The soulful, damp greenness of the rain forest envelopes us as Fred drives us across the bluffs of Galiano Island (in British Columbia, Canada) to Jane’s house for lunch. Fred works at Driftwood Cottages, where we’re staying for a few days. While it’s acceptable to ask for a pickup from the ferry, being chauffered to someone’s house for lunch isn’t strictly part of the deal. Unless, of course, you’re going to Jane’s.
Jane Rule – writer, anti-censorship activist, Canadian lesbian literary icon – is now more-or-less retired and living in a house she’d bought with her (now deceased) partner Helen Sonthoff, thirty years earlier. She’s as much a part of the close-knit community of the island as the sandstone bluffs that form its ridge. She’s set up a low-interest system of lending money for island residents who can’t get a bank loan. A film about her,
Fiction and Other Truths, records how, in summer, island children used to flock to her outdoor pool; she and Helen acted as lifeguards and swimming instructors. It seems everyone on the island knows and loves Jane.
I read her sixth novel, The Young in One Anothers’ Arms (recently republished by Arsenal Pulp Press) twenty years ago. I was just coming out as a lesbian. That book, about a diverse community of people living in the same boarding house in Vancouver’s west end, owned by tough, androgynous, fifty-year-old Ruth, gave me an image of something that made sense: a way of being queer in the world. I didn’t want to lose my history by coming out, feared the hegemony of the Lesbian Nation. I’d been brought up to be feminine, to be skilled at the domestic arts. I’d also learnt the tough irreverence of my East European foremothers. I wanted it all. I imagined I’d someday move to Vancouver and live in a house much like Ruth’s. The house didn’t exist, of course, but it symbolized the diverse, polymorphous community I hoped someday to have. It is also, I realize now, a kind of chronotope of Jane’s life-long practice of community.
My friend Penny got to know Jane when she published Detained at Customs (Lazara Press), Jane’s testimony about censorship at the Little Sisters Bookstore Trial, and they’ve developed a routine of bi-monthly visits. When Penny told Jane we were coming up for a few days, she invited us both for lunch.
It’s a bit intimidating to meet one of your very own lesbian icons. I worried I’d gush, or, alternatively, that I’d be tongue-tied. But there she was, sitting regally in a chair in the corner that overlooks the famous swimming pool. As soon as she spoke, in her deep, gruff butch voice, I felt at home.
Penny had shown Jane an article I’d written critiquing the struggle for same-sex marriage rights in Canada, and that got us talking. Jane made analogies with anti-censorship movement: “It’s the same thing, she said, indignantly, “handing over power to the State. Hoping Daddy will take care of things. Well, yes, Daddy will, but not the way you’d like.”
Soon enough, it was time to eat. Jane has had arthritis for many years and now uses a wheelchair and a walker. But she runs her kitchen with cool authority, and produces a sensual, luscious meal to boot. The soup, a puree of wild mushrooms, stock and cream, was sexily accented with sherry. It was accompanied by artisanal cheese from Saltspring Island, and pears from a friend’s tree unlike any I’ve ever tasted before. Those pears oozed a sweet, ice-wine-like nectar that formed an amber pool on my dessert plate.
A thoughtful host, Jane put us at ease with her skills as a raconteur. As the wind and the rain blew across the cedars, we heard stories about her grandfather and his successive wives, quite the man about town. Helen got mentioned here and there: the complex Dutch pancakes she used to make; the way they organized the kitchen when they first arrived – everything is still the same. Jane’s voice, deep as it is, can hold sorrow and humour, like a chord. I could sense the softness and pleasure Helen had brought to her life, and could she how queerly she’d managed to keep those gifts alive.
Just like the mushroom soup, in fact: a complex and earthy balance of flavours, held together with luxuriant panache.
2 oz of dried mushrooms (eg. porcini)
2 Tbsp butter
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced (about 5 cups, can be a mix of wild and cultivated)
1/4 cup flour
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups broth (beek, chicken or veg)
1 cup heavy cream or sour cream (optional)
1/4 cup sherry (optional)
1. Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl and add boiling water to cover. Let stand until thoroughly softened.
2. Melt butter in saucepan and add onions. Cook until wilted and add fresh mushrooms. Stir and cook until wilted.
3. Sprinkle with flour, salt and pepper to taste. Stir to coat the mushrooms, then add to broth.
4. Drain the dried mushrooms and measure the soaking liquid. Add enough water to make two cups. Add this and the dried mushrooms to saucepan. Simmer for about 15 minutes.
5. Puree the mushrooms, using a food processor or electric blender.
Return to the heat and bring to a boil. Add the cream if desired. Chill and serve cold or serve piping hot.
6. Optional: add sherry or other wine just before serving
Yield: about six servings.