For this week’s blog post, I will be giving you all access to both my presentation and review paper for the electronic literature Queerskins! Please fill free to checkout my work before my presentation in today’s class.
The Elit that we have read for this week is really interesting and is a great way for us to build upon what we have learned about this genre since the beginning of the semester. “Queer Skins” was an interesting read, but just like with some of the other Elit we have done, this reading certainly had its challenges while I read it, so I am looking forward to Patricia’s analysis in her presentation, as she always does an excellent job of understanding content, and presenting it in such a way that helps others (myself in this case) understand it better.
I do want to take some time and talk about “High MuckA Muck.” This was not only easier for me to follow I felt, but also, some of the tangents that we go down are truly interesting and I will talk about one or two that really stood out to me. The first one is the “Everywhere” video. I found this clip to be profound. From the choice of the music to the black and white imagery, this one definitely is a fun, thought provoking clip within the greater scheme of this work. I know we are talking about literature, so a video in this instance seems to be an odd place to begin analyzing this work, however, Elit seems to be a bit odd intentionally as one could argue it’s intention and purpose are to push boundaries and make the reader or the person consuming content to think in ways that they have not before. I particularly enjoyed the Asian theme of this piece, as the visuals and the music really helped to set the mood for what it is that the reader is about to consume, and in the “Everywhere” clip, we see a powerful reflection.
My interpretation of this particular video is kind of the cycle of life. How we are born, grow, become wise, but in the end we circle all the way back and are “reborn” to once again begin an exploration looking for new knowledge. Another way that I can see this is by looking at the message as one telling us that we are always growing as people, no matter how old we are, which explains the transition to being a baby from an elderly individual. I think it is important in every aspect of life to always be growing and always be learning, and I took that form this part of the Elit. One more aspect of this piece I will briefly talk about is how the videos that you are brought to do not have a lot of audio outside of the music. The lack of dialogue creates this feeling of intensity, I feel, that allows the reader to get so involved with the piece and to feel a sense of calm urgency while navigating through the piece.
I look forward to going over all of this in class. See you all later!
I must admit that even after the explanation, discussion and participating during last week’s class, I still left class feeling apprehensive. I thought to myself “what have I gotten myself into?” “This is way more than I can handle”.
When I began this week’s assignments, my expectations were very low. I only expected to be able to comprehend bits and pieces. Yet, to my pleasant surprise, I understood everything and then some.
Queerskins by Illya Szilak is a wonderful piece of electronic literature. I wholeheartedly enjoyed this body of work. As I read and navigated through the site, I found myself constantly drawing parallels with previous works I’ve read and seen. The most recent work I compared Queerskins to is the FX series Pose. Similar to the life of Sebastian, Pose is also set during the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic. The lives of a community of trans women and gay men living in NYC is documented in the series. Each of these characters has a different origin story, yet their lives are all intertwined through the ballroom community, the ostracization of LGBTQ individuals and the effects of HIV/AIDs on the community.
As I read and listened to various sections of Sebastian’s life, I kept comparing his life to various characters within Pose. There is a character named Damon who leaves his life in Pennsylvania in pursuit of New York City after his father finds out he is gay and beats him severely. His story reminds me of the strained relationship between Sebastian and his father. Even as a child, Sebastian’s father was abusive toward him. He would beat him for “no reason”. Sebastian’s father wanted to nothing to do with him after he found out his son was gay. He did not want to hear any news about Sebastian, nor did he attend his funeral.
Sebastian’s father refusing to attend his funeral reminded me of the character Candy. Candy was a trans prostitute who was brutally murdered by one of her clients. In the wake of her death, the ballroom community comes together to organize a funeral for her. During their planning, they reach out to her parents who quickly denounce Candy as their daughter and state that they only had a son. It is presumed throughout the episode that Candy’s parents will not show up to her funeral. However, her parent’s show up to pay their respects. It is through the funeral that her parents gain some sort of insight into what her life was like as a woman. It is also through the funeral, that viewers learn Candy was also HIV positive.
Lastly, Sebastian’s love life reminded me of almost every character on Pose. In the show, love and romance within the community operates within the shadows. There are written and unwritten rules that everyone abides by; some even make up their own rules as they go along the way. This reminded me of Sebastian’s relationship with Alex and JM. Sebastian and Alex’s relationship was monogamous yet open. They were committed to one another, but they also acknowledged Wednesdays as the designated day they were allowed to sleep with other people. JM and Alex did not court one another like heterosexuals do. This is mostly because they were not afforded that luxury due to being two gay men. Despite this, they found ways to make their relationship work by operating in the shadows and also establishing some form of normalcy. This is a common trope in Pose. The community operates on a need to know basis; those who need to know know and those who do not need to know do not know.
I believe what captivated me the most about this text was the readability of it. It flowed seamlessly. Each chapter being placed in the perfect order. The site also provides the reader with the ability to navigate in whichever order they please. They can read an excerpt from Sebastian’s journal or listen to an audio clip. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and would even recommend it to anyone who’s interested in learning about electronic literature.
(Now I’m nervous about presenting my own because it doesn’t flow this easily!)
I didn’t think I’d enjoy Illya Szilak’s Queerskins as much as I did. Truthfully, I expected reading it to be an academic exercise in which I could better learn to navigate electronic literature and begin making critical observations about the genre’s structure and form. Instead, I found myself swept up in Sebastian’s emotional life story the same way I become engrossed in traditional novels.
One reason this novel resonated with me so much is because it deeply explores meaningful themes. For example, Sebastian’s struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his religion is a major conflict in the work. His intense Catholic guilt is present in almost every sexual encounter he recounts in his journal entries. He describes dancing “worshipfully” in gay bars, he visits men with stained glass windows in their homes, and he compares performing oral sex on a man to the saints sucking the pus from lepers. Sebastian’s thoughts about his homosexuality are inextricably tied to his feelings on religion.
His mother’s religion is another major piece of the narrative; the journal entries repeatedly mention her shrine to the Virgin Mary and how often she kneels to pray. This devout Catholicism prevents Mary-Helen from accepting her son’s sexuality; though she clearly loves him, she willfully ignores his coming out. When he dies, she agonizes over whether her homosexual son will be accepted into heaven. She struggles immensely with religious guilt just as Sebastian does.
Mary-Helen not only suffers from the same Catholic guilt as her son, but she is also influenced by another one of the story’s major themes: toxic masculinity. Her husband Ed seems to abhor emotion and femininity. In addition to his disgust with Sebastian’s sexuality, Ed also cheats on his wife and ignores her emotional needs. For instance, after euthanizing their family dog, Ed only seems annoyed when his wife is crying. (As a side note, I think we can all agree that anyone who doesn’t cry when a dog dies is objectively an awful person.) Ed’s callous treatment of his wife diminishes her. Sebastian writes that if his father’s head exploded, Mary-Helen would “kneel down obediently and start cleaning it up.” Instead of standing up for herself, getting angry, or reacting strongly, Sebastian’s mother internalizes her emotions. She only allows them to pour out when she’s on her knees in prayers and penance.
I was fascinated by this novel’s themes of Catholic guilt and toxic masculinity, but I also enjoyed analyzing the structure of Queerskins. The videos and pictures of landscapes, news reports, music, etc., create the mood and tone for each page and immerse the reader in the chapter’s setting, while the audio files and journal entries offer glimpses into Sebastian’s life from the perspective of multiple characters. These perspectives highlight the author’s use of unreliable narrators; there are instances where different characters recount different versions of the same events. This raises questions about whether we can ever really know the truth of anyone’s story.
I was so caught up trying to figure out the true version of events that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize the journal entries and audio files can be moved across the screen. This effect creates a deep connection between the reader and the narrative, as it feels like the reader is rifling through mementos and memories from Sebastian’s personal, private life. As immersive as the desktop version of the novel is, I wish I experienced it in virtual reality (my husband actually has an HTC Vive, but unfortunately, the website says the story is only available on Oculus).
Whether experiencing Queerskins in virtual reality or not, the reader can feel more immersed and in control by manipulating the audio files to create a more unique experience; one can lower or raise the volume or allow audio from previous chapters to continue playing even after advancing to the next page. Personally, I prefer reading the journal entries (I’m not a fan of audiobooks), but most of the voice actors do an excellent job of injecting strong emotions into their characters’ testimonies. After reading chapters of vocal testimonies mixed with Sebastian’s writings, I was gutted when I finally reached a page with only audio. The lack of journal entries were a constant visual reminder that Sebastian is gone.
Although Sebastian’s passing is tragic, the novel appears to end with a message of hope. In the final video, a televangelist has a clear message: “God loves you.” Sebastian’s final journal entries echo this sentiment with what is one of my favorite quotes from the novel; he writes, “Even if you were to pull down all the shades and hide under the covers, the sun will still shine…. Likewise, even if the recipient cannot or will not receive it, the offering of a divine love will never be revoked.” Although he is a sinner in the eyes of the church, Sebastian reclaims his faith; he is loved by God, and he is loved by the friends and family who share their perspectives on his life story.
Sebastian’s life story is filled with intense emotion, crippling Catholic guilt, and strong relationships with diverse characters. Queerskins is an experimental and engaging piece of electronic literature, and the story it tells is packed with important themes and emotional experiences.
Queerskins (Szilak, 2012) was the first piece of electronic literature I came across that made me think – so there IS something I can wrap my head around in this field! Not only was it more visually and navigationally pleasing, but the themes found within were close to my heart.
Placing this reading in the context of what we discussed with Pressman’s (n.d.) article and TwelveBlue (Joyce, 1996), Queerskins was much different to navigate. In many ways it is more book-like in structure because you move through it in a relatively linear way and there is a cohesiveness to the pieces of journal, video, audio, and still pictures. As I navigated through the whole thing, it had the feeling of zooming in on a timeline and being given a more intimate peak at the moments of this man’s life. The interactive way of scrolling through his journals and listening to clips of his family and friends and lovers talk was such a beautiful way to draw the reader into the story; It made it feel real. This realism was in large part due to the reader’s ability to virtually handle the objects and move them around. It was akin to finding an old shoe box in the attic and opening it to find it filled with mementos and letters, the remnants of a life.
When you initially start the story, you are looking down into the shoebox – everything is mixed up and pieces of letters and images are strewn about. You haphazardly grab things and listen and look and feel. But as the story progresses, and you start to arrange the pieces, you discover it is about a man driven by a need to be loved and to love; we see a man who is seeking faith in something and who feels the ever present weight of shame from his Catholic faith, distant father, and submissive mother. Sebastian’s life seems to be a warped mirror of the life of the saints that his mother keeps tucked away in her room. Their sufferings and devotions and his interplay throughout the piece as Sebastian is pierced again and again with each love and loss. In his diligent devotion to his idealized view of love, and the salvation he feels it might bring him, he brings himself ever closer to the suffering that eventually frees him to experience the “pornographic” ecstasy of the saints.
Quite like Tony Kushner’s (1992) Angels in America with its Jewish and Mormon subtexts, this story is steeped in religious imagery and references. This is especially the case with the overarching theme of suffering and love being almost inseparable. An ideology often found in Christian theologies is the significance of suffering and how it can be redemptive and bring us in closer communion with God – the ultimate source and embodiment of Love. From Sebastian’s childhood, all he has are examples of people distorting this view and creating suffering for others in the name of ‘love’.
This dynamic is most obvious in Sebastian’s mother who plays the role of the long-suffering wife who turns a blind eye to whatever is too painful, be it her beliefs around her son’s sexuality, her husband’s treatment of their son, or her husband’s treatment of her. She loves through her silences and denials, and in turn she suffers and causes suffering. Instead of this ‘love’ bringing her and Sebastian to some closer communion with one another, it drives them apart so that in the end they are strangers. Sebastian’s mother must retreat to her religion and her trashy romances to find love, and Sebastian turns to distance and abusive lovers.
“It’s worse to feel far away at home than to be where nothing is familiar.” (Szilak, “Alex”, p. 22)
Apart from suffering and love, there are so many themes that could be unpacked in this story – the white savior, the relationship between gay men and the rest of the LGBTQ community during this time in history, homophobia and how it contributed to the deaths of these men during the AIDS epidemic, etc. I chose to focus more on the theme of suffering as love because it spoke to me the most. Nothing drives a story more than suffering. There is a natural movement that comes with suffering because it is always trying to alleviate itself, to escape. It seeks a meaning for its existence and drives its inhabitant into the depths of insanity in hopes of finding some modicum of reason. Love, the other supreme driving force, finds itself drawn in by suffering because it makes suffering beautiful – like frozen faces gasping in perpetual ecstasy. Whether those faces eventually turn back into grimaces of terror is up to the storyteller.
Joyce, M. (1996). Twelve Blue. Postmodern Culture and Eastgate Systems. https://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/joyce__twelve_blue.html
Kushner, T. (1992). Angels in America. Theater Communications Group.
Pressman, J. (n.d.). Navigating Electronic Literature. Electronic Literature: New Horizons For the Literary. https://newhorizons.eliterature.org/essay.php@id=14.html
Szilak, I. (2012). Queerskins. Electronic Literature Collection Vol. 3. http://online.queerskins.com/#