A love story between a man from earth and a double-sexed alien? This was a genuine case of going where no man had gone before, as Star Trek described it at the time. But The Left Hand’s fine writing and intensely real portrait of another world made it a classic. Now somewhat overshadowed by LeGuin’s Earthsea series, which became a film, The Left Hand remains a powerful story on many levels.
Its hero Genly Ai is sent by a future galactic community as the first to tell the androgynous natives of Winter that they are not alone. He gathers their legends, discovers their culture, and makes his case to kings and politicians. Most on Winter believe him but are puzzled. Why they should care about strange creatures from other planets. While others are put off by his distrust and awkwardness. But when his life is threatened, he has to learn to understand that he and the natives of Winter are not so different.
Lavender Menace‘s copy of The Left Hand of Darkness comes from the infamous Ace Books, who published The Lord of the Rings in the US in violation of copyright law. Like so many queer books in those days, it was bought in a bus station.
Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson Women’s Press, 1984 ISBN 0704339439
‘Safe spaces’ in 1984 were thin on the ground
‘Safe spaces’ for queer people were rarely heard of in 1984. This mystery by a lesbian writer explores the idea of ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’. In a liberal, wealthy city, challenging the system isn’t supposed to lead to murder. But when Pam’s radical print shop collective proposes to merge with a lesbian typesetter, she is horrified to find the shop’s machinery smashed and one of her co-workers shot dead.
Quiet, methodical Pam teams up with impulsive Hadley from the lesbian collective in order to solve the mystery. At first, they are less than serious, but then they become lovers as well as fellow-sleuths. As Pam tries to come to terms with a complete change in her life, the situation spins out of control – and the police, saboteurs and foreign rebel movements are involved. Pam and Hadley are no longer sure if they can trust anyone – including each other.
Mysteries are one of the most popular types of lesbian books today, but few deal with the world of queer books and presses. Lesbian writer Barbara Wilson, now known as Barbara Sjoholm, founded Seal Press in the US, lived in London in the 1980s, and came to Lavender Menace to read from Murder in the Collective.
This is a taster of a longer appreciation of Wilson’s first crime novel, which will be published as a longer blog soon.
When we opened in 1982, one person asked shyly, ‘Are there were really enough lesbian and gay books to fill an entire shop?’.
Today, there are enough queer books (as we would call them now) to fill an enormous library. Small presses such as Onlywomen, Gay Men’s Press, and Brilliance Books opened the door. Larger publishers followed and created such classic bestsellers as Rubyfruit Jungle and A Boy’s Own Story.
Forty years on the queer library has so many floors, attics, cellars, corners, and balconies, that some of them are hard to find. The rise of the internet and changing fashions in publishing have meant that the original presses have closed – of all of them, only Virago Press still exists. Many of their books are now out of print and unknown.
But at the same time there are new queer writers and new shops and publishers. After 20 years which saw independent bookshops in decline, two queer booksellers have set up business in the UK since 2018 – Category IS Bookshop in Glasgow and Portal Bookshop in York. We don’t seem to have to worry about having enough books or readers.
This blog will wander through the queer library, climb the ladders to some of the inaccessible shelves, try the keys to rooms which aren’t usually visited, and help visitors make their own maps. We’ll call on guest bloggers to take us where we haven’t been before. We want to use our knowledge of the start of queer bookselling to connect the older books and writers with the new ones – it’s all one story.
We’ve already started blogging about the books in our growing archive – found in our own and friends’ collections and secondhand shops. And we invite you to comment – tell us about your part of the queer library and take part in readers’ conversations which wouldn’t have been possible when we opened the shop in the 1980s.
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