Djuna Barnes, the writer who refused to be boxed in
Despite having written a lesbian novel and being in a relationship with a woman, writer Djuna Barnes never accepted being known as a lesbian.
“I’m not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma,” Djuna is known for saying, referring to her then-partner, the artist Thelma Wood.
Still, Djuna occupies a prominent place in lesbian history for having written some of the most influential novels on lesbianism, like Nightwood and Ladies Almanack.
Djuna Barnes: Hard-knock life
Like a character from a story, Djuna was born on June 12, 1892 in a log cabin on Storm King Mountain, near Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.
Djuna lived a hard life. Her father, Waid Barnes, was a polygamist who married her mother, Elizabeth, in 1889 but his mistress, Fanny Clark, was already living with them in 1897.
She was raped at the age of 16, either by her neighbor or even by her father (which was hinted obliquely in her first novel, Ryder, and addressed directly in her play, The Antiphon).
When Elizabeth moved to New York City in the face of financial ruin in 1912, Djuna and three of her brothers went with her.
Though she tried to study art formally at the Pratt Institute, she had to drop out to support her family. That’s when she applied for a job as a reporter at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“I can draw and write, and you’d be a fool not to hire me,” she had told them. Soon, her articles complete with her illustrations showed up in every newspaper in New York.
Djuna Barnes: Extraordinary writing
Djuna’s writing soon got into the artist circles, first with the Greenwich Village bohemians and then later with the American expatriate community in Paris in the 1920s.
She became friends with Dadaist artist and poet Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, interviewed the iconic James Joyce, and influential salon hostess Natalie Clifford Barney became her patron.
Later on, when she became a recluse and lived in Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, she was neighbors with e.e.cummings, while Carson McCullers and Anais Nin stalked her (to her annoyance).
It was during this period in her life that she transitioned from writing newspaper article and started writing creatively, from fiction to plays and poetry.
She published Ladies Almanack in 1928, a roman à clef concerning a lesbian social circle based on Barney’s salon in Paris.
In 1936, she wrote Nightwood, about the relationships of five characters living in Paris.
Dylan Thomas and William Burroughs lauded this book, which is now regarded as an important work in modernist literature.
She has cited as an influence by writers like Thomas, Nin, Truman Capote, and David Foster Wallace.
Djuna Barnes: Reluctant lesbian
Djuna had relationships with both men and women throughout her life, and was almost married to Ernst Hanfstaengl.
Likewise, she had a passionate romantic relationship with New York Press reporter Mary Pyne. Her relationship with Wood was such that they lived together in a flat on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris.
So why Djuna’s refusal to identify as lesbian? Julie Taylor in an article in The Conversation said that there might be another interpretation to Barnes’s emphasis on Wood instead of being labeled as a lesbian.
“Identity categories provide a ground for political agency: they allow us to demand rights and recognition and they help us to find each other, to form alliances and communities.” Taylor said.
“But they can also be used to contain and police us. Unlike earlier lesbian and gay movements, whose politics depended on the idea of visible identities, queer theory grew out of a critique of identity politics,” she added.
Djuna’s statement might ruffle feathers as it “contains a tension that we might want to resolve, but in trying to resolve it we might end up missing the point,” Taylor concluded.