Saturday, July 30, 2011

PATRICIA NELL WARREN: Heritage Montana Writer

Patricia Nell Warren is one of the most well-loved Montana writers there is, but I’ll bet you never heard of her.  I don’t think she’s invited to the Montana Festival of the Book, that polite little celebration of middle-class folks and NPR celebrities.  They might not think of her as “Montana” since she lives mostly in California, but she grew up on the Grant-Kohrs Ranch in Deer Lodge.  That was her family.  You don’t get more Montana than that.  (Of course, some argue that Missoula is not Montana.)
She’s a few years older than me and one year younger than Annie Proulx.  She is frankly lesbian. My choices in that realm are quite different, but my politics are quite similar to hers.  They aren’t about what party I belong to, but rather about defending free speech, protecting minorities, opposing oppression, preventing predatory behavior, and addressing suffering of every kind. 
I’m looking forward to Patricia Warren’s most recent book, just now released.  It’s a collection of essays stretching back half a century.

The first Warren book I read was slipped to me by a gay Blackfeet student -- not really closeted but careful.  It was “Fancy Dancer,” the story of a priest uncertain about his sexual identity who finds his messenger is an Indian on a motorcycle.  It came out in the Seventies.   The student didn’t think I was lesbian.  He knew I’d been married to Bob Scriver.   But he figured I’d be sympathetic and if I read the book, he could talk to me, because it was a BOOK and I was his English teacher.  He was right.  
I think of the joke about the mother who said to her preteen daughter,  “We should have a little talk about sex.”  And the daughter says impatiently,  “Oh, Mom, don’t you get it YET??”  I mean, we worry about corrupting the kids and the kids are all wondering when the adults will wise up.
Warren says, “. . .the short pieces in My West were written over five decades, with no idea that they would ever be side by side in a book. Not until last year and my growing involvement with the Autry National Center's ground-breaking "Out West" program, did I take a second look at that longtime accumulation of Western-themed writings. A single perspective tied them together - and it was an LGBT perspective at that.”   [The Autry is a little more cutting edge than Montana Humanities.]
“It was amazing to realize that a piece about Oriental rugs going west (for the Denver Post in the 1960s) had a common thread with a 1990s piece for Lesbian News about my first closet love in a small Western town. That a history of haying technology had its link to a history of women (including lesbian and bi women) in rodeo.
“Maybe it's the extreme questioning that starts at such an early age for so many of us. That questioning drives us deep into the culture, into ourselves, to look for reasons, for answers, for ways out of the closet. Ultimately the questions are not only about ourselves, but the world we live in - its past, its rules and rhetoric, its religions and spiritual ways, its history and conflicts, and where it's going in future.”
If young gays have a lot of questions, young Indians have even more.  I’m tired of pretending that all the gay people are not there or are not gay or are not Indian or are not just as good as anyone else.  Where there are mammals, there are homosexuals and that’s a scientific fact.  Forget “lifestyles.”
I happened upon Warren when I was looking for publishers for “Orpheus in the Catacombs.”  I am accustomed to gays and gay-friendly people (have been since grade school -- grew up reading liberal books, I guess), so what knocked my socks off was her business history as a self-publisher which is a testimony to tenacity and insight.  Read and learn at her website:  I gather that things have gotten tougher but the thing about being old is that one has resources, being -- by definition -- a survivor.
“After my business partner and I lost our business office/home last year and the economy continued to tank, I decided that the best medicine for fiscal disaster was to say "damn the torpedoes" and publish a new book. The stories were already written. All my team had to do was scan, typeset, edit, get permissions where needed, design a cover and start the process. I scheduled it for June 15 in Pride Month, which also happened to be my birthday.  [The launch was in Bozeman, Montana, where the cow college is.]
“In short, My West is a birthday present to myself on my 75th birthday, to renew my conviction that books are what I want to do and that they're still worth doing.. . . I've been hooked on the smell of printer's ink all my life, from the 1950s high-school yearbook printed in a small town to the 1970s Reader's Digest coming off a mammoth web press at the McCalls plant in Ohio.”   [Warren was an editor at the Reader’s Digest for a decade.]
I differ from Warren in another way.  In high school I didn’t do the yearbook -- I was acting in plays and painting flats backstage.  For me the smells that mattered were greasepaint, rabbitskin glue, and hot spotlight gels.  Then it was chalk (NOT markers on whiteboard) and then molten bronze and then wet dogs and finally the smell of old churches. Finally back to sweetgrass and cottonwood smoke in Montana.  For me writing is a subset of performance, which gets me into trouble.  It has nothing to do with romantic preference.  The phrase might be “acting out,” though that’s not exactly right.  Not quite “act up,” but a defense of identity.
It’s time Patricia Nell Warren was as well-known as A.B. Guthrie Jr. and Norman Mclean.  To find out how Deer Lodge and Warren’s parents -- those stalwarts of historical Montana -- reacted to her first book, “The Front Runner,” watch these YouTubes, which are videos of her speech at the Autry.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

I've been a Warren fan for a long time now, having first read her gay novels years ago. I've followed her career somewhat, and it's really nice to see this new collection of writings. It dovetails with my own thinking about regional life and how it ties into LGBT life, as I write this new music commission for gay men's chorus about living gay in the Midwestern heartlands here. Good stuff!