Making Monsters: micro-interview with The Future Fire

Making Monsters: micro-interview with The Future Fire

Over on The Future Fire‘s Facebook page, I had a quick chat about ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’, my story in the Making Monsters anthology (which is out now!):

FFN: What does “The Eyes Beyond the Hearth” mean to you?

CB: The desperation of being a young queer person without your own way to make in the world, afraid of your own desire and scared of your own sight, embracing the only identity you think is left to you. Also, switching from Dead Can Dance to ‘Monsters’ by Saara Aalto every time I was done writing for the night.

FFN: What is the idea, thought or fight that you’d like to pass to the next generation?

CB: Remember how easily we can have our pasts erased, and how hard we can fight for them not to be.

FFN: What are you working on next?

CB: I’m querying a queer fantasy novel about pop-culture magic and rewriting myths, set in London between 1991 and 2012, and my next short story might have something to do with a brave radical librarian searching for a mysterious giant cat…

Making Monsters is out and available to order online or from your local bookshop now.

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30 questions about the Queer Magical Doorstop

30 questions about the Queer Magical Doorstop

At the beginning of May, Twitter user @KMWhite18 posted a month’s worth of questions about LGBT-themed works in progress, so writers could tell each other more about their books.

Months are important in the WIP I’ve started to call the Queer Magical Doorstop (more about it here, and it will be, very much, each of those three things). Characters have superstitions about midsummer. They project myths on to the calendar like Robert Graves did when he invented a symbolic year around his pseudo-Celtic cycle of folkloric trees. Two women who are each other’s reflections are doomed to confront each other like the oak-king and holly-king of old as the year turns, so that one can reign supreme. Or that’s what stories not written by queer women say has to happen.

Months, and rituals, are important in this book. So of course I didn’t start answering anything until the middle of May.

This is more or less what I told Twitter.

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#1: Introduce yourself!

(yes, I know it’s already the 19th of May): genderqueerish lesbian writer born in London, living in Hull these days, probably became an academic because I never found a blue police box.

(Actually, I do have one, which looks a bit like this; it just doesn’t go vworp vworp any more.)

#2: Pitch your WIP

I always want to say ‘lesbian JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL with a WICKED + THE DIVINE complex’ but then I’m never sure who reads , so I’ll say it here instead.

#3: Your main character in five objects

There are two MCs.

Meet Maria… and there’s a reason most of these are broken.

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And meet Anya, who’d have overthought these even more than me. (I’m still not sure I’ve got her the right trees.)

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#4: A line capturing your WIP’s atmosphere

‘The shadow falls across her eyes and mine, companion to hero, heir to king, double to double, or newcomer to star.’

(Or we could go with someone sounding off about the mythological resonance of Shakespear’s Sister.)

(That quote’s in Anya’s voice, though. Maria… does not sound like that. Though she can sound off about the mythological resonance of Shakespear’s Sister.)

#5: Does your WIP focus on the ‘queer experience’?

They’re lesbian magicians trying to make their mark on 20 years of queer history and fashion, and stop the government mastering magic before they do. So, a little bit.

#6: What inspired this WIP?

The short answer involves seeing this comic panel in 2015 and realising how close it came to a character I already wanted to write about, who’ll turn up in here.

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The long answer involves wanting to hurl a Robert Graves book across an airport departure lounge.

#7: Are the protagonists based on you?

It felt a bit like drawing blood every time I did give either of them a trait I had in common. So I hope not.

That said, protag #1 makes her name in a magical duo called Glenarvon, so hang as big a lampshade on that as you want.

#8: Why do you love this WIP?

Because I needed to read it, and to meet characters whose magic wasn’t just a metaphor for being queer, it intersected with the queer experiences they’d really have had.

#9: Do you consider your WIP to be #ownvoices?

Both protags are roughly in my corner of sexuality and gender expression, so yes.

(Though they belong to queer generations I don’t, I’m writing across a class difference with one of them, and across more differences with the supporting cast, so that’s a reserved yes, now I have more space.)

#10: A line where a character talks about their identity

‘”May King isn’t right, May Queen isn’t right,” said Caro, “where do you put me?”‘

(Magic works by re-enacting myth; here’s a non-binary magician, on verge of stardom, working out which ones they’ll reimagine…)

#11: What could tempt your protagonists to the dark side?

One of them’s already going to spend more time there than she’d ever have imagined at the start – it’s more a case of what could tempt her back

#12: Talk about your antagonists!

One siphons celebrity chaos. One is a paparazzi witch. One is a landed second son, taking back new magic for old power.

And then there’s Anja, the second: think Lexa x Ruby Rose, but Anya’s double, who’ll make Anya more powerful than she ever was alone.

(Or: come to the dark side. We have statement coats.)

#13: Who are your protagonists’ soulmates?

After those last couple of answers, that would probably be telling. Sorry.

(Some of these characters would start a magical war to stay together. Some of them might start one so they didn’t have to.)

#14: What are you most excited to write?

I’m querying agents now, so… whatever the next stage of revision is. If I’m lucky enough for that to happen.

#15: What’s your ideal cover?

I haven’t even dared think about it. I’d love to see a designer do something clever and queer with the main characters’ images and the doubles theme. Or pick out an object that can stand for their magic and use that.

#16: What scares you about this WIP?

That a story following these two women and the whole of London over 20 years wanted me to tell it, and now I’m responsible for getting it out as polished as it can be.

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(Is it time for some worried porgs? It’s always time for some worried porgs.)

#17: Post the protagonists’ theme songs!

Once they discover how to turn magic into performance, magicians literally have those. This’ll be Maria’s. She has a thunderstorm thing going on.

Anya’s training an up-and-coming team of celebrity magicians to harness mythic resonance using queer style. She directs from the background. But here’s her song.

And ‘Stay’ by Shakespear’s Sister might as well run through the whole book. You better hope and pray you make it safe back to your own world, etc.

#18: Weirdest thing you’ve researched

What took longest, for least reward, was almost certainly trying to work out what wine the it-girl heiress of postmodern occult London would probably have ordered in 1996.

(I could have said the exact projected running times for each bit of the London 2012 opening ceremony, if I hadn’t had them from a work thing years ago…)

#19: A line that shocked you

(I spent far too long over this one. ‘What line did you write that surprised you as you wrote it?’ was the prompt. So eventually I chose:)

‘Anja, among all the artisans, is whom you call on to guide a chisel or a pen to say one thing as it says something else.’

Which showed me she was basically a patron of queer-coding in her world’s mythology.

#20: Are you jealous of your MCs?

Yes in terms of the power they’ll have at their fingertips by the end, if I’m being honest. No in terms of what I put them through so they could get it.

#21: Has working on this WIP changed you?

Yes, actually. Somehow I’m much more able to express Queer 401-level stuff about how we want people to see us anyway, after powering through a whole book about how that could work as magic.

#22: How does your WIP’s setting handle queerphobia?

It’s wherever history put it. Next-generation magicians were at school under Section 28; AIDS devastated the 1980s occult fashion scene; one protagonist’s bi father was almost blackmailed out of his job at a defence laboratory, researching artefacts the arch-antagonist military family had acquired but didn’t understand.

#23: Post your characters’ pride flags!!

Difficult one. Neither MC grew up identifying with any in the 70s and 80s (which is partly what drives them to create a magic scene where they belong). One has a major choice about a flag to make near the very end of the book.

In the supporting cast, some magicians would have their Pride badges and pronouns down the sidebar of their Tumblrs by the end, others could be my age and still not be able to tell you if they’re bi or pan.

But this is a book where having a name for yourself is powerful.

#24: Post the scariest/darkest line

That depends if you want the terror one or two of these characters could turn moving-image magic into, or the terror that history would already perceive.

‘She’d be a husk of a replacement for her target; she could be one.’ That’ll do for the first kind.

For the second kind, this action will be unfolding across two decades where people were already learning to use live video for ends more frightening than fiction.

#25: Who should play the MCs in a movie?

Resemblance amplifies magic, so even the claims they stake about that could be acts of power.

(Though I did hold my breath when Phoebe Waller-Bridge was in the frame for the 13th Doctor, as that would have spookily triangulated with the vibe for someone in this book…)

#26: Queerest moment in your WIP?

Well, besides ‘most of it’, probably the one where a woman and her alter-ego lover, in each other’s outfits, are watching each other take each other’s roles to re-enact part of the myth of Joan of Arc…

#27: Advice for your protagonists

‘And then you said, “Bone to bone, blood to blood, joint to joint, so may they be mended.” You fixed it, because gods fixed the wound that way before.’

(One of them learns that from her new-age lesbian video witch lover. Then, the race is on.)

#28: Post some sexy lines 😉

Someone would ask, wouldn’t they?

‘Her touch releases me. Her sight consumes me. Her body ignites me and her reciprocity regenerates me.’ (I’m not going into which couple that’s about.)

#29: Is this WIP breaking ground?

It’s a saga of magical discovery, told over 20 years of London’s recent history, centred on queer women, the myths they rewrite and the families they find.

So, yes, it’s breaking ground.

#30: What’s your FAVOURITE line?

I want this to be one that encapsulates the whole book, like you could just tap it on a table and the entire story would spill out.

But it might be where the MC still living off her chaotic ’90s pop-culture-magic glory gets taken to an otherworld she’s always refused to believe in, spots its pulsing red castle walls, and asks its guardian, ‘You got an emerald one of these as well somewhere?’

#31: Wrap up!

(And that was probably the most I’d ever talked about this book on Twitter at once, so thank you to the month of May for that…)

Monsters, metaphors and military chic: Saara Aalto on stage and the queer politics of kitsch

This post originally appeared at ESC Insight before the final of Eurovision 2018.

The only thing about this year’s first Eurovision semi-final that makes me happier than Saara Aalto qualifying with ‘Monsters’ is that part of the fun of watching the Grand Final with my girlfriend on Saturday will be seeing its high-camp demonstration of queer and lesbian kitsch.

Saara Aalto and the team behind ‘Monsters’ – including her fellow songwriters Joy Deb, Linnea Deb and Ki Fitzgerald, plus UK X Factor choreographer Brian Friedman – are tapping into what are now decades-long traditions of looks and images that queer stars and their audiences have built up together. Queer kitsch turns metaphors for LGBTQ people’s own experiences of marginalisation into riotous, transgressive and, yes, sexy performance and style; it deliberately blurs symbols of different genders together, and dresses bodies in exaggerated versions of powerful outfits that the majority straight world historically hasn’t given them the right to wear – often, in fact, it dresses them in symbols of the very institutions that have oppressed them in the name of the very nations where they have been told they don’t belong.

Most queer people – except the youngest and most fortunate – have grown up learning their queerness was something to be feared before they found out it could also be something to enjoy. Queer kitsch and drag tell stories of isolation and confusion, finding an identity and a community, and revelling in style that puts its hidden meanings about queer desire on show to onlookers who know the code.

Arguably the Eurovision Song Contest’s most iconic entries have reflected this very tradition back to queer viewers through the aesthetics of drag culture, like Conchita Wurst’s ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ and Dana International’s ‘Diva’, and lesbian camp, like Marija Šerifović’s ‘Molitva’. In performance, Conchita (a bearded drag queen played by a cisgender gay Austrian man), Dana International (a trans woman who built her pop career in Tel Aviv’s gay clubs), and Šerifović (whose masculine gender expression made many viewers see her as lesbian or queer even before she came out in 2013), all let queer viewers recognise metaphors for experiences of their own and identify with the character that their songs portray.

Straight viewers see a spectacle of what they think queer culture is, if enough of the references are ‘legible’ to them as queer, or see an uplifting song about triumph over adversity even if they don’t.

Saara Aalto, a lesbian pop diva who’s attending Eurovision with her fiancée Meri Sopanen (my happy sigh on seeing Saara and Meri beside each other in the green room, waiting for the Semi Final result, should probably have been audible from space), goes deep into the thematic wardrobe of queer kitsch.

Monsters themselves, as Lady Gaga reminded pop fans by casting herself as ‘Mother Monster’ to her audience of ‘Little Monsters’, are a powerful queer symbol. When society, school, church, media, and sometimes even family have told you you’re essentially a monster because of who you’re attracted to, how you’re attracted to them or how you want your body to reflect your gender, wouldn’t you want to take the image of the monster back and transform it into something that represents what you are… or join precisely that thrilling, scary community beyond the bounds of ‘normality’ that you’re supposed to be so scared of, and, as Saara puts it, make friends with all the creatures that are hiding there under your bed?

Monsters’ stepped up its aim at Gaga’s throne with a video, released in March, that put some of the queer English-speaking internet’s favourite tropes on show: Drag Race boas, pastel make-up, glitter beards, a Last Supper-style feast that wouldn’t have been out of place at this year’s Catholic-iconography-themed Met Gala, and a diva and her entourage strutting through a spooky palatial house with the same kind of swagger as ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’.

Since Eurovision preview videos are something made to be shown in every country that will broadcast the contest, viewers might even take a perverse pleasure in imagining how far it might annoy LGBTQ-phobic religious nationalists (who, whatever Eurovision fan geopolitics might sometimes suggest, certainly aren’t confined to Russia).

Queer kitsch inspired by the drag scene is Saara’s speciality, from her runner-up Finnish national final performance in 2016 to stepping naturally into UK X Factor’s diva slot in 2017, when producers matched her with ever more ambitious staging concepts that could each have graced Eurovision themselves (including a tantalisingly gothic ‘Let It Go, set in a forest of gargoyles when it wasn’t even Halloween).

Indeed, the X-Factor-sized expectations around Saara’s live show made ‘Monsters’ go into the semi-final shadowed by the ghosts of Silvia Night’s ‘Congratulations, the shock exit of 2006, and other high-concept diva crash-outs from Eurovision’s past.

Monsters’, competing for attention in the favourites division with Eleni Foureira’s Beyoncé-style fire magic and Elina Nechayeva’s opera vocals and projection dress, gambles its first minute on semi-darkness and Saara singing from a revolving board. It’s on the last line of the chorus, ‘I ain’t scared no more!’ when the lights go up, Saara hits the catwalk, and we meet her entourage of dancers – two men in glamorous eye make-up and two women with short blonde hair, all dressed in light grey outfits with fetish-style harnesses that look remarkably like uniform.

Like ‘Molitva’, this is choreography that rewards a viewer looking for detail – and especially a viewer who’s already used to picking up the signals of queer aesthetics, or what media scholars would call a ‘queer gaze’.

Histories of not being able to express attraction openly make the smallest gestures and glances speak volumes when you’re queer. Though men accompany Saara’s transitions across the stage (helping her down from the board, walking her along the catwalk, and catching her when she falls backwards and – well – lets it go), the real chemistry is between Saara and the women – never more than when Saara waggles her fingers at the woman with the slicked-back hair, who gazes invitingly round as Saara passes by.

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The viewer who’ll recognise herself most of all in that move has glanced like that at another woman herself, or felt a glance like that touch her own shoulder, or just longed to feel it from a woman she desires even if that makes her a monster in society’s eyes. We might even be telling ourselves enough of a story to notice that the woman with the tight blonde crop hardly gets a look-in with Saara by comparison – or read a sexual preference into the moment when the women dancers each push away a man.

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The dancers’ high black boots, long gloves and leather harnesses are the latest example of how queer fashion has brought fetish style and dominatrix chic into the mainstream (gay figure-skating star Adam Rippon wore a similar harness over his tuxedo to the Oscars this year). Military uniforms have long been inspirations for the interdependent scenes of BDSM culture and queer fashion as well, dating back to the 1970s and 80s when almost all countries banned LGBTQ people from serving in the military – so that, as far as straight and cis society was concerned, queer people would never be wearing uniform ‘for real’.

But what’s troubled some viewers – especially at a time when racist populism is gaining political power across Europe, including Finland where the far-right Finns Party joined government for the first time in 2017 (and a group of ex-Finns Party MPs are still there) – is that the military chic of Saara’s entourage looked uncomfortably close to something that should have no place at all being celebrated at Eurovision: the grey uniforms of the SS.

From a Finnish point of view, there’s an easy explanation for why the dancers might have been dressed in grey rather than olive-green or camouflage, which might have communicated the broad idea of ‘military’ more directly to an international audience: the Finnish army’s service uniforms, unusually, are grey. Green might have distracted from the black-and-white stage (Saara wears a black dress and the bone-like neckpiece from the ‘Monsters’ video); or maybe they didn’t even want it to look too obviously military after all.

The military, as a social institution that historically repressed queer people but also as an object of erotic fantasy, has long inspired queer fashion and drag. Among the performance categories that US queer and trans people of colour created through drag balls long before a wider, whiter audience encountered the ball scene’s language through the 1990 documentary ‘Paris Is Burning’ (or ‘Drag Race’ today) is ‘military realness’. For a contemporary pop star serving military realness, look no further than Rihanna, whose 2009 video ‘Hard’ (pun very much intended) dressed Rihanna with a ‘couture military’ outfit for what felt like every rank in the army, plus a few left over from ‘Mad Max’.

Rihanna, however, is a black woman who was born in the Caribbean and works in the USA. Queer military chic is much easier to read as potentially celebrating, rather than subverting, military and fascist aesthetics when it’s on the bodies of white performers – even more so if they match the Nordic and Aryan ideals of beauty that white supremacists still venerate today. Popular culture has contained an image of the Nazi dominatrix since the exploitation films of the 1970s, part of a trend that Susan Sontag criticised as ‘Fascinating Fascism’ at the time.

Queer photographers, film-makers and theorists have often tried to work through the overlap of homoerotic and fascist aesthetics in their art and writing, creating a context – for spectators who are part of that cultural community – that isn’t immediately present when transgressive and fetishistic queer kitsch goes mainstream. Understandably, for some viewers, a light grey uniform feels too close to reality to dress up: Europe’s 20th-century history collides awkwardly with queer kitsch’s playful treatment of military chic.

Indeed, the militaristic and fetish-inspired strand of queer style owes much to Finland in the first place. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the artist Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen) created drawings of super-muscled, hugely-endowed bikers, cops, soldiers, sailors, cowboys and other fantasy figures which became a sensation on the US gay scene. Dome Karukoski’s biopic ‘Tom of Finland’ retold Laaksonen’s story in 2017, setting it in the context of Laaksonen’s own sexual experiences and fantasies in Nazi-occupied Finland during the Second World War – and the homophobic violence the film shows him receiving from police who caught him having public sex.

The narrative of Finland’s own progress from state homophobia and a repressive society towards marriage equality – which doesn’t solve the other ways in which society marginalises LGBTQ people, especially queer and trans people of colour, but still changes the shape of what many queer people can expect their life stories and love stories to be – has been told at Eurovision before, when Krista Siegfrids used her 2013 song ‘Marry Me’ to campaign for Finnish MPs to allow a vote on a marriage equality bill and finished by kissing one of her women backing singers on stage.

Finland, ‘Monsters’ wants to show us again, is an open-minded, tolerant enough country for this to be the face that the nation shows Europe – and perhaps also the country that helped make some queer subcultures on both sides of the Atlantic want to dress up in uniforms and chains.

Indeed, the context of the Eurovision Song Contest asks viewers to join in the fun of interpreting performances and the people who perform them as representations of the whole nation they’re competing for, even when some of the people on stage aren’t usually part of that national community (a growing cadre of backing vocalists have worked with different national delegations over the years – and sometimes become Eurovision featured acts themselves, like the UK’s SuRie, part of the Belgian team in 2015 and 2017). The two men beside Saara, Yves Cueni and Kane Horn, are both London-based dancers and models who have danced for talent shows and divas’ pop concerts in the UK, Germany and Switzerland. On stage, they still help to tell a story about a queer-friendly and multicultural Finnish nation – the Finland, and the Europe, that many Eurovision viewers would like to imagine it could be.

Both the monster metaphor and queer transformations of military chic are potentially risky elements of queer aesthetics to put on stage for an audience that brings such diverse contexts to making sense of Eurovision. Yet even that tension probably resonates with many queer women’s lived experience of how they want to present themselves to the world and how the world sees them – certainly, I recognise it intimately enough that watching ‘Monsters’ makes me feel as if the creators behind it recognise it too.

It doesn’t make ‘Monsters’ any ‘more’ queer than other LGBTQ-themed entries at Eurovision because Saara is out and able to appear with her fiancée in the green room, preparing to exercise marriage rights that Krista Siegfrids used Eurovision to campaign for in 2013: but it might just be the one that feels most like my own history of what it’s been like to be queer.

Writing at History Today and WWAC: monstrous regiments and monstrous women

Writing at History Today and WWAC: monstrous regiments and monstrous women

Two pieces I’ve published elsewhere recently:

This essay for the History Today website on the ‘cross-dressing soldier problem’, or how to talk about people in the past who dressed as men and went to war, while making space for the possibilities of trans lives:

Whether the stories come via a 17th-century ballad, a 19th-century newspaper or a 21st-century tablet, the public has been fascinated for centuries by tales of women who put on men’s clothes, take a male name and run away to join the army – or to go to sea…

Cis historians and journalists usually start from the assumption all these figures can only have been women, so the first paragraph puts it the same way as the headlines – but the rest goes on to show that:

The same sources that show us women who cross-dressed also offer us glimpses of how people who might have distanced themselves from womanhood over a longer period of time got by, how those who felt equally at home in more than one gender role accommodated that fluidity, and how people with intersex conditions coped with a society where their bodies did not belong.

Well done to the editor who gave this article (after the wonderful Discworld novel) the headline ‘Monstrous Regiment’. Good work.

I’ve also reviewed Allison O’Toole and M. Blankier’s collection Wayward Sisters: an Anthology of Monstrous Women for Women Write About Comics:

Most women already know how it feels to be made monstrous. If we can tell what most frightens a society from what form its monsters take and what they threaten, the very ideas governing what societies and people will be frightened of have stemmed from ideologies of gender in connection with race, age, sexuality, disability and the body. Folklore, myth and horror around the world provide bestiaries of monstrous women. Yet so, according to cultural imagination, does everyday life…

Yes, there’s a bit of a monsters theme here this month.

Story sale: ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve sold a short story, ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’, to Emma Bridges and Djibril al-Ayad’s collection Making Monsters: an Anthology of Classically Themed Speculative Fiction and Essays, due to be published in mid-2018.

Making Monsters is a mixed fiction, poetry and non-fiction volume published as a collaboration between the Institute of Classical Studies in London and the SFF magazine The Future Fire. Its 19 stories and poems are retellings and reimaginings of monsters from any of the world’s ancient mythologies. The full table of contents is due soon, but the call for submissions was particularly interested in traditions of female monsters and how their reimagined myths might intersect with other marginalisations such as race, queerness and disability.

‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’ takes on two sets of stories society tells about fearing women’s sight: the myth of Medusa, and the queer female gaze.

When her sight famously turns bodies to stone, who’d want to be looked at by Medusa? Perhaps someone who’s learned that her own sight makes her monstrous already…

Independent love song: how possibly the queerest ballad of the Nineties came from Hull

Independent love song: how possibly the queerest ballad of the Nineties came from Hull

Somewhere in between the intimidatingly unambiguous queerness of kd lang and the plausibly deniable maybe-just-feminism of Gala, the middle of the 1990s offered my sub-generation of queer women who didn’t yet have words for themselves Scarlet, a typically empowered, red-lipsticked female duo whose videos wanted you to think they came from New York but who actually turned out to come from Hull.

Next to The Housemartins, The Beautiful South, The Spiders From Mars, Throbbing Gristle, The Watersons and Everything But The Girl – and Calum Scott as well now, I suppose – Scarlet wouldn’t even rate the top five in most lists of Hull bands. Even Google, which today’s algorithmic panic would suggest ought to know that if there’s any chance I’m looking up queer subtext from the Nineties then I probably am, brings their Wikipedia page in two places below a bus company from County Durham and a local news article about a wave of scarlet fever that’s been going round.

In the winter of 1994 and 1995, though, their first and biggest hit ‘Independent Love Song’ was possibly the purest example of a song that had something, everything to do with me, maybe so much to do with me I quietly let myself forget how much when I started hammering together the identity full of excuses I was about to try to live inside.

Neither of the women in Scarlet looked like me, or like the images of what I might want to become that I used to gaze towards and measure myself against. Together and apart, they still signalled aesthetics I could already read as ‘liberated’ but wasn’t yet ready to parse as queer, with the video’s main setting (a Manhattan intersection blocked, as Manhattan intersections in the 1990s apparently so often were, by the band playing piano) continually seguing into close-ups in old-Hollywood soft focus. Jo, the brunette, had the high-fringed bob and pinstripe outfit of a Romaine Brooks portrait, looking as if she’s about ten or fifteen years on from selling a pair of gloves to a woman called Carol. Cheryl, the Eighties-Nineties blonde, wore the frock-coats and ruffled shirts that were still just about too fashionable for me to realise that some of the women who made them into their image were doing so to signal something else.

‘Independent Love Song’ could just have been about women more interested in their vocations than their marriages, if you heard it that way. It could have been about getting and staying off the relationship escalator, about serial monogamy, or polyamory. It would have worked as asexual affirmation, to anyone who already knew asexuality could be affirmed. Its matter-of-fact inclusion of bisexuality as part of its woman-centred queerness seems more organic now than anything similar I heard for years (this, in a song you’d hear on shop stereos while you were buying pic-and-mix in Woolworths or toiletries in Boots). But its video (where Cupid and some cherubs in leather flying helmets are capering along Broadway, transfixing couples on the brink of longing with the courage to hook up) turns out to be, with the incision of hindsight,

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very,

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very,

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queer.

It sounded like something I was going to want when I was ready, with nothing even forbidden or threatening or dangerous about it. It must have sounded so normal and ordinary that, when I started persuading myself a few months later that I didn’t want to be with other women only look like some of them, the invitation to identify with a requited romance which had never even been held out to me before on terms I wanted had already started to fade back away.

‘Independent Love Song”s #12 in the UK charts was Scarlet’s only ever time in the Top 20. The follow-up, hastily clarifying the terms of their vision of liberation as ‘I Wanna Be Free (To Be With Him)‘, made #21 later that spring, and their record label dropped them after their next singles missed the Top 40 and their second album Chemistry (the first had been Naked) also failed to chart.

Their place on pop radio playlists would be taken by the sultrier Texas and the quirkier Alisha’s Attic, a band whose name has somehow lodged itself inextricably beside a certain London burrito chain in my brain, so that every time I walk past I wonder if Alisha’s attic is where Benito left his hat.

Scarlet’s first and only real hit didn’t reveal most of what it could have told me until I heard it fourteen or fifteen years later, meeting my sister in a Bournemouth pub with a video jukebox that served random songs from its library on to the big screen when the football wasn’t on. Almost the moment I’d walked in to look for her, I’d realised ‘Think Twice‘ had been playing (which nobody needed to have heard me talk about as much as I’d made my sister listen to, when I was twelve or thirteen), just too late to be able to wait for it to finish and come back in again. Whatever layer of cortex in my brain turns image into myth is still convinced, if you really poke it, either that she’d rigged the jukebox to do that as I came in or that it had recognised what to pull out from my memory to make most mischief on its own. (All the best jukeboxes have a little bit of magic, and some of the ones I like to imagine have a lot.) Next up, or so my re-sensitised mind remembered, Scarlet.

‘”I’m doing it a different way,”‘ I’m sure I said out loud, with fifteen years’ more practice of hearing queerness coiled inside a labyrinth of lyrics that invite you in, once you’ve started to understand the labyrinth isn’t always a lair. ‘”I’m doing it a different way?“‘

‘Go down… and I’ll show you how to touch me?’ they went on. Though actually, it wasn’t even a love song where women had to be doing that in order to still be doing it a different way, and still as much of a valid one as well – and that must have been one of its most radically independent resonances at a time when any lesbian representation I did see suggested I’d have to become much more enthusiastic about sex than I expected I was ever going to be, or I’d never be a lesbian at all.

Over the last two and a half years, working on the queer contemporary fantasy novel I’m querying agents with now (where queer women are discovering how to manipulate video technology and use their identifications with pop and film stars, mythological figures or any heroes in between to charge their magic, in a story that begins in the 1990s), I’ve sifted through my own queer ideograms as well, very occasionally conceding I’d have to lend them one of mine. ‘Independent Love Song’ didn’t even register then: perhaps because the mood I need for my female duos in the 1990s is dysfunctional, or otherwise where would conflict happen? (Shakespear’s Sister, on the other hand, let’s talk: especially with Siobhan Fahey at their last ever performance with that holly crown.)

But also – I’m thinking today because chatting on Twitter about a song by Dubstar reminded me that Sarah Blackwood from Dubstar hadn’t come from Hull like I thought, but Scarlet had, and wasn’t there something about that one song of theirs…? – I wonder if what I used to hear in ‘Independent Love Song’ was so far ahead of what I spent my mid-teens trying to understand, that subconsciously it doesn’t even make sense for me to have heard it.

When Scarlet sang about a love that could still be big and that strong, even though they were doing it a different way, I wasn’t hearing what I wanted to be like when I was with someone; I was hearing what I wanted being with someone to be like.

And eventually, many more stories later, I’d be able to hear one and tell one that was right.

Reviewing at Strange Horizons and Women Write About Comics

I’ve started reviewing for Strange Horizons and Women Write About Comics recently, so here are my first regular reviews for both (I had a couple of guest posts at WWAC last year about the compelling queer resonances of the National Theatre’s genderflipped Malvolia in Twelfth Night, and – as Jodie Whittaker became the first woman to play the Doctor – why so many women want a TARDIS full of coats).

Reviewing Jeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows at Strange Horizons:

Dayzone and Nocturna are metropoles of underhand business and alternative religion that sometimes resemble a blazing or pitch-dark Viriconium, sometimes call to mind China Miéville’s juxtaposition of two cities separated in the same geographical space by an impassable, conceptual Breach. Dayzone sizzles and whirrs with chronologists’ guilds, cults worshipping every solar deity from Apollo to the holy trinity of earthed electrical wire, and sprawling markets and red-light districts blurring “the artistic and the sexually bizarre” (p. 46). Its contrast with Nocturna might occasionally echo pseudo-Habsburg Beszel and Levantine Ul Qoma, the co-located cities made invisible to each other’s inhabitants that frustrate the detective protagonist of Miéville’s The City and The City—a novel that set the philosophical pace for what the genre might expect diametrically opposed cities to reveal about the society that has been divided between them, or the society that uses them to imagine a truth about itself.

And yet the history of Dayzone and Nocturna is as hard to view as both cities’ physical sun…

A Compendium of Resistance: Comics for Choice Fights for Reproductive Justice‘, reviewing Hazel Newlevant, Whit Thomas and Ø K Fox’s anthology Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History and Politics at Women Write About Comics:

Newlevant’s editor’s note explains the editorial team wanted to produce a book that would “educate readers about many facets of the history of abortion in America, the incredible diversity of reasons people choose it, and what we can do to protect this crucial right.” Many of its rawest comics are the narratives of women and non-binary people who chose to have abortions, clinic escorts, abortion doulas, and reproductive rights advocates, illustrated in simple but evocative storytelling styles.

At the same time, Comics for Choice provides a history of the reproductive justice movement in the US that powerfully accentuates the intergenerational memory of its more intimate stories…