Reviewed: Driskill, Q.L., Justice, D.H., Miranda, D., and Tatonetti, L. (Eds.) Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011.
It’s often said that people in power get to speak and everyone else is silenced. But this isn't quite how power and voice work. It's true that the people with power, those with the largest platforms, the loudest microphones (and most wealth and privilege), take up most of the space and push others’ voices to the margins. But marginal people are never completely silent. Usually they are telling stories to each other. Since no one else seems interested in listening, sharing these stories becomes both an act of survival and an act of resistance.
When people in power decide that a story that was once marginal is now of interest, something peculiar happens. Rather than start by listening, usually we start by talking. We talk about how terrible it is that this group of people has never been listened to. We talk about how we should do things to help them "find their voice." We talk about fundraisers and best practices. We conveniently ignore the active part our talking has had in segregating these stories, and start talking as if we have discovered something which it is our responsibility to now bring it to light. I am part of this ‘we’. I try to be aware of it and work with it. One way I do that is that when I don't know about something, or when I learn about something for the first time, rather than start talking, I start listening. And Sovereign Erotics gave me a lot to listen to.
Sovereign Erotics is the first new collection of two-spirit writings for a general audience since the 1988 publication of Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Editors Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Heath Justice, Deborah Miranda, and Lisa Tatonetti point out that Aboriginal/First Nations/Native people who identify themselves somewhere within the rubric of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Two-Spirit have been "living, loving, and creating art since time immemorial." And so as editors their task was not to discover, but to collect, to respect, and to share. As readers we are the beneficiaries of an amazing act of art and resistance. A collection of stories that manages to at once respect the distinct identities and voices of the contributors while providing a larger frame for all of us to engage with.
It's also simply a great read. The story telling is masterful, the work is funny and painful, sexy and awkward, heart wrenching and uplifting.
Twenty-eight writers contribute over sixty pieces of prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, that ranges in content and tone, in style and vision. As a collection Sovereign Erotics continues conversations about gender, sexuality, race, identity, power, love, loss, and Indigeneity that have been happening in various communities for centuries, and, arguably, expands it by inviting far more people to the table, an important achievement that other identity-based collections often don’t quite reach.
Daniel Heath Justice, who is both an editor and contributor, describes their editorial vision this way:
"The pieces in this collection are from the inside, but not in any monolithic way. No one writer speaks for all queer/Two-Spirit Indigenous people; there's no singular way of being, no essential quality that all the writers share. Instead, each writer shares something particular and specific of their own particular imaginative gifts, and this is about as deeply 'from the inside' as you can get."
In putting these pieces in relation to each other the editors create a conversation made of intensely personal experience that is profoundly politically articulate. I'm thinking of William Raymond Taylor's wrenching prose poem "Something Wants to Be Said" which ends in a space of such loneliness and pain. But positioned comfortably in between Michael Koby's contemplatively sweet "Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" and Malea Powell's "A meditation partially composed in a D.C. coffeehouse because there isn't anything better to do in this city of dead white fathers…" which offers a violent and erotic ode to muffins, Taylor's piece doesn't feel quite so alone. And as a reader you don't feel so alone with the feelings and histories it stirs.
To give you a sense of what emerges from reading these stories together and the deeply personal politics they articulate, here are three themes that run through the collection and spoke most clearly to me.
It's rare to have a collection with so many strong characters who are young and queer and whose value in the story isn’t based solely on them being young or queer. There's Josh, the hero of Craig Womack's "The King of the Tie-snakes" who has "secret words with special powers" which help him survive bullying, unrequited love, and the complicated mix of fear, boredom, and wonder of fishing with his grandfather. There’s the “young girl with boy skin” who traipses magically through empty rooms and forests in Louis Esme Cruz’s "Birth Song for Muin, in Red."
There’s the young narrator in Michael Koby's "The Witch's House" who in the face of the oppressive complicated mess of gender, race, class, culture, and desire which many of us as adults remember as our primary school days, delights in crossing boundaries and playing with power. The narrator spends an afternoon with another social outcast, the Witch's daughter, learning the kind of important life lessons many of us had, but few of us get to read about in literature:"Margot taught me how to dance like a stripper that day on the playground swing set. Using the poles supporting the metal roped swings, we each took turns showing the curious boys our routine. She was better at it than me, but I was a boy so I figured that was okay. We practiced for what seemed like forever, making full arcs under the sun and squint of their eyes."
And there are more. At first I found myself surprised by all these rich, complicated and funny young characters. The surprise comes from years of reading young adult literature where gender and identity are often constructed and tokenized in particular ways. There are notable exceptions, but more often than not a characters gayness or gender presentation IS what the story is about. It defines them and the narrative. Not so with the characters we meet here.
Sovereign Erotics challenges the kind of strict divisions that exist between adult and young adult literature. As someone who grew up being called queer I can only imagine how great it would have been to encounter these characters when I was younger.
Another benefit of having writings collected in one place is that where one piece challenges you as a reader in particular ways, several pieces, each with their own voice and perspective, can have a cumulative effect that challenges not just your experience as a reader, but your perspective as a person. I felt this most strongly in the way that environments, or what most of us think about as nature, exists in these stories and this collection.
You're probably familiar with a certain stereotype of Native people as being close to nature. The way this is presented in white cultures is as a kind of ‘primitive’ artifact, a sign that Aboriginal and First Nations people are somehow less ‘civilized’. This is clearly a racist framing. The meaning and role of the environment to Native, Aboriginal, and First Nations peoples and traditions may be explicit and profound but it is also complicated and nuanced.
The many forms that relationships to environment take in Sovereign Erotics renders the racist ‘close to nature’ cliche powerless. The land and the environment (whether it's a dirt road underneath a truck speeding along a highway in El Salvador, crammed with anxious people waiting to see what comes next, a coffee house in D.C., or the steam and smell of sweet grass rising from a buffalo in Tiwa country) often takes on equal significance in the stories as the characters that move through them.
The stories in Sovereign Erotics present an understanding of environments that doesn't let us get away with making easy distinctions between different dimensions of our environment, the natural, the historical, the social.
In their introduction the editors work hard to position this book in the bigger context of two-spirit writing through the ages. They evoke a model of "creative resistance" that they learned from elders and that they hope their collection draws on in it's own efforts to represent without reducing, to complicate all of our understanding of identity, desire, family, love, loss, sexuality, and gender, to, in the words of editor Qwo-Li Driskill, "push on the past while making a contribution to a healthier and more respectful future."
While there is much in the collection that will feel brand new to readers who are unfamiliar with two-spirit literature (which I suspect is most of us) other struggles may feel more familiar. The editors describe their struggle to keep sexuality and pleasure present in larger acts of resistance. In the introduction there's a quote from editor and Cherokee writer Daniel Heath Justice's "Fear of a Changeling Moon: A Rather Queer Tale of a Cherokee Hillbilly",
"To ignore sex and embodied pleasure in the use of Indigenous liberation is to ignore one of our greatest resources. It is to deny us one of our most precious gifts. Every orgasm can be an act of decolonization."
When I read this I'm reminded of my own mentors, many of whom were disability activists, particularly queer disability activists, who for years have called for disabled people not to ignore their sexuality and sexual desires when resisting ableism in society. Who are creating new ways of understanding and experiencing sexuality, gender, and identity. And possibilities for making connections begin to appear.
Recognizing these possibilities says more about brilliance of Sovereign Erotics than it does about me. The collection feels like an invitation, from the editors’ welcoming introduction to each author who offers ways of seeing and experiencing the world through characters and stories that invite all of us to come and have fun as well as to feel particular kinds of pain. Accepting the invitation is an amazing and productive reward.
University of Arizona Press: Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature