Review: musings on lesbianism & Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo2 March 2021
content warning: internalised homophobia, d slur mention
“Perhaps one day she’d get used to the way it made her feel: dislocated and dazed, never quite certain if the other half of her would stay offstage as directed. But tonight she felt as if she were constantly on the edge of saying or doing something wrong, and the effort of keeping that unwelcome half silent was making her sick.”
This passage describes a feeling I’ve been living with my whole life, but always struggled to acknowledge or articulate. It comes from Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, a historical young adult novel about seventeen-year-old protagonist Lily Hu coming out and coming of age in early 1950s San Francisco’s Chinatown. This may be a hyper-specific context, but Telegraph Club overflows with familiar, relatable emotions and compelling experiences throughout Lily’s personal journey. This book is clearly a labour of love, a product of tenderness, thought, and research that resonated with me and made me feel less alone in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
Perhaps any child raised in a Confucian culture can relate to the struggle between filial piety and autonomy, between the person you’re expected to be and the person you really are. These feelings are only amplified for migrant children, who are marginalised within society and raised with the hopes and demands that led their parents to seek life in a new country. Lo deftly navigates these concepts, depicting the nuances of filial piety as a subtle but persistent burden, one that has shaped Lily’s life and actions until this point. Lily is a compelling and sympathetic protagonist, the daughter of a nurse and a doctor who dreams about space exploration. She has certain expectations placed upon her by her family, friends, and the Chinatown community, and she has conformed without resistance until this point in her life. To befriend a white girl from outside Chinatown is unexpected, and it is this friendship that emboldens Lily enough to sneak out and visit the Telegraph Club—a venue frequented by lesbians and tourists, where a handsome butch sings as entertainment. It is a delight to follow her throughout Telegraph Club as she starts to acknowledge her own desires. Rather than outright resentment or rebellion, for much of the book Lily simply delights in taking courage and therefore control of her life.
Despite the brilliance of Telegraph Club as a coming-of-age story, it is not a perfect book. The writing is often stilted, especially near the beginning, and this leads to some plot elements feeling contrived. In one scene, Lily hides in the bathroom after a boy asks her to the dance, where she encounters her classmate Kath, who sees her carefully torn ad for the Telegraph Club and tells her that she has seen male impersonator Tommy Andrews perform there. It’s a moment that would play out well in cinema, but the coincidence does require a certain suspension of disbelief, as does Lily’s ability to repeatedly sneak out. Even so, other elements seem lovely and natural, as Lily interacts with older lesbians and confronts her own feelings.
Perhaps the weakest element is a series of interludes about Lily’s relatives—her mother, father, and aunt—where fairly heavy handed flashbacks provide historical and personal context for each character. As such, the book covers events before and during World War II including Madame Chiang’s visit to America, before detailing the Communist Revolution in China and the Red Scare in the US. These sections reveal nuances of different attitudes and policies towards migration during the early 20th century that are certainly interesting but add little to the story on their own. Telegraph Club is about navigating identity within a specific context and in many ways it makes a study of that context. This is foregrounded by Lily’s journey, making the interluding sections seem like afterthoughts. Through brief glimpses into these different perspectives it seems that Lo is trying to portray Lily’s relatives as fully fleshed people and characters in a way that Lily herself can’t really perceive them (her role is to have a good life as a good daughter, and not to be burdened with such things as family history). If anything, Lily’s parents and aunt could have acknowledged Lily’s increasing maturity by having conversations with her about their own journeys. Altogether, the side characters here are interesting but clearly secondary, though two do stand out. Kath is sweet as Lily’s warm and engaging love interest, hailing from an Italian-American background and grappling with her sexuality alongside Lily. Lily’s best friend Shirley has always made her feel needed, but at the same time she is selfish and ambitious, constrained by the demands of a merchant class background.
The need for diversity in media is a constant conversation, and a crucial one. Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a well known talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story”, recounting the dominance of white, British media while she was growing up as well as the dangers of cultural stereotypes in literature. Telegraph Club is the first book I have read about a Chinese lesbian, and this fact alone was a marvel. To feel represented in terms of both race and sexuality was wild and extraordinary, and would have made this book remarkable to me even if I hadn’t enjoyed it. Lily’s story feels entirely authentic, enriched by Lo’s experiences and detailed research into the time period. In her afterword, the author notes the double erasure of lesbians and East Asian women from history, and writes: “Lily’s story is entirely fiction […] but I imagine she and these real women all had to deal with similar challenges: learning how to live as both Chinese American and lesbian, in spaces that often did not allow both to coexist.” At the very least, it is a loving sentiment.
Poet and activist Kitty Tsui once wrote, “I was born thirty-eight years ago and raised to be a nice Chinese girl. But nice Chinese girls don’t grow up to be dykes or rebels. And I turned out to be both.” In fact, Lo spoke to Kitty Tsui in writing Telegraph Club, who confirmed that she was often the only Asian person in lesbian spaces during the mid to late 20th century. I still struggle with my own sexuality frequently, and probably I always will. It is difficult to un-internalise lesbophobia, and white voices seem to dominate lesbian communities. Yet here were words for so many things I have experienced and continued to experience, the shame and wonder of being attracted to women expressed by someone like me: “Something went still inside Lily, as if her heart had taken a breath before it continued beating.” A peculiar feeling. Maybe these are inconsequential worries. I worry at times that I will spend my whole life reading about things like love and community without experiencing them, but at the same time media depictions give me reassurance (that this is okay) and hope (that it could happen). Baby Lily realising that she is gay and what it means to be gay and falling in love with baby butch Kath felt good and right and real. Just four days into the Year of the Ox, I was wholly unprepared to read, “We were very worried, Lily. It’s the New Year. Your mother has been working all day to prepare the dinner for everyone. Come home. Please.” It made me weep, and wonder, and it made my heart ache.
Media—books, music, film, television, poetry—has an extraordinary ability to move people. It comforts us and often brings us together (Ishiguro: Does it feel this way to you too?). Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a fantastic book in its own right, one that struck a very personal chord with me. It is a book full of hope and love and community and gay people, some of my favourite elements in storytelling. I am glad this book exists and it made me glad that I exist.