Authors: Sheila Ortiz Taylor

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Identity: Mexican American, gay or bisexual

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Faultline, 1982

Spring Forward/Fall Back, 1985

Southbound, 1990

Coachella, 1998

Poetry:

Slow Dancing at Miss Polly’s, 1989

Nonfiction:

Emily Dickinson: A Bibliography, 1850–1966, 1968

Imaginary Parents, 1996

Biography

Sheila Ortiz Taylor is often considered the first Chicana lesbian novelist. Her first and most acclaimed novel, Faultline, was republished in 1995 because of increased awareness of its importance not only in lesbian and Chicano literature but as a significant work of fiction. The novel has been published in British, German, Greek, Italian, and Spanish translations, and in 1995 film rights were bought by Joseph May Productions. The novel also won several awards, although it was often neglected by critics and mainstream reviewers.{$I[AN]9810001632}{$I[A]Taylor, Sheila Ortiz}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Taylor, Sheila Ortiz}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Taylor, Sheila Ortiz}{$I[geo]LATINO;Taylor, Sheila Ortiz}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Taylor, Sheila Ortiz}{$I[tim]1939;Taylor, Sheila Ortiz}

Ortiz Taylor grew up in a Mexican American family in Southern California, an experience she records in Imaginary Parents. The book, a mixture of fact and fiction, is true to the spirit of her childhood in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Her older sister’s color prints accompany the text and represent a different version of the shared past. In her preface Ortiz Taylor writes that the book could be called autobiography, memoir, poetry, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, fiction, or codex (a manuscript book); she herself calls it an ofrenda, an offering of small objects with big meanings set out in order. The book reimagines the past and recreates the parents and extended family who have since died; it also provides an insightful Chicana perspective into what she calls the strange Southern California culture of the war years.

It was during the post-World War II years of the early 1950’s that Ortiz Taylor, then twelve or thirteen years old, realized that she wanted to write. She attended California State University at Northridge and graduated magna cum laude. She earned her M.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1964, and her Ph.D. in English from the same university in 1973 with a dissertation on “Form and Function in the Picaresque Novel.”

Taylor’s own novels often follow the episodic traditions of the picaresque, although they transform the rogue hero into an adventurous lesbian protagonist who challenges boundaries and resists stereotyped categorization. In Faultline the main character, Arden Benbow, who was an English major in college, is the mother of six when she falls in love with another woman. Together they create a loving homelife, which includes an African American gay male drag queen as a baby-sitter, an assortment of pets (as many as three hundred rabbits), and various friends and neighbors who are attracted by Arden’s energy and enthusiasm. Although he himself is involved with another woman and does not want to be bothered with the children, Arden’s former husband files a custody suit on the grounds that Arden’s lesbianism makes her an unfit mother. Arden refuses to pretend to be someone she is not, and her life-affirming spirit triumphs. The book ends with a legally nonbinding double wedding between Arden and her lover Alice and between two of their gay male friends.

A similar sense of hopefulness and triumph in the face of opposition, which some reviewers have referred to as utopian, pervades Spring Forward/Fall Back, and the same spirit informs Taylor’s poetry and other writings. Taylor has a keen eye for detail and is clear about oppression and stagnated prejudicial attitudes. Her writings also show survival techniques in a hostile culture, among them the invocation of humor, love, and goodwill toward others. Her protagonists refuse to be beaten down, and they enjoy and respect life.

Taylor’s professional career has been in teaching English at several universities, most notably at Florida State University, where she began teaching literature in the early 1970’s. Her courses include many on women writers, and she has served as Director of Women’s Studies. She has given many public readings nationally and internationally, and in 1991 she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg.

Taylor’s work shows a continuing fascination with the novel form and its many variations. She sees herself as an author who creates convincing forgeries that are intended to illuminate life. Her works show her challenging herself by shifting subject matter, style, and approach. She never repeats simple patterns or formulas from previous works. This approach to writing is also reflected in her central characters, who meet challenges with creativity and vitality and accept risk as a part of the lived life.

Many readers have found Taylor’s texts to be engaging. Her work is therefore not restricted to special audiences. Like the literal lesson of the geological faultlines where earthquakes appear, Taylor’s works illustrate that chance and change are inevitable, that for individuals and societies it is important to avoid rigidity, and that challenges must be met actively with love, humor, and imagination.

BibliographyBruce-Novoa, Juan. RetroSpace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1990. Asserts that Taylor’s writings show that there is no monolithic Chicano culture or literature and cites Faultline as the best novel written by a Chicana.Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Sheila Ortiz Taylor’s Faultline: A Third Woman Utopia.” Confluencia: Revista Hispánica de Cultura y Literatura 6 (Spring, 1991). A lengthy discussion about the novel.Christian, Karen. “Will the ‘Real Chicano’ Please Stand Up? The Challenge of John Rechy and Sheila Ortiz Taylor to Chicano Essentialism.” Americas Review 20 (Summer, 1992). An excellent extended treatment of the importance of gay and lesbian writing in Chicano literature, with special attention to the style and content of Faultline.Zimmerman, Bonnie. Safe Sea of Women. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990. Taylor is one of several writers discussed in this study of lesbian fiction in the late twentieth century.
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