Hope you enjoy this edited extract from my interview with editors Matthew Bates and Julia Bell on the publication of the anthology Queer Life, Queer Love 2 from Muswell Press, out this week. A version of this was broadcast on my show on Resonance FM and you can listen to it at any time - click here to listen to the full show.
Includes detailed discussion of writings by Adam Zmith, Avi Ben-Zeev, Karen McLeod, V.G. Lee, L.E. Yates, Kath Gifford, Sarah Keenan, J.D. Stewart, and Sophia Blackwell (yours truly)!
Matt Bates (MB): So, the book’s got forty-four entries; it includes twenty-four poems and twenty longer pieces, which are short stories, flash fiction or memoir, or indeed a hybrid of all of those forms. It’s a global collection, so as well as entries from the UK there are writers from Burundi, Gibraltar, Brazil, Australia, Texas and New Orleans, so it really brings together some of the best new and emerging queer writing from around the globe.
Sophia Blackwell (SB): One of those themes that I wanted to get into to begin with was the idea of queer friendship structures. Why is it important to queer people to have chosen family? Julia, would you like to speak to that first?
Julia Bell (JB): We used that wonderful line from Foucault when he says that what queers do in bed is less interesting than what we do with our time. You know the joke about certain lesbian communities, everyone’s shagged their friends – but friendships can sustain that, we can move in and out of each other’s lives in various ways. A lot of queer anthologies in the past importantly focused on sex. It’s important to say that we have desires and are different, but I think there’s another form of analysis happening when we’re looking at relationships that aren’t necessarily about sexuality but about affinity.
SB: Matt, at what point did you realise, when you had your submissions and you’d selected them, that friendship was a theme in the book?
MB: I think I realised quite early on. The etymology of the word ‘friend’ comes from’ to love freely,’ and I think that makes sense in a queer setting. One good example is one of the stories of a budding friendship, the Adam Zmith story, ‘I Want to Suck This Man’s Toes,’ – I think it’s about how some of our kinks might not be as unexpected as we think and that we might be confounded when some of our desires are not rejected, and through those avenues we can find new bonds of friendship.
SB: Let’s think about when you get to a bit later in life and maybe those friendships don’t serve you in quite the same way. I’m thinking in particular of Karen McLeod’s ‘The End of the Friend,’ story, which is about a lesbian woman who’s just started a newish relationship and is having to potentially change some of the patterns in her relationship with a straight woman who sees herself and is potentially also seen by the narrator as the ‘one that got away,’ – Julia, how does that story speak to you?
JB: I think that’s quite a common experience in lesbian relationships, the changing nature of a relationship with a straight friend. I felt it was very honest to a particular kind of queer experience. Another one I think is the way in which Sarah Keenan talks about the really intense relationship between the two women in that story. I thought that what was happening there was something I’d experienced but I don’t often see stories that address that kind of intensity between two women. There was an anthology of lesbian fiction, edited by Helen Sandler, the DIVA anthology, which I was in an edition of, as a young writer. And it was an amazing book to have because I’d read it and have these moments of recognition. One of the things about QLQL is that we’re offering up that space again for moments of experience across the queer culture. I think it’s important as a seed-bed for future writers. Ali Smith was in one of those DIVA anthologies, so you just don’t know, do you, who you’re going to be reading in future?
SB: Yes, Helen Sandler was my first editor too! This book reminds me of an American anthology I had when I was about fifteen called ‘Growing up Gay/Growing up Lesbian.’ I feel like this might be an important book too and that young people will find it. Queer publishing has been undergoing a bit of a sea-change recently and obviously we know that the literary industry isn’t perfect, but I feel like it’s time that we maybe put that idea that ‘we don’t get published,’ behind us. Matt, what do you think – have we turned a corner, or is it a flash in the pan?
MB: I do think we have turned the corner. In the 80s and 90s there was a lot of vibrant queer publishing, like the Gay Men’s Press, the Women’s Press, Pandora, Virago…Virago is still going, of course, but most of those publishing houses have folded. It was in around 2016, so not that long ago, I recall a lot of excitement when Garth Greenwell released ‘What Belongs to You,’ – of course he’s a brilliant writer, but I think some of the excitement came out of the fact that we didn’t have that much queer publishing at the time so Garth’s novel was a real shining light. As the editor-at-large for queer books at Muswell Press, in the last four years we’ve published over ten titles including the first Queer Life, Queer Love anthology, we’ve published Golnoosh Nour’s ‘The Ministry of Guidance’, Jon Ransom’s ‘The Whale Tattoo’, Isabel Costello’s ‘Scent’, and some re-issues too, that shouldn’t have gone out of print in the first place.
SB: Julia, as well as the other editor, you’re also a novelist, poet and academic. What’s your take on the current queer publishing landscape?
JB: The landscape is fantastic at the moment if you’re a queer writer and you’re looking for avenues to publication. I think it’s great but I would add a word of caution, around identity politics and the way it’s being used, particularly by the bigger publishers, because sometimes it feels very much like they’re turning one’s identity into a commodity, which stands against, I think, the freedom of queerness, which is not to be turned into a commodity and not have ‘main character energy’ about everything you do, and I feel like it’s potentially opposite to the creative impulse to sit and think. I think it’s caused a lot of division in our community, as you know, because we have to be identified by whether we’re an L, G, B or T and that worries me. What we’ve tried to do with this anthology is put everyone together under the same umbrella and say, ‘Look, we’re all a bit off at right-angles from the mainstream, but wherever you sit in that spectrum there should be something here for you.’ I think there’s a much bigger, more difficult threat in the current system against LGBTQI people. We need to be together to withstand some of that right-wing pressure.
MB: Just to build upon some of those points you’ve both raised. One thing that the anthology does successfully, or I hope it does, is to educate each other, and that’s one of the things that Julia and I wanted to bring to the anthology, that we can learn from each other, and our different experiences of being queer.
SB: I love a book that genuinely shows me new perspectives, like Lois Shearing’s ‘Bi the Way’ from Jessica Kingsley Press. I thought I knew all about being bi, but I absolutely didn’t! It was head-melting! I do love moments like that. And being one of the readers for the Polari Prize last year was eye-opening too.
JB: Even within that kind of context, I think it’s important to see the humanity in our experience, like Karen McLeod’s story is constituted within the lesbian experience, I think the experience of friendship or feeling awkward around a friend or losing a friend is universal. It’s important not to lose our sense of speaking to the human more genuinely, and that’s one of the things that worries me about potentially being ghettoised into our own little boxes, that we lose that connection and that human experience.
SB: Some of the stories and poems are wonderfully sex-positive, and there’s a lot of detailed information (laughs) about what people get up to...
JB: There’s some really sexy stuff in there! And some bad sexy stuff too…in a good way. There are moments of transgressive sexuality across the stories and poems, like Avi Ben-Zeev’s story was really sexy, from a transman’s point of view.
SB: I really enjoyed Avi Ben-Zeev’s story, and I loved L.E Yates’s, ‘The Moment is Perfect, Whole and Complete.’ I don’t tend to write short stories generally, so people tend to assume I have a poem in this one. But in terms of craft, the punchline in Adam Zmith’s story is just brilliant, and the emotional revelation in L.E Yates’s…wow.
JB: So tell me about your short story, because I think it’s in this book…
SB: (Laughs) Yes, I’m here to promote my own stuff as well as everyone else’s! My short story is called ‘Epiphany,’ it’s about a boy and a girl who are in the closet, and they put on a production of ‘Twelfth Night’ in their first year of sixth form. And to me ‘Twelfth Night’ has always spoken quite deeply about gender fluidity and play-acting and performance, and how the costume that you put on can define what you are and how you’re perceived by the world. It also allowed me to explore, because I naturally present quite femininely, the slightly more masculine side of my character and the side of me that is more fluid, and I enjoyed exploring those memories of high school and also not really being out, because we didn’t have the ‘Heartstopper’ experience – and Matt, what about this book speaks to growing up in the eighties and nineties or even earlier?
MB: Or even later, sometimes! There’s a story in there from JD Stewart and I noticed a lot of similar themes, not necessarily in the actual story but in the bio of the narrator. There’s a poem in the anthology by Kath Gifford entitled ‘Section 28 Coupling,’ which is an incredible rendering of the Margaret Thatcher speech with the poet’s own words interwoven through it. Coming out in your teens at that time was unthinkable for many of us – and it's important to remember that Section 28 began in 1988 at the height of the AIDS epidemic – so the act was an appalling act of queer suppression and marginalisation that did real harm to an already traumatised community. I think VG Lee’s story is worth pulling out here, and it relates to where we began when we were talking about friendship and family, so ‘Words of One Syllable’ really examines blood family, friendship and the queer family. The protagonist finds out that blood really is thicker than water, and although she’s seen as being integral to this family she’s also on the outside of that network.
SB: Yes, VG Lee writes beautifully about friendships, both their comic aspects and pathos. Julia, what was your experience of coming out and do any of these stories speak to you?
JB: Yes, I did, very much so. I’ve just seen ‘Blue Jean’ and that for me really captured what it was like growing up under Section 28, and there was an omertà, particularly around the educational establishment. As far as my own experience is concerned, I’ve just published a memoir about growing up during that time: ‘Hymnal,’ a memoir written in verse, about growing up gay in a religious family in the 70s and 80s. And at the same time becoming aware that my sexuality was different from other people’s. But I think we find our tribe, we seek each other out, we find our safe spaces. Even when nobody speaks about it and there aren’t any words for it, you’re not allowed to talk about it, we still find the other gay person in the room.
SB: Great, thank you Matt Bates and Julia Bell. Queer Life, Queer Love 2 is out this May from Muswell Press. Go into your local bookshop, support your indies, download it if you can’t wait and it touches on all these themes we’ve spoken about. Matt and Julia, thank you so much.
Queer Life, Queer Love 2 is available from Muswell Press, Amazon and all good retailers from the first week of May.