Author Tags: Civil Rights, Essentials 2010, Fiction, Literary Landmarks
LITERARY LOCATION: "Writers' Corner," Cemetery, Galiano Island.
DIRECTIONS: From the main ferry dock, you can walk for about an hour, taking the Sturdies Bay trail alongside the main road, or it's a ten-minute drive. Go past the Hummingbird Pub (on your right) and turn left onto Georgeson Bay Road at the Corner Store. Continue past the valley farms and the old maple tree sitting in the middle of the road, past Bluff Road and Highland Road, and then right along Active Pass Drive. Keep bearing left, past a sheep farm, to a turn off for Cemetery Road. Jane and her partner Helen Sonthoff share a black plaque in the farthest corner from the gate, away from the ocean. The caption says, "Risk. Grow. Grieve." Just to the left is a plaque for novelist Ethel Wilson's friend and biographer, Mary McAlpine Dobbs; and to her left is a plaque for yet another author, Elisabeth Hopkins (1894-1991), a relative of Gerard Manley Hopkins who was a dear friend and close neighbour to Jane Rule.
Jane Rule's grave is an oft-visited site for pilgrims who value her character and work. She used this site for a scene in her novel, The Young in One Another's Arms, in which one of the characters visits a small cemetery and finds, near the entrance, two gravestones with inscriptions in Japanese. Two such stones can be found inside the Galiano Cemetery.
Jane's Rule's nearby residence on Highland Drive was visited by countless writers, many of whom stayed overnight after participating in public readings, usually at the South Hall near the pub, and often organized by her as a community fundraising event. Guests included her friend Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Ronald Wright, Jane Uruquart,P.K. Page and Betty Jane Wylie. Her home was also a mecca for children on the island, many of whom took swimming lessons from her in her above-ground pool.
A literary site for Jane Rule in Vancouver is 4510 West 8th Avenue. At that address she wrote her first and best-known novel, Desert of the Heart (1964), while living with her long-time partner Helen Sonthoff who taught at UBC. Rule’s compassionate and unsentimental account of two women who meet and fall in love in Reno, Nevada, made her an international figure. She produced four more books at 4502 West 2nd Avenue before moving to Galiano Island.
“Jane and Helen presented the nearest thing to a literary salon Vancouver has ever boasted,” wrote David Watmough. “Too few know how much the literary cohesion of Vancouver owes to those two women cultural pioneers.” Their visitors included Margaret Laurence, Audrey Thomas, George Bowering, Marya Fiamengo, Stan Persky, Margaret Atwood, Robin Blaser, Margaret Hollingsworth, Phyllis Webb, Bill McConnell and George Woodcock—to name a few.
Recipient of both the Order of Canada and Order of B.C., Rule was the second recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award. She played a key role in the defence of Little Sisters bookstore in legal fights with Canada Customs over state censorship of literature. "I am not a writer who sits down to discover what I think," she wrote in 2004.
QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:
Of the great B.C. writers easily described as great people, Jane Rule ranks near the top. For six decades Jane “Jinx” Rule was one of the most mature, humorous and responsible voices in Canadian letters, befriended and admired by the likes of Kate Millet and Margaret Atwood. Rightfully revered for her groundbreaking novel Desert of the Heart (1964), in which two women fall in love in Reno, Nevada, Rule became known throughout the world as an articulate spokeswoman on issues pertaining to personal liberty and social responsibility, but she never clamoured for the limelight. “Politics really are to clean up the house,” she said. “You have to do it every week. I don’t find it interesting, just as I don’t find sweeping the floor every week interesting. I prefer to work wherever there’s a possibility of changing things. I really believe through the counter-movements in society change can be made. We’re living witnesses of it.”
Jane Rule’s influential testimony in the Supreme Court of B.C. on behalf of Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium in 1994, during a constitutional challenge to Canada Customs’ practice of seizing materials destined specifically for a gay and lesbian bookstore, was published as Detained at Customs: Jane Rule Testifies at the Little Sister’s Trial (1995). Specifically, Rule was responding to the absurd seizure by Canada Customs of her non-erotic novels The Young in One Another’s Arms (1977) and Contract with the World (1980), as well as the movie version of Desert of the Heart—a 1985 feature film called Desert Hearts.
Born in New Jersey in 1931, Rule lived in B.C. with her partner Helen Sonthoff, a UBC English instructor, from the late 1950s until Sonthoff’s death in 2000. Jane Rule also taught some classes at UBC. The couple’s relocation to Galiano Island from Vancouver in 1976, coincidental with Rule’s first attack of chronic and crippling arthritis in her spine, was hugely significant to her life and work. As a senior member of a closely-knit community, Rule became an integral and supportive figure for many of her fellow islanders, lending them money, providing guidance and gaining the nickname “the bank of Galiano.”
A resolve to forge community and group connections was reflected in her novels Memory Board (1987) and After the Fire (1989), both of which explore community bonds and incorporate the elderly as central characters. The Young in One Another’s Arms and Contract with the World are similarly concerned with mutual compassion and love born of strength, not weakness, as characters struggle to generate unconventional solutions. The latter concerns the difficulties faced by a variety of artists as they approach middle age without having gained much outward success.
Renowned for her generosity, Jane Rule offered her final collection of short essays, Loving the Difficult (2008) to Hedgerow Press, a Sidney-based imprint of neophyte publisher Joan Coldwell. This little book is arguably her best because it captures her provocative wisdom as an inspirational progressive thinker. In it Rule reasserts her view of marriage as problematic because individuals should not require permission from the state in order to cohabit. Rule consequently looked askance at the eagerness of gay colleagues to gain the legal right to marry. A heavy smoker and avid drinker, Jane Rule died with her typical strength and dignity in 2007.
For six decades Jane Rule was one of the most mature, humourous and responsible voices in Canadian letters. Although she is rightfully revered for her groundbreaking 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, in which two women fall in love in Reno, Nevada, Rule was long concerned with issues of truth and freedom beyond the realms of sexuality. In 1996, she received the second Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia. She was subsequently awarded the Order of British Columbia in 1998 and the Order of Canada in 2006. Posthumously, her collection of short essays from Hedgerow Press, Loving the Difficult, received the 2009 Lambda literary award for non-fiction.
Born in New Jersey on March 28, 1931, Jane Rule passed her first four years at Wynchwood, her paternal grandfather's farm in New Jersey, where her grandfather built a replica of Robbie Burns' cottage and filled it with children's books. The Depression necessitated a move to California where she spent summers on a remote, 240-acre ranch among the redwoods that belonged to her mother's parents. In California, as a child, her best friends were Chinese and Japanese American children, and she was baffled by the concept of racism. She also grew up in Illinois and Missouri as the middle child and oldest daughter of Carlotta Jane (Hink) and Arthur Richards Rule, a free-thinker who graduated from the naval academy at Annapolis and rose to the rank of lieutenant-commander during World War II. His favourite expression was, "I'd rather be right than president."
From a tender age, Jane Rule was notoriously rebellious against authority figures, particularly teachers. She and her beloved older brother Art changed schools constantly, as much as three times per year. In one class of 14 girls, there were five Janes so she willingly adopted her nickname Jinx and it stuck ever after. At age ten, her myopia was corrected by glasses but her family moved frequently and she was hampered by dyslexia. Six-feet tall at age 12 and unaccomplished at schoolwork, Rule was strongly supported by her parents who accepted her non-conformist tendencies. If her teacher complained that she had fallen asleep in German class again, her mother would calmly reply, "Well, you're boring her again." By age 15 Jane Rule decided she ought to be a writer. "I felt that most of the books I was reading were lies," she later recalled. "I was morally superior and quite obnoxious. That set me against the monstrous patriotic stupidity that was everywhere, the lack of trust, the sense of hatred and the false discipline."
That same year she was expelled, five months short of graduation, for an article she wrote in her school paper protesting the allocation of school funds for 'charm school' classes. In particular, Rule took objection to be shown how to walk. When the instructor told the class to imitate her, Rule did--cheekily--and was tossed from the class. Consequently she wrote an article expressing her opinion that girls should be taught how to walk to the nearest college. The principal expelled her for insubordination. Her reputation as a 'moral hazard' would make it difficult for her to gain acceptance to college.
Also at age 15, Jane Rule's outsiderism increased when she read Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. Although she began to recognize her own lesbian nature, her enthusiasm for the once-banned novel was hesitant, at best. "It was a polemic by a famous English lesbian pleading for an understanding of homosexuals and lesbians, whom it described as men trapped in women's bodies!" Rule recalled. "It was a very brave book but also a very bad book. The main character was six feet tall and had a deep voice. I thought, 'That can't be who I am! Will I have to live in some ghetto in Paris and be a freak?' It was such a scary thing." Rule later described Radclyffe as "about the biggest male chauvinist pig you could find. Gradually she developed a theory that one chiefly makes progress by learning from the bad examples of others. "I was five before I discovered that being a girl had serious drawbacks, six before I discovered being left-handed was unacceptable and nineteen and travelling in Europe for the first time before I had to apologize for being an American," she later wrote. In the 1960s she became "proud and relieved to claim the label Canadian."
At 16, her first sexual experience was a lesbian relationship, but given her moralistic upbringing and the forbidding climate for homosexuality in the early 1950s, she says she remained celibate during her attendance at Mills College, a posh women's school in Oakland. She had wanted to study English at Stanford but she was repeatedly rejected by numerous schools until a trustee at Mills College enabled her to be enrolled on a probationary basis. Because her test results were higher in science and math, she was initially not allowed to major in English. Eventually she got her way, but the head of the English department warned her about pursuing a literary career, telling her she could either become a first-rate scholar or a third-rate writer. Rule replied that she much preferred the latter. Rule subsequently sent that discouraging professor every book she published and dedicated a book to her. "I guess I'm still not a very nice person," she once noted.
After she received a bachelor's degree in English from Mills in 1952, Rule began working on her first novel when she was living in England and taking some classes at University College, London. Having gone to England to pursue a relationship with a female lover, she nonetheless became friends with John Hulcoop, a doctoral candidate at UC who later accepted a teaching job with the English faculty at the University of British Columbia. Returning to the United States, Jane Rule was soon disenchanted with the competitive and demeaning atmosphere of writing classes at Stanford University. When she opted for a teaching job with a private school for girls in Massachusetts, Concord Academy, she fell in love with Helen Sonthoff, a creative writing instructor who was married to Herbert Sonthoff, a German who had fled the Nazi regime during World War II.
McCarthyism was rampant in the United States and extra-marital lesbian relationships were simply not to be tolerated, so Jane Rule moved to Vancouver in the fall of 1956, taking refuge in a four-room flat rented by John Hulcoop. According to Sandra Martin's obituary of Rule for the Globe & Mail, Hulcoop and Rule briefly became lovers. At age 40, Helen Sonthoff came to Vancouver to visit Rule, at age 25, and they resumed their intimate relationship. They would remain living as a couple until Helen Sonthoff died in 2000, at age 83. Rule was deeply disheartened by her partner's death, as she had been when her father died at age 88 in 1994.
While Helen Sonthoff gained a foothold in the UBC English department with a job as a teaching assistant, Rule pursued her fledgling writing career, read scripts and became the assistant director at the university's new International House for foreign students. Even though Rule had only a bachelor's degree, she also intermittently taught lower-level English courses at UBC until 1976 when she and Sonthoff relocated to Galiano Island on a permanent basis. "I arranged my life so that I taught every other year at UBC," Rule said. "It took 25 years to get there as a full-time writer." She stopped teaching at age 43. She sometimes said she came out as a lesbian long before she came out as a writer.
In 1964, when her first published novel Desert of the Heart finally appeared, initially accepted in England by Macmillan, after 22 rejections in the United States, Jane Rule became "Canada's only visible lesbian" and risked losing her job at the university. Or, as she put it, "I became, for the media, the only lesbian in Canada." She often noted that one argument made in her defence at the time was that not every author of a murder mystery novel is necessarily a murderer. Canada's laws were changed to no longer prohibit homosexual acts between consenting adults that same year but prior to the appearance of Desert of the Heart, in her words, "we were jailable." The novel was completed by 1961, just prior to Rule's 30th birthday. Although Macmillan was concerned about the possibility of an adverse reaction by Nevada casino employees, very little substantive editing was done on the manuscript. Rule never resided in Reno, Nevada, the setting for the novel, but her parents did, enabling her to get to know the city during several visits during which her younger sister took her to various sites. Rule only worked in a casino for six nights as a change girl, from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., and she had little interest in gambling.
Jane Rule's move to live on Galiano Island in 1976, coincidental with her first attack of chronic and crippling arthritis in her spine, was hugely significant to her life and work. As a senior member of a closely-knit community, Rule became an integral, supportive figure for many of her fellow islanders, lending money, providing guidance, etc., and gaining the alternate nickname "the bank of Galiano." A resolve to forge community and group connections was reflected in her fiction, dating back to This Is Not For You, a novel of about college friendships. Memory Board and After the Fire are primarily concerned with divergent personalities who accept community bonds, incorporating the elderly as central characters. The Young In One Another's Arms and Contract with the World are similarly concerned with mutual compassion and love born of strength, not weakness. The latter concerns the difficulties faced by a variety of artists as they approach middle age without having gained much outward success.
Admired and befriended by the likes of Kate Millet and Margaret Atwood, Rule became known throughout the world as one of Canada's most articulate spokeswomen on issues pertaining to personal freedom and social responsibility, but she has never clamoured for the limelight. "Politics really are to clean up the house," she says. "You have to do it every week. I don't find it interesting, just as I don't find sweeping the floor every week interesting. I do it. I vote... I prefer to work wherever there's a possibility of changing things... I really believe through the counter-movements in society change can be made. We're living witnesses of it."
As someone who views marriage as problematic because individuals should not require permission from the state in order to cohabit, Rule looked askance at the eagerness of gay colleagues to gain the legal right to marry. "A lot of us old guard feel very dubious about it," she said.
Jane Rule's testimony in the Supreme Court of B.C. on behalf of Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium on October 24, 1994, during a constitutional challenge to Canada Customs' practice of seizing materials destined specifically for a gay and lesbian bookstore, was published as Detained at Customs: Jane Rule Testifies at the Little Sister's Trial (Lazara Press, 1995). Specifically, Rule was responding to the seizure by Canada Customs officials of her novels The Young In One Another's Arms and Contract With the World, as well as the movie version of Desert of the Heart--a 1985 feature film, Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch and starring Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau and Audra Lindley.
Interviewed by Xtra West magazine, Little Sister's co-owner Jim Deva recalled the importance of Rule's galvanizing testimony that day: "She was in a wheelchair at that time and I got the honour of wheeling her up to the stand. As I was rolling her up and looking at the judge it was like, 'You know this is a very important person. You listen to this person.' That's what I was trying to project. 'This is the best we have. I you cannot understand our community, listen to this woman and she'll explain our community to you.' She spoke very quietly, very eloquently. I think her testimony really did help make that judge realize that we really were talking about our community and how censorship is so offensive, so deeply offensive. Before that, I don't think he really understood it."
Having written for mainstream magazines such as Chatelaine and Redbook, as well as the lesbian journal The Ladder back in the 1960s, Rule began writing a column called So's Your Grandmother for the Toronto-based gay newspaper The Body Politic after its offices were raided in December of 1977 by Operation P, an anti-pornography unit that charged the publication for its series on intergenerational relationships, specifically a piece called Men Loving Boys Loving Men. During her ten years of contributing to the paper, she maintained a lively correspondence with editor Rick Bebout.
Still widely known for her ground-breaking novel Desert of the Heart, Rule is the subject of a Genie-awarding winning documentary, Fiction and Other Truths; A Film about Jane Rule, made by Aerlyn Weissman and Lynne Ferney in 1995. She has also received the Canadian Authors Association best novel and best short story awards, the American Gay Academic Literature Award, the U.S. Fund for Human Dignity Award of Merit, the CNIB's Talking Book of the Year Award, an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of British Columbia and the Order of British Columbia.
Renowned for her generosity, Jane Rule offered her final collection of short, unpublished essays, Loving the Difficult, to Hedgerow Press, the imprint of neophyte publisher Joan Coldwell. For forty years Rule consistently encouraged and supported other artists and would-be artists, particularly students from the nearby Galiano Island Film and Television School. As well, she was much beloved as the lifeguard at her swimming pool where dozens of island children were invited to learn how to swim. The pool at "Jane and Helen's" was an informal community centre that coincidentally ceased to be operable in the same year that Rule was bed-ridden with cancer.
A heavy smoker and avid drinker, Jane Rule died, with strength and dignity, of liver cancer complications on November 27, 2007 in the same room in which she and Helen Sonthoff had first slept when they came to Galiano in the mid-1970s. Initially she had wanted to leave the island for palliative care in Vancouver, thereby alleviating others of the task of caring for her, but she was persuaded by her many loved ones to remain on Galiano where she was doted on until the end. The local physician Dr. Beaver oversaw the round-the-clock care that was provided by Rule's niece and her gay partner--both named Allison--who inherited the house. "I have no ambition to live to a great age," she told Douglas Todd in 1994. "I think old age is for the pits. I've seen it. To outlive your usefulness is not to me a great thing." Many of her comments during her final illness were typically funny. She staunchly avoided all malarkey about life after death. "Don't say I 'passed away' or 'passed on,' she joked, "or I'll come back and haunt you."
A jam-packed memorial gathering was held at the Galiano Community Hall on Sunday, December 9, 2007 during which friends, relatives and admirers recalled her personality. Her literary executor and close friend Shelagh Day praised her "enormous social appetite." Svend Robinson sent condolences from France; former Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo, whose grandfather had helped build the hall, sent a message praising Rule as "a remarkably courageous roll model." Other comments included:
"Jinx was the most generous, wise, quick-witted and loving person I've ever met." -- Libby Walker, Jane Rule's younger sister
"What a wonderful, wonderful woman. Wow." -- The Reverend Margaret Edgar
"Jane made an excellent boss. She made me feel important and respected. To clean the pool, she paid $10 an hour for 15 minutes of work at age 11." -- Zack Morrison, local youth
"She taught me how to live a life that mattered. Jane Rule is the tallest tree on Galiano Island." -- Judy Baca, artist.
"What she most believed in was freedom--freedom of speech and freedom to love who you liked. Jane is a beacon in dark times. She was generous. She had quite an insight into human nature. I would like to thank you, Jane, for all the laughter." -- Margaret Griffiths,
"She asked the important questions and let people hear their own answers." Ken Bebout, Body Politic editor
"There's dinosaurs. There's the Romans. And there's Jane and Helen. The times we shared are priceless." -- Jane Rule's nephew, Eli
"Jane's gift was her enormous human curiosity. Jane loved many people. She loved each of us freely and uniquely." -- Shelagh Day
Above the stage for the memorial gathering, Rule's own words were posted for all to see: "I hope I'm remembered for being lusty and feisty and full of life."
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Taking My Life
Desert of the Heart (Toronto: Macmillan, 1964; England: Secker & Warburg, 1964; Mountain View, California: The World Publishing Company, 1965; New York: Arno, 1975; Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1978)
This Is Not For You (Naiad Press, 1970; McCall Publishing, 1971; Toronto: Doubleday, 1972)
Against the Season (Toronto: Doubleday, 1971; McCall Publishing, 1971; London: Peter Davies, 1972; Manorhouse, 1975)
Theme for Diverse Instruments (Talonbooks, 1975)
The Young In One Another's Arms (Naiad, 1977; Doubleday, 1978; Arsenal Pulp, 2005)
Contract With The World (Naiad, 1980; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980)
Middle Children (Naiad Press, 1981). Short stories.
Outlander (Naiad Press, 1981). Stories and essays.
Inland Passage (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1985)
Memory Board (Toronto: Macmillan, 1987)
After the Fire (Naiad Press, 1989)
Lesbian Images (Toronto and New York: Doubleday, 1975; Crossing Press, 1975; London: Peter Davies, 1976; New York: Pocketbooks, 1976)
A Hot-Eyed Moderate (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1985)
Loving the Difficult (Sidney, B.C.: Hedgerow Press, 2008). $21.95 978-0-9736882-6-9
Taking My Life (Talonbooks 2011) 978-0-889022-637-9
A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bebout (UBC Press 2017 $50), edited by Marilyn R. Schuster
Photo by Sheila Spence.
[BCBW 2016] "Movie"
Jane Rule is back. But then she’s never really been away. Penny Goldsmith’s Lazara Press is distributing backlist titles from Naiad Press of Jane Rule’s Inland Passage, A Hot-Eyed Moderate, The Young in One Another’s Arms, After the Fire, This is Not for You and Outlander. Lazara, a feminist press that publishes Helen Potrebenko, is also distributing Marusya Bociurkiw’s The Woman Who Loved Airports, originally published by Press Gang Publishers.
[BCBW Winter 2003]
JANE RULE (1978)
JANE RULE was born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1931. She came to Canada in the late 1950s to teach at the University of British Columbia. She encourages change by creating characters who struggle, increasingly as a group, to step beyond the limitations of social conventions to seek love born of strength, not weakness. Desert of the Heart (1964), a first novel about two women who fall in love in Reno, Nevada, became a film called Desert Hearts. Other fiction includes The Young in One Another's Arms (1977), Contract with the World (1980), Inland Passage (1985) and Memory Board (1987). Non-fiction works include Lesbian Images (1975) and A Hot-Eyed Moderate (1985). Jane Rule lives on Galiano Island, BC. She was interviewed in 1978.
T: Do you consider yourself an American writer or a Canadian writer?
RULE: Well, simply a writer in English is always best. Some of my work is set in England because I lived there for a while. Then I went back to the States and found it very alien. When I came to Vancouver and found a beautiful place to be, I simply elected the city. I came on a beautiful August day, twenty-some years ago, so that it was still a little charming city. I didn't even think of it as Canada. I mean I knew it was Canada, but I was that kind of American. It was north of Seattle and it was a place called Vancouver. Now I've spent just about half my life in Canada all my adult life-so, since I didn't really have roots in any specific place in the States, my commitment to a nation is really much clearer as a Canadian.
T: Have you resented being pigeonholed as a "lesbian" novelist?
RULE: I reacted to it at first, but I don't much any more. If there was a usefulness in resenting it, then I would. But I also know that it's politically important to other people. I'm a responsible person, so it seems to me I have to put up with it.
T: Do you put much faith in politics to solve social problems?
RULE: Well, it seems to me politics is housekeeping. I don't look to politics as a place to change anything. We get the politics we deserve. Politics really are to clean up the house. You have to do it every week. I don't find it interesting, just as I don't find sweeping the floor every week interesting. I do it. I vote.
I prefer to work wherever there's a possibility of changing things. I work with lesbians, I work with gay men, I work with the women's movement. I really believe through the countermovements in society change can be made. We're living witnesses of it. The last ten years have shocked even the most optimistic of us.
T: Are you consciously evangelical for your own politics when you write?
RULE: No, I don't suppose so. In fact, the thing that is peculiar for me about reaction to my books is that I've had an awful lot of reviewers take me to task for not being political, for having no other great interest than writing some kind of gentle soap opera. Desert of the Heart got a very bad review in Quebec because I got all the social analysis correctly, I understood everything that was wrong, then I bloody well accepted it instead of blowing the place up!
Of course I do get reviewers who say that I'm a revolutionary, that I really ought to be called to confess my revolutionary zeal, which is hidden under a slick surface. But I don't feel politics lurk in my books or dominate them.
T: Actually it's often not politics people find threatening. It's ideas. People read "only the good can be guilty" in Desert of the Heart and it shakes them.
RULE: Sure. That's why I expected to get absolutely fried with that book. But what I didn't expect was to hear from all the readers who were in anguish. I was shocked by the number of people who were needy for that book.
T: Coming from a different generation, I'd almost say I don't understand what the fuss could be about.
RULE: Absolutely. I think it would be very hard for anyone to imagine what it was like in the fifties. I think about the only valid criticism I got when Desert of the Heart was released was that there's no hostility surrounding Evelyn and Ann. The landlady is consoling. There isn't any climate of hostility. But I chose that consciously. So many people in those days were trying to get sympathy for homosexuals by showing how mean everyone was to them. I didn't want to get into propaganda. I wanted them to say what they really would say and feel what they really would feel. I didn't want to drag in a lot of social pressure to overshadow that.
T: I think many readers would agree today with Virginia Woolfs description of The Well of Loneliness as a "meritorious, dull book." Do you think Desert of the Heart will ever replace it as the lesbian novel?
RULE: I don't suppose so, alas. Radcliffe Hall wrote The Well of Loneliness as a piece of propaganda and therefore included all kinds of theory and minor characters. It's also a tragic story and I think that as long as people are willing to be broad-minded, The Well of Loneliness is an ideal book. Because the people suffer and get punished. Desert of the Heart has already taken the place of The Well of Loneliness for lesbians, but for the range of society, no. Because Evelyn and Ann apparently get it together. It's not tragic.
T: After having written Lesbian Images, where do you stand on the question of rationalizing the origins of lesbianism?
RULE: I think there is only one origin: that you love another woman. The person you love is the motivation. As physical creatures, we react to sexual stimulus. So it's probably true that we are capable of responding sexually to either sex. Of course the predisposition for reproduction is heterosexual so the majority of people move in that direction. But there are lots of people who are so frightened of sexual feelings that they don't feel anything for either sex.
T: Would you agree with Havelock Ellis that sexual inversion tends to occur in individuals who are above average in intellect and character?
RULE: No. That was one of those defensive statements that you'll find coming out of any minority that feels threatened. You know, that Shakespeare was bisexual. And Plato. To get your act together and claim everybody under the sun is good, strong, brave and true.
T: Where do you suppose you got your strength for living a life of non-conformity? From your family?
RULE: Partly, yes. But partly also by not finding it easy to conform. A lot of people find strength because they have to have it, not because they go around courting it. For instance, I didn't grow up in one place. Therefore I never experienced a lot of intimate social pressure. It didn't really matter to me much what people thought because I knew I'd be gone in a year. I could really base my choices on what I wanted to do. My parents were also very supportive and taught us all to be non-conformists, even though they're conformists themselves. They conform because they can.
T: Which brings us to Jane Rule on morality. "Morality is a test of our conformity rather than our integrity."
RULE: Yes, I do think morality is simply part of the quality of life, sometimes a very bad part and sometimes a very good part.
T: One of your characters says, "What you lose is what you survive with." Does that statement come out of your life?
RULE: No, it comes from observing more than experiencing. Some of the people I know who have carried the heaviest burdens are people who figured how to let those things work for them. So I wanted to create a character who had that kind of guts. As long as you're alive, what you lose becomes part of your understanding.
T: With that what-you-lose-is-whatyou-get angle, was The Young in One Another's Arms meant as a definitive novel of the sixties?
RULE: No. The experiences that come from me for that book go back to the end of the Second World War. In that respect, it's really too bad when something like draft-dodging gets to be associated only with the sixties. I'm always startled when a reviewer says, "Oh well this is about the sixties, no point, dead issue." I think fiction isn't about those issues. Those issues are part of the climate of fiction. The notion that a book should be "new" is new since television.
I remember I sent a short-short to Redbook. A short-short is only about a thousand words long. I wrote it at the time of the Cuban Crisis and sent it off. They accepted the story two months later but they said they needed me to invent a different world crisis because the Cuban Crisis was dated. Crazy, just crazy.
T: But The Young in One Another's Arms is essentially about people trying to set up an economic and emotional commune. So it is a reflection of the sixties.
RULE: Sure. But the word is politically loaded for me. At that time I was listening to an awful lot of young people out at UBC who were so earnest about living in a commune you knew it wouldn't last. Everybody had to have exactly the same amount of space. I remember saying to one girl, "What happens if I'm a writer and my friend Tak Tanabe is a painter? I could work in a closet and he couldn't." She said, "Oh well, those are only hobbies." And every Tuesday night you have a criticism period. That whole era is what "commune" got stamped with.
T: Were you personally affected by all that sixties idealism floating around?
RULE: No. But it certainly affected the young people I knew at the time. I was very busy being a teacher and trying to find time to write. We always had draft dodgers with us, or people who couldn't cope with the university, but I was too involved with the commitment I had made to writing. Consequently I've never been one to think of solutions for my own life coming from things I do with other people.
T: Yet you're writing these books where you're almost prescribing communalism, or at least the notion that a communal way of life is a very real and worthwhile alternative.
RULE: Well, I know it is. It can be done. But art is a job that has to be done alone. Contract with the World is about artists and what it is like to be committed to that kind of job. The kinds of good friends I have are people who are perfectly willing to have me say I'll see them in six months, and live right next door. A number of people do that with me, too. But you don't do that and live in a commune.
T: How do you feel about the anti academic sentiment of the sixties and seventies?
RULE: I am "anti" a lot that's going on, at the big universities particularly. But I'm an academician. I really care about the academy. When I feel critical, it isn't that I'm being anti intellectual. I'm saying this is one of the important places and you better clean up your act. I feel very strongly that they haven't been emphasizing teaching and that's death to learning.
T: Is it important for you to keep in touch with other writers?
RULE: Not as a thing in itself. But it's very important for me to keep in touch with people who happen to be my friends and are writers. Certainly in Canada we're very fortunate in that the government helps us keep in touch. We all go to Ottawa once a year on the government. I need to see Marie-Claire Blais once a year. And Peggy Atwood. And Margaret Laurence.
T: With the setting of Desert of the Heart, you gave equal time to how relationships work and how society works. But as your books become more technical, it appears social analysis is becoming less emphasized.
RULE: That's probably true. Essentially what I've been trying to teach myself over these last few novels is how to deal with a group of people. Technically that is more difficult than doing the structural things, as in Desert. Desert is the most structured of anything that I've ever done. From natural to social to individual. The characters were provided with certain intellectual chores that they had to get through in that book, never mind make love to each other and all those other things. The Vancouver setting for The Y Dung was nowhere near as important. And in Against the Season, the setting was even less important again. I was mostly interested in people living in a no-place, a place that was dying. Also in that book I wanted to try to write that conventional kind of English novel. It has an omniscient narrator, which I hadn't done before. That's conventional. But it wasn't conventional for me. It was far out to sit there and let the quips come and have them be my own.
T: That's something I really enjoy about your books the humour. Your characters' talk is very modern, like people I know. They're always using humour to break social ground, as a reaching out.
RULE: Well, I have a feeling that the kind of dialogue I write is very West Coast. I get an awful lot of flak from eastern editors saying this is absolutely unbelievable dialogue. Their claim is that the only people who are witty are people who use lots of references to books and other intellectual paraphernalia. There's a kind of snobbery in the east, and also a slowness. People are not kindly offhand. There's not the kind of teasing that has nothing to do with anybody needing to be defensive. A sort of joking attentiveness that goes on in a more relaxed world.
T: I think another strength of your writing is the repeated appreciation for the aged. What accounts for all the elderly characters in your books?
RULE: I spend a lot of time with people a good deal older than I am. I always have. I grew up with grandparents and was very close to them. On Galiano Island, most of the population is over sixty-five. Elisabeth Hopkins, the painter, is eighty-six and is, I suppose, our closest friend. So older people are very much a part of the world I live in.
T: Living on an island is another recurring motif. Do you get special comfort or stimulation from being here on Galiano?
RULE: No, I suppose I think of this mostly as "away." One of the characters in my new book says, "If there was a town called Away I would drive to it." Galiano is for me a bit of a fortress. I was beginning to be bugged in town, I couldn't lead my own life. Coming over here, I can spend my time as I want to. When I go to an event here, it's as treasurer of the Galiano Club. I take the quarters. Nobody pays much attention.
T: One last highly pertinent question. Do you really drink Coca-Cola for breakfast?
RULE: Yes, I do. Except they don't sell Coca-Cola on the island. I had to switch to Pepsi. The guy who owns the store over here had a fight with the Coca-Cola people and he won't buy it. I said, "Vic, I am nearly fifty years old. This is a lifetime addiction. You didn't tell me when I moved onto this island that you were going to have a fight with the Coca-Cola company."
T: So Jane Rule took the Pepsi challenge.
RULE: I did. And I can't tell the difference.
[STRONG VOICES by Alan Twigg (Harbour 1988)] “Interview”
"The Heterosexual Cage of Coupledom."
This opinion piece by Jane Rule first appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of B.C. BookWorld:
Over thirty years ago, when homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized, Trudeau said that the government had no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Until a few months ago that privacy was respected.
Now the government has passed a law including gay and lesbian couples as common-law partners with the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual common-law partners. Any of us who have lived together in a sexual relationship for over two years must declare ourselves on our income tax forms, or we are breaking the law.
With one stroke of the pen all gay and lesbian couples in Canada have been either outed if they declare or recriminalized if they do not. Our bedroom doors have come off their legal hinges.
Why then is there such support for this new law among gay people? Svend Robinson spoke in favor of it the House. EGALE, the national organization for gays and lesbians, encouraged its passing.
It is celebrated by all of them as a step along the road to total social acceptance, to a day when those of us who wish to can be legally married, our relationships just as respectable as those of heterosexuals.
But common-law partnerships were never about respectability. They were forced on couples as a way of protecting women and children from men who, by refusing to marry, were trying to avoid responsibility, free to move on when they felt like it without legal burdens of alimony and child support, without claims on their property or pensions.
There are some gay and lesbian couples raising children who, because they are not allowed to marry, may find a common-law partnership useful for benefits in tax relief, health benefits, pensions, if they can afford to expose themselves to the homophobia still rampant in this country. The law may also protect those who are financially dependent on their partners from being cast aside without financial aid.
But the law, far from conferring respectability, simply forces financial responsibility on those perceived to be irresponsible without it. What about those poor who are unable to work because they are single parents or ill or disabled?
The single mother on welfare has long had her privacy invaded by social workers looking for live-in men who should be expected to support her and another man's children. Now single mothers must beware of live-in women as well. The ill and disabled will also be forced to live alone or sacrifice their benefits if their partners have work.
"With all that we have learned, we should be helping our heterosexual brothers and sisters out of their state-defined prisons, not volunteering to join them there."
Over the years when we have been left to live lawless, a great many of us have learned to take responsibility for ourselves and each other, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, not bound by the marriage service or model but on singularities and groupings of our own invention.
To be forced back into the heterosexual cage of coupledom is not a step forward but a step back into state-imposed definitions of relationship. With all that we have learned, we should be helping our heterosexual brothers and sisters out of their state-defined prisons, not volunteering to join them there.
We should all accept responsibility for those who must be dependent, children, the old, the ill and the disabled, by assuring that our tax dollars are spent for their care. We should not have any part in supporting laws which promote unequal relationships between adults, unnecessary dependencies, false positions of power.
No responsible citizen should allow the state to privatize the welfare of those in need, to make them victims to the abilities and whims of their "legal" keepers. Human rights are the core responsibility of the government.
The regulation of adult human relationships is not.
To trade the freedom we have had to invent our own lives for state-imposed coupledom does not make us any more respectable in the eyes of those who enjoy passing judgment. We become instead children clambering for rule, for consequences to be imposed on us instead of self-respecting, self-defining adults.
Those of us who want to legalize our relationships for the protection of our children, for our own security, for whatever reason, should have the right to do so but not at the expense of imposing that condition on all the rest if us.
What we have now is neither the right to marry nor the right to remain private and independent in our relationships. What kind of victory is that?
Prepared Speech (2004)
“I came out as a lesbian long before I came out as a writer.”
From the time we are very young children we are taught to label ourselves and other people in a variety of ways. But what begins as simple information soon becomes more complicated, colored by value judgments which are not always fixed or easy to understand. I was five before I learned that being a girl had serious drawbacks, six before I discovered that being left-handed was unacceptable, nineteen and traveling in Europe for the first time before I had to apologize for being an American. Some labels we can choose like a favorite hat; some we are simply stuck with like a necessary cane. Those we outgrow like "child" are replaced by "old woman". Others we are comfortable with only after they really apply, as I am now with the label, "writer".
By the time I was fifteen, I was sure I wanted to be a writer, and I wasn't shy of saying so. What kind of a writer I wasn't yet sure. I was writing a lot of bad poetry, strongly metered and rhymed in imitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eleanor Wylie, inspired for subject matter even by such heavy worthies as Milton. When my mother read my tragically touching, thumpingly rhymed poem on my own blindness, she laughed and saved the world from the bad poet I might have grown up to be. I retreated for a time to personal essays intended to amuse, and my mother, for whom laughter was the highest goal, approved. By the time I reached college at sixteen, away from my mother's comic influence, I began to write bad short stories in imitation of Katerine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty, heavy in symbolism and grotesque characters. One featured a black man with yellow hair and green eyes, named Cain, who raped sheep. That story inspired
my classmates to burst into the Wiffenpoof song—"We are little black sheep who have gone astray, bah, bah, bah"—every time they saw me.
Tough critics like my mother and my classmates daunted me a little. Then I learned that in academic circles a real writer was by definition dead. Those foolish enough to be alive were not real writers at all, but "creative" writers, a swell-headed, deluded lot with nothing important to say. That attitude taught me if not real modesty some caution about exposing my ambitions. I gradually learned not to call myself a writer at all. As a young university teacher, I did not admit that what I did in my spare time was write short stories and novels. During the ten years I wrote before I had any publishing success, writing was a secret vice to be confessed only to intimate friends.
A few years ago the Canadian Writers' Union was concerned about how few young writers were applying for membership and tried to think of ways to make them more welcome. I pointed out that it was, in fact, very difficult to admit to being a writer. Only years of experience which tended to thicken the skin made such a confession possible.
In my personal world I came out as a lesbian long before I came out as a writer. The Union should be resigned to being an organization for the middle-aged and the old.
I finished my third novel which would be my first to be published a few days before my thirtieth birthday. It took three years to find publishers. I don't know what I expected beyond finally feeling I might have a legitimate claim to call myself a writer, or, if not anything as grand on the slim proof of one published book (anyone can write one book), at least permitted to say that I wrote. Instead in 1964, before homosexual relationships were removed from the criminal code, I became Canada's only visible lesbian and almost lost my job at UBC. I was defended by my colleagues with the old saw, "Writers of murder mysteries are not necessarily murderers." To my interviewers I was not a writer but a sexual deviant.
Years later my good friend, Don Bailey, told me that in all his years of publishing poems and stories and novels, no interviewer ever wanted him to talk about his writing, which he began in jail serving a term as a bank robber. They wanted him to talk about robbing banks. Over a bottle of scotch, we decided we should have a TV program called "The Lesbian and the Bank Robber" and give the public what they apparently want.
Jose Saramago, in his novel Blindness, says that if we first contemplated all the possible ramifications of our words or actions, we would be struck dumb and freeze. We can't possibly know and therefore take responsibility for the effect our words may have on others. As Auden says in "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" poetry is "modified in the guts of the living." Certainly Goethe, when he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther didn't intend or expect to inspire a rash of suicides all across Europe. Yet we are often expected, like parents, to take responsibility for what our work, however distorted and misrepresented, does out in the world.
I am also labeled a pornographer because my books, coming from the States where some stay longer in print than they have in Canada, are routinely seized at the border by Customs, but none has finally ever been refused entry. Still the label sticks, and readers who buy my books are therefore often disappointed, and others who might otherwise buy and enjoy them don't.
I have done relatively little to publicize my work, weary of the roles I've been forced to play, but, when I agree to be interviewed, I give up any notion of speaking as a writer and become instead a teacher about gay issues, about censorship, about civil liberties, a responsibility I take seriously, not so much as a writer but as a citizen.
My first published novel came out just before I became a Canadian citizen. It is a book set in the States, probably accurately called an American novel. I have since been challenged about what right I have to call myself a Canadian writer though the majority of my fiction has been set in Canada. My Dutch publisher, arranging a publication party for one of my novels, approached the Canadian Embassy for a small contribution, only to be told that I was really an American. “Odd,” replied my publisher, “since another branch of your government contributed funds for translating the book.” I have been told that
some Canadian writers traveling abroad are pleased to be mistaken for American and therefore part of a larger and more established and respected tradition. Only strong nationalists like Margaret Atwood insist on being identified as Canadian and become ambassadors for Canadian literature. For immigrants (another possible label) it is
often difficult to know what use there is or what right we have to claim our citizenship as part of our identity. I felt guilty the first time I traveled in Europe with a Canadian passport and enjoyed the courtesy and kindness so often withheld from Americans, for underneath that bland label lurked surely still an ugly American. I should probably have been called an ex-American writer. Even now, after fifty years in this country and very proud and relieved to be a Canadian, I am shy to claim the label and never surprised if others are reluctant to grant it.
Because only a very few fiction writers or poets make even a modest living from those activities, many turn to other forms of writing to pay the rent. Betty Jane Wylie, a playwright and poet, as well as a wife and mother of four children, was widowed suddenly in her forties and faced the task of not only raising four children alone but supporting them as well. She was amazingly successful, writing books of advice for widows, cook books, writers' guide books, travel books while she also occasionally took time to write a poem or play. Recently she was awarded the Order of Canada. An interviewer, seeing listed among her many accomplishments a book on using leftovers,
wanted her advice on how to use up what was in his refrigerator. She snapped back, "I don't suppose I was given the Order of Canada because I know how to clean out your fridge." Genre labels make most writers uncomfortable in a culture that rates writing narrowly and strictly to exclude or at least place below the salt how-to books or children's books or mysteries or science fiction as not really literature. Even best sellers and women's fiction are suspect. A poet isn't a real poet if he or she is funny or sings poems to a guitar accompaniment. Genre labels are not meant to be descriptive so much as judgmental. Real writers don't write cook books or jokes or murder mysteries. Real writers die of starvation years before they can reap the rewards of their immortal words. And their names are often "anon."
Though some claim that "anon" was a woman, gender labeling of writers has been a long debate. Many women writers in the past chose to avoid the label with masculine pen names, and that still is the habit of many mystery and science fiction writers who fear otherwise putting off their male readers. One bookseller I know makes a habit of misleading men into buying women's writing so disguised. Until the present women's movement made many women rethink their attitudes toward themselves as women, even writers who didn't disguise their gender often refused to be included in women's anthologies or published in women's magazines, not wanting to be ghettoized.
Certainly some gay writers resist the label, not now so much in fear of criminal charges or job loss or alienation from family but of being placed in an even smaller ghetto, cut off from the main stream of literature, from larger audiences of readers.
Disguised or denied sexual identity rarely works. The first novel of James Baldwin's I read was Giovani's Room, a story of two white male homosexuals in France. I didn't know he was black until I read others of his books, less self-conscious and much more powerful when he wasn't hiding his race or his sexuality in white characters. Who we really are nourishes what we write, and energy is better spent transcending than denying limiting labels. That choice also has the virtue of inspiring great loyalty in core audiences, ethnic, racial, sexual, who will be there for us even if the cross-over audiences publishers are always wooing don't happen to cross.
If we could be identified as many labeled, which all of us are, we might move more comfortably in the world. Even if we could wear only those labels appropriate for the occasion, much as we select among our shirts or rings, we would be less apt to be embarrassed and irritable.
Auden said, "I am a poet only when I'm writing a poem." Because writers so often feel they may possibly never write another worthwhile word, putting down the label except while involved in the activity can be an enormous relief. For a long time I wanted to be even freer than that. I didn't want to be a writer at all. I simply wanted to write, and being a writer got in the way of that because what the world wants of a writer is not writing but public performing, lectures, readings, seminars, for which we are often paid more than we are for the writing we do. Now that I am retired, write only very occasionally as I have this small essay, which seems like a grandchild come to visit for a few days, I don't find it as difficult to "be a writer". But the old are forgetful of nouns. Proper nouns go first, then common nouns. They are, after all, the only words we have to teach children who learn other parts of speech, even verbs and their tenses, by themselves. We are not finally labelers. The real business of our lives is to live, to love, to write, and to remember, leaving the calling of names to others, names we may answer to or not.
—September 13, 2004
Speech delivered by Jane Rule on Galiano Island (Bodega Resort) to a meeting of the Periodical Writers of Canada, and edited afterward for publication in B.C. BookWorld, Spring, 2005, by Alan Twigg
The Young In One Another's Arms
Press Release (2005)
Jane Rule’s 1977 novel The Young in One Another’s Arms is set at the end of the Vietnam War in and around a boarding house in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver. Ruth, a middle-aged woman accustomed to tragedy in her own life, cares for the young and changing boarders of her house as a mother and guide. First published by Doubleday and reprinted by The Naiad Press, The Young in One Another’s Arms is about the building of female communities. Combining issues of race, gender, sexuality and politics, this warm, sophisticated novel celebrates the cameraderie and strength of women against a backdrop of war and tragedy. The novel won the Canadian Authors Association Best Novel of the Year Award in 1978.
With an introduction by novelist Katherine V. Forrest, author of Curious Wine and Daughters of a Coral Dawn.
Lesbian identity itself is not so much subsumed into the community as kept whole within it . . . not singled out as an angle of vision any more or less valid than others.
– Marilyn Schuster, Feminist Studies
[Little Sister’s Classics is a new series of books from Arsenal Pulp Press, reviving lost and out-of-print classics of gay and lesbian literature. The books in the series are produced in conjunction with Little Sister’s, the Canadian bookstore well-known for its anti-censorship efforts.]
At Home With Jane Rule
from Nathaniel Christopher
Canadian author, educator and activist Jane Rule’s kitchen overlooks a backyard surrounded on three sides by trees of nearly every shade of green. The intermittent whistles from passing ferries can be heard clearly from her home on Galiano Island. Large picture windows wrap her wooden house like a layer of cellophane.
“I used to be able to see the passage from here,” she tells me as she stands at the counter peeling apples. “But now the trees have obscured that. I think I like it better this way.”
Rule is preparing a Waldorf salad for our lunch together.
“Do you like cooking?” I ask.
“I’m not that interested in it,” she replies. “It’s a chore that has to be done. I wasn’t interested in domestic things. My mom said, ‘Never mind, if you can read, you can cook.’”
I notice a photo on the fridge of a smiling woman standing in snow. It’s Rule’s partner, Helen Sonthoff, who passed away in 2000.
“I should change that photo,” says Rule. “I keep up a seasonal picture of her. I guess it’s time to put the spring photo up.”
My visit was prompted by the recent news that Rule would be awarded the Order of Canada. She received word of her induction in true Island style. A neighbour picked up a letter for her at the local post office. On the envelope it read, “Order of Canada” in big, block letters.
“The letter said that I had to keep the news in strictest confidence, which was kind of hard when the postmaster and my neighbour both knew about it before I did,” she says. “I told them I couldn’t keep it in the strictest confidence. The best we could do was pretend we didn’t know.”
Rule has won many awards over the years, including the Order of British Columbia in 1998. But she was particularly happy to receive the 2007 Alice B Reader’s Appreciation Award, which recognizes lesbian writers and showed up in the mail one day with a cheque for $500 US.
“I think they deserve some publicity,” she laughs.
Rule is modest and light-hearted about accolades. She says most honours are given or withheld for the wrong reasons, but the fact that she, a lesbian artist and queer liberation pioneer, is receiving the Order of Canada is not lost on her.
“Not enough women artists and gay people get it, so I decided to be gracious and accept it on behalf of us all,” she says. “When I accepted my honorary doctorate I did the same thing. I chose Canada 50 years ago. I’ve had a happy, productive life here and for Canada to choose me is kind of wonderful.”
Fifty years later, the queer community has come a long way, thanks in great part to trailblazers like Rule who stood up and spoke out long before it was socially acceptable.
Her first novel, Desert of the Heart, was published in 1964, five years before the decriminalization of homosexuality. It’s an unabashed tale of love between women, sexuality and romance. She couldn’t find an American publisher, so the first edition was published in the United Kingdom.
She has since written 11 other novels, worked as an English instructor at UBC, and contributed to The Body Politic and Xtra West. She has always been a huge supporter and defender of gay and lesbian people. She’s also a visionary.
In recent years, she argues, queer people have focused too heavily on the issue of same-sex marriage and efforts to present a more normalized image of queer people to the straight majority.
She views the push for same-sex marriage as an indication of the mainstream-ization of gay and lesbian cultures. She believes that the queer liberation movement should move to free us from hetero-normative relationships.
“We should be campaigning against dependent relationships between adults,” she says. “We should be identified as individuals, not by our relationships.”
Rule calls marriage “privatized welfare” using the welfare rules as an example.
“You lose your ability to get welfare if your partner’s working,” she explains. “You don’t have to be married; it’s just if you’re living with them. It applies to common-law and if you have children you can’t get any aid for them; the partner has to supply it… My sense, which is counter to marriage, is to get the state out of adult relationships altogether, whether homosexual or heterosexual.”
Rule says that it is up to individuals, not the state, to decide who is the most significant person in their lives.
She also believes queer people need to have the courage to be more radical. She says the movement should focus more on youth issues, including sex education and tolerance in schools.
“I don’t think the gay community and the voices of the gay community have been strong on this,” she explains. “I think we’re afraid to deal with it because we are accused of being child molesters, so the way we avoid that is not to deal with adolescent and children’s issues at all. The trouble with any minority is that at a certain stage in its development it apes majority culture instead of doing something radical like working with youth.”
As for writing, Rule still does it but mainly for pleasure. “I don’t write anymore except for me,” she says, although she doesn’t rule out the possibility of writing another book.
“I may bring out another one,” she teases. “Nowadays I just get through the day. Helen used to say, ‘Being old takes a long time.’ Chores like washing your hair and making dinner take longer than they used to.”
-- Reprinted by permission of freelancer Nathaniel Christopher, first printed by Xtra West magazine
Love & Other Friendships
Interview by Joanne Bealy, July 14, 2006
Q: Talk a bit, if you would, about what you think are the most important things about a relationship. What sustains a relationship?
A: It seems to me that the best model we have for love, though it doesn’t happen all that often, is the love of a parent for a child. A friend of mine once asked my mother when do you start letting your children go. She said when they’re born.
I think that any relationship that’s a good one is based, for both people, on their freedom to be who they are. I’m always sorry that people talk about relationships that don’t last a lifetime as a failure because they’re often not. They are, for the time that they exist, nurturing, nourishing, growing for both people. Then they go in different directions. And if there’s real love involved, though it’s hard and there’s pain, you let go. IF you really care about the other person’s wellbeing. And if you care about your own, you take the responsibility of being independent.
I also think that a relationship based on sexual fidelity is silly. I don’t have anything against sexual fidelity, but I think using that as a basis for a relationship rather than really caring about the other person and supporting that other person doesn’t work. To say I love you so much I forsake everyone else seems to me untrue. Making sexuality the one commitment that you give to the other person seems archaic and goes back to men owning women and wanting to know that their children are their own.
Q: You and Helen were in a long term relationship…
A: 45 years.
Q: How did you deal with any difficulties that arose between you?
A: We agreed to disagree on some pretty basic things. I can remember a couple of little kids, 5 and 6 years old, sitting at the pool one day while Helen was gardening. Both of them were having troubles at home, both their parents were fighting and one of them asked Helen, “Do you and Jane fight?” Helen said “Not very often.” She explained that we’d known each other so long that we knew where we disagreed and that there wasn’t really much point in fighting. We KNEW where we differed and we just had to agree that we couldn’t change each other on that and that there was no need to.
Q: It’s a mature stance that many people find hard to get to.
A: Again, I think that’s partly because of marriage. The image of marriage and forsaking all others to become one is just a ghastly concept. All the time we see people who live together decide to get married and the next thing you know they’ve separated. Because suddenly you are my husband you can’t do that, because that embarrasses me in public. Or you are my wife and therefore you can’t do that because it reflects on me. And suddenly that ownership comes in and wrecks what has been an apparently good relationship until that particular emotional plane kicks in and then it’s destructive.
Q: You’ve said you’re not going to write anymore. What’s been the effect on you with that decision? I’m curious about the imagination that you might have funneled into your stories, what do you do with that now?
A: I think fiction writing, at least for me, is a habit and if you don’t use it all the time it doesn’t stay there. Short story ideas don’t occur to me. Novel ideas don’t occur to me any longer. You really do have to court them and nourish them, encourage them in order to have them happen. So to give it up is sort of like giving up tennis or playing a musical instrument. After awhile if you haven’t been practicing it you’re no longer particularly good at it or even interested in it.
I stopped [writing] for a number of reasons but the main one was that I had had the chance, as many people don’t, to write all my adult life. And I’d really said most of what I’d had to say and things that were occurring to me seemed awfully close to what I’d already written. Writing is very hard work and I think it’s ok to be in love with your favourite stories and retell them to your friends, but I don’t think you really ought to bore your public with being repetitious. Get on and shut up. (laughter)
Q: You’ve also been known, and continue to be known, as a very important activist. Do you see writing and activism as being connected?
A: I think of political activism as much more connected to essay writing. I don’t think of my fiction as political or propaganda or on the side of any one particular viewer. I might write about characters whose views don’t correspond with mine or even agree with mine because I’m interested in other points of view and other ways of living.
Q: You took an incredible amount of flak for Desert of the Heart and I wonder how that impacted you, how it affected your writing and how you got through it at the time.
A: I didn’t know what to expect because we were still, at that time in 1964, illegal. We could have been jailed for 5 years for living together. It didn’t surprise me that people were upset about the subject matter of the book. I was writing about a relationship that was against the law, which is hard to remember now, but there it is. That law didn’t change until 1968 and the book had been out for 4 years already.
So everybody was very circumspect and defensive and I think so many different things happened after the book. I got a huge amount of fan mail which I didn’t expect. I thought movie stars got fan mail. People were writing things like ‘you are the only person in the world who could possibly understand who I am, how I feel, if I’m not able to talk to someone I’m going to kill myself’.
Well, I was used to relating to the world as a teacher. If I had a student in trouble that I couldn’t help, I had the health centre, the financial centre, I had all sorts of people that I could call. Suddenly I was getting cries of help from all over the world about which I could do nothing. I could answer the letter and be sympathetic but it just felt to me overwhelming and depressing that there was so much fear and so much self-hatred and so much loneliness. So there’s that aspect of it which was a surprise to me. I don’t suppose I was terribly surprised with the outraged reviews.
Q: It didn’t stop you. You kept writing, you kept living your life.
A: Oh, yes. The other thing that happened in our personal life was that the few gay friends we had were the ones that dropped us because they didn’t want to be guilty by association. That did shock me. It felt like a betrayal. And our straight friends defended me by saying ‘writers of murder mysteries are not necessarily murderers’. So there was this odd denial, fear, people who wanted to protect us protected us in precisely the wrong way. Instead of defending our right to be who we were, they said we weren’t. It was a confusing time.
Q: We take so much for granted today. Listening to you now, you seemed fearless. Did you see yourself as fearless?
You have to realize that I had written for 10 years without having anything published because I was preparing to write just exactly what I wanted to write and not try to suit my fiction to a particular magazine style. I believed that if I learned to do this well enough, finally someone would have to publish it because it’s so good, not because it’s saying what they wanted to hear. And when I finished Desert of the Heart, which was my 4th novel, I suddenly thought this is good enough to publish.
And I felt some panic because I was so used to writing without any sense of audience or any sense of reaction. I look back on that and it seemed discouraging at the time but in fact it was a blessing because I learned to pay no attention to the world and to do exactly what I needed to do without a sense of that outer critic voice. My inner critic voice had to be silenced sometimes, but at least I didn’t have that outer world constantly impinging on what I was doing. By the time I knew it was going to be published I knew there was going to be trouble.
A: You must have had a lot of love growing up to have the kind of confidence required to step forward like that and to keep going.
Q: Certainly my parents were very innocent ignorant people who had no notion of what homosexuality was. I had been living with Helen for years before I ever dealt with my parents about it. She was a member of the family and they all adored her when I finally sat down and wrote my parents a letter. This was right before Desert of the Heart came out and I knew they would have to be able to deal with any flak from it.
I had a letter back from each one of them and they both said they cried all day long for what they must have done to me for all those years of being so stupid. They apologized for all the casual remarks they’d made, all the gay jokes they’d cracked, all the prejudice and ignorance they’d spewed out— and they had, it was their culture. But they became gay advocates in their later years.
I thought it was an extraordinary response.
Q: What do you think now, looking back and seeing where we are today as a community?
A: One of the interesting things is to have a gay niece and to watch her process of coming out in a family that couldn’t be better prepared for it. Her mother had a hard time dealing with it but my parents, her grandparents, didn’t. They were fine. But what she expected of them just took my breath away. She was furious that her parents were reluctant to walk in the gay parade and I said to her, ‘I don’t even walk in the gay parade, give your parents a break’. But it was wonderful to see how empowered and expecting she was when something like that would never have occurred to me in my time. I thought it was a miracle that my parents didn’t disown me
Q: I know you watch the L-Word with your niece. What do you think of it?
A: I think it’s a very good show. I think they deal with a lot of issues quite interestingly. Sometimes they’re oversimplified because of the medium, but often I think they raise issues and deal with them with a fair amount of sophistication. I think it’s a marvelous program.
Q: What books have given you sustenance over the years?
A: A hundred thousand books. In the last years of Helen’s life when her eyes were going, I read to her aloud every night we didn’t have visitors for about 3 hours after dinner. We read a lot of contemporary books, but one of the things we enjoyed was going back to what I call the ‘dead white males’ who actually wrote to be read aloud. We read almost all of Dickens and I didn’t even particularly like Dickens until I started reading him aloud. Trollope I adored and we read all of Trollope. I also spent a lot of time reading Canadian books, initially because I was called upon to judge contests.
I feel nourished, and more companioned, by books than I feel led by them or guided by them. I feel an enormously deep companionship with writers like Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Audrey Thomas. But they feel to me, as I say, like companions rather than mentors. I don’t think I had any mentors when I was beginning to write because there wasn’t anybody I knew saying the things I wanted to say. I didn’t discover people like Willa Cather until I graduated from college, she wasn’t taught in college. Gertrude Stein was never taught in college. At the time when I was forming myself as a writer, I suppose that the writers who mattered most to me were Shakespeare and some of the poets. Auden was very important to me. Yeats was very important to me.
Q: How did you start writing? Did you just know you wanted to write?
A: Yes. I was in my teens and thought that people weren’t really saying how they felt or talking about anything that mattered. I wanted to tell the truth, which is an arrogant and very young notion. So it wasn’t for any great literary ambition that I wrote. It was, I should think, for moral reasons.
Q: Advice or words of wisdom for the youth coming up today?
I always tell my students who want to be writers, if you’re stupid enough to want to be a writer, be very smart about everything else. Don’t think you’re going to make a living at it. I talked to a young woman the other day who’s going back to school to get an MA in creative writing. She has 3 children, is divorcing, and is getting her MA in creative writing so she can make her living writing fiction to support her 3 children. Well it ain’t gonna happen.
And so I think if you want to be free as a writer to say what you want to say, figure out an economic way to do it. For me it was teaching. I was able to teach every other year at UBC and write every other year from the time I was in my mid-twenties. Which was a wonderful arrangement. It gave me a contact with the world so I wasn’t too isolated and gave me enough money to pay my share of the bills.
Q: What would you say you are most and least proud of?
A: In writing?
Q: Any way you want to read it. In your writing world. Your activist world. Personal world. Anything you regret?
A: Oh well, one regret, that’s what you spend your old age doing…[long silence]
I think that the requirement of time to be a practicing artist is enormous and you have to protect your time in order to get the work done and that means being a less good friend, a less good social human being than you often would have liked to be because you really do have to shut the door to everything. One of the things that was very useful to me in Vancouver was that a lot of our friends were also artists and somebody would say I’m not going to see you for the next 6 months because I’m working on a show and that was perfectly OK. You were not frowned upon. I would say I’m disappearing into a novel, I’ll see you next year.
But it is hard on friendships, nonetheless, it’s hard on people near you to have to live that kind of blinkered [existence] and one of the lovely things about giving up writing is that I get the world instead. I can spend my time with children at the swimming pool and reading to people who are losing their sight and being available to people who are in trouble. I have a small building and loans business that I run on the island and it keeps me in touch with all the young people who are trying to figure out how to buy trucks or start businesses. If you talk about money you talk about all sorts of other things as well. And I’m THERE. The imagination I used to give to my characters I can now give to my friends.
A: Was it a big decision to move to Canada and then after that to a rural community here on Galiano?
Q: Helen and I met in Concord, MA and if somebody had said to us you’re going to end your life on a little island off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, we would have said isn’t that too bad because we really do adore each other. (laughter) We couldn’t possibly have imagined it. I didn’t even like islands. I thought they were isolated and terrible. When we bought this house, we didn’t intend to live here. This was our place to escape. We found we liked escaping so much we stayed escaped. And I’ve been here now for 30 years.
A: So no big transition, just a natural occurrence?
Q: Yes. Life in Vancouver had just gotten too demanding. We were out 4 and 5 days a week with show openings and play openings. It was all fun but it was just too much so we decided we needed a place to get away. We spent nearly every weekend here once we got the place. And then Helen took a year’s leave and we came over here and lived for a year and liked it so well and it was very good for my writing so we stayed.
Q: Is there anything you want to add? Anything you would ask yourself if you were interviewing yourself?
A: There are things that still occur to me that I want to say and that’s why I write essays. But they’re almost always in response to a particular circumstance, like gay marriage [Jane has been very vocal in her stance against gay marriage. While she believes that anyone should have the right to marry should they so choose, she sees marriage as nothing more than state interference in our private lives and a throwback to keeping women and children the property of men.] or Canadian writers, about which I just wrote an article. Our top writers in Canada are women and almost all of them are mothers. This is a very extraordinary thing when you think of the great women writers of the past—very few of them had children. I talked about what it was like for them compared to what it was like for me. I’d had 2 Canada Council grants before Margaret Laurence got one because after all she was married, why would she need money. And Alice Munro was viewed as that little housewife who had a hobby writing short stories. Constant condescension and put-downs and then all of the pressure on them because writing doesn’t pay money and in fact they would have to pay money to have their kids looked after while they wrote. So they were a drain on the family, their attention is away from the family, the guilt was enormous. That they persevered and became internationally known and beloved writers changed the climate of fiction.
Sometimes I’ll write a personal essay because I’m trying to figure out what I think and feel about something. One of the issues for me is dealing with grief. I’ve tried to write something about that because people talk very conventionally about grief if they talk at all. They don’t deal with the amount of anger about it, they don’t deal with the sense of isolation. I feel as if by now, I’m almost 7 years into [losing Helen], I’m beginning to get the hang of it. I think for each person it’s different, but for someone to be free to say I feel so angry to have been left like this, that’s not something you say. I remember when my father died I was just outraged, he was my father, he had no right to do that. And when you get to be in your sixties and haven’t lost a parent, you begin to think you’re going to get away with it. It took me 3 years to deal with that because I couldn’t talk with anybody about it. It was idiotic. I knew it was a 6 year old response, not a 60 year old one.
To try to figure out what it was, finally 3 years after my father died, I wrote an essay called I Want to Speak Ill of the Dead. I said how furious I was with him and why. It was the first time that I was really confronting the fact that I was mortal. That was part of it.
Q: You told a story earlier today about a young child who came up to you, looked you straight in the eyes and said ‘your partner died’. I think there’s some of that we adults need to get back to, whether it’s a 6 year old response or not.
A: It’s a great relief to have someone acknowledge that this is a huge part of who you are. I can remember for 2 years after Helen died I couldn’t imagine why anyone came here. There was nobody here. And people would say I can feel Helen everywhere. I said she isn’t. I can feel her nowhere. And you know, that’s not the polite thing to say. And people are thinking they’re comforting you. There’s just this vast emptiness in your life. And you have to learn to deal with that. Everybody does. It’s very common. But it’s not something we talk about.
And we don’t have permission to deal with it. My mother said, from the time we were young, ‘grief is self-pity, get over it.’ Of course she grew up going to funerals for a lot of people that everybody hated with everyone being pious and phony. Neither of my parents allowed any kind of funeral, any kind of burial, any kind of marking of where their ashes were, nothing. And that’s how I grew up.
So when Helen died and the island wanted a memorial service, I thought I can’t cope with this. But I knew I didn’t own her and the island needed to say goodbye. It was a wonderful experience.
Q: Did you participate?
A: I went. I didn’t speak. And it was just extraordinary. I had thought: endure, just get through it, the island has to do it. It was nothing that I was needing or wanting. And my niece said she didn’t know that she could bear it either so I said “we’ve done a hell of a lot of hard things for Helen in the last weeks and this is one that we’ll get through.’
And it turned out to be amazing for both of us. It was like bringing Helen home. After all those weeks in the hospital, with all of those hostile, angry, stupid nurses, Helen was home again with the people who loved her and took delight in her. 12 year olds spoke, asked to speak. It was just extraordinary.
Q: That’s what family is.
A: Yes yes.
Q: Do you still speak with Helen?
A: No. She’s not there.
[Joanne Bealy's interview with Jane Rule first appeared in Cahoots magazine. It is reprinted here with permission of Joanne Bealey.]
Remembering Jane Rule
from Alan Twigg
For six decades, Jane Vance “Jinx” Rule was one of the most mature, humourous and responsible voices in Canadian letters, and for twenty years she was a close friend to this publication.
Although she is admired for her groundbreaking 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, in which two women fall in love in Reno, Nevada, Jane Rule was long concerned with issues of truth and freedom beyond the realms of sexuality. Profiles invariably begin by mentioning her six-foot-frame and her husky voice, but she was much more than a human lighthouse signalling the way for increased tolerance and self-acceptance.
A vibrant conversationalist who loved to laugh, drink and smoke, she was revered in the Gulf Islands as ‘the Bank of Galiano’ because she provided low interest loans to the disadvantaged. Equally important, literally dozens of youngsters learned to swim in her backyard pool where she and her partner Helen Sonthoff were doting lifeguards with a great supply of pop-up books.
Jane Rule was also one of the first writers I ever interviewed. I first met her thirty years ago when Talonbooks publishers David Robinson and Karl Siegler reprinted her non-erotic love story, Desert of the Heart. She was the funniest and sanest person I had ever met.
Nine years later, after we started BC BookWorld, Rule agreed to be one of three writers on the board of directors for Pacific BookWorld News Society. [The others were Howard White and George Woodcock.]
Jane Rule received the second Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia in 1996. She was awarded the Order of British Columbia in 1998 and the Order of Canada in 2006.
Her reputation continues to grow.
Born in New Jersey on March 28, 1931, Jane Rule was the middle child and oldest daughter of Carlotta Jane (Hink) and Arthur Richards Rule, a free-thinker who graduated from the naval academy at Annapolis and rose to the rank of lieutenant-commander during World War II. His favourite expression was, “I’d rather be right than president.”
She passed her first four years at Wynchwood,
a family farm in New Jersey where her paternal grandfather built a replica of Robbie Burns’ cottage and filled it with children’s books. After the family moved to California, she spent summers on a remote, 240-acre ranch among the redwoods that belonged to her mother’s parents. In California, her best friends were Chinese and Japanese American children, and she was baffled by the concept of racism.
From a tender age, Jane Rule was notoriously rebellious against authority figures, particularly teachers. She and her beloved older brother Art changed schools constantly, as much as three times per year. In one class of 14 girls, there were five Janes so she willingly adopted her nickname Jinx and it stuck ever after. At age ten, her myopia was corrected by glasses but her family moved frequently and she was hampered by dyslexia. Six-feet tall at age 12 and unaccomplished at schoolwork, Rule was strongly supported by her parents who accepted her non-conformist tendencies. If her teacher complained that she had fallen asleep in German class again, her mother would calmly reply, “Well, you're boring her again.” By age 15 Jane Rule decided she ought to be a writer. “I felt that most of the books I was reading were lies,” she later recalled. “I was morally superior and quite obnoxious. That set me against the monstrous patriotic stupidity that was everywhere, the lack of trust, the sense of hatred and the false discipline.”
That same year she was expelled, five months short of graduation, for an article she wrote in her school paper protesting the allocation of school funds for ‘charm school’ classes. In particular, Rule took objection to being shown how to walk. When the instructor told the class to imitate her, Rule did—cheekily—and was tossed from the class. Consequently she wrote an article expressing her opinion that girls should be taught how to walk to the nearest college. The principal expelled her for insubordination. Her reputation as a ‘moral hazard’ would make it difficult for her to gain acceptance to college.
Also at age 15, Jane Rule’s outsiderism increased when she read Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. Although she began to recognize her own lesbian nature, her enthusiasm for the once-banned novel was hesitant, at best. “It was a polemic by a famous English lesbian pleading for an understanding of homosexuals and lesbians, whom it described as men trapped in women’s bodies!” Rule recalled. “It was a very brave book but also a very bad book. The main character was six feet tall and had a deep voice. I thought, ‘That can’t be who I am! Will I have to live in some ghetto in Paris and be a freak?’ It was such a scary thing.” Rule later described Radclyffe as “about the biggest male chauvinist pig you could find. Gradually Rule developed a theory that one chiefly makes progress by learning from the bad examples of others. “I was five before I discovered that being a girl had serious drawbacks, six before I discovered being left-handed was unacceptable and nineteen and travelling in Europe for the first time before I had to apologize for being an American,” she later wrote. In the 1960s she became “proud and relieved to claim the label Canadian.”
At 16, her first sexual experience was a lesbian relationship, but given her moralistic upbringing and the forbidding climate for homosexuality in the early 1950s, she says she remained celibate during her attendance at Mills College, a posh women’s school in Oakland. She had wanted to study English at Stanford but she was repeatedly rejected by numerous schools until a trustee at Mills College enabled her to be enrolled on a probationary basis. Because her test results were higher in science and math, she was initially not allowed to major in English. Eventually she got her way, but the head of the English department warned her about pursuing a literary career, telling her she could either become a first-rate scholar or a third-rate writer. Rule replied that she much preferred the latter. Rule subsequently sent that discouraging professor every book she published and dedicated a book to her. “I guess I'm still not a very nice person,” she once noted.
After she received a bachelor’s degree in English from Mills in 1952, Rule began working on her first novel when she was living in England and taking some classes at University College, London. Having gone to England to pursue a relationship with a female lover, she nonetheless became friends with John Hulcoop, a doctoral candidate at UC who later accepted a teaching job with the English faculty at the University of British Columbia. Returning to the United States, Jane Rule was soon disenchanted with the competitive and demeaning atmosphere of writing classes at Stanford University. When she opted for a teaching job with a private school for girls in Massachusetts, Concord Academy, she fell in love with Helen Sonthoff, a creative writing instructor who was married to Herbert Sonthoff, a German who had fled the Nazi regime during World War II.
McCarthyism was rampant in the United States and extra-marital lesbian relationships were simply not to be tolerated, so Jane Rule moved to Vancouver in the fall of 1956, taking refuge in a four-room flat rented by John Hulcoop. According to Sandra Martin’s obituary of Rule for The Globe & Mail, Hulcoop and Rule briefly became lovers. At age 40, Helen Sonthoff came to Vancouver to visit Rule, at age 25, and they resumed their intimate relationship. They would remain living as a couple until Helen Sonthoff died in 2000, at age 83. Rule was deeply disheartened by her partner's death, as she had been when her father died at age 88 in 1994.
While Helen Sonthoff gained a foothold in the UBC English department as a teaching assistant, Rule pursued her fledgling writing career, read scripts and became the assistant director at the university’s new International House for foreign students. Even though Rule had only a bachelor’s degree, she also intermittently taught lower-level English courses at UBC until 1976 when she and Sonthoff relocated to Galiano Island on a permanent basis. “I arranged my life so that I taught every other year at UBC,” Rule said. “It took 25 years to get there as a full-time writer.” She stopped teaching at age 43. She sometimes said she came out as a lesbian long before she came out as a writer.
In 1964, Macmillan in England published Desert of the Heart after it was rejected 22 times in the United States. Jane Rule immediately became “Canada's only visible lesbian” and risked losing her job at the university. She often noted that one argument made in her defence at the time was that not every author of a murder mystery novel is necessarily a murderer. Canada’s laws were changed to no longer prohibit homosexual acts between consenting adults that same year but prior to the appearance of Desert of the Heart, in her words, “we were jailable.”
The novel had been completed by 1961, just prior to Rule’s 30th birthday. Although Macmillan was concerned about the possibility of an adverse reaction by Nevada casino employees, very little substantive editing was done on the manuscript. Rule never resided in Reno, Nevada, but her parents did, enabling her to get to know the city during several visits during which her younger sister took her to various sites. Rule only worked in a casino for six nights as a change girl, from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., and she had little interest in gambling.
Jane Rule moved to Galiano Island in 1976, coincidental with her first attack of chronic and crippling arthritis in her spine. As a senior member of a closely-knit community, she soon became an integral, supportive figure, lending money, providing guidance, etc., and gaining the nickname “the bank of Galiano.”
A resolve to forge community and group connections was reflected in her fiction, dating back to This Is Not For You, a novel about college friendships. Memory Board and After the Fire are primarily concerned with divergent personalities who accept community bonds, incorporating the elderly as central characters. The Young In One Another’s Arms and Contract with the World are similarly concerned with mutual compassion and love born of strength, not weakness. The latter concerns the difficulties faced by a variety of artists as they approach middle age without having gained much outward success.
Admired and befriended by the likes of Kate Millet and Margaret Atwood, Rule became known throughout the world as one of Canada’s most articulate spokeswomen on issues pertaining to personal freedom and social responsibility, but she never clamoured for the limelight.
“Politics really are to clean up the house,” she says. “You have to do it every week. I don't find it interesting, just as I don’t find sweeping the floor every week interesting. I do it. I vote... I prefer to work wherever there’s a possibility of changing things... I really believe through the counter-movements in society change can be made. We’re living witnesses of it.”
As someone who views marriage as problematic because individuals should not require permission from the state in order to cohabit, Rule looked askance at the eagerness of gay colleagues to gain the legal right to marry. “A lot of us old guard feel very dubious about it,” she said.
Jane Rule’s testimony in the Supreme Court of B.C. on behalf of Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium on October 24, 1994, during a constitutional challenge to Canada Customs’ practice of seizing materials destined specifically for a gay and lesbian bookstore, was published as Detained at Customs: Jane Rule Testifies at the Little Sister's Trial (Lazara Press, 1995). Specifically, Rule was responding to the seizure by Canada Customs officials of her novels The Young In One Another’s Arms and Contract With the World, as well as the movie version of Desert of the Heart—a 1985 feature film directed by Donna Deitch and starring Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau and Audra Lindley.
Interviewed by Xtra West magazine, Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva recalled the importance of Rule’s galvanizing testimony that day: “She was in a wheelchair at that time and I got the honour of wheeling her up to the stand. As I was rolling her up and looking at the judge it was like, ‘You know this is a very important person. You listen to this person.’ That’s what I was trying to project. ‘This is the best we have. If you cannot understand our community, listen to this woman and she’ll explain our community to you.’ She spoke very quietly, very eloquently. I think her testimony really did help make that judge realize that we really were talking about our community and how censorship is so offensive, so deeply offensive. Before that, I don't think he really understood it.”
Having written for mainstream magazines such as Chatelaine and Redbook, as well as the lesbian journal The Ladder back in the 1960s, Rule began writing a column called So’s Your Grandmother for the Toronto-based gay newspaper The Body Politic after its offices were raided in December of 1977 by Operation P, an anti-pornography unit that charged the publication for its series on intergenerational relationships, specifically a piece called Men Loving Boys Loving Men. During her ten years of contributing to the paper, she maintained a lively correspondence with editor Rick Bebout.
Still widely known for her ground-breaking novel Desert of the Heart, Rule is the subject of a Genie-awarding winning documentary, Fiction and Other Truths; A Film about Jane Rule, made by Aerlyn Weissman and Lynne Ferney in 1995. She has also received the Canadian Authors Association best novel and best short story awards, the American Gay Academic Literature Award, the U.S. Fund for Human Dignity Award of Merit, the CNIB’s Talking Book of the Year Award and an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia.
Rule consistently encouraged and supported other artists and would-be artists, including students from the nearby Galiano Island Film and Television School. During her illness, Rule offered her final collection of short essays, Loving the Difficult, to Hedgerow Press, the imprint of neophyte publisher Joan Coldwell.
A heavy smoker and avid drinker, Jane Rule died, with strength and dignity, of liver cancer complications on November 27, 2007, in the same room in which she and Helen Sonthoff had first slept when they came to Galiano in the mid-1970s. Initially she had wanted to leave the island for palliative care in Vancouver, alleviating others of the task of caring for her, but she was persuaded to remain on Galiano where local physician Dr. Beaver oversaw the round-the-clock care that was provided by Rule’s niece and her gay partner—both named Allison—who inherited the house.
“I have no ambition to live to a great age,” she told Douglas Todd in 1994. “I think old age is for the pits. I’ve seen it. To outlive your usefulness is not to me a great thing.” Many of her comments during her final illness were typically funny. She staunchly avoided all malarkey about life after death. “Don't say I ‘passed away’ or ‘passed on,’ she joked, “or I'll come back and haunt you.”
A jam-packed memorial gathering was held at the Galiano Community Hall on Sunday, December 9, 2007 during which friends, relatives and admirers recalled her personality. Her literary executor and close friend Shelagh Day praised her “enormous social appetite.” Svend Robinson sent condolences from France; former Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo, whose grandfather had helped build the hall, sent a message praising Rule as “a remarkably courageous role model.” Other comments included:
“Jinx was the most generous, wise, quick-witted and loving person I’ve ever met.”—Libby Walker, Jane Rule's younger sister
“What a wonderful, wonderful woman. Wow.” —The Reverend Margaret Edgar
“Jane made an excellent boss. She made me feel important and respected. To clean the pool, she paid $10 an hour for 15 minutes of work at age 11.”—Zack Morrison, local youth
“She taught me how to live a life that mattered. Jane Rule is the tallest tree on Galiano Island.”— Judy Baca, artist
“What she most believed in was freedom—freedom of speech and freedom to love who you liked. Jane is a beacon in dark times. She was generous. She had quite an insight into human nature. I would like to thank you, Jane, for all the laughter. —Margaret Griffiths
“She asked the important questions and let people hear their own answers.” Ken Bebout, Body Politic editor
“There’s dinosaurs. There’s the Romans. And there’s Jane and Helen. The times we shared are priceless.”—Eli, Jane Rule’s nephew
“Jane’s gift was her enormous human curiosity. Jane loved many people. She loved each of us freely and uniquely.”—Shelagh Day
Above the stage for the memorial gathering, Rule’s own words were posted for all to see: “I hope I’m remembered for being lusty and feisty and full of life.”
Desert of the Heart (Macmillan, 1964)
This Is Not For You (Naiad Press, 1970)
Against the Season (Doubleday, 1971)
Theme for Diverse Instruments (Talonbooks, 1975)
The Young In One Another's Arms (Naiad, 1977)
Contract With The World (Naiad, 1980)
Middle Children, Short stories (Naiad, 1981)
Outlander, Stories and essays (Naiad, 1981).
Inland Passage (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1985)
Memory Board (Macmillan, 1987)
After the Fire (Naiad, 1989)
Lesbian Images (Doubleday, 1975)
A Hot-Eyed Moderate (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1985)
Detained at Customs:Jane Rule Testifies at the Little Sister's Trial
(Lazara Press, 1995)
Jane Rule’s essay collection, Loving the Difficult (Hedgerow Press $21.95)
was launched at Heritage Hall in Vancouver on April 26 and on May 3 at the community hall on Galiano Island. 978-0-9736882-6-9
Loving the Difficult
from BCBW Evelyn C. White
In 2007, I received a letter from pioneering lesbian writer Jane Rule announcing the impending publication of her collection of essays Loving the Difficult. Ever irreverent, Rule, then battling maladies that would lead to her death later that year, noted that she’d fancied a different title for the book. In so doing, she gave a nod to her activist sister-in-arms, journalist June Callwood.
“I heard a story about my friend, June … taken to hospital, unconscious,” Rule wrote from her home on Galiano Island. “She woke, looked around and said, ‘Shit! I’m still here.’ I thought it would make a wonderful title for my collection but have been persuaded to stay with the original.”
Published posthumously, Loving the Difficult (Hedgerow Press) won the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for non-fiction. In the essay “You Be Normal, or Else,” Rule discussed what she had long decried as “the heterosexual cage of coupledom.”
"It’s an odd moment for [homosexuals] to want to be legally married,” she wrote. “What we forfeit by these ambitions is our greatest strength: we are free to define our own relationships in any way we choose.” The collection also includes, among other topics, Rule’s reflections on her paralyzing childhood fear of the dark, money (it “talks”) and censorship (“a bad teacher”).
The enduring passion and politics of Jane Rule (1931-2007) were at the centre of a landmark gathering held in early June at the University of British Columbia. Supported with an anonymous $1.7 million donation to the Jane Rule Endowment for the Study of Human Relationships, the “Queerly Canadian” conference brought together academics, activists, artists and independent scholars to share work inspired by Rule’s lifelong advocacy for social justice.
For example, in a lecture peppered with humour, famed Montreal writer Nicole Brossard explored the complex contours of intimacy.
Jamie Lee Hamilton brought her experiences as a self-proclaimed “semi-retired sex trade worker” to a panel discussion of the “golden age of prostitution” in Vancouver’s West End. “We were like family and protected each other back then,” said Hamilton, recalling the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.
Author of Passionate Communities: Reading Lesbian Resistance in Jane Rule’s Fiction, Smith College administrator Marilyn R. Schuster shared research from her forthcoming book on the correspondence between Rule and the late Body Politic journalist Rick Bebout, who died in June at age 59.
UBC professor of English Richard Cavell probed the recurring theme of mourning in Rule’s writings. To be sure, his insights resonated with me. For all the arch conviviality Rule exuded from her plush armchair on Galiano, I often detected an undercurrent of sadness. Understandably, her solemn air deepened (or so it seemed to me) after the January 2000 death of her long-time partner Helen Sonthoff.
Indeed, in an interview first published in the Autumn 2006 issue of Cahoots magazine, Rule said: “For two years after Helen died I couldn’t imagine why anyone came [to visit me on Galiano]. There was nobody here. And people would say I can feel Helen everywhere. I said she isn’t. … There’s just this vast emptiness in your life. And you have to learn to deal with it.”
As for the rural enclave in which Rule and Sonthoff reigned as cherished icons for thirty years, the community is still grappling with the loss. A friend of the couple observed: “I think some people find it difficult to pass by their house because it’s a symbol that triggers memories.”
Admirers can take solace in future Jane Rule conferences and the many publications that are sure to evolve from her archives at UBC. And during a recent chat with Donna Deitch, the Desert Hearts director said that she’s writing a script that builds on her acclaimed 1985 film adapted from Rule’s classic novel, Desert of the Heart. “The new movie will be about feminism in Manhattan circa 1968-1972 and include, as part of the story line, the characters in Desert Hearts,” she explained. “It isn’t a strict sequel, but expands on my previous film.”
I’ve long been intrigued by Rule’s expansive relationship with blacks in Canada and the U.S. A discerning literary critic, Rule was the only person I asked to read my completed manuscript, Alice Walker: A Life, before publication. She instantly agreed and offered wise counsel. Rule was also an early supporter of Fred Booker, the late black Burnaby musician and author of Adventures in Debt Collection (Commodore Books, 2006).
And it was not lost on me that unlike at other Vancouver-area gatherings, I was rarely “the only raisin in the cornflake bowl” during visits with Jane. That is to say that Jane welcomed a wildly diverse mix of people into her life. Moved by her wit, generosity and in later years, veil of grief, we all gladly came. In that regard, as in so many others, Jane Rule stood heads above her peers.
[Evelyn C. White is the author of Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: A Photo Narrative of Black Heritage on Salt Spring Island. Photographs by Joanne Bealy] (Dancing Crow Press, 2009).
Taking My Life by Jane Rule (Talonbooks $19.95)
from Joan Givner
Jane rule begins her memoir of her formative years, Tak-ing My Life by expressing “moral and aesthetic” misgivings about the project. Poor health has ended her career as a novelist and left her feeling “not just directionless but unconvinced that there is one.” Rule states that she is turning to autobiography because there is “nothing else to do.”
The misgivings are understandable, for this is not only the most self-revelatory of her works, but one that exposes vulnerable friends and family to public scrutiny. In doing so, she goes against her expressed concern for maintaining the privacy of her acquaintances and correspondents.
No doubt her reservations explain her decision not to offer the document for publication. At the same time, she has clearly affirmed her belief in its importance by placing it in her archival collection at UBC—from which editor Linda M. Morra has retrieved it for publication with or without Rule’s permission (that matter is not clarified in the introduction).
Jane Rule came from an affluent family whose many headstrong and colourful characters contribute to the lively account of her early years. But it is generally the painful and conflicted relationships that define us.
Accordingly, it is two “troubled and troubling” relationships that form the over-arching theme of this narrative.
The first is with the older brother Arthur Rule, who was the cherished companion of Rule’s early years. The bond between them was so close that she thought of them as an inseparable unit—Jane-and-Arthur—like the parents they were named for. Sadly, the bond was broken when Rule was five, and the peripatetic family left the eastern United States for California. From that moment, Arthur changed into a disturbed youth, whose erratic behaviour destroyed family harmony and made his sister miserable. He became hostile to the family, was expelled from schools, charged with vandalism, and often in trouble with the police.
There are hints that a crippling rivalry with his sister, aggravated by the father’s invidious comparisons, exacerbated his problems. Whatever the cause, his sister yearned for the rest of her life to regain the affection of those early years.
Rule acknowledges that her relationships with teachers had a strong erotic charge. “I couldn’t have known that first year in high school how much I presented myself to my teachers as a potential lover,” she writes. She notes of one Miss Espinosa, a principal, “...we wooed each other as stupidly and negatively as children pulling each other’s braids.”
Espinosa’s influence was partly responsible for her failure to be accepted at Stanford, and a letter to Mills College (fortunately unheeded) said that Rule’s moral character made her unfit for the college.
The teacher, however, who exerted the most influence during Rule’s adolescence, was Ann Smith, a graduate of Wellesley College and The Art Institute of Chicago (two of her three portraits of Rule grace the book), eleven years Rule’s senior. When they met, Smith lived alone, waiting for the return of her soldier husband. Her own childhood had been unsettling, involving frequent moves, an alcoholic father, and a sexual relationship with an older brother.
Smith’s attitude to her fourteen-year-old student moved from professional to personal to intimate, and drew Rule into the vortex of her teacher’s own emotional turmoil. The intensity of the friendship was such that fifty years later, Rule recalls fragments of their conversation:
“Nancy says you have a crush on me,” Ann said one day.
“That’s stupid,” I answered hotly.
“What’s stupid about it?”
“Crushes are stupid. I love you, but I don’t have a crush on you.”
Later Smith tells Rule that she and her husband have sex at least twice a day, and Rule responds that she doesn’t love anyone “that way.”
The first time I said it, I didn’t add that I probably never would. Later I didn’t add, “except you.”
It was in my head, but I had no idea what it meant.
Smith urges Rule to find relief in solo sex, and assures her that women do fall in love with each other, but insists that she have her first sexual experience with a man, lest she become a lesbian. When the two finally have sex, it is Smith’s guilt that Rule finds most disturbing. Their relationship endures throughout Rule’s college years, even as Rule loves other women, and after Smith moves to the east coast, where she and her husband (with whom Rule has a brief sexual encounter) have three daughters.
Although the book covers only Rule’s first two decades, it ends with a strong sense of resolution. The emotional confusions of the previous years have receded. She is in a mutually satisfying relationship with an English woman, living in London, working on a novel, and her future looks promising.
Arthur Rule marries a college friend of his sister, in a ceremony she describes as “blackly humorous.” Before the ceremony his words to his sister, “Remember, kiddo...you can run your heart out, but I can beat you standing still,” suggest that he sees even his marriage as a way of triumphing over his sister.
Ann Smith’s life is falling apart. Although her neighbours see her as a model of serenity, she has been hospitalized for “melancholia,” and her husband says he will commit her to a mental institution again if necessary. Rule leaves for England fearful for the physical safety of Smith’s three children.
All biographers, editors and
literary executors, face ethical questions, as they weigh privacy issues and authorial wishes against the claims of cultural and literary history. Given Jane Rule’s iconic stature, and the fact that every prominent writer is a contested site, the decision to publish this manuscript in its entirety and with the names of key figures unchanged, is sure to be debated.
The prudent course might have been, as Rule probably intended, to wait for a future biographer to place its contents within the context of the fiction. But biographies are long in the making, their successful completion never assured, and without them literary reputations quickly fade.
Scholars and devotees of Rule’s work can, therefore, be grateful for this valuable resource. 978-0-88922-673-9
Joan Givner is the author of two biographies and an autobiography, The Self-Portrait of a Literary Biography.
A Queer Love Story
"The letters in A Queer Love Story are not simply a look into private lives, which are satisfying and rich in themselves. Here are two powerhouses influencing Canadian history. They helped make our queer history -- one word, one gesture, one fight at a time. I felt waves and waves of gratitude, both for the work these two heroes performed and for the chance to see it documented, to be welcomed into that past. This book will remind you just how deeply personal are our political struggles."
-- Michael V. Smith, author of My Body Is Yours
People who knew Jane Rule are still saying to themselves, “I wonder what Jane would think of this.”
She has been called “the greatest lesbian writer of our generation” because the six-foot-tall, American-born, Galiano Islander wrote Desert of the Heart, a novel that dared to describe a lesbian couple succeeding in a long-term relationship.”
But Jane Rule was much more. She lent so much money to her fellow islanders, so often, that she earned the nickname “The Bank of Galiano.” For years she and her lifelong partner Helen Sonthoff shared their pool with teens and toddlers; Rule was the lifeguard who taught kids to swim. And she was hilariously funny. More importantly, she should be revered as an iconoclastic social philosopher who was as interested in children and the elderly as she was in gay pride and civil rights.
Jane Rule’s wisdom is the best reason to wade through the misleadingly-titled A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bebout (UBC $50), a 650-page omnibus edited by Marilyn R. Schuster that records the eight-year correspondence between North America’s foremost “public lesbian” and her editor at the Toronto-based publication, Body Politics. Bebout’s descriptions of his sex life, the scourge of AIDS and the emergence of gay culture constitute two-thirds of the text, but it’s Rule’s sanity that shines.
Here is a sampling of Rule’s private comments.
“If I were given an opportunity to censor, I would ban all violence against women, but I would ban all violence against men as well, and that would pretty well shut down the entertainment industry. And the wife beating, child abuse, beating up of men, and war would still go on.”
“I do think the accusation that the gay community isn’t sympathetic about children is probably a just one, though I think it’s not a problem limited to the gay community. A lot of heterosexuals who don’t have children or whose children are grown aren’t interested in having children around.”
“There is a simple point about any sort of sexual experimenting: it should be done between consenting people, the dangers as well-known as those for mountain climbing, skiing, joining the Peace Corps or voting for Reagan. And I think we should be talking as much or more about love, friendship, community.”
“I never liked mortgages either or time payments on cars, being debt to the future. I like being responsible for the present; that seems to me enough.”
“I do think it bizarre that we are taught to honor those who die in battle, condemn those who die of pleasure. We early memorize, in the States anyway, “I regret I have but one life to give to my country.” He didn’t give his life. He gave his death. Giving birth is giving life. There is something basically peculiar about the idea of “dying for other people.” Is there in it a male attempt to equal or transcend the power of giving birth? If only women can do it in this life, only a man can do it for the next? If dying isn’t a punishment, it certainly isn’t a virtue either. I really do want a morality focused on life rather than death.
“Not mentioning incest is one of the ways we keep it from going away.”
“I was very much in love with several women before I met Helen, one of whom I might have lived quite happily with if it hadn’t been for her terror at my need for candor.”
“I think most of my characters come to me as voices, I don’t mean in any spooky way, but my head does run in sentences more often than in images, a sort of stream of consciousness language that is there most of the time, if I bother to listen to it.”
“Most sexual energy directed toward me now I find simply wearying. I’m sure that importantly has to do with a frail back, aging bones, limited energy, but there’s something else about it, too, a sense that the sexual energy is directed at my work rather than at me or anyway at the legend I am. As such it seems to be not only spurious but dangerous not for me so much as for the other person involved. One of the reasons I don’t give readings or lecture is that I don’t like the kind of energy that comes at me in those circumstances, but it is harder and harder for me to be a person among other people: personal. I increasingly therefore, turn my “abnormal attention” and need for energy in other directions, to the children I teach to swim (no, don’t report me), to neighbors in need, to the amazing and fragile old. The defused eroticism I feel in all relationships nourishes me now more than those which require direct sexual acknowledgement. And I feel no loss at all.”
“I try to figure out why the idea of my own death doesn’t trouble me. I think I have found life hard enough, demanding enough, to think of death as a sort of reward, rest anyway.”
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO JANE, IN PUBLIC:
I believe only in art and failure.
I came out as a lesbian long before I came out as a writer.
I hope I’m remembered for being lusty, feisty and full of life.
My own sense or role models is you only need bad ones. You can say, “I’m certainly not going to be like that when I grow up!”
The real power of books is their deep companionability. We learn from them as we learn from the deep companionability of love to know our own hearts and minds better.
It is love, very ordinary human love, and not fear, which is the good teacher and the wisest judge.
My private measure of success is daily. If this were to be the last day of my life would I be content with it.
[Alan Twigg 2017]