Title: After Sappho
Author: Selby Wynn Schwartz
Publisher: Galley Beggar Press
Genre: Literary Fiction
After Sappho is a song that must be heard by all. It is a paean that generations of people must pay attention to. Of the struggles, the triumphs, the failures, & then of winning and the struggle to keep all of it sustained – Schwartz takes us through fragments of the lives of historical women, transporting us across time – from 1880s Italy to 1920s Paris and London. There are so many women we meet along the way, many kindred souls, many whose loves and lives we relate with, their broken dreams, hearts full of love, aspirations, yearning for independence, to be seen, to transform to Sappho.
As a queer person, this book spoke like no other title on the Longlist. With every reread my heart has been fuller, my mind freer, and my thoughts wilder. After Sappho is about women reading books in trees, of Virginia Woolf falling in love with Vita Sackville-West, it is about liberation, need to express oneself, about how Henrik Ibsen took a woman’s story and made it his, about men who do that on a daily basis, about spaces that are waiting to be reclaimed by women, about stories that end in the year 1928 in the book, but are still going on and on and on, encompassing the lives and loves of women.
The prose is not only compelling but gloriously touching. After Sappho is a story of collective voices, of individual laments, of voices that will not be subdued, of voices that have been told to shut up constantly, and of voices that belong to bodies that do, think, and act as they please. Schwartz writes with humour, writes about pain, what it is to be a woman (something which I will never know, though I am constantly torn about who I am and what is my identity), she writes about everyone who is on the periphery of society. She speaks of the past, merging it with the present, predicting the future. It is about learnings – what we understand from our ancestors, women who go back and forth to learn, to understand themselves, the world at large where they are concerned.
After Sappho is a testimony to those on the margins, the outsiders; to those women who don’t fit in and don’t want to. It is about anyone who has fought, and continues to do so. As a gay man I found myself in its pages. I was another Sappho, too.