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Archival Frictions

Looking beyond known histories of lesbian experience
Three fully clothed clothed women on a seashore. One (on the far left) wrings out her wet hair.

After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz. Liveright, 272 pages. 2023.

Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza. Catapult, 288 pages. 2023.

Archive fever is sweeping the nation. On TikTok, Gen Z fashion archivists are holding court. On Twitter, a one-time chronicler of “problematic faves” has retooled as a “book dedication archivist.” This past March, hordes of enthusiasts came to the defense of the Internet Archive after it lost a major copyright lawsuit, endangering their collection of rare, out-of-print titles (among many others), and the public’s free access to them. In our digitized and ephemeral world, artifacts of the past feel increasingly precious. I myself have two full shelves of queer texts from the eighties and nineties that I’ve thrifted over the past six years, since I began dating a woman and decided I was a lesbian after all.

In my defense, attention to the archive is an important part of North American lesbian culture. In her now-infamous 1980 polemic “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich identified how the ostensibly authoritative historical record has tended to malign and marginalize, if not downright erase, traces of the queer experience, particularly that of women. Lesbian existence, she wrote, is “an engulfed continent which [rose] fragmented to view from time to time only to become submerged again.” Thankfully, another important part of lesbian culture is problem-solving. In 1974, Joan Nestle, Mabel Hampton, and their community helped found the Lesbian Herstory project; in the early 2000s, Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard began work on the ACT UP Oral History Project; academic writers such as Lillian Faderman, Lisa Moore, and Emma Donoghue have exhumed lesbian stories from the dustheap of history.

Now, a generation of writers is bringing the lesbian archive to a wider public through fiction and memoir. Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, published in 2020, was like a permission slip issued to all of us. While interning at the Harry Ransom Center, Shapland was shocked to discover love letters from the beloved novelist addressed to “Annemarie”—shocked, because most biographies excise or downplay McCullers’s devotions to other women. “In a world built by and for men and their pursuits,” Shapland observes, “a woman who loves women does not register—and is not registered, i.e., written down.” In order to write Carson down, Shapland used her own experience as a lesbian to stitch together the evidence in a way that made sense, that felt undeniable and true.

The work of an archive, even a counter-archive, is delineation: there is always an inside and an outside.

Amelia Possanza’s ambitious debut, Lesbian Love Story, does not explicitly cite Shapland’s book as an inspiration, but the affinity is obvious. (Possanza reviewed it for The Rumpus in April 2020.) A “memoir in archives,” Lesbian Love Story documents Possanza’s encounters with seven figures who would come to constitute her own queer canon, teachers who refined her understanding of lesbian love. Possanza’s book comes on the heels of Selby Wynn Schwartz’s Booker-longlisted novel After Sappho, which melds fact with fiction to tell the story of how sapphists from Lina Poletti to Virginia Woolf broke from the strictures and rhetoric of men to define their own lives. Like Possanza, Schwartz makes use of archival materials, including art and literature, their correspondence, journals, and much of what has been written about them over the last hundred years. Both books conclude with a hefty bibliography.

I confess myself a bad student of history; my interest is less in what these authors have uncovered than in how, and what their methods uncover about them, about us. The work of an archive, even a counter-archive, is delineation: there is always an inside and an outside. After Sappho and Lesbian Love Story are about lesbians generally—they make certain sweeping claims about who lesbians are, what we do, what we are for in the grand scheme of things—and so they must invite some and disavow others. Some histories are too complex, some too ugly, some merely inconvenient. But if the aim of a lesbian archive is radical remembrance, then forgetfulness hamstrings any possible movement toward a better collective future.

When Possanza moved to New York, she didn’t know how to find other lesbians, so she joined a gay swim league. Unfortunately, the gay men on her team didn’t know how to spot lesbians either. One teammate, upon hearing that she didn’t want to have kids, asked, “Are you a lesbian or something?” He had assumed she was straight. Possanza, hurt not to have her lesbianism recognized by an ostensible peer, realized that she was missing the “stories and heroes that would explain to my teammate how to recognize us.” The result of her search is Lesbian Love Story. “Until very recently, no one set out to preserve queer stories,” Possanza declares. (The Herstory Archives are about to turn fifty, but who’s counting.) What has been incidentally preserved cannot capture the fullness of a life, so Possanza has invented the rest for us: Mary Casal’s first kiss with another girl; Mabel Hampton fleeing Ma Rainey’s party when the cops show up; Sappho faking her death to escape the burden of her own mythology.

Like Shapland, Possanza uses her own life as map, evidence, and spackle. She reveals that her account of Mary Casal—the pseudonymous author of The Stone Wall, one of the earliest known texts on lesbian love published in the United States—kissing another girl on a seaside vacation borrows details from her own first queer kiss. This technique is not always so graceful; her life, she admits, is very different from those she is retelling. “I am an upper-middle-class, college-educated cis white woman,” she writes in the introduction, “I am a swimmer and a reader and a cat person. I am a homeowner and a daydreamer.” (She is also an associate director of publicity at Macmillan.) Emblematic is a passage where she imagines Hampton—a Black, working-class lesbian who lived in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, was incarcerated at Bedford Hills, and was a founding member of the Herstory Archives—looking on as Possanza buys her “own apartment and move[s] my things into three rooms: a giant living room, a junior bedroom, a galley kitchen with an ice machine built into the refrigerator door.” This New York apartment is nicer and more expensive than the homes owned by her parents or her grandmother, Possanza gushes. And as she “[soaks] in the morning light,” she thinks about how “a place like this . . . would have changed Mabel’s life.”

While Possanza’s use of first-person can at times smudge her critical lens, Schwartz slips invisibly into the choral “we,” which could include a doctor of comp lit (Italian/French) who teaches writing at Stanford University but doesn’t necessarily have to. After Sappho, “a hybrid of imaginaries and intimate non-fictions,” moves fluidly between lesbians, mostly artists from the turn of the century—so many lesbians that it may be hard to keep track if you aren’t already well-versed in their history. Her fragments are Sapphic, her fictions are Woolfian. Unlike Possanza, she does not demarcate what’s real, what’s invented. Letters, diary entries, and essays become narration and dialogue; other elements are fabricated wholesale. The purpose, as in Lesbian Love Story, is to paint a fuller picture than existing archives can provide. As a newborn, did the Italian writer, poet, and playwright Lina Poletti really “kick free of the blankets” at her christening? There’s no evidence that she did, nor evidence that she didn’t.

Reading between the lines is embraced as a particularly queer practice in both books—that is, looking beyond the page. At a certain point, I started to do the same. Where, I wondered, was Saidiya Hartman? Her practice of critical fabulation—of looking at records of Black pain and death as “the beginnings of the story or narrative,” the possibility of “an opening or a detour”—is an obvious influence on both of these authors. Hartman received mainstream acclaim with the 2019 publication of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, her exploration of the lives of young Black women in New York and Philadelphia in the early twentieth century. “I have pressed at the limits of the case file and the document,” Hartman writes, and “speculated about what might have been, imagined the things whispered in dark bedrooms, and amplified moments of withholding, escape and possibility.” It went on to win the 2020 Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir/Biography.

And yet Hartman’s groundbreaking work is only briefly mentioned in Lesbian Love Story and After Sappho. Hartman gets a single nod in the latter’s bibliographic note for her choral method. Otherwise, Schwartz more directly situates her work as a successor to Sappho’s fragments and Woolf’s queer fictional biographies. Possanza merely cites Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments as a source from her research into the criminalization of Black women. It’s an astonishingly insufficient acknowledgement of the critical, methodological value and impact of Hartman’s work.

The marketing copy describes Lesbian Love Story as a perfect fit “for readers of Saidiya Hartman and Jeanette Winterson,” but absent a deeper engagement with Hartman, Possanza seems to imply her methodological approach sprang, fully formed, from her own imagination. So, too, does information about Vassar crushes, “breeches roles,” and the lesbian entanglements of Olympian Babe Didrikson. Indeed, Possanza has a frustrating tendency to expound on a subject for several paragraphs, several pages—in one case a jaw-dropping twenty pages—before lackadaisically mentioning the researcher whose work she has been relying on. More detailed citations are buried in the back of the book, yes, but this, too, feels inadequate given the nominally reparative aims of her project. If, as Sara Ahmed argues, “citation is a feminist memory,” if it is “how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before,” both books fall short of their obligations.

The question of who is and is not a lesbian preoccupies both Schwartz and Possanza; each is palpably uncomfortable when discussing lesbians who do not live up to their ethos of lesbianism. Schwartz’s chorus ultimately disowns those who cannot evolve in the image of Woolf’s Orlando: the fascists (Sibilla Aleramo), the racists (Isadora Duncan), and the bad writers (Radclyffe Hall). Orlando, by contrast, is a lesbian ideal, “fuller, freer,” capable of “turning their warmest parts outwards . . . into a dizzying constellation of moving parts,” “a wild blow at the grotesque trappings of empire and chivalry.”

By putting Woolf and her work on a pedestal as some kind of apotheosis of lesbianism, Schwartz sails gaily away from history as it actually happened toward an idyllic vision of lesbianism’s future. Possanza, for her part, adopts a moralistic, didactic tone throughout Lesbian Love Story that feels more appropriate for children’s literature. When writing about Babe Didrikson, she reminds the reader that Didrikson was “arrogant and self-aggrandizing, a shameless self-promoter” who “changed the game for female athletes” but “was mostly in it for herself.” If lesbianism is defined by our shared politics and ethical commitments, do these queers, who do not fulfill such criteria, not count as lesbians?

Like Sappho’s fragments, the archive is constituted as much by what’s missing as what is there.

This seems like something we might need to figure out on our way to utopia—utopia being both authors’ main concern: “How [we might] arrive on the shores of that dream” that is Lesbos, as Schwartz asks; how we create “a future without prisons . . . where monogamy and the nuclear family is not idealized above all else . . . where housing is not sold as a commodity,” as Possanza writes. The answer may be quite simple, according to Possanza: “I want anyone and everyone to claim the word lesbian, so we can usher in this world together.” She ends her memoir in archives by assuring us that in an interview Joan Nestle denounced “her contemporaries’ narrow,” which is to say transphobic, biphobic, intersexist, and racist, “definition of lesbian.” Definition has concerned Possanza for a long time, at least since her review of Shapland’s My Autobiography. “There is anxiety in the queer community about what the word ‘queer’ means,” Possanza wrote then, “and how it can define without excluding.” But Possanza doesn’t really mean “without exclusions.” Drake, yes; “Drake wants to relate,” Possanza writes, “to announce that he, too, loves” lesbians. But there are some people who Possanza cannot imagine sharing her ethical lesbian convictions with—that is to say, gay men.

Gay men, in Possanza’s view, are “sarcastic, posturing, sometimes catty;” they make jokes about her style and her hairy legs. Drag queens make her feel like a failed woman. When one at a bar shouts, “I love lesbians!” they do not receive the same grace given to Drake. Possanza imagines challenging Larry Kramer at a dinner party over what he saw as passivity in the face of the AIDS crisis: “If I had been there, I might have asked, ‘Isn’t taking care of our friends the most radical thing we can do? Isn’t it only seen as the less than because it’s so often been the purview of women, the original sissies?’”

It’s frustrating to watch Possanza, who diligently pauses and reflects throughout Lesbian Love Story on the expansiveness of lesbianism, and on the possibility that the queers who fill her pages “might not have chosen the word woman” or “might not have even chosen the word lesbian,” blunder into static stereotypes when it comes to gay men, past and present. By her own admission, “gay men, trans women, and intersex people” were conflated at the turn of the century. Where, then, is her engagement with this spectrum, which is a vital part of our shared, overlapping communities? When Possanza sadly writes about her “whiskered teammate” who was rude to her, the epithet—used three times—enters quote-unquote biological difference into the archive.

Homophobia and transmisogyny may not be twins, but they are sisters. Trans women barely factor into Lesbian Love Story outside of her critiques of the radical feminists of the 1970s, the lesbian separatist groups that were “so narrow in [their] definition of lesbian and that failed to see gender is not the only oppression.” She homes in on the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as a representative example for their policy of “[excluding] trans people from the space, both the trans women who wanted to share space with other women and the trans men who had come of age within lesbian and feminist culture.” Even here, Possanza cannot imagine that a trans woman might be a lesbian. In another chapter, while visiting the Herstory Archives, she passes over the Lesbian Avengers—who by all accounts included and took action alongside trans women, at Michfest, no less—stating they “would have to wait for another day.”

Like Sappho’s fragments, the archive is constituted as much by what’s missing as what is there. There are no trans women in After Sappho, either, though Schwartz notes in her bibliography that she uses “a chant of the contemporary Italian transfeminist movement Non Una di Meno” to close out the novel. “Together we have set out, together we shall return,” sings Lina Poletti alongside “people she had been told were unspeakable, savage, backwards, lesser, criminal, and foreign,” invoking a togetherness that includes (by citation) and does not include (by elision) trans women. It’s a gesture, but a muddled one, in a book of muddled gestures.

This is where a deeper study of Hartman might have served both Schwartz and Possanza. Wayward Lives is “a history of an unrecoverable past; it is a narrative of what might have been or could have been; it is a history written with and against the archive.” We need more than a practice of looking backwards and forwards simultaneously. We need to develop a practice of looking with our left eye at what is there, and our right eye at what is not. Is it too much to demand more for the trans women the archive tells us did not exist? To refuse the archive’s authority? Lesbianism—if I may proffer a definition—is inherently about refusal. We can and must not only read into the archive but reach past it.