Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature is certainly a unique anthology. As the editors Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Heath Justice, Deborah Miranda, and Lisa Tatonetti point out in the introduction, it’s only the second anthology of LGBTQ2 Native literature ever created. So it’s pretty amazing and awesome that this book is around. If you’re not clear on the terminology two-spirit, let me quote a short bit from the introduction: “two-spirit is an umbrella term in English that 1) refers to gender constructions and roles that occur historically in many Native gender systems that are outside of colonial gender binaries and 2) refers to contemporary Native people who are continuing and/or reclaiming these roles in their communities. It is also often used as an umbrella term … meant to be inclusive of … GLBTQ Native people more broadly.”
From the very beginning it’s clear this a thoroughly researched book, and that in addition to being a diverse collection of fiction and poetry, Sovereign Erotics represents a wealth of knowledge. Not only did I get to read some really great stuff from authors I had never heard of before, but I got a lot of ideas for what to read next. The introduction as well as the author bios at the back were great resources to discover old books you haven’t read and upcoming ones to add to your to-read list!
To say this book is unlike anything I’ve read before would be quite the understatement. But of course, Sovereign Erotics has some things in common with other anthologies. Like others before it, Sovereign Erotics attempts to blend new and established writers, something I think it does quite successfully. It’s an expansive collection, which is divided thematically into four sections, which were interesting ideas (dreams/ancestors, love/medicine, long/walks, and wild/flowers) although to be honest they didn’t really affect my reading much.
Also reminiscent of some other anthologies I’ve read that bring together a group of marginalized writers, the context of this book is pretty academic, a fact that’s not surprising given that the four editors are all academics as well as two-spirit writers themselves. I do wonder, though, at the academic tone and structure of the introduction, which I think could be alienating to readers not used to it. Having left academia a few years ago, the introduction wasn’t a problem for me to read, but I did find myself feeling a bit frustrated with it. There’s something about that academic style that feels stiff, disconnected, and not real, for lack of a better term, especially after you’ve been removed from it for a few years like I have. Also, the style felt ironic given that the editors are quite (rightfully so) critical of academia in the introduction.
One interesting related question is that of the intended audience for the book. Is it (Native and/or non-Native) academics and university students? The style suggests it is, but the editors explicitly state: “Sovereign Erotics is for those who—like so many of us—had no role models, no one to tell us that we were valuable human beings just as we are. This project is by and for the People.” The whole section explaining the history and use of the term two-spirit, however, really feels like it’s written for non-Natives, especially academics and students. So, that’s a bit strange.
All that to say, the introduction feels a bit confused about what it is and I’m not sure it does what the editors say they want it to do. But let’s move on to the meaty part: the literature!
Like any anthology, there are some pieces that stand out.
In particular, I loved “The King of Tie-Snakes,” Craig Womack’s story of teenage boys hanging out on a lake on a lazy, hot summer day. Actually, it’s an excerpt from a novel, and I’d love to read more about those boys and the odd mixture of bravado, insecurity, hormones, and kindness that are swimming around with them in the lake.
Deborah Miranda’s funny, raunchy story about a pussy-chasing coyote / trickster character who falls in love with a two-spirit person, or ‘aqi, was another favourite. This revelation on the bus causes Coyote to get his mojo back, which returns “like an illegal firecracker smuggled off the rez, like a long drink out of a fresh bottle of tequila.” The story is interspersed throughout with awful historical quotations from colonial writing about two-spirit people. The juxtaposition serves as a kind of spit in the eye of those early colonists bent on eradicating and degrading those people who have clearly survived and thrived.
One of the poets I enjoyed most was Malea Powell, especially her pieces “real Indians” and “A meditation partially composed in a D.C. coffeehouse because there isn’t anything better to do in this city of dead white fathers…” “real Indians” is a kick right in the mouth of stereotypes and assumptions that authentic Native people don’t live in today’s world, whereas “A meditation” is a gorgeous, elegiac prose poem about lost love. It’s one beautiful run-on sentence and thought one after another:
You said, “if it was up to me i’d have muffins and eggs” a mere three months after you left before they were even finished and now I can stop thinking about muffins, about how i too often feed you leftovers from meals eaten with other not-quite-not-lovers and your mouth i could make some analogy here about muffins and lovers but i don’t have the patience for it
Qwo-Li Driskill was definitely another poetry favourite. Hir intellectual yet emotional poems were a highlight for me in this collection, especially “Love Poem, After Arizona,” which manages to be sweet and sexy as well as communicate a message of decolonization at the same time:
let me press my palm
against your chest
staunch the flow
of despair that beats from
your sacred heart
like an oil spill
We are two mixed-blood boys
and know empires are never gentle
Take off your Mexica mask
so I can see your beloved
Remove your wooden shield
so I can kiss your
taste in your sweat
the iron of Spain
that never conquered us
Driskill also has a sonnet included in this anthology,which is about a feminine man. Tell me, who writes sonnets any more, let alone about queer people? I love it. More please!
While I’m on the topic of love and sex, how about this short, concise piece of gorgeousness by Cheryl Savageau called “Deep Winter”?
I wanted to kiss your neck
in the middle of traffic
but instead I just brushed your cheek
we’d been eating Greek food
avgolemono, moussaka, hot
flatbreads with olive oil and feta
I wanted to kiss you then
in falling snow, bring on
an early thaw
Have you ever read a story about a queer person who might be described as both transgender and trans-species—in that they’re both human and bear? Have you ever read a story about queer bears? Louis Esmé Cruz’s story “Birth Song for Muin, in Red” is just that. Read it. It’s weird in the best of wonderful ways.
Do you ever read a poem, and then think, cool, that was beautiful, I loved it, I have no idea what it was about? That happened to me with Kim Shuck’s “Absorbing Light,” a mysterious, dark poem that goes like this:
The mirror can still surprise me.
Some random dysphoric event and
I’m back in that small locked room.
Three days out of five some of the
X chromosomes switch off.
On the others there is too much information.
It takes planning.
I have to make sure I’ve washed
the right laundry.
The afternoon finds me absorbing light.
Removing and replacing the surface entirely.
The evening could find me
Dragging a cannon 300 miles through snow.
I might force a surrender.
This thing the mirror says I am or not, random in the day
No geometric proof, surely.
Time I stand so close to
Something like your answer.
A sweet, I hope to present you eventually.
Daniel Heath Justice’s contribution to the anthology is a truly amazing fantasy short story. When was the last time you read queer Native fantasy? What about a fantasy where a trans feminine person was the main character? Never, that’s when. Oh, and what a beginning this story has: “The fire past the delicate threshold of taut and tender flesh, cresting at his skin, licking down his arms, legs, and belly, the longed-for burn like a heady whirlwind through his senses, a dizzy mingling of pain and ecstasy.”
Sovereign Erotics ends on a definite high note, with a stunning, deceptively simple poem called “Clementines,” which is a kind of instruction manual for eating and mediation on these small fruits:
Work the skin off in a ragged spiral,
separate flare from the pale sunrise within.
Gather up the long curl of rind,
turn it tight and snug, boy center peeking out
from swirled petals. Make a Clementine rose,
leave it like a love letter on the table.
Let your thumbs find the top dimple, apply pressure.
Not sudden, not hesitant, but cleanly.
Know the joy of secret compartments.
Raise the Clementine’s luminous body
on the tips of your fingers, moist, undressed:
with your strong teeth, neatly pluck the first
sacrificial half-moon from its sisters
with dreamy dedication:
tongue this plump flame till it bursts,
a lush firecracker in the dark.
It’s a beautiful finish to an anthology that is all around delightful and necessary and inspiring. Here’s to all the two-spirit writers, past, present, and future! I hope to read a lot more from many of the authors.
One last note: I’m not sure why Tomson Highway isn’t included or mentioned in this anthology, but he’s one of the few queer Native authors I knew before picking up this book, and you must, must, read his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen, which is undoubtedly one of the most important and moving books written in Canada, ever. If you’re into drama, Highway has also written some fantastic plays.