25 years later: ‘Running fiercely toward a high thin sound’

by Judith Katz
Special to Lesbian.com

Twenty five years ago, when this book was written, there had once been a town in Western Massachusetts with a large and growing lesbian population. There was a feminist film collective, a feminist book store, a collectively owned and run women’s restaurant, a mostly lesbian populated rooming house, and a few miles away in two directions, lesbian owned women’s land. A course of study at the state university that is now known as some version of Women, Sexuality and Gender Studies was then known simply as Women’s Studies. In the bigger universe there had been women’s recording companies, women’s music festivals, a half dozen dedicated feminist and lesbian-feminist publishers, theatre companies, little magazines, news rags, literary reviews, and filmmakers. The Stonewall Riots had incited a movement by then and ACT UP was clearing the path for AIDS activism. Ellen DeGeneres was not yet out as a lesbian (when she took that step she would call herself gay) and we would have to wait another twenty five or so years for Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” to make its way to what we now call television and delight and disturb us with all kinds of queer and Jewish family brilliance.

Back then, the terms cis-gendered, gender non-binary, gender-fluid and gender-queer were just a twinkle in some graduate student’s parent’s eye. We women who were attracted to and slept with other women called ourselves lesbians, and, much to the consternation of women similarly inclined who were a generation older than us, dykes. There was often considerable misgiving (read judgment) among middle class white women my age around women who named themselves butch and femme. Drag queens were viewed with suspicion, and transgender was seen by the general public as a medical term, not a political one. This was a period when lesbians, coupled or single, were choosing to have babies by turkey baster or otherwise, and while some women were joining together in ritualized ceremonies, not only was the idea of state sanctioned same sex marriage a different gleam in some future legal eagle’s smarty pants eye, it was spurned as an attachment to patriarchal values by many of us because, as Joni Mitchell put it in her cis-gendered song, My Old Man: “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall….”

So this book reflects the language of the time in which it was written (Fifteen years ago an irritated cis-gendered male student of mine once went through and actually counted the number of times the word “lesbian” appears in this book). A central plot of Running Fiercely… clearly reflects the fact that in 1992, marriage was a privilege “enjoyed” by heterosexuals where a certain type of lesbian might be considered held captive by the expectation that she participate in the ritual as a bridesmaid. At the same time, another type of lesbian might feel outraged and wounded to be left out of the ritual and cause the kind of trouble the bride’s sister Nadine makes when she is left out (kept out?) of the wedding altogether.

Who knew that just a few years later so many of us would be able to get that piece of paper from the city hall, and enjoy the celebration and legal protections that go with it?

When I finished writing this book in the early ‘90s, Sarah Schulman’s “Sophie Horowitz Story” had been out in the universe for 11 years; Elana Dykewoman’s “Riverfinger Women” for 20. By the time Nancy K. Bereano published the original edition of “Running Fiercely” in 1992, that brilliant, farsighted publisher had made sure that works by visionary activist-artists such as Audre Lorde, Jewelle Gomez, Dorothy Alison, Alison Bechdel and Leslie Feinberg among so many others had seen the light of day. Work by Jewish lesbians appeared in anthologies such as “Nice Jewish Girls” (Evelyn Torton Beck, editor) and “The Tribe of Dina” (Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz, editors). Lesbian poets, Jewish and otherwise, for whom the personal was absolutely political such as Klepfisz, Lourde, Judy Grahn, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherie Moraga, and Adrienne Rich found homes in both mainstream and small presses. It was a rich and glorious time in feminist and lesbian publishing.

And then, what Bereano called “rapacious capitalism” reared its head and for a number of years small press publishing of any stripe and independent book selling became extremely difficult. Hopefully, some graduate student in some gender-fluid journalism program not too far in the future will write their master’s thesis on what happened to small press publishing and independent book stores between the late 1990’s and early 2000’s at the hands of mega bookselling and publishing operations which stole the market and some of the authors. Yet now, some years later, thanks in part to e-publishing, self-publishing, and determined small press folks like the women of Bywater, other thriving independent publishers, and book store owners who refused to give up, we stole the market back.

So 25 years later, what is this book?

This book is a ‘70’s Jewish dyke’s reflection on the town she came out in and the family she grew up in –fictionalized, of course. It is a riff on the work of well- known Jewish storytellers like I.B. Singer, his brother I.J., Anzia Yezierska, and especially the beloved creator of the town of Chelm where all men are fools, Sholom Aleichem.

I made this book at a time when work by lesbian writers was nurtured and exploding into a welcoming and thriving culture. With that in mind, I invite you to imagine me, the writer, 25 years ago, sitting at my computer in a tee shirt and a pair of well-worn overalls, high tops on my feet, wild hairs flying in all directions, blasting Joan Armatrading and the Klezmer Conservatory Band on the stereo, as I made this story of one Jewish lesbian who never really left home and another, her sister Nadine, who was forced to flee.

Mostly, I invite you to enjoy.

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