Hunting for a Lesbian Canon


Arts & Culture

At the Aligre flea market near my Parisian flat, I haggle over a trinket I’ve decided to give to my on-the-rocks lover. It is a rock, a small but well-shined one. Twenty euros is too much, I insist. I’m from Ukraine, I tell the seller, in an attempt to get sympathy for my country’s political climate in the form of a discount. He replies that our eyes are drawn to objects that can read us between the lines. I pay the twenty.

Let’s back up: as a Ukrainian kiddo during the fall of the Soviet Union, at six years old, I was held back from starting school while my family awaited immigration approval. The process dragged on for over a year, and when we were finally granted entry into the American Midwest as Jewish refugees, I was seven, and my literacy a club-footed Cyrillic. I was put into an Orthodox Jewish school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and began groping my way through two more alphabets, English and Hebrew. The page transformed into a vertical stage, complete with curtains of chattering. 

At home, literature was background music. Pushkin, the Russian Silver Age poets, Mayakovski, Vysotsky, and Okudzhava—my mother sang or recited whole chapters from memory around the house. Her side of the family, intellectuals—her father taught Russian literature. My father’s side, laborers—his mother was a Moldavian housemaid who fled to Romania, then Ukraine, and spoke with what I thought was an accent and later realized was a mix of three languages within her Russian.

After my three-year stint at Jewish Orthodoxy, I was transferred to a public school, where I traded in long-skirted Torah study for a Slavic-style scoff at American scholastics.

Oh, I blossomed: I was the smart-ass on social aid. I found ways to get around my anxiety of reading. “Hey, teacher,” I complained, “English isn’t my first language, so … ” I got out of as many required reading assignments as I could. My parents were none the wiser and all the tired, budgeting on welfare checks, paranoid of losing their jobs, overstudying English, taking business courses to match their Soviet diplomas (Engineering, Applied Mathematics) to the American job market.

So I emerged: Rebel Moskovich with her transgressive zabastovka. I flicked Dickens off my desk and watched it slap the floor—no way was I reading five-hundred-plus pages when even a single page was strenuous labor. And when puberty hit, it tuned me to an even higher frequency of alienation. Cocky and delicate, I cracked wise and fantasized about dying.

And yet I continued to pursue books, with stealth and ego, as if perceiving my own intent for life within the text, seeking sentences like blood transfusions to the loneliest heart.

It’s no coincidence, then, that my relationship with the Milwaukee Public Library catalogue coincided with my coming out to myself in my early teens as a lesbian.

“The will to survive requires / Fictions that confirm / Every act of being,” reads Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poem “The Search for Home.”

I was prowling the public-library shelves to the rhythm of this very poem, staking out books with two women on the cover, keeping one eye over my shoulder while keyword searching “lesbian,” “sapphic,” “homosexual,” mustering up the courage to walk by the erotica section at the used bookstore (where they stocked LGBT literature at the time), loitering at Barnes & Noble and paging through promising paperbacks, careful not to bend the binding for fear I’d have to pay for them. Well, I ended up reading a lot of classical erotica by the age of sixteen because that’s where lesbians seemed to make appearances: Marquis de Sade’s Justine and The Story of O, Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus 

I moved to Boston, then later to Paris, but I remained that huntress I’d become in hole-of-the-wall America, ignoring syllabus lists and the critically acclaimed in the search for my own canon. Access to the Internet helped.

In retrospect, it all felt in line with my Soviet past: reading books for the invisible other-books they contained. I’ve always had a taste for writing that stimulates language on both a narrative and metaphysical level. Within the act of storytelling, I want to feel like language is becoming and the content can walk through walls (my own, cellular, and the four walls of the room).

I don’t believe that censorship guarantees this experience, nor that it is a prerequisite. But when the space between the lines is activated, language can move in every direction.

Years later, I found my metastory delight in lesbian pulp fiction, the pocket-size smut novels printed on low-price “pulp” paper. They were available for just a few cents at drug stores, train stations, and newsstands during the fifties and sixties. Their covers usually featured a blonde-brunette combo, one heaving, the other hungry-eyed. Today they’re known simply to be cheap, badly written, and nauseatingly moralistic.

However, like the LGBT content in the erotica section, their shelving is a mere guideline for visibility. (How often does femaleness, especially gay femaleness, have to be sexual in order to exist at all?)



Women’s Barracks (1950, republished in 2005 by Feminist Press’s Femmes Fatale series), the first lesbian-pulp accidental best seller, was written by the French convent-educated Tereska Torrès, whose Polish Jewish parents converted to Catholicism in France for safety. It’s a fictionalized autobiographical account of her wartime service in London for the women’s division of the Free French forces, where we follow a barracks full of young women navigating identity, love, and politics amid their French Resistance duties.

Torrès wrote the novel in French, then translated it into English with the help of her husband, the American novelist Meyer Levin. Levin took it to America, where he found an enthusiastic publisher who, fearing an obscenity trial, asked Levin to “adjust” the narrator’s moral standpoint and add passages of condemnation for any lesbian activity, which Levin wrote in for Torrès. (You can feel the voice shift in the novel where Levin’s pen leaks over Torrès’s masterful prose.) The novel avoided ban but was condemned by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials, which didn’t even dare to quote passages from the book at its official proceedings. In 1952, the book was banned in Canada but still went on to sell more than four million copies in America. It was translated into a dozen other languages—except the original French. Torrès claims she lost the initial French manuscript, and only sixty years later did she write a new version, this time under the genre of memoir, called Une Française libre.

For all the hullabaloo around the novel’s lurid content, the real stir comes from the writing, with its appetite for emotional candor (reminiscent of Anaïs Nin) and daring reflection upon the human condition in the face of private turmoil, worldwide horror, and spiritual disquietude. “It seemed to me that our indifference, the indifference of the ‘normal’ world, made the life of such women [in the barracks] even more tragic,” the book reads. “For they suffered from their loves, like any other woman, but without the balm of sympathy and understanding.”



Another early lesbian-pulp and layered reading experience is Spring Fire (1952), by Vin Packer (one of the pseudonyms of the prolific author Marijane Meaker). Although its seemingly naive Americana tone reads today as camp, the novel plays with semantics and morality in its own way. Within this supposed “steamy page-turner … once told in whispers” is the tale of a newbie Midwestern student named Susan Mitchell. (She goes by—you guessed it—Mitch.) Mitch is seduced by her sorority sister, the come-hither green-eyed Leda, when she asks Mitch to give her a back rub and then suddenly “rolled over and lay with her breasts pushed up toward Mitch’s hands.” Although the prose at first rings as high-strung, it echoes with complex undertones. “There are a lot of people who love both [men and women] and no one gives a damn, and they just say you’re oversexed,” Leda explains to Mitch. “But they start getting interested when you stick to one sex. Like you’ve been doing, Mitch. I couldn’t love you if you were a Lesbian.” (Note the capital l.) There unfolds a surprising intricacy to each girl’s behavioral subtext, as if Meaker left crumbs throughout the text for the reader to follow into a semiotic subworld. In the darkness of their shared room, Leda crawls into Mitch’s bed: I talk like an idiot, Mitch. But I like to touch you.



Stranger on Lesbos (1960), by Valerie Taylor, also promises cover-to-cover heavy petting and hot breathing. It follows Frances, who after dropping out of school to get married and have a son resumes her studies and meets Bake (Mary Baker) in her literature class. (Bake stands out among the other prim girls as “alert and intelligent and perhaps a trifle sulky.” For anyone who’s been to a lesbian bar, this three-point description is like an insider’s code toward lesbian posture) What is shocking is not the lesbian sex (which is quite tame) but the way that Taylor delivers the socioeconomic complexity of a woman’s desire not only for salacious girl-on-girl but for education, economic independence, and physical agency.

After one of their late nights at Karla’s, the lesbian bar downtown, Frances and Bake return to Bake’s apartment, where Frances begins to think about true independence:

“It’d be nice to have some money of my own, not have to ask Bill for every penny. Not that he minds, only—”

“Only you feel like a whore.”

“Well, yes, I do.”

As her relationship with Bake grows, however, Frances realizes that it is not just financial independence from men that she needs but from anyone with whom she shares her body, including Bake.



There are more famous pulps: Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule (made into the famous 1986 film Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch), and of course Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (perhaps better known now as the the basis for Todd Haynes’s 2015 film Carol).

I have hunted down other lesbian classics, too, predating the lesbian-pulp era, like the Russian ones (Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal’s 33 Abominations and The Devil [1906] and Marina Tsvetaeva’s The Story of Sonechka [1938]) and the chef d’oeuvre Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (1936).



A lesser-known classic, one of the few hardbound lesbian novels of the early twentieth century, Torchlight to Valhalla (1938), by Gale Wilhelm, follows a beautiful motherless aloof twenty-one-year-old named Morgen (with a “long throat and her hair like fine white wine”), who after the death of her painter-father is left alone (unmanned) until Royal, a talented pianist, begins to court the daylights out of her, persuaded that she will learn to love him if she gets used to him. But Morgen asserts her need for wildness and spends her days roaming. When Royal demands to know where she’s been all day, she responds with unexpected assertiveness: “ ‘Don’t ever say where’ve you been like that to me.’ Her voice was like ice over moving water. ‘No one, no one in the world has the right to ask me where I’ve been.’ ”

Morgen’s “lesbianism” comes quite late in the book, unfortunately, when the dark-haired Toni moves in next door with her aunt, but when it happens, to the reader’s surprise, both women pursue the attraction without hang-ups. (All this in 1938!) The prose is lucid and unencumbered, at times deceptively so, much like Morgen herself, who seems to resist her own taming with ethereal lightness. “You say my name as if you’d given it to me,” Toni avows to her long-throated lover.

Closer to the end of the century, a couple experimental lesbian novels stick out to me, in their negative semantic space and in their hybrid-genre beings.



The Monkey’s Mask (1988), the acclaimed Australian poet Dorothy Porter’s erotic mystery written in verse, is a terse, staccato Basic Instinct with a view of the Blue Mountains. It promises a “femme fatale to go to hell for.” The off-the-radar cop Jill investigates the missing “sweet nineteen year old girl” Mickey and becomes entangled in the girl’s violent past, including her irresistible former poetry professor, Diana.

And yet the hypnotic intrigue is in the language, not the plot: “The full moon / plops on a phone booth … I ring Diana anyways / ‘Mickey was murdered’ … / I go on about dogs/ digging her up/ my hand shines white.”



Similarly, it is the articulation between genres that makes Sarah Schulman’s Empathy (1992) both bizarre and enthralling. Part prose, part play, part psychoanalysis, the book follows Anna O., who goes to see Doc, a post-Freudian analyst who promises three free sessions to drug addicts, prisoners, and the down-and-out of the Lower East Side. Together, they navigate the symbolism of Anna’s anguish, which warps from surreal confession to allegorical reality.

ANNA:  “I was thinking about all the woman I’ve ever loved … The opera singer who couldn’t stop coming and the waitress who didn’t know how. I was thinking about the women who had to fight for their orgasms and the ones who got theirs like they got their lunch. I was lonely because of the weather. I was reviewing all the ways that my life has been propelled by strategizing for access to the female body.”

To work toward accessing one’s own body is also to pursue one’s own body of work. I want words and stories that provide not just lesbian visibility (though that’s a start) but language and structure for its stratified invisibility, ambiguity, and obscurity. Books that confirm the act of being.

At home in Paris, I find the crumpled gazette paper the trinket had been wrapped in, months back. The weather page forecasts ample snow that never comes. I smooth out its dented surface, then toss it in the bin.

It may just have been an overpriced rock that was made briefly metaphor. (My lover and I broke up two weeks later.) Or maybe, when my eyes touched that stone, an unseen part of me was revealed.


Yelena Moskovich is the author of The Natashas (Serpent’s Tail, 2016; Dzanc, 2018) and the forthcoming Virtuoso (Serpent’s Tail, 2019). She is also one of the curators and exhibiting artists of the Queer Biennial of Los Angeles this year.