‘No limits’: How non-binary First Nations poet Ellen van Neerven is queering sports writing

It’s difficult to know exactly how to categorise Ellen van Neerven’s story No Limits.

Part creative memoir, part reportage, part theoretical essay and part history lesson, the story weaves anecdotes of the poet’s own childhood playing football with conversations between three friends – Maddee, Zaky and Louis – as they meditate on their own experiences as trans and gender-diverse people who participate in community sport.

In No Limits, the voices and perspectives of LGBTQIA+ people in sport are given prominence.(Getty Images: Nick Taylor)

The genre of the piece is hard to pin down. It’s broken up into uneven, non-chronological segments with sub-headings like “SOVEREIGN GENDERS”, “DIFFICULT JOY” and “POWER”. It easily slides between lyrical, descriptive first-person and objective, academic third-person. It dedicates entire sections to the interviewees’ transcribed voices.

It plucks phrases from writers and athletes like Siufung Law, Jaiyah Saelua and Essa May Ranapiri and it draws upon First Nations cultural knowledge, history and language while critiquing Western patriarchal conceptions of gender and sexuality.

Of course, the difficulty — not knowing exactly where this piece fits within the broader web of Australian writing — is the point.

Just as its title suggests, No Limits defies and complicates (or “queers”) literary genres and forms in order to emphasise the radical nature of its subject matter: how trans and gender-diverse people challenge the traditional stereotypes and assumptions around gender and bodies that structure our everyday lives.

For van Neerven, there are few better prisms through which to triangulate this conversation than through the complex, yet rigid, space of sport.

A woman holds up a sign saying "BREAK THE BINARY" at a protest in New York City
Van Neerven’s upcoming non-fiction collection interrogates Western colonial constructions of gender, race, and sexuality in the realm of Australian sport.(Getty: Drew Angerer)

“I remember wanting to write something that was experimental and blurred the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, and was something that didn’t shy away from discussing sexuality or gender identity,” van Neerven told the ABC.

“When I was growing up, sexuality was really repressed. The environment that I was in was a really suppressed kind of environment, so me writing about sexuality, sex and gender identity is pushing back against all of the suppression that I had when I was growing up.

“One of them was that if you play soccer, you’re a lesbian. A lot of the girls I played with, they really pushed hard against that. If they were gay, they hid it. If they weren’t, they were still affected by it because they created a hyper-hetero-feminine presentation in how they acted and dressed to fit in.

“People would ask me when I was 13 or 14: ‘are you gay? Are you this? Are you that?’ People would ask me, ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ All this stuff. I didn’t really have any answers.

“Space politics is something I’m really interested in and that I try to represent in my work about sport. You’re growing up and you’re just trying to fit in and find your belonging: it’s a really ripe subject matter to write about.”

Making the personal political

No Limits forms part of a larger collection of work that van Neerven is compiling into a book titled Personal Score, recently acquired by University of Queensland Press.

When released, it will be one of the only collections of non-academic Australian sports writing told from the perspective of a queer, non-binary, First Nations writer, which also gives voice to some of the most marginalised communities within sport.

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It follows a small, if growing, trend of life writing in women’s sport that examines the tensions of culture, gender and sexuality, including USA footballer Megan Rapinoe’s One Life and Australian cricketer Alex Blackwell’s Fair Game.

“With the incredible upsurge in the popularity of women’s sport comes the potential to reshape the narratives around sport and culture,” the press release reads.

“As Personal Score examines, many athletes challenge mainstream views of gender and sexuality and use sport and their role within it to effect change not only in their own sporting realm but more broadly in the wider culture and society.

Reference-www.abc.net.au

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