My name is Lepa Mladjenovic, and I am a feminist lesbian from Belgrade, Serbia. I've been wanting to write to you for some time. I think the first time I thought of it was a couple of years ago, around the war in Bosnia, and I was e-mailing with Women in Black from Israel--Haya Shalom, Gila Svirsky, and I saw your name on one e-mail listing...Now I have A Fragile Union on my pillow and I must write. So first I ask you how are you, and I send my greetings that I have entered in your home, and then I wish to let you know that you are present in me sometimes, in some other lesbians in Belgrade and then in this region as well.
I remember that the first time I read from you was "My Mother Liked to Fuck," it was around 1988, and I was only becoming a lesbian with identity and I read that, and it was a shock to all my senses...I brought "A Restricted Country" many times and gave it to many. Particularly, it was during the Bosnian war time that I needed to read and reread you. From the beginning of wars in this region from 91 on, I felt that I have to invent Ten Thousand ways to let my lesbian desire breath. At some moments during the last 8 years, it was not easy for me to put into words how do I feel when making love with a woman and in the background there is a radio with the news of the war. Killed or expelled or other Fascist acts. In my room, I would not be able to switch off the news, because I thought respect to the killed I will show by not switching off the radio...I was learning lesbian language through your words: "Hundreds and thousands of us held our passions close as we created public beauty in our countries."
Dear comrade Joan,
I send you tender regards,
(The Words, in Arabic and English, on a t-shirt produced by ASWAT, Palestinian Gay Women
Translations are very special gifts to writers. They are acts of generosity that undertake the most difficult of things--to transpose moments of imagination, so specific in history and language, in geography and culture, into another imaginative world with its own complex continuities. Translations are divine interruptions in the lives of texts. I do not think my work is divine in any way, but I do know that all who have struggled with the specifics of my language choices, who have helped to bring this volume into being, are the best friends a writer can have.
In May of 2007, my partner, Dianne Otto, and I joined our new friends Dalia Sachs and Hannah Safran, in their home in Haifa. This was our first visit to Israel--there is a direct line from the Women in black vigils on 14th street in New York City to us climbing up the worn Haifa steps, with the old port behind us and the sad complexities of this city, this land, above us. The 12 days we spent in Israel formed the most profound journey of my 67 years of life--our hosts, including Gila Svirsky in Jerusalem, forced us to see through their eyes, through their hearts, what peace activists in this country face every day--the wall, the check points, the struggle to keep alive the best of the Israeli vision for another kind of nation. Like feminist peace activists back in New York and in Melbourne, Australia, our other home, and around the world, where women stand on street corners, calling for the end of occupations, armed conflict, the suffering of citizens at the hands of militaristic regimes, the women we met in Israel were both tired and generous, welcoming and questioning.
Dalia and Hannah had arranged for me to speak with women of the Haifa feminist community at two events, a potluck in their home and a gathering at the Haifa Women's Center sponsored by l'Isha Isha. At the pot luck, I met many of the wonderful women and David, the publisher, who would become involved in this project. One of the conversations I had that night went right to the heart of me. Rouda, one of the founders of ASWAT, the Palestinian Gay Women's Association, told me she had never heard of my work--what is it about, your work? Before this forthright question, we had been talking about the possible richness of the margins, the subversive force that comes from surviving the blows of power, and then even more, using the richness of that which is denigrated to create another kind of strength--one that never ceases to call for liberation. My words staggered as I tried to depict a life's work--but the deeper confusion was the question--do my writings about lesbian-queer-fem bodies and histories, American-marked social and racial struggles, about my Bronx-born working class eroticized Jewish mother deserve to live in the face of Israel's-Palestine's struggle for co-existence. This translation will give each of you the chance to decide for yourselves--are my words of any use.
After a sleepless night pondering Rouda's question, I met with the women in the Haifa's Women's Center, beginning my own act of translation--by reading "My Mother Liked to Fuck" and "The Bathroom Line." I needed to be as honest about what compels my writing as I could, to begin our discussion. I can still see us, sitting in the large circle, many languages represented, trying to find a common woman's ground. I had learned from my reading of Sappho in the Holy Land (edited by Chava Frankfort-Nachimias and Erella Shadmi, 2005) that women's centers had played a crucial role in allowing women to explore their sexual and political selves, and with gratitude to Nabila Espanioly, the Director of the Nazareth's women's center and to Hannah, I saw first hand, in our 12 days, the dynamic communities of women-- Palestinian, Ethiopian, Jewish, Christian, old and young--who worked together in these centers. I saw hope.
The conversation next continued in a classroom in Tel Aviv where I spoke about "History, Passion and the Body" as part of a series of programs sponsored by Gay and Lesbian Studies, the Queer Theory Reading Group, the Porter Institute and NCJW Sudies Forum--thank you all--and it was here I met a young group of queer women, part of Israel's butch-fem community, many of whom had also been members of Black Laundry, a new generation's version of Women in Black. Because of my work with the Lesbian Herstory Archives, I am a carrier of voices from what I call our survival time, and I shared some of them that afternoon, including the story of Jul Bruno, a young Italian working class butch who spoke to me, many years ago now, about her erotic adventures in the early 1960s bars of Greenwich Village. An older butch woman was in the audience, and she did not like my thank yours to Women in Black or my comments about the need to end the occupation--why do you need to put politics into our story, she said. As I answered her, and she resisted, we met in some other place--the place where old comrades who over their life times have fallen out but who can still, from time to time, remember the shared humiliations and the muted victories of another time. At the end of the two hours, a group of fem women came up to talk with me about the difficulties they faces, the judgments from all sides that accompanied their lives. As they spoke and I comforted, I saw their beauty.
That night we spent in the Jerusalem home of Gila Svirsky and her partner Judy; the following day we stood vigil and then Gila took us through the streets of Jerusalem; at one point we crossed over the green line, going in the West Bank, and then we traveled along the wall surrounding Bethlehem, stopping at the checkpoint controlling Palestinian entry and departure and finally, into the frantic histories of the old city. A long hard day. In the evening, another communal sharing of food; many of the young people who had been present in Tel Aviv had made their way to Gila's house for this potluck. Feeling a little tired, I sat in the backyard, taking in the scents of the warm night air, the sounds of Jerusalem, and one by one the students and their friends came to sit around me. They wanted stories of the body, wanted tales of how we survived the bigotries of the 1950s, how we found each other and tried to imagine another world. We leaned into each other and again I saw the beauty of the unarmed human body, their hopes for another kind of future held in their bare arms. "Come back to us," one of the young woman said, "when the occupation is over."
I do not know if I will ever be able to make this journey again, and so this book, brought into being by the generosity of so many, is the way I honor all those in Israel and Palestine who bare themselves in the face of history and ask for an end to dispossessions, walls and exiles.
(I want to especially thank Frederique Delacosta of Cleis Press whose generous waving of all monies made this book possible.)