We Have Always Been Here: 3 Essential Historical Sapphic Reads

As Pride Month draws to a close here in the states, here are three historical fiction books that blend insightful writing with action/adventure, twisty thriller tension, and bon-mot brilliance, respectively.

So much of history is about teaching us what has been possible, about what sorts of lives have survived, been mythologized, codified, recognized as worthy of being recorded and remembered. I hope that even as the rainbow marketing recedes from store shelves and social media logos, books like this remind us that our feelings, our intimacies, our narratives have been here long before we had singular words to encompass and categorize them.

The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye by Briony Cameron

the cover of The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye

A gritty, gripping, richly immersive story inspired by a 17th century pirate legend, Briony Cameron’s The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye rekindled an old love for adventure stories that I’ve sorely missed.

The story opens on the high seas, where our eponymous intrepid shipwright has found herself bound, wounded, and taken captive while in pursuit of her own fierce vision of freedom. It then dips back in time to show us how she got there, in the process building both a colorful portrait of the seventeenth-century Caribbean islands and a Django-esque revenge story that retains all the visceral, bloody violence of the films while adding rich dimension through a strong, fleshed-out focus on Jacquotte’s relationships with and care for her friends, crew-mates, and lovers.

You can tell how much care Cameron puts into her characters, their personalities seamlessly woven into the path of the plot and coming into focus in their interactions with others. There are no lone wolves here, no lone heroes. It takes a village to run a ship, and Jacquotte’s ascension from indentured shipwright to formidable captain is made all the sweeter by all the people she brings up with her. Honestly, this book is probably a better treatise on leadership than anything with that word in the title.

I am absolutely living for this new trend of stories that take the thrills and trappings of old-school adventure stories and repurpose those imperialist motifs and language to create detailed stories about queer women of color who’ve been kicking around and exploring this part of the world just as long as—if not longer—than the looters whose puffed-up legends formed a sizeable bit of my Early U.S. History curriculum back in high school (which was, incidentally, when I first saw the Indiana Jones movies).

Readers who want (sapphic) high-stakes adventure novels or heist stories filled with action, tension, visceral fight scenes and tender camaraderie will find a perfect text here. The care Jacquotte has for her crew and fellow downtrodden is wonderful and make the story so much more complex and emotional. I truly felt for the characters and their losses and pain, which is no small feat with such a sizeable cast and less than 400 pages.

Jacquotte is a survivor, and Cameron’s writing of her perspective is as singular and incisive as a skillfully handcrafted blade. But all her triumphs come with costs, often heavy ones.

I would caution readers about the prominence of period-specific racism in this book, though. While it always adds to the texture of the worldbuilding and serves to underscore and drive action, Cameron pulls no punches in either the language or its impact on the characters it is addressed towards.

Spitting Gold by Carmella Lowkis

Spitting Gold cover

If you’re on this website, chances are you will be able to spot one of the twists the first time it is so much as hinted at. But the ones that come after are what make this book worth reading, if you’re in the mood for a propulsive, action-fueled family drama filled with unlikeable people trying their best to get ahead in the world of post-Revolution nineteenth-century France.

The first half of Carmella Lowkis’s Spitting Gold feels like a bog-standard historical romance before spinning wildly into a great spooky beach read. Readers who enjoy stories about spiritualism and mediums’ lives beyond the performance will find a highly original work in this genre, with an intriguing, morally ambiguous story unfurling in the background of the séance scenes.

This book gives all the satisfaction of creepy metaphysical shenanigans in shadowy dark corners with the added satisfaction of girls kissing (though not much else). More of those beachy horror movies should have girls kissing, imo.

While there are some echoes of Sara Waters’s iconic Fingersmith in this story, it felt more like a cross between Libba Bray and Patricia Highsmith’s work, with the sort of reader-friendly and detailed worldbuilding of the former. Spitting Gold is shorter than most of the aforementioned authors’ novels, which means less room for Waters-style interpersonal studies, and a more focused cast than Bray’s larger series. The romance is not the focus, but the sapphics drive the plot in large measure.

Gothic lit purists might find themselves disappointed, however. This book is far more character focused than atmospheric, driven by the narrative more than metaphor or symbolism, in a way that might not entirely satisfy people looking for something that hews more closely to genre and Du Maurier. It’s not quite as liminal or focused on houses as metaphors, is what I’m saying.

And while I enjoy reading about people whose somewhat understandable worst impulses drive their actions, not everyone does. This book goes deeper into what vices resentment and loathing can breed. It is uncomfortable at times, but in a way that feels narratively consistent. Readers who want their sapphics relatively non problematic, or at the very least not explicitly spiteful, be forewarned.

On the Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire edited and translated by Ruth Vanita

On the Edge cover

There’s a line from Tressie McCottom’s excellent essay collection where she writes about beauty, respectability and “self-definition masquerad[ing] as a notion of loving our black selves in white terms.”

All too often, stories that attempt to write queer people back into the histories that colonialism, racism, and other schemes of systemic violence have erased them from are met with the criticism that our use of English terms to describe our particular position on the spectrums of sexuality and/or gender is a capitulation to the colonizer’s pen, a sign that queerness itself is an import with no place in the indigenous culture(s). We’re told our love makes us instruments of colonial violence, even as vestigial colonial laws and mores are used to persecute and intimidate LGBTQ+ folks the world over.

Ruth Vanita’s latest transliterated collection is a joyful, vibrant refutation of those rootless exemplars of the bigoted rot that pervades even these postcolonial spaces and places. Queer feeling is the focus of each story in On the Edge. Though the characters (and likely even their writers) would not use or identify with the adjectives or archetypal narratives that suffuse our modern movie and streaming screens, their writing reveals what it means to feel queerly: to experience desire in shapes that aren’t reflected on silver screens, in post-colonial histories (all the stories in the collection were written in the 20th century), or even many family genealogies, overshadowed as they are by an overwhelming majority of heteronormative ones.

There’s so much emphasis on feeling here, it’s remarkable. To read these stories is to be transported into the singular minds of their protagonists and their conflicted, sometimes confounding actions. There are also an abundance of rich, novel metaphors that will appeal to language-loving literary fiction readers. It’s such a lovely cross-section, with stories that range from countryside comedies of manners with echoes of both Sanskrit plays and British holiday farces, to turbulent urban dramas located entirely in the mind of a woman possessed by unrequited passions. It would make a lovely gift for certain Hindi-lit-loving near and dear ones—the syntax and rhythm of Vanita’s English transliterations achingly reminded me of the R.K. Narayan and Munshi Premchand collections my grandparents used to gift me.

I was particularly delighted by the editor’s own story, “Vision”. It reminded me a lot of what I loved in Theodore McCombs’s 2023 short fiction collection—namely, the intimacies and awareness that can open up as we move through our preconceived notions about respectability and desire. I was moved to tears by this collection, by the concrete connection it offered me to a legacy that close friends and I have mostly had to cobble together through whispers and Wikipedia stubs.

I included this collection alongside the other novels because these three books seek, in their own ways, to put queer people back into the history of iconic periods that persist in the cultural imaginations: the Golden Age of Piracy, the spiritualism movement, and rapidly urbanizing post-colonial India. Each of these books takes familiar character concepts—the brutal captain, the scheming medium, the moralizing busybody—and allows us to participate in the (often ahistorical, mostly fiction-filtered) nostalgia these stories invoke.

#historical fiction #pirates #seances #mystery #adventure #history #literary fiction #annan #caribbean #india #lesbian

A Lush Bisexual Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

the cover of 
Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, originally published in 2020 and translated this year by Heather Cleary, is a dramatic and lushly gothic novel about two women who a string of circumstances going back over a century bring together in modern day Buenos Aires. Yuszczuk revels in sensual, physical details as she describes how a vampire from Europe emigrates to Buenos Aires when she realizes she can no longer remain undetected in Europe. Decades later, a modern woman struggling with the realities of her mother’s terminal illness and the ongoing effects of grief inherits a key and sets off a collision of destinies. Thirst is a fairly short read (or compact audiobook in my case), and I had a great time because Thirst is a vampire book that revels in being a vampire book. There’s blood and violence and obsession, and at one point a priest is defiled purely out of spite. It’s a sensuous romp, and perfect for heating up an already hot summer.

Thirst, as the title states, is concerned with thirst, both the physical and sexual.  The vampire narrator is constantly concerned with her physical thirst for blood and with avoiding vampire hunters that are trying to stop her from satisfying that thirst. It’s interesting to me that she both acknowledges that it’s natural for humans to want to stop her from feeding on them and also asserts that she did not ask to be made into a vampire and that it’s natural for her to want to sustain herself, acknowledging the eternal competition between the two. There’s also tension as she is first forced to flee vampire hunters in Europe and then contend with the developing world of forensic science linking her to her victims. Thirst asks, how do you satisfy your thirst in a world increasingly capable of stopping you? 

At the same time, the vampire narrator is also concerned with her more metaphorical thirst.  Living outside of society, and thus societal strictures, she revels in her sexuality, taking what she wants whenever she has the whim. While several of her early encounters are with men—who see her as a helpless lone woman they are taking advantage of even as she uses them—she does not shy away from her physical attraction towards women. Even before she meets the modern narrator, she enjoys an interlude with a washer woman who shows her where she can wash her clothes in private. As they undressed together, I enjoyed that the vampire’s physical appreciation of Justine was untainted with any internal hesitation or regrets—as someone who fed intimately on people’s final moments, the vampire felt free to enjoy any physical pleasure she wanted without bias.

The modern narrator she eventually meets up with, on the other hand, is wracked with grief, indecision, and the expectations of others. Her mother is in the final stages of a horrible, untreatable terminal illness that slowly leaves her more and more paralyzed. As her mother disappears bit by bit under medical paraphernalia and pain, she has to grapple with her day to day life and her young son on top of grief and emotionally-draining caregiving. And as she watches her mother’s choices disappear to be made for her by others, the intensity with which the vampire exists attracts her, even as she is startled and alarmed by the violence. Their immediate attraction to each other is electric and visceral—almost feral. Although most of the book was concerned with their individual journeys, I found the chemistry of their meeting compelling, and the ending satisfying. 

In conclusion, Thirst is a lush gothic vampire novel that takes lingers on the physical realities of being a vampire, the clash between the vitality of life as an individual and the grind of the realities of existence, and the sensuality that is there for the taking if one dares. Yuszczuk keys into a rich gothic and vampiric tradition without overly lingering on logistics or greater vampire lore. This is a book about the journey and the moment. If you love vampires, Latin American gothic, or just some hot summer defiling of norms, Thirst would be a perfect add to your to-read list. It’s a quick but hot read and a great time. 

Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin, translated by Silvester Mazzarella

Tove Jansson by Boel Westin cover

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A queer, iconoclast, anti-fascist, anti-war comic artist, and joyfully adventurous woman, the Tove Jansson brought to life by Boel Westin’s considered pen is a complicated, innovative creative in resolute pursuit of independence—in both her art and romances.

Meticulously researched but rarely dry, this is a book for Moomin fans and art history lovers alike. It provides a deep look into both the personal life and recorded experiences of Tove Jansson, as well as the historical circumstances that gave rise to her singular artistic vision—which was, it turns out, far more oriented towards painting than illustration.*

While the book focuses more on literary-minded analysis of Jansson’s illustrations (including examining the events that inspired them, namely her formative experiences in the wake of the first world war and under the shadow of the second) than the technical aspects (past a chapter dedicated to her years at art school), its cross-sectional look at the cultures of the particular artistic milieus she inhabited during her life helps provide further insight into her inspirations.

There’s a sincere affection for her subject in Westin’s writing, but it never reads as overly fawning or glamorizing. Readers will feel like they’re walking through a gallery, looking through windows at an artist as she grows through painstaking practice and experience.

One of the loveliest things about biographies is that they remind us how we’re not alone.** Sometimes what becomes globally iconic starts off humble, and critically panned. Westin doesn’t shy away from Jansson’s early struggles, and it’s that grounding that makes what could easily become a fairytale-style homily to creative perseverance—she lived and worked in a literal tower for most of her life—into something much more real.

As a kid, I was obsessed with the Moomin books. The soft, rounded shapes were so tactile in my mind’s eye, and the stories had this sense of being about something bigger and just a teensy smidge darker than they immediately let on. Returning to that world decades later, I’ve found myself bookmarking some of the pages to revisit when I need a bit of a pick-me-up regarding my own aspirations. Westin’s elaboration of Jansson’s ambitions and struggles will likely hold meaning for modern creatives, illustrators in particular. The book does not shy from going into frank detail on Jansson’s need for financial independence to pursue her singular vision, and her later efforts to maintain control of how her art was presented, particularly once the popularity of the Moomin books brought an avalanche of possible licensing deals down on her doorstep. The descriptions of her fierce dedication to preserving her integrity as a creator are inspiring. Even as Jansson’s whimsy is celebrated here, so too is her ambition in equal measure.

In summary, this biography shines a light on the human behind the characters, and her love of compassionate, thoughtful, boundary-pushing stories on the page and in her own life. While it clocks in at nearly 500 pages, it’s well worth checking out if you want to read about:

  • Biographies of sapphic artists
  • Biographies of sapphic comic artists/illustrators
  • Biographies that humanize their subjects through detailed study
  • The history behind the Moomin books
  • The way art is both deeply individual and a reflection of the world the artist inhabits
  • Post-war European art outside of the more well-trodden English-French perspective: Next time someone asks me if I’m familiar with Francis Bacon, I’m asking them if they’re familiar with Tove Jansson.

You can now order the book from the University of Minnesota Press!

Footnotes:

*Reading this book gave me new appreciation for the 2020 biopic Tove, which focuses on her life and career just before the first Moomin books really took off. It’s a delightful homage to her passion for painting, too, as well as earlier romantic partnerships that this websites’ readers might not know as well as the one with Tuulikki Pietilä. It’s streaming now on Kanopy, for anyone interested.

**As Jansson’s diary entries reveal, it appears that queer horror-loving women are not a recent phenomenon!

Scattered Shreds of Sapphic Poetry—If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson

the cover of If Not, Winter

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My girlfriend’s and my 10-year anniversary was this month, and I figured it was well past time we bought our own volume of Sappho.

For those who don’t know, Sappho was a poet from the island of Lesbos who lived around the turn of the 6th century BC. In her day she was known as “the Tenth Muse,” and though her lyric poetry and songs were some of the most influential in the ancient Greek language, only fragments of her works survive. It’s from her legacy that both the terms sapphic and lesbian are derived.

Unsurprisingly given how iconic her work is, there have been many translations of Sappho’s poetry published over the years, and it’s amazing how different they can be. Now, translation, as an art form, is often not given the credit it deserves. There’s a dream our culture has of a passive, invisible translator, someone who can provide the pure, unaltered meaning of a text without inserting anything of themselves in the process. It’s an impression of translation people get from foreign language dictionaries and algorithms like Google Translate; this idea that perfect, impersonal translations between different languages is ideal, or even possible. The truth is, however, that it isn’t reality. Translators are active participants in the writing process, just as authors are. This becomes especially clear with poetry—the density of meaning that each word has in a poem starkly illustrates just how difficult and creative the task of translation is.

Thankfully, I knew exactly which version of Sappho I wanted to get—Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Carson is a prolific and well-respected translator of ancient Greek works, and tends towards starkly simple and evocative language in her translations. If Not, Winter is that in the extreme; each page is mostly blank, with one to a handful of fragments on them. The reverse of each page holds Eva-Marie Voigt’s transcription of the ancient Greek, but even if you can’t read any of it at all, Carson’s English translation is more than compelling enough. What strikes me most about it, especially over other translations, is just how obviously fragmentary every piece of a poem is. Carson calls attention to where pieces of the original poems are missing with heavy use of open brackets and line breaks, and the effect is immediate and profound. Just flipping through, there’s no mistaking that you’re reading the scattered shreds of a much larger body of lyric work. Carson also avoided inserting words not present in the original Greek whenever possible, even when doing so sacrifices the clarity that articles or pronouns might provide. Everything feels short, poignant, bittersweet—the echoes of great words, great loves, barely remembered.

Of course, if a translated work benefits from its translator’s talent and vision, so too is it influenced by their biases. There are a few small things in If Not, Winter that felt oddly hesitant with Sappho’s, well, sapphic legacy. Carson’s introduction mentions that Sappho loved women deeply, and adds, “Can we leave the matter there?” Her description of Sappho’s family includes a husband and a daughter, despite the fact that evidence of either are extremely sparse and potentially suspect; for these details she cites only “biographical sources,” when the rest of the introduction is full of far more specific and thorough citations. Many women that appear in the fragments themselves are described in the appendix as “possible companion[s] of Sappho,” while her brother’s lover is explicitly given as his “girlfriend.” All this is just the supporting material, though—with the translation itself, I’ve only taken issue with one thing so far. This may be extremely nitpicky of me, but in fragment 102, Carson translates παῖδος—a word for a young person—as “boy,” even though “girl” would be just as accurate, and “youth” more accurate still. I’ve seen other classicists confused by this choice as well; it’s usually the one main complaint about an otherwise stellar translation.

That said, I’m overall quite pleased with If Not, Winter. There’s something extremely powerful about looking at words written more than two and a half thousand years ago and reading them, simply stated, on a blank page—seeing a single recovered noun or adjective, and knowing the whole song that once held it was sung across the entire ancient Mediterranean world. That’s the bittersweet thing about Sappho: so much has been lost, but also, what a miracle that this much has been saved! I do appreciate that Carson leans into this heart-wrenching contradiction by not covering up the holes in our knowledge, and fully embraces what’s left as, well…fragments of Sappho. Because the beautiful truth is that despite it all, despite what people may say or think, despite how much of the Tenth Muse’s music is gone forever, we do remember her—even here, in another time.