Amelia Possanza, LESBIAN LOVE STORY: A Memoir in Archives

Amelia Possanza, LESBIAN LOVE STORY: A Memoir in Archives

Zibby speaks to book publicist and debut author Amelia Possanza about Lesbian Love Story, a riveting, inventive book that weaves together memoir, archival nonfiction, and fictional passages to uncover seven lesbian romance stories that were written out of history. Amelia defines what the word lesbian means to her and explains how and why she decided to explore these stories of untraditional relationships and lesbians rejecting mainstream norms. She also talks about her queer swim team, her coming-out experiences, her book-filled childhood, her job in book publicity, and her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amelia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir In Archives.

Amelia Possanza: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: This is so fun because I first knew you as a book publicist trying to spread the word about other books. Then I saw you had a book coming out. I’m like, that is so exciting. Then I read your book. You’re obviously a phenomenal writer and took us through this whole process of digging deep and learning about lesbians through history and developing real attachments to a lot of them and sprinkling in little bits and pieces about yourself along the way. This is just so fun. Thanks for coming on.

Amelia: Thanks for having me. I like to think that now I’ve become a publicist for lesbians. We need someone to spread the word.

Zibby: You’ve just hired yourself. They can’t even fire you. They’re stuck with you. Why don’t you explain a little bit about your book for listeners?

Amelia: I love the way that you described it. I’m going to have to write that down and use that myself.

Zibby: Go ahead.

Amelia: It started out as the story of me trying to find the lesbian role models that I had never really learned about growing up. I’m such a big reader. I see reading as such a way to understand the experiences that I hope to have or I’m going to have before they actually happen in my life. Oh, what’s it going to be like to go to college? I think people feel the same way about having a baby, getting married. I just didn’t have that. I ended up finding seven couples, some of them — kind of, I fudged it — nontraditional couples, friends or people united in a political struggle. I wrote a chapter about each of them. Each one represents a different era in lesbian history from the turn of the century up until now with me representing the now. I used a lot of their original words. Originally, I wanted to tell their stories in my own voice. Then I realized that they left us these words about being queer in really difficult times. They used different words than I would use to describe their gender identity or their sexuality. I realized that I just wanted to use their own words so other people could meet them and maybe develop the attachment that I did or a similar attachment.

Zibby: You even have a moment where you convince your friend to take you to the gravesite of one of the women you’ve been studying. It was so moving. How she had different names on her gravestone, you take us through it in such visual detail that it makes us feel — I won’t speak for everybody — makes me as the reader feel like I am there with you as you go into the library. Then I did this. We’re like, where are we going to go next? Where’s she going to take us? The gravesite, for me, was just, oh, my gosh. You here now, her there, this confluence of past and present and passing the torch, it was so vivid and moving.

Amelia: Thank you. I just want to pass the torch to readers in that way. Part of the reason that I included the diaries and the letters and the oral histories of these lesbians is because I want other people to go out and find history, not necessarily of lesbians, but whatever their passion is. It’s all around us. The fact that the gravesite you mentioned, Mabel Hampton’s grave, is here in New York City, a forty-minute drive away from where I lived — it’s totally unmarked. It’s not a national historic landmark or a celebrated place. The fact that I can just go and visit is kind of wild to me. I really do want other people to go find more things, more role models for whatever type of human that we want to be.

Zibby: It’s amazing. I was sifting through because I really wanted to know more about you and loved the little bits where you had your own story come through. Then of course, towards the end, you’re like, by the way, I don’t know, maybe I’m not a lesbian. I was like, are you kidding me? I just learned about all these people. I’m kidding. Talk a little bit about what that was like, even that photo that you saw. That was so funny when you were supposed to identify who was beautiful. Everybody was like, “Wait, she likes the one wearing Doc Martens and cargo pants?” or something. You’re like, was I not supposed to think she was the most beautiful? As a kid.

Amelia: It’s funny what you say about, oh, by the way, I’m not a lesbian, which is kind of a joke. Also, I started out this project being like, what is a lesbian? I think it’s a word that a lot of people giggle when they say it. It’s a funny-sounding word. A lot of comedy shows that I’ve been to, it can be a little bit of a punchline on its own. Have you seen Bend It Like Beckham, the soccer movie?

Zibby: Yes, of course.

Amelia: When the mom is like, “Get your lesbian feet out of my shoes,” what’s the joke there? Just that she’s saying the word lesbian. I was very interested in that particular word and going from Sappho, who gave us that word — not a lot is known about her — up through the turn of the century when there were other words that people were using, to it becoming a very politicized thing in the seventies, and also a very exclusive thing. Sappho, original lesbian, had a husband. Then in the seventies, we have people saying, you can only be a lesbian if you never talk to men. It’s not even about having sexual relationships with them. You just can’t even speak to them. Obviously, some people really rejected that. It’s funny to me that it has shifted throughout the decades to include more people, to exclude the very people that maybe gave us that word. By the end, I felt like, what does it mean to me? I want to define it on my own terms. I felt like what was special or drew me to all the people, all the lesbians that I chose for my book, is they all lived their lives outside of the mainstream. They risked a lot to live their lives authentically. One of them was sent to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan for potential shock treatments. That didn’t stop her from living her life the way she wanted. To me, by the end, that was the definition of lesbian that I chose for myself, people who have the courage just to go out there and reject the mainstream narratives for women or other trans and queer people, who are inspiring to me for the normalcy that they reject.

Zibby: Amazing. It’s sort of crazy how much digging you actually had to do.

Amelia: That’s why I want other people to go out there and do it too. I can’t do it all, but I want more of these stories. I shared it with a bookseller. She wrote to me that her partner had been transcribing a great-great-grandmother’s diary about the great-great-grandmother’s romance with another woman in the twenties and thirties. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, your partner needs to keep doing that.” We shouldn’t have to dig for these nontraditional stories. They should be around to inspire everyone. What kind of world would we have if the heroes that we presented weren’t military heroes and statesmen, but people who were daring in other ways? Like my cat, who is daring in her interrupting of this interview.

Zibby: You also talk about the fact that the traditional, stereotypical lesbian is not how you were presenting. You were literally in a queer swimming group. Someone’s like, you’re not a lesbian, right? You’re like, I am literally in a queer swimming group. What am I doing here?

Amelia: When I was writing the book, I thought a lot about belonging. I think it’s such a human thing to not want to feel alone, to be part of a community. With swimming, and this queer swim team in particular, I was like, I want to belong. I just moved to New York. Here’s a group that I could join. I think it’s funny that even within communities like the queer community, there are then gradients. I found out that this team, which I had accidentally joined in this wonderful way, that it was really a lot of cis, white, gay men. That’s what being gay meant to them. They weren’t thinking about the L and the B and the T in the LGBTQ acronym. Going back to those lesbians in the seventies who were very exclusionary, some of them, for them, part of belonging was excluding other people. That push/pull was something that kept coming up in my research. As people who were marginalized or didn’t want to participate in mainstream society found each other, they could belong to this little subgroup, but sometimes those subgroups existed by pushing other people out. I don’t think it’s unique to the queer experience to want to belong to a community and find that, but still be as expansive as possible and not be leaving people out for these really persnickety reasons.

Zibby: Totally. Everybody wants to belong to something. That’s the human condition. You want to connect. All of that.

Amelia: Even if you aren’t a lesbian, I would imagine.

Zibby: Even if you aren’t a lesbian.

Amelia: I would imagine that you would want to belong in some way.

Zibby: I would not want to necessarily belong to a queer swim group, but that’s okay. That’s because I don’t really want to be swimming in New York City.

Amelia: You should try it.

Zibby: I don’t know. I feel like all the pools are so cold. Aren’t the pools freezing? I’ve tried. I do actually love to swim. Every time I’ve tried to swim in New York, I’m like, this is freezing. Now I’m outside. My hair’s wet.

Amelia: I know people who swim this time of year. The ocean is below fifty degrees. They jump in. They say it has all these health benefits and healing properties. I’m too much of a wimp. It’s not for me.

Zibby: No. I’m a complete wimp. I’m like, ninety-degree pool? All right. Maybe not that hot.

Amelia: Sauna, hot tub.

Zibby: Exactly. Let me just wade. You had a funny moment where you told your college roommate that you were a lesbian. She was irritated at you. She was like, oh, my gosh, I don’t want to have to shave my legs either. You were fuming. You’re like, I shave my legs. That’s not what it is. How do you deal with crazy comments that you get like that even now? Do you get comments like that now?

Amelia: That is such a funny question. I feel like the book kind of started from a place of anger, like what you mentioned of someone seeing me and being like, you’re on this queer swim team, but you’re not a lesbian. What do you mean? It’s funny that it ended up having love in the title when it started from this place of anger. Now with comments like that, I do have a little bit more grace for people who say things like that, especially, way more grace than I did when I was a college student trying to come out. It was met with this total misunderstanding. Now when people say things like that — a lot of us don’t want to have to conform to these rules, like shaving your legs. My gay male friends talk about this too. There’s all these beauty standards that we don’t want to live up to. It’s hard to toss out. I think now if that same roommate came back and said that to me, I would like to think that I’d have a more gracious answer. Come on in. Stop shaving your legs. You don’t have to be a lesbian to do that. I do think that all of these lesbians that I studied just had a wonderful way of rejecting mainstream norms. I think if someone made a comment like that to me today, I would just be like, yes, you don’t have to be a lesbian, but come on in. Let’s all live lives on our own terms.

Zibby: Amazing. I feel like next time I have a research topic I need covered, I’m going to you. Your research prowess is pretty awesome.

Amelia: My mom was a librarian.

Zibby: Your mom was a librarian? I am totally not surprised to hear that.

Amelia: I cannot take full credit on my own.

Zibby: It’s in your blood. You can’t help it. Tell me about how you got here and becoming a book publicist and then decided to write a book. How did you get into the literary world to begin with and all of that?

Amelia: I’m going to say, again, my mom’s a librarian. I feel very lucky. When I was little, my house was just covered and covered in books. My mom actually had this card catalog. Did you know what that is?

Zibby: Of course, I know what that is.

Amelia: I’m going to explain in case listeners don’t know what it is. Before you could go on the New York Public Library’s online research catalog and just type in, “I want to read A Little Life. Do they have any copies?” they were little drawers. You would pull them out. They had index cards with the call numbers. There was one in our dining room growing up.

Zibby: No way.

Amelia: You could just pull out the little drawers. I think that that made me such an eager reader and want to tell other people about books. A huge part of my mom’s role as a librarian was recommending books to people. It was for young people. Oh, you’re interested in sea turtles. Here are some suggestions about what to read about sea turtles. I think that that same sort of spark easily led to being a book publicist, talking to journalists and reviewers. Oh, you liked such-and-such book two years ago. I have another one for you. I have the same author coming. I work a lot with Angie Cruz. It’s always really fun to be able to say, “We have another book from Angie Cruz,” and go out to all of her supporters. I stand by what I said. In some ways, writing this book feels like being a publicist for these forgotten lesbians. The first chapter about Mary , me just reading her memoir and trying to, hopefully, retell it in a way that’s a little more exciting than her memoir — no offense, Mary. It wasn’t the most beautifully written book I’ve ever encountered.

Zibby: I spent the last two nights at Aspen Words events for Angie Cruz. Were you there?

Amelia: No, I was out of town. I just got back.

Zibby: She did great. She was amazing. Two nights ago, she did a reading from How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water. She was so dramatic, her whole actress persona. Oh, my gosh, she was amazing. She spoke beautifully last night at the Aspen Words ceremony. I was sorry she didn’t win the literary prize. She’s really impressive. I had had her on my podcast. After the last two nights, I feel like I know her much better, so maybe I did a bad job. I don’t know. I should probably go back and listen to that one. I’m a fan.

Amelia: It’s so fun to be like, here are books that you might enjoy, whether they’re books that I’m working on for my job or they’re books that I’ve read and then I’m writing about and totally nerding out about.

Zibby: What books are you working on for your job?

Amelia: What books am I working on for my job? We’ve got a debut novel coming out in the fall called Where There Was Fire by John Manuel Arias about multiple generations of women in Costa Rica who were affected by an American banana plantation that comes in and employs a lot of the men to work there and is up to a lot of nefarious and bad things. There are ghosts and old letters and mystery. It opens with the night that one of the character’s father disappears. The banana plantation burns down. You’re unspooling a mystery but also with these strong women characters throughout.

Zibby: Amazing. Now that you’ve written a book, do you want to write more books? How did you feel about the whole process? How is that now informing your work as a publicist being on the other side?

Amelia: It’s funny because I actually think I enjoyed writing a book more than I am currently enjoying having written a book. The having written a book part is very similar to my job, but the writing a book is very different. It does feel like the only thing to do now, if that was the part I enjoyed, is to go do it again. I’m thinking that maybe if I wrote all of the stuff about queer history, I kind of want to write a novel about, what would a weird queer future look like?

Zibby: That’d be cool.

Amelia: Fiction, but probably still inspired by lots of other source material because that’s just the way that I work, getting excited about other source material and wanting to tell people about it.

Zibby: Amazing. I interviewed Judy Batalion about her book, The Light of Days. She had been inspired to do that because she was digging deep in the library and found a journal written in Yiddish by someone in, not a concentration camp, in a ghetto who helped with an uprising and found these secret historical documents that showed how women actually had been so much a part of this movement. I’m not explaining that very well. It’s a similar thing. She had it translated and just couldn’t believe it. Then she went on this deep dive. I feel like the two of you should go together — you could do a TV show, Deep Dive, or something, where you take three people and put them in the library. They’re like, find everything you can about this. Go.

Amelia: Did you ever watch that show on PBS, History Detectives?

Zibby: No, but look, good, someone already did it.

Amelia: It was on for twelve seasons. I watched it growing up. I think in the back of my mind, I was like, I don’t need a real career, I can grow up and be a history detective. It was a professor, an auction appraiser, and someone else who just would go in. Someone would be like, “I have this pocket watch. I think it belonged to Mark Twain. The family lore is that it belonged to Mark Twain. Can you go out there and figure out if it belonged to Mark Twain?” It’s a lot of footage of people reading stuff in libraries and using those microfilm machines and trying to decipher handwriting. I mistakenly was like, this is what I’m going to do when I grow up.

Zibby: You can reboot the show. It’s perfect.

Amelia: Selfishly, I would want it to be Queer History Detectives because that’s all I would do.

Zibby: I’ll take it. It’s fine. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Amelia: So much of my advice is centered on the promotion process.

Zibby: That’s fine. I’m sure people would love that kind of advice from a big-house publicist.

Amelia: Maybe I’ll do one of each. My non-promotional process piece of advice is find the thing that you cannot stop thinking about. I’ve definitely had friends who are writers pitch me high-concept ideas that sound really cool. I’m like, knowing you deeply as a friend, could you really write about high-society models and talk about it for the next five years? I don’t think that you could do that. Maybe that’s actually a piece of advice that bridges writing and promotion. You need to find the idea that’s going to haunt you and stay with you. Even someone like Angie Cruz, who we were just talking about, people are going to ask her about How Not to Drown, but also Dominicana. I think of Harry Styles and how at his concerts he still sings “What Makes You Beautiful,” that original One Direction song that made them so famous. I’m like, if you’re going to have a hit, you need to be able to bring new energy to it for decades to come. You can’t be like, I’m so embarrassed about “What Makes You Beautiful,” and I never want to hear it again.

Zibby: Interesting. That’s similar to — did you read Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld yet?

Amelia: No, not yet.

Zibby: One of the stars of the book — I say stars because he’s a music star who has a really big pop song but then is kind of embarrassed by it. He’s like, no, but really, I’m more poetic, and this is the kind of stuff I really like to do. He’s known for this big pop song. Funny. Was that your promotional advice too? Did you have a second piece?

Amelia: I think that was also my promotional advice. If you’re going to write something or if you’re going to have to promote it, you’ve got to be able to talk about it for years and years to come. It’s going to be the thing you think about when you wake up in the middle of the night, when you get up in the morning. If you eventually have an agent and an editor, it’s just going to be the thing that everyone wants to talk to you about, so you better find it the most fascinating thing in the world. I also like to imagine that when I read, I can tell if the author writing is excited about it. One of my favorite books is Moby-Dick, which I managed to sneak a reference to in the introduction to Lesbian Love Story in spite of the fact it’s a story written by a man predominantly featuring only men out at sea without any women. I feel like I love that book just because Melville seems like he’s having so much fun. Even at the moments when I’m like, dude, you’ve gone so far into whale history, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I’m like, but you’re still having fun, so I’m having fun.

Zibby: There you go. Melville, the most fun guy around. That’s what we all think all the time. Amelia, thank you so much for coming on. This was really great. Congratulations on your book. Start working on the reboot of that show. I actually think you could sell it. I think it would be really fun.

Amelia: Thank you. The Queer History Detectives, I’m going to start my pitch here.

Zibby: Go for it.

Amelia: Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun to get to know you in this other role.

Zibby: You too. Yes, I’m not just on email.

Amelia: You’ve got this beautiful library.

Zibby: Thank you. Yes, I do. Thanks a lot. Take care.

Amelia: Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Amelia Possanza, LESBIAN LOVE STORY: A Memoir in Archives

LESBIAN LOVE STORY: A Memoir in Archives by Amelia Possanza

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