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American Literature: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall  
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The 1980s: The Politics of Entitlement

The focus of much lesbian writing shifted around the beginning of the 1980s to a concern with the politics of entitlement and away from the 1970s debates about transcendent solutions to common problems. The field sometimes turned into a range war among groups of extremely competent writers, many of whom seemed to be justifiably furious.

There developed a literature for nearly every lesbian group with an ax to grind, and the best of it challenged readers to incorporate every woman's experience into her own. Besides collections of writings by lesbians from diverse ethnic backgrounds, there were novels with sadomasochistic themes; butch-femme stories, which had been trashed in the 1970s, resurfaced; lesbian erotica attracted a certain audience; and there was a concentration of novels concerned with lesbian science fiction, lesbian mothers, older lesbians, lesbian-lesbian abuse, and of course, the romances and detective stories that now constitute an odd majority of titles on most women's bookstore fiction shelves.

Bonnie Zimmerman, in her excellent survey of lesbian fiction, The Safe Sea of Women (1990), accurately observes that as the uniformity and the sense of common struggle that characterized lesbian writing of the 1970s began to break down in the early 1980s, writers began to concentrate on the politics of difference. "Eventually," she writes, "in place of Lesbian Nation, we had microscopic rooms containing one or two women apiece."

And Audre Lorde, who had a knack for hitting the nail on the head, wrote in the Epilogue to Zami: "In . . . growing, we came to separation, that place where work begins." Meanwhile, in a speech at Berkeley in 1979, activist Charlotte Bunch called the lesbian-feminist subculture a "ghetto," and urged lesbians to "get out of the ghetto and into the mainstream."

Although there were doubts among writers about whether either of these solutions was an acceptable answer to the problem of factionalism, the "mainstream" was simply not an option available for most lesbian writers. Therefore, Lorde's call for splitting off was not necessarily seen as a negative step; it was instead a clear call to create a mature body of lesbian literature, complex in its makeup and multicultural in its appeal.

Paula Gunn Allen, in her introduction to Spider Woman's Granddaughters (1989), observed that "For Indians, relationships are based on commonalties of consciousness, reflected in thought and behavior." For many minority lesbians, however, the commonality of consciousness that had united them in the 1970s was being fractured by conflict in the 1980s.

Works by Lesbians of Color

Of the works that began to emerge from ethnically and racially diverse lesbian groups in the 1980s, perhaps the one that set the tone was This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (1981), edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. This anthology of essays, fiction, and poetry eloquently articulates the general sense of anger and frustration experienced by Chicana, black, and other lesbians of color.

Anzaldúa went on to write Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), which in prose, poetry, and lyric memoir, explores the spiritual and physical boundaries of her life. Moraga, Chicana poet, playwright, and essayist, produced a number of other works, including in 1983, Loving in the War Years (Lo Que Nunca Pasó Por Sus Labios), an autobiographical narrative in which she describes her search for her cultural identity.

Native-American Paula Gunn Allen also searches for her place in the ritual traditions of her people. Her works, especially her novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983) and her volume of essays The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Tradition (1986), illuminate her struggle to achieve a whole personal and political identity, an identity denied her and many other lesbians of color and diverse ethnic heritage by a society that oppressed them as women, as lesbians, and as members of minority cultures. The core of much of the writing of Chicana, Latina, Native-American, black, Asian, Jewish, and other minority lesbians was formed by the intensity of these concerns.

Willyce Kim is probably the best known of Asian-American lesbian writers, although her novels Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid (1985) and Dead Heat (1988) have neither a clearly lesbian nor Asian-American focus. Michelle Cliff in her novels Abeng (1984) and No Telephone to Heaven (1987) explores her Jamaican heritage and the racism of that society.

Adrienne Rich points out that writers such as Cliff, Moraga, Anzaldúa, Allen, and Lorde are determined that women of color should have their own written history, in their own voices, not one incorporated into a more general literary tradition focused on white women, or on white or black men ("Resisting Amnesia," 1983). This determination is even stronger when the writer is also a lesbian.

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