April 4, 2017
“How am I supposed to explain this to my children?” is a question many people are grappling with in my hometown right now, where the city failed to fight a campaign by a group of fetus enthusiasts to display graphic anti-choice images on the sides of busses. Images that, I will remind you, are enlarged hundreds of times beyond their actual size, because (as a young man campaigning “for life” in the street once affirmed for me) if you showed images of abortions at their actual size (also known as REALITY) “they wouldn’t have any impact.” Which should give anyone pause…
But apparently not, because the ads are due to start running this week. As someone who has already talked about these ads with my children, however, I have wisdom to impart here which might be relevant to other parents. This is how I gave them the lay of the anti-choice land.
- A lot of things happen to women in their lives, I tell them. A lot of women have babies. And many women who want to have babies end up having their babies die before they are born, often for no reason that anyone can discern. And other women who want babies find out far into their pregnancies that their babies are not growing properly and they make the decisions to end their pregnancies—which is a painful, agonizing choice to have to make and leave families sad for a very long time. Other women find out they are pregnant when they don’t want to be, and these women can also make the choice to end their pregnancies, and sometimes this is sad and sometimes it isn’t.
- And then I remind them that the fact that women get to make choices about their own bodies makes a lot of people really angry. Sometimes those people are men and sometimes they are women. Sometimes they are people who themselves have lost babies they desperately wanted, which has left them unable to understand that their situation does not apply to everyone, that restricting someone else’s choice isn’t going to make their own loss any less. (And some of these people are pro-life dude-bro’s who are in their early 20s and as ridiculously empowered as they are ignorant about women’s lives and experiences. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be pro-life dude-bro’s.)
- “A lot of people are huge assholes,” I remind my children. We see evidence of this everywhere. We try to love the world and humanity anyway, however. It is an ongoing project.
- And these huge assholes, I tell my children, have no problem with taking these intimate, personal, complicated experiences of women’s lives and driving them around town on the side of a bus via wholly misleading images. They have either not paused to reflect on or do not care in the slightest about how these images are as violent and cruel as they are misleading. On what it might mean to be coming home from the ER after realizing you are miscarrying and seeing that bus drive by you. Or even worse, when you’re waiting at the bus stop as you are miscarrying, and that’s the bus that pulls up. Public transit is not frequent enough in my hometown that you could just sit down and wait for the next one. I tell my children that the people who’ve placed these ads have not bothered to put themselves in that woman’s place, or the place of her partner, her children, all those people who know how complicated women’s health and women’s lives can be. I tell my children, Don’t be these people. I tell them there is such a thing as empathy. I tell my children: “In your lives, be better than that.”
- I tell them, “You know the problem, the reason these ads have happened at all and the reason people are able to rest afloat on the seas of their own ignorance, is that we don’t talk about abortion enough. A person lacking in curiosity might think that these aren’t issues that have affected nearly everyone. So in a way, even though the images are gross and fake, they give us cause to be grateful. Here we are talking about it. A good moment to remind you, my daughter, that your body—and the choice of what to do with it—is your own.”
February 9, 2017
Harriet and I went to see the remarkable Hidden Figures on the weekend, and until the picture book version of the story is released, we will content ourselves with Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer, by Diane Stanley, illustrated by Jessie Hartland, which was recently selected by the America Library Association among the top ten feminist picture books of last year. (We also know Ada Byron [later Lovelace] as a character from Canadian author Jordan Stratford’s middle-grade series, The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.)
True confession: I don’t understand computer programming. It’s possible that a lifetime of being told that math is hard made me believe that math is hard, or maybe I just find math hard, but my mind doesn’t work that way. I’ve read Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science several times, and while I understand in theory how Ada imagined Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine worked based on symbols and rules of operation changed into digital form…I actually don’t even understand it in theory. Ada Lovelace’s ideas were inspired by mechanical looms which wove textiles based on patterns dictated by punched cards. I don’t really understand that either.
But but but. There is more than one way to be a person, to be a woman, to have a brain. That such things befuddle me is not to say that women are like that and let’s all go back to rocking babies, but instead to say that some women have an aptitude for such things, and it’s useful for even those of us who don’t to realize this. It’s like saying, Maybe I don’t need feminism, but some women do. (Nobody ever says this though. People who don’t need feminism seem to forget the possibility of second clauses.) To be honest, I’m not sure my daughter is going to grow up to be a computer programmer either, genes being what they are, but I will insist on the fact that she knows it’s a possibility. I mean, if a girl could have been one two hundred years ago, before there were even actual computers, then maybe today there are perhaps no limits of what a girl can grow up to be. And isn’t that excellent?
We love this book, about Ada (who gives Rosie Revere, Engineer a run for her money) who has a spectacular imagination, despite her mother’s attempts to school her in logic and rational thinking in order to override her passionate poet father’s genetic legacy. As women of her station had to do, she settled down and married, but that wasn’t the end of her story, and she would go on to do remarkable things in her too short life, indeed becoming the world’s first computer programmer with Babbage’s analytical machine. And what is especially interesting is that there is no direct link between Babbage’s and Lovelace’s work and the development of modern computers, although as Stanley’s author’s note points out, Alan Turing would read their work after they resurfaced after a century of obscurity. But still, I am fascinated by this idea (which is so recurrent in feminism) that some ideas have to be invented over and over again. Or perhaps it’s more miraculous than that—that the great discoveries don’t just happen once, and that progress ain’t a line, but that spectacular bursts of excellence are exploding all the time.
January 28, 2017
Once upon a time. I used to think that you and I could talk. I used to think that if you would just be willing to sit down and listen, I could make you understand that in prioritizing the rights of a fetus you must necessarily steamroll over the bodies and lives of actual women. Surely, I thought, the problem here—our miscommunication—was that you hadn’t realized the terrifying implications of this.
But now I see that you do understand, but the problem is that you just don’t care.
For your benefit, I’m going to spend a moment here situating the abortion issue as a “debate.” Because I know this is how you are see it, that here we are on different sides (when the reality, my friend, is that I am just a person with a body who is quite adamant that you don’t get to decide what I do with it. In reality, why would my bodily autonomy be yours to debate? This is like me telling you how often your should trim your toenails).
So here is my “side”: it’s not that I’ve got anything against fetuses, in fact everybody I’ve ever loved used to be one. My own children, when they were fetuses, were the most precious beings in the world to me (as in fact they still are now that they’re born and in the world) and I still remember the force of my weeping when I was eleven weeks pregnant with my second daughter and bleeding, fearing I was about to miscarry.
But here’s the thing: as much as I like fetuses, I am uncomfortable with the idea of forcing a woman to carry one to term against her will. I am uncomfortable with the fact that women with unwanted pregnancies without access to abortions will resort to desperate measures that could kill her. I am uncomfortable that we might consider it our business to ask a woman whether or not she’d been using birth control and why or why not, and what her economic situation is, and whether or not the sex was consensual—as though these details mean anything at all. I am not comfortable with purporting to be the arbiter of what another person chooses does with her body, and I can’t imagine the arrogance of anybody who would be.
“But it’s not your body.” This is actually a thing that people have replied to me when I’ve spoken up in defence of my bodily autonomy. As though the fact of my material existence was neither here nor there. As though as a person I didn’t matter—which is telling, really. Says a whole lot about how little you value women’s bodies and experiences. You claim to be defending the voiceless, but you won’t even listen to mine. Which is telling you this: I understand that a fetus has its own body, never mind that for most abortions the body in question is basically microscopic. I get it. But it’s a body that lives in my body, that is created by body, fully sustained by my body. If you are still claiming that this isn’t about bodies, then you’ve probably never been pregnant, which is as bodily as life experience gets. And it’s true that I don’t know exactly where the division lies, where one body stops and another begins. But one thing I do know: it is definitely not your body. That you would purport to override my wishes, to prevail on my freedom, that you could claim to speak for my fetus and have your arbitrary choice win out over my arbitrary choice when it comes to my pregnancy—you, a stranger, perhaps not even a woman; doesn’t that trouble you at all?
All things not being equal, I would still prefer to live in a world in which women were valued over embryos, rather than one in which strangers made my reproductive choices. And for you pro-life women, when I stand up for reproductive freedom, it’s your reproductive freedom too. The freedom to choose life, should you decide to. But still, the freedom to choose.
When I had an abortion in 2002, I was also choosing life. I hope you see this. But it was my life I was choosing, over that of a lentil-sized fetus. And again, if you regard this as an injustice, if you think my hopes, dreams and future mattered less than an insentient being you could balance on the tip of your baby finger—well, then you don’t value women much. I matter more than a fetus. I will even afford that you matter more than a fetus. And while ideally, it would be terrific and simple if all fetuses could be valued and wanted, we’d have to obliterate actual women in order to do that, and I don’t want to live in that world. (PS Please don’t bring up Jesus. For those of us with no affiliation with Jesus, it’s entirely irrelevant.)
Your next response, I know, being that many aborted fetuses are bigger than a lentil, and you are right about this. But what you are somehow too obtuse to realize is that a vast majority of abortions are preformed before 10 weeks, when a fetus is still mostly potential anyway, when miscarriage is still a statistical likelihood—early pregnancy is always perilous. And that almost every abortion performed beyond that point, in particular far beyond that point, those “late-term” abortions you all despair of—you know these are mostly wanted pregnancies, right? Desperately wanted pregnancies that might be putting a mother’s life in danger, or babies that have failed to develop into babies, or pregnancies that have become non-viable. (See: Interview with a woman who recently had an abortion at 32 weeks.)
Forcing a woman to carry a nonviable pregnancy to term is a demonstrable cruelty. I know that some women choose to do so and are glad they did, but the point was that they get to make the choice. Further, your rhetoric equating abortion with murder is unfathomably cruel to women who’ve had to go through this experience And finally, your images of aborted fetuses (magnified to ridiculous scales because, as a guy standing on the street holding a sign once told me, “If we showed them as they really are, they wouldn’t have any impact”) so crassly plastered onto busses and park benches are also devastatingly painful to these women, as well as to anybody who’s suffered pregnancy loss, and lots of other people with all kinds of stories that you’ve probably never thought about.
There are a million other things that you and I could debate about: where life begins, the ablest politics of abortion, whether or not abortion hurts women as you might claim with your faux-compassion. You might even enjoy engaging in these arguments, the theoretical nature of your approach to all this making the process more enjoyable, even empowering, than it is for me, who is arguing for the right to own my body.
I don’t know if you’ve ever argued for ownership of your own body, but I can tell you that it’s depressing, humiliating, awful, and completely absurd.
So I will leave it at this, at the point at which we first embarked:
Do you understand that in prioritizing the rights of a fetus you must necessarily steamroll over the bodies and lives of actual women?
If you have any notion of humanity, this question should give you some pause.
January 26, 2017
The 2003 anti-war protests turned out to be pretty foundational for me, but in all the wrong ways. I was living in England then, which was not my country, and my actual country wasn’t going to be invading Iraq, so it was easy to think the whole thing had nothing do with me. Of course, I knew that invading Iraq was going to be a terrible idea, and I still don’t understand how anyone could have though it wasn’t a terrible idea (or how anybody who thought was a good idea got to be recognized as an authority on anything after that). But still, apart from arguing with people online about how no one really likes being “liberated” via bombs being dropped on their houses and their children being killed, I was not particularly moved by the situation. In fact, I was distinctly unmoved. A colleague of mine was rushing about the office on her way to go and join the protest in our town, and I remember her glee; “I love politics,” she said, and I thought everything was wrong with that. That politics should be a necessary means to an end, which is ordinary life, and not a reason for being.
Will you forgive me? I was 23. And while I still find mobs of people congregating and shouting together unnerving, no matter what they are saying (because when The People start speaking with one voice, then something has certainly gone amiss, I mean, have you ever met people?) I realize how wrong I was about the necessity of activism. And that activism always fails when it’s regarded as a means to an end, when you go home too soon, rather than a process.
“Paradise is imagined as a static place, as a place before or after history, after strife and eventfulness and change: the premise is that once history has arrived change is no longer necessary. The idea of perfection is also why people believe in saving, in going home, and in activism as crisis response rather than every day practice.” —Rebecca Solnit
On Saturday, when our family joined the millions of people all over the world marching for women’s rights, I too began to see the point of the glee. That the glee wasn’t simply fervour, but that it was also a kind of relief, and it was more substantial too than merely glee—it was joy.
“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
Of course, initial act, is a very important distinction.
It was a terrific event, and I refuse to apologize for it having flaws the same way I felt I had to apologize for admiring Hillary Clinton. Nope, in the name of FEMINIST FEMINIST FEMINIST FEMINIST, and Nellie McClung. Read Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker: “But this is precisely why the Women’s March feels vital. Of course it’s difficult to pull together an enormous group of women who may have nothing in common other than the conviction that a country led by Trump endangers their own freedoms and the freedoms of those they love. That conviction is nonetheless the beginning of the resistance that those planning to attend the march hope to constitute.” (And no, not inviting Pro-Life women is not “intolerance,” because if you’re actively campaigning to restrict my reproductive freedoms, you go find another yard to play in. That is not and can never be feminism, no matter who you are.)
It’s necessarily awkward, it just is, to be, for example, a white woman dipping her toe into notions of social justice, as women of colour have been swimming in these seas for ages. It’s sort of embarrassing and uncomfortable to admit that the is new to me, that I was wrong in 2003 and in all the years after when I continued to think that “ordinary life” and politics was something a person could draw a line between. It’s showing up at the party and not knowing the dance, and looking really stupid, but we’re coming anyway—and we’re going to be fucking stomping our lady-sized feet with all the rest of them. The best of them.
“Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.” —Rebecca Solnit
January 24, 2017
During the past year or so, the delusion I’ve been most sorry to let go of is the one in which most people, as I do, simply see feminism as a synonym for “normal.” It’s why it never bothered me much when some people felt uncomfortable with the term, because it didn’t really matter what you called yourself. If you were a person who felt that women were deserving of voices, votes, careers, multifaceted lives and ownership of their own bodies, then you were a feminist, or so I thought. And who didn’t think that? But it turns out..a lot of people do?
From the appalling US election and its stunning results, it has been affirmed to me that misognyny is actually a thing and that for millions of people, women’s lives matter less than “teaching an unlovable female scholar a lesson she won’t forget.” When I question the validity of the Men’s Rights Movement on twitter, ugly beardos jump into my mentions for weeks afterwards calling me a cunt. When I continue to speak up about the importance of access to abortion, while the responses are predictably yawnish (“if you don’t want to get pregnant, don’t have sex, you slutty murderer”) the hatred toward women in general and people’s consternation at concept of our own agency over our bodies and our lives is palpable. Women’s torture and pain gets picked up and used as a tool by people who hate women and Muslims, and wonder why we’re taking to the streets when FGM is a thing in the world (never mind that these people have never stood up for women a day in their lives, except when doing so permits them to be unabashedly racist) or how I can stand up for reproductive rights while women in India are aborting female fetuses. The response to all this being: Because women’s lives are terrifyingly, fervently and violently devalued everywhere, you fucking asshole, and you are part of the problem.
So what to do? My favourite solution was found in a Facebook thread in which a friend of mine was discussing the violent pushback she’d received from engaging Men’s Rights Activists online. She was dismayed at the backlash, but a friend of hers had a suggestion, a piece to the vast puzzle of disentangling our current misogynistic anti-feminist mess. She wrote, “I am using the word feminism in every project I do now, my bio and website. It is all feminism. All the time.”
And I love that idea. All day yesterday, a song was running through my head, “Feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, is for me,” to the tune of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign theme song. I’ve put “feminist” in my twitter bio, and made my “My Body My Choice” sign part of my header photo. My book comes out in six weeks, and it’s feminist as fuck. I’m learning how to be a better feminist. I’d get the women’s symbol tattooed to my ankle, but I won’t, because I already did that 14 years ago, but still. If we’ve ever needed a moment to be post-post-feminist, that moment is now, and I don’t fucking care if you don’t like it.
January 6, 2017
Quite intentionally, I am raising my children in a house full of books, and while this has resulted in my children engaging with books a lot, best intentions don’t always lead where you’d like them to. I do have a theory that books can work by osmosis and that just being around them makes people smarter, and I cling to this belief when my oldest child passes up the incredible works of world-broadening non-fiction we have stocking our shelves in order to reread the Amulet series for the five-hundredth time. I had this vision of children sprawled on the carpet, leafing through our encyclopedia of animals, illustrated atlases or perusing the images from Sebastian Salgado’s Genesis. Sometimes I even intentionally leave these books on the floor, so as to instigate said leafing and perusing, but then the children just end up using these books as stools on which to perch while reading Amulet.
The book Rad Women Worldwide, by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Mariam Klein Stahl, might have joined this pile of books for sitting on. It was an extra Christmas gift, purchased without forethought. A good book to have around the house, I thought, particularly in these regressive times. Subtitled, “Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History,” by the creators of the brilliantly conceived American Women A-Z. It doesn’t hurt that the book’s design is awesome. I loved the idea of my girls learning about the incredible women profiled within, and understanding that their amazing accomplishments are what history is made of. We don’t even have to call it “herstory.” All this is simply the society in which we live.
Rad Women Worldwide includes women making history throughout history, but also women who are making history as I write this. And I love the idea of my children taking for granted not just that history includes women, but that history (and feminism) includes women of colour also—this is huge if I hope to raise white feminists who aren’t White Feminists (TM). I want to raise girls who see race and know race, acknowledging the role it plays in people’s lives (including their own). And I want them to know that the world and progress is powered by women who are black and brown and Asian, as well as white. I want my white children to grow up inspired by the accomplishments of women of colour—and with this book, how can they not be?
The thing about Rad Women Worldwide, though, is that it’s not just for children. It’s not only they who have gaps in their education, and the stories in this book are so fascinating that we’ve started reading them aloud. So that this isn’t a book just for sitting on, but also because I want to learn more about the women I’ve already heard of (Aung San Suu Kyi, Malala Yousafzai) and want to discover those I hadn’t heard of yet (Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian female astronaut, Junko Tabei, who was the first woman to climb Mount Everest, Fe Del Mundo from the Philippines who was the first woman admitted to the Harvard Medical School in 1936).
So we read a profile a day, Harriet and us taking alternate paragraphs, and I love the words that are entering her reading vocab: “Indigenous,” “Constitution,” “Advocacy,” “Reconciliation.” These stories are the perfect antidote to the bleakness that pervades news stories about women right now, riding the sad coattails of #ImWithHer. Inspiring, fascinating and ever-illuminating, each story affirms my faith in progress and justice just a little bit more.
December 13, 2016
As a parent, having uncomfortable conversations with my daughter is one of my favourite things. The other day after listening to the news on the radio, she asked me, “What’s sexual assault?” And I was so grateful to be able to answer that. To be able to give her the context for these awful, disturbing ideas, rather than her getting her context from elsewhere, from less reliable sources. From the cruel world even, when she’s utterly unprepared for it. It’s the same reason I read her the Grimms with the violent endings, the nasty stepmother destined to dance eternally in shoes made of burning iron. Even though these deliverances of justice aren’t in keeping with reality, I think the fact that the world can be brutal and hard. I don’t want these things to ever come as a surprise to her. I willingly brought my daughter into the world, and along with that, I see myself as required to take responsibility for all of it, the good and the bad.
They aren’t opposing, also, the good and the bad. This is what I want to teach my daughter about the world, about its complexity “A single thing can have two realities,” is a line I wrote in my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies,” about motherhood and abortion. It’s always been a lesson I wanted her to learn. “And so one day I will tell her about what happened to me a long time ago,” I wrote about my daughter and my abortion, in this essay I wrote when my daughter was three. I was always grateful for that essay, because it meant I’d never be able to not tell her what happened to me. It would force me to take responsibility too for this part of my own story.
Last week I shared the above photo of protesters from the 1970 Abortion Caravan in Ottawa on Instagram. I spend a lot of time on Twitter raging about abortion access and perception, while my Instagram feed is all teacups in soft sunshine. I wanted to be more well-rounded in my Insta-life, so I shared the image. And later that night, Harriet was scrolling through my feed and saw the photo. “Who are they?” she asked, and so I told her about abortion.
I told her about the brave women (and men) who fought hard so that she and I could have control over our reproductive lives. I told her about how people are trying themselves in knots trying to restrict women from aborting lentil-sized fetuses. “But it’s not their lentil,” she said. “I KNOW!” I answered. And I told that when she was a lentil, she was everything. We read her stories even though she didn’t even have ears. But she was everything because we loved her already and we wanted her. In physical terms, she was almost nothing. Pregnancy is perilous at 6 weeks.
I told her about my friends who’ve had abortions later on, when everything is so much harder. About how these were heartbreaking choices, the losses of children who were desperately wanted. About how nobody has an abortion for fun. It’s always a careful choice, and sometimes not an easy one. And it’s hard to understand because one person’s lentil is someone else’s baby. But Harriet is seven and already she understands that a single thing can have two realities.
I haven’t told her yet that I had an abortion. She didn’t ask. These conversations have to be organic, I think. But I’m sure I’ll tell her soon, and when I do I’ll tell her this: “If not for my abortion, I wouldn’t have YOU, and I’m grateful everyday.”
December 4, 2016
They say that over the course of a lifetime you never regret the cakes you baked, but instead the cakes you didn’t bake, although in one specific case I will make an exception—except I am also sorry for the butterfly cake I brought to a party in 2000 that was mostly paste, and the cake I over-mixed for my friend’s engagement in 2008 that had the consistency of cheese. But not this sorry.
I regret the cake, the Hillary Clinton victory cake I baked on November 7.
“If all else fails, there will be cake,” I blogged blithely, but it turned out that the cake didn’t taste very good. When I’m really upset, I don’t have an appetite for anything, and so that sad cake hung around our kitchen getting stale and eventually I threw it in the garbage. The day after the election, I had a task that involved cutting out thirty small squares of paper and using a hole punch, and it was about all I was up to. I sat there at my kitchen table cutting and punching, and weeping as I listened to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s concession speech on the radio. I probably ate some cake, but I didn’t taste it. There was no consolation.
If I had to do it again though, I’d probably still make the cake. Partly because I’m bloody-minded. And partly too because I refuse to budge from my vision of what the world could be and what it should be. I’d rather be wrong than be wrong, if you know what I’m saying. Although I did feel guilty after the fact—I know I inspired other people to embark upon similar baking projects, and there we all were sad in our kitchens on that terrible Wednesday morning. There was so much cake, physical evidence of disappointment, and all of it was my fault.
But I’ll take the fall. I was wrong, and I’ve been wrong before, but as I said above, at least I wasn’t wrong in fundamental ways. I’ve tried very hard to resist a dynamic of winner/loser from this election, not because I don’t like losing, but instead because I don’t mind if I do lose. It doesn’t matter. You might call me a crybaby, but I’ll just look at you confused, wondering why you’re delivering such a puerile insult, and I really don’t care what you think either way. (I’m not going to run out into the street and start firing off my stockpiled ammunition either, and there is really something to that.)
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master…” It’s true. I’ve lost before, over and over again, and what I learned from these experiences is that mastering losing can mean that you can do absolutely anything. I have no fear of failure because I’ve failed over and over again, and everything turned out…fine. Often the very worst thing that can happen isn’t. There are certain things that if I lost them, my life would be fractured irrevocably, but these things are mostly people and I don’t know that anyone can master that kind of loss, although I even know some strong, incredible friends who appear to have done so, who carry on under the weight of interminable grief. So there is loss and there is loss, I mean.
The results of the election have been devastating, but I’ve resisted the idea that my/us having lost is part of the equation. No, it’s something more than that, which is what is actually lost on the simple-minded people who are gloating. Those gloating people aren’t why I was crying, but instead I was crying for everyone, for a vision of the world that’s not that I thought it was, what I hoped fervently it could be. I was wrong, and a whole lot of people proved me wrong, but I can handle that. And if necessary, I’ll be wrong over and over again. Until I’m right, because that’s how history swings.
It’s been a brutal month. On Thursday I finally got my ass back in gear, and started replying to hundreds of emails with apologies for being unable to anything much for this past month except stare at my computer screen in abject horror. I fell down terrible twitter rabbit holes that made me despair about everything, and to wonder about the bubble that I live in, confused and messed up by “voices obsessed with rhetorical fallacies and pedantic debating practices.” When reality starts to seem like a giant conspiracy theory in itself, it becomes hard to know what’s what, and where you stand on things when ground is ever-shifting.
What’s brought be back to earth? Books, of course. I started reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto last week, and it set me straight about feminism, and class, and why I don’t want a revolution (“Personally, I’m not up for that. The kind of people who are up for mutinies and riots tend to be young men… I, however, am a forty-year-old woman with very inferior running abilities and two children… I’ve read enough history books to be resoundingly unseen on extreme politics of with the left or the right…They tend to work out badly for women and children. They tend to work out badly for everyone.) While there has been an effort to package this book as more than a collection of her columns, with a thesis and everything, it doesn’t quite work, but it doesn’t have to. Moran is terrific. “Why We Cheered in the Street When Margaret Thatcher Died.” “This is a World Formed by Abortion—It Always Has Been, And It Always Will Be.” “We Are All Migrants.” The world has gone so willy-nilly in the last year that some pieces in this collection are dated in a way that hurts my heart, but the fundamentals still stand. Last Tuesday evening I sat alone reading this book in a public place and I kept laughing aloud in a way that disturbed passersby, and that was a good thing. It was like a terribly funny person finally talking some sense back into me.
And along those lines, I picked up Luvvie Ajayi’s essay collection next, I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual. A book whose first section left me unmoved, but I think it was tactical, some light and easy judgement toward people who don’t wash their bras regularly or who court unemployed boys with gambling addictions who call you to pick them up at the casino because it’s raining and their only form of transport is their bicycle. Breaking the reader in for the heavy stuff—”Racism is for Assholes,” “Rape Culture is Real and it Sucks.” Powerful, amazing sensible stuff that I so desperately need to hear right now when everything seems so upside down. A Black woman writing about feminism, a Christian woman critiquing how religion is messing so much up these days, a smart woman unwilling to withhold her judgement, so she gives it and it’s glorious and we’re better for it. Consistency is overrated. The point is to be good, to ourselves and to each other. I’m about two thirds into this book, and I’m loving it, reminding me that this upside-down world is the same as it ever was, and that striving for better is the least and the most we can do.
“But the ultimate pragmatism is to quietly note that idealism has won, time after time, in the last hundred years. Idealism has the upper hand. Idealism has some hot statistics. Idealism invented and fuelled the civil rights movement, votes for women, changes in rape laws, Equal Marriage, the Internet, IVF, organ transplants, the end of apartheid, independence in India, the Hadron Collider, Hairspray the musical, and my recent, brilliant loft conversion. Every reality we have now started with a seed-corn of idealism and impossibility—visions have to coalesce somewhere.” —Caitlin Moran
November 16, 2016
On the evening of Friday November 4th, I was walking down the street with a copy of Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy in my bag. Striding with purpose, something vital playing through my headphones, and a man on the street approached me. He was holding a clipboard, wearing a vest that identified him as a fundraiser whose job it is to get passersby to sign on in support of a charity. The kind of person I tend to smile at, shaking my head, as I keep on walking. Usually I am also herding recalcitrant small children, which makes me less of a target. But that night I was unencumbered, and although I gave no indication of wishing to engage with this person, he wouldn’t relent. Walking alongside me, asking questions, even though I was listening to music, never made eye contact, never answered him.
He didn’t stop and finally I had to say to him, each word delivered with such deliberateness as I waited at the intersection for the light to turn green: “I don’t want to talk to you.”
The light turned green, and I stepped into the street, and I could hear him behind me: “Oh, that’s really nice,” he was calling out to me, as though I’d refused him something he was entitled to, as though his invading my space necessitated a kind of niceness that ought to be returned.
But, No, no, no, I was thinking. I’m not having any of that.
There is something about notes. Notes have an irrefutability that a manifesto lacks, albeit in a shrugging-off kind of womanish way. “When I started this book, I wanted to write something unimpeachable,” writes Erin Wunker in the introduction to her Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, but her book turned out to be something very different. Or not. “Unimpeachable” is like a red rag to a bull in the realm of discourse. You’re going to go out and build this solid thing just to have someone break it. They call this “debate”. It’s logic, rhetoric. When you debate you’re not meant to get emotional, to remain at a remove, which is easier to do when you’re not personally invested. When it’s theoretical and you can examine it cooly, not getting all hysterical. Okay then, let’s talk about you policing my body, for example. About campus rape. Let’s call abortion a debate.
It’s back and forth. It gets you nowhere. Turns my actual life into a game of ping-pong. I get hysterical.
Notes, on the other hand. Wunker: “I remember that I tell my students that reading and writing are attempts at joining conversations, making new ones, and sometimes, shifting the direction of discourse.”
“Notes” is a way of ducking.
Also, ducking is a mechanism of survival. What is wrong with being unwilling to be a target, with refusing to play that game?
“Notes” is different game happening on a whole other level.
If I wanted to “impeach” Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, there would be a couple of points I’d start from. The chapter on feminist mothering, for one, which seems to be unaware or else does not to take into account the substantial body of scholarly work on this subject—Sara Ruddick, Andrea O’Reilly, my friend May Friedman, for just a start. Although the chapter poses something familiar to those of us who’ve lived it—the woman on the verge of discovery of this vast world of motherhood and feminism, the questions motherhood necessitates and the unfamiliarity of it all. The complete inapplicability of everything we’ve ever learned before to serve as solutions to our problems. This is a chapter written by an author who is still lost at sea. And there is usefulness in that kind of documentation. But yes, it might have been helpful to have some suggestion of the shore.
My other problem with the text was with the nature of the killjoy, whose moniker I’d wear with relish, actually. Particularly a feminist killjoy. That IS the kind of no-fun I most want to be. (Wunker takes her title from Sara Ahmed’s blog, feministkilljoys, which has been a tremendous discovery for me since reading her book—”joining conversations, making new ones.”)
But I kept being tripped up by the noun becoming a verb—the killjoy actively killing (patriarchal) joys. For a few reasons, one being the violence implicit. I don’t want to kill anything. And also that I have certain amount of reverence for joy. (One of my daughters’ middle name is “Joy.” The other’s middle name is “Malala,” which means sadness, so don’t think I don’t get the whole picture, but she gets to be named for a kickass feminist heroine so it all comes out even.) Joy and happiness, which Wunker writes about as a socialized and commodified product, a social imperative. “Happiness as restricted access. Happiness as a country club, a resort, an old boy’s club for certain boys only.” Happiness as an impossibility.
And yet it’s that notion, not of happiness itself but of its impossibility, that chafes me. Partly because I believe in (even insist on) a genuine happiness that need not be commodified at all—the way the afternoon sun shines right now on my cup of tea, for example. It’s about being present, eyes wide, curious and ready to receive it. It’s about the peace of a moment. Happiness is small and it is slippery, but it’s real.
There really is such thing as joy, and to refer to patriarchal violence as such a thing undermines it. Undermines the spaces we need to create for joy to exist in our personal corners of the world.
Of course, there has been very little joy for anyone who considers herself a feminist in the past week. (It is November 15 as I write this.) That Friday evening as I asserted myself and said, “I don’t want to talk to you,” seems like a relic of a bygone age. When we were reading (excellent, amazing) news articles with headlines like, “The Men Feminism Left Behind.” When I was thinking that progress was slow, but how far I’d come to be able to speak up and say those words to the man on the street. To not have to worry about being nice. When I was taking comfort in my daughters coming into the world on the headwinds of so much necessary, vital change.
After I crossed the street that night and left the man behind, I got on the subway and read Wunker’s chapter about rape culture. The part about her running through the woods to flee a man who’d tried to lure her into his car on a country road. I remember the details: her Birkenstocks, the wound on her foot. The sense that all of us have had of being chased, the fear. Rape as a thing and rape as a sceptre, an inevitable that we steel ourselves for. By not walking at night, for example. There is no joy here either. There is darkness illuminated by streetlights, but even there you can’t be safe.
Notes is a way of starting. Trying. Essai. If a manifesto is a red rag, then a note is a building block, a puzzle piece. The reader responds not by charging, but by saying, Yes and, or Yes but. She doesn’t respond by tearing the whole thing down.
I love the way the narrative thread of Wunker’s book makes its way with seeming effortlessness. There is nothing laboured about how a discussion of rape culture leads to the Jian Ghomeshi trial leads to women coming together leads to a chapter on friendship. (Which references The Babysitters Club. Yes, and!!) Why are so few of our formative texts about female friendship? “What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors?” What are relationships between women often so fraught?
“Is it too hard to write your own narrative and witness another’s, simultaneously?”
As I watched the election results last Tuesday night (and felt as heartbroken as I’ve ever felt in my life, perhaps, which is saying something for how lucky I’ve been in a world that’s notoriously hard to live in) I was trying to read the book I’d been reading for a couple of days, Making Feminist Media: Third Wave Magazines on the Cusp of the Digital Age, by Elizabeth Groenveld. I started reading it because those third wave magazines (Bitch and Bust) were what taught me to call myself a feminist, made me realize that I’d been a feminist all along. I’ve always loved magazines—you know, the kind that smelled like perfume—but then one day I stumbled into the magazine rack at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and discovered there was a kind of magazine that didn’t make me feel like less than a person. That there were things other than just a boyfriend that could make my soul complete—do you know what a revelation this was to me? It’s still shocking to consider just how much.
I never noticed when I was writing them that everybody in the magazine was white. It would take me years to realize there was anything strange about that, what a departure from reality such whiteness actually is. I also recall reading letters in Bitch about whether this was a magazine for feminists or lesbians, and (I say this with shame) feeling similar consternation. I didn’t know there was such a thing as intersectionality then. I have learned a lot since I started reading these magazines a decade and a half ago.
What occurred to me though on the day after the elections as I finished reading Grovenveld’s book was the difficulty all these magazines have had in surviving—how the feminist message remains so niche. Considering this in the context of the number of white women who voted for a misogynist fascist seems sort of unremarkable. Why doesn’t feminism sell more? Thinking too about what Grovenveld writes about identity politics and how focusing on distinct groups creates a sense of community among the group’s members, but ultimately it keeps the focus too narrow for widespread change to occur. For the magazine to be sustainable, she means. (Although she writes that a magazine being short-lived is not fair as a standard of failure. The fact that it even existed at all, and was read, defies so many odds.)
On Friday morning I was walking with my friends and we were talking about that group of women who voted for a misogynist fascist, and one friend framed this too in the context of intersectionality, which I’d never properly considered. I’d been thinking about the failure of intersectionality as women break apart instead of coming together (although I understand entirely, and I get that #solidarityisforwhitewomen) but never thought about the troubling intersectionality of these white women with their allegiances to the patriarchy. No woman is a highway.
What is it that makes women go so far out of their way not to support other women? Why did so many people dislike Hillary Clinton so much. To the point of going out of their way to elect a fascist, I mean. Is it because of the lack of representation of female relationships that Wunker references? To the end of getting to the answer to that question, Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck came in for me at the library.
Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why is a historical and pop-cultural look at the women who’ve stirred up shit from the margins and who (as Doyle posits) may have actually been prophets but it’s just that the world wasn’t ready yet. (Billie Holiday on rape culture, anyone?)
I needed a bit of levity these last few days, but also some more context as to how we’ve arrived here, and this book offered both. Why do we set up women to fail with impossible standards, and then decide it’s our job to punish them, to destroy them, when they do?
What the trainwreck shows us, Doyle writes, is that “in a sexist culture, being female is an illness for which there is no cure.”
Which bring us to here.
And no, no, no. I’m still not having any of that.
November 10, 2016
On Tuesday night I started reading The Little Virtues, by Natalia Ginzburg (which came to my attention in Belle Boggs’ essay in The New Yorker, “The Book That Taught Me What I Want to Teach My Daughter”). Not a comfort read, exactly, although there is some of that, but then the first essay is about her years in exile from the Fascists in Italy before her husband died in prison: “Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish of what preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us—to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow.”
There are some moments when it’s important to face things head on, and to learn from someone who has gathered wisdom from decades of experience.
Women’s fiction doesn’t usually get that much credit for helping its readers face things head-on: these books are escapes, they’re beach reads. Fluffy rather than edgy, entertainment instead of education. Women’s fiction that takes on “issues” is its own sub-genre, and there tends to be a formula as to how these stories are executed, with tidy resolutions. Faced with a tyrant being elected American President, we’re supposed to be turning to weighty French philosophers, right? Or Natalia Ginzburg (which I really do recommend). Certainly not Jodi Picoult.
What is political? I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the novel I’m writing at the moment, about two women’s friendship over decades. About my forthcoming book too, Mitzi Bytes, which is about a woman who dares to have a voice and what the consequences are—but it’s also more complicated than that, because she’s not entirely innocent in her own downfall. My character is flawed, scared, arrogant and insensitive. A lot of the book is about her relationship with other women—her friends, her sister-in-law, her mother, the other other mothers at her children’s school. And what’s the point of a story like this, I wonder, at the moment of onset of a world like that?
The question of how women get along and the ways in which they don’t is fascinating to me. I suspect that every story I ever write will be about this. And I am also fascinated by how 53% of white American women voted against a strong, experienced feminist and instead for a noted misogynist. I am fascinated by the women who cheer for him exuberantly and claim that he could grope their pussies anytime. Who are these people? What planet do they live on? Could it possibly be the same one as me?
Women’s fiction tells women’s stories. Women’s fiction also sells. And it occurs to me that this genre has the best capacity of any to help us better understand each other. The authors who are writing nuanced stories about the dynamics of sisterhood are laying out a path of relations. Why are women’s friendships so intense? How come when we don’t like a woman we don’t like her so much. Why is it so challenging to see a woman making choices that are different from yours? Why is it all so personal? Why can mother/daughter relationships be so fraught?How come when we have so much in common (and when so much is at stake) we can be so vehemently opposed?
Part of it is because we’re human, of course. Human beings are complicated. This is awkward, but is in fact one of the best things about humans. While these differences are difficult to navigate, it would be terrifying if we were all the same. Who would push us to be better? How would we know what to rise above? Part of it too comes down to something I’m working out about gender and specificity—a guy in a suit is a guy in a suit, and any guy is going to see that and identify, but women have different hair colours, and different hair styles, and maybe she’s wearing a pantsuit and maybe she’s wearing a dress, and does she stay home and bake cookies or is she Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, and all these differences make it easier to find something to dislike about somebody. Unless, of course, you just happen to dislike guys in suits as a blanket rule (and lately I am thinking there is something to that).
In women’s fiction, I think, we can get to the point of figuring it out. We need authors to consider these questions and write thoughtful and nuanced stories about them (and this is happening now). We need readers too to pick up these books and reading with questions in mind, to allow themselves to be challenged by some of the ideas contained therein. I need to get a better sense of that 53% of white women and what they were voting for or against. The women who supported Clinton but did not dare to admit it beyond the confines of a secret Facebook group need to grapple with these questions too, because they bear some responsibility as well for what happened—women who won’t dare to make Thanksgiving dinner uncomfortable. White liberal women who need to (for the sake of their children, their country) rise up and flip that fucking table, and let their fathers and brothers (and sisters and mothers) know just what has been stolen from them with this election.
And what better place to find stories of uncomfortable dinners and torrid family dynamics? Why, women’s fiction, of course. (And Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections too, which totally falls into the category.)
We need to be reading more authors of colour too to find out what’s happening at the dinner tables of families who might not necessarily look like yours. I’ve been so grateful to those who chose to market books by Brit Bennett and Angela Flournoy as mainstream fiction this past while so that their books came onto my radar. I am going to continue to actively seek out diverse voices in commercial fiction and use whatever platform I have to amplify them, and hope that other white commercial writers will do the same, for its a genre that’s as disturbingly white as any other.
We need to support, and promote too, commercial writers who dare to be overtly political in their work, to read them as thoughtfully and generously as Roxane Gay reviewed Jodi Picoult in The New York Times. Let’s celebrate the commercial writers who are daring to take risks, as Marissa Stapley suggests in our conversation on commercial fiction. Writers need to keep striking that perfect balance between books that people are actually going to want to read, and books that give us something to think about. Books that build bridges, or at least look-out points.
The work commercial women writers are doing has always been important, but perhaps it’s never been more important than right now.