Prompt #2: Research topic

I was struck by Kevin Killian’s speculation, in the preface to Matias Viegener’s book, that there is something in gay men’s lives that “resists taxonomy in some fundamental manner,” which he supported by citing other examples of fragmented texts by gay men (Joe Brainard, Wittgenstein, John Cage’s autobiography, Cocteau’s The White Paper, and Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” and “You’re the Top,” two songs whose lyrics mostly take the form of ultra-clever, rhyming lists). In this context he also mentions “Notes on Camp” by Susan Sontag, who is among other things a queer-identified woman.

I immediately wondered whether Killian’s generalization could be extended to other marginalized groups (women, people of color, etc.). If narrative is what shapes the sense of self, as Nancy K. Miller and Paul John Eakin’s work suggests, what impact does the exclusion (or, as has often been the case with women, unsatisfactory inclusion) of certain kinds of people from collective cultural narrative have on self? If some members of these groups have attempted to respond by amending narrative toward greater inclusion, while others have written in forms that consciously undermine narrative, what have been the results of each approach? Does Audre Lorde’s maxim “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” apply to narrative? Several of our texts have suggested that narrative is an inherently dishonest form; does it then follow that narrative might also be an inherently oppressive form? (Spoiler: I don’t think so, but it’s worth questioning why I don’t think so.)

To attempt to cover the whole spectrum of marginalized groups’ self-constructions in response to narrative exclusion, however, is far too broad a project for one 20-page paper.  And in any case, there have been particular narrative problems attached to being gay in a culture that has historically foreclosed the narrative possibilities of gay life: consider, for instance, that historically the marriage plot has been unavailable to gay people, while the bildungsroman has not been permitted to end in a homoerotic or gay-activist coming of age. Maybe, then, the relationship of gay people to narrative is even more fraught than that of other groups and particularly worth analyzing in this context.

So, bearing in mind the potential difficulties and delicacies involved in writing about a group to which I don’t have belonging rights, I decided that it might work best to focus on memoirs and autobiographies by lesbians and gay men. (And has the transgender memoir become its own subgenre yet, outside of the great stuff that’s been happening lately in movies and TV? The possibilities of such texts, where explorations of what it means to construct a self are concerned, are HUGE.)

For connections between narrative and the construction of selfhood, I’m starting with Dan P. McAdams, who’s written a series of auspicious-sounding books on this topic, as well as Miller and Eakin. I’ll look at their sources for suggestions about where to go next, but also need to figure out what’s been published in this vein post-2008 (when Eakin’s book was published). I need to look at what recent queer theory may have to say on this topic, also.

For the texts to analyze, I’ll look at the stuff Killian mentions, especially Brainard, but I don’t want to just lift his list outright. I noticed in poking around the course website from last year that Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home has been a past course text; graphic novels are another type of nontraditional narrative, so I’m considering that as a possibility. (I already own a copy of Fun Home and am rereading it now, but since I don’t have time to be “officially” reading another book, I’ve limited it to bathroom reading. It’s so good – even better than I remembered — that I’ve been spending artificially long periods of time on the toilet.) Bechdel has since written another graphic-novel memoir, Are You My Mother?, which I want to look at too – and Fun Home has meanwhile been adapted as a musical. I haven’t seen it, but musicalizing a graphic novel about your childhood has fascinating implications for the “self” that you created for the page, not to mention the one you’re living offstage.

Other possibilities are Samuel Delany’s memoir The Motion of Light in Water, which partly takes the form of itemized (and sub-itemized!) lists, and Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (yes, I was paying attention in last week’s class), which is a sort of “projected autobiography” of Stein’s lover Toklas and thus another kind of subversion of the autobiographical narrative.

My worry about this topic is that I’ll focus too much on narrative and not enough on selfhood. Literary topics are a comfort zone for me and hopefully a place of strength; I will need to work to ensure that the self-creation aspects of the analysis don’t suffer by comparison.

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2 Responses to Prompt #2: Research topic

  1. Jason Tougaw says:

    I agree. Great topic! I read your other post before I read this one, and I see that you’ve mentioned most of the texts I recommended. The next step is to look for sources that make arguments about queer autobiography. I’m sure you’ll find some interesting stuff.

  2. Liz, your topic sounds so great! What a rich field to mine. I think the sources you list sound wonderful, and you might want toconsider other memoirs too — I just read Meena Alexander’s Fault Lines (for my class with her at GC) and it is kind of a narrative but also focused on self and is also somewhat fractured. Alice B. Toklas will be great too. I think Are You My Mother? was not as strong as Fun Home. The field of non-narrative or experimental memoir or lyrical prose, if not poetry itself, can provide some openings into the way selfhood is represented on the page and in the mind. I am so excited to see what you come up with!

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