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
Nice piece from BBC Witness about the moment a group of lesbian activists stormed the Six O’Clock news to protest about Section 28.
I was eleven years’ old when this happened and I remember it vividly. I wasn’t the kind of kid who always knew they were gay, but the protest really affected me and stuck in my mind. On some level, I seemed to know that it mattered and it had something to do with me.
I’m constantly amazed by just how different the world has been for LGBTQ people who grew up in the UK after the repeal of Section 28.
In this new wondrous age with Supreme Court decisions affirming gay and lesbian marriages, and gender being redefined as nowhere near as rigid as it has previously been defined, I sometimes wonder if anyone knows what our lives were like at the time when I was a young woman, trying to figure out how to live my life honestly in the face of so much hatred and danger. Who are we if we cannot speak truthfully about our lives? How did we come to this new age in which we can take our lovers home or to church or walk hand in hand down the street without lies or pretense or a carefully crafted fictional stance to protect us?
Speaking truth to power was a tenet of the early women’s movement. We would change the world by the simple act of declaring our truth and refusing to back down or lie no matter how virulent the response.
How virulent was the response? Take a look at the coming-out stories shared in Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South (NewSouth Books). You will see the internal evolution of people who wanted simply to be themselves. It was not easy or simple or even a matter of confronting prejudice. Most of these people’s deepest struggles were with themselves, their families and their faith, their most personal convictions.
Confronting the enforced silence of manners and social expectations, we claimed our lives for ourselves. Was it heroic? Was it audacious, marvelous, scary and day by day painful? Of course. Did we change the world? Look around you and marvel.
Dorothy Allison, Gay and Grateful: On the Crooked Path to the Crooked Letter
In a final, desperate bid for survival, Frances Lorien Van de Oest, heiress to a vast fortune, escapes from her kidnappers and finds herself thrust, naked and bleeding, onto the cold dark streets of an unknown city. There, she is picked up by a charismatic thief named Spanner and reborn as Lore, someone for whom identity has become a fractured, shifting, untrustworthy thing.
Slow River unfolds gradually. The opening narrative, told by Lore in the first person, is set three years after the kidnap, and a few months after her breakup with Spanner. The second narrative tells the story of life with Spanner, beginning immediately after Lore escapes from the kidnappers. The third follows her upbringing, at two year intervals, from the age of five until she is abducted. This triple narrative structure creates a powerful sense of momentum. Lore’s stories move forward in parallel towards a point of convergence, both in terms of time and self.