I’d just left school. I knew that I was queer (a lot of us used that word as an umbrella term, back then) and that I wanted to write. But lesbian fiction as a genre – in as much as I’d been able to find any, by scouring the “women’s literature” sections of more progressive bookshops – seemed a dud. Most of it was lowbrow, meant to reassure or bond or amuse or arouse its readers; it scratched my itch, but I didn’t want to write it. Then into my lap like manna fell Jeanette Winterson’s stylish, oblique, brilliantly intelligent The Passion. A slim novel set in Venice (a city she’d never visited) in the early 19th century, written in prose as powerful as a Keats sonnet or the King James Bible, it rocked me. Narrated by a young man (Napoleon’s chicken cook), it was full of the complexities of unreliable passion and unstable gender. Same-sex desire shook off all its earnestness and looked both playful and dangerous: Eros at its most fascinating.
Suddenly, then writing about relationships between women – seemed like high literary endeavour, and I was on my way.
Then; Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (1983)
I lay down by the Cam one evening to mull over the book that first spoke strongly to me of my sexuality. There were plenty of teenaged contenders, nocturnal smut such as Anaïs Nin, The Story of O or The Passionflower Hotel (the source of much hilarity on a French camping holiday with my friend Sophie). But none of these could exactly be described as the first. And then I remembered a quartet of fantasy novels I was obsessed with at the age of nine, 10, 11.
The Song of the Lioness series was about the adventures of an impetuous red-headed girl called Alanna, who cross-dresses as a boy in order to train as a knight. Eventually Alanna/Alan hooks up with Prince Jonathan, in a stirringly lovely scene of mutual vulnerability and homoerotic intensity. Words like trans or gender-fluid were hardly current in the early 1980s, but there it all was, right down to the chest-binders. Hardly any wonder I remained so devoted to those battered paperbacks. You know before you know, and those early sparks of sexuality light the road ahead.