For many years I have been thinking more and more that everything must be, should be, and can be queered, or gayified, or lavenderized, or bent. At conferences, or in classes, or during conversations, I consistently say that I am only interested in queering things, which usually refers to queering literature. But I also mean that I am only interested in queering ideas. Of course, I am not saying that I refuse to read straight literature. That would be stupid. But I am saying that I want to read as much gay literature as straight. And I truly only want to write gay literature. If I offend people, or make them feel uncomfortable, when I say that I am only interested in queering things, then that's good, and I truly don't care; it means that I am shaking their comfortable status quo.
I wish to share an excerpt from an essay I wrote. It was published in the second issue of the fourth volume of The Blue Notebook: The Journal for Artists' Books (April 2010). The title is "Queering Artists' Books: A Queer Critical Analysis of Artists' Books," and I did exactly that: I queered the genre of artists' books. I wrote it for a class on the history of artists' books that I took for my degree in library and information science. And the kind editors at The Blue Notebook happily chose to publish it.
Queering Artists' Books: A Queer Critical Analysis of Artists' Books
"Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."
The purpose of this essay is to queer the art form of artists' books, by examining the relationship between artists' books and the queer sensibility and the community of queer writers and artists who create them, and also the members of the queer community who read and collect them. This essay will also show the similarity between artists' books and the queer community with regards to the marginalisation of both. By queer, I mean members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersexed, Questioning, and Queer -- or GLBTIQ -- community. I propose to investigate the intersection and correlation of the following entities: artists' books, zines, the book arts, book artists, queer book artists, queer artists' books, queer zines, queer literature, queer readers, queer theory, queer studies, queer culture, the queer sensibility, and the queer community.
I am not proposing to define or re-define artists' books, nor to analyse a collection of artists' books with queer themes, nor those created by queer book artists. Instead, with a queer critical lens, I want to apply a queer analysis, perspective, sensibility, and voice to the artform of artists' books. I wish to create a queer discourse that will add to the examination of artists' books, bringing more approaches to how we discuss and analyse the field and artform of artists' books.
From the Beginning
Twelve years ago, in 1998, I attended a workshop at the Center for Book Arts in New York City. I was teaching high school English at the time, so I chose to attend a workshop on incorporating artists' books into English classes. That day, I learned much about artists' books and made my own, not a complete book, but the front and back covers, with blank sheets of paper in between.
I observed something that I considered to be fascinating: I observed that I was not the only gay man present, or for that matter the only queer person or member of the GLBT community in the room. It was an interesting observation, but not something that I wished to pursue further at that time.
However, it was the beginning of an idea (or theory), that there is something queer about artists' books and that there is a relationship between artists' books and the queer community. I thought (and still think) that, both artists' books and the queer community are marginalised. In addition, I noted that artists' books and the queer community both have roots and histories in the 1960s, New York City, San Francisco, and the Feminist Movement (or Women's Movement). Also, artists' books and the queer community use new, different, unconventional, nontraditional, odd, and/or "queer" ways to integrate their existence and to have their voices heard, within the larger communities, societies, or worlds in which they belong.
Now, twelve years later, remembering that day and thinking about my queer observation during the workshop, I feel this idea deserves further thought, analysis, and attention.
What Does It Mean to Be Queer?
As a gay man, I have my own definition of the word "queer." For me, a person who wishes to identify as queer is one who wishes not to conform to the status quo; is one who sees himself/herself/itself as different with regards to the mainstream society; is one who does not fit in with the norms of society, which is most likely the sexual and gender norms of the society. However, I do not think that one has to be homosexual in order to identify as queer; heterosexual individuals can also identify as queer. Being queer is being different. In her book, Queer Theory: An Introduction, Annamarie Jagose explains the meaning of the word "queer": Once the term 'queer' was, at best, slang for homosexual, at worst a term of homophobic abuse. In recent years 'queer' has come to be used differently, sometimes as an umbrella term for a coalition of culturally marginal sexual self-identifications and at other times to describe a nascent theoretical model, which has developed out of more traditional lesbian and gay studies.
However, in her essay, "A Man Who Wants to Be a Woman" Queerness as/and Healing Practices in Michelle Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven", Nada Elia explains that "queers will name but not 'define' themselves, because no definition can encompass the multiplicity of queer experiences and practices".
Queer Literature: A Queer Aesthetic
If artists' books are to be considered as artistic and literary, then queer artists' books can be a part of the history and tradition of queer literature. On the queer aesthetic in/of queer literature, the New York Public Library's Gay and Lesbian Collections and AIDS/HIV Collections' Gay and Lesbian Studies Research Guide states: "Throughout the centuries, homosexual literature has remained hidden in plain sight, never far from view but elusive to all except those who created and read it. Thus ghettoised, gay literature was the furtive province of imagined moral guilt and perceived deviant sexuality, inhabited by doomed homosexuals and social outcasts." Thus, both artists' books (as literature) and queer literature are similar in that they are not popular literatures within mainstream society -- they have been "hidden" from the general public. This is another aspect that they share. This also adds to their relationship.
The Relationship Between Artists' Books and the Queer Community
I have been researching and writing about marginalised groups, such as Italian Americans and members of the GLBTQ community, especially as writers, in literature, and within the literary community. I wrote my thesis for my Master of Arts degree in English on the marginalisation of Italian American writers and Italian American literature. As I was conducting the research for my thesis, I discovered another topic that interested me even more: the marginalisation of Queer Italian American writers and their literature, and the rejection of Gay Italian Americans in society. I noticed the lack of Queer Italian American writers, and the lack of reference to them. I noticed that their stories were not told, their voices not heard, their existence ignored. In my thesis, I devoted a section to GLBTQ Italian American writers. I have always been fascinated by marginalities and the varied levels of discrimination in any society. I am particularly interested in how marginalised people live, survive, and thrive, creating their own fulfilled lives, creating their own art, and adding value to their communities and societies, while overcoming adversity. Always feeling like an outcast myself, I am captivated by the perseverance of the "other" and the non-conformist in any society. As a Gay Italian-American male, I never saw my life depicted in the books that I read, especially the books that I was assigned to read in school. This is debilitating for the growth of one's own identity.
The art form of artists' books is marginalised within the larger, prevailing artistic community of other more popular artforms. The queer community is marginalised within the larger, dominant heterosexual community. Both exist on the fringes of larger communities. Both exist in the periphery of predominant cultures and communities, and I am interested in investigating whether or not a relationship exists between these two marginalised entities.
Joanna Drucker, in her essay, Critical Issues/Exemplary Works, writes: "For years, artists' books have remained one of the last zones of artistic production that doesn't have an organized culture of gate-keeping.... Because the field of artists' books suffers from being under-theorized, under-historicized, under-studied, and under-discussed, it isn't taken very seriously".
Zines, the Zine Movement, and the Queer Community
In her essay, Artists, Books, Zines, Janet Zweig explains the zine movement: "While book artists were either abandoning or fetishising the form in the '80s, there was a burgeoning underground zine movement that fulfilled many of the promises made for the artist's book a decade before.... Zines have succeeded with those ambitions connected to audience and communication where most artists' books have failed".
In Queer Zines, Chris Wilde explains the importance of queer zines: Queer zines have helped [to] liberate and transform several generations, from the political newsletters of our lesbian sisters and gay brothers in the 1970s and 1980s, to the queer manifestos and transgender resource guides of today. They documented and demonstrated the life, love, politics, camp, gender-bending, writhing, and spurting of a queer revolution. Queer zine preservationists help [to] propagate the cultures of rebellion that have formed on the fringes of sexual, gender, racial, cultural, and class minorities by insuring those voices are preserved and heard. We defend the place of queer zines in the context of history and use them as a counterbalance to mainstream gay and lesbian assimilationist thought.
Final Queer Thoughts on Artists' Books
I feel that there is definitely something queer about artists' books. In writing this essay and creating my own artist's book, I once again discovered my own queer voice, which proves that artists' books can help someone, whether queer or not, to find his/her own voice, self-worth, and place in the world.
William Faulkner wrote: "Some things you must always be unable to bear -- injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame -- just refuse to bear them." I can no longer bear being rejected, marginalised, ignored, silenced, and invisible. No one should have to. And as a gay man, I do not want to. I hope that this essay -- and my work in the future -- will prove meaningful; informing and enhancing society, and effect some positive change for the lives of those who are members of sexual minority groups, bringing them from the margins to the centre.