Title: A Conversation


In: Sport 17: Spring 1996

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 1996, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Literature

Conditions of use



    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 17: Spring 1996

Sara Knox & Elizabeth Knox — A Conversation

page 4

Sara Knox & Elizabeth Knox

A Conversation


Sara might like to explain her flat.


I live with five perverts of various kinds. All identify as perverts—I suppose I'm one of them but I don't feel much like a pervert at the moment…

She's feeling a little peaky at the moment. She's a peaky pervert.

In my flat are two leatherworkers, a dominatrix, one maker of models and me, a university lecturer—in charge of young minds.

Sara is at the top of the house.

Precisely because it is less carnivalesque, and isn't associated with the lower realms, the kitchen, the bathroom, all the noise and hubbub. Not necessarily a house conducive to serious brainwork—of an academic nature, she hastily added.

This business of being a pervert—I get this interesting reaction when called upon to explain you. I say ‘My sister is a queer’ or I say ‘She's a dyke’ or I say ‘She's a lesbian’—depending on who I'm talking to and how familiar I think they might be with the different usages. Sometimes I just start, ‘She's wild, she's freakish’ then go on to describe the lifestyle, the leather and the sadomasochism, fetishism and so forth, all in the wonderful detail I like to collect—the anthropological stuff—as if you are part of an exotic and insufficiently documented ethnographic group.

The anecdotal stuff.

The conversation will go on, then the person might ask about some story, ‘Is that because Sara is a lesbian?’ And I realise the Sara I'm talking about is being taken as representative of lesbians. Then I do this double-take and find myself explaining that in my description the lesbianism isn't the essential thing.

page 5

I think it's rather difficult but I suppose one could find a lesbian more or less representative of lesbians.

Well, no, I don't think you necessarily can. But I think it's interesting that when I'm talking to some people I realise I'm producing an example that they are going to take as being representative. It's a bit of a worry.

I'm sure it is. There's a lot of lesbians who wouldn't like to have me taken as representative of them. But, just for reference sake, I don't use the word ‘dyke’ any more. I no longer feel comfortable with it because it represents a time and place I've moved away from. Not without found memories. Like that wonderful group, Angry Women, which was supposed to be a secret terrorist feminist group and everyone knew who was in it. But that was Wellington as much as anything else …

The black balaclava knitting circle.

Yeah, yeah, that one—toilet-bombing in theatres and that kind of crap. But I'm not the person I was then. Or ‘I'm not that person any more’—to do your book.

So you're not a secret activist, you're a private person.

Well, there's that business of having a sexuality that is identifiably a sexuality, as opposed to everyone else's sexuality which is just taken as read—then you are obliged to make a public persona of that sexuality. That's the politics of it. Which means you end up with reductions and characterisations and caricature.

Do you think this is the case with the perverts too?

Well again it's a case of can you find a representative pervert?

No, I mean do you find you have the same characterisations and self-characterisations?

Yes, because every vanguard creates its own norm. Or every out-group can be even more viciously normative or normalising than large groups that don't give a shit.

There's an enormous amount of relaxed latitude, in terms of identity, in being ‘heterosexual’—once you're an adult, that is. We all cop the early normalising. Being part of a majority is generally very peaceful.

page 6

I might add there are heterosexual perverts.

Yes, you have one in this flat.

Indeed—one. One of the advantages of ‘queer’ is it gets away from the dichotomy of the ‘gay and straight’. You have ‘straight’ and ‘queer’—which can mean all sorts of things and one can be put into what many people consider the less-than-savoury company of paedophiles, for example. But then again I'm not going to dismiss paedophiles out of hand.

Why's that?

It depends.

What does it depend on?

On who and what age they are.

Oh, are you stretching the boundaries of ‘consenting adults’?

Conceptions of adulthood. I wouldn't want to lend support to any kind of abusive relationship. But the analysis of consent is problematic. That's a whole issue in itself. This is the problem, you see, when you try to aggregate things into a queer issue, it's assumed there is some kind of thematic, some kind of sensibility that is going to relate one thing to another—and there just isn't any such thing.

So this is one of the problems with producing a queer issue of a magazine. A problem of classification. Of course classification is always a problem.

Indeed. Whether it is going to be marginalised by being classified. And really who wants to be known as a ‘queer writer’ and what it would mean to be known as a ‘queer writer’. And are you a queer writer because your work appears in an issue called a queer issue?

And are you a queer writer because of what you do with your body or because of what your writing does?

There's all that stuff, like the vilifying discourse about AIDS, that said there are certain ‘risk groups’, to which the answer is that it's not about who you do but what you do. About practices but not identities. But then sometimes you have to go back to a group which has to identify itself by its activities, as gays and lesbians traditionally page 7 have, because they've either been legally or socially disavowed. Practices and identities are inextricably linked. Which is why people look for content to identify things.

Which is why if you have no practices you have no identity. Like the person who is celibate for no religious reason.

Doesn't partake of an authorising sense of what is sexual. They are a misnomer.

Really out of it.

Or they're stamped with that ‘asexual’ tag.

Yeah, people say ‘It's obviously just not important to you’—that kind of thing. To not do is to not be.

With all that stigmatising stuff like frigidity. Or they end up in the New Age—‘I'm going to claim this as my own territory, I can't be bothered with all that, I've had relationships blah blah blah.’ Staking out your own ground and bugger everyone else. Well—not literally bugger them. But, you know, you can't get away from the practices defining people. It always comes down to who's practising the practices—for instance, there's a statute in Colorado that forbids everybody from engaging in anal/oral contact but the only people who are prosecuted under the statute are queers. The practice itself is forbidden, but it's a specific group who are penalised.

Then the statute is really there to deal with that group.

Not necessarily, a lot of it comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition—that any sexual practices that don't lead to procreation are proscribed. Equally, for a long time and the same reasons masturbation was forbidden, verboten and a bad, bad thing. There's that religious residue. But on the other hand it might now be less easy to be queer than it was 150 years ago because 150 years ago—

Less people were aware of what exactly they were looking at and disapproving of.

That's indeedly true.

Indeed-diddly-deedy. Used to be you'd have the funny old spinsters living together down the road. Funny old Aunty Ernie and funny old Aunty—

page 8

—Bert. Anyway, are you going to ask me why this isn't a queer issue?

Well, Sara, why isn't this Sport a queer issue?

We didn't get enough—what's that word beginning with C?


Yeah, contributions. The people I solicited—oops, that's not the right way to put it—the people whose work I solicited had, for one reason or another, all their recent stuff committed elsewhere. They were very busy with their own things. And there was some other work that was submitted that was obviously queer, by whatever criteria you want to judge it—well, queer in content that is—and it just wasn't right for Sport. I just plain didn't like it enough, I suppose, that's certainly part of it. There wasn't enough even if we'd accepted it—

But Sport 17 was always going to be queerish—

Yeah. And, as it is it has queer smatterings, like most issues of Sport.

That's exactly right.

And who knows, maybe that's a better way of doing things, after all we are a smattering, although a substantial smattering.

It's often interesting to look at literary magazines and anthologies from an ideological angle, but the ‘choices’ come down to hard practicalities sometimes—like that there was, only a short while ago, a queer issue of Meanjin, which sucked up some of the good stuff. And in New Zealand there are, I think, two anthologies of queer writing being put out, or put together.

Meanjin was put together from general solicitation, I think. There were two editors and they had filing cabinets full of submissions they couldn't use and probably didn't want but had to wade through—it must have been hell for them and it's a great credit to them that they produced what they did—and a credit to their contributors of course. In Sport's case, because it's a New Zealand magazine and I'm in Australia, I was doubly bound—it was hard to hustle New Zealand, or sell Australian writers on Sport. Plus I'd just started a new job. All that.

And also Sport was just continuing to run itself, in that word hadn't got round the community of writers that the next issue was queerish— page 9 so the usual people kept on firing things off to Sport—which we do like them to. And we got ‘non-queer’ things that were too good to hold over for 18, especially since we had set out to be queerish—

The usual people. Stuff was already being considered. And I wasn't in New Zealand and couldn't easily keep nagging the queer writers.

And you're not enough of an old trouper regarding nagging. Even Fergus finds it hard to nag—

Right. Equally, I've only been in Australia for four years and haven't done the queer literary scene over here—however it is one does that. I don't know a lot of, well, it seems to me that the writers here I do know are ex-pats and pretty oversubscribed anyway. Also I have questions about the quality of the work anyway—of what gets called ‘queer lit’. I know that's a deeply inflammatory statement but—

Give me a few thoughts on that.

Well—navel-gazing, something like that whole sense of ‘what is the 90s babe?’ You know. But I can't keep saying ‘you know’.

No you can't, because I might know but, you know, we're having ‘a conversation’.


But I don't know that I do know, so—?

Well, the self-reverential. The reverence towards ‘Us’ and what ‘We’ know, and to what is perhaps an agreed-upon territory of interest, like the insides of nightclubs, or—

The classic coming-out story.

Or ‘two girls who manage to breast adversity and find each other’. All the stories about being queer.

I have to say—that because imagination isn't a property that everyone holds equally and in common, you get exactly the equivalent kind of ‘I've seen this story before’ in stories from the big pool of stuff usually sent to literary magazines.

Yeah. And you get the position that, like in America, the Lambda Prize goes to somebody other than Dorothy Allison because they decide that her writing wasn't queer enough—the thing she entered page 10 wasn't about being lesbian.

Yeah, she's a lesbian and the story is about being human.

Something like that. You get hit both ways. In theory one could be straight and write a queer story.

Witi Ihimaera might say I had—in part.

Yeah. You invent something in which the characters are queer.

It comes down to that stupid spurious thing, that old adage that you have to write about your own experience, as if we don't experience our imaginations. And in our culture, sexuality is one of the popular defining things—the experience of experiences. For myself, when I make up people I don't think ‘Oh, so and so's going to be straight, and such and such will be queer’. I start somewhere else, somewhere more essential to their ‘character’ than what they vote or who they sleep with. Those things are essential to us. These people, I make them up, they are the people I make up, and they're not real.

And who's to say, anyway, that we don't have the experience of other people's experiences.

Yes. And considering how little experience I do have—I can still choose to write about anything.

Yeah, like Kim Hill saying you'd be fascinating writing about taking the top off a hot water bottle.

But I have taken the tops off a few hot water bottles.

Yes, you have profound experiences of hot water bottles.

Another theory of mine about the difficulty of soliciting for literary magazines now—in New Zealand—is to do with the increased professionalisation of writing. Creative New Zealand seems to have organised itself very effectively in its role as overseer. Which is to say that it influences the shape of things in that the career writers are doing less serendipitous writing because they are concentrating their time and energy into projects for which they have been funded, or for which someone else has been funded and they've been commissioned. People are working on what they said they'd work on, or working toward what they hope to be funded for.

page 11

In these overworked, disobliging financial times.

I presume this is true of the queer writers.

Yes. And many of the queer writers I know are also in academia—and academia is getting so screwed down that no one has the time to take a shit these days, let alone write something. It's a difficult time for the production of anything on the off-chance. Of course you still have activity at the young and/or starting level.

Ah, but where are those perfectly turned little things. How would a Charles Lamb survive?

It's not an age for perfectly turned little things.

It should be too.

Yes, it should be. And if it wasn't for the little things the world would fly apart.

And that—folks—is why it isn't a queer issue.

They can always blame it on the editor.

They always do. But they'll probably bleep right over the editor and talk about Fergus. Yeah, it's a Sport. And it's occupying a space in which something else would appear if we gave it up, which is what we cheer ourselves up with. ‘Give up Sport, something else will appear in its place. It's just evolutionary.’

Well, I think next time I do something I'd like to be in the same country in which it's happening. That's all I can say.

Anyway, I think you've got a good issue together. And some of our difficulties are purely a reflection of the fact that everyone is working so hard these days. If the Statistics Department says that a third of the working population is working between 50 and 60 hours a week then we are living in times in which there is less time for reflection, and less for serendipity, and less for art. And, as Steve Braunias says: ‘Everyone is getting stupider and that's got to be good for the economy.’