Writing the Lesbian Novel Infraction – Without the Word Lesbian

Today’s guest post is from Yvonne Zipter, author of Infraction. Yvonne has written three poetry collections, two non-fiction books, and is the author behind the nationally syndicated column Inside Out which ran from 1983 to 1993. Welcome, Yvonne. Delighted to host you here.

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When I was a manuscript editor in the journals division at the University of Chicago Press during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I edited scholarly articles from a wide range of disciplines, including for Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. One article I edited for the latter—three accounts of lesbians recorded by a gynecologist in tsarist Russia, titled “Lesbian Vignettes: A Russian Triptych from the 1890s”—quite literally changed my life.

One of the stories had all the elements of a sensational novel. And I wanted to be the one to write it. But I didn’t speak or read Russian and knew very little about Russian history and culture. For months, I tried to convince myself that this wasn’t something I could do. At the same time, I couldn’t get the story out of my head. Finally, I set out to learn everything I could about Russia in the late nineteenth century. I read (or reread) novels by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. I combed through social histories, historical travel books, biographies, and scholarly periodicals. I found photographic collections from that time. I collected Russian sayings and made notecards by the dozens.

For two years, I immersed myself in all things Russian. It was, to be sure, a lot of work. Conducting that research wasn’t nearly as challenging, however, as trying to figure out how to write about lesbians in 1875 (about the time when the events recounted by the gynecologist likely occurred) when the word didn’t even exist in Russia until 1896. As I also discovered, while many men in the upper echelons of Russian society were rather openly gay, very little is known about lesbians at that time, to this day.

So how, exactly, does one go about writing a novel about lesbians with only twelve pages about two lesbians to base it on—and no word to describe the main characters? Of course, you don’t need to know the word lesbian to be a lesbian. (I should also note that, while the term lesbian has itself often been controversial, including currently, because the women who would become my main characters were classed as lesbians by the author of the article, that is the lens through which I viewed them.)

At any rate, it’s not so much the word itself that was the problem but, rather, how these women would view themselves and speak about their relationship, especially in the absence of knowing others like themselves. Because women in the nineteenth century were assumed not to be sexual beings, a relationship discovered to involve sex between two women might seem peculiar, perhaps even abnormal, even to the women themselves. And most likely the women didn’t have the vocabulary to describe their moments of sexual intimacy.

Fortunately for the book, I grew up in a decidedly puritanical household, where we might as well have been bodiless spirits for how little mention was made of our bodies, much less anything even vaguely sexual in nature. I had some experience, that is to say, with what it was like to navigate an intimate liaison with another woman with little foundation to guide me.

So, for instance, when the main characters, Vera and Marya, are beginning to get to know one another, Vera, in her diary, fixates on trying to understand what she is feeling. After first meeting Marya, for example, she writes: “I could hardly hear her words, there was such an insistent buzz—nay: a roaring—in my head. I thought for a moment I was becoming ill, but the sensations I was feeling were much too pleasant for that.”

As they begin to spend more time together, Vera struggles with how she ought to feel about her relationship with Marya. After cursorily describing her first sexual encounter with Marya she says in her diary, “I surprise myself by even recording this, for though I’ve never heard anyone speak of such things, I feel instinctively they must, in some way, be untoward. And yet, how so? How could such beauty, such love, be something to feel shame for? And since no eyes but my own shall view this record, I feel free to write it all down.”

Over time, as Vera sets aside her concerns about the propriety of their relationship, her descriptions of their physical intimacy evolve naturally, allowing her to say things like “I kissed her neck and cheek and ear with the abandon of a beast” and even, eventually, “As she lifted the hem of my gown, I thrilled to the slightest brush of her fingers on my skin, and I squirmed in a kind of agony. She took my hands in her own and placed her lips upon where I dare not speak and nuzzled.”

Though the physical aspect of their relationship in some ways plays just a minor role in the novel, I wanted to make sure not only that the clothing and customs felt authentic to the time and place but that the women’s navigation of intimacy did as well. To do otherwise would have seemed anachronistic. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. And so is the deliciousness.

Thank you, Yvonne, for sharing some of your journey in writing Infraction. To transport readers in time and place is the mission of historical fiction authors – and clearly, you’ve discovered a brilliant way to do so with your characters, their feelings, and their relationship.

Infraction by Yvonne Zipter ~~ Marya Zhukova is a woman of many passions. Her husband isn’t one of them. It’s mathematics and literature that captivate her, in part, but her lover, Vera, enthralls her most of all. These are, however, all dangerous obsessions in the socially turbulent St. Petersburg of 1875. Marya is the fiery center to a small solar system of characters, each of whom depends on her to light their own lives. There is her aunt Lidia, a spinster who, dying of consumption, exacts from her niece a promise to marry. There is Grigorii, Marya’s one-time math teacher, who longs for his former pupil to achieve the scholarly glory he cannot. There is Vera, a young tutor surprised to find she’s fallen in love with a woman. There is Sergei, an earnest librarian captivated by Marya and willing to do whatever it takes to be near her, even if that means a platonic marriage. But when Sergei is consumed with desire for Marya, his anguish over the promise he made sets in motion a deadly chain of events. St. Petersburg itself adds a richness to these characters as they walk and muse along the city’s canals or bounce along the rutted streets behind a hardy droshky driver on their way to dine at Privato or Leiner’s Deli or to watch ballet at the Marinsky Theater. Inspired by a real-life account, Infraction takes place at a time when women who yearn for more find that freedom comes at a cost.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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