A soft conclusion to the project + notes from an article I wrote
When I first set out to record oral history interviews of Philadelphia’s lesbian community, I wasn’t sure where it would lead me. It’s been over a year since I started. In 2020, the project hit a lull when I was prevented from traveling back for more interviews (first: pandemic, second: expiring visa). As with most things over the past year, I don’t have the time or the energy necessary to do with this project what I thought I would, like create a full-fledged website or podcast series. This project has been complicated and very different to the journalistic reporting I’ve done. Its pace has been self-oriented, but its scope and ambitions have always been (in their ideal at least) community-oriented. Over the course of corresponding with and meeting all kinds of people for this project, I’ve started to wonder about its purpose and futurity. It seems difficult for me alone to find a form that would preserve this project while also preserving the privacy and individual wishes of those who lent their time to share their stories. At the same time it seems to be something for which I can’t find a satisfactory end. There is always more to do, more people to find, and yet the space to do it feels small.
As I was reflecting on my next steps a few months after leaving the United States, I came across and reviewed a new book by Cait McKinney, Information Activism. The book details the work of “information activists” in lesbian history—people who volunteer in community archives, start newsletters to connect with other lesbians in academia, or spend their evenings working hotline shifts for queer people looking to speak to others like them. You can read the full article at The Nation (which has a paywall) here, and I’ve also written some notes and reflections below:
On the “tyranny of abundance”: Community archives and history projects can be overwhelming and immense. Projects that begin from a place of scarcity and lack can grow into overflow, as every scrap and piece of ephemera is collected and preserved. The marginalized hold much respect for marginalia.
On archiving and information organization as life- and movement-sustaining work: The creation of networks, indexes, and hotlines predate the internet. People have always needed to find their people. McKinney argues that the work of connecting people to information is akin to care work, and has been similarly devalued in movement spaces despite its necessity.
On archiving as future-oriented work: Archiving requires imagining a future subject for whom this present has value. In their book, McKinney cites José Esteban Muñoz, the theorist who wrote Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. In his words: “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.”
Reading McKinney’s work and learning about other projects with similar scopes to my own (like DC Dykaries, or Last Call) made me think of the actual purpose of my project—which I don’t think is completion in the sense of a polished final form. Despite the disjointed nature of 2019–21 in the broader world as in my own life (six moves, five cities, two countries) the project has given me an unexpected home, shared with people I would have never met otherwise and in most cases only physically spoke to once. I came to the US as a student and never interacted with anyone much outside my age group except in a professional or academic context. Over the course of this project I met with people who sensed we had something in common, or who were bemused that I was taking an interest in this subject—and their lives!—in the first place. When we spoke on the record I tried to minimize the extraneous sound picked up by my recorder so I held back my instinctive “oooh!”s and “right”s and instead tried to communicate with expressions, with nods, with sparse questions injected with empathy. But with the recorder turned off we also talked about my own life, about their family, about how we had both found ourselves in Philly to begin with. I’ve left now but I am thankful for the knowledge of those that came before me. I am thankful to know that there is a future, and that we will be in it.
How to stay in touch/look at other stuff I’m doing:
Email: meerabellej (at) gmail (dot) com
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