Susanne Jung, Bouncing Back: Queer Resilience in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century English Literature and Culture (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2020) 244 pp. €39.99 $45.00 pdf, ISBN: 978-3-8394-5027-7
In Bouncing Back: Queer Resilience in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century English Literature and Culture, Susanne Jung states that ‘queer subjects have strategies of resilience at their disposal to help them cope with the challenge heteronormativity – as a power structure – poses to their affective lives’ (11), thus providing a framework for this book. Jung’s work offers an eclectic archive of such strategies, focusing on queer affect and creativity at the site of trauma caused by cisheteronormativity and, in more than one occasion, its intersection with racism.
The book stands as a necessary reminder of how normativity affects queer subjects, the threat it poses to the livelihoods of many, and how it continuously punches them down in visible and invisible ways. It also reminds the reader that bouncing back is possible and can take various forms. ‘Resilience,’ Jung writes, ‘in its original sense derived from its Latin root (resilire), means bouncing back, to rebound, to spring back, so resilience might be termed the ability to bounce back, or spring back’ (14). The forms this resilience can take, according to Jung, are related to creating and providing safer spaces for expression (especially through art forms), somatic forms of pleasure and release, fictional escape realms, and collectivity and community forming.
Additionally, Jung proposes that beyond the healing that practices of literary and cinematic creation offer, it is engagement with these works of art that might itself be part of a toolbox for queer healing and resilience strategies. This is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, when pleasures or forms of resistance involving multiple bodies in proximity have been suspended, and many might feel the need to satiate their needs and turn to resilience strategies that utilise other forms (such as literature, poetry, films, music, stand-up comedy, or fan fiction, which can be experienced from one’s room).
Jung further highlights the importance of imagination (including the realms of the magical and the fantastic) in healing processes, whether in a therapy session or through works of art that allow one to engage with stories that provide safer spaces, alternative endings, a refuge from harsh reality, and ultimately offer empowering inspiration for real life. The work of trauma therapists, neuroscientific research and, in some cases, Buddhist ideas and practices are evoked throughout this book, synthesizing research-based knowledge in the field of psychology with cultural/affective analysis of the works at hand (poems, novels, films, comedy, interviews). This offers the reader a well-rounded approach to queer trauma and healing that does not hierarchically elevate certain forms of knowledge and sense-making at the expense of others.
The book covers diverse works from the last 110 years, and the chapters are laid out according to different strategies. It begins with narrative strategies (identification, José Muñoz’s disidentification, deconstruction), using Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Amy Fox’s Heights and, finally, queer fan fiction. Jung offers a reading of Oranges, a text that, through its postmodern style and its narrator’s semi-autobiographical elements, foregrounds processes of establishing identity through dis/identificatory practices. Jung focuses on how Winterson uses writing as an epistemological tool in attempting to understand herself and what happened to her. Further, through the addition of fictional characters and alternative plotlines, Winterson can, according to Jung, afford a reparative reading of her biography. This is particularly pertinent as Winterson’s story is by no means unique. Indeed, queer people have been on the receiving end of violence and rejection from their families of origin or those who raise them, and many have forcibly undergone torture (i.e. ‘conversion therapy’). Analysing Oranges through semi-autobiographical elements centres these experiences and attempts a deconstruction with disidentificatory elements (use of biblical analogies to tell a queer coming-of-age story).
Next, the author explores how Cunningham’s intertextual novel reworks Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway into a queer reading of the past, introducing explicitly queer characters and generating a genealogy of queerness. Here, Jung highlights the importance of queer intertextual novel writing and queer history writing, both of which work towards creating and extending existing queer textual and cultural archives. She writes:
[a]lways under threat of either neglect or even complete erasure from mainstream cultural archives, the recuperation of queer texts of the past and the production of and continuing engagement with queer textual and cultural archives has been of utmost importance to queer cultural workers for the past several decades (50).
To think of contemporary non-normative ontologies in connection with historical accounts of (what we retroactively designate as) ‘queer’ subjects and desires, Jung employs the work of David M. Halperin and queer historiographers such as Valerie Traub and Carolyn Dinshaw.
In Amy Fox’s film Heights (based on her earlier play of the same name), Jung reads Jonathan’s character as bisexual and offers an account of bisexuality and non-monogamy, both of which get consistently erased from popular culture. She closes the chapter with a genre of queer desire reflection that democratises narratives and empowers those who usually do not get to see their work celebrated: fan fiction, slash fiction and their authors. Jung posits that
slash fiction, as a narrative strategy of queer resilience, enables readers to fill in subject positions that were lacking in the original cultural archive by rewriting the archive to include LGBTQ subjectivities and lives. It is thus both a communal and grass roots critique of popular cultural narratives and also at the same time of heteronormative notions of gender and sexuality (79-80).
In ‘The Art of Queer Emptiness’, Jung engages with alternative ways of ‘doing’ queer subjectivities (through what she terms ‘queer emptiness’), which she traces in Mary Oliver’s and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s poems and novels. Jung defines the
art of queer emptiness as a set of philosophies and practices, [that] may pertain to a non-attachment to self and thus also to an employment of “indifference” as an affective strategy engaged in momentarily by a queer subject who finds him- or herself faced with an act of homophobic violence or insult. This comprises a form of emptying oneself out, an act of refusal, an engaging in an attitude of non-caring, which is finally an activity that does not strive to change the status quo but that may serve as a form of affective self-care for the individual in question (87).
Here, the author suggests that queer subjects employ this strategy when they refuse society’s interpellating call (Louis Althusser’s ‘hailing’ can here be understood in terms of queerphobic utterances and pejorative terms) and instead let go of their need to be recognised as subjects in the first place, echoing Buddhist epistemologies (87). She locates this practice in reactions of ‘indifference’ and acts of refusal when engaging with homophobia. She then connects this to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s reparative practice, which is ‘both non-anticipatory and non-paranoid but favours instead open-endedness and an openness to elements of surprise’ (87). With regards to Warner’s Lolly Willowes, Jung writes: ‘both the novel itself and its characters thus refuse to be interpellated in terms of a contemporary system of classification into specific sexual subject positions, sexological or otherwise’ (102). She perceives these moments of rejection of abject subject positions—and maybe even pride—to be activated through the texts’ speakers and subsequently extended to the reader (94-95). Additional elements here are loss and mourning, both of which are significant to queer subjects whose history has been shaped by them and which act as springboards for transformative experiences that lead to ‘salvation.’ This chapter ends with a focus on (Foucauldian) care of the self and the (often painful but necessary) imperative for minorities to become their own healers.
In chapter three, Jung takes up performative strategies of queer resilience through interviews of Ian McKellen and Zachary Quinto, Melissa Etheridge’s music, Lynee Breedlove’s comedy performance, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, and DeObia Oparei’s Crazyblackmuthafuckin’self. Here she takes a
look at contemporary queer cultural icons and the public performance of their sexuality, specifically looking at their strategic use of patterns of disclosure and non-disclosure of their sexuality, as well as analysing the performance and publication of a song in terms of an act of creative sexual citizenship and finding an instance of periperformativity in a comedic stand-up performance (114).
In this chapter, Jung examines the closet as it manifests in different temporalities and as it is enacted (via staying in, coming out, or sheer ambivalence) by different individuals often connected to activist practices by means of performative and periperformative executions. The highlight of this chapter is her close reading of contemporary British actor and playwright DeObia Oparei’s play Crazyblackmuthafuckin’self, in which the protagonist (played by the playwright himself) portrays several selves and engages in performances that utilise camp and ritualistic elements, offering a critical lens through which to view sexualities, genders, and race as they intersect. This offers Jung and the reader an array of examples of performative strategies enacted through the characters’ use of code-switching and a complex series of conversations.
Chapter four introduces a number of spatial strategies through heterotopia, external and internal safer spaces, and the symbolism of the garden via analysis of two stories by Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen, poems by Robert Duncan and Maureen Duffy, a study of San Francisco's Castro neighbourhood and the impact and legacy of Harvey Milk. In Mansfield’s ‘Leves Amores’, Bowen’s ‘The Jungle’ and Duffy’s ‘Mulberries’, Jung argues that ‘the image of the garden is evoked to denote a space of queer possibility, a space in which female same-sex desire can be felt and – sometimes – realized’ (148). These liminal spaces allow for same-gender desire to flourish but can also be sites of abjection, guilt, and shame. In Duncan’s poem ‘Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’, Jung explores heterotopic spaces that seem to be constituted exclusively in one’s unconscious mind. The author writes of the importance of the formation of gay/queer neighbourhoods and community organising as both impact and are impacted by physical urban space. She ends the chapter with a focus on Milk’s attention to hope, arguing that ‘hope is a prerequisite for agency’ (178), thus adding her voice to those queer theorists (like Muñoz) for whom hope and the chance to extend one’s visions towards a future are necessary for survival and the ability to bounce back
The final chapter is an analysis of bodily strategies through postpornography. Jung offers a close reading of John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, as well as poems by Mark Wunderlich, May Swenson, Thom Gunn, Pat Parker and Carol Ann Duffy. In Shortbus and Wunderlich’s ‘The Trick’, Jung reads queer stress and trauma as inhabiting the body in ways that forbid one from fully exploring pleasure (jouissance) and bodily sensations, and she proposes the use of the body as an epistemological tool that privileges affect. Then, she goes on to interrogate how queer subjects use the body to develop resilience and breaks down a number of portrayals of such strategies in the works of Swenson, Gunn, Parker, and Duffy, employing the work of psychological researchers (Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine) to do so. From these poems, Jung extracts tools for resilience that lie in aesthetics and which activate rich sensorial experiences through their form, rhythm, and evoked imagery. In Parker’s ‘My lover is a woman’—a poem that, drawing from the Black oral tradition, exemplifies how queerness and historical race-related trauma often act in unison—Jung identifies the importance of countering pain with pleasure as a way to not get stuck in bad feelings and escape having them so they do not become permanent archives in the body. This chapter, more than any other, focuses on how queerness can simultaneously be the site of pain and the site of pleasure. It also highlights the value of affective modes of healing (called up by interpersonal touch) that queer subjects have employed in order to survive, all the while being cast as deviants who are exclusively and fully engrossed in carnality.
Overall, Jung showcases knowledge of her subject matter and presents English language material that is diverse in its sociocultural and temporal settings. Prior knowledge of the works presented is not necessary (as Jung provides context and, in the case of poems, the works themselves), but it still might benefit the reader. The only comment this reviewer has is with regards to the, in some terms, limited scope of intersectionality, such as the representation of authors of colour as well as trans and non-binary authors. Given the scope of the works chosen (beginning in the early 1900s), the latter two social categories would have been understandably absent for much of that time frame due to the fact that trans and non-binary people were not represented under these labels. However, it would still have been exciting to see some more diverse and intersectional representation, perhaps from later in the century, especially since those discriminated against on the basis of multiple subjectivities deal with more complex forms of trauma and encounter even more nuanced forms of violence, which perhaps also warrant equally complex and nuanced forms of resilience. Jung exhibits a comprehensive aesthetic analysis and offers a contribution to queer studies that is much needed, expanding scholarship focusing on trauma, resilience, and ways of surviving linked to pleasures. It is especially nice to see a focus on pleasures that is not limited to the somatic/corporeal forms but extends to include mental and emotional, creative, deconstructive, collective, and singular. Through the various strategies presented, the reader is offered an array of points of entry in a time when asymmetrical social dynamics make violence, marginalisation, and trauma impossible to ignore. As a result, ways of coping that are ubiquitous and accessible (especially through engagement with arts and culture) are more necessary than ever. What’s more, this contribution—beyond its immediate demographic of queer, affect, and English literature scholars—affords a valuable overview of strategies of resilience particularly germane for those LGBTQI+ individuals who lack access to support systems in the form of fellow LGBTQI+ people, organisations, or communities and who can more easily access cultural and literary works such as the ones cited.
Anna T., University of Art and Design Linz