To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Gertrude & Alice


Hi, all--

      Just a brief gloss to a previous email. Two people wrote asking who Gertrude and Alice were:

so I was not surprised to see Gertrude and Alice coming up to me just after class, Gertrude shoving and prodding the shy Alice, as usual, to talk to me. I was surprised when Alice cupped her hand around her mouth, secretively, so I bent over, and she whispered in my ear, all giggly, "Do you like me?"

Gert & Alice is a reference to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, an inseparable American couple who lived in Paris for most of the first half of the 20th century. They were friends and supporters of just about all the major figures of American literature; many of the Brits, Spaniards, French, and Irish; and a tremendous proportion of the visual artists of that period. Although Toklas wasn't a writer or artist (she didn't even write The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) and Stein's own work, though influential, is unreadable and therefore obscure (except for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas), their parlor was pretty much the center of the (Western) cultural world for decades. Stein was a very large, assertive, and famously unattractive woman (the famous anecdote concerning Picasso's profoundly unflattering portrait of her is that, when someone complained that it didn't look like her, he replied "it will," and indeed it looks exactly like she came to look decades later); Toklas was thin and mousy, in both appearance and manner.

      When I first met Gert and Alice at my school, Gert, a big girl, had the scrawny Alice in a very affectionate hug; Gert told me both their names, then told me, "She is my wife. I am husband." I've very rarely seen them apart, and Gert always has her arm around Alice. Physical affection doesn't necessarily imply a romantic relationship here (where even boys hold hands in the hall and sit on each others' laps), but coupled with Gert's introduction, I find their affection sweet and kind of funny (especially since I'm always thinking, "Oh, there's Gert and Alice"). Gert doesn't actually look like Stein, of course, and I don't mean to imply that she's ugly--in fact, she always has a big grin that is completely the opposite of Stein's stern appearance. It's just their closeness, their relative sizes, and their personalities--Alice in the background and Gert, assertive and confident, making the decisions--combined with my own perverse sense of humor that cements the association for me.

      I also find it amusing because, obviously, in America, these two would out of self-consciousness act much differently--whether they are a couple or not (I have no idea, really, but I doubt it). Here, in conservative rural Japan, homosexuality is so taboo and so rarely discussed (except in moronic jokes) that it doesn't even occur to people that it could be going on around them; ironically, then, a couple of girls can openly act like a couple and even call themselves husband and wife without anybody taking it seriously enough to get upset. At this point, the people who did recognize the names in my first email are thinking, "Wow, that's just like lesbians in the 19th century--nobody believed that women had any kind of sexuality except as objects for men, so they could conduct their relationships relatively openly without fear of suspicion." This is also where I miss having friends around who would tell me, "That's bull. The way Victorian women themselves constructed their sexuality...." No one here knows anything at all about 19th century lesbians.

      And, to anticipate the next question, I can't think of their real names, and I don't address them as "Gert" and "Alice." I'm starting to learn more kids' names--I'll have to put Gert and Alice at the top of the list.

Peter

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