The Landmark Lesbian Novel Published 25 Years Ago

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 11 2013 12:26 PM

I Was Burning

Sarah Schulman’s landmark lesbian novel of grief and rage, 25 years later.

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Those violent impulses were always disturbing. When After Delores first appeared, it was one of the first openly lesbian modern novels to be published by a mainstream press. Although the details are now lost in the pre-Internet haze, I remember feminist reviewers observing a pattern in the few lesbian books that caught the eye of big New York publishers: They were all shot through with violence. There was this one, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina (which by no means valorizes the sadism it describes), and at least one other novel whose title I’ve now forgotten, even though I remember once reviewing it. All that violence was undoubtedly present, but with the benefit of hindsight, I now realize it wasn’t that mainstream publishers were seeking savage thrills; it was that lesbian writers needed to express their rage.

In a new introduction, Schulman claims that in writing After Delores, she was “escaping from the tyranny of positive images that had started to dominate grassroots feminist publishing at the time.” In 1988 the notion of a “tyranny of positive images” would have struck me as completely upside-down—like many others, I was convinced that positive images were a necessary corrective to decades of negative portrayals of lesbians in literature. Now I know that anger can be an appropriate response to exploitation and abuse, and besides, there’s a difference between fantasizing about assaulting someone and actually committing the act. About three-quarters of the way through After Delores, the narrator receives a visit from a trio of vigilantes who accuse her of having committed an act of violence against women when she sent a postcard to her ex bearing the message, “I hate you Delores. I walk down the street dreaming of smashing your face with a hammer.” She points out the difference: “I didn’t say I would smash her face with a hammer, I said I wanted to. It’s not the same thing.”

Back then, I saw the narrator’s urge to smash someone in the face as a sign of her brokenness; now she seems like the only one whose moral compass is intact. It’s not that she’s messed up; it’s that the rest of the world isn’t meeting its responsibilities. As she tells her friend Coco Flores, “Some things are just too outrageous to let them go by.” Punkette deserves justice, and no one else in the entire city of New York cares enough to look for her killer. The narrator deserves love and loyalty, but no one is willing to give her those things, or even to use her name.

Sarah Schulman
Sarah Schulman

Nayland Blake

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Schulman has returned to the cruelty of abandonment by those who are supposed to love us unconditionally many times since, most notably in 2009’s Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. But even in the middle of the AIDS crisis—when thousands were rejected by their families when they needed them most—her desperate, damaged heroine called out a crime many of us then accepted as our due. When I first read After Delores in 1988, familial rejection was such a common component of LGBT life that I’m pretty sure I didn’t even pick up on Schulman’s point, as undeniable as it is: Abandoning children because they’re gay—which is to say, for no good reason—hurts them, and it damages the rest of society even more. After nonconsensual sex with a lesbian named Charlotte, the narrator has an epiphany: “I could see everything. I was burning. I could see that there was so much more pain than I had ever imagined and I didn’t have to look for it. Those closest to me would bring it with them.”

A special kind of import attaches itself to a book whose cover announces that it’s a “25th Anniversary Edition.” It inevitably becomes a symbol of the year it was released, the epitome of 1988-ness. The New York of a quarter-century ago was a city full of danger and despair, but After Delores reminds us that the homes we left to find refuge there and in other cities like it were infinitely more hazardous to our health.

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After Delores by Sarah Schulman. Arsenal Pulp Press.

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