Chiaroscuro by Jackie Kay
Jackie Kay’s first play, Chiaroscuro, was commissioned by the Theater of Black Women in 1985. It was first performed at London’s Soho Polytechnic in 1986. Chiaroscuro details how the friendship of four women in 1980s Britain is strengthened as they struggle with racism, sexism, and homophobia. The characters Aisha, Beth, Opal, and Yomi begin the play by announcing the origins of their names. The motif of names appears frequently throughout the play. Both personal names and labels given according to the characters’ sexuality or heritage weigh heavily on their personal identities and relationships with each other. Opal dislikes the term “lesbian” and refuses to let Aisha, Beth and Yomi use the word to define her, though she identifies as queer. Similarly, Beth lets Yomi know that calling her half-caste is derogatory and unacceptable, while still acknowledging that she is half black and half white. Kay’s play relies heavily on dialogue, character interactions, and the ability of the actors to create the illusion of props in its stark, grey setting. The women often mime their actions so the audience understands what they are supposed to be doing, but their actions do not take away from the dialogue which is to be focused on above all.
Throughout Chiaroscuro, Kay challenges notions of the intersections of sexuality, nationality, skin color, and familial structure. For example, Yomi is critical of the fact that Opal does not know her birth parents, yet Yomi is divorced and shares custody of her daughter with her husband. Yomi wants to impart her idea of a perfect family structure on Opal, yet her own life does not reflect her ideals. Opal, on the other hand, struggles with being black and gay, as though there is no room for both aspects of her identity in society. Opal says to the other women, “I can’t take myself seriously. I’ve gone through my life taking on new things. Now all of a sudden I’m a black lesbian? What is that? It’s a joke” (101). Kay draws attention to the fact that all the women have their own struggles that they work to overcome, though no one’s problems are greater or more important than anyone else’s. The women find that they must embrace each other’s differences in order to fix their own flaws, and help each other overcome adversity.
Kay, Jackie. “Chiaroscuro.” The Methuen Drama Book of Plays by Black British Writers. London: Methuen Drama, 2011. 59-117. Print.
Guapa by Saleem Haddad
Guapa by Saleem Haddad is a novel telling the story of a closeted gay man living in an unspecified Arab country during a time of protests reminiscent of the Arab Spring. The novel is told from the point of view of Rasa, a gay man who was educated in America and returns to his home country with grand ideas of leading the revolution to overthrow the theocratic authoritarian government. However, after his father dies, he and his grandmother lose their wealth, and Rasa ends up joining the worker class that he thought he could save and loses hope; he remarks, “all problems seem more exotic when they belong to another” (Haddad).
Rasa finds solace after returning to his home country in Guapa, a gay dive bar, where he meets his lover Taymour. He and Taymour begin a relationship and are together for three years, ever careful to hide their love from those around them on pain of death. The novel opens with Rasa’s traditional, conservative grandmother discovering him and Taymour together, and follows Rasa throughout one day of going about his life as an interpreter and contemplating his best course of action now that his grandmother knows the truth about his sins.
Guapa tells Rasa’s story with an acerbic wit, developing the reader’s sympathy for the protagonist with every page. Rasa’s life as an interpreter brings him into contact with foreign journalists and government officials alike, and he learns of small pieces of many problems facing the country, serving to overwhelm the reader with the sense of despair and hopelessness facing many residents of the unnamed city. Haddad does an excellent job at weaving many facets of Rasa’s life as a queer Arab man together, discussing the choice between theocrats and terrorists, Rasa’s exocitization in America, and the fear Rasa feels for a gay friend who was arrested in turns.
Saleem Haddad currently lives in London; he was born to a Lebanese father and an Iraqi-German mother in Kuwait. Guapa is his debut novel.
Cone, Edward B. “Guapa.” Library Journal, vol. 141, no. 4, 1 Mar. 2016, p. 92.
Haddad, Saleem. Guapa. Place of publication not identified, EUROPA EDITIONS, 2016.
Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo
Bernardine Evaristo’s seventh novel, Mr. Loverman, is about a closeted gay Caribbean British man who struggles to find the courage to come out. At 74 years old, Barrington Jedidiah Walker’s insecurity with being both gay and black in 1960s-present day London propels the narrative and opens the book up to discussions about race, sexuality, gentrification, and more. Evaristo began her career in poetry, which is evident by the way she treats language in her writing. Her vividly descriptive prose brings the characters to life in a lyrically poetic voice. Barry is a husband, father, and grandfather, and is deeply in love—not with his wife Carmel, but with his childhood friend, Morris Courtney de la Roux. Carmel is convinced that Barry spends his nights cavorting with various other women, when in fact when in fact Barry is sheltering an affair with Morris. Barry’s most burning and secret desire is to leave Carmel for Morris, but he is afraid of the consequences that will come from publicly coming out as gay. In addition, Barry has to navigate modern Britain as a Caribbean immigrant. Though he has lived in London for forty years, life as a person of color and minority ethnic is never without its challenges. Crafted with careful wit and heartbreaking truths, Evaristo’s elegantly crafted narrative shows the delicate balance between being true to one’s self and being brave enough to face the consequences of doing so.
My Brother the Devil (2012)
Written and directed by Sally El Hosaini, My Brother the Devil serves as an amazing debut film, presenting a heartfelt narrative set in east London (Bradshaw). The film follows two brothers, children of Egyptian immigrants, living in Hackney, and the way they navigate masculinity, immigrant status and gang culture, presenting nuanced ideas of sexuality and masculinity coupled with the cultural ideas of what it means to be othered in society, be it through race or sexuality (O’Sullivan). The plot follows Rashid and his younger brother Mo, who have become involved in drug-dealing and gang culture. After the stabbing and consequent death of Rashid’s best friend, who had been contemplating leaving gang life, Rashid starts entertaining the idea of leaving that life and having a better one, shaking his commitment to his “fam” in the gang. This is particularly hard on Mo, who worships his older brother and follows his footsteps into the “tough guy” world of gangs, neglecting his schoolwork. Rashid finds employment with Sayyid, a photographer, and during downtime the two share a kiss. Though initially repulsed at the idea of being attracted to a man, Rashid soon returns to Sayyid and begins a relationship with him. Mo sees the two together, however, and runs to tell his friends, but cannot get it out. The story then spirals as he tells his friends Rashid is involved with a terrorist attack instead, with the gang almost killing both brothers and Mo taking a bullet for Rashid. The film ends on a bittersweet note, with Mo being released from the hospital and Rashid walking into his new life.
The film is an interesting commentary on the treatment of sexuality in these hyper-masculine spaces, and the cinematography portrays this perfectly, bursting with the energy and adrenaline of young men itching for more (Bradshaw). My Brother the Devil tells the thrilling narrative of young men struggling to find their place and identity.
You can find a trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZjXLaDbU8A
Bradshaw, Peter. “My Brother the Devil – Review.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08
Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.
O’Sullivan, Michael. “‘My Brother the Devil’ Movie Review.” The Washington Post. WP
Company, 09 May 2013. 26 Apr. 2017.
Skins by Patience Agbabi
This poem is very important and especially relevant to our topic in that Agbabi talks about her struggle to fit in as a black women in society. The speaker talks about being a misfit and not fitting in with the society and people around her. A stanza in the poem says “I hate my past.
My big lie reflected in their eyes, their hatred in my skin” The speaker says how she is ashamed of her past and that it reflected through her eyes and skin color. This is a common theme of Black literature and sexually out women and she portrays her struggles perfectly in this poem. Skin color is such a big deal to a lot of people and dictates the way that people are treated within society. This poem is also very sexual and makes a lot of references to sexual acts as well. This is also an overall theme in a lot of Patience Agbabi’s poetry and she brings to light the struggles that she had to personally go through in order to make it through the racism and homophobia that people had towards her and how she choose to rise above the issues that constantly affect her daily life.
“My Grandmother’s House” by Jackie Kay
Some of Jackie Kay’s most touching works revolve around the treatment of themes like the fluidity of identity, Scottishness, and home. Her poem My Grandmother’s House describes the three homes the narrator associates with her grandmother – the run-down home her grandmother lived in for years and is ejected from, the apartment she moves into, and the house she cleans as a cleaning lady. Although it’s brief, this poem deals with issues of class, labor, and how we accumulate our history by examining the differences between these different homes.
The narrator’s grandmother’s first apartment is in a tenement building, near a cemetery. It is implied that the grandmother has lived in this apartment for many years, as the newspapers that have been used as gift wrapping accumulate over the years. Through this, the grandmother is literally living within her own history as well as the history of England itself post-World War Two. When she’s sent some kind of letter (the reader assumes an eviction notice), the grandmother is sent into a rage – she doesn’t want to live away from the history, from the habits she’s formed over time.
The narrator’s grandmother’s second apartment is in a high-rise building – the narrator finds the elevator to be a novelty until she gets stuck in it. This section of the poem works to establish the grandmother’s adjustment process to the new apartment as she acquiesces to enjoying indoor plumbing and the carpets. However, the poem is clear that life is not a dream for this woman – at seventy years old, she is still cleaning the homes of others.
The final home that the narrator associates with her grandmother is a posh home that her grandmother cleans. The narrator comes along with her grandmother, and finally begins to play with a piano in the home. The woman who owns the house comes by and tells the little girl her skin looks like cafe au lait, a typically racially charged comment; the grandmother’s only concern is whether or not her granddaughter is getting in the way. The stanza is very short, but it does a lot of work to discuss class problems (“the only problem in England”) and race relations. Overall, the poem discusses class, race, and family in ways consistent with the larger body of Kay’s work.