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!

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

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

Queer Futurities in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

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

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

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

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

On Closets and Straight Gazes – Bill Konigsberg’s [Openly Straight]

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013)

I was thinking about how snakes shed their skin every year, and how awesome it would be if people did that too. In a lot of ways, that’s what I was trying to do.

As of tomorrow, I was going to have new skin, and that skin could look like anything, would feel different than anything I knew yet. And that made me feel a little bit like I was about to be born. Again.

But hopefully not Born Again.

-Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (p. 4)

Bill Konigsberg’s delightful and heartwarming novel, Openly Straight, pushes readers to question the possibilities that “shedding one’s skin” offers, and the consequences that arise when reinvention threatens our sense of self. The novel is narrated by Seamus Rafael Goldberg (who usually goes by Rafe), a high school student from Colorado who transfers to Natick–an elite, all-boys school in the New England area. Although Rafe is openly gay, he decides to conceal his homosexuality while attending Natick to live a life free of labels, and to explore the possibilities of living a life unhindered by the so-called burdens of queerness.

Rafe, at first, claims that “The closet is when you say you’re not gay” (132). Problematically, he views the closet as a singular and individualistic space created by self-denial–and he fails to recognize that the act of being “out” relies on the obliteration of the many closets that appear and re-appear in our everyday lives. As pointed out by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Rafe’s initial failure stems from his inability to understand that stepping out of the closet is not a one-step process, for it comprises an act of revelation and disclosure each time a new closet is erected in one’s life. I was impressed with how Konigsberg manages to invoke Sedgwick’s ideas of closetedness, especially as they are experienced by contemporary youths. Given that the novel takes place in a time where homosexuality is becoming more and more acceptable by mainstream society, I was delighted that Openly Straight explores the nuances and effects of closetedness in our brave new world. As evidenced by the novel’s protagonist, closetedness can still haunt even those who are out, open, and accepted.

Rafe is born into a family that readily and openly embraces his gay identity. However, Rafe is unable to appreciate his privilege because he deems that his homosexuality eclipses the other identities that he can embody–to the point where all he is able to see when looking in the mirror is the gay subject he is expected to perform, rather than the self:

Where had Rafe gone? Where was I? The image I saw was so two-dimensional that I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera had run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out. (3)

Rafe realizes that decision to hide his homosexuality and to pass as straight do come with certain perks. He is quickly accepted by the jocks at his new school, he is able to shower with his soccer team without worrying about the repercussions of the “straight gaze,” and traits other than his queerness are recognized. His ability to keep his self-imposed secret, however, is thwarted as he grows closer to Ben, a fellow jock and philosophy enthusiast who studies at Natick. As Ben begins to show signs of fluid sexuality, and as the two boys grow closer, Rafe reflects on how the perks of his reinvention come with the cost of being able to love truly and openly.

My favorite aspect of the novel is the complex relationship between Rafe and Ben. This relationship makes you feel all the warmth that you expect in young adult novels, yet this warmth is accompanied by realistic depictions of frustration and heartache. This is unsurprising, since Rafe and Ben’s relationship is based on experimentation and sexual confusion, even though one of the two characters definitely isn’t confused. This complex relationship ultimately leads Ben and Rafe to reflect on the nature of love–how it is possible to love people in different ways, and how it is possible for different types of love to overlap. This reflection leads to my favorite passage in the novel, in which Ben contemplates his non-normative affinities with Rafe:

I guess I’d like to think of what we have as agapeA higher love. Something that transcends. Something not about sex or brotherhood but about two people truly connecting. (225)

One another note, Openly Straight, in its essence, is about gazes, and how they control how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Rafe’s decision to go back into the closet is driven by the fact he is tired of being viewed as a queer object by his friends, family, and peers. Rafe’s views are not entirely unfounded–he is constantly asked by friends and teachers to give his input as a queer subject. His attitudes, beliefs, and actions are constantly being traced back to his homosexuality by other characters. Rafe, understandably, feels the weight of queerness on his shoulders–and this weight is unshakable.

Rafe, nevertheless, complains about the gaze that others fixate on him, without coming to grips with the ways he gazes at others. In one of the later chapters of the novel, Rafe finds himself scrutinizing one of his queer peers at a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting–remarking on everything from his peer’s clothes to his haircut. As Rafe’s eyes remain fixated on his peer, he remarks how this other boy could pass for a woman if he wanted to. When Rafe’s peer notices that he is staring, Rafe becomes self-conscious about his gazing. It is at this moment that Rafe realizes that he is guilty of performing the very act of “straight gazing” that drove him back into the closet in the first place:

I was staring at this effeminate kid, and judging my own masculinity, or lack thereof. And was I so different from everyone else? Who was to say that Mr. Meyers in Boulder was thinking about when he looked at me? How come I was assuming that his staring at me had anything to do with me? (306)

Gazing, according to Rafe, is not a fixation based on rejection, pity, or disgust, but rather, it is a discursive relationship between the self and an other. Thus, the gazer reflects on his or her own selfhood as contrasted to another person–which leads Rafe to deduce that he could “spend a little less time worrying about what people thought about [him], since they probably weren’t thinking about him at all” (307). In other words, Rafe realizes that the fault and blame lies in the eyes of the gazer and not on the person being gazed.

I love this novel. I have been reading queer YA fiction for years, and I must say that Openly Straight astounds me on many levels. It is a testament to how much queer YA literature has evolved over time, and it makes me feel very optimistic about the present and future of the genre. I foresee that young readers will be particularly drawn to the humor and cleverness of this work. I also admire the fact that this novel offers readers the opportunity to explore a compelling, funny, and heartfelt narrative that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of contemporary queerness.

Works Cited

Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

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

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.

 

 

Fact Versus Fiction: Alan Hollinghurst’s [The Line of Beauty]

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (2004)

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004)

I find it so easy to get lost in the elegance and artistry of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. I originally planned to read this book in a day or two, but it took me a while longer simply because I was so enthralled and moved by the novel’s baroque descriptions and its aesthetic focus on issues pertaining to gayness and queerness during the 1980s. Blurring the lines between gay historical fiction, the Bildungsroman, and the novel of mannersThe Line of Beauty explores the lines that divide British upper-class and middle-class society, and the relationship between homosexual identity and class during the conservative boom in the United Kingdom under the rule of  Margaret Thatcher. Even more so, Hollinghurst’s novel offers readers an opportunity to examine the heartbreaking effects of AIDS during the rise of the disease.

The novel centers on the life and experiences of Nick Guest in his early twenties, as he graduates from Oxford University and begins a postgraduate degree in English at another university–where he specializes on the issue of style in the works of Henry James. Nick becomes close friends with Toby and Catherine, who are the children of Gerald Fedden, a wealthy Member of the British Parliament. Although Toby and Nick are best friends, Nick becomes very close and intimate with Catherine, a manic-depressive. Because of Nick’s ability to understand and help Catherine, Gerald invites Nick to stay in his mansion so that he can keep a watchful eye over his daughter. Nick stays at the Fedden residence for four years; here, he not only learns about the radical differences that exist between the lavish lifestyle of the Feddens and his own middle-class upbringing, but he also begins to explore his gay identity by dating  an older and much more experienced black council worker named Leo. Although Nick is out to the Fedden family, the issue of homosexuality instills a sense of discomfort in Gerald and his wife, Rachel. The family’s attitude towards homosexuality is made apparent early in the novel, when the family discusses the case of Hector Maltby, a junior minister of the Foreign Office who was caught having sex with a rent boy in his Jaguar:

The story had been all over the papers last week, and it was silly of Nick to feel as self-conscious as he suddenly did, blushing as if he’d been caught in a Jaguar himself. It was often like this when the homosexual subject came up, and even in the Fedden’s tolerant kitchen he stiffened in apprehension about what might carelessly be said–some indirect insult to swallow, a joke to be weakly smiled at. (22)

The residents of the Fedden estate are characterized not only by their social hypocrisy, but also by their silences: by refusing to talk of certain issues, they strive to act as if said issues are minor, non-consequential, and non-existent. As a matter of fact, Nick is characterized by his penchant for concealing or hiding information to assure that certain perceptions or attitudes are upheld in the Fedden residence. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Nick discovers that Catherine, who has already attempted to harm herself, has been storing sharp tools within her bedroom. Rather than discussing this detail with Catherine’s parents, he decides to keep this information concealed to avoid upsetting Gerald and Rachel when they return from their trip. Nick not only conceals truths that he believes will upset the Fedden family, but he also has issues when it comes to separating fact from fiction–which leads to the manifestation of the vicious cycles that are so characteristic of postmodern texts:

In the course of their long conversations about men he had let one or two of his fantasies assume the status of fact, had lied a little, and had left some of Catherine’s assumptions about him unchallenged. His confessed but entirely imaginary seductions took on–partly through the special effort required to invent them and repeat them consistently–the quality of real memories. (24)

Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion. (48)

As evidenced above, Nick not only strives to conceal truth to uphold his social image, but he also fabricates stories to uphold a socially appealing facade. He frets when it comes to revealing his lack of knowledge or his lack of sexual experience–to the point where his fabrications become entirely real to him, or even worse, to the point where he deliberately forgets or represses truths about himself. This is perhaps most apparent when the novel, which is comprised of three parts, transitions from part one to part two. Part one, which takes place in 1983, concludes with Nick and Leo sleeping together in the Fedden’s house. The second part of the book takes place three years later, and it begins with a description of Nick’s affair with Wani Ouradi, a multi-millionaire of Lebanese descent who is engaged to a woman. This temporal leap leaves a gap in the narrative of the story. As readers, we have no clue what happened between Leo and Nick during this three-year span–all we are sure of is that they are no longer together, and that Nick’s relationship with Wani is masochistic and unhealthy. Not only is Wani into promiscuous and unsafe sex with strangers, but he is also addicted to porn and cocaine, and he is also deeply closeted. Nick, however, remains by Wani’s side not because the relationship is practical, but rather, because Wani is beautiful. This connects to one of the novel’s main themes, in which appearances trump pragmatics and livability. This desire for beauty and for appearance ultimately affects Nick’s ability to face his own truths, as is seen in the instance in which he encounters Wani seducing a stranger:

He went across the room and put the car keys down on the side table, and when he looked back Ricky and Wani were snogging, nothing had been said, there were sighs of consent, a moment’s glitter of saliva before a shockingly tender second kiss. Nick gave a breathy laugh, and looked away, in the grip of a misery unfelt since childhood, and too fierce and shaming to be allowed to last. (173)

Later on in the novel, Nick finds out that Leo has died due to AIDS-related complications. As Leo’s sister tells Nick the news, he at first wants to lie to her by stating that Leo dumped him, but he recognizes that this lie would seem petty, especially when considering the fact that Leo is no longer alive. Although Nick convinces himself that Leo was seeing someone else, we realize that he develops this “memory” to conceal the fact that he broke up with Leo soon after finding out that he was sick– “to screen a glimpse he’d had of a much worse story, that Leo was ill” (350). It becomes clear at this point that the three-year gap in the novel represents Nick’s unwillingness to deal with or recall the truths behind his relationship with Leo. Leo’s illness, in Nick’s eyes, would corrupt his beauty and make him imperfect, which is why he pursues a relationship with the physically flawless and beautiful Wani. However, towards the conclusion of the novel, it is revealed that Wani is also dying of AIDS-related complications–thus forcing Nick to meet truth face-to-face, while simultaneously forcing him to confront the realities of his own life.

I find it interesting that Catherine, the manic-depressive sisterly figure of the novel, is represented as the only person capable of dealing with truth and looking beyond the lies fabricated by her peers. For instance, when one of her friends, Pat, dies of AIDS, her family desperately tries to conceal that he died of this illness to prevent themselves being associated with a so-called “gay-related” disease. Catherine, however, forces the family to face the truth about Pat’s death, even though this confrontation leads to public shame and embarrassment. She later tries to convince Nick that “People are lovely because we love them, not the other way round” (304), to make him realize how toxic his relationship with Wani truly is, and to prove to him that the value that we bestow to people and objects should be based on more than just aesthetics. Catherine ultimately induces both the downfall of Nick and of her father, by revealing truths to the press: she not only reveals the fact that her father is having an affair with another woman, but she also reveals how Nick and Wani’s affair is taking place within the Fedden household–thus collapsing the differences between the gay and the straight world upheld by the Fedden family. The novel isn’t explicit of whether Catherine’s thirst for truth is triggered by her depression, or whether her depression was caused by her desire for truth in a mendacious environment–but it is interesting to observe how a character with a non-normative state of mind is able to look beyond the social masks and constructs that haunt the lives of these characters.

I love this novel. It is dense, thematically rich, and it is full of gaps and plot holes. It is not an easy novel to read or follow, but it excels at portraying the triumphs and failures of characters who are enticed and enslaved by the pursuit of beauty, even at the cost of truth, pragmatism, and reality. I also appreciate how this novel uses pastiche in order to invoke historical conceptions of AIDS in a contemporary platform–especially since discussions of AIDS have unfortunately diminished since the normativization of the disease due to the advent of anti-viral medications.

What are your thoughts or impressions of this novel? Feel free to add to this conversation!

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

Work Cited

Hollinghurst, Alan. The Line of Beauty. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print (hardcover edition).

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).

Connection Failed: An Analysis of Christopher Isherwood’s [A Single Man]

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964)

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964)

Failure is found at the heart of many great works of fiction. It is a common motif used to spark an emotional connection, sympathy, and at times, anger. Failure is not only the heart of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man–is also the blood, the flesh, and the soul of this novel. Centered on a single day in the life of George Falconer–a gay professor from England who teaches literature at a University in Los Angeles–A Single Man traces the protagonist’s psyche as he tries to cope with the stagnant nature of living, and his inability to feel a sense of belonging or connection with those who surround him. Suffering from a chronic depression triggered by the death of his lover (Jim), George desperately struggles to find solace through unsuccessful attempts at forging meaningful interactions and relationships with other people.

The opening event of the novel focuses on George as he wakes up in the morning. Here, we are offered a very detailed and biological account of the processes that take place as a sleeping body is galvanized into a state of alertness. This opening scene creates a split between George’s body and George’s being–a motif that becomes quite prominent within the novel. Throughout the day the novel takes place, George undergoes experiences that separate his thoughts from the actions that his body partakes in–almost as if his body were engaging in auto-pilot mode, leaving the pilot of his consciousness free to do and think whatever he pleases. This auto-pilot mode is activated in many occasions:

  • When George drives to his university, his thoughts wander away as his body automatically drives to its destination: “And George, like a master who has entrusted the driving of a car to a servant, is now free to direct his attention elsewhere” (36).
  • When he teaches, he enters a mode where he begins to spew theory, facts, and jargon without being completely cognizant of what he is saying to his students.
  • When he drinks, he engages in reckless behavior, such as swimming in a rough sea during the night, even though his mind is aware of the dangers of doing so.

The novel’s tendency of splitting George’s mind away from his body fosters an effect in which the reader perceives him as a composition of many selves and not as a single individual–thus emphasizing the novel’s central characteristic of approach life, time, and space as fragmented phenomena. This fragmentation, while very postmodern in effect, serves to illustrate the sense of disconnection and the lack of wholeness that George feels towards his surroundings. Even when looking himself in the mirror, George is unable to see himself as an individualized unit:

Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face–the face of a child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man–all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us–we have died–what is there to be afraid of? (11)

While staring at his reflection, George sees the phantoms of his past lives–lives that he considers present but dead; relics of a life that he used to have but that is no longer present. George recognizes this fragmentation, and he struggles to defy it so that others perceive him as ‘the whole George they demand and are prepared to recognize” (11). George is characterized by being overly concerned about what other people think about him. When other characters are talking to him, George’s mind engages in a frantic interpretive mode in which he tries to determine what is going through the other speaker’s mind. However, the inability to know exactly what others are thinking of him leads George to think obsessively about the failure of language to convey ideas in an accurate or precise fashion. Language, therefore, is a contributing factor that adds to George’s notions on fragmentation and the lack of wholeness in his life.

George’s nationality and his sexuality are other elements that fuel his sense of self-fragmentation and his inability to fully connect with others. He constantly claims how his British identity converts him into an Other within academic and non-academic contexts. His sexuality pushes him to feel a desire that is nearly impossible to quench–thus forcing George to live vicariously through small interactions, touches, and brief exchanges that he has with other men. One of these moments takes place when he accompanies one of his students, Kenny, to a book store. Kenny offers to buy George a pencil sharpener, which causes George to blush “as if he has been offered a rose” (81). What is clear here is that George is a man who is starving for connection. He craves to feel part of whole, even if this connection with the whole is momentary. He makes it overtly clear that his nationality, his way of thinking, his sexuality, and even his age puts him in a position in which he is minority. This sense of dissatisfaction with not belonging to a majority leads him to deliver a “sermon” in class, in which he attacks people’s conceptions of minority communities:

A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority–not without a cause, I grant you. It even hates the other minorities, because all minorities are in competition: each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest. And the more they all hate, the more they’re all persecuted, the nastier they become! Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved? You know it doesn’t! They why should it make them nice to be loathed? (72)

His passionate tirade against minority cultures is longer than the fragment I’ve included above, but I hope this passage emphasizes the degree of self-loathing and confusion that George feels towards himself for being unable to become part of a greater collective. He always has been and always will be a minority. His efforts to be part of something greater than the self always fail–even the connection that he had with Jim is severed with the latter dies in a tragic car accident. George even admits that he is living makes him part of a minority, while those who have joined the rank of the dead are part of a majority:

George is very far, right now, from sneering at any of these fellow creatures. They may be crude and mercenary and dull and low, but he is proud, is glad, is almost indecently gleeful to be able to stand up and be counted in their ranks–the ranks of that marvelous minority, The Living. They don’t know their luck, these people on the sidewalk, but George knows his–for a little while at least–because he is freshly returned from the icy presence of The Majority, which [his dying friend] is about to join. (103-4)

This passage is an eerie foreshadowing to the events that culminate the novel. As George is drunkenly walking towards his usual bar after leaving his friend’s house, he encounters Kenny alone at said bar. The two get really drunk, and they end up swimming together naked in the salty rough waves of the sea in the middle of the night. It is here that George feels a brief connection with Kenny that “transcends” the symbolic. Kenny returns home with George, leading into a scene that seems like an obvious exchange of flirtation between the two. However, despite the fact that George desires to sleep with Kenny, he ends up passing out, awakening alone in his bed–where he decides to masturbate as a way of compensating for his failure to connect with Kenny, sexually speaking.

As the novel comes to a close, George ends up in his bed once again. In a circuitous fashion, the novel ends with George’s mind disconnecting from his body, returning once again to the description of the biological processes that his body is going through as it begins to fall asleep. Unexpectedly, George dies of a heart attack during his sleep. George’s life is characterized not only by a failure to connect with others, but also by a failure to be part of a whole during his life. It’s thus heart-wrenching to realize that the only instance in which he becomes part of a majority is through his death.

This novel is simply beautiful, rich, and complex. There is much more than can be said about this novel, especially in terms of its approaches to time and temporality, especially when contrasting the importance of the past, the present, and the future. This is definitely a novel that I want to revisit once again after I’ve had time to process it a little more.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? As always, please feel free to add to the conversation!

Work Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964. Print (Hardcover edition).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FrozenBanner

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

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

Works Cited and Consulted

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

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

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

On the Decentralization of Truth and Memory in Achy Obejas’ [Memory Mambo]

Front cover of Achy Obejas' Memory Mambo (1996)

Front cover of Achy Obejas’ Memory Mambo (1996)

Achy Obejas’ Lambda Award-winning novel, Memory Mambo, is a text that simmers and lingers within the mind long after it is read. I initially decided to read this novel because it centers on the life of a Cuban-American lesbian who administrates a laundry service in the Midwest, however, it is a much more complex and rich read when compared to your average LGBTQ novel. True to its name, I would say that this text is ultimately an exploration of the strengths and fallacies of memory, especially when it comes to understanding and interpreting of truth. Even more so, Memory Mambo, at least in my view, is a novel that is first and foremost about decentralization–or in other words, the redistribution of power and control away from a central unit or “command” center. In the case of this novel, decentralization is focused mostly on the self, and it illustrates how the self is unable to account for the totality of memory and the totality of experience.

Similar to Sandra Cisnero’s 1984 novel entitled The House on Mango StreetJuani, the novel’s protagonist, is not only characterized through her own experiences and trials, but she is also characterized through elaborate stories concerning her relatives and her extended family. The novel is difficult to summarize due to its fragmented and chaotic focus. It begins with Juani questioning the nature of memory as she looks back at her childhood in Cuba. As a child, Juani and her parents escaped to the United States on a boat in an effort to leave behind the social and political climate of the island. The narrative segues into an exploration of Juani’s close family members, such as her mother, her father, her siblings, and her cousins. The first chapter focusing exclusively on her father is very revealing in terms of the novel’s aims and themes. He is described as a fabricator of stories. For instance, he claims to be the inventor of duct tape, and he also accuses the CIA of stealing his invention. The father tells this story to every person he encounters, and every time, the father bends the truth to suit his moods and to appease his audiences’ tastes. The father’s tendency to fabricate and alter stories reifies the novel’s aim of highlighting the flexible and malleable nature of truth, in addition to illustrating how truth and memory are dependent on others besides the self.

Although the novel has multiple story arcs, there are two in particular that stand out:

  • The tumultuous relationship between Juani’s cousin, Caridad, and Caridad’s husband, Jimmy. Jimmy is a chauvinistic, sadistic man who abuses Caridad emotionally and physically–doing things such as beating her, preventing her from going out, and going as far as to buy Caridad a washing machine even when her family owns the local laundry-mat. Juani and Jimmy loathe each other, mostly because Jimmy perceives Juani to be the same way he is. Jimmy perceives Juani’s lesbianism to be a threat, and he is constantly trying to sexually harass her, claiming that she is nothing but a victim of penis envy. One of the novel’s highest poinst of tension occurs when Jimmy covers up a violent incident that Juani is involved in, in order to make Juani feel as if she is indebted to him. Because of this “debt,” Jimmy tries to persuade Juani to cover for him after he is caught sexually molesting Rosa, the baby of Juani’s cousin, Pauli.
  • The “main” arc of the novel would be Juani’s unstable relationship with Gina, a Puerto Rican socialist and activist with strong political convictions and views. Gina is approached as a hypocrite by other characters because although she claims to be a feminist and an activist, she is deeply closeted and refuses to show any signs that she’s going to come out: “Gina wasn’t out, didn’t have any plans to come out, and wasn’t in a hurry to even consider it. For Gina, what we had was wonderful, but passing; thrilling, but temporary; an adventure, but only for memory’s sake” (121). Juani finds herself in a position in which she significantly has to change who she is in order to please Gina–she changes everything from her taste in music to her taste in clothing in order to appeal to Gina’s environmentalist and feminist sensibilities. Gina’s closeted sexuality in addition to her radically different political ideologies, lead to the escalation of tension between her and Juani. This tension explodes with a brutally violent fight between the two women, which leads to broken noses and bitten breasts. Their fight is the incident that Jimmy helps to conceal in order to assure that Juani’s family doesn’t get upset with her.

This novel, as can be seen above, is very violent and charged, but the deep and almost philosophical musings that take place in the narrative certainly compensate for the presence of many shocking and disturbing scenes. Seeing as the novel centers immensely on the notions of memory and truth, I was often captivated and intrigued by the difficulties that Juani had when it came to understanding and accepting events and realities in her life. The first chapter of the novel eloquently opens with a questioning of memory as a distinct, individualistic, and unified phenomenon–leading Juani to question whether her memories are constructions based on the stories told by other people. Because of this, the divides between fact and fiction, and lived reality and narrated reality, collapse from the get go. Even more so, Juani seems to approach memory as an entity that is shared amongst many people–memory, in this case, is approached as a decentralized phenomenon:

Sometimes I’m sure that I couldn’t have heard the stories about the memories anymore than lived through them–that both of the experiences are false for me–and yet the memory itself will be so fresh, so fantastic and detailed, that I’ll think maybe my family and I are just too close to each other. Sometimes I wonder if we’re not together too much, day in and day out, working and eating side by side, sleeping in the same rooms, fusing dreams. Sometimes I wonder if we know where we each end and the others begin. (9)

What I find fascinating about this passage is that memory, rather than being approached as a hard drive or a disk, seems to be depicted in a fashion that is more reminiscent of an internet network, in which memory is shared, interconnected, fragmented, and alterable. In Memory Mambo, it is clearly shown that most of the novel’s major tensions and issues surface when truth, like memory, is approached as an individualistic and solitary force, when in reality, most of these problems could be solved if only the truth were shared and decentralized in a similar fashion to memory. This notion is exemplified with Juani’s discussion of her lesbian cousin, Titi, who has tried to escape Cuba, unsuccessfully, several times. Although Titi does have affairs with other women, these affairs must remain private within the insular confines of Cuba. Juani believes that Titi’s desire to escape Cuba is fueled by her longing to express truth beyond the confines of the private. As Juani asserts, all of Titi’s lovers are unable to satisfy her need “to be loved in daylight–to walk down the street arm in arm with her lover without the pretense of a mere friendship, to be utterly and ordinarily in love” (76).

Titi’s issues mirror Juani’s own issues when it comes to her sexuality. Juani admits that she creates a divide between her family life and her sexuality, deliberately maintaining borders and distance in order to assure that her family isn’t disrupted or disturbed by Juani’s non-normativity. Juani walks the balancing line between complete honesty and secrecy–tethering truth to the unstable power of language. What I mean by this is that although Juani’s family knows about her lesbianism, they do not speak about it because it would reify certain details of Juani’s life that would tarnish the family’s so-called normalcy. Juani’s father, in particular, never seeks the truth from his daughter, and he even goes as far as to help Juani conceal the truth about her sexuality when other family members are probing her. His motivations for doing so are quite selfish and heartbreaking: “His motivation isn’t to spare me discomfort but to save himself. Because he’s afraid I won’t lie, it’s vital to him that I not be provoked into the truth. In my family, this is always the most important thing” (80).

It is when Juani is provoked into truth that she realizes how fragmented and decentralized memory truly is. This moment of truth takes place when Gina asks Juani whether she would have left Cuba if she were old enough to make a choice. This question leads Juani to take a close look at her childhood, but this attempt at introspection is thwarted by her inability to recall any real or factual memories during her time at Cuba:

And I realized that I’d left Cuba too young to remember anything but snatches of color an scattered words, like the cutout letters in a ransom note. And what little I could put together had since been forged and painted over by the fervor, malice and nostalgia of others. What did I really know? And who did I believe? Who could I believe? (133)

In due course, Memory Mambo approaches truth and memory as anything but stable and individualistic phenomena. The end of the novel becomes even more suggestive as Juani deliberately tries to deny or recognize the truth of witnessing Rosa being molested by Jimmy. However, her attempt to avoid remembering this instance is ruined when she discovers that her other cousins know the truth about the incident, leaving Juani in a position in which she is unable to lie or conceal the truth. This final incident goes on to exemplify how truth and memory are decentralized agents, and how they exist in networks that cannot be suppressed or contained.

This novel is definitely worth a read. I can’t even begin to list the wide range of emotions that I felt when reading this book, and my mind is currently on overdrive trying to process everything that it is discussed within its pages. The prose is simple to read, but the structure and ideas present in this work are anything but simple.

As always, feel free to add to this conversation in the comments section below!

Work Cited

Obejas, Achy. Memory Mambo. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1996. Print.

For the source of this post’s cover image (neurons), click here.

Patrick McCabe’s [Breakfast on Pluto]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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