April 2021: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Malinda Lo

“Lily had played the part of a shepherd once in the Christmas tableau, when she was about nine or ten. She had been the only girl to play a shepherd, and in fact, she argued her way into the role, because Shirley had been cast as Mary and that was the only role for a girl. She remembered saying to the Sunday school teacher: “It’s not fair if Shirley’s the only girl in the play!” The teacher relented and told her that she could be a shepherdess, but Lily insisted that she was a shepherd, just like the boys. She had been so proud.

Now she wondered, a bit tensely, if it had meant something. Had Kath also played a shepherd in her church’s pageant?”

And there we have it. The 1950s version of does she listen to girl in red?

Different forms of queer code have existed for as long as queer people have. Of course, there are forms far better known, such as Polari, the secret “gay language” used to communicate in public, the coded messages of handkerchiefs in pockets and their various meanings, but these are better known gay male languages. With lesbians throughout history, things have always been much more difficult to find hard evidence for. From a heteronormative viewpoint, there are no obvious markers… and it’s a stretch to assume such a thing about historical figures. “Queen Anne? a homosexual? Good heavens, no, she was a Christian!” and yet the lesbians and Sapphics learning of these stories see the clues quite clearly.

“Everything she and Kath had done could be erased so easily. It could be erased by family pretending it had never happened. It could be erased by her parents uprooting her from her home and sending her away so that Kath would not know where she was. It could be erased because they were her parents and she was their daughter, and they loved her, and she could not disobey them even if it broke her heart.”

Sarah Waters (who is quoted on the cover of this book, waxing lyrical) has said that the erasure of queer history often makes it easier to write a queer story. With an absence of any fact, the freedom follows soon after to write whatever you want within the surviving parameters of understood history. The knowledge that queer people were present simply lays the foundations for stories of countless ways those people existed. This historical-absence-into-narrative-essence is evident in most of Sarah Waters’ work, and it is easy to see why she loved Lo’s novel so much. Lo has used the same potential, and she has done it for a young Asian American named Lily.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Lo provides historical context for the novel, including her research into San Francisco, the 1950s, Chinese Americans, and lesbians during that time. She points out that “Finding any history of queer Asian American women has been even more difficult, but tantalizing clues* have surfaced in many sources.” These clues… like a private investigator, Lo traisped through history books and found glimpses, but not much more. This opened up space for a whole narrative, from which we now have ‘Last Night at the Teleprah Club’.

In an interview with Gay’s the Word Bookshop, Lo shares even more of her historical digging, with an enjoyable set of slides with images she found that inspired her with the background of this novel, the raw potential she saw in these images. The clues all add up.

Beyond the historical, Lo also characterizes the “experienced” lesbians in the novel very well. With some obvious experience in the femme/butch world, Lo’s writing of Lily’s realisation around her own identity was very touching. “Those strange women at the party seemed to see her more clearly than she saw herself, and it was disorienting – as if her body were not her own, but capable of acting without the conscious direction of her mind.” I particularly enjoyed the ‘butch’ lesbians having small, humanising moments woven into the story. Jean, a friend of Kath’s who was infamous at Galileo for being found with another woman, is built up before we meet her as a prodigy; a role model for “baby butch” Kath. And yet, when we meet her, she has a limp handshake, “as if her handshake hadn’t yet caught up to the clothes she was wearing”,” and “attempt[s] a wink”, small suggestions that Jean is, herself, very new to this world of baravdo and confidence.

Tommy’s character is a mystical beauty, the whole way through the story. Tommy’s mystique crumbles ever so slightly the closer we get; in the bedroom with Lily, the tension is palpable – and the fear that she would be written as a villain sent fear shooting through every vein in my body – and yet she retained her humanity, even with her identity of Tommy stripped away, being ‘outed’ as a whole different person under the name of Teresa.

The reality of this novel reaches far beyond 1950s San Francisco, and I am certain that any lesbian/Sapphic/queer identifying woman will see an element of themselves somewhere within the covers of this memorable story.

This novel is Malinda Lo’s sixth, and it is by far her best work yet – and whilst we all agreed that there were some narrative questions (why did we see snippets into the family’s internal monologues but not into Kath’s? Why did we jump a year later? How did Lily’s family deal with the aftermath of her coming out? And many more) the consensus remained that this novel was highly enjoyable, easy to read, and endearing.

For further reading, Lo suggests the books that inspired this one: ‘Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965’ and ‘Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelles Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars’.

Whilst reading, I found many parallels to Leslie Feinberg’s ‘Stone Butch Blues’ which shows the other side of the femme/butch spectrum/dichotomy, with the main character’s experiences as a butch in 1950s New York. This may fill in some of the gaps that Lo missed out in her work, although it deals with topics that are very difficult to read.

If you are interested in reading this book, check out our Online Library to get your own copy. To join in the conversation, we meet up on the last Wednesday of each month, currently online.

*my italicisation