Category Archives: USA

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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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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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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65th Discussion: William Burroughs’s Queer & Allen Ginsberg’s Howl

queer.us.penguin.2010.200We started with Queer, and talked about how the introduction affected our reading (the murder of his second wife, and writing as inoculation).

Both Brian and Kelvin talked about space: Kelvin found it strange that Mexico is described as “oriental,” while Brian noted that it is an expat novel, happening in public, homosocial space with no sense of home. Signals of Lee’s status as an outsider abound.

We questioned on how to read the Arab human trafficking hallucination/fantasy (p. 67) and Lee’s predilection for the Aryan type: racism or the unreliability of narrator?

On the non-representation of women, we concluded there is an aversion of femininity and effeminacy in the novel. But strangely, when in general men overcompensate their insecurity and homosexuality by being hyper-masculine, we didn’t find it to be the case for Lee.

Aaron saw the two endings as hopelessness of human connection, and indicative of human isolation.

allenginsbergAs a transition to Howl, we talked about the similarities between the two books–drugs. Brian commented the Beat generation used drugs to alter consciousness as a way to overcome existential ennui, to rebel against the bourgeois and consumerism, to break away from the madness of monotony.

Kelvin saw Howl as a manifesto, as opposed to Queer as a quest. While Queer is pessimistic, Kelvin claimed there is hope in Howl. There is a representation of community in Howl.

We spiraled into a discussion of whether Howl is hopeful or not. We didn’t convinced Brian who argued that meeting Walt Whitman in a supermarket is how low America has fallen: Whitman’s fruits hanging on trees (nature) has become fruits in supermarket (consumerism). “It is,” Brian said, “potential we squandered.”

Thanks, Timmy and Jolynn, for beautifying Mcdonald’s.

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64th Discussion: Kill Your Darlings (2013)

Thanks, Javin, for organizing this!

In general, we liked the coming-of-age film, portraying Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Lucien Carr. But Dominic and Aaron questioned the uneven style of the film: Dominic blamed the unevenness on the lighting, switching between a TV style and film, while Aaron thought the style was too “instagram-like,” with random, meaningless tilt-shift. Sharad said the film was fictionalized. Daniel found that the narrative wasn’t strong and was random. Like Daniel, Javin found the film was character-driven and could be more interesting if we were given perspectives from other characters. Javin also wanted a detailed explanation of the murder.

Themes

1. Desire: Daniel and Dominic noted what Eve Sedgwick called the “triangulation of desire,” in which the desires between two men were mediated by a woman, such as the blowjob in the library, and Jack Kerouac’s wife.

1b. Sexuality: Dominic noted the importance of sexuality in the Beat poets’ works. Daniel asked who the gay characters are. Perhaps they were all gay, bi, or straight. They seemed experimental, as like their works to break the mould, to kill the darlings of their literary ancestors.

2. Homophobia? While we thought the characters were portrayed negatively, they were also portrayed honestly, and in this sense, there was no homophobia. But the montage depicting the pit-bottom of the characters–Ginsberg’s anal sex with random stranger, Carr’s murder of David, Burroughs’ abuse of substance, and death of Kerouac’s friend–linked anal sex with other negative acts. “Is this scene homophobic?” Aaron asked. There were no easy answers, but Daniel noted that Ginsberg picked up a stranger who looked like Carr. Sharad observed that all four scenes involved penetration of some kind, and Dominic expanded, saying the penetration, the act of breaking skin represented breaking boundaries.

3. Failure: Daniel argued that the film suggested that to fail a person was to allow space for growth. Such as Ginsberg’ dad failing the mother, allowing her to grow; Ginsberg failing Carr, allowing his growth. Failure was neither positive nor negative.

4. Suicide. Perhaps linked with the theme of failure. The cat in oven was a reminder of Lucien’s failed attempted suicide to gas himself.

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Characters

1. Lucien Carr: A fascinating character whose talent, Dominic said, laid in his manipulation. Because Carr had no literary talent. Sharad noted that Carr was complex because he manipulated others but needed them, couldn’t give them up. Daniel found that Lucien Carr was portrayed as a typical closet case that couldn’t come to terms with his sexuality. Whether Carr had loved Ginsberg or not was implied but not explicit.

Style

1. Lucien Drowning David: A haunting and beautiful scene that suggested baptism and pieta.

2. David & Ginsberg: David was what Ginsberg might have become if he didn’t let Carr go. They were foils of each other.

Overall, there are many reasons to love this film. Javin had his favorite intense scenes. Daniel liked that the film gave an insight of homosexuality at that time. The film motivated Sharad and Dominic to read the Beat poets. Aaron thought it was a very tight, well-constructed film, very likable, toeing the line between commercial success and art.

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62nd Discussion: Ellis Avery’s The Teahouse Fire (or Q&A with Raj)

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Poor Raj! He set such a beautiful table, and no one came for the book club. Aaron had emailed Raj a list of questions beforehand to moderate the discussion, but since no one came, Raj decided to answer them.

 

Questions for Teahouse Fire:

  1. On p. 284, there is a Japanese phrase “ichigo ichie” for the tea world. It means “one moment, one meeting,” or in the deepest sense, it means there are no mistakes in life. What does this phrase mean about life in general? Does the novel embody this phrase? Which character, do you think, apply this philosophy?

avery - The_teahouse_fireIchi-go ichi-e is linked with Zen Buddhism and concepts of transience, particularly depicted during the tea ceremony conducted in the style of famed tea master Sen no Rikyu where unique scrolls, tea bowls and flowers are set up in the tea room. In the context of tea ceremony, ichi-go ichi-e reminds participants that each tea meeting is unique. This is also true that there is has been no repetition of the set up for the varios tea ceremonies in the book. In each of the tea ceremony, the host and guest had one unique experience that lead to friendship or disaster

In a deeper sense, it is about Aurelia meeting Yukako in the teahouse that night of the fire – it is that one moment, one meeting that changed the courses of their lives. Towards the end, in the same tearoom, Aurelia kissed Yukako and again changed the course of their lives.

  1. What are the similarities and differences between Western and Japanese cultures in the book?

Similarities:

Mary vs Goddess of Mercy.

The status of fallen women is the same – Aurelia’s mom and Kenji’s girlfriend Aki – outcast.

Differences:

Bath rituals

Role of wife

Social order – Samurai, Traders and the untouchable working class

  1. Is Urako/Aurelia responsible for her uncle’s death? (Also note the molestation scene before the fire.)

She prayed for her life to change and she rather not have the uncle with her – shown by her praying to change her life before the goddess and also her uncle only showed up in nightmares later in her life as Urako. Also, she never bothered to find if her uncle survived the fire at all.

  1. Why does Urako/Aurelia have made up last names?

I believe that she doesn’t know her father’s name and that name “Bernard” was given by her uncle. Hints that her mom could have been raped by a priest was suggested by both Aurelia and her mom when she said, “Aurelia Bernard. Who is this Bernard, tell me? The Church hates truth, and the nuns hate it most of all.”

  1. Why does Urako have sex with Nao?

She wanted someone who desire Yukako to desire her as well. Also she believes Yukako desires Nao instead of her and she wants to punish her.

  1. Objects in the book often have significant meanings: the lightning cup, Yukako making a spoon out of Baishian’s wood for Urako, and Urako’s Catholic medal. What gives these things meaning? And what is the significance of these things? On a side note, does Yukako’s marketing on tea ware cheapen or ennoble the art?

Symbolism and subtle messages are very much a cultured Japanese behaviour – the book is full of hidden messages just like Urako’s closeted sexuality – classic example of her dress handing in the alcove.

Yukako’s marketing of the tea sets made them more of a commercial item rather than “ichigo ichie”- “one moment, one meeting”.

  1. Why does Yukako set Baishian on fire? What is the significance of fire and water in the book?

Yukako’s way of atoning for her mistake – she will never be able to host another tea ceremony in Baishian again – again on the theme of Ichigo Ichie.

You need fire and water to make tea – its sweet irony. Also Aurelia had a fire after a long journey over sea into Japan and after another fire she sails away from Japan.

  1. Yukaka appears to be half sister to Koito. Does it give her a right to teach Koito, a geisha, chado?

Yukako did it for other reasons rather than the fact that she is a half sister. Yukako , according to the book, has been key reason for women to learn tea. She also introduced this to the Geisha world through Koito. But whether she has a right – it all depends on who’s perspective you want to look from.

  1. During one teaching lesson with Koito, Yukako honors Urako’s Western dress. Why?

Yukako’s acceptance of the western influence into their lives. Also Urako is her first student.
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  1. Why does Aurelia’s mother insist on calling her blond when she has black hair?

Maybe her real father had blond hair??

  1. Comment on the throwaway reference to Singapore as a name for a ship. Is it exoticizing Singapore?

Author wants to show the historic importance of Singapore as a port as well of the fact that Japan owned Singapore at one time.

  1. Incest: Comment on the rampant incest that occurs in the novel: Aurelia with her uncle, Yukako with her half brother, Nao; Kenji (Yukako’s son) with Akio (Nao’s daughter).

Its common in those days – people don’t get out of their circle and houses too much

  1. Why does Akio dress Koito in Yukako’s kimino?

Fantasy – Fetish – every man wants a virtuous wife who is a whore in bed!

  1. Discuss the male-female relationships in the book. Are there any positive ones? (Also look at mother-son relationships).

Yukako – Tai – positive

Tai – Tsuko – positive

  1. Discuss the male-male relationship in the book, especially the triangle between Nao, Hiro, and Akio.

There is a lot of brotherly love and jealousy by Nao to Hiro and Akio. Hierarchy in the teahouse is one the reason for this and class status.

  1. Nao’s class struggle.

Didn’t help when he married an untouchable gal !!

  1. Love: Does Urako love Yukako or Inko?

Different sort of love – Yukako is a sort of motherly-sisterly love – whereas Inko was more of her equal. Inko loves Urako more that Urako loves her while Urako love Yukako more than Yukako love her.

  1. Discuss the female characters (Pipe Lady, Yukako, Urako, Chio, Aki, Koito, Inko)

Really? Why??? There is too many female characters in this book!!!!

  1. Discuss the male characters. Are there any strong and positive male characters? Is this another male-bashing lesbian novel? (Mountain, Akio, Jiro, Kenji, Tai.)

There was no real great male characters , but at the same time there is no real male bashing. There are more mean gals depicted in this book than lame men. This book centres on women rather than men.

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Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Colonialism, Ellis Avery, Family, Food, France, Historical, Japan, Lesbian, Love, Race, Religion, USA, War