Sep 22, 2014

A Visit to the Dodecanese, part one: Rhodes

Time for another let’s-pretend-this-is-a-travel-blog post (sorry!): last week I was on holiday in the Greek islands of Rhodes and Symi, where I had the most wonderful time. The only literary connection I can make here is that I was raised on a heavy diet of Greek mythology, and the Ancient World looms very large on my imagination — I always like to see where stories I care about come from, and it’s more exciting than I can say to visit places whose names I’ve known for so long. However, I know next to nothing about contemporary Greek literature, and the trip sprung up on me before I had the chance to investigate. Suggestions, anyone?

Rhodes was an excellent match for my interests: it combines beautiful beaches with lots of opportunities for historical sightseeing. As much as I love the sea, my ideal holiday is one where I get to spend half my time lounging and reading on the beach and the other half exploring — and here I had the chance to do just that. The Old Town of Rhodes is a World Heritage Site and the oldest continually inhabited medieval town in Europe; plus the island is full of monuments from different historical periods: Ancient, Byzantine, Knights of Saint John, and Ottoman.

Also, there were a lot of cats — so many that I went from delighted to see them to worried about them (well, I never stopped being delighted, but you know). Some obviously belonged to the houses on those doorsteps they were sleeping; others not so. I wanted to bring half of them home.
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Sep 15, 2014

Reading Notes: One Crazy Summer, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, Inside Out and Back Again

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, 19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

A More Diverse Universe 2014 logo
Today I bring you a special A More Diverse Universe edition of Reading Notes: the following are all excellent books by women of colour that I’d like to draw your attention to. Coincidently, two of them are also Newbery Honor Books, and all three are National Book Award finalists or winners — a reminder that these are awards I should probably keep an eye on.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia: This wonderful historical novel is set in 1968, a key year in the Civil Rights Movement, and it tells the story of three sisters — Delphine, Vonetta and Fern — who travel to Oakland to spend time with their estranged mother. Their mother, Cecile, left Brooklyn when the youngest of the three sisters was a baby, and became an artist and Black Panther activist in California. There are many reasons why One Crazy Summer is brilliant, but the main one is that it acknowledges both the validity of Cecile’s choices and the legitimacy of Delphine’s feelings of abandonment, thus allowing a complicated and multifaceted truth to emerge. This is pretty much my favourite thing for fiction to do, so chances I wasn’t going to love it were slim.

My second contribution to Diversiverse will hopefully be a discussion of this novel’s sequel, PS: Be Eleven, and I’ll get into what makes William-Garcia’s writing so great in more detail then. Suffice to say for now that both One Crazy Summer and PS: Be Eleven were reminders of why I have so little patience for “children’s literature is simplistic” type arguments. These novels are historically rich, but in a way that never weighs down the narrative; they’re politically engaged in subtle but effective ways; they’re consistently nuanced; they challenge simplistic narratives about the everyday reality of fighting for racial and gender equality; and they’re immensely fun to read.

A bit I especially liked:
It wasn’t at all the way television showed militants—that’s what they called the Black Panthers. Militants, who from the newspapers were angry first wavers with their mouths wide open and their riffles ready for shooting. They never showed anyone like Sister Mukumbu or Sister Pat, passing out toast and teaching in classrooms.
For more on this novel, read Jodie’s excellent review at Lady Business.

19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye
19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye: Unlike Inside Out and Back Again, which I discuss below, 19 Varieties of Gazelle is not a novel in verse — but all the same there’s a clear narrative thread to these poems. Put together they tell a story of everyday life in Palestine, and humanise people we’re trained to think of as a faceless collective. I love what Shihab Nye says in her introduction:
Poetry slows us down, cherishes small details. A large disaster erases those details. We need poetry for nourishing and for noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortably into experience, holding and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name.
The details are what makes 19 Varieties of Gazelle such a vivid and moving collection. Take, for example, these lines from “The Palestinians Have Given Up Parties”:
The bombs break everyone’s
sentences in half.
Who made them? Do you know anyone
who makes them?
The ancient taxi driver
shakes his head back and forth
from Jerusalem to Jericho.
They will not see, he says slowly,
the story behind the story,
they are always looking for the story after the story
which means they will never understand the story.

Which means it will go on and on.
...Or the short poem “The Tray”:
Even on a sorrowing day
the little white cups without handles
would appear
filled with steaming hot tea
in a circle on the tray,
and whatever we were able
to say or not say,
the tray would be passed,
we would sip in silence,
it was another way
lips could be speaking together,
opening on the hot rim,
swallowing in unison.
As I said back when I got this book, I had high expectations due to Shihab Nye’s poem “Gate A-4”. I’m happy to report I wasn’t in the least let down.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai: Lastly, we have a historical novel in verse about ten-year-old Hà, who moves from Vietnam to Alabama in the 1970s, during the Vietnam War. The novel is divided into four sections: the first focuses on Hà’s life before the fall of Saigon; the second on her family’s long boat journey to America; the third on their lives in Alabama, where Hà faces racist bullying at school, struggles to adjust to her new environment, and slow begins to feel at home in her new life; and the fourth and final one looks towards the future.

Inside Out and Back Again is a quick read, but Lai manages to make Hà’s world feel fully realised. Through a series of key scenes and small but meaningful details, we get to know the emotional reality behind Hà’s experiences: her feelings about the home she leaves behind, her adjustment to the loss of her father, her struggles with the English language, what it feels like to go from the brightest student in her class to someone who’s routinely condescended to, etc. Lai combines humour and sadness to tell the story of a young girl’s transition to a new life.

I liked the following scene, where for the first time Hà tells an adult (her neighbour Miss Washington) about the bullying she’s had to endure at school. By then she’s had reasons to begin to suspect that well-meaning adults are not necessarily infinitely powerful, but there’s still relief in knowing she doesn’t have to face this alone.
How can I explain
dragonflies do summersaults
in my stomach
whenever I think of
the noisy room
full of mouths
chewing and laughing?

I’m still translating
when her eyes get red.

I’ll pack you a lunch
and you can eat at your desk.

No eat in class.

I’ll fix that.
Things will get better
just you wait.

I don’t believe her
but it feels good
that someone knows.
(Have you read any of these books? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

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Sep 3, 2014

Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny

Unspeakable Things by Laurie PennyUnspeakable Things by Laurie Penny

This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine.
Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution collects some of her best writing on feminism, politics, activism, and economic inequality. The book is divided into five chapters: Fucked-Up Girls, which covers body image, eating disorders, and the experience of struggling with the confines of stereotypical gender roles; Lost Boys, which interrogates masculinity; Anticlimax, which deals with sexuality; Cybersexism, which is about online abuse; and Love and Lies, in which Penny discusses her own struggles with heteronormativity.

Some parts of Unspeakable Things were familiar to me from following Penny’s writing online, but it was interesting to see how even the pieces I knew added to a new whole in the context of the book. I think this approach worked better than a traditional essay collection would have: the chapters were fairly long, but that meant there was room to dig deeper, form more nuanced arguments, and explore the same theme from different angles.

Reading this book helped me in much the same way as reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist did. They’re both books I needed, and that made me glad that 2014 is turning out to be such a good year for incisive and galvanising feminist writing. The excerpt I quoted above touches on some of the same ideas as this recent Kameron Hurley essay: stories (be they fiction or cultural narratives) can confine us or set us free, and we do have the power to change the ones we tell about ourselves and about each other. We can conceive of new possibilities, and that means we can strive to make them true.

One thing I’ve always admired about Laurie Penny’s writing is how it highlights the links between feminist concerns and widespread economic inequality. I like how far she goes when it comes to questioning injustice, and I like that Unspeakable Things is not a how-to-play-the-system-to-your-individual-advantage sort of book. In Penny’s own words,
Nor is this yet another guidebook for navigating the treacherous machine of patriarchy when what we should be doing is smashing the machine and quitting the factory with as many of our loved ones as we can grab. The world doesn’t need another handbook for how to submit with dignity to a world that wants you to hate yourself.
What this amounts to concretely is a focus that’s consistently systemic. This isn’t to say that the individual damages oppressive social systems cause aren’t real or worth tending to; only that I always find reminders that a lot of my hurts happen in a context, and that you can’t strive for real change on your own, immensely useful. To quote from the book again,
We were taught, all of us, that if we were dissatisfied, it was our fault, or the fault of those closest to us. We were built wrong, somehow. We had failed to adjust. If we showed any sort of distress, we probably needed to be medicated or incarcerated, depending on our social status. There are supposed to be so structural problems, just individual maladaption.
I know this, yet as I said I could still do with daily reminders. It’s much too easy to slide back into thinking that the problem is you, and too much of my daily energy is devoted to preventing this from happening.

I don’t have much else to say, which is mostly a measure of how close to my heart Unspeakable Things is. The fact that feminism is not a monolith means that most of the time, when I read feminist books, I find them useful but also argue with them a bit in my head, or at the very least go “yes, but” at them. This is by no means a bad thing, but Unspeakable Things was more of an exercise in going “yes and yes and yes”, and as much as I find “yes, but” useful sometimes I really need that. That doesn’t mean the book is perfect or that it goes as far as it’s humanly possible for feminism to go, but for me it was the right book at the right time.

As I mentioned before, this was my LonCon book, and I found echoes of what I was reading everywhere I looked — a reminder of how much of what Laurie Penny discusses is relevant to my life. Reading her words was like balm for the heart: coming across such a clear articulation of systemic issues of sexism and oppression is angering, but in an energising sort of way. Her writing gives me hope in much the same way as Cory Doctorow’s does. To paraphrase something Patrick Ness is always saying, you’re more likely to accept hope when it comes from someone who tells you the truth about how bad things really are. We live in a broken world, but there’s comfort in knowing that people who draw attention to the cracks for a living don’t think it’s beyond repair.

I realise that going “my heart needed these words” in a loop doesn’t necessarily make for a useful or meaningful review, but I still wanted to make you aware that Unspeakable Things is out there and is a wonderful read. Thank you for bearing with me as I do so.

More bits I liked:
Of all the female sins, hunger is the least forgivable; hunger for anything, for food, sex, power, education, even love. If we have desires, we are expected to conceal them, to control them, to keep ourselves in check. We are supposed to be objects of desire, not desiring beings.

…and so we start to stifle our speech with apologies, caveats and soothing sounds. We reassure our friends and loved ones that of course, you’re not one of those dudes. You’re not one of those racists, or those homophobes, or those men who hate women.
What we don’t say is: of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, and men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. We aren’t judging you for who you are, but that doesn’t mean we’re not asking you to change your behaviour. What you feel about women in your heart is of less immediate importance than how you treat them on a daily basis. You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world and still benefit from sexist, still hesitate to speak up when you see women hurt and discriminated against. That’s how oppression works. Thousands of otherwise decent people are persuaded to go along with an unfair system because changing it seems like too much bother.

Here’s what I’d like to say to those men. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay not to know what you’re supposed to be, or how you’re supposed to behave. You’re not allowed to question what it means to be a man, or even raise the possibility that there might be a question to ask, because if you did, if anyone did, then we might get answers. We might discover that what we all like to think of as ‘masculinity’ is in fact a front, that ‘masculinity’ is actually fragile, and vulnerable, and hurting, and nothing more than human.

I wrote to survive, but I learned how to be a writer online, and so did millions of other women all over the world. And not just how to write, but how to speak and listen, how to understand my own experience and raise my voice. I educated myself online. Grew up online. And on blogs and journal and, later, in the pages of digital magazines, I discovered that I wasn’t the only pissed-off girl out there. The Internet made misogyny routine and sexual bullying easy, but first it did something else. It gave women, girls and queer people space to speak to each other without limits, across borders, sharing stories and changing our reality.
(Have you read this too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

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Aug 28, 2014

I Do This to Myself: On Dollhouse

Dollhouse sleeping units

I Do This to Myself: On Dollhouse
A possible alternate title for this post would be, “Dollhouse: It's Even More Complicated than Bunheads”. My experience with this series provided a definitive answer to the question, “What’s more frustrating: a series with a horrible beginning that mostly manages to right its course, or one that starts out very promising, develops well, and then delivers an absolute trainwreck of an ending?” The former might drive people away, but the latter is a guaranteed recipe for heartbreak and deafening screams of frustration.

It’s a bit of an understatement, then, to say that my feelings on Dollhouse are tangled. If any of you were to ask me, my fellow story loving friends, “But really, how did you like it?”, I wouldn’t know how to answer. I admired its premise and ambition; I found it, at its best, remarkably smart; I wished these moments came more often; I thought that when it failed, it mostly did so in interesting ways; I felt, all the same, that it often bit more than it could chew; I’m glad to have watched it; and I’m never, ever, ever going to stop being furious about the ending.

Dollhouse: Echo, Topher and Boyd

The main reason why I decided to watch Dollhouse was this Sady Doyle post, in which she called it Whedon’s smartest and most complex work to date and said:
The Dollhouse is a giant metaphor, not only for rape culture, but for patriarchy and oppression at large: even the boy dolls are girls, stripped of agency or access to power and cast in pre-defined roles to fulfill the fantasies of the folks who are actually in charge. When they have sex, they aren’t consenting – they’ve been made to think that they are consenting, by being made to think that they are the people who would consent to such things. They exist either in a state of infantilization and non-personhood (in which they are “cared for” by people who have a vested interest in continuing to use them) or implanted with false consciousness in which they are not aware of what’s being done to them. I mean, false consciousness: Whedon’s metaphors, they are rarely subtle. Their reactions to learning this, when they “wake up” (which Whedon has shown them doing, albeit briefly) are horror, disgust, and rage at how deeply they’ve been violated.
(My other reason was: Amy Acker, Summer Glau, Eliza Dushku. I just really like their faces, okay?)

For those of you not familiar with the series, the premise of Dollhouse is the following: a multinational company, the Rossum Corporation, has developed a technology that allows human bodies to be implanted with perfectly designed AI personalities. Having immediately spotted an opportunity for profit, they create a series of underground establishments, the Dollhouses, that program individuals (technically volunteers, but all the ones we get to know turn out to have joined in circumstances where their options were severely limited) and send them out in “engagements” with very wealthy customers. Many of these engagements are sexual in nature, and upon their return the Dolls, or Actives, are wiped of their temporary personalities and of any recollection of what has happened to them. Dollhouse follows the LA branch of this organisation, and a particular Active, Echo, as she moves towards self-awareness.

Dollhouse: Echo and Sierra
There’s nothing about this premise that is not creepy, and I agree with Doyle that this is very much deliberate. I also absolutely agree that this is a show about consent; about how rape culture gets inside your head; about how you need constant attention and care to avoid being complicit in a system that’s ever-present — and even then, sometimes you will fail. I’m happy, up to a point, to read the Dollhouse as a metaphor for rape culture and oppression, but I also think this metaphor gets tricky when the symbol and what it stands for begin to overlap.

Let me use an example to explain what I mean: when Sierra/Priya’s backstory is revealed, we learn that she was forced into the Dollhouse by a man who wanted to get back at her for rejecting his sexual advances. Nolan is a horrifying character: when Priya turns him down, he has her drugged, declared schizophrenic by less than scrupulous doctors, and then recruited to the Dollhouse under the guise of “helping” her. Once she becomes the active Sierra, Nolan regularly requests her services and finally gets to have sex with the body he lusted after. The series unambiguously frames this as rape, which is of course what it is, and eventually Nolan comes to a gory but narratively satisfying end.

This storyline, however, raises a question: Nolan was horrifying, but why was he singled out as a rapist when everyone who has sex with an Active is in fact guilty of rape? As Doyle says in her essay, the Actives are incapable of meaningful informed consent, because the consent they give when implanted is a direct result of their programming and they remain unaware of this fact. The contrast between Nolan and everyone else, including characters we’re meant to root for, is as jarring as it is artificial, and it exposes many hypocrisies and blind spots.

Of course, you can argue that this is exactly what the writers were aiming for — and as I said above, I think that at its best Dollhouse is smart enough that this is a possibility I’m willing to consider seriously. But I’m far less interested in discussing intent than I am in discussing effectiveness, and I’m of two minds about the latter. Accepting and even admiring what Dollhouse leaves unsaid requires me to balance, on the one hand, my personal preference for stories that approach their themes with a light touch and make use of subtlety, with on the other hand my knowledge that in order to work effectively, these stories require a degree of social consensus about their themes that may be greater than what we actually have.

This is something I’ve tried and failed to write about in the past, but to return to an old example, the silences and implications in “The Lottery” work because no one seriously pretends that murder (the murder of white people, that is) is not horrific. The same is not true of sexual assault, and that often makes me wish for clearer narrative pointers despite my aforementioned personal preferences.

Dollhouse full cast

Likewise, I had mixed feelings about Dollhouse’s approach to its characters’ varying degrees of complicity in the horrors it portrays. I got what it was going for, and I liked it in theory — but. But. Over the past few years I’ve followed numerous discussions online centred on male anti-heroes, or otherwise morally compromised male main characters, and the space they occupy in our culture; being aware that these narratives form a pattern when put together inevitably affects how I respond to each individual one. In theory I do like characters who come in shades of grey — I appreciate the acknowledgement that people are messy; that most of us do benefit from and contribute to oppressive social systems; that it’s pretty much impossible to live in a world where dehumanising attitudes are pervasive without interiorising some of them. And yet it grates to know these types of characters are predominantly male, because we respond very differently to contradictions and complications in a woman.

Dollhouse: Bennett Halverson

I suppose it’s exhaustion more than not thinking they serve interesting narrative purposes that leaves me with such limited emotional availability for characters like Topher Binks and Paul Ballard. Topher Binks is the tech genius behind the LA Dollhouse. He embodies the very worst of geek misogyny, and then slowly (too slowly?) develops a conscience and an awareness of the humanity of the women around him. (The series, by the way, is a scientific cautionary tale, and unfortunately there’s no equivalent to Orphan Black’s Cosima to introduce some nuance to this aspect of the narrative.) Paul Ballard is an FBI agent investigating the Dollhouse who eventually comes to believe it’s better to help Echo defeat it from the inside. Again, an interesting idea with clear metaphorical resonance (you cannot escape the patriarchy; you can only help dismantle it while living immersed in it) — but Paul has sex with Millie after learning she’s a Doll, and I found it hard to make room in my heart for yet one more ethically dubious man.

But it’s time to give credit where credit is due: Dollhouse gave us characters like Adelle DeWitt, Bennett Halverson, Claire Saunders (though there turns out to be more to her story than meets the eye), and even Caroline herself — complicated women all of them. I enjoyed them immensely, and I’m grateful that they allowed me to engage with the themes of complicity, of varying degrees and different forms of subversion, and of just how much it takes to dismantle systems you profit from, without the baggage of exhaustion and oversaturation I couldn’t help but associate with the men.

I kind of wish Topher Binks and Bennett Halverson could have exchanged places: Bennett would be the brilliant LA programmer around for the duration of the series, and Topher the one from DC we only get to see a handful of times. There were enough other male characters around that I don’t think this would amount to giving men a free pass, or to portraying women as the sole enforcers of patriarchal norms. And it’s one of those small things that would have complicated the series in what I think would have been really interesting ways.

Dollhouse: Adelle DeWitt

Changing topics, one thing I really liked was how Dollhouse didn’t shy away from taking its SF premise to its full logical consequences. It doesn’t ignore the fact that its technological set-up is the sort of thing that could very well lead to the scenario we see in “Epitaph” parts one and two — without giving everything away, let me just say that I’d have had a hard time believing that consciousness-transferring and implanting technology could stick to such a specific usage for long. Even more interestingly to me, the series avoids what I initially feared would be a major pitfall: it acknowledges that a fully realised human consciousness is in fact human, even if it was artificially created, and that to wipe it is to kill a person. We see this in Echo’s “I’m scared of Caroline”, as well as in Claire’s “I don’t want to die”, and as much as I’d have liked to see it taken even further I thought the series did a good job of addressing it in the time it did have.

Dollhouse: Claire Saunders

So far so good, right? We have a series that’s not without significant flaws, but that also raises feminist questions that go beyond the 101 “women can kick ass too” level (not that I don’t still want to see more of that) and gives them the weight they merit. But then we get to “The Attic”, when — four episodes away from the ending — Dollhouse completely jumps the shark. And it’s not even the fact that the pacing is clearly set by its impeding cancellation and is therefore all over the place. No, it’s that the direction the story takes in those last few episodes is a bad, bad, bad, awful idea, and no amount of slow development could possibly change that. It couldn’t be done right, because there’s no possible execution that renders it not terrible.

Explicit major spoilers of the kind that will irrevocably change your viewing experience from this point onwards.

You know, I actually thought, naïve and privileged that I am, that in Boyd I might have found an exception to the traditional awful treatment of characters of colour in Joss Whedon’s shows. “Of course the pattern is still a problem”, I said to myself, “but still, it’s nice to have found a counterexample. As long as Boyd doesn’t die heroically saving Echo at the end or something, this is good.”


Boyd was one of my favourite characters. He was the one man whose shades of gray didn’t feel tiresome — perhaps because his interest in Echo/Caroline, unlike Paul’s, never felt sexual, and he seemed to see her as a person from the get go; or perhaps because he was an ambiguous character in ways less obvious than Topher’s initial misogyny. He was a father figure of sorts, a man of integrity caught in thorny circumstances, and of course a black man in a position of authority who commanded respect.

And then they did what they did, which was senseless and cheap and RUINED EVERYTHING. It was like Tara or Cordy all over again, only WORSE. I’m never getting over it, and I especially resent that it’s the sort of thing that makes it difficult to rewatch the series and enjoy it for what it was up until then. And yes, I care that a showrunner whose diversity track record is what it is allowed a character of colour to be not only killed, but turned into the villain first. To give you context, this happened in a series in which an Asian woman successfully impersonates another with nothing but a matching outfit and wig. And it’s not even like the episode can be read as Sierra taking advantage of people’s racism to best them, Veronica Mars and sexism style, by using the fact that they glance at an ID card, see “Asian” and look away again against them: even people who actually know the woman Sierra is impersonating are fooled, which betrays the series’ lack of self-awareness.

The other aspect of the ending that disappointed me was the fact that it cemented the specialness narrative surrounding Echo/Caroline. We go from a narrative that implicitly tells us that we can all grow increasingly self-aware and strive to dismantle oppression to one whose heroine is rendered actually biologically special, and only capable of what she’s achieved because of that. Again, it’s lazy and ruins so much of what the series had going for it.


There: rant over. Though now that I wrote about the ending I’m furious all over again. Recommended with enormous caveats? I honestly don’t even know.

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Aug 25, 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton

My Real Children by Jo WaltonMy Real Children by Jo Walton

“You’ve got no idea of the battles we’ve already won, especially when you’re busy looking ahead to the battles we still have to fight.”
My Real Children tells the story of the two lives of Patricia Cowan. When the novel opens, the year is 2015 and Patricia is very old. She suffers from dementia, and the notes she writes to herself read “Confused today” — and sometimes “Confused. Less confused. Very confused”. Patricia often forgets things, but she also remembers what seems impossible: two very different lives. Her childhood and her time as a student at Oxford during WW2 are the same in both versions, but her path splits when she either accepts or declines her boyfriend Mark’s offer of marriage in 1949.

Patricia goes on to become either Trish, an unhappily married mother of four who embarks on a political career later in life, or Pat, a success travel writer who spends every summer in Florence with her partner Bee and their three children. Additionally, Patricia’s different lives take place in two very different worlds: in one it’s possible to get married on the moon; in the other, the Cuban missile crisis escalated beyond mere words and the world is dealing with the effects of nuclear fallout.

I loved My Real Children. It’s kind of a big deal to call it my favourite Jo Walton to date, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that quite yet. But I can say with certainty that I read this novel with unreserved pleasure: it moved me, it roused me, and it reminded me of why I read. Several reviews I’ve read so far emphasise the question the novel poses — would you prefer a life of personal happiness in a politically scary world, or a life with more immediately obvious struggles in a world that’s on the right track? — but this is a question I’m more interested in seeing explored than in seeing answered in a definitive way.

Fortunately, exploration is what My Real Children is all about. The novel ends with the following lines (spoilers warning, kind of, though this won’t tell you all that much out of context and it’s really more about the journey than the destination):
Now or never, Trish or Pat, peace or war, loneliness or love?
She wouldn’t have been the person her life had made her if she could have made any other answer.
These lines become a sort of Rorschach test for readers, but for me the most interesting thing is how the novel doesn’t pretend that the answer, whatever we decide it is, is a simple one. [/spoilers]

The other big question the premise of My Real Children poses is this: to which extent are the differences between the worlds Pat and Trish inhabit down to Patricia’s choices? Can you draw a simple line between cause and effect? Has Patricia “been somebody whose choices could have changed worlds”? My answer to that last question is an unequivocal yes, but at the same time I see the relationship between Patricia’s choices and the direction the world takes as part of a nonlinear, butterfly effect type system more than anything else. The reason why I shy away from a reading that emphasises direct causality is not only my knowledge that life is complex and big changes unfailingly have multiple causes, but also the fact that directly aligning a life in which a woman is in a happy and fulfilling queer relationship with “bad” choices that lead to a nearly apocalyptic world makes for uncomfortable reading.

To be clear, I think My Real Children is too smart and nuanced a novel to suggest any such thing — and needless to say I loved it for it. Something else I really liked is how even though the novel is alternate history, it’s very much grounded in the details of women’s lives over the course of the 20th century. We watch how Pat and Trish’s lives are affected by lack of access to contraception, by laws that don’t allow married women to carry on working, by single women being denied mortgages, by lack of basic rights for lgb people, and by how this makes things like travelling abroad with minors or visiting a loved one in hospital infinitely harder and more painful than they need to be. Pat and Bee’s contemporary Britain is a worse place to live in than our own, as the civil liberties that have been achieved in the recent past are nowhere in sight there. For example, as two women living together they’re regularly visited by social workers who can choose to turn a blind eye (or not) to the reality of their relationship. But, importantly, the discrimination they face is nowhere near outside the realm of what is, or in some areas has until very recently been, possible in our world.

Trish, on the other hand, is in an oppressive heterosexual relationship, and the first few decades of her adulthood are shaped by the fact that she’s denied control of her fertility. Trish is eventually introduced to “women’s lib” by a friend, and although she feels that in some ways feminism has come too late for her, I think the novel does an excellent job of illustrating its power. Trish’s story captures the sheer dizzying relief of realising problems you’ve interiorised are in fact systemic; of learning, at last, that you are not alone. The vast thing you’ve struggled with is not you, but a flaw in how the world is organised — a flaw that a swelling tide of people are determined to challenge and correct. It can be easy, in the age of connectivity and easy access to peer groups that are shaped by shared priorities and interests rather than by accidents of geography, to forget how enormous this is.

This brings me to the quote I opened this post with: watching Trish’s life improve as the twentieth century advanced made me feel grateful to everyone who fought to get us here. The quote is not, of course, an appeal to complacency (this is Jo Walton, after all, author of the glorious Small Change trilogy), but a recognition that memory is useful. We can combine our determination to fight on with an acknowledgement of past victories, especially when the latter are a source of comfort and hope in the face of daunting future struggles. There’s still a long way to go, but look, look — we’ve made it this far.

Lastly (and another reason why I resist reading this novel as a straightforward exercise in either/or), I really liked that My Real Children acknowledged that there isn’t a single script for happiness. Early on, Pat is visibly happier than Trish, but as their lives progress the difference becomes far less clear cut. I especially liked that Walton took care not to portray Trish’s life as unrelentingly bleak because she doesn’t find the same kind of romantic fulfilment Pat finds with Bee. After separating from Mark, Trish is briefly involved with a visiting academic, but the rest of her time is devoted to her friendships, to her work, to her family, to the causes she believes in — and this is far from an empty life. I liked seeing the story of two well-lived lives that deviate from the scripts we normally recognise in more ways than one.

They read it too: Necromancy Never Pays, Reading In The Growlery, Reading the End


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