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social sciences

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Nestle, Joan (b. 1940)  
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Writing Career

Nestle began her career as a writer in 1978, when she became so ill with an undiagnosed disease that she could not work for a year. Lesbian friends formed a writing group to support her, and she produced her first story, "Mara's Room," which became part of A Restricted Country (1987). The tome won the Gay/Lesbian Book Award of the American Library Association, the first of many honors that Nestle would receive for her writing and editorial skills.

Nestle has described "Mara's Room" as "an expression of rage about what was happening to my body," adding that "I used the memory of erotic moments as a way to reclaim my body that was my enemy during the throes of illness."

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Choosing to write erotica, and in particular erotica that portrayed butch-femme relationships, plunged Nestle into the middle of the lesbian sex wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Nestle, along with other writers such as Jewelle Gomez, Pat Califia, and Dorothy Allison, was in the "sex positive" camp (or the pornographers, as their detractors called them). Their leading opponents were Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.

Adrienne Rich was another writer holding an opposing viewpoint, and Nestle recalls that they "were often pitted against each other" at conferences in the 1980s. Nestle described her encounters with Rich as ones "that shifted between generosity and alienation."

For many years the two women carried on a dialogue both in public and in private. Although they disagreed, Nestle declared herself "deeply impressed" by Rich's good faith in listening to opinions opposed to her own. For her part, Nestle, also showing a generous spirit, said of Rich that despite their philosophical differences, "for the risks that she has taken in this country of so-called free speech, where the disdain of the establishment can crush a writer's spirit, I will always honor her."

Nestle's writings about lesbians include the Women on Women series (1990, 1992, and 1996), which she co-edited. The first of these won a Lambda Literary Award, as did her anthology The Persistent Desire and her lesbian studies volume A Fragile Union.

Although much of Nestle's work has been concerned with lesbian culture, she embraces the entire queer community. She teamed with John Preston to edit Sister and Brother: Lesbians and Gay Men Write about Their Lives Together (1994), another Lambda Literary Award winner.

Nestle's consideration of sexuality has led her to explore the issues raised by the and movements, which, she has stated, call into question the very terms "man" and "woman." In 2002 she co-edited GENDERqUEER: Voices from beyond the Binary, for which she garnered yet another Lambda Literary Award. The anthology examines the topic of sexual identity and, characteristic of Nestle's projects, features the voices of a diverse group of individuals. Nestle sees the individual as a complex of identities, "a layering of selves," that combine and evolve to make a person who he or she is.

Nestle's life as a writer and activist is the subject of Joyce Warshow's 2002 documentary Hand on the Pulse, which has won several prizes at gay and lesbian film festivals.

Illness and Transformation

Nestle has twice been diagnosed with cancer, first in 1995 and again in 2001, and she has undergone surgery both times. As she had done at the beginning of her career, she turned to writing as a way of reclaiming her own body. Of her essay "A Feeling Comes" in A Fragile Union critic Jeannine DeLombard wrote, "Nestle explores the transformation of her sick-bed into a tousled bed of pleasure and back again, using her intimacy with illness to stretch the boundaries of erotica and to complicate in new ways the relationship between pleasure and pain, love and loss, body and mind."

After her second round of cancer surgery Nestle moved to Australia, where she has joined her partner, law professor Diane Otto, on the faculty at the University of Melbourne. She has stated that she has been invigorated by being back in the classroom and watching young people at once discovering history and building the future.

Living in another country has also made Nestle keenly aware of the lack of rights for glbtq people in the area of immigration laws.

Fragile Hope

Nestle's writings encompass both intensely personal experiences and the wider scope of history and public debate, with the two often intertwining. After her first episode of cancer she wrote in A Fragile Union, "I found this to be a time of great passion in my life, a time of increased commitments to the forging of fragile solidarities that, if of the body, may last only a night, and if of a more sweeping kind, carry me more humbly than ever into historical processes."

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