One way to approach queer/LGBTQ+ history in fiction is to set stories in the past and create lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and other queer characters there. That’s the approach I took in Between Boat and Shore, and it’s been done by lots of other writers as well. However, I realised recently that I’ve read three books which take another approach, setting a story in the present and giving characters evidence of a queer past to reckon with now. I think this is interesting for the way it allows authors to explore both the possibilities of the past and how we, as a modern interpretative community, relate to it. In this blog post, I want to talk briefly about these three, all very different, books and comment a little on what insights they might have for other readers and writers of both real and fictional LGBTQ+ histories.
The three books are:
– The Bones of Our Fathers, Elin Gregory
– Documenting Light, E. E. Ottoman
– Little Fish, Casey Plett
The three are very different in style and genre. Gregory and Ottoman are working within the romance genre, with their focus on a couple; Plett’s novel is more literary, with the focus on a single central character. All three involve some difficulty, and Ottoman’s deals with poverty, illness, and the closet, but Plett’s is noticeably grittier in tone, with poverty, suicide, alcoholism, and sexual abuse recurring themes. Gregory’s central characters are gay men, while Ottoman’s are a trans man and a nonbinary person, and Plett’s is a trans woman. The narrative voices tend to be clear about this, taking advantage of the modern setting to use explicit language, but at times older confusions surface: can the past be understood in modern terms, and is it possible for someone who thought of himself as a gay man, for example, to have actually in some sense been a trans woman? An advantage of exploring these questions in fiction, as opposed to academic or other theoretical writing, is that they can be approached indirectly and their complexities and unanswerableness given space.
Another difference between them is the explicitness and nature of the evidence each author creates. I think all three are fictional but plausible. In Gregory’s novel, the archaeologist main character is excavating a Bronze Age burial cist (small stone chamber) in which two men were placed together – I don’t know of a case exactly like that, but the Weerdinge Men, a pair of bog bodies initially assumed to be a male and female couple because of their pose but now interpreted as two male bodies, would provide a very similar example. In Ottoman’s novel, an old photograph is the central piece of evidence – again, one of the main characters has professional expertise as an archivist, although perseverance is shown to be just as important in the research process. Old photographs with similar aesthetics, if not the same level of known background, circulate frequently online and some have been researched and published. The evidence Plett gives her main character is thinner, less concrete – stories from someone who knew her grandfather, a letter which says nothing explicitly – and extremely plausible. Having an ancestor about whom there are suggestive stories or some things which make you wonder is a common enough experience that the situation felt familiar to me. There are few ways to prove or disprove such theories, though.
What they have in common is the challenge of discovering more about the past. This is most central in Ottoman’s novel, a bit less so in Gregory’s, and more like a background or framing device in Plett’s. Together, they ask questions about the relationship we have with the past. Does it matter whether people long ago had similar experiences to our own? Is it useful to know whether they were happy or sad in their situations, whether they embraced their sexual desires and expressed the genders they felt, or whether they embraced social or religious rules which encouraged them to focus on family, tradition, or heaven? Many of the characters in Plett’s novel are Mennonites and the religious background of the community heavily shapes what can be said and done both by the main character, Wendy, and her grandfather. In contrast, in Ottoman’s novel the characters’ own hesitations about what they can claim to know become more of an issue.
As both a reader and a writer of queer stories in historical (and prehistoric!) settings, these books helped me to think about the kind of emotional feedback I and others like me might be seeking in such stories and in historical and archaeological research. There is a sense of recognition, of seeing oneself in history, which is similar to the desire to be represented and see oneself in fiction set in the present. (And these novels also do that – for example, although Plett’s main character is trans and I’m cis, she has sexual relationships with both men and women and I found her reflections on changing sexual attraction over time very relatable.) However, I think it goes beyond what can be broadly characterised as representation. Finding or creating historical characters who are LGBTQ+ also allows the creation of a continuity. It’s not an accident that in Plett’s novel the potentially queer historical character is literally family, the main character’s grandfather. In Gregory’s novel, the connection is more about locality, the place in Wales where the burial is found – but the title, with its reference to ‘Our Fathers’, makes the image much more explicit. And in Ottoman’s writing, the theme of kinship and recognition, knowing about the past by finding something there which matches present experience, becomes a key research tool for the characters.
To give an example from another area of life, I had accepted that being vegetarian was a modern thing and, while convinced about the moral rightness of my decision, it hadn’t occurred to me to look for other people in the past who made the same choice. There are plenty throughout the centuries, of course, but the possibility only really opened up to me when I read a label in a museum which identified the bones of an Iron Age man who, according to a chemical analysis of his remains, derived his protein mainly from plants. Bam! An ancestor in the tradition. (If memory serves this was the East Riding of Yorkshire Museum in Hull, but I don’t have details of the find location etc.) Finding examples like that enables us to broaden our imaginations and widen the network of connections in our chosen families. This is important in many areas of life, but especially if – as many people who are other gender conforming and straight are – you are told that your experience is a phase, a trend, etc.
It also enriches our understanding of people in the past – however much I know intellectually that people in the past were the same species with the same cognitive and emotional skills (and diversity) as people today, just with different technology and culture, it can be hard to understand this. That’s especially true of prehistory (someone said of my novel that it was a surprise at first to read about Neolithic people speaking in such a modern way – but genetically, they were modern humans the same as us, and their language would have felt modern to them), but it can also be true of much more recent periods. When I was at school, there was a brief attempt to help us connect with history by working backwards from our family trees towards the Victorians… but even though that is only a short gap, even though I remember meeting my great-grandparents who were born only ten years after Victoria died, it can still be difficult to make that imaginative leap if the people described there seem to have little or nothing in common with you. The evidence of queer pasts explored in these novels helps the characters to make that leap in various ways, and to look at the past with insight and compassion, even love.
With all those factors in mind, my conclusion at the moment is that the emotional impact of that connection is strengthened when it is personal and felt directly in some way: family connections, connections through place or religion, connections through shared experiences of some kind. Sharing this experience with a fictional character through reading a novel about it might help readers to create those pathways for ourselves, and seeing the possibility of ancestral connections can bring us to the existing evidence in new ways. This might help us to create a more accurate image of the past – one which gets closer to taking into account the full range of human experience – but also opens up new directions for telling stories about the past. All historical work involves interpretation, always drawing on our own experience and ideas as well as original artefacts and documents, and although these examples are stories of fictional pasts as well as fictional presents, understanding better the motivations and feeling involved in interpretation can help us to navigate the complexities of it better.