By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter
This year, when Susan Stinson traveled to New York for the 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Foundation awards ceremony, she looked forward to seeing prizes go to books she reviewed-and came home with one of the Foundation’s most prestigious awards. The Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize-at $5000-is the largest award granted by the Foundation. The Prize goes to writers who have written at least three novels, or two novels and substantial additional literary work, such as poetry or essays. The Foundation’s Executive Director, Tony Valenzuela, calls the award “Lambda’s bullhorn at a rally.”
Stinson, Writer-in-Residence at Northampton’s Forbes Library, won for her books Fat Girl Dances with Rocks, Martha Moody, Venus of Chalk and Belly Songs. In addition, the Foundation considered her recently completed novel, Spider in a Tree, about 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards.
“My newest book has no queer content,” Stinson said. “Having Lambda recognize my career to this point is very affirming. When I’m taking those risks in my own writing, it’s such a beautiful leap of faith-and Lambda is willing to stretch with me.”
Stinson is no stranger to leaps of faith. Born in Texas, she was raised in Boulder, Colorado, then moved to Boston after college.
“Boston was culturally hard,” she admits. Yet, there in the Boston area, she thrived.
Stinson had always thought of herself as a writer, but her writing took off within the community of women she met through the Cambridge Women’s Center.
“I came out of a lesbian feminist tradition. There was a network, bookstores, presses. All my books have been published by small feminist presses. That network doesn’t exist (anymore).”
Initially, she looked at her experience and wondered, “What do I have to write about?”
She gave herself a task.
“Describe my body without using words that are pejorative,” she explains. “It was incredibly hard…so emotionally charged.”
That exercise led Stinson to a personal truth: her body, her queerness, and her writing are tightly bound together.
Over the years, she has appreciated the camaraderie of other fat lesbian writers and fat positive community-something she says she’s felt to some degree in western Massachusetts.
Stinson’s novel, Venus of Chalk (Firebrand Press, 2004), offers the reader a fat lesbian protagonist who grapples with a changing understanding of gender.
“She’s from that culture, as I am. She refers to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. She’s struggling. She’s trying to understand new ways of looking at gender and asking how to be true to herself.”
With Venus of Chalk, Stinson ventured into territory outside the lesbian feminism that she had embraced when she came out.
“People thought I was trying to appeal to a different audience,” Stinson says, shaking her head. “I could not have the life that I have, if I hadn’t been in that world and had access to that [feminist] knowledge base. I want to honor that, not erase it or forget it.”
Stinson’s new novel, Spider in a Tree, has offered her new opportunities to challenge herself and grow. Writing about Jonathan Edwards, a prominent 18th century theologian who lived and preached in Northampton, required truly understanding his beliefs. Raised Methodist, Stinson already had some insight into his faith.
“I have respect for what Christianity means to people I love,” Stinson says.
Although information about Edwards abounds in Massachusetts, in 2007, Stinson attended a conference about Edwards held in Budapest.
“When I was in Budapest, I heard a really brilliant theologian talking about Jonathan Edwards’ understanding of the trinity. He explained God as a father-figure/creator who is love, Jesus as the beloved-love needs an object-and the Holy Spirit as the love between them.”
“The Great Awakening swept through the colonies and framed the national identity,” Stinson says, adding that preachers like Edwards “were rock stars.”
As willing as Stinson is to step outside her comfort zone, not everyone is willing to follow her there. Spider in a Tree has yet to find a publisher, despite Stinson’s many laurels.
“Everyone knows I’m a lesbian. For a Christian publisher, my previous work could be a problem,” Stinson says. “That problem is part of what’s so compelling. Creating a wholeness, writing this … I don’t want to have to be reduced to just one aspect of my life.”
That is what makes winning the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Award particularly poignant to Stinson. In giving her the prestigious award, the Lambda Literary Foundation signaled their approval of Stinson’s past work and her current projects, acknowledging and affirming her as an outstanding queer author, no matter where her inspiration leads her-and her readers-next.