Three queer women writers
Breaking barriers within literature and the arts
Breaking barriers within literature and the arts
Queer women throughout history have broken barriers and paved the way for women to be recognised as important contributors to arts and literature in their societies. Sometimes it has been at the cost of hiding their own sexual identities and other times by directly vocalising historical erasure of queer identities.
The stories of Selma Lagerlöf, Lorraine Hansberry and Paula Gunn Allen highlight these struggles and achievements within the context of their time and communities.
Selma Lagerlöf was born in Värmland, Kingdom of Sweden and Norway, on 20 November 1858.
From birth she had a hip injury and, at the age of three, fell ill, causing a paralysis of her legs which she later recovered from.
This disability forced me to sit still and look inside myself, and that is why I became a writer. If I had been healthy, I would probably have had to marry some factory manager.
Between 1882 and 1885, Lagerlöf studied at the Högre lärarinneseminariet (the Royal Advanced Female Teachers' Seminary) in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1885, she went on to work as a schoolmistress at a high school for girls in a town in Scania, Sweden called Landskrona. Her debut novel, Gösta Berling's saga (1891), was written there. A male critic gave her positive reviews of the Danish translation which caused her popularity to grow.
She gave up teaching in 1895 to devote herself to writing and by 1909 was the first woman to win a Nobel prize in literature.
Homosexuality was illegal and taboo between women in her time, so Lagerlöf took care to destroy letters written between her and her lovers deemed too risky. A surviving letter between her and her friend Valborg Olander, a teacher, politician and suffragette is suggestive of erotic and physical passion between them.
She also had a relationship with her friend and Swedish writer Sophie Elkan who influenced her work greatly.
Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois, 19 May 1930.
Notable Black people such as sociology professor W. E. B. Du Bois, poet Langston Hughes, musician Duke Ellington, and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, frequently visited Hansberry's family.
She was interested in writing from an early age and was drawn to theatre in high school. She attended the University of Wisconsin between 1948 and 1950, then briefly the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Roosevelt University (Chicago).
In 1958, Hansberry raised the funds to produce her play A Raisin in the Sun. It opened in March 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun takes a look at the effects of racial prejudice on the dreams of a working class Black family in Chicago.
It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the film version of 1961 received a special award at the Cannes festival.
Hansberry was a closeted lesbian. Before her marriage to Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish publisher, songwriter, and political activist, she had written about her attraction to women in her personal notebooks.
After her separation from Nemiroff, she contributed two letters to the magazine of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian and civil rights organisation, both of which were published under her initials.
A year before her death from pancreatic cancer, on 1 May 1964, she spoke to the winners of a creative writing conference stating:
Though it is a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted and black.
She was the first Black woman to write a play on Broadway and inspired Nina Simone's song To be Young, Gifted and Black.
Paula Gunn Allen was born on October 24, 1939 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Her father was Lebanese American, and her mother was part Laguna-Sioux. Allen identified mostly with the Laguna with whom she spent her childhood and upbringing.
Allen received a BA and MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon. She wrote The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions in (1986), based on her own experiences and her study of Native American cultures.
Her work tackles the biased western view of Native American societies. Allen described the central role women played in many Native American cultures and political leadership, which were minimised or overlooked by explorers, colonisers and scholars from male-dominated European cultures.
Allen's book and following works have been influential, encouraging other feminist studies of Native American cultures and literature, including an emergence of Indigenous feminism.
After her two divorces, she started to identify as a lesbian. She later described herself as a serial bisexual interested in a person unconcerned 'if it's a male or female body'.
She was also a poet and some of her poetry explore lesbian themes in Native American culture. She was a champion in re-establishing the place of gay and lesbians in Native American communities.
Of making love, of needing
To make love of
Not being able to. Of touching your face
In awe, of seeing the rose of life on it,
Your skin a matin in a moister place (...)
Paradigm, Paula Gunn Allen