Remembering New Narrative

JEB (Joan E. Biren), Gabrielle Union and Merle Woo, SF Pride, 1980. © 2018 JEB (Joan E. Biren).

JEB (Joan E. Biren), Gabrielle Daniels and Merle Woo, SF Pride, 1980. © 2018 JEB (Joan E. Biren).

(I’m an outrider, I’m a fellow traveler, and I am very nervous. I put down these things around four o’clock this morning, so you will have to forgive me if I am jumping around a lot. This is what I have.)

I think that it was Zora Neale Hurston who wrote that women tend to recall the things that are important to them, and to forget the things that aren’t. Like discerning what is treasure and what isn’t.

When I was a little girl, I declared that I wanted to remember everything. I was an autodidact who picked up books and read them at four. And someone — a teacher or a family member — said that I had a real facility for remembering important dates and names and incidents from history, which remains one of my first loves. These days, I find — and am disappointed by the fact — that there is much I don’t remember.

Nowadays, Wikipedia or the web jogs my memory, helps me to recall things. Or documentaries, or even music about a certain time or place. How old I was, who I was in love with. All that is left are feelings, not necessarily what happened and who did it. Not specific days, or seasons, months of the year, or even particular years. Just how I felt. I hope that some of you today can help with that.

I would like to evoke a time when there were more independent bookstores in San Francisco. When you really didn’t have to have written a book to read your poetry or prose at a store. And people went to poetry readings guided by word of mouth or by Poetry Flash. That’s how I found Small Press Traffic. I was twenty-three. I liked that a bookstore was situated in what could be someone’s parlor. And I looked around, touched and explored. Of course, I had no idea what might be happening in the rest of the flat. I think that I bought a book by H.D. there, and something else. I’d like to think that it was Bob giving change, but I can’t recall for sure.

What I did know was that I wanted to go somewhere with my writing. I applied for about a hundred journalism jobs — print and electronic, inside and outside of California — after graduating from San Jose State in 1976. Nothing came of it. However, I had always been creative; I still wanted to write poetry and prose, but I also wanted to be a part of something. This is strange, because even in my two families, I am on the outside looking in, as the old song goes. They hardly know what I do or write, or understand it even now.

I had always been interested in women’s issues. I had graduated long ago from Ms. Magazine to Off Our Backs. And because I had missed out on the civil rights struggle and was alienated from some aspects of Black liberation politics, I gradually became sympathetic towards gay rights. If you’re going to go, go all the way. Forget all this stuff about Black lesbians and gays keeping back the Black race.

Just now, I just had a memory flash: I remember Bruce and Bob tearing out of the crowd at one point (during the Gay Freedom Day parade of 1980) and grabbing people like Karen Brodine and Merle Woo who were in the Women Writers Union at the time and hugging us and kissing us as we were going past. What was the Women Writers Union? It was comprised of a multiracial group of undergraduate and graduate women — like Blacks, Latinxs and Asians at San Francisco State — who had rebelled against the emphasis on white male writers being taught in colleges and universities. The more things change, the more things stay the same: it is exactly what we are having now with the call for “decolonizing” literature and art. By the time I joined, there were fewer members; the group had left the university setting and was a part of both the writing and political communities in the City and the East Bay. It contributed a lot to my political awakening.

New Narrative writers are not exactly feminist, but they are certainly gays, lesbians, and bisexuals and straights. And the fact that we were out there on Gay Day 1980 marching bravely and joyfully on Market Street, when the world seemed to be against what we felt for each other, that would stir some spontaneity — those kisses and hugs. Those embraces would resonate beyond the barriers of color and gender and even neighborhoods that separated us from each other daily. That was fighting back, too.

I think now that when I marched for gays and lesbians, I also marched to be out front about love between whites and Blacks and people of color. In those days, interracial sex and love was fetishized and dehumanized as a thing that happened with a john and a trick, when it isn’t. It’s trying to get beyond labels and ways of seeing and living. It’s a lot more complicated, like life.

Gabrielle Daniels in 1979, working as a secretary in Stanford University's Engineering Department. Photo courtesy the author.

Gabrielle Daniels in 1979, working as a secretary in Stanford University’s Engineering Department. Photo courtesy the author.

I think that my next memory comes from attending Gloria Anzaldúa’s Saturday morning course, “El Mundo Surdo,” or The Left-Handed World. I don’t recall who suggested it to me; I know that I asked about it because it was on an announcement flyer in the hallway of Small Press. He or she did say that Gloria didn’t have many women writers of color attending, and perhaps I could give her some support by showing up, and to get what I needed as well. In those days, I went to poetry writing groups or classes just to show my work, to make myself known, and to get suggestions and feedback. Things were a lot more free-flowing. Sometimes you paid outright for an eight-week course which was in the poet’s home. Or you just hung out and figured whether this is where you belonged. Other times, being in a writing group was free, and El Mundo Surdo was free at Small Press Traffic.

That’s how I was introduced to Gloria and to her work. I think that she was still attending San Francisco State at the time, getting her master’s degree.  She was not affiliated — to my knowledge — with the Women Writers Union, or its rival, the Feminist Writers Guild, but I am sure that she knew individual members. There were less than ten people in the group, and white women predominated. I remember how bright the light was in the room, illuminating not just our work, but the writing to which Gloria was introducing us — her own as well as work by other women of color, gay as well as straight. I think Gloria was glad that I was there, and I was glad to be included and recognized. I either stayed for as long as the course went on, or until I got a steady clerical job at Stanford University and relocated for a while to Palo Alto. Gloria gave me my second reading in San Francisco at Small Press Traffic, and that is how I became aware of another, larger world. After I joined the Women Writers’ Union, Gloria included me, along with other women of color, in This Bridge Called My Back.

However, I was never in Bob Glück’s workshop. I wish that I had attended, because the rigor would have prepared me for what to expect in graduate school. My introduction to New Narrative came from Bruce Boone and the late Steve Abbott. It all came together — after all those readings and talks and socializing — after I left the Women Writers Union. I asked Bruce to take me on: I wanted to concentrate less on polemics and more on including what it all meant and what the activism was based on in the writing.

Call it an apprenticeship. They both suggested where I might place my work. Steve advised that I attend monthly readings of the Noh Oratorio Society; Bruce recommended I try responding to films like Terminal Station, which was being re-released at the time.  (I don’t know whether you’ve seen Terminal Station or not, but it is a one-note about a couple, Montgomery Clift and Jennifer Jones, who just cannot break up — and it all happens in a train station. Oh, it drove me crazy. It drove me crazy at the time, because it could reflect my own love life at the time. Sort of like Hiroshima Mon Amour, and they both came out within a decade of each other!) And while those attempts may have had different outcomes, they were training; they led to my eventually reviewing books for the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-eighties, and my attempting a first novel.

I also went on what I would now call “field trips” with Bruce and Steve. I recall attending an Expressionist art exhibition with Bruce at the site of the old Museum of Modern Art on Van Ness. I think that I was in shock seeing buxom, big-assed blue horses. It also meant that I had to do more reading about this literary and historic period before World War I, of things breaking down and giving way, of the apocalypse about to occur. I went to see a film with Steve about punk music at the old York Theatre, starring groups like The Specials, Selector, and The Beat. I also saw In the Realm of the Senses there with Steve, with the theater packed to the rafters (we were in the balcony); I’d never seen anything like that in my life, especially since it was based on a true story.

I think that it was time for my mind to be blown. These outings, as well as dinners, coffees, running into each other on 24th Street in Noe Valley — which was a lot less homogenized then than it is now, and more of a community — were also meant to educate me on their work and that of Frank O’Hara or Robert Duncan, and to get me out of my comfort zone. This was encouragement to keep writing. I needed all that to grow.

Eventually, I had to return home to my own writing, meaning Black literature. Before writing the essay on Our Nig, included in Writers Who Love Too Much (and that I also reviewed for the Chronicle), I hadn’t cracked poetry or novels or essays other than those by Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, or Ntozake Shange. I had to know what I was doing, where I was really coming from. I didn’t want to be a Black white girl any longer; that is, to extol every other literature except my own. So I went back, all the way back to the beginning. I even read from critics like Robert Bone, Addison Gayle, and Charles Johnson, holding my nose about their antipathy towards Black women’s writing. I went all the way through Wright and Baldwin, and finally what is now known as the Black Arts Movement, that I had had such a problem with, and I found out that I did like some of this stuff.  The other stuff, some of which rejected any connection with whites, or promoted a Black hyper-masculinist heterosexual politics, I continued to leave behind.

I was able to discover Carlene Hatcher Polite, who wrote The Flagellants; Carolivia Herron, the author of Thereafter Johnnie; and Gayl Jones, who wrote Corregidora and Eva’s Man. These are novels about Black people — heterosexual couples and women who are trying to deal with each other and heal themselves beyond just racism. Some of it is very violent. A lot of it is sexually charged. And I found that if I hadn’t been with New Narrative, I wouldn’t have been able to go back to those things and critique them in a way that felt like I wasn’t withdrawing from them — that they were mine, and these were documents for me as well.

If I wasn’t as clear or as productive or as courageous then, I feel that I am more so now. And, as I am also fond of saying, I’m not dead yet. My new writing incorporates most of what I learned and experienced between those readings, those fights, and those dinners, and between the gossip, and especially, the laughter. If anything, all this is what I will always remember.

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