Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

Choosing Sides: Gender and Sexuality as Boundaries in Funny Boy and Cereus Blooms at Night

Deirdre Aaron '04, English 365, Northwestern University, 2003

Both the narrator in Funny Boy and in Cereus Blooms at Night are non- heteronormative diasporan individuals. While Arjie, Funny Boy's narrator speaks as an adult in diaspora reflecting on his childhood in his native country of Sri Lanka, Tyler in Cereus Blooms at Night tells his story as an individual born and raised within a diasporan context. Each struggles to reconcile their own perception of their sexual selves with other's (often disapproving) perceptions of them. Although nonheteronormative sexualities are alluded to in both works, in neither of the novels is this sexuality explicitly named. Neither author employs the phrases "gay," "homosexual," or "transgender" that are often used within a Western framework to label sexual tendencies or preferences. Without these descriptive labels, the authors appeal to alternative significations of this situation, often representing their respective characters as excluded from the categories of male and female, and instead, somewhere in between. Just as individuals in diaspora cannot be placed within any one cultural or ethnic categorization, both Arjie and Tyler must occupy a space outside of normal gender and sexual categorizations. The choice by Mootoo and Selvadurai to place their narrators in a nameless middle space in between demarcated sexual and gender boundaries in many ways mirrors the inability of diasporan individuals to be placed within cultural and ethnic boundaries.

The title of Funny Boy itself evokes the nature of the environment in which the main character and narrator Arjie negotiates his sexuality amidst family and political tensions. As a child and young adult, Arjie displays "certain tendencies" (162), as his father calls them, that defy accepted norms of the ways men and women are expected to behave. During spend-the-days at his grandparent's house, Arjie relishes in donning a sari and jewelry to play the role of a female in "bride-bride," his favorite game. The older Arjie describes this ritual as a "transfiguration" (5) in which he "was able to leave the constraints of [him]self and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self" (5). The experience of dressing in women's clothing somehow allows him to attain a level of freedom and appreciation of himself that remaining within the confines of a boy's world does not. Although this ritual is nearly sacred to him, it earns him the adjective of "funny," a word whose significance he does not fully understand, but that he can sense nonetheless has a shameful connotation.

Before Arjie is even aware of the repercussions of his "tendencies," any un-stereotypical gender inclinations he may have are discouraged by his family. His parents (particularly his father), out of fear that he will turn out "funny," forbid him from playing "bride-bride". However, when playing with the boy children proves equally problematic because of his "girlie-boy" (25) status, thus separating him from the possibility of being either a girl or a boy. Gender stereotypes imposed by his family explicitly demarcate the separate worlds of boy and girl, leaving Arjie "caught between the boys' and the girls' worlds, not belonging or wanted in either" (39). Within these early episodes, Arjie's sexuality is negotiated solely within the confines of gender, male and female. His exclusion from both the boys and girls suggests that Arjie himself inhabits some third space in between these two, but that third space is merely described as funny and never named. Just as the space Arjie occupies between male and female is not clearly defined, so too are the words employed to describe this space vague and shifting.

The various stories and language that Tyler uses in Cereus Blooms at Night echo Arjie's experience in the space between male and female. The fact that Tyler describes himself as "neither properly man nor woman but some in-between, unnamed thing" (71) emphasizes the idea that, as a non- heteronormative individual, he exists sexually outside of distinct male-female categories. Tyler's "perversion" (47), just like Arjie's funniness, sets him in an "in-between" space that is neither strictly male nor female. Like Arjie playing "bride-bride," Tyler feels a particular comfort in inhabiting the role of a female. In one particular scene, when he puts on the female nurse's costume that Mala steals for him, he feels as though his body is "metamorphosing" (76) from male into female. As Mala's reaction to Tyler suggests, Tyler more closely resembles his inherent nature dressed as a female than he does as a man. By costuming Tyler as a female, Mootoo signifies Tyler 's in-between nature without specifically titling it .< /p>

Both authors elude the placement of an official title or label on their narrators. While references such as "funny" and "perversion" certainly suggest behavior that would typically be described in Western culture as homosexual, that explicit naming does not occur in either text. Arjie and Tyler are caught in between the worlds of male and female, man and woman, and in therefore cannot be given a definitive title within these axes of identity. Even at moments of revelation for Arjie and Tyler, their gender/sexual orientation remains an unnamed entity. When Arjie invites Shehan , the object of his attraction, to his home, Arjie's brother Diggy remarks that Arjie's father will now "definitely know that you're . . . " (Selvadurai 249), and fails to actually name what Arjie is. Likewise, when Tyler , through his relationship with Mala , finally comes to terms with his own insecurities about what he is, Tyler says: "I decided to unabashedly declare myself, as it were" (Mootoo 247). He proceeds to wear makeup and perfume, feminizing himself, but what this declaration signifies is again not represented by any specific title or label. Tyler's declaration is not merely one of his sexuality or gender, but of his self.

Both authors, as individuals themselves in diaspora , describe sexuality and gender of their diasporan characters not as having a specific name, but rather, as being an in between. Tyler and Arjie's location within male and female stereotypes and modes of behavior fails to be representable as one moment in time or one descriptive word, just as the identity of individuals in diaspora , with ties to several different locations and places, cannot be fully encompassed by any one cultural or ethnic label. Selvadurai and Mootoo's refusal to encompass their character's identities by titling them thwarts a Western desire to categorize sexuality, and parallels the vague nature of diasporan individual's location within the framework of cultural and ethnic belonging. Arjie and Tyler 's sexual and gender location, like the cultural and ethnic location of individuals in diaspora , can only really be described as an "in-between".


Mootoo, Shani. Cereus Blooms at Night. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.

Postcolonial Web India OV Canada Mootoo Shyam Selvadurai

Last modified: 5 December 2003