Thursday, 31 January 2008

More on books!

Really, I wanted to use this blog to write about the way academic work fits into a life, and I don't seem quite to be able to find a way of publicly writing about that yet. So I'm going to write about books again this week, and think about life for next week...

I don't think I'm going to enjoy The Greeks and Greek Love as much as I'd hoped, sadly, but it is going to be pretty relevant to the Derrida piece, if only because I'm going to be using some S/M theory in that and James Davidson is very cross about the idea that Greek men could have anything in common with 20th-century gay S/M practice, so I might have some fun engaging with that.

Incidentally, on the topic of reappraising ancient same-sex practices, isn't this call for papers like an example of How Not To 'Include' Lesbians? Here's a representative section, consisting of a quote specifically about male-male sex, followed by an unargued assertion that 'the same goes for lesbians too, I expect': Henning Bech (When Men Meet: Homosexuality and Modernity [1997]) has the following to say: “one should be on the lookout for a possible huge variety of meanings, reasons and pleasures associated with being penetrated: experimentation, prodigality, joy, submission, ecstasy, dirt, sociality, love, and so on” (256). This is equally true for both male and female homoeroticism. Well, yeah, maybe, but it's hard to tell when you only cite sources (both ancient and modern) which are exclusively about men. (It reminds me of the moment in the Queer Spaces conference last year when someone, in a really revealing slip-of-the-tongue attempt at inclusiveness, talked about 'gay and lesbian men'. Gay and lesbian men! I think we've covered everyone there!)

Anyway, back to books. The unexpected star of my latest book acquisitions has been How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read. I haven't, in fact, read it yet (and so am caught in a Doctor-Who/analytic-philosophy-style paradox), but listen to this (found by opening the book at random). He's talking about a 'realm of communication about books' which 'might be characterized as a virtual library, both because it is a space dominated by images (images of oneself, in particular) rather than books and because it is not a realm based in reality. It is subject to a number of rules whose goal is to maintain it as a consensual space in which books are replaced by fictions of books. It is also a realm of play, not unlike that of childhood or of the theater...'

In the intellectual circles where writing still counts, the books we have read form an integral part of our image, and we call that image into question when we venture to publicly announce our inner library's limits.

In this cultural context, books - whether read or unread - form a kind of second language to which we can turn to talk abou tourselves, to communicate with others, and to defend ourselves in conflict. Like language, books serve to express us, but also to complete us, furnishing, through a variety of excerpted and reworked fragments, the missing elements of our personality...

... [The virtual library] is the opposite of school - a realm of violence driven by the fantasy that there exists such a thing as thorough reading, and a place where everything is calibrated to determine whether the students have truly read the books about which they speak and face interrogation. Such an aim is, in the end, illusory, for reading does not obey the hard logic of true and false, of waving off ambiguity and evaluating with certainty whether readers are telling the truth.

Isn't that great? Since I started thinking about reading seriously in 1999, when I did my MA, I've always wanted to theorize the ways we read without reading, but never quite made a start on it, but it looks like Pierre Boyard has done so for me - and isn't it lovely? Clever and pretty and serious and playful.

(Pierre Boyard, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (London: Granta, 2007), pp.125, 128-9.)

Thursday, 24 January 2008


Reading The Post Card in preparation for my Derrida paper; it's making me think that one of the hardest things in this paper will be to find a voice for it. Quoting Derrida's erotic, mashed-up, colloquial, dense, pyrotechnic craziness in 'Envois' in a paper written in a... serious, academic-objective, omniscient-narrator-style voice... would be really jarring. But on the other hand, the last thing the world needs is another academic article pastiching The Post Card (written as a letter, for example).

Also! This book arrived through the post today. I'm excited about reading it, not least because (according to a review I read of it, which I won't link to, as it annoyed me) it contains the word homobesotment, and I think it's going to address the question of 'greek love' vs contemporary 'homosexuality' and the associated questions about how to do queer history quite directly, which is great.

In the same parcel arrived this book, hilariously enough. Between the two of them I should be an expert on Plato by Monday!

Thursday, 17 January 2008

No Future

Hmm. One chapter in and full of thinky... I think Edelman's argument has a lot in common with some things I'm thinking about queerness and differance, but he takes his whole argument through Lacan (where I take it through Derrida), and I just... don't get Lacan, or don't like Lacan, or something. There's something about thinking politics psychoanalytically that bothers me, and I'm not sure why - I suppose I'm never quite sure about the fit between the subject of psychoanalysis and the subject of politics. (But then the gap between the two of them - or politics as the attempt to cover up the gap within the subject of psychoanalysis, to create rigidly-identified stable subjects as the subjects of politics - is what Edelman is on about in this book, and that's one of the things that is very exciting about his project to me.)

Something that seems to be missing from this book, and which is (as is probably clear from my last few posts!) quite dear to my heart, is the queer child - Edelman says that 'queerness, for contemporary culture... is understood as bringing children and childhood to an end', and so the subject position of the queer child is foreclosed ('the cult of the Child permits no shrines to the queerness of boys and girls'). He does say that the Child must not be confused with the lived/historical experience of actually-existing children, but it's striking to me that although Edelman is very careful to set out the complexity of the relationship between queer people or queer subjects and the figuration of The Queer - in fact this is what the first chapter is all about, in a way - he doesn't seem to extend the same careful thought and complexity to the gap between children and The Child. Children are only objects, 'realizations' of a fantasmatic structure that casts them as the future of the social. But it seems that the queer opposition/resistance to The Child must, for Edelman, involve real queer people in a repudiation of relationships with real children. (In some ways, I know I'm reading this from the wrong perspective, and that for Edelman, trying to figure out how to save children for queerness, how to have children within queerness, would be just a symptom of my investment in hope and futurity and a social order which can accommodate queerness... but there's something here I do want to puzzle out.)

So far, at least, there's no reflection on the material social conditions which make access to children possible or impossible for queers (and I'm phrasing that deliberately to equivocate over whether those queers are nurturing/parenting children, or 'recruiting'/destroying them), or on the gap between real children and the figure of The Child - Edelman seems to take it for granted that all parenting, whether done by queer or straight people, and whether initiated through biological reproduction, adoption, or some mixture of the two (or other), must involve an investment in 'reproductive futurism', in the Child as suture-and-future, as the reproduction of the social order in its sameness. It also seems to me that there are important differences between queer women and queer men in terms of the way in which their relationship to The Child is constructed and lived.

Another thing, particularly in the light of the project within which I'm reading this book and my emerging thinking about daddy/boy:

Not for nothing, after all, does the historical construction of the homosexual as distinctive social type overlap with the appearance of such literary creations as Tiny Tim, David Balfour, and Peter Pan, who enact, in an imperative most evident today in the uncannily intimate connection between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, a Symbolic resistance to the unmarried men (Scrooge, Uncle Ebenezer, Captain Hook) who embody, as Voldemort's name makes clear, a wish, a will, or a drive toward death that entails the destruction of the Child.

What's going on in that slippage from 'uncannily intimate connection' to 'Symbolic resistance'? What about the queerness of the relationship to the child?

At the end of this chapter, Edelman quotes Hocquenghem, proposing a queerness which is 'unaware of the passing of generations as stages on the road to better living'. Is that a queerness which is unaware of the passing of generations tout court? Can there be a queerness in relation to the future as a-venir, the future-to-come (which can only be proposed in the form of an absolute monstrosity), rather than to the future as sameness, as desire's fantasmatic projection forward of its (retrospectively constructed) memory of a lost plenitude?

The other thing I wonder about this book is whether Edelman is, to coin a phrase, IN UR QUEER STUDIES BEIN A GAY HOMOSECKSHUAL: although he insists on a 'queerness' which is beyond identity politics, his rhetorical structures seem to be mainly drawn from a specifically gay male repertoire. Like I said in my last post, I think the book is dangerously blind to a gay male history of the valorization of male masculinities in opposition to a (feminized) domesticity; he claims to oppose oppositional identity politics (which, yayy) but I wonder whether it's actually structuring his argument in a way that he's not noticed? Maybe he'll address some of this later in the book, though.

Love and Theory

Yesterday, in the course of an extended rant with J about No Future (about which I have a draft post brewing, but in short: tons of interesting and challenging stuff, hugely undermined by its blindness to its own participation in a particular gay-male-(of-a-certain-age)-coloured repudiation of domesticity-as-femininity, related to a nostalgic fantasy about a masculine gay culture based around the queer public space of 'the baths' rather than around queer familial, social, or political bonds), she made a throwaway comment about writers who 'think that puns are arguments', which caused me to stare at her in a moment of This is not my beautiful wife!ness and think: OMG my girlfriend believes in the TRANSCENDENTAL SIGNIFIED!! What shall I do?

We bookmarked the argument to have another time, agreed to differ, and continued to cook aubergine and potato curry together. It was very tasty, and by the time I had finished it I was willing to concede that it is possible to critique some writers' use of wordplay without necessarily believing in God, the Phallus, or the Name-of-the-Father.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

The Erotics of Filiation

I have to write a chapter for a book on Derrida and Antiquity by the first of March, which means I'm gearing up to start writing quite soon: so this week's Wednesday update is going to consist of me jotting down some initial thoughts about the chapter.

This is the abstract I wrote for it:

Eros in the age of technical reproductibility: Socrates, plato and the erotics of filiation

This essay will explore Derrida's queer deconstruction of the father/son 'couple' Socrates and plato in The Post Card. The idea that Western culture can trace its descent through a series of metaphorical filiations, descending ultimately from Plato, is commonplace; in The Post Card Derrida quietly, laboriously, and scandalously draws out the queer and intergenerational eroticism of a relationship with antiquity figured in this way. The genealogical metaphor is one of the most stubborn ways through which time is figured as progressing unidirectionally from past to future; Derrida's insistence on the simultaneity of generations and on the eroticism of intergenerational relationships works to invert and displace this chronology of reception. Furthermore, although Derrida’s work on antiquity demonstrates a persistent interest in the material, technical and spatial specificity of archival structures – that is, in the techne via which the 'present' and the past communicate – it is perhaps in this book that Derrida is most insistent about the implication of the body in the deconstructive rethinking of materiality, and brings together most urgently the Freudian-Lacanian concept of desire (as bound up with 'lack') with the deconstructive concept of writing (as bound up with 'absence').

In this essay, therefore, I will take up Derrida's insistence that the scene of writing, and the relationship between Socrates and Plato, is at work/at play/at stake in our most intimate relations. I will examine the eroticization of the scene of Socratic-Platonic filiation and writing in Derrida’s fragmented reading(s) of the Matthew Paris image which forms the 'support' for his writing in 'Envois', in order to trace the impact of this scene on the temporality and the erotics of our relation to antiquity.


So part of what I want to do is to displace the way that reception, or the relationship to the past, is often thought Oedipally or murderously; each generation has to 'kill its father' to be able to progress. In fact, one of the things that started me thinking along these lines was Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, which is all about the young poet as 'ephebe', ie in the correct age-class to be the object of Greek pederastic love (which is traditionally conceptualized, post-Kenneth-Dover, as being both erotic and, um, pedagogical or something; it's through a relationship with the older man that the younger man learns how to be a good citizen, how to take up an adult place in his society), and which has a slightly overheated overvaluation of the masculinity of writing (for example, Bloom writes that poetic influence involves a battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Lauis and Oedipus at the crossroads). And throughout 'Envois', the long opening section of The Post Card, Derrida is writing about (and messing with) the relationship between Socrates and Plato in terms which mix father/son imagery with erotic imagery, so I want to link that up to, say, Jacob Hale's 'Leatherdyke Daddies and their Boys: How To Have Sex Without Women Or Men', on the way that certain queer erotic practices deconstruct (very much in Derrida's sense, I think) both binary gender and the sex/gender binary. (I hope all this is going to be interesting, and not just a sort of 'heh heh, look, Derrida's talking about daddy/boy sex!' kind of essay...) I think Derrida is underrated as a queer thinker, even though he has been quietly undoing gender (to coin a phrase) since at least Of Grammatology in 1967, and I'd like to talk about the way that queerness is perhaps another name for differance, for the movement or play which subverts the structure of filiation that seeks to stably differentiate Socrates from Plato, the father from the son, speech from writing. (And what does it mean if queerness is another name for differance? What does the specificity of that name do to my thinking?)

But the other thing I'm starting to think about as I reread The Post Card is the way that Derrida talks about reproduction and the child as a metaphor for futurity and time. And reproduction - or reiteration/repetition - has been a key theme for queer theory since Leo Bersani's A Future for Astyanax and Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, and I'm very intrigued by the scene of reproduction between Socrates and Plato and the way that Derrida talks about male-male conception and filiation. I'm also thinking, though, that I'd like to relate this to Lee Edelman's recent book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, which specifically argues (as far as I can tell - I've only just started it) that the queer is that which is opposed to thinking about the future in the form of the child. For Edelman, this always means thinking about the future in terms of sameness (and continuity?), the relationship of the future to the present, whereas I think for Derrida the child is a figure of the a-venir, the future-to-come, the future which can only be apprehended as absolute monstrosity (as he says in Of Grammatology) - the unknowability and alterity of the future.

Like I say, I haven't finished reading Edelman yet, but I'm looking forward to doing so - I'm interested to see how his thesis relates to the 'optimistic project' of deconstruction, the deconstruction which always opens out of an unknowable future to which we always-already have a responsibility which goes beyond our conscious knowledge or will. I suspect I will end up using Derrida to critique Edelman, but who can tell?

Monday, 7 January 2008


I've decided to make 'whiteness' one of the themes in my Contemporary Writing course next teaching block, partly because I was just rereading Richard Dyer's White and gibbering in joy and massive heartfelt agreement, partly because I don't want my students to think they only have to engage with ideas around 'race' and ethnicity when they're reading Beloved or Tegonni.

I guess that a text by a white author which features only white characters is necessarily, at least in part, engaging in the construction of whiteness. But I wonder which of the texts on my reading list can be said to be doing so in interesting and/or self-reflective ways?

The main thing I remember about Dyer's analysis of whiteness in the Western imagination is that it's often connected with concerns over embodiment, and hence with death (all the way from 'white men can't jump'/dance to iconic images of angels, dead white children, and vampires).

I'm listing Bechdel's Fun Home, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea as being concerned with whiteness, but not Slaughterhouse-5 or Pale Fire. I'm not sure how much sense that makes...

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Queer Children: Courage

A PS to the previous post, about the way that (though this is not JKR's fault) I was also enraged by people responding to the outing of Dumbledore by saying that JKR was 'brave'. No, telling people after your books have sold a trillion copies that actually one of the characters was gay, even though it's not mentioned in the books, is not 'brave'. Having a gay supporting character in children's literature in 2007 is not actually terribly 'brave', either: in Diane Duane's very popular So You Want To Be A Wizard series (first book published in 1983), the main wizardly mentors to the child characters are a gay couple, Tom and Carl. Jacqueline Wilson - an incredibly popular and commercially successful UK children's writer (and the most borrowed author in British libraries, having finally overtaken Barbara Cartland about five years ago) - has minor gay characters in many of her books, in addition to Cam, the woman who adopts Tracy Beaker in the wildly successful The Story of Tracy Beaker and its sequels, who is never actually explicitly said to be gay, but seems to me not to be one of those short-haired straight women with no interest in men who don't go home for Christmas because their mother disapproves of their 'lifestyle' and whose best friends are a butch/femme styled pair of women. (Jacqueline Wilson has also just written her first explicitly gay-themed novel, Kiss, which by the way is fucking awesome - her best book by miles.)

Let's end on a cheering note. Most of you probably know that my splendid and shiny girlfriend J is in fact Jenny Pausacker, the author of the 1985 lesbian YA novel What Are Ya? (which is still one of the best queer YA novels ever. Well, the week that the Dumbledore story hit, J's best friend Kerry was on TV or something, and hence had to be made up, which she was, by a young man in a very tight pink t-shirt saying WHAT CLOSET? Kerry asked him about it, and he said: I read a book called 'What Are Ya?' when I was a kid which made me determined never to hide. Which... yayy.

While I'm blowing Jenny's trumpet, by the way, here's a link to an audio file of the speech David Levithan made at an Australian YA conference, which he starts by saying that after a conversation with Jenny he tore up his notes and started the speech again. And in which I'm pretty sure he calls Jenny brave, an adjective that I think she genuinely deserves.

Queer Children; Formulae for Reading

Hello, happy new year, all of that. Yes, I am going to try to update weekly for real this year.

To kick off 2008, though, here's a long post I've been writing in my head for some months, which spirals out from a few things I've been thinking about, which are connected because they all have to do with queer issues in/around children's literature. They are:

(1) JKR's surprising and belated announcement that Dumbledore is gay;

(2) Kate Cann's most recent novel, Sea Change; and

(3) this long and thoughtful discussion on an essay I wrote* on the queer politics of slash, which someone linked me to recently and which delights me hugely - but which also nailed something that I wanted to think about in more detail, which is a question about the relationship between fiction and real life.

In the essay, I'm arguing very strenuously that one of the reasons I write slash - particularly Harry Potter slash - is to introduce queer possibilities into, or make them visible in, the fictional universe of the Harry Potter books, and that I do this because of a commitment to making queer possibilities visible and available in the non-fictional universe that I live in. Princess of Geeks, the blogger who's discussing the essay - and who is, I think, fully in agreement with the queer politics behind it - mentions some concerns about the specific pairing that I write in Harry Potter, which is Harry/Snape (she is concerned because Snape is one of Harry's teachers, and about twenty years older than him): in this part of the discussion she writes

I do believe we can and should let queer children know that same-sex relationships are possible, good and normal. I don't know that using the example of a young teenager getting involved with his teacher is what we should use as our model of that in real life,

saying also that I'm not against the pairing or the fanfic. It's just that her [my] whole focus is on using these lessons of slash in the real world, you know?

Here she reiterates that as a parent I'm very concerned about children needing protection.

I was glad to have a chance to see these concerns expressed in such a generous and civil tone of voice, and Princess of Geeks prodded me to think about something I'm still trying to work out, which is the way that I understand the relationship between fiction, reading, and the real world. One of the things that struck me about her analysis of my essay is the way in which her worries about the 'protection of children' surface around a consensual sexual relationship between a 16-year-old boy and a (say) 27-year-old man, and not, presumably, around, for example, a headmaster sending a 13-year-old boy into a Dementor-ridden forest with a werewolf, in order to get said boy to aid a (wrongfully) convicted murderer on the run from the law (as happens in Prisoner of Azkaban). I'm always a little bit grumpy when dangerous sports, crime, and war, are seen as liberatory metaphors or thought experiments which children can use to explore their own feelings and desires without necessarily feeling the need to bust anyone out of prison, whereas gay sex is not seen as metaphorical, but only as a danger to children.

But the main point I wanted to make is this one. Where I think I disagree with Princess of Geeks' reading of my essay/my project is in the idea that, because I'm talking about a practice of slash fiction which is meant to make life easier for young queer people in the real world, the pairing I choose must be a role model for sexual practice for young people in the real world. Thinking about her criticisms has made me see quite clearly that what I'm trying to do is something quite different from producing role models.

One of the reasons for that is that - as I tried to say in my essay - Harry is not, thankfully, in the same position vis-a-vis adults as most children in the real world - he is a child being used by adults to fight an adult war: he is being given life-and-death adult responsibilities, while simultaneously being denied the respect and the resources which adults receive - and so his relationships with adults can't simply 'model' the kinds of relationships children in the real world should have with older people. And Harry/Snape, for me, is a way of exploring the construction of adulthood and childhood, and the dynamics of power, in the Harry Potter universe in a way which exposes, for example, some of Dumbledore's, Black's or Lupin's more problematic abuses of adult power in contrast to a central relationship which involves an explicit, conscious, and laborious negotiation of these questions.

So I guess what I want to do, through the fanfiction, is not to supply role models - 'this is what you ought to be like, this is what you ought to do' - but to make available formulae for reading Harry and Snape in canon as the site of queer desire and of a negotiation of power. This idea that what links fiction and real life is not 'role models' but 'formulae for reading' comes mainly from Eve Sedgwick's wonderful, thoughtful, and moving essay 'Queer and Now' (the introduction to her volume Tendencies), where she writes:

many adults (and I am among them) are trying, in our work, to keep faith with vividly remembered promises made to ourselves in childhood: promises to make invisible possibilities and desires visible; to make the tacit things explicit; to smuggle queer representation in where it must be smuggled and, with the relative freedom of adulthood, to challenge queer-eradicating impulses frontally where they are to be so challenged.

Talking about her own reading practices as a queer child, she says:

The need I brought to books and poems was scarcely to be circumscribed, and I felt I knew I would have to struggle to wrest from them sustaining news of the world, ideas, myself, and (in various senses) my kind. The reading practice founded on such basic demands and intuitions had necessarily to run against the grain of the most patent available formulae for young people’s reading and life – against the grain, often, of the most accessible voices even in the texts themselves.

I think that one of the 'queer-eradicating impulses' Sedgwick talks about is precisely the way that only certain 'formulae for reading' are made available - for example the way that people sometimes talk as if the lesbian couples in Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes and Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced have been 'made' lesbians in their TV adaptations, whereas in the books they were just examples of that very common type of straightforwardly heterosexual women with no interest in men who live together, go on holiday together when one of them is sick and needs to convalesce, publicly grieve and seek to avenge each other's deaths, use queer/butch cultural codes like monocles and the use of surnames rather than first names, and so on. The idea that someone who looks like a duck and quacks like a duck must be a goose, and shame on you for calling them a duck, only really works if you think that there's no such thing as ducks, really.

Anyway. So, thinking about Princess of Geeks' criticisms of the essay, I ended up here: I think that where textual and political strategies come together, in relation to queer children's literature and lives, is not through 'representation' - the creation of 'good role models' to combat 'negative stereotypes' of queers** - but through producing, promoting and circulating formulae for reading which can give children the ability to recognize queer desire (in others and in themselves) and the ability to analyze and negotiate power dynamics with adults - including, very importantly, the ability to recognize abuses of adult power. So, in my Harry/Snape stories (which aren't really for children, although probably one of the ten nicest things that has ever happened to me was finding out that I had at least one teenage reader who found the stories helpful in hir real life), I don't want to be suggesting to readers that the content of the stories should be transposed literally into real life - the 'role model' thing - but I do hope that rereading Harry Potter via my stories might make new 'formulae for reading' available, which might be useful to people (including children) who are trying to make sense of desire and power both in texts and in their real, lived worlds.

Which leads me on to the other two things I wanted to talk about, because this idea of 'available formulae for reading' really helps me to understand why I am so rageous about both JKR's posthumous outing of Dumbledore and Kate Cann's Sea Change.

The Lupin/Tonks romance and the compulsory mass marriages of all the major and minor characters at the end of The Deathly Hallows (plus the extra marriages-and-children which JKR herself has told us about, but left out of the book itself) annoyed me enough to be going on with: JKR seemed to be saying that if you read the Harry Potter books according to established queer codes, you will read them 'wrong': if you think that a young woman with short, unnaturally-coloured hair, who dresses in tweed and insists on being known by her surname, is deliberately coding herself as gay, then you're wrong, because Tonks is one of those straight women who dress in tweed, insist on being known by their surnames, and have short purple hair. Similarly, if you think that two unmarried men who live together, are clearly extremely fond of one another, are physically affectionate with one another in public, have no visible heterosexual relationships and are described as 'like a married couple' are gay, then you're wrong, because Black and Lupin are two of those straight men who live together like a married couple.

However, the Dumbledore outing adds an extra twist: if you think that a man who had one intense relationship with a beautiful, effete, evil foreigner in his youth, lived the rest of his life in celibacy, and became pathologically secretive, is gay, then you're right, because that narrative - which I for one thought we'd done away with in the 70s with Gay Liberation - is actually how you recognize a queer. Which seems to me to end up conveying the message - whether or not this is what Rowling believes - that the only 'formula' for recognizing queerness is its conformity to this tragic narrative/archtype. And that makes me furious.

Similarly, but much more bafflingly, with Kate Cann's Sea Change. Oh, I was so heartsick and rageous and unhappy and betrayed when I read it. I love Kate Cann - or, I think I'm going to have to start saying, I loved Kate Cann. She wrote an excellent YA trilogy about sex (Diving In, In the Deep End Sink or Swim) and another excellent one about work (Moving Out, Moving In, Moving On), both of which I have recommended to everyone I know, partly on the grounds that she's that very rare thing in straight romance/sex writing, someone who thinks about heterosexuality as a sexuality, rather than as a 'norm', and writes intelligently and passionately about the problems and joys of straight relationships. (Or so I thought - Sea Change is making me re-evaluate all that rather).

Because in Sea Change, the whole plot and emotional arc are driven by the word 'lesbian'... but, we learn, the word 'lesbian' only designates an internal threat to heterosexuality. The basic plot of the novel is: nice if slightly clueless girl gets crush on wild-child-type, rich girl; rich girl turns out to be eeevil; nice-if-slightly-clueless girl breaks away from evil rich girl; nice-if-slightly-clueless girl achieves successful heterosexual relationship. Kate Cann, enragingly, sums up the novel here (video link) by saying 'Sea Change is a teenage odyssey. It's about bad love, and good love, and finding the courage to change.'

Which makes it sound like a coming-out narrative, right? But no: 'bad love' here is unequivocally girl-on-girl, and 'good love' is girl-on-boy, and we're told in several ways throughout the book that it takes more courage to be straight than to be gay. Most jaw-droppingly, we're told this by a pair of women who live together on a small Greek island where they run a bar together; they are out as lesbians and kiss each other on the mouth both in public and in private. However, they are not, in fact, lesbians, but straight women: they are posing as lesbians 'to survive', as we find out in this speech from Cora, where she explains that life as a young, attractive lesbian on a small, traditional, Catholic island is safer than life as a young, attractive, straight woman, because the only danger to women is men coming on to them and men never come on to lesbians:

Two women on their own, on this traditional little island, running a bar? We put out that we were lesbians to protect ourselves - so we could still dress up and flaunt and do all the things you have to do to give your bar a buzz and make it commercial without constantly having men trying it on with you. Or only the very arrogant ones who think we're only lesbians because we've never had a real man.

Cora also tells us that 'I adore Zara, I love to kiss her, but I'm not a lesbian.' Which is very similar to Chloe's own story, since Chloe adores Davinia and loves to look at her naked body -

She was naked, standing on the edge of the pool, coiling her hair on the top of her head and fixing it there with a large tortoiseshell clip. She looked so beautiful and uninhibited it took my breath away. I didn't know what I felt, looking at her there. My eyes were feasting on her, but it didn't seem like desire or sex... I just thought she was perfect....

She stood up, water streaming off her skin, and looked down at me and said, 'You're all right, you know that, Chlo?'

I could have dissolved with sheer pleasure right there and then, and gurgled into the water overflow. I stretched out and let the water jets massage me - back, thighs, feet. I was feeling charged, turned on, but it was enough just to feel that way. I didn't want to take it further, I didn't want more of anything...

- but is also 'not a lesbian' ('I looked at the fifth boy and I absolutely knew I wasn't a lesbian, not even a little bit').***

... all of which makes me wonder, what does make you a lesbian, if it's not fancying girls, living with another woman whom you love kissing, and/or being out as a lesbian? It reminds me of something a friend on another part of the interweb said a while back, about seeing people saying 'I thought I was going MAD, but it turned out I was just MENTALLY ILL!'

And that makes me so furious, and sad, and, well, furious again. Because one of the main reasons I didn't really sort out that (to coin a phrase) I prefer girls until I was really, really old, was that throughout my childhood and adolescence, everyone kept telling me that fancying girls was a robustly heterosexual thing to do. So I didn't have a formula for reading my own desires as gay, because everyone kept telling me - in exactly the way that this novel does so explicitly and so repeatedly - that 'gay', or 'lesbian', doesn't designate 'a desire for someone of the same sex', but some unspecified thing that no-one ever becomes (the characters in Sea Change do occasionally refer to the existence of 'real lesbians', but never to what it is that makes them 'real', as opposed to 'fake lesbians' ie that category of straight women who live together, fancy each other, and publicly proclaim that they are in a lesbian relationship). The book makes me so dreadfully sad and angry because it's actively depriving queer children of the ability to understand their own desires as queer, and hence to find out about what makes queer lives livable... and because that's what was done to me.

[Edit: I got Princess of Geeks' name wrong in the first draft! Many apologies to her and I hope it's all corrected now.]

*Ika Willis, 'Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Space (For Mary-Sue) At Hogwarts', in Busse & Hellekson (eds), Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Macfarland, 2006)

**Though this isn't a bad thing. It's great that we have so many sympathetic queer characters kicking around in children's literature these days.

***No, the word 'bisexual' is never mentioned in this novel.