(Originally aired 2021/01/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2021. The New Year is most often thought of as a time for fresh starts, new beginnings, and revising one’s path in life. This year, it feels like we’re all still in the middle of the awfulness and it will still be a while before change will come. But for this podcast, at least, this month marks a shift in gears and some fresh directions.
We’re now broadcasting only through the new, independent show and it means we’ve lost a significant part of our previous listeners, though I hope it’s only temporary. Thank you to all the listeners who followed us over, or who recently joined. And thank you especially to all of you who talk the show up and help new listeners find us.
The big format and content change is that the interview segments will now be shorter and combined into this monthly round-up, reducing the schedule to twice monthly, plus the quarterly fiction shows. Another minor change is that the new book listings will include a brief description of the setting and plot rather than reading the cover copy. And there will still be occasional news items and discussions on the field of lesbian and sapphic historical fiction in general.
2021 Fiction Series
And speaking of the fiction series, it’s January so submissions are open for the 2021 fiction series! All month we’ll be accepting submissions of short stories up to 5000 words featuring sapphic characters in historic settings, including some types of historic fantasy. I’m looking forward to seeing what this year brings! See the Call for Submissions link in the show notes for full details and how to submit.
Publications on the Blog
The blog finally finished discussing Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends and I confess it became something of a slog, with the book turning into more literary and psychological analysis than the history of people. Rather than continue with my original plan, which was to tackle a book with a similar feel, I went through the shelves and grabbed several works that may be a bit more exciting. I’ll start with a collection Homosexuality in French History and Culture, edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Michael Sibalis. Only a few of the articles focus on women, but I already found one of them quite valuable when writing the episode on the Anandrine Sect. That should take care of January and then I’ll see what catches my eye.
For this month’s essay, I’ve been inspired by reading through excerpts from Anne Lister’s diaries to take notes on how her courtships and sexual encounters were scripted. It’s an interesting study in the social dynamics of the early 19th century.
And this month we have our first fiction episode of 2021, with a lightly fantastic tale of medieval Provence, “A Soldier in the Army of Love” by Diane Morrison.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Last month I wondered where all the December books were, since I only knew about two to mention then, but this month when I looked, I found another five titles of interest, plus six January books. The eras cover a wide span of time and the settings extend outside of the anglophone world.
Three of the December books are continuations of previous series. Mary D. Brooks’ “Intertwined Souls” series has a new entry with Promise is a Promise, set just after World War II beginning with a promise made in an Egyptian refugee camp and ending with a Christmas surprise. This is an extended series following a group of continuing characters and may work best for those already familiar with the series.
Lee Swanson’s earlier novel of medieval merchants and gender disguise, No Man’s Chattel is now followed by a sequel Her Perilous Game, with the series title “No Man is Her Master”. In 14th century Europe, Christina Kohl takes on the identity of her dead brother to become a merchant of the Hanseatic League, encountering both political chaos and scheming rivals during a trading voyage to England. I’m always excited to see stories with authentic medieval settings and some day I hope to find time to read this series.
Renaissance Italy is the setting for the final book in Edale Lane’s “The Night Flyer” trilogy, Chaos in Milan. A combination of superhero adventure and romance, set among feuding city-states infused with the imaginative technology of Leonardo da Vinci.
Mariah R. Embry’s Beyond the Vines is a bit more down to earth and deals with independence and growing romance as well as trauma. In 1918, Amina flees an abusive husband with her son and travels to Washington state where she is taken in by vineyard owner Celeste. While struggling to establish herself and find a new path, she is surprised by an unexpected romance.
The final December book is a Christmas-themed novella set in Victorian England. The Christmas Chevalier by Meg Mardell is not a sapphic book, as the protagonists are a woman and a trans man who is enjoying the temporary freedom to be his true self. But because of the fuzzy edges of categories in historic contexts, I thought it might be of interest to some listeners. A masquerade dance provides the context for two friends to see each other in a different light.
The January books start off with this month’s author guest, Malinda Lo with Last Night at the Telegraph Club. In 1950s San Francisco, Lily Hu juggles being a good Chinese daughter, dreaming of a career in science, and sneaking off to a lesbian nightclub with her friend Kath…who she hopes will become more than a friend. We’ll be talking about the book later in this show.
From Lianyu Tan comes a book more on the mythic side of the fence than the historic. Captive in the Underworld is a sapphic take on the legend of Persephone, but this is a dark tale of coercion and abuse, not a romance. Content note for non-consensual sex.
On a very different note, Maxine Kaplan’s Wench has a medieval-ish setting in an unspecified location, with a spunky teenage tavern wench holding her own with the help of a little bit of magic. This is a YA story with what sounds like a loose connection with history but it sounds like a lot of fun.
Another fun working-class romance is the graphic novel Patience & Esther by S.W. Searle which tells the story of two maids in an Edwardian country house, falling in love in a rapidly changing world that offers them new opportunities. Bonus points for diverse ethnic representation. I supported the Kickstarter for this book and I’m looking forward to enjoying it.
A speculatively alternative wild west is the setting for Anna North’s Outlawed, which plunges our heroine into a seriously gender-bent version of the Hole in the Wall Gang who push back against an epidemic-ravaged society obsessed with female fertility. Don’t go into this book expecting a traditional western or a feel-good adventure, but rather a gripping dystopia steeped in queerness.
The final January book falls in the genre of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs, but this one focuses and expands on the character of Anne de Bourgh, who is more or less a cypher in the original book. Molly Greeley’s The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh traces Anne’s struggle to get out from under her mother’s thumb and the laudanum addiction imposed on her from childhood. With the help of cousins in London, she begins to invent a new life and identity for herself. The cover copy doesn’t touch on the sapphic elements but reviews confirm that one of the things she finds in London is love for a woman. This is Greeley’s second Austen-inspired novel, but the first doesn’t have queer elements.
Have a sapphic historical coming out? Or know of one that you think I might not know about? Drop the podcast a note to make sure we include it! Or drop us a note if you’ve found a book you loved through these listings.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming lately? After my flurry of reading in November, I went back into my slump. But I did watch the new historical movie, Ammonite, based on the life of Victorian fossil-collector Mary Anning and her lifelong friend Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a leading geologist. Although the erotic relationship that the movie focuses on is interpolated into that friendship, Anning had several very close female friendships that supported her career, including her mentor, paleontologist Elizabeth Philpot. (The character of Philpot also appears in the movie, but I’d have to re-watch it to see if it’s the woman that Anning is implied to have previously had a romantic relationship with.) I’m not the one to complain about exploring the erotic potential of Victorian-era romantic friendships. But I do think the movie does a disservice to the historic Charlotte Murchison, who was a talented scientific illustrator and may have inspired her husband’s interest in geology, whereas the movie depicts her as a frail, neurotic dilettante. Given the historic facts of Anning and Murchison’s lives, I’m a bit impatient with the criticism of the movie as not having a “happy ending” for the romance. But if you know a filmmaker who wants to make a movie about female couples in history living happily ever after, I can give them a shopping list of ideas for inspiration.
Now on to our author guest!
Heather Rose Jones: This month’s guest is Malinda Lo, whose novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, comes out this month. Welcome, Malinda.
Malinda Lo: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
H: Why don’t you start with a quick synopsis of the book?
M: A quick synopsis of the book. Well, it is about a Chinese American girl in San Francisco in 1954. Her name is Lily Hu, and she is starting to suspect that she might be a lesbian, and maybe her friend Kath is, too. They’re both in high school together. So, Lily sees an ad in the newspaper for the Telegraph Club, which features a male impersonator, and Kath tells her that she has been there before and they could go! So, this is extremely revolutionary to Lily, and they do go—no spoilers in the title! They do go. And the story is about Lily’s coming of age and about her falling in love for the first time.
H: Uh huh. I really enjoyed all the different layers of representation in the book, not only the lesbian romance but the whole Cold War thing, the isolation and excitement of being a geek girl in the mid twentieth century, and, of course, all the complex experiences of the Chinese community in San Francisco. What inspired you to bring all of those elements together?
M: Well, weirdly—maybe not weirdly. Two non-fiction books I read: Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt, and also Wide-Open Town by Nan Alamilla Boyd. These are two very different books. Rise of the Rocket Girls is about the women computers who worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab since its founding, and Wide-Open Town is a historical survey of San Francisco’s queer community. So—one is very academic, the other one is very popular, but I felt like there was some—when they mixed in my brain, you know, they inspired this idea. I realized that—also, something else happened. In San Francisco, where I used to live—I don’t live there anymore—Chinatown is literally two blocks away from North Beach, and North Beach is where there was a very lively lesbian bar scene in the 1950s, which is what I learned from Wide-Open Town. And I got to thinking, you know, there must’ve been some queer Chinese Americans living in Chinatown in the 1950s. Even if there’s no historical record of us, it’s not like we didn’t—we existed.
M: And it would not take much for them to just, you know, go on over to Broadway, which is literally next door to Chinatown, and go visit these lesbian bars. So, that geographic proximity of North Beach and Chinatown also was part of the inspiration for the book. So in my head all these things mixed together because I’m kind of a space nerd. I just love—I love space. And so I wanted my main character to be interested in rocket science. It was the Atomic Age in the early 1950s—the US was in a space race against the Soviet Union—and reading Rise of the Rocket Girls, I realized that several of the early women computers at JPL were actually Chinese American. So, I was really inspired and intrigued by that, and I wondered, you know, what if this girl wants to be a rocket scientist, you know—no one’s going to encourage her to be a rocket scientist in 1954, but maybe she has an aunt who works at JPL who kind of nurtures her interest in that science. So all these things kind of smushed together in some weird, magical way in my brain, and that’s where this book came from. I think it’s always hard to pinpoint, like, one single source of inspiration because—I don’t know about you, but I’m always going around and, like, reading about all sorts of different things, and so many things are interesting to me and they all kind of mix together, and eventually, hopefully, they result in an idea.
H: Yeah, that’s what’s I call the compost-heap brain. You just keep throwing things into your compost heap, and then one day a story seed falls into it, and it just blooms, you know?
M: Absolutely, yeah.
H: I remember, like, half a dozen years ago, you were asking around about sources for historic research materials on queer San Francisco. Was that as this book was developing, or was that—
M: Well, that’s part of it. I also have an idea for a different book set in San Francisco, and so I was actually beginning to read—I started to read Wide-Open Town to think about that book. And so, it’s really interesting—that book has not yet been written.
H: Ah ha.
M: But it will be, I hope.
H: Yes, I remembered it because either you recommended to me or I recommended to you a book on, like, the history of cross-dressing in San Francisco, starting in the Gold Rush era.
M: You may have recommended—I do remember noting, taking down the link that you sent me, and I did, I do have a book on cross-dressing in San Francisco now, so—starting in the Gold Rush—so it may be that you—
H: It’s probably that one.
M: —that you gave me that book, yeah.
H: So, you’ve been a great cheerleader for queer representation, versus representation in general in the mainstream YA literature field. And your debut novel Ash, back in … 2009?
M: Yeah, long time now.
H: It’s often pointed to as a significant step in mainstream publishers being willing to commit to overtly queer YA stories. When you look back on the last 20 years in publishing, what are your thoughts?
M: Well, there’s so many more queer books being published now by mainstream publishers—it’s really amazing. I think the last four or five years in particular have shown that it’s really taken off. There’s been an explosion, just in the last four or five years, and I’m so happy about that because I remember when Ash came out, I was often the only queer author at whatever book event, festival, I was doing. I mean, there—I was not the only one, there were definitely others, but we were never in the same place at the same time.
H: There can be only one!
M: Right. Well, that was the attitude. I did all this research into how many queer YA books are published every year, and in the early days it really was literally one per imprint per year. And I’m so glad that’s over now and there’s more because it’s so great to be able to go to a book event—in the days when we could leave our houses and go places—it was wonderful just in the last few years, to be able to go to a book festival and be on a panel with other queer writers.
M: You know, that’s just such a wonderful change. It’s so much more comfortable to be in public with your queer book with other queer people there—it’s just—because then you don’t have to, you know, come out on the panel and wonder what the audience is going to say…. It’s all—there have been some situations where it’s felt a little bit—not necessarily unsafe, but definitely uncomfortable, so—
H: Yes, it’s also nice to be an out, queer author and get to do programming about other topics, too.
M: Well, I still aspire to that, I have to say. No, sometimes I do get to talk about other stuff, which is great. There’s still a tendency to pigeonhole queer writers to only talk about queer stuff. You know, I get it, but I am excited to have the opportunity to talk about other things.
H: Yeah, you—one of the resonances in Telegraph Club that I think ties in with that is Lily’s constant experience of being overtly Chinese in Caucasian society and feeling like that was the only thing that people knew or saw about her. I really noticed that, and I think you handled that really well—well, as a white person reading it, I thought you handled it really well, but it’s not for me to say.
M: Thank you, thank you, I appreciate that.
H: So I know you’ve written some historical short fiction previously, but I think Telegraph Club is your first non-SFF novel. Do you have any ideas or plans other than the aforementioned San Francisco project for more historicals?
M: It’s not my only non-SFF novel. My previous—my last book, A Line in the Dark, is a psychological thriller.
H: Oh, okay. I missed that one somehow.
M: Yeah, no, it’s fine. It came out in 2017, and it’s set in New England, in the winter, the deep dark New England winter. Yeah, it’s a psychological thriller. But I—this is my first historical novel, and it’s my first—I guess you could say non-genre novel, you know what I mean? Even though it’s still YA, and it’s a historical—I think historical is certainly a genre—
M: —but it’s not science fiction or thriller. But I discovered through writing this that I absolutely love writing historical fiction. I love it so much! I feel like it’s, like, a thing I’m supposed to do. I just—I’m just like a super geek about historical research!
H: I am feeling so happy right now.
M: Oh my god, I have so many—I have many ideas, and I am very hopeful that some of them, at least, will come to fruition.
H: Oh yes, please, please. I strongly encourage that. I like to ask my guests to mention something they’ve consumed—either a book, movie, or whatever—that they’ve particularly enjoyed and would like to recommend. And it doesn’t have to be historical, but that’s always nice.
M: Well, I definitely have a historical—it’s sort of historical—Emily Danforth’s latest book, Plain Bad Heroines, which is a wonderful gothic novel.
H: Oh yes.
M: It’s set both in the turn of the—turn of the twentieth century, in Rhode Island—and the present day. It’s set at a girls’ boarding school where somebody dies, and that’s in the past. And then in the present, they’re shooting a movie based on what happened at the boarding school. So it’s very sapphic, it’s very queer, it’s gothic and creepy and perfect to read in the winter. It’s just so much fun. And it’s a giant book—you can just sink into it and totally enjoy it.
H: Well, thank you. I will encourage listeners to check it out. So, if people wanted to follow you online, where should they look?
M: You can always find me on Twitter. I’m @malindalo. And I’m also @malindalo on Instagram and on Facebook, although I admit I rarely check Facebook. You can also visit me at my website, which is malindalo.com.
H: Thank you. I will put links to everything you’ve mentioned in the show notes. And thank you, Malinda, for sharing your time with the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
M: Thank you for having me.
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Malinda Lo Online