Finding Yourself In A Book: Katherine V. Forrest
I turned twenty-five in 1989, the year I came out and discovered the queer library that was housed in the gay community center. A small, well-used room off the main office, it smelled like books and industrial carpet cleaner. Six shelves came out from the back wall. A rainbow mural splashed color across the front wall, while couches provided a home for support groups, as well as a place in which to sink with a book.
The man at the front desk, apparently recognizing that I felt totally lost, rummaged around the shelves and handed me Daughters of a Coral Dawn saying, “This one is popular.” I sat down and opened the cover. Hours later, the gentleman roused me, “You’ll have to check that out; we need to close now.” I had been lost in the life of Megan and the coral world of women, feeling like I had come home somehow. I went to my apartment and read for another two hours, finishing the book. The story included a harrowing escape, a planet of peace, and complex philosophical decisions. The relationships between women were matter of fact and yet exquisitely rendered. Megan and Laurel’s story ignited in me the flame of possibility for which I had always yearned. Both story and storyteller left me awestruck. It never crossed my mind that I might someday meet her.
Daughters of a Coral Dawn became my coming out story. My rural Kansas high school class consisted of thirty-six graduates. Smitten with girls since age ten, nothing in the school or town libraries explained what I felt. A small, Christian college in Oklahoma yielded the same. A graduate school in Denver made me welcome as a lesbian, but their library still sat empty of my story. My discovery of myself in a book in a tiny queer library began my personal journey and my writer’s saga.
Between 1989 and 2004, I read hundreds of lesbian and queer novels, but anticipated none as much as I did Katherine’s. Her books remained symbols of hope and promise to me. In the early 90’s, they encouraged me to cover political movements for Lesbians In Colorado newspaper. Ten years later, they inspired me to try my hand at writing fiction, essays and poetry. Everything pent up in me from the age of ten poured out onto the page. Never having taken a formal creative writing course, the books became by my first teachers, and I began publishing short pieces in 2004.
In 2011, I became a Fellow to the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Voices Retreat in the genre fiction section. Upon acceptance, I looked up the person assigned to teach the class and purchased and read four of her works to get a feel for her style. The day before my flight to California, however, I received an email that she had injured her back and Katherine Forrest had volunteered to be our workshop instructor. I immediately went to my bookcases and pulled all her Katherine’s books from my shelves, a stack that now needed to be packed. (I only took one book with me…so this isn’t exactly true.) I was thrilled to have a chance to study with my favorite fiction author, and more than a little intimidated. What will she be like in person? Will I be able to overcome my hero worship enough to study with her? How will my writing stand up to her critique?
During our first meeting, I sat two chairs away, close enough to catch every word, but not be right beside her. I didn’t want my hero worship to be too obvious. In Katherine, I discovered a warm, intelligent writer who used her years of experience and wry sense of humor to tease the best out of her students. When she told us that a sex scene too early was not about connection, only plumbing, we all laughed. Another one of her dry, too-true-to-be-comical lessons taught us to be careful what we put into a book: if it was the first book of a series, or if it unexpectedly became one, we would be stuck with everything we had already written.
In workshop, Katherine also told us that writing took 95% temperament and 5% talent. As the week drew to an end, I asked her for an extra hour of her time. I wanted to know if I had that five percent. We talked and I held my breath and as the end of the hour grew near, I asked. She told me she thought I did have it and I almost lost my balance. But, I ended up finding my footing. She made me feel like I had started on the path to becoming a member of the new guard of queer writing.
At the end of the week, Katherine expressed a desire to maintain relationships with the Fellows in her workshop. She offered us the gifts of line editing, and advice when it came to our query letters. I have taken advantage of her offer to stay in touch, emailing her for advice and asking her for a reference for my curriculum vitae. I have not wanted to overuse her gracious gifts of time and wisdom; neither would I ever allow these generous offerings to slip away, unused.
Finding myself in a book was profound; it saved my life. It provided imagery and language for desires within me I had never been able to express. It gave me worlds in which to escape, in which to find my own reality, in which to take refuge when I found the “real” world too harsh, too unforgiving. It gave me hope that my own voice, nurtured by the works of Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa and Katherine V. Forrest, would bring its own particular worlds to fruition, the hope that I might master the craft of storytelling, too. Zora Neal Hurston expressed it this way: “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.” My queer life is the untold story inside me, one liberated by those in queer literature, like Katherine, who have marked and led the way.
From “25 for 25: An Anthology Of Works By 25 Outstanding Contemporary LGBT Authors And Those They Inspired.” Co-Edited by Ames Hawkins and Judith Markowitz. Copyright 2013.