Sunday, 6 January 2008

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.


Katherine said...

This post is ancient and I have no idea if you'll see this but --

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.

OMG YES! I just -- I keep seeing people in fandom saying how can you see those two as lovers when it's so obvious that their love is completely platonic, what kind of crazy pervert are you? and it fills me with rage because it isn't just a fannish whim for me. This is how I create space for myself in a culture which would like to believe I don't exist -- would like me to believe I don't exist -- and for them to say I don't have the right -- ! Well, like I said: RAGE.

Ika said...

because it isn't just a fannish whim for me.This is how I create space for myself in a culture which would like to believe I don't exist

Yes! Exactly! Oh, I'm really pleased you read this and got an OMG. (The article I was talking about is subtitled 'Making Space [for Mary-Sue] at Hogwarts', btw, and is exactly about the ways in which reading and writing queerly is a way of making space for queer people in, yes, a culture which keeps trying to tell us we don't/shouldn't/can't/mustn't exist.)