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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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

Socials #2: Come and Makan With Us


Date: 3 Sept, 7.30pm. 

Location: Blk 29 Marine Cresecents 

Details: We are meeting for a lighthearted takeout night at Veronika’s place and then heading to the beach with drinks under the starry night, laughing to the beat of the waves… Romantic, no? 😉 

For dinner, wear a piece of jewelry that reminds you of a film/actor/book/character/author/director. Not compulsory, but fun. 

This is NOT a book discussion. It’s a quarterly event when we hang out and have fun. 

Interested parties, please leave your email in the comments and we will get back to you. (We won’t publish the comments so only we know your email.)

Link: https://www.facebook.com/events/1647099982284535/?ti=icl

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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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Discussion: Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman

Attendees: Timmy, Raj, Peter, Pierre, Aaron, Abel, Farah, Kay
Moderator: Brian

Started the debauched evening with African wines and negativity for the book. K wished she understood the illustrations; F wanted more lesbian stories; Pe thought the sex should be less explicit, more symbolic; Pi had nothing to critique; Aa believed it to be egoistic and narcissistic, all stories told in the same voice, and hence unimaginative; T, R, and B agreed that the stories are Teflon and don’t stick to memory; and in addition, T thought the stories to be miserable with little triumph, all about oppression from racism, “refugee-ism,” Islamophobia, homophobia.

Themes

1. Corporeality: B quoted the last two sentences, “We own our bodies. We own our lives,” and informed us that criticism on the book revolves around the embodiment of sexuality. Sexuality is about bodies, graphic and corporeal, as evident in the story with two dancers. K wondered if a person doesn’t have sex, will they still be considered as homo/bi/trans? R and P claimed that thinking defines a person; R gave examples that nobody in the stories comes out because of the sex and most acts are not comfortable anyway whereas P evinced that the sex is just for release, people just “is”.

2. Religion: Ab, B, and F shared their religious experiences. Aa argued that the book presents a lose-lose situation: the book shows that you can either be glbtq or Muslim, but sexuality and Islam are mutually exclusive. P said that the book is based on the writer’s experience and doesn’t need to answer the sexuality/religion conundrum while B cautioned against universalizing the author’s experience.

3. Refugee: B asked what we made of the refugee theme in the book. Aa dismissed it as the author playing on liberal White guilt.

4. Sex: While Pe thought the sex is excessive, K liked the guiltless sex. R reminded us of the homophobic discourse that gay men are promiscuous, all about the bass. B explained that the sex challenges notions of stability.

5. Others: B pointed out the conundrum that silence about one’s sexuality leads to suffering, but if you’re honest, it leads to exile from the community. He also championed the book for its anti-heteronormativity, and anti-homonormativity.

Style

B informed us that critics say the book has an “abundance of style.”

T riposted, “Style what style?”

1. Pi, Pe, and Aa felt that the style is very Singaporean from a post-colonial tone, although K cautioned that post-colonial literatures are diverse.

B suggested that the Creole mixture of language might explain the similarity with Singapore literature.

2. Aa hated the voice because it’s jejune, narcissistic and egoistic—as if it is written by a very talented 18 year-old blogger—and as a result, it’s unimaginative. Although P agrees that all stories speak like they are one person, it’s imaginative in a schizophrenic manner.

Favorite stories:
Pe and Pi had none.
“Watering the Imagination” (T) because positive
“Pavilion” (T, R, Aa): empowering
“If I were a Dance”: empowering, rising out of the fire (F), comedic and sad (B)
“Earthling”: discusses schizophrenia/mental illness in GLBTQ community (K)
“Shoga”: because of the uninhibited sex (B)

Fav characters:
Pe, T, R had none.
Hot gardener in “Shoga” (Pi)
Dad in “Fairytales for Lost Children” (B)
Dancer in “If I were a dance” (S)
Nurse in “Pavilion” (K)
Curvy guy in “The Other (Wo)Man” (Aa)

Things we like about the book:
R had none.
Arabic title (T)
Culture mash-up (Pe)
Growing pains and angst, like an emo Singaporean kid (P)
MRT-friendly (Aa)
it’s fuck-up, so it makes our lives seem better. It’s a feel-bad, feel-good book (F)
Sex (K and B)

Ab, who didn’t read the book, said he would read it after listening to our discussion.

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Filed under Africa, Colonialism, Diriye Osman, Family, Love

Socials #01: DYMK and Backstage Bar

Written by Veronica. Photos will be privately screened during our End-of-Year review. 

***

June 2016 social was a success! We met up at DYMK, laughed at each other’s hats and proceeded to forget about them, tho much swopping and selfie-taking activity revolved around them later in the evening. 
The whole turnout was 12. As expected, a couple were new people who saw our booth at Pink Dot, the old regulars came and a FB group lurker came. As expected, people who turn up for a book club social make amiable and lively company. 
We moved on to Tantric Backstage, Blue Spins were imbibed I started a round of a raunchy drinking word game while the place was still relatively quiet. When the bustle got on and everyone got suitably lubricated, no games were needed for the conversation to flow. 
I’m typing this with a slight hangover but a big smile on my face. Well done, V, well done! 🙂

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