Fantasy is one of the most colourful and diverse fields of literature. It would seem that if one can find anything from dragons to androids, to aliens and elves there, then one should also be able to find the full spectrum of human diversity. Unfortunately, there are still many blind spots in the world of fantasy. Here is a brief overview of the daredevils who dared to find and show us the lesbians residing in fantastic worlds.
In recent years, the representation of gender, sexual, and other minorities has been among the hot topics of discussions among fantasy fans, both online and during fan meetings and conventions. Often, as it happens in Poland, there are voices bringing up “political correctness”, but one can also observe a keen interest in these issues and a feeling that a lot is still missing. Some readers feel unrepresented in their favourite genre. Others see that in some respects, Polish fantasy lags behind its Western counterpart, avoiding certain themes and ideas due to strongly instilled conservatism.
When I searched one of large fantasy-focused Facebook groups for phrases such as “representation”, “queer” and “LGBTQ+”, I found a dozen, if not several dozen threads, sometimes with several hundred comments each, with more recommendations than scuffles, and hundreds of novels (often not translated into Polish), short stories, films, series, and graphic novels. If one is interested in queer themes in fantasy, one can quickly create a reading list to last several years. But how many texts written in Poland and in Polish would feature on such a list?
The short answer is: not many at all.
If we ask fantasy readers about lesbian themes in Polish fantasy literature, someone will probably mention Andrzej Sapkowski. Indeed, for many people, including myself, the secondary plot focusing on the protagonist of five volumes of The Witcher’s Saga, Ciri, and her relationship with a member of a teenage gang, was the first or one of the first encounters with queer characters in literature. Ciri, who at this stage of her journey is already exhausted, battered and traumatized, finds some warmth and positive attention in an older friend. It sounds good, but unfortunately – the doubts as to whether this relationship was in fact consensual are very real. For Ciri, the relationship with Mistle becomes a kind of a shield against the violence of other members of the group, and the few mentions in Sapkowski’s subsequent writing their relationship is depicted in a rather positive light. Fans, however, approach it with caution.
The Witcher series appeared in the mid-1990s. At a similar time, the first volume of the series “Księga całości” [The Book of the Whole] by Feliks W. Kres was published. In this slightly less recognized, but groundbreaking Polish fantasy series, queer – both lesbian and gay – themes appear more than once. Although they are unlikely to meet the expectations of contemporary readers, it is worth remembering that non-heterosexual characters portrayed in a neutral or kind manner appeared in Polish fantasy a little earlier than in the second decade of the 21st century. Contrary to what can often be heard, we will find more than just violence and fetishizing there (as in Andrzej Ziemiański’s “Achaj”, which I won’t discuss here).
When it comes to recent fantasy that features lesbian themes, I would suggest five titles. I chose them not just because of the subject matter, but also their literary quality. If you’re not a massive fan of fantasy, but you want to get to know it a little – one of the below suggestions might be a good way in.
Aneta Jadowska is a popular author with over a dozen novels under her belt. In her two series – about Dora Wilk and Nikita – queer themes have a constant presence in the background. Perhaps this is not exactly what we are looking for when speaking of minority representation, but I think this is very good way of normalizing themes that are often unnecessarily construed as controversial. Although the protagonists of both series are for the most part separated – Dora in Toruń, Nikita in magical Warsaw – their relationship constitutes one of the links between the two series. It is worth reading, for example, the first novel about Nikita, i.e. “Dziewczyna z Dzielnicy Cudów” [The Girl from Miracle District] (SQN 2016), for the rare but endearing mentions of Dora and the golden days of their relationship, shining bright against the backdrop of a rather gloomy novel.
In contrast, Karolina Fedyk is a newcomer whose name is worth remembering. If her debut novel “Skrzydła” [Wings] (SQN 2019) had been published in the UK or the USA, it would have been a hit. Fedyk dazzles with a vision of a fantasy world and creativity (she turns, among others. to Etruscan mythology), as well as great empathy and sensitivity, especially in constructing her characters. If you are looking for representation, you will find plenty here – from great female characters, through non-binary characters and characters with disabilities, to, of course, love between two women, a theme introduced in the first volume. I hope the second volume will be released and will bring even more fun.
“Czarownica znad Kałuży”[Witch from Kałuża] by Artur Olchowy (Genius Creations 2017) is a post-apocalyptic novel about a world slowly recovering from a catastrophe and whose inhabitants have forgotten many civilizational achievements. The protagonist is an 80-year-old woman – an herbalist and leader of a small community in Mazury. The queer theme develops in flashbacks – perhaps the most poignant and moving part of the novel. The story of love from many years before does not take much space, but the spirit of Koślawa’s partner floats over the entire narrative, and constantly influences and inspires it. It is interesting that although the novel leaves no doubt about the fact that the women were a couple and loved each other very much, the author found it appropriate to additionally confirm this fact more than two years after the novel was published. Alder said on social media that he was prompted to clarify this issue by the events of recent months and the campaign against LGBTQ+ people – saying that this was not the time for subtleties and understatements.
Another proposal is Milena Wójtowicz and her “Vice versa” (Jaguar 2019), the second volume of the “Post Scriptum” series about various fantastic creatures (strigoi, werewolves, incubes…) living in the modern world and attempting to function within human society. These are light, funny stories, cosy as a fluffy blanket. In “Vice versa” an additional element heart-warming element is the (unfortunately) background theme of Maria and Ludmila. Maria is the mother of one of the characters, a cheerful hippie and the owner of a holiday resort. Ludmila is a descendant of a line of monster hunters. Maria’s son has a problem with accepting his mother’s new relationship, because as a partially human being, he does not feel comfortable with the idea of a monster hunter in the family … It’s a small part of the plot, and based on a conflict of a completely different nature than might be expected. Interestingly, all the non-human beings in Wójtowicz’s novels are “non-normative” – quite a clear metaphor.
This article has to include Anna Kańtoch, the star of both fantasy and crime. “Czarne” [Black] (Powergraph 2012) is an oneiric, disturbing novel on the verge of fantasy, whose action takes place in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. The heroine recalls her youth and visits to a summer residence, including episodes of fascination and intimacy with a slightly older woman. This is a beautiful, even if in some ways controversial novel, a more detailed description of which could spoil the reading experience – so I will just stick to recommending it.
Can we speak about a visible presence of lesbians in Polish fantasy?
Hardly. Unfortunately, there are very very few of them. Although my list does not exhaust the question and we would find female queer threads in a few more novels and short stories, even in these texts they are marginal, and often we would also find problematic and questionable elements in them. We are still waiting for fantasy literature with queer narratives in the full sense of the word: novels in which LGBTQ+ themes will be in the foreground, not necessarily as the main topic, but as an undisguised and important part of the character of the main protagonists, shaping their experiences, decisions, and personality. As in life, literature often overlooks lesbians – on the one hand, culture allows for closer relationships between women and this explains lesbians visible in the public space, but on the other hand it tends to overlook and fetishize them. Although we can see a lot of progress when it comes to fetishizing female homosexuality via the “male gaze”, i.e. describing such threads in an eroticized manner, addressed to a male audience, or combining lesbian themes with violence, which is also present in literature today, but it is no longer the dominant way of presenting this topic.
The absence of lesbians in the foreground was one of the reasons why, together with a group of volunteers from Alpaka Publishing Group, we decided to prepare an anthology of queer fantasy, which was released in June 2020. The number of texts with female queer themes we received exceeded our wildest expectations. We received submissions from both experienced and respected female writers as well as many newcomers, whom I hope we will hear about in the future. They proved that any narrative can include lesbians – and will certainly benefit from it – and that this is a subject of great interest to both authors and readers. The anthology is free, so nothing stands between you and reading, but if you are hesitant about where to begin, I recommend to start with three texts in which the lesbian theme is particularly visible and presented in an interesting way. “Płomień twego serca” [The Flame of Your Heart] by Justyna Kulisa is a humorous, dramatic and action-packed narrative about a princess and dragons. In Ogrod rozkoszy ziemskich” [The Garden of Earthly Delights] Olga Niziołek presents a mysterious story full of symbolism based on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. And “Moja siostra” [My Sister] by Krystyna Chodorowska juxtaposes the distant past, only partially fantastic, with current, contemporary violence and struggle for identity. I also recommend “Ryba” [The Fish] by Zofia Lubińska, “Szum muszli” [The Sound of Seashells] by Gabriela Kasprzyk, “Wyspa Łosi” [Elk Island] by Anna Łagan and “Żywia” by Agnieszka Szmatoła, as well as others, because this list dertainly doesn’t not cover all lesbian representations in “Tęczowe i fantastyczne” [Rainbow-coloured fantasy].
Homosexual and bisexual women, present among the fans and fantasy writers, are demanding to be seen. Fantasy is a pretty good place to act towards this goal. It is a section of culture where the space for experiments, new approaches and themes that have not yet been exploited is infinite. It is a pity that few authors decide to focus on LGBT+ themes, but I know that each subsequent text that emerges is a source of inspiration for many more. I hope we will eventually be noticed and visible in fantasy circles. This should be helped by the current discussion taking place among fans – caused, among others, by the publication of a highly homophobic short story by Jacek Komuda in “Nowa Fantastyka” – and the increasing popularity of female writers, including a dozen or so members of the literary group Harda Horda (Fantastic Women Writers of Poland), and non-heteronormative writers. They approach the genre with great openness and steer it towards new paths.
I would like to thank the Facebook group Polifonia Fantastyczna for their help in my research.
Magdalena Stonawska – editor, translator and social media ninja by day, a fantasy fan, fandom activist and a person taking far too many fan initiatives by night. She works at Whosome.pl, coordinates the Alpaka Publishing Group, and from time to time organizes fantastic events.
Kira Nin – is a professional artist, a non-binary person, a genderfluid and a lesbian (pronouns: onu/jenu). Onu is a witch and an anarchist, likes “Star Trek”, good tea and spending time in the forest. Art is for jenu a form of communication and a way to share important things.