A Song for Matthew Shepard

Image result for a song for matthew shepardIt may be surprising that I started the year with such a depressing book, but I felt ready today to read this poetry pamphlet. Lesléa Newman delivered these poems at the University of Wyoming five days after Matthew Shepard’s murder.

Matthew Shepard is to the LGBTQ movement what Emmett Till was to the Civil Rights Movement. Shepard was kidnapped and tortured by two boys on the night of October 6, 1998. He was found tied to a fence by a cyclist who mistook the body for a scarecrow.

The poems in October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard are told from a variety of perspectives – some inanimate. Each section begins with a poem from the fence’s perspective, and most of the poems begin with a quote from one of the actual people involved in the case. According to the pamphlet, Newman was heavily inspired by the structure of “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams.

I was the most moved by the poems that addressed the national response to Shepard’s murder. “A Chorus of Parents”, “Then and Now”, and “The Drag Queen” were my favorite in the collection.

Not all of the poems were brilliant. A few were frankly pretty trite. But overall, I felt that Newman captured well Shepard’s influence on the Gay Rights Movement. We must not forget the son, student, and lover behind the involuntary martyr.

Then I was a guy
Now I am a ghost

Then I was a student
Now I am a lesson.

– from “Then and Now”

Memoir, Modern Detour

Review of Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

Image result for redefining realnessRedefining Realness is Janet Mock’s memoir of growing up as a poor, multiracial, trans woman in Hawaii. As you can imagine, this is a difficult book for me to review since it is an autobiography. Instead, I will simply describe my overall impression of the book.

What was it about?

Janet Mock is a trans activist who began her career writing for Marie Claire. Her memoir Redefining Realness chronicles her struggles growing up transgender and poor in a society that was only just beginning to address trans rights. Her father does not live responsibly, and her mother gets into relationships with men who go in and out of prison.

From a young age, her parents and siblings notice that Janet (born Charles) does not behave like other boys. She wants to be a secretary and prefers feminine clothing. Her step brother begins to sexually abuse her at the age of 9. When she does start transitioning at 15, her teachers and classmates are not tolerant. However, she does make friends with other trans individuals and participates in a trans support group. Eventually, she makes enough money while in college (through sex work) to pay for gender reassignment surgery in Thailand.


This is a very graphic memoir. Everything from sexual abuse to sex work is described in detail. But this is Janet Mock’s story. Often, the trans individuals whose voices we hear in the media are white and came from middle to upper class families. Mock wants to bring attention to the majority of trans individuals who do not come from such privileged backgrounds. Many do not have the money to undergo hormone replacement therapy or have reassignment surgery, so they have even more difficulty integrating into society.

I definitely live a very sheltered life. Mock never has a stable home growing up, and has parents who do drugs. She makes choices that most of us would condemn. But there are structures in every society that prevent people from doing the right thing. When we ignore the influence these structures have on marginalized groups we end up blaming the victim.

I am still learning about gender and sexuality. I noticed while I was reading the memoir that I often thought of the trans individuals mentioned as becoming a certain gender. But that is not how trans individuals understand their gender. Mock does not thing she changed from being a boy to a girl. She has always understood herself as a girl.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I had reading this book (apart from the graphic language and descriptions) was relating to Mock’s definition of femininity. I have never cared much about clothing, makeup, or pop culture. I dress fairly androgynously most of the time and spend my money on books. But I’m also aware that many women do feel pressured by societal standards and by advertisement to look a certain way.  I began to be aware of my privilege not only as a cis woman but as a woman who for whatever reason does not feel threatened by the media’s representation of women. I wonder sometimes whether I can appreciate certain initiative in the feminist movement because of my gender neutral presentation, but that’s a topic for another time…

I don’t think I will reread this memoir. This is a book that you read once and give away. The writing is also pretty awful. Still, it took a lot of courage for Mock to write so honestly about her life. I worry how the most recent election in America will affect LGBTQ individuals. If you, like me, are still learning about gender and/or sexuality and are OK with reading something as graphic as Redefining Realness, I recommend Mock’s memoir. We need to listen to and learn from people whose voices are deliberately silenced by society.

I read this book for  The Literary Others reading challenge hosted last month by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader.

Literary Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

Review of Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Image result for orlando a biography harcourtWhat was it about? 

At the start of the novel, Orlando is a teenage page to Elizabeth I in 16th century England. He serves as an ambassador while writing poetry and plays. He even falls in love with a Russian princess named Sasha. At the age of 30, he suddenly transforms into a 19th century woman. As a woman in Victorian England, Orlando faces limitations that she had not faced as a man. Her loves and interests remain the same, but she struggles to find her voice. Even as a man, Orlando didn’t know how to write good poetry. What does good poetry look like anyway? Who gets to decide? As a woman, Orlando wonders if she should even pursue writing. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf is a nonstandard Bildungsroman replete with meditations on history, historiography, time, memory, gender, sexuality, love, and literature.

What did I think of it?

What is a biography? That is one of the major questions explored in Orlando: A Biography. Is a biography a slavishly literal retelling of a person’s life? If not, what are the details most important in a person’s life? Perhaps, a biography is never really a history of a single individual. But what sources do we use, and most importantly, how do we interpret them? Orlando writes dozens of works, but what do/can they tell us about the author’s identity or the author’s political, social, and literary context? Historiography is a field that particularly interests me. Memory is not simply the recollection of past events:

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.

Life experience and authorial intent influence the understanding of past events.

Orlando is quite an enigmatic character. At the start of the novel, Orlando is a boy but becomes a woman at the age of 30. Therefore, gender and sexuality are prominent themes in this biography. Virginia Woolf wrote about gender as a social construct almost a century ago. She challenged the belief that gender is a binary:

Many people, taking this into account, and holding that such a change of sex is against nature, have been at great pains to prove (1) that Orlando had always been a woman, (2) that Orlando is at this moment a man.

Orlando’s love for literature and Sasha remain constants, but society dictates what people of different genders can and cannot do. As a trans/gender nonconforming individual, Orlando struggles to fit into the societies of early modern and modern England.But does it matter what people think? Where does individual identity stop and social influence begin?

Orlando: A Biography was the perfect book to read for The Literary Others reading challenge hosted this month by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader. If you have had difficulty reading Woolf’s works in the past, I recommend Orlando. It is more straightforward than her other works. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style allows her to say things that simply cannot be communicated as powerfully in traditional prose. This is the second of her novels that I’ve read (the first was Mrs. Dallowayand it simply reinforced my conviction that Woolf is one of the greatest prose writers in the English-speaking world.

Favorite Quotes

And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head.

Baldwin, James, Literary Fiction

Review of Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Image result for giovanni's roomWhat was it about?

Giovanni’s Room is told from the perspective of David who recalls the time he was in Paris, away from his fiancée Hella and in a relationship with a barman named Giovanni. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Giovanni has been executed though we do not know his crime. The rest of the book is told in flashback and anecdotally. Hella is in Spain while David has an affair with Giovanni whom he met at a gay bar. David is torn between desire and guilt, not sure whether to continue his relationship with Hella, return to the U.S., or stay with Giovanni. In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, David struggles to accept his sexuality, make major life decisions, and relate to his father.

What did I think of it?

James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room in 1956, long before gay rights received any serious consideration in the United States. But although the work deals primarily with sexuality, it also touches on family, the woman’s place in society, moral responsibility, and national identity.

This work really reminded me of Sartre’s Nausee and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In all three works the narrators are pretty unpleasant characters with similar personalities, but their relationships and existential crises are so beautifully and hauntingly described. While the story of Giovanni’s Room is not very eventful, the prose is absolutely gorgeous. Giovanni is a very lovable character despite the crime he commits. I look forward to reading more works by James Baldwin.

Favorite Quote

[Giovanni] laughed. “Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.”

Golding, Michael, Modern Detour

Review of A Poet of the Invisible World by Michael Golding

What was it about?

Nouri Ahmad Mohammad ibn Mahsoud al-Morad is a boy in 13th century Persia studying to be a Sufi mystic. But he has four ears, is attracted to men, and writes breath-takingly beautiful poetry, so naturally he is admired and loved by some and seen as a threat and exploited by others. Nouri never finds permanence, traveling from one community to another in search of peace and acceptance. A Poet of the Invisible World by Michael Golding is a spiritual novel in the tradition of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

What did I think of it?

I usually don’t read books with romance. I can’t even read Jane Austen’s works. But A Poet of the Invisible World promised to offer something more. While Nouri is trying to understand his sexuality, he is also studying to be a Sufi mystic. The book is compared by critics to Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (my review here) which I loved, so I had high expectations when I went into the book.

Overall, I thought that it was a beautifully written work, but I expected more depth. I expected more of an engagement with the major metaphysical questions in Sufism especially since the story took place in the thirteenth century. It was a work that strained for profundity but never quite made it. There was a bit of a discussion concerning the meaning of life and the problem of evil but the dervishs’ comments were quite trite. I admit to having very high standards when it comes to spiritual fiction because I have read more works of this genre than the average reader, but even a generous critic can’t excuse a platitudinous line such as this one:

The truth is that our souls hang in the balance until our final moment. We fluctuate between grace and sin and only Allah can say what will happen when the bowl finally shatters.

This is, frankly, as profound as this book gets. Still, A Poet of the Invisible World avoids sounding New Age-y. Golding has clearly done his research (he presents Islam much better than Hesse presents Buddhism).

In truth, A Poet of the Invisible World is less a work about the spiritual awakening of a boy and more an LGBT identity novel with an Islamic backdrop. The writing is beautiful and Nouri is a sympathetic character, but Golding is heavy-handed with the moral, and the moral is extremely predictable. Apart from Nouri’s romantic affairs not much else is memorable. I didn’t dislike A Poet of the Invisible World. The story grabbed my attention, and the sex scenes weren’t gratuitous or poorly written, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. It wasn’t Siddhartha.