21st February 1999
IAN HERFT, DAYAN CANDAPPA, NEIDRA WILLIAMS AND SHANUKI DE ALWIS
l Iove the bookshop at the Barefoot Gallery. It is filled with the most wonderful collection of eclectic ramblings that one can wonder around all day picking out titles at random and still want to come back for more.
Amongst the many curiosities available there is The Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories edited by Margaret Reynolds. This remarkable collection of sapphic tales spans over 100 years of lesbian writing and includes works by Anais Nin and Virginia Woolf amongst many others. Reynolds has brought together the works of 32 women and three specially commisioned pieces in an anthology that runs through a range of styles varying from humour to romance to wisdom and sensuality.
Although the cover photograph by Czech camera artist Jan Saudek is stark, a caveat to anyone who would consider buying this book for titillation: do not bother, this is not pornography nor is it Mills & Boon type bodice ripping yarns. On the contrary, this is a collection of serious pieces of writing, exploring women who are attracted to women and the realities of lesbian relationships.
Many of the stories describe deep friendships and merely allude to the possibility of something more. This is especially true of some of the earlier pieces. The first one, Martha's Lady was written in 1897 by Sarah Orne Jewett. It is the tale of a village lass - Martha - who develops a desperate love for her mistress's niece whom she acted as maid to during a summer visit. Martha's love for her lady is never defined in the story as being romantic or sexual, nor is it made out to be filial or platonic. Jewett writes of Martha's love as a pure, true one and it is up to the reader to make of it what he or she will. Whatever one makes of it, this story is about a woman's love for another and it is a good appetiser for the rest of the collection.
Whereas "Martha's Lady" is the epitome of genteel Victorian subtlety, Merril Mushroom's How to Engage in Courting Rituals 1950s Butch -style in the Bar (1982) is the literary equivalent of a plaid sportscoat: loud, brash and with all the subtlety of a charging rhino. For any gay woman unsure how to proceed, this piece should be essential reading (perhaps even on how not to do things) as it sets out eight rituals to be followed in approaching an attractive stranger. These range from "cruising" to "the approach" to "the dancing" to "the going home together" and are meticulously detailed steps, down to how exactly to light a cigarette for the object of desire.
As a straight man reading this piece, I found it very amusing to draw comparisons between this account of lesbian courtship and most aspects of heterosexual flirting. For one thing, the distinction between "butch" and "femme" and the clearly defined acts/responses that seem to mark the boundaries there, are very similar to the usual traditions of male/female posturing. The butch will lead the courtship game and the femme will either respond or rebuff at her pleasure. The butch will ask the femme to dance, not the other way around, etc etc. Of course these are 1950s rituals and there is no doubt that traditions have changed over the years. Nonetheless, this particular piece is an entertaining look at one aspect of lesbianism.
A more meaningful insight into lesbian relationships is presented in Alison Bechdel's witty and sensitive Serial Monogamy (1992) (so that's where Richard Curtis nicked the tag used in Four Weddings and a Funeral). This work is an autobiographical look at past relationships, their ups and downs and their highs and lows. Writing with a great deal of good humour, Bechdel is able to see the funny side of ended relationships - for example, being invited to the Commitment Ceremony of an ex-girlfriend who had left her when she started to get serious - and avoids coming across as bitter or cynical.
There are plenty of wistful recollections of happy times and a gently self-deprecating take on her own neuroses, particularly in terms of personal space, fidelity and commitment. This introspective piece is mature and unbiased in its examination of lesbian relationships; its portrayal of the depth and substance in such liaisons goes a long way towards humanising gay women in the eyes of the layman. The most appealing aspect of this piece, though, is the comic book format it is presented in; the drawings are basic, yet endearingly so and the words are well constructed. This segment was easily my favourite in the collection.
These three stories represent a cross-section of the type of works appearing in this collection. Some of the other works are quite explicit, some harrowing in their exploration of the psychological trauma caused by being labelled "different" and by no means are all the pieces of high literary quality. What this book is, however, is a carefully selected variety of perspectives on lesbianism; more than just a lesbian "primer", short of an authoritative study on the psyche of female homosexuality. Definitely a good read if you like left-of-the-field writing and as a bonus, a rare accessible glimpse at a unique section of the population.
Rating: 5 / 5
(Which is fairly often)
Go to a fashion show. No, seriously, it can be quite an interesting thing to do if you go with an open mind and look for little things to appreciate (and be cynical / sarcastic / deprecating about). The other day The Vulture was dragged along to such an event by one of the founder members of the Culture Vulture Club and a former columnist in these pages, Chunky Monkey. I actually quite enjoyed myself. The setting itself was somewhat evocative - the atrium of the Oberoi hotel with those splendid tapestries looming above and a really trippy electrical storm lighting up the skylights overhead had a heavy atmosphere, lending itself admirably to strobe lighting and the sounds of Jamiroquai and Anita Baker.
The show itself ? Most of the models were not that professional, but there were a few exceptions: Dinali, head and shoulders above the rest in terms of attractiveness as well as poise; Dechen, who does have "the look"; Joyce and Michelle, who were professional and relaxed. I'll be honest up front I know as much about fashion as Kate Moss does about particle physics, but hey, I've seen television, man, and whatever else the rest of the girls may have been, they most certainly were not even in the minor league of modelling. The male models were possibly worse: one of them kept peering into the audience as if he was singling out somebody to pick a fight with, another had the demeanour of the archetypal Geekoid and the rest, well they were just there and let's not say much more about that.
The clothes, it has to be said, were mostly good. There were some absolute freakshows too (clock the metallic silver skirts) but on the whole the designs were functional and unlike many other collections, the sort of clothes one could actually wear out in public without being the subject of a documentary on paranormal behaviour. The balance tilts slightly in favour of the menswear (which was reasonably priced too) but there was a lot of good stuff for the ladies as well. I think this particular designer works better with white, black and earthy Autumn colours than with more lurid shades.
I won't mention the designer's but the point is that it is worth going to one of these shows, (a) for the novelty value and (b) because even total fashion dipsticks like The Vulture can prattle on like Yves St.Laurent afterwards, dahling.
Another thing to do in Colombo when you're bored is to go up to the top of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and look at the City. It may not be the tallest structure on the planet, but the WTC does go up thirty nine floors and from up there everything looks different. For one thing (are you sitting down?) Colombo actually looks pretty. It really does. Look out over the western coastline and you see Galle Road stretching away down to Mt.Lavinia, bordered by the blue broadcloth of the Indian Ocean, frilled with delicate foamy wavelets breaking on the shore.
A few degrees northward and you have the harbour, resplendent in a splash of colour - containers stacked like giant Rubik's Cubes (remember those from the 80's?), a bright red fireboat sitting fat in the middle of the still blue port, spewing fountains of water as it goes through a drill - an idyllic scene from this vantage point instead of the filthy, grimy, smoky hive of corruption it really is. (The Golden Rule of life: always tinge nostalgia with a touch of cynicism).
Turning inland now, the rest of the city sprawls lazily before you, covered in a light haze. I found this to be one of the prettiest things about Colombo: no matter where you look, the drab greyness of the buildings is offset by beautiful splotches of green gardens and playing fields and by splashes of water:- the Beira Lake looked like something out of a Merchant-Ivory movie, sunlight glinting off the water, a fours team scudding across the surface. There are little ironies to be witnessed too: side by side, a lush green military drill ground - a railway track with a train chugging quaintly along - a slum tenement made up of crude shacks - a visible line of waste - fetid stagnant water; a bittersweet mosaic of life in Colombo. All around this, as if to cap it off, almost as if they were growing up out of the carbon monoxide towards the sunlight, handsome examples of modern architecture like the JAIC Hilton Tower and the Ceylinco Seylan Tower beginning to dot the landscape.
It is truly a different perspective on our city to see it from up on high. I am not sure if the WTC encourages many visitors to the top which is a pity, but understandable in today's context of bombs and violence. If you do get the opportunity to do so though, don't let it pass. Also, the WTC does take on half day tours of underprivileged children and kids from special homes, so if any of you are involved in such an organisation do give the WTC management a phone call.
There you have it: two fairly not-so-run-of-the-mill things to do in Colombo when you're bored. Coming up next week:
Things To Do In Colombo When You're Dead
#1 Go night clubbing and hang out with all the other zombies...
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