Last year I went to the 29th annual Lambda Literary Awards ceremony in New York, think of it as the Oscars for Queer writing; it was a blast! Lambda Literary gives out Lammy awards in various literary genres. Over the last three decades, the list of winners together with the recipients of the Visionary and Trustee awards provide an historical map of our LGBTQ experience, literally written by us. I was excited to be at the Lammies, and even more so to grab a coffee with Jeanette Winterson who was the recipient of the Trustee award that year and whose works have helped me understand some of the socio-political dynamics of my own sexuality, and helped me individuate through my own work. Our conversation was about many things, too many to go into, but I thought I would take this opportunity during Pride month, to share some morsels that have stayed with me and are incredibly germane to our reality as artists and part of the LGBTQ community with hard-won rights that seem to be slipping away once more.
The first question on my mind was about being a recipient of the Trustee Award, I wanted to know how it was different from the many other types of awards and recognitions she had received throughout her career. She said that, “It’s lovely because it’s about a contribution over a long period of time and about changing the culture, which can only happen bit by bit, incrementally, and that’s exciting because things have changed and it’s great to have been part of that change. It’s what I want to be.” We talked about how it’s important to have an organization like Lambda Literary recognize her work, “It does mean a lot to me…I know it’s the books, obviously, but it’s the bigger picture. It’s a long period of saying, ‘we have to move forward in our society’; though at the moment we’re in a strange place, aren’t we? ...everything that has been fought for is under threat again.”
We talked about how important it is for younger people to realize that history and gains in social equality and equity must be worked on consistently in order for us to retain the rights we have secured, because it’s never really done. It’s never done; it’s the dialectic after all, the idea that the status quo is the thesis, which is then challenged (antithesis) and the resulting outcome of this interaction is the synthesis, and then it’s starts all over again. “You have to keep working at those things that you fought so hard to hold on to”, she said.
The conversation eventually touched on art, writers, and the long game. We talked about how hard it is to talk about artists as a group because the creative process is such an individual process, however, “The role of Art in society itself changes depending on where society is at any one point, sometimes it’s a healing role, sometimes is a provocative role that the artist has, sometimes it’s about bringing people together, sometimes it’s about standing up for difference, so it changes. We have had a fairly liberal tide for a long time, and it’s been good, there’s been money around, people have felt pretty safe in the West. They could go about their business, there was time and space for thought and reflection, and that’s changing now. Even the most basic questions about why should we fund the national endowment for the arts when we need hospitals and schools, when we need healthcare? These are false questions but still people feel that they can raise them.” However, if people are asking themselves these questions, then that’s a good thing, “…because we take a lot for granted and we shouldn’t do that.” But, what did she mean by false questions? Did she mean that we were comparing apples and oranges? No, she meant, “There’s enough money, it’s as simple as that. There’s always enough money, the rich have gotten richer therefore money hasn’t gone away.” We chuckled a bit at the visual conceptualization of money or resources being moved away from the reach of most into the hands of the few and this dynamic being disguised as expediency on a global economic sense. We agreed that people are willing to pay for things that make their lives better—if they know these things make it better. We are in dire need of spokespeople to help us all understand the interrelationships between us all and our environment, for example, it matters that the ice is melting in the arctic even if you have never seen a polar bear, it will eventually make a difference to everyone’s world. For artists, it isn’t about “costing fortunes, it’s about being allowed to exist, and having that contribution recognized even though it is not always a direct cause and effect, because it never is, you don’t know how you’re going to influence somebody’s mind and you don’t know how that person that you’ve influenced will then go out and influence somebody else, or the wider society. It doesn’t work on a straight-forward business model… It only works when you think of the long term consequence of ‘this’ when it’s here, and when you think of the long term consequence of when it’s not here.”
A few years ago I delivered a TED-x talk, which although was mostly off-the-cuff revealed what was preoccupying my mind then, and still does-- the idea of fear manifested as hate. I remembered what it was like going to the Muni Assembly meetings on the equal rights ordinance and having neighbors and fellow human beings holding hateful signs and yelling hateful things at us. I remember feeling sick and hurt at the thought that out there are people who hate me simply for existing in a way that is different from theirs. And I thought, what are they afraid of? These feeling and thoughts are not unique to me, and having honest discussions is the only way to find solutions. As we continued our conversation, Ms. Winterson said, “But, you’re right, you have to have that dialogue, because if there’s a problem, even if people are resistant to solutions, if they recognize there’s a problem that’s a beginning. At the moment, all the problems in the world are because people aren’t talking to each other. There’s hatred and fears and the only way out seems via killing somebody or starting a war somewhere, and that’s obviously not a good solution. I’m thinking that maybe people will understand that it’s no good looking for the enemy, the stranger, the person that you don’t have anything in common with, the person that you’re scared of, we are going to have to come together.” Bringing people together is the only way to share our experiences and find what we have in common, and overcoming fear, and this goes for everyone across the spectrum.
Creativity is a state of mind. But what about stories, their telling and retelling? No matter what you do, writing, painting, playing music, etc., it’s all about the story, your story, my story, well known stories, old stories, and new stories. Ms. Winterson’s work is all about stories, inventing them, reinterpreting them, and finding her own meaning. She has brought us along on her path, and through her curiosity ignited ours about what it means to be human, what it is to not be limited by forms or gender. She tells the story of working with children on the retelling of Cinderella, perhaps to the chagrin of absolutists. She said, “Everything is tempering with something else. One thing always created another thing for starts, and these [stories] were always made to be retold in a different way. I love the creativity. When the kids started thinking about the Cinderella story, they thought that they shouldn’t have to get married. They thought that they should go off and be explorers. One of the boys said, ‘Well I think that he’s (the Prince) actually gay so he won’t want to marry Cinderella, but that’s alright because they’ll be the best of friends, and he’ll show her how to cook.’ Once children felt freed from the either the Disney version or whatever version, they start thinking, and at that moment in their minds it’s like putting blocks of color on the table—suddenly it’s no longer a story that someone tells them—they realize they can put the blocks together in a different shape.” How do we as artists sustain and nurture our creativity? How do we remain open to inspiration so that we can reflect the world around us, sometimes to bring awareness to its beauty and at other times to sound the alarms at injustice? For Ms. Winterson, it’s about knowing what feeds you and what conditions are best for your own creative process. Ms. Winterson lives in the country, which is where she does a lot of her writing, but also frequents the city to attend the theater and exhibitions, she reads a lot, and all this helps her stay open to creativity, “Being in a state of readiness, that doesn’t happen by just slumping on the couch and watching crap TV. The state of readiness means that your mind is working always with things that have been produced at a high level, which includes nature, and you are engaged continually in a dialog so your mind is stimulated, I don’t mean in a frenetic way. Modern life seems to offer people either a kind of slump state of absolute passivity or they are so wired that nothing can get in, and these conditions are very bad for us as human beings. When you see animals hunting, it’s that state of alert relaxation, they’re not tense at all but they’re absolutely focused. I think that’s what you get when you work creatively, you really focus and you’re completely aware of your environment and what’s going on, you’re taking things in. And also you’re not stressed because there’s something about it that I think for me it’s not from the head, it’s a whole body experience. It allows you to be in flow, you are part of it but you’re also observant of it, and that’s the unique thing about being human.”