After the first ten pages, I had to close Stone Butch Blues because I was fighting back the tears. When I finally closed the book, having read it all the way through, I was again close to tears. I can't number the times I found myself reading through my tears as I read this harrowing, sometimes horrifying, but ultimately heroic novel.
And this is a novel written in the first person which has a lot to do with why I felt such anguish. Remarkably, I never felt myself thinking, "This is only a novel." Instead, I kept thinking to myself, "I don't want to believe it was like this but I know it was. I know it is." Leslie Fienberg, in creating the protagonist, creates a character so sympathetic that only a truly stoney hearted person could not possibly feel these blues. I found myself repeatedly identifying with the emotions I was reading. If the details of experience was different, the overall fear, confusion, frustration, and doubt were all familiar.
Jess Golberg's sexual identity and expression are sympathetically portrayed, so much so that I wish this book were required reading. I remember growing up around homophobic people and not understanding why they were so angry, so hostile, so intolerant. A novel like this could be so entlightening for some. Not the die hard haters but those who are on the fringe, the ones who are letting their confusion or even fear manifest as anger and hostility.
I would never have read this book if it had not been that it was chosen by the book group. Of all the books we have read this was the first in which I was completely disinterested and the first that blew me away. This is Feinberg's debut novel and, frankly, it puts Lemus' in perspective. Lemus' writing is perhaps more poetic and the story slightly less melodramatic but I never fought back any tears and I never felt connected to the characters on an emotional level. While I am still curious to see where Lemus' writing goes I am biting at the bit to read Feinberg's next novel. Thankfully, that is also one of the books the group has chosen and I fully intend on starting it today.
MILD SPOILER ALERT:
At one point in the novel the narrator is put into a mental institution by her parents who cannot understand their daughter's desire to wear men's clothing. Jess, the narrator, explains that after three weeks of confinement she had learned the system of being there and that her parents do not love her. I found myself disagreeing with this. I was angry with the mother and father for the complete inability to cope with their daughter's truth. I wanted to shake them for being ignorant. But I also knew that their choice to put their daughter into a mental hospital was not an act of hatred so much as it was a failed attempt at love and protection They didn't and couldn't know better. Not at that time. One would hope that they would have wanted to know better, to be more sympathetic and compassionate. Still, when Jess leaves home and never looks back, it doesn't surprise me. I couldn't possibly blame her for having to make that impossible choice. It was the character's only way to survive.
And see? I have tears now in my eyes as I imagine the hundred and thousands and possibly millions of young men and women who are forced to make these impossible choices. Staceyann Chin, a brilliant poet, discussed on Oprah the homophobic atmosphere in Jamaica. At one point during the interview she talks about her sense of being exiled from her home, her roots. That we live in a world where anyone has to feel this way because of love is heartbreaking. If it doesn't break your heart then I hope you find something that will because this should. This should shatter it into Humpty Dumpty pieces--this awareness that the world still wants to hold onto hatred when there is so much abundance of love waiting to be experienced.