Bisexuality, Queer Theory and Mary Dorcey's Biography of Desire: An Outlaw Reading

Paula R. Pratt, Assistant Professor of Humanities, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane

Hearing the term "post-colonialism" spoken in an Irish context we would most likely expect the reference point to lie somewhere within the greater portion of the twentieth century, following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921 (Irish 88). Until the last decade or so, these expectations would most likely be met.

More recently -- and especially in the fields of women's studies, gender studies, gay and lesbian studies and, indeed, Irish studies -- such a reference might also be heard in discussions of topics such as gender, sexuality, identity, difference, etc. Post-colonial, in these contexts, might be used by those envisioning a time (sooner rather than later, it might be hoped) when the hetero-normative occupiers of the sexual landscape would fold up their tents, de-commission their weapons, and steal away into the mists . . . leaving behind, simply, humans who would be, in Ellen Barnett's words, "free to love whomever they choose in whatever manner that works best for them" (qtd. in Rust 238).

Assuming that this vision is not to be realized any time soon (some might conjecture that the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland would sooner hand in their weapons than society remove heterosexuals from their role as "protectors" of sexual "normality"), we are left with the present set of complexities surrounding the juxtaposition of heterosexuality and "everything else." But, how to discuss these complexities? What terms to use? It seems that, as soon as one term is proposed and takes its place in the critical lexicon, it is deconstructed and replaced with another, or others. A constant process of clarification, narrowing, inclusion, etc.

For example, "sexual liberation" becomes "women's liberation," which becomes "feminism," then "feminisms" or "womanism." Similarly, "homosexual" is clarified by "gay" and "lesbian," and then, more recently, by the introduction (or re-introduction) of a term that seems to have become the canopy under which are gathered the above-mentioned "everything else," namely: queer.

At this point it might be useful to summarize some of the various definitions of this term, both in its popular reclamation by gays and lesbians from the realms of insult, and in its appearance in theoretical parlance within the last decade. Because my time is short, and the exploration of definitions multi-layered, I'll briefly say that the critical use of the term usually references the sense of diversity and fluidity among and within various sexual behaviors and identities, either lying along some sort of continuum or scattered across the (colonised) sexual landscape, having in common their deviance from the heterosexual "norm." I do also want to clarify that this description only covers the specific use of the term "queer" in a sexual context, and does not include its wider use to describe other "deviancies" and/or "differences."

I would like to focus my remarks this morning on Mary Dorcey's novel, Biography of Desire, in order to show how this story helps to shed further light on bisexual identity, which has been -- and still is -- perceived as deviating from both ends of the homosexual/heterosexual polarity. Judith Butler speaks to this: "Identity categories tend to be the instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression" (qtd. in O'Driscoll 31).

It is my observation and experience that many bisexuals (and some of them in the Irish queer community) have initially hesitated to identify as such for fear of being seen as betraying or diluting the effectiveness of the gay/lesbian political agenda, because of that part of their identity which encompasses the heterosexual attraction.

Dorcey's novel contributes to the understanding of this hybridity and its resonances by constructing a biography, not of a "queer" love affair, but of the human experience of attraction and desire: desire awakened, diminished, and reawakened, with all the attendant vagaries involved. Dorcey herself shies away from the label "lesbian writer," and prefers to wear the distinction of "Irish," if any. Nonetheless, in an interview published in Lesbian and Gay Visions of Ireland, she did address the topic of sexual "deviancy" in the Ireland of her youth and young adulthood:

The word 'homosexual' was not spoken or written in Ireland before the 1970's. The word 'gay' didn't exist. I had never heard of a bisexual. I had never seen one or spoken to one. So how did I manage to become one? [28]

Later in the same interview, she clarifies the evolution of her own "identity" by connecting it to desire: "I am lesbian because I have loved women more than men. That is, I have loved women more deeply, more completely. . . . I think I was born bisexual and chose to become a lesbian when I fell in love with a lesbian . . ." (30).

It might be said that it was just this sort of "hybridity" in Dorcey's own identity -- the rather fluid movement from bisexuality to lesbian identity -- that gave birth to the narrator of the "biography": Katherine, a married (presumably straight) woman, who has fallen in love with Nina. The novel is actually made up of two narratives, beginning with the story of Nina, an Irish lesbian partnered (for seven years now) with Elinor, mother of 8yr. old Lizzie. Nina has just received a diary, dropped through her letterbox, written by Katherine, an American woman living in Dublin, with whom she's had a year-long affair. The two had broken off their relationship, and Katherine had gone back to Boston to be with her dying father, but has returned to Ireland, having accepted that all was ended, only to be met at the airport by Nina. Katherine has written in the diary during the week she spent in a rented house by the sea in Clare, where she went to wait for Nina to make her "final" decision: whether to stay with Elinor or leave her to be with Katherine.

It is the diary that contains the other narrative. Katherine wrote it, ostensibly, to pass the time while she waited, alone in the house just outside a small crossroads town. She explains in a note to Nina, slipped into the middle of the book: "When I wrote this I didn't intend to show it to you but now it seems the best way of communicating. I want you to know what I've lived through in the past week, alone here, waiting for you. Please be patient. I want you to read it from start to finish. Begin at the beginning and don't make a final decision until you reach the end. Promise me?" (Dorcey 7).

We read the narratives in alternating chapters, set in different time frames. Katherine's story moves through her eight days of relative solitude, while Nina's is set in Dublin, during the two days following her receiving the diary. Both narratives contain portions of flashback, recounting the women's pasts and, especially for Katherine, the stories of their sexual awakening and development. The biography, however, belongs to Katherine, while for Nina the current time frame and events are more crucial, as she confronts the necessity of deciding which woman to choose.

Katherine's identity, more complex than Nina's, is revealed over the first few of her chapters, as we learn that she was born in the U.S. to Irish emigrant parents, but was sent back to Dublin to boarding school, and eventually married Malachy, an Irishman, with whom she has had two sons. At the time she met Nina -- and fell instantly in love -- she was, in her words, "A secondary school teacher, a mother, a wife, a nice middle-class girl who married a nice middle-class man. I know how well I fulfill the stereotype" (44).

As Katherine considers, in retrospect, whether she had only done what had been expected of her in the Ireland of the 1950s, or whether she had truly loved and been attracted to a man, she finds herself defending her current attraction to Nina in front of an imagined court (which would, of course, judge her fitness as a mother, given her new "identity"). She admits that "from my earliest years I . . . loved boys. Does that make it better or worse? But however confusing, [or] contrary, I'll indulge myself with the truth . . . and state categorically that the first person I loved was of the male sex" (153). She anticipates a common criticism leveled at bisexuals by lesbians: "They [lesbians] want to believe that a married woman in her middle thirties who falls in love with another woman must have been essentially lesbian to begin with. . . . [They] describe me as 'latent' or 'closeted'. They suspect women like myself of playing it safe -- denying our real nature until we've established ourselves in the conventional roles of wife and mother" (57).

She does admit that in the beginning of her marriage she had gloried in the approval of her "normal" union: "The whole world encouraging, applauding. . . .A handsome couple. The joy of life. . . . Proud of being at last that amazing ordinary thing -- a woman. And . . . fucking was not only the living proof of it but the very core, its nature and foundation" (61). But she again answers the charge: "I was genuinely attracted to all the men in my life. I want to say that at the outset. . . . I was entirely and contentedly heterosexual" (57).

It is significant that nowhere in her narrative, written a year after falling in love with Nina, does she refer to herself as a lesbian, even though she does admit to previous relationships with women. In fact, in her retrospective account of the "biography" of her various desires, it is clear that she was attracted to both boys and girls. Differently, it is true, but truly attracted and, in some cases, in love.

Her failure to name this female/female attraction lesbian is worth noting, given that such an admission would probably be expected by Irish society, and would certainly be acceptable to her newly-found community of Nina's friends. Neither, however, does she name her identity as bisexual. Rather, she asks: "Did I fall in love with you or fall in love with women? Did I grow tired of Malachy or tired of men? I'm not sure I can (or want to) answer any of these questions" (57). Her ambivalence is authentic, given the relative lack of public acknowledgment of bisexuality as a "real" identity.

None of this introspective question of identity is overt, of course. Dorcey is, after all, writing about desire. Nor does her text have the heavy-handed sense of "place" which has often burdened Irish literature. Still, the particular Irish setting, and Katherine's "American/Irish" identity are subtly used to foreground her psychic exploration.

Dorcey has purposely placed Katherine in a farmhouse in Clare, a county marked by isolated landscapes, where she will have "all the time in the world," as the Irish would say -- time she never had in her life as a wife, mother and teacher -- for herself. The environment in which Dorcey places her melds with her wish to come to terms with her authentic self, separate from her husband (or Nina). Referring to the quite literal "pull" which the mucky ground has on her as she walks, she remarks: "Everything here seems to have an independent life. A will of its own" (53). And it is her purpose for coming to that place to record what has happened and, if possible, why. To chart the "metamorphosis, [the] long journey . . . out of one life, as an ordinary wife and mother, into a new, totally unexpected world or a new way of being in the old world"(38).

As well, the shifting, moving, fluid nature of the west-country atmosphere mirrors Katherine's uncertainty about the direction of that journey. She speaks of the process of writing the "biography" in terms suggestive of the paths she walks to the crossroads and back each day: "To travel [this] arduous journey, stumbling from one hour to the next, from one foothold to another. Arriving at what seems a vantage point to discover only another cliff-face, the path sliding from under foot" (365). It is also no accident that Dorcey has created Katherine as an American, born of immigrant parents, who has emigrated back to the land of their birth. This particular journey parallels the other sexual one that she has taken, which she describes to Nina:

The culture you live in is so different from mine. It was at times as if we were from different countries, meeting in one foreign to us both and then deciding to go to the native country of one. In this scenario, I was the emigrant. I left my people and went to live with yours. [162]

As the week progresses, however, and Nina's life back in Dublin becomes even more complicated, the physical landscape and weather seem to merge with this new emotional territory, as she vents her anger and frustration at the unraveling of her plans: "Good Christ, what a crazy, god-forsaken bloody place! What am I doing here? I will go mad if I stay much longer" (222).

Katherine does soon leave, and the events taking place in Nina's life mean that she goes on to Galway, there to rejoin her family and hope for a further meeting with Nina. Whether that happens, however, is not as significant, as what Katherine has learned about herself in this week. By drawing her as neither heterosexual nor homosexual, but as bisexual -- a mix of both -- Dorcey configures Katherine's humanity at the core of her identity. She is thus able to say to Malachy, when he shows up to plead with her to leave Nina:

"I can't fit any of what's happened to me in the last months into your words. Into the words I had for my life before this happened. But I'm not the woman I was when this life was right for me. And I can't fit back again. I've been changed forever. It's not just about love or happiness. It's about a way of being in the world, a vision, a sense of communication and sharing. . ." (270]

Similarly, in words that balance these, she writes to Nina at the end of the biography: "Whatever happens between you and me, there's no going back. Even if I were never to see you again, I am changed forever by my love for you" (363).

And Katherine even faces the probability that she will have no relationship with anyone: "Maybe I'd be better off alone. Without man or woman," since it might be preferable to "end relationships while they still have the glow of perfection" (318). Whatever does happen between Katherine and Nina, Katherine can say, in the end, that: "I do feel that things work out for the best, if we are honest and true to our deepest natures. I don't believe in sacrifice or unnecessary suffering" (339).

Because of the time factor for this morning's presentation, I have limited my comments about identity to those concerning Katherine's experience, which I believe to be that of a bisexual woman. There is far more to say about Nina, about her choice in the end, and about the Irish characters that interact with Katherine in Clare. I do, however, want to conclude by returning to Sally O'Driscoll's article, in which she makes a distinction between what she sees the ambiguity of the term queer, due to its popular and theoretical usages, and what she feels is a clearer term, outlaw, used by Alison Jaggar in 1989.

People who experience conventionally unacceptable, or what I call 'outlaw,' emotions often are subordinated individuals who pay a disproportionately high price for maintaining the status quo. . . . Outlaw emotions are distinguished by their incompatibility with the dominant perceptions and values." [qtd. in O'Driscoll 34]

O'Driscoll further refines her use of the term by distinguishing between "outlaw theory," which is static, and "is the framework of the interpretation" and "outlaw theorizing," which describes the "outlook of the interpreter" (37).

I would consider the work I have begun in this paper to be an outlaw reading of Dorcey's novel, since I sense that my interpretation of Katherine as a bisexual narrator would be somewhat "incompatible" with some "dominant perceptions" within Irish studies, women's studies, and certainly gay and lesbian studies. My sense of this comes from comments heard in workshops, papers dealing with "lesbian literature" at Irish studies conferences, etc.

One such incident took place at a women's studies conference in 1997 at Trinity College Dublin, in a workshop around the topic of sexual identity. One young woman from Galway managed to come out as a bisexual for the first time, during the discussion. The facilitator proceeded to dismiss her contribution by saying that she (the facilitator) didn't give a lot of credibility to bisexuality, adding that, when she hears the term, all she can imagine is a group of men and women "romping about in the bushes together."

I would see Mary Dorcey's novel -- aside from the contribution it has made to Irish literature (indeed to the reshaping of contemporary Irish literature) -- as also and primarily making a contribution to the shaping of the perceptions and understanding of bisexuality in all its richness and humanity.

Works Cited

Bravmann, Scott. Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture and Difference. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Dorcey, Mary. Biography of Desire. Dublin: Poolbeg, 1997.

Hutchins, Loraine and Lani Kaahumanu, eds. Bi Any Other Name. Boston: Alyson, 1991.

"Interview with Mary Dorcey." Lesbian and Gay Visions of Ireland. Eds. Ide O'Carroll and Eoin Collins. London: Cassell, 1995. 25-44.

Irish Almanac and Yearbook of Facts 1997: Facts and Figures North and South. Donegal, Ireland: Artcam, 1997.

Jagose, Annamarie. "Queer Theory." Online. Australian Humanities Review. Internet. 31 Mar. 2001. Available

Newitz, Annalee and Jillian Sandell. "Bisexuality And How To Use It: Toward a Coalitional Identity Politics. Online. Bad Subjects. Issue 16, Oct. 1994. Internet. 2 Apr. 2001. Available

O'Driscoll, Sally. "Outlaw Readings: Beyond Queer Theory." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 22 (1997): 30 -- 55.

Rust, Paula. Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics: Sex, Loyalty and Revolution. New York: NYUP, 1995.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Casablanca Conference

Last modified: 31 May 2001