This time the theme for the current Lesbian Book Bingo square is "Women of Color". See my first post in this series for information about the Bingo challenge and to find the start of my series of mini-stories on the themes of the bingo squares. I'm doing a mini-story for each square, with the added challenge of placing them all in a historic setting and linking all the stories together loosely as a single narrative.
I'm going to be a little blunt here: the lesbian fiction community is many wonderful things, but one thing it is not is racially diverse, both in terms of characters and authors. In the last couple of years, there has been more acknowledgement of this state of affairs, and organizations like the Golden Crown Literary Society have taken steps to seek out speakers to address the issue so that at least the conversation can begin. It isn't enough for established authors to include non-white characters in their work. Good representation has to begin with supporting authors who are working with a deep inside knowledge of the lives and cultures they're writing about. And I'm delighted to see that the list of suggested books for this square are overwhelmingly Own Voices with respect to culture/ethnicity (to the best of my knowledge and research).
That's particularly important in contemporary novels, but in my own field of historical fiction, lesbian fiction has produced some cringe-worthy cases of fetishization of non-white characters. It's something I struggle with calling out, because the historical field is so small to begin with. But if you're playing the Lesbian Book Bingo challenge, I'd like to urge you to choose a book for this square written by a non-white author. (In my list of "what squares are the Alpennia books good for" I've already requested that people not use Mother of Souls to fill this square for just this reason.)
Here are some books I've enjoyed in the last few years with female same-sex attraction (whether they use the word "lesbian" or not) involving non-white characters that are own-voices in some cultural/ethnic aspect:
In my mini-story series, I've fallen into a pattern of overlapping the introduction of new characters with references to the established ones. So you may have guessed which character in "Three White Doves" is going to rise the the fore in this one. Originally I was going to make her girlfriend be simply a dresser at the Paris Opera (which is setting things up for the next story), but when I was looking for inspirational images, I came across one of a set of engravings of opera dancers from the late 17th century, and one of them struck me as looking black. And I found a hand-colored version of the same engraving that gave the impression even more strongly. It may have been a chance trick of how the art was photographed, and I couldn't find any further information on the individual that would support or contradict the impression. But I took it as a sign from my muse.
For the first couple stories in this series, I just went with inspiration, but now I'm putting together a spreadsheet to track the upcoming bingo square themes and figure out how I'll keep weaving my characters in and out of each others' lives. I never can keep anything simple!
A Girl Can Dream (Lesbian Book Bingo 2018 - Women of Color)
“Marie, where’s your brother? Madame will be wanting you upstairs. La Maupin is coming to visit.”
I gave the footman a saucy look but crammed the last bite of cake into my mouth and rose hurriedly from the table. Charles had sneaked off for a quick nap in the room we shared and I poked him in the ribs before lifting my striped silk turban off the stand that protected its feathers. I leaned toward the mirror to check as I tucked my hair in all around then reached for the coat.
“Up, up! Madame wants us. That opera singer is here.”
Charles wasn’t really my brother—that is, maybe he was, who could say? But everyone called us twins since as far back as I could remember, toddling around Tante Jeanne’s market stall. I don’t think Tante Jeanne was really our aunt either, but I think family is something you do, not something you are. And until Charles started getting his growth a year back, we’d always looked like two peas in a pod: the same height, the same wide cheekbones, the same coloring.
That was how Tante Jeanne convinced Madame to hire us both when she was looking for a little black page boy. All the fashionable ladies had one. Well, Madame would have two: a boy and a girl. They’d wanted to dress me up like a boy too at first, but I’d have none of that, so they’d put me in a scarlet riding habit with gold braid to go with Charles’ scarlet coat and breeches, and matching gold-striped turbans with peacock feathers to top it off. Together we waited on Madame when she was entertaining guests and followed after her carrying her things at balls and the opera.
He rolled off the bed, yawning and scrubbing his hand across his face. At least he’d had the sense to shave earlier—there’d be no time now. He was getting too old to play the page boy and we both knew the day was coming when we’d have to find other work, either in Madame’s house or somewhere else.
We barely managed to be dressed and tidy and standing in place at either side of the door to Madame’s boudoir when one of the footmen arrived escorting La Maupin. The scandalous opera singer was dressed in skirts today, looking quite like any other fine lady, except that she always moved like she was on stage with broad gestures and the energy of a cat.
Charles and I bowed and opened the doors with precise timing to let her through. There was no change in her expression but I knew she appreciated a good performance, whether she was on stage or not. Charles followed to announce her and I took the tray from a maid who’d slipped in from a side door to the antechamber and brought it in to set it on the table beside Madame’s bed.
“Thank you Marie, Charles, you may go. See that we aren’t disturbed.”
We bowed again, closed the doors with exact precision, and then looked at each other with broad grins and tried not to laugh out loud.
“They’ll be singing duets before long!” Charles whispered.
But my mind had gone elsewhere already, because if La Maupin was here, then Lisette would be waiting downstairs.
“Charles, sweetest of brothers, most darling of—”
“What do you want, Marie?”
“You know she won’t want anything for hours. We don’t both have to stay…”
He sighed. “Yes, Marie. I’ll keep watch.”
I kissed him hurriedly on the cheek. “You’re an angel.” Then rushed back to our room to change.
Swapping the red satin and feathered turban for a plain gown and kerchief was the work of a few minutes. The livery was designed to go on quickly and easily, for one never knew when we might be wanted. I’d almost slipped out the door to the yard when Madame’s housekeeper saw me.
“Where do you think you’re going, Marie?”
I ducked my head because sauciness wouldn’t work with her. “Madame said she doesn’t want to be disturbed for hours and hours, and Charles is kicking his heels in the antechamber in case she needs anything. And I need to take this off to Tante Jeanne.”
I held up the little purse I’d slipped into my pocket. We always sent part of our wages to her and I kept it for an excuse when I wanted to be out and about.
“Very well,” she said. “But no dawdling.”
Lisette was leaning against the wall by the stables waiting. I ran to her and took her face in my hands in for a long, slow kiss, then set back just to look at her. Lisette had the most beautiful eyelashes I’d ever seen—and I loved having the chance to see them up close like that, the way they curled up and tickled when I kissed her. I loved the sweep of the darker freckles across the top of her nose, even though she hated them and tried everything she could to take them off. And most of all I loved her red, sweet lips like the plumpest of cherries stolen straight from the tree. I tasted them again.
Lisette laced her fingers through mine and nodded toward the stable door. “It’s more private in there.”
I wrinkled my nose. Some day I wanted to kiss Lisette all over without having to think of horses. “I told the housekeeper I was taking my pay to Tante Jeanne. But we can walk as slow as you please and still be back before La Maupin finishes with Madame.”
We both giggled imagining that. La Maupin was notorious for her lovers, both women and men, and each one was the greatest love of her life to hear them tell. Lisette knew better, being La Maupin’s dresser at the opera house. When the opera singer went swaggering about town in men’s clothing, she went alone. But when she was playing the role of fashionable lady, she needed someone to fill out the part of lady’s maid and Lisette was glad to play it.
We twined our arms around each other’s waists and set off down the street toward the river where Tante Jeanne had her market stall. Lisette had to slow her pace to mine. She was all a dancer’s step and spring. Her every movement made me think of the feel of those muscular legs wrapping around me.
As if she’d heard my thoughts, Lisette said, “I’m going to dance tomorrow! Toinette twisted her foot and La Maupin told them I knew all the dances and they should give me a chance.”
“Oh, Lisette!” I knew she always learned all the chorus steps and practiced alongside the opera dancers every time she could, but she’d only once danced on the stage before and that was just for rehearsals. I teased, “You’ll be famous soon and forget all about me. You’ll have rich lovers sending you bonbons and flowers.”
“When I have rich lovers I’ll buy bonbons and flowers for you,” she said and squeezed my waist even more tightly. “Just you see.”
We came out into the market and threaded our way through the crowds to where Tante Jeanne sold eggs and chickens. When I thought back, I knew that Tante Jeanne was growing older. Every year her face was more weathered and had more lines, but it was like the way your favorite leather gloves got softer and darker and more closely fitting the longer you wore them. Her eyes got all bright when she saw us and we both kissed her cheek as if Lisette was a daughter too.
“You make the day brighter, mes petites.” But then her voice turned mock-scolding. “And where is my boy Charles! Why doesn’t he come to see me like you do?”
“You know Charles came last month. He’s waiting on Madame and we couldn’t both get away.” I carefully took the little purse out of my pocket and slipped it into her hand so no one else would see. You had to be careful letting people know if you had money. Jeanne slipped it into her own pocked under her apron and I knew it would go into her hidden box later. Something to keep her some day when her joints grew too stiff to sit in the market all day.
But it seemed like no more than a few minutes of telling her stories of Madame and her guests, or Lisette telling tales on the other opera dancers, before I knew it was time to be getting back.
We wound back through the cobbled streets again, arms still wrapped around each other’s waist to hoard up the feel of our bodies moving so closely together. And then we were in the yard and I gave Lisette one last chaste kiss because one of the grooms was in the yard and I didn’t want him to think we were doing it for him.
“I wish I could come see you dance,” I said. “Not just waiting on Madame, but to see you.”
Lisette sighed and laid her head on my shoulder briefly. “Maybe some day I will have a really rich lover and I can take you away from all this. Oh Marie, I want you with me always.”
We both knew that wouldn’t happen. But a girl can dream.