This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 243
Out Here: An anthology of takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ writers from Aotearoa, edited by Chris Tse and Emma Barnes (Auckland University Press, 2021), 368pp, $49.99
It was when the beach boy told him quickly, confessionally, with the complete frankness of strangers who meet accidentally and know they are unlikely to see each other again, his life story.
—Peter Wells, from ‘Sweet Nothing’
Out Here is an imposing book, a large, heavy hardback with a bright cover, white and rainbow. You couldn’t slip it into a pocket or read it discreetly on the bus. It’s bold. It’s out and proud.
The subtitle describes the book as an anthology of takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ writers from Aotearoa. The introduction by editors Chris Tse and Emma Barnes explains further:
We’d originally set out to provide a view of queer writing in New Zealand published from 1985 onwards, but the end result is something that is much more representative of the growth and increased visibility of queer writers being published over the last ten to fifteen years.
The first impression when flipping through is somewhat cacophonous. It certainly delivers on its initial concept as ‘a riot of brightness, life and feelings’. Kalee Jackson’s design work is beautiful from cover to cover, and the book is immaculate in its presentation of sensible prose, wild experiments with poetic form, comics, playscript, and just about every other way words can be arranged on a page.
Specifically, the editors wanted pieces to ‘not only focus on queer life events like coming out or first love’ but also ‘smaller things, bigger things, different things, to see narratives that aren’t always shown for people like us’. Nevertheless, they still must, by definition, be ‘queer writing’. Work by queer writers, then? Well, maybe—the first couple of pages of the introduction are largely devoted to discussion of the way that various critically and commercially successful writers from the New Zealand literary canon have not been considered as queer writers or through a queer lens. I’m not sure it’s fair to define a writer through the lenses by which others read their work. Is a queer writer more queer if others treat them as such?
The editors go on to clarify: ‘It’s not our intention to present a canon or a tidy history or to make a definitive statement of what contemporary queer New Zealand writing is right now. We wanted to collect as many of us together as we could, but we know there are some absences …’ The task Tse and Barnes have taken up is a monumental one, and I applaud what they have achieved. Out Here is a beautiful book, and it has introduced me to many writers whose work I had not previously encountered. From their description of the selection process, it seems the editors had a clear intuitive sense of what they were looking for, even if it was difficult to summarise neatly.
The overarching question of what this book is makes it difficult to discuss. Given the introduction’s focus on the lenses with which the wider culture examines queer writing, perhaps it’s worth looking at how Out Here has been received and described by others. Carole Beu, cited in the book’s media release, says, ‘It’s the past and future. It’s a taonga. These writers have claimed their space. Let’s celebrate their voices!’ Jean Sergent, writing for The Spinoff, describes ‘holding the space for queerness in art, theatre and literature in Aotearoa [as] an ecstatic privilege’. The book’s media release refers to ‘space … to tell stories’.
Again and again, we come back to this idea: the book is a space. The book is a space. The book is a space.
What does it mean for a community if its spaces are not physical spaces but are, instead, a book or a collection of writing? The rise of the internet and social media has made it easier for queer people to find each other, but this has also made it easier for us to exist in social worlds that are entirely dislocated from physical space. A similar shift to digital community has happened rapidly for many other groups in the last two years—and few people would claim it is an equivalent way of finding that sense of belonging that drives us all. After having our communities shifted beneath us, it’s fair to say we are in the middle of a reckoning with the very idea of space.
I believe a shift towards digital space also creates a shift in the way we understand communities as existing in time. Dislocated from the physical world, some things become more transient, some more permanent. The pieces in this collection are not dated; they have been set adrift from the physical, political, social and economic context in which they were written. The effect is diverse and, in some places, exhilarating, but it also limits the extent to which the pieces can be understood in conversation with one another.
The writing collected in Out Here is arranged in alphabetical order by authors’ first names rather than by theme, identity or chronology. The effect is jarring at first; this jigsawing of form and subject seems to highlight difference rather than commonality. Reading on, however, we sense how subtle eddies of shared experience begin to appear. Just like the commentators, the writers keep coming back to space: a longing for physical, not metaphorical, place is the closest thing the collection has to a unifying theme. Not any one place specifically, or even Aotearoa more generally: there are works here from the USA, the Pacific Islands, Sri Lanka. These places are specific, concrete and deeply personal in the details chosen to bring them to life. Gina Cole’s ‘Melt’ stands out to me for the elegant precision in its depiction of Howick, where my grandparents lived when I was growing up. This particular piece also highlights the fact that a preoccupation with place is inextricable today from a preoccupation with climate and, in Aotearoa, with colonisation. All of these threads come back to questions of the physicality of belonging, what it means to be and belong as a body in a space—as these bodies in this space.
Unlike Aotearoa, the USA, the Pacific Islands or Sri Lanka, a book is not defined by the activities of the people who live, work, hail from or congregate in an area. A book, if it is a space, is shaped by curatorial decisions with tenuous links to both time and physical space, which are also shaped by these curatorial decisions. I will not pretend that the curation of the spaces in which we interact is entirely new; there are plenty of places where only certain people are allowed to go. A licensed bar is a curated space in this sense, as is the world outside a prison. In another sense, we curate ourselves in different ways in different spaces. Whether we are submitting our writing to an anthology or making small talk with a co-worker, we make choices about the versions of ourselves we wish to be in the given context.
In the situation of a conversation with a colleague, these choices are made moment-by-moment in response to those around you, and are generally not limited to a significant extent by the curation of a third party. In an anthology—or a Facebook group—this is not quite the case. These are what I will call ‘remote spaces’: nonphysical and not anchored to physical location, atemporal to varying degrees, and implicitly or explicitly curated by third parties. The distinction between remote and non-remote space exists on a spectrum; a collection like Out Here is absolutely less remote than a crowded global chat server.
That said, Covid-19 has accelerated a cultural shift along this spectrum towards ever-greater remoteness in the spaces where we spend most of our time. We see this at work, where we may only ever communicate with colleagues through administrated software suites; in the arts and exercise classes that have been replaced by pre-recorded YouTube videos; and in our social communities which, like the queer community, may increasingly be defined by their expressions in remote space.
This brings us back to the question of purpose. Remote spaces have a reason for their existence, and the creation of healthy, stable community is often secondary or entirely absent. The purpose of many digital spaces is to generate advertising revenue or mine commercially valuable data. What does it do to a community, to be pruned and shaped according to such a purpose?
Out Here, along with other similar anthologies, is both less remote and less commercial in purpose than many digital spaces, but it is still highly curated and distinctly atemporal. People, relationships and community exist in time, but a single printed anthology must, by its nature, capture a snapshot moment, or else flatten many into one. As a literary collection it also has an aesthetic purpose, and in their introduction the editors acknowledge that their own tastes and stylistic preferences have necessarily shaped the contents. It is not a book with the sole goal of complete and accurate documentary.
Decisions about where to step forward and back when curating a project like this are tricky. In this case, the social context of the collection invites socio-political as well as aesthetic analysis, whether or not this is invited or justified. Hera Lindsay Bird in ‘Untitled 404’ says, ‘I don’t think the great project of art is ideological messaging,’ and this must surely be even truer when the raw material for a project is the words of others.
For my part, I wish the editors would remain present as I move through the introduction into the book’s contents. I want to know which pieces were sought out and which came from the call for submissions. Who chose and trimmed the excerpts from longer works, or chose the pieces from those writers who are no longer with us—Heather McPherson and Peter Wells? Why these works and not others?
Above all, I am curious about pieces that aren’t here. What did the editors say no to, and why? And I want to ask the writers how they chose what to submit. Are the pieces they selected more representative, more queer? Who never saw the call for submissions, and who saw it and felt it wasn’t for them, and why? Some types of writing are conspicuous in their absence: Jessica Niurangi Mary Maclean’s ‘Kāore e wehi tōku kiri ki te taraongaonga; my skin does not fear the nettle’ is the only one in the anthology that takes the form of an academic essay. Was it the only work of this kind that was submitted, or were others received and discarded?
In essence, the book makes me crave conversation in a way that is made impossible by its nature as a remote space. This separation from interaction, this sense of listening and looking without being able to respond fully, is also apparent in the work of some of the younger writers. Young adulthood is a time characterised by introspection, yes, but there is also a thread of profound, existential loneliness here, as in Cadence Chung’s ‘The End’: ‘I’ll be … busy staring at my crush’s icon when / they broadcast the Great Flood (and subsequent rapture) over a Zoom meeting.’ How many of these young writers know any of the older writers in the collection in person, or know queer people from different generations at all?
The media release references these young writers specifically:
… the cacophony of voices brought together in Out Here sing out loud and proud, ensuring that future generations of queers are afforded the space to tell their stories and be themselves without fear of retribution or harm.
We have more opportunity than ever to speak out into the vastness of the internet, but where do we go now to actually talk to one another? This section of the media release is quoted almost directly from the book’s introduction, but not quite; the same passage, near the end of the introduction, attributes this creation of space not to the book itself or to the cacophony of voices, but to ‘those who continue to step forward and put in the mahi’. Out Here is tangible evidence that Tse and Barnes, like many of the anthology’s contributors, have made the choice to pour their time and energy into this community and the people in it, yet they stand apart from many commentators in choosing not to describe the book as a space.
A book is not a physical space—but its editorial room is, and so are the kitchens and gardens and rivers and workplaces that are tenderly sketched in its pages. A book may not be a space at all, but it can be a window into one, and Out Here is a window to many.
KERRY LANE is a poet and playwright from Ōtepoti, now based in Glasgow.