Societal Constructions and “Bodhisattva Incarnate”

The clichéd advice to ‘write what you know’ is clichéd for a reason — writing what we know, or what we live, allows us to key into a story and voice that we live and practice every day.  But truly, are the experiences of any two people – no matter how alike they are – that similar?  And if they’re not, how different are the experiences of people who are different?  This is one question that is posed when Chu T’ien-Wen, a heterosexual woman, writes the stories of gay males.  In “Bodhisattva Incarnate,” T’ien-Wen embodies the voice and mind of a homosexual male – that which she most definitely is not.  The fact that T’ien-Wen can write a believable account of male homosexual love suggests that it is indeed a societal or cultural construction that makes us think that homosexual love and heterosexual love are so different and that perhaps, at their core, they are no different at all.

Several times when the author describes homosexual love in this story, substituting one of the he pronouns for ‘she’ as an exercise indicates how the love that is described is similar to heterosexual love.  I must state at the beginning that this is not to say that heterosexual love is the ‘standard’ or ‘correct’ kind of love, but it is the conception of love that is most common.  For example, when T’ien-Wen writes “He calmly prepared the tea; he looked on placidly.  Tenderness enfolded them like the intricate shadows of a fine bamboo screen.  He offered the tea to him, and their lowered gazes met, just like a respectful spouse bearing the serving tray courteously high” (44).  The second ‘he’ here could be easily replaced with a ‘she,’ and we would see this as a perfectly normal and sweet romantic heterosexual interaction.  I think it is a strength of the piece that moments like this exist, because they allow the perhaps prejudiced reader to understand the similarities between the love that they know and homosexual love. The question arises if T’ien-Wen is drawing on her own heterosexual experiences to write this scene of homosexual love — I would say that she is, at least in part because it comes across so authentically.  This ties into what we have been talking about this quarter in the sense that it suggests that many of the values and experiences of homo and heterosexual love are similar.  I also want to focus on the mundane nature of the action.  The fact that they are just making tea and gazing at each other paints a serene and normalized experience of homosexual love.  Some may argue that T’ien-Wen’s work could not possibly be authentic because she has not lived the experience of homosexual love — but if we say that, then we must limit all works of literature to the scope of experience of the author — and if we did that, how limited would our imaginations and cultural consciousnesses be?

The story also focuses on another element of societal constructions.  T’ien-Wen writes, “They chatted away an eternity…It was time to leave; Zhong Lin still had to take his girlfriend to the seven-twenty movie” (48).  Zhong Lin’s insistence that he must take his girlfriend to a movie highlights the social pressure to conform to the common form of sexual identification.  Much like what we saw in “Brokeback Mountain,” the true homosexual desire is abandoned for presumable social acceptance related to heterosexual ‘love.’ Zhong Lin would rather publically live a lie than experience the prejudice that he feels is associated with homosexual love.  [595]

-W

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