(Originally aired 2021/03/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2021.
It’s tempting to open with some comment on how it’s now been an entire year for me of living under threat of Covid. A year of working from home and having only minimal face-to-face socializing. But honestly, I’m just tired. Not too tired to keep on plugging away at what it takes to help fight transmission, but tired of having our shared experiences all revolve around this ongoing disaster.
Have you ever read a novel about the Spanish Flu pandemic a century ago? They’re out there, but for the most part it’s like the world collectively flinched away from it and moved on to the Roaring 20s. But part of what made those 20s roar was a manic relief at having survived. Survived World War I, survived the pandemic, survived the historic changes that happened in parallel with them.
One of the interesting things about historical fiction is how it can fasten itself to specific events—specific stories that can only happen in one particular time and place. Oh, you can have historical fiction with somewhat generic settings. I’ve read books where it was hard to tell what century the story was set in, the details were so generic! But there are events that nail a story down to a specific time. If you set a story during the Stonewall riots, there’s only one time and place you could be talking about. And there are settings where the omission of key features says a great deal about how we, collectively, have chosen to process and remember history. If you read a Regency romance that never mentions servants—or never mentions where the wealth that supported those balls and gowns came from--the author has failed to grapple with essential truths about their characters.
A hundred years from now, if people write novels set in the ‘20s and gloss over both the immense disruption this pandemic caused, and the societal failures that made it worse, they will not be writing historical fiction so much as fantasy. Will they choose to forget? To omit? To look away? Will someone, some day, write a novel set in 2020 that mysteriously fails to take note of what we’re going through? I wonder.
2021 Fiction Series
The podcast schedule means that last month’s episode was recorded too early to be able to announce the line-up for the 2021 fiction series. And presumably those who were eager to find out what stories we selected have already read about it on the blog. But for completeness’ sake, here’s what you can expect. The first story of the year, of course, was Diane Morrison’s “A Soldier in the Army of Love” which we bought last year. So this year’s picks include what will be the first story of the 2022 season, due to the same scheduling.
Selecting stories is a complex process. Is the story well written? Is the prose solid and competent and good at communicating the author's ideas? Does the story fit with the theme of the program? You might think that would be a given, but there's a lot of room for interpretation and differences of opinion. Does the story grab me and keep me reading? Does it start and end at the right places and is the chunk of story the right size for the word-count? Does the language of the story sing to me?
I'm a sucker for just plain beautiful writing. And by that I don't necessarily mean "pretty" writing, but the ability to use words not just to explain what's going on, but in the way that an artist uses brush strokes. This aspect can be very much a matter of personal taste, and very often it's the feature that helps me make that difficult choice between two excellent stories.
And finally, how does the story fit into the overall program? Do I have a balance of settings and themes? Have I made the series as diverse as possible, given the available materials? So: here are the stories that sang to me from this year's crop.
"Palio" by Gwen Katz - The fierce competition of the famous Siennese horse race, set in the 17th century.
"Moon River" by Mandy Mongkolyuth - Two young women join forces in the aftermath of the third Anglo-Burmese war in the late 19th century.
"Abstract" by Kat Sinor - Set at the dawn of history, two artists share their visions deep in a torch-lit cave.
"The Adventuress" by Catherine Lundoff - The further adventures of the pirate Jacquotte Delahaye and the courtesan-spy Celeste Girard as they hunt down a certain Englishwoman who may be in a similar business.
I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I have!
Publications on the Blog
On the blog, I finished up the last article in the collection Homosexuality in French History and Culture, which was Leslie Choquette’s “Homosexuals in the City: Representations of Lesbian and Gay Space in Nineteenth-Century Paris.” It’s particularly interesting to see Paris developing as a center of a public and self-conscious queer culture during the era that we associate with sexual repression in the English-speaking world.
After that, I went back to my stock of downloaded journal articles, which will probably take up the next several months and be somewhat random in topic. First is Martha Vicinus’s “They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong” which takes an interesting look at the difference between the history of modern lesbian identity and the history of women loving women.”
Another article that contrasts historic and modern experiences is Katherine Binhammer’s "Thinking Gender with Sexuality in 1790s' Feminist Thought,” which finds some interesting parallels between the sexual insecurities of early proto-feminists, and the “sex wars” of second wave feminism.
I’ll finish out the month with Nan Alamilla Boyd’s very brief essay "The History of the Idea of the Lesbian as a Kind of Person” which also addresses the idea of what it is we study when we study lesbian history.
Book shopping for the blog has picked up again, since I was looking for an unrelated second-hand book and decided to pick up enough titles to get free shipping. (The unrelated book is America’s First Lady Boss by Curtiss S. Johnson, which is a biography of my great-great-grandmother, Margaret Getchell LaForge.) One book I’ve had my eye on for a while, but wanted to find second-hand is Norman W. Jones’s Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. It’s an academic study, and probably started life off as a thesis or something, so I have no idea how interesting it will be for the lay person. But I’m rather tickled at the idea of queer historical fiction being a topic of study.
The second is Anna Clark’s The History of Sexuality in Europe: A Sourcebook and Reader which is a collection of articles on a variety of themes, probably meant for use in a college class. The third title will be a bit of a challenge for me: Marie-Jo Bonnet’s Un choix sans équivoque. Recherches historiques sur les relations amoureuses entre les femmes xvie-xxe siècle, with a title that translates to An unequivocal choice. Historical research on romantic relationships between women of the 16-20th century. Have I mentioned that I’ve never actually studied French? But depending on the topic, I can muddle my way through, and this is said to be the definitive work on the history of lesbianism in France.
Last Month’s Essay
I was reminded of Bonnet’s book when doing the background research for last month’s essay on 17th century salonnière and fairy tale author Madame de Murat. (I was also reminded that I can muddle through French a little, when I found the French Wikipedia page on Murat more useful than the English one.) And speaking of that essay on Murat…
Interview with Mari Ness
Heather Rose Jones: Sometimes life hands you convenient coincidences. Right before last week’s episode on Madame de Murat came out, I saw an announcement that Mari Ness’s new collection of essays on French salon fairy tales and their authors had just been released. Since Mari’s essay on Madame de Murat was one of the sources I used, it seemed only right to invite her on the show to plug her book and chat about the queer side of the Contes des Fées. Welcome, Mari, and sorry for mangling the French there.
Mari Ness: My own French will be probably very mangled during this. I learned what little French I did from a British woman in Italy who taught me how to mispronounce everything, so we’ll have to be a little cautious with my French.
H: Yes, I sometimes only realize that I’m about to delve into a language I have not mastered when I start pronouncing a book title or a name. So, in your book you dig rather deeply into how the social mores of seventeenth-century France and the personal lives of the authors come out through fairy-tale tropes. How do you think that the very different attitudes towards sexuality in that era are expressed in the stories?
M: So, I wanted to answer this, or I should say, to start with, to give a little bit of the overall weird background of queerness at Versailles, which is that it was illegal, very illegal, but the king’s brother was also blatantly participating in it.
M: We see in these fairy tales a lot of hints, particularly in, for example, the long version of Beauty and the Beast, not the condensed version or familiar one, but the long version that is a full-length novella. It’s very tedious; it’s very boring. It has a number of women and men caressing each other at interesting intervals. Could, of course, assume that they’re all doing this in a friendly way. After a while, it becomes increasingly difficult to assume that they’re just friends. You know, one time, this is friends; second time, this is feeling a little less friendship, so—and this is what you typically see in these fairy tales, is many hints of particularly royals who do end up in very straight heterosexual relationships at the end of the story. But as they progress through the story, they are very often doing queer things or things that we would read as queer and which I personally think: these French salon fairy-tale authors—they were intelligent people; they knew what they were doing. Many of them had seen the brother of the king with the men he was very strongly associated with, and many of them also participated in their own, or at least were accused of participating in, same-sex relationships. And it’s very hard for me, at least, to read these—many of these stories and think, oh, no! They were all completely straight at all times and never had any other thoughts. They were all, you know, very, very straight people. That was true for some of them, but I really have a hard time reading all of them as purely straight, and I think they used fairy tales in many ways to express that in something that was more acceptable because it’s fiction.
M: It’s for children. That belief that fairy tales are for children was part of the French salon fairy-tale tradition even as they were all entertaining themselves at the salons with tales, and this, I did not get into this in my book as much as I wanted to, but some of the tales that we have that have not been translated into English are very, very adult in the sense of being very sado-masochistic; they involve bondage, they involve all kinds of fun stuff, they involve all kinds of alternative—I don’t want to use “sexualities” here because that’s not really what’s going on, but there’s a lot of alternative approaches to gender relationships that happen in many of the stories that have not been translated yet into English.
H: Uh huh.
M: And that adds another layer. You know, you also have a lot of cross-dressing people in fairy tales, and it’s acceptable; it’s a fairy tale. That didn’t appear, even as this happens in stories that very specifically mention real-life places, which is—you know, you have that long version of Beauty and the Beast which I just mentioned. It has that place where they stop and discuss Turkish palace revolutions. And Beauty is right there, she’s watching. So it is very much, okay, is this a fairy tale? Yes, this is mentioning a lot of fairy lands. But are these rooted in real life? Fairy-tale writers knew what they were doing.
H: Uh huh. So, other than Madame de Murat, whom our listeners have heard a great deal about in the previous show, who were some other striking personalities among the authors of fairy tales?
M: So, I love them all, and I feel that even the ones that sound boring are fascinating. So, like, I really, really want to know what was going on with Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier. I told you, my French is terrible. She was the niece of Charles Perrault. She seems to have lived a very quiet life, but then you find out about all this money she’s getting from aristocrats, and you start wondering, wow, this is a lot of very wealthy people giving her money for reasons that are hard to understand. I want to know what was going [on] there—I don’t, but I really want to know. But, you know, on the surface she had a kind of dull life. So the more interesting ones that had the really scandalous lives that were fun—the author of The White Cat, Madame d’Aulnoy, she’s great. She was very probably a spy, for different people at different times in the world. She slept with a number of people, she hated her husband, she went in and out of France, she wrote all kinds of fabulously incorrect histories—if you can call them histories. She came back and said, “Hello, I am an intellectual!” It was great. She set up her own salon, she kept fighting with her husband because she unfortunately couldn’t divorce him, and by unfortunately, I mean that was his point of view, so she was awesome. Definitely. She wrote a lot of—a huge number of short stories. The English translations are sometimes a little iffy, so you do have to be careful. Try for the Jack Zipes one—he has not translated all of them—but the ones you will find on the internet, unfortunately, very often soften the original French.
H: Uh huh.
M: Not necessarily what we really want out of our stories. She also has a tendency to go on at length, which has made her perhaps a little less popular than she could be. And then the other one that I really love is Charlotte Rose de la Force because she was imprisoned for writing poetry. I’m like—the reason for the poetry—it wasn’t just that she was writing poetry, but it was considered to be impious, so Louis XIV said, “Nope, this is very anti-religious, very impious, so we’re going to toss you into jail.” What’s great about this is, from that experience she wrote Rapunzel, or rather, the original of Rapunzel that, when the Germans—the Grimm brothers—collected it, they did collect it from a German version that really resembles the French version quite closely. They realized it and made changes and later additions so that the Rapunzel that we know of, that we know today, would sound more German and less French. That was their plan. But she had very high connections to royalty because she worked for Louis XIV’s second secret wife, so she had seen it. She saw the secret marriages.
H: Uh huh.
M: She had seen all the affairs of the aristocrats, she was involved in seeming—you know, her correspondence was apparently mostly destroyed, so we don’t have all the details, but we can tell from the edges that she saw things. And she fascinates me.
H: Uh huh.
M: Absolutely. And it’s fascinating to find out that the Rapunzel story that we’re aware of actually had its roots in real life. That is probably the most realistic fairy tale that we have because it was based more or less on a true story.
M: Her own imprisonment, so.
H: Well, thank you. So, the book Resistance and Transformation: On Fairy Tales by Mari Ness is available from Aqueduct Press, either directly or through your favorite book dealer. And I’ll have links to the book and to Mari’s social media in the show notes. Thank you.
M: Thank you! This was really fun.
This Month’s Essay
I enjoy doing the in-depth biographical essays like the one on Murat, but sometimes you want to remind people of the richness of the history out there with more of a brief skim through history. This month’s essay was inspired by a discussion online about yet another historical movie with sapphic themes that seems to have gone out of its way to pick a tragic story. One big problem with the love affair filmmakers have with tragic stories is that they leave the audience with the mistaken impression that there were no happy endings in history for women who loved women. So for this month’s essay, I’m doing a shopping list of actual historic women who lived interesting lives, loved other women, and did not have those relationships end in tragedy and misery. Hollywood, take note!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Time for the new book announcements! Newly published sapphic historicals are unevenly distributed across the calendar at the moment. When I ran my searches for this month, I found only one title published in March, but a good half-dozen February books that hadn’t turned up last month.
And we’ll start by casting back to January. S.W. Andersen has a self-published series set in the wild west with a fierce gun-toting loner heroine. A Call to Justice is the third book in the series. I’m not sure if the series as a whole has a title. The protagonist, Sarah Sawyer, has settled down at last, but a thirst for justice, when tensions rise between settlers and the native population, leads her to pin on a badge.
The first February book is one I postponed from last month’s show because it’s an Audible Original and didn’t have a pre-order link until it came out. The Wife in the Attic by Rose Lerner is a gothic story inspired by Jane Eyre, in which the new governess is confused and intrigued by the mysterious woman confined in her employer’s house. Next month, we’ll have Rose on the show to talk about her book. If you love audio books, this story was designed for the audio format, though it will be available in print at a later date.
It's hard to evaluate how a memoir-style novel fits into historical fiction when it spans a long era culminating in the present. Sally Bellerose’s Fishwives, published by Bywater Books, sits in the Southern fiction tradition, following a life-long couple from their first meeting in the ‘50s through a lifetime of love, conflict, and growth.
Another book set in the ‘50s is G.B. Baldassari’s self-published Flying High, which looks to be riffing off the once-popular genre of flight attendant romance, but this time matching British Chief Pursar Charlotte Thompson with Californian Claire Davis—a meeting that perhaps wasn’t meant to have happened.
For a short-story treat, try Lara Kinsey’s self-published Victorian-set “Bump in the Night,” in which a desperate wallflower has a spooky encounter with an unexpected intruder. The cover copy suggests a supernatural encounter but is it truly magic or only illusion?
We go back to a wild west setting for Ruth Hanson’s The Railwalkers from JMS Books. In the lawless aftermath of the American Civil War, rebellious heiress Violet Donovan finds escape from the expectations closing in on her when a false murder charge puts her in the hands of a diverse group of vigilantes for justice, called the Railwalkers.
I’m not quite sure how to describe this next book: The Ledge Light: New London by Diana Perkins from Shetucket Hollow Press. It appears to be set in an unspecified time maybe in the 19th century, in Long Island sound, when a farm girl seeks her fate in gender disguise and that fate takes her to a lonely lighthouse. The cover copy isn’t very clear about what the sapphic content might be, so it might be a gamble. But I’ll note that the real Ledge Light was said to be haunted, so perhaps this story explains that.
The last February book is a French title: Eleutheria: Chronique des Amazones, by Helena Manenti from Homoromance Éditions, which has been the source of several French-language titles we’ve mentioned before. Set in classical Athens, the young, aristocratic Nyssa has a chance to leave the golden cage of her marriage for the chance to escape to a feminist utopia when she encounters an enslaved woman who will turn her existence upside down.
And there’s one lonely March release in my list at the moment. A supernatural adventure slipping between times and worlds: Girls in Black, book 2 in the Ranger Paraversum series by Vesna Kurilic from Shtriga. The aftermath of World War II is complicated enough, but Lina needs to figure out how to keep her parallel-world doppelganger secret from her landlady and her employer. And then there’s the problem of how long she can stay in this world at all…
What Am I Reading?
And me? What am I reading? I’m still struggling with my fiction reading habits (and I’m making a big push to get caught up on my reviews, which I think will help) but one book that easily broke through my reading block is Aliette de Bodard’s brand new Vietnamese-inspired historic fantasy, Fireheart Tiger. This is a bright little gem of a novella, set in a Vietnam-inspired fantastic past, in which an undervalued princess meets a former lover in very awkward circumstances, and…but let’s just move on to hear what the author has to say about it.
Author Guest: Aliette de Bodard
Heather Rose Jones: Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction that draws on her Vietnamese heritage and blends queer characters in both fantasy and space opera. I’ve been longing for her to write something that intersected the themes of this podcast solidly enough to ask her on the show, and with Fireheart Tiger, I finally got my wish. Welcome, Aliette.
Aliette de Bodard: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
H: So, could you give our listeners a brief synopsis of Fireheart Tiger?
A: Yes, so, Fireheart Tiger is a romantic fantasy that’s set in a secondary world that’s very directly inspired by pre-colonial Vietnam. It’s set in the fictitious country of Bình Hải, which is currently under siege both by its neighbors and by a colonizer country, and it follows Thanh, who’s a royal—an imperial princess, sorry, and who got sent to the colonizing country as a hostage and came back as kind of damaged goods because—she didn’t really achieve much, obviously, because she was never going to achieve much. The only thing she brought back is an intensive, torrid love affair with the princess of the colonizing country, which becomes a problem when she gets put in charge of negotiations with said colonizing country and the head of the delegation is said former princess, who’s like, I would really, really like to reconnect in a very significant way. And she finds herself caught between issues of love, loyalty to country, loyalty to family—and re-questioning where she thought her life was headed.
H: Yeah, I can see that could be complicated.
A: Relationships. You have to work at them, apparently.
H: So, what was the inspiration for this particular story?
A: So, it’s been a mixture of things. So, the fire itself was a history of—I mean, the one I can think of is Denmark, but you know, there’s a history of royal palaces burning down. Denmark, I have to say, was pretty spectacular because the palace burned three times, I think, in a two-century interval. I wanted to write a story that was focused on pre-colonial Vietnam because to me it’s a fascinating time period. It’s also a very frustrating time period because when I read the history as history— You know, that’s the problem with reading histories: you know how it’s going to end, and you kind of know that all those characters who are bickering with each other about what it means—so you have French interference in Vietnamese politics, then you have more and more missionaries coming, more and more Americans making inroads—is not a good thing. And that anybody who actually thinks that they can throw in their lot temporarily with the French is sadly mistaken as to their intentions, right? So, to me, it’s a period of great uncertainty and great change, and I guess I wanted, you know, I kind of wanted to rewrite history in a different manner and think on how it might all have come about a bit differently and under what terms. At heart, though, it’s a very personal story about relationships, you know, both familial and romantic, about history, magic, and it’s also a story about some pretty dark places. I mean, I should put up front the trigger warnings for abuse, an attempted rape late in the book, which is implied but not—you know, still there. So, I guess, yeah—I kind of threw that together, and the miracle is that it remained novella length, rather than become a whole novel.
H: Yeah, I can see there’s a lot going on. I mean, your works are full of queer characters, and it feels like most of your books carry through these themes of colonization as apocalypse. And—I don’t mean this to be a silly question because I think I know the answer, but what do these themes mean for you? I mean, you have your fairy-tale sapphic fantasy, In the Vanishers’ Palace, which is set after the departure of an incredibly destructive alien occupation; you’ve got the Dominion of the Fallen series that deals with the very literal fallout of a magical war between fallen angels and their allies— So, these themes of colonization and apocalypse are really through-lines in much of your work.
A: Yeah. I mean, I guess where I come from is being a child of a particular war, right? My family fled the Vietnamese American War when they were by and large—well, I mean, it depends on which generation, but let’s say the generation just above me was teenagers when it happened. And it’s a very peculiar feeling to grow as part of a diaspora that’s not—you know, it’s not an economic one. It’s a very particular feeling. You don’t always have a choice about migrating for economic reasons, but war makes it a little different in terms of urgency—
A: —and no return. There’s what I was raised with, was stories of a world that had passed because it had been destroyed. What I’ve been raised with is a dialect of Vietnamese that in some cases is very much no longer extant. There’s words that I know that are not in the dictionary. They refer to customs that are not that followed anymore, either. Right. So it kind of feels in many ways, like, I mean—first off, terrible devastation and an accelerator of history, but it also feels very much like: [as] a child, I guess that my main feeling was growing up in the ruins of something I didn’t really know, right? Because, I mean, what I got was mostly stories filtered through the lenses of my family, and not all the stories. Oh, when the kid enters the room, we’re going to shut up about the things we’re actually talking about because those are not subjects for kids, right? So it’s only as an adult that I find out things that, you know—I went to my grandmother to learn some Vietnamese because I felt like I needed to speak the language a little more in order to—I speak it a little but I wanted to become more fluent in order to reconnect. And then she drops, like, bombshell after bombshell in the middle of the conversation, and she’s like, “Yes, we hid in the marshes after they bombed our new year’s!” And I was like, what! I’m sorry, what!! “When we came back, they thought I was dead!” And I was like, yup, I can see that—can see that! And I think, you know, although I didn’t know that growing up as a child, it’s still there, no matter how well adults try to hide it. So I feel as though this whole apocalypse—because in many ways the war was that, to my family. And I’m not, per se, concerned with the actual apocalypse happening, right? You’ll notice that, for instance, there are no stories set during the great houses’ war in Dominion of the Fallen. I haven’t written a whole lot of war stories in the Xuya universe, either. Because most of what I’m concerned with is what do you do afterwards. I guess it’s the concern of, I mean, my concern, but also the concern of my generation, which is the one immediately after that, is where do we go from there? And different points of views depending on whether you stayed or left.
H: You deal with the complications of a multicultural background. So, you’ve got the Vietnamese family heritage, you are French by nationality, and you’re writing in English. And I’ve heard you talk on Twitter a lot about, sort of, translation challenges, where you’re trying to represent specific cultural concepts in a language that doesn’t have a useful shorthand for those concepts. But what are some of the joys of writing from such a multi-layered cultural background?
A: I guess, I mean—well, I mean, first off it’s hard not to do otherwise, right? And I feel like, you know—I remember having these conversations with a friend when I was just—I mean, not when I was just starting out, but about, like, three or four years into my writing career, I mean, depending on how you count “writing” and “career” per se, but—let’s not go there. But anyways, we were having a conversation about writing our own cultures, and I said, but, you know, and we’re both scared of doing it. But if we don’t do it, who is going to do it? Actually, what I said was, if you don’t do it, who is going to do it? And then I hung up. But then I was like, like, hang on—is she the only one it applies to? No, she’s not the only one it applies to. Riiiight. You two sit down and do a bit of soul-searching here; I’ll be back in a week or so. So, I mean, there’s that to me, which is—it’s impossible for me to write being informed by something else. And the other thing is, I guess I’m always very aware of how things are relative, how things are—it’s very easy for me just to go, like, this thing that you think is a bedrock and absolutely indispensable and absolutely universal actually is not at all, right? Because especially, you know, coming from Vietnamese and French backgrounds that they’re kind of further away, I would say, than you know, I don’t know, French and Spanish because they were neighbors for centuries. Right, so it’s easier for me to go, like, for instance, the assumption that a woman is going to take her husband’s last name upon marrying, yeah, nope. Why? What makes it, you know— So I guess to some extent it makes sense to some extent worldbuilding a little easier for me because I don’t have those kneejerk assumptions, and I tend to question everything, which is not terrific in everyday life, but it’s great for worldbuilding. And the other thing is, you know, being actively aware of language and how you use language, and which languages you use in which circumstances as well, that’s something I’m very interested in. Also interested in, you know, what I think of as liminal spaces. People who—hey, wonder how that happened—but anyway, people who don’t belong to one culture or the other, and what it means to not be in that space, and what it means to, I guess, code-switch—I’m not sure if that’s really the right term technically, but kind of, like, switching, you know, attitudes, mindsets, and that sort of thing as you navigate. That’s something I’m always terribly interested in, and something that a lot of my characters tend to have as well, right? For example, Thanh is also navigating between what she knows of the colonizing culture through being there from ages 12 to 16 or 18—I can’t actually remember my own timeline: going to say 18—and her own country, and you know, this sort of disconnect between coming back to a country where she only spent half her childhood, but it is her homeland so, kind of, alienation from her own culture—
H: Mm hm.
A: —which I think also comes from what I navigate, because my culture very much rubs against, into French culture. It’s very—I mean, you know, again, things that they take for granted, I don’t really, right? So, there’s that, that I have to navigate in everyday life, and so my characters tend to do that as well. And it makes it easier for me to understand what that would mean.
H: Uh huh. So, I’m going to preface this next question with an apology for making reference to “Asian” fantasy, as if the entire continent had, you know, some universal factor. But when I’ve been compiling the new book listings for my podcast, I have been seeing a lot of sapphic historic fiction—historic fantasy—with various Asian-inspired settings or historical Asian settings, and a lot of it has been own-voices, or at least, written by people whose cultural roots are in the culture they’re writing about. So, I hate to call it a trend, but it is something that has jumped out at me as, maybe more like a pattern in the clouds. Do you have any thoughts on that?
A: I mean, I’m very happy about it, personally. You know, that makes my—I’m going to take that book, and that book, and that book. Oh yeah, yeah, a lot of reading sorted for next year. Yeah, I mean—you see, there’s been—okay, I hesitate to call it a trend as well, but there’s been a resistant buildup in lifting up and publishing more own voices, right. I certainly know that when I started publishing, around ten years ago, there’s things I’m publishing today that I could not have sold. And I know this because I know we had the chat with my agent, who was like, okay, I love you, I know you want to write this, I know it means a lot to you; I don’t think I can sell it, though, so we need to have a chat about what you think I can actually sell and the intersection with your interests. So I think that that’s—at least that barrier to entry has been reducing. It comes with a lot of other issues. Like, I’m not saying we’ve solved racism in publishing; we have not. But, you know, notably sustainability of careers comes to mind, right, because there I am going to call it a trend, which is publishers very often feel to me like they’re jumping on the bandwagon of oh!—the next shiny thing, and I guess that’s how publishing works, but I’m a little concerned that this is also going to apply to authors of colors more than it does to white authors, and I guess time will tell there, right.
H: Yeah, that is the problem with trends: they come in and then they go out again.
A: Yeah, exactly, and I’m a little, you know—that’s where I get…. We’re not a trend, right? We’re kind of hoping to stay. We’re there to stay, actually, but we would like to not to have fight so much, to stay. And the same thing has been happening for own-voice –I was talking about people of color, but you have the same trend—the same, well, general direction going for own-voices queer narratives. So I think to some extent it’s kind of: get the con big enough and then you’re going to have to have the—you’re going to have the Venn diagram intersection of these two things. Being published is what I think is happening, I think. And also, I think, you know, to some extent, it’s been particularly highly visible because especially sapphic has not exactly—there’s been a dearth of highly visible—not saying that they weren’t there, but they tended to get less visibility than other stuff, or be self-published, or to be published by smaller imprints. Or, you know, the list is endless. But it’s not a question of existence; it’s really a question of, how, you know, what Big Five publishing, and then marketing budget in Big Five. I think—correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the Ladies’ Guide to Celestial Mechanics was the first sapphic romance to be published by a Big Five, I think, or something?
H: I have heard that. I think the author said something about that.
A: Yeah. I have not—I mean, you know, I’m encroaching, so I don’t know, but there certainly haven’t been 25,000 before that, right.
A: And I think you also have that in fantasy and SF, so they’re also particularly visible because they’re being pushed and they weren’t there before, so there’s a real appetite for them. Which is good, right? So again, I’m not complaining, but—
H: Time will tell.
A: Yeah, time will tell, and maybe there’s this big invisible factor that I’m missing. Oh, and sorry, you also have—there’s a lot of editors that are starting to be hired, you know, in marginalized—from marginalized demographics.
H: Which certainly helps.
A: Yeah, they’re starting to make their mark, rather than [only] being hired. They’ve been there, again.
H: So, do you have any current projects that you’re working on that our listeners might be particularly interested in—that you’re allowed to talk about?
A: Well, I’m working on a space pirates project that’s directly informed by the South China Sea pirates. So, the South China Sea pirates were in the tail end of the seven—eighteenth century, tail end of the eighteenth century, in the boundary zone between China and Vietnam. Ching Shih—sorry, my pronunciation, however, is terrible—is the main known one, the pirate queen. There have been a number of them spread over different periods, and what I’m doing is mostly coming at it from, you know, the Vietnamese history angle, which is that the Tây Sơn dynasty actually financed itself through piracy, partly. And so I’m kind of telling a science fiction version of this, which also involves, like, you know, sapphic shenanigans because one has to put these in. Continuing with themes. And so that’s the main one I’m actually allowed to talk about. There’s another one of interest that I’m actually not allowed to talk about, so we’ll wait until I actually have permission.
H: We’ll wait eagerly to hear about that one.
A: That’s about all I’ve got going at the moment.
H: Uh huh.
A: It being, you know, 2020—gesturing, cursing, that sort of thing.
H: Yes, that we’re being productive at all is a miracle. So, I like to ask guests to talk about something they’ve read or watched recently that they think the listeners might be interested in. Would you have anything to share?
A: If I’m allowed to get, like, you know, recent—like, some time ago, so—I read Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun, which is a genderbent Alexander the Great in space, with Alexander being Sun, who’s in a relationship with another woman, so, you know. And it’s also—I mean, I don’t know all of the history, but there’s a lot of historical parallels that Alis [i.e. Elliott] and I were talking about. It’s set in the—if you’re interested in history, you should check that out. It’s a very chunky book, so you’ve also got plenty to read, but it’s, like, one of the best books I’ve read in 2020—ooh, this is the year that felt like forever. And the other one that I can think of—that I really, really like—is Nghi Vo’s When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, which is— So it’s partly about history, but it’s also about the love between a scholar and a tiger, who are both women, and how that plays out for the tigers and for the humans. It’s kind of short, so, you know, that’s at the other end of the spectrum of, like, if you have time to read, or if you have less time to read. I found it quite delightful both because of the themes being explored and because of the way it nails oral history. And obviously, you know, I’m biased there because it draws on Vietnamese lore, so it sounds very much like, you know, the queer version of what—something my grandmother might have told me, which is very high praise, and so forth.
H: Uh huh. Well, that’s lovely. So, if people wanted to follow you online, where should they look?
A: I have a website, which is aliettedebodard.com, which is mostly for the official news and stuff. The newsletter as well. I’m on Twitter as @aliettedb, which is mostly where a lot of the linguistics kind of things, tearing my hair out over unexpected developments, and all that stuff happens. Also, book promotion, but you know, that’s not the great majority of the timeline, and if you just want to hear about the new releases and stuff, I really recommend the newsletter, which is really the best way to get that in your inbox. I mean, I am solo parenting, so it’s not like I have time to spam people with newsletters. I really send it when I have news! So, that’s where I am mostly. And if you’re more interested in the recipe side of things, I have a Patreon, which has a tier which mostly features—I mean, there’s a bunch of tiers, depending on whether you’re interested in the writing, the recipes, or both, but that has the goods on how to make pancakes, my experiments in making tartes and pastries and all that sort of thing.
H: Well, I will include links to all of those in the show notes. And thank you so much for sharing your time with the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
A: Thank you.
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 Aliette de Bodard Online