I was pleased to see that one of the very first events on the Book Festival programme was an exploration of “queer desire”, through the lens of two books that, as it turns out, have more in common with each other than just the title of the event would suggest. The two authors, Yelena Moskovich and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, have both released novels this year which deal with latent and burgeoning queer female desire, and both are told from the perspective of women often deemed “difficult” – mentally ill, rebellious, or criminal.
Buchanan’s Starling Days (Sceptre) follows protagonist Mina as she struggles with depression. Her husband relocates the family from New York to London, where she soon develops a relationship with Phoebe, the sister of her husband’s oldest friend. Moskovich’s Virtuoso (Serpent’s Tail) jumps around between countries, eras and perspectives, but focuses on the relationship between two girls as well, childhood friends Jana and Zorka, growing up in 1980’s Soviet Prague.
But it became clear during the talk that the books had much more to say to each other than the simple presence of women who love women – not that this should be downplayed by any means! Deftly guided by thoughtful questions from author Helen McClory (404 Ink), the panel discussed not only queer desire but also the experience of being at the intersections of multiple identities- racial, cultural and sexual. Both authors discussed their own experiences – though both books are firmly fictional – of having an international upbringing, and the books themselves span continents, from London to Prague to Paris to New York. Both books engage too with the limitations imposed on us by identity, and the struggle that women – queer women, women of mixed heritage, mentally ill women – face in trying to retain agency despite these complexifying identities. There was also celebration, though, of having a multiplicity of perspectives: on writing voices from different cultures, Moskovich said “every culture has its own sway and swing – a different way of getting romantic,” Moskovich’s work explores these romances.
It’s also important to note that the two books approach queerness and queer desire from two totally different perspectives. Virtuoso is an overt celebration of “lezzy stuff” as Moskovich calls it. The book takes us around the globe, following rebellious schoolgirls as they steal secret kisses (and valuables) from under the noses of their teachers to users of lesbian chat rooms in Prague, middle America and beyond. The characters are aware of their sexuality and much of the “voice” of the book feels queer. Starling Days, on the other hand, is a little more retiring in its treatment of female queerness; the affair between Mina and Phoebe builds gradually between two women who at the start of the book are ostensibly heterosexual. Buchanan discussed the tricky process of maintaining a cultural consciousness of bisexuality – the assumptions and prejudices that readers might carry with them – while writing a character that is true to life.
Overall, and despite a few microphone mishaps that the authors took in stride, this was a wonderful event, and hearteningly well-attended. The tone was comfortable, conversational and even funny, and McClory’s incisive questions, and the commonalities shared by these two books which appear on the surface to be quite different, allowed the panelists to dig deeper than they might have, and to get to the meat of the issues they want to challenge with their work. A great way to celebrate the nuances of queerness and queer writing, and kick off a book festival that one hopes is growing more diverse every year.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme click here.