Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, Edited by Gillian Kendal; University of Wisconsin Press, 230 pages; paperback, $19.95
Reviewed by Heather Cassell
When I embarked on a search for stories by queer women travelers, I didn’t expect that it would be a journey in itself: “L Word”, “power lesbians” and years of treasure troves of lesbian travel tales pilfered from the pages of lesbian magazines be damned. Someone somewhere would have the brilliant idea to collect and bind similar stories in an attractive anthology. My assumption was almost dashed after browsing the internet for an afternoon, but hidden between the covers of slicked down gay boys fair share of travel reading, one gem was found: the only single compilation of lesbian and bisexual travelers’ travel essays, Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, edited by Gillian Kendall.
I wondered about the dearth of literature by and about queer women travelers and pervasive stereotypes that assume queer women just don’t travel due to lack of financial resources to nesting, fondling the remote and the cat on the couch as factors in the lack of volumes of collections of lesbian travel tales. Stereotypes that is clearly untrue.
Kendall gathered the tall tales of queer women’s explorations I was searching for in one volume. Kendall presents 18 travel essays and one fictional story from emerging and experienced queer women travel writers about lesbians’ journey’s around the globe as they hit the road discovering the world around them as well as the world within them in Something to Declare.
And as usual, there were stories that I didn’t quite expect. One of the things I didn’t expect, but have experienced in the past when writing about lesbians and bisexual women, is that gender often trumps sexual orientation in a way that doesn’t seem to happen to gay men. Kendall quickly identified this challenge when she began to receive pieces for her review for the book that made “no reference to sexuality or orientation,” simply stories about women who “one assumed [were] lesbians.” The process immediately turned into a definition game: what is lesbian travel, what makes lesbian travel, what lesbian travel is, and more what is a lesbian?
“I’ve always thought that lesbians were brave. … in order to define yourself as a lesbian, at some point you have to leave the (straight) road more traveled and find others of your kind. Most of us start out on the journey alone and with bad directions,” Kendall writes in the introduction.
Those bad directions can include self-destructive young love, such as in “What Happens after This Day”, where Hannah Tennant-Moore writes, “Being in love with Ashley was joints and cheap beer and Grey goose vodka stolen from her mother and shrieking orgasms,” along with dramatic fights filled with tears and late nights riding around in fast cars – that is until Hannah spends a summer at a Buddhist monastery in India.
Or simply disappointment upon reaching a destination only to find it isn’t as grand as one imagined or read about as Jane Churchon found out on her excursion to France with her partner in “The Gift Ship is Never Fermé”.
All it takes is a little courage to take the first step and sometimes the first kiss, “… once you’ve found the courage (and the girl) for your first lesbian kiss, you’re probably going to be a lot less timid about the rest of your life, including vacations,” writes Kendall.
But Kendall learned that homophobia in certain cultures can silence the adventure of the first kiss for a lifetime as Tzivia Gover writes in “Wind” or temporarily as lesbians venturing through countries where homophobia and sexism are prevalent as Lucy Jane Bledsoe and her partner are all too aware in “Fruits at the Border”.
More often than not the first kiss and “flesh” can educate the spirit moving the “sluggish heart and the slack mind against their will” as the late E.M. Forster wrote. Patty Smith finds this out when she journeys to Africa to spend a year teaching in Senegal as she recalls in “Playing with Fire.”
In spite of our fears traveling as queer women, Kendall shares the brave ways lesbians and bisexual women travel since “we are not prone to the lure of packaged tours” that simply lead to good stories.