#readingwednesday: small wonder

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For someone who reads and writes as much as I do, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that most of the time, when someone asks me who my favorite author is, I don’t have an immediate answer.

There are lots of authors I enjoy, even some whose works I run out to buy as soon as a new one hits the shelves–Jhumpa Lahiri, Lynn Flewelling, Margaret Atwood. And then there are the authors who are no longer with us or no longer writing–Octavia E. Butler, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett. But it’s hard for me to pick a favorite.

Barbara Kingsolver is the favorite author I always forget I have.

“What you hold in your hands right now, beneath these words, is consecrated air and time and sunlight and, first of all, a place.”

I read my first Kingsolver novel, The Bean Trees–which was also Kingsolver’s first novel, written in 1988–my sophomore year of high school, when it was assigned reading for my honors English class. It was one of the more enjoyable books we read that year, a spark of rough-spun, heartland humanity in a class full of Edith Wharton and Earnest Hemingway. I liked just about the whole thing, from the characters to the themes to the earnest relationships between the characters, but I was a busy overachiever in high school, so I wrote the requisite essays, gave my school-issued copy of the book back to my teacher, and moved on to the next project. The Bean Trees was fun, but I didn’t have time to mull over it.

I didn’t read more Kingsolver until college, when I picked up a copy of Prodigal Summer at a library book sale with my mother. I read it outside on the great lawn when I got back to school, and as I read, realized that Kingsolver novels are meant to be read outside–Kingsolver is a biologist by education, and her books hum and vibrate with an organic, natural energy that sounds like rustling trees and the flutter of wings. Since that reading, out on the lawn with the buzz of college energy around me and the smell of new grass clinging to my skin, I’ve made it a point to re-read Prodigal Summer each year, sometime between spring and summer, while the world is bright with life and birth. I’ve added a few more of her novels to my shelf, too–Poisonwood BiblePigs in Heaven, and my very on copy of that first foray into her writing, The Bean Trees.

“Sometimes I’ve survived anger only one minute at a time, by saying to myself again and again that the best kind of revenge is some kind of life beyond this, some kind of goodness. And I can lay no claim to goodness until I can prove that mean people have not made me mean.”

This was my first full reading of Small Wonder, a collection of essays Kingsolver published in 2002. I gave it a try last year, but life was busy and overwhelming, and I put it away in favor of easier, more relaxing reads. This time around, I read it mornings and evenings during my commute, with nature sounds playing through my earbuds, and was actually able to enjoy it.

Kingsolver includes over twenty essays in this book, with topics ranging from gardening to motherhood to sexuality to writing to patriotism to environmentalism, and just about anything in between. She writes with an organic sort of energy that makes the words vibrate on the page, but her words are heartfelt, too, simultaneously heavy with the weight of her experiences and light with the strength of her idealism. Her essays range from exploratory to persuasive to almost open letter formats, and their target audiences almost seem to vary. But even though they can be a bit self-indulgent at times–and what writer doesn’t get a little self-indulgent at times? not this one, that’s for sure–they have a warmth that, at least for me, overcomes the occasional eye-rolling moment. Small Wonder will, almost certainly, join Prodigal Summer for an annual re-read.

“Maybe life doesn’t get any better than this, or any worse, and what we get is just what we’re willing to find: small wonders, where they grow.”

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#readingwednesday: the left hand of darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those classics that’s always hovered along my peripheral vision as a casual reader of science fiction. I’ve always tended to be a little pickier about my sci-fi than about my fantasy (though I’ve gotten pickier about that in my ~old age~ as well), likely because mainstream science fiction always feels a lot like a boys’ club that just kind of reinforces all the same old tropes and structures of existing society. Jane Espenson, one of my very favorite TV writers in sci-fi, said it better than I could:

“If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”

To me, science fiction, at its core, should be about exploring concepts in interesting ways, finding ways to explore the reaches of human diversity and imagination. Gender is one of the most interesting concepts to twist and examine and play with, yet so much of science fiction just falls into playing out the generally accepted sex binary. Boring, team. Just…boring.

One of the reasons I think I’ve kept The Left Hand of Darkness on the back-burner of my “to-read” list for so long is that its status as a “classic” made me suspect it would be more of the same “rugged individualistic wonder-of-space” cliches that have made me skirt around so much of classic science fiction. Recently, though, it turned up on a list of “feminist sci-fi” that included people like Octavia E. Butler (another major favorite), and that made me do a double-take, because no way does someone who plays into “white dude looks at space” tropes end up on the same list as Octavia E. Butler, Feminist Literary Queen of My Heart.

And yes, that is how I refer to her in my head.

Reading The Left Hand of Darkness cover to cover took me about four days worth of commutes, which is to say, not very long. In a lot of ways, this book felt like more of a philosophical text than a novel, which isn’t to say that I didn’t like that part–in all honesty, I think it made me like it more. The world (universe?) building was original and interesting, with the Ekumen taking more of a coordination role rather than one of law enforcement (see: the Galactic Senate, the United Federation of Planets, etc). Le Guin creates universes of culture, religion, government, sex, gender; her worlds are multifaceted and fascinating in a way that manages to elicit the quiet objectivity of a researcher woven with the subjective reactions of a tourist experiencing constant low-grade culture shock, or, more accurately, an ambassador who has spent some time at their post but continues to find themselves continuously surprised by the differences between the culture of their current environment compared to that of their native world.

The exploration of sex, gender, and sexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness was fairly groundbreaking when it was published, and, in all likelihood, probably still would be if it had been published today. The Gethenians, the humans who inhabit the planet Gethen, or “Winter” as the protagonist calls it, the name the planet was given before contact was made, are sexually androgynous. They are able to be sexually active only during certain parts of each month, similar to a menstrual cycle, and it’s during this period, kemmer, that they take on what we would call “binary” primary sex characteristics in order to mate and conceive. Because during each kemmer period the Gethenians could take on male or female characteristics, there is no sex or gender binary in the way that we think of it, no gender identity in the way that we think of it. To our protagonist, who comes from a “bisexual” (here referring not to sexuality, but to sexual dimorphism) society, it’s a constant cause for comparison, as he regularly encounters scenarios in which his own socialization in a gendered culture butts up against the desexualized culture of Gethen. There is no masculinity to protect, no battles for sexual dominance, no sexualization of bodies and products and commerce. Sexual violence doesn’t exist; unplanned pregnancies all but unheard of, reproductive violence nonexistence. As a reader, it’s baffling, but at the same time, not utopic–after all, an exchange was made: everyday sexuality sacrificed in exchange for sexual safety and an egalitarian society. Our protagonist wonders, outright, if explicit sexuality and true egalitarianism can co-exist, and doesn’t come up with an answer. It’s questions like this that make The Left Hand of Darkness stand out as a philosophical science fiction text–after all, sci-fi, at its core, is designed to make you wonder, to ask questions.

Lazy sci-fi answers those questions for you. Good sci-fi leaves you wondering, and makes you do the work yourself.

As a reading experience the book has been criticized by some readers over the years for spending too much time on exposition and internal monologue and not enough time on “real plot”, but personally, I don’t find this to be a down side. The book has plenty of action in its own time, but it’s not the space battles and explosions we usually get in sci-fi–it’s a cooler (ha, weather joke!) sort of action, political intrigue and character-vs-nature. This isn’t to say that the plot itself is boring, but that what moves the book along is the strength of the characters, their relationships to one another and to the environment, and the strength of the questions and concepts that the book explores. For my own part, I’ll take interesting characters, philosophically interesting world-building, and geopolitical intrigue over space battles any day of the week.

The argument has also been made, more recently, that Le Guin could have gone farther in exploring the gender concepts in the book and dismantling patriarchal ideas. To that, I’d say that I think that those critics might be missing the point. While I don’t doubt that Le Guin set out to write a transformative text and that she took great enjoyment and fascination with yanking the rug out from under those who take sexual dimorphism and patriarchal gender roles as given in any and all stories, I don’t think her goal was to say fuck you to the patriarchy so much as to invite questions and curiosity so that people could give their own fuck yous to the patriarchy. In her introduction, Le Guin points out that,

“science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future… a prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist… the outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer… somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life… Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”

Le Guin’s goal, at its purest point, was to take an interesting idea, and a fascinating question, and turn it into a story. She isn’t an academic, she isn’t a scholar of feminist theory–she’s a storyteller. And an excellent storyteller at that.

Team, if you, like me, have been avoiding The Left Hand of Darkness due to worries that it might be old-fashioned or trope-y or full of dude-bro cliches, give it a shot. Do be aware that, for all its progressive gender ideas, it was published in 1969. One of the things that jumped out at me, the use of he/him pronouns in a society that was hypothetically gender-less, probably would have been written differently today. But for me, at least, that wasn’t a deal breaker, and paved the way–as Le Guin probably would prefer it–for me to ask my own questions about what this story would look like if the concepts in it were explored today.

Like I said: good science fiction makes you work for the full experience.

But I think the work is the fun part.

Don’t you?

#readingwednesday: who fears death

Note: This review contains reference to rape, female genital mutilation, genocide, and violence. Please read at your own discretion.

These days, it seems like every other novel on bookstore (virtual or brick-and-mortar) shelves is some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopian story. The Hunger Games is one of the highest-grossing series of the past few years; the Divergent series has sold millions of copies; don’t even get me started on World War Z and Maze Runner. In a lot of ways, we seem to be oversaturated with post-apocalypse stories, to the point where they all seem to run into one another, the details getting lost.

Earlier this year, I picked up Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower in a fit of “where the hell has this been all my life?”, and was blown away. This was post-apocalyptic fiction in a way I had never envisioned, with a woman of color at its center and an entirely different focus than anything I had ever read before. Post-apocalyptic fiction written by men, in my experience, focuses on survival and blood, post-apocalyptic fiction by white women looks at the human aspects of survival, at relationships and families, but womanhood, even of the main character, feels like an afterthought. More often than not, references to womanhood and femininity come in the form of a not like other girls aside, mention of the ways in which our heroine defies gender norms, the ways in which her difference is separate from traditional femininity. Parable of the Sower thrust that aside, creating a protagonist whose story is undeniable female, her experiences inseparable from her womanhood. Despite the darkness and fear of the story and its sequel, I was drawn in like a moth to a flame.

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Who Fears Death is the second post-apocalyptic novel by an African American woman I’ve picked up this year, and, just like Parable of the Sower, I’m enthralled.

Set in a post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, Who Fears Death centers on Onyesonwu, a child conceived through a violent rape who is marked as an Ewu, a biracial child of two cultures: the Okeke and the Nuru. The world that Okorafor creates is a dark one, where rape and violence and genocide and magic intersect, but there is light there as well: friendship and family and love and a fierce strength that brings characters together. Onye’s story is a coming-of-age one, as she leaves her mother and her home behind and undertakes a journey to fulfill a dark, dangerous destiny. She brings along her lover and some friends, and strikes out into a world of sorcery and darkness to defeat her biological father, the man who raped her mother and very nearly killed her lover.

Like Parable of the SowerWho Fears Death is a story defined by women and femininity. Onye’s conception through rape anchors the story in a fear that women across the world carry in their hearts, often when we’re too young to really even understand what it is we’re fearing, a fear we learn from our mothers and grandmothers and sisters and aunts. Najeeba, Onye’s mother, connects to her pregnancy in a show of strength and iron will, delivering alone in the desert after her husband casts her out, and for the first six years of Onye’s life, her mother is her deepest connection. Throughout the book, even after Najeeba fades into the background (in the way that mothers, in coming-of-age stories, must inevitably do), Onye’s heart calls back to her mother’s in a longing felt by daughters everywhere.

Okorafor addresses female genital mutilation–“the Eleventh Rite”–with grace and sensitivity. Onye chooses to undergo the Rite, and as she does, forms a binding and heartfelt connection with the three girls who are circumcised alongside her. Onye’s agency in this is critical; her family rejects the ritual, and it is Onye herself who sneaks out in the night to participate. This haunting scene, in which only women are featured, involves the three girls beside Onye quietly disclosing various levels of sexual activity, including one girl softly telling the others that her father has been sexually abusing her for years. The Eleventh Rite, in many ways a taking, is for this girl a marking of new standing in the community, allowing her to voice her father’s abuse and for the elders to force him to face his actions.

Gender and womanhood provide an undercurrent for the entire novel. When Onye begins to demonstrate magical aptitude, the sorcerer in the village, Aro, refuses to teach her on the grounds of her sex. The fear–and threat–of sexual violence hovers like a cloud along the edges of the novel, and Onye’s heightened awareness of her body and her sexuality as she moves from childhood to adolescence to womanhood comes with a realization of the threat of rape and forced pregnancy. But this fear is not sensationalized or glaring, it simply is, in the way it simply is for women across the globe. It is there. We walk a little faster, we stay closer to our friends and our sisters, we don’t walk alone. This is our reality. This is life.

I haven’t finished the story yet, and so I can’t tell you how it ends–but in all honesty, I don’t want to. This story is dark and heart-wrenching, but it is magical, too: myth and sorcery and cultural history weave seamlessly with technology and mystery and nature, and the language is warm like sand in the sun. The imagery is so visceral you can feel it in your skin, the characters so real in their fears and dreams and imperfections that you could reach out and touch their hands, hold them in your heart. It’s been a long time since a book tore at my heart like this, and putting it down each night is like pulling something out of my soul.

In a review of Say You’re One of Them, a collection of short stories, Nnedi Okorafor wrote, “I can stand the dark but I need light so that I can see where I need to go.” I can’t think of any better way to describe Who Needs Death: there is darkness, so much it sometimes seems that it’ll bubble over and break you into pieces, but there is light, too, and Onye sees it, drawing us closer to it.

Onye keeps moving. She doesn’t just walk. She flies.

And reader, she takes us with her.

#readingwednesday: the buddha in the attick

Happy Women’s History (Herstory?) Month, y’all! Which actually started last week, but I was a mess last week, so here we are.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a pretty distinct trend in my reading choices–more specifically, that I’ve been picking up more and more books by women, and fewer and fewer books written by men. To be fully honest, this hasn’t been an accident. Bestseller lists tend to trend white and straight and male, and after so many years of reading stories about white dudes doing stuff and having feelings about it, I’ve been ready for–and have embraced–something new. In 2015, ignoring the slew of angry internet commenters crying about reverse racism and sexism , I joined a number of other readers in making a pledge to focus my reading on books written by queer authors, female authors, and authors of color, and found myself having a completely new experience. This Women’s History Month, I wanted to put my intersectional feminist money (or at least my intersectional feminist library card) where my intersectional feminist mouth is, and explore stories written by queer women, trans women, disabled women, women of color–all of the women whose stories are silenced even more than those of cis straight white women, whose stories receive plenty of silencing of their own. Some of the books I’ve already read this year have given me lessons in checking my privilege and listening to voices more marginalized than mine , and I find myself almost looking forward to that discomfort, because I know that discomfort is the gateway to learning, and more importantly, to unlearning the messages of power and historical erasure that I’ve spent my young adulthood trying to dismantle and recover.

I checked out Bustle’s 2016 reading challenge for ideas and hit the library, and from the first book I’ve cracked open, I’m already glad that this was the choice I made. There is just something different, I’ve found, about reading a book written from the perspective of someone who has been marginalized, even if the book itself has nothing to do with that experience. Something about moving through the world with the knowledge that this world isn’t designed for your comfort and your experience changes the way the words sit on the page, gives them a different sort of weight.

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Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is a book like this.  This is Otsuka’s second novel, and I read the first, When the Emperor was Divine, for an undergraduate class about Asian American women and literature. Whereas When the Emperor was Divine is more of a traditional novel, The Buddha in the Attic reads more like an epic poem. There are no real characters to speak of; we don’t learn the names of the women whose pain and fear and anger and heartbreak spills across the pages. The book follows a group of Japanese picture brides, the generation of women brought from Japan to San Francisco with pictures of their new husbands, whom they had never met in person, clutched in their hands, through their arrival in San Francisco, their forced assimilation into a culture that doesn’t welcome them, their experiences of sex, of childbirth, of motherhood, all achingly woven together through the eight sections of the novel.

Etsuko was given the name Esther by her teacher, Mr. Slater, on her first day of school. “It’s his mother’s name,” she explained. To which we replied, “So is yours.”

Told in first-person plural–a distinctly weird point of view that, I’ll be honest, kind of turned me off at first, but I stuck with it–the book draws you in by folding you into the group of women on the boat. From the first line, On the boat we were mostly virgins, Otsuka sets a scene not through picturesque imagery or flowery text but through simplicity and the immediate establishment of community and identity. This we is the binding force of the novel, and though some of us do this and some of us do that, there is always the we that pulls the group back together. This plural identity, the we, isn’t just the group of women in the story, but the we of these women in history, as the readers watch the book draw closer and closer to the age of World War II, to Pearl Harbor, to internment camps. The we is insular, it’s protective, it is we, as opposed to them.

The storytelling of we is powerful, more powerful than I expected when I started the book. So often we need an I to focus on in a story, a titular character or protagonist to anchor ourselves into a narrative. Otsuka pushes back against this construct and weaves us a story of many lives, many women, creating a community narrative of loss, homesickness, isolation, family, identity, and pain.

It would be autumn, and our fathers would be out threshing in the fields. We would walk through the mulberry groves, past the big loquat tree and the old lotus pond, where we used to catch tadpoles in the spring. Our dogs would come running up to us. Our neighbours would wave. Our mothers would be sitting by the well with their sleeves tied up, washing the evening’s rice. And when they saw us they would just stand up and stare. “Little girl,” they would say to us, “where in the world have you been?”

I’ve finished my first reading of this book, which unfortunately was split into two chunks, and I’ve been told that to get the full experience of this novella, it should be read straight through in one sitting. Reading the introductory chapter again in preparation to write this post, it’s easy to understand why. Otsuka’s writing has a poetic, almost lyrical quality to it, which almost makes you want to read the text out loud, or have it read to you. It gives the book a sense of an oral history, of a generation of women and girls crossing an ocean to what they believed would be a land of opportunity and promise and joyful life.

When I picked up this book, I was hoping for a story that would pull me into Women’s History Month with a story that would pull me into a history that wasn’t my own, to let me connect to women before me whose stories I wasn’t told in school or by my mother or grandmothers or aunts.

The Buddha in the Attic was that story and more.

And after a while we notice ourselves speaking of them more and more in the past tense. Some days we forget they were ever with us, although late at night they often surface, unexpectedly, in our dreams…And in the morning, when we wake, try as might to hang on to them, they do not linger long in our dreams…All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.