Category Archives: Class

Book Discussion: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The book has been nominated for several important awards, but we–Chiams, Aaron, Alexis, and Juan–wondered why. It was an easy and gripping read, but there are many flaws. The writing is problematic such as the narratives of Harold and the incoherence of the narrative. It’s also not realistic in many parts, such as Jude’s incessant misfortune; the implausibility of diversity; and Willem suddenly turning “gay.”

 

We also talked about Yanagihara ignoring chronology (40 years in the narrative but no reference to the times); about the novel being “torture porn,” taking pleasure in pain; about the art inspiration behind the novel (images above); the friendship between the 4 men; the lack of woman characters; the architecture and food; and the likely-to-be-unconscious homophobia in the book (the HIV inspiration; the death of Willem; and homosexual pedophilia.)

All in all, this is a fun book to read but unfortunately, it is not good.

 

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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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Kapoor and Sons at DYMK 

Attendees: Veronika, Raj, Aaron, Ben, Bien, Thomas. 

We all like the movie very much. All characters are likeable; it’s a movie full of likeable and strong characters, a sympathetic portrayal of all of them. There is much joy and humor in the film, just as there is sadness, as if the director wants the viewers to cry; there is so much sadness that you are bound to identify with one of the character’s plight. We also talked about social class; the treatment and affirmation of sexuality; the feminism; and who is cuter: Arjun or Rahul? 

Thanks Edwin for hosting us at DYMK. 

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Discussion: Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For 


Veronika wrote: 

I really like the comics I dipped into. The way she captures every day politicising in the slice of life format is compelling for busy adults… I like the sustained way she did comic too! It’s not easy to create an appealing comic strip that panders exclusively to adult tastes. I mean, I usually associate comic strips to anthropomorphic animals or hyperbolic characters so at first flip it took a while for me to get used to reading unusually dense language for comic strips. I kinda see why XKCD strips the artwork to stick figures now, cause the dialogue is the focal point. For this, there were times when I felt a little too overwhelmed at the cramped drawings and dense text in the comics. Aaron did point me to a rather poignantly done comic strip in 2004 following the 9/11 event, and it was nice to see the art carry the weight of the message for once. I agreed with Aaron’s point that he finds the depiction of the fat or non-standard beautiful characters interesting. It adds to the raw, Real feel of the comics. Aaron thinks it is problematic that the text itself while promoting diversity, fails the inverse Bechdel test. However, I personally don’t think it’s problematic.


Aaron wrote: 

These are some of the discussion questions that I have prepared: 

1. In our discussion on Fun Home, we didn’t like the narcissistic nature of the graphic novel. In the introduction of DTWOF, Bechdel confided that she submitted a manuscript of a novel to Adrienne Rich. Rich rejected to publish  the novel because she, like us, found the storytelling narcissistic. But DTWOF comes in episodes, not a whole coherent narrative. Do you think DTWOF is narcissistic too? Or does the episodic form make the comics more inclusive and universal? 

2. The Bechdel Test originated from DTWOF. Think of your favorite movie and apply it to the test. Do you think the test is accurate or reliable? 

Now apply the inverse to DTWOF. Are there more than 2 male characters interacting with each other, talking about nonsexual topics? How are men generally portrayed in DTWOF?

3. In this interview, why did Bechdel feel uncomfortable about her characters being role models? 

4. In the same interview, she stated that she stopped DTWOF after more than a decade because it was no longer profitable. Does this affect the artistic integrity or the advocacy element of the comics for you? 

Also you may want to relate it to the characters in the comics who stick to their principles and those who don’t. 

5. In the interview, what is the “homosexual agenda” according to Bechdel? How is it reflected in her comics? 

6. Bechdel is constantly worrying about the homogenization of the world because big corporations are taking over the world. How does she negotiate that in her comics? 

7. What are some of the things that shock you in the comics? If you’re a gay man, what is the difference between the lesbian scene and the gay? 

8. Bechdel prides herself for being a feminist, which to her also means being antiestablishment. Is there a contradiction publishing things to make money?

9. Fat studies / disabled lesbians. Discuss. 

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Filed under Alison Bechdel, Class, Disability, Family, Graphic Novel, HIV/AIDS, Lesbian, Love

Discussion: Beijing Comrades (Lan Yu) by Bei Tong

This was the night when minority races were racists, starting with Raj saying “All Chinese homes have prawn crackers what!” With the Chinese theme, we had beer cocktail, dumplings, mooncakes, and eclairs.

Attendance included Veronika, Pierre, Calvin, Chams, Raj, Timmy, Asyraf, and Aaron.

We asked questions about the authorship as Asyraf noted that it felt like a female writing fan fic, not unlike the Japanese boys love manga genre, written by women, for women. Chams wondered if the book would be more organic in its Chinese format.

Themes:

1. Death: Most of us expressed our disappointment at diabolus ex machina of the sudden death of Lan Yu when they are about to live happily ever after. Pierre noted the trope of the time. Chams claimed that the sad ending makes the story more poignant. Raj playfully suggested that perhaps that author is saying that the person who screws around is better for survival (in Raj’s words, “Cheebyes always live”), although Pierre rightly noted that we were assuming that staying alive is a good thing.

Aaron brought up the history of sad endings. EM Forster wanted a happy ending for Maurice, but the only way he could envision them together was to remove them for society, staying in isolation in the woods. Like Forster, Bei Tong just couldn’t envision a happy ending in the 80s. Veronika pointed that that this is especially true in the age of HIV/AIDS in the 80s. Han Dong associates sexual diseases with angmohs, Raj noted.

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2. Communism, Money, and Love: There are several communist references in the book: Asyraf noticed that Han Dong means “defend Mao Ze Dong”  and Chams said Han Dong is conformist, when compared to Lan Yu.

Aaron noted that in the postscript, Bei Tong wrote that she was surprised to come across such strong love existing in a capitalist society like USA. In short, Beijing Comrades argues that money is bad for true love, that is, a true form of communism is actually good for love.

Timmy said, “Chey. So typical of Chinese. You Chinese love money, you can talk about money the entire day. Lan Yu is the true Malay, giving up money for love.”

Raj chimed in, “Yeah la, Chinese people are very good at saving money.”

Asyraf shrewdly noted the irony: Han Dong embodies a good communist, and he hates anything Western (from angmohs to their food), and yet he is so good at earning money, and he uses money to buy boys.

3. Communism and sexuality: Calvin informed us the tension between Confucianism and communism. Communism wished to get rid of old “gods” and so Confucianism wasn’t popular. And Beijing Comradeexemplifies this tension. While communism means that people are equally valued for their production value, that is to say that being gay is ok since sexuality is not important in work, China is essentially a Confucian society in terms of being filial and producing heirs.

It is such a society that we see a shocking scene. Han Dong’s mother cries, and Han Dong says his love for Lan Yu is not as important as his mother’s wellbeing. Chams saw it as Han Dong taking the path of least resistance, as he is a conformist. Veronika put herself in Han Dong’s shoes and agrees with Han Dong’s thinking.

4. Gender: Seen in the communist/capitalist light, Raj notes that most people are commodities. Boys are bought for sex; women have sex with rich men who are potential husbands; and in a sense, women are seeing rich men as commodities.

We also talked about Han Dong leaving the curvy woman for the slim Lin Ping. Timmy scoffed, “Chey, so typical of Chinese.” Raj added, “Yeah la, Chinese fuck Malays and Indians, but marry Chinese in the end.” HAHAHA. How come so much Chinese bashing one?

In any case, there is much complexity about gender in the book. But since only two of us read the book fully, we didn’t delve deeply.

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5. Sexuality: In the essay attached to the end of the novel, Petrus Liu argues that because Han Dong doesn’t believe in labels, “Han Dong stands as an example of a failed gay identity” (379). But Asyraf, Calvin, and Veronika called on Liu’s narrowmindedness: Han Dong by sleeping with everyone is bisexual or polyamorous; just because he’s not absolutely gay does not mean it’s a “failed” identity. Aaron also said that Liu uses a Eurocentric point of view on Han Dong. Han Dong needs to overcome societal and familial pressures, which he does in the end, and admits he is gay eventually, even if he lacks courage to live the life. Isn’t an acknowledgement of his gay self an affirmative identity even if it doesn’t adhere to the Western notions of screaming to be out-and-proud? 

Petrus Liu also claims that since Lan Yu stumbles upon being gay–as Asyraf puts it succinctly that Lan Yu doesn’t choose to be gay–Lan Yu has a “non-identity” (379). But we disagreed with Liu. Obviously Lan Yu has a choice. He rejects a violent advance, and psychoanalysis, as Pierre noted. We also observed that Lan Yu goes out to find gay friends; you’re gay when you choose to make friends in the gay community. That is an identity.

6. Sex: Besides sleeping with men and women, Han Dong sleeps with “Annie” (drag queen) and HJ (guitarist who wears makeup). Why does Han Dong sleep with men he is not attracted to, Aaron asked. Both Raj and Pierre said that because Han Dong doesn’t know how to deal with relationships, he is experimenting.

Are there too many explicit sex scenes? Raj said, “Yeah, what’s up with emphasizing Han Dong’s big cock?”

Timmy responded, “Yeah lah, it’s so un-Chinese.” When asked to clarify if big cocks are un-Chinese, or if writing about big cocks is un-Chinese, Timmy declined to answer.

Aaron admired the sex scenes because they defy the hush-hush taboo secrecy of Chinese society.

Conclusion

As we always want to end with a positive note, nobody had anything good to say, although everyone who didn’t read the book were persuaded to read the book. Chams said in the tiring world we live in, it’s good to read a trashy book to relax. Calvin liked the purity and steadfastness of Lan Yu. Although Pierre said the book is dated, Aaron felt that it has captured a cultural zeitgeist at a particular point in history; he could identify with the struggles of Han Dong (“The struggle is real!); and the complexity of gay relationship between Han Dong and Lan Yu is universal and still relevant to reflect on our own modern gay relationships. Love is timeless.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bei Tong, Bisexuality, China, Class, Family, Gay, Love

Dunno What Nth Discussion: Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On

simon-bazDunno what nth discussion because someone hasn’t written the past discussions yet. *passive aggressive mode on* Just kidding.

It’s back to the good old days, with Raj, Timmy and Aaron, like we were at the start of the book club 5 years ago. The book is a fan-fic of a queer Harry Potter—queer because he likes the person, not the sex—and a gay Edward Cullum.

static1.squarespaceThese are some of the things we talk about:

  1. Shallow and superficial: Simon wishes father is a footballer, mom is a model (8). All along, Agatha is trying to break out of the “blond cheerleader” typecast, yet at the end, she becomes the damsel-in-distress, and doesn’t even fight to save her life. She wishes she has nicer clothes so that she can die pretty (465). WTH.
  2. All characters are queer but with limited character development: Agatha seems to be the most interesting character because she tries to break out of her mold; none of the other protagonists does it. Simon plays his Chosen One role; Penny plays the Hermione role dutifully, and Baz the anti-hero.But Agatha struggles with her emotions, fakes her emotions (9, 74, 75), and claims “we are all monsters” (14), a deep thought coming from a putative “bimbo.” Unfortunately, the damsel-in-distress part is a big gaping plot hole.
  3. Treatment of LBGTQ characters: These characters are not human. Baz is a vampire, Simon becomes a dragon/devil caricature; and Trixie is half pixie. There is something homophobic in that.

    That is not to say this book isn’t a book with good intentions. Baz’s difficulty of admitting he’s a vampire (262) mirrors the difficult coming out. His dad, preferring him to be Undead than to be queer, is heartbreaking (215, 279).

    Futhermore, there are two gay sex scenes between the homos, and gay sex scenes are always good, even if they are encoded. First scene: Baz and Simon’s fight scene with the dragon is written in erotic terms: “I did something I’ve never done before—something I probably wouldn’t try with anyone I was scared of hurting. [anal sex hurts.] I push I just push it into Baz” (239). “His arm straightens like a rodI push a little more magic. I worry that it’s too much… His shoulder is rock hard… it’s jerking itself…I stop pushing… letting Baz draw on my magic” (240).

    The second scene is more subtle (391).

  4. Sexism: No strong male characters, only strong female ones, like Fiona, Baz’s mother, etc.

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  5. Magic as metaphors:
    1. Class: The powerful magicians are always depicted as “rich and powerful,” kept within old families. Magic is also seen as hereditary, which reeks of biological essentialism; we can never transcend our DNA, which means the novel advocates a racist, sexist, homophobic philosophy.

      In a way, The Mage, wanting to liberate magic so that even people with a smidgeon of magic can go to Watsford, and eradicating school fees, can be seen as democratic.

      But Mitali, Penny’s mom, an Indian woman, who calls The Mage sexist for no apparent reason, wants a traditional Watsford, keeping magic for the best students. She also thinks that they are better than Normals (111, 261, 401). In a way, Mitali is supporting the system that oppresses her. Raj thinks that Mitali and Penny are portrayed as a stereotypical Indian family, which makes the novel racist.

      Unfortunately, the death of The Mage, especially at the hands of Baz from an Old Family and Penny, Mitali’s daughter, implies that Mage’s democratic ways are wrong; they revert to the old traditional methods.

      One could argue, as Raj did, that the Mage represents extreme democracy, ie, he is an extremist that he must be destroy. After all, in the end, he wants to be the most powerful magician of all time.

    2. Magic as Commodity: Magic is often viewed as something to be conserved and not to “waste” (38, 78, 186, 187); it is also seen as something to be “eaten” and consumed (47). We didn’t appreciate this cultivation of materialism.
    3. Magic as Objectification: Simon is often objectified because of his magic; he’s “power” (67), a “vessel” (123), “element” (181), “nuclear” (181, 242),  “generator” (258). Simon even objectifies himself, calling himself a “current” (337), and “I am magic” (455). Ebb is also a “generator” (284). Baz is used as a “wand” (254). Penny’s dad is a “book of footnotes” (247). Like the message of magic as a commodity, this sends the wrong message.
    4. Magic as ozone layer: Magic leaves holes, unfortunately, this is not explored further in the book.
    5. Magic as finding the right words (107)
    6. Magic as texture: Different people’s magic feels differently. An interesting concept that isn’t explored in the novel.
    7. Magic as Religion (197): If magic is seen as a religion, it would explain why Agatha finds it so hard to walk away from the magic community; to become a Normal is to be outcast.

      The theme of outcast recurs in the book, not just gay people—a vampire and a demon—are outcasts. Ebb’s brother, who chooses to leave the world of living to become a vampire, is ostracized by the magic community, and by Baz, Simon, and Penny who need his help badly, bearing in mind that Baz himself is a vampire and that Ebb’s brother is very powerful. Even the outcasts can outcast others.

      Ebb’s death can also be read as her rejection of her power. Because she rejects her immense power, because she lacks the training, she dies at the hands of The Mage.

      Superficially, this book seems to be a message of inclusion, but at a deeper level, the prejudice of the book shows. If you don’t want to be in the magic/religious community, you will be outcast and we will never accept you back, regardless of the direst situation. If you don’t practice your magic/religion, you’ll be punished, and in Ebb’s case, her punishment is death.

 

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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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Filed under Class, Classics, Dorothy Allison, Family, Lesbian, USA