Dressed in a crisp white blouse, olive-colored pants, and high-heeled shoes with a thin gold band, Maria Bello looked elegant and serene. Later, when signing her book, Whatever . . . Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves, and as we chatted briefly, I saw her slip the shoes off, saying something under her breath: “Ouch, I have to get out of these.” That moment struck me as metaphorically poignant because during her interview with journalist Sandy Banks, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, she had shared a story about gold shoes, about finding one—a glittery pump—in the snow on 23rd street in NY when she was a struggling actor; Bello explained how she read it as a sign that she should continue to act, but also that her proverbial Prince Charming would one day provide the perfect shoe, give her the perfect life, and they would live “happily ever after.” But that shoe never attracted The One, but a series of Not-Prince Charmings—though, she writes, some acted, looked, and “were princely” (WLIL 105). After several failed relationships, she finally learned “not [to] wait for Prince Charming or Cinderella to kneel before you with arms outstretched so that you could succeed” (114).
And she did succeed. Her television, film, and activist work are plentiful, yet no one’s story is uncomplicated. Bello’s golden shoe story—the shoe that magically multiplies—has many facets, but suffice it so say, as she signed a copy of her book for me while slipping off her shoe, I couldn’t help make some connections. While on stage, she commented about buying a great pair of shoes from DSW, so even when one does find a shoe that fits like a glass slipper, and even if you buy it for yourself, and even if you’re convinced it’s comfortable, beautiful . . . nothing is perfect and everything is fluid.
Having read her memoir and reflected upon its ending, I feel she’s now in one the healthiest places of her tumultuous life, all while understanding that one never completely arrives. One is always searching, expressed symbolically by the gold shoes she collects, including the ones she wore for that talk. Life, relationships, and oftentimes sexuality are fluid. I believe one must accept the fluidity in life to survive and thrive. This concept is beautifully expressed when Bello writes: “There are no labels that can define my relationship with Clare. This relationship, like all relationships, constantly evolves . . . and though the form of our relationship changes, the love is always the same” (158).
If we don’t put boundaries around ourselves, we may realize that our options for whom to love becomes bigger, wider, more open.
This idea of openness is one found at the heart of my own novel, Red Greek Tomatoes. My protagonist, a Greek-American traditional woman believes she’s strictly heterosexual until she has a Sapphic encounter. She has many relationships in the novel and closely examines her life and choices as well as her yiayia’s in 1940s Egypt and her mother’s in the 1960s Greece to understand why women of so many generations think they need a Prince Charming (or Princess) to feel whole in this world (http://redgreektomatoes.com).
In 2012, when I sat across the table from an agent to pitch my novel, I told her that one of the relationships my protagonist has is with a woman. The agent said, “Hmmm, maybe you should sell it as lesbian literature.” A year later, at another writer’s conference, another agent said, “Hmmm, if the relationship with the woman is only forty pages of the novel, consider taking it out, so that the novel can be pitched as a traditional, multi-cultural novel. Adding the same-sex stuff just may be too much.” I was speechless. It was 2013 and these agents were categorizing, labeling, and putting my novel into a box when it is so much more.
When I read Maria Bello’s piece “Coming Out as a Modern Family” in the New York Times’s Modern Love column, wherein she openly and honestly wrote about her relationship with Clare, a “beautiful, curious, blond, blue-eyed Zimbabwean” (156), it confirmed that an audience for my novel exists. So many topics that Bello writes about such as the “Prince Charming syndrome” or the desire not to be labeled—unless it’s a label one chooses for him or herself—are at the core of my novel.
Long ago, in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes talked about The Power Of Love. He said that “the sexes were three” and that “primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and the same number of feet, one head with two faces”—in other words, the quintessential Soul Mates, stuck together from the beginning of time; one body, but two hearts, two minds. The story goes on that these Superhumans were sliced in two by Zeus, and now we each search the earth for our Other Half. A wonderful depiction of this myth is the song “The Origin of Love,” featured in the fabulous rock musical and movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zU3U7E1Odc
Aristophanes goes on to say, “And when one of them meets with his [or her] other half, the actual half of himself [or herself], whether [s]he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together, and yet they could not explain what they desire of one another” (Plato). Bello, in this vein, writes: “I saw that photo [of Clare] and realized I could in fact love her”(157). Just as Plato suggested so long ago, one cannot necessarily explain our desire to be with another person; sometimes it’s a feeling that is just right (157).
When Bello published her article and photos of her and Clare emerged, some media sources wrote that Bello was “coming out” as gay, as bisexual. Instead Bello writes: “Traditional labels just don’t seem to fit anymore. These labels are limiting the possibility for people to question more and become who they are meant to be” (6). She seems to be more comfortable with the “whatever” label because from her dear son’s mouth—when she told him about her romantic relationship with Clare—she first heard, “Mom, whether you are lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, shout it out to the world. Whatever, love is love” (15). In her book subtitled, Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves, Bello doesn’t shy away from the complexities of gender identification and states, “So many in the LGBT community have sacrificed so much to change policy, hearts, and minds. The entire world has benefited from their sacrifices beyond LGBT rights. . . . all to move policies and to show the world it shouldn’t matter to anyone who you love or who you sleep with” (159).
I do know as a part-time college professor many students do wear some labels proudly, coming to class with T-Shirts that say: “Sorry, I Prefer Girls” or introducing themselves in class as “I’m gay.” They share and educate and lead in discussions about openness. One student told me that LGBT is an outdated acronym and that the term is now LGBTQIA, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersexual, Asexual, and Ally. In jest, Maria suggests adding a “P” since her first orgasm was actually with a Pillow. Honoring my heritage, I would love to add a “P” too—but for Pansexual, “pan” being the Greek prefix for “all, everything.” Pansexuality is an all-encompassing term for love; sex or gender identity is irrelevant when choosing a romantic partner. Even if Facebook offers twenty-seven categories to label oneself, individuals should choose what feels right for them, and we should respect that. Ultimately, we have the right to choose or refuse labels.
Bello also mentions that she feels uncomfortable calling herself a “humanitarian” but chooses the word: “activist.” Whatever the label, Bello’s devotion to her Haitian community, and the various activist work that took her to all parts of the U.S. to Nicaragua and to different African countries made me reflect upon my own life. Since we are close in age, I couldn’t help question what I have accomplished in my forty-five years on earth. I’ve taught English for twenty-three years and though I have spent half my life overseas—from Saudi Arabia to South Africa to Greece to Peru—it was mostly because I was a third-culture kid, then later looking for “home,” and much later, accompanying my husband back to his country. I did some community service in Peru, but it pales in comparison when I read about Bello’s activism. She is so accomplished in television and film, and in this second part of life, I’m still working on my first novel.
My favorite thing about Bello’s memoir is she shares her most intimate stories, written beautifully and honestly, and one can experience her most difficult moments and joyous times right alongside her. It’s a book that allows readers to question themselves and their own choices, to live vicariously through her tales, but also viscerally connect them to their own. By the end of the memoir, I realized, again, that we all have stories and successes; struggles, deep and dark; but life is also filled with goodness, light, and joy.
Bello poses a series of questions as chapter headings: “Am I a Partner?” “Am I Forgiving?” “Am I a Bad Girl?” “Am I a Feminist?” I found myself answering these questions and saying out loud a few times: “Yes!” In one of the final chapters she asks: “Am I a Writer?” Then says, “It takes chutzpah, I know, to label yourself, especially with labels that are usually given to you”—such as capital W, Writer as I call it (177). I know this feeling. I’ve been labeled a teacher/professor for so long that I, too, had reticence to call myself a writer. Bello felt she could finally call herself one when she was paid to write the New York Times’s article. When I sent 380 pages of my manuscript to the U.S. Copyright Office, I decided to label myself a Writer. It took chutzpah, but I’m doing it.
By the end of the book, Bello does add “Writer” to her extensive resume, and she should because her memoir is a delightful read, full of insight and openness. She ends with the last question, the most poignant one of all, and one I’m certain so many of us ask ourselves daily: “Am I Enough?” I hope she feels that she is because through my brief interaction with her and having read her stories, I found her to be a very genuine person. And, being a genuine, compassionate person, a life-long learner is what counts in my book. And in hers.
Bello, Maria. Whatever . . . Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves. New York: Dey St., 2015.
Plato. The Collected Works of Plato, 4th ed. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1953.