Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Trigger Warning: doxxing, racism and racial microaggressions, homophobia, threats of deportation, war
Lily Hu, 17 years old and Chinese-American, knows she’s different. That difference solidifies when she finds a book in a bodega about a woman loving another woman…it answers so many questions, but it can’t be right, can it? She’s never heard of such a thing. Until she meets Kath, and the two explore a world of sapphic love and yearning in the middle of the Red and Lavender Scares of the 1950s. But Lily and Kath will risk everything to be together.
They had hugged each other quickly, and Lily realized then and there that they’d never be able to kiss goodbye in public.
I absolutely adored this.
Although…adored is a strange word.
This book ripped out my soul. It destroyed me. I cried, and then when I told the synopsis to my wife, she bawled like crazy (granted, she cries over all kinds of vaguely emotional media, which is mildly hilarious because she’s a complete stoic in all other aspects).
This book reached in and spoke to the parts of me I long kept buried/never examined, and the parts my wife had to hide for so many years.
It’s about two girls in 1954 who explore their feelings for each other in a world where their feelings are considered extremely taboo, unnatural and sinful. Good girls just don’t act that way. Not good Chinese-American girls like Lily, nor good girls like Kath, even though Kath is tainted by her previous friendship with a girl several years her senior, who was sent away in shame after she was discovered with another girl.
Popular perceptions of the 1950s often center on conformity and social repression, but in reality the midcentury was a time of transition and thus a time of great cultural anxiety that was often expressed in efforts to suppress difference.Malinda Lo
I really liked how well Lo captured the essence of transition and change of the 1950s. There was a thriving queer subculture, and thanks to the crackdowns in all things different (thank you, McCarthyism and whyte supremacy), anything that didn’t fit the “accepted” norms was pushed deeper into hiding. The anxiety of not fitting in, of being hunted or investigated by the FBI for unamerican activities, of having your citizenship revoked and being deported to a country that no longer existed, were all very real fears and led to heightened internalized conforming among marginalized groups.
I also loved the depiction of Chinatown in the 1950s. It’s a contained community of people, and while Lily strains against the traditional mindsets of her family—who doesn’t do that, as a teen?
It wasn’t like chocolate, Lily thought. It was like finding water after a drought. She couldn’t drink enough, and her thirst made her ashamed, and the shame made her angry.
There are so many layers I could unpack, but this is mainly a book about longing.
Longing for things to be better. Longing for independence. Longing for love and the ability to be open about that love. Longing to go to space and beyond and travel the stars, and not be limited by race or ethnicity or gender. Longing for acceptance, and to also stand out and to be accepted for standing out.
And it is a book about discovery.
Lily is obsessed with space, and has a plan to become a computer/engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab. She’s brilliant and dedicated in her schoolwork, in addition to falling in love, slowly and then all at once, with Kath. The two tiptoe around each other for so long, navigating an unfamiliar language, trying to find ways to express words that could cause irreparable harm if the other did not feel the same.
There are some dips back into the past, following Lily’s father, her mother and her aunt as they navigate America in the 1930s and 1940s, the brief glimpses offering insights and depth into their reactions and how they became who they are. The flashbacks give rationale, but it still makes their ultimate refusal to accept Lily’s sexuality all the more painful to read (this is not a spoiler, this is life—then, today, as long as homophobia and transphobia exists), particularly as they are acting out of love for their daughter, even if that love is misguided and focused more on suppressing and redirecting her difference than accepting their child as she is.
Anywho, I just spilled a bunch of words on a page and none make sense whatsoever.
The plot is very, very simple. Lily explores her sexuality and exerts her independence, and in doing so, discovers a world of queer acceptance (although not racial acceptance—these queer spaces are whyte spaces and she endures a lot of microaggressions and outright racism and exoticism). But despite the simple plot and the very long page-length, I was never bored.
I was entranced, enthralled and engaged by the beautiful writing, the way emotions were pulled out of me, bit by bit, tweaking on each heartstring as though I was a violin and this book my player.
Highly recommend, although please don’t enter lightly.