Thursday, December 30, 2010

What is "Literature"?

Today, after working out with Andy at Hart House, I decided to go to Indigo at Bay/Bloor to see if they had anything good for their boxing week sale. It turned out that they were offering 30% off all hardcover books. I started wandering around the shop, looking for a hardcover book I would be interested in.

Thirty minutes later I was starting to feel severely disappointed. I'd searched the whole bookstore, from the Fiction sections to the Ideas section, but no -- as huge as the bookstore was, apparently no one had ever felt the need to add an LGBT section. This is despite there being books on religion and self-help and poetry and philosophy and psychology and current news and fashion and beauty and sports and alternative health (saw a bodybuilder-type person on one of their covers) and Asian Cooking.

Not that I should've had much hope for LGBT literature being in a mainstream bookstore to begin with, but come on. It seems like this systematic alienation of LGBT youth and adults will never end. I did stop by the sexuality section and typically, it was mostly straight vanilla stuff, all girls with lipstick and stereotypical imagery, aimed towards people who have no experience nor training in these fields at all. I saw one or two gay/lesbian books. Something hit me at that moment. I started to wonder whether it is appropriate to even define something as vague as "literature".

People will say, "I study English literature". "I love literature." But really, is "literature" just another socially regulated category, some elite group of books that have been deemed socially acceptable? Ideally, what good "literature" is should be based on solely the quality of the writing and language and ideas. But this is never really the case, and claiming that literature is everything that's "good writing" completely ignores other factors that people use to define and delineate what good literature is, such as the author's existing fame or lack thereof, the author's cultural background, the readers' cultural backgrounds, or even luck. If someone today wrote an extremely well-written book with evocative and new language and intricate and innovative ideas, would it be noticed if the subject of the book was BDSM? Or would the inclusion of BDSM automatically banish it to the realm of "alternative reading"?

Or, worse, would it be censored, suppressed, erased from the face of the earth? In UNI255 I watched a film I watched called Little Sister's vs. Big Brother, which detailed the legal battles of a bookstore (Little Sister's) to stop the censorship and seizing of gay and lesbian materials, including s/m materials, by the government (via Canada Customs). I distinctly remember one participant in the movie who said that the government was in fact speeding up the disappearance of a literature: many the authors who'd written the books had died from AIDS and the seizing of the materials precipitated their being unnoticed and forgotten.

This leads me to a personal conundrum which I have never been able to resolve. Is the whole process of delineating what 'good art' problematic? But if the concept of high literature did not exist could we ever separate what is wonderfully or inventively expressed to what is clumsily written?

After my adventure at the bookstore I popped into Calvin Klein to see if they had any nice underwear on Boxing Day sale. While I was looking through their racks a masculine-looking gay man was speaking to the sales clerks and was telling them that he went with this underwear instead of that underwear because that underwear he'd seen on people who are "really gay".

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two Should Not Be the Magic Number

A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of dating someone who had different views towards sex as the ones I hold. The person in question had told me that he was "open" about sex, but I should have clarified what "open" meant.

I hate it when people use words like "slut", "dirty", and (especially) "perverted". These words are used to regulate sexuality, and to classify - as Gayle Rubin described - what is good sexual behaviour and what is bad sexual behaviour according to our society. Promiscuous people are labelled "sluts" and pornography and sadomasochism are "perversions". Words like these perpetuate the shame that people feel towards sexual desires and acts, and it is this shame that deters people from exploring such a core part of themselves.

I truly believe sex and sexuality in all forms are beautiful and fascinating - and perhaps the most intimate and deepest to connect with anyone. And from now on, I refuse to date anyone who does not understand my philosophy towards sexuality. I'm tired of explaining myself and tired of feeling ashamed for something I should not feel ashamed of.

Some may say I am setting myself up for a life of solitude. I am aware that my dating pool is limited. I am gay, so I already have a smaller dating pool than most. But you know what? Some things are more important than couplehood. I will not have a relationship for the sake of having a relationship. I am sick and tired of discrimination based on sexuality and I have made it my life's goal to fight it. And if someone takes that battle away from me, I'll no longer have a reason to exist. If this means I'll be hard-pressed to find someone willing to accommodate me, so be it.

"But won't you get lonely when you grow older?" I know what you're getting at: but what is love, anyway? The word itself is so fraught and conflated with meanings. Yet we always seem to think of it as the pinnacle and centre of our exciting lives. Love this, love that, love hurts, love creates jealousy, love sucks. Why does two have to be the magic number? (Why not three? Why not one?) I feel obliged here to quote Shakespeare:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no. It is an ever-fixéd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.
Love is everlasting. That's all that matters. I have this love -- and I don't need couplehood to provide it, and I don't need to change my views on sexuality for it to appear.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


At times, I'm so filled with self-doubt. I cannot help but look upon what I've written and feel that it's crap. I want to change it but I don't know how. I don't have the ability or the ear or the power. I feel like I'm deluding myself for even dreaming to be a writer.

And even if I do become a writer, who will read me? The world is so huge, and there are so many people who will not listen to a thing you say. At the end of the day, how the hell am I ever going to change anything?

Be self-confident! This is what people will tell you. But then they tell you not to be arrogant. That line between self-confidence and arrogance is so hard to maintain that at times I wonder if it even exists. I oscillate between periods of complete insecurity and periods where I'm calm and stable and convinced that I can overcome anything - you tell me where's the line.

This is why I'm doubting. I don't only doubt my ability to be a writer; I doubt my worth as a human being. About a week ago someone said I was arrogant and hateful (this after they also told me I was insecure, dependent, and clueless) and I felt terrible because I felt like these were unworthy parts of me that I have not yet been able to change.

In truth, I am arrogant. I feel like I'm so smart and I feel like I'm oh so wise and I feel like I can actually write well. Am I hateful? Of course. Even after so long, I'm still trying to get some of my personal prejudices ironed out from my thinking. Am I insecure, dependent, clueless? Jesus, you know it.

Then again, sometimes I think that it's futile to describe people using adjectives at all. That's one thing I did not like about psychology - many psychologists seem to simply assume that a static core, if you will, that exists within every human being and fluctuates little over time. You'll see this type of thinking in the general population too. People use them to categorize themselves. "I'm optimistic", people will say. "I'm bubbly." "I'm an introvert." "I ranked 80% on Openness on the Big Five." "I'm an INTJ."

What if phrases like these are not applicable to us at all? In Atwood's Cat's Eye, Elaine's relationship with her best friend Cordelia morphs over time. In their childhood, Cordelia was a bully, a tormentor, yet Cordelia was also a misfit and a dimwit in her father's eyes; in high school, Cordelia was Elaine's best friend, a mischievous girl who was yet sometimes insecure; in their adult lives, Cordelia is sent to a nuthouse. Tellingly, at the beginning of the book when she mentions Cordelia, she then ruminates: "[W]hich Cordelia? The one I have conjured up, the one with the roll-top boots and the turned-up collar, or the one before, or the one after? There is never just one, of anyone."

It's an observation that I've come to believe is true. I used to tell others that I am an INFP, taking pride in the fact that my principal mode of learning was 'iNtuition' and that my way of making decisions depended on my emotions ('feeling'). Today, I know that this is simply a guide and I adopt this identification less readily. I know: I'm still an introvert when it comes to many things. I simply don't like partying very much and at many times, I just want to stay home and listen to music, play games, or read a book. Yet, I can also be extraverted - I've met a lot of people this year and according to some people, I'm almost "socialite". Although I do base a lot of my life decisions on emotions, I also base a lot of them on thinking and logic. I think so much on the subway because I have so much time.

I am introverted, and I am also extraverted. The two aren't mutually exclusive because whether I'm introverted or extraverted depends on situational factors such as the environment I'm in, the time of the day, the people I'm with, my mood, and the other responsibilities on my mind. Similarly, I do depend on my emotions, and I also depend on my logic.

Whether it's because of something they've learned or some chemical doing wonky things with their brains, people change every day. Their reactions to something today might not be their reactions to something tomorrow, or even the next hour. I try to keep that in mind. There are periods of time when some of my friends always seem to drift away from me; there are days when certain friends will act nasty to me. I can't even decipher my best friend sometimes, and we're pretty tight. But I remember that they may be affected by the lack of sleep they'd had the last few days, or their conflicting emotions towards their future careers... and this is how I remind myself to forgive.

Please forgive me, then. I am arrogant, but not every day. I'm dependent. I can be insecure. (But you just said I was arrogant!) I can be hateful. I can be naughty. I can be nice. (Confused, Santa?) Alas, some will still insist on seeing me as one person. If hateful and arrogant come with a label that someone cast onto me after meeting me for two days, I suppose I'll have to deal with that.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Course Evaluations: Fall 2010

We've come to the end of the semester. Because it's too late and I'm too tired to do any more studying for today, I'm just going to list some of my thoughts about my courses. By the way, in my rating system 5 represents the average. I don't give pity marks.

Partial Differential Equations - This course turned out as expected, which is to say that I didn't really learn very much. Half of this course was learning about separation of variables and the Fourier Series, which I'd already learned in other classes - Calc II in EngSci, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, Classical Electrodynamics, and Quantum Mechanics. I enjoyed listening to Professor Sulem, and she cracked me up ("You didn't correct me"). Still, she always seemed to underestimate the mathematical prowess of the class: she explained everything in utmost detail and didn't skip any of the obvious steps in the derivations. This lead to a very slow-paced class. In fact, one could mostly ignore the plan that the professor listed at the beginning of every class because almost all of the time, only half of the plan would be covered.

Overall, the class was very easy and the averages for the midterms hovered around the A range. This made the course less stressful, but it wasn't really conducive to learning. Rating: 4/10.

Poetry - I have learned to love this course. Although the professor goes quite slowly and is sometimes too opinionated, I have begun to appreciate her wisdom and the passion that she holds for poetry. Someone on RateMyProfessors says that "Professor Reib
etanz embodies the spirit of poetry", and I am inclined to agree. I loved learning about meter and form am enjoying learning about rhetorical devices. In second semester we're going to be reading Robert Frost and W. B. Yeats in depth and I can't wait to sink my teeth into them.

The course itself has been easy so far. What is not easy for me is reading and interpreting poetry. It's still hard for me to interpret poems and sometimes I stare at a poem for an hour and I still don't really understand it. This course, though, has been a good first step in learning how to think about poetry critically and moreover to appreciate its intricacies. Plus, I can actually recite some of Shakespeare's
sonnets now. Rating for first half of the course: 7/10.

Biography and Autobiography - This was definitely one of my favourite courses this semester. Professor Jackson was very articulate - in fact, I'd probably say she is the most articulate professor that I have ever encountered during my time at UofT. Despite initial doubts, I really enjoyed the class material. I have never really paid much attention to biography as a literary genre; however, after this class I am starting to realize there are many things to in writing a biography. For instance, how is it even possible to represent an entire life well? Inevitably, life details get filtered, selected, twisted, and represented subjectively. Often details are not even accessible. Other interesting questions we considered include, "How are biographies influenced by novels, literary movements, and psychology?" and "How do different biographical models lead to different views of the 'self'?" Rating: 9/10.

Sexuality - To tell you the truth I am slightly disappointed in this course because 1) Professor Rayter's teaching style doesn't really appeal to me, and 2) there was a long section in the middle of the course where we focused on histories of sexuality and that was really boring to me. I was not really interested in reading about how sexuality was used to demarcate colonial power. Notions like "power" still feel too abstract and ill-defined to me. Thankfully, after the boring middle section, things picked up when the class turned to studies of stripteases and the lesbian S/M community.

Still, I'm grateful that I took this course because it's provided me with new ways to think about sexuality, as well as new vocabulary to articulate my thoughts about it. Specifically, I loved the theories section and I especially liked Gayle Rubin's theory of the "Charmed Circle of Sexuality" (see accompanying image: the inner categories, the "charmed circle", represents the sexualities which society unjustly considers good, normal, and blessed; the "outer limits" are considered bad, abnormal, and deviant). I am considering taking more sexual diversities courses next term. Rating: 6/10.

Classical Electrodynamics - Professor Paramekanti was extremely lazy. The last problem set was assigned on the last day of class and consisted solely of several textbook questions. Furthermore, he spent around nine weeks covering electricity and like, three covering magnetism (in the words of my classmate: "We've spent so much time on E, when will we get to B?") Overall, the class was okay but I didn't learn much. Not much else to say about it. Rating: 5/10.

Quantum Mechanics I - I did not enjoy this class. The professor put in effort, but he was still not a great instructor. Classes moved too slow and did not feel "physical". Moreover, the marking scheme was just stupid. 50% of our mark was allocated to 5 problem sets, which consisted of 1-2 questions always confusingly-worded. There was no midterm for us to gauge our standing in the class. No contest: the worst class of the term. Rating: 2/10.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Four lines

10:30 pm on the bus.

I look at my reflection, catch my drooping eyes
see my dreams, my lies

this guilt's guttering my veins. This sadness washing over me
but a familiar beat's on my MP3

I've got money in my pockets,
I like the colour of my hair,
I've got a friend who loves me,
Got a house, I've got a car
I've got a good mother,
And her voice is what keeps me here.

This song, for me, has always been about taking a step back and remembering to be grateful for what we have, instead of what we don't have. Often in our society, the tendency and temptation is to keep wanting more, and more. And don't we all want more at times? Perhaps we want more money; perhaps we want to be more beautiful; perhaps we want to know that many people love us.

This stanza for me is a constant reminder of what I need to be grateful for. Jann Arden tells us that although she may not be rich, she has enough ("I've got money in my pockets"); she tells us that she may not be beautiful, but she at least has features that she loves ("I like the colour of my hair"). She tells us that out there, there is at least ONE person who loves her ("I've got a friend who loves me"). The number is important. So many of us get caught up in feeling that we have too few friends, but perhaps having one true friend is having more than our share. Jann, like many of us, is fortunate: she has shelter; she has transportation; she has a mother who, while not perfect, loves her.

Feet on ground
Heart in hand
Facing forward
Be yourself.

These four lines are four of the most important in my life, and by juxtaposing them Jann Arden made them so, so powerful. These are what they mean to me:
Feet on ground - We must stay practical and down-to-earth. Without a grounding in reality, we may not perhaps not be able to accomplish what we want to.
Heart in hand - We must stay in touch with our emotions. Emotions allow us to exist as more than bodily shells, and allow us to empathize, connect, and bring light to others.
Facing forward - We must focus not on the past and what can not be changed, but the future, and what can be changed.
Be yourself - We must not be afraid to express ourselves. "Be yourself" also reminds me of the joy we may often find in being single. We don't have to be "a couple"; we don't have to be "a boyfriend/girlfriend"; we don't have to be part of a group or partnership. We just simply have to be ourselves.

Jann Arden plays this song at the end of all her concerts, and for good reason. I myself play this song whenever I'm unhappy. It simultaneously humbles, yet lifts me at the same time. I'll never tire of that swelling feeling I get from hearing Jann repeat these four simple phrases.

Feet on ground... Heart in hand... Feet on ground... Heart in hand.