Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 28a - On the Shelf for November 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/11/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2018.
November? Wait, how did that happen? It feels like the end of the year has been galloping down on me. With an out of town trip every month. I just got back from going to the Sirens Conference on women in fantasy literature. That is, I will have just gotten back from it when this airs. At the time I’m recording, I haven’t gone yet and since this is my first time attending Sirens I have no idea what it will be like. I’m always a bit anxious going to an event for the first time because I worry about not knowing the unwritten rules, or trying to socialize when everyone else already knows each other. Sometimes I fit right in at new events and sometimes I stand on the sidelines trying to work out what went wrong. I’ll keep my fingers crossed on this one because I’ve heard great things. Of course that will only make it worse if I don’t fit in.
I don’t have any similar worries about Chessiecon in Baltimore, which I’ll be attending later this month. I’ve been going to that convention in one form or another for over 30 years and it’s sort of like going to a family reunion. I may even read something from Floodtide my current novel project.
Speaking of writing, are people working on stories to submit for next year’s fiction series? Keep in mind that we’ll be open for submissions in January and the end of the year will come faster than you think. Like this year’s series, we want short stories with historical settings featuring queer women. Check out the submission guidelines on the website for more details.
Publications on the Blog
In October, the blog covered several publications focusing on sexuality in classical Rome, leading up to the essay topic at the end of the month. This month’s publications will go back to more of a mixed bag. I don’t have any new book-shopping treasures, but I do want to talk about a great resource for those who can wangle access. As long-time listeners and readers may know, I periodically go off the the library at the University of California in Berkeley to photocopy journal articles for the project. Often I’m doing something of a shotgun approach where I take a long list of publications and run through the call numbers in the order of library location and simply copy the articles that are on the shelf. On the shelf, get it?
But I gradually accumulate a list of publications that the library has in electronic format rather than hard copy. So last month I decided to tackle some of those and reminded myself of the joys of JSTOR, an electronic journal subscription service. Mostly you have to have some sort of academic connection to have a JSTOR account, but if the library has an account, it’s possible to download individual files for offline use. So I pulled up the first article I wanted to use...and had a bit of a “Doh!” moment when it occurred to me that I could have been using the system even for all the journal articles the library has in paper form, rather than taking the trouble to photocopy them. And then I proceeded to review the entire run of issues of the Journal of the History of Sexuality, which left me with 32 articles to cover. I don’t feel inclined to spend the next 8 months on nothing but this one journal, but expect to see it filling in the corners of the schedule for a while.
Last month’s focus on the classical world leads nicely into this month’s author guest, Elizabeth Tammi, who will join us to talk about her debut novel Outrun the Wind, set in an ancient Greece that balances between history and myth. Following that, this month’s Book Appreciation show will be me talking about three books that ask the reader to step a little outside their comfort zone in content and format.
I was thinking about what topic to promise for the November essay, and decided I wanted to do another biographical sketch. So this time I’ll be talking about 18th century sculptor Anne Damer, who may or may not have had sexual relations with women, but was accused of doing so, in part due to stepping outside the bounds of appropriate female behavior. As I record this, I’m reading Emma Donoghue’s fictionalized biography of her, Life Mask, which gave me the inspiration for the choice.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Last month I whined a little about how few historicals we seemed to be seeing from the major lesbian publishers these days. That trend hasn’t changed this month, but lots of other publishers are stepping in and I have 10 books to talk about this month. Only one of them is a straight-forward historical story set in a single era with no fantastic elements and focusing only on a relationship between women who are the primary characters. That’s not to say that the other books aren’t wonderful books, only that it says something about the state of the market.
I have one October publication to catch up on, and in fact it’s a release of a novelette that was previously published as part on an anthology. “Penhallow Amid Passing Things” by Iona Datt Sharma originally appeared in the fantasy anthology The Underwater Ballroom Society. The author has released it separately as a self-published work. Fans of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances may recognize the world of smugglers depicted here, though not the touch of magic overlaid on it. Here’s the blurb:
Magic, in common with all things, is passing from this world. In a coastal village in eighteenth-century Cornwall, Penhallow -- an honourable smuggler par excellence -- has more pressing problems. One of her boys has just been hauled up before the magistrates. A mysterious King's messenger has arrived from London. Something nasty -- and possibly magical -- is afoot in the smugglers' caves beneath water. And then there's Trevelyan, the town's austere, beautiful Revenue officer...
The debut novel of this month’s author guest, Outrun the Wind by Elizabeth Tammi (from Flux/North Star Editions) takes up the story of the Greek heroine Atalanta. Here’s the blurb:
The Huntresses of Artemis must obey two rules: never disobey the goddess, and never fall in love. After being rescued from a harrowing life as an Oracle of Delphi, Kahina is glad to be a part of the Hunt; living among a group of female warriors gives her a chance to reclaim her strength. But when a routine mission goes awry, Kahina breaks the first rule in order to save the legendary huntress Atalanta. To earn back Artemis’s favor, Kahina must complete a dangerous task in the kingdom of Arkadia—where the king’s daughter is revealed to be none other than Atalanta. Still reeling from her disastrous quest and her father’s insistence on marriage, Atalanta isn’t sure what to make of Kahina. As her connection to Atalanta deepens, Kahina finds herself in danger of breaking Artemis’s second rule. She helps Atalanta devise a dangerous game to avoid marriage, and word spreads throughout Greece, attracting suitors to go up against Atalanta in a race for her hand. But when the men responsible for both the girls’ dark pasts arrive, the game turns deadly.
The book that most closely fits the paradigm of lesbian historical fiction this month is Wild Fields by Purple Hazel (from Torrid Books). From the context it looks like this one is on the erotic side, if that influences your interest. Here’s the blurb:
Ludmilla is a young farmer's daughter living in 16th century Russia. Motherless since age three, and with five older brothers constantly taunting her about her gender, Ludmilla sheds her identity as a girl by age thirteen. She dresses like a man, walks like a man, and smells a lot like one too. Then one day, she goes into town and sees the most beautiful girl she's ever laid eyes upon. It is Tatyana, daughter to the local innkeeper, who has practically grown up working there. The lovely brunette has become inured to the fact she might very well turn into an old maid some day running the family business. But when Ludmilla enters her tavern what happens next will change both their lives forever. Ludmilla is everything Tatyana needs in her life. She is the best friend Tatyana never had growing up, and the "boyfriend" she thought she'd never find.
Next we have a non-fiction work, Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist by Angela Steidele, translated by Katy Derbyshire (from Serpent's Tail). The book’s description sounds like the author is framing Lister as more of an adventurer than her diaries suggest. It’s also interesting that they chose the nickname “Gentleman Jack” for the title since Lister herself had a negative reaction to it. Here’s how the book describes her:
Anne Lister was a Yorkshire heiress, an intrepid world traveller and a proud lesbian during a time when it was difficult simply to be female. She chose to remain unmarried, dressed all in black and spoke openly of her lack of interest in men. The first woman to climb Vignemale in the treacherous Pyrenees, she journeyed as far as Azerbaijan and slept with a pistol under her pillow. As daring as Don Juan and as passionate as Heathcliff, Anne would not be constrained by the mores of Regency society. Anne's diaries lay hidden for many years, before scholars were brave enough to crack their code. Her erotic confessions and lively letters tell the story of an extraordinary woman.
A Different Kind of Fire by Susanne Schafer (from Waldorf Publishing) has a solidly historic setting but the protagonist has relationships with both women and men, which readers may want to be aware of.
Ruby Schmidt has the talent, the drive, even the guts to enroll in art school, leaving behind her childhood home and the beau she dreamed of marrying. Her life at the Academy seems heavenly at first, but she soon learns that societal norms in the East are as restrictive as those back home in West Texas. Rebelling against the insipid imagery woman are expected to produce, Ruby embraces bohemian life. Her burgeoning sexuality drives her into a life-long love affair with another woman and into the arms of an Italian baron. With the Panic of 1893, the nation spirals into a depression, and Ruby's career takes a similar downward trajectory. After thinking she could have it all, Ruby now wonders how she can salvage the remnants of her life. Pregnant and broke, she returns to Texas rather than join the queues at the neighborhood soup kitchen. Set against the Gilded Age of America, a time when suffragettes fight for reproductive rights and the right to vote, A Different Kind of Fire depicts one woman's battle to balance husband, family, career, and ambition. Torn between her childhood sweetheart, her forbidden passion for another woman, the Italian nobleman she had to marry, and becoming a renowned painter, Ruby's choices mold her in ways she could never have foreseen.
The next few books play games with time periods, either with parallel stories in multiple eras, time-slip stories, or outright time-travel. The Lilith Gene by M. Cassol (from Clink Street Publishing) suggests that we may be dealing with some paranormal connections across time, although the blurb isn’t entirely clear on that point.
Vesna, a Serbian PhD student in Art History living in Tuscany, is a master rock climber. The only thing she can't get a grip on is her love life. Beset by terrifying panic attacks that strike every time she allows herself to be intimate with another woman, she strives to avoid the so-called mermaids in her life. Olga is a widened-eye nurse trainee in Sarajevo. It’s 1912 and Olga is all too keen to document her life and the world changing around her in her diaries. Olga's passion for nursing is only rivalled by her love for her anguished boyfriend Gav. The arrival of the obscure Patient J.D. 347 at the hospital is about to change everything for Olga. Everything will change for Vesna too, when she meets the compelling art restorer Rafaella Guaritore. Rafaella holds the key to Vesna's research into influential women painters of the Renaissance and the metaphorical Lilith Gene that all the rebellious ladies in art are believed to share. Will Rafaella hold the key to solving Vesna's mysterious recurring dreams and find the root of all her anxiety? Or is the answer to Vesna's problems hidden in Olga's diaries?
Pulp by Robin Talley (from Harlequin Teen) is a more traditional time-slip story, connecting the historic and contemporary characters by means of a research project involving lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s.
In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real. Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity. In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.
For outright time-travel we have Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield (from tor.com) which serves up dashing adventure across the centuries. Here’s the blurb:
A disillusioned major, a highwaywoman, and a war raging across time. It's 1788 and Alice Payne is the notorious highway robber, the Holy Ghost. Aided by her trusty automaton, Laverna, the Holy Ghost is feared by all who own a heavy purse. It's 1889 and Major Prudence Zuniga is once again attempting to change history―to save history―but seventy attempts later she's still no closer to her goal. It's 2016 and . . . well, the less said about 2016 the better! But in 2020 the Farmers and the Guides are locked in battle; time is their battleground, and the world is their prize. Only something new can change the course of the war. Or someone new. Little did they know, but they've all been waiting until Alice Payne arrives.
For those who love your steampunkish adventure, there’s a new Trafalgar and Boone story out, number 4 in the series. Trafalgar & Boone and the Children of the Burnt Empir by Geonn Cannon (from Supposed Crimes) continues the adventures of our heroines.
Dorothy Boone, still blaming herself for a devastating loss on their last adventure, and Miss Trafalgar are offered a new mission from the Royal Geographical Society: an expedition to find the source of a mythical river has gone missing in the Amazon rainforest, and their patrons want them found. It seems like the perfect low-threat endeavor to get the duo back to normalcy, so Dorothy and Trafalgar accept. Accompanied by Cora Hyde, who is also recovering from a loss, the duo sets out for the jungle. Their safe undertaking soon turns perilous when they run afoul of a previously unknown tribe known as the Burnt Empire. Dorothy and Trafalgar are separated in the scuffle and taken in by two groups with similar goals but differing tactics. The groups only agree on one point: the very existence of the Burnt Empire could lead to untold destruction.
The last book I’m going to mention this month is only tangentially of lesbian interest--the protagonist has a lesbian best friend, but it’s only a minor aspect of the story. The book came up on my radar when I was looking at Amazon listings with the keywords “lesbian” and “historical”. But the focus of the book is very feminist oriented with a less commonly heard point of view, and furthermore, the protagonist is based on an actual historic figure. This is: The Widows of Malabar Hill (A Mystery of 1920s India) by Sujata Massey (from Soho Crime).
Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father's law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes women's legal rights especially important to her. Mistry Law has been appointed to execute the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen examines the paperwork, she notices something strange: all three of the wives have signed over their full inheritance to a charity. What will they live on? Perveen is suspicious, especially since one of the widows has signed her form with an X—meaning she probably couldn't even read the document. The Farid widows live in full purdah—in strict seclusion, never leaving the women's quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate, and realizes her instincts were correct when tensions escalate to murder. Now it is her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that no innocent women or children are in further danger. Inspired in part by the woman who made history as India's first female attorney, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a richly wrought story of multicultural 1920s Bombay as well as the debut of a sharp new sleuth.
I’m going to skip the Ask Sappho segment this month, in part because the forthcoming books took up so much time, but in part because I don’t have any intriguing questions in the queue. Remember that if you have a question about lesbian history, of would like a book list on some topic, drop me a note and I’ll answer it on the show. You can also take the opportunity to tell me how much you enjoy the podcast.