Monthly Archives: February 2013

Reading questions: Cherrie Moraga essays


The following reading questions are meant to help you focus on certain aspects of the readings and start thinking about connections across the curriculum of this class.


1.  Why does Moraga choose to spell Chicana “Xicana”, and why is that important to her?

2. Moraga calls herself a XicanaDyke, signaling the confluence of “raza” and sexual orientation in her sense of identity.  Where in her texts do you see this confluence at work?  Collect important passages.

3. What observations can you make about the style of these essays (and the poem)?

4. When talking about the Taiwanese queer literary texts, one of the questions we had on the board concerned the relationships between the global and the local, and the past and the present.  How do those relationships map out in these texts by Moraga?

5. What new perspectives does Moraga’s voice add to our inquiry into queer literature this quarter–what’s distinctive here, and how would you position her in relation to, say, Judith Butler’s theories of performativity, or Tim Dean’s remarks on transgression?

6. Why the professed estrangement from the gay and lesbian movement (for instance as narrated in “A XicanaDyke Codex of Changing Consciousness”?

7. What role does “family” play for Moraga?  What constitutes “family” and “home”?  How does this compare to the idea of home in Giovanni’s Room?

8. There are certain recurring images and metaphors in Moraga’s writing, as we are reading it.  What are they, and what may be their functions a) for Moraga and b) for her readers?  Who is Moraga talking to (audience)?

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A Room is not a Home

From a young age, we’ve often heard the proverb “home is where the heart is”. Perhaps this saying makes it easier for us to see why David seems so lost and at the same time trapped in Giovanni’s Room; we do not know where his heart lies – probably because it is chained up and tucked away in a dark corner somewhere far away, hidden under thick layers of denial and internalized homophobia. But that’s beside the point. The idea of “home” really struck me as an interesting concept because it seems so concrete yet elusive at the same time. What makes a home? Is it “where the heart is”? Is it “wherever I’m with you”, “you” being a loved one? Why is Giovanni’s room not a home? Trapped in a room and drifting between homes seem like opposite states, but how does David manage to feel both simultaneously?

To begin, I did some research into the most common “definitions” of a home, taking inspiration from songs because they often concisely express the human condition. The youtube links to songs I referenced can be found at the end of this blog post. According to Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, “Home is wherever I’m with you”, and since it’s a love song, we can assume “you” refers to a loved one. Phillip Phillips sings, “If you get lost, you can always be found/ Just know you’re not alone/ Cause I’m going to make this place your home”. Simon and Garfunkel beautifully harmonize with “Home, where my thought’s escaping/ Home, where my music’s playing/ Home, where my love lies waiting/ Silently for me”. Dionne Warwick tells us what a home is not: “A room is a still a room/ Even when there’s nothin’ there but gloom/ But a room is not a house/ And a house is not a home/ When the two of us are far apart/ And one of us has a broken heart”. Putting his own spin on Warwick’s iconic song, Miike Snow croons:

Oh God I think I’m dying
And our drinks were just poured
Look outside someone’s waiting
With a yellow horse

With a hole in my heart I was supposed to ride
In morning traffic
With a golden hand by your fortress side
But without magic
Somebody, somebody, somebody tell me
It won’t be long
Cause a horse is not a home
A horse is not a home

Beneath the metaphor for a taxi (yellow horse) and one night stand (horse), there lies the message that a meaningless one night stand during heartbreak is “not a home”. From the lyrics of these songs combined, we can uncover a common thread: the definition of home involves more than one person and love always plays a role.

If Giovanni’s room meets the standards of the definition we extrapolated from songs, why does it not feel like a home to David? Perhaps one explanation is that since David can only envision a home governed by heteronormativity and dichotomized gender roles, a space occupied by two men – even if they are in love (or “love” in David’s case) – does not constitute a home. From his contempt for the older, more effeminate gay men he sees at the bar to his indignant refusal to play “little girl” to Giovanni, we can see that David views effeminacy as negative (even the word “effeminate” has a derogatory connotation towards men). This is further reinforced by the dichotomized gender roles and the binary that is set in David’s mind, as can be seen in the following passage:

“What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about – isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me. You say I want to kill you. What do you think you’ve been doing to me?” (Baldwin 188)

It is then clear from this passage that Giovanni’s room does not satisfy our definition of a home. What David sees as Giovanni’s “love” is not really love at all, but a forcing of a gender role upon him which David violently rejects. David cannot accept himself as a homosexual because he equates it to being feminine – a crossing of the gender role binary that he is not willing to cross. David is stuck in this loop where he feels simultaneously a love for Giovanni and a repulsion towards all the feminine aspects of their relationship. At the same time, his denial of his love for Giovanni prevents him from finding a home despite being abroad in a foreign country. As a result, David is simultaneously trapped in a room and drifting without a home: his black and white view of gender roles, his negativity towards femininity in men, and his denial restrict him ultimately to a state of homelessness which puts him both at a standstill and in constant motion. Though it seems paradoxical, the constant movement in search of a home and a sense of belonging creates a stifling sense of stagnancy that permeates the novel. 


Home by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

Home by Phillip Phillips

Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel

A House is not a Home by Dionne Warwick

A Horse is not a Home by Miike Snow


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Queering Spaces-Giovanni’s Room

Dublin Bound

In modern day queer culture, there is a movement to create “safe spaces” for LGBTQ identified people.  These spaces are designed to be places where gender can be expressed outside of the binary, and love or attraction is expressed outside of heteronormativity.  In James Baldwin’s tragic novel, Giovanni’s Room, David and Giovanni create such a “safe space” in Giovanni’s small room where the two carry out their love affair.  This room serves to provide a backdrop for their affair-and “life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning” (p. 77).  

Much like in Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus, where Raoule and Jacques create their own safe space, a love nest-if you will, Giovanni and David use Giovanni’s room as a place where they can express their desire for each other without fear of judgement or persecution.  It is a room where Giovanni and David do not feel the need to define themselves in terms of society’s mores.  David is unable to “describe that room.  It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room” (p. 84).  Giovanni is intensely protective of their space and what it means for them, so much so that he stiffened “like a hunting dog and remained perfectly silent until whatever had threatened our safety had moved away” (p. 85).  

But their fabricated idyllic life could not be sustained.  Being in Giovanni’s room, being with Giovanni, causes David to question his manhood and his very being.  “I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned”  (p. 104).  When David comes home to find Giovanni drunk after being fired, he feels “the walls of the room closing in on me” (p. 105).  

Upon Hella’s return, David feels an intense need to flee the safe space that is Giovanni’s room, and to run from Paris.  Her return, combined with the loss of Giovanni’s job destroys what David and Giovanni had within the confines of Giovanni’s room.  David doesn’t want a safe space to express his desires, in fact, he wants to get as far away from them as possible.

When David leaves he asks Giovanni, “What kind of life can we have in this room?-this filthy little room.  What kind of life can two men have together, anyway?” (p. 143).  David has realized that the safe confines of Giovanni’s room do not extend to the outside world, and he cannot face the prospect of being with Giovanni.  

After Giovanni is caught for murdering Guillaume, Hella and David begin traveling.  Hella eventually uncovers David’s secret, and just what Giovanni’s room meant to the two men.  “I only knew that I had to get out of Giovanni’s room” David tells Hella (p. 164).  Hella leaves, Giovanni dies and David is left with no room and no love.


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Fear and Denial

In Giovanni’s Room, David’s paralyzing fear might as well be an additional protagonist.  Denial is a way of coping with fear, but not the only way. David, in his interminable terror, spends his life running from himself, from his fear, and from his knowledge of it. His early experience with Joey is only one of a whole series of situations in which he blindly follows his compulsion to deny and to run. It sets up a pattern that continues to escalate through the novel. Baldwin writes of David,

“The incident with Joey had shaken me profoundly and its effect was to make me secretive and cruel. I could not discuss what had happened to me with anyone, I could not even admit it to myself; and, while I never thought about it, it remained, nevertheless, at the bottom of my mind, as still and as awful as a decomposing corpse.” (15-16)

This early, fairly simple event in which David’s fear of his desire for another man results in his running from Joey and treating him with denial and cruelty could be considered practice for his actions with Giovanni and Hella. Other members of the class have discussed David’s constant inability to make decisions. In the case of Giovanni, Hella, and his father, his indecision and dishonesty stem from his own inability to be honest to himself. His early impulse to cover up his fear with lies continues until David has very little idea who he is or what he really wants. Everything he truly knows about himself he hides so deep that not even he can find it.

“You tell nothing but lies,” Giovanni accuses David during their final meeting. “What are you always hiding?” (137). And to Hella, David tries to explain, “If I was lying, I wasn’t lying to you…I was lying to myself” (163). As a reader, it’s easy to be sympathetic to the victims of David’s endless flight. Any attempt to get close to him inevitably ends in tragedy. I felt frustrated with his cowardice and the way it sabotaged his life. At times he seemed like more of a villain than a protagonist. The true villain in Giovanni’s Room, however, is not David or even Guillaume – it is the society that gives gay men so few options that they succumb to drugs, suicide, and murder as a matter of course. With no model of any sort of happy life as a gay man, David and Giovanni’s fear of the future, fear of their desires, and fear of the world around them is understandable. Although David’s denial does terrible damage, honesty does not appear to be an option. Though Hella rages that David could have told her the truth at any time, crossing that barrier required a strength he didn’t have. That kind of courage shouldn’t be required to live an honest life. In the end, David and the other gay men are all victims of their own fear: a fear fostered by the homophobic laws and cultures of America and France.



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Transgression and Giovanni’s Room

Of all the theoretical pieces we’ve read, Tim Dean’s “The Erotics of Transgression” from a couple weeks ago especially intrigued me. The questions it raised about queer style in our discussions of Stein and Barnes rang in my ears as we read Giovanni’s Room: a well-crafted novel that, in my eyes, lacks a noticeably queer style despite its overtly queer content.

I went back and read Dean’s piece this week. This time the notion of queer style seemed absent to me—which says a lot about my own tendency to read a piece of theory differently based on what fictional work I apply it to—and instead the relationship between limits and transgression, an idea borrowed from Foucault’s “Preface to Transgression,” really stuck out.

Reading parts of Foucault’s essay, I found especially pertinent to Baldwin’s novel the argument that “transgression has its entire space in the line it crosses” (34). In Giovanni’s Room the protagonists’ journeys as expatriates—David across the Atlantic, and Giovanni across the French-Italian border—are one such crossing, and their passage into Giovanni’s room is another significant one. Both of these spatial crossings interact with (and further) the metaphorical crossings many of the novel’s characters make into deviant sexual behavior. Baldwin’s emphasis on these limits, and whether they can be crossed, aligns well with Foucault’s (and Dean’s) observations about the nature of limits. Here, I will focus on Baldwin’s description of Giovanni’s room and link it to Foucault’s concept of transgression and limits.

Entering Giovanni’s room indicates an irreversible crossing into new territory for both David and Giovanni. Before the two arrive in the room, Baldwin notes that Giovanni’s room “ended in a small park,” reflecting the restrictions placed on the couple’s relationship (63). On David’s first entry into the room, which is “in the back, on the ground floor of the last building of the street,” the two make many physical crossings, passing “the vestibule and the elevator into a short, dark corridor” (63). These details, by marking Giovanni’s room as difficult to reach, gesture towards its status as taboo. As Dean explains, marking something as taboo, as untouchable, of course suggests that there is a desire to touch it—it is precisely what is off-limits that we want most to come into contact with. That word “vestibule,” calling forth images of grand antechambers in governmental and official buildings, especially serves to evoke the kind of authority that dictates taboos. Once inside, David panics, thinking, “if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late” (64). Here he suggests that the transgression he has enacted is somehow irreversible. Once crossed, the threshold of Giovanni’s room cannot be uncrossed.

Intimacy and distance illustrate the oppositional yet dependent relationship between transgression and limitation.  Once inside the tiny room, Giovanni “locked the door behind us, and then for a moment, in the gloom, we simply stared at each other—with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard” (64). Once the door is locked, the men fill the space with both intimacy and distance. They limit their focus to each other by staring, a kind of optical narrowing that calls to mind the many times that David stares at his own reflection. This mirrored desire and attention suggests the men’s desire to transgress, but at the same time, their many constraints—the locked door, the gloom, and the heavy breathing within such a tiny room—remind them of the limits they must cross. David’s heightened, ambivalent emotional intensity—”With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes“—emerges from this pas de deux of transgression and limitation (64). The initial characterization of Giovanni’s room, emphasizing its cramped and tiny space, and the acts that transform it into the spot of their love affair place transgression within the space of its limits, as Foucault posits in his essay.

Foucault’s assertion also suggests that transgression somehow acts on a different stage from everyday reality, existing only within a limit instead of within the space contained inside a limit. Baldwin’s depiction of the room again serves to illustrate Foucault’s point when David notes that “life in that room seemed to be occurring underneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning” (75). To be outside time in this way (and, as Giovanni’s room is, to be physically distant from the center of a city) is to be on the limits of humanity and social interaction. This position marks Giovanni and David’s acts as a transgression, in that they constantly hit their limits–limits like financial problems or Hella’s arrival after a certain amount of normal time passes–yet continue to cross and back away from these limits. That so much of Giovanni and David’s shared life occurs very late at night (or early in the morning) before dawn suggests another way that they enact transgression upon their limits, seeing each other mostly at times that function as the limits between day and night.


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Sodden Loneliness / Burning Isolation

Sodden Loneliness

It’s a lover’s love I cannot bear
a deep commitment I cannot share
we could lie forever and more
but what’s an apple without its core?

I look inside my watered-down soul
and see remnants of your spirit washed up on its shore
why can’t loneliness float like love?
trapped all alone on the bottom of the ocean
memories of you float to the surface in bubbles
but the light is so far and yet you are so near
if I call your name, would you be able to hear?

When we were one it wasn’t perfect
but now apart it’s never better
our hands are apart but our thoughts are together
they leave our windows and meet halfway
and swirl amongst the stars, forever

Guilt is God’s sharpest sword
it sears the skin and leaves a scar
and leaves the body unable to accord
it taints the flesh, contorts the soul
leaves the mind unable to lull


Burning Isolation

This room is where our memories lie
where we built our wonder
but living in a room is a lie
and once you heard the thunder
you left me here to die

I can’t go to sleep right
without you holding me tight
you said goodbye but never said goodnight

That night we met I thought I’d never let go,
but it seems like a wisp of silver light over snow
trapped as a memory in the graveyard of my mind
I want to let it out and shine
but you’re no longer mine.

I used to look up at the stars,
and think I could never die
but now when I see the constellations
I know it’s all a lie
a group of dots has no meaning,
each star is alone
burning in its own isolation


I thought Giovanni’s Room was beautifully written and decided it was best to converse with the text poetically.

The first poem is written from the perspective of David, reflecting on his time with Giovanni. In the first stanza, he talks about how he feels he cannot love a man. Then, in the next stanza, he expresses the loneliness he feels without Giovanni using water imagery ” e.g. memories of you float to the surface in bubbles.” Then in the third stanza there is a shift and he begins to  ruminate about his relationship with Giovanni and how “When we were one it wasn’t perfect // but now apart it’s never better”). Finally, he reflects on the guilt he feels about Giovanni’s execution (e.g. “guilt is God’s sharpest sword).

The second poem is written from the perspective of Giovanni, and reflects his  somewhat unrequited love with David. In this poem I tried to work with the room metaphor (e.g. “living in a room is a lie”). I also did my best to capture Giovanni’s heartbreakingly beautiful commitment to David.


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Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a classic tale of a man’s haunting, internal struggle in coming to terms with his sexuality. David, an American, who is engaged to his fiancée, Hella, finds himself in a near torture situation, caught between a conventional lifestyle of heterosexuality and his ongoing homosexual impulses. It is when David meets a Parisian bartender, named Giovanni, that his repressed feelings of homosexual impulses are truly unveiled and as a consequence, falls into a lengthy love affair with the man. This love affair turns into torment and confronts the battle of heart vs. mind for David, as he cannot truly accept his sexuality and therefore identity.

 David’s internal struggle is exemplified through the repression that he has to battle within himself. A somewhat internalized homophobia in which he feels compelled to withhold, “The incident with Joey had shaken me profoundly and its effect was to make me secretive and cruel. I could not discuss what had happened to me with anyone, I could not even admit it to myself; and, while I never thought about it, it remained, nevertheless, at the bottom of my mind, as still and as awful as a decomposing corpse. And it changed, it thickened, it soured the atmosphere of my mind” (P15-16). The event that David experienced with Joey obviously had profound costs which seemed to cement his disgust towards homosexuality, and consequently, himself. If anything, in my view, it seemed the more David repressed his urges, the more hatred and anger he felt towards the unwelcome and daunting truth that hovered within him, like a thick fog. It wasn’t until he met Giovanni that the overwhelming burden of all that he had tried to avoid, did he fall victim to his repressed desires, “But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes” (P64). It is difficult for me to understand why David forced himself to repress his feelings for Giovanni and why he could not accept that he was in love with this man? How could he deny that he did not possess any feelings for him when all the psychological and physiological signs told him otherwise? It was a definite frustration that consumed me throughout my reading.

 Baldwin uses Giovanni’s room-, (which the novel is subsequently titled) as a significant setting in the novel. It is a place which symbolizes David’s psychological battle of denial, yet encapsulates a location where David can be set free from his internalized battles.  Giovanni’s room pinpoints itself at the heart of Giovanni and David’s love onslaught, as it is the setting of their sexual encounters. The room is symbolic in the sense that it is small and like a maze, together with being hard to find and enter into. This seems to emulate the complexity of David’s feelings and the conflicts that he experiences in regards to his homosexuality; an ongoing urge nestled in a black hole within himself. It additionally seems to cast a spell upon David, where he feels his defenses are weakened and falls into his own hell of wants and desires, “I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning our life held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride” (P109).

James Baldwin is quoted as saying Giovanni’s Room centers itself around the notion of  “…what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody.” This to me is a plausible and sound analysis, as once reading the novel I can see the misery and conflict that David experiences while he is trying to overcome his personal conflicts of love.  Baldwin has written a novel that exemplifies the most personally dangerous of conflicts that one can experience, one of self-inflicted turmoil, as opposed to heeding Shakespeare’s advice, ‘to thine ownself be true’.




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February 24, 2013 · 10:34 pm