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Toni Roberts interviews Jesse Ataide of @queer_modernisms

26 February 2021

Toni Roberts

When did you become interested in Modernism and queerness? What was it that resonated with you and how did you come to create the @queer_modernisms Instagram account?

My interest in modernism and queerness is the culmination of a lot of different factors. I come from a conservative, rural, religious background, and until I left for college my exposure to contemporary pop culture was very limited—no television or secular music, and a select group of movies. As an artistically-inclined, socially awkward little boy I found an escape in reading, as well as the visual arts, and, later, classic Hollywood films. 

During my freshman year of college, a viewing of The Hours inspired me to immediately go out and purchase a copy of Mrs. Dalloway, which proved such a revelatory reading experience that it confirmed my decision to become a literature major. Three years later I undertook an honors thesis on Woolf’s oeuvre and Cunningham’s novel at exactly the time that I realized I could no longer ignore my sexuality. 

I started @queer_modernisms after making the decision to discontinue my academic studies after pursuing two subsequent graduate degrees in Cinema Studies and English Literature. I ended up employed instead by my university’s library, and it suits me perfectly because what I really loved about grad school was the ability to research endlessly. Nothing captures my interest more than an obscure reference, an unknown name, and minutiae, trivialities, or gossipy asides of all kinds. This, of course, makes writing—even the most basic seminar paper—an almost overwhelming undertaking because I inevitably end up over-researching, and “waste” too much time on tangential information that I knew had no direct bearing on the topic at hand. In all honesty @queer_modernisms started as a way to do something with—and thus tacitly validate—all of the “extra” information I was so taken with and stockpiling as I was working on my second thesis, on Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s experimental queer novel The Young and Evil (1933). 

What impact do you think modernism, and more specifically queer modernism, has had on society and what is its lasting legacy?

As a number of scholars have pointed out, without the contributions of queer creatives we would have a vastly different conception of “modernism”. Just start running down the list of modernists who were queer—or at least not exclusively heterosexual—: Woolf, Proust, Wilde, Stein, H.D., Barnes, Cocteau, Crane, Hughes, Auden… and that’s just naming writers. The Bloomsbury Group, the Ballets Russes, and the Harlem Renaissance were all fuelled by queer creatives. But I think going one step further is even more instructive: would we have Ulysses without the Herculean efforts of Sylvia Beach? What would Picasso’s legacy have been like without that early patronage and advocacy of Gertrude Stein? How would modernism have circulated without Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s Little Review? Or what about Carl Van Vechten’s financial support, tireless promotion, and photographic documentation of the Harlem Renaissance? What endlessly fascinates me is how so often the queer modernists—as well the heterosexual women who intentionally embedded themselves into queer circles—were often the networkers and infrastructure builders of modernism, whether hosting salons, publishing periodicals, establishing small presses, organizing exhibitions, establishing important art collections, and, later, founding what would eventually become major cultural institutions like the New York City Ballet. When it comes down to it, there are very few aspects of modernism that cannot be directly connected to queer individuals in some crucial way. 

Whether this has been acknowledged is quite a different matter, however. And that is where I personally see the value of attempting to locate and distinguish a “queer modernism” within modernism more generally. For so long the queer dimensions of many artists’ work and lives have been wilfully misinterpreted when not actively repressed or ignored—and if this was happening within academic and critical contexts, how was the wider culture supposed to know it? For this reason, I think we’re just now beginning to discover the true impact and lasting legacy of queer modernism. The queer dimensions of so much 20th century art and culture, from cinema to popular music to fashion to dance and beyond, have yet to be adequately accounted for. 

What are the current trends and areas of interest in queer modernist research?

The longer I’m out of academia the more difficult it has been to stay on top of the newest developments—but I try! What really interests and excites me, however, is how the internet and social media is increasingly allowing for a certain democratization of what has otherwise functioned as “specialized” queer knowledge. Frankly I’ve been astonished by the interest @queer_modernisms has generated. My initial hope had been that my content would manage to find its way to other specialists, as it was my assumption that when it was directly competing with all the other types of content that circulate online the interest level in historical queer content would be limited at best. But I quickly discovered the exact opposite is the case: there is a surprising appetite for images and information attesting to the queer past. 

I’m perhaps biased, but I really do think that some of the most ground-breaking and important work in contemporary queer studies generally is happening online and/or through social media accounts, some of which have become grassroot queer archives and impromptu historical resources. The best example of this is The AIDS Memorial (@theaidsmemorial), which deals with anything related to the epidemic, but most prominently posts remembrances of AIDS victims submitted by followers. This is to in no way diminish the continued importance of other forms of scholarship. Rather, I think that tools are presenting themselves that are able to augment our understanding of the past in unexpected ways, and, even more importantly, has the potential to reach a more general audience. The AIDS Memorial account has made the queer past an active part of my everyday life in a way I’ve never experienced otherwise. As a young queer fortunate enough to have sexually come of age after the worst of the epidemic I can say that nothing I have encountered through more traditional types of scholarship has made the overwhelming cost of the epidemic so terrifyingly real—and all because it has the ability to pierce my consciousness at moments I least anticipate. I do aspire to create a similar type of dynamic with @queer_modernisms: by imbricating these images and information into the mundane everyday, I hope to collapse time, and, at least for a moment, make “distant” history resonate within the present moment.

How prominent, or not, have the voices of non-white/ non-European people been in queer modernist discourse?

This is such an important question, and one I’m daily contending with. I’ve always aspired to be as inclusive as possible with @queer_modernisms—I deliberately chose the plural “modernisms” because I firmly believe that modernism did not take any single form, and it certainly was not just a white Anglo-European phenomenon. In the wake of the George Floyd protests last summer, however, I really had to take a hard look at my account and contend with the overwhelming whiteness of queer modernism. This is, of course, deeply tied to issues of class: one could dare to be as sexually explicit, experimental, subjective, and non-commercial as they liked when there were no worries over how the bills would get paid. This is not to downplay the very real risks and retribution these figures still faced or to dismiss or trivialize their work, but obviously non-white queer creatives experienced all of these prejudices and setbacks on top of institutional racism and bigotry, as well as all the financial, educational, and other social impediments caused by white supremacist social systems. 

I understandably get requests on occasion to profile and feature work by more non-white artists, and I wish I could more substantially address these requests! But the fact of the matter is that the information and material is often just not there. This is due to a variety of factors, such as the discretion and/or self-censorship of historical queer individuals themselves, and situations where the private artifacts of queer lives—letters, diaries, sketchbooks, unpublished memoirs, personal archives—were outright destroyed after an individual’s passing, or have been completely suppressed and made unavailable to scholars. And keep in mind this is the situation with what we regard today as the most privileged of the modernists. I highly recommend Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (2020) as an in-depth, and poignantly personal examination of many of these issues and their effects on scholars and their scholarship. 

But once again all of these repressive dynamics are multiplied many times over in the case of many non-white artists. Just consider how the Langston Hughes estate to this day vehemently denies that the lifelong bachelor poet, widely accepted to be queer, was anything but completely heterosexual. There have been so many times I’ve come across a citation of a non-white artist I’d like to feature, and the only evidence of their work I can find are several low-res images posted on an auction website fifteen years ago. This scarcity is a source of constant frustration. 

One way I’ve tried to counter this is by embracing the international scope of modernism, and one of the greatest pleasures in my self-education through this account is discovering and researching a number of queer artists from all parts of the globe, and looking into what modernism meant in, say, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, or Buenos Aires. But this also comes with its own material difficulties: I’ve spent countless hours picking through mediocre automatically generated Google translations. So much queer research entails “reading between the lines,” learning how to spot and decipher certain types of silences and omissions, recognizing specific terms, or knowing enough about the milieu to make an educated guess. I think some of my followers would be surprised at how many hours of research sometimes goes into what seems like a relatively simple post. Even the most basic details can sometimes be difficult to track down, and sometimes it’s just literally not possible to. Thankfully this situation is constantly improving and I’m excited for all the discoveries ahead as more and more material comes to light. 

What direction would you like to take the @queer_modernisms Instagram account in the future? What are your goals? Are you working on any projects or have plans for projects in the future? 
In short: I’m not exactly sure! I have a lot of ideas, and an endlessly growing list of names, topics, and works to research and post about, but the fact of the matter is that this is a hobby I do for fun in my free time, and so the factors of “real” life directly affect how much time and attention I can devote to the account at any given time. But my overall goal continues to be twofold: first and foremost, it needs to continue being pleasurable and intellectually fulfilling on a personal level, while also having broader interest and appeal to those who follow the account. I still have my thesis on The Young and Evil that remains unfinished, and it’s my immediate goal to get that completed and submitted and that second degree finally finalized. But I’ve received more than a few suggestions of what I could do with the content of @queer_modernisms, and I’m open to all of them. But I have no set expectations or goals at this time, and right now that’s actually a very exciting thing.

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