Lesbianism is never mentioned in the book. No ‘queers’, ‘gays’ or ‘homosexuals’. It simply says two young women who are in love with each other start living together, running a cafe, raising a child. One raises hell when the other gets married. One is a tomboy, again an unmentioned word. But then there is the very clear mention of racism, many many episodes of white against black. This is the 1920s n 30s. I am talking about ‘Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe’ by Fannie Flag.
My fingers stop at this book on the Blossoms Fiction Floor in Bangalore, I admit, only because of the beautiful grey cover of an old house in some strange land. And then on habit, I turn to the first page, like the writing, look at the back, like the summary and reviews. There is a line from Harper Lee, she thought it loverly. Those perhaps were not her exact words but so to say.
And I was only expecting an old time story, switching between now and then, now being 1986 and then the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. But then there comes Idgie, in an unnoticeable paragraph, one of the many Threadgoode characters an old lady keeps talking about. Ninny, that’s our old lady. The nice old one with lots of tales, looking like, I imagine, the granny in Tweety cartoons.
Ninny says Idgie was looking wonderful in an organdie dress one day and just stands up and declares she won’t wear another dress again. She becomes a boy, in her dressing, in her manners, in her doings. And loves a beautiful girl called Ruth. Being used to the ways of fiction as I am, I keep looking for the word ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’, some sort of confirmation to make sure that’s what was happening between these two. But nothing, not even the mention of a kiss. Only their words, emotional moments and the easy love that didn’t need to be expressed tell you they belong to each other. I read someone writing about it, that he felt happy to see no explicit tags, because being gay was seen normal, nothing to be pointed out.
But this was the 1930s. Like I said there are the black and white differences that make you angry. A sick little child who couldn’t go to see an elephant because blacks were not allowed in – but who gets to see it anyway thanks to Do-it-all Idgie who brings the mountain to Muhammad. The elephant to her. And yet no one – neither in Idgie’s big family of oldfashioned lives, nor their many friends or even the locals – says anything about the relationship between the girls. Shure, I like it that it was considered as normal as a boy liking a girl. But it was not how 1930s was, it is not even how 2015 is. And when it is not a fantasy set in no man’s land, it is real. It is still in the world where two world wars and a 1929 depression happened. Fannie talks of all that, why skip this?
She could ask, why not? It’s her book, her story, why can’t she happily avoid that little scenario that is frustratingly real in real life. Why not wish it away in her creation of a world?