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In Laurie Penny's novella Everything Belongs to the Future, science - corporate controlled science - has developed a drug that, taken daily, can extend the lifespan for years, perhaps centuries. It is, of course, extremely expensive, available only to the rich and to favoured scientists, entertainers, and others who make themselves of particular value to those in control.

The narrative focuses on a small group of anarchist activists. Joined by Daisy, the scientist who did the original research on the "blue pill' - now a woman in her eighties who looks like a teenager - their attempts to develop a generic life extension drug give way to something profoundly different when Daisy's research leads in an unexpected and potentially explosive direction. Although we know from the beginning that something goes wrong with their plans - part of the narrative consists of letters written from prison by one of the activists - much of the story's tension is driven by the fact that the reader learns early on that there is a covert agent of the establishment among them.

Penny writes about power and corruption, oppression and resistance, loyalty and betrayal, but her focus is so narrow that the reader is left with little understanding of how the existence of life extension drugs has changed society. We learn that, faced with long life, the world's elites have finally taken measures to curb climate change, but little else that's concrete about this future society.

We get a sense that, at least among those to whom the protagonists initially try to distribute stolen life extension pills, life seems grim and faintly desperate, but we are left unsure as to the reasons for this. Is it just the longing that everyone has for the virtually unattainable fountain of youth, or has the creation of an immortal elite altered social conditions in ways that have made a life of normal span less tolerable?

Penny also uses the dichotomous categories of eternal youth and premature aging to explore the ways that apparent age influences the perceived value and status of women.

The novella moves quickly, and Penny's prose is at times both deeply evocative and chillingly powerful. As an allegory of favoured elites, disfavoured masses, and discontented resistance, it offers considerable good for thought, but I found I wanted more.

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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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C. E. Murphy's Magic and Manners is a Regency fantasy heavily inspired by Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which for me is more than reason enough to take a chance on it.

Murphy has retained all of the key characters of Austen's masterpiece, and has given them, in large part, very similar characters - although several characters are portrayed with greater generosity by Murphy than they are in the source text. The broad strokes of the tale are familiar - a rural family - the Dovers - landed but low on the social ladder, a father who regrets his choice of a wife, a mother with little intelligence or sense and an all-encompassing desire to see her daughters married, and five daughters who must marry on their own merits because there is little dowry, and no male heir to an entailed estate. Into their world comes wealthy young Mr Webber, his two sisters, his brother-in-law Mr Gibbs, and his best friend, the dour, proud and extremely wealthy Fitzgerald Archer.

What changes and complicates the progression of the novel is that this is a world in which some people are born with the gift of working magic - a most socially unacceptable gift, more than enough to destroy the reputation of any gentleman or lady, though welcome enough in some places, such as the military. As it turns out, it is the taint of magic that has caused Mr. Dover to retreat from Society and dwell quietly in the country, and which constrained his choice of brides. And his daughters have inherited his abilities, notably the second daughter and Mr. Dover's favourite, Elsabeth, and the youngest and favourite of Mrs. Dover, Leopoldina (Dina for short).

Much of the fun in reading lies in how well Murphy has captured the tone of Austen's original work (though there are some rather jarring missteps in that regard) and in watching the ways in which the plot of Magic and Manners diverges from the source material - most of which, particularly in the earlier parts of the book, involve the use of magic by either Leopoldina, or the dashing army captain who catches the eye of both Dina and Elsabeth, and has earned the distain of Mr. Archer and his friends. Indeed, the secondary focus of the narrative - after that of ensuring both marriages and personal satisfaction for most of the main characters - is the ways in which magic has been stigmatised, and how the suppression of magic among the upper classes has led to unhappiness and tragedy, to say nothing of the loss of opportunities to improve life for all.

The changes made to the story include several that - I hesitate to admit this - are somewhat more in keeping with how I would have liked to see certain characters treated than is the source text. The character modelled on Mary Bennett, in particular, is much better served here, and her ultimate fate also serves as an example of how magic, well-used, can benefit an entire community. As well, the character based on Anne de Bourgh is a far more sympathetic one, and fares much better. And the happy ending given to the character based on Charlotte Lucas delighted me to no end.

Murphy has done some very interesting and satisfying things with the bones of Austen's work, and her incorporation of magic leads to some highly enjoyable developments. I'm glad I took a chance on this book.

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For those who don't know (and until I read a passing comment on the Internet about her and the book she'd just written, I didn't), Lindy West is a feminist, fat acceptance movement activist. That was quite enough for me to be interested in her book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.

Shrill is, like Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist or Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things, a heady combination of personal narrative, political analysis and call-to-arms.

She talks with humour and honesty about growing up as a shy, overweight child, about reaching menache in a culture that seeks to ignore the biological processes of female bodies, about living as a fat woman, about struggling to come to self acceptance and to raise the consciousness of colleagues in the media about the effects of public fat-shaming.

She writes matter-of-factly about her abortion, and I recognised some of my own reactions on having mine. It was no horrible tragedy, no wrenching drama, simply a thing that I chose to have because I was not interested in having a child. What she says about the right to abortion, to control one's body, is short and exactly on the mark.

"The truth is that I don’t give a damn why anyone has an abortion. I believe unconditionally in the right of people with uteruses to decide what grows inside of their body and feeds on their blood and endangers their life and reroutes their future. There are no “good” abortions and “bad” abortions, there are only pregnant people who want them and pregnant people who don’t, pregnant people who have access and support and pregnant people who face institutional roadblocks and lies."

West writes movingly about the psychological consequences of the violent and obscene harassment - often minimised as "trolling" - of women on the Internet. She pulls no punches - she calls it what it is, abuse directed at the marginalised inhabitants of the net:

"Why is invasive, relentless abuse—that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field—something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs? Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered."

One of many interrelated topics she addresses is the idea of socially responsible comedy - comedy that does not make marginalised people, be they women, people with a disability or a socially awkward disease such as herpes, or any other marked status, the punchline of the joke.

"When I looked at the pantheon of comedy gods (Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK, Jon Stewart, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld), the alt-comedy demigods (Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, David Cross, Marc Maron, Dave Attell, Bill Burr), and even that little roster of 2005 Seattle comics I rattled off in the previous chapter, I couldn’t escape the question: If that’s who drafted our comedy constitution, why should I assume that my best interests are represented? That is a bunch of dudes. Of course there are exceptions—maybe Joan Rivers got to propose a bylaw or two—but you can’t tell me there’s no gender bias in an industry where “women aren’t funny” is widely accepted as conventional wisdom."

She pays particular attention to the phenomenon of the rape joke.

"Feminists don’t single out rape jokes because rape is “worse” than other crimes—we single them out because we live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault; that casts stalking behaviors as romance; blames victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood, or flirting with the wrong person; bends over backwards to excuse boys-will-be-boys misogyny; makes the emotional and social costs of reporting a rape prohibitively high; pretends that false accusations are a more dire problem than actual assaults; elects officials who tell rape victims that their sexual violation was “god’s plan”; and convicts in less than 5 percent of rape cases that go to trial. Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard. Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it."

I enjoyed reading West's lived experiences - some of which, in certain ways, seemed similar to some of mine - and her strong, bold voice. Not shrill, Lindy, though frightened misogynist men might label it so. Just strong, and true.

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Anyone approaching Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago with the expectations of reading a standard medieval fantasy will quickly find it necessary to revise their expectations. This is not a standard fantasy, and it's not just because the protagonist is a transwoman of colour. (But how wonderful it is to read a novel where the protagonist is a transwoman of colour.)

Robins in the Night is a post-modern, post-colonial fable that takes the Robin Hood mythos as a starting point for an examination of classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, gender identity and the revolution of the commons. The setting is somewhat ahistorical - castles with dungeons and houses with indoor plumbing - and without strong indications of place - there's a town, a forest, another town that people are born in or visit or pass through, and an island or two which are foreign places that people come from or go to. The style, language and sensibility are very modern. And it is a lot of fun.

There are some awkward passages, some places where the narrative falters, or overreaches, but for the most part, it is a satisfying and often delightful story, told with humour and full of adventure, women with tons of agency, and the romance of two revolutionary women falling in love.

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As gentle reader surely knows by now, there are certain things that generally delight me when I encounter them in books. Among these things are takes which draw on the Arthurian mythos, tales of female heroes, stories of women who love women, and novels that challenge or subvert traditional female roles. So one would expect that a novel set in a more-or-less historical Camelot, where the eternal triangle is between King Arthur, his competent and intelligent Queen Guinevere, and his best knight Lancelot - a passing woman - would be perfect for me. And indeed, I expected it to be so.

But...

I really wanted to love this book. For the wonderful idea of a female Lancelot, the best knight in the world as a passing woman, and the doomed love between Lancelot and Guinevere as a passion between two women. And I pushed through it, waiting patiently for it to 'click' for me. But it never quite did - though it came close at times.

I enjoyed Lancelot's voice, her innocence about the ways of the world turning to confusion, sorrow and pain as she sees at every turn the treatment of women and the brutality of war in Arthur's Britain. The telling of her descent into what can only be described as post-traumatic stress during the long sequence of battles against the Saxons.

Douglas clearly intends this book to be a critique that covers a range of feminist issues - from sexual abuse and domestic violence to paternalistic attitudes that limit women's opportunities and options. These issues are, in fact, present in the experience of virtually every female character who is even mentioned in the book. Unfortunately, the author falls into the trap of dismissing women's work, both physical and emotional, and women's concerns about relationships with men, family and children, as being something to be escaped, rather than accepted as a part of life that needs to be valued and embraced by society and all its members.

Instead of a story that validates all the possible choices women can make about their lives, what we get is a story in which women like Lancelot and Guinevere are able to transcend cultural limitations because they are different, and don't like "girl's things." Douglas also falls into the habit of giving most of the other women in the novel traditional roles - spurned lover, manipulative bitch, subservient wife, wise old crone, victim of violence or the dead woman in the fridge.

There are other problems. I found it overly slow and meandering, especially at the beginning. The author has incorporated elements of all the Arthurian stories she can possibly fit in, all together into one text, and it often seems that they are there just to add yet another instance of male indifference or brutality to women and their concerns, as many do not add significantly to the story of Guinevere and Lancelot. Even Malory, whose classic work is more a compendium of tales than a unified story, was selective about his choices, and kept one thread, that of the king whose greatness carries the seeds of his downfall, at the core of his narrative.

Moreover, there is something overly simplistic about the way key decisions that will literally change the course of lives are made. The choices that lead to Lancelot being raised as a boy in the first place, Gawaine's choice to follow Arthur, Morgan's decision to betray him, Guinevere's sudden acceptance of her lesbianism.... These things all happen almost without thought, like the flipping of a switch. The motivations are hollow, we barely see inside the characters enough to understand how or why such drastic choices are made and justified. We are told, but we do not see.

As well, the style of writing is rather pedestrian. At times it reads like a YA novel - and one for the younger end of that audience - but the themes of sexuality and violence rather run counter to that.

The story also relies upon one of my own pet peeves - failure to communicate. I was rather annoyed with the long keeping of secrets that prevented Guinevere and Lancelot from realising that their love was mutual. Particularly when there were so many times that Guinevere could have made it clear that she had seen through Lancelot's masculine facade. And it didn't stop with that. Certainly, a passing woman in such a time would need to keep her sex a secret, but there were so many other secrets kept by so many people.

On the other hand, it was quite satisfying to see some of the less-frequently adapted Arthurian tales brought into play, and to have so much of the story told from female perspectives, so I can't say there was no pleasure here for me. It's just that there could have been so much more. For those who want to explore the idea of a female Lancelot, in my opinion the gold standard remains Jo Walton's duology, The King's Name and The King's Peace.

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I must admit that when I 'picked up' a copy of Felicia Day's memoir You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), I didn't know much about her. I was aware that she had something to do with the online gaming community and was one of several women dealing with GamerGate harassment, but that was about it. Her book had cropped up on a few early Hugo recommendation lists as a potential nominee for Related Work, so I decided to check the book out for myself.

I now know somewhat more about Day, and am suitably impressed with her accomplishments. It's always good to see a fellow female nerd do well. I found her account of filming her webseries The Guild particularly interesting, as I was once a partner in a similar though far jess successful endeavour. Inventing props, begging for donated time, struggling to find an appropriate place to shoot.... All the memories came tumbling back. Our pilot didn't fare well - but had there been an Internet, and a Youtube then... but this is about Day's memoirs, not mine.

Day has a refreshing, quirky voice and an unusual background, which was sufficient to capture my interest. Her experiences in discovering and becoming part of the online gaming community, in getting started as an actor, in living life as a nerd, and her account of the effects that Gamergate harassment has had on her and other women in gaming, are all worth reading for anyone with interests in these areas.

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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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Jokes and the Unconscious, a collaborative graphic novel written by performance poet Daphne Gottlieb and graphic artist Diane DiMassa (of Hothead Paisan fame) is a brilliant, sometimes savage, sometimes heartbreaking story about coming to terms with death, sexuality, and living in a horribly imperfect world filled with pain, cruelty, callousness, lack of understanding and empathy, ironic co-incidence, and sometimes love and tenderness and just enough transcendence to make it possible to keep on living.

The narrative is framed within one summer in the life of the protagonist, Sasha, during which she works as a billing clerk in the hospital where her oncologist father, now on his deathbed, formerly practiced. However, the time frame shifts through Sasha's life, telling her story, her family's story, and the story of her father's illness and death in a mostly non-linear fashion. Along the way, it also addresses misogyny, date rape, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, patients's rights, ablism, Holocaust survivor issues, and a host of other issues, some of which may be triggering.

It's not an easy book, especially for those who may be dealing with loss of a parent or some of the other situations dealt with, but it's honest and it's worth reading and thinking about.

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Sarah Erdreich's book, The Roe Generation, looks at the current state of reproductive choice access and politics from the perspective of those she calls "the Roe generation - those for whom abortion has always been legal, but has also always been a topic of public discussion and controversy.

Erdreich covers a great deal of territory in this book. She begins with an overview of the history of abortion in the US, including the role that credentialisation played in the elimination of lay-midwives experienced in abortion from the health care scene and the pro-nativist concern over falling birthrate of white women that lay behind much of the early anti-abortion rhetoric.

Adding context to her research through extensive interviews with interviews with abortion providers, pro-choice activists, non-medical personnel who work in abortion clinics, students considering becoming abortion providers, and others involved in the reproductive rights movement, Erdreich examines such important topics as:

- the current state of training around abortion care and contraception in medical schools and the efforts of anti-choice organisations to further erode access to training

- strategies used by anti-choice activists to restrict access to abortion through legislation and court challenges that have the long-range goal of overturning Roe v. Wade

- the strong focus on family in anti-choice rhetoric, and how its emphasis on the fetus and on the damage to women from "post abortion syndrome" infantilises women and perpetuates the idea that what everyone really wants is a tradition family focused on child-rearing

- media representations of women seeking abortions and the very few instances in popular media where women choose abortion as a valid and positive option.

Erdreich concludes her examination of abortion with a critique of established pro-choice organisations as bureaucratic, inflexible, and not prepared to make effective use of modern communications and social media in organising. She stresses the need for more aggressive planning and action by pro-choice organisations and supporters to turn the tide of increasing barriers and restrictions on abortions, and advocates greater grassroots involvement. Finally, she talks about something every pro-choice supporter can do - help to normalise the idea of abortion rights by discussing it in the same way as any other public policy issue. Ending the atmosphere of shame and secrecy about reproductive choices is, Erdreich argues, a major step toward being able to see contraception and abortion as normal life issues.

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Several years ago, Alison Bechdel wrote an amazing personal narrative in graphic format called Fun Home, which addresses her own early life, her father's struggle with his repressed creativity and sexuality, his suicide, and her own coming out. The novel has received accolades and been adapted as a musical.

Now Bechdel returns to memoir, focusing this time on her relationship with her mother, in Are You My Mother? A more complex, and much less linear work, it is rich, multi-layered, and uses the graphic format to present intuitive connections between its many strands of narrative in a particularly effective manner.

The themes that Bechdel struggles with throughout the memoir - creativity, self-love, self-hate, sexuality, self realisation and awareness - are illustrated and embedded in a web of relationships, familial, romantic, analytic. Bechdel remembers her past experiences with her mother, dreams about her mother, talks about her mother in analysis, writes about her father and then her mother, relives aspects of her relationship with her mother in her relationships with lovers and therapists, and all the while, as an adult at various points in her life, talks to her mother, her lovers, her analysts, about all of these things. And woven into this is a discussion of Virginia Woolf and her experiences in resolving her family issues through writing (notably with To the Lighthouse), the theories of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, and the evolution of Adrienne Rich as a poet.

As Kate Roiphe says in her review of Are You My Mother, "There’s a lucidity to Bechdel’s work that in certain ways (economy, concision, metaphor) bears more resemblance to poetry than to the dense, wordy introspection of most prose memoirs. The book delivers lightning bolts of revelation, maps of insight and visual snapshots of family entangle­ments in a singularly beautiful style." [1]

It is a more demanding work than Fun Home, but it is a wise, insightful and rewarding work.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/books/review/are-you-my-mother-by-alison-bechdel.html?_r=1

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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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Quite a few years ago, a person of my Internet acquaintance, who is known on the Net as The Plaid Adder, started writing one of the best fantasy series I have ever read. It grew to five volumes - a tight trilogy (Taken Child, Another Country and Darkness Bright), a sequel (Redemption) and a prequel (Better to Burn) - and it is in my opinion a great sadness that none of the books were ever published.

I've never really understood why my acquaintance was never able to get these published, unless it was that they were written from a deeply feminist perspective, featured mostly female protagonists, a goodly number of whom were lesbians, and provided, along with compelling stories well-written about interesting and fully realised characters, serious critiques about just about every aspect of Western culture and society, an invitation to really think seriously about things like love, good and evil, materialism and progress, religion, and other core stuff of life, and a meta-narrative about the process of creation. Plus, the core trilogy is somewhat of a genre-bender, encompassing elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, suspense, romance and political satire, and while this kind of blurring of the boundaries has recently come more into vogue, it wasn't as salable back when these books were written.

I was fortunate enough to read these books chapter by chapter as they were written, and then to acquire printed copies of the complete and edited volumes from the author - which I of course reread. Then came my increasing environmental sensitivities, which made my treasured spiro-bound print copies unreadable. But now the author is distributing the novels as ebooks to those who know where to ask for them, and I've had the absolute delight of starting to reread these books again.

The first volume I reread was Taken Child, which introduces the land of Ideire and its low-tech, telepathy and magic-reliant culture, its somewhat eccentric semi-deity Idair and her nemesis the Dark One, the women-only order of magic-using clerics known as shriia who follow Idair and serve the people of Ideire, and their enemies, the female dark users of magic who receive their power from the Dark One.

At the centre of the trilogy is Theamh ni hUlnach, a shriia - albeit a somewhat unconventional one. In Taken Child, we meet as she goes about her duties, including the training of her apprentice Aine. In the course of this, she is sought out by a woman whose child has suffered the supernatural theft of its soul. In the process of trying to save the child, Theamh uncovers a horrifying secret linked to both an old enemy and a long-lost love, and a corrupt plot that threatens the very future of Ideire.

The second volume of the trilogy, Another Country, sees Theamh and Aine following the tracks of Theamh's nemesis, Lythril, into the neighbouring, technology-reliant Cretid Nation, which is in many ways a dystopic distillation of much that is wrong with our own society, as civil war erupts at home. A deft blend of heroic quest, political thriller, biting satire, and poignant love story, Another Country is genre-bending at its best.

The final volume, Darkness Bright, sees Theamh and Aine returned to an Ideire in chaos. They join up with the resistance - both martial and magical - fighting corrupt shriia and their secular allies who have overthrown the legitimate leadership of the country. An unflinching portrayal of the horrors and sacrifices made in war and the tragedy of a country torn apart by lies and greed, Darkness Bright is also a story of courage, commitment to the good, and enduring love.

If anything in what I've written here seems interesting to you, the author can be contacted on tumblr as http://plaidadder.tumblr.com/.

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Laurie Penny's book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, is (whether Penny or her readers know this or not) a call for the rebirth of the radical vision of feminism I remember from my youth, a vision I've never set aside, and one I hope will indeed come again, a true revolution that will change society, not just for women, but for all those oppressed by power inequities - and for those driven to oppress by fear and insecurity.

Working from within the system was never going to get us very far. And Sister Audre told us we couldn't use the master's tools to tear down his house. But many of us tried. For so many reasons. Because good girls don't ride the thunder and shake the house down to the foundations. Because the lies we swallowed with our mothers' milk kept us divided from all the other people who needed to tear down that house, the ones we could have worked together with, if we weren't white middle-class women who weren't ready to ally with queers, with workers, with the poor, with people of colour. Because the people who identified most with our oppressors (not seeing their own oppression) were our fathers, our brothers, our lovers, and even our sons.

Penny speaks to the women who came after us, and she is calling them to finish the revolution.
It must be mutiny. Nothing else will do. I used to be less hardline about this. I used to vote, and sign petitions, and argue for change within the system. I stayed up all night to watch Obama get elected; I cheered for the Liberals in London. I thought that maybe if we kept asking for small change – a shift in attitudes about body hair, a slight increase in the minimum wage, maybe shut down a few porn shops and let the gays marry – then eventually we’d get the little bit of freedom we wanted, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

No more of that. Being a good girl gets you nowhere. Asking nicely for change gets you nowhere. Mutiny is necessary. Class mutiny, gender mutiny, sex mutiny, love mutiny. It’s got to be mutiny in our time.
In her analysis of the current state of sexism, Penny looks at issues that will be familiar to most feminists - among them the policing of the female body, the consequences of enforcing socially-defined gender roles on people, male, female and non-binary, the relationship between reproductive freedom and personal freedom, the unpaid emotional work that women do, the backlash against women who dare to enter the public area, male entitlement and the nature of marriage - with clarity and with passion.

But more than this, Penny is drawing down the future with a vision of a renewed revolution:
A time is approaching when the humanity of women and girls and queer people and our allies will be understood in practice rather than acknowledged in passing. I believe that together we will find the courage to rewrite the old, tired scripts of work and power and sex and love, the old stories about what it means to be a beautiful woman, a strong man, a decent human being. I believe that the time is coming when those stories will be heard in numbers too big to silence. The great rewriting is already under way. Close your eyes. Turn the page. Begin.


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For some time now, I've been watching the full-tilt assault on reproductive rights in the US - and the less aggressive but equally troubling one here in Canada - with growing concern. It was a hard-fought battle, and one I remember well, to win those rights, and to see them being eroded in less than a generation is a sad thing indeed. Fortunately for Canadians, our struggle took us farther, to the full decriminalisation of abortion, which makes it harder to turn the clock back all the way here - though by no means impossible, and we must be vigilant, especially when conservative elements hold political power. But in the US, where abortion remained a matter of law, rather than a private medical decision between doctor and client, it has seemed to be much easier for the anti-choice forces to pass one new requirement or limitation after another, slowly curtailing reproductive freedom under many disguised. But as an outsider, dependent primarily on sporadic exploration of a foreign media, I remained unclear on just how serious the situation was in the US, and on what points the debate is currently focused. So when I heard of Katha Pollett's new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, I was eager to read it. And almost from the first page, I found my fears confirmed:
Between 2011 and 2013, states enacted 205 new restrictions—more than in the previous ten years: waiting periods, inaccurate scripts that doctors must read to patients (abortion causes breast cancer, mental illness, suicide), bans on state Medicaid payments, restrictions on insurance coverage, and parental notification and consent laws. In Ohio, lawmakers have taken money from TANF, the welfare program that supports poor families, and given it to so-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) whose mission is to discourage pregnant women from having abortions. (That’s right: Embryos and fetuses deserve government support, not the actual, living children they may become.) Twenty-seven states have passed laws forcing clinics into expensive and unnecessary renovations and burdening them with medical regulations intended to make them impossible to staff. Largely as a result, between 2011 and 2013 at least 73 clinics closed or stopped performing abortions. When these laws have been challenged in court, judges have set aside some of them, but not all. The result: In 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, around one-third of American women of reproductive age lived in states hostile to abortion rights, one-third lived in states that supported abortion rights, and one-third lived in states with a middle position. As of 2011, more than half of women lived in hostile states. Middle-ground states, such as North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have moved in an anti-choice direction. Only twenty-three states could be said to have a strong commitment to abortion rights. In 2013, only one state, California, made abortion easier to obtain.
Pollitt's book, however, is not intended as reportage so much as it is a revitalisation of the understanding of full access to abortion as an undeniable element of reproductive healthcare, and hence a social good (note: where Pollitt refers to women as those immediately affected by pregnancy and issues of access to abortion, my remarks on the text are intended to include in this category those genderqueer, non-binary and trans* people who, while not identifying as women, may also experience pregnancy and require such access). Pollitt summarises her main points as follows:
In this book I make many arguments, but let me mention three. First, the concept of personhood, as applied to the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and, at least until late in pregnancy, fetus, makes no sense: It’s an incoherent, covertly religious idea that falls apart if you look at it closely. Few people actually believe it, as is shown by the exceptions they are willing to make. Second, the absolutist argument that abortion is murder is a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women’s advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were the breadwinners and heads of families, Christianity was America’s not-quite-official religion, and society was firmly ordered. Third, since critiquing what came before does not necessarily help us move forward, I want to help reframe the way we think about abortion. There are definitely short-term advantages to stressing the anguish some women feel when facing the need to end a pregnancy, but in the long run presenting that as a general truth will hurt the pro-choice cause: It comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy. I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud. The anti-abortion movement has been far too successful at painting abortion as bad for women. I want to argue, to the contrary, that it is an essential option for women—not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul-destroying situations, but all women—and thus benefits society as a whole.
As Pollitt points out, the standard narrative requires that pro-choice activists buttress their advocacy with comments describing abortion as "the lesser of two evils" or presenting abortion as a harrowing choice for those who decide to terminate a pregnancy. A person seeking an abortion is expected to express ambivalence, sorrow, regret. Abortion is often characterised as the action of frivolous or irresponsible people, young, unmarried and/or engaging in transgressive sex. And so on. Pollitt would have us challenge that narrative.
Abortion is often seen as a bad thing for society, a sign of hedonism, materialism, and hyperindividualism. I argue that, on the contrary, access to legal abortion is a good thing for society and helping a woman obtain one is a good deed. Instead of shaming women for ending a pregnancy, we should acknowledge their realism and self-knowledge. We should accept that it’s good for everyone if women have only the children they want and can raise well.
Pollitt takes a thorough look at the key questions surrounding positions on abortion, and effectively demolishes not only the anti-choice arguments, but also the propensity of many on the pro-choice side to allow their opponents to frame the discourse.

She addresses the issue of the personhood of the embryo/fetus, and the logical, if not always elucidated, consequences of the belief that it is a person from, as some insist, the moment of fertilisation. She examines the ways in which anti-abortion (and anti-contraception) arguments and laws are in essence about policing female sexuality and socially-prescribed gender roles.
At the heart of opposition to legal abortion is an anti-feminist, anti-modern view of relations between the sexes: Women are (or should be) maternal and domestic, men are (or should be) energetic breadwinners, and sex is a powerful, dangerous force that must be narrowly channeled, with parents controlling girls to keep them virgins and women refusing men sex in order to corral them into early marriage with babies soon to follow.
Exploding myths used by abortion opponents to paint abortions as dangerous, and those who have them as either hedonistic and thoughtless or victims of manipulation by parents, Pollitt exposes the hypocrisy of anti-choice advocates who value the fetus but not the person who bears it or the child it will be after birth. She draws aim on the conservative agenda in which opposition to both contraception and abortion goes hand in hand with opposition to everything that might make the lives of actual living parents and children easier, from paid parental leave and flexible working hours to subsidized day care programs to minimum wage legislation and welfare, showing that the real goal of conservatives is to negate the advances made through feminism and other social justice movements and send women back to a limited role where they are dependent on men.

As an American-centric treatise on the current state of abortion rights, Pollitt's book is highly informative - both well-researched and highly accessible. As a call to reclaim abortion as an essential and positive part of reproductive health care, it is inspiring. As a reminder that the work of feminism is not yet finished, that we do not yet live in some glorious post-feminist society, it is invaluable.

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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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City of Sorcery (pub. 1984), takes place seven years after the events in Thendara House, and there have been changes. Peter Haldane is now Legate, and Renunciates and women of the Terran Service working together have created The Bridge Society, a means for Terran and Darkovan to share knowledge and learn to work and live together. Jaelle and Magda are sworn freemates, living mostly at Armida, each having born a daughter by men of the Forbidden Tower - Dorilys nHa Jaelle, now five, and Shaya n'ha Margali, aged two. In addition, Magda and Camilla are lovers, though not sworn.

During a visit to Thendara, Magda is called to the Terran Zone by a request from Cholayna Ares - a survey plane has been lost in the area between the Hellers and The Wall Around the World, but somehow, the pilot, Lexie Anders, has appeared, her memory gone, regressed to childhood, at the gates of Terran HQ. Magda is able to use her laran to restore Lexie's memories - including a familiar image of robed women and crows calling - and the pilot reports having seen a previously unknown city hidden in the mountain vastness.

Driven by ambition to make a name for herself, Lexie hires Renunciate and mountain guide/trail organiser Rafaella - Jaelle's former partner - to take her into the Hellers in search of this mysterious city. Rafaella - who has been nursing resentment against Magda for taking Jaelle away from their partnership and the Guild - leaves a message for Jaelle, begging her to follow with extra supplies.

Jaelle shares this message with Magda and Camilla, both of whom have some thoughts on the hidden city. Like all Renunciates, they know that there is a secret society of Renunciates with laran called the Sisterhood; Magda has accidentally intruded on their meetings, and associates them with the imagery in Lexie's memories, while Camilla has heard tales of a hidden city of wise women who can grant the successful supplicant the answer to one question.

Driven by their various loyalties, responsibilities, and personal desires, five women - Jaelle, Magda, Camilla, Cholayna and Vanessa ryn Erin, a Terran Personnel Officer who is a member of the Bridge Society and an experienced mountaineer - set out after Lexie and Rafaella. The journey is fraught with difficulty and danger - bad weather, treacherous mountain trails, altitude sickness and savage cold, bandits and wild animals, and eventually a cult of women who oppose the Sisterhood and seek to use the travellers to gain power.

In some ways, City of Sorcery is a Pilgrim's Progress for the feminist, a journey toward a legendary place of wisdom and solace that can only be found by facing and overcoming trials and temptations. It is certainly no accident that almost all the characters in the novel are women, with even glimpses of men limited to street and group scenes.

In the end, not all the women who set out to find the hidden city survive; of those who do, some are invited onward to enter the city, others decline to go further, but all have had the depths of their own courage, self-knowledge, and sense of sisterhood tested, and found, not necessarily the path they most desire, but the path they freely and knowingly choose.

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Thendara House (pub. 1983) is a direct sequel to The Shattered Chain - it details the events immediately following on Jaelle n'ha Melora's freemate marriage to Terran (but Darkovan born and raised) Peter Haldane, and the entrance into the Thendara Guild House of Terran Intelligence Agent Magda Lorne (known among her guild-sisters as Margali n'ha Ysabet) for six months of training and seclusion.

For both women, it is a time of self-discovery. Jaelle, who has repressed her early life in the Dry-Towns, and who has lived since then among Renunciates, finds that her relationship with Peter raises those early memories. She is faced with an internal struggle between the deep, repressed conditioning that drew her to Peter - who is slowly revealed as a domineering and potentially abusive mate - and her identity as a Renunciate - a struggle that is only exacerbated when she realises that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, Magda is challenged to question her Terran values and sense of privilege, and is brought face to face with the reality that she is more deeply attracted to women than she is to men.

In addition to struggles with conditioning and culture shock, both women are dealing with the adult onset of powerful laran - Jaelle because of the resurgence of her childhood memories, which were shut down along with her laran when she experienced her mother's death while in rapport with her, and Magda as a result of her increased contact with other telepaths, including Jaelle.

Thendara House is not only a sequel to The Shattered Chain, however. It is also part of the story of the Forbidden Tower, in which both Magda and Jaelle will play a part. For both women, the connection that leads them to Armida is Andrew Carr, now known as Ann'dra Lanart.

Jaelle, in her role as cultural consultant in Terran Intelligence, is tasked with helping a visiting Terran official, Alessandro Li. Li is a Special Representative of the Senate, sent to investigate whether Cottman Four should retain its Closed World status or be reclassified, and to make recommendations about a Legation. Li is at first very interested in finding out all that he can about the Comyn and the rumours of telepathic abilities among the Darkovan ruling class. When the wreckage of Andrew Carr's downed plane is discovered and it is learned that Carr survived the crash, Li becomes fixated on finding out what happened to him.

Meanwhile, Magda meets Andrew when, along with a number of other Renunciates, she travels to the Kilghard Hills near Armida to help in fighting a fire. While they do not know each other, she recognises him as Terran - and vice versa. She believes him to be an Intelligence agent in deep cover, and later on, when she meets Alessandro Li, she innocently mentions seeing an agent at Armida. Li makes the connection between this unknown Terran and the missing Andrew Carr, and when all other attempts to contact Carr are thwarted, he sets out alone, unaware of a severe storm coming, to travel to Armida and confront him.

When Jaelle discovers what he has done, she determines to go after him, knowing the danger he is in. Peter attempts to stop her, threatening to have her declared temporarily insane due to her pregnancy, and placed in restraints. Jaelle lashes out and Peter is rendered unconscious (though Jaelle believes she has killed him). Jaelle, in emotional turmoil and psychic distress, heads out after Li, stopping briefly at the Guild House where she tries to see Magda. Magda, unfortunately, is in a meeting with the House Guild-Mother, and doesn't learn that Jaelle was asking for her until much later. Reaching out with her untried laran, she is able to discern where Jaelle is headed and why. Coming suddenly to understand that she is in love with Jaelle, she rides out after her. Magda finds Jaelle just in time for them both to find shelter from a sudden flood, but they are trapped by the rising waters. Jaelle miscarries and once more, Magda's laran enables her to reach out for help. A rescue party led by Andrew arrives, having also found and rescued Alessandro Li. During Jaelle's recuperation at Armida, both women realise that they have grown beyond both the limitations of their respective cultures, and the oppositional renunciations that form the essence of the Guild. Possessed of powerful laran, the next step for them is to join the Forbidden Tower - thus bringing together in Jaelle and Damon Ridenow the parents of Cleindori Aillard.

In Jaelle's experiences, we see through her encounters with other Terrans and with the cultural assumptions inherent in the way life and work are structured in the Terran Zone, the sexism of the Terran culture.

From the Terrans, Jaelle must deal with having her identity elided in a way that goes against her Renunciate's oath - among the Terrans, she is no longer Jaelle n'ha Melora, but Mrs. Peter Haldane. She is Haldane's wife, Haldane's girl, even Haldane's squaw. On the other hand, she encounters men in the Terran Service who accept her competence without question and work beside her without concern that she is a woman.

However, because Peter is Darkovan-raised and (as we are reminded several times) psychosexual development is fixed before adolescence, Peter's responses in intimate relationships are more typical of a Darkovan man who has acclimatised to Terran surroundings, than of a citizen of the Terran Empire. As Peter and Jaelle embark on their marriage, we see how the patriarchalism of Darkovan society affect relationships between men and women. Jaelle herself comes to think that it is the Darkovan in Peter, not the Terran, that creates problems between them: "Maybe it is not the Terran in Peter I find objectionable; maybe it is his Darkovan side which insists I must be no more than his wife and mother of his children… other Terran men are not like that."

Jaelle faces endless criticism from Peter over her inability to behave like a good wife, in either the Terran or Darkovan sense. When she acts "inappropriately" due to culture shock or the need to preserve her sense of autonomy, he lectures her on how this reflects poorly on him:
"I'm working under Montray now, and I'm in enough trouble with him without having him think—" he stopped, but to Jaelle, surprisingly, it was as if he had spoken aloud what was in his mind; think I can’t manage my wife.

As their relationship worsens, Jaelle comes to see that for Peter, love is equivalent to possession, and that he expects her as a matter of course to see to all his needs: "...and suddenly she knew him as Magda had known him, he really believed that he could treat her as valet, comrade-in arms, personal servant, breeding-anima, and somehow repay it all just with the ardor of his lovemaking..."

Nor is Peter's sexism limited his attitudes toward Jaelle. Because her heightened laran enables her to sometimes read his thoughts, Jaelle gains awareness of how he thinks about the new head of Intelligence Cholayna Ares, and his former wife and colleague Magda.
Not fair, dammit, I spent five years setting things up so that when Darkover got an Intelligence service I'd be at its head, and now some damned woman walks in and takes over. Bad enough playing second fiddle to Magda..."
When she finally tells Peter that she no longer wants to remain married to him, he responds that he will not allow her to leave - asserting his belief that she belongs to him and cannot break their connection without his permission, despite the fact that in Terran marriages, a married woman is not property, as she is under Darkovan law.
She detected a glimmer in his mind of logical resentment; women were damned unreasonable creatures, yet a man was at their mercy if he wanted children, and how else could they have any immortality? It almost made her pity him. “Don‟t be silly, Jaelle. I‟m not going to let you divorce me, not with a baby coming. I owe it to my child at least, to protect and look after his mother, even if we‟re not getting along too well.”
Thus in the short space of a few months, the intimate portrayal of the deterioration of their relationship brings into sharp relief the glimpses we have had previously of the traditional Darkovan marriage and the attitudes that shape it.

Magda's experiences in the Thendara Guild House mirror in some ways the early years (late '60s and early '70s) of the feminist movement - in particular the use of consciousness-raising groups to become aware of - and change - internalised sexist conditioning and to examine gender roles, institutionalised sexism, and nature of the differences between male and female. The other significant themes explored through Magda's life as a new Renunciate are lesbianism and transgender issues (through the emmasca character Camilla).

As a newly sworn Renunciate, Madga is expected to go through a period of training and seclusion, during which she may only leave the Guild House with permission of on the Elders of the House. At one of the first group meetings, the Guild Mother tells her and the other trainees "... you will learn to change the way you think about yourselves, and about other women.”

During her time in the Guild House, Magda comes to realise how pervasive same-sex attraction is on Darkover - and not just among Renunciates, although same-sex relationships between women are taken more seriously in the Guild than outside it, where such relationships between women are seen as adolescent fancies or secondary relationships, insufficient to keep a woman from her primary function, to marry a man and bear children.
Men may swear such oaths. And yet for women, such an oath is always taken, it seems, as a thing for untried girls, and means only, I shall be bound to you only so long as it does not interfere with duty to husband and children…”
In this perspective, it would appear that the frequent accusations against Renunciates, that they are all lovers of women and seduce honorable wives away from their husbands, refers not to the fact that many of them are in fact lesbian or bisexual, but that they value such relationships - and indeed, all relationships between women, sexual or not - as highly, or even more highly, than they do relationships between women and men. It is not that they love women, but that in doing so they choose not to be available to men.

Through the struggles of both women to find their true selves and desires, MZB explores much of the feminist analysis and praxis of second wave feminism of the 60s and early 70s. The nature of the patriarchy, the role of cultural conditioning, attitudes toward child bearing and rearing, alternative family structures, instititionalised sexism, the effects of sexism on men, the question of living separate from men as much as possible, even the debates over the role of lesbians in the movement, all have their expression in the inner journeys of Magda and Jaelle. It would be a rare woman of that era who did not see something of her own experiences and struggles somewhere in the pages of this novel.

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In The Shattered Chain (pub. 1976), Marion Zimmer Bradley explores both the quality and nature of relationships between women and the dimensions of power, control and equality (or lack of equality) in relationships between women and men in a manner that recalls the consciousness-raising of the early years of feminism. Set after the events of Rediscovery, in which a Terran survey ship finds the lost colony on Darkover 2,000 years after it is founded, The Shattered Chain covers a period of 12 years, and is the first novel to deal in depth with the Guild of Renunciates, or Free Amazons. The novel, divided into three parts, focuses largely on on the relationships of women - Rohana Ardais, Magda Lorne, and Jaelle n'ha Melora - with each other and with the men in their lives, but also provides glimpses into the lives and relationships of other women.

The Shattered Chain opens with a daring rescue of a Comyn woman, Melora, and her daughter, Jaelle. Kidnapped twelve years ago by a Dry-Town chieftain, Melora, pregnant with her kidnapper's only son, is desperate to escape or die before her daughter is chained, as all Dry-Town women are, at 13. She manages to telepathically contact her childhood friend Rohana Ardais, who defies the Comyn and her husband and hires a band of Renunciates, lead by Kindra, to free Melora. The rescue is successful, but Melora dies in childbirth on the way back to the domains, leaving her children in Rohana's care. Jaelle asks Rohana to foster her with Kindra, and Rohana agrees.

The second part of the narrative begins 12 years later, and tells the story of Magda Lorne, a Darkovan-born Terran Intelligence operative who spend most of her field time observing and reporting on the nuances of Darkovan culture from a woman's prospective. When her ex-husband Peter Haldane is held for ransom by bandits who mistakenly believe him to be the son of Rohana and her husband Lord Gabriel Ardais, and her superiors refuse to mount a winter expedition to save him, she turns to Rohana for help. Rohana advises her to pretend to be a Renunciate and deliver the ransom herself. While travelling, Magda's disguise is exposed by group of real Renunciates, led by Jaelle, and she is required to swear the Oath and become one of them in fact. Jaelle and Magda, now oath-mother and oath-daugther, complete Magda's mission but Jaelle is wounded. The three seek assistance from Rohana at the Ardais family seat.

The third part of the novel details the developing love affair between Jaelle and Peter, as they remain at Ardais over midwinter, and the consequences of this relationship for Jaelle, Magda and the others around them. This section of the novel is the most intimately focused, as both Jaelle and Magda examine their feelings for Peter, the relationship they have with each other, and their own needs for autonomy. Meanwhile, Rohana is assessing the costs and rewards of her own sometimes troubled relationship with Gabriel. As winter breaks, Magda, Jaelle and Peter return to Thendara, where Magda enters the Thendara Guildhouse to begin training as a Renunciate while Jaelle and Peter marry as freemates and Jaelle goes to work for the Terrans, in much the same capacity as Magda before her.

In many of the Darkover novels, MZB sets up contrasts between the status of women in different cultures and situations - Terran and Comyn, Comyn and Tower, Comyn and Renunciate, Tower worker and Keeper. This is perhaps the most fiercely feminist of the Darkover books, and takes a close and critical look at the roles, lives and status of women in mainstream Darkovan society.

In the first section of The Shattered Chain, we see the most marked of these contrasts - between the women of the Dry Towns and the Renunciates. The Renunciates dress practically, carry and are trained to use weapons, and unlike other women on Darkover (outside of the Towers), work and mingle freely with men, although not without having to endure sexist comments and jokes, and sexual invitations, polite and otherwise. Dry-Town women, on the other hand, live in chains.
The square was deserted for a while, then some of the Dry-Town women, wrapped in their cumbersome skirts and veils, began to drift into the marketplace to buy water from the common well, moving, each of them, with the small metallic clash of chains. By Dry-Town custom, each woman's hands were fettered with a metal bracelet on each wrist; the bracelets were connected with a long chain, passed through a metal loop on her belt, so that if the woman moved either hand, the other was drawn up tight against the loop at her waist.
Marriage for women in the Dry-Towns - at least as Melora experiences it - is a life of submission in which the man may grant his wives, concubines and other more temporary partners as much or as little freedom as possible. There is no hint of the (limited) possibilities for sexual expression available to women of the Domains, and no alternatives to marital submission, such as exist for other women on Darkover in the Towers or in the Guild of Renunciates.

In the Domains, there are three recognised forms of marriage. The most formal is marriage di catenas, which is the common form of marriage for Comyn women given as primary wives to Comyn men. There is also a legally recognised form of concubinage, in which a woman enters the household of a man as a barragana - her children will be legitimate, but she holds lower status in the household than a wife married di catenas. Finally, there is freemate marriage, which is a form of marriage declared between two people (not just a man and a woman, but also two women, and perhaps two men, though I don't recall any mentions of such in the novels, may enter freemate marriages) and considered legal upon consummation. Freemate marriage can be easily dissolved, unlike marriage di catenas, but as in the other forms, while it endures, the woman is seen as being under the guardianship and protection of the man, and at least to some degree as his property.

In Dry-Town or Domain, marriage of any form is seen primarily as a means of producing children who can be clearly identified as the legitimate offspring of some man. To have no acknowledged father is the most shameful thing possible for a man, to bear a child no man will name as his the most shameful for a woman. For some men, children - and particularly sons - are the only reason for children, and a barren women can expect to be set aside, or to have her husband bring a barragana or mistress into the home, and to be required to bring up his children by other women.

We see this focus on having children as the main reason for marriage, and as the most important function of women, in Kindra's story of how she came to be a Renunciate:
"I bore four children before I had turned twenty. I was given in marriage very young, and my first child died before I could bring him forth; the midwives said I should not try to bear another, but my husband was eager for an heir. My second and third children were daughters both, and he cursed me. I came very near to death with my fourth child-he was three days in the bearing-and this time, instead of curses, when he saw our son, he showered me with gifts and jewels. And then I knew a woman's lot in our world was wholly accursed. I was of no value; the daughters I bore him at risk of my life were of no value; I was nothing but an instrument to give him sons. And so when I could walk again, I left my children sleeping, one night, and cut my hair, and made my way alone to the Guild of Free Amazons, and there my life began."
Even Rohana, who as regent for the Aillard Domain has a seat on the Comyn Council, and who essentially runs the Ardais Domain for her husband, is constrained by the demands of Darkovan marriage, even though she has come to accept it, and to care for him.
"I did not want children, Jaelle. Every time I knew myself pregnant, I wept and raged. You weep because you are not to bear a child, but I cried more when I knew I was. Once I flung a silver bowl at Gabriel's head, and I hit him, too, and I shrieked at him that I wished I had killed him and he could never do this to me again. I hated being pregnant, I hated having little children around to trouble me, I feared childbirth worse, I think, than you feared the sword that gave you this." With light fingers she traced the still-crimson scar across Jaelle's smooth cheek. "Had I been free to choose, I would never have borne a child. And yet now that the children are grown, and I see that they are a part of Gabriel and myself which will survive when we are gone-now, when it would have been too late to change my mind, I find I am glad that the laws of my caste forced me to bear them, and after all these years, I have forgotten-or forgiven-all the unhappiness."
This is the context in which the Guild of Renunciates must be understood. Darkover is a feudal society - everyone has his or her place in the web of allegiances and wardships, loyalties and obligations. In this society, women and children gain their place from relationship to a man, and men from their relationship to a man of higher status, with the exception of men and women in the Towers, who gain their place from their oaths to their female Keeper, who in turn owes allegiance to the Keeper of Arilinn. Ultimately, all people owe their place in society, through this chain of allegiances, to the King (or Regent). This is why a child without an acknowledged father is in such a difficult situation - until they are old enough to marry or to swear allegiance to an employer or overlord, they have no legitimate place in this web.

In this kind of society, any woman who attempted to live outside of the restrictions of the patriarchal family would be without place or status of any kind, and unless she could pass as a man, would be unlikely to survive. Indeed, we hear that many women who do attempt to do so, seek out the normally illegal procedure that turns them into emmasca, enabling them to pass more easily.

The Guild of Renunciates is the only way for non-conforming women to leave the stifling environment of the family and still hold a recognised place in society as a woman. The Guild is a formally organised institution, holding a charter from King and Council. Its members must formally renounce their position as women with rights and obligations within the family structure. While readers of the Darkover novels often interpret the Oath of the Reunciates as a woman's decoration of independence, it is in fact seen within Darkovan society as a disavowal of the protections, rights and obligations that are otherwise legally binding on a woman. It is the price of freedom, not a definition of it.
Oath of the Guild of Renunciates

From this day forth, I renounce the right to marry save as a freemate. No man shall bind me di catenas and I will dwell in no man's household as a barragana.
I swear that I am prepared to defend myself by force if I am attacked by force, and that I shall turn to no man for protection.
From this day forth I swear I shall never again be known by the name of any man, be he father, guardian, lover or husband, but simply and solely as the daughter of my mother.
From this day forth I swear I will bear no child to any man save for my own pleasure and at my own time and choice; I will bear no child to any man for house or heritage, clan or inheritance, pride or prosperity; I swear that I alone will determine the rearing and fosterage of any child I bear, without regard to any man's place, position or pride.
From this day forth I renounce allegiance to any family, clan, household, warden or liege lord, and take oath that I owe allegiance only to the laws of the land as a free citizen must; to the kingdom, the crown and the Gods.
I shall appeal to no man as of right, for protection, support or succor: but shall owe allegiance only to my oath-mother, to my sisters in the Guild and to my employer for the season of my employment.
The Renunciate gives up her right to a secure marriage, and to the protection and support of a (male-governed) family or clan. She acknowledges that if attacked by force, she can expect no aid from men but must defend herself. She has no family, no regular place in society - by taking her mother's name, she announces herself to be fatherless. She is freed of her obligation to bear children into a family, but she also acknowledges that her children will have no automatic right to a position within a family - that they will be fatherless, as she is. The only family she has a place in, the only family she can turn to for anything, the only thing that connects her to society, is the Guild.

For Darkovan women who chafe under the restrictive codes of behaviour they are expected to observe, there is no middle ground other than that which they may be able to negotiate with the man who had wardship over them. Freedom is an all or nothing proposition.

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