Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Narrating Queer Identities: Politics of Sexuality and Identity Construction in the Novels of James Purdy

In my research I am concerned with the possibility of a politics of sexuality without reverting to identitarian conceptions of sexuality. In a reading of the work of the American author James Purdy, I propose to move towards a politicizing of the concept of narrative identity as developed by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur.

2015 - 2019
Looi van Kessel
NWO Graduate Programma 2014 NWO Graduate Programma 2014

For my research I am looking at the work of the American author James Purdy from the perspective of sexual identity. Central to my approach is the notion that our identities are constituted in a language that adheres to societal norms which can be read in terms of narratives and literary genres. Following the theories of the narration of identities, developed by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, I read in the work of James Purdy the possibility to treat sexual identity as something that is fluid and changes over time. At the same time, I suggest that Purdy also shows the social impact of narrating identities on lived experiences. In my research, then, I propose a model in which a narrative approach to identity could prove to be a political tool for sexual minority groups who try to achieve fully acknowledges sexual rights without running the risk of oppressing deviant sexualities.

Is it possible to claim political leverage for sexual minority groups, while also maintaining the diversity and incommensurability of the different sexualities that constitute such groups? Through an analysis of sexual identity production in the work of James Purdy, I propose that we can interpret the constitution of sexual identities in the United States through narrative and literary models. Following Paul Ricoeur’s notion of narrative identity, Peter Brooks’ reading of melodrama and Marthe Robert’s discussion of the Freudian Family Romance – themes that are pervasive in the oeuvre of James Purdy – I suggest that sexual identities are shaped along narrative and literary conventions that are socially constructed through the implementation of sexual taboos. These same narrative conventions also give leeway into political agency as they account for both the historicity of sexual identity construction, while simultaneously allowing sexual rights organization to temporarily suspend the primacy of individual narratives in favor of the stories that constitute sexual minorities as a political body.

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