The writer is always told to write about something he or she actually knows. There are obvious reasons for this maxim—perhaps the most important is to maintain the “authenticity” of the work.
And so in Black Lotus it is natural to wonder how a woman from an upper-class home in Brookline, Massachusetts and educated at Vassar College, could possibly be familiar with the seedy aspects of any city, never mind the crocked characters, the gangs, and, last but not least, the African American woman that comprise Black Lotus’s rough and tumble New Parise.
These are undoubtedly legitimate questions, to which I will proffer legitimate answers.
In my youth, homosexual bars were almost always located in the dismal, most dangerous parts of the city. We (most specifically lesbians) were persecuted; and, to avoid having to deal with the brilliant young men who enjoyed crashing our quiet scene and harassing us, we essentially hid from the rest of the world.
This had nothing to do with how we viewed ourselves. It was the reality of our lives at the time. And all of these sought out locations were in obscure areas of the city—often, peopled with individuals we referred to as “Rough Trade.” These lesbians carried knives, and weren’t afraid to use them.
Many of the bars were mainly frequented by ethnic groups, people of “color” – African, Americans, Spanish, Italian, etc.. As a white woman, no less, I was warned by my gorgeous girlfriend (who, for all intents and purposes, was of mixed race), to always give way to any and all ethnic person(s) or group. And if someone dancing should bump into me, I was to take the lead and apologize.
But the music was great, the bar generous, the girls…well, the girls were who they were, and I loved them for that. They provided an atmosphere of grittiness and danger, which we somehow found addictively appealing.
It was here I learned what it meant to face a knife in the bathroom, and the street lingo that goes along with it.
Yet we couldn’t get enough of these clubs, and the best part was we fit in and were accepted. Finally.
I have also spent time in jail. I won’t go into the reasons why. It’s not germane. There, I was one of two white women in a crowded cell full of drug addicts, hookers, and people who resembled anything other than me.
I picked up more lingo. The horrors of their lives. The dead-ends that come along with the ever narrowing telescope of ever diminishing opportunities.
I have also dated many African American men—obviously before I “knew” I was a lesbian. And I always found them far more caring, well-mannered, and fun that the boring high school crowd, or your typical MIT student.
My staunchly conservative parents once espied me out the window with a lovely African American Harvard student who loved to write poetry while escorting me home. I was vilified, told I would never go to college, and subsequently both tongue lashed and beaten.
I learned from all of this—most of which is relevant for atmosphere of Black Lotus, and thus, I feel, its legitimacy.
Which, for me, is more than important. Because the novel creates a world for the reader to inhabit—and the very least I can do as a writer is try to make it a legitimate world.
However, perhaps the greatest lesson I learned as a writer was how to determine the qualities of an individual. I learned that the color of one’s skin, one’s physical appearance, everything externally specific to a person meant (as crazy as it may sound) essentially NOTHING—in much the same way that a person’s professional and social standing can mean very little at all when we’re talking about their actual personality.
I learned that what really shows character is situation: who, for example, would rush into a burning building to save another human being; who would, without thinking, come to the aid of a vulnerable person in need or trouble. Action within a situation is how writers really know their characters.
There are other points that need to be made, though I will not include them in this column. What I will say is I lived a good part of this life on the fringes of society, and all too often along its tattered (but beautifully so) edges.
I never felt I fit in anywhere at all.
Except with people of color. And it wasn’t just the guys. I had close friends who were African American. A best friend.
With Black Lotus, I knew what I was writing about. It is not necessarily the culmination of my life’s experience—as I hope you will see in my future work—but there was more than enough there to throw my self so completely into this project, and care with all my heart about creating a world peopled by the entire spectrum of the humanity with which we share this planet.
Gender, race, and sexuality:
The beautifully Tattered Fringe
Black Lotus by Lita Lepie
"Possibly one of the most artful colloquial narratives of the past decade."
- E. Cohen
"My only criticism is that it wasn’t long enough..."
"...film noir in a book..."
"Awareness of race, gender and sexual orientation shades [Black Lotus] with great depth..."