Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Covering

At the recommendation of Chris, I read Covering by Kenji Yoshino.

The book is partly a personal coming out story and partly a legal and social argument. It also restates a psychological framework developed by Erving Goffman for understanding assimilation.

Goffman's psychological theory is interesting. (I haven't read the source material, so I'm relying on Yoshino's summary.) When a trait is stigmatized, there seems to be a spectrum of adaptive behaviors: conversion, passing, covering and flaunting. For example Jews in the U.S. have adapted by conversion (changing religion, identity and name; intermarriage), passing (changing names, sending Christmas cards), covering (public acknowledgment of affiliation but careful accommodation of cultural expectations so as not to appear "too Jewish") and flaunting (contradicting social expectations to conform).

Yoshino uses Goffman's ideas as part of an argument that identity politics in the U.S. has more or less run its course and that in its place should be a push for universal human rights that would require all nonconformers to "cover" less. He also argues that legal remedies to social problems are limited. Conversations more than lawsuits will be the means of social change. The examples are wide-ranging, including workplace accommodation for women with children and other non-gay issues. His approach seems sensible, humane and workable. Certainly it is less divisive than identity politics.

Yoshino's coming out story was the least interesting part of the book. When he moves from law and social issues to his personal life, his writing suddenly becomes pretentious, stiff and evasive. It's an overblown, grandiose faux-literary style that you would expect only in a much younger writer.

I found the narrative to be self-indulgently confessional. For example, there is a stomach-turning scene in which Yoshino refuses his lover's hand while his lover is awaiting a potentially serious diagnosis in hospital. We are told that this is due to "covering." I see it less charitably. I think it shows frightening callousness. Its inclusion in the book seems self-serving (the author reassures us he still "winces" when he thinks about it).

While reading Yoshino's story, I thought of a similar, but superior, coming out memoir, Paul Monette's Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story. Like Yoshino, Monette is not always a very likable protagonist, but unlike Yoshino, Monette was a gifted writer of personal narrative. (Monette's memoir won the National Book Award, a high honor that was well deserved.) His story leaves no doubt of what he felt; the reader can experience his life. Monette is painful to read but very worthwhile.

Yoshino's legal and social argument resonates with me, and I can recommend Covering for its social and legal ideas alone. The coming out story-- not so much.

2 comments:

Chris said...

I found the legal and social arguments and analysis most compelling as well, though I read his personal narrative more charitably than you do. I actually thought it was effective to weave his own experiences with covering, both as a gay man and an Asian American, into his legal arguments. Was it over the top in places? Yes, I suppose it was. But it didn't try my patience as it did yours.

MoHoHawaii said...

I admit that my reaction to the coming out story wasn't as generous as it might have been. Certainly he faced the kind of internal struggle that we all do when coming out. I just think he comes across as a rather cold fish.
It's funny because the language of his legal and social argument is fluent and clear. The style changes abruptly when he tells his personal story. If he wrote well, I could forgive a lot.

Flannery O'Connor said, "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

I really do recommend the Monette memoir. It's out of print, but should be available in libraries or used book stores.