In Last Night at the Telegraph Club, a Chinese American teenage girl comes to terms with her sexuality, identity, and how others see her. She has to struggle with society's perceptions of the nuances of her identity while keeping her and her family safe. When Lily kisses Kath for the first time, she realizes that she should feel ashamed but can only focus on her happiness. This defiance of shame further shapes Lily's character and lets her grow as a person. Lily changes from the pushover from the beginning of the book and can revel in the freedom she has in the small spaces of her life.
Kath and Lily’s first kiss stems from a moment of insecurity and uncertainty. Lily is very new to the whole relationship, not just having a relationship, but having a romantic or sexual identity. Being a lesbian is new territory with a new set of rules and customs that have been purposefully hidden and suppressed for safety reasons. When Lily asks Kath if she imagines their connection, implying that Lily is not her type, Kath steps in an ultimate romance novel way, cutting Lily off with a kiss. Lo focuses on detailing the senses for Lily. Lily does not focus on her internal feelings but on the senses that come with an event. Lo writes, “Lily could feel the warmth of Kath’s body radiating off her, smell the traces of cigarette smoke and beer on her breath, along with a new fragrance she didn’t recognize, something clean and bright. It made Lily’s skin tingle” (Lo, 264).
The senses Lo describes are directly attributed to The Telegraph Club and their time in it. Kathleen is not only a woman that Lily is falling in love with, but the embodiment of her newfound identity and the experiences that lead her there. Without Kath, Lily may never have come to terms with her sexuality. Lily takes note of the smells and tastes, like something she needs to hold on to. She relishes in these trace bits of vices, things that her mother would not approve of, as small rebellions that she can hold onto. There is uncertainty but steadiness.
Lo writes the scene between Kath and Lily as Lil’s description of Kath and their actions, but Kath does not get to describe her side of the situation. Kath is the more “experienced” in sexuality between the two of them, so Lily's narrative fits the coming of age aspect more as Kath is more grounded in her identity, as she does not have to fear the same repercussions as Lily. Lily is hungry for this interaction as someone who has never experienced it before. Lo writes, “She didn’t know how long they kissed—not long enough—but at one point Kath drew back to take a breath, and Lily opened her eyes and saw to her right the dim glow of the street beyond their dark alley” (265).
However, she still recognizes the societal repercussions of her actions. Lo writes, “She realized with a start what she was doing and where she was doing it and whom she was doing it with,” as if her mind finally realized what she was up to and what it could mean. Until this kiss, Lily had been unsure of Kath’s and her intentions toward Kath. This is the first part of a sentence that is relatively long. Lo uses multiple commas to keep the sentence going instead of breaking up the sentence into more statements that would cause the reading to be choppy. Keeping the sentence long and flowing gives the reader the idea of Lily’s thoughts being rushed and strung together rather than thinking through each thought. Her mind is still stringing the moment together, and we are reading it in real-time.
Lily is lost in the moment. Kathleen and the Telegraph Club have enabled Lily to become the person she never thought she could be, but she still knows this must be a secret to her community, family, and friends. Lo finishes the above sentence with, “and she knew she should feel ashamed, but all she felt was the heaving of Kath’s chest against hers, and the tenderness of her lips where Kath had kissed her”(265). Kathleen is a grounding presence for Lily, drawing her back into the reality she is in. While she knows she should be ashamed, her thoughts are silenced because there is only here and now for Kathleen and Lily as queer teenagers who could be accosted for this sort of behavior at any moment. There is physicality in the way Lo describes Lily’s thoughts on Kathleen. Everything is for and about Kath in the second part of the quote.
Kath is the central grounding in the novel, being the catalyst for Lily’s eventual awakening. She is all that matters to Lily in the moments when they can steal away at night. Lily is safe with Kath but also reckless when she is with her. She does not have to feel shame, fear, or worry with Kath. The kiss is the first bit of being herself she was allowed to have. Lo proves this by explaining Lily’s feelings when she is with Kath and how it connects emotionally.
About the Creator
Hello! I am one semester away from graduating with my English BA. I work as an informal STEM Educator and Writing Tutor. I like to write and get my thoughts out in my essays and short stories. Stay tuned :)
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