Friday, March 15, 2013

Guest post from Elan Barnehama, author of Finding Bluefield: Embracing Change

With Elan Barnehama's guest post for today, we move much closer to recent times: the colorful and turbulent 1960s, as experienced by a lesbian couple.  If you believe history only encompasses events from the distant and untouchable past, or focuses mainly on well-known names, read this essay and think again.  Many of the sentiments he expresses below resonated with me, and I hope you'll enjoy reading his post also.

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Embracing Change
Elan Barnehama

My debut novel, Finding Bluefield, chronicles the lives of two women who, by seeking love and family, found themselves navigating unknown territory during a time when relationships like theirs were mostly hidden and often dangerous. It is a multi-generational family saga spanning the years 1960-1983 and set against a background of segregation, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, the JFK election, Woodstock, the South, the Moon Landing, and the Sanctuary Movement.

The 1960s were loud, idealistic, and divisive with a lot of good music and free love. Outrageous was the norm for a counter-culture that approached activism as theater and turned personal statements into political manifestos. As the nation shook off the sleepy '50s, it found JFK in the White House inspiring hope and symbolizing a generational shift in power. But then there were all those assassinations, the Vietnam War, our cities on fire, and a turbulent civil rights movement. It didn’t take long for the US to find itself in one serious identity crisis. And that was where I wanted my characters to begin.

I’m interested in what happens below the surface, away from the spotlight, inside the crowds. Great events are as much about the leaders as they are about the participants. Individual stories contribute to the moment and add up to a movement. We all collaborate to create history. It’s a team sport.

Finding Bluefield is located within arm’s length of some of great moments. As the nation searched to find its footing, Nicky and Barbara were finding theirs. Kennedy’s victory, which included winning Nicky’s home state of Virginia, inspired her to act. She already had courage. The election victory gave her hope. She thought it gave her cover.

Later, Nicky attended the Martin Luther King March on Washington—where Dr. King shared his dreams with the world—because she wanted to see history. The DC Mall and huge crowd provided a venue and an opportunity for Nicky to anonymously sleep with a man in order to have a child in this pre-sperm donor, pre-in vitro fertilization world. But the scene’s main purpose was to highlight that Nicky’s rights as a lesbian were not on the agenda. The march was not for her. It did not have her back.

After Paul was born, Nicky and Barbara planned to raise him in the Bluefield home that bore Nicky’s family name for two hundred years. But, once word spread that Nicky was a lesbian, it turned out that two hundred years was not nearly long enough for Nicky to maintain her local status, her insider membership. Sure, change was going to come, but Nicky’s dream for her child turned out to be premature.

While working on the first draft of Finding Bluefield, I remembered reading a number of articles citing cases where courts used existing laws to justify removing children from gay and lesbian parents. In some cases in the 1950s and '60s, courts gave custody of children to fathers in divorces where the mother was "rumored" or confirmed to be a lesbian, in stark contrast to the almost universal approach, at the time, of granting custody to mothers.

Change, it turns out, is slow and messy. It often stumbles. And there are always casualties. Sometimes the casualties are caused by friendly fire. Many people grew frustrated with the pace of change in the '60s and became disillusioned. Others simply burnt out. I wanted to create characters that avoided the “loud and proud” megaphone, in-your-face lifestyle that was so much a part of the time but were in it for the long term.

author Elan Barnehama
Nicky and Barbara never apologized for who they were, and they never pretended to be straight. They didn’t go to elaborate lengths to cover up who they were. Their focus was to create a life together and have a family. They kept their lives to themselves and shared it only with the people they cared about. They were trying to get from one moment to the next safely, with grace, integrity, and love. By doing that, they became the role models they lacked. When their lives became other people’s business—like Carol Ann, Nicky’s sister—they were at risk.

Blending stories into the study and contemplation of the past has the potential to turn history into the active experience that it is. And since fiction must be believable, what the characters did, how they acted, what they thought, the decisions they made, all had to have been possible. The reader has to think it could have happened that way.

Everyone enters the world in the middle of great events—not all of them good. We can choose to embrace our lives or whine loudly about our circumstances. Or we can muster the courage to imagine a different life, a life that has yet to exist.

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Elan Barnehama grew up in NYC, where he developed a taste for pizza and learned to recognize a joke. He's been a high school baseball coach, a radio news announcer, and a cook. He earned an MFA from UMass Amherst, and his commentaries and essays have appeared on public radio, the web, and in newspapers. He spends his days teaching college and the rest of his time writing, because between getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, it's what he wants to do. Elan lives in Northampton, MA.

Elan Barnehama's Finding Bluefield was published by Bold Strokes Books, a press focusing on LGBTQ literature, in September 2012 ($16.95, trade pb, 224pp).   Find out more at the author's website, elanbarnehama.com.

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