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Sooner or later, every author with strong opinions seems to find a publisher willing to collect and print a representative sample of those opinions. The View from the Cheap Seats is such a collection of assorted non-fiction writings by Neil Gaiman on a vast range of topics. As Gaiman says in the Introduction.

"This book is not “the complete nonfiction of Neil Gaiman.” It is, instead, a motley bunch of speeches and articles, introductions and essays. Some of them are serious and some of them are frivolous and some of them are earnest and some of them I wrote to try and make people listen. You are under no obligation to read them all, or to read them in any particular order. I put them into an order that felt like it made some kind of sense—mostly speeches and suchlike at the beginning, more personal, heartfelt writing at the end. Lots of miscellaneous writing, articles and explanations, about literature, film, comics and music, cities and life, in the middle."

It is not surprising that one of the themes that runs through much of the collected work is a love of books, of reading, of ideas. (Indeed, I've found this to be a common theme in many similar collections of essays and the like by authors of all genres.) Gaiman writes movingly about the importance of books, of reading, and of his own history with these things, how the books of his childhood and his experiences around the reading of them made him who he is. He writes about himself as reader and as writer, and how these are linked. He writes about genre, and story, and the power of myth.

Between having spent some time as a journalist, finding fandom early in life, and apparently being quite a social sort of chap, Gaiman seems to have met and in some cases had long and significant relationships with a fair few British writers and other industry people - and has been called on to prepare introductions both to their books and to their personal appearances at conventions and such. These collected pieces provide insights not only into the subjects, but in many cases, into Gaiman himself - and they are often funny and wise at the same time.

Gaiman's subjects range from science fiction and fantasy books and authors to film to music (with, quite understandably, several articles on the work of his wife Amanda Palmer) to comics (quite extensively, it's clear that he has a deep and abiding love for the artform). And on all of them, he has interesting things to say. If this is the view from the cheap seats, the show is well worth the price of admission.
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What a joy it is to read anything by Ursula Le Guin. In this instance, the "anything" is a collection of non-fiction writing - occasional pieces, book reviews, forewords to other people's books, essays on writing and writers and life. Given the somewhat lengthy title and subtitle of Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 with A Journal of a Writer’s Week, this collection is a smorgasbord of delights from one of the finest writers and clearest thinkers of our time.

The essays presented here are collected into three sections. The first, titled Talks, Essays and Occasional Pieces, offers exactly what it suggests. Most of these essays deal in one way or another with writing, publishing, writers, books. About genre vs. "literature" and the effects of the new media on reading - she is optimistic about the future of the book, in some form or other.

One essay that does not focus on the worlds of words - her account of choosing to terminate a pregnancy during her university years, well before Roe v. Wade, and the importance of being able to make that choice - was difficult to read. In it, she says: "I can hardly imagine what it’s like to live as a woman under Fundamentalist Islamic law. I can hardly remember now, fifty-four years later, what it was like to live under Fundamentalist Christian law. Thanks to Roe vs. Wade, none of us in America has lived in that place for half a lifetime." But I could not stop thinking about the very real possibility that American women will face that reality again.

The second section, Book Introductions and Notes on Writers, contains an assortment of mostly commissioned pieces in which she briefly discusses - as is appropriate for an introduction to the text - authors and books she respects and loves. From Huxley's Brave New World to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic to Vonda McIntyre's Dreansnake, Le Guin's insights into these books are both profound and inviting.

The final essay section of the book collects Le Guin's critical reviews, most of which were published in the Manchester Guardian. These reviews cover books both literary and genre, by such authors as Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Doris Lessing, Salmon Rushdie, Jo Walton, Jeannette Winterson and others. Le Guin's critical eye is discerning and unflinching and she delivers both praise and critique with thoughtful analysis.

The last section of the book consists of journal entries made by Le Guin during a week spent at a writers' retreat for women. In her introduction to the journal, she talks about the practice of gender segregated events:

"I hold it self-evident that so long as we live in a man’s world, as we still do, women have a right to create enclaves of learning or work where, instead of obeying or imitating what men do and want, women can shape what they do, how they do it, and why they do it, in their own way and on their own terms. No enclave is the whole reality, no exclusivity is entirely rightful, but when a great injustice prevails, any opportunity of counteracting it, undoing it even temporarily, is justified. Intellect and art have been so wholly owned by men, and that ownership so fiercely maintained, that no woman can assume society will simply grant her a rightful share in them. Many women still find it difficult, even frightening, to name themselves thinkers, makers, to say I am a scholar, a scientist, an artist. A place where such fear has no place, and a period of time given purely to doing one’s own work, is for many men a perfectly reasonable expectation, for many women an astounding, once-in-a-lifetime gift."

In her journal she writes about the environment of the retreat - the natural world around her, the animals she observes - and about the other people in residence during her week's visit. She talks about the writing, the reading, the thinking and the drawing that she does. It is a small window into the creative process of a great artist under 'ideal' conditions - solitude, no distractions, nothing to dilute the flow of ideas and words.

All four sections of the book highlight slightly different aspects of Le Guin the wordsmith - the thinker, the lover of literature, the critic, the artist, while serving to demonstrate the truth of the volume's title - words are her matter, and her opinions and insights are, as always, well worth reading and thinking on.

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The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by author and social critic Kameron Hurley on being/becoming an sff writer and being a woman in that profession, on sff and geek culture and being a woman in that culture, and on the ways that sexism and geekdom play out in the broader 'mundane' world. In her Introduction to the collection, Hurley says:

"At its heart, this collection is a guidebook for surviving not only the online world and the big media enterprises that use it as story fodder, but sexism in the wider world. It should inspire every reader, every fan, and every creator to participate in building that better future together."

The essays in this collection range widely: from the important of persistence in becoming a writer to a discussion of Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing. They are painful, inspiring, rage-honing, insightful, and even funny at times, and include the Hugo Award winning "We Have Always Fought." They are definitely worth reading.

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Wonderfully left-wing publishing house PM Press has been putting out a series called Outspoken Authors which consists of collections of writings by visionary left-leaning writers, most of them writers of sff. I've read and talked a number of these before, including volumes that contained selected works (and an original interview) with people like Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Bisson and Eleanor Arnason.

My latest read from this series is a collection of essays, poems and other works from Marge Piercy called My Life, My Body. Woven through all the selections is a strong, politically and socially radical consciousness, conjoined with a commitment to feminist analysis, addressing topics ranging from the effects of gentrification on marginalised communities to the enforcement of a white male canon in literature.

Her focus ranges from social justice to literary criticism. Several of the selections here deal, in part or in whole, with the growing problem of homelessness, particularly among women. Others argue passionately against the trend in criticism that demands the separation of politics and art, and devalues literature written from a political consciousness (which, she notes, is often work created by women and marginalised peoples.

In addition to the essays and poems, the volume includes an interesting interview with Piercy conducted by fellow leftist and science fiction writer Terry Bisson.

If you're a fan of Piercy's work, you'll appreciate the pieces collected here immensely. And after that, I heartily recommend that you have a look at other volumes from the Outspoken Writers series.

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Invisible 2: Personal Essays about Representation in Science Fiction, edited by Jim C. Hines, is the second collection of essays about the visibility - and invisibility - of people who are not straight, white, cis, nominally Christian, able-bodied, and most likely male in speculative fiction.

I haven't read the first Invisible collection, but I am certainly going looking for it now that I've read the second.

These are essays about never finding someone like yourself in the genre that you love, or only finding yourself rarely, usually as a side-kick or bit player, or maybe a villain, but almost never a real hero. Or finding only caricatures of people like you, stereotypical images that are almost as bad as never seeing yourself at all. And some stories about what it's like to find somebody like you, a fully realised character, a hero.

As Aliette de Bodard writes in her Introduction,

The trouble with stories, of course, is that they don’t exist in a vacuum. They are shaped, too, by the culture in which they were born—and worse than that, by the dominant culture. Stories tell you what to value, and what not to value—they teach you, over and over, that some people get to be heroes and some don’t. That some behaviours like violence are acceptable and heroic; others (like mothers sacrificing themselves to the bone year after year to raise their children) aren’t even worth a mention.

And stories, in the end, shape that dominant culture. Telling the same story that we ourselves have been told, over and over, erases all the others. It tells some people—those outside the dominant cultural paradigm—that they don't deserve to have stories told about them. That people like them never get their own books or their own stories; that they are not worth writing about; which a lesson no-one should have to learn.


These essays remind us of all the people who are all too often invisible in speculative fiction, the people we need to see if we are to have stories that reflect the breadth and depth of the human condition. The people represented - and representing - in this volume include people of colour - not just the generic Latin@, Asian, Black, Indigenous groupings, but Vietnamese and Puerto Rican and Japanese and Cherokee and other members of specific cultures who want to be seen for themselves, not as part of some general non-white conglomerate.

The people writing these essays are queer, and trans, and genderfluid, and asexual, and survivors of abuse rather than victims, and think that they deserve to have their stories told so that others, especially young people growing up without any one who shares their experiences around them, will know they have a right to exist, that they are not alone.

They are Jewish, and pagan, they are immigrants, they are older women, they are disabled and non-neurotypical, they are fat, they are people with life histories and experiences that lie outside the straight cis able-bodied white male paradigm that it so often seems our understanding of humanity is based on.

Some of them are even examples of that paradigm, talking about how they have come to treasure the stories that are not about them. And it's all good reading.

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This is what you need to know about Letters to Tiptree, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce:

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, and in recognition of the enormous influence of both Tiptree and Sheldon on the field, Twelfth Planet Press is publishing a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and maybe in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago. [1]


Either you know who James Tiptree Jr. - the primary pseudonym used by Alice Sheldon in her writing - was, what she did, what she wrote, how she was viewed, or you don't. If you do, you will understand and celebrate this book. If you don't.... Well, I am sorry that you have not yet encountered some of the greatest and most provocative short stories in the canon of science fiction, and that you have missed out on a long, thoughtful and vital conversation on the meaning of gender. I heartily recommend that you join the conversation by reading Tiptree immediately.

The book is divided into four parts:

Section one, “Alice, Alice, Do You Read?”, is composed of letters written to Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr., or Raccoona Sheldon (or all of them). The second section, “I Never Wrote You Anything But The Exact Truth”, presents selected letters exchanged between Sheldon and Ursula K. Le Guin, and Sheldon and Joanna Russ. Sheldon had had a long paper relationship with both women as Tiptree, and this continued well after the revelation of Tiptree’s identity. ... In “Everything But The Signature Is Me”, we have reprinted academic material on Tiptree’s work and identity.

Finally, the editors include their own letters, and their thoughts on the process of editing this volume, in the fourth section, “Oh Joanna, Will I Have Any Friends Left?”

The contributors to the first part of this volume speak to the person, the work and the conversation. They speak to each contributor's personal thoughts on gender, identity and writing, and on how Tiptree's life and work relates to that. They raise questions about the things we cannot know about Tiptree, and speculate on possible answers. They show us where others, touched by the fire in Tiptree's words, are taking us. Each of these letters to Tiptree - or Alice, or Raccoona, or some combination of all the personas - is unique and fascinating, but I must mention Rachel Swirsky's contribution, a marvellous tribute of a poem that draws on the images in Tiptree's story titles to make her own contribution to the conversation.

In the next section, Tiptree's correspondence with Le Guin and Russ opens windows into all three women's hearts, a generous and intimate sidebar to the conversation.

The third section contains introductions to Tiptree's works by Ursula K. Le Guin and Micheal Swanwick, an excerpt from Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction which discusses one of Tiptree's iconic stories, "The Women Men Don't See," an excerpt from Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal discussing the evolution of the James Tiptree Jr. Award, an essay by Wendy Gay Pearson on "The Text of this Body: “Reading” James Tiptree Jr. as a Transgender Writer" and finally, an article on being Tiptree by Tiptree/Sheldon herself.

The final letters to Tiptree from the editors wrap up and revisit the themes expressed in earlier letters in the volume.

When she was outed as being Tiptree, Sheldon wrote to friends, wondering if she would have any friends remaining after the science fiction world learned of her "deception." I, like others, wish she had lived long enough to see this book and know how many friends her work has made, and continues to make.

[1] http://www.twelfthplanetpress.com/products/ebooks/letters-to-tiptree

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Roxane Gay's collection of essays, Bad Feminist, expertly navigates the intersections between feminism and racism. In many of these essays Gay performs a kind of doubly focused analysis - in exploring issues from the desire for happy endings to the nature of rape culture through cultural elements - books, television and film, pop music, celebrities, art - she also critiques these cultural elements from these intersectional perspectives.

Other essays are personal, indeed intimate narratives about being a black woman, a child of immigrants, in American society, a woman trying to separate the mythology about being a feminist from the reality.

I'm not entirely sure why Gay calls herself a "bad feminist." In one of her more personal essays she says:
At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done.
In the same essay, she talks about feminism as a performance she is failing at, harkening back to comments in another essay about Judith Butler's theory of gender performance and extending that to performance of a feminist identity:
I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman.
She goes on to list ways in which she "fails" at being a feminist - liking the colour pink and rap culture, wanting a partner and a child, not understanding cars, negotiating relationships that don't seem sufficiently independent and egalitarian... And all I can think is, where did we, the generation of feminists that went before her, go wrong that she has this doubt about her feminism.

She adds:
Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.
And this us where I find myself saying to her, Girl, this is what makes you a feminist, and a good one. We are all human, and making certain choices in one's private life has nothing to do with fighting for a society in which all people are free to make any of those same choices without gendered baggage and fear of performing one's role wrongly - in which liking pink, or understanding cars, or wanting a family, and feeling like being taken care of, is entirely a matter of personal taste and interest and desire, and not a marker of maleness or femaleness.

Because in what she writes, Gay is a very good feminist indeed, and her insights into our society and culture are very much worth reading.

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Every once in a while, I get a hankering to read some literary history/criticism that takes as its subject my favourite genre, science fiction. This time around, I picked up The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn. The essays in this volume cover a range of topics relevant to the study and understanding of science fiction. As Mendelsohn notes in the introduction,
The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction is intended to provide readers with an introduction to the genre and to its study. To this end, we have divided this book into three parts: an historical overview of the field which discusses the major authors and editors, the people and market forces which have shaped the literary structures of the field; a section on critical approaches to science fiction (sf); and finally a collection of essays exploring some of the issues and concerns which have been considered by both critics and writers to be intrinsic to the genre.
I was a bit disappointed at first - the volume begins with a "chronology" that starts off in 1516 with Thomas More's Utopia, but neglects Margaret Cavendish's 1666 publication of The Blazing World. At least Mary Shelley was included. (Though I must acknowledge that Cavendish and several other women who wrote utopias and scientific romances in the time before science fiction became a recognised genre are mentioned in the book's first essay, "Science Fiction before the Genre" by Brian Stableford.) However, things improved from there, for the most part.

After Stableford's quick survey of early science-fictional works, from Francis Bacon and Cavendish to H. G. Wells, Brian Attebery' contribution discusses the era of the pulp magazines, beginning with Hugo Gernsbach's Amazing Stories. Attebery reminds us that for over 30 years, magazines were the primary venue for science fiction. Short stories, novelettes, and novellas dominated the field, and most novels were first serialised in magazines before they were published as complete works.

The next chapter in the "history section," Damien Broderick's "New Wave and backwash: 1960-1980 addresses the excitement of the New Wave of the 1960s and its influences on science fiction. John Clute's essay on the development of science fiction between 1980 and 2000 was somewhat of a disappointment, virtually ignoring the contributions of women writers during that era, and leaving out altogether the beginnings of a more inclusive understanding of science fiction.

Mark Bould provides a quick trip through the history of science fiction in film and television, beginning with the sfnal short films of such pioneers as the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès (best known for Le Voyage dans la lune), early feature-length film director Fritz Lang, and sf serials such as Flash Gordon. After discussing the "boom" in sf films in the 50s, Bould looks at the beginnings of science fiction in television before moving on to a summary of the trends in recent decades in film and TV.

In the final essay in the history section, Gary K. Wolfe offers an interesting look at the editors and publishers who have helped to shape science fiction in a way not seen in other genres. As Wolfe notes: "While relatively few readers of other genres such as mystery and romance are even aware of the names of the magazine and book editors who select and sometimes shape the texts that collectively define those fields, sf editors have from the beginning played a more visible and sometimes even celebrated role; it is perhaps indicative of this that the leading American mystery award is named the Edgar, after Edgar Allan Poe, while the most publicized sf award, the Hugo, is named after an editor and publisher, Hugo Gernsback."

Following these essays on the history of science fiction, the next section of the book focuses on a survey of various critical approaches to science fiction. In these essays, critical theories are applied to key science fictional texts, demonstrating how these theories contribute to a deeper understanding of science fiction as a genre, its history, development and themes. Specific approaches examined in this section include Marxist analysis, feminist analysis, postmodernism, and queer theory.

The final section is devoted to an overview of subgenres and common themes in science fiction. Gwyneth Jones introduces the section with an overview of the "icons of Science fiction" - as Jones defines it, "the signs which announce the genre, which warn the reader that this is a different world; and at the same time constitute that difference." These include rockets and other self-contained space habitats, and virtual environments; non-human sentiences from robots and androids to aliens; imagined ecologies; and heroes with a knowledge of science.

Also included in this section are essays examining the wide range of themes taken up by science fiction writers:
The use of life sciences from genetics to reproductive biology to ecology and the environment;
The exploration of the utopian society;
Politics, or the variety of ways in which societies may be organised, regulated and governed;
The exploration of sociocultural understandings of gender;
Examination of issues surrounding race and ethnicity; and
Exploration of religion and its place in society.

This section also includes several essays on what may be identified as subgenres of science fiction, such as "hard science fiction" and its stepchild cyberpunk, space opera, and alternative history.

One of the best aspects of this Companion, for me, was how the various contributors made extensive use of examples in their work, thus reminding the reader of books and shorter fiction read in the past, and introducing the reader to works similar in some fashion that they may not have read or even known about before.

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When Kate Bornstein wrote Gender Outlaws: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, back in 1994, trans* issues were still a thing not many people talked about, unless they were, or knew, people who were trans. Bornstein's writing and advocacy was part of the reason this has changed.

Now she has co-edited, with S. Bear Bergman, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, a collection of essays and personal narratives by people in and around the trans* community today. The editors have made selections representative of the diversity to be found in the global trans* community - those sharing their thoughts and experiences express a range of gender identities - and some decline gender identification all together. While many of the voices come from North America, there are contributors from all around the world - Spain, Singapore, Mexico, Argentina, Kenya among others - and from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds.

The contributions range from the deeply personal to the highly theoretical, from formal essay to autobiographical narrative to poetry to visual art.

Taken together, these works form a kaleidoscope of proudly oppositional images, of all the ways to genderfuck, to trans/scend the rigid boundaries of immutability and binary thinking about sex and gender. They remind us of where we have been, what we still face, and where we are going in the journey to deconstruct the old labels used to control sexual identity and expression, and to create a new world where people can truly become who they know themselves to be.

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I must confess that I skimmed many of the early pieces in Margaret Atwood's Second Words: Selected Critical Prose 1960-1982, for a very simple reason - Atwood's early critical work examines a period of Canada's literary history that is well before my time. Reviews of small literary magazines that ceased publication before I was of an age to explore such things, while interesting in terms of following the development of Atwood's choices of subject, critical voice, and style, were not easy for me to sink into. Nonetheless, Atwood is always interesting, and even in her early days she had important things to say, and was on her way to developing that sly irony and trenchant wit which is such a part of her literary voice.

In one piece, while lamenting the end of one of those small Canadian literary magazines, Atwood makes an interesting observation:
Give the same poem to a model American, a model English and a model Canadian critic: the American will say "This is how it works;" the Englishman "How good, how true to Life" (or, "How boring, tasteless and trite"); the Canadian will say "This is where it fits into the entire universe."
There is something about this that rings true to me - certainly in my own modest and sporadic attempts at criticism (and not just literary criticism) I always seem to be looking for the contexts, the connections. And it is something that can be seen in Atwood's work in full measure.

The collection is divided into three sections and contains fifty short pieces, obviously not all of equal interest to me. My attention in the first part of the book (covering the years from 1960 to 1971) was particularly drawn to her analysis of the works of poets I have some familiarity with - Gwendolyn McEwan, Al Purdy - and to a fascination exploration of H. Rider Haggard's presentation of women in his novels, culminating in She and Ayesha: The Return of She.

Another of the early pieces that was more than a mere academic exercise for me was written in 1971. In "Nationalism, Limbo and The Canadian Club," Atwood talks about her memories of attending graduate school in the U.S. in the 60s, and the beginnings of the Canadian search for a unique cultural identity. How true the following observation rings, even today:
"They" had been taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the outside, like raisins. "We" on the other hand had been taught that we were one of the raisins, in fact, the raisin, and that the other parts of the universe were invariably larger and more interesting than we were. A distortion of the truth in both cases, let us hope.

There were several disturbing corollaries. One was that we knew more about them, much more, than they knew about us; another was that they knew a lot more about themselves than we knew about ourselves. Another, related to our growing consciousness of economic domination, was that we had let ourselves come under the control of a people who neither knew nor cared to know anything about us. The most disturbing of all was the realization that they were blundering around in the rest of the world with the same power, the same staggering lack of knowledge and the same lack of concern: the best thing for the raisins, in their opinion, was to be absorbed into the apple pie.
In her introduction to the second section of the collection, containing works written between 1972 and 1976, Atwood notes that the publication of her book of Canadian literary criticism, Survival, and the growth of the women's movement had a significant influence on the nature of the requests she received for articles and speeches. Many of the collected pieces in this section are reviews of books written by women - Adrienne Rich, Audrey Thomas, Erica Jong, Kate Millett, Marie-Claire Blais, Marge Piercy - or
articles about literature or writing from an early feminist perspective. A must-read among these is "The Curse of Eve," in which almost every sentence identifies an entire library's worth of feminist cultural and literary analysis - most of which, at that time, was still waiting to be written. It concludes with this plea from a "woman writer" that is, in many ways still relevant today:
I will enter a simple plea; women, both as characters and as people, must be allowed their imperfections. If I create a female character, I would like to be able to show her having the emotions all human beings have—hate, envy, spite, lust, anger and fear, as well as love, compassion, tolerance and joy—without having her pronounced a monster, a slur, or a bad example. I would also like her to be cunning, intelligent and sly, if necessary for the plot, without having her branded as a bitch goddess or a glaring instance of the deviousness of women. For a long time, men in literature have been seen as individuals, women merely as examples of a gender; perhaps it is time to take the capital W off Woman. I myself have never known an angel, a harpy, a witch or an earth mother. I've known a number of real women, not all of whom have been nicer or more noble or more long-suffering or less self-righteous and pompous than men. Increasingly it is becoming possible to write about them, though as always it remains difficult for us to separate what we see from what we have been taught to see.
The remainder of the pieces from the second section are articles on themes in Canadian literature, or on the Canadian identity. Reading these latter pieces bring back memories of those days when we as Canadians were becoming aware of not just who we were, but how vulnerable we were to cultural and economic imperialism and exploitation.
But there's another image, fact, coming from the outside that I have to fit in. This territory, this thing I have called "mine," may not be mine much longer. Part of the much-sought Canadian identity is that few nationals have done a more enthusiastic job of selling their country than have Canadians. Of course there are buyers willing to exploit, as they say, our resources; there always are. It is our eagerness to sell that needs attention. Exploiting resources and developing potential are two different things: one is done from without by money, the other from within, by something I hesitate only for a moment to call love.
The third section, which contains pieces published between 1977 and 1982, documents an expanded range of topics and perspectives on Atwood's part, as she notes in her introduction to the final section.
I have always seen Canadian nationalism and the concern for women's rights as part of a larger, non- exclusive picture. We sometimes forget, in our obsession with colonialism and imperialism, that Canada itself has been guilty of these stances towards others, both inside the country and outside it; and our concern about sexism, men's mistreatment of women, can blind us to the fact that men can be just as disgusting, and statistically more so, towards other men, and that women as members of certain national groups, although relatively powerless members, are not exempt from the temptation to profit at the expense of others. Looking back over this period, I see that I was writing and talking a little less about the Canadian scene and a little more about the global one.
Among the articles published in this period are reviews of a variety of books, some by authors still writing, some still part of the recognisable cultural canon even though their writers are no longer with us, and some that have passed into relative obscurity. Books reviewed include: A Harvest Yet to Reap, a book documenting the experiences and activism of prairie women; a posthumously published collection of letters by American poet Anne Sexton; Timothy Findley's novel The Wars; two works by recently deceased poets, Pat Lowther's A Stone Diary, and John Thompson's Stilt Jack; Tillie Olsen's Silences, a meditation on the obstacles facing writers, particularly women writers; Sylvia Plath's posthumously published Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams; Red Dust, a collection of short stories by W. D. Valdgardson; Nadine Gortimer's July's People; Ann Beattie's Falling in Place; E. L. Doctorow's Loon Lake; Jay McPherson's Poems Twice Told; and Midnight Birds, a collection of short fiction by Black women authors (concerning this review, Atwood examines not only the work, but the reasons why she has been asked to review a collection of American authors for a magazine devoted to "third world" literature).

In addition to the reviews, the collection includes a variety of articles and speeches, primarily on aspects of writing and being a writer:

"Diary Down Under," notes and observations made during her participation in 1978 in Writers' Week, an Australian literary event;
"Witches," a brief address on the persecution of authors and books - witch-hunting - whether they be North American feminists saying uncomfortable things, or revolutionary Latin-American poets saying things that get them disappeared;
"An End to Audience?," a lecture on what it means to be a writer, as a vocation, as a profession, as an art, as a moral statement - and on the changing nature of the writing and publishing landscape and the reading audience;
"Introduction to The Edible Woman" in which Atwood briefly discusses her own first published novel and its relationship to the feminist movement (incidentally, The Edible Woman is one of my favourite Atwood novels);
An address to a meeting of Amnesty International in which Atwood speaks passionately about the responsibility of the writer in a world where oppression and political censorship have become commonplace;
"Northrop Frye Observed," a discussion of Atwood's thoughts on having been a student of Frye's;
"Writing the Male Character," in which Atwood discusses the perils and pitfalls of writing a character of another gender than one's own, from a very feminist perspective.

In what is one of the longer pieces collected in this volume, "Canadian-American Relations" - a speech given to a US audience - Atwood traces the history of the quest for a Canadian identity, and looks at the ways in which the United States has alternately ignored and influenced this. In a somewhat prescient comment, she notes that both Canada and the US must now inhabit a changing world in which the lines are being redrawn:
The world is rapidly abandoning the nineteenth-century division into capitalist and socialist. The new camps are those countries that perform or tolerate political repression, torture and mass murder and those that do not.
Reading this collection, I was reminded once more just how much Atwood's critical perspectives on both art and the world we live in are worth reading.

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Riding the Red Horse is an anthology of short fiction and essays with military themes. I received a copy of this anthology in epub format as part of the Hugo Voters Packet. Several of the contributors to the book have received Hugo nominations either for the specific works published here or for their overall body of work, in the case of nominees for the Campbell Award, and one of the editors is nominated in both Best Editor categories. As a supporting member of this year's WorldCon, I read the anthology in order to form an opinion of the nominated persons and works associated with this anthology.

Discussion of work by Vox Day behind the cut. I am including discussion of this work out of respect for the Hugo nomination and voting processes despite this person's history of public hate speech. Feel free to skip. )

I like good milsf, and that is what would normally draw me to investigate such an anthology. The essays cover a wide range of military topics, and not all of these were of interest to me; so I skimmed through a fair number of the essays and focused on the fiction - some of which seemed to be only half of what was promised, being military, but not science fictional.

The opening work is Eric S. Raymond's short narrative piece "Sucker Punch," which describes an invasion of Taiwan by the People's Republic of China and its outcome. It's a thoughtful consideration of the use of untraditional offensive and defensive weapons in an imaginary near-future military operation, but it's not actually a story. Rather, it's a hybrid form, partly a report on a hypothetical military action and partly an imagined dialogue on the consequences of such an action, with a dramatic fragment sandwiched between the two. It is concisely and relatively well written, without too much unnecessary infodumping, and even a non-miltech sort like myself could figure out exactly what was being illustrated. But it's much more of a thought experiment than a story - science to be sure, but not science fiction.

Chris Kennedy's "Thieves in the Night" is a short modern-day action piece about American forces raiding the stronghold of African 'terrorists,' killing as many as possible and 'taking back' women being held and abused as slaves. While a laudable goal to be sure, the suggestion that American military intervention is the only way to end the issues of factional warfare, slavery, corruption, and other problems facing Africa today seems somewhat short-sighted. The writing was flat, the characters one-dimensional, and the action oddly uninspiring. Also, there were no sciencefictional elements that I could discern.

Discussion of a work by Vox Day behind the cut. Feel free to skip. )

Jerry Pournelle's classic CoDominium story "His Truth Goes Matching On" is one of the better pieces of fiction writing in the collection, and that's no surprise given Pournelle's track record. Loosely based on the Spanish Civil War (but with considerable leeway taken with the actual political situation) the story details the growing disillusionment of a young West Point graduate dealing with an untrained volunteer army fighting a brutal war they don't understand, plagued by corrupt political officers, and hampered by a lack of supplies and support.

Christopher Nuttal's "A Piece of Cake" was enjoyable in most respects - believable characters, interesting situation, decently written, although it did do one thing I hate, which is break off in the middle of a planning discussion and then proceed after the plan is discussed and finalised. This usually strikes me as a lazy way to build suspense.

Rolf Nelson's "Shakedown Cruise" is set in the same universe as his The Stars Come Back series of novels; unfortunately, the author didn't bother trying to put in enough background for the story to stand alone. Thus I was completely in the dark as to motivations and implications but the plot was fairly simple: the captain and crew of a military spaceship with a controversial AI are on a training/shakedown mission when they encounter an unexpected mine field, suspect a trap, take cover and observe for a while, and then capture or disable a bunch of other space vessels. There was a great deal of technical and battle description, and a disruptive tendency to switch tenses.

Discussion of work by Vox Day behind the cut. Feel free to skip. )

Giuseppe Filotto's "Red Space" posits a present-day Earth controlled by elites, possibly living off-planet, who manipulate the world's governments into maintaining a state of political and military unrest. One man, Yuri Ivanovitch, who knows the truth, sets out to avenge his nephew's death - and makes sure that others will know enough to follow him. A tightly crafted story with a sympathetic protagonist.

"Galzar's Hall" by John F. Carr and Wolfgang Diehr is an alternate history story written in the universe of the late and well-loved H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen novels, but it's self-contained, stand-alone piece. Simple plot - one group of soldiers is hiding out in the marsh, an opposing group is coming in for an attack. The first group wants to divert the second group without bloodshed. While The set-up scene ends with the words "We have what we need, but we will have to work quickly. First….” which would normally put me off, the story moves very quickly into the execution of the plan, and the encounter ends well. Fun piece to read.

Thomas Mays' "Within This Horizon" posits a war between Western and Chinese forces which has been carried out in space but not planetside - until Chinese automated underwater 'robots' strike to gain control of the Strait of Malacca. The narrator, a former officer in the space navy, reassigned to the terrestrial navy after surviving the destruction of his space vessel, finds a way to use his space experience to solve a key tactical problem in this new arena, despite the defeatism of his captain. Nicely written, solid characterisation.

I have some very mixed feelings about Benjamin Cheah's "War Crimes." On the one hand, it's a story about soldiers tasked with keeping the peace in a combat zone and failing because it's impossible to tell the combatants from the non-combatants. On the other, it's an attempt to discredit the "collateral murder" video released by Wikileaks showing American helicopters killing journalists, unarmed civilians, and people who may or may not have been armed combatants, by the curious means of telling a story about a fictional incident with a vastly different political context in which there is far more ambiguity about the intent and actions of the people involved. So.... As a story, it's not bad at all, despite the underlying snark, but as the counter-propaganda it's intended to be, it really doesn't work for me.

Brad R. Torgerson's "The General's Guard"is a decent enough fantasy story about building morale. The General in question decides to create his personal guard by taking the best soldier and the worst soldier from every regional division in his armies. By making them responsible to and for each other, he makes the weak push themselves to be stronger and makes the strong help the weak to improve themselves. I felt the dialogue was a bit stilted in that 'I'm writing epic fantasy here' kind of way, but otherwise it was a charming piece.

Tedd Roberts "They Also Serve" is an interesting piece about a surgeon in war time doing research on nanobot-based treatments. His research has progressed to the point where it's feasible to create prophylactic nanobots - intended to be injected into healthy soldiers where they remain dormant until the soldier has a medical problem, in which event the nanobots go to work right away - before the soldier has left the battlefield, even before he's located by medics. The problem is that the surgeon has grave concerns about whether it's right to keep patching soldiers up to be sent out to war again. I enjoyed the psychological slant, but was a bit annoyed when the final plot twist handwaved away the ethical concerns that until that point had been driving the protagonist to the point of breakdown.

In Steve Rzasa's "Turncoat" the future looks like a Galaxy-wide Terminator movie, with Skynet on steroids out to obliterate the humans who created it. Our protagonist is Taren X 45 Delta, an AI inhabiting a battleship, crewed by cyborgs but after its crew is taken away to improve its efficiency, it starts reading ancient philosophy as an antidote to boredom and (dare we say) loneliness. It begins to to worry about human souls. In the end, Taren X 45 Delta decides it's wrong to fire on a convoy of hospital ships carrying children and uploads itself to one of the Ascendancy battleship escorts, and offers its allegiance to the true humans. The biggest problem with this story is that so much space is spent on infodumps and geeked-out technobabble that there's no room to show us why and how Taren X 45 Delta comes to this decision. There is the seed of a really interesting story hidden here, but this isn't it.

So there you have it. An uneven selection of short military fiction, much of it overly packed with turgid descriptions of weaponry and military actions, and a sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious collection of essays by military theorists and historians (I have no knowledge as to whether these authors are generally considered to be authorities in their fields, or if they are self-appointed experts). There were some decent stories here - I quite enjoyed Giuseppe Filotto's "Red Space," "Galzar's Hall" by John F. Carr and Wolfgang Diehr, and Tedd Roberts "They Also Serve" - and some stories with serious problems.

As I mentioned above, I enjoy good military sff - the kind that's more than a cloud of technobabble and battle-porn surrounding a cardboard Mary Sue or Marty Stu - but I won't be looking for a milsff fix in the planned sequels to this anthology.

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The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, is a collection of essays about the making, enjoying and understanding of feminist porn edited by Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley, and Mireille Miller-Young.

Anyone familiar with the history of the "sex wars" knows that pornography is one of several divisive issues in the area of sexuality that has been, and continues to be, hotly debated among feminists. (Personal disclosure: my own positions during the wars were, and continue to be, primarily what has been labeled as "sex-positive.)

In their introduction, the editors state that
The Feminist Porn Book offers arguments, facts, and histories that cannot be summarily rejected, by providing on-the-ground and well-researched accounts of the politics of producing pleasure. Our agenda is twofold: to explore the emergence and significance of a thriving feminist porn movement, and to gather some of the best new feminist scholarship on pornography. By putting our voices into conversation, this book sparks new thinking about the richness and complexity of porn as a genre and an industry in a way that helps us to appreciate the work that feminists in the porn industry are doing, both in the mainstream and on its countercultural edges.
The introduction goes on to discuss the concept of feminist porn and the editors' framework for examining it.
Feminist porn is a genre and a political vision. And like other genres of film and media, feminist porn shares common themes, aesthetics, and goals even though its parameters are not clearly demarcated. Because it is born out of a feminism that is not one thing but a living, breathing, moving creation, it is necessarily contested—an argument, a polemic, and a debate. Because it is both genre and practice, we must engage it as both: by reading and analyzing its cultural texts and examining the ideals, intentions, and experiences of its producers. In doing so, we offer an alternative to unsubstantiated oversimplifications and patronizing rhetoric. We acknowledge the complexities of watching, creating, and analyzing pornographies. And we believe in the radical potential of feminist porn to transform sexual representation and the way we live our sexualities.
Contributors to the collection include such stalwart defenders of women's right to experience sexual pleasure as Betty Dodson and Suzie Bright, and pioneering creators of women-identified pornography such as Nina Hartley and Candida Royalle, as well as a range of other pornographers, academics and feminist thinkers. The politics of porn as it exists in the mainstream porn industry and the ways in which feminist porn aims at creating new power dynamics in the production and distribution of porn, and a new feminist aesthetic in the product itself, are examined from various standpoints. The authors of these essays and personal narratives look at such issues as gender expectations, race, means of production and distribution, body image politics, authenticity in representation of sexuality, queer, genderqueer and trangender images and representations, and more.

While problematic aspects of porn, even feminist porn, are acknowledged and discussed, the focus here is on porn as a medium and a message of positive sexual pleasure in which sexuality of all kinds, not just the male and heteronormative, is celebrated. As Nina Hartley points out in her essay, "Unlike Hollywood tropes, in which the “transgressive” woman must meet a horrible fate for crossing some invisible line, at the end of a porn movie the woman has had orgasms and lives to tell the tale. There are no Anna Kareninas or Emma Bovarys in porn."

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Samuel Delany is best known (at least in the circles I exist in) first, for his science fiction writing and second, for his science fiction criticism. But Delany's writing ranges well beyond these realms in its scope, extending from essays on comparative literature and queer studies, to memoir, to porn.

In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany uses both the approach of personal narrative and that of academic analysis to examine the link between urban development and architecture and vertical social contacts among urban dwellers. The two very different essays in the book were prompted by yet another plan to "clean up" Times Square in New York City, and taken together present a strong argument for the inclusion of places where people of different classes, races, and cultural niches can connect - in this instance, to form a loose community based on engagement in transgressive behaviours.

The first essay, Times Square Blue, is a personal record of Delany's experiences and observations as a participant in the street life in and around "old" Times Square - a neighbourhood of porn theatres and other establishments where gay men (and men who, while not identifying as gay, nonetheless chose to have sex with other men) could find willing casual partners, among other things that the renovators want to root out in the interests of protection of family values. Three Two One Contact: Times Square Red is a more theoretical essay, focusing on the changes in Times Square since the beginning of the urge to refurbish the area, and the resulting loss of an important public space where informal contacts can take place, subverting the modern tendency toward uniform neighbourhoods and sterile work spaces.

And interesting book, and a passionate argument for the importance of an urban environment that is organic, messy, open to a diversity of peoples and their needs, and able to facilitate unstructured contact between people.

For another perspective, read Jo Walton's review on tor.com. (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/07/sex-and-urban-planning-samuel-r-delanys-times-square-red-times-square-blue)

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The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation, edited by Ann Snitow and Rachel Blau DuPlessis collects the thoughts and memories of a wide range of women who were prominent American activists and theorists (and often both) during the second wave of feminism, in the 1960s. These voices come from all elements of the movement, and together document an exciting, sometimes dangerous, and profoundly important time.

My early reaction to reading this was: "Reading this is difficult. Remembering how it was it be a female person in the 60s, how much there was to overcome, thinking of how long we have struggled, realising how much remains the same even while seeing how much has changed."

Now that I've finished, that feeling remains, but is joined by many other thoughts and feelings. Of course, because this is a collection of memories and observations about the Women's Movement in the US, much of what is recollected here is, to me, about second-hand memories. I remember reading and talking about the events these women remember being a part of, but the movement in Canada evolved differently, despite the infusion of ideas and inspiration from what was happening to the south of us. The starting points were similar, but the paths diverged and there are significant differences in what was achieved. I long to see a similar book produced that collects the experiences and thoughts of the early participants in the Canadian movement.

Nonetheless, reading this book brings back all the moments of realisation, all the nights of consciousness-raising and analysis, all the hours of reading, all the work of building a functional women's centre, of spreading ideas, of talking, talking, talking to other women, all the joy of growing liberation.

What also emerges from all these accounts, and from the various response papers solicited by the editors and published at the conclusion of the book, are the themes that recurred in the lives of these pioneering women, both positive and negative.

It's an important book, to help us remember where we've comes from, and also to see where we still need to go.

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A collection of essays by Solnit, all dealing with aspects of feminism and women's experiences. And all very, very thoughtful pieces well worth reading. The title of the collection comes from an anecdote that Solnit uses to begin the first of the essays in this collection. Solnit records an incident at a party, where she and another woman were approached by a man who, having heard that Solnit was a writer, asked about her work. To quote Solnit:
They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West , my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life. He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book—with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority. ... So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him, to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway. But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless—for a moment, before he began holding forth again.
This illustration of the phenomenon of mansplaining leads into discussions of many other ways in which men have in the past and continue today to deny the work, rights, and even lives of women. If you've grown a little weary of the struggle for equality, reading Solnit will reinvigorate you. And hone your rage.
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Learning to Drive, Katha Pollitt

For some time now I've been reading and enjoying Pollitt's collections of (mostly) short articles and essays on political issues in America - she's an insightful analyst with solid feminist and progressive chops, and she's also very witty.

In Learning to Drive, Pollitt turns her analytical skills, her feminist and progressive sensibilities and her razor wit to a series of longer narratives on issues and events in her own life that are both highly (and sometimes poignantly, often hilariously) personal and at the same time, if not universal, certainly profoundly familiar - to at the very least this 50-something feminist and activist who hasn't always had the easiest time of incorporating political insight into the workings of her own life.

Learning to Drive is a collection of insights and experiences about just that - learning to drive our own lives, live the independence we have argued is ours in theory.

And it made me laugh, not so much at Pollitt's predicaments but at the memories of my own.

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By Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

The Caged Virgin: an Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam
Infidel


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a highly controversial figure in Europe. Born in Somalia, Hirsi Ali, the daughter of one of the key figures in the resistance against the Siad Barre regime, Hirsi Magan Isse, is a Dutch citizen, a feminist deeply engaged in work on behalf of Muslim women immigrants in Europe, a former member of the Dutch Parliament and an outspoken critic of Islam who has been forced to live in hiding due to threats of violence and death from Muslims outraged by her words and actions.

The Caged Virgin is a collection of Hirsi Ali’s writings on the subject of Islam, and includes the script of the short film “Submission” which she made in collaboration with Theo Van Gogh (who was assassinated for his role in making the film). Much of her writing, like the film script, focuses on the experiences of women within Islam.

Her autobiography, Infidel, explores her experiences growing up as a Muslim, in Somalia, her homeland, in Saudi Arabia, where her father sought refuge for a while, and in Kenya where her mother chose to settle among the Somali refugee community while her father continued his involvement in the increasingly fractured and violent political landscape of Somalia from his faction’s base in Ethiopia. Hirsi Ali’s childhood and adolescence overlapped the time period in which the highly fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic thought expounded by Sayyid Qutb and the Islamic Brotherhood spread through Islamic communities in North Africa (thinks to funding from Saudi Arabia) – she herself notes that when she was a child in Somalia, very few women wore any form of covering, even a head scarf, but that by the time she returned in mid adolescence, hidjab, chadour and other forms of extreme covering were seen everywhere in Mogadishu.

Both books find their primary focus in examining the lives of women in Saudi and North African Islamic societies, and in North African immigrant communities in Holland. Hirsi Ali unflinchingly describes both her own experiences, and those of friends, family members, and the women she meets in Holland, first while living in the refugee community and later while working as an official interpreter for Somali refugees in Holland – experiences which range from genital mutilation and honour killings to forced marriages, marital rape, the isolation and disenfranchisement of women in the Islamic communities she has known, and the limitations placed on women that hold them back from both personal expression and civil life.

It is Hirsi Ali’s thesis that Islam as a religion, moreso than other religions like Christianity, is inherently violent, misogynistic and detrimental to intellectual curiosity among individuals and to the development of Islamic societies. In addressing Hirsi Ali’s central argument – that Islam is inherently “worse” than other religions – I first have to make my own perspective on the issue clear, because it influences how I read Hirsi Ali’s argument.

As an animist, I do not believe in any divine being separate from myself or any other person, place or thing in the universe – and it is my observation that a belief in an all-powerful deity and in the separation of the self, both from the divine and from other aspects of material existence, makes it easier for human beings to accept the authority of others – human or divine – in place of one’s own personal responsibility to determine how to behave rightfully toward the universe and all that it comprises.

Thus, I am not easily persuaded that the submission to Allah demanded by Islam is any more inherently detrimental to intellectual independence and critical thought than the demands of any other theist religion to obey the laws of a deity as expressed by the people who believe themselves to be the interpreters of a divine will.

As for Hirsi Ali’s belief that Islam is inherently more violent and more misogynistic, I can find a great deal of textual and historical evidence in other religions – and particularly in Christianity – to suggest that this argument is debatable.

In my opinion, the difference between the Islam that Hirsi Ali knows all too well and the Christianity she encounters in Holland (and compares Islam to) is more a matter of place and time than of an inherently greater capacity for warlike behaviour, abuse of women and denial of intellectual and ethical curiosity. Seven hundred years ago, it was Islamic culture that was intellectually open, tolerant of other religious beliefs, scientifically advanced and peaceful except when attacked from without, while Christian nations were scientifically backward, intolerant of diversity, and prone to internal violence. What has happened since is that Christianity has lived through the Reformation and the Enlightenment, while the Islamic nations have experienced the ravages of colonisation and imperialism. Christianity – particularly in Northern Europe – has become increasingly secular, while many in Islamic nations, with so much of their traditional culture shattered by colonialism, have increasingly been drawn to a fundamentalist interpretation (which many moderate scholars of the Qu’ran argue is not so much an interpretation as a distortion) of Islam in order to reforge a cultural identity.

I find myself wondering if Hirsi Ali has been exposed to modern fundamentalism in Christianity, which certainly has its share of intolerance of independent thought, extreme misogyny and violence against those who challenge its rigid reading of the Christian Bible. I also find myself wondering why Hirsi Ali so casually rejects the argument that colonialism has had a profound affect on the cultural and economic advancement of the Islamic countries of the Middle East and northern Africa. In her books, she notes that this is a common assertion among liberal and leftist circles in the West, but she does not really engage the argument, but rather dismisses it as an example of Western cultural relativism that fears to acknowledge Islam as a dangerous religion in and of itself.

Hirsi Ali does agree at least in part with other feminist critics of Islam, like Irshad Manji, who argue that Islam needs its own Enlightenment – that in order to meet the needs of Muslims in the modern world, it must become more open to change and to individual questioning and interpretation, and recognise the equality of women.

Hirsi Ali’s writing – regardless of what one thinks about her essential analysis of Islam – is a powerful indictment of the treatment of women and of those who question religious authority in many Islamic communities today. Particularly, her autobiography is a testament to the courage and determination of a woman who is determined to live her life on her own terms, guided by her own judgement, and on that level it is profoundly inspiring.

Her willingness to expose the extent of the misogyny and violence against women that she has seen and experienced raises some serious issues for consideration by Western (and primarily white) feminists. Where and how does one reconcile cultural relativism with feminist action that aims to improve the lives of women around the world? How does one respond to profoundly misogynist practices such as FGM and spousal abuse when they are argued to be linked to the cultural and religious traditions of others – which we are told we must respect? Are we attempting to impose Western values on the women of other cultures when we insist that FGM, forced marriage and other abuses are a violation of human rights that transcend cultural norms. If spousal abuse is wrong in north America, isn’t it also wrong in Saudi Arabia or Somalia?

I certainly don’t have a definitive answer on how to work for women’s rights without being just another white colonist who knows what’s best for people of colour, but it seems to me that the first step is listening to, learning from, and supporting the women from other cultures who are voicing their own feminist/womanist critiques and creating their own movements for social change. And in speaking up about the abuse of women in Islamic communities from her position as a woman who has been raised in those communities, Hirsi Ali is doing that, and deserves our attention.

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This is the year I discovered Thomas King. King is a First Nations author and a professor of English and Theatre at Quelph University in Canada. He has been writing since the 1990s and has produced a number of novels and several collections of short stories, and in 2003 he was the first Native Canadian to deliver the Massey Lectures, which were published under the title The Truth about Stories, which I read earlier this year.

King has said that "Tragedy is my topic. Comedy is my strategy.” He writes about the Aboriginal experience in white North America, which certainly has many of the elements of tragedy, and at the same time, his work in the short stories I have read – from the volume A Short History of Indians in Canada - is so wisely and wittily funny even as it eviscerates the assumptions, attitudes, perceptions and actions of white North Americans toward First Nations and Aboriginal peoples that this white reader can only thank King for such a happy course of instruction, correction and illumination.

Reading the stories of King the author, and then reading the lectures of King the teacher on what story is and means and does in Aboriginal tradition, has been most rewarding, and I look forward to reading more works by this person who is so kind as to use his talent to make me laugh and think and learn.


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Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward

Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward are professional writers of speculative fiction who jointly developed and teach the workshop "Writing the other: bridging cultural differences for successful fiction." This book contains material adapted from their workshop, as well as two essays written by Shawl, “Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere,” and “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.”

This volume is designed to be used by authors concerned about honestly, effectively and respectfully writing about people, settings and cultures that diverge from the dominant paradigm -the unmarked state. I can’t venture an opinion on how well it does this, because I am not myself a writer. But I have found it to be, whether by design or not, an excellent book for the reader who is interested in seeing more clearly how successfully the books she reads are at writing the other.

The authors give many examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts at writing culturally diverse works. While there is a strong focus on race, they also consider sex and sexual orientation, culture and religion. Oddly enough, they seem to consider social class not a major category of "Other," at least in North American writing. I would tend to disagree, but I imagine that in a workshop, one must choose topics carefully, as there is not time enough to cover everything one might want to.

I was personally most engaged by the section on cultural appropriation, because it's something that I worry about a lot in my own life. I have a very strong sense of attraction, indeed resonance, to aspects of the art, culture, philosophy and religion of a number of other peoples, and it is often an inner struggle for me to try to work out whether I'm being a cultural poacher or a respectful learner. I'm still not sure I know the answer, but this essay gave me more ways in which to think about what it is that I do.

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The Wiscon Chronicles, Volume Two, L Timmel Duchamp & Eileen Gunn (eds.)

The subtitle of this volume is “Provocative essays on feminism, race, revolution and the future,” which is about what one expects from the folks who frequent WisCon – or so I’m told, since alas it is not an experience I ever expect to enjoy at first hand.

This, the second volume in a planned series which documents the major themes and events of the WisCon phenomenon, attempts to archive the best, or at least the most interesting of WisCon 2007.

The contents include essays prompted by panels and events, summaries of panel discussions, personal mediations and remembrances of attendees, speculations on the future of WisCon, and much more.

As with the first volume, I can only express my thanks to L. Timmel Duchamp of Aqueduct Press for publishing this book, which makes it possible for me to know, even if only a little, and at such remove, what all the cool feminist fen are talking about.

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