Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 25a - On the Shelf for August 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/08/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2018.
It’s been an entire year of the weekly schedule for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. For our first year, we were on a once a month schedule, and for our second year we’ve posted every week. But never fear, we aren’t increasing the frequency again for the third year!
Producing this podcast is an amazing experience. Not only do I get to talk to you about all my favorite historical research, but with the expanded format I have an excuse to hunt down authors of lesbian historical fiction and grill them about their work. I’ve also worked to bring more awareness of the fiction that’s out there, whether it’s via recommendations from my author guests, or topical lists of stories with particular themes, or the new original fiction that we’re including in the podcast.
My very selfish goal with this podcast is to find out about great lesbian historical fiction and to encourage people to make more of it. I’m always looking for new ways so support the field. If you’re an author of historically based fiction or a voracious reader with opinions about what books people should know about, please feel free to contact me about being on the show. I’m always looking for new voices to feature.
Publications on the Blog
The blog version of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is finishing up our summer run of journal articles. July’s theme was 17th and 18th century topics, including Emma Donoghue’s discussion of the intersection of the themes of lesbians and hermaphrodites, Clorinda Donato’s examination of John Cleland’s edition of Catharine Vizzani’s biography as a commentary on his contemporary, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Jaqueline Holler’s look at the sexual and religious transgressions of a 17th century Mexican heretic, Susan Lanser’s consideration of homoerotic literature of 17th century England as a way of constructing a feminist consciousness, and Tim Hitchcock’s review of various attitudes towards female homosexuality as part of a general study of sexuality in 18th century England.
That leaves the month of August to cover all the assorted articles that I couldn’t fit into any of the previous months’ themes. We’ll look at Ulrike Wiethaus’s study of female frienship in the letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Helen Berry’s consideration of the question, when is a kiss just a kiss? And how we can tell that kissing is meant to be understood as erotic? Then a brief reivew of homosexuality within a general consideration of medieval female sexuality by Monica Green. I’ll finish off the month with a publication yet to be chosen, which means I need to get working on my reading!
This month’s author guest will be Vanda, who has just published the third volume in an extended saga about a rising entertainment star and the woman who loves her in the mid 20th century.
And for this month’s essay, I’ve decided to return to a favorite topic: poetry about love between women. I’ve pulled together enough material to do several episodes and this one will include material from the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily from England but including some translated material from other languages.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
How about some new lesbian historical fiction? While I have a list of publisher’s websites that I check regularly, and I get some titles from mentions in social media, I’d like to give a shout-out to the website Women and Words who puts together a list of new releases every month that sometimes fills in the gaps of what I’ve found.
We’ll start with the crime thriller Crossing the Line, the newest book in C.F. Frizzell’s Stick McLaughlin series from Bold Strokes Books. Here’s the blurb:
For Stick “Mac” McLaughlin, it’s all about family: the stalwart friends, her former gang of bootlegging hijackers, and, above all, her lover and their daughter. So when New York mobsters begin squeezing the livelihood of new friend Rey, a veteran rum-runner on rural Lake George, Mac lends Rey resources but remains safely distant from enemies of the past. Grateful for help, Rey opens her back-woods life to Mac’s seasoned, gun-toting crew, but never expects it to include the likes of petite bombshell Millie. The buxom, wily spitfire’s gumption and sass are as vital to the cause as they are aggravating…and beguiling. But the Mob soon discovers a nemesis within its ranks, and, in the ultimate retaliation, draws Mac from anonymity by threatening everything she holds dear. Now, to finally end this deep-woods nightmare, Mac must cross the line with a vengeance.
We get a less commonly seen setting in Frances de Pontes Peebles’ novel The Air You Breathe from Riverhead Books. Here’s a synopsis:
Some friendships, like romance, have the feeling of fate. Skinny, nine-year-old orphaned Dores is working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation in 1930s Brazil when in walks a girl who changes everything. Graça, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, is clever, well fed, pretty, and thrillingly ill behaved. Born to wildly different worlds, Dores and Graça quickly bond over shared mischief, and then, on a deeper level, over music. One has a voice like a songbird; the other feels melodies in her soul and composes lyrics to match. Music will become their shared passion, the source of their partnership and their rivalry, and for each, the only way out of the life to which each was born. But only one of the two is destined to be a star. Their intimate, volatile bond will determine each of their fortunes--and haunt their memories. Traveling from Brazil's inland sugar plantations to the rowdy streets of Rio de Janeiro's famous Lapa neighborhood, from Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood back to the irresistible drumbeat of home, The Air You Breathe unfurls a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship--its unparalleled rewards and lasting losses--and considers what we owe to the relationships that shape our lives.
K’Anne Meinel has put out a pair of novels published by Shadoe Publishing set in the Old West that tie in with some of her contemporary work. Cavalcade came out in July. Here’s the description:
Molly didn’t know what kind of life to expect when she fell in love with Erin Herriot—her schoolmate, her best friend, and a woman. She had been grateful for Erin’s friendship when the bank swindled her after selling her parents’ farm and she was invited to live on Erin’s parents’ farm. After making the difficult decision to live life as ‘man and wife,’ Molly gladly accepted the challenges before them. Together, they made the decision to sell Erin’s farm and embark on the journey of a lifetime…on the Oregon Trail. Erin couldn’t give Molly children; however, she could love her forever. But leaving the area where they had both grown up and where everyone knew the women was the only way they could be together without questions about the true nature of their relationship. Come along on their adventure as two women cross the country, adopt a family, and begin a life that neither had imagined possible growing up in the mid-1800s
The sequel, Pioneering comes out this month: One family’s saga had only just begun… In the epic sequel to Cavalcade we find out what happens to the Herriots once they arrive in Oregon and take up their claim. Erin and Molly have arrived in Oregon with their family. Granted six-hundred and forty acres of land for married couples under the Organic Laws of Oregon they have to build their home, farm, and eke out a living from the raw land. Wolves, bears, and wildcats are the least of their worries in this new land. Hard work and trust in each other to do their very best are the keys to conquering the wilderness as they pioneer their lives on the high plains of Oregon! Come along as they and their family live a life that few attempted in this wilderness near the Blue Mountains of Oregon.
This month’s Ask Sappho question is from an anonymous listener, who asks, “Your show talks about queer women who identify in a variety of ways: lesbian, bisexual, gender-queer, as well as talking about people who are more accurately considered trans men. So why do you label everyone ‘lesbian’?”
That’s a question that I work hard on being sensitive about. And because I often use the word “lesbian” as a shorthand, sometimes my guests have to correct me on it when describing specific characters or books. But the answer to why I use that shorthand is threefold: poetry, practicality, and purpose.
To start with “purpose”, I’ve never made any secret of the fact that my blog and podcast have a specific, highly subjective purpose: to look at the historic evidence that can be useful in creating lesbian fictional characters in historic settings. And of course that evidence can also be useful in creating historic fictional characters with other identities and orientations. Virtually all the sexuality issues that I cover are equally useful for developing bisexual female characters. And because of the historic models of the interrelationship between gender and sexuality, there are large areas of overlap in the data between same-sex relationships between women, and opposite sex relationships involving trans men. I point this out regularly and do my best to discuss it with regard to specific historic figures.
There are a lot of world-building issues and problems around creating fun stories about lesbian characters that don’t touch directly on sexuality at all. The question of how to build a rich and satisfying life as a single woman who doesn’t have an automatic place within patriarchal power structures applies to any female character in that situation. When we fight the ingrained prejudices that argue against the accuracy of women leading interesting and adventurous lives in historic settings, the question of those women’s romantic lives is secondary.
But at the heart, the organizing principle of my project--the one that protects me from scope-creep--is the topic of women who have an exclusive orientation toward women. And that purpose feels best represented by using the word “lesbian.”
The second reason for using that word is simple practicality. I’ll sometimes use the much more inclusive term “queer women” instead, especially when talking about current fiction, but that’s just as inaccurate in a different direction. Because I’m not talking about all women who fall under the broad umbrella of “queer”, I’m specifically concerned with women who have strong emotional, romantic, or erotic relationships with other women. For example, my project isn’t particularly concerned with heterosexual trans women, but they definitely fall within the category of queer women. I’m not specifically concerned with aromantic or asexual women unless they’re involved in same-sex relationships, but they too have equal claim to the category of queer women. And stories that center bi women but don’t center same-sex relationships are also outside my scope.
So no matter whether I use “lesbian” or “queer” I’m being misleading in some fashion, either on the side of exclusion or inclusion. Quite frankly, it’s just too cumbersome to say, “women who have strong emotional, romantic, or erotic relationships with other women” every time I’m making reference to the topic of the blog and podcast. I need a practical shorthand, and the word “lesbian” makes the most sense.
The third reason comes down to poetry. As women who love women, we have the glorious luxury of a poetic heritage for naming ourselves. The name of Sappho and the heritage of the association of Lesbos with love between women is an unparalleled gift. When you look at the historic terminology used for gay men, or for transgender people, or for those with non-binary identities, you realize just how lucky we are to have words to talk about love between women that are not only positive in connotation, but that evoke beauty and a rich history that literally stretches for millennia. It’s a gift that we shouldn’t lightly discard or avoid using.
Part of that poetic heritage is that the words “lesbian” and “sapphic” throughout history have more commonly been used as adjectives than as nouns. They have described feelings and acts more often than people. So when I use the word “lesbian” to talk about relationships between women or types of erotic activity, there’s a historic basis for understanding that as encompassing all relationships between women, not just those that are based on an exclusive and specific identity.
The editors of the collection The Lesbian Premodern point out a double standard in modern scholarship, where many theorists seem to require historic women to be exclusively and overtly homosexual to earn the label of lesbian, while men in history are granted membership in the gay club on the basis of any homosexual activity regardless of the rest of their lives. Rather than using the term “lesbian” in this project to erase women’s bisexual identity, I use it to recognize their queerness in the face of an academy that often considers women’s same-sex relationshps to be a trifling or dismissable digression unless the women in question stand on a figurative table and proclaim their utter rejection of men. The narrowing of the definition of “lesbian” or “sapphic” to this type of exclusive orientation is a fairly recent phenomenon--barely reaching before the turn of the 20th century. And that fact has sometimes been used to erase the very concept of women’s same-sex desire in the past, with people arguing that, if there was no word that designated an exclusive orientation, then such an orientation must not have existed. To some extent, I’m turning that around and saying, “If people in 16th century France or 10th century Byzantium used the word lesbian for women we would consider bisexual today, then those women are included under my use of the term in historic contexts.
In summary, I’m well aware that using the term “lesbian” as a shorthand for the organizing principles of my project can give the impression that I’m subsuming bisexual women, or transmasculine people inappropriately into a lesbian box. And all of my justifications won’t change that impression. But for my purposes, it’s still the most practical and the most poetic way to talk about my subject.