Mar 17, 2015

Author Event: Kazuo Ishiguro on The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro at Ely Cathedral The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Author Event: Kazuo Ishiguro discusses The Buried Giant
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant was one of my most anticipated releases of 2015; although the mixed reviews it’s been getting had me wondering whether I should try to lower my expectations somewhat, the author event I went to last week makes me think I’m likely to really enjoy it after all. Ishiguro did a short reading and a talk at a packed venue (the same place where I saw Terry Pratchett in late 2012, sob). The narrative voice in the excerpt he read was absolutely wonderful and grabbed my attention straight away — I suspect if nothing else I’d enjoy The Buried Giant for that alone, but what he went on to say during his talk suggests there’s plenty more to appreciate about it.

Ishiguro began by telling us that his novel is set in the period between 410 and 490 AD, after the Romans left Britain, and that this is a period he’s drawn to because of the many unknowns that surround it. He then said that to discuss the themes of The Buried Giant, he’d have to talk a little bit about his life: his age means that he spend his first few decades as an adult “in the shadow of the cold war”, and immersed in the sense that a worldwide cataclysm was imminent. Additionally, he was born in Nagasaki less than a decade after the atomic bomb was dropped. Ishiguro said that when he watched the Fall of the Berlin Wall in the news in 1989, it seemed to promise the dawn of a “beautiful new age” of peace and cooperation. But of course the world has seen plenty of atrocities since then — within only a few years there was the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the horrors that followed, the genocide in Rwanda, etc.

All of this got him interested in societal memory and how it can be used to mobilise hatred and violence. So he decided to write a novel about “how countries remember and forget”, and about how people in power attempt to dig up and manipulate certain memories for their own ends. Much of Ishiguro’s work is about the dynamics of when it’s better to remember and when it might be better to forget, but up until now it had been applied to individuals. When he started The Buried Giant, he very much wanted to write about that same question and struggle, which he’s come to think of as his main theme, but applied to a community or country. The novel, then, examines the circumstances in which people might decide to bury collective memories. Ishiguro clarified that he’s interested in exploring these questions, rather than in taking a definitive stance about if, when or how such memories can or should be faced. The Buried Giant, then, is much more about questions than it is about answers.

He also talked about how he doesn’t necessarily see himself as a historical novelist who sets out to document the past with accuracy. When he was writing this novel he was mainly interested in teasing out recurrent patterns throughout history, which is partially what led him to a quasi-mythical setting that he feels would lend itself to that approach. There are echoes of contemporary situations in The Buried Giant, but the decision not to focus on any of them specifically was deliberate.

The Buried Giant, Ishiguro said, is also a love story. He wanted to write a romance that wasn’t a courtship story, even though there are many such stories that he loves. But he was especially interested in focusing on what happens after people come together; in long-term intimacy and how you fight to keep it alive year after year (at this point I was going YES, YES, YES! in my head — I’ve talked about how I want to see more of this many times). He wanted to write a love story that explored that, and also a story about the role of shared memory in a long-term relationship. In The Buried Giant, those same societal questions of memory he discussed previously also apply on a more personal level. A society in which people decide to forget recent atrocities in an attempt to live together in peace is also one where a lot of people’s shared traumatic experiences become buried and off-limits. What kind of an impact does this have on their relationship? Do they want to remember the dark things they’ve put aside regardless of the cost? Are they willing to pay the price that forgetting also has?

Ishiguro briefly discussed the “But is it genre?” questions surrounding The Buried Giant, but I confess I didn’t take a lot of notes during this part because the subject makes me sad and exhausted (this is an expression of a personal feeling, rather than any sort of indictment on anyone who might be interested in discussing it). The gist of what he said, though, is that he feels that the boundaries between genres are crumbling, and he sees this as a good thing.

My recap is partial as always, but the last thing I made a note of were Ishiguro’s remarks about the endings of his novels: he favours endings dominated by a “complicated and earned emotion”, which readers slowly arrive at throughout the novel and that culminates in the final scene. He values reading and writing because it’s something that offers “a deeply private space” in which to explore various questions about the process of being human, and to him this makes reading primarily an emotional experience. This doesn’t mean it isn’t also an intellectual experience, but to him the “essence of fiction” is this sort of human exchange. Through fiction you get to inhabit a character’s consciousness and to experience what living their lives feels like for them, and that’s a powerful thing.

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Mar 13, 2015

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett
The news of Terry Pratchett’s passing hit me hard, probably harder than any author death has so far. There isn’t anyone whose work means more to me. There’s a small handful of others I value just as much, but this is it: the absolute top of my scale of literary affections.

I found out he’d died in the worst possible way: I was just coming out of a difficult meeting at work on what was already proving a challenging day when I happened to glance up at a big screen TV in my library’s café and see the news on BBC. I only had about twenty minutes until I was due back on counter duties, which wasn’t nearly enough time to get myself together and dry my eyes. One thing really helped, though: I have a lovely new friend I’ve bonded with over our mutual love for Terry Pratchett (among other things) and we’d made a contingency plan for if this happened while we were at work. So we were able to hide in the staff only stairs and be tearful together for a few minutes.

Also, as soon as I had the chance I e-mailed the friend who lent me my first Terry Pratchett book a very long time ago. It was nice to be able to share this moment and commiserate even though we hadn’t talked in a while. Then I came home and went on Twitter, and my timeline was, as I said last night, like a wake in the most comforting sense — full of people coping with the way a loss like this diminishes our world by sharing stories and memories and love; by affirming the importance of the life that has now come to an end and pausing to consider the many ways in which it has touched us all.

This is a very roundabout way to get to why Terry Pratchett is so important to me, but it kind of makes sense in my head. His were some of the first novels I got to share with others and through which I formed connections, and human connections are central in his work. There are many, many things I value and admire about his novels and the sensibility behind them, but I think the main one is how they’re filled with empathy and no-frills kindness. They’re insightful, humane, politically engaged, and they repeatedly remind us not to treat people like they don’t matter.

I was lucky enough to meet him briefly in 2007, at a signing at Forbidden Planet in London. It was, as I’m sure you can imagine, extremely busy, and the signing queue moved very fast. But I did get to say “thank you for the stories”, and he looked up and smiled at me with such kindness and warmth. Then two years ago, the day after I moved to my current location, I got to see him speak at an event to mark the publication of Dodger. There was no signing this time around and it was very different from that earlier experience, but both are memories I’ll treasure forever.

We have The Shepherd’s Crown, one final Tiffany Aching novel, to look forward to later this year. I’m not sure how I’m going to cope with reading it.

Me meeting Terry Pratchett in 2007
Terrible phone photo, but I think you can see how happy I look.

I’ll leave you with a few things:

And the last one is a request: I know many of you are fellow Terry Pratchett fans, so in the spirit of finding comfort in shared memories, tell me your stories. Anything from how you first discovered him, to fan or author events, to how the news hit you to, to your favourite Terry Pratchett book — all will be appreciated. Huddling together and sharing words of love is the only way I can think of to deal with a loss like this.

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Mar 5, 2015

Lilies (BBC)

Lilies BBC logo
Lilies (BBC)
Lilies is a 2007 BBC series created by Heidi Thomas, best known for her work in popular period dramas such as Call the Midwife and Cranford. It’s about the lives of three sisters — May, Iris and Ruby Moss — growing up in a working class family in 1920s Liverpool, and it’s so obviously my sort of thing that I can’t believe I hadn’t even heard of it until Ruby Rose Scarlett mentioned it in a post last year. I immediately added the DVD to my wishlist, and treated myself to a copy for my birthday this year. Sadly Lilies only ran for a single eight-episode season, but even if some loose ends remain, the story it tells reaches what feels like a natural conclusion and makes for satisfying viewing.

I found Lilies as captivating as it was occasionally frustrating. I’ll start with what I loved: the three sisters at the centre of the series are rich, complex characters, and Lilies makes no apologies for the fact that this is first and foremost their story and that the relationships between them are important. The eldest, Iris, has taken on most domestic duties since the death of their mother, and although she cares deeply about her family she also struggles with feeling unappreciated and like she’s being asked to sacrifice her own life to improve everyone else’s. May works as a domestic servant for a well-off couple, only coming home to see her family one night a week. But her life begins to change when she finds herself drawn to a man she knows she probably shouldn’t get involved with. Lastly, the youngest Moss sister, Ruby, is an accomplished swimmer who almost makes the Olympics team. Ruby worked as a postal worker during the War and greatly enjoyed the freedom her job gave her; when she’s forced to give it up for the returning soldiers, she becomes a corset seller instead and is eventually drawn to early feminism by way of the rational dress movement.

Lilies: Iris, Ruby and May

The Moss family is haunted by the Great War. Ruby’s twin brother Walter was killed; another brother, Billy, survived, but was deeply traumatized by the sinking of the ship he worked in. Billy struggles with nightmares, survivor’s guilt, and the knowledge that PTSD sufferers are still perceived as cowardly and are stigmatised by many. The other key determinant of the Moss’ lives is poverty: I love how Lilies is rooted in historical details concerning the lives of working class families in the 1920s, and I love its refusal to romanticise them. For example, the Moss sisters lost their mothers to appendicitis because they couldn’t afford to send for a doctor; the family and the whole of their neighbourhood live in terror of visits from the tallyman, which might result in families deemed overcrowded being separated and essential livestock taken away; and in difficult times the sisters struggle with whether or not to turn to their “grave fund” and let go of the relative certainty of dignity in death it represents. These are all rather bleak things, yet at the same time the Moss sisters’ lives are far from unrelentingly dire. Iris, May and Ruby are multifaceted young women who of course experience the full spectrum of human emotions regardless of the constraints of their circumstances, and Lilies has as much humour and warmth as it has moments of darkness.

Gender inequality is another one of the series’ central themes: it’s implicit to many of its storylines, and it’s addressed directly in one of my favourite episodes. In “The Release”, Ruby meets and befriends Marianne Parkes, an upper-class first wave feminist who campaigns for reproductive rights, rational dress, pacifism, vegetarianism, etc. Ruby is drawn to Marianne’s ideas, and she’s quick to draw parallels between what she’s being exposed to and her own observations of women’s lives in her neighbourhood. However, it eventually surfaces that Marianne and her circle are eugenicists, who hope to recruit Ruby to help with the forced sterilization of impoverished and disabled women. Ruby, who just might be my favourite Moss sister, has absolutely no qualms about giving them a piece of her mind, and passionately stands up for the humanity of women like herself. I particularly liked how “The Release” was truth to my knowledge of early twentieth-century feminism, which was not any more of a monolith than contemporary feminism is. The episode acknowledges the blind spots of women like Marianne Parks, but also the fact that in the 1920s (and before) there were outspoken working class women who rejected the intersectional failures of first wave feminism, while still claiming the fight for gender equality for themselves and shaping feminism with their experiences. In the end, Ruby rejects eugenics and Marianne’s circle, but doing this doesn’t mean she has to swear off the ideas about women’s rights she does find relevant and useful.

The rest of what I have to say about Lilies will require me to give away important plot points, so be warned that there will be some spoilers from this point onwards.

Lilies: Iris, Ruby and May

As I said, my love for this series was accompanied by occasional moments of great frustration. These reached maximum intensity in “The Sea”, an episode that delves into Billy Moss’ backstory. Billy learns that his best childhood friend and wartime companion Nazzer is returning to Liverpool and would like to see him. After considerable hesitation, Billy visits him in a home for disabled and shell-shocked WW1 veterans: viewers learn that Nazzer lost both legs and an arm in the war, and that Billy’s survivor’s guilt and war trauma make it very difficult for him to deal with his friend’s disability. Nazzer is shown to be a warm, cheerful young man, who can still charm the Moss sisters and who appears to enjoy many things about life despite his difficult experiences in the war. I was interested, at first, in the contrast between Nazzer’s attitude towards his life and Billy’s struggles: although I’m inclined to favour stories that focus on disabled people’s firsthand experiences, there’s also scope for interesting fictional explorations of how other people’s assumptions and struggles to adjust can cause pain and misunderstandings. I’d be interested in a story that showed Billy coming to accept that his issues were his own, and that despite the seriousness of his injuries Nazzer was not doomed to a life of misery.

Sadly this was not what Lilies turned out to be doing. Halfway through the episode it’s revealed that Billy and Nazzer were not friends but lovers, and the two spend a secret passionate night together at the Moss’ home. The inclusion of gay characters made me happy for about ten minutes, but in light of what I said above about my frustration, I bet you can all just guess where this is going. Nazzer, it turns out, was faking it all along. His cheerfulness was only a mask for his despair, and he attempts to persuade Billy to help him commit suicide by drowning at sea. Billy refuses and pulls him out of the sea, but (of course) Nazzer catches pneumonia and dies anyway, just when Billy had resolved to tell him he was willing to make any sacrifice for the two to live together as a couple.

I honestly can’t think of a single narrative reason for Nazzer to have died that doesn’t involve a thoughtless defaulting to the worst, most lazy storytelling clichés surrounding both lgbtq and disabled characters. Several smart and articulate people have written about the problems with portraying lgb love stories as inevitably tragic; in addition to that, I find the implication that disabled people can’t have genuinely found ways to adjust to their disability and enjoy their lives extremely troubling. This isn’t to erase the fact that many soldiers struggling with physical and mental disabilities did in fact commit suicide after WW1, or that suicide among war veterans continues to be an enormous issue that needs addressing and can be explored in fiction. It’s just that I wish this wasn’t the only story we ever told about disabled or gay characters. Additionally, the pattern this particular narrative follows was made all the more uncomfortable by the suddenness of the shift: the assumption seemed to be that revealing that Nazzer was in fact depressed and suicidal required no elaboration because of course he would be. The inevitability implied here is both damaging and untrue. In the end, this episode didn’t kill my love for Lilies, but it was frustrating and disappointing in ways I hoped an otherwise thoughtful and well-written series wouldn’t be.

Also, initially I had mixed feelings about the storyline surrounding May’s pregnancy: there are multiple stories out there where an unplanned pregnancy is the first step in a series of narrative punishments for sexually transgressive women, and I was terrified that May would end up jumping into the river like she nearly does in the final episode. I feel differently about these endings in contemporary historical fiction than I do in the classics: as I’ve said a few times before, sometimes classic endings where rebellious women are killed off or reformed can feel like ways to hastily tidy away all the taboo possibilities the middle sections of the works in question raise; I understand why they still frustrate readers (a lot of the time they frustrate me too), but if I read them generously I mostly see a hurried nod at conventionality that doesn’t entirely work, and I’m capable of more or less ignoring them in my head. However, with narratives written today I see far fewer reasons to default to a pattern of death or tearful regret, and I tend to favour the subversive power of a happy ending instead.

All this to say that I was very relieved that May didn’t die. The way her story is told made all the difference to me. There are no hints of slut-shaming whatsoever; what we have is a story about a young woman who’s allowed to experience and act on her desire; who is manipulated by a man with more power but walks away when she realises this is the case; and who suffers the consequences of sexual double standards and lack of access to contraception. Lilies acknowledges how awful and stigmatized illegitimate pregnancy would have been for a 1920s woman like May, but also that support would have made all the difference. I was equally relieved that there was no reconciliation with horrible Mr Brazendale for May (her former employer and father of her child), or a hasty relationship with childhood friend Frank to publicly justify the pregnancy. Instead, Lilies ends with May being given the unwavering support of her sisters, and, with them by her side, resolving to bring up her child in her own terms.

Lilies BBC Moss Family

I can’t end this post without talking a bit about Dadda Moss, a character I struggled with. I appreciated that Lilies made an effort to portray him as a complex figure, and I see Dadda as an interesting study in a certain type of traditional masculinity and in the way men are socialised to assert it. For example, he feels entitled to being waited on by his eldest daughter, and the series explores the consequences this has for Iris. And like many men to this day, he treats his daughters’ sexuality like a commodity that is his to pass on (or deny) to other men. Needless to say, Dadda doesn’t react kindly when May tells him about her situation, and I’m afraid the episode where he beats up his terrified pregnant daughter put him beyond the reach of my sympathy. I confess I struggled with the series’ violence at times: I’m guessing it’s probably mild by most people’s standards, but animal harm in particularly is my no-go zone in fiction, and there were a few scenes where I had to look away from the screen (your mileage may of course vary). But to go back to Dadda, I was glad his wasn’t the only kind of working-class masculinity the series portrayed. There’s also kind, gentle Frank, who thankfully doesn’t end up becoming a Nice Guy; there’s thoughtful Billy; and there’s Ruby’s love interest Joseph — the scene where he uses his privilege to carve out a space for Ruby to be heard with a well-timed “Let her speak” to another man was to me the most romantic scene in the whole series. Frank, Joseph and Billy show that Dadda’s violence is not inevitable, and that’s an important thing.

Spoilers over.

In sum, Lilies is a series centred on women’s experiences, on sisterly bonds, and on the sort of details that tend to be written out of history, and this is something I continue to prioritise in the stories I give my time and attention to. Although there are some frustrating moments, the series also has a clear feminist sensibility, and it introduces us to three main characters well worth getting to know. I’m grateful that Ruby Rose Scarlett brought it to my attention, and I’m glad I made the time to watch it.

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Mar 2, 2015

Reading Notes: Tomboy, Tales of Innocence and Experience, Greenglass House

Reading Notes: Tomboy, Tales of Innocence and Experience, Greenglass House

Some quick thoughts on three books I really liked:

Tomboy by Liz Prince

Tomboy by Liz Prince
Liz Prince’s Tomboy is a graphic memoir of growing up as a gender non-conforming girl in the 1980s and 90s. Prince knew from an early age that she wasn’t comfortable with dresses, dolls, and the general role and social expectations associated with femininity, but (understandably) it takes her a long time to figure out what this means, or what it says about who she is.

Prince is not a trans boy, though this is something she wonders about from time to time. Tomboy is a personal story, which means it doesn’t attempt to make any wider points or generalisations about the causes or meaning of gender non-conformity. It’s an exploration of one particular person’s gender confusion, and this is exactly what I valued about it. There are as many ways to fall outside the gender binary or to fail to conform to stereotypical gender roles as there are individuals who experience these things, and needless to say they are all equally valid; Prince’s story is only one of them, and it doesn’t claim to be anything more. The label she eventually picks for herself works for her, but the same wouldn’t necessarily be true of another person with similar childhood experiences.

I liked Tomboy for more or less the same reasons why I liked This One Summer: both do a wonderful job of capturing the mindset of young girl who defaults to questionable assumptions about the other girls around her, and both manage to distance the narrative as a whole from the central character’s point of you with subtlety and grace. For most of Tomboy, Prince thinks like a textbook except-girl: she sees girls as inherently less interesting than boys, and she conceives of traditional femininity in a way that fails to make a distinction between “not for me” and “inferior”. When a friend of her parents’ asks her “Do you hate girls or do you hate the expectations put on girls by society?”, she genuinely wonders whether there is a difference.

There is, of course, and a crucial one at that. But a younger me didn’t know that, and it was fascinating to watch Prince arrive at an answer. With the help of wise friends, feminist zines and punk rock, Prince comes to realise that she’d “subscribed to the idea that there was only one form of femininity and that it was inferior to being a man”. “I don’t want to be a girl on society’s terms”, she says, “I want to be a girl on my own terms”. She still is and will always be a tomboy, but she comes to realize there’s no wrong way of being a girl. Tomboy is a funny and moving personal journey, and I’m grateful I got to follow along.

Tales of Innocence and Experience by Eva Figes

Tales of Innocence and Experience by Eva Figes

I decided to pick up Tales of Innocence and Experience after seeing it mentioned in Marina Warner’s excellent Once Upon a Time. She called it a wonderful exploration of how fairy tales can help us navigate the world; when I spotted it at my library soon after that I knew I couldn’t resist.

In this book, Eva Figes writes a series of interconnected personal essays about her relationship with her granddaughter and about the act of reading fairy tales together when she’s still quite young. As Tales of Innocence and Experience progresses, it becomes evident that it’s about more than that: it’s also about how the darkness of the metaphorical fairy tale forest parallels the darkness of life; about the roles of older women in traditional stories; and especially about using fairy tales as a tool to tell a child that the world isn’t always safe. The question at the heart of the book is this:
How old is old enough for a child to know the world for what it is? In order to survive even the most mundane existence, by the standards of what we call the civilized world, a child must at some stage be taught not to touch dog shit, never to run into the road, not to go off with strangers. This last one is particularly difficult to explain, since we do not want our offspring to think badly of the human race. In stories evil and wickedness is easily recognised, personified in a witch, a monster, someone with features of outstanding ugliness. What if you cannot tell? What if anybody could be bad, underneath? What if that nice man who looks like an uncle, who smiles and maybe even brings a sweet out of his pocket, is not what he seems? When and how do we explain, try to explain, about the existence of paedophiles, child killers, Dachau, men who wear brown shirts and armbands and high shiny boots, in short, everything that might or might not go on beyond the garden gate?
Figes is a Holocaust survivor: when she was six years old, she was evacuated to England with her family to escape Nazi Germany; her grandparents, who stayed behind, did not survive. Now a grandmother herself, she uses her own experiences to attempt to understand the family she lost, and she tries to balance the desire to protect her granddaughter from a painful and unjust world for as long as possible with the need to equip her to survive in this world. The result is moving and beautifully written: I loved it.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Greenglass House by Kate Milford
Greenglass House is a wonderful blend of manor house mystery and fantasy, and an absolutely perfect winter book to boot. It takes place in the days just before Christmas, in the house that gives the novel its title. Greenglass House is a smugglers’ inn “on the side of a hill overlooking an inlet of harbours”, and it’s run by our protagonist Milo Pine’s parents. The inn’s remote location, plus the seasonal nature of its clientele’s occupation, means it’s usually empty during the winter holidays, and when the novel opens Milo is about to settle down for a nice and quiet couple of weeks. But then the guest bell rings — not once, not twice, but three times in a short period of time.

As more and more unexpected guests arrive at Greenglass House, it becomes apparent that they’ve all come for a reason. They all seem to have secrets to hide, and these turn out to be connected to the history of Greenglass House. As the snow traps the guests at Greenglass House, they gather around the fire and tell intriguing stories that shed some light on their purpose. Milo and his friend Meddy decide to make a game of uncovering their secrets, and soon they come to realise that the mystery in their hands is more intricate than they could have imagined.

I had so much fun with this novel. There’s something about its mood and playfulness that put me in mind of The Westing Game, only I enjoyed Greenglasss House even more. First of all, Milford’s worldbuilding is nothing short of amazing. The story is set in a world with its own rich history, mythology and folklore — a world of peddlers, skilled thieves, smugglers, sinister customs agents, and complex power plays that makes you root for those operating outside the system. Also, the worldbuilding is embedded in the story in just the right way: information is revealed when it’s pertinent to the plot, and there are lots of little details that hint at a vast world you’ll desperately want to explore beyond this story. I understand this is the same world where the rest of Kate Milford’s novels are set — I can’t wait to discover them.

In addition to a satisfying mystery and a twist that actually took me by surprise, Greenglass House has a wonderful cast of characters with emotionally rich, complex relationships. I don’t want to give too much away, but the scene where accomplished thieves Georgie and Clem hug was such a great subversion of the idea that women are always in competition with each other. And of course I have to mention Milo and his parents too: he’s a boy of Chinese descent who was adopted by white parents, and a lot of what Greenglass House focuses on is his negotiation of his love for his family and his curiosity about his own history. Milo is starting to accept this curiosity as natural, and to learn it’s not disloyal to his family to wish he knew more about his birth parents. It was lovely to follow him on his journey, and to see such a warm and loving portrait of a family with an adopted child.

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Feb 26, 2015

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca SolnitHope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power by Rebecca Solnit

Again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.
Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power is a collection of essay that examine our understanding of success and defeat in the context of activism and social change. Solnit’s key argument is that there’s more than one way to look at success, and that our understanding of lasting change as the end-result of heightened periods of crisis doesn’t always serve us well. As she puts it, “revolution doesn’t necessarily look like revolution”; change can be “gradual and subtle” as well as “dramatic and conflict-ridden”. However, we only tend to count the latter, which can make it hard not to lose motivation or feel like you haven’t really accomplished anything.

As the title indicates, Hope in the Dark is also a book about hope. It’s about how to keep despair at bay when the world seems to be changing at a much slower pace than we’d like; about the vulnerability inherent to hope and to opening ourselves up to the possibility of failure; about how not to lose heart when the things you pour your time and energy into don’t seem to amount to anything much. In short, it’s about questions close to my heart, which made it a necessary book for me at this point in time. It gave me hope in the way only books that are frank about how dire things can be ever really manage, because it feels like that hope is coming from an honest place.

I found the way Hope in the Dark reframes success particularly useful: Solnit argues that a lot of the time, victory simply consists of stopping the world from getting worse. This means that your end result is that things stay more or less the same, which a lot of the time renders your work invisible. Yet stopping bad things from happening, or preventing hard-won rights from being taken away, is actually a remarkable accomplishment. It’s the kind of work we tend to take for granted, but whose absence would soon be noticed.

Solnit’s arguments for hope are deeply political: she suggests that despair is all too often exploited to instil a sense of powerlessness and apathy that favours the status quo, and that only by believing that efforts to change the world are not doomed to failure will we ever be in a position to make it happen. It’s hard to write about this without sounding like you’re blaming people who are understandingly dispirited and exhausted for slipping into despair, but the tone of Hope in the Dark is always compassionate and never slips into finger-wagging. Additionally, it recognizes the difficulties in continuing to fight for what you believe in when there’s no “happily ever after”, necessarily — just small victories that need constant protecting and people who are exhausted by then — even as it encourages us to think of political engagement as a constant part of life and not just as something for moments of crisis.

Rebecca Solnit’s experience is largely in environmentalism, which is different from other forms of activism. By “different” I don’t mean “less urgent”, of course — only that context matters and that the specificities of Soltnit’s inevitably shape her perception. She says the following in relation to reframing success:
Most environmental victories look like nothing happened; the land wasn’t annexed by the army, the mine didn’t open, the road didn’t cut through, the factory didn’t spew effluents that didn’t give asthma to the children who didn’t wheeze and panic and stay indoors on beautiful days. They are triumphs invisible except through storytelling.
In sum, deliberate efforts to reclaim the narrative of what happened (or what would have happened) are crucial ways to combat that invisibility and to hold on to hope.

As I noted above, I found Hope in the Dark more than useful: it was honestly kind of essential for where I am right now. However, it’s important for me to acknowledge that hope, power and social change are difficult subjects to approach with a broad brush, because the specificities of each kind of activism really do matter. Some groups and individuals are in a far better position than others to be able to afford to wait or to take the long view. And as much as hopelessness can be politically co-opted, it feels worse than trite to urge people not to despair when their lives are at stake, or when they have to live with the consequences of the lack of swift palpable change day after day in ways that go beyond anything I can imagine.

I’m thinking, for example, about Ferguson and all the activism around police brutality and racial profiling the United States saw in the past few months. Hope in the Dark was published nearly a decade ago and it doesn’t claim to be universal, but it’s still clear to me that the ways in which it helped me are linked to my privilege. I desperately wish the world were different, and as an immigrant woman I struggle with things that are very much rooted in systemic inequality. However, I’m also white, middle class, etc, and my day to day life is far from unbearable. When urged to “recognize that victories may come as subtle, complex, slow changes instead, and count them anyway”, I find it a comforting thought. The ideas expressed in Hope in the Dark are important to me, but so is recognizing that this might not be possible for everyone.

One more bit I liked:
Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes a person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.
The despair that keeps coming up is a loss of believe that the struggle is worthwhile. That loss comes from many quarters: from exhaustion, from a sadness born out of empathy, but also from expectations and analyses that are themselves problems.
(Have you written about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

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