My year in SFF for Strange Horizons

My year in SFF for Strange Horizons

I’m in the first part of the Strange Horizons reviewers’ year in SFF:

2018 began with fae hunting mortals under an angler-fish moon, and ended with warrior shamans making devastating choices in the aftermath of genocide, so as worlds go, I might even take my chances with the fae. Almost all this year’s most resonant works for me probed or confronted the histories that shape whose stories are told. Between Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun and R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, I enjoyed Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace, dramatising the intimate politics of language, colonialism and filial piety in its f/f healer/dragon romance; Heather Rose Jones’s new-to-me Alpennia novels, with queer magical scholars in not-quite-early-19th-century-Switzerland resolving sapphic longings and slowly changing aristocratic mores; and the comprehensively feminist worldbuilding and plotting of Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves. Vestiges of younger Catherines were delighted there’s now a Catherynne Valente novel about Eurovision (Space Opera) and that Doctor Who now stars a woman, while The Wicked + The Divine wrapped even more layers around the premise and aesthetic that first captured my imagination four years ago as it unfolded its prehistory and introduced its final arc. The Bodleian Library’s ‘Tolkien’ exhibition and the British Library’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ combined to ask how early medieval poetry became today’s fantasy, and Black Panther turned franchise superheroics into political art. Book of the year: The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley’s fierce, multivocal reimagining of Beowulf— for what it tells about heroism and violence, for how it tells it, and for who I had the pleasure to read it alongside.


My short SFF recommendations for 2018

As rounded up for Twitter, here are the short SFF stories I most enjoyed in 2018:

  • Izzy Wasserstein’s intertexual atlas of ‘Unplaces’, recorded by one desperate queer woman for her lover, recovered from the ruins of Kansas City after an all-too-imaginable theocratic war (‘Unplaces: an Atlas of Non-Existence’, Clarkesworld)
  • This diary of time travel gone wrong from Premee Mohamed, whose marooned palaeontologist must fend for themselves in the prehistoric past. Turns out there’s not much good eating on a trilobite. (‘More Tomorrow’, Automata)
  • Eleanna Castroianni’s story of asylum management on a space station at the edge of conflict and ecological disaster, with unmistakeable echoes for me of how today’s refugee crisis has hit the Aegean. (‘Without Exile’, Clarkesworld)
  • Elizabeth Bear’s quite literally searing portrait of the destructive relationship between a knight-errant and the dragon she set out to kill (‘She Still Loves the Dragon’, Uncanny)
  • Bogi Takács working Hungarian and Romani folk song into this story about a non-binary interplanetary marine biologist (‘On Good Friday the Raven Washes its Young’, Fireside Fiction)
  • Not So Stories (ed. David Thomas Moore), an anthology of writers of colour taking back the Just So Stories, including Joseph E Cole’s ‘Queen’ about a lioness resisting her captivity (Rebellion Publishing)
  • Alix E Harrow’s portal meta-fantasy of librarian witches helping their troubled patrons to escape through hidden books (‘A Witch’s Guide to Escape: a Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies’, Apex)
  • In transcript form, Nino Cipri’s haunting story of an ethnographer breaching ethical boundaries and hunting down ghostly urban legends in her girlfriend’s home town (‘Dead Air’, Nightmare)
  • The first new Maria Dahvana Headley piece I read after finishing the incredible The Mere Wife: a seedy birthday-party magician has the worst day of his life in Idaho (‘You Pretend Like You Never Met Me, And I’ll Pretend Like I Never Met You’, Lightspeed)
  • Sarah Gailey’s devastating ‘Stet’, where the action is all in the margins in this dissection of the politics of AI and ethics of self-driving cars (Fireside Fiction)
  • Kate Heartfield’s ‘A Thousand Tongues of Silver’ weaves together Ostrogoth Ravenna, Queen Christina’s Sweden and the life-story of a purple-stained manuscript (Lackington’s)
  • Sabrina Vourvoulias’s story of post-apocalyptic urban witchcraft could easily have been the setting for something even longer than this (‘Toward a New Lexicon of Augury’, Apex)
  • T Kingfisher’s ‘The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Appreciation Society’ cocked a Pratchettian snook at Highland fantasy (Uncanny)
  • The rising stakes and against-the-odds queer desire of Isabel Yap’s ‘How To Swallow The Moon’ (Uncanny)
  • Cassandra Khaw’s Monologue By An Unnamed Mage, Recorded At The Brink Of The End’: ‘What matters is that I love you and that I will always love you, and I won’t let them have you, even if I have to husk myself of all that I am and splinter the universe again’ (Uncanny)
  • Perhaps I should have been alarmed by how relatable I found Zen Cho’s story of a studious imugi determined to become a dragon, and its early-career academic lover (Barnes and Noble)
  • And an honorary place for Rose Lemberg’s ‘The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar’ (Uncanny, 2016): the epistolary romance I needed to delight me this year.

New at Autostraddle: queer 1990s fashion with Accidentally Lesbian Celine Dion

New at Autostraddle: queer 1990s fashion with Accidentally Lesbian Celine Dion

Talking of little queer ideograms, or the people and stories and images we identify with even before we know ourselves as queer, I’ve published my first piece at Autostraddle,

In the early 1990s, Canadian pop music gave questioning queer girls an icon who performed what they couldn’t yet express: angsty, apprehensive subtexts about the wrong kind of love sometimes being so, so right sung by a diva in is-she-or-isn’t-she pantsuits and short, sensible dark hair.

And then it gave them kd lang as well.

Before Titanic, before the backwards tuxedo, and before the Instagram videos and red-carpet triumphs that left Buzzfeed calling Celine Dion “the number one supermodel in the world,” Celine’s early 90s remarkably often had more in common with 20th-century lesbian aesthetics than her haute-couture camp today.

Flip popular culture’s buried queer aesthetic codes on to the surface, and many of Celine’s hesitant, regretful ballads sound approximately as gay as a glance over the glove counter of a New York department store.

But pre-Tumblr and pre-Livejournal, when most young lesbians and bi women were puzzling out queer aesthetic traditions on their own, queer and maybe-kinda-genderqueer teens could take years to understand — far less accept — why they identified with the lyrics and looks they did.

Which is why my several sublimated, self-destructive years before accepting I was queer began in 1994, when I was 12, wearing out a Celine Dion cassette that contained a track genuinely called “Refuse To Dance.”

Click through to find out which songs:

  • Paid much more attention than you’d ever strictly need to pay to other women and their outfits at a dance you didn’t even want to go to
  • Had titles that all could have belonged to a good Catholic girl in Québec City wondering why she couldn’t stop thinking about that cute biker chick
  • Consisted entirely of gazing at the camera looking confused, tired, upset, angry, determined, and all those other things you look when your movie-director girlfriend is leaving you for the choreographer she met at Alla Nazimova’s sewing-circle on Sunset Boulevard
  • Looked, like every other performance on the same live album, like what would happen if Rachel Maddow hit the Dinah Shore Weekend karaoke in a three-quarter-length leather coat and leather pants
  • Felt Too Much
  • Were based entirely around wanting to be the masculine forms of occupational nouns, bragging about affairs and constantly changing your secretary
  • Were half about witchcraft, half about promising she’s not like the other women
  • All came down to women’s fleeting gazes, communicating exactly how much they don’t dare say

There might even be a reparative bi reading of ‘The Power Of Love‘.

The woman who fell to Earth: tinkering with masculinity, the first female Doctor, and her fans

The woman who fell to Earth: tinkering with masculinity, the first female Doctor, and her fans

‘Never mind a TARDIS full of bras,’ I thought last summer as Twitter memes made fun of what even by Daily Mail standards had been a particularly misogynistic reaction to the first ever woman being cast to play the Doctor, ‘what about a TARDIS full of coats?’

No matter how often I reread the near-complete run of Target novelisations my grandmother had brought home from her charity shop, no matter how immersed I was in the lore of the Doctor’s universe for a child who was still just too young to stay up for what seemed like they’d been the last ever seasons (exception, after much inter-parental negotiation, two Sylvester McCoy stories a friend of my dad’s had worked on; luckily, killer robots going wild in a luxury tower block weren’t judged too frightening, though I’d be whisked quickly to bed two years later when the villains of the second story turned out to be evil clowns)…

…it never occurred to me, even when I was compiling a list of inconsistencies to send in nine- or ten-year-old’s handwriting to the long-suffering author of The Universal Databank, to wonder why the Doctor couldn’t regenerate into a woman too.

Although, once the show had come back in my twenties and David Tennant was installed as the Tenth Doctor, I did start being careful (as a queer woman with short brown hair I still insisted on trying to stick up, who’s never worn a suit tidily in her life) not to wear pinstripes and Converse at the same time, in case that made it too obvious what I’d been thinking of.


While many women fans say they’ve always longed to be able to watch a female Doctor (or rather, given how little we still know about Gallifreyan gender, a Doctor played by a woman, who’s read as female by everyone or almost everyone she meets on Earth), my engagement with the figure of the Doctor must have been a queer speculative pleasure of a different kind, less about seeing a woman represented, more about imagining how the Doctor’s bricolage of masculine style would translate into a woman performing it instead.

Our first sight of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor was the one-minute trailer where she pushed back one of Peter Capaldi’s hooded jumpers on her way to rediscovering the TARDIS in a forest, once the key had vworp-vworped back into her hand – a moment that might not even fit it into the season as we know it, but immediately inspired Thirteen’s first wave of fan art.

Last November’s costume reveal, on the other hand, seemed to be harking back to the motley of the Sixth and Seventh Doctors, with cropped trousers held up by clownish braces, and a gallimaufry of rainbow stripes, mustard yellows, and different shades of blue.

Back when I was supposed to be watching Playschool and Playdays, not a man in a straw hat with question marks all over his sweater (and, I’m reminded now, red braces) outsmarting a power-crazed architect’s out-of-control robots and reconciling Toyah-Willcox-esque girl gangs, Thirteen’s signature outfit would have said ‘1980s kids’ TV presenter’ – or even Mork and Mindy – much more than ‘Time Lord’.

Overthinking style like I do, I couldn’t help having misgivings about us being offered a suddenly-less-serious Doctor at the same time as casting the first woman in the role – but artists and cosplayers took her look to heart so quickly that they invested it with their joy; a rainbow stripe can’t not signal queer-coding, in 2018, even though we’ll have a right to be disappointed if this season bottles out of acknowledging on screen that this female-presenting Doctor has a wife; and one could always believe the TARDIS had met this new Doctor with an outfit like that because so much of what she’d learned about walking on Earth as a woman had come from Sarah Jane.

In fact, as the first episode confirmed, the Doctor hasn’t even been in her TARDIS since she fell out at the end of the Christmas special. (Before anyone kicks off about lady drivers, every other Doctor since the reboot has crashed their TARDIS on regenerating too.)

‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ – one huge David Bowie reference to throw on to the lampshade when we’re already dealing with a mysterious genderfluid alien who inspires humans, changes their lives irreversibly and travels through the stars – isn’t even introduced to us until we’ve seen the slice of multicultural, confidently diverse 21st-century Britain that Doctor Who sets up as normal life: a unit of family and friendship that centres around school-leaver Ryan, the bond between his mother Grace and her new white husband Graham, and Ryan’s ex-classmate, a Muslim probationary police officer called Yasmin Khan.

It shows how much mistrust the Moffat years had instilled in me about the show’s ability to tell any story about women that didn’t just exist to give a man an intellectual epiphany or to subject him to pain that the reveal of the actors playing the new companions (or now the Doctor’s ‘friends’ – with one regrettable absentee we’ll talk about) had left me thinking they and Whittaker could just as easily be the cast of a sentimental ITV Sunday night drama about an adoptive family as they could be the new stars of Doctor Who. If this Doctor can really have all the same kinds of stories told about her that past production teams told about her male incarnations, why does she need to be accompanied by an older white man?

Though it’s the Sheffield characters who have the plot function in the first episode of reminding the Doctor where she is – and whose actions create the story-space where the Doctor must confront the villain and express who she is – once the show moves off earth, the Doctor will symbolically hold this group based on kinship and affinity together. So have other Doctors when the TARDIS has had large casts: but even though the regenerated Doctor is unflappable at realising that on Earth she’s now a woman, gender will matter more to the gaze of many viewers, placing her in a maternal rather than paternal role.

But asking what does it look like when a woman embodies the qualities conventionally projected on to fathers? is perhaps closer to the particular kind of queerness that enters the narrative when a woman is cast as the Doctor – and, itself, is just a subset of the question what does it look like when a woman embodies the qualities conventionally projected on to men?

(Which, put that way, doesn’t even have to mean taking up any of the material signs of masculine gender expression – though many of the queer women of Twitter have been longing ever since August 2017 for the sight of the Doctor in an equivalent to many of their previous regenerations’ signature frock-coats.)

Many of the activities and institutions the Doctor typically involves themselves with are already coded masculine, because they relate to technological, political and military power. Every regenerated Doctor has different dominant aspects to their character: what this Doctor lends herself to, or distances herself from, are as much of a story about gender politics as the stances for or against different kinds of combat and warfare that Wonder Woman takes.

Past Doctors could enter the corridors of the White House in McCarthy’s America or the battlefields of the First World War and have nobody question why white British-accented men like them were there, only why their suits were cut so strangely for the time or why they weren’t in uniform; this Doctor, entering most such settings on our Earth, will have to cope with the fact that someone her gender is expected not to be there, certainly not in a role that takes control, and that her appearance will be scrutinised much more harshly for how well it conforms (or not) to the period’s norms about gender and sexuality, since women’s sexual morality has so consistently been more policed than men’s.

(That’s if the show even goes historical this season: fans are pretty certain one episode will be set in the USA during the Civil Rights Movement, and since this is the first year Doctor Who has hired any writers of colour, we have to hope that episode will be in Malorie Blackman’s hands.)

The Doctor’s relationship with war and command, for instance, is always a theme of their character, even more so since the reboot (when the ‘Bad Wolf’ slogan was echoing through the time-stream as a mystery for Nine, I half-expected it would allude to some kind of paramilitary group with whom he’d committed acts that still haunted him in the Time War). Would the narrative cast this new Doctor as being more peaceful just because she was a woman, via that same assumption that women are ‘just better at’ peacemaking that we see in fields from international development to telefantasy? To simply make the Doctor more peaceful at the same time as making her a woman would, I’d suggest close down the even queerer stories about war and gender that a Doctor Who season like this could offer us – and which, as a viewer, I want it to offer us, because it can.

This Doctor still stands her ground, faces down obstructive or indecisive humans, and fights the monsters, performing her ethics in those brief moments where she gives her adversaries time to relent. But, from the little we have to go on in the first episode, she sees ‘good’ as manifesting despite, rather because of, the organised sovereign power to use force.

‘Right then, troops!’ she says as she moves through the train carriage to investigate the unidentified alien presence that’s trapped Ryan, Grace, Graham and Yaz on the train. ‘No, not troops. Team? Gang? Fam?’


The route to companionship she offers Yasmin involves disregarding the structures of the police force that hasn’t trusted her to take her own cases, rather than working within it; it remains to be seen whether this Doctor, potentially TARDIS-less for as long as Jon Pertwee’s Three, will follow him and most of his successors in joining in the internationalist fantasy of UNIT, the global UN task force responsible for Earth’s defence that offers telefantasy’s longest-running representation of the cosmopolitan military.

But what most fills out this Doctor’s relationship to her gender, her body, and society is newness. ‘We’re all capable of the most incredible change,’ she tells the teeth-studded Strenza warrior she’s cornered up a crane. ‘We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.’

Her words are just as applicable to a long-running cult series changing the gender of its hero as they are to giving a cruel hunter-killer one last chance to change his ways. But they also echo many gender-variant people’s relationship to gender itself as they change how they present themselves to the world and then negotiate how the world sees them.

The Doctor’s words when she describes getting to know her regenerated body, Magdalene Visaggio writes, could equally describe how many trans people balance their future and their past, so that even though it could apply to every regeneration it gains so much extra meaning (for those who understand it) because of how it seems to resonate with so many trans lives:

The Doctor’s tinkering and making skills, which let her create a new sonic screwdriver with little more than a blowtorch and some stainless-steel spoons (not even knives or forks, with their points and blades, but spoons), allow girls who aspire to be scientists and engineers, and older women who grew up being told they never could, to put themselves in the centre of the story – and also have more than a little in common with the eccentrically-dressed, begoggled Holtzmann, the breakout character from the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters and the queer revelation of (that first, more hopeful part of) 2016.

The resourcefulness it takes to see a heap of Sheffield spoons and imagine them combined into a sonic screwdriver is the same resourcefulness, I’d even suggest, with which queer women and some other gender-non-conforming people have seen the figure of the Doctor: the resourcefulness of unscrewing and reassembling masculinity, of breaking it down into its component parts so that you can see which ones have prevented you being yourself and which ones belong to you.

The Doctor has not just the resourcefulness, but the courage and the knowledge, to make a reality out of this bricolage, whether it’s re-forging the most ordinary piece of metal on the dining table into a cosmic wand, or dealing as matter-of-factly as this Doctor with the fact that humans are now seeing them as a woman.

The defining sentence of this Doctor’s character, as agreed by the gif-makers of the internet, is likely to be a line she delivers while still wearing Peter Capaldi’s waistcoat and rolled-up sleeves, in the tiled underground lab where she improvises her new ‘sonic’: ‘When people need help, I never refuse.’


That line could have described the Doctor ever since William Hartnell (sometimes their help works; sometimes it might have been better if they had refused), and indeed Thirteen is the first Doctor I can really imagine running away with the TARDIS, as we’re supposed to believe happened in dour Hartnell’s youth.

The politics of how to help, especially when one’s embodied on Earth as a white woman, are something we’ll have to wait and see whether Doctor Who can dramatise or even recognise. Two of the companions this Doctor will be taking on her adventures are young people of colour (one of them a young dyspraxic man who, so far at least, has been shown living with his disability as a fully formed character): the new showrunner Chris Chibnall and his scriptwriters, including Blackman and Vinay Patel, will have had to grapple with how different their experiences would have been compared to an unconventional white woman’s in various aspects of Earth’s past, just as Russell T Davies’s episodes at their best voiced through Martha Jones.


The end of this season’s first episode doesn’t give confidence that, on showrunner level, the production team is aware enough of racist tropes in popular culture to be able to avoid them, let alone subvert them: killing off Sharon D Clarke’s Grace, the only black woman among the companions-to-be, so that Graham and Ryan can mourn her afterwards and so that the Doctor has to deal with the consequences of her adventures on human beings speeds along both roads of the race and gender intersection at the sametime, crashing straight into the junction of ‘Women in Refrigerators‘ and ‘Black Dude Dies First‘.

(It doesn’t even matter whether, as some websites have hinted, Grace is due for some kind of supernatural return: viewers of colour who know how often this happens, and to a less visceral extent even white viewers who are bored with stories that can’t hear the mood music, have already had to feel the punch in the face of seeing her die.)

It isn’t until the very end of the episode that we see the outfit that fan art and cosplay have already turned into the new embodiment of the Doctor, when Yaz takes Thirteen to a charity shop and helps her find the (extremely fashion-forward) pastel raincoat, rainbow t-shirt, cropped trousers, braces and boots ensemble that we’re going to have to associate with this Doctor from now on.


Her certainty that this new style, not even created by a TARDIS wardrobe but through a fallible human gaze expresses the self she wants to embody means I have to affirm it – but we wait to see what further stories can be told about this new Doctor, and what further stories queer women and other gender-non-conforming people might use this new Doctor to tell.

Making Medusas: interview at the Institute of Classical Studies blog

Making Medusas: interview at the Institute of Classical Studies blog

Appropriately enough for an interview like this, Liz Gloyn’s research interests in classical reception, my creative interests and even some themes in my academic work have snaked around each other since we got to know each other on Twitter talking about teaching practice several years ago…

Liz’s essay on Medusa appears in Making Monsters right next to my story ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’, which revisits the myth through the theme of the ‘monstrous’ queer female gaze by imagining a woman who wants Medusa to see her, so it was a pleasure to talk with Liz about reinterpreting Medusa to tell a story of my own…

This interview originally appeared at the Institute of Classical Studies blog on 24 September 2018.

LG: What drew you to work with the story of Medusa?

CB: Initially, I didn’t want to work with Medusa at all – as soon as I saw the Making Monsters call, its interest in reworking female monsters from marginalised perspectives including queerness spoke to me, because queering up archetypes is A Thing I Do. I knew I wanted to explore what makes queer women want to identify so often with the witch or the monster or the sorceress. But Medusa’s the archetypal classical female monster, and I knew the editors would probably get more Medusa submissions than anything else, so couldn’t I find something more original than that? After weeks trying to think of female monsters in traditions I knew well enough to handle who’d also convey themes I wanted to work with, I gave in and accepted Medusa was who it was just going to have to be.

And Medusa brings the terror of her gaze, which I do know something about. So how could I start inverting the reader’s expectations enough to start telling a story of my own, and align it with themes of recognition and re-enactment that I like to work with? Let’s ask what kind of character would want to be looked on by Medusa, when that’s exactly what her myths forbid you to do… and that’s how I knew the story would start with Nysa, the protagonist, waiting for Medusa to turn her eyes on her. What’s made her long to be transformed like that? We’ll find out…

 LG: What did you find challenging about working within a story that has been told so many times before?

CB: The resonances of other ways the story has been told – because even when they worked against what I wanted to tell, I couldn’t pretend they weren’t already there. Every retelling of a myth, and every act of identification with a figure from myth, is crafted for a purpose – people select the aspects of the myth that best make their intervention for them, attach what they’re bringing from outside the myth, and what they do with the myth becomes part of the complex of associations that the hero or the monster drag behind them. Medusa has been reclaimed so often as a symbol of the monstrous feminine, or how women and their bodies terrify the patriarchy, that it was challenging just to devise a plot that wouldn’t have to go down the railroad of the sinister anti-patriarchal Goddess taking back her power. And I struggled with whether feminist reclamations of Medusa and her monstrousness had been so linked to the idea of taking back power for the cis female body that a Medusa story would end up with that kind of essentialism embedded in it.

The two resonances that constrained me most were, firstly, Perseus, and secondly, the idea of the Gorgons as the nearest thing Medusa has to an identity bigger than herself. Either Medusa had to meet her death at Perseus’ hands, or she’d have to escape her traditional fate and that would be the climax – divergence is the currency of retelling, and deviating from the myth that much would cost most of what the story had in its purse. Whatever Perseus stands for, Medusa has to embody its opposite, because that’s what the hero – if he is a hero – goes to slay. The Gorgons almost undermined the entire idea of writing about a protagonist who identifies with Medusa. Because in trans and feminist history, the Gorgons were an armed and dangerous group of anti-trans radical feminists who threatened to kill the trans sound engineer Sandy Stone in the mid-1970s if her all-women record label, Olivia Records, brought her on tour to Seattle. (Stone went on to write a foundational trans feminist essay that inspired another trans theorist, Susan Stryker, to write an essay and performance piece about her own affinity with Frankenstein’s Monster.) Knowing that history, how could I write a protagonist who wanted to become like Medusa, the most (in)famous of the Gorgons, without aligning her with violent hatred against trans women in the mind of a reader who’d remember that history when they saw the Gorgons’ name? That’s one reason why this story’s Medusa is a singular, feared woman, not one of a known species of monster, and it’s certainly one of the reasons that made me want the action to look ahead to future transformations of Medusa’s image, to tackle those and other resonances directly – while making sure the story had a trans woman in its world whose womanhood would be affirmed by the narrative itself, and spaces where other gender-variant people like her could exist.

LG: Medusa’s gaze is what makes her monstrous; how did you approach that in your retelling?

CB: Even before we get to the gaping wide mouth or the snakes-for-hair, let alone the translated naga tail that modern Medusas keep ending up with somehow, it’s because Medusa’s gaze is monstrous that we’re supposed to dread her. Nysa seeks out that monstrous gaze instead. She wants to have its terrible power turned on her. Because she’s had to learn that by the standards of her home environment – or what she perceives as the standards of her home environment – her own gaze of desire towards other women is recognised as a monstrous thing itself. What Nysa projects on to the myths she’s heard about Medusa reminds me of one of those secret chords of growing up queer: wanting to identify with the monster, because you’ve already been made to feel the deepest and most indescribable part of yourself is monstrous. And Nysa wants her outward form to reflect the monstrousness she’s certain that she carries inside, just like Medusa’s own form notoriously does …

…while in some ways, on her journey to find Medusa and become what she aspires to become through her encounter with her, she’s almost a counter-Perseus. Or at least, her own journey depends on three women (none of whom fit well around the heteronormative hearth) who all lend her their sight…

LG: How do you think your Medusa expands our sense of what she can be and what she can tell us?

CB: Integrating Medusa into a repertoire of themes that resonate with the kinds of queerness I’ve wanted to write about turned out to involve making sense of the feminisms that have reimagined her as much as it did making sense of her: until I understood what traditions I was inserting myself into, and what positions I wanted to take in relation to them, I didn’t know what ‘my’ Medusa could even have the possibility to be. Medusa isn’t a figure who’d ever been personally significant to me in the rolodex of mythological and historical archetypes I’d enjoyed transforming (whereas Athena, Artemis, Atalanta… I know, I know). My Medusa exists in the space of what we don’t know about her: where she might have come from, how she’s meant to look. And her meaning as a monster is already being constructed before the action even starts, by the people who have told stories about her around their hearths, and by the women who have whispered other stories as they recreate hearths of their own…

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.

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.


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.


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,







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.