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Divining Jane Rule: A profile of progress

August 07th, 2012

Jane Rule was born in New Jersey in 1931. She came to Canada in the late 1950s to teach at UBC. “I’ve spent about half my life in Canada – all my adult life. Since I didn’t really have roots in any specific place in the States, approved my commitment to a nation is really much clearer as a Canadian.”

Her publishing career spans twenty-five years and twelve books, from her celebrated first novel Desert of the Heart (published in 1964 and made into a film in the 1980s starring Helen Shaver), to her last, After the Fire, set on an unnamed Gulf Island and published in 1989. The list is mostly fiction, mainly novels with three collections of short stories.

Lesbian Images, a study of books written by or about lesbians was the first departure. A challenge that demanded she step out from behind her characters and write in her own voice – something Rule wasn’t sure at the time (1975) she possessed. But having taught English for many years, it was her teaching voice she found. Thereafter, Rule happily wrote essays and commentaries on social and political topics for publications like The Body Politic, the Radical Reviewer, Event, and A Room of One’s Own. A collection of her essays titled A Hot-Eyed Moderate appeared in 1985.

Jane Rule died on November 27, 2007.

Over six feet tall and outspoken, Jane Rule has never been the retiring type.

So the news that Rule, one of Canada’s most respected authors for two decades, is now turning in her typewriter and hanging up her pen is startling. As well, no writer can hear tell of another’s decision to stop writing without flinching; no admiring reader can help thinking of the books that aren’t to be.

But talk to the novelist herself and the mood is hardly sad. Her reasons for retiring have largely to do with health (arthritis) and a feeling that she’s accomplished much of what she hoped to do.

“When Margaret Laurence announced she was quitting,” Rule remembers, “I was shocked. Margaret had just got her family off and cleared the decks and I thought ‘that’s perverse’. Fifty seemed too soon, but I wasn’t much over fifty myself when I began to understand what she meant.”

Her voice is maskless, unmistakable and true. “Sure there will always be the fish that got away,” she says, “but I have written what I wanted.”

Rule was sixteen when she determined that writing would be her life’s work. She was drawn to fiction because she felt there she could tell the truth.

“For some reason, I realised that people didn’t really say what they felt.” They hid everything and if you got messages from them they were covert messages. I wanted to know what people really felt, why they felt it and what was shutting everybody up, turning the social contract into silence about all powerful feelings and most powerful thought. I wouldn’t have put it in terms of homosexuality at that time, but that was part of it.”

For years she wrote without publication, and before her first novel came out she actually tried to stop writing. She had by then a drawer full of manuscripts which had all eluded publication. “That deep silence went on for well over ten years and was terrible at the time, but turned out to be the greatest possible gift.” It gave her protected time to apprentice, to establish her modus operandi, removed from the distraction of critics.

“Some people have a hard time shutting out those voices when they write. I just go into a deep nowhere when I’m working,” Rule says. “It’s not a conscious thing; it’s only that I worked for so long that way. When Desert of the Heart came out I had forgotten I was ever going to have an audience.”

Since then her audience has been both enthusiastic and demanding. Her readership outside Canada is substantial – 20,000 copies of Desert of the Heart were sold in three months during the movie version’s first run in the U.S. – and her books sell steadily in Britain. In Canada she has a loyal following of women and gay men who regard her work as radicle (sic).

From the beginning, her gender and her own sexuality were at the centre of her work – even though she did not write to convert or propagandize and her novels are not generally viewed as autobiography.

Desert of the Heart, a story of two women who fall in love in Reno, Nevada, was enough to jeopardize her job at UBC. “A closeted gay man raised the issue of my being reappointed after I’d written this ‘terrible’ book. He’d only read a review in the paper by a gossip columnist and so was chided by his colleagues for denouncing a book he hadn’t read. They also knew he was doing it to cover himself. The argument in my defence was that murder mystery writers are necessarily murderers.”

Times have changed, she says. Rule is now allowed on her partner’s health plan – “A big inclusion because it assumes gay couples are willing and feel safe enough to claim that identity,” – whereas her own tacit contract with UBC had been that she keep her homosexuality to herself.

“Gay men and women have been let into the world. We are walking around visibly now. Not even AIDS can shame people back into the vision that they are sick and horrible.”

As for feminism, Rule says, “I feel I have experienced a miracle. For those of us who lived through this movement, the change in perception about the possibility of being female can never go back. But the political work of building a society where everyone is respected and everyone moves within capacities that are not deadened by prejudice, that work has to be done over and over again.”

Rule still sees, for instance, a ghettoization of minority writers and resistance to their work. (“There are barriers still to be broken and we will have to hear each other better.”) She’s still deeply concerned with reciprocity and balance.

“I understand the fury of the minority being represented by the majority. If book after book, apparently representing the range of human concern and experience simply has no gay people at all, then you don’t exist. Which is one kind of insult. But if they decide to put you in as a man-hating, child-seducing harpy, you are not going to be pleased either. Finally you’re going to say, ‘If you want to know about being a lesbian why don’t you ask me instead of simply spewing prejudice farther in the world?’ That’s where the protest [of native writers] comes from and I know how it feels.

“My bargain is that Robertson Davies can write about people like me as long as I can write about people like Robertson Davies. If I have my full space to speak, then I’m comfortable about letting other people have theirs.”

If the list of permissible subjects has changed, so has the language. In her own writing Rule sees a pulling away from complexity and allusion (“there was an awful lot of Dante in Desert of the Heart that I’m not sure needs to be there”) and a move towards clarity.

“The voice of gay people required masking for so long – Gertrude Stein had to write in code – that for me it was a political act to say ‘Let’s be born and born so clearly we have to be seen.’ And, I think, that’s what is offensive about my work to a lot of people. Against the Season was my gentlest book, yet it got the most hostile, homophobic reviews, I think, because it showed all these gay people wandering around in a perfectly normal world.

“I still talk to people who tell me they have never met a lesbian.”

Essay Date: 1991

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