Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature was published in November, 2011. It’s only the second time that what might be broadly called queer Native literature has been collected formally in one book (the first was Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology, published in 1988) and while its focus is on the creative work of two-spirit writers and artists, it’s one of the most exciting collections of writings on, about, and around sexuality and gender I’ve read in a long, long time.
Knowing only a bit about what the term two-spirit references, and even less about the process of putting together such an outstanding anthology (over 60 pieces from 28 authors), I asked the editors to virtually sit down for a conversation. The following interview was compiled from a phone conversation with editors Qwo-Li Driskill and Lisa Tatonetti and an email exchange with Daniel Heath Justice. Deborah Miranda, the fourth editor, isn’t present in this particular interview.
For someone who might not know anything about two-spirit literature, or may not even be familiar with the term two-spirit, how would you describe Sovereign Erotics?
Qwo-Li: I tell people it's a collection of creative work by contemporary Indigenous, queer, and two-spirit writers. There are a lot of people outside the Native community and inside Native communities who aren't familiar with the term two-spirit. And it's a complicated term and quite slippery and it kind of depends on who you ask in some ways, how they will define it.
Two-spirit is an umbrella term that includes people that dominant culture might call gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender or queer, and also includes people who don't identify with any of those labels but instead identify with traditional gender categories within Indigenous traditions.
I think that sometimes when I talk about “two-spirit,” people want there to be a 'two-spirit tradition', some singular two-spirit thing that people are doing. I always try to emphasize that there's not one tradition. It's a label that's used to build community and to talk about categories that just don't exist within dominant European constructions of gender. But it does something else than the labels people are used to. I don't know if I'd say it's exactly like queer.
Lisa: I think it does function like queer in that sometimes it's about sexuality and sometimes it's not. It crosses all kinds of boundaries in terms of what it's "about" and it also crosses all kinds of genre boundaries. There’s memoir, fiction, fantasy, poetry, and pieces that fall somewhere in between.
Qwo-Li: I think we were really intentional about not falling into the kinds of colonial categories of sexuality that often can happen. This isn't a collection of Native gay and lesbian people, it's a collection of Indigenous GLBTQ Two-Spirit people. I am a two-spirit person and one of my political hopes for this collection is that it reflects and is connected with the grass roots movements that are happening right now.
It's been over 20 years since the publication of Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology and while, as you point out in your introduction, two-spirit people have been "living, loving, and creating art since time immemorial," it's been a long time since the writing has been collected in a formal anthology.
Now that Sovereign Erotics is done and heading out into the world, I want to ask if you have thoughts about the points of connection and points of departure between the two collections. Are there places in Sovereign Erotics where those 23 years are more acutely felt?
Daniel: I think the range of concerns and writers addressed in Sovereign Erotics is particularly distinctive from its predecessor. Living the Spirit was a watershed text, but it came at a time when same-sex desire and diverse gender identifications were very much pathologized and under siege, in large part due to the cultural panic around HIV/AIDS; as a result, much of the content of that volume was focused on asserting the very existence of two-spirit/queer Native people and different ways of understanding gender.
Sovereign Erotics benefits from over two decades of creative work, scholarship, and activism, and emerges in a very different political climate, and the materials in our collection offer a much more expansive sense of Indigenous gender and sexuality that speak as much to the differences of the writers as to their similarities.
Qwo-Li: When Living the Spirit came out the word two-spirit wasn't being used, we didn't have that language. But Indigenous, queer, and two-spirit people were organizing and had been organizing. Those movements and communities have really transformed and coalesced in ways that are different than when Living the Spirit was published.
Lisa: One difference is that in Living the Spirit, most of the pieces specifically deal with some sort of queerness, some sort of sexuality issues. That is so not the case in Sovereign Erotics where there are pieces where some readers may wonder, why is this queer? And we actually had conversations as we were making decisions. How does a piece fit in? What is it doing? We collectively made a decision that it doesn't have to be about sexual identity or queerness to fit within the collection.
I think about James Thomas Stevens. You should pull out the three poems by him in the collection and read them back-to-back. They are about his experiences traveling Europe. He'll laugh because people reading his collections will say 'oh this is so Native...you talk about water.' And he's like 'I talk about the Thames'. So I think that's something really different in Sovereign Erotics: in the moment of its publication people have more freedom and don't have to live within those labels.
Daniel: Having four editorial voices for Sovereign Erotics was an important difference. Although it was explicitly an expression of a community and the relationships between the editor and the contributors, the editorial perspective of Living the Spirit was nevertheless presented as a singular, and while this brought a particular clarity to the project, it also likely limited the range of concerns and possibilities. In 1988, communications technology was much more limited, so Living the Spirit drew almost exclusively from the San Francisco-based group Gay American Indians; Sovereign Erotics draws on a much broader constituency from across North America and beyond, facilitated in large part by the internet. So this made it possible for a wide-ranging call for submissions, and it made it much easier for the four of us to read, discuss, and select submissions in a timely and thorough way.
I want to ask you about the cover image for the book? Who is the artist?
Qwo-Li: The cover image is from Cree artist Kent Monkman. Kent let us use this image (and another one that is on the entwined scholarly collection, Queer Indigeneous Studies) and to me he is as much a contributor as any of the writers.
The image is from series that features a performance character he has called Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. So he's doing this drag persona in that image and playing off photographs of Native people from the past. He's really good at taking these stereotypes of Native people and turning them on their heads or disrupting them in particular ways. I think at first glance if people aren't looking carefully they'd just think "oh this is a photograph of a Native person" but when you actually look at it you can tell she’s a drag queen, and I think it's a beautiful and erotic image and really playing with a lot of racial and gender stereotypes and pushing them back in people's faces in a confrontational and really hilarious way.
You all work in and around what variously gets identified as Native, First Nations, Indigenous, and Indian literature. Most of you are writers yourselves, and some of you identify as two-spirit. I'm wondering if the process of putting this collection together changed the way you understand two-spirit experience and two-spirit literature?
Qwo-Li: I didn't come out with a different understanding, except I'm excited about all the kind of creative work that is happening right now in two-spirit communities and by two-spirit identified people. It marks an exciting time because not so long ago there were so few two-spirit identified people who were publishing. To know there's a huge movement of two-spirit and queer Indigenous writers and artists producing and publishing is really exciting, and it's nice to have that large, extended community of people. When I was first writing that didn't exist in the same way, for me anyway.
Lisa: Going into it we knew there was some really spectacular work out there and that it wasn't only time for a collection, but it was long overdue. The process of putting the book together really reinforced that. It's not that this work wasn't around, it has been around and these writers have been around, but there really is this flowering of connections and an unbelievable amount of work out there that this collection is representative of.
Daniel: One nice surprise from the submissions--both the accepted ones and the ones we couldn't use--was how varied they were in their subject matter. While the contributors all express Indigenous identities and self-identify as queer in various ways, there's no essential way that everyone understands those experiences or identities; this seems to me to be one of the great strengths of the collection, and of Indigenous queer/two-spirit people today, and it speaks to the health of the community as a whole that we don't have to all have the same understandings to be able to share with and learn from one another.
Did you have an audience in mind while putting this collection together? As you were trying to decide what pieces should be in or out, and how they should be organized, how much was that intended - or hoped for - audience present in your minds?
Qwo-Li: For me I wanted this to be a collection that gets into the hands of two-spirit and queer Indigenous people. Collections like Living the Spirit, A Gathering of Sprit that Beth Brant edited, and This Bridge Called My Back really changed a lot of people's lives, and they certainly changed my life and so I want the collection to get into the hands of people who want and need to see it. So the primary audience for me is Indigenous and two-spirit queer folks.
Lisa: Clearly this is going to be a collection that's taught in gender studies classes and native studies classes; it's something that I think about. It has utility in both the streets, with and among people in groups and also in the academy and the university. So the audience is really wide ranging.
What keeps coming to my mind is the reality of economics. The press, whom I love, were very interested in audience; who is this book aimed at, who is it for? Originally we had the book in alphabetical order. And they wanted us to put it into some sort of recognizable order, what's expected of a collection. And we did that. And it works. But I would be just as happy to have it in alphabetical order. I don't there's any one piece that needs to go in one section. So I think those questions of audience are in many ways driven by the realities of the press and the realities of economics, unfortunately, given the world we live in and what's happening to publishing right now.
Daniel: As with the contributions, the audience was always going to be varied. Certainly we wanted a collection that would be welcome to other queer/two-spirit Indigenous folks out there--that was essential. But we also wanted something that queer Native folks could share with their friends or families, or something that a non-Native person could read to better understand the diversity of Indigenous sexuality and gender expression. Ultimately, we wanted this collection to speak to the diverse and beautiful range of Indigenous queer/two-spirit experiences.