Issue 3/2023 - Queer Postsocialist

A discussion on queer diasporic aesthetics1

Katharina Wiedlack, Anna T.

Katharina Wiedlack: Anna, thank you for agreeing to discussing your new project Δiotima; or, Δeir*land: A fragmented stori of arkivs, kolektivism, imaginaʃon, & multituds with me! Would you like to start with giving our readers an overview of the book and where you are in the writing process?

Anna T.: Thank you, Kathi. This is a project about writing and worldmaking. It’s a sci-fi experimental collective volume about a queer-feminist collective-turned-town in a Mediterranean island in the future. The editors look back from 3009 and attempt to tell the stories of their ancestors as well as their own. Through the diverse archival materials (diary entries, meetings’ minutes, manifestos, art projects, social media posts, calls for direct action, poems, transcribed interviews) the reader delves into a timeline spanning 989 years of the evolution of the project and the societal, technological, and linguistic shifts in the world at large. While some chapters lean more heavily on dystopia, others are more utopian and the project ultimately offers a journey through hope, despair, and survival, foregrounding language/s. I’ve completed about 80% of it so far and plan to publish it in 2024.

Wiedlack: Thank you for sharing this synopsis and insight into your writing/production process. I really enjoy the glimpses into your project. It resonates with my desire to think through ways of queer relationality, solidarity and collectivity. I read many of the aesthetic aspects of your writing as queer, and I am wondering if you were indeed conceptualising your book with queer theory in mind.

Anna T.: I wanted to engage with a project that involved language and was not theoretical, where I could experiment mostly with form and content. In the process it became not only linked to theory but about ideology and emotions in its core. I saw ethical considerations arise (both on the format and those of the characters) pertaining to pedagogy and representation. With regards to its format as a contemporary/post contemporary relational project the book touches upon participatory art, the role of the spectator and the author (ergodic literature), trying to avoid chronological snobbery or its opposite while creating a bibliography from the past, present, and future. 

Wiedlack: What makes a certain aesthetic queer? Does it have to depict or embody non-normative sexual desire or non-normatively, trans* or fluid gender? Is there any aspect of queer sexuality, sensuality or gender transgression in your book?

Anna T.: There are aspects in the documents the book purports to publish that refer to non-normative genders and sexualities which we currently understand as queer and in the chapter set in 2020 were so. In the chapters covering the future I try to imagine what these discourses will look like in this Mediterranean island. The challenge was not to try to accurately predict what may happen but to envision aspects of (queer?) futures that are specific to the Mediterranean which we rarely see depicted in speculative fiction (one exception being the works of Michalis Makropoulos, some of which include aspects of queerness) and present for myself an opportunity to be closer to the region and its futures. There are references to desires and practices and categories and the “controversial” choices that fragments of discussions from the Diotimans indicate in the different time points. Aspects of this project, like the focus on class and environmental disaster, are in conversation with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower,2 others are imaginings of what it may have looked like if Charlotte Perkins Gilmans’ Herland’s3 inhabitants were explicitly but imperfectly anti-racist and allosexual and the conversations they could have as well as ponder how it would look if they were agentialised in presenting themselves to the rest of the world instead of being studied. Aesthetics we seem to recognise as queer today (DIY, punk, certain linguistic and gestural elements) are found and/or borrowed from other minorities/subcultures (Ballroom scene, Black culture, working class, squats etc.) so are not exclusively and categorically queer. In the tradition of what “queer” as a term attempts to do, perhaps we should define cisheteronormative middle- and upper-class culture and leave queer aesthetics to be fragmentarily and abstractly conjured.

Wiedlack: In terms of story-telling, beyond books, we have seen recently more and more films and TV series presenting nuanced and often “uneventful” expressions of queerness and/or alternative universes. Are there any films or time-based works that inspired you?

Anna T.: A work that comes to mind is Tejal Shah’s Between the Waves (2012) which presented a filmic narrative of strangeness blending human and non-human elements in a landscape that is both recognisable and unknown with a focus on ecology. Another film I saw much more recently which has connections with the book is The Pathway to the goats (2022) by Spit (Natasja Loutchko, Marta Orlando and Clémentine Roy) on water, nature, sexualities, and alternative codes of communication. Perhaps the final scene from Rebel Dykes (2021) by Siân A Williams and Harri Shanahan which features the protagonists in their undisclosed living location close to nature, discussing the past is another connection I see. Thinking more on time and queer(ed) time I can’t not mention Isaac Julien’s The Attendant (1993) during which queer desire is negotiated (in “reality” or “fantasy”) in the heterotopia of the museum, an archive in exhibition. And, of course, Masha Godovannaya’s Countryless and Queer (2020) perfectly captures not only the connections between migration/diaspora and queerness but more to the point exemplifies opaque ways of making problems and stories visible, agentialising your subjects, and showing the artist as worker in the studio not simply an interviewer.

Wiedlack: Many of your last projects aligned with Édouard Glissant’s clamour to opacity – the right to not become transparent, to not reveal oneself to the authority – be it state or the hegemonic society.4 You connect his poetics of relation to queerness, particularly a queer refusal to become transparent, to step out of the closet. I personally think that your work is of particular importance right now – not only within the post-socialist space that the special issue addresses – but in a global space, in a time when LGBTIQAP+ visibility as aesthetic form either fails or is simply no longer viable in the face of increasing, and often deadly violence, projects that search for alternative aesthetics are essential. Was Glissant and his concept of opacity an inspiration for this project as well?

Anna T.: Yes, opacity plays a role mostly as homage to all the creole languages, the queer slangs, the survival and humour-based codes. In terms of the “dramaturgy” of the project these elements do dramatise aspects of migration, archipelagic cultures, itinerant populations and present moments where opacity is deployed by the characters as well as me, so again it operates in a meta level of the simultaneous attachment/detachment typical to migration and queerness. With regards to the current situation and the violence many of our community experience on multiple levels, the antidotes are often found in community belonging and solidarity, humour and playfulness alongside activism and participation, so these elements signal those parallel resistance modes.

Wiedlack: Let me ask you about the fragmentation of time in your project. You use different conventions and genres – diaries, protocols, meeting minutes, art objects etc. – to figuratively, have your reader jump through time. Does your usage of nonlinearity have a queer aspect? Queer theorists have long argued that non-normatively gendered and sexual beings experience and live time differently to cultural and institutional norms, and have theorised queer temporalities.5 Would you say that your construction of your novel / writing applies queer time and would you call this part of a queer aesthetic?<

Anna T.: What may be fragmentary, more than time, is how the chapters relate to each other (recurring characters or glimpses of how discussions have developed/evolved) and the abstractness of each entry. In my previous work I used the closet as the queer time-bending locus inspired by Ahmed,6 Freeman,7 and Muñoz,8 this time it’s an island and an archive.
I understand fragmentedness as a very migrant aesthetic in how time, space and distance are stretched or shortened. Here, I use speculative fiction as a mental exercise to be connected in/with the there of a future since the present doesn’t provide that (being unmoored, neither here nor there). Further, the book features elements of disability, chronic pain, trauma and ruminations which are also profoundly fragmentary. In some ways this is an attempt to explore them crafting healing alternative narratives. I feel this project, as well as previous ones and artworks of other creators that I enjoy, are ways of tracing what could be a queer aesthetic but (and perhaps frustratingly so) for me it feels they always reach up to that potential being evoked but never clearly shown or necessarily established. Perhaps this elusiveness is part of queer or any minoritarian aesthetics. Perhaps it’s queer in that elements of Samuel R. Delayny’s Babel-17,9 a queer sci-fi author, have influenced me. The aesthetics employed in Δiotima; or, Δeir*land are not so much a direct answer to the question “what is/could be a queer aesthetics?” but rather “how can I make current understandings of what queer is (and alongside those also what literature as fine art is now) strange by play-acting a gaze from an ever stranger future?”

Wiedlack: What forms of belonging do you imagine in your book? Diasporic? Identitarian? Queer? 

Anna T.: The collective initially comprises people from the Mediterranean basin and then expands with each geopolitical shift in the wider vicinity of the region. There are those who come from further away (from the West) and flee theonomic regimes and thus the project offers fleeting glimpses into geopolitical developments internationally and later on interplanetarily. So what started as a way for me to nurture an emotional immediacy with the place I grew up in – realising each time I visit that I am merely that, a visitor – evolved into an elaborate reflection on queer diasporic belongings and art as a meditation on those. Following many authors who envisioned intergalactic futures, in my work too current hierarchies (racial, class-based, biopolitical, ableist) are upset by designed and synthetic people as well as those born, created or coming back from other planets and satellites. So diaspora then becomes a term that both becomes stranger and makes the present (and in some cases the past) even stranger.

Wiedlack: Thank you for this interesting conversation.

Anna T.: Thank you, Kathi!

1 Katharina Wiedlack and Anna T. work together in the context of the FWF project “The Magic Closet and the Dream Machine: Post-Soviet Queerness, Archiving, and the Art of Resistance” (AR 567), which further includes Masha Godovannaya, Ruthia Jenrbekova and Iain Zabolotny.
2 Octavia E. Butler, and N. K. Jemisin. Parable of the Sower. New York 2019.
3 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland, London 2018.
4 Édouard Glissant, Betsy Wing. Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor 1997.
5 (Judith) Jack Halberstam. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, New York 2005; See also the Special Issue of GLQ 13, Nr. 2–3, 2007, which is dedicated to queer temporalities.
6 Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects. Durham 2014.
7 Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Perverse Modernities, Durham 2010.
8 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York 2009.
9 Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17. New York 2001.