Saturday, March 6, 2004

Back to Basics: A Butch/Femme Anthology

Therese Szymanski
Bella Books

Back to Basics is Bella Books' first collection of short stories and this anthology sizzles with hot exchanges of long time couples as well as new found lust. Several of the 23 writers will be familiar to readers, yet over half are relatively new to published works. These stories are well written and delicious. Therese Szymanski has assembled a wonderful collection of erotica in this book. Back to Basics is also the first book from the publisher's new "Bella After Dark" imprint, a series of erotic romance titles that promise not to be your great aunt's Naiad stories. And more impressively, she has succeeded in leading the reader through a dialog on butch-femme issues with the story selections and their placement in the anthology. For example:

The collection opens with Karin Kallmaker's "The Butch Across the Hall," the highly charged story of Ronnie, a femme who is finally admitting -- and asking for -- what she wants. This very explicit tale marks a new aspect to Kallmaker's writing. However it still contains her signature wry wit and intelligent characters. Next is Barbara Johnson's "On the Road Again," a story that introduces Taylor Donovan (a butch Maryland state trooper who earns the book a place on my "books with lesbian characters named Taylor" list) and a truck driving femme named Rose. These woman are quite comfortable with their gender identity, yet they push one another to explore new dynamics in their first sexual encounter.

Jean Stewart (author of the Isis series) presents "Scoring" and addresses issues of appearance with a tough soccer playing butch who confuses some people with her "femme hair." However, an equally strong player from another team is not mistaken in her attraction. Amusingly, there are two entries that deal with lesbian writers at book readings. The editor's story, "The Fan" presents a femme author of main stream romances who pens lesbian love stories on the side and draws on her rich fantasy life for her writing. Or does she? And is contrasted with Jesi O'Connell's "Butch Between the Sheets," which is a delightful little scene that deals with a femme's response to a book reading by butch sexpert and author, Syl Salesberg.

Perhaps one of the most thoughtful "couplings" of stories is Kallmaker's "The Curve of Her" which features Louisa and Rayann from her novel Touchwood. For the first time, Kallmaker gives us a first person look at the world from the older butch, Lou's eyes. Set some two years after the novel, the couple are not only still very much in love and sexual with one another, they are growing together. Here, Lou discovers the power of surrender. This very sweetly romantic and erotic story is juxtaposed to Joy Parks' "Touching Stone."

Parks' story is a heartrending introspective monologue by a femme who thought she had fallen in love with a lesbian. She details the increasing grief of her life with a Stone Butch who is moving toward FtoM trans-ing. Discovering surrender is the last thing on this butch's agenda. And the story offers up wonderful observations from the femme that echo Kallmaker's first story. Written with an aching empathy this femme speaks of the women that will come into her life with these words, "I will know how to make a woman feel as butch on her back as she does in her boots. I will learn that it is my gentleness, not my weakness, that can make another woman feel strong. And I will touch them with everything I could never give to you." (175)

Julia Watts' "Found in an Antique Trunk" allows us to glimpse a relationship between two women in late Victorian America, via four letters. It is a wonderfully touching story that seems to remind us that there is very little "new" under the sun. Leslea Newman gifts readers with a charming entry from her Girls Will Be Girls anthology, called "A Femme in the Hand." I'd say more about this story except I don't want to spoil any of its fun. And there is a great deal of fun in these stories. Many of them have the kind of "got ya" twist that is a strong element in good short stories for this reader. The anthology's final entry, "requiem" by Elizabeth Dunn, suggests a poignant twist to the "personal is political" as a couple discover one another anew in the face of death.

One could almost wish that Szymanski included an introduction to discuss her selection and arrangement of the stories in Back to Basics. It is clear that she put great effort into both aspects of the editing process. However, the stories do speak for themselves. The editor has succeeded in creating an arousingly readable as well as interestingly thought provoking anthology. Furthermore, Bella Books is to be commended for the steadily improving quality of their cover art. This cover is sexy and pleasing as well. All in all, Back to Basics is a fine anthology of erotic stories that may be read on many levels. The collection is as thought provoking as it is arousing, and for a reader with little shelf space, this book is a keeper.

-MJ Lowe