Class Notes on Sexual Orientation // 6-29-16

After sharing our plans for the summer now that school’s officially out for all of us, we dove headlong into our rich array of texts for this week’s conversation about sexuality, coming-of-age, and identity.

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Junot Díaz

We started with the Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz‘s short story, “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie).” In the style of a fake “how-to” manual, Díaz’s male Afro-Dominican narrator regurgitates what he’s been told about the best ways to entice, flatter, and manipulate different kinds of women, based on their race and class. We debated the extent to which Díaz successfully pushes back against sexist stereotypes of straight women even as he playfully reproduces them to make a searing point about the ways in which macho thinking “reduces men and women alike,” to paraphrase Allison Danger (a.k.a. one of the young women in the Kaleidoscope Project).

Next we moved on to excerpts from Alison Bechdel‘s award-winning graphic memoirFun Home. Rahat told us about how the memoir had actually been formally banned in her school for a time, which has happened across the country— even at renowned universities like Duke.

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Alison Bechdel

An out lesbian, Bechdel grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. Her sardonic but poignant memoir recounts her coming-of-age in lieu of the revelation that her own father, who committed suicide, was a closeted homosexual. We especially focused on the role of books in Bechdel’s acceptance of her own taboo sexual identity– the extent to which being represented in fiction (and now, in Broadway musicals) makes us feel like our stigmatized experiences are valid and real. (For a clip from the Tony award-winning musical adaptation that we watched in class, click here.)

If you really liked her graphic memoir and want to read more of the genre, you can find an excellent reading list here.

We finished with a pairing of strange bedfellows: the renowned Indian feminist writer Ismat Chughtai (1915-1981) and queer African American novelist and poet James Baldwin (1924-1987). Chughtai’s short story, “The Quilt” (originally “Lihaaf,” in Urdu), elicited much controversy in India upon its publication in 1942. Homosexuality has been a criminal offense in India since 1860, and Chughtai’s story was brought to trial under obscenity charges. However, her legal counsel won the fight by proving that there were no explicit homoerotic references in her prose. Currently, India’s Supreme Court is considering finally decriminalizing homosexuality.

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Two Portraits of Ismat Chughtai, Mature and Young

Baldwin was one of the first openly gay black men to write fiction and poetry about LGBTQI experiences— especially interracial relationships– in America during the civil rights movement. In this vein, his novels include Another Country and Giovanni’s RoomFor more on Baldwin’s biography, watch this brief video.

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James Baldwin

Like Chughtai’s story, Baldwin’s love poem, “Munich, Winter 1973 (For Y.S.),” hints at his queer identity without ever naming a sexual orientation, identity, or act. However, whereas Baldwin’s ode makes hearts flutter with its sweetness, Chughtai’s psychological thriller seizes the spine with chills of horror.

Four incredibly different creative writing prompts emerged from these myriad texts!

  • Junot Díaz | What disparaging slurs have you heard men call women? Or women call men? Transform those insults into a short story (maybe even a “how-to” manual) directed to a man or woman who demeans the other sex on the basis of stereotypes. If you want, write in a second-person point-of-view like Díaz.
  • Alison Bechdel | If you’re also a visual artist, sketch our just one panel that represents a particularly striking memory you have in relation to sexuality and coming-of-age.
  • Ismat ChughtaiIf you’re afraid to put your feelings into words, experiment with a psychological thriller in which you allude to sexuality without ever explicitly identifying the characters’ orientation(s).
  • James BaldwinWrite an anonymous love poem. Why does this person make you happy? Where are you when you think of him/her? Address him/her with the second-person point-of-view without ever naming him/her.

Next week: There will be NO CLASS on Wednesday, July 5 in observance of Independence Day vacations that we all might be taking. However, the first field trip is coming up on Tuesday, when many of us at the Kaleidoscope Project will be slamming, listening to, and mingling with other teens at Urban Word’s First Draft open mic in Herald Square.

Stay tuned for our next class session on Wednesday, July 13, when we’ll be discussing works about race and prejudice from Michelle Cliff, Staceyann Chin, and Toni Morrison, in addition to a craft talk with debut novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge.

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