Liam’s transitioning seen through pronouns

[I apologize if my choice of pronouns when talking about the characters in this novel seems inconsiderate.]

Julie Anne Peters’ novel, Luna (2004), falls under the general literary category of young adult fiction. Young adult novels are characterized by their dealing with identity struggles linked with coming-of-age. Luna is representative of that genre, as it tells about the struggles of two siblings, Liam and Regan, who are brought up in a family and evolve in an environment that are not tolerant of their respective identities. Even though the issues Regan faces—such as not getting along with her parents, being rejected at school, coping with a high-school crush—can be considered as common to most teenage narratives, Liam’s struggles set him apart and give the novel a much deeper meaning and purpose. Liam struggles with the unveiling and acceptance of his trans identity. Despite belonging to a genre considered as “light” and lacking seriousness, because it is destined for a young and unexperienced readership, Peters’ novel uses the assets of this genre to raise awareness towards LGBTQ issues. It makes us realize the difficulties queer adolescents can encounter in this most difficult period in life, through a vivid depiction of Liam’s experience.

The most pivotal stage in Liam’s experience is his transitioning, and it thus seems important to observe how the novel stylistically stages Liam’s transitioning process. This device is particularly clear at the end of Chapter 3, where, after a domestic fight over breakfast, during which Liam is deeply hurt because he feels disfavored by his father, Liam makes Regan ditch school and takes her to a café instead. While sipping their coffees, the siblings have an interesting conversation about Liam’s transitioning, and Peters manages to make this transitioning process tangible through concrete elements in the text. Through the shift in pronouns, the reader experiences the shift in Liam’s identity. From the beginning of the chapter, the narrator, Regan, uses the masculine pronoun “he” when referring to Liam. That is, up until the end of page 21, when Liam starts talking about the women’s clothes and accessorize he was trying on earlier, in Regan’s room. Noticing Liam’s lightening mood, Regan observes: “he brightened a little” (21). Then, after Liam is finished with his speech about clothing and hairstyle, the narrator noticeably transitions to the feminine pronoun, “she,” at the beginning of the next paragraph: “once she started talking hair and clothes, we’d be here forever” (21). It is interesting to see how transition is linked with physical attributes. Even by simply talking about women’s clothes and accessorize, Liam starts transforming, and becoming his (or her) true self. This echoes the fact that, throughout the novel, Liam is only himself/herself in the confined space of Regan’s room, when he can dress as the woman he is.

Dream and Reality

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1995) deals with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, depicting the stages three entangled couples go through while they are confronted with the disease. Dealing with such a serious and even grave topic, the play is expected to be realistic. What is somehow startling for the reader is, however, Kushner’s use of the supernatural in such a context. He indeed alternately inserts scenes depicting apparitions and taking place in dreams and hallucinations. This alternation between dream and reality effectively illustrates the characters’ often unstable state of mind. But it also gives the play a general sense of absurdity, and even, at times, a somehow burlesque quality, which needs to be examined in further detail.

Scene 7, Act I, is the first apparition scene of the play. Harper and Prior simultaneously appear in each other’s dreams, even though they have never seen each other. Kushner makes an extensive use of the lexical field of make-believe in this scene. This is indeed visible through the use of verbs such as “feigning,” “mimes,” “believe in,” “to make up”, and nouns such as “hallucination,” “dream,” “visions,” “untruthfulness,” “falseness,” “appearance,” “imagination,” as opposed to “the real world” (37: 38). Prior’s appearance in makeup, and references to a “theme party” and “drag” are also proof of the staging of a scene based on notions of unreality, that aims at unsettling the reader (37: 39). In contradiction with this particular semantic field, Prior and Harper both acknowledge that dreams can be “the very threshold of revelation sometimes” (39). Scene 7 indeed builds up the dramatical tension that will be at its peak in the last two scenes of the act. In terms of “revelations,” this is where Harper learns about her husband’s homosexuality, and where Prior is confronted with his sickness. And it is somehow contradictory that Kushner choses for such important revelations to take place in a scene staging a dream.

“Hunger”: Poetry as reporting

What caught my attention in this poem was the focussing effect present right from the beginning. The poem starts as the depiction of a painting, of a picture. The isotopia of painting and art in general helps building this effect: the word “scene” is repeated two times in the first section, and associated with words such as “sequence”, “blurs”, “Chinese painter”, “ink-stick”, “planned”, “exposed”, “foreground”. From the “hill-scene on an enormous continent”, the poet-narrator’s eyes, and through hers, the reader’s eyes, move slowly towards the “two human figures recklessly exposed, / leaning together in a sticklike boat / in the foreground.” So the painting, and thus the poem, bring before the reader’s eyes the immensity of a continent, of an infinite landscape, and guide him/her towards the minute details of two human figures. The metaphor of the painting extends through the whole poem and is, in my opinion, essential to its meaning and aim.

The initial description is however already tainted by disturbing, or at least unusual associations. The first word that follows the panoramic (and so, very general, the least intimate) view of the hill/continent is “intimacy”, even before the apparition of the human figures. This same word is associated with “terrors”. In the same manner, “desolation” is followed by “comforted”. And even then, when we are expecting an image of comfort and human warmth, all that we can find is the word “recklessly”. The two human figures are not brought together by intimate warmth, they are “recklessly exposed”. This series of antitheses, or at least antithetic ideas, set the background for an awkward and unreassuring reading of the poem. The picture that the poem is going to paint before our eyes is not going to be one of happiness and beauty.

It is also important to underline the cultural diversity of the artistic references. Besides the references to traditional Chinese painting mentioned above (and repeated in section 3), Rich refers to Käthe Kollwitz’s social-themed art in the last section. She also mentions “huts strung across a drought-stretched land” (section 1), which it would be too hasty and stereotypical to interpret as allusions to the African continent if the names of countries such as Chad, Niger, and Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) weren’t mentioned a little further. The word “world” is also repeated several times in the poem. These references help give the poem a global aim and dimension. From the metaphor of painting, we can now shift towards one of photography, which will better serve our purpose. Indeed, the above-mentioned focussing effect can be compared to that of a camera’s. This idea is supported by the presence of words such as “fogged” and “film” in the first section. The whole poem then acquires a reporting and documentary dimension. It becomes a vivid testimony of the state the world is in. And of course testimony can mean exposure, and denunciation. The last picture trampled upon at the end of the poem is that of “a woman shield[ing] a dead child from the camera”. Thanks to the chiasmic construction of these last lines:

                   In the black mirror of the subway window

                   hangs my own face, hollow with anger and desire.

                   Swathed in exhaustion, on the trampled newsprint,

                   a woman shields a dead child from the camera,

her image gets mixed up with the narrator’s. It could get mixed up with that of any woman’s.