The word “queer” has evolved from a once-derogatory term to one that’s been reclaimed, repurposed and continually re-examined.
A new book provides a fresh perspective on this evolution. “The Letter Formally Known as Q: Voices From Minnesota’s Queer Immigrant Community” offers an in-depth picture of five Minnesotans through extensive conversation and vivid portraits.
The five people hail from different places — Cameroon, India, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Kenya — and they define queerness in individual ways. At the same time, their stories overlap significantly in themes of home, belonging and safety, and something even broader.
“I really wanted people to interrogate borders,” said the book’s author, N. Musinguzi, a documentary photographer, visual artist and storyteller whose father is from Uganda and mother is a London-born Liberian. “The core theme is borders. Not boundaries — we need them — but borders.
“We don’t need ’em, right? And all the borders that exist in all the formats that constrict our ways of thinking, knowing, being.”
The book, published by Minneapolis indie press Wise Ink, feels like listening in on conversations between close friends or people who are in community — far more personal and in-depth than a standard Q&A.
“When I said I wanted to document stories from the Black diaspora, Black queer immigrant folks, someone asked me: ‘Isn’t that limited? Are there any queer Africans you know besides yourself?’ ” said Musinguzi, who is nonbinary/trans.
Born in New York, the photographer moved to Minneapolis in 2014 to be an artist-in-residence at Youthprise, a program that aims to increase equity for indigenous, low-income and racially diverse youth. Musinguzi knew that fellows of their community were everywhere.
“Being young and ambitious, I was like, ‘I’m gonna do this, because I know I can do this.’ “
In the book’s introduction, Musinguzi posits “queer” as “evolving beyond its original meaning, [just] as Black folks envisioned with the term ‘Negro’ or ‘African American,’ and in these ever-changing times shifting into a diasporan culture rather than a Western one.”
The book’s five subjects talk about what brought them to the United States while giving their takes on borders and their definitions of queer — which can shift as they grow and change — along with answers to questions like “What brings you joy?”
“I don’t know if I identify as queer,” said Andrea Valdes Valdes, who moved from Mexico to Detroit with her family at age 16 and graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design last year with a BFA in graphic design. “I know I’m not straight,” said Valdes, who identifies as bisexual. “So I guess queer would be like an appropriate word since I don’t really have a hard definition for myself.”
Nekessa Opoti immigrated to Minnesota in 2000 from the Kenyan city of Kisumu to attend college. “If you ask me to the core, what does it mean to be Kenyan? I don’t know what that answer is,” she says. “Just as if someone asks, me what does it mean to be American? I don’t know what that answer is, either.
“But I know who I am and I know how I move around the world.”
And that includes moving around in Minnesota.
“The biggest challenge I know of — Black queer people and other queer people in Minnesota have this problem — is anti-Blackness and racism,” Opoti said. “We have all these organizations that work on queer justice and LGBT rights and homelessness and all this — what is their lens on anti-Blackness? How are they undoing their own internal racism?”
Musinguzi’s lens captures Qui Alexander in the snowy Minnesota winter, wearing a big red jacket.
“I can’t get Puerto Rican food here,” said Alexander, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., with a Puerto Rican immigrant family and a Ugandan father. “The closest place I have to go is to Chicago. … There are Puerto Ricans in Minnesota, don’t get it twisted, but it’s a very small community. And I haven’t met very [many] queer people who are Puerto Rican.”
Musinguzi wants people “to feel themselves uncensored, and I want people to start thinking about life beyond the borders that have been presented to you.”
The Letter Formally Known as Q
Publisher: Wise Ink Creative Publishing.
Available: nmusinguzi.com, $30. Also can be purchased at Birchbark Books, Electric Fetus and the Minneapolis Institute of Art shop, or borrowed from Hennepin County Library.