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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).

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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).

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On Happy Endings and Gay Fiction: E.M. Forster’s [Maurice]

Front cover of E.M. Forster's Maurice

Front cover of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1971)

“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam in the greenwood. […] Happiness is its keynote–which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish.”

(E.M. Forster, Terminal note of Maurice – p. 236)

Maurice, a central text within the gay literary canon, is by far one of the bravest creative works written within the genre of LGBT literature; arguably, it is one of the bravest texts of the early twentieth century. The novel is an essence a Bildungsroman that traces the emotional development of the eponymous hero as he deals with the repercussions of being homosexual in Edwardian England. During his time at college, Maurice Christopher Hall becomes involved in a romantic (yet strictly chaste) relationship with his Cambridge colleague, Clive Durham, until the latter decides to marry a woman–leaving Maurice desolate and heartbroken. Through his attempts to “cure” his homosexuality through hypnosis and other means, Maurice meets Alec, a gatekeeper at the Durham estate. He becomes involved both romantically and sexually with Alec, and decides to start a life with him–all while affirming his “Wildean” identity to Clive as an act of socio-cultural resistance. As Maurice admirably states in his declaration of queer embodiment to Clive:

I was yours once till death if you’d cared to keep me, but I’m someone else’s now–I can’t hang about whining for ever–and he’s mine in a way that shocks you, but why don’t you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness? (230)

Although written by E.M. Forster during 1913-14, he refused to publish the book during his lifetime because of the negative legal and moralistic attitudes toward homosexuality that permeated England during the advent of the century. While bravery isn’t necessarily reflected in Forster’s (perfectly reasonable) decision to withhold publishing the text during his lifetime, it is reflected in the novel’s content: to envision a world, fictional or realistic, in which two men could “fall in love and remain in it” was beyond the scope of most modernist writers. It’s also brave in terms of its optimism, for in a world in which literary merit is driven by pain, suffering, depression, and unhappy endings, writing a novel with a happy ending is indeed a deviation from the grim albeit expected nature of the “literary.”

It is no coincidence, however, that Maurice was written just before World War I. One could only imagine how this optimism would be affected if the novel were written a year or two later. Forster did edit the novel during the 1960s, and it was known for having an epilogue in which Maurice’s younger sister (Kitty) encounters him and Alec working as woodcutters (and the consequent hatred she develops once she puts two and two together). Forster decided to discard this epilogue because the novel’s action is set in 1912, and the epilogue would’ve taken place a few years later in “the transformed England of the First World War (239). Thus, even though the novel is edited decades after it was written, its narrative essence and its optimistic outlook remained unchanged because it is meant to be approached as a snapshot of homosexual love during a period in which issues of class, aristocracy, politeness, and appearance are crucial to character development. This, in conjunction with the fact that the novel was published almost sixty years after it was written, leads it to be approached as a period piece (even though it was not written to be read this way).

Given the fact that the novel was written so early during the twentieth century, it is surprising to see how forward-thinking the novel is in terms of its views on sex, homosexuality, and queerness. Maurice is shown from his early teens to sense some discomfort in terms of heterosexual courtship. This is particularly noticeable when Mr. Ducie is explaining the act of heterosexual intercourse (with diagrams and illustrations traced on sand) to a fourteen year-old Maurice at the beach. The young teen is unable to grasp the adult’s approach to the birds and the bees: “He was attentive, as was natural when he was the only one in the class, and he knew that the subject was serious and related to his own body. But he could not himself relate it; it fell to pieces as soon as Mr. Ducie put it together, like an impossible sum (7, emphasis mine). The design and mechanics of heterosexual intercourse do not mesh with Maurice’s sensibilities, thus linking homosexuality to organic or perhaps even genetic roots. Indeed, this biological perspective goes in accordance with the view of homosexuality as pathological during this period, and the hypnotist that attempts to cure Maurice of his “trouble” in the novel goes as far as to diagnose him with a case of “Congenital homosexuality” (167). This diagnosis may indeed seem problematic, but before jumping to conclusions, I want to focus my attention on an exchange that happens between Maurice and Lasker Jones (the hypnotist/therapist) during the last failed attempt to cure the former of his so-called ailment:

“And what’s to happen to me?” said Maurice, with a sudden drop in his voice. He spoke in despair, but Mr Lasker Jones had an answer to every question. “I’m afraid I can only advise you to live in some country that has adopted the Code Napoleon,” he said.

“I don’t understand.”

“France or Italy, for instance. There homosexuality is no longer criminal.”

“You mean that a Frenchman could share with a friend and yet not go to prison?”

“Share? Do you mean unite? If both are of age and avoid public indecency, certainly.”

“Will the law ever be that in England?”

“I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Maurice understood. He was an Englishman himself, and only his troubles had kept him awake. He smiled sadly. “It comes to this then: there always have been people like me and always will be, and generally they have been persecuted.”

“That is so, Mr Hall; or, as psychiatry prefers to put it, there has been, is, and always will be every conceivable type of person. And you must remember that your type was once put to death in England.” (Forster 196)

Although homosexuality is approached as pathological in most of the novel, Lasker Jones and Maurice seem to come to the consensus that homosexuality is simply a way of being that has been policed and suppressed in an effort to further wedge the divide between the cultural and the natural. This passage is emancipatory in that it problematizes the view of homosexuals being unable to assimilate to cultural norms through an inversion of agency: the problem is not the homosexual’s inability to mesh with society, but rather, society’s inability to mesh with the homosexual (i.e. people who have existed, exist, and always will exist). This is precisely why a happy ending for the novel, as Forster put it, was imperative.

Forster could have played it safe to assure that Maurice was published during his lifetime: “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors” (236). But ending this novel in a tragedy would’ve not only followed the formula of countless other novels with gay content published during the time, but it also would go against the possibility of creating an active and effective identity politics. True, tragedy (and backwards feelings), in its own macabre way, has a way of inspiring and igniting a politics of identity; after all, it is pain that establishes the need for a politics of identity in the first place. However, considering all of the pain already portrayed in the novel, would it be necessary for characters to embrace death as a way of demonstrating the unfairness of the status quo? Forster suggests, in due course, that perhaps the shears needed to unravel the knot of (hetero)normativity are not found through death, solitude, and pain, but rather, through life, union, and happiness. Maurice, rather than basking in solitude, finds strength through Alec, and assures him that they “shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished” (225). And although the forever-ness present within the lack of this parting may only be found in fiction, it is a fiction I’m willing to live through vicariously.

You can purchase a copy of Forster’s Maurice here.

Work Cited

Forster, E.M. Maurice. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1971. Print.

We the animals

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.

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“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.

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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)

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