(Originally aired 2019/03/09 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: Today, the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is delighted to talk to Katharine Duckett whose debut novel, Miranda in Milan, follows the life of Shakespeare's character Miranda from The Tempest after the conclusion of the events of the play. Welcome, Katharine.
Katharine Duckett: Hello, happy to be here.
H: Katharine has had short fiction published in Uncanny, Apex, PseudoPod, and Interzone. I've invited her onto the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast because Miranda in Milan falls at the intersection of historic settings and queer women. Why don't you tell us something about the story?
K: Sure. As you mentioned, this is a story that unfolds after the events of The Tempest. So at the very end of The Tempest, the events of the play have been resolved and they're off to Italy presumably for Prospero to be re-installed as Duke of Milan and for Miranda to live happily ever after with her Prince Ferdinand. And in my story, things don't quite go that way. They do end up back in Italy. But Prospero brings Miranda to Milan, and there she uncovers a lot of secrets about her own past, learns more about where she comes from and also where she's going, who she is as a person, which she's never really gotten the chance to explore before.
H: What was it about the story of Miranda that made you want to follow her further?
K: I think the reason I was so intrigued by Miranda is we're given so little of her, in a way, in the play. She's never really given space to speak for herself. She's very much under Prospero's thumb the entire time. He has most of the lines in the play and is constantly just instructing her and telling her what she should think and that things are this way and that way. And you have to remember that, you know, if you're viewing this character as a real young woman, she's been raised alone on this island with only her father telling her how the world is. And the only other person on the island, Caliban, she's been told that he's this terrible, awful creature. She's also literally never met any other women. [laughs] As a queer woman, that really caught my imagination because I was thinking, "Wow, what if this character is queer and she gets out into the world and she sees other women for the first time? You know, that just would be an incredibly, I think, complicated experience." That was the germ of the story for me.
H: It would be a complicated experience even if she were straight because the lack of socialization models is just astounding. And Prospero, he's very much a puppet master figure. As you say, Miranda is…it's like she's his creation in the play and doesn't have an existence of her own.
K: Very much so. I think expanding that idea to Europe at the time, you obviously had this real segregation of the sexes, these different gendered spaces. Miranda would very much then end up in a society where she was relating to other women for the first time, talking to other women for the first time, hearing their experience of the world. That was a very powerful notion to me that really only having been given this one world view, it would completely explode her notion of what the world was.
H: Shakespeare is pretty notorious for playing fast and loose with geography and history. In spinning a tale based on one of his works, did you feel equally free to play around with the details of history or were you aiming for a Milan that was more of a real world--it's 16th century you're using, right?
K: Yes. I actually did a combination of things. I think I wanted to keep myself a little more on the path [both laugh] that Shakespeare might've stayed, also because I have access actually to more texts than he would have had and more of a sense of what life would have been like at that time. But I did want to also keep that sense of Shakespeare's Italy and the way that he saw Italy and also the magic he brought in. Obviously that is a huge component.
H: Yeah. If it's not magic, it's not The Tempest.
K: Exactly, exactly. So there is a fantasy element, but yeah, it was very much working within the 1500s, looking at this taking place around the early part of the century. And I bring in some elements from later, but trying not to have anything that was an obvious anachronism. So what's also interesting about The Tempest is you have Prospero and his brother, Antonio, who are these dueling rulers of Milan, appear to be for all intents and purposes, Italian from an Italian family. But at Shakespeare's time, actually Milan had fallen under the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs. Actually, The Tempest itself is a real throwback in history to this romantic notion of these Italian rulers and this Italian dynasty. So I kind of ran with that idea and used the period of the House of Sforza as my jumping off point. So that was sort of what I modeled Prospero's reign after and maybe the family that Miranda is entering into, and that's where I started a lot of my research. I ended up spending quite a lot of time on... There's a great album... Anyone who wants to go down this rabbit hole, there's a fantastic website for Sforza Castle that I was on quite a lot because it has a ton of history about the castle, but also you can explore it. You can literally go down the hallways and see different rooms, and that was my starting point. But then actually I was able last summer to go to Milan and see the castle, and that was incredible to get to line it up with all this research I'd done. So that was my setting.
H: So sounds like you're very fond of going down research rabbit holes. What's your general historic background? Has history always been a love for you or did you get into it specifically for this novel?
K: Well, it's always definitely been a fascination for me. I have always been primarily a fiction writer, that's what I studied in college. So I'd say a lot of what I have, the historical research I've done, has been for creative projects. So it's a little bit going down these particular rabbit holes for the purpose of a project. But I've also always been someone who loves historical fiction and is fascinated by history. And this actually, this story in particular, came out of a class that I took in college that we studied The Tempest in the context of really colonialism and the rise of empire. Terrific class, race empire and the Renaissance stage at Hampshire College, and so it was very much situated in a historical context when I first began to go deep on this play.
H: Uh huh. That sounds like a fabulous class.
K: It was, it was.
H: When you decided, and maybe decided is the wrong word, but when you decided that your story would draw Miranda into a queer relationship and a relationship, as I understand it, with a woman of color, how did you approach depicting that? What were the challenges?
K: The major challenge in the research is that we have very little information about queer relationships between women at that time. A lot of the information was never recorded or might've been destroyed. Actually one of the texts that I was using at the time to get a sense of the period was Walter Isaacson's terrific biography of Leonardo DaVinci. So DaVinci spent a large amount of his time in Milan, and of course is this queer figure about whom actually we know quite a lot. We know who he lived with, who he was in relationships with, there are these documents and there is that history. And we really lack that for most women of the time because women were so marginalized to begin with.
H: And as you noted earlier, men's and women's lives were very separate and distinct, and the situations that applied to a man like DaVinci might be irrelevant to women's lives.
K: Yes, exactly. And actually it's interesting, you know, obviously the way that homosexuality was seen in Italy at the time was, sometimes it was actually for men a very free experience and there was actually kind of a flourishing of gay culture. And then there would come these crackdowns and this persecution and these legal ramifications of which again, we have records. So you're actually able to see what was happening. And what's interesting is actually women, lesbianism was not prosecuted in that way, on that scale. In fact, often because it just wasn't seen, it might not just be seen at all, but it also wasn't seen as serious because in a way women's relationships just weren't seen as having that same gravity and that same importance.
H: Yeah, depending on what the women were doing, it might not even be seen as sexual.
K: Exactly, exactly. And actually it definitely wasn't, that came up in my research that essentially, unless there was some phallic representation, it wasn't seen as a sexual relationship.
H: The other part of my question, and I'm going by the book blurbs and a couple of reviews, as I understand it, the woman that Miranda is involved with, she's a servant and a woman of color. What did that bring into the equation here?
K: Yes. Part of what I wanted to bring into this story was not only a sense of the history that we have and the way that we view that time, but the gaps in history. There's so much that is unknown, there's so much that is lost. And this character in particular is a witch, very much speaking to the context of The Tempest. She's someone who practices magic. she proudly identifies as a witch. But if you know your history of early modern Europe at that time, that is not a comfortable thing to be. And it was at that time already in Lombardy, you were seeing witch trials, but you really wouldn't see it reach fever pitch until the middle of that century. And so that to me, it's not explicit in the book, but that is some of the history that was, I think, hanging over the story, was this sense that these women are under a constant threat in a way just because being a woman who was in any way different at that time could very much put you under threat of death quite literally. And so many women were killed during that time, and also so much history was lost. So many texts were lost and expurgated. So I really wanted to bring that in. And then the other element is that Miranda's love interest is a Moorish woman. That term is used in the book because it was the term that would be used at the time, but in the book I make it clear that that term was really just used as an othering term. It was applied to many different people at many different times, and it really was just used as a line to demarcate, you know, us from them. So part of this character's history is that she was born in Marrakesh, lived in Spain. And again, if you know your history of Spain at that time and Andalusia, that would have been a time of immense persecution and also immense loss of Arabic writings. There were huge bonfires and just destruction on a massive scale, Arabic history. So this character, her mother actually was a poet who was writing in Arabic, and many, many of her writings at that time when they were living in Spain, were lost. And the reason that I wanted to bring in that character specifically was the heart of The Tempest is, we see it as the story of Prospero, but the other underlying story that we often don't explore as deeply and some creators have, is obviously Sycorax and Caliban. You know, Sycorax is the witch who came from Algiers, who was living on the island and gave birth to her son, Caliban. And Caliban is really the only person left to speak on behalf of his mother, but he's a male character. She can't speak for herself, her legacy has been erased, and Prospero disparages her even after death and is really the person who speaks for her as well. I wanted to bring in a lot of that idea, that The Tempest is so much about a man narrating his [obscured by laughter]. But he's really the one left standing. We don't know, we've lost so much of the real story of Sycorax. And so to contrast that, we have in the character of Dorothea--Duriya to contrast with that loss, you know, the idea that yes, her mother's writings were lost and yes, some of her mother's history was lost, but it lives on in her daughter who is determined to protect that legacy and speak for her mother.
H: Wonderful. I wanted to jump tracks here a little bit because when I was looking up your information to prepare for the interview, I noticed that you are currently the fiction editor for the special issue of Uncanny Magazine, Disabled People Destroy Fantasy. And my listeners, because this show is primarily aimed at the lesbian fiction audience and they probably are not as familiar with that series as you and I are, so let me give them a little background. This is an ongoing loose series of anthologies that's been sponsored by different publications. Started out several years ago with a theme anthology, "Women destroy science fiction!" which turned a misogynistic complaint into a tongue in cheek theme of a wildly successful kickstarter campaign, spread out to include women destroying fantasy and horror. And then the initial series was followed by similar series of anthologies with queers destroying all the genres and then people of color destroying the genres and the current series is disabled people destroying science fiction fantasy and horror. I assume there's a horror one too, I think I've only seen the other two.
K: Yeah. Well, no, there's not a 'disabled people destroying horror' yet, but there were other anthologies of people destroying horror.
H: And in each case the anthology focuses on the voices of the group in question, not necessarily characters and topics from those themes. But what I'm fascinated by is: you're in the middle of editing this anthology at the same time that your debut novel is coming out, and what is that like?
K: Yes, yes. And I should note that the book is actually a novella, but yeah, so it's my debut novella, but yeah, it's actually been great. It's obviously kind of an overwhelming time when your first book comes out. So it's actually been really, really great to be able to focus on this other project. I'm so excited about this anthology. I was lucky enough to have a story in Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and that was just an incredible experience to get to work with that editor. So I couldn't be more thrilled to be involved and to see all the work that's coming in. We're in the middle of submissions right now and open for a little while longer. And it's been incredibly exciting to see what's come in so far.
H: Yeah. Any other upcoming projects or publications that you're working on you'd like to tell the listeners about?
K: Yes. Actually by strange coincidence, I have a story coming out in an anthology that publishes the same day as Miranda in Milan. So that's the Sharp and Sugar Tooth anthology coming out from Upper Rubber Boot press.
H: They designed that as a tongue twister, didn't they?
K: So yes, that is shaping up to be a terrific anthology. It's a bit a takeoff, the idea was basically food and horror. And so I have a story in there that's a queer enchanted bakery tale basically. So yeah, I'm very excited about that.
H: Bakeries seem to be popular setting somehow, either that or I've just been noticing them. So if people wanted to follow you on social media, where should they look?
K: So you can find me on Twitter @kekduckett, and that's really the best place to connect with me. You can also visit my website, katharineduckett.com. Send me a message there. I love hearing from readers and other writers as well.
H: I'll put links to all of those and all of the publications we discussed in the show notes. Thank you so much for joining us today at the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, Katharine.
K: Thank you, Heather.
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Katharine Duckett Online