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
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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.

January Update: Oh right, I have a reading syllabus

This month I didn’t read any books that fit any of the criteria below. I started to read Wicked, which is good (at least the 50 or so pages I’ve read are good) but couldn’t hold my interest for long stretches. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it, I just wasn’t reading it. Every time I picked it up, I felt like there was something else I was supposed to be reading.  I did finish three books, however, A Wrinkle in Time, Hope in the Dark, and Trainwreck. The first two deal, both literally and figuratively, with beating back the darkness. The last is a reminder of how little room to act out women are allowed in our society–as if I needed the reminder.

I missed A Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid. I can’t remember a teacher assigning it or a friend reading it around me or a librarian recommending it. I wish they had. It would have come in handy before I had Harry Potter. Despite my upbringing, I was never a fan of the Narnia series so I can’t recall reading any books growing up of the plucky-young-kids-take-on-evil variety. Truth be told, by the time I really enjoyed reading as a preteen, I was more interested in the evil than I was the plucky kids. Maturity (what all of it I have) has made me sentimental. After last year’s election, book people I follow online recommending reading hopeful fantasy like Rowling and L’Engle. I started using my Audible credits to collect the Harry Potter series to listen to while driving or cooking dinner. Right now it’s more relaxing than NPR. NPR used to be what I listened to when panic attacks made listening to a lot of music hard (songs all start to sound like sirens. It’s a very The West Wing season 3 side effect of my anxiety and I don’t care for it.) It seems other people had the same idea since I had to wait a few weeks before I could pick up A Wrinkle In Time from the library.  I won’t go through the novel’s full plot, but in the novel’s climax Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe travel to the planet Camazotz with the help of their supernatural neighbors, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. They’re hoping to find their father, a research scientist working for the U.S. government. They do, but not before Charles Wallace falls under the thrall of the planet’s overseeing brain, IT. IT enforces total homogeneity on the dark planet. The children’s father is held captive there because he would not succumb to uniform thinking. Meg is ultimately able to rescue her little brother because she loves him. IT is not capable of love and Meg is able to use emotion to underline the brain’s control. It’s a good lesson for children—that difference is to be celebrated, not stamped out and that love unites us. It’s a good lesson for the U.S. right now. I’d say it’s a good lesson for the president, but he doesn’t  read and the Ava DuVernay-helmed adaptation isn’t slated for release until 2018.

The “dark” in Hope in the Dark is less literal than in the black cloud consuming planets in A Wrinkle in Time. Instead, it’s the Bush administration’s neoconservatism, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. But still, Solnit is able to find places for optimism. In particular, she points to the Zapatista’s anti-globalist guerrilla resistance to the implementation of NAFTA in Mexico. The Zapatistas did not rebel to overthrow the Mexican government per se, but instead to critique power dynamics. They advocated for indigenous and women’s rights at the same time. In the Zapatistas, Solnit sees a model of activism in praxis that “does not sacrifice or postpone one kind of justice for another.” Elsewhere, she highlights how the anti-proliferation movement of the 1980s eventually led to nuclear arms reductions but failed to see full disarmament because people when back out their lives. “It’s always too soon to go home,” she writes (and I would do well to remember when my voice starts to go a little hoarse and my feet hurt and I start to worry simultaneously about the sheer size of the assembled crowd and whether anyone is actually paying attention):

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes–you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.

I got Hope in the Dark when Solnit made it available for free through its publisher, Haymarket Books, just after the election. I read it in short bursts, leaving it to set for weeks before actually finishing it. I lumbered through A Wrinkle in Time. By the time I got around to buying Trainwreck by Sady Doyle two days after the inauguration, I was ready to be angry again. If the book has a patron saint, it’s Britney Spears. Toward the end of the book, Doyle notes that hers and any other book on celebrity meltdowns are now haunted by Britney, even though she has survived (however scathed.) Doyle’s premise is fairly straightforward: we expect female silence. Female abundance—sexuality, ambition, advocacy, addiction, displays of anything but the blandest emotional compliance— is met with harsh and continual critique. Even fictional women are ostracized when they can’t quiet down–the same abundance of emotion that makes Meg Murry her brother’s rescuer alienates her from most of her classmates and marks her as a problem student.

Doyle touches on the lives of everyone from Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Plath to Valerie Solanas, Hillary Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky (The last two being held up as reliefs of the other—the overly sexed and the sexless.) While I was reading, it came out that Trump’s team in the White House have been using private email addresses for official business. The outrage from the campaign’s “but her emails!” crowd was predictably nonexistent. The dig against Clinton, for a lot of folks at least, is her inability to fit a collective gendered notion of ambition and leadership. Her loss will be* our collective loss too.

Thursday morning, I started the syllabus in earnest with bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody. I’ve read essays and excerpts from hooks over the years, but never her book-length work. She is an uncompromising scholar and activist. Her writing style is purposefully undemanding—she repeatedly expresses the concern that feminist theory has requested itself in academia, making it inaccessible for the people who need it most—but that ease belies an undergirding rigor. bell does not come to play, ever.  That does not mean it’s not possibly to disagree with her. Her suggestion that we do not yet understand the long-term effects of abortion seems to go against the opinion of medical doctors who understand the long-term effects and potential risk associated with abortion pales in comparison to the risks of pregnancy. More on that when I actually finish the book.

In thinking about this list after a month, I wonder if it might need reworking. Part of my reaction to this presidency has been to commit myself to small, daily resistances. Twice now, that’s meant leaving my house and standing outside in D.C. to physically protest his ideology and policies (once at the Women’s March and once in front of the White House after he issued the executive order banning immigration from seven-majority Muslin countries.) Once, it’s meant attending a town hall meeting held by my congressman. I’ve been setting aside a little money here and there for organizations like Earthjustice, the SPLC, and CAIR in addition to my monthly donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Most days, it’s just calling my representatives at the state and federal level about upcoming legislation, etc. But it’s also less obvious (or more frivolous.) I’ve bought A LOT of books this year and this year is only a month so far. In addition to a small-scale spree at a nearby used bookstore a couple days into 2017, I’ve bought ten new books. That’s a lot, even for me. Most of them are conspicuously opposed to a Trumpian worldview. They are foregrounding the lived experience of people of color or women (or both). One is Mexican novel in translation. Two are written by John Lewis. One warns that humanity is still susceptible to the ideologies and impulses that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Two are about difficult women. One was literally written in response to Trump’s election. Are three Russian novels from different eras as necessary to the work that needs doing as reading my way through the Middle East? Do I have the time for long-winded world building in a fantasy novel, when everything feels so urgent? How many William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy novels do I need to read to get a sense of the two men? I’m not sure. Reading has always felt at least a little political to me, even when the reading itself is largely apolitical. But during this administration, it feels like an insurgent act. 

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • 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

*Will be? Who am I kidding, it already is.

This little light of mine…

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Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Saturday morning, I got up around 5. Zac made coffee. I gave the dog her pill and started to get dressed. I did it that morning with more intention than I do most days. I had to stay warm. I had to be comfortable. I had to make a point. When I boarded the Metro with friends, it wasn’t too crowded. Women—mostly women—clustered together carrying clever signs and wearing pink knit hats. A group on the car we entered all had peach buttons tacked to theirs. They’d all traveled from Georgia. Everyone looked a little tired. Everyone smiled. Everyone except the man boarding in a “Make America Great Again” hat. We ignored him. I wonder if it bothered him to be ignored by so many women at once. I hope it did.

 

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Sweatshirt available at Shout Your Abortion

 

Saturday’s march sprawled, both literally and figuratively. From where I stood between the American Indian Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Air and Space Museum, I could not see the end of it. I had no idea that it stretched over streets. I tried not to think about how many people were around me. I’m not great with crowds and have a tendency to get overwhelmed and anxious when I feel like I don’t have a clear exit strategy. When it got to be too much, I shifted my focus to the tops of buildings. I kept a few Xanax and some Advil in a contact lens case in my purse just in case. I’m still surprised I didn’t need either. When an ambulance needed to part the crowd, I wasn’t sure how the space—already so full of people—would make room, but it breathed into itself and seemed to push the vehicle along. Later, when a young girl went missing the crowd moved the information along: “Winnie’s been separated from her group,” followed in short order by the news that Winnie had been found. In front of me, a woman realized she was talking to her husband’s former teacher—a woman with waist-length curling white hair and a pale pink fleece cap. At times the crowd grew restless. Some people wanted to start marching because the speakers were taking too long. We took turns squatting down to relieve the pressure on our backs, each lifting the other up in turn, giving her something to lean against. Standing that long on concrete in misty weather isn’t easy on your back or knees or feet.

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possibly my favorite sign that day.

But we stood anyway. We stood and listened and cheered and booed and held up our fists. We sang when we knew the words. We sang when we only knew half the words. We chanted and marched. It wasn’t perfect. The marchers were pretty white and didn’t want to be reminded that a simple majority of us white ladies voted for Donald Trump, a lot of the signage and some of the chants focused on physical anatomy as a marker of womanhood further marginalizing transwomen, and Michael Moore was allowed to carry on for entirely too long. But still, I’m going to carry Saturday in my heart. Saturday felt pretty far away while I was reading a report Wednesday that the Trump administration was planning to issue regular reports of crimes committed by undocumented persons, a move straight out of Hitler’s playbook. It feels further still when scientists working for the EPA are told their work, already peer-reviewed, will be subject to review by political appointees. It feels completely out of reach when the expanded global gag rule will invariably kill women under the guise of “protecting life.”

Saturday felt a lot closer when I reached out to the woman organizing Solidarity Sundays for D.C. It felt closer when I made a point Sunday night to buy two books, one on race and one on gender, as a means of supporting writers already doing the work that really needs doing now. It feels closer every time I pick up the morning paper. It feels close when congressional staffers thank me for calling. So that’s what I do now: every day I pick a thing I can do, I do that thing, and I write down what I did in my planner. It doesn’t keep it all at bay and but it chips at the problems and it’s what I know I can do right now. It’s not nothing, which is what I’d been doing for way too long.

The Women’s March needs energizing joy, not internalized misogyny.

“Another part of the Puritan legacy is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia. Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited […] Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Last week, writing in the Washington Post, Petula Dvorak implored women heading into the District on January 21st to leave our bright pink pussy hats at home out of fear that we might look silly. Now is no time to be silly, Dvorak says.But this is exactly the moment we shouldn’t lose our sense of humor.

The Pussyhat Project is the brainchild of Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, who wanted to create a unifying visual statement at the march that’s expected to draw as many as 200,000 people. Why handmade pink hats that give the wearer the illusion of cat ears? As the organizers point out, knitting is a historically female art form and pink is a culturally female color. Also the president-elect likes to grab women by their vaginas without their consent. The hats are a bright cozy “fuck you” to the sentient cheese doodle that will be our molester-in-chief come January 20 around noon. The hats are cute and clever and the president-elect won’t get the joke and it’s going to drive him insane.

Petula Dvorak, however, would like us to remember that men didn’t take our bra-burning, second-wave foremothers seriously and if we wear these hats and tote jokey signs, they won’t take us seriously either. What Dvorak’s editorial fails to understand is that the men she refers to won’t take us seriously. Full stop. We could march down Constitution Ave. in matching shapeless gray coveralls and carrying identical signs and those men would call our concerns superficial distractions. To pretend there is a mode of dress or means of expression we could adopt that these men might take seriously is to internalize the patriarchal notion that the feminine is frivolous. Men on the Right will deride us for abandoning traditional values, as if organized dissent in not ingrained in the Constitution.  Men on the Left will dismiss us for choosing “identity politics” over the real economic concerns of the day, as if access to adequate medical care, including birth control and abortion, is not an immediate economic concern for women in this country. There are men on all sides of the political spectrum who think the issues women face in this country are separate from the issues this country faces. We’re not going to get through to those men next Saturday, but we can start shouting over them. They don’t like it when women yell. But I’m not interested in accommodating them anymore.

It’s ironic that Dvorak points to the 1913 women’s march for suffrage as a protest remembered for its single-minded goal rather than any attendant frippery. But Dvorak ignores how those early feminists also used fashion—the all white dress that suggested purity and virtue, both of the their movement and their members—as a means of protest. She also seems to forget that the dresses weren’t the only mostly white things at that march. White temperance suffragists, courting support from women in southern states who resented the passage of the 15th amendment, characterized African-American men as whiskey-crazed mobs. I’d rather a large, messy, many-hued sea of pink that takes all comers willing to fight for real equality than a dour monolith that ignores the needs women of color or LGBT communities or the disabled or immigrants, etc.  in favor of a supposedly streamlined message that leaves most of us behind.

I can’t think of a better way to protest the explicit and implicit racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, authoritarian wave of utter bullshit (and allegedly urine) that Donald Trump rode into the White House than to gather together as women (and people who don’t hate women)—festooned in weather-appropriate metaphors for wherevers out of which many of us bleed—and take pleasure and joy in the abundance of our intersecting communities to spite him. What a way to steal his thunder.

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?

2017 Reading Syllabus

In 2016, I read 76 books (24 more than 2015; 46 more than 2014):

  • 41 were romances
  • 4 were YA
  • 7 were literary fiction (whatever that is)
  • 1 was philosophy
  • 2 were on writing
  • 3 were horror
  • 1 was a book of poetry
  • 2 were scientific, one of those was about moss.
  • 5 were science fiction or fantasy.
  • 5 were memoir or biography
  • 5 were history
  • 2 were on feminism

(Don’t bother checking my math. A couple books fell into more than one category and I counted them in both)

Those 76 books were written by 46 authors:

  • 33 of them were women
  • 12 were people of color

Top 5 (in no particular order):

  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  • Gilead by Marianne Robinson/The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Honestly, this isn’t bad. It’s not great either. It’s a good reminder why I made the syllabus in 2015 and why I am bringing it back this year. I could have happily spent 2016 chasing bluestocking heroines and besotted rakes through London’s toniest ballrooms (and it seems I spent a lot of it doing just that), but I would have missed out on some seriously great writing (before any of you suggest otherwise, I would have missed out on great writing if I’d avoided the ballrooms altogether.)  Only a handful of the books I read this year were challenging. And while the gender breakdown was overwhelmingly female, the books I read were pretty white. I can do better. I can always do better.

With that in mind, I present the 2017 Reading Syllabus. 2015 focused on diversifying my reading. 2017 doesn’t necessarily to that in obvious ways, though it certainly allows for it in a lot of the categories and it fills in a couple gaps. Instead, this year I want to read as a means of undersimg_4478tanding and resistance. There are items on the list, like Wicked or One Hundred Years of Solitude that are just there because it’s high time I read them (Wicked is Zac’s favorite book and it’s silly how long I have put off reading it.) But there are others  that are there as a means of reminding me of what is at stake right now (the Authors category is entirely female; Regions will have me read all non-white authors). Reading is a political act and much as it is a personal pastime. When I am devoting a lot of my energy outside of work to remaining obviously busy by giving myself a relentless to-do list, I have to remind myself that we make time for things that are important and vacuuming the apartment every week isn’t as important as cultivating an inner life. I also have to remind myself of the needlepoint my mother had hanging in the kitchen growing up that read “A clean house is a sign of a misspent life.” It was hanging from a red ribbon strung up at the center of a curtain rod. The rod, the curtains, the ribbon, and the needlepoint were almost unforgivable dusty as if to drive the point home for anyone visiting our cluttered house. We make time for the things that are important. This is important to me.

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

If you have suggestions that you think might fit into any of these categories, send them my way.