Lesbian Love and Sex in Afterglow

Afterglow: More stories of lesbian desire, sequel to Bushfire: Stories of lesbian desire, is a collection of seventeen stories edited by Karen Barber. The stories offer much diversity, covering love and sex that is long distance, unconventional, for pay, for life, or simply in the moment spontaneity. The stories take the reader all over the country, even as far as Hawaii, and span lifetimes, all the way from tales of teenage awakenings to end-of-life memories. While the stories do generally focus on sex and passion, the stories are about more than that. The stories express the search for lesbian community, history, and belonging. As works of fiction, the stories are real and raw, without relying on characters who are confused or ashamed of being lesbians.

The stories touch on these themes in many ways; where one story might only allude to something, another spans the gap. Starting in the first story in the collection, titled “What is the goal & how will we know when we get there?”, issues of belonging, closure, and certainty (or uncertainty) start to be asked and answered. In this particular story, conflict arises when two women’s life circumstances – living in different states, having families and jobs – generate doubt that any type of long-term relationship is possible, and the story ends with only a slight sense of closure. Two other stories, “Carol’s garden” and “Streak of blue” deal with uncertainty, but here they end in comfort and possibility. All three of these stories represent the struggles of life, and it is important that they come from different angles. Variety is abundant in this collection, and many sides of lesbian existence are shown, even ones that are rarely acknowledged such as prostitution and female masturbation.

Surprisingly, history and legend also factor into a number of stories. The search for history is most notable in “Gardenias,” in which two young lesbians vacationing in Hawaii discover, with the help of an old lady named Eva, the belongings of a performer known as the great Wah Ta Ta. The great Wah Ta Ta was a remarkable woman who, as legend goes, was able to suck whole beer bottles into her vagina. Eva shows the two women some of the items she performed with, such as the emperor’s teacup and ivory and leather dildos. The two women end up using some of her items to have sex while Eva watches from afar. This account is reminiscent of Cheryl Dunye’s quest to find the Watermelon Woman since most of Dunye’s research is gathered from talking to other women and by finding historical artifacts. In both cases, fact and fiction are likely mixed, but the importance of the Watermelon Woman and the great Wah Ta Ta rests on the search for history and identity rather than truth. History and the handing down of knowledge is also important in another story, aptly named “Cunt cult.” Here, a community of lesbians exist to pass their knowledge of love-making down to younger lesbians. Initiation into the cunt cult community means acceptance into the community, but members are expected to spread knowledge rather than keep it amongst themselves.

Of course, “Cunt cult” isn’t the only story centered on sex; to some extent, all of these stories are. Despite this, even the smuttiest ones serve a purpose. None of them feel like filler stories, even though many are very pornograpic. This does not mean that they lack substance; in fact, the focus on pleasure is important because it is a portrayal of lesbian pleasure authored by lesbians for lesbians. “Siesta” and “Telefon” are two good examples of how pleasure is used not only to satisfy the reader but also to emphasize the joys of giving and receiving pleasure. “Siesta” is perhaps the closest to “classic” porn on levels of fantasy and submissiveness, but the narrator is still able to assert the importance of her own pleasure. On the other side, “Telefon” is about the joy of giving rather than receiving pleasure. Additionally, three stories in this collection are stories of sex on the job, titled “Cinema scope,” “Filth,” and “A working dyke’s dream.”

This emphasis on pleasure becomes an emphasis on sharing throughout the entire collection, whether it’s sharing of sex, love, knowledge, history, community, or a sense of belonging. So instead of watching the newest lesbian tragedy on Netflix, check out these and other stories in Afterglow, written by lesbians for lesbians.