Remember the Tarantella, by Finola Moorhead.
Remember the Tarantella, by Finola Moorhead. Spinifex, 2011.
A wonderful, swirling dance of a novel about a community of lesbian women exploring their inner and outer worlds, and finding ways to live both as individuals and as part of a larger caring community.
Australian author Finola Moorhead set out to write a different kind of novel, one that would reflect a how a group of lesbian women were creating a new style of living that encompassed global travel and the establishment of a home community in the Blue Mountains of Australia. In her book, she presents a “feminist aesthetic,” grounded in a nonlinear, rooted web of connections rather than conflicts. Instead of experimenting with a female language or use extensive stream-of-consciousness. Instead, writing in powerful, but traditional prose, she has structured her book to allow a variety of women’s voices to circle and interact. She does not provide a plot about a handful of characters, but writes a “we” book, featuring a whole group of sharply different women interacting across global boundaries.
As she describes in her afterword, Moorhead started work on this novel with diagrams and mathematical drawings of circles and triangles, then added some nouns and finally text. She structured her writing by using the zodiac, tarot cards and other more esoteric patterns. Overall, she spent eight years creating Tarantella, three of them listening to and incorporating the responses of women readers. First she expanded her book and then she cut it back. Little of her creative search for structures was evident to me as I read Tarantella, but somehow she manages to achieve a unity that underlies a sometimes chaotic and confusing surface. In addition, Moorhead is a fine wordsmith. The book is filled with sentences and phrases that I wanted to capture and keep. Her story is often rooted in the natural world and her description of the Australian landscape are moving. Her characters, admittedly sometimes strange, are real comprehensible individuals.
Moorhead lists twenty-six women as the cast for Tarantella, one for each letter of the alphabet. Some are Australian, but others are from Spain, Switzerland, India, the United States, and Brazil. They belong to different generations and cultures. Politics and personalities are also varied. As one woman describes them, they are “a ragged band of beggars trooping toward the sunset, as clever as gypsies, plucking mandolin strings and blowing mouth organs, making fires and cooking grains, the sisters, the spinsters marching in freedom.” Men are present around the edges, able to impregnate and cause damage but never fully drawn characters in the book.
All are the women are lesbians, and lesbian life is their common ground. Sexuality is present and taken for grant as important, but not highlighted. There are no diatribes against men or patriarchy or against women who choose to be straight. In a rare section near the end of the book, Moorhead expresses why being lesbians is critical to the women’s lives, but she does so in political, not sexual terms. As Etama starts to organize a movement against nuclear weapons and US military bases in Australia, she explores her own motivation. Viewing men as more willing to encounter death, she explains “But for women sex is a new beginning. It is new life. Engendering, giving birth, nurturing.” She was “aching for the new depth, the myth that got murdered, judged and silenced out of existence, but that’s always been there, the archetype, Artemis, the lesbian goddess, and the Amazons who were the first feminist branch of the human family.”
Moorhead does not give equal attention to all her diverse cast. Instead, she alternates brief chapters which highlight five women, the ones whose names begin with vowels, treating each with a different type of writing. Etama, traveling in Europe, writes letters. Arnache, imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, writes semi-coherent notes, perhaps in the sand. Ursuala, disfigured and isolated by an ugly scar across half her face, keeps a diary. Iona, a taxi driver and aspiring author is described in third person. So is Oona, an Aboriginal woman who had squatted on the land in the Blue Mountains before it was purchased by the “white dykes” who create a camp there.
The other women move in and out of the story, revealing surprising interconnections between characters and situations. On one hand each of the women is on her own journey. As Grunhilda states, “Following your dreams is a matter of trial and hard work, solitary, thankless and rewarding only in the eventual, inevitable understanding that, at least, you attempt to take your destiny in your own hands.” At the same time, all the women are part of a loose web. Physically, the land at “Moonmares,” is a place of temporary retreat and coming together, but it functions more as a touchstone than as a permanent, closed community. The women come together there, or Australian cities, or in lesbian-friendly households around the world,
Of course there are internal conflicts of many kinds; between generations, political factions and former lovers. The women, individually and as a group, face attacks from outsiders. But the book is an amazingly happy one. When couples break up, partners find someone new to love and be loved by. Characters put forth elaborate mystical schemes, but no one argues about theory. Together the women can create an electric atmosphere, “The conversations move, showing emotions, reactions, point and counterpoint. There is short story upon short story in the layers of the party, vibration crossing vibration, swelling into waves and receding into many little endings. Freshness of intellectual engagement, a spectrum of accents and attitudes from cynicism to commitment expressed, short of the need for disagreement.”
Just as Moorhead creates a unique structure for her book, she challenges the way we think about ourselves as women. She has not written a realistic portrait of a lesbian community, much less a community that includes a range of sexual diversity. She has not created a lesbian utopia, but raises questions for which she offers no practical solutions. What she has accomplished is to challenge her readers’ assumptions about what it can mean to be a woman and what women need in their relationships. Moorhead’s characters are fundamentally single and self-determining but they function within a larger supportive network of other lesbians wherever they go. They form close loving couples, bound to each other sexually and emotionally, but those partnerships do not limit their individual actions and they are not expected to meet all their needs. In other words, the couples do not function as traditional marriages. Some of the women have ties to their mothers and other family, ties which can hold them in painful situations. Iona, at least, seems to find a way to meet such obligations in ways that allow her continuing involvement with her close friends. Although the community of women welcome the birth of a new daughter, Moorhead avoids any real treatment of how motherhood and children fit into the community she envisions. None the less, she offers an alternative vision that differs sharply from those who would claim that woman, and by implication men, have to choose between individual goals and meaningful involvement in a supportive family or community.
Spinifex Press has reissued this book, initially published in 1987, and made it available as an ebook as a feminist classic. I read a review copy on my Nook.
Tarantella receives my highest recommendation. It is warm and fun and can awaken us all to fresh possibilities, whether or not we are lesbians. Unless you are too conventional to rise to its challenges, do read it. I love this book and can’t wait to read it again and discover what I probably must have missed the first time.