In 1994, Sister Spit—a radical queer spoken word collective—formed and soon toured the country with their works of groundbreaking poetry. The early, all women iterations of the collective claimed the open road for themselves, and brought their work to audiences around the US. Original lineups included literary celebrities like Michelle Tea, Nomy Lamm and Eileen Myles. This year—the 21st year of the tour, dubbed QTPOC Cruising the West—will bring seven more artists—some alum, some new to the tour—to The Tannex (1417 Fourth Street SW) on Thursday, March 8, at 7pm. Virgie Tovar, one of the organizers, explained a formative principle of first taking Sister Spit on the road: “It was a huge deal that girls were getting into a van and going out on the road. Stories of the road are always the domain of men. Men get to explore the country, men get to treat this place like it is their home, and women get murdered on the road. That's all you hear about. It was extraordinary to have this girl gang that nobody was going to fuck with claiming their own place in the history of the United States and narratives of the open road.” That positioning within history, both broad and literary, bears tremendous weight for the artists who climb in the van, as well as those of us who meet them at each stop on tour.
More than two decades after the first Sister Spit tours, those experiences are still the exception—for women, yes, but especially for women of color, queer and gender nonconforming people. Every iteration of Sister Spit has been “grounded in this feminist and particularly queer, anti-assimilationist movement,” Tovar explained over the phone from her home in San Francisco. This year, Sister Spit has begun to specifically emphasize the work of queer and trans people of color. The QTPOC folks cruising the west with their work—both written works and pieces in other mediums—include Tovar, Juliana Delgado Lopera, Jayy Dodd, Wo Chan, Andrea Abi-Karam, MariNaomi and Jamal T. Lewis.
“When the tour began, it was an idea; it was the radical idea that if queers, especially lesbians, could see themselves reflected on the stage, that this incredible political synergy could happen and some healing could happen,” Tovar said, pausing to consider if the tour still had the same power in a more connected world. “I think the answer is still yes. When you see people on stage who are normally not represented in mass media, it is extraordinarily powerful. … We're doing that for people of color and trans people and fat people. I think there's something truly transformative about just the act of seeing the people who are on this tour on the stage.” The frequent lack of representation extends well beyond the stage, and straight into the stories that publishers print, market and provide their readership.
“The unfortunate truth,” Tovar continued, “is that mainstream publishing still sees queer and trans realities as realities only … valuable to people in those communities, and they see that community as very small.” Underlining the fact that mainstream publishers pander to white women in the Midwest, and that if your identity as a person of color, as queer, as trans, as disabled, as fat, Tovar outlined, reads as “too niche,” you don't often get the opportunity to gain the massive boost major publishing and distribution of your work provides. “There's this kind of homophobia, transphobia … that creates barriers to queer people and particularly queer people of color to be published,” Tovar said. Given these realities, platforms like Sister Spit are vital.
On this tour, Tovar will share readings from her upcoming book, You Have the Right to Remain Fat, exploring the critical intersections of diet culture, size, patriarchy and deference. Her work explores “the connections between dieting and assimilation into the United States … how weight loss is part of becoming a good American, and talking about masculinity and why a lot of women diet because they want to be with men, and why men find dieting so appealing. My argument is that what is being eroticized is submission.” In short—mind-expanding cultural criticism that allows us to examine our relationships with dominant culture anew.
All the artists on the QTPOC Cruising the West tour are emerging creatives, working in a breadth of mediums. Artistic Director of Sister Spit, Juliana Delgado Lopera is a Colombian writer and oral historian, the author of ¡Cuéntamelo!, a collection of interviews of queer and trans Latinos about their immigrant narrative, and how that intersects with their other identities. Joining them is cartoonist and memoirist MariNaomi and Andrea Abi-Karam, a “genderqueer punk poet cyborg writing on the art of killing bros, the intricacies of cyborg bodies, trauma and delayed healing.” Macau-born and NYC-living Wo Chan brings their drag performance and poetry, Jamal T. Lewis, dubbed by Teen Vogue one of “the coolest queers on the internet,” will bring multidisciplinary work to tour, while Pushcart Prize nominee Jayy Dodd rounds out the group of seven with their works, which have been published far and wide. You have “seven totally different opportunities for incredible resonance,” Tovar said.
Just as audiences can access transformative works and experiences by hearing the words of Sister Spit members, going on the tour can reframe the world for the artists themselves. When she was first invited to participate five years ago, Tovar felt it had a galvanizing effect on her work, “on some fundamental level the fact that some other person thought that I was talented enough to invite me on a tour was a major confidence-boosting experience.” And that helped her take risks in her writing, demand payment, and with clarity see value of her work. The seven artists on tour get paid to travel the country, and are impacted by landscapes that they might not have had the opportunity to explore before. That can shape an understanding of the world and influence an artist’s work. All things considered, Sister Spit offers an element of reciprocity, “we impact the audience and we're impacted by the audience as well. There's power in that exchange.”
Don't miss the opportunity to join in the dialogue with this generation of Sister Spit and the work they bring with them. A donation of $7 to $10 gets you in the door and into the exchange.