May 2, 2016

Tentative Thoughts (on hooks, Lorde and Rich)

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde, On Lies, Secrets and Silences by Adrienne Rich and All About Love by bell hooks
It’s a little strange to be sitting here trying to write a post without having a clear idea of what it’s going to be about. Normally when I start drafting something, there’s a more or less defined narrative thread in my head, or at the very least a few concrete points I know I’ll want to elaborate on. At the same time, the uncertainty I’m currently grappling with feels like a core part of what I’m trying to articulate — and so, in the spirit of doing what I believe in, I’m willing to make public the process of figuring it out.

These past few months I’ve been reading a lot of classic feminist essays. This isn’t exactly a great deviation from my normal reading habits, but I think I’ve been looking for something a little different when I pick them up. Perhaps that needs rephrasing: the difference is more likely to be in how I experience what I’m reading, but it feels fundamental all the same. Another thing I’ve been feeling lately, which is more or less related to this, is that all the reading that really shakes me, and all the writing I then do in response, is about different iterations of the same few ideas. This is partially a result of the fact that I’ve been following my reading whims more than ever before, and partially about what I’m paying attention to, what I find useful, and what I zoom in on in whatever books I pick up.

When I returned to blogging at the end of March, a few of you said you’d especially like to hear my thoughts on the bell hooks books I’d been reading. I first read Ain’t I a Woman and Feminism is for Everybody a few years ago, and I loved them — of course I did. And you know, I don’t want to make it sound like my initial discovery of feminist texts in my twenties was not intensely personal, because it very much was. My particular “click” moment came in the shape of tearing up while reading the Shakespeare’s sister section of A Room of One’s Own during a university class, and what followed was a reconceptualisation of a whole lifetime of experiences that helped me feel more sane and less alone than I ever had before. There’s no overstating how healing and normalising that was, how transformative, or how much I wish it had happened sooner.

Still, when I return to hooks now, I feel more personally affected by her work than I could have allowed myself to be when I was younger. Angela Davis writes that while “everyone is familiar with the slogan ‘the personal is political’”, it doesn’t only mean “that what we experience on a personal level has profound personal implications, but [also] that our interior lives, our emotional lives, are very much informed by ideology”, which more or less gets at what I’m trying to say. I’m interested, now as ever, in the process of learning how to be alive in the world, and I’ve been turning to classic feminist texts because so many of them approach this question with an eye to dismantling power relationships, and to confronting how these insinuate themselves into even the most sacred and intimate corners of our lives.

bell hooks’ All About Love (and also Communion and The Will to Change) is deeply preoccupied with this. It’s about relinquishing control, which is not the same as relinquishing agency, about what relationships between equals really look like, and about how to make them possible in a world that teaches and encourages dominance and exploitation in ways that aren’t always immediately obvious or recognisable. In other words, it’s about how to be, how to love, and how to avoid inflicting hurt on ourselves and others. It’s useful stuff for anyone who’s trying to recover from whatever wounds the world has inflicted on them without making use of the patriarchal tools that immediately present themselves to us. Being okay doesn’t necessarily look like what we’re encouraged to imagine. I’ve known this intellectually for years, but it took me too long to feel this truth deep in my bones.

Another thing that drew me to these books was the fact that they’re concerned with articulating what was once beyond the reach of language. Adrienne Rich, whose way with words floored me (an obvious point to make about one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, but bear with me — I’m new here), reminds us that what remains unspoken risks becoming unspeakable; and Audre Lorde devotes the whole of Zami to articulating what was once impossible to express — her experiences as a black woman, as a feminist, and as a lesbian in 1940s and 1950s New York.

They give me courage, these books, and also tools to tackle the unspoken messes of my own life. A little while ago someone I think well of praised me for being open; while this made me happy, it also got me thinking about everything I’m still not able to say. I think perhaps I’m slowly, very slowly, edging closer to writing about all the things that make me instinctively go, “I couldn’t possibly write about that”. I think my belief in its value is firmer than it was before. I think perhaps one day I’ll be able to do it in a way that feels, to quote Rich again, “frightening but not destructive”.

This last quote is from “Some Notes on Lying”, which was to me the most affecting essay in On Lies, Secrets and Silences. It is, like hooks’ work, about establishing relationships that reject the dominant models of control, and where the possibility of expressing truths of increasing complexity remains alive — even if the participants aren’t able to live up to it all the time. The model it outlines is definitely something I want in my own life, and I think it goes for writing and for wider community links just as much as it goes for one to one human ties.

Lastly, I think it’s the desire for something like this that has lately been driving me to this loose, neither fish nor fowl sort of writing. It doesn’t mean I’m forever done with the more structured business of book reviewing, or that I don’t still value the intellectual joy of it. It doesn’t mean I have lost my faith in the format’s ability to deal with the messy business of being a human alive in the world, which is after all the business of literature. But for now, this is what I need. This is the sort of writing that allows me to edge closer to my truths. Thank you for sticking around while I figure it out.

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May 1, 2016

Reading Chicago

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks
Good morning, friends. It’s a long weekend here in the UK, and I’m officially reading too many books at once (five at the last count). Normally I find anything more than my usual two — one fiction and one non-fiction — difficult to cope with, but for the moment I’m too excited about all of them to be daunted. Not only that, but I feel the urge to compile lists, surround myself with stacks, and make yet more future reading plans. It’s possible that I’m compensating for having missed all the Readathon fun last weekend.

What are you all reading this weekend?

The actual point of this post is to get to something I’ve been meaning to ask you: I think I’ve mentioned before that I have some exciting travel plans for this year — I’m heading across the pond for two weeks in July, to see places and visit friends and do things I’ve always wanted to do. This trip will take me to several American cities, but Chicago is where I’m starting and where I’m focusing all my planning energy for now. It’s a city I’ve always wanted to see, partially because of its links with labour history and other progressive movements, and I’m sure I’ll get even more out of my visit if I do some reading beforehand. So far I have Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, but I’m sure there’s plenty more I could add to this list. I therefore appear to your collective knowledge: suggestions would be most gratefully received.

We’ve now reached the part where I’d normally ask you for travel tips, not only for Chicago but for all the cities I’m visiting, but there’s already so much I hope to do and so little time to do it in that I’d better not add anything more to my wishlist. Reading suggestions will have to do for now.

Thank you in advance and I hope you have a lovely weekend.

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Apr 27, 2016

This post contains spoilers for The Raven King

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
…or, if not exactly explicit spoilers, at least enough giveaways that you’d be able to put two and two together. It only seems fair, then, to give my friends who are still waiting for or reading the final book in The Raven Cycle the option to avert their eyes.

In the photo above I’m holding my copy The Raven King in my garden and pretending it’s spring. Don’t let the sunshine fool you — it snowed yesterday, and today it’s colder than it was for most of January. All of this has me craving summer and wide open spaces and possibility. I can’t quite decide whether that means this book came at the right time for me, or just at a time likely to make it too much for my poor heart.

I was lucky: one of my local bookshops had The Raven King out early, and so I was able to buy it on Sunday and consume it over two evenings of ravenous reading, with only work and sleep getting in the way of me reading it all in one go. This was my most anticipated final book in a series since Monsters of Men oh so many years ago — and much like back then, the experience has been enhanced by the fact that I got to share it with a group of blogging friends. I feel bereft now that it’s over, but most of all what I feel is a vague and ineffable sense of longing — the kind I’ve learned to enjoy over the years, but which can nevertheless feel like a stab to the heart.

The day before The Raven King was published, Maggie Stiefvater wrote the following on her tumblr:
At the end of the Raven Cycle, I want readers… to want.

I don’t want them to be able to say what it is they want, though — I want it to be a bigger thing than words. I hope they get to the end and don’t know what to do for the rest of the day. I hope they feel unsettled and needing of something more. I want messages that say, “Stiefvater, please, I just want… ” and then silence. They don’t know what they want. They just want.
As Stiefvater herself acknowledges, there isn’t always necessarily much of an overlap between what a creator hopes others will take away from their work and the meaning people find in it — and that’s perfectly fine. It’s part of the very human process of responding to art. Having said that, in this case she was right on the money. The sense of longing these books convey has always been one of my favourite things about them, even if sometimes it hurts. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that the times when I’m able to enjoy this feeling are the times when I manage to combine it with a sense of possibility, rather than with impatience at the confines of my own life.

I have to confess that the first time I heard about The Raven Boys, I wondered whether this series was for me. This was mostly because of the tagline “If you kiss your true love, he will die”, and the expectations it set about how this story was going to go. But of course, those are the exact expectations The Raven Cycle went on to very deliberately explode. Looking back now, I feel nothing but awe at how Stiefvater uses a prophecy as a point of departure to tell a story that’s actually about breaking free of a sense of inevitability and doom, and instead embracing the possibilities of your life.

Throughout the series, we learn about how the main characters fear that their paths have already been set. Adam fears that he’ll become his father; Ronan that he’ll drown in grief and sorrow and self-destruction; Blue that Henrietta will contain her whole life; Gansey that he’ll lose himself to being a Gansey, and all that it implies (that, or that he will die). This articulation lacks a certain finesse, but if you’re reading this, you probably know what I mean: they’re all terrified that there are no more surprises for them, no more wide open spaces and unfathomable tomorrows, and they all readily embrace the possibilities that their quest for Glendower and Cabeswater and their relationships with one another represent. Escaping the fixed futures they fear isn’t easy, but it is possible; to do so, they need hope and they need each other.

As it turns out, possibilities don’t always come in the shape you expect, but that doesn’t mean the world isn’t rife with them. Something more doesn’t necessarily have to be a long-dead Welsh king. Something more can be anything. This is why I found the epilogue’s “The year stretched out in front of them, magical and enormous and entirely unwritten” one of the most moving lines in this series. The best moments of my life were almost invariable ones when I felt my chest expand with this feeling — when the world felt huge and unlimited and surprising.

Likewise for “They were all growing up and into each other like trees striving together for the sun”: my other favourite thing about The Raven Cycle is the fact that although it includes and celebrates romantic love, the ties at its heart go beyond the confines of couplehood. This is a story about found families, and the intricacies of human intimacy in any form, and surviving abuse and slowly regaining the ability to trust. No wonder it hit me right in the heart.

This, too, is linked to the sense of openness and possibility I talked about before, because love and human closeness are very much a part of it. Even when you think you’re done, there could be new people to love anywhere you go. There’s no end in sight to the terrifying joy of mutual discovery, even when it seems outside the limits of what’s possible for your life. This is why I loved Henry Cheng, and why I was overjoyed to see him befriend Blue and Gansey at the end of their quest. Just when they thought the end was in sight, a new beginning. Just when they felt done, the jolt of being known, and a new sense of hope in each other.

What a book. What a series. Now what do I do with myself?

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Apr 17, 2016

Sunny Sunday Morning Links

Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis
It’s a beautiful morning in my part of the world, and I have coffee and a stack of new books — which is to say, everything is pretty much in place for the perfect Sunday. I’d forgotten I’d pre-ordered the UK edition of the Angela Davis essay collection pictured above, so having it arrive last week was a wonderful surprise. Yesterday I also got Raymie Nightingale, the new Kate DiCamillo, because I have no self-control. Before I dive into my reading, here’s what’s been on my mind this past week:

  • An essay in which the author explains why he has no interest in the lives of critics or in what he calls “confessional” writing has been making the rounds over the past few days; this got me thinking about how very interested I am in critics’ lives, as well as in the lives of other human beings in general. Most of all, I’m interested in criticism that comes with a context — in the kind that makes visible the fact that our reading of anything is shaped by our circumstances. All of this reminds of Leslie Jamison’s excellent “The Possibilities of the Personal”. I’ve probably linked to it in the past, but no matter — it continues to be important to me:
    I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience. I’m wary of seeking this resonance by extracting some easy moral from the grit and complication of personal particularity: love hurts, time heals, always look on the bright side. Instead, I’m drawn to essays that allow the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged, to direct our gazes outward.
  • On a somewhat related note, I really enjoyed this piece: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries.

  • Film Dialogue from 2,000 screenplays, Broken Down by Gender and Age. Sigh. I’ll be in the corner, continuing to make my way through lists of movies by and about women. Speaking of which, I’m almost done with the Indiewire list I mentioned the other day, so any further recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

  • I get very excited when people who make things I like talk about what they’ve been reading, so you can imagine my reaction to this: Lin-Manuel Miranda: By the Book.

  • Bitch Media interviews Sarah McCarry. She’s my favourite.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates on how feminist criticism has shaped his approach to how women are depicted in Black Panther (which I so need to read).

  • Ferguson Library Director Scott Bonner on the purpose of libraries: Libraries are the public institutions that exist to nurture cultural literacy, lifelong learning, and bringing its community together.

  • On a worrying note, new research maps the extent of web filtering in public libraries. At least 98% of public libraries filter categories. This list of categories differs between each council, and includes categories such as “Abortion”, “LGBT”, ”alternative lifestyles”, “questionable”, “tasteless”, “payday loans”, “discrimination”, “self-help”and “sex education”.

  • This is about American public libraries, but the exact same is true in the UK: declining library usage correlates to funding cuts, rather than signalling libraries are becoming obsolete due to technological changes or any such nonsense:
    The correlation between investment and use makes sense. If libraries have more funds, they can have more staff, more classes, more copies of the latest bestseller, and—maybe most importantly—longer hours. Yet at the same time, people are so eager to use the library that they make time to visit even when hours have been shortened and collections have shrunk.
  • Michelle Dean on Adrienne Rich’s feminist awakening, glimpsed through her never-before-published letters. As I said before, I’m really interested in the contexts that shape people’s way of thinking, so this was a great read. It was also especially timely for me because I’m reading Rich for the first time at the moment (I’m starting with her essay collection On Lies, Secrets and Silence).

  • Fictional Cops I Love, Ranked By How Guilty I, As An Anarchist, Feel For Loving Them. I thought this was great after reading the bit about Detective Jack Robinson from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, AND THEN I GOT TO SAM VIMES.

  • Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think: When people see themselves as self-made, they tend to be less generous and public-spirited. This reminds me (yes, again) of Upheavals of Thought, of everything it says about trying to accept our common human vulnerability to factors beyond our control, and of all the reasons why that book hit me the way it did. (It’s been weeks since I finished it but I keep renewing it instead of returning it to the library, because I kind of want it to be in my house forever).

  • Speaking of which: Here’s a great interview with Martha Nussbaum.

  • The Year of Numbered Rooms by Emily St John Mandel:
    It was a year of loneliness and long flights and spectacular good fortune, a year of numbered rooms and standing behind podiums. “Culture,” I told the audience, “is an antidote to chaos,” although that year the chaos seemed exceptionally strong. It was a year of mass shootings, of blinking back tears in airport lounges beneath televisions tuned to CNN, of reading about new massacres in hotel rooms at night. The violence that year was stunning and constant and it was easy to conclude that it would never end.

    But every day of the tour, in seven countries, I met people who cared about life, about civilization, about books, and by the end of the tour this seemed to me to be a reasonable antidote to despair. I thought very often about the world you’d be born into, about what it means to hold on to one’s humanity in the face of horror. In my life, the humanities have been the antidote to mere survival. In the book for which I traveled, the line Survival is insufficient is tattooed on someone’s skin.
  • A couple of weeks ago I read Dawn Foster’s Lean Out, an excellent book about the limitations of corporate feminism. This piece touches on some of the same concerns:
    Here’s where we are right now: Most Americans must consider their employment ahead of all other needs. Work schedules dominate our abilities to see friends and family, to care for our health concerns, to squeeze any drop of joy out of our day.
    (...)
    What if we didn’t have to work at an unhealthy pace? What if our lives weren’t job-first? We are a resource-rich country on a resource-rich earth—a truth that could continue in perpetuity if we were strategic about how we grew food and how we distributed energy. And how we spent our money.
  • Lastly, here’s Neil Gaiman on Terry Pratchett’s memorial at The Barbican. I have a lot of feelings about the first paragraph of this post, and also about the photo of Neil wearing Terry’s hat. My friend and I entered the ticket raffle for the event, but we had no luck. As we said the day after, it was probably for the best: chances are that if we had been there we would still be crying right now.
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    Apr 13, 2016

    “A philosophy of unassumingness”

    How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
    This week I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, which I’d been meaning to pick up ever since I read what Nick Hornby had to say about it in More Baths, Less Talking. As Hornby says, Bakewell’s book is part traditional biography, part history, part philosophy, and always compulsively readable. It also touches on some of the same ideas that drew me to Upheavals of Thought — if mostly from a different angle — and is therefore proving a very good match for my current interests and preoccupations.

    In the chapter that answers the title question with “Question everything”, there was a passage that particularly stood out for me:
    The Essays are suffused with [scepticism]: [Montaigne] filled his pages with words such as ‘perhaps’, ‘to some extent’, ‘I think’, ‘it seems to me’, and so on — words which, as Montaigne said himself, ‘soften and moderate the rashness of our propositions’, and which embody what the critic Hugo Friedrich has called his philosophy of ‘unassumingness’. They are not extra flourishes; they are Montaigne’s thought, at its purest. He never tired of such thinking, or of boggling his own mind by contemplating the millions of lives that had been lived through history and the impossibility of knowing the truth about them. ‘Even if all that has come down to us by report from the past should be true and known by someone, it would be less than nothing compared with what is unknown’. How puny is the knowledge of even the most curious person, he reflected, and how astounding the world by comparison.
    I’m very drawn to this idea: not as a refusal of intellectual commitment, but as a corollary of my interest in, to paraphrase Sara Marcus, making visible the process of figuring things out — and also as an acknowledgement that this process is always provisional. I’ve written about this before, but it’s an idea I keep returning to. It’s become increasingly important to me to adopt this “philosophy of unassumingness” as a deliberate stance, and to become comfortable with it. Once again this brings me back to Upheavals of Thought, with its arguments in favour of a sense of ease with being porous to the world, and with its refusal of shame as the inevitable response to this porousness.

    The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
    This week I also picked up Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which I devoured in one gulp and found incredibly smart and intensely moving. It was interesting to see Nelson address more or less the same idea, and zoom in on exactly why achieving a sense of comfort with “unassumingness” has been a struggle for me in the past — on why I felt shame, and the need to constantly edit myself:
    My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.

    At times I grow tired of this approach, and all its gendered baggage. Over the years I’ve had to train myself to wipe the sorry off almost every work e-mail I write; otherwise, each might begin, Sorry for the delay, Sorry for the confusion, Sorry for whatever. One only has to read interviews with outstanding women to hear them apologizing. But I don’t intend to denigrate the power of apology: I keep in my sorry when I really mean it. And certainly there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing, more apologizing.
    This “gendered baggage” and the accusations of weakness that generally come with it are less likely to rattle me now. Still, and to borrow from Nelson again, these are voices that have “terrible clarity”, even if I generally know better than to listen to them. I remember the feeling of being paralyzed by self-doubt, which is very different from the sort of uncertainty one welcomes, all too vividly. My partial inoculation has been achieved by reading Deborah Cameron at every available opportunity — there’s no better writer for boosting one’s immunity to what she calls the terrible logic of patriarchy. As Cameron points out, it’s not even that women are more likely than men to express themselves in ways that make room for tentativeness — it’s simply that people respond do it very differently when it comes from a woman. In a different piece, she adds:
    So what women are being criticized for—using ‘just’ when they make requests—is not a form of excessive feminine deference, it’s a way of being polite by displaying your awareness of others’ needs. Where is the logic in telling women not to do that? I think we all know the answer: it’s the logic of patriarchy, which says ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.
    Apologising is slightly different from expressing uncertainty, of course, but it seems to me that it’s rooted in the same logic. In this case, the goal is to express awareness of the lack of universality of your perspective — which renders it partial and potentially impermanent, sure, but not valueless. It’s a way of writing and of being in the world that might not be suited to everyone, but which has always come naturally to me, and which I’ve grown to embrace and value. It’s a conscious rejection of the idea that one must adopt a place of absolute authority to have a right to speak at all. So I’ll continue to riddle my writing with “to me” and “I think”, not because I don’t know any better but with deliberation, and I’ll do so knowing I’m in good company.

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