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literature

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Harris, Bertha (1937-2005)  

Bertha Harris was one of the most stylishly innovative American fiction writers to emerge in the wake Stonewall. Possessing a fine aesthetic sensibility and a gargantuan sense of fantasy, her experiments with the form of the novel were unlike any other examples of "new lesbian fiction" that had been published prior to her work.

Harris was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and was educated at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her roots were firmly planted in the South, and its voices and ambiance run firmly through her works.

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She stated that she came to New York "to find lesbians," but, swept up in the social unrest of the early 1960s, she married briefly and had a daughter. To support her daughter, she edited and proofread for a time, then returned to North Carolina, where she received her M.F.A. She wrote Catching Saradove (1969), her first novel, as part of her degree requirements.

The semiautobiographical Saradove is probably the closest Harris has come to writing a conventional work of fiction. But the themes of fantasy and character play that were to be developed and refined in her later works were already present in this early novel. Saradove herself, while having the trappings of a conventional fictional character, is also, according to Harris, "trying to break through the warped rituals of love and hate that her parents have taught her, through the means of magic, fantasy, play, sex."

The novel shifts back and forth between the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Saradove's childhood South, and both worlds are populated by the lovers, waifs, antic southerners, and sexually ambiguous types that became familiar in her later works.

Harris said that she was obsessed by two things: music (particularly opera) and the South. These two obsessions define her second novel, Confessions of Cherubino (1972), which The New Yorker called an "ultra-violent comedy." Its theme seems to be the tyranny of sexual passion in all its various forms, but putting a fence around any of Harris's works is always a mistake.

The novel tells of the emotional turmoils of a darkly comic group of characters (including Ellen and Margaret, who may be lovers or different aspects of the same person), but--as in most of Harris's work--the development of conventional plot and narrative is secondary to her inventive manipulation of the shifting psyches of her characters, who are always more than they seem to be.

Lover (first published in 1976, and reissued, with a new introduction by the author, in 1993) is Harris's most ambitious work; it has been compared to Djuna Barnes's Nightwood and the eccentric stories of Jane Bowles. It was written, Harris remarked, "straight from the libido, while I was madly in love, and liberated by the lesbian cultural movement of the mid-1970s."

In her 1993 introduction, Harris says that "Lover should be absorbed as if it were a theatrical performance. There's tap dancing and singing, disguise, sleights of hand, mirror illusions, quick-change acts, and drag." The minds of the "sexual subversives" she writes about seem to meet on an interior plane, in which conventional storytelling gives way to brilliant imagery and electric verbal wordplay.

Harris expressed her hope that lesbian fiction would develop into an entirely new and elegant genre, far from the restrictions of nineteenth-century style that seem to typify the romances and detective fiction of the 1990s. With Lover she showed us what this genre might be like.

In 1977, Harris collaborated with Emily Sisley to produce The Joy of Lesbian Sex, a straightforward and often humorous guide to the methods and politics of lesbian lovemaking.

She also wrote a book for young adults entitled Gertrude Stein (1995), and was working on a new novel, Mi Contra Fa at the time of her death in New York on May 22, 2005.

Harris was the longtime companion of Camilla Clay Smith, who preceded her in death. She was survived by her daughter, Jennifer Harris Wyland.

Ann Wadsworth

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Koestenbaum, Wayne. "The Purple Reign of Bertha Harris." Village Voice Literary Supplement (October 1993): 18-19.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Wadsworth, Ann  
    Entry Title: Harris, Bertha  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated June 1, 2008  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/harris_b.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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