(Originally aired 2021/07/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2021.
Pride month is over but the pride lives on year-round! Though “pride” isn’t necessarily the goal to aim for. “Pride” is an interesting concept to represent a social movement. The word has two contexts. One meaning is sense of satisfaction in accomplishment. One can be proud of having finished that first draft of your novel. Or proud of successfully training for a marathon. One can be proud of accomplishments at all levels: riding a bicycle for the first time or winning the Tour de France. Pulling off a perfect dinner party or establishing a successful catering business. But that’s an odd definition in the context of identity. If I say, “I’m proud to be an American” what the heck does that even mean? It’s not something I accomplished or worked at. It’s an accident of birth. If I say, “I’m a proud lesbian,” does that mean I worked hard to become one and might have failed along the way?
Social movements that use the idea of “pride” generally use the word in a different sense: as the opposite of shame. The slogan “gay pride” had a resonance in the ‘60s and ‘70s because for the entirety of the 20th century we’d been told we should be ashamed of being gay. It was modeled on movements like Black Pride, where people stood up, took to the streets, and say, “No, I will not be ashamed of who and what I am. I will not accept that my very existence makes me a lesser human being.”
There are some who argue that “identity politics” – focusing your awareness and activism around inherent characteristics – is a bad thing. But identity has always been at the heart of social politics. What was new in the 20th century, across very many groups, was the idea that you could reject the political and social oppression turned on you because of your identity, whether that identity was race or ethnicity, religion or social class, gender or sexuality.
Identity is a continuing theme in studying queer history, revolving around the Foucaultian debate between queer being something you do versus being something you are. The rise of identity-awareness in the 20th century confuses the issue of studying the past. Today we are so focused on identities, intersecting identities, micro-identities, that we can find it difficult to imagine queer people in the past not sharing that same sense of identity – or hard to connect with them emotionally if we don’t share that.
Identity has its limits as an organizing principle. One failure mode is difficulty identifying with people who don’t share our same openly-defined identities. Another failure mode is found in experiencing pride as the flip side of shame, it should be clear that the goal of pride movements of all types should be the elimination of even the suggestion of shame. When there is no longer shame, there will be no need to counter it with pride. Then we can focus on the other sense of the word: pride in accomplishment, when artificial barriers and restrictions no longer stand in our way.
News of the Field
If you’ve already signed up to attend the online Golden Crown Literary Society conference, or you’ve been thinking about it and need a little push, I’ll be participating in a panel I suggested on why authors write historical fiction—what the telling of stories set in the past means to us both as writers and as readers. The conference is spread out over multiple weekends in July, which makes participation easier for those who can’t or don’t want to take time off work for it. The history panel “Yesterday Once More: The Uses of Historical Fiction” is on Sunday July 25 at noon Eastern Time. Check out the other programming and think about taking this opportunity to attend. Online conferences are really changing access to events, although there are some parts that don’t translate to the virtual experience. There’s a link to the conference schedule in the show notes.
Publications on the Blog
So, the blog. Ah yes, the blog. Can I retroactively declare that the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Blog is taking a little summer vacation? Because that seems to be what’s happening. What’s really happening is that my day job has been all-consuming for the past month or so, with a lot of late evenings and even weekends getting swallowed up. So expect more updates on the blog when I have time to do the readings. I do seem to have broken though my fiction reading block, though. More on that a little later.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And now it’s new books time! I have four June books and five July books for your consideration this month. A lot of series stories, for those who love to follow characters across multiple books. And rather delightfully, a slight majority of this month’s books are set prior to the 19th century. I love seeing stories from earlier eras. As far as settings go, these books follow typical patterns: mostly England and the US, but then one each from mythic early Greece, mythic Viking-era Scandinavia, and an alternate medieval China – if you will forgive the cultural anachronism of using the word medieval about a non-European setting.
That’s actually a topic of serious academic debate, by the way. Is there a concept of the Middle Ages that makes sense to apply world-wide? Or are the Middle Ages something that only exist with respect to Western culture, given that the “middle” in question is the era between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance? And then there’s the question of how the word “medieval” gets used in an ahistorical way to indicate certain myths about violence, social hierarchies, and anti-intellectualism that derive far more from pop culture than from the actual middle ages. In certain ways, applying the word medieval to non-Western cultures, simply because an event is contemporary with that period, is a form of cultural imperialism. But in other ways, worldwide cultures are connected in interdependent ways that mean the historic eras defined for one culture describe conditions that affect their interactions with other cultures.
Defining the “end of the middle ages” in terms of Europe’s cultural and intellectual Renaissance may have little meaning with respect to Asian cultures. But the changes that drove the Renaissance also affected trade, travel, and contact between cultures. And on a more questionable side, marked the start of Western colonial expansion. So – getting back to the start of this digression – while describing a story as set in “medieval” China may not be useful in describing what was going on in Chinese culture itself, it does situate the setting of the story with respect to waves of contact, trade, and influence that are relevant to that setting.
But this is a digression. I’m not really here to teach world history. My goal when describing books is much more simple. I want to let readers know what to expect. I want to let you know whether you’re getting ordinary history or a mythic history that might include demi-gods and supernatural creatures. I want to give a sense of how closely the story sticks to cultural settings and attitudes that we have solid evidence for, and which ones use a historic setting as a jumping off point for “what if” stories, even if there are no overt fantastical elements. Some stories are set in a solidly-envisioned past set with people, events, and locations that aren’t in the history books. Others invoke real events and people while telling stories about them that—as far as we know—never happened. And everything in between.
That’s one of the reasons it’s hard to define which books I include under the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, and which I decide don’t fall under our scope. My approach to the borders of historical fiction is in many ways a feeling—a flavor—rather than a set of rules. It results in some inconsistencies. In general, I don’t include books set in secondary worlds, but I do include books set in a fictional analogue of a real historic culture. The core focus is on purely historical settings, but I’ll generally include stories with settings that historic people told stories in. Several of the books this month fall in that category, telling stories about mythic amazons of ancient Greece or adventures out of Arthurian legend.
Just as the “historic” part of this podcast’s scope is rather fuzzy around the edges, the “lesbian” part can get equally fuzzy. And I don’t mean just because I use that word to stand in for all types of sapphic characters. This month’s books include several where a person-assigned-female is being read as male by the other characters on a long-term basis. There’s a long-standing tradition in lesbian historic fiction to use gender disguise as a trope for drawing on the wealth of heterosexual plot-types. But not all such books intend to tell sapphic stories, and not all such characters understand themselves to be women in disguise. The tricky part is that it isn’t always easy to determine the author’s intentions from the available publicity materials about the book. And—quite frankly—you can’t always rely on how the book is tagged in Goodreads or Amazon.
I lean toward being inclusive—not because I’m discounting transgender aspects of the stories and characters—but in part because I can’t always tell how the character identifies, and in part to honor the deep intertwined histories of lesbian and transmasculine experiences. So, for example, among this month’s books we have a character who is read universally as a man, who is referred to in their own point of view scenes with male pronouns, but where the author has tagged the book as having a lesbian relationship, and included hints about the character being “not who he says he is.”
In another book, the protagonist’s backstory includes taking on her dead brother’s identity and thereafter being read as male. But in the book’s publicity materials—including the title—the character is referred to with female pronouns. In another story, a woman takes on a male identity specifically for economic reasons in the American frontier. I have no interest in trying to draw sharp dividing lines around gender presentation to determine which books get included in this podcast and which don’t, but you may have noticed that I generally point out my uncertainty and try to avoid applying labels that the author might not have intended.
So what are this month’s new books?
June brought us four books set across a wide swath of time, all set within Europe.
The Women of Apasas (Amazzi Warriors and Queens #1), self-published by Elizabeth Reign, features an Amazon warrior and a refugee priestess from Crete who are drawn together by fate and desire. Love, duty, and distrust set a difficult challenge for them.
Viking Quest, self-published by Edale Lane, unsurprisingly takes on a Viking-era setting. Sea voyages, battles, and treachery all feature in this romantic adventure between a princess bent on revenge and a damsel in distress seeking her freedom.
Lie With Me, self-published by Patricia Spencer, is one of the gender-blurring stories I mentioned earlier. To all appearances, Julien D’Avenant is an exiled French nobleman fleeing the terrors of the Revolution, but D’Avenant is also a contradiction. A dandy who adopts the fashions of the sans-culottes; an anarchist bent on acquiring the property of the widowed Countess Wyndham; a recluse who invites the young countess into his home. And within those contradictions, D’Avenant is definitely not what he seems. I’m going to confess I get frustrated with books that combine tags for “lesbian romance” with a superficially heterosexual plot description. I’m going to trust the author’s description, that D’Avenant is in gender disguise but not male-identifying, and I’m going to trust that the story handles gender-crossing motifs with awareness and sensitivity. I wish it was available somewhere other than Amazon so I’d be inclined to find out for myself.
The Dawn of the Rose (Love and Thorns #2), self-published by Sarah Swan, is a loosely independent sequel to her 18th century Scottish romance Like the Down of a Thistle, but set almost a century later. In this book, a descendent of the previous book’s protagonist takes ship for America and crosses paths with a stowaway running from the law. In the claustrophobic confines of the ship, they must negotiate trust and secrets. But someone else knows about the stowaway and their danger will only increase.
July brings us a couple of mainstream publications as well as continuations of three lesfic series.
For those who enjoy sweeping epic fantasies, check out Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun from Tor. In the 14th century, in Mongol-ruled China, a young girl claims her dead brother’s identity and the great destiny that was foretold for him. Zhu has a will to survive, and the fortunes of war turn survival into much more. There are sapphic themes in the book, though it certainly isn’t a romance. And Zhu’s gender-crossing doesn’t align closely with modern concepts of identity. But if you’re in the mood for a chunky epic this may be your lucky day.
Another gender-bender is the anthology Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices, edited by Swapna Krishna & Jenn Northington from Vintage. A collection of gender-bent and race-bent stories of the Arthurian mythos from names such as Roshani Chokshi, Maria Dahvana Headley, Ken Liu, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Nisi Shawl—just to mention the authors I’ve enjoyed fiction from in the past. The original Arthurian stories were far more diverse than you might think, but this collection celebrates that diversity in new forms. I have to confess quite honestly that I don’t know for certain whether any of the stories is specifically sapphic, but I think it’s a good enough bet to include in this list.
Kim Pritekel’s Wynter series from Sapphire Books gets a third volume, Justice Won, following two chance-met allies on a train heading for California. But their journey, and perhaps their lives, hit a snag in the town of Wynter, Colorado, and the lives that had begun to be braided together may be torn apart.
Renee Dahlia’s self-published Great War series also gets a third volume, Her Lady's Fortune. In the aftermath of WWI, wealthy philanthropist Priya Howick can only realize her project to assist war widows by accepting a partnership with Rosalie Sanderson, the determined head of a banking dynasty. But Priya and Rosalie have met before—for one glorious and disastrous night in the time before the war. The ache of that wound may derail their project before it even starts.
The two previous series books look like they stand alone fairly well, but Murder and Gold (Cantor Gold #5) by Ann Aptaker from Bywater Books may appeal most to continuing fans of the series. For quite some time, Cantor Gold has been navigating the hazards of a criminal career in mid-20th century New York. Dead bodies aren’t exactly a surprise for her—even if one of them is one of her recent one-night stands. Nor is she any stranger to becoming a target of the police investigating the murders. But new currents are stirring in the ‘50s. Homosexual organizations are becoming visible and vocal. And that complicates Cantor’s understanding of her own identity at a time when she can’t afford to be distracted.
What Am I Reading?
And what am I reading? I hinted earlier that I seem to have broken through my reading block at last. And about time, after well over a year of having a hard time turning the pages. In the past month, I’ve actually managed to finish four books, though only half of them have sapphic themes.
Alyssa Cole’s contemporary “Runaway Royals” series features How to Find a Princess, in which two women with difficult personalities clash over the possibility that one of them just might be descended from the mysteriously disappeared queen of a small Mediterranean kingdom. I loved the way Cole handled the two women’s quirks and damages, and how they gradually came together. I was a bit less enamored of the surprise twist at the end, but you may enjoy it more than I did.
One of the things that’s helped me get back into reading fiction is picking up physical books, rather than trying to read everything on a screen. I stare at screens entirely too much as it is, and for the last year most of my socializing has involved staring at pixels as well. So maybe I should have tried physical books a bit earlier. Goodness knows I have an entire bookcase of untouched volumes that I’ve been accumulating over the last couple decades. But since I mostly buy ebooks these days, that means my hard-copy reading has been older publications.
I’ve finally read Emma Donoghue’s collection of re-fashioned fairy tales, Kissing the Witch. “Collection” isn’t quite the right word, since it’s actually a set of chained stories (sort of like the stories in the 1001 Nights), in which each story ends with the protagonist asking a secondary character what her story is. All the stories are very very queer, and given that this is Emma Donoghue, they’re excellently written. It was actually hard to put the book down and not finish it in a single gulp, they were just that addictive.
My other paper read is from a Jane Austen themed murder mystery series by Carrie Bebris, with Mr. and Mrs. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice playing the roles of amateur detectives. Many other recognizable Austen characters wander through the plot. The specific book I read was The Deception at Lyme, which I think is maybe the fourth in the series? It’s exactly the sort of fluffy, light comfort read that got me through grad school back in the ‘90s. The prose isn’t brilliant – not even a particularly close imitation of Austen – and there are some plot holes you could drive a four-in-hand through, but perfectly enjoyable.
And speaking of comfort reads, I finished the month by reading A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher (who is also Ursula Vernon). Vernon is an amazing writer of hard-to-categorize fantasies. In this book, a teenage baker-wizard saves the city with the help of an animated gingerbread man and her magical familiar. A sourdough culture named Bob. It’s…well, let’s just say it’s hard to describe other than that. You might think that a fantasy adventure in which sourdough culture plays a key role would be a shameless ploy for the book-dollars of the quarantine Sourdough Tribe, but the book was actually written a decade ago and gathered a bunch of publisher’s rejections until the time became perfect for its publication.
Let’s hope my newfound reading momentum keeps up. I have a lot of books waiting for me.
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