Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, published in 2005, while better known for its analysis of what it means to be human, presents a relevant commentary on the pervasiveness of heteronormativity and queer identity in the world today.
In Never Let Me Go, scientific advancements have made human clones a regular commodity. Some of these clones, or students, as they’re called, are brought up in boarding schools, cared for by Guardians who seek to show the world that they are, in fact, “human,” in all the ways that matter. Unfortunately, not everyone sees them that way, and upon graduation from school they are sent to the Cottages, where they await the time that they’ll be sent off to become carers, and then donors, which is soft terminology for having their organs removed until they’re dead for the sake of prolonging the lives of “real” people. Clones as a community are marginalized by the larger society, deemed by the state to be soulless vessels to be used and discarded. The horrific futility of their lives is distressing if only to the extent that we identify with it, which might be why Ishiguro’s book has made such an impact in the world of literature.
The students at Hailsham, the boarding school that the main character, Kathy, attends, are almost normal. Accompanied by Kathy’s grotesquely insipid narration, they attend class, play games, engage in the petty squabbling that gives life meaning, and follow the instructions of the elusive Guardians.
At Hailsham, students learn during Sex Ed that Normals procreate through sex, which is why it’s so important for them. The problem is that the students cannot have children, being clones, which is used as a device to further remove them from their own humanity by devaluing their sexuality. This is redolent of prejudices held against members of the queer community who cannot and/or do not procreate by means deemed “natural” by the still largely heteronormative society, labeling them as sexually deviant.
Interestingly enough, despite their own deviation from what is considered the norm in today’s society, the students have learned to marginalize same-sex relationships. Kathy explicitly acknowledges that Hailsham students weren’t fond of “gay stuff,” which is interesting both in its specificity and its blandness, emphasizing the speaker’s own discomfort in even thinking those words. The students term it as “umbrella sex” and people who take part in it as “umbrellas.” This in-group terminology is a clear attempt by the students to form a kinship with one another, even if it might mean the exclusion of the “other.” The use of the word umbrella is twofold in its meaning. It aids in dehumanization by referring to people as objects. It also creates an imbalance, as if there’s something inherently different about sex if it involves a certain type of non-heteronormative couple, just as Normals often do with the terms “gay sex” and “lesbian sex.”
This is not only reminiscent of the dominance of heteronormativity in current societal norms, but the erasure of certain queer experiences throughout time in favor of ones that are cis, white, affluent, and male. The students, who could be interpreted as non-heteronormative in their inability to procreate as they are thus unable to completely confine themselves to the patriarchal gender binary, only seem to be taught about sex as between a cis male and cis female. The only time any hint of relationships that fall outside these bounds is when Kathy says that some of the boys used to “do things” with each other before they “knew better”, and based on the latter part of that revelation, it’s evident that their natural tendencies were stifled by their upbringing.
While students become comfortable with the idea of using sex for pleasure, even as the female students walk a fine line between pleasure and shame, the lack of open discussion about queer identity and sexuality makes it taboo, to the point where relationships outside same-sex relationships aren’t even alluded to, let alone labeled as deviant. As such, they, who are themselves persecuted, engage in heteronormative culture even as they are necessarily devalued by it.
Maybe their passive engagement in a cycle of dehumanization in the hopes of finally feeling Normal might be more effective, rather than art or compassion, in proving just how desperately, tragically human the students of Hailsham really are.
What remains is the question of why? Why does it seem that each community seeks to expel a subset of their own? Why does perceived difference breed fear and alienation? Why does it seem that what unites every one of us is our capacity for hostility towards what we do not understand?
Never Let Me Go remains a view into a reality not unlike our own, at least in the ways that count, and a beacon shining the light on our own tenuous grasp on morality. Nonetheless, this parroting of perceived reality, whether it speaks to how we raise our kids or how we raise our clones, paints a clearer picture of the roots of prejudice and the path to letting it go.