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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Illustration by Peter Bagge

In 1988 I was living 3,000 miles from my family. We spoke on the telephone once a week, but we didn’t see each other for years at a stretch. We weren’t estranged so much as strange to each other; my gayness was just one more thing we didn’t have in common, yet another topic we didn’t discuss. At the time, the distance between us didn’t even seem peculiar. Among my peers, PFLAG parents were the exception. Coming out was often met with threats of expulsion from the family or worse. I had friends who were institutionalized and knew at least one man whose parents put ground glass in his food when he told them he was gay.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Everyone figured their folks would eventually come around, and most did—even if they always seemed more invested in the lives of their heterosexual offspring. Still, knowing you’re a disappointment at best takes a toll. That year, Sarah Schulman explored the damage families inflict on their LGBT members in After Delores, now freshly re-released in a 25th anniversary edition by Arsenal Pulp Press.

In the novel’s first six pages, the lone wolf of a narrator gets drunk, makes out with a girl, obsesses about her ex-girlfriend, and acquires a gun. It’s an astonishingly efficient establishment of themes, because considerations of booze, sex, violence, and abandonment dominate the rest of the book. There’s a plot of sorts—while nursing some serious ill will against her ex-girlfriend Delores, the narrator tries to figure out who killed go-go dancer Punkette—but it’s a mystery novel only in the loosest sense of the term. Our nameless narrator is no private dick, and her drunken meanderings around New York City barely qualify as an investigation. But she does want justice for Punkette. Somebody has to hold society accountable for her murder, and who better than an unstable outcast?

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The cover of the new edition features an unmade bed—a bed the narrator can no longer bear to sleep in after Delores takes off, abandoning their shared Lower East Side walkup so that she can trade up to fashion photographer Mary Sunshine’s Tribeca loft. There was no good reason for Delores to leave—no rational explanation for the narrator to go from being “the person Delores cared about the most [to] the one she most wants to break,” except perhaps her refusal to lie and promise that they’d never break up. “I couldn’t say ‘forever’ unless I knew for sure it was true,” she declares, while Delores’ new girlfriend, Sunshine, said “forever” without a second thought.

Without a good explanation for the terrible treatment Delores meted out to her, the narrator loses her grip, first on her drinking and then on her impulse control. “If I had money, I would have gone to a decent psychiatric hospital,” she says, “but instead I was just another pathetic person on the Lower East Side.” A pathetic person with serious anger issues. As soon as she lays hands on that pearl-handled pistol, she fantasizes about using it to shoot Delores and dreams of cutting Sunshine’s face open with a can opener.

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