Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

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

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1 question, 2 meanings

“Could your sister be your brother too? Could your brother be your father?
Can your Pappy be your Pappy and your Grandpappy at the same time?” (25) 

Tyler is curious about the “rules” of familial relationships that are somehow ingrained into the way we think about normalcy. He asks his grandma, whom he calls Cigarette Smoking Nana, whether an individual family member can share/be two roles at once. This become the context for the story of Ramchandin and familial/non-familial relationships.  

Before telling the story, Cigarette Smoking Nana explains that several familial roles can be shared by one individual. This concept is an unconventional concept because society has taught us that mothers inherently assume the motherly role, the father assumes the fatherly role, etc.  

The hesitation in Cigarette Smoking Nana’s answer depicts how unconventional the concept is. It further portrays the uncomfortableness and taboo surrounding such idea of shared familial roles.  

While this concept is unorthodox, it is still evident in society. Sociology experts state that many lower-income families rely on each other. Meaning, someone’s aunt (even though not blood related) can help raise a child that is not related to them. Another example would be single-parent households. A single mom takes on both the mother and father role.  

This first part of the passage, “Could your sister be your brother too?”, could allude to the concept of gender roles and society. Being a sister is associated with feminine ideas such as dresses, makeup, the color pink, and opposition to masculine ideas such as toy trucks, jeans, t-shirts, and short hair. Tyler’s sexuality was evident through his curiosity of switching roles, familial and gender. Maybe he didn’t know that he was essentially asking and looking for affirmation for his future self, who (as it becomes evident) likes to dress in women’s clothing and is essentially sharing/alternating between 2 roles.  

Introducing the idea of one individual sharing 2 roles suggests the confusion Tyler has about his sexuality and suggests that he wants to hide it by asking the same general question but with a different scenario. Just as an individual family member sharing more than one role is unconventional, so might the concept of being trans. While both concepts are evident in society, it is not part of the “normal” narrative that we grow up with and is therefore seen as unconventional.

his voice was soft-soft

His voice was soft-soft, just like yours, and the way he used to talk, quiet and sing-song sing-song use to make Pappy crazy.  You know I can’t remember Randy face too good, but I still carry his voice with me.  I could hear it plain-plain, like if I had just talk with he this morning (Mootoo, 73).


Cereus Blooms at Night argues that one’s family will only associate one’s difference with that person.  For example, Mr. Hector states that he cannot remember Randy’s face, but remembers how soft his voice was.  A face becomes a grounding point for people to recognize others – “putting a face to a name.”  However, in this moment, Randy’s voice becomes his defining feature for Mr. Hector.  Indeed, for Mr. Hector, it is the only way he can remember Randy.  Because Randy’s voice indicated his own “queerness,” whatever that meant for Randy, his family associated him with his difference.  This is shown through Mr. Hector explaining that even though he has not seen Randy for a long time, as their mother forced Randy to move out of the house. Hector still remembers Randy’s voice, as if he had “just talk with he this morning” (73).  Randy’s voice becomes the one characteristic that Mr. Hector can remember.  In this one instance, Randy’s difference overrides his own personality and physical features.  Because of his difference, his brother cannot remember what he looks like, after Randy leaves.  Randy’s queerness is how Mr. Hector can remember him.

On the other hand, it is important to note that Mr. Hector does still remember his brother, despite his differences.  Another way to read this passage is that even though Randy was different, Mr. Hector was still able to remember him, when their mother forced Randy out of the house.  Mr. Hector’s tone is not judgemental.  Indeed, the fact that Mr. Hector states that he still “carry his voice with me,” implies a warm bond that Mr. Hector and Randy still have (73).  Furthermore, if Mr. Hector felt negatively about Randy’s differences, he would not have used the words “soft-soft” (73).  This implies that despite the fact that Randy’s voice makes him different, Mr. Hector does not think unkindly of him.  Even when Mr. Hector cannot remember his brother’s face, he can still carry his memory, because Randy’s voice was so different.

In conclusion, although Randy’s voice did set him apart in his brother’s mind, Mr. Hector was able to hold onto the memory of his brother, when he was able to physically see him.  Cereus Blooms at Night offers two readings of “queerness:” it becomes one’s defining trait, but it can also be a method of remembering someone when they are not physically there.


Anne Carson plays with language, color, time, symbology, and gender a lot in Autobiography of Red, in the name of guiding the reader through Geryon’s mind and his telling of the story. Every bit of information espoused in the novel – whether through metatextual symbology (between the book and the ancient Greek legend), Geryon’s perception of colors (red, as himself, yellow, as he is seen, and blue, as Herakles is), themes of natural disasters and photography – allows the reader, in their mind, to embody the mind of Geryon and the strange, colorful way he interprets the world. The poetic prose writing style is a deviation from the modern genre, and yet also link to the past, to the ancient Greek stories of gods and monsters (esp. the translated tale of Geryon at the beginning of the book). Geryon’s love of photography as well offers an interesting relationship with time; the most chaotic photographs – those in motion, in progress, time-lapses – are the most disturbing to Geryon, and yet the ones he finds himself most drawn to. The relationship between red and Geryon (the bound wings, the seating for an audience, the volcano), and blue and Herakles (sex, desire, masculinity), is also worth noting. These juxtapositions create embodiments of the conception of queerness, and the use of time, in the context of these other themes, alludes to the timelessness of queerness, seeming to say, ‘we’ve always been here’.

The text, in itself, is inherently meta and uses its inventiveness to create a commentary on the juxtaposition of the monolithic norm and the personal, chaotic, fluid nature of reality. Each invention creates a link to the queer narrative and its relationship that acts both outside and within Herakles, blue— and the monolith.

Red Not Yellow

Colorful language in Autobiography of Red (no, not THAT type of colorful language)

In Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson uses language inventively and creatively, pairing unlikely senses and concepts in a way that serves to make readers think more deeply about the text and to consider the ways in which language can play off itself to enhance the story’s intimate type of mysticism as it relates to the original ancient myth of Geryon. This novel revolves around color and the ways in which Anne Carson manipulates color to be a representation of Geryon’s self — “his small red shadow” (24) doesn’t literally mean that his shadow was red, but he himself and his wings, which are so closely tied to his sense of self, are red, red, red. When Geryon meets Herakles, however, colors shift, like how Herakles dreams of Geryon in yellow (which is, to Geryon, outrageous). In one passage, Carson pairs Herakles and his desire for sex with the color blue, writing (presumably as an observation of Geryon’s), “Herakles lies like a piece of torn silk in the heat of the blue saying,/Geryon please” (53). Here, blue is unexpected in several ways: “heat” suggests colors such as orange, yellow, or red, which are all warm colors, and blue is not a warm color. Additionally, blue, now associated with Herakles, is a near-contrasting color to red, which is Geryon’s “color”, further emphasizing the divide between Herakles and Geryon and shows how different and even perhaps wrong for each other they are.  The pairing of color with additional sensations gives Autobiography of Red more layers and additional, meaningful complexity.

The Power of Connection

Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red is an inventive piece of literature that displays its creativity in a variety of ways. One instance of such innovation is the fact that the novel can appeal to so many different people. The vast amount of content covered in under 160 pages does an incredible job of connecting to people that have been through all types of experiences. Nearly everybody who reads it will have something to relate to somewhere in the book. One might relate to a larger concept such as queerness or the pain associated with love, but the novel leaves room for those that haven’t been there. Passion and solace through art can be found in Geryon’s love for photography. For myself, art is a form of escaping reality. I was able to further link myself to Geryon through his love for photos because art is so present in my life. Even if one cannot make a life connection to Autobiography of Red, the novel’s poetic style gives deeper meaning to certain concepts, such as childhood trauma. The poetic element leaves Carson free to manipulate the text in any way that she pleases and gives the words life. Onomatopoeia, metaphors, other literary devices, and connections to Greek mythology work to pull readers into certain scenes to give them sense of Geryon’s experiences. Anne Carson gave her novel an inventive pulse that syncs with readers whether they have been in Geryon’s place or not.

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.


Invention is synonymous with both discovery and exploration. In Autobiography of Red, the theme of discovery runs throughout the book but is also tied to the exploration of South America and the use of the Quechua language. Geryon, a Greek, is exploring Argentina when he encounters his ex-lover Herakles and winds up going on a trip to Peru. Through his explorations of Peru and Argentina, Geryon seems to find more peace in his state as a “man in transition.” (60) Perhaps his sense of discovery is also inadvertently connected to the inventive use of Quechua. The history of this language has parallels to Geryon’s experience; it was almost destroyed (by the Spanish), but ultimately survived and is still widely spoken in Peru and Bolivia. Likewise, Geryon was almost destroyed by his lover but, towards the end of the book, seems to make steps towards spreading his own wings through encouragement. This can be evidenced in when Ancash tells Geryon that he “wants to see you use those wings.” (144) His encouragement seems to follow the path of Carson’s use of Quechua. This language is beginning to make a comeback in Peru and Bolivia through governmental backing but in Autobiography of Red, Herakles even sings in Quechua. (113) To use this language in her book, Carson is truly thinking beyond the typical paradigm of the use of Spanish and the normal experience to dive into the more hidden layer of languages and to tie the experiences of Geryon toQuechua.

Language (or Distance)

The verse novel “Autobiography of Red” by Anne Carson I was especially struck by the way in which she uses different languages or rather how she lets Geryon use and understand different languages. There are interferences of German, Quechua, and Spanish during the time of Geryon’s travels.

As Geryon travels to Argentina and later to Peru it makes sense for the people around him to speak Spanish, as it is their native language. Ancash and his mother often use it to communicate with each other and Herakles also uses Spanish sporadically, often disrupting a previous conversation.

Quechua is only referred to once and Geryon inquires the meaning of Ancash’s name, which we never get to know. Spoiler alert: it means “blue” and thus introduces another color, but that is a whole other conversation.

The third language is German, which Geryon refers to when writing postcards back home. It is a language that is far away from the Spanish language and he feels alienated and insecure while using it, wondering if it was illegal to write in German and not Spanish. He mentions that he studied German philosophy in college which explains the highly stylized and old wording of the German sentences but it doesn’t explain why it feels so wrong to him to use it. I believe that he uses the language to express himself to people that mean a lot to him (his mother and professor) and that it makes him feel vulnerable, which is why he doesn’t want it to be discovered. When people use a language that you don’t understand it distances you and makes you a stranger to the conversation. I think the novel is very inventive in using different languages to portray (emotional) distance.


Ann Carson is inventive in Autobiography of Red through Geryon’s visual art. The photographs Geryon takes and the focus placed on them in the chapter titles are examples of excess of language. The photographs are innovative because they describe Geryon in a way language cannot. Throughout Autobiography of Red Geryon has trouble communicating, so his photographs are a way for him to express what he is unable to express verbally. For example, the photograph of the guinea pig lying on her right side on a plate (139). This photograph illustrates Geryon feeling like the guinea pig, on display and the little “beast” everyone is waiting to take advantage of (or in the guinea pig’s case, waiting to be eaten). This is not something Geryon can describe in words, it’s a feeling he has and captures when a fitting moment presents itself.

Geryon’s photographs exemplify his feelings, and the pictures altogether help make up his identity, which he continually searches for, “who am I” (57). The photographs give the reader insight towards aspects of Geryon’s identity beyond his appearance. The photos allow us to see beyond his monstrous looks and see his emotions and self-perception. Herakles’ grandmother said “people think it’s a black-and-white photograph of course nobody knows / how to look at a photograph nowadays” (66). This statement reiterates the purpose of the photographs by saying that people see things as black and white, no one looks beyond the picture for the hidden meaning, or looks beneath perceived appearances of people. Identity is often assumed from appearance, but identity is not one thing or another, it is not black or white, it is complex. The statement from Herakles’ grandmother verbally indicates the purpose of Geryon’s photos, hinting for the reader to look at them for more information about Geryon’s identity by looking deeper than the surface, past his appearance and past the initial photo. The photos Geryon takes are a part of his autobiography and should be paid attention to in order to follow his self-discovery of his identity.

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