DIVA gets lost in the lesbian literature section of Gay’s The Word
BY MARTINE HESS
On 66 Marchmont Street, London, tucked in between an internet cafe and an art gallery, rests a piece of queer history. This is home to Gay’s The Word, the UK’s first and oldest LGBTQI bookshop. Established in 1979, it has been witness to great change while remaining a dependable meeting place and safe space for people of all ages and backgrounds. With tall bookshelves and rainbow colours, the shop invites you to discover the wondrous world of queer literature in a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Behind the tills, surrounded by LGBTQI flags and pins, stands Erica Gillingham. She has a PhD in lesbian love stories in young adult literature, and has worked as a part of the shop’s tight-knit team for the past three years, alongside her role as DIVA books editor. Despite wearing a facemask, you can tell that she has a contagious smile, and the excitement in her voice reveals her true passion for the books she spends most of her days with.
“Lesbian representation in fiction is important because it’s always important to see your life reflected back at you and to have access to stories in which you can imagine yourself taking part,” Gillingham says. The beginning of this month saw the end of Lesbian Visibility Week, and though this served as an important reminder to celebrate and show solidarity with LGBTQI women, it should not be the only time of year where attention is given to lesbian experiences, issues, and culture. In this spirit, Gillingham agreed to share her best recommendations for lesbian fiction to add to your reading list.
In At The Deep End by Kate Davies
“In At The Deep End came out last year and won the 2020 Polari Book Prize. This is the book for you if you want to read about the London dating scene and first lesbian relationships. It has amazing sex scenes and it’s laugh-out-loud funny. As the title suggests, it’s about the protagonist’s first lesbian relationship that goes very deep. It is also grappling with the complexity of dating in the 21st century so there are some complicated bits which give it a lot of heart.”
Last Night At The Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
“The Telegraph Club is a great lesbian bar that I wish was still around. In terms of lesbian representation, this is my favourite book of the year thus far. It is set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown and tells the story of a young woman, Lily, who is slowly realising her sexuality and desire for other women. She also dreams of space and wants to send rockets to the moon. The story pulls in all these different threads of what’s happening in 1950s America, and there is a really sweet love story at the centre of it.”
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis
“This one is set in Uruguay in the 1970s and features four women and their stories of friendships and romantic relationships over a lifetime. There are very few LGBTQI books that are written by Latinx authors or that are set in Latin America, so I’m always intrigued when one crops up. I haven’t had the chance to read it myself yet but have heard so much great stuff from people, including the author of the previous book I mentioned, so this is next on my to-be-read list.”
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
“Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy came out a couple of years ago and is a beautiful novel that follows Patsy, the protagonist, and her daughter, Tru. It takes place between Jamaica and New York City and tells the story of their life on the margins in terms of gender, sexuality, race, status and motherhood. I think the way sexuality and gender is portrayed in the book opens up those grey areas. Neither Patsy nor Tru are easily defined in who they are and I appreciate that it defies categorisation.”
The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
“The seven husbands Of Evelyn Hugo is set in mid-century Hollywood and follows a big starlet. The title does not suggest it’s going to be queer but it’s one of the best representations of bisexuality I’ve ever read. It’s also a story I did not want to put down. Taylor Jenkins Reid is an incredible woman and I just keep telling this to everyone.”
White Houses by Amy Bloom
“Eleanor Roosevelt was the first lady with FDR and she had a lesbian lover, Lorena Hick, for about seven or eight years. This story is a fictionalisation of them coming back together as friends but there is a real intimacy from their past romantic relationship. It takes place right after FDR has died, and it’s focused on two women in their 50s who are very close and tender with one another as they deal with the grief and fallout of that. It’s a super gentle book, while also highlighting a relationship that we don’t often see in literature.
Carol by Patricia Highsmith
“There are the obvious classics like Orange Are Not The Only Fruit and The Well Of Loneliness, but I think the literary writing of Patricia Highsmith’s Carol is phenomenal. It’s her only non-thriller, but in the romance, there is a thriller-like obsessive element that is different but akin to the film. If you have only seen the film, it is definitely worth reading the book.”
Fair Play by Tove Jansson
“Tove Johansson is most famous for the Moomins, but she also had a multi-decade relationship with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä and this book is a series of short vignettes that reflect their lives. It’s kind of autobiographical fiction. One of the characters is a writer, the other is an artist, in the same way as Tuulikki and Tove were. It is a gentle book with beautifully written vignettes of two women whose lives are completely new together after so many decades.”
While LGBTQI literature has made its way into the mainstream since Gay’s The Word first opened its doors, there will always be a need for such places solely dedicated to sharing queer stories. Getting lost in the lesbian fiction section, the LGBTQI poetry corner, and the pile of books on glorious queer pop culture feels like a comforting embrace. It becomes a second home to a whole community that is too often made to feel out of place.
As I left Gay’s the Word with a fresh stack of books under my arm, I felt like I was closing the door to Narnia behind me. I was eager to return and once again be greeted by familiar faces that would encourage me to set out on new adventures – whether dipping into the universe of a bisexual Hollywood starlet or a tender tale of young lesbian love in the 50s.
Find more of Erica’s reading recommendations in DIVA every month. On sale now via linktr.ee/divamagazine.