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Bending the Rules: An Interview with Jane Rule.

SUMMARY: Jane Rule created literature that broke new ground, starting with her novel Desert of the Heart, published in 1961. Not only did Desert of the Heart represent a positive treatment of two women's love for one another, it also addressed the basis of homophobia in literary traditions, psychology and religions. Since then, Rule challenged one fictional premise after another--in her novels and in the real world. This Is Not for You, Against the

Season, The Young in One Another's Arms, Lesbian Images, Outlander, Contract with the World, Memory Board and After the Fire are just some examples of this.

Keith Louise Fulton spoke with Jane Rule at her home on Galiano Island, British Columbia, about literature, lesbians and language. This is an edited version of an interview that was first published in the Winter 1993 issue of Herizons.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: In your fiction there is a commitment to thinking things through, as though we can get somewhere by thinking.

JANE RULE: I suppose informed perception is what really fascinates me. I'm not terribly interested in judging characters--I'm passionately interested in understanding them. And there isn't a character I have conceived that I haven't been irritated as hell at, at one time or another. Nor is there anybody I know that I haven't been irritated at. But I always want to write about people I respect, basically--not that I agree with, not that I think are always right, but people who are making a genuine effort to make sense out of their living, in whatever way. Their questions, and their needs, and their drives are real to them and to be honoured--and honoured with honesty, so that they're not always likeable, they're not always doing the right thing, but they are trying to be human in the best sense.

Ideas certainly come into it. But if you wanted to write a sermon your goal would be moral persuasion. I'm not interested in morally persuading anybody. I am interested in saying, take a good hard look at this, and maybe you'll understand the world you live in better.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: Are there problems writing fiction that includes lesbians, when literature has left out lesbians' life experiences? Did you try to make your own audience, or were you just having to deal with the dilemma of being understood?

JANE RULE: I wanted to be very clear. But I also didn't want to be interrupted by being concerned about people misreading my work. I didn't want to be distracted. It's easy to be silenced or to cater in wrong ways, and I thought my job is to make the worlds I see as clearly as I can. If people come of good will, they will be welcome. But I'm not writing books for my enemies. I'm not writing books for anybody but me. I mean, it's the function of the spider to spin the web, and I had to make a world I could live in. And I think that's the basic impetus to write--because there isn't a found world. I don't know, but I think I was stung into writing and required for life to write, to make a world I could live in.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: Stung! What was the sting?

JANE RULE: Well, the sense that I would be, if I were honest, totally disenfranchised. Because in my generation I couldn't have talked. I couldn't have done anything I wanted to. And it enraged me. And I came out of the McCarthy era in the U.S., and we were getting loyalty oaths thrown at us in the universities and having to admit to our private lives or be exposed, and that sort of thing. I think a lot of people were stung into silence. The sting doesn't always work positively.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: In Outlander you write: "Sex is not so much an identity as a language which we have for so long been forbidden to speak that most of us learn only the crudest of its vocabulary and grammar." Does your writing create a language of sexuality?

JANE RULE: That's certainly been one of my interests--and a range of sexuality. I mean, sexuality is an important part of each of the characters.... I suppose mine is really nearly the first generation of writers that has been given serious permission to write about sexuality overtly. You know, now people are not immediately charged with being pornographers when they actually write a love scene. You don't get love scenes in Dickens. Even Anais Nin was writing pornography and selling it, but that had to be separate from her serious work--so that if you were interested in sexuality, pornography was the only form offered to you, because if you put that in serious fiction, it was castigated.

It's now our opportunity to integrate sexuality with character. But it's very hard to do this. We don't know very much about it as part of the whole human being. And what I've been trying to do in my work, when I deal with it at all, is to deal with sexuality as it expresses frustration, need, joy. But if there's a love scene it's a love scene that should tell you a fair amount about the character.... I'm trying to get at the ambivalences of attitude and feeling that go on in sexual connection. It's not body parts that are interesting to the writer; it is what's going on, why is this happening, rather than not happening? What does it mean to the characters? How do they use it? What are they telling each other? What are they withholding? It's not simply desire.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: You said you were among the pioneers who have had permission to write, but you created your permission at considerable cost.

JANE RULE: I think that that's always true, working in a relatively new area. And I suppose, as I sit here thinking now, I certainly wouldn't have made any such observation in my 20s. I would have said I was working in totally forbidden territory for most of my life.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: And that was true.

JANE RULE: And it isn't now.


JANE RULE: I think because we have been very busy creating a climate, a lot of us. You know, I think there has been an enormous amount of political work done, an enormous number who have done a lot of hard and courageous work--everybody from the Svend Robinsons of this world, the crazy boys who ran The Body Politic, to the women's movement.

I can remember sitting in one of the first women's movement consciousness-raising groups, when somebody brought in an article from a magazine about lesbians and said she thought this would corrupt kids. And I said, you know, up to now we've been talking about everything as "I" or "we," and I think if you want to talk about lesbians, you have to do the same thing. You can't talk about "them." And I am willing to start by saying that I am a lesbian and I am ready to talk about it. Dead silence. I was teaching students at university, and this was considered outrageous. And I went home that night, and a whole bunch of women came to the door saying, you made us feel awful because you can say something like that and we wouldn't dare.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: Because they couldn't come out....

JANE RULE: They thought that they would be discredited and people would never again listen to anything they had to say, because they would be labelled lesbians. And I said, and you don't think that happens to me?

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: What year was that?

JANE RULE: Oh, early '70s. But, you know, that's where it began. And before that group was through, those people all were talking about a range of sexuality. But it probably took two or three years. Then we went on to women's studies--without credit--and then got a women's studies program going and saw to it that there was lesbian content in all the things we did.

It is extraordinary the work that has been done, and I think it has to go on being done. I've long since learned that you don't do something once, and then it's fixed; you just have to go on, and on, and on.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: Do you think that creating a new language for our sexual behaviours will be linked to creating new meanings for these behaviours, and then creating new behaviours?

JANE RULE: I haven't the faintest notion of how to go about it, except, in my sense, to be open, to be listening, to be asking that we categorize less and less and think more and more about the possibilities, and to know it is scary, and to acknowledge that.

I think that a lot of sexual transaction is wordless transaction in terms of meaning. We don't really know, as often as we should, what we are meaning, what we are doing.

Sometimes you make love to comfort somebody. It doesn't have much to do with desire. It is a lovely way to comfort somebody if somebody feels like being comforted. But that can be terribly misunderstood. So I think different people assign different meanings to gestures that are erotic or overtly sexual. We have to begin to talk about the kinds of ways we can use sexuality that don't have to do with lifetime commitment, or that do have to do with lifetime commitment. For instance, sexuality is such an easy place to dump all jealousy. You know you're supposed to be grown-up about everything else. If your partner gets a raise, you're not supposed to be jealous about that; you're supposed to be glad.

Well, sometimes you're not, if you're feeling down and your work isn't going well. You know you ought to feel glad, but in a way you wish it were yourself. But you shut up about it. You don't try to make a scene about it. You talk to yourself, tell yourself you're being an idiot. You may dump that, however, into the place where it is permissible. So your lover spends too much time talking with an attractive woman at a party, and you raise hell about it, not because you give a damn, but because there's that jealous feeling, and it's the only place you're allowed to let it out.

And it's this sort of thing that I think we do all the time. We use sexuality as a sort of emotional wastebasket.

I'll tell you something important that I've found-- and I should have known it ahead of time. A lot of people liked The Young in One Another's Arms. It got the Canadian Authors Association award, and yet it was stopped coming over the border into Canada because it was going to a gay bookstore, [Vancouver's] Little Sisters. They seized the shipment. Of course, it's not in print in Canada; it is in the States. And I was out of the country, and by the time I came back my phone was ringing off the hook.

And I said, look, it is not important that this book is stopped. It is important that you hear that these books are stopped every week and not make a fuss simply because this book got the Canadian Authors Association best novel of the year for 1978. They're not exactly a radical, porn-supporting organization, so you can pretty well guess that this book is not going to offend your grandmother.

But what you should be offended about is the harassment of the gay bookstores. And you should be headlining that every week, not tying this to me, because that is beside the point. The political point is important, and you're not dealing with it. You know, you're throwing up your hands in horror, that I could be censored--I'm censored every day of the week.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: l want to ask you about the term "lesbian literature." If we can say Canadian or American literature, why could we not say lesbian literature?

JANE RULE: I don't have any quarrel with it. I think it's politically important. My personal quarrel with it is that I feel put in a box by it. You know, I don't think I'm writing the world's lesbian novel; nor do lesbians when they read it. They get very mad at me that I wrote it. The expectation that a lesbian will always write what is called lesbian literature I think is too narrow.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: Unless we just say that lesbian literature is any literature that lesbians write.

JANE RULE: And I'm comfortable with that. But I'm not comfortable with the sense that to serve the vision I have to stay out of heterosexual territory, I have to stay out of the type of world I live in. You know, I've never lived in a gay subculture. I move in that world as I move in the world of my family, as I move in the university world, as I move in the Writers Union. I've got all kinds of tribes, and it is the richness of all that experience that I will use. My job is to be describing the world the way I see it.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: In Outlander, you wrote that you studied literature because you'd wanted to find out from the really accomplished liars how to speak something true.... How do you know if you've spoken something true?

JANE RULE: It seems to me really what you're focused on is describing what is. And you can't know everything. You can make honest mistakes. But if you are really working to understand what is there, then I think that is a very good touchstone, a very good measure.

People used to say to me, who are you writing for? And I'd say, I'm writing for myself five years hence. And I want to write clearly enough so that when I go back I can say, this is the territory I was in. I've reported it truly. And I haven't cheated. I haven't made an elegance to cover up an ignorance. I haven't tried to say more than I know

You can bring a familiarity with your own eyes to what you see. So, I suppose, that seems to me to be the job of the writer--to do it so well that somebody who is alien in that territory can find their way around if they want to. But also to be sure that you make it home.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: So that somebody who lives in that territory recognizes it as home--which is all about belonging.

JANE RULE: And, of course, that's the main response I get from people who write to me.

KEITH LOUISE FULTON: Is that a sense of recognition?


UPDATE: The indomitable Jane Rule was interviewed twice for Herizons, first in 1992 and later in 2007, shortly before her death from complications from cancer at age 76. Rule was predeceased by Helen Sonthoff, her partner of more than 50 years.

In addition to publishing a dozen books, Rule was a contributor to the Canadian gay newspaper The Body Politic. She wrote essays and a regular column in The Body Politic from 1979 to 1985. Canada Customs' practice of seizing shipments of literature with gay content was challenged in a court process launched in 1988 by the Vancouver gay and lesbian bookstore Little Sisters. Rule fervently supported the cause. In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that customs officials had been discriminatory in their practices and that gay bookstore owners had experienced differential treatment.

A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bebout, a book of correspondence between Rule and The Body Politic editor Rick Bebout was published in 2017 by UBC Press.

Caption: Jane Rule believed that a love scene should tell you a fair amount about the characters. (Photo: Alex Waterhouse Hayward)
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Author:Louise Fulton, Keith
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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