(Originally aired 2018/09/15 - listen here)
Heather Rose: This week, we welcome back author Kelly Aten to talk about some historically-based stories with queer women that she’s particularly enjoyed. Glad to have you back, Kelly.
Kelly Aten: Hi, it's great to be back. Thank you.
H: Let's dive right into the books. What would you like to tell us about?
K: Okay. As a warning, I am not normally a historical fiction fan. However, I do love books that put a lot of detail or dive into different historical periods that I'm a fan of. I will start with the two books that are not speculative-fiction based, because that is my typical fandom. One of the books I'd like to talk about is Other Girls by Diane Ayres. It's actually set around 1978. I picked up this book early on, it's decades ago, two decades and a half maybe. [Heather laughs] I picked it up fairly early on in my lesbian fiction collection. I haven't been collecting that long. But it's set at Willard College for Women around 1978. It's all women, and it's just a big gay... every iteration of a lesbian relationship. I mean, it kind of throws everything in there, when you have all these women together. You know, you have an upper-class woman who's having an affair with her feminist professor and then sleeping with her [unclear] roommate. Then you have this younger woman coming in. The upper-class woman, Pip, she is her big sister, right? Who…they're drawn together. I have to say that one of the things is, the story is a good size novel. The story was really engaging. It is an emotional roller coaster and has some sad parts and attacks. It's supposed to be a happily-ever-after ending, but you kind of wish that some of the other characters had ended up together instead of the ones that did. [Heather laughs] I just know that sometimes when I read the historical fiction especially some of these ones set in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they're not as happy as I'd like. While they're amazingly written, I find them very good engaging novels. They're not necessarily my favorites because to be a favorite typically, I'd like that happily-ever-after which I know seems trite, but--
H: I’m curious about that because--and of course, here's where I'm coming from. I'm counting back…set in the ‘70s, 40 years ago. I guess that is historical fiction. Wait a minute, I was in college in the ‘70s. [both laugh] I'm wondering, is it that there's a particular type of happy ending you're looking for that maybe wasn't as possible back then? I'm not sure when this book you're talking about was written. Was it written recently talking about the historic era or was it written in the ‘70s?
K: No, it wasn't written recently. It was written in 2002 which is 16 years ago still. It's contemporary, it's 2002, but it is written about 1978. And you're absolutely right, I think maybe that's why some of the more accurate books written about a certain time period, I'm not necessarily as happy with. Because to me, before women, before lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, queer, before you started seeing all of these rights, and we still obviously have our ways to go, but we have so many more rights now than you had 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago or more, right? I mean, just looking at the age of when women themselves had rights. And now you start looking at us gay women or queer women, it's a different time period now than it was in the ‘80s or in the ‘70s. But you're right, you're absolutely right. Maybe that's why some of my displeasure with some of these more accurate portrayals of historic fiction as far as during the time period when women had rights as women but they didn't have rights as gay women. The endings aren't as much what I would like to see knowing what I know now, but you can't have that.
H: Yeah, this is a reaction that I've run across about historical fiction further back where modern readers say, “I don't like the options that were available to women back then. I don't enjoy these stories because I don't want to read about anybody who doesn't have what I have now.” It's fascinating because that's true for any kind of historical fiction and I have to confess I find it frustrating when lesbian readers say, “I don't want to read historical fiction at all because I would not want to live then, and therefore I don't like these stories.” I've always seen historical fiction as a chance to understand how people could be happy on their own terms in any context. But that's a thing I've got that is just interesting, thinking about how my life in the ‘70s... well, of course let's not talk about my life in the ‘70s. [Kelly laughs] My life in the ‘70s is not something that a let’s say 20-something lesbian today would consider acceptable. If lesbian romance means you have to get married and live happily ever after, it's like you can't set anything earlier than the last decade.
K: You're right. And I think it comes down to relatability, right? I mean, it's hard for the younger generation with everything they have to relate to that time period. And maybe they don't want to relate. Because to have all of these privileges and all of these rights and to suddenly go back because you do put yourself into a book. When I read, I am in that book. That is me. That's my time. And to have all of these rights abruptly ripped away because suddenly you're in a time period where you're treated terribly or you're not allowed to openly love who you love, it's hard. It can be hard, and I think that's why some people maybe avoid. But like you said, there are reasons.
H: It cuts us off from our history. I mean, I shouldn't be preaching to you about this bit, but for me as being so interested in the history of non-normative sexuality, it was different. It wasn't the same as what we experience, but to cut ourselves off from that is to take away our history entirely.
K: I agree. I really agree. I think that one of the things that if you don't occasionally take a look back to see what we didn't have, you won't appreciate what we have now and you will stop fighting to gain more, to really be equal, right? You're like, “Oh, this is good. We have it good. We don't have to worry. We can get married. It's all great.” Well, it's not great. People are still getting fired from jobs, you know? They're threatening women's rights daily. So, I think if you don't look and see how much fight we had to do just to get here, you forget how to fight because history is about showing the fight that people had as humans, as women to get where they are now. It's a constant change. And I think that actually takes me into the other book, which is Alma Mater by Rita Mae Brown. Rita Mae Brown, obviously, is a classic, right? I read Rubyfruit Jungle. Again, and when I read Rubyfruit Jungle, it's a great book, well-written, but it didn't even stick with me so much because for me, it was hard to relate to it. It was set in a time period that was hard for me to relate to. I remember reading Alma Mater though and I really loved the book and then I got to the end, and the book is well-written. But for me, it was not a satisfying end. Because at the time, that was set in 1980, so two years after Other Girls and it’s set in the time period 1980 and still women did not have these options. And you think of it as barbaric now, but women, they were expected to get married, have your little dalliance on the side, but you need to maintain the family name. And some of it it's just a trope, right? But still, it had that implication that women were worth less unless you've settled with a man and it was hard for me to imagine happiness if I was forced to include settling with somebody I couldn't love romantically. So, both really good books. I mean, I recommend them because they're great books to read. They weren't necessarily an ending to my taste, but they were very good books. Obviously, they're on my list. [Heather and Kelly laugh]
After that, the rest of the books that I have on my list as far as some favorites, they are not historical fiction necessarily. They are maybe a variety of fantasy. Cinder and Smoke by Geonn Cannon set in the 19th century New York and it's about a female criminal who has to make her own family. She's a thief. The police call her the Smoke because she’s been targeting the wealthy. She's born in prison, stolen from her mother, raised by runaways and pickpocket and she meets her match in Pinkerton Agent Shelby Button who earned the moniker Cinder for running into a burning building to capture a criminal, right? So obviously, it's not completely accurate, you wouldn't have a female Pinkerton at the time, but it's still in that time. So, it's like a mystery. So, Cinder and Smoke set in 19th century New York, it's about this female Pinkerton who's trying to catch the Smoke which is a pickpocket, a thief. That is another book that the ending wasn't necessarily to my preference, but it is an excellently written book. The author paints a great picture of 19th century New York that the way they spoke, the clothing they wore, just what life was like. So again, it's set in the past. It's not necessarily my thing and you don't necessarily have an ending that you would look at a contemporary piece and say, oh, this is a happy ending. But I think it does a good job of showing these two women and showing what they're facing together. It almost has a Jean Valjean and Javier… [Kelly and Heather laugh] So, like that dynamic.
H: Yeah. And Geonn Cannon specializes in, I think, later 19th century. They're not literary historical stories, but most of them are more historical than fantasy I think that, just genre adventure more.
K: Yes, I agree. So, this one really stuck out because it was set. I mean, Geonn Cannon has a couple others that were more adventure, almost like a Lara Croft/Indiana Jones kind of adventure or so, you know? So, those ones I think are more almost steampunk, but also set in probably what 19th century but more modern, I think. So just really good books, not necessarily romance adventure for sure, but just reading the dynamic between the Pinkerton and the thief in Cinder and Smoke is well worth it and just seeing that time period come alive with Geonn Cannon’s words, it's just truly amazing.
Another one I have, let's go back further Medieval Europe during the Black Plague 1349. That one is by Kim Pritekel, it's called Storm. I mean, I've read some comments. It's not, oh, well, you wouldn't have had this during the plague. I mean, I wouldn't say it's 100% accurate historical fiction, but they try. It's definitely on verge of fantasy because of, we have Merryn, a thief, a street rat, and Cara, a village girl. They end up traveling together. Cara is a healer. She was trained by her mother. Her mother died of the plague. Her sister died of the plague. And they traveled together when they're younger, they fall in love, and something happens and they get separated and they meet again years later. So, at the beginning, it's set during the time of the plague and it comes back later where Merryn’s life has changed significantly. She has much higher status. Again, it's fantasy and that you're not going to see many female knights or people that are ruling an area, but if you like a medieval time period piece, if you like some of the details and the gruesome gory [Heather laughs] facts about what it's like to die from the plague, then it's a good read if you'd like to go that far back. I believe the Kim's story was originally an uber-Xena fanfiction, so the descriptions of the two main characters may seem familiar, but the story itself I found highly entertaining. So even if it's not strictly historically accurate, there's a lot of detail in it.
Another one that is like a fantasy, it's set contemporary but then it has continuous flashbacks to the late 1600s, Cobb Island by Blayne Cooper. I don't know if you've read that one.
H: Okay, I'm not familiar with it, but the name sounds at least familiar.
K: So, you have older sisters agree to supervise their younger siblings, so a couple of young lovestruck teens, right? So, they go to this house on Cobb Island and what happens is the two older sisters end up being descendants of the star-crossed lovers from the late 1600s. So, they keep having flashbacks to the 1600s to these two women that were living then and all the things that happened to them. I'm trying to remember. I think the one was married and then the other one, they were star-crossed. It's late 1600s, it's not going to turn out well necessarily. [Heather laughs] But it has a lot of these flashbacks to the time period to the house that they were living in on this island and what they were going through at the time because obviously women couldn't be together, but it also set contemporary with the two chaperones--inadvertent chaperones. And it's just one of those fate things where the two women just happen to be descendants of the original two women that had died on this island in the late 1600s. So, I always thought that that was a pretty interesting dynamic going back and forth like that. It wasn't set solely in ancient history.
H: Yeah, that's a technique that I see regularly in lesbian historicals where--I tend to call it time-slip, but I don't know if that's a term that other people use--or where you're connecting the reader to the story via a modern character, but then either past lives or an astral projection type time travel type thing and you get into the history. It's kind of fun, the entire genre of that.
K: Yeah, I have actually heard of time-slip as well. But you're right, there are quite a few books that do that even not just in lesbian fiction, but in contemporary fiction. I mean, look at Outlander, [Heather laughs] Right. I mean, my girlfriend, fiancée, sorry, my fiancée now, she loves Outlander. She reads the books. She watches the show. [Kelly laughs] So, I just ignore it. [Heather laughs] She's like, “I don't like fantasy books.” I'm like, “Oh, what's this story about?” “Oh, it’s about this woman that goes back in time.” I'm like, “Okay, you can stop there.” [Heather laughs] “I don’t like romance books.” “Oh, what's it about?” “Oh, this woman that falls in love with this man and goes back in time.” And I'm like, “Okay, you can stop there.” So, [Heather laughs] yeah. But you're right, it is a very popular genre and I think it's the way for the author to connect people that don't want to connect with history against their will and draw them in, in a subtle way, you know? So, I have two more. This one, it's just a quick mention. It's the series Balance of Forces by Ali Vali. In the first book, you have this main character, Kendal Richoux, she actually began life in ancient Egypt as the only female Pharaoh. And I know it's not like a dedicated historical fiction, but one of the things I loved about this book was the references to some of the Egyptian mythology, Egyptian culture, stuff like that. I thought that was cool. It's just a tiny little blip on the radar there and I'll move on from that. And the other series which I don't even know what this genre is When Women Were Warriors. Have you have you read those in like series?
H: I haven't read them. But if you look at the initial acknowledgments, I get a mention for providing her with some name research. It is inspired by, maybe, Bronze Age Celtic society, but my interpretation is it's much more, much more, fantasy than historical but inspired by that era, definitely.
K: So, I remember reading this book. I actually read this book the series before I wrote any of my books and I remember just being blown away by how good this author was. And for a lot of people that I've seen, some people are like, “Ah, like it was too slow, there wasn't enough action.” But for me, it was just a wonderful look into the life, the day-to-day life, the things that the character had to go through, Tamras, just the different things that she had to go through. And it's set in, like, an ancient time period so it's not modern, but it just really reminded me of the ancient history. And I think it helps me with the world building and the putting all of those details in and the things that I appreciate when I do read a historical fiction type book which is the details and, just set the scene for me, create this world for me so that I'm there and I can imagine myself there where, normally, you wouldn't be able to do that, if it's something that is historical fiction and you can't relate. So, I really think it helps. She did a great job of setting the scene and bringing me into this world that was so very different from my own.
H: Yeah. Well, thank you so much Kelly for sharing some book love with us and I'll put links to all the books you mentioned into the show notes.
K: All right, thank you very much. It's been wonderful to discuss some of my book loves. I will always discuss book love. So, if somebody contacts [Heather laughs] me and they're like, “Well, what is your favorite book?” Be prepared for long conversations.
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode Kelly Aten recommends some favorite queer historical novels:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to K. Aten Online