The Month of Queer Conferencing

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Navigating Normativity UNC-Asheville Biennial Queer Studies Conference  April 2-4

This was my first time in Asheville and it was as picturesque as advertised.  I presented on Samuel Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, and, appropriately enough, the title of my panel was “Navigating Normativity: Southern Style.”  After an informal poll at the beginning of my talk I was a bit surprised to find that none of the people in the room (save for one CUNY Grad Center colleague) had heard of Delany at all! Hopefully I provided a good introduction and created a few new Delany readers.

Overall the conference presenters were much younger than I expected, as my CUNY friend also observed. There were more first year graduate students and even undergraduate papers than I expected.  But that was also an opportunity to get a look at the future of the field.  It was encouraging to see a panel full of brave young women from a state school in SOUTH CAROLINA presenting papers on feminism, sexuality and pop culture. They reminded me of myself as an undergraduate when I got my first exposure to professional academic life by presenting at African-American history conferences.

LGBTQ Scholars of Color Conference April 9-10

Next up was the first LGBTQ Scholars of Color Conference organized by CLAGS and hosted at John Jay College.  The main thing I noticed about this conference is that it was overwhelmingly dominated by social sciences and public health.  That’s a good thing.  CLAGS was founded by historian Martin Duberman, and housed at the CUNY Graduate Center, and has been well-represented with queer theorists in literary and culture studies.  During my time at CLAGS I worked under the leadership of a political scientist who worked to add more social science programming. There was much talk at this conference about navigating the sometimes treacherous world of funding and foundations. This is important stuff because I know this kind of quantitative work influences public policy in a way that the humanities, as important as they are, cannot.  There’s a Storify of the #LGBTSOC tweets from the conference here: LINK

Queer Speculations: University of Maryland DC Queer Studies Conference April 17

What was lacking in the humanities at the CLAGS conference I more than made up for at University of Maryland DC Queer Studies Conference.  I presented at this conference in 2012 which was a 70th birthday celebration of Samuel R. Delany and his magnificent writing.  After a day of stimulating talks at this year’s conference I was glad that I decided to return.  I presented again on Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which Delany had just published before the 2012 conference, and from which he gave a reading that evening.   This was another conference with a lot of digital engagement and Alexis Lothian put together this Storify of #DCQS15 tweets which gives a better overview of the talks than I can give here.

I’ve wanted to work on Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders to build out from my 2013 review of the novel in the GC Advocate.  There’s so much that I didn’t get to in that review (the book is 804 pages long) and several things that I wanted to correct.  I also wanted to write about the digital reception of the novel in online magazines and blog reviews, including responses from Delany himself.  It’s a longer range project that is probably more of a tangent from my main research than I should be taking on right now, but it’s something I’ve been bugging myself to follow up on and get finished.  However, it IS related to the book since there are similarities to Delany’s academic novel The Mad Man, about which I’m writing a chapter.

And so, the month of queer conferencing is done, and I’m moving on to the next phase of research, which is more directly related to the book.  At the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Toronto I’ll be presenting on Percival Everett’s academic fiction, and participating in a “Creative Criticism” session where I’ll be presenting an autobiographical section of the book, talking about my own “blackademic life” in relation to these works of black academic fiction that I’m writing about.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

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This is the abstract is for a presentation that I will be giving at the upcoming “Navigating Normativity” Queer Studies Conference at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.  I’m posting this version even though I’ve modified the talk a bit since this abstract was submitted.  This is a work in progress that I will also be presenting at another conference soon, so I’ll be posting more about it later.

I’m kicking myself for having added yet another project into the middle of a busy and quite stressful month, but I have absolutely no arguments with reading, thinking through, and talking about this fascinating novel again.

“The Splendor and the Misery: Reading the Body in Samuel Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.”   

The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, was the proposed title of a sequel to Samuel R. Delany’s popular 1984 science fiction novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a sequel which thus far has never materialized. (The unpublished, perhaps non-existent, book is legendary among devoted Delany fans.)  Inspired by the title of that mythic text, I’d like to explore “the splendor and misery of bodies” in Samuel R. Delany’s writing, particularly in his 804 page pornographic novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, published in 2012. Like other Delany novels, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is full of coarse talk about the body. Delany’s writings are often filled with anecdotes about his own sexual experiences with a variety of people whose bodies fall outside of heterosexual norms, and outside of certain normative gay beauty ideals (of youth, thinness, whiteness, symmetry, ability).  The characters represented in his fiction span a broad range of races, nationalities, ages, sizes, genders and abilities. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is full of provocative depictions of race and sexuality, and the characters in the novel often talk about and pursue their desires for racial difference, and use racial epithets as a part of sexual play. One way in which this novel diverges from his prior body of work is that it is not set in the city, but in the rural American South, among a small community in Georgia comprised of black gay men and their admirers known as The Dump, a community founded and organized by a black gay millionaire named Robert Kyle III.  In this presentation I will explore the way that Delany writes about the philosophy of embodiment and the utopian/anti-utopian/dystopian/heterotopian ways of managing and regulating bodies that are depicted and interrogated in his work. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is particularly inventive in Delany’s imagining of a community with formal institutions and services geared toward queer people with active sexual lives, and which provide employment and housing for blue collar gay workers.

On Blogging and the Brooklyn Bridge

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It’s been a month since I’ve updated the blog. For the last month or so I’ve been immersed in other writing projects. I submitted an article to a scholarly journal, I’ve worked on another creative project, and I spent a couple of weeks heavily immersed in studying The Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights in order to lead a new tour that I just started last week. Through this process, and through observing how some other writers and academics use social media, I’ve learned that I’m just not very good at sharing my work-in-progress. From my observations, it seems that the most effective academic and literary social media users are those who can constantly update about what they are reading and writing. I just can’t do that. I’ve found that posting about my research online while I’m working on it can be a distraction for me until I get it into some kind of concrete form. It involves too much distraction in the way of other stories and controversies flooding my attention. And I’ve found that when someone actually does take an interest in my work, that can also sometimes bring on more obligations to interact. Furthermore, there are times when I just don’t want the whole world to know everything single thing that I’m doing and thinking, an attitude which seems increasingly quaint these days, and an attitude which, I believe, will eventually be seen as passive-aggressive and threatening. (“What are you hiding???!!! Why don’t you want people to know where you are and what you’re doing???!!!”)

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My Brooklyn Bridge study has been instructive. I now have a two-hour tour that I feel fairly confident about, but it took a while to get there. I’ve been working on this for a while, but I really committed myself to it in the two weeks leading up to my first tour on July 8. I read David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, studied the internal scripts from my company, watched the Ken Burns documentary a few times, and consulted other books on the subject so that I could at least bluff my way through the engineering and architectural parts. I wrote a script, edited it, and then pared it down to two compressed pages that I can carry with me and consult on the tour route for facts, dates and quotes. And I’m still working on editing the script. I’m always adding and subtracting from tours. They’re never really “finished.” All along I felt little inclination to share all this information online, until now.
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I’m not even sure how much longer I’ll do the Bridge tour. The fall approaches and I probably won’t be doing tours that much after August. (More about that later.) But the information has been helpful. Even though I knew that my tour guiding career might be winding down this summer I wanted to learn this tour because I thought it might be helpful with other research and writing that I’m doing. Studying for this tour sent me back to Samuel R. Delany’s novella Atlantis: Model 1924, which contains scenes on the Brooklyn Bridge, including an imagined meeting between the main character, Sam (based on Delany’s father), and the poet Hart Crane. I published a short article about Delany’s Atlantis in The Annals of Scholarship issue on Delany’s work, “Cruising the Disciplines.” (Which, unfortunately, is not available online, but can be ordered here). There are other literary connections to this tour as well, including Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Walt Whitman, all of whom have points of contact in Brooklyn Heights.

So I’m not sure what this all means for the writing part of my career. I wish I were better at doing that sort of sharing because it would probably mean a better online profile for me. But I can’t help it. I just find too much digital engagement a nuisance when I’m working on a piece of writing. I’d be much better off if I were able to tweet and blog about every book and article I’m reading and every film I’m watching, and then collate all of that into longer pieces of writing, but my mind doesn’t seem to work that way. So, the best I can do are these periodic updates about what I’m working on. Maybe I’ll get better at it as time goes on.

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Note: You can watch Samuel Delany reading from Atlantis: Model 1924 and other writings in this series of videos filmed at Judson Memorial Church in 1999, originally released as Atlantis and Other New York Taleshttps://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLC293E246B84BFC3D

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Samuel R. Delany

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You may have noticed that Ta-Nehisi Coates has been on a tear lately. If you’re in any kind of black studies networks and you’ve been on the Internet in the past week then you’ve probably seen posts about his exchange with Jonathan Chait. Coates’s most recent response, “The Blue Period, An Origin Story” posted yesterday on April 1, is devastating, inspiring, uplifting. I want to take time to read it again, carefully, and also to listen, carefully, to the Nell Painter video that he posted with it. The article really resonated with me as someone whose first academic training was in history. I recognize many of the sources that he cited and wrote about.  I too have been trying to make sense of this same history, to try to cut off at the pass these cynical arguments about black progress and the imperatives to be “optimistic” (which is less about real optimism and more about alleviating other people’s discomforts).  Every college educated black person has heard some version of what Chait threw at him in their exchange.  We’ve had people tell us: Hey, you and your colleagues seem to be doing just fine. Why are you so angry?  We’re making progress here in America.  When are you going to let go of this bitterness and resentment?

But what really struck me about Coates’s piece is that he so eloquently grapples with the prior gaps in his own knowledge.  I’m impressed that he’s clearly been engaged in a serious study of black history, and American history, and slavery, and the place of America in a global culture and economy. And he clearly understands that education is always a work-in-progress. And he also understands that there are people on the Web now looking to build their brands off “social justice” and sell themselves as “experts” instead of seriously engaging with the meaning of this history.

I think now, four years after watching that video, and having read A History of White People, that I am a writer. And that is not a hustle. And this is not my “in” to get on Meet The Press, to become an activist, to get my life-coach game on. I don’t need anymore platforms. I am here to see things as clearly as I can, and then name them. Sometimes what I see is gorgeous. And then sometimes what I see is ugly. And sometimes my sight fails me. But what I write can never be dictated by anyone’s need to feel warm and fuzzy inside.

The whole article is a breath of fresh air in a cultural moment dominated by the wunderkind.  The web is littered with stories of 20something millionaire app developers and programmers and pundits and bloggers.  I just saw another one of those “30 under 30” articles flash across my twitter feed yesterday.  And last weekend Twitter was dominated by a non-troversy started by a 23 year old social media “activist.”  Why are we even listening to these twits?  Coates’s article is a lesson in the true humility of education. Nobody who is that young has it all figured out, not even the smartest and most accomplished ones. Learning takes time, and effort, and more time, and more effort.  It takes life experiences, it takes getting kicked in the ass a few times, and it requires constantly revisiting your prior ignorance and revising the things that you once believed to be true.

Yesterday, April Fools’ Day, was also Samuel R. Delany’s 72nd birthday.(Delany was a prodigy himself, having published nine science fiction novels in his twenties.) I’m looking forward to celebrating with him next week at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia.  Coates’s piece actually reminded me of a passage from Delany’s excellent book About Writing, and I wanted to share it here:

“To learn anything worth knowing requires that you learn as well how pathetic you were when you were ignorant of it. The knowledge of what you have lost irrevocably because you were in ignorance of it is the knowledge of the worth of what you have learned. A reason knowledge/learning in general is so unpopular with so many people is because very early we all learn there is a phenomenologically unpleasant side to it: To learn anything entails the fact that there is no way to escape learning that you were formerly ignorant, to learn that you were a fool, that you have already lost irretrievable opportunities, that you have made wrong choices, that you were silly and limited. These lessons are not pleasant, The acquisition of knowledge – especially when we are young – again and again includes this experience.”   – Samuel Delany, About Writing, pg. 34-35