Smash Pages Q&A: Monalesia Earle

The scholar and researcher discusses her new book, ‘Writing Queer Women of Color: Representation and Misdirection in Contemporary Fiction and Graphic Narratives.’

Monalesia Earle is a British based scholar and researcher and the author of the new book Writing Queer Women of Color: Representation and Misdirection in Contemporary Fiction and Graphic Narratives. Her analyses of comics like Sexile/Sexilio and My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness are insightful and thought provoking, finding ways to consider not just representation but the depictions of power dynamics, elision and how comics can illuminate and depict liminal spaces.

It’s an incredible work of scholarship, and Earle was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I grew up in New York, so my cultural soundtrack wasn’t all that different from the “Oofs!” “Pows!” “Zings!” and “Zowies!” of comic books. I was a really shy kid and always felt that if I could step into the pages of a superhero comic book, I would become more confident and change the direction of my life. But as I left childhood behind I stopped reading comics and instead turned my attention to more “grown up” reading. I did not revisit my early love of comics until decades later when I took a graduate course where a graphic narrative happened to be on the reading list. I was hooked all over again because I saw the potential for someone like me, a queer woman of color whose story would always feel fragmented, to “re-ink” myself back into the historical frame.

I was intrigued by your book because I did like the idea of looking at how fiction and comics addressed similar issues, but reading your introduction, it sounds like one reason you did that was because you struggled to find enough graphic novels that centered on queer women of color.

You are correct in thinking that the over-arching impetus for my work was the lack of representation of queer women of color in graphic narratives. I found that in ways similar to how white-centric industry norms promote a reality that positions their ideals at the forefront of the hegemonic frame, by controlling the comics industry and elevating the work of white artists, by default, the system continues to marginalize and denigrate what it perceives as an incompatible “Other.”

Yet at the start of my research I had not fully conceived of the relationship between literary fiction and graphic narratives as a form of sympathetic protest or perhaps as a reimagining of our “Othered” selves. But when I started thinking about the similarities in structure between the two forms, I felt that I had found a way to link together the seemingly disparate liminal spaces between fiction and graphic narratives, by using the gaps and gutters to coax forth a dialogue of recognition that had historically been suppressed.

Running through the book, you’re considering these books through two lenses, misdirection and signifying. And I wonder if you could talk a little about this, because I feel like these are terms a lot of people might not recognize but they do know what they are.

I don’t think one can talk about lack of representation, invisibility, marginalization, or any of the other systemic forces that conspire to erase the voices and realties of people of color, without understanding the very “performances” of survival engaged in for millennia by the oppressed. As I discuss in my book, there is a long tradition of performing resistance through the signifying act of misdirection. In Black culture in particular, and out of necessity, we have become skilled at reorienting or redirecting the white heteronormative gaze away from its hostile intent upon our queer black bodies. So in coming up with a definition of what I, as a queer woman of color, meant by misdirection, I described it as a “signifying strategy defined by the contexts through which it seeks to effect perceptual shifts.” Now signifying is an entirely different conversation in its own right, although I don’t think one can master misdirection without understanding its connection to signifying. So in my book I explained the two terms like this: “Whereas misdirection simultaneously obscures and even impertinently performs the trickery behind the riddle, ‘signifying…’ exposes the contradictions inherent in cultural productions of ‘difference’ by locating those very contradictions through a signifying frame of black representation.”   

One of the books you talk about as an example of this is Nella Larsen’s great novel Passing. And it’s a book that deals with a lot of overlapping issues of race and gender, and about these interlocking systems.

During my research I had initially passed over Larsen’s work, which is ironic because the act of “passing” in itself can be perceived as an act of defiance, of insurrection, of protest. But it is also an act of denial that erases us and props up the construction of whiteness (and its benefits), as the ideal to which we should all aspire to. And while Larsen did not explicitly use the language of misdirection in her book in relation to the act of passing out of one’s race and into another, what she vividly described was the intentional act of averting the white-centric gaze away from her “Otherness” in order to live in a world that “saw” her as simply a human being. In other words, Larsen “signified” or “performed” her humanity against a construct that had rendered her as incomplete. This is also what misdirection is meant to do; allow those who hold some level of power over us to peer into their own “otherness” and recognize a kinship that exceeds the limits of our imagination. That is in fact what comics and literature are meant to do and each, through their imagery and words and spatial permutations, signal or signify or reorients us back to our human kin. 

You also coined the term “Phallocentric rings,” which I think was quite good. Could you just explain what it is and how you think that graphic narratives can really depict it?

As I wrote in my book, when we operate from a place of creative strength that draws upon the very interstices and gaps where intersecting oppressions have historically conspired to keep the masses in a constant narcotized state, we can drill down into the “physical” structure of heteropatriarchy by visualizing a system of “phallocentric rings.” Doing so enabled me to open up a different critical pathway to interpreting how interlocking oppressions encircle and bind women and how using misdirection to break free of these phallocentric entrapments, might enable queer women of color to reimagine ourselves as agents in our own creative spaces. 

But it was only after my book was published and I started giving readings, that I realized I should have inserted a visual tie-in to the chapter on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel, as a way of explaining how I visualized the symbiotic relationship between race, religion, and reproduction. The idea was to offer a visual deconstruction of patriarchy that tied into the properties of the “gutter” in comics. So I came up with this image. 

How did you end up focusing on these books? What was the appeal and interest in them for you?

My primary goal was to find books by, and/or about, queer women of color that effectively positioned us meaningfully back into the historical frame. Also, within the pages of each book that I chose, the narrative and structural arcs lent themselves to things that had been left unsaid or completely erased. In other words, the stories in these books were told in such a way that I could not interpret them fully without an additional “language” to help peel back the complex layers. Thus, the stories themselves almost demanded a kind of excavation that the formal structures of comics and literary fiction alone, could not deliver. Also, at one time or another in my life, each book expanded my understanding of my own queer identity and how this intersects in different ways with broader cultural discourse.

There’s a way that from the beginning, comics and superheroes have always been about passing and codeswitching, secret lives and secret identities. Even for people not making or studying superheroes, those concepts and some of the visual language is always there, which I think is interesting.

I wonder if for some readers the allure of superhero comics is actually about the power that inheres in having the luxury of not being seen. The privilege of not being seen means your existence is a given; it is the norm against which everything else in the world is defined. It means that whiteness never has to be seen in order to exist, whereas blackness is always in a state of being “unseen” or “other-seen” in service to whiteness. In other words, if one critiqued early comics through the lens of American paternalism, we’d have to acknowledge that those superhero comics were in fact more about the erasure of blackness through prominent displays of whiteness. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman… all of those characters represented the privilege of unquestioned “passing” through both physical and liminal spaces.

Since you started working on the book, have you started seeing more work that you could have written about? 

I don’t think anyone could claim they’ve seen a recent explosion in graphic narratives being published by, or about, queer women of color. At least not in mainstream commercial markets. However, because the Internet is more or less an uncontrolled democratic space where anyone can have a voice, I have definitely seen more amazing work from writers and illustrators of color. However, because my research focused exclusively on comics as autobiography and its relationship to literary fiction, I think that I would still struggle to find graphic memoirs that could have been included in my book. But in the area of literary or experimental fiction, there have been a few titles that I would have enjoyed writing about, such as: Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn; Anissa Gray’s The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls; and Alexis De Veaux’s Yabo, which is intriguing.

I’ve seen more comics by and about queer women and women of color in recent years, but as you pointed out, they’re not books from big publishers. You mention a number of creators in your book, but they don’t have book length projects from major publishers. There is still a huge gap and I’m not sure most publishers are even conscious of it.

You know, the skeptic in me thinks that mainstream publishers are very aware of the lack of representation of queer voices of color in the industry. And while there are some amazing scholarly works out there that take an unapologetic look at the history of our erasure from the sequential frame, and of our efforts to re-ink ourselves back into existence, cultural productions of comics and graphic narratives continue to be dominated by a white, hetero-centric industry. Rebecca Wanzo, Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, Sheena C. Howard, Qiana Whitted, Gateward and Jennings, have all written extensively on these issues relevant to the absence, and/or caricature of black voices in comics. However, the fact that these scholars are still addressing this absence suggest that there continues to be little opportunity for our authentic voices to be fairly represented in mainstream markets.

Kabi Nagata’s book and Jaime Cortez’s are two books that I feel like everyone who read them seemed to fall in love with them; sadly not enough people have read them.

I really enjoyed both books, and I agree that more people should read them. But Kabi Nagata received a lot of attention among manga lovers for her first graphic narrative, which she followed up with My Solo Exchange Diary Vol. 2. And Jamie Cortez has won numerous awards and has an extensive catalogue of art and writings, with his most recent work being a collection of short stories due for publication in late 2020, I believe.

What’s next for you? Have you started thinking about your next project? Other topics you’re interested in exploring?

I talk briefly in my book about “diversionary reframing,” which is a strategy often used by politicians to divert attention away from topics they do not wish to discuss or be held accountable for. So I had thought about writing a monograph on that subject, because in this very frightening time of suffering through the petulance of a madman in the White House, we cannot afford to allow our attention to be constantly turned away from the very real dangers he and his political lackeys have orchestrated. But many people have already published extensively on the unstableness of this guy, so I have come back around to possibly writing a monograph exclusively on the subject of misdirection as a signifying strategy in its own right. I think it would be an incredible experience to co-author a piece with someone like Emil Ferris, for example, because she knows where the real monsters lurk and talk about signifying, wow!  

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