my friend Alexis Bard Johnson, who is the curator of the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries in Los Angeles. The panel explored the recent re-emergence of lesbian visual culture in the form of Instagram accounts, TV shows, etc.. but at the same time an increasing reluctance for people to identify as lesbian. The panel tried to make sense of these opposing trends. But what we concluded at the end of the panel is that there cannot really be a return of the lesbian if the lesbian has never been turned to. That’s what I’m trying to say when I talk about popular culture versus academic scholarship, it’s not that I’m discounting the former, in fact my work is very much informed by it, but I think that in order to properly turn to the lesbian we need to create a solid, rigorous discourse on the history of lesbian identity, which is on its way but we’re not there yet. Laura Cottingham said: “Without any sense of our historical place, how are we to understand or produce our meaning in the present?” I’m very happy that there are groups like you [WMN zine] who keep insisting on the meaningfulness of the lesbian. I was also so moved by Barbara Hammer’s last interview before she passed away, with Masha Gessen in the New Yorker, where she said “we don’t want to forget the lesbian, and we don’t want her to be lost”. Thank you, Barbara.
You’ve described yourself as a grumpy dyke, but no wonder you’re grumpy if you’re continuously having to try to work against a field that is ignored and people that don’t respond.
You know, I should clarify that I don’t mean this as a complaint. I like being a grumpy dyke! I like disagreeing with people, I like being at odds with a lot of contemporary writing on queer art. I think there is a tendency within the queer community to be overtly praiseful, which I understand because of course we want to support each other, but I also think that in order to create a rigorous discourse, art criticism should make no apologies for itself. We should disagree, argue, hold each other accountable. As long as we don’t drag each other down. Catharine Lord once told me that criticism is a form of generosity, and I couldn’t agree more. To sit down and think about somebody’s work, whether you’re critical of it or not, is a form of praise in itself.
Which is funny working within an American context. I think it’s pretty unamerican to disagree.
Totally, I remember my first graduate seminar, I raised my hand and said something along the lines of “I disagree because…” and then later a classmate told me that in America first you say ‘I really like the point you made about X, and I really appreciated your careful consideration of Y, however I just wonder if in this particular very specific respect you could have perhaps potentially elaborated a little bit on…” That’s another thing I had to learn when I moved here.
Also, when I first started writing about lesbian artists of the AIDS crisis, I remember emphasizing that gay men had come to define the period and there was very little art historical scholarship on lesbians simply because there was this misguided notion that they weren’t affected by AIDS just because female-to-female transmission was rare (but not impossible, and some lesbians have sex with men, or were intravenous drug users). The AIDS crisis affected the entire queer community; it was more than a medical crisis, it was a socio-political crisis. People were dying because of government neglect, because of homophobia. Lesbians weren’t allowed to donate blood because the entire queer community was considered to be dirty, basically. AIDS was viewed as symptom of being queer. But anyway, I was pushing so hard for the consideration of how the AIDS crisis affected lesbian artists, that at some point I read over my proposal and I was like: Oh my god. It sounds like I hate gay men, and don’t think their art deserves the attention it has received—which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Needless to say, I completely rewrote it. I’m by no means discounting their work. I just want to bring in the lesbian voices too.
Ksenia M. Soboleva is a Russian-Tatar writer, art historian, and curator based in Brooklyn. Currently, she is completing her PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Soboleva’s dissertation focuses on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in the United States (1981-1996), framing it within a larger genealogy of lesbian (in)visibility. Previously, Soboleva has curated exhibitions at the 80WSE Project Space, Assembly Room, Honey’s, SPRING/BREAK Art Show, and Stellar Projects. She has taught at NYU and the Cooper Union, and presented her research at various institutions in the United States and abroad. Her writings have appeared in Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, art-agenda,and QED: A Journal in LGBTQ Worldmaking, among other publications. Most recently, she launched a virtual series of artist talks in collaboration with The Center in New York, to highlight lesbian and dyke visibility. Soboleva is the 2020-2021 Marica and Jan Vilcek curatorial fellow at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York.
Hila Amit Translated from Hebrew by Daniella Zamir
We stood in the kitchen, two women facing pile upon pile of dirty dishes. I assumed we were going to leave the washing up for the morning, but Yehudit wouldn’t hear of it. We started at midnight. Yehudit soaped and rinsed, and I dried and returned everything to the kitchen cupboards. I couldn’t keep up with her. We stood there for nearly three hours, until her knees started to tremble. When we reached the cutlery, I took over her post at the sink, and she sat down on a little stool beside me. My lower back was aching, a sharp, shooting pain. Either the sink was the wrong height, or I was. Finally, when only some pieces of vegetables and chicken remained, and the water wouldn’t drain, I stuck my hand in. With five fingers I collected the goop and threw it into the garbage bag under the sink. My mom never used gloves. Scooping up slime didn’t disgust her. Other things did. When we finished, Yehudit insisted I spend the night. To this day I don’t have a driver’s license, and a taxi in the middle of the night would have cost over a hundred shekels. She rushed to make Grace’s bed for me, thwarting any thoughts of escape. It was the first stage in her process of moving me into her house, so I’d be close by, a surrogate.
Yehudit coped with her grief while cooking, eating and cleaning. It served as a kind of catharsis, prying chickens open with her fingers, stuffing them with onions, honey, tomatoes, washing dishes and putting them back in their place. During the shiva they hadn’t let her cook—everyone was doting on her, no one let her out of their sight.
“They followed me to the bathroom!” she groused after the shiva was over. “It was all they could do not to stand next to me when I was taking a dump, just to make sure I wasn’t drowning myself in the toilet.” It was mostly her sisters she was talking about, since by then her mother could barely walk.
“By the last day I had it up to here,” she said, and held a flat hand under her chin. “By the end I really wanted to die, but not because of Grace. Because they wouldn’t let me breathe.”
They took over her house. Her older brothers arrived before the funeral and assumed command over the operation, rearranging the furniture. The buffet and dining table were moved into Grace’s room. Mattresses were brought over and spread across the floor. The two small sofas were taken out into the yard and covered with plastic sheets. They attached a note: Property of the Marciano family, sitting shiva on the third floor.
Her brothers called the shots, relegating Netanel to the sidelines. But even before, it hadn’t felt like his home for some time. For forty years he’d been coming and going, bumming around, sometimes sleeping next to Yehudit and other times on the living room sofa. He’d often disappear for long periods, staying at his mother’s in Holon or somewhere else. He’d get clean and then relapse, and you couldn’t trace any patterns, find any causation. Like a stray cat who has been taken in and tamed but sometimes gets the inexplicable urge to go back and roll around in torn garbage bags, gnaw on chicken bones, stay outside for days on end.
When I was little I thought he looked like Zohar Argov’s twin brother. There was something masculine about him, rugged, ugly and handsome at the same time, and Grace’s feelings for him—she told me so herself—oscillated between love and hate, depending on his most recent actions: how much money he had gambled away, how big a bouquet he had brought her mother, how far he had taken her when she asked for a ride to Tel Aviv. I got to know him the way I had gotten to know Grace—both were standouts in the neighborhood. I’d see him driving her around, making a big show of it, windows rolled down, music blaring, cassettes of Filfel Al-Masri, The Sounds of the Kerem, and Zohar Argov. He’d trill along with the songs, but quietly, to himself.
At the shiva Netanel kept quiet, didn’t complain, not even about the prayers. He let Yehudit’s brothers run the show, and with a kind of aching inertia, settled on the farthest mattress, the one pushed against the wall. Indulging in this renewed attachment to his home, to a sense of family, he once again felt comfortable in his living room, whose furniture had been twice repossessed due to his debts.
Everyone shook his hand, kissed him. Even Yehudit’s brothers. Only her sisters ignored him: didn’t offer him coffee even once, never served him a plate at mealtime. Yehudit was caught in the middle—wouldn’t sit on the mattress with him, refused to acknowledge his pain, but at night she didn’t have the heart to tell him: you can’t sleep here, there’s no place for you here anymore
Everybody together, that’s how they, or we, did shivas: relatives were supposed to sleep in the same room, inches from the floor, regardless of age or slipped disks. They were a small family, Yehudit, Netanel and Grace, but Yehudit’s siblings also stayed for the seven days of mourning. Netanel’s family, his brothers and sisters, only showed up for brief visits. They had never been close, would only see Yehudit and Grace once a year. They almost never celebrated holidays together.
The rules were clear: mirrors were to be covered with sheets, showers were forbidden, as was changing clothes. Sometimes I felt as though smiling wasn’t allowed either. Only the prayers weren’t restricted, they prayed like there was no tomorrow.
On the third day, Yehudit asked me to cover for her. They were all napping, and she got up from her mattress and went to the kitchen, tiptoeing between the men. I followed her to the bathroom and stood guard. We agreed that if someone showed up in the hallway, I’d come in and yell “busy!” She wanted to take a shower, felt smelly and gross, was tiring of all the rules. I snuck her a clean bra, a pair of panties, and a fresh undershirt from her closet. She wore her torn black blouse and her skirt over the clean undergarments, quickly blow-dried her hair and tousled it, blurring any evidence of the shower. We barely had an hour, and we pulled it off without a hitch. After she came out of the bathroom, she returned to the living room and settled on the mattress next to her brothers, who were starting to wake up. Holding her belly, she said: “My stomach’s acting up.”
For the unveiling of the tombstone we prepared a big meal. I rode in on the first bus from Bat Yam. She wouldn’t let anyone else help her. Only me. I did everything she asked, except for handling the meat—I wouldn’t touch the chickens, or the minced meat she piled into the plastic bowl. Pinching it between her fingers, she fashioned small balls, flattened them onto a pan and drowned them in oil.
“These were Grace’s favorite meatballs, in tomato sauce, she used to wolf them down.”
I was handed some potatoes to slice paper-thin and press against the bottom of the rice pots. I agreed to roll and cook the gondi balls if Yehudit first stuffed them with the meat. After filling the kibbeh with pine nuts and onion, I inserted the meat with a spoon, careful not to touch. I was appointed guardian of the fire, making sure the mauda would cook properly and that the rice wouldn’t burn.
At noon we drove to the Yarkon cemetery. The car crept cautiously along the narrow trails. I thought Yehudit must have studied the route before we left, but then I learned that she had been making daily trips to the cemetery all week, driving up there each morning with a small stool on which she sat in front of the mound of dirt, cleaning the white plastic sign with a damp rag around the name written in black marker. Careful not to erase any letters.
There was something liberating about that meal. When everyone left Yehudit felt it was finally over, that from now on they’d let her get back to her life, experience the mourning the way she wanted to. Alone. With me.
She insisted that no one help her clean and sent everyone home, standing at the door, smiling. The pictures were hung back on the walls and the large mirror next to the door restored to its rightful place. I noticed her gaze as she stood in the doorway, saying goodbye to everyone. Leave already, her eyes pleaded beneath their feigned expression. Leave, I want my house back.
For the shiva meal they had brought over a folding table from the neighbors to join the one in the dining room, and they still had the plastic chairs from the synagogue. It was cramped. The women didn’t sit, they ate standing, presiding over the meal from the kitchen, making sure there was food on everyone’s plate. Yehudit wouldn’t sit down either, despite everyone’s attempts, despite the blatant breach of tradition, despite her brothers. They all tried, and failed. She had had enough of sitting, enough of the way they all looked at her. She preferred to bustle about, keeping at bay the thoughts that might assail her if she took a seat and let them loose.
“This is Grace’s best friend,” she introduced me to anyone who didn’t already know. Except for Netanel I hadn’t met any of them up close until then, only saw them around the neighborhood when they came by for a visit. Yehudit wasn’t especially close to them, they began growing apart back when they told her not to marry Netanel and she wouldn’t listen. She was nineteen at the time, a soldier approaching the end of her service. She had met him in the army, he would drive her every weekend from the female instructors’ apartment in Dimona all the way to her house in Azor. Her father summoned her for a serious talk, but she wouldn’t relent. It was a small wedding.
There was only one photo of the chuppah. Her parents to the couple’s right and Netanel’s mother to their left. His father had passed away years earlier. They got married in a small synagogue on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, without a photographer. A friend of Netanel’s came, took a few pictures, got drunk and ended up in the back seat of the groom’s car, snoring. The following day someone found the camera under one of the chairs in the synagogue. Netanel went to pick it up, had the film developed, bought a photo album. There were fewer than thirty photos. All of them yellowing, faded.
She soon got pregnant, and they had to find a house. Netanel had grown up in Bat Yam and Yehudit in Azor, where they found a cheap apartment in a public housing project. When Grace was born, Yehudit’s mother forgave her for everything and came over three times a day, morning, noon and night, to help with the baby.
Yehudit wasn’t ashamed, didn’t try to hide it. If someone asked her, she’d reply bluntly, openly. Grace was the one who suggested she not talk about it. It wasn’t easy in the neighborhood we grew up in. We had to learn very carefully who we could tell, and what repercussions it would have. We had been together on and off for almost nine years, and Yehudit knew right from the start. Grace didn’t even have to tell her, they were so close, and Yehudit supported her fully. “Don’t be afraid to be you,” she always used to tell Grace.
That’s also what tied Yehudit and me together: not only our shared close- ness to Grace, but her unequivocal support of what we had grown up to be, her unreserved show of love, so different from what my mother demonstrated, only a block away.
Yehudit tried talking to her once, but my mother told her to get lost. She was nearly a decade older than Yehudit and wasn’t about to be schooled by her, certainly not on the subject of child rearing. Grace and I waited at the bottom of the stairwell and heard Yehudit descending the three flights. She didn’t say anything when she joined us, but you could see the disappointment in her eyes.
“Come, girls, I’ll make you something to eat.”
Grace was thirty-one years old by then, and I was twenty-two, and those nine years stretched between us like half a century. Grace took me by the hand, led me to their home the way one leads a child. I’d never felt like such a little girl before. That was the breaking point, I gave up on my mother. Only it wasn’t clear who was doing the walking away, me or her.
Yehudit once told me the entire story, the one I never got to hear from my own mother. At the time, Grace was travelling to the States for four months, and before she left she made me promise I’d visit Yehudit once a week. I kept my promise. It wasn’t as if I had anywhere else to go. Shabbat dinners at Yehudit’s were the highlight of my week during all those Graceless months.
Yehudit told me that one night her family and others were driven from the absorption center to a moshav down south. They took one crowded bus after another, until the last bus came to a halt. They were housed in shacks, each family allotted a small piece of land. Her mother worked in the sewing workshop and continued to birth more and more children. Her father, who had been a fabric merchant back in Iran, was placed in a textile factory. My mother’s family arrived during the same wave of immigration, but my mother was the eldest child, born over there, while Yehudit was the youngest in her family. I always wondered whether that was what made them so different, whether a ten-year gap and different place of birth could determine what kind of mother you’d be.
Yehudit was told that her older sisters had carried her in a sling on their backs while they raked leaves, hoed, dug furrows and planted seeds. When she was a little older she too contributed to the family effort. On Fridays, all the families would pick vegetables from their gardens and trade with each other, cooking whatever was in season.
She remembered the moshav only vaguely. She was six when they were moved to the more centrally located town of Azor and put up in an abandoned Arab house whose front door had been ripped off its hinges during the war. She remembered her older brothers’ friends standing in the doorway and whistling, since there was nothing to knock on. It took a few years until the tenements were built and Azor evolved into the enclave it is to this day, forty streets trapped between Holon and the highways, with nowhere to expand.
“You’ve never wondered whose house it was?” I asked Yehudit the first time she told me the story.
“The way we grew up,” she replied, “we didn’t ask questions.”
I have no idea how I got the nerve to go up to Grace like that, to offer myself to her, to undress, press up against her, without waiting to see how she’d react, to draw my lips to hers before she’d have the chance to start thinking, analyzing, objecting, evading. I learned how to approach her from the dozens of books and films that sparked my imagination in the cramped apartment or at the small, boring school, which offered hours upon hours of classes but not one moment of creativity. What I took from all the female and male characters I had studied and merged into a single being that was me, from all those heroines but also a few of the men—was the boldness; I knew what needed to be done, but until the moment of truth I didn’t really know how I’d go about it. And mostly I didn’t know how Grace would react.
I didn’t mind that she was so much older than me. On the contrary, every white hair I’d find on her, every thin wrinkle that hid behind her smile, only made me love her more, crave her more, until this craving became my entire world. That I might scare her off didn’t terrify me half as much as the thought of losing my chance to make her mine, by which I mean, mine in every possible way.
For two or three years she had been with this guy who hung around the neighborhood, I remember his Mazda, his look, how he used to dress. I remember them walking hand in hand from the building to the car, and from the car to the building. I remember them making out at the entrance to the building at night, for the whole neighborhood to see from their windows, peeking from behind the shutters, everyone but Yehudit, who didn’t mind one way or another.
Grace told me everything about him, how she loved him, how she thought she’d marry him. And later about her pregnancy, and how the guy disappeared, just walked out on her, and about her dilemma over whether to keep the baby or not. Eventually the decision was made for her—the fetus developed outside the womb, almost crushing her internal organs. She told me how Yehudit took her to the emergency room, that they gave her a shot and waited for her body to discharge the fetus. For three weeks she didn’t stop bleeding, an incessant menstruation, rivers of blood bringing her to the brink of passing out every night.
And there were other men after him, all of them uninteresting. Brief attachments, sad nights, unrelenting thoughts about how to live alone in this world and what would become of her.
And at the same time, girls. It had always been there. A little yes, a little no. Coming and going, this thing that scared her more than anything. She always made fun of herself, how she hadn’t dared try it until she was twenty-nine. “I needed a girl who was virtually a teenager to make me step outside my comfort zone,” she’d say afterwards.
And even then she wouldn’t define it, refused to label it. As far as she was concerned it was simply being with me, as if it didn’t say anything about her. I was the only one she loved. But during our breakups, bouncing back and forth like a yoyo, it was always other women she found, never men. And yet she insisted till the end that she liked both, insisted until she ran out of time to make up her mind.
After we broke up the first time, there was a long period during which we had agreed we shouldn’t talk, mustn’t meet. One Saturday evening during that dismal stretch, Yehudit called to invite me over for dinner. She said Grace was out with friends and she didn’t feel like eating alone. I no longer had anyone to eat with. My already loose ties to my family had become even looser, almost entirely severed. I hesitated but went. We sat at the small table on the balcony. I had brought a scraggly bouquet, like a stranger, and we spent the entire evening talking about Grace.
“She’s not the woman for you,” she said, trying to encourage me. I got defensive.
“And Netanel wasn’t the man for you, but you still got married.”
She didn’t bat an eyelash. A moment passed, and she said: “I was young and stupid, you’re older and smarter.”
That whole year in which Grace and I stayed away from each other, Yehudit continued to invite me to monthly Saturday night dinners. I’d exit my building at the end of the block, walking slowly, trying not to seem eager.
A few years later, when we were once again inseparable, we got stranded in a small town in the south of Spain. There were no trains, the buses were stuck at the station, and it was a long, hot afternoon. We sat on the grass opposite the small central bus station, spread Yehudit’s scarf on the ground and had an impromptu picnic. We laughed, talked, and time stood still. We brought up all kinds of things even from the periods we had spent apart, which was when I learned that they had planned it all, every one of those dinners. Grace would go out just so I wouldn’t be alone on a Saturday night.
She relinquished her mother to me. Once a month, she lent me her mother.
Our relationship stretched between the streets of Azor and our vacations, which began to take on a new familial structure, with Yehudit’s photo albums arranging and framing us, 4×6 photos in loaded albums, the place and date scribbled on the back of each photo.
The first time I joined them on a family vacation was to Sinai. Sinai was my post-military discharge trip, and Grace and Yehudit had organized it. Grace and I were in the early stages of our love story, and the future seemed bright and sweet, if also incredibly empty—I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. All I wanted was to move out of my parents’ house, leave Azor, get away.
Every moment of that vacation was full of contradictions. It was my second time abroad, and the first without my family. I was no longer a soldier; the world was seemingly my oyster, brimming with possibility. But I spent every moment, even behind my smiles, counting the nights, the hours, the time that remained until I’d have to go home and acknowledge that my adult life was about to begin, and ask myself what I was planning to do with it. This abstract sense of freedom alongside the vague commitment to do something—namely, not be like my mother, not settle for getting married and being a teacher—left me paralyzed.
Grace and Yehudit would go to Sinai every year, and weren’t as excited to be there as I was. They just watched me, the way I observed everything, the smile plastered across my face, my awe at every new discovery: the sun setting behind the mountains, rising over the sea, the possibility of getting so far away from the shore, of letting the deep blue of the ocean engulf me, the possibility of floating among the fish. The discovery of rest: the possibility of a true respite, lying on the mattress with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and not doing a thing, not knowing what time it was, unwinding. Until then I hadn’t even known what a vacation was, what resting was. My body was still stiff, a tightly-wound coil, and it was only on the fourth day that it dawned on me: I was allowed to loaf, no one was looking at me, there was no mother here to tsk-tsk disapprovingly, to remind me that idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
When I try to remember and manage to concentrate, I can’t explain how we allowed ourselves to behave like that in front of Yehudit. We hid it from the Bedouins, but not from her. The closeness between Yehudit and Grace was deep, clear, unshakable. “Were you like this with the others too?” I once asked her, “kissing, touching like this, right in front of your mother?”
“She’d find out anyway. And who do I have to be embarrassed of, my own mother?”
But during those long months in which she skipped out on us in America, Yehudit told me that she had never brought a boy home, not even him—never invited him to join them on family vacations.
And I clung to that, to the uniqueness Yehudit’s words granted me. I clung and held on to it tightly, as if that was all I had in this world.
Istanbul was our second destination. I relished the flight like a child, beaming with excitement as if it were my first time on a plane. I had already rid myself of the memory of the flight to Paris for my brother’s bar mitzvah. It was as if that trip, even its good moments, had never happened. I was still angry at them and struggling to come to terms with the rift between us. But in Istanbul, on the bustling, ever-shifting Turkish soil, it became apparent that there were cracks between Grace and me too.
We loved Istanbul. We came with love, and returned hollowed. Without a single photo. The camera conked out two days before our return flight, deleting every image. We returned home without any documentation of the moments in which, for the first time, we started sensing how it would be to live apart.
We entered the Hagia Sophia in silence. It was morning, and we had walked the entire way from the small hotel without speaking. Every now and then Yehudit would shoot us an uneasy look, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, wiping the condensation off her glasses, mopping her brow with a handkerchief. We parted ways on the second floor. I leaned against the marble railing and looked down at the main hall, staring into space. Yehudit and Grace went off on their own, first taking a right, then retracing their steps and wending toward the left wing. Finally they gestured with their eyes for me to join them.
We argued. It was a silly fight, I don’t even remember what it was about. We were both stubborn, and we had spent the previous night in anger, each burrowing into our own blanket, our backs to each other. It was a heated, stupid argument. Neither of us cried. Or at least I didn’t cry. In my house crying was a sign of defeat. Any shed tears would have hung high in the air like a foreign breeze. I was burdened with this affliction, but I wasn’t the only one; Yehudit suffered from it as well, just as my mother had, as if it was coded into our Persian blood, this notion that crying was weak and futile. It was as if someone on our block, in our neighborhood, had cast a spell, a curse: Cry, and you’ll never be able to stop. The horrors will haunt you, so you better not start. And really, what good would it do?
No, that’s not how this story should be told. Because I do remember, all too well, why we weren’t speaking. What triggered the anger—it was the looks, her flirting with the pretty British girl who had joined our table. The lively Beyoglu district, with so many places we could barely decide where to sit; Istanbul at night: cool, inviting, marvelous. A vegetarian restaurant on a street parallel to İstiklal Avenue had caught my attention when we spotted a pride flag at the end of the alley.
And the blue-eyed, freckled Brit was the kind of girl I’d never be able to get. Grace knew how angry it would make me. And she laughed. Placed her fingers on the girl’s arm, enjoying herself, savoring it.
Busy eating, Yehudit wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t even notice when Grace marveled at the girl’s pendant, resting so casually between her breasts. I can’t remember her name, only the adoring gaze. And the sweat suddenly drenching me, between my fingers, on the back of my neck, and the food, which suddenly tasted bland.
Afterwards, we didn’t speak for an entire day. Not that I thought she’d actually be able to do something like that, be with someone else. It took her months after we broke up. Somehow I was always the first in everything, as I had been the first to initiate things between us, despite the age difference, despite my inexperience with women, my inexperience in general.
After the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern, feet aching and still neither of us uttering a word, we boarded the tram, grouchy, tired, thirsty. On the dock Yehudit said: “I’m going for a stroll, I’ll meet you girls back at the hotel. When I return I expect to find you two talking, otherwise I’m getting us an early flight back.”
Only forty-eight hours remained of our trip, but we had no doubt Yehudit was capable of carrying out her threat. She stood on the dock waiting for us to board and took the next tram back to Taksim Square. We squeezed in, standing on both sides of a pole in the middle of the car. I smiled. If it hadn’t been for Yehudit, I doubt anything would have changed between us. Grace offered me her free hand. I grabbed it. Tightly. The tram came to a screeching halt. We held onto the pole, held onto each other. We weren’t afraid to kiss anywhere expect in Azor. Not even in the middle of Istanbul, in the summer, a city of sixteen million Muslims.
Our acquaintance might have seemed coincidental to the outside eye. A relationship between neighbors that happened to evolve into a close friendship. But that wasn’t the case. Coincidence had nothing to do with our story until the final chord, until the accident—being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After all, I had grown up a stone’s throw from her. And everything I knew about her I gleaned from watching her from the third-floor window. And everything that came before our acquaintance, crossing paths on the street, in the grocery store, every such moment is bathed in the faint glow of memory, in the dim whispers of the neighborhood.
She picked me up from the entrance to my building on the rainiest day in the history of Azor. I had gotten back from school drenched, wading through the puddles that formed inside my sneakers and socks. No one was home. The door was locked. I had forgotten my key, and had no idea when my parents or brother would be home. I stood at the bottom of the stairwell, freezing, still clutching my backpack so as not to contaminate it with the mud and muck of the entire block.
Grace passed by me on her way home and yelled: “What happened? Locked out?” I nodded. I didn’t want her to see me like that, but I smiled under my soaked, disheveled hair.
“Come, you can wait at our place. You don’t want to catch a cold.”
I followed her in silence. I didn’t know what to say, couldn’t find the words.
“When are your parents getting home?” she asked. I didn’t know. “Usually at six,” I answered, “but my brother might be back earlier.”
She turned on the water heater, and also the electric heater in the bathroom. I was still waiting by the front door, where I took off my shoes, peeled off my socks and waited for her to throw a towel onto the floor so I wouldn’t drip all over the house.
While we were waiting for the water to get hot, she made us both tea. Afterwards we sat on the edge of the bathtub, where it didn’t matter anymore if I was still dripping. We talked. I instantly made her laugh, roar with laughter. I don’t remember what I said, but the conversation flowed. We had nothing in common, she hadn’t even gone to the same school in Holon as everyone else, and yet we connected.
Beneath the hot water, behind the floral shower curtain, I heard her laying out a towel and dry clothes for me. Her clothes fit perfectly. I could tell from her smile how pleased she was.
The afternoon was filled with loud noises that shook the furniture in the small apartment. As night approached, we opened a window and watched the hail, giant white balls that covered the small parking space in front of the house, covered the road, the world.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted time to stand still. I knew no one would worry at home, that they’d express the same indifference whether I was there when they returned or arrived only at night in clothes that weren’t mine. I didn’t know what I could do to drag out my visit, until I came up with an idea—I offered to cook. That way, I told her, I could return the favor.
I cooked. The one thing I knew how to do back then. I didn’t like it, but I was good at it. My mom had forced me to learn, be her right hand, help out. But with Grace it was different—I enjoyed it. I told her what to do, took control of the kitchen, and she listened. Followed orders, tasted, smiled.
When Yehudit returned in the evening, Grace introduced me. The table was set, and Yehudit sat down. She was thrilled with the food, with me, showered me with compliments. From that evening on, I never left them, and Yehudit never left me.
It was only in brief, blurry moments that one could tell we weren’t a family, a mother and two daughters. The resemblance was overwhelming: our skin tone, our black curls, the narrow eyes Grace and I shared; and Yehudit standing next to us, an older mirror image, a mother. Our interlocked hands and gentle caresses could easily have been mistaken for the affectionate gestures between two sisters, born nine years apart. But she always looked younger, Grace, even at thirty she still used her high school bus pass all over Greater Tel Aviv.
It was the number twenty-six bus from Bat Yam to the Lewinsky Seminar. A bus I’d never taken, and doubt I ever will.
At the intersection where Ibn Gvirol Street becomes Yehuda HaLevi, it ran a red light. Grace was crossing the intersection, moving at a slight diagonal, trying to reach the zebra stripes, when she was sent flying almost thirty feet. Only the passenger at the front of the bus was taken to the hospital, in mild shock. There was no point taking Grace. Her time of death was announced on the spot, moments after the paramedics’ arrival. 5:43 p.m.
The passenger, with whom I spoke over the following days, said the driver had been speeding like a madman from the moment she boarded the bus, one stop before the Gan Ha’ir mall. She also testified against him at the trial. Not that we asked her to. If it had been up to Yehudit, the driver would have gotten away scot-free. She didn’t want to hear anything about the accident, thought it pointless. I went alone to the courthouse to watch the proceedings. She didn’t even want to know the verdict.
The paramedics left it to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute to determine whether Grace had died right away, from the impact of the bus, or only later, when she landed and hit her head against the asphalt. But Yehudit wouldn’t agree to an autopsy. She didn’t want to hear about that either.
“My daughter’s dead and that’s that. What difference does it make knowing the exact moment, or what organ gave in first?”
She didn’t want the details, the gist was enough. I was the only one who gathered every piece of information I could find. Eyewitnesses said they hadn’t seen any blood, or visibly broken bones. Said she had landed out of nowhere, the sound of the thud swallowed by the clamor of the street.
Yehudit was right. The details were pointless. The loss was everything.
No. That’s not true. The bits of information accumulated and bore their way into my nightmares. They lent color and sound and movement to the horrifying images that haunted me day and night.
A day after the shiva ended, we went looking for Yehudit’s car. Grace had parked not far from the site of the accident, on her way to deliver food to the three Tel Aviv families that employed Yehudit as a personal cook. We didn’t know where the car was. We had the keys and a radius of a few blocks to canvas. Yehudit hadn’t been doing the deliveries herself for quite some time, and she had no idea where Grace could have parked.
We rode in from Azor on two buses. I wanted to take a taxi, but Yehudit insisted: “It’s not like we’re in a hurry.” She was right. We weren’t doing anything at the time, neither she nor I. She had taken two weeks off from the families that employed her, and I had gotten fired from the ridiculous job I had at the time. My boss didn’t understand why I had to be absent for an entire week when the deceased wasn’t a close family member. She also wasn’t my partner. It was too complicated to explain, and I preferred to land back on the street as with every other odd job I’d had. The concept of money was barely in the back of my mind, tingling a little like a wayward ant crawling up my thigh.
We couldn’t find the car on Marmorek Street, or on Bilu, and we knew there was no point searching Rothschild Boulevard or Hashmonaim. On this unguided tour of Tel Aviv I discovered streets such as Kiryat Sefer and Toscanini, which I hadn’t even known existed.
We tried Carlebach Street. We even searched along HaShoftim and HaNevi’im, expanding our radius. It was hot. In the middle of the day we sat down at a café opposite the Cinematheque, “Metuka,” and called the Tel Aviv municipality and the towing center near the Carmelit bus terminal. Around two o’clock we decided to try our luck with the parking lots.
We must have made for an absurd sight, laughable, even, as if we were looking for a car that had been left behind for no reason. Yehudit and I staggered on, holding the keyless remote in front of us like a divining rod dowsing for ground- water. Time and again we pressed the alarm button, waiting for the sound that would deliver us from the agony of the search.
It eventually came, a bleak note, from the first in a row of cars in the parking lot on HaArba’a Street. When we got there and saw the small gray Toyota, Yehudit turned pale, almost white, speechless. As if she had expected the car never to be found. That things would remain shrouded in mystery, a loose end.
She opened the driver’s door and sat down behind the wheel. I opened the passenger door but continued to stand outside, my eyes welling up with all the tears I had kept inside for seven days, all through the shiva, all the tears I had choked back nearly my entire life. I cried over the orphaned Toyota, over myself, now orphaned as well. I wept over her scent that still lingered inside, despite the sun, despite all the time that had passed.
And I felt ashamed. I cried, and felt ashamed. Because that’s how I was raised, to be ashamed of my tears. And all I wanted was to let it all out, every last bit of it, to cry on Yehudit’s shoulder. She sat there inside the car, hands on the steering wheel, befuddled, unable to reconcile her former perception of me, tough as nails, with this meltdown of mine. She’d never seen me this shaken before.
And it was in the midst of this meltdown that Yehudit started the car. To this day I don’t know how she kept her calm like that. Every morning I rifled through her bedroom, trying to find tear stains on her pillow, scrunched up tissues under her bed, in the trash can. There was nothing. It passed her right by. Even weeks after the funeral she withstood her grief like a fortified wall. And yet she begged me to stay. Only then did the weakness, the neediness, become apparent.
I couldn’t say no. To this day, I think, there was nothing more right and natural than that move. Than the resettling into Grace’s room, alone this time. A little like going back home, but returning crippled, missing half a brain. Like moving back into your childhood room without half of yourself, of the person you used to be.
Here is the sea: I eagerly take in stretches of beach that never belonged to you and me.
Here is the sea: the waves that neither you nor I swam through on peaceful August nights. Here is the boardwalk we never cycled along on the tourist rental bicycles, or on the old ones lying around our parents’ houses. Here’s the sunset we never gazed at, were never blinded by, the beach on which we never ate watermelon out of Tupperware, cut into large cubes, spitting out the shiny black seeds into the palms of our hands.
Here I am: rearranging the topography, the world, reality without you. I feel I don’t belong to it, I have no desire to move on. There’s nothing waiting for me. You’re already far removed from us, and all the people around me look sallow, blurry, as in an old film shot with a home camera through a smudged lens, everyone familiar and foreign at the same time. Only the sun that sets and disappears, making way for the night, still signals something palpable that once upon a time I could have experienced with you.
My skin is pale, as if it’s not summer outside. My pigments altered, my body refusing to brown like it always does when summer rolls around. I spend all day closed behind four walls, running circles around Yehudit, around myself. Soon one of us will go crazy. Or both of us.
I so want to be with you again.
And there are many more places that aren’t ours. I secretly fantasize about roaming a world that has nothing to do with you, that won’t remind me of you at all. I’m willing to be stripped of everything I have and start anew, from scratch. But we’ve even been to the desert and up north together, and Israel, Israel, it’s so small, there’s no getting away here. And anyway I couldn’t exist anywhere without you. Not really.
I’m torn between the sense of security I’m guaranteed at your mother’s, my mother, and all the futile hassle of searching for a new room, moving in, living among boxes, a mattress on the floor, dust, until I run out of money again, until I have to hit the road again, to emigrate, to live in even dingier places. Or worst of all: to go back to my real mother, to return defeated and withered, to give up on myself.
I’m torn because your mother offers memory that is life itself, without forgetting. I’m torn because I don’t know what’s worse, can’t imagine what’s more wretched between the two: forgetting entirely, or remembering all the time.
Here is the sea: I turn my back to it and promise to return with Yehudit or alone, to choose life. To choose to oscillate between these two options, neither of which guarantees redemption. The way home is slow, the bus to the Holon intersection barely moving, the roads are congested, traffic is at a standstill. My nose is glued to the windowpane and I’m surrounded by the industrial blue of the seats, the incessant traffic between Tel Aviv and Azor, between past and present, stretching from me to you, from you to the sky, from you to me, from now to tomorrow, from my grace and onward, moving on from Grace.
Dr. Hila Amit is an award-winning author. She was born in Israel in 1985 to a Jewish family with Iranian-Syrian ethnic origins. She studied creative writing at the Tel -Aviv University and holds a PhD in the field of Gender Studies from SOAS, University of London. Hila Amit’s fiction appeared in Lilith, Jalta, Emrys Journal & The Washington Square Review. Her short stories collection, Moving On From Bliss (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 2016), was awarded the Israeli Ministry of Culture Prize for Debut Authors, and was recently selected as one of the 10 best literary works in Hebrew for the years 2010-2020. Her non-fiction book, A Queer Way Out – The Politics of Queer Emigration from Israel (Albany: SUNY, 2018) was awarded the AMEWS (Association of Middle East Women’s Studies) Book Award. In 2014 she established the International Hebrew School, through which she aims to advance Hebrew learning using a queer, feministic and pluralistic method. She is the co-founder of “Anu אנו نحن: Jews and Arabs Writing in Berlin”, and is curating literary events which bring together Jews and non-Jews with a Middle Eastern heritage together.
Film maker and director Megan Rossman and WMN co-editor Jeanette Spicer chat about older generation dykes, photography, film making and the desire to keep lesbian archives and our story alive.
Megan Rossman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and assistant professor and chair of communication at Purchase College.
Rossman’s feature-length debut, The Archivettes, premiered at Outfest in 2019 and has screened as an official selection at over 30 film festivals. The Hollywood Reporter called the documentary a “warm tribute to second-wave feminism.” The Queer Review called it “a gift to the future.” The Archivettes, which explores the founding and development of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, has won jury prizes at Stamped Film Festival and the Fargo-Morehead LGBT Film Festival, and awards from the Princess Grace Foundation and Reeling Film Festival.
Rossman’s additional films have screened at festivals including DOC NYC and NewFest. Her film Love Letter Rescue Squad won best student documentary in the Emerging Filmmakers Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival American Pavilion in 2017.
On Saturday May 16th, 2020 the WMN editors organized an open discussion with a Q&A over zoom to talk about the publication, topics surrounding art, resourcing, the lesbian experience in general and to answer our readers and followers questions. Thank you so much to everyone who joined us!
If you didn’t have a chance to attend the chat but still have questions for the editors, please feel free to shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to hearing from you!