Writing from a Lesbian Perspective


Its LGBT History Month. Whether you know this may depend on whether you or any of your friends is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender. It certainly doesn’t get the kind of coverage Black History month gets. With my Arachne Press hat on, I’m doing a reading tonight at Ealing and on Monday at Deptford, with others, and will be reading one of the first stories I ever wrote – Leaving, which is about leaving a job, not a lover, in case you are wondering. I wrote it around 1986 so it’s practically an historical document itself.

There has been some concern voiced by the Judges of the Polari prize about the dearth of new UK Lesbian writers. I do wonder – is it that lesbians are no longer identifying themselves? No longer writing about Lesbian experience? And do we have to write about lesbian experience to bring that experience to bear? I don’t think so – I remember a long conversation with Rosemary Manning  (a dear friend and a magnificent Lesbian) about how one of her (straight, male) characters were written as  if he were a lesbian, not from the perspective of sexuality, but from the perspective of outsider-ness.

An aside, will being able to get married – if it gets all the way through the legislative process – intrinsically change that outsider status? Time will tell, and frankly there are still places it’s illegal and/ or dangerous to be a Lesbian, so unless we all sit smugly feeling we’re all right where we are, – I bet Weimar Republic Lesbians thought that, briefly – it’s kind of hard to shake.

I use this perspective when I rewrite myths. I’ve never been a fan of Freud’s use of myth to explain his own neuroses but he did keep the (Greek) myths in the forefront of the western mind.

If we lose the assumption that love between the hero and heroine is automatic, inevitable, ordained, there is room to take a look at what other motivation there is for their (re)actions.

So for example, if Helen does not love her husband (a dynastic match, so why should she?), and if she doesn’t love Paris (and how could she?) we can remember that Homeric women are parcelled out like a loaf of bread (or an apple) between hungry feasters, and ask:

What did she think, who, if anyone, did she love? What might it be like to be the catalyst of a ten-year war and the destruction of a dynasty?  And why didn’t Priam chuck her off the walls of Troy at first sight of the black ships?

Once you remove the most basic presumption of sexuality and stop being snared and beguiled by the obvious story of girl meets boy etc, etc, you are free to turn your head away from the glitzy main text and explore the why behind many other ‘obvious’ becauses and champion the minor character, the underdog, or perhaps the slave in the corner: seeing, thinking, feeling, but unseen.

Why Short Stories?


There’s been a lot of chat going on recently about short stories, including on the radio, this week’s Open Book had  Aminatta Forna giving a potted history of the short story from Poe, Chekhov and Saki to Helen Simpson, and even Ramblings (a walking programme … fascinating, listen!) had Claire Balding in company with short story writer Anna Maria Murphy. (nothing like being stuck at home recovering, for catching up with the radio in between sleeping.)

Having written two collections of short stories myself (and with enough material for 2 more!) and planning to publish (I hope) at least 6 anthologies over the next year or two, you’ll have gathered I’m quite keen!

I had an email yesterday in response to my posting about London Lies, in which the writer says

I was sure that it was near impossible to get short story collections published unless you are a well-known author

and asking how I managed it.

My very first short story was published in an anthology over 20 years ago. It was called Penelope Is No Longer Waiting, and I had sent it to Rosemary Manning, who was a friend, to cheer her up when she was unwell.  I got a phone call a couple of days later, saying

you could publish this

and then I saw a call for submissions from Onlywomen Press, and sent it off, and was accepted.  That easy.  I can still remember opening that letter, so thrilling.

I had two more stories in a further anthology at OWP, and then having got quite friendly with Lilian Mohin, the director at OWP, she was complaining about the quality of a lot of the submissions she received, and how she wished everyone wrote as well as me (or words to that effect).  My response was

plenty more where that came from

and I started drip-feeding her stories, one a month, under the heading of ‘entertaining Ms Mohin’, until she gave in and offered to publish a collection.  That was Mosaic of Air.

Mosaic didn’t sell very well, partly because I was in a wallflower phase and wouldn’t do any publicity, (I am so over that, as you may have noticed) and ended up with the remaining stock being pulped.  Not a happy moment!

Life rather caught up with me then and I wrote almost nothing for 11 years, then pulled myself together and published another collection, Tales Told Before Cockcrow. This did much better than Mosaic, and has almost sold out.

But what is it about the short story?

I’ll admit that some of my ‘short’ work is very long, almost novella length (now that’s really difficult to publish) but there’s something about a short story that’s like a jewel: carefully faceted and burnished to perfection, not a word wasted nor out of place.

Novels often have slow passages or subplots that don’t quite come off, but you are in it for the long haul so you put up with it, whereas you can’t afford to drift in a short story; and you can take risks and play games with language and structure, and the reader is prepared to come along because they know it’s not going to take you long to reach the punchline.

Since joining a writing group (WOOA) I’ve discovered that with a defined set of limitations I can write a fully formed story with a beginning middle and end in 20 minutes flat. Short Short stories… not quite flash fiction, because if it’s working, I write fast.

A really good short story settles into your mind with a sigh of satisfaction, like a good malt, or a perfectly toasted and buttered crumpet.

© Cherry Potts 2012