Listening to the Archive: Reimagining Global Trans History

I am a third year PhD student in the Literature Program of the Department of English. I work on the poetics and politics of water in the Global South, and my current research is animated by the following question: If the world is on the verge of disappearance because of climate change and rising sea level, how does one archive something that is in the process of vanishing? When the email about the Humanities Engage Curriculum Development Opportunity Grant arrived in my inbox on a summer afternoon, I was going through the archival notes of my research from a pre-covid world. I was missing the archives—sifting through dusty and brittle paper and sitting hours after hours taking copious notes. (In South Asia, where most of the archives for my research are based, scanning and photocopying facilities are extremely restricted, making it imperative to adopt the tried and tested method of handwritten note-taking.) This grant at once offered me the opportunity to bring together my interests in archival research and gender studies while taking an active part in curriculum development at Pitt.  One of the main objectives that I share with Dr. Julie Beaulieu, my faculty collaborator and mentor extraordinaire for this project, is to make students think about the value of archival studies as a method and philosophy from the vantage point of their disciplines, especially because a class like Transgender Studies draws students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds.

Keeping this in mind, I am developing a module entitled Fragments, Ephemera and Periodicals: Reimagining Global Trans History, which will focus on digitized print ephemera, ranging from postcards to matchboxes and the issues of the South African Fanfare Magazine, that is openly accessible in the Digital Trans Archives Database. In it, I want to help students interrogate two interrelated questions about gender and sexuality studies: First, what are the conceptual challenges of telling histories of marginalized populations such as trans communities? Second, how does one build an archive that does not repeat and perpetuate a vicious circle of exclusion and violence? When I reached out Dr. Beaulieu, her syllabus as she was envisioning it introduced students to key concepts and debates in the field through carefully selected units and readings that included trans activism in history, theoretical/historical perspectives, trans medical history, and a global focus on Turkey. As primary documents in the Fanfare collection include letters, advice columns, and artefacts/pieces that capture a wide variety of topics such as nightlife, drag, education, self-acceptance, “cross-dressing,” and photography of trans communities, it will enable students to understand a history of intimacy and the quotidian nature of trans lives that often get erased in the dominant narrative of medical discourse, which albeit important does not always reflect the everyday challenges, negotiations, and joy of a queer life. Therefore, this module will fundamentally try to expand on the foundational concepts in the field that are already taught as part of this class and provide a deeper engagement with ideas about queer and trans self-fashioning. Ultimately, this module will equip students to work with primary sources that are not conventional academic monographs or journal articles and prepare to make a comparative case-study between Turkey and South Africa.

As a cis-gender woman, working on curriculum development for the Transgender Studies class presents its own set of challenges because it is easy to fall into a vicious cycle of romanticization and tokenizing life experience. Therefore, I have tried to approach the archive as a listener or, might I say, as an eavesdropper—to listen for the pauses, the interruptions, the words told and untold, those started but never finished. This module will be used as a scaffold for a final project where students would expand on their experiences of working with primary sources in this module to develop individual projects that focus on materials and other collections they encounter in the database of Digital Trans Archives, The Gay Liberator magazine, and RFD (Rustic Fairy Dreams) that articulate histories of trans communities, which are not always neatly categorized in archives. The module fundamentally aims to train students in thinking about how to expand the notion of archives in gender, women’s, and sexuality studies and to construct knowledge based on sources that are deemed to be fragmented and partial.

I write this piece at a time when hate crimes against trans communities all around the world are at their peak, and, in some cases, these are perpetuated by the State itself. Under such circumstances, could we possibly think of encouraging students to pursue archival research as a form of advocacy in the humanities? Being an ally is easier said than done, but one of the powerful ways to reimagine the world that we would like to be a part of is through stories. The archives bring these stories of love, hope, joy, and survival alive.

Sritama Chatterjee
August 17, 2020

Learn about all the projects from the Curricular Development Opportunity for Ph.D. Students