Liberation from Society and our Bodies

“I wanted my words to be seen. I wanted Martha to be in the vision of the world, with her low-slung belly swaying in the morning of a culture. Martha, the adamant vision: the woman standing on the scalloped shell emerging from the sea (Stinson, pg 106).”

Amanda’s writings about Martha have created a sense of freedom that she has never felt. She feels a sense of liberation from the societal norms that had haunted her through her marriage, and she has slowly felt less stifled by the biblical world that she has been stuck in. Her imagination and innovation as a woman in her community are remarkable and the idea that she can freely write creates a sense of female liberation. She has become a role model for the women in her community, and the readers of the novel as well. Amanda’s character development shows how a supportive and loyal partner can bring out the best in us.

The passage is important to the main themes of the book because it shows Amanda’s true feelings for Martha, and her sense of body positivity when describing Martha’s physique. At the beginning of the novel, Amanda would not have had the courage to discuss or write about these ideas and thoughts. However, Martha’s influence on Amanda was liberating for her and her words on the page reflect this.

The concept of body and body image in this novel is a breath of fresh air. The way that Amanda describes Martha, and her low-slung belly would be an insult to many people, however, Martha’s body is celebrated by Amanda and her descriptions of Martha’s bodies reflect her feelings rather than what society might dictate. This is another example of the freedom and liberation that forms throughout the novel.

I often wish that I had the tenacity to discuss bodies in the way that Susan Stinson does in her writing. The ability to worry about one’s judgment and to have a positive outlook on what society dictates as bad or disgusting is in its way liberating and takes off the pressure that society weighs us down with. Many women see our physique as a form of identity, and society perpetuates this. What we wear and how we look, should not be what defines us and is certainly not the only aspect of our identity that matters. Susan Stinson is a true role model for redefining female identity and looking at who we are on the inside rather than how we look on the outside.

One with Nature

“Most days I didn’t feel like messing with flowered plates, so I ate my meals from the skillet…I left off the starch [from John’s old shirts] now, and let the cotton fall in wrinkles around me, with the collar unbuttoned and the tails left untucked more than not. I was forgetting the look of things for the feel of them, and that is a dangerous thing in this world” (Stinson 96).

After Amanda’s stories are published in the magazine in Martha Moody, she draws herself into her own world: she no longer washes herself or her laundry, she eats when she is hungry and drinks when she is thirsty, and she completes her chores and moves through her day at her own pace, stopping to write when she has an idea and taking her time with things that move her. This is very similar to the way that Mala Ramchandin finds herself becoming one with her life and connected with nature in Cereus Blooms at Night, when she retreats from the hustle and bustle of town and begins to live her own, separate life inside her yard. In fact, I worried when I began to read that part about Amanda that the same thing would become of her as became of Mala, and that she would become the town outcast; that everyone would look down on her, tease her, make fun of her, and abuse her for simply being different and isolating herself from everyone else. At first, this did happen; on page 126, when Theda Wilks rides past Amanda, she insults the larger woman for her way of living. However, the difference between Amanda and Mala is that Amanda is both more willing and (at least mentally, if not physically) able to leave her house, go into the town, and spend some amount of time with the people she knew before her period of isolation. Of course, Amanda’s time alone was much shorter than Mala’s, but both women’s seclusion allowed them time and space to grow and develop.

Amanda was able to come to better terms with her sexuality and the way that she sees Martha. To Amanda, Martha is (or rather, was?) her lover, her friend, and her (very short-term) boss. Amanda also developed her sense of self and, like Mala, became closer to nature and the animals, or more specifically, her cow, Miss Alice. Though Mala spoke to the birds and insects in their language, and Amanda spoke to Miss Alice in the English language, this communication intensified the connection between the animal and human worlds in the two novels. 

The Innocence of Revision…

“Clara had done a good job of picking the innocent ones, but I always saw my body’s memories in the character of Martha, whether she was touching an apple or riding the winged cow through the sky. I wondered if the real Martha felt it, too, or if she just saw something cheap and silly for children” (Stinson, 126).

What does it mean to be innocent? I think of innocence as harmless, neither bearing nor receiving ill-intent.

In an English class, almost everything has a deeper meaning, but there is never a right or wrong interpretation. I think this quote represents so much of what we do in an academic setting. The writing takes on a life of its own and as if the author has a specific thought in their mind that isn’t always known to the reader, and that is okay. Clara chooses the innocent pieces that are appropriate for children to read. Even though to most people everything looks innocent, to Amanda those small touches mean something. We don’t know how Martha is taking it but for Amanda, those feelings are so palpable, although undetected by Clara and other readers. There is something beautiful about a piece of literature or art that can start and mean one thing but to the audience, it can be completely different like Amanda’s love stories turned into adventure stories for children.

Minority groups have been written out of history or they usually aren’t in the forefront in many cases. It’s interesting because we talked about Stinson writing a book that focuses on diverse women. She is giving them the ability to be independent and multilayered characters that are the center of attention. Stinson is using revision to open our eyes to different groups through a different lens.

While still being true to the time period of the story, it seems as if Clara and the editor are trying to ignore Amanda’s love for Martha because that isn’t deemed appropriate. Women shouldn’t be writing or reading about anything sexual or intimate. Amanda’s love doesn’t seem innocent in their time period hence the way John reacted but Clara and the editor decided to brush over that fact. It’s true to our history as a country, that characters who represent a minority are written out or changed. This still rings true today. People are still fighting for characters to not be white, heterosexual, etc. when transformed from book to screen for example. Editors have been known to make something more “digestible” to the public; they will cut parts of the character out that should be seen and are important. This is exactly what Amanda’s editor/publisher and Clara are doing, and it isn’t innocent.

The art of meaning can be changed intentionally or unintentionally. The layers of revision are interesting when it comes to Martha Moody because Stinson is revisioning a time period and giving us a new lens while still making it believable by staying true to the time period and having Amanda’s work edited to be socially acceptable. We, as the readers are also creating a new understanding of the story told, trying to make sense of Stinson’s message.

Estrangement: Queerness, Disassociation

To estrange oneself from aspects of their history is a means of self-protection. In the case of Mala Ramchandin, it’s that her older coping self, Mala, acts explicitly as a guardian and protector to her imaginary, estranged self, and disassociating her emotional selves allows both her traumatic self to be comforted by a sisterly figure, and for her in the present day to avoid the subject. To Mala, coping is being afforded moments of levity in which she, and her history, can exist without the context of her traumas and simultaneously continue to navigate a reality (her home) in which the context is ever relevant. Through this, she is able to compartmentalize (literally—her father was placed in a compartment), and she is rendered stiff and withdrawn when the compartment is forced open, so that nobody can attempt to pry it open further.

Yet, another example of estrangement in the novel is the narrator’s concealment of their own true gender and named identity by the point of its conclusion: we aren’t afforded the knowledge of what it is that lies beneath the veil of “Tyler,” or “Ty,” but we learn that something is there. Closeting, and estrangement from the public underneath a gender-compliant face acts as a means of protection so that the true, queer identity can exist without the context of transphobia (that context being someone like Toby, for example). To quote:

“Lately restraint and I have been hostile strangers to one another. I find myself defying caution.” (246)

Restraint, and caution, here, is the “putting on” of Tyler, the gendered face which protects the narrator from having to navigate dangerous contexts. Mala, being aware of disassociation and the estrangement of the self, is the first to nurture a different context in their moments alone together (a place where nobody is asking any questions, and a place where they are given a reason or an excuse to wear the women’s nursing outfit). The narrator’s defining moment in part V is when they finally declares, and formally accepts Otoh’s presence as an environment where they can declare themself without Tyler’s protection.

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.

Ants in a Circle (Not on a Log)

“She cut across their path and encircled one of the ants in a line drawn thickly, chalk powder flying. The ants outside the circle marched up to the chalk line and one after the other backed off, refusing to cross. The ant trapped in the circle ran around the inside of the chalk edge, frantically changing course, standing on its hind legs and then crouching on the ground in its panic. Outside the circle several ants dropped their leaves and scurried back in the direction they came. Within seconds a new path bypassing the circle had been created, and the ants outside it hesitantly resumed their trek, more cautiously than before. The ant in the circle stood completely still” (Mootoo 89).

The ant trapped in the circle acts like Mala trapped in her house with the fence around it, stuck at the top of the hill in the middle of Paradise with a visible and seemingly uncrossable barrier around her. The circle of chalk is just a line on the ground—to anyone looking from above (a human), it’s just a line of chalk, perfectly harmless and able to be both stepped on and over—but to the ant, the circle is a solid wall, marking a barrier that the ant perceives that it cannot go across. Just like the ant, Mala perceives that the fence around her house is keeping her inside, preventing her access to the outside world and forming an inescapable prison within its low walls. Like the ants on the ground carrying their leaves, the people of Lantanacamara learned how to make their way cautiously around Mala’s house (whispering and occasionally throwing rocks or other debris, including various rotten fruit, at her and her home). The ant represents how trapped Mala feels in Paradise, even though she put herself there, and how stuck she feels with nowhere to go but her own backyard. 

When Asha asks why she drew the circle around the ant, Mala has no answer for her. I think Mala drew the circle because she wanted someone else to understand how she was feeling at that moment, even though she didn’t have the words to describe the feeling. She didn’t know how to express her loneliness, isolation, and frustration other than to show it to Asha with the chalk circle, and she became even more frustrated when Asha didn’t immediately understand why she drew it and questioned her (“‘Why did you do that?’”) (Mootoo 89). Eventually, when Asha leaves, Mala comes to the point where she completely loses herself to the insanity that is life within the chalk circle: she is trapped in this repetitive life with her father, who rapes and abuses her daily, and she can find no way out, so she frantically (metaphorically) runs around her property searching for a crack in the chalk circle surrounding her. When she finds no way out, she snaps and kills Chandin Ramchandin, sealing her fate and trapping herself in the chalk circle forever (or, I guess, until Otoh came along).

Authenticity Over Expectations

“‘I will leave them a note, partially explaining, and then I will write them in detail once we’re there. But they will never accept any of this, and if they learn of it beforehand, they will separate us at once… Look, Sarah, either we do it now or we will never be able to. There would be no point for me in living if i was unable to see you every single day of my life.’” 
–Mootoo pg 59 

“‘And what about your friends, / Don’t you love them enough to stay?’ / And I say, ‘If I don’t leave now, / Then I will never get away.’ / Let me be a blue raft on the blue sea, I’ll blend right in” 
–The Front Bottoms “Maps”

The conceptualisation of identity and understanding of the self has been a recurring theme throughout all of our texts thus far. The quote above from page 59 of “Cereus Blooms at Night” draws attention to a moment where Pohpoh is eavesdropping on her mother as she is making plans to leave with Lavinia. It is insinuated that Pohpoh’s mother (Sarah) is romantically/sexually involved with Lavinia at this point, and that adds to the urgency with which they are trying to leave town. Besides the obstacle of being married to a man, Pohpoh’s mother faces judgment and social ostracization if she chooses to stay and pursue these desires with another woman. On the other hand, she risks denying an important part of her identity if she chooses to stay and continue her relationship with Pohpoh’s father. 

We don’t get much of Pohpoh’s mother in the story (at least comparatively to other characters), but this moment on page 59 – “either we do it now or we will never be able to” – immediately reminded me of a song by my favorite band, The Front Bottoms. In their song “Maps,” they say, “‘…what about your friends, / Don’t you love them enough to stay?’ / And I say, ‘If I don’t leave now, / Then I will never never get away.’” This question, “what about your friends, don’t you love them enough to stay?” points to a similar dilemma in Sarah and Lavinia’s quest to run away together. In the moment on pg 59 where they are making the plan to leave, they also spend time questioning the logistics of bringing the children along and whether it is worth it to go. Ultimately it comes down to the importance of staying true to the self– Sarah and Lavinia, regardless of the fact that they are forced to leave the kids (Pohpoh and Asha) behind because of the father, decide that they must leave in order to live their truth together and fully embrace their queerness. It is a difficult question that gets raised here about the kind of sacrifices that have to be made sometimes in order to live authentically, especially in a world that encourages conformity. 

The Front Bottoms have been a huge part of my life for years, particularly in relation to the journey of self-discovery; their songs are very raw with emotion (which is evident both in the writing and in the way the words are sung) and feel very authentic, which I think is one of the biggest goals when it comes to determining a sense of self. This sense of urgency is evident both in this part of the song and in Sarah and Lavinia’s decision to embrace their queerness despite societal expectations of heteronormativity and the threat of rumors, etc. Both of these passages highlight what I think could be a common thread within queer identity, which is the weighing of authenticity over expectations. Is it more important to embrace the parts of you that are not accepted by others/do not fit with social expectations and live authentically? Or should you live your life trying to fit into what others expect of you? The answer seems more often to be the former, but in my experience seems to happen after a long period of being forced to deny parts of yourself in favor of keeping to social norms. Eventually there comes a point where you have to shed these pressures and live for yourself, because “either [you] do it now or [you] will never be able to.” 

Finding Balance

Difficult situations cause varying responses among individuals. I am sure that this is not new information, but I think that it is an important concept to remember. It is important to keep this in mind especially when analyzing your own responses to a difficult situation. Mala, formerly called PohPoh, seems to have a troublesome time finding this balance when she is reflecting upon the violence she had endured from her father, Chandin. Tyler narrates Mala’s difficulty by saying, “Pohpoh worked on finding that perfect balance between being rigidly alert and dangerously relaxed” (Mootoo page 143). This description of how Mala feels provides a great articulation of the two polar ends of the balance that ignite frustration and hardship. This sentence acted as a lens to my own traumatic relationship as I immediately related to Mala’s feeling of imbalance. Specifically, it pointed out the influence of society to normalize and lessen the severity of the situation and the cry for help in my own brain saying that something was wrong.

This conflict between self and society made it extremely difficult for me to validate the emotions that was feeling throughout the time when I began to realize how bad my experience was. I constantly had a battle between thinking that I was overreacting, since society taught me that “that’s just how relationships are”, and internally freaking out because I knew what happened hurt me physically and continued to hurt me mentally. The main source of my frustration, anger, and hurt was that I couldn’t but put labels on what had happened for a long time. More accurately, I was afraid to admit to myself how bad things were. However, once I allowed myself to assign labels to my experiences, I was able to start moving forward with coming to terms with reality. Unfortunately, that didn’t make these terms any less scary; gaslighting, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, sexual assault, and rape are the words that kept circling around my head as I struggled to truly accept them as true.

Even though the issue of imbalance came into play again, as I tried to nurture my mind’s pain and also appear unfazed for society, I was finally able to determine what could make me feel balanced. I was reminded that, despite what society says you’re supposed to feel that every feeling is valid. Every person processes and heals from an experience differently. Balance won’t form when you’re trying to pick one extreme or another; so instead of being “rigidly alert” or “dangerously relaxed,” perhaps it is necessary to acknowledge and validate your feelings first, which will then allow you to find peace with your emotions.

Turn Around!

The recent movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire helpfully offers a self analysis through the characters’ reading of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The movie follows the brief romance between a noble lady, Héloïse, and the female painter, Marianne, who paints her wedding portrait but also shares her love of literature and music. In the myth, Orpheus goes to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice even though she is dead. Hades allows this, on the condition that they walk straight out without him turning around once to look at Eurydice. Of course, Orpheus looks back just as the couple reached the exit. Héloïse says Orpheus chooses the memory of his wife, while Marianne suggests that Eurydice says, “look back”. This myth perfectly embodies the second qualifier of queer time presented by Halberstam and the implications of it in the movie A Portrait of a Lady on Fire echo the ending of the novel Written on the Body in really intense ways. 

Halberstam states that “queer uses of time and space develop… in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction. They also develop according to other logics of location, movement, and identifications” (1). In both the novel and the movie it makes more sense to think about the characters’ relationships based on the second qualifier since they both return to normative chronology in the end. (That is not to say there is no opposition to be found in these works, I’ll just be lightly jumping over it.) The narrator leaves Louise with her husband and Marianne leaves Héloïse to prepare for her wedding. However, the leaving isn’t the same. Halberstam explores the idea of a “constantly diminishing future” and the pressure and urgency this creates, which “expands the potential of the moment” (2). In Written on the Body, the narrator leaves Louise because of a fear of the diminishing life she has, and, therefore, they have, in the hope that leaving gives Louise longevity in her husband’s care (104-105). In A Portrait of a Lady on Fire both Marianne and Héloïse knew that their relationship would end and they would return to their respective normalities. But they lived together, for a moment, within their expanding potential even with the temporal boundary of Héloïse’s wedding day. 

Both stories present a queer reality that is ultimately overtaken by normative chronology. Moreover, this return is a choice made by the characters themselves. Orpheus lived for a moment in a queer reality, that he asked Hades for, where he could bring his wife back to life. Either he chose the memory of her and looked, or Eurydice chose the memory of him and told him to turn around. In both scenarios, Orpheus lives with the beautiful memories he has of his wife and the memories are given new life by the possibility of her continuing to live. When Marianne leaves, Héloïse calls out to her, “turn around!”. She doesn’t ask her to stay. Héloïse chooses to call out, but Marianne chooses to look. They both choose the memory of existence outside of the normative reality they now reside in. The narrator of Written on the Body leaves Louise so that she might live longer. They wrote a goodbye letter and were promised updates on Louise (141). They chose the memory without giving Louise a say. They turned around, but Louise never asked them to. Without both parties choosing the memory there is no closure to their pocket of queer time. Héloïse, Marianne, and the narrator keep beautiful memories, but Louise is just simply left. Because the narrator did not include Louise, they cannot rely on her promise to write, only Elgin’s. This leaves the narrator wondering and worrying rather than sure in Louise’s promise. This anxiety is what drives them to be discontented with the memory of Louise and struggle to find her. In comparison, Marianne and Héloïse never see each other again and are happy to revel in their memories.

Sexuality and Gender in Cereus Blooms at Night

A few weeks ago, my mother and I had a conversation about the relationship between gender and sexuality. Specifically, she told me that the acronym LGBT confused her, and she didn’t understand why the T was included alongside the LGB. Why do we think of gender and sexuality as belonging under one umbrella? Why are straight trans people considered part of the same group as gay cis people? What connects them? This isn’t a question I’ve thought much about before, and I wasn’t sure how to answer her. I tend to consider gender and sexuality as inherently linked, in the way that a person’s sexuality relates to the gender(s) they’re attracted to, or how a person’s gender influences the way they define their sexuality. However, I think there is a deeper connection here than a simple reciprocal relationship, and I think Cereus Blooms at Night provides a good lens through which to explore this question. I want to use this text and the character of Tyler to explore how gender and sexuality are related, specifically in terms of Tyler’s own sexuality and gender identity. 

There are two main elements to Tyler’s queerness: his* attraction to men, and his femininity. Tyler seems to have become comfortable with his sexuality before the text begins, and though he never explicitly labels himself as “gay” or “queer” or even “attracted to men,” neither does he hide his sexuality or speak around the moments when it comes to the surface of the text. While his attraction to men is made very explicit early on in the text (at the moment when the officers bring Mala to the Alms House [9-10], and when the doctor arrives to examine her [22]), his femininity starts out as more implicit, shown through his preference for a traditionally feminine career and his lack of traditional masculine abilities (his account of the physical labor he was assigned at the Alms House especially affirms this [10]). It wasn’t until Mala steals the nurse’s dress for him (75-78) that I began to consider his identity as other than an effeminate gay man. As the text progresses, Tyler’s femininity and non-normative gender identity become more and more explicit, until the very end of the book when he puts on makeup and the nurse’s dress to meet Otoh and Ambrose, appearing the most feminine that he has throughout the entire text (247). 

Tyler’s experience with gender and the social repercussions of not conforming to heteronormativity reflect our own society and recent attitudes around queer identities, specifically in the way people tend to be more comfortable with queer sexualities than with queer gender identities. I think the reason Tyler is more explicit about his sexuality than his gender identity is because gender can be a difficult concept to tear away from heteronormative ideals, more so than sexuality. Identifying as a man who is attracted to other men begins to align Tyler with (straight) women and starts chipping away at the boundaries of heteronormativity. Once he is comfortable with his attraction to men, he can begin exploring what his femininity might mean – and that is the journey his narration shows the readers. 


* The first question I had when considering Tyler’s identity is what pronouns to use. Because the text primarily identifies him as male, I could use masculine pronouns for him; however, I could just as easily read the ending of the text as a declaration of identity, and argue that Tyler’s feminine presentation is a sign to use she/her pronouns. Or, I could read the ambiguity of Tyler’s gender as a reason to use they/them pronouns. For the sake of clarity, and because Tyler presents as a man for the majority of the text, I decided to use he/him pronouns to refer to him. However, it appears that the text would just as easily support a different set of pronouns.