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Archive for March, 2017

Twig drove her to The Hornet’s Nest, a bar in the basement of an old hotel in town. It wasn’t a homosexual club so much as a place where gay people gathered while the management turned a blind eye. Both women and men frequented it, and Cam had accompanied Auggie and Twig there many times, against Ada’s advice. The place seemed seedy, dangerous, with an entrance down a dark flight of stairs. “And what if you run into someone from school?” Ada had asked.

“I reckon they’ll be as scared to see me as I am to see them,” Cam replied.

The plot of my new novel, The Ada Decades, covers seventy years in the lives of LGBT people in Charlotte, N.C. In the above scene, which takes place in 1962, Ada goes (reluctantly) with her gay friend Twig to The Hornet’s Nest, one of several bars in Charlotte to “serve as ad hoc gathering spaces for the gay community,” according to Charlotte historian Josh Burford.

Before there were LGBT community centers, conferences, high school and college associations, bookstores, and choruses, bars served an important function in the lives of queer people. Even at the seediest bars, queer folks could meet each other for friendship and love, finding community when they might have feared they were alone.

As Burford notes, bars as community institutions laid “the groundwork for future activism.” For example, at Julius, a gay-favorite bar located on West 10th Street in New York City, gay men staged a “sip in” in 1966 to challenge a state law that prohibited serving alcohol to “disorderly” people—and just being gay was considered “disorderly” conduct. The June 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Sheridan Square, are generally credited as the start of the modern LGBT rights movement.

Julius

The “sip in” at Julius in Greenwich Village in 1966

The downside, of course, is that bars foster drinking, and habitual drinking can lead to alcoholism—a problem that our community has been tackling through LGBT-specific social services for 30+ years.

For more about my characters Ada, Cam, and Twig and their experiences as gay Southerners “back in the day,” pick up a copy of The Ada Decades at your favorite bookstore or online retailer.

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… the Duchess was an “experience”—a poorly lit hole with pounding music and thick clouds of smoke. “Our clothes will reek,” Ada said.

From a rickety table in the corner, they watched women half their age dancing and flirting, dressed in everything from tight T-shirts to oversized flannel that resembled Ada’s daddy’s pajamas. The booming beat of a younger generation turned any conversation into a shouting match. The lyrics—the ones Ada could understand—were baffling. “‘Come on, baby, make it hurt so good’? What kind of song is that?” She still preferred the music of her youth—Johnny Mathis, Patsy Cline. Cam just smiled.

In 1982, as middle-aged women, the main characters in my novel, The Ada Decades, make a once-in-a-lifetime journey to New York City for the Gay Pride March. Ada, the protagonist, has never been more than a three-hour drive from Charlotte, N.C., and the two are not “out” in their hometown. Her partner, Cam, plans the trip because, as she says, “I’m fifty years old, and I have never been to a real-life gay event.” After some sightseeing at Macy’s and the New York Public Library, the women head for Greenwich Village and a big dose of queer culture.

It was great fun for me to write this chapter, which is called “The Language of New York.” I lived in NYC for twenty years, and still have a fondness for it. Many of the queer sites Ada and Cam visit in the chapter—like the sleazy, long-defunct women’s bar, the Duchess (101 Seventh Avenue South)—were places I frequented as a young lesbian. The Duchess was the first lesbian bar I ever went to, and my friends and I would often hang out there after volunteering at the feminist newspaper, WomaNews.

Because Ada and Cam are a librarian and a school teacher, respectively, they also hit the lesbian and gay bookstores.

They made a stop at Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop—“Twig won’t believe this!” Ada said, snapping a picture with her Kodak—then found their way to Djuna Books, a lesbian-owned shop where they spent a good hour perusing books even Ada had never heard of. Cam bought a baseball cap emblazoned with the word DYKE and put it on immediately. “When in Rome,” she said. Ada picked out a button that read: We Are Everywhere, but she was afraid it would leave holes in her blouse, so she attached it to her canvas purse instead.

Djuna and Thelma

Djuna Barnes and her lover, Thelma Wood

Even though I bought many a book there back in the day, I only vaguely remember the interior of Djuna Books, a cozy store close to where the author Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) lived at 5 Patchin Place. Barnes—a journalist, illustrator, and author of the classic Modernist novel Nightwood—did not identify as lesbian even though her primary relationships were all with women. She reportedly called her namesake “a terrible little lesbian bookshop,” even phoning to demand the owners change the name.

To read about Ada and Cam’s Manhattan trip and about their other adventures through life, you can now pick up a copy of The Ada Decades at your favorite bookstore or online retailer.

 

 

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They’d gotten off on the wrong foot, and if Cam found out, there would be hell to pay. Ada needed this young man to know she wasn’t like other whites, the ones who touted their Confederate ancestors or acted like Jim Crow was still in force. She could have used the example of Miss Ruthie to explain away her cautious behavior, but it seemed like too elaborate a story, offered too late. Or she could have told him about the early days of integration at Central, but she had done so little—just interrupted one bullying incident.

So instead, she said, “I . . . I’ve read Mr. Baldwin,” just before he reached the library door. Cam had brought the novel Giovanni’s Room home from her trip to Washington, D.C. for the March. “It’s about two men who have an affair,” Cam had explained excitedly. “One white and one black.” The volume had made the rounds in their gay circle before ending up, tattered and well-read, on a high shelf in the bedroom closet.

“He’s a fine writer,” Ada said.

“One of the best,” Mr. Browne said, with a thin smile that suggested he might not hold a grudge.

In this excerpt from my historical novel, The Ada Decades, Ada Shook, a white school librarian in Charlotte, N.C. in 1970, has a run-in with a new teacher, Robert Browne – one of only two black faculty members in the school – about a book order. She worries that some of his choices, including books by Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Baldwin, will play badly with the conservative white parents in the school. Mr. Browne calls her on it, and she retracts her concern – but then wants him to know she’s not like “other whites.” A closeted lesbian, she’s read James Baldwin’s novel about an affair between two men in Paris.

 

james-baldwin

Baldwin on the streets of Harlem/AP photo

The work of James Baldwin (1924-1987) figures prominently in this chapter of my book; it becomes the subject of attempted censorship by parents at Ada’s school. I won’t give away what happens, but things get tense at the fictional Central Charlotte Junior High.

I re-read a lot of Baldwin’s nonfiction work as my novel was unfolding, especially Nobody Knows My Name, and I took one of the epigraphs for the book from him: “Love is a growing up.” I felt that so aptly summarized what I had learned about long-term relationships. There’s the tender romance in the early stages of “girl meets girl,” but a relationship over the long haul is so much more than that. It’s about working through problems and plowing through bad times as well as celebrating the joyous moments. I call The Ada Decades a love story for that reason – it’s about two women enduring together and building a life over time, despite the odds.

And more about Baldwin, whose writing is rightfully enjoying a revival: Efforts are underway to save the house in St.-Paul-de-Vence, France, where he lived for the last seventeen years of his life, and turn it into a retreat for writers and artists. As Shannon Cain wrote with regret in July 2016, “There exists no trace of James Baldwin in the village … His half-demolished house bears no plaque… Here in the place he considered home, it appears that this great American literary and civil rights icon has disappeared from history.”

If you haven’t seen the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, please run out and do so. I’ve seen it twice, and I will undoubtedly watch it again. James Baldwin has been gone for thirty years, but his wisdom speaks directly to this moment in American history.

Today is The Ada Decades’s official pub date, and it’s now available everywhere! Pick up a copy at your favorite bookseller.

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They had walked silently for one long block when Auggie broke into a happy trot and pointed with excitement. “There it is!” A sprawling frame bungalow, set back from the street and guarded by a majestic oak, came into view. With its modest height and lack of trim, it was not the peer of its neighbors, but Ada recognized its charm even if she didn’t understand Auggie’s excitement.

“It’s pretty,” she said.

“That, dear librarian, is where Carson McCullers lived, oh, twenty years ago,” Auggie said with a sigh. “She started writing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter right there in that house.”

This scene takes place in the third chapter of my new historical novel, The Ada Decades. It’s 1958, and Ada Shook’s friendship with Cam Lively has been progressing since they bonded over the integration of the public school where they both work. But Cam would like it to go … well, further. She creates a book club that will get Ada to her apartment in the Dilworth neighborhood of Charlotte, N.C. – because, as their mutual friend Auggie, puts it when he spells it out for Ada: “How else do you get a librarian to come over and meet your friends? She would have preferred a softball team, that’s for sure.”

Everyone at the book club, it turns out, is queer – which both intrigues Ada and makes her nervous, because she hasn’t figured out what her feelings for Cam mean. Cam and her friends have created a social network in which they support each other – “family,” to use the code for LGBT people.

The Carson McCullers house is a real thing that still stands at 311 East Boulevard in Charlotte; it’s now a restaurant where a writer can have excellent Indian food while channeling her inner Carson. The Georgia-born author (1917-1967) and her husband, Reeves, a poet, lived there when they got married and moved to Charlotte in 1937, and it is, in fact, where she wrote the first chapters of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Carson’s biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, offers a detailed description of the large, furnished flat in her excellent book, The Lonely Hunter.

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The house where Carson McCullers and her husband first rented an apartment in Charlotte is now a restaurant

The rent was too high, though, and within a few months they moved to an apartment at 806 Central Avenue, which is unfortunately no longer standing. Carr writes that Carson found that place too cold to work in and preferred to write at the Charlotte Public Library.

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806 Central Avenue in Charlotte no longer exists

Carson was conflicted about her sexuality; she was enamored with several women, but likely never consummated the relationships. Her strongest ties were with gay writers and artists, and her identification with social and sexual outcasts figures prominently her fiction. “Carson has such a deep appreciation for freaks,” Auggie says to Ada in my novel.

Right now, you can get a copy of The Ada Decades at the Bywater Books website; after March 14, it will be available in paperback and e-book formats through bookstores and other online vendors.

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