When seventh-century B.C. poet Sappho fashioned erotic lyric poems for the women she nurtured and loved -- scenes, for example, of girls lying on plush mats pouring myrrh on each other -- her verse was celebrated among scholars as sublime. The ancient Greeks obviously didn't have hang-ups about homoerotic love, hang-ups that led later societies to outlaw same-sex sex.
By the 1960s homosexuality wasn't illegal in much of the United States, but even in a metropolitan city like New York, gays were getting hassled. In 1969 a small group of gays, lesbians, and transgenderists in Greenwich Village -- fed up with perpetual, often-violent police harassment -- fought back by chanting and throwing stones and bottles. The Stonewall Riots are believed to be the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement.
The Stonewall Library and Archives in Fort Lauderdale, named for the infamous incidents, draws Gay Pride Month to a close in a more pacifistic fashion with a benefit reading and discussion by local fiction-writer Karen Dale Wolman. The library, run by a small group of devoted volunteers, boasts the largest collection of gay and lesbian literature in the southeastern United States.
"I wanted to do a benefit for a small gay organization, and I have more time than money to give," Wolman states modestly, although all of the door proceeds and half of her book-sale revenue from the event will go to the library.
A lesbian writer doing a benefit for a gay library is certainly no stretch, and not unlike Sappho's verse, much of Wolman's work revolves around intelligent and complex women seeking to understand themselves, each other, and love. Wolman's first novel, Rites of First Blood, spins the tale of an American doctor named Sara -- a lesbian, of course -- whose journey into the Amazon jungle begins as a quest for alternative medicines and ends in a love affair with Olani, the shaman of a legendary matriarchal tribe. "She closed her eyes to Olani's touch," Wolman writes, "and images of Amazon women, Greek women, Onasaki women, warrior women who did not need men ran through her mind."
Originally from Queens, New York, Wolman partially credits her ideas for the fictional Onasaki tribe to undergrad anthropology classes at Queens College. She's quick to point out, though, that the imagination serves a writer best as a thing of mystery. "I don't want to question too closely where my ideas come from. I don't want to know what's going to happen in my work. If I knew, I would have no reason to turn on my computer. For me it's more fun to make the stuff up first and check facts later."
Wolman began her career by checking the facts first, freelancing for dozens of magazines, including The Advocate. She also taught writing for 13 years in Los Angeles, where she earned her master's in professional writing from the University of Southern California School of Journalism.
She moved to Fort Lauderdale from Phoenix last year after purchasing a car and heading out à la Jack Kerouac on a quest to decide where she wanted to live. "I was looking for a smaller and friendlier city," she recalls, "a city without earthquakes."
Wolman confesses to having "no idea" what stories she'll draw from at any given reading but lets on that she often closes with a ritual scene from her novel. Typically she asks audience members to close their eyes and follow her voice as she guides them through the damp muddiness of a Brazilian rain forest.
"People trust me enough to get lost," says Wolman. "Sometimes I have to ask them to open their eyes when the reading's over. It's the best compliment I can receive as a writer. I care more about that than selling books."
-- Emma Trelles
The Stonewall Library and Archives is located at 1164 Oakland Park Blvd., Ste. 300, Fort Lauderdale. The benefit will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 24, in the Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $10. Call 954-561-1982.
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