Reaching Back

Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History is a book that will no doubt keep me awake at night. At the same time, it was the perfect thing to end this project with, and will shape how I do and think about history. The book begins with Lot’s wife. Following her husband and daughters from the burning Sodom and Gomorrah, she turns back, and is transformed into a pillar of salt. Within Love’s extensive metaphor, she refuses to forget loss, and it destroys her. A comparison is drawn here, between modern queers and Lot’s wife, both drawn indulgently and destructively to the past.[1] Love retreads this link throughout her introduction, evoking Odysseus and the Sirens; Eurydice and the Underworld.[2] Again and again, she stresses the obligation and pleasure of reaching back, and imitating the past, and the risks of doing so. 

I applied for funding from the Carnegie Trust after reading Karras and Liniken’s article about Eleanor Rykener and imagination, in part to do this reaching.[3] This project was shaped fundamentally a little later, however, in a conversation about museum exhibits. A friend of mine mentioned seeing an exhibition in The Metropolitan Museum of Art that featured a film in which two designers from different periods had an ‘Impossible Conversation.’[4] Looking back, it’s clear that I knew little about what I would and could achieve with this project, but my aim has remained the same. I want to create what Roland Betancourt calls, “impossible, unlikely or unsubstantiated encounters between past audiences and modern forms of culture.”[5] More specifically, I want to interview Eleanor Rykener, have my own impossible conversation. Betancourt pushes for this new style of historiography as a way accepting the ways in which a historian uses informed imagination to create coherent narratives from the fragmented past. An interview with someone long dead, long hidden, is particularly abstract, but I hope it fills the same role. 

Trans and queer studies have a rich and complicated relationship with temporality. Throughout this project, I have read the work of academics devoted to twisting time, “listening to marked, badly marked, and unmarked graves,” making an “‘expanded now’ […] that might extend seamlessly into past or future,” and the use of “the body and psyche […] as repositories of information connecting the past to the present.”[6] This type of history demands a disturbance in chronology, a use of imagination to escape the confines of archival discourse and pretended objectivity. By stretching what it means to be a historian into the overtly creative, the steady, destructive march of archaic to modern is questioned, and reliance on the written document lessened. 

This potential is clear in Maya Mikdashi and Carlos Motta’s Deseos / رغبات, in which two women write across a cultural and spatial divide – Martina in Guatemala and Nour in Beirut – about a shared “experience of secrets and silence.”[7] The film, cutting seamlessly between place and time, pushes elements of the modern into past places. Martina and Nour’s old, dead, imagined voices talk over images of plastic litter, and Mikdashi’s hands running across archival documents. Divisions become impossibly thin, and historical narratives are built within the bare bones of the archive.  Postcolonial thinkers like Mikdashi and Motta highlight the reductive power of history, the ways in which “our closest encounters are not with the people found in the case file but with the regime[s] of power.”[8] In a lot of ways, this film echoes an article by Maria Elena Martinez, about the case of Juana Aguilar.[9] Tried the same year as Martina, for the same crime of ‘hermaphroditism,’ and (relatively) nearby in Colombia, the two cases are remarkably similar. Martinez discusses the ways in which written “documents make evident the futility of trying to find the ‘real,’” and that the only way to write queer histories is to disavow the “performance of objectivity.”[10] In pushing myself into overt subjectivity, I hope to learn the lesson proposed by Tessa Morris-Suzuki – “All we can do is to endeavour to be honest about our position in the present, and about the way our vision of the past relates to our vision of the present.”[11]

This project has made me realise that however noble my aims were in trying to let Eleanor speak, I was ignorant to the ways in which this could become an act of historical violence. I am by no means the first queer person to try reaching back into the past. One thing that I’ve been trying to work out during this project of why this ‘feeling backward’ – especially so far, beyond identities and into acts – seems so important, so crucial to the modern gay experience. I’ve yet to reach a conclusion, but I’ve become more aware of the selfish and sad slant to looking for an Eleanor I can hold a conversation with. In the (particularly haunting) words of Love, “like many demanding lovers, queer critics promise to rescue the past when in fact they dream of being rescued themselves.”[12] I don’t wholly agree with this statement, but maybe that’s just because it’s touched a nerve. Perhaps more important than the motive itself, is what damage it might do to the past. In order not to ‘colonise’ the past, we must respect the right of historical figures to ultimately strange, and allow them to “turn their backs on us.”[13] Eleanor will remain unknowable, untouchable, and I cannot pretend otherwise. 

I have begun writing this imagined interview like there’s a gun to my head. I know I can’t do this justice – not yet, maybe not ever. It feels like I’m on the very edge of what history means, and I am unequipped to properly hypothesise on how to build outward. Given all the time in the world, I don’t think I could grow enough (as a historian, as a person) to pay my dues to Eleanor. I’m not sure anyone could, or should. Carlos Motta describes a similar situation when discussing his desire to give Martina agency, and how this could become an act of violence. He says:  “I remained paralyzed by this contradiction for a while until Martina appeared in my dreams one night and told me, ‘Do it.’”[14] I think we can only hope for a dream like that, and in the meantime, be careful where we tread. 

Ultimately, Love’s book is about shared trauma. The tenuous link between queer past and present a creation of shame, rather than love or community. The gay archive provides less of a caress, and more a mauling.[15] Lot’s wife turns back and it doesn’t look like home anymore. Orpheus turns back and finds Eurydice doing the same. Odysseus pulls free from the ropes, and the sirens stop singing. I feel backwards for Eleanor Rykener, and there’s no guarantee she’s reaching back.


[1] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2009), 5, 24.
[2] Ibid., 9, 50.
[3] Ruth Mazo Karras and Tom Linkinen, ‘John/Eleanor Rykener Revisited,’ in Founding Feminisms in Medieval Studies: Essays in Honor of E. Jane Burns eds. Laine E. Doggett and Daniel E. O’Sullivan (Boydell & Brewer, 2016), 113.
[4] ‘Gallery Views of Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations’ (2012) <
[5] Roland Betancourt, ‘Imagined encounters: Historiographies for a new world,’ postmedieval 7:3 (2016), 5.
[6] M. W. Bychowski in M. W. Bychowski, Howard Chiang, Jack Halberstam, Jacob Lau, Kathleen P. Long, Marcia Ochoa, And C. Riley Snorton, ‘“Trans*historicities” A Roundtable Discussion,’ TSQ 5:4 (2018), 672; Leah DeVun and Zeb Tortorici, ‘Trans, Time, and History,’ TSQ 5:4 (2018), 534; María Elena Martínez, ‘Archives, Bodies, and Imagination: The Case of Juana Aguilar and Queer Approaches to History, Sexuality, and Politics,’ Radical History Review 120 (2014), 168.
[7] Carlos Motta; quoted in Leah DeVun and Zeb Tortorici, ‘Interview with Maya Mikdashi and Carlos Motta on Deseos / رغبات,’ TSQ 5:4 (2018), 650.
[8] Maya Mikdashi; ibid., 654.
[9] Martínez, ‘Archives, Bodies, and Imagination,’ 159-182.
[10] Ibid., 167, 170.
[11] Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History (New York: Verso 2005), 243.
[12] Love, Feeling Backward, 33.
[13] Ibid., 43.
[14] Carlos Motta; quoted in DeVun and Tortorici, ‘Interview with Maya Mikdashi and Carlos Motta on Deseos / رغبات,’ TSQ 5:4 (2018), 653.
[15] Love, Feeling Backward, 49.

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