Saturday, March 28, 2009

Today in Gay History

Happy Birthday March 28th!
Jane Rule (1931-2007)
Lesbian Novelist/Activist

Image: Jane left,
Helen right

Though dealing forthrightly with lesbian and gay subjects, the novels and criticism of Jane Rule are deliberately nonpolitical in their commitment to diverse communities and a range of experiences.

Rule was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, on March 28, 1931, the daughter of Arthur Richard and Carlotta Jane Rule. In 1952, she earned a B.A. in English from Mills College and then, for a year, studied at University College, London. In 1956, she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia; from 1976 onward, she made her home on Galiano Island. She became a Canadian citizen in the 1960s.

An open and out lesbian, Rule was best known as a fiction writer. Her awards included the Canadian Authors' Association Award for Best Novel (1978), the Benson and Hedges Award for Best Short Stories (1978), the Literary Award of the Gay Academic Union (1978), the Fund for Human Dignity's Award of Merit (1983), and the Order of Canada (2007).

Rule's book of criticism, seven novels, and numerous short stories and essays address lesbian and gay issues to varying degrees, most often by presenting them as universal concerns. Though typically outcasts, her characters do not belong to a subculture; whether queer or straight, they participate in what she calls the human family, whose members' task it is to learn to get along with one another.

The cultivation of nurturing relationships and communities in the wake of obtrusive social "systems" is a predominant theme in her work, as is the appreciation for landscape and nature, which some critics have called a particularly Canadian motif.

Rule's first novel, Desert of the Heart (1964), recounts a lesbian love story via conventional Christian images and narrative strategies. By invoking and subverting representations of gender and sexual taboos from such canonical texts as the Bible, The Divine Comedy, and The Pilgrim's Progress, the two protagonists of this coming-out novel explore the significance of their involvement.

Self-consciously literary, Desert of the Heart offers an affirming, insightful, and optimistic depiction of lesbian love, one rare indeed in pre-Stonewall fiction. Dedicated to Rule's life partner Helen Sonthoff, the novel was made into the 1986 lesbian cult film Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch.

Rule shared a 45 year committed relationship with her lover, Helen Sonthoff.
After Helen's death in 2000, Jane wrote a painfully beautiful meditation on grief that appeared in Go Big, another publication (now defunct) from Pink Triangle Press (publisher of both The Body Politic and Xtra). "Learning to survive is, at first, simply a series of distractions which begin with a love/hate relationship with everything Helen loved, from daffodils to children's laughter, from Christmas to lima beans. I don't now try to make sense of that loss. I learn to make use of it instead. The house I prepared for Helen's broken hip, to which she never returned, now shelters a friend badly hurt in a car accident, a friend about whom Helen used to say, 'Just seeing her face makes me feel better.' It does me, too.

"Risk, grow, grieve," Rule continued. "Helen's like will not walk this earth again, nor I love like that again, but the care I learned is useful still for all she and I learned to love together."

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