Friday, March 1, 2019

Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone

Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone is an associate professor of anthropology and director of McClure Archives and University Museum at the University of Central Missouri. She is the author of Queerness in Heavy Metal Music: Metal Bent and the newly released Queering Kansas City Jazz: Gender, Performance, and the History of a Scene.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
With the publication of my second book, I found myself with time to tackle those stacks of books we all squirrel away for that day! I tend to read more non-fiction than fiction, but I make a point of reading fiction when I come to the end of a big project– a kind of reward for myself.

First, I was a 4-Her for most of my young life, from the age of 6 all the way through my undergraduate degree. I’ve gotten really interested in the history of 4-H, especially since my grandmother (a long-time 4-Her) passed away. Given my academic background, of course, what interests me is women, gender, and sexuality. I’m reading Gabriel Rosenberg’s The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America. Rosenberg suggests that 4-H was a political and economic project designed to enculturate young people into a modernist view of rural life in America. As a rural kid and a 4-Her I’m not sure if I agree with Rosenberg’s conclusions or not, but it is a fascinating work on a rural institution that so many Americans know nothing about.

I’ve also been reading Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Bolz-Weber is a minister and founder of House of Sinners and Saints, a church in Colorado. I was raised in a Baptist family, and most of my students have a religious background. In addition, I give guest lectures across the country and frequently talk to young LGBTQ+ people who have or want to come out, but their religious education has taught them they are bad, or evil, or irredeemable. This book does a wonderful job of suggesting that we need a new reformation that takes Christian concepts of sexuality, and rejects them in favor of a more just, compassionate, and truly faithful system. It has caused me to think quite a bit about a student I met last year who came to me crying because she had come out as a lesbian, and her entire church family had rejected her. She was raised in an insulated fundamentalist community, she was left feeling like she had no family, literally orphaned by her church. Bolz-Weber’s book is giving me a new, stronger place from which to help students like those I meet. I also find Bolz-Weber’s approach to religious writing to be interesting– more narrative than parable.

For fiction this time, I elected to read two things. The first was The Best Bad Things: A Novel by Kristina Carrasco. I typically read science fiction and fantasy, I like escapism at the end of an intellectual project. This book I picked on a whim, it combined everything I like about my work: playing with gender and expression, a strong-willed woman tilting at power, and a narrative that moves like a race car. It’s the timeline of Carrasco’s work that is the best part, it functions as a character without a name. I read it slowly but it went by so quickly– it's an almost breathless read. Alma Rosales, the center of the story, is going about the work of pushing every boundary, while at the same time trying to have real relationships with people that are, for one reason or another, out of reach. It's one of the most inventive books I’ve read in a long time, and far and away the most creative book that could be classified as LGBTQ+ I’ve encountered.

The other fiction I read? I’ve got to be honest, my guilty pleasure is Game of Thrones. I spent my winter break reading the entire series. Some series have such depth and richness, they defy description. Lord of the Rings, for example, can’t be explained no matter how brilliant the films. Asimov’s Foundation series, Dune, these are all series that span not just volumes but lifetimes. I loved these series as a young person, stories so deep and detailed that one tiny fact in volume one could come back to change everything in volume three. As wonderful as the television series is, it is a grain of sand compared to the beach that is Game of Thrones. It’s a shame that Martin is under such pressure to finish because of the television series, when it should be the kind of work that Martin can take decades to complete. And for the record, House Lannister all the way.

What’s next on my book list? I’m re-reading Families We Choose by Kath Weston, a classic ethnography of kinship, lesbians, and gay men in the 1990s. I’ve assigned it for my students in kinship, and am looking forward to a fresh reading of a book that was so formative to my work and my life. It takes the activist phrase “Close Friends and Chosen Family,” and demonstrates why that stands the test of time, culture, and change.

And finally, a word about Dune. Dune is my favorite book of all time, I never leave home without a copy in my bag. I still think it's one of the best books ever written about the interwoven pressures of faith, family, and politics writ large. The documentary about Jodorowsky’s Dune mirrors Herbert’s concepts as well. What does a messiah look like, and under what pressure is that kind of hero-protagonist created? Is it nature or nurture, mysticism or fate, which leads us to become who we are? What is the point of our existence? This is the subject of Dune, not sandworms and stillsuits. It is a masterwork.
Learn more about Queering Kansas City Jazz at the University of Nebraska Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue