Category Archives: Race

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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Filed under Class, Disability, Family, Food, Gay, Hanya Yanagihara, Love, Race, USA

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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Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Coming of Age, Ecology, Family, Food, Love, Queer, Race, Rainbow Rowell, Religion, UK, Young Adult

66th Discussion: Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching

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Instead of chalk, plastic and dirt, Raj graciously provided cheese, nuts, and charcuterie. Thanks!

As for flaws, Raj felt that there wasn’t character development for some of the auxiliary figures. Daniel disliked the self-centeredness of Miranda. And Brian couldn’t get into the book until the second half where male characters are eliminated from the narrative. The novel, he noted, could be funnier. Aaron argued that Oyeyemi is trapped in a bind: she wants to write on women oppression but it is almost impossible to write “pure” feminist texts, like Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper,” that claim patriarchy drives women mad since the 21st century isn’t a patriarchal system anymore for UK where the book is set. In the end, Aaron claimed that there is no message in the novel, a beautiful nothing.

6277227-1Although this was a fruitful discussion, we couldn’t phantom (PUN!) several things, such as the metaphorical possibilities of the house, the ghosts, the eating disorder, soucouyant, and goodlady; the use of different narrators; the style of using one word to connect the passages.

But Brian suggested that pica, domesticity of women, and circularity of narratives stem from the inescapability of structural patriarchy. Raj added that perhaps stopping reproduction is to stop the cycle of oppression of women.

Brian alerted us about the title and house as an allegory of British immigration laws, keeping black people out.

Strong woman characters are always a favorite: Raj liked Sade, a strong black independent oracle woman, while Brian, Ore, a well-rounded character with surprises. Daniel observed that the strong female characters are blacks.

We ended with nice words for the book: it makes a good movie (Raj); the kissing scene is well-written (Brian); pica is a fascinating topic (Daniel); and it is poetic (Aaron.)

 

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Filed under Family, Food, Helen Oyeyemi, Lesbian, Love, Race, Religion, UK

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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Filed under Allen Ginsberg, Classics, Love, Mexico, Poetry, Politics, Queer, Race, Religion, USA, William Burroughs

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

61st Discussion: Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang

Moderator: Aaron
Attendees: Dominic, Faizal, Hisham, Javin, Jiaqi, Timmy

mchugh, maureen - chinamountainzhangThis is one of the rare times that we decided to do a (gay) science fiction book. Everyone had something to pick on with the book – from its setting (Javin found it “unnecessary” and depressing, Dominic thought it was a dauntingly boring disturbia, Jiaqi didn’t think there was enough “sci-fi” and advanced technology to classify it as futuristic) to the writing style (Raj didn’t find it appealing, Timmy thought it was too static and sterile) and even to how prehistoric some concepts were (Aaron scoffed at the idea of cruising despite being set in the future).

THEMES
1. Structure: Jiaqi liked the diversity in showcasing the varied characters, which Javin disagreed with as he could not invest in them as much. Raj hated having to connect all the dots, which Aaron added made the book all the more messy and chaotic. Hisham felt that it could have been done better.

2. Homosexuality: Everyone agreed that homosexuals were stereotypically portrayed here, from the rich ang mohs to the Chinese gays with the inability to say no to everything. The happy ending that Zhang received drew ire from Aaron and Javin, who felt like it was forced, though Raj and Jiaqi thought otherwise, even if it was clichéd.

3. Women: Portrayed negatively except for the Korean woman (Jiaqi), and the doctor, who came across as domineering (Hisham).

4. Racism: Raj quipped that despite being set in the future, the only thing that was progressive was the food. Aaron pointed out that the Chinese characters suffered terrible fates, eliciting a rather long racism rant.

5. Relationships: The gay relationships featured came across as passive (Dominic) and devoid of love (Javin), to which Jiaqi vehemently opposed, commenting that it was filled with affection. Timmy noted that the heterosexual relationships showed the most growth throughout the book.

Dysfunctional, queer (Aaron) and atypical (Raj) were used to describe the familial relationships, though Jiaqi thought the families featured were portrayed normally.

CHARACTERS

1. Jiaqi didn’t think Angel was a fully developed character, and whose only sole purpose in the book was to be the information superhighway to Cinnabar, according to Dominic. Aaron saw her as a fag hag, to which Javin quipped that her being a fag hag gave her the opportunity to win races.

2. Everyone agreed that Peter was the most well-adjusted out of all: partly because he came off as relaxed and was able to come to terms with himself (Javin), and mainly because he was ang moh and didn’t worry about others’ opinions (Raj). Jiaqi deduced that Peter had it easier than Zhang. Peter is Javin’s favourite character.

3. Aaron thought that as a character, Cinnibar was not properly fleshed out.

4. Raj viewed Matador as another typical young gay boy who didn’t give a hoot about the world, to which Aaron concluded that he was another whiny bottom who just wanted to be taken care of.

5. Based on our observations, Hai Bao was set up as Zhang’s (life?) mentor. His suicide served as a milestone in Zhang’s life, causing him to “wake up” from his “catatonic” state.

6. We looked at Martine as a repressed being who had difficulty expressing her emotions. Timmy envisioned her to be like the ultimate on-screen ice queen, Tilda Swinton.

7. Aaron selected Zhang as his favourite character; citing his determination that gave everyone hope. Jiaqi liked that he was funny, relatable and sympathetic.

The question as to whether he was a depressed individual elicited two responses – Jiaqi, Dominic and Timmy didn’t think that he was ever in that state in the first place, while Raj and Aaron believed that he was.

We also questioned his decision/motive of revealing his sexual orientation to San Xiang at the end, and wrote it off as him finally accepting and being comfortable with himself.

In rounding up the discussion, everyone generally had nice things to say about the book – that it was interesting (Dominic), an “MRT-friendly” read (Raj), likeable and memorable characters (Jiaqi) and being enjoyable overall (Timmy). Aaron appreciated the literary values the book brought across, and being one of the only few books that saw the gay man eventually getting his happy ending (pun not intended). Hisham profoundly expressed that the book made our #firstworldproblems seem minute in comparison. Javin succinctly summed it up best: “It’s a gay book.”

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Filed under China, Class, Colonialism, Ecology, Family, Gay, Love, Maureen F. McHugh, Politics, Post-Colonialism, Race, S/F, Space, Technology, USA, War

58th Discussion: Annie Proulx’s Close Range

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Moderator: Aaron
Attendees: Alexius, Hayden, Jiaqi, Raj, Timmy

Thank you Raj for being the awesome host that you are as well as the food spread. (T: You stop traversing the world can?!)

OPENINGproulx, annie - Close-Range

Timmy made a sweeping statement in kicking off the discussion, proclaiming that Proulx should not be allowed to write. Raj thought the deaths were too gory (“everyone died horribly!”) and that Wyomingans were described like animals (“dangerous, horrible, uncultured”), which resonated with Alexius’ opinion that the characters were “dirty and unhygienic.”

THEMES

(Since most of us only read the minimum requirement (i.e. Brokeback Mountain), we focused our discussion on that short story.)

Is the book homophobic? From Raj’s POV, it was another stereotypical portrayal of homosexuals and how they do not end up together (like, ever), and how unsympathetic Jack’s death was…

…which led us to the question whether Jack’s cause of death was really as per what Lureen claimed, or was he (gay) bashed to death. Jiaqi didn’t think it was the latter, though he noted of the irony of his death involving a tire iron.

We talked about the Jack and Ennis brawl before their final parting, and inferred that that was their way of expressing their feelings since they did not know how to. Aaron viewed it as them loving each other, thus them fighting.

The inclusion of their confrontation scene was to depict conflict (Timmy) while, at the same time, showcase how homosexuality was seen during that time period (a “challenging environment,” according to Jiaqi).

In contrast with the abovementioned, we all agreed that the back hug displayed a tender emotion between Jack and Ennis, perhaps the only emotive act. To Aaron, the act itself was not based in sex and was the most normal, natural illustration of a relationship throughout the entire book.

The most crucial question was posed by Aaron: “why was the sex scene important?” Raj commented that it was a consummation of love, which was “hot, consensual and clearly not homophobic,” according to Aaron. Jiaqi saw it as a realistic portrayal of sex between two males.

We discussed about Brokeback Mountain itself, which the two did not revisit so that – according to Timmy – they could “shroud it in a happy memory”, and Mexico, which we deduced got Ennis jealous when he found out that Jack has been there multiple times to “sample other goods.”

Is Joe Aguirre gay? We pondered briefly on this, before Aaron finally said no. Timmy quipped that he may be voyeuristic though, with Raj following suit by pointing out the binoculars that he has on him.

Timmy went at length explaining his “closet theory”, in reference to Jack hanging Ennis’ shirt inside his shirt, sharing one hanger, in the closet, as a reaffirmation of his love for Ennis. Everyone agreed that this scene ended the book on a positive note.

CHARACTERS

Jiaqi picked both Jack and Ennis as his favourites, specifically the former for being ahead of his time (going to Mexico and subsequently wanting to move in with a new cowboy) and both overall because of their touching love story.

Inez from the Pair a Spurs short is Raj’s favourite, because she was daring, had wonderful spurs and beautiful shoes… basically full of attitude.

Aaron’s pick was the nameless narrator from the short story A Lonely Coast, describing her as contemplative.

Timmy jokingly cited Alma as his favourite, because of her ability to multitask (doing the dishes while questioning Ennis).

CONCLUSION

Ending the discussion on a positive note, Raj thought the Brokeback Mountain short was nice, just like its scenery, and that the portrayal of love in the story is poignant. He even declared that Proulx redeemed herself with that short story.

Jiaqi agreed with Raj, as well as thought that the story was vividly realistic.

Aaron enjoyed the beautiful prose Proulx employed as well as how she truly “trusts her readers” by allowing them to make connections throughout the entire book. He truly believes that the characters are alive to the author and that’s what made it all the more enjoyable for him.

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Filed under Annie Proulx, Class, Ecology, Family, Gay, Love, Politics, Race, Short Stories, USA