November 14, 2014
We always had true crime books lying around the house when I was little, and since I read everything, these books were no exception, and I do wonder how the 10 year old’s psyche is affected by rigorous rereadings of Blind Faith by Joe McGinniss. I have a better sense of the impact of Wasted: The Preppie Murder by Linda Wolfe, the story of the murder of 18 year old Jennifer Levin in New York City by a man who strangled her in a park and pleaded guilty to manslaughter—the death was a result of “rough sex”, he said. (When police found him the next day, he was covered with scratches. He claimed he’d been attacked by his cat.) Which is that from very early on, I learned that there were some men for whom women were completely disposable, and that our justice system is stacked against victims of sexual violence in a way that is absolutely heinous.
I’ve been thinking about Jennifer Levin’s death since yesterday, when the verdict was delivered in another case involving the death of a teenage girl. We all know her name, but no one is permitted to print it, which means just this: you can indeed be prosecuted for using a rape victim’s name, but you can actually photograph the victim being raped and then share the image on social media—destroying the self-esteem and reputation of a teenage girl, who goes on to commit suicide—and receive a punishment that involves writing a letter of apology and attending a course on sexual harassment. “He must learn how to properly treat females,” is part of the judge’s verdict, as though this is something that must be taught, as though knowing “how to treat females” (who are indeed people) isn’t sort of one of the barest prerequisites for being a human being.
“Why didn’t he help her?” I wonder. The boy with the camera, I mean, or any of his friends, or the police who shrugged when the victim came to them with the actual photo of her rape being committed, and who found no way to prosecute any of the perpetrators (for distributing child pornography—the charge that has a man punished by letter of apology) until after her death by suicide. Why did nobody help?
Let alone, why are there people actually defending the perpetrators? The same kind of people who are bothered by rape charges ruining the lives of nice young men, or promising footballers? What kind of inside out world do we live in? The kind of world in which the parents of a young man who talks about having his colleague raped as a kind of punishment actually speak out in defence of their son? If that were my son, I’d draw the curtains and not go out again for a very long time. Have these people no shame? “We ask you to give him the chance to learn,” the parents say, to which I respond with a vehement, NO. One does not have to learn about how it’s wrong to talk about raping one’s colleagues (or anybody). If you don’t know this already, you never ever will.
When Toronto’s terrible mayor and a godforsaken excuse for a human being was diagnosed with cancer last fall, I fumed as public figures postured about prayers being with him etc. etc. This is another man who has not yet learned that it’s wrong to talk about raping one’s colleagues. It was all I could think of, as his ass fat tumour came down, that a public figure gets to say the things he said (let alone do the things he did) and then get up there with a whole lot of actually honourable citizens and campaign beside them for the job of mayor. “But no!” somebody protests, “do not make disparaging remarks about a man with cancer.” Because we’re willing to draw a line there—we are moral after all—but it’s women who are disposable, women who are nothing more than something for you to stick your dick in, or make jokes about sticking your dick in. A dick receptacle. And if that’s not enough, you can choke them too, “rough sex,” says another public figure, not even sheepishly. And now I’m thinking about Jennifer Levin again, a moment in time, 1980s’s excesses, but it’s forever and always. This is the world in which we live.
You can call it rape culture. You can call it the most horrendous, pervasive male entitlement too. But not all men, another voice pipes up, but oh, there are ever so many. Some of whom are even seemingly feminist allies, examining complicity as they forget about the women whose bodies they themselves have groped, and carrying banners at feminist rallies, even. These men are fathers, husbands, brothers and sons—to frame things in those terms. And I don’t know what to do.
In The New Quarterly 131, Karen Connelly’s essay, “#ItEndsHere,” parallels Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s seeming unconcern with the disappearance of 300 school girls with Canada’s own lack of response to the more than a thousand missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women in this country. (The most recent in the news is the young girl in Winnipeg, Rinelle Harper, who was assaulted twice and thrown in the same river where 15 year old Tina Fontaine’s body was discovered months ago. Mercifully, Rinelle Harper survived. She is recovering in hospital.) Connelly reminds us of the rumours surrounding the farm where the remains of so many women were eventually discovered—those rumours would not be investigated for years, during which time so many women died. Disposable women. Ineffectual authorities. There’s a pattern here. It’s like stringing beads.
Connelly writes, “When there were enough missing women—68 to be exact…—the police finally began to look for them. The investigation into the missing women of the downtown east side began in 1998. [Redacted] continued committing murders until his arrest on February 22, 2002.” And from her poem, “Enough,” from her recent collection, Come Cold River:
Unfold the maps on the table.
Let me show you hell.
As described in The Globe and Mail.
Oddly, it includes English Bay,
blue salt water, sand, crows,
owls in the cedars.
The road out?
Oh, that remains
June 23, 2014
“I had an abortion.” This is not a confession, but instead is the phrase with which my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies” (which was published in The M Word and online this spring) has been received by readers, more than any other, or at least it seems as such from my point of view. And these readers are not confessing either, but rather are stating a fact of their lives, a fact they seem eager to share. Like me, I suppose they’ve spent a long time feeling as though abortion stories were not to be shared, and they were grateful finally to have an excuse to talk about this fact of their lives, a fact which has been perhaps sad, complicated, maybe neither, but undeniably important.
It’s not shame that keeps women from talking about their abortions, but rather fear of seeming impolite. It’s funny that in a society in which 1/3 of adult women have had abortions and most people understand the procedure to be a necessary part of women’s health, that we kowtow to the sensibility of a minority whose vocal stance allows them to set the tone on the issue. That abortion is unseemly, dead babies, something that marks us, something which we have to hide at all costs.
All costs? The huge cost of hiding our abortion stories, of course, is that the vocal minority gets to tell us everything we know about abortions, much of which is wrong. (Increased breast cancer risks, post traumatic symptoms and regret, photos of aforementioned dead babies.) They get to influence the people who make the legislation, because the rest of us are too polite to speak up. They get to tell us everything we know about the women who have abortions too, which is that there is a type of woman this happens to and that her experiences are uniform.
With the new book, One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, edited by Kathryn Palmateer and Martha Solomon, with a foreword by Judy Rebick, we learn that everything they told us about abortions, and the women who have them, is wrong. In striking portraits—photographs accompanied by short first-person essays—we learn that women who have had abortions are women of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We learn than many of them are mothers. Others never wanted to be mothers, and it’s that certainty that made the decision to have an abortion quite an easy one to make. Some women look back on their abortions with mixed emotions, or sadness, grief or relief. And most of them look back and are grateful that the choice was theirs to make.
As I wrote in my essay in The M Word, reproductive freedom remains a revolutionary thing for a woman to get away with. Not because we don’t get away with it, but because when we do, we don’t talk about it. Which leaves a woman contemplating abortion or who’s had an abortion feeling that she’s so alone, that no one has ever been where she’s going and come out fine on the other side. And so that’s why a book like One Kind Word is so hugely important, representative of the real experiences of so many women. Experience as depicted by those who’ve lived it rather than those for whom abortion is an abstract moral issue—this is so significant. The book is also important because it creates a space where women who’ve had abortions can see themselves reflected, and the book provides an occasion for women to speak up and say, “This is my story too.”
One Kind Word was an online portrait gallery before it was a book, the project gaining huge momentum and inspiring so many women to be a part of it. (It also has a precedent with Jennifer Baumgardner’s Abortion and Life.) Many participants note that they felt as though they had an obligation to speak up in order to counter the abortion rhetoric which has been hijacked by patriarchal interests, to speak up for those countless other women who did not yet have the courage to represent.
This was not a book that told me anything I didn’t know already, instead confirming the fact that I exist. Which is not meant to be an honourable purpose for a book, literarily speaking, though anyone who’s ever told you this has probably been a man who sees his existence confirmed in his reflection in most everything he ever encounters.
The book’s editors write of their intention to have a copy of One Kind Word in every clinic waiting room across the country, and while this is a very good idea, I’d like to have it gracing coffee tables too. First, because it’s a book of beautiful images, good for flipping through, but also because it places our abortion stories right where they belong—firmly ensconced in the domestic ordinary of our various and remarkable lives.
May 15, 2014
And here it is! My essay from The M Word appears on The Huffington Post Canada, and I’m so relieved and bolstered by the feedback I’m receiving. Hope you will enjoy reading it.
January 8, 2014
I wrote a short post for the CWILA Blog about why I will be donated to Canadian Women in Literary Arts once again in 2014.
First, because the pies are making a difference. Quite a few people don’t like what they stand for, or don’t like what they’re saying (or something. Truth be told, I don’t really understand, though I’ve tried) but they those pies are changing our publications for the better. The 2013 CWILA numbers reflect a significant change from 2012, writers and editors now working with an awareness of gender representation in what they read, write and publish. And that’s huge. I want to make sure the count continues into the future, is even expanded, and that the “counters” are properly compensated for their work.
Read the whole thing here.
January 7, 2014
When I was 19, I had a notebook that I’d covered with a piece of green corduroy that had previously been part of a pair of my pants. On one page, I wrote a heading with each letter outlined in a different colour Crayola marker, and the heading was “My Opinions”. And below, I tried to capture them all, my perspectives on such things as capital punishment (against), war (totally averse), abortion (well, I guess I respect choice, though I could never go down such a road myself). I don’t remember what I must have been for: universal suffrage, maybe? The abolition of acid rain? Sex, probably, but only hopefully. I think this was around the time I used to say things like, “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist,” so really, my opinions were likely best not held in a permanent record. It is not a total loss that I don’t have that green notebook anymore.
(I do remember that on the page following my summary of opinions, there was a recipe for mocha cake.)
I thought about this today as I read a really interesting New Yorker profile of novelist Jennifer Weiner. It was a respectful, considered piece that managed to make some space for nuance, to highlight how smart Weiner is and what important ideas she conveys about how fiction by women is perceived by readers and reviewers. And yet it also shows the trouble with Jennifer Weiner, which is her conflation of literary and commercial fiction, and this inane idea that not joining a rah-rah sisterhood is a feminist betrayal.
I’m been turning my head inside out for years now trying to make sense of Jennifer Weiner and her activism, basically trying to articulate a one sentence burst under the heading “My Opinions”, but the words don’t fit. If I added up all the blog posts I’ve ever written on this subject, I think they would fill up that entire green corduroy notebook, and I still wouldn’t have it figured out.
While I find the whole thing infinitely frustrating though, I am starting to realize that the turning my head inside-out might be the very point, instead of a pithy line I could deliver with a bullet. That these figures or ideas that rattle us or make us uneasy are doing a service, serving a purpose. “But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality– dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers,” said Dorothy Parker, and sometimes (often?) the very worst parts of the feminism are the other feminists, but maybe why this is why feminism is excellent (and also why it will never become a totalitarian regime). We keep each other in check, we rub one another the wrong way, we ruffle feathers, we don’t sing kumbaya.
Here’s an opinion: the non-fiction literary anthology is a revolutionary act. This is apropos of something, and I mean it. The literary anthology, second-tier non-fiction. The kind of book that couldn’t win a prize if it tried (because it isn’t eligible). There is no cohesion, but this is the very point. The complexity of many voices, all of them singing a different tune. Not cacophony, which is noise, but heteroglossia instead. Resolving nothing, but reflecting reality. Sometimes as close to solidarity as we’re ever going to get.
December 15, 2013
“But, as a woman poet who increasingly reads the work of other women poets, I know that a too-large proportion of the books I love don’t get their due in the public sphere. I cannot begin to tell you how many “underrated” poets presently occupy places of honour on my shelf. I say this not to diminish the books I read or write about, nor the marketing skills of their authors, nor to suggest that I write reviews or read books out of pity—I am at heart a lazy hedonist, and do in my unpaid hours basically only what brings me immediate pleasure—but to question the context in which poetry books by women and other “minorities” are received…
Male reviewers, by the CWILA stats at least, are more likely to have their tastes taken care of—assuming, as I think is reasonable based on my experience studying friends’ bookshelves, that tastes often diverge by gender. And really there is no better illustration of this than the relative freedom many of these reviewers seem to feel, the leftover energy they seem to have, to express their dislikes too. Singling something out and saying “no, not this” is a gatekeeping behaviour. It presupposes an ample supply of the things you like and need—people don’t generally demand to have the peppers taken off their pizza if they aren’t regularly being fed.”
November 12, 2013
If Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers were published today, critics would be lauding its uncanny sense of the contemporary moment, how Laurence dares to voice the unspoken truths of motherhood, her pitch-perfect portrayal of the subtleties of maternal ambivalence. Published in 1969, Laurence’s fourth novel belongs with Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians as essential Canadian novels born out of the world of The Feminine Mystique. Which puts the book’s contemporary moment-ness in question, but then the lessons of The Fire Dwellers don’t tend to be the kind we pass on to our daughters, however much to their detriment. Not that they’d listen anyway. Isn’t it funny how the history of feminism is so profoundly uncumulative? How we have to learn it for ourselves over and over, and it’s a revolution/revelation every time?
But then The Fire Dwellers is largely about such disconnectedness, between generations, between spouses, friends, between the personal and the political, and—in the case of protagonist Stacey MacAindra—from one’s self, from one’s own life. Stacey is 39, sixteen years married, mother of 4, and according to the sensationalist copy on my Seal Book paperback, she’s looking for a lover. Which isn’t really true, though it’s probably a good way to sell a paperback. Anyone who has read the book, however, will tell you that she is looking for is herself beyond her oppressive roles of wife and mother. Roles which aren’t strictly oppressive; “They nourish me and they devour me too,” she writes of her children, and it’s in this in-between where she’s stuck, imagining the various ways she is destroying her children (by being overbearing, by too much attention, with her anger, all of these suggestions underlined by “helpful” magazine articles suggesting as much) and/or all the ways they would be destroyed anyway if she somehow managed to get away from them.
Through the novel, Laurence plays headlines from television news programs, broadcasting war, turmoil and unrest around the world. In one sense, the headlines are juxtaposed with the domestic, but we soon come to see that these are parallel, that the home-front is no safe haven after all.
“I can’t forget that piece in the paper. Young mother killed her two-month-old infant by smothering it. I wondered how that sort of thing could ever happen. But maybe it was only that the baby was crying, and she didn’t know what to do, and was maybe frantic about other things entirely, and suddenly she found she had stopped the noise. I cannot think this way. I must not.”
Children are hit by cars and killed, neighbours attempt suicide, Stacey and her husband worry about money, she fears that Mac is sleeping with his secretary, her youngest still isn’t talking (and what has she done to her to make this go wrong, Stacey wonders), and just as terrifying as the suffocating demands of motherhood is considering who she will be once the demands are rescinded, when the children are older. Who will she possibly be then?
Laurence’s The Diviners is so central to my literary consciousness, and I couldn’t help but see Stacey in the context of the Manawaka she’d fled from as a young woman, and in relation to Morag Gunn whom she’d stood apart from as a child but whom she’d have so much to talk about if they met up again in adulthood. And I was surprised to discover that Morag didn’t even exist when Laurence wrote The Fire Dwellers–The Diviners would be published 5 years later in 1974. But in The Fire Dwellers, you see the roots of The Diviners taking shape, its ideas and experiments with narrative and form.
Stacey MacAindra is Betty Draper, is calling out for Betty Friedan, though fat load of good a book is going to do her. (I always find it interesting when people critique Betty Draper’s character for her obviousness to Friedan, as though one day every woman in America read The Feminine Mystique, and society flicked a switch). Stacey MacAindra is also so many of us, as we remarked at my book club the other night. “Maybe we all turn into Stacey MacAindra sometime…” as I tweeted last week. Women for whom the day is never long enough to encompass all the things we want to do, all the people we want to or need to be. Women for whom motherhood and selfhood become a battle, with wifehood thrown in for good measure. You’d throw it all away, if you weren’t tied to it inextricably.
Stacey’s green slacks are dated, and so is her slang, but absolutely nothing else is in this novel which 45 years later is a challenge to and a reflection of the world at once.
September 16, 2013
With the end of summer, the kids have come home from fishing down at the proverbial crawdad hole, and are now settling back into gender roles as dictated by toy marketers, because let’s face it: our boys will be boys and our girls will be princesses.
But not so fast…
Listen, I’ve read my Peggy Orenstein, and I’ve got an opinion or two about the effects of “princess culture” on boys and girls alike. And so since before my daughter was born, I’ve been unabashedly brainwashing her with my own politics, a plan that has been foolproof so far*. A parent has to have a weapon or two in her bag to use against the big bad world, and these are the ones that have worked for me, but have also served as great reads at the very same time.
Wonder Woman: The Story of the Amazon Princess by Ralph Cosentino: Wonder Woman is the third of Cosentino’s manga-style picture book introductions to classic comics. He tells the story of Diana, the Amazon princess who didn’t want to be just a princess, and chose to spend her life fighting for justice instead. My daughter remains curious about why Wonder Woman has to battle the forces of evil in her underpants, but as princess role models go, you could do worse than this one.
The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke and Kerstin Meyer: Princess Violetta is raised in the same fashion as her big brothers, although they laugh at her futile efforts to mount a horse while wearing heavy armour. This makes her all the more determined to prove herself as brave and strong, so she begins sneaking out after dark and practicing a knight’s skills in her own way. She eventually becomes so adept that she ends up winning her own hand in marriage (long story) and thus is granted the independence she desires.
Sir Cassie to the Rescue by Linda Smith and Karen Patkau: “Cassie read a story about knights…” this book begins, and when she finishes reading, Cassie tries to cajole her brother into a game of knights. Just one problem: neither of them is interested in being the damsel in distress. After trying out other options, and constructing a variety of marvelous castles in the living room, Cassie and her brother come up with an ingenious solution to their problem. And then Cassie opens a book about pirates, and her imagination starts running wild again…
Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer: At first glace, it looks like a Princess book, complete with tiara, magic wand and Olivia’s name in pretty pink. But a close look at Olivia’s facial expression reveals that this book will be an examination rather than a celebration of princess culture. Falconer is shameless in his anti-princess agenda, but the story is still funny for kids, and poses questions worth asking your sons and daughters: why are princesses so lacking in cultural diversity? And “If everyone’s a princess, then princesses aren’t special anymore… Why do they all want to be the same?”
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko: I know you’ve read this one already, but it’s still so good after all these years. Standout lines are, “You look like a real prince but you are a bum” and the best and most genre-defying conclusion of any book ever: “They didn’t get married after all.” Final image is the spirited princess dancing off into the sunset, kicking up her heels, arms embracing the world.
Princess Smarty Pants by Babette Cole: “Princess Smartypants did not want to get married. She enjoyed being a Ms.” In order to deal with the annoying throngs of suitors turning up at her door, she sets impossible tasks that defeat every one of them—until Prince Swashbuckle arrives. He manages to jump through every hoop she throws him, proving himself quite up to the job of winning her hand except for one thing: Prince Swashbuckle doesn’t think that Princess Smartypants is so smart. And it’s too bad for him: Smartypants turns him into a toad. Obviously, they didn’t get married after all either.
And finally, someone needs to write a picture book about The Cockfighting Princess. Irina Walker, the third daughter of the exiled King of Romania, has been charged with running illegal cockfighting events in Oregon, even selling refreshments to spectators. This serves as a most important lesson for little girls everywhere: even cockfighting princesses are not above the law. And that princessing and glamour do not always go hand and hand.
*I know, I know. This is going to backfire at some point. But in the meantime, I want to provide my girl with a foundation that underscores the limitlessness to who she might possibly become as a human being.
March 7, 2013
“I hope readers will see that the situation is changing everywhere. It’s time for all of us to say, “No more” and to go to the barricades—and to claim our space.”–Sally Armstrong in my Q&A with her at 49thShelf.
For those of us who aren’t Sally Armstrong, those of us who haven’t spent the last 25 years bringing home stories of violence against women, subjugation of women and the trampling upon and disregard for women’s rights all over the world, the immediate impression of Ascent of Women isn’t that this is a book about hope and change. Instead, it’s overwhelming to consider that the plight of women in so many places is so terribly dire: scores of Aboriginal women missing and murdered in Canada while police did nothing; the idea of rape as a weapon of war, and that female populations of entire villages in the Congo have had to live through this violence; a fire at a girls’ school in Saudi Arabia during which students died because they weren’t permitted to escape the blaze with their heads uncovered; the endangered lives of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban; “honour” killings; young girls forced into early marriage; genital mutilation practices, and on and on.
My immediate impression of this book is testament to another point that Armstrong makes: that for the last 25 years as she’s been reporting these stories, the world hasn’t done a terrific job of listening. She gives a shocking story of an editor who “forgot” to follow up on a story she’d brought him of 20,000 Muslim women being gang-raped in Bosnia in 1992. I know that Armstrong was reporting on the Taliban when no one else was, long before September 2001 when the world finally turned its attention toward Afghanistan and feigned to care for what happened to the women of that country.
But things are changing, which is Armstrong’s thesis in Ascent of Women. She connects this tide of change to the awareness that dawned on Western Women in the 1960s and ’70s that the status-quo was no longer acceptable. She cites examples of women all over the world who are effecting change in their communities by standing up to patriarchy and tyranny. In Kenya, 160 girls are in the process of suing their government for failing to protect them from rape; women in Afghanistan have dared to question interpretations of the Koran; the idea that violence is cultural is starting to be undermined by women speaking out against this bogus “culture”; unique programs are being put in place to empower people to change their own minds about approaches to women’s health; economists are demonstrating that women’s financial empowerment is the key to progress in developing nations; grandmothers supporting AIDs orphans are coming together to support one another in South Africa; women who fought for change in Egypt during the Arab Spring are refusing to take a place on the sidelines of the revolution they brought about.
Armstrong’s book is powerful, profound and inspiring. Its organization is a bit haphazard, but then this haphazardness underlines Armstrong’s point: that something is happening here, and not even systematically, but in an organic, surprising, awe-inspiring fashion whose force is, amazingly, impossible to contain.