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Unsettling Canada - A National Wake-Up Call sounded like something I'd want/need to read from the minute I heard about it. A collaboration between two First Nations leaders, Arthur Manuel - a vocal Indigenous rights activist from the Secwepemc Nation - and Grand Chief Ron Derrickson - a Syilx (Okanagan) businessmen, it is touted by the publishers as bringing "a fresh perspective and new ideas to Canada’s most glaring piece of unfinished business: the place of Indigenous peoples within the country’s political and economic space."

Much of the writing on Indigenous rights and
Indigenous activism in Canada is not accessible to someone like me, who can pretty much only read ebooks. (I can read a physical, bound book, but only very slowly, stopping the minute my breathing begins to be affected, which in practice means three or four paragraphs a day, and that means only one or two such books a year, so I pick only the most important books to be read in this manner.) So I was delighted to find an ebook copy of this available from the library.

The book is written from Manuel's voice, wth advice and input from Derrickson. He begins with a rumination on the land of his peoples, what settler-colonialists have called the B.C. Interior, and on his work with the Global Indigenous People's Caucus - in particular, the presentation of a statement on the 'doctrine of discovery' to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The doctrine of discovery is a poisonous piece of European colonialist legalism which says that a European sailing along the coast of the land and seeing the rivers flowing down from the interior had, by virtue of their 'discovery' of evidence of that land, more right to it in law (European-derived settler law, of course) than those peoples whose ancestors have lived on, gained nourishment from and stewardship to, for generations.

It's a law that has no justice or even sense of reality behind it. It can only exist if you pretend that Indigenous people never did. Yet it is the basis by which most of the land of the American continents were taken from the people inhabiting those continents, and it lies at the root of land claim discussions even to this day.

Manuel goes on to speak briefly about his family - George Manuel, his father, was a noted Indigenous activist but not very present during Manuel's early life - and his youth, which included time in residential schools due to his mother's long hospitalisation and his father's absences.

These two strands - the history of Indigenous land claims, and his father's legacy of activism, come together in the narrative of Indigenous resistance to the Trudeau government's Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy - the 1969 White Paper.

"Ironically, the impetus for unity [among Indigenous activists and organisations], and what finally put my father into the leadership of the National Indian Brotherhood, was provided by the Trudeau government's Indian Affairs minister Jean Chrétien. In June 1969, Chrétien unveiled a legislative time bomb that was designed not only to destroy any hope of recognition of Aboriginal title and rights in Canada, but also to terminate Canada's treaties with Indian nations. ...

The statement sparked an epic battle that did not end in 1970 when the Indian Association of Alberta presented its counterproposal in the Red Paper. In many important ways it was the opening shot in the current battle for our land and our historic rights against a policy designed to terminate our title to our Indigenous territories and our rights as Indigenous peoples. The White Paper of 1969 is where our struggle begins."

The White Paper, in essence, sought to end all concept of Indigenous nations, abrogate all treaties, eliminate the concept of sovereign lands held in common by an indigenous nation, and force full and complete assimilation - ending by cultural genocide the disappearing of the Indigenous peoples that no previous strategy had quite managed to accomplish.

Resistance to the White Paper was strong. Indigenous leaders formally rejected the government's position, declaring that nothing was possible without the recognition of the sovereignty of Indigenous people and a willingness to negotiate based on the principle that "only Aboriginals and Aboriginal organizations should be given the resources and responsibility to determine their own priorities and future development." But although the paper was withdrawn, the positions it espoused have continued to resurface, recycled and repackaged, in government negotiations with Indigenous peoples to this day.

In 1973, however, a Supreme Court decision gave Indigenous peoples a tool for fighting the White paper proposals. In a 3-3 decision in the Calder case, the Supreme Court declined to set aside the provisions of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which stated that Indigenous peoples living on unceded land - which at that time included most of what is now Canada - had sovereign rights to that land, which could not be set aside by government fiat, but only surrendered via treaty. While a contested victory, and one that was less useful for many nations who had been tricked into giving up more rights than intended in colonial treaty negotiations, this decision still established the legal concept of the sovereignty of Indigenous nations which would eventually lead to more fruitful legal arguments.

Balancing between historical, academic perspectives and personal recollection, Manuel traces the story of the struggles of Indigenous peoples to reclaim their rights and build a new partnership with Canada over the past 50 years. As he examines the history of court arguments and governmental negotiations over issues of sovereignty, land claims, and other key points of dispute between Canada's Indigenous Nations and the Canadian federal and provincial governments, Manuel clearly and concisely explains the legal concepts involved at each stage. In so doing, he weaves a chilling narrative of repeated attempts to, quite literally, extinguish the rights, and the existence, of the original landholders in the interests of corporate exploitation and gain - a neo-colonialist project that would finish off what settler colonialism began.

Events that for many white Canadians passed by without any comprehension of what they meant to Indigenous peoples - the James Bay hydroelectric project, the repatriation of the constitution, the Oka crisis, Elijah Harper's lone stand against the Meech Lake Accord, the Nisga'a Treaty, the Canada-US softwood lumber disputes, the Sun Peaks protests, to name a few - are placed in a coherent context of colonial oppression and Indigenous resistance.

Manuel also places the struggle of Indigenous peoples in Canada within an international context, that of the "Fourth World" - defined as "Indigenous nations trapped within states in the First, Second and Third Worlds." He recounts his father George Manuel's role in the creation of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, which led to the establishment in 2002 of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - a document fiercely opposed and flagrantly ignored by Canada and the other major colonial nations, Australia, New Zealand and The United States.

What makes this book so important - and so accessible - is the insider perspective that Manuel brings to the narrative. He and members of his family were intimately involved with many of the key actions and negotiations; his personal knowledge of the dealings behind the scenes fleshes out his factual accounting of the events he witnessed and participated in. Manuel's personal lived experience makes this more than just a relating of legal points and bureaucratic counters, it allows the reader to feel the profound injustices faced by Indigenous peoples in their struggle to preserve their rights and their identities and their fierce determination to succeed.

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Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Robert Silverberg, is one of the nominees for the 2017 Hugo awards in the Related Works category. It is a collection of interviews on a variety of subjects conducted by Zinos-Amaro with legendary sf writer Robert Silverberg.

In the Preface, Zinos-Amaro tells us that he became a devoted fan of Silverberg's work when he was still a teenager, an admiration that led to correspondence, then friendship, then a collaboration of sorts, in which Zinos-Amaro completed an unfinished novella by Silverberg, When the Blue Shift Comes. This long association, Zinos-Amaro suggests, was invaluable in helping him frame the interviews, based on his knowledge of Silverberg the writer snd Silverberg the man.

"Thus, while it is true in a literal sense that the conversations comprising Traveler of Worlds unfolded over four weekends in 2015, they were informed and shaped by years of deep, abiding curiosity about Silverberg’s art and life, his experiences, his attitudes and beliefs."

Each of the seven interviews is directed around a theme, but conducted with sufficient flexibility to embrace a variety of related thoughts. The first interview, titled "The Vividness of Landscape," explores Silverbergc's experiences as a world traveller, and how these influenced his work.

The next interview, "Aesthetics," which is one of the largest sections of the book, looks at Silverberg's ideas about writing as an artform - influences, theories, approaches to the structure and realisation of story, craft and technique - and art in general, from painting to opera, landscaping to film. The interview also devotes considerable time to Silverberg's assessment of many of the great writers of literature, including a longish discourse on various translations of Verne's works.

"In the Continuum" is a discussion of day-to day life for Silverberg, retired writer. In talking about his daily activities - professional, personal, and those shared with his wife Karen - Silverberg seems very conscious of the differences in his activities and schedules as a younger man, as someone still actively writing fiction as his job, and what he does now. At one point, he says: "Getting yourself to old age involves excusing yourself from a lot of things you once did. Saying, “I don’t need to do this,” or “I can’t do this, so don’t fool yourself into trying.” One by one, you let go of a lot of things that you formerly did. Or if you’re wise you do, instead of frantically running after them." This section also explores Silverberg's political views. He identifies himself as fiscally conservative - in the traditional sense, he accepts the idea that there should be some taxes, some regulation and some social network for the poor and disadvantaged - and socially libertarian, in that he rejects government intervention in non-economic matters. He has tended to support Republican politicians and expressed criticism of both Obama and Hilary Clinton. I wish I knew what he thinks of Trump.

The next section, "Enwonderment" takes its title from a word coined by Silverberg, who explains: "There are words like “empowerment” that are bandied about very freely, especially here in California. Enlightenment is also frequently heard. As well as I can remember this, I thought I would create “enwonderment” as a kind of analogous noun that explains what science fiction is supposed to do." In this section, Zinos-Amaro inquires about what things in his life have given Silverberg a sense of wonder, from his horticultural hobby to new developments in science, to, of course, science fiction and fantasy.

In "Libraries," Zinos-Amaro talks to Silverberg about libraries - the public and school libraries he frequented as a child and adolescent, the Columbia University library, the various international libraries he has visited as an adult, and his own personal library, which he began to seriously cultivate when as a working writer he had less time to spend doing reading and research outside his home. "So all through, from the Schenectady Avenue branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to my various school libraries—and I always took advantage of those—to the wonderfully sheltering high school library with the red leather banquettes, where I’d sit near a stained-glass window high above the quadrangle, to Columbia, libraries were always important to me. But when I became a professional writer I needed the time to work. I couldn’t spend my time commuting to libraries, especially as I got more and more remote from the nearest good library. I lived in Upper Manhattan, near Columbia, but I no longer had the stack pass, because I was no longer a student. Then I moved to a suburb where there was no library."

In the section titled "Potpourri," Zinos-Amaro poses Silverberg some questions submitted by fans as beginning points of conversation. A question about whether there is, or ever will be, a complete bibliography of all Silverberg's works in all genres, under all pseudonyms, leads to an anecdote about being investigated by the FBI for writing pornography. Silverberg also talks about what he considers to be good and bad writing, with examples from Thomas Hardy, Hemingway and Graham Green.

The final interview, "After the Myths Went Home," is devoted to Silverberg's responses to a question about "your perspective on age, and on what it’s like to look back on a professional writing career that’s lasted over six decades." The book concludes with a brief essay from Silverberg's wife, Karen Haber, about her life with Silverberg.

I enjoyed reading the interviews, seeing Silverberg's responses to some of Zinos-Amaro's questions, and came out with a sense of the man behind the books, although with a somewhat disjointed idea of the shape of his life. Worth reading for anyone who has enjoyed the works, and is curious about the man.

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I was pretty sure that I was going to both enjoy and be enlightened by Trevor Noah's Born a Crime from the first few pages, which were fill of witty, pithy, yet accurate and often poignant observations such as these:

"The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all."

"The Zulu went to war with the white man. The Xhosa played chess with the white man. For a long time neither was particularly successful, and each blamed the other for a problem neither had created. Bitterness festered. For decades those feelings were held in check by a common enemy. Then apartheid fell, Mandela walked free, and black South Africa went to war with itself."

"Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By “adopt” I mean it was forced on us. The white man was quite stern with the native. 'You need to pray to Jesus,' he said. "Jesus will save you.' To which the native replied, 'Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.' "

"For a long time I didn’t understand why so many black people had abandoned their indigenous faith for Christianity. But the more we went to church and the longer I sat in those pews the more I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense."

Noah's book is part autobiography, part South African history, and part social and political commentary, wrapped up in just enough wit and comedic structure and timing to make it flow smoothly and swiftly, until all of a sudden you're brought up short with a 'wtf?' feeling as you realise the full meaning of what you've just read.

I've had a lot of respect for Noah's presence on TV as a successor to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. I now also have a lot of respect for him as an author - and as a man who lived through South Africa's troubled post-apartheid times and saw truths so clearly.

His account of his childhood, growing up as a child of mixed race, is lightly told, but horrifying. Under the segregation laws of South Africa, it was illegal for white people to have sex with non-white people; as a child of such a union, Noah was, as the title of the book says, 'born a crime.' His parents were not married - that would have been impossible - nor did they live together. Though his mother lived - quietly, secretly, illegally - in Johannesburg near his father's apartment, Noah could only spend time with his father in private.

"Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d have to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens, a zoo, a giant chessboard with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us. We were in the park, he was walking a good bit away from us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started looking. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him."

But it wasn't just his father who could not acknowledge him publicly. His mother, a dark-skinned Xhosa woman, could not be seen with a 'coloured' - the South African classification for person of mixed race - child without everyone knowing she had committed the crime of sleeping with a white man.

"It was illegal to be mixed (to have a black parent and a white parent), but it was not illegal to be colored (to have two parents who were both colored). So my mom moved me around the world as a colored child. She found a crèche in a colored area where she could leave me while she was at work. There was a colored woman named Queen who lived in our block of flats. When we wanted to go out to the park, my mom would invite her to go with us. Queen would walk next to me and act like she was my mother, and my mother would walk a few steps behind, like she was the maid working for the colored woman. I’ve got dozens of pictures of me walking with this woman who looks like me but who isn’t my mother. And the black woman standing behind us who looks like she’s photobombing the picture, that’s my mom. When we didn’t have a colored woman to walk with us, my mom would risk walking me on her own. She would hold my hand or carry me, but if the police showed up she would have to drop me and pretend I wasn’t hers, like I was a bag of weed."

It was just as much a problem when his mother took him to visit his black relatives in Soweto. A coloured child in a black township was just as much a threat to his family as a coloured child in a white city.

"My gran still tells the story of when I was three years old and, fed up with being a prisoner, I dug a hole under the gate in the driveway, wriggled through, and ran off. Everyone panicked. A search party went out and tracked me down. I had no idea how much danger I was putting everyone in. The family could have been deported, my gran could have been arrested, my mom might have gone to prison, and I probably would have been packed off to a home for colored kids. So I was kept inside."

Noah's memories of his childhood make one thing perfectly clear - that he attributes much of his own character to his mother's independence and choices to live as far as she could outside the legal and social limitations imposed by South African apartheid.

"My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.

We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will."

Noah completed the book prior to his becoming an American TV host, and the book itself contains very little about his professional life, or how he made the transition from a teenaged boy hustling pirated CDs to get by, to a well-known and admired comedian and TV personality. Perhaps that's for another book.

This one is the narrative of a mixed race child growing up in one of the most oppressive and racist societies in the world, and surviving. And it's well worth reading.

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I must confess that I had not, until now, read any of Carrie Fisher's memoirs or novels (at least some if which, I understand, are semi-autobiographical in nature). I am not an avid consumer of biographies or personal narratives of popular entertainment figures unless they have some other element to recommend them - a commitment to political action, say, or an unusual life experience, a career that contains some piece of work that affected me deeply or a particular gift for their craft.

However, the confluence of Fisher's untimely death and the publication of a memoir focused on her experiences filming Star Wars and inhabiting the very public image of Princess Leia impelled me to read Princess Diarist.

Fisher's style is light and easy to read without sacrificing perception or wit, and I thought that sections of the book that were taken from her original diaries, while overwrought in that "young woman on the threshold of everything" way that many of us probably remember all too well, contained flashes of her mature gift and showed some degree of insight and introspection amidst the angst.

I found her general observations on being trapped in an iconic role more interesting than all the business about her affair with Harrison Ford - unfortunately, there is much more of the latter than there is of the former. But then, I read bios of Laurence Olivier for insight into his acting process, not his relationship with Vivien Leigh. I'm odd that way.

It is, despite Fisher's light touch in the sections written by her mature self, a sad book, and one that bears witness to the utter wrongness of the sexual politics of the time (not that it's all that much better now). The early diaries reveal an intelligent, talented and witty young woman who cannot find a way to respect herself. The present day matter that bookends those diaries is a strange mix - wise and a little world-weary in speaking about the nature of celebrity, but oddly lacking in a feminist perspective on her younger self's issues with self-esteem, body image and sexual experiences.

The older Fisher, looking back, tells a disturbing story of the young Fisher and the start of her relationship with Harrison Ford without batting an eye. She recounts being the only woman at a party full of older men, being pressured into drinking far more than she is used to. As she becomes more and more inebriated, the men around her speak about her as a piece of meat, reducing her to an available sexual orifice - a scenario that screams prelude to gang rape. And when Ford intervenes, one breathes relief for only the minute it takes to read on about how he bustles her into a cab and has sex with her in the back seat. And this is the beginning of the affair that generates so much pain for her that it oozes off the pages of her younger self's diaries and poems. One wishes for the older Fisher to present some insight into this dynamic, but the closest she comes to this is to say:

"If Harrison was unable to see that I had feelings for him (at least five, but sometimes as many as seven) then he wasn’t as smart as I thought he was—as I knew he was. So I loved him and he allowed it. That’s as close a reckoning as I can muster four decades later."

I will always treasure the character Fisher created for us, both in the first Star Wars trilogy and in her return to the role some 40 years later, but her recollections and musings on the circumstances surrounding that creation saddened me more than anything else.

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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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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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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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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.


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Judi Dench is quite clear about it: And Furthermore is not an autobiography. She sees it as a follow-up to the 1998 biography written by John Miller, Judi Dench: With a Crack in her Voice, which I have not yet read and am looking forward to reading soon, as it was one of my Christmas prezzies.

Indeed, it has very little of the interiority one expects from an autobiography. Dench is a notoriously private person, and so this is a book that deals largely with anecdotes and commentaries on her professional life, charming and intriguing stories about working with this actor and that director, on this play and that film. She pegs the events of her career onto a skeleton of life events that are barely mentioned - her entire courtship with Michael Williams is covered in a few sentences, for example.
Nor does she talk much about her process as an actor, something that I regret.

But as what it is, it is charming, delightful, and for someone who has followed her work, it's great fun to hear her (for this book is written in the style of a storyteller's reminiscences) share these tales about her life in theatre and film.

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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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Franz Kafka once wrote: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, is such a book. It is framed as a message to his son about his own experiences, thoughts and perceptions of race and racism in America. A message written at a time when the experience of race and racism is front and centre in American culture, as it was for James Baldwin when he wrote, as part of The Fire Next Time, "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation." An attempt to explain how the past became the present and what that may mean to the future.

But where there was hope mixed in with the history and the horror in Baldwin's message, Coates does not see through to or articulate a better future when he considers what it is his son is seeing today.
I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
What Between the World and Me really is, at least in the eyes of a white woman who is not the audience Coates has foremost in his mind, is a hammer aimed at the cold stone heart of racism in North America, a howl of rage against the inequities of centuries of abuse, another tear in the flood of salt soul water that has poured from the black bodies beaten, raped, tortured, shot, hanged, denied, defamed, derided, devalued, disappeared.
Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world—which is really the only world she can ever know—ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.

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Samuel Delany's memoir, The Motion of Light in Water: East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing 1960-1965, is as much an exploration of memory and the processes of representation of both memory and thought as it is traditional (or rather, non-traditional) memoir. As Jo Walton says in her review,
The first time I read The Motion of Light in Water, Delany had been one of my favourite writers for at least ten years, but in that time I had known almost nothing about him. I remember going “Wow” a lot the first time through. I was expecting an autobiography that covered 1960-1965 to talk about how he wrote the spectacular early novels, and it does, and wow. But also wow, he’s black, wow, he’s gay, wow, he’s dyslexic and most of all, wow, in writing an autobiography he’s examining the entire concept of what it’s possible to remember and retell. This isn’t a memoir like Pohl’s The Way the Future Was which is essentially a charming retelling of fascinating anecdotes. This is a memoir that questions the very possibility of memoir, a memoir that makes you feel as if you’ve been turned upside-down and the contents of your brain and your pockets have all fallen out and been rearranged in different places. It questions the concept of memory and the way we remember and rearrange and reassess, and the way we make our own lives into stories. [1]
Delany begins by talking about his father's death - an event which falls near the beginning of the chronological period covered by the memoir. It's clearly significant moment for him - but as soon as he has penned the story, he speaks of the unreliability of his memory of it, of how in a later set of biographical notes prepared for researchers writing about his work, the factual details he includes about this event are incorrect, even to the age he remembers he was and the year in which his father died.

Having made this initial point about the unreliable narrator - a theme he refers back to and riffs upon throughout the work - Delany proceeds with his story, which is that of selected incidents in the life of a young gay (although not yet identifying as such despite an awareness of homosexual desire since early adolescence) black (but just light enough to pass sometimes as white) middle-class man growing up in New York who wanted to be a scientist but became a writer, who married young because of a pregnancy from his first heterosexual experience with a gifted young poet, Marilyn Hacker (who miscarried shortly after their marriage).

Delany is frank in discussing all aspects of his life - emotional, intellectual, creative, sexual. He and Marilyn had an open marriage, in which both had other relationships with men and women, sometimes sharing lovers, and for a period of time living in a triad with a young working class man. Their friendship and shared intellectual delight in literature was ultimately not sufficient to make their marriage work for them, and the memoir ends with Delany, having turned in the manuscript of his classic novel Babel-17, leaving Marilyn in New York as he heads off to spend seven months in Europe.

There is so much packed into this narrative - not just the key elements of Delany's life and his development as one of the great writers of his time, but also social history, sociological observation, meditations on race, gender, intimacy, commitment and representation... It's a rich and valuable work.

True to his argument that memory is fluid and personal, Delany intersperses his recollections with selections from Marilyn's poems written at the time, thus declining to privilege either his memories or his chosen mode of expressing them. As he notes at one point, after a section of the memoir in which he attempts to record every detail he remembers,
But no simple, sensory narrative can master what it purports—whether it be a hitchhiking trip to Texas or the memories that remain from such a trip twenty-five years later. That age-old philosophical chestnut, the Problem of Representation (in its twin forms, the Problem of Verification and the Problem of Exhaustiveness) makes mastery as such a non-problem, with no need of haute théorie. Theodore Sturgeon’s fine insight is perhaps germane here: the best writing does not reproduce—or represent—the writer’s experience at all. Rather it creates an experience that is entirely the reader’s, forged and fashioned wholly from her or his knowledge, of her or his memories, by her or his ideology and sensibility, and demonstrably different for each—but which (according to the writer’s skill) is merely as meaningful (though not necessarily meaningful in the same way) as the writer’s, merely as vivid.
As Constant Reader is surely aware, Samuel Delany is one of the writers I have the highest regard for, and whose works I consider to have had a significant influence on my own development. Reading his thoughts about his life at the time he was writing the early works that influenced me the most was a fascinating experience. I'm thinking that once I finish my Hugo reading, I need to revisit those books.


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Azadeh Moaveni, the American-born child of Iranian parents who settled in the US following the 1979 revolution in Iran, first visited Iran in 1998. In 2000, she returned to Iran as a journalist reporting on the elections for Time Magazine, and remained in the country for two years before settling in Beirut, where she continued to report on issues in the Middle East, visiting Iran on many occasions. In 2005 she published a memoir, Lipstick Jihad, in which she wrote about her life as an Iranian in America, and an American in Iran.

Her latest memoir, Honeymoon in Tehran, begins in 2005. Mildly apprehensive about Iranian reaction to her book, she arrived in Tehran for a two-week stay to cover the state of mind of Iranian youth heading into the new elections. What she found was a mixture of cynicism and apathy toward the political system. Many of those she interviewed - not just youth, but all segments of Iranian society - had no plans to vote. They believed the election was "fixed" and that the outcome would be decided not by the people but by Iranian spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei.

Instead of politics, her young interview subjects were thinking about economic issues - finding decent jobs, earning enough money to get married and start lives of their own. Inflation, corruption and the theocratic government's attempt to police personal lives added to their feeling that nothing would, or could, change. Moaveni also found much private, even covert rebellion against the government's strict religious laws - underground parties, young couples secretly dating, a black market economy making Western videos, alcohol and other forbidden items readily available. Her story written, Moaveni left Tehran - but not before meeting a man, Aresh Zeini, towards whom she feels a certain element of attraction.

Following the unexpected election of fundamentalist ex-mayor of Tehran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moaveni returned to Iran for an extended stay, intending to report on the new regime. During this time she pursued a relationship with Aresh, first dating and then living together - a choice nominally forbidden but engaged in by many young Iranians, with relatively little risk as long as they remained circumspect - and ultimately marrying.

In this memoir, Moaveni writes about her everyday life as a young woman in love, and also about her professional life as a journalist in the employ of a foreign news organisation - and her contacts with her government-appointed "minder," whom she calls Mr. X. Moaveni's account of her relationship, her social and family life, her pregnancy, marriage and birth preparations all give insight into the complex and changing culture of Iran. At the same time her references to the political climate in the country, highlighted by both her work and her changing relationship with Mr. X, who has the power to end her ability to work as a journalist, underscore the instability and slowly increasing repression of the Ahmadinejad regime. A turning point in the narrative comes when the American government announces a series of measures clearly designed to encourage resistance to the Ahmadinejad government among the Iranian people.
... the Bush administration had launched a $75 million program tacitly aimed at changing the Iranian regime. Although its planners did not discuss the program in such explicit language, preferring vague terms such as “advancement of democracy,” the end of the Islamic Republic (or its transformation into a moderate, normal state, which was pretty much the same thing) was quite clearly their goal. Promoted through an array of measures—expanded broadcasting into the country, funding for NGOs, and the promotion of cultural exchanges—the democracy fund was intended to foster resistance to the government. With such support for the opposition, it was hoped, the clerical regime would collapse from within, taking care of what had become one of America’s largest problems in the Middle East.
The response within Iran was predictable, marked by a level of paranoia that was, given the circumstances, well-justified. It had profound effects on Moaveni's ability to work as a journalist.
... by September, I was scarcely working anymore. I still reported news stories on the nuclear crisis and domestic political squabbles, but I had to avoid sensitive subjects and I dropped altogether the myriad of projects and professional relationships that had once filled my time. I avoided meeting activists, and many avoided meeting with me. As a result, I could no longer tell you, or report on, how Iranians were challenging their government. All the people who once supplied me with such information—student dissidents, bloggers, women’s movement leaders—had been branded by the United States as potential agents of “peaceful” change, and in consequence were identified as security threats. The fear that our meeting—a western journalist with an activist—would be considered a plot was mutual.

I stopped attending seminars and conferences in the United States, because the government had concluded that those were the venues where the velvet revolution was being planned. On my return, I would be forced to debrief Mr. X, and would need to mention that U.S. officials had been in the audience (the Iranian government might have had a watcher or an agent at such events, who could verify my account). I might as well have had a bull’s-eye painted on the back of my headscarf. I stopped appearing on western radio and television shows, because in the present climate I knew I would need to soften my analysis, and in that case I preferred to say nothing at all. I gave up meeting western diplomats, who were considered the local spy-masters. I used to help Iranian journalists who were applying to various fellowships or internship programs in the West, because I believed they would return to Iran and share such valuable experiences with their colleagues, bringing professionalism and global perspective to what was still a field full of propagandists. But no more. The minister of intelligence had recently accused the United States of exploiting Iranian journalists as part of its conspiracy, so editing someone’s application essay or tutoring in interview skills would be viewed as abetting espionage. Worst of all, perhaps, I had entirely given up advising the countless American individuals—documentary filmmakers, academics, aspiring journalists—who wanted to visit Iran and help change its bleak image in the United States. Cultural exchange broke down age-old misconceptions, but the practice was now being referred to as a Trojan horse.
Now married and advancing in her pregnancy, with her work limited to relatively innocuous topics, Moaveni began to encounter more restrictions in her personal life as well. During a prenatal appointment at a hospital, she experienced a panic attack, followed by a realisation about what would be, by necessity, the shape of her life if she and her husband remained in Iran.
... I felt suffocated. Was there no point where such conversations would end? Can my husband come in [during prenatal exams and the birth] or not, Can we pick this name or not, Can I wear this scarf or not, Can I enter this building or not? Of course, the fact was that there was no such point. That was the nature of totalitarian regimes. Previously, I had believed that this need not define my experience of life in Iran. This perspective was the key, I believed, to not living as a victim. But I was having difficulty maintaining it in the face of repeated violations. Perhaps under the moderate Khatami this attitude was progressive and empowering; under Ahmadinejad, it amounted to self-delusion.
By 2006, Moaveni could see the signs of growing resistance to Ahmadinejad's political and social agenda among the Iranian people.
In the eighteen months since he took office, the president had managed to weaken Iran’s frail economy, provoke U.N. Security Council sanctions, elicit the threat of American military attack, alienate members of his own party (who broke off and started a front against him), offend the ayatollahs of Qom, and trigger the first serious student protest since 1999. Fifty activists burned an effigy of the president during his visit to Amir Kabir University; they set off firecrackers and interrupted his speech with chants of “Death to the dictator!” Their outburst reflected the widespread frustration also displayed during that month’s city council elections. Millions turned out across the nation to vote against Ahmadinejad’s allies in what amounted to a major, unequivocal setback for the president and his policies.
Increasing crackdowns in Iran continued to affect both her personal and professional life. At one point Moaveni is threatened by Mr. X, who tells her that her work is bring assessed to see if she is guilty of dissemination anti-Iranian propaganda - a potentially serious charge. At the same time, the birth of her son leads to growing concerns over the long-term effects of raising a child in an environment so divided and unsettled, where a careless word from an innocent child about their parents' political views or practices inside the home could lead to major repercussions. Eventually, Moaveni and her husband decide to leave Iran for England. Leaving a country she had hoped to call her own, Moaveni reflects:
This was the second time I had moved to Iran as an adult with every intention of building a life here, and the second time that grand politics and the twists of Iranian-U.S. relations were undoing my purpose. Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and President Bush’s labeling of Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” I had been forced to leave when Mr. X made my reporting untenable by demanding to know the identities of my anonymous sources. I wondered whether most Americans had any idea how the actions of their government influenced the lives of those across the world. Iranians had a long, sophisticated tradition of conducting their own opposition to autocracy. When would Washington realize this, and allow Iranians to resist their tyrants in the manner of their own choosing?
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I adore Dame Judi Dench. She's a brilliant actor, and she has such presence and grace and a wicked gleam in her eye that suggests she'd be enormous fun just to hang about with. So it is rather understandable that I wanted to browse through this lovely collection of photographs and anecdotes, mostly related to Dench's professional life, but with a few personal notes about her late husband Michael Williams (another fine actor with a wicked gleam in his eye - what fun the two of them must have been together), her daughter Finty Williams, and her grandson Sammy.

Dench has acted, on stage and in film, with many of the best actors of our era, and many of them are pixtured here, in publicity photos from so many of the projects Dench has worked on over the years. Dench's commentary on the various projects is a delightful, if brief, glimpse "behind the scenes" of a remarkable career.

Fun for fans of the incomparable Dame Dench, or of British theatre in general.

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Edward Said, the Palestinian-born literary theorist and public intellectual who helped found the critical-theory field of postcolonialism, comments in his introduction to his deeply personal and yet subtly political volume of memoirs, that "Out of Place is a record of an essentially lost or forgotten world." Indeed, this memoir focuses on his early life, spent in Palestinian Jerusalem, pre-Nasser Cairo, and pre-civil war Lebanon, all places that changed dramatically during the first 25 years of Said's life, with only casual mentions of his later life as a scholar in America.

Said, who died in 2003, over a decade after being diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, began revisiting, and then writing, his life story after learning of his illness.
So many returns, attempts to go back to bits of life, or people who were no longer there: these constituted a steady response to the increasing rigors of my illness. In 1992 I went with my wife and children to Palestine, for my first visit in forty-five years; it was their first visit ever. In July 1993 I went on my own to Cairo, making it a point in the middle of a journalistic mission to visit old haunts. All this time I was being monitored, without treatment, by Dr. Rai, who occasionally reminded me that I would at some point require chemotherapy. By the time I began treatment in March 1994 I realized that I had at least entered, if not the final phase of my life, then the period—like Adam and Eve leaving the garden—from which there would be no return to my old life. In May 1994 I began work on this book.
Said's sense of being an outsider, out of place, began early: growing up as a foreigner in Cairo, visiting family in Palestine, spending summers in Lebanon as the cousin from Egypt, Edward Wadie Said was the child of a relatively wealthy Palestinian Christian family, whose father had lived in the U.S. and had American citizenship, whose parents had named after the Prince of Wales, a Levantine child schooled first among the children of the British Colony in Egypt, and later among children of Americans living in Cairo. His accounts of his family life give the picture of a young boy who was never quite able to live up to the expectations of a domineering father or to please an emotionally manipulative mother who expressed ambivalence and disappointment about her children.

He was not seen as a promising scholar; his later academic interests in music and literature were nurtured quietly, outside of both the family circle and the school environment, a secret interior life neither his parents nor his teachers and schoolmates saw.
Slowly I found ways to borrow books from various acquaintances, and by my middle teens I was aware of myself making connections between disparate books and ideas with considerable ease, wondering about, for example, the role of the great city in Dostoyevsky and Balzac, drawing analogies between various characters (money lenders, criminals, students) that I encountered in books that I liked and comparing them with individuals I had met or known about in Dhour or Cairo. My greatest gift was memory, which allowed me to recall visually whole passages in books, to see them again on the page, and then to manipulate scenes, characters, giving them an imaginary life beyond the pages of the book. I would have moments of exultant recollection that enabled me to look out over a sea of details, spotting patterns, phrases, word clusters, which I imagined as stretching out interconnectedly without limit.
Said's family was in Palestine in 1947, where he experience the first of many dislocations from the places and environments of his childhood. Despite the tension in Jerusalem, Said was experiencing a brief period of feeling "at home" in his life - attending an all-boys Arabic school, he felt for the first time he was with others like him. This was short-lived, as between november of 1947 and summer of 1948, most of his family and their social circle left Jerusalem. Said and his parents returned to Cairo just before Christmas.
On November 1, 1947 - my twelfth birthday - I recall the puzzling vehemence with which my oldest Jerusalem cousins, Yousif and George, bewailed the day, the eve of the Balfour Declaration, as “the blackest day in our history.” I had no idea what they were referring to but realized it must be something of overwhelming importance. Perhaps they and my parents, sitting around the table with my birthday cake, assumed that I shouldn’t be informed about something as complex as our conflict with the Zionists and the British.
Said's own family, mostly middle class and well-off, did not suffer materially from the erasure of Palestine. But he saw the plight of Palestinian refugees who lacked such privilege through the work of his aunt Nabiha, a physician who moved to Cairo and worked with displaced Palestinians.
It was through Aunt Nabiha that I first experienced Palestine as history and cause in the anger and consternation I felt over the suffering of the refugees, those Others, whom she brought into my life. It was also she who communicated to me the desolations of being without a country or a place to return to, of being unprotected by any national authority or institutions, of no longer being able to make sense of the past except as bitter, helpless regret nor of the present with its daily queuing, anxiety-filled searches for jobs, and poverty, hunger, and humiliations. I got a very vivid sense of all this from her conversation, and by observing her frenetic daily schedule.
Despite feelings of "not fully belonging," the dominant social environment of Said's youth was the community of wealthy non-Egyptian Cairo residents - Levantine, Jewish, American, British - in which he grew up. But like the other environment in which he spent time, the Palestinian Jerusalem of his youth, this began to dissolve as unrest in Egypt grew through the 50s and 60s with the development of Arab nationalism and Muslim fundamentalism.

In 1948, Said travelled with his family to the U.S., where his father sought treatment for a medical condition. This was in a sense the beginning of his slow departure from the Middle East, even though the family returned to Cairo, where he continued to attend school for three more years.
In the summer of 1951 I left Egypt and spent two weeks in Lebanon, three weeks in Paris and London, and one week on the Nieuw Amsterdam from Southampton to New York, for the rest of my schooling in the United States. This included high school then undergraduate and graduate degrees, a total of eleven years, after which I remained until the present.

The sheer gravity of my coming to the United States in 1951 amazes me even today. I have only the most shadowy notion of what my life might have been had I not come to America. I do know that I was beginning again in the United States, unlearning to some extent what I had learned before, relearning things from scratch, improvising, self-inventing, trying and failing, experimenting, canceling, and restarting in surprising and frequently painful ways. To this day I still feel that I am away from home, ludicrous as that may sound, and though I believe I have no illusions about the “better” life I might have had, had I remained in the Arab world, or lived and studied in Europe, there is still some measure of regret.
After 1951 Said spent most of his time in America, studying at school and later at Princeton University. He continued to spend summers in the middle east, in Cairo and Lebanon, with his family. In his autobiography, his discussions of these times are increasingly linked with mentions of growing instability in the region. Eventually his family left Cairo for Beirut, where his widowed mother remained for much of the Lebanese civil war. Said eventually made his permanent home in America, and though he came to see personal benefits to his sense of being the eternal outsider, he remained for the rest of his life, out of place.
I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which so many attach so much significance. These currents, like the themes of one’s life, flow along during the waking hours, and at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. They are “off” and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme. A form of freedom, I’d like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. That skepticism too is one of the themes I particularly want to hold on to. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place.

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Azar Nafisi, scholar, professor of literature and writer, was born in Iran, educated in England, Switzerland and the U.S., taught literature in post-revolutionary Iran and now lives in the U.S., where she is a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Her first memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, published a few years after she left Iran in 1997 to live in the U.S., focused on her experiences teaching Western literature, both in Iranian universities, and later to a small group of women who met secretly in her apartment. Azar Nafisi's latest memoir, Things I've Been Silent About, is a far more intimate and personal document which has at its centre the complex and often difficult relationships within her family, particularly those involving her mother.

The idea of story as influence and inheritance is a key part of Nafisi's memoir. Her mother told stories about her life that reshaped actual occurrence into fictions that fed a desire for high drama and romance. Her father was a diarist who published his own memoirs - and introduced his young daughter to the power of story in books.
All our lives my brother and I were caught by the fictions my parents told us—fictions about themselves as well as others. Each wanted us to judge the other in his or her favor. Sometimes I felt cheated, as if they never allowed us to have a story of our own. It is only now that I understand how much their story was also mine.
And yet, because of the cultural and political prominence of Nafisi's extended family, and the involvement of her parents and their friends in politics, this deeply personal memoir also provides insight into a century of political and cultural change in Iran.
I want to tell the story of a family that unfolds against the backdrop of a turbulent era in Iran’s political and cultural history. There are many stories about these times, between the birth of my grandmother at the start of the twentieth century and my daughter’s birth at its end, marked by the two revolutions that shaped Iran, causing so many divisions and contradictions that transient turbulence became the only thing of permanence.
I found the memoir fascinating both for its portrayal of a family struggling with deep divisions between its individual members, and for its insights into Iranian culture and history.

In her first book of memoirs, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi spends much time discussing the works of Western authors such as Nabokov and Jane Austen. For this she has sometimes been criticised as being not a true Iranian, and hence someone who should not speak to the political and social changes in that country. (A perspective most firmly advanced by Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi, who said "Azar Nafisi is the personification of that native informer and colonial agent, polishing her services for an American version of the very same project.")

In Things I've Been Silent About, Nafisi's narrative is full of references to the Iranian authors, poets, works of literature and tales of heroes past that her father introduced her to, that influenced her in her youth, and that informed her understanding of the events of her own life, from Rumi and Ferdowsi to her "favourite female poet Forough Farrokhzad," devoting most of one chapter to the impact of the Shahnameh, and particularly the story of the key female character Rubadeh, on her in childhood. She talks about private classes and discussion groups that she and other academics took part in after the closing of the universities, groups that focused on studying Iranian literature and were often frequented by writers and poets.

Speaking of her involvement with the study of classical Persian and modern Iranian literature during her time living in Iran under the revolutionary Islamic regime, she says:
For almost two decades, from the early eighties until we left, in the summer of 1997, I had studied and written about Persian literature. Since childhood I had seen how Father moved in and out of fiction, turning to stories from the Shahnameh and classical literature to teach us about Iran, and now this had become almost a second nature to me. I searched modern fiction and poetry for clues to how we confronted and evaded reality, how we articulated our experience and turned to language not to reveal ourselves but to hide. I was as sure then as I am now that by looking at contemporary Iranian fiction I could gain access to a real understanding of political and social events.
Whether this focus on her native literature is a response to criticism, or simply one of many things about which she had been silent, it enriches the memoir and provides valuable cultural context.

All on all, Things I've Been Silent About is a brave and fascinating account of one woman's life seen against the complex web of family and the powerful shifts of history.

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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 (

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I've just finished Kate Bornstein's achingly honest autobiography: A Queer and Pleasant Danger, expansively subtitled The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later To Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today. Before reading this memoir, I "knew" Bornstein as a writer, playwright, performance artist, gender theorist, BDSM practitioner and trans activist, and respected her work and her stance as an out gender outlaw. Now I know more about her journey to becoming all these things, and my respect is if possible even greater than before.

Bornstein's journey contains more than a few difficult turns. She details with clarity the story of her long slow struggle to transitioning, and her realisation of the role BDSM played in her sexuality. She speaks openly about addiction and coming to see the experience of hiding her sense of her real identity as a half-lifetime of trauma that left her a survivor of PTSD. And she traces the thread of performance that runs through her life from her early years exploring acting to the multi-faceted artist and communicator she is today.

She also talks at length about the time she spent as a Scientologist and member of the organisation's inner cadre, the Sea Org, where, while still living as Albert Bornstein, she worked with L. Ron Hubbard. Some of the most moving parts of her memoir deal with the separation from her daughter that she has experienced since being expelled from the Church of Scientology - who remains in the organisation to this day, and holds to the policy that a Scientologist must avoid all contact with "suppressive persons" such as Bornstein. Indeed, the final chapter of the book is an open letter to a daughter who may never read it - and that was heart-breaking to read.

I finished reading this book on the same day that I heard of the death of another great transgender warrior - Leslie Feinberg. And so I close this with thanks to Bornstein, who is still fighting cancer - and kicking its ass - and Feinberg, who has made hir final transition in this lifetime. I learned so much about identity and personhood from both of you, without ever having met you.

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With Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case, Debbie Nathan presents the results of thorough examination of the fascinating folie-a-trois among a conflicted young woman suffering from undiagnosed pernicious anemia, a psychiatrist who longed for the heights of professional success and a journalist with a desire to produce something deep, serious and meaningful seduced by the fashionable lure of psychotherapy and a shocking case history.

In Dr. Connie Wilbur's determination to prove her theory that dissociated states and multiple personalities were both more common than anyone before her had believed, and were the result of horrific child abuse, her work with Shirley Mason, the woman known as Sybil, would not only bring about an unusually close and distinctly unprofessional relationship between therapist and patient that would last until Wilbur's death, but lay the foundation for the unquestioning acceptance of the 'recovered' memories of thousands of (mostly) women and children suggesting an unseen epidemic of ritual and Satanic abuse and murder by cults scattered all across North America.

Debbie Nation painstakingly details the combination of personal ambition, shoddy research, lack of understanding of the ease with which false memories can be constructed, especially in therapeutic relationships and when hypnosis or drugs such as Pentothal are used, and reluctance to critically examine both one's own theories and those of professional 'experts' that led to a "wave" of MPD diagnoses and accusations of ritual abuse, rape and murder.

Fascinating book.

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Hilarious. Barrowman (with editorial assistance from his sister Carole Barrowman) is a natural raconteur. Randy and profane, breezy and bold, Barrowman's narrative name-drops its meandering way from his childhood love of singing, through his career as a musical theatre leading man, to the joys of shooting Doctor Who and Torchwood in Cardiff.

I really did laugh out loud a few times. And was delighted when he interrupted his storytelling to rant about theatre-goers who set of flashes during performances - something that anyone who has done live theatre hates with a passion because it is not only disruptive but, under some circumstances, can be dangerous for performers.

Barrowman has always seemed to be a truly likable guy, based on the public appearance clips i've seen of him, and he's always come across to me as an out gay man who is totally at ease with himself. These impressions have certainly be strengthened by my reading of this narrative. It's light reading, and I probably wouldn't have bothered except for my love for Captain Jack - but I had a good time reading it, and I'm pretty sure that's what this consummate performer would want to hear from any reviewer.


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