Interview with Terry Wolverton
The Labrys Reunion
Spinsters Ink (2009)
Reviewed by for Reader Views (08/10)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Terry Wolverton, who is here to talk about her new book “The Labrys Reunion.”
Terry Wolverton grew up in Detroit. From an early age Terry was interested in the arts, especially writing, music, and drama. In college, Terry studied Theatre and Women’s Studies. She also attended Sagaris, an independent institute for the study of feminist political theory. In 1976, she moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building. After completing the program, she worked at the Woman’s Building and was instrumental in several programs, including the Lesbian Art Project, Incest Awareness Project, Great American Lesbian Art Show (GALAS) and a White Women’s Anti-Racism Consciousness-Raising Group. For a time she served as the Woman’s Building’s Executive Director. In 1982, Terry established a consulting business, Consult’Her, to assist nonprofits, small businesses and individual artists with long-range and strategic planning, assessment, resource development and meeting facilitation.
She has been teaching creative writing since 1977. In 1988, she established the Perspectives Writing Program at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. In 1997, she founded Writers At Work, a creative writing center. She is also an Associate Faculty Mentor in the MFA Writing Program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.
Terry Wolverton is the author of seven books: “The Labrys Reunion,” a novel; “Embers,” a novel in poems; “Insurgent Muse,” a memoir about the Woman’s Building; “Bailey’s Beads,” a novel; and three collections of poetry, “Black Slip, Mystery Bruise,” and “Shadow and Praise.” She has also edited fourteen compilations of literary work.
Tyler: Welcome, Terry. What a treat to talk to you today, considering your impressive resume. To begin, I understand “The Labrys Reunion” ties in with your interests in feminism. Will you tell us a little about the basic premise of the book?
Terry: I began with an interest in a retrospective look at the feminism of the 1970s, in which I was active. I wanted to revisit some of the positions we took, assess progress and setbacks. I didn’t want to do that in a didactic way, but through story. I imagined a reunion of women who’d been involved in a particular feminist endeavor—what would we say to each other? But a novel required a more definite catalyst to drive it. So, in “The Labrys Reunion,” Emma Firestein, the daughter of a prominent 1970s feminist, Dana Firestein, is raped and murdered and this brings together the mother’s comrades and the daughter’s friends to mourn, to seek justice, and to interrogate a feminist movement that had vowed to eradicate violence against women.
Tyler: What does the title refer to?
Terry: Historically, the labrys was the double-headed axe of the Amazons, a group of women-led warriors. Another word for this tool is the sagaris. In my real life, I attended a feminist educational institute called Sagaris in 1975. The fictional version of this institute that provides the linkage for the older generation of women in my novel is called Labrys.
Tyler: The novel largely focuses on the differences between women of different generations who consider themselves feminists. Why did you choose to focus on this generational difference?
Terry: Within the feminist movement—and I see it in other social movements as well—this generational tension exists. A movement arises out of a certain set of intolerable circumstances and often the movement is at least partially successful in improving those conditions. The next generation may still face challenges but often grows up with those improved conditions and, of course, takes them for granted. The older generation feels that the younger is ungrateful and ignorant; the younger generation feels their elders are bitter and stuck in the past. It makes it hard to continue the movement’s progress from generation to generation.
Tyler: Will you tell us more about the main character, Gwen Kubacky? I understand she is both an artist and a feminist.
Terry: Gwen is a performance artist in her early forties at the time of the book, which is set in 1996. She’s more identified with being an artist than with being political, but she does come out of ’70s feminism. She has achieved only mid-level success in her career as an artist and she fears that her work is becoming obsolete, passed over in favor of newer strategies being advanced by younger artists. She’s feels a little creatively stale to herself. Gwen is also a recovering alcoholic; in some ways she feels more bonded with people in AA than with other feminists.
Tyler: In the novel, Gwen takes on the role of mentoring Emma. Is it a positive relationship? What does each of the women gain from the other’s perspective in terms of understanding women and feminism?
Terry: They meet when Emma attends a performance of Gwen’s and comes up to her afterward to talk. Gwen is wary; she’s gotten flak that her work is too old school. She’s caught off-guard when Emma asks her for mentorship. Gwen sees it as an opportunity to preserve the legacy of feminist performance. They just meet once. Gwen is hard on Emma, tells her to study the work of the past so her own work won’t be imitative. Emma’s ego is bruised, but she knows she needs this feedback. Emma is killed later that night.
Tyler: Why did you choose a rape and murder to occur in the novel? Did you feel it would be the means to making a point or statement in the book?
Terry: My first draft of the book was really just a reunion of the women who’d been active at Labrys in the 1970s. It was very lifelike: a bunch of women sat around and had arguments about politics with a bit of gossip in between. It was also dull. An agent, Charlotte Sheedy, read it and said, “Put a murder in it.” I was, at the time, outraged; I was trying to write a social novel about the times through a feminist lens. I had to become more experienced as a writer to understand that a novel needs an engine to drive the story forward. I eventually realized Sheedy was right and took her suggestion.
Once I’d made that decision, I knew that it needed to be something that would directly confront feminist beliefs; a huge part of the women’s movement was about ending violence, especially sexual violence, against women. I think we did make things better—in terms of empowering women to be conscious and fight back and educating the police and the justice system to take these crimes seriously—but not better enough. The rape and murder of the daughter of a prominent feminist activist seemed to raise the stakes on any complacency women of either generation might have fallen into.
Tyler: Our reviewer at Reader Views referred to your writing as “intense” and also “gritty and full of tension.” Do you feel intensity is necessary for you to make your points?
Terry: The response to a rape/murder should not be tepid; it demands an intense response, not only because of the individual lost but because of the social situation this reflects.
Also, anyone involved in an activist movement in the 1970s—whether the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black movement, or feminism—knows that those were years of great upheaval and turmoil; they were intense. I couldn’t write a quiet, well-reasoned book about the activists who lived through those times.
Tyler: Terry, I find it interesting that the novel originally focused on women talking and you say it was boring. It makes me remember books like “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French and others where a lot of time was spent showing women in groups. Would you say in some way your novel was a throwback to those early feminist novels? Do you see yourself writing within a literary feminist tradition and perhaps pushing its boundaries now with the revisions you’ve described?
Terry: Of course I was influenced by those novelists—Marilyn French, Marge Piercy, June Arnold and others—who undertook the task of documenting the early days of 1970s feminism, and because we’d never read anything like it before, it was NOT boring. At the time I began writing the book (in 1988) I think I did see myself as working in that tradition. Later I was just trying to teach myself how to write a good novel, how to handle the craft of plot.
Tyler: As a writer, what would you say have been your biggest literary influences outside of women writers who specifically used feminist themes?
Terry: Motown music gives me rhythm. Louise Erdrich invites lyricism in the prose. Toni Morrison asks me to strive for real wisdom and reject easy answers or judgments. A whole host of male writers—Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe, Don De Lillo—who exhort me to engage the social environment in which a story takes place. Writers are really the product of everything we’ve read, so this list could go on and on.
Tyler: As a feminist yourself for so many years, would you say the feminist movement is still as alive as it was in its early days, and how has it changed with the second and third generations?
Terry: Well, the first feminist movement took place in the early 20th century as women suffragists fought for the right to vote. So the women of the 1970s are considered the Second Wave. I think the feminist movement is no longer a central focus of progressive politics in the United States—I think environmentalism has that place now—but in other places in the world—the Middle East, parts of Southeast Asia and Africa, parts of Central America—where conditions are much more dire, even life threatening for women, there is a more consistent focus on how to improve those conditions. Activism tends to grow out of a recognition of oppression, and because of Second Wave feminism in the U.S., I think fewer young women feel oppressed as women.
The women of Generation X, the generation that followed the Baby Boomers, seemed to engage in a backlash against feminism—I guess all women need to rebel against their mothers. Among Generation Y women, I’ve seen much greater interest in what was going on in feminism of the 1970s. I’ve spoken with a number of students conducting research on that period. It’s a little sobering to experience oneself as a repository of history!
Tyler: Terry, do you consider yourself a political writer because of your feminist themes?
Terry: Actually, I’m not very interested in politics; I don’t have much faith in it.
I am very interested in the systems that humans construct, how they reflect the best and worst in human consciousness, how those systems serve or don’t serve individuals, and then how systems, individuals and consciousness change, and the symbiosis of that.
Tyler: Terry, I can appreciate that you don’t have much faith in politics, but that said, feminism’s challenge has been largely to get women’s equality legalized—the right to vote, equal pay with men, sexual harassment in the workplace being illegal. But while laws may change, people’s opinions don’t necessarily. Maybe all feminists aren’t going to march on Washington to change things, but in what other ways can feminists promote their agenda and make a difference or create changes in consciousness?
Terry: My own engagement was in a strand of the women’s movement called “cultural feminism.” This took on the issue of how do we change people’s thinking? What are the representations of women within culture—do they exist at all, are they stereotypes that encouraged women to trivialize their lives, do they represent our full diversity of age, race, size and sexual orientation? At the Woman’s Building we sought to create a “women’s culture,” one that would reflect women’s experience and values. An example I can point to is the Incest Awareness Project (IAP), which was conducted between 1979 and 1981. When we began, there was a spate of creepy representations in film and television that sex between fathers and daughters or mothers and sons was titillating, erotically charged. The IAP included multiple components, including artworks, performances, and video made by women who had as children been molested by family members, as well as a media campaign to present the reality of sexual child abuse as opposed to the fantasy that was being depicted in the mainstream. We worked alongside activist groups as well, and I believe we achieved a change in the cultural perception of incest.
Tyler: “The Labrys Reunion” is also characterized as gay/lesbian. Will you tell us a little about those themes in the novel?
Terry: The characters in “The Labrys Reunion” locate themselves across the spectrum of sexual identification. This reflects the reality of the feminist movement. Some heterosexual feminists are at ease working with lesbians in the movement; others were mad or felt threatened by it. If you look at most of the infrastructure of the women’s movement—organizations, clinics, bookstores, etc.—there was almost always some level of involvement by lesbians.
Tyler: Will you tell us what role lesbianism plays in “The Labrys Reunion”?
Terry: Some of the characters are lesbian, and some have or have had relationships with other women at the reunion. I don’t see it as a book about lesbianism, however (I mean, lesbianism is not an issue per se); it’s a book in which a number, but not all, of characters are lesbian.
Tyler: Would you talk about the issue of race in “The Labrys Reunion”?
Terry: Among the characters in the novel are two African American women (actually one is mixed race) and two Latinas. Some are vocal about the subtle forms of racism they encounter; others have made the decision not to focus their attention on it. But their cultural experiences have shaped their feminisms, often in different ways than the white women.
There is also an action taken by one of the white women that is nearly catastrophic for a Black man; what makes this possible is an unacknowledged racism that leads her to make erroneous assumptions. There is a tragic history in our society of white women and Black men being manipulated by the dominant power structure of white men to undermine each other’s liberation and we still haven’t figured out how to be allies.
Tyler: Terry, how would you define yourself? For example, Ayn Rand today is known for her objectivist philosophy, but she repeatedly stated she was a novelist first and then a philosopher. Do you see yourself as a writer and then a feminist, or are they inseparable, or do you feel there is a better way to define yourself?
Terry: My self-definition keeps evolving. Being an artist has always been part of it. At one time it was hugely important to declare myself as a feminist and a lesbian—all these things have shaped the choices I’ve made in my life. These days those identities don’t seem as central; it’s more important to see myself as a conscious person and try to bring that quality of consciousness to whatever I do.
Tyler: We haven’t talked about being an artist, but your main character, Gwen, is an artist. Will you tell us a little about your art, and do you see it as aligned with your writing as being feminist?
Terry: I use the term “artist” inclusively. In addition to writing, I’ve made performance art and well as theater, collaborated on some video art, and created a few installations. The Feminist Studio Workshop was a two-year art school, and I can see how that training prepared me differently than if I’d gone to an MFA writing program. I think all art—consciously or not—reflects the values of the artist.
Tyler: What made you decide that Gwen would be an artist in the novel? Is she somewhat a portrait of yourself?
Terry: Among political feminists, the cultural feminists were always regarded with a bit of suspicion; I think artists are in general regarded with suspicion in the United States. Making Gwen an artist allows her to be a bit of an outlier in the group, and that quality of slightly standing apart is an important characteristic in a protagonist. Many characters in “Labrys” carry traces of me—Gwen is an artist, Luanne is a working class woman from Detroit, Elena works all the time; I could go on!
Tyler: What role would you say art has played in the feminist movement? Is it a less effective form than literature in expressing feminism?
Terry: Well, I include the literary arts under the art umbrella, so I don’t make that distinction. I think images can provide potent representations and can speak to people who might never pick up a book. I wouldn’t rank art forms in terms of their potential to create change.
Tyler: What would you say was your ultimate purpose, or what you wanted readers to understand after reading “The Labrys Reunion”?
Terry: I have to make a list:
- that feminism and feminists were not monolithic, but held a breadth of beliefs and engaged in diverse strategies;
- that misperception, misunderstanding, and mistrust exist on both sides of the generational divide;
- that the work of feminism—that is to say full personhood for women—remains unfinished;
- that younger people, even when they seem resistant, do really look to their elders for models and we need to be careful about what models we provide; often in the heat of the moment we might adopt a stance for rhetorical shock value, but it can be interpreted literally by someone impressionable who hears it.
- that the issues of sexism and racism are inextricably linked, and feminists have not always been wise or deft in understanding that.
Tyler: Terry, do you have plans for another book, and if so, will you tell us a little about it?
Terry: I have another novel coming out in fall 2011. Titled “Stealing Angel,” it’s about a woman who kidnaps her former partner’s child after she finds that the child has been beaten. She takes the child to a spiritual commune in the southern Baja, where everyone undergoes unexpected transformations.
Tyler: Wow. That sounds like a really powerful story, Terry. I hope you’ll come to talk to us about it. Thank you for joining me today, Terry. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information may be found there?
Terry: At www.terrywolverton.xbuild.com you can find out about the other books I’ve written and those I’ve edited, listen to a reading of some of my poems, learn about the writing center I run as well as my consulting business. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.
Tyler: Thank you, Terry. It’s been a pleasure to interview you, and I wish you much luck with “The Labrys Reunion” and your future works.