I wonder what it means to attempt to review any book (having never written a whole book). I wonder what it means to choose one book (of the too many volumes that I have had brief flings, infatuations, obsessions, and arguments with of late), one over all others. (As I write this, a scene from Percival Everett’s Erasure jumps back onto my foreground; around a table five reviewers sit and judge literary worth. They do it oh so, sooooo wrong [265-266]). Often we do choose books by their covers, choose contents by whims of reviewers. I wonder if anyone reads these things, but, if just one person does, I hope you read this book: Wounded by Percival Everett.
It is not an obviously queer love story. It contains a lot of love. Yet it does more for queer fiction than the Brokeback Mountain genre it slides through, in its maturity. It engages with queer desires, identities, and ‘sexual politics’ through a seriously ethic-bound lens, plus it has a cute coyote puppy. It re-grounds queerness, prejudice/s, and violence in the social. It offers an admirably brave insight into heterosexuals attempts to take responsibility, to make sense, of their selves in an irresponsibly racist and homophobic world.
I couldn’t quite place how this slim book with so many horses in it had moved me so greatly until I read Martinez’s On Making Sense: Queer Race Narratives of Intelligibility. In it he manages to be delightfully playful, joyous even, and stunningly serious. Exploring his call to confront epistemic injustice/s, Martinez provides close re/readings of a range of “black, Latino, and Asian queer writers and artists to understand how knowledge is acquired and produced in contexts of racial and gender oppression” revealing a “preoccupation with intelligibility” at the intersections of queerness and color. The analysis is searing (while gorgeously penned) and his succinct unraveling of Judith Butler’s misusage of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize speech alone makes the text worth buying.
Butler’s use of Morrison to support her claims relies on an extreme misrepresentation of Morrison’s work. Such an engagement conveys a sense of being in conversation where no conversation exists; it employs an acclaimed and well-respected woman of color’s writing as a source of profound theoretical insights on language but only in ways that prove strategic and functional . . . . The practice of indiscriminately deploying a radically skeptical disposition toward language, identity, and experience comes into crisis when it refuses to account for its implication in an intellectual history hostile to the lives and experiences of minorities (41-42).
Relatedly, on taking responsibility for oneself; Martinez reads Baldwin’s Another Country with particular attention to how characters “face constitutive difficulties in understanding their emotions and articulating their motivations . . . as typical of activities where the acquisition of knowledge about oppressions—and one’s place in relation to them—are central” (48). Drawing on the work of Babbitt and Mohanty he demonstrates how such learnings (and knowings) involve risk, risks of “who they understand themselves to be and, more important, whom they are willing to risk losing and becoming” (49).
To say that this is one of the most insightful drawings on queer theory I have read in a year would limit such learnings to queerness. Instead, his point reorients theory and the act of theorizing toward an ethical basis, but one that is much broader than sexual politics:
Taking responsibility for one’s self and one’s identity implies reconceptualizing one’s relation not only to one’s self but also to one’s community and belief systems . . . to know the world and one’s relation to it—to know them better—one might have to adopt new senses of one’s self, new identities that, in any given circumstance, might contradict former self conceptions and community values . . . . In repressive societies where bodies and resources, ideas and behaviors, are carefully monitored and often punitively controlled, there are no guarantees that taking responsibility for one’s self and one’s identity will lead to positive outcomes. Taking responsibility against the grain of oppression may in fact result in isolation rather than insight, in social stigma and violence rather than community (51).
A second theme that Martinez raises concerns “shifting the site of queer enunciation.” Through his readings of Munoz and Kenan he returns queer subjectivity to the social and maps out “deeper understanding[s] of the intersubjective and social contexts in which queer subjects come into being . . . transfer[ing] some of the burden of queer representation” (113).
As a narrative practice, this [shifting the site of queer enunciation] provides an opportunity to foreground the following set of observations: (1) that queer experiences are actually coproduced and shared by larger collectives, even though these larger collectives often deny their own implicatedness in queer sociality; (2) that in fact it takes studied work to deny such implications, and that such denial leads to a kind of existential distance that is thoroughly produced rather than natural; (3) that some nonqueer people actually work to resist the logic of social fragmentation mandated by homophobic societies, and that they do so, at times, by bearing ‘faithful witness’ to acts of queer social resistance—even when it is dangerous to do so and even when such acts place them in opposition to homophobic ‘common sense’; and (4) that queer people define themselves in relation to some of the same webs of cultural meaning that heterosexuals around them draw from, and that, in this sense, queers are engaged participants in the dialogic production of cultural meanings and therefore fundamentally part of the collective experience and imaginary (113-114).
Percival Everett’s Wounded successfully does both. It functions, by Martinez’s schema, as both shifting the site of queer enunciation and underlining “queerness as social, coproduced, and shared” (115). It suggests an ethics of responsibility shared along lines of simply being human, and a vision of being human/e through shared aspirations of ethics.
Everett, P., 2001. Erasure. Faber and Faber: London.
Everett, P., 2011. Wounded. Grayworlf Press: Minnesota.
Martinez, E, J., 2013. On Making Sense: Queer Race Narratives of Intelligibility. Stanford: California.
Dervla Shannahan is an independent researcher who has published a variety of works in a variety of places. She has a MA in Islamic studies (from the University of Wales, Lampeter) and in Queer studies in arts and culture (from Birmingham City University). Her research interests include Islam, feminisms, queer theologies, and postcolonial theory. Since completing her last MA she has taken time out from formal study to focus on writing, parenting, and psychotherapeutic training. She has done bits of activism around gender and sexuality in Islam, and is currently involved in the Inclusive Mosque Initiative. She is intending to start her PhD (at Goldsmiths, London) soon.