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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - 08:00

I confess that I get a thrill out of planting bits of information in a current novel that also serve the purpose of setting up events for a future story. It's one of the reasons I've made my peace with having things plotted out in advance in a fair amount of detail. If I don't know the general who, what, where, when for the overall series arc, how can I know what seeds I need to be planting now? When I knew I wanted to write Floodtide, and realized that it would weave into the events of Mother of Souls, I had some careful planning to do. I knew I wanted to bring in all the "teenagers": Brandel, Iulien, Celeste, and Anna. But I wanted/needed to keep the story centered on a queer female character, and to the best of my current knowledge none of them fill that bill. (Well, I have an idea about one of them but...still incubating.) I also wanted to tell Floodtide through the point of view of someone who wasn't "special". Not just an ordinary girl, but a working class one, and one who wouldn't have any special magical talents. I wanted her to be a catalyst and a nexus for the interaction of the other characters, but in a more ordinary way. And that was how Rozild came into my life.

You get two glimpses and one offhand reference to Roz in Mother of Souls. Not enough to know she has a story of her own to tell (unless you have an inside line from the author). And, of course, those glimpses serve an entirely different purpose within the current novel: to shine light on some of the social dynamics and anxieties around sexuality for those who don't have the privilege to be given a pass as "eccentric", and to serve as a challenge of empathy to some of our main characters.

Jeanne de Cherdillac has received a rather odd note from her dressmaker, begging a few moments of her time for a favor...

* * *

Chapter Twelve - Jeanne

Several days later, Jeanne’s thoughts returned to the note from Mefro Dominique and she sent a reply. Several more days passed before she found the time to travel down to the neighborhood near the Nikuleplaiz where the dressmaker’s shop stood. There had been just enough of a delicate hint to pique her curiosity. A favor, Dominique had said, and so not some new fabrics to be shown only to special patrons, or any of the other imaginable reasons Dominique might have to contact her.

At the chime of the bell on the door, Dominique herself came out from the back rooms to greet her and invite her into the side parlor that served both for fittings and as a workroom. Two girls scrambled to their feet at their entrance. She recognized the dressmaker’s daughter, of course, but the other girl was new. She was nothing much to look at, with mousy brown hair pulled tightly back under a linen cap, a whey-faced complexion, a long thin nose and sturdy arms that spoke of hard work, but her eyes were bright and curious before she remembered to look down.

Dominique gave them brief instructions. “Celeste, go to the front and see to anyone who comes. You may leave your work here. Rozild, do you think you can see about fetching some tea for our guest?”

Jeanne saw a flash of panic in the girl’s eyes before she nodded and slipped through the rear door to the private rooms. “A new apprentice?” she asked. Dominique certainly had the custom to support one, but usually the extra work was hired out.

“No, Mesnera, not an apprentice, though if I dared take her on, that would be a better choice.”

Dared? Well, who knew what these arrangements required. Every trade had its rules. Jeanne made a shrewd guess. “Is it possible that the favor you want has something to do with the girl who is not your apprentice?”

Dominique nodded with a glance toward the back rooms, and so Jeanne held her tongue until—after a lengthy wait—the girl returned with a tea tray that would not have passed muster in any respectable household.

“Thank you, Rozild,” the dressmaker said in dismissal. “Take your sewing upstairs until we’re done here.”

She waited until the footsteps had faded overhead before continuing. “Rozild was in service until recently. Not a parlor maid,” she said with a rueful smile and a nod toward the tea tray. “Laundry and mending at one of the houses near the Plaiz Nof. She helped out with the sewing when the Maisetra and her daughters all needed new gowns at once. That’s how I met her. She’s a good girl: quiet and well-mannered. There’s not an ounce of vice in her.”

“And yet,” Jeanne observed dryly, “she is no longer in service.”

“No.”

There were several possibilities. She wasn’t particularly pretty and she looked scarcely more than fifteen, but men didn’t always care about that, and no one would ask whether she’d been willing or not.

“Is she with child?” Jeanne felt an inward shiver. Such a fine line between respectability and shame. A girl like Rozild couldn’t bluff her way through with tales of alchemy. But why had Dominique come to her? There were charities for fallen girls.

“No, it’s nothing like that. Mesnera de Cherdillac, it’s not my business to make judgments of my betters, so I hope you will forgive me if I speak of things that are not spoken of. Rozild was accused of a…a particular friendship with one of the other housemaids, if you understand my meaning. She has no hope of being given a character.” Dominique’s hesitation seemed born, not of reticence, but of uncertainty over the right words. Her gaze was direct and without accusation. “I hoped that you might know of an employer who would overlook that particular sin.”

“Ah,” Jeanne sighed.

Publications: 
Mother of Souls
Monday, September 26, 2016 - 08:00
Full citation: 

Babayan, Kathryn. “’In Spirit We Ate Each Other’s Sorrow’ Female Companionship in Seventeenth-Century Safavi Iran” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0

Publication summary: 

 

This collection of papers came out of a workshop that brought together a cross-section of scholars from various disciplines to explore aspects of same-sex practice and desire in the Islamicate world. “Islamicate” is a relatively new term coined (in parallel with “Italianate”) to describe people, cultures, and practices in regions dominated or strongly infuenced by Islam, without the implication that specific individuals are necessarily Muslim or that the cultures and practices are being considered in a religious context or that they represent “Islamic culture” in a definitional sense. The papers in this collection primarily focus on literary representation. There is no implication intended that any one study represents the Islamicate world as a whole, and the variety of representations and practices is emphasized. As is usual with a collection of this type, I have covered only those papers pertaining to women.

Babayan, Kathryn. 2008. “’In Spirit We Ate Each Other’s Sorrow’ Female Companionship in Seventeenth-Century Safavi Iran”

This article strikes me as solidly hitting the target purpose of the collection: to examine the dynamics of same-sex relationships in the Islamicate world within the social, political, and religious dynamics of that time and place, without presupposing categories or labels that developed in Western culture. What this means is that there is a great deal of information presented that is tangential to the specific text being analyzed, and therefore this summary can only scratch the surface of that context.

Babayan examines the poetic narrative of a late 17th century Iranian widow’s pilgrimage to Mecca. While this would not appear to be a fertile ground for themes of same-sex desire, the social context of gender segretation and the structures of women’s friendships and relationships brings to light a number of relevant motifs. The article is relatively long and I will be skimming it for these most relevant aspects. Therefore my summary is likely to present a rather skewed understanding of the entirety of Babayan’s analysis. 

The most salient topics are Isfahani pratices involving sworn friendships established through a ritual of sisterhood or companionsip (khwahar khwandagi) which framed female love and friendship in religious or mystic language. The text reminisces on the love the widow had for a female companion (yar) from her past. Women’s first-person records of their experiences in the pre-modern Islamicate world are rare and largely preserved as artistic expressions, such as this poem.

The widow of Mirza Khalil [no personal name is given for her, but in Arabic naming practices it isn’t uncommon for both women and men to be identified through their relationships] was obviously educated, and was from an elite family serving the last Safavi king. This status was what enabled her to fulfil a pilgrimage to Mecca, which was an expensive and dangerous undertaking at the time. Her impetus to undertake the pilgrimage is expressed as sorrow and loneliness after her husband’s death, but in keeping with Sufi poetics, the longing to unite with an absent beloved is conflated with the longing to unite with God.

As the widow describes her feeling of loss, she raises another, earlier and secret loss and forced separation: from a female companion. Babayan interprets this as having been an illicit relationship and therefore contributing to a sense of guilt that contributed to her quest and that there is a poetic/mystical tradition implying one purpose of the pilgrimage is to “cure” her of this love for an absent woman. And though there are three strands of loss and longing (God, husband, and female friend), once she sets out on the pilgrimage, references to her husband disappear.

A great deal of the text is travellogue and encounters with other pilgrims and with those providing hospitality along the way. The liminal space of the pilgrimage frees the widow from the usual strictures on cross-gender socializing.

And then, while on the road to Damascus, she makes a detour to her birthplace Urdubad where her female beloved now lives. She writes, “Together in Isfahan, we had been companions. In spirit we ate each other’s sorrow. She was a relative better than any sister, kinder than any of my other relatives.” But then, for unspecified reasons, they were separated and her beloved returned to Urdubad. The separation seemed like a century, but now, “Until at last, the end of the night of torturous separation turned into the morning of spiritual union. After a century, I saw the face of that friend and I ghrew the baggage into her house. The remedy for the incurable pain of separation, o dear one, was patience and endurance.”

To understand possible reasons for that separation, Babayan turns to literature discussing and critiquing the custom of siqahyi khwahar khwandagi, a vow of sisterhood exchanged between two women. This critique occurred in the context of a conservative turn in the interpretation of religious attitudes towards virtue and modesty, addressing issues such as the consumption of wine, modesty of both men’s and women’s clothing, and the mingling of the sexes at social events such as weddings. Sufi social institutions, coffee houses, and taverns were forcibly closed. In this context, a satirical polemic written by Aqa Jamal focused on Isfahani urban women’s culture and on five elite women in particular. The satire concludes with an examination of passionate female friendships, even touching on sexual desire between women. References to sworn bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood exist outside this polemical literature, and examples of the vows that were used are recorded. The language invokes siqqah--elsewhere used to designate a temporary marriage--creating a partnership both in this world and the next, but situated within a religious framework. A woman would swear, “I take you as a sister before God” pledging devotion to God and invoking God, the angels, and the prophets as witnesses.

Another side of the social context are explicit legal prohbitions on homosexual practices, with sex between women identified with the word musahiqa

Aqa Jamal’s satire describes some of the details of rituals of sworn sisterhood. A woman would propose by sending a trusted intermediary with a small wax doll designated as a “little bride” (aruschak) and either acceptance or rejection would be indicated by how the doll was decorated when it was returned. If accepted, vows would be declared at a shrine and celebrations might include dancing and sherbet drinking. Although these descriptions occur in the context of condemnation, there is no reason to think they do not represent actual customs.

Returning to our widow, her language--both in speaking of her spiritual experiences and her relationship with her female companion--fit within the context of Sufi mysticism and Isfahani social structures, at a time when those practices were coming under fire by more conservative religious forces. And when she is again reunited with that friend (for whom she had expressed longing), suddenly she becomes aloof, distant, and ill. “O kind friend, o old companion: you did not deny me your sweet sould. I was so nurtured by you, as though fallen from the heavens. But my fortune did not comply. I was exhausted. The whole time I was suffering. I was afflicted with fever and torment. Not for a moment was I able to be her partner in [a work translated as “conversation/soul/sex”]. I did not become physically intimate with that good-natured one.” And then after leaving Urdubad, the widow once again takes up the symptoms and language of a lover pining for the absent one.

Babayan digresses for several pages on how the Ka`ba ischaracterized in Persian poetry as a female figure and specifically as a bride, but the widow’s descriptions when she reaches the goal of her pilgrimage avoid this gendered approach. Performing the ceremonies of the pilgrimage, she feels washed clean and relieved of her sins. But on leaving Mecca to return to Isfahan, the melancholy of longing returns.

Overall, this is a difficult and abstract text, and Babayan has done a heroic job of providing sufficient historic, cultural, and religious context to support her interpretation of the widow’s relationship with her sworn sister and the forces that might have driven them apart (and tainted the enjoyment of that relationship for the widow).

Time period: 
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - 19:55

What if Persephone had been an eager bride...and Hades was a woman?

That's the basic premise of this mythic re-telling of the "abduction" of Persephone as a same-sex romance. Persephone flees Olympus to escape Zeus's tyranny and sexual advances (and starting with a major grudge against him for having raped her childhood crush, one of Demeter's nymphs, and turned her into a bush). A passing encounter with the aloof, brooding, and therefore enticing Hades, Queen of Death at Persephone's Olympian coming-out makes her fixate on Hades as her best refuge.

The premise of this story was intriguing and enticing--as enticing as that first encounter with Hades. But the story didn't live up to my hopes for it. The overall plot was meandering and episodic, like a series of isolated D&D encounters with various persons, places, and creatures of the underworld. (In fact, it made me wonder whether it had originally been written as a serial without a fixed outline.) All of the adversaries, difficulties, and crises seem to be overcome too easily (though with a fair amount of angst in the build-up) with nothing more than earnest goodwill, empathy, and a bit of belated clear communication. The final climax, when Zeus has forced Demeter into blackmailing Persephone into returning from the underworld, is so quickly and easily resolved (with un-foreshadowed powers) that it felt like a cheat.

Persephone's romantic desire for Hades never quite escapes the sense of being a schoolgirl crush, with large quantities of gushing devotion, sighing, and longing glances that remain unconsummated for the majority of the story for no clearly articulated reason, other than to draw out what is meant to be the erotic tension. The problem is, while I kept getting told (over and over, at repetitive length) about how much Persephone loved Hades (and, eventually, how much Hades loved her back), I never really felt it.

I encountered this story in audio format through the podcast The Way of the Buffalo. It's hard to tell how much the format affected my reception of the story. The narrator tended to emphasize the "breathless, gushy" tone of the text, which may have fixed that aspect more firmly in my mind. On the other hand, I suspect if I'd been reading, I would have done a lot of skimming from around the halfway point.

I really wanted to like this story a lot more than I did.

Saturday, September 24, 2016 - 15:52

I've created a permanent page for an index of episodes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. This month's episode is about the legal consequences of a same-sex marriage in Restoration England.

Friday, September 23, 2016 - 18:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 2 - Same-Sex Marriage in Restoration England

(Originally aired 2016/09/23)

The movement for legal recognition of same-sex marriage has been big news for the last decade. While official sanction of same-sex marriage is hard to find in historic cultures, there were a number of ways for people to slip through the cracks. For women who wanted to marry each other, the easiest way--not to say that it was an easy choice--was for one of them to live as a man.

When we look at historic examples of “female husbands”, as this phenomenon was called, we can’t always know whether the so-called husband was using the disguise purely as a legal strategy or whether they had a transgender identity. It’s rare to get enough of a glimpse into their thoughts to be able to distinguish these. In the case of the marriage between Amy Poulter and Arabella Hunt, both of them appear to have considered themselves to be women, but other interpretations are possible.

Arabella Hunt was a beautiful and talented musician at the licentious and scandalous court of King Charles II of England. She was a singer and lute player, performing for royalty and in operas. Poets wrote odes to the beauty of her voice. She inherited a house in Buckinghamshire around the age of 17 when her father died. This start on economic independence may have been part of the motivation for her deciding to marry a year or two later. In 1680, Arabella married James Howard in London, with her mother and two friends in attendance as witnesses. Arabella and her husband moved in with her mother in London and to all appearances lived in wedded bliss for the next six months.

The thing was: James Howard was actually a woman named Amy Poulter and she was already married--to a man named Arthur Poulter. And that’s when life gets interesting.

Because when Arabella’s marriage had problems and she wanted an annulment, she didn’t bring suit on the basis that the marriage was invalid because her husband was really a woman. Rather, she complained that her husband was a bigamist. To further complicate the issue, Arthur Poulter had died about a month before the annulment suit was brought. So although Amy was married to Arthur at the time she married Arabella, she was a widow by the time Arabella demanded an annulment. It’s possible that Arthur’s death was a precipitating event in what followed. Particularly given that Amy seems to have been strongly invested in receiving the financial benefits of being his widow.

In the legal testimony that followed, each woman told the story that put herself in the best light. And yet we needn’t assume that this means that their marriage was not originally inspired by love and devotion. Lawsuits always bring out the worst in people, divorce in particular. And the modern media did not invent the concept of “spin”.

Arabella’s spin focused on maintaining her sincere position that she had married someone she understood to be a man, and that the marriage should be annulled because that man (that is, James Howard) had already been married at the time--never mind that James was already married as a woman to a man. To support this argument, Arabella testified that Amy had “a double gender”, that is, she was a hermaphrodite with anatomy that could be understood as either male or female. And that therefore she was capable of entering into a marriage with either a man or a woman and have that marriage be valid. Thus her bigamy--once married to a man and once married to a woman--was a legal basis for annulment.

As I discussed in the last episode, the idea of hermaphroditism was one of the ways that medieval and renaissance society dealt with the idea of same-sex desire and cross-gender behavior. They believed that a person might have an ambiguous physiology and that this would lead to behavior that partook of both masculine and feminine identities. Arabella’s claim that Amy was a hermaphrodite protected Arabella from accusations that she had knowingly entered into and enjoyed a marriage with a woman.

Amy’s version of the story was that, yes, she was married to Arthur Poulter at the time of her marriage to Arabella. And yes, she occasionally cross-dressed and had courted Arabella both in women’s and men’s clothing. But, she maintained that both the courtship and the marriage had been a frolicsome prank. It had never been meant in earnest. Oh, how that must have stung for Arabella if theirs had truly been a love match! Amy agreed to the annulment, but only on the basis that it had never been a real marriage in the first place. This has a certain resonance with some of the issues brought up when same-sex marriage was just coming to be accepted in some states and not in others in the United States, and where a woman who wanted to get out of a same-sex marriage might move to a state where that marriage had never been legal, and then make claims on that basis.

Now, Amy also demanded a physical examination to prove that she was unambiguously a woman. This was an important legal point for her, because if she were determined to be “more man than woman”, as Arabella’s suit claimed, then her original marriage to Arthur Poulter would be declared retroactively invalid and she’d lose her widow’s inheritance from him.

The medical examination concluded Amy was indeed a woman, and that therefore the marriage to Arabella was invalid but did not constitute bigamy.

One might think that this outcome would have been far more mortifying for Arabella than for Amy, but as it happened, Amy Poulter died five weeks after the annulment was finalized, and there is circumstantial evidence to suggest she may have taken her own life as a result of the outcome of the case. Arabella lived for another two decades, enjoying her brilliant musical career. But she never married again and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence connecting her romantically with any other person during the remainder of her life.

What are we to think from this? Was their marriage indeed a prank that went too far? Was it a desperate strategy between two women who saw the masquerade as their only hope for happiness together? Was the break-up due to Arabella suddenly discovering--after six months of sharing a bed!--that her spouse was a woman? Or was it due to discovering that her beloved wife had a husband on the side--something that came to light in the aftermath of that husband’s death?

What might have happened if Amy hadn’t already been married? Might the two of them have enjoyed a discrete and blissful marriage until death did them part? How many other couples might have married in similar circumstances, and lived happily until their deaths, and we never knew because their secret was never uncovered. The answers to that question could inspire any number of interesting stories.

 

* * * End of Transcript * * *

Major category: 
LHMP
Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 20:38

I don't know how many people have explored all the nooks and crannies of my website. Did you know I have a page with links to interviews and articles and whatnot about me on other people's sites? If you get more curious about my thought processes than my own blogging will satisfy, you might find the reading interesting.

Today, there's a new interview up at the blog Let's Get Beyond Tolerance. Check it out and read some of the other interesting posts at that site.

Here's another recent interview, talking about my writing process, at The Dabbler.

E.P. Beaumont interviewed me specifically about food as worldbuilding in Alpennia.

And if you like your interviews in audio form, Sheena at The Lesbian Review talked to me about research.

In case it isn't obvious, I love talking about my writing process, my research, and pretty much anything else I know something about. If you ever want a guest blog, hit me up!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016 - 13:13

Chapter 16 is all about…well, let’s call it “comfort porn”. It’s the reflection of Sara’s “pretends” about warm clothes and hot food and a comfortable life. Only now it’s real. Both Sara and Becky have their practical moments. At first Becky eats quickly for fear the food might melt away like fairy gold. And they both have moments when they reassure themselves that even if The Magic had been a one-off experience—if it was just for that night and then disappeared forever—it was still a miracle to treasure. Becky carefully inventories the experiences of the night to save them away against that possibility.

Sara hits on one essential component: “whoever it is—wherever they are—I have a friend, Becky—someone is my friend.” Someone outside the school—and someone with the power to make magical things happen—knows that she exists and cares for her happiness. That’s a big emotional lifeline.

The comfort-porn is leavened with interludes focusing on what other residents of the school perceive, even though they don’t have a share in the secret. We see something of a break beginning between head Mean Girl Lavinia and her BFF Jessie, when Lavinia brags about how she was the one who ratted on the girls and got them in trouble. Jessie shows that she is redeemable when she realizes the practical consequences if Sara is turned out into the street, and understands that deprivation of food is not a trivial punishment if you’re already hungry, and—more importantly—openly defies and contradicts Lavinia on these points.

Miss Minchin is once again infuriated when Sara fails to follow the prescribed script and, rather than being downtrodden and penitent, shows up the next morning cheerful and happy. Miss Minchin, of course, thinks she’s just pretending—being defiant and impertinent as usual. But for once, Sara doesn’t have to rely on her internal monologues to brace her up. She really is warm and well-fed and rested. But she’s also wiser.

Now that she has a concrete secret to keep (not just daydreams) she understands that even Ermengarde and Lottie represent a danger to it. As I noted in my discussion of timelines and character ages, at this point Lottie should be about nine years old. Even adjusting for Sara’s hyper-maturity when she arrived at age seven, it’s startling to hear Lottie still described as, “such a baby she didn’t know she was telling [secrets].” But this circles back to my observation that the other girls are fairly static stock characters. Ermengarde shows a little development in maturity and assertiveness, and I could make a good argument that Miss Minchin has a character development arc, although not a positive one, but Lottie is still the emotionally explosive, immature “baby” that she began. And she can’t be trusted to keep Sara’s secret about The Magic.

We follow Sara through the day, sparking reactions and speculations due to her failure to be miserable, until it’s time for her to return to the attic and discover whether The Magic was “only…lent to me for just that one awful night.” If it was, she has determined to be content with that. But it wasn’t…

Tuesday, September 20, 2016 - 08:00

In this series of teasers, I'm working hard at not using scenes that touch on the main backbone of the plot. Spoilers and all that. Given that the various interpersonal relations are not the main backbone of the plot, I thought this might be a nice teaser from Chapter 11. Despite all my best efforts in emphasizing that Mother of Souls is even less of a "romance novel" that the previous two, there it is listed on Amazon under "Books > Romance > Lesbian Romance" and you just know that means it will get slammed in some reviews for being a really bad example of a romance novel. Alas, there isn't much I can do about that.

While not following a category-romance structure, the Alpennia series is very much about relationships. All types of relationships. It's about the vast array of relationships that women forge with each other. Some of them would fit into a standard romance plot, but there's more to life than happily-ever-after romances. Serafina Talarico is on a quest and Mother of Souls is primarily the story of how she achieves that quest in unexpected ways. Serafina is also hungry for personal connections and faces a lot of hurdles in that pursuit, but achieving personal connection is not what her story is "about". Nor is that particular pusuit resolved in the pages of this book (which is pretty much the definition of Not A Romance Novel).

She does have some interesting adventures along the way, though...

* * *

Chapter 11 - Serafina

The thin winter sun struggled through the narrow window in Olimpia’s bedroom, such that late afternoon seemed more like dusk. The sunny rooms were reserved for painting. Serafina rolled over and squinted trying to gauge the time.

“Must you go?” Olimpia said. She twined their legs together and buried her face in the loose cloud of hair.

“Not yet, but soon.” Serafina reached across to adjust the wick on the lamp, bringing a warm glow back to the room, then relaxed across Olimpia’s body, drawing in her heat against the chill of the room. Their stolen afternoons were a warm refuge against so many things. There was nothing of her failures here, no struggle to find her place. But the mood had been broken and she sat up in the middle of the bed. The covers slipped off her bare shoulders as she fumbled for a ribbon to tame her hair until she could braid it.

“Just like that; don’t move.” Olimpia rolled off the side of the bed and snatched up the sketchpad that was never far from her reach.

The instruction was familiar by now. Serafina paused with her hands reaching behind her head as Olimpia’s hand moved quickly across the surface of the paper. “Do all your lovers have my patience?” she asked. Talking was permitted; moving was not.

“Mihail only visits for one thing and then he’s gone,” Olimpia said, pausing with her head tilted to consider the work. “And Renoz won’t ever stay still. If I can’t capture her in three lines, she’s done. Done.”

The last was meant for her. Serafina slid to the edge of the bed and held out her hand to see. It was only a rough sketch, the sort of study that littered the walls of the studio. Olimpia had captured her as if in mid-movement: her elbows akimbo as she gathered up her hair into the ribbon, a single sinuous line following the arch of her back down around the curve of her hip to where her feet peeked out from the jumbled covers. The merest impression of dark eyes and a tilting smile. “You make me beautiful,” she said.

Olimpia took the sketch back from her. “You are beautiful. I make you see it.”

Publications: 
Mother of Souls
Monday, September 19, 2016 - 08:00
Full citation: 

Epps, Brad. “Comparison, Competition, and Cross-Dressing: Cross-Cultural Analysis in a Contested World” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0

Publication summary: 

 

This collection of papers came out of a workshop that brought together a cross-section of scholars from various disciplines to explore aspects of same-sex practice and desire in the Islamicate world. “Islamicate” is a relatively new term coined (in parallel with “Italianate”) to describe people, cultures, and practices in regions dominated or strongly infuenced by Islam, without the implication that specific individuals are necessarily Muslim or that the cultures and practices are being considered in a religious context or that they represent “Islamic culture” in a definitional sense. The papers in this collection primarily focus on literary representation. There is no implication intended that any one study represents the Islamicate world as a whole, and the variety of representations and practices is emphasized. As is usual with a collection of this type, I have covered only those papers pertaining to women.

Epps, Brad 2008 “Comparison, Competition, and Cross-Dressing: Cross-Cultural Analysis in a Contested World”

I confess I'd been hoping for a bit more new-to-me material from this collection. The article from Amer is simply a re-working of a portion of her book, and this one by Epps is more of a met-analysis of how to view such material, rather than bringing in new material relevant to the Project. (The collection has a lot more male-oriented material, as usual.) The final article that I'll be covering next week is a new topic, although falling more in the realm of friendship between women than desire.

Epps considers themes in stories from The Thousand and One Nights that compare and contrast gender, particularly in terms of evaluating gendered ideas of beauty, and cultural framings of gendered responses to another’s beauty. The initial discusion covers a debate between two jinn (one male, one female) regarding whether boys or girls are more beautiful. On test that is suggested is which gender is least able to control themselves sexually on seeing the other. I.e., that greater beauty will more easily overcome self-control in the other.

The jinns test this theory by bringing together Qamar al-Zaman, the son of a sultan, and Princess Budur, with the consequence that the two fall in love (and Budur’s loss of control gives victory to the male side of the argument). Having settled their debate, the jinns return Budur to her home and her pining sets in motion the gender-bending part of the tale that Sahar Amer has covered previously. Budur’s gender disguise to go in search of Qamar (taking on his name and identity to do so) finds herself manoevered into marriage to another princess before the real Qamar appears and marries both of them.

Epps, while noting that this later episode involves a fair amount of explicit physical affection between the two, reviews other researchers’ arguments against Amer’s framing of it as a “lesbian interlude”. Specifically, viewing cross-dressing as purely a literary trope with no implications for sexuality, and arguments on both sides that treat homosexuality as an objective category in medieval Arabic society. From there, Epps moves to the problems of vocabulary versus category in both Arabic and Western history, particularly as employed by modern historians.

The analysis then moves on to a cross-dressing episode in Don Quixote and additional discussion of the problems that arise from historians’ personal agendas influencing their interpretations. Overall, this is an article far more concerned with historiography than history, and the theoretical discussions get quite dense.

Friday, September 16, 2016 - 10:45

When I first saw a trailer for Florence Foster Jenkins, my immediate thought was, “Oh crap!” followed by an immediate 180 when I saw that the project was headed by Meryl Streep. Streep is one of the few people I would trust for sympathetic handling of this superficially ridiculous biography. If that’s an odd beginning for a movie review, let me jump to the conclusion and say that as the credits rolled I was crying and giving a standing ovation. (Not even so much for the movie as for the character.)

But this is a hard story to analyze. I’m still not certain whether it’s the story of the importance of art, of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of immense odds, and of the power of love and compassion, or whether it’s a story of the fine line between support and enabling, of the blunt force of wealth and privilege, and of the endless ability of people to live lies for their own benefit. I think the genius of the movie is that it’s all of those things.

Florence Foster Jenkins was an heiress and socialite (1868-1944)  who had what was probably an adequate musical talent (although family connections were probably more important than talent when she gave a piano recital at the White House as a child). When disability left her unable to play (Wikipedia says an injury, the movie more symbolically attributes it to the effects of the syphilis that was the only lasting legacy of her brief marriage to Mr. Jenkins) and when a sizable inheritance gave her the means, she turned her interest to singing and to the production of amateur theatricals among New York City’s wealthy elite. She was lauded for her genuine support for the performing arts, and counted many prominent musicians among her friends. At the same time, her insistence on taking the stage for her own vocal performance, combined with her complete lack of skills in pitch, rhythm, enunciation, and vocal power must have strained the limits of friendship and the ability of those friends to dissemble. Admission to her performances was tightly controlled, and a combination of genuine affection and respect for her social position (and generous patronage) allowed Jenkins to remain in ignorance of her own flaws (though it’s still debated exactly how much self-delusion was involved).

The movie revolves around the lead-up to her performance at age 76 at Carnegie Hall—a venue where she no longer controlled access and which resulted in a deluge of open mockery in the media. Five days later, she suffered a heart attack that would prove fatal.

Such are the bare facts. In the remainder of this review, I’ll be talking about the events and relationships as portrayed in the movie, without concerning myself with potential dramatic divergences from history.

The movie features her relationship with actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant)—nominally her manager, also her long-term “gentleman companion”—and with the hired pianist Cosmé McMoon who found a gravy-train in accommodating both her whims and her singing deficiencies. What makes this a tragic and heartwarming story is the depiction of how both men, though clearly anchored solidly by financial benefit, are motivated by affection to forge a balance between Jenkins’ dreams and their desire to protect her from ridicule and disappointment. Jenkins has occasional moments of self-doubt, masked as a sort of fishing for compliments, but for the most part simply bulls her way forward, secure in the belief in her own abilities.

For supporting characters (and characterizations) I also want to give a shout-out to Nina Arianda as Agnes Stark, the blonde eye-candy trophy wife (with low-class manners) of one of Jenkins’ circle who at first encounter with one of Jenkins’ performances has to be extracted, giggling hysterically, but when later attending Jenkins’ public recital admonishes the laughing audience to shut up and listen. “This lady is singing her heart out!” [paraphrased] In this, she stands in for the movie viewer who can’t help but both wince and cheer at the same time.

The storyline in the movie clearly sets up the Carnegie Hall performance as the last finale for Jenkins, with Bayfield and McMoon knowing that her health is on its last legs, wanting to help her to her heart’s desire, then trying vainly to shield her from the adverse publicity which is depicted (and perhaps rightly so) as leading directly to her death (in combination with the exhaustion of the performance).

So. Florence Foster Jenkins: icon of those striving against all odds and common sense for their heart’s desire, or walking advertisement for the Dunning-Kruger effect? All I know is that I cried at the end.

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