by Jade Sylvan
When I originally conceived of this post, I was going to call it “What’s Good About Straight White Men.” I was planning to write about how, as frustratingly homogenous as the “Western Canon” of literature is, the cool thing (at least artistically) about designating a particular group to be “unmarked,” that is, to represent all of Humanity, or (fuck it) Mankind, while other-ing everybody else, is it allows that group to tackle unabashedly the big themes like Love and Death head on, claiming authority as a Universal Human Voice without pesky markers like gender, race, and sexual orientation to potentially alienate the reader. However, as I started to organize my thoughts, what I was coming up with was a little too close to Harold Bloom territory for my comfort level, so I tabled it for a while until I figured out exactly what I wanted to say.
In the meantime, I started coming across descriptions of my own poetic/literary/whatever voice as “queer.” How I personally identify shouldn’t matter (my “orientation” is a pretty steadily swinging pendulum across the entire Kinsey scale), because I don’t write “about” being queer. My work doesn’t focus on “the Queer Experience.” If anything, it’s what I think of as “Straight White Male” poetry. I write about Love, Death, Desire, Spirit, and The Meaning Of It All. In my opinion, I write about “the Human Experience,” but writers haven’t been allowed to admit to that for a few decades, partially because of the (justified) reaction against the Human Experience’s exclusive past co-opting by Straight White Males.
My best friend, photographer Caleb Cole, who’s known me since college, was trying to get me to apply for a queer artist’s grant a couple years back. I was in full-on hetero swing at the time—dating a bona-fide “dude,” wearing heels and lipstick every day—so I was hesitant. I felt like I was living the lifestyle of a straight woman, enjoying all that privilege I’d read about for so long, and had no business vying to take hard-to-find funding away from someone who was more actively expressing their queerness, or something.
Caleb said that didn’t matter, because my “voice” was queer, and the grant was for making art, not making out. I wasn’t sure what a “queer voice” was, so I didn’t apply, though I did start to notice when and why people described my work as queer.
Last week a poem of mine won a blind poetry contest. The judge didn’t know my name, orientation, or sex, and in her remarks, she noted how much she loved the “ambiguously-gendered narrator.” The “narrator” in this poem was me, plain and simple. No persona, no embellishment—just me talking about my life. I even mentioned an “exboyfriend” in the text, which a lot of people would read as an indicator that the speaker is a woman. Unless the voice is a queer one, of course.
I started wondering what made a voice specifically “queer.” I barraged queer artist friends, unwitting lit journal editors at AWP, and the almighty Google with the question, “What makes a voice queer?” Nobody had a good answer.
The University of Pennsylvania devoted an entire college class to defining the queer voice in art. The closest they came was “a voice that raises an undefined opinion.” The definition of a queer voice, therefore, is a voice undefined, or rather, unmarked.
And, as Professor Kenny Goldsmith says, queerness “might also be ‘oddness.’” Of course, the word queer originally meant odd, and to be odd is to be unique. A queer voice is unique, and through its uniqueness, it rejects the baggage of genres, demographics, and niches, thereby, somewhat paradoxically, becoming more universal.
Perhaps because of the proliferation of niche lit in the 90s and 00s, the newest crop of modern artists is hyper-aware of the alienating boundaries these designations place on the individual voice. During the past several decades, the realization that all of these “other” voices had been subjugated by the Straight White Male led to mistrust of anything perceived as too “universal” in scope. Unless a writer was writing about his specific experience as a bisexual transgendered workingclass Lithuanian immigrant, we weren’t supposed to trust his voice. The over niche-ification of literature has almost become a cliché, and unfortunately, focusing too heavily on the outward markers (this is the story of a Punjabi lesbian with ADD) rather than the humanity of the subjects (this is the story of a human being who loves and dies as a Punjabi lesbian with ADD) actually undermines the field-leveling the writers and editors are ostensibly going for.
Plus, the niche designations don’t even seem to reflect the world many of us live in. Racial boundaries, which used to be expressed in the US through the telling metaphor of mutual exclusivity, “black and white” are becoming more and more nebulous, and gender and orientation, to many artists, has started to feel sticky. Labels like “gay,” “trans,” “straight,” or “woman” carry with them a slew of other connotations and cultural expectations that the artist may or may not identify with, and the artist may not want to use their work to redefine these terms. They may instead choose to reject them altogether and focus on their experience as a human being.
An artist’s job is to model the human experience. I’ve had so many conversations with queer artists who say they want to express themselves beyond the limitations of gender. We don’t want to be “lumped in” with any one niche any more than we want to be excluded from the “universal” human niche, whatever that may be. Instead of identifying with a gender that can feel imposed or inauthentic, the undefined queer voice invites us to slough off the labels altogether, to talk about “I” without costumes, to be unabashedly human.
A thought-provoking essay, at least for me.
One of my favorite thinkers on the topic of universality is Ernesto Laclau, who tries to reformulate the notion of the universal without abandoning it. In our (i.e., the West’s) thinking up to now, the universal has always been limited to a particular concept/subject position that was presented as the only possible thing that could occupy that position (e.g., God in Christianity, Reason in the Enlightenment, the working class in Marxism, European culture and values in colonialism, and so forth). This “necessary universal” establishes a hierarchy where the universal stands for some principal or essence that underpins and explains all particular identities–explained reductively as expressions of that universal principal or essence. A further problem with this, of course, is that the universal has it’s origins in some particular identity or whatever and is disingenuous about that, leaving so much repressed and unspoken (“I don’t see race, we’re all just [white, middle-class, straight, heteronormative] people [like me]” and the like).
Laclau’s approach suggests that to do away with the concept of the universal altogether in favor of some form of pure particularism is conceptually, socially–and as you suggest, Jade, aesthetically–self-defeating. He thinks the universal and the particular should be linked together, but not in the disingenuous, hierarchical, and supposedly “necessary” fashion they have been in Western thought up to now.
Of course, this isn’t an earth-shattering revelation about universality to any modern person who has been paying attention. What I’m interested in in Laclau’s work, though is that he wants to retain universality (it’s part of what allows us to struggle for a “common” cause, like human rights or social justice), but reformulate it and, I think, make it more honest. He wants us to see it as contingent, not necessary, as an intrinsically empty place that can be occupied at different times by different concepts and identities that seize it through political negotiation and struggle. I think an example of this would be something like a slogan: “Gay rights for all!” wherein the identity of a particular group is asserted (rather than effaced or denied) along with their right to fair treatment, non-discrimination, etc. At the same time, that group is simultaneously making a universal claim all people and groups should be emancipated from forms of systematic inequality.
Anyway, I think you may be thinking somewhat along the same lines– what you term over-niche-ification being more or less equivalent to a celebration of pure particularism which you see as ultimately constraining and self-defeating for the artist who still sees the necessity to speak from a universal position as wel
Just a note, lest people think I was advocating that straight people apply for grants for queer writers– my point was that the whole “Am I queer enough?” for X thing is a game too many people play, particularly if they aren’t exclusively monosexual. Sexual histories and desires are so varied that it’s impossible to calculate what should count and what shouldn’t. And there’s exclusion from all sides— if you’re a woman dating a man, to most people you’re straight. So who is Queer is in part about self-identification, but I was also pointing to the fact that not only is Jade’s gender presentation really queer, so is her writing, and I guess that’s what she’s trying to define here for herself (what is queer writing/art).