Let's talk about sex! Novelist Jill Nelson (Sexual Healing) and cultural critic Tricia Rose (Longing to Tell) compare notes on how today's sisters think and feel about sexuality and intimacy.

Author:McHenry, Susan
Position:Book Review

Neither Jill Nelson nor Tricia Rose had heard about each other's most recent books, both pushing on parallel tracks toward a more authentic vision of what black women want--at least, not until Black Issues Book Review contacted them. For this exclusive, BIBR asked them to read each other's galleys, then engage in a taped telephone dialogue. They welcomed the opportunity. Though the two had met before only briefly, each was quite familiar with the other's previous work.

The Harlem-based Jill Nelson is the best-selling author of Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience (Noble Press, May 1993; Penguin USA paperback, July 1994, ISBN 0-140-23716-X). Volunteer Slavery is Nelson's acerbic memoir about her misadventures working as a pioneering black female feature writer for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine and living as a single mom of a teenaged in Marion Barry's Chocolate City. She followed up this debut with Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-Up Black Woman (Putnam, 1998; Penguin USA paperback, February 1999, ISBN 0-140-27724-2) and Police Brutality: An Anthology, an activist's anthology of analytical essays collected in the wake of Amadou Diallo's shooting death (W.W. Norton, May 2001, ISBN 0-393-32163-0).

Rose, a professor of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is best known for her widely referenced Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Wesleyan University Press, May 1994, ISBN 0-819-56275-0) and many provocative essays of cultural criticism and social commentary.

In their latest books, both published in June, Nelson and Rose each take on new genres or formats. Rose has collected the personal testimonies of 20 black women about their sexual lives in Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, ISBN 0-374-19061-5).

"In popular culture," she writes in the introduction, "we are bombarded by stories about sex and romance, but we almost never hear what black women have to say."[emphasis mine] Her informants represent quite a cross-section of black womanhood, ranging in age from 20 to late 40s, from all parts of the country and representing a variety of sexual experiences and orientations. Many were raised in the church; others are determinedly secular or nontraditional spiritual seekers. Small-town or rural Southern girls, as well as urban sisters bred among striving working people or those just scraping by, tell their stories. Others have known some privileges and material comfort. Some are anchored in black communities, while others have moved as "the only one,' or one of a few, in a predominantly white world.

All seem to have had similar challenges finding out who they are, what they want in life and how they might get it--especially in learning how to give and receive love, or knowing and communicating what they prefer in terms of sexual expression. Their stories are deeply felt--and heroic, in an everyday sense.

In counterpoint, Jill Nelson's first novel is sheer fun, a satirical tale of two best friends, successful professional women in their early 40s from Oakland, California, who decide to go into business together. Their business is a brothel that caters to black women--a legal business, licensed and run in Nevada. Under the name A Sister's Spa, their pleasure resort becomes a roaring success.

The story of Lydia and Acey's rise as sexual-pleasure entrepreneurs is played out in the context of their own commonplace personal problems. Acey, the daughter of a minister and the successful operator of a conventional spa, longs for the companionship she once enjoyed with the love of her life, her husband, Earl, who tragically drowned 10 years earlier. Lydia, a top advertising executive, is trying to reconstruct her emotional and social life while ending a dissatisfying marriage to a pretty boy, stay-at-home spouse.

The new enterprise, A Sister's Spa, gets caught in media crossfire between white feminists, the Christian Right and black male religious leadership. Nelson's sharp portraits of an assortment of high-profile public figures is where she is at her savvy, satirical best.

When BIBR linked Nelson and Rose by long-distance telephone, Nelson, 50, was speaking from her Manhattan apartment, where she lives with her male partner and where she writes when she isn't teaching journalism at her alma mater, City College of New York. Rose, 40, talked on her cell phone from the Los Angeles airport, as she waited after a speaking engagement for an early morning flight to Santa Cruz, where she lives with her husband. In a moment of surprising synchronicity, the two women enjoyed a rare meeting of the minds as they shared their observations about black women and desire, against a backdrop of sexual politics in the black community.

BIBR: Jill, you said in our pre-interview that the outrageous idea for your book came out of a conversation you had with a dear friend. In a sense, your dreaming up A Sister's Spa has very much to do with black women's real lives.

Nelson: Well, it was kind of serendipity. A friend of mine, who is 10 years older, was talking about why she had retired from dating: She was just through with bad dates and unhappiness, etc. I asked her, "Well, don't you miss sex?" "Yeah, I really do miss it" she admitted. Then she said, "You know what? What sisters like me really need is a brothel!" Her idea kind of rattled around in my head for six months, until I called my friend up and told her I wanted to use it. Her comment provided a great framework for me to talk about things that I had been reading and thinking about and also that other women I knew had been thinking about. What I found so stunning about Tricia's book was that the concerns and questions that interested us about women, sexuality and intimacy were very similar. She's writing nonfiction...

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