In her new book, The Lesbian South: Southern Feminists, the Women in Print Movement, and the Queer Literary Canon, Dr. Jaime Harker analyzes a variety of literary works from the archive of southern lesbian feminism.
Focusing on well-known authors including Dorothy Allison and Georgia-native Alice Walker, as well as figures who are less prevalent in predominating literary canons, Harker’s exploration reveals the radical undercurrents working in a region that has often been misleadingly identified as monolithically conservative.
Harker also challenges the categories of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” literature, thereby questioning the notions of an unassailable literary hierarchy. At a time when intersectionality increasingly informs feminist thought and scholarship, Harker’s discussions are excellent models of intersectional analysis illustrating the layering and interactions of race, gender, sexuality and class within a given work.
Harker is Professor of English and Director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi. She is also the founder of the feminist bookstore Violet Valley Bookstore in Water Valley, Mississippi. Harker will be visiting Atlanta’s own feminist bookstore, Charis Books and More, to discuss The Lesbian South on Wednesday, December 12, at 7:30 p.m.
ArtsATL caught up with Harker ahead of her appearance at Charis to talk about her research and her connections to Atlanta.
ArtsATL: What has been the significance of Charis Books and More and Little Five Points in your own life?
Jaime Harker: My parents moved to Atlanta in 1989, and the summer before I started my PhD, in 1993, I wandered into Charis by accident with my Mormon mother. I was so delighted to find a feminist bookstore that I always visited whenever I was in Atlanta. It was the first place that got me interested in Southern queer culture — I always found books there that I had never heard of before. Later, when I started at the University of Mississippi, ER Anderson was in the master’s program there and took my very first graduate class. ER had volunteered at the bookstore as a teenager and returned after getting his degree to work with Charis. He also graciously agreed to give me advice when I was planning to start Violet Valley Bookstore in Water Valley, Mississippi.
Little Five Points in general has been an alternative space in Atlanta, but I found, over the years, that it was also a queer space — the location of Charis wasn’t an accident. When my parents took me to the Flying Biscuit, I saw that it was a lesbian anchor (even if they didn’t), and I attended a Unitarian church in Little Five Points that featured a preacher with a white Abe Lincoln beard and an announcement of that week’s lecture: The Lesbian Jesus. When I started doing research on this book, I discovered that Little Five Points was a center of lesbian life in Atlanta; Minnie Bruce Pratt recalls a feminist conference in which they went from porch to porch in the neighborhood, attending different sessions and then going to the Red Dyke Theater for lesbian feminist drag. Luckily for me, my parents had no idea about this radical history when they moved to Atlanta, so I got to discover it on my own.
ArtsATL: In your scholarly work, the word “archive” refers to much more than a physical repository of primary sources. Discuss your use of this central term.
Harker: The concept of the archive has evolved quite a bit in contemporary scholarship. It represents the full range of experiences, practices and people that make up any culture, and suggests a complex repository of a cultural moment that traditional archives may not be able to capture. So much of queer history has been invisible, or erased, or forgotten; queer history must be reconstructed as well as discovered, and sometimes the methods for that reconstruction go beyond traditional archival methods. For me, the “archive” of Southern lesbian feminism let me refer to a complex and largely forgotten queer culture and history in shorthand, and it also suggests a broader, more complex history of Southern lesbian feminism that exists beyond the confines of my book.
ArtsATL: How might the history of the Women in Print movement — and the contrast between the strategies of Naiad Press and Daughters, Inc. — inform ongoing debates about what works count as art or literature and are thus deserving of scholarly analysis?
Harker: The Women in Print movement had a very clear sense that the current literary establishment — or LICE, as they liked to call it — constructed great authorship and literary merit in ways that excluded women and people of color and poor people, and really anyone outside a privileged elite. They insisted that seemingly objective categories of literary merit were not objective but imbricated in systems of power. Their critiques, many of which were foundational to early feminist criticism, aren’t central to current literary study, but I think they should be. It provides background to critiques from groups like VIDA, which looks at how many women are reviewed in top-tier literary journals and how many women are asked to review.
ArtsATL: Can you briefly discuss your approach to analyzing the powerful poem by Pat Parker, detailing an interracial lesbian relationship, that you quote in full in your book?
Harker: Pat Parker is an author who insists that readers understand and embrace all parts of herself. Sometimes she does that through humor and sometimes through direct critique. The poem I quote at length, “My Lover is a Woman,” highlights the many ways she feels alienated from multiple communities because of her interracial same-sex relationship. This means that no community can feel smug and superior — she highlights homophobia in the African American community, racism in the lesbian community and the broader costs of white heteronormative America. We tend to discuss “issues” in isolation, and we often approach these questions in a simplistic way. Parker shows us the ways people can be both victim and bully; she also embraces a cross-racial feminist ethos (as she does in “Womanslaughter”), without ignoring the many ways white feminists can fail in that ideal.
ArtsATL: Can you introduce us to the use of queer sexuality and the connotations of the concept and word “queer” in the context of the Southern Gothic?
Harker: “Queer” started as an oppositional term for early AIDS activists to call out the hypocrisy of 1980s culture, which let a generation of young men die because they couldn’t talk about sexuality. They purposely embraced an epithet as a badge of honor. It became an academic movement in the 1980s, but today, young people tend to use the term descriptively. It is a useful umbrella term that allows one to discuss a variety of sexual and gender identities without being fixed.
Queer sexuality, then, refers to any “nonnormative” sexuality — anything that falls outside of reproductive sex between two married partners. The Southern Gothic, by this definition, has always been queer, because it describes characters and situations that fall well outside the mainstream and have always had shadowy inklings of queer sexuality. What Southern lesbian feminists did was make those intimations explicit and embrace queer sexuality in an open, defiant, flamboyant way.