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CFP: Queer Futurities in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Hi readers! I’m organizing/chairing a session at the MLA conference in New York City in January 2018. This is a non-guaranteed session that is sponsored by the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Forum. The call for papers is posted is below. Feel free to share this CFP widely to kidlit and queer studies scholars! ¡Gracias!

Queer Futurities in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Although we have recently seen the implementation of institutional changes that have altered the legal and socioeconomic status of queer people in the United States (i.e. United States v. Windsor in 2013 and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015), queer individuals continue to encounter discrimination, violence, and death based on their gender and/or sexual orientation. The stark rise in murders of trans people of color and the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting are just a few of the events that have disrupted the misguided sense of utopia instilled by institutional change, and have brought into question whether it is possible for queerness to link to notions of futurity.

Considering this climate of violence and prejudice, what is the role of queer futurity in contemporary children’s and young adult literature, especially since many texts in these genres are written with a utopic, future-oriented sensibility? How does youth literature with queer themes frame and enable readings of the future? Are these future-oriented texts politically and affectively viable, or are they normative and misguided in their approach? I seek papers that examine how recent children’s and young adult texts approach, problematize, or justify the link between queerness and futurity.

Proposed papers may approach this linkage through various approaches, including but not limited to: queer, narrative, temporal, and affective methodologies. This panel seeks to both nuance and complicate how queer children’s and young adult texts present different stakes in terms of their alignment towards or against futurity. Furthermore, papers should ideally think through the ways in which children’s and young adult literature either sustain or complicate approaches to queer futurities and temporalities prominent in the field of queer theory/studies (i.e. Muñoz, Ahmed, Edelman, Freeman, Halberstam, etc.). Submissions that include intersectional approaches towards queerness and futurity in youth literature are particularly welcome.

This is a non-guaranteed session for the 2018 MLA Convention in New York City sponsored by the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Forum. Please send 500-word proposals (including a working bibliography) to Angel Matos at amatos@bowdoin.edu by Wednesday, March 1. Session participants must be current members of MLA as of April 7, 2017.

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Course Syllabus: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Hello readers! As promised, here is the syllabus for a seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled (Im)Possible Lives: Young Adult Speculative Fiction, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program. The course description is as follows:

How do wizards, monsters, cyborgs, and dystopias shed light on precarious issues such as sexism, homophobia, racism, poverty, and illness? This seminar examines representations of identity and difference in young adult speculative fiction—texts created for younger audiences that include elements from genres such as fantasy, horror, science fiction, and magical realism. Students not only analyze the approaches that writers implement to construct hypothetical settings and characters, but also examine how speculative young adult novels depict different possibilities for existing and mattering in the world.

There are many goals that I have for this course. For the most part, I want students to realize the ways in which the content and structure of contemporary YA speculative fiction is symptomatic of many of the political, environmental, and sociopolitical crises that we face today in American society. In literature, film, and media, many have been exploring the issue of who matters, or who doesn’t matter. Particularly in social media discourse, we have seen a rise in attitudes such as homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, sexism, elitism, and so on and so on. We are also developing greater awareness of the violence experienced by people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrants. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to ignore violence (and violent discourse), and recent events have been pushing many of us to question the value and future of human life. Through these acts of hate and violence, however, many of us are recognizing the need for community, highlighting the importance of self-care, and developing a desire for safer, more collective ways of being and knowing.

I think that YA speculative fiction offers readers a unique opportunity to think through the aforementioned precarious issues, and I believe works in this genre will push my students and I to ask difficult questions and explore complex issues. Teaching this seminar is not going to be easy. It will involve difficult and tedious emotional and intellectual labor. But I think that my students and I will grow both as people and thinkers by the time the semester is through.

Part of what I find valuable about works categorized as YA speculative fiction is that they are often crafted with a Utopian bent, and they often envision alternatives to the suffocating and violent conditions of the present. Books in this genre are often exercises in positive affect, and they push readers to imagine, desire, and work for better ways of living in the world. Students and I will explore both the perks and the pitfalls of the ethical frameworks discussed in a selection of YA speculative novels that overtly include themes of gender, sexuality, race, and class. It is my hope that through this seminar, my students will not only learn more about themselves and their place in society, but they will also recognize the value and importance of narratives that deviate from normative paradigms. Furthermore, I hope that students will be able to recognize and discuss current and emerging trends in the genre of YA speculative fiction, especially the genre’s increasing penchant for non-traditional narrative forms and genre-blending.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my course syllabus by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it!

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The Intersection of Deaf and Gay Identity in Young Adult Literature

I’m thrilled to announce the publication in my essay “Without a word or sound”: Enmeshing Deaf and Gay Identity in Young Adult Literature.
This essay is found in an critical volume edited by Jacob Stratman entitled Lessons in Disability: Essays on Teaching with Young Adult Literature, published by McFarland Press (November 2015).

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Front cover of Lessons in Disability (2015)

Although not obvious at first, queer studies and Deaf/disability studies share a solid theoretical foundation. In this essay, I discuss how two young adult novels–Andrew Smith’s Stick and Brian Sloan’s A Really Nice Prom Mess–construct gayness and deafness, focusing on how content and/or form pushes one to approach deaf and gay identity in unprecedented ways.

I argue that the concurrent literary exploration of deafness and queerness allows these works to seek alternative models of kinship that are not reliant on privileged and normative practices. By representing events in which (spoken) language and heternormativity are made strange, these young adult novels depict imagined worlds that can be read as anti-hierarchical, non-neutral, and queer. By assisting readers in considering the strangeness of normativity, these novels provide a venue where comfort and optimism triumph in moments of anguish, and where solutions are provided to counteract the pressures of normativity. This essay, ultimately, is intended to serve as a model for how poststructuralist readings can aid readers and scholars in performing reparative critiques of young adult novels with disabled and/or queer characters.

Further complicating the stakes of my readings, the young adult novels that I scrutinize depict deafness as a spectrum; these novels portray characters that blur the lines between the deaf and the hearing. Stick and Prom Mess depict characters that cannot hear through one of their ears due to either a birth defect or accident. One can situate these characters on the fringes of the constructed abled/disabled binary, thus challenging the legitimacy and usefulness of this dichotomy in the first place. These partially deaf characters will allow me to explore the contours of subjugated identities, allowing me to develop an understanding of how hierarchy and power play a role in the imagined lives of teens that are not-quite-abled, and concurrently not-quite-disabled.

I hope you enjoy this essay! If you have any comments or questions about it, I will gladly address them in this post. You can read a manuscript excerpt of my essay by clicking here. You can also purchase a copy of the book here.

Featured image courtesy of Bert Heymans. Click here for the image file.

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Structure and Development in Mark Haddon’s [The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time]

Front cover of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Front cover of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The publication history of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the God in the Night-Time (2003) is indeed very curious, mostly because it was deliberately marketed as both a children’s book and an adult novel. This leads me to invoke a pressing issue among scholars and readers who are concerned with narratives of youth: is it possible, nowadays, to have a text (novel, film, etc.) with a child or teenage protagonist and not have it classified as a children’s or young adult work? The answer to this question is beyond the scope of this blog post, but it is a useful question to keep in mind when approaching Haddon’s novel. The novel portrays themes that both teens and adults can appreciate, and the prose is direct and simple due to the narrator’s direct and no-nonsense approach to the world. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is in essence a fictional story intended to be perceived as the non-fictional narrative of Christopher Boone, a fifteen year-old teenager with autism. The narrative style and structure of this novel is interesting for many reasons:

  1. The text itself is intended to be approached a mystery novel written by the protagonist, initially focused on his attempt to figure out who murdered his neighbor’s poodle.
  2. Although Christopher acknowledges his role as an author, his teacher/therapist, Siobhan, plays the role of the enigmatic editor. Not only does she offer Christopher suggestions in terms of content, but she also scans his writing to assure that the prose is grammatically correct.
  3. Due to Christopher’s autism, he is incapable of lying (due primarily to his inability and discomfort with imagining scenarios and ideas that are not tethered to reality).
  4. The prose within the novel is accompanied by a series of diagrams and illustrations that facilitate Christopher’s ability to explain key (and at times mundane) aspects of the novel’s plot (see image below).
  5. The novel is a work in progress, and it can be considered epistolary in nature (to some extent).
  6. Christopher uses footnotes to add further explanatory valance to his claims.
Sample of the combination of text and image in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time. In this diagram, Christopher explains the arbitrary nature of constellations, and how they can potentially represent anything to anyone.

Sample of the combination of text and image in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time. In this diagram, Christopher explains the arbitrary nature of constellations, and how they can potentially represent anything to anyone.

The structure of the novel mirrors Christopher’s approach to the world, which is based on logic, deduction, truth, and objectivity. Christopher doesn’t express his emotions easily, and he has a difficult time reading the feelings of others. Christopher avidly hates being touched, he has a penchant for animals and dark enclosed spaces, he is a genius when it comes to math and puzzles, and as suggested previously, he has difficulty in envisioning scenarios that have not occurred in his actual life. Something that surprised me (and that surprises other characters in the novel) is that despite his logical approach of the world, he partakes in actions and thoughts that might be considered whimsical or downright superstitious, such as his immense hatred of the colors yellow and brown, and how he believes that certain color patterns of cars that drive by him are able to predict how good or bad a day will be: “In the bus on the way to school next morning we passed 4 red cars in a row, which meant that it was a Good Day, so I decided not to be sad about Wellington [the neighbor’s dog that was killed]” (24). Despite the fact that this may seem illogical, this seemingly arbitrary influence is actually a way for Christopher to give order to the chaos that surrounds him–and later on, he points out that other people’s days frequently become good or bad due to arbitrary circumstances (such as weather).

What intrigued me the most about this book is how Haddon is masterfully able to depict a voice that deviates from the norm without having Christopher lament his own pathology–an effect that is achieved by writing the story in a first-person point-of-view. He does not view himself as disabled, but rather, he views normalcy as incongruous, contradictory, and illogical. Christopher portrays himself as a beacon of light within a world of stupidity. I will be honest by saying that I don’t know many autistic people, so it is impossible to tell whether Haddon is able to accurately capture the thought-processes, attitudes, and feelings of an autistic person. According to an article posted in Huff Post Books, many people, especially those have autism or who know autistic people, believe that the book is an inaccurate and irresponsible portrayal of Asperger syndrome or autism due to its overemphasis on Christopher’s “strangeness” and his inability to cope with society at large.  Haddon himself claims that the central topic of the novel is not autism, but rather, the trials of a young genius with behavioral issues.  I do know, however, that autism varies in terms of degree and in terms of expression, so it is obvious that the case presented in the book will not necessarily match the case or the experience of every autistic person out there.

While I do believe that there are major issues of representation in this novel, I do not think that this should hinder one from focusing on the emancipatory potential this novel possesses, especially when it comes to highlighting the clash between essentialist and constructivist views of disability. While at times the novel does present autism as a neurological condition that presents symptoms that are beyond Christopher’s control, there are also many instances where people in his environment tend to pathologize him in excess. This is evidenced by how the father approaches the sudden absence of Christopher’s mother: rather than acknowledging the fact that the mother ran away with another man, Christopher’s father decides to tell him that his mother died of a heart attack, wrongfully assuming that Christopher would be unable to understand why his mother abandoned him. Although Christopher does exhibit seemingly “strange” habits and approaches to his surroundings, I think the novel pushes us to question whether this “strangeness” is something inherent within him or something that we project onto him.

What we have here is a coming-of-age novel that challenges what it means to develop, and what it means to come-of-age in the first place. We encounter a protagonist discovering who he is, what he wants, and what he desires. However, he also becomes aware of the limitations he has, the limitations that society imposes on him, and how to transgress said limitations. The novel is not about assimilating to society, but rather, it is about challenging it. We usually think of development as a linear and standard process with normative goals in mind, yet what we witness in Haddon’s novel is a protagonist trying to identify alternative modes of growing in a society that only expects so much growth from this person in the first place. This growth is achieved not through conventional behavior and not through an embrace of love and virtue, but rather, through the art of writing, through mystery solving, through travel, and through logic.

You can purchase a copy of Haddon’s novel here.

Work Cited:

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Print.

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back

John Corey Whaley’s “Where Things Come Back” – A Haunting and Truly Thought-Provoking Read

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back

It is difficult to find quality young adult novels with a sensitive male teenager as the protagonist. While this has to do with the stereotypes generally tied to readers of the genre, the rarity of this character also has a lot to do with issues and perceptions of gender in contemporary society. There is something about the male teenager (who openly expresses his emotions) that tends to irk some people; in tandem, this lack says a lot about the social expectations of masculinity, in which it is deemed that men should be stoic drones incapable of feeling. Nonetheless, some of the greatest young adult classics are written through this rare perspective, including but not limited to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

John Corey Whaley‘s Where Things Come Back (you can read a summary of the novel’s plot here) can genealogically be traced to these aforementioned novels, not only because it delves deeply into the psyche of a male teenager, but also because it is beautifully written, honest, and challenging. By challenging, I am not referring to the complexity of the prose, but rather the complexity of the ideas that are philosophized in the narrative. Rather than complying with the linearity and predictability found in most coming-of-age plots, Whaley offers the reader a challenging puzzle without giving the reader all of the necessary pieces to form a complete picture. This is truly where the novel shines: rather than providing the reader with all of the answers, it is deliberately ambiguous, thus forcing readers to come up with their own meanings. As one of the characters of the novel posits towards its conclusion, “life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life” (227).

Structurally speaking, the novel is one of the most experimental that I have encountered within the young adult genre. First and foremost, it offers what at first seems to be two entirely different stories, yet these bifurcated narrative paths begin to merge in unexpected (and heartbreaking) ways. Secondly, the protagonist of the novel, Cullen Witter, tells the narrative mostly from a first-person perspective, except in instances where he is (day)dreaming, reflecting, or analyzing his own thoughts. During these latter moments, the perspective shifts into a self-referential third-person point-of-view, as can be seen in the following passage:

When one’s parents storm out of the house followed by a psychic who is still holding his missing brother’s T-shirt and book, he stands up, looks into his mother’s eyes, and wonders where they are headed. (108)

This not only creates the illusion of the character trying to create a split between the real and the imaginary, but it also illustrates the protagonist’s attempt to actively live life while simultaneously trying to escape from it. The narrative shifts entirely to a third-person perspective when focusing on the plots of other characters.

It is very difficult for me to categorize this novel thematically due to the presence of many issues and tensions within the plot (something characteristic of most coming-of-age novels), which includes religion, violence, love, sex, death, and uncertainty. To further add to the novel’s sense of ambiguity, it is at times difficult to determine whether these issues are approached cynically or optimistically, especially when it comes to the ending. The novel embraces postmodernity (intentionally or unintentionally) by constantly destabilizing meanings and offering multiple perspectives to complex issues. The most intriguing of these destabilizations, in my opinion, was the novel’s treatment of religion, especially as distilled from the perspective of a Christian missionary, a delusional religious fanatic, and the everyday practitioner of religion. The novel also deliberates the issue of fate, pushing one to question the extent to which events are connected and to which our actions and thoughts are predetermined.

The main character of the novel is certainly memorable, but the most intriguing character for me was the Christian missionary, Benton Sage, who at first is the focus of the novel’s secondary narrative (warning: major spoilers ahead!). Benton Sage is a Christian (I assume he’s Mormon, even though this is never explicitly mentioned in the novel) who disrupts his evangelical mission in Africa because he feels that he is not doing much to provide salvation to the country’s residents; his appointed tasks are focused more on charity rather than on preaching. This character is fully immersed in his religion, to the point where he admits that he has few other interests in life, such as music or the arts, because these are not creations of God: “Well, I’ve always sort of thought that if the Lord didn’t make it, then it doesn’t need to be made. So I kind of just stick to the scriptures” (42).

Benton is not only shunned by his family because of his inability to carry on with his mission in Africa, but his future college roommate even goes as far as to speculate that Benton is gay… an interesting claim, seeing as Benton’s roommate is described in a very suggestive and provocative fashion: “Before him stood a tall, lean, and muscular boy around his age with neatly combed brown hair, piercing eyes, and a serious look about him” (78). Alas, the reader is unable to delve too deeply into Benton’s psyche because he eventually commits suicide relatively early on in the narrative–and an explanation for this suicide is implied, although never explicitly stated. Benton’s insecurities, obsessions, and religious fixations transfer to his roommate, Cabot Searcy, who will later be the source of most of the tensions found in the novel.

Where Things Come Back, as the title of this post suggests, has been one of the most haunting reads that I’ve encountered in a long time, and it will definitely be a text that will linger in my mind as I continue to explore issues of personal development, gender, and growth in young adult fiction. It exudes quiet passion and heartbreak, invoking the desperation and the helplessness that is felt when trying to make sense of the ups and downs of life. The book is greatly reminiscent of the other great works of young adult fiction, such as The Catcher in the Rye, Flowers for Algernon, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it also adds an original twist to the implications of growing-up and facing the harsh realities of life. I recommend this read if you are looking for something that is simultaneously puzzling, meaningful, and beautiful. I am definitely looking forward to reading Whaley’s future work.

Primary Source:

Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. New York: Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), 2011. Print.

Bring On the Books for Everbody

On the Evolution of Literary Culture – Jim Collins’ “Bring on the Books for Everybody”

One of the greatest challenges throughout my years engaged in graduate study has been the struggle to validate my field. Validation certainly is a problem in the humanities, especially with the advent and reign of STEM fields and areas. However, even within the field of English, I am constantly met with ridicule, or sometimes scorn, when I tell some of my colleagues that I  primarily work with teen and young adult literature. This has to do with the fact that there are some who consider the study of YA literature to lack the challenge and the intellectual rigor that “authentic” forms of literature fully embody. I find it very curious, however, that some literary scholars dismiss these forms of literature, when most of the time, it is the YA genre that sparked our love for literature in the first place.

Bring On the Books for Everbody

Trying to argue for the usefulness of inclusion of certain genres within the literary field is indeed challenging. However, the primary reason that this challenge is seemingly insurmountable can be attributed to people who think that the label of the “literary” is static and impervious to change. I recently read Jim Collin’s wonderful book titled Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture, and in due course, this text was a delightful and in-depth exploration of how notions of the literary have rapidly transformed over the past few decades due to developments in multimedia, social networking, and book marketing. Furthermore, the book insightfully illustrates how the literary has melded into the realm of the popular despite the futile attempts to keep these two domains apart.

In his book, Jim Collins explores how popular literary culture developed during the 1990s due primarily to changes in terms how books are marketed, distributed, and sold, and also due to the emergence of different systems of literary expertise: one system based on the validation of literary texts based on their ability to be different and experimental (a.k.a. “literary”) and another system based on the authentication of good literature based on its ability to inspire, promote change, or authenticate feelings/desires for self-improvement. Collins’ explores how the appreciation and practice of literary texts has transcended from an appreciation of literature based on an author’s or text’s “transcendent literary genius” (183) to an appreciation of literature based on its ability to connect people, spark conversation, and speak to a particular community’s set of values, experiences, and expectations.

Part of what I found so convincing about Collins’ book was his reconfiguration of the notions of literary taste and literary communities. Traditionally, when speaking of literature, we tend to resort to the use of hierarchies in order to establish what texts deserve the literary crown, and which texts should remain within the lowest ranks of this pecking order. This notion was made very clear to me when I was once having a discussion with one of my colleagues, in which I was trying to defend Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games series as literary. I thought the series was noteworthy not only because it is an entertaining read, but also because it thoroughly explores issues that some readers otherwise would be oblivious to (i.e. capitalism, social injustice, etc.). My colleague, on the other hand, thought that the series was “poorly written” and that it was too focused on the ventures of a “whiny protagonist.” What we had here was a clash not only of taste, but also in terms of our identifications with particular reading communities. But were any of us wrong? According to Jim Collins, not necessarily so.

Do you consider the Hunger Games to be literary? Why or why not?

Do you think The Hunger Games  has “literary” merit? Why or why not?

Collins focuses on how emerging literary markets, especially those found online in sites such as Amazon.com and large book chains such as Barnes & Noble, are based not on hierarchical tastes, but rather, on the acknowledgment of “different reading communities as coequal options” (78-9). This can especially be seen by the Listmania lists that certain readers develop in Amazon, in which people resort to book recommendations not based on a hierarchy of what is good or bad, but rather, on how well a reader’s own literary taste matches with that of the list creator (thus converting the list creator into someone whose literary judgment can be trusted). The Web has enhanced the existence and prominence of particular reading groups and communities, especially with the advent of websites such as Goodreads, which allows users to generate lists based on the votes and opinions of thousands of readers. My discussion with my colleague in terms of the Hunger Games series not only exemplifies our belonging to different reading communities, but it also represents a clash between traditional and current understandings of literary culture.

Collins further explores this tension by focusing on how forms of popular culture have not only become more “literary” as time has progressed, but also how these forms further fuel the perpetuation of a literary culture that is wrongfully deemed lost. Whether it be through film adaptations, through television shows, through social powerhouses such as Oprah’s Book Club, or even through other forms unexplored by Collins, such as video games and internet blogs—the way we experience the literary is no longer bound to text. Did you delve into Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby though writing, or did you recently watch the 2013 adaptation? Are you familiar with the life of Leonardo Da Vinci through encyclopedias and history books, or do you watch the 2013 television series Da Vinci’s Demons? Have you experienced Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the playtext, through a performance, through the Sparknotes available online, through a comic book, or through one of the many movie adaptations (such as the 1996 version by Kenneth Branagh)? Perhaps the divide between literary and popular culture is not as engulfing as many assume it to be. As brilliantly put by Collins:

Popular literary culture represents a powerful counterargument to the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, since it is built, from the ground up, on the interdependency of the print and visual culture, not a world of books versus wall screens, which persists only within an ideology of reading that can accept just one form of literacy and, therefore, must demonize all electronic culture. (265)

I think that an awareness of how literary culture has changed will be extremely usefully, especially for those who explore non-canonical or non-traditional literary forms. At least within my own studies, I am sure that Collins’ discussion will serve as a sturdy platform for my explorations within the young adult genre, a genre that in due course thrived with the advent of today’s popular literary culture. If you’re seeking a way to situate your understanding of literature within the landscape of popular culture, or if you simply need to encounter an optimistic spin on the literary future of contemporary society, then I definitely suggest that you give this book a look.

Primary Source:

Collins, Jim. Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

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“On the Evolution of Literary Culture – Jim Collins’ Bring on the Books for Everybody” was first published at http://angelmatos.net on June 11th, 2013.

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My Ultimate Reading Challenge – The Reading List for My PhD Candidacy Examinations

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Part of the requirements for the doctoral degree in English at the University of Notre Dame are written and oral exams (which I will take in March of 2014). The exams are a requirement that demonstrate that all doctoral students have in-depth knowledge of a major field, a secondary field, and a literary theory/methodology, in order to assure that we are thoroughly prepared for teaching and dissertation writing. For these exams, we are all required to construct a reading list for three areas of specialization. The list for our major field should contain approximately 75 works, whereas the reading lists for our secondary field and the literary theory/methodology should contain about 50 works each–for a grand total of about 175 works. This means that we have about ten months to read and familiarize ourselves with these works. Yikes!

After a lot of thought and research, I have decided that my major field will be Contemporary American Literature (1945-Present). My secondary field will be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Literature, and my literary theory/methodology will be Queer Materiality (which fuses readings within the areas of Queer Theory, Queer Cultural Studies, and the Materiality/Sociology of Texts). Professors Susan Cannon Harris (chair), Kinohi Nishikawa, Matt Wilkens, and Barry McCrea have graciously agreed to be part of my examination committee. I am very thankful fo their support and their interest in my project. The lists below were constructed thanks to my committee’s  advice and input, and thanks to extended periods of online and library research. What I have below is a description of each area, along with the reading list that I developed for this list.

Now, in terms of making this a challenge, for every single work that I read, I plan to write a blog post with my thoughts, opinions, and concerns about the work–think of these posts as mini book reviews. If all goes as planned, I should have a total of 176 posts related to my candidacy exams. Each time I write one of these reviews, I will update this post and provide links to the review next to the works’ title. Not only will this help me keep track of what I have read, but it will allow me to share my thoughts an opinions of these texts with the world. Wish me luck!

EXAM AREA I – CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN LITERATURE (1945-PRESENT)

(Historical Field)

These works are typically approached as Post-World War and postmodern, and the list has a heavy emphasis on works published between the 40s and the 60s. Although my primary interest is in the area of gay fiction, I have decided to make contemporary American literature my primary field seeing as it is a more marketable area within the field of English and literary studies. I would claim that my main area of expertise within this area is the coming-of-age narrative, particularly focusing on issues of gender and sexuality in the coming-of-age process. Seeing as texts that are typically dubbed coming-of-age narratives are usually concerned with readers’ self-identification with characters in the text, many items in this list are works that would be considered “middlebrow.” The items included in all of my sub-lists are works that reflect the aforementioned themes within an American and postmodern context.

I am interested in determining whether gendered or queer issues manifest in coming-of-age texts that are not typically approached as queer—thus, I deliberately avoided the inclusion of queer texts within the novels section of this list, as they are included within my second list on LGBTQ fiction. In addition to the notion of “coming-of-age” and gender, I am also invested in the marketing and sociology of texts within a “globalized” postmodern American context. Thus, in conjunction with coming-of-age texts, I have also included novels that have helped to shape the globalized American literary landscape that we live in today—which is why my young adult fiction section also includes important global novels that have had a major impact on the young adult market.

I.A – Novels

  1. Alice Walker. The Color Purple (1982)
  2. Ana Castillo. So Far From God (1993)
  3. Art Spiegelman. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History (1986)
  4. Bret Easton Ellis. American Psycho (1991)
  5. Cristina Carcia. Dreaming in Cuban (1992)
  6. David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest (1996)
  7. Don Delillo. White Noise (1985)
  8. James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
  9. Jack Kerouac. On the Road (1957)
  10. Jonathan Safran Foer. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
  11. Joseph Heller. Catch-22 (1961)
  12. Junot Díaz. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
  13. Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  14. Matthew Quick. Silver Linings Playbook (2010)
  15. Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
  16. Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man (1952)
  17. Sandra Cisneros. The House on Mango Street (1984)
  18. Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar (1963)
  19. Thomas Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
  20. Toni Morrison. Beloved (1987)
  21. Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita (1955)

I.B – Short Stories

  1. Abraham Rodriguez. “Boy Without A Flag” (1992)
  2. Anne Proulx. “Brokeback Mountain” (1997)
  3. James Baldwin. “Sonny’s Blues” (1957)
  4. John Barth. “Lost in the Funhouse” (1968)
  5. John Updike. Pigeon Feathers (1962)
  6. Norman Mailer. “The Man Who Studied Yoga” (1959)
  7. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)
  8. Sandra Cisneros. Woman Hollering Creek: The Collection (1991)

I.C – Drama

  1. Amiri Baraka. Dutchman (1964)
  2. Arthur Miller. Death of a Salesman (1949)
  3. Arthur Miller. A View from the Bridge (1955)
  4. August Wilson. The Piano Lesson (1990)
  5. David Henry Hwang. M. Butterfly (1986)
  6. Edward Albee. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)
  7. Eugene O’Neill. Bound East for Cardiff (1914). Click here for my discussion of this O’Neill play.
  8. Eugene O’Neill. The Hairy Ape (1922)
  9. Eugene O’Neill. Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956)
  10. John Guare. Six Degrees of Separation (1990)
  11. Lorraine Hansberry. A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
  12. Tennessee Williams. Camino Real (1953)
  13. Tennessee Williams. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
  14. Tony Kushner. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993)
  15. William Friedkin. The Boys in the Band (1970)

I.D – Poetry

  1. Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991)
  2. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956)
  3. Elizabeth Bishop. The Complete Poems (1984)
  4. Frank O’Hara. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (1995)
  5. John Ashberry. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1976)
  6. Sylvia Plath. Ariel (1965)

I.E-1 – Young Adult Novels (Supplementary List)

  1. Daniel Keyes. Flowers for Algernon (1958). Click here for my discussion of Keyes’ novel.
  2. Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  3. J.D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  4. John Corey Whaley. Where Things Come Back (2011). Click here for my discussion of Whaley’s novel.
  5. John Green. Looking for Alaska (2005)
  6. Judy Blume. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970)
  7. Judy Blume. Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (1971)
  8. Lois Lowry. The Giver (1993)
  9. Madeleine L’Engle. A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
  10. Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game (1985)
  11. Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War (1974)
  12. Scott Westerfield. Uglies (2005)
  13. S.E. Hinton. The Outsiders (1967)
  14. Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)
  15. Stephanie Meyer. Twilight (2005)
  16. Stephen Chbosky. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999). Click here for my discussion of Chbosky’s novel.
  17. Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games (2008)

I.E-2 – Global Young Adult Novels

  1. Diana Wynne Jones. Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
  2. Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
  3. J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). Click here for my discussion of Rowling’s novel.
  4. Mark Haddon. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2004)
  5. Philip Pullman. The Golden Compass (1995)
  6. T.H. White. The Once and Future King (1958)

I.F – Criticism

  1. Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1990)
  2. Joan L. Knickerbocker, Martha A. Bruggeman, James A. Rycik. Literature for Young Adults: Books (and More) for Contemporary Readers (2012)
  3. Mark McGurl. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2011)
  4. Michael Cart. From Romance to Realism: Fifty Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature (2010)
  5. Stuart Sim. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (2011)
  6. Richard Gray. A History of American Literature (2011)

EXAM AREA II – LGBTQ FICTION

(Special Topic Field)

As of now, I envision my dissertation project as an analysis of the intersection between the areas of fiction, queer theory, and middlebrow culture. Part of my focus will be the concept of coming out and concealment, not only in terms of a novel’s content, but also in terms of its marketing and design. Thus, my project will ultimately have a dual focus in that I will pay close attention to matters of queerness and the closet as applied to the coming-of-age narrative and the materiality of the books themselves, delving later on into a discussion of how the digital age has expanded (or perhaps even shattered) the limits of this, as Sedgwick would put it, queer space. In due course, I want to present myself as a scholar who is well versed in the realm of novels that deal directly with LGBTQ concerns, issues, and representations. My hope is that in addition to working with contemporary American novels, I will ultimately be able to teach classes focused exclusively on LGBTQ fiction. With this in mind, although this list will focus heavily on contemporary fiction published after the “gay boom” in the late 90s up to the present day, I also want to develop a historical awareness of the novels and works that paved the way towards a possible market of LGBTQ fiction—especially novels that were published prior to the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

Although in my past work I have focused heavily on issues and concerns pertaining to the male tradition of gay literature, I am seeking to expand my current scope of queer texts by including a healthy sample of texts within lesbian, transgender, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex traditions (even though the gay male tradition is far more prevalent). Keeping in line with my interest in coming-of-age fiction and issues of materiality, a large portion of these LGBTQ texts are classified within the young adult genre—especially when considering that in today’s literary market, young adult fiction is the genre in which queer issues have been able to flourish, due primarily to its middlebrow and so-called didactic nature. Seeing as LGBTQ fiction can, to some extent, be considered a niche market, I have decided to approach this genre from a global Anglophone rather than a purely American perspective in order to determine how queer and coming-out narratives, in addition to the books’ marketing, are influenced by their specific geographical locations.

II. A – LGBTQ Novels and Prose

  1. Achy Obejas. Memory Mambo (1996)
  2. Alan Hollinghusrt. The Line of Beauty (2004)
  3. Alison Bechdel. Fun Home (2006)
  4. Armistead Maupin. Tales of the City (1978)
  5. Barry McCrea. The First Verse (2005)
  6. Bret Easton Ellis. The Rules of Attraction (1987)
  7. Christopher Isherwood. A Single Man (1964)
  8. Colm Tóibín. The Blackwater Lightship (1999)
  9. Djuna Barnes. Nightwood (1936)
  10. Dorothy Allison. Bastard Out of Carolina (1992)
  11. E.M. Forster. Maurice (1971)
  12. Edmund White. A Boy’s Own Story (1982)
  13. Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited (1945)
  14. James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room (1956)
  15. Jamie O’Neill. At Swim, Two Boys (2001)
  16. Jeanette Winterson. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
  17. Jeanette Winterson. Written on the Body (1994)
  18. Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex (2002)
  19. Leslie Feinberg. Stone Butch Blues (2003)
  20. Melvin Dixon. Vanishing Rooms (1991)
  21. Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (2000)
  22. Michael Cunningham. A Home at the End of the World (1990)
  23. Michael Cunningham. The Hours (1998). Click here for my discussion of Cunningham’s novel.
  24. Patrick McCabe. Breakfast on Pluto (1998)
  25. Radclyffe Hall. The Well of Loneliness (1928)
  26. Rita Mae Brown. Rubyfruit Jungle (1973)
  27. Sarah Waters. Tipping the Velvet (1998)
  28. Scott Heim. Mysterious Skin (2005)

II.B – LGBTQ Young Adult Fiction

  1. Alex Sanchez. Rainbow Boys (2001)
  2. Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)
  3. Brent Hartinger. Geography Club (2003)
  4. Brian Katcher. Almost Perfect (2009)
  5. David Levithan. Boy Meets Boy (2003)
  6. Eddie De Oliveira. Lucky (2004). Click here for my discussion of De Oliveira’s novel.
  7. Ellen Wittlinger. Hard Love (2001)
  8. Ellen Wittlinger. Parrotfish (2011)
  9. J.C. Lillis. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)
  10. J.M. Colail. Wes and Toren (2009)
  11. John Donovan. I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969) – Click here for my review of Donovan’s novel. 
  12. John Green and David Levithan. Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010)
  13. Julie Anne Peters. Luna (2006)
  14. Justin Torres. We the Animals (2011). Click here for my discussion of Torres’ novel. 
  15. Martin Wilson. What They Always Tell Us (2009). Click here for my discussion of Wilson’s novel.
  16. Nancy Garden. Annie on My Mind (1982)
  17. Nick Burd. The Vast Fields of Ordinary (2009)
  18. Perry Moore. Hero (2007)

II.C – LGBTQ History and Criticism

  1. Christopher Bram. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (2012)
  2. Claude J. Summers. Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (2002)
  3. Kenneth B. Kidd and Michelle Ann Abate. Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature (2011)
  4. Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins. The Heart Has its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004. (2006)

EXAM AREA III – QUEER MATERIALITY

(Theoretical/Methodological Field) 

Seeing as my dissertation project will focus on issues such as coming out, concealment, confession, circulation, and distribution, immersion in the realms of queer theory and the sociology/materiality of texts will be crucial to my study. The fusion between queer theory and the materiality/sociology of texts is one that has been vastly underexplored within studies of gay fiction, and in my estimation, this is due primarily to the fact that the aims of these studies, at first, seem radically different. Queer theory problematizes the male/female binaries while in turn addressing other dichotomies within the domains of sexuality and pluralistic identities. Queer theory approaches identity, as Jonathan Kemp points out in “Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future,” as a porous, unfixed, and intersectional entity that takes into consideration multiple cultural facets, including but not limited to race, gender, religion, and nationality, among others. Crucial within this approach are goals such as the disruption of binary approaches, the notions of reproductive futurism, and ideas concerning affect and the body. Furthermore, a strand of queer studies also has an obvious activist and emancipatory mission.

I think these issues would mesh in an interesting and productive fashion with the materiality and sociology of texts, which focuses mostly on how the textual, paratextual, political, and cultural elements of literary productions work in conjunction to circulate texts within the social sphere—particularly when it comes to the role of the closet and “concealment.” I think queer theory, particularly when it comes to notions such as the closet, futurity, and affect, will provide a rich and innovate spin on the materiality/sociology of texts, a spin that will ultimately prove to be quite fruitful when it comes to the analysis of the socio-cultural dimensions of LGBTQ texts, which in and of themselves actively align themselves against the status quo.

III.A – Queer Theory

  1. David Ross Fryer. Thinking Queerly: Race, Sex, Gender, and the Ethics of Identity (2011)
  2. E.L. McCallum. Queer Times, Queer Becomings (2011)
  3. Elizabeth Freeman. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010)
  4. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Click here for my discussion of Sedgwick’s book.
  5. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003)
  6. Ian Barnard. Queer Race: Cultural Interventions into the Racial Politics of Queer Theory (2004)
  7. John D’Emilio. “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983)
  8. Jose Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)
  9. Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)
  10. Judith Butler. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004)
  11. Judith Butler. Undoing Gender (2004)
  12. Judith Halberstam. Female Masculinity (1998) and The Queer Art of Failure (2011)
  13. Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004)
  14. Leo Bersani. Is the Rectum a Grave?: and Other Essays (2009)
  15. Lynne Huffer. Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (2009)
  16. Michael Warner. The Trouble with Normal (1999)
  17. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume I (1976)
  18. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume II (1984)
  19. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume III (1984)
  20. Roderick Ferguson. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2004)
  21. Sarah Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006) and The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). Click here for my discussion of Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

III.B – Queer Materiality and Queer Cultural Studies

  1. David Savran. A Queer Sort of Materialism (2003)
  2. Elisa Glick. Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol (2009)
  3. Guy Davidson. Queer Commodities (2012)
  4. Heather K. Love. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007)
  5. Jaime Harker. Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America (2013)
  6. Kathryn Bond Stockton. The Queer Child, or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009)
  7. Kevin Floyd. The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism (2009)
  8. Michael Moon. A Small Boy and Others: Imitation and Initiation in American Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol (1998)
  9. Michael Trask. Cruising Modernism: Class and Sexuality in American Literature and Social Thought (2003)
  10. Michael Warner. Publics and Counterpublics (2005)
  11. Samuel R. Delany. Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & the Politics of the Paraliterary (2000)
  12. Scott Herring. Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (2010)
  13. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, eds. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children (2004)
  14. Susan Stryker. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback (2001)

III.C – Materiality and the Sociology of Texts

  1. Andrew Piper. Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (2012)
  2. Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities (1983)
  3. D.F. McKenzie. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1999)
  4. Gérard Genette. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (2001)
  5. Janice A. Radway. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984)
  6. Jim Collins. Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture (2010). Click here for my discussion of Collins’ book.
  7. Jürgen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991)
  8. Kathryn Sutherland and Marilyn Deegan. Text Editing, Print and the Digital World (2008)
  9. Nicole Matthews and Nickianne Moody. Judging a Book by its Cover (2007)
  10. Pierre Bourdieu. The Field of Cultural Production (1993)
  11. Raymond Williams. The Long Revolution (1961) and The Sociology of Culture (1982)
  12. Ted Striphas. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (2011)

– – –

Image above courtesy of Surachai / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Beyond “Words, Words, Words”: Soliloquies, the Graphic Novel, and the Great Shakespearean Divide

The following post is an excerpt from an article I am working on originally written for my class on Shakespeare: Editing and Performance, offered by Peter Holland at the University of Notre Dame (Spring 2012). This paper was presented at the 2013 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 20th, 2013.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

Beyond “Words, Words, Words”:

Soliloquies, the Graphic Novel, and the Great Shakespearean Divide

The fourth soliloquy in Hamlet, commonly referred to as the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is considered to be the crown jewel of the play. It is not only the portion of Hamlet that is most referenced to in scholarship and popular culture, but it has become intricately tied with the concept of the soliloquy itself. When watching a performance of the play, it is the moment that we most anticipate as spectators, and its delivery has the capacity to either enhance or damage the overall perceptions, attitudes, and affinities of the play as a whole. This is precisely because this soliloquy not only encapsulates the core issues and rhetorical appeals of the plot, but also because it outwardly presents the most intense and direct codification of who prince Hamlet is, and more importantly, who he is not.

But this codification is more complex than it initially presents itself as being. Hamlet’s struggle is simply not a matter of choosing what to be or what not to be, but rather, it is also his struggle to define himself within an external world with demands of its own. Furthermore, the complexity of codifying this soliloquy is enhanced when taking into account its inherent disorganization and enigma, and the fact that readers and viewers tend to overestimate their familiarity with the speech. As Douglas Bruster argues in his treatment of this pinnacle soliloquy:

While Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy remains one of the central speeches of all of Western culture, it is also one of the most mysterious. There are reasons for this mystery. […] the speech as a whole is quite messy. And its beginning (the most orderly part of the soliloquy) seems so familiar that we think we know the entire speech better than we do. No matter how many times we hear it begun, though, it is easy for us to get lost in the middle and end. […] the speech turns on itself time and again, sometimes like the back-and-forth rallies in a tennis match, at others like the coils of a snake moving sideways through the grass.

This disorder and ambiguity increases the difficulty of determining the intentions of Hamlet’s monologue and its overall climactic role within the structure of the play. Moreover, it becomes tricky to determine whether the target of Hamlet’s words is either himself or an external force in the form of King Claudius: is Hamlet contemplating suicide in the fourth soliloquy, or is he debating between action and inaction towards his uncle? Once again, we find ourselves in a situation in which language fails to sustain an exact interpretation of Hamlet’s words, and thus, we rely on performative interpretation to point us toward a specific direction.

What is clear, however, is that the soliloquy is designed to challenge and shatter dichotomous views present within Hamlet’s perspectives, making clear that life does not consist of clear-cut choices, and that all decisions ultimately bear consequences. Keeping the literary, contextual, cultural, and structural importance of the fourth soliloquy in mind, it would be easy to assume that graphic novel adaptations of Hamlet would place significant aesthetic and creative effort into its depiction and interpretation. Given the correlation between rehearsal and the process of creating comics, it can also be assumed that a great degree of experimentation would be embodied in the manifestation of this soliloquy in comics format. In other words, seeing that the fourth soliloquy is arguably the epitome of English soliloquies, and seeing that a decoder has high expectations of this speech, the adapter and illustrator would do their best to exploit the possibilities of comics to concretize the struggles, paradoxes, and inevitable outcomes depicted in the playtext. Alas, as seen in the following panel, this is not always the case:

1

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Magic Wagon.” Illustrated by Ben Dunn. Rebecca Dunn, Hamlet – Graphic Shakespeare (Edina: Magic Wagon, 2009). 20. Print.

This panel is taken from Rebecca Dunn’s adaptation of Hamlet, an adaptation that is overall very short, abridged, and focused on plot-driven performative realism. But more than anything, the adaptation is very clearly a text designed to chew Shakespeare’s original text, partially digest it, and regurgitate the remains onto page.

Dunn’s adaptation is extremely plot-driven and focused primarily on giving the decoder a simple and straight summary of the tragedy. As can be seen on the panel, the entire fourth soliloquy has been condensed to a sequence of four external speech bubbles, and no effort is put into the concretization of the imagery imbued within the language. We simply encounter a depiction of Hamlet, with a stern façade and his hand on his chest, uttering a short series of words before the sudden arrival of Ophelia. There is little to no attempt to convey any of the aforementioned qualities and rhetorical appeals of this soliloquy, and there is nothing that demands close attention or scrutiny. The juxtaposition of word and image creates no resounding effects within the reader, and there is little difference between approaching this particular adaptation and approaching a summary of the playtext—except that a summary of the playtext arguably would not stifle the imagination as much as this adaptation does. Perhaps the intention of this adaptation was to try to make Hamlet more accessible to younger readers, but as evidenced by the depiction of this soliloquy, I assume that even young readers would find the text excruciatingly boring.

When the conventions of comics are invoked and employed effectively, and when the graphic novel makes effective use of the source playtext by focusing on performativity rather than the reduction of the plot, the results are exciting and fresh. In my opinion, the best adaptations are those that approach Shakespeare’s soliloquies not only as tributes, but as independent works of art with a distinctive style that instills particular emotions and decodings. Let us now turn our attention to how Sexton, Pantoja, and Babra approached the quintessence of Hamlet’s soliloquies in their adaptations, beginning with an excerpt from Sexton and Pantoja’s interpretation of the soliloquy:

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

Within Sexton and Pantoja’s interpretation, the absence of speech bubbles establishes the interiority of the speech. The overwhelming presence of black and shades of gray in this soliloquy can be interpreted in many ways; in a sense, the theme of this soliloquy is darker and more concerned with the topic of death and suicide when compared to the other soliloquies in Hamlet. Perhaps this use of color is also an illustration of how Hamlet himself is slowly descending into the darkness of his own folly and inaction. The interiority of this interpretation is emphasized with the fact that Hamlet does not look into the decoder’s eyes, and in the first panels presented in the excerpt, he has his back facing the decoder. This gives the sense of the decoder as an intruder who is overhearing the prince’s thoughts. Furthermore, it depicts a sense of aloofness, solitude, darkness, and impartiality, thus reinforcing the image of the character distancing himself away from his world, and from our interpretive purview.

The first panels of this soliloquy depict a shadowy Hamlet scrutinizing a dagger while thinking about the act of directly dealing with the troubles that haunt him. The act of taking arms against “a sea of troubles” is materialized with his holding of the dagger in front of his face, as if he were placing himself in a battle stance, ready to duel. Yet, as his thoughts pivot to thoughts of suicide, we see a clear and shadowless depiction of the character as he changes the direction of the dagger’s blade and points it to his neck. We then cut to another panel in which we are exposed to the handle of the dagger moving in a thrusting motion accompanied by a splatter of blood, reinforcing the interpretation of the soliloquy as a gesture towards suicide. Note that Sexton and Pantoja depict this soliloquy with a graphic and violent hue, highlighting physical images of death rather than metaphorical or subtle ones.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

The graphic violence escalates as we shift our view to the next panel, in which we see Hamlet desperately clutching his own neck as blood flows through his fingers. The visible fear in Hamlet’s eyes and expression is complemented with his thoughts about the uncertainty of what comes after death. Note that the page depicts Hamlet being caught between a heavenly figure with wings, and a deathly figure below, thus highlighting Hamlet’s position between two oppositional forces salvation and eternal punishment; action and inaction. Notice that Sexton and Pantoja also made the choice to illustrate Hamlet as half-naked, which is an interesting aesthetic choice that further highlights a dualistic struggle: half of his body is covered with man-made clothing while the other half depicts a natural and nude man. With this in mind, the panel reinforces another binary perspective between the realm of man and the enigmatic realm of the afterlife; not only is Hamlet unaware of what comes after death, but he is also unsure of the effects that his death will induce in the mortal realm. All in all, we get an image of a man who is not only confused and conflicted, but a man unable to define himself in a world defined by choices, paradoxes, and binaries.

I will proceed to close my discussion on the fourth soliloquy by analyzing Neil Babra’s take on Hamlet’s crown jewel. But first and foremost, credit must be given to where credit is due. Before engaging in this project, I studied countless graphic novel adaptations of Shakespearean works, including excruciatingly tedious full-text adaptations of Romeo and Juliet[1], a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream[2] clearly geared towards children, and even an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet[3] that took place in the future in which the Montagues are depicted as robotically enhanced cyborgs and the Capulets are depicted as genetically modified humans. Nonetheless, of all the adaptations that I read before settling on the study of soliloquies in Hamlet, I must acknowledge that Babra’s work was the most effective not only in terms of transmuting the essence of Shakespeare into a comics format, but also in terms of presenting itself as a standalone work of art. Let us take a look at how Babra interprets the soliloquy:

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Babra’s illustration deeply emphasizes the interpretation of the soliloquy as Hamlet’s negotiation between living and committing suicide as a way of ending his troubles. It also stresses the many paradoxes and dual manifestations peppered throughout the speech. Seeing that this soliloquy is a deep struggle for Hamlet to find conciliation between his interior desires and external social/spiritual demand, we see the separation of Hamlet into two: the passive Hamlet and the inactive Hamlet, the Hamlet that suffers in life and the one that rests in death. The soliloquy therefore begins as a debate or a negotiation between the multiple and binary sides of the character in order to find a space in which he can make sense of his convoluted emotions and thoughts.

Babra depicts the monologue as one that begins with a physically external delivery and progresses into a subconscious and mental dialogue. While reflecting on the opening lines of the soliloquy: “To be… Or not to be,” Hamlet stares into a pool of water in which he sees his reflection as a skeletal corpse donning his clothing, thus illustrating the tension between living or ceasing to exist. As he proceeds to think about the tortures of enduring the pains and tribulations of life, he envisions Claudius as a grand and Cthulu-esque agent whipping him with tentacles as arrows pierce the flesh on Hamlet’s back, depicting life as difficult to endure and physically painful. When pivoting to the thought of suicide, emphasis is placed on a panel in which Hamlet is removing a sword from its sheath. We then observe the split of Hamlet into two bodies, where the active Hamlet proceeds to stab the inactive Hamlet in the chest with the sword. In an eerie move, a close-up of the inactive Hamlet’s stabbing shows the fusion between the living Hamlet and the skeletal figure, and in death, he flashes a wide grin, as if the end of life has granted him the release that he desperately craves for. The struggle and rigidity between living and dying is made blatantly obvious in the imagery, and it reinforces the binary tension that refuses to situate Hamlet.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Taking advantage of the possibilities of the comics medium, an elongated panel is used to give the impression of Hamlet falling into a pit, with his head in a cloud as to illustrate the notion of sleeping or dreaming. In another unnerving move, we then observe how Hamlet’s flesh begins to unravel and disengage from his body like the peel of an orange as the text displays his questioning of the dreams that come after death. The physical skin continues to peel away as Hamlet reflects on the enigma of existence after death, and how fear of the unknown prevents him from taking action in terms of self-slaughter. The inner essence of Hamlet is revealed in its entirety with the removal of his skin, and we observe him floating in the sky as a pair of celestial hands manipulate this unraveling of the flesh. On one hand, this may indicate the exposure of the soul and its judgment in an afterlife. On the other hand, the act of having one’s skin peeled away is an extremely painful and physically violent act, thus alluding to the pain that his indecision is provoking, and the possibility of punishment after committing the sin of suicide.

After depicting the troubles of humiliation, pain, embarrassment, and other follies in the physical world—which are so intense that they induce the image of Hamlet’s heart breaking—the page concludes with a panel illustrating his resignation towards self-slaughter: instead of taking arms against the sea of troubles, he puts his sword back into its sheath. Babra’s interpretation of the soliloquy not only depicts the tortuous consequences of choice and of being caught between a dichotomous split, but it also emphasizes how death manipulates the prince’s mental processes. This is important because death is a central theme of the tragedy as a whole. The play begins with the apparition of a dead king, it climaxes with a mental debate about living or dying, and, spoiler alert: it ends with the death of all the central characters. Dichotomies are ever-present in this soliloquy: the struggle between action and inaction, sleeping and awaking, living and dying, suffering and relief. There is no easy way of dealing with these binaries precisely because they are not able to encapsulate the intermediary position that Hamlet is positioned in, which in due course causes the peeling and unraveling illustrated in Babra’s interpretation. Ultimately, Babra’s adaptation was a magnificent effort to concretize this struggle and eventual externalization, and to demonstrate the tidal forces of this sea of troubles.

In this presentation, I offered examples of the rhetorical, analytical, and evaluative possibilities that close-decodings of Shakespearean graphic novels can offer. Bear in mind that my interpretations and decodings of the soliloquies in comics adaptations of Hamlet are in no way definite or conclusive, seeing that there are many other interpretive directions that one could take in terms of the images, their juxtaposition with traditional text, and usage of the conventions of comics to convey imagery and ideas. Nonetheless, I hope that my interventions of these works stress the overall aesthetic and semantic richness present within comics adaptations of Shakespearean works, and how notions of the soliloquy are translated, transformed, and permanently altered in this medium. No longer is the soliloquy abstract and subject to the partialities of language: the character’s mind, through the comics medium, literally becomes illustrated in ways that transcend the realm of the realistic and the physical. When it comes to soliloquies in comics, the wall between the character’s mind and the decoder is not shattered, but it is ultimately non-existent within the medium when and if the conventions of comics are employed effectively. Therefore, with the lack of a wall to block a full view of the character’s mind, the question that remains is how far are we able to take these elucidations of Shakespeare, to new interpretive heights. How will we envision the dreams that are to come with the inclusion of comics into the interpretive norm? That is the question, and I hope that I have provided some answers.


[1] McDonald, John, et.al. Romeo and Juliet – The Graphic Novel: Original Text. Litchborough: Classical Comics, 2009. Print.

[2] Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Saddleback’s Illustrated Classics. China: Saddleback, 2006. Print.

[3] Work, Max, Stan Lee, et. al. Romeo and Juliet: The War. Dallas: Viper Comics, 2011. Print.

WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED

Babra, Neil. Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare. New York: Spark Publishing, 2008. Print.

Babra, Neil. “On Writing and Line Editing.” NEILCOMICS– Hamlet. March 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.

Bruster, Douglas. To Be or Not to Be. New York: Continuum, 2007. Web.

Dunn, Rebecca. Hamlet – Graphic Shakespeare. Illustrated by Ben Dunn. Edina: Magic Wagon, 2009. Print.

Eisner, Will. Comics & Sequential Art. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press, 2001. Print.

Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Grant, Steven and Tom Mandrake. Classic Illustrated #5: Hamlet. Hong Kong: Papercutz, 2009. Print.

Knight, G. Wilson. “Hamlet Reconsidered.” The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy. 4th ed. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1964. 298-325. Print.

Maher, Mary Z. Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003. Print.

Melchiori, Giorgio. Shakespeare’s Dramatic Meditations: An Experiment in Criticism. London: Clarendon Press, 1976. Print.

Mott, Lewis F. “The Position of the Soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’ in Hamlet.PLMA 19.2 (1904): 26-32. JSTOR. 16 Apr. 2012. Web.

Newell, Alex. “Images of the Mind.” The Soliloquies in Hamlet: The Structural Design. Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1991. Print.

Sexton, Adam and Tintin Pantoja. Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2008. Print.

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of "Bound East For Cardiff" that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Heternormative Tragedies? The Queerness of Eugene O’Neill’s “Bound East for Cardiff” and Henrik Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm”

Both Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff (1914)[1] and Henrik Ibsen’s Rosemersholm (1886) can be considered tragic, not only because they display characters that are unable to fit within the context of their social norms, but also because both plays portray the mortal downfall of its main characters. Nonetheless, the complexities of these “failures” increase in voltage when we interpret them through a gendered lens. Both plays are typically approached as radical from a gendered perspective because their tragic elements[2] invite interpreters to scrutinize the extent to which the characters’ so-called failures are symptomatic of cultural and social ills. However, when queering the interpretation of the plays, it becomes evident that both O’Neill and Ibsen tap into heteronormative anxieties, especially when concerning futurity (or the lack thereof). Even though both plays exhibit qualities that make them productive from a queer perspective, I argue that the plays fluctuate between the boundaries between queer and heteronormative collapse. In other words, while the tragic (gendered) elements of these plays can be approached as a harsh commentary against the laws and restrictions imposed by heteronormativity, they can also be approached as texts that foster an ideological justification and privileging of heteronormativity.

O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff focuses primarily on the very close relationship that exists between Yank and Driscoll, two sailors of the British tramp steamer known as the Glencairn. Throughout the Glencairn’s voyage from New York to Cardiff, the reader becomes aware of the fact that Yank is dying. One soon encounters the two sailors in a moment of solitude; they begin to reflect on the loneliness and misery ingrained within the life of a sailor, and they begin to contemplate how differently their lives would be if they had chosen a different path. During their discussion, Yank exclaims that he is “goin’ to die, that’s what, and the sooner the better!,” (O’Neill) to which his companion, Driscoll, wildly replies: “No, and be damned to you, you’re not. I’ll not let you.” (O’Neill). Throughout their conversation, the level of intensity in their relationship begins to increase, to the point in which their affiliation can be interpreted as amorous or co-dependent rather than simply sociable or friendly—they not only depend on each other, but it is clear that one does not want to live without the other.

The intensity of their relationship could be attributed to the fact that they spent years sailing together; nonetheless, there is a particular confession that Yank makes that further increments the possibility of queer desire between the two sailors. As Yank discusses how the life of a sailor is acceptable for a young man, he begins to lament the fact that this adventurous life has prevented him from achieving any degree of normalcy, which in his view includes heteronormative touchstones such as marriage, children, and a stable home. As illustrated below, Yank then shares his secret desire to move to a distant country in order to begin a farming endeavor with Driscoll:

YANK: Sea-fain’ is all right when you’re young and don’t care, but we ain’t chickens no more, and somehow, I dunno, this last year has seemed rotten, and I’ve had a hunch I’d quit—with you of course—and we’d save our coin, and go to Canada or Argentine or some place and git a farm, just a small one, just enough to live on. I never told yuh this ‘cause I thought you’d laugh at me.

DRISCOLL: (enthusiastically) Laught at you, is ut? When I’m havin’ the same thoughts myself, toime afther toime. It’s a grand idea and we’ll be doin’ ut sure if you’ll stop your crazy notions—about—about bein’ so sick. (O’Neill)

At this point of the conversation, both Yank and Driscoll admit to have contemplated the possibility of delving into entrepreneurial endeavors together in a distant country, but there is also an implicit desire to construct a domestic space in which the two men could live together. This space would entail both a shared location, a shared economy (in that they both save and invest money), and the production of just enough resources to get them by. Throughout this confession, it is apparent that their desire to move to a distant country not only indicates a longing to remove themselves from a known social and cultural location, but also a desire to achieve a life that is not possible for them at the present moment. This longing for domesticity and stability is so “crazy” and foreign, that they only envision it occurring within a displaced or imagined location.

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of "Bound East For Cardiff" that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of “Bound East For Cardiff” that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Although the reader is uncertain whether or not Yank and Driscoll have ever acted on their queer desire, it would be questionable to suggest that this desire is not present in the first place. As Yank grows nearer to dying, he paradoxically begins to talk of women and heteronormative endeavors while upholding the aura of queerness imbued within their exchange. Yank not only endows Driscoll with a part of his salary, but he also gives Driscoll his watch—his most prized possession. The emotional link between Yank and Driscoll is further highlighted when Yank eventually dies, as the reader encounters Yank expressing both a heartbreaking degree of sorrow intertwined with a degree of hesitation:

DRISCOLL: (pale with horror) Yank! Yank! Say a word to me for the love av hiven! (He shrinks away from the bunk, making the sign of a cross. Then comes back and puts a trembling hand on Yank’s chest and bends closely over the body.)

COCKY: (from the alleyway) Oh, Driscoll! Can you leave Yank for arf a mo’ and give me a ‘and?

DRISCOLL: (with a great sob) Yank! (He sinks down on his knees beside the bunk, his head on his hands. His lips move in some half-remembered prayer.) (O’Neill)

Driscoll’s despair is not only saturated with sorrow and extreme bereavement, but it is also physical. Driscoll grows pale and yells, and he eventually places his hand on Yank’s chest while bending closely to his body—which illustrates a degree of physical and emotional intimacy between the two sailors. Interestingly, when Cocky, another shipmate, calls Driscoll from the alleyway, Driscoll immediately removes his hands and himself away from Yank’s body and focuses his attention on delivering a prayer. Regardless of his intention of doing this, it can be suggested that Driscoll did not want to be seen by Cocky in such a vulnerable and intimate position with Yank.

True, it is important to note that O’Neill might have not intentionally intended for this exchange between Yank and Driscoll to be perceived as queer, yet perhaps it is inevitable for us to approach this give-and-take as such due to our modern sensibilities as readers. How does this queering of Bound East for Cardiff inform the way the play approaches its tragic element through the death of Yank? At first, it might be tempting to approach this play as a critique ofthe gendered norms that exist during the reception of the playtext. Indeed, it may be possible to interpret this play as a comment of Yank’s and Driscoll’s inability to create their own domestic space within their current social and cultural conditions, simply because that notion would seem bizarre or crazy to other spectators. With this in mind, the tragedy can possibly be approached as a queer tragedy, in which the lamentation is focused on the characters’ inability to comply with their sexual, amorous, and domestic desires because they do not comply with the demands of a heteronormative culture.

However, what happens when we interpret the notion of queerness in O’Neill’s play through the lens of futurity and reproductive futurism? These notions are explored by Lee Edelman’s as he discusses queerness in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. According to Edelman, queerness can generally be described as an attribute assigned to ideas or people who do not perpetuate the idea, or fight for, futurity: the possibility and the continuity of heteronormative designs as ideologically facilitated by the notion of the Child. In other words, queerness is a label assigned to all that goes against the notion of reproductive futurism, which can be described as concepts that “impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable […] the possibility of queer resistance  to this organizing principle of communal relations” (Edelman 2). This is precisely why the queer is viewed as a threat: it challenges the notion of the Child and of reproductive futurity because the queer is not typically associated with notions such as reproduction or the bearing of children, but rather, on so-called egotistic and self-centered gratifications. As Edelman points out, if “there is no baby and, in consequence, no future, then the blame must fall on the fatal lure of sterile, narcissistic enjoyments understood as inherently destructive of meaning and therefore as responsible for the undoing of social organization, collective reality, and inevitably, life itself” (13).

Lee Edelman's "No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive"

Lee Edelman’s “No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive”

When one applies Edelman’s views to O’Neill’s play, the notion of its queerness being approached as emancipatory becomes seriously challenged. Going back to Yank’s and Driscoll’s conversation in which they discuss the prospect of moving to Canada or Argentina, Driscoll posits that the there is a possibility for them to pursue their domestic desires if Yank’s condition ameliorates. Nonetheless, Yank’s death completely obliterates this possibility—not that their domestic desires were much of a possibility in the first place seeing as it was presumably uncommon for two men to move in together and start a small farm during the early 1900s. The act of moving to a different country to begin a small self-sustaining farm in which these two men would ostensibly spend the rest of their lives indeed goes against the notions of reproductive futurity. Even though a farming endeavor is indeed productive and a marker of futurity, note that they are only interested in producing “just enough to live on” (O’Neill), thus enabling its classification as queer. By delving into this domestic endeavor, the men would hinder their chances of finding a potential female mate, and the relationship would also not produce any children or offspring. Thus, Yank’s death not only prevents this queer future from occurring, but it also assures that the values of heteronormativity are privileged and upheld. The reader of the playtext can only begin to imagine what would happen if Yank survived his illness. Would they move to Canada or Argentina to start their own farm? Would they remain living the life of a wandering sailor, which in and of itself is a lifestyle that is queer in that sailors have no future? Can the lack of futurity and the privileging of heteronormativity still be approached as an emancipatory critique in O’Neill’s play?

Similar questions arise when trying to queer Ibsen’s Rosemersholm, which presents various instances in which the lack of futurity challenges the emancipatory gendered readings one may have of the play, especially when focusing on the work’s tragic elements. Although Rosmersholm has typically been regarded as an attack on the aristocracy or the ruling class, especially in terms of their imposition of ideals such as morality, ethics, and Christianity, it also has much to say in terms of gender dynamics, queerness, and futurity. The play itself opens one year after the tragic suicide of John Rosmer’s wife Beata, who killed herself by jumping into a mill-race. Beata was always considered “unstable” and insane by her husband and by those who surrounded her, to the point where many attributed her suicide to mental illness. Later on in the play, it is pointed out that Beata’s mental instability began to surface when she discovered that she was barren. As Rebecca, Beata’s friend and Rosmer’s current companion points out: “she seemed to go quite distracted when she learnt that she would never be able to have a child. That was when her madness first showed itself” (Ibsen 55).

Although it is later revealed that Rebecca encouraged Beata’s suicide as a way of assuring that John Rosmer would be hers, it is interesting to note that the seeds of Beata’s so-called insanity were due to her inability to procreate. Part of Beata’s depression, or lack of sanity, were due primarily to her inability to bear children and to assure the continuation of the Rosmer bloodline within the household. This notion of continuing the bloodline, and of assuring Rosmer’s happiness, is the reason why it was so easy for Rebecca to convince Beata to end her life. Beata’s suicide and her mental illness can be classified as symptomatic of queer tension due to the fact that they were triggered by her inability to assure reproductive futurity, and due to her fixation on Rebecca herself. As Rebecca states later on during the play, “You know she had taken it into her head that she, a childless wife, had no right to be here. And so she persuaded herself that her duty to you was to give place to another” (Ibsen 70). Thus, Beata’s suicidal act can definitely be viewed as a product of heteronormative anxiety, in which she removes herself from the equation in order to ensure that the cultural values of the “nuclear” family were upheld, assuming that after her death, Rebecca would marry Rosmer and bear children.

A queer reading of the play, however, not only happens within a literal level in terms of reproductive futurity, but it also manifests in a metaphorical level when analyzing the case of John Rosmer and his evolving politics. Rosmer has made the decision to become a freethinker, a person who values reason and empiricism over tradition, which has led him to offer support to a government with a revolutionary agenda. This change of heart and perspective has not only led Rosmer to give up his faith in ruling classes in favor for a more democratic government, but it has also led him to give up his faith in religion as well. This change of political views causes Kroll, Rosmer’s brother-in-law, to react harshly towards the loss of the traditions of Rosmersholm. As Kroll states during a discussion he has with Rosmer:

[Y]ou have a duty towards the traditions of your family, Rosmer! Remember that! From time immemorial Rosmersholm has been a stronghold of discipline and order, of respect and esteem for all that the best people in our community have upheld and sanctioned. The whole neighbourhood has taken its tone from Rosmersholm. If the report gets about that you yourself have broken with what I may call the Rosmer family tradition, it will evoke an irreparable state of unrest. (Ibsen 37)

Interestingly, Rosmer’s new political views imply the lack of futurity for the Rosmersholm traditions. His choice, according to Kroll, is viewed as selfish and self-interested, focused on what Rosmer deems to be good rather than focusing on the continuation of the system in which Rosmer was raised in.

Ibsen’s play concludes with both Rebecca and John Rosmer jumping into the mill-race, echoing Beata’s act of suicide as a form of alleviating the tensions present in their lives. Rebecca, on one hand, was unable to deal with the guilt of leading Beata to her doom. John Rosmer, on the other hand, thanks in part to Kroll’s influence, feels as if he’s unable to trust Rebecca, but it is clear that he still loves her. Even though Rosmer originally asks Rebecca for her hand in marriage, Rebecca’s guilt does not allow her to transgress the “insurmountable barrier between [Rosmer] and a full, complete emancipation” (Ibsen 68), thus leading both characters to desire a union that is not socially acceptable. It is through their joint suicide that they are able to create a space in which their union would be socially adequate: death, a space where futurity is not necessary for two to be one.

When one queers Rosmersholm’s approaches towards futurity, it is apparent that Beata’s death, John Rosmer’s change of politics, and Rosmer’s and Rebecca’s joint suicide are either products of the lack of (reproductive) futurity, or are in due course the root of this lack. As in the case of O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff, one encounters a dilemma in terms of the radical possibilities of the playtext, and the overall nature of the tragic elements that are manifest in the play. The three suicides in Rosmersholm can definitely be attributed to heteronormative anxieties: whereas Beata was unable to reproduce and bear children in order to assure futurity, Rebecca and John Rosmer were unable to ignore their mutual feelings but had no intention to comply with them due to the gender norms of their time. All of these characters embrace queerness in that they deviate from heteronormativity, and they also deviate from futurity. But can Rosmersholm be viewed as a queer tragedy? If one interprets Ibsen’s play as a critique of these norms, it absolutely can. On the other hand, the fact that these characters comply with these heteronormative anxieties by responding to the death drive may be viewed as rhetorically restrictive rather than emancipatory. While both plays can be viewed as social critiques, it is also possible for these plays to be viewed as handbooks that illustrate the consequences of deviating from futurity, reproductive or otherwise. Thus, do these plays represent a collapse of the queer, or a collapse of the heteronormative?

These plays cannot be labeled as a queer failure, nor are can they be entirely approached as heteronormative failures. Both Bound East for Cardiff and Rosmersholm refuse to be entirely situated in either side of the so-called binary, often resting on the interpretation of the reader in order to be classified as either one or the other. In due course, it is the futility of this binary, and the fact that these plays cannot neatly be placed as either a heteronormative tragedy or a queer tragedy, which makes them “queer” in the first place. What is clear, however, is that to some extent, both plays tap into heteronormative anxieties, especially as applied to futurity, in order to illustrate how and why some characters are unable to fit within pre-designed socio-cultural molds, and why this ultimately leads to their removal from the social equation. Whether this heteronormative anxiety is used to challenge the perceptions of the audience or comply with them is up to debate, but it is interesting to see how a work can comply with both ends of a rhetorical spectrum.

Works Cited

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. Rosmersholm: A Play in Four Acts. Trans. R. Farquharson Sharp. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 2001. Web.

O’Neill, Eugene. Bound East for Cardiff. EOneill.com. Web.


[1] I used the e-book version of O’Neill’s text, which is why no page numbers accompany the quotations of this work in this review essay.

[2] In this discussion, by tragic elements, I am referring not to the genre of tragedy, but rather to the sentimental and emotional aspects of tragedy as a descriptor (unfortunate, lamentable, catastrophic, and/or heartbreaking).

Letter

A Note on the “Death of the Author”: A Discussion of the Viral Letter from a Dad to his Gay Son

Letter

Yesterday, a letter from a father to his gay son went viral on the internet. The image above was posted on the Facebook page of FCKH8, and as of now, this post has garnered over 80,000 likes. Here’s a transcript of the letter if you’re unable to read it in the image above:

Nate,

I overheard your phone conversation with Mike last night about your plans to come out to me. The only thing I need you to plan is to bring home OJ and bread after class. We are out, like you now. I’ve known you were gay since you were six, I’ve loved you since you were born.

– Dad

P.S. Your mom and I think you and Mike make a cute couple

Naturally, I began to read some of the comments people have written on this post, and of course, there are many who claim that the letter isn’t authentic, and that virtually anyone could write this letter and post it online. I conducted some online research for a couple of minutes, but I was unable to find this letter’s original source, and I was unable to identify who “Nate” and “Dad” are. True, anyone can be Nate, and anyone can be dad. I can grab a piece of paper, write this exact same message, and share it online for the world to see. Thus, it is unsurprising to see how many people are calling the letter a fake. Not only are they questioning its authenticity, but they are also demanding to know who originally wrote this letter.

My question is, does it really matter whether this letter is authentic or not? Does the message behind the letter lose any rhetorical power or agency if we determine that it is indeed a fake? Are the words in this letter unable to stand on their own without an author? Perhaps not.

Fiction, whether it be in the form of a novel, a letter, a short story, or even a poem, has always been deemed to exhibit emancipatory and inspirational potential. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, is deemed to be one of the many literary texts that were capable of promoting social change. There’s even a story (or perhaps better said, a myth) in which Abraham Lincoln himself supposedly exclaimed “So this is the little lady who started this great war” when he met Stowe for the first time. Regardless of whether or not this statement was actually uttered by Lincoln, it still says a lot about the common belief of words possessing the power to change.

The viral letter under scrutiny has invoked a lot of positive response from the media and from people around the web. Many consider the letter to be heart-warming,  a clear indicator that times are changing. Others view the letter as a symbol of social progress, and that the act of “coming-out” is becoming less of an issue in our present day and age (I also discuss this notion of the issue of “coming-out”  and gay visibility here and here). Others were angry at the letter, claiming that it is fake, and that it is simply part of the media’s attempt to depict our society as more progressive and liberal than it actually is. What is definitely apparent is that the letter, regardless of its lack of background and context, still has the capacity to mean something to an interpreter. This notion reflects the ideas once posited by French literary theorist Roland Barthes in his 1977 essay titled Death of the Author (you can access the full-text essay here).

According to Barthes, readers generally tend to “glorify” the author, as if he or she is the absolute authority (pardon the pun) over what the text does or does not mean. Thus, the author tends to be approached as “the voice of a single person, […] ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes), although when realistically speaking, once something is unleashed into the world or published, its meaning is no longer fixed nor stable.

True, a text or a product will always have a creator, but the creator is no longer the guardian of the semantic and cultural meanings that the product possesses. Popular internet memes succumb to this “death.” Indeed, many popular internet memes, such as Me Gusta and the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy have a point of origin and a creator, but these creators no longer control the meaning of these memes, or the eventual evolution of these meanings (for instance, note how “Me Gusta” eventually developed derivatives such as “No Me Gusta” and “Me Gusta Mucho).

What Barthes means by the “death” of the author, is that meaning should not centered on authorial intent, but rather, on the interpretative abilities of the reader. This, in due course, is because meaning itself is unfixed and unstable–what “happiness” and “pleasure” means for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean for me. As Barthes himself puts it:

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. (Barthes)

The reader is therefore the nexus of all the culture, the history, and the psychology needed to understand and interpret words, whether they be on paper, on a screen, or even if they’re transmitted orally. There is no possible way for you to read orhear a set of words and understand exactly what an author meant. Thus, when it comes to the viral letter from a dad to his gay son, authorial intent does not necessarily matter, and to some extent, it is not absolutely necessary for us to know exactly who created this letter in the first place. What matters is that the words written on that sheet of paper are capable of meaning something valuable to someone. Even if the letter isn’t exactly an authentic indicator that times are changing, it is capable of transmitting an the idea that the idea of change is tangible, palpable, and desired.

We’ve generally accepted the idea that fiction–including novels, stories, television, and movies–is capable of changing us and influencing us (for better or worse). Why does it matter then whether this letter is fictional or not? Regardless of what many think, the idea of the social and cultural emancipation of gender–to the point where coming-out is presented as a non-issue–is a fiction that I’m willing to embrace.

P.S. I think the postscript on the letter under scrutiny is absolutely adorable.