Emma Donoghue, Astray (2012)

Emma Donoghue is one of my favourite writers and I particularly love her historical short fiction.

The stories in Astray are based on fragmentary and marginal historical sources, such as news reports, letters, obituaries, legal records and museum exhibits. The overarching theme is people who are on the move, out of place, in transition physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The book is organised into three sections (‘Departures’, ‘In Transit’, and ‘Arrivals and Aftermaths’), and the characters we meet within them are immigrants and emigrants, drifters, adventurers and runaways.

Each story explores the opportunities and risks of movement and boundary-crossing, what’s gained and what’s lost. An elephant is sold to P.T. Barnum, much to the dismay of his zookeeper. A woman supporting her family through prostitution in mid-Victorian London considers making a fresh start in Canada. An eighteenth-century wife tricks her husband out of his fortune and disappears. Another wife persuades a slave to run away with her. A married couple’s new start in America is blighted by tragedy before they can be reunited. Two young men go prospecting in the gold rush. A frontierswoman drags a prodigal husband home. A child is adopted and sent abroad against her first mother’s will. A seventeenth-century puritan community grapples with accusations of sexual “deviance”. A child soldier is caught up in a campaign of organised rape. The daughter of a businessman in New York discovers that the man she knew as her father once lived as a woman. A lesbian artist contemplates her life as her partner descends into dementia.

I really enjoyed Astray and found the stories fascinating and poignant. Donoghue is an emigrant/immigrant herself, moving from Ireland to Canada to pursue a relationship. The ‘Afterword’, in which she talks about how this experience shaped the book, creates a real sense of empathy and resonance. As with much of her work, there’s a focus on the lives of women and queer people, as well as people who live on the margins and don’t really fit into any normative categories.

*** Just one word of warning: ‘The Hunt’ is a deeply disturbing story about rape and I think it could be extremely triggering for people who’ve experienced sexualised violence

Soundtrack to the Week

Image shows the cover of the Be Good Tanyas album Blue Horse. It is a painting of a steam train travelling through a dark night

The Be Good Tanyas, Blue Horse (2000)

This is an old favourite full of lovely covers and interpretations of traditional songs. It was one of the first albums I bought when I started getting into Americana. Top tracks, The Coo Coo Bird and Light Enough to Travel

Image shows the cover of Joan Baez's album Diamonds & Rust. It shows a photograph of Baez in a black v-neck blouse with the sun behind her.

Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust (1975)

I generally prefer Joan Baez’s later work, but I really like this album of covers and her own compositions. The title track is just one of the best and most beautiful break-up songs ever. Top track, Diamonds & Rust

Image shows the cover of Ferron's album Phantom Center. It is a black and white photograph of the artist sitting on the ground leaning against a tree

Ferron, Phantom Center (1990)

You probably won’t have heard of Ferron unless you’re into niche lesbian music (like my partner is), but she’s big in the women’s music festival circuit and has influenced songwriters like Ani DiFranco and Mary Gauthier.  Top track, White Wing Mercy

Image shows the cover of First Aid Kit's album Ruins. It is a black and white photograph of the artists faces and hands

First Aid Kit, Ruins (2018)

Beautiful album that drew me into First Aid Kit fandom. Each of their albums has a distinctive feel and I think this one is the most country-influenced. Top track, Rebel Heart 

Image shows the cover of Ani DiFranco's album Red Letter Year. It shows a photograph of the moon on a plain red background

Ani DiFranco, Red Letter Year (2008) 

Confession: I’ve never managed to get into Ani DiFranco. I’m not sure what it is because I can hear the amazing talent there. I’ll keep trying and maybe one day I’ll get it. I do like Red Letter Year, which is her (relatively) happy “I’m in a good relationship and had a baby” album. Top tracks ‘Emancipated Minor’ and ‘The Atom’.

Lesbian/Queer Women Link Love

Some things I’ve found interesting recently

Anne Lister and a Theology of Naming Lesbians

Interview with a Queer Reader – Julie Rak Talks Women’s Bookstores, Gay Biker Books, Finding Your Own Queer History in Books, and More!

Remembering Beth Brant 

Why the UK’s biggest lesbian archive is so important

Lammas Day

Lammas Day is the first harvest festival of the year. It marks the wheat harvest and is usually celebrated around the 1st of August.

We didn’t manage to bake the traditional bread, but I made a vat of ratatouille because I thought, well, it kind of represents a harvest. One of my friends is giving us their bread-maker though, so that seems seasonally appropriate.

I’m not sure what I’m ‘harvesting’, in a personal sense, this year. I had an emotional crisis last winter which is still affecting me. That’s been horrible, but I’ve learned a lot from it.  Work is going well and we have decent housing for the next year, so I guess we’re also harvesting some stability in our lives for the first time in quite a few years.