Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Importance of Context

The title of Alison’s Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, immediately calls attention to one of the novel’s themes. Though it could be read as a “queer autobiography,” Fun Home espouses the idea that it is not just individuals who are “queer” so much as entire families, structures, and societies. As such, a person’s actions and identity are inseparable from his or her context. In Fun Home, Bechdel shows how the different contexts that she and her father inhabited were at least partially responsible for the difference in their life “outcomes.” Is her father to blame? In supporting the idea that people ought to be judged relative to their context, Bechdel also implicitly supports taking the burden of “freeing themselves” off of only those who identify as queer in favor of a more inclusive collective responsibility to create the structures necessary for “free” thought and act.
Bechdel comments repeatedly on the influence of time and place on her father’s life. In diagrams of her hometown, Beech Creek, a small town near the Appalachians in central Pennsylvania, Bechdel comments that “it’s puzzling why my urbane father, with his unwholesome interest in the decorative arts, remained in this provincial hamlet” and that it “suggests a provincialism on my father’s side that is both misleading and accurate” (30-31). Both of Bechdel’s parents are portrayed as having “abdicated” the “artist’s life” in favor of convention (73). Their reasons for doing so appear opaque to Bechdel, and perhaps that is the point, that we can never really understand what it’s like to be “in someone else’s shoes.” In writing about the transformation of the Village from the early eighties, Bechdel asks “Would I have had the guts to be one of those Eisenhower-era butches? Or would I have married and sought succor from my high school students?” (108). Ultimately, we can’t be sure.
The contradiction of Bechdel’s father’s choice to stay in Beech Creek is evident when Bechdel writes that “in the end, although the anonymity of a city might have saved my father’s life, I can’t really imagine him anywhere but Beech Creek” (144). From his descriptions of the place in letters to her mother to his accent, there appears to be something about the place that tied him down and that was forever present in him. In the end, Bechdel is wary, as we have tried to be in class since reading “The Death of the Author,” of trying to explain and motivate and categorize every aspect of her father’s life. She is perpetually aware of her own biases in the telling of her story, writing in one instance that “maybe I’m trying to render my senseless personal loss meaningful by linking it, however posthumously, to a more coherent narrative” (196) and in another, “perhaps my eagerness to claim him as ‘gay’ in the way I am ‘gay’…is just a way of keeping him to myself–a sort of inverted oedipal complex” (223).
Fun Home thus suggests two things about the way we ought to tell stories, especially “queer” ones. First, we need to be aware of the dramatic effects of context and setting. But second, it is nonetheless impossible to fully comprehend or explain anyone’s story except your own and to tell it without including your own preconceptions. When Alison is in college, her father writes to her saying, “Yes, my world was quite limited. You know I was never even in New York until I was about twenty. But even seeing it then was not quite a revelation. There was not much in the Village that I hadn’t known in Beech Creek. In New York you could see and mention it but elsewhere it was not seen or mentioned. It was rather simple” (212). Though time and place may have affected how her father’s life “turned out,” it could not change the essential fact of his queerness, only its reception by others.

KS

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Queer Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Every Monday and Wednesday after class, I take a walk across campus to another literature class: Angelheaded Hipsters – Beat Writers Seminar.

The week we read Tim Dean’s article on transgression, I was also reading Naked Lunch. The week we read queer literature from Asia, I was reading beat poetry and haiku that was pointedly influenced by Asian culture. The week we read Moraga’s texts with the epilogue entitled “Chicana Mind, Beginner’s Mind” I was reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.
Throughout this quarter, I repetitively felt confused as to how I was the only one enrolled in both of these courses, the only one experiencing the overlap. With that said, I think there was a lot of value studying the works I did in each class in relation to the other. And I want to use this final blog post to extrapolate on some common themes between the works of both classes. Specifically, I want to briefly discuss the importance of community, mindfulness, and writing in regards to this class and in general.

Like Moraga, I have been mulling of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind since I picked it up, and I have some of its phrases still turning over in my mind.

 

1)   “What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and exhale.”

In an earlier section of the Moraga texts we read, she wrote about “the ‘I’ of ‘character’ who is and who is not me.” In Zen Mind, she read that our identity is fluid; it swings to-and-fro with our breath. On the one hand, I think this is interestingly related to her stance on the “I” of “character” and her rendering of a narrative voice. On the other, I think it creates somewhat of a tension between her acceptance of a “zen” model and constant essentialist language (explaining her identity as this, this, and this – I am a Xicana, I am a lesbian, I am a woman).

The real reason I think I am putting this quotation about the “I” in this post is because of this quotation from Moraga’s epilogue:

When the Catholic Church’s rituals of confession and penance threatened to drown me in an ocean of torment, I would retreat for solace alone in the church pew. Sitting straight-backed, open palms on my thighs, I returned to the island of my own earnest heart. There the punishing pornography of the blaming mind gave way to the silence of an inner, infinitely compassionate god.

In many of the books we have read, the queer characters struggle with feelings of guilt and sin—often related to religion. Here, Moraga takes Catholicism, which is an essential part of her family’s identity, and refuses to let it make her feel dirty, sinful, or unworthy because of her sexuality. Instead, she seeks peace in the church (as an actual building, not really as an institution) by silently releasing her sense of a guilt-ridden “I” through meditation. Now, if we could only give James Badlwin’s David and Radclyffe Hall’s Stephen Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, maybe they could find some peace in their character as well.

 

2)   “Here we have poetry, and here we have human life.”

In the second part of Moraga’s epilogue, below the subtitle “Xicana Mind,” she focuses on the imagery of her son growing older and bigger through time, her engagement with her far-away ancestors, and the realization that her late mother will never return to her as a physical embodiment of her identity. The way she writes about her ancestors and family literally (and literarily) connects the generations. I say this connection is literal because by putting her ancestors, her family, and her self in connected sentences she refers to the bodies of loved ones in her body of text so that the memory of the people become their identity. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind there is a quotation about the present time becoming past, and the section ends with that memorable quotation—“Here we have poetry, and here we have human life.” In Moraga’s response to Zen Mind, she produces the memory of human life through her language. This is poetry. Writing of her ancestors, her mother, her son, give them a literary identity that is their human life as much as we as readers will ever experience. She writes that “we can remember histories and future through and in spite of the body we wear.” That, I think, is shown in her poetic phrasing itself. When she poetically writes about her relatives, she composes their remembered lives.

 

3)   “The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion”

I don’t mean to get cheesy, but this is an important and relevant point both for Moraga’s writing and also for our purposes in this class as a whole. Always being open to learning—that is, taking on a new “I” voice, listening to voices from all different backgrounds, allowing conversations to fundamentally change our beliefs and the way we interact with the world—requires us to be willing and compassionate students. Moraga says, “If we are filled up, that if we believe that we already know, we will learn nothing because there is no empty space, no not-knowing space in which to learn, in which to change.” She notices that the Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind book is really just a bunch of white pages with some black words of wisdom on them, but the majority of the material is white blank space. Similarly, we always have space to fill (unlike maid’s room with no room for a new bookshelf), and should keep in mind that we are in the constant process of filling space and unpacking past beliefs. In discussions dealing with the fluidity of identity (race, sexuality, gender, what-have-you) it is important to be open and compassionate. Moraga knows this, so do the beats, so do we—that’s why we are in this course. By the very nature of its definition, “queerness” is always shifting, and as students we must be open and compassionate towards discussing that shift.

 

In all, I have enjoyed reading the texts for this class, and especially found them interesting as companions to the syllabus for my other literature class this quarter. I never thought that a simple little book about Zen Buddhism would entirely shift my thinking about poetry and writing in general, but it happened and I want to share with you a few more ideas that Moraga pulls from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind into her own writing.  She borrows from the text to write “Xicana Mind, Beginner’s Mind” as the epilogue of her personal essays and poetry. Now here, we can write for ourselves: “Queer Mind, Beginner’s Mind.”

-EV

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The Immemorial, Dialogue, and Love

I now engage in dialogue with Cherrie Moraga’s “A XicanaDyke Codex of Changing Consciousness”, an essay that, at first glance, would seem not to desire someone “like me” as an interlocutor, as a discussant. I am white; I am male. Both of these qualities are easily apparent and so may even be confused with my substance. But they of course are not my substance. I have no substance.

The question at stake in Moraga’s essay is how one ought to relate to the past, especially the immemorial past. The past may be immemorial in at least three ways. The first concerns those events that we, as humans, constitutively cannot recall; our own births, for example, perhaps traumas taken on at a young age. The second concerns the unspeakability, the untransmissibility, of certain extreme, liminal conditions of living in which human beings have been put (think of the camps; think of colonialism) to which ordinary, digestible prose cannot seem to measure. The third concerns a kind of systemic obliviousness; here, the unspoken thing is forgotten completely, not even retained as the memory of a forgetting as in the first or second kind. Moraga perhaps has in mind an immemoriality of the third variety:

But for Indian Children to love themselves, […] They must develop a living critical consciousness about their land-based history (outside of the White Man’s fiction), a history that remains undocumented by mainstream culture and is ignored by the queer, feminist, and “Hispanic” communities. They must remember they were here first and are always Xicano, Dine, Apache, Yaqui, or Choctaw; for that memory can alter consciousness, and consciousness can alter institutionalized self-loathing that serves cultural genocide. (7-8)

The question here is how to relate to the kinds of events that compose the second variety (those that are unspeakably violent) in the context of the third variety, that is, as events always already forgotten because of the system of cultural codes in which the remembering can take place. Moraga then advocates a kind of digging up of the past, bringing to light forgotten traumas whose effects are still being felt today.

But she holds onto identity. For those who remember, in fact, “must remember they were here first and are always Xicano, Dine, […]” (ibid., emphasis added). This because: “Genocide is what I am afraid of, as well as the complete cultural obliteration of those I call my pueblo and the planet that sustains us.” (8) Pueblo here means “people”, in the sense of the people who would compose a nation; an ethnos. Consider:

The evolution of my own changing Xicana consciousness led me to make the same basic decision Alexie made: “to marry an Indian woman” and “to give birth to and raise Indian children who love themselves,” not necessarily in that order, but, I believe, prompted by the same moral imperative. (7)

And in the most succinct formulation of the ethic she advocates adopting:

For as taboo as it is to admit within the context of the firmly inscribed multiracial social democracy progressives paint of their imagined “America,” I had a child to nation, one regenerated from the blood-nations Mexicans born in (or coming to) this country are forced to abandon at the border. I had an Indian child to counter the loss of my family’s working-class Mexican Indianism with each succeeding generation. I had a Xicano child cuz Raza’s turning white all over the States. (6)

Present action settles the debts of the past. The scales are out of whack and must be stabilized. One part of this correctional act is apparently refusing to engage in dialogue:

 

For these reasons I believe my conversation about strategies for revolution as a Xicanadyke mother resides more solidly within the cultural-political framework of American Indigenism than in any U.S. gay and lesbian or feminist movements. At their cultural core these movements remain Euro-American, in spite of a twenty-five-year history of people-of-color activism. I have for the most part removed my self from conversation with the gay and lesbian feminist movement because most of its activists do not share my fears and as such do not share my hopes or strategies for political change. (8)

And, as if we needed any further confirmation, Moraga cites not totally unapprovingly one label with which her thought has been branded: “politicized cultural essentialism” (5).

 

Everything is how you use the past. We find ourselves tossed always already into a world, into a narrative, and must collect ourselves, gather our bearings, as we go. This perpetual story operates according to many, perhaps incommensurate, times—the times of school days, of the body’s growth, of families and lineages, of genealogies and histories. These times are not so in the conventional sense (are not narratives) until we take the singular events that we will put into a constellation (thereby rendering meaning possible) and put them into a (temporal) constellation. We may then even relate the individual times to one another if we wish; indeed, this is perhaps the supreme task of thought. The supreme task of thought not for any metaphysical, that is, ethnocentric, reason, but rather the supreme task because its completion could result in the rendering inoperative of all nations, all peoples—all communities founded upon a presupposition. This because there is sacred time and profane time and the latter is messianic and the first nihilistic. The time of the presupposition, of the negative foundation, of the ineffable present absence, is this nihilistic sacred time, which opposes us to ourselves, us to our time, having us undergo it rather than taking it up as our own. The contemporary is composed of many times. Sacred times are those composed of constellations that stubbornly refuse to change, refuse to alter themselves, refuse to grow. Profane times are simply sacred times rearranged, returned to use, to properly human praxis, which is not any particular use, but again, rather use itself, the very space of use.

            The figure, the type of this space is love. Love entails forgiveness. Love entails an experience of time that revels in the power we have to construct our own time, to use the past and new ways and thereby not drown in it. We love to live.

WMNC

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The Loneliness of Essentialism

Moraga’s A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness espouses a view of humanity, inheritance, and identity that I react pretty strongly and instinctively against. Yet I try to be sympathetic towards the text. I too find the need to localize queer desire within specific regional and national traditions important. I too qualify my sexual identity with my ethnic one, though not as strongly or thickly as Moraga does.

And I find her draw to certain traditions based on similar political leanings compelling, her draw to Indian literature and to Toni Morrison. I think this sort of literary affinity says a lot. For my own concept of my Cuban-American identity, for example, I draw on queer Cuban authors like Reinaldo Arenas or Cuban exiles’ music and food because these sources align more with particular intersections that are important to my identity: Cuban x queer, Cuban x American. Trying, however, to find the right source can be difficult, especially once the intricacies of being an immigrant or the child of one are brought into play. Which stories can I buy into or should I buy into? This isn’t an academic or a reasoned process. It’s emotional, personal, and impulsive, and so I can speak only of those that I like on instinct, really. The same sort of logic applies to which cultural narratives of identity we can accept.

I’m not Chicano, so I cannot speak to her confusion that so many Chican@ writers “remain so enamored with white people, their privileges, and their goodies: the seduction of success. Why do we remain confused about who we are?” (5). But as a Cuban-American I can say that the confusion about categorization that arises from being “Not Black. Not Indian. Not white” and yet not not one or more of these things is real in my own life, as well (5). Yet this lack of categorization itself strikes me as queer, if we want to (and I do want to) take queer as a marker of marginality: being in between or just outside the lines.

To call oneself queer and/or Cuban-American is, in a way, to enact constant transgression. Cuban-Americans (Latin@s in general, actually) somehow manage to confound American concepts of race and ethnicity, because for me, for example, I am Hispanic plus white: each application requires answering the question, “Are you Hispanic or Latino/a?” before you can fill in the rest. So we require extra paperwork, extra thought: a work-intensive identity! I don’t keep any illusions that these extra moments add up to some sort of jam in the system, but I prefer to frame it this way when people try to define me better, limiting me to “really white” or “really Hispanic.”  Much like a multiracial or multiethnic person, a Cuban-American, by keeping a foot in more than one door of racial/ethnic classification, poses a challenge to expectations of “neatness” in self-presentation of race. And I think that this challenge is in accord with the challenge queerness presents to frameworks of sexuality that would prefer we all be heterosexual or maybe homosexual in a predictable, monogamous, and domestic way. The political charge of the word “queer” has a similar charge, by avoiding neat explanations and culturally common categories, by requiring extra paperwork or thoughtful confrontations.

These small confrontations form part of everyday life—the awkward cringe and “well…” each time somebody refers to me as white, or the weird qualms when I’m filling out a form that requests too little or too much specificity about either my sexuality or my ethnicity—that the personal second-guessing of which movement one belongs to that Moraga refers to in her text feels familiar. I can see why her approach to this identity’s ostensible clumsiness, its dislocation, its colonization reads as a burdened and anxious experience. I want to feel her anxiety with her. Yet she pushes away readers who might feel this tug of familiarity, by framing her experience as so personal (and political) within such a tightly particular intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and location that I can’t fully give way and relate to her. The distance between us, while in theory laudable for respecting our autonomy and refusing to collapse complicated categories of identity, ultimately leaves me not inspired or educated but lonely. -EE

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A Feeling of Otherness

Dublin Bound

This blog post is a review of
I first heard of Cherrie Moraga this last fall.  Students were discussing Audre Lorde, and Moraga came up.  I had out my laptop, so I quickly googled her.  One of the first things that popped up was (nonsurprisingly) her Wikipedia page.  “Cherríe L. Moraga (born September 25, 1952) is a Chicana writer, feminist activist, poet, essayist, and playwright.”

Oh god, I thought to myself.  Yet another brilliant feminist activist I’ve never heard of, because all of my feminist readings have been written mostly by upperclass white women.

Moraga introduces herself as a “middle-aged lesbian living in Oakland with my beloved and her sometimes grown son, Mateo[…]”  (p. 4).  For the purposes of my reflection, I will introduce myself as well:  I am a queer white woman, who was raised in a white suburban town where I grew up speaking English.  I go to one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and  I speak very little Spanish. And here’s a sad confession-before reading Borderlands, I didn’t know that there was a difference between Chicana/Latina-or the political connotations that exist around each word.

I am uncomfortable reading Moraga’s words.  A feeling of otherness makes me shift in my seat, and surreptitiously look around.  Half of the time, I have no idea what she’s talking about.  At the beginning of her work, she has (kindly) included the “Xicana Lexicon.”  Her fluid transition between English and Spanish lead me to my Spanish dictionary, and many of the places and things she references lead me to Google.  I wince throughout the reading-it is not a comfortable feeling to realize what one’s own race has done to another, and realize the involvement of my ancestors in the colonization and destruction of another group

One page 7, Moraga discusses her fear of future oppression:

 

“Genocide is what I am afraid of, as well as the complete cultural obliteration of those I call my pueblo and the planet that sustains us.  Gay men and lesbians (regardless of race) have, in the last two decades, become intimately connected to the question of survival because of the AIDS pandemic.  But as AIDS activists have already learned-the hard way-AIDS and its threat of death impacts people-of-color communities differently, be they gay or heterosexual.”


What particularly struck me was Moraga’s criticism of white feminists who do try to work for rights of POC (People of Color).  “In that specifity, I learned that, for the most part, when when white women spoke of women of color and racism, they were usually thinking of Black and white relations and, too often and to my disappointment, many African Americans were equally politically engaged in the same bipolar version of the history of U.s. race relations”  (p 7).

I rejoice in this feeling of discomfort.  I appreciate it.  During the course of this class, we’ve all felt uncomfortable.   Our privilege is examined by reading works written about and by people who are/were marginalized.

So maybe that’s what a Queer Work is.  A creater tells the story of someone who doesn’t fit the mold-whether it be racial, sexual identity or gender identity- and we, as queer readers who don’t fit the mold-examine this work, our own “queerness” and thereby “queerify” the work.

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Exercise #4: Reflection

THE TASK:

What have you learned this quarter about queer literature, literary studies, and/or doing comparative work across historical periods, national literatures, or theoretical approaches to queer literature that seems important to you?  Pick one or more aspects, ideas, texts, or  moments from class discussion (in class or on the blog) that seem particularly important or valuable to you, and insert them right here below.  (You can address anything here you already mentioned in our last in-class session on Wednesday, or add something entirely new–it’s up to you!)

It’s been a huge pleasure working with all of you this quarter, and I thank you for a wonderful teaching experience!  Please take care and stay in touch!

Petra Dierkes-Thrun

****************

I think what I will most take away from this class is, as mentioned in class, the change in lens I know have from reading these queer texts, allowing me to read other books I will read differently. Also I was really changed in my view of the gender binary and now realize that there are an infinite number or types of ways people can identify. Putting a label on someone’s identity seems pretty useless because within each “definition” there are many subcategories and some identities that do not even have a set “name”. The class also really opened my eyes to the beauty of graphic novels, which before this class I probably would never have considered reading but I am now very intrigued by!

-ACT

This class has supported the idea that queerness heavily intersects with so many other identity markers, including race, nationality, and social class. As such, it is always important to understand positionality and how one person’s definition of queerness might be different from another’s based on identity and social position. In addition, the class has also allowed me to think about the meaning of queerness and what actually makes a text, reader, or author queer. In discussing this, I’ve decided that queerness is something that can’t ever be truly defined and it is always historically situated. This is why texts like those of Wilde can be read as queer even though it was not meant to be so originally.

–VCA

This class was different from any other class I have ever taken here at Stanford. I have studied science my whole life and continued studying science here and I have looked into the science of individuals and what makes an individual a female or male, but science does not tell you the sexuality of the individual. I was very interested in the sexuality of an individual and came across this course. This class has taught me a lot about how queerness is interpreted and how queerness can be defined in many ways. I have learned that there is not one definition to define homosexuality. Every persons definition is different and interpretation is based on their knowledge and social relation. The second thing I learned from this course is how homosexuality has evolved and has changed with time. I have learned what defines a queer text or what makes a text queer from its context or from the author. I really enjoyed how when reading a text you may read it one way, but knowing that the text is queer you can interpret the text completely different and read into the eroticism. All in all, I would say that this class has allowed me to understand that queerness cannot simply be defined and that these texts showed how homosexuality comes in many ways. This has allowed me to step away from science and learned through literature and graphic novels. I have learned that not everything is defined by science.

— Calais

I think the biggest thing I will take away from this class is learning how to be a queer reader. Understandably, we never resolved the questions posed at the beginning of the quarter like “What makes a text queer?” but I do think we made productive progress. Instead, I feel like I have learned how to be a “queer” reader. What I mean by this is that this class has taught me how to read literature (and theory) that may not be explicitly queer and analyze them with a queer lens. Furthermore, I learned how to read texts that are explicitly queer with a critical  queer lens and think about how historical and social factors influence a text as well as how race/class/gender/sexuality/etc are important.

-Ripley

One major theme from this course that seems very important to me is the concept of “The Death of the Author” within the genre of “queer” literature. The intellectual exercise of considering the merits and challenges of “the death of the author”- that is, understanding and interpreting the texts without significant consideration of the author’s own identity or original intention- within queer literature is extremely engaging and complex. On the one hand, I believe that the birth of the reader, especially the queer reader, is an essential component of a text, and something that can create new meanings from past texts that are intriguing and completely valid. I do also believe that there is something valuable from allowing the reader to have the intellectual and creative freedom to understand a text from their own perspective, regardless of the initial goals or context of the book’s author. On the other hand, I believe that completely losing all recognition of the author’s identity and intent can be dangerous, as it can change the authenticity of an author’s voice and/or experience in problematic ways. I am really grateful that  this class gave me the opportunity to continue to think and debate about the relative importance of authors and readers in the significance of a text, as this is a relevant issue of great importance.

– LGT

At the start of this quarter, I was feeling out of my depth in this class because 1) after a summer and a quarter without IHUM or other humanities classes, I had forgotten how to function without problem sets, 2) I considered myself a more science-y person (although being raised by architect parents and being immersed in music, art, and literature has made that a little more complicated), and 3) I had never been exposed to queer literature before. It is true that in high school I read and loved Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and I wrote a research paper on the connection between the modernist theme of transience versus intransience and painting in To the Lighthouse, but queer literature? The word was not in my vocabulary and I regret to say the author was dead to me. However, I decided to throw myself into the deep end and out of my comfort zone upon a suggestion from my PWR1 professor to explore the realm of comparative literature because she thought I would enjoy it as much as the science and bioethics. Turns out she was right. I’ve come away from this class with several new things to ponder, my top two favourites being the idea of “the death of the author” and what makes a text, film, or artwork queer. To me, these concepts are as much an exercise in philosophy as in comparative literature and I learned in this class to investigate and analyze my own opinions on these matters. I also thoroughly enjoyed probing the meaning of identity, the performativity of gender, and realizing that “queer” can encompass so much more than sexuality, i.e. in relation to transgression, style, etc. This class has given me a new perspective with which to view and appreciate literature, art, and the world and this lens is something I will carry with me into the future, even if I won’t be queering problem sets anytime soon.

– HSK

Having read literature treating queer themes and attempted to “queer” readings of more traditional texts in academic settings that were skeptical, to say the least, of this kind of interpretation, it was a breath of queer air to be actively encouraged to make this kind of analysis. Although the word “queer” still meets resistance, I think it is a useful term for the sake of its multiplicity: it can address sexually non-normative subjectivities, ideas that challenge assumptions often taken for granted, modes of representation that engage or take on unconventional questions—and, in terms of literature, both styles of writing and hermeneutic gestures that go beyond the beaten path. Rather than designating an umbrella term meant to encapsulate something like the ubiquitous LGBT signifier of the rainbow—an image that is multicolored and arced, but linear—“queer” can touch an array of themes and inspire modes of thought that are twisted and complex, and is all the more gratifying for it. The multiplicities in this class have helped expand my notion of the queer. We have looked across genres and media of artistic expression, engaged geographic, racial, class, and other intersections of diversity and marginality, and taken on a range of theoretical lenses—from Barthes’ death of the author to Butler’s performativity to Dean’s transgression. Each of these approaches, I think, has made our interactions with these literatures both more complex and more rewarding. Not only has this class been an inspiration to “queer” our styles of reading; it has also opened up new ways of viewing and interacting with questions in our everyday lives.

-AMU

I feel as though the thing I most enjoyed from this class, and what was most valuable to me personally, was the ability to be exposed to a multitude of different opinions and insights from my peers. I feel as though the texts we read, and the way we utilized discussion, really gave precedence to the ability to people to speak their minds. Additionally, the blog was a great resource to gain further insight into what people found most interesting about the texts. This aspect to queer literature was what stood out to me. It seemed as though, to a certain extent, queer literature creates a liminal space in which people are much more receptive to personally identifying with than some other types of literature; and being able to hear the ways in which people identified with stories, and what aspects to what were most poignant to them as individuals, is what I will take from this class personally. There are a multitude of ways to read and experience every story, and this should never be forgotten or devalued.

–KO

Of the many things I will take from this class, two things stand out to me in particular. The first, like I mentioned in class, is that I will be more careful of how I use the LGBTQI (the list goes on) terms and will be cognizant of how the terms are used around me. I found myself having to redefine the terms I had previously used to liberally, especially in relation to the texts we read. Often times I would want to simply classify someone as gay when really the term queer or bisexual was more fitting. As an English major, I’ve always been a particularly “careful” reader but always skeptical as well, not wanting to go too far with the literary allusions I thought I found. Sometimes, the walls are just blue and they don’t stand as a metaphor for sadness. This class, however, has taught me to take nothing lightly and to trust what I had previously considered my over-analysis of a work of literature, particularly when it is a well-done piece. For example, I thought I had detected a deeper meaning to the colors in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, but wrote it off as my overactive imagination. Upon further research, however, I discovered that there was in fact implications of racial identity that are attributed to colors in the novel, and I had to go back and reread the novel to pick up every reference I had dismissed.

-MGA

As a reader and I natural observer of the world, I’ve always wanted to classify things in categories and binaries—it was the easy thing to do. But from this class I’ve realized that you miss all the nuances and details that really enliven the world (be it the one that I’m reading or in which I exist). It is the nuances that define, if I even should use that word at all now, a thing, a being, and they cannot be ignored. We read books in this class through a “queer” lens, which would assume a single dimensionality in its reading. However, I’ve found it to be quite the opposite. From the first day of class when we discussed “what makes something queer?” and failed to come up with a solitary answer (and that is completely for the better), I would read each text with the intent of trying to figure out a new dimension to “queer.” How is queer being interpreted in each text? How does it act? The disparity in answer from week to week allowed be to settle upon the fact that it’s okay that I have no idea what completely constitutes a queer thing by the end of this process. The human experience of being “queer” should not fall subject to compartmentalization in neatly bundled packages within one’s identity; the messiness allows you to figure out who you truly are. —BPS

While I wrote on the blog mostly about uniting threads of queer literature like burdens, transgression, loneliness, and other “negative” or difficult factors, what I would like to take from this course also is the celebration of and within queer literature: our course on queer literature is treated with such importance and respect, integrated into an academic department and held at the same standards as other fields, but also given room to be “queer” in its own ways, in that we seemed to sympathize more with students and readers than, at least as far as I have perceived, many traditional humanities courses do. This approach dignifies queer literature but also allows it its unique traits and listens to the corrections it would like to make to everyday life, including in the academic realm. The texts we read also seemed to bring this together, demanding that attention and respect be paid to queerness by publishing books about it but also queering texts and genres. I quite like this balance and would like to add it to my previous interpretations of queer literature’s unifying features, which I had viewed as quite difficult. Queer literature is self-referential, self-celebratory, self-correcting: it’s nervous, in a way, to get it all right. I will take this nervousness with me for my own projects, creative and academic both, and use it to queer my literature and my life. -EE

I absolutely loved this class! As someone who hasn’t taken a literature class since freshman-year IHUM I was very ambivalent about the thought of diving into the field again thinking I would have trouble understanding the deeper meaning of texts and contributing to the class. However, all the readings were engaging, refreshing, and really built on top of one another to form a truly outstanding synthesis course. As a proud member of the queer community it was deeply moving to better understand how our modern-day existence and cultures have been shaped by the likes of Wilde, Hall, and many others. As Rachel Maddow mentioned in her speech on campus this past Saturday, many heroic individuals who wrote openly and brought attention to queer issues in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century “paid it forward” to newer generations by being open about these kinds of issues. I cannot fathom the courage it took for Oscar Wilde to artfully craft such a homoerotic novel amidst the horribly oppressive laws of 19th century Great Britain. The writings of Chu T’ien-Wen and Chu T’ien-Hsin shattered the glass ceiling when it came to queer texts and lives in Taiwan. These and many other of the pieces we read serve as fragments of activism and as arguments for acceptance for the minority queer culture. By using traditional storytelling in some instances and scholarly theoretical work in other instances, these readings made the once-taboo topic of queerness more accessible to others. I will cherish this experience forever and I can honestly say it’s inspired me to pick up a book or two to further understand the genre better in the future.

– Martina Navratilova

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A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

We can all agree that Fun Home is full of substance, super dense, packed with literary references, and concentrated into the compact form of a graphic novel. There is a depth and complexity to it that I can’t quite place; it’s as if there are aftershocks to reading this work. I can’t help but wonder if it would be same if Fun Home were written as a novel – solely with words. What would that be like? Would it add to or detract from what Bechdel is trying to communicate? In a broader sense, how does the medium affect what we take away from the art – if at all?

Taken from Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, 1993

Compared to other comic artists, Bechdel’s drawings and layouts are rather clean and straightforward; there isn’t too much playing around with the placement of panels or “bleeds” – panels that run off the edges of the page to illustrate the effect of a silent and unresolved panel. At its “fanciest”, Bechdel incorporates handwritten letters, maps, and photos to add to her story. We know this steering away from usual comic art techniques is by choice because in an interview, Bechdel stated that, “It’s very important for me that people be able to read the images in the same kind of gradually unfolding way as they’re reading the text… I want pictures that you have to read, that you have to decode, that take time, that you can get lost in.” (Emmert, 2007) She forms a strong connection between the reading of words and the interpretation of images, treating her pictures as paragraphs that readers need to dig through before they unearth the messages. As much as I agree with the fact that the pictures of Fun Home, in combination with the text, did require more time to “decode”, I would argue that pictures lend a more direct line of communication that bypasses intellectual processing. Images elicit gut reactions and strong emotional charge whereas words tend to be colder or less relatable because they require more mental processing for meaning to emerge. Images appeal to the visual senses directly and intuition is enough to bring meaning even to the most abstract illustrations. That being said, the words in Fun Home are no less important than the pictures because they offer a rich supplement to Bechdel’s story, evoking the emotions associated with entire novels such as Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Anna Karenina, or the myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

P00211Try squeezing more meaning into that bottom left panel. Fun Home, 2007

Perhaps herein lies the greatest power of the graphic novel: the capacity to deliver messages through the interplay or the intimate relationship between words and images. With images, the cartoonist is able to elicit emotional responses from the reader and with words, he/she is able to convey more intricate ideas or entire treasure-troves of meaning through allusions, metaphors, and other literary devices. If Fun Home were rewritten to be a novel, a large portion of the emotional impact from the images, maps, scenery, handwritten letters, and photos would be lost. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Aside from Bechdel’s impressive command of images and words to paint us a story, there remains the issue of queerness that permeates the novel on more than one level. There is the fact that both Bechdel and her father are queer, but if we broaden our definition of the word to encompass the idea of being “the other” or “unusual, out of alignment”, we can also see that the family dynamics and the idea of the tragicomic could be seen as queer. The word “queer” is related to the German quer, meaning “across, at right angles, diagonally or transverse” (thank-you Wikipedia and WordReference.com) and “queer” originally emerged in English to mean “strange or unusual”, meshing nicely with our previous discussions on being “against the grain”. If we remove for a second the sexualities of Bechdel and her father to focus on the family dynamics, we can see that the relationships between Bechdel, her father, and her mother may seem unusual to the audience. The father is engrossed in his own historical restorations and decorating the interior of their home, the mother in her thesis paper and acting, Bechdel in her own creative pursuits and journal writing. But what is normal if this seems queer? Could “normal” be defined as an imaginary and ever-changing concept based on what the majority of people are doing at a certain time? As Kristin from the blog everyoneisgay.com humorously points out, “If in the year 2011, two hundred million people are eating breaded chicken while watching American Idol, then that’s ‘normal.’  If in the year 2056, three hundred million people are eating rutabaga salads while practicing their macarena-salsa fusion dance mix…then that is normal.” In short, Bechdel’s depiction of her family straddles the blurry line between normal and queer that is hard to pin down – as if existing in two states at once as in wave-particle duality – because “normal”, much like gender, is a social construct and, to quote Dr. House from the eponymous TV show, overrated.

P00140

How does the tragicomic factor play into the queerness of this work? Much like how we perceive the family dynamics in Fun Home to be queer even with sexuality put side, the strange duality and complementarity of the tragic and the comic that weaves through the graphic novel is also “against the grain”. It puts the reader in an unusual and at times uncomfortable state in which they are not sure whether to laugh or cry because something that is devastatingly poignant is being illustrated in a humorous light. Bechdel “queers” her autobiography in ways that go beyond addressing sexuality by introducing aspects in the graphic novel that are “against the grain” in that they are not one or the other – they are ideas that are completely out of the ball park, or better yet in between ball parks. She brings to light the queerness of the grey areas that exist as part of the human condition. Personally, I find the connection between the comic and the tragic to be fascinating and oftentimes the complementarity is surreal. One example that takes the form of a movie is Submarine, a film that follows the development of a teenage heterosexual relationship amidst the parents’ divorce. The subject itself is hugely heterosexual, but the treatment of this back and forth between tragic and comic, normal and not normal, realism and surrealism scream-whispers queer. And this brings us back full circle to the inevitable and daunting question, “What makes a queer text/movie/artwork?”. Read our final exercises to find out?

– HSK

Appendix

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