In celebration of University Press Week, we are delighted to feature Jordan Biro Walters, associate professor of history at the College of Wooster and a first-time university press author. Her book, Wide-Open Desert: A Queer History of New Mexico, is forthcoming January 2023. Read our Q&A with Jordan to learn more about the book, her experience as a new author, and how working with a university press has benefitted her work.
Why publish with a university press?
Because Wide-Open Desert: A Queer History of New Mexico is the first comprehensive study of queer lives in the twentieth-century American Southwest, a virtually unexplored region in LGBTQ+ history, I only had a small research trail to follow when I started the project. Interest in sexuality, specifically the LGBTQ+ past in American West history, is recent. My collaboration with the University of Washington Press—well-known for works in American history, visual culture, critical ethnic studies, Native and Indigenous studies, and women, gender, and sexuality—allowed me to contextualize Wide-Open Desert for scholars in these disciplines. Additionally, I worked closely with UW Press to share the stories of Pueblo, Navajo, Nuevomexicanx, and white LGBTQ+ people with a general audience.
Covering more than seventy years of New Mexican history, the book brings together the narratives of queer mobility and cultural productions to think about their relevance to sexual politics and gay liberation activism. In anticipation of the book’s release, I’ve heard from scholars interested in purchasing the book to explore interrelated themes in their own research, such as women’s friendship and intimacy in 1940s modernist circles. Additionally, a documentarian contacted me wanting oral histories to make a film about Claude’s, a bohemian bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico known for its regular crowds of gay and lesbian artists in the early 1950s and through the 1960s. Publishing with a university press was important in giving my work visibility among these different audiences.
Tell us more about your experiences working with a university press.
It takes many hands to make a book. As a first-time author, I greatly benefited from the guidance of a team of people who assisted with developing, copy editing, designing, and marketing my book. In particular, [editorial director] Larin McLaughlin and editorial assistant Caroline Hall helped me manage copyright permissions. The queer history of New Mexico is scattered in various archives, unpublished personal narratives, private visual queer representations, and people’s memories. Part of this project was to create a composite portrait of queer lives, grounded in archival and oral research, that will serve as a starting point for others. UW Press helped me to navigate the copyright process. A few images I wanted to include in the book, especially the cover image, proved difficult to track down the necessary permissions. While securing copyright falls on the author’s shoulders, Larin and Caroline offered guidance on how to proceed when I hit a roadblock. It was important to me to start my book (the cover) with queer women who have long been overshadowed by works about men. This book begins with queer women’s voices and from there highlights people who possessed a wide range of desires, sexual subjectivities, and gender variance. A university press’s familiarity with the scholarly process enabled me to use all the materials I collected as fully as possible.
How do you see university press publishing as helpful to your work and career? What are your thoughts on the university press community as a whole?
Scholarly presses serve a public good by producing trustworthy sources of information by experts who aim to bring their intellectual expertise to expand people’s ways of thinking and solve modern injustices. They take risks in publishing cutting edge ideas. Academic theory, in conjunction with community activism, eventually seeps into mainstream culture and has a tremendous effect on the way people think and talk. As a short example, the term nonbinary, conceptualized by activists and queer theorists in the 1990s, is now used by many ordinary people to self-identify. Wide-Open Desert contributes to a body of scholarship that shows that queer, nonbinary, and trans identified folks have always been here, even though people used different terms to describe themselves. They embraced innovative ways to survive and thrive. My work argues that queer people contributed substantially to making Santa Fe the third largest art market in the United States. Creative centers, like large cities, inspired queer people to move, place-make, and unleash their creativity. Over several decades, both subtle and explicit queer cultural production opened sexual discourse, which served as a foundation for the later triumphs of the modern gay liberation movement.
Was there a particularly significant book that influenced your own?
I read Andrew J. Jolivétte’s (Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Louisiana) Indian Blood: HIV and Colonial Trauma in San Francisco’s Two-Spirit Community [published by UW Press in 2016]. The book explores the HIV epidemic among, gay, two-spirit, and transgender Native people who also identify as mixed race. Jolivette’s succinct chapters address structural risk factors, particularly the ongoing effects of settler colonialism, and the final chapter offers a solution—implementation of intergenerational healing and cultural leadership. Indian Blood influenced me to work with UW Press. It made me rethink university presses, which I conceived of as producing lengthy and dense academic works for specialists. I was impressed by the readability and short length. My own book also centers two-spirit history and interrogates colonialism. Similar to Jolivette, I show the harm of settler colonialism through the suppression of two-spirit roles. At the same time, queer Native artists pushed back through artistic and cultural survival tactics. Particularly for historically underrepresented communities who were often shut out of formalized political structures, creative expression served as an arena for activism. The geographical and cultural borderlands of the American Southwest afford scholars an opportunity to better understand both the exclusion and flourishing of racially diverse queer representations outside of gay meccas. New Mexico has a long queer history and remains a center of queer creativity.
This post is part of the 2022 University Press Week blog tour hosted by the Association of University Presses. This year’s theme is #NextUP, reflecting the spirit of constant learning, adaptation, and evolution within scholarly publishing. Read more about UP Week and all of the featured books and blog posts here.