With a voice that captures the changing face of contemporary Ireland as easily as the British Isles in the 1300s or London in the 1700s, lesbian writer Emma Donoghue is known for taking on fascinating times and characters. Since the success of her first book, Stir-Fry, published when she was only 25 years old, Donoghue has written four other novels, including Slammerkin and Life Mask, three collections of short stories, two books of literary history, two plays, and edited two anthologies.
A five-time finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards, her latest book, Landing, was recently nominated for an award in the bisexual category. Donoghue returns to the historical novel with her next book, The Sealed Letter (due out later this year), which takes place in 19th-century London and features the feminist Emily Faithful. I recently spoke to Donoghue about The Sealed Letter, how motherhood changed her writing, and why books about lesbians are important.
AfterEllen.com: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
AE: Growing up, did you look for lesbian writers or stories to read?
I’ve never been able to track [this book] down. I paid good money for this, but later on in a fit of disgust I threw it away. [laughs] I should have kept it.
AE: So then was it important for you to represent lesbian characters in your own stories? Is that something you thought about when you first began writing?
AE: It’s interesting. I often hear minority writers asked if they resent being placed in a specific category — whether it has to do with sexuality, race or even nationality — but I sometimes wonder about pride. Many readers are desperate for books with lesbian story lines or even characters. Do you ever feel proud that your voice and access contributes to an area of literature that’s still relatively underrepresented?
First of all, as a lesbian reader, I was so hungry for it, so who am I to get all snotty now? Also, there’s really nothing to be ashamed or sheepish about. Just as Toni Morrison needn’t get sheepish that she’s writing about black people, I have no reason to be sheepish about writing about queer people. As long as I write about them well. I often include straight characters, whereas so many straight authors never include queer characters. So I think I’m doing fine in terms of the diversity of sexuality.
Of course, it’s occasionally inconvenient if your work is perceived as only interesting to lesbians, but that’s really a problem of marketing or readers’ perceptions. When I first started to write and publish, I was aware that there were lesbian novelists out there who were terribly embarrassed or awkward about it.
But even writers who are women — I used to read interviews with them and they’d say, "Don’t call me a woman writer!" That attitude or fearfulness of being labeled, I think, is more of a limitation than the label itself. If you are perfectly happy to accept the label and keep publishing good stuff, then other readers will come to you.