(Originally aired 2021/05/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2021 and welcome to episode 200!
Whether you’ve been a listener all along, or whether you’ve become a fan more recently, I’m glad to have you along on this journey. Podcasting can be a lonely experience, sitting here by myself in this sound booth—well, ok, I don’t actually have a sound booth. I have a home office with a view of my garden and the occasional background contribution from my neighbor’s motorcycle. But in any event, for all that podcasting is about reaching out and connecting with an audience, I don’t often get a chance to actually connect with you. So for our 200th episode celebration, I decided to invite you all over for a party.
Um…that is…invite you all to join our Discord server and drop by for a chat. If you aren’t familiar with Discord, it’s a type of private chat board, similar to Slack or Teams, with both text and video options. You can sign up for a general Discord account for free, then ask me for an invitation to join the server. Contact me through Twitter or Facebook or through the Alpennia website. The Discord is for both the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and for fans of my fiction, and has a steady trickle of people chatting and geeking out about various topics.
I’ll be hosting the Podcast-iversary party on Saturday May 8, more or less from when I’ve had my coffee in the morning until when I crawl off to bed in the evening. That’s on Pacific Daylight Time, for those calculating time zones. Drop by to say hi, to chat about history, to squee about your favorite books and media. All very laid back and informal.
I’ll talk a little more about what this milestone means to me at the end of this episode.
News of the Field
Historical fiction is pretty small potatoes in the lesbian fiction field, but we’re going to have a bit of representation at the annual Golden Crown Literary Society conference, being held online during the month of July. I proposed a panel discussion along the lines of “what historical fiction means to me”—that is, to each of the participating authors—and it was accepted to be part of the programming. I’ll give more details on scheduling and content as we get closer.
Some day I’d love to see if we could put together an online conference on queer historical fiction in general. Now that people are getting a better sense of how to make online conferences work, I think it would be a real possibility, and certainly easier than trying to put on such a niche event in person!
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog is in the middle of my short series of recent books on gender crossing. I spent most of April working through Ula Klein’s literary study Sapphic Crossings: Cross-dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature which studied specific motifs in the narratives around female husbands, cross-dressed pirates, actresses in breeches roles, and novels with cross-dressing characters.
While Klein’s book used the lens of how historic people viewed and talked about gender-crossing, Jen Manion’s book Female Husbands: A Trans History applies a different lens, looking specifically at the phenomenon of 18th and 19th century couples who lived lives that appeared from the outside to be heterosexual marriages, where one partner had been assigned as female at birth but is read as male.
I suspect it will take me all of May to work through Manion’s book, but if I finish early, the next lined up is Emily Skidmore’s True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century. This book will complete the spectrum of approaches to cross-gender lives, operating specifically from the viewpoint of modern approaches to gender identity and performance. In juxtaposing these three books with their spectrum of approaches to related subject matter, it isn’t my intent either to create or to blur category distinctions among the historic individuals they discuss. Rather I hope to explore how approaching historic gender identity from these different angles can help both authors and readers to develop a more nuanced understanding of how a variety of identities can be depicted in historical fiction in a manner that is both accurate and sensitive.
I haven’t acquired any new books for the Project, but I’m very excited about one I just pre-ordered today. It’s an English translation of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. I had the French original in my database, but with no hope that I’d ever make the time to struggle through it. I’ve previously bemoaned that comprehensive studies of sexuality in the classical world skim so briefly over female material, when they take note of it at all. So I have high hopes for this book.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
The new book listings are a bit lagging behind release at the moment, with only one actual May publication and the rest catching up on the March and April books. June will be different: I already have about 10 June books in the spreadsheet. Sometimes that’s just how the release dates cluster in the calendar.
We start off with a couple of March releases. T. L. Dickerson continues the Coffield Chronicles, set around the US Civil War, with Hearts Under Fire from Sapphire Books. The series is following one of the popular Civil War plots, with a Northern woman fighting for the Union in disguise as a man and encountering romance and danger in the form of a Southern belle.
Our second book is in the same general timeframe. In Bridget A. Finnegan’s Odette's: A Quality Men's Club, from Dawdle Publishing, ex-prostitute Jessamyn has set up as a private investigator, but when her ex-lover goes missing she has more than one mystery to solve, with adventures ranging all along the eastern seaboard.
I have half a dozen April titles to offer. Pushing much more to the fantasy side of historic fantasy than the historical side, Anya Leigh Josephs’ Queen of All, from Zenith, follows two cousins thrust from rural obscurity into the glittering and dangerous royal court, where they must rediscover the kingdom’s history and its magic.
Another April book reaches even further back in time to the Egypt of the pharaohs. The French-language novel La Reine Lionne (The Lion Queen), self-published by Alexia Damyl follows the niece of the king of Nubia as she struggles against her family and fate to save both her country and the woman she loves.
There are several books with 20th century settings. In Moyra Sammut’s A Map of Scars, from Olympia Publishers, on the eve of WWII, a young woman takes a journey of self-discovery from the island of Malta to England to find her purpose, and maybe love.
The Juliana series by Vanda, from Sans Merci Press, continues in its fifth book, Do You Know Dorothy? in which Al needs to find a comeback act to keep the crowds coming to her nightclub and turns to drag shows.
Susie Ray has self-published a pair of Victorian stories in a single volume: Lady Charlotte: Two Lesbian Romances. Charlotte has a sexual epiphany in the arms of Lady Lydia, but happiness may be standing even closer at hand in the form of her adoring lady’s maid. I get a vibe that this may be a fairly steamy book, which you may take as either a plus or minus.
This next book may also be very much a matter of taste. The Inverts by Crystal Jeans from The Borough Press follows the lives of Bettina and Bert across the 20th century. Having discovered neither of them is interested in a heterosexual relationship, they decide that getting married to each other is the best option before plunging into the Roaring 20s and beyond. The book appears to be only available in the UK at the moment, and I’m going to advise potential readers to check out some Goodreads reviews to see if any of the content advisories there might put you off. In brief, the protagonists aren’t very likeable people and the text has some odd angles that aren’t for everyone.
The solitary May release that I could find advance notice of is Renée Dahlia’s self-published Her Lady’s Melody, in her Great War series. Two women, widowed on the same day, are looking for purpose in the wake of WWI. They may be each other’s best hope of comfort, but secrets from the past stand in their way.
What Am I Reading?
My own reading is still dragging along. I devoured Nghi Vo’s novella When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain in a single gulp. It’s a story-within-a-story about a shapeshifting tiger and her scholar girlfriend and difficult philosophical questions such as under what circumstances it’s permissible to eat someone you’ve shared a bed with. These are very tigery tigers. The story is set in the same mythic alternate China as her previous story The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which I also loved.
I’m still debating what to do for an essay this month. I’m poking at the topic I was thinking about previously, which is about the process of researching the roots of modern folklore of lesbian history. You know those stories that get passed around about people and events and symbols where everyone just “knows” they’re true but no one can offer you a source? Yeah, those ones. It’s a tricky subject to tackle, because the stories are passed around because people connect with them emotionally. And that means they may be very invested in their truth value. But I’m fascinated by the ways in which such things take root, by which ones get altered and which ones maintain their original forms. And there’s one particular myth that I was present for the birth of, which makes a useful object lesson.
At the end of this month we get our next fiction series installment. I’ll be narrating Catherine Lundoff’s “The Adventuress,” continuing her series about female spies and pirates. A few more of these and there could be enough to publish a collection, which I certainly hope will happen some day.
Thoughts on 200 Episodes
I promised you all some more thoughts on this, the 200th episode of this podcast.
I never intended to start a podcast. I never intended to start a history blog. What I did intend was to collect, read, and synthesize as much information on queer history and women’s history as I could, so that when I set out to create historical fictions of women who loved women, I would do it in a way that was true to history as well as being true to my vision.
I have loved studying history all my life. I don’t have any illusions about the past being better than the present. I don’t want to live in any century but my own—though these days my own is nothing to write home about. But I love the sense of awe and wonder I can get from contemplating lives both different from my own and yet connected in essential ways. I love the way that the study of history can take me somewhere else, can let me be someone else, for brief imagined moments of time.
When I first began to understand my sexuality, I had a deep need to feel how that connected with the past. To be able to imagine who or how I might have been as a woman who loved women in other ages. I wouldn’t have been the same person—just as I wouldn’t have been the same person as a writer, or as a scientist, or as a craftsperson in other ages. But I wanted to know. I wanted to feel ownership of that past.
When I first began looking for information on lesbian history, back in the late ‘70s, the great blossoming of academic interest in the history of sexuality was barely beginning. Very little was published, and what there was could be hard to find. For the first couple of decades of my search, it was like wandering on the beach, hoping to find a pretty shell washed up by the waves, or if I were very lucky, a bottle with a message in it. I started to put together a collection of information. The sort of collection of pretty shells and rocks a child takes home from summer vacation. Then I learned where to go diving.
But it was still more of a dragon’s hoard type of collection. I stored up books and articles—anything that looked like I might find it useful some day—but I’d barely scratched the surface of reading them. Only the ones directly related to my own small projects.
One of the things I learned in my decades doing research for historic re-enactment was that the most important part of any research project was simply knowing what types of information on my topic existed. If you know it exists, you can figure out how to find it. But what if you have no idea what types of data survive? Or how that data might be relevant to your questions? I’d spent a lot of time tracking down research on peculiar little topics just because they interested me. I’d gotten rather good at the whole “what sort of data exists” part of the question. I knew my way around academic libraries and journals. And I knew that lots of people didn’t have that starting point.
How do I know this? Because one of the most consistent themes I hear when interviewing authors of sapphic historical fiction is how difficult it is to find information. How hard they had to work to research how their characters would have experienced their sexuality. How very little there is published on the topic.
I won’t contradict the difficulty of the task, but it simply isn’t true that the information doesn’t exist. I have a database of nearly 1000 publications that speak to sapphic lives in the past. So it’s frustrating to hear author after author tell me that the research is impossible. That invention is their only option.
When I started the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, I had one selfish reason and one altruistic reason. The altruistic reason was to take that familiarity I had with the available research on lesbian history and make it easier for other people to find the information they wanted, without having to reproduce my decades of poking around on library shelves and bibliographies. I wanted the same thrill I always got when someone came to me and asked, “How can I find out about Viking clothing, or Roman cooking, or Old Irish poetry?” and I was able to drop a large stack of books in front of them and say, “Let me take you on a guided tour.”
There wasn’t any physical place or group or event where I could do that for lesbian history, but there was my blog.
The selfish reason? Well, the selfish reason was that I’d been gathering up all these historical publications and hadn’t gotten around to reading a lot of them, and I needed a structured motivation to do that. Setting myself a schedule for reading and blogging about all those books and articles was the most reliable way to motivate myself. I’m all about the schedules.
The podcast was a little different. When I started the Lesbian Historic Motif Project I already had a blog. I even had a set of regular readers of that blog, back when it was on LiveJournal. It was just a matter of writing things up and posting them. But a podcast: that meant new technology, mastering new apps, and finding a new audience. I’d been playing with the idea of starting a podcast but was daunted by the start-up process, when Sheena came along with The Lesbian Talkshow and asked me to contribute a regular series. That was the tipping point. And having gotten my feet wet with her assistance, eventually moving to an independent show was relatively easy.
But why podcast at all? Why not just keep on with the blog? As usual, there were several motivations. It diversified my audience. People who might not read a blog might listen to a podcast and then learn about where to find more information. Podcasting gave me an opportunity to make connections with other people in a way that blogging didn’t. I had one or two guest bloggers for the Project, but writing blogs for someone else’s site is a lot of work. People are much more willing to be interviewed, especially if they have a book to talk about.
Yes, books. The blog was very much focused on the historic research end, but I wanted to do something to boost sapphic historical fiction too. A podcast was much better suited to that. The podcast format gave me a chance to pitch some of the interesting historic people and stories I’d discovered in a more light-hearted and accessible form. It was more suited to some of the peripheral geekery I enjoyed doing, like my show comparing gender identities to the meanings of prepositions.
And the podcast helped one of my dreams come true: to be a publisher and boost the field of sapphic historical fiction by helping put it out into the world. That’s something I doubt I’ll manage in the print world, but broadcasting audio fiction was just one small step further for a podcast.
Two hundred episodes is a lot of episodes. It’s a grueling schedule. I’ve never yet missed a deadline, though there were times when I squeezed out a break by doing reruns. There’s some satisfaction in that.
And there’s satisfaction in the thought that maybe somewhere out there, there’s a listener to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast who gets inspired to go out and learn more about lesbian history on their own, so they can write a glorious and wonderful historic novel, which some day I will read. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll let me know that I inspired them.
If I’ve inspired you, or if you just enjoy the show, or you’re curious to meet me outside of the podcast airwaves, or you just want to say hi, stop by the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s 200th podcast-versary party on our Discord server. I’d love to see you there.
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