Timelessness and Chinese-American Lesbian Representation

The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor and Last night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo are both historical fiction novels about Chinese-American Lesbian adolescents. Set nearly a century apart, these two stories share the same sentiments of juvenile self discovery, confusion, shame, and fear. Both Lily and Mei are forced to cope with racism all the while dealing with their own internal crises and familial obligations. Both girls are intelligent and ambitious, and feel trapped within a society that does not allow them to be their full authentic selves.
Last night at the Telegraph Club follows Lily, a high school senior who loves math and science. She is devoted to her family and her friends, and has yet to step off the path she is on as a self-proclaimed “good Chinese daughter.” Lily meets Kathleen in her advanced math class, and the two sneak out to go together to the Telegraph Club, a lesbian club Kathleen had been to once before. While Lily quickly realizes that she has feelings for Kathleen, she is burdened by shame and fear. When Lily’s father’s naturalization papers are confiscated during questioning about communist activity in Chinatown, the danger strikes home, and Lily is confronted by the potential consequences her own actions could have on her family.
Just like Mei, Lily is afraid of being sent away from her home because of anti-Chinese discrimination. She is grappling with her sexuality, trying to fit into the box of the girl she knows she is supposed to be. Lily dreams of working at the Jet Propulsion lab, like Mei dreams of going to college. Both are forced to push down such aspirations and see their futures through the limits of society and reality. Both, too, realize that such limitations are not binding. That there can be a future outside of the life they are living as teenagers.
The similarities between these two stories demonstrate the cycles of oppression that plague humankind. A novel set in 2022 could tackle racism and queer shame through the perspective of a teenage girl and still ring just as true as these stories set in 1855 and 1954.

4 thoughts on “Timelessness and Chinese-American Lesbian Representation”

  1. I really like the connection you draw between Last night at the Telegraph Club and The Legend of Auntie Po, showing that something never really changed from 1855s, 1954s, till now. I never read Last night at the Telegraph Club before, but from your description, I feel that maybe there is something changed in these 100 years. For Lily, she can get to know some other queer people by the club, and she can get access to education, while for Mei, she is more isolated and even have little chance to go to school.

  2. I really love the connections between the two pieces you drew. I have never heard of Malinda Lo’s book before, so I appreciate the summary you provided. It sounds very interesting, and I may even read it! These two books make me think of the many authors we have read that write about their obligation to the family, and their struggles with their LGBTQ+ identity. These authors are Cherrie Moraga and the selections from Growing Up Gay, Growing Up Lesbian.

  3. The connections you established between Last Night at the Telegraph Club and The Legend of Auntie Po are very interesting. This reminded me of the collection of poems by Saeed Jones, when he came to learn about the death of James Byrd Jr and Matthew Shepard. At an early age, Jones understood that his existence as a Black gay boy could mean death. He also felt trapped inside his own house, not being able to fully express himself.

  4. I have never heard of Last Night of the Telegraph Club before I read this post and now think I might need to read it! I feel as though it would be nice to be able to look at the two books at the same time to see how the difference in the time periods between the two books impacts how Mei and Lily experience being queer. I feel like this relates to the experiences of the authors in Growing Up Gay/ Growing Up Lesbian due to the role that family can blay in being queer, as it plays a role in both pieces.

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