by Len Lear
“Janet Mason has a storyteller’s gift, weaving rich imagery with provocative twists to create a world where gender is as complex and fluid as the emotional bond between twins. With its Biblical, Pagan, fantastical and modernist roots, ‘THEY’ is not easily categorized – and even harder to put down.”
This is the opinion of Susan Gore, PhD, editor of “Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists,” about “THEY,” a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books; New York and Lisbon/2018), a just-published book by acclaimed Mt. Airy author Janet Mason, who will launch the book on Thursday, July 26, 7 p.m., at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy.
Mason, a lay minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of The Restoration on Stenton Avenue in East Mt. Airy, teaches creative writing classes through Mt. Airy Learning Tree. She has been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize for a section of the novel.
Mason is also a blogger for The Huffington Post, and she records commentary for “This Way Out,” an internationally-aired LGBTQ radio syndicate based in Los Angeles. Her book, “Tea Leaves,” a memoir of mothers and daughters, published by Bella Books in 2012, was chosen by the American Library Association for its 2013 “Over the Rainbow List.” Janet is also the author of three poetry books.
How did the idea for “They” come about? “The idea came about when I joined the Unitarian church in Mt. Airy,” Janet said, “and attended an evening series on the history of Unitarian Universalism. Being raised secular, it was – for me – a brief history of religion which was, of course, in many ways awful (violent and male dominated) – so I had to write my own non-violent, upbeat, humorous version of things which turned into ‘THEY.’
“I was taking yoga classes at the time and doing a daily Buddhist mediation practice, all of which is incorporated into my fictional interpretation of characters from the Bible and other characters as well. It is the story of marginalized people, including strong women and anyone who is different. I began wondering how they survived in such a fierce climate.”
In “They,” a character named Tabitha is in danger of literally being burned at the stake for having twins. Early in the story Tabitha, the twin sister of Tamar, an actual character from the Bible, becomes impregnated after she seduces a young, handsome shepherd.
“Of course, in those days,” Janet explained, “a woman was ‘ruined’ — or worse — if she had a child out of wedlock. And in addition to the initial crime, Tabitha goes on to trick her sister’s former father-in-law (by dressing up as a harlot) and then convincing him that the child is his. There’s lots of juicy stuff in the Bible which, of course, inspired me.”
In the novel, Tabitha gives birth to a line of twins, all of whom are born intersex, meaning that the children have both sets of sexual genitalia, male and female. The use of “They” indicates the individuals are “non-binary,” that they do not identify with male or female.
“I hope the story lets everyone know that religion/spirituality is open to them,” said Janet, “whether or not they chose it. The story was in part inspired by a young woman who lived on my block and whose child transitioned genders at an early age. A few years ago, this young mother left her church in tears after a rather judgmental remark from another congregant.
“Of course, my neighbor never returned to that church. When I was writing, that story was in my head, and I think consciously it means that I wrote the book to let everyone know, especially that child, that there is room for them. They are valued.”
What is the hardest thing Janet has ever done? “Burying my father a little more than a year ago was definitely the hardest thing I have ever done. After he died in the hospital, the chaplain came in to his room and read the 23rd Psalm at his bedside. That ‘Psalm’ is in ‘They.’ I wrote ‘They’ a few years before my father died, and I realize now that I was preparing for his death for a long time.”
What are the pros and cons of living in Mt. Airy? “My partner, Barbara, and I live it Mt. Airy, and I’m very thankful for our little blue bubble. When I visit other places, though, and hear stories (and some of them have been atrocious) I’m reminded that the rest of the country is not so liberal.
“It makes sense that we congregate with like-minded people, and in Mt. Airy that means we have come to a place where its okay to be different, and, in fact, difference doesn’t really matter. The only con I can think of is that sometimes we think our bubble is the world, but it’s not. Sometimes we can be out of touch.”
If Janet could meet and spend time with any person on earth, living or dead, who would it be and why? “Maybe it would be my paternal grandmother, whom I never met because she died before I was born. Her name was Florence Jones Mason. She was born in 1901, had five children (my father was the oldest) and then died when she was 48.”
More information at 215-844-1870 or https://tealeavesamemoir.wordpress.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org