Jan 30, 2015

Blood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Blood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life by Lawrence HillBlood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Beyond how blood functions in the body, I am interested in how it weighs on the human mind, and how it influences our perception of who we are, to whom we belong, and how we experience our own humanity.
Lawrence Hill’s Blood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life is the kind of non-fiction I’m powerless to resist: a smart and engaging mixture of science and cultural history that encouraged me to think more deeply about something I thought I already knew about. Over the course of five chapters, Hill writes about blood in culture and in history; about blood sports; about our understanding of “blood purity”; about blood and racial identity; and about the role of blood as a symbol in different traditions and ceremonies. The most interesting thing of all, though, is that all of these angles share a common theme: they challenge the assumptions about what it means to be human that are revealed by the ways we imagine, conceive of, and assign meaning to the idea of blood. As Hill puts it,
Blood filters into our consciousness in ways that surpass any other bodily fluid or any bone or tissue. It has become such a powerful metaphor for personality that we have forgotten that it is an idea — not a reality. It helps us imagine ourselves. But perhaps it helps us too much. We have bought the metaphor so fully that we have come to believe it to be fundamentally true.
I particularly liked the chapter where Hill delves into the history of racial blood segregation and talks about Bernard Lown, the man who boycotted it by deliberately mixing up the labels in blood bags during WW2. The details of Lown’s story are fascinating, and provide a good example of how unquestioned social assumptions make their way into scientific practice despite a complete lack of evidence to support them.

Although the idea that there is an essential difference between white and black blood has fortunately been successfully challenged in both medicine and the popular imagination, there’s no shortage of contemporary examples of similar assumptions at work. For example, Hill spares no criticism to the laws surrounding gay men becoming blood donors and the ideas that underpin them:
In the UK, you cannot donate blood if you are a man who has had sex with another man in the last 12 months. This, ostensibly, is to prevent the HIV virus to enter the blood supply. However, each blood donation is tested for HIV, hepatitis C, and other viruses. There is a window of time — approximately two weeks — in which a donor might have acquired a virus, without that same virus showing up in a blood test. This is given as a reason for excluding donations from men who have had sex with men, even though heterosexual donors may also provide blood-carrying viruses that will not necessarily show up in tests. [Emphasis mine.]
(…)
To refuse to allow blood donations from sexually active gay men has several negative consequences. It perpetuates stereotypes against homosexuality and robs the blood supply of vital donations. It runs the risk of discouraging heterosexuals who are sympathetic to gays from donating. It creates a system in which people who are desperate to donate might lie about their sexual orientation.
A blanket ban on donations from sexually active gay men is inexplicable, scientifically unjustifiable, and extremely revealing of dominant assumptions and prejudices.

Hill also explores “how governments, courts and social groups have navigated through disagreements on matters of black, white, Asian, indigenous and national identity”, often by resorting to old-fashioned ideas about blood purity and then shifting the goalposts when it’s economically convenient. Hill’s incisive writing put me in mind of Thomas King, who also does a great job of explaining why linking cultural identity exclusively to blood is not in the best interest of marginalised groups. I found the following point especially illuminating:
Over the course of history in the United States and Canada, people with both black and white ancestry were not excused from the burdens of slavery, segregation or racial discrimination if they were perceived to have some white blood. In their cases, white blood didn’t exist. It didn’t matter. It had been polluted. They were judged to be black, and were treated as such, because it was black blood that counted.
(…)
It has been in the economic interest of government agencies to expand the definition of black identity in order to maximize the economic benefits associated with slave labour, but it was not considered such a valuable idea to define all people with Aboriginal identity as ‘Indians’, due to the costs associated with providing serviced to Aboriginal people or recognising their land rights.
Arbitrary standards of ‘purity’ were therefore historically used to divorce people from their heritage through restrictive and harmful legislation when this proved an economic burden rather than a source of profit — and these standards impact how we think of racial identity to this day.

Equally interesting was the contrast between the mainly North-American “one-drop” model of racial identity and a South American model where it was possible to ‘return’ to whiteness through a narrow and very specifically defined path of ancestry. Both are of course artificial, arbitrary, racist, and an oversimplification of how people construct and live with their identities in reality, but it was fascinating to look at the circumstances (and, again, economic motivations) that shaped each of them.

Lawrence Hill’s perspective is informed by his own identity: he’s a Canadian man of mixed race, the son of a black father and a white mother. He repeatedly draws attention to the fact that our understanding of historical phenomena such as ‘passing’ as something that forced people to leave their ‘essential’ blackness behind is at odds with how we conceive of the ‘one drop’ rule: no one thought of that as something that forced people of mixed-race leave their ‘essential’ whiteness behind. There are, of course, social and cultural issues at stake here: for example, the African-American people who were forced to ‘pass’ to have a better chance to succeed in a racist world often had to cut ties with the communities and cultural contexts they came from, which was of course an enormous loss. Yet as Hill argues, we can acknowledge this while remaining critical of the idea that while whiteness is ‘neutral’, there’s some essential quality to ‘blackness’ that becomes dominant and all-defining in anyone with a mixed-race background. If black ancestry did become defining, it was because of the meaning that was — and is — assigned to it in a racist society.

Blood is similar to books like Beyond Human Nature, in the sense that it’s critical of essential understandings of humanity (which are still as popular as ever, with genetics replacing blood in the popular imagination). Additionally, it shows a nuanced understanding of the many factors that shape people’s identities. I’m very much looking forward to reading more of Lawrence Hill’s work.
Other bits I liked:
The war and battle metaphors we employ — influenced by the writings of Louis Pasteur in the 1800s and reinforced by U.S. President Richard Nixon, who in 1971 signed the National Cancer Act and declared a “war on cancer” — offer one way to contemplate human biology. They certainly provide us with a method to imagine the body’s efforts to deal with disease and infection. At the same time, they are at risk of leaving us with the impression that people who succumb to illness simply did not try hard enough, and that people who overcome the same illnesses are stronger, more courageous, or have more valour. It is a striking way to refer to our own bodily processes, but there you have it.

The slip side of egregious pride in one’s family blood or luck of citizenship is the sense that others are less human, less valuable, less deserving than you.
Is a person entitled to lead a country because of his or her bloodline? No. The bloodline is a figment of our imaginations. A president, prime minister or dictator’s blood does not recirculate in the veins of his or her daughter or son. It’s time to move beyond our blood-based obsession with dynasties in politics, and genius in art. Roll over, Hippocrates, and tell Galen the news.
(Have you written about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

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Jan 28, 2015

Reading Notes: The Crossover, Well Wished, The Pinhoe Egg

Reading Notes: The Crossover, Well Wished, The Pinhoe Egg

My 2015 reading has been excellent so far, but I’ve already fallen behind when it comes to blogging. Time to play catch up with some quick reading notes:

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander’s novel in verse was included on several Best of 2014 lists, but it was Maureen’s post that landed it firmly on my radar (it’s clear to me by now that we have similar enough taste than when she really loves something, I should pay attention). The Crossover is about Josh, also known as Filthy McNasty. Along with his twin brother JB, he’s the star of his school’s basketball team, and the two dream of following in their father’s footsteps as professional players. In these first person poems, Josh talks about his relationship with his twin, his insecurity when his brother gets a girlfriend, his love for the game he plays, the complications of growing up, and his father’s declining health.

The most striking thing about The Crossover is how well it uses its form. Last year I read and enjoyed other narratives told in verse, like Inside Out and Back Again and Brown Girl Dreaming; while I found them well-written and enjoyed the poetry, I mostly loved them for the story they told, rather than for the how of the telling. The Crossover is different: it’s bold, it’s inventive, and it pushes the boundaries of narrative verse with great success. Alexander plays with font size, text arrangement and other visual poetry techniques in ways that never feel gimmicky or gratuitous — instead, they do an amazing job of bringing the poems’ emotional core to life.

One of my favourite poems is “At Noon, in the Gym, with Dad”, which uses two words per verse to create a rhythm that conveys the dizzying speed of distressing events and Josh’s sense of urgency. I’ll leave you with a few (slightly spoilery) lines:
Stands still
Breath short
More sweat
Grabs chest
Eyes roll
Ball drops
Dad drops
I scream
“Help, please”
Sweet Tea
Dials cell
Jordan runs
Brings water
Splashes face
Dad nothing
Out cold
I remember
Gym class
Tilt pinch
Blow pump
Blow pump
Still nothing
Blow pump
Sirens blast
Pulse gone
Eyes shut.
Well Wished by Franny Billingsey

Well Wished by Franny Billingsey

I count Franny Billingsley among my favourite authors solely on the strength of her second and third novels, The Folk Keeper and Chime; I’ve been saving her first, Well Wished, for a time when I needed a treat. The fact that this is her debut does show, which isn’t to say it isn’t filled with lovely writing and still worth reading.

I’ve seen Well Wished compared to Frances Hardinge’s Verdigris Deep a number of times, and now that I’ve read both I understand why. They’re both novels about magical wells whose wishes backfire, and, more importantly than that, both use this premise to explore themes of power and vulnerability and what it’s like to be able to significantly change someone’s life, sometimes as a by-product of getting what you want.

There’s no way around the fact that Well Wished portrays disability in uncomfortable and stereotypical ways. Catty, our protagonist Nuria’s best friend, is unable to walk, and the narrative frames her disability both as a magical punishment and as an obstacle that has to be removed before she has a chance at happiness. This removal (spoiler ahoy) occurs again by the means of magic — a storytelling device that has been examined and critiqued by people far more knowledgeable than I am, and which adds to a pattern we could all do without. I spent the whole of Well Wished hoping the story wasn’t going in that direction, but alas.

There was still a lot I liked about this novel, though. I loved the writing, for example. Well Wished has passages such as,
Catty’s tongue was different. It shrank away at the taste of salt, and now she couldn’t find that place where sharp cheese explodes with a wonderful ping!
Or:
It was the kind of dismal, freezing weather that followed a thaw, with no new snow to hide the raw and dirty ground. When the wind blew, the icy branches rubbed their hands together, making the whoosh and roar she’d thought was the sea.
Also, Well Wished is set in the period between Christmas and Twelfth Night, and it captures the mood of the days surrounding midwinter better than anything I’ve read since The Dark is Rising. These are not words I say lightly: Billingsley has created an absolute masterpiece of atmosphere.

Most of all, though, I loved how Well Wished portrayed Nuria’s ambiguities and her complex emotional life — her capacity for both generosity and pettiness, for friendship and aggression; her tumultuous relationship with Catty, her protectiveness of her Avy and the insecurities it masks. There are some lines from a poem I’ve quoted in the past that keep running through my head again as I think about this book:
Imagine this:
Girls are allowed to think dark thoughts, and be dark things.
This is exactly what Fanny Billingsley invites us to imagine in Well Wished, and I love that.

The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones

The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones

My glorious resolution to binge on Diana Wynne Jones in 2015 encouraged me to pick up the three Chrestomanci books I had left, and I soon realised I like this series far more than I remembered. Not that I ever thought I didn’t like it — it’s just that, as time passed, I came to misinterpret what “These are not my favourite DWJs” actually means. As it turns out, it doesn’t mean “They’re not that great”; it means “She has even better books because she was a genius, but these are still pretty wonderful”.

So I spent the first few weeks of the year rediscovering the Chrestomanci series and basking in how warm and funny these books are. I liked Conrad’s Fate the best of all three, but The Pinhoe Egg is the one I feel compelled to write about. I also liked it a lot, but in a more complicated sort of way. I loved Marianne, I loved Nutcase, I loved spending more time with Cat, and I loved what came out of the egg. I loved exploring the world around Chrestomanci castle — the magical forests, the witch families and ancient feuds, the several layers of secrets that are slowly unveiled. However, I was slightly thrown off by the fact that I turned out to be reading a very different book than the one I initially thought I was. Please bear with me as I attempt to explain what I mean by that.

Grammer Pinhoe is a character who has a lot in common with Aunt Maria from Black Maria, but it actually took me a while to recognise her as such. So I read the early chapters of The Pinhoe Egg as a funny but nevertheless touching account of the indignities of old age and illness and the disempowerment that accompanies them. As the story progressed, it became clear that this reading didn’t fit the bigger picture of the narrative, but part of me was too attached to it to let go easily. I wanted Gammer to have been less in the wrong; I wanted her family making decisions on her behalf and her attempts to resist this to have meant something other than what it did in the end; I wanted different dynamics between her and Gaffer; I wanted to be fonder of her than the narrative gave readers any reason to be.

Another thing I wanted was for the anti-authoritarian streak I initially perceived in the novel not to have been undermined by the ending. I hoped there would be more to why the Pinhoes and the Farleighs hid from Chrestomanci, and I wanted them not to have turned out to be like misbehaved children who were once again unambiguously in the wrong. The resolution of the feud between the Pinhoes and the Farleighs was more conservative than I expected, and in many ways it was at odds with the rest of the book. Chrestomanci’s intervention had echoes of uncomfortable ideas about benevolent authority taking power away from people “for their own good”, it seemed to me, and it erased the possibility that they might shy away from close scrutiny by a government agent for legitimate reasons. I suppose that in my head, the Pinhoes and the Farleighs were like Discworld’s witches of Lancre, who operate outside a system that has always excluded them, and Chrestomanci like the Wizards of Unseen University — often well-meaning, but still aligned with traditional authority and not always understanding towards those who don’t fit the mould. This comparison is perhaps a bit simplistic and not necessarily apt or fair, but the Discworld power model is closer to my sensibilities and thus easier for me to feel at home in.

In The Pinhoe Egg, Chrestomanci’s intervention makes perfect sense in light of the two families’ misuse of magic and abuse of power, but this is very much the kind of narrative I tend to be suspicious of. Not wanting to be scrutinised isn’t always a sign that one has something to hide, self-ruling doesn’t inevitably end disastrously, and I’d like to see more stories that acknowledge these facts. On the other hand, the novel is also about questioning authority and challenging stifling and senseless traditions — it was wonderful to see Marianne gain confidence, stand up to the adults around her, and slowly begin to feel at home with her own power. The fact that I couldn’t always reconcile these two strands of the narrative means my fondness for The Pinhoe Egg is complicated, but it’s there nonetheless. I found this novel immensely pleasurable, I greatly enjoyed getting to know its characters, I’m heartbroken we won’t get to read about Klartch again, and I’ll never, ever stop wishing Diana Wynne Jones was still around writing new books.

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Jan 26, 2015

Wake by Anna Hope

Wake by Anna HopeWake by Anna Hope

‘War wins,’ he says. ‘And it keeps on winning, over and over again.’
Anna Hope’s debut novel Wake is set in the five days that lead up to Remembrance Day 1920, when the body of the Unknown Soldier was buried at the Cenotaph. It follows the interconnected stories of three women — Hettie, Evelyn and Ada — all of whom lost loved ones in the Great War, and had their lives significantly changed by it.

Hettie, a dancer at the new Hammersmith Palais, is grieving for her father, trying to understand her brother’s trauma, and struggling with a mother who disapproves of modern women and wants her to conform to tradition. Evelyn lost a lover in the war, has grown apart from her brother Edward, and struggles with her job at the War Office dealing with veteran’s pensions and the way it’s eroded her empathy over time (“Compassion is a swamp. It’s better not to get stuck in it”.) Ada, the oldest of the three, lost her son in the war and is troubled by the fact that, unlike other women she knows, she never received an official letter detailing how he died. Ada clings on to the hope that it all might be some sort of mistake, and is haunted by visions of her dead son.

As I said in my 2014 in Review post, Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria put it perfectly when she said that a synopsis of Wake might make it sound clichéd, but the execution absolutely isn’t. Hope devotes a lot of space to WW1’s cost for and impact on women, a theme I’m always interested in, and she writes in a way that reminds me that the unique human details of individual stories matter. In this sense, Wake made for a perfect companion to The Paying Guests and Cuckoo Song, two other excellent 1920s-set novels I read last year.

One thing I especially liked was how Wake dealt with gender expectations and the way they affected these women’s experiences of grief. Ada, Evelyn and Hettie all struggle with what’s expected of them as women — that they be self-sacrificing and push their own feelings aside in the name of being nurturing and caring. There’s a very memorable scene between Hettie and Edward, where a conversation about her new modern haircut reveals itself to really be about shifting gender roles and attitudes towards women:
Hettie shakes her head. She can feel anger now, boiling in her. She is angry with him. With all of them. All the men, waiting their turn. For those young girls. And those women. On their last legs. What happened to them, after that? Where did they end up?
‘Why does it matter?’ she says. ‘Why does it matter if I cut my hair?’
‘Because you can never go back,’ he says.
‘Hair grows.’
‘I know it does,’ he says sadly. ‘But you can never go back.’
And he bends forward, putting his head in his hands.
She can hear him, breathing hard.
She should touch him, she thinks. This is her job here. She should reach out and touch his arm. Say something to make him come back to himself. Rouse him to his manhood somehow. She thinks this, but she is angry, and this anger is a fierce, clear thing, and she does not.
‘I didn’t want to hear that story,’ she says.
The story in question is about wartime rape, and it’s a story Edward shares for his own benefit and at Hettie’s expense. I was moved by Hettie’s anger, by her exhaustion, and especially by her resistance. She’s one of many women who have had enough of putting their own tremendous hurt aside to be a comfort to men, and in this moment she finds it possible to say no.

I also appreciated the novel’s acknowledgement that grief has more than one shape, and that both its distinctiveness and its commonality matter. Ada attends the Burial of the Unknown Soldier with her friend and neighbour Ivy, who has also lost a son. The circumstances of Ivy’s loss are different from Ada’s, but their relationship and the act of sharing experiences — more than the Cenotaph ceremony itself — make them feel less isolated and prove healing for both women. Earlier in the novel, Ada visits a Spiritualist in the hopes of finding closure about her son; in another scene I found very moving, she tells this woman that in all these years nobody has asked her to simply talk about her son. Again, this simple moment of human kindness and connection between two women is shown to be powerful. Here’s what the woman tells Ada in return:
‘I see so many women here, and they are holding on, all of them. Holding on to their sons or their lovers or their husbands or their fathers, just as surely as they are holding on to the photographs that they keep or the fragments of childhood they bring with them and put on the table here.’ She gestured with her hand. ‘They’re all different, but all the same. All of them are afraid to let them go. And if we feel guilt, we find it even harder to release the dead. We keep them close to us, we guard them jealousy. They were ours. We want them to remain ours.’ There’s a silence. ‘But they are not ours,’ she says. ‘And in a sense, they never were. They belong to themselves, only. Just as we belong to ourselves. And this is terrible in some days, and in others… it might set us free.’
Wake’s most powerful moment comes when Evelyn seeks out a man who lived through a terrible wartime experience he has never shared with anyone before, and whose story turns out to hold the key to the mystery surrounding Ada’s son’s death. Evelyn listens to him talk; she takes in every last horrific detail. This is what she thinks as she leaves his house:
Standing here, now, in the cold street, Evelyn realises something. That this meeting was what she has been waiting for: for someone to share their truth with her. After four years of war, and two more years of ex-soldiers, day in, day out, this is what she has wanted; this is what she has sought. Someone’s truth. Not their bravery, not their anger, not their lies. And in four years of war, and two years of its aftermath, no one — not Fraser, not her brother — no one has shared with her their truth.
And yet now she has heard it, now she knows that somewhere, upriver in this city, is her brother, this man who ordered Rowan to fire on his friend. Now that this truth is inside her, a part of her, it is not diamond hard and gleaming as truth should be, but shadowed, rimed in fear and sweat and murk and grime. There is no elevation in it, no answers, and no hope.
Wake makes room for the fact that although human connection can help, and although there’s commonality in grief even if each loss is unique, there’s no one-size fits all solution, no single approach that will help everyone. There are only human beings, all trying to cope the best way they can. The novel makes no apology for cruelty for the sake of “truth” — instead, it acknowledges that some people will seek out terrible truths in the hope of finding closure and turn out to be wrong, while others yet will indeed find some semblance of peace in the knowledge. Some women will be able to make their peace with uncertainty and let go, as Ada does in the end; others, like Hettie, will resent being exposed to horrors they won’t be able to erase from their minds for the sake of other people’s feelings. None of these strategies are inherently better than any others.

Reading Wake took me back to my thoughts about why we tell and listen to terrible stories (or why we don’t), which I touched on when I wrote about novels like An Untamed State or Rose Under Fire. My only answer is that sometimes we find solace in both the telling and the listening, and sometimes we need to spare ourselves and others. It’s important to talk about this with compassion and respect for different ways of coping: Wake does this by showing that Evelyn’s determination to listen to Rowan’s horrific truth isn’t inherently voyeuristic, even if it doesn’t bring her the peace she hoped, just like not sharing this same truth with Ada is not cowardly. They’re different human beings who need different things in order to make peace with unspeakable losses.

The last thing I want to talk about is the resolution of Evelyn’s storyline; as I can’t really do this without spoilers, please skip the rest of this paragraph and the next if you mind. This is one of those cases where I want to take great care to make sure I don’t end up sounding like I’m writing off one type of story when I express my desire to see more of another. I have strong feelings about the idea that romantic storylines inevitably undermine female characters (which I’ve written about at length in the past), so the following is definitely not me going down that road and dismissing the ending Evelyn does get. With that out of the way—

I like romance, and I really like reading about how it’s possible to form a new meaningful connection after you’ve suffered a great loss without being required to pretend the person you lost means less to you than they actually do. The present never erases the past, and our hearts are bigger than we tend to acknowledge. Having said that, it seems very clear to me that “woman recovers from grief by finding love again” stories are much more at risk of becoming single stories than “single lady leads happy, fulfilling life” ones ever will be. At the end of Wake, Hope cites Virginia Nicholson’s social history Singled Out as an important influence in her writing. As she says, Evelyn belonged to that same generation of women, many of whom moved beyond grief and built satisfying futures for themselves in ways that didn’t involve romantic relationships. I always welcome more stories about them, and so part of me really wanted Wake to be one. The answer here is of course not to go, “No more imagining happy romantic relationships for women like Evelyn!”, but (always and forever) to tell more and more stories about women and all the possible ways we can live meaningfully and happily. This is why my favourite motto — all the stories, please — will never get old.

They read it too: Eve’s Alexandria, The Book Smugglers, you?

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Jan 25, 2015

Sunday Links: Mostly Smart People Doing Cool Things

Sunday Links: Mostly Smart People Doing Cool Things

  • One of my favourite bloggers, Cass, has started a new project. Queerly Seen will discuss “books and publishing from a queer perspective”, and I’m so excited that it exists.

  • Also, Amy and Jodie have started a “punk rock experiment in TV writing” called Irregularly Scheduled Viewing. I got a ton of TV recommendations from them over the years (I’ll never forget how Amy was the person who patiently encouraged me to get over my weird resistance to Buffy, and we all know what happened when I finally did), and I can’t wait to see what they’ll tempt me with next.

  • Last but not least, Renay and Smuggler!Ana have launched a new postcast called Fangirl Happy Hour, which is “dedicated to fun pop culture and fandom chat tailored to [their] specific fangirl needs”. yay!
  • 2015 had a less than auspicious start for me, but one thing that’s cheered me up immensely is the fact that so many of my favourite bands and musicians will have albums out this year. Here’s Stereogum’s evaluation of Björk’s Vulnicura, and here’s a wonderful interview where she discusses sexism and the erasure of women’s contributions:
    I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things. It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times.
  • I can’t remember if I’ve linked to this before, but even if I have I’m more than happy to do it again. Margo Lanagan’s acceptance speech of the Barbara Jefferis Award is a perfect example of why she’s my favourite:
    There’s an ongoing need to just keep forcibly pushing into the limelight literary works about women, as much as by women. As long as schoolboys are asking visiting authors, “Why would you write stories about … girls?”; as long as the global social and economic costs of domestic violence are outstripping the costs of civil war; and as long as women who try to raise awareness of gender-based hatred are being driven from their homes by online threats of rape and murder, we need to keep on claiming column inches and screen time, and story space and art space, for women’s matters, women’s minds, women’s lived experiences.
  • This piece on the Sociology of Gender Bias in Science is a fascinating if depressing read:
    The idea that women should not talk about inequality in science dominates public discussions of science. This happens in science communities such as ours, which expressly state that sexism is grounds for being banned. Women who speak up about inequality are accused of bias or they are otherwise targeted for personal attacks. This includes the women moderators, who are practising scientists with PhDs and a strong knowledge of the science on gender bias. It also happens to women scientists writing about inequality on their personal social media profiles.
  • Memory wrote a long post about Saga, and (unsurprisingly) it’s a thing of beauty.

  • Lastly, my favourite thing about this Graphic Novels for Kids: A Year in Review post is that I found out that a sequel to my beloved Giants Beware! called Dragons Beware! is coming out this year. I don’t think I did a good enough job of spreading the love for Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado’s comic to the people I tend to swap recommendations with, so consider this another attempt.

    Dragons Beware by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre

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Jan 22, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in free verse about Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood in 1960s and 1970s South Carolina and Brooklyn. It’s also about her family, their history, and how it ties to wider historical events; the ripple effects of the Civil Rights movement and how they shaped her life even before she fully made sense of them; and growing up as a black girl who loved stories in a world that didn’t always acknowledged she got to have one.

In one of my favourite poems, “Stevie and Me”, Woodson talks about going to the library and finding a picture book featuring a black child like herself. She writes movingly about the difference this made to her, and the following verses in particular capture one of the central themes of Brown Girl Dreaming:
If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
maybe
I’d never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.
It’s lovely to think that the book where an adult Jacqueline Woodson now tells this story will surely have the same effect on other children.

Brown Girl Dreaming was included in a lot of Best of 2014 lists (including my own), and was a National Book Award winner in the US. Most of you will remember what happened at the Awards ceremony; while I don’t want to add to a pattern of focusing on Daniel Handler’s racist joke at the expense of the excellent book that should be the centre of attention, I do want to link to Woodson’s piece “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke”. She does a brilliant job of linking what happened to the themes of Brown Girl Dreaming, as well as of highlighting how damaging the assumption that the legacy of slavery and racism is all in the past really is:
This mission is what’s been passed down to me — to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than the stereotypes they’re so afraid of. To give young people — and all people — a sense of this country’s brilliant and brutal history, so that no one ever thinks they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another’s too often painful past.
Brown Girl Dreaming was a great follow-up to some of my other favourite reads of 2014, namely March: Book One and Rita Williams-Garcia’s novels. I like how they all explore the real, everyday lives of people who go through periods of great social change, and also the circumstances in which someone might decide to take a stand or not. This is an idea I keep coming back to, I know, but I find stories that explore it illuminating. I’m very interested in reading about how people whose reality is inevitably shaped by disempowerment resist it while keeping corners of their lives that are simply about being a person. Oppression can be simultaneous all-encompassing and not the be-all and end-all of someone’s existence.

Likewise, I’m interested in compassionate accounts of people’s attempts to balance their safety and the safety of their loved ones with the urge to fight back in immediately visible ways. This is something Woodson gets at in, for example, the poem “greenville, south carolina, 1963”:
On the bus, my mother moves with us to the back.
It is 1963
in South Carolina.
Too dangerous to sit closer to the front
and dare the driver
to make her move. Not with us. Not now.
Me in her arms all of three months old. My sister
and brother squeezed into the seat beside her. White
shirt, tie, and my brother’s head shaved clean.
My sister’s braids
white ribboned.
I also loved “miss bell and the marchers” for similar reasons — because it pushes for the expansion of our understanding of heroism and carves a space out where the contributions of people whose actions don’t fit within the narratives we privilege can be acknowledged. Just like a mother who picks her battles and protects herself and her children deserves our respect, so does a woman like Miss Bell, who can’t afford to risk her job but contributes to the Civil Rights movement in other ways:
They look like regular people
visiting our neighbor Miss Bell,
foil-covered dishes held out in front of them
as they arrive
some in pairs,
some alone,
some just little kids
holding their mothers’ hands.
If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just
an evening gathering. Maybe church people
heading into Miss Bell’s house to talk
about God. But when Miss Bell pulls her blinds
closed, the people fill their dinner plates with food,
their glasses with sweet tea and gather
to talk about marching.
And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady
who said I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you
on that line!

Miss Bell knows that marching isn’t the only thing
she can do,
knows that people fighting need full bellies to think
and safe places to gather.
She knows the white lady isn’t the only one
who’s watching, listening, waiting,
to end this fight. So she keeps the marchers’
glasses filled, adds more corn bread
and potato salad to their plates,
stands in the kitchen ready to slice
lemon pound cake into generous pieces.
And in the morning, just before she pulls
her uniform from the closet, she prays,
God, please give me and those people marching
another day.
Amen.
Revolutionary social movements wouldn’t happen without people like Miss Bell, who stand behind those on the frontlines and provide crucial support. More often than not their contributions end up being erased, all because they’re not what we have been taught to recognise as heroic or brave. It’s always wonderful to come across stories that deliberately set out to counter that.

I found Brown Girl Dreaming hard to read in public because every so often I’d come across a poem or a few verses that would make me tear up. Another wonderful book from a writer who has yet to fail to impresses me.

They read it too: Booklust, A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy, 1330v, The Book Smugglers, Necromancy Never Pays

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