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.

Religious Guilt and Ostracism

Eli Clare’s “Exile and Pride,” delves into Clare’s struggle to leave his home in pursuit of his authentic self. He strives to communicate the way his personhood is still defined by his upbringing despite the pain and exclusion he endured throughout it. He says:

“For years I have wanted to write this story, have tried poems, diatribes, and theories. I’ve failed mostly because I haven’t been able to bridge the chasm between my homesickness for a place thousands of miles away in the middle of logging country and my urban-created politics that have me raging at environmental destruction. I have felt lonely and frustrated. Without the words for this story, I lose part of myself into the chasm.”

Another notable element of this excerpt is Clare’s longing for effective artistic expression. This feeling is all too familiar for me. For introspective individuals like Clare, memories and experiences are crucial to maintaining a sense of identity, and often the complications of the emotions that come with that are difficult to replicate through any art form. It takes us back to the most simplistic questions of “who am I?” and “where do I belong?” How can you articulate your own life experience, your personhood and all of its nuances? Through his explanation of this phenomena, Clare actually achieves the task at hand; he creates art. His words resonate. Clare’s writing style plays a significant role in this task. He is poetic, descriptive, rambling. His words evoke emotion, pull out familiar human experiences like homesickness, loneliness, frustration. Any individual reading this passage can feel a sense of commiseration, even if they do not share the same experiences.

In losing his childhood home, Eli Clare is forced to find a new home. He finds it, not literally, but within himself and those he surrounds himself with– a queer community filled with others who have often experienced the same rejection and ostracism. 

“Only later did I understand what I lost by leaving. Loss of a daily sustaining connection to a landscape that I still carry with me as home. Loss of a rural, white, working-class culture that values neighbors rather than anonymity…” (p.38)

Clare’s loss of his home and complicated upbringing reminded me of a book I read this past year, called “Disobedience.” The novel tells the story of Ronit, an Orthadox Jewish woman returning home for her father’s funeral. Ronit had left her family years prior to pursue a career in New York, though her departure was undoubtedly also related to her romantic relationship with another teenage girl. Years later, both Ronit and her lover, Esti, grapple with the disjointment of their love for one another, and their love for the traditions and community they grew up with. It is unspoken that the two can not coexist.

Both Clare and Ronit express this complicated love and hatred for the worlds they grew up in, knowing they can not exist authentically within homophobic spaces, but also longing for the brighter, familiar semblances of home.


Closet of Red

I think this poem is about Jones suffocating in his own femininity and pressures to conform. Unable to speak, his words are words falling out like flowers– flowers die, flowers wilt. His words fall flat, they lose their meaning, he loses his ability to articulate himself. Flowers are associated with femininity– are his words are too feminine, too soft? Dresses are associated with femininity as well, and are a recurring theme in his poetry. They’re closing in, almost taunting. The closet is locked, he is trapped. It is filling up with petals, suffocating his in dresses, corsets, silks– his own femininity and pressure to conform is what is suffocating him. He fears a part of himself and feels compelled to apologize, vowing never to ask for mother again, h Are the dresses an empty version of a mother figure he lacks or longs for? He is reaching out, hands=touching, feeling for something that is not there. Mothers “emptied out,” is he reaching for something that does not exist? He is searching for some answer within dresses that are like corpses, they are empty, they are nothing, but they hold power. Is “mother” suffocating him? Is this punishment? He trys to say no but he is silenced by flowers. Flowers usually mean growth, life, spring, new beginnings. Here they suffocate him. Is there no life left? Something so filled with life, filled with new growth betray him, trap him. Metaphors that would typically be beautiful in poetry are menacing, dangerous, encrouching on him like a disease.