Monday, July 22, 2024

Amelia Possanza. (Photo: Becca Farsace)

Growing up with a librarian for a mother and a classicist for a father, Amelia Possanza remembers a childhood surrounded by stories, but as she got older, she began to realize very few of them included lesbians. When she moved to Brooklyn, Ney york, she found queer community in Team New York Aquatics, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ swim team, but it was dominated by gay men. She turned toward history, seeking out the women who would ultimately become her role models in romance and in life. A book publicist by day, she jokes that she became “the publicist for lesbians” as she researched the life stories of seven of those women, exploring their experiences with gender and sexuality at various times throughout history. Combined with reflections about her own experience, that research turned into “Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir in Archives,” released in May 2023. To celebrate her upcoming paperback release, Possanza will speak at Porter Square Books on May 29. We interviewed Possanza on Thursday; her words have been edited for length and clarity.

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What inspired you to begin this research? Did you already know you wanted to write a book?

No, if I had realized at the beginning that it was going to be a book, I would have been so intimidated I don’t think I would have been able to keep going! It started because I knew I wanted to learn about gay history, and I thought before I did that, I should read a book about Stonewall. A few pages into the introduction, the writer said Stonewall was named for Mary Casal’s memoir, “The Stone Wall,” one of the first lesbian autobiographies in American history. I had never even heard of Casal, so I decided I should start by reading her book, and then I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole from there. Two things I do want to note: There’s very little evidence that the bar was named for the book (most people consider that to be a myth), and the idea that queer history began with Stonewall is definitely a misconception, one that I had too.

Anyway, I read this memoir, and a lot of it really resonated with me, even though it was written by someone who lived around the turn of the century and had a very different life. But it wasn’t the most well-written book I’ve ever read, and I started to wonder how I could rewrite this story in a way that would make it interesting to people. It just kept growing from there.

Do you have a story you feel most connected to?

Mabel Hampton became a huge favorite, I think in part because I listened to so many hours of oral history tapes of her. Listening to her voice felt so intimate in a way that reading Mary Casal’s memoir or reading others’ letters and diaries didn’t. There’s nothing like hearing a person’s voice. Also, she was alive for so much of the 20th century. Mabel was there for the Harlem Renaissance, but she was also there for World War II. She saw so much, and I realized she was someone who could continue to come back into the story. She didn’t just need to live in her own chapter; I could continue to revisit her and see what she was up to as time passed.

What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Writing this book was a good exercise in checking my assumptions. For instance, when I listened to the oral history tapes with Rusty Brown, you could hear her cats, which I thought was so funny: This stereotype of lesbians and their cats was true even back then. Or in Mabel’s oral history tapes, she talks a lot about fidelity and infidelity. I had gone in with this bias that she had this perfect 40-year relationship, and I was bringing my bias about polyamory during that era. She says a lot about specific other people, about knowing her partner Lillian was up to something and turning a blind eye. She just has this whole way of talking about it that made me check my own assumptions about how people live, then and now. That was a surprising and interesting journey for me.

Why did you decide to weave yourself into this research-based book? 

There’s a lot of fuzziness, for lack of a better word, in queer history, because people weren’t allowed to tell their stories, were afraid to tell their stories or were using coded language in their stories. In a lot of government documents, Mabel Hampton called Lillian her sister, because that was a way to have some kind of recognized relationship on paper, since they obviously couldn’t marry. As a result, there’s a lot of sleuthing and detective work that needs to happen when you’re doing research like this, and that was what first made me realize that I wanted to add some commentary in the book. I definitely did not come up with this form, and I was particularly inspired by Jenn Shapland and Saidiya Hartman who have both written great books this way. Honestly, I think another reason was because I felt like people weren’t talking about the good stuff! In Mary Casal’s memoir, I kept thinking I wanted a kissing scene. I wanted to help imagine the rest of their lives, the parts of their lives they couldn’t be fully honest about.

Having done this deep archival dive, do you have any takeaways about how we should be preserving history?

It’s a great question, and one that almost feels funny because everything is digital now. But, basically, yes. I was talking about this with a group of people, and I said everyone should talk to people they know, because who knows what stories the people in your life have. Someone very kindly pushed back on that and suggested we should actually be interviewing people we don’t know or people we don’t like. We’re all stuck in our bubbles, and it’s so important to go beyond our own communities. I thought that was such a good point. But the bottom line is yes, we should be thinking about how we’re going to preserve our stories.

Part of the issue is that these histories weren’t taken down, but I think a bigger piece of it is that people didn’t always get to tell their stories in their own words. I had to rely on records like newspapers and prison rosters, which aren’t always accurate, so there’s a big lesson in going straight to the source when possible and in not taking for granted that what we’re reading in the news about communities of people is always the truth. What stood out to me in these lives was the community care that they all practiced and yet those stories don’t get told, because history books and newspapers are more concerned with big moments like politicians’ actions, wars, things like that. Where are the stories of communities, or of labor movements, or of other, slower day-to-day work? And how would those stories inspire us to live differently? This issue is not specific to queer history, but across the board the things that don’t get taken down are arguably more important than the things that do. We know all these things about the lives of famous people, for instance, but what about how all of us live? Do we know how our neighbors live? Do we even know our neighbors’ names? These are the things we need to be thinking about as we think about how to preserve our own histories.