With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
Queer and Trans Artists of Color Vol. 2 by Nia King
The significance of this second volume of interviews is tangible in its dedication: 'to all the queer and trans people of color who are fighting displacement in the Bay Area right now and those who have already been displaced.' The American Dream is a hollow thing, a carrot on a fifty-foot rod: most of this book's 16 interviews talk of what it is to be trans or queer, as an artist, while marginalized by mainstream press and publishing. For those lucky enough, it's the day job that keeps things comfortable. Meanwhile, for the reader, scanning these interviews is like entering sixteen rabbit holes, new worlds are accessed that you might not think existed.
Approximately half the artists interviewed by the book's editor, Nia King, are transgender, and it's these that will get my focus. Two-Spirit Native American Kiley May is one of the most striking, her interview a stepping stone for readers to see her work as performance artist, including her prolific output on Youtube. Based in Toronto, May personifies the complexity of trans-gender as a plural, many layered thing. Within her Native American communities, she regards herself as Two-Spirit, while in Western mainstream discourse, as trans. Arguably, it highlights how trans is a colonizing word, one that both unifies and simplifies gender variance. Yet even 'Two Spirit' is a compromise, covering as a label perhaps a hundred tribes or more scattered across north America. Arguably, such updating is necessary for a paradigm dominated by the nation state; May is Canadian, but she is also Other. On the issue of commercial viability, as a journalist, she says,
'If you work for a conservative corporate news agency and if you're a strong independent thinker who has your own ideas about what you want to write about, if it's too radical or outside of whatever their agenda is, then it's not supported and won't get printed.'
May, like several of the other artists, is also an activist, who speaks out against recent land grabs of white property developers on what should be the territory of her indigenous people. Like slavery's enduring influence on African-American present-day experience, the ethnic cleansing and land-theft by Europeans against Native Americans reappears and is reiterated in ways a white reader might not want to know:
'I lived on Six Nations when the land claims issue started. I saw what actually happened and what was reported on the news, and it was so messed up. Of course, they focused on the sensational, like looping images of the "radical Natives" doing wild things . . . The news industry does not care about fairly representing Indigenous people. If anything, their interest is oppressing, excluding, distributing misinformation and perpetuating racism.'
It's a reminder that Fake News has only become an issue now it's striking at the heart of mainstream white narratives; in respect to minorities, Fake News and highly biased reporting has always been a staple, a socializing glue for the dominant ideology. As you read about the lives and artistic projects of these artists, you begin to see the way narratives of art and of news are defined by the majority-based ideology. Some of the artists' reactions are subversively political: Artist/Theorist Micha Cardenas, with her background in Informatics, designs an app allowing illegal immigrants to find water as they attempt to cross the Mexican border into the US. Story-teller Elena Rose recounts her experience in a road accident, and the reluctance of hospital staff to treat her, suspecting her dark skin and battered condition to signify drug abuse and hidden motives. Yet like poet Amir Rabiyah and writer Lexi Adsit, she supports projects on community and/or national levels to support those oppressed because of their colour.
It would be wrong, however, to shroud these narratives with a sense of sadness. Several of the artists, such as writer/director/musician Vivek Shraya, have already become established names, their work widely disseminated. Games designer Mattie Brice is now a TED-talk veteran, while Trish Salah is both an award-winning poet and highly-regarded academic. One reads of their work and their experiences in fact with a sense of awe: artists combining art with activism in diverse ways, while reminding the reader that this neoliberal world we inhabit is primarily a white one, and that the field is hardly level.