This week, we’ll be posting pieces about fiction written by women. It’s the beginning of what will be an ongoing project here at Canonball — posts that propose alternative selections to the literary canon and start a critical conversation around those works that have already been canonized. If you’re interested in writing one of these pieces in the future, let us know.
Katrina Brown is a grad student studying Women’s History and all things Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. A book that she feels belongs in the canon is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg.
This book and I go way back. Well, actually, the movie that is based on the book and I go back a lot further. Idgie, Ruth, Whistle Stop, Kathy Bates and fried green tomatoes have been there, somewhere, interwoven through layers of my consciousness for as long as I can remember. The story is hard to explain in a short amount of space because it has lots of layers that span generations and a number of different perspectives. The core of it is the colorful Idgie Threadgood and her close friend and companion, Ruth, who own and run the Whistle Stop Café in Alabama in the early twentieth century. Large parts of her life are narrated in the 1980s from a nursing home by Ninny Threadgood, an elderly woman who lived in Whistle Stop when the cafe was the center of the town’s life. There are so many captivating historical threads in this book including the Great Depression, racism in the south, feminism and its impact on women in the eighties, and, most important and compelling to me, lesbianism before lesbians were even talked about in the U.S.
Fried Green Tomatoes was my favorite movie as a child. I loved it so much, and I watched it over and over as often as I could. At one point my mother put a ban on it because she thought it was full of too much sadness and wasn’t appropriate for someone my age. I think I was probably around eight at the time, and I didn’t even know what she was talking about. Certain facts of the movie that are subtly woven into the plot (such as the means by which the main characters dispose of a corpse) eluded me at that age. The fact that I had already watched it about ten thousand times didn’t really make her argument hold water for me. I loved the world of Whistle Stop with every ounce of my eight-year-old heart.
Idgie refusing to wear a dress and hiding in the tree house thrilled me anew with each subsequent viewing. I cried every time Buddy died. Ruth getting thrown down the steps by her abusive husband always made my heart pound. Kathy Bates screaming “TOWANDA!!” in the parking lot of the grocery store inspired more than a few towanda episodes of my own at various points in my adolescent development. Idgie and her bee-keeping charm and her friendship with Ruth were so close to me as I grew up that they became part of me. It took over my imagination and transported me to a world that implicitly felt like home.
It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I finally decided to read Fannie Flagg’s book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. It became apparent very quickly that Idgie and Ruth have more than just a casual friendly relationship. I was shocked by how obvious their devoted romantic love was in the text. Girls were loving girls! Girl-girl sex was alluded to! Idgie was absolutely and genuinely heartbroken when Ruth went to marry Frank! What! My reaction was one of genuine surprise, which soon turned into delight. I reveled in the entire experience of discovering what the story was really meant to portray. As I read, I soaked in the story like it was completely brand new to me, and I relished every page and every reference to the relationship between Ruth and Idgie.
At the time, I thought it was brilliant on the part of Flagg to bury the relationship in both the movie and the book. It struck me as a great strategy to “trick” people (read: me) into falling in love with this story and these women without turning their relationship into some deviant or nasty or yucky thing. I mean, the truth of Idgie and Ruth’s relationship had even eluded my extremely attentive mother! If it had been more explicit I can assure you the movie wouldn’t have been allowed near my house when I was growing up.
Speaking from where I sit now I am fully aware that a strong and mostly convincing argument could be made for why these stories might benefit from less hiding and more telling when it comes to homosexuality. Minimizing the romantic nature of Ruth and Idgie’s love for each other is inexcusable if we aim – as a society – for bold truth and acceptance in all aspects of life. That is an ideal, though, and not everything in life functions like the ideal. Gayness in real life can be like the unlabeled love of Ruth and Idgie in both this book and this movie. It was for me, in my life. My own gayness was in the background and yet alive in my imagination as a deep substantive part of me despite the fears and forces out of my control that told me not to say it out loud.
Lesbianism was hidden in my life for a very long time in the same way it was verbally unspoken, yet always present, in Fried Green Tomatoes. I experienced myself loving women in the same way I experienced Idgie loving Ruth: both of these happened before I knew there was a word for it or a stigmatized box it belonged in. Whatever queer sensibilities I had somehow connected with whatever queer sensibilities the movie contains, despite the “safer” silence that had been imposed on both of us. I grew up in that silence and the naiveté of my unarticulated love for other girls; the movie reflected that silence in Ruth and Idgie’s deep but nonsexual love for each other. Then the book came along and ripped the cover off everything the movie hid, but it still took a few years for me to begin to see and embrace my own love of women.
I’ve now been out for almost two years. Coming out wasn’t hard for me internally, and I sometimes wonder if this relationship with Fried Green Tomatoes played a part in that. Once I saw my love for women for what it was and could say it out loud and figured out what it meant, it seemed like the best thing ever – kind of like how I felt when I was reading Friend Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café for the first time. Can I credit this to all the hours I spent living in Whistle Stop as a kid?
I think I can, at least partially. I don’t know where else I would have been given such an obvious and deep appreciation for what two women can have together. I spent many hours as a kid immersed in a world where women can love women, where they can live with each other and raise kids and be economically independent, together. That world showed me that women loving women can exist in harmony with the community around them and they can be an overall force for good in their world. In addition, that world was unchallenged and uncontested and completely separate from homophobic epithets and angry preachers: it grew and thrived inside of me as its own world that was untouched by any of that external nastiness that I have to grapple with now. That must have profoundly impacted my budding pre-lesbian self for the good. How could it not? Idgie and Ruth are and have always been my lesbian heroes, even before I knew it. That is priceless to me. You can’t script this shit!
For this reason I salute Fannie Flagg and her incredible novel, and for this reason this book will doubtless be on my “most favorites forever” bookshelf for the rest of my life.