"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When I think of the books that shaped my lesbian imagination, it is frankly embarrassing. The truth is that my ideas of romance and erotic authority and lesbian life patterns came out of some truly awful books — when there were any books that mentioned lesbians at all. I don’t mean embarrassing and bad in the sense that they were badly written — though, of course, that is a factor — but embarrassing because I believed, truly and completely, in the fatalistic and brutal things that were told to me about who I could be as a grown-up lesbian. I was born to a very poor, violent family where most of my focus was purely on survival, and my sense of self as a lesbian grew along with my sense of myself as a raped child, a poor white Southerner and an embattled female. I was Violet Leduc’s Le Batard much more than I was Le Amazon, that creation of upper-class Natalie Barney. People tell me that class is no longer the defining factor it was when I was a girl, but I find that impossible to fully accept. Class is always a defining factor when you are the child one step down from everyone else.
At the age of 13 I was always calculating how to not kill myself or how not to let myself be killed. That tends to stringently shape one’s imagination. I did not plan to fill up a hope chest and marry some good old boy and make babies. I did not want to be who the world wanted to make me. I was a smart, desperate teenage girl trying to figure out how to not be dismissed out of hand for who I was. I wanted to go to college, not become another waitress or factory worker or laundry person or counter-help woman like all the other women I knew. Everywhere I looked I saw a world that held people like me in contempt — even without the added detail of me being a lesbian.
The only “lesbian” books I could find then were the porn under my stepfather’s bed or those gaudy paperbacks from the drugstore that inevitably ended with one “dyke” going off to marry while the other threw herself under a car. This did not persuade me to be straight, but it did prove to me that fiction should be distrusted. No way I would kill myself for falling in love with my girlfriends. No, I had more deadly reasons to feel hopeless. To find a way out of the world as I saw it, I read science fiction. To sustain my rage and hope, I read poetry and mainstream novels with female heroines. And I read books by Southerners for ammunition to use against Yankees who would treat me mean. Always I read as a lesbian.
Everyone says that their first lesbian book was Radclyffe Hall’s wretched “Well of Loneliness,” but that didn’t do it for me. I knew from a very early age that I was a femme, and while I might fall in love with Stephen, I did not want to be her. (Well, actually, I couldn’t even imagine falling in love with Stephen — that brooding, bossy, ridiculous upper-class creature who would never fall in love with someone like me anyway.) If you limit the list to self-defined lesbian books, then we get down to just one: Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle.” But looking for self-defined lesbian books was never how I approached the subject. I always reinterpreted books to give me what I needed. All books were lesbian books — if they were believable about women at all, and particularly if they were true to my own experience.
I remember when I first read Barbara Smith’s essay on why Toni Morrison’s “Sula” was a lesbian novel, how this great grinding noise went through my brain. Of course, I thought, and so was Carson McCullers’ “Member of the Wedding” and “My Antonia” by Willa Cather. I always knew that. In that moment my whole imagination shifted, and I admitted what had always been so: I had spent my adolescence reinterpreting the reality of every book, movie and television show I had ever experienced — moving everything into lesbian land. Of course, that was how I had kept myself semi-sane and developed an idea of how to love someone, how to be part of a community and maybe even find happiness.
I read Mary Renault as lesbian — even her novels that featured only men. There was “The Friendly Young Ladies,” her novel about two women on a houseboat, with one of them writing westerns to support them both, which was definitely about lesbians, but all Renault’s work seemed to me to carry forward the same themes. (I discovered that every woman I had ever dated had read not only “The Persian Boy” but “Fire From Heaven,” and recognized them as lesbian texts — as if Alexander the Great was really, truly just another wounded butch underneath it all.) I read books for the queer subtext and because they advocated a world I understood. Books about outsiders, books about inappropriate desire, books where the heroes escaped or fought social expectations, books where boys were girlish or girls were strong and mouthy — all were deeply dykey to me, sources of inspiration or social criticism or life-sustaining poetry.
Flannery O’Connor — that astonishing, brave visionary who told hard truths in a human voice — was an outsider holding a whole society up to a polished mirror. She was as ruthless as one of her own characters, and I loved her with my whole heart. Surely, she was a lesbian, I told myself, and took comfort from her stubborn misfit’s life, the fact that she lived with her mama and never married. I did not need her to sleep with a woman to prove her importance to me, though I would have been grateful to think of her with a great love comforting her as Lupus robbed her of all she might have done.
If I set aside Flannery O’Connor, I would have to say that science fiction made me who I am today. I spent my childhood buried in those books. Every science-fiction novel I fell into as a child, regardless of the gender or sexual persuasion of the author, widened my imagination about what was possible for me in the world. There were those perfectly horrible/wonderful stories about barbarian swordswomen who were always falling in love with demons, and there were the Telzey stories and the Witch World books and countless brave and wonderful novels told from inside the imaginations of “special” young girls. Mind-reading seemed to me to code queer. Alien suggested dyke. On another world, in a strange time and place, all categories were reshuffled and made over.
These days, with everyone so matter-of-fact about sexual identity, it is hard to explain how embattled I was as a girl, how embattled the whole subject seemed to be. It was entirely different for women 10 years younger than me if they grew up in an urban center, and different again a decade later for everyone, regardless of where they grew up. I wonder what it must be like for those lesbians younger than me who have never had to make that translation. How do they read books, watch movies and television and shape their own sense of being queer in the world today? Sometimes I wonder if books are as lifesaving for teenagers today as they were for me when I was a girl. But then I go to speak to some group and there are those young people clutching books to their hearts, asking me what I am reading with the same kind of desperate passion I felt whenever I went to a library or bookstore. No doubt it is different these days, but that passion still seems to be there. Books are still where some of us get our notions of how the world is, and how it might be.
So what “lesbian” books shaped me? “Sula” and “Member of the Wedding” definitely. I reread them now, and for me they remain lesbian books. I think my lifelong struggle not to be as ridiculous, obvious and oblivious as young Frankie saved me from being quite as blind to my own obsessions. Of course, this didn’t help me to foresee all the other ways I would become as ridiculous as Frankie was. You can’t get everything from books. And I know my sense of the honor between women and the importance of female friendship was buoyed up by “Sula.”
I would also put in one of the Ann Bannon novels — perhaps “Odd Girl Out” or “Beebo Brinker,” though I find them difficult to reread these days. When I was young, Bannon’s books let me imagine myself into her New York City neighborhoods of short-haired, dark-eyed butch women and stubborn, tight-lipped secretaries with hearts ready to be broken. Her books come close to the kind of books that had made me feel fatalistic and damned in my youth, but somehow she just managed to sustain a sense of hope. And of course, there was her romantic portrait of the kind of butch woman I idealized. I would have dated Beebo, no question, although, like a lot of my early girlfriends, she would have grown quickly bored with my political convictions and insistence on activism.
Yes, “Rubyfruit Jungle” would be on my list because it made me laugh out loud and fantasize about moving to New York City and lobbing grapefruits at rich white men while dating actresses and writing my own novels. It was also written with a kind of joyful passion that countered all those deadly suicidal lesbian novels I had grown to hate.
I would want to list “Patience and Sarah” by Isabel Miller, because it is a love story I believed and a couple I could imagine walking around in my own little Southern neighborhood. It is hard for me to honor and enjoy romantic fiction and love stories. While I sometimes felt that, by the time I first read it, I was a little too old and untrusting for “Patience and Sarah,” I never doubted the truth of their love. It remains, thankfully, a book I enjoy.
There is one book I would put on any list of my most important and that is “The Female Man” by Joanna Russ, although I loved all her Alyx books. It is as hard and mean and fine as a Flannery O’Connor short story, if you could imagine Flannery stepping into an experimental mode more perverse than the one she managed with “Wise Blood.” It is also a true feminist classic, although I find that when I say that too many people smirk and look away. So, let me also say that it is almost as romantic as “Patience and Sarah,” with equally believable lovers and madwomen.
I wish that everyone would read Joanna Russ’ books. I remember with pleasure “Picnic on Paradise,” the first novel where the character Alyx appears. At the time, I was about as doctrinaire as any lesbian feminist in history, but I remember realizing that it made no difference to me that Alyx was not the lesbian I had first thought her to be. She was screwing a teenage boy with Walkman headphones plugged into his ears every chance she got, and still seemed completely a dyke to me. Russ gave me the idea that there were lots of different ways to be queer, and that even running off to another planet might not fix my life. She made me think that I better pay a bit more attention to life on this planet, and of course she also had a sense of humor. I require a sense of humor in all things.
Oh, what a relief it is to live in the world we have made! As cruel and prejudiced as it is, it is not the world in which I was a girl. We do not have to live hidden lives. We do not have to re-imagine ourselves into the bland over-mind. We have books, stacks and stacks of books on every imaginable subject written by lesbians, all kinds of lesbians.
Dorothy Allison's most recent novel, "Cavedweller," has just been published in paperback. She is also the author of "Bastard out of Carolina."More Dorothy Allison.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)