Nov 30, 2015

Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter

Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter

Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter
“My girl, my darling girl, don’t wish for what I’ve got—a witch’s life is made of sorrow and such. Be happy you’ve a chance at something else.”
Of Sorrow and Such is about witches, which is to say: it’s about the lives of women at the edges of society. Mistress Gideon has been the resident witch at Edda’s Meadow for a long time. Her status is more or less an open secret — people, mostly other women, come to her for counsel, remedies, or both, and the male powers–that–be remain oblivious or turn a blind eye. Mistress Gideon lives comfortably, but she knows her position is precarious: when the authorities catch a group of young shapeshifters at a gathering, it becomes impossible for them to continue to deny the existence of witches amongst them, which means that the women of Edda’s Meadow are all at risk. Will Patience Gideon be able to save herself and those she loves? And if so, at what cost?

I decided to read Of Sorrow and Such for two reasons: the first was the gorgeous Anna and Elena Balbusso cover; the second was the fact that it was blurbed by Margo Lanagan. It’s not a huge surprise, then, that Angela Slatter’s sensibility reminded me of Lanagan’s own. Of Sorrow and Such is smart, thoughtful, unabashedly feminist, and deeply concerned with women’s lives — particularly women at the edges of a social system that barely recognises their existence, unless it’s to use them as scapegoats.

Patience Gideon is not only a witch, but also middle-aged, unmarried, economically and emotionally independent, living on her own terms in a house “good enough to blend in yet not so fine as to excite envy”. She’s a woman whose very existence threatens the ideology of inevitability behind the oppression of those who share her gender — no wonder her existence goes unacknowledged. Needless to say, I loved Patience: she’s sensible and brave; ruthless when she needs to be; compassionate despite this; and committed to the idea of carving out a safe space for herself and for other women inside an unfair social system.

Patience’s relationship with her daughter Gilly is at the heart of Of Sorrow and Such: the story is particularly concerned with Patience’s complicated feelings about having Gilly follow her footsteps and live and unconventional life, and with Gilly’s own doubts about where such a path would lead her. Gilly, it turns out, is not a witch, which makes it easier for her to blend in should she choose to:
There’s no terrible power flowing in her veins, so if she must flee, she’ll be able to settle down somewhere, perhaps become wife to an ordinary man. Have an existence that draws neither eyes nor attention to her for the wrong reasons. I do not mention the great book in the cellar, which is of no use to her for she does not know the language of witches. If she knew of it, her longing to be different might bring peril. Though I know she feels its lack, yearns for its power, without magic her life will be less complicated.
Patience’s thoughts are of course motivated by fear: as much as she lives comfortably, everything could come crashing down at a moment’s notice, as indeed it does over the course of Of Sorrow and Such. It’s understandable that she doesn’t want this for the daughter she raised and loves, but hopes for a life of quiet and safety for her instead. And yet Patience has mixed feelings about nudging Gilly towards the kind of life she herself and women like her friend Selke resisted:
I wonder sometimes why I push her to this, to being a wife, and the sole answer I can find is because it’s the only chance I can see for her to have a safe life when I am gone. And at some point I will be gone, whether it be through death natural or otherwise, or a need to run. I will be gone and she will be alone.
It is, of course, Gilly’s own choice that matters in the end, though the novella highlights the constraining circumstances in which such a choice is made. I appreciated the fact that Of Sorrow and Such is truthful about what opting out of heteronormative couplehood meant for the women of Edda’s Meadow, and truthful as well about what it meant to opt in. Marriage, Patience realises, is by no means a guarantee of safety. And while a witch’s life might be made “of sorrow and such”, that “and such” contains more nuance and variation than what we might initially assume.

The same is of course true of the lives of the married women of Edda’s Meadow: Patience is surprised at the alliance between Charity and Mother Alhgren; she sees the passion between Flora and Ina Brautigan; and in the end she waves goodbye to her daughter with hope in her heart. Although it takes more than individual goodwill to dismantle a deeply ingrained system of inequality, there’s hope and possibility in men like Sandor, who reject hegemonic masculinity and who recognise that women “are more than just the sum of their parts” — that they are human beings with whom they can strive to form partnerships of equals.

Angela Slatter explains in the afterword that Of Sorrow and Such is set in the same world as her short story collections Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, which also feature Patience Gideon and Selke (another fascinating woman we get to know in this novella). I can’t wait to read them.

Bits I liked:
I wonder sometimes if that long ago Edda would recognise the place that bears her name. I wonder more often who she was, for she’s yet another woman lost to history. No one thought to make note of her, whether she committed some great deed or merely owned the field before it sprouted a village that grew prosperous and then grew some more. Females are seldom remembered once they’ve gone beneath the earth; indeed, many go unremarked while they’re still upon it.

“Trust, my dears, is a knife: it may as easily injure as protect if given to the wrong person. I wish I could say every one of us was strong and brave, that there was not a coward to be found in our ranks, but I cannot. I have known women to break from the weight of water, the lick of flames, beneath slabs of stone and rock piled on their chests so even the smallest puff of air can find no place to hide. I have known women to break from nothing more than the threat of these things.” I gestured around the room. “We have all benefited in our lives from safe places; I beg you not to put this one at risk.”
They read it too: The Book Smugglers, you?

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Nov 23, 2015

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams by Leslie JamisonThe Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

In her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”, one of the centrepieces of The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison acknowledges that hers is not “the first voice to call for sentimentality in the wake of postmodern irony”. She tells us that “there’s a chorus. There’s been a chorus for years. Once upon a time, it was directed by David Foster Wallace. Now it’s directed by his ghost.” This got me thinking about the fact that a lot of the voices I’m drawn to belong to this chorus: as readers of this blog will likely have noticed, I tend towards the earnest, though I simultaneously struggle with embarrassment and self-consciousness, and with a keen awareness of its possible pitfalls and limitations. Jamison is concerned with this struggle, too, even as she believes in the value and potential of open-hearted writing. No wonder I felt so close to The Empathy Exams.

The essays in The Empathy Exams are all concerned with suffering and empathy, though they approach these themes from a wide range of angles. They’re about injury and illness; connection and communication; dismissals and misunderstandings; the pain of inequality; the danger of co-opting and commodifying pain; the matter of pain and artistic representation; and, last but not least, what Jamison calls the “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”: how can we do justice to women’s real experiences of suffering in a world that has reduced female pain to an aesthetic commodity?

Jamison is interested in the limits of empathy as well as in its possibilities, and this is a central part of what gives her essays their depth. How do you continue to attempt understanding, even when you know that most of the time the end result will be imperfect at best, and that real human beings have been and continued to be hurt by faulty attempts? How do you make sure you truly hear others over the sound of your own anxiety about this? How do you resist dehumanisation, when everything about the world we live in encourages it?

As she puts it in “Devil’s Bait”,
How do I inhabit someone’s pain without inhabiting their particular understanding of that pain? This anxiety is embedded in every layer of this essay; even its language—every verb choice, every qualifier. Do people have parasites or claim to have them? Do they understand or believe themselves to have them? I wish I could invent a verb tense full of open spaces—a tense that didn’t pretend to understand the precise mechanisms of which it spoke; a tense that could admit its own limits. As it is, I can’t move an inch, finish a sentence, without running into some crisis of imputation or connotation. Every twist of syntax is an assertion of doubt or reality.
While I loved The Empathy Exams as a whole (it was one of the most personally meaningful books I’ve read this year), I was especially drawn to three essays, which strike me as the ones where Jamison’s thesis reaches its clearest articulation: the first is the title essay, which opens the collection; the second is “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”, and the last is “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”. Like Jamison, I value writing that comes from a place of openness. Candid personal essays (and fiction, and music, and so on) are extremely important to me, for many reasons. One of them is the fact that we live in a world where there’s an enormous mismatch between the most common cultural narratives and the reality of our private experiences. It’s not uncommon to feel that the way we experience love, or friendship, or rejection, or grief, doesn’t match the most prominent, too-neat representations of these experiences. And because stories are such a huge part of how we make sense of our lives, it’s very easy to end up feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong with how we experience the world.

Feeling that our emotions don’t quite fit the mould makes us feel strange and alone, even if at the back of our mind we know that the problem is with the idea that there should be a mould. I believe that openness is how we battle this: I’ve become better at navigating my own life thanks to writing and art that acknowledge the rough edges of human experiences, the moments that leaves us grappling with feelings that don’t fit easily into a neat resolution, and allow me to find communion in that. In a more recent piece about the possibilities of the personal, Jamison spoke about the value of “honouring the complexity of your own life”:
If you grant us entry into moments that hold shame or hurt or heat, and if you’re willing to follow that heat, to feel out where all the small fires burn, then your readers will trust you. They’ll find flashes of themselves.
Doing this can be terrifying, but I desperately need stories that make those small fires visible.

And yet, even as I sit here thinking about how life-saving personal writing has been for me, I acknowledge that there are complicating factors, especially when you add gender or other marginalised identities to the equation. As much as I value openness (and I do, more than I can say; I don’t know how else to live), I don’t want it to become a straitjacket for other women. I’m wary of it being seem as compulsory; as something we can demand of others. I want a world where every way of being is accepted, but I realise that’s not the world we have. Like any other aspect of stereotypical femininity, emotional vulnerability is a double-edged sword. I want it to be safe to embrace it, and safe to reject it too. I want women for whom it doesn’t come easily to know that that’s okay. And I want women who need it not to be met with contempt.

Jamison addresses this contempt for what is perceived as excessive feeling in “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”. She asks,
What do we flee when we retreat into metaphor? What scares us about the “primary noon” of our existence? Milan Kundera claims that “kitsch moves us to tears for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel,” and I think our fixation with complication and opaque figuration has something to do with an abiding sense of this banality, creeping constantly around the edges of our lives and language. Perhaps if we say it straight, we suspect, if we express our sentiments too excessively or too directly, we’ll find that we are nothing but banal. There are several fears inscribed in this: The fear of interior simplicity, the fear of melodramatic actuality, and—perhaps most deeply felt—the fear of commonality: That our feelings will resemble everyone else’s. This is why we want to dismiss sentimentality, to assert that our emotional responses are more sophisticated than “other people’s,” that our aesthetic sensibilities testify—iceberg style—to an entire landscape of interior depth.
But doesn’t anti-sentimentality simply offer an inversion of the same affective ego-boost? We reject sentimentality to sharpen a sense of ourselves as True Feelers, arbiters of complication and actual emotion. The anti-sentimental stance is still a mode of identity ratification, arrows flying instead of tears flowing, still a way to make a point about perceptive capacity: an assertion about discernment rather than empathy. It’s self-righteousness by way of dismissal: a kind of masturbatory double negative.
And in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, she delves into all the potential gendered pitfalls I alluded to before. The result is a collection of questions rather than an attempt at a solid answer, but they’re questions I value and need to see asked out loud. I especially related to this:
I find myself in a bind. I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the hurting woman is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.
I, too, have felt wounded by this proposition. I say this with full respect for every individual reader who decides she can no longer engage with representations of a particular kind of female pain; I say this with full knowledge that we each have to draw our own boundaries so we can carry on existing in the world without being overwhelmed by pain and exhaustion. We do what we can. We do what we must. It’s okay, all of it; it has to be. I’ve written about this in the past — I didn’t have an answer then and I don’t have one now. All I know is that I want a world where we use words carefully, so that “I can’t do this story anymore” doesn’t become “Every iteration of this story betrays feminism, and if it happens to be your story, then you came along too late to have any right to voice it”. I don’t know how to do this, but I have to believe we can — I have to because I believe every variation of a common story is valuable nonetheless, just like every individual life is valuable; that every articulation will reach different people at different times and be helpful or potentially healing in different ways.

There are more questions to consider, of course; for example, the ones Jemison asks here:
How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative? Fetishize: to be excessively or irrationally devoted to. Here is the danger of wounded womanhood: that its invocation will corroborate a pain cult that keeps legitimating, almost legislating, more of itself.
The hard part is that underneath this obscene fascination with representations of women who hurt themselves and have bad sex and drink too much, there are actual women who hurt themselves and have bad sex and drink too much. Female pain is prior to its representation, even if its manifestations are shaped and bent by cultural models.
Relying too much on the image of the wounded woman is reductive, but so is rejecting it—being unwilling to look at the varieties of need and suffering that yield it. We don’t want to be wounds (“No, you’re the wound!”) but we should be allowed to have them, to speak about having them, to be something more than just another girl who has one. We should be able to do these things without failing the feminism of our mothers, and we should be able to represent women who hurt without walking backward into a voyeuristic rehashing of the old cultural models: another emo cutter under the bleachers, another hurt-seeking missile of womanhood, a body gone drunk or bruised or barren, another archetype sunk into blackout under the sheets.
I don’t know how we can do this, but I do know I need to talk about it.

Lastly, I love what Jemison has to say about deliberation in the title essay “The Empathy Exams”. Intentionality, she reminds us, is not the enemy of love. She makes a case for a world where emotional labour is both valued and made visible:
Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say going through the motions— this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgement of effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.
I’ll leave you with the book’s closing words — what they get at is simple, but to me they were a revelation:
I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.
They read it too: The Literary Omnivore, Shelf Love, you?

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Nov 22, 2015

Sunday Links: November Fog

spider web covered in dew
Good morning, all. Winter has settled unexpectedly around these parts — and by that I do of course mean the comparatively mild version of winter we have over there. Still, it gets me down, even if I know it could be a lot worse. The proper cold has finally arrived, the dark is here to stay, and I’m shaking off what remains of my first bad cold of the season. Also, after a few windy days last week, all the golden leaves I had so much fun photographing are gone: the trees are bare, the nights are long, and I feel myself slowly beginning to settle into a quiet, retrospective end of the year mode.

I don’t have much in the way of plans between now and the holidays, so hopefully that means reading and writing will resume their central role in my life. I regret that I haven’t done more blogging in the past few weeks, but I don’t mean that in an angsty way. I really like what Rohan Maitzen said about this feeling last weekend:
I don’t feel guilty when I don’t blog better or more often: why would I? It wouldn’t make any sense, since I’m not answerable to anyone about it. I just feel disappointed, because I really like writing here, especially about books that have stimulated, moved, or provoked me, and when I’m not doing that kind of writing here, it’s often a sign that I’m not quite living the life I want.
That’s it exactly. What I do here matters to me, so here’s to more writing in the weeks to come.

A few links that caught my eye recently:

  • The 32 Types of Anti-Feminists by Barry Deutsch.

  • Eric Lundgren reviews Part of Our Lives : A People’s History of the American Public Library. I would love a British or European history of public libraries too — which isn’t to say I’m not also interested in reading this one.

  • Speaking of libraries: what Stefanie said.

  • This post by Sarah McCarry means so much to me:
    It’s a hard world to live in, the world we’ve been given. The world to which most of us did not consent. I have been saying you’re not alone a lot and it’s not you and no really it’s not you and really for real, it’s not you. Living with pain is hard and living with the pain of people you love when you are not in pain is hard because you want to fix it and you can’t, you want to take it away and you can’t, you want to undo all the things that are wrong with the world and you can’t. You can sit with the raw flesh and the gristle, you can think about the times you yourself were a walking wound making messes everywhere and leaving a trail of blood and spit and sweat and tears. You can be quiet. You can say I see you, I see you, I’m here. What else? I don’t know. I’m working on it.
    Read the rest. Read everything.

  • Also, here’s the always brilliant Liz Bourke on why you should read the Metamorphoses trilogy.

  • Racialicious on how Marjorie M. Liu’s Monstress Explores Our Inner Darkness. Friends, I’m so excited for this series. I continue to resist single issue comics, mostly because of money, so for now I’ll just wait and savour the anticipation. But you can bet I’ll be all over the trade paperback the second it’s out next year.

  • Cory Doctorow on compassion and The Shepherd’s Crown.

  • How Richard Scarry updated his children’s book to be more progressive and inclusive.

    More soon, and that’s a promise. I definitely want to make an effort to live the life I want, and making sense of things through the words I write here is very much a part of that.
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    Nov 20, 2015

    The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

    The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry PratchettThe Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

    It will surprise exactly no one to hear that The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett’s final Discworld novel, made me cry my eyes out in public. I can’t really review it in the traditional sense of the term — or, to be precise, I’m sure I could if I made the effort, but I don’t really want to. My subjective experience of reading it is important to me, and that’s what I hope to capture in this post.

    I bought The Shepherd’s Crown on the same day as my friend — the same friend who cried with me on a hidden library staircase on the day Pratchett’s death was announced — and we started reading it during our lunch break at work. It didn’t take long until we were both in tears (in fact, the dedication was really all it took); so much so that carrying on reading became impossible after a while. Still, it mattered to me, the humanity of that moment. It mattered that I got to share it. This happened in late August, just before my month of travelling began; a few days later I cried some more as I read The Shepherd’s Crown on a flight to Edinburgh, and then I finished it early one morning at my hotel room in my favourite city. It was fitting that this all happened on a weekend full of reminders of what I value about being human. So much of that is present in Pratchett’s final book.

    It’s difficult for me to speak openly about what reading this novel was like for me because I’m keenly aware of the risk of sounding sentimental and trite — and doing Pratchett’s emotional range a disservice in the process — if I simply carry on repeating that it made me cry in public. Yet for once I don’t want to allow that risk to silence me: The Shepherd’s Crown moved me beyond cynicism or embarrassment, and I find this worth remarking upon. Also, I appreciate how the real grief it contains coexists with humour and hope and a very human attempt to construct meaning in the face of mortality.

    There will be spoilers from this point onwards: a momentous event takes place in The Shepherd’s Crown, and even though it’s not that hard to guess what’s coming and it happens very early in the novel, I understand that some readers might prefer not to know about it beforehand. However, because most of the novel deals with the aftermath of this event, it’s very difficult to say anything of substance while keeping it under wraps. If you’d rather not know, please skip the rest of this post.

    In a recent post about The Shepherd’s Crown, Cory Doctorow notes that compassion is central to the Tiffany Aching novels, and to Pratchett’s work in general. He says,
    … if there's one word that sums up the writer Terry Pratchett had latent in him in those early days, and the writer he came to be, and the literary legacy he left behind, it’s compassion.
    Granny Weatherwax was always a character that perfectly embodied one of Discworld’s central tenets: don’t treat people like they don’t matter. As anyone who’s read the novels will know, her kindness and compassion didn’t mean she was always pleasant, or that she was ever nice: she was a no-nonsense woman who did what needed to be done, and who never lost sight of other people’s humanity. As we see over the course of the novels that focus on the Witches of Lancre, this is a stance Esme Weatherwax arrived at through both conviction and deliberation.

    It’s no surprise, then, that her death leaves an enormous gap in her community, and in the Discworld as a whole. The Shepherd’s Crown explores what her absence means, both for Tiffany personally and for the world in general. For all her wisdom and her good sense — which serve her as well here as they did in previous novels — Tiffany Aching is still a young girl. It’s impossible, then, to read this and not come undone:
    Nanny Ogg turned it over as Tiffany’s hand crept towards Granny Weatherwax’s wrist and — even now, even when every atom of her witch being told her that Granny was no longer there — the young girl part of her tried to feel for even the slightest beat of life.
    Tiffany Aching knows she has some big shoes to fill, and through the novel we watch her find her way with the help of the mentorship of remarkable women — of a whole community of women. Yet, crucially, it’s her own way that she has to find, rather than a way to emulate the two people who shaped her the most: Granny Aching and Granny Weatherwax. There isn’t a single path to living a good life, and here we watch Tiffany move closer to figuring out what her particular path might be. The Shepherd’s Crown is very much a reflection on what it means to live fully, which eventually settles on “leaving the world a little better than you found it”. It moves me to think it was written by a man who knew he was dying — I hope he knew that he did leave the world better, in so many ways.

    Terry Pratchett’s work means the world to me, and that means that I’m always going to read his novels more generously than I would anyone else’s. This isn’t something I would ever demand of others — it’s just what happens naturally for me, because he’s earned it by now. With this in mind, I wanted to finish by discussing the gender politics of witchcraft and sorcery, and how Pratchett returns to them in this novel.

    I loved Geoffrey, the boy who wants to be a witch, just like Esk in Equal Rites wanted to be a wizard. And I loved Maggie, the Feegle who wants to be a warrior rather than a Kelda. I liked how The Shepherd’s Crown included various gentle reminders that gender roles are not an inevitability, and that a world where we break them apart is a world that will be better for everyone.

    Having said that, sometimes I felt that the novel identified a real problem but came short when it came to offering a solution. Geoffrey, who gets to know the old men of Lancre quite well, identifies a sense of alienation among them: they’re men whose identity was closed tied to their work, and who came of age in a world where gender roles were narrowly defined, and so it has proven challenging for them to maintain a sense of themselves as valuable and dignified human beings as they aged. They are, for the most part, the recipients of care, and feel dismissed by wives who are reluctant to trust their competence in domestic matters. I’m sympathetic to this to an extent, but less so to the idea that the solution is for them to get a “men shed”, so they can have a space that’s “unfretted by female intervention”. There’s too much baggage to this idea; too many echoes of Robert Bly. Still, the novel does acknowledge that it’s defining our roles so narrowly that causes the problem, and there are inklings, in Geoffrey, of possibilities beyond hegemonic masculinity, and of a world where we negotiate our personhood more openly. I appreciated that, even if I felt that the idea of the “men shed” could really do with further deconstructing.

    All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better parting from Discworld. It left my heart full to the brim.

    They read it too: Capricious Reader, We Be Reading, you?

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    Nov 18, 2015

    Reading Notes: Stella by Starlight, Fans of the Impossible Life, Wonders of the Invisible World

    Reading Notes: Stella by Starlight, Fans of the Impossible Life, Wonders of the Invisible World

    Once again, I bring you some brief reading notes about three excellent novels that really deserve full-length posts. I’m trying to accept that quick words are better than no words at all, though, and this is what I can realistically manage right now. Here goes:

    Stella by Startlight by Sharon M. Draper:

    Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
    Sharon M. Draper’s historical novel was a great follow-up to Gone Crazy in Alabama, which I read and loved earlier this year. The protagonist of Stella by Startlight is a girl who lives in the depression-hit, segregated town of Bumblebee, North Carolina. Not being able to go into some stores, attending a different school than white children, and knowing that the Ku Klux Klan rides at night are all part of Stella’s reality — but so too are survival, resistance and community.

    What I liked the most about Stella by Startlight is that it’s another historical novel that shows that courage is nearly always the result of having access to networks of support that allow you to organise resistance to oppression. I’m wary of stories that portray challenges to systemic issues like racism in a hyper-individualised fashion: if only you refuse to be afraid and stand up to the mean bully, these stories suggest, they’ll back down and go away. No matter how well meant, this is a narrative that minimises the prevalence of racism, delegitimatises fear as a rational reaction to real danger, and encourages people to put themselves in harm’s way.

    Needless to say, Stella by Startlight is not one of these stories. When Stella’s father and two other black men from Bumblebee decide it’s time to register to vote, they know there might be a price to pay. Indeed, the family of one of the men in question see their house burned down by the Klan, and just barely manage to escape with their lives. The reason why they survive the incident, though, is that their community rallies together to ensure that this happens — with solidarity, support, and material help. And it’s this, rather than solely the belief in justice as an abstract ideal, that makes courage possible. It’s knowing that people have your back should you choose to challenge injustice that enables men like Stella’s father to fight for a better world — heroically, yes, but communally rather than on their own.

    Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa:

    Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa
    Mel Morrow describes Kate Scelsa’s Fans of the Impossible Life as a novel that depicts a “queer-centric world” where “difficult discussions are safe from false binaries and reductive milieus, and where openness to several perspectives simultaneously becomes possible”. As I read this novel, one of the things I kept thinking about was that it’s indeed much easier to avoid the traps of associating queer characters with inevitable tragedy if you present a world that normalises queerness, rather than allowing it to become the one defining trait of a single character in an otherwise heteronormative world.

    To clarify, nobody dies in Fans of the Impossible Life — it’s important for me to say this because far too many people I care about have been hurt by narratives that depict the lives of characters that resemble them as doomed by default. Instead, this is a novel about love and survival, which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot in it that’s painful. Mira, Jeremy and Sebby are three teenagers grappling with various difficulties. Mira suffers from depression; Jeremy is still reeling from an awful incident at school that left him isolated; and Sebby lives a precarious life with a foster mother who is unlikely to accept his sexual orientation. There is, of course, a lot more to each of them than what these phrases convey, but they give us a point of departure. As the three become closer, they learn the “messy and difficult and unmanageable truth of [each other’s] individual lives”, and find what hope there is to be found in intimacy and love.

    The novel’s title comes from a moment when Sebby says, as part of a ritual they devised to help Mira through bad times, “May we live impossibly. Against all odds.” I found Fans of the Impossible Life very moving in ways I’m not sure I can properly articulate. Kate Scelsa’s writing is astonishing, and she fills her novel with hope: with the possibility of finding your way back to love across layers of hurt that do their best to isolate you. The hope and love which form the heart of this book are not facile — human connections are not shown to be an instant magical cure for whatever complications hit us. Still, there’s a power to them that makes them worth fighting for, and there’s nothing cheap about the solace that love and community can bring. I wanted that so much for Mira, Jeremy and Sebby, and the novel left me feeling that perhaps it was possible after all.

    Two quotes:
    When it got this bad, she would do anything to make it stop, and that’s where the danger was. The feeling itself had no patience. It did not want to sit and wait. And so it made her believe that she couldn’t survive as long as it was there with her. She would destroy herself in order to destroy it.

    This was the essence of depression. If nothing meant anything, there were no choices. When she fell into the depths of tiredness she was deep inside a lack of possibility. She felt like a heap of meat tied to this planet for no reason. A foggy dream of a future where she could spend all her time doing something that she loved, rather than fulfilling duties out of obligation, was nothing more than a fantasy.
    Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak:

    Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak
    Christopher Barzak is an old favourite author of mine, so a new novel by him is a momentous event. Wonders of the Invisible World was worth the anticipation, but unfortunately my experience with it was affected by the fact that my five-weeks-without-reading spell happened right when I was in the middle of it. This has nothing to do with the novel and everything to do with life events, but it had enough of an impact that I’d feel weird not mentioning it. Although this was a book I loved, it’s also one I know I’ll want to revisit at a more appropriate time.

    Wonders of the Invisible World tells the story of Aidan Lockwood, who lives with his family in a farmhouse in Temperance, a small town in rural Ohio. When his childhood best friend returns to town after a few years away living in Cleveland, Aidan realises just how fuzzy his memories of his time with Jarrod are. As it turns out, there’s a lot more that Aidan doesn’t remember: as the novel progresses, he uncovers truths about his past, the nature of his feelings for Jarrod, and an old family secret that reverberates into the present.

    I think my favourite thing about this novel is the fact that it’s written so generously. This isn’t exactly new to Barzak’s writing, but I particularly appreciated it here: Aidan’s life in Temperance isn’t perfect, and there’s a lot about being seventeen and gay and in love in a small town that’s terrifying. Nevertheless, the novel resists portraying small rural communities as inherently repressive. Moving somewhere far away is not the one true path to happiness and fulfilment — with truth and support, bravery and love, Aidan is able to carve out a space in Temperance that he can call a home. The same generosity is present in how Aidan’s mother is portrayed. She could easily have become the villain, but instead she’s a complicated woman who genuinely loves her son, even if she sometimes lets fear become her primary motivation. The relationship between the two is full of subtlety and depth, and it was lovely to see it unfold.

    Lastly, I enjoyed the novel’s seamless blend of fantasy and realism: there are ghosts and curses and visits to worlds beyond our own, but there’s also a fully realised community and a town that’s affectionately and intricately brought to life.

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