May 19, 2016

“It’s alright. It’s all normal”


Last month I went to London to watch a screening of Daniel Kitson’s story show “It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later”. I’d seen it before, back when I was living in Manchester — in fact, the very same performance that was now being screened — but I was really looking forward to seeing it again. Kitson’s work is one of my very favourite things in this world, and I often wish there were ways of sharing it with others that didn’t require me to physically drag people to his shows (not that that’s not lovely when it happens; it’s just that it’s not always possible because geography).

“It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later” tells the stories of two characters, William Rivington and Caroline Carpenter, through a series of moments that go beyond what we normally think of as momentous life events (and which thus challenge the idea that what counts as “momentous” can be easily pinpointed). Many of these moments are moving, especially in the wider context of the show, but what I really want to do is tell you about what just might be my favourite scene. It’s one where we find Caroline, who is by then a new mother, pushing a buggy with her incessantly screaming baby down the streets of London in the rain. She’s trying to make her way to the pharmacy, and she herself is crying with sheer exhaustion and near desperation. As she walks past a bus stop full of commuters, Caroline happens to make eye contact with an older woman, who turns to her and says, “It’s alright. It’s all normal”.

I was intensely moved by this scene, the obvious reason being how well it portrays a moment of ordinary kindness between strangers. But it also got me thinking about what a world of difference it can make to hear the words “me too” when we need them the most. It’s a little difficult for me to write about how much I value this sense of human commonality, or how much I want to extend it as widely as possible; this is mostly because I’m all too aware of how easily the idea can give way to claims to homogeneity that erase difference. There are aspects of our experience of being human that are specific, and it’s often crucial to have those specificities seen and recognised. At the same time, it’s very important for me to try and talk about these specificities in a way that leaves the door open to communication and understanding. I can, of course, only ever speak for myself, but I want people, including people who are nothing like me, to understand where I’m coming from. I don’t want to sequester even the thorniest pieces of what makes me me beyond the possibility of broad comprehension. I want to reach out, and do so widely, and believe that this is worthwhile.

(And yet, to double back on myself once again, I also know all too well how important it can be to have conversations that go beyond trying to establish that very basic level of understanding. Case in point: I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t talk about feminism with like-minded women who know exactly what I’m talking about, or just with like-minded people who are willing to listen. These are discussions that don’t get bogged down forever in establishing their own legitimacy, and it’s only because we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time that we get to move beyond the surface.)

I took refuge in exceptionalism a lot when I was younger. I’m not talking about the Ayn Rand kind, whose troubling political implications are easy to spot, but about a kind that’s more personal, if perhaps somewhat akin in origin — both can be conceived of as a kind of armour behind which we try to hide our humanity. I felt, I suppose, uniquely and irreparably broken. And as much as I don’t like to dismiss the thoughts one has as a teenager as misguided or immature by default, it’s easy, in hindsight, to see how in my case that logic was the product of a particular developmental process. It was also, of course, the product of a deep sense of isolation, which it both exacerbated and helped guard me against.

I needed to break free from that in order to feel okay.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson makes use of Winnicott’s concept “deflation without dismissal”, which I think would have served my younger self well. There’s a deep sense of comfort to be found in discovering that our sorrows are not as unique as we might have thought, but for that discovery to be a healing experience we need, I think, to let go of our fear of ordinariness. Deflation can be a relief — it means, after all, that our troubles are not ones that nobody in the history of humanity has ever succeeded in moving past, or at least in learning to live with. But the “without dismissal” part matters too: the ordinariness of our suffering doesn’t make it gauche or unimportant; it only makes it part of the fabric of human experience. And this means, of course, that we too are part of this fabric, and not doomed to a separation we can never hope to resolve. There’s no need, then, to embrace the idea that we could never possibly be understood as a safeguard against the pain of failing to find the understanding that we crave.

All of this brings me, for the hundredth time this year, back to Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought. There’s a wonderful section that deals with the link between compassion and this sense of commonality — but it’s a sense of commonality that goes beyond recognising in others what we have experienced or could come to experience ourselves. Nussbaum argues that compassion is linked to “a recognition of one’s own related vulnerability”, but one that broadens its reach to include “even the aspects of suffering that are most unlike our own”. This kind of compassion is a powerful antidote to shame, and its normalising effect can be very powerful. Again, it’s not about claiming excessive knowledge in a way that erases the particulars of another person’s reality, but about acknowledging that while the particulars matter, we all understand suffering and need. We may not know the ins and outs of another living being’s pain, but we do know what it’s like to be vulnerable to various hurts.

Recognising this common core allows us, as Nussbaum puts it, to “turn our thoughts outward”, in a way that seems to me the very antitheses of Randian exceptionalism. People suffer, and their pain is both ordinary in its humanity and unique because they’re valuable individuals, and we can hopefully exist in the world without turning our backs to the fact that we’re all as vulnerable as each other.

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May 15, 2016

Another Sunday, Another Links Post

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh by Susan Sontag, The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, Girl Up by Laura Bates, The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein, Political Emotions by Martha Nussbaum
The pile I alluded to last week. I really want to be reading all of these right now.

I only have a handful of links to share today, but as they all touch on things that are pretty important to me I didn’t want to wait to post them:
  • Here’s a clearer, more succinct, and far more elegant articulation of what I was trying to say the other day, from (of course) Leslie Jamison:
    Some of why it can be comforting, or humanizing, or generative to me to see articulations of the failures of language, or the difficult fit between language and experience, is that it really connects to the part of writing that involves writing into what you don’t understand yet, or don’t yet know quite how to say. I found over and over again that my best writing comes from some experience of leaning into uncertainty. It’s such a necessary and enabling part of that process to think about the ways in which so many other voices have been confronted with what they couldn’t quite figure out how to say. I’m really interested in understanding that as part of the process rather than necessarily fetishizing the unsayable or concluding with some assertion of the unsayable. There can be a kind of alibi in the assertion of the unsayable. I’m interested in unsayability as a kind of gauntlet that gets thrown down, rather than as an excuse that gets given.

    But then I also think unsayability really can attach to the fear of sentimentality. I think that a certain elliptical mode can come out of this sense that you can’t ever really say it right, or you can’t say it fully—certain kinds of emotion just can’t ever exist in language, so I’ll seek the white space, where we can fill in the blank of some kind of complexity there. I’m really interested in trying to reckon with what can be said imperfectly rather than taking the difficulty, or the fear, of saying it wrong, or the fear of saying it too simply, as a crutch.
    This reminds me that one of these days I’ll have to write about shame (or possibly just quote Martha Nussbaum on shame at great length).
  • Over the past year I’ve been trying to explain my complicated relationship with writing both to myself and to those close to me, and the phrase “it’s not confidence, it’s capitalism” has come up a lot. So it was interesting to read Sarah McCarry’s thoughts on the subject in her recent post. I read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift earlier this year and it helped some, though more in the sense of providing a lucid articulation of the problem than of giving immediate solutions (and also in the sense of helping me distinguish between excuses I gave myself because of fear and actual external problems).

    I’ll probably never be able to reconcile the fact that I don’t want certain areas of my life to be subjected to the rule of the market with the need to make a living — and even more than that, with the fact that anything that isn’t your livelihood has to be relegated the edges of the relentless reality of full-time work, or to whatever ragged pieces of time you manage to rescue from exhaustion. This means that either the writing suffers or you suffer — or possibly both. Also, this is where I feel the urge to say that I do find my job meaningful and enjoyable — and yet. Perhaps my need to add this as caveat is telling in its own right.

    Another book I found helpful was Tillie Olsen’s Silences — again, the solutions it offers are structural rather than ones we could ever hope to implement individually, but it was an immense relief to find a book that said, “Yes, this is happening, and it’s awful, and we lose voices because of it, and if you give in to the need for sleep and rest and space in your life to just be, it absolutely doesn’t mean you just don’t want it badly enough and that therefore it’s only right that you get left behind”. It made me feel sane.

  • Maureen wrote a beautiful post about community and belonging, “Finding New People, Finding My Value”, which I have a lot of feelings about.

  • Finally, I recently became slightly obsessed with Julien Baker’s album Sprained Ankle, and I absolutely love what she says here about vulnerability, and finding communion in live music, and believing that small acts of kindness and moments of human connection do matter. I never really wrote about it (I used to say I couldn’t, but to be honest this is a clear example of what Jamison says above about using unsayability to mask fear and shame), but all of this was extremely important in my life last year.

    I’ll leave you with a song I love:

Have a lovely Sunday, everyone.

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May 8, 2016

Sunday Links: Hope in the Dark

Good morning, friends. It’s May, and the weather has been lovely this week, and I have a bunch of fun events coming up, I’m officially excited about life. I also have a pile of recent bookish acquisitions and library holds (which, inevitably, all came in at the same time), and I’m so looking forward to all of them I wish I could break open my brain and pour the contents inside. It’s a nice feeling.
  • I’ve been thinking about hope a lot this week, so it seems only right to link to a Rebecca Solnit essay on the subject. I read her book Hope in the Dark at the start of 2015, and it set the tone for my year in more ways than I could either imagine or articulate at the time. An excerpt:
    I’m hopeful, partly because we don’t know what is going to happen in that dark future and we might as well live according to our principles as long as we’re here. Hope, the opposite of fear, lets us do that. Imagine the world as a lifeboat: the corporations and the current administration are smashing holes in it as fast (or faster) than the rest of us can bail or patch the leaks. But it’s important to take account of the bailers as well as the smashers and to write epics in the present tense rather than elegies in the past tense. That’s part of what floats this boat. And if it sinks, we all sink, so why not bail? Why not row?
  • Many thanks to Jenny for pointing me in the direction of Linda Holmes’ “Captain America, Aaron Burr, And The Politics Of Killing Your Friends”:
    We are not in a golden age of nuance. We are not in a time in which public conversations leave ample room for good-faith disagreement. Cap and Tony apply similar values to interpret the same evidence about Winter Soldier, reach different conclusions, and cannot figure out how to stop short of a 12-person rumble. Similarly, when discussions of policy and culture take place in public spaces, they often run on the assumption that to reach a final conclusion is to reject (or disbelieve, or not care about) the entirety of the case against it. When that happens, every rejection of a tactic is received as a rejection of all the principles it was conceived to advance; every imperfect alignment might as well be absolute opposition.
  • On Prince and Hegemonic Masculinity.

  • Hooray for comics! Here Are Your 2016 Eisner Award Nominees.

  • I’m on Letterboxd! Feel free to add me so I can get movie recommendations from you.

  • The brilliant Katherine Cross writes about “When Robots Are An Instrument Of Male Desire”:
    You see this even in “pro-AI” media. In the Spike Jonze movie Her, set in the near future, a man falls in love with his operating system, Samantha. She is essentially sapient and her ability to learn and cognitively develop is the equal of any human; she has desires, dreams, and consciousness. But she exists in a society where OSes like her are considered property, part of the furniture. Yet this ostensible romance movie does not once broach the issue of power and sexual consent; after all, if she’s legally an object, then could Sam ever say no to her would-be boyfriend without fear of reprisal?

    That this is not even considered, in what is otherwise a touching and even somewhat feminist film, should make clear what assumptions we’re both taking on board as a society—assumptions that Silicon Valley is likely building into what will one day become a properly sapient AI. The service industry, already highly feminized in both fact and conventional wisdom, is made up of people who almost never have the right to say no, and virtual assistants who simply can’t are increasingly the model of the ideal service worker.
    This was exactly how I felt about Her — I know it’s possible to enjoy it and connect with it for other reasons while still caring about the issues of consent it got wrong, but for me the omission was large enough that I couldn’t sustain my suspension of disbelief.

  • Toni Morrison and Angela Davis discuss connecting for progress at the New York Public Library podcast. MY HEART.

  • Well done, London.

  • It’s probably been three whole weeks since I last talked about how amazing Deborah Cameron is; time to redress that:
    Most people are small-c conservatives when it comes to language: they rarely hail new usages with delight, and often spend decades denouncing them as abominations. What bothers me about this isn’t the reaction itself, it’s the accompanying tendency to construct elaborate justifications for it. Instead of just saying ‘I find this way of speaking annoying’, pundits insist that it’s a symptom of some larger social disease. Vocal fry is a sign that young women are throwing away all the gains of the last 50 years. ‘I feel like’ threatens the foundations of democracy because it’s ‘a means of avoiding rigorous debate’.

    This is overblown nonsense, and it also has the effect of making the most innovative language-users, young people and especially young women, into objects of relentless criticism–and not only of their speech, but sometimes also of their character. Criticism which they internalize, as is illustrated in some of the quotes I’ve reproduced. When young women are worried that the way they express themselves demeans them, when they’re berating themselves for being ‘indulgent verging on narcissistic’, it might be time for the people who write this stuff to consider keeping their opinions to themselves.
    (I know this post is heavy on long quotes, but I can’t help it when people keep being amazing.)

  • US friends! My Mad Fat Diary has finally come your way, and I absolutely agree that it’s must-see TV. Here’s what I wrote about it in 2014.

  • Speaking of awesome things finally making their way across the pond, allow my friend Memory to convince you that you should read Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree.

  • Lastly, I leave you with a taste of my week in music. I’m so excited that this album is out:

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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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