In “Angels in America”, characters Harper and Prior represent the loneliness many find themselves experiencing. Loneliness is an emotion particularly associated with queerness, especially during the era of the AIDS epidemic, when queer people were no less than abandoned. Even aside from that, being systemically separated from the norm creates distance between them and their peers that is difficult to pierce. Harper, a woman married to a man, nonetheless is in close association to queerness as she finds her husband Joe to be a gay man. Queer experiences can be expressed through outlets other than gay characters themselves.
One of the earliest things the reader learns of Harper is that she is addicted to valium. This is a means of escaping her reality, as she creates a friend, Mr. Lies, in her head to keep her company. She experiences such intense isolation that she turns to the imaginary, a theme throughout the play. She believes herself to be in Antarctica, telling Joe, “I can have anything I want here – maybe even companionship, someone who has… desire for me” (3.3.14). She exits the reality of everyone around her because to be surrounded by such loneliness, of others and hers, is ironically too much to handle. Harper being a straight woman represents that societal issues, that people such as Reagan like to fence up in a single community to be ignorable, cannot but escape those walls. Her intense loneliness illustrates that AIDS is an issue that society must deal with, because if empathy isn’t enough of a reason, it affects more people than imaginable.
Prior’s experiences, though vastly different from Harpers, mirror hers in his loneliness. His nurse suggests he see a therapist, for “loneliness is a danger” (3.8.116). Drawn to medicine and fever induced visions and abandoned by his society to die uncared for, he finds himself also barely able to deal. However, he embraces his ability to stand alone. He slips up and introducing himself, says, “I am… abandoned” (3.7.2.). He draws strength from his isolation. “Angels in America” represents the ways loneliness, especially among queer people, can create different experiences.
Patti Smith wrote her biographical nonfiction “Just Kids” about her experience growing up alone in NYC with her friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti goes through a lot of self discovery as a person and as an artist, while Robert does the same, learning to express his identity as a gay man in his art. He and his boyfriend end up dying of AIDS in the 80s. The book is about his journey, her journey, and their journey coming to terms with the barriers of sexuality. Smith describes the book as a sort of eulogy.
Opening this book I didn’t know much about either of the two and left it that way, taking it as it came in Patti’s own words. I rapidly attached to Robert’s character a mirror of understanding: my own discovery of my sexuality was pretty late compared to what feels like a lot of folks have so even reading his story in the past year was life-changing. Smith approaches him with such understanding and love I was blindsided, and to watch him fade away into another statistic hit my heart.
Angels in America’s image of AIDS-related celebrity death comes from a different perspective within the same era, a lack of acceptance in a wildly different environment. Robert became respected in his time in art and photography subcultures, and remained so, able to sell his collection to a famous museum before dying. I think it would be a good perspective on the cards different queer people are dealt and how they deal with their relationships. His with both Patti and both sets of parents reflect queer issues in fascinating and specific ways.
Various texts in this class have brought me back to the poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. Many of the poems in this work grapple with Vuong’s identity as a gay Vietnamese American author who was the first in his family to learn how to read and write. Vuong was one of my first introductions to poetry and LGBTQ literature, and his poetry has stuck with me ever since.
Like many readings from this class, the collection highlights the disconnect that often occurs between people who identify as LGBTQ and their respective (though disrespectful) families. In Angels in America, Joe struggles with his sexual identity and its lack of acceptance in his family and upbringing. Night Sky continues this theme with the added isolation of being a first generation immigrant from Vietnam, having neither family nor community to turn to in moments of existential crisis. The poem “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” details Ocean’s specific struggle with his parents, communicated in lines such as “Your father is only your father / until one of you forgets.” Familial tension is a central feature to the queer experience, and it need not be between a queer child and their parents. Bechdel’s Fun Home illustrates this tension on the part of the father and his inability to reconcile his identity with the life built around him. Vuong’s attempts to grapple with these familial constraints on his identity shine brightly in Night Sky and would fit well amongst the background of other class readings.
Clare gives a great metaphor for the mountain which is the societal patriarchy that crushes those who are marginalised and who only want to see the view from the top. The book raises great questions about how many of us have struggled up the mountain, lived in its shadow or measured ourselves against it. Life is hard no matter who you are people need to find work, do well in school and make friends, but not everyone needs to find their identities and actually feel comfortable in themselves to show people who they really are. The queer community struggles daily in just trying to figure out who they are but also figuring out where they fit when society often casts them aside. Clare does a great job of showing his own struggles and describing that people of minorities aren’t given respect and are often seen as weak, lazy or different and even when attempting to climb that mountain nothing on the way up is familiar. The people who are pushed down the mountain or even who aren’t given help to reach the peak find similarities with the other people who have been pushed away by society. It almost feels like why someone should who is pushed away so much even try to fit in should be with the people that truly do see them as a person and not an outlier. But this isn’t fair no one should be forced to find peace at the bottom and not be allowed to see the world like everyone else does.
The Netflix show Grace and Frankie represents the idea of the hidden life of people’s queer identification, two men who spent most of their entire life being gay and never being able to show it and living the “normal” hetero lifestyle. This reminds me of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel whose story follows her father’s secret life that destroys his life and his home until he reaches a point of complete emptiness when he takes his own life. The two men Sol and Robert who are both married with children has a happier take on what if people choose to actually live the life which allows them to love the person they love and not whom society forces them to.
Although they hid their affair for years and were always afraid of what would happen if people found out they decided that they had spent all of their life hiding who they were and enough was enough. Bechdel alludes to the fact that her father often had affairs with men, but it was in secret and his wife was often miserable because of it. Well, Grace and Frankie have a similar approach with the two men deciding to both tell their wives who it was they were truly in love with but even though it breaks their wives’ hearts it allows them to be free and for both parties to stop living in a life that was all a façade. Both parties get to move on and find a new way to spend the remainder of their days. Perhaps if Bechdel’s mother and father had this conversation then her father would still be here today or perhaps it was never an option for him but this is something we will never know.
The legend of Auntie Po makes me directly think about this Japanese painting named “Girl power” that I saw in the National Museum of Asian Art, and I am surprised to find how many similarities they share.
This painting is created in 1856, around the same period as the story of Mei and Auntie Po, and it is demonstrating three female sumo wrestlers preparing for the match. The greatest similarity between this painting and the legend of Auntie Po is that they both try to show the power of women by letting them do something that men are supposed to do. Just like how logging is supposed to be male-dominated work and the legend of Paul Bunyan is a legend of a man, sumo wrestling is also considered a men’s sport in Japan. Moreover, in great contrast with the low social status of female in Japanese culture in history, sumo wrestler has high social status and is always respected by society as the symbol of power. By letting female be the myth of logging and doing men’s sport, both of these two works rebels against the traditional label of being weak women and shows that women can also be powerful.
Another similarity is that they all have an Asian background. Although discrimination against women is everywhere around the world, it is more severe in Asian culture, in which women are always supposed to be passive, be the ones waiting to be saved, and sacrifice themselves for men’s success. However, in these two works, we see that Asian women, dressing in traditional clothes, can be the hero! We can see Auntie Po saving people from the river, and the three strong girls ready to fight, and these are all opposite to what they are supposed to do in their culture. Indeed, they even surpass most men, as Auntie Po is the one who can log the greatest number of trees, and sumo wrestlers are considered to be the strongest group of people in Japan.
The last similarity they share is that although they are trying to show that females can be strong and powerful, they both show it through the male’s frame. They do it by drawing females with muscular bodies. Especially in this Japanese painting, all these girls are giants. In other words, they show women are powerful by making them like men, which might imply that only the figure of men is powerful.
Fanfiction is the name given to works of literature that are derivatives of other works or concepts that are not a part of the canonical universe of the original. It can range from very short stories to works that have lengths much longer than the original work itself. A tool that is employed in most fanfictions is “shipping” where the author places two characters that are not in a canonical relationship into a relationship in the fanfiction. One way that fanfiction has been used is as a tool to create queer narratives in a universe where there may have not been an explicit queer narrative to begin with. Many works include characters that are queer coded, and are described in ways that are almost explicitly queer, but the author of the source material never confirms, and leaves the reader hanging. This act of carving out a storyline that was not initially there just to be able to see the storylines of people who are similar to you shows a deep aspect of why it is so necessary to include queer representation. If this representation was not necessary, it would be hard to believe that people would produce these works, some of which are longer than the source material itself, just to be able to see stories of people like them.
We can see a connection to The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor, particularly in the Authors Note and the final pages of the book. When Mei talks about going to form her own story (Khor, 282), implying that there are many more adventures to be had beyond the confines of her book, it is the exact concept that these fanfiction authors latch onto, that just because you have hit the final pages doesn’t mean that the characters cease to exist, that their stories must end. Where one story ends is just an opportunity for another story to begin, and when the initial author isn’t there to represent marginalized communities, in some cases fans of the work create representation that was not originally there. This connects to the Authors Note at the end of the book, particularly when Khor discusses making the story of a young Chinese American girl (Khor, 285). This is not unlike the how fanfiction creators will sometimes use their works as a tool to create more representation in the universes they love so dearly, so they can see a character just like them, and finding how in creating that little corner of the universes of their favorite works.
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.
I am interested in how Saeed Jones would understand and respond to the film Moonlight, based on his writing about being a Black, gay man in the south. Jones writes about the violence he sees every day inflicted on bodies that look like his, and identities that he has. While reading Jones’ collection of poetry Prelude to Bruise I was reminded of scenes and themes from Moonlight. The film is based on a semi-autobiographical play that follows Chiron growing up the projects of Miami from a young boy to an adult. One scene in particular reminded me of Jones’ poem “History, According to Boy”. The opening line of the poem is “Boy is not one of the boys, but Boy is observant” (85). In Moonlight, Chiron’s name is a central issue to the plot; the film is divided into three distinct sections, the first called ‘Little’, because that is the nickname given to him by his peers. The film works like a play: we are shown, not told, that Chiron is excluded from the boys at his school and singled out for being different. His mother cites this difference as “the way he walks”, which is strikingly similar to Jones’ father monitoring his actions: “Boy was so excited he did a little hop. Boy noted that his father’s smile dimmed then, but only for a second” (88). Both characters learn through their interactions with the world, first from their parents, that they are different and wrong in some way. Also, in both of these works intimacy is received often through violence, which is a result of toxic masculinity. One crucial scene in Moonlight involves Chiron getting beat up by his friend and crush Kevin, who the night before they had a sexual encounter. Kevin must prove to the other boys he isn’t allied with Chiron, who has a ‘spoiled identity’ according to stigma theory. Jones makes the same observation about the boys in his class, that when “The teacher talks about male friendship. . . “Fags,” hiss the rest of the Boys in agreement.” (90). It is implied here that boys are teaching each other not to show any intimacy, for fear of being perceived as gay.
I believe it is important to consume these art forms because they depict the harms done by continuing to stigmatize male friendship and queerness. Both these artists challenge stereotypes that depict Black men as violent, hyper sexualized beings and speak from an autobiographical place. The delicacy with which both Jones and Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, show the pain of struggling to be accepted as gay Black men in America incites empathy from every audience member.
In “The Legend of Auntie Po” we learn about a part of US history that has been often forgotten: the difficult lives of Chinese immigrants in logging camps in Sierra Nevada, California. “Orange is the New Black”, Jenji Kohan’s series, narrates the lives of female prisoners in Upstate New York, whose stories are usually ignored too. Khor and Kohan’s works have made it possible for these often-forgotten minorities to be visible. They also portrayed the stories of queer individuals with dreams, desires and flaws. They have brought humanity to neglected groups, making them relatable and worthy of respect, support and love.
The ceremony for Pauly’s death is traditionally Chinese. This moment is very emblematic, because it’s a Chinese ritual for a white man. During the ceremony, there are three boxes. The first one says: “I guess we have to keep on telling our stories, even if they are not the same as the ones our parents told us” (page 238). On page 239, the other two boxes say, “I like it when our stories change when we share them with new people” and “I like that their stories will be different”. The boxes symbolize a collective voice brought together in Mei. A voice that recognizes that telling stories of compassion between differences is important and must continue. A ritual that would be exotic for white loggers in the 19th century is, as a matter of a fact, a demonstration of love and respect for those who have passed away. This generates relatability from the reader.
Kohan’s series tells the stories of convicts who had their own dreams and desires and when we watch it, we can actually relate to their problems and understand what they go through. The story of a Black lesbian convict, who struggles with mental issues (Suzanne “Crazy Eyes”), is portrayed. She loves books and expresses vulnerability and love in many moments. She has violent bursts as well. She is human and relatable.
The boxes in the pages aforementioned (238 and 239) encourages the ongoing telling of the stories, making other people aware of other narratives and consequently changing their own stories by being more empathic towards Queer people and other minorities. The book and the series ultimately say that individuals who are forgotten by the course of history or the mainstream deserve love and understanding. Their own idiosyncrasies need to be respected and be given space, but in the end, they are also individuals with flaws and desires, just pursuing their own happiness. Fiction is a tool to empower forgotten voices and generate relatability.