A little Queerotica for your delectation (and some thoughts on accent, exotica and erotica)

by Leigh Matthews on July 26, 2015

dead author microphone queering performance as a writerOn Friday, I took part in Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival with a reading of a short piece of queer erotica at the aptly named event, Queerotica. The evening featured some amazing performances by the ever-wonderful Amber Dawn and Jillian Christmas, the phenomenal Vancouver Poet Laureate, Rachel Rose, as well as a new voice in the Vancouver writing scene (and my friend), Anastasia Clement Thornton.

Curated by another friend, Ray Hsu (@thewayofray), this fun and flirty event gave me the opportunity to hear from writers whose work I’ve not encountered before, including Chris Gatchalian, one of Vancouver’s growing list of queer writers who have won the Dayne Ogilvie prize. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the delightfully dirty work of Monica Meneghetti. Crikey, that Erotobot piece was quite something! And I’m excited to hear more from Polly Anima, who read an extract from a work in progress that was both steamy and sublime. FYI Polly, I don’t think the ship has sailed on you being a contemporary dancer!

On Looking

For the event, I wrote a piece about voyeurism, called On Looking, and produced a video short originally intended for screening at the show. Late in the day, Ray and I decided to have him read the piece instead, while I lurked in the back row and watched. We also toyed with the idea of me sitting on stage and gazing at him as he read, but in the end I decided to be entirely absent from the stage and the audience’s focus.

My intention was to play with the expectations around performance (as a writer), and to invert the typical male gaze applied to queer and lesbian erotic fiction or erotica featuring sex between women. In essence, I wanted to not only be a queer writer at the Queer Arts Festival, but to also look at how to queer the very idea of performing writing.

I was interested to see how people would react to the piece, given that they were unsure as to whether I was even in the room. What difference would it make to the experience of the piece by having it read by a man in front of an audience largely made up of queer women? Did a male voice lend the piece an otherwise absent air of authority, or would it prove distracting? By removing my own body as an object for visual consumption, and putting Ray in that space, would the piece be heard with an extra level of abstraction, with an additional layer of voyeuristic pleasure?

I was happy to hear the next reader, Monica, observe the peculiarity of the effect of having Ray, as she put it, ‘impersonate the writer’ while reading a piece about voyeurism in the absence of the author. Part of my intention was to engender this feeling of peculiarity, of distance and spectatorship, of unnerving participation as an obvious voyeur. I wonder at how many people assumed I wasn’t in the room, because surely if I was there, I’d be reading, right?

Not only did the reading afford me the opportunity to watch the audience and appreciate their reaction to the piece (something not many writers often get a chance to do), it was also enthralling to hear my work read out loud by someone else, especially by a man. I very quickly realised that I had an acute urge to direct Ray during the reading, to will him to read more slowly, more deliberately, to pause and hurry and linger and rush at the right moments. In effect, I wanted him to read the piece as I would read it, at least until I settled into the rhythm of his reading style and began to enjoy the differences in his intonation.

Sound as Meaning

Hearing Ray read On Looking made me acutely aware of how, when I write, I experience my words a certain way, rolling the sounds around my mouth and playing with the way the words communicate not just the literal meaning, but also a range of sensations to carry the reader through the work. This is something I have become more aware of in recent years through the work I do in producing scripts for North American companies. I take the time to sound out sentences to ensure that they work in an accent that is not mine, to avoid clumsy clauses and unintended puns, to wrap up nuance and emotion in the aural quality of a script.

This issue of accent is another reason why I felt inclined to have Ray read the piece. As a British person living in Canada, I am acutely conscious of how my somewhat plummy accent can, for some listeners, lend a degree of gravitas to even the most banal of utterances. I have come to realise that my accent (and by extension, I) can be exoticised and sexualised without my consent.

It’s not unusual for people to ask me to say certain words, purely for the purposes of amusement and titillation. A couple of weeks ago, while on a date, a stranger even began talking to my date about my accent as if I wasn’t present. While this was a peculiar experience, it’s not unusual for people to simply stop and stare at me when I speak, to disregard the content of my speech and focus instead on its delivery.

I have always found it immensely difficult to be the focus of anyone’s attention, at least visually, so much so that I sometimes avoid speaking in public so as to reduce the risk of being immediately othered. While I am absolutely aware of the immense privilege I have as a white, British, cisgender and able-bodied person, it remains extremely difficult in some situations to communicate effectively and efficiently when the way I speak is regarded as more important than the actual words I’m saying.

Writer as Performer

As a writer looking to connect with readers, to entertain and perhaps even inspire, I’ve been struggling in recent months with the apparent necessity and expectation for writers to engage in public performance, to offer up their bodies and voices instead of simply offering up their words. I haven’t yet found a way to manage the intense and intensifying anxiety I experience over performance, while satisfying what I see as a responsibility (not just a desire) to participate in and support the creative community. It feels as though to call oneself a writer it is no longer sufficient to simply write poetry, prose or other texts. Instead, a writer must become a personality, celebrity, performer; in short, a brand.

Many of us grew up with the idea that the author is very much dead, so how do we reconcile this absenting of self, of ownership, from the public iterations of our work when, to access the creative economy, we must now add ourselves back in so overtly, so conspicuously?

Ursula Le Guin talked in her speech at the National Book Awards last November about the dangers of “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write,” or, as the writers of this piece put it, “Artistic resignation in the name of pragmatism.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I am highly pragmatic (possibly to a fault), but I’m also extremely resistant to the idea of becoming less a writer and more a performer of writing. How to reconcile this in the current economic and creative climate, I don’t know. I’d be grateful if the writers, readers, performers and listeners reading this could offer their thoughts.

It seems a tad odd to close this post with a reading of the queerotica itself, but if you’ve read this far, you’ve earned a little titillation.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Polly Anima August 6, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Hi Leigh,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ve just listened to your reading of “On Looking” and enjoyed it very much. There’s something riveting about hearing the voice of the author that has nothing to do with accents. I was equally engaged by the Queerotica reading , with the sense of your presence in the room, not just as a voyeur, but a witness to the sharing of your internal landscape. I really appreciated the variety in styles of delivery, it kept the evening feeling lively and authentic.

I come from the other side of the fence with regards to performance (ex-peformer). I love the simplicity of reading my own work without the trappings of a full fledged production, or the effort of collaborating with numerous other. It’s a selfish and immediate happy medium for me.

The configuration of bodies in space, audience and focus of attention (reader) demands a heightened delivery on some level, from my perspective. Consuming words on a page in private, converting them to sound in my mind or a mumble on my lips is a completely different experience to having those same words fill a room for collective consumption. A theatrical /performative approach is designed to translate and hold the attention of a large mass, in way that would seem ridiculous if you and I were alone in a room for example. Intimacy becomes harder and harder to maintain as the size of the audience increases. Perhaps it’s this exponential requirement for exaggeration that sits uncomfortably or understandably feels unnatural? That said, the cliche of the shy poet shuffling sheets of paper and staring at their shoes as they read, can be equally charming, as it reminds me of how much courage it takes to share and expose oneself in this way. I guess ultimately it’s about bringing something of yourself to your performance, (whatever that looks like for you).

From a cruder perspective, this perhaps fits into notions of “shaking what your Mama gave ya”. Yes, your accent is novel, exotic to some, a bit posh to others, but captivating nonetheless. Are you denying your inherent performative edge by referring to your accent as an “issue”? Now I’m horribly curious to see & hear you read your piece in person, perhaps one day with your full permission to exoticise and sexualise you, as you willingly take your place centre stage for my pleasure and entertainment.


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