Selby Wynn Schwartz: 'What if the centre of history were occupied by what women thought about?'
Selby Wynn Schwartz, author of After Sappho, talks about the influence of Virginia Woolf, writing in the first-person plural and reading ravenously
After Sappho was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2022. A joyous reimagining of the lives of a brilliant group of feminists, sapphists, artists and writers from the past, as they battle for control over their lives, for liberation and for justice.
Told in a series of cascading vignettes, featuring a multitude of voices, After Sappho hails the female torchbearers of the late 19th and early 20th century.
WHAT did we want? To begin with, we wanted what half the population had got by just being born.
Sarah Bernhardt - Colette - Eleanora Duse - Lina Poletti - Josephine Baker - Virginia Woolf… these are just a few of the women sharing the pages of a novel as fierce as it is luminous. Lush and poetic, furious and funny - in After Sappho, Selby Wynn Schwartz has created a work that celebrates the women and trailblazers of the past - and also offers hope for our present, and our futures.
About the AuthorSelby Wynn Schwartz was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2022. She is an award-winning writer, but with After Sappho she joins that select band of authors who have been longlisted for the Booker for their debut novel.
‘I read Anne Carson’s Short Talks some years ago, and I longed to be able to write in that taut, oblique form, with its glancing illuminations. Sadly, I’m not Anne Carson; I’m not even a poet. So in my failure to be Anne Carson, I made this fragmentary form, wreathing together lives that touched each other in some way.
‘The first time I experimented with this interweaving of vignettes was in a novella, A Life in Chameleons (forthcoming from Reflex Press), where I was trying to echo a cinematic form of glimpsing a life scene by scene. I thought of that book as a life told in film frames, with many cross-cuts. After Sappho gave me more lives, and more complex ways of inter-braiding them – and the pleasure of reading more work by women.’
Read the full interview here
A poetic patchwork of fragments of literary history that together take shape as an intergenerational tale of the Lesbian family. An ancestry eruditely, playfully recovered.— The 2022 judges on After Sappho
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, New York Times
‘After Sappho considers the intimate moments beyond historical record, shifting our gaze and questioning the discipline of history itself. Schwartz builds a novel around women’s struggles for self-determination, excising the men who were in their way. For the most part, these men simply do not appear in the book at all. The novel is erudite and chatty, grounded in scholarship yet freed from any masculinist impulse or linear cohesion. She draws from history in order to reimagine it. “Have you forgotten that a poet lies down in the shade of the future?” Schwartz asks. “She is calling out, she is waiting. Our lives are the lines missing from the fragments.”’
Rhoda Feng, NPR
‘A brilliant debut… In passages often recalling the sensuous prose of Ali Smith, After Sappho tracks not just outer movement, but psychological ambulation, picking up on the subtlest shifts in mood with the delicacy of a weathervane… A ravishing mosaic of creative subjectivity and self-fashioning.’
‘A brilliant debut novel. The collective first-person “we” narrator – a Greek chorus devoted to the female poet Sappho – weaves the stories of writers, painters, and performers who, like Sappho, were attracted to women and are determined to become their authentic selves through art. … As the chorus narrates, “we were plunged back into history and we had barely survived the first time.” Schwartz’s account of what happens next as the central characters resist oppression speaks volumes on their efforts, and she contributes her own work of art with this irresistible narrative. Astonishing.’
‘Sarah Bernhard – Colette – Eleanora Duse – Lina Poletti – Josephine Baker – Virginia Woolf… these are just a few of the women (some famous, others hitherto unsung) sharing the pages of a novel as fierce as it is luminous. Lush and poetic; furious and funny; in After Sappho, Selby Wynn Schwartz has created a novel that celebrates the women and trailblazers of the past – and also offers hope for our present, and our futures.’
‘This book dares to invent a new form, one that embraces the maddening fragmentation of so many important women in history and reclaims it as a kind of revolutionary beauty. An exciting, luxurious work of speculative biography.’