Essay / Notes on Labels
April 02nd, 2008
In our competitive society, healing labels for identity and marketing arise. Some are chosen; others are foisted upon us; some are a curse; many we outgrow. Few fit. Jane Rule gave the following address on the perils of being labeled to members of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada at their annual retreat.
Some labels we choose like a favorite hat; some we are simply stuck with like a necessary cane. I was five when I learned that being a girl had serious drawbacks. I was six when I discovered that being left-handed was unacceptable. I was 19 and traveling in Europe for the first time before I had to apologize for being an American.
By the time I was 15, I was sure I wanted to be a writer, and I wasn’t shy of saying so. What kind of a writer I wasn’t yet sure. I was writing a lot of bad poetry, strongly metered and rhymed in imitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eleanor Wylie, inspired for subject matter even by such heavy worthies as Milton.
When my mother read my tragically touching, thumpingly rhymed poem on my own blindness, she laughed and saved the world from the bad poet I might have grown up to be. I retreated for a time to personal essays intended to amuse, and my mother, for whom laughter was the highest goal, approved.
By the time I reached college at 16, away from my mother’s comic influence, I began to write bad short stories in imitation of Katerine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty, heavy in symbolism and grotesque characters. One featured a Black man with yellow hair and green eyes, named Cain, who raped sheep. That story inspired my classmates to burst into the Wiffenpoof song—”We are little black sheep who have gone astray, bah, bah, bah”—every time they saw me.
Tough critics like my mother and my classmates daunted me a little. Then I learned that in academic circles a real writer was by definition dead. Those foolish enough to be alive were not real writers at all, but “creative” writers, a swell-headed, deluded lot with nothing important to say. That attitude taught me, if not real modesty, some caution about exposing my ambitions.
I gradually learned not to call myself a writer at all. As a young university teacher, I did not admit that what I did in my spare time was write short stories and novels. During the ten years I wrote before I had any publishing success, writing was a secret vice to be confessed only to intimate friends.
A few years ago the Canadian Writers’ Union was concerned about how few young writers were applying for membership and tried to think of ways to make them more welcome. I pointed out that it was, in fact, very difficult to admit to being a writer. Only years of experience which tended to thicken the skin made such a confession possible.
In my personal world I came out as a lesbian long before I came out as a writer.
The Writer’s Union should be resigned to being an organization for the middle-aged and the old.
I finished my third novel, which would be my first to be published, a few days before I was 30. It took three years to find publishers. I don’t know what I expected beyond finally feeling I might have a legitimate claim to call myself a writer, or, at least be permitted to say that I wrote. Instead in 1964, before homosexual relationships were removed from the criminal code, I became Canada’s only visible lesbian and almost lost my job at UBC.
I was defended by my colleagues with the old saw, “Writers of murder mysteries are not necessarily murderers.” To my interviewers I was not a writer but a sexual deviant.
Years later my good friend, Don Bailey, told me that in all his years of publishing poems and stories and novels, no interviewer ever wanted him to talk about his writing, which he began in jail serving a term as a bank robber. They wanted him to talk about robbing banks. Over a bottle of scotch, we decided we should have a TV program called The Lesbian and the Bank Robber and give the public what they apparently want.
I am labelled a pornographer because my books, coming from the States where some stay longer in print than they have in Canada, are routinely seized at the border by Customs, but none has finally ever been refused entry. Still the label sticks, and readers who buy my books are therefore often disappointed, and others who might otherwise buy and enjoy them don’t.
I have done relatively little to publicize my work, weary of the roles I’ve been forced to play, but, when I agree to be interviewed, I give up any notion of speaking as a writer and become instead a teacher about
gay issues, about censorship, about civil liberties, a responsibility I take seriously, not so much as a writer but as a citizen.
My first published novel came out just before I became a Canadian citizen. It is a book set in the States, probably accurately called an American novel. I have since been challenged about what right I have to call myself a Canadian writer though the majority of my fiction has been set in Canada.
My Dutch publisher, arranging a publication party for one of my novels, approached the Canadian Embassy for a small contribution, only to be told that I was really an American. “Odd,” replied my publisher, “since another branch of your government contributed funds for translating the book.” I have been told that some Canadian writers traveling abroad are pleased to be mistaken for American and therefore part of a larger and more established and respected tradition. Only strong nationalists like Margaret Atwood insist on being identified as Canadian and become ambassadors for Canadian literature.
For immigrants (another possible label) it is often difficult to know what use there is or what right we have to claim our citizenship as part of our identity. I felt guilty the first time I traveled in Europe with a Canadian passport and enjoyed the courtesy and kindness so often withheld from Americans, for underneath that bland label lurked surely still an ugly American. I should probably have been called an ex-American writer.
Even now, after fifty years in this country and very proud and relieved to be a Canadian, I am shy to claim the label and never surprised if others are reluctant to grant it.
Genre labels make most writers uncomfortable in a culture that rates writing narrowly and strictly to exclude or at least place below the salt how-to books or children’s books or mysteries or science fiction as not really literature. Even best sellers and women’s fiction are suspect. A poet isn’t a real poet if he or she is funny or sings poems to a guitar accompaniment.
Genre labels are not meant to be descriptive so much as judgmental. Real writers don’t write cookbooks or jokes or murder mysteries. Real writers die of starvation years before they can reap the rewards of their immortal words. And their names are often “anon.”
Though some claim that “anon” was a woman, gender labeling of writers has been a long debate. Many women writers in the past chose to avoid the label with masculine pen names, and that still is the habit of many mystery and science fiction writers who fear otherwise putting off their male readers.
Some gay writers resist the label, not now so much in fear of criminal charges or job loss or alienation from family but of being placed in an even smaller ghetto, cut off from the mainstream of literature, from larger audiences of readers.
Disguised or denied sexual identity rarely works. The first novel of James Baldwin’s I read was Giovani’s Room, a story of two White male homosexuals in France. I didn’t know he was Black until I read others of his books, less self-conscious and much more powerful when he wasn’t hiding his race or his sexuality in White characters.
Auden said, “I am a poet only when I’m writing a poem.”
Because writers so often feel they may possibly never write another worthwhile word, putting down the label except while involved in the activity can be an enormous relief. For a long time I wanted to be even freer than that. I didn’t want to be a writer at all. I simply wanted to write, and being a writer got in the way of that because what the world wants of a writer is not writing but public performing, lectures, readings, seminars, for which we are often paid more than we are for the writing we do.
Now that I am retired, write only very occasionally as I have this small essay, which seems like a grandchild come to visit for a few days, I don’t find it as difficult to “be a writer.” But the old are forgetful of nouns. Proper nouns go first, then common nouns. They are, after all, the only words we have to teach children who learn other parts of speech, even verbs and their tenses, by themselves.
If we could be identified as many-labeled, which all of us are, we might move more comfortably in the world. Even if we could wear only those labels appropriate for the occasion, much as we select among our shirts or rings, we would be less apt to be embarrassed and irritable.
We are not finally labelers. The real business of our lives is to live, to love, to write, and to remember, leaving the calling of names to others, names we may answer to or not.
—Jane Rule, Bodega Inn, Galiano Island, September 13, 2004
Essay Date: 2004