If you ever need a good cry, read The God of Small Things. I read it for the first time in a literary theory course as an undergrad, taught by a new (to Idaho State University) professor. Over the course of the semester, we read a theory text book, the novella A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, dozens of short stories and critical essays, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
Arundhati Roy has had quite the career, winning many awards and accolades, including the Man Booker Prize for Fiction (for The God of Small Things) and the Norman Mailer Prize for Distinguished Writing. Roy’s “subversive nature has made her accustomed to criticism. ‘Each time I step out, I hear the snicker-snack of knives being sharpened, but that’s good. It keeps me sharp’, said Arundhati Roy when interviewed by an Indian magazine.” I find her approach admirable, that criticism can only make you sharper, not cut down, but it was a lesson I had yet to learn at the time of reading her debut novel.
I could write extensively on each of those amazing texts read in the course, but it’s The God of Small Things that offers the best snapshot of a before-and-after slice of my (evolving) queer mind – and aided the assimilation of critical thinking into my life in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Mostly, because I started sharing my thoughts out loud – well, by proxy at least; full of fear of repercussions for saying what I wanted to say but readying myself to face the backlash.
The plot of The God of Small Things is set in 1969 and in:
the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family. Their lonely, lovely mother, Ammu, (who loves by night the man her children love by day), fled an abusive marriage to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi (who plays Handel on her violin), their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher), and their enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun and incumbent grandaunt). When Chacko's English ex-wife brings their daughter for a Christmas visit, the twins learn that things can change in a day, that lives can twist into new, ugly shapes, even cease forever, beside their river.
Alice Truax said it beautifully, back in 1997 for The New York Times, when she said “there is no single tragedy at the heart of Arundhati Roy's devastating first novel. […] Yet the quality of Ms. Roy's narration is so extraordinary -- at once so morally strenuous and so imaginatively supple -- that the reader remains enthralled all the way through to its agonizing finish.”
Critical literary theory is full of faults, limitations on nuances, and on real people or real world empathies; but, in order to understand texts and people in a broader sense, it offers plenty to explore. When it came time to write a short essay on Roy’s novel, I chose queer theory as my lens to the view the story and examine some of its action. This may seem like a small, even easy choice, but at the time it meant walking a tightrope in my mind and social setting. At the time of the course, I was still a closeted homo, 21 years-old, and not ready to talk about my sexual identity aloud. The thing that got me thinking at the time, though, about queer theory and The God of Small Things in general, was the demonization and marginalization of the only outwardly perceived gay person of the novel – Kari Saipu – and the gender roles challenged by one of the main characters, Estha. The queer representation of these characters struck a nerve with me, and were the focus of my essay.
Kari Saipu is described in the book as having “shot himself through the head ten years ago, when his young lover’s parents had taken the boy away from him and sent him to school. After the suicide, the […] house had lain empty for years.” The character, much like the novel, is very much open to interpretation – the age of his lover, for example - but what wasn’t left open, is the fear and shame placed around his story. He is mostly mentioned as a ghost that haunts his old home, and a spirit to be feared. While Estha is a non-conforming individual that is often ridiculed because of his affinity for chores associated with women and his habit to cross dress. Roy states in her novel that, "They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much." This idea of tampering meant something deep to me at the time – it still does – and helped me to begin to challenge the laws around me on who to love.
Back then, I didn’t fully understand the process of binaries and the way they limit people that don’t fit in one category or the other – it really restricts any overlap. But in that limitation, it can illuminate the ridiculousness of those binaries, of only male or female, of only gay or straight. By only discussing these “either/or,” it can by association reveal there is so much more out there. These strict roles and their demonizations is what I chose to write about years ago in that course, and unknowing to me, my professor loved my comments. So much so, that she tried to turn my paper into a much larger class discussion on the novel and on queer theory.
If it had been a few years later, I would have been all over that discussion. I would have reveled in real talk about the queering of queers. The othering tied to the history of anyone, especially sexually, other than yourself. But at the time, I basically froze, and very obviously disappointed the professor for not taking what I had written and expanding upon that in class. I wasn’t ready to talk about queer theory for fear of association, but I had been ready to write about it. The words I had written for a single college essay would eventually help to empower me, and serve as a passage to explore queer topics in conversation, not just as a treatise.
But full with fear of assumptions, I instead let her describe my paper on her own to the class, discussing the vengeful ghost of Kari Saipu and the gender role challenges of Estha. Because of my dumbstruck mouth, the class discussion mostly died. In the span of an hour, my ego had flared with an unexpected pride, and had been snuffed out just as quickly. We weren’t the easiest class to have a discussion with, and she wasn’t the best at hiding disappointment over that fact.
Roy writes in her novel, ''That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house -- the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture -- must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.'' That class, specifically that class day, eventually inspired me, fueled me, for years to come. That class wasn’t the end of the conversation (evolution) of coming out for me. It wasn’t even the beginning. This book, this teacher, this essay, was, however, a shove in the right direction.