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After my post the other day, and completing Alberto Manguel’s The Traveler, The Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), I wanted to talk ramble a bit more about the quote I highlighted:
But if we are gregarious animals who must follow the dictates of society, we are nevertheless individuals who learn about the world by reimagining it, by putting words to it, by reenacting through those words our experience.
As I commented last post: what does it mean that we ignore the experiences of so many? What do we learn, or not learn, by not putting those experiences to words?
Previously I was talking specifically about rape in literature, but there are implications much more broadly. There is no such thing as true representation in literature. It isn’t just sexual assault that gets stereotyped and misrepresented in literature, when it is discussed at all. We also see a lack of true diversity around race, sexuality, gender, nationality, religion, and more in our popular literature.
Along the same vein, another book I read recently asks us to consider more carefully what does get published. In Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press, 2013), Lila Abu-Lughod talks about the international human rights regime and the ways in which it interacts with Muslim women. Among other themes and discussions, she spends one chapter picking apart the popular literature that exists around Muslim women. This literature, she contends, falls mainly into two categories:
- The human rights approach that gives us examples and numbers and statistics about the violence that women live with.
- The pulp fiction novels telling sensationalized (and often fairly pornographic) tales of escape from forced marriages, attempted honor killings, and other extreme situations.
All of these books, Abu-Lughod contends, allow the reader – who is necessarily assumed to be ‘Western’ and non-Muslim – to feel good about their own situation and countries and imagine that they are superior and enlightened. By donating time or money, these books tell us, we can fix these “other” cultures which are so backwards and bring them to modernity. We don’t have to think critically about the same issues of violence and murder that happen in our own Western countries because they are individual cases, not cases stemming from cultural reasons. And we don’t have to think critically about factors causing the violence in these Muslim countries, because we can be assured they stem solely from the ‘backwards’ culture and religion.
(Note: This is not to say, the author makes clear, that these instances of abuse and violence aren’t true or that we shouldn’t care about them and work to end them. What she is saying is that we need to think critically about all of the causes of the injustice and violence instead of simply placing the blame with religion or culture.)
The language of women’s rights and Muslim-women-needing-saving-from-Islam simplify and exaggerate. The language also ignores all the other factors that lead to situations of violence and lack of autonomy. Politics, economics, religion, histories of colonialism, class inequality, developmental agency and government policies, violence and oppression especially state or war related, and more all work together to cause women’s oppression. Some of these issues were caused or are still caused in part by our own consumption habits and foreign policies.
As she says:
[…] honest self-reflection about how the privileges of elites or middle-class people might be connected to the persistence of devastating inequalities – whether on distant shores or in our backyards – is essential to any ethical stance toward women’s human rights. (page 225)
What she points out in the section on the literature, which I thought was especially interesting, was that we need to think critically about why certain types of books are published and become popular. The Muslim pulp novels about women who escaped from brutal situations became especially prevalent and popular around the same time as the justifications were being made for the war on terror. These books and ideas often go hand in hand with the religious Right, Christianity, and justifications for going to war. They all let us think that the only place left to improve the rights of women is in other countries, and that war and occupation is the way towards that.
(Random side note: due to the fact that I recently alphabetized my non-fiction shelf, Abu-Lughod’s book now has to sit shelved unhappily next to Ayan Hirsi Ali…)
Stereotypes and prejudices exist in literature, sometimes purposely and sometimes not. What gets published is determined in large part by a handful of large companies. What gets media attention is determined by the same groups as control the regular news media in most cases. When the argument in a book is too easy and is simply telling us to export our culture and ideals onto other peoples, we should stop and question whether we are truly getting the full picture.
Basically these two rambling rant-posts are my reminders to keep thinking critically about what I read, what is and is not included in each book or article that I read, and what I’m not able to read because it’s not been considered worth publishing.
Hello dear readers (if any still exist after my prolonged absence).
I’m putting together a collage of sorts, and am looking for more excellently bookish quotes, or favorite quotes from books. I tend to forget to write down most of the quotes that I love while reading, so I don’t have all that many. I’d love to know what yours are to possibly add to my list.
Here are a number of mine:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us… It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.
—Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
For what good is freedom of expression if you lack the means to express yourself?
—Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English
The relationship between book and reader is intimate, at best a kind of love affair, and first loves are famously tenacious. [...] First love is a momentous step in our emotional education, and in many ways, it shapes us forever.
—Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book: A Sceptic’s Adventures in Narnia
“Choice” is sometimes not a choice at all. It is an outcome determined by the economic, physical, sociological, and political factors that surround women and move them toward the only action that allows them to survive at that point in their lives. Survival can sometimes be a woman’s act of staying alive, but it can also be her act of refusing to put what will become an impossible burden on her shoulders.
—Merle Hoffman, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom
I learned that this is what “at least” means: Move on. Get over it. Let’s not talk about it. It could be worse, so it must be better.
—Jennifer Gilbert, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memoir of Life Through Events – the Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don’t
I wonder at how many of us, feeling unsafe and unprotected, either end up running far away from everything we know and love, or staying and simply going mad. I have decided today that neither option is more or less noble than the other. They are merely different ways of coping, and we each must cope as best we can.
— Shani Mootoo, Cereus Blooms at Night
It was in books that he first learnt of his invisibility. He searched for himself and his people in all the history books he read and discovered to his youthful astonishment that he didn’t exist.
—Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods
There is a group of people with no positive illusions, who get closer to the truth about themselves, who have a more realistic perspective of their abilities, of how the future will pan out and of the amount of control they have over things. Philip Larkin described them as ‘the less deceived’. Psychiatrists call them clinically depressed.
—Ian Leslie, Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit
Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.
—Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
you should admit
you’re mean/ low-down/ trifflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry all the time
enjoy bein yrself
— Ntozake Shange, For colored girls who have considered suicide / When the rainbow is enuf
If you want to love
To the ends of the earth
With no shortcuts
As the crow flies
— Veronique Tadjo, As the Crow Flies
Truth is relative, and there is always something missing in truth that prevents it from being perfect.
— Nawal El Saadawi, The Novel
Words could be magic, but not in the abracadabra way that Deshawn believed. The magic that came from lips could be as cruel as children and as erratic as a rubber ball ricocheting off concrete.
— Tayari Jones, Leaving Atlanta
I realized then that advice is easily given. How can one really know what another woman has to suffer, or the problems she has to deal with, if one hasn’t been through the same trauma oneself.
—Bharati Ray, Daughters: A Story of Five Generations
What about you – do you have particular favorites of your own? What are they? Please do share in the comments!
I use Grammarly for proofreading because rants aren’t always very well written, grammatically speaking, so a “second set of eyes” is always helpful.*
While I read a fair amount, I don’t consider myself truly well-read. There are too many books out there, and too many new books coming out on a regular basis, and I can read but a small number of them; and rarely do I choose the ‘cannon’ books or the best-sellers. That being said, in what reading I’ve done, I’ve become more and more aware of certain trends around rape in literature. In this regard, it seems that books featuring rape follow one of three different paths.
- Stranger Rape, Done Well: This category of books contains such non-fiction as Lucky by Alice Sebold, Rape New York by Jana Leo, Jane Doe No More by M. William Phelps and Donna M. Palomba. It consists of such fiction as Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. These books take rape seriously; they delve into the ramifications on the life of the survivor and those around her. They tackle head on a difficult subject. The act also generally takes place in a dark alley, by someone or some group not intimately known by the protagonist.
- Stranger Rape, Done Poorly: In this category, we find authors in need of a dark twist, or an explanation for the heroine’s anger and hate, or perhaps just a dark and dangerous atmosphere. Rape here is an easy stand-in for ‘something that causes fear and a sense of danger’. Good job author, on taking the easy route instead of using any number of plot points and twists that happen to male protagonists in similar stories. As with the category I consider to be done well, this also generally occurs somewhere dark and scary where, come on, the protagonist shouldn’t really have been at that hour by herself etc.
- Non-Stranger Rape: Are we sure this is an actual thing? According to most authors who feature this type of event, it’s not. Rape or sexual violence by a boyfriend, a husband, a potential love interest, is generally a way to further the romance. It is supposed to be read, I get the impression, as actually sexy and lovely. The protagonist, obviously, comes to the realization that she did want it, and that she actually loves this person.
Now, I know this is rather generalized based on the small sampling of books that I’ve read in my lifetime (a notable exception that springs to mind is Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko). But it is still quite common for books to fall into categories 2 and 3. And even category 1, in many ways, can be problematic. You may not want to know why, but I will share anyway.
The most prevalent type of rape in literature is stranger rape, especially in non-fiction. This type of rape occurs the least frequently in real life. According to RAINN, 73% of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. 38% are friends or acquaintances. 28% are someone intimate. 11% involve a weapon of some kind. 84% involve physical force. Why is it that this type of rape is not addressed in non-fiction? Why can we still not acknowledge that it happens? Why are we so fixated on the idea that rape is rape only when it is a stranger in an alley? Why do we insist on silencing the other, much larger, group of survivors?
Related to this, why do we keep seeing authors use sexual assault as a point to further a relationship? If we’re going to discuss silencing survivors, here is a great way to do it. And lastly, it’s a slap in the face to be reading along and come across something so violent and painful and raw be used as a plot point: especially an unnecessary plot point.
I understand, really, I do. It is terrifying to think that all the things we’re told we can do – behaving properly, not walking alone after dark, avoiding that alley, not drinking too much, etc. – that none of these things will actually help. That in many cases, it’s the friend or partner or acquaintance whom you trusted, who was your ‘protection’ from walking alone at night. It’s terrifying to have to acknowledge that this narrative is a lie. It’s easier to go with it, to keep using the stranger danger as a plot point for fear and character growth, and pretend that is the world that we live in, that is the fear that we must try to avoid.
I just started reading Alberto Manguel’s The Traveler, The Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor and in the introduction is a line that really struck me. On page 4 he says:
But if we are gregarious animals who must follow the dictates of society, we are nevertheless individuals who learn about the world by reimagining it, by putting words to it, by reenacting through those words our experience.
It makes me wonder: what does it mean that we ignore the experiences of so many? What do we learn, or not learn, by not putting those experiences to words?
*Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Grammarly, after having the opportunity to try their service out for myself, but all opinions and ideas within are clearly my own.
Title: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Author: Anderson, Scott
Length: 577 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Politics, History
Publisher / Year: Signal / 2013
In this book Anderson takes the reader on a sweeping historical journey following Lawrence and three other individuals in the Middle East just prior to and throughout the course of World War I. During this epic tale we also get a look into significant events in the lives of many others who helped to shape the destiny of the region, either by working with or against the intentions and wishes of the main characters. Although the cast of characters is rather vast, and the story line jumps from one area to another to follow each of the main four, the characters are all interesting and different enough to remain fairly easy to follow.
The main characters, other than Thomas Edward Lawrence of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame: are William Yale, a fallen American aristocrat who both acted as a spy for the US and as an employee of Standard Oil of New York; Dr. Curt Prüfer, a German scholar and spy, later a Nazi official; and Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish scientist who created an anti-Ottoman spy ring in Palestine and worked for the Zionist cause of a Jewish homeland. Each of these characters led interesting lives worthy of being discussed in a book such as this, and their stories added to that of Lawrence’s in highlighting the actions going on in the region and in helping to shape what was to come. At the same time, however, the stories fit together only in that sense – in that way the book is somewhat less about Lawrence himself then it is about the entire Middle Eastern theatre during World War I.
Lawrence’s life has proved to be one full of contradictions, as any life is. His past biographers, according to Anderson, have mostly skewed facts to fit their preferred narrative. In this book, instead, Anderson uses the historical sources to tell the story much more broadly and thus giving a fuller picture of the whole conflict and facts with which Lawrence was dealing. In this way he comes off as neither a hero nor a villain, though his best and worst moments are brought to light. Instead he comes across as a complex individual who was trying in many ways to live by a certain code of honour, while still being pulled into the cruelties and horrors of war.
Altogether this was a compelling and intriguing story that delves into the historical facts of World War I that are often overlooked – that of its Syrian front. Recommended reading for anyone who enjoys history, and anyone interested in the history of the current situations in the Middle East.
Referenced in the epilogue is another great read – Paris 1919 Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan- which delves in detail into the peace conference and how the various decisions were made. In this work, the story continues and highlights the after-effects of the actions in this book. Give it a read to get more insight into what happened next, as it is only discussed in very brief overview in Anderson’s epilogue.
Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach is another great read from the same period in history. I read this one back in 2009, and I’m fairly certain, based on limited recollections, that there are certainly discrepancies in the stories – in fact the book jacket for this one claims “Too long eclipsed by Lawrence, Gertrude Bell emerges at last in her own right as a vital player on the stage of modern history”. Anderson’s work makes little mention of her, so we can only wonder if Anderson’s historical sources didn’t mention her, if he instead ignored her (only one women is shown as having any agency and ability in Anderson’s work, and figures in Anderson’s book also feature in Wallach’s), or if Wallach made her story into more than it truly was. Nevertheless, both are incredibly interesting reads.
Title: Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
Author: Pozner, Jennifer L.
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Culture
Publisher / Year: Seal Press / 2010
Why I Read It: Great reviews by Cass and Kim, fellow non-fiction readers.
Date Read: 04/30/13
Anecdote one: When reality television was first beginning to be a ‘thing’ and Survivor started, I remember my mother rolling her eyes at the “reality” aspect, commenting that obviously it was fully staged. If it was “really” surviving, there wouldn’t be cameras there. She was my first educator on media literacy and critical watching. Of course, I really wasn’t allowed watching much television, so it was more critical listening to the news articles about it and what friends were saying…
Anecdote two: I had a roommate for around two years, a few years back, who loved reality television… and when I say loved, I mean: she watched it constantly. Whatever reality television show they thought of, she was watching it. And let me tell you, there were some pretty terrible shows. Many of those shows are discussed in this book; some were bad enough they aren’t even mentioned. The residual effects of that alone were enough to turn me off of television pretty much fully, even though I’d escaped the ‘no television’ rules of the parental home mentioned above…
Book thoughts: Pozner has written a compulsively readable (much more addicting in my mind than the shows she is writing about) book about the stereotypes, prejudices, and flat out lies that hide behind the reality programming taking over TV. The research behind the book included countless hours of watching reality TV, as well as advocacy work educating youth about the power of media, reading, and more. While we like to think we are smart enough not to be tricked into believing everything we see, Pozner outlines how the shows actually do have an effect on viewers.
No matter how independent we might be as adults, how cynical we consider ourselves, or how hard we’ve worked to silence external cultural conditioning, decades of sheer repetition make it extremely difficult to fully purge societal standards from our psyches. -pg 47
Each show, to succeed, as Pozner shows brilliantly both with examples and with actual quotes from producers, plays on pervasive cultural stereotypes and ingrained biases. They denigrate women, they play on racial fears, they rely on stereotypes of consumption and class, and are written around advertisers requests. Consider shows such as The Bachelor promoted as ‘fairy tale romance’… how many of the fairy tales actually last? How much diversity is in the cast members, comparative to the diversity in actual marriage statistics? How are women and men treated and shown relating to each other? Is the consumption flashy and over the top, but aimed at realistic and ordinary? When we see only short clips, how do we know that we are seeing a full truth? And etc.
Despite having only seen a few episodes of a few shows (as outlined above, *shudder*), I didn’t feel lost or left out as when shows are first mentioned enough description is given to understand the premise. While reality TV producers like to say that they are simply providing ‘what the public wants’ the truth is that many reality shows are extended despite lackluster viewing because they don’t cost much (or anything) to produce, and are often paid for by marketers and corporations to promote products. The descriptions and discussions of the industry itself, from executives to producers to advertisers, were fascinating and disturbing. The amount of say they have in shows is incredible, as is the amount of product placement and the costs paid for this airwave time; time that isn’t even billed as actual advertisement.
Pozner in this book is not arguing against watching reality television – in fact she reaffirms that she still watches it – but she is rather asking viewers to be critical media consumers. Consider what you are watching, be aware of stereotypes and prejudices, as well as advertiser messages. Educate yourself, and advocate for better shows with better premises that show life more as it is, including its diversity, equality, and respect for others. Try playing ‘Backlash Bingo’ or a drinking game when you next watch reality TV – with helpful suggestions for play included in the book! (Though you may want to consider completing the drinking game with non-alcoholic beverages, for the sake of your health, considering the shows…)
Title: A Question of Choice: Roe v. Wade 40th Anniversary Edition
Author: Weddington, Sarah
Length: 315 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Publisher / Year: Feminist Press / 2013 first published in 1992
Source: Feminist Press Subscription
Why I Read It: With all the debate on abortion these days, it seemed a fitting read.
Date Read: 05/10/13
Weddington successfully argued and won Roe v. Wade at only twenty-six years old, and the win was seen as a victory for women and for reproductive choice. Now, forty years later, we’re still arguing many of the same points as we were before, and seem to be constantly under threat of reverting to the status of pre- Roe v. Wade, when illegal abortions were common (and incredibly unsafe). In this book Weddington recounts her life prior to and after the case, talking about how she became involved, all those that assisted and played a part, and why it is so important as a historical victory and as a basic right.
A Question of Choice was really interesting as a memoir of a successful woman, and can be recommended for that reason alone. Weddington’s journey into law school, through advocacy, in elected office, and all avenues of her life was very readable and engaging. For any woman, especially one who would like to go into law, her stories of professors and classes, as well as her triumphs, would prove a compelling read. Beyond that, she would be a fantastic role model of success for any of us looking to succeed in whatever path we choose. Her dedication and drive were remarkable.
Beyond that, though, is the full discussion of the status of reproduction choice pre- Roe v. Wade, the advocacy work by individuals and groups, the health risks and personal stories of those who suffered, and the timeline of attacks ever since the case was won. As a historical source, Weddington makes clear the challenges faced by women in controlling their reproductive lives, and the health hazards they had to live through historically. For all of us who didn’t personally experience these times, it is especially important for us to realize what the absence of legal abortion means. A lack of legal abortion does not actually lead directly to less abortion; it leads to unsafe abortions and so many more deaths and complications. The (perhaps unfortunate to many) truth is that abortion is something that exists in all countries, no matter the legality of it.
One especially fascinating part of the reading for me was when she discussed the many arguments against her case in the Supreme Court. I was amazed that many of them are ones we are still hearing now, but that have somehow become more accepted or mainstream. Many of the arguments that were dismissed are now back stronger and more forceful than ever. History, in this case, hasn’t moved in a straight line but has rather circled around to the same place.
Personal side note: While abortion itself seems to be a touchy subject for many, what is important to remember is that abortion is but one small piece of women’s wide range of reproductive choices. These choices include the vast array of options for controlling one’s life and caring for a family – having a family, managing illnesses, and taking care of yourself. The current debate seems to focus single-mindedly on abortion while ignoring that for each fetus, there are corresponding needs that will come along such as care, shelter, and nourishment. Without a strategy that focuses on this, a strategy remains as anti-choice, not in any way pro-life. Pro-life would indicate that the strategy also encompasses families, mothers, fathers, and the children themselves after they are born.
Whether you agree with abortion or not, the fact is that it is a necessary tool for many in controlling their health and their lives. The death of those requiring medical treatment because doctors won’t perform abortions is but an extreme example. For this reason, I am unwilling in the comments to discuss the fact that you might not agree with abortion as an option. Instead, I would ask you to read on the facts of life for women pre- Roe v. Wade and think about what reverting to that time would mean for the health of women, and of their babies and families.