Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 20a - On the Shelf for March 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/03/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2018.
It’s been a busy month here at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and I’m really excited about the things we have coming up to share with you, not just this month but in the year to come.
The Fiction Project
If you’ve been following along on the blog, you’ll already know the lineup for the podcast fiction project. When I finished the first read-though of submissions, I knew immediately that I had a problem: there were just too many good stories that I wanted to buy. Fortunately, I could solve this with an executive decision. Rather than buying two stories for a half-year trial run of the fiction project, I just went ahead and bought four to cover all the "fifth Saturday" episodes for the entire year. That will also give me more data to see whether and how I want to extend the fiction project in the future.
I haven't decided on the order of appearance for the whole season yet, but here are the selections in chronological order of setting:
I'm especially happy that after I'd identified the best stories I'd received, I found I also had a broad variety of time-periods, cultures, and types of story. We have young love and love returned to late in life. We have adventure and quiet friendship. We have women who transgress gender norms and those who find love within conventional structures. We have happy endings, bittersweet ones, and stories where the eventual end is yet unknown. I'm so excited to be able to bring these stories to my podcast listeners!
At the time I’m recording this, I’m still sorting out which story will debut the series at the end of the month. But I’m sure you’ll enjoy all of them, no matter which one comes first.
Publications on the Blog
I have a number of different approaches to choosing which publications to cover in the blog. Sometimes I try to pick ones that relate to the theme of that month’s podcast, like when I did my month-long special on Sappho and her poetry last year. I’ve done a little of that this past month with two biographies of actress Charlotte Cushman. One by Lisa Merrill, published in 2000, looks very specifically at how Cushman felt about her relationships with women and how she carefully managed the way they affected her public reputation. The second biography, by Joseph Leach and published in 1970, makes a strong contrast as well as an interesting case study in how historians and biographers have actively worked to erase queerness from the subjects of their study. When I chose these books to blog, it wasn’t so much to have a coordinated theme this time, but because I needed to read them to put the podcast together. I’m starting the March blogs off with another coordinated publication: a biography of speedboat racer and lesbian celebrity “Joe” Carstairs, which ties in with the interview at the end of this show.
Sometimes I’ll choose publications for the blog simply because something came to my attention and I wanted to read the material anyway. That was the case with the three linguistics-related articles that started off last month’s blogs. I was a little disappointed by the one by Mary-Jo Bonnet on the chronology of words for lesbians in French because gaps in her data undermine some of her key conclusions. The other vocabulary-related article by Randy P. Connor was interesting in part for having an extensive vocabulary list of terms used for both male and female homosexuals in pre-modern France. And I was really delighted with Diane Watt’s close examination of the phrase “clipping and kissing” as used in 16th century English, and how it was used in an English translation of the story of Yde and Olive to indiacate sexual activity between the two women. I’m going to digress for a moment of academic fangirl squee, because a couple weeks ago Professor Watt tweeted a link to my blog in connection with a different publication of hers that I’d included. And--oh man!--nothing quite like the panic of realizing that someone’s actually paying attention to what you’re saying about their work.
Getting back to how I choose articles. Sometimes I’ll line up a small group of publications from my to-do list that have a related theme, like when I had a group of three books on sexuality in the middle ages that I covered last fall. Sometimes I’ll just wander into the library in my house and grab something at random that I haven’t covered yet. But sometimes timing and logistics pushes me in a particular direction. Covering a substantial book in a single blog, like I did for the Cushman biographies, takes up a big chunk of time. So for the next couple months I’m going to focus on journal articles instead, and try to line up a few months’ worth to give me a bit of a breathing space.
So just to let you in on a bit of my process in how I do this: I spent Last Saturday in the Cal Berkeley library with a spreadsheet of call numbers and a cell phone app that turns photos directly to pdfs. I started out with a list of 70 articles to try to track down and made my way through about 50 of them before I ran out of time. From those 50, I ended up with 28 photocopied articles, plus 8 books that I identified as being useful enough that I went online and bought them. (Although I really wish there was a non-Amazon site that aggregated second-hand book listings conveniently.) The rest of the items that I worked through on my list either weren’t on the shelf or were available only in electronic form.
Such a variety of options gives me the chance to pick a few to start with that coordinate with this month’s essay, which is an adaptation of a blog I wrote on the theme of falling in love with cross-dressing women in historic literature. So I’ll fill out the rest of the March blog spots with Caroline Gonda’s “Lesbian Narrative in the Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu”, Kristina Straub’s “The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke”, and Ad Putter’s “Transvestite Knights in Medieval Life and History” which is particularly intersting as it discusses positive portrayals of men cross-dressing as women in medieval literature.
As I mentioned, this month’s essay will be an adaptation of a blog I wrote a couple years ago on the use of gender disguise in historic literature as a way of creating a context for same-sex attraction and how various different texts handled the consequences of that attraction. I’ll be adding some further analysis of how the gender disguise trope in historic literature creates a site of intersection for both lesbian motifs and transgender motifs and how it can point out some of the inherent problems with modern identity groups trying to lay exclusive claim to people or works in the past that existed within an entirely different set of models for gender and sexuality.
This month’s author guest will be fantasy and science fiction writer Elizabeth Bear, in celebration of the release of her second Karen Memory book, an alternate history steam-punk adventure featuring lesbian protagonists. Elizabeth is a wonderfully entertaining guest and you should go out and read Karen Memory now so that you’ll be ready for Stone Mad when it comes out later in the month. More details on that are coming up in the next segment where I talk about forthcoming books.
I’d also like to congratulate last month’s guest, Ellen Klages. The novella we talked about, “Passing Strange” has been nominated as a finalist for the Nebula award. The Nebulas are a set of awards voted on by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America organization. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the members of that organization find it the most brilliant novella of the year, like I did. (I know that as a SFWA member, I’ll certainly be voting for it.)
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Let’s talk about some new historical and historically-inspired books coming out this month. Because there are so few lesbian historical books overall, I cast a fairly wide net in this ongoing segment and indicate whether a book is purely historical, is set in real-world history with fantastical elements, or is historically inspired but set in an alternate history or alternate world.
Of course, the first book to mention is the one our featured author will be talking about, the steampunk alt-historical Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear, coming out from Tor.com. Here’s the blurb:
“Readers met the irrepressible Karen Memory in Elizabeth Bear’s 2015 novel Karen Memory, and fell in love with her steampunk Victorian Pacific Northwest city, and her down-to-earth story-telling voice. Now Karen is back with Stone Mad, a new story about spiritualists, magicians, con-men, and an angry lost tommy-knocker―a magical creature who generally lives in the deep gold mines of Alaska, but has been kidnapped and brought to Rapid City. Karen and Priya are out for a night on the town, celebrating the purchase of their own little ranch and Karen’s retirement from the Hotel Ma Cherie, when they meet the Arcadia Sisters, spiritualists who unexpectedly stir up the tommy-knocker in the basement. The ensuing show could bring down the house, if Karen didn’t rush in to rescue everyone she can.”
In the purely historical category we have The Northwoods by Jane Hoppen coming out from Bold Strokes Books. It’s a historical romance with the fairly popular setting of the American frontier in the mid 19th century, involving a cross-dressing woman passing as a man. The blurb says:
“In 1853 Wisconsin, Evelyn Bauer’s husband dies and, to support her children and their farm, she must disguise herself as him and work the logging camp for the winter. Sarah Bell has lost her partner Abigail to pneumonia. When she’s offered a job as a cook's helper at the logging camp, she has little choice but to go. The two women secretly forge a friendship as they struggle to survive the harsh environment. As Evelyn’s and Sarah’s feelings grow, tension silently builds and their unspoken passion will either force them apart or bind them together forever.”
A book that looks like it may stray over the line a teensy bit from history into alternate history is Free to Love by Ali Spooner and Annette Mori from Affinity Rainbow Publications. This is a pair of intertwined stories set in the Carribbean. The date isn’t clear from the blurb, but it looks like either the later 18th century or early 19th century
Ali Spooner’s contribution is The Chandler’s Daughter. “Captain Hillary Blythe loves sailing the Atlantic Coast on her journeys to deliver goods. Appalled by the growth of slave trade, vowing to find a way to help her thoughts turn to piracy frequently. Will helping those enslaved jeopardize her life, and the life she hopes to have with the Chandler’s Daughter?”
The other story by Annette Mori is Forbidden Love. “When Captain Blythe brings a small group of rescued slaves to a mission on Antigua, life for Elizabeth Allen changes forever. Elizabeth feels an instant connection to Kia, one of the young women. A devout Christian, Elizabeth struggles to align her feeling for Kia and her devotion to the church. Will Elizabeth allow the forbidden love she feels for Kia, or will faith over-rule her heart?”
The fourth book I found this month is more of a fictionalized biography: Undiscovered Country: A Novel Inspired by the Lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. It’s written by Kelly O’Connor McNees and published by Pegasus Books. Here’s the blurb: “In 1932, New York City, top reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok starts each day with a front page byline―and finishes it swigging bourbon and planning her next big scoop. But an assignment to cover FDR’s campaign—and write a feature on his wife, Eleanor—turns Hick’s hard-won independent life on its ear. Soon her work, and the secret entanglement with the new first lady, will take her from New York and Washington to Scotts Run, West Virginia, where impoverished coal miners’ families wait in fear that the New Deal’s promised hope will pass them by. Together, Eleanor and Hick imagine how the new town of Arthurdale could change the fate of hundreds of lives. But doing what is right does not come cheap, and Hick will pay in ways she never could have imagined. Undiscovered Country artfully mixes fact and fiction to portray the intense relationship between this unlikely pair. Inspired by the historical record, including the more than three thousand letters Hick and Eleanor exchanged over a span of thirty years, McNees tells this story through Hick’s tough, tender, and unforgettable voice. A remarkable portrait of Depression-era America, this novel tells the poignant story of how a love that was forced to remain hidden nevertheless changed history.”
Remember that I can only include forthcoming books in this regular segment if I know they exist. So if you have or know of an upcoming book that might fall in the category of lesbian historical fiction, let me know so I can check it out.
Instead of the usual Ask Sappho segment in this podcast, I have a short interview with composer and artist Phoebe Legere about her off-Broadway musical about the life of Marion “Joe” Carstairs, an heiress, celebrity, and speedboat racer, whose life spans most of the 20th century and traces the changing experience of lesbian identity throughout that period. Phoebe Legere seems quite a colorful character herself and is very excited about the topic of her one-woman show. At the end of the interview there will be information about when and where the show will be performed and a special deal for our listeners.
Interview with Phoebe Legere
[Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find time to transcribe the interview before posting this. If I’m able to do so in the future, I’ll add it to this transcript.]
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And that wraps up this month’s look at what’s on the shelf. I hope you’re looking forward to this month’s podcast features as much as I am!
Notes and Links
Publications on the Blog
New and Forthcoming Books
Musical about Marion “Joe” Carstairs