(Dis)comforts: The place of hospitality in queer storytelling

Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera (1987) provides a rousing starting point for our thinking of the queer experience of discomfort. Writing on her time teaching at a New England college, Anzaldúa tells the story of how “a few lesbians threw the more conservative heterosexual students into a panic”.[1] One of these students, she writes, claimed to have mistook the word “homophobia” for a “fear of going home after a residency”.[2] She reflects on this: “But how apt. We’re afraid of being abandoned by the mother, la Raza, for being unacceptable, faulty, damaged. Most of us unconsciously believe that if we reveal this unacceptable aspect of the self our mother/culture/race will totally reject us”.[3]

This fear of “total rejection” reveals the double irony implicit to familiar scenes of hospitality – that is, of the hostility that always undergirds hospitality as we know it. There is an etymological point to be made here as well: the word “hospitality”, coming from the Indo-European word ghosti, shares its roots with the term “hostile”. Ghosti, if it isn’t already immediately obvious, is also where we derive the word “ghost”. The queer ghost – the one that haunts Anzaldúa’s text – exists always at the juncture of this uncertainty. It might not be rejected, but it isn’t exactly welcome either.

Paintings by Andrea Fiorino

To be a ghost, I am arguing, is the enduring experience of queer life. It doesn’t mean invisibility – on the contrary, it means occupying somewhere nominally referred to as a “home” and experiencing this space as a source of always-potential hostility. Queer life is reflected, for instance, in the lives of refugees, only nominally accepted into European countries while experiencing alarming instances of violence and demonisation by swathes of local populations.

For the purposes of this article, I will be examining the strange ambivalence of “hospitality” and “hostility” in queer storytelling during the height of publishing on the AIDS crisis in America. My texts in focus will be two novels released twenty-one years apart, examining how these novels portray the role of the “home” and the “hospital” in the fomenting of queer life and queer death. My aim will be to unpack the meaning of hospitality at once in reaction and in relation to the queer body as both “guest” and “host”, with all the implied uncertainty this double role entails.

The first novel, Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home (2012), tells the story of a gay uncle named Finn who dies from complications related to AIDS, leaving his bereaved niece to pick up the pieces in his absence. The niece character – named June – finds herself not only without her former friend and role model, but also without the man for whom she secretly harboured a crush. Eventually, she discovers Finn had a secret of his own: a boyfriend named Toby who had been blamed for infecting Finn with HIV and ostracised from the rest of her family. After initially rebuffing this other man, her curiosity gets the better of her; June decides to acquaint herself with Toby to find out more about Finn, and eventually learns enough to become his new best friend and carer. Despite attempts from her estranged sister to sabotage this relationship and expose them to their mother, the two last as companions for the remainder of the story. The novel ends with Toby dying, and with June going to visit him in hospital. Deciding that the hospital is no place for Toby to spend his last days, she takes the initiative of escorting him to her own family home, where he is finally reluctantly welcomed in and treated as a guest. Following his death, the family itself is able to resolve some of its differences – the two sisters put aside their ambivalence towards one another, the mother comes to terms with her own role in cutting her brother Finn from her life, and June herself eventually matures and becomes acquainted with a boyfriend of her own.

The second novel follows a slightly different family-oriented structure. Paul Monette’s Halfway Home (1991) focuses on the role of a gay man with AIDS named Tom. Like June in Tell the Wolves, Tom also fosters a secret incestuous love, only this time for his estranged brother Brian. Much to his dismay, Brian re-enters Tom’s life at a time where Tom is beginning to settle and foster a new love for his landlord, Gray. Following news that Brian’s house has been targeted in an explosion and that he is on the run from his past involvement in business racketeering, Tom agrees to allow both him and his family to hide out in his oceanfront house. This house, which Tom shares with his landlord, eventually becomes the scene of numerous family dramas, in which Brian’s wife begins to act paranoid after finding out that Tom has AIDS, refusing to let her son eat or socialise with him. This paranoia escalates to a point where the family begins to splinter, and she decides to take her son away from Brian and his brother forever. Towards the denouement, two significant events happen: the first is that Tom is briefly hospitalised after an absence causes him to fall faint, and the second is that Brian’s past catches up with him, with his former associates breaking into the house and threatening both his and Tom’s lives. Tom, having just come back from the hospital and stumbling into the drama, defends his brother in a spur of the moment act of bravery, by leaping on top of the gunman and lashing out at him, eventually killing him. The novel closes following these events with the brothers reconciling their differences and with Tom deciding to settle with his now well-established love interest, Gray.

In both stories, the ghosti can be glimpsed in the disjuncture the queer body introduces into the family space. Ghosti, as I mentioned, encapsulates both “hostility” and “hospitality” into one word. What it also encapsulates, however, are two other, far more revealing terms: “guest” and “host”. Literally, in Indo-European, ghosti means “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality”.[4] Combining this with the ambivalent associations of hospitality/hostility, we can begin to form a picture of the kind of family setting common to queer estrangement. This a family who both tolerates and accommodates for one another reciprocally, but also fosters a number of deep-seated resentments beneath the surface of their “duties”.

Sarah Brophy, in Witnessing AIDS, points out how the “conflagration of the family plotline” functions as an example of “melodrama” in the queer text. On this, she explains how the “family melodrama” fosters “an outcome dependent on excising those rebels and villains who disturb the family unit’s image of coherence”.[5] In this sense, it isn’t just that queer individuals appear as guests within the family space, to be welcomed and cared after; their function is also to act as hosts in accommodating and maintaining the good of the family’s “image” from their own disruptive, potentially disorderly presence.

The theme of incest running through both texts is an essential pressure point for this function. For Tell the Wolves, for example, June’s incestuous desire for her uncle invariably marks his presence in the text as suspect, always in some ways a threat to the normal structuration of the family, which extends also to Toby as a mysterious stranger (figure that, in their first brief encounter, Toby asks June if she is “scared” or whether she told her parents she was coming, which she rebuffs as “creepy”).[6] So too in Halfway Home is brotherly incest a point of contention that makes Tom’s reuniting with Brian all the more difficult (to the extent that Tom is actually terrified of exposing anything potentially “gay” to Brian’s son, wanting to cover over a puzzle set of Michelangelo’s David and shrinking from even touching him for fear that he “would turn out gay, and they would blame me and curse my infected ghost”).[7] What’s threatened in the queering of family space isn’t so much its outward appearance, but the unlocking of conflict and desire that makes maintaining this appearance impossible. As Brophy explains: “As the patriarchal nuclear family seems to fall apart, the genre of the family melodrama tries to repair familial discord”.[8] It is the onus of the queer individual, on these terms, to ensure that the melodrama narrative can be reassured, that it can continue to play out as scripted.

It is perhaps by no means a coincidence, then, that both texts feature a dramatic pivotal crisis in which the queer outsider gets to prove their worth as heroes to the “family melodrama”. The pointedly similar sub-plot of both Tell the Wolves and Halfway Home is the sudden disappearance of a family child. In Tell the Wolves, this involves the disappearance of June’s sister Greta, who decides to go out drinking after hours and doesn’t return home. June, knowing her sister is likely to be alone in the forest, phones Toby in a panic, who comes to the rescue of Greta and brings her back to the family house escorted by police, at last exposing his and June’s secret. In Halfway Home, it is the disappearance of Brian’s son Daniel which causes the family to fall into panic. This time, not only is it getting late outside, but there is also a torrential storm to deal with, with “rain […] driving down in sheets”.[9] Tom, without thinking, takes it upon himself to brave the storm, despite being too weak to barely stand in the downpour. Eventually, he finds Daniel safe and well in another neighbouring house, and escorts him back home to where his family is waiting.

In guaranteeing their ability to act selflessly and recklessly, it is easy to see how the queer body plays a sacrificial role in the family melodrama. June imagines in Greta’s rescue, for example, Toby being “lost in the woods” while spending “all night out there searching for her, trying to keep his promise”.[10] And Tom, in searching for Daniel, describes “flirting with hypothermia” while being “buffeted so hard I thought the wind would blow me over”.[11] In order to even get by in family life, it seems, the queer individual of each story must undergo potentially life-threatening feats of heroism. In both cases, this involves saving children from hostile wildernesses, proving not only that the queer individual is a friend to the family, but also that this friendliness in no way threatens the wellbeing of the family’s youngest and most valued.[12] Lee Edelman talks exhaustively about the social role of the child as an anathema to queer life in his book No Future (2004), where he comments:

The occasion of a gay man’s death […] provides a perfect opportunity to unleash once more the disciplinary force of the figure of the child performing the mandatory cultural labor of social reproduction, a force we encounter continuously as the lives, the speech, and the freedoms of adults, especially queer adults, continue to suffer restriction out of defence to imaginary children whose futures, as if they were permitted to have them except insofar as they consist of transmitting them to children of their own, could only be endangered by the social disease as which queer sexualities register.[13]

It is telling in this case, that the stories of both June and Daniel are intertwined as coming-of-age arcs against which the story of gay death can be contrasted. If the queer body takes on a sacrificial role in the narrative, it implies there is also a legacy and “greater good” which stands to benefit from this sacrifice (meaning “life goes on” in the most literal way possible). Toby, in Tell the Wolves, dies at the very close of the story, finally allowing June to move from her love towards her uncle Finn and begin to mature as a person, imagining a future with “colleges and husbands and kids”.[14] Tom, in Halfway Home, gives up his right to see his nephew, but this is not without first allowing Daniel to keep a box of mementos from his past and assuring him he “can still have happy days” once Tom is gone, adding: “and then someday if you’re lucky, you find the right person. They let you be sad when you need to, but they don’t let you stay there a minute too long”.[15]

If ghosti, then, refers sometimes to ambivalent kinship, it means also to tell the story of a “ghost” to be exorcised from the besieged family home, to render finally its existence and legitimacy as a coherent whole. It is important here to emphasise the family’s dependence on this ghost figure unique to the reciprocal meaning of ghosti; the queer body is not just an existential threat to the family unit, but is its necessary shadowy “host” – a catalyst that makes family resolution possible in the first place.

An interesting supplement to this theme is the way both texts use the everyday space of the “hospital” as a contrast to the “hospitality” of the family home. For both novels, the introduction of the hospital setting invariably disrupts the flow of the reparative family storyline; as an institutional space, it threatens the essential balance of care in the ghosti setting by introducing an outside-space of impersonal care. In Tell the Wolves, for instance, the hospital is “the kind of place where they wouldn’t really care who visited when or where”, where “[p]art of the lobby was having work done on it […] Most of the chairs had rips in their orange vinyl seats, and in one corner there was a bucket under a brown water stain in the ceiling”.[16] In Halfway Home, it is a place where “[e]verything you ever loved was checked at the door”, in which “the smell of disinfectant was twice as pungent, as if the green-suited janitor went for overkill as they swabbed these floors”.[17]

The difference between both texts, however, is also crucial. Notice the emphasis on cleanliness: Whereas in Halfway Home, the hospital appears as a source of ruin and abandonment, in Tell the Wolves it is almost too clean, clinical. The narrative function of the hospital, in both cases, reflects this key difference. Halfway Home’s hospital is a place for recovery, where the main character eventually gains half his strength back after an absent episode and at last comes to realise the significance of his love for Gray, who stays the night with him; Tell the Wolves, on the other hand, depicts a hospital space devoid of love or care, emphasising its neglected amenities and reflecting only its capacity to host the body of the person with AIDS as a dying body.

Mary Douglas, in her famed essay Purity and Danger, explains how cultural attitudes to “dirt” as “matter out of place” have all kinds of implications at the level of social organisation.[18] In particular, she presents the picture of a dirt-averse and paranoid society, where “people living in the interstices of the power structure [are] felt to be a threat to those with better defined status. Since they are credited with dangerous, uncontrollable powers, an excuse is given for suppressing them”.[19]

Such an attitude towards “dirt” is made clear in the way Tell the Wolves sets up the family home as a point of return for Toby’s body. The home, as Toby’s final resting place, has an entire mise en scène that forms the background of this ritual moment; it is, firstly, a uniform place with a “line of front lawns” along “a mix of capes and ranches”, among which June’s house is a “light blue cape with black shutters and a sprawling red maple out front”.[20] It is also, in the same vain as Douglas’ dirt-averse society, a paranoid space, where the surrounding environment – the encroaching forests which house the eponymous “wolves” – appears always as a source of urban superstition, with the wolves in particular never seen, but heard through “howls […] like the sound was everywhere. Near and far. Wrapped around the trees and the clouds”.[21] That June transports Toby’s body before he dies onto her living room couch is therefore significant; relocation allows the body the dignity of dying while cleansed of the abyss of the unknowable, witnessed finally by the embrace of the family gaze. Hence June’s remark that “I wanted everything to be plain and true. I wanted my mother to come down and see my hand on Toby’s head”.[22]

It is in Paul Monette’s Halfway Home, I want to argue, that this entire theatre of witnessing becomes inverted, where the intrusion of the family drama is not resolved by the cleansing of the queer body, but is ultimately undercut by the “dirt” that makes queerness an existential threat. The hospital, as I have already glossed, is not an inviting place in Halfway Home, but it is not a neglectful one either. In most respects – it is almost too clean, with the lingering social threat of HIV causing “green-suited” janitors to scrub the floors of any and all trace of infection. The home, in contrast, is not strictly a family home, but it is the provincial place where the family as a unit loses its authority; against Tell the Wolves, the roles of care and accommodation are reversed.

The home sits, as I have mentioned, by an oceanfront. This oceanfront is depicted frequently in the novel as a site that is “magnificent” and “mad with power”, with “white surf roiling” along beach steps “hanging by a thread and waterlogged like a beached wreck”.[23] The house itself, as glimpsed by Tom during the rainstorm, appears “ramshackle” with “no safe harbour”.[24] It is not a place of paranoia; on the contrary, it is a place of open exposure and risk, where the world meets its most hostile elements. The fact that Tom returns here after an absent episode doesn’t change the status of his role in the family; in fact, it becomes clear that there is no stability nor security that can be assured by the family home whatsoever. The stakes and the focus of Halfway Home, therefore, end up in a drastically different place.

The final conflict of the novel, between Brian and his former associates, is of course defused in one more heroic gesture by the queer outsider Tom. But it is the way this act of bravery takes place that makes it so significant. Tom, firstly, presents himself as half-naked and vulnerable before his aggressors, “scrawny and pocked with lesions […] working it like a performance, focused only on my bid for sympathy”.[25] He describes for us in blazon, “[t]he lesion on my shoulder, the one by my left nipple, the double one on my thigh”.[26] The gunman, named Jerry, notices Tom is sick and recoils at the sight of this in “a kind of claustrophobic terror”.[27] Tom, however, is unfazed, describing being “charged with a drunken thrill of power”.[28] It is on this impulse that he leaps on top of his assailant, “clamped like a bulldog”, biting into his flesh. He describes the blood that “gushed into my mouth, metallic as if I’d bitten the gun instead”. [29] Jerry screams at this moment, but his “shout was a horror of being infected, rather than rage”. [30]

What follows from this conflict is a literal “cleansing” ritual. Tom, standing after the fallout of his final conflict, is caked in blood. Gray takes him to look in the mirror and Tom sees himself with “blood […] everywhere, matted in my hair and splashed in rusty gouts across my torso and arms, an expressionist fantasia.”[31] The cleansing takes place in a bathtub where his brother Brian hoses him down. Tom describes how “I felt six years old – not a bad feeling at all. […] He lifted the hose and nozzle off the curlicue hook and swept it toward me, spraying my belly. I looked down to see the blood flash red again as it washed away. The white hull of the tub swirled like the drain in Psycho”.[32] After this, he then remarks: “Through all these absolutions he hadn’t ever touched my privates or dried me below the navel. And yet, as I stood there squeaky and clean, the whole ritual seemed an exquisite balance of intimacy and modesty. It reminded me of the way Gray made love”.[33]

It is significant to note the major difference that “dirt” plays in the organisation of the body between the two novels. In Tell the Wolves, the body of the person with AIDS is blanketed by the set-dressing of the family home, “covered in all the blankets from our beds, blankets printed with rainbows and balloons and Holly Hobby in her big straw ribbon-tied bonnet”.[34] It is then, subsequently, “taken away” overnight, with the exact details of its disappearance left unremarked.[35] In contrast, while Tom’s body in Halfway Home is cleansed literally after becoming blood-soaked, this cleansing is itself an act of intimate vulnerability, both opening the risk of infection via blood contact and skirting the lines of all-but-implied brotherly incest. The body is not covered over or swept away in this moment, but is cared after with humility and tenderness. Nothing in relation to the former coherence of Brian’s life is resolved here either; instead, the only resolution the two brothers get is in admitting their past incestuous behaviour, in which Brian admits he used to engage in sex acts with Tom when they were children. This “dirt” of the novel, in the most idiomatic parlance, is “dished out” and left for the reader to ponder unresolved.

What Monette achieves in contrast to Brunt, then, is an opening for queer expressions of discomfort. Monette emphasises in the unresolved conflicts of domestic life how the “villains and rebels” Brophy describes are not only external, but also internal to the everyday functioning of the coherent family unit. The breaking up of the family, in this regard, signals a move towards a future as yet undetermined, where Brophy’s thesis on “repairing familial discord” is ultimately undermined. It is only after the wife and nephew leave the family home for good that the former conflicts of the two brothers are finally laid bare. As a point of contrast, the resolutions and reconciliations of the family unit in Tell the Wolves has the effect of glossing over its most critical points of conflict. The estrangement of the two sisters, while unresolved on a pragmatic level, finds a common “silent understanding” in the death of the person with AIDS. June comments here that “all the jealousy and envy and shame we carried was our own kind of sickness […] as much a sickness as Toby and Finn’s AIDS”, but doesn’t resolve to the fact that “my family would go on forever thinking Toby was a murderer”.[36]

Throughout the unfolding history of any crisis, we are forced to begin rethinking the terms of our provision and access to hospitality. In the context of the new global history of far-right election winners and tyrants, as well as the ongoing abuses of refugees and undocumented immigrants everywhere, the place of the “home” must undergo a radical reassessment. What the ambiguities of queer storytelling allows us to do is prefigure a sense in which the shibboleth “home” can be overturned entirely.

Tell the Wolves features a home wrapped up in the redundant conservatism of family values. It stands in the thickness and fecundity of forests and middle-class suburbs, utterly enveloped by an encroaching dread of the outside world. It is the paranoid home of Douglas’ “purity” society – one which postures as a haven for the body-out-of-place, but simultaneously ensures the dejection of this body by reinforcing the convenient myth of the queer ghosti (June assures us in a line that’s probably meant to be poignant, “the past, the present, and future are just one thing […] there’s nowhere to go from here. Home is home is home”).[37]

Halfway Home features the home as a place always in crisis. This queer “home” stands on the edge of the end of the world, where torrential downpours are frequent and where attackers are likely to arrive at any minute. The precarity of this space, with all its unresolved dramas, reflects more accurately the world of real domestic and queer life. In this story, the queer body – with its blood and its porousness – stands at a point of change and rebirth. This is not a body for stability, but for the remaking of the world of hostility. It is a ghostly body that strikes back and resists forces of domination, ultimately using violence as a means to its own end.

Moving forward in light of these reflections, it is essential to begin theorising new ways of reconciling “hospitality” with the violence and neglect all around us. The place of the home is a dual edge – it is both a comfort to privilege and a threat to the body-out-of-place. If precarity means the potential to lose everything, it means also the potential for transformation. One must, in this sense, resist the lulling stability of ordinary calls to “hospitality” in favour of an aversive “hostility” for powers and forces of domination. Rather than mistaking severance as a failure of contemporary family life, it may be the ultimate chance for its queer redemption.

 


[1] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 42.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. S.v. “Indo-European root ghos-ti-.” http://www.thefreedictionary.com/_/roots.aspx?type=Indo-European&root=ghos-ti-

[5] Sarah Brophy, Witnessing AIDS: Writing, Testimony and the Work of Mourning (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 151-152.

[6] Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home (New York: Random House, Inc., 2013), 84.

[7] Paul Monette, Halfway Home: A Novel (New York: Open Road Media, 2014), 108.

[8] Sarah Brophy, 234n3.

[9] Paul Monette, 165.

[10] Carol Rifka Brunt, 306.

[11] Paul Monette, 166.

[12] Note how in Halfway Home, Tom describes how Daniel’s mother pleads with him “as if I had the boy bound and gagged in the attic”. See: 164.

[13] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 25.

[14] Carol Rifka Brunt, 350.

[15] Paul Monette, 197.

[16] Carol Rifka Brunt, 336-337.

[17] Paul Monette, 182-186.

[18] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 2003), 36.

[19] Ibid., 105.

[20] Carol Rifka Brunt, 18.

[21] Ibid., 32.

[22] Ibid., 348.

[23] Paul Monette, 59.

[24] Ibid., 165.

[25] Ibid., 226.

[26] Ibid., 229.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 230.

[29] Ibid., 231.

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid., 236.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 237.

[34] Carol Rifka Brunt, 347.

[35] Ibid., 348.

[36] Ibid., 349.

[37] Ibid., 351.

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