A Year of Hidden Friendships

When we first launched Something Rhymed, a year ago now, concerned well-wishers expressed scepticism about whether we’d discover twelve pairs of historic female writer friends to profile each month over the course of 2014.

Thanks to our close-knit community of readers from around the globe, the reverse has in fact been true. You’ve helped us to unearth many more female collaborations than we could possibly have envisaged at the beginning of the year. With such a treasure trove of hidden friendships still to explore, we intend to keep sharing our findings here in 2015.

Old treasure chest
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The collaborations we’ve explored so far were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring. And so, we’ve increasingly found ourselves asking why they have been consigned to the shadows.

To mark the end of Something Rhymed’s first year, here are our top ten ideas on why the friendships between some of our most famous female writers still have a cloak of secrecy about them:

  1. Women writing in the past had more opportunities to converse in the parlour than in the pages of literary magazines.
  • For reasons of propriety, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt that she could not write an obituary in the Atlantic for her long-time friend and confidante, George Eliot.
  1. The marked harmony and lifelong endurance of many of these writing partnerships cost them copy.
  • Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell bonded over their shared experience of infamy since they had both become mired in scandal for daring to pen biting social criticism. However, this enduring friendship often gets written off as a mere acquaintanceship. Could marked harmony also account for why so few of us have heard about the unlikely friendship between Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson?
  1. Friendships between women are often neglected in favour of a female author’s intense or turbulent relationships with men.
  • On January 1st we will reveal an intimate friendship that fits into this category…
  1. The literary status of some of our writer heroines has suffered because their genre, style or subject matter was particularly associated with women.
  1. Some of the pairs shared an alliance so radical that others refused to believe that it could possibly have thrived.
  1. Other collaborations challenged core mythologies about female authors: the well-bred lady; the solitary eccentric; and the suffering genius.
  1. Popular perceptions of female friendship still struggle to allow for the kind of rivalry embraced by some of our writer forebears.
  1. Rumours of lesbian affairs sometimes actually seem easier for commentators to accommodate than the possibility of an intellectual partnership between women.
  1. Close friendships between girls might be all well and good but, after marriage, women have traditionally been expected to devote themselves primarily to their husband and offspring.
  1. Historically, female collaboration was considered subversive and therefore taboo.
  • And yet, the subversive nature of these friendships between women makes them powerful sources of transformation: Maya Angelou’s Nobel party for Toni Morrison, for instance, both celebrated the achievements of a fellow African American author and challenged their government’s failure to do so itself.

Working together on Something Rhymed this year, we have experienced some of the most jubilant moments in our own friendship (as well as some of the most fraught!). But, from Eliot and Stowe – who taught us the importance of candour – to Mansfield and Woolf – who showed us that rivalry can be a positive force – we are learning how to keep our own collaboration on course. And, with your support, we will continue to celebrate the secret sisterhood between our trailblazing forebears, finally bringing it centre stage.

Sisters Under the Skin

One of the unexpected pleasures afforded by running this site is the chance to speak about female literary friendship on stage as well as write about it on screen, so Emily and I are particularly looking forward to our October 15th Festival Fringe event at the Ilkley Playhouse.

Ilkley Literature Fringe Festival

On account of their skin colours, author friends Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings could not have appeared together in their local theatre: an injustice that we find particularly resonant since we too are from different ethnic backgrounds.

Gainesville Theatre, Florida, was not desegregated until the late 1960s, decades after Hurston and Rawlings became friends. When these authors met in 1942, in many parts of the United States the pair could not have sat in the same railroad waiting room, ridden the same bus, sunbathed on the same beach, eaten at the same restaurant table or drunk from the same water fountain.

Demonstration in front of a segregated theatre in Florida in 1962.  State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4528
Demonstration in front of a segregated theatre in Florida in 1962.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4528

What’s more, Florida was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. The state’s barbarous white supremacists lynched more people per capita than anywhere else in the country. Just two years into Hurston’s friendship with Rawlings, a fifteen year old black boy was brutally murdered in the city of Live Oak in Florida for having dared to pen a love note to a white girl. Willie Howard wrote in his Christmas card to Cynthia Goff: ‘I love your name. I love your voice. For a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice’. For this, he was kidnapped along with his father, driven to the banks of the Suwanee River, his hands and feet bound, and instructed either to jump or be shot. His father was forced to watch at gunpoint while his son drowned.

Played out against such a vicious backdrop of racism, the friendship between Hurston and Rawlings was radical indeed. Rawlings’s love and admiration for Hurston caused her to confront her own deeply entrenched prejudices, and both women ended up lending their support to racial equality campaigns. However, their efforts did not meet with a huge level of success during their lifetimes. The racism that their friendship defied hounded them even in death: both women’s bodies were buried in segregated cemeteries.

Thankfully, we have never faced racially motivated opposition to our friendship. Some people actually consider us so alike that they have even mistaken us for sisters. And yet, our own society is far from colour blind. The UK’s literary scene is a case in point. Just 4% of people in the publishing industry in England and Wales are Black/Asian/Minority/Ethnic (BAME), while 14% of the population of England and Wales are BAME (UK 2011 census). Such lack of diversity among the gatekeepers has resulted in a woeful lack of publishing opportunities for BAME authors.

We are particularly proud that our Ilkley Festival Fringe event follows the SI Leeds Literary Prize ceremony, since this award ‘aims to act as a loudspeaker for Black and Asian women’s voices, and a platform to discover exciting new talent, from a group largely under-represented on our bookshelves’.

Emily was a runner-up in 2012, so we also have personal reasons for feeling delighted to continue our relationship with Soroptimist International. And yet we cannot help but wish for a world in which their prize would be unnecessary – a world in which all our sisters’ voices would stand an equal chance of getting heard.

It Began with a Mouse: Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie

Zora Neale Hurston once invited her friend Marjory Kinnan Rawlings to give a lecture to her university students. For a time, they shared a publisher too. Like this month’s profiled pair, the bond between authors Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie is both personal and professional. In September’s guest blog, they tell us about the public and private faces of their friendship.

Science Museum café, London, and a mouse scoots across the floor. T and V have just met face to face for the first time, having emailed for a while. How to react? There are a few seconds of silence, then two sets of giggles. A serious meeting (on our way to an event about writing short stories with science at the Dana Centre) plus laughter. That sets the tone for a friendship that is now in its eighth year.

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(L-R) Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman at Gladfest at Gladstone’s Library

It began with generosity across continents – V, in the UK, emails to congratulate T, in Israel, for winning first prize in a flash fiction competition in which V wins second prize. It progressed to sharing the writer’s journey, ups and downs alike.

We were both at the start of our publication careers and decided to deal with it all with honesty, not hiding how many rejections our short stories were getting, even going so far as to set up a joint blog in 2007 documenting all our submissions statistics – acceptances, rejections, earnings.

This underpins our connection – honesty in sharing work, in giving feedback. Our writing styles are, of course, different, as are our approaches to teaching, but we believe in the No-Rules Rule – we apply it to each other and to everyone else we come into contact with.

We give each other permission to try anything, to take risks, to be a different kind of writer from the one we were yesterday, or last year. We are always trying something new, challenging each other – T inspires V with science, V has lured T into joining her WW1 obsessions through her annual writing group trip to The Somme.

We are both currently experimenting with poetry, sending each other poems-in-progress, wanting not just ‘Oh this is wonderful’ but ‘I think you don’t need this word/line/stanza’ too. We also share teaching techniques – and have taught workshops together.

We’d be firm friends whether or not we were writers, but writing definitely provides some great highs. We’ve both had the joy of being there when the other has received fantastic news – T’s first short story collection, V’s first novel. Each other’s successes lift us both.

We have been fortunate enough to win some prizes, get some awards and residencies, and we make sure that we allow ourselves to celebrate – which is not always easy for writers with a tendency towards introversion – but we both hate complacency and won’t go there, ever!

Eight years later, we live in the same country, though several hours apart, and we see each other more regularly. Wherever we are, the phrase that always gets uttered (mostly by V) is: ‘Shall we write?’ And we always do, not just at home, but in cafés (where cake somehow manages to make an appearance), parks, railway stations.

The Science Museum café might have altered its menu. The mouse might not be with us any more. But some things don’t change.

Tania Hershman’s latest short story collection My Mother Was an Upright Piano is published by Tangent Books.

Vanessa Gebbie’s novel The Coward’s Tale is published by Bloomsbury.

 

The Something Rhymed party

From the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Great Gatsby’s  glamorous shindigs to the almost unbearable occasion to mark Blanche’s birthday in A Streetcar Named Desire, literature is full of social occasions that linger on in the minds of its audiences.

In the hands of a writer, the bringing together of a sizable cast of characters can lead to moments of revelation, conflict or panic. In Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, the whole plot builds towards the titular gathering. A devastating mistake made at a party by the timid protagonist of Rebecca signals an important shift in Daphne du Maurier’s novel. A mysterious soirée in A Murder is Announced marks the shocking point at which Agatha Christie’s village mystery truly begins.

Emma Claire and I were hoping for considerably less drama at our party – the first we’d ever organised together – and yet, we wanted it to be an occasion that would remain as a memory, in a good way, for all those who were there.

We decided to make an occasion of it with a traditional British afternoon tea.

We were inspired by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who once organised a get-together for Zora Neale Hurston, and also a feeling that we wanted to provide an opportunity for female writers we knew to make new writer friends. Owing to the size of my London flat, we were forced to keep things small-scale, so we invited just four writing women and asked each of them to bring along a female writer friend.

Our guests were Susan Barker, Emily Bullock, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie, Yen Ooi, Denise Saul and Zakia Uddin – some of whom will be known to Something Rhymed readers through their guest posts on our blog.

IMG_1153In a written story, it is often the things that go wrong at a party that cement it in the reader’s imagination. We thought we might have a situation like that on our hands when, only five minutes before our first guest turned up, I opened the freezer door to get some ice and suddenly discovered two forgotten bottles of fizz – one smashed to pieces and one that promptly exploded everywhere when Emma Claire eased out the cork.

It’s the sort of incident that, if you’re hosting on your own (or feel that sole responsibility for a party’s success lies with you), can become magnified out of all proportion. In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, though the majority of family members are remarkably untroubled by the genuinely terrible news that arrives halfway through the tale, there is much concern earlier on about the feared disappearance of the little flags for the sandwiches.

But as the two of us struggled to leap out of the way of the flying foam, we found we were unable to stop laughing: a reminder that, having the right friend at your side at moments like these swiftly transforms them from catastrophe to comedy.

Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul and Susan Barker listening to Emily Bullock reading an extract from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight.
Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul, Susan Barker and Emily Bullock (reading from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight).

Amazingly, too, the sparkling wine down Em’s dress seemed to dry out in record time and had virtually disappeared by the time everyone arrived. We’d wondered earlier – completely unnecessarily as it turned out – if, with a group of people who didn’t really know each other, conversation would be initially stilted. So we’d asked each writer to bring along a sample of her work as a way of introducing herself. In between the sandwiches, cakes and replenishing of glasses, we were treated to extracts from novels and short stories, and some of Denise’s poetry.

We talked about professional issues too. Questions about book launches, ways of spreading the word about our work, and university programmes were just some of the things we discussed. If I had to sum up the occasion in a few words, I’d say it was five hours of warmth and good conversation, and lots of laughter: not the conflict of great literature perhaps, but – for Emma Claire and me, and we hope for all our guests – the stuff of a great party for writers.

Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings seem destined to have grown close. Both women wrote about the landscape and communities of their beloved Florida, and they each achieved fame in the 1930s when Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize. What’s more, they greatly admired each other’s work.

Photo by Alan Anderson, courtesy of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.
Photo by Alan Anderson, courtesy of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

And yet, theirs was a deeply controversial relationship. Simple acts of camaraderie – sharing a meal, trading ideas, visiting each other – came up against deeply ingrained prejudices, rigid social norms, and even the full weight of the law.

Hurston (the daughter of a former slave) met Rawlings (whose husband owned a white-only hotel) at a time when the Ku Klux Klan operated in parts of Florida and the ‘Jim Crow’ racial segregation laws were harshly enforced by the state.

Despite these almost insuperable barriers, when Rawlings gave a guest lecture to Hurston’s students at the all-black Florida Normal and Industrial College, she was so taken with her host that she invited Hurston to tea the next day at her husband’s white-only hotel.

Fear, prejudice, and conformity ran deep, however. Rawlings quickly regretted her invitation, telling her husband that she had ‘done something terrible’. They arranged for the bell-boy to whisk Hurston up to their private apartment to get her out of sight of their white guests. Their precautions proved unnecessary because Hurston, predicting that her presence might prove sensitive, entered through the kitchen and up the back stairs.

Remarkably, such squalid moral compromises did nothing to hinder their enjoyment of each other’s company. ‘I’ve never had so much fun,’ Rawlings told her husband, and Hurston described Rawlings as a ‘sister’.

Zora Neale Hurston Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph
Zora Neale Hurston
Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

Although their mutual admiration was assured, the ethical dilemmas didn’t stop there. When Hurston visited Rawlings’s country residence, for instance, they talked, laughed, and got tipsy together on her porch. But, when it became clear that Hurston was in no fit state to drive, Rawlings sent her friend to sleep out in the black servants’ quarters although there were plenty of spare bedrooms in the main house.

Hurston – who grew up in an all-black town, possibly the granddaughter of a white slave owner – was adept at navigating the ‘Jim Crow’ laws, and did not seem to hold Rawlings’s racial cowardice against her.

But Rawlings subjected herself to tough questions about her behaviour and, on a second overnight visit, she insisted that this time Hurston stay with her in the house. ‘I had to hurdle an awfully wide ditch!’ she admitted. ‘I was amazed to find that my own prejudices were so deep’.

From then on, Rawlings fought against racial segregation whereas Hurston fought to write about subjects other than race. Yet the world they inhabited was not yet ready to hear them. Rawlings’s reputation dwindled when her editor failed to recognise the quality of her later experimental stories, and Hurston died a pauper, buried in an unmarked grave.

This headstone was purchased by Alice Walker after she found Hurston's unmarked grave in an overgrown and snake infested cemetery. Walker later published an essay about it in Ms magazine, leading to something of a renaissance in Hurston's reputation. Photograph by Alan Anderson.
This headstone was purchased by Alice Walker after she found Hurston’s unmarked grave in an overgrown and snake infested cemetery. Walker later published an essay about it in Ms magazine, leading to something of a renaissance in Hurston’s reputation. Photograph by Alan Anderson.

Activity

Rawlings once threw a private party for Hurston. This month, we will host a Something Rhymed party. We’ll invite a few locally-based writers and supporters of the blog, and we’ll ask each of them to bring along one of their female writer friends. Find out how it goes when we blog about it in the coming weeks.

#SomethingRhymed

We’re keen to promote positive representations of women’s friendship, so with this in mind we’ve just launched our #SomethingRhymed hashtag on Twitter with this tweet: Women’s relationships are too often seen as bitchy & backstabbing. Tell us about a time when a female friend supported you.

We’d love to hear about your positive experiences of female friendship too. If you’re not on Twitter, but would still like to add your voice to the conversation, please do leave a message in the Comments section below.