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Saturday, December 16, 2017 - 09:23

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17c - Book Appreciation with T.T. Thomas

(Originally aired 2017/12/16 - listen here)

This week our author guest for this month, T.T. Thomas, talks about some books and authors she particularly enjoys. We also chat about the challenges that authors of lesbian historical fiction face in enticing readers within the lesfic community and the misconceptions many readers hae about the stories that can be told.

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Thursday, December 14, 2017 - 14:00

The down side of deciding to blog all the articles in a collection like this is that sometimes there simply isn't anything useful to the project at all. Sorry. This is pretty much just a completist placeholder.

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Full citation: 

Freccero, Carla. 2011. “The Queer Time of the Lesbian Premodern” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Freccero, Carla. 2011. “The Queer Time of the Lesbian Premodern”

This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - 11:47

I've updated the call for short story submissions for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast to include detailed information on how to submit and submission format. Remember that submissions will only be accepted during the month of January 2018. I'm looking forward to seeing what people send me!

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017 - 10:00

Last week I posted my "what have I published in 2017" list. This week is my "what else have I written" list. It's based pretty much entirely on my blog for logistical reasons. I'm writing this about the same time of year as I posted last year's version, so the survey is roughly comparable, except that in 2016 I looked at only the calendar year up to Dec 8, and this year I'm covering everything since that date. So the 2017 stats are, while more accurate for a year's work, are inflated relative to 2016. In 2016 I posted 333 separate blog entries; So far as of Dec 6 I’ve posted 245, so even with the rest of December I'm definitely achieving my New Year's Resolution to slack off a little.

This is, once again, an excercise in reminding myself how productive I've been overall, even when my fiction publications don't reflect it. I've clumped things slightly differently, but I'll give the comparables. In summary, here's what I've blogged:


  • On the writing proceess (not including promotion or minor posts): 16 (compare 41 last year)
  • Background information on Alpennia: 8 (not counted separately last year)
  • Guest/Host Blogs: 4 (if you count my columns at the Queer Sci Fi website, 4 last year)
  • Miscellaneous non-writing: 4 (17 last year)
  • "Book Release Re-Book" posts promoting books from November 2016: 29 (n/a last year)


  • Event/Convention Reports: 2 events for a total of 25 posts (4 last year, but I think I wasn't counting individual posts)
  • Historic Research (especially including the LaForge Diaries): 20 (3 last year)

Lesbian Historic Motif Project

  • Publications covered: 27, for a total of 39 posts (27 last year)
  • Podcasts: 26 (5 last year)


  • Books and Stories: 29 (23 last year)
  • Graphic Novels: 0, that is, I read a bunch for the Hugo voting, but didn't blog them (5 last years)
  • Audio Fiction: 1, but I'm now reviewing Podcastle stories at the Short SFF Reviews site (7 last year, including some multi-item posts)
  • Movies: 6 (12 last years including 5 in my lesbian movies series)
  • Live Performance: 2 since I failed to blog the Cal Shakes performances this year (6 last year)

So here's the long version with links, perhaps not organized exactly as above.


Writing - This doesn’t include all entries, just substantial essays

  • Bad Advice for Authors - I talk about why some of the advice aimed at authors at big publishers really isn't feasible for indie authors
  • What am I Writing in 2017? - A brief survey of in-progress projects. It's always educational to compare it to what I actually did.
  • Like Many Other Girls - In which I examine the trope of "not like the other girls" in the context of Alpennia and discuss who it does and doesn't fit.
  • Orphans Don’t have All the Fun - Like many authors of adventures, I have an unfortunate tendency to orphan my protagonists. I'm working on that.
  • Writing a Long Game - Some of the special concerns and frustrations of writing an extended series when you know that some of your readers' current frustrations will be answered later, but you can't really say so.
  • Revealing and Concealing - There's one particular event in Mother of Souls that some readers wish I'd shown more directly Here's where I talk about why I didn't
  • The Limits of Magic - If my characters can truly work miracles, where's the challenge?
  • Challenging Expected Narratives - In Mother of Souls, Luzie and Serafina argued over Tanfrit's romantic arc in the opera. Their argument is part of a larger genre conversation.
  • Every Flood Begins with a Trickle - Talking about starting seriously on the writing of Floodtide and some of the things I want to do in the story.
  • Shall We Dance? Showing Attraction without Overt Erotics - Inspired by a reader question, what are some of the ways I show characters experiencing attraction to each other without framing it as erotic response?
  • Shifting Writing Gears - The logistics of juggling multiple writing projects in different stages.
  • A Questionable Phrase - I talk about why the phrase "does not disappoint" always makes me wince, and why I've tried to eliminate it from my vocabulary.
  • Taking Dictation - A reader question about how dictation and transcription fit into my writing process.
  • The Uncanny Valley of Fictional Representation - Sometimes I feel more included by a book that shows a diverse world than by one that comes closer to my own identities but feels more like it excludes me.
  • Musings on New Promo Activity - One of my goals for the year was to add some automation to my online authorial presence. It had some benefits I hadn't anticipated.
  • From a Certain Point of View - What are the strengths and advantages of different approaches to point of view? And how did that affect my POV choices in "The Language of Roses"?
  • Podcast Interview: Creating Character (at The Lesbian Talkshow) - I talk with Sheena about how I go about creating distinctive characters, and especially how I develop and change those characters across the Alpennia series.

About Alpennia - Essays that are more specifically about the worldbuilding in the Alpennia series

  • How Many Lesbians are there in Alpennia? - It may sometimes feel like Alpennia is jam-packed with queer women. I do a breakdown of how that's not particularly true. 
  • The Geography of Alpennia - A response to a reader request that I talk more about the internal and external geography of the Alpennia series.
  • Speaking in Alpennian - Given that I'm a linguist and have done some deep thinking about the Alpennian language, I don't use much actual Alpennian vocabulary in the books. Here I talk about why, but also talk about how I show my characters existing in a different linguistic environment from the readers.
  • Addressing the Class Divide - I've talked previously about how class and intimacy relationships are reflected in how Alpennians talk to and about each other. Here I ponder the complications that ensue when my first-person protagonist is in the lowest ranks of society.
  • Class and Sexuality in Rotenek - It may sometimes feel that my Alpennian protagonsts get too much of a pass from society on their sexuality. But things aren't always as they seem. Here I discuss how class intersects with sexuality in terms of social reception.
  • Floodtide: Stepping into the Unknown - A brief discussion of the point in the writing of Floodtide when the story moves past the timeline of Mother of Souls and strikes out into new territory.
  • Can Devout Alpennians Enjoy the Pleasures of the Flesh? - A reader question about how my characters reconcile their sexuality with the moral tenor of the times.

Guest Blogs - both as host and guest

Miscellaneous Content - In any classification system, there's always an "everything else" category.

  • 2016: A Poem
  • Herding Invisible Cats - My adventures in renewed cat ownership.
  • Standardization of LHMP content tags and addition of brief descriptions to the tags [multiple blogs, so I'm not linking individually, just noting it as a major writing project]
  • The 2017 Tomato Blog - I never did a taste test and review this year. It was a meh year for the tomatoes and I think some of the varieties I planted never did produce. I've diagnosed part of the problem as under-watering and need to revise my automated irrigation system next year.

LaForge Civil War Diaries and Correspondence - An ongoing project to put my great-great grandfather's Civil War diaries and correspondence on the web, with annotations and commentary. Never fear, I will get back to working on this.

Note: the preceding are revisions and annotations of transcripts I had posted on the web prior to starting this blog series. The content between January-April 1864 was blogged in 2016. The rest here was put on the web for the first time as part of this blogging project.

Lesbian Historic Motif Project - I took a slight hiatus from posting new publications during the period when the content was being moved to That was when I worked on all the tag annotations and standardization. It cut down a little on the total number of publications I would otherwise have covered. You may notice that I've done several thematic groupings: encyclopedias and who's-whos, Sappho, Spain.

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Last year, this was a brand new category of "things I do." This year, on the 1-year anniversary of the show, I expanded from monthly to weekly. In 2018, I'll be expanding the type of content by adding the publication of original fiction. I'm almost afraid of what will come in 2019!

Reviews: Books/Fiction - SFF - I swear it's utter coincidence that all the author surnames are in the first half of the alphabet!

Reviews: Books/Fiction - Lesbian (generally I've classified a book here if I read it specifically for the lesbian characters, even if it also fits under SFF).

Reviews: Live Performance

Reviews: Movies - I watched a lot more movies than this. This isn't even the ones I liked, necessarily. Just the ones where I got inspired to review before the moment passed.

Review-Like-Objects: Misc

The Great November Book Release Re-Boot - This was a project I used as an excuse to re-promote Mother of Souls. Every day in May, I blogged about a book released 6 months previously that I thought my readers might be interested in. Note: I've read very few of these books, so while I was picky about what I included, inclusion is not necessarily advocacy.

Travel Posts - Not quite "con reports" in this case. The Helsinki/Worldcon posts are a combination of con report and travelogue. The Kalamazoo posts are my usual live-blogging of the sessions I attended.


Kalamazoo Posts

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Mother of SoulsHyddwen
Monday, December 11, 2017 - 07:00

I can tell where my deepest loyalties lie within the post-modernist/historicist divide when I encounter articles like this one. At heart, although I think that a passionate involvement with one's subject of study can be a good thing, when monitored carefully, I'm suspicious of that passionate involvement being considered part of the subject of study. The author here discusses a hypothetical modern reader's interpretation of a hypothetical medieval person's hypothetical erotic interactions with the act of writing...and at that point I consider the topic to be an exercise in poetics, not in history. But that's just my take, of course.

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Full citation: 

Farina, Lara. 2011. “Lesbian History and Erotic Reading” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Farina, Lara. 2011. “Lesbian History and Erotic Reading”

Farina considers the tension between being a “passionate reader” of a text and being aroused by the act of reading, particularly for gay and lesbian readers whose lives are already hypersexualized by society. But she argues for the need for “erotic reading” in lesbian history. She discusses the concept of erotic reading especially as a counter to “received” non-erotic understandings of texts, for example, comparing erotic reading to “wonder” or “startlement” which are derided by literalist forces in historic studies. “Erotic” interaction with texts includes not just the act of reading but the act of writing--the tools and materials, such as manipulating a “phallic” pen. Another example would be devotional texts that encourage the reader to meditate on sensory experiences. Or texts that dwell on the experience or contemplation of love/desire.

Saturday, December 9, 2017 - 11:05

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17b - Interview with T. T. Thomas - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/12/09 - listen here)

Back around a year ago, there was a discussion on a facebook group about what authors could do to raise the profile of lesbian historical fiction and to encourage more people to try the genre. That discussion was part of what inspired me to add author interviews to the podcast. And T.T. Thomas was one of the brainstormers, so naturally I asked her if she'd be interested in participating. This month she tells us about her historic passions, her interests. and her projects.


(There is no transcript available for this episode at this time.)

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Friday, December 8, 2017 - 11:30

Here I am on my usual review day without any reviews lined up (though I may do movie reivews of "Battle of the Sexes" and "Coco" at some point). So I thought I'd reprise a feature I did last year. This is not a "best of" list. This isn't even a "best of what I consumed" list. No claim is made that the items on this list have an objective value over any other items I might have placed on the list. But these are 20 items--grouped into 4 general categories of 5 items each--that I blogged about and that have stuck with me for some reason.

Five Favorite Works of Fiction

  • Jackalope Wives and Other Stories by T. Kingfisher - The more I read stories set in Ursula's loosely-or-not-connected American folkloric setting, the more impressed I am by how she is creating a mythos here. One with a flavor both distinctively unique to her own personality as a writer, and yet woven in with layers upon layers of folkloric traditions. Some day, students of literature will write dissertations on this body of work (but don't tell Ursula I said that because it will make her self-conscious).
  • Spring Flowering by Farah Mendlesohn - I have a dream that some day lesbian historic fiction will escape the very peculiar boxes that the current market forces have shoved it into. And on that day, I believe that this book may be viewed among the turning points. (But don't tell Farah I said that because it will make her self-conscious.)
  • Mizora: A Mss. Found Among the Private Papers of the Princess Vera Zarovitch by Mary E. Bradley - This is not a great work of literature. It isn't even a particularly good work of literature, in terms of structure and style. But it is a delightfully peculiar and visionary work that should be read by anyone interested in the history of utopian science fiction, of hollow-earth novels, or of single-gender societies.
  • Minotaur by J.A. Rock - In terms of setting, genre, and mood, this is not at all my sort of book as these things go. That it made the list is a testament to the masterful use of language and character voice.
  • The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie - I'm cheating a little and getting a three-fer here (each word links a different review). But to a large extent, what I loved about this series was not so much the individual books, but the way the series as a whole balanced the creation of an overarching narrative with a surprising and delighful variation in mode and flavor.

Five Favorite Books/Articles Blogged for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project

  • Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages by Robert Mills - Mills managed an unusual feat: a male author, writing about homosexuality in the middle ages in general, but including female topics in more than a dismissively cursory fashion. He is also the first historian I've seen (which is to say, I may have not yet encountered others who did this earlier) who seriously tackles the ambiguities between sexual orientation and gender identity inherent in medieval treatments of cross-dressing and same-sex desire.
  • Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho by Jane McIntosh Snyder - I loved how this book investigated the question of same-sex desire within the body of Sappho's work within an extremely rigorous scholarly framework, and how Snyder respected her audience enough to both dive deeply into the historic philology of the material while guiding the general reader through its complexities.
  • Lesbians in Early Modern Spain by Sherry Velasco - Velasco demonstrates the wealth of historic material on gender and sexuality still to be found by those with the background and desire to pursue it.
  • "Two Women and their Monumental Brass, c. 1480" by Judith Bennett - Like Snyder's study of Sappho's poetry, this is an excellent example of an in-depth investigation that is both utterly rigorous from a historical point of view, and even-handed in discussing its relevance to lesbian history.
  • Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns by Valerie Traub - I have long been suspicious of the tendency of historiographic discussions to obfuscate their topic with jargon and subjectivity. Traub is one of the rare writers who makes me feel that these discussions are not only understandable, but are vitally important to the future of the field.

Five Favorite Podcasts Recorded for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast

  • Laudomia Loves Margaret (Podcast #5) - I can't help but be biased towards the inspiration for my story "Where My Heart Goes". (Yes, this is a shameless plug.)
  • Sappho, the Translations (Podcast #11) - If you look at the listener statistics for my podcast, this one is the runaway favorite, perhaps in part due to some external linking. But I also had lots of fun doing the poetry readings for it.
  • Beguines, Boston Marriage, and Bed Death: Historic Archetypes of Asexual Lesbianism (Podcast #13d) - I have very gradually been coming out as asexual--an uncomfortable identity within the lesbian fiction community. I put this show together as a gift to other women who might be having difficulty seeing themselves within a history that is so often defined by the question, "But were they, you know, doing it?" I was rather anxious about this episode and expected a certain amount of blowback from it, but it seems to have disappeared into the airwaves without a ripple. Ah well. Still one of my favorites.
  • Interview with Catherine Lundoff (Podcast #13b) - I was delighted to be able to secure the eloquent and knowledgable Catherine Lundoff as the first author guest for my expanded podcast format. She helped me get the series off on the right foot.
  • The Highwaywoman Special (Podcast #14e) - When the expanded format left me with the occasional "fifth week" slot, I cast around for something special to do with the opportunity. Although I've ended up going in a different direction, I had loads of fun putting together this braided show that combined history, music, and book reviews.

Five Favorite Unexpected Discoveries

Last year's "20 favorite things" was primarily drawn from reviews of various mediums, but this year I didn't review that many things outside fiction. So when I looked over my "what have I blogged about" list, I was tempted to make the fourth category "essays on writing and about Alpennia." But that felt like it made this set of lists a bit too me-centered. So instead, here are five things that share my experience of discovering something new or unexpected.

  • The Uncanny Valley of Fictional Representation - Nalo Hopkinson's novel The Salt Roads got me thinking about why it is that I sometimes feel more included in books that fall outside the lesbian fiction genre than I ever do by the main body of lesfic.
  • A reconsideration of family folklore about my great-great-grandfather Abiel T. LaForge's actions whle overseeing a court martial - One of the most striking pieces of family folklore I always heard about Abiel's time in charge of a court martial was the suspicion that the missing diary pages covering him presiding over the trial of Rowland H. Macy Junior (son of the founder of Macy's department store) would have documented a basis for a quid-pro-quo when Abiel was later hired by Macy Sr. But my read-through of the diaries to produce this edited and annotated edition has convinced me that such an interpretation would be both implausible on timeline grounds, and completely out of character for Abiel.
  • A Certain Persuasion: Modern LGBTQ+ Fiction Inspired by Jane Austen’s Novels - In May, I did a monthlong series promoting novels that, like Mother of Souls, had been released in November 2016 and may have had their releases drowned in the awfulness that was the stolen presidential election. (Yes, I said "stolen".) But even without that distraction, I might have missed this amusing collection if I hadn't been putting together the book list for the series.
  • Frankentastic: a re-gendered reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, by Tansy Reynor Roberts - It is often revealing to look at a well-known work from a different angle. This podcast had a simple premise: make all the male characters in Frankenstein female instead. But what struck me in listening to it was not the obviousness of the erasure of women in the original work, but instead the pervasive homoeroticism that I had somehow never noticed when the characters were men.
  • Deventer, NL - After Worldcon, I went to Deventer to visit a long-time online friend. I didn't realize I was also going to get the treat of living in the midst of a well-preserved pre-modern city that has managed to retain its historic character while moving forward into the 21st century.

What favorite things did you experience this year?

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Thursday, December 7, 2017 - 07:00

While reviewing and proof-reading the write-up for this article just prior to posting, the following phrase--though not the main point--struck me. "...premodern lesbians were part of the audience for culture and responded to that culture on an individual as well as a collective basis." When I brainstorm lesbian historic fiction, this is one of the concepts I keep constantly in mind. Whether or not my characters had access to an in-person familiarity with other women in same-sex relationships, what did they experience in the culture around them that could help them understand their feelings and desires? If they saw an allegorical painting of Jupiter-as-Diana making love to Callisto, if they watched a play where a character they knew to be female received the romantic advances of another woman while in male disguise, if they listened to a poem about Sappho enjoying the love of "Lesbian lasses", could those things shape their construction of their own sexuality every bit as much as real-life examples could?

The concept of queer identity as socially constructed (or at least the concept that the specific forms it takes is socially constructed) is something of a contentious point for those who feel their own desires to be innate and inherent (to say nothing of the potential political implications). But when looking at historic cultures where we find it difficult to find evidence for in-person lesbian subcultures, we shouldn't neglect the importance of how cultural expressions can create a meta-subculture every bit as important in grounding a person's understanding of sexuality as in-person interactions can be. (After all, consider how many women in recent decades first twigged to their interest in other women from watching Xena: Warrior Princess!)

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Full citation: 

Laskaya, Anne. 2011. “A ‘Wrangling Parliament’: Terminology and Audience in Medieval European Literary Studies and Lesbian Studies” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Laskaya, Anne. 2011. “A ‘Wrangling Parliament’: Terminology and Audience in Medieval European Literary Studies and Lesbian Studies”

This article addresses the question of terminology for women who love women from three angles: literary-historical recovery of evidence of sexuality, queer disruptions of expected categories and readings of human desire across time, and scholarly talk-arounds such as “lesbian-like”. It points out the difficulty of retrieving historic language, given the biases and gaps in the historic record.

Laskaya considers the useful broad ambiguity of “queer”  to be undermined by its tendency to be used more often in reference to men.  This broadness of application can erase the specificity of “lesbian” and so to erase lesbian-specific concerns and readings. [Note: compare, for example, how "gay" is allegedly inclusive of women but defaults to being male-specific.] She looks for concrete evidence in the past and--specific to the current topic--the language used to identify and frame female same-sex desire. She examines the historicity of “lesbian” specifically.

Queer theory’s institutional prominence can undermine its disruptive potential in the academy. It becomes distanced from the specifics of identity politics and can be in conflict with the concerns of lesbian-feminism. Some approach “queer” as a reading/critical strategy rather than an identity, decoupling it from concepts such as “gay” or “lesbian”. [Note: This is why queer academics and queer identities are often incomprehensible to each other. Who owns the concepts of “queerness”?] Under this approach, “queer readings” disrupt homosexuality just as much as they disrupt heterosexuality.

Even as the concept "queer" undermines binaries, it stands in binary opposition to “not queer”. To the extent that “queer” gains power and status from its abstraction, it thus becomes congruent with conservative intellectual traditions that value abstraction over particularity. Is some of the current prominence of “queer” due to the permission it gives to larger numbers of people to lay claim to that abstraction-based status without engaging with particular embodied identities? [Note: This question comes perilously close to a suggestion that some people "aren't queer enough" to be queer. That is, as a critique of the term "queer" it feels awefully gatekeeperish.]

The concept of identities as socially constructed is widely accepted regardless of theoretical stance. Given this, to what extent are choices of language a way of creating and sustaining those social constructions? To what extent is the repetitious acknowledgement of social constructionism a way of creating and maintaining that concept? To what extent are the concepts of social constructs in conflict with individual agency? Without using that specific term, Laskaya points out that the “great man” theory of history requires an acceptance of the power of individual agency. And just as society is not monolithic, agency may affect specific social axes without changing all of them. This has relevance for lesbian studies because premodern lesbians were part of the audience for culture and responded to that culture on an individual as well as a collective basis. The potential homoerotic readings picked out by queer studies were available for experience and interpretation, as well as the ever-present potential for cross-gender identifications that “queer” the experience.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017 - 07:00

It's that time of year again when authors remind the reading world what they've published in that year. In the SFF world, it started as part of the annual awards season--reminding potential nominators of works they may have forgotten they enjoyed. But it's also a self-affirmation. A way of saying, "Yes, I've been productive this year. Look what I've accomplished."

Well, ok. Look what I've accomplished.

"Hyddwen" by Heather Rose Jones, published by in September 2017

I'm not going to lie; that feels a bit pathetic for a year's output. When Mother of Souls came out in November 2016, it was clear I wouldn't be getting a novel out in 2017. Even without the depressive effect of the 2016 election results, I'd been wrung out by the deadlines I'd set for delivering Mother of Souls and hadn't started immediately in on Floodtide. And Floodtide is a different enough book in the context of the series that I knew it would need more care in the writing. What's more, it's different enough that I feel the need to set myself up with a clear Plan B, and that takes more thought.

So when 2017 started, there was no guarantee that I'd have anything to show for this year. I was only able to submit "Hyddwen" to Podcastle because I gave up on waiting for it to be rejected by the market where it had languished for over a year. So the self-affirmation purpose of "look what I've published this year" is a bit weak. And the nomination-reminder purpose is non-existent. "Hyddwen" got a few lovely comments and then disappeared into the mists of the otherworld.  It isn't that sweet, positive fairy-tale stories never get award nominations, but they generally only get them if the author has enough juice that a substantial number of people read/listen to the story in the first place.

At least I already know that I'll have at least one publication in 2018. There's that.

It's been a year of being reminded that I live in that liminal space between worlds--between genres and readerships. It's a place I chose, but not one I find comfortable. Like Serafina in Mother of Souls, sometimes I want desperately to belong somewhere, to be comfortable. But--just like Serafina--even more than that, I want to be true to my talent, to my creative vision. And that will never be a comfortable thing. My stories will always cross genres and dodge in unexpected directions. They will always be too complex to fall neatly into favorite tropes. They will never be a "best example of X" that anyone pulls out and recommends reflexively. And I suppose I'm ok with that. But I'm allowed to dream. And I'm allowed to be uncomfortable.

I'll be doing a separate year-end post on my non-fiction and projects closer to the actual end of the year. Last year it was a refreshing reminder of how productive I've actually been. I'm not sure it will be quite so comforting this year, but I won't know until I put it together.

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Monday, December 4, 2017 - 07:00

This article is an example of why I find historiographic analysis worth the trouble to slog through the terminology and mental gymnastics (and the occasional need to chase down questions like "what exactly does 'alterity' mean in this context?").  Writers of historical fiction are always asking the question, "What is our relationship to the past?" whether they realize it or not. And fiction constantly weaves between the idea that the past has a concrete, objective existence, and the understanding that all events and all people exist within a subjective context that gives them meaning to the perceiver. Traub does a great job of sorting out various approaches that historians have taken to the question of what relationship exists between women who love women at different times and places across history and proposes some new ways of thinking about that question.

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Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2011. “The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Traub, Valerie. 2011. “The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography”

Traub looks at methodological issues currently facing lesbian history as a field. It faces the contrasting problems of a continuist approach versus considering alterity (with its regular charges of anachronism against the other approach). Traub feels both models have outlived their usefulness. She notes Faderman as an example of the continuist approach, i.e., that there is a single connected “history of lesbianism”. Others on this team include Castle and Brooten, who challenge Foucault’s focus on periodization (i.e., that there are distinct and unrelated “periods” of how same-sex relations were understood) and the emergence of the alterist position--one that has been more developed in studies of men than women. [Note: I’m not sure I have a complete grasp on what the “alterity” approach constitutes. It appears to be something along the lines of viewing same-sex relations as existing at various times in opposition to normative structures, rather than having a continuous connected historical tradition. That is, that same-sex relations at any point in history are structurally connected to heterosexual relations at that same point, rather than being connected to same-sex relations at other points in history.]

Bennett, looking at social history, recognizes a distinction between looking at change in women’s experiences and looking at change in women’s social status, where a “patriarchal equilibrium” works to maintain the latter, but is more flexible on the former. In the context of lesbian history, this suggests that the social acceptabiity of lesbian identity and behavior may be affected by how it either ameliorates or challenges women's relationship to patriarchy. Other critiques of alterity recognize similarities and continuity in the experience of sexuality while rejecting universals. Researchers like Vicinus note repetitive or continuous patterns and structures of intimacy whose meanings may change over time.

As more archival material is identified, examined, and re-examined, more nuanced understandings are possible. Traub sets out a shift in her own thinking:

1. Recurrent explanatory meta-logics give a sense of familiarity and consistency to lesbian history over time.

2. These meta-logics get their specifics from the specific contexts and social definition.

3. These recurrences can be seen as “cycles of salience” as concepts recur with differences across time.

That is, continuity is not continuous, but recurrent, due to persistent concerns filtered through dynamic social contexts. Similarities are not due to inheritance but due to being driven by similar forces. The structures and definitions within a particular time and place may reflect narrow types of experience (e.g., the dominance of middle class white women’s concerns in modern lesbian models) but comparison across intersections can tease out the common dynamics.

Traub considers repeating “types” (tropes) in which lesbian desire manifests and what the underlying meta-logic is that (re)generates them. E.g., Katherine Phillips’ 17th century “Society of Friendship” compared to Boston Marriage in the 19th century, or the concept of Romantic Friendship compared to convent intimacies. When comparing gender-bending types (virago, tribade, female husband, passing women, butch) the similarities are disrupted by contextual dynamics. Another repeating trope is the motif of the enlarged clitoris (in the 16-17th century) and the early 20th century sexologists’ search for an essentialized morphology of deviance from a meta-logic of physiological essentialism. (See similarly the more recent search for a “gay gene”.) This motif is related to larger social fixations that include “scientific racism”.

Manifestations of models of sexuality emerge out of more general social discourse unrelated to sexuality. Traub argues against simply shifting to seeing these tropes as a continuity or universal, but neither should the homologies be dismissed. Current historians (in lesbian history) avoid trying to construct an overarching historical narrative, but have also moved away from the “famous gay people in history” approach. Traub offers a long bullet-point list of themes that are worth tracing across cycles of history that affect the expression and understanding of same-sex desire, with a special list relating specifically to women’s experiences as women in society that affect their experience of sexuality.

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