Course Syllabus: Queer Young Adult Literature

Hello readers! So, I’m finally teaching one of my dream courses, and it’s one that I’ve been anxious to teach for quite some time! Click here to access the syllabus that I’ve designed for an intermediate seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled Queer Young Adult Literature, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program.  The course description is as follows:

How do literary texts communicate ideas that are supposed to be unspeakable, especially to a younger audience? In this course, we will explore contemporary young adult literature that represents the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer adolescents. We will not only scrutinize the complex relationship that exists between narrative, sexuality, gender, and audience, but we will also determine how certain genres and narrative modes enable or limit representations of queerness. Drawing from temporal and affective approaches to queer studies, we will examine the genre’s attempt to encapsulate an enduring change in terms of how queer adolescence is (or can be) represented, perceived, and experienced.

This course is my opportunity to teach and discuss ideas that I’ve developed while writing my dissertation, especially when it comes to the analysis of youth literature with queer content using the critical lenses of queer, affect, and narrative theories. Although this course has various goals and objectives, there are three main things that I want students to explore throughout the course:

  1. The way in which young adult novels make use of non-conventional narrative forms and structures in their explorations of queer content, and the formalistic/structural strategies implemented by queer youth narratives.
  2. The ways in which queer young adult literature complicates or reaffirms ideas regarding queer childhood and queer adolescence.
  3. The affective and political potential of the young adult genre, and the ways in which youth literature uses emotion to help its readership develop historical awareness and resilience towards violence and queerphobia.

In all honesty, this was one of the most difficult courses that I’ve ever designed, particularly since I had to limit the amount of novels that students and I would read and discuss throughout the semester. There were various criteria that I considered when making the final text selection. First and foremost, I wanted the course novels to reflect the spectrum of sexual and gender identities (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, etc.). Secondly, I wanted to include novels that represent the intersection between gender, sexuality and race, and that are written by authors of color–an issue, especially since youth literature with queer content is notorious for sidelining the experiences of queer characters of color (this has been changing, but ever so slowly). Last but not least, I wanted to include novels that implemented innovations of structure, form, and narrative mode, which wasn’t difficult to find given the propensity for queer narratives to implement nonlinear narratives and postmodern aesthetic techniques.

When you look at the course schedule that is located in the final two pages of the syllabus, you’ll notice that each of the course novels is paired with an important piece of theory or criticism focused on affective, temporal, and age studies approaches to queer theory. It is my hope that these difficult, theoretical texts will provide students with the means to conduct both reparative and paranoid readings of the young adult novels that I’ve selected. Furthermore, I hope that these difficult texts will help illuminate the intricacies and complexities of the young adult genre–a genre that is oftentimes viewed as simplistic and not worthy of critical attention.

As always, I appreciate any and all feedback! If you were to design a course on queer young adult literature, what novels would you include? What readings would you pair with your selected novels? What issues or topics would you focus on? If you have designed or taught a course on queer young adult literature, I would love for you to share your syllabus in the comments section below.

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

Course Syllabus: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are the Stories We Tell: Patrick Ness’ [More Than This]

(Major spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned!)

Front cover of Patrick Ness' More Than This

Front cover of Patrick Ness’ More Than This (2013)

“People see stories everywhere,” Regine says. “That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.” She glances back at Seth. “We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.” (Ness 217)

The notions of storytelling and narrative are central to Patrick Ness’ 2013 young adult novel entitled More Than This. As can be seen in the quote above, Regine, an important character in the novel, demonstrates awareness of the cognitive function of narrative: it is a method of organizing the world to make sense of it and to interpret it. In other words, it is an ordering or sequencing of events that conveys a particular set of ideas, beliefs, or functions. Through the implementation of metafictional elements and characters who are aware of the nature of storytelling and narration, Ness’ novel brilliantly subverts many of the grand narratives present in young adult literature, and fiction in general.

More Than This is a young adult novel that is difficult to describe. On one hand, it is a philosophical exploration of narrative, the afterlife, the nature of storytelling, and reality. On the other hand, it is a young adult dystopian novel that explores topics such as death, sexuality, family, and friendship. More than a novel, Ness’ work is an exhilarating narrative experiment: through the exploration of adolescence in a post-apocalyptic context, Ness pushes us to question the value of stories in our lives, regardless of whether said stories are real or fabricated.

In the novel’s introduction, Ness challenges the expectations that we have of narratives by beginning the story in an unexpected fashion. Although death is traditionally viewed as the endpoint of a narrative, it marks the beginning of the story being told in More Than This. The novel opens with Seth, the protagonist, committing suicide by drowning himself at sea. He immerses himself into violent and cold waters found in the Pacific Northwest area of the United States, and he is thrashed against some unforgiving rocks by the relentless waves:

The impact is just behind his left ear. It fractures his skull, splintering it into his brain, the force of it also crushing his third and fourth vertebrae, severing both his cerebral artery and his spinal cord, an injury from which there is no return, no recovery. No chance.

He dies. (Ness 3)

The introduction of the novel is thus a reversal of the usual teleology that we have come to expect in traditional narratives (particularly young adult narratives) which focus on the linear development or the transition of a protagonist from point A to point Z. Like most young adult novels, More Than This does focus on transition–but said transition is triggered through death rather than adolescence.

After killing himself, Seth awakens in a perverse version of his childhood home in England. Although Seth recognizes this home, he notices dramatic differences between the place that he knew and its current condition: thick ashen dust has covered nearly every surface, and everything seems abandoned and mistreated–as if nobody has lived in the house for decades. Seth soon realizes that he is alone in this strange place, and he comes to the conclusion that he is living in “A hell built exactly for him” (20).

What is fascinating about More Than This is its ambiguity. At first we are led to believe Seth’s interpretation of his surroundings as a personal hell, but as the novel develops, we receive conflicting events and pieces of information that make it difficult to fully understand and know the setting of the novel. Various theories develop as the narrative progresses. Although Seth believes that he is in hell, paying consequences for actions he committed in life, the narrative takes a dystopic, post-apocalyptic turn. It is revealed that Seth is now living in the “real” world, and that the world that he used to live in was merely a virtual (online) space that society created to escape the pressures of living in a decaying and fractured world (this is actually a very complicated part of the story that’s difficult to summarize, so bear with me).

The novel, however, complicates the reader’s ability to fully believe this dystopian narrative. Seth understands that the presence of a digital alternate reality does explain many things about the “real” world, but he also admits that this explanation is full of gaps. Further complicating Seth’s ability to trust in the “real” post-apocalyptic world are the inexplicable coincidences that he encounters regularly: loose ends tie a little too nicely, Seth is always rescued from danger at the last possible moment, and things sometimes materialize when he thinks about them. His distrust in his current reality begins to peak when he encounters two other people, Regine and Tomasz, who rescue him right before he is attacked by an ominous, Death-like presence known as the Driver, who travels around in a black van: “Something’s still not right about this. These two just happened  to be there when he was running toward the hill, just happened to stop him before he made contact with the black van, just happened  to find  the perfect place to hide from the Driver?” (183, emphasis in original).

Because of the factors mentioned above, Seth begins to believe that what he is experiencing is simply a “story that he’s telling himself” (250)–and this is where the novel becomes increasingly interesting from a (meta)fictional perspective. The novel’s metafictional aspects are highlighted earlier in the novel, when Seth encounters a book that he read as a child. While re-reading this novel, he reflects on the nature of books, and how these objects are able to contain a reality within their pages: “A book, he thinks at one point, rubbing his eyes, tired from so much focused reading. It’s a world all on its owntoo. He looks at the cover again. […] A world made of words, Seth thinks, where you live for a while (135, emphasis in original). Although Ness uses italics to mark thoughts that are substantiated in Seth’s mind, one cannot help but notice how these italics inevitably highlight key phrases and ideas. These italicized words bring many thoughts to mind:

  1. Seth is a protagonist who literally lives in a world made of words.
  2. Through reading More Than This, we as readers end up living in a world made of words for a while.
  3. It is possible that Seth’s current reality is nothing more than a world made of words.

The possibility of Seth’s reality being a story that he is telling himself becomes even more of a possibility towards the end of the novel, where he makes predictions based on past narratives that he’s encountered before. The most jarring of these predictions occurs after Seth, Regine, and Tomasz first destroy the Driver:

The Driver seems clearly dead, but Seth notices how slowly they’re all moving, as if at any second they expect it to surge back to life and attack them.

That’s what would happen if this were a story, Seth thinks. The villain who wouldn’t stay dead. The one who has to be stopped over and over again. That’s what would happen if this were all just my mind trying to tell me something. (407, emphasis in original)

As can be expected, the villain does not stay dead. Towards the novel’s conclusion, the Driver appears out of nowhere to stop the characters from re-entering the virtual world with their current knowledge of the “real” world. After defeating the Driver, once again, Seth, Regine, and Tomasz question whether the reality they are currently experiencing is no different from the virtual world that they managed to escape–whether they are all, in due course, a figment of Seth’s imagination. This is especially true after they witness Seth’s ability to predict the outcome of events that they face. The novel, however, refuses to provide readers with any answers to this question, and instead embraces ambiguity as an alternative to knowing:

He’s uncertain what’s going to happen next.

But he is certain that that’s actually the point.

If this is all a story, then that’s what the story means.

If it isn’t a story, then the exact same is true. (471, emphasis in original)

More Than This is thus a testament to the power of fiction and storytelling. Seth is the story that is told… we all are the stories that we tell. Regardless of whether said stories are true or fictional, they still have the power to produce meaning, to produce knowledge, and to produce selves. The narrative refuses to provide readers with direct answers, but this refusal, in due course, gives us the power to make what we want out of the story. We do not know if Seth is experiencing the “real,” whether he is living a narrative that his mind created to cope with his suicide, or whether he is simply a character lost within a sequence of random events. But this novel is precisely about not being able to know–and how by not knowing, we are able to stitch together an infinite amount of patterns and events to comfort ourselves, to orient ourselves, and find ourselves.

This post does not do justice to the philosophical richness, complexity, and brilliance of Ness’ work. More Than This also contains illuminating discussions on notions such as queerness, sexuality, loss, and relationships. Seth is also one of the most complex gay characters that I’ve encountered in young adult fiction (yes, the protagonist is gay, and his sexuality is a major component of the narrative). I wholeheartedly concur with John Green’s assessment of this novel: “Just read it.”

You can purchase a copy of More Than This by clicking here.

Work Cited

Ness, Patrick. More Than This. Berryville: Candlewick Press, 2013. Print (paperback edition)

Cover/featured image by Diane Yuri. Original version cropped and flipped.

Queer Time in Edmund White’s [A Boy’s Own Story]

Front cover of Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (1982)

Front cover of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982)

Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a coming-of-age novel centered on the sexual awakening of a queer teenage boy in the Midwest during the 1950s. The novel discusses topics such as the corruption of innocence, the pressures of masculinity in the lives of young boys, the emergence of childhood sexuality, and the exploration of humanity through the lens of homosexuality. The unnamed narrator of the novel quickly addresses the issues that he has in terms of his body and his sense of masculinity. He feels as if his “feminine” qualities–such as his voice, his mannerisms, and his overall attitudes– not only prevent him from bonding with other people, but that they also prevent him from obtaining any of the power that promised to those who embody the masculine myth. The narrator notices that everything from the way he sits to the way he acts marks his body as Other, and he even goes as far as to point out that he often fails small and meaningless quizzes used to assess his masculinity:

A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked: (1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm); (2) Look up (a girl lifts her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head); (3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward–or perhaps the reverse, I can’t recall). (9)

The structure of this novel can seem slightly confusing, especially since it deviates from the traditional linear narrative that we have come to expect when reading coming-of-age novels. The first chapter, for instance, begins when the narrator is fifteen years-old. In this chapter, he painstakingly describes a relationship that he has with Kevin, the twelve year-old son of a guest that visits his summer home. In this chapter, the narrator describes how he paradoxically wants to be considered heterosexual while still being loved by a man. His relationship with Kevin slowly but surely starts to teach him how sex is not only a physical act, but how it is also a discursive act–leading him to realize that sex is also “a social rite that registered, even brought about shifts in the balance of power, but something that was discussed more than performed” (198). Because of this realization, he notices how performance and discourse shapes and forms his relationships with other men. For instance, he approaches Kevin as the “older” and more “dominant” person in the relationship because he is the more confident person of the two, and because he controls what happens during sexual intercourse:

I was chagrined by [his] clowning because I’d already imagined Kevin as a sort of husband. No matter that he was younger; his cockiness had turned him into the Older One (23).

The first chapter concludes by depicting how the narrator and Kevin part ways, and the second chapter goes back an entire year, allowing the narrator to discuss events that shaped who he is in his present day. Subsequent chapters go back in time even further, depicting events that the narrator encounters when he was twelve and seven years-old. The jumping back and forth between the past and the present not only disrupts the linearity of the coming-of-age narrative, but it also presents, as Elizabeth Freeman would put it, a manifestation of queer time. 

In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman describes queer time as a “hiccup in sequential time” that “has the capacity to connect a group of people beyond monogamous, enduring couplehood” (3). Furthermore, queer time allows queer subjects to envision alternative structures and forms of belonging, precisely because it deviates from the linearity and “productivity” of chrononormativity–in which human bodies arrange their time and bodies towards maximum productivity. In A Boy’s Own Story, queer time manifests through this combination of the past and the present, precisely because the narration deviates from the productive and generative elements that are closely associated with narratives of personal development. White, rather than depicting growth and development as sequential events, the narrator approaches them as fractured and disjointed processes. Rather than offering readers an equation, in which event 1, event 2, and event 3 equal the narrator, White disrupts temporality by beginning with event 3, going back to event 1, and covering the decimal points (small or micro events) that occur between these numbers. I think that this novel embraces queerness through it’s denial of both chronos (sequential time) and kairos (significant time), in favor of small non-sequential and non-significant time. This is particularly clear in the fourth chapter of the novel, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader:

in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one’s improvisations into a quite new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. Busoni once said he prizes the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one “good part” to another. He said such womanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer–the actual vernacular of his imagination–than the deliberately bravura moments. I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, or a life, than the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist again. (84)

I believe that this passage is quite significant, because it highlights the role that queer time plays in the novel’s political agenda. By disrupting linearity and by painstakingly focusing on minor events, the reader must develop patience and spend more time concentrating on the narrator’s words rather than on major events. The narrator affirms that by reading his words, the reader becomes not only more respectful of the narrator’s life, but the reader also brings the narrator back into existence. Therefore, through the act of reading, one gives the narrator a sense of legitimacy that was denied to him during his childhood. This interpretation gains even more validity when taking into account that most of the novel is focused on the narrator’s struggle to survive in his society, and even more so, his struggle to be approached and categorized as a legitimate human being. The narrator, for instance, acknowledged that he has little time to focus on “theory” or “philosophy” because he is too busy focusing on pragmatic aspects of his life such as survival. This notion is evidenced when the narrator compares himself to his jockish friend, Tom, who spends most of his time daydreaming and philosophizing:

Ironic, then, that [Tom] was the one who did all the thinking, who had the taste for philosophy–ironic but predictable, since his sovereignty gave him the ease to wonder about what it all meant, whereas I had to concentrate on means, not meaning. The meaning seemed quite clear: to survive and then to become popular. (113)

Although popularity may at first be approached as a self-centered and selfish goal, it is important to keep in mind that the narrator believes that popularity will give him the recognition and the legitimacy that he has been denied in his life, not only because he is queer, but also because he is unable to situate himself within the frame of traditional masculinity that his father upholds. Popularity would give the narrator the means to become a legitimate person rather than an unreal subject:

Being popular was equivalent to becoming a character, perhaps even a person, since if to be is to be perceived, then to be perceived by many eyes and with envy, interest, respect, or affection is to exist more densely, more articulately, ever last detail minutely observed and thereby richly rendered. (127)

All in all, A Boy’s Own Story is a rich and provocative novel that definitely raises interesting insights in terms of the role that temporality plays within the issues of livability that haunt all queer lives. The narrative is at times convoluted and difficult to follow, but getting lost is definitely an essential component towards grasping the novel’s central themes and agenda.

You can purchase a copy of White’s novel by clicking here.

 

Works Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

White, Edmund. A Boy’s Own Story. New York: Plume, 1982. Print.

 

 

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.

Space and Masculinity in James Baldwin’s [Giovanni’s Room]

Front cover of James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (2013 Vintage Edition)

Front cover of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (2013 Vintage Edition)

Originally published in 1954, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was not only one of the first novels to tackle issues of same-sex desire with heart and honesty, but it was also a text that prompted frank discussions of homosexuality within the public sphere. The narrative focuses on the experiences of David, an American who moves to Paris in a quest for self-discovery after he experiences a near-fatal car accident. After spending a year roaming the streets of Paris with little money and spending most of his time in hotel rooms, he meets Giovanni, an Italian bartender who is attracted to him. Most of the novel is centered on the months that David spends living with Giovanni in his disorganized and disheveled room in the outskirts of Paris, where David comes face-to-face with gender-related crises galvanized by his intense relationship with the Italian bartender. Unable to cope with the inconsistency between his sexual orientation and the expectations of masculinity imposed by himself and others, David abandons Giovanni without notice–only to find out later that Giovanni is going to be executed because he murdered the owner of the bar he worked at.

The novel creates an intricate portrait of David’s sexual awakening, and the frustrations that prevent him from achieving a stable romantic and sexual relationship with another man. David pinpoints the development of his fear of same-sex desire to his first sexual relationship with another boy when he was a teenager in Brooklyn. He describes a tender first sexual experience with his friend Joey–an experience that degrades into a manifestation of fear when he realizes that he made love with another boy:

I was suddenly afraid. It was borne on me:but Joey is a boy.I saw suddenly the power in his thighs, in his arms, and in his loosely curled fists. The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made me suddenly afraid. That body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood. Precisely, I wanted to know that mystery and feel that power and have that promise fulfilled through me. (9)

Masculinity and manhood are integral concepts that shape and form the narrative in Giovanni’s Room. Most of David’s frustrations stem from the fact that he tries to live up to an image of impeccable and flawless masculinity that he cannot possibly uphold. Even when he is in a relationship with Giovanni, the latter senses some distance and some withdrawal on David’s behalf. This thirst for masculinity is due not only to David’s association of manhood with power, but also due to his father’s desire for him to “grow up to be a man” (15). This overwhelming desire to comply with the expectations of masculinity–which include marrying a woman and having kids–lead David to propose to a young woman named Hella, who leaves to Spain on a soul-seeking trip while she considers David’s proposal. This proposal, however, is depicted as an hypocritical farce, mostly because David develops a passionate relationship with a man while Hella spends time in Spain.

David’s engagement to Hella becomes the topic of an intense debate and conversation between him and Giovanni, in which they discuss the nature of women and engage in a very sexist depiction of women as fragile creatures that exist to serve the needs of men. At one point, Giovanni suggests that David would still have a relationship with him even if he were with Hella at the moment. David disagrees with this claim, deeming that it would be disrespectful to Hella to sleep with Giovanni if she were around. Giovanni proceeds to tell David that his decisions shouldn’t be based on what Hella wants, and he accuses David of being too passive and melodramatic. While at first David is taken aback by Giovanni’s comments, he points out that Giovanni’s direct and matter-of-fact nature is perhaps the only way he can cope with David’s aloofness:

Giovanni liked to believe that he was hard-headed and that I was not and that he was teaching me the stony facts of life. It was very important for him to feel this: it was because he knew, unwillingly, at the very bottom of his heart, that I, helplessly, at the very bottom of mine, resisted him with all my strength. (82)

Although David is unable to express his love through words and intense emotion, he does express it through physical actions and through space/place. Given that this novel it entitled Giovanni’s Room, it is perhaps obvious that place and space plays a crucial role in the novel’s symbolism and development. The eponymous room can be approached not only as a symbol of domesticity, but also as a symbol of queerness. David describes the room as a dark and messy space–not only is the room littered with trash, old newspapers, cardboard boxes, and empty bottles, but it is also a dark space. This darkness is attributed to the fact that Giovanni glosses over the room’s window panes with white paint in order to assure his privacy when sharing a bed and being intimate with David. David decides at one point that he has to integrate himself within Giovanni’s room in order to transform it–which can be approached as a subconscious effort to embrace some degree of queerness. This integration leads to the transformation of the room into a domestic space, in which David assumes the role of a “housewife” as he voluntarily cleans and maintains the room:

I invented in myself a kind of pleasure in playing the housewife after Giovanni had gone to work. I threw out paper, the bottles, the fantastic accumulation of trash; I examined the contents of the innumerable boxes and suitcases and disposed of them. But I am not a housewife–men can never be housewives. And the pleasure was never real or deep, though Giovanni smiled his humble, grateful smile and told me in as many ways as he could find how wonderful it was to have me there, how I stood, with my love and my ingenuity, between him and the dark. (88)

Even though the room is a dark, small, and enclosed, it becomes a private space that allows David and Giovanni to live a life that would be impossible outside of the room’s confines. It becomes a space of domesticity and partnership–a space where the unwritten social rules of gender and masculinity are unable to regulate what the two men can or can’t do. This space, as can be seen in the passage above, also enables David to briefly deviate from the expectations of masculinity and manhood–and through the transformation of the room, he develops a sense of pleasure through domestic duties even though he downplays or denies this pleasure.

The problem, however, is that even though the room becomes a space of queer possibility, it also serves to keep queerness restricted and contained. Thus, David and Giovanni are able to have a passionate relationship as long as it remains within the dark and messy confines of the room. In due course, David feels suffocated by the room’s queerness, whereas Giovanni desperately struggles to expand the room’s queerness beyond the confines of its walls. This can particularly be seen after Giovanni is fired, and he begins to unsuccessfully tear down the walls of the room to expand the space. David, however, views this domestic and queer space as a farce–leading him to accuse Giovanni of using the term love as a way of enticing David into assuming a passive and feminine role:

“What kind of life can we have in this room?–this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about–isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me. (142)

David’s accusations lack a solid foundation–a notion that becomes even more heartbreaking when the reader realizes that Giovanni truly loves David. Giovanni’s love is not reliant on David’s embodiment of a “housewife” role. David assumes this role because he wanted to, not because Giovanni obliged him to. Since David is unable to assume the role of provider or head of the household within Giovanni’s room, he goes on to view his self-imposed role as a threat to his masculinity and manhood, prompting him to run away from the queer premises. By abandoning the room, David forces Giovanni to live alone within that space–a notion that fills Giovanni with fear and dread, since he despises being alone. Without David, Giovanni’s room becomes nothing but a dark, empty and lonely space–a place where his queerness is doomed to exist in pain and solitude.

Beautifully rich and complex, I highly recommend this novel. Many of the passages in this novel are stunning and gorgeous. There are so many other themes and characters in this novel that are worthy of discussion and exploration–but I will leave that for future work that I’ll conduct on this novel. I’m really glad that I’ve finally had the change to read this cornerstone text within the genre of gay fiction. 

You can purchase a copy of Baldwin’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. 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).

Tradition, Change, and Kinship in Sherman Alexie’s [The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian]

Front cover of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Front cover of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Few young adult novels manage to tackle deep and complex issues with as much heart and nuance as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (henceforth PTI). Initially, PTI can be approached as an autobiographical coming-of-age (graphic) novel that centers on the growth and development of Arnold Spirit Jr., a fourteen-year-old cartoonist and student who is born and raised in the Spokane Indian Reservation located in the Washington state area. The novel, which is told from Arnold’s first-person perspective, immediately lets the reader know that he is not considered normal from racial, physical, or social standards. He discloses that he was born with a condition known as hydrocephalus (the accumulation of water in the brain), he grew forty-two teeth instead of the thirty-two that most adults have, and the brain damage originated by his condition causes him to have seizures and to have a near-sighted eye and a far-sighted eye. Besides his physical ailments, Arnold reveals that his family is not only very poor, but also that his father is an alcoholic and his mother is a recovering alcoholic. These conditions lead Arnold to prefer a solitary life away from other members of his tribe, usually because they approach him as “a retard” (4) or as different. Arnold spends most of his time reading books, drawing cartoons, and spending time with his hypermasculine and stubborn best friend, Rowdy.

The main tension of the novel is triggered when Arnold decides to transfer to Reardan High, a school populated exclusively by white, middle-to-upper-class students–making Arnold the only non-white student in the school. Arnold’s decision to leave the high school situated in his reservation is not only fueled by the fact that people are brutally violent towards him in the reservation (he literally fears his life when dwelling the reservation, and he is bashed by peers and adults alike), but also by a growing awareness of the stagnancy and immobility promoted by the reservation. Arnold is aware that nobody in his reservation has gone to college, and he is also aware of how social diseases such as alcoholism infect his environment to the extent that it kills people he holds dear, such as his grandmother and his sister. As he points out towards the end of the novel:

I cried because so many of my fellow tribal members were slowly killing themselves and I wanted them to live. I wanted them to get strong and get sober and get the hell out of the rez. It’s a weird thing. Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move into reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear. But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps. (217)

Leaving the reservation’s high school is seen as a betrayal by most of the Spokane residents. To make matters even more complicated, Arnold soon realizes that as the only Indian in Reardan High, he is seen by others as an outcast.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Arnold thus develops and grows in cultural borderlands–he isn’t white, and he isn’t Native American. However, Arnold’s choice to leave the reservation isn’t a matter of “arrogance” (217) as he later implies in the novel, but rather, it is a decision driven by the desire for a livable life. The notion of cultural forgetting becomes an important element in the novel, especially when focusing on the reservation as a space of death, alcoholism, and destruction. Arnold recognizes that the reservation does have some beautiful qualities, especially when it comes to the preservation of ancient customs and traditions. However, he comes to understand that this preservation and conservation comes with a price: immobility, death, and stagnancy.

Something I truly love and appreciate about this novel is the fact that it is in no way driven by binaristic forms of thinking. True, there are moments in which binaries are highlighted in PTI, particularly binaries of race, color, culture, and belief–but they are highlighted only to be obliterated at certain points of the narrative. Returning to the notion of mobility versus stagnancy and tradition versus innovation, Arnold doesn’t take a definite stance when it comes to these issues, and at times, he even seems to contradict himself when judging tradition and conservatism as positive or negative. He recognizes that immobility and tradition are sometimes self-sabotaging and at times irrational, but he also takes care to point out instances in which tradition seems to be even more enlightening and liberal when compared to contemporary and more “evolved” forms of thinking. This is particularly seen when Arnold describes his grandmother, who adhered to more traditional ideologies:

Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated. Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones. Gay people were seen as magical, too. I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female. were seen as both warriors and caregivers. Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives! (155)

It is here that one of the root problems of Arnold’s society is exposed. He points out that with the advent of Christianity in the reservation, people grew to fear eccentricity and lost their ability to be tolerant. With this in mind, the tension of the novel is based not on the battle between tradition and change, but rather on the struggle between appreciating difference and eliminating difference. I think it would be too simplistic and naive to approach Arnold’s departure from his reservation as an act of assimilation or as a manifestation of a white-washing sentiment. I’d rather approach his departure as an effort to strive for difference, as an effort to live, and as an escape from complete assimilation. Furthermore, Arnold’s departure leads him to realize that he does not belong to one tribe, but to many: “I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms. And to the tribe of cartoonists. . .” (217). Thus, rather than trying to adhere to notions of identity as a individualized entity, Arnold comes to understand, through his escape, that the self is pluralistic and multifaceted.

Besides a story of growth, development, and maturation, I would also classify PTI as a very unconventional love story. However, rather than focusing on love in romantic terms, the book focuses on the love that develops through the kinship between two boys. With this, I am specifically referring to the love between Arnold and Rowdy. This love is not romantic or sexual in any sense, but it is perhaps the most intense and problematic love expressed in the novel. Rowdy is one of the many people who views Arnold’s transfer to another school as a betrayal–and it ultimately leads Rowdy to develop an intense animosity towards Arnold and everything that his actions represent. This hatred leads Arnold to constantly reflect on his relationship with Rowdy, and the void that his absence represents in his life. Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy inspires and ignites the novel’s deepest reflections on notions such as gender, masculinity, and culture–and it also pushes Arnold to question unwritten social rules when it comes to boys crying or expressing any type of affection to each other.

Image on page 219 of PTI. The image shows Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold's other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other "cartoonish" drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Image on page 219 of PTI, depicting Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold’s other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other “cartoonish” drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy becomes an element that allows the protagonist to assess the limits of relationships, but even more so, it allows him to reconfigure his conceptions of notions such as kinship and family. Early on, Arnold confesses that Rowdy is the person that he feels closest to, and he questions whether it is acceptable to love some who is not connected to you through blood or DNA: “I think Rowdy might be the most important person in my life. Maybe more important than my family. Can your best friend be more important than your family? I think so” (24). When Arnold tells Rowdy that he is transferring to Reardan High, he is conflicted with the emotions that he feels because he doesn’t deem them to be culturally acceptable, especially when it comes to Rowdy, who tends to be very macho and very violent: “I wanted to tell him that he was my best friend and I loved him like crazy, but boys didn’t say such things to other boys, and nobody said such things to Rowdy” (48-49). As the novel unfolds, Arnold not only grows to understand the gender politics that reign in different cultures, but he also grows more comfortable with recognizing and validating his own feelings even when others fail to acknowledge them. Arnold’s recognition of the unwritten social rules of gender doesn’t stop him from admitting that he loves Rowdy, and more importantly, experience doesn’t stop Arnold from labeling his affection towards Rowdy as love. As he states in the last page of the novel: “I would always love Rowdy. And I would always miss him too. Just as I would always love and miss my grandmother, my big sister, and Eugene” (230).

In sum, Sherman Alexie’s The Asbolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a rich, heartfelt, and complex novel that I would definitely recommend to my colleagues and peers. I learned a lot about Native American culture from reading it, and it gave me yet another insight into the unique relationships that humans can develop with their cultures and with other people. I loved the clever incorporation of art into the novel (drawn by the talented Ellen Forney), and I appreciated how these drawings added interpretive nuance to the novel, rather than simply illustrating the novel’s events. Much like a graphic novel, the drawings in PTI contribute to its meaning just as much as words do.

You can purchase a copy of Alexie’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print (hardcover edition).

Masculinity in Robert Cormier’s [The Chocolate War]

Front cover of Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War

Front cover of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War

It’s 1:53 a.m. and I currently can’t sleep because of this book. I was going to wait and write about it in the morning, but I really need to engage in the cathartic process of writing in order to make sense of all of the thoughts that are fireworking in my head. I was expecting a tale that discusses the triumph of good over evil–a tale of empowerment for individualistic resistance over systematic injustice. I received the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Chocolate War has earned a place in my top-ten list of favorite YA novels, but I will warn you that the book is ultimately very bleak and depressing. If your positive judgment of a book depends on a happy ending, then I suggest that you skip this novel.

The Chocolate War is a book that is told from a subjective third person point-of-view, but this perspective carousels through the thoughts and emotions of particular students at Trinity School: a private, religiously-affiliated high school in the New England area. Although the story centers on the thoughts of various students in the school, it can be said that Jerry Renault is the novel’s protagonist, and he is also the source of the novel’s main tension. Although the Trinity School is technically run by the Brethren that teach and administer the educational system, the thoughts and actions of students are also dictated by a secret school society known as The Vigils, who use scare tactics and intimidation in order to secure their influence.

Students are often given “assignments” by The Vigils, which can be approached as a type of hazing that the secret society uses to assure that it is perceived as a force to be reckoned with. Assignments can include mundane things such as forcing students to get up from their seats every time a teacher mentions the word “environment,” to more serious matters, such as destabilizing all of the desks and chairs in a classroom. During the school’s annual chocolate fundraiser, Jerry Renault is given the assignment to deny selling chocolates for ten days–a problem, seeing as every student besides Renault decides to sell chocolate. The main issue in the novel arises when Jerry continues to resist selling chocolates after the ten day period in an act of defiance towards The Vigils and the school administration. The bulk of the novel focuses on the ostracism that Jerry faces when trying to defy The Vigils, and the measures that they take to assure their power and dominance in Trinity School. By taking a stand, Jerry tries to follow and understand the words of T.S. Eliot by asking himself whether he dares to “disturb the universe,” (see Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“) a quote found on a poster that Jerry has in his locker.

The Chocolate War is a very gendered novel, which is partly unsurprising given the fact that Trinity School focuses on single-sex male education. Various elements within the novel emphasize maleness and the traits that are usually (and stereotypically) associated with it, such as power, dominance, and violence. Sports such as boxing and football are the most popular and revered activities that take place within the school; their practice often demonstrates how physical prowess often trumps intelligence and creativity in this environment. All teachers within the school are religiously affiliated men, and they are addressed as Brother by students. As a matter of fact, there is little to no feminine or maternal presence in the novel. When girls are mentioned by students, they are usually presented as objects of sexual attraction. Even Jerry is known for his lack of a maternal figure, since early in the novel it is established that his mother passed away during the spring before his freshman year (the time period in which the novel takes place). This lack of a feminine presence is in no way a mishap, and it actually serves as a motif to foreground the power struggles and dynamics that are in the heart of The Chocolate War. 

The characters’ efforts to uphold a visage of traditional masculinity is overwhelming. Whenever certain characters, such as Archie (the novel’s twisted and manipulative villain), encounter another figure that is trumping them in terms of authority, they automatically regress into an irrational inner struggle of Patrick Bateman-esque proportions. Take for instance, Archie’s reaction when The Vigils’ president threatens him:

Blood stung Archie’s cheeks and a pulse throbbed dangerously in his temple. No one had ever talked to him that way before, not in front of everyone like this. With an effort he made himself stay loose, kept that smile on his lips like a label on a bottle, hiding his humiliation. (187)

Many other characters in the novel are unable to contain their fits of tears and frustration when encountering the many injustices triggered by the rule of The Vigils. However, the most salient trait that is exemplified through this constructed masculine space would be violence–not only subjective violence, as in fist-fights, bullying, and physiological reactions, but also objective violence as represented through hate speech and through the manipulation and control enforced by the secret society and the school administration (please see Zizek’s Violence for more information on these types of violence). At first, Jerry’s decision to refuse selling chocolates can be considered an act of resistance towards the objective violence that is systematically imposed upon all students at Trinity High. The downward spiral for Jerry, however, occurs when this objective violence flourishes into downright brutal and subjective violence. The moment of this transition is seen quite literally in the novel, when a bully by the name of Janza is blackmailed into harassing Jerry to the point that he reciprocates violence with more violence (rather than resistance). As can be seen in the following exchange between Jerry and Janza:

“Hiding what? Hiding from who?” [Jerry]

“From everybody. From yourself, even. Hiding that deep dark secret.”

“What secret?” Confused now.

“That you’re a fairy. A queer. Living in the closet, hiding away.”

Vomit threatened Jerry’s throat, a nauseous geyser he could barely hold down.

“Hey, you’re blushing,” Janza said. “The fairy’s blushing . . .”

“Listen . . .” Jerry began but not knowing, really, how to begin or where. The worst thing in the world–to be called queer. (211-212)

After this exchange, Jerry retorts by calling Janza a “son of a bitch,” which leads Janza to summon a group of kids that brutally bash Jerry. Note here that what fuels Jerry’s wrath is the fact that he is called queer. Up to that point, he had done a decent job of resisting the taunts and threats of his peers due to his refusal to sell chocolates. What I find interesting in this chapter is that in essence, Jerry can be approached as a queer (or non-normative) character due to the fact that he denies engaging in the activity that will make him normal or orthodox–if he didn’t want to set himself apart, all he had to do was sell chocolates. His resistance, however, can be approached as queer resistance because he wanted to break away from the norm: “Mainly, he didn’t want to fight for the same reason he wasn’t selling the chocolates–he wanted to make his own decisions, do his own thing, like they said” (211).

Despite his penchant for non-normativity, being called a queer was too offensive and disruptive given the masculine attitudes that permeate his surroundings. Thus, Jerry’s hatred towards Janza for calling him queer even pushes him to engage in the boxing match at the end, a boxing match that leads to his demise. The final chapters of the novel end with Jerry proclaiming his regret towards being non-normative, he proceeds to think about how one must ultimately comply with the will of “superior powers” and authority figures if one desires to have a livable life. He thinks about the new “knowledge” he has obtained as he lies bloodied and broken in the arms of his friend, Goober:

He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. He tried to voice the words but there was something wrong with his mouth, his teeth, his face. But he went ahead anyway, telling Goober what he needed to know. They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say. (p. 259)

The ending may be bleak and downright depressing, but I don’t necessarily think that the novel is designed to perpetuate a dislike of rebellion, nor do I think that it presents all resistance movements as futile. I think that Jerry’s loss of faith in himself and in his ability to disturb the universe rests not on his failure, but on the fact that he was left alone in his pursuit of non-normativity. What I found deeply disturbing is that nobody takes a stand for Jerry during the boxing match that leads to his demise, not even his close friend, Goober, who just sits and watches Jerry be beaten to a pulp with the rest of the students from Trinity High. Without a doubt, Jerry is presented as a scapegoat figure, meant to absorb all of the negativity, the tensions, and the evils of his community that are perpetuated through masculinity and through corrupt power.

The novel is ambiguous in terms of its stance on disturbing the universe. On one hand, we can accept Jerry’s defeat as a cautionary tale. On the other hand, we can accept it as a challenge to ourselves–a challenge that pushes us to question the extent to which we can or should disturb the universe ourselves.

Do yourself a favor, and read the book! And as always, please feel free to add to this conversation or to challenge anything discussed in this post!

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

Work Cited

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1974. Print.

Towards a Livable Mode of Existence: Judith Butler’s [Undoing Gender]

Front cover of Judith Butler's Undoing Gender (2004)

Front cover of Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender (2004)

Reading Butler is truly a worthwhile exercise for the mind interested in gender, queer theory, and human life in general. Undoing Gender is essentially a revision of Butler’s groundbreaking book entitled Gender Trouble, which was originally published in 1990. In Undoing Gender, Butler not only adds more nuance to the concept of gender performativity, but she also puts into question the very parameters that we use to devise the concept of the human. This is by far the most accessible book of Butler that I’ve read as of now. The more you read Butler, the more things begin to click and make sense–and although she still makes use of her trademark (dense and elusive) prose, most of her claims are poignant, accessible, and most importantly, insightful.

What makes life bearable for me? What makes life bearable for others? What makes us human? What are the elements that constitute a human ontology? These are some of the questions that Butler brings forth throughout the introduction to Undoing Gender. Butler highlights the fact that the parameters that have been used to approach, recognize, and categorize humans have always been in flux, and even more so, these parameters are not natural or essential, but rather , socially constructed. The greatest issue with the criteria used to define the human is that they are many times restrictive and paradoxical; the criteria that is used to grant the status of a human to one individual may deprive another individual from achieving this status:

On the level of discourse, certain lives are not considered lives at all, they cannot be humanized; they fit no dominant frame for the human, and their dehumanization occurs first, at this level. This level then gives rise to a physical violence that in some sense delivers the message of dehumanization which is already at work in the culture. (25)

This leads Butler to allude to her concept of the “unreal” life, which denotes individuals that have been denied access to a legitimate human existence through the power of discourse. For instance, notions such as skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, birth, and social class have been some of the concepts used to classify some as human while at the same time preventing others from being approached as such. If one is unable to be framed within the discursive and normative markers of identity that are used to approach and categorize humans, one is not only queered and otherized, but ultimately, one runs the risk of facing violence or of living an unbearable life because one does not count with the constituents of normative privilege. Because of this, Butler calls for a more open and permeable definition of humanity that allows room for change, in order to allow livability and freedom to thrive:

The necessity of keeping our notion of the human open to a future articulation is essential to the project of international human rights discourse and politics. We see this time and again when the very notion of the human is presupposed; the human is defined in advance, in terms that are distinctively, western, very often American, and, therefore, partial and parochial. (36-37)

Butler’s call for a plastic and flexible definition of the human is due first and foremost to the inability of current definitions to account for all of the legitimate modes of being and existence that are currently found within our society. This project of expanding the parameters of human definition also comply with the overall aim of this book, which is to illustrate the effects of undoing “restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life” (1). It is Butler’s belief that through the eradication of normative restrictions, one not only changes his or her perspective of the self, but ultimately, this shift of perspective will pave the way for other selves to flourish in a more livable and accommodating world.

In Undoing Gender, Butler delves with more nuance into the implications of gender performativity, which approaches gender as a constant and reiterative doing through discourse. In Gender Trouble, Butler alludes to drag performances as a way of illustrating the claims she makes towards performativity, but the issue with this example is that gender performativity can be confused with actual performance. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that gender performativity is always referring to a discursive act, and the role that language plays in the construction of identities. Although Butler asserts that gender performativity may be unconscious to some degree, she does not approach it as an individualistic or automatic process. Instead, Butler posits that Gender performativity is an “improvisation” that takes into account others beyond the self. In other words, one’s gender performativity is not merely an individual struggle, but rather, it is a negotiation between one’s inner desires, the desires of others, and the “desires” of a particular cultural and political setting.  Thus, the formation of the self is dependent on the relationship between the self and norms:

the “I” that I am finds itself at once constituted by norms and dependent on them but also endeavors to live in ways that maintain a critical and transformative relation to them. This is not easy, because the “I” becomes, to a certain extent unknowable, threatened with unavailability, with becoming undone altogether, when it no longer incorporates the norm in such a way that makes this “I” fully recognizable. (3).

What this means is that even though one needs recognition to live, one may very well feel restricted by the very parameters that are used for this recognition. In order to illustrate this notion, Butler brings up the example of intersex children in order to concretize the continuum of human morphology, and how the norms that regulate the body do not approach these subjects as human. When a child is born intersex, doctors and parents sometimes make the decision of choosing the child’s sex without giving the child the opportunity to explore venues of being within the world. Intersex children evidence the futility of the male/female binary that is imposed upon humans, and it illustrates the spectrum of bodies that legitimately exist in the world. However, because the intersex child is unable to fit within the parameters of the normative male/female binary, intersexedness is approached by the status quo as a pathology.

Interestingly, Buler points out that the very discursive concepts that pathologize gender and sexual identity allow for its recognition. She alludes to the instance of transgender individuals who are able to make legitimate insurance claims that allow them to receive sexual assignment surgery–which in turn allows them to obtain a livable life. However, one must question why these markers of identity are necessary, and even more so, one must consider whether upholding a normative and binary gender system is enough to account for all of the lives that exist. Butler mentions how intersexuality and transexuality raise important concerns for queer theory, especially when focusing on the fact that queer theory, in essence, is supposed to be opposed to all forms of normativity and binaristic thinking. When an intersexual or transexual individual chooses to live as a particular sex, it can be said that they are buying into the normative regulation of binaristic sexuality. As Butler points out:

If queer theory is understood, by definition, to oppose all identity claims, including stable sex assignment, then the tension seems strong indeed. But I would suggest that more important than any presupposition about the plasticity of identity or indeed its retrograde status is queer theory’s claim to be opposed to the unwanted legislation of identity. (7)

I found Butler’s approach towards queer theory to be very useful and insightful. When it comes down to it, when we approach all forms of stability and “normativity” as negative, we resort to using the very types of binaristic thinking that queer theory seeks to dismantle. Thus, Butler emphasizes that more than anything, queer theory seeks to challenge the unwanted prescription and regulation of the body and identity. She argues that in due course, stability is an element that is absolutely necessary in order for a livable life to manifest. If the condition of individual is unlivable within the boundaries of a particular culture or society, then it is completely understandable  for that individual to seek out remedies that will allow that individual to live comfortably and freely. According to Butler, projects dealing with identity politics, such as queer theory, are ultimately focused on “distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live, and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself” (8).

Expanding on the notion of gender performativity as a relationship of power that extends beyond the self, Butler emphasizes the fact that the body also deviates from the individualism that is typically assigned to it. Although we may approach our bodies, as Susan Bordo would put it, as sites of struggles, we must admit that this struggle is not one of the self versus the self, and that the public dimension is very much implicated within conceptions of the body:  “constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine” (21). Despite this notion of the body belonging both to the self and the public, Butler asserts that it would be erroneous to assume that legal definitions of personhood and humanity are sufficient to account for the totality of one’s being: 

Although this language might well establish our legitimacy within a legal framework ensconced in liberal versions of human ontology, it fails to do justice to passion and grief and rage, all of which tear us from ourselves, bind us to others, transport us, undo us, and implicate us in lives that are not are [sic] own, sometimes fatally, irreversibly. (20)

Time Magazine Cover

Does gay marriage necessarily entail the death of queerness? Is gay marriage a form of assimilation? Can resistance towards gay marriage be seen as a form of regulation that queer theory seeks to disrupt?

Butler’s ideal of livability is particularly useful for approaching other issues and phenomena that seem to be at odds with the overall aims and goals of queer theory. What immediately comes to mind at this point is the issue of gay marriage. While today, there seems to be an increasing acceptance of gay marriage as a legitimate way of living within the United States, some may view this acceptance as a compliance with normativity. However, if one were to enforce a resistance to gay marriage as a form of protest, doesn’t this enforce the attitudes of legislation and regulation of identity that queer theory strives to obliterate? What if two queer individuals want to get married, or perceive marriage as an act that will enable a more livable and free life? As Butler posts, “marriage and same-sex domestic partnerships should certainly be available as options, but to install either as a model for sexual legitimacy is precisely to constrain the sociality of the body in acceptable ways” (26). In other words, gay marriage should definitely be an option of living within contemporary society; however, the advent of gay marriage should not enforce this type of union as the only legitimate or acceptable form or union amongst individuals with queer communities.

Furthermore, Butler believes that when an unreal life is introduced into the norm, this does not necessarily imply that assimilation is taking place. Rather than buying into the myth of complete integration within the system, Butler believes that incorporation of the unreal within the domain of reality leads to ” something other than a simple assimilation into prevailing norms,” and that ultimately, the “norms themselves can become rattled, display their instability, and become open to resignification. (28)

I will conclude this post with one of the most resounding passages that I identified within Undoing Gender. Butler, in due course, seems to be keen on the notion of fantasy, and the ability of fantasy to provide a utopian potentiality that can very well become a reality. As Butler eloquently puts it:

The critical promise of fantasy, when and where it exists, is to challenge the contingent limits of what will and will not be called reality. Fantasy is what allows us to imagine ourselves and others otherwise; it establishes the possible in excess of the real; it points elsewhere, and when it is embodied, it brings the elsewhere home. (29)

It is fantasy that ultimately allows one to carve our possibilities of being within the world. It is an envisioning outside of the parameters of reality that unreal subjects are able to work  for and towards a more livable mode of existence. This passage also evidences the emancipatory potential of fiction–one can only begin to imagine the possibilities that can be achieved when embodying and reifying the “otherwise” beyond the scope of reality–an otherwise that fiction is more than willing to provide.

Work Cited

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