Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night is a novel charged with themes of homosexuality, sexual deviancy, and gender ambiguities. Whereas Lavinia and Sarah flee the island so that they can be free to love one another, Mala and Asha are sexually abused by their father; both of these situations challenge norms of sexuality which are perceived as moral and acceptable on the island of Lantanacamara. The most unique situation Mootoo presents in her novel that blurs the line between gender and sexuality and calls into question the assumed standards of these terms occurs in the characters of Tyler and Otoh. Each of these characters in some way embodies a hybrid gender and sexuality; specifically, each represents a gender that cannot easily be categorized as either male or female. With her description of Tyler and Otoh, Mootoo continually obstructs the reader from clearly defining the gender of either character, and through this hybridity of gender (as well as with other characters), Mootoo comments on the arbitrary nature of definitions of male and female. Mootoo's Tyler and Otoh destabilize the gender binary of male and female, and this destabilization in turn suggests a similar ambiguity of the notions of sexuality and homosexuality.
Among the first pieces of information that Tyler, the narrator, offers to the reader is that he is the only male nurse on the island of Lantanacamara, whose job is to protect Mala, an alleged female criminal (an occurrence as rare as a male nurse). This introduction immediately establishes both characters as exceptions to their assumed gender roles. As Tyler reveals himself intermittently throughout the novel, the story of his own "perversion" (47), identifying his own sexual uniqueness with Mala's uniqueness. Tyler reveals his definition of himself as "neither properly man nor woman but some in-between, unnamed thing" (71). Tyler's in-between state of gender identity deprives him of a feeling of belonging, and Lantanacamara society teaches him his ambiguity is unnatural. Mootoo conflates Tyler 's sexual preference for males with a deeper-rooted issue of man-woman identity. Tyler is not only "in-between" sexuality and homosexuality, but also in between man and woman.
Otoh, born a woman who chooses to become a male, shares a similar situation with Tyler, who is born a man but is "girlish" (71). With the character of Otoh, Mootoo suggests even more strongly than with Tyler that the label of man or woman is as flexible as that of heterosexual and homosexual. Early in his/her childhood, Otoh chooses to become a man, and the name Otoh replaces his/her female birth name Ambrosia. As a child, Otoh "walked and rand and dressed and talked and tumbled and all but relieved himself so much like an authentic boy" (110) that even his/her parents all but forget that Otoh was once a female. Despite Otoh's anatomy, he is accepted both by the Lantanacamara and the narrator as a male, and the text recognizes Otoh's masculinity by referring to him as a "he." Otoh, who attracts both men and women alike, responds to advances by both, thus further complicating any gender or sexual paradigm the reader might want to impose upon Otoh.
Mootoo's depictions of both Tyler and Otoh, man-woman and woman-man respectively, prove to the reader just how slippery are the categorizations of gender and sexuality. She describes Otoh and Tyler not in terms of their sexual orientation but rather in terms of their gender and sex; the book presents these characters not in terms of homosexuality or heterosexuality, but, rather, in terms of male and female, man and woman. Tyler and Otoh's sexuality and gender are not only not choices but are also identities that transgress any familiar categorizations of gender and sexuality. These two characters are brought together through Mala, with whom each somehow finds a sense of belonging that they are denied by others. Mala accepts their "nature" (76), specifically Tyler's, and it is through Mala that Tyler can finally "unabashedly declare" (247) himself. By giving voice to an unnamed "in-between" sexuality, Mootoo offers a critique of assumed gender norms, and creates a new alternative for sexual existence.
Mootoo, Shani. Cereus Blooms at Night. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
Last modified: 5 December 2003