Steph Farnsworth reviews Purple Prose, an anthology of writing by bisexual people based in the UK
The launch of Purple Prose has gone largely under the radar; it was a small but committed project designed to raise awareness of the experiences of bisexual people in the UK. Activists from across the country banded together to scream their experiences, desperate to make sure that somebody would finally pay attention.
The anthology is available both as a text and as a digital copy. The choice to make it available in both formats was wise, given its small publicity. It’s easy to search for but most importantly, bisexual people are also statistically likely to be living in poverty – a cheaper digital version shows market awareness.
While the project was conceived to show what it means to be bisexual in the UK, its eclectic assortment of stories, artwork and personal essays are refreshingly diverse and reveal a complex picture of identities in this country.
To the credit of Purple Prose, the creators behind the idea have gone out of their way to ensure that a variety of voices were heard – and voices that usually would have little chance of accessing the publishing world. The writers have clearly relished this rare opportunity to tell their stories as while many contain harrowing stories regarding abuse and discrimination, each page is also laced with pride and self-love. People of colour reflect on their dual oppressions, fat writers rejoice in their image and transgender essayists speak powerfully on the confusing yet beautiful relationship between their gender and sexuality.
Each text contains a nuanced picture of navigating through a society that still associates bisexuality with being greedy and promiscuous (one section is called ‘Greedy, Confused and Invisible: Bi Myths and Legends). While many pieces tear apart this ridiculous stereotype, others poke fun at the residual ignorance in society. While the book is held together by the strand of a singular theme, it remains engaging throughout. Each new text is allowed its own voice, style and chance for exploration. The artwork usually accompanies a different writer’s work to give it greater power. Most of the art is in a comic style, and they are often hilariously and tragically poignant of their depictions of biphobia. However, they don’t appear until almost a third of the way into the book; Purple Prose should have placed them much earlier to break up the heavy content.
The anthology is organised into sections that follow the traditional stages of a bisexual person’s experience. It opens very much concentrating upon coming out and what it means to be bisexual, including a very broad analysis of the definitions of the label. Towards the end, the shift of narrative is geared towards exploring relationships/dating while bisexual and what it means to be a bisexual older person. No stone is left unturned as it even-handedly explores polygamy and bisexuality, without playing to the stereotype of insatiable bisexuals.
The structure dictates that the anthology gives an incredibly thorough portrait of life for bisexual people, and the terminology is not overwhelming. One criticism of the community is often that its language can lose people who are new to LGBT life and culture, but each essay is carefully constructed. Each word has been typed with the clear mission of telling the stories of bisexual people to a wider audience who are likely unaware of the issues they may face.
It is, undeniably, an ambitious project. Gay and even transgender issues are becoming more widely acknowledged yet bisexuality is often considered the ‘invisible’ identity. Partly, this has been because of the domination of Stonewall on the narrative of sexuality. While it is routinely consulted by the media, politicians and even soap writers, the charity has been regularly accused of only highlighting the issues that impact upon only gay people while bisexual people get left behind.
The shadow lingering over the bisexual community was the reason Purple Prose was devised. It was created so that bisexual people would finally gain recognition, yet this may also be why it may never take off. With so little funding behind it, the potential for marketing is incredibly small. The title itself is a give away of this problem; few would know outside of the bisexual community that the predominant colour of the bisexual flag was purple. People coming across the text for the first time may be disinclined to venture inside the pages when the title could seem esoteric, despite how inclusive and well written the content inside is. Additionally, the bulk of publicity has been carried out through social media and volunteers but by this method, the people most likely to hear of the anthology are bisexual people. It’s a great text on also gaining understanding on issues of class, gender, race and poverty but the core concept was to bring bisexual experiences into the mainstream. This is unlikely when the vast majority of the audience are bisexual.
Bisexual voices then risk being sung into an echo chamber. It’s been a curious question that has been rooted in social media: to what extent are we simply sending messages to people who think like us? The answer may be revealed by the popularity of Purple Prose.
The beauty of the stories risks being lost to history by a society looking the other way. One can only hope that the book begins to filter out by word of mouth but it is unlikely. Purple Prose has at least showed one important feature: the bisexual community, without funding or support, will continue to battle on. As more stories are told to the world of bisexuality, through this text or others, an unnoticed sexual revolution will take shape. As more people than ever are openly acknowledging their same gender relationships perhaps it already is, which makes this anthology if not a best seller, a reliable testament to the times in which we live.
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