From the Guardian - writers on the books that helped them come out



Charlotte Mendelson

Every book I read in my youth spoke to my sexuality, because I was straight: Darcy; Heathcliff; the fondue orgy in Asterix in Switzerland – I longed for them all. Later, when things became more romantically interesting, which was the book which spoke to me most strongly? There wasn’t one.

I wasn’t self-hating enough for The Well of Loneliness, or sufficiently desperate for the fairly terrible American lesbian fiction in the scary basement of the women’s bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. Just because I had fallen for a woman didn’t mean my standards had slipped. There was no Sarah Waters or Alison Bechdel. The classics – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Jeanette Winterson), Rubyfruit Jungle – seemed more for girls who had Always Known, not women who had suddenly ... switched.

But, of course, I read. I found recognition in unexpected places: Alan Hollinghurst’s novels, particularly his perfect The Folding Star, whose every page tingles with self-doubt and secrecy and hot sex; Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry, from the dazzlingly erotic “Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer”, which I immediately memorised, to “Girlfriends” and “Words, Wide Night”. And I constantly replayed a moment in Patricia Highsmith’s Carol in my head: when the women exchange a look. I used to practise it on lampposts in case it happened to me.

Incidentally a) I’ve never written about this before; and b) actually I have, in all my novels – they’re about breaking free, daring to take the brave, uncomfortable step. I’ve always been irritated by authors who say: “I wrote the book I wanted to read,” but, without meaning to, I do, every time.
• Charlotte Mendelson’s most recent book is Rhapsody in Green.