Exist Otherwise Literary & Art Journal, Issue 7

black and white photo of a bald woman with prominent nose. double image with head in profile, the other looking askance.
self portrait by Claude Cahun

Exist Otherwise is one of my publications featuring creative writing and photography inspired by the gender-nonconforming writer, artist, and activist, Claude Cahun.

Claude Cahun was a Jewish French gender-bending writer, artist, activist, and anti-fascist in the first half of the last century. Their creative and political work centered on identity and opposition to cultural conformity. They were part of the surrealist movement, performed acts of symbolic cultural protest and propaganda, and was imprisoned for their work in the French Resistance.

Cahun was primarily a self-portraitist. They used personas and created tableaus, confessions, scripts, collages, montages, and sculptures that challenged cultural norms and expectations, particularly regarding gender and art. Their work included many surrealistic references, influences, and imagery.

Why Claude Cahun?

It’s reasonable to ask why I have chosen to model this journal after a gender-non-conforming woman (more about that label below). It was Cahun’s self portraits that first struck me because they remind me of some of my own self-portraits (at the time I was feeling insecure about being the focus of my own photos so I felt validated by their work). I also share their background and interest in photography, theatrical performance, and writing. So they have become a personal muse for me, as an artist. Cahun’s identity as a woman who defied social norms was also inspiring for me. As a person who has struggled with mental illness and childhood trauma I have always felt like a social misfit.

Cahun was born Lucy Schwob but published her writing and art under the name Claude Cahun. As far as I know, Cahun did not call herself a lesbian, homosexual, or even gender-nonconforming (if there was an equivalent expression in their time). Their lifetime partner and artistic collaborator also used an assumed name, Marcel Moore (they were born Suzanne Malherbe). Both names, Claude and Marcel, were ambiguous at the time, and could be either male or female. This makes clear that they weren’t presenting as male but were choosing not to be bound by gender. My use of the the pronouns, they/them for Cahun and Moore was influenced by Harper-Hugo Darling on the website Making Queer History.

Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.~ Claude Cahun.

Cahun and Moore were also activists in the French Resistance, and were imprisoned and sentenced to death. The end of the war resulted in their freedom. There is much about them that should be inspiring to anyone. I highly recommend the book whose title I appropriated for this project, “Exist Otherwise,” by Jennifer L. Shaw.

Getting Issue 7 ready was a bitch, and ate up all my creative time for the last couple of weeks. I'll be posting more original stuff here again very soon.

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Jamie Larson