Toronto
5 min

We, the people

Are bent on writing

CLITORIS LITTERATUS. Clit Lit founder Elizabeth Ruth's new anthology brings together a community of writers set on "queering the canon." Credit: Xtra files

A few years ago, when I was new to the city and anxious to meet other ladies of letters, I noticed a flyer for something called Clit Lit. Shortly thereafter, I dared to venture to The Red Spot, a second-floor bar on Church St. There, I watched as a woman recounted her sexual fantasies involving a Burt Reynolds look-alike, and another shared the tale of the revolutionary chick who told all the other girls that there was something called masturbation.



Some writers mentioned an anthology in which they were going to be published. Some seemed nervous to be behind the microphone. As the bar filled up, people stood against the crimson-coloured walls, listening and nodding and laughing and clapping. It was pretty cool.



For those of you who don’t mark the first Monday of the month on your calendar, Clit Lit is Canada’s only ongoing queer literary series. For years, writers have been sharing their stories on the night’s given theme and the Clit Lit crowd has come out to the free event to hear them.



Now, these stories can be shared with others. It’s all coming to your local bookstore, baby. Bent On Writing: Contemporary Queer Tales, from Canadian Scholars’ Press/Women’s Press, is a “best of” Clit Lit.



“I think when you put it all together I’ve stayed true to my vision of the series,” says Clit Lit founder Elizabeth Ruth, editor of Bent On Writing. “I wanted an anthology that mixed the emerging and the established, that seemed lively and oral, and that was transgressive in terms of content or form, so not everybody’s writing about queer stuff. But if they’re not writing about queer stuff they’re writing in a way that is really innovative or queering the canon.”



Fifty-five writers, of the 400 or so who’ve read, are included. Among them are poet, writer and editor Margaret Christakos, whose novel, Charisma, was nominated for the Trillium Book Award; poet Maureen Hynes, who won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award; and author Nalo Hopkinson, whose Midnight Robber was selected as a New York Times Notable Book Of The Year.



The idea for the anthology came about in 1999, when someone pointed out to Ruth that no one was documenting any of the fun these saucy scribblers were having. Each story is prefaced by a note from the writer discussing his or her work and experience, and Ruth’s introduction outlines the history and how-to of the series (Ruth really kept all those vote-for-your-favourite-piece slips she passed out over the years).



Thumbing through Bent On Writing, you’ll find many highlights from Clit Lit’s past – like these ones:



“And if they were to tell me they had forgotten everything/ I would say, make it up girls/ Give yourself a story that you need/ even if it’s confounding, contradictory/ Imagine a love that is so fierce, it brings thunder to its knees/ Imagine that love for yourself/ and trust yourself to share it as you see fit.”



— from “Girls Run Circles” by Anna Camilleri





“I got a letter from my Dad last night. It documents a lifetime of secrecy as a crossdresser. ‘From grammar school through college till I got married,’ he wrote, ‘there were many times I wanted to dress as a woman, but this was kept in my mind and I did not discuss such things with my parents.’ His mother in turn honoured the silence, overlooking mysterious losses of rouge and extra wrinkles in her favourite gowns.”



— from “My Dad In Pink” by Karleen Pendleton Jiménez





“Straight white men never hit on me – they’re not interested and they seem to get that I wouldn’t be interested either. Gay white men sometimes hit on me, but most of the time it’s because they think I’m a man. Straight black men, on the other hand, they never make that mistake. They always know that I’m a woman.”



— from “Black Men And Me” by Michele Pearson Clarke





Clit Lit began in the fall of 1998. Inspired by Karen X Tulchinsky’s Dyke Words event in Vancouver, Ruth, then an aspiring but unpublished novelist, was in search of a community of writers. “I wanted to see what would happen if queer women got together on a regular basis and shared their work,” Ruth says. “I wasn’t convinced it would fly, but after looking around and not finding it I thought I’d start one myself.”



Her pluck paid off. In the beginning, she remembers having to convince people to get onstage. Now, she constantly has a waiting list and the September event is already booked up. It’s had such an impact on the community that the Dyke March Subcommittee has selected Clit Lit and Ruth as the “distinguished group” for the Sat, Jun 29 Dyke March.



Things have also taken off for Ruth, the writer. After moving around quite a bit as a youngster (she’s lived in Canada, the US and Columbia), she eared a BA in English lit and an MA in counseling psychology from the University Of Toronto. The tenacious thirtysomething is also a graduate of the Humber School For Writers; she has written for CBC Radio, The Globe And Mail and numerous literary journals.



Her debut novel, Ten Good Seconds Of Silence, was recently nominated for the Writers’ Trust Of Canada 2002 fiction prize, along with heavyweights Alice Munro and Thomas Wharton.



If Clit Lit has become a quasi community forum, then Bent On Writing is its minutes. “I think it’s important because it captures something that one person started because she had a good idea and it’s something that has served so many women in so many different ways,” says Clarke, who has often been in the audience, and read for the first time last February.



“As queers, I think we have so much history we can’t hold on to. I think it’s really important to document what happens in our community so that people who come after us have something concrete that they can refer back to.”



Bent On Writing is not only useful as a document, but also as encouragement to would-be writers. “I hope more people will write,” says Pendleton Jiménez, whose kids book, Are You A Boy Or A Girl?, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. “You can imagine yourself following some woman to some event and coming the next month with your poetry. I really believe in writing and the capacity of writing… to bring communities closer together.”



Reading the work, rather than having the work read to you, also creates a different relationship between the writer and the audience. “On the page there’s something very liberating about it because it’s not mine anymore,” says Camilleri, curator of the upcoming Strange Sisters cabaret. “Of course, I always remain the author, but people will read it with their own cadence. They’ll read it out loud or they’ll not read it out loud. They’ll read it in pieces or they’ll read it all at once.”



And people want to get reading. “There’s certainly a buzz about it,” says Anjula Gogia, co-manager and book buyer for the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. “Clit Lit has been a very important space for queer women to have their voices heard. The queer women’s writing scene is definitely thriving in this city. I think Bent On Writing’s very much a part of that pulse.”



“I think,” says Ruth of Bent On Writing, “it’s going to have a good life.”



* Bent On Writing will launch Tue, Jun 18 at Tallulah’s Cabaret (12 Alexander St) beginning at 7pm with readers including Trish Salah, Debra Anderson, Nalo Hopkinson, Michele Clarke and Anna Camilleri.