The book’s jacket promises a tale of “grief, recovery, codependence, and love,” making it sound like a perfect bedside companion to the typical 12-step manual. Until, that is, Emily slides her fingers between Catherine’s legs in a scene a few chapters in and turns it into a passionate sexual romp.
“If you had asked me if I would someday write such graphic sex scenes, especially lesbian ones, I would have said no–until the day I wrote these,” says Karen Lee Osborne, the author of Hawkwings, the book in question. It’s spicy in places, but Hawkwings doesn’t focus on sex. Instead, it’s about a lesbian’s recovery from loss, about shedding the skin of a painful past.
“Writing a lesbian novel was a new thing for me, and I think it’s a healthy and almost inevitable thing,” Osborne says. “The character Emily is not me, but she’s pretty close. Closer to me than I would ever have dared to write before. It took me a while to feel the sense of permission to do that.”
She wrote the first draft of Hawkwings in the summer of 1989, when, like her character Emily, Osborne lost her best friend to AIDS and suffered through a painful breakup with a longtime lover. “I’ve been through a lot of grief,” she says. “The only way out is through, as they say.”
Osborne, who holds a PhD in English from the University of Denver, had been teaching English and creative writing in small university towns for some time, concealing her sexuality in order to advance her career.
She also spent a year in Soviet Georgia, teaching American literature as a Fulbright senior lecturer at Tbilisi State University. “I saw a lot of people in the Soviet Union who didn’t have the freedom that I did, and that made me appreciate it a whole lot more,” she says. “You’ve got to be willing to use the freedom when you have it.”
A close male friend persuaded Osborne to move to Chicago when she returned to the States in 1986. It was here she found comfort, a little inner peace, and a lot of room to spread her wings. For the first time, she says, she could “live a free life” and “stop giving up my personal life for a teaching career.”
Hawkwings, her second novel, is set in Chicago, and her appreciation for the city is everywhere as her characters move along Halsted and Roscoe, eat at the Chicago Diner, and march in the Pride Parade. “I feel lucky to be here, and that’s part of the love in the book,” she says. “I hope readers who don’t live in Chicago get a sense of that.”
Osborne’s short stories have appeared in the anthology New Chicago Stories and in Naming the Daytime Moon: Stories and Poems by Chicago Women. Her first novel, Carlyle Simpson, published in 1986, won two book awards and garnered praise in the New York Times Book Review and Publisher’s Weekly. That story was told from the point of view of a 65-year-old heterosexual man.
While some straight readers may hesitate to read (or just plain run from) a book labeled “lesbian fiction,” Osborne hopes this attitude will one day change. “I think that’s what we all need, to start exploring a little bit more,” she says. “Why shouldn’t straight people read lesbian novels? I’m not a straight man, and yet somehow I read novels by Faulkner and enjoy them.”
By the same token, very few lesbians picked up Carlyle Simpson. “Not many of my lesbian friends were ever interested enough to read that book, which was probably a mistake,” she comments.
Hawkwings is published by Chicago’s new feminist-lesbian company, Third Side Press. The Andersonville-based operation, started in January by Midge Stocker, will specialize in lesbian fiction and nonfiction about women’s health issues. Chicago’s last feminist publishing company, Metis Press, closed its doors in 1988.
“It’s time and time past due for us to have a really good press here devoted to this kind of publishing,” says Osborne. “I think it’s interesting that Chicago, being probably the best theater city in the country and at various times throughout the century being a major literary center, didn’t have its own commercial lesbian press.”
She’s happy with her position as an English professor at Columbia College. And she’s still writing, exploring a variety of fiction genres and working on a sequel to Hawkwings. Talking about the book’s steamier scenes may bring a flush to her cheeks, but Osborne is proud of what she was written and how far she has come on her own terms. As she says, “Life is too short to cooperate in your own oppression.”
Osborne will read from Hawkwings, and she and Stocker will discuss the book, the feminist publishing business, and the author-editor relationship Thursday, September 26, at Unabridged Books, 3251 N. Broadway, at 7:30 PM. Call 883-9119.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phara Fisco.