I had an opportunity to read On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad for Mother Talk. (Just so you know, I was given a copy of the book and will get a $20 gift certificate to Amazon for writing this post). I chose this book because I am interested in representations of gender performance and disruption. On Borrowed Wings does muddy the clear gender fairy tale of Girl Wants More Than Her Limited Choices So She Cuts Her Hair, Binds Her Breasts, Puts On Pants and Hies Herself to Some Male Bastion of Self Betterment Where She Immediately Reasserts Her Inherent Femininity By Falling Helplessly In Love With A Man There and Pining For Him Hopelessly as She Learns Great Scholarly Things By His Side And Never Once Seriously Questions Her Own Gender Identity Eventually Returning To Her True Form — but doesn’t go nearly far enough to be truly satisfying.
In this respect, On Borrowed Wings attempts to examine similar ground that “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” (the short story that inspired the play that the movie Yentl was based on) does, but ends treading the ground a good deal closer to Yentl the Movie for me.
So, yes. Adele, the narrator of On Borrowed Wings, is brilliant, poor, and female. She’s being pushed by her mother to marry a quarryman and settle into the same disappointing life that her mother fell into. And this is partially because of gender expectations, but also partially because of race and class. Adele resembles her Italian laborer father and so another laboring immigrant is just fine for her. Her brother, on the other hand, takes after his mother and her upper class WASP family in looks and sensibilities, and so nothing but Yale will do for him in their mother’s ambitious plans to regain her class status. I went looking for gender complication and ended up with race and class complications as well. It was a wonderful surprise because nothing exists in limbo.
In fact, Adele’s very ability to transform herself into a creature masculine enough to pass muster at Males-Only Yale is considered, by Adele’s mother at least, to be a result of Adele’s immigrant taint. Adele, in the eyes of her mother and brother, has no understanding of the natural order of things, no sensitivity to the right and good boundaries between people. She pushes her way in where she shouldn’t be, and where she isn’t wanted. When Charles dies, her mother has no problem believing that Adele can pull the impersonation off. And thus, in a satisfying twist, Adele’s mother’s path back to her “natural” class and race station hinges on the muddy traits that she has spent so much time despising in Adele.
I like the complications. But I can’t help but feel that On Borrowed Wings doesn’t complicate things enough. One the race and class front, Adele works for a Eugenicist and makes her work there palatable to her (and us) by undermining his research and articles. But we never see the reaction other people have to Adele working for the eugenicist. Does she keep it completely secret? Do the others not care? That section of the book is kept functionally separate from the rest of Adele’s life and human interactions. Though the eugenicist’s survey is how Adele meets the DiRisios (another significant subplot), they are kept from knowledge of what she does for Dr. Spang, just as what Adele does with the DiRisio’s are kept separate from the world of Yale (with the noted exception of Adele taking young Cici DiRisio to Yale to see Amelia Earhart speak). Race and class become separate issues with the figure of Adele becoming the only one to move through the different castes.
On the gender front we watch Adele transform herself into Charlie to such an extent, that her femininity nearly completely disappears — taking most of her biological femaleness with it. The last vestiges of her femininity become alien to her: her breasts no longer ache under their bindings, her menstrual flow becomes dissociative and disturbing to her.
And yet, see, she’s fallen in love with her male friend, Wick. And this love keeps some part of her feminine and thus anchoring her safely to the female. It’s Yentl, at Yale. There’s even a scene where “Charlie” is maneuvered into taking a girl as his date to the Freshman Ball. There’s a moment of promise there, where Adele is contemplating the girl who’s to be her date and growing excited at the prospect of piercing through the girl’s defenses to discover who she truly is.
Did anyone else find themselves unbelievably disappointed when Yentl actually got married, but then led her timid and blushing bride trembling over the brink of… logic and reading and scholarly thoughts, and nothing else?
“Charlie” does kiss the girl passionately. But nothing can truly happen there. Because “Charlie” is a girl. A girl who loves Wick, a boy.
Alright. Maybe that’s my own personal disappointment. The thing is, to me, the whole plot thread of Adele’s love for Wick seems tacked-on as a way to make sure that Adele never really becomes Charlie. Things get “complicated”, but because of her strong heterosexual longing for Wick things never really get a good complication going on the level of gender identity and desire and attraction. Adele longs for Wick as a woman longs for a man – not as man longs for a man – and thus her attraction to Wick keeps her rooted firmly in the female and the heterosexual for both herself AND for her audience.
Furthering this refusal to complicate things too much is the refusal on the part of Adele (and thus Prasad) to make any choices about her future. The book ends with Adele choosing to remain male and at Yale despite the fact that her mother has reconciled with her wealthy family and is insisting that Adele become female again (and a member of the upper class while she’s at it). And yet Adele is remaining at Yale so that she can eventually become a teacher. And so you are left to wonder, why? If all she wants to do is teach, why must she maintain a charade that will end up with her getting a degree in her dead brother’s name from an institution that would never (at that time) acknowledge that it had had a female student? She claims that she can’t leave her friends, but her friends don’t even know that her father is dead, let alone that she’s a woman (and I wouldn’t think that this was important except that SHE thinks it’s important). So the book ends in an affirmation of ambiguity: Adele estranged from her mother (the only person who knew her as Adele and not as Adele-as-Charlie), accepting a full-ride scholarship for her remaining years at Yale and a position coordinating the first community literacy program for Yale, planning on moving into an apartment with her friend Harry – all actions which push her further toward living indefinitely as Charlie, while at the same time she becomes sexually active with Wick and takes a nostalgic trip – as a girl – back to her hometown – actions that imply that “Charlie” is a masquerade that she must cast aside eventually to resume a life as Adele. Adele tells Wick that she’s refusing to choose her course of action because she’s tired of making things fit into neat boxes when they won’t fit.
I suppose that’s supposed to be some sort of epiphany. The cry of the modern woman refusing to be boxed in by imposed gender limitations. After all, if only Yale had allowed women to attend their hallowed halls then the masquerade would never have been necessary.
But, this indecision just makes the book feel incomplete to me. As if it’s waiting for a sequel. Perhaps that’s the point. Adele is waiting for someone, or something, to make her decision for her. Perhaps she’s waiting for time to change around her, but time’s not going to change soon enough for her. Other reviewers have commented on the exhaustive historical knowledge of Yale that has informed this book, so you can’t forget that Yale didn’t accept female students until 1969 – a good 30 years after this book takes place. Adele is doomed to her in-between state, doomed to lying and subterfuge and allowing her own accomplishments to be covered by the name of someone else, unless something changes.
That something changed? That’s the book I want to read. I would like to see Adele be truly gender queer. I would like to see her forge a course that respects both the masculine and the feminine within her without having one always eclipse the other. I would like to see her negotiate the world that way. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that she could be that, it doesn’t blow the premise of the book to pieces – gender queer people were making quite a splash in the art and intellectual worlds in the 1930’s – unless the premise is only that Adele is an intelligent, ambitious, strictly feminine and heterosexual woman forced into an untenable position by circumstances a modern woman would shudder at. Of course, Adele’s own relishing of herself as Charlie forecloses on that possibility. Don’t mistake me, I don’t want Prasad to make Adele pick a gender and stick within its modern-sensibility-acceptable confines, I just want to feel that her ambiguity is a deliberate choice and not just an attempt to refrain from deciding for the sake of audience acceptance and mainstream palatability. Father, can you hear Streisand singing?
So, I give the book 4 stars out of 5 for making me think, and for being beautifully researched and written, but not pushing hard enough. And I’ll hold my breath for a sequel. (not really)