Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

Author: paintstarsincolor

To be an outcast

Queerness is not new to mankind, it did not just suddenly appear like the Christian God’s Creation. There is no question of its existence; yet there seems to be a debate upon its viability as a lifestyle or narrative, as if queerness were a choice. Society simply does not allow for the freedom of choice – it does not allow for queerness to just be. In Shani Mootoo’s novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, the narrator, Tyler, longs to explore his true self, his femininity, but is prevented by fear of persecution.

All his life, Tyler does not fit the role of what a man should be – he is a caretaker, submissive, and gentle. For Lantanacamarian society (for our society), this is unacceptable behavior and those who identify with these traits are branded aberrant and grotesque. His differences are highlighted when Tyler’s colleagues titter and jeer at him, a constant reminder of his being an outcast. Even as a child, Tyler is aware of his queerness, often “ponder[ing] the gender and sex roles that seemed available to people, and the rules that went with them” (Mootoo 48). The tale of Chandin Ramchandin as told by Cigarette Smoking Nana offered Tyler a glimpse of queerness elsewhere but also served as warning that queerness is a perversion, not to be tolerated.

When Mala Ramchandin acquires a uniform for Tyler, stolen from a clothesline, Tyler feels an overwhelming craving to have his womanhood acknowledged, for his queerness to be validated by someone else. However, Mala Ramchandin does not fulfill his desires, treating him no differently than she normally would. At first, this infuriates Tyler as he feels she should take ownership to her role in the creation of this moment. Suddenly, he comes to the realization that, to her, “the outfit was not something to either congratulate or scorn – it simply was” (Mootoo 77). Her blasé behavior toward what is a pivotal moment to Tyler is actually what he covets the most: acceptance.

In her own queerness, Mala Ramchandin is Tyler’s post in rough waters. She is a rope thrown overboard to save a drowning soul. The reason her story encompasses Tyler so is because she is a kindred soul, another outcast. Together, the two of them form a community that enables them to finally feel a sense of belonging. Their friendship runs parallel to our own society, to the communities that celebrate queerness within themselves and within others. The sense of kinship struck from being a part of these communities is a balm to angry, open wound that is constantly picked at. It allows ‘members’ to explore who they are within a safe environment and to simply be themselves.

Yet, why is that, within these communities of acceptance, there too are rules and regulations of what queerness looks like, what it sounds like, what is it is?

The Untold Truth of Geryon’s Queer Narrative

The Autobiography of Red is inventive because of the continuous juxtaposition of modern-day life and mythology. The tale itself is a spin-off from the famous Greek myth, the Twelve Labors of Hercules; but Anne Carson poignantly spurns a revitalized depiction of Hercules, instead choosing to fasten her attention to one of antagonists – Geryon the monster. Hercules journeyed to the end of the world, an island called Erythia, to capture the cattle of Geryon for his tenth labor. Geryon was said to be a monstrous creature, with three heads and three sets of legs, born of the spawn of Medusa and the daughter of a Titan. As the legend goes, upon arrival on Erythia, Hercules slayed every creature that opposed him in effort to seize the oxen, including, the mighty Geryon came to stop his theft.

Anne Carson culls the idea of Hercules as the hero, opting to paint him as thief who took the livelihood of another for selfish purposes. In his stead, Carson anoints Geryon the status of protagonist of her tale, the little red monster who was bullied and broken into submission. Through her eyes, readers are taken on an expedition through the life of Geryon and the magnificent love affair that shattered his heart.

Carson emphasizes the parallels between old and new by sprinkling analogies to other moments in time. The personification of Geryon’s wings, the absence and/or presence of distress signals – being bound, covering them, flying – an allusion to the Icarus, who escaped from his life-long prison by the beautiful construction of wax wings but his celebration of his new freedom ultimately was the cause his death. Geryon’s compulsive obsession with photographing volcanos an allusion to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius entrapping the lives and stories of the people of Pompeii in its ash and magma.

By juxtaposing old and new, modern and myth, Carson accentuates the repetitive nature of our stories. All though some aspects of these stories change, some do not. It is these unchanging facets that Carson underscores: that queer narratives are forgotten, pushed aside in favor of heteronormativity. Through the inversion the tenth labor of Hercules in Autobiography of Red, Carson is sharing the untold truth of Geryon’s queer narrative.

“In the park in the rain I had recognized one thing at least; that Louise was the woman I wanted even if I couldn’t have her. Jacqueline I had to admit had never been wanted, simply she had roughly the right shape to fit for a while” (Winterson 61).

Life with Jacqueline was stable, normal and everything that heteronormative culture tells us is the purpose of life – to find a partner who provides stability, both in life and financially, who grounds you and offers up a sturdy platform for marriage, children, and ‘growing old together.’ Life with Jacqueline is a security of warmth, a mother bringing a steaming bowl of chicken-noodle soup to her ill child, nutritious but light on the tongue, satisfying in the moment but unable to quench the thirst for flavor on burdened taste buds. When the narrator says “she [Jacqueline] had roughly the right shape to fit for a while,” they identify their entire relationship with Jacqueline as temporary, something necessary to experience but no longer needed (Winterson 61). They equate their relationship to Jacqueline as if it were coat, thick and quilted for the solemn bitterness of winter but quickly shed for the kisses of sunlight on skin.

The narrator longs for otherness, a life and place besides Louise. Louise incites an incredible hunger in the narrator that goes unsatisfied by Jacqueline. Louise offers promises of a life in lust and love, of romance and passion, without the restrictions/tethers of the status quo.

Life with Louise, by heteronormative standards, would be anything but considered ‘desirable.’ It is “immature and even dangerous” in the same lens (Halberstam 5). A life spent with Louise would be without the constraints of the familial monolith, without designated roles of gender and sexuality. Life with Louise opens the “potentials of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing” (Halberstam 2). It would be as if the two are delicate ribbons, curled into one another and uplifted by a strong wind, relentless and powerful, each hour bringing new places and sights for exploration. Never stagnant, never without variation.

The narrator’s relationship with Jacqueline and Louise represents this crossroad between choosing normalcy, therefore losing their individuality, and embracing queer identity – all the possibilities and avenues that would blossom beneath their eyes should they choose it. With their arms outstretched for love, they create their own narrative.

Love is constant in its demand of your entirety.

“When I say ‘I will be true to you’ I must mean it in spite of the formalities, instead of the formalities. If I commit adultery in my heart then I have lost you a little. The bright vision of your face will blur. I may not notice this once or twice, I may pride myself on having enjoyed those fleshy excursions in the most cerebral way. Yet I will have blunted that sharp flint that sparks between us, our desire for one another above all else” (Winterson 79).

I believe that through this passage the narrator tells us that loving another person, giving yourself to them and only them, is a conscious, continuous action. Love is constant in its demand of your entirety; at even the smallest provocation of infidelity, your love will have lost a part of you to another. When Winterson says “in spite of the formalities, instead of the formalities” she is referring to marriage and courtship (79). As both marriage and courtship unite the individuals in the relationship by binding them by societal ties of belonging, Winterson declares that these unions are separate from the commitment of love. A person might be bound to another by marriage or courtship but their love might not truly belong to their partner if they “commit adultery in [the] heart” (79). If your love, desire, is given to another even if only for a second, then you will have “blunted that sharp flint that sparks between us” (79).

At this point in the novel, we know that the narrator has had numerous prior relationships that have been adulterous. By fantasizing and dreaming of Louise, the narrator has actively estranged herself from Jacqueline. This passage is about that narrator letting go of their relationship with Jacqueline, all the possibilities of a life between them, and of Jacqueline herself. The narrator identifies that her adulterous thoughts and desires for Louise “blunted” her interest in Jacqueline (79). While recognizing this, the narrator simultaneously pledges a vow to Louise to constantly affirm their love for her: to banish all thoughts of past lovers and forever cherish her above all else.

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