“I think for gay and lesbian culture, our literature has probably been the most important unifying element that we’ve had,” says Mark Macdonald, novelist and book buyer at Little Sister’s bookstore. “Through books we can communicate some very abstract, intimate, important ideas.”
This belief is the driving force behind Little Sister’s Classics, an ambitious new project that the bookstore is undertaking with Arsenal Pulp Press, reviving lost and out-of-print classics of gay and lesbian literature.
“Gay and lesbian literature ties together the people who live in rural Canada to the people who live in Soho,” adds Macdonald, who is editing the series. “And it allows us to share the experience of whatever is written – and by sharing that experience we’ve become more one.”
The plan, Macdonald says, chatting with me in a quiet corner of the bookstore, is to publish two books per season – one gay, one lesbian – and to select work from both within and beyond the English-speaking world, including work that has never before been translated into English.
The first two books in the series – Jane Rule’s 1971 novel The Young In One Another’s Arms and Richard Amory’s Song Of The Loon, originally published in 1966 – are now arriving in bookstores. Other books that Macdonald is planning on or considering republishing are Patience And Sarah by Isabel Miller, Franny The Queen Of Provincetown by John Preston, and books by New York author and activist Sarah Shulman and that icon of US drama Tennessee Williams.
“It’s the first time that a bookstore and a publisher have teamed up, as far as I know,” says Macdonald. “It’s the first time that a [gay] book has been brought back with this level of love.
“There are a lot of gay and lesbian books that had a huge impact on our community but also the broader community, and a lot of these have just gone out of print. So we’re going to be bringing them back bit by bit, but the way that we’re packaging them is going to be quite unique.”
While there have been other presses that have republished gay classics, Macdonald says, “They just reprint them. They stick a new cover on it and that’s it. We want to do it in such a way that the book is contextualized for today’s reader, and we want to [add] archival information about the context in which the book came out, the impact it had, the reviews that it got and why it’s important.” Furthermore, each book will contain an introduction written by a major contemporary writer on whom the book made an impact.
So why these two books – The Young In One Another’s Arms and Song Of The Loon – to kick off the series? “Jane’s book is one of my personal favourites,” says Macdonald. “It’s, I think, probably one of the few books that’s actually made me cry.” As for Song Of The Loon, “it’s very important, because of what it represents in gay publishing history.”
Rule’s novel – one in an oeuvre that has made her one of the most celebrated voices in Canadian literature – focusses on a woman who runs a boarding house in Kitsilano during the Vietnam War. “The novel,” says Macdonald, “is about family and community, and how the queer sensibility deconstructs those notions and reconstructs them with maybe more honesty. The families that we choose to live in and the circles we choose to move in become central.”
He adds, “There’s a war on now, there are American draft dodgers living in Canada, it’s about family at a time when we’re getting close to getting gay marriage established. So I think it’s really timely. It’s really appropriate to start with that book.”
Song Of The Loon – a florid, titanic and highly erotic saga of a woodsman travelling through the Pacific Northwest in the time of the fur trappers – represents, says Macdonald, “a sort of bridge between the gay pulp, pornographic, shocking novels of the ’50s and ’60s that were sold in drugstores, and a new kind of gay literature that was post-Stonewall and celebratory, [had a] happy ending and positive gay characters.
“It sold in the tens of thousands of copies,” he notes. “It was the most-read gay male piece of literature at the time. And a lot of gay men who are old enough to remember the book, they all remember it. They’ve all read it. It spawned sequels, it spawned a parody, there’s a porn movie, there’s an art house movie made out of it, and nobody knows about it [now].”
Talking on the phone from her home on Galiano Island, Rule says, wryly, that the republication of her novel “makes me feel old.”
But, she adds, “I do think it’s part of a sense of books not being like cottage cheese, you know, with a due date of six weeks.
“Most books don’t have a shelf life of more than a couple of years, and that’s not enough,” she says. “I think it speaks a kind of respect for our culture, our Canadian culture as well as our gay culture.”
As for what kinds of book she thinks should be included in the series, Rule says that it should be “books that have resonated for people for a long time. Not just the sort of flash-in-the-pan ones, but the ones that really stay meaningful.”
So is Little Sister’s Classics part of a broader attempt in queer culture to enlighten younger generations of gays and lesbians on our history in this age of relative privilege and complacency? “I don’t think we’ve had a history until recently, so reviving it isn’t the point,” says Rule. “We have not been in print or stayed in print for a long enough time.”
Furthermore, she adds, “No young people are particularly interested in any history. What’s going on right now is important enough.”
But Macdonald thinks that if these books can sharpen our social awareness, they will have performed a valuable service.
“We’ve been wooed into apathy in a big way,” he says. “We’ve got gay marriage in some provinces, but we’ve got the opposition talking about how bad we are as people and how we don’t deserve those human rights. We have equal rights and protection under the Charter. We also get murdered in Stanley Park. So we’re lucky to be where we are, but we ain’t there yet.”