Interiew: Jane Rule
Inventing and Reinventing Community
By Eloise Klein Healy
Note: Jane Rule died on Tuesday, November 27, 2007, at her home on Galiano Island, British Columbia, in the company of family and friends. It was Jane’s choice, once she found out she had terminal cancer, to seek only palliative care and to live out her final days on Galiano.
Early last year, when I first contacted Jane about an interview for Women’s Review of Books, she was delighted. She had already been informed that she was going to be awarded the Order of Canada, and she relished being introduced to the WRB audience. The six months that we talked, wrote, and concocted this piece were very rewarding for Jane, and although we didn't have a big word count for our interview, she covered a lot of territory. By the time we finished it, we both knew that it would probably be the last interview she would conduct, and that she would not live to see it in print.
I was blessed to have known Jane since 1980. She was a very supportive friend. Whenever I would get a book published, she loved to read my poems to me out loud. "The best way to know them," she would say. Jane is now part of history. She will live on in her wonderfully inventive fiction and essays.
Jane Rule was an internationally renowned Canadian writer, the author of seven novels, a book of literary criticism, and several collections of short stories and essays. Best known as a feminist and lesbian writer, Rule was also a champion of civil liberties. She was at the forefront of the defense of writers, bookstores, and publishers facing government scrutiny for their work on or support of gay causes (Canada does not have a US-style bill of rights, and free speech laws are different from those in this country, so for example, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender publications are confiscated at the border from time to time, along with heterosexual pornography.) She was also a strong supporter of government funding for the arts, and she was a founding member of the Canadian Writers’ Union.
On July 11, 2007, in a special ceremony on Galiano Island, Rule received the prestigious Order of Canada, presented by the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. The order, established in 1967, is the government’s highest civilian award, given to honor people for their outstanding contributions to the country.
Having known Rule for many years, I was pleased to talk with her about her career as a writer and to get a sense of her life. She and I conducted our conversation in phone calls and letters (Rule did not do e-mail).
Born in New Jersey in 1931, Rule was educated at Mills College in California. In 1956, at the height of the McCarthy era in the US, she moved to British Columbia. Her writings suggest that she was in search of a culture and a country more amenable to free speech and freedom of association. In her new home, Rule taught at the University of British Columbia until she turned full time to her writing career.
Rule’s fiction and nonfiction helped both to create the lesbian-feminist community of the 1980s and 1990s and to widen the scope of issues addressed by gay writers. Her fiction anticipated many of the issues facing the larger society today, as families cope with the problems of caring for their elderly, dealing with new arrangements of marriage and family, and seeing LBGT people take their places in the public arena. Rule’s novels and short stories, populated with a cast of refreshingly complex characters, raise sharp questions about human life—who are we in community, what types of sacrifice does love demand, what do we really value over all else, and most importantly, which of our beliefs will we choose to live out? Her essays, often focused on political concerns, are marked by moral and ethical challenges to societies that lose sight of their obligations to those with little or no access to power and influence. But for all the fire in her writing, Rule was always known by her colleagues as a steady friend, a loving family member, and a stellar citizen of Galiano Island. To spend any time with her was to understand that a fierce intellect and fine sense humor can, blessedly, go hand in hand.
EKH: Over your long and successful writing career, you have received many awards for your work. How do you feel about receiving the Order of Canada?
JR: I have always been ambivalent about awards. They are so often given or withheld for the wrong reasons. Since too few women or artists or openly gay people are honored, I decided for political reasons that I would accept those awards that came my way on behalf of those too rarely acknowledged. Most of the awards I have accepted in Canada—the best short story of the year, the best novel of the year from the Canadian Author’s Association, an honorary degree from the University of British Columbia, where I taught for some years, the Order of British Columbia, and now the Order of Canada—have probably been given in spite of rather than because of my political activism as a feminist and a lesbian. I am honored as a Canadian writer.
The awards I have received in the states, in contrast, have all been from gay organizations such as the Fund for Human Dignity, the Gay Academic Union, the Publishing Triangle, and the Alice B. Readers Appreciation Society.
I came to Canada in 1956 and chose Canadian citizenship in the early 1960s. I am particularly touched that the country I chose over fifty years ago has now chosen to honor me. From the beginning of my writing career, my books have been seriously reviewed in major magazines and newspapers in Canada and England. In the states, however, my books have not been widely reviewed. My American publisher sent a copy of my second novel, This Is Not For You (1970), to the New York Times every week for three months without success.
EKH: How has your political involvement with the LBGT community affected your work as a novelist and essayist?
JR: I have never given public readings, and I have mainly avoided publicity tours. Early on, even in Canada, I realized that, though I wrote novels, interest was nearly always focused on my being a lesbian. So, as a public person, I was called upon to be a political activist rather than a writer.
Though I devoted most of my time to fiction writing, I did accept a commission from an American publisher to write Lesbian Images (1975) [a book of literary criticism]. I also accepted an invitation from The Body Politic, Canada’s national gay paper, to write a column called, “So’s Your Grandmother.” I wrote articles for various feminist magazines, most of which were reprinted in my essay collection, A Hot-Eyed Moderate (1985).
EKH: What has been your relationship with other writers in Canada?
JR: I have been active in the arts community, being a founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada and serving on its executive council. I helped found the Arts Club in Vancouver and served on juries for the Canada Council to award grants to writers and publishers. I was sent by the Canadian government to represent Canadian women writers at the Feminist Book Fortnight in England in 1987.
Canada is a young and, in population, small country. In the fifty years I have lived here, Canadian literature has moved from a minor elective in university English departments to a seriously considered body of work on the international academic scene. Our best writers, most of whom are women—Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Mavis Gallant—have international reputations. It has been a great privilege for me to be a Canadian writer in so remarkable a generation. Because of the Writers’ Union, many of us have become friends, working together for better tax laws, for the Public Lending Right, which gives us remuneration for our books in public libraries, for government support for our writers and publishers, translation grants, and international promotion.
EKH: Political pressures on writers and publishers of serious literature about the gay experience have changed dramatically over the last thirty years, in both Canada and the US. How have your books been affected by these pressures?
JR: The political changes I have experienced have been remarkable. In 1964, my first novel, Desert of the Heart, which celebrated love between women, was published in Canada and England by the first publishers to consider it in each country—even though it would be another four years before homosexual sex between consenting adults was removed from the Canadian criminal code, where it had carried a penalty of up to five years in prison. The book came out in the US in 1965 after having been rejected by over twenty American publishers, who were apparently more nervous about obscenity lawsuits than their Canadian and English counterparts—although they had also been warned by their lawyers of possible legal problems. Desert Hearts has never been out of print and has been translated into Dutch, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. In the 1980s, the film Desert Hearts, based on the novel, opened the Toronto film festival. Like the book, it has remained in circulation ever since. Some of my other six novels have been challenged at the Canadian border when my American publishers sent them in, while customs officials tried to find them pornographic, but none has ever finally been refused entry. Such acts have given me a reputation as a pornographer, which has disappointed some readers and discouraged others who might enjoy what I write.
Of all the short stories I have written and published, only one has been included in a school text. It is the only short story I’ve written about violence, obviously a topic considered more appropriate for school children than the many varieties of human love.
EKH: If you look back over your life and work, on what do you place the most personal value?
JR: It has always been important for me to live a personal rather than a public life. In 1976, when I was earning enough from writing to give up teaching at the University of British Columbia, Helen Sonthoff, with whom I came to Canada, also took early retirement from UBC, and we moved to the island of Galiano, off the west coast of British Columbia. Over the years, we became part of the island community, sharing our swimming pool with the island children and other adult swimmers, running a small mortgage and loan business for islanders unqualified for bank loans, and taking part in local organizations that help preserve and protect the quality of life of this diverse community. I was finally free to write, away from the noise of the public world, until I retired from writing in 1990, a decision I made because of my increasing difficulty with arthritis and Helen’s failing health.
EKH: Are there any current issues you are still interested in addressing—gay marriage, for instance?
JR: I still write an occasional essay and have one last collection, Loving the Difficult, which will be released in fall 2008 by Hedgerow Press. I am usually tempted to break my silence over the government’s waning interest in support for the arts, for human rights, and for the protection of women and children. The increasingly conservative trend in gay politics can also stir me to tirades—against gay marriage, for instance. It seems to me that we should be leading our straight friends out of that cage rather than asking to be invited in, where the state can exercise control over our relationships. We should be focusing our attention on our young, our ill, and our poor rather than on our increasingly socially acceptable selves.
EKH: You were one of the first lesbian writers to feature a wide spectrum of characters in your books: gay and straight women and men, married couples, unmarried couples, kids, and grandparents. Your life on Galiano Island, which is so rich in ongoing community involvement, replicates your fiction: you seem to have created a community that resembles the one in your fiction.
JR: My abiding interest as a fiction writer has been the nature of community, and how, in our increasingly transient lives, we keep reinventing the communities we left behind. It may be a more pressing question for gay people, who are still often forced out of family and neighborhood, but now this experience is shared by a much broader range of people. I have always been more interested in people in relationship—that is, in comedy in its classic sense—rather than in heroes and heroines. In my single old age, without parents or Helen to take delight in the tributes I receive, I am nourished by this community I’ve lived in for over thirty years and by the larger communities I also belong to, a membership in which need, obligation, and love define daily life.
Eloise Klein Healy is founding editor of ARKTOI BOOKS, an imprint of Red Hen Press. Her latest collection of poems is The Islands Project: Poems For Sappho (2007). www.eloisekleinhealy.com
FOR FURTHER READING:
Desert of the Heart. Toronto: Macmillan, 1964; London: Secker and Warburg, 1964; Cleveland, OH: World, 1965; Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1971.
This Is Not for You. New York: McCall, 1970; London: Pandora Press, 1987; Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1970; Toronto, ON: Insomniac Press, 2005
Against the Season. New York: McCall, 1971; London: Davies, 1972; Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1971.
Contract with the World. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980.
Memory Board. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press. 1987; London: Pandora Press, 1987.
After the Fire. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1989; London: Pandora Press, 1989.
Theme for Diverse Instruments. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1975; Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1990.
Outlander (includes essays). Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1981. Inland Passage and Other Stories. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1985.
Hot-Eyed Moderate. Ontario: Firefly Books, Ltd, 2002
Lesbian Images. New York: Doubleday, 1975
Studies of Jane Rule
Schuster, Marilyn. Passionate Communities: Reading Lesbian Resistance in Jane Rule’s Fiction. New York: NYU Press, 1999.
“Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule.” National Film Board of Canada, 1995.