Printer Friendly

The classic coming out novel: unacknowledged challenges to the heterosexual mainstream.

The Classic Coming Out Novel: Unacknowledged Challenges to the Heterosexual Mainstream

The coming out novel has repeatedly come under fire for complying with heterodominance through its supposed focus on visibility and its believed teleology. The article counters these criticisms by means of three classic coming out stories. Audre Lorde's Zami probleniatizes the primacy of visibility associated with the genre, focusing on those who do not exhibit the presupposed visible markers and countering the essentialism that follows from an equation of visibility and identity. Zami as well as Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fmit exhibit a non-linear structure, showing that the corning out novel does not always unfold chronologically until sexual identity is established. A gay or lesbian identity, moreover, is not necessarily the genre's sole end product. Rather than complying with heterodominance, classic coming out novels such as Zami. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and A Boys Own Story actually present unacknowledged challenges to the heterosexual mainstream.

The coming out novel, arguably one of the most widespread and central lineages within the literary tradition of post-HMOs Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) fiction, has repeatedly come under fire for complying with or even fortifying hetero-dorninance, for instance through its supposed focus on visibility When the coming out novel is solely concerned with the protagonist's celebratory assumption of a visible gay or lesbian identity after a painful period of hiding in the closet, the genre is said to miss the opportunity to fundamentally question the system that forced homosexuals into invisibility in the first place. In what follows, I want to counter this point of criticism, suggesting that it is not only in many cases unwarranted, but it is also potentially dangerous, as coming out narratives contribute importantly to the construction of non-heterosexual identities.(1)

To support my argument, I will draw on three classic instances of the coming out story that were all first published in the 1980s: Edmund Whites A Boy's Own Story, which is sometimes cited as the pioneer of the genre (Saxey 2008, 14); Jeanette Wintersons Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, perhaps the most well-known and high-profile example in British fiction; and Audre Lorde's classroom favorite, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Even these prime embodiments of the genre frequently avoid the typical pitfalls that are often ascribed to the coming out novel, indicating that much of the prevalent criticism of the genre simply cannot be generalized. I begin by sketching a number of relevant characteristics of the coming out story, after which I will elaborate what I see as the prevailing criticism of the genre. I will then turn to A Boys Own Story, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and Zami to examine how a more attentive reading allows these works to answer back.

While in "The Creation of Coherence in Coming-Out Stories," A.C. Liang maintains that there is "no prototypical meaning of homosexuality "just as there is "no central definition of coming out," it is nevertheless useful to consider two fundamental characteristics of the coming out experience and its corresponding narratives before we proceed (1997, 291).The first concept that is important for a characterization of the coming out narrative is the question of the story's truth value. By and large, coming out stories are offered as a truthful picture of a gay hero's or heroine's life, which is why they are often presented as autobiographies (Saxey 2008, 35-36). A Boys Own Story, for instance, has numerous characteristics of an autobiography a label White himself uses too (1991). Many critics term Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit an autobiography (Rusk 2002, 105; Grice and Woods 1998, 5), as it bears several obvious similarities to Wintcrson's own life. Zand's heroine is called Audre Torde, and Lorde invented her own genre, the "biomythography," for this book, a label that clearly suggests that the (auto) biographical element forms one major part of the writerly project (1982). Moreover, the coming out story typically ends with the hero achieving a 'true' identity. After having kept his or her sexuality a secret for some time, the main character conies out of the closet and finds "true self-expression" (Saxey 2008, 89). Frank Floyd andTerry Stein describe coming out as "sharing one's 'true self with others" (2002, 169), and this discourse recurs repeatedly in literature on the subject.2 We will see that this typical insistence on truth is made problematic by at least one of the works under discussion, since A Boy's Own Story features a protagonist who has difficulties with being truthful about who he really is.

Second, coming out stories are often perceived simply as a description of individuals who come to adopt a non-heterosexual identity. This suggests that sexual identities come first, and that the already existing character of a gay or lesbian individual will therefore generate an exemplary story. As exemplary, the story is reduced to a side effect, which merely reflects or illustrates these prior identities. Yet it may be better to view such narratives as creating that which they appear to simply report.3 A coming out story contributes to the social and discursive construction of identities in at least two ways: it provides people who are discovering their sexualities with a vocabulary to talk about their emerging feelings (for example, the very term 'the closet'), and it depicts queer lifestyles on which readers can model their own experiences (Saxey 2008, 3). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick judiciously emphasizes that gays do not have automatic access to a gay "heritage'1 or a historical range of gay examples, especially as we go farther back in time (1991, 81). Coming out literature may provide this for many readers. Hdmund White himself recalls how as a teenager he was hunting all over the library for books that might "assure [him] [he] wasn't the only one, that might confirm an identity [he] was unhappily piecing together" (1991). Arguably, once he became a successful novelist, his books helped to create an identity for readers trying to make sense of their non-heterosexuality.(4)

Coming out stories and concepts like 'the closet' should not be read simply as reproducing a preexisting identity: more often than not they produce it too. Whenever the coming out story is disparaged as a literary genre or systematically diminished in social value, gays and lesbians run the risk of being robbed of a crucial factor in their identity formation. To denounce the coming out story wholesale is to follow a disturbingly common pattern. Minority groups built around experiences and feelings of difference frequently lay claim to "dominant forms of subjectivity'" only to find that (often privileged) theorists simultaneously judge these forms to be "objectionable or unworkable" (vSaxey 2008, 146). Since same-sex sexuality is still in many places and situations surrounded by a climate of deliberate ignorance and silence, addressing and even highlighting the process of its coming to social visibility, as coming out novels do, constitutes a rebelliousness that should not be underestimated: as Michel Foucault once wrote, "the mere fact that one is speaking about [homosexuality] has the appearance of a deliberate transgression" (1980, 6). On this view, there is a potential subversive element in every coming out story.


The charge that the coming out story typically fails to challenge the dynamics of heteronormativity requires detailed consideration. Let us start by examining further the very notion of visibility, which plays such an important role in the widespread idea that the genre simply inscribes itself into the dominant heterosexual system. The concept of'the closet,'as the delimitation of visibility, is not always thoroughly questioned, and it can quickly become accepted as though it were a natural presence.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an ardent supporter of coming out m a practice, offers a fascinating clarification of the genealogy of visibility underlying our contemporary sense of the closet. Sedgwick draws on Foucault--the theorist for whom sex became"a public issue" and a matter of wa whole web of ... special knowledges" (Foucault 1980,26) -- to establish a link between sexuality and knowledge, so that knowledge is seen primarily as sexual knowledge, and ignorance as sexual ignorance. She describes the late eighteenth-century Western process of "exfoliating the biblical genesis by which ... sexuality [was] plucked from the tree of knowledge." A significant number of texts that played an important role during this process -- Sedgwick singles out Diderot's La Retigieuse -- portray same-sex desire as "the desire that represents sexuality per se," and thus "knowledge per se." However, in the course of the nineteenth century this option was actively repressed, so that sexuality and knowledge were increasingly organized around the negation of homosexuality. Consequently, knowledge and ignorance were no longer connected to sexuality as a whole. Rather, one particular sexuality became linked to ignorance (secrecy) as opposed to knowledge, namely same-sex sexuality, which becomes naturalized as "the perfect object for the by now insatiably exacerbated epistemological/sexual anxiety of the tum-of-the-century subject" (Sedgwick 1991,

This naturalization of the closet allows coming out to be seen as a strategically liberating act. The act of coming out supplies role models, draws others toward the gay struggle, counters the internalized homophobia and self-limitation inherent to secrecy, generates a more powerful group by increasing the number of visible homosexuals, and shows that gays are everywhere, and therefore cannot be easily circumscribed and effectively discriminated against. For Sedgwick, only through the act of coming out does an"open flow of power become possible," because the act reveals previous "unknowing as unknowing." This unknowing, then, is not a void that can conveniently be ignored on the pretense that there is nothing there. Rather, this space of unknowing is shown already to have been"occupied" (1991, 77).

In contrast, Judith Roof claims that visibility's role as the triumphant finale of a coming out story supports the "heteronarrative," the narrative authority of heterosexuality and everyone's inscription within this dominant vision. Roof builds on the idea that visibility is not naturally part of the struggle of gays and lesbians by emphasizing the fact that differences of sexuality are not always noticeable, but come to visibility in the act of coming out, as opposed to the predicament of other oppressed groups such as black people.(5) However, rather than emphasizing the constructedness of such a newly visible identity -- which as Jen Bacon puts it, is "spoken into existence through the act of corning out" (1998, 251) -- Roof focuses on making a distinction between "categories constructed through visible difference such as race, and the categories of sexuality whose primary construction is in relation to the heteronarrative rather than to the visual" (1996, 145-46). Invisibility, as a systematic, socially policed practice, is forced onto queers as a kind of suppression. Yet by proposing visibility as the answer, Roof argues that they merely stay within the same problematic framework, relinquishing the opportunity to uncover and revise the mechanisms of identity production and, consequently to posit the visibility/invisibility paradigm itself as the problem (148). Furthermore, Roof argues that by coming out, non-heterosexuals risk conforming to a script that heteronormativity laid down for them. On this view, when visibility is accepted as the answer to discrimination, an important inequality escapes attention, namely the normative status of heterosexuality itself this kind of solution naturalizes the requirement that only same-sex sexuality be brought out into the open, while exempting heterosexuality from the demand for visibility. Coming out, then, does not challenge the assumption of a default heterosexuality. Roof concludes that, "because of its emphasis on visibility as both problem and answer, outing ... misses the point, falling instead for the lure of mastery offered by the heteronarrative positioning of visibility-as a proper end and, ironically playing the proper part of the homo in the story" (147). So, by coming out, gays and lesbians are said to execute a revolt that was already implicated in and, thus, domesticated by the heteronarrative.

It is important to note here that there is a problem with the way in which race is contrasted with homosexuality. After all, underlying the claim that racism is based on the visibility of race (as opposed to homophobia, which often cannot use any visible characteristics of its victims) is the dubious idea that whites are not racialized. Their (white) skin is apparently so normal as to go unnoticed, while people of color are singled out and marked as 'visible,' hence 'vulnerable for racism.'I will argue that Lorde's coming out narrative, instead of unquestioningly applauding the primacy of visibility as the genre is accused of doing, actually problematizes the issue in significant ways, l.orde shows the limits of privileging visibility by depicting the marginalization of subjects who do not exhibit the stereotypical characteristics associated with the paradigm of visibility. This is true of Audre's appearance in gay bars, when she refuses to dress as either butch or femme. Moreover, Lorde shows how a black lesbian does not accord with the stereotypical image of the lesbian, which, without specifications of race, tends to automatically refer to the white lesbian. We will see that l.orde opposes the essentialism that follows from the construction of identity through mere visibility: appearance is not Audre's essence -- rather, she consists of multiple selves.

Another way in which critics of the genre see it as complying with heterodominance lies in its supposed teleology.This was already apparent from the foregoing discussion of 'truth,' in which the coming out narrative is understood as implying that the adoption of a true identity is the protagonist's main goal, as exemplified in Esther Saxey's definition of the genre: "The coining out story describes an individual's path to lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity" (2008, 1). This definition suggests that the plot simply unfolds in a linear fashion, until sexual identity is finally established. Roof offers a summary of the structure of the (lesbian) coming out story that operates in these terms:
  Each narrative features a protagonist who somehow feels that she
  does not fit into the role typically assigned to women in the larger
  heterosexual cultural story.... The lesbian protagonist experiences
  an internalized struggle between her discomfiture with the known
  heterosexual part and an unknown, but intuited, correct identity.
  She pretends to be straight, affects an unfelt stereotypical
  femininity, and feigns an interest in boys. Solving the conflict
  between inner and outer by aligning the inner lesbian with the
  ultimate truth of lesbian identity finally expressed in
  self-affirmation and visible "lesbian" behavior, the lesbian
  protagonists assertion of lesbian difference becomes the victorious
  truth of lesbian identity-and the end of the story. (Roof 1996

Roof sees a tendency toward closure as inherent in the genre, and considers problematic what she regards as its overriding concern with establishing a clear identity as the unavoidable end product of the narrative. (6) Although she admits that such an ending can be "comforting and exultant on one level," she criticizes the coming out novel for "trading away ... its really disturbing potential to mess up heterosexual systems" (107). In her view, the protagonist's mission of identity formation demands such a concentration of narrative drive and readerly expectation that little energy is left for developing a critique of how sexuality is regulated by society.

To dispute this sweeping claim, I will show that the novels by Winterson and Lorde differ markedly from Roof's model in that they use non-linear structures that play around with chronology. Even in the case of White's novel, which is not so radical in this respect, I will demonstrate that it cannot simply be called linear or teleologicaL Moreover, a homosexual identity is not the sole end product of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, A Boy's Own Story, or Zami. We will see that Whites protagonist remains insecure about his sexuality at the end, while the scope of both lesbian novels is much wider than only sexuality, so that lesbianism becomes part of the respective protagonists' identities rather than the essential goal toward which they work. This is most evident in Zami, where Audre continually insists on the multiplicity' of herself, using her sexuality as a starting point to investigate the construction of identity categories and communities.


Keeping both the characteristics of the coming out novel and the prevalent points of criticism in mind, let me now turn to a detailed analysis of the three texts in question, starting with Zami, the novel that is most clearly concerned with a critique of the primacy of visibility. We learn at the beginning of the novel that Audre, its protagonist, is proud of her dark skin and for "coming out blackened" from her experiences (1982, 5), so celebrating that for which racists despise her. It is telling that Audre later thanks her lover Eudora for "not ignor[ing]" her, for "not ma|king her] invisible" (175). Though Lorde rightly equates invisibility with powerlessness (1996, 49), she problematizes the idea that visibility can be used unquestioningly as the primary or even sole means on which to base identification, and counters what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe call "the argument from appearance" (quoted in Walker 1993, 871). Contrary to Roof's account, Zami provides an instance of a coming out novel that does "identify ... the process by which identities are produced ... and by which visibility/invisibility itself becomes the problem" (Roof 1996, 148). Specifically, I will demonstrate that Lorde takes issue with two corollaries of the primacy of visibility in the categorization of individuals. First, that such an insistence on visibility marginalizes those who do not exhibit the presupposed visible markers, and thus creates an exclusionary mechanism for (in this case) femmes and light-skinned blacks. And second, that when identity is based on visibility, the self is necessarily reduced to just one dimension or aspect. For Lorde, on the contrary, selves are necessarily multiple, and appearance is not a person s essence.

To elaborate on the first question, Zatfii is very much aware that when visibility is taken as the predominant or quintessential marker of identity; it cannot account for those who lack certain outer characteristics. In this, the novel indicates that traits like skin color are not naturally evident. Audre's mother, for example, passes for Spanish at work. It is only when her boss sees her husband that "he realized [she] was Black and fired her" (Lorde 1982, 9). Audre has difficulties categorizing her mother, as the means she uses as a young girl, which privilege visibility are of little help when confronted with this light-skinned person who is socially defined as black. She wonders if "Mommy [is] white" I and answers:'Tm white same as Mommy" (58). When her mother says never to trust whites, the little Audre deems this "a very-strange injunction coming from [someone] who looked so much like one of those people we were never supposed to trust. But something always warned me not to ask my mother why she wasn't white, and why Auntie Lillah and Auntie Etta weren't, even though they were all that same problematic color" (69). According to Lisa Walker,"the passing figure becomes unrepresentable" when visibility is the sole criterion for establishing identity: a black woman who can pass for Spanish "does not register as a sign" (1993, 879). By including this element, the novel clearly questions the unproblematic nature of visibility and distances itself from the claim that the coming out novel privileges homosexuality as the only identity that must be rendered visible.

Zami portrays still more people "excluded from the paradigm of visibility," namely femmes (Walker 1993, 880). In the 1950s lesbian club scene depicted in the novel, black women mostly act as hutches, and we learn that "Black women playing Teniine' had very little chance" (Lorde 1982, 224). When clothing is called "the most important way of broadcasting ones cho-sen sexual role," it becomes clear that only hutches are visibly different from heterosexual women, wearing, for example, "shirts, short-sleeved and mantailored,... tucked neatly into belted pants," and "bucks and sneakers and loafers" as opposed to the femmes'"skirts [or] tight sheath dresses and ... high thin heels" (241, 242). In the world of the novel, femmes are shown to be recognizable as such only in contrast to hutches; outside of a lesbian context, they run the risk of being unacknowledged as their marker is the absence of visible difference. In its representation of light-skinned blacks and femmes, Zami indicates that visibility is not self-evident or fixed, and that when used as the sole or principal marker for a given identity can actually repeat the oppressive strategies of those in power, who employ visible markers of difference to establish identity categories and their borders (the excluded un-subjects). If visibility equals identity, certain people become invisible or marginal even within minority cultures.

The equation of visibility and identity is therefore a form of essentialism to which Lorde shows herself particularly sensitive and averse. It reduces a person to his or her visible traits and attaches an innate value to them, which leads to both the creation of a single, fixed self, and a hierarchy of visible markers of difference. In the novel, Audreys self is not single but consists of various parts: she knows what it means "to be Black, to be Black and female, to be Black, female, and gay. To be Black, female, gay, and out of the closet in a white environment" (Lorde 1982, 224). She accepts her status as "different from the larger society as well as from any single sub-society," and realizes "life had so many different pieces" that are all equally valuable (181,210). She especially regrets that many "non-conformists" are "afraid of going against their hard-won group," and thus end up "broken between the group and their individual needs." Her sense of "[s|elf-preservation" warns her that she Cannot "afford to settle for one easy definition, one narrow individuation of self" (226).

Essentialism is of course typical of racist thinking. Audre is often discriminated against on the basis of one visible trait, her skin color. Racists cannot perceive her as anything other than a black woman and link all sorts of negative features to this outer trait: for example, such people assume that she smells bad, or that she is unable to be on time (Lorde 1982, 12, 188). By including such telling details, Lorde is able to demonstrate how racists cling to visual markers of difference, which they believe to be indicative of certain inner features or mental and moral essences that justify their theories of social hierarchy. Thus they seek to provide "biological" support for the oppression of black people as a social category, lor Laclau and Mouffe, the idea that "everything presenting itself as different can be reduced to identity" can come in two variations: either "appearance is a mere artifice of concealment," or "it is a necessary form of the manifestation of an essence" (quoted in Walker 1993, 871). It is the second that typifies biological racism.

Audre s skin color is, moreover, often the primary and definitive visible marker of difference, which comes at the cost of the acknowledgment of her lesbianism, though that is an equally vital part of her self. This hierarchy of markers of difference is clear from Audre's name for her fellow black lesbians, whom she describes as those "invisible but visible sisters": while "invisible" as lesbians, they are "visible" as women of color (1982, 180). Similarly, Walker argues that granting privilege to visibility "elides other identities that are not constructed as visible," such as lesbianism, and that these identities are left unexamined as a consequence (1993, 874). She draws on Sharon Lim-Hing, who explains how, for many whites, "markers of racial difference are so totalizing" as to prevent any acknowledgment of the personality of homosexuals who are not white (1993, 886).

For Audre's white friends, it is unthinkable that someone's skin color goes unnoticed, as for them it is the most evident mark of otherness. As a result, they do not get what is so funny about a shopkeeper answering "I didrft know you was culled!" when Audre explains she received a grant for black students. The lack of understanding of her white friends shows "how very difficult it is at times for people to see who or what they are looking at, particularly when they don't want to" (Lorde 1982, 183). When it comes to recognizing lesbians, Audre concludes that it "does take one to know one" (180). Yet she cannot be so sure about this dictum when it conies to skin color, which is what most white people reduce her to: "maybe it does take one to know one" (183).

The novel devotes so much attention to those who can'pass'racially and sexually because such instances destroy the basis for a hierarchy of visible markers of difference Through their act of passing, such figures reveal the existence and validity of an identity that cannot, and does not have to, appeal to the fiction of natural essences. ESiddy Martin's remarks on a certain type of autobiographical writing by women are valid for ZamL Some of the works she studies provide "critique of both sexuality and race as 'essential' and totalizing identifications," while also recognizing "the political and psychological importance, indeed, the pleasures too, of at least partial or provisional identifications, homes, and communities."This is a way to maintain"the irreducibly complex and paradoxical status of identity in feminist politics and autobiographical writing" (Martin 1993, 290).


In considering the charge of the necessarily teleological nature of the genre, our discussion focuses on two related issues. There is first the absence of strict linearity in A Boy's Own Story, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and Zami, which together indicate that coming out novels by no means always unfold neatly and chronologically until a fixed sexual identity is finally achieved. In the subsequent section, I will go on to illustrate that a gay or lesbian identity is not necessarily the genre s one and only end product, and nor should it necessarily be framed in terms of being a single or 'true' identity.

In her introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fm/Y Jeanette Winterson announces the absence of linearity in her novel: "Oranges is an experimental novel: its interests are antilinear." "You can read it in spirals," she advises, which "allows infinite movement" (Winterson 1985, xiii).This "spiral shape" is achieved by means of a narrative logic of association and digression, and by the insertion of fantastical tales that move out of a realist frame. Rather than proceed linearly through the story, Winterson's first-person narrator, Jeanette, lets her imagination make connections to guide her along. The morning Jeanette has to go to school for the first time, she pulls her pajama top over her head and hurts her ears because the neck hole is too small. The pain in her ears apparently reminds her of a time when she went deaf, because without any further transition she switches to tell us the latter story, which continues for ten pages: "[the old woman who made the pajama] made the neck hole the same size as the arm holes, so I always had sore ears. Once I went deaf for three months with my adenoids" (22). Jeanette ends up in hospital and is taken care of by her friend Elsie, who has a habit of falling asleep in the middle of a conversation, leaving Jeanette puzzled as to "her explanation of the universe," among other things. This provides an occasion to return to the topic of going to school, as Jeanette hopes she will "find out when [she] get[s] to school" (32). Similarly, when Jeanette is thinking about marriage and wonders why she cannot "fall in love like everybody else" she adds almost casually that "some years later, quite by mistake, I did" (75). The narrative thereby moves effortlessly to the story of Jeanette meeting her first lover Melanie.

In order to reconcile the conflicting things she reads in the Bible, or which she hears from her fanatically religious mother Louie, and those she learns at school, Jeanette creates stories. One of them involves the king letrahedron, a character that combines and conflates the biblical king Tetrahedron and the mathematical shape Jeanette learns about at school, one "that can be formed by stretching an elastic band over a series of nails" (Winterson 1985, 47)-This instance offers an interesting image for the way Winterson tells her stories. The king resides in "a palace made absolutely from elastic bands" a home that beautifully corresponds to the author's flexibility and elasticity in her own dealing with chronology.Tetrahedron is connected to circularity and unending motion through the gift of one of his subjects, "a revolving circus operated by midgets.The midgets acted all of the tragedies and many of the comedies.... They acted them all at once, and the emperor, walking round his theatre, could see them all at once" (48).

Given that the novel invests in such a cycloramic image of its own narrative process, it is not surprising that the end of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit remains quite open, Jeanette's mother has managed to build her own CB radio and starts broadcasting: "This is Kindly Light calling Manchester, come in Manchester" (Winterson 1985, 171), after which the novel ends. Louie is calling out to someone whose answer we never get. Neither do we know much about Jeanette s future. 'The unknownness of [her] needs" still Trightens" her (165) and though a possible lover is mentioned, the narrator remains very vague: "I knew a woman in another place. Perhaps she would save me. But what if she were asleep?" (171). Much as we never hear ''Manchester" answering Louie's call, we do not discover whether the "woman" hears Jeanette, or whether she will be asleep.

Zami's overall structure is not linear and teleological either, and also tends toward the circular. It starts with a few pages in which Audre recognizes the influence of the different women in her life, who "lead [her] home" (Lorde 1982, 3). Audre admits she **mpe($) the woman [she] ha[sj become" (4) to the "arms where [she] often retreated" (5).The final pages of Zand resemble the prc-prologue in that they also stress the impact of women on Audre s life: "Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me" (255). Zamh start contains a reference to "Becoming Afrekete" (5), and the epilogue also mentions "Afrekete," "whom we must all become" (255). In the beginning Audre speaks of the "journeywoman pieces of [her]self" and in the epilogue she talks about being made up of various pieces, influenced by different female friends:"! loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me--so different I had to stretch and grow" (255) and "I live each of them as a piece of me" (256).

Throughout the hook, Lorde's writing is indeed not linear, especially because of its ample use of analepsis and prolepsis, or flashbacks and flash-forwards. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, she talks about her difficulty with writing prose as compared to poetry since "communicating deep feeling in linear, solid blocks of print felt arcane" (1981, 718). Unsurprisingly, Zami does not comprise "linear, solid blocks of printf Like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, much of the book proceeds via association instead of chronologically: Lorde works with themes rather than timelines. In chapter two, for instance, Audre testifies to her mother's strength in various circumstances. This reminds her that she only twice saw her mother cry, after which she discusses these occasions. Such memories also take her back to yet another period, the Second World War, since her mother was very generous then with the rare meat md butter (Lorde 1982, 20).

The tales her sisters love to make up and tell each other make Audre think of their trips to the bookstore (Lorde 1982, 48-49).These excursions are not narrated chronologically either: she first talks about the owner of the store (49) and only then turns to the walk to the store (50), the opposite of what you would expect in a linear narrative, Audre leaves her hometown New York and finds a job at Keystone Electronics in Stamford, where she meets Ginger. Their friendship develops throughout chapters eighteen and nineteen. In the following chapters, Audre returns to New York, leaves for Mexico, and conies back to New York again, only for Ginger to reappear suddenly, so that we are taken back to Stamford in chapter twenty-four: "Ginger and I had been getting to know each other over the cutting-room X-ray machines in the heat and stink and noise of Keystone Electronics" (183).

Andre's story is interspersed with memories -- of the colorful markets her mother frequented, or her childhood friend Gennie (Lorde 1982, 130-31, 140-41) -- and flash-forwards that are usually italicized. When Audre is only getting to know her new partner Muriel, she adds an image of the future of their relationship: "More than twenty years later I meet Muriel at a poetry reading at a women's coffee-house in NewYork, Her voice is still soft, but her great brown eyes are not7' (190). Linearity is countered in terms of the age of the protagonist as well.When she first meets Muriel, Audre tells her she is thirty-five (185), but when the two of them are already living together for a while, we learn she is twenty-one (211). While the first of these two statements is probably untrue, the objective chronology is completely and purposefully lost.

Even in the case of the most traditionally narrated novel of these three, A Boy's Own Story, to say that it is entirely chronological would be to exaggerate its linearity. When we first encounter the protagonist, he is fifteen. In the second chapter, he is fourteen; the subsequent chapters show him when he is respectively seven, eleven, thirteen, and fourteen years old. Robert Gluck discusses the chronology of the story, and concludes that "White abaftdons the conventional time line of story [sic] about a boy's education. We don't travel with this boy into his future" (1996, 56). In a sense, as the first chapter follows the last in time, we could even think of the structure as circular again.

Nevertheless, when compared to Wintersons and Lordes. White's manner of storytelling is admittedly rather linear and ordered. In A Boy's Own Story, the six different ages of the narrator are divided into six chapters (although the age of fourteen occurs twice), and his age does not change within a chapter. Moreover, White s boy often announces his age at the start of a new chapter.'The very first sentence of chapter two, for instance, reads: "When I was fourteen, the summer before 1 went to prep school, a year before I met Kevin, I worked for my father" (1982, 35). Not only does this sentence provide a clear image of the period we are in, the phrase also situates it neatly into the broader context of the protagonists life. The qualification "a year before I met Kevin" stresses that the chapter we have read before (featuring Kevin) comes chronologically after the one we are about to read. This adds a sense of mastery to the ordering of the chapters, even if it is actually achronological. White's boy invests an enormous amount of energy in being self-possessed as a narrator, more than the narrating heroines of either Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Zatni. However, as I suggest below, he may be compensating for a lack of mastery within the story he has to tell. While both Audre and Jeanette refuse to be defined by others (such as racists or church leaders), the protagonist of A Boy's Own Story complies with the attempts of (homophobic) others to reform him, for instance when he is talked into believing there is something wrong with his same-sex interest and consequently agrees to go through therapy (204).


Although less clearly challenging the linearity of much autobiographical narrative. White's A Boy's Own Story helps to demonstrate in other ways that coming out novels are by no means necessarily working towards the establishment of a 'true' gay identity. Most obviously, the novel cannot be conceived as an unproblematic celebration or idealization of homosexuality. At its end, the boy betrays a man he has had sex with, and still seeks to deny a gay identity: he ''desire[s] to love a man but not to be a homosexual" (1982. 218). Moreover, throughout the novel the narrative shows that the boy is almost never entirely 'true' to a fixed self, but is perennially given to playing roles.

Given that in homophobic thinking "charges of mimicry" (Greet 1995, 184) and of"inauthenticity, dissimulation and disguise" (Edehnan 1993, 559) are common, the protagonist's incessant role-playing might easily be criticized as being yet another way in which the novel proves complicit in (homophobic) heterodominance. References to the narrator's "flair for drama" (White 1982, 200) are indeed numerous.Thus, he feels like "a dancer [on] the darkened stage" (45), and imagines being watched by an audience (70). I lis talk is "pure ventriloquism" (109), and he believes that he is "someone in a movie" (132), so that he "smoothed out [his] movements for the lens" (134). At boarding school, the protagonist always leaves his door open to "expose his solitude" to a "potential audience" (152-53). He confesses he "disguised" himself (169), and realizes he is "a performer" (188; 212). And although he wants "to be sincere," ultimately he cannot (189). Without final resolution, these are clearly atypical elements for the coming out story if it is conceived as paradigmatically judging "acting on authentic feeling" to be preferable to "having concern for one's appearance" (Saxey 2008, 74). One reason why Robert Gliick was inclined to call A Boy's Own Story "confusing" is that it "didn't jibe completely with ... gay community self-description," since the boy is "corrupted by self-consciousness," by "love of surface and preoccupation with artifice" (1996, 58). White himself observed that A Boy's Own Story was not "the coming-out gay novel that everyone really needed," calling his narrator "too creepy" (White 1996, 18).

Yet this theatricality may be less problematically stereotypical than it seems, for White uses it ingeniously. Since stereotypical homophobes see role-playing as a feature typical of homosexuals only, A Boy's Own Story is subversive in that it shows that everybody is performing. Judith Butler's seminal theories on the performativity of gender and sexuality helped to question the traditional, "causal" connections that exist between sex, gender, and sexuality, as well as the naturalness of heterosexuality:"the parodic or imitative effect of gay identities," Butler writes, "works neither to copy nor to emulate heterosexuality, but rather, to expose heterosexuality as an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization" (1993, 314). Patricia Duncker, relying heavily on Butler in this respect, stresses that theories of the "queer" reveal how gender and sexuality are fir from stable. If so much energy is invested in labeling queers as mimickers, then that is because heterosexuality and the "binary opposition between masculinity and femininity" were never secure in the first place (1998, 85). Gliick is right, then, to suggest that the "remedies" the narrator undergoes in order to try and cure his homosexuality (like psychoanalytic treatment) create an "awareness of the self as a construct" (1996, 59), but we should add that the other selves in the text are equally constructed.

The behavior of Kevin's mother, for example, is "all playacting," as she turns herself into "a character" (White 1982, 12, 14). Her sons, Kevin and Peter, also know how to play a role, "jounc[ing] along" like "opera singers" with "warbling falsettos, holding their right hands on their stomachs and rolling their eyes" (22-23), One of the camps attended by the protagonist is led by a captain who pretends to be severe and irritated during the day, yet at night he turns into someone else: "His skin was a tan mask clapped over a free that always appeared seriously exhausted; the dark circles and drained, hloodless cheeks could be seen through the false health of his tan After lights out he became someone new. [H] is tie was loosened, his voice seemed to have dropped an octave and a decibel ... and his regard had grown gentle" (97-98).

Tommy, the narrator's best friend, is regularly playacting. Paradoxically, whenever he sings "he was free, that is, constrained by the ceremony of the performance, the fiction that the entertainer is alone -- He'd drop the slightly foolish smile he usually wore ... and he looked angry." Pointedly, the protagonist decides that this is "his true face" (White 1982, 123; emphasis added). Tommy's mother too "could speak only in comical accents," adopting any voice "rather than say a simple declarative sentence in her own fragile, mortified voice" (114). The boy's first date, Helen, always "acted as though she were a royalty." But the mirrator once caught her laughing hysterically; as Helen did not realize she was being watched,"she was acting very differently" (129). Finally, his psychoanalysts "act of'observation' is so stagy" the boy thinks there is "nothing about this actor that couldn't be read from the top balcony" (166).

The inescapable conclusion suggested by the dense pattern of such descriptions is that the other characters peopling A Boy's Own Story, rather than being distinguished from the protagonist, resemble him in their inability to show their 'true selves.' It is not only the narrator who is "a fraud, a charlatan" (1982, 115): everybody shares in this 'duplicity,' since every self is constructed -- which might be read as a roundabout way of denying the pathologization of homosexuality and the labeling of queers as a class rigid-ly separable from heterosexual, 'normal' people. If the protagonist is a little "creepy" according to his creator, so are all of his characters -- and, potentially all of his readers.

When we move from A Boy's Own Story to Qrmgp Arc Not the Only I'mit and Zami, we notice that lesbianism is clearly not the protagonists' sole encompassing viewpoint, but rather a constituent of their identities/This constituent therefore becomes a possible site for protest and change, instead of something these narratives are merely working to establish and fix. Saxey complains that the "love that dare not speak its name" in coming out stories frequently becomes "compelled to speak only its name" (2008, 143; emphasis added). Yet the wide scope of both novels, including as they do nuanced discussions of race and gender, prevents them from turning sexuality into the only possible position with which to identify. Lorde, for example, sees lesbianism as a place from which to question the categories that consolidate identity, working to open them up and create a dialogue between their different components, as well as between the various communities with which they are connected, tt is true that the coming out story is often centrally concerned with addressing the difficulties queers experience when coming out, like the homophobia of institutions such as religion (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit), or that of psychoanalysis (A Boy's Own Story). But a novel like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit also displays a much more general interest in discrimination, exploring as it docs questionable attitudes toward racial minorities and women.

Winterson herself describes Jeanette as "someone on the outside of life [who] has to deal with the big questions that cut across class, culture, and colour" (1985, xiv). Her criticism of racism is mainly achieved through satirical devices. For example, Jeanette humorously comments on her church's urge to convert "exotic" tribes. The pastor, Spratt, tours with his exposition "Saved by Grace Alone" in order to "celebrate his ten thousandth convert." The exhibition consists of Spratt's "collection of weapons, amulets, idols and primitive modes of contraception" (34). The inclusion of the last item takes away all the dignity the pastor might have had, and the passage ridicules the way he treats other cultures. It becomes obvious that he does not comprehend the people he is 'saving.' Instead, he considers them curiosities to be looked at from a distance, rather than as individuals with whom one could have an instructive conversation.

Significantly, Winterson's lesbian narrator reacts to gender inequalities throughout Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The novels eight chapters are named after the first eight books of the Old Testament, which Winterson undermines by rewriting their patriarchal model. Consistently, she diminishes the role of men and puts women in charge. "Genesis," for instance, deals with Jeanette's upbringing. The novel does not employ scenes from, for example, the Book of Genesis itself, but opts instead to invoke the general image many people have of the Biblical chapter, and mixes this up with the New Testament's narrative of origin. While men are crucial in the Bible (think of Joseph or the Magi), Winterson playfully removes them from "Genesis": Jeanette's "meek father" is barely present and not much more essential. Jeanette's mother lords it over him entirely: she "reformed him and he built the church and he never got angry" (Winterson 1985, 36). When Melanie confides to Jeanette that she does not have a father, Jeanette replies she doesn't have "much" of a father "either" (81). Her mother, by contrast, is rightly called a "queen" (110). Whereas the Bible grants a man all the creative power, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit gives it to Louie. This bossy lady is "out there, up front with the prophets, much given to sulking under trees when the appropriate destruction didn't materialize. Quite often, it did." As Louie simply "didn't believe there were any wise men " the Magi are eliminated from the narrative too (4).

Just as conspicuously, while the Old Testament "Numbers" ends with several weddings (Numbers 36: 10-12), in Winterson's corresponding chapter we witness Jeanette fearing marriage to such an extent that she even has nightmares about it (Winterson 1985, 6(>). The girl starts thinking she has discovered a "terrible conspiracy" namely that all men are animals (71). And as in "Genesis," the male world of the Biblical "judges" is turned into a female universe in Oranges Ate Not the Only Vruith namesake chapter: Jeanette is condemned for her lesbianism by the church's strong women and takes on Jesus's "thorny crown" m becoming a martyr for her lover Katy (127). When their affair is brought to light, she assumes all of the burden by pretending that her relationship with her ex-girlfriend Melanie has never ended, and that poor Katy only served as a mediator between them (128).

Lorde'sZumi also deals with multiple instances of oppression, such as racism, which the author elsewhere defines as "the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance" (1984a, 45).This is something Audre encounters time and again: a white girl in need would rather die than accept her help (Lorde 1982, 6); she is frequently spat upon (17); their landlord commits suicide because his tenants are black (59); and so forth. Lorde confronts us with the silencing of black people throughout history when Ginger mentions that the "first cat to die in the Revolutionary War, in Concord, Massachusetts. A Black man" (130). Audre, who went to Hunter High, "supposedly the best public high school in New York City" is shocked to find out she did not know anything about that first casualty Crispus Attucks (132). When she asks herself "What did that mean about the history J had learned?", the criticism is obvious (133). Audre explicitly focuses on the political and social changes related to segregation and racism, like the "race riots of 1943" (57) and the social role played by the National Association for the Ad van cement of Colored People (172).

Even in more progressive circles, racism proves to be a daily reality' during the era Lorde depicts. "The Branded," a group of rebellious girls Audre hangs out with, talk about their '^position as women" in a patriarchal society yet painstakingly avoid discussing questions of race. Audre is never invited to "their parties" (1982, 81).Though she says that "lesbians were probably the only Black and white women in New York City in the fifties who were making any real attempt to communicate with each other," being a black lesbian is not easy, even to the point that Audre thinks "loving women was something that other Black women just didn't do" (179). For instance, at the lesbian club Audre frequents, the Bag, the bouncers always ask for her ID: "we would all rather die than have to discuss the fact that it was because I was Black, since,, gay people weren't racists. After all, didn't they know what it was like to be oppressed?" (1.80). She feels like an "outsider" at the Bag (230). For black lesbians, this club is "a world only slightly less hostile than the outer world" (225), which is why she hates to hear Muriel (who thinks they are "all outsiders and equal in [theirj sisterhood") say "We're all niggers" (203).

The few black lesbians at the Bag are butches (1982, 224), yet for Audre "rote-playing reflected all the deprecating attitudes toward women which [she] loathed in straight society" (221). Most people think of Audre as a butch too, because of her skin color. Ginger sees her as a "baby butch" (133), Gingers mother calls her a "bulldagger" (141), and when an old woman in a shop gives Muriel a skirt, to "show you legs," Audre recalls how she visited "that store in dungarees for years" without the saleswoman ever offering her more lady-like clothes (204). Audre desires to name her own self, and opposes stereotypical definitions of herself by others--just as Lorde in her own life repeatedly agitated for women "mothering" themselves, by which she meant "establish[ing] authority over our own definition [and] learning to love what we have given birth to by giving definition to it" (1984e, 173). Lurthermore, Zami suggests that black women often do not have the same choice of roles as white women. Since their struggle for survival left them with a toughness perceived as masculine, black women often felt obliged to adopt the butch role. Audre, by contrast, thinks submitting to this pressure stresses black lesbians' weak social position. For her, this is bowing to oppression as well as making it all too painfully visible: "Their need [i.e., of black butches] for power and control seemed a much-too-open piece of myself, dressed in enemy clothing. They were tough in a way I could never be. Even if they were not, their self-protective instincts warned them to appear that way." As a result, she describes how "Black women in the Bag came protected by a show of all the power symbols they could muster" (Lorde 1982, 224).

Audre copes with this harsh racist reality thanks to her mother, who teaches her how to use certain "defenses" (Lorde 1982, 58).Yet she refuses to be silenced, whereas her parents tend to swallow the cruelties without saying a word; they wanted to "protect their children from the realities of race in america ... by never giving them name" (69). Her different attitude is clearest alter the family is denied a place in an ice cream parlor. Her parents "wouldn't speak of this injustice," and Audre's "emphatic questions" are met with "a guilty silence." This makes her so furious she has to voice her rage, writing an "angry letter to the president" (70). Audre gradually distances herself from her parents1 silence, and learns to speak up for herself. Ultimately, the result of Audre coming to speech is, precisely, Zami Lorde says that the book arose out of the impossibility of staying quiet: "to make knowledge available for use,... that's the drive. I don't know how I wrote [it], but I just knew I had to do it" (quoted by Rich 1981, 736).

Instead of keeping quiet, Andre picks up her mother's native tongue, employing some of her Grenadian expressions. Thus, Zami can be described as partly also a Kiinstlernmuw in which we see the protagonist becoming a poet through the experience of finding a way to deal with language -- the same language, by and large, that was often used historically against minorities like black people and homosexuals. Even when Audre is little, she knows language is not hers, for example in those storybooks that are all "about people who were very different from [her]. They were blond and white.... Nobody wrote stories about [her]" (Lorde 1982,18).To avoid inscribing herself within a problematic discourse, she must find a linguistic alternative, since "the masters tools will never dismantle the master's house," as Lorde entitled one of her most famous essays (1984b). An important counterforce to patriarchal or racist language comes from her mother, who offers Audre another vocabulary. In the chapter "How I Became a Poet" Audre focuses on her mother s "secret relationship with words" (Lorde 1982, 31), and calls herself (% reflection of [her] mother's secret poetry" (32), An instance of this reflection can be seen when the act of "ma$sag[ing| your backbone" becomes translated into "rais[ing] your zandalee" (32). Later, when Audre licks Muriel's shoulder, she whispers "they call this raising your zandalee" (195). "Cro-bo-so" is her mother's term for "topsy-turvy" (32), and when her father lifts her, Audre describes how everything is "turning cro-bo-so" (57). Clearly, her "mothers words teach [Audre]" (58).

Another form of repression Audre is made to ponder is that of her position as a lesbian in the black community.TWs community consists mainly of Audres family, and they are not too happy with her lifestyle: "My mother ... knew it was wise to make no comment about my personal life. But my mother could make 'no comment' more loudly and with more hostility than everyone else I knew" (1982, 216). Audre counters this oppression by invoking the Carriacou history of female bonding, citing a practice that is venerable and goes back a long time. The custom is called "Zami "which refers to "how Carriacou women love each other" in the absence of their "seafaring men" (14). And this term, significantly stands as the narrative's title.

Yet Audre's lesbianism proves not only to be unacceptable to the black community, but also in more liberal circles, whose open-mindedness is marked as often partial. Audre comes across homophobia among her fellow leftist activists. As a result, "[m]y feelings of connection with most people I met in progressive circles, were ... tenuous," she observes."I could imagine these comrades, Black and white, among whom color and racial difference could be openly examined and talked about, nonetheless one day asking me accusingly, 'Are you or have you ever been a member of a homosexual relationship?' For them, being gav was 'bourgeois and reactionary,' a reason for suspicion and shunning" (1982, 149).

The unequal treatment of lesbians thus opens out into larger circuits of female oppression. When there is an election for class president, Audre thinks it is "monstrously unfair" that "the boy chosen would be president, but the girl would only be vice-president." "Why not the other way around?" she wonders (1982, 63). The near-impossibility of women going to college is addressed through Eudora, "the first woman to attend the University of Texas," a fact she had to fight for by "camping out on the university grounds for four years in a tent with her rifle" (162). But Lorde also shows how things can be different. For example, in the relationship between Audre's parents there appears to be no inequality. They "shared decisions and the making of all policy, both in their business and in the family" (15).This may be due to their specific background: the women of Grenada are said to be strong (13-14), and her mother is a typical Carriacou woman in this respect (15). "Black women have been taught to view each other with deep suspicion," Audre observes (Lorde 1982, 224). And she wonders why they let themselves "be used as the primary weapon against each other" (interview by Rowell 2000, 59) and "do [their] enemies'work by destroying each other" (1984d, 142). Zami opposes such a mixture of racist and misogynist tendencies through Audre's refusal to reject her mother, the woman who is closest to her (and therefore easiest to hurt), and the most painful mirror image of her own weakness.The relationship between Audre and her mother is far from ideal; indeed, it often comes closer to warfare. It is described as "a West Indian version of the Second World War" (1982, 82), "the Battle of the Bulge in Black panorama" a "Blitzkrieg" (83), or simply "war" (96). Yet by rejecting her mother, she would only be doing what patriarchal or racist powers want her to do, bv conforming to their practice of discarding black women.

Significantly her mother is not just painted negatively As Lorde said of her own mother;"I [don't] have to romanticize [her] in order to appreciate what she gave me" (1984d, 139). In retrospect, the fictional Audre realizes that the things she blamed her mother for were not always her fault: she admits "I did not see her helplessness, nor her pain" (1982, 61). She now knows her mother wanted to protect her by turning her into a "pain-resistant replica of herself' (101). After all. she "survived ... better than [she] could have imagined," because of her mother (104). When Audre mutilates herself (it is the only emotional outlet for her when she discovers Muriel is sleeping with someone else), her mother advises her on how to avoid scars as well as providing the bracelet that covers them up (237). Zami concludes with an invocation of the mothers significance also in the context of lesbian lives: "the desire to lie with other women is a drive from the mother's blood" (256).'This is why, despite everything, Audre "finds positive spiritual and sexual roots through her mother" (Steele 2000, 33). I orde invites us to embrace our mothers, through going back to "cultural 'mother roots'" that provide power. Zarni wants to show that, for a people so brutally pulled away from its roots, links to "that source of nurturance" are fundamental (152-53).

We cannot he surprised, then, to see how Lorde stresses the value of female bonding in general, not only with the mother. On her first night with Eudora, Audre becomes a "woman connecting with other women in an intricate, complex, and ever-widening network of exchanging strengths" (1982. 175). Her group of female friends in the Village is an example of "the reality of sisterhood'Y'there was always a place to sleep and something to eat and a listening ear.... [We] tried to build a community of sorts" (179).Thus Audre and her friends "dared for connection in the name of woman" (225). Yet "community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist" as Lordc has insisted elsewhere (1984b, 112). Instead of complying with the dominant divide-and-conquer Strategy, she seeks to turn difference into strength. She refuses to see differences as "insurmountable barriers" (Lorde 1984c, 115): in Zami, they are coined rather into "a weapon [that] proteetfs]" (Lorde 1982, 204-05). 1 )iversity is crucial as Audre self consists o various parts: she is a proud black lesbian feminist who prefers the "house of difference" to "the security of any one particular difference" (226).

Zami poignantly portrays the fear experienced by minority groups of losing strength when faced with someone who does not entirely fit in. Audre's lesbian friends avoid examining differences,"afraid those ... might in fact be irreconcilable" (horde 1982, 205). As a socially committed author, horde opposes this narrow-mindedness, exposing the fact that even minorities are guilty of using exclusionary mechanisms that resemble those they criticize. Her analysis is nuanced, as she does not ideali/e any of the different subcultures Audre is part of. Instead of offering a romantic picture ot 'us against the world/ Lottie provides a refreshing depiction of the imperfect relations among progressive social activists and reformers.There are, after all, too many parts of 'us' to support the idea of an unquestioning unity. Differences should be recognized and turned into strengths, horde demonstrates. She succeeds in showing how identity is in fact established along lines that run across seemingly homogenous communities and subcultures. The coming out novel is often accused of presupposing uniformity, using "identity categories in ways that essentialize differences" (Bacon 1998, 257). Lorde avoids these pitfalls, turning lesbianism into a place from which to problematize the categories that secure identity, working to question as well as extend them, and to establish a discourse both among their various constituents and the multiple communities to which they are connected.


The coming out novel has been criticized for a variety of reasons. It is said to be "dangerous in its rigidity" as it "tends to become standardized" (Saxey 2008, 140), but the three classic texts discussed here show sufficient variation in their inflections of the genre. When theorists accuse the coming out novel of complying with heteronormativity they tend to forget that narratives are an indispensable aspect of the process of identity construction for many gays and lesbians. Moreover, the criticism is often ill-founded, and cannot be generalized so easily. A problem many critics have with the genre is its alleged insistence on visibility, which is said to reinforce heterodominance, a system that obliged homosexuals to hide in the closet in the first place. Yet Zami, a typical coming out story in so many respects, also shows it is possible to confront this issue head on, thereby raising awareness of the problems attendant upon the primacy of visibility.

Judith Roof has blamed coming out novels for their teleological structure and their tendency toward closure, arguing that the construction of a gay or lesbian identity as the natural conclusion of this kind of narrative undermines its potential to oppose heteronormativity. Yet the critically acclaimed works I have selected are much more non-linear in structure than this characterization suggests, and tend to complicate chronology rather than proceeding straight to the realization of a certain and fixed sexual identity. Moreover, a homosexual identity is not the sole or even primary end product of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, A Boys Own Story, or ZamuWhite's protagonist still denies his homosexuality at the end of the book, and the identity he adopts is acted out rather than 'true' or innate. The novels by Winterson and horde focus on many more issues than just lesbianism. As I argue, this plurality of focus turns homosexuality into one part of their protagonists' identities, rather than fixing it as the only place from which they regard the outside world. Rather than complying with heterodominance, classic coming out novels such as Zatni, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and A Boy's Own Story actually present unacknowledged challenges to the heterosexual mainstream.

Works Cited

Bacon, Jen. 1998. "Getting the Story Straight: Coming Out Narrative and the Possibility of a Cultural Rhetoric" World Englishes 17.2: 249-258.

Butler.Judith. 1993."Imitation and Gender Insubordination." In The Lesbian and (Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale. and David M. Halperin. London: Routledge.

Chirrey, Deborah. 2003. "'I Hereby Come Out': What Sort of Speech Act Is Coming Out?'' Journal of Sodolmgtiistics 7.1: 24-37.

Greet, Julia. 1995. '' Atraeties of Identity: Coming Out and Coming Undone." In Negotiating Lesbian and Gay Subjects, ed. Monica Dorenkamp and Richard I lenke. New York and London: Routledge.

De Monteflores, Carmen and Stephen J. Schultz. 1978. "Coming Out: Similarities and Differences for Lesbians and Gay Mm!'journal of Social Issues 34.3: 59-72.

Dunckcr, Patricia. 1998. "Jeanette Winterson and the Aftermath of Feminism." In HFm Telling You Stories": Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of Reading, ed. Helena Grice and Tim Woods. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Edelman, Lee. 1993. "Tearooms and Sympathy, or, the Lpistemology of the Water Closet." In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. I Ienry Abelove, Michelc Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. London: Routledge.

Floyd, Frank J. and Terry S. Stein. 2002, "Sexual Orientation Identity Formation among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youths: Multiple Patterns of Milestone Lxperiences."7cwnW of Research on Adolescence 12.2: 167-191.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction.Volume L New York: Vintage.

Gluck, Robert. 1996. "A Boys Own Story." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 16.3: 56-60.

Grice, Helena and Tim Woods. 1998. "Reading Jeanette Winterson Writing." In I'm tellingYou Stories": Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of'Reading, ed. Helena Grice and Tim Woods. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Liang, A.C. 1997. "The Creation of Coherence in Coming-Out Stories" In Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, ed. Anna Livia and Kira Hall. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lorde, Audre. 1982. Zand: A New Spelling of My Name. NewYork: the Crossing Press.

--. 1984a. "Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving." In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Andre Lorde ed. Nancy K. Bereano. New York: The Crossing Press.

--. 1984b. ""The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House." In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, ed. Nancy K. Bereano. New York: the Crossing Press.

--. 1984c. "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference" In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde ed. Nancy K. Bereano. New York: The Crossing Press

--. 1984d. "Learning from the 60s." In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, ed. Nancy K. Bereano. New York: The Crossing Press.

--. 1984e."Hye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger." In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, ed. Nancy K. Bereano. New York: the Crossing Press.

--. 1996. "The Cancer Journals." In The Audre Lorde Compendium: Essays, Speeches and Journals. London: Harper Collins.

Martin, Biddy. 1993. "Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference[s]" In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michelc Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. London: Routledge.

Moorhead, Cari. 1999. "Queering Identities: The Roles of Integrity and Belonging in Becomittg Ourselves." journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity 4.4: 327-343.

Rich, Adrienne. 1981. "An Interview w ith Audre Lorde" Signs 6.4: 713-736.

Rowell. Charles 2000,"Above the Wind: An Interview with Audre Lorde." Callaloo 23.1:52-63.

Roof Judith. 1996. Come As You Are: Sexuality and Narrative. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rusk. Lauren. 2002. The Life Writing of Otherness: Woolf Baldwin, Kingston, and Winterson. London: Routledge.

Saxey. Esther. 2008. Homoplot: The Coming-Out Story and Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Identity. New York: Peter Lang.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosotsky. 1991. Epistemolog of the Closet. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Steele, Cassie Prenio. 2000. We Heal From Memory: Sexton, Lorde, Anzahiua, and the Poetry of Witness. New York: Pilgrave.

Walker, Lisa M. 1993. "How to Recognize a Lesbian: The Cultural Politics of Looking like What You Are."Signs 18.4: 866-890.

White, E. dinund. 1982. A Boy's Own Story London: Picador.

--. 1991. "Out of the Closet. Onto the Bookshelf the SewYork Times (16 June),

--. 1996. "Edmund White Speaks with Edmund White" The Review of (Contemporary Fiction 16.3: 13-20.

Winterson. Jeanette. 1985. Oranoes Are Not the Only Fruit, I ondon: Vintage.

Wood. Kathleen M. 1997."Narrative Icomcity in Electronic-Mail Lesbian Coming-out Stories." In Queerly Phrased: Lcingtuige, Gender, ami Sexuality, ed. Anna Livia and Kira Hall. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zebrun. Gary. 2on4. "Edmund White: Outcast Survivor." Gay & Lesbian Renew Worldwide 11.4:28-30.


(1.) I'hroughout my discussion. I will talk pragmatically about the coming out novel as a literary genre. A theoretical disquisition about the distinction between genres, subgenres. and thematically grouped works is tangential to my argument here.

(2.) Deborah Chirrey speaks of queers finally being "truthful about who they are" (2003, 32). Cari iMoorhead believes coming out means being "true" to yourself (1999. 33o) and Judith Roof says coming out narratives result in "knowledge about sexual truth" (1996. 106). Lastly, Biddy Martin thinks coming out stories hold "claims on the 'truth' of the life" of the gay subject. She adds that they "describe a process of coming to know something thai has always been true, a truth to which the author has returned.... Coming out is conceived, then, as ... a return to ones true self" (1993, 278).

(3.) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick tellingly calls the coming out story "productive" (1991, 67), and in Julia Greets and Kathleen Wood's terms inspired by Judith Butler, the genre is "performative" (1995, 182; 1997,265).

(4.) Gary Xebrun imagines "a thousand gay men struggling with their sexuality reading over [Whites] shoulder while he was writing" (2004,28).

(5.) The sociologist hrving Goffman differentiates between the "discredited," who have ", a visible mark of their stigma." and the "discreditable." who "are not different by virtue of their appearance, but rather due to some failing which is not readily noticed until the subject reveals it"(de Monteflores and Schultz 1978, 63).The claim that black people are always visibly different clearly needs to be nuanced. as there are of course also people of color who are light-skinned enough to "pass" for white. I return to this question in more depth below.

(6.) Her ideas are based on the stories comprising What a Lesbian Looks Like, edited by Kerry Sutton-Spence. Though these narratives might be characterized by excessive linearity. Koof interprets the genre in general in a reductively linear manner by deeming this collection representative of all coming out narratives. She uses What (i Lesbian Looks Like to illustrate the (coining out] story's structure and functions," developing her critique from there (1996. 104).

Lies Xhonneux is a PhD candi-date at the University of Antwerp. She is working on the writings of Rebecca Brown, and has previously published on Rebecca Brown and queer literary theory.
COPYRIGHT 2012 West Chester University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Xhonneux, Lies
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Previous Article:Bourdieu, the chimes, and the bad economist: Reading disinterest.
Next Article:"When Blood Is Their Argument"; Shakespeare on War, Freedom, and the Nature of Man.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |