I was delighted to be invited to participate in this year’s Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event and I am thrilled to see so many articles appreciating so many varied contemporary books. It is easy to get the impression when witnessing all this enthusiasm that lesbian fiction is now mainstream and there is nothing taboo or diffident about it. Yet only last year an article appeared in one of the UK’s leading newspapers, The Guardian, calling for more lesbian authors to come forward and submit their book for the Polari Prize, as there weren’t enough lesbian entries.
The Polari Prize is for a first book on LGBT themes from a UK writer. Self-published e-books are eligible, so it was very surprising that very few lesbian-themed entries were received. You can see details of the prize here.
Yet it is not surprising, when you think about it, that a young woman who may be only just beginning to find her voice as a lesbian writer, should be very reluctant to put herself forward for a public prize. Writing about sex isn’t easy. Writing about anything deeply personal isn’t easy. But it can be especially hard when you are unsure of your feelings, unsure of your talent and unsure of how public you want to be about a very private matter.
Erotica is a case apart. There are many explicit lesbian films. They, like erotic lesbian books, don’t necessarily deal with feelings. As a writer of erotica myself I know how easy it is to draw on fantasies and daydreams rather than lived experiences. But for readers it is the lived experiences that really resonate and endure.
When I read Affinity by Sarah Waters, I know that the author has suffered at least one sleepless night burning with desire for a woman she can’t possibly have. When I read The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, I know I am getting the creative fantasies of a woman who experiences life unbound by convention. The poems and stories of Jackie Kay are heavy with love-lorn grief, of her consciousness of being different and yet so thoroughly herself. And when I read anything by Ali Smith I feel an upsurge of idiosyncratic sensuality that no heterosexual woman could impart.
Coming to terms with your feelings for other women can be a torment. Having the courage to write about them can be a life-changing decision.
In my own collection of lesbian stories, Lure of the Feminine, I have taken an easier route. I have based this collection around the experiences of one of my friends. All the stories are written in the first person but I have blended my persona with hers and borrowed her identity, or she has borrowed mine. Of the four stories in it there is only one that wasn’t inspired by her, which is The Swimming Pool. There is no sex in this story and no words of love or desire are spoken, although there is a very strong lesbian theme. The Swimming Pool dates back to the time I first came to England. I have explained some of this in the introduction, which is too long to repeat here. But in my introduction and in all the stories, I have obscured some details. There will always be some things that are never made explicit about women’s relationships with women. There will always be undercurrents and mysteries. Stories can help bring to light certain things. But I hope and pray we will always manage to hold on to at least some of our secrets.