This is going to be an unusual SLaR, mostly because I’m going to go beyond just reviewing the text, mix in a little current events, and then thrust my thoughts upon you and anyone else willing to listen. (Aren’t you excited?) I pay attention to book news, primarily because it’s interesting to me, but also because I want to know what’s going on in the shark tank that my toes are dangling in. When a book gets praised or maligned, I want to know why. I want to know what works, what doesn’t, and what stirs the pot in positive and negative ways. It’s one of the reasons my “free” time has a hole in it. Jon Stewart presented challenging books and content regularly and I miss his interviews and exposure to stories I might not have read otherwise. In his absence, I’ve been haunting other outlets, and that’s where this (excruciatingly) long post comes from.
Between living in North Carolina Piedmont area and living with a Duke basketball fan, Duke University frequently ends up on my radar even though I have no real vested interest in it. Most of the time, it’s a story that holds so little of my interest that I don’t even recall it. Then there are the occasional stories of infamy. And then there was this one.
Knowing that Duke is a conservative university, my curiosity was piqued. Had some radical liberal influence managed to throw something truly controversial into the mix? After digging around a little, I found that this graphic novel was on the summer reading list and getting all kinds of panties in a knot because of, well, sexual content.
I’m not a stranger to boundary-pushing college assignments. I went to Sarah Lawrence where I was exposed to things that blew my provincial little mind wide open. Not only were they “suggested,” assigned, some were even revelations of self-directed exploration. One of the books that ended up on one class reading list was a set of graphic novels that made me cringe – Maus I and II – though not for sexually explicit content.
Seeing the article and the statements of the students cited by the press, I decided that “Fun Home” was something I simply had to read to see what all the fuss was about.
When I got it, I flipped through the book just to see what jumped out at me. Nothing, really, except for the vague recollection that I’d seen it before. Or parts of it, at least. I looked at the publication date and realized that at some point between its 2006 copyright date and the time the book was in my hand, I’d come across some of the images and text online. I had not, however, read the whole thing or seen anything in it that even blipped the sexual radar, so I dove in.
The story chronicles Bechdel’s relationship with her father and the parallel story of navigating her sexual identity. Complicating the matter, of course, is her parents’ relationship with each other, her resulting home environment, and her father’s struggles with his sexual identity and expression. Bechdel walks us through her own coping mechanisms as a child and allows us to find the humor and the compassion for those that fail, as well as the recognition that we’ve all struggled to cope with things in ways that were not healthy, only to make the problem worse. Yet there’s still an element of hope in her narrative – we still manage to persevere, just as she does.
Overall, this is a story of struggles between individuals and trying to simultaneously live an authentic life. It is NOT a story about promiscuity, hedonism, or lascivious sexuality. Homosexuality is a theme that threads throughout the story, yes, but the focus is not on the sex, or sexuality, but on the development of self-identity, the journey of self-discovery and all the shit that happens while you’re just trying to live your life. Homosexuality is an aspect of who Allison Bechdel is and is an inextricable part of this story, however this story could be written about someone else struggling with a burgeoning religious identity and the struggles would be the same. Replace her developing sense of homosexuality under the shadow of a father who may or may not be as well with the developing call to, say, Catholicism under an overtly agnostic or atheistic household. Instead of questionable sexuality, give the father quirks that may hint at a not fully repressed religious bent. Whisk vigorously, and voila! You’d have a similar story. This story is not condoning sexuality in any regard, but is examining the journey of figuring out who we are and what our place is in this mad world. It’s not about sex, it’s about love in the broad sense of the word. Love and acceptance, particularly of self, and of those with whom we have the most complicated relationships. Judgment, stigma, and social consequence gets introduced with sex because sex involves “naughty” fun bits, exploration, empowerment, and orgasms. And other fun things.
However, to be fair, some people find affectionate, consenting interactions between adults (even as teenaged proto-adults) as infinitely more offensive that religions. Because nudity. God forbid we see the balls and boobies.
Religion (and snark) aside, let’s keep this in perspective. We all experience sexual awakening. Every one of us. “Fun Home” looks at how one person on this big blue marble in this one pinwheel arm of this one galaxy in this one universe experiences it. It does not call into question anyone else’s experience, but simply gives us a medium through which we can relate to Bechdel’s experience and establish human connection. It’s one person’s way of saying, “hey, I survived all this and came out the other side ok. You can survive your fight.” This book doesn’t promote or advocate any behavior, it simply extends the hand of compassion and understanding and invites us to examine the life of another and compare it to our own.
Having read it, I can say with confidence that the issues Bechdel explores are NOT salacious, nor there for the titillation of the reader. The sexual content and exploration is tasteful and appropriate to the story. Her viewpoint is as valid as any other, and belonging to a minority perspective, it is important that others are exposed to it regardless who it makes uncomfortable. Discomfort is a sign of growth, and of challenging your worldview with a new perspective.
It’s also important to remember that we’re all fighting, especially when it comes to the tough stuff like identity, sexuality, or anything other aspect that doesn’t conform neatly to social and cultural “norms.” We all have to figure out what being our own gender “means” to us, and then what it “means” in the grand scheme of our world. Some will struggle with the dissonance between who they are on the outside versus who they are on the inside. And once that’s sorted out, there’s still the whole messy experience of what it means in relation to other people – whether they are the same gender, the opposite gender or maybe even without gender. Then, there’s the question of what sexuality is in relation to those other people and figuring out if one’s own sexual expression means asexuality, or pansexuality, or homosexuality, or plain ol’ heterosexuality. For some, these are easy assimilations because they share their experience with the majority and are considered “normal.” For others, artifice is easier than discovery and authenticity – but artifice doesn’t last long.
To the Duke students that stand on moral objections when refusing to read the book: you are welcome to make that choice and exercise your freedom as you see fit. My advice to you, however, is not to get caught up in the trap of avoiding material that challenges your worldview because it is uncomfortable. Understand that walking away from an opportunity to share another perspective, you isolate yourself from the incredibly diverse experience of life, and you actively avoid making connection with another human being. Instead of seizing the chance to create connection and find common ground (and possibly even helping you understand yourself or your experiences), you’re actively creating division and difference and isolating yourself out of the fear of change. Your morals and values should still be able to withstand exposure to different ideas without corrupting you. The risk you take in finding humanity in another person is worth it. Open your heart and your mind and listen beyond the words. The chord of harmony is easier to hear when you’re not seeking out the dissonance. Don’t sell yourself short – explore and experience the world, even if you choose not to partake of all there is on the buffet.
Medium: Dead-tree version from Amazon.com
Other: Available in various formats from Amazon.com
Overall rating: 4 stars
Potential re-read: Most likely.
Dead-tree worthy?: This is a hard one to call, so I will simply say: YMMV. I think it would depend on the type of e-reader you’re using, or the quality of the digital content. Since I don’t imagine this would translate well to my Kindle (paperwhite), I would say that I’d prefer to have this as a hard copy. Maybe check out the sample on your device and then look over the sample pages online. Then, come back and give your recommendation 🙂
I know, it’s been forever since I’ve posted anything. I’m not dead. At least in the traditional sense. I am up and walking around, and mostly aware of my surroundings which is enough to say that I am alive; spiritual and mental viability are still under review. (Such is the state of affairs when combining almost-full-time-student status with full-time-job-adulting-adult status. You have been warned.)
So why now? Because reasons. Things bug me and sometimes it helps to get them out of my head so I can focus. Because fall is the time of year when I start to feel alive again and emerge from my air-conditioned cocoon to see what’s happened to the sun-baked world outside. Because I’ve been reading wonderful things that make me want to talk about them. Because this course load is lighter than any I’ve had in a while. Because I’m procrastinating the fuck out of reading for my philosophy class. Like I said: reasons.
But this morning, I woke up to a cool morning that smelled like fall, and although I am not of the white girl clan of UGGs and pumpkin spice everything, I did have a butternut squash soup for lunch and a turkey sammich with apples in it, so I’m feeling a little jazzed from all the sugar. And now, you “benefit.”
I won’t make promises, because, let’s face it – I’m busy and, as it should be, what free writing time I have is reserved for writing fiction. I am going to use my platform here to say some things, and they are interesting enough that I think others might enjoy them, or at least want to start talking about them. I do know that you’ll see this post, and two more after it (since they’re already written). Beyond that, we’ll play by ear.
So, sit back with your pumpkin spice UGGs, or whatever fall-y type treat you enjoy most and let’s see where this takes us, ok?