'The Only Lesbian in America' on How This Generation Has Gone Soft
Rita Mae Brown's iconic lesbian coming-of-age novel, "Rubyfruit Jungle," sold millions of copies when it debuted in 1973. We caught up with the author—as renowned for her feminist activism as for her writing—to see how she thinks we've been doing since.
Screengrab via PBS
In 1973, Rita Mae Brown published Rubyfruit Jungle with Daughters Inc., a long-defunct publishing company in the style of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's independent Hogarth Press. Based in Vermont, the press was run by the two women funding it, and Rubyfruit Jungle was one of their first books. By word of mouth—no ads, no press—a book that is most often described as a semi-autobiographical lesbian coming-of-age novel became incredibly famous; the women of Daughters, Inc., couldn't handle the number of copies being requested. Eventually, Bantam (now part of Penguin Random House) bought the press, and the imprint has continued to publish Brown's books ever since.
From being raised by Republicans to living as a homeless NYU student to owning a ranch in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she currently resides, Brown has led a fascinating life as both an activist (she got kicked out of school for participating in a civil rights protest, and was notorious in the 70s for her willingness to speak out about being gay) and a staunch feminist (apparent in all of her books and interviews). She has written dozens of books, both stand-alone "serious" novels, of which Rubyfruit Jungle was the first, and many mysteries, featuring a female sleuth named Harry and a cat named Mrs. Murphy.
To follow up this interview conducted in 2015, when Rubyfruit Jungle was being rereleased with a new cover, Broadly spoke to Brown about overcoming oppression, learning to love genre writing as a "literary snob," and the immediate, overwhelming success of her debut novel.
BROADLY: I'm sure you're sick of talking about it, but I do have to ask about Rubyfruit Jungle because it means so much to so many people (and means so much to me). What does the book mean to you?
Rita Mae Brown: Well, obviously I look at it differently than the rest of you do, because it was the first novel I wrote. So I look at it in terms of craft—what did I learn? I used first person, and I learned from Rubyfruit that it's not really my thing. But I realized that I could write a novel.
Was the positive response to Rubyfruit immediate, or did it take a while?
It was immediate. It kept selling out; it sold 70,000 copies in this tiny little press. The response was overwhelming, and of course nobody reviewed it and none of the literary things looked at it. They still haven't really, which is fine with me—I don't care. And then Bantam bought it from this little tiny publishing house, and again it was not a hardcover, it was a trade paperback, and it kept going and going until it had sold millions and millions of copies. I think that would surprise any writer.
In terms of your craft, are you more proud of your mystery books than Rubyfruit?
No. I'm most proud of my stand-alones, obviously, but the mysteries have taught me an enormous amount and I'm grateful to them. I'm also able to disarm people. A mystery is a very conservative literary format, and I can slip in some information. Every one of these mysteries has something to solve that's usually about some form of corruption. It's a good way to get people thinking if they want to. If they just want to find out who killed who, that's OK.
If you are put into a little box according to who you sleep with, how tacky is that?
What do you think of the current state of publishing?
Publishing has become extremely cowardly, and it's a pity. There are so many fabulous writers out there who may be entertaining very difficult themes. [Publishers] are perfectly happy to publish [books] about violence against women, no problem at all. They're happy to publish [books] about incest. But if somebody were to write a true book about injustice, I think they'd have a hard time getting it published.
It's a different generation, the generation that doesn't take chances. My generation was in the streets.
Do you think we've gone backwards since then?
No, I just think we've gotten soft and self-satisfied. If there is a true crisis, I expect Americans will do what they always do; we'll fight back. Right now, the generations younger than I am have been extremely privileged. Even the poor have been relatively privileged. To be poor in America isn't the same as to be poor in Guatemala.
Of course, it's always easy to criticize the young—every old fart in the world does it. But I think there are wonderful things about young people. I think they are much more emotionally wise. They know so much more about emotional issues than we ever did. I think they're much more sensitive to the lives of others. That's fabulous. [But] they don't want to take chances. In that sense, they're very, very different. Violence against women is still an epidemic.
Last year I asked you about the queer community, and you said you didn't really believe that there was one. Could you explain what you meant?
It takes generations to create a community. What we have are people gathered together for comfort and consolation as a reaction to institutionalized depression—and thank God they've done it. That gathering has allowed people to gain some inner resources and fight back, and there have been victories. I look at that and I know I will not live to see what comes next, to see a genuine community that is no longer being defined by its oppressor.
You also told me you thought a person's sexuality is the least interesting thing about them. Did you mean that sexuality is the definition of the oppressor?
Sure I do. If you are put into a little box according to who you sleep with, how tacky is that?
Sure, but it has become a defining part of so many people's identities.
And they're responding to their oppressor. Get rid of it! You can't necessarily get rid of everything about it, but as long as you stay defined by your oppressor, you are oppressed. And we've shown that we have some political energy, as have African Americans, as has the Jewish community. Once you start to fight back, things get better, so go beyond it.
You have to keep fighting. There's always going to be an element against you—that's just life. As long as they can't get ahead of you in the state legislatures and in Congress, we're all pretty all right. But right now there are still states—I'm living in one—where you can get married, but you can get thrown out of your job because you're gay. Stuff like that needs to be addressed, the political stuff. The other things are really up to individuals, the culture. Things like literally, physically, creating communities.
I think we've gotten soft and self-satisfied.
Do you want to do it? Is that your idea of a community? I don't know, but I think it's exciting to ask those questions. How do you feel about literature? Do you want to read a thousand coming-out stories, or do you think we've reached a point where somebody who happens to be gay can actually write about the tenth century in England and do a good job? I think it can be done.
I first learned that by reading slave chronicles in my 20s, the verbal testimonies of many who had been born into slavery, many who were still alive in the 1930s. That woke me up.
Very few were pitying themselves; some were angry, most were not. They made the most of what they had and found joy in life and love and loved others and wanted to really embrace life as best they could. I kept reading this and thinking, my God, what a magnificence of spirit. This is what [gay people] need to do. If these people could surmount what they had lived through as a very young person, who am I to complain?
So you feel like by expressing their life without anger, they escaped from oppression?
Not an escape, but [they were] no longer defined by [their] oppressor. Were any of these people rich? No. Most of them were still day laborers in their older years. I keep thinking, it's really fundamentally up to us, wherever we find ourselves. If you can fight back, do! If you can't, find what you can. If Gloria Steinem and I and others had raised the issues we raised, but in Russia, we'd still be in jail; if we raised them in the Middle East we'd be dead; if we raised them in France we would've been excommunicated by the Catholic church. But we didn't. We raised them here, in the US, and look at us.
But I'm lucky. I get to do what I love. I mean, I would've loved to have been a university professor. But when I was young nobody would hire me because I was the only lesbian in America. So I had to find my way, and I had to support my mother. Do I wish I could simply write stand-alone [novels] my whole life? Sure, but I wouldn't have been able to support Mom.
Is that why you originally turned to the genre writing?
Yeah—I didn't like it. I thought I was superior to it. I was a real literary snob. [Writing it] cured me. I've come to understand how good it can be. When you pick up P. D. James, you understand how good it can be. Or when you pick up Karin Slaughter, my friend who writes these thrillers—they're deeply disturbing, and they really are all about woman-hatred. The only person I know who can drive a plot as good as Karin Slaughter is Bernard Cornwell. I mean, it is like a freight train. I'm an OK plotter, but that's not why I write. I write because of the characters. I fall in love with these people and I can't restrain myself.
If you think about it, I could've spent my whole life writing Rubyfruit Jungle and never grown and never really pushed myself. I lead a terrific life. I'm surrounded by horses, hounds, blue mountains, and literature.
Sounds pretty idyllic.
It really is, but I had to overcome being defined by my oppressor. I just walk away from those definitions and say, "You can call me whatever you want—I'm doing what I want."
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