Parrotfish_Animal

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

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish

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

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

– Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish (p. 131)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

curiousincidentcover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited:

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

Algernon

Daniel Keyes’ [Flowers for Algernon] – On Disability, Animality, and Structure

Flowers for Algernon

I think I’ll begin by stating that Flowers for Algernon is perhaps one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking books that I’ve read recently. In the narrative, Algernon is the name of a laboratory mouse who successfully underwent an operation to increase its intelligence. The main focus of the novel, however, is Charlie Gordon,  a man suffering from Phenylketonuria with an IQ of around 70. Charlie undergoes  the same procedure done to Algernon, and consequently becomes a genius and a ployglot within a short period of time. However, the procedure is found to have a major flaw, which leads to the mental detriment of both characters.

There were many things I loved about this novel. It is delivered in an epistolary fashion by Charlie, so his musings are quite candid and honest, and his struggle to become a “normal” human being is frequently highlighted throughout the narrative. Even when Charlie becomes a genius, he realizes that there is a difference between being intellectually mature and emotionally mature. Although he is able to quickly learn languages and conduct difficult thought experiments with ease after the operation, he finds it difficult to make friends and connect with people emotionally, and even sexually. What we have here is a novel of development, or a Bildungsroman, that takes place after the character has reached adulthood, which I find completely fascinating.

I thought the epistolary structure of the novel added much dimension to it, for through Charlie’s writing we are able to observe his intellectual progress and detriment. Charlie’s first epistles contain many grammatical errors, words are usually spelled according to their pronunciation, and the vocabulary is relatively simple. The first sentence of his writing, for instance, is: “Dr Struss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on” (Keyes). As the narrative progresses, and especially after Charlie undergoes his procedure, he begins to improve his punctuation, his grammar, and the complexity of his words and ideas dramatically increases. This change of writing style really adds to the character’s ethos and our ability to connect to his words.

Flowers for Algernon was very rich thematically, and it covered issues such as the role of mentally disabled human beings within our society, and other complex issues, such as the relationship between humans and animals and the effects of psychological and physical abuse to children with expressions of intelligence that deviate from the norm. The novel really tried to deal with the differences that exist between mental and physical disabilities, an issue that I have personally grappled with in terms of my past work with representations of disability within contemporary fiction. In one instance, the protagonist questions how mentally disabled persons are viewed and approached by people who have neutral bodies and minds:

How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes–how such people thing nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence. It infuriated me to remember that not too long ago I–like this boy–had foolishly played the clown. (Keyes)

Flowers for Algernon stressed the ludicrous nature of the hierarchies and the restrictions that are imposed upon certain types of disabilities. The protagonist points out how quickly people can accept and lament physical disabilities because they are easily seen and readable. People with physical disabilities are thus considered marked by other people. The issue with mental handicaps, as interpreted by the protagonist, is that since they are not readable through the body, but rather performed, it gives people the right to consider mental illness as an inferior type of disability.

It’s easier to understand that which can be seen and felt, is it not? Of course, the protagonist actively challenges this idea. Most people, prior to his operation, didn’t even consider Charlie to be a person or a human being–as if intelligence was the spark that ignited his humanity or his spirit. This, of course, is where issues of animality are present within the novel, and it is also the reason why the protagonist identifies so strongly with Algernon. Algernon’s mental deterioration foreshadows Charlie’s eventual intellectual regression, and  Charlie thus makes it his mission to understand the causes for Algernon’s sudden and rapid loss of intelligence.

In perhaps one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel, Algernon dies. Rather than getting rid of the laboratory mouse via incineration, Charlie buries him in a yard, giving Algernon the validation that few people bestowed upon him as a living creature. As Charlie’s mental health deteriorates, he continues to visit Algernon’s grave and places flowers over it, treating the mouse as more of an individual than any other person ever did. This of course, is due to Charlie’s strong association with the mouse: they are both Others, and they both deviate not only from expectations of normalcy, but also expectations of humanity. Charlie’s lack of intelligence makes him more animal than human according to the views of those who surround him, and thus, he is locked within the categorical cages that they imposed on him.

As a final remark, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this novel and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflowerwhich leads me to believe that Flowers to Algernon was undoubtedly an influence for Chobosky’s novel. The protagonists of both novels are named Charlie, both illustrate the developmental themes of the novel through the protagonist’s writing and writing style (see my essay on Perks’ use of writing to illustrate development here), both illustrate honest and open characters, and Perks even contains an epistle that discusses a laboratory rat, an obvious tribute to Keyes’ novel. I would further like to explore how Perks is ultimately part of the Algernon genealogy… I think there’s a lot of interesting things to be said when juxtaposing both books together.

All in all, Flowers for Algernon was an amazing read that stimulated me both intellectually and emotionally. I’m glad that years after the novel’s publication (1966), people continue to give Charlie and Algernon the validation and the importance that was never given to them within the novel itself.

References:

Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. Orlando: Harvest Books, 1994. Ebook version.

Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” – On Disability, Animality, and Structure was originally posted on http://angelmatos.net on May 25th, 2013.

Mind

On Fables of the Mind

Back in the day when I was an ESL instructor at the University of Puerto Rico, I was assigned to teach a writing and rhetoric course centered on controversial and contemporary issues. Before I began to lesson plan, I encountered a wonderful editorial in the New York Times titled “Mystery and Evidence,” written by Tim Crane, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge. The piece discussed the inability of science and religion to mesh simply because they are based on entirely different kinds of “evidence” and practices. I thought that it would be interesting to discuss this essay in class, not only because it would be a way to discuss the importance of secularization in academic writing (particularly in a deeply religious country such as Puerto Rico), but also because many of the claims were debatable. The class seemed to stomach the essay and digest it effectively, until I absentmindedly referred to Christianity as a myth.

I could tell that the use of this world deeply upset my students. One student in particular raised her hand, and asked if I was implying that the story of Christ is no different than the legend of Hercules. In my mind, I was thinking “absolutely.” But rather than concretizing my beliefs in front of the class, I simply mentioned that we were in that class to learn about writing and rhetoric, not to discuss religious beliefs. I always wonder what would’ve happened if I affirmed my lack of belief to my students, and if I argued that yes, I believe that in terms of realness, there is little difference between Christ and Hercules in my mind. But I didn’t do it, first and foremost because I didn’t deem it to be appropriate at the time, and secondly, because I am not there to force feed my beliefs down someone’s throat. After all, my distancing from Christianity was a long and arduous process based on my immersion into the realm of knowledge and academia, and personal issues I had with the church due to my stances on sexual orientation and the body. Meaningful changes take time… even though Emerson would argue that time is simply a bodily construct that our soul does not respond to.

Speaking of Emerson, I definitely feel at times as if I am being forced fed a set of ideas that I am unwilling to tolerate. His views on God, morality, and the soul definitely don’t mesh well with my ideological perspective, and at times I found myself grunting or rolling my eyes as I read his prose. Part of it has to do with his views towards science, empirical “world” knowledge, and philosophy: “The philosophy of six thousand year has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve” (Emerson 163). Another part has to do with his depiction of knowledge as a spiritually bound phenomenon that is inevitably linked to god himself; a claim that is asserted but not backed up by any logical evidence whatsoever, but rather, by a sense of aesthetic judgment (the world is too perfect, too beautiful, and too organized; thus, there must be a god). However, the more I immerse myself in Emerson’s prose, the more I begin to question. First and foremost, I do have to recall that Emerson is very much a product of his time in many aspects, a time in which religion had a firmer grasp on society’s cognizance. Although it is not entirely easy to be a person of science—with no religious beliefs—during this day and age, imagine how difficult it was during Emerson’s time?

The more I read Emerson’s words, the more it becomes apparent that he was not entirely bound by faith, and he not only questioned religion, but he openly challenges it (especially when concerning ritualistic practices). Emerson was overly aware of the fact that knowledge eliminates the “magic” of the world, thus reinforcing the notion that immersion into the exchange of knowledge and fact can lead to a weakening of faith based ideas and premises:

But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make thing what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of the mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. (Emerson 70)

It’s ironic that through his addresses, sermons, and lectures, Emerson deeply strives to open our minds to the so-called reality that he has affiliated with, which at times seems deeply Christian and at other times seems like a Christian-tinged version of pantheism (god, the over-soul is in everything). And through his notions, the world is also reduced to a myth, a fable, a one-shot explanation for everything and anything… and to be frank, I’m not entirely sure that Emerson himself is always convinced with his beliefs.

First and foremost, although he indeed believes in a religious doctrine, his particular belief system consists of the rejection of practices and beliefs based on human ideological constructions. He rejects the notion of revering Christ as if he were god himself, and he goes as far as to call Christ a demigod, linking him to other mythical figures such as Apollo and Osiris (Emerson 73). At other times, especially within his poetry, Emerson seems to contradict notions that he himself posits, such as the fact that the over-soul resides in Nature and in humans. This is particularly noticeable in his poem “Hamatreya,” in which he clefts the supposed unity that exists between earth and humans: “Mine and yours; Mine, not yours” (Emerson, lines 28-29). Note that the first line of Earth’s song reinforces the notion that although it is believed that earth is shared or connected with humans, it is erroneous to believe so. This realization that the earth is not as connected or submissive to human will ultimately eliminates any sense of bravery that the speaker has, which implies that the “chill of the grave,” death itself, is the ultimate law of the universe that shatters the illusion of life. These ideas may seem slightly scrambled and nonsensical, but the point I’m trying to make here is that perhaps Emerson was more lost and confused than we may initially deem him to be.

Regardless of the view of religion of mythical belief, or the view of science as a “mere illustration and fable of the mind,” aren’t both aiming to describe and understand the world in one sense or another? Aren’t both perspectives limited, unable to cover the entire scope of our cosmos? I may have my own inclinations, but even then I must admit that there is only so much that science can explain at this point and time. But, as Thoreau posits in the third chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “In the mythus a superhuman intelligence uses the unconscious thoughts and dreams of men as its hieroglyphics to address men unborn. In the history of the human mind, these glowing and ruddy fables precede the noonday thoughts of men, as Aurora the sun’s rays” (49). Religion and science, in their own particular ways, use supposition and creativity to come up with a logical set of ideas and tools that future generations can use on their own terms to understand and interpret the world. As Tim Crane posited, they are different practices that exist to achieve the same goal, only on different terms… both provide a sense of satisfaction, but both also leave you with a thirst (albeit not necessarily unquenchable). But as Crane ultimately posits, whereas science tries to understand the world via the elimination of mystery, religion approaches mystery as a necessary given. I for one, like mysteries to be reduced, if not solved.

Sources:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/mystery-and-evidence/

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0393967921/

http://www.amazon.com/Concord-Merrimack-Rivers-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140434429/

 

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net