A Kind of Communal History: Nepantla edited by Christopher Soto

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Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer People of Color, edited by Christopher Soto, is an historical anthology, not only because it is the first major anthology of its kind, but also because it concerns itself with the act of constructing a kind of communal history. I was recently introduced to the field of historiography, the academic study of how history is constructed. This study is fundamental to breaking down histories that re-inscribe colonial, cisheteropatriarchal, white supremacist values, and to centering the narratives which these histories have suppressed. Often times, because of violent erasure, these narratives must be reconstructed into new archives. This anthology is an attempt at constructing an archive using the overlaps, dissonances, and resonances of experience in the work of one hundred and nine poets to inscribe a collective history.

The collection draws its title from a Gloria Anzaldúa quote, “Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio,” or the land in-between. In the introduction, Soto describes nepantla as “a transient feeling” at the meeting place of Queer and PoC identity. Spanning one hundred years, from the Harlem Renaissance to now, Nepantla is an archive of QTPoC memory that resists both the whiteness of mainstream LGBTQ+ movements and the notion of cistheteronormativity in PoC communities. Fundamentally, it is an act of history-making in verse.

Nepantla’s poets write on a broad spectrum of topics, from police violence and mass incarceration to the medicalization of queerness, from reconciling identity with community values to the beauty of another queer body. These pieces also capture an incredible range of emotion, sometimes within a single piece. Emanuel Xavier’s “Step Father” traces the poet’s complex relationship with the titular stepfather and the layers of grief, guilt, anger, and reconciliation within it. The poem is one of misplaced memories and unresolved conflict which opens: “He forgets that he used to call me mariconcito- / that I harbored years of hatred toward him,” but by the final lines has discarded this animosity to say “I forgive him. There is a place somewhere where / he will call me hijo and I will know him as my dad.”

Throughout, Nepantla resists utilizing chronology to compose its archive and also eschews the more traditional alphabetical order that many anthologies favor. Instead, Soto chooses to curate the poems, organizing them through interconnected themes and aesthetics. This lends the anthology an organic ebb and flow, but Soto also avoids relying on overly convenient movements. This keeps each turned page fresh, even as the poems play off of each other’s themes and emotional registers. One of my favorite moments of poem-to-poem movement in the anthology is the placement of t’ai freedom ford’s “transcript of an MTA audition” directly after Joseph O. Legaspi’s “Chelsea Piers.” Here, Soto couples two poems exploring the public gaze employed against QPoC bodies, one about queerness as peril, the other about weaponized masculinity. The poems’ voices are markedly different, Legaspi’s gentle meditation on his lover’s fear of being marked publicly as queer—

as I reach for his hand, he pulls it
away, looks hurriedly around. Suddenly
I stand awash in a brutal history, periphery
of sanctuary and danger

—is the near antithesis of ford’s gloriously brusque language. The man whose voice she inhabits in the transcript says, “I sit wide-legged & hold my dick like a gun… I sit wide-legged & murder these hoes.”

This comfortable and violent public expression of masculinity couldn’t be further from the fear Legaspi recounts, but is, in fact, the object of these fears. It is not difficult to imagine that the character of ford’s poem poses the exact danger that “Chelsea Piers” centers upon. The best moments between poems in this anthology move like this, sudden, surprising, but after you have finished reading it seems impossible for the book to have been organized in any other way.

Many of the poems within the anthology seamlessly blend lyric, politic, and experimentation, their language dense with surprise and wonder. Jess X. Snow’s “Last Words of the Honey Bees” is ostensibly about ecological destruction, but uses its conceit to brilliantly turn towards an indictment of white colonialism as the source of both this destruction and the subjugation of PoC communities. Snow dissects the way in which language is made a weapon to enact this violence:

You found
our hive and renamed it colony—or
a factory of Yellow, Black, and Brown…
Home was the wild flower you pulled
out to plant your White monoculture.

One of the astounding elements of the poems within Nepantla is how they deal with whiteness, cisness, and straightness. These hegemonic positions are often, by necessity, a backdrop for the histories contained within, but despite this, these poems resist centering them. Even when cis/straight/whiteness is being discussed, these poems relegate it to an antagonistic position, an obstacle, something that is, or must be, or will be, overcome. In Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops,” this decentralization takes form through the final line “i hope everyone gets everything they deserve.” Within this statement is the hope of both her body becoming “girl of [her] dreams” and “the white man in uniform” being devoured, each of these a kind of justice, a better future for Espinoza to live within.

This act of imagining a better future infuses so many of the works in Nepantla, and is perhaps inseparable from the canon of QTPoC poetry. But when these poems are placed in conversation across the hundred years Nepantla spans, the imagination takes on a new tragic dimension. Despite the fact that June Jordan’s “Poem About Police Violence” and Natalie Diaz’s “Catching Copper” were originally published forty-three years apart, the former imagines a future that we were unable to reach before the latter was written. When Jordan questions if “every time they kill a black man / then we kill a cop // you think the accident rate would lower subsequently,” she imagines a future where these lines would no longer be relevant. She imagines a world where Diaz would not have to fear her Indigenous brothers being killed, where they do not “keep their bullet / on a leash shiny / as a whip of blood.” But it is out of this sense of tragedy that the poems in Nepantla grow, and by naming these violences, create a historical record, a blueprint of the past. It is out of this history that these poems allow themselves to imagine a different future.

As with any history, however, Nepantla is defined not only by what it includes, but also what it does not. It is by no means an exhaustive collection of the works of queer poets of color, despite including nearly two-hundred pages of poetry. Surely, every reader will be able to think of a few brilliant poets of color this anthology could have benefited from including, but Soto is well aware of this, stating that “One book can’t contain all queer of color literary history,” and that it is instead intended as “another addition to the conversation.” By necessity, Nepantla wears its editorial presence on its face, Soto’s introduction speaking plainly about how the act of selection shapes the breadth of history this anthology contains.

Soto’s editorial presence is visible not just in the selection of individual poets, or the choice to include only a single poem by each, or Soto’s decision to only include poets from the Harlem Renaissance forward “because definitions of gender and sexuality have shifted so drastically over centuries,” but perhaps most importantly in the choice to excerpt from longer pieces. In several cases, such as an excerpt from Ryka Aoki’s “A Song of Someplace Yet to Fall,” this provides a brilliant self-contained poem.

But in others, something is lost in translation. The selection of George Abraham’s work in Nepantla includes three sections of a longer poem titled “Inheritance.” This piece, which explores both queer and Palestinian identity, as well as the entanglement of white supremacy and Zionism, hinges upon its use of erasure and strike-through as well as a second capitalized font, meant to represent the imposition of Zionist voices and censorship upon his narrative. In the fourth section—which is not included—, “[ ZIONIST NOTES & REVISIONS ]”—these voices rewrite the poem’s second section. The loss of this segment in some sense fails the poem’s greater arguments about the erasure of Palestinian narratives by Israeli Zionists. The poem is fundamentally altered when Abraham writes “israeli man asks me to tie him up and fuck him. says he has a POWER COMPLEX,” and this is not reframed later as “israeli man asks me to tie him up and fuck him. says he has GIVES HIMSELF TO PALESTINIAN WITH A POWER COMPLEX,” or when their description of Israeli colonization is not struck through and replaced with the declaration that this is “[ AHISTORICAL ANALYSIS ].”

There are other moments when Soto’s editorial decisions result in idiosyncratic choices, such as Qwo-Li Driskill’s “Open Letter to Ian Birk, Seattle Police Officer who Shot John T. Williams on August 20, 2010.” While this incredibly brief piece, spanning only four lines, packs a punch on the initial reading—

Dear Ian,
___I can’t believe
___you killed
___my friend…

—it lacks this power of surprise on successive readings and is far from representative of Driskill’s complex, innovative work. While I cannot speak to the process through which this poem was chosen, I cannot help but feel this choice does hir work a disservice.

Despite this, Nepantla is a brilliant anthology, and any criticism speaks to how exemplary the rest of this volume is. The depth and breadth of experience and feeling captured within is overwhelming, with page after page packed with diverse, brilliantly crafted work. Nepantla is a luminous archive, a complex and disruptive history which demands, in every whisper, chant, and scream, to be heard.

torrin a. greathouse is a transgender cripple-punk & MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of boy/girl/ghost (TAR Chapbook Series, 2018) & assistant editor of The Shallow Ends. Their work is published/forthcoming in POETRY, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, & The Kenyon Review. She was a finalist for the 2020 Pushcart Prize & is the youngest ever winner of the Poetry Foundation's J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize. More from this author →