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Posts Tagged ‘Gender and Women’s Studies’

11. “Butch is a Noun,” S. Bear Bergman

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Memoirs of butchness.

This took me a very long time to read, especially for such a slim book. It really resonated with me and the complex gender I live. Bergman performs a chivalristic butchness that is aware of how problematic it can be for a masculine-gendered person to want care for feminine-gendered people.  Ze talks about hir love of femmes, on having hir butchness nurtured by femmes, on getting to nurture young butches. It’s all touching and left me with a lot to think about. I’d recommend it, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it took you a few months to plod though, too (or if you read it in an hour).

Page count: 192

Page total: 3,001

2. “Thirteen Reasons Why,” Jay Asher

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

A few weeks after Hannah Baker kills herself, Clay Jensen comes home to find a shoebox fill of cassettes on his from porch. It’s addressed to him– with no return address. And when he starts playing them, he hears Hannah’s voice, promising to name the thirteen reasons– and thirteen people– who drove her to suicide.

This book made me so, so angry for the first thirty or so pages. It! is! not! right! to! blame! others! for! your! suicide! Especially not when then things you are naming are so run-of-the-mill. Her tone moves between gloating, goading, and blase (which, as we all know, is not the right tone for a suicidal person to take, and not the right reasons for killing yourself). I figured that she would have to have been raped, because that’s pretty much the only “good” reason I could think of for a suicide in a YA book. And pretty soon the book starts to voice a pretty excellent analysis of rape culture, which was way more than I would have hoped for.

Hannah is extremely explicit about the fact that a kiss is not groping, and that rumors that she was “easy” are a problem not only because she’s not, but because the stigma associated with being easy means that she is not able to give full consent once that rumor starts. (See Yes Means Yes, please!!) She begins with her first kiss, a sweet, beautiful kiss she had been literally dreaming about. But shortly after the kiss, rumors begin to swirl that she took off her shirt (right there in the park) and let him put his hands under her bra which, we all all know, makes her a slut, which makes her disposable.

When Hannah tells one boy that she “just looked over every name– every story– that completes these tapes. And guess what. Every single event documented here may never have happened had you, Alex, not written my name on that list [of the best asses in the grade],” (41), it felt horrifyingly unfair. Because, Hannah, my friend, the world will do so many worse things to you than tell you you have a nice ass. There are so many more battles to fight. Hell, there is precisely that battle to fight. I read this book for my class on ghosts in US literature, and one of the critical articles we read that has really stuck in my craw has been Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s “Scare Tactics,” which argues that there is a US American tradition of women writers of ghost stories and that these stories represent an avenue of increased agency for women writers (and, perhaps, the women characters who usually star in their writings).

The problem is, this implies that a woman gains agency in fiction only by being dead. And that was just the problem I had with Hannah Baker. Hannah seems like a strong, insightful, smart, passionate, all-around awesome woman. But she cannot speak her power. She gains power only though haunting people with tapes after her death. And even as a haunting, that is a fairly limited one, for it depends fully on the listener’s doing just that– in other words, Hannah could not speak if people would not listen, if they refused to press play. Asher’s answer to this is to have Hannah explain that there is a second set of tapes and that if the first one is not passed on, that one will be made public. By a man. The man who gave her the tape recorder that she used to record her ghostly missive.

I kept imagining what an amazing world this would be if we did not have to wait until the Hannahs of the world were dead to care what they had to say.

This book was published in 2007, before the recent, well-publicized spate of gay suicides, but it preaches the lesson that we are all responsible to one another, and that our actions have snowball effects. “I guess that’s the point of it all. No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push [the snowball] just the same,” Hannah high schools (156).

I think the message that “it gets better” is condescending at best, and I don’t blame Hannah for not wanting to fight to make it better, but in literature, where anything is possible, it’s so depressing that this is the best we can do.

Realistic, but depressing.

I may have more thoughts after my class talks about this next month.

Pages: 304
Page total: 749

65. “Assata,” Assata Shakur

October 7, 2010 Leave a comment

“Assata” is the autobiography of Assata Shakur, who was framed by the US government for multiple bank robberies, held for years in deplorable conditions in a men’s prison before being tried and acquitted, and wrongly convicted of the murder of a State Trooper. Assata escaped from prison in 1979 and for the past 26 years, lived in Cuba as a political prisoner. The FBI continues to consider her a domestic terrorist.

I really enjoyed this book. Assata’s an excellent writer, and her writing felt so immediate. I felt like I was with her in every scene, from working on the grandparents’ beach in the summer, to fighting with her mom, or being chained to a hospital bed. I’m not usually able to visualize when I read, but I saw and felt so much of what Assata said.

Assata is such a beautiful person. She has so much love. Black Panthers are usually painted as separatist, dangerous, violent, hateful militants. While Assata never shies from that term, when she uses it, it is an endorsement, not the indictment it is usually used as. Assata reproduces a speech she made in which she said “I am a Black revolutionary. By that i mean that i have declared war on all forces that have raped our women, castrated our men, and kept our babies empty-bellied” (49-50).

We could use more revolutionaries.

Something I knew I would find challenging going into this book is that I grew up White in the suburbs; I have always been taught that police are my friends and are trying to protect me. It’s difficult for me to understand blanket hatred and mistrust of the police, even as I know that for many Black parents teaching their children to fear the police is an act of preservation that they must transmit. I know that intellectually, and reading how Assata was treated by so many people wearing uniforms and official badges, I understand why she hates the police. But part of me still resists. Part of me still wants to see their actions as those of isolated individuals drawn to power, rather than a manifestation of the power of the government.

On 139, Assata writes “nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who are oppressing them.” I think this quote sumarizes well the Black consciousness movement

But in the past several years, I have noticed that I feel the same uneasiness around the police that I have around so many authority figure: they make me feel guilty and scared like I have done something wrong. I am frightened to look directly at them, and frightened not to show them respect. I am starting to wonder how much of the trust I feel or have felt in the police is trust in my own privilege, that I am not the one for whom they are coming. The discomfort has certainly coincided with my questioning of my power.

There in a weekly video broadcast I watch called the Lucille Clifton Rebirth Broadcast. In it, Alexis Grumbs reads a poem by Lucille Clifton and discusses it while giving an assignment for one to write on. This week’s poem was “Dialysis,” in which Lucille Clifton reflects on surviving her cancer, only to then have to survive dialysis, ending, “I am alive and furious.” I loved this line and it made me think of Assata. How wonderful to be alive, how wonderful to be furious, rather than beaten. Assata says near the end of the book, “every day out on the street now, I remind myself that Black people in amerika are oppressed. It’s necessary that I do that. People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave” (262). It takes so much strength and power to face that and keep fighting. After what Assata has been though, she would have earned the right to just quietly run out her days, but that’s not what she does. She keeps writing, keeps speaking truth to power.

Page count: 320
Page total: 18,349

63. “Drag King Dreams,” Leslie Feinberg

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m behind on reviews due to computer issues, so here’s a quick one:

I don’t know how Leslie Feinberg understands my life so well and manages to speak to me in exactly the terms I need to hear every single time I read hir. I saw this at the library and picked it up, promptly forgetting about it. A few days later, I had my first class on White anti-racism and social justice work and I can tell it’s going to be one of the hardest classes I’ve ever had. I can’t talk about race without talking about gender and sex and sexuality and disability and size and all of these big triggers. I was completely beside myself for a few days. With my computer broken, I picked up this book. It was exactly what I needed.

Page count: 302
Total pages: 18,029

57. “Who Fears Death,” Nnedi Okorafor

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In a post-apocalyptic Africa where oceans are a thing of the past, technology has given way to powerful juju, and racial wars rule, Onyesonwu is a young and powerful sorceress charged with ending the war between the Okeke and Nuru.

I definitely want to re-read this. The first third or so was slow going for me but after Onyesonwu begins training in earnest, the book became urgent and fast-paced.

(Despite the dire tags, this book isn’t really depressing. It’s dark, to be sure, and if any of those things are a major trigger for you, skip it, but Okorafor manages to weave a book where rape, racism, and genocide are central and important but not soul-crushing.)

Page count: 387
Page total: 15,617

52. “Hair Story: The History of Black Hair in America,” Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

A historical and cultural examination of the meanings assigned to Black hair in the US.

This was a really interesting and enlightening book. I did have some understanding of Black hair care (and myths, mythos, superstitions, and general bullshit) before reading, but this book was lush with first-person accounts and extremely balanced in its reporting of history and the meanings of history.

When I was younger, I had long, very textured and curly hair and if left to its own devises, my hair would dred a little. But this book really argues that it’s not the hair itself as much as it is the history of the hair that makes it so fraught. In most West African societies in (and long before) the 1600s, hair care and styling was incredibly ritualized, with different hair styles holding symbolic meaning and the creation and upkeep of them a cultural affair. When Africans were kidnapped and enslaved, their kidnappers shaved their heads, stripping them of their identities. After months in the belly of slave ships, they emerged with dirty, matted hair incomprehensible to their slavers. In a new continent, new climate, and inhuman (not merely inhumane) conditions, slaves had to come up with new ways of caring for, or more often, merely taming or containing their hair.

Enter the hot comb, grease, do-rags, followed up by relaxers, braids, Afros, Jerri Curl, weaves, cornrows, perms, dreds, and blow-dryers.

Along the way, White people, of course, have had a lot of shit to say about Black hair, such that smooth, silky, combable hair becomes good hair, worthy of both envy and derision, and textured, kinky hair is “bad” hair (but sometimes afforded a sort of grudging respect at particular political moments).

I mentioned my own hair earlier because it has always been kind of difficult for me to understand why many Black people are quick to snap that their hair is not curly, it’s kinky and that White people don’t really have dreds even when they, well, have dreds (because White hair usually requires intervention to make it dred, while kinky Black hair doesn’t). But reading this book helped me to understand the cultural meaning of kinky hair and how it probably feels like white washing to have it euphemized by White folks as curly. And White surfers with dreds, or me pointing out that my hair used to have a lot of texture, too, definitely smacks of appropriation of an extremely loaded topic by someone who simply doesn’t get the same cultural baggage with the hairstyle.

So, as I said, a really interesting book, and, I think, a good one for White people to read. Because the average Black person definitely knows more about caring for White hair than the average White person knows about caring for Black hair and that’s not comfortable to me.

Since it’s my favorite axe to grind with this genre, there were a few organizational/editing problems, though. Parts of it were set up almost like a magazine with vocab lists, profiles of five Black men who changed hair, a bio of Jesse Jackson (I didn’t know that his bouffant was originally cut and styled by his mentor and surrogate father James Brown, who made him promise to wear his hair like that until Brown died), and other interesting asides, but they are plopped in sort of randomly. Also, the time line kind of jumped around so that it wasn’t always in historical order, or we’d get an in-depth profile of Madam CJ Walker and her business and then, twenty pages later, have her explained again.

Overall, a solid B+.

Page count: 198
Page total: 14,376
Call number: E185.86.B96 2001x

42. “I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight,” Margaret Cho

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Apparently Margaret Cho is the shit. I don’t really go in for her comedy, as she does a lot of shouting and I do not like shouting, but this book shows a righteous, very cool, very smart person.

I was sort of confused by the format, which is almost like a blog. Even though it’s divided into sections, there’s not much tying the entries together. Not everything in the feminism section is explicitly feminist, not everything in the war on terror section is about how Former VP Chenney is a dangerous, dangerous human being.

“My attitude toward peace does not depend on which war we are discussing. I think that words should do the work of bombs.” (25)

On the ease with which women hate Courtney Love:

“Courtney Love is an incredible artist who has endured public derision and scorn for well over a decade. What man could survive that? Yet in any real way, the feminist majority has yet to come to her defense. No one has come forward with the simple question ‘Why is it that I am hating another woman with such ease?'” (112)

“Strange that there is so much religion in the world, but only enough to make us fight over who is right, not enough to make us love one another.” (182)

“A government that would deny a gay man the right to a bridal registry is a fascist state.” (145)

Page count: 240
Page total: 10,608
LOC Call number: PN 6165.C56 2005