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BOOKS: Lezzie lit

There's genre, then there's the good stuff

GOING BENEATH. Nairne Holtz, coeditor of a terrific Canadian lesbian fiction anthology, has just released her first novel, The Skin Beneath. Credit: (Rachel Granofsky)

Montreal-based fiction writer Nairne Holtz is a lezzie lit godsend.

While working as a law librarian at the University of Western Ontario, Holtz volunteered at the school’s Pride Library where she discovered a distinct lack of information on lesbian fiction. Most libraries and search engines regularly fail to identify works with lesbian characters or situations as lesbian; more often than not, the works that do show up are “lesbian genre” books, many of them sub-par, published in the US. Holtz was looking for strong Canadian offerings. “There was no easy way to find this stuff,” she says.

So she took matters into her own hands and compiled an annotated bibliography with scores of reviews of lesbian-themed works; it’s now at Canadianlesbianliterature.ca.

“If I knew how big the project was to begin with, I never would have done it,” she says. “But, like most librarians, I’m a bit anal. So it had to be done right.”

Since then, Holtz teamed up with Catherine Lake to edit the first-ever Canadian lesbian fiction anthology. It’s an amazing showcase of the explosion of strong lesbian writing in this country since the 1990s.

No Margins: Writing Canadian Fiction in Lesbian, published by Insomniac Press, is a fantastic introduction to Canadian literature. There are 15 short stories or excerpts of longer works written by some of this country’s most recognized and decorated authors — Dionne Brand, Nicole Brossard, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Emma Donoghue. In addition to a great introduction by Lake, the selections are prefaced with notes from each author — interviews, Q&As and other thoughts on how and why they write. That these women all identify as lesbian doesn’t limit the insight and artistry on offer — quite the opposite. Lesbianism forms a multifaceted window onto the creative process and its messy relationship with an author’s life.

“Each of these writer’s acknowledgement of the label lesbian is complex and nuanced,” says Holtz. “Most would agree that it’s important for political reasons, but whether it’s the best way to classify our desire is another story.”

The writers’ diversity of style and subject matter is the book’s signature. “It was important to represent the range of writing that’s out there,” says Holtz. “It had to be an eclectic collection.

“If you are looking for similarities, it would be better to group them with other writers. Nicole Brossard, for example, comes from a particular tradition — intellectual, philosophical, post-structuralist, interested in translation — that groups her with writers like Gail Scott and Erin Mouré. They have little in common with the post-colonial writing of Lydia Kwa and Shani Mootoo.

“My sensibility is more punk, like Krystin Dunnion and Zoe Whittall, that comes out of the Montreal underground.”

Holtz does admit to one commonality: “I was surprised at the coyness around sex…. My own writing tends to be more explicit than anybody.”

Arsenal Pulp just published Holtz’s debut novel, The Skin Beneath, a smart page-turner spiked with hot sex.

The novel opens with Sam O’Connor receiving a disturbing anonymous post card. Sam’s sister died of a drug overdose five years prior, but the postcard hints at other dark forces. So Sam sets out to retrace her sister’s last days, taking her to Montreal, Toronto, Detroit and New York, leading her on a journey through layers of deception.

“My friend Neil calls it part thriller, part love story and part family drama. I think that’s a fair description…. And two reviewers have called the sex ‘spicy.'”

As a librarian, Holtz is obviously particular about classification; she won’t call The Skin Beneath a mystery. “I don’t think I wrote a mystery. It’s a literary novel that has the framework of a mystery.

“I was interested in conspiracy as a metaphor.”

Nor is the book autobiographical. “Sam is a young butch Casanova who takes herself a little too seriously. That’s not who I am,” says Holtz, laughing.

Next up for Holtz is a collection of stories called This One’s Going to Last Forever, “about relationships destined to fail,” and The Law Of Large Numbers, a more autobiographical novel about US back-to-the-land hippies.