Update from a Neglectful Writer

Things have been exciting lately – lots of work on a couple of key projects which I’ve fallen in love with since, oh, about this time last October. I am still reading a lot, devouring books weekly, but I haven’t been writing down my thoughts on them, which makes me feel rather more gourmand than gourmet. Can one get mental indigestion from an unalloyed diet of fiction? Perhaps. Which is why I have been peppering my diet with denser, shorter, non-fiction reading material.
So I will share a couple of articles and one novella I have read recently. Not books, true, but really resonating articles freely available on the web. After this, I shall retreat back into my wombat hole, and keep working away steadily at these mysterious Somethings, which I hope to share with you all soon.
1. Wired Magazine “Now is the Greatest Time to Be Alive” – by President Barack Obama, guest editor
This essay actually made me tear up a bit while I was reading it. Not to the point of crying (that would be melodramatic), but to the point of taking a moment to blink really hard every few lines from the effects of throat-tightening emotion. I know that Obama has left some pretty massive human rights issues in his wake (understatement – Guantanamo Bay is still operating, NSA spying etc), but he also has really tried improve lives through initiatives like universal health insurance, attempting to address the US’s hideous gun culture through tighter controls (a tragic fact of life is that it is easier to buy a gun than it is to procure an abortion), and encouraging us to recognise equally important needs for parenting by making it mandatory that men’s and women’s toilets should all have baby changing stations in government restrooms.
Obama’s ‘Editorial’ is optimistic, and far-reaching. It first encourages us to look at now: lower crime rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, and lower poverty rates (in America). Increasing life expectancy, increased numbers of people obtaining tertiary education and slowly increasing diversity in many spheres. Obama then expands this improved world – this one, today – to the rest of human society, and it’s heartwarming. It’s so easy to get battered down by the constant stream of negative news media, so having a political figure start by building us as readers up? Revolutionary.
Once he has your heart beating faster (and maybe the first hint of moisture in a stoic eye), Obama then urges us to look forward. Look at the big picture. Keep organising and voting for better prospects, keep opening yourself up to new perspectives. Science has been making each generation better to live in than the last one, so keep working on scientific progress! Society is always in need of improving, so keep protesting, keep making life uncomfortable for the status quo which relies on disenfranchising others! I loved it, and reading this essay was the key factor in my subsequent subscription to Wired magazine, so that I could see just how Obama’s vision unfolds throughout the issue (Answer: enjoyably).
“That’s how we will overcome the challenges we face: by unleashing the power of all of us for all of us. Not just for those of us who are fortunate, but for everybody.”
2. Peace and Freedom Magazine, 1989, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” – Peggy McIntosh
Privilege is a fairly commonly recognised term nowadays – along with the phrase “Check your privilege.” But what’s it mean?
While we tend to examine an -ism (race/sex/religion/ability) in the light of how it discriminates against other people or ourselves, there is a tendency towards blindness in recognising that the absent advantage caused by discrimination doesn’t vanish: as a corollary to the act of discriminating against a person or persons, these advantages are accrued by those not subject to the prejudice. If it were a boardgame, you as subject to an -ism would receive, say, -5 points at starting. And I, as exempt from this specific -ism, would receive those points as +5. I might lose advantage points due to other -isms, but the more -isms a person could be subject to, the greater cumulative effect of discrimination. Soon, you might be starting the game not with 5 points instead of 10, but with -5, or -10.
It is a notion that we are incredibly resistant to: I see it when speaking with men about feminism. I see it in myself when talking to people of different racial backgrounds about racism. There is a willingness to agree with the obvious disadvantages of an -ism, but not to accept that corollary of privilege and the moral accountability that comes with recognising it. To accept one’s privilege feels like an admission of guilt by implication, because I am unfairly benefiting from an ongoing social construct that came into effect generations before I was born. Just as others are being punished by it.
Peggy McIntosh began questioning how men could agree that women were disadvantaged, but not accept their relative privilege in discussions of feminism. And then she began questioning what privilege she might be benefitting from, that she might be unable to see or accept.
Some of the list of privileges McIntosh describes in her essay can be definitely considered more as the privileges conferred by classism than racism, as Gina Crosley-Corcoran discusses in her article “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person”. Intersectionality recognises that people can be privileged in some ways, but not privileged in others. It is not an ultimate decider of net loss or gain, so much as a means of recognising how one benefits from an entrenched system of advantage based on an -ism.
“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”
3. Mask Magazine “Sick Woman Theory” – Johanna Hedva
I have been keeping this one close to my chest for a while, which is rather antisocial behaviour given that it regards a gem of an article that should be shared as widely as possible. It lives in an open page on my phone, and I flick to it whenever I want to have a thought-provoking read. I can only apologise for not sharing it earlier, in case you have not yet encountered Hedva’s essay.
“Sick Woman Theory” explores chronic illness in the framework of protest for social change, and how the traditional Arendtian definition of the political, being actions performed in public, by definition excludes those who are unable to access the public sphere to make political actions.
Hedva goes on to explore the white and wealthy definition of wellness in America today, where invisibility in the waiting room may be due to gender, but never to race, linked back again to the politics of public: who is allowed to be visible here? Who is subjected to the trauma of not being seen? She compares a white woman’s treatment in the emergency room being subjected to long waits for serious illness, to that of Kam Brooks, a black woman arrested and forcibly detained for eight days in a psychiatric ward for behaving “too emotionally” when coming to collect her car, which had been impounded by police without evidence of wrong-doing.
It is an incredible article, and continues on and on in excellence, in a perfection of social criticism which seeks to validate the experiences of those who are enduring unbearable realities, who cannot make their bodies public and therefore political statements, who live with the criticism of their existence by the dominant social and political processes. Sick Woman Theory is for those whose existence the Western capitalist system deems illegitimate and invisible, either through their physical vulnerability, through being unable to work, or reproduce, or consume and fuel others’ employment. Go, read it.
“[A]s I lay there, unable to march, hold up a sign, shout a slogan that would be heard, or be visible in any traditional capacity as a political being, the central question of Sick Woman Theory formed: How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?”
4. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A novella by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper charts the slow descent into insanity of the main character, whose loving doctor husband has decided the best cure for her nervous depression is relaxation (isolation) in a low-stimulation environment (she is neither allowed to write, paint, sketch or answer letters) out in the country, in a room high up in the estate they have rented: an old nursery with vilely patterned yellow wallpaper. At first she treats his overbearing instructions with good humour, lamenting the lack of stimulus and the terrible decorations in their temporary home. But as her incarceration continues, the yellow wallpaper begins to prey more and more upon her vulnerable mind… A classic short story, which drags the reader down with it into defiant madness.
Find it: as a free download on amazon.com, or on Gutenberg.
“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do?”
“I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”
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The Female Man – Joanna Russ

The Female Man – Joanna Russ

The Female Man

A brilliant novel, in the sink-or-swim school of storytelling (a lack of exposition akin to Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series), which I find invigorating. Don’t let that description daunt you: the explanations will come, in time, unfolding organically from the subject matter of character interactions. The Female Man stretches across four parallel worlds, and the lives of four women living within them. When Janet Evason, ambassador of Whileaway, begins crossing between the worlds, comparing the varying gender roles and experiences of the different women cause them each to reevaluate their own lives, and their implicit notions of what it means to be a “woman” (a person, really).

A Quick Primer on the Four J’s:

  1. Joanna – lives in a world similar to that of the 1970’s Western culture.
  2. Jeannine Dadier – lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended.
  3. Janet Evason – lives in Whileaway, a high-tech utopian-agrarian society of the far future, where all men have been dead for nearly a millennia following a devastating plague. The inhabitants have mastered parthenogenesis.
  4. Jael – an employee of the Bureau of Comparative Ethnology, which studies parallel universes and people’s counterparts throughout them.

The novel opens as Janet suddenly arrives in Jeannine Dadier’s world – a grim place where the Second World War never took place, and the Great Depression is still ongoing. Janet takes Jeannine with her to Joanna’s 70’s-era Earth type world; they are all a little in awe of Janet, who is as capable and forthright as the men they have been taught to admire, but not to emulate. She also distresses them, by behaving in outlandish ways, and failing to adhere to the social niceties of their cultures.

Eventually we discover that the three women have been brought together by Jael, who declares that the four J’s are the same woman, but in differing universes. Jael’s world is in the midst of a 40-year-long war between male and female societies; it becomes apparent that she is an assassin, and her chief aim in uniting the women is to create power bases in each of their worlds to continue the fight between genders across the universes.

 

The novel is a confusing mish-mash of the four characters’ stories, some occurring while in company with the other J’s, others taking place in the past, or whilst alone in their worlds. The reader is whirled from one place to another, with the suffocating dysphoria of Jeannine’s Great Depression society a threatening undertone which maintains suspense.

The idyllic life on Whileaway – spent in hard agrarian labour in a high-tech world, pausing for five years after turning thirty in which to give birth and pursue one’s own interests for the first time since childhood – becomes a paradise the reader longs to read more of, if only to escape from Jeannine’s dreariness, Jael’s ruthless cynicism and Joanna’s personal conflict. Whileaway is not only interesting as a vignette: the existence of a successful and highly functional female society addressed Russ’ desire to create a world where the female human being exists as the measure of humanity itself, as opposed to being the exception (as expressed by Simone de Beavoir, the female is often the insufficient and mysterious Other in a masculine-centered universe).

 

Overall, I believe The Female Man to be an examination of how people deal with conflict, and the manipulation that societies and cultures use to force obedience. It is also incredibly entertaining, and an invaluable read for anyone who has been told that they cannot act a certain way, or be a certain person, because of who they are. It is infuriating, invigorating and cathartic, and I cannot recommend it highly enough – just stick to it, through the initial confusion. You will be rewarded.

“If Jack succeeds in forgetting something, this is of little use if Jill continues to remind him of it. He must induce her not to do so. The safest way would be not just to make her keep quiet about it, but to induce her to forget it also.

Jack may act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for ‘bringing it up’. He may invalidate her experience. This can be done more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: ‘It’s all in your imagination.’ Further still, he can invalidate the content: ‘It never happened that way.’ Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality, and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and make her feel guilty for doing so into the bargain.

This is not unusual.”

R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience

 

K.L gives The Female Man 5 out of 5 dimension-hopping genius farmers.

 

 

SPOILER ALERT! DANGEROUS WORDS AHEAD!

“When Laura tried to find out who she was, they told her she was ‘different’ and that’s a hell of a description on which to base your life; it comes down to either ‘Not-me’ or ‘Convenient-for me’ and what is one supposed to do with that?”

I was sitting in the lunchroom at work, reading The Female Man: specifically, the section about Laura’s inexpert seduction of Janet Evason (who sees it coming and really, really tries to be good, the age difference being a taboo on her planet, but not enough of one to stop her), after the running dialogue/recollections of her life, all the social injustice of it, the man-centric, Depression Era rot, where woman is an appendage, not a person…

…And this phrase grew like a soap-bubble and burst, setting my brain spinning while I sat at the table, trying not to stare light-headedly at my coworker Sue, who was by chance sitting opposite and would not understand if I were to try and explain it to her. The phrase was:

We all deserve to be people.

What inspired this soap bubble of thought? In answer, I must paraphrase a character’s declaration in The Female Man, which reads, “When I act like a person, people ask me, ‘Why are you being so emotional?’ ”