Identity Is Not A Genre

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Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Short Fiction
Editors S. Andrea Allen and Lauren Cherelle
BLF Press, 2016
193 Pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Aditya Desai

In the introduction to Lez Talk, a collection of short fiction by Black lesbian writers, editor S. Andrea Allen writes her aims: to put together stories that aren’t “full of overly wrought sex scenes or lesbian melodrama,” and avoid clichés of “’urban fiction,’ which mostly include[s]some combination of violence, sex, money, or drugs.’” Meanwhile, co-editor Lauren Cherelle puts forward that “We should value…stories that extend cultural representations and incorporate a range of literary devices.”

Like any art from an underrepresented community, the collection strives to give a group a mirror to find themselves reflected with truth and accuracy. So how would I, a straight Indian-American man, be able to evaluate it? Am I moved or shocked? Enlightened or titillated? Isn’t the point of good writing to bring a reader closer to experiences outside their own? Then, what is gained by my doing so? What business do I have talking about this book beyond, Hey, I’m glad these women are able to find a home for their voices. Keep up the good work!

The biggest bell that kept ringing in my neophyte mind, was not to consider the pieces as autofiction, fiction that is either informed by or interpreted as autobiography. In a recent article on The Awl titled “Based on a True Story,” Bryan Washington interrogates why authors of color, whose work sticks out in a mostly white, heteronormative publishing world, are frequently assumed to be writing thinly-veiled memoirs. In interviewing several authors of color, Washington finds the overwhelming response by readers was the assumption that their work was, as he puts it, an “anthropological excavation” and a “crossover for mass (white) audiences, rather than intentionally crafted art.”

This collection was daring me not to make the same assumptions about its contributors. Do they break from the clichés Allen wanted to avoid? If we put identity aside, do these stories work by their own conventions? What makes Lez Talk work is the breadth of stories that spread across genres each working to its own conventions, weaving mini-worlds where anything is possible.

Of sex, there is certainly plenty. Stories like K.A. Smith’s “Darker the Berry” with its sumptuous sexual metaphors ripe from an organic farmer’s market, or Claudia Moss’ “Ezurulie’s Touch,” a drawn out encounter between a couple and their mysterious Latina houseguest. Lingering descriptions of bodies and bedrooms challenging me to keep that male gaze in check. But much of it plays like fantasies out of a Harlequin paperback, sometimes too indulgent and leaving me wanting an extra dimension.

There are undercurrents of cruel violence and abuse, like Eternity Philops’ “The Other Side of Crazy,” a stalker tale right out of an airport thriller, while in others lesbianism is a backdrop that creates conflict behind community suspicion such as. Sheree L. Greer’s “The Cigar Box” or Cherelle’s Southern Gothic “Missing” (a personal highlight):

James ain’t gone put no quarter in my palm but he still wanna hear my feelin’s. I can’t tell him ‘bout the syrupy looks between Lilly and Helen’s girl without tellin’ him that these looks is natural with women. That it only take two seconds to look over and tell her what you want, how you want it, and where you wanna get it. James can’t hear all that. ‘Cause the next thing he gone say is “who the hell you been lookin’ at?” and then he gone say”it’s a sin ‘fore God!

Where normally genre tropes are a crutch, here they allow the “lesbian story” to move into different worlds, inhabit new characters, and occupy a space of invention that’s fun, rich, and evocative. Further, there are gems like Smith’s “Two Moons”, a Murakami-esque parable of a young girl coming into her own sexual awakening under the longing looks of a personified moon, “It was the most unexpected and exquisite sensation Luna had ever experienced, like what a shooting star must feel when bursting through clouds across the sky. Luna wanted more. She wanted to feel like that all the time.”

Punctuating these genre titles are the small human dramas of coming out, familial dynamics, and job hunting that give revealing glimpses into how the community lives the quotidian existence we all face. Though in the end, I came across an actualization, perhaps a confirmation of the editors’ intents: the more couched in genre, more couched in the non-sexual exploits of its characters, the more satisfying the story. It was about something more than identity.

The reader’s reward is a breadth of narratives that bucks any monolithic identity politic, and creates in its pages a tangible community of voices that shows these stories were always around, that Black lesbian literature need not be a genre onto itself, but rather a wrinkle that settles well into any reading list, offering something both distinct and familiar.

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About Author

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Aditya Desai’s stories, essays, and poems are published or are forthcoming by The Millions, The Rumpus, The Margins, District Lit, The Aerogram, CultureStrike Magazine, and others. He received his MFA from the University of Maryland and teaches writing at universities and schools in the Baltimore-DC area.

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