Where it all began…
I began thinking about this project several years ago now. I’d read many of the classic ‘lesbian’ novels in English, like Radcliffe Hall’s ‘The Well of Loneliness’ (1928) or Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Oranges are not the Only Fruit’ (1985), and was starting to get interested in LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer) activism, and in academic queer theory. I read as much as I could about gay and lesbian identities, about being and doing queer, and began thinking about the apparently obvious but nevertheless persistently relevant question of what constitutes a ‘gay’ or a ‘lesbian’ novel, and whether there is such a thing as ‘lesbian literature’. Scholars like Tamsin Wilton, Gabriele Griffin, Elaine Hobby and Chris White, and Marilyn Farwell have written informative, thought-provoking, and accessible books about this, which I recommend (see details below). At the same time, I was researching my PhD in Italian Studies, and becoming aware of the silences in Italian culture and society about LGBTQ issues, identities and desires. Everyone had heard of Pasolini; there were a few other male authors who had written novels about melancholic gay men, like Giorgio Bassani, and Pier Vittorio Tondelli who broke down several taboos with his novels in the 1980s, until his death in 1991. But where were the women? By which, of course, I meant not only where were the lesbian authors (even if they didn’t wish to be pigeonholed only as lesbian authors or even only as women writers but as writers who happened to be lesbians and/or women–following Monique Wittig’s distinction that lesbians are not women), but where was the cultural representation of desire between women? Initial responses were quite depressing: academic overviews of Italian literature asserted that there wasn’t any such thing as Italian lesbian literature. I may have some ideological problems with this label, as I’ll explain, but I certainly didn’t want to hear that it didn’t exist. Alternatively, there was a sudden glimmer or memory as people told me, no, wait, there is Ingrid, the Gestapo officer in Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film ‘Roma citta’ aperta’ (Rome Open City).
This is cultural representation yes, but it is a bit negative, don’t you think, if that seems to be all there is? However, as I began to search more thoroughly, over the next few months, I found that not only were there several more novels by women, about desire between women, for me to track down, but that scholars were beginning to research this field, and that there was a mini-renaissance in lesbian representation spearheaded by the writer and journalist Delia Vaccarello, in the form of the series of short-story anthologies ‘Principesse azzurre’ (Handsome Princesses), which has now run to several volumes.
Now, several years later, and with a much better-informed idea of what is out there, and where to look for it, as well as a growing network of contacts among an inspiring crowd of authors, scholars and activists, I’m researching and writing a book about the cultural representation of lesbian identities and desire between women in Italian culture, from around 1870 to the present day. This is part of a project called ‘Eccentricity and Sameness’, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I’m currently in Italy, carrying out research in various libraries, and wanted to share my experiences, the good, the bad and the ugly, as I track down, pore over and attempt to analyse nineteenth century sexology, texts on masochism, tribades and sapphists, melodrama, romance, murderous homophobic impulses, censorship trials, Fascist repression, radical 1970s lesbian feminism and deal with the (happy) fact that from the 1990s on, there are a considerable number of novels to plough through before I have a clear idea of what the field of study actually comprises.