Out Here is a big, beautifully designed hardback edited by Emma Barnes and Chris Tse, and it marks a watershed moment in queer writing in Aotearoa says Jean Sergent.
My main experience as an artist in Aotearoa is in the theatre, where there is an abundance of queer practitioners and an under-abundance of queer stories. So as a queer artist myself, I tend to assume that art is inherently queer – it’s just that most mainstream stories are about straight men.
But of course there are a wealth of brilliant queer stories out there. Wouldn’t it be nice if a substantial volume of them were collected in a gorgeous book?
A few years ago, poet Chris Tse and Auckland University Press director Sam Elworthy simultaneously pitched each other the idea that became Out Here. Tse recruited Emma Barnes (this year lauded for their book of poems I Am in Bed with You) as his co-editor, and together they got to work on a volume so overdue it feels stunning that it hasn’t existed before.
Out Here is a pleasure to hold as well as to read. Across 360 pages the book snapshots such a groundswell of emerging queer writers that not only could it have been hundreds of pages longer, it could probably have run to multiple volumes.
In the introduction, Barnes and Tse write that they were expecting “the pool of writers to consider would be considerable, but modest … The response to our open call was overwhelming, and reinforced the need for such an anthology.”
They tell me they were inundated with submissions. “We read and considered about 230 writers,” says Tse. “There are 69 writers in the final anthology.” Nice.
Only about a third of the writers who submitted were already on the editors’ radar. Gus Goldsack, a New Zealander living in New York City, is among those whom, the editors write, “were completely and delightfully unknown to us”. Goldsack was unpublished until July last year, when Tse (The Spinoff’s poetry editor) selected his work ‘Go North’ as the Friday Poem. Goldsack has three poems in Out Here, each playing with different forms, each beautiful and compelling.
For my birthday I want to not look like this, to not feel like this, to not live like this, I want to burst into screams on the C train at rush hour but without bothering anyone else. I want to shiver beneath a blanket on Karekare Beach, to look at a waterfall, to run to a car as the rain pours
To Goldsack, overt queerness still feels rare in New Zealand art and literature. While 21st century Aotearoa may sometimes feel like a relatively easy place for queer people, he and I both grew up queer in the era between homosexual law reform and the world domination of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Finding and holding the space for queerness in art, theatre, and literature in Aotearoa is an ecstatic privilege.
Out Here features poetry by the truckload, but also fiction, prose, drama, and activism. Gwyn Easterbrook-Smith’s ‘Stone Femme’ muses on sex work, exhaustion, and the demands of praxis. “Sex work does an excellent job of turning you into a prude. I’m great at talking about sex in a way that’s funny or dispassionate, but I would sooner dive into a wood chipper than admit any actual desire myself.” Pelenakeke Brown’s extraordinary ‘A Travelling Practice’ invokes Sāmoan concepts and practices like vā and tatau. It’s given 10 pages, and these are transformed into a landscape, a body, a map of the keyboard and the self and the interactions between art, culture, and embodiment.
This anthology is a challenge to mainstream media representations of queerness. In the introduction, the editors note dryly: “We’re exceptionally familiar with tropes of queer unhappiness and we wanted to widen the frame.”
Tse tells me: “What this anthology highlights for me is the dynamic range of themes and topics that interest queer writers, and the range of genres they’re working in. Also, a lot of the work is quite experimental. All of this challenges what ‘queer writing’ can be – it isn’t just coming out stories and tragedy. There’s a lot of love and light in this book.”
As well as introducing new writers, Out Here anthologises our queer elders. Ngahuia te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Waikato) has two short stories in the collection, both mellow, funny and heartbreaking. Witi Ihimaera is represented, as of course he must be – the editors chose an excerpt from The Uncle’s Story, which provides a much-needed reminder of New Zealand soldiers’, and especially tāne Māori, experiences in the American war in Vietnam.
As a teenager at Wellington High School, Goldsack studied Ihimaera’s work yet had “no perception of him as a queer writer” until sixth form English, where Witi’s wife, Jane Smiler, was teaching Nights In The Gardens of Spain. Goldsack reflects that, “though semi-autobiographical, Witi wrote the protagonist as Pākehā.” The distance between a time when a gay Māori writer wrote in proxies, to now, and this volume packed with multicultural queer art, seems like a chasm. But it is only a couple of decades.
Barnes reflects on the pressure and responsibility of being tasked with such an important cultural cornerstone. “This was something I felt over and over and over again … But I think that was so crucial to the book being what it is.”
They faced the inevitable editor’s dilemma as well: saying no. “Saying no was miserable. There were writers I wanted to have in there but space was our true limitation.” It was a hard call even to stop reading and get on with the book – they could have kept reading forever. “There’s some writers who aren’t included who have started to gain visibility or make an impact in the year since we finalised the selection, and I hope they’ll be captured in subsequent anthologies.”
There is something delightfully intimate in the alphabetical ordering of the contributors – by first name, rather than last. Running your eyes down the writer list feels like looking at the names of friends. Last names have always felt so patriarchal to me anyway. It’s so much more inherently queer to see first names and think ahh, this is my family.
The writers represented in the anthology encompass the vast, rich, and varied experiences of queerness in Aotearoa. In particular, Rose Lu’s beautiful short essay about masks and contact tracing and racism, and the urgency of Oscar Upperton’s poem ‘Small Talk’ leapt off the page for me:
How’ve you been have you
called dyke at a bus stop
The intersectionality of queer art is on full display. Like the cover art – a heavenly splash of detail from the 2019 oil painting The Thick Skin of a Pronoun, by Jack Trolove – each bite-sized chunk is packed with flavour and texture. Readers will absolutely be buying queer novels, essay collections and books of poetry because of the writing they fall in love with in Out Here.
It is this multiplicity which makes Out Here such a precious taonga, and such a gift to the world. The emerging writers nestled in amongst icons, the multiculturalism of queer Aotearoa, and the sheer variety of passion and story reinforces the diversity and urgency of writing in New Zealand.
As Gus Goldsack put it, writing to me from New York City, “this is not a book of cis voices, it’s not a book of male voices, and it’s not a book of white voices… it’s also not just a book for established voices – perhaps the only thing more surreal than opening the galley proofs and seeing my name alongside such established artists as Witi Ihimaera, Paula Boock and Hinemoana Baker was seeing my name alongside so many of my peers, acquaintances and friends. Emma and Chris have made sure that the lenses through which these stories are told are as diverse, in every way, as the community itself. Ultimately, this book affirms that we are here to tell queer stories as queer people, and not just as people who happen to be queer.”
For me, this intersectionality plays out perfectly in Ruby Solly’s poem ‘Both’. Like much of the work in Out Here, this poem isn’t strictly about queerness, but rather about the multiple worlds that a single person occupies, and the inheritance of culture, place, and emotion.
I’ve always liked Venn diagrams
The cocoon they make for those of us who walk in two worlds.
The shape of the waka, the porotiti,
the leaf of the karaka tree
grown from the seed my ancient held in his palms
as he prayed his way across the ocean.
Out Here: An anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ writers from Aotearoa, edited by Chris Tse and Emma Barnes (Auckland University Press, $49.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.