Tiny, Insouciant, and Sharp Enough to Cut


Transient Intimacy

Volume 8, Issue 02
October 31, 2022

This might be the first time you’ve heard of Camille Roy. Honey Mine, published last year by Nightboat, collects more than 40 years of her writing, much of it previously unpublished. It includes fictionalized, poetic, and essayistic expressions of Roy’s experiences growing into her sexuality and mixing with lesbian communities around the US, most of which were thoroughly ghosted—ignored, denied, or unnoticed by mainstream culture. She documents the underground intimacy of her generation’s experience of queer community, exposing a microcosm of creative and emotional flourishing that emerged not only in spite of, but because of society’s refusal to recognize the lesbian.

Roy is an underread writer of the New Narrative movement that originated in San Francisco in the late 1970s, a genre of sometimes-fragmented, personal, queer-tinged writing, but she writes with a rigor that I think eclipses the often-derogatory label “experimental.” (Roy, without disavowing it, notes its use as a term levied in the States at writing and art too rich for American taste buds.) Her stories and essays present an opportunity to witness and reflect on the changing trajectory of communal lesbian intimacy and the spaces it inhabits through her expansive sense of narrative and what it means to record a memory or a feeling. Her past—whether novelized or documented—is a character, and she affords it that autonomy: “Sometimes I feel that the truest respect one can show towards the past,” she writes in her afterword to Honey Mine, “is to allow it to be something other than a predecessor of the present. Perhaps its alien and most forbidden nature did not reproduce.”

The distinct past that she conjures speaks to a fading kind of queer identity formation. In a recent interview, Roy notes, “In my generation … identity was brought up from the depths after you submerged yourself in ‘experiences.’ It was charged with a feeling, perhaps a feeling of mysterious encounter. I suspect that when queer life was so often underground this type of identity formation was common, perhaps typical. Queer theory provided another route, and so did assimilation.” She figures the tapering off of this sensory encounter as the quiet dispersal of the lesbian underground and the intimate community it generates—a space where identity is forged, questioned, and toyed with rather than absorbed from the outside world.

To be forced underground creates a sensitive network of recognition and identity-building, as well as the unexpected liberation that can come with being unseen. Roy writes, “Social life constructs itself even when there is intense desire that it not exist. The way we were erased made us hyper-visible—to each other. This felt like a form of molecular liveliness: tiny, insouciant, and sharp enough to cut. It gave me a zone of freedom that was intoxicating.” Despite the obscuring effect of erasure, the underworld that she describes values what Terry Castle coined the “apparitional” quality of lesbian life for its world-building potential: a freedom to create, play, explore, and generate meaning. It’s a rare example of a social life led in large part by creativity through “the freedom to play with gender and not be suffocated by its images.” In the dark, those pre-existing images of gender and social fabric are as ghosted as the lesbian herself, replaced by the spark of recognition and co-conspiracy with its particular homosocial intimacy of looking inward and outward at the same time. What do I see in you that I see in myself? What could we create? “What of the desire for another,” Roy writes, “not to be loved, but to love? Do I want to recognize me in the lover? Do I want love to recognize me? Do I seek to be lost in love? To be its familiar?”

I started this essay by calling Honey Mine underread, and it is—a writer of Roy’s caliber should be better-known—but it is also, ultimately, a book for lesbians and other gender outlaws. It isn’t designed to be notable; the very syntax of her language eludes recognition by the establishment. That’s okay. Narratives that stray beyond “suffocating images” have their own rewards; limited and intimate recognition is both the crucible and the fruit of giving voice to the tiny liveliness of a ghostly self and its familiars.

Works Referenced

Terry Castle. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. Columbia University Press, 1995.
Camille Roy. Honey Mine. Nightboat Books, 2021.
Jamie Townsend. “Honey Mine and the New Narrative Form: An Interview with Camille Roy.” Lambda Literary, March 2022.

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Volume 8, Issue 02
October 31, 2022

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