Looking for lesbians in libraries (and elsewhere…)

This research project has been germinating for a long time, and if it is bearing fruit now, it is thanks to many friends and colleagues who have pointed me in the direction of novels, journals, websites, films and writers, and to the help of librarians and archivists who have enabled me to discover the resources I am now reading and writing about. Compiling my reading list has not always been straightforward. I began my research by consulting general guides to topics in Italian literature such as the 2002 Oxford Companion to Italian Literature and the 1997 The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature. These were rather off-puttingly negative, declaring:

‘in Italian literature, lesbianism is notable for its almost complete absence’.[1]

‘there is no canon of Italian lesbian authors, nor is there an Italian lesbian literary criticism’.[2]

There is some truth to these assertions, in that, still today, there is certainly a lack of critical attention devoted to Italian ‘lesbian literature’, and it is almost entirely missing from account of the ‘official’ literary canon, which, like other canonical traditions, tend to be male-dominated. However, other resources pointed me in the direction of something resembling an alternative, lesbian canon, and enabled me to identify publications that disprove assertions of a lesbian vacuum in the Italian literary tradition. The Collegamento lesbiche italiane (CLI: Italian Lesbian Network), based in Rome, compiled and published a guide to lesbian archives in Italy in 1991: Guida agli archivi lesbici (Guido to Lesbian Archives, Edizioni CLI, Rome). This booklet, which is fundamentally a bibliographical resource, contains details of texts written in Italian and translated into Italian from other languages–novels, short stories, magazines and journals and critical essays–that have some degree of ‘lesbian’ content, whether overt or covert. It has been an incredibly helpful starting point. Other vital resources I have consulted include websites such as ‘Libri lesbici’ [Lesbian books]: http://www.librilesbici.it/. Without these ‘alternative’ resources, compiled by readers, activists, feminists and writers, it would have taken me much longer to identify texts that might be relevant to my project, since, because they focus on or include lesbian desire and identities, many of these books are considered somehow taboo, and are difficult to locate unless you already know about them. Many are published by small independent publishers, in limited print runs. They quickly go out of print, may have limited distribution and are usually not reviewed in national literary publications. Specialist, independent bookshops can be a good hunting ground for this kind of text. I have managed to locate dozens of contemporary texts and have discovered authors and publishers I hadn’t previously come across at the excellent bookshop IGOR in Bologna (www.myspace.com/igorthe gaybookshop), thanks to the owners’  in-depth knowledge of the field (they also ship abroad) Some of these texts are also held in large national libraries, such as the Biblioteca nazionale in Rome, or in Florence, but they are not always catalogued thematically in the most accessible way, so a subject search (e.g. lesbian literature), may produce no results. Searching for ‘lesbianism’ or ‘lesbians’ in the combined online catalogue of Rome libraries (a hub giving access to the National library and 12 other libraries in the capital) produces no results. A search for ‘female homosexuality’ produces 12 texts, none of which are novels. So the sources mentioned above have been invaluable. However, I don’t want to seem to be blaming librarians for inappropriate cataloguing; sometimes it is not possible to tell from the cover or title of a book what it is about, especially if, as is sometimes the case, the words ‘lesbian’ or ‘homosexuality’ are studiously avoided by the author. The stigma attached to these words, and the complicated array of negative connotations they evoke have led to many authors avoiding them entirely–just as many individuals choose to do, for a wide variety of reasons–preferring expressions such as ‘love between women’. This kind of linguistic choice is never neutral–indeed, heated debates continue about the political significance of seeming to disavow or hide lesbian identity, and about the limiting, constricting character of identity labels, and in my research I engage critically with linguistic choices in every texts I consider. However, in the early stages of locating texts, I simply want to find and read books, so I have been trying to search in the most comprehensive way possible.

Aside from national libraries, Italy has several relevant libraries and archives linked to local associations that I have visited. My first port of call was the Biblioteca delle donne [Women’s Library] in Bologna: http://www.women.it/bibliotecadelledonne/ Aside from being incredibly beautiful, the library is a wonderful place to work because most of the material is on open shelves, allowing the reader or researcher to browse and discover texts serendipitously.

The photo above shows the cloister for the former Convent of Santa Cristina, where the Women’s library in Bologna is houses.

Bologna is also home to the Cassero centre, the headquarters of Arcigay, the national gay and lesbian association, which boasts its own library that also has a lot of material on open shelves: http://www.cassero.it/documentazione/. In Rome, the Casa internzaionale delle donne [International Women’s House] hosts ‘Archivia’, its own archive: http://www.casainternazionaledelledonne.org/index.php/it/spazi/biblioteca-archivia.

The photo above shows a view of the Casa delle donne in Rome, from above.

Staff in all these libraries are very knowledgeable and have been incredibly helpful and supportive of my project.

I am currently on a research trip in Rome, where I am working in a variety of libraries, including the National library, local libraries, university libraries, and some specific archives, such as the Central State Archive, chasing up documents relating to literary censorship during the early twentieth century or under Fascism, which were drawn to my attention by the pioneering work of Bruno Wanrooij and Guido Bonsaver.[3] I have had my fair share of quizzical looks on account of the kinds of texts I am consulting, since in many Italian libraries, even those with an online catalogue, users have to fill in request forms, in triplicate, by hand, or tell the librarian exactly what they are looking for. However, the only qualitatively negative experience took place in a Catholic religious institution in Rome, during one of my attempts to locate early translations of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. This novel was published in English in 1928, and subject to censorship; it was translated into Italian almost immediately, in 1930 and subsequently reissued in 1932. It then appeared on the Fascist list of prohibited books from 1935 onwards (there will be more detail about the circumstances of the translations, publication and censorship of this novel this in my monograph, once I have written it…). Using the online Rome opac, I located a copy of the 1932 edition in the library of the aforementioned religious institution. However, when I visited it, a beautiful cloister near the Trevi fountain, not only did I find out that I couldn’t access the book since the library was closed to the public since there was no longer a librarian to manage it, but I was also subjected to a hostile interrogation as to my motivation for reading such a book. The two members of the institution who received me asked for the details of the text I wanted to consult, googled it on the computer in their office, and expressed shock and disgust. Why would I want to read a novel like this? Why did I think they would have it? Obviously, my first hypothesis is that they held a copy precisely because the Vatican had its own Index of Prohibited Books, which is why I am currently finding copies of censored books that can’t be located anywhere else in religious libraries. This irony was of little comfort when faced with the frankly homophobic reaction of the members of the institution I visited in Rome. Thankfully, this has been the only occasion on which I have been made to feel uncomfortable when seeking out and requesting texts, including when I have visited other libraries affiliated to Catholic institutions. To clarify, I certainly don’t wish to imply that all Catholic institutions and organisations are homophobic, since this is not the case; however, the official Vatican view remains rigidly unaccepting towards homosexuality: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19861001_homosexual-persons_en.html.

[1] Hainsworth, Peter and David Robey (eds). 2002. Oxford Companion to Italian Literature.Oxford University Press: p.295.

[2] Russo, Rinalda (ed.) 1997. The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press: p.173.

[3] Wanrooij, Bruno F. P. 1990. Storia del pudore. La questione sessuale in Italia. 1860-1940. Venice: Marsilio; Guido Bonsaver. 2007. Censorship and Literature in Fascist Italy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press


About Charlotte Ross

I'm a lecturer and researcher at the University of Birmingham, UK. My main interests are contemporary Italian culture, and gender and sexuality. My current project explores the representation of lesbian identities and desire between women in Italian novels and media, from 1870 to the present day.
This entry was posted in Bibliographies and References, Homo/Lesbophobia, Posts in English, Researching 'lesbian' literature and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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