Working Against a System That is Working Against Them: Contemporary LGBTQIA+ Writers in Aotearoa
In a beautiful personal essay, Jackson Nieuwland calls for an end to the erasure of queer identity in Aotearoa literature.
It wasn’t until I was 26 years old that I realised that I was genderqueer. I came to the realisation after being exposed to the work of other trans and non-binary writers. I found the poetry of Never Angeline Nørth, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Manuel Arturo Abreu, Jos Charles, Jamie Mortara and others online. Not only were they writing about trans characters and issues, they were sharing their own experiences of gender on social media. These writers didn’t just introduce me to concepts of gender that I hadn’t previously been aware of, they also showed me what queerness and transition could look like on a personal level. It wasn’t only seeing myself represented in the writing that was important, seeing myself in the writers had just as big an impact.
Now I wonder, what if I had been introduced to queer writing earlier in my life? Would I have come to terms with my own identity sooner? It’s impossible to know, but I will always wonder.
Actually, I was introduced to queer writers much earlier than I realised. I just wasn’t introduced to them as queer writers. My first memory of a poetry reading is a fuzzy recollection of my parents bringing me along to an event where Hinemoana Baker performed poetry and music. I didn’t know who she was or anything about her, and didn’t yet have an appreciation for poetry. But I remember enjoying the warm, cosy atmosphere, people gathered around, sitting on the floor, and focused intently on Baker.
Not only did my parents not mention to me that Baker was queer (perhaps they didn’t know), they never engaged me in any discussion about sexuality or gender. They never gave me ‘the talk’ about sex, and never explained or discussed homosexuality with me, let alone any other sexual orientations or non-traditional gender identities. The only conversation we ever had about sexuality was when they found porn on the family computer. They told me it was wrong and that I shouldn’t be looking at things like that. This is not to single them out – there’s nothing unusual about this. Hundreds of millions of children grow up unaware of the vast range of queer identities that exist. I just happened to be one of them.
If we lived in a world with equal representation, LGBTQIA+ people wouldn’t need these kinds of survival strategies
My education in sexuality and gender was left to pop culture and my peers – not the most balanced or accepting groups. I grew up listening to Eminem and watching action and comedy films, which often perpetuated patriarchal gender roles and made queerness the punchline of countless jokes. My friends never hesitated to use ‘gay’ as an insult. I followed their example a few times. And yet, despite growing up in this atmosphere, I was still drawn to queer art and writing.
In Year 12 English I read Bulibasha by Witi Ihimaera. It was a compelling novel to me, but despite (or maybe because of) the fact that my English teacher was his ex-wife, Ihimaera’s sexuality was never mentioned in our discussion of the book. Of course, the author’s sexuality is not always relevant to analysis of a book, but Bulibasha is very much a novel about masculinity and a young man coming to terms with his place as an outsider in a patriarchal society. Over the course of the novel, he’s labeled a ‘sissy,’ punished for befriending a boy, and attracted to someone society says he can’t be with.
Though I didn’t read the character of Simeon as queer at the time, it’s easy to do so looking back, and therefore easy to see why I identified with him. In fact, many queer people read non-explicitly queer characters as queer. Slash fiction, where writers pair existing fictional characters into same-sex relationships, has become a hugely popular genre of fan fiction. It’s often a choice between these kinds of imaginative acts or never seeing yourself represented. Queer Wellington poet Emma Barnes told me she “started reading texts that weren’t queer as queer as a survival strategy.” If we lived in a world with equal representation, LGBTQIA+ people wouldn’t need these kinds of survival strategies.
Equal representation across sexuality, gender, race, and other identifiers should be a priority in our schools. It’s not as if it would be hard to achieve; the texts are out there, it’s just a matter of curation. Why was I assigned Bulibasha rather than Nights in the Gardens of Spain or The Uncle’s Story, Ihimaera’s explicitly gay novels? I don’t believe it was a matter of inappropriate sexual content. We went on to study The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which features plenty of disturbing scenes of a sexual nature. It seems to me that what is being deemed inappropriate isn’t sexual content but explicitly queer content. I see this same discrimination in my job as a librarian. There have been requests for George by Alex Gino, a children’s novel about a trans girl, to be taken off the shelves. Now every time I see that book I display it face out.
The only other LGBTQIA+ Aotearoa writers I was aware of as a highschooler were Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson. Both of them faced the same erasure of queerness that Witi Ihimaera was subject to in my introduction to him. Mansfield was presented as a fierce, independent woman with wanderlust, but not as a bisexual woman.
I was told that Sargeson was an ‘important New Zealand writer,’ but that was all I knew about him. As far as I was concerned he was an old dead guy that I had no reason to be interested in. He was given no characteristics that might have attracted me. If I’d known his stories started with lines like, “Jack had got a pretty considerable hole dug in the back-yard before I knew anything about it. I went round one scorching hot Saturday afternoon, and Jack was in the hole with nothing on except his boots and his little tight pair of shorts…” (from The Hole that Jack Dug) I might have been more curious.
I knew these writers existed, I just didn’t know their contexts. I read some of their writing, but didn’t know their full stories. The problem is not that literary institutions in Aotearoa don’t champion LGBTQIA+ writers, it’s they erase their queerness in their championing of them.
This erasure of queerness is still happening to contemporary writers. A lot is made of the fact that Hera Lindsay Bird is a young woman writing about sex, but despite one of the poems in her debut collection being titled ‘Bisexuality,’ the fact that not all of the sex in the book is heterosexual is almost never addressed. Courtney Sina Meredith is celebrated for being a driven, ambitious, Samoan woman, but rarely for being a queer, driven, ambitious, Samoan woman.
Hinemoana Baker’s first collection Matuhi: Needle was covered in a 2005 Listener round-up of new New Zealand poetry. While Baker is often labelled a queer poet, this book doesn’t contain a lot of explicitly queer content. So I find it hilarious that the reviewer chose the most sexual lines in the book – "fat strawberries...at night // we pick them by touch / listen to the flesh / release the stem" – as the only extract to quote, and then used them as an example of “pregnant” imagery, rather than queer innuendo.
Another example is the Otago Daily Times review of Kerry Donovan Brown’s novel Lamplighter. The reviewer calls the novel “the best book I have read in years,” but when they state that the protagonist’s grandfather “will never accept him for who he really is,” the reviewer fails to explain it is because of the main character’s sexuality. It’s strange to me see someone claim such complete love of the book while completely glossing over the important fact that the protagonist, Candle, is gay.
Gina Cole has been quoted as saying she wants “to be a Fijian, lesbian, woman who writes,” so it’s disappointing that the review of Cole’s Black Ice Matter on 95bFM’s ‘Loose Reads’ made no mention of the queer content in the book. The discussion of the book on RNZ National’s ‘Nine To Noon’ didn’t do much better; they only briefly mentioned that one of the characters is a “lesbian triathlete,” but did not say anything further about that particular story or how the character’s sexuality was important to the piece.
Likewise, the critical response to Hannah Mettner’s debut poetry collection, Fully Clothed and So Forgetful, has focused on the themes of childhood, family, parenthood and domesticity. Only a few reviewers have made reference to the collection’s important themes of sexuality and coming out. And there are plenty of signposts pointing those out to the reader – the collection’s epigraphs are from Eileen Myles and Adrienne Rich, two queer female poets; ‘The proof of a lady’ is a poem about Katherine Mansfield’s pubic hair, and ‘Gender buttons’ references yet another queer writer in Gertrude Stein. And though there are only a handful of poems in the collection which directly refer to same-sex relationships, those poems inform many of the others in the collection which deal with both familial and romantic relationships. For instance, the poem ‘How we fucked up’ casts a whole new light on ‘The love poem,’ and ‘All tall women’ changes how I view ‘Ways we love.’
It’s much easier to find your way when there’s a path to follow
While sexuality is just one of many themes in these books, the fact that the media coverage fails to mention this theme signals that there is a bias – conscious or otherwise – against queer content in our literature. Looking at these examples of how LGBTQIA+ literature is covered in this country, it’s not surprising that none of my early trans/non-binary influences were New Zealanders.
I’m not alone in this; poet Chris Tse told me that he “found [himself] actively looking beyond New Zealand for gay poetry,” and went on to find D.A. Powell, Richard Siken, and James Schuyler. Although essa may ranapiri is a committed reader of Aotearoa literature (their Twitter thread of Aotearoa poems is an incredible resource), when I asked them which queer writers had made a big impression on them, they went American, listing Cody-Rose Clevidence, Aaron Apps, TC Tolbert, jayy dodd, and Jos Charles. Young New Zealanders growing up today are lucky to have Tse, ranapiri and others like them living and writing in an openly queer manner in their own country. It’s much easier to find your way when there’s a path to follow.
Earlier this year I was surprised to learn that New Zealand has an LGBTQI literary festival, Same Same But Different. What I was surprised by wasn’t the fact that the festival existed, but that I had never heard about it before, and I consider myself to be well informed about the literary scene in Aotearoa. I would have expected a festival so clearly up my alley to have been on my radar.
Unfortunately, Same Same But Different doesn’t get the same level of coverage as other Aotearoa literary festivals like the Auckland Writers Festival, Wellington’s Writers & Readers, or LitCrawl, all of which are widely promoted. I only found out about Same Same But Different because I saw a Facebook status that Chris Tse posted, saying he was heading up to Auckland for the festival the next day. I asked Chris about the festival and he told me:
The opening gala night of this year’s festival had the theme of ‘great moments.’ I talked about how being there in front of an audience was my great moment: I had reached a point in my life where I was both comfortable writing about being a gay man and sharing this work with an audience. It was a moment filled with adrenaline and joy – a reminder to myself of how far I’d come both as a person and a writer. The following weekend of readings and conversation [was] exciting, encouraging and inspiring, and I left with much to think about. By far one of the most enriching festival experiences I’ve ever had.
I wish I had known about Same Same But Different in advance so that I could have shared in that experience. I wish that the festival received wider promotion so that more people could experience the power of what Chris describes here.
Of course issues of identity and representation are by no means confined to gender and sexuality. Writers of colour, those with disabilities, and people who experience mental illness all face similar neglect and erasure. Writers with overlapping marginalised identities are hit even harder. Indigenous modes of queerness, such as the Māori takatāpui and Samoan fa’afafine are even more poorly represented in our literature than other LGBTQIA+ identities. This lack of representation can lead to young people feeling alone in the world, not knowing that there are others like them, hiding in plain sight.
Issues of identity and representation are by no means confined to gender and sexuality
In a recent interview on The Pantograph Punch, filmmaker Fred Renata discussed how he didn’t feel connected to Māoridom while growing up, saying, “We were slightly isolated in the Māori community...so we kind of joined in with the whole Pākehā assimilation thing. Let's just get along, be racist together and hate all Māori, including myself and my siblings.” He only began identifying as Māori after meeting Māori artists and becoming more involved in filmmaking.
At 'Kaupapa/Talanoa,' a reading organised as part of LitCrawl Wellington 2015, writer Faith Wilson spoke about growing up wishing she was white and how she came out to herself as brown. This was right after I had come out to myself as nonbinary, and her story of self acceptance resonated with me.
Courtney Sina Meredith’s poem ‘Could you connect me to a diverse community?’ in the February 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine, dedicated to Aotearoa writers, is relevant to anyone with a marginalised identity. When discussing this piece at the Poetry International event at this year’s Wellington Writers & Readers festival she stated that, as a female, Pacific, queer writer, she “ticks all the boxes.” Not only is she forced to deal with the discrimination that comes with each of these aspects of her identity, but whenever a gatekeeper is looking for minority voices they come straight to her, asking her to either speak on behalf of her entire community or to offer up her friendships and connections for their personal gain. Neither of these tasks is her responsibility. No one member of any group can accurately speak for the whole, and it is the job of curators and editors to build relationships themselves, not to simply piggyback on minority artists and writers.
I work at at library. On our e-book platform there are several themed ‘reading rooms.’ Two new reading rooms were introduced in early 2018: one called ‘LGBTIQ+ Reads’ and another called ‘Aotearoa.’ I was excited when I discovered these new addtions and scrolled through them quickly, looking for names I recognised and new books to discover. But after scrolling for a while I noticed that none of the books that appeared in the ‘LGBTIQ+ Reads’ section were included in the ‘Aotearoa’ reading room. And it wasn’t that the books in the Aotearoa section weren’t by LGBTQIA+ writers – there were titles by Witi Ihimaera, Renee, Peter Wells, Hera Lindsay Bird and Kerry Donovan Brown.
Perhaps the person who compiled the reading rooms didn’t realise that these writers are queer? Perhaps someone who did know should have been responsible for the ‘LGBTIQ+ Reads’ section? The message that the displays give is that there are queer writers and there are Aotearoa writers, but there is no such thing as a queer Aotearoa writer.
While writing this essay, I asked a number of queer Aotearoa writers what they felt qualified a piece of writing as queer, and I received a range of responses. Some thought that it was the identity of the writer that defined a work as queer, others said that the content of the writing determined whether or not it was queer; some viewed both elements as equally important in catagorising a piece of writing.
There are, of course, LGBTQIA+ Aotearoa writers whose work isn’t explicitly queer. There are a variety of reasons for this – perhaps they don’t want their work to be defined in terms of their gender or sexuality, perhaps they haven’t come out yet, or maybe they are more interested in writing about other things. If a queer writer doesn’t write explicitly queer content their queerness might not be as relevant to analysing their work, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be acknowledged as a queer person.
On the flip side, what about cis, straight writers whose work features queer characters? Do we catagorise those books as ‘queer writing’? Annaleese Jochems’ breakout debut novel Baby, has, at its core, a romantic relationship between two women. Its protagonist Cynthia is clearly presented as a strong yet flawed bisexual woman. This is the type of content I would hope to see in a library’s LGBTQIA+ section, but I struggle to judge whether Jochems’ book should be included in the same space as work by LGBTQIA+ writers. Jochems told me that she views the book as a queer novel but made sure to qualify this by saying that she’s “not sure if it’s fair for me to claim queerness.”
This highlights one of the problems with our country’s critical culture...we need to hear queer perspectives
Unfortunately, none of the reviews of Baby published thus far have been written by (openly) queer critics. This highlights one of the problems with our country’s critical culture. Since queerness is such a large part of Baby, we need to hear queer perspectives on the book in order to gain a fuller understanding of how the work operates.
Editors need to focus on more than correcting grammar and punctutation; it is vital for them to be matching suitable reviewers to the texts they give coverage to. Sometimes this would mean commissioning queer writers to review books featuring queer characters. Other times it might mean getting a different perspective on an issue by commissioning someone with an outsider viewpoint. Regardless, the people who hold the gatekeeping positions in Aotearoa literature need to carefully consider and incorporate this into their practice.
In order for Aotearoa to sustain an energised artistic ecosystem, there not only needs to be a balance in who reviews a book, but in what original works are being published. While it is heartening to see queer work included in a number of recent anthologies of Aotearoa literature, including Black Marks on the White Page, The Fuse Box, Three Words and others, I can’t help but wonder, where are the LGBTQIA+-themed anthologies?
The 2000s have seen the publication of a solid handful of books on sexuality and gender in Aotearoa, such as Huia’s Sexuality & the Stories of Indigenous People, VUP’s Representing Trans: Linguistic, legal and everyday perspectives and OUP’s Sexual Cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand Education, but the last major Aotearoa collection of queer creative writing was Best Mates: Gay writing in Aotearoa, New Zealand edited by Peter Wells and Rex Pilgrim, and published in 1997 (but now out of print). I hope so badly that I’ve missed an anthology that came out more recently because that’s over 20 years ago. And what about our lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and asexual writers? Where are the anthologies for them?
I understand that place will always be an important theme in Aotearoa literature, but did we really need a second, expanded edition of Big Weather more than an anthology of contemporary queer Aotearoa writers? And let’s not act like it’s a marketability issue. In a climate where Queer Eye, Rupaul’s Drag Race, Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon are cultural touchstones, an anothology of queer writing would sell. And not just of the writers I’ve mentioned so far – there are many LGBTQIA+ Aotearoa writers impatient for their opportunity to be heard, and plenty with full-length manuscripts ready for publication.
essa may ranapiri summed it up beautifully when I spoke to them about this issue. They said:
There just isn’t enough writing from queer people being published in New Zealand. Where are the trans writers of New Zealand? Where are all the takatāpui writers? These are huge gaps in the literary environment. I think there could be huge opportunities for platforms that privilege queer (especially trans) perspectives as well, especially since we live in a world which privileges cis-hetero views all the time.
I’d also like to add I think there needs to be more publishing of Māori and Pacifika and other minority writers as well. I think in writing journals these voices are well represented or becoming well represented but in terms of book publishing there is a huge gap just waiting to be filled!
Literature is an important place not just for seeing ourselves represented, but also for discovering and exploring our identities. The reflective nature of writing inevitably helps us learn more about ourselves. Creative writing can even be a medium for coming out. I still haven’t had a conversation with my parents about my gender, but I have read poems that discuss my gender in front of them. I felt protected by the distance between me on the stage and them in the crowd, reading words that I had practised over and over, in the presence of others who already knew how I identified and supported me in that.
Literature is an important place not just for seeing ourselves represented, but also for discovering and exploring our identities
LGBTQIA+ people don’t just come out once. It is an infinitely repeated process. You come out to your friends, your family, your schoolmates, your workmates, and the list goes on. Writers also come out on the page. Ihimaera had published books for more than 20 years before his first explicitly queer work, Nights in the Gardens of Spain, was released in 1995. He completed a draft of the book five years before that, but delayed its publication, waiting for the right time, as so many of us do when coming out. Despite this delay, Nights in the Gardens of Spain was still met with shock from the Aotearoa audience.
Chris Tse’s first book, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, didn’t reflect his sexuality as a gay man at all. Instead it told the story of Joe Kum Yung, a Cantonese goldminer who was murdered in Wellington in 1905. Tse came out on the page in his second collection, He’s so MASC. Tse didn’t simply switch his focus from his Chinese heritage to his sexuality with He’s so MASC, but expanded his scope by writing about his experience as a gay man, memory and travel, his interest in music and acting, as well as continuing to write about being Chinese.
At the launch of the book, Tse gave a beautiful and emotional speech in which he said that this book was the first time he was writing in his own voice. He later told me that with this book he had “started getting more comfortable revealing certain facets of my life in the work – it no longer felt scary or ‘too much.’” As he writes in the poem ‘Punctum’: “the only / dead Chinese person I’ll write about from now on / is me.”
Putting this kind of work out into the world takes a lot of bravery, the same kind of bravery it takes to show affection to a partner of the same sex in public or for someone assigned male at birth to wear a dress out of the house. This kind of bravery serves our society by breaking down harmful gender roles and normalising free self-expression. In order to encourage this bravery, it is important for gatekeepers to do the work necessary to make our LGBTQIA+ writers feel safe in literary spaces. There is something wrong with any society where people feel unsafe expressing themselves.
It is time for the literary establishment of Aotearoa – our editors, publishers, critics, educators and other gatekeepers – to ... celebrate and encourage queer writers
Not all corners of the Aotearoa literary community have this problem. The slam poetry scene has always been extremely open and welcoming to queer writers. Former Aotearoa Slam Champion Ali Jacs credits this to the democratic nature of slam poetry, saying “the fact that anyone, regardless of 'qualification,' who comes along to a poetry slam can find themselves being a judge that night...[means it] is inherently more inclusive of diverse perspectives and voices, than submitting to a literary journal for example.” Zine culture also attracts a significant LGBTQIA+ contigent. Go to any zinefest in the country and I guarantee that you’ll find at least one stall selling queer zines
Both the slam poetry and zine scene share the trait of having minimal reliance on gatekeepers. Anyone can make their poems or stories into a zine. They don’t need permission from anyone: all they need is pen and paper. And zinefests typically don’t select stallholders based on merit; it’s almost always first in first served. In the same vein, anyone is welcome to perform at a poetry slam or open mic, and the judges are asked to take audience response into account when scoring poems. Everyone’s voice matters. This openness attracts not only LGBTQIA+ writers, but all kinds of minority voices, and creates a warm and diverse community that serves its members not only as writers but as human beings.
It is time for the literary establishment of Aotearoa – our editors, publishers, critics, educators and other gatekeepers – to follow the lead of these communities. We need to celebrate and encourage queer writers, not just for their writing but for their queerness as well. How can people be expected to succeed when only part of their identity is acknowledged? Our LGBTQIA+ writers are out there, working their asses off to work against a system that is working against them. They are already thriving. Imagine what they could do in a system set up for them to succeed.