Author Quintan Ana Wikswo on the Limitations and Power of Labels
Author: Sara Rauch
August 12, 2015
“Labels are essentially markers on a map. They place us in containers that are policed landmarks on that established map. They don’t, however, help us much when it’s time to enter uncharted territories—the places to which I am most drawn as an artist and human. However, strategically using labels in certain contexts can be a powerful tactical tool for visibility […]”
Quintan Ana Wikswo’s debut book, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far (Coffee House Press), occupies territory the way only the bravest literary works do: the characters and places within shirk boundaries and create new ones, exist both inside and outside the world as we know it, and redefine love and existence in an unexpected and wildly queer way.
Quintan Ana Wikswo is a writer and visual artist whose work integrates fiction, poetry, memoir, and essay with photography, performance, and film. Her works have been published, performed, and exhibited throughout the world, included in anthologies, artist books and the literary magazines Tin House, Guernica, Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, and Gulf Coast, as well as in multiple solo museum exhibits in New York City and Berlin. A human rights worker for two decades, Wikswo now uses a salvaged government typewriter and cameras to explore known, unknown, and occluded worlds, especially obscured sites where crimes against humanity have taken place. She lives in Brooklyn.
Quintan generously spent some time talking with Lambda Literary about the genesis of The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far, her time in rural Bavaria and the Baltic, the limitations and power of labels, navigating uncharted territories in her art, the confluence of identity and place, creating new cartographies, and so much more.
In an interview on the Creative Capital blog, you call yourself a “queer disabled American female Jew” [in context of hosting an event in Berlin], and if you don’t mind, I’d like to start the interview there, because I’m terrible at small talk, and because identity, labeling, binaries, and otherness are so important in how one understands The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far. How do you think the labels you provide for yourself as a human influence your work as a writer?
That use of labels is directly related to my six years’ of work in Germany on a project called Mercy Killing Aktion, surrounding the multi-generational aftermath of genocide, especially in the context of the female, queer, Jewish, disabled body, mind and psyche—I wrote The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far as a side project during this time, as a way of working through my questions and profound frustration with the entire identity categorization machinery, and this idea of anti-normative metamorphosis in love and war. In the new book, all the characters are resisting labels and taking agency over their own identities and fates, and are actively dismantling these nonfunctional conventional containers of sexuality and gender and erotics.
While I was working in Germany, most of my work was in small isolated villages in conservative, rural Bavaria—deeply infiltrated by the neo-Nazi far right, where many of the killing factories were located—concentration camps and medical killing facilities, and mobile extermination gas vans. It was a political action by both them and myself to navigate how I was immediately labeled into a number of exterminated groups (disabled, queer, Jewish) and then assigned further labels (American, i.e. naïve) and female (i.e. lower in social status) and then be told that I should try to hide these aspects of myself because they were shameful, dangerous, discrediting, or discomforting to others.
I decided to experiment with embracing and actively using these terms strategically, tactically, in a very particular post-genocidal context: in a society that murdered four generations of nearly all its disabled people, for example, one tends to see very few cars parked in the “disabled” spaces at the parking lot. Few parents want their child diagnosed with ADHD or epilepsy. It’s impossible to find a gay bar in Schwandorf, near where two gay Turkish boys were bashed into comas the week before I arrived. I was often invited to events only to be told, “You are the first Jew we have ever met!” and they wanted to touch my hair, feel my skin, and show me photos of their SS grandfathers and ask if my ancestors might have been murdered by them.
To be labeled in such a way was highly charged, and was accompanied by physical risk and danger, exoticization and fetish, as well as kinship and communion with other outsiders. Often times I felt like a sole remaining specimen of an endangered species in a zoo. There’s an excitement at seeing another white tiger in a cage nearby, but there’s also grief and rage at the crowds who gather with mixed intentions.
Labels are essentially markers on a map. They place us in containers that are policed landmarks on that established map. They don’t, however, help us much when it’s time to enter uncharted territories—the places to which I am most drawn as an artist and human. However, strategically using labels in certain contexts can be a powerful tactical tool for visibility, for resistance, for solidarity, and advocacy. And above all, for questioning the accuracy and usefulness of typically dis-empowering maps. We can use labels to illuminate the confines and injustices being contained, and once we understand our containers, we can start to break out of them. Often after great suffering, when we come up against the fact that our complexity as humans overflows the small boxes we are assigned in the filing cabinet of identity.
Many of your narrators elude labels and boundaries—not that they don’t have them, but that they don’t acknowledge them. Is that a point of power for them? Or necessity?
Primarily, I wanted to see if I could write a book in which issues of love, erotics, desire, and sex could be momentarily liberated from conventional categorizations of gender identity. Words pin us down, like specimens. I wanted to attempt an experiment in how it feels to release a few of the pins. To offer the writer, the reader, and the characters a certain freedom of movement, imagination and identification—sexually, biologically, erotically.
I intentionally and constantly kept the characters moving kinetically along a gender-fluid, sexually-fluid nexus of desire and identity—many if not most of us actually live within these shifting sands of self. At last, we are slowly changing the methodology of gender assignment at birth—and fighting for more and more opportunities to gain agency over our labels and boundaries as we move through life. There is a disorientation, terrifyingly thrilling possibility, and eventually liberation in discovering how who we are changes over time and space.
In the book, each character is essentially following a known map that is suddenly destroyed—by war, by natural disaster, by love. When the map is destroyed, we all must begin to form our own maps. Often against our own volition. Often amidst enormous disorientation and terror. But there is power in that moment of falling off the flat earth we knew. There is a chance to begin again, with agency—or power—and the possibility of new freedoms of body, mind and psyche. But it’s not tidy, and it’s a rather shamanic, abstracted, and fragmented process to gather our pieces together and determine what we shall do next.
I’m curious too about the places your stories inhabit. Nothing is ever quite named, but there’s a persistent undercurrent of sadness and terror in the grounds these pieces occupy. How connected are place and character for you?
I choose sites where a fissure happened—where human destiny took an irrevocable turn. Fissures of trauma and potential energy. Places where people fell or were pushed off the flat earth, where they encountered the void or were thrown into it. Shattering places. Like the characters, these sites are the nexus of destruction and creation. The loss and the gaining of agency.
In most cultures, we have threshold territories that exist on a strata between conventional reality and a kind of super-reality—shamanic, liminal spaces. They might be called “sacred” or “historic” or “charged,” or “creepy” or “haunted” or “hallowed.” The Stonewall Inn, Ground Zero, Auschwitz, the Apache Stronghold in the Chiricahua Mountains, any plantation house or slave cabin in America, our childhood bedroom. These sites are a confluence of past, present, and future: a past trajectory was changed that could never be undone, a volatile present reality was created, and a profoundly different unknown future called into being. And it happened on a piece of land. Just like it happens to us.
As a society, we haven’t figured out how to deal with these kinds of places (or, arguably, these kinds of people). They (or we) are awkwardly navigated because they defy labels. The GPS suddenly stops working. These people and places make us uncomfortable because seemingly irreconcilable events and emotions co-exist simultaneously, and because we are reminded that the void exists, and that without agency, we can vanish into it.
The land has its memory, and humans have our memories—sadness and terror, intermingled with grace and beauty. Sometimes one erases or eclipses the other, but neither fully surrenders. I’m interested in places and characters who are forced to or choose to negotiate a relationship inside this context of cognitive disconnect. I grew up near a plantation mansion where on weekends white locals would drunkenly picnic and hold weddings, and black locals would go clean up the unmarked graves of their ancestors.
As I said, as a society we haven’t figured out how to navigate these places—but individuals are doing it every day. Placing markers where transgender women have been murdered, and visiting them regularly. That’s an example. I’m interested in those people, and those places, because they are humanity’s guides for ending this process of secrecy, control, erasure, and pretending. They are the new cartographers.
My own work surrounds interest in creating sites—perhaps sanctuaries, or safe houses for rebellion—where we can learn to inhabit and navigate the void, wrestle with its terrors and griefs, and harness its energy for radical transformation.
I mentioned in my review that it took a little bit of time for me to relax into the worlds you create; once I did, my reading experience totally changed. But that did get me thinking about accessibility and how queer stories are told and for whom. What’s your take on this? Is there such a thing as writing for a “general” audience these days? Is that important to you?
I’m exhausted and disinterested in both specific and general audiences. Few of us are who we seem to be—perhaps fewer every day. Once we begin to discard the little pins in our wings, and evade the category police, it becomes clear we are all such complex hybrids. Transgender activism, visibility, and agency continues to be crucial in accelerating the rate of positive change in these questions of audience and identity. A long time ago, a former lover of mine transitioned in a very conservative town, I went from being in a daring lesbian couple to being in a boring heterosexual couple within a short time-span. I was now in love with a man. He went to pee in the men’s room. I peed in the women’s room. We no longer had sex in the same stall. But it was much easier to hold hands in public. Who was our audience? Did we suddenly become more accessible? Less accessible? Were we more—or less—of a general audience? Our identities fell off the flat earth, the old and new pins started swarming around our wings. I myself have never fit tidily into a queer lexicon, or into a queer literary lexicon for that matter. Or into anything, really. And hence the book.
Most of us inhabit a psyche that is nearly unknown to any other living soul. Maybe we die and our therapists are the only ones who knew us well. Personally, I don’t trust marketing and publicity to crack that code of self. We hold secret abilities and limitations to step beyond the selves we and others believe us to be. The book exists, and I hope it’s helpful for people who know about the void, and are interested in the metamorphosis within a void. But otherwise, I am happy to live in a state in which I don’t hold a stake in its audience.
To indulge myself in a brief diatribe: every one of us is simultaneously overestimated and underestimated in our assumed capacities of intelligence, compassion, empathy, and curiosity. There are internal forces of the psyche who limit us, but most of all there are external forces: the propaganda of recorded history, for one. But also marketing and advertising agents who amass millions of dollars and hours trying to sort the general human from the specific human. The relevant human from the irrelevant human. When we have reached a tipping point where queer or brown money or female money is significant enough to allow us to be published.
Should only queer readers care about queer stories? Most writers who are not cis white males can recite thousands of stories about our accessibility, and who is expected to care about our stories. That’s been the longstanding culture in commercial publishing, but even that doesn’t work because policing happens even within the queer readers and our ghetto of queer stories. I remember getting a rejection from a queer magazine once saying my story was “the wrong kind of gay”—a note I taped next to my bed to warn the next person who might share it with me. I remember sending off my first “queer story” to a magazine and receiving a nasty letter back from the editor who, mistaking my name for a man’s name, said she only accepted lesbian writers to her magazine, and refused to believe I was queer.
I do know that I was strongly radicalized by a fruitless search during high school and college for narratives in which all queer characters don’t end up committing suicide, all queer loves don’t end in moralized tragedy. Why can’t mathematicians in Rome just happen to also eat pussy? Where their queerness is part of who they are, but is not the sole focus of the plot, or the source of their suffering. I once wrote a novel with a queer protagonist, and while it was accepted by several major editors, the marketing departments killed the publication because there was no money to be made, no readership, and it wasn’t “accessible” to a general audience. That in one house’s opinion, “although the book is clearly brilliant, we can not even imagine an audience.” They could not imagine anyone identifying with the people I had created. This is such a universal tale for many kinds of writers—again with the labels of queer, or “of color” —this is too slowly, yet slowly, changing.
If we were fully aware of the extent to which we are comprehensively Venn diagrammed and analyzed and categorized by obscured forces and institutions in our society, we would probably resign our membership in the species. I think this obsession with audience cartography is disastrous, absurd, and leading our culture to a truly bizarre and twisted definition of human need, desire, and potential.
Let’s talk about the images that accompany the texts of The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far. What’s your process for creating the images and/or matching them to a text? Do you create images specifically for a text or is there a more organic pairing process?
The texts and the images evolve concurrently. I do all my work in the field over a period of months and years, on small obscure scraps of land where few fragments remain of the original events. I tromp around with a backpack containing a very, very tiny Stasi spy typewriter, and an assortment of old cameras. Each piece evolves over several months or years of visiting and revisiting specific sites.
I work with salvaged military and government cameras manufactured by forced labor during fascist dictatorships in the nations where I’m working. They were designed to document and in a sense celebrate warfare, and have gazed into the void and been shattered—they’re almost completely destroyed in the sense of being functional cameras. But theirs are the true eyes of this book, and the images are what they see—their own visual metamorphosis and transformation after trauma.
Everything in the photographs is achieved in-camera, through old-fashioned mechanical and optical and chemical means—the colors, textures, shapes, and multiple layers within the photographs are all created using only the unique aberrations of the cameras’ optics and the chemistry of the expired films. The negatives are scanned and printed without digital manipulation. When working with an 80- or 100-year-old camera filled with rust, dirt, cracks, and battlefield detritus, each camera will respond uniquely to the film, to light, to lenses—most of their calibrations aren’t standardized. It takes a tremendous amount of time to build up a sufficient working relationship with each camera to produce even one image.
I write and photograph at the same time. I have synesthesia, and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy in both hemispheres of my brain—areas that contain how language, vision, time, and space are processed. The two hemispheres are intimately linked, and I like to imagine the intricate fireworks in the cerebral cortex as the two chemically instigate perceptual miracles. A few years ago, a seizure took away my language processing for several months. But within hours, my visual cortex had become tremendously amplified and colors, shapes, and patterns came alive with a ferocious intensity. That’s when I started taking photographs simultaneously with writing. I write stories when my visual processing is impaired, and make photographs when I lose the capacity for language. So the image and the word are always holding hands, or crossing swords.
I consider the entire known and unknown histories of everything that has happened at that place. I drift through its layers, harvesting out the stories that I see and hear. The typewriter has the triple advantage of not requiring electricity, and not allowing me to self-edit, and forcing a deliberateness of self-expression. The sensory process of pausing to absorb every subtle clue has taught me patience, and of taking the time to activate all the senses to perceive and process the depth and complexity of time and space and self. There are profound existential questions in painful and poetic soil that lends itself to quantum superpositions… places that exist across multiple states and multiple realities simultaneously.
I created this book over five years in the Baltic—Estonia, Finland, Latvia, eastern Russia, and Lithuania. I tracked down various sites where Vikings, Christian Crusaders, Germans, Nazis, Russians, Soviets, NATO allies, and insurrectionists of various stripes had erected military installations and shrines. It became impossible to tell the difference between the two—a tangible collision and superimposition between pantheons. Pits in the earth that had once hidden Nazi tanks. Roadside totems to the eel goddess. Old plywood factories used to make walls for slave labor camps. Ravens gathering over a mass grave. Clandestine Russian military centers with ambiguous contemporary intent.
In the book, the verbal and visual exist in a visceral pas de deux. I’m fascinated by the sensual cognitive rhythm of this process, especially the pauses that give us respite between thinking and feeling. We listen, then look around, our eyes lingering here or there. Our brain whirs and hesitates as it untangles new language and sights. We navigate our lives with our senses, and glean and process life visually through our eyes, and verbally through our mouths and ears. The book’s juxtaposition of photographs and text is a tribute to this dance of the brain.
And while we’re on the topic of images: I want to ask you about genre. The book is classified as short stories, and while I think that suits it to a certain degree, I’m not sure it’s the whole truth. How do you label the pieces in The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far?
Speculative nonfiction, but nobody went for that. Autobiographical magic realism and mythic memoir met the same fate. So here I am in the fiction hallway, wiggling around and squirming like a child who can’t figure out which image on the lavatory door best applies and finding none do. Yet.
My hunch is (based partly on your Venn diagram dedication) that most of these pieces are love stories (and I mean this as a high compliment)—but the pieces are also raw and brutal and strange, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about this dichotomy, and why it drives you.
There are dead trees all over the world into which I carved that Venn diagram. The dichotomy is my perception of reality. I love with profound…vigor. I used to be called into the guidance counselor’s office in junior high so that she could tell me that I “loved too much and too peculiarly.” I wasn’t, apparently, obsessive—I was just overly invested in the existence of people who caught my attention and passion, in particularly regardless of their genitalia—genetic, acquired, or expressed. My proclivities for overinvesting myself in the existences of others was perhaps influenced by the confluence of reading too much Camus at too early an age, and seeing a naked woman in Tennessee run out of her burning cabin during a full moon when I was twelve. It was horrible and raw and brutal and strange, but I loved her, and I wanted her, and I wanted to know what she would do next. I wanted to help. I wanted. I desired. That underlies everything.
And throughout it all, the thousands of genocide and hate crime survivors with whom I worked for twenty years, who provoked me and eclipsed and then radically expanded my comprehension of life, love, trauma, loss, tenacity, endurance, self-expression, existential agency, and what it means to be without a map or compass, and make your own.
These people, who have all passed away, guided me through this book. Perhaps this book is for them. But it’s also for the elderly Republican school teacher in South Texas who painstakingly hand fabricated all the historically accurate exact replica airplane scale models for my photographs even though he found me a bit of an oddball.
What inspires you to write/create?
A nearly unbearable frustration with my ignorance about the cosmos, and an insatiable love for those creatures—human or otherwise—who can’t stop questioning and probing and wriggling through locked doors and closed windows. I want to play with them, and to hold each other when we cry, and slip notes of treason through the air ducts and the hedgerows.
What are you working on next?
I have three books that vary from 90% to 40% completed, all of which involve photographs and various approaches to narrative. Out Here Death Is No Big Deal is an autobiographical magic realism memoir that begins with my experiences being taught how to be a woman by a combination of Gulf War combat veterans and drag queens in South Texas, and ends with my personal and professional contact with gender violence, including the work I did helping establish safe houses for gender violence survivors along the US-Mexico border.
Mercy Killing Aktion is a collection of essays about navigating the sexual and biological self in post-genocidal societies where the ideal body has waged total war against the “problematic” body. Essentially, what is the experience of living within a problematized body in cultures where all the problematized bodies were nearly completely murdered? What is the experience of living easily or uneasily within the idealized body? I’m primarily exploring the borderlands of sexuality—illicit, healing, fetishistic, romanticized erotics—that runs just between racism and the entitlement to hurt, and guilt and the desire to heal.
The novel, A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be, is loosely based on my family’s community’s experience in the South in the 1930s, where a group of Appalachian healer women’s lives are interrupted when the vanished family patriarch reappears in their lives—but only after contracting syphilis while living and working in an illegal mixed-race gender-queer brothel in Virginia.
And last question, because I always want to know: what are you currently reading?
I have a four foot high stack of books stacked on every horizontal surface in my house and studio, but I confess that I am on my thirtieth or fortieth reading of four books in particular: Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (the trip to Martinique underpinned the story “My Nebulae, My Antilles”), Laurent Berlant and Lee Edelman’s Sex, or the Unbearable, Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster, and Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères.
These are two particular treasures:
From Césaire, “…I would go to this land of mine and I would say to it: ‘Embrace me without fear … And if all I can do is speak, it is for you I shall speak.’ […] And on the way I would say to myself: ‘And above all, my body as well as my soul, beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear. [ … ] there is a man on the ground / and his soul is almost naked / and destiny triumphs in watching this soul which / defied its metamorphosis in the ancestral slough. [ …] the world map made for my use, not tinted with the arbitrary colors of scholars, but with the geometry of my spilled blood, I accept.”
And from Berlant: “I am interested in optimism as a mode of attachment to life. I am committed to the political project of imagining how to detach from lives that don’t work and from worlds that negate the subjects that produce them and I aim, along with many antinormative activists, to expand the field of affective potentialities, latent and explicit fantasies, and infrastructures for how to live beyond survival, towards flourishing not later but in the ongoing now.”
To me, all four of these books are my field guides.