British Association for American Studies


Book Review: The Queerness of Native American Literature by Lisa Tatonetti

Throughout November 2015, U.S. Studies Online will be publishing a series of posts to mark Native American Heritage Month. In this post, Professor Joy Porter (University of Hull) reviews The Queerness of Native American Literature by Lisa Tatonetti.

Lisa Tatonetti. The Queerness of Native American Literature. 278pp. University of Minnesota Press, 2014. $25

At one point within dominant Western traditions the role of the literary critic came to be thought of as superior to that of the artist. The artist created Beauty but this in turn allowed the critic to be creative. He could then hear a strange new music – what Oscar Wilde called the ‘whispers of a thousand different things which were not present in the mind of him who carved the statue or painted the panel or carved the gem’. Today, a thousand different things which may or may not have been present in the mind of the indigenous literary artist are present as never before in critical terms. The critic of indigenous writing, striving to help writers see the significance of their own efforts, wrestles with a giant and revolutionary set of imperatives. These prioritise the fundamental kinship between what the world deems to be literary and what it recognizes as sovereign in political, legal and intellectual terms. As a result, critics and artists writing in non-indigenous languages regularly re-examine their tools as they circle, address and re-address the challenge that has always characterized indigenous writing in English: how can a diverse set of writing variously intent upon the decolonisation of the imagination thrive within a cultural form that is itself profoundly implicated in the colonial project?

If we are at all troubled by this conflation of the literary and the political, we should remember that for literary criticism, it was ever thus. As T.S. Eliot explained, the job of the critic is to deal with the world as it ought to be, not with how it is. Rather than reinscribe the old, the critic’s must serve as midwife to the new. She  dwells in possibility. Yet, the new consciousness currently being called forby indigenous critics and writers is terrible in its beauty. Its fullest realization requires the re-invention, recontextualization or even dissolution of almost every aspect of conventional literary production in English, including the primacy conventionally awarded to the English language itself. Such a radical critical platform also underpins Lisa Tatonetti’s new book.

The Queerness of Native American Literature is  concerned with physical and political relationships to land. It argues that “queerness” is an erotic transformative methodology that in the words of the Mohawk/Scots-Irish writer Beth Brant, is capable of “merging the selves that colonialism splits apart” (p.181)  The  book’s central idea is that “Native literature was always already queer”.   This is hard to agree with not least because, as the book admits, “queerness” is difficult to define other than extremely loosely as a subjectivity that does not match dominant norms. Such a definition includes a great deal, and as it is used here encompasses lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, male lactation, non-erotic partnerships and even heterosexual identification. It also includes “Two-Spirit” people, a handsome term coined in 1990 to displace the use within anthropology of the identification “berdache” often associated with deviance. This book argues that the erotic “forges activist consciousness” and is “actually constitutive of sovereignty and Indigenous nationhood” (p.xix). The former may well sometimes be true but the latter is true not just of Indigenous nationhood but very often of just about everything else humans do. The erotic, after all,  is pretty much everywhere and is constitutive of most things, often whether we intend it to be or not.

Despite these complexities and confusions, Lisa Tatonnetti’s book remains an exceptional new reading of  an established cannon. It deserves exposure, not least as a key harbinger of change in a field still only just beginning to reveal its full literary and intellectual complexity.