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Fantasies of Union: The Queer National Romance in My Beautiful Laundrette

Alexandra Barron
- Iss: 45
The authors argue that the romantic union of two star-crossed lovers who represent conflicting racial, religious, class, or regional interests can be seen as an allegory of the nation.
Where the political terrain can neither resolve nor suppress inequality, it erupts in culture. Because culture is the contemporary repository of memory, of history, it is through culture, rather than government, that alternative forms of subjectivity, collectivity, and public life are imagined. --Lisa Lowe We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there. --Avery Gordon [1] In the year 2000, a film based on Irish poet Brendan Behan's classic 1958 memoir Borstal Boy was released. Both memoir and film narrate Behan's coming of age in a reformatory in England where he was sentenced to three years for smuggling explosives for the IRA. The film adaptation of Borstal Boy chooses to focus on Behan's relationship with Charlie, a young British soldier he falls in love with who causes him to rethink his feelings about the British as well as come to terms with his desire for other men. What I find most interesting about this choice is its construction of the boys' romance as a national allegory wherein Ireland and England heal their centuries-old differences, at least temporarily, in their union. This narrative strategy reappears the following year in the internationally successful Mexican film Y tu mama tambien and Irish writer Jamie O'Neill's critically acclaimed novel At Swim, Two Boys. Each of these otherwise very different texts stages a crisis in the nation as a romance between characters who represent rival classes, factions, or nations. As they allegorize the nation via star-crossed lovers, these authors and filmmakers draw on a literary genre known as the national romance. Yet these contemporary postcolonial texts narrate the union of disparate factions in the nation (or rival nations) via a romance between two men or boys. As they queer the national romance, Borstal Boy and Y tu mama tambien join a film genre that began in 1985 with Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette. [2] My Beautiful Laundrette uses the story of two lovers to create an allegory of Thatcher's England which unites some of the nation's most disparate groups: blacks and whites, the rising, entrepreneurial middle class and the working class, and the (ex)racist and the immigrant. One of the primary reasons for the film's popularity, I argue, is its use of the national romance and its decision to queer this familiar trope. With this choice, My Beautiful Laundrette inaugurated an international genre of films that I call the queer national romance. The national romance emerged in the eighteenth century as a literary genre in which star-crossed lovers from opposing nations--usually an imperial power and its colony--marry, healing the conflict between their respective communities. I contend that this narrative form found new life in queer postcolonial fiction and film in the late twentieth century. These films include The Crying Game (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), Fire (1996), Aimee and Jaguar (1999), Borstal Boy, Y tu mama tambien, and Proteus (2003). Like traditional national romances these texts solicit affective identification on the part of the spectator and negotiate a specific historical and cultural struggle, conflict, or anxiety about the status of the nation or the identity of the national citizen; instead of centering on a heterosexual couple however these texts focus on same-sex romantic unions. [3] Although the queer national romance is a new genre, it has its roots in a much older literary tradition. Literary critics Doris Sommer and Lisa Moore have discussed the nation-building potential of the romance in their studies of nineteenth-century Latin American "foundational fictions" and the eighteenth-century Irish national tale. Both Sommer and Moore argue that the texts they analyze employ the romantic union of two star-crossed lovers who represent conflicting racial, religious, class, or regional interests as an allegory of the nation. …

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