What If “When Harry Met Sally” Was a Feminist Lesbian Love Story? Emily Hashimoto Has the Answer with “A World Between”

“I love When Harry Met Sally, warts and all,” Emily Hashimoto says. Her unabashed affection for the film and the world of romantic comedies informs the spirit—and pleasures—of A World Between.

The structure of Rob Reiner’s influential 1989 film shaped Hashimoto’s debut novel; “that narrative of tracking people over time” inspired the structure of A World Between which tracks the romance and friendship of Leena and Eleanor, two women who meet at college in Boston, then travel through time — between 2004 and 2017 — and space, from Boston to San Francisco to New York, as their story unfolds.

A World Between is a love story — a feminist one. For Hashimoto, feminist love stories are ones where readers meet characters fully and characters emerge as three-dimensional people over the course of a novel. About Leena and Eleanor, she says, “we get to know them both; no one is an object and they’re real women with real lives.” A World Between delivers a contemporary feminist love story that’s as sexy as it is smart and as fun as it is joyful.

Hashimoto’s real-life love story does not mirror the lives of Leena and Eleanor in the book. She confesses, “I married my college sweetheart. That’s not exactly your typical queer woman’s story.” She and her college sweetheart now have a two-year-old child.

The novel, though, reflects what Hashimoto observes about lesbians in their 20s and 30s: “the trajectory with their partner or ex-partner and or friend or whoever is not linear; it’s, for some women, this big zig zagging: friends for five years, then date for ten years and then maybe be enemies for two years, and then you’re friends again.” She observes wryly, “I felt like we don’t always see that in love stories.”

When she sat down to writeA World Between, she wanted to plot a trajectory for lesbian love that reflected this non-linear reality. “I wanted to show something [in my novel] where they are really, truly friends, and really, truly meant to be in each other’s lives, but the form changes depending on the year, depending on who they are in the moment where they overlap.”

Leena Shah and Eleanor Suzuki meet in college, each arriving in their shared space from very different backgrounds. Racial-cultural histories inform these characters, and the action in the novel. Eleanor’s mother is Jewish; her father is Japanese-American. Hashimoto notes that Eleanor’s “grandparents narrowly escaped the Holocaust and that weighs on her mind every day, in the same way as the fact of her Japanese side of her family’s [incarceration] during World War II.” From this family history, Eleanor brings a powerfully informed political view of the world “into every part of her life” including her college major in women’s studies and queer studies.

Leena, on the other hand, is from a close-knit Indian family; she aspires to be a physician like her father. For Leena, “family is the key to who you are and who you’ll be.” But, as the story unfolds, Leena wonders what role she wants her family to have in her life.

With these two characters as friends and lovers, the dynamic tensions of young women working to find their place in the world emerges, forming the basis for the plot movements in the book. Hashimoto reflects, “The book is so much about the connection of who they are to each other. It’s another world they share, who they are together, but it’s also what sits between them, and some of what’s between them is their family.” The title for the book draws from this dynamic tension.

While A World Between grapples with crucial emotional, familial, and psychic tensions between and within its two protagonists, this rich interior life is only part of the story — equally important are the sex scenes. The sexual chemistry between Leena and Eleanor delights throughout — like in this kissing scene during Leena’s sister’s wedding.

…nothing could keep her from looking beautiful to Eleanor. “I really want to kiss you,” Eleanor whispered. They were so close she was sure that her breath touched Leena’s lips. “I know I shouldn’t want that, or say that, but it’s true.”

Leena didn’t look surprised or scared, like Eleanor had imagined. Her eyes were watching, waiting. “We shouldn’t want that,” Leena replied.

A jolt of electricity spiked through Eleanor’s body. We. We shouldn’t want that. That was all Eleanor needed to put a hand on the back of Leena’s neck, stroking softly, and pull her into a kiss. Leena, who had unfurled such sadness and heartbreak within the walls of her body. She closed her eyes…Leena pulled Eleanor back to her and this kiss was the one to ruin empires and build cathedrals and change the universe, with flashes of yearning that went beyond kissing, with a passion first honed as college kids. Their lips pressed together, then Eleanor kissed back with her tongue.

Hashimoto has written about her desire to craft erotic, complex sex scenes between women. In the interview for this article, she reflected, “There was fun in writing it and fun in creating it… the choreography of it, making sure all the arms and legs are really there; that’s a bit of a technical challenge.” Hashimoto rose to the challenge ensuring that Leena and Eleanor did not have a sexless friendship rather their relationship portrays all the elements of human sexuality: affection, erotic connections, flirting, foreplay, sex, and pleasure. In addition to the challenges of writing sex, Hashimoto also thinks about “this other dimension of how they [the characters] feel, how they use themselves as sexual beings.” The scenes of passion and desire and sex in A World Between provide enormous pleasure for readers and remind us how vital these stories are to telling the full truths of our lives. (For more on this read Carolyn Yates’s excellent conversation with Hashimoto at Electric Lit.)

While A World Between is a “story for a millennial, immigrant America,” it’s also a story about queer arts in the first two decades of the 21st century; Leena and Eleanor’s lives are rooted in the material lesbian worlds of these decades. Watching “The L Word” together forms a connection between Leena and Eleanor, and Hashimoto — a fan of Autostraddle which she describes as “a touchstone for me in a lot of different ways,” — loves the “fun L Word recaps” (as well as “this guide on buying bras”). Pop culture references in A World Between will make dykes who lived during these years smile and drive young women to understand the cultural milieux from which this book emerges.

Hashimoto riffs on queer arts in the early 21st century, and she also benefitted from material support for queer arts. Hashimoto was a 2016-2017 fellow in the Queer/Art Mentorship program. Paired with novelist and writer Sarah Schulman, Hashimoto remarked that the structure of the fellowship helped her to move forward with this novel. About this experience, she notes, “I had to show up monthly with new pages. I needed to do the edits that we talked about last time.” The program “gave me some space to think about the characters.” She wrote substantial portions of the book on the F train during her commute. She thought about the characters and listened “to a playlist of music that I felt that they [the characters] would listen to.” In Hashimoto and her work, much of queer culture of the past two decades comes together with great effects.

When asked what captures her attention as a reader, Hashimoto mentioned Sarah Waters, “who knows how to pace stories,” and Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. Then she gushes about Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue as “funny, warm, romantic.” In the novel, a political “prince” in the United States, the son of the first woman President, crosses paths with a British prince and madcap hilarity ensues. While Hashimoto seems to enjoy both the pleasure of the novel, she also notes it has a “powerful structure” driving her to read it twice, reveling in the pleasures of this “super fun and funny” book.

Hashimoto’s pleasures as a reader speak to her aspirations for this novel. While she writes in the tradition of romantic comedies, her feminist impulse is again at play in the conclusion of the book. Without any spoilers, Hashimoto notes, “When I started really getting to the end, really digging into it, I found scenes like running through the airport and a tearful confession at a new year, wouldn’t work. These characters were not going to do that. It wasn’t right for them.” The ending “needed to be something that was true to who they were in that moment.”

Hashimoto describes the ending as “the most real and honest and fair thing to them.” She then circles back to her aspirations as a feminist novelist, “That’s what makes it a feminist story is it’s about them, it is individual. Rather than write some sort of other ending we’ve been conditioned to expect.” She reflects, “I don’t know where they end up past that last page, but I know there is more life for them.”

Maybe there will be a sequel for Leena and Eleanor, but if not, all of our lesbian lives together bring visibility to lesbians and queer women and act as an inspiration for their future. In fact, all of our lives together continue to write their story with fun and joy. 

Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. She is the author of four poetry collections, Avowed (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), Lilith's Demons (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2015), Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010). She is editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker (Sinister Wisdom/A Midsummer Night's Press, 2016), which won the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011), which was a finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. Enszer edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal. Read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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10 Comments

  1. Me? No, I’m definitely not a few months post-break-up with a woman I met in college, was friends with for five years, then dated for three. This book sounds fab, and I’ll have to check it out, when I’m further out post-breakup.

    Thanks for writing this great article about it, Julie! :)

  2. Thanks for this great review! I absolutely want to read this book!! Two questions: when is the book coming out? (or is it already available?) and does Autostraddle have any affiliate links for booksellers other than Amazon?

  3. I personally couldn’t stand Red, White, and Royal Blue so I hope this book’s politics are a little better, but I am nonetheless excited to read! Thank you for the review! I’m always looking for lesbian stories that are interesting/complicated

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