Coming Out–A Close Reading of Fun Home

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdale is memoir, of sorts, represented in a comic form. The telling of her life’s story with a comic book as opposed to prose, poetry, or other forms of writing allows her to get across so much information without having to rely on choppy rhetorical devices, excessive amounts of adjectives, or metaphors and similes that may be lost on the viewer.

With prose, time is expected to be linear (in western writing, at least). When a writer wants to jump to another point in time, he or she must state that the time has changed. This can be done by outright stating so (Ex. “Three years later…”) or by showing something taking place (Ex. “As she smokes the day’s last cigarette…”).

In poetry, time does not necessarily matter. In lyrical poems, time is completely irrelevant, allowing the author to switch tense at whim. All that matters is the emotion. In narrative poetry, time matters a little more, but switching tense is still not unheard of.

With comics, a shift in time can be shown. For instance in Fun Home, the way the characters look can signify at what stage in their lives the panels happen to take place. The panels themselves show change a scenery in time and space. To dig a little deeper, let us delve deeper into pages 74 and 75 of the 2007 First Mariner Books edition.

These two pages cover Bechdale’s self realization that she was, in fact, a homosexual. In the first panel, written in a text box overlaid on a book shelf is, “My realization at nineteen that I was a lesbian came about in a manner consistent with my bookish upbringing.” The placement of this text makes the bond between literature and her sexual awakening tighter, by physically placing the words on top of books. The next panel down shows a thirteen-year-old Alison noticing the word “lesbian” in a dictionary. Cut to the panel right and we see the “camera” zoom in on the definition, letting us see what she saw in a way that simply cannot be done with prose alone.

On the next page we see her exploring books about homosexuals and homosexuality. In the top right of page 75, she is purchasing a book called Lesbian Woman, and the bookstore salesman is an elderly man who is looking at the back of the book inquisitively while our protagonist is standing awkwardly with her hands crossed in front of her.

We then see her grabbing for another book and digging through a card catalogue, representing passing of time and a continued dedication to the research of the subject in a way that is very reminiscent of a montage in a film.

In the bottom right corner on the same page, we see her checking out a book called Homosexualities by Masters and Johnson. The librarian is perched high above, looking down on the nervous Bechdale. This symbolizes the fear and shame she was feeling at the time. It reminds me of when I was researching homosexuality amidst my self realization. I used to put my browser in “Private” mode when reading gay blogs or web magazines because I did not want anybody to even know I was reading about it.

Toni Morrison and the Myth of the Nuclear Family

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

In this short video clip from an interview on the Charlie Rose show, Toni Morrison bravely challenges the idea of the nuclear family. She asserts that the traditional western idea of a family consisting of a mom, a dad, kids, and family pets just is not enough for her. She needs a family to be much, much larger.

To her, familial relationships extend beyond the nuclear family. Grandparents are as important as parents. People who are not even related by blood can still be considered family. To Toni Morrison, family seems to depend more on what role a person plays in another person’s life as opposed to whose blood runs through your veins.

This video also demonstrates Morrison’s passion and conviction. She is not merely trying to get a rise out of people to increase book sales; she truly believes what she says and presents her views with such honesty. It is as if there is little doubt in her mind as to whether or not she is right. She knows she is right!

Our Topic

The topic our group is exploring for our upcoming Prezi on Toni Morrison and her novel Sula is the idea of sexuality and human relationships. Throughout the book, Morrison pushes the boundaries of what is an acceptable human relationship. She has women assuming the roles traditionally thought of as being masculine; she has male characters being treated on equal footing as female characters. There are females interacting in ways that totally rub against the grain of what western society deems as being acceptable or normal.

Sula–Initial Impressions & Suicide Day

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Untitled

 

Sula by Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison centers around a historically black hill community called “The Bottom.” The land was originally given to freed slaves as a “prank.” White slave owners would promise their slaves freedom and land if they did certain things. Upon completing these tasks, the slave owners would trick the slaves into wanting the worthless hill land by telling them that it was closer to God.

 

This is all laid out in the first chapter, in a conversational tone (complete with sentence fragments). Unlike the following chapters, this one remains unnamed. Perhaps this is because it is a piece of history that is left out of the text books and remains unspoken of by white society. The titles of the following chapters are all years, implying that they are actually a part of written history, whereas the first chapter remains a dirty little secret.

1919 – National Suicide Day

 

Suicide Booth courtesy of Futurama

Suicide Booth courtesy of Futurama.

The chapter 1919 does some very interesting things with perspective and story telling. This chapter introduces Shadrack and his holiday National Suicide Day. The narration goes from talking about Shadrack and his weird holiday to a third person omniscient point of view explaining how and why Shadrack became the deranged man he is. After getting into his mind and exploring his experience in World War I, the “camera” zooms out and we go back to reading about the man and the town’s reactions to him.

At first he caused people to become upset, but as time went on, people grew to accept his madness, much as he had grown to accept that he actually exists and is not just the figment of somebody’s imagination.

Mango Chutney

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Prompt: Develop the close reading of the vignette that you wrote last week. Compare it to other vignettes in the novel. Compare it to the other texts we have read in this course.

As I demonstrated in my post “Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes,” the vignet “A Rice Sandwich” has some militaristic elements to it. These elements also occur in “The First Job.” In this vignet, Esperanza gets her first job at a photo development shop. It’s her job to match negatives, and nothing else. “I didn’t know where these envelopes were coming from or where they were going. I just did what I was told” (54). Like a soldier in the military, our narrator was simply a cog in the wheel; she did what she was told and didn’t question her superior’s orders.

Also like a soldier, she wore white gloves. While in combat, the troops don’t wear these fashion elements, but on formal occasions, troops wear the gloves. In western culture, white often symbolizes cleanliness and sterility.

The connections between the two stories don’t stop there. Perhaps mortified from her canteen experience as a kid, Esperanza is afraid to eat with the other employees in the lunchroom. Not wanting others to see her eat, she eats her meal standing up in a bathroom stall, trying to eat as quickly as possible so that she can get back to work before the others. On her breaks, she goes to the coat closet and sits on a small bench within.

When her work is done, she is like a soldier who has finished a tour of duty. She is left abandoned, not knowing what to do; eagerly awaiting her next deployment.

To step outside of Mango Street for a moment, there are military elements in other stories we have read this semester as well. In “No Name Woman,” the narrator’s aunt is attacked for becoming pregnant by a man other than her husband. The neighbors form a battalion  and storm the house, destroying all of her belongings and humiliating her in front of her family. Despite knowing this to be wrong, the family does not fight back and defend the poor woman. They instead follow orders and wait it out.

After invading troops leave, the aunt is given a dishonorable discharge from the family. She is left to give birth in the pig sty (or in the mud, then the sty, if the narrator’s assumed “true story” are to be believed). With no family by her side, the aunt does the only thing she feels she can do: she kills herself and her child by diving into the town’s well, poisoning the water supply.

Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Prompt: Perform a close reading of a single image in the novel using the OED to expand your interpretation of word connotations.

For the purposes of this prompt, I decided to focus on the vignet “A Rice Sandwich” from Sandra Crisneros’ House on Mango Street.

In this vignet, the narrator tells us about a story from her times spent at lunch in grade school. She and all of the other kids who lived near the school,  had to walk home for lunch, while those who lived further away had to pack a sandwich and eat in the canteen. Not wanting to feel left out, she devised a plan to pack a sandwich and have her mom write a note telling the nuns that she could eat lunch at school.

Not having any lunch meat in the home (they don’t eat sandwiches), her mother made her a rice sandwich.

Unlike this sushi interpretation of a rice sandwich, hers consisted of rice smushed between two slices of bread.

When lunch time came, the nuns were skeptical of her letter. They knew that she lived close by, and that she didn’t need to eat at school. After some questioning, she started to cry and the nuns felt bad. She was allowed to stay for lunch, but for one day only.

She sat in the canteen and ate her rice sandwich. Contrary to her fantasy, the canteen was not a fun place to be. The whole experience was sour.

This brings me to the word canteen. She’s using this word to describe her school cafeteria or lunch room, yet it has other connotations to it. The Oxford English Dictionary’s top definition for the word is:

A kind of sutler’s shop in a camp, barracks, or garrison town, where provisions and liquors are sold to soldiers and non-commissioned officers.

She’s using a military term to describe the lunch room at her Catholic school. When you really look at the story, it is very militaristic. Upon first presenting the note, she is referred to a superior. On page 44 and 45, she mentions seeing kids hollered at while she waited in line to speak to the superior nun. Once in the office, the nun sits behind a large desk and questions the orders (her note from mom).

Keep Talking

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker all wrote essays about the evolving nature of social injustices. Woolf primarily touched upon how hard it is for women writers to be taken seriously. Rich expanded upon that idea by delving into the effects of social class. Rich focussed on how race plays into social expectations. If I were to be the one to continue this conversation, I would focus on heterosexism–the assumption that everyone is a heterosexual.

Last week, Secreatary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the 1994 ban on women serving in combat positions within the military. While the majority of the soldiers agree with this act of equality, the conservative media has been blowing up about it. Right-wing tabloid sites like World Net Daily argue that women serving in combat positions will ruin our military be sexualizing it. They say that the male troops will want to have sex with the female troops, and that the female troops will want to have sex with the male troops, causing lots of drama and sorrow. This assumes three things: 1) That the female troops are all interested in men. 2) That the male troops are all interested in women. 3) That the male and female troops are attracted to anybody of the opposite sex.

It isn’t just the nut jobs with an anti-women, anti-homosexual agenda who project this idea of heterosexism. Much of it, in fact, is entirely innocent. Numerous times in my life, I have had people tell me, “Oh, you’re going to make your wife really happy someday!” Maybe it’s because I’m gay that I pick up on these things, but people just assume that 1) I want to get married and 2) that whomever I marry will be a woman.  Instances like this don’t upset me, but they certainly put me in an awkward position. I could either just chuckle it off or use it as an opportunity to explain my sexual orientation. Since I don’t feel as though I should have to discuss my orientation with everybody I interact with, I generally choose to just chuckle it off. “Heh, heh. Yeah…”

Other cases are more direct, and do make me quite angry. I see this in a lot of commercials and advertisements. Masculinity and manliness are often intertwined with heterosexuality. If you’re not sexually excited by a woman in a skimpy outfit, then you aren’t a real man. That kind of stuff. This assumes that 1) gay men can’t be manly and 2) that all men are attracted to the same thing, gay or straight.

Homosexuality in the US is becoming more and more normalized everyday, but we still have a long way to go before homosexuals are actually equal with heterosexuals. I eagerly await the day when coming out is a choice, not an obligation.

Voices from the Past

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

So the prompt for this week is to dig through my archives and critique a piece of my own writing from some years ago. I was initially excited to tear apart the drivel I wrote in high school, but then I remembered that I saved all of my papers on 3.25” floppy diskettes back then. Even if I could find those old hunks of plastic, and assuming that the data hasn’t been corrupted or otherwise compromised, I would have no way of viewing the contents. None of my four computers in Pullman have the required drives, and I don’t even know where to purchase one anymore. I don’t even think WSU Surplus sells floppy drives any longer. (They do, however, sell plenty of Zip Drives.)

 

Without access to high school stuff, I looked for papers I wrote in community college. Strike two. Those were all written on a computer I left back in Longview. So I dug through this computer and looked through my Documents folder. Voila! I stumbled across the first paper I wrote for a US History class I took in my first year at WSU (my second year of college).

 

The Simple Life in the Late 1800s” by Jeffery Shellenbarger, September 2007

 

In this six-year-old paper, I attempt to show how Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! demonstrates the shift in American society following the American Civil War. I summarize the book for several paragraphs before discussing the social constructs regarding the role of women in American society and the shift from rural to urban life. The flow isn’t how I would write the paper now. If written by 2013 Jeffery, the essay would revolve around the social changes and use the novel for examples and illustrations to help further my points. As it’s written now, the paper offers a decent summary of the novel, but does nothing to really analyze it or the society around it.

 

Mechanically, the paper is a disaster. Within the four sentence opener, I discovered many issues with the paper including, but not limited to, lack of proofreading, choppy sentence structure, and the lack of a clear thesis statement. The lack of a clear thesis made me read the whole paper before knowing what it was about. Even then, I still don’t really know if I had a point or if I was merely rambling until I hit the required word and/or page length.

 

Perhaps due to the lack of a thesis, the paper is missing a satisfying conclusion. Instead of tying the whole paper together, the final paragraph introduces information on industrial farming, interchangeable parts, and the loss of human jobs through the use of mechanical labor. 

 

Current me still struggles with some of these issues. My brain is still a scattered mess much of the time, but my papers tend to have much greater focus. At the very least, they are more entertaining to read than the drivel I pumped out before quitting college and coming back this past fall.

Behind a Mask

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Before last semester, I had not read much pre-twentieth century literature. Sure, I had read some Shakespeare and some worldly classics such as The Odessey, but most of my reading centered around twentieth century horror and contemporary political non-fiction.

In the fall, I took nineteenth century literature with Professor Donna Campbell as a way to expand my horizons. Being a Creative Writing major, I figured it was a good idea to get some more writing perspective under my belt. In this class, I was exposed to an author by the name of Louisa May Alcott. I had heard of her story Little Women before, but I had never actually read anything written by her.

In the class, we read her short story Transcendental Wild Oats (which is where the title of my blog comes from) and the novella Behind a Mask. Both of these were amongst my favorite reads of the semester (certainly better than Moby-Dick).

In Transcendental Wild Oats, Alcott writes a fictionalized account of her time spent living on a co-op when she was a little girl in the 1840s. Like most of the utopian societies, the story deals with the high ideals (equality for women, rejection of materialism, everybody having their own role in society, etc.) of the community and how the relationships fell apart as they failed to be able to properly maintain a farm.

With Behind a Mask, Alcott actually wrote the story behind a mask. She published it under the name A.M. Barnard with an alternate title of A Woman’s Power. This, I feel, relates strongly to Virgina Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” in that Woolf wrote about the struggles of women being taken seriously in a “Man’s World,” while Alcott wrote about a woman manipulating people in order to gain power in a “Man’s World.” The story is about a thirty-year-old governess named Jean Muir who disguises herself as a younger woman who manipulates a family in order to marry a count, giving her a title and power. Although the family figures out her game, she still succeeds in her plan.

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