Defining a Community
How does one writer encapsulate the modern queer identity? A short answer is: one can’t, so go ahead and make an anthology instead.
Editors Chris Tse and Emma Barnes delve into this question of what being queer means in today’s context. In an effort not to redefine, but simply survey, the current literary scape of what our Queer writers have on offer, Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers from Aotearoa is a gorgeous, bursting, thematically wide collection of poetry, prose and a smattering of other literary forms. It deftly moves through depictions of lived and inspired experiences.
The seventy-odd writers collated in this anthology have little to connect with one another besides the fluid identity of queerness. Spanning across age, race and sense of home, the scattered nature of the literary work means the themes jump from climate change to the domestic to decolonisation to love. This is not a fault, but more an indication of what it means to be queer today. It speaks to Tse and Barnes’ editorial intent:
“We’re exceptionally familiar with tropes of queer unhappiness and we wanted to widen the frame and draw more things into the picture to shift the tragic queer life over to the side of the frame instead of the centre.”
The term ‘Queer’ itself escapes definition: all-encompassing yet filled with footnotes and contradictions, like a spinning kaleidoscope of colliding plastic chips, falling and fragmenting in their ways, in their own time. With Out Here, Tse and Barnes propose a new question: In our current societal climate, where the church and state are separate, laws have been written to protect queer lives, and gender abolished (thank god!), what does it mean to live as a queer person today? What do we have left when queer identity actively rejects fear and unhappiness as its defining feature?
Simply, it is the broad universality of life itself; the sheer embarrassment at expressing love for someone, such as in Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem I AM SO IN LOVE WITH YOU I WANT TO LIE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF A MAJOR PUBLIC INTERSECTION AND CRY:
“your teeth like a graveyard . . . in springtime
your tongue like a mattress . . . in a graveyard . . . in springtime
your tongue on my cunt like a mattress . . . in a graveyard . . . in springtime
my pubic hair like the black carpet on the titanic
my ass . . . like an ass buffet”
It is the bond of loving someone you’ve always known, such as Gina Cole’s short fiction piece Melt:
“She had no need to explain anything to Vivienne, and so when the circle changed and Vivienne sat across from her at speed dating, Rena said, ‘I love you’ straight off. Vivienne looked at Rena and said, ‘I love you too.’ ”
It is the impending fear of climate change in Ash Davida Jane’s poem Good People:
“and I have dreams of drowning in a sea of bubble wrap and single-use
while around me people lounge on cruise ships drinking
piña coladas and saying But I Use Them For Bin Liners”
These ideas flow like a conversation with friends, a comradery, a community. I think of my own queer circle, how I miss them in these times, and I fold corners so I can read the pieces out loud to them later.
Specific contributions to this work situate the anthology as wholly within current conversations of decolonisation. Jessica Niurangi Mary Maclean’s crisp essay Kāore e wehi tōku kiri ki te taraongaonga; my skin does not fear the nettles deserves a special mention. Her refreshing discussion on the place of takatāpui in te ao Māori challenges existing binary discourse. Witi Ihimaera’s excerpt provides an expansive and whole Indigenous voice, blending intersections of historical queer identity and cultural obligation. Additional small gestures, such as writers’ biographies in te reo, feel like affirming steps towards honouring Te Tiriti.
Though most of the contributions are poetry in its common form, there are a handful of standout pieces playing with form and materiality. Pelenakeke Brown’s A Travelling Practice weaves Sāmoan concepts of tā and vā with post-internet contemporary suggestions, invoking a sprawling tatau through the modern medium of the keyboard. Vanessa Mei Crofskey’s Peanuts Pickled in Aged Vinegar uses boarding passes, Chinese restaurant menus and other found objects evoking Sinophobic sentiment to reveal blackout poetry. She reinvigorates a form once surrendered to sad Tumblr users, and reclaims the voided space with added personal poetic professions.
In discussing the sprawling form and themes, I do not intend to reinforce or validate the collective dementia of queer trauma. Josiah Morgan’s BODY is beautiful as it unfolds, like watching clay become a tall, thin vase – up, and then collapsing over itself. Natasha Dennerstein utilises unemotive language in her recounting of the loss of a friend to HIV/AIDS, camouflaging its inherent sadness. In these inclusions and others, the anthology holds a factual understanding that queerness has a specialised arena of tragedy that is, if not discussed, remembered and honoured, at risk of being forgotten.
Digressive, Out Here is intersectional by design, extending beyond tragedy alone. The editorial choice to alphabetise by author allows form and theme to collide, offering short fiction side by side with acrostic love poems to oestrogen.
The choice of having first names categorise the order is interesting given the history of self-naming within the queer community. Rather than based on the arbitrary lineage of grandparents fucking, it is something chosen, by people who love us, or by ourselves, who love ourselves.
To return to the opening rhetorical, the anthology is the way to encapsulate the modern queer experience, and Out Here is a worthy collection fitting snugly amongst other powerful queer works. Like a boot that fits, like a friend you always knew, it is a book to return to again and again.
Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers from Aotearoa is published by Auckland University Press
Feature image: Sherry Zhang