In 1995, North Star Press published Fierce With Reality: An Anthology of Literature on Aging, which had grown out of my master's thesis in gerontology. The book was an odd assortment of work with no overall theme other than aging. As a recovering academic, I was suspicious of imposed categories. I did create subheadings, however, such as "Homage to Grandmothers," "Aging Is Not for Sissies" and "Growth and Change."
In the few other literary anthologies on aging I had come across, I noticed no work by and about gay elders and very little work by people of color. Therefore, besides wanting to include traditional favorites, such as "The Last Words of My English Grandmother" by William Carlos Williams and a section from The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, I also went about finding suitable entries by lesbians or by people from diverse cultures.
A RANGE OF WRITINGS
In addition to including writers with multicultural backgrounds, the first edition of Fierce With Reality encompassed a range of writings, from feminist analyses of aging and philosophical articles to poetry and short stories. Several contributors were Asian American students who had taken my advanced classes in English as a second language at City College of San Francisco in the 19905. When I asked these students to write about aging in their countries of origin, several chose to write about folktales.
Interestingly, tales with similar themes can have very different endings in different cultures. A fountain-of-youth story in Vietnamese tradition has a happy ending, for example, whereas in Japanese versions the tale ends badly, with the husband in the story rejuvenating into a young adult while his wife turns into an infant for whom he must provide care. Folktales from China showed a particularly high regard for elders.
Fierce With Reality was recently published in a newly revised edition by Just Write Books, based in Topsham, Maine, near where I now live. For the revised edition, I added works by Mainers. (Writers and libraries seem to thrive in Maine, as do independent bookstores.) I also added an Iraqi folktale, a story first recorded in English in the 1930S, in recognition of today's tragic connection between our peoples. I believe that imaginative works invite us to challenge the dualism that divides people into allies and enemies.
In selecting work for the anthology, both then and now, I wanted to avoid a simple division between positive depictions of aging and negative ones because many people's experiences seem to reveal complicated fluctuations between these two poles. For instance, one lighthearted essay ends with the main character's grisly suicide, and I aimed to offset the somber tone of my own piece on dementia by recounting humorous incidents that occurred at a senior center in San Francisco. I also included works in which the writer rebelled at patronizing treatment or noted how the category "old" can be ill fitting or oppressive.
A DECADE OF DIFFERENCES
The 65 poems, stories, folktales and personal narratives in the new edition of Fierce With Reality, half of them by living writers, don't touch on every aspect of the aging process. …