This past June, a US edition of Shola von Reinhold’s novel Lote was published by Duke University Press. It is about time. Some of us have been passing around the British version for two years now, like a Shola stan secret society.
“Have you read Lote yet??!!” we asked each other, with increasing urgency, on text threads and social media. “Did you hear about Lote?” we queried, unprompted, at pandemic-friendly outdoor social functions. In a manner sometimes annoying to our nearest and dearest, we found ourselves made over into Lote hype people, insisting that everyone drop what they are doing and order a copy right now.
Why the urgency? In many ways, Lote is like catnip for an academic audience: the novel is about intellectual labor and archival erasure, a kind of speculative fiction of Black trans/queer life largely absent from the British modernist canon. It opens in present-day England, with protagonist Mathilda’s obsession with a real group of writers and artists, the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. A mostly queer, decadent set aligned with the Bloomsbury Group, the Bright Young Things threw elaborate drug-fueled parties and professed a generally hedonistic outlook, blurring the lines between life and art. They were also almost exclusively white and aristocratic, or at least this is what the extant archive tells us. Alongside her partner in crime, the brilliant trans femme Erskine-Lily, Mathilda seeks out the Black queer and trans lives erased from this record. On the way, she becomes enmeshed in an artists’ residency that turns into a nightmare hellscape of academic infighting. A reluctant participant, there for the free rent and research prospects, Mathilda finds herself caught up with a self-serious set of cultish minimalists, a group of austere types anathema to the extravagant hedonism of the Bright Young Things.
The plot of Lote is too populated to be easily summarized. Instead, this forum draws out four different readings of the novel, in conversation with one another, as an extension of those first flurried text threads. Our collective review looks to position von Reinhold’s novel as central to any reckoning with the politics of the archive and to the field of contemporary literature today. What we are saying is this: Drop what you are doing and order a copy right now!
—Juno Jill Richards
- Ren Ellis Neyra: “Retinal Hell”
- Juno Jill Richards: Trans Femme Air-Kiss
- Dixa Ramírez-D’Oleo: The Mulatta in the Attic
- Marina Bilbija: On Seeing Someone “Like Florence Mills, or Josephine Baker”
Ren Ellis Neyra
In the inaugural scene of Lote, a Black figure enters representation as a directly addressable presence that appears beyond apprehension, yet within material grasp. Mathilda, the Black protagonist, has the first-person point of view in the novel, and is simultaneously phenomenalized uncannily—as someone who cannot be her name and cannot be where she is. As the novel opens, a presumably white twink—self-glorified—works the reception desk at an archive; claiming to be part of a “members-only club” to which Mathilda obviously does not belong, the receptionist hollers at her. What he hollers is a repetition of the epithet recorded in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks: “Look! A negro!” I would emphasize here not only the abusive (mis)naming, but also the affectation of surprise. In that scene, Mathilda appears to herself in a limited quandary of how she appears to him: as one of many faces who/that are not supposed to be in the “lifeworld” (who/that would be acceptably perceivable, rather, when appearing in an archival photograph, as a figure of displacement, as something known about because hidden away).
Here and throughout, a question emerges for Lote’s readers: How does one read the surprise at whiteness’s inexhaustible tradition of force? And this applies to the force concealed—as with the receptionist yelling—in how it addresses “blackened” others. But Lote does not just un-conceal the force of said surprise on the levels of perception and affect; I read the novel for how reading itself configures perennial white surprise at its own history of force.
In a novel partly about reading, Mathilda often appears via prosopopoeia: that “hallucinatory,” “uncanny” “trope of address” that, à la Paul de Man, “is the very figure of the reader and of reading.”1
To be momentarily reductive, prosopopoeia is a literary term for giving a face to an abstracted entity. When one reads of the face of a mountain, one is encountering prosopopoeia. Mathilda is repeatedly configured in the novel as a face at which whites (even acquaintances and friends) glare. Having a face is not necessarily humanizing; humanization is not auto-immunity against antiblackness. Rather, her face troubles their abstract yet carnal idea of Blackness and its coordinates in space and time.
“Lote” is central to any reckoning with the politics of the archive and to the field of contemporary literature today.
Mathilda also speaks for the dead; she enters paralyzing, hallucinatory, semi-Cartesian stupors where waking and dreaming are indiscernible. These hallucinations are also sometimes inhabitations of Mathilda by dead Black personae: what she calls her “Transfixions.” Such “Transfixions” have been understood by some literary critics as a utopian metaphor (see some of the symptomatic blurbs that ironically rhyme with the white twink’s astonishment) or a trope of felicitous escapism. But this contradicts a revelation in the novel: the primary person who “transfixes” Mathilda, Hermia Druitt, a Black poet about whom she has done extensive research, was herself taken captive by a white man known only by his surname, Garreaux, on the site of his own utopian, aesthetico-theoretical project.
Thus, I read the “Transfixions” via what Mathilda experiences as “retinal hell” (that is, a prósōpon—a sheer face—for Fanon’s “epidermal racial schema,” a rearticulation of Zora Neale Hurston’s “sharp white background,” and a metonym of what Jacques Derrida calls our “heliocentric metaphysics”). Mathilda uses this term when in the building of the Garreaux artist residency, where, she later learns, Druitt was interred. She observes of the residents around her, believers in Garreauxvianism, that they work out of “the same yellow book. … The cover was so bright it literally hurt the eyes. A shade of fluoro or neon. I was in retinal hell and wondered what kind of chemical they had used for the coating. The eyes rejected it… Even after several minutes it was still looming, leeching the blackness from the corner of my eye.” Out of these textbooks, the residents work on what they call “the White Book Project.” I read Mathilda’s “Transfixions” as a correlative to “retinal hell,” which I posit also configures the rigor required when reading for Blackness and its indeterminate incarnations—a rigor that cannot waste time with surprise about the history of the biologization and epidermalization of race.
After all, the name of utopianism has other sites concealed inside of it: the plantation, the colony, the camp…
Trans Femme Air-Kiss
Juno Jill Richards
Lote is too much—ornate, decadent, sensually excessive, baroque right down to its gilded bones. I mean this as the highest compliment, to pinpoint the billowous feel of extra everything that knows itself to be just right. It’s a quality in the language, rife with modifiers and torqued grammar, with adjectives like “orchidaceous” casually slotted in. This sense of excess is also about setting, which is often underwater or pearlescent. We are perpetually entering cavern-like spaces, spackled with a living frieze, or hotel rooms that resemble the inside of a seashell. Everything is exquisite and overdone, in a style most closely associated with 19th-century decadent aesthetics.
The 19th-century decadent movement is also an overwhelmingly white tradition. Indeed, protagonist Mathilda—who is Black—describes her obsession with luxuries as a knowing takeover of a fantasy, “showing your ability to embody the fantasy regardless, in spite of, to spite, and in doing so extrapolate the elegance, the fantasy, Romance, or whatever it was, abstract it and show it as a universal material, to be added to the toolbox.”
Lote creates a new set of tools as tactics for Black trans joy and survival. In this way, Shola von Reinhold’s decadence plants a flag in the fusty terrain of white modernism, focusing particularly on the British interwar period of the 1920s–1930s, the era of the Bright Young Things. Here emerges a more plot-driven project of recovery, in protagonist Mathilda’s search for Black queer artists erased from the archival record. This search opens the book (indeed, it is the scene that Ren Ellis Neyra focuses on), when the blonde twink tries to bar Mathilda from entry to the archives.
I want to set Neyra’s reading of the book’s opening alongside another, later encounter, one that scales up the violence of the microaggression. The scene in question is on the street, where a group of white cis-het men clock Erskine-Lily, who is originally described, fabulously, as a living incarnation of sensuous excess. On the page, this makes every encounter with Erskine-Lily a delight of eccentric proportions and accoutrements. On the street, it makes Erskine-Lily highly conspicuous. The stylistic details that are baroque and charming, a kind of trans femme high camp, are also what makes Erskine-Lily vulnerable.
As Erskine-Lily passes the group of men, they snicker and then go silent. Erskine-Lily is shouted at. As a response, they blow the men an elegant air-kiss. In Mathilda’s awed rendering, “a veritable stream of gold might well have been released with this gesture.” The men are silenced, but only momentarily. Erskine-Lily is followed, then pushed, then kicked on the ground.
Here flamboyant style—literalized as the stream-of-gold air-kiss—becomes an opening to violence. On the street, style is a tactic for survival, even pleasure, and also what might get you killed. As Mathilda points out—as early as that first page, when she is barred from the archives—excess and ornament read differently on a Black queer body. They are seen not as delightfully eccentric, but, instead, as unprofessional, insane, asking for it.
What does this elaborate, decadent style do? Depends on the body that wears it, which is the point. This makes style a mixed bag for some, pleasure and vulnerability both. Through all its stylistic excesses—in spite of, to spite—I think of Lote, as a whole, like that trans femme air-kiss: an exquisite, dazzling response to the historical violence of archival erasure, one that lives in and amongst the violence of the present.
The Mulatta in the Attic
In what I consider to be the climax of Shola von Reinhold’s Lote, black femmes Mathilda and Erskine-Lily discover something from the past of Hermia Druitt, one of the black personae that “trans-fix” Mathilda. Specifically, they find Druitt’s pentagonal jail in the turret of Garreaux’s Centre, a discovery that leads them to “lay down” on Druitt’s dusty, canopied bed, “side by side,” and weep. They weep for the queer black femme sacrificed—like so many others—to an aesthetic history that she had helped shape.
Like Druitt to Mathilda, Lote became a “transfixion” to me: frothy, curlicued, and fizzy on the tongue. What I will focus on here (both building on and departing from Ren Ellis Neyra’s and Juno Richards’s readings) is that which issues from this froth and fizz when it exists only to delight the body of the queer black femme: discipline and confinement.
In the sarcophagus of a room discovered by Mathilda and Erskine-Lily, Druitt spent her last days. She was placed there by Garreaux Senior, the high priest of the aesthetic movement against ornament that the novel pans.
“Lote” creates a new set of tools as tactics for Black trans joy and survival.
Druitt’s imprisonment is a violence against high black femmeness in the figure of the mulatta/mulata/mulattresse. (See modernist architect Adolf Loos’s Baker House. Never built, the house was designed for mulattresse extraordinaire Josephine Baker, whom Loos barely knew.) In the Francophone, Hispanophone, and Lusophone Atlantic and Americas, the figure of the mulattresse has been laden for centuries with representations tying her to hypersexuality, public availability, and, quite crucially, beauty and high ornament. There, she is either half-nude or overdetermined by jewels, muslin headdresses, and insignificant little slippers. Think: boudoir, not bedroom. Think: the octoroon mistress from New Orleans—who, in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, appears in a flurry of silk and lace, holding a parasol. Whether in the nude or swathed in sumptuous fabrics, her self-fashioning was often outlawed; she existed for white men’s pleasure, but only she was to blame for the destruction of the white family. (Colin Dayan writes that, to appease white women’s ire, the court of Le Cap in Saint-Domingue, Haiti, issued an order banning mulattresses from wearing shoes; they responded by wearing sandals with diamonds on their toes.)2 In the Anglophonic world, the mulatta is often barely black in a biological sense, so pale as to be a white woman except for that “taint” of “black” “blood” that inevitably leads to her untimely death.
Druitt emerges as a combination of these tropes, and her excess—echoed by Mathilda and Erskine-Lily—repeats a long history of the mulattresse as a queered gender. Like those mulattresses at Le Cap, she occasions both disdain and delight; she is both avant-garde creator and tolerated pet.
The Garreauxvian philosophy of flat starkness finds its shape in and through its sublimated (“concealed from view”) obsession with the baroque, black Druitt. Garreaux contained—in both senses of the word—this bejeweled ornamental core within the confines of his temple to drabness. In the metaphor of Druitt’s room, I read Lote as a theorization of how whiteness is constructed by the desire to glean from, and then render null, blackness as ornament.
On Seeing Someone “Like Florence Mills, or Josephine Baker”
“A Black woman at a bohemian party in England in the ’20s,” muses Lote’s protagonist Mathilda bemusedly, “was not unlikely a singer like Florence Mills, or Josephine Baker.” These are the historical calculations that Mathilda must work with and around when she finds a photograph of a Black woman in a collection of images of the Bright Young Things. This will not be the last time that Lote superimposes Josephine Baker onto Hermia Druitt (the enigmatic woman in the photo). Through this repeating scenario, Shola von Reinhold emphasizes how the fetishized Black performer and the forgotten Black artist both remain out of focus. Mathilda’s stilted phrasing suggests that the viewer does not see Mills or Baker themselves, only someone “not unlikely” a singer “like” them. Here “Josephine Baker” and “Florence Mills” are not proper names but floating signifiers for the misrecognized—and, to echo Dixa Ramírez-D’Oleo’s argument—the aestheticized mulatta figure.
But when Mathilda stumbles upon Hermia’s photograph, she will see Hermia herself—not a type, not a singer “like” Baker or Mills. Furthermore, something about the rapture she experiences while gazing at a photograph of another Black aesthete—its tryptic-like composition, the “excruciation of coil and kink” in the arrangement of Hermia’s hair, and her Renaissance angel garb—alert Mathilda to some larger, meaningful design subtending this tableau. As a canny reader of ornament, she will later trace the photograph’s symbols to the novel’s titular secret society, LOTE, to which, the enigmatic Hermia belonged.
During her lifetime, too, Hermia is only legible as “a singer like” Baker. While she’s traveling through Switzerland, the locals mistake her for Josephine and bid her to sing. Hermia complies, but sings opera, moving everyone to tears. By now, do they realize Hermia is not Josephine? Do they misrecognize Josephine or Hermia? When Hermia’s white friend hears of this charade, he cannot see past the trick and triumph of the aesthetic, so he downplays the danger Hermia faces if accused of fraud—of not performing like Baker (or like herself) convincingly. He jokingly threatens to rescind his invitation, so that she will have to repeat this performance for housing. The violence of this joke—and of white patronage—is revealed when she meets the white minimalist artist Garreaux, her last host.
In time, Mathilda will discover how Garreaux suppressed Hermia, Hermia’s writing, and her connection to LOTE after he “housed” (read: confined) her. She will also learn about ornament’s associations with Black aesthetics (or what Zora Neale Hurston called “the will to adorn”), noting how their sublimation underwrites histories of modernism—especially its minimalist traditions.
A case in point is Garreaux’s legacy, which entailed sealing Hermia’s room after her death and building an art institute around it, without acknowledging her existence. Abstracting Hermia’s entombment from the institute’s history constituted his first “white book.”
Lote’s white-books exercises recall the factory scenes in Ellison’s Invisible Man, where Liberty Paints’ signature optic white shade is achieved through the admixture of black paint into a grayish base. Considered together, these scenes—in which the white books (conceptual art) and “optic white” (paint) are made—highlight the entire process of producing whiteness as an aesthetic. Shola von Reinhold’s novel reminds us that this aesthetic is cultivated through the material and conceptual extraction of Blackness and Black people, but that it only coheres through their sublimation: when they are ghosted from the field of vision.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.