Poem: Reasons I am still Angry (Women’s Suffrage Centenary) by Meredith Debonnaire

A very quick list-poem, written just this morning. It is rough!

  • Because 100 years is not a very long time.
  • Because of the pay gap.
  • Because of sexual harassment .
  • Because of that man who followed me home and stood outside my door and waited and waited and waited and I had never seen him before but it was my home and I was scared.
  • Because of no pockets on clothes.
  • Because of paying more for having no pockets on clothes.
  • Because holding hands with any of my girlfriends has always been an exercise in risk assessment.
  • Because period poverty.
  • Because statistically the person most likely to assault me is a man that I know and trust and am familiar with.
  • Because of Manic Pixie Dream Girls.
  • Because I am tired.
  • Because I do not want to do the damn washing up, or the sweeping, or the laundry.
  • Because of emotional labour.
  • Because of cuts to Refuges.
  • Because you can’t vote if you are homeless, or in prison, or if registering your address would put you in danger.
  • Because if you are a student moving between two places it is not easy to vote.
  • Because the voting system is broken and unfair.
  • Because naked women advertising kitchenware is normal.
  • Because I am a bitter angry person with so much to be angry about.
  • Because I am not very good at hope.
  • Because I live in fear of having my body invaded.
  • Because my body is already invaded.
  • Because we do not have a 100% reliable contraceptive, and abortion is still technically illegal.
  • Because strangers think it is ok to tell me how they think I should look.
  • Because politics is still playing out violently on bodies.
  • Because the first thing that most people will do when they see me is try to figure out if I am a man or a woman, and if they can’t tell easily I can expect at the very least pointed jokes.
  • Because of shaving armpits.
  • Because public spaces are not safe.
  • Because I am 26 and I get asked about my biological clock.
  • Because of jiggle physics.
  • Because I must be nice.
  • Because if I wrote this entire list out it would be three times the length of my body.
  • Because 
  • Because
  • Because…

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The Tearling Trilogy: a rambly and disorganised discussion

So, I recently finished reviewing this series. And it made me think a lot about stuff, so I wanted to do a very rambly discussion post. It’s gonna have spoilers, and may be a little bit incoherent if you’ve not read the books (I’ll try to make it understandable).

This series does a lot of things that I found really interesting. It also had its flaws (among other things, most of the cast are white, and although there are a few non-straight characters they have pretty small parts).

One of the things it did that made me go “yeeeees!” was that it created a realistic, brutal fantasy world in which things are kinda shit for women (“noooooooo!”) but it absolutely refused to sideline its female characters. And this for me was important. I get super sick of people building fantasy worlds with magic and dragons and freaking goblins and then being like “yeah but sexism is still totally a thing”. Aside from everything else, I think it speaks of a lack of imagination. So although the culture is rather similar to some kind of medieval Europe, including the church being not great, the main character is a woman. The main baddie is a woman. Some of the other baddies are women, and a lot of the important side-characters are women. This means that the patriarchal norms of the world get questioned and poked and prodded and challenged. And as a reader, you start thinking ‘well this is ridiculous’ when the most powerful woman in the country has to sneak about to get her hands on contraception.

It also had a culture based in medieval/feudalistic type reality, and did not flinch away from how awful that system was for most people. Which I tip my hat to, because again I get sick of fantasy where it’s assumed that having a monarchic system is going to be great – you’ve only got to read some history to figure out that no, for most people, that meant working your whole life for someone else who might take your entire livelihood away from you at any moment and nobody cared. I liked seeing that trope challenged.

And then there’s the long running theme of utopia and dystopia. This one will take a bit of background info, so beware the SPOILERS. The Tearling was founded by William Tear, who used magic sapphires to Cross time with a group of idealists trying to leave what is heavily implied to be a version of our world. The people who Crossed wanted to build, effectively, a Utopia. In the books they call it the Better World. And they try really hard, but they fail. William Tear failed to take into account human nature, and also, very importantly, history. None of the adults who Crossed could bear to talk about their history, about exactly what they escaped and what the price was. So the next generation grow up with no history, with no knowledge of the world that their parents fought so hard to escape from. And when things get hard in the Tearling, none of them know the dangers of handing over responsibility in return for safety…

Which leads to the Tearling in the present day: feudalistic, illiterate, with a barely functioning economy, a pretty awful monarchy that rarely cares about its people, a church that cares even less, and a monthly tithe to Mortmesne of slaves taken from its own population by lottery. Effectively, a dystopia. One that, somehow, Kelsea Glynn has to reforge. And she knows her damn history, which is pretty awesome. I really liked the way that it was made clear how important that can be, and that she was trying so hard to create something good with the odds stacked against her.

The ending SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS is really interesting in that Kelsea basically travels in time (and this is going to sound pretty deus ex machina when I describe it, but I promise it was actually foreshadowed really well) to the point in history when Jonathan Tear, William Tear’s son (one of them ooooooh) is assassinated. She does not stop the assassination, but kills the ringleader of the assassins leaving Katie (Jonathan’s bodyguard and lover) in a position to rebuild; originally, Katie fled. It’s actually an intensely terrifying sequence; one of the bits where the imagery has stuck in my mind and won’t leave.

And then Kelsea wakes up, in a new timeline, in the new version of the Tearling that she has created. And it is, if not a proper utopia, at least utopian.

Now originally I sorta felt cheated by this: even though it made absolute sense within the logic of the world, and it was made clear how much this was hurting Kelsea. Here she was in this incredible world that she had sacrificed everything for, and not only did nobody know what she had done, nobody knew full stop. Her memories are confused, none of her friends recall her. And it hurts and hurts and hurts. And part of me was going: “hang on, isn’t this a bit of a cop out? Almost like it all being a dream?”

And then I really thought about it. Why would it be more satisfying to have a harsher ending? Why, exactly, did I think I’d prefer something else? And I thought about how we’re trained to believe that utopia is impossible whereas dystopia is only ever just under the surface, so that even in a fantasy trilogy there was part of me that was reluctant to believe this ending. That was interesting, I thought, because I knew when I was reading it that utopia/dystopia was a massive theme of the entire trilogy, and although I always wanted Kelsea to succeed, somehow in winning as completely as she did I instinctively felt a bit disbelieving. Like, it’s not the time-travelling sapphires that tripped me up, it’s the ending well…So it gave me a lot to think about. Dystopian fiction is pretty popular, whereas trying to find anything utopian is a bit of a challenge. It’s like we simply can’t imagine it. It’s like how people can believe that there are dragons but not that women can have a functional role, or will read a fantasy novel a quarter of which is in a made-up language but throw a hissy fit if there’s some Spanish in there. We can believe that things can get worse, and we can believe that things can get better, but the best is somewhere hazy and beyond. And that, well, that’s interesting because if we can’t imagine something better, nobody’s going to try to build it are they?

Anyway, I have a hell of a lot more thoughts so please do come chat 🙂

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Book Review: Saints and Adventurers by Frances Gapper

saints and adventurers by frances gapper

On the day my brother died, when I was fourteen, a grey, wet, windy day in late August, my grandmother drowned the cat.

This is another one of the Women’s Press books that I’ve managed to get my hands on. It’s a story of grief, madness and menstruation; a work full of transformations. In many ways, it was very much of its time. And then again, the book was just full of characters that I recognised – people from my life who had snuck into the pages and were waving out at me.

It’s told by Jenny, who is growing up after her brother’s death. Her mother will not talk about her feelings, is a tightly controlled and deeply angry woman. And her grandmother is the opposite in so many ways; a Corsican wise-woman plying her trade in Surbiton. It’s a dizzying portrait of adolescence, of all the different ways to go mad. There are angels that turn up and cats that die and a father who simply has no idea and spends all his time writing a book about butterflies and emerging only when the tea runs out.

There are many moments when I laughed out loud. And many when I cried. Jenny’s best friend, Alicia, is starving herself and recites poetry backwards. Her mother retreats into a world she can control. Her grandmother drowns cats and fixes electrics and talks about blood and death and magic. Jenny’ sort-of boyfriend is endearing, in a hopeless way; his parents are Freudian psychoanalysts and tried to raise him to be normal (it backfired). And Jenny is lost and wandering, trying to grow up and not knowing how or what it means.

It’s a rich, rich work that spoke to me very deeply. It didn’t offer solutions or even take clear sides. Here was a family being a family, which is a much more complicated endeavour than most people think. There’s religion and sex and all the strange things that get thrown up during adolescence and a wry sense of humour that will suddenly turn in on itself, laughing at the notion of the book. Spirits and ghosts and humans. Basically, I really really enjoyed this book but it’s very hard to review!

Rating: read this book. Climb a hill and scream.

International Women’s Day – Day Without a Woman

Happy International Women’s Day!

I don’t have enough money to be able to afford to go on strike today (sadly), so here are just a few little things that I am doing:

  • Wearing RED in solidarity with striking women.
  • Also wearing BLACK in solidarity with strike4repeal.
  • Heading to a local women’s day event later.
  • Donating sanitary towels to homeless shelters via The Homeless Period.

It doesn’t feel like nearly enough in all honesty, but I cannot do everything.

Sending out big love to my all my fellow women, enbies and allies.

Book Review: Gaining Ground by Joan Barfoot

Photo on 2016-06-07 at 19.08 #2

My name is Abra.

On the one hand, this book was incredibly easy to read. Then again on the other hand, it was terrifyingly difficult. Gaining Ground is the story of Abra, a woman who left her family and everything she knew in order to live utterly alone and whose daughter Katie has now tracked her down to confront her.

Abra has no explanations to offer, no way of making Katie understand what she has done. Katie’s very presence draws Abra into memories that she thought she had left, swamping her at times. It is a fascinating study of mother-daughter relationships and of extremes.

Gaining Ground was easy to read because of the sparse simplicity – Joan Barfoot’s style is lucid and curt with an underlying warmth to it. The story is simple, at least on the surface. There are few narrative complexities, no unnecessary flourishes.

And then, it was also difficult to read. I recognised so much of myself in Katie and Abra – it was like watching my own internal conflicts played out by strangers. I understood, far more than I wanted to, Abra’s struggle to feel and to relate and to function. And I have often felt the desire to simply leave bubble up from somewhere deep inside me. And yet… I felt for Katie, I understood her rage and her pain and her abandonment, her inability to comprehend. That is a voice that I also have, on the inside.

This book, I think, is important. For anyone who has ever needed to be alone, and for anyone who has been left. It is a strange tale, and at times reality seemed to melt and memory failed. But it is also simple and therein lies the strength; simple like the edge of an axe, and cutting like one.

Having finished this book, I find myself oddly peaceful yet also full of an odd yearning for something that I cannot name but that I recognised in Abra’s cabin. An interesting, disturbing read.

Note: I promise we will get back to fantasy reviews! Eventually…

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream.

This book left me speechless. I rarely read non-fiction, but this memoir grabbed me by the heart and refused to let go. I must admit that, somewhere in the back of my mind, I have always thought of book-groups as being cozy (I’ve never been to one, although I have eavesdropped on a few in cafés). This memoir, related through the various forbidden texts read by Azar Nafisi’s students in Iran, is anything but.

It has a precise painfulness to it, even during the moments of joy (and there are many of those). The women that we meet are sharp, intelligent women with differing opinions and backgrounds. Women who are risking imprisonment or worse just to read, and to be in a space where they can have opinions. Where they can laugh. Where they can reveal that they paint their nails and that they have strong feelings about Nabokov.

I must admit to knowing very little about the revolution in Iran, or about Ayatollah Khomeini or the Shahs. In fact, I knew so little that I didn’t really have any preconceptions about Iranian women. If I had, they would surely have been shredded by Azar Nafisi’s honest and biting prose.

What was striking about this memoir was that the people were just that: people. They worried about love and children and rent, and they also worried about being bombed or arrested for immorality. The weight of the regime was present everywhere, and it was a weight that is hard for me to comprehend, and yet these women fight back in snatched moments – coffee drunk with a man to whom they are not related; poetry recited in prison cells; classic novels read in secret.

It was heartrending. I had to keep taking breaks because I felt claustrophobic. I realise that I am making this memoir sound appallingly depressing, which it is not. Yes, it is painful and hard, but there is hope. Hope, and resistance. And that is really the centre of this memoir: a group of ordinary people, who wish to do ordinary things and who are made rebels by circumstance.

Certainly worth reading, although I advise having tea and tissues to hand.

My reviews seem to be getting shorter and shorter at the moment! I hope that they are still enjoyable and useful.

Book Review: The Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearheart

 The Wanderground

Jacqua stood above the Eastern Esconcement gazing across the high meadow.

I recently inherited a number of excitingly feminist ’70s and ’80s works, among them this title, and have pretty much vanished from the world of human interaction since. I imagine there will be a few reviews of them up here, but I may well make a recommendation list just in case I don’t get around to all of them – they’re very good.

The Wanderground is an odd yet loveable book. I rarely read Utopian fiction, and I’m not 100% certain that it is the right classification for this work, but it’s how I would label it. This book is unique in many ways; for a start, it does not have a traditional plot structure. There is a conflict that requires resolution, but the book is more a palimpsest of experiences that layer over each other, only creating the finished picture when all is complete.

There are no main characters – many people recur throughout the book. Sometimes I lost track of them, and at first this worried me. Eventually I just relaxed into reading and trusted that I would remember anything that needed remembering. It was a bit like having water fall over my head.

The Wanderground is a strange vision of the world, a world in which the earth and the animals have risen up against patriarchy, and men can no longer survive outside cities. Women, those of them who are free, live out in the hills. They are rebuilding what it means to be women, to be human, to love and to live and it is fascinating. The time flickers back and forth, diving into memory at times. Everything seems malleable – reality itself is being reinvented. Everything from the way the women think to the way they travel is new and different, in a state of change and harmony with the surrounding world.

It’s a hard book to review, because I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before. There are so many ideas in it that interested me that I feel in danger of pontification. So I will just say that The Wanderground was slow, painful and joyful at turns. I was never quite sure what I thought of it, but I read it through to the end and felt it was time well spent. Some of the ideas feel dated now, however in a time when much fiction seems obsessed with increasingly dystopian worlds, it was refreshing to visit something more utopian and hopeful. A distinct, outlandish work that nevertheless succeeds both in its worldbuilding and its storytelling.

PS I could not find a good cover image, and so had to make do with a photo of my copy instead.

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