Archive for January, 2017

January 26, 2017

Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes A Breath

juliet-gabby-riveraI got lucky in my feminist education. Sometime in the very early 2000s (I was about the same age as Rivera’s protagonist), I was just beginning to write publicly about gender on the internet–it was new, I was still learning (I’m still learning) and I’m sure I said things that would embarrass me horribly now. Someone I knew a bit from their blog invited me to a super secret mailing list composed in the main of people whose feminism/s had to take into account other forms of marginalisation. I’d never heard the word “intersectional” before, though I knew of course that I was brown and queer. Suddenly I had access to new ways of thinking about gender and race, gender and sexuality, gender and class, gender and sex work, gender and bodies–and a vocabulary with which to seek out those ideas in my day to day life as well (it would make it much easier to think about gender and caste, for example, a few years later).

As an adult I now know that it’s not unusual for women and nonbinary people (and sometimes men) in such communities to make their experience available to callow young feminists, but I still feel like I got exceptionally lucky–much of my ignorance was a result of youth but some of it was also the result of laziness, and I’ve never quite felt I earned the trust that being included in such a community implied. (I don’t dive into new knowledge as Rivera’s protagonist does, risking my heart and dignity in the process. [An incident midway through the book, where Juliet discovers what a Banana Republic is, really brought this home.])

This lengthy introduction is in part just a tribute to some good people and in part a way of framing for myself the ways in which Juliet Takes A Breath did and did not feel familiar to me. The plot: Juliet Milagros Palante is in college, is Puerto Rican, lives in the Bronx with her mother and younger brother, is in a relationship with a rather posh sounding white girl, and has just read something called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, by feminist writer Harlowe Brisbane. On the basis of a fan letter to the author, Juliet is offered a holiday internship in Portland, working on a large research project. Arriving in Portland she soon finds herself feeling somewhat out of her depth, surrounded by people whose political jargon is unfamiliar, who all seem to know more than her, and whose knowledge is sometimes relevant to her but is also sometimes off. Juliet cycles through a series of new experiences an ideas–attends an Octavia Butler-inspired SF writing group, discusses the mechanics of poly relationships and argues theology, flirts with a hot librarian, receives a breakup letter from her girlfriend. It can get educational at times–Juliet learns about famous feminists or that she can’t just go around demanding people’s gender identity while other characters patiently explain who and why, nodding encouragingly out at the reader from within the text. (At least these are good things to learn.)

Harlowe herself Juliet finds fascinating and sympathetic, ready with natural remedies to period pains and breakups alike; willing to listen to the feminist mixtapes Juliet had made for her girlfriend Lainie. But almost immediately the cracks begin to show–and when Harlowe publicly does something really awful (I’m not normally cautious about spoilers, but I think the impact of the scene in question would be damaged by foreknowledge), Juliet escapes this environment for one where she can think things through.

(I pause here because it feels like a natural break in the narrative.)

This is a young (or new?) adult book; I’m no longer a young (or new?) adult. I’m reading this book through a lens of “what it was to be young in 2003!”; a lens which, inevitably, places me in a position of knowing more than Juliet about certain things. Readers who are closer to the character’s age may not feel this as strongly, but then the setting of the book in 2003 may play a role there–many of the ideas and much of the jargon that is new to Juliet will be familiar to any queer kid with a tumblr (not to suggest that that information was unavailable in 2003; but possibly harder to find?). I mention this because for me, much of the book was spent waiting for the warning signs in Lainie’s and Harlowe’s behaviour to be proved correct. Everything leading up to the climactic scene when Juliet rushes out of Harlowe’s reading felt inevitable.

There’s a Joan Aiken story I’ve been wanting to write about, titled “Watkyn, Comma.” It’s about a haunted (in the nicest possible way) house and a room that exists in a sense outside of time, where our protagonist can breathe and pause and recalibrate (and obviously one of the things a comma does is to provide a space to breathe in) before reentering the world. (Parentheses do some of this space-for-stepping-out-for-a-moment work as well, incidentally.) I read Juliet Takes a Breath on the kindle and so was able to search for how often “breathe” and “breath” come up in this book–as ways of being, coping, being nourished. There “isn’t enough air to breathe [in the Bronx]. I carry an inhaler for those days when I need more than my allotted share.”; “I hadn’t seen one other Latino. No faces like mine, nowhere to breathe easy.”; “it’s less about there being ‘no white people’ and more of a night for us to breathe easier.” Juliet leaves the Bronx in order to breathe, and then leaves Portland when breathing there becomes difficult as well. Both are temporary moves, both in their way to places of sanctuary; In Miami Juliet finds another community and learns more–this time from an aunt and a cousin who is also figuring these things out.

But this is also the section where Juliet pushes back against her cousin Ava’s dismissal of Harlowe as “some hippie-ass, holier-than-thou white lady preaching her bullshit universal feminism to everyone” (it’s truth though). If the incident that forces Juliet to leave Portland is the climax, the rest is denouement. Juliet returns, able to see Harlowe and her world as flawed and unreliable, but also as people with whom she has to learn to work. Her solutions aren’t mine. But I’m writing this during a week when questions of “universal” feminism and what it erases and what it needs to be forced to acknowledge feel more present than usual (see e.g. these pieces for example), so. This is a coming of age story and this final section has Juliet coming into herself–by the end of it she has tentatively reconciled what she’s learned with what she knows, is able to breathe, is able to say “we were going to be okay”.

January 13, 2017

Chandrakala Jagat and Shakuntala Kushram, The Magical Fish

magical fish

This book was first published in 2013 in Hindi–my copy credits Maheen and Rinchin with writing down the story as they heard it from Chandrakala Jagat, and explains that it had been recreated for a film narrated by Chandrakala herself before the (Hindi) book was brought into the world. Rinchin is credited with the translation. The copy on the back of the book suggests (though it’s not very clear) that it’s based on an older folktale. What it definitely isn’t, then, is a 2016 book, so when it begins with the lines “Once not so very long ago, it so happened that all the happiness started to slowly leak out of the world” I felt, personally, rather attacked. It was all a little too real.

“Everything began to lose colour. Trees turned brown, so did the grass, and nothing grew.”

We’re not given a reason for this state of affairs–the book seems to take for granted the fact that, sometimes, the world is full of weeping; as if this came in seasons rather than being directly attributable to a particular cause. That’s probably true.

“People were always hungry and tired. However much they worked, nothing came of it. No food, no happiness. Everyone was growing sad. So sad, that they started to lose their smiles. Fights would break out every now and then.”

So: we’re at the mercy of an unjust and apparently moody universe; sadness comes in seasons and we don’t understand its cause; “there is nothing to eat, and there is so much sadness all around”. All familiar, along with the sense that this badness is so all pervasive and so senseless that nothing can be done about it–where does one even start, when the hostility of the world seems so large and so lacking in reason? Again, reading this on this side of the last couple of years feels significant–the (for want of a better word) mythologising of 2016 as The Worst Year, however tempting and intuitively true it currently might feel, both relies on and reinforces exactly this sense of everything awful coming out of nowhere, without reason or purpose, as well as creating the impression that there’s nothing one can do–that it’s too big and impossible and confusing and the only realistic response is to give up in defeat now or exhaustion later.

Combating that feeling in the book is an elderly woman, or dukariya, who knows that some action is needed to bring happiness back to the world but doesn’t know what that action might be–until the wind brings her news of a lake behind the mountain and a fish that lives in it and that spreads happiness wherever it goes. Telling her two daughters to “leave your sadness behind or carry it with you,” she takes them with her on a quest to find the fish in its green-green (I love that repeated “green” here, both as translation and for itself) lake. They find the fish, and convince it to leave its safe lake for the sake of a world that needs it–the fish agrees, once the women vow to do their best to protect it.

There’s lots to play with here–the temptation of the quest narrative and the ways in which it casts all problems as solveable (all you need to do is go to the place and collect the thing), the temptation to act individually (though I love that the heroes here are an elderly woman and her daughters), the fish, which actually can save this particular  situation but only by willingly making itself vulnerable; and the community as a whole, who are told what this fish is, how to recognise it (it wears a sparkly nose ring) and what it means, and who must all enter into an implicit pact not to hurt this fish and in doing so fuck this up for everyone. That sense of this new happiness (or at least not unbearable sadness) as fragile and in need of community protection is present on the last page of the book, where we’re reminded that:

That is why you must never catch the magical fish. If by mistake you do, you must let her go. And if you ever meet three women in a boat who tell you this story, you must believe them, for what they say is true.

I’m aware that in reading this book in this way I’m doing it a disservice–for one thing, I haven’t even mentioned Gond artist Shakuntala Kushram’s gorgeous illustrations. But “leave your sadness behind or carry it with you” might be a great motto to carry forward into this year.

January 9, 2017

2016 in books, numbers, and feelings

For the last few years now I’ve been doing this roundup: I talk about what I read and how I read it over the past year, the demographics of the authors I read (adding a disclaimer because obviously these numbers are always going to be inaccurate and these categories too crude) and resolve to do better next year.

So let’s get that over with: I read (as near as I can make out) 81 books in 2016, 60 (see previous parentheses) were by women or other not-cis-male authors, 36 (ditto) were by authors who weren’t white. My PhD thesis has doubtless contributed to this, especially as I haven’t been counting academic criticism; the Carnegie shortlist, once again, turned out to be entirely composed of white authors (and British children’s publishing seems to be determinedly forging ahead on this path)–I may try to read the Jhalak prize longlist this year in order to balance things out.

For the Strange Horizons year in review piece I recommended Wheatle’s Crongton Knights, N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, Sana Takeda and Marjorie Liu’s Monstress, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, and Joan Aiken’s The People in the Castle. Non-SF-adjacent things I thought particularly good included both new books in Robin Stevens’s Wells and Wong series, Alice Pung’s Laurinda, and Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone (of which more below).

I also wrote some things this year, though not many. Here’s a review at Strange Horizons, here’s a roundtable on South Asian folklore and myth. All other (nonacademic) writing is on this blog– I was quite pleased with my grumpy Carnegie reviews over the summer.

All that said, it has been a resoundingly shit year, both globally and personally, and it’s been harder than ever to think critically or usefully or non-despairingly about anything.

A good way into The Tidal Zone there’s this:

May we forget. It is a pity that the things we learn in crisis are all to be found on fridge magnets and greetings cards: seize the day, savour the moment, tell your love–May we live long enough to despise the clichés again, may we heal enough to take for granted sky and water and light, because the state of blind gratitude for breath and blood is not a position of intelligence.

The Tidal Zone is almost hilariously on the nose for 2016–had it been less good I’d have rolled my eyes at it a bit. But (despite the fact that we’re both academics of one sort or another I have nothing in common with its protagonist and his situation) this. I’ve struggled to think past the most instinctual feelings this year, and given that the world doesn’t seem like it’s getting better in the near future, that is something I (and many of us) am going to have to learn to negotiate. Last year I said that my struggle for 2016 would be to balance kindness and anger–I underestimated how hard that would be. When everything in the world feels vulnerable it’s hard to feel more than a sort of panicked tenderness, that is conducive neither to good criticism nor to actually making things better.

The struggle continues, I suppose.

January 2, 2017

December Reading

I retreated to Delhi for the end of the year and slept on a decent mattress and could really read for the first time in ages.

 

O. Douglas, The Setons: A longer post about this currently in my drafts.

N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate: I think The Obelisk Gate may be better than The Fifth Season, which I already thought was very good. It’s still doing great things with the form its narrative takes, it’s revealing more and more about its world, but most of all the network of alliances and love and betrayal between its characters grows increasingly complex and difficult to parse, and that is wonderful. (My quibbles with the series remain, but if I’m going to read a story about special people with special powers, this is a brilliant example of the form.)

Rick Riordan, The Trials of Apollo: Talking to friends about holiday reading and our teetering piles of Significant Books a couple of weeks ago I said “I’ll probably just end up reading the new Rick Riordan,” and had to then explain myself. (The explanation is that this is what happens when you’re a series completionist, and this is why series fiction is dangerous to me.) This is the third … sub-series? about Greek gods in Riordan’s larger, interconnected series about various pantheons; so far I’ve restricted myself to the Greek/Roman books, but I can’t be sure I won’t at some point read the others. I thoroughly enjoyed this book but it is rather amusingly earnest, and clearly trying very hard. So, for example, it has to explain the presence of its gay characters by having the protagonist stress that he doesn’t think it’s a big deal and reminding us that the myths have Apollo attracted to both men and women; the phrases “military-industrial complex” and “mansplaining” show up; rather remarkably, towards the end Riordan appears to be suggesting that the roots of modern capitalism can be traced directly back to the Roman empire. I’m intrigued by what the forthcoming books in the series will do with that last idea.

Chris Haughton, Goodnight Everyone: A friend had a baby; I cooed awkwardly (it is a very cute baby) but knew that my real fond-auntie powers lie in the gifting of children’s books. There’s a new Chris Haughton, it has the loveliest endpapers, and is very gentle and soothing with lots of yawning and stretching. (The baby in question also received a copy of Haughton’s Oh No, George, but that was not new to me.)

Mona Awad, Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Fat Girl: I’m underwhelmed by this– I like the structure (series of vignettes, mostly from Elizabeth’s own perspective but bringing in others too), and the general sense of fat as permanently there, and obsessiveness about bodies colouring everything about how one sees the world so that all these characters become unsympathetic, but much of it is just playing to stereotype, and there’s no room for it to go anywhere. And I’d forgotten much of what I’d read once I finished it.

Sarah Moss, The Tidal Zone: I’ll probably be writing more about this in my end of year reading post (which is really a beginning of year post, since it is now next year and I haven’t started it yet) but this really was the book that felt like my experience of this past year, that tied together personal and public tragedy, precariousness, narrative, questions of how to continue to live in the world in 2016.

Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes a Breath: I started reading this in the summer, stopped for some reason (I was enjoying the book, so I’m not sure what happened there) and then picked it up again a few months later. I’ll come back to it and write about it at length sometime soon, I hope, but I loved the ways in which it thinks about hero-worship (and the uses thereof) and respectability politics and race, particularly in its later sections. Would I have felt a bit preached to if I’d read it when younger? I’m not sure.

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: It’s frustrating (and probably an indictment of me and the criticism I read) that most of the critical engagement with this book I’ve seen has been of the Does Ghosh Belittle Genre? school, when in fact its thoughts on realism, on empire, on the bourgeois novel are all both more interesting and more fun to quibble with (I mean, he describes Frankenstein as the First SF Novel, and I know you all know to at least be suspicious at this point). I’ll be coming back to it, in large part because it offers a potential frame through which to consider books (both genre and not) that are doing some of the work Ghosh thinks of as necessary.

Shalini Srinivasan, Gangamma’s Gharial: This will merit a longer post at some point in the near future; it’s a story about how a rebellion among a community of weirdly puritanical Yakshas affects the history of a small hillside community over a period of a thousand-and-a-bit years. I wish there’d been a lot more of it, because the yaksha sections still seem incomplete (fair enough, they are immortal) but it’s fun and satisfying, involves a random trip to one of Jupiter’s moons, and I like Srinivasan’s preoccupation with (going by Vanamala and the Cephalopod) literature’s need for stompy, grumpy little girls. Plus, I suspect that Ondu’s perfectly reasonable distrust of masala dosai is one that the author shares, and it is one I share also.