Essay by Royce Uy
Art by Karen Zhang
Joshua Whitehead’s poetry collection, Full-Metal Indigiqueer, retells experiences of erotic kinship, internalized trauma, and the haunting against Indigenous peoples to animate a nuanced selfhood of queer Indigeneity: the Indigiqueer. According to Belcourt, discourses of reconciliation are often masculine, silencing queer and feminized voices beneath a dominant focus on resource redistribution and the spearheading of Indigenous masculinities (“Can the Other of Native Studies Speak?”). Through his centralization of the Indigiqueer, Whitehead counteracts the over-masculinization of Indigenous discourse, deterring from anachronistic and belated notions of a patriarchal, singular selfhood. His assemblage of poems demonstrates a dialogue with time; Whitehead shifts from different timelines with the Indigiqueer, constructing a present haunted by the past, embellished with lines of computer code to disrupt the colonial present. It is through this timeplay1Ahmed Ragab introduces the concept of timeplay in his book review, Eliminate the Muslim, critiquing the belated constructions of the post-colonial identity within Iraq+100, a collection of short stories., where time is made malleable and unstable, I argue that a transtemporal consciousness of time forms an Indigiqueer utopia, embracing the warm fuzziness of a utopic futurity: a world where our unique selves are heard, nurtured within a communal space of kinship.
In viewing Indigenous temporality, it is necessary to recognize the colonial displacement of Indigeneity, relegated to its image in the past. In his poem “mihkokwaniy,” Whitehead expresses his displeasure with the reductive notions that haunt Indigeneity:
they never meant to call her beautiful
what they meant by beauty was:
what they mean is
she is beautiful for a squaw in 1962. (99)
Rose Whitehead, his kokum, is Othered; after her death, she is subjected to a colonial autopsy, with her selfhood and beauty relegated to stereotypical images of a sexualized, substance-abusing, lowly woman. Her Othering to this image appears to be immediate, as the syntax of the descriptors is continuous and linear, without pause in subordinating her Indigeneity and womanhood into a homogenous, racist archetype. Representations of Indigenous womanhood are predetermined, inheriting of “pollution,” as Sontag suggests, “which is archaically identical with the non-us, the alien” (136). Indigenous femininities are dirtied, isolated away from the narratives of whiteness. She experiences a frozen temporality situated in the past, as an “object of colonialist historiography” (82), as stated by Spivak, where she has no history, muted in her localized spatiality: “a squaw in 1962” (“mihkokwaniy” 99). Her existence is contingent on re-enacting the past, experiencing a cyclical time-loop enforced by the rules of colonial code.
Whitehead links this silencing of Indigenous femininities to the Indigiqueer, in a timeline, as Belcourt describes, where “the past has never safely held up their world” (“Can the Other of Native Studies Speak?”). The Indigiqueer lives in silence, left to cope with the heteronormative present:
we only know love at night
when the daze of booze
makes us expert orators
when there is liberty to touch;
when we can fool ourselves
into wanting to become each other
as real lovers often do
“don’t look,” you said
i said, “shh”. (“the ndn river phoenix” 84)
Set out in a night of sex, the Indigiqueer’s sense of intimacy and love are fleeting, contingent on the privacy of the darkness. They are Subalterned in their Indigeneity, defined by a historiography that exists in, what Butler calls, a “state of deadness” where “certain lives are not considered lives at all, they cannot be humanized” (33-34). Their queerness, however, positions them in a further Subalternity among the Subalterned, especially as predominant discourses often “attach masculinity to the decolonial future to potentially repudiate queer life as such” (Belcourt “Can the Other of Native Studies Speak?”). The Indigiqueer’s further Subalternity among the Subalterned does not mirror the complete silencing of the Subalterned in the colonial space; rather, they live in a fleeting temporality, with a human Indigeneity, but an invisible queerness, only accessible in private. This fragmented selfhood of conflicting existence renders queerness subliminal: to exist , but not realized as real, forced to an expression limited to the confines of an enacted intimacy, a performance of “real lovers,” and literal invisibility. As a result, Whitehead displays the manifestation of this oppression, requiring a “daze of booze” to quell the pain; in a state of altered consciousness for the Indigiqueer to survive in the toxicity of the heteropatriarchy.
Whitehead links how the Subalterned re-emerges in decolonizing spaces with the Indigiqueer, retelling and disrupting the atrocities of the past to subdue the historical amnesia towards the traumatic making of the Americas. He reiterates the importance in recognizing that this haunting is ever-present, creeping, at times softly and passively, around the Subalterned:
i expend my energy
always to make another happy
& even my most liberal lovers
police my nipples & straighten my hair
expect me to look like
booboo stewart & taylor lautner
when they undress me
they want beaded fringe
sunburnt flesh; windburnt braids. (“id say ‘ill be back’ but i never intend to leave” 95)
His personal experiences of this haunting delineate the maligned notion of a linear and brute colonialism. Whitehead approaches colonialism as seeds2Kavita Philip’s essay “Seeds of Neocolonialism? Reflections on Ecological Politics in the New World Order” describes colonialism as metaphorical seeds that grow over a long period of time, not “merely one of periodization” (16), in scenes of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and anti-neo-colonialism. that grow contemporarily, haunting the Subalterned so much so that “even [his] most liberal lovers” rehearse a surveillance, policing his body to comply with Indigenous archetypes of colonial nostalgia. Whitehead invites us to visualize the pain and frustration that has the tendency to permeate Indigeneity, segregating communal ideas of kinship, of love and intimacy, degrading it to a jagged space of domination. He expresses a “rejection of the here and now” that Muñoz regards to be necessary for a queer utopia, not to “simply turn away from the present,” but to understand its relations to the past (27). This haunting is animated, exposing its transtemporal performance, “calling into view the tautological nature of the present” (Muñoz 28). Clearing ourselves from this rosy nostalgia of a perfect, utopic past, this “lumbersexual hipster liberalism” (96), as Whitehead calls it, and exposing its roots in colonial historiography is a temporally destabilizing endeavor, providing the essential tools in decimating the spectral seeds of colonialism.
To decolonize the present, however, is not to simply look at the past, but to enact the future in the now. Whitehead signals a break from a linear temporality conveyed in the erratic timeplay in his “[de]coloniallovesequence” (“id” 95). In this digital world he shifts back and forth between the past and future, centering his discontent with the present to shape the future:
will ever be able to afford again
but im sick of this script
so i eat a slice of cake
& purge it in his toilet when we get home
make sure i wash my mouth
so as not to corrode his cock
because ill need it later. (“id say ‘ill be back’ but i never intend to leave” 95)
Whitehead’s rejection of the present, of this “script,” is “propelled by a desire for futurity” (Muñoz 30). Tired of this sequence, Whitehead lays out the structures of an anachronistic present, relayed in its “hetero & homonormative” (“id” 95) notions to emphasize the need to break this time-loop; he invites us to a “s t r e t c h i n g” (“id” 95) of time, bending the normative codes of existence, asking us to play and be fluid with our selfhoods. The self, positioned in a state of de-linearity, provokes a spectral consciousness that is liberated, embracing a trans-identity imbued in a state of hybridity, merging and oscillating with each other. This movement of the self, in sequences of binary code that is played with, breaks the rigid binaries of identity, embracing our hybrid forms, as digital, as cyborg. Breaking the rules of who we can be requires kinship, where interconnectedness can be achieved outside of physicality, within the endless realm of digital pixels. Whitehead’s contemporary construction of a queer utopia moves us to free ourselves from the chains of heteronormativity and introduces us, perhaps, to a world with “better sex and more pleasure” (Muñoz 30).
This future is uncertain. Whitehead expresses an inkling of what the future might look like, a fuzziness that hints at this queer utopia. Although not completely certain, Whitehead feels a fluidity and sense of transformation in this future:
tell him: watch me transform
watch my limbs morph into grammar
language becomes syntactical tactic for transfiguration
my body infects yours. (“id say ‘ill be back’ but i never intend to leave” 96)
It is in this state of trans-ness, of a hybridized self, where Whitehead presents, what Muñoz calls, “anticipatory illuminations of the not-yet-conscious” (28). The softness in this illumination is central to creating this utopia, calling the masses to a warm kinship to nurture the growth of this utopic queerness. Whitehead “infects” others with this trans-like future, promoting the disruption of the colonially-shaped and rigid present. This fuzzy feeling of the good that is yet to come is embedded in the medium, in the language, which Whitehead plays with in meaning and form. He reclaims grammar, a “syntactical tactic for transfiguration,” creating his own meanings and rules for the future. The English language has historically been a weapon of colonial domination against the Subalterned,3Spivak notes in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” how the practice of Sati was made illegal in Britain, containing language that formed the “bad Hindu,” who was associated with savagery (97). which Whitehead attempts to disempower by centralizing his voice and experiences, creating a future where a diverse array of voices is heard.
Whitehead’s queer futurity, however, should not be mistaken as a naive, romantic utopia where oppressions of the past are nonexistent. Just as the fuzziness of an inclusive queer utopia grows, the lingering amnesia of a colonial past can potentially grow as well. In his mode of transformation, Whitehead presents the possibility of the queer future rehearsing the violence from a colonial past:
with numbers, with languages, with words
i can be a tyrant with a lacerating tongue
i can be a cyborg imperialist erasing your narrative
i can be so many things
& here you are as one
beneath me. (“id say ‘ill be back’ but i never intend to leave” 96)
What “can be” is ambiguous, with Whitehead either warning us of what this anticipatory illumination of queerness can look like, of what to avoid, or showing his desire in replaying this violence to prevent the traumas against queerness from repeating. In either instance, he invites us to think of the queer future in the present, requiring a transtemporality in thinking of the “spatial maps provided by a perception of past and future affective worlds” (Muñoz 27). This world-building is reparative, requiring Walcott’s notion of recognizing the origins of the present to be “embedded in the violent and traumatic making of the Americas” (85). To repair is not to reposition the self in an untouched, pre-settler past, but to form a hybridized selfhood that navigates itself in an unstable narrative of what can be, enacted in the present. The present and its technological developments are referenced by Whitehead, calling upon the use of technology in driving this future. Discontent towards the haunting atrocities of the past propels queer utopic discourse, especially with the accessibility of knowledge in this digital age. Whitehead plants the seeds of this utopia in us, in the “I,” where we think and enact the possibilities of what can be.
Whitehead and his work, as well as his contemporaries, such as Belcourt, represent a form of Subaltern resistance against colonial, masculinized spaces. Full-Metal Indigiqueer invites us to think of a future that is embedded in decolonization, importantly realized in its relation to the past and its enactment in the now. Whitehead touches on this fuzziness of what is to come, inviting us to play with digital and fluid forms of selfhood, of kinship, in collaborating together to build a world, this “heaven” as Belcourt puts it, where “everyone is at least a little gay” (This Wound is a World).
Belcourt, Billy-Ray. “Can the Other of Native Studies Speak?” Decolonization, www.decolonization.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/can-the-other-of-native-studies-speak/. Accessed 9 December 2022.
—. This Wound is a World. Frontenac House, 2017.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004.
Muñoz, Josté Esteban, “Queerness as Horizon” In Cruising Utopia. NYU Press, 2009, pp. 19-32.
Philip, Kavita. “Seeds of Neo-Colonialism? Reflections on Ecological Politics in the New World Order.” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, vol. 12, no. 2, 2001, pp. 3-47.
Ragab, Ahmed. “Eliminate the Muslim.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin. www.bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/eliminate-the-muslim/. Accessed 9 December 2022.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989.
Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) In Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, eds. Patrick Williams and Lauren Chrisman. Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 66-111.
Walcott, Rinaldo. “Against the Rules of Blackness: Hilton Als’s The Women and Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother (or How to Raise Black Queer Kids).” In Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean, Faith L. Smith, ed. University of Virginia Press, 2011, pp. 75-86.
Whitehead, Joshua. Full-Metal Indigiqueer. Talonbooks, 2017.
|↩1||Ahmed Ragab introduces the concept of timeplay in his book review, Eliminate the Muslim, critiquing the belated constructions of the post-colonial identity within Iraq+100, a collection of short stories.|
|↩2||Kavita Philip’s essay “Seeds of Neocolonialism? Reflections on Ecological Politics in the New World Order” describes colonialism as metaphorical seeds that grow over a long period of time, not “merely one of periodization” (16), in scenes of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and anti-neo-colonialism.|
|↩3||Spivak notes in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” how the practice of Sati was made illegal in Britain, containing language that formed the “bad Hindu,” who was associated with savagery (97).|