The Single Sapphic Shelf – by Francesca May

Today we have a guest post from Francesca May, on why queer books are so essential.

I remember very clearly being a teenager who was not out to her parents. I remember the strong feelings of uncertainty, of simply not knowing how I felt—and worse, knowing that a lot of the not knowing came from a lack of exposure in my daily life, to other sexualities than those of my family. Straight. 

I remember being thirteen, fifteen, seventeen, and being so quietly unsure of myself that I never experimented, never asked questions, and years later I still sometimes find myself looking on those of us who did know exactly who they were with some kind of longing. Like somehow I missed a memo I should have received before I was sent out into the world by myself.

The one thing that I always did have, though, as a quiet frumpy kid who liked brewing potions in her back yard and hanging out with her cat, was books. And boy, did I have books. I discovered reading at a young age, devoured genres from fantasy and crime, to literary fiction, classics, and manga. I loved the way books could transport me to another world, one where I could learn about myself and others without fear of being ridiculed, where being the sensitive kid was actually a benefit rather than a hindrance.

And I still remember the way I felt the first time I discovered a queer character in a book I was reading. I say discovered, but I have to admit I bought Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet on more than just an inkling. And then promptly couldn’t believe my daring!

I put the book away for weeks, months even, not brave enough to read it. But when I read eventually pluck up the courage, the way I felt turning those pages was as if I’d been lit up from within. Suddenly whole facets of myself, of my beliefs and my desires, started to make sense. Suddenly, there was space for me to learn about this side of myself too.

As a questioning teenager I didn’t find many books that contained queer characters. Sarah Waters was an author I knew I could generally rely on, and several years in a row I saved her books for months so I could take one on my summer holiday. I tried to find other queer books, specifically those with lesbian protagonists, and I did the same with those, picking and hiding them like a magpie so I could be sure I would have a least one gay book to read a year. One! I had a single sapphic shelf on my bookcase dedicated to those books. And as I read I slowly, achingly, grew more comfortable with myself.

Fast forward a good few years and we come to the year Sarah Waters released The Paying Guests. That book is perhaps the one I have the most personal connection with, because it is the book that finally convinced me that the feelings I had been experiencing since I was an early teen were not a phase, they were not something that would eventually go away—and nor did I want them to.  I realised in that moment, deep between the pages of this dark, gritty, sapphic book, that it was time for me to be who I was.

This little essay is, of course, my very inadequate praise for queer fiction. Without those books, those insights into character’s thoughts, I might not be as confidently queer as I am today. And happy! But thinking about this makes me sad, too, because what would have happened, for instance, if I had had access to innumerable queer books? If I hadn’t had to ration myself, if I could have read and read those books with the representation I wanted—not just ‘coming out’ books but books with characters who just so happened to be LGBTQ+—as often as I wanted?

Frankly, I think I’d have got there a heck of a lot sooner.

So I knew when I started writing myself that there was no shadow of a doubt about me writing queer characters. Even before I came out officially my books were Very Gay! Being published, I vowed, would not change that in the slightest. And more, as I travelled down the route towards publication I knew I wanted to write the same kinds of characters I’d always longed for. Coincidentally but intentionally sapphic. I didn’t want to write “issues” books, that dealt with the trauma of coming out. I didn’t want to write books where this was the sole focus.

I wanted to write the kinds of books I loved to read: fantasy and crime, genre novels, that just so happened to be queer. And the more I wrote the more I realised that I wanted to write my characters the way I see people in real life: messy, sometimes brutal, often loyal, angry and devastated and full of hope. 

Which, eventually, brought me to Wild and Wicked Things. This book, perhaps more than any of my others (because I write sapphic crime under the name Fran Dorricott too) was the book that I wanted to feel, when read, like I felt when I consumed The Paying Guests. I wanted it to be gritty and gothic, dark and sharp and angry, but with hope buried deep in its bones. I wanted to write a story about magic and found family, about creaky old houses and self-discovery, blood curses and selfishness. Because I didn’t want to write a book that felt hollow. I wanted to write something that felt authentic and important, while also still being a love story, a coming of age—and most of all, full of my favourite type of character: witches. (Hey, I told you I love a good fantasy book and I grew up on a steady diet of Charmed, thank you.)

Wild and Wicked Things grew from my desire to see myself in books—and I mean all of myself. Not just the lightness and the palatable bits that we like to show society at large, but the dark bits, the jagged edges. The questions we all have (I hope) about morality and ownership over our own lives. The bits that normally we like to hide. And it become something more as I wrote too. A lifeline during the death of a colleague and a project I fell very much in love with.

In the end, if there is just one queer person who feels seen by this book then I have achieved what I set out to do, and in the process I think teenage me would be very proud. I hope this book can speak to some of you like other queer books have spoken to me.

 

You can get Wild and Wicked things now, from Hachette UK and US, or your other favourite bookstore or library.
I wrote a review here, if you’d like to know more about the book.
And remember to check out the sapphic crime fiction of Fran Dorricott!

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