A Feminist, Latin American Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Recently translated into English, Marina Yuszczuk’s queer vampire novel, Thirst (Dutton, March 5, 2024), is partly what I’d hoped for in a vampire fiction, and at the same time, it was nothing like what I’d expected. 

Although it’s a Gothic, vampire novel on the surface, Thirst is really a feminist novel about two women’s experiences of life, loss, trauma, and haunting across centuries. Taking place over two different time periods in Buenos Aires, what seem at first like the totally disparate narratives of two women who live in entirely different circumstances eventually come together in a dramatic and bittersweet conclusion. In nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, a vampire arrives on a ship from Europe, fleeing the death and violence she and her sisters found there. She is less a Dracula-like figure arriving at Whitby on the deserted Demeter, and more of a lost scavenger, uninterested in human lives even as she grieves her own losses. 

As the world transforms around her—moving from isolated villages into cosmopolitan, interconnected cities, the vampire must adapt her existence in order to intermingle. In the same city in the present day, a seemingly ordinary woman struggles to cope with the terminal illness of her own mother while also looking after her young son. When she sees the vampire for the first time in a Buenos Aires cemetery at the opening of the novel, the two women are set on a collision course that promises both revelation and destruction. 

This novel is marketed for fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and I can definitely see the parallels. This is a conflicted, confused, and introspective monster novel with just enough of a dash of broken moral compass to make this interesting. Thirst is also compared to the writing of Daphne du Maurier and Carmen Maria Machado, which is something I understand a bit less—to me, Thirst is unique in its style, and it’s a fascinating take on the vampire story.

For me, much of my enjoyment of this novel came in the first half. The first chapter had me completely hooked and I loved reading about the vampire’s origin story. Dark, gory, and dramatic, the image of the nineteenth-century queer female vampire wreaking havoc on Buenos Aires society amidst an abundance of crime and death was gripping. I couldn’t look away! 

The second half, which focuses much more on present-day Buenos Aires, was less exciting for me, although I loved the relationship between the two women. It felt at times in the second half like this was a feminist novel with a Gothic overlay, and that the vampire plot was secondary to the narration of these women’s lives. This disrupted my expectations and made me enjoy the novel a bit less, although I may have been more engaged had I understood from the beginning that this was more of a novel about the way women see the world. 

Thirst is absolutely worth reading if you’re looking for a new and exciting feminist Latin American author, or if you’re a fan of queer vampire stories and historical fiction. I think it’s an interesting addition to the canon, and I would love to read more by this author. 

Please add Thirst to your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

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.

Kayla Bell reviews Gingerbread Hearts: Six Lesbian Christmas Stories

Gingerbread Hearts edited by Judy Underwood

Just like last month, this month I wanted to read a cozy, sweet holiday themed book because I don’t think there are enough queer ones out there. This short story collection from 2012 was a decent addition to that list, and if you’re looking for a very fast Christmas read, this anthology might be for you.

As you can tell from the title, this anthology from lesbian fiction publisher Ylva Publishing includes six sapphic stories. All of them are pretty sweet, typical romances, and they never venture into erotica. Because there are so few stories in this anthology, I think my review would be best if I went into them individually.

The first story was my favorite; it’s about a woman trying to come out to her family at Christmas. The story was pretty funny, and the main character was very relatable. I know that coming out stories can be difficult, but I thought this one was done well. It was funny and had tension without being traumatizing or angsty. Just some chaotic Christmas fun.

Next was my least favorite of the bunch. This was about a woman who gets to make a wish after winning her family’s Christmas tradition. She wishes to find true love, and you can imagine where the story ends up after that. This story was my least favorite simply because of the amount of diet and body talk there was in this one. Even the opening scene involves body shaming and diet culture. I was happy to move on from this one.

The third story was really weird. It was like an alien spin on A Christmas Carol. In my opinion, this story was way too short to achieve what it was going for. I felt like it ended without any resolution. The science fiction angle of this one also did not fit with the cozy contemporary vibes of the other stories, as well. Overall, this one felt really out of place.

Next was a cute family story, which I enjoyed. I love seeing healthy queer relationships in fiction, especially between women. It didn’t have much of a plot, but was still nice to read. This trend continued in the last two stories, which were by the same author and followed the same two characters. These last two were my other favorites, and really brought me some holiday cheer. I thought it was an interesting and refreshing thing to do to have two stories following the same characters, with the second one taking place after a time jump. These last three stories really redeemed the book for me.

This book is less than a hundred pages, and I was able to read it in less than an hour. For the most part, the anthology is filled with realistic depictions of Christmas. I loved that almost all of these were happy stories that didn’t feature the trauma of LGBT+ characters. If I could change anything, I would definitely diversify the perspectives of these stories, because some of them did start to feel repetitive. But, like I said before, this is a very quick, cute anthology.