Queer Writing and the Strictures of Identity Politics
Author: Marcie Bianco
February 4, 2014
Last year I wrote about the “gay imposition,” the cultural forces that demand writers to be gay writers, and which mediate the writing process. The demand is readerly; audiences, both real and imagined, function as external forces that pressure a writer to conform to a universal stereotype, or write “as a” lesbian, or gay man, or bisexual, or trans* gendered person. This is the basis of Edward Albee’s refusal to identify as a “gay writer”: “[a] writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay…. Any definition which limits us is deplorable.”
All artists encounter constricting forces that police or delimit the breadth of our creativity. What I have been interested in thinking about, however, is the extent to which writers consciously inhabit a specific identity position when writing. I asked a number of friends, colleagues, and writers I admire a few questions about the nature of queer writing: What makes writing “queer”? Is there a precise aesthetics or style to it? Can queer writing exist outside identity politics? Do literary endeavors suffer from identity politics? Or, what happens when style and craft are both compromised by the focus on queerness/queer identity?
Below are highlights from their responses, which, hopefully, will become part of a larger project on queer writing to be published as a collection of essays at a later date. If you are interested in contributing to this project, please email me or contact me via Twitter.
What makes writing “queer”? Is there a precise aesthetics or style to it?
For me, a piece of art that’s queer would have a theme or aesthetic that questions or disturbs or interrupts or inverts the heteronormative status quo, plays with the audience’s expectations around sexual mores, attraction, and desire; or places as protagonists characters who have been historically marginalized, silenced, or erased because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Or, contributes in some way to the historical narrative of queer people, whoever they are or think they are. —Anne-e Wood, fiction writer and lecturer
Being Latino, I’ve had a similar type of discussion with Latino writers about Latino literature and what it means to be a “Latino writer.” I guess for me, it comes down to authenticity. As long as there is something real and substantial that can be attributed to the queer community, then it’s queer writing. It could be that the writer identifies as queer. It could be that the characters are queer. It could be part of the culture embraced by or created by queers…. For me, what makes my writing queer is the same thing that makes my writing Latino which is also the thing that makes my writing queer Latino – it’s me. It’s almost impossible for me to only write about being queer or only write about being Latino. Who knows, maybe I’m not skilled enough to do that or maybe it’s a choice I don’t want to make. Anyway, I think what makes my writing queer is me. I am queer. —Miguel Morales, Lambda Literary Fellow and Lambda Literary contributor
To be honest, I have no idea of what queer is. I’ve never referred to myself that way, ever. It wasn’t until last summer at the Lambda Literary retreat that I heard the word used so freely. For a few days, even though I was a fellow, I felt like an outsider. Everyone kept talking about how proud they were to be a queer writer and I felt excluded…which then brings up racial politics. None of the black gay men and women I interact with refer to themselves as queer. So in some ways, I am queer by default. It’s difficult to define myself by language I don’t use. — Phill Branch, writer, filmmaker of Searching for Shaniqua
If there is a genre that we might name “queer writing” its definition and form should always evade us since queerness (at least in the way that Jose Munoz conceptualized queer) brings to mind futures, Utopias, and desire. Queerness is dis-identification, which would mean that queer writing also moves counter to normative forms. Queer writing is more fluid than fixed, more disruptive than appeasing. To me, queer writing need not be written by so-named queers, but are forms of writing that refuses to be arrested by conventional writing standards that are shaped racist and classist and ableist and imperialist legacies that structure the ways we write and identify, if we are brave enough, as writers. —Darnell L. Moore, writer and managing editor at The Feminist Wire.
It’s important to me to speak with authority—to write from a place of access and experience. While I can imagine or invent experiences other than queer, and the themes I chose to explore as a writer are universal—the lies we all tell ourselves and others, how we compromise and damage each other with painful truths—these are always considered through the sensibility of an outsider. I don’t find the queer perspective limiting. Rather, it is a matter of precision. I don’t reject a normative perspective as much as I am impatient with it; with its irrelevance to the world I operate in. There’s no truth in it for me. — Rebecca Chekouras, fiction writer writer from Oakland, CA.
Can queer writing exist outside identity politics? Do literary endeavors suffer from identity politics?
While I don’t believe there is a “precise aesthetics or style” to “queer writing,” I also do not believe it can exist outside identity politics….. “queer” to me is a particularly politicized identity, and one that I don’t identify with personally, although I have no objection to others labeling me as queer. Personally, I identify as a lesbian, which I know in 2013 (almost 2014) is a somewhat old-fashioned term. I identify as a lesbian because I identify strongly as a woman, and “queer” can erase that. And that thought led me to realize I would identify as a queer woman, just not simply as queer….. Moving on to literary endeavors, I think they can suffer from identity politics, but that’s because I’m a commercial writer trying to make a living in a capitalist economy where queerness is marginalized. I don’t write novels that are about queerness, even though my characters are queer (and I do believe my characters would identify that way). I have indeed read novels that would have been better — structurally, plot-wise — if identity politics had been less front-and-center. However, sometimes identity politics is the point of fiction, and I believe it’s disingenuous to criticize that kind of work for doing what it sets out to do. —Malinda Lo, author of Ash, and Adaptation
What happens when style and craft are compromised by a focus on queer identity? You get a textbook. They offer important information but, as the reader, when I come across text without craft or style, I go into textbook mode. All I can think is, “Will this be on the test?” I scan the information. Certain paragraphs will pull me in because it’s an interesting subject but I don’t feel connected to the work. It is real. It’s authentic but in a clinical way. There are times when I’m down for that. But if the goal is to impart the information in a meaningful way then underscore that authenticity by pulling me into the work using style and craft. — Miguel Morales
I don’t see “identity politics” as a dirty phrase. I want to write queer books, I want to work with queer publishers, I want to reach queer readers. I know that writing queer characters and experiences from a queer social location is what fosters the connections between me and readers. With that in mind, I want to be known as a queer author, not an author who is queer. I want to continue creating stories that speak to queer readers without having to explain who we are to an outside audience. In this way, the focus of queer books for queer readers can be on the story itself as opposed to worrying if a reader won’t understand the pronoun choice, relationship dynamics, etc. of my characters. — Sassafras Lowrey, author of Roving Pack, Editor of Kicked Out and Leather Ever After
I believe a work is queer if it announces itself as such, and certainly work that takes pain to disrupt narratives and conventions might be seen as especially queer, or queer in a multitude of ways. I certainly believe queer writing exists outside identity politics; knowing oneself doesn’t need to be political, and while I sort of believe that EVERYTHING is political, I also can imagine an internal space a writer can occupy and work as if this was true. I think work suffers from identity politics only when it feels beholden to an agenda. I think it’s totally possible and normal to have agendas as writers and queers and humans, but if you tax our work with the burden of carrying it, it can compromise it. But all in all, there is no reason why style, craft and queer identity all can’t coexist beautifully within a work of literature. It happens all the time. — Michelle Tea, founder of Sister Spit, author of Valencia, and Mermaid in Chelsea Creek
Literary endeavors do suffer from a myopic focus identity politics…. [T]here are writers and also specific works that are mediocre because of what I see as the writer trying too hard to “be queer” and conform to what either they conceive of as QUEER WRITING or QUEER POLITICS or what our community, queer and artistic, holds them accountable for in their writing. It’s also a burden, I would think, to be a venerable queer writer who is indeed held accountable for always being queer AND political when maybe they just want to write a creative piece about something else altogether….But there is indeed a style and aesthetic I do believe, nothing that is monolithic, but certainly writing with a conscious understanding of, interest in and commitment to queer politics, broadly defined, that I hope would include anti-racist, feminist, class and gender sensitivity, etc. I don’t believe every queer writer has to address these ideas constantly–or at all, just have an understanding that queer writing and queerness generally does not exist in a vacuum. – Stephanie Schroeder, freelance journalist and author of Beautiful Wreck: Sex, Lies & Suicide