Queer experiences around the self

Pg 158 “Cereus Blooms At Night”, Shani Mootoo

“Her eyes brightened with triumph as she stood at the entrance to the living room. Across it was her destination – the front entrance. She headed straight for the door. There was a long mirror, the largest she had ever seen, in a carved gold frame on the wall, and as she hurried by she saw a tiny, ragged girl.

Pohpoh stopped. She never had really thought of herself as tiny or mangy before. Her confidence slackened. She looked closely at sunken eyes. She had never noticed that they were so large and set so far back in her skull, shadowed in comparison to the rest of her features. Pohpoh wondered which was her true self – the timid, gaunt, unremarkable girl staring at her, or the one who dared to spend nights doing what no one else ever dared to do. The image of her father about to lower himself on her body charged at her suddenly, complete with smells and nauseating tastes. She gasped loud enough to startle herself and pinched her arm hard, an admonishment that she dare not lose her concentration.”


As Mala relives her journey into the terrible, haunted and disturbing house, she’s forced to come face to face with her own reflection in a mirror, and we as an audience see her perceptions about herself get questioned in a new way.

Mala dissociates frequently in this book due to her past trauma. Her dissociation is a neurological coping mechanism to compartmentalize the memories from her childhood, and the way she pinches herself, or eats chili paste, is a way of staying grounded and not getting ‘lost’ in her dissociated state. However, in her ‘two state’ mindset, where she exists both as Pohpoh, the young and helpless child, and Mala, the one attempting to act as a protector, she continues to perceive herself from her own mind. She is, quite literally, watching her younger self in her mind, but also as a social pariah, she has not been aware of how others see her. The moment when she runs by the mirror and is forced to confront that she not only exists outside of her own head, but also that the idea of herself (and how she should look) does not match up with how she physically appears.

Mootoo frequently explores ideas of perception and identity in relation to gender identity for characters like Otoh or Tyler, but I think it’s especially telling that Mala (a cisgender woman, who frequently appears as an ally for Tyler to explore gender nonconforming expressions) has a very common queer experience.  “…Which was her true self…” she wonders, and it feels remarkably similar to Tyler’s questions around what is true to him. Mala already stands in rejection of certain norms, such as language and communication, as she chooses to communicate in her own unique ways, but this moment of disconnect between the self and the mirror felt profound. Mala’s rejection of societal norms goes beyond a colonial institution like language. This instant with the mirror of being brought back to reality causes her to lose focus of guiding her dissociative state in a safe way.

It is fitting for the story to end with Tyler feeling confident in their identity, though doing so without sharing with the reader. Much the same way as Mala’s internal perception of her self becomes both a coping mechanism, and the most accurate way for her to consider her past, Tyler does not need to disclose any specific identities or labels because he’s come to terms with his own perception of himself.

3 thoughts on “Queer experiences around the self”

  1. Your comments about identity and confidence in the perception of oneself is really compelling. This reminds me of the end of Autobiography of Red, Geryon struggles with his identity and self-worth throughout the entire novel. It is interesting to see the way in which characters develop and I see a lot of similarities between Geryon and Tyler. They both know what they want and at times they deep down know who they want to be, but often struggle with how they will be perceived and do not have the confidence to be true to themselves.

  2. Your discussion of the moment Pohpoh sees herself in the mirror is really interesting. It is the moment that Pohpoh is forced to deal with the idea that others see her too, that she does not exist solely within her own mind (this is a little ironic given Mala is retelling and remaking this memory within her mind later). This is a powerful point, personally, I was more drawn to Pohpoh’s immediate reaction after her confrontation with her own image and sense of body- she immediately associates her body with what her father has done to her. At this point, we see that Pohpoh views her body not as hers, but as foremost her fathers. This shows the extent to what her father’s abuse has done to her- Pohpoh seeing herself and actually looking at her own body brings to her mind the abuse her body has suffered.

  3. Your analysis is really insightful – I think the idea of perception, especially as it relates to queerness, is extremely interesting, and you do a great job of analyzing Mala’s experience with these concepts. Feeling as though your identity doesn’t match your outward appearance is definitely a queer experience; however, Mala’s double-take as she sees herself in the mirror expands it into something broader and more universal. I think the whole idea that our appearance should “match” our identity lends itself to thinking about norms, and it’s worthwhile to ask *why* we want our appearance to match our identity. Why can’t Mala be both “the timid, gaunt, unremarkable girl” AND “the one who dared to spend nights doing what no one else ever dared to do”? The issue of perception and the anxiety that comes along when our view of ourselves doesn’t match what others think speaks to the societal pressure to put ourselves in easily-identifiable boxes. Mala’s experience in front of the mirror shows how much we internalize that pressure, to the point where we want our appearance to conform to what society thinks we should look like.

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