Thursday, September 27, 2012

Our Favorite Straight "Lesbian" Writer, R.I.P.

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Tereska Torres has died at 92.  She was the author, among many other books, of Women's Barracks, a classic in the world of lesbian pulp novels.  We bought a copy years ago, to add to our collection of lurid paperback covers, and at first assumed it was just more dime-store trash.  Then we read it.

Women's Barracks is a wonderful novel, with credible characters struggling to do their bit for freedom in the middle of the Blitz.  It may not be Moby-Dick, or even The Price of Salt, but it's a fine book, and well worth picking up from Amazon.  But we never knew much about the author.

The Times obit is a revelation.  Turns out that Torres' own life was more interesting than some fiction.  Born a Polish Jew in Paris, she converted (with her family) to Roman Catholicism.  When the Nazis invaded, they fled the country; in wartime London, she joined the Free French and made it to second lieutenant.  The book, published in 1950, draws on that experience.  During the war, Torres married, got pregnant and lost her husband in combat.  Afterward, she attempted suicide.  Years later, she was involved in the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, which is the subject of a memoir recently published in France.

Although she wrote a number of books, she is by far best known for Women's Barracks, one of the earliest of what would become the "lesbian pulp" genre.  In its own way, it is as seminal as the Beebo Brinker books; it was condemned by a Congressional committee on pornography and banned outright in Canada.

Both the books historic place and its scandal are laced with irony.  By modern standards, Women's Barracks is only mildly racy.  Only a few of the characters were actually daughters of Bilitis, and the author herself was apparently straight.  Its cult-classic status is reminder of just how desperate midcentury lesbians were for some public recognition of their existence.  Its condemnation, of course, is a reminder of why congressmen should not be literary critics.


Dan Pharr said...

May one use "seminal" when discussing lesbian literature? I got dinged by a prof at the GTU back in the 90's for using that word in a paper...Just asking!

Father Anonymous said...

Ah, the drollery of the academic life. We used to drink too much and put undies on our heads, but every school has its own style.

On the off chance that your professor wasn't joking, I'll just mention that "seminal" derives, obviously, from the Latin word for seed. Any seed. Birdseed, poppyseed, appleseed. A "seminal" book is just one that inspired others of the same sort.

Still, the pun is there, and inevitable. So maybe its wisest to stick with "classic."