To open their new guest editorial, BAROQUE, Frankie Dytor talks to award-winning writer, Shola von Reinhold, about their acclaimed novel, LOTE, the radicalism of ornamentality, writing trans characters and the existence of queer Black artists and figures in the archives.
On zoom between Glasgow and Hamburg, Shola and I sat down to discuss LOTE, the novel which inspired my new series, BAROQUE. We talked about hyper-aesthetics, trans joy, and mourning in the archive. Thank you, Shola, for your time, grace and intellectual generosity throughout the interview!
As I was reading LOTE, I felt sensorially overwhelmed – it was this really heightened experience and I was wondering, if I felt that reading the novel, what was the process of writing it like?
I think it would be a lie to say anything other than that writing fiction is generally a sensory process for me and LOTE was no different. I guess how I write does issue from a sensorial place and it happens very visually. Apparently this visuality isn’t universal: I was watching an interview with Susan Sontag, who was talking about how, when she writes, she hears the words rather than sees images. That said, for me the visual means less the information side of things, and more something which is loaded with various registers of the optical – the haptic eye, the sensory eye and so on. Which has been reminding me of Tina Campt’s Listening to Images (2017) and I love the fact of these other layers of the senses – in this case, she is looking at the photographs, but she is listening-looking.
That’s so interesting, because that really reminds me of how across your work, so much of your writing takes up typically Decadent themes like the deliberate blurring of the senses, a focus on artifice but also attention to sensuality and material texture. Did you deliberately play with this in your work?
LOTE was probably less directly influenced by fin de siècle ‘Decadence’ than some people seem to think; but my curiosity with and love of certain modes and forms and ways of being that have a considerable stake in the aesthetic world do mean I end up thinking about all those typically Decadent methods you mention – but they’re (usually) not there to make it ‘Decadent’ or even just ‘decadent’. That given, I do also have more of a general interest in decadence. Both the particular movements associated with the word and other connotations of decadence including the way it’s used in art history, not to mention the way Marx uses decay to describe the stage of an economic epoch. Separate from (but overlapping) the French instantiation, it has that particular association with Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde and the decadent project stemming from Wilde-era aestheticism. The word is often used to describe anything that is deemed stylized. To go back to Sontag – and it’s weird to think how her work in the 60s is closer to the ‘belated’ decadents of the 20s than it is to us now – as well sculpting out, critically, the category of camp, she speaks of camp in another essay in terms of ‘stylization’, of which decadent work was a prime example. So there’s that as one taste category, which is cognate with the decadent. And then there are other terms like the pastoral (used in a specific sense of the word relating to the poetic convention that formally and thematically dissented from the Epic) to describe writers like Ronald Firbank. Then there are terms like baroque and rococo which, like decadent, are used in a more general sense to describe a type of art or period of art history that is stylistically involved. All of these modes share an attendant constellation: artifice, surface, ornament, beauty, excess, pleasure and so on. Subjects which resonate for me. And I usually (in my head) branch all these modes under the ‘extra-aesthetic’, the ‘extra’ obviously being completely relative – it’s always worth asking when statements like ‘over the top’ are made: over the top of what? Over the top of who: whose bland imposition? Even as more space has been sculpted out in recent years for the extra-aesthetic (in certain quarters) and the kinds of art held aloft have changed (in certain quarters), this regulation and relegation of the decorative and opulent visions persists, whether it is invisibility, simplicity, or unobtrusiveness being championed, or add to that stylelessness, harmony, evenness, order, effortlessness. Some being modes I have an interest in but they are too easily posited as ‘good’ at the expense of all kinds of deemed excesses.
So do you think that words like decadence can actually weirdly have a normative effect in that they always have to operate against the markers of the normal?
Yeah and I wonder if you can see the results of that in the fact that the very word ‘decadence’ is diluted enough to be used in copy to describe chocolate, for instance. Although what isn’t?
It’s also interesting how the word and the idea of it are used (opprobriously) in both radical and reactionary rhetoric for describing late phase cultures when things are meant to collapse, and that a marker of this stage is a preoccupation with the decorative. We’re always being reminded of these tyrannical Roman emperors who are so often described in terms of androgyny or effeminacy: in reactionary-capitalist terms, we see this logic tediously invoked for any old transphobic whim, like when in an interview C*mille P*glia suggests that trans fem people and queers suddenly manifest before the collapse of a civilisation, all of this being the corruption of a cismasculine culture and precurser to a new masculine ‘primitive’ stage, with society sweeping in to obliterate these apparently effete cultures. And obviously these assessments brush under the rug (or are entirely oblivious to), whole histories of transness and other gender categories, like third gender, which exist in the cultures they would ultimately classify as primitive. Maybe this is all so tedious it’s almost not worth engaging, but is useful in seeing how these aesthetic laws are invoked daily against trans people and queer people and still shape the contours of living, including received wisdom around taste and artmaking and what is considered measured and what is ‘superfluous excrescences.’ Oh, and we can’t separate the social conception of decadence that emerged from the trials of Wilde from the subsequent violent reception of both homosexuality and the transness in Britain which was exported colonially.
The kind of logic P*glia invokes is so omnipresent in the way that we understand taste and aesthetics, and as you say it totally obliterates histories that don’t treat the decorative and ornamental as simply excessive and superfluous. How do you deal with this problem of ornament, especially when you’re dealing with production from a Marxist point of view? Decadent art-for-arts-sake as one way of explaining ornament stems in many respects from an elitist or aristocratic tradition that doesn’t have to consider the labour involved. How can these two problems be balanced, that on the one hand the ornamental has been denigrated, but then on the other hand that ornament is also this luxury theorised by the elite?
Ornament also has a history of abject horror tied to it in relation to labour and yes, a history of elitism even as it is denigrated by the same elite. Compared to other aesthetic modes, its transgressive, radical potential and history are still neglected. ‘Good honest simplicity’ rarely needs intervening for (though people always are) because it isn’t coded as effeminate and evil in the same way, but of course simplicity has an equally abject history weaponised by the elite. As does ‘moderation’, as does ‘stylistic invisibility’, as does ‘naturalness’. Not to oversimplify, but their aesthetic benefits have long been paraded whereas the extra-aesthetic always exceeds the bounds, or it is hollow and empty – it is either too much or not enough, in ways that are racialised and gendered.
For me ornament just as much calls up other sites of production including a myriad of Yoruba arts, queer Black utilisations of the opulent found in ballroom and adjacent cultures, Black disco, various working-class domestic histories. All these offer sites where production and labour and the value of ornament is different to that of white aristo engagement, and many have been sources for an elite interest in the ornamental in the first place. I’m also reminded of the essay by Abondance Matanda called ‘The First Galleries I Knew were Black Homes’ [in Dead Ink’s essay collection Know Your Place] which really beautifully offers a Black domestic ornamental history, and then for instance work by the scholar Amber Jamilla Musser who looks at the way Black artists have used visual and sensory lustre, i.e. the ornamental, as a strategy which can be radical in its evasion of and resistance to certain kinds of legibility and one that deals with the question of commodification. Her work in turn points to the work of Krista Thompsen who looks specifically at Black cultural production by way of the ornamental category of Bling.
And ornamentality can be relational, or rhetorical or detached from the material (if anything can). And then, of course, ornament doesn’t have to be radical either. There is so much in the ornamental that can sit alongside the radical, partly because of its demoted status and partly just because of what it does, as a form. I think it becomes an off-stage world, which can harbour knowledge, histories and conversations. I always think of the ornamental dimension as this kind of sideways zone, where alterities are going on and seeds of utopia get lodged, different ways of being and experiencing the world, whether this ornament is abstract geometric pattern, braided hair, makeup, music or poetry. So yes, the production of ornament is definitely a fraught and complex problem in all its excess and beyond-ness, but there is so much there that is worth exploring.
I read LOTE as quite clearly a trans novel, and Mathilda and Erskine-Lily, to me, are trans* characters. But speaking with some (cis) readers, a lot of them missed the trans element. And reflecting on it, I guess it’s not super obvious: what I read as trans was the obsession with transfixtions, the need to change and disappear, the reluctance to talk about the past. Could you explain more about transness in the novel?
It’s really interesting, because some things have been picked up very differently between cis and trans readers. Even though LOTE tries to operate outside of certain categories, to me Erskine-Lily is unambiguously a trans character, but lots of people have just missed that. Mathilda has a more ambiguous relation to transness, and I set that into the novel, as I think that she could be read as trans, but in a way that would register differently to Erskine-Lily. It’s not something that other characters note or mention, but Mathilda is also narrating the story, so she could be controlling how we find that out and her gender isn’t really referenced. There was initially a narrator in a previous, overlapping novel who went by he pronouns, and then I changed it and Mathilda became quite a different character, using she pronouns. And at certain points I thought of her more consciously as a trans-femme character, and at other times much less consciously. When all these ripplings are happening and there is an uncertainty, I think as a writer you either have to consolidate and clarify it, or consciously let the lack of fixity persist, because it might be describing something which doesn’t have a name or is harder to name. I wanted some of that indefiniteness embedded in it: I didn’t want it to be a question of whether Mathilda is trans or not, but that something more could come out of that. So whilst her name modulations, her Escapes and social mutability can be read as part of that, they are also involved in a wider strategy of survival in relation to her queerness, race and class and other relations to the world.
Something that I have found interesting, that no-one has yet mentioned, is the prospect of Hermia’s transness, because I always wanted it to be an available reading. Particularly in the way that there are all these points of uncertainty in the book’s archive, and Hermia uses different names, and could be various people, and we don’t actually know if she is the young woman from Bearsden who goes to Paris or if that just happens to be another Afro-Scottish woman. There’s no birth certificate or death record. These archival absences are due to her race and precarity but could also be compacted by her being trans. There’s a particular point in Black Modernisms in which the author may have missed the possibility of Hermia’s transness: in the fictional appendix there is another archival finding of a young person who is given as ‘he’ and a working-class mixed-Black person from Saltcoats in Scotland who goes to Paris to study at the same school that Hermia is known to have studied at during the same period. The author of Black Modernisms could have come to the conclusion that this was the person later known as Hermia. But she doesn’t mention it. She misses it. I wanted to fold in this possibility – or actuality – that I didn’t want to be a plot twist, but instead closer to how someone might encounter transness in the archive and it’s interesting that people seem to have missed this where they have picked up Mathilda’s identity.
With Mathilda’s changing or manipulation of different identities (something Hermia does too, and Erskine-Lily as well) whether we read her as trans or not, I was thinking of how when people are considered in some way transitional, as not having a fixed identity in society, there is an expectation to pin down everything else in order to make yourself legible. And I say people considered transitional in some way by society, because that includes undocumented migrants and migrants of various kinds, and multitudinous people who otherwise aren’t as legible to the state or socially, and so in order to be legible or to be believed there is this expectation that everything else has to be fixed. And I’m interested in what happens when those things aren’t fixed.
Pearls and pearlescence come up a lot in the book. Mathilda writes transfixtions on silver cards and white ink; when Mathilda sees Erskine Lily first they are described as being dusted in fine pearlescence. Maybe it’s just me, but there is something about pearlescence that perfectly describes trans beauty. It captures in some way the ungraspability of transness, and the fact that language itself often doesn’t suffice to carry or communicate that experience, but the sensation of looking at certain objects does.
It’s actually an interest that I’ve been able to trace a little more, partly through the work of Amber Jamilla Musser and other scholars who have spoken about related concepts like ‘shine.’ We can think about shine and pearlescence as aspects of the ornamental, especially where they apply to attire, make-up and adornment, whether of the body or spaces around the body or other shiny, glitzy ways of performing. Then also synonymous with pearlescence is nacreousness and the iridescent – the symbolic orders of which are directly related to transness and queerness in LOTE by Erskine-Lily who goes on to talk about the history of the rainbow in relation to queerness and iridescence in general, like how years before the rainbow flag, iridescence already had queer connotations: peacock feathers as a longstanding decadent queer symbol with the peacock a symbol of Venus (literal Sister of Pearls and Mother of Mother-of-Pearl) who rules over so many queer things: personal beauty, love, and is the mother of very queer winged beings, all touched by iridescence, as it were. Erskine-Lily mentions queer decadent-modernist writers at the time like Stephen Tennant who wrote all his works in multi-coloured jewel inks: these 500,000 word manuscripts that he never finished. Richard Bruce Nugent as well. And so the black iridescent tincture which features was also partly tied to an idea I had that all these alchemical manuscripts with their illuminated Venusian peacocks and iridescence and visions of divine androgyny and transformative tinctures were coded recipe books for HRT or something like it.
Anyway, alongside all of these queer connotations and histories, I am also interested in the poetics of literal materials like pearl. Certain historical materialist readings say that the only reason we find pearlescence, nacre, iridescence beautiful is because of their connection to commodity culture, and all the aura of it is just an extension of that. Which I think is partly true but this still doesn’t account for an aesthetic interplay happening in the surface dimension, something poetic which can be related to but is separate from that commodity life of an object, or goes beyond it.
There are also various mentions and nods to angels in the book, who again seem like figures of transness to me, but perhaps in a slightly slippery and elusive way.
Yes, I use angels because they always seemed to offer this potential vision of gender variance throughout history: one of those things that’s right under everyone’s nose and depicted in public life but glitters very differently for a few. They are described as genderless. Not only the Judeo-Christian angel of the Renaissance but other winged figures throughout history, like the aforementioned children of Aphrodite, such as Hermaphroditos, who include what we can map onto today as certain visions of transness and have been used as symbols of non-binary gender just as much as representations of intersex people. But yes, it always seemed amusing to me that angels are described as andro’ and the fact that this finds further expression in alchemy, in the Alchemical Angel a.k.a the Divine Androgyne, as a form of divinity. This goes far beyond Europe. And I continue to be drawn to these historical sites and systems where people might have found a kind of temporary ontological refuge (or more).
I think there is this tension in the book, that the archival mode of figures like Agnes suggests that there are these histories to be found in the archive, and through this active process we can give voice to them, but the tension is that as a reader we are aware that this is an imagined story, a fantasy, and that the reality is that the archive has not only hidden certain stories and voices, but it has erased them. Do we need fantasy to write the histories of what you have called elsewhere ‘historically impermissible bodies’?
People occasionally are surprised because of LOTE’s ‘froth and frivolity’, that I have described the book as a mourning. LOTE is, in part, a mourning for all those artists and writers, all those Hermias who existed, exist now, and in the future, who didn’t make it into history due to active obliteration and historical processes of obscurement.
When I was working on LOTE, I was working quite intuitively and not thinking too conceptually about the archive but have since been brought by the book into the fold of a lot of archival discourse and scholarship, which has been fabulous because I’ve had this secondary education through being invited to talks with writers and scholars working around this field.
But I think for me, there is something in the idea of describing archival or other absences in as much detail as possible. Initially in this case the absence was someone who would have reconciled some of the modernist figures I initially encountered when I was younger because of their queerness, with aspects of my own identity. So that craving of the absence and being able to add shading to it set my own archival antennae to be really sensitive to those tiny glimpses of the absence usually in the form of various references to Black interwar modernists in Britain and these in turn allowed me to add more detail to this absence which was Hermia. So it felt like Hermia was born of all of these absences and then the subsequent presences that came out of the seeming absence. It felt like she fabulated herself out of the archive, she made herself. To me someone like her almost certainly did exist and there is a manuscript of hers somewhere, or it’s been lost, but either way that person left vestiges of herself in the world, and that is what informed LOTE. I’ve spoken before about how when you name an absence or a void, more often than not something will spring out of it. One of the uncanniest examples, is that last year, coincidentally a few months after LOTE came out, some information emerged about a Black British modernist woman called Hélène Cox who was painted by the Scottish painter called William Strang, who painted the famous Vita Sackville-West portrait. Then 10 years later there is another painting of a woman called Hélène Cox by a cubist painter, and it turns out that this woman was an artist model who also sung at the Harlequin club in Soho, and she was friends with all of the Soho cubists and London modernists, and had these connections to the Slade, like Hermia. She just sounds incredibly brilliant – she possibly faked her husband’s death to help him get out of the army and there is a letter from her to Alice B Toklas on the death of Gertrude Stein, so she was in Paris at some point and involved with the modernists there. The last thing we know about her is an address she gave at a chateau in Belgium where she had apparently taken up residence. Gemma Romain – whose research informed LOTE – co-curated an exhibition I never made it to called ‘Spaces of Black Modernism’ at the Tate, and that cubist picture was in the exhibition. But it was only the year that LOTE came out, when I saw some art historians on a forum had done some digging around her. But I wouldn’t have learnt about her if I hadn’t tried to describe this absence and written the figure of Hermia. What if Hélène Cox is the figure at the Slade who had initially inspired Hermia?
That is so powerful – I was imposing this divide between recovering material in the archive on the one hand and then fiction and fantasy on the other hand, but what you’ve suggested is a way of entwining the two – that through fiction, you are performing some kind of historical reconstruction that is intimately bound up with work in the archive.
Fabulating into an absence or drawing out something that is not in the archive can have this magnetic effect, where archival incidences will emerge.
And there’s something so alchemical about that idea!
Truly! And there are other versions of Hermia which keep emerging. I thought I would sate something with Lote, but it has really multiplied this need and I’ve thought about doing a more traditional biography about them – which almost feels treacherous, after all that talk of critical fabulation around such figures who are sites of archival absence – but I would be curious to do more research into all these queer and black figures who have cropped up.
I really want to read that book. Finally… are you an arcadian or a utopian, or are they impossible categories?
I think a) they are impossible categories, b) I am also an arcadian. But I think I am an arcadian by disposition and a utopian by necessity or practice. Attempted practice!
LOTE by Shola von Reinhold is published by Jacaranda and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
Lucy Writers would like to thank Frankie Dytor and Shola von Reinhold for their time in creating this superlative interview. Feature image is courtesy of the author.
This interview was commissioned as part of Frankie Dytor’s series, BAROQUE
The ‘baroque’ is an intemperate aesthetic. Once a period term to describe the visual arts produced in the seventeenth century, its use and significance has exploded over the last fifty years. No longer restricted to the fine arts, the baroque has fallen into pop culture and become an icon.
Inspired by the work of Shola von Reinhold, this series takes ephemera and excess as its starting point for a new exploration of the b a r o q u e. It wants to look back at the past and queerly experiment with it, to rip it up and reclaim a new space for the future – or, in von Reinhold’s words, ‘to crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past’. The b a r o q u e is present in moments of sheer maximalism, in ornament, frill and artifice. It celebrates the seemingly bizarre and the unintelligible, the redundant and fantastical. Disorienting and overwhelming, it offers a decadent way of experiencing present and past worlds.
In von Reinhold’s debut novel, the forgotten black modernist poet Hermia Druitt is rediscovered one day in the archives. As Mathilda goes on a hunt to find out more about this elusive figure, a kaleidoscope of aesthetic joy ensues. Mathilda, we are told, is one of the Arcadian types: those with an “inclination towards historicised fragments”, but not one infected with the more insidious forms of history-worship. Instead, as she explains, “I would not get thrown off track: I could rove over the past and seek out that lost detail to contribute to the great constitution: exhume a dead beautiful feeling, discover a wisp of radical attitude pickled since antiquity, revive revolutionary but lustrous sensibilities long perished”. This series likewise wants to use the past in new and unexpected ways, that trans the archive and queer the record.
Join us to celebrate the dazzle of the b a r o q u e!
Send your creative and critical writing, audio recordings, films, art work and reviews to Frankie Dytor, guest editor of b a r o q u e, dytorfrankie[at]gmail.com
Submissions open 3rd June. For more information and for review titles see the full Call Out here.