May Update: Abandon all hope…

It’s almost June and I have crossed off exactly one requirement on my reading syllabus. It’s safe to assume I might not get this done this year. According to Goodreads, I am, at 15 books, four books behind schedule if I am going to get through 50 books this year. Four of those books are the Harry Potter series on audio. Not included on that list is Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, which I’ve been re-reading on nights I cannot fall asleep. This isn’t to say I haven’t been reading. I have subscriptions to The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. I catch myself reading the same articles in the morning Post that I read online the night before (yes, I get the daily paper in print. I also have a landline, recently purchased stamps, have bar soap in my shower, and write longhand in cursive. I am an old millennial.)

This isn’t the sort of reading I enjoy. It’s not the sort of reading I should really do before bed or having my blood pressure taken.  This is the sort of reading that makes me check the time stamp at the top of an article before skimming it for the fifth or sixth time for new information about North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s the sort of reading I measure out in hash marks, thinking that counting out the number of times I check Twitter or that stupid news widget to the left of my home screen might convince me to just keep the phone in the other room. So far, it has not worked. Neither has turning off notifications. The other day I went for a short run only to notice the flag of the local parochial school at half-mast. I stopped my run to check the Washington Post app. I checked the Times and Twitter for good measure. I still don’t know why the flag was at half-mast.

Even now, I’m getting a little itchy and my chest is hot. When I am done writing this sentence, I will check my phone again…

President Trump asked senior intelligence officials to deny collusion between the campaign and Russia. Sounds about right for a Monday evening.* Right now, I can’t muster the energy to be appropriately horrified or even surprised. Tomorrow, there will probably be another story about the president attempting to quash the Russia investigations in a way only a routinely guilty party might. It may be the country’s good fortune that he appears to be at least as incompetent as he is nefarious.

But this sort of reading—skimming article after article in an effort to better understand what “throw-weight” means or the distinction between ballistic missiles categories or how Robert Mueller’s role as “special counsel” is not as secure from Trump administration meddling as Ken Starr’s role as “independent counsel” was from the Clinton administration because a statute has lapsed—isn’t reading. I am not served by knowing what I know, at least not in the manner in which I am learning it.

“[R]eading as a means of understanding and resistance” was an excellent idea on January 1st, when I hadn’t started doing this. I wasn’t tired yet. Right now, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words, and The Federalist Papers are all sitting unread on the stack of books I keep next to my reading chair. I’m probably not getting around to The Painted Bird or On The Beach anytime soon. I can’t seem to get through more than a chapter or two of Lincoln in the Bardo before dozing off at night and Alyssa Mastromonaco’s memoir of her time in the Obama administration is due back to the library in a few days. I haven’t even cracked the spine yet.**

What I’ve been doing looks enough like reading that I can trick myself into thinking it is. It’s not surprising I don’t have the patience or energy for book-length reading. I’ve only exercised that muscle 15 times this year. Almost everything is harder the less you do it. The not-quite-reading I have been doing feels enough like reading that I don’t even always realize I’ve set aside my book for my phone until I’ve already read a couple articles.

Saturday, I largely did not check my phone. I didn’t read. I didn’t write. I didn’t keep busy with an endless series of chores that feel like being productive but are not. Instead, I sewed a pillow and two foot stools my dog will no doubt claim as her own within a week. It took me hours and I screwed up spooling the bobbin three times before I figured out what I was doing wrong. They all look fine from far if you don’t pay very close attention to the finishing and I am fairly certain the one I filled with bean bag balls only has one small hole that needs fixing. I didn’t check the news most of the day because I cannot sew one-handed and sewing machines are loud enough to drown out a lot of thought. I played old episodes of The Simpsons in the background to drown out the rest of them. In a lot of ways, sewing’s probably a better hobby for me to have right now. I’m not good enough at it that I can get away with not paying particular attention to what I am doing. It takes two hands. Unlike writing, I know when a pillow is finished.

I want to read. Abandoning the syllabus doesn’t stop me from reading, but it frees me from spending more time thinking about Russia. I’ll finish the Saunders soon, and the Mastromonaco. I might even get to the Snyder—it’s a very short book—but I don’t see myself getting around to anything by Masha Gessen in the immediate future. I may never get around to Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel about radiation from a nuclear war reaching the shores of Austrailia. But I have a bunch of poly-fill left, and some vintage fabric and notions my mom gave me still in the Woodward and Lothrop’s bag (the bag also included a photocopied handout from LaLeche League because my mother rarely throws anything away.) Maybe I’ll even make a dress or two if I can find a simple enough pattern—I’m not ready for sleeves, darts, or zippers yet. An apron. I’ll make myself a new apron. Mine all have cake stains on them.

*I wrote this bit before news broke about the explosion at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. I’ve actively chosen not to write about it because, while it’s easy to speculate, I have no idea what happened yet and I’m not going to make the deaths of kids at a concert about my anxieties. That would be indecent.

*I don’t really do that to library books.

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Re-Reading The Handmaid’s Tale

When it was first published, The Handmaid’s Tale won both the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Margaret Atwood, the writer, has called the work “speculative” rather than traditional science fiction. It makes sense, there’s very little science in the book. That said, she’s also said in interviews that her guiding rule while writing the book was that everything had to have already taken place, no degredation was invented by Atwood. Everything in this novel is still happening.

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel, Luke is trying to reassure Offred (but that’s not her name yet) that he will take care of her now that the government has closed the bank accounts of all women. This is right after they enact a law barring women from working outside the home. Luke’s reassurances that she’s only lost a job and that she’ll be protected sound patronizing to Offred and the reader. He’s not angry enough in that moment. Their relationship changes there and the reader can never see them as partners again. Offred will never have partners again, not in any real way. She’ll walk with another handmaiden to and from the shops. She’ll be paired with a Commander to breed a child for him and his wife, but she will not be a part of that child’s raising She’ll be reunited once or twice with her best friend from before, Moira. She’ll even find compatriots of sorts in Ofglen and Nick. But she is, from this moment on, isolated.

Offred, not whoever she was before the architects of a violent coup that supplants the United States government with the Christofascist Republic of Gilead, is made through this repeated isolation. Her body made be made literally docile, she suspects, through forced drug use when she’s first sent to the Red Center after her capture at the Canadian border, that is only the most physically obvious preparation. In all aspects of her new life, she is meant to be and feel alone. Camaraderie is not encouraged at the Center, though the women find ways to talk. They learn to lip read. After however, they are placed in the homes of men high enough in the organizing structure of Gilead (which we never fully understand, as Offred herself would have no real understanding of this new system of government), they are fully isolated. Offred is regarded with suspicion by one of the residence’s Marthas (maids and cooks, unable to procreate but not classified as Unwomen. Marthas still have usable bodies for work inside Gilead.)  She’d met with controlled hostility by the Commander’s wife inside the home (a Phyllis Schafly-like character named Serena Joy, who Offred recognizes as an anti-feminist religious TV personality from the time before) and outright contempt by Econowives when she leaves the house for her daily shop run.  It is not an accidental byproduct of the new system of government, but its organizing structure. Women who are separate cannot resist the subjugation. The Republic of Gilead creates categories of female bodies based on their use value. The role of the handmaiden is to be raped until she bears a successful, preferably male, child. She’s moved from qualifying man to qualifying man (three times, we’re given to understand) in the hopes of bearing “fruit.” Offred specifically does not call the Ceremony rape:

“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because that is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there is some, and this is what I chose.”

Offred needs to exist in a world where she has some choice in what she does, however false the choice. At the Center, the Aunts charged with re-training women into handmaids explain that before they had the freedom of, now they have freedom from. I suppose this is how Offred must be conditioned to feel. The reader knows better. In order to exist, Offred further isolates herself in this moment from the parts of her body that mark her as biologically female. The construction is entirely passive, removed by degrees from any activity on Offred’s part. In the Ceremony, The Commander’s wife sits behind Offed, who rests between the wife’s thighs. Offred is reduced to her reproductive organs. It is the only part of her the government is interested in.

It’s hard not to read (or re-read in my case) this novel as a dire warning. It isn’t just that the novel’s focus on a totalitarian government’s complete subjugation of women—reframing the role of women, not as people but as vessels (or hosts)—but also the government’s efforts to vilify Islam. The terroristic coup that precipitated the rise of Gilead is initially blamed on Islamic terrorists, as are later attacks during the nation’s founding. All of them, however, are carried out by the Sons of Jacob, a patriarchal, theocratic movement reacting against what it sees as the moral degradation of modern society. By suspending the U.S. Constitution, deporting people of color, referred to in news broadcasts as the “Children of Ham” (referring to Noah’s dark-skinned son), disallowing all second marriages, and severely delimiting the rights of women, the group is able to instill their own regime. These acts are all coordinated and should not be read as distinct.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale during the second Bush administration. I don’t remember if I was in high school or college at the time, but I barely called myself a feminist and, though I saw hints of the book in attempts to roll back the rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, the novel was speculative. When I re-read this novel in grad school, we were in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign and the Republican candidates, including the party’s presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, were coming out in support of personhood amendments. An abortion bill signed into law earlier that year by Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, calculated the gestational age of a fetus from the first day of a woman’s previous menstrual cycle, rendering Arizona’s reproductively viable women pre-pregnant, rather than the binary pregnant or not pregnant. The presidential nominees were also campaigning on the need for immigration reforms that emphasized tighter border security. This year, I re-read the novel again a day or so after the Virginia house of delegates voted to defund Planned Parenthood and the Trump administration issued a disastrous Executive Order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations, while also attempting to prioritize Christian refugees over others. This is to say nothing of then-candidate Trump’s assertion on the campaign trail that women who seek abortions should be punished by the law. Not the men who get them pregnant.

These policies are coordinated and should not be read as distinct. This increasingly extreme conservative view of reproduction, generally characterized as a moral issue in political circles, is part of a larger nationalistic narrative and indicative of an underlying fear of globalization wherein the threat of the non-White, non-Christian non-American citizen must be met with more White, Christian, American bodies.  It’s part of a worldview that acts out nationalism on bodies, both the bodies it deems worthy or unworthy of citizenship and the reproductive bodies it charges with creating new Americans. When viewed this way, we see a different, possibly more frightening narrative take shape.

When I re-read the novel in 2012, a co-worker mentioned in passing that he didn’t care for it because he found Atwood to be “didactic.” He also mentioned in passing—about a decade into the War on Terror—that atheists were the most hated group in America. I don’t think I need to tell you that this man is both white and in a heterosexual relationship. I don’t need to, but I am making a point. In the novel, his body was not controlled. He would have been able to pass. Although, he was technically correct at the time (though no longer), that atheists were less popular than Muslims, that distaste is not marked by hate crimes, just eye-rolling at parties when they bring up Richard Dawkins again. He had to largely invent a means of oppression. He didn’t see it acted out on his body at borders or in state legislatures or airport security lines or calls made to his house of worship threatening to blow it up. Maybe it felt preachy to him because he recognized himself in Luke, stooping down to hush Offred when her job and economic independence were stripped from her, but before they took her name. He would want her to know that he’s just trying to be helpful, supportive. Offred—and maybe more importantly—the reader know better.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

Feminism is for Everybody

bell hooks defines feminism in the introduction of this work as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” It’s as succinct a definition as you are liable to find. As much as I love my tee shirt that reads “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” it does not encapsulate the project as well as hooks’s definition because the work of feminism doesn’t actually just involve women. The patriarchal power structures feminism seeks to undermine also affect men who do not perform their masculinity in the manner narrowly defined by a patriarchal society. Sexism exploits men as well…but that doesn’t work as well on a tee shirt.

hooks is clear that feminism will not work if feminists don’t interrogate race and class in power dynamics alongside gender. A person cannot consider herself a feminist if she is only interested in raising herself up. This is why claims on the right that women from Megyn Kelly to Margaret Thatcher present a version of feminism that ultimately misappropriates the term. Kelly and Thatcher both aligned themselves with patriarchal white supremacist* power structures in order to gain prominence.  She extends this intersection outside the United States to show how feminism must also be anti-colonialist. This is perhaps where hooks shines brightest.

When I mentioned starting Feminism is for Everybody at the end of January, I was only about 10 or 15 pages in. hooks’s writing style in the ensuing 110 pages leans away from the rigorously academic as she repeats the need for a broad feminist movement. She does this purposefully as she sees feminism in the moment she is writing, fully ensconced in academia (with all its attendant obtuseness and circular reasoning.) I wish she hadn’t positioned herself as outside the academy so thoroughly because she is not. bell hooks is a distinguished professor. I understand her concern that the constant dialogue within a university setting can start to feel bloodless and theoretical. That said, I wish she’d at least included footnotes. Instead, her work feels anecdotal. She refutes the claims of other feminists without citing them. hooks calls for a feminist movement that does not leave out non-academics and perhaps that’s why she’s presented this text in this way, but the work feels incomplete. Not the work hooks is calling on the rest of us to do, though it also still needs doing. hooks’s call to arms itself does not always feel fleshed out. When hooks asserts that some women rely on abortion as a form of birth control or that repeated dilations of the cervix cause serious health issues, I would like to know where she’s getting her information. She’s not a medical doctor and her readers have the right to know why she feels comfortable making this claim. Her writing on abortion feels moralistic and hand-wringing even as she asserts that it should be safe and legal. I would like to know what has formed this worldview. hooks does not offer me this. hooks never offers her readers footnotes because she wants to reach readers outside an academic setting. However, I fail to see how her informal style (wholly necessary for her project) would be hampered by an unobtrusive notes section.

Ultimately, this seemingly minor issue of notation and sourcing (when she is responding the theories of other feminists, I don’t need to suggest hooks’s ideas are not her own) undermines her thesis: we need a bottom to top approach to feminism. hooks calls for the distribution of picture books, movies, bumper stickers—anything and everything that would bring feminism to the masses. There’s room in there, somewhere, for the obscure academics, but hooks disregard for this academic formality seems dismissive of the work of other feminists. Their names aren’t worth mentioning, even in contrast. It’s odd. The book should function as an introduction, but without that exposition, it seems writing for folks already in the movement.

After some cursory Googling, I can’t find books writing in either anticipation or response to the recent Women’s March. She’s checked in a number of articles on the march, with good reason. I similarly couldn’t find an article or essay in which she responds to the uptick in feminism as a fashion statement. Even as she calls for this at the beginning of this book, she does not consider wearing a tee shirt to be feminism. Your tee shirt will not dismantle sexist oppression. Similarly, she wants to see feminism explored in popular music, but criticized Beyonce’s Lemonade earlier this year as being violent, hypersexualized and commodified. Considering that response to arguably the highest-profile feminist statement we’ve seen from a pop musician in the last decade, I’m not sure what hooks is holding out for. I don’t know what unproblematic feminist art looks like. I don’t know if I (or bell hooks) will ever see it.

This is starting to sound like I wish I hadn’t read this book. I am glad I read it. I don’t know if it is the primer it intends to be, but it is a worthwhile read.

Reading Syllabus note: I haven’t decided how much work I need to read by each author I list in order to consider their work read. bell hooks has written around 30 books so far. It’s wildly unrealistic to suggest that I am going to read all thirty this year.I think two to three books per author should be enough to give me a better sense of their work.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*hooks does not use “white supremacy” in the same way we see it in discussions of high-profiles members of the “alt-right” like Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulous. These men have overtly declared their racist ideologies. When hooks uses the term, she’s typically referring to the way the vast majority of white people do not question the privilege whiteness affords them and do not to anything to dismantle the institutionalized racism that continues to marginalize people of color while still proclaiming that they are not racist. It’s not terribly difficult to be overtly not racist. It’s much harder to be anti-racist. That takes work.

Resolutions

I am nothing if not triumphantly confident in the dead of winter. It might be because I am mostly covered—wrapped up in dark, thick tights, shapeless dresses, and oversized sweaters. I wear my hair down more. I wear hats. The red lipstick I’ve been wearing a lot lately (with little, if anything else on my face) is ruddy, like the bottom of a glass of red wine you left out overnight or drying blood. I start to feel a little impervious, not invincible, but certainly more able to withstand sudden bursts of cold wind. The dead of winter is when I started running. It’s when I went back to graduate school, both times. It’s when Zac and I started looking for a place to live. It’s when I found and decided to keep Bagel. I make some of my best decisions between December and February.

At some point on January 1st of this year, I sat down at my desk with a sheet of graph paper and started taking notes. I made a color-code list out of those notes in the back of my planner. I gave that page a tab labelled “Resolutions.” The tab is a festive pink. It’s officially week two and it’s already a miraculous failure. Over the last week, I’ve gone to bed on time exactly zero times. I’ve gotten out of bed without hitting the snooze once. I got four hours of sleep that night. I have not started a single book I planned to read in order to complete my self-imposed reading syllabus. I only stuck to my plans to write 300 words a day three times. My average daily water intake is about 4 glasses and I’ve already ordered Chinese food twice.

On the other hand, I have gotten in a Facebook fight with a former professor that ended with him declaring in all caps that he teaches many “DEAD WHITE AND BLACK WOMEN” much to my eternal delight, ignored a Twitter troll who wanted to know where I stood on the “few billion unborn babies” murdered by feminists, and made some pretty serviceable vegetarian pad thai. All accomplishments for which they do not make merit badges. I also managed to sneak in at least a half-hour of yoga every day and started meditating. Unfortunately, the five to ten minutes I’ve spent each day with my legs pretzeled has made it painfully obvious that I have a 31 year-old’s knees and a total inability to count above two without thinking about whether that mole on my back is funny-haha or funny-cancer.

The nine straight days of yoga and eight days of meditation aren’t nothing.  Nine is the absolute most I could do anything this year that I set out to do once a day. But the page is still mostly unchecked boxes. The thing is, I don’t actually feel all that bad about only getting the year 30-50% right so far. It’s down right impossible to make a bunch of changes in your life all at once. That only one or two things are clicking right now doesn’t mean I won’t get the hang of waking up on time next week or next month. Clearing out my brain a bit each day might help me become a better writer. I don’t know how to fix the water thing, though. I’m a 31 year-old woman who regularly looks at the empty water glass on her desk and thinks, “I’m thirsty” before redirecting her attention back to her computer without doing anything to satisfy that very real need.

I got out of bed this year and thought about how to make myself and my relationships a priority (and also maybe get a cat. Zac’s talking a big game about pet rats but their tails aren’t terribly fluffy.) That’s better than two years ago when I spent the morning dry heaving because I’d already thrown up an entire bottle of prosecco before bed. I don’t remember actually getting out of bed that day. Does jotting down a list of goals for the year mean that I finish the year having finished the shitty first draft of a novel, done yoga every day, and gotten to eight breaths before wondering whatever happened to the lady who starred in The Secret World of Alex Mack? Maybe. I might as well try. What’s wrong with being (overly) confident?*

*did I get the song stuck in your head?