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Nancy on my mind

Lane Sainty pens a tribute to the late Nancy Garden.

My search for Nancy Garden’s most acclaimed novel, Annie On My Mind, spanned approximately four years.

Back in the mid 2000s, I would scour the queer Internet, perusing lists of lesbian novels and wanting to read them all, but knowing I would never find them in the lone bookstore of my regional hometown. Although I’d have happily settled for the subtlest of female romances, the online descriptions of the tender, teenage love story in Annie On My Mind captured me entirely.

I would casually browse the fiction section of every bookstore I entered from age 14, secretly searching for Nancy Garden, but was thwarted by the prolific Jane Gardam time and time again. A lack of Internet literacy and, well, being in the closet, prohibited me from downloading or ordering the book. But then, when I was 18, I found it.

Garden died on June 23 this year from a heart attack, aged 76, at her home in Massachusetts. She is survived by her partner, Sandy Scott. Obituaries for Garden were published in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Although she wrote many books for children and teenagers, she is best known for Annie On My Mind, which is often regarded as a lesbian classic.

Annie On My Mind is much more direct than the painfully inhibited early selection of lesbian novels, but more innocent than the audacious sex scenes of The L Word. The story is about two 17-year-old girls who fall in love – Liza Winthrop, a white, private school Brooklynite, and Annie Kenyon, the child of Italian immigrants, from uptown Manhattan.

I didn’t read Annie On My Mind until I was slightly past the confusion and exploration experienced by Annie and Liza in the book. But, in a typical showcasing of the dearth of media representations of lesbians even four years ago, I was as taken with the book as I would have been had I read when my search began.

In Liza – a flawed and introspective teenager, prone to self-doubt, yet in positions of responsibility – I finally found a character I truly identified with. Starved of realistic depictions of the sex I might like to have, I was turned on by the – now embarrassingly tame – description of Annie and Liza fucking for the first time. And I read and re-read Garden’s frequent, tender, descriptions of their love: “That first day, I stood in the kitchen leaning against the counter watching Annie feed the cats, and I knew I wanted to be able to do that forever: stand in kitchens watching Annie feed cats. Our kitchens. Our cats.”

Stereotypes surrounding lesbian relationships and cats aside, the novel is also lauded for its happy ending. At the time of publication, Annie On My Mind was a rarity among a plethora of novels that invariably ended in either enforced heterosexuality or death for the lesbians in question.

My childish adoration for the novel is such that when in New York last year, I trekked to the Metropolitan Museum of Art – not to appreciate the timeless masterpieces, but to stand in the Temple of Dendur and think of Annie and Liza’s first meeting. As I walked along the beach at Coney Island, I imagined the pier on which I stood to be the one by which they had their first kiss. I found Liza’s upper class Brooklyn suburb, and stayed near Annie’s less privileged uptown digs. It was a private pilgrimage for a former, less sure, self; a quiet homage to a novel that changed my life.

Annie On My Mind was predictably banned several times after it was published in 1982, leading Garden to become an outspoken opponent of book censorship. It is simply written, and not sexually explicit – a YA novel through and through – and the fact it was banned speaks only of a blind, unquestioning hatred for alternative sexualities that is still exercised by some today.

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Nancy Garden. However, I draw happiness from the knowledge that she was aware of how many lives Annie On My Mind had changed. Garden’s tale – compelling, innocent and so full of love – was the first lesbian story I was able to read myself into. Garden was there when my imagination could not supplement what my life and my loves would be. May she rest in peace.