The Irish Queer vs. the IRA Macho
The Subversive Tranny in Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto
"The transvestite's camp humor is here used to stress the unsustainability of the military discourses on which the justification of IRA terrorism is based."
Since its first release in 2005, Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto
, the film adaptation of Patrick McCabe's novel about the coming of age of a young Irish transvestite in the seventies, has been generally understood in a "culturally schizophrenic way." Journalists and academics writing on this text,1
in fact, have often had a hard time linking the relevant historical setting — some of the most controversial years of the Irish Troubles,2
seen both from the internal front and from the British capital — with the concomitant personal evolution of the main character — strongly related to the diversity and stigmatization of his queer identity, which is a reason as important as the social context on the border with Northern Ireland for his migration to London.
The IRA issue, dramatically experienced by both Jordan and McCabe, who were teenagers at the time of Bloody Sunday, is generally analyzed as another, additional form of trauma exorcised by the main character, Patrick-Patricia Kitten Braiden, through an apparent fairy-tale ingenuity that allows him to survive both the psychological backlash of the guerrilla warfare and the one caused by the homophobic stigma that keeps despising, when not utterly negating, his transvestite identity. The historical context seems therefore chosen as an ideally hostile background to Patrick's cross-dressing story, which sets the film and original novel in a credible contemporary setting and can also be easily exploited as a further element of symbolic, external antagonism that serves to complicate the main character's coming of age.
At the same time, Patrick/Patricia's cross-dressing nature is commonly understood by British reviewers (Tinker 2000; O'Mahony 2003) as another narratological choice, almost detached from the Irish question, and rather aimed at revealing the climate of sexual miscegenation and revolution that distinguished London in the late sixties and seventies, where Patrick moves toward the end of his teens. In the latter decade, in fact, the British capital's political life was characterized by several forms of sexually-related activism, including not only the marches of the Women Liberation Movement (the first International Women's Day march was held in London on 6 March 1971 [Bolt 2004; Coote and Campbell 1987]) — which had radically increased its members since the late sixties — but also the public manifestations of the Gay Liberation Front, whose manifesto was published by Russell Press in 1971 (Mieli 1977: 280-301).
Yet the actual, ongoing liaison between these two coexistent aspects of Patrick's life — the Irish historical moment and the protagonist's queer manifestations — is fundamental for a complete understanding of the function that his transvestism assumes in the novel. Without a coherent contextualization and analysis of its value within the historical and cultural Irish framework, Patrick's cross-dressing is reduced to an element of pure, self-standing gender diversity, and it might seem chosen by the author only as a stylistic mirroring of the contemporary fashionability of the topic, which was being addressed by several independent and mainstream films of the nineties, such as M Butterfly
(1993), To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar
(1995), and The Birdcage
(1996); and literary texts Andy Warhol's protégé Holly Woodlawn's biography (Woodlawn and Copeland 1991), or Stone Butch Blues
(1993), by Leslie Feinberg, on female-to-male transvestism.
Patrick/Patricia's queerness can be fully grasped only if read both as an exquisitely individual transvestite manifestation and as a more generally applicable element of gender subversiveness that, by its own existence, destabilizes the machismo that was a key ideological basis of the IRA struggle (Dudnik 2004; Boyer Bell 2000). The Irish context, therefore, is essential because it allows a constant double reading of Patrick's transvestism.
On a symbolic level, in fact, transvestism stands here as the quintessential mark of any explicit, disclosed sexual diversity, which — because of its defiant visibility — provokes levels of homophobic prejudice and aggressiveness that eventually force the transgender individual to migrate in search of a chance to fully assume his transgenderism. London is the final destination of his trip not only because of the number of its multicultural inhabitants (Bennett 1998), but also since it was known to host the third-largest gay community of the time, after New York and Los Angeles (Nardi 1997) and, therefore, seemed more welcoming than Ireland of any expression of gender nonconformity.
However, on a second level of analysis, which is strongly related to the Irish context, Patrick's identity is more subtly connoted as the queer element of category crisis identified by Marjorie Garber in her study of transvestism (Garber 1992). It is the matrix of sexual nonconformity that, by calling into question the binary gender system, also openly criticizes its multiply widespread hegemonic manifestations, including the same exacerbated, aggressive masculinity publicized by the Irish Republican Army as the truthful image of (male) Irishness throughout history.
As Jonathan Bowyer Bell reminds us in his analysis of the IRA movement, an entire generation of armed struggle against Britain, at least since the Eastern Rising of 1916, had undoubtedly contributed to the cultural and social affirmation of the "Provo as stereotype" (Boyer Bell 2000: 104): the young Irish rebel read as the archetypal image of patriotic, indomitable bravery, admired and normatively "offered to the young recruits as an exemplar" (Boyer Bell 2000: 105).
This Provo model was distinguished by two major characterizations (O' Brien 1995: 104-107). On the one hand, we find the idealist who sacrifices his life to his credo, willingly chooses to die as a martyr for Ireland, and is buried with military honour. Bobby Sands is undoubtedly the inspiring figure of this type (Taylor 1997; Boyer Bell 2000). Only 19, he died in prison after a hunger strike of 67 days that was aimed at convincing the British Government to grant the IRA prisoners a political status (Sands 1997). His story, which was followed by nine other deaths by hunger strike in 1981 (O'Malley 1991: 70-75), became so exemplary as to turn his portrait into the icon of the more than 150 IRA murals of Northern Ireland painted just after his death (Rolston 1987; Jarman 1997), in a way that recalls the iconization and subsequent commodification of Che Guevara's face.
However, besides the image of Sands as martyr, another equally lasting but more violent and macho image of the exemplary Provo existed. Those who, unlike the hero of the hunger strikes, did not end in prison were expected by the IRA organizational modes to actively engage in the guerrilla war and assume the position of rebels whose convictions were "strong enough to give them confidence to kill someone without hesitation and without regret" (The IRA Green Book
qtd. in Coogan 1993: 547). This type of volunteer, sponsored and acclaimed by the rebel sheet Republican News3
as the most truthful embodiment of Irishness, was the boisterous, feckless, and indomitable activist who incarnated both the army machine and the brave soloist. A prototype of this kind was the teenage Frances Brendan Behan, who — years before the blossoming of his career as Irish playwright — embarked on an unauthorized solo mission to England aimed at blowing up the Liverpool docks (Mikhail 1982 and 1992).
Unfortunately, the contradictory violence of this male canon was constantly mirrored in the masculinity assumed at the time by the Special Corps of the British Army. Besides the normal, defensive interventions in the Irish context, in fact, these brigades had become known for their unauthorized retaliations, such as the armed suppression of pacific anti-internment marches.4
In addition, even official guidelines often entitled them to use excessive methods against the IRA rebels. Section 12 of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act officially approved in 1971 allowed British soldiers to arrest the supposedly revolutionary rebels under pure suspicion and to apply interrogating techniques that ambiguously permitted the use of physical torture in extreme cases.5
Patrick's gender identity, viewed in a similar context where being faithfully Irish meant being actively involved with the IRA, and ready to marry its controversial military male canon, functions thus as an unclassifiable variable that destabilizes this whole system. Patrick's sexual queerness negates both the absolute correctness and applicability of the IRA male standardization and, indirectly, also the martial brotherhood, the violence exerted against fellow civilians, and the self-imposed anti-democratic legitimation of power that lay at the basis of the rebel figure.
This political value of Patrick's transvestite identity is perceivable from his first social activities. As a child, Patrick boycotts the war game inspired by the contemporary Irish context by committing suicide while playing the role of the active IRA Provo. In another section of the game, while condemned to death as a Republican rebel, he begs his friend, who impersonates the British Army, for a bullet, hoping to die fast. By choosing suicide as an escape from the military activism linked to his Provo role, Patrick both challenges the model of the brave soloist who eagerly embraces the violent part of the struggle, and questions the bravery and effectiveness of the volunteer's martyrdom, thus destabilizing the model iconized by Bobby Sands.
Patrick reacts against the war game of his friends because he prefers to stage, together with his girlfriend Charlie, seemingly catwalk competitions of female modeling, which are not set in the warfare context that would normally stigmatize his transvestite persona. From this point of view it is worth noticing that when he is initially obliged to play a Provo in the game, Patrick accepts it only because at the head of the children's battalion is a girl — a detail evident both in the novel and in Jordan's movie, where the girl is the first of the children to appear on screen with a rifle and an Irish flag in her hands.
Patrick consents to play in a fake guerrilla branch led by Charlie because her military position — normally forbidden to women — shares his own reversal of commonly accepted sexual roles: the female duties in the Provo Army in fact, consisted only of the passage of coded information and the distribution of Republican News.
Moreover, the girl's unrealistic position of commander is a further reminder of the sexually revolutionary nature of this staged warfare, which facilitates and stimulates Patrick's reverse identification with the male rebel figure. Together with the first manifestations of his transvestite identity—which is recognizable in the constant focus of the child's thoughts on the pleasures of female impersonation (Ekins 1997)— the concomitant refusal of the IRA code starts to be evident in Patrick's juvenile behavior.
Patrick rejects the IRA as another male identification, just as he rejects his biological sex and associated societal behaviors. He loathes the imposition of another rigid and macho gender role, which is ideologically burdened by an increased level of anti-feminine discrimination and by an idolizing conception of warfare as the only effective response to anti-Catholic discrimination.
The model he breaks with is a system that sees the male variable as the only active principle in the gender arena and conceives the armed struggle as the battle between the idealistic Irish rebels — who fight "with a political base and noble and justifiable cause" — and an enemy who is "morally wrong" and inferior (The IRA Green Book, qtd. in Coogan 1993: 271).
This dichotomy is exposed and problematized in the film when Patrick's handicapped friend is killed by a Unionist's car bomb, which mirrors the terrorist methods of IRA warfare. Instead of joining the IRA as a reaction to his personal grievance — a common occurrence among teenage IRA volunteers — Patrick throws into deep waters a militant group's arsenal that his boyfriend kept hidden in their caravan.
While getting rid of the cache of rifles, the young transvestite describes his gesture as "serious, serious spring cleaning." This surreal euphemism relies on the adjective "serious," so often used in the movie by Patrick's friend and IRA militant Irwin, and recontextualizes it from the demagogic rhetoric of IRA propaganda into the more problematic and nuanced reality of the struggle, where casualties, on both sides, are often unarmed civilians.
The transvestite's camp humor is here used to stress the unsustainability of the military discourses on which the justification of IRA terrorism is based. As a consequence of his position, the more his friend Irwin becomes involved with the Provos' secret affairs, the more Patrick explicitly manifests his queer, counter-normative identity and concentrates on his "own personal revolution."
It is with this teenage appropriation of his transvestite identity that the apparently detached and, at times, naive reaction to the traumatic effects of both the homophobic stigma and the tragic consequences of the IRA warfare starts to become clear. Perhaps misunderstanding Patrick's initial similarity to Candide's attitude,6
several critics reviewing the novel from which the movie is taken did not recognize in this reaction to personal and social pain an element that also distinguished both post-traumatic shocks and the self-defensive reversion to a detached humour that stems from the protagonist's transvestite identity.
After his best friend's death, in fact, whenever faced with the terrifying consequences of the IRA guerrilla, Patrick reacts by dissociating himself from reality and by focusing his thoughts on his feminine apparel and on the garments that mark the realization of his cross-dressing persona. This is evident in particular when, in London, after an IRA bombing attack at a club, Patrick responds to the shock by commenting about his tights, torn apart by the explosion, and by smiling like a top model at the journalist photographing the crime scene.
The ritual of female transvestism, and the new self-image it produces, can be read as the psychological shelter used against any form of external aggression, whether a homophobic slur or a more physical threat linked to the contemporary historical context, as in this case. By transferring his attention from the actual source of pain to the superficial object of his transvestite desires, Patrick reinstates the value of cross-dressing as a source of general interior reassurance, a common transvestite coping strategy for traumatic events, not limited to common gender discriminations (Gosselin, Wilson 1980: 60-74).
However, beyond the individual value of personal and psychological reassurance, this reversion to the transvestite element in critical moments of external pressures, threats, or discriminations assumes also the more general function of an actual, in-drag satire of the current sociopolitical situation and especially of the patriarchal models promoted by the IRA. In this case, the humorous nature of Patrick's reaction emerges fully, as does, simultaneously, his radical critique of those prejudices that he experienced for his queerness and, subsequently in London, for his Irishness.
This second connotation of Patrick's responding to trauma with transvestite reveries is evident in the second section of the same club scene, when the main character is arrested as the suspected IRA bomber in drag who attacked the London disco full of British soldiers just returned from Ulster. Being an Irish citizen in the club at the time of the explosion and, coincidentally, just beside the point of detonation, Patrick is brutally questioned by the British officials who initially seem to have no doubt about his involvement. At the police station, Patrick loses himself in a daydream where his camp irony is more fully deployed in a reverie that both mocks and destabilizes the all-male IRA structure.
Asked about the details of his relationship with the IRA, Patrick describes a scene where he embodies a 007 in drag named "Patricia Kitten Braiden AKA Deep Throat," who "had penetrated the deepest recesses of the Irish Republican Army's sphincter" with her secret anti-terrorist weapon: the fragrance Chanel Number 5. In this interlude, Patrick, leather-dressed, knocks out one by one all the terrorists with her French perfume and then ironically comments on the incapability of those self-defined "freedom fighters" to understand haute couture.
This transvestite fantasia is dominated by an anti-macho drag humor7
that desecrates the symbols of the IRA guerrilla by turning them into a cartoon-like, hyperbolized version of the cross-dressing ceremony. Perfumes substitute for rifles, and female couture and the armed struggle are depicted as a comical scene of deadly seduction. The instinctive reversion to the comforting nature of the transvestite arsenal is here exploited as a rhetorical way to create a costume parody of the IRA service unit at work.
At the same time, by absurdly linking his cross-dressing identity with the Irish rebel group that reviles his queerness as a betrayal of true male Irishness, Patrick indirectly critiques the position of the British police force itself. The policemen, in fact, by focusing on the nationality of their suspect,8
had neither believed in his desperate declaration of innocence, nor realized that an all-male rebel group like the IRA, programmatically based on a patriarchal and hypermasculine opposition to the British invader, would never have chosen an effeminate, cross-dressing recruit for their attacks.
The transvestite fantasy therefore becomes not only a way to momentarily escape the aggressive inquiries of the police officers, but also a way to reveal the biases of an institution that employs the same discriminatory patterns as the IRA, based on both national and sexual identity.9
Ironically, Patrick had escaped from Ireland soon after having been stigmatized for his transvestite identity by some of the same men who may have secretly belonged to the IRA he was suspected to have joined. His being denied entrance to a club because of his transvestite persona was the symptom of a widespread position against gender difference that characterized his native country. In both Ireland and Ulster, not only the soldiers of the major terrorist groups — namely the UNV and the IRA — but also the political class was taking a clear sex-discriminatory stand. In the seventies, for instance, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Iain Paisley headed a campaign against the decriminalization of homosexuality, identified with the slogan "Save Ulster from Sodomy" (Galloway 1984: 80-101).
Patrick's desire to increasingly dress and behave like a woman — not as a temporary in-drag persona but as the core of his own character — is read as the threatening opposite of the IRA standard. This is why, when he faces two volunteers who are looking for the weapons he has thrown away, they decide that "he is not even worth the bullet" because he's "way out of [his] league." Patrick's androgyny makes him undoubtedly "out of the league" of the patriarchal power advocated by the IRA as the original image of Irishness. Yet the two rebels do not understand Patrick's character as a threat to their ideology. They do not see his undermining the macho Provo ideal because they only understand his gender ambivalence as a failed attempt to truthfully incarnate the "less active" female gender.
With regard to the position of women in the Republican Army, in fact, the gender divide was extreme until the 1980s hunger strikes and always positioned women as subordinate to and dependent on the all-male higher ranks. When in 1975 the IRA called a truce, its female members were not even consulted, and the women imprisoned at Armagh then compiled an official document asking for the recognition of their equal status in the IRA (Aretxaga 1997). In 1979 the Provo's attitude toward women was again far from egalitarian. On page one of Republican News of 9 February 1974, the legislation reform on contraceptives was harshly condemned. The following year, the Sinn Fein document entitled "Women in New Ireland" clearly stated that the party was "opposed to abortion" (qtd. in O' Brien 2005: 319-323).
Women in the IRA were mostly considered a secondary, supporting element of their husbands' and sons' cause, at maximum coming up with "a coded message 'Watch yourself, son,' saying the Brits were coming round the corner" (Taylor 1997: 150; Dowler 1998).
This sexual discrimination presumably was based on the macho superiority of the typical Provo, as constantly described and acclaimed in the Republican publications. Yet the reality of the IRA was different. When Patrick asks his friend Irwin if he can have pink glasses to become a revolutionary, he is actively ridiculing the ruthless and hypermasculine mask of the IRA volunteer, which hides groups of ill-trained militants with little experience and limited political understanding (Bell 2000: 13-22). Between 70 and 80 percent of the recruits were unskilled, unemployed workers, many of them illiterate. Thus they could embody and iconize the levels of impoverishment and social marginalization favoured by the widespread anti-Catholic discrimination.
This is why, when confronted with the IRA’s fake model of self-defined authentic Irish masculinity, Patrick's authentic queerness works as a destabilizing paradigm that reveals the fragility of this macho ideal. Patrick is not afraid of reacting to homophobic stigma — so similar to the anti-Catholic one at the basis of the IRA struggle — by taking an individual stand that negates patriarchal dictates. The macho model of the Irish Republican Army, on the other hand, vainly tries to react to Patrick's individual gender revolution by reinstating similar restrictive rules and binary oppositions inside its all-male army, created through an equally self-derived legitimation of power.
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1. I am referring specifically to both the reviews and articles published on McCabe's novel and Jordan's film adaptation like "Such Sweet Sweetness" by Geoffrey Mcnab (Mcnab 2006) and the long, commented interviews with the two authors, such as the one by John Maguire (Maguire 2005). The strictly literary critical contributions on the novel include only short references or suggested parallels to McCabe's previous novel, The Butcher Boy (1992) as the ones appearing in Alistair Davies's British Culture of the Postwar (Routledge, 2000). Beyond these limited critical resources, the novel has passed mostly unnoticed by academic scholars and has just started to be rediscovered after the success of its film adaptation.
2. Specifically the hot years of the seventies, including 1971, when Internment was introduced by the British government, allowing imprisonment of supposedly IRA rebels on the basis of pure suspicion; and 1972, when in Derry British paratroopers opened fire on civilians marching for Equal Civil Rights and killed fourteen people (an episode known as the Bloody Sunday). (Boyer Bell 1990 and 2000; Coogan 1993; English 2004; Kelley 1988; O'Brien 1995; and Taylor 1997)
3. The weekly journal of the Irish republican Movement, available online at http://republican-news.org/, more than ten years after the IRA official declaration of ceasefire on 31 August 1994.
4. As happened in Derry, when, on 30 January 1972, soldiers of the First Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, killed three unarmed civilians taking part in a peaceful anti-internment march (O'Brien 1995: 113-122).
5. See Taylor 1997 for a detailed description of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act and for a series of personal histories related to the consequences of that institutional position.
6. Voltaire's masterpiece is constantly referred to in the book reviews of Breakfast on Pluto, but often in a misleading way. On the one hand, the reference reduces Candide's attitude to a simple, childlike ingenuity, and does not consider the pragmatism expressed by the main character, at the end of his adventure, when he praises hard work as making life worthwhile. On the other, it also does not take into account the camp connotation of Patrick's reaction.
7. The camp matrix is easily identifiable in the taste for the excessive and for the carnivalesque masquerade that have distinguished all Patrick's in-drag fantasias since his childhood. However, an additional surreal value is granted by the tragic context of violence in which a similar reverie is manifested. The camp destabilization is therefore heightened by the concomitant delirium of physical threats to which the protagonist, being an Irish young man, is subjected from the beginning of the novel.
8. Or, rather than on his general nationality, on the specific citizenship of the main character, who had moved to London from one of those small villages on the borders that were the major producers of IRA rebels. This happened because such villages were the most likely theatres of urban guerrilla between the IRA, the British Army and the UNV.
9. If the IRA despised both sexual queerness and British nationality, the police officers here seems to apply a similar discriminatory method, focused on Patrick's transvestism on the one hand and on his Irishness on the other.
Sara Villa is a postdoctoral fellow in a joint program between the Center for Jazz Studies and the State University of Milan, where she received her PhD in 2008. She is the translator into Italian of Windblown World (Kerouac’s journals), and the editor of a forthcoming collection of Kerouac’s music writings. She is also the author of articles on Virginia Woolf, and on Anglo-American contemporary cinema. Her monograph on Woolf’s Orlando (I due Orlando: dal romanzo di Virginia Woolf all’adattamento cinematografico di Sally Potter/Two Orlandos: From Virginia Woolf’s Novel to Sally Potter’s Film Adaptation) was recently published by CUEM, Milan.
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