Archive for ‘gender’

August 1, 2012

Rahul Roy, A Little Book on Men

I’m beginning to think I should have a separate bookshelf for things that people have bought, stopped by my house after bookshopping and accidentally left there. Trisha, if you’re reading this, you left your Little Book on Men at my place a few months ago.

From last week’s column:

**********************************************

“Men don’t talk about what it means to be a man,” says Gautam Bhan in his introduction to Rahul Roy’s A Little Book on Men. Bhan acknowledges, rightly, that the reason discussions of gender are dominated by discussions of women is a function of history. Men have been the mainstream for so long that we rarely think about how people are socialised into being men, and what masculinity means.

And yet, these are questions that are becoming more and more crucial. In India, the social position of women has been changing drastically over the last couple of decades. What does this mean for our collective understanding of masculinity? To what extent is masculine behaviour a result of biology and how much of it is learned? What are the institutions through which we come to our ideas of what masculinity entails?

A Little Book on Men brings together some of these questions. Rahul Roy is a maker of documentary films, and the book uses a variety of media – poetry and prose, quotes from academics, posters (of both the filmy and the “ideal boy” variety) and collage. In addition, there are illustrations throughout “in black, white and gray” by Anupama Chatterjee and Sherna Dastur. A series of interviews with a group of young men is rendered in comic format, with the photographs arranged in panels and overlaid with text. The cover page has a border made up of pictures of boys of different identities; “Christian”, “Gujarati”, “Bengali”, “Kerala Boy”.

Over and over Roy makes the point that there is no single unified idea of masculinity, and that there are alternative models that prize such ideas as non-violence. In one section he discusses the potential of “female masculinities”; this is accompanied by a poster of “Great Men Of India” that includes Indira Gandhi and Rani Lakshmi Bai.

Yet if there is a greater diversity within masculinities than might at first seem to be the case, it’s also true that some of their more common manifestations are a bit alarming. As Roy notes, masculinities “have been identified as a rather toxic part of our social life”. A collage early in the book juxtaposes newspaper headlines with a patchwork of images. Most of the headlines seem connected to violence – violence against women, violence against dalits, religious violence, naxalite violence. The images in the background are of fireworks boxes, action figures, toy guns. Roy points out that this is because men are the principal actors in a violent society.

But as a woman, and particularly after a spate of recent news stories, I’m bound to pay attention to men’s attitudes towards gender. The back cover of Roy’s book suggests “fewer rapes” as a goal for which it might be necessary for men to change. The young men (Aman, Munna, Tony and Ravi) whom the book engages in conversation have trouble talking to girls and worry about satisfying future partners in bed, but they also believe that women say no when they mean yes, and seriously discuss whether or not they will have to beat their future wives to keep them in order. One of the headlines at the beginning of the book had already stated that close to 1 in 5 married women has experienced domestic violence.

The unusual format of A Little Book on Men allows the book to address a broader spectrum of issues than it might have otherwise, but it doesn’t allow for any of them to be entered into with great depth. This is understandable; it’s not an academic work (or not wholly one) and doesn’t claim to lay out a framework for masculinity studies as a discipline. What it does do, and do quite well, is to highlight the need for this area of study, and offer some useful potential starting points.

**********************************************

July 29, 2012

Where do girl orphans go?

Or, On the Absent Girl Child at the Heart of The Dark Knight Rises.  (or perhaps not).

 

This post will a) contain many spoilers for the most recent Batman movie and b) be of little or no interest to anyone who has not seen this movie.

 

At the end of The Dark Knight Rises my biggest question was not about, for example, Bruce Wayne’s ability to travel from Jodhpur to occupied Gotham without money, visas or any form of identification , or any of the other seeming plotholes that I’m sure are being discussed, dissected or retconned into making sense elsewhere. My question (and it’s one I posed to twitter as well) was – what happens to Gotham’s female orphans? I am making the assumption here that they don’t all become professional cat burglars.

In the movie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake spends a great deal of his time at a home for orphaned boys. We later learn that he himself was a resident of this institution, and that it is partially funded by Bruce Wayne – to the extent that, when Wayne’s funding stops, some of the older boys are forced to leave.

So far as this goes, if it’s a bit Victorian-sounding it is also vaguely canonical. But St. Swithin’s is a home for “orphan boys”, not “orphans”. It’s possible that there are other orphanages in the city, funded by Wayne or others, and this just happens to be the one that’s relevant to the plot (except that Gotham isn’t a real city, and the bits of it that aren’t on the screen don’t exist). Wayne was orphaned as a boy as well, and the movie makes much of the connection that this gives him to other boys in this position – it’s a connection that helps young Blake to identify Wayne as Batman.

This group of boys is one of the early signs that Blake is the movie’s moral centre – almost the first thing we learn about him is that he volunteers at an orphanage. Towards the end he risks his life in an attempt to save them from the doomed city.

There’s at least one other prominent boy child in the film, and he is singing the national anthem before a football match in a scene that seems at least partly parodic (with overt patriotism I’m never quite sure).

The most important child in the film is its villain. In the mysterious foreign prison where he struggles to recover from his broken back and watches his city burn on the news, Wayne learns that only one other person has ever escaped from the pit – a child. It is partly because this story dovetails with rumours about Bane’s origins that we’ve already heard, partly because Bane has been set up as the antagonist of the film, that Wayne (with presumably most of the audience) does not stop to consider that “child” is a gender-neutral term and that no pronouns have been used.

I want to return for a moment to those orphans. I haven’t been able to find exact statistics on the sex-ratio of orphaned children in foster or group homes in America. I do remember a few years ago a spate of news stories in my own country that indicated that young boys were more likely to be adopted quickly than young girls. In an institution for “orphans” rather than “orphan boys”, it’s quite possible that the majority would be girls. (I suspect the racial distribution would also not map very well onto the sample of children that the film offers us).

I mentioned earlier that Blake is established as a kind of moral centre to the film. A running theme is his tussle with the ways in which the legal system works – quite understandable in a state where the draconian-sounding Harvey Dent Act is in play. Blake ranges himself in solidarity with other policemen during Bane’s uprising but there are moments, such as when he discovers the truth of Commissioner Gordon’s lie, when his faith is shaken. Gordon excuses himself by explaining that the rules and regulations which govern the police force feel like “shackles” (it can’t surprise anyone that the Batverse will generally fall on the side of vigilante justice, even when it examines* the massive potential flaws of such a system). At the end of the film, Blake throws his badge into the river. But what provokes this – was it the policeman whose ‘following orders’ prevented him from getting the orphaned boys out of the city, or was it the fact that Wayne appeared to have died largely unacknowledged by the city for which he had given his life? Asked about it shortly afterwards, Blake invokes Gordon’s “shackles” complaint. I’d suggest that both incidents had to do with it because they’re both largely inextricable – the unfairness of the justice system as experienced by Blake has been signalled earlier in the film by the police force’s misjudgement in targeting Batman during a police chase.

Although half the internet has already written about the politics of this film, I think it’s telling that we’re given to understand that the system is flawed by its unfair treatment of the genius legacy billionaire white guy. And so of course it’s important to make the most of his ‘similarity’ (apart from the obvious there really is none) with the boys of St. Swithin’s**; they are underdogs in this city and he is just like them.

But there’s something else going on here.

When Cotillard’s Miranda Tate stabs Wayne and reveals that she was the child who escaped the pit, it’s a revelation because nothing up to this point in the film has suggested that female children even exist (Selina Kyle has a canonical history with orphanages as well-the film chooses to omit any references to her character’s childhood).

At the end of the film, Wayne’s family home has been given over to an institution for orphaned children. Perhaps the Batman has learned that girls can be children too?

 

 

*I don’t think this film does.

**Potential school story title?

June 6, 2012

Kishwar Desai, Origins of Love

I had a short review of Kishwar Desai’s new novel in Saturday’s Indian Express.

Aruni Kashyap has a piece in the  Assam Times that is partly about his journey away from, and back into writing as an Assamese writer. Among other things he speaks of writing to an imaginary audience to whom he felt the need to explain Assam.

The thing that interested me most about Origins of Love (otherwise not destined to be one of my favourite books this year) is this question of audience. Who does Desai think she’s writing for? At times I suspected the book of doing something rather clever in centring the Indian experience; the white British characters are reduced to cultural stereotypes. Kate, for example, got pregnant in her teens: “She didn’t want to drop out of school or be stuck at home juggling milk bottles and living off benefits like so many of her friends. Besides, Terry (or Jack?) had disappeared quite soon after their evening together”. (Tuhin Sinha, author of That Thing Called LOVE would probably refer to this teenage sexing as “the domain of the prurient West”) The audience is expected not to know, for example, that “the different communities were quite divided in London. The Indians in Southall, the Bangladeshis on Brick Lane…”.  (Useful tip: apparently if you are a lady sitting in pubs in Southall locals will be scandalised, but you can charm a bartender into pouring more generous drinks by swapping stories of “back home”). Shops and labels are namechecked (Agent Provocateur and Harrods, anyway). Parallel to this treating the British as aliens that need explaining, there’s a sort of India Shining narrative. Subhash and his wife Anita are an “elegant couple – certainly a far cry from the gruff and often crumpled doctors he had dealt with in the NHS back home”. The sperm bank in Gurgaon is far more impressive than the one in London. The old empire has declined, everything about Britain is a bit tawdry.

But then suddenly we’re doing things the other way round – the tourists are wearing FabIndia clothes, cows are eating plastic bags on which they will choke to death, ‘locals’ take autorickshaws and there is a completely unnecessary explanation of the Ambassador car. So who is this for?

The other interesting thing about the book is that for five minutes I thought it might be science fiction.

None of these things serve to make the novel any good though.

**********************************************

A child conceived via in vitro fertilisation is found, mysteriously, to be HIV-positive. Her parents are dead, her family untraceable, and the surrogate mother has mysteriously disappeared.

Origins of Love consists of multiple individual plotlines woven together. There are the Pandeys, proprietors of a hospital in Gurgaon offering assisted reproductive technologies; Kate and Ben, an English couple who desperately want a child, though for different reasons; Sonia, one of the surrogate mothers and Diwan Nath Mehta, a customs officer who becomes embroiled in an attempt to make money from the embryos.  Tying all of these plots together is Simran Singh, the social worker who formed the focus of Desai’s earlier, Costa winning novel Witness the Night. Simran’s is the only thread of the story to be told in first person; it is she who, with the reader, pieces together these stories to work out what is going on.

And there’s a lot to work out. Origins of Love attempts to be both an exploration of a social issue (that of surrogacy in India) and a rather crowded mystery/thriller. But it soon becomes obvious that Desai is more interested in the issue than the story. Subplots that might in other circumstances have been entire novels are gestured at and then rather half-heartedly wrapped up; such as that of Ben, whose guilt and curiously over an ancestor’s actions in India lead him into perpetuating the same set of dynamics, or Renu, a rising politician who plans to use her child for her political ends. The couple around whom the mystery revolves, Susan and Ben Oldham, barely get any page time, making the various revelations about them rather lacking in impact.

As a discussion of the various issues around surrogacy, the book is more thorough. The lack of agency of the women who agree to become surrogate mothers is a point constantly made – even when characters make the original decision for themselves (Sonia thinks that the money will help her to escape an abusive boyfriend and return to her family), control is almost immediately wrested from them. The upper classes are not let off – the Pandeys may be sympathetic characters on the whole, but we are still treated to uncomfortable scenes in which Dr Subhash Pandey evaluates potential surrogates who can be most easily fobbed off as middle-class on ignorant foreigners. Occasionally Desai is too heavy-handed in the effort to make the reader see the point of this, and puts together the evidence of what the text has already shown us into convenient expository paragraphs.

This is a problem throughout. Show-don’t-tell is perhaps the most hackneyed literary criticism there is, but there is some truth to it. Unfortunately, Desai explains everything. Characters are reintroduced as if we had forgotten them in the last fifty pages, and Subhash’s discomfort with homosexual couples having children is something that must be told to us again and again. This need to explain is at its worst when it comes to the international aspects of the plot – it’s hard to tell who her intended audience is when the author is at one moment explaining London’s racial divides to the reader, and at the next explaining that ‘locals’ in Delhi would travel by autorickshaw, and that Ambassador cars with red lights on the top indicate an important person.

If Desai finds her voice at any point it is with the Diwan Nath Mehta plot. Mehta is a fundamentally decent man caught up in larger matters that he never anticipated and there’s something rather exaggerated and larger than life about the world as he perceives it. This makes for great satire, in the conspiracy theories of Mehta’s boss and in the form of caste-obsessed sperm bank officials who inform us that they are “well stocked on Brahmins”.  But there are also hints of a touching romance. This is in sharp contrast to Simran’s overwritten sections in which we’re given plenty of details (down to the colour of her underwear) but little in the way of feeling.

The problem with issue-based fiction is always going to be that it’s more about the issue than the fiction. As a book about surrogacy in India Origins of Love does exactly what it needs to. As a novel, however, it is incomplete, half-hearted and seems to think very little of its readers.

**********************************************

 

May 8, 2012

Miranda July, It Chooses You

This was not included in the list of books I read in April because I didn’t finish it. I thought I’d talk about why, because this has genuinely baffled me.

In It Chooses You Miranda July reads a local classifieds booklet full of advertisements from people who want to sell things, contacts the sellers, and interviews them about their lives and the things they are trying to sell. My feelings on July tend to fluctuate – on the one hand she can be teeth-grindingly whimsical; on the other, she knows and acknowledges this and has moments of being quite wonderful. It’s possible that said moments of wonderfulness show up later in It Chooses You. However.

The first of July’s interviewees is the seller of a black leather jacket (valued at $10). July calls this seller first:

The person who answered was a man with a hushed voice. He wasn’t surprised by my call – of course he wasn’t, he had placed the ad.

“It’s still for sale. You can make an offer when you see it,” he said.

“Okay, great.”

There was a pause. I sized up the giant space between the conversation we were having and the place I hoped to go. I leaped.

“Actually, I was wondering if, when I come over to look at the jacket, I could also interview you about your life and everything about you. Your hopes, your fears…”

My question was overtaken by the kind of silence that rings out like an alarm. I quickly added: “Of course, I would pay you for your time. Fifty dollars. It’ll take less than an hour.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, great. What’s your name?”

“Michael.”

And:

The door opened and there was Michael, a man in his late sixties, burly, broad-shouldered, a bulbous nose, a magenta blouse, boobs, pink lipstick. Before he opened the door completely he quietly stated that he was going through a gender transformation.

But then we get this:

Miranda: What was your life like before you came out?

Michael: I was trying to be the same as every other man, and hiding the fact that inside I felt like a woman. I knew that when I was a child, but I had this strong fear of coming out for a long time.

At this point I was really confused by the pronoun choices that the text was applying, and wondering if I or July (and McSweeneys, who had originally published the book, and Canongate, who had published my edition) had got something wrong. Perhaps Michael was  using a male name and male pronouns for reasons I didn’t understand. I’m a cisgendered woman; there are things I will oversimplify or get outright wrong even if I genuinely try.

Then a few chapters later there was this:

The PennySaver didn’t have quite the allure it once did, but I sat down with the latest issue and a pen to circle new listings. Andrew’s ad was still in there; the tadpoles had probably transitioned this week. It seemed Michael had sold the leather jacket; he was ten dollars closer to womanhood.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this. The few people I discussed it with found it as bizarre and offensive as I did; but if it was the result of ignorance (rather than a deliberate choice of words for some reasons I cannot fathom), it passed multiple levels of writer-editor-publisher to make it into print. The copyright page says that “The interviews and sequences within have been edited for length, coherence, and clarity” but that tells me very little.

If this is the colossal pronoun fuck up it appears to be, I’m aware my shock is partly the result of naivete. People who have been paying attention to this for far longer than I seem to have learnt to expect this sort of thing. But as long as it appears July and her publishers have got this wrong, I don’t think I will be reading this book.

 

The Michael chapter is here. The Beverley chapter (from which that last quote is taken) doesn’t appear to be online that I can find.

February 12, 2012

Kuzhali Manickavel, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies

I bought Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings before I’d heard of Kuzhali Manickavel or Blaft Publications, purely on the strength of the title and cover. Since then I’ve grown rather evangelical about both author and publisher. Blaft published this e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story a few months ago and it was, unsurprisingly, excellent.

I wrote about Eating Sugar, Telling Lies for my Left of Cool column last weekend.

**********************************************

How long should a piece of writing be? At what point does flash fiction cross into short story into novelette into novella into novel? And how big does a book have to be before it is split into two volumes? There are approximate answers to some of these questions (mostly of the “I know it when I see it” variety); some are simply a question of categorising things for ourselves. Yet others are the result of the material limitations of creating books – what size of page is easiest to hold, shelf, and pack; how many pages it is practical to print at one time; what amount of paper can be securely bound.

If there’s one thing the internet has reinforced for us it’s that a piece of writing doesn’t need to achieve a minimum word count to be a complete work in itself. So you have writers turning even to twitter for their medium – Teju Cole, the author of Open City, works wonders within 140 characters. And it is possible now to buy works in electronic format that would never have made it through the practicalities of the printing side of publishing.

Kuzhali Manickavel’s debut collection of short stories, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, was published by Blaft a few years ago. Manickavel’s stories are often structurally experimental, usually dark and occasionally very funny. But she continued to work mainly with the short story form. Unless she were to write another themed collection, it seemed that those of us who admired her work would have to keep seeking her out in various short fiction magazines (and on her wonderful, infrequently-updated blog).

But then ebooks became a viable way to publish short fiction, and in 2011 Blaft published an e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies. This odd little piece is set in Tamil Nadu, in a house that seems so big that its own inhabitants don’t seem quite sure what it contains. Secret stashes of Doritos or dead bodies could pop up in the next room.The maidservant appears to have abandoned her job, and her employers speculate over why. The narrator is one of these; her companions known only as “the Family Cataract” and “Gorgeous George”.  Various middle-class clichés about the behaviour and motivations of servants are deployed (they will steal anything, they like to be patronised by their employers) to explain the absence of “The Thieving WhoreQueen”, the only name by which The Family Cataract knows her. The truth turns out to be quite different.

Eating Sugar, Telling Lies is an uncomfortable fable about class and gender and the things we choose to look away from, and one which is far more complex than its length gives it any right to be. The Family Cataract cannot be bothered to learn the names of her servants and parrots various banalities about the tendencies of “these people” but she is also the one most strongly affected by the terrible discovery they make. The female characters make it clear that they know the threat of sexual violence, but they tolerate and have long friendships with GorgeousGeorge who claims to have had sex with a fourteen-year-old servant girl last year. The narrator herself seems the most sympathetic of the characters until the very last line of the piece. The tangled, contradictory and deeply dysfunctional set of relationships that these characters have to class, to sex, to each other and to themselves is revealed for the mess that it is. Set against all of this, the child’s voice reciting the nursery rhyme in the title (and there again, you’re forced to think about the English language and the implications of power it contains) is a brilliant, perverse contrast.

Jonathan Franzen was widely quoted this past week for suggesting that ebooks are damaging society. Franzen is entitled to his opinion, but when the existence of ebooks allows for the existence of brilliant, bitter pieces of work like this one? I think it’s very clear that he’s wrong.

**********************************************

January 6, 2012

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Sita’s Ramayana

There’s lots of Ramayana-related literature coming out at the moment. The thing I’m most looking forward to is Zubaan’s Speculative Ramayana anthology (not least because I’m in it), but there are also Arshia Sattar’s book, the furore around the “Three Hundred Ramayanas” essay, various people angsting over Sita Sings the Blues, Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole (I don’t have this yet, but it looks beautiful), and others. I spent a big portion of my New Year’s Eve arguing for the Ramayana’s complexity – my interest in it has begun to feel proprietorial – and this flowering of derivative works is a strong argument in its favour. The pick of them so far (for me, at least) remains Sattar’s, but I think I’d have to write a separate piece on that later. For now, last week’s Sunday Guardian review of Arni and Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana.

**********************************************

In Lost Loves, her collection of essays on the Ramayana, Arshia Sattar suggests that many retellings of the epic “are prompted by those aspects of the text that have made the tradition uncomfortable, for example, the times when Rama acts unrighteously and violates dharma.” This is a big part of the reason that there are so many feminist retellings of the epic – Sita’s fate is, by any yardstick, unjust. Following her husband into exile out of loyalty, she is kidnapped and held captive as part of a feud in which she has played no active part. Upon being rescued she is accused of being unchaste and even after proving herself pure (the idea that she should have been considered guilty if her kidnapper had raped her is itself vile) she is banished in order that her husband’s kingly status not be besmirched. Rama’s treatment of Sita may be the right thing to do for the kingdom, but at a personal level it is a horrendous betrayal.

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana opens at the moment when the pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. Lamenting her current plight, she tells the story of the events leading up to this point.

Sita is offstage for many of what we might consider the main events of the Ramayana – Rama’s search for his wife, the building of alliances and formation of an army, the journey to Lanka and the war itself. One result of shifting the narrative voice to Sita, then, is that these events are telescoped through multiple perspectives – first Hanuman, then Trijatha (Vibhishana’s daughter) fill in for Sita the gaps in her story. This often creates an interesting ambiguity. For example, in telling the story of the death of Valin and the crowning of Sugriva, does Rama’s devotee Hanuman really focus on Tara’s anger and grief at the loss of her husband and at being bundled from one king to another, or is this Sita’s extrapolation (bearing as it does some resemblance to her own fate)?

The extra layer of commentary that these multiple voices adds also allows the text to describe certain acts as outright wrong – the killing of Indrajit for example – something that might have been didactic were it not in the context of a centuries-old tradition of glossing over these sections in mainstream accounts. Though Sita is quite capable of making these judgements on her own; of the Surpanaka incident she claims that “an unjust act only begets greater injustice. Rama should have stopped him. Instead, he spurred him on”. Sita’s voice is a strongly feminist one, and throughout she empathises with the other victimised women in the story – Surpanaka, Trijatha, Tara, Mandodari. It’s a position that sometimes lacks nuance (the “war…is merciful to men” section quoted on the back cover is an example of this). But the polemic is a style in itself, and this one is, for the most part, handled with style.

Of course Sita cannot be the narrator of the whole of her story, since someone has to tell how it ends. When her story reaches the point of her abandonment in the forest (the point which forms the frame narrative for most of the book) it is taken up rather abruptly by a third person narrator. This narrator (possibly Valmiki himself?) tells of Sita’s refuge with Valmiki, the birth and education of Lava and Kusha, and finally the events that lead to Sita’s final encounter with her husband and her departure from the world. It’s hard to see how this particular narrative shift could have been avoided but it is a shame – this last section lacks the layered thoughtfulness of the earlier parts.

Moyna Chitrakar is the real star here. According to the afterword, Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written, and it’s obvious that the art is at the heart of the book. Chitrakar is unafraid to play with the panel layout, and often focuses on startling images. The entire book begins with an unusual dramatis personae. The sequence in which Sita arrives in Lanka and refuses to marry Ravana is told in three panels with no human (or divine, or rakshasa for that matter) figures – one depicting the waves of the sea, one the ornate architecture of the city, and one a tree in the palace gardens. Earlier, when Surpanaka gazes upon Lakshmana’s beauty, the artwork objectifies him with her, actually labelling those of his attributes that are most desireable.

In some ways, of our two great epics the Ramayana is even better suited to retellings than the Mahabharata. This is partly because the former has a more contained story to work with, partly because its protagonist is still held up as a moral ideal in ways the latter epic has been spared. Sita’s Ramayana is part of a strong tradition of feminist retellings, yet it manages to feel fresh and to stand up to them.

**********************************************

 

September 19, 2011

Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra, The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl

 

A version of this short review appeared in Mint Lounge this weekend, here.

 

**********************************************

The goodness of the good Indian girl is a badge of sorts. Or, as the cover of Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra’s The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl suggests, a rather tacky sparkly medallion. As the authors emphasise in their introduction, ‘good’ here “does not mean the opposite of bad”; merely the set of behaviours considered desirable in an Indian girl.

What Zaidi and Ravindra explore in this collection of loosely connected (several characters and names appear in more than one) stories is not the oppressive nature of this set of desirable qualities, but the ways in which women can transgress them and still retain the Good Indian Girl (or GIG) tag. The result is a book of surprisingly subversive tales in which girls interact with men, climb down rope ladders(“BIG Girls”) , flirt and draw back (“Strangers”), cut themselves (“Out of Here”) are nervous and afraid around men but simultaneously willing to play along (“Finger Play”), manipulate their perceived goodness to their own ends (“Daddy’s Girls”). They are less about emphasising the restrictions placed on Indian women than they are about how women use and test them. The “GIG”s in these stories have agency, and they use it.

The stories are interspersed with short segments addressed directly to the reader. These are something of a weak point – they are rather arch in tone, and often attempt to ‘explain’ the previous story or to draw a connection with the next one. It’s unnecessary and intrusive; we don’t need to be told that Gaurangini (“Panty Lines”) suffered, but lightly, or that the next story will require us to think about what happens when we confront a girl with her own lust. Sometimes these sections are merely trying too hard: “Seems far out? Can’t believe it? Think we’re exaggerating? Trust us: it happened!” Thankfully, as the book progresses these sections become less self-conscious and more like chatty asides.

The inter-connectedness of the stories ties the book together. When done well the related chapters are delightful read against one another, with the same situation reflected in many perspectives. Occasionally it is done clumsily (as with the paired stories “Tiger Balm” and “Stop Press”). Sometimes it is brilliant, as with the lovely “Rain” and its sequel-of-sorts, “Words”. However, a consequence of these recurring characters is also to highlight the fact that these characters are a specific subset of Indian girls. It’s possible that Good Indian Girl-hood is so universal as to make no difference, but the authors themselves admit towards the end that “[g]eneration to generation, state to state, notions of GIGdom vary”. Yet besides this one acknowledgement, there’s no exploration of this idea at all.

The title of the book is a mystery– what “bad boys” have to do with anything is beyond me. But though The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl feels rather less than the sum of its parts (the excellence of some individual stories is rather let down by their sameness) it manages to be a likeable, if one-note collection. 

**********************************************


August 7, 2011

E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady

Last week’s Left of Cool piece. I’d been meaning to get around to reading this book for a while – it had been recommended to me by friends (including the always-reliable in these matters Anna Carey). I loved this so much; the rueful tone, the self-awareness, the snobbery, the not understanding why Robert can’t understand that the new footman has a funny name, the social anxiety and the obvious intelligence. I’m glad I discovered Delafield, and I look forward to reading more.

(A version of this appeared in TSG here etc)

**********************************************

There’s a particular form of criticism of some writers (like Jane Austen, horrifyingly enough) which suggests that their work isn’t worth much because it’s so limited in scope. They only write about domestic issues, relationships, day-to-day household life. Trivial subjects all.

But in the hands of some writers triviality is not such a bad thing. No one who isn’t completely joyless complains that P. G. Wodehouse restricts himself to a bunch of mentally deficient upper-class English twits, when what he does with these characters is so good. And in E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, a few months in the life of an upper-middle-class, harried mother of two is the stuff of genius.

Delafield’s “Provincial Lady” lives in a village with her two children, the mademoiselle who acts as governess to her daughter, and Robert, her husband. Robert works as a land agent for a Lady Boxe (Lady B) who frequently pops in to patronise our heroine. Robert is always grumpy about something, their daughter Vicky has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment, and their son Robin spreads chaos and destruction whenever he is home from school. The house is never tidy, the cook is always upset about something, and nothing ever seems to go quite right. The Vicar’s wife visits and refuses to leave, and a local suffragette is trying to raise political awareness.

Our unnamed provincial lady worries frequently about money. This seems ridiculous – the family has a governess, a domestic staff of at least three people, and a son who goes to what seems quite a fancy boarding school. There’s plenty of classism here, as you’d expect. And yet it’s not as offensive as it might have been in other circumstances, and the narrator has everything to do with it.

In part it is the tone of the book. Diaries are usually intended only to be read by the person writing them*, and Delafield’s fictional diary is therefore written as if to assume that the reader can follow the supposed writer’s thoughts – jumping from topic to topic without any particularly obvious logical connection. It’s a surprisingly intimate style and it works.

She’s also accessible because she isn’t perfect. A recurring theme in the book is her failure throughout the year to successfully grow hyacinths indoors from bulbs, with cats, husbands, children and incomprehensible instruction booklets all getting in the way. She’s also never quite dressed right for the occasion. She catches measles as an adult in the most undignified possible manner. She’s never quite at ease in social or cultural situations. She worries about being wrong about literature (“Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it”) and about how people will see her (“feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think I am boasting–which indeed I should be–so better forget about it”).

Yet all of this is done with a sense of rueful self-awareness. She knows very well that the social circles into which she aspires to fit are pretentious. (“Americans, we say, undoubtedly hospitable–but what about the War Debt? What about Prohibition? What about Sinclair Lewis? Aimée MacPherson, and Co-education? By the time we have done with them, it transpires that none of us have ever been to America, but all hold definite views, which fortunately coincide with the views of everybody else.”) She knows the class system is silly. She knows that her various failures are funny – her diary suggests that she’s laughing at herself throughout.

If this seems heartless, it isn’t. There are flashes throughout of genuine feeling; but feeling filtered through a well-developed sense of irony. The result is familiar and hilarious.

**********************************************

 

*Unless you are a character in an Oscar Wilde play. Doesn’t Cecily Cardew say somewhere that her diary is totally private and consequently meant for publication?

July 26, 2011

Elsewhere

As most of you probably know, the SF “Mistressworks” blog exists to highlight science fiction by women written prior to 2000 (the time period covered by Gollancz’ Masterworks series which is rather short on female contributors). My piece on Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is now up there, and I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

December 9, 2010

More on women and SF: I ramble about my own list for a bit

I mentioned Torque Control’s current women and sf focus in this post a few days ago. The results are in and Niall has been posting short reviews of the books in the poll’s top ten. So I wanted to talk a little about my own list.

First, there’s the question of defining what science fiction is. I don’t think any of the books on my list would qualify as “typical” sf. Possible reasons for this: it’s a result of my not reading very much sf; it’s because not enough women write sf in the first place and I therefore had to really stretch for names; a “best of” list is not likely to contain much that is typical in the first place, since these are supposed to be the books that really stand out. I suspect my list is a result of all three.
In general I think rigid genre boundaries are a bit silly- genre classification is a tool to help us think about books, and the moment it becomes cumbersome you discard it. But in a situation like this I think it’s also important to be careful of how far one stretches the definition of a genre. As Jo Walton points out here, there are a lot more famous female authors writing fantasy than sf, and part of the point of this month is to examine that fact – redefining fantasy books as sf isn’t going to help anyone.
I really enjoyed this post by Shana Worthen on the subject of how to classify LeGuin’s Lavinia. To my shame I still haven’t read the book despite having bought it at the beginning of the year. I suspect the only sort of science fiction I’m really interested in is social-science fiction (does that exist as a term)? Worthen’s post would apply perfectly to something like Mary Gentle’s Ash, which would certainly have been on my list if it had only been published a year or so later. It’s probably why things like dystopias and alternate histories also figure in my head as “sf”.
People/books that aren’t on my list:
I would have loved to have Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on the list if I could even vaguely justify it to myself as science fiction. I could not.
Aadisht asked in the comments of my last post on this subject whether Gail Carriger was on it. Much as I love the Parasol Protectorate books, she is not. I definitely think her books can qualify as sf, but I’m still waiting for her to write a book that absolutely blows my mind. She’s created a setting that makes this possible, certainly, and it’s bound to happen eventually.
Justina Robson and Tricia Sullivan are names that pop up on almost every other list of this sort that I’ve read, but I’ve never read anything by either author. Neither of them is to be seen in most Indian bookshops, but I know my library has some of Robson’s work and I must get down to reading it.
Now the list:
Scarlett Thomas – PopCo
Shelley Jackson – Half Life
Gwyneth Jones – Bold as Love
Kit Whitfield – In Great Waters
K.J Bishop – The Etched City
Steph Swainston – The Year of Our War
PopCo was a gift from a friend (who posts here) a few years ago. It is the only thing by Scarlet Thomas I’ve read so far, so for all I know her more recent books are better. But PopCo is intelligent and ruthless and fully deserves its place here.
Half Life is something I read a couple of years ago when I went through a stack of Tiptree award winning books in a month – triggered by The Knife of Never Letting Go being a joint winner (with Nisi Shawl’s Filter House). Jackson’s book is rich and playful and complicated and headache-causing. If I hadn’t enjoyed it so much I might think it was too clever for its own good. But I did and it wasn’t and that’s that.
Earlier this year I read Gwyneth Jones’ book of essays and criticism, Imagination/Space. I thoroughly enjoyed it and suspect I prefer Jones’ nonfiction to her fiction. Which makes it all the more impressive that she has multiple entries in the poll’s top ten. Bold as Love is a great place to start reading her work; in addition to being a very strong book itself, it’s the start of a good series. I just discovered that the first few books are actually available for free download on the Bold as Love website.
I spent a while backandforthing over including Whitfield’s book in this list. Eventually I sent it off without her, but then I read this post. I’m still not entirely convinced, but if there’s any chance of having In Great Waters on this list I want to take it. I ordered it this summer after reading some very enthusiastic reviews and was thrilled by it. It maintains its strangeness throughout, it’s powerful and uncomfortable, and really good.
A friend has been telling me for a couple of years that I must read K.J Bishop’s The Etched City but I only took his advice very recently. Apparently he was right. The Etched City starts off like a typical fantasy novel, and then something happens and it all turns inside out and gets very good indeed.
Swainston’s books are another series that look like a typical fantasy at first glance. But it’s set within an interesting multiverse, and as the series progresses (The Year of Our War is the first of the books) this becomes more and more important. In addition, Swainston’s a very good writer.
And that is where my list ends.