BOOK REVIEW / Who and what is Dykewomon?: 'Inversions' - ed Betsy Warland: Open Letters, 11.99

Click to follow
SINCE this book of lesbian-feminist theory and testimonial, from a new and very welcome women's publishing house, is preoccupied with the relationship between writing and identity, it's appropriate that even the contributors' self-

descriptions at the end of the volume should be full of tension and nuance. Even the names give an idea of the territory to be explored: Elana Dykewomon has clearly undergone full-

immersion baptism in the waters of separatism, while C M Donald takes a more diffident approach. Just because I am a lesbian-feminist poet, those guarded initials seem to say, doesn't mean you have a right to know my first name.

There are no prizes for guessing which of these two women was born in New York City 'and has been looking for lesbian community since she was three', and which, born in Derbyshire, 'thrived' in girls' schools and 'survived' Cambridge University. Among the miniature milestones ('the first openly Lesbian Puerto Rican woman to be tenured in the Spanish Department at Rutgers University') and puzzling juxtapositions ('a committed Freemason and a member of Amnesty International') comes the odd moment of special pleading: when Chrystos describes herself as a 'Native American', 'born of a Menominee father and a Lithuanian/Alsace-Lorraine mother', it seems odd that a person whose sexual identity is that of a woman-loving woman should credit her father with the totality of her racial identity, as if the maternal genes were no more than placebos. Chrystos's contribution compels attention, though, even when she refers to 'my sisters, the trees', and says 'I'd prefer forests (the unmanaged kind) to a stack of my books'.

Minority chic raises its head in a contribution from another Native American, Beth Brant. She sees no contradiction in sneering at the idea of the Muse - 'that European entity that mysteriously appears to white men' - while coyly invoking the 'writing-spirits', purveyors of a strictly tribal inspiration, who 'call' her to her task. (Another writer, Anne Cameron, is inspired by the ghosts of those burnt as witches, 'the charred dykes of the BeforeTime': when she numbers them at 12 million, she may be suspected of doubling a better-established figure.) On one page Beth Brant pleads 'Why does an act of creation have to be classified?', on another she insists: 'I want to be reviewed in my many complexities as a human being - lesbian, Indian, woman, mother, feminist, working class, mammal.' Here is another miniature milestone, the first time, surely, that a writer has asked to be reviewed as a mammal.

Dominating the collection is a perception of lesbian-feminism as both frail and almost apocalyptically powerful. There are exceptions, in the case of older women, more matter-of-fact, more rooted in their lives (Jane Rule, Eve Zaremba), or in C M Donald's very English self-deprecation, which masks considerable firmness of soul. Sarah Schulman is unique in choosing an issue across party lines, the Aids crisis. But still there persists a double vision of lesbian-feminism, as a guttering candle needing to be cupped and as a lit fuse destined to detonate old oppressions.

Betsy Warland, the book's editor, writes in her own essay: 'Lesbian writers, along with other marginalised writers, are the voices of the future (which is the present) simply because our voices have been so absent in the past.' The note of hidden power, which is sometimes only the disorienting paranoia of the unreviewed, can easily become megalomaniac, as in Judy Grahn's essay, where she first claims to have more or less invented lesbian-feminism with her Common Woman poems, and then recounts her efforts to establish copyright in work that was originally a gift to the community. The benefactor starts charging rent, while clinging tight to her halo. The most affecting passage in the whole book may be the postscript to Marg Yeo's piece, where her outline of an agenda for a discussion group with two other writers is rejected because she favours a limit to supportiveness, a willingness to tackle contentious issues. The group never meets.

Uniting the sense of precariousness and the sense of power is the experience, unique to minority writers (or, in the case of women writers, those who belong to a majority that is encouraged to perceive itself as a minority), of transforming individual lives. Marginalised readers pounce on books that address them directly, deriving not just one more aesthetic sensation but a convulsive confirmation of the self.