Chronicling key figures in lesbian fiction from the 1920s to the 90s, Lisa Marie Evans and Marianne K. Martin’s In Her Words: 20th Century Lesbian Fiction is an exhaustive walk through individual author’s lives and works using a range of new and archival interviews.
Without preamble, we are thrown into a discussion of Radclyffe Hall’s controversial 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness. Historian Lillian Faderman explains the legal wranglings and history of what would become a lynchpin for lesbian readers. From here the film jumps through the timeline of lesbian works with an impressively wide range of writers, covering everything from lesbian pulp thrillers to romance novels, and award-winning literary works from more than two dozen authors, including of Ann Bannon, Rita Mae Brown, Lilian Faderman, Elana Dykewomon, Jewel Gomez and Sarah Waters.
Each author takes their turn to give some backstory on their writing—telling stories of coming out, finding community, activism, and strength—that are as unique their work. What they have to say is interesting, but the film as a whole lacks a sense of structure or context. While some authors talk about the social environment around the publication of their works, there is no overview of the lesbian publishing industry, how it evolved and how the world evolved around it. The film ends almost as abruptly as it begins.
Personally, I would have loved more analysis and critique, which is present in the opening chapter on Hall but lacking from the film’s coverage of the other authors until Sarah Waters dissects her own success at the end. The result often feels like a succession of mini lectures bolted together, rather than a cohesive film.
Filled with undeniably fascinating anecdotes and memories, In Her Words is an intriguing archive of lesbian literary history. What the documentary lacks in structure, it makes up for in its frankness and celebration of an often overlooked part of our LGBTQ+ history. If you’ve ever found freedom through reading, you’ll enjoy the peak behind the pages presented here.
By Chad Armstrong
In Her Own Words: 20th Century Lesbian Fiction receives its Australian Premiere at Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival in cinemas in Sydney and on demand Australia-wide from February 15th to March 2nd, 2023. Click here for tickets and more information.
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