Hannah Leffingwel on Queer Love, Loss, and Myth in A Thirst for Salt
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: A Thirst for Salt is a love letter to someone lost and the pleasure of beginnings. What I found so interesting was the insight into the lover, the “you.” There’s a context and history given to her that we are so rarely privy to when the “I” is suffering. The book questions our ability to have something or someone “forever”—maybe even the value of it. Can you talk to us about permanence (or lack thereof) and how it functions in this work?
Hannah Leffingwell: As I was writing the book, I was reading a lot of Adrienne Rich. I would recite lines from “Twenty-One Love Poems” as I walked around Paris, in between bouts of writing. There’s one excerpt, I think, that gets at your question particularly well:
Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live
I want to see raised dripping and brought into the sun.
It’s not my own face I see there, but other faces,
even your face at another age.
Whatever’s lost there is needed by both of us—
The reconstruction of the lover’s untold stories in the book acted as a balm for my intense grief, but also, I think, as a testament to the resilient compassion I’ve learned from the queer community. By denying the lover her own history, I felt I would be denying the complexity of our love stories, as queer people. I think part of the uniqueness of contemporary queer culture is that we refuse to take harm at face value. When a fellow queer person hurts me, this kind of primordial solidarity kicks in and I want to know why—what hurt them to make them act like this. This kind of response can also be dangerous, as I think we are beginning to understand around issues of domestic violence in queer relationships. Part of the healing that came with this book was understanding that I could recognize a history of pain and still set boundaries to protect myself. Honoring my own pain, through writing, was a way of doing that.
SM: In this book, people and even places struggle with the concept of lost memory. Sometimes all that is remembered is the loss itself. Ungiven kisses and touches and wanting what wasn’t, makes true contentment feel just out of reach. People don’t just lose each other here, though, they lose time. Can you tell us about the process of writing about absence?
HL: Your question makes me think of this Joni Mitchell song I love, where she sings: “In our possessive coupling / So much could not be expressed / So now I'm returning to myself / These things that you and I suppressed.” The book is a vessel for grief, and to me one of the most tangible elements of grief is a desperate need for preservation—an obsession with detail. In monogamous love, there will only ever be that one other person who can verify your story, who can ensure its preservation or its destruction. To defy that possible destruction is to assert a kind of sovereignty, especially when the loss is felt as an unequal one. For me, writing about what was lost had the paradoxical effect of both preserving it and embalming it in the past. Without knowing it, I was actually helping myself move on.
SM: I love how you explore the pristine joy of beginnings and firsts. There is a birth, a first child, a first kiss, a first love, an innocence of it all: moments that linger with so much hope and possibility. You write: “Nobody will ever have you as fresh as I have you now.” Which is so interesting because this prose is woven through with imagery of what has already been—of past generations and well-worn biblical tropes. What do you want your reader to take away from that juxtaposition?
HL: The love story begins at its end, with a promise of pain. If no one else will ever have the narrator as “fresh” as the lover has her now, she becomes, in some sense, a fallen woman. The Biblical references felt natural in this context, a tribute to the self-perpetuating pain of “fated” love. In the context of queer relationships, and lesbian relationships in particular, I think first love can be experienced as a kind of rebirth, because the trajectory of what lesbian love looks like feels so unknowable. Faced with the forced invisibility of past generations, we have the option of inscribing ourselves into myth. The Bible is perhaps one of the most obvious and most subversive places to do this. The story of Naomi and Ruth—referenced from the first page of my book—is a prime example. Their story can either be seen as a tribute to lasting love or inevitable loss. We have the power to decide what it means to us.
SM: Your book reminded me of the way we can become utterly consumed with someone. A complete loss of identity. You write: “Everything of yours was sacred, nothing of mine worth saving.” And, it feels almost magical (and simultaneously tragic), how that can happen. You capture the desperate, intimate selfless(selfish?)ness perfectly:
“You must have understood, or remembered, what the body can forget when it finds love, how sleep, hunger, thirst, and pain dissolve. You must have understood how, that evening, when her body finally remembered itself in the cold wind of springtime, I removed my jacket, how I would have removed my very skin to keep her warm, how there was no other reason in that moment to exist except to hold her as she trembled.”
What was it like to tell this story? Throughout the book, the narrator is conflicted with her motives for writing about their experiences together. Can you tell us where she ultimately lands? Revenge or forgiveness?
HL: That is a loaded question, to put it mildly. The book is based on true events, as true as I could tell them—but the anonymity of the characters is purposefully protected throughout. Even the secondary characters remain nameless. From a literary standpoint, this comes back to the idea of myth—of giving queer love the same kind of mythic status that heterosexual love is so often allowed. But on a personal level, this also speaks to the difficulty of writing about someone I loved very much, who hurt me very much. The paradox is that the act of writing this love letter pretty much ensured the impossibility of us ever reuniting—my initial subjugation was reversed in the act of writing, and the power dynamic shifted. I took control of the story, and in doing so, freed myself from the “desperate, intimate selfless(selfish?)ness” you describe.
SM: What are you working on now and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
HL: Recently, I’ve been honing my nonfiction skills with a series of essays for Public Seminar on topics ranging from French feminism to abortion. I am also currently at work on my dissertation, which narrates the blossoming of lesbian culture in the United States, France, and Canada in the last decades of the twentieth century. I’m grateful to have so many genres available to me to get at the intricacies of queer life. To have a role in writing the history of queer folks has been one of the greatest joys of my life.
Hannah Leffingwell is a writer, academic, and connoisseur of lesbian culture. In her work as a PhD candidate at New York University, she studies transnational relationships between lesbian activists and intellectuals in the late twentieth century. Her essays have been featured on publicseminar.org, and her first chapbook, A Thirst For Salt, was published in 2018.