Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 47a - On the Shelf for June 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/06/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2020.
The Color of the Past
Sometimes I think if I didn’t have regular commitments to my blog and podcast -- to say nothing of the day-job -- I’d want to just curl into a ball in a corner and hope for the world to stop burning. It’s a standing joke among my writer friends that no novelist or script writer would have been allowed to create a year like this one because it has smashed the limits of plausibility. And yet, we persist.
Watching people rise up, not only across the US but around the world to once more protest the callous disregard and disrespect for the lives of certain human beings purely because of the color of their skin, I’m reminded of how critical it is for the stories of our history to tell us truths. Truths about the deep and poisonous roots of the social dynamics that are at play. The truth that history does not belong to only certain people.
Historical fiction and historical dramas too often offer us lies instead of truth. Not the inventive lies that entertain, but lies about who exists, about who matters, about who is allowed to imagine a happy ending. If you learn your history from novels and movies--and too many people dig no deeper than that--you are fed a skewed version of the past. And it we don’t understand the past, how can we expect to understand the present?
History has been used by racists to distort our image of the past by careful and selective omission. Historical fiction reinforces that distortion when it sticks to safely familiar tropes and images.
As queer people, we’re accustomed to thinking about the ways in which certain genders and sexualities have been erased from the popular fictions of history. But how often have you thought about the erasure of entire ethnicities, entire religions, entire cultures from the vision of history that we passively consume?
When was the last time you read a sapphic historical story that centered around black protagonists? When was the last time you read one where the story did not revolve around the traumas of black history? That allowed the character simply to exist like everyone else? When have you ever seen a sapphic historical novel set in Africa and written by a black author? How often have you paused to notice and wonder about the gaps in the stories available to you?
I’m white. And I’ve had to work to learn to notice those absences. Every month I search out new books, and believe me I notice how overwhelmingly white the field of f/f historical fiction is. Or that when non-white characters are featured, too often they are written by white authors to be the “exotic” love interest. Beyond doing my best to feature and promote authors and characters of color when I find them, there are limits to one person’s ability to influence the field. But readers, collectively, can make a difference by supporting a diversity of authors and stories: with your reading, with your reviews, and with your enthusiastic recommendations of what you love.
There are so many stories out there. Ask yourself what you can do to bring all those pasts to life so that we can survive the present and build a better, more inclusive, more just future.
June is, of course, Pride month. It was Pride month that originally inspired me to start the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. And if you like queer genre fiction, one tradition is the Pride Storybundle: a curated collection of eleven SFF books featuring queer characters, many with a historic flavor, available on a “pay what you like” basis (with a fixed minimum) that supports not only the authors but a worthy charity as well.
This year I once again have a book in the Storybundle: my most recent historical fantasy Floodtide alongside authors like Melissa Scott, A.J. Fitzwater, A.C. Wise, and Ginn Hale. Check out the link in the show notes and consider picking up this bargain while it lasts.
June also means that the year is nearly half over and it’s time to look ahead to 2021. Next month it will be time to officially announce the 2021 podcast fiction series. Stay tuned for details of what we’ll be looking for and details regarding submissions.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog spent May working through some books and articles on gender presentation and the many ways in which gender and sexuality intertwine. If there is a single lesson to take from this field, it is perhaps to shift from thinking of gender in terms of male and female, but to contemplate a whole array of male genders, of female genders, and of genders that blend the two in diverse ways. By gender, of course, I mean social and performative identity categories, but those categories also interact with the variability in human bodies in a similar spectrum of ways.
Toss the question of desire into the mix and we can see the oversimplification of trying to classify desire into homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. Within this context, it becomes easier to understand the difficulty of applying a label like “lesbian” to a specific subset of that spectrum of identities.
Every once in a while, the blog examines a book that helps me break my brain free of previous ways of thinking. It needn’t be a book that is particularly earth-shattering in subject matter, but simply one that unsticks a particular image or idea. Halberstam’s Female Masculinity was one of those books for me last month. The other May publications in the blog were Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety which unfortunately was much more dated in its analysis, Hindmarch-Watson’s study of a cross-dressing Victorian juvenile delinquent “Lois Schwich, the Female Errand Boy”, and Hermann’s literary analysis "Imitations of Marriage: Crossdressed Couples in Contemporary Lesbian Fiction". In June, my plan has been to cover several books that have only bits and pieces of lesbian-relevant content, but I may have to scramble to do all that reading, given the way the quarantine has disrupted my normal working routines. First up is Klosowska’s Queer Love in the Middle Ages, which falls more in the literary analysis category. Next is Goldberg’s collection Queering the Renaissance, which has three articles of interest. I was going to follow that with Alan Bray’s Homosexuality in Renaissance England, but my intention was to read a library copy on the assumption that the lesbian-relevant content would be too scanty to be worth buying the book. Since going to the library is out at the moment, that book will get moved to a later date. How much later is anyone’s guess at this point.
New book acquisitions haven’t been from shopping but a gift of a copy of Anne Choma’s Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister, the biography on which the tv show was based. One of my friends from science fiction fandom had promised to give me the copy he was done with the next time we met, and since meeting face-to-face is postponed indefinitely, he mailed it to me instead.
This month’s author guest will be Amy Hoff whose historical fantasy novel My Heart’s in the Highlands is coming out from Bella Books this month. So look forward to hearing more about that book next week.
I don’t have an essay topic lined up yet for this month, so it’ll be a surprise. At this point, it’ll be a surprise to me as well!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
On to the recent, new, and forthcoming books!
I have one March book which is a bit further back than I usually reach, but the sequel came up in my search and when I checked out the first book, it looks to have sapphic themes as well. This is the Chinese-inspired historic fantasy The Empress of Salt and Fortune (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 1) by Nghi Vo from Tor.com.
A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.
April books missed during previous searches include Lovers & Dancers by Heather Ingman from Lume Books.
Ireland, 1916. The First World War rages on and rumours fly about nationalists planning an uprising against the British for Independence. Sheltered from the outside terrors, Louisa lives at High Park, an upper-class estate in the Irish countryside where she feels she never quite belonged. Caught between an unhappy marriage and mundane wifely duties, Louisa’s dream of being a painter never felt so distant. But then she meets wild, strong-minded Viola Luttrell and Louisa’s world is turned upside down. Viola has a secret that could put both their lives at risk: she knows James Connolly, the nationalist rebel leader, and she plans to join the imminent uprising against the British. As Viola and Louisa grow closer and their friendship blossoms into something more, the fight for freedom becomes more than a fight for a nation, but a fight for themselves.
Another April book is Heart of Gold (Heart Series Book 1) self-published by Luci Dreamer. This is one of those gender-disguise stories where it’s hard to tell from the cover copy how the author is handling gender identity themes, but the cross-dressing character is referred to with female pronouns in the description.
Sometimes to be yourself, you have to become someone else. Thomasina Miller knew from a young age she wasn't like other girls. She didn't want to be a rancher's wife, so she makes the harrowing decision to leave all she's known, risking everything for the chance to choose her own fate in life. Now going by 'Thomas' she realizes hiding her identity is a rather small price to pay for the freedom to live her own life and the Klondike Gold Rush is the perfect opportunity to help her fund her endeavor. Rachel Harkes knew that marrying Roy would be her ticket out of her small town in Kansas. Two years into their marriage and still looking for more adventure, Roy decides they should try their luck and join the Klondike Gold Rush. When tragedy strikes and Thomas and Rachel are brought together at the top of the world in the unforgiving, arduous search for gold, can Thomas navigate her relationship with Rachel without revealing her secret? Will Rachel reconcile what she's known with the new, seemingly overwhelming reality she now finds herself in?
The recent May publications continue the theme of series books. So many books with Book N of the X series!
Leather and Lace (Gold Sky Series Book 5) by Rebel Carter from Violet Gaze Press is part of a romance series encompassing many types of couples set in a not-quite-entirely-historical Montana.
What do you do when you’ve been chasing the wrong dream your entire life? Mary Sophia James came to Gold Sky, Montana to find a husband at the insistence of her overbearing mother. Striking out in spectacular fashion after setting her eye on Julian Baptiste, her options are dwindling, and time is running out. She needs to find a man to marry before her condition becomes...obvious. Her mother’s prejudice and sharp tongue aren’t helping matters and Mary, to her shame, hasn’t behaved much better. But all her plans are upended when she spots the most beautiful person she’s ever seen across the town square. Alex Pierce is strong, intriguing, looks stunning in a pair of trousers...and a woman. Gold Sky is accepting of all types of love, and that between women is no different. Still, Alex didn’t expect to be so floored by the sight of the firey haired, yet fragile looking young woman. Mary needs to be married and Alex has a solution. Because in Gold Sky, Montana there are many ways to be married...and not all of them include a man.
This next publication is quite short and appears to be the start of a serial, being released in individual chapters. So don’t expect a full, completed story yet. The Queen Takes All (Part 1, Book 1) self-published by Clarissa Somers.
A rumored courtesan, an exclusive party and a secret society. What could go wrong? Hetty is overcome with excitement when her stepfather asks her to complete an undercover assignment. The catch? She must travel to London and pose as a French Lady in order to win the friendship of the infamous Delphine Dubois. Yet the evening takes an unexpected turn...
A Matter of Time (The Unlikely Adventures of Mortensen & Spurlock Book 1) by Lucy True (aka Jea Hawkins) from Persephone Press takes place in a supernatural version of the past.
It’s not easy finding love in 1892 Victorian London. Midnight adventures, artifact hunting, and the occasional murder—it’s all in a day’s (or night’s) work for Alice Mortensen. As an Aetheral, a supernatural race with special abilities, she is hardly an eligible marital prospect, even with her upper class social status. Not that she minds. The woman she once loved broke her heart and that, for Alice, is that. Until said woman, one Lady Eleanora Spurlock, returns with a desperate request: find a powerful artifact to ransom in exchange for a kidnapped servant. It’s one thing for Alice to risk her life. It’s quite another to risk her heart for the second time. But her perpetual curiosity about the mysterious Aetheric world is enough temptation for Alice to gamble both. Soon, both Alice and Nora are fighting off fireballs, an over-eager stepmother determined to see them marry, and each other in a race to rescue an innocent lady’s maid.
Coming back to ordinary--very ordinary--life, we have Like a Tornado self-published by Lauren Abosamra.
Charlotte Swanson comes from an affluent family in the town of Yursbury, Vermont. The time is 1955. To the untrained eye, Charlotte has it all. A charming husband, two young adoring sons, and a prominent place in the town's circle of book clubs, tea times, and a local women's organization. A beautiful newcomer, Evelyn Howard comes to town and does more than intrigue our restless Mrs. Swanson. Exchanged glances, accidental hand brushes, and small talk may not be all these two share.
I found five books coming out in June, though based on experience, more will pop up in next month’s search. The first one is rather cagey about whether the queer content is solid or only being teased at.
Belladonna: A Novel by Anbara Salam from Penguin.
An evocative, atmospheric story of friendship and obsession set in the 1950s that follows two schoolgirls from Connecticut whose lives are changed forever when they travel to a silent convent in northern Italy to study art for a year. Isabella is beautiful, inscrutable, and popular. Her best friend, Bridget, keeps quietly to the fringes of their Connecticut Catholic school, watching everything and everyone, but most especially Isabella. In 1957, when the girls graduate, they land coveted spots at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Pentila in northern Italy, a prestigious art history school in the grounds of a silent convent. There, free of her claustrophobic home and the town that will always see her and her Egyptian mother as outsiders, Bridget discovers she can re-invent herself as anyone she desires. Only Isabella knows the real Bridget, just as Bridget knows the true Isabella. But as that glittering year goes on, Bridget begins to suspect Isabella is keeping secrets from her, secrets that will ruin all of her plans and that will change the course of their lives forever.
I keep thinking from the title that this next book is set much earlier, but it’s a post-World War I story: Her Lady's Honor by Renee Dahlia from Carina Press.
When Lady Eleanor “Nell” St. George arrives in Wales after serving as a veterinarian in the Great War, she doesn’t come alone. With her is her former captain’s beloved warhorse, which she promised to return to him—and a series of recurring nightmares that torment both her heart and her soul. She wants only to complete her task, then find refuge with her family, but when Nell meets the captain’s eldest daughter, all that changes. Beatrice Hughes is resigned to life as the dutiful daughter. Her mother grieves for the sons she lost to war; the care of the household and remaining siblings falls to Beatrice, and she manages it with a practical efficiency. But when a beautiful stranger shows up with her father’s horse, practicality is the last thing on her mind. Despite the differences in their social standing, Beatrice and Nell give in to their unlikely attraction, finding love where they least expect it. But not everything in the captain’s house is as it seems. When Beatrice’s mother disappears under mysterious circumstances, Nell must overcome her preconceptions to help Beatrice, however she’s able. Together they must find out what really happened that stormy night in the village, before everything Beatrice loves is lost—including Nell.
This month’s author guest has written a cross-time story that blends several of her favorite eras and themes: My Heart's in the Highlands by Amy Hoff from Bella Books.
Lady Jane Crichton is one of the Edinburgh Seven, the first women to study medicine in the United Kingdom. Jane’s real love is science and invention, and she builds a time machine. Her first flight, attended only by Dr. Joseph Bell, ends badly when she crash-lands in 13th-century Gaelic Scotland. Her rescuer, a gruff warrior woman named Ainslie, shows her the delights of island life and teaches her more than she’d ever learned in the university’s hallowed halls.
A.J. Fitzwater has had two book releases in the last month, and I can’t go without mentioning The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper (published by Queen of Swords Press), a collection of stories about a lesbian capybara pirate. Yes, you heard that right. But Cinrak doesn’t quite fit into anything resembling our history, so for that I’ll feature No Man's Land from Paper Road Press.
Dorothea ‘Tea’ Gray joins the Land Service and is sent to work on a remote farm, one of many young women who filled the empty shoes left by fathers and brothers serving in the Second World War. But Tea finds more than hard work and hot sun in the dusty North Otago nowhere—she finds a magic inside herself she never could have imagined, a way to save her brother in a distant land she never thought she could reach, and a love she never knew existed. Inspired by feminist and LGBTQ+ history and family wartime memories, AJ Fitzwater has turned a piece of forgotten women’s history into a tapestry of furious pride and love that crosses cultures, countries and decades.
And we finish up the June books with what looks like the start of another series, Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery (A Vera Kelly Story) by Rosalie Knecht from Tin House Books.
When ex-CIA agent Vera Kelly loses her job and her girlfriend in a single day, she reluctantly goes into business as a private detective. Heartbroken and cash-strapped, she takes a case that dredges up dark memories and attracts dangerous characters from across the Cold War landscape. Before it’s over, she’ll chase a lost child through foster care and follow a trail of Dominican exiles to the Caribbean. Forever looking over her shoulder, she nearly misses what’s right in front of her: her own desire for home, connection, and a new romance at the local bar. In this exciting second installment of the Vera Kelly series, Rosalie Knecht challenges and deepens the Vera we love: a woman of sparkling wit, deep moral fiber, and martini-dry humor who knows how to follow a case even as she struggles to follow her heart.
What Am I Reading?
And what am I reading? Still not much. I started the non-historical science fiction story Cat-Fishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer but it isn’t really grabbing me. I swear I started reading something on Kindle but my Kindle app is being wonky at the moment and I can’t check--and I don’t remember the title. And--now don’t laugh--I always have a hard copy book that I’m reading while brushing my teeth because it ensures I spend the right amount of time on the job, and for that I just started--very belatedly--Malinda Lo’s young-adult fantasy Huntress. And I’m still listening to the audiobook of N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy of a sentient New York, The City We Became which is simply amazing. (And at least one of the avatars of the city is a lesbian so it fits in the theme.)
How about you? Has the quarantine completely disrupted your fiction reading or has it sent you to books for comfort?
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