Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review: How Queer!

[Faith Beauchemin, writer and editor. How Queer! Personal narratives from bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, sexually-fluid, and other non-monosexual perspectives. Atlanta GA: On Our Own Authority Publishing!, 2016.]

Though the title emphasizes the personal narratives, this book actually combines its fourteen short personal narratives by non-monosexual people who are not professional writers or activist superstars with several essays by the editor. While I have some suggestions in terms of what might have strengthened the analysis in the essays, as someone who is also committed to paying close attention to how everyday lived experience is a starting point for theory and to generating understandings of the social world and our struggles to change it in non-academic contexts, I am a big fan of this book's project.

First, the narratives: I have a soft spot for this kind of personal storytelling, partly because of my sense of the broader political significance it can have but to a large extent because I really like hearing from people about their lives, particluarly about how sexuality and gender and relationships work in their lives. (I'm much less enthusiastic about talking about how those things work for me, but I'm working on it....) The fourteen stories captured here manage to be both an interesting range of different experiences while also (inevitably) being just one arbitrary and limited slice of the vast territory encompassed by people who are in one sense or another non-monosexual. Which, in the overall context of bisexual erasure, is still a pretty great thing. There are a couple of Canadians and one young woman in India, but it is mostly people from the US, with the core being (I think mostly white) people who grew up in conservative religious families. The range of experiences includes a mix of the recognizeable and familiar (accompanied by all the complicated reactions and feelings that can carry with it) with things that feel less so. In particular, it was a reminder of how deeply variegated and often painfully oppressive the social landscape remains, especially for youth, beneath the thin veneer of supposedly already-accomplished liberal tolerance that tends to get presumed by (particularly non-queer) denizens of many urban Canadian contexts to be both universal and sufficient.

The essays, which don't draw directly on the personal narratives but serve as a sort of contextualization and a theorization based on the kinds of experiences the narratives present, bring together in a short, accessible way many of the main ideas found in the rad side of 21st century queer politics in North America, with a non-monosexual emphasis. What this means is that if you're already familiar with those politics, you probably won't encounter much that's new here. However, because it is packaged and presented in a way that is short and accessible, and because the book foregrounds the personal narratives, I think it has a good chance of conveying these politics to young queer readers who otherwise might be less likely to encounter them, and that it has a shot of blowing some new-to-this-stuff minds in a really great way.

Saying that, of course, is not at all the same as not having any opinions about what might strenghten the book's analysis, of which I have plenty. For instance, there are definitely points where the book's account of the social world feels a bit schematic -- a politically important and useful schema, but still more abstracted from the sensual messiness of lived experience than I think we really need. In quite a few places it falls into talking about identities in fairly reified (as opposed to relational) ways, which isn't at all surprising given that it is probably the dominant mode of thinking about identity these days, but it's still worth noting. As well, it feels like it consistently downplays the capacity of capitalism to recoup and put to work even radically intentioned and overtly oppositional ways of enacting diversity, difference, and transgression. Which relates (but is not reducible) to another tendency in the analysis that was concerning -- and that I think is not unusual in ceratin kinds of rad queer politics -- which at least some of the time seems to be framing the enactment of transgressive sexual and relationship practices as much more intrinsically threatening to existing social relations than I think they actually are, in the absence of conscious and deliberate efforts to use them as building blocks for projects of collective liberation.

It should be said that the author is pretty up front in the introduction about what the book does and does not do: It presents individual narratives and it presents some social and political analysis, but it does not try to answer "what is to be done" in a collective way, either through talking about existing collective projects or theorizing about what groups could and should do. Which on a certain level is fine, in that it is never fair to critique a book for not being a different book, but I wonder if taking on that piece and fitting it into what the book already does, and incorporating discussion of how existing collective efforts are being implemented and experienced in practice on the ground, might be one approach to beginning to address some of the limitations in the book's analysis.

Anyway. A neat little book that will go out into the world and do some good work -- it will be supportive and affirming to some folks who really need that, and it will take important and rad political ideas to people who might not otherwise come across them.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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