Feminism isn’t about making things for women. It’s about women making things.
That is badly paraphrased, possibly from something by Sarah Nicole Prickett, but it’s an idea I come back to a lot. It can apply many places, and I think the original context was in response to some ridiculous “women’s” product or another, you know, a pen with pink ink “For Her” or some such. But it works for books, too. When I think about what it means for a book to be feminist, it’s not about writing stories “for women” with “strong female characters” or casting females in roles that defy gender expectations, exactly. It’s about writing from a female perspective and not focusing on a woman’s relation to everyone else (all those “The _____’s Wife” books!) or not only her relationships. Writing her interior life. Letting her be redeemed by something other than motherhood and marriage, or maybe let her not be redeemed at all.
The Bridge of Beyond isn’t very well known as a feminist book (or very well known at all, though the New York Review of Books reissue a few years back will help, I hope) but I would put it right up there with The Handmaid’s Tale or The Awakening or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Like those books, The Bridge of Beyond is set in a patriarchal, post-colonial, racist world but immerses us in the lives of women who are simultaneously defined by and able to transcend their oppression. Like Angelou’s memoir, this book made me think about how people survive horrific violence and oppression. This book made me think about the institutional and generational side, too: how does the Lougandor family survive through slavery and the after effects?
The story is about the end of slavery and in a way, the end of the Lougandor line, but neither are really over. The effects of slavery are still there, in the air and on the land and in the people. And though Télumée may be the end of the line in her family, it’s impossible to believe she won’t leave a mark on the land she walked or the air she breathed.
Let’s back up, though: on my first reading, I wasn’t even thinking about this book’s place in the feminist canon or anything like that. I was thinking that this book is a perfect reading experience. The word that comes to mind is “light.” You can probably guess that this book is full of horrific violence, abuse, and death, so how can I say it was “light?” I mean that the words flow effortlessly and reading it is like slipping into a dream state, almost. You will lose track of time. Your heart will hurt. But it’s not a grind. Not at all. Every word is perfect.
In the perfection of my rise, its speed and resonance, there was something disturbing, and I was puzzled at having obtained, all at the same time, the three crowns that can usually be hoped for only at the end of a long life. Love, the trust of others, and that kind of glory that accompanies every woman who is happy – these were gifts too great not to become dangerous in God’s sight. So sometimes, in the shade of my Chinese plum, I would tremble with fright, trying to make out the exact moment when the Almighty would take umbrage at my crowns. But then a little breeze would come and play with my skirts, my sleeves, my braids, and I’d feel I could go on like that until the end of time, and it was as if I was already embalmed, powdered, and laid out happy on my deathbed.
Did I mention this is a translation? Reminding myself that these perfect words aren’t even the original words was a constant source of wonder. Barbara Bray is a master. She also translated a lot of Margaurite Duras, who I haven’t written about here, but will. The Lover has a similar dream-like quality. This book is full of regional sayings that I’m sure aren’t a straightforward translation:
If anyone offered to replace Toussine at the bedside for a while, she would say, smiling gently, “Don’t worry about me. However heavy a woman’s breasts, her chest is always strong enough to carry them.” She spent seventeen days and seventeen nights cajoling death, and then, ill luck having gone elsewhere, Meranee expired. Life went on as before, but without one vestige of heart left, like a flea feasting on your last drop of blood, delighting in leaving you senseless and sore, cursing heaven and earth and the womb that conceived you.
Now that I’ve set your expectations, let me tell you how glad I was to go into this book with none. I received a copy from the fine folks at Shelf Awareness, and it was pitched to me as “Cool if you’re looking for something outside of the written-by-White-European-Males world,” and that was the extent of my knowledge going in. I didn’t have time to get nervous about the translation thing, or the colonialism thing. I was just pleasantly, no, wonderously surprised to be reading what would go on to be my favourite book of the year. Maybe reading it on my first away-from-the-kids trip had something to do with it too.
One of the reasons I waited almost a year to review this book (other than laziness) is that I wasn’t sure how to comment on how race plays into it. In finally writing this review, I realized that I don’t have to. Like any other review, I pick and choose what to comment on, and I can just focus on the writing. I bring it up here because I’m seeing a lot of #reviewwomen and #readdiverse and what not, and I realize this book (or more precisely, this author) is a perfect example of that diversity – of gender, race, and language – but the way the book was pitched to me sums up why I’m loathe to categorize it in that way. This book is so brilliant and beautiful; it doesn’t need to be defined by what it is not, i.e. not white, not male. I don’t want someone to pick this up and think “this’ll be great for my diversity stats!” This post by FrenchieDee got me thinking along these lines (read the comments!) I will continue to read and review “diverse” book but I think we all need to step back and not make this about ourselves and turn “read diverse” into a humblebrag, “look at me, reading women of colour!” Let’s keep the focus on the books and the authors. End rant.
The Bridge of Beyond is a classic of literature, period. And if you’re in the mood for something translated, Caribbean, post-colonial, or feminist, you will not do better than this.
I’m supposed to be writing my first update for the Middlemarch Read-Along hosted by Too Fond, but I keep thinking about this video:
Girls Who Read made the rounds a couple weeks ago. I didn’t watch it at first, because I’m pretty burnt out on “aren’t readers super special” memes. Most of them make us sound like smug assholes. Eventually I clicked, and I thought it was cute, well read, and funny. Who wouldn’t sigh at “passion, wit, and dreams?” I’m also a sucker for any kind of accent, so that helped.
A few days later, I noticed a minor backlash, including this article which contained the following from Portrait of a Lady:
He didn’t wish her to be stupid. On the contrary, it was because she was clever that she had pleased him. But he expected her intelligence to operate altogether in his favour, and so far from desiring her mind to be a blank, he had flattered himself that it would be richly receptive.
And I got to thinking: there’s nothing wrong with wanting a Girl Who Reads but in 2013 is this something that needs to be pointed out and celebrated? This guy seems to think he’s quite something because he can go one baby step further than tits and ass in his dream girl checklist. Not to mention that the video’s Girl Who Reads is also young, thin, white, and conventionally attractive, so it’s not reading over T&A, it’s reading AND T&A.
The Portrait of a Lady quote is pretty apt, and there’s even more to draw on from Middlemarch. She’s more of a Girl Who Drafts Ambitious Plans Relating to Cottages and Farming but same difference. I don’t have a great pull quote, though I found a few – damn Kobo annotations letting me down, as usual – but I think Dorothea and Casaubon are both guilty of using each other for their intellects. Dorothea wants to be educated and lifted up out of ignorance She says: “There would be nothing trivial about our lives… It would be like marrying Pascal. I should learn to see the truth by the same light as great men have seen it by.” Casaubon, well, I haven’t quite figured him out yet. I think he may have wanted a competent secretary as much as he wanted a wife, but finding Dorothea too smart and too able to see the shortcomings in his work, becomes jealous and shuts her out.
Despite ranting about it here, I’m not that bothered by this video. But it is making me think carefully about Dorothea and her passion, wit, and dreams. I’m paraphrasing someone on Twitter but I think it’s pretty telling that it’s Girls Who Read rather than Girls Who Write who are being celebrated. Reading, by itself, is pretty innocuous. Passive, even. Writing is a lot messier. Similarly, if Dorothea were passive, if she wasn’t compelled to speak her mind and didn’t have ambitions outside of marriage, she’d probably be a lot closer to Casaubon’s vision of an ideal wife.
As for the read-along, I’m just managing to keep pace. At 45% through the book, I’m finding it such a light read, not in the sense that it’s easy or quick or not thought provoking, but in that it doesn’t feel like a burden, even though at 800 pages, it surely is! There’s a perfect balance between all the plot points and characters and themes. Next week I’ll try to write a regular update but suffice to say that Ms. Eliot does not disappoint.
Lost at sea? For all the details on this read-a-long, including schedule and sign up, click here. Then, share your thoughts in the comments, or better yet, link to your own post.
So while reviewing this section I keep thinking about the song “Doll Parts” by Hole. There is actually some logic to this, I’m not just stuck in the 90s. I mean, *am* stuck in the 90s, but there’s more to it than that.
Whale Parts: Taking the title literally, this section is largely about whale parts; breaking this massive thing down into smaller and smaller parts until you’re left with an empty shell, which is kind of the vibe I get from Doll Parts. I also interpreted Doll Parts as a revenge fantasy (“one day you will ache like I ache”) which fits in with Ahab’s quest. So that’s where I started, but then I started to think about it more…
Wait, that lyric is “dog beg?” The hell?: Information access, storage, and sharing all sound like modern concepts but they’re pretty well covered in Moby Dick. Ishmael is constantly giving us interesting tidbits about whaling, or going on tangents about, say, a whale’s skull. He likes to come up with ways to sort and categorize information and seems to delight in instructing the masses. Melville’s audience in the 1850s would have had to decide for themselves whether to trust him or not, and whether the information was presented as fact or as entertainment. Today, not only can I have Sparknotes open in another tab as I write up my thoughts (…not that I do that,) but I can check the definition or words on my Kobo and Google just about anything Ishmael states to see if it’s true.
I was reminded of this when I sort of idly Googled “Doll Parts” and found out some of the lyrics I thought I knew were wrong, AND the meaning I gave the song wasn’t what Courtney Love intended. It’s actually about the beginning of a relationship and feeling rejected because he seemed interested in someone else. Whoa. This is a song I listened to hundreds of times as a teenager, so it’s odd to have all this “corrected” years later. It made me think about the hours upon hours I spent listening to songs and trying to write down their lyrics – you know, the ones where the lyrics weren’t in the liner notes – and how today, we can look up lyrics AND in-depth analysis of the songs meanings. I distinctly remember hitting play – rewind – play over and over again trying to hear the lyrics to Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Yup, on cassette!
Anyway, I don’t have a clever way to sum this up, but having my beliefs about a song from the 90s exploded did make me think about how people in the 1850s would have received all this information Melville is laying down.
Feminism: Hole wasn’t exactly a feminist band, but they were the first female-fronted band I got into that wasn’t, like, Ace of Base, so I associate them with my own awakening as a feminist. Women can be loud and messy and crazy and it’s okay? Who knew? This section of Moby Dick triggered a bit of righteous feminist anger. In case it wasn’t obvious due to the fact that there are zero female characters (Bechdel Test fail,) Melville didn’t write this book for women. OF COURSE I can’t find the link now, but I swear I saw a quote to the effect that he didn’t even think women should read Moby Dick. Ugh.
What set me off in this section was Melville’s celebration of male archetypes. We’ve got the the pack of young lads, having fun and causing trouble:
Like a mob of young collegians, they are full of fight, fun, and wickedness…
the player with his “harem” of females;
In truth, this gentleman is an luxurious Ottoman, swimming about over the watery world, surroundingly accompanied by all the solaces and endearments of his harem.
and my favourite, the lone wolf, who’s outgrown these simple pleasures and is now, like, the most interesting whale in the world, I guess? And gee, even Mother Nature herself is moody! Women!
Like a venerable moss-bearded Daniel Boone, he will have no one near him but Nature herself; and her he takes to wife in the wilderness of waters, and the best of wives is she, though she keeps so many moody secrets.
Meanwhile, female whales are – duh- having and caring for babies. Now, perhaps that’s they way whales roll, but Melville is obviously making a comment on humans here, and maybe I’m missing the satire (probably) but I was just kind of rolling my eyes through all this.
I’ve got a whole other blog post brewing in my head about the exclusion of women from great works of literature (see Jest, Infinite) but for the time being, I wish I could find my old Riot Grrrl t-shirt and wear it while I finish Moby Dick because these female whales need to start a revolution, stat.
Tune in Next Week: My favourite chapter so far, The Try-Works. Also, more fun with sperm!
- The actual pictures Melville was referring to in the “Monsterous Pictures of Whales” chapter. So cool! Thanks again, ebookclassics!
Pretty quiet this week… check in with me, read-a-longers!
What did you think of this section? Link to your blog post below and drop me a line in the comments.
I post on a women’s forum that runs very much to the mainstream. The posters tend to be married with children or heading that way. When a poster went “undercover” to post about her secret life as a submissive, it caused a bit of a sensation. She has a “taken in hand” marriage, which means her husband calls ALL the shots. They discuss things, but he has the final say. Period. And that might mean deciding what car to buy, where to live, or it might mean whether they have sex tonight.
It doesn’t much concern me what consenting adults do in their homes. However, the definition of consent in this scenario makes me nervous. The poster said that she gave her husband “blanket consent” for sex, whenever, where ever, and however he wants. But is consent still consent when it’s given in advance? How do you get out of this agreement if you want – isn’t it sort of, too bad, you gave your consent, so now what I say goes? To me, consent is rooted in the present tense. I can consent to sex now, but I can’t give consent for sex that’s going to happen tomorrow. Anyway, Drama Ensued. There were even accusations that this poster couldn’t be for real, but, a quick search of the internets tells me that “taken in hand” is a thing.
As I read The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, I thought about consent quite a bit. Sleeping Beauty was my first erotic novel. I admit to reading the odd, shall we say, flash fiction erotica, but it’s not a genre I ever considered for a literary experience. I chose Sleeping Beauty because it has a reputation as a literary Fifty Shades (I know, I know).
I knew that the story was based on Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, and that it would have a BDSM element, but I was not expecting so much cruelty and so little tenderness. I don’t have a problem with BDSM, and I understand this is fiction; however, when presented with non-consentual, penetrative sex with a minor, or if you wanna get real, a child being raped, on PAGE TWO I was taken aback. Context: “Beauty” is fifteen and unconscious.
He mounted her, parting her legs, giving the white inner flesh of her thighs a soft, deep pinch, and, clasping her right breast in his left hand, he thrust his sex into her. Continue reading
So there is this article, in which guy-author Jeffrey Eugenides accuses lady-author Jodi Picoult of “belly-aching” about the fact that she doesn’t get any love from the New York Times. I hate how soundbites are taken out of context, so here is the full quote, emphasis mine:
I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention, in my mind — so I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching. There’s plenty of extremely worthy novelists who are getting very little attention. I think they have more right to complain. And it usually has nothing to do with their gender, but just the marketplace.
Hmm, you mean she wants to be commercially successful AND respected? How dare she! Complainer! And really, does ANYTHING have “nothing to do with gender?” My feminist spidey-sense are tingling…
Then I read this Jezebel article. Jezebel has a feminist perspective, and I was ready to be righteously outraged… but I totally wasn’t. The author doesn’t deal with the fact that Eugenides writes literary fiction while Picoult writes commercial fiction, so all the ranting about how ladies aren’t taken seriously is moot because literary fiction is more deserving of publicity and attention… isn’t it? Maybe Eugenides is right, it’s all about the marketplace…
I was feeling very conflicted and icky. I didn’t expect to agree with a guy who accuses a woman of “belly-aching” because she demands the same sort of respect her peers are getting. But then, I don’t see a situation in which I would ever read a Jodi Picoult book on purpose. Jeffrey Eugenides is brilliant and wrote one of my favourite books, The Virgin Suicides. So am I sexist, a book snob, or both?
Then I read this article (tweeted by @jenniferweiner. Follow her.) The author takes the time to research the background, present some actual data, and break down the issues. There are a couple of things going on:
- Commercial fiction is not seen as important or worthy as literary fiction
- Female genre writers like Picoult are treated differently than male genre writers, like, say, Nick Hornby.
- Female genres like romance and YA are treated differently than male genres like horror and mystery.
The whole “belly aching” controversy seems like a smoke screen to distract from the real issues. Kind of like that whole “mom wars” silliness a few months ago. There is ABSOLUTELY sexism in publishing and in writing and in reading. I’ve been reading the classics for years, and it is a vast sea of dead white dudes. Think it’s not a problem today? Nearly all of the current New York Times hardcover bestsellers are by male authors. If you add e-books to the mix, suddenly half are by female authors – thanks to E.L. James are her ilk.
I’m trying to assuage my feminist guilt by stacking my Classics Club list in favour of female authors. I still only made it to 19/50 books, and that was difficult. Maybe I need to write a book.
Do you think the publishing industry is sexist? Do you make an effort to read female authors?
Two of my major reads of the past six months were Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. I knew very little about either going in, and was surprised to find they have similarities beyond the obvious (long, difficult, written by dead white dudes.) Both stories are written from the perspective of a young, naive male protagonist on the fringes of society. Both young men have a complicated relationship with a beautiful, mysterious, and morally suspect young woman. And of course, no one lives happily ever after.
Months after finishing these books, I’m still thinking about those mysterious women. They are mysterious because we never hear their side. They come and go from the story as needed, and with little or no explanation as to where they’ve been. They are both notably absent from large sections of the story.
Were these characters merely there to move the plot along? To help the hero reach his goal? To personify the usual madonna/whore view of women? Remember, both books were written in the 1800s. Feminism wasn’t really a thing.
Whatever the authors’ intentions, they left me wanting more. In particular, I want to know what happened to The Magic Mountain’s Clavdia between leaving the mountain and returning as the mistress of the equally eccentric and mysterious Mynheer Peeperkorn. She`s married, too, so presumably she`s juggling a husband in addition to her lover(s).
Oh god. I just realized this is probably how fan fiction started. Well, that, and the need to make various characters have sex with each other. Don’t worry, I have neither the time nor the inclination to write Magic Mountain fan fiction. Can you imagine?
Is there a character who left you wanting more? Have you ever wished a book was written from another character’s perspective? Have I just rationalized the existence of fan fiction?
PS: While Google image searching for an “invisible woman” picture, I discovered that a movie about Charles Dickens’ secret mistress will be released in 2013. A post about literary movies is coming soon!