September 13th, 2011

Goth marquise

A censored life?

When I was ten or eleven, my mother, knowing I liked reading about the Greek myths, handed me her copy of Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine, suggesting I might like it. I liked it very much -- indeed, I loved it, and read and reread it to this day. That same old paperback is still on my bookshelves. It was moving and absorbing and yes, it talked about Socrates and Plato, but the heart of the book -- and the thing that I loved most about it -- is the relationship between the narrator, Alexias, and his older lover Lysis. I adored them, I loved that they found each other, I loved them together. They went straight into my private pantheon of great romances, along with Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre, Aragorn and Arwen and Maxim de Winter and his second wife. (I read ahead of my age. A lot.) It didn't matter at all that Alexias and Lysis were both male -- not to me, not to my mother when she recommended the book. What mattered was that it was a good book. The history in it is wrong. But the characters remain amongst my all-time favourites. The history in The Three Musketeers is wrong, too, but it doesn't stop me loving and admiring it anyway.)
The point, though, is that my mother saw nothing wrong in letting her 11-year-old daughter read a book about a gay romance. She was quite right. There is nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. (My mother, as I may have mentioned before, is a remarkable woman.) My best friend saw nothing wrong in encouraging her teenage daughter to read it, either.
As far as I can remember, The Last of the Wine was the first book I read with a gay theme. Within the next 3 or 4 years, I came across many more -- more by Renault, but also books by Samuel R Delany, and others. I met the group marriages and characters with fluid sexualities of Heinlein. Later on came characters in books by Katherine Kurtz and Radcliffe Hall and Jean Ure and Alfred Duggan. There was slash, too, which my older Star Trek fan friends wouldn't let me read (they didn't know how cool my mother was) but which I found anyway and decided wasn't as good as Mary Renault. I learnt a lot about love from Alexias and Lysis, and I would not be without them.
The point is that the book was there for me to read. Friends and acquaintances say the same things about books by Mercedes Lackey, Tanya Huff, Fiona Patterson, Lynn Flewelling, Elisabeth E Lynn, Chaz Brenchley, Hal Duncan, Ellen Kushner... I could go on and on. All those books were there. Now, I'm straight. My choices are reflected back at me by mainstream British literary culture. But not all my friends are, and those books meant even more to them than to me. It showed them that they could be heroes and lovers, accepted and acceptable. And that really matters.
Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown have written a YA book with a gay viewpoint character which they currently trying to sell. An agent offered them a contract, on the condition that they make the gay character straight. You've probably heard about this already, but if not, take the time to read what they say.
And pass it on. Because books matter. Books change lives. Some books have even saved lives. But to do that, they have to be there on the shelf to be read. Taking them away, or rewriting them, or denying people of all ages access to them is censorship of words, of realities, of people's daily lives.