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/#