Jul 10, 2016

Life goes on, more or less

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child sign outside the Palace Theatre
There’s a paragraph in Adrienne Rich’s What is Found There that I found especially striking: she speaks of “being shocked out of innocence into politics: the pain of living becomes more than you can explain by your previous interpretations of the world”. This is not a new process to me — as I’ve said before, existing in the world as a girl was the first wake-up call — but I found the articulation useful all the same. Rich goes on to say,
It addresses also the question of secrets—what can be told in the face of fear and shame, what can get heard, if told; the secret spoken yet unreceived because it is dissonant with the harmonies we like to hear.
This got me thinking about all my difficulties, over the years, articulating my experiences as an immigrant, and speaking about how existing on the outskirts of cultural hegemony has shaped my life. It’s only the fact that I’ve been getting better at this that has made the past few weeks bearable.

I wouldn’t want to retreat into silence and private life, even if I wasn’t too vulnerable to recent events for that to ever be a possibility for me. Still, if I’m to go on I need to find pockets of hope and joy; to find moments of solace in the things that give my life meaning. Last week I went to London to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I have complicated thoughts about bits of it, but I was also so full of love and gratitude and joy — love for this world and these characters and the amazing cast and stage design; joy that after all this time we got more story; gratitude that I was able to be there instead of just reading about it and wanting from afar, like I did for so much of my life. Also, the big trip I’ve spent most of this year planning is just around the corner; in the next few weeks I’ll get to see places and meet friends and do all my favourite things. If on the one hand I regret that everything that’s been happening has distracted me from anticipating it, on the other hand it really couldn’t have come at a better time. I need the boost more than ever, and I need the sense of possibility that travelling always brings me.

Things I’ve been thinking about:

  • “Hard Evidence: how areas with low immigration voted mainly for Brexit”. This is not exactly news, but it’s interesting to look at actual numbers. Where migrants were not present, it appears they were held partly to blame for the all-too-real, but much deeper-seated, economic difficulties experienced by locals.

  • As I said last time, I’m still working through my feelings of betrayal at the hands of people who generally want the same things as I do, but who nevertheless didn’t think much of throwing lives like mine into uncertainty. There’s much here that feels true: “Lexiters are today complicit in one of the UK’s biggest political betrayals in recent history, that of EU migrant workers” (plus non-EU immigrants and British people of colour, I’d add, whose lives were also made harder by this result). I don’t enjoy feeling this way, yet here we are.

  • I really like this, by Jacqueline Rose; it touches on a lot of ideas that have been important to me this year:
    What vision of hearts and minds, as well as of nation states, are we being asked to buy into? It is the curse of masculinity that men are expected to shed any sign of vulnerability, to hold themselves erect as they strut across the world’s stage, above all behave as if they have always, with no flicker of doubt, believed in themselves.

    And it is a curse of male-dominated politics – still the case, despite Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, and now possibly Angela Eagle and Theresa May – that it tends to be the kiss of death for a politician to suggest things are uncertain. It is rarely wise to say that what we most need to do in political life, indeed not only political life, is hesitate, slow down and pause for thought; to allow space for the complexity of who we are. As Edward Said pointed out, there is only a short distance between believing you can subdue the mind and believing you can subdue the world.

    The idea of control always presents itself as an island of self-sufficiency or a law unto itself. In fact, the idea of control is meaningless on its own. In a world of rampant inequality and injustice, I can only seize control at the expense of someone else. We succeed in controlling our borders; migrants drown at sea.
  • “Theresa May as Prime Minister would be a disaster for women”. Leadsom too, of course. There’s nothing about either possibility that makes me feel in the least safe.

  • Stavvers mentions Dawn Fosters’ Lean Out in a comment at the link above — it’s an excellent book and I highly recommend it. Here’s an extract that deals with Theresa May’s terrifying track record:
    The benefit of having women in the cabinet remains to be seen for migrant, low-paid, or abused women. For now, it seems as though there is no difference: the powerful look after the powerful, with gender as an afterthought, or a bargaining chip when trying to deflect criticism for cuts that harm women.
  • The UN declares the UK’s austerity policies in breach of international human rights obligations.

  • Ijeoma Oluo: “Dallas is a tragedy for all of us — and shouldn’t shut down calls for justice”.

  • Via Bina, here’s Judith Butler on why “Black Lives Matter” is important: “it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized”:
    In fact, the point is not just that black lives can be disposed of so easily: they are targeted and hunted by a police force that is becoming increasingly emboldened to wage its race war by every grand jury decision that ratifies the point of view of state violence. Justifying lethal violence in the name of self-defense is reserved for those who have a publicly recognized self to defend. But those whose lives are not considered to matter, whose lives are perceived as a threat to the life that embodies white privilege can be destroyed in the name of that life. That can only happen when a recurrent and institutionalized form of racism has become a way of seeing, entering into the presentation of visual evidence to justify hateful and unjustified and heartbreaking murder.
  • Lastly, two poems: “Democracy” by Langston Hughes and “June 78” by Karen Brodine.

    I’ll see you all in a few weeks. I don’t think the state of the world will have improved by then, but I hope I’ll have found joy and renewed my capacity to hope.
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    Jul 5, 2016

    Becoming

    Back cover of Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things
    If you were to ask me whether I grew up surrounded by books, my answer would be complicated. There were certainly books in my parents’ house; they encouraged my reading and were always willing to get me new books for Christmas, for my birthday, and sometimes just because. In a lot of important ways, books never felt scarce. However, there was no well-stocked, easily accessible public library I could go to; until I started university, there was not much in the way of a school library either. This meant that no private and unsupervised reading was available to me. My parents would probably have told you that they would never dream of limiting what their children were reading, and they would have meant it too. Still, in practice, with few opportunities to acquire books without their mediation, I wasn’t free to read about the parts of my life I’d rather not expose. These were, for myriad reasons, more numerous than I would have liked.

    I think I’ve mentioned before that I came to feminism relatively late. I’ve also written about how much I wish my teenage self had been aware of the patterns that became so painfully obvious to me later. A few weeks ago, my friend Jenny was asking on Twitter how many of us had school stories about creepy adults in positions of authority in our past; adults about whom girls whispered warnings to each other. This reminded me of something that happened at my middle school, which I hadn’t, to my surprise, thought about in very many years. To rehash that story here would be too great a deviation from the topic of this post, so I'll spare you the details. What I’m trying to say is that my limited ability to make sense of the kind of traumatic experience girls are routinely exposed to was very much a result of the ideas I’d encountered. Feminism existed in the nineties, of course, but it didn’t exist in my world. There was a cost to that: books wouldn’t have made it all okay, but they would have helped. They would have told us it wasn’t us. Something like Laura Bates’ Girl Up, had it existed then, or bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, had I been able to find it, would have transformed my life profoundly. There’s no overstating this fact.

    All of the above is a roundabout way of getting to a simple truth: the books I’ve read have made me, piece by piece, line by line, page by page. I don’t know who I’d be without Discworld, without His Dark Materials, without A Room of One’s Own, without Tender Morsels, without Tiny Beautiful Things, without A Ring of Endless Light last winter or Upheavals of Thought this year; but I’m certain I wouldn’t be the person I am today. They shaped me in incalculable ways. They expanded the boundaries of my world. They furnished my mind with possibilities I’d be unlikely to arrive at on my own. We book lovers articulate iterations of this idea fairly often, but it’s still easy to forget just how much there is behind it — how much raw human need, how much wondering, how much becoming.

    My reading this year has felt vital in a way it hadn’t in some time, for various reasons. Rereading Earthsea, discovering Maggie Nelson or Adrienne Rich, spending four days doing little but read Martha Nussbaum on my living room floor: it has all been about becoming. I’ve been following trains of thought from book to book, across space and time; I've been delving into ideas that feel absolutely crucial to how I want to live my life. I’ve been, to quote Rich, able to “allow what [I’m] reading to pierce the routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary canal life is tracked, charted, channelled” — she calls this “to read as if your life depended on it”. Or to quote Richard Wright, I’ve felt as if my reading has “made the world around me be, throb, live. (…) My sense of life deepened and the feel of things was different, somehow.”

    That’s been important to me, and I’m grateful for it. Lately, though, I’ve also been feeling the limits. My awareness of all the books outside my reach has been especially heightened. I’m part of a generation that has seen living standards fall sharply: it’ll be five years in September that I finished graduate school, and there’s no end in sight to the day to day uncertainty I live with. I am, always, one mishap away from disaster: I have a low-paid and insecure job in an increasingly expensive town, and not much in the way of a safety net. What could happen in a year or two doesn’t bear thinking about. The obvious caveat here is that my difficulties are very much relative — I don’t go hungry, I’m not cold, I have somewhere to sleep at night. These things are by no means trivial or small. At the same time, I resent the stigma around discussing financial insecurity because there’s always someone worse off. I resent the shame of it; it’s part of the meanness that got us here in the first place. This year I’ve been saving for a big trip, and I know I’m immensely fortunate that this possibility is available to me in the first place. These are the things that give my life meaning: travelling, seeing people I love, books. I make my choices carefully, measuredly, and I don’t regret them in the least. But because of this, there are countless books I haven’t been able to read. The ways in which they would have changed me have had to be postponed for now.

    Yet there are libraries, of course. Libraries guard us against this, against all the narrowing down these choices force on us, because about two centuries ago we agreed this would be a desirable thing, and a good way to live. They’re about abundance, possibility: a way to push against the limits that would otherwise besiege us. I work in public libraries, and this is why I do my job with pleasure and a sense of purpose. It’s why, as much as I sometimes resent the relentlessness of full-time work and the necessity of selling more of my waking hours than I’m comfortable with, I find it meaningful beyond my need to keep myself alive.

    Still, lately it feels as though they’re closing in — as though a harsh, mean and unforgiving way of being in the world is encroaching on everything that’s important to me. Something happened recently, something I can’t really discuss in detail here, that has narrowed the limits further at the library where I spend my time. It was one more reminder that money determines the possibilities available to you, even at an institution that’s supposed to offer us relief from that. Then, just around the time when this was happening, I went on a tour of a large academic library, and looked at the endless stacks of books outside my reach, and felt for a moment like I might cry with wanting. Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is not a luxury” comes to mind: yes, and neither are the words, in whatever format, that help us become.

    The other day I was reading Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things, and I came across the following in an essay titled “Value”:
    A significant consensus has emerged around the notion that we cannot afford these provisions meant to create or sustain justice and individual dignity. Another consensus supports the idea that such provisions have created a deadweight of slackers and takers who imperil society by burdening the productive with the cost of their idleness or their fecklessness. This is the old Poor Law language again, the kind of law that required Shakespeare and his company to wear servants’ livery so that they would not be branded as vagrants or sturdy beggars. It is impossible to read about the old social order without wondering how many million good and gifted people fell to its casual brutalities.
    This is precisely it, and we must not let it become abstract or far-removed. It’s real, and the human costs are unimaginable. It’s not mere political rhetoric to point this out: that every life lessened by these brutalities is an incalculable loss. I want a better world than this. An excerpt from another essay I reread recently also seems appropriate — it’s about education, but it goes for libraries too, and for all the ways in which political decisions have been closing in on life:
    The idea that life should be harsh, bitter, severe and strictly disciplined is, I think, key to what we are up against. Even when there is plenty of money in objective terms, the austerity agenda values punitive and repressive policies because it is based on an inherent, if sometimes unconscious, antipathy to the very services it purports to be managing. Academic management motivated by austerity frankly dislikes, and therefore aims to diminish, the democratic, emancipatory and transformative essence of our universities and colleges.
    I don’t want a world of brutality, of scarcity; I don’t want to see a constant rending of all the things we live for. I have been, thus far, insulated from the worst of it, and as I said above that’s in no way small. I’m keenly aware that the world is full of people who have far less than I do. I have possibilities still — the baseline I’m starting from is high, and shaped by privilege at every turn. Nevertheless, every day I feel that my life has been diminished in palpable ways due to decisions made by men who already have more than enough.

    This is not inevitable. We don’t have to live like this.

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    Jun 26, 2016

    Brexit: Where We Are

    Serafim is tired of scapegoating, dehumanisation, and the legitimisation of xenophobia and racism #CatsAgainstBrexit
    I didn’t get a vote in last week’s referendum, but at least I contributed with a Cats Against Brexit photo. Poor Serafim is more tired than ever now.

    I’m not going to apologise for yet another post about politics: for years now this blog has made it patently obvious that I don’t believe in a stark division between politics and life — or, for that matter, between literature, politics and life. But I wish, I dearly wish, that I could be writing about something else today. I can’t, though — not when this is the most devastating political event of my lifetime. Not when the possibility that this will ruin the life I’ve built seems all too real from where I’m standing. At some point last week I said I couldn’t wait for this to be over. How wrong I was. I’ve spent the last few days crying into cups of tea, venting on Twitter, and reading Adrienne Rich. It’s all I can do.

    So, this is where we are:

  • Far Right Watch reports a 540% increase in incidents of racial hate speech and malicious communications in 36 hours, with an official statement to come in the next few days. The PostRefRacism Twitter account has been compiling reports of such incidents informally; other compilations, such as this one, are absolutely chilling to look at.

  • I don’t entirely disagree with the people who are pointing out that it’s not so much that every single one of the 52% of Leave voters will start harassing foreigners and racial minorities on the streets, but that the people likely to do so now believe that 52% of voters are on their side, and have been emboldened by this belief. Having said that, I also agree with whoever was saying that splitting hairs between actual racists/xenophobes and people willing to align themselves with them for political gain is utterly beside the point right now (apologies for not sourcing this properly; I’ve read too much these past few days and can’t remember what was where). The consequences are the same.

    I know this is difficult to react to and I completely trust that everyone I know means well, but if I have one request it’s this: please don’t say social media is distorting our perception; please don’t urge people to remember not everyone hates them. We know that, but we also know that this is happening. We need it to be made visible; we need our sense of reality not to be undermined. We need to be able to talk about it. Silence and isolation will get us nowhere.

  • “People voted Leave for many reasons”: and yet.

  • Throughout this whole process, I’ve been trying very hard not to be furious with people who ultimately want the same things as me — a fairer, more equal world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. At the start of the Leave and Remain campaigns, I talked about feeling thrown under the bus by Lexit (left-wing exit) campaigners, who seemed willing to sacrifice the safety of immigrants like me for the sake of — what? A sense of ideological purity, maybe? Nearly everyone I know online changed their position after the brutal murder of Jo Cox at the hands of a fascist, when what we had been saying became undeniable. In people’s minds, this referendum was about immigration, and the flames of right-wing extremism were being fanned. A quick look outside my circles showed that some people remained undeterred, though. I’m trying to turn away from that fury and focus on the real beast this has unleashed, but it comes and goes. This letter perfectly expresses how I feel:
    Now, left separatists, answer me this: Have you considered the effect that Brexit will have on women who need to travel to Britain for an abortion because of Ireland’s draconian laws? Sure you say, the common travel area between the UK and Ireland existed before the EU came along, but there was nothing in the referendum to protect that. There is nothing to say that these arrangements won’t be removed, especially due to the fact that so many people who were born outside the EU have become Irish citizens. Even then, think of all the non EU citizens who live in Ireland who now will not be able to travel. And what if new regulations are brought in with regards to healthcare provision that remove the right to obtain an abortion from non-UK citizens? Have you considered any of these things?
    (...)
    Now former comrades, do tell me if you asked yourself any of these questions or if the people whose lives you have willfully thrown into precarity are just pawns in your pseudo-Marxist chess games? Were you sitting in your offices with wall charts outlining possible outcomes based on the immutable science of Historical Materialism? Because if you have a plan, now would be the time to fill us all in.
  • There are many possible outcomes for this whole mess, and very few of them don’t terrify me. Among my worries is seeing whatever remains of the Left in this country go back to pandering to xenophobic scaremongering because they believe that’s the only way a General Election can be won. The more you legitimise a fascist worldview, the more you legitimise fascism. Don’t ask us to understand voters’ concerns about immigration. They’re wrong, and it’s time someone told them.

  • Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit, by Will Davies.

  • On being a brown-skinned Brit in a post EU referendum world, by Anita Sethi.

  • These are scary times for people of colour. It’s time for a big conversation by Lola Okolosie.

  • Hope: Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants. ♥

  • Some interesting historical reading: Britain’s most racist election: the story of Smethwick, 50 years on.

    I’m desperately afraid, friends, and I need all the comfort and support you can spare. I’m finding it hard to cling to any hope.
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    Jun 17, 2016

    Links on a Friday: Fear

    This is the last weekend before the EU Referendum, when the UK will vote on whether it wishes to leave the European Union or remain a member. The outcome of this vote will have tremendous implications for my life, and for the past few weeks I’ve been in a state of permanent barely subdued panic — largely because I’m an immigrant (though a relatively privileged one, only subjected to a fraction of the hostility those who aren’t white Western Europeans experience), but also because I genuinely believe this spells bad news for everyone. The mere fact that this referendum is happening has legitimatised a political narrative that frankly terrifies me: one that scapegoats immigrants for the drop in living standards brought about by over six years of austerity policies. These were imposed not by the EU, as in Greece, but by David Cameron’s conservative government. If Leave wins, though, that’s the story that will have won. I’ve lost count of the number of times that people I know to be generally fair-minded and compassionate have told me in the past few weeks that “we have to admit that the country is full”, or words to that effect. That’s the extent to which this rhetoric has permeated public consensus. Anti-immigrant sentiments have never had a wider platform, and its effects show. The rules of acceptable discourse have already begun to shift. I can’t see how this will result in anything but a surge of the far-right, and an entrenching of racist and xenophobic attitudes.

    I’m very afraid.

    Next Thursday evening I’ll be in London, seeing Belle & Sebastian perform all of If You’re Feeling Sinister like I planned to months ago; I hope I’ll be able to enjoy it. Funnily enough, the last time I saw them live was the night of the General Election, when the current government obtained a majority; this is one of those things that make me glad I’m not superstitious. All this to say that there’s no point pretending this isn’t very much on my mind these days. Here are some links that explain why:

  • I drafted most of this post before Thursday afternoon, when Jo Cox, a Labour MP with a known history of activism on behalf of immigrants and refugees, was assassinated by a man outside her surgery, where she regularly met her constituents. Violent political rhetoric has consequences. This is where we are now.

    Did u think extremist political parties & open violence arise out of nowhere? My God no. They begin with leaflets and lies.

  • The mood is ugly, and an MP is dead: The leavers have lifted several stones. How recklessly the decades of careful work and anti-racist laws to make those sentiments unacceptable have been overturned.

  • ETA: The Politics of Hate by Dawn Foster:
    For years, politicians have sought to assuage racist views by arguing that it isn’t racist to be concerned about immigration, couching anti-immigration sentiment in vague economic concerns about ‘stolen’ jobs, but it often is straightforwardly racist. Pandering to racism and fascism emboldens these beliefs: tolerating the far right in a misguided attempt to shore up votes does nothing of the sort, but normalises hatred instead. Nigel Farage said on the BBC last month that ‘if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.’
  • The unspeakable truth about racism in the UK.

  • ETA: Two Michael Rosen poems: “Fascism: I sometimes fear...” and “Miliband, UKIP and the ‘I’m not racist but...’ people”.

  • Here’s the comic I posted above in full. Humberstone shares my considerable misgivings about many aspects of the EU, but I appreciate that he doesn’t brush aside the uncertainty people like me are facing.

  • The Perils of Perception and the EU:
    The public have a number of significant misperceptions about the EU and how it affects life in the UK (...). We massively overestimate how many EU-born people now live in the UK. On average we think EU citizens make up 15% of the total UK population (which would be around 10.5m people), when in reality it’s 5% (around 3.5m people). Those who intend to vote to leave overestimate EU immigration more: they think 20% of the UK population are EU immigrants, compared with the average guess of 10% among those who intend to vote “remain”.
  • From the UK Statistics Authority statement on the use of official statistics on contributions to the European Union:
    As we have made clear, the UK’s contribution to the EU is paid after the application of the rebate. We have also pointed out that there are payments received by the UK public and private sectors that are relevant here. The continued use of a gross figure in contexts that imply it is a net figure is misleading and undermines trust in official statistics.
  • Polly Toynbee argues that “a leave vote will not solve people’s problems, and those feeling betrayed will lurch even further into racism and xenophobia”:
    Try arguing with facts and you get nowhere. Warn these Labour people what a Johnson/Gove government would do and they don’t care. Warn about the loss of workers’ rights and they don’t listen — maybe that’s already irrelevant to millions in crap jobs such as at Uber or Sports Direct. “We’re full up. Sorry, there’s no room for more. Can’t get GP appointments, can’t get into our schools, no housing.” If you tell these Labour voters that’s because of Tory austerity cuts, still they blame “immigrants getting everything first”. Warn about a Brexit recession leading to far worse cuts and they just say, “Stop them coming, make room for our own first.”
  • Gary Younge explains how we got here: because for half a decade, both main parties pandered to facile anti-immigration rhetoric instead of honestly discussing global inequality.
    Herein lies the most obscene perversion of this turn in the Brexit campaign. The very people who are slashing resources — the Tory right — and diverting what’s left to the wealthy are the ones rallying the poor by blaming migrants for the lack of resources.
  • From Nick Harkaway’s Letter to an old, old friend who is voting to Leave the EU:
    If what one wanted for Britain was a deregulated labour market with fewer rights for employees and fewer regulations upon banks and corporations, fewer environmental protections, a health service inexorably privatised to create a full-on healthcare market in the UK and other public services following suit, with the resultant influx of brigand capital and soaring inequality, then Leave could work really well. I’ve written post-Apocalypse stories and I’m uncomfortably familiar with that thought — the creation of a perfect oligarch island haven with great fashion and night life and tax breaks just two hours from Paris. But that doesn’t strike me either as a happy, prosperous nation or as the outcome you or most people will want from their Leave vote. It strikes me as a nightmare.
  • Laurie Penny: The EU is undemocratic and run in the interests of business. But it’s our least-worst option right now.

  • Dawn Foster and Jane Dudman on housing and leaving the EU.

  • Here’s the Trades Union Congress on how a Leave win could affect women at work.

  • Priya Atwal on the imperialist undertones of the Leave campaign:
    The espousal of such uncritical and misleading views about the history of British imperialism and migration is a truly toxic feature of the EU referendum campaign, and it constitutes a huge disservice to the British electorate on the part of its political representatives. The EU is definitely not perfect, it desperately needs reforming, especially if it is to tackle one of history’s greatest migration crises effectively — but by storming off in a misguided fit of arrogance and xenophobia, Britain is highly unlikely to achieve much.
  • How ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable to this clusterfuck.

  • I’ll finish with two links about other topics. First of all, I want to send all my love to everyone who’s afraid for other reasons. Here’s a link round-up of Queer Latino/a reactions to Orlando from NPR.

  • Lastly, Alexis Hancock wrote about How The Rhetoric of Imposter Syndrome Is Used to Gaslight Women in Tech. I have strong feelings about this, as I generally do about exclusively individual solutions to systemic problems, and their undertones of victim-blaming. Hancock does a brilliant job of articulating the issue: it’s not that women can’t benefit from developing their confidence, but my experience has also taught me that no amount of individual effort will stick without a healthy environment that doesn’t subtly devalue you at every turn. Internalising the problem can be deeply corrosive. It’s important that we acknowledge this, and make sure we’re not undermining one another’s sense of reality.
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    Jun 15, 2016

    Earthsea Revisited

    Date label on library copy of The Tombs of Atuan, with return stamps going back to 1972
    Date label on the copy of The Tombs of Atuan I read

    A few months ago, I felt the urge to reread one of my favourite fantasy series of all time: Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. It’d been a long time since I’d last read them, and I confess I wondered briefly if I’d still like them as much as I did nearly a decade ago. As it turns out, I like them even better — though in slightly different ways, and for slightly different reasons. This, of course, is one of the pleasures of rereading: as Maureen so well explained in her post from earlier this year, it gives us the opportunity to commune with our past selves, and trace changes in our thoughts, values, and emotional states through the aspects of a work we respond to the most.

    I decided, this time around, to revisit the Earthsea novels that focus more on women’s lives, as they were always the ones that spoke to me the most. I do want to reread the others at some point, particularly The Farthest Shore, but it was The Tombs of Atuan, Tehanu and The Other Wind that were calling to me now. Last time I read them, The Tombs of Atuan and The Other Wind were my favourites, with Tehanu ranking as a somewhat distant third. Now it was the reverse — for the moment, Tehanu is my favourite Earthsea novel. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean I didn’t find them all brilliant: there’s such richness to them, such depth, and so many sentences that cause me to have to pause to catch my breath. What a writer Le Guin is.

    I remember why my younger self loved The Tombs of Atuan so fiercely, and why I love it still: it’s because it’s a story about a girl who has known great unkindness, to whom a great harm has been done, choosing not to embrace the darkness her life was supposed to be devoted to. I was especially moved by a scene near the end — one when, just after making it onto the boat that will take her and Ged to Havnor, Tenar becomes convinced she’s terrible because terrible things have happened to her. How awful; how familiar; how brilliantly portrayed. The scene ends with a letting go that feels almost physical — and although Tenar’s isn’t a struggle that could really be resolved in a single moment, it still resonates deeply. It’s a beginning, and the novel does it justice.

    Before the boat, though, and before leaving the powers of darkness behind, there’s this moment between Tenar and Ged, which I can’t imagine ever not being deeply moved by:
    “They would not let us get out. Ever.”
    “Perhaps not. Yet it is worth trying. You have knowledge, and I have skill, and between us we have…”
    “We have the Ring of Erreth-Akbe.”
    “Yes, that. But I thought also of another thing between us. Call it trust… That is one of its names. It is a very great thing. Though each of us alone is weak, having that we are strong, stronger than the Powers of the Dark.” His eyes were clear and dark in his scarred face. “Listen, Tenar!” he said. “I came here a thief, an enemy, armed against you; and you showed me mercy, and trusted me. And I have trusted you from the first time I saw your face, for one moment in the cave beneath the Tombs, beautiful in darkness. You have proved your trust in me. I have made no return. I will give you what I have to give. My true name is Ged. And this is yours to keep.” He had risen, and he held out to her a semi-circle of pierced and carven silver. “Let the rings be rejoined,” he said.
    Trust is a risk for both of them, and they embrace it with openness and care. Everything that happens next happens because of that initial leap.

    The fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu, takes place many decades later. It shows a shift in Tenar’s relationship with Ged — one that couldn’t have happened until circumstances made it possible for the two to meet as equals. One of the things that stood out on this reread is how very concerned this novel is with powerless and what that means. Ged, having lost his magic and become physically frail, describes describes being afraid of men on the road when he’s travelling on his own. His vulnerability brings him great shame, but it is, of course, extremely familiar to Tenar. She’s a middle-aged woman who has lived all her life in a world whose gender politics are akin to our own, so of course she understands fear and helplessness. Part of what’s so interesting about Tehanu is watching Ged grapple with his fall from hegemonic masculinity. He moves from shame to acceptance, and in the process shows us that it’s not inevitable for men to respond to this with violence. I have a lot of feelings about the benefits of accepting a certain degree of powerlessness in this world, both because we’re frail human beings and because most ways of rejecting that cause such harm. But of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight disempowerment politically. This novel deals with the intricacies of this delicate balance with more skill than anything else I can think of.

    I’ve not even begun to do Tehanu justice — this is also a novel about surviving abuse, and healing in a context of love and care, of tenderness and openness, that allows trust to flourish. It’s lovely to watch Tenar and Ged come together, but it’s just as lovely to watch them treat Therru, the child in their care, with the respect she deserves. How brilliant Le Guin is at capturing the space between people, and the rich emotional currents that reside therein.

    And then there’s The Other Wind, an incredible novel about life and death and letting go, where Tenar finds herself thinking that Lebannen, the king she loves like a son, might yet break her heart. There’s plenty to like about this novel, but I was particularly touched by the alliance between Tenar and the Kargish princess Seserakh. Tenar insists that she be treated like a human being, rather than as a political opportunity or an inconvenience, and she holds the men in her life to this standard, even when they’re powerful and even when it hurts. It’s a reminder of what we can do for each other, and of what a difference a friend, and act of kindness, and a voice willing to speak up for you can make when you’re vulnerable and alone.

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