Category Archives: Americas

Book Discussion: Peter Hennen’s Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine

Present: Chong, Chua, Wenjun, Kelvin, Desmond, Scott, Yihao, Raj, Timmy, Chams, Edwina, Ryan, Thomas, Gary, Aaron.

A collaboration between the Bear Project and Queer book club.

We discussed the premises the thesis is based on, mainly, leathermen, faeries, and bears embody reactions to (a) the hegemonic masculinity, and (b) the historical burden of feminisation of gay people. We found that the author thinks in dichotomies, masculinity VS femininity, and not in degrees, which is frustrating and may undermine Hennon’s argument.

At a point, we tested Hennon’s hypothesis against Singapore’s bear community. Gary and Thomas shared with us their valuable insights.

We also talked about bears in relation to race, femininity, inclusivity, performativity, Westernisation, class, HIV. We also found the ursine nuzzling of a group of bears puzzling. In the end, we discussed the normalization and homonationalism of bears.

 

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Book Discussion: Ann Bannon – Odd Girl Out

Zoe, Raj, and Aaron discussed Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out, which is the second bestselling paperback in 1957. We discussed about the significance of the title, and how the three women, Emily, Beth, and Laura, are “odd” in their own ways.

Emily is a strong, loyal, independent friend who doesn’t deserve her ending. (Actually what is her ending? we pondered.)

Beth is sexually ambiguous. She is portrayed as a butch, attractive to both men and women, but she refuses to make any decisions about her life until the end. Although she is a “leader,” she is not a good friend to Emily, not advising her to stay away from Budd.

Regarding Laura: We questioned about the stereotypes of a possessive, jealous lesbian. We also talked about the circumstances of portraying a lesbian in the 50s: it was prohibited to have a happy ending for LGBTQ. But Bannon circumvented the censorship law by creating a strong and independent character in Laura, although how Laura grows out of her moroseness and morbidity is not clearly shown.

The character development of Laura is one of the many plot holes we found in the novel. Who sabotages Emily’s double stitching of bra? What happens to Emily in the end? How come the perspectives in the novel shift suddenly? These are some of the narrative weaknesses in the novel.

However, it’s refreshing to see a positive male character (Charlie) in a lesbian novel, a rare sighting among the lesbian novels we have read so far.

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Filed under Ann Bannon, Classics, Lesbian, USA

Discussion: Larry Kramer’s FAGGOTS (1978)

urlA cozy, intimate discussion between Timmy and Aaron, like when the book club first started.

We discussed about:
-the run-on, stream-of-consciousness sentence structure.

-whether it’s dated (Timmy said parts are, Aaron thinks it’s refreshing).

-the sex: there are all kinds of sex, they can initially be sexy but eventually become farcical and comedic. It also seems like the sex acts define the person; we remember the character by recalling what sex acts he engages in. Sex is also separated from love, but it is also sex without shame.

-characters are doubles of each other, no distinct personality (Winnie and Timmy, Wyatt and Bon Bon, etc). They become one-dimensional, commercialized images, but there is also an insistence on the body.

-the issue of gay men with their fathers.

-although the gay men seem to be in  living hell,  the ending is a silver lining with Fred Lemish having a epiphany of what he wants.

Timmy concluded that although he didn’t like the book, he urged everyone to read it once as an initiation into the gay world.

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Filed under Class, Classics, Family, Gay, Larry Kramer, Love, USA

Queer Book Discussion: Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) by Hubert Selby, Jr.

The best part about this book was how real it was. The worst part about this book was how real it was. Unanimously, both attendees of October’s book club meeting (Raj and Veronika – yes I totally procrastinated writing this because in true Veronika fashion I turned up without finishing the book) agreed that the raw, unfiltered writing was what enthralled and revolted both of us. I was hooked from the very first paragraph-long sentence, from the very first string of Brooklyn vulgarities, from the unabashed pervasive violence and from the flagrant defiance of conventional punctuation, sentence separation and spelling rules by Hubert Selby Jr. His immersive writing meant that we felt very much a part of this obscene world.

The fact that it was banned by British courts in 1967 made me excited to read it, though after reading a couple of explicitly violent scenes that honestly caused bile to rise in my throat, I can see how discretion is advised for sensitive readers.

Raj and I, being the only two who turned up, spoke at leisure about many aspects of the book. Raj has been to Brooklyn, and was able to say that the book was ‘very Brooklyn’ with authority.

We talked about the absence of religion in the book.

We talked about how what little love was depicted in the book was sadistic, sick and nauseating to read of.

We talked about how territorial the Brooklyn in the book was and how brassy the sex scenes were. We lingered on the idea of masculinity and how regardless of whether the characters were straight, gay, transgender or drag, they made a show of their masculine base, be it their brawns or their brains – the drag queens constantly needed to spar with their words or outshine with their wit.

We talked about the lack of any strong female characters, how the female characters resonated throughout as resourceful women who took on the childbearing roles, provided for the family (when the men mostly didn’t), who stuck to ‘their’ men through thick and thin (even when abused) and who generally had no self-respect as they conflated their domestic roles with martyrship.

Oh boy did we talk about Tralala. Raj pointed out how she was the only empowered woman in the book, and how even so, she seemed to be more of a ‘man trapped in a woman’s body’. We talked about how the men get bashed but never raped, and we talked about how irresistibly grotesque her insatiable sexuality was to read, and there was a tone of awe, maybe even respect with which we talked about how little she cared as she died.

We talked about how only tough queers were shown. Weak fragile queers were not shown, only weak women. Yet we didn’t raise the idea that Selby Jr. was a misogynist, just an accurate writer portraying an uncomfortably real world.

We also spoke at length about Harry. I initially hated him, but as Raj spoke about how, dislikable as Harry may be, he was an important to the union precisely because he was a convenient target of dislike by the corporate people, I started to, well, not like, but at least not thoroughly hate his character.

And of course, we enjoyed Raj’s Brooklyn-themed spread, with the beer cocktail, meatballs, sausages and cheese melts. Unfortunately, not a single bennie was in sight.

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Lesbian Book Discussion: Emma Donoghue’s ROOM

We were a lively, loquacious bunch: Pierre, Mona, Liz, Sharad, Raj, Brian, Alex, Javin, Veronica, and Aaron.

We started the discussion with whether it’s better to watch the film first, or read the book first. S and B had different opinions. B found the space in the film important, especially the personal space the Grandma needs away from Jack. 

P was insistent that Ma should have committed suicide before the birth of the child. Why wait till the hospital? B argued that Ma doesn’t commit suicide because of Jack; she has no existence before Jack. “Is this sexist to depict that a woman’s existence lies in her motherhood?” Almost everyone in the group replied negative, but Aa and P weren’t so sure it isn’t sexist.

When asked what we didn’t like about the novel: R, V, Aa, P, M all thought it was densely packed, full of many noun-things. Aa called the novel unimaginative and predictable, which V disagreed. B said that the brother is superfluous. V thought the breastfeeding should have been developed later in the novel. L commented the story is isolated in its world, divorced from other current events. Al thought it is the bestest book ever.

roomWe talked a lot on fatherhood. B noted that fatherhood in Room is more complex than motherhood, because there are different types of fathers whereas mothers seem giving. V said that the Father’s rejection of Jack adds to Ma’s guilt. We also questioned why Ma doesn’t allow Jack to interact with his father, but S and B bored us and we didn’t pay attention. Something about attachment/abuse theory, Jack as a form of pure extension of Ma which she must keep sacred, but it seems going into the sexist rhetoric that a woman is unpure after rape.

Another theme we talked about was media. Hey, wanna netflix and chill? Donoghue claims Room is part “a satire of modern mores and media.” We should have discussed more on it.

We also discussed a scene where a gay couple appear. S, P, and Aa thought it is a manipulative scene, bludgeoning our heads with the message that children know no sexuality and can love a boy or a girl. The other members protested, and called the trio cynical.

On favorite characters, everyone seemed to love the Grandma and the step granddad, except for Al. Al thought the grandma represents the normalizing, heteronormative force of society; she teaches Jack how to be normal. Gross, right? L and J liked the kid and mother. Aa liked the reporter but he was booed by everyone—we are a pretty “democratic” book club. Al liked Raja the dog and the Room as a character.

R claimed Ma uses Jack as a pawn to get Sunday treats. The rapist giving Sunday treats and not depicted as a complete villain: L said, “The worst kind of evil has some good in it.” She was on a roll and had several good epigrams that night.

V pointed that the rape is not dealt with directly and B said that circumventing the topic is a sophisticated way of dealing with the topic: it’s a traumatic experience, one of the worst things that can happen to a woman, but yet it’s not the be-all, and end-all of a person’s life.

On narrative structure, Aa asked if it is strange to have the climax of the story in the middle of the book, and V said it is more thrilling after the climax. V also liked the child narrator, arguing that it’s a convincing voice.

How about the ending? Is it a good ending? Ma and Jack treat the room differently; Ma hates it but it is Jack’s world. L wondered if it is an allegory for wanting to return to the mother’s womb.

S views the moral of the story differently. He sees J as a carte blanche using concepts to understand the world: he uses different concepts to deal with situations in the room and in the world. The message of the story is not to have a message.

V ended the discussion by aptly summing up: it’s a feel bad, feel good book, a book that makes you see how awful the world is so that you feel that you’re lucky.

These are some of the topics that Aa had on hand, but there was no chance to bring them up:
-Queerness of Jack
-Sexuality of mother
-why is Old Nick deliberately kept out of the picture?
-psychiatrist and nurse
-Universality of the experience?
-Donoghue says that Room is “a battle between Mary and Devil for young Jesus.” How so?
-Room is inspired by Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who locked up his own daughter whose son escaped at age of 5. James Wood, New Yorker critic, said this adaptation is “exploitative and a little cheap.” “The real victim’s imaginings and anxieties,” Wood argues, “must have been abysmal, in the original sense (unimaginable, bottomless), and the novel’s sure-footed appropriation of this unknowability seems offensive precisely in its sure-footness.” Jack’s cheerfulness and charm “lend the book an inappropriate lightness.” Do you agree with him?

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71st Discussion: Dorothy Allison—Bastard Out of Carolina

This discussion note is written by Brian (who blogs at Foreign Influence).

Attending: Raj, Alexius, Paul (a first-timer), Sharad, Brian, and Dominic

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Bastard out of Carolina is a difficult book to finish. The Boatwright family in 1950s/1960s Greenville County, South Carolina—kinship, poverty, violence, abuse, humiliation, self medication, criminality, illegitimacy, and constant questions of beauty and ugliness. For some of us, the book was too traumatic to read without multiple breaks. For some, it was overly complicated or unnecessarily melodramatic in places. For others, the pace of the book was distracting: too many leaps or slow lags without a steady narrative. Even after some of us did manage to finish reading, we kept returning to questions of realism, silence, characterization, and the place of this book in American gay culture. The book did lead to some arguments—even about the weather in that part of the Southern United States.

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Brian and Raj very much liked Bastard and the responses it evoked, even though Raj thought characters aged too quickly within the novel’s pace and Brian thought the novel could have developed some racial themes more fully.

Sharad and Dominic were generally positive, although more ambivalent toward the believability of the story and skeptical about the moral of the tale. Dominic summed the book’s message up as “Don’t be poor.” He didn’t like the presentation of that message.

Alexius and Paul didn’t like the book. Alexius thought Bone—the main character—never said or did anything; she never developed as a character. Paul thought the book tried to develop too many themes; it had little emotional depth. He asserted that his standard for gay and lesbian literature is Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and that Bastard did not match up.

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After a long discussion of the poverty and violence in the novel in general, we talked about its portrayal of crime and incarceration. Going to jail makes these men adults, and you can beat someone in a fair fight or out of justified revenge as long as you don’t kill them. We noted that girls become women by having babies and boys become men by committing crimes.

(Bone is close to her Uncle Earle—the only (?) likeable male character in the book—and commits a crime with her cousin Grey. Does this put her between the men and women in the novel, like her Aunt Raylene, who late in the book describes her love for another woman?)

Then, we discussed the theme of fire. Many things and people burn in this book, and fire is always mentioned around Bone’s encounters with other girls she seems drawn toward—such as the Black girl in the apartment and the Albino friend Shannon.

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We also discussed race, skin tone, and hair in relation to questions of being pretty or ugly. Being pretty is a constant obsession in the novel. Everyone worries about it, and it is always related to being fairskinned and blond haired. Brian pointed out that the characters tease any children with curly hair, saying they are “from the wrong side of the family,” and Raj raised this question of the “curse” some children hinted at. Alexius linked this curse to themes of “destiny” in the book—to the idea that there is no way out of the cycles portrayed.

Raj brought up questions of the power of “unconditional love,” of course.

We discussed Anney in detail. Her jobs and economic situations. We discussed her relations with Bone’s unnamed father, her husband Lyle—who dies soon after their marriage—and her second husband Glen, the man-child prone to violent outbursts—who abuses Bone. Anney is a mother, a housewife, a waitress, and a mill worker. Always barely making ends meet. The ambiguity of one of the economic arrangements in the book led us to ask if Anney might have engaged in sex work of one sort or another once.

Considering themes of humiliation and legitimacy, we considered why Anney is so concerned about Bone’s birth certificate—even though no one else appears to be. Sharad thought it was a point of pride. Paul suggested it was a matter of social stigma. Dominic asserted that if being poor was bad, being poor and a bastard was even worse, and Anney wanted to keep Bone from that double humiliation.

We discussed whether or not Shannon’s immolation was a suicide or an accident. Raj and Dominic said, “Yes.” Sharad hedged. Paul said the scene was emblematic of being consumed by religion. Brian thought maybe. Alexius asked, “Who is Shannon?”

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The religious/gospel singing passages were interesting but didn’t garner much of our interest.

It seemed as if the book was introducing many homosocial/homosexual moments involving Bone: Bone’s links to Granny at first, the exchange of looks with the Black girl, Shannon, and then the “queer utopia” (???) of Aunt Raylene’s home. (Raylene who ran away with a woman once and now lives alone is also called “Ray.”) We debated if Raylene might be the moral voice of the novel but could not decide. Brian invested a lot in Raylene’s statement to Bone that, “‘People are the same,’ she said in a whisper. ‘Everybody just does the best they can’” and tried to find some morality in it.

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We asked about the book’s portrayal of straight culture. Paul thought it was stereotypical. Raj thought the story was biased against everyone. No one does well in this environment. Dominic reminded us that Anney and Lyle are a positive couple. But, Lyle dies right away, for no apparent reason. Sharad brought up ideas of toxic masculinity and constant economic dependency. Alexius mumbled something.

In closing, we brought out our favorite characters:

Raj: Granny doesn’t move! There’s stability to parts of this culture.

Dominic: Serving it real! There is so much food in the book, and Anney serves it all.

Sharad: You can’t get more right than the Boatwrights! The whole family is engrossing.

Paul: I didn’t like anyone.

Alexius: I liked the weather.

Brian: Raylene! Who doesn’t want to live alone at a bend in the river?

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69th Discussion: Lydia Kwa’s Pulse

Moderator: Brian
Attendees: Alexius, Kenneth, Raj, Timmy

The idea of bondage in a predominantly Singaporean setting intrigued us to read the book, though not enough to sustain our interest in it – all of us disliked it, with Kenneth finding the novel “myopic” and not relatable, and Brian claiming “struggling” to finish the book, “paragraph by paragraph”.

THEMES
The usage of kabuki was questioned – why the Japanese term instead of bondage? Kenneth explained the difference between Japanese bondage (not a sexual fetish, more instinctive, cultured and all about aesthetics) and Western bondage. He further added that the ideology was only touched on a superficial level. Brian had hoped that there were more bondage scenes.

With reference to the above and sex, Raj opined that Natalie only did bondage and controlled sex because she has difficulty letting go and being free. Overall, we are in the belief that the book painted Singapore and Singaporeans as a repressive society.

Raj found the portrayal of mother figures in the novel stereotypical and delusional – far worse than the portrayal of gay men. Kenneth thought how the grandmother was written was a representation of her generation, while Alexius saw her as offering Natalie nothing much apart from “gambling her life away”. There also seemed to be a generational divide, with the old folks seeming guarded and the younger generation adopting a devil-may-care attitude.

Kenneth interpreted the use of fortune telling as an “informed way of looking at life”, though Alexius found it stereotypical in relation to race, preferring that tarot cards be used instead.

On the issues of race and racism, Raj described the book as “rojak gone wrong”, noted that Indian people were only featured in the book as an afterthought. Brian highlighted the anti-white sentiments. Alexius observed that the Peranakans were aggressive and quipped that “if Adam was an ang moh, he should have gone with a Malay boyfriend.”

There was also semi-political tones adopted throughout the book which, according to Alexius, alluded to the government’s relations with the Malay community. Brian, however, begged to differ, stating that the book tries to avoid being political.

CHARACTERS

None of us liked any of the characters, with Alexius deeming all of them as fakers.

Brian outright hated Natalie, while Raj found her to be full of herself.

Alexius felt that Selim sacrificing himself to be a stretch though Kenneth empathised with the character.

There were still a couple of things that we liked about the book: the romantic innocence and first loves (Raj) and an oddly “feel good book” as “other people have duller lives in comparison (Alexius). Brian liked a particularly paragraph in Chapter 5 which he thought went against the rest of the book. Raj was touched by the ending.

By the end of the discussion, we still stood firm in disliking the book. Brian deemed the book empty, while Raj thought it tried to cram in too many ideas and didn’t challenge anything. “Like a city bus,” he purred.

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Filed under Canada, Family, Lydia Kwa, Queer, S/M, Singapore