The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter (1850) has long been a favourite of mine, one I had been thinking of reviewing, along with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth as early, and rare, examples of stories about single mothers. So I was happy to find it in my (new) local library as an audio book. We all know the story. Hester Prynne, a young married woman in Boston in the earliest days of the settlement of New England by English Puritans, commits adultery and is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for adulteress on the front of her dress for the rest of her life.

The Scarlett Letter is actually historical fiction, that is it was written 200 years after the events being portrayed took place. In a very long and largely irrelevant prologue, Hawthorne describes his own position in the Customs House in Salem, Mass., which was apparently his home town, though he had spent a long time away. In all the material for Americans who must have to study this book at school, there is a suggestion that Hawthorne’s ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. The premise of the prologue is that Hawthorne discovers some old papers in the attic of the Customs House which tell Hester Prynne’s story.

Hawthorne begins his ”introductory” with “It is a little remarkable, that – though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends – an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public” and then goes on to talk about himself for 40 pages. He should have been a blogger! But don’t get me wrong, I love old fashioned first chapters. My favourite is from Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) which begins (after a long preface): “The Browns have become illustrious by the pen of Thackeray and the pencil of Doyle, within the memory of the young gentlemen who are not matriculating at the universities… For centuries in their quiet, dogged, homespun way, they have been subduing the earth in most English countries, and leaving their mark in American forests and Australian uplands.” And so it goes on. It is indicative of the sort of books that I read and gave my children that I advised them that it was always ok to skip the first chapter when starting a difficult novel.

The Puritans, in Boston at least, were members of the Church of England who believed that the English Church, which had separated from the Catholic Church in the 1530s, remained too Catholic in its ceremonies. Up until the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, 21,000 English Puritans emigrated to colonies on the east coast of North America. Brought up ‘low’ C of E as I was, I am sympathetic to the Puritans who were attempting to establish a rules-based society in reaction to the excesses of the Crown – Elizabeth, James I and Charles I. The problem of course is that any set of rules attracts people who enjoy enforcing them.

Boston, founded in 1630, would by 1642 still have been a quite rudimentary settlement, hemmed in between the dark forest and Massachusetts Bay. Salem, which plays no part in this story after the prologue, is 20 odd miles northwards along the coast, and was settled a few years earlier. A later passage illustrates the impression I have of Hester’s gloomy surroundings:

The road … straggled onwards into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect images of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.

The novel proper begins with Hester Prynne being released from jail, holding Pearl, her 3 month old baby daughter. She is led to the town square, refuses once again to divulge who is the father, and is displayed – “pilloried” – for three hours on a platform which has been built for that purpose, although she is not held in the stocks.

Hawthorne seems fascinated by witches and they constitute a minor theme throughout the book. A crowd has gathered to witness Hester’s humiliation, as for an execution:

But in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child … was to be corrected at the whipping post. It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian… It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows.

Misstress Hibbins subsequently invites Hester, on more than one occasion, to join her and her fellows in the forest.

The “SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated on her bosom” can only have been intended as a defiance of the sentence imposed on her by the colony elders, and also the always bright clothes worn by Pearl, as she grows up, in contrast to the sober clothing of the Puritans. Yet, over the decade or so encompassed by this novel, Hester earns grudging acceptance from her fellows for her quiet, helpful and industrious ways.

The scarlet letter must also have been a very rare punishment, as towards the end, Hester is still been being pointed out by out-of-towners at a local fair.

The novel is an interesting precursor for the (Australian) Independent Woman paradigm. Hester is already married, but the whereabouts of her husband are a mystery. In fact, it is her getting pregnant in his absence that leads to her conviction for adultery. She lives a quiet and virtuous life, in a cottage on the edge of the settlement, supporting herself by her skill at needlework. We discover early on who the husband is, but he holds himself apart, and the lover, Pearl’s father, is not disclosed until near the end. Disappointingly, Hawthorne says very little about Hester’s problems in bringing up a child unaided, other than to say that Pearl is wilful and undisciplined.

The other thing I would say is that I found the writing very formal. More “old fashioned” than Austen and Walter Scott who were a generation older, or Hawthorne’s near contemporaries Dickens and Mark Twain, as I remember them. I am listening to Anna Karenina at the moment and find the flow of C19th writing infinitely soothing, though I suspect that the Tolstoy is a modern translation.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, first published 1850. My edition (not the cover pictured) ‘Best Seller Classics’ from Award Books, USA, undated but maybe 50 years old. “This book is a reprint of the first edition … published in Boston by Ticknor, Reed & Fields in 1850”. Audio version: Dreamscape Media, 2014, read by Robert Bethune.

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

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Well known – to other people – US author Lionel Shriver only came up on my radar during the Shriver Kerfuffle last year, when she insisted on her right to tell stories from any point of view that she chose. It is not a ‘right’ that I contest, but nor is it one which I endorse. I believe firstly that privileged writers should leave space for less privileged peoples to tell their own stories; and secondly, that as a reader/reviewer I should point out (if I can’t avoid them) stories which are ‘inauthentic’.

With Big Brother (2013) this raises an interesting question. The narrator of this novel is a woman, not a Mexican, nor even a man wearing a sombrero, but a plump Iowan housewife and accidental businesswoman. Still, Shriver in this role doesn’t feel right. My (hastily formed!) impression of her is that she is an angular, east coast intellectual. We soon learn that Pandora, the narrator is from LA – where her father had been the star of a TV sit-com, Joint Custody, about separated parents fighting over their three children – and had moved back to her grandparents’ (and parents’) home state after College, so that is a partial explanation for her not coming across as believably  ‘mid-western’. But as well, throughout the novel I maintained the impression that Pandora was describing feelings rather than feeling them.

In these times you might think that the Big Brother of the title pertains to government oversight, but in fact it is meant literally. When Pandora meets her brother at the airport after they have been some years apart, she discovers he has morphed into a barely ambulant 386 lb mound of blubber. The brother, Edison, is a NY-based jazz pianist who has fallen on hard times and has come to New Holland, outside Cedar Rapids, IA, for an extended stay with Pandora, her husband Fletcher, and her teenage step-children Tanner, 17 and Cody, 13.

There’s plenty to keep you occupied over the 370pp of this novel – Pandora and Edison’s firm conviction that their father’s TV family was more real to him than his actual family, and the way they in turn seemed to match themselves to their fictional counterparts; the success of Pandora’s business manufacturing individualised dolls (for adults), which has ‘gone viral’; the relative failure of Fletcher’s business as an arty furniture maker;  Fletcher’s obsessive bike-riding, food faddishness; the children’s attempts to mark out their own space and so on. And Shriver is a fine writer, you can feel the care with which she places each individual word.

The one aspect of our father’s show that I still admired was its representation of the way siblings live in a separate world from their parents, who for kids function as mere walk-ons. Joint Custody captures the intense, hothouse collusion between siblings, while [the parents] are played for fools. Often ashamed of tugging the children’s loyalties in opposite directions, the parents fail to grasp their kid’s salvation: the children’s uppermost loyalty is to each other.

In the beginning there are the usual marital tensions which arise from one spouse having a sibling to stay (says he who would often be jealous of the times not-then-ex-Mrs Legend stayed up late talking to her sister during her infrequent visits to Melbourne), let alone a sibling who smokes, raids the fridge, is unable to contribute to the budget, leaves his stuff lying around, and breaks the furniture. For two months!

But then Shriver takes it to another level, Pandora tells Fletcher that she is taking an apartment nearby with her brother to supervise his return to his teenage weight of 163 lb. Fletcher tells Pandora that in that case she is not permitted in his house. Not much negotiation going on here, nor any thought of how the apparent abandonment/effective ban on contact may affect the children.  And Pandora still regards herself not only as married, which technically at least she is, but as able to resume normal relations with Fletcher after, as it turns out, a year of almost zero contact.

Here Pandora breaks the news to Tanner, as he waits for his sister after school:

“That’s what I wanted to talk about,” I dived in. “And maybe it’s good Cody’s not here yet. I’ll need you to look out for your sister for a while. You know, the way you used to. I’ll still be a resource of course – “

“So you’re leaving Dad,” he said – matter of fact, with a trace of satisfaction. “Guess he brought it on himself. Least he’ll be the healthiest misery guts in town.”

“I’m not leaving anyone.” Hastily I detailed my grand plan – adding judiciously that I wasn’t at all sure it would work.

He heard me out. “So you’re leaving Dad.”

Rolling my eyes in exasperation, I spotted Cody across the street. She looked stricken. I never showed up in the car like this. Obviously, someone had died.

I waved, and she lumbered up with a pack as big as she was to their Meeting Tree. “What’s cookin’?” she asked warily.

“[the doll business] isn’t enough for her,” said Tanner, “Pando’s starting a fat farm.”

The next half of the novel concerns Edison’s progress towards his target weight on a diet of four protein shakes a day; the effect on Pandora of following the same diet; lots of sibling bonding; and at least some concern for Cody who is in the invidious position of pretending to both her parents that she is on their side.

There is a short, third part, a fashionable, bullshit post-modern ending which makes the reading of all the preceding pages a complete waste of time, which I don’t suppose you can avoid, but which you would do well to skip over.

 

Lionel Shriver, Big Brother, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version read by Alice Rosengard, Blackstone Audio, 2013

Kate W’s review in booksaremyfavouriteandbest here (she likes it!)

The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

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Tracy Chevalier (1962- ) is best known for her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) set in C17th Holland. I listened to it some time ago and enjoyed it, but I haven’t seen the 2003 movie. The Last Runaway (2013) is her seventh (of eight) and is set in C19th America.

The plot is basically: Honor Bright, a Quaker woman in England is jilted by her fiancée and so decides to accompany her sister to America where the sister is to marry a former fellow townsman and Quaker who has established a business in a newly settled part of Ohio. Honor falls in with Belle, a milliner and an alcoholic, who is part of the Underground Railroad, sheltering and assisting the passage of runaway slaves from the South making their way to Canada. The biggest threat to the runaways is recapture by bounty hunters, of whom Belle’s brother Donovan is the most prominent.

After working for a while in the shop of her prospective brother in law, Honor marries into the Haymaker family, Quaker farmers in a nearby parish. The Quakers are anti-slavery but the Haymakers are frightened to assist runaways because they can be heavily fined under Federal law. Honor defies them and we go on from there.

I am interested that the date is around 1850 and Ohio is only partially cleared for farming, less so maybe than Victoria and NSW at the same time. I was thinking that settlement would have begun a couple of centuries earlier but in fact first settlement was at Marietta in the familiar year of 1788, with, according to Wikipedia, battles against the ‘Indians’ – who are not mentioned at all in this novel – throughout the 1790s.

Honor only slowly realises the scale of Belle’s involvement in the movement of runaways. After Belle shoots a snake in the back yard …

Honor thought about the man hiding there, almost three days now cramped in the heat and dark, and hearing the gunshot. She wondered how Belle came to be hiding him. When her ears had stopped ringing she said, ‘Thee mentioned that Kentucky is a slave state. Did thy family own slaves?’ It was the most direct question she had dared to ask.

Belle regarded her with yellowed eyes, leaning against the porch railing and still holding the shotgun, her dress hanging off her. It occurred to Honor that the milliner must have an underlying illness to make her so thin and discoloured. ‘Our family was too poor to own slaves. That’s why Donovan does what he does. Poor white people hate Negroes more’n anyone.’

Chevalier tries very hard to be colour-blind in a book about racial prejudice and has Honor chase after and attempt to befriend an older Black woman, Mrs Reed.

‘May I ask thee a question?’ Honor ventured.

Mrs Reed frowned. ‘What … ma’am.’ Honor did not wear a wedding band, as Friends did not need such a reminder of their commitment; yet somehow Mrs Reed knew she was married.

Please call me Honor. We do not use “ma’am” – or “miss”.

‘All right. Honor. What you want to know?’

‘What does thee think of colonisation?’

Mrs Reed let her mouth hang open for a moment. ‘What does I think of colonisation? She repeated.

Honor said nothing. Already she regretted asking the question.

Mrs Reed snorted. ‘You an abolitionist? Lots of Quakers is.’ She glanced around the empty shop and seemed to reach a decision. ‘Abolitionists got lots o’ theories, but I’m living with realities. Why would I want to go to Africa? I was born in Virginia. So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents. I’m American. I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen. If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well, I’m here. This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

I listen to lots of audio books but the reason I chose to discuss this one is because I am interested in novels about racism in the US and the light it throws on racism here; and more precisely, because of the difficulty I have with stories about honourable White people, doing the ‘right thing’. I have looked at this before in my posts on Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. For another point of view,  Lisa at ANZLL has just reviewed another book on the Underground Railroad, The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy (here).

I’m a big fan of the approach taken by Thea Astley: make it clear that modern Australian society is built on the atrocities that White settlers committed against Aboriginals, in historical times until right up to today – just look at Palm Island. Until we acknowledge those atrocities, and all the underlying injustices and unfairnesses that we use or used to make life difficult for Indigenous Australians, there can be no way forward, to genuine racial harmony.

So my problem with stories about honourable White people is that they allow White people today, and not just the White people who say, ‘don’t blame me I didn’t shoot and poison anyone’; they allow White people today to say, ‘well some of us were ok, we weren’t all bad’, and to slide out of acknowledging the great harm we have caused and perpetuate, and benefit from.

Coming home from Kalgoorlie with this review in my head I was listening to the Archie Roach album, Tracker. Lamenting the loss of Country in My History, Archie sings “And so I will only forgive when there is contrition.” I worry that stories like this deflect us from that moment.

The Last Runaway is not literary fiction, but it is a well-written story with an interesting underlying factual base, as is often the case with historical fiction (and, as a bonus for MST at Adventures in Biography, Honor is a quilter and there is a great deal of technical discussion about the differences between English and American quilts). Just don’t treat it as though it is the whole story, or even more than peripheral to the main story.

 

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version by AudioGO, UK, 2013 (8 hrs 45 min). Read by Laurel Lefkow

Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital

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Orpheus Lost (2007) is a powerful novel of our dystopian now. A now of surveillance, rendition, secrecy, of punishment without trial, without justification even, at the whim of people employed by, set loose by the state, to terrify us all into submission, into the acceptance of regimes throughout the ‘free world’ at odds with everything we once believed about freedom, equality, democracy.

Janette Turner Hospital (1942- ) is an Australian author resident for most of her working life in north America. I haven’t read, or remembered reading, enough of her work to judge whether her writing is mostly Australian or American. This work is set in Boston, which I think is her current home, but has an Australian component.

The title of course references the legend* but in JTH’s version, the musician is lost and his bride must attempt first to find and then to recover him.

Sometimes, in dreams, when the beginning began again, Mishka would warn her: “Don’t follow me, Leela.” He would lift the violin to his chin and begin to play. He would turn his back and walk away from her, walk down into the subway tunnels, deeper and deeper, the bow rising above his left shoulder and falling again, the notes drifting back, plaintive and irresistible. “Leave me alone,” he would say. “Don’t follow me.”

Leela is a grad student, a brilliant mathematician escaped from the mediocrity of life in rural South Carolina, studying the mathematics of music. She hears a violin deep in the subway and follows the notes to their source, Mishka Bartok, himself an escapee, from an eccentric musical family living in a wooden castle on the Daintree River in north Queensland.

Leela’s friend and only scholastic rival at school had been Cobb, son of a maths teacher mother and a drunken, violent Viet Nam War vet father. The mother hangs herself and is found by Cobb.  Leela too is motherless,  her mother dying giving birth to her sister, her father a preacher and unable to control her as she runs wild in the town, Cobb hiding in the bushes to better observe her sexual adventures.

Mishka has grown up living with his mother, his father unknown, and her parents, Jewish refugees from Hungary, and a reclusive violin playing great uncle who lives behind a closed door on the upper floor of the secluded ‘castle’, but despite a difficult time at school, eventually makes his way to study music composition in Boston.

After that first meeting Mishka and Leela live together but Mishka begins to be more and more absent for long periods, and then one day Leela is seized, bundled into a black car and taken to an interrogation room. Slowly we become aware that Cobb, having been in the Army is now a private contractor for the CIA and that he has been using his position to keep Leela and Mishka under surveillance, particularly of course, their bedroom.

Slowly, over 360pp, the tension builds. Mishka is determined to identify and locate his father; Boston is subject to repeated incidences of terrorism; Leela follows Mishka and finds that he is hanging out with Islamists; Leela’s and Cobb’s fathers are both dying and, separately, though more or less simultaneously, they make their way back to their home town, Promised Land, SC. Mishka disappears.

[Mishka] confessed that he was in possession of hidden knowledge and he was keeping that knowledge hidden from the gods, though he understood it would be plucked from him.

Sometimes he said: “My name is Orpheus,” and then he realized that the snarling shapes in the room were Cerberus and his fierce brood of pups.

He tried to explain that he had not descended into the dark world of Cerberus to steal secrets. Love had brought him. He wanted to know if he could love his father and if his father could love him. He had come to call love to himself with his oud. If he could play his oud, if he would be permitted to play for Cerberus …

His answers were always wrong and brought punishment.

More than this I cannot reveal, except that this is a terrible story told in the most wonderful prose. Please, read this book and be very, very afraid.

 

Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus Lost, Harper Collins, 2007. Audio version Bolinda Audio (10 ¼ hours), read by Edwina Wren


* Orpheus was such a fine musician that he could charm the gods. When Eurydice is set upon by a satyr, falls into a nest of vipers and dies on their wedding day Orpheus must go down into the underworld where Hades and Persephone agree “to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.” (wiki)

Letty Fox: Her Luck, Christina Stead

ANZLitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016

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The copy of Letty Fox I have is not that pictured above but one from Imprint (A&R) in 1991 with an Introduction by Susan Sheridan which begins:

Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) is the first of a trio of satirical novels which Christina Stead wrote about the sexual and political lives of New Yorkers as she had observed them while living there before and during the Second World War.

Without further ado, here is the first paragraph (a review will take much longer, sorry).

“One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening. In general, things were bad with me; I was in low water financially and had nothing but married men as companions. My debts were nearly six hundred dollars, not counting my taxes in arrears. I had already visited the tax inspector twice and promised to pay in installments when I had money in the bank. I had told him that I was earning my own living, with no resources, separated from my family, and that though my weekly pay was good, that is sixty-five dollars, I needed that and more to live. All this was true. I now had by good fortune, about seventy dollars in the bank, but this was only because a certain man had given me a handsome present (the only handsome present I ever got, in fact); and this money I badly needed for clothes, for moving, and for petty cash. During the war, I had got used to taking a taxi to work. Being out always late at night, I was sluggish in the morning; and being a great worker at the office, I was behindhand for my evening dates. Beyond such petty expenses, I needed at least two hundred and fifty dollars for a new coat. My fur coat, got from my mother, and my dinner dress, got from my grandmother, were things of the past and things with a past, mere rags and too well known to all my friends. There was no end to what I needed. My twenty-fourth birthday was just gone, and I had spent two hours this same evening ruminating upon all my love affairs which had sunk ingloriously into the past, along with my shrunken and worn outfits. Most of these affairs had been promising enough. Why had they failed? (Or I failed?) Partly, because my men, at least during the war years, had been flighty, spoiled officers in the armed services, in and out of town, looking for a good-timer by the night, the week or the month; and if not these young officers, then my escorts were floaters of another sort, middle-aged, married civilians, journalists, economic advisers, representatives of foreign governments or my own bosses, office managers, chiefs, owners. But my failure was, too, because I had no appartment to which to take them. How easy for them to find it inconvenient to visit me at my hotel, or for me to visit them at theirs when they were dubious or cool. It seemed to me that night that a room of my own was what I principally lacked.

Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, First pub. Harcourt Brace, New York, 1946. My edition: Imprint, Sydney, 1991. Introduction by Susan Sheridan, Women’s Studies, Flinders University, 1990

Women’s SF, Nnedi Okorafor, Liz Williams

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I’ve made the generalization before that mainstream (guy’s) SF is ideas and action driven and that women’s SF is more character driven. Nevertheless, the three books I review here contain a lot of action. In my younger days I read extensively in the SF field before Fantasy started to take over and still do to some extent. Lots of SF circulates around my family, it’s still my son’s main field of reading and long-suffering x-Mrs Legend copped a Cixin Liu for her recent birthday, mostly so as I’d eventually get to read it.

Apart from the great Ursula Le Guin, non-fantasy women’s SF has been hard to come by. Ann McCaffery is ok in small doses, and I have some good books from The Women’s Press Science Fiction series. They “hope that the series will encourage more women both to read and to write science fiction, and give the traditional science fiction readership a new and stimulating perspective.” I think they did, but that was 30 years ago.

As it happens, I’ve read/listened to some excellent  women’s SF over the past month, and although my original intention was just escapism, I thought I would knock up a review. Interestingly, some recent Australian women’s writing, even apart from Sue Parritt (here) who writes straight SF, has had an SF feel to it too. In the last year I’ve reviewed Jane Rawson’s  A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (here), Georgia Blain’s Special (here), Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (here) and Ellen van Neerven’s story Water (here).

Nnedi Okorafor (1974-) is US born of Nigerian parents, did a lot of her growing up in Nigeria, and going by the many prizes she has been awarded, is readily accepted as both an American and an African writer. I listened to Who Fears Death (2010) while I was working and then, when I couldn’t find a paper copy for this review, borrowed The Book of Phoenix (2015) which is billed as a prequel.

It seems, on my limited reading, that Nigerian Lit. contains a great deal of spiritualism (not magic realism!) and particularly in SF, this flows along quite naturally. The story of Who Fears Death is an allegory for the war in the Sudan, between the Muslim/Arabic north and the sub-Saharan African (‘Igbo’) south. It is set in a post-apocalyptic desert where the light-skinned and more technologically advanced Nuru from the north are encroaching on the lands of the darker Okeke. Najeeba, an Okeke woman is raped by a Nuru man who turns out to be the sorcerer Daib, and bears a mixed race daughter, Onyesonwu, who will be the victim of prejudice from both the Nuru and the Okeke. After 6 years living in the desert Najeeba and Onyesonwu settle in an Okeke town where Onyesonwu is educated, initiated (by genital mutilation) with 3 other girls who become her friends, becomes accepted, despite being female, as an apprentice sorcerer with considerable powers, and then takes her friends and her boyfriend on a quest across the desert to defeat Daib. This is a powerful and well written story and I highly recommend it.

Despite having listened to Who Fears Death both before and after reading The Book of Phoenix, I was unable to see any but the most tenuous connection. Nevertheless, it is a powerful work of SF in its own right. Okorafor blogged (here):

These two novels are sisters. Close sisters. But not twins…  Similar, but different. How do the stories connect? Who is Phoenix to Onyesownu and Onyesonwu to Phoenix? You’ll have to read them to find out. Don’t bother going in with expectations; you’ll probably be wrong. ;-).

The setting is a near future, in the USA, where the genetic engineering of humans has been commercialized and militarized. Phoenix Okore is a two-year old but mature “accelerated woman” living in Tower 7, LifeGen’s laboratory complex in New York. At first content just to consume data, Phoenix begins to interact with her fellow ‘speciMen’, aquires a lover, then, when he is killed, breaks out, destroying Tower 7 in the process. Becoming ever more powerful, she rampages across the USA and Africa, bringing the Apocalypse:

Not just New York. I scorch the earth, Yes, I can do that. I am that. Phoenix Okore blew across the earth. She burned the cities. Turned the oceans to steam. She was the reaper come to reap what was sown…. Let them die. Let everything die.

It is true that some of the ‘science’ verges on magic, as well as calling on the African god, Ani, but really, the only weak part of the book is the framing narrative, of an African nomad, discovering a trove of ancient, but somehow still working, computers in a cave. He fires one up and listens to Phoenix’s story.

Another blogger (here) writes, “Phoenix’s voice is so powerful in narrating her own tale that not only the anger but the dignity and determination of an entire oppressed people comes through.”

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Liz Williams (1965-) is a British SF writer with a PhD in Philosophy of Science from Cambridge. Bloodmind (2007) apparently follows on from Darkland (2006) but is easily read on its own. Despite the fact that SF publishers love a series, I couldn’t find any mention that Williams had gone on to #3 (though she has written other series).

Bloodmind is set in a distant future where humans have colonized many planets and have engaged in genetic engineering to facilitate this. The story switches between the points of view of three women, each on separate planets, until they eventually come together. Vali is a young woman, a soldier whose people are on the losing side of a war on the planet Muspell. Hunan is an older woman, leading a colony of women who have escaped from a city where they had been genetically engineered to be subservient to their husbands. And Sedra, also an older woman, is a hunter at the end of her useful life who is leaving her community to return to the wilds where she will die.

Each woman is well drawn and we care what happens to them. Vali is recruited to go to Sedra’s planet to capture a powerful renegade who turns out to be the daughter of Sedra’s long-lost sister. Although there is inter-planetary travel and some fancy weaponry, most of the science turns on men genetically engineering women for their own benefit (or protection!). As with the Okorafor novels, there are some guys, but they definitely take second place. All three books provide an interesting take on the Independent Woman as super-hero.

 

Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death, Brilliance Audio (15 hours), 2010. Read by Anne Flosnik

Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix, Daw Books, New York, 2015

Liz Williams, Bloodmind, Tor, London, 2007

Re super heroes, Helen Razer is at her scathing best in this article on the appointment of Wonder Woman as UN Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.

The Shriver Kerfuffle

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Lionel Shriver (image from Alchetron)

Following the dustup surrounding Lionel Shriver’s speech in Brisbane last week I thought it might be useful to provide a summary and to gather into one place as many links as I could. While I’m sure much of the outrage was confected, and indeed planned for, the underlying debate around Cultural Appropriation is of ongoing relevance. For me it began with a report in The Age of 11 Sept 2016:

Brisbane Writers Festival has been swept into a storm of controversy after the opening address of American author Lionel Shriver caused members of the audience to walk out.

This report was seemingly in response to an article in the Guardian of 10 Sept by Yassmin Abdel-Magied headed:

As Lionel Shriver made light of identity I had no choice but to walk out on her

referring to Shriver’s BWF opening address of the previous night, ie. Fri 9 Sept.  At this point we understood that Shriver had claimed the ‘right’ as a writer to stand in the shoes of/to represent the views in her fiction of any person of any gender, ethnicity or colour that she chose. And that Abdel-Magied claimed that this represented ‘cultural appropriation’, with which view I largely agree. The Age further reported Festival volunteer Yen-Rong Wong as saying:

The publishing industry is chock full of white men, and advocating for their ‘right’ to write from the perspective of someone in a marginalised position takes opportunities away from those with authentic experiences to share.

A “Right-of-Reply” event hurriedly organized by the BWF was held on Saturday night, 10 Sept to give speakers opposed to Shriver a forum for their views. Then on Monday, 12 Sept the key players were all interviewed on the ABC’s The World Today. The following day my favourite commentator on all things cultural, Helen Razer in (pay-walled) magazine Crikey, appeared to suggest that Shriver was known for her opposition to ‘political correctness’ and that BWF may have been courting controversy for the sake of publicity.

At about the same time, the New York Times put up an article about the affair with, embarrassingly,  a great deal more detail than was available in The Age, claiming amongst other things that the Right of Reply symposium was deliberately timed so that Shriver would not be able to attend, and that the text of Shriver’s speech had been taken down from the BWF website. This last was frustrating for those of us interested in the debate as we had very little idea what Shriver had actually said until finally, on 13 Sept, the Guardian obtained and put up a transcript.

So who is Lionel Shriver? She was born in North Carolina in 1957 and changed her name from Margaret to Lionel as a teenager. She has always been explicit that she did not wish ‘female’ to be her primary identity. Shriver is the author of 13 novels, most notably We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) and her most recent, The Mandibles (2016). Blogger Kate W of booksaremyfavouriteandbest went to see Shriver at the Melbourne Writers Festival the previous week (Sun. 4 Sept) and wrote, “She is, without question, one of the most compelling and powerful authors – no, people – that I’ve ever heard speak.” Kate, who has reviewed a couple of Shriver’s books (Double Fault and Big Brother) cited an article from earlier this year by Shriver, Gender – Good for Nothing which begins:

From childhood, I experienced being female as an imposition. Growing up between two brothers, I was the one who had to wear stupid dresses …

In the article Shriver makes a compelling case that second wave feminism with which she grew up has failed to eradicate male/female differentiation. That, because it has become accepted that we are now able to choose our gender identity anywhere along and beyond the LGBTI spectrum, it is exactly those old male/female stereotypes that we use to determine our orientation. She writes:

I am often asked how I manage to write persuasively from a male character’s point of view, which I do frequently… the crucial constituents of our characters have little to do with gender, unless we insist on labelling clumps of qualities—forcefulness, violence, inability to cry; tenderness, consideration, inability to drive—as exclusively male and female, which they are not.

In her BWF address, and I strongly recommend that if you have got this far, that you read it in full, she makes a series of ‘commonsense’ examples about dressing up in other peoples’ clothes, leading up to her central argument:

What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.

I’m hoping that crime writers, for example, don’t all have personal experience of committing murder. Me, I’ve depicted a high school killing spree, and I hate to break it to you: I’ve never shot fatal arrows through seven kids, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker, either. We make things up, we chance our arms, sometimes we do a little research, but in the end it’s still about what we can get away with – what we can put over on our readers.

Because the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.

Yassmin-Abdel-Magied.jpg
Yassmin Abdel-Magied

The young woman who challenged Shriver, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, “is a mechanical engineer, social advocate, writer and petrol head and is the 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year.” It is clear from her bio that she pursues a career as a ‘public intellectual’ with a high profile on programmes like Q&A. In her Guardian article she writes:

[Shriver’s] question was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?

Not every crime writer is a criminal, Shriver said, nor is every author who writes on sexual assault a rapist. “Fiction, by its very nature,” she said, “is fake.”

There is a fascinating philosophical argument here. Instead, however, that core question was used as a straw man. Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. It was a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of “others”, simply because it is useful for one’s story.

Cultural appropriation, Abdel-Magied concludes, is a “thing”. Colonisation has taken everything from peoples all around the world, should they now also surrender their identities?

Interestingly, I have not seen any comments by Aboriginal writers on this issue. Googling Anita Heiss brings up a Twitter post from a month or so ago “What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm”. Heiss has addressed the issue of who should write Aboriginal stories previously in Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight (2003) which I reviewed earlier this year.

Finally, let me knock down a straw man of my own. It is often said that in a multi-cultural society, and indeed in a multi racial world, that authors fail to properly represent society if they present a mono-racial picture, and as it happens I made just that criticism recently of Liane Moriarty. So let me be clear. I do not think male authors should not have female characters. I do not think white writers should not have characters of other ethnicities or colour (or class). I think they should fill their books with such characters, just not the protagonist. What they should not do, what the members of any dominant culture should not do, is attempt to pass themselves off in their fiction as representing the views of an oppressed culture. The stories of the oppressed are not ours to tell. Middle class white men back off!

We generally acknowledge that white men in management (and politics) will have fewer opportunities for advancement until women and people of colour have taken their rightful place amongst them. It has been clear for some time that the same must apply to white writers. That is not a denial of their rights, but simply a reduction of their privileges.

I do not think fewer white men should be published, as MST has pointed out the problem is not in publishing but in what receives attention. I don’t even think white men should be stopped from telling the stories of women and people of other ethnicities. But I do think we should call them out when they do.

26 Sept 2016. Shriver has replied in the NYT (here).Thanks to Tim Harding of The Logical Place, who reposted the Shriver Kerfuffle, for putting this up.


Links used in this post –

Age http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/your-brisbane/us-author-lionel-shrivers-brisbane-writers-festival-speech-prompts-walkout-20160911-grdp0m.html

Guardian YAM https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her?CMP=share_btn_fb

BWF blog https://uplit.com.au/festival/uplit/blog

ABC http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2016/s4537028.htm

Razer https://www.crikey.com.au/2016/09/13/brisbane-writers-festival-caused-lionel-shriver-controversy-deliberately/

Guardian LS https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Kate W https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/lionel-shriver-at-the-melbourne-writers-festival/

KW review DF https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/double-fault-by-lionel-shriver/

KW review BB https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/big-brother-by-lionel-shriver/

LS Gender http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/gender-good-for-nothing

YAM http://www.yassminam.com/rtn/

Heiss http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/?utm_source=SocialWarfare&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=SocialWarfare

Heiss https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2016/04/01/dhuuluu-yala-anita-heiss/

MST https://adventuresinbiography.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/book-reviews-where-are-all-the-women-stella-count-paints-a-depressing-picture/

NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html?module=WatchingPortal&region=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=15&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2016%2F09%2F13%2Fbooks%2Flionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html&eventName=Watching-article-click&_r=1

Shriver reply http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?_r=0