Prof. Alexis Lothian
14 June 2013
The Queer Imaginary: A Pedagogical Exploration of Fun Home
“The queer ‘way of life’ will encompass subcultural practices, alternative methods of alliance, forms of transgender embodiment, and those forms of representation dedicated to capturing these willfully eccentric ways of life.” –Judith Halberstam
“If it weren’t for the unconventionality of my desires, my mind might never have been forced to reckon with my body.”- Alison Bechdel (Goodreads)
I placed the two quotes above because they synthesize and encapsulate both critical and imaginative explorations of numerous queer theorists and artists over the past thirty years. Scott Herring, Karen Tongson, and Scott Delany, among others, have postulated that “queerness” is not simply a naming of sexual orientation or even that of gender. Rather, they concur with Halberstam that the noun “queer” is applicable to temporality and memory, space and place, indeed an entire imaginary separate from a hetero or even homonormative one. Rather, queer time is “not only a compression and annihilation; it is also about the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing” (Halberstam 2). In queer space, “the notion of a body-centered identity gives way to a model that locates sexual subjectivities within and between embodiment, place, and practice” (Halberstam 5). Therefore, combining these two concepts allows for the possibility of a queer imaginary, one that speaks to Bechdel’s reckoning of body and mind in ways that few individuals allow: in confronting unconventionality in relationship to the conventional, there is an opportunity to engage in a more authentic life experience, one that, as mentioned in my previous synthesis, aids in the knowing of the self.
That said, in planning to teach Bechdel’s memoir in conjunction with these queer theory as noted above, I will be expanding upon my pedagogical proposal in synthesis one. Students would, in this next step in the process of “queering” my literature course, explore responsively and rhetorically the temporality and space in Fun Home, ideally connecting them to their own experiences of memory and place. Specifically, by using the graphic genre as a model, students will perhaps experience temporality and space differently than they have in past English classes.
The emergence of the graphic narrative as a genre in the past decade has excited and engaged literary scholars as well as mainstream audiences for several reasons: The genre allows for flexibility in temporality, the fusion of the visual image with a literal text, and an opening for new theoretical possibilities of aesthetics that are both compelling and intellectually vigorous. This critical examination includes applications of queer space and temporality, for Bechdel suffuses her memoir with multiple temporalities and references to identity, both her own and her father’s, through the versatility of the comic. For example, a 2004 New York Times article on the graphic narrative, which Hillary L. Chute references, hailed the graphic text as a literary form because “comic books are what novels used to be—an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal” (1). The combination of both accessibility and the pathos that Bechdel employs will engage students in a way that the traditional literary text might not. By examining specific sections in the memoir in light of Halberstam and Herring’s readings on queer temporality and space, I will specifically articulate this pedagogical endeavor.
Fun Home offers a unique textual experience in the graphic narrative memoir. The pairing of a visual and textual narrative that allows Bechdel to perform her lesbian identity as well as her father’s imagined homosexual identity which was masked by heteronormative expectations. The graphic narrative form allows for the merging of memory and image in a panoply of possibility, as the identity of the writer is also enmeshed with what Spiegelman calls the “materializing” of history (Chute 3), noting that these narratives are not merely “emotional recuperation…but a textual, material one” (3). In a sense, the graphic artist “writes and draws back” his or her own life, engaging readers in a fascinating exploration with this artist into the “I” that is being recovered. Thus, multiple temporalities are presented literally and visually as the “emphasis on the child affords a conspicuous, self-reflexive methodology of representation. It is a way to visually present a tension between the narrating ‘I’ who draws the stories and the ‘I’ who is the subject of them” (5). The simultaneous combination of both narrators allows for, I argue, a deeper sense of empathy for the reader. To clarify, when simultaneously ingesting both the visual (sometimes the “present” of the memoir, other times the “past”), alongside of the literal (again, sometimes “present,” sometimes “past”), the reader/viewer organically moves between time and space, taking the queer imaginary journey with Bechdel.
It is as though we are quite literally looking into Bechdel’s life as she re-imagines it in pictures, creating an intimate portrait of a person who happens to be female and homosexual. Using themes of familial connection, literature as binding force, epistolary narrative, and various types of framing sequences, Bechdel takes us into her family’s life—especially her father’s and her own—in a visceral fashion lending itself to maximum verisimilitude. Like memory itself, the graphic form allows for multiple temporalities in Bechdel’s aesthetically pleasing art which “combines fine details with cartoon flourishes” (6). Chute’s analysis is particularly engaging to me because previous to reading her text, I had not considered how the graphic artist/writer may be able to capture a queer temporality more closely. Again, this format would be particularly effective for a student demographic accustomed to receiving narratives through visuals as well as words and audio bytes.
Bechdel’s memory-reading of her father’s life presents a unique temporality: that of queer writer/artist assimilating her queer parent’s temporality. Like memory itself, we are given her story in a disjointed fashion. For example, in chapter one, “Old Father, Old Artificer,” Bechdel lays the groundwork for a continuous thematic present throughout the text. Bruce and Alison are actually outside of a specific temporality, as evidenced in a foundational frame sequence for the entire narrative, occurring on page three. The child Alison is balanced on her father’s feet as they play “airplane.” We see Alison’s profile in the first frame, but in the subsequent two frames, we do not see her face. Rather, we see only Bruce’s melancholic face, a deadpan expression that permeates the temporality of this text and, subsequently, the reader’s internalizing of his life. The text reads, “It was a discomfort well worth the rare physical contact, and certainly worth the moment of pure balance when I soared above him” (Bechdel 3). This “Icarian game” (3) represents the identity duality that Bechdel explores throughout the narrative: Her father’s queer identity shapes Bechdel’s own understanding of her queer identity; however, while her father’s is cloaked in secrecy and relegated to her memory, Alison’s ability to give voice to her father’s repressed identity solidifies her relationship both to her father and to herself. Thus, through the “queering” of her father’s past, she constructs an authentic self. Again, here is an entry-way for students to consider the melding of their own identities with those of their parents, mentors, and/or caregivers.
Bechdel’s temporal awareness reflects Halberstam’s definition of a “new temporal logics” (2), the “queer rendering of time and space” (2) observed in narrative’s such as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Through the crystallization of one lesbian kiss, Cunningham solidifies Woolf’s fascinating obsession with “moments of being,” points in time when the possibilities of life without bounds—indeed, the true queer imaginary—are glimpsed outside of the heteronormative: “For Woolf, the kiss constituted one of those ‘moments of being’ that her writing struggled to inhabit; for Cunnigham, the kiss is a place where…different histories ‘touch’ or brush up against each other, creating temporal havoc in the key of desire” (Dinshaw qtd. in Halberstam 3). One may argue that those of queer identification have less security in the future and perceive time differently; indeed this may be the case. However, this sense of “the riotous future” (Cunnigham qtd. in Halberstam 3) can be applied to multiple types of identities—queer, straight, or somewhere in between. Again, various points of Bechdel’s text can be framed pedagogically in light of these “moments of being,” such as the scene where Bechdel has her first sexual encounter (214-215) and the ending sequences where Alison returns to her childhood temporality, a child on a diving board being encouraged by her father to jump (231). Students can consider how non-normative life experiences may open them to new possibilities, identities, and self-reflexivity.
In addition to queer temporality, queer space also plays a significant role in Bechdel’s memoir. As Scott Herring frames in the chapter “Queer Infrastructure” in Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism, Fun Home “renegotiates the urban legends swirling around Pennsyltucky to commemorate a speck of this vast terrain for queers” (149). Although Bruce Bechdel may be read as a tragic figure who abandoned the possibility of metro-queer to the relegation of “bumpkinish” (Bechdel 144), he does construct his own artistic vision of a queer imaginative by restoring their Gothic Revival house, and performing “as Daedalus did, dazzling displays of artistic artfulness” (9). Thus, Bruce transforms his space into one of artistic expression, fashioning a queer identity even within a heteronormative context. In describing her father’s labors, Bechdel intersperses deeply reflexive commentary amidst more concrete exposition: “Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. A sort of still life with children” (13). In the corresponding panel, Bechdel and her siblings are seen sitting beneath the lit Christmas tree while Bruce, interestingly portrayed in shadow silhouette, watches as an observer. His gaze is of the artist, the constructor of this imaginary. One may read this imaginary either tragically, as redemptive, or some of both. As with many life events, the latter may be the most authentic. Yet again, students can read this scene, and others in the book (such as when Bruce takes his family to Greenwich Village), as a distillation of space. Reminiscent of Zizek, it is a dual encapsulation of a simulacrum of the Real, originally Bruce’s, then his daughter’s. Both, however, are versions of queer spaces, queer imaginaries.
The end of the novel brings temporality and memory space full circle, again returning to the child identity voiced through the adult Bechdel. We again see a version of the Icarian image, with Bruce in the deep end of the pool waiting to catch Alison when she dives off the diving board. Up to this point, readers have experienced a temporal thread that has looped several times throughout the course of the text; thus, the closing image of father and daughter, after experiencing the full scope of the narrative, amplifies its emotional veracity. As she stands on the edge of the board, we see only her legs and her father’s face. She says, “I suppose this is consistent with the book’s theme that spiritual, not consubstantial, paternity is the important thing” (231). Bechdel felt a spiritual paternity with her father, a deep connection and love that bridged his silences and his repressed pain. She solidifies this notion in the last line: “In the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt” (232). Thus, the narrative’s weight is captured not just in Bechdel’s erudite words, but also in the shift in facial expression readers observe in Bruce. Unlike his blank, emotionless stare on page three, in the ending frame, one sees the love in his eyes. There is an authenticity in this scene, creating an organic awareness of truth in the reader.
That said, generally the stories that resonate with multiple and diverse audiences, including college students, include within them their own “moments of being”: snippets of time and space captured through art and, subsequently, pathos. Therefore, in teaching this memoir I would encourage frequent reflective journaling and class discussion. Using the book as a model, students could think about the multiple ways that their memories and daily observations can meld together, forming their own stories about time and space. In the corresponding link to an interview with Bechdel, the author explains that Fun Home is an exploration of a very emotionally and psychologically intense time in her life, when she was only nineteen. This explanation was stunning to me, as the text covers such a wide expanse of both temporalities and spaces. This revelation from Bechdel is a testimony to the creative and imaginative queering of experience. It holds a multiplicity of possibilities, and students in their late teens and early twenties will, I predict, relate to the sense of existential angst as well as the redemptive truths that emerge. Bechdel figures it out in the end: “In the tricky reverse narration that impels out entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt” (232). In discovering her father’s identity, she comes closer to her own.
**Interview with Alison Bechdel:
“Alison Bechdel Quotes.” Goodreads.com. Goodreads Inc., 2012. Web. 8 August 2012.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.
Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York:
Columbia UP, 2010. Print.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New
York: New York University Press, 2005. Print.
Herring, Scott. Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism. New York: New York University Press,