Sexlessness and Wellington wokeness mark an otherwise substantial anthology of LGBTQIA+ writing

Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ writers from Aotearoa is a substantial hardback in gay pinks and lesbian lavenders – the magenta/cyan combination known as “bisexual lighting” in YouTuber circles – in a motif of wet oil paint that you kind of want to move around with a brush. This isn’t just another disposable sop to identity politics, but something substantial and significant. Its editors Chris Tse and Emma Barnes have put together a wonderful book, a necessary book. But there are sufficient, well-deserved, gushing reviews of Out Here out there for me to indulge in being more critical about its flaws.

For a collection where sexuality is central, Out Here is remarkably sexless. Eros is rarely overt and mostly takes a backseat to politics and relatability. When the fucking is there, it tends to be in poetry where it’s coded in euphemistically symbolic language or allegorised. The editors somehow manage to avoid anything spicy in the passage from Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s 2011 novel Shanghai Boy. The encounter in Peter Wells’ short story “Sweet Nothing” is tame and clinical.

It’s a very serious collection – almost too serious. So much anger, despair and weariness. I frequently found myself yearning for more of the frivolity and silly fun which is also a part of the rainbow world.

But there are also delightful surprises. Pip Adam is always a joy and, I’d gladly wager, the most original living prose-stylist in Aotearoa. I’m glad to see A.J. Fitzwater raising the flag for Ōtautahi. Although not a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school fan per se, I greatly admire Simone Brighton’s fluent virtuosity, Vanessa Mei Crofskey’s experimentation, and US-based Pelenakenake Brown is a revelation in concrete poetry who deserves far greater attention. Hera Lindsay Bird is included, though not her poem “Bisexuality” with its subtle off-kilter allusion to the Frank O’Hara poem “Homosexuality”. Ash Davida Jane is marvelous, as is high school prodigy Cadence Chung. There are many such gems and treasures.

Mercifully the one note of earnestness one learns with trepidation to anticipate in such collections is confined to a single short example: Siobhan Harvey’s poem, “Why I Don’t Own a Closet”.

One might expect Keri Hulme, patron saint of Aotearoa’s Aces and Enbies, to at least be mentioned in the Introduction

There are glaring lacunae, such as Keri Hulme, Cathie Dunsford, Pat Rosier, and Jess Sayer (and do we not have some small, tender claim on Stella Duffy?), and idiosyncratic inclusions. It skews Gen Y, university presses, the Auckland-Wellington axis, and woke. For a given value of woke. Annamarie Jagose’s current post as a Pro-Vice-Chancellor facilitating the neoliberal ramraid of the University of Sydney’s schools of humanities may have tarnished her halo a bit, and one or two names harbour complicated views about trans women.

As for Hulme (famously asexual and maybe non-binary before there were names for it), from watercooler gossip I understand attempts may have been made to get permission. The late lamented Hulme wasn’t in charge of her affairs at the end, and a bit contrary at the best of times, but at least one might expect that fierce wahine, patron saint of Aotearoa’s Aces and Enbies [editor’s note: asexuals and non-binaries], to be mentioned in the Introduction regardless.

At times the selection criteria of Out Here are as opaque as diluted Ouzo. It includes Jessica Niurangi Mary Maclean’s excellent and thought-provoking essay on colonialism and Māori gender and sexuality identities, yet there are no other examples of critical or theoretical writing. And if Peter Wells gets in, then why not Davids Brown and Herkt?

Still, a younger generation has to carve out what they see as being important, and there is always going to be a certain amount of gatekeeping, grace and favour, with a hint of generational score-settling.

That said, there is a solipsistic tone that slips into the Introduction like a grain of sand into the G-string of my reading enjoyment. The period from the 1970s to the mid-1990s seems curiously downplayed or at least underappreciated. Tse was born in 1982 and Barnes in 1980. Much weight is given Jackson Nieuwland’s naïve essay “Working Against a System That is Working Against Them: Contemporary LGBTQIA+ Writers in Aotearoa” published in 2018 in – quelle surprise – Pantograph Punch. Nieuwland, I believe, was born in 1990.

Dr Johnson said to Boswell: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. … it is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t think foolishly.” The editors’ pleas of difficulty in the assignment don’t ring true. They spin sincere fustian like, “even post-homosexual-law-reform queer writing seemed to be a quiet thread in New Zealand literature – easy to miss, easy to overlook.” This will no doubt come as a surprise to the valiant librarians and archivists of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ), held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and Wellington’s Lesbian Library LILAC. Right through that period there was a lot going on. Queer women were particularly active from within the broader feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s in collectives like Circle and Spiral.

Sometime around the 1990s there was a paradigm shift from queer cultural subversiveness to a kind of self-pitying feedback loop of trauma

There was the courageous, if fraught, Pink Triangle, and Broadsheet, and then in 1995 Express launched. There’s no mention of James Allan’s 1996 anthology Growing Up Gay: New Zealand men tell their stories. No sign of Cathie Dunsford’s queer rich 1990 Penguin collection, Subversive acts: new writing by New Zealand women. If you can excuse the abrupt elision of transgender issues with cross-dressing, Hedesthia published the circulars SELF and Trans-Scribe in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Turnbull himself is proof that, if not always to the forefront, queer New Zealanders have been quietly steering the course of letters in Aotearoa for a very long time – Charles Brasch another.

There were also the Trans-Tasman collections of queer writing like the Cathie Dunsford (again) and Susan Hawthorne edited The Exploding Frangipani: Lesbian Writing from Australia and New Zealand (1990) or the Dunsford, Hawthorne, and Susan Sayer edited Car Maintenance, Explosives and Love (1997).

Sometime around the 1990s there was a paradigm shift from queer cultural subversiveness to a kind of self-pitying feedback loop of trauma. Rather than sitting around apathetically complaining about being ignored by mainstream media and publishing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, queer Aotearoa was creating its own platforms.

“Reviews,” Tse and Barnes tell us, “of newer writers such as Hera Lindsay Bird, Gina Cole, Kerry Donavan Brown and Courtney Sina Meredith often disregard or fail to mention the queer context or content of their works in favour of something more familiar – that is, something more heterosexual.” But reviewers here do, or try to, where it is overt in the text itself. Otherwise they run the risk of being accused of giving sexuality and gender expression undue emphasis when not all writers want that to be the lens through which their work is viewed. Or sexuality is regarded as banal as any other arbitrary quality. And sometimes it’s just not common knowledge – I, for example, had previously never thought of Sarah Laing as anything other than heteronormative vanilla.

The editors write, “Which is not to say there haven’t been queer New Zealand writers pushing in from the fringes and gaining critical and commercial success. Peter Wells, Heather McPherson, Hinemoana Baker, Renée, Witi Ihimaera, Ngahuia te Awekotuku, Paula Boock, and others had success throughout the 1970s to 2000s. But again … their work wasn’t always viewed through a queer lens, even when writing on queer subjects.” But what does that even mean? Wells’ writing slapped everyone around the face with his unapologetic outness. The main marketing point of Boock’s YA novels, and source of much media pearl clutching at the time, were their queer themes.

Hell, even Frank Sargeson’s posturing wasn’t fooling anyone when he was alive, except possibly himself. James K. Baxter’s robustly homoerotic “Seraphion” is in the Collected Poems (1980) though that and his support for homosexual law reform perhaps makes more sense in the context of his youthful bisexuality. Katherine Mansfield’s unsubtly sapphic poem “Friendship”, punning on pussies, can be found in The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse all the way back in 1983.

The Sue Fitchett-edited Eat These Sweet Words and the Jonathan Fisher edited When Two Men Embrace, both from 1999, are curtly dismissed in the Introduction as, “early attempts [emphasis mine] in Aotearoa to anthologise the writing of gay and lesbian writers as gay and lesbian writers [emphasis theirs], though often separately and often with that binary division of identity.”

Attempts? Did they fail? In fact, both books, titles aside, showcased a mix of gay and lesbian poets. Overlooked – though perhaps for the best – is Leone Neil’s Poetique (1989), which, though heavy on overseas contributions and awkwardly lumping together gender diversity with transvestitism and cross-dressing, included a scattering of trans writers from New Zealand.

There’s only a grudging nod to Wells’ and Pilgrim’s essential Best Mates: “It was the first collection of New Zealand work by gay men and featured mostly prose selections. We’ve seen other small collections, hidden away and hard to find.” Well, this is the case of most New Zealand collections – that’s why they’re called “small presses”. And note their use of “seen”, not “read”. As for them being hard to find, firstly, that’s your job, and secondly, this is what the National Library is for. 

Peeves and cavils aside, the cup of queer lit needs to be constantly refreshed. What Out Here lacks in rigorous scholarship and objectivity, it makes up for with heart.

Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ writers from Aotearoa edited by Chris Tse and Emma Barnes (Auckland University Press, $49.99)

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