Writers Together Essay: Sappho and Jahan Khatun

By: Emma Russell ’23

English and Theatre majors, Journalism Publishing and Editing minor

Brief Description: This piece is about the similarities between the Greek poet Sappho and the Injuid poet Jahan Khatun’s work. Sappho is famous for being regarded as a lesbian due to how she writes her poetry. Jahan Khatun writes similarly to Sappho, and uses many of the same devices she does, but is not thought of as a lesbian by readers. However, when the two writers’ various works are read in tandem their works and beings can be examined through a new light.

The following was written for Women Writers to 1800 (ENG 303-10).

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Pexels.com

Writers who identify themselves as members of the LGBTQIA+ community are not as difficult to find in history as one might expect. Writers such as Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron are almost as famous for their sexual exploits with members of the same sex as they are for their written works. Many scholars and bored teenagers on the Internet like to debate about famous authors’ sexualities. Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Did Aphra Behn truly have both male and female lovers? Did Shakespeare really cheat on his wife with a man? While it is a foolish (and sometimes dangerous) endeavor to try to identify long-dead figures’ sexual orientations when they themselves did not officially “come out,” one can productively point out when a writer’s works include queer themes. For example, the Greek poet Sappho, whose life and work is responsible for the creation of terms such as “sapphic,” and “lesbian,” never officially “came out,” or said she was attracted to women, at least not according to any surviving records about her life, of which we know very little. Nevertheless, Sappho is heralded as a lesbian icon for the way she uses her poetry to talk about women in a romantic light. However, an Injuid poet by the name of Jahan Khatun, who writes very similarly to Sappho and often dances around the gender of some of her lovers, is not viewed in the same light. Both Khatun and Sappho write about their possible love for members of different sexes and write about these loves in the same way, invoking their respective religious beliefs, using imagery of nature, and traditionally feminine symbols. Sappho has a reputation for having written works that contain desire for the same sex, and it stands to reason that because both she and Khatun write about the same topics in similar ways, that Khatun’s work too can be described as having themes of same-sex desires, something people may not be able to pick up on if her work is not being read in tandem with Sappho’s.

The beauty of nature is heralded as being very feminine, thanks to ancient figures of Greek mythology such as Gaia that over the centuries have been simplified to fit the role of Mother Nature. A well-known trait of Sappho’s work is the vivid way in which she writes about the world around her by invoking nature imagery. In Fragment 58, Sappho writes about her troubles with aging: “… my knees that once danced nimbly like fawns cannot carry me,” (lines 15-6). Sappho compares her own youthful body to the majesty of nature, but now that she has aged, she feels as if she cannot compare to the beauty that nature contains. “Love has given me the brightness and beauty and of the sun,” but now that she is without it, she has succumbed to the gray hair and wrinkled skin that comes with aging (line 26). Though she admits such changes are natural, she still mourns the beauty she has lost. Khatun does the same in a poem about a similar subject. “Now, as no shoots or leaves remain to me / From youth, and youth’s delight, / I fit myself in my old age to face / The darkness of the night,” she writes (p. 141, lines 29-32). Khatun, like Sappho, reflects on the beauty of her youth and how being in love made her feel younger and more beautiful.

While Sappho is praised for being a poet who famously wrote about loving women in her works, she also wrote about loving men. The speaker in Fragment 102 says “Truly, sweet mother, I cannot weave on my loom, for I am overcome with desire for a boy because of slender Aphrodite.” While there is much debate over this translation because the word “boy” from the fragment was translated from a Greek word meaning “youth,” the masculine form of some of the words surviving in the original Greek language led many translators to believe that, in this case, Sappho was referring to somebody of the male sex. Despite being believed to be a queer poet, there is tangible proof that Sappho was also attracted to members of the opposite sex, but many readers of her work choose to ignore the fact and like to use a mistranslation of Fragment 102 where instead of “boy,” the word “girl,” is written as proof because it does not fit into their preconceived ideas of who they believe Sappho was. It is like what the author Eve Sedgwick says on page 53 in her piece “Epistemology of the Closet,” about author’s sexualities within the context of their works: “Don’t ask; You shouldn’t know.” Given the fact that in Fragment 132 Sappho mentions she has a daughter, we can infer that she had a husband, which goes against the idea of her only being attracted to women. Just because Sappho writes about attraction to men and had a husband, does not mean she was not also attracted to women. In Fragment 94 the lover is specifically referred to as being female using she/her pronouns. She writes, “Weeping she left me,” and “I answered her” (lines 2, 6). We know the speaker of this piece is Sappho, not just a poetic voice, because she specifically refers to herself in the fragment, shown in line 4 where the lover addresses her by her name, and line 6 where Sappho writes “And I answered her.” The use of the word “I,” means Sappho is fully committing to herself being the speaker in this fragment, and the same can be said for Fragment 102 where Sappho once again uses the word “I,” taking responsibility for her desires. Perhaps Sappho was queer, after all, her poems reflect both desire for the same sex, as well as the opposite sex, but it is her work that reflects that, and her work should be appreciated outside of her possible sexuality, whatever it may be. 

Jahan Khatun writes about a male lover, referring to him by he/him pronouns, but she also writes of lovers using no pronouns at all. Jahan was also married with a daughter, and while the use of male pronouns in her works seems to put an end to the discussion of her sexual preferences, Khatun writes very similarly to Sappho, who is viewed as the quintessential lesbian poet. Even though both have specifically written about male figures in their surviving works, and Sappho is the only one to specifically refer to a female lover by using female pronouns, Jahan uses nature in a very similar way to Sappho, even calling on some of the same plants and flowers that Sappho writes about in her own works. Fragment 94 of Sappho’s surviving works speaks of a love the speaker must let go of, specifically referring to a female lover. Sappho recounts the good times they had together when they made flower crowns out of violets and roses. Khatun also has a poem on page 156 in her anthology of works titled “Faces of Love,” where she references flowers. She also names herself in the poem, implying that she is the speaker and taking responsibility for her feelings and desires, just like Sappho does in some of her own works. Even though Khatun is writing about a male lover, the way she writes about him is feminine. She claims his beauty is “flower-like,” and talks about the “tightness of his curls,” both lines which would be better attributed to a female lover (lines 4, 9). She even compares this man to Narcissus, a figure from Greek mythology who was known and revered for his beauty. The word beauty is a female-coded word. Men are usually referred to as being either handsome, a male-coded word, or attractive, which is more gender-neutral in tone. Khatun is not afraid to admire the feminine beauty of her Narcissus, and even references the classics to support her belief. Khatun gets even more specific with her descriptions of her lover’s beauty when the gender of the lover is left out of the piece. Her poem on pages 144 and 145 speaks of a person she loves so much she considers herself a slave to them. She talks about her lovers’ “ruby lips” and compliments their eyes, lips, cheeks, hair, neck, and complexion (line 2). Khatun even claims that staples of nature such as the moon and cypress trees are unable to compare the beauty of her lover. The moon is a traditionally female symbol in both Eastern and Western cultures, with the sun being represented by a male deity and the moon represented by a female deity. Her lover is more beautiful than the moon, and several gorgeous goddesses associated with it (Artemis, Diana, Selene, Chang’e, Khonsu, and more). While the question of Khatun’s sexuality is not a question that needs to be answered, it is important to observe the sapphic themes that appear in her works. After all, “no one can know in advance where the limits of a queer-centered inquiry are to be drawn” (Sedgwick, 53). Perhaps Khatun did identify as queer. We will most likely never know, but if her work is helpful to other people who identify that way in realizing their own feelings, then it is worth reading through a queer lens.  

Just because a writer is not responsible for coining modern terms referring to women’s desire for other women, does not mean that their work does not have merit within the LGBTQ+ community. It is clear that Jahan Khatun’s works contain themes of female same-sex romance and desire, but why would she not be able to state this clearly by announcing the female gender of her lover via pronouns? Sappho was not afraid to specify the gender of her female lover, but that may be due to the fact that in Sappho’s time, same-sex relationships were more accepted. While one couldn’t marry a member of the same sex, it was acceptable to love and have a sexual partner who was of the same sex. Such things were normalized in Greek myths, so Sappho would not necessarily have faced backlash. The same cannot be said for Jahan Khatun. Not only was she put under much more scrutiny due to her position as royalty, but it was illegal to be queer. If she were to have written as being openly gay, she may have been punished, and her work may not have been as well preserved as it is. Sedgwick writes that “Men who write openly as gay men have also often been excluded from the consensus of the traditional canon and may operate more forcefully now within a specifically gay/lesbian canon” (55). Sappho’s work is usually studied in a lesbian or gay canon, Sedgwick says, because it is what many people expect of her work and because of the freedom she had to write about same-sex desire. Khatun’s work is not studied within the same canon because she was not provided with the same freedoms. 

Jahan Khatun is a poet who writes similarly to Sappho, yet her work is not viewed through a queer lens. Both authors invoke the majesty of nature, religious beliefs, and female-orientated symbolism to prove their points, and both take responsibility for doing so by naming themselves in their work. On their own, their works are magnificent, but read together they illuminate each other and show that connection through writing can span centuries, and still connect with readers thousands of years later. Perhaps Sappho was bisexual. Maybe Jahan Khatun loved women as well as men. Even if neither identified as queer, their works are still important to the queer community for normalizing feelings towards members of the same sex, or members who don’t identify with a sex at all, and there is merit in that. Every work, regardless of the authors’ sexual orientation, can be viewed through a queer lens, and the more lenses one views work through, the more one can discover about it. 

Works Cited:

Khatun, Jahan. “Faces of Love.” Canvas Files, Prof. Rydel. 

Sappho. “SAPPHO.” Canvas Files, Norton Anthology, Prof Rydel. 

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Epistemology of the Closet.” Canvas Files, Prof. Rydel. 

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