“Last Night at the Telegraph Club” and the Reclamation of Queer Histories

The year is 1954, and Chinese-American teen Lily Hu lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When she discovers a pulp lesbian novel in a local drug store and a newspaper clipping advertising a handsome male impersonator, Lily is starting to uncover a counterculture of queerness that she just might be a part of. When a girl at school volunteers to take her to the Telegraph Club—the very same establishment referenced in the newspaper ad—Lily’s life changes forever. However, America finds itself reaching a fever pitch of Red-Scare paranoia, threatening the livelihood and citizenship of all Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans. If Lily’s double life is found out, it could very well tear her family apart.

Title & Author: “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” by Malinda Lo

Published By: Dutton Books for Young Readers (Penguin)

Availability: Released on January 19th, 2021

Page Count: 416 pages

Genre(s): Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Coming of Age, Queer, Lesbian, Chinese-American Lit, Own Voices

Potential Triggers: Explorations of racism, xenophobia, deportation, homophobia, underage drinking, some graphic sex, brief mention of miscarriage, use of outdated racial and social epithets (relevant to time period), and experiences of estrangement and disownment

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Last Night at the Telegraph Club is an absolute triumph in every sense of the word. The story invokes an impeccable sense of place and time, with Malinda Lo’s meticulous research and attention to detail bringing every scene to life. Lily is a character sitting at the crossroads of political, racial, and social turmoil. As a STEM-focused Chinese-American young woman discovering her queerness, everything seems to be stacked against her.

While this story could have easily been about queer trauma, repression, and the internalization of homophobia, instead its message is one of belonging and self-discovery. The narrative addresses the very real hardships that queer people of color, specifically, had to face during this time period, but it’s more so about Lily finding ways around those obstacles and chasing those spaces and moments that allow her some measure of freedom. Even though history has systematically erased queer culture, this story explores the necessity of code-switching, the creation of safe spaces, and the vibrant counterculture of queerness that has always existed.

The Telegraph Club is a place that represents queer futurity and normalcy. It’s a place that shows Lily there is a future where she can hold a job, have a relationship, and find community with other queer folks. That community gives her the confidence to stay true to herself, even when she’s presented with an “easier” choice. But we also see how the predominant narrative of queer culture is one of whiteness, one that would be impossible for Lily to imagine were it not for the beckoning hand of a young white girl.

As the story progresses, Lily is discovering how to navigate between multiple disparate cultures. She is learning a great deal about living out loud, and carving out space for herself in a world that could never anticipate her.

Adri (they/them) is a queer, trans, and non-binary Mexican-American book reviewer. They’ve been creating BookTube content for over six years on perpetualpages and remain interested in creating content that celebrates and centers marginalized voices, intersectional viewpoints, and inclusive ideologies. When they’re not re-watching RWBY or Avatar: The Last Airbender, they can be found writing, laughing out loud while listening to podcasts in public, playing video games, and wearing geeky graphic tees to telegraph their interests to other people.

You can find them on their Youtube channel, and follow them on Twitter and Instagram as @_perpetualpages_.

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