Alumni Blog: Charlotte Byrne - LGBTQ+ History Month
This blog was produced by the Alumni Engagement team and is primarily hosted on the Alumni and Friends Blog.
There is still so much work to be done. While representation has grown over the last ten years or so, and it’s fantastic to see, I still believe there is a danger of tokenism and queer-baiting across the media... Give us complex trans characters in video games or gay couples in mainstream romance fiction - not a minor queer character to tick boxes, or a shot of a girl/girl kiss in a film trailer that might just be a symbol of a platonic friendship!
Why did you choose to study Hispanic Studies and Comparative Literature at Queen Mary for your undergraduate degree? Did you have a particular career path in mind?
I knew that I wanted to continue my Spanish language studies for my personal and professional development, but I also wanted to keep in touch with my literary studies as I love books and writing. Comparative Literature seemed to cover a lot of theoretical ground in an accessible way, and also complement the study of Iberian and Latin American literature. I was quite naïve at the start of my undergraduate degree, convinced that I would finish university and walk straight into a translation job (little did I know!!) but later realised that what I wanted was to pursue creative writing and eventually join the academics I had learned so much from over the four years of my course. This led me to joining the MA Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton, where I also gained invaluable work experience and an understanding of publishing, both academic and otherwise.
You are currently studying your PhD at Queen Mary, exploring the experiences of queer Catalan women during the Spanish Civil War and the early years of Franco’s dictatorship in the form of a historical novel. What made you decide to focus on this particular group of women and this particular period?
One of the reasons I chose Hispanics at Queen Mary in the first place was because they had a fantastic Catalan Studies department and I had wanted to learn more about the language since visiting Barcelona when I was younger. I had the initial idea for the story as an undergraduate while studying a module on Catalan culture and history, but I wasn’t quite sure how to execute it. It only occurred to me later that I could turn that idea into a practice-as-research PhD thesis following the 2017 Catalan Independence referendum. As it became a prominent subject in international news, I realised that there was more interest in Catalan issues abroad than I had initially thought, and the timing seemed right to start thinking about the novel as a serious project that would enable me to explore a period I was fascinated by in greater depth, and result in a novel that would introduce some of the complex issues surrounding Catalan national identity in an engaging way.
I knew that I wanted to make the Spanish Civil War and the period immediately after it accessible for a general readership. My family and I love a good historical film and I found I often had to explain some of the context if we watched anything set during the Spanish Civil War, such as Las 13 rosas or La voz dormida, as they weren’t familiar with the events. I also knew that I wanted to find out more about the lives of queer women during that time, particularly as many women were active in political and military spheres, and there is little accessible evidence of it. It is also interesting to note that their experiences are not as well documented as those of gay men from the same period.
What types of research will you be applying to your historical novel?
I am applying a practical methodology to my work, where the act of writing constitutes the bulk of the research, and I am especially looking forward to being able to return to archives to scour diaries and documents of the time that will inform the characters’ journeys. From a critical perspective, I am engaging with existing historical novels such as Maria Barbal’s Pedra de tartera and Mercè Rodoreda’s La plaça del diamant, in order to adapt a feminist pattern of emancipation, present in many Iberian historical novels, for an Anglophone audience. In the critical reflection that supports the novel I will explain how the novel also engages with theories of trauma and postmemory.
Outside of your PhD, you are also an established author, having published your debut YA comic fantasy novel Folked Up. What inspired your novel and what is it about?
Folked Up couldn’t be more different to what I’m working on at the moment! It was inspired by my love of British folk music, and I wanted to write a tongue-in-cheek fantasy novel that could be enjoyed by any YA reader regardless of their knowledge of folk music, but littered with little nods to staple songs that folk fans would be able to spot. It’s written in vernacular English and is about teenage musician Matty Groves’ race against time to stop his girlfriend from being killed as part of a resurrection ritual in the parallel world of Old England. There is also some queer romance as a relationship begins to blossom between his new allies.
Based on your undergraduate studies and your current studies, what has been special about your time at Queen Mary?
What I love about Queen Mary is its sense of community and how welcoming and supportive it is of all its students’ endeavours, academic and otherwise. I was especially touched when the Centre for Childhood Cultures reached out to me and offered to set up an official book launch for Folked Up in 2020. It was an unforgettable evening consisting of a creative writing workshop and a Q&A session peppered with readings from the novel.
Given your position as an author, do you think it is important to see LGBTQ+ representation in both works of fiction and non-fiction? If so, why is it important that we hear from such voices?
It is hugely important, both for the community and for others. There’s nothing more reassuring for a young person just discovering their identity than to see themselves reflected in those represented across fiction, non-fiction and other prominent forms of media. It’s so good that they don’t have to search too far to find themselves represented like before. When I was younger, I found myself relating to more tomboyish characters without understanding why, and I feel that growing up would have been much easier if I’d just seen more LGBTQ+ characters in books. I was given Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet for my thirteenth birthday. as I was very much into Victorian-era books at that time, and everything seemed to click when I read it. I was similarly ecstatic when my school library got a copy of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness when I hit sixth form. It would have been great to read something featuring LGBTQ+ characters and themes at a younger age and feel a little less alone.
Hearing from LGBTQ+ voices might encourage people to consider perspectives and experiences they might not have been familiar with and to inspire them to learn more about the community, perhaps even learning more about themselves. When somebody opens themselves up to listen, they have also taken the first step in learning to accept.
What does LGBTQ+ History Month mean to you and why do you think it is important that we acknowledge the contributions of LGBTQ+ people throughout history and in present times?
LGBTQ+ history is no different to any other history, except it’s an unedited, liberated version. We have to look to the past to know where we have been and learn how we can grow to become better, enlightened, kinder. It’s fantastic that LGBTQ+ History Month exists to remind us of how much hard work has already been done to get to where we are today, so that we can pay our respects to those who laid the groundwork, fighting for our rights and our visibility, and work towards what they started. It is also important that we raise awareness of LGBTQ+ contributions to culture, society, science etc. and give people the recognition they deserve, instead of allowing our predecessors to fall under the shadow of our cishet peers.
Are there any LGBTQ+ historical figures you wish more people knew about? Or do you have any contemporary LGBTQ+ role models?
Historical figures: Lucía Sánchez Saornil – a lesbian poet and founding member of the Mujeres Libres, a Spanish anarchist group active between 1936 and 1939.
Role models: Sarah Waters, whose queer novels inspired me to start writing in the first place. (She is also a Queen Mary alumna!)
The theme for this LGBTQ+ History Month is ‘Body, Mind and Spirit’, how do you feel that these experiences might differ between the LGBTQ+ community and the cisgender, heterosexual population? And what resources and services are available to support the mental health and wellbeing of the LGBTQ+ community?
Although it could be argued that experiences of spirit are universal, I believe that those of the LGBTQ+ community differ in the way we engage with our experiences of body and mind. As a cisgendered woman, I don’t feel I can speak for everyone in the community on matters of the body, but I do believe it is rare for anyone in the community not to have struggled with their own identity to some extent in the past, usually because it is not what society tries to force them to be. It’s wonderful that there are so many services that the community can reach out to now, such as Stonewall, Mind, Switchboard, the Intercom Trust etc. There’s also Queen Mary’s own Advice and Counselling Service, which may be of use to some students. However, I genuinely believe that the community is the most important resource of all – life is easier when you can talk to friends, and in my own experience with depression it was more helpful to have supportive friends who had some idea of what I was going through than to try and relay everything that felt wrong to a complete stranger. I am forever grateful for them.
Generally, what do you think still needs to be done to give greater equality and representation to the LGBTQ+ community?
There is still so much work to be done. While representation has grown over the last ten years or so, and it’s fantastic to see, I still believe there is a danger of tokenism and queer-baiting across the media. Representation may be implicit in such appearances, but it is still, in my opinion, not the representation that the community craves. Give us complex trans characters in video games or gay couples in mainstream romance fiction - not a minor queer character to tick boxes, or a shot of a girl/girl kiss in a film trailer that might just be a symbol of a platonic friendship!
I also believe that there is beauty and pride in our difference to the rest of society. It’s our difference that defines us, but if we continue to ‘other’ ourselves it’s possible that we might never be the same as or, by the same token, ‘equal’ to the rest of society. It’s a complex issue, and I believe that championing education on the LGBTQ+ community and increasing representation across media is the way to go, so that we may encourage tolerance and, eventually, acceptance until the world realises that our place in society isn’t defined by who we love, but who we are.
- Join the Queen Mary Network
- Find out more about LGBTQ+ History Month at Queen Mary
- Book now for our 'Alumni Angles: A conversation with BBC newsreader, Jane Hill' virtual event in celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month on Thursday 25 February from 18:00 – 19:30 GMT
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Charlotte or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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