13. Inventing an Archive

By Caoimhe Harlock

What can our official histories tell us about ourselves? Shola von Reinhold’s debut novel, LOTE (2021), suggests that one answer is: very little. When Mathilda, the protagonist of the novel, finds a century-old photograph of an unidentified young Black woman on the arm of British socialite Stephen Tennant, she turns to the archive for answers. Who is this person? And why has Mathilda, who is obsessed with the Bright Young Things of 1920s British literary and artistic society, never heard of her? Yet the archive offers only further confusion. Primary sources from the period either elide the young woman entirely, or refer to her via demeaning racialized epithets. While this phantom in the archives offers a mystery that catalyzes the narrative of LOTE, I suspect von Reinhold understands that, in practice, such experiences with archives are hardly mysterious—or even uncommon.1

One of the first things marginalized researchers in the humanities discover is that the choices about who and what materials are important enough to include in archives, and how that material will be presented, actively works to nullify non-whiteness and queerness. Mathilda’s mysterious woman, whom she eventually identifies as a forgotten queer Black poet, Hermia Druitt, has been reduced in the archival narrative to her position contra whiteness, a curious ornament on the otherwise overwhelmingly white edifice of the period. In my own scholarly research, where I’ve sought to draw out the transgender resonances of works by authors such as Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, or Djuna Barnes, I’ve encountered decades of cisnormative scholarship that acknowledges such resonances only as aberrations. The historicizing process by which archives are assembled in the first place ultimately reifies a status quo of stable, unshifting gender.

When von Reinhold, themselves a Black nonbinary author, says in this month’s episode of Novel Dialogue that they dislike the phrase “bringing to light” as a way of describing the process of excavating forgotten figures of the archive like Druitt, I feel like I understand their sentiment. It is not that Black or trans people who shaped culture have been lost in the shadows, but rather that the light already brought to bear on them looks directly at the Druitts, Halls, and Barnes of the past and lies about who they were. Mathilda’s and my experiences are distinct, but both point to a similar process of erasure in which the archives themselves are more than complicit.

It is for this reason that turning to the archive to restore lost histories and recenter previously marginalized figures is, at best, a fraught proposition. The struggle isn’t simply that the archive lacks relevant material, but that the material it does possess is perpetually read via a process of misrepresentation and reduction. Von Reinhold’s novel addresses the failure of efforts to restore or recenter head-on.  It expresses a queer desire to locate ourselves not in the assimilationist annals of history, but in “another space which is not about championing the thing that speaks against you… but instead about showing your ability to embody the fantasy regardless, in spite of, to spite…” (161). LOTE succeeds for me primarily because it is not another research project seeking to locate marginalized figures in a white historical structure (and, in doing so, grant primacy and legitimacy to these structures).

As an act of fiction, LOTE recognizes the insufficiency of archive and history as a home for the marginalized. The “magical, illogical processes” of invention by which Reinhold characterizes the writing of their novel are much better suited to a task of recovery which, if contested on the stabilizing grounds of institutionalized history, is already lost. When LOTE turns to the archives, it brings to bear the force of invention as an antidote to our very notions of historical stability. Novels like this speak not only to a future of greater sensitivity and the re-centering of the marginal, but to the incomplete past offered by the archive and its institutions. And, through that act of speaking to the past, they reshape the present in a direct and vital way. Hermia Druitt exists now, thanks to Reinhold; but then again, she always has.

1 I’d love to ask von Reinhold for their take on Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, the 1992 film which shares a similar premise and undertakes similar metafictional and inventive strategies to tell its story.

Photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash

Caoimhe Harlock is a writer and artist. Her stories and comics have appeared in Evergreen Review, Gathering of the Tribes, and Honey Literary. Her academic work is on transsexuality and spirituality in 20th century American fiction. She lives in Durham and sometimes gets up to witchy things.

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