Last Night at the Telegraph Club

by Malinda Lo

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Last Updated on October 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a thoughtful exploration of what it means to discover oneself in a society where prejudice against one’s identity is ever-present. The historical setting allows the author to bring out these struggles more acutely than would be possible if the novel were set today. As a young Chinese American lesbian woman in the 1950s, Lily not only navigates multiple intersecting forms of prejudice as she comes of age and learns who she is but also experiences unabashed racism and homophobia from people who feel justified in those beliefs because of the era’s social norms.

Lily and her family struggle not only with social prejudice because of their race but also with active danger from the government, because the family has its origins in a country that is in direct political conflict with the United States. This larger geopolitical situation frames the personal experience of prejudice that Lily goes through as she nears adulthood. 

Lily is mature enough to understand the danger of being associated with communists. Yet the pull of discovering her identity keeps her from worrying that being voluntarily associated with homosexuals could also be politically and personally dangerous for her and her family. Understandably, she is wrapped up in navigating what it means to be a lesbian in the Chinese American community and, in turn, what it means to be a Chinese American in the lesbian community. In both places, she is isolated to some degree by the prejudices of the society she lives in.

The subtlety of Lo’s prose is highly effective in conveying the way Lily’s journey unfolds within the larger world of 1950s San Francisco. There is a deft balance in how the narrator shows compassion for Lily’s adolescent confusion and excitement while also demonstrating the stakes of Lily’s actions to a greater extent than the protagonist herself perceives. The reader is drawn into Lily’s excitement as she realizes her potential to love and be loved, even if that reader is not as young as Lily. Skillful phrasings and well-crafted metaphors, as well as the use of dream imagery, allow the author to convey the thrill that Lily’s process of self-discovery holds for her. Meanwhile, the narration regularly, though subtly, reminds the reader that Lily’s teenage boldness could have very dangerous consequences for her and her family. Yet it never condemns or judges Lily for the actions she takes as she learns who she is and how to embrace her identity.

One aspect of the novel that is somewhat mysterious is the role of the flashbacks at the end of each part. These flashbacks are from the perspective of the older people in Lily’s family, often showing their relationship to their Chinese identity. Though they reveal the experiences that inform the way Lily’s family reacts to the revelation of her lesbianism, these interludes do not cohere into a clear thread in terms of what they contribute to the book. A reader might wonder why there are no parallel flashbacks showing the earlier life experiences of the older lesbians Lily meets, which would inform the way they respond to Lily and reveal more of the landscape she has to navigate in her coming out.

In an afterword, Lo explains that she wanted to provide a voice for the forgotten Chinese American lesbians of the era she portrays. Though she did thorough research for the book, she was able to find very little record of those experiences. The few people she was able to talk to often spoke of being the only Chinese person in a lesbian environment, just as Lily is in the novel. Lo also talks about the book as a thought experiment into what her family’s life might have been if her grandparents had not returned to China before the rise of communism; Lo herself was born in China and only later moved to the United States. A strength of the book is the way it draws on both the experiences of Lo’s family members and her own process of self-discovery as a Chinese American lesbian at a later period in history. Though they are fictional and distanced from the reader by time, the Hu family and the women of the Telegraph Club feel very real because of the personal real-life stories and experiences that inform this carefully crafted novel.

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