Since the critically-acclaimed Middlesex was published, many book clubs have generated their own discussion guides, and even the publisher provided a set of questions to guide conversation. Most of these guides prompt readers to look at specific passages and discuss the narrative or the character as presented in those passages. (You can download the guide for Middlesex here.)
But since we grok things a bit differently over here, and since the world has changed on a number of issues since then, Mayim and the Grok Nation staff have come up with this list of questions inspired by many of the actions in the novel, to help you take your virtual discussion to the next level, perhaps with a more contemporary lens.
Please use these questions if they’re helpful, or pose your own questions and comments below—we’re all here for the conversation! (And we realize that issues regarding gender identity and sexuality are highly sensitive—we’ve done our best to include correct or inclusive language, but know that we may have missed the mark in certain cases and for that we preemptively apologize; for more see GLAAD’s media guide of terms here.)
1. In Middlesex, Cal tells the story of the Stephanides family, and their flight as refugees from a native land that had turned violent, as the backdrop of telling Cal’s own story.
- Do you see this story primarily as a gender identity story or a story about an immigrant family coming to terms with their new life in America? In what ways might these two types of stories be related and/or complementary?
- Are you from a family of immigrants? Do you know your family’s immigration story? Were they refugees from their native lands, or just seeking out better opportunities? How does your immigrant experience shape the way you think about other immigrants and refugees, especially in today’s discussion on Syrian refugees? How do you think the Stephanides family would have reacted to the Syrian refugees conversation?
- What role does superstition play in the Middlesex narrative? Are you superstitious or do you have superstitious people in your family?
2. In the decade since Middlesex was published, the world has seen an increase in awareness of and discussion about sexuality and gender identity issues.
- How have you seen attitudes change or shift in the last decade? What events or personalities in our more recent history may have made it more acceptable to talk about the issues the author brings up in the narrative? Have you seen attitudes in your own family or social circles shift?
- And for those of you who are re-reading this book now—or thinking about it anew—how has your perception of these issues changed since your first time reading? How might Cal feel in our contemporary world?
3. People used to think that feeling like your gender identity was different than what you were assigned at birth was a psychological problem, to be treated through therapy, medication or surgery, but now there’s increased awareness that gender identity is not a binary, and doesn’t require change, but acceptance. Also, not all who identify as transgender may use the same language to describe their gender identity. (For more on gender fluidity, see this New York Magazine article about sexual expression and identity on college campuses, and see GLAAD’s media reference guide here for some preferred language around gender identity.)
- Do you do you know anyone who identifies as transgender or genderqueer? Do you remember how you felt when you found out? Did you have a conversation with them about their preferred pronouns or other language-related issues?
- How do the press and members of the public talk about people whose sexual or gender identity may be different than the heteronormative assumption?
- How does reading this book help you understand the science behind gender? What does that mean for how you view sexuality?
- What kinds of things in life might be hard to do if you felt as if people were treating you as someone other than the person you feel you are? How might it affect your relationships? Your sense of self? Your confidence?
4. What does the novel, as a whole, say about the concept of love? Is love something that is chosen by us or chooses us?
5. Toward the end of the book, Cal comments that “Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.” Does this ring true with you? Why or why not?