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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 1

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Claudine Raynaud

Diasporic Subjects: Plural, Gendered and Queer

Masculinities Out of Line: Navigating queerness and Diasporic Identity in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night

Christine Vogt-William


Mindful of Avtar Brah’s idea of diasporic space as being configured by multiple locations of home and abroad, as well as by contested relations between people with diverse subject positions, I discuss bodily homecomings in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night. Here I align my readings with Kira Kosnick’s observation that ’geographically dispersed” queer subjects “themselves constituting diasporic communities, not on the basis of ethno-national origin, but on that of queer solidarities and shared identifications, can help to unsettle some of the assumptions of community as based on biological and biologized kinship’ (Kosnick 2010: 126). The objective of this paper is to trace how diaspora and queerness are imbricated in the construction of masculinity and male desire of the homosexual and transgendered characters in Selvadurai’s and Mootoo’s narratives, set in Sri Lankan and Trinidadian (thinly disguised as Lantanacamara) cultural landscapes respectively. In considering definitions of diaspora, one notes the implication of movement and place, whereby the consequences of movement between non-normatively produced identities and differently textured places result in repercussions for the queer mobile body in and from the former home. Thus the queer masculinities in these texts are writ on diasporic bodies that move ’between officially designated spaces’, where ’intricate realignments of identity, politics and desire take place’ (Patton and Sanchez-Eppler 2000: 3).

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  • 1 Annamarie Jagose explains that ’queer’ has progressed from its earlier colloquial meaning for ’homo (...)

1Both Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night are striking in their negotiations of queerness and diasporic identity. Queerness here questions ’the “natural” constructions of the social body in terms of family and kinship’ (Knott and McLoughlin 2010: 13), whereby queering refers to the challenge posited by supposedly deviant bodies to heteronormative practices and spaces (see Jagose 1996).1 The recognizably queer characters i. e. Arjie and his lover Shehan in Selvadurai’s novel as well as Tyler and Otoh in Mootoo’s narrative are read as points on a continuum of masculinity, in their respective postcolonial cultural spaces of Sri Lanka and Trinidad.

2One notes that Canada and England are located on the penumbral edges of both these texts-shadowy diasporic spaces, where certain characters relocate either temporarily or permanently in their negotiations of queerness. Thus geopolitical, cultural and border spaces are intrinsic to the constructions of queer identities in these novels, whereby diasporic movement is aligned with the mobility of sexual identity. Avtar Brah’s discussion of diasporic spaces, imaginaries and sensibilities address the concept of diaspora in the shaping of multiple locations of home and abroad as well as by contested relations between people with diverse subject positions:

Diaspora space is the intersectionality of diaspora, border, and dis/location as a point of confluence of economic, political, cultural and psychic processes. It is where multiple subject positions are juxtaposed, contested, proclaimed or disavowed; where the permitted and the prohibited perpetually interrogate;... Diaspora space is the point at which boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, of belonging and otherness, of ’us’ and ’them’ are contested.... the concept of diaspora space... includes the entanglement... of the genealogies of dispersion with those of ’staying put’. (208-209)

3Diaspora articulates both moments of inclusion and exclusion in these novels, giving rise to the protagonists’ positioning themselves as queer unhomed ’thems’ while interrogating their own potentials as mobile queer subjects to reconceptualise new ’us’ spaces and modes of belonging. Thus queer bodily homecomings are the main focus in the novels, where the geographical spaces of Sri Lanka and Trinidad ’articulate different histories and meanings, such that “home” can simultaneously be a place of safety and terror’ (207).

4In ’Diasporas and Sexuality’, Kira Kosnick observes that the issue of queer sexualities has often been marginalized in diaspora studies, thus remarking on the implicit heteronormative bias in this field:

Researching migration and diaspora in implicitly heteronormative terms runs the risk of unwittingly underwriting gendered and sexualized assumptions about women as ’natural nurturers’.... It thus becomes difficult to consider the importance of differential sexual desires and non-normative family formations in migration processes and diasporic life. (125)

5My reading of the queer figures in these two postcolonial diasporic texts thus is an attempt to articulate the points of connection between diasporic tropes of movement and the concept of masculinity, while interrogating established heteronormative contexts in these narratives. The sense of movement between life spaces and queer identificatory processes in diasporic situations in these narratives bear out Kosnick’s observation that:

...geographically dispersed “queer subjects” themselves constituting diasporic communities, not on the basis of ethno-national origin, but on that of queer solidarities and shared identifications, can help to unsettle some of the assumptions of community as based on biological and biologized kinship’. (126)

  • 2 Ahmed focuses on these directional metaphors in her discussion of sexual orientation, whereby she p (...)

6Congruent with the trope of movement and social relations implicit in understandings of diaspora, I read queer sexualities as vacillating between different performances of gender identity, where ostensibly consolidated notions of masculinity, femininity and heterosexual desire are often revealed to be quite fluid. Akin to the alignment of sexuality and diaspora as modes of mobility and management of space, Sara Ahmed addresses sexual orientation as a spatial concept (69-70). Here directional metaphors are drawn from navigation (negotiating spaces and identities) and magnetism (attraction between entities perceived as possessing some degree of complementarity to each other).2 The tropes of travel and desire, then, are implicated in the understanding of sexual orientation; thus I read queer sexualities as expressed in migratory metaphors, following vectors of desire, insofar as such desire is directed towards Others, constructed as the ’same sex’ in these two novels.

7Sanchez-Eppler and Patton connect the idea of movement across boundaries in diaspora to the politics of sexuality: ’Sexuality is intimately and immediately felt, but publicly and internationally described and mediated. Sexuality is not only not essence, not timeless, it is also not fixed in place, sexuality is on the move’ (2). Jyoti Puri addresses public mediations of sexualities, in that nation building agendas and citizenship identifications are informed by heteronormative ideals, which marginalize if not completely exclude queer subjectivities:

...nationalisms and states regulate the most seemingly private and personal aspects of our sexualities;... nationalisms and states promote what are considered respectable sexualities, and... how we organize our lives according to national and sexual identities are problematic and woefully inadequate. (143)

8Diasporic communities, while preoccupied with recreating home spaces in new cultural matrices, are also invested in the citizenship agendas of their new home countries, while maintaining connections to their countries of origin. Besides Puri’s observation of the political inadequacies of addressing fluid sexual identities as viable identity categories in conceptualizing citizens, Gayatri Gopinath points out that ’ [b] y failing to examine the existence and workings of alterior sexualities within dominant nationalisms, such analyses leave intact hegemonic constructions of the nation as essentially heterosexual’ (Gopinath 2003: 263). Thus the implicit view of the prototypical diasporic subject as a heterosexual male merits rethinking by envisioning masculine diasporic identities through the lens of queerness, whereby I situate the analyses of sexual subjectivity and racialisation in the context of diasporic communities in North America and England in relation to older histories of British colonialism in Asia and the Caribbean (see also Gopinath 2005: 169).

9Both Sri Lankan and Trinidadian postcolonial societies are depicted in the novels as being inherently informed by homophobia. This is contiguous with Deepika Bahri’s observation that ’ [i] n smaller geographical units which comprise supposedly more culturally consistent regions, binarist projections of masculinity and femininity repeat fractally and regressively, exposing the mobility and contradictions of gendered schematics of parsing difference’ (24). Bahri’s ’fractal logic’ is useful here in its illumination of replications of colonial and postcolonial ’iterations of identity’, where ’one finds a repetition of the same underlying formula for identifying less and more manly types’ (25). Such repetition in the enactment of masculinity is grounded in historical specificities and changes related to colonial expansion and administration. British colonial histories, intimately entwined with those of the colonies themselves, demonstrate how masculinity is socially constructed and repeatedly performed (see also Alsop, Fitzsimmons and Lennox, 136).

10In the light of Bahri’s remarks, Judith Halberstam’s observations on how masculinity is configured on diverse raced bodies are pertinent, where:

stereotypical constructions of variable masculinity mark the process by which masculinity becomes dominant in the sphere of white middle class maleness... precisely because white male masculinity has obscured all other masculinities, we have to turn away from its construction to bring other more mobile forms of masculinity to light. (2; 16)

11Following Halberstam’s example in her intricate readings of female masculinity, I read masculinities in these two novels as constructions of ’female- as well as male-born people’, whereby masculinity should not be restricted to just biological maleness (13). In my attempt to trace more fluid modes of masculinity that allow for articulations of non-white, non-heteronormative maleness, I read Arjie’s burgeoning homosexuality in Funny Boy as a viable form of masculinity as he moves into adulthood and into a diasporic life situation. Similarly, in Cereus Blooms at Night, Tyler’s masculinity is strongly embedded in his sense of himself as a transvestite homosexual. Otoh, Tyler’s lover, is a young female-to-male transgendered person, who has effected a seamless transition into his masculine identity. Arjie, Tyler and Otoh are queer subjects who contribute to a reconceptualisation of postcolonial non-white masculinity, whereby they clearly destabilize ’the links between sex and gender, between the male body and the construct ’masculinity’, thus challenging society’s heteronormative stance that “masculinity belongs exclusively to men and femininity exclusively to women”’ (Alsop, Fitzsimmons and Lennon 2002: 132).

12Hence the queer identities in these novels address homosexuality and transgender as viable forms of masculinity, which challenge in microcosm ’the globally-scaled difference of the manlier races of the West and their effeminate Others’ (Bahri 2004: 24). In defining these ’manlier races’ as idealized by British colonisers, Bahri points out how Victorian masculinity discourse operates. Here Victorian constructions of the Self did not just wrestle with indigenous perceptions of the Self in the colonies, but also with its own value systems to consolidate heterosexual masculinity ideals (25). Suparna Bhaskaran observes that debates on appropriate sexual behaviours, which targeted non-procreative sexualities, travelled from Britain in the second half of the 19th century to the Indian subcontinent:

These campaigns exported categories of manliness and womanliness wherein ideologies of the pukka sahib and memsahib and their projected brown counterparts were to maintain a fiscal imperial polity and economy free of common vices such as prostitution and “special Oriental vices” such as homosexual activity. (81)

13I take the liberty of grafting these British imports to the subcontinent, onto Sri Lankan and Trinidadian contexts, to explain the constructions of the masculinities in these contexts as instances of a ’haunting of the postcolonial imagination by colonial discursive projections’ as Bahri puts it (23). And indeed both Selvadurai’s and Mootoo’s narratives evoke the spectre of colonial master narratives of idealized masculinity, illustrating the implicit colonization of the category of sexuality in Sri Lanka and the Caribbean. Thus the strange Othered colonized body is rendered uncanny, firstly through its cultural and racial Otherness, and secondly through its inability to successfully perform idealized masculine (and feminine!) identities as propagated by the colonizers. Yet, instead of considering the postcolonial queer masculinities in these novels as deviant and ineffectual, I prefer to read them as unusual masculinities, which do not toe the prescribed heteronormative line in their vectors of desire. Although ’being out of line can be uncomfortable’ (Ahmed 2006: 82), the queer protagonists in these novels address valid and benign forms of agency, by implementing their non-normative sexual orientations in creative ways.

14Funny Boy is Arjie Chelvaratnam’s private narrative of sexual self-discovery set against the more public narrative of the Tamil-Sinhala conflict in 1970s and 1980s Sri Lanka. Arjie’s homosexuality is thus intertwined with his negotiation of his citizenship as a Tamil Sri Lankan. As the political tumult escalates, the family is forced to escape to Canada. It is from this space that the narrator recalls and recounts his formative years in six short stories. Growing up in Colombo, Arjie’s home space is regulated by two authority figures: first his father, who had studied in England, and later, the headmaster of Queen Victoria Academy, Mr. Abeysinghe or Black Tie, where Arjie and his older brother Diggy are pupils. Both these older men are anglophile postcolonial subjects who profess personal loyalties to the masculine ideals they received through their own educations in colonial establishments.

15Arjie’s father and older brother Diggy are disturbed by Arjie’s propensity for dressing up in women’s clothes with his female cousins, among other ’funny’ tendencies. In the chapter ’The Best School of All’, Arjie’s father decides to send him to Queen Victoria Academy because ’” The Academy will force you to become a man”’ (209-210). Aghast, Arjie approaches Diggy, a senior student, who espouses a more acceptable heterosexual form of masculinity dictated by patriarchal authority:

“... Appa is worried about you.” He said this as if I was in some kind of danger.
“Appa is worried about me? What for?”...
“He doesn’t want you to turn out funny or anything like that.”
I felt a flush rise to my face. Diggy was looking at me, his eyes slightly narrowed.
“You’re not, are you?” (210)

16Indeed, turning out ’funny’ poses a danger for Arjie’s father, who had been at pains to cultivate the right kind of masculinity as an upper middle class Tamil Sri Lankan businessman, keen to have political stakes in his country. I find Sara Ahmed’s observation that ’ [t] he threat of the queer is a “death threat”: queer desires threaten to discontinue the father’s line’ (77) a useful concept to explain the father’s fears of his son’s potential homosexuality. While Diggy appears more than ready to continue his father’s line-in matters of progeny, business and citizenship, it appears that ’funny’ Arjie could endanger his father’s legacy of respectability to his children. This could then raise questions about his own brand of masculinity, paternity and by extension, his right to Sri Lankan citizenship, in a country already on the brink of civil war due to ethnic differences. Diggy functions here as the long arm of the Law of the Father at school. Suspicious of his younger brother’s queer propensities, he warns Arjie about Black Tie, the Tamil school principal, who punishes schoolboys exhibiting ’funny’ tendencies:

17“Once he slapped a boy and broke some of his teeth. Another boy in my class got caned so severely his trousers tore. Then he made the boy kneel in the sun till he fainted.”

18I was appalled. “What did they do?”

“One of the boys had hair that was too long and he wore his top two shirt buttons open. The other blinked too hard and Black Tie thought he was winking at him.”... “Never blink too hard in front of him, and most of all, don’t lick your lips. If you do that, for sure, he’ll think you’re trying to mock him”. (211)

19At the same time, Diggy tries to preempt potential doubts about his own masculinity, brought about by association with his ’funny’ brother. Horrified at the arbitrariness of Black Tie’s punishments, Arjie becomes hypervigilant, observing the other boys and noting the politics in the school itself, which reflected the larger political scene:

Mr. Lokubandara wanted to change the name of the school, which he felt was too British. The name he had in mind was that of a Buddhist priest who had done much to preserve traditional, vernacular education. Further he wanted to make the Victoria Academy a Buddhist school.
Here Soyza paused and glanced at me. “Since all Buddhists are Sinhalese, that means the school would be a Sinhala school, and there would be no place for Tamils in it.”
I nodded slowly, understanding the seriousness of Lokubandara’s plans. Black Tie, Soyza continued, was a Buddhist, but he was opposed to Lokubandara’s ideas. He wanted the school for all races and religions. (220)

20As laudable as Black Tie’s politics may be in the face of Sinhala political supremacy, his implemented methods to ensure that Tamil students are not marginalized, are however redolent of colonial histories, evoked here by the school’s name-Queen Victoria Academy. Indeed Black Tie’s very appearance is a palimpsestic manifestation of British colonial manhood, complete with white suit and sola topee (214). This example of the projected brown colonial counterpart described by Bhaskaran, advocates and performs a mode of colonial masculinity, designed to differentiate ’the manlier races of the West’ (which he aligns himself with) from ’their effeminate Others’ (the students who have not achieved this ideal).

21It is ironic then that, Arjie explores his homosexuality at this bastion of scholarly manliness. Here Shehan Soyza, a Sinhalese student, takes a friendly interest in him, while Arjie in turn is intrigued by Shehan’s indifference to hostilities from the school bullies, who fancied themselves epitomes of masculine acceptability: became evident to me that Soyza had a certain power which gave him immunity from bullies like Salgado. Where this came from I didn’t understand. It was certainly not in his physical strength.... Yet there was a confidence about him, an understanding of his own power. (217)

22This power appeals to Arjie, although he does not quite understand its source. It is only later when Diggy warns him against befriending Shehan-and being rendered publicly queer by this association-that Arjie finds out that Shehan regularly services the head prefect sexually, and hence has a reputation, which while subjecting him to public derision, still affords him a modicum of protection, since the other boys are averse to being ’infected’ by his queerness (231-232). Confronted for the first time with the prospect of homosexual masculinity in the public school space, Arjie wonders about the articulation of same sex desire:

I tried again to imagine Soyza and the head prefect together. At fourteen I was aware of what the sex act between a man and a woman entailed. But between two boys? I thought about the head prefect.... He was short and stocky, his nose wide and flat, his lips too full, their pinkness contrasting oddly with his dark skin. Soyza on the other hand, was so delicately built. The difference between them only heightened my curiosity. But try as I might I couldn’t figure the whole thing out.... (233)

  • 3 There is a disturbing element to Arjie’s ruminations on the head prefect and Shehan here, based on (...)

23One notes that the head prefect3 is not subject to recriminations or ridicule; rather he still retains his position of respect in the school hierarchy. Initially puzzled, Arjie eventually does ’figure the whole thing out’ for himself, when he has his first clandestine sexual experience with Shehan in the grounds of the Chelvaratnam home (260-263).

24After some initial misgivings, Arjie decides that his (and Shehan’s) uncommon form of masculinity is just as valid as the ’proper’ heterosexual masculinity advocated by those in power. Having hitherto associated his own lack of an idealised masculinity with weakness, Arjie ponders: ’If you were powerful like Black Tie or my father you got to decide what was right or wrong.... Was it not possible for people like Shehan and me to be powerful too?’ (274). A pertinent question then is: can homosexuals have power in the conventional understanding of the word, as connected with the heteronormative ideal of masculinity? Arjie sets out to explore the idea.

  • 4 One could ponder on whether Black Tie, as a Sinhalese Buddhist, was invested in stamping out Shehan (...)

25Regarded as one of Sri Lanka’s future ’ills and burdens’, Shehan is consistently harassed by Black Tie because of his less than manly appearance. Arjie aligns Black Tie’s wanton methods of punishment on ’less manly’ pupils like Shehan (273), with the public persecution of Tamil citizens by the Sinhalese government of the time (247).4 In order to embed his own political agenda in the school administration, Black Tie forces Arjie to prepare two poems for a public recital. The poems, redolent with reminiscences of male homosocial bonding evident in British schools, form the basis of Black Tie’s politically laden speech at a school event. Both poems and speech were designed to make the guest (a politician and a Queen Victoria alumni) forget Tamil-Sinhalese hostilities, hark back to common masculine camaraderies of the past, and thus advocate maintaining the school’s colonial heritage. Although Arjie might have been sympathetic to Black Tie’s efforts, he decides to rebel: he queers his poetry performance, deliberately mixing up stanzas from both poems, thus rendering their sentiments and by extension Black Tie’s speech nonsensical.

26Surprised at his own temerity, Arjie recognizes conventional ’powerful’ masculine attributes in himself-anger at injustice, courage, strength of will and resolve:

Part of me was scared and wanted to be relieved of it, of even thinking about it. Yet a stronger, sterner part of myself called me back not only to a sense of commitment but also the memory of what Shehan and I had suffered at Black Tie’s hands. It surprised me that I was thinking of doing something the bravest boy in my class would not dare. Where had the strength come from even to contemplate such an action? (277)

27He successfully wreaks his revenge on the principal, rendering him an emasculated figure of public ridicule (280-283). While Arjie’s claiming of power thus has devastating effects on a public political level, a more private victory against heteronormative persecution of queerness is won.

28A point of commonality between Funny Boy and Cereus Blooms at Night is where diaspora and sexual exile are congruent in the construction of these unconventional masculinities (Gopinath 2005: 165). The narrative begins by Arjie’s framing of it as a memory pertaining to the grand historical narrative of Sri Lankan civil war and his more private movement towards adulthood:

...the remembered innocence of childhood, are now coloured in the hues of the twilight sky. It is a picture made even more sentimental by the loss... By all of us having to leave Sri Lanka years later because of communal violence and forge new homes for ourselves in Canada.... when I was seven, marked the beginning of my exile from the world I loved... from the safe harbor of childhood towards the precarious waters of adult life. (5)

29Arjie’s personal migration involves his precarious navigation of masculinity, both queer and heteronormative, while telling his story through hindsight from Canada, where his family had fled during the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka (286-312). He addresses the physical process of relocation, the start of which is marked by the receipt of his passport, where ’I finally realized that we were leaving Sri Lanka; that in two days we will be in a strange country’ (308). It is ironic that he receives this document that confers on its bearer the claim to citizenship and allegiance to a particular geopolitical region, just when he is forced to leave this same national home space. Yet it was this space which had unhomed him through exclusionary homophobic practices, withholding citizenship, as is borne out by Gayatri Gopinath’s observation that

...if “home” is... for “peoples in diaspora” that which “we cannot not want”, home for a queer diasporic subject becomes not only that which we cannot not want”, but also that which we cannot and could never have. Home in the queer fantasy of the past is the space of violent [familial and national] disowning.
(Gopinath 2005: 173)

30Thus armed with a somewhat precarious sense of himself as a Sri Lankan Tamil homosexual man, it remains to be seen if Arjie can reinvent and ’re-home’ himself in Canada, while laying claim to his homosexuality as a viable aspect of his diasporic masculinity.

31In a similar fashion, diaspora is a subterranean trope that informs Cereus Blooms at Night, especially with regard to mobile sexual identities, although the two queer characters do not relocate anywhere. Cora Ann Howells observes that while the narrative space and identification of the main characters here is with the fictionalized island of Lantancamara, the novel addresses the liminality of its characters through their desires of escape from a space that does not tolerate or embrace queer sexualities, while at the same time pursuing ideas of transformation (see Howells 2000: 164).

  • 5 While the narrated time frame in Cereus is not precisely delineated, there is reason to believe tha (...)

32The narrator Tyler leaves Lantanacamara5 for the Shivering Northern Wetlands (a fictionalized England), to be trained as a nurse (a profession traditionally associated with women). As an adult, Tyler’s initial motivation to leave his island home, evinces more than just his desire for professional qualifications. He believes that his queerness can find spaces of articulation which transcend censure and discrimination:

I pondered the gender and roles that seemed available to people, and the rules that went with them. After much reflection, I have come to discern that my desire to leave the shores of Lantanacamara had much to do with wanting to study abroad, but far more with wanting to be somewhere my ’perversion’, which I tried diligently as I could to shake, might either be invisible or of no consequence to people to whom my foreignness was what would be strange. I was preoccupied with trying to understand what was natural and what perverse and who said so and why. (47-48)

  • 6 I should point out here that it is not clear from the narrative whether Tyler is Indo-Caribbean, Af (...)

33Abroad, Tyler decides that he would rather be dealt with (however negatively) based on his obvious racial Otherness6, thus rendering his homosexuality invisible and hence unproblematic, for himself in this particular geographical space. And yet, the notion that deviant sexual identities can be better articulated in diasporic contexts in the West is problematic, as Anita Mannur points out:

This is not to suggest that the West is the liberatory space that allows for a freer celebration of non-heteronormative sexualities, but rather to add to the critical conversation that scrutinizes how and where diasporic interventions mobilize movements “at home” in significant ways. (286)

34Here diasporic movement has the potential to instigate more critical engagements with hegemonic heteronormative practices. While diaspora and sexuality are considered contingent with one another, there is no guarantee that queer sexual identifications are more easily embraced in socio-cultural contexts different from those of origin.

35Tyler instigates critical conversations in Lantanacamara, when he returns to his hometown of Paradise, to practice nursing at an almshouse. Here he meets Mala Ramchandin, the aged protagonist with whom he feels some kinship, a ’shared queerness’ (Cereus Blooms at Night, 48). Despite his recognition of the homophobia directed at him and his desire to ’come out’ by telling his own story, Tyler shoulders the responsibility of telling Mala’s hitherto silenced narrative as well as that of her parents who shared the specific history of Indian indentured labour with all its colonial implications:

But I am not a child and I knew there to be malice in their words. Behind the flattery, the edge of mockery was plain to anyone who must, as a matter of survival, learn to detect it.... I am aware of the subtleties and the incremental degrees in hostility-from the tight smile to the accidental shove-and I have known the gamut.... The temptation is strong, I will admit, to be the romantic victim. There is in me a performer dying for the part, but I must be strict with myself and stay with my intention to relate Mala Ramchandin’s story.

36Like Tyler, Mala too is a social deviant (albeit through no choice of her own) because her father ’had mistaken her for his wife’, since her mother ’had obviously mistaken another woman for her husband’ (109, 195). Thus Tyler’s narration focuses mainly on aberrant sexual relations-not just relevant to his homosexuality, but also to Mala’s experience of incestuous sexual abuse at her father’s hands, which had been disregarded in the community despite its knowledge and censure of it. In turn, the mute, seemingly powerless and insane Mala, recognising Tyler’s queerness, encourages him to explore this hitherto hidden aspect of his identity:

She knows what I am... she knows my nature.... My body felt as if it were metamorphosing. It was as though I had suddenly become plump and less rigid. My behind felt fleshy and rounded. I had thighs, a small mound of belly, rounded full breasts and a cavernous tunnel singing between my legs. I felt more weak than excited but I was certainly excited by the possibilities trembling inside me.

37Here Tyler’s very physical being seems to ’morph’ into his desired female bodily form, by virtue of Mala’s recognition and acceptance of him. It is the abused woman who allows Tyler the opportunity to literally re-imagine his body and claim his chosen identity. After this revelation, Tyler finds the courage to cross-dress in public with feminine accessories, thus gradually coming out.

38Tyler is not alone in his attempts to articulate Mala’s previously unspeakable story (gradually revealed in flashback episodes, contingent with Tyler’s own personal development). He is joined by Otoh, the daughter of Mala’s former lover Ambrose. Otoh is no ordinary woman however-she is of transgender persuasion, effecting her transition from female to male in a process so gradual, that it borders on the marvellous:

The transformation was flawless. Hours of mind-dulling exercise streamlined Ambrosia into an angular hard-bodied creature and tampered with the flow of whatever hormonal juices defined him. So flawless was the transformation that even the nurse and the doctor who attended the birth, on seeing him later, marvelled at their carelessness in having declared him a girl. (110)

  • 7 The queerness in the lesbian relationship between Mala’s mother Sarah and her lover Lavinia did not (...)

39This seamless transformation, while provoking incredulity on the part of the reader as to the scientific veracity of such bodily change, which would conventionally be effected by surgical means, also serves to emphasise the selective blindness of the community to queer sexual identities. An interesting point here is that the community in Paradise seems to accept Otoh’s queerness, while critically commenting on Tyler. Thus in this particular community, queer masculinity seems tolerable in female-to-male transgender identity in comparison with more effeminate forms of masculinity evident in male-to-female transgender identifications. This might then be congruent with the intrinsic misogyny evident in the community, as illustrated by its indifference to Mala’s plight at her father’s hands, while simultaneously viewing it as a means to reinstate an Indo-Caribbean patriarchal authority challenged and thwarted by Mala’s mother’s escape into a more fulfilling lesbian relationship, outside racial and heteronormative lines7.

40I read Otoh’s masculine identity as yet another degree on the masculinity continuum: female masculinity, regarding which Judith Halberstam observes that ’masculinity must not and cannot and should not reduce down to the male body and its effects’ (1). Halberstam’s work on female masculinity induces a re-orientation of masculinity readings; she maintains that ’female masculinity actually affords us a glimpse of how masculinity is constructed as masculinity’ (1). The model that Otoh accesses in his own construction of masculinity, is at first based on a positive reading of his father Ambrose as a desperate Romeo-like hero bereft of his love. However, Otoh’s later interest in Mala is rooted in his critique of Ambrose’s abandonment of Mala to her father’s violence and his subsequent ineffectuality as a husband to his wife Elsie, Otoh’s mother (see 227-228). In breaching the boundaries of Mala’s hitherto reclusive life, Otoh also re-embodies echoes of her romance with Ambrose (159-164). Here Otoh functionalises his transgender identity to redress his father’s cowardice: ’He . . . wanted to say...: “I’ll win her back for you, Pappy.... But he stopped himself because deeper than this thought was one less benevolent that said: “How could you have not looked after her?” (144).

41Revealing his secret to Tyler, Otoh explains his need to re-masculinise his father, in an attempt to redress the injustice and indifference Mala had suffered:

“I felt as though she and I had things in common.... Somehow I wanted to go there and take all my clothes off and say ’Look! See?... I am different! You can trust me, and I am showing you that you are the one person I will trust.... I will be your friend.”
“Otoh, that is exactly how I feel about her.... I feel protective towards her too... “...
“... I wanted to go up there, to meet her and apologise for him [Ambrose] and say that even though he was my father, I wasn’t a coward like him and that I would take care of her.”...
I was filled with a new admiration for Otoh. I thought him daring to want to search inside the cavernous areas of his soul and to speak out his feelings towards his father.... his love was deep and genuine, and perhaps that is why he was so tormented.

42Tyler’s and Otoh’s desire for each other is thus cemented by their shared project of caring for Mala, an unhomed and abused Indo-Caribbean woman. To all intents and purposes, Otoh, a female-to-male transgender bisexual embodies a form of decisive and affirmative masculinity, while Tyler, a transvestite homosexual, embodies a masculinity incorporating the supposedly feminine attributes of sensitivity, gentleness and compassion. Both men are validated through their reclamation of power in their uncovering of Mala’s story and their indictment of society’s shameful abandonment of her. In Cereus Blooms at Night, one notes that while Mala is abandoned in childhood by one queer pair, i. e. her mother Sarah and her lesbian lover Lavinia, she is adopted in old age by another queer couple: Tyler and Otoh. The reconstitution of genders and sexualities in these two forms of masculinity is read favourably against the violent heterosexual domestic space delineated by Mala’s father’s more rabid paternal masculinity. Mala’s story of suffering furnishes these two men with the agency to re-imagine the family unit and reconstruct home as a space of acceptance, inclusivity and nonviolence for all involved, through queer benevolent forms of manhood. The transgendered relationship however also contains a twist: the queer pair appears to be a heterosexual couple despite their cross-dressing performances, engendering a relationship that, to all intents and purposes, is still aligned with the heterosexual contract. Alison Donnell observes:

Indeed the union between Tyler and Otoh is radical precisely because it is anatomically normative but socially queer; it represents a sexuality that is neither criminalised nor legalised, a sexuality which the state does not have the power to condone nor the legal power to punish. (240-241)

43One could ask then, if queer identities still have to function under some semblance of heteronormativity in order to be viable? Disturbing as this caveat may seem, Mootoo’s text has instigated ruminations on the fluidity of the gendered performance of masculinity.

44In Funny Boy, Arjie destroys Black Tie’s political statement against Sinhalese persecution of Tamil citizens, by prioritizing queer agency. In this, his homosexual relationship with Shehan illustrates an instance of inter-ethnic acceptance based on a combination of homosocial bonding and homosexual desire-in essence Arjie’s and Shehan’s relationship can be read as a successful, if queer, outcome from Black Tie’s own political efforts at Tamil and Sinhalese equality at his school. The invisibility of Arjie’s queer political resistance of Black Tie’s agenda of inculcating acceptable forms of heterosexual masculinity however renders his victory over Black Tie ambivalent, especially with regard to the gradual disenfranchisement and exile of most Tamil Sri Lankans like Arjie and his family. Despite the satisfaction of having struck a blow against the oppressive patriarchal system on behalf of Shehan and himself as homosexual Sri Lankan men, Arjie ultimately loses his home and his lover. In writing his story of sexual awakening and later displacement from Sri Lanka, Arjie does fashion a home through textualising his memories and experiences. Thus he achieves some control over the concept of home through his writing-a mode of security in his being that was denied him, because of his homosexual orientation, and his Tamil ethnicity.

45Reading Arjie, as well as Tyler and Otoh as ’out of line’ masculinities in these novels demonstrates how alternative readings of masculinity can represent valuable resources for queer re-imaginings of diasporic identities. Here new forms of agency are envisioned and enacted by the queer protagonists, working against unhoming practices in their natal geographical home spaces or transforming these ’same old’ spaces in new ways using marginalized non-normative means. Thus both narratives address the aggregate politics evident in the intersections of queer masculinities, race, nation and migration in shaping more inclusive and empowering spaces for those heretofore marginalized and disenfranchised.


Works cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2006.

Alsop, Rachel, Annette Fitzsimmons and Kathleen Lennox. Theorizing Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002.

Bahri, Deepika. ’Arguments to Kill and Die For: Colonial Fantasy, Postcolonial Masculinity and the Rhetoric of Hindu Fundamentalism’. South Asian Review. Vol. 25. No. 2. 2004; 23-41.

Bhaskaran, Suparna. Made In India: Decolonisations, Queer Sexualities and Transnational Projects. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. New York & London: Routledge, 1996.

Donnell, Alison. Twentieth Century Caribbean Literature: Critical Moments in Anglophone Literary History. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Gopinath, Gayatri. ’Nostalgia, Desire and Diaspora’, in Theorizing Diaspora, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, eds. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003; 261-279.

Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2005.

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1998.

Howells, Coral Ann. “’A Shared Queerness”: Liminal Identities in Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night’, in Articulating Gender, Anjali Bhelande and Mala Pandurang, eds. Delhi: Pencraft International, 2000; 163-170.

Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1996.

Kosnick, Kira. ’Diasporas and Sexuality’, in Diasporas: Concepts, Intersections, Identities, Kim Knott and Sean Mcloughlin, eds. London: Zed Books, 2010; 123-127.

Mannur, Anita. ’Postscript: Cyberscapes and the Interfacing of Diasporas’, in Theorizing Diaspora, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, eds. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003; 283-290.

Mootoo, Shani. Cereus Blooms at Night. London: Granta Books, 1996.

Puri, Jyoti. Encountering Nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Sanchez-Eppler, Benigno and Cindy Patton, eds. Queer Diasporas. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000.

Selvadurai, Shyam. Funny Boy. London: Vintage, 1995.


1 Annamarie Jagose explains that ’queer’ has progressed from its earlier colloquial meaning for ’homosexual’ and in a worst-case scenario, a homophobic insult, to an all-encompassing collective term, which includes different practices and theoretical concepts read as deviating from hegemonically prescribed social norms. In seeking to unpack the term ’queer ’, it is necessary to note that attempting to fix the concept of queerness in a definition can be understood as a prescriptive exercise, which in turn could also contribute to the process of normativisation, that the queering project speaks against. See Jagose 1996; 1-3; 96-97.

2 Ahmed focuses on these directional metaphors in her discussion of sexual orientation, whereby she points out the surprisingly scant attention accorded to the spatiality of the term ’orientation’. In her elucidation of the concept, she has recourse to the work of Ricor Norton, who remarks that the use of the directional metaphors of magnetism and navigation has been privileged over those used ’prior to the 1970s e.g. inclination, deviant, pervert, invert, taste, tendency, bent, drive’ (Norton 2002, 1; as quoted in Ahmed 69).

3 There is a disturbing element to Arjie’s ruminations on the head prefect and Shehan here, based on racialised stereotypes. Arjie describes the head prefect in negatively inflected ’Africanised’ terms (dark skin, wide and flat nose, thick lips), while Shehan is described as having more attractive features, e.g. light skin. It is not clear whether the head prefect is of Tamil or Sinhalese origin. Arjie’s budding attraction towards men seems to have a troubling racial / ethnic value factor here in that he ascribes power and agency to Shehan’s ’deviant’ sexual exploits, while the dark head prefect is objectified as an unsavoury sexual partner due to his lack (in Arjie’s opinion) of manly beauty. Ethnic origin seems to be a non-issue for Arjie in his explorations of manly beauty contingent with his burgeoning desires; before he falls in love with Shehan, he desires the older Jegan, a former Tamil Tiger, who worked for Arjie’s father for a time.

4 One could ponder on whether Black Tie, as a Sinhalese Buddhist, was invested in stamping out Shehan’s obvious queerness, merely to adhere to a prescribed nationalist agenda of moulding ideal Sri Lankan citizens. Black Tie’s persistent punishing of Shehan could also lead to the suspicion that the principal himself entertained a forbidden homoerotic desire for this pupil. Unable to fulfill this desire without transgressing dominant codes of masculinity, Black Tie’s relentless persecution of the young man could be read as the only means to be in constant contact with his object of desire-in a masochistic disciplinary context.

5 While the narrated time frame in Cereus is not precisely delineated, there is reason to believe that Lantancamara is a fictionalised pre-independence Trinidad in the first half of the 20th century: the narrative provides clues as to the end of the indentured labour system in the story of Chandin Ramchandin, Mala’s abusive father as well as Mala’s and Ambrose’s enjoyment of jazz music when Ambrose returns from the Shivering Northern Wetlands. At the same time Tyler’s and Otoh’s narratives seem to bridge the time frames between pre-independence and post-independence Trinidad; hence these queer characters are situated in border spaces, indicating possible breaks with older and more rigid social orders and expectations.

6 I should point out here that it is not clear from the narrative whether Tyler is Indo-Caribbean, Afro-Caribbean or of dougla mixed heritage.

7 The queerness in the lesbian relationship between Mala’s mother Sarah and her lover Lavinia did not leave any room for motherhood in the narrative, while entertaining the potential of interracial queer female desire. In challenging both heteronormative Indian and European patriarchies, however, this queer relationship unfortunately provides a virulent context of unhoming for the children left behind-young girls who are made to bear the brunt of patriarchal violence. The balance in family life dictated by the heteronormative social script is thus disturbed in this narrative.

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