(Originally aired 2020/12/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2020.
For those who thought that 2020 would never end…well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still the rest of the month to go. But there are reasons for hope. Three Covid-19 vaccines are in the approval process and if we can all hold on, keep practicing good anti-transmission hygiene, and push off trying to pretend we’re back to normal for a while longer, we can get through this together. If there’s any lesson the pandemic should have given us, it’s how inextricably intertwined our lives are, both on a global level and on a local one. Every action, every decision we make affects people we will never meet. And the essential framework of civilization relies on us being willing to shape our individual actions, not only for our own personal immediate satisfaction, but for the benefit of all those other threads in the fabric of our society.
Maybe current events seem an odd topic for a history podcast, but history is full of lessons, if we only take the time to pay attention and to look for the parallels. For example, if you look at the historic parallels, it’s easy to see that the current reactionary agenda against transgender people is closely parallel in its rhetoric and methods to campaigns in the past against homosexual people. And any cis lesbian or bisexual woman who thinks that the anti-trans forces won’t return to a more general persecution of queer people in the fullness of time, is as blinkered as the Republican establishment in Georgia who is suddenly shocked—shocked, I say!—to find that the anti-rational, violence-inciting mob that they have tacitly supported all this time is now willing to turn on them.
History will warn and teach us about these things if we’re willing to pay attention and look for the connections. But history also teaches us happier and more positive things: like the myriad of varieties of relationships and identities that people have forged for themselves across time and space. Studying how people lived, and thought, and felt in the past has a usefulness beyond entertainment. Sometimes we will find lives with a deep personal resonance—lives that speak to us on an individual basis and provide models for our own path. The series of books I’ve been blogging in the last several months are a good example of that, as they survey the lives of women who loved women in many different ways across a wide span of time.
Publications on the Blog
Originally I’d planned for the blog to get through at least one book a month in the current thematic series, which meant posting at least two chapters a week. Instead I ended up slacking off a little because the world is on fire and I was feeling overwhelmed. So November and most of December is all taken up with Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends, a selection of biographies of relationships between women in the “long” 19th century, illustrating a wide variety of dynamics those relationships could involve. At the end of December, rather than starting the first chapter of Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, I think I’ll keep things tidy for the year-end by finding a shorter article to summarize.
And I have no new books purchased or otherwise acquired for the blog this month, though I have one ordered and on its way. So: a slow month all around.
This month’s author guest will be Diana Pinguicha whose debut novel A Miracle of Roses has just come out. I loved this story, not only for the unusual medieval setting—I’m very much a medieval history geek at heart—but for the connections it makes between the social forces that warp the lives of adolescent girls in every society. So often girls are taught that everything they do, everything they are is wrong. It takes strength and courage to stand up to those forces and say, “No, there’s nothing wrong with who I am, and I will honor that.” I had a great discussion with Diana about those themes, so I hope you enjoy it too.
Back when the Lesbian Historic Motif Project was just a twinkle in my eye and a small collection of books on my shelf, the vision I had for it was to be a sourcebook of information organized for authors to use in developing characters and stories.
As I encountered the ever-expanding amount of research available on the topic, I set that idea aside in favor of a more granular review and presentation of individual publications. But I’m all too aware that my original target audience—authors—may still find it difficult to pick through the hundreds of blog entries to find the resources most relevant to their own projects. So I’m circling around again to the idea of providing another layer of synthesis—focused articles that look at specific historic contexts and discuss the range of experiences and understandings of women who loved women in that time and place.
For this month’s essay, I’d already planned to take a step in that direction and talk about how that sort of information might be organized and presented. What questions should a historic snapshot answer? What topics should be considered? What practical information would authors find useful? And what are the misperceptions I see most commonly in sapphic historical fiction?
Those plans got an additional boost when I decided to participate in the fundraiser Romancing the Runoff, raising money to support voter organizations for the Georgia Senate run-off. What could I donate to the auction that people might consider valuable enough to bid on? And my answer was: a personalized sapphic history consultation on the historic setting of your choice. I confess I agonized a bit over the chance that the winning bidder would choose a setting I haven’t yet covered in my research! But fortunately the winner picked the English Regency. So in laying out the outline of what my consultation package will include, I also wrote up the basis for this month’s podcast essay, which will be a discussion of topics and questions that will help prepare an author to write well-grounded historical characters.
2021 Fiction Series
Since it’s December, we’re rushing toward the submissions period for the 2021 fiction series. Submissions will be open during the month of January, so you have plenty of time to get a story all polished up. I feel like I haven’t been cheerleading for the fiction series enough this year, and that makes me worry about submission numbers. I’ll be making a big push to get the word out and you can help as well. There aren’t a lot of markets for specialized genres of lesbian short fiction, and even fewer that pay market rates. I’d like to continue encouraging writers to explore the historical field. We’re looking for stories of up to 5000 words, with pre-20th century settings, focused on characters who fit into the category of women who love women. We accept stories with some fantasy elements as long as they’re rooted in a specific real time and place. Check out the full call for submissions linked in the show notes.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
December is a thin month for new books this year. I only have three titles to talk about this month, all of them from mainstream presses, and all with fantasy elements. It’s only a temporary drought – I already have 7 titles for January and expect to find more.
The first two books are both from SFF publisher Tor.com, which is establishing quite the reputation for diversity of representation. The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C.S. Malerich, is based on an actual historic labor action…then adds a bit of magic.
Faced with abominable working conditions, unsympathetic owners, and hard-hearted managers, the mill girls of Lowell have had enough. They’re going on strike, and they have a secret weapon on their side: a little witchcraft to ensure that no one leaves the picket line. For the young women of Lowell, Massachusetts, freedom means fair wages for fair work, decent room and board, and a chance to escape the cotton mills before lint stops up their lungs. When the Boston owners decide to raise the workers’ rent, the girls go on strike. Their ringleader is Judith Whittier, a newcomer to Lowell but not to class warfare. Judith has already seen one strike fold and she doesn’t intend to see it again. Fortunately Hannah, her best friend in the boardinghouse—and maybe first love?—has a gift for the dying art of witchcraft.
Loosely following on from a previous novella in the same setting, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 2) by Nghi Vo follows the nonbinary story-collecting monk Chih, in an encounter with a tiger and the woman she loves. I really enjoyed the first story in this series and look forward to reading this one.
The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history. Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, a mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune.
The third book is by this month’s author guest, A Miracle of Roses by Diana Pinguicha from Entangled Publishing.
With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies. There's a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic--her curse--has turned her meal into a bouquet. She's on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain. If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers...into food. Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse--if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss. As the King of Portugal's betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death? With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more. She'd sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel's destruction.
What Am I Reading?
What have I been reading lately? I read Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune while sitting on an emergency room gurney the week before Thanksgiving, which made a lovely distraction. The other two books I’ve read have been in preparation for interviews: Diana Pinguicha’s A Miracle of Roses and Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, for which I received an advance review copy. That would be a good book count for the month even outside of quarantimes!
As a reminder, if you’re listening to this show through the TLT podcast channel, make sure to subscribe to the new independent show through your favorite podcast app because TLT is going away in January. For those who have already switched, thank you! And we’d love it if you drop a review into your podcast site to let other people know how great the show is.
Also remember that starting in January, we’ll be combining the interviews and book appreciation segments into the On the Shelf show. With the special topic episode, that takes us down to two shows a month, plus the quarterly fiction episodes. The same content as before, just in a slightly different arrangement. And a smidge less burnout on the part of your host. I hope you’ll be continuing the adventure with us as we move into this new phase of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project!
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online