by Malindo Lo
“Lily understood why her mother had worn the church dress to Macy’s. Even if it was ugly, it declared her investment in respectability. Her mother was a real American wife and mother, not a China doll in a cheongsam, relegated to operating the elevator.”
Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, Lily Hu has always known her place as a good Chinese daughter. But when she spots an ad for a male impersonator in the San Francisco Chronicle, she feels a strong pull, and discovers a question about herself that she hardly knows how to ask. But it isn’t until she meets Kath Miller that Lily begins to question more deeply, and to find the nerve to visit the Telegraph Club to see Tommy Andrews perform. There they discover a whole community of women living lives they could barely have imagined. In Kath, Lily finds not only someone she might love, but someone who helps her see herself more clearly, not just her sexual identity, but also her dreams for a future career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But even liberal San Francisco is not a friendly place for two girls to be in love in the 1950s.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club begins with a series of small moments in which Lily realizes that she is different from the girls around her who are beginning to date boys and compete the Miss Chinatown beauty pageant. When Lily discovers a lesbian pulp fiction novel in a rack at the drug story, it opens a world of possibility to her that she could hardly have imagined alone. It is through the medium of the book that she dares broach the subject to Kath, and through Kath she finds access to the world of the Telegraph Club. Even though they are both minors, Kath has been there before with an older friend, and knows how to obtain a fake ID for Lily.
Through the club, Lily and Kath meet older lesbian women who are regulars there. Though the city’s queer night clubs have a less than savoury reputation—sometimes deserved, sometimes demonized—they are also places where the girls can catch glimpses of future lives for themselves they never would have dreamed possible, including long-lasting partnerships. However, the older women are also limited in their ability to help girls who end up in trouble with their families if their secret comes out. The threat of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” looms over them, even if they are supposed to enjoy freedom of association according to a 1951 California Supreme Court ruling.
The story is told entirely from Lily’s point of view, so there are large swatches of Kath’s experience we do not get to delve into when they’re not together. This is particularly noticeable in the last quarter of the novel. But though Kath and Lily have much in common, their stories are not the same. Chinese Americans face a double burden of racism and suspicion of communism as the new communist government takes hold back in China, but goes unrecognized by the American government. When Lily’s father refuses to name one of his patients as a known communist, the FBI confiscates his immigration papers, leaving him with no proof of his legal status in the United States. “My parents lectured me for half an hour about how the government would put us in camps just like the Japanese if they thought we were Communists,” Lily’s friend Shirley Lum explains after Lily and Shirley attend a picnic that turns out to have been hosted by suspected communist sympathizers. There are many ways in which Lily’s experience of the queer community is not quite like Kath’s, including people repeatedly calling out her race and asking her if she speaks English.
I purchased this novel on pre-order more than a year ago, but put off reading it for a long time because I suspected it would be a bit of a darker or heavier read. It recently won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, reminding me that I really wanted to get around to it. I found it open-ended but hopeful, and not nearly as grim as it could have been despite the subject matter it deals with, including racism, homophobia, interracial relationships, and McCarthyism. It is a story about growing pains—growing up and apart from childhood friends, and coming to question the values of your family and community that you have been taught to hold dear. But at the core it really is a story of first love even in the face of adversity. In Kath, Lily finally finds someone who sees her, and who understands her love of math and science fiction, and her dreams of outer space.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is based on a short story originally published in 2018 in the collection All Out edited by Saundra Mitchell. Set in San Francisco, Malinda Lo describes the city in detail, but relies heavily on street names. This is useful if readers want to consult a map, but doesn’t do much to evoke the atmosphere of the place. What she does much more successfully is delve into San Francisco’s queer history, while also attempting to bring to life the largely undocumented history of the Asian American women who found their way into the predominantly white spaces of San Francisco’s lesbian community.
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