Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Discussion Questions

1. Did this book make you angry?

2. How do you feel about David as a character? Is he sympathetic?

3. When does David realise he is gay? What upsets him most about this self-revelation: his relationship with Giovanni, with Hella, with his father?

4. What’s the role of Hella in the story? Does she stand for conventionality? Is Baldwin’s depiction of her misogynistic?

5. Were you sympathetic to Giovanni? What did you think about his history – the loss of a child, his abandonment of his home? How did that influence his current life?

6. Would a story like this be written today?

7. Is it important that this novel is set in France? How do the American characters view Europe? How do the Europeans view Americans?

8. What does Giovanni’s room symbolise? Is the disorder and squalor of his room symbolic of society’s attitude towards homosexuality?

9. What role does alcohol play in this story?

10. Do you think Giovanni and David love each other? Is Baldwin arguing that it’s impossible for two men to love each other, and that their relationship can only be founded on lust?

11. How does David feel about Giovanni in the end? And how does he feel about himself?

12. Baldwin said he didn’t include any black characters in the book because he didn’t want to write about race and homosexuality at the same time. Do you think this would still be an issue today? As quoted in the Guardian: “I certainly could not possibly have – not at that point in my life – handled the other great weight, the ‘negro problem’,” he said, in 1980. “The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

13. What is the role of older gay men, especially Jacques and Guillaume, especially in relation to the young men? What gaps and hierarchies does that reveal within the gay male community, as it’s being depicted here? What does all this have to do with the crime that happens later in the novel?

14. How did you feel about the end of the novel? What did you think the reader is supposed to take away from it?

Sources: https://introqueerlit.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/reading-questions-giovannis-room/

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson Questions

1. What does it mean to have a body? The physicality of birth, death, babyhood, motherhood, etc. are all central to Nelson’s narrative. She touches on sex, transitioning, the body as perceived by others and the body as perceived by ourselves. Were you interested in what she had to say? Was her perspective very different from your own?

2. Nelson has written about art and art history in other books of essays. How do you think this has informed her work in The Argonauts? Did you like the discussion of art, such as the work of Catherine Opie? Did it distract you from the main themes of the book?

3. Nelson discusses what it means to be a mother while identifying as queer. What do you think queer family means? Is it possible to be a mother and retain a queer identity?

The Argonauts arrives at a critical moment for queerness. The expansion of marriage rights and rapid cultural shifts toward assimilation and acceptance have rendered homosexuality much safer and less politically radical than it once was. For some queers, this has provoked a desire to preserve queerness’s alterity: to evoke its history and mark it as fundamentally and continually separate from the straight culture that surrounds it. It’s an understandable impulse, given how quickly the LGBT movement has been embraced — and co-opted — by corporations, politicians, and other fair-weather allies eager to keep up with the times. But this impulse has a downside, too, as it risks becoming attached to its own idea of authenticity, the distinctions it makes between real queerness and queerness’s supposed traitors.
“The tired binary that places femininity, reproduction, and normativity on the one side, and queer resistance on the other has lately reached a kind of apotheosis,” Nelson writes, “often posing as a last, desperate stand against homo- and hetero-normativity, both.” She has no patience for this binary, which understands “procreative femininity” as a pollutant both of queerness and of radicalism; she sees the misogyny of this stance. If The Argonauts can be said to have a primary concern, this is it: how to resist a conception of queerness that shoehorns complex lives into a neat dichotomy of normative versus not, and how to resist the unhelpful demonization of motherhood, domesticity, and the other supposedly reactionary forms that love can take.
— Moira Donegan https://nplusonemag.com/issue-23/reviews/gay-as-in-happy/

4. What is this book? Memoir? Essay? Poetry? Did its lack of identifiable genre bother you?

5. This is a book about transformations. The Argo remains the same ship even when all its parts are replaced. Nelson’s partner Harry starts to transition; Nelson goes through a pregnancy. What is she trying to say with the title? What does it mean when the body undergoes change? “On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female,’” Nelson writes. “But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.”

6. How did you feel about Nelson writing so intimately about people in her life, particularly her son and stepson?

7. Nelson seems to reject binaries: male/female, straight/queer, etc. Was she saying something relevant? Original?

8. Is this ultimately a book about happiness? Finding what happiness means, and whether you can allow yourself to experience it?

9. Were there parts which appealed to you more? Did you find the blend of academic and memoir writing to be easy to digest? Would this book work better as pure memoir and/or pure academic article? Why or why not?

10. Did you find the way Nelson contextualises her life in myths/stories to be helpful? Does telling stories about our lives makes them easier to understand? Easier to empathise with other people?

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin Questions

1. This story was revolutionary for 1968, the year of the moon landing, for its treatment of gender and sexuality. Do you think it remains revolutionary today?

2. Do you read sci fi often? Was that aspect of the novel challenging for you?

3. Some critics question whether the androgynous nature of the Gethenians is central to the story or not. For some, the idea of androgyny exists independent from the story. Others find it essential. Do you agree with either of these assessments? Something in the middle?

4. Why do you think LeGuin decided to not describe the full details of the Gethenians’ gender identity until a third of the way through the novel? Did you find this disorienting?

5. The Left Hand of Darkness is written like a report by Genly Ai. This means Ai “selected” the extra materials to include (for example Estraven’s chapters, the Orgota creation myth, and so on). Why do you suppose he chose to include these sections as the in-story author? Alternatively, why do you think Le Guin chose to write these sections like she did?

6. As he reminds us often, Genly Ai thinks himself a manly, macho man. Do you think his views on the Gethenians would be different if he were a woman? How much would the story change?

7. Estraven never tells Ai about his child with Arek, his brother. We don’t discover this until the final pages of the novel. Why do you suppose Estraven never divulged the information? Also, why would Le Guin wait until the end of the novel to make the big reveal? What purpose do you think it serves? 

8. How are the past and the future related in The Left Hand of Darkness? What role does each play in Gethenian society?

9. In the decades after she wrote it, Le Guin came to criticise some of the decisions she made regarding the treatment of gender in the novel, particularly her use of “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun. In what ways do you think this novel is a product of its time?

10. LeGuin is a student of Taoism, and Ai explicitly mentions the yin/yang symbol. What other religious themes do you find in the book? Faxe tells Ai that they perfected Foretelling “To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.” What do you think of this? Do you think Ai asked the right question?

11. Do you think this is a love story between Estraven and Ai, at least in part?

12. The one biographical fact that is most mentioned about Ursula LeGuin is that her parents were anthropologists. How do you feel this influenced her writing and this book in particular?

13. Would you like to be a Gethenian? From an investigator’s field notes concerning the lack of gender-specific characteristics: “On Winter…One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.” What do you think that means? Would you feel that way?

14. Le Guin said this book was “descriptive not prescriptive”. What do you think she meant by that?

15. How did you respond to it from an LGBTQ perspective? Did you think it made sense to choose this for our club?

16. Do you agree with this quote?

Macro-scale: this depiction of androgyny was groundbreaking for its time, and arguably remains the most famous gender-bending in the genre to date.
Micro-scale: I longed to be Gethenian. As a closeted kid growing up Catholic in a conservative town, the idea that sex and gender had no default templates in nature was a life-saving epiphany. Imagine a society without sexual shame, without double standards, without rape. Imagine a world in which everyone has a monthly biological cycle that you get time off for, no questions asked. Imagine families in which you can be mother and father both. Now imagine the difficulty of being a person from our world, dropped into the middle of that and tasked with building a cultural bridge. Our narrator is the first to admit his shortcomings on that front: ‘My efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.’ Or, in modern parlance: Genly knows he needs to unpack his biases. He spends the entire book trying to do just that. In turn, the book helped me to do the same.
From https://lithub.com/how-the-left-hand-of-darkness-changed-everything/ by Becky Chambers

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel Questions

1. What did you expect when you picked up the book? Did you have any negative associations towards graphic novels? Did this book change your mind?

2. The “Fun Home” in the title refers to the funeral home where Bechdel’s father works. But the house where they live is also central to the story. What do the different houses mean to the story?

3. Do you think the title reflects the story?

4. Do you like the artwork? Do you think this book would have worked had it been a memoir rather than a graphic novel? Did the art enhance or take away from your experience?

5. Bechdel makes frequent references to authors and literature. What effect does this have on the memoir? Do you like books about books?

6. Coming out is an important theme in this memoir. How do you think Bechdel’s father felt about her coming out? Did you like how coming out was handled in this memoir?

7. Bechdel touches on Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, and various lesbian and gay books, such as Colette’s autobiography. Would you describe “Fun Home” as being about gay society in a broader sense, not just Bechdel’s own experience?

8. The narrative moves back and forth in time: the story is not told in a linear fashion. Does this work? Was it confusing? What effect did it have?

9. Is it harder to talk about a memoir than talk about a novel? On page 125, Bechdel imagines how things would differ if her family told the truth. Is Bechdel telling the truth in her own memoir? Does it matter?

10. “Performance” is an important theme. Is her father’s house a performance? What about her mother’s acting career? Is everyone in the family performing a different role?

11. Bechdel describes her relationship with her father as “close, but not close enough”. What do you think about this?

12. Bechdel relied heavily on first hand sources such as letters, journals, and photographs to document her upbringing. One example of this is the series of photos on page 120. How do these media contribute to the authenticity of the book and influence her art?

13. Dream sequences are frequently found in artistic expression. How does Bechdel’s analysis and interpretation of her dreams and her emphasis on imagery enhance her storytelling?

14. How does Bechdel’s use of a limited color palette influence the story? Does it enhance or distract from the story?

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Questions

1. So (spoiler alert!) did they discover the secrets of the universe?

Questions about structure

2. The chapters are very short. What effect did this have on your reading experience? Was it a good way to tell the story?

3. Much of the story was told through dialogue. Did this work for you? How did it impact your understanding of the characters?

Questions about content

4. Do you prefer Aristotle or Dante? Do you think they are believable teenagers?

5. All the main characters are Mexican-American. Dante worries that he’s not Mexican enough. How do you think the Mexican background of the story influences the book?

6. What impact does Ari’s accident have on him and the people he loves?

7. What do you think of the role of the parents in this book? It’s unusual for parents to have such a large role in a YA novel. How would you characterize the boys’ relationships with their parents?

8. This book is set in the early 80s. Do you think it’s believable that the parents were so accepting and encouraging of the boys’ romantic relationship?

9. Relationships with fathers is an important theme in this novel. How would you characterize Dante’s relationship with his father? And Ari’s with his?

10. Is this a romantic story? Do you think the title works?

11. What do you think the sparrow symbolises in the story?

12. Some things remain unspoken in Ari’s household. What impact does this have on Ari? At the end of the story, Dante gains a brother, but Ari may never get to know his brother. What impact do you think this has on Ari? On Dante?