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  • On a Lesbian Relationship with MusicologySuzanne G. Cusick, Sound Effects
  • Emily Wilbourne (bio)

The first time I read Suzanne I was in a library, crouched on the floor between the stacks. It was 1997, and I had come in search of Queering the Pitch, but until I found the volume and slipped it from the shelf, I hadn’t really dared believe it existed. But, no, there it was. With the book in hand I sank to the floor and scanned the table of contents. My eye paused for a second on “Sapphonics,” but the following essay had the word “lesbian” in the title, and I flipped through.

The chapter begins, as you probably know, in Italian, a language that I had but begun to learn. As I stumbled through the complicated syntax of the opening lines I caught at her struggle to express herself: she held up a mirror and claimed to know me. Her words cut me open from head through groin, like music sometimes can, exposing my vulnerable inner surfaces to the richness of an unknown world.

The first time I wrote to Suzanne I was in Italy, in a dingy Internet café just the other side of the Ponte Vecchio. It was 2000. I had spent most of seven months in Florence, improving my Italian, and had decided—on a whim—to follow my girlfriend to Paris when she left to spend a year at the École des Beaux-Arts. My university back in Australia was surprisingly unfazed by this protraction of my “semester” abroad and even agreed to let me write my undergraduate thesis by correspondence during my time away. This left me with an opportunity and a quandary: I wanted to write about early modern Italian women, and there I [End Page 3] was, in Italy, surrounded by sources and old, old bricks, yet I had no idea how to begin.

After several weeks of me—moaning—my long-suffering girlfriend—rightly exasperated—demanded to know why I didn’t just write to that woman I was always talking about and ask her for advice.

“Which woman?” I asked, annoyed that she wasn’t taking my predicament as seriously as she ought.

“You know, the one whose article you made me read. The lesbian hands one.”

I stared at her. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied—flat, dismissive. “I can’t.”

“Of course you can,” she said. “Here, I wrote down her email address for you.”

I still have that piece of paper somewhere; I came across it recently. It’s a4, folded in half sharply across the middle, with some random Italian scrap printing on one side and my then-girlfriend-now-legal-spouse’s angular architectural writing in blue ballpoint pen on the other.

And so I wrote, mostly because denying my girlfriend is exhausting but also because I didn’t really think that the woman whom I talked about all the time, the one with lesbian hands, lyrical prose, and big, brain-stretching ideas would write back. Probably she got fan mail every day and wouldn’t even open my message.

“You don’t know me,” I wrote, “but I love you. I need advice.” Let’s assume my words were slightly more polished, but my longing for attention and guidance was no better concealed.

“How wonderful to meet you, however virtually,” she wrote back. “Your letter has arrived, fortuitously, in the middle of my office hour!” And she followed it up with a dense, single-spaced page of advice and encouragement in which she managed to list off books that I should’ve already read—somehow without implying that I was an idiot for not yet having done so—and lay out the means by which such a project could be tackled, even by a rather lost and extraordinarily unqualified scholar living far from institutional affiliation.

The first time I met Suzanne was in 2002 at a conference in Newcastle, Australia, where her shyness and horror of awkward interactions seemed destined to foil my attempts to corner her in conversation. I resorted to chasing her down the street, pulling up breathless by her...


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