What is Gay Literature? The Case of Colm Tóibín’s [The Blackwater Lightship]

Jeanette Winterson, author of the celebrated novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruittakes a rather defensive stance when asked if she considers Oranges to be a lesbian novel. She explicitly addresses this question in her personal website by answering it in the negative:

No. [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is] for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common-sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers. That said, I’m really glad the book has made a difference to so many young women.

Winterson’s answer strikes into the heart of a question that has perplexed me for some time: what is, and more importantly, what is not gay literature? Part of the difficulties of answering this question stem from the fact that the term gay literature can either allude to a work’s readership (as Winterson implies in her answer), its themes, its characters, or perhaps a combination of these elements. Whereas some works tend to unanimously be approached as prime examples of LGBTQ literature–as in the case of novels such as Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and E.M. Forster’s Maurice–other works complicate the ease of categorizing a text as such.

Good examples of this complication are most of the works of David Sedaris–particularly his collections of autobiographical essays such as Me Talk Pretty One Day and NakedThese essay collections usually discuss gay themes quite prominently: Sedaris depicts the hardships of growing up gay, he talks about his partner constantly, and he openly discusses how he is perceived as effeminate by his teachers and friends. Despite the presence of these themes and characters, Sedaris’ works are typically not approached as gay literature. Sedaris’ works are also read by a massive mainstream audience–people will literary pay to attend a Sedaris reading. Does the genre define the audience, or does the audience define the genre?  Is LGBTQ literature completely audience-based, or is there more at stake when approaching a group of literary texts under the guise of this category?

The questions that surface when approaching this genre do not stop here. Does the presence of a queer character in a literary work automatically make it a gay literature? If a work is approached as a gay one, does this pose any restrictions on the novel’s readership or audience? While I completely understand the cultural and marketing reasons why Winterson denies approaching Oranges as a lesbian novel–this novel is almost always alluded to when speaking of well-known LGBTQ fiction. Trying to pin down parameters used to classify a work as gay literature is no easy task–we are dealing with a very queer genre here.

The difficulties of pinning down the genre of LGBTQ fiction and of creating a queer canon can also be attributed to two other factors: the relative novelty of gay fiction within the entire scope of literary history, and furthermore, the queerness of the genre itself. In terms of its novelty, literature with explicitly queer themes or characters was not produced in Western culture until the twentieth century, with the advent of works written by Forster, James Baldwin, and Christopher Isherwood, among others. Keep in mind that queerness and queer sexualities were definitely encoded in texts before the gay literary boom, however, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that we began to see the emergence of a group of texts that could be explicitly categorized as LGBTQ literary works.

This questioning of the factors that shape the genre of LGBTQ literature was recently sparked after I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s 1999 novel entitled The Blackwater Lightship–mostly because I’ve had difficulties assessing whether it is a gay novel. The novel has a central queer character, which at first seems to be a good enough reason to approach it as a gay novel. However, the main themes and tensions present in this work are triggered through the queer character’s presence, but they are not exactly centered on this queer character per se. 

Front cover of Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

Front cover of Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

This novel focuses mostly on the strenuous relationship between Helen and her mother Lily, and their efforts to repair their relationship after Helen’s brother, Declan, reveals that he is dying of AIDS. Declan’s impending death serves at the catalyst that forces Helen to reunite with her mother after a nearly ten-year hiatus–and it also forces Declan’s family to come into contact with his rather private queer life. After his revelation, Declan’s family and his close gay friends spend a week living together in the house that belongs to Helen’s grandmother. During this time, the characters come face-to-face with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily struggle to repair their relationship, and Lily tries to comprehend why Declan shares an intense connection with his friends and not with his family.

The novel, although told in the third person, is distilled through Helen’s thoughts and perspectives. The novel opens in Helen’s home, where she interacts with her husband and her two children; the novel concludes in this same location, albeit centered on Helen’s first interaction with her mother in her house. Not only has Lily never visited Helen’s home, but she has also not met Helen’s husband or her own grandchildren due to the estranged relationship that she and her daughter share. The novel weaves a narrative focused on the past and the present–Helen’s interactions with her mother and her dying brother force her to think about and retell the reasons why their family is so estranged to begin with.

Among the past events that Helen recalls, significant attention is placed on the death of her father. While her father was being treated for cancer, Helen and Declan lived with their grandmother. Lily stays with her husband at the hospital, never bothering to visit her children or to abandon her husband’s side. The distance between Helen and her mother widens after her father dies–pushing a teenage Helen to interpret her mother’s absence as abandonment. In their efforts to cope with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily reach a degree of closeness that they haven’t experienced in years. The novel culminates with the mother and daughter expressing a desire to spend more time with each other.

Even though the events mentioned above comprise the core narrative of the novel, The Blackwater Lightship also places significant attention on queer themes, issues and characters, particularly in its depiction alternative, non-normative forms of kindship, and in its depiction of queer subversion. Declan’s declining health due to AIDS puts him in a position in which he is forced to come out to his mother and his grandmother. Declan’s deteriorating health is described with much detail, which verges on the point of discomfort. Interestingly, Declan’s gay friends, Paul and Larry, are shown to be better caregivers than his actual family due to the fact that they were present in his life during the advent of the syndrome. Paul and Larry also seem to know more about Declan’s life than his own mother and sister. At one point, Paul and Lily have a heated argument that manifests when Paul interferes in Lily’s attempts to comfort her son–which prompts Lily to kick Paul out of her mother’s home. Paul confronts Lily by stating the following:

I’m here as long as Declan is here and you can take that written in stone, and I’m here because he asked me to be here, and when he asked me to be here he used words and phrases and sentences about you which were not edifying and which I will not repeat. He is also concerned about you and loves you and wants your approval. He is also very sick. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mrs. Breen. Declan stays here, I stay here, Larry stays here. One of us goes, we all go, and if you don’t believe me, ask Declan. (223)

As seen above, Declan, Paul, and Larry can be approached as a family–even though none of them are romantically involved, these three men understand each other, and unlike Declan’s family, they stick together and they do not abandon each other even when things get rough. The novel explores the importance of this alternate form of kinship in the lives of queer subjects–a theme that is present in many texts categorized as LGBTQ literature. This is not the only instance in which the notion of family is queered. A moment  that particularly caught my attention was the instance in which Paul tells Helen how a Catholic priest performed a secret marriage ceremony for him and his partner, François:

He changed into his vestments and said Mass and gave us Communion and then he married us. He used the word “spouse” instead of husband and wife. He had it all prepared. He was very solemn and serious. And we felt the light of the Holy Spirit on us, even though Declan thought this was the maddest thing he’d ever heard… (173)

The novel presents not only alternative forms of kinship, but it even goes as far as to present a queer subversion of normative institutions such as religion and marriage. What we see in the case of The Blackwater Lightship is an instance in which gay themes and characters are implemented within a narrative not only to serve as a foil to other characters in the novel, but to ultimately queer heternomative manifestations like the nuclear family. One cannot help but compare the relationship that Declan has with his friends with the central relationship of the novel between Helen and her mother. The message of the novel is clear: blood is definitely not thicker than water.

Given all the above, can we, and more importantly, should we approach The Blackwater Lightship as an example of gay literature? Although the answer to this question is still somewhat fuzzy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that when we categorize a work as such, we have to look beyond matters of audience, and we also have to take more than just the characters, the plot, or the work’s themes into consideration. When it comes to approaching a literary work as gay (or as any other category within the LGBTQ spectrum), we must keep in mind not only the work’s elements, but even more importantly, the work’s aims, purposes, and its alignment towards non-normativity and queer livability.

What are your thoughts on LGBTQ literature? What makes a literary work gay? What criteria must we keep in mind when categorizing a novel as LGBTQ fiction? Please share your thoughts and opinions below!

Work Cited

Tóibín, Colm. The Blackwater Lightship. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print (Paperback edition).

Queer Resistance in Rita Mae Brown’s [Rubyfruit Jungle]

Front cover of Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle

Front cover of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle

If you want to get a sense of the views and attitudes that permeated lesbian life soon after the gay rights movement, this is the book you are searching for. Originally published in 1973, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle is approached by many readers as the quintessential lesbian coming-out and coming-of-age novel. It centers on the growth and development of Molly Bolt, a headstrong and precocious girl who is aware of her queerness from an early age, and who strives to embrace a life of unconventionality in a society geared towards heteronormativity and sameness. Growing up with her somewhat cruel and vindictive adoptive mother, Carrie–Molly learns to lose her fear towards authority and power as she struggles to make a name for herself in a world designed and driven by masculinity and chauvinism. Driven by her hunger for fame and recognition, Molly works hard at school and eventually earns a full scholarship to the University of Florida. Her scholarship is nullified after she is caught having an affair with her wealthy female roommate, so Molly hitchhikes to New York and finds a low-paying job as a waitress. Living in poverty and struggling to finish her degree in film at New York University, the narrative focuses on Molly’s exploration of her sexuality in a more open and free city–while realizing that social mobility and power are not easy to obtain when one belongs to multiple disenfranchised communities/subcultures.

As mentioned above, this novel was groundbreaking due to the fact that it introduced issues of lesbianism and queer culture to mainstream society during the 1970s. The problem when reading this novel today is that its age definitely shows. Although it is perhaps obvious that a lot has changed in terms of the proliferation and acceptance of LGBTQ cultures in American society, this novel creates a snapshot of a time in which patriarchy reigned supreme and in which queer voices were still struggling to be heard (issues that still linger today). The novel was also written and published during the peak of second-wave feminism the radical feminism, in which concepts such as women’s reproductive rights, patriarchy, and motherhood were being actively deliberated and contested. Thus, I can see why the novel’s protagonist may be seen as too radical and extreme to some readers. Rubyfruit Jungle questions, and to some extent, attacks notions such as marriage, motherhood, monogamy, and gender binaries–even at the expense of some of the lesbian characters within the text.

A particular passage that made me very uncomfortable takes place when Molly goes to a lesbian bar during her first night in New York, where a butch lesbian tries to woo her. Molly states the following after rejecting the advances of the butch lesbian:

What’s the point of being a lesbian if a woman is going to look and act like an imitation of a man? Hell, if I want a man, I’ll get  the real thing not one of these chippies. I mean […] the whole point of being gay is because you love women. You don’t like men that look like women, do you? (130)

Now, Molly’s anger and disdain for butch lesbians stems from the fact that she deems that they uphold the very gender binaries that she tries to resist–in which one person in a relationship is designated as the “masculine” figure, whereas the other is designated as the “female” figure. In her questioning of butch lesbianism, she seems to be inquiring why certain people feel the need to rely on heterosexual models of courtship and sexuality rather than following a queer route. While her views may be approached as a desire to deviate from binaristic thinking, one must also admit that her views are insensitive, and they do not do justice to the multitudinous and diverse nature of gender expression. Thus, rather than viewing butch figures as people who thwart or parody gender binaries, she views them as people who embrace the binary altogether.

A similar occurrence happens near the end of the novel, when Molly’s mother, Carrie, discusses her father’s infidelity, and how she was unable to bear children because her husband had a case of syphilis. After opening up to her daughter wholeheartedly for the first time in the novel, and after expressing her inability to understand why her husband cheated on her, Molly thinks and says the following about the news and her mother’s misery:

Thirty-one years ago and [my mother’s] life froze that year. She enameled the sharp edge of misery into a pearl of passion. Her life revolved around that emotional peak since the day she discovered it and now she was waiting for me to share it. “I’m sorry, Mom, but, well, it doesn’t make sense to me to stay with only one person either.” (210)

This moment can definitely be approached as an instance of radical queer resistance. If Molly would’ve sympathized with her mother’s woes, it probably would’ve led to a greater connection and bond between the two. However, seeing as monogamy is antithetical to Molly’s being, she tells her mother exactly how she feels to be true to herself–which prompts her mother to speak “with less conviction and emotion since [Molly] wasn’t supporting her” (211). Molly’s quest for embodying non-normativity ultimately prevents her from recognizing her mother’s pain and sorrow as legitimate, mostly because the mother’s pain is ignited and fueled by forces and influences that Molly deems repressive and restrictive. What manifests in this exchange is a blockage of recognition: Carrie’s age and traditional views prevent her from accepting Molly’s lesbianism, and Molly’s rejection of normativity prevents her from recognizing her mother’s pain. This blockage epitomizes the feeling of stagnancy, failure, and immobility that haunts the entire novel.

Molly’s lesbianism and her strides against the status quo often leave her in a position of failure and futility. All of the relationships she has with other women end abruptly, she loses all the friendships she develops with other people, she is unable to find a job as a film maker even though she graduates from NYU with highest honors, and she only begins to mend things with her mother after she finds out that Carrie is about to die. Rather than viewing these failures as consequences reified by her queerness, I would argue that these failures are critiques of the standards and restrictions imposed on Molly by her culture and society. The novel may seem (and at times, is) problematic in terms of its depiction of gender, race, and family–and I can see why some of Molly’s thoughts and actions might leave a poor taste in reader’s mouths. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this novel is symptomatic of attitudes and ideologies that were heavily present during the era in which is was produced. The novel is definitely insensitive according to current knowledge, ideologies, and standards–but at the time, a radical and headstrong approach was needed to begin collapsing the patriarchal forces that have influenced the shaping of our society (these structures still haven’t collapsed in the present; however, feminism is definitely a bigger part of our contemporary political consciousness than it was in the 1970s).

I have mixed feelings with this novel. It is a funny, entertaining, and well-written book that really gave me insight into perceptions of lesbianism, femininity, and masculinity during the rise of second-wave and radical feminism. However, some of the novel’s perspectives are insensitive, dated, and at times irrational. Molly’s courage, outspokenness, drive, and embrace of queerness at all costs is paradoxically what makes her simultaneously attractive and frustrating as a character. I was also taken aback by the exaggeration of Molly’s beauty and her very unrealistic ability to obtain the love and affection of every single man and woman she’s attracted to. Rubyfruit Jungle presents a world in which every person is potentially queer–and apparently, Molly knows the secret to unlocking this potential (what is your secret, Molly?!). However, her ability to entice any and all people she desires helps to propel the novel’s queer and antibinaristic themes and help to emphasize the problem that the novel seeks to challenge: “People have no selves anymore (maybe they never had them in the first place) so their home base is their sex–their genitals, who they fuck” (175). Rubyfruit Jungle, thus, is an account of Molly’s attempt to find a sense of self that goes beyond societal expectations, that goes beyond genitalia, that goes beyond the constrictions of heteronormativity.

As advice to future readers of this book, I would recommend approaching Rubyfruit Jungle as a historical account of lesbianism in the 1970s and as a non-normative manifesto and not as a prime example of contemporary views towards gender, sexuality, and personal development. As I’ve mentioned many times above, the novel does have some problematic aspects–but it also presents us with an opportunity to critically compare and contrast attitudes towards sexuality from the past and the present.

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

Work Cited

Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. Plainfield: Daughters, Inc., 1973. Print.

The Role of Gender and Literature in Alison Bechdel’s [Fun Home]

Front cover of Alison's Bechdel's Fun Home (2007 paperback version)

Front cover of Alison’s Bechdel’s Fun Home (2007 paperback version)

Originally published in 2006, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic memoir that led Alison Bechdel to commercial and critical success. Reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s MausFun Home explores the relationship between Alison and her closeted father, Bruce Bechdel, to shed light on themes such as gender, the coming-out process, and the complicated dynamics of family life. The exploration of these themes are facilitated through discussions of death, life, and literature–triggered by Alison’s efforts to illustrate an accurate portrait of her complicated connection with her father, particularly after he commits suicide.

Alison and her father share many traits: they are both queer (even though the father remains closeted and married to his wife throughout the entire duration of the memoir), they both have a love for reading and for art, and they both wish that they were born the opposite sex. Despite these similarities, they never seem to forge a strong and intense bond due to their reserved personalities and their divergence in terms of gendered affiliations. Whereas Bruce tends to express traits that can typically be approached as feminine, Alison admits that she has been “a connoisseur of masculinity” (95) since she was a child. Thus, even though their share many similarities, their divergence in terms of their gender alignment creates significant tension between the two characters.

Not only does Alison approach herself and her father as “inversions” of each other, but she also makes note of how she struggles to emphasize her masculinity while her father struggles to prevent her from expressing it. She approaches her father’s attempts to feminize her as an almost pathetic effort embody femininity (vicariously) through his daughter, which leads to what Alison calls “a war of cross purposes” that is “doomed to perpetual escalation” (98). Thus, differences of gender are not invoked to uphold the division between men and women, but rather, to illustrate the differences and tensions that exist between Alison and her father.

Figure 1. Page 95.

Figure 1. Page 95. Many of the images in Fun Home stress the dichotomous view of Bruce as a feminine presence and Alison as a masculine presence. In the image above, notice how Bruce engages in an activity that is stereotypically approached  as feminine. The wall unit splits this panel into two sections, thus highlighting Alison’s placement in front of the television showing a Western movie. Keep in mind that this memoir is not necessarily upholding gender binaries–a man with feminine characteristics and a girl with masculine characteristics, in due course, challenges the binary in the first place.

Bruce’s reserved and temperamental nature is attributed to the fact that he’s had to keep his sexuality a secret due to his upbringing in a society where homosexuality is considered a disgrace. It is suggested in the memoir that Bruce’s repressed nature, his wife’s request for a divorce, and the fact that Alison is able to live an open life as a lesbian (whereas he was not) are the events that prompt him to commit suicide by running in front of a truck. This suicide is the event that prompts Alison to explore her father’s life through memoir, while in turn coming to a more enlightened understanding of the influence that she and her father had on each other. This exploration, however, does not take place in a linear or organized fashion. Fun Home is as a pastiche or decoupage of many elements presented in a non-chronological fashion. The comic panels are supplemented by snippets of other literary texts, photographs, letters, and even newspaper clippings. Furthermore, the narrative itself is supplemented with Bechdel’s interpretations of the events that she lived, in addition to theoretical interventions from areas such as gender and psychoanalysis.

I am deeply interested in the role of literature and literary texts in Fun Home, not only because they add more depth and nuance to the memoir, but also because literature (particularly novels) is a crucial element that must be kept in mind when interpreting and understanding the central developments in the graphic memoir. For instance, literature is the catalyst that helps Alison to discover that she’s a lesbian–leading her to describe her lesbianism as “a revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (74). At the age of thirteen, she first encounters the word “lesbian” in a dictionary. She later reads a book focused on offering biographies of queer figures, which leads her on an obsessive mission to read and consume as many queer texts as she possibly can, such as E.M. Forster’s Maurice and Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. 

The very act of accessing and reading this literature is depicted as a deeply political and almost revolutionary act, for it entails developing the courage to buy these books in spite of their overtly queer titles, or to borrow them from public libraries, “heedless of the risks” (75). These books inspire her to attend a gay union meeting at her university, and to come out to her parents in a letter. Whereas her father seems quite accepting of her sexuality, claiming that “everyone should experiment” (77), her mother responds with mild disapproval, approaching her lesbianism as “a threat” (77) to her work and her family.

Figure 2.

Literature is associated with almost every single significant event that takes place in the novel. Alison’s first relationship blossoms when she meets a poet named Joan. Every time they are shown in bed together, they are surrounded by novels and other books. The images depict them reading even when being intimate with one another, and they critique and analyze books even when sprawled naked on their beds (see pages 80-81). The importance of books is her life is unsurprising when taking into account that her father was an English teacher at their local high school, and he spent a lot of time recommending and discussing books with Alison.

Even though Bruce engages in sexual acts with other men, and even boys, the memoir highlights novels and literature as the outlet of escapism that Bruce used to express his sexual frustrations, and even his subconscious sexual desires. His favorite books, such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Joyce’s Ulysses, touch upon matters and themes that are central to Bruce’s characterization. The Great Gatsby, for instance, highlights the pains of yearning for someone or something we cannot possess, whereas Ulysses depicts how characters can cross each other’s paths without affecting one another in a significant way (reflecting Alison’s complex relationship with her father). Given how closely Bruce’s books are tied to his suppression, his secrecy, and his hidden desires, it is no wonder that his wife gets rid of most of his book collection after he dies.

It is literature that allows Bruce and Alison to achieve a degree of closeness that they’ve never felt before. It turns out that Alison ends up taking English with her father in twelfth grade, and she realizes that she really likes the books that her father wanted her to read, such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. She becomes deeply invested in discussing these books with her father within the classroom–and her interest leads her to develop “a sensation of intimacy” (199) that she has never felt before with her father. When Alison leaves to college, she grows even closer to Bruce, calling him every once in a while to discuss the books that she reads for her English class. Their connection reaches a peak when Bruce lends his daughter a copy of Earthly Paradise by Colette (an autobiography with lesbian themes) even though she has not revealed her lesbianism to him. The book sparks a conversation between the two, leading Bruce to open and honestly discuss his sexual orientation with Alison for the first time.

Figure 1. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.

Figure 3. Page 221. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.

Literature becomes the agent that allows Alison to forge a connection with her father. Although she admits that her intellectual connection and her intimacy with her father is seen as unusual to other people, she still seems to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it. Alison does, however, lament that they “were close. But not close enough” (225). However, despite the fact that they were not as close or as intimate as she wanted them to be, she cherishes the fact that “he was there to catch [her] when [she] leapt” (232).

I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed this memoir. It is complex, rich, funny, heartbreaking, and deeply insightful. I’m sure that this book is going to contribute significantly to my academic work, and I can’t wait to re-read this memoir in the near future.

You can purchase a copy of Bechdel’s memoir by clicking here.

Work Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print (Paperback edition).

Conceal, Don’t Feel: A Queer Reading of Disney’s [Frozen]

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know.

– Queen Elsa, “Let It Go” – Disney’s Frozen

Last night I saw Frozen, Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale entitled The Snow Queen. After seeing the film, my friend Katie pointed out that this movie is perhaps signaling another Disney renaissance, a period characterized not only by the adaptation of well-known tales, but also by an increased public interest in Disney films. I couldn’t agree more with Katie’s assessment–Frozen contained a sense of depth and heart that many recent Disney films lack. Something that I immediately thought about when leaving the movie theater was that Frozen is perhaps the queerest animated film ever produced by Disney–queer being a theoretical practice centered on the deconstruction of binaristic thinking (i.e. visualizing gray areas in between the black and the white), a rethinking of what constitutes and upholds normativity (especially in terms of identity), and even more so, and the disruption of unnecessary regulations that prevent people from achieving a livable life. I’m not the only one who approaches this film as queer. Fellow blogger beautifulCHAOS, for instance, has written a delightful and insightful post on Frozen as a gay allegory (click here or here for other blogs that discuss this interpretation). I intend to further add to this conversation by distilling the film through the lens of queer theory.

Queen Elsa is approached by some viewers as a queer or gay character, not only because she doesn’t engage in a romantic relationship in the film, but also because she is forced by her parents to suppress and hide the powers that she is born with.  Although the movie implies that her parents desperately try to conceal Elsa’s powers because of the danger that they impose to herself and to others, this does not justify the degree to which they prevent Elsa from having any human contact whatsoever. Furthermore, the fact that Elsa’s parents view suppression and isolation as solutions further emphasizes notions of the infamous queer closet–rather than assisting Elsa in learning how to hone her powers, they teach her how to “conceal, not feel.” I think it’s also worthy to point out that Elsa’s treatment is also eerily reminiscent of practices that take place during the process of gay conversion therapy, in which subjects are conditioned through meditative and repetitive processes to suppress certain urges and desires that occur naturally.

What do you think about reading Elsa as a queer/gay character? Do you consider this claim to be solid or weak? What happens if we approach queer, in this instance, as "non-normative," stripping away the sexual connotations of the word?

What do you think about reading Elsa as a queer/gay character? Do you consider this claim to be solid or weak? What happens if we approach queer, in this instance, as “non-normative,” stripping away the sexual connotations of the word?

Although at first, a queer reading of Frozen seems slightly far-fetched, there are many events within the film that can be read as such with a little theoretical help. For instance, Judith Halberstam, in her book entitled The Queer Art of Failurefocuses significant attention on CGI animation movies to illustrate how they exemplify topics such as revolution and transformation that deviate from normative expectations of identity and linearity. Halberstam goes as far as to argue that revolutionary CGI animation movies (which she refers to as Pixarvolt films) depict a world where the “little guys” are able to overcome obstacles, and where they are able to revolt against the “business world of the father and the domestic sphere of the mother” (47).

Halberstam’s claims help to shed light on a queer interpretation of Frozen, especially when it comes to the role that failure plays in envisioning alternative modes of living and existing in the world. Although the fact that Elsa is forced to suppress her powers can partly be attributed to the danger that her powers pose on others, it is uncanny that the main enforcers of Elsa’s suppression are her parents–authority figures that try their best to uphold an image of normalcy by shutting Elsa away from the outside world. It is here that the film’s greatest binary manifests: the castle represents the “safe,” domestic, and feminine sphere, whereas the outside world is treacherous, threatening, and masculine. While locked within the confines of the domestic, Elsa is not only prevented from establishing meaningful relationships with other people, but she is also forced to regulate her powers even though she recognizes that this regulation is futile. After Elsa’s parents die, Elsa is expected to take over the crown. Although she tries to conceal her powers during her coronation ceremony–Anna’s provocation leads her to create ice in front of all the guests at the ceremony, inadvertently leading her to “come out” in front of the entire kingdom.

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam points out how failure is a crucial process when it comes to the existence and survival of queer individuals, mostly because failure pushes people to explore alternatives when it comes to identifying ways to exist in the world. Elsa’s so-called failure to suppress her powers may have been a catalyst for many negative events; however, this failure influences her to escape the confines of the castle to let her non-normative identity thrive. Halberstam argues that breaking away from family and forgetting family lineage becomes a way of starting fresh even though it entails a failure from engaging in the heteronormative enterprise of the nuclear family. Thus, although Elsa’s escape from the castle and her creation of an ice-queendom up in the mountains can be approached as a renunciation of her expectations as a ruler and as an upholder of the domestic sphere, it also becomes an opportunity for Elsa to realize not only who she is, but just how much she is capable of doing and creating.

After Elsa discovers and unleashes her “queer” identity, she is able to collapse the binaries that have regulated and haunted her life. Notice that once she returns to Arendelle after embracing her powers, she declares that the gates of the castle shall stay open to the entire community, thus obliterating the divide that was being upheld between the domesticity of the castle and the queerness of the outside world. Even the castle itself begins to refute binaristic thinking at the end of the film as Elsa decorates the premises with ice-fountains, ice-sculptures, and ice-covered structures. Rather than presenting a world that is either hot or cold, the castle becomes a structure in which the frozen and the non-frozen coexist–ultimately eradicating the difference between the two.

A queer presence is ultimately what facilitates a more open and cooperative living situation to manifest–a living situation that allows all identities to exist without restrictions or unnecessary regulations. This echoes Judith Butler’s views on what she considers to be the goal of queer theory: rather than simply being a practice for obliterating normativity, it is a practice that should be aimed in opposition to “the unwanted legislation of identity” (7). Thus, queer theory does not aim to show non-normativity as a superior choice, but rather, it aims to show how normativity should not restrict what a person can or can’t be.

FrozenBanner

What other characters in Frozen collapse binaristic divides? Nearly every character in this film challenges a dichotomous view or the world, or they deviate immensely from the sterotypical expectations that we have of certain characters. For instance, Olaf the snowman collapses the distinction between the living and the non-living; Prince Hans destroys cultural associations that exist between beauty and goodness; even Kristoff deviates immensely from the expectations that we have of Disney’s male heroes: he is clumsy, smelly, he talks with his reindeer Sven, and he was raised by trolls.

I can go on and on about how this movie invites the viewer to collapse the dichotomous views that are often ingrained within our collective consciousness. Frozen presents a world in which snowmen can exist during the summer, a world that blurs the distinction between living and non-living creatures (snow and rocks become animated characters with personalities), a world where animals are given a voice and where people speak on behalf of the animals, a world in which marriage is not viewed as the highest aspiration that a woman should have, a world in which even gorgeous characters are capable of being evil. If Frozen is pointing us toward a new direction that Disney is steering towards, then I think we will continue to see more brilliant films that are not only entertaining, but that are socially and politically conscientious (without necessarily shoving a message down our throats, as in the case of other animated films like Happy Feet). If Frozen is marking the beginning of a queer future for Disney, then it is a bright future indeed. As Queen Elsa affirms in the song Let It Go: “Let the storm rage on.”

Works Cited and Consulted

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Frozen. Dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Perf. Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, and Santino Fontana. Disney, 2013. Film.

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

Patrick McCabe’s [Breakfast on Pluto]

Front cover of Patrick McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto (1998)

Front cover of Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto (1998)

Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto is an unusual “coming-of-age” story (I’m using this term very loosely) focused on the growth and development of Patrick “Pussy” Braden, the illegitimate child of a priest and his teenage housekeeper. Due to his illegitimate birth, Patrick’s mother places her child in a Rinso box and abandons him in front of a foster home. Patrick grows up under the loose guidance of “Whiskers,” a foster mother with a penchant for drinking and chain smoking. From an early age, Patrick is characterized by his affinity for the dramatic, and he is also shown to develop a taste for dressing in women’s clothing and for actively sharing the fact that he is literally the son of a preacher-man. Pussy Braden is the narrator of her own story, and the novel itself is approached as a text that her psychiatrist, Dr. Terence, orders her to write to cope with the instabilities and heartbreaks of her life. Given the fact that the novel is a narrative fabricated by Patrick, one must remain skeptical in terms of the content that she shares. Not only is Pussy Braden a very scattered and disorganized writer, but there are also times when she deliberately writes about imaginary events or characters. 

As an adult, Patrick “Pussy” Braden embodies behaviors, attitudes, and practices that definitely cast her off as a marginal character. First and foremost, it is difficult to categorize her in terms of gender and sexuality. Pussy Braden fluctuates between representing herself as a man and representing herself as a women, she engages in sexual activity with members of both sexes, and other characters are ambiguous in terms of how they approach her–some characters even refer to her as a he and a she within the same sentence. Although the safest label to apply to Pussy Braden would be queer due to her open and unabashed embrace of non-normativity, the novel ultimately suggests that she thinks of herself as female. She often recognizes the difficulties that she has in terms of finding a man, and constantly faces heartbreak when she confronts the impossibility for her to bear children of her own. To further complicate Pussy Braden’s marginal identity, she works as a prostitute, and towards the novel’s conclusion, she is accused of planting a bomb that killed a British soldier that she was flirting with–the fact that she dresses as a woman leads the British forces to deduce that she is in disguise.

Breakfast on Pluto is a very queer novel in that it explores the difficulties of living in a life between borders or binaries. Pussy Braden, for instance, is born in the small Irish town of Tyreelin but later moves to London during the 1970s; however, she soon comes to notice that she does not fit in either place. The period in which the novel takes place is particularly important because it is a time where the tension between Ireland and London was at its peak. The unexpected changes within the global economy affected all societal sectors in London: shops and factories closed, the unemployment rate doubled, and the Irish Republican Army was engaging in an active and sustained bombing campaign focused on weakening the British Army’s earnestness to remain within Ireland. Thus, Pussy Braden is not only caught in the midst of a war between two countries, but she is also caught in a limbo-like state between two genders. Her illegitimate birth also places her within the outskirts of normativity and social acceptance.

Breakfast on Pluto is not your average novel of development. Although we do trace Patrick’s birth and experiences over a significant span of time, Pussy Braden is ultimately unable to find a place of belonging throughout her journey. The novel thus becomes a statement on Pussy’s inability to fit in a society that offers no comforts for alternative or hybrid modes of existence that deviate from the cultural dominant. The narrative is focused on Pussy’s resistance towards cultural norms, and a value of individualistic desires over the wants and demands of society. This is evidenced early in the novel, when a thirteen-year old Patrick writes essays in school describing his father’s affair with his mother. Although his teacher, Peepers Egan, tries to convince him to stop engaging in antisocial behavior and to try to “fit in,” Patrick adamantly replies “Oh, no. I haven’t the slightest intention of stopping it, Peeps, or trying to fit in either!” (11).

Although I thought the political strands discussed within the narrative were interesting, I thought that Pussy Braden’s gender and sex-related struggles were particularly illuminating in terms of illustrating her non-normative position within society, and the heartbreak usually associated with being caught in the borderlines between two worlds. She usually dreams about how different her life would be if she were born a biological female, but she recognizes how a “vagina all of [her] own” (36) is indeed an impossibility.

Pussy’s biological struggles are linked with her desire to bear children despite her impossibility to do so, and she goes as far as to state the following: “if I did somehow manage to get a vagina, one think I was certain of, and I didn’t care even who it was with, was that I wanted at least ten of a family” (40). This desire to have many children is fueled mostly by the fact that Pussy Braden wants, first and foremost, to be loved–yet she finds it difficult to find love due to the temporary relationships she forms through the act of prostitution. This desire to raise children is rooted on the fact that she believes that even when she is ill and dying, they would travel far and wide to see her one last time before she passes away–and she takes this as a sign of true love. Despite Pussy’s selfish nature, her views toward love are very open and surprisingly unselfish. Although she wants children so she can love them and so that they can love her, she also knows that this love will continue to thrive even when she is no longer alive: “Everyone would my children love for they themselves knew love and shared it” (41). She also believes that when other people see the love she has for her children, no one would question whether or not they are hers because of her lack of a vagina:

There would be no one. And as my eyelids slowly closed and the tears pressed their way into the world, I’d clasp each hand and say goodbye, to each one adieu bid, safe in the knowledge that baby one and baby two, right up to baby ten, had all their lives been given it, and to the very end received it, that wonderful thing called love. (41)

On one hand, it can be said that children will enable Pussy to embrace a sense of motherhood and femininity that her biology prevents her from possessing. On the other hand, it becomes blatantly obvious that love is a power that Pussy craves to possess. Love becomes the thing that Pussy has always wanted, and it becomes the thing that is constantly denied to her. Her parents abandon her, thus preventing parental love to manifest; Pussy’s foster mother doesn’t show emotion or affections towards her, and she raises Pussy in atrocious living conditions; Pussy is unable to bear her own children to love; even when she grows attached to a man in her life, they somehow manage to die (her politician boyfriend, for instance, is brutally murdered; the soldier she flirts with at a bar explodes due to an IRA bombing; even Dr. Terence abandons her in the middle of her treatment).

Her thirst for love leads to potentially awkward and uncomfortable situations. For instance, Pussy dates a man she calls Bertie, who lives with his landlady, Louise. Louise lost her son due to a tragic bus accident, and her husband consequently abandons her. Pussy comforts Louise, and during this comforting, Louise kisses Pussy–and thus commences a very complicated relationship and love triangle between Pussy, Louise, and Bertie.

Pussy and Louise’s relationship is a strange mixture of maternal and sexual love. Louise asks Pussy to dress in her dead son’s jacket and short trousers. She also asks Pussy to address her as “Mammy,” and Pussy usually ends up sitting on Louise’s lap to suck on her nipple in order to simulate the act of breastfeeding. Although this first made Pussy uncomfortable, she eventually grows accustomed to her strange relationship with Louise: “After a while, I started to really like it, just sitting there on her knee and being engulfed by all this powdery warm flesh. I never wanted to get up in fact” (91). As can be expected, Bertie catches Pussy sucking on Louise’s nipple one day, and thus, both relationships are instantly dismantled. Not only does this uneasy and strange relationship add more fuel to Pussy’s limbo-like status within the world, but it also exemplifies the extent to which she desires to love and be loved.

One of the most heartbreaking instances in the novel is when Pussy is behind a creamery, searching for evidence to determine whether or not a woman named Martina slept with a man named Tommy McNamee. Pussy begins to imagine a lifetime of heartbreak for Martina if she sleeps with Tommy, mostly because she believes that “all he cared about was pleasuring himself and walking away then to boast about it” (105). She goes as far as to imagine Martina getting pregnant from her one-night stand with Tommy. Despite Pussy’s pleas, Martina sleeps with Tommy behind a creamery. Pussy goes behind the creamery hoping to find no semen, to thus rest assured that Tommy used a condom during sex. Much to Pussy’s dismay, she finds some semen spilled over a dockleaf, which causes her to have a breakdown:

I think it was because it seemed so ridiculous that such a minuscule amount of liquid could cause so much heartache. But which it did, as I’d always known, and consequently belonged in a world thousands of miles from the one I’d written of and dreamed for Terrence. Oh which he spoke so highly, saying that never before had he read anything like it. (107)

The passage above is significant for two reasons: first and foremost, it illustrates the fragility of Pussy’s perspective towards love, and how she laments the fact that small actions can have major consequences over the lives of people. After all, semen was the cause of Pussy’s existence, which can only be characterized as an existence repleted with sorry, angst, and heartache. Secondly, it demonstrates how Pussy is aware that her own writing, and even her hopes and expectations, deviate immensely from the reality that she is living. In due course, the novel makes it absolutely clear that the social conditions that Pussy finds herself in ultimately prevent her from having an easy or a livable life. One could only hope that the society we live in today is at least somewhat more evolved, open, and safe–that it is a society in which Patrick Pussy Bradens do not have to feel ashamed, alone, or unloved.

Work Cited

McCabe, Patrick. Breakfast on Pluto. London: Picador, 1998. Print.

Ellen Wittlinger’s [Parrotfish]: A Transgender Coming-Out Novel

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish

Front cover of the paperback version of Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish

What made a person male or female, anyway? The way they looked? The way they acted? The way they thought? Their hormones? Their genitals? What if some of those attributes pointed in one direction and some in the other?

– Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish (p. 131)

Although Julie Anne Peters’ Luna was the first young adult text to tackle the issue of transgenderism, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish offers us a very direct and personal perspective of what it means to born in the wrong body. Unlike Luna (read my analysis of this novel by clicking here), Wittlinger’s novel is  told from the first-person perspective of the character undergoing a transition from one gender to another, and it is also centered on a female-to-male (FTM) rather than a male-to-female transition. Although the novel lacks a certain degree of credibility due to its almost cartoonish and one-dimensional portrayal of certain secondary characters, it is ultimately a text full of heart, and it complies with its goal of giving the reader insight into what it means for trans youth to come-out within contemporary society. Although the coming-out genre may be deemed tiring and overwrought by some readers, Wittlinger’s novel demonstrates how the genre needs to explore alternate coming-out narratives that are not focused solely on white gay/lesbian upper/middle class characters. I loved Luna‘s initial attempt to do this, but ability to establish a strong rapport with the trans character was limited, due to the fact that the trans character’s story was distilled through her sister’s perspective.

Parrotfish begins at the moment when Angela Katz-McNair–the novel’s protagonist–decides to become Grady. Grady chooses this name not only because of its gender neutrality, but also because it contains the word gray within it: “you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle” (6). He initially comes out as a lesbian because he deemed it to be a closer and easier step toward revealing his queer self within his community. He decides to unleash Grady soon after by declaring himself a boy to his family and friends, and by performing masculinity rather than suppressing it: he cuts his own hair very short, he begins to bind his breasts with a bandage, and he begins to wear traditional male attire. The main tension with the novel is Grady’s fear of losing touch with his past self. By assuming his true gender identity, he fears that he would have to sever his relationship with his past entirely. This is an interesting contrast to Peters’ Luna, for running away from the past is not presented as an option for Grady. He wants to embody his true gender, but in doing so, he does not want to lose a connection to everything that has shaped him.

In my opinion, the most interesting parts of this novel were those that explored not only the emotional difficulties of transitioning from a female to a male gender, but also the physical difficulties of said transition. Peter’s Luna, for instance, focuses more on the emotional torment that its transgender character faces. Luna does express physical torment, especially during the scene in which the trans character, as a child, tries to cut off his penis (as shown through the protagonist’s flashback); these physical accounts, however, are rare. Given that Wittlinger’s novel is told through the perspective of the FTM transgender protagonist, I was expecting a more nuanced understanding of the physical pains of transitioning–and the novel delivers in this aspect. For instance, Grady constantly remarks on how painful it is to breathe and to engage in physical activity when his breasts are bound with tight bandages (even though he is fortunate enough to have small breasts). Grady also expresses the difficulty of determining what bathroom to use in his high school, ultimately avoiding the decision because his understanding gym teacher allows him to use her private bathroom and shower. A particularly insightful scene in the novel in terms of the physical pains of transitioning takes place when Grady explains how he feels towards menstruation while experiencing it:

now I was a boy who had just started his period and was probably bleeding all over his jockey shorts. Yeah, that was normal. Even my own body betrayed me on a regular basis. What was I supposed to do now? Crap. I could feel the cramps advancing. The gym and Ms. Unger’s bathroom were half a mile away from my locker. By the time I ran down there I’d be a mess. (59-60)

Menstruation highlights the tension that exists between Grady’s mind and his body. It also becomes an experience of active struggle for Grady, for although he is trying to be a boy, menstruation coerces his masculinity to clash vis-a-vis the femininity he is trying to suppress. For instance, when Grady is suffering from menstrual cramps, he refuses to acknowledge to them to his mother because it “seemed like an argument against what I’d been trying to prove to her” (61). Thus, even when embodying his true gender, Grady realizes that performativity is still necessary when it comes to expressing truth.

Going back to the fact that this novel is a bit unrealistic, I want to focus on Grady’s fear of not losing his entire past by embodying a different gender (prepare for major spoilers). Towards the end of the novel, most of the tensions that Grady had with other characters vanish entirely. He mends his relationship with his best friend, Eve, after she helps him avoid a cruel prank that other students were planning against him. His family, most of which showed apprehension towards his transition, rapidly become entirely accepting of him. Even the novel’s bully, the nefarious queen bee Danya, faces suspension from Grady’s high school and is ultimately humiliated by other students at the winter dance. The message is clear: to thine own self be true, and not only will everyone accept you, but your bullies will face karmic consequences for their insidious actions.

Not only does Grady’s past relationships stay intact, but his life improves in almost every aspect imaginable. This outcome may be approached my some as misguided, because it undermines the difficulties and the non-teleological struggles of being transgender. Unlike the LGB side of the spectrum, trans youths not only have to come out, but their coming-out entails performative and physical changes that inevitably invoke a contrast between the before and the after. Although I absolutely adore the positive and optimistic message that the novel presents, I can’t help but wonder if the novel is too optimistic and naive when it comes to the issues that transgender teens face. Not all transgender teens are going to be lucky enough to be accepted by every single member of their immediate family. Not all transgender teens will find love and support as easily as Grady does. Peters’ Luna, on the other hand, shows both sides of the spectrum in terms of the consequences of coming out as transgender to one’s family: some quietly accept, some have no issue with it whatsoever, and others react with outrage and at times violence.

I reiterate that I completely understand Wittlinger’s utopian depiction of a transgender future–but I question whether the novel should’ve been more realistic when considering the outcomes of this distinctive coming-out process. I’m especially anxious to know how transgender readers feel about the general approach and conclusions that this novel presents. Regardless of its shortcomings, Parrotfish is well worth a read, and it provides some excellent food for thought. I particularly recommend the novel to readers who are not really aware of the nuances of gender, especially when it comes to matters such as performativity and gender construction. Those who are aware of these nuances might find the novel a bit too obvious and didactic, despite its warm, humorous, and fast-paced nature.

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

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Parrotfish. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print (Hardcover edition).

On YA Fiction with Gay Latino Characters: Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Front cover of Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)

Front cover of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)

Words were different when they lived inside of you.

– Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (p. 31)

A few years ago, I wrote a short essay that was published in the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blogs managed by UMass Dartmouth regarding the importance of young adult literature in my personal and professional life. In this small essay, I discuss that although gay YA fiction helped me to accept myself and to understand the nuances of sexuality and sexual orientation, I always felt a “rift” between my reality as a Latino man and the reality depicted in most gay coming-of-age novels, mostly because:

the representation of the coming out process within the literature is influenced by social, cultural, and racial factors, such that the depiction of the turbulent relationship between certain socio-cultural backgrounds and homosexuality seems to be overshadowed by the ostensibly progressive perspectives of gay males portrayed in novels with white middle- or upper-class protagonists.

Now, this is not to say that there was a total absence of gay YA novels with central Latino/a characters or protagonists. Alex Sanchez’s works, such as his heartwarming Rainbow Boys series and his politically charged novel The God Box have prominent gay Latino characters who happen to be well-rounded, and who are able to fall in love and find happiness (unlike other gay Latino characters in YA fiction, such as in the case of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary, who are depicted as tortured souls unable to reconcile their personal desires with the demands of their culture). And while I’ll be the first to admit that Sanchez’s works were groundbreaking, I’ve pointed out previously that they are many times perceived as overly didactic, giving them an almost instruction manual-esque character–which is unsurprising given the fact that Sanchez obtained a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Sanchez’s work. But I love it more for it’s emancipatory nature rather than its literariness.

Didactic is one of the last words that comes to mind when reading Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I still can’t get over how beautiful and amazing this novel is (I know, beautiful and amazing are not “academic” judgments–but as the protagonist of this novel emphasizes, rules must be broken).  This novel is expertly crafted. The prose is simple, delicate, unpretentious, and poetic. The characters are complex, sympathetic, and real. Alire Sáenz plays whimsically with text and blank space, at times giving me the impression that I’m reading a poem rather than a novel. Finally, we have a young adult novel with a gay Latino protagonist that exudes literary merit while also keeping its soul accessible. This is the novel I wish I had in my hands as a teenager, but unless time machines are invented any time soon, I know that this is an impossibility. Alire Sáenz’s words found a way to dig deep inside of me, and as pointed out in the quote above, words mean different things when they dwell in you.

The novel centers on a fifteen year-old Mexican-American teenager named Angel Aristotle Mendoza (who is known as Ari by his family and peers) as he befriends fifteen year-old Dante Quintana, the Mexican-American son of an English professor and a therapist. Early on in this coming-of-age novel, which takes place from 1987-88, it is clear that both of these boys are very different in terms of their outlooks on life, due mostly to their different upbringings. Ari’s father is a Vietnam vet who rarely shares his thoughts of the war and who barely speaks at all, and his mother is a school teacher who maintains a strict yet playful relationship with Ari. Ari is constantly haunted by the fact that his brother, who is fifteen years older than him, was sent to jail when he was four years-old–and the family refuses to acknowledge the brother’s existence, even when Ari requests to know more about his sibling. Growing up with a distant father and family secrets results in Ari having difficulties to share his life openly with other people. Ari’s family contrasts significantly with Dante’s family, who refuse to keep secrets from each other, and who openly show affection. Dante is also an open book who shares his thoughts and emotions even when he is aware that they may offend or bother those who surround him. Despite these differences, they do share many common tastes–especially in terms of their love for language and the written word.

The development of the relationship between Ari and Dante is the crown jewel of this novel. The relationship between these two teens, who at first were friendless and  lonely, is quite intense. Their love for each other is first accentuated when Aristotle jumps in front of a car in order to save Dante’s life. Aristotle ends of breaking both legs and an arm in his effort to push Dante away from a speeding vehicle, and as he recovers in a hospital, the two boys begin to grow closer. As their relationship develops, we as readers observe how the two teens begin to deeply influence each other, and we also observe how their personalities and ideologies spark when coming into contact. I was drawn to specific moments in which Dante’s openness clashed with Ari’s reserved and conservative nature. An instance of this clashing can be seen in the following exchange between the two characters:

“I went swimming today,” he [Dante] said.

“How was it?”

“I love swimming.”

“I know,” I said.

“I love swimming,” he said again. He was quiet for a little while. And then he said, “I love swimming–and you.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Swimming and you, Ari. Those are the things I love the most.”

“You shouldn’t say that,” I said.

“It’s true.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t true. I said you shouldn’t say it.”

“Why not?”

“Dante, I don’t–”

“You don’t have to say anything. I know that we’re different. We’re not the same.” (151)

What caught my attention in this passage was not only the differences in attitudes that exist between the two characters, but also the way Dante’s sexual orientation is handled in the novel. This passage is essentially Dante’s coming-out to Ari. Later on in the novel, Dante explicitly mentions that he has kissed boys and that he eventually wants to marry a man, but this “confession” is done fearlessly and effortlessly. Dante does have issues in terms of revealing his sexual orientation to his parents, but this is because he is an only child, and he is worried about the heteronormative expectation (especially within Latino communities) of providing grandchildren to his parents: “I’m the only son. What’s going to happen with the grandchildren thing? I hate that I’m going to disappoint them, Ari. I know I’ve disappointed you too” (227).

Dante’s belief that Ari is disappointed in him stems from the fact that he believes that Ari will break their friendship because of his sexual orientation. Ari, however, asserts that they are still friends–and they continue to be friends even when Dante overtly expresses his love for Aristotle. Despite how clear it is that Ari loves Dante, Ari constantly tries to assert heterosexuality. There is an instance in which Dante asks Ari how he is sure that he doesn’t like men if he hasn’t tried doing anything with them–prompting Ari to kiss Dante in order to test the gay waters. Ari claims that the kiss was not enjoyable. Even after Dante is (SPOILER ALERT) gay-bashed during the novel’s falling action, and even after Dante’s parents confess that theyknow Dante is in love with Ari, the latter is unable to say that the two are anything but friends:

I [Ari] wanted to tell them [Dante’s parents] that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.” (309)

Something I found remarkably groundbreaking was the fact that it is Ari’s father who helps him come to terms with his sexual orientation. During the final chapters of the novel, Ari and his father have a serious conversation regarding Dante’s feelings toward Ari. Ari points out that he is aware how Dante feels, but that ultimately he has no control over Dante’s feelings. Ari’s father responds by saying: “the problem isn’t just that Dante’s in love with you. The real problem–for you, anyway–is that you’re in love with him” (348). Ari’s father can’t stand seeing his son being consumed by loneliness and self-loathing, so rather than allowing his son to go through the difficulty of finding a way to come out (not only to others, but to himself)–the father becomes the catalyst that allows Ari to express his true sexual identity. I found this to be such a refreshing moment in this novel, for we witness an instance in which the father figure (who is typically represented as chauvinistic, patriarchal, and homophobic in other gay novels with Latino characters) disrupts heteronormative stereotypes by nurturing, rather than suppressing, his son’s homosexuality.

In sum, this is a beautiful, groundbreaking, and insightful novel, and this post really doesn’t do it any justice. I am honored and pleased to announce that I’m currently working on an essay focused on this novel for a collection of literary criticism on Latino/a young adult fiction. In this essay, I will explore how issues of futurity play a role in gay Latino/a YA fiction–and I am certain that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe will add depth and heart to my academic inquiries.

You can purchase a copy of this novel here.

Work Cited.

Alire Sáenz, Benjamin. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster BFYR, 2012. Print (Hardcover edition).

Justin Torres’ “We the Animals”: A Fresh and Animalistic Twist to the Coming-of-Age Narrative

We the Animals Cover

Front cover of Justin Torres’ _We the Animals_

When constructing the list for my doctoral exams, I wanted to include novels that discussed issues of development, coming-of-age, and sexuality from multiple perspectives. Justin TorresWe the Animals not only caught my attention because it was favorably reviewed by authors such as Michael Cunningham, but also because it contains Puerto Rican representations—and as some of you might know, these characters are quite scarce in YA fiction (especially gay YA fiction).

The novel centers mostly on the experiences of three brothers—Manny, Joel, and the protagonist/narrator—as they grow up in Upstate New York, trying to balance their humanistic demands with their animalistic urges. The two other important characters in the story are the mother, who is white, depressed, and unable to identify a shred of happiness in a domain ruled my machismo and poverty, and the father, a Puerto Rican man characterized by his rough, somewhat brutal, and at times impotent behavior. It does not help that the mother was only fourteen when she became pregnant with Manny, whereas the father was sixteen. Much of the tension within the novel surfaces when the children must assume adult roles as their parents come to grips with the fact that they were never given a chance to be children in the first place.

Part of what I enjoyed the most about this novel was its style and its honesty. The bulk of the narrative is told through the perspective of a sensitive protagonist who is seven years old. Torres did an excellent job of making the youth and the innocence of this character concrete, allowing the reader to understand and at times fall into the trap of the protagonist’s naiveté.

The mother constantly goes through heavy abuse by her husband—she is beaten, insulted, and at one point of the novel, it is implied that he rapes her. The protagonist, however, easily buys into the lies fed to him by his father. For instance, the father explains to his children that their mother was beaten and swollen because a dentist removed some of her teeth by “punching on her after she went under” (12). Other instances of naiveté surface later on, when the father drops off the protagonist at a museum, promising to be back in an hour, only to return hours later with no explanation. That being said, the entire novel is void of explanations because it is distilled through the perspective of a child, not an omniscient and all-knowing narrator.

What makes this novel so haunting is the fact that this violence and abuse is contrasted with many beautiful moments full of tenderness and genuine love. The abuse and the tenderness are further contrasted with scenes that are subtle, but that convey a frightening sense of realness and rawness to the point of invoking discomfort. Among these moments was the scene in which the mother and father were bathing the three children. The whole family is found together within a room, naked or half-naked, sharing an intimacy that I’m not accustomed to seeing in YA fiction. The father urinates as the children are bathing, the mother and father engage in sexual foreplay as the children observe from the tub… it’s a moment that may seem awkward, but that expresses a moment of unity and harmony: “no one wanted to fight or splash or ruin the moment” (45).

I absolutely loved the first 2/3 of the novel, and this love at first dwindled during the last chapters, where some very abrupt and dramatic changes happened somewhat out of the blue. Typically, within coming-of-age stories, one observes a natural, fluid, and linear progression from one point of the protagonist’s life to another. The narrative, particularly during the last two chapters, makes a jump to a future point of the narrator’s life, where he briskly lists the developments that have occurred during a large span of time: he has grown apart from his brothers due to his diverging sensitivities and intellectual interests, and also due to his sexual attraction to men. This split within the narrative occurs after two very important events: the character watches gay pornography for the first time, and after his father abandons him at the museum for a while, he is caught dancing in a feminine fashion. This leads his father to point out the following:

“I was thinking how pretty you were,” he said. “Now, isn’t that an odd thing for a father to think about his son? But that’s what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got me a pretty one.” (102)

This admission on behalf of the father could be interpreted in two ways: either the father was truly admiring his son’s beauty, or, he was coming face-to-face with the fact that his son deviates from the traditional expectations of masculinity (particularly within Latino communities).

While at first I was upset with this sudden and abrupt shift of tone within the novel, it was afterwards that I realized that the actual structure of the novel was mimicking the shifts that the characters themselves undergo when trying to balance their inner human with their inner animal. Furthermore, looking back on the narrative as a whole, I couldn’t help but notice how fragmentary in nature it is, which leads me to deduce that this coming-of-age plot never had linearity as a goal in the first place.

Furthermore, this narrative puts a new spin on the act of coming-out, in which the hardships of the actual process are not depicted. Conversely, the novel centers on the events that foreshadow the character’s sexuality and the final stage of formation as depicted in the final chapters. Keeping in mind that the protagonist has the tendency to be extremely insightful, yet simultaneously naïve,  this leads me to argue that Torres’ novel is an deliberate amalgamation of opposing forces (child/adult, animal/human, before/after, peace/war) that is centered on chaotic beauty rather than on the linear and somewhat predictable exploration of grey areas.

Is it possible that the coming-of-age genre is in due course coming-of-age? What we have here is a novel typically categorized as a coming-of-age or YA text, yet it delves deeply into issues such as the construction/deconstruction of meaning, the fragmentary nature of memory and experience, all while embracing heartbreak and turmoil… making the novel (post)modern in every sense of the word. This is a work I must return to again in the future when I have the time.

Source:

Torres, Justin. We the Animals. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Print.

– – –

“Justin Torres’ We the Animals: A Fresh and Animalistic Twist to the Coming-of-Age Narrative” was originally published in http://angelmatos.net on June 6th, 2013.