Red Wings, Telepaths, and Childhood Identity

After reading Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, I found myself going back to Ruth Padel’s review of the book in the New York Times. In particular, I was taken by one section of the review in which she describes Geryon’s wings as standing “for creativity, its power and its pain.” It made me think about how Geryon’s wings, and the uniqueness of them, have influenced his development from childhood through adolescence, particularly in regard to how he sees himself. Being the only character in the book that has these physical characteristics, it’s easy to see how Geryon sees himself as alienated from all of the other, less-winged characters. Especially as a child, this sense of alienation can be really influential to how you are able to formulate your own identity, and for Geryon, I think he really sees himself as monstrous and strange as a result of his strange physical features.

Something similar is going on in another series I’ve been following pretty closely lately, called Spy x Family. A Japanese animated television series, Spy x Family focuses on a “fake” family named the Forger’s who are comprised of a father (Loid; a master spy), a mother (Yor; an assassin), and their child (Anya; a telepath). Particularly relevant in this case is Anya, who in the very first episode is adopted by Loid from an orphanage. Anya had a troubled history leading up to that point, experimented on by scientists from a certain “Project Apple” because of her psychic powers. In terms of how this relates to Geryon, I think it is very interesting to see how vehemently Anya is trying to prevent herself from revealing her nature as a telepath, even from her new parents, Loid and Yor, who she has come to love very much. She notes multiple times that if her father finds out about her powers, he may not want her anymore. While I don’t think she’s right about that, it is really interesting to see how Anya internalizes her secret powers as something that is actually a threat to the new life she’s created for herself with her new family. In a similar way to how Geryon feels alienated because of his wings, Anya sees her telepathic powers as something to be overcome rather than embraced openly.

I think both of these characters have very creative, unique ways of thinking that are different from their peers, largely due to the differences in how their bodies/minds work, and going beyond what Padel said in terms of creativity, I think both experiences actually fit somewhat neatly into narratives around queer childhood identity as well. This is more clear in Geryon, who actually expresses certain queer characteristics through his relationship with Herakles, than Anya, who is a very small child who mainly likes eating peanuts, watching cartoons, and being a little rascal. Even so, I think both characters deal with struggles that I think could really speak to queer kids everywhere who are trying to find their way in a world that doesn’t want them to be who they are, and are forced to grapple with the difficulties of trying to finding themselves in that unforgiving climate.

(P.S. I’ll also link the promotional trailer for Spy x Family for those who haven’t seen the show. I can’t recommend it enough.)

Colonialism, Assault, and Suppression of Identity in “Cereus Blooms at Night”

Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night is, in my eyes, a novel which examines to deeply explores the connection between colonial and bodily invasion. As the graphic, horrific sexual assaults of Mala play out throughout the book, Mootoo wants to guide us further than just the terrible nature of Chandin’s individual transgressions. She wants to develop an allegorical narrative on colonialization, expressed through the experiences of Chandin, Mala, and the whole island of Lantanacamara. Looking through the lens of Qwo-Li Driskill’s “Map of the Americas” poem, I want to briefly examine how Chandin, Mala, and Ambrose each fit into the larger allegory around colonization that is present throughout this novel, in order to get a better sense of how the prevalence of colonial forces on the island shaped both the suppression and formation of Mala’s identity.

Driskill’s poem, much like budding romance between Mala and Ambrose, is told from the perspective of someone who has faced the hardship of colonization and assault. The speaker in the poem tells their lover to “know these lands have been invaded before / and though I may quiver / from your touch / there is still a war” (Driskill, lines 60-64). Something has been taken from both this speaker and Mala that continues to haunt them, and while the poem relates this assault and theft more directly to colonialism, I do think that in the novel Chandin is clearly meant to be a representative of colonial domination as well, especially considering his upbringing with the Thoroughly’s.  In both pieces of literature the focal character is hesitant to pursue their own interests, with Mala specifically being very concerned about the eventuality her father’s retribution when he finds out about her and Ambrose.

This is what makes the ending of the novel so tragic, because Mala is unable to escape her father’s influence in the same way the speaker in Driskill’s poem reclaims themselves through their intimacy. At the end of the poem, the speaker says “I walk out of the genocide to touch you” (Driskill, line 85), but even after embracing Ambrose and becoming intimate with him, Mala can’t emerge from her father’s all encompassing influence, through no fault of her own. Driven by the embarrassment of losing Lavinia and Sarah, he refuses to let Mala escape, seeing any step away from him and towards independence as a step towards rebellion, which he, as a controlling, colonial influence, meets with brutal violence.

I do think Mala is eventually able to formulate an identity that lies outside of the  colonial/paternal rule that long governed her life, though it is not in the way Driskill’s poem outlines. While Ambrose was always only a temporary escape from this influence, the independence she gains after her father dies is truly what allows her to express her truest self, expressing her love for plants, bugs, etc. more fervently. She has been freed from the shackles of tyrannical rule, and in her joy we see just how much she’d been holding in for all those years.


The Mountain of Normativity

I never once heard, “You made the right choice when you turned around.” The mountain just won’t let go. (Clare 10)

As I read through Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride, this line on page 10 stood out to me the most, and I think it ties really well into the discussions around normativity that we’ve had through the semester thus far. While there is an expectation and a normative belief that if someone is climbing a mountain their goal must be to reach the top, I think Clare is smart to push against that. While it’s subtle, I really think Clare sees the mountain as an allegory for societal norms. Similarly to the way Michael Werner pushes back against heteronormativity, I think Clare is making a broader point about normativity in general. Looking at the peak of the mountain as the normative ideal we are pushed to pursue, Clare is pushing against those societal beliefs by suggesting perhaps we don’t need to strive to fit ourselves into a place where we’ll never be able to truly find a home.

It’s a surprising versatile metaphor as well. While Clare uses it primarily as a personal anecdote around disability, I would argue the metaphor of the mountain can be applied in a number of different places just as effectively. Personally, I found parallels between Clare’s use of the metaphor and the climbing of the corporate ladder, where we are expected to strive for the top but never give ourselves the time to realize that perhaps another path would have been better; that maybe we should have turned back instead.

Especially within a queer context, the metaphor of the mountain speaks to a conflict of personal identity versus societal expectations that is very powerful. But even so, I think it’s important to note that Clare’s metaphor is not only applicable to his own non-normative, queer experience. It is also flexible enough to speak to a wider, broader range of experience that is not only present within queer communities, but outside them as well, pointing to a larger world of problematic norms through the mountain of normativity that must be addressed.

Louise’s “Reading Hands”

“I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands.” (Winterson 89)

This quote pulled from Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson is just one in a long list of declarations by our narrator in which Louise is treated less like a person and more like a rosetta stone through which they hope to understand themselves. While on the surface this quote may appear to be simply a compliment of Louise’s patience and compassion, I think there is more to it than that.

Just before the narrator gives us the quote above, on that very same page they refer to a “secret code,” that is “written on the body.” If we take that code as the thing being read by Louise, it is clear that the narrator’s shielding of their body from their significant other is very important. They don’t want to reveal themselves. They don’t want to open up and be vulnerable. However, as the narrator tells us, Louise does not need the narrator to open up to understand them. Their “reading hands,” translate them all the same.

The important thing to notice here, in regard to the body language the prose describes, is that the only one taking an active role in “reading” our narrator is Louise. The narrator has no interest in what Louise’s translation is, instead mindlessly taking it as gospel and putting her on a pedestal for being able to understand the “code” that is her body. The narrator is so busy shielding themselves from Louise both physically and emotionally that of course Louise will appear more proactive in comparison. I think this is exactly why the narrator holds Louise in such high regard. Our narrator can’t seem to fathom the idea that someone could try to emphasize and understand them simply because they’re a kind, compassionate person who cares about the protagonist unconditionally. No, they must have “reading hands,” or some other kind of psychic power.

I don’t think what Louise is doing is particularly special. It’s only because the narrator is so averse to examining their own body and their own feelings that they are building up Louise as this angelic deity of love. In the absence of their own introspection, Louise’s reading hands are all they have to understand themselves, and thus they take her to be much greater than she actually is. Unlike the picture our protagonist paints for us, I don’t think what Louise brings to their relationship is something as exceptional as “reading hands.” She just cares about our narrator, and the only way she can discover more about her is to try to read this secret code written on her lover’s body. Short of that, how else could Louise hope to try to understand our narrator? Especially when our narrator is so cowardly and self-absorbed that they struggle to even understand themselves to begin with.