Post by Sarah Pyke
“Sun-bleached […] Bashed up […] Foxed and careworn.”[i] If you’re a reader, and have been since childhood, you probably have a book like it at home – at least one. You can picture its cracked spine on the bookshelves of all the rooms and flats and houses you’ve ever lived in; you’ve boxed it up and moved with it over and over. You unpack your library, and it slots yet again into its rightful place, “touched”, as Walter Benjamin puts it, “by the mild boredom of order”.[ii]
Perhaps, like Amy, describing one such volume to me in an oral history interview, you can’t quite remember when you last opened it, or even took it down off the shelf. But then again, reading it isn’t necessarily the point, any more. “I would never give it up,” Amy tells me. “If there was an archive of me, this would have to be in it.” She goes on, “It was there at the beginning – it’s a formative book. I kind of feel it would be wrong to get rid of it.”
But if we’re not reading the books that are this important to us, these constitutive and defining holdings in our own private libraries, what is it, exactly, that we’re doing with them? What do these texts, shelved in both our material collections, and in less palpable collections, too – Amy’s “archive of me” – do for, or to, us? And what happens if we do re-read them, years later? As part of the research I’m doing into LGBTQ adults’ memories of reading in childhood and adolescence, I’m asking people to do just that.
The book Amy defended so passionately to me during our conversation – “I would never give it up” – is perhaps an unexpected one: Joanna Trollope’s 1989 Aga saga, A Village Affair.
It’s the story of Alice, a young mother in her late twenties who moves to a Cotswolds village with her husband and children, only to fall in love with Clodagh, daughter of the local gentry. Their relationship is discovered, with predictably dire consequences – as Amy puts it:
it allowed me to see representation of women in same-sex relationships, but what happens as a result of that relationship is chaos – loss of family, loss of friends, a world thrown into torment. It is the most over-dramatic book.
Yet Amy describes it as an “oasis in the desert” for her teenage self: “I was a little bit obsessed with that book for a while”.
She admits that, before our chat, she “probably would keep that book forever, but never have read it again”. As Kenneth Kidd suggests, “the adult is variously and simultaneously collector, curator, and even scholar of her own texts, especially those from childhood”.[iii] Amy’s a collector and a curator, then, and in describing her reading process, a scholar too: she recalls how she “pored over certain paragraphs…to try to extract as much meaning as I possibly could.” But her progress was not always rational or linear:
sometimes I think I also read on hoping it was going to change. I don’t know what the hell I expected the different outcome to be. I kept re-reading it and re-reading it and re-reading it and I think, somewhere in me, I hoped to find a different end.
I’m struck by Amy’s insistence that the book was there “at the beginning” and is “formative”. Our own ‘origin story’, to borrow a term from comic book culture – childhood itself – is, for Jacqueline Rose, “something which we endlessly rework in an attempt to build an image of our own history”.[iv] For queer adults, inescapably invested in explaining themselves within a culture that demands such explanation, origins are perhaps especially important: Amy’s “beginning” is not the beginning of her life, but the beginning of a recognisable lesbian selfhood. In narrating her – inherently unstable – memories of reading, Amy reveals as much (or more) about the ways in which individuals construct their identities in adulthood, in order to establish queer subjectivity in the present and future, as she does about the book itself.
In rereading it as an adult, Amy realises “how brief some of the interactions [between Alice and Clodagh] are”: “even as a teenager every time I went back to it I was disappointed to find that actually I was clutching at some fairly minimal straws”. Asked about analogous reading experiences, Amy reels off, among others, Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out episode, the iconic Brookside lesbian kiss, and a doctored narrative from Australian soap Home and Away, that allegedly saw explicit references to a lesbian relationship censored for pre-watershed British TV audiences. “That is the remarkable power of the queer eye,” Amy comments. “I saw that, somehow understood it, even though any reference to sexuality had been taken out”.
This kind of flâneurie is a strategy to which queer readers seem particularly attuned, and which offers another passage through the archive of childhood or adolescence, in both its material and immaterial forms. The categories of collector, curator, scholar, and, I’d add, flâneur overlap and mesh in the practice and process of queer reading and remembered experiences-with-books. With a nice echo of Lee Lynch, who writes of “cruising the libraries” as a young lesbian searching for fictional representation, and of the “archival textual city” conjured by Mike Featherstone, through which the flâneur roams, Amy ends the interview with a comment on that affirming experience familiar to LGBTQ people everywhere: “And you know, I still like a lesbian nod in the street.”[v]
Amy’s engagement with A Village Affair, as object and as text, shapes her past sense of self, and in keeping it in her “archive of me” she continues to make use of it to construct her present and future. In it, she finds both acknowledgement, and something she can define herself against. Sometimes then, that “lesbian nod in the street”, that mutual affirmation, can occur between a person and a book – even when the book is as unlikely a candidate as this one.
[i] This quotation, and all others from Amy, are from an oral history interview I carried out with her on 20 October 2015.
[ii] Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”, in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 59
[iii] Kenneth Kidd, “The Child, the Scholar and the Children’s Literature Archive”, The Lion and the Unicorn, 35:1 (2011), p. 16
[iv] Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), p. 12
[v] Lee Lynch, “Cruising the Libraries”, in Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, eds, Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions, (London: Onlywomen Press. 1992), pp. 39-48; Mike Featherstone, “Archive”, Theory, Culture and Society, 23: 2-3 (2006), p. 594