Sapphic soldiers

Tereska Torres -- author of 1950s lesbian pulp novel "Women's Barracks" -- talks about the ladies of the Free French Forces, shocking American audiences, and being mistaken for a "lesbian writer."

Published August 9, 2005 3:50PM (EDT)

On the cover of "Women's Barracks," a handful of half-clad ladies are crowded into a room, dressing themselves, nary a man in sight. We are, after all, in the women's barracks. One, a blonde wearing a pointy soldier's cap and a full-coverage bra, zips up her skirt with a cigarette dangling from her lips. In the corner, wrapped in a towel -- or is that a negligee? -- a thin brunette rubs cream onto her face. Smack in the middle, a voluptuous redhead bends over, pulling up a pant leg and making eyes at the fully dressed, smoking female officer who's making eyes right back at her. Smoking indeed!

And not so subtle. Even in 1950, when Fawcett's Gold Medal, the first American paperback imprint, published "Women's Barracks," it was clear that this was not typical dime-store fare. Billed as "the frank autobiography of a French girl soldier," the book promised the true-life account of what had transpired in the London barracks for the women of World War II's Free French Forces, through the eyes of its young author, Tereska Torres.

Americans must have been hurting for information on the habits of notoriously sexual French women left to their own devices, because "Women's Barracks," known today as the first lesbian pulp, quickly became the first paperback original bestseller, despite the best efforts of some officials. An American congressional committee on "current pornographic materials" examined it as an example of perversion, but publishers were able to avoid censorship by arguing that it actually taught "moral lessons" about the "problem" of lesbianism. A Canadian court, on the other hand, concluded after two days of deliberations that it didn't educate, but encouraged girls to go down that wayward path, and ruled it obscene. Still, these stern chastisements had little effect on the book's soaring popularity -- "Women's Barracks" sold 2 million copies in its first five years; to date, it has sold 4 million copies.

This summer, the Feminist Press is reissuing "Women's Barracks" as the first offering in its "Women Write Pulp" series. While reprints of the book have featured newer covers (my personal favorite is a 1970s edition showcasing two leggy, shaggy-haired femme fatales in oversize green Army shirts -- clearly not the regulation uniform of the 1940s Free French Forces), this latest edition carries the original, long considered a classic image of lesbian fiction.

Yet what's "lesbian" about "Women's Barracks" isn't just its candid depictions of sex. To be sure, Torres isn't shy about discussing "strange caresses" or "small pointed breasts," but that's only half the story. She doesn't just record what women do with each other, but what they say to each other: how they relate as lovers and friends, allies and enemies; how they think about the "real Lesbians" and the "normal women ... who play at such games"; how they admire, disregard and sleep with men; how they cope with liberated spirits and unwanted pregnancies. Torres gives readers both pulpy lesbian lust and an honest story about real women -- shy, fragile Ursula; mature and worldly Claude; the funny and plucky Mickey; proud and beautiful man-crazy Jacqueline; tough, butch Anne -- as they see themselves and each other.

Today, Torres is lauded as a "lesbian writer." But, as she told me when we spoke on the phone, that's news to her. In fact, she says, she prefers the published version of her wartime diary, released in France as "Free French," to the fictionalized "Women's Barracks." And she is much more interested in what she's doing now than in what she did 50 years ago. At 84, she is still publishing and traveling the world, dividing her time among homes in Paris, California and New Jersey. We spoke about writing, politics and the differences between Americans and the French.

How did "Women's Barracks" come about?

Meyer Levin, who I married later, was a war correspondent in London during the war, and an old friend of my parents. He used to take me out for dinner and lunches while I was in the Free French Forces, and he was in the American Army. And as he was a writer, I was always telling him stories about what was happening in the barracks at the time I was living there. He was always very interested in my stories. After the war, in 1948, we got married, and he always was telling me, "Why don't you write the story about what happened in London during the war when you were a soldier in the French army?" And I had written it all in my diary, but he was always saying, no, no, no, make a novel.

And how was it received?

I remember first of all the book came out in America when I was still in Paris. I was overwhelmed by the idea that they had published 200,000 copies of it. I couldn't believe it. And I went to see this man at Fawcett. Nobody said "lesbian" to me, nobody mentioned it. All I knew is that they all said it was terribly shocking, and I didn't know why they said that. I thought I had written a very innocent book. I thought, these Americans, they are easily shocked.

So you didn't think "Women's Barracks" was shocking?

Not to me! Not to me at all! French literature is full of sexual description -- Flaubert and Proust and everything. I felt I was extremely tame! The book spoke very delicately about the few matters of sexual encounters. But so what? I hadn't invented anything -- that's the way women lived during the war in London. Generally in London the atmosphere in the war was very free, because there was a feeling that every day could be the last. People later thought it was so shocking.

And it was so popular! Why do you think people liked it so much?

I suppose in America at the time the people were not used to the description of women's sexual life. At that time, women in America didn't write so candidly. I have met men, later on in life, who said to me, "Oh my goodness, you wrote 'Women's Barracks!' That book made such an impression on me, I can't believe it that you wrote it!" But I'm not a person who writes shocking books. I just write things the way I feel. I try to express my emotion.

But your next two books also dealt with lesbian sexuality, didn't they?

I didn't use sexuality. Maybe it's my French outlook on sex. I didn't think it was sexuality; it was life ... That's the way life is. Life is sexual.

That's what we accept today, but it was different in the 1950s.

Yes, but it was not different in France. Don't forget that I was writing in France from the point of view of the French woman. So what Americans accept today was accepted in France in the 1950s.

How was the reception of "Women's Barracks" different in France?

"Women's Barracks" was never published in France. I was interested to publish part of my diary in France because I felt the truth was more interesting than fiction. And the diary, which appeared in France as "Free French," had the same stories about the same girls, but not written as fiction, written as my life in the army ... Even now, they say, maybe we should publish "Women's Barracks." And I always say, no, I don't want it to be published in France.

"Women's Barracks" has become known as a book that was a kind of lifeline for girls and young women who were trying to explore or come to terms with their sexuality. Were you surprised when you learned how popular your book was with women?

Yes, very surprised. And I had no idea until very recently. Maybe a year ago, a friend of mine called me and said, "Did you know that your book is being sold on the Internet? And that you are a well-known writer that is called a lesbian writer?" And I was extremely surprised!

That's very funny.

Yes, it is. I was as surprised as in 1951 when the book came out and I went to see the American publisher and said, "You print 200,000 copies now, but will you print more?" And he said, "We'll always print this book! We'll publish it for always, like the Bible." I thought that was so funny. And I was very astonished that young women find it so extraordinary. My goodness, other books have much more scandalous descriptions.

Are any of the women you wrote about still alive?

I think only one is alive, the one that I called Mickey. Her name, of course, is not Mickey. She lives in England and she had quite a complicated life. We see each other rarely, but we are good friends ... My daughter works for French television, and she made a film about my war diary. And Mickey -- her real name is Claire -- she was interviewed by my daughter. She interviewed both Claire and me. She took us back to London and showed us in front of the old barracks, telling stories about what had happened during the war.

I was struck by how isolated the characters in "Women's Barracks" are. They live in the barracks, isolated from society; they're isolated in terms of their sexuality; sometimes they're isolated from each other.

Well, this is the way I wrote the novel. When I describe the life of the women in the army in my diary, it comes out very differently. In the diary, what I wrote in 1940 is not the same as what I wrote in 1941 or '43 o '44 because my mood changes -- depression, isolation, but sometimes happiness and excitement. In the novel, the form is fixed, while in the diary, nothing is frozen. Everything evolves.

It was sad sometimes, but there were opposite moments, too. Life was wonderful, women had great fun with each other. For the young ones, of my age -- 18 or 19 -- like me, their whole life was opening.

Besides being a writer, weren't you also an actress? I thought you appeared in a film once.

I am not an actress! Definitely not an actress! What happened is that my husband made a long documentary film in 1946 or 1947 about the illegal immigration of troops from Germany to Palestine. He put me in it because he wanted [continuity] between the scenes. It was shot during six months with different groups going from one conflict to another ... so he wanted certain types to be seen in every scene. Not always the same people, but those who were typical of the group. That gave it continuity. I didn't act as an actress. I was just there! And Meyer would say to me, talk to this woman, so I talked to her! And he would say, sit down in that seat. So I would do it. But I was never acting, I was just part of life on this illegal trip ... It was from Warsaw to Haifa. When we got there, they put us in jail for three days.

How did you like that?

It was incredible. It was fascinating. I am very adventurous, so anything adventurous I love. I was in a cell with Arab women who had been arrested, I think most of them for prostitution or having killed somebody, maybe their husband who beat them. There must have been like five, six other women there.

This interview is supposed to be about "Women's Barracks," but you wrote that book 50 years ago. What have you done since, besides getting arrested.

I was married to Meyer, we traveled very much. I don't know how to tell you it all ... I published 14 books, I was a mother, I raised three children, I had a lot of adventures in Ethiopia that I wrote a book about. I have written a lot about all these things, but they are mostly published in France.

What have you written recently? What are you writing now?

I continue writing in my diary, which I started when I was 9 years old. The last books I wrote were published in France. One was a novel called "The Dolls of Ashes" -- it's set in Israel, and it's a story of a love affair between an Israeli girl and a Palestinian who becomes a terrorist. And I wrote a novel called "The Haunted Houses of Meyer Levin" that appeared only in French. It's about my husband and his obsession with Anne Frank. And I wrote another novel, "The Country of Whispers," about a woman who goes to Ethiopia and is involved with the escape of Ethiopian Jews who escape illegally into Israel, so it's a novel about their adventures. So those are the last books I have written. And in the last two or three years I have not written any new books, but I have had several books republished in France again.

Some of those sound like they have political themes. Do you follow politics? Are you involved with that in any way?

When I am in America, my friend reads the newspapers, so I read those. In France I watch TV; I don't read the newspapers. And even in America I am not involved in the politics of parties. It sounds terribly pretentious to put it this way, but I don't know how else to put it: I'm not involved in the politics of parties, I'm involved in the philosophy of parties, the squabbles between them.

What do you think about the current moment?

I think we are at a crossroads of history. We are dealing with immense changes in the way we live, the way we work. I think we are at the crossroads. And we are part of it. Every person who is alive today is part of it. And one day a future generation will look back and say, Oh, this generation of people lived through such an extraordinary period of time, because there were so many upheavals.

And upheavals always look terrible while people are being shaken up. But they look different when you look back. In the history of the world there were periods of immense upheavals, and certainly people who lived during them looked at it very differently ... We can't really judge anything while we're in an earthquake.

Speaking of earthquakes, were you in California for the earthquake the other week?

No, we were in Morocco the day there was the big earthquake in Santa Monica.

You still travel? You don't get tired?

No, I love traveling. It's one of the things that I find the most interesting: writing books and traveling.

Do you have a favorite place?

My favorite place in the world is a tiny little valley in the French Pyrenees where I went as a child. I took my friend Vahan there to show this place to him. It has about five houses and is a tiny little village, which is to me a Shangri-la. Otherwise the place I have been to that I love very much and made a great impression on me was Afghanistan, and that was many years ago. I was there with my husband at the time when the king was still there. It must have been 30 years ago. We traveled for six weeks in a car all over, and I remember it as the country I have seen that has impressed me the most, the most beautiful, the most exciting. Meyer and I traveled in China, in Russia ... the last place we went was Istanbul.

That sounds wonderful.

I wish everybody would travel a lot. People would learn to know each other and trust each other more.

By Christine Smallwood

Christine Smallwood is on the editorial staff of the Nation and co-editor of the Crier magazine.

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