Tag: Feminism

Three Books That Confronted My Privilege, March 2018

Three Books That Confronted My Privilege, March 2018

One of the things I have tried to do with my reading over the last year or so is to read diverse voices, particularly diverse non-fiction. I don’t want to only read books where I already agree with everything the author proposes, nor do I want to put a book down solely because it makes me uncomfortable where the thing that is making me uncomfortable is a person of color talking about their own experience. (Books like My Absolute Darling where a white man uses the c-word too much, however, are perfect examples of when I should put a book down just because it makes me uncomfortable). With that in mind, I recently finished three books by Black authors—We Were Eight Years in Power by journalist/author Ta-Nehisi Coates, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and This Will Be My Undoing by essayist Morgan Jerkins. I am not going to pretend that as a white woman I am qualified to “review” them, instead what I hope to achieve here is a summary of each so that you can decide if these are books that would challenge you and your privilege if you read them as well. All three are valuable recent books.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Coates’s most recent offering is a compilation of the essays he wrote for The Atlantic during the eight years of Obama’s presidency, one per year, with commentary of what was going on in his life and the life of many black Americans during each of the eight years. Because the essays were originally magazine articles, there is some repetition among them of certain points or common phrases that, if this were a book of essays, would likely have been edited to fit better. None of the thoughts or arguments that were repeated were long, so the repetition didn’t bother me as a reader, nor did it cause me to go into skim mode. It was just noticeable.   The introductions to each article were interesting in that, while the context was helpful, Coates also comments on the following article—things he wished he had done differently, whether some of his points or predictions held up, and general criticism of his work. As a reader, this was a strange device and it made me wish that the “intro” essays followed the pieces instead. His critique of his own work colored how I read the article and I wished before some of them that I had a chance to form my opinion before reading his hindsight-critique.

Though I read this book weeks ago, two of the essays in particular have stuck with me. The first and one that I didn’t expect to agree with as much as I ultimately did was his article on the Case for Reparations. I grew up in a conservative household and, until relatively recently, regurgitated arguments I’d heard growing up about the evils of affirmative action. For someone who grew up thinking affirmative action was a bad idea, reparations are essentially anathema. While I’ve come around on affirmative action, admittedly my thoughts on reparations before reading this article were generally along the lines of—we probably do owe them something but it would be impossible so why are we spending time on this? The Case for Reparations set out a history I was unfamiliar with, including the history of systemic discrimination on the part of the US government to prevent African Americans home ownership while enabling white families to purchase homes. Where homes are the most common source of wealth and wealth-building in this county, this set African Americans back generations. I found myself convinced by the end of Coates’s argument that, at a minimum, we need to actually study the feasibility of determining what is owed to whom and how that could be brought about.

The other essay that stuck with me was one I remember skimming in parts when I came out in The Atlantic but didn’t read in its entirety until this book. The Black Family In the Age of Mass Incarceration set out a history of how we find ourselves with the largest incarcerated population of any first world country, with vastly disproportionate rates of incarceration between whites and blacks with the same backgrounds. I assumed that the article was going to make a similar argument as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Coates’s argument, however, doesn’t go quite as far as Alexander’s. As with reparations, he does explain how government policies created disparate treatment between the two races that resulted in higher rates of incarceration of blacks and he explains how the current paid prison system only serves to reinforce the high rates of incarceration. (In a nutshell—when prison becomes a business, bodies become the commodities that must be obtained at high rates to keep the business open. And the bodies that draw the least criticism to consume are Black bodies.)

While many of the articles are still available online, there was a power in reading them together with Coates’s thoughts on each year of the Obama presidency, including critique of Obama’s failure to do more for African Americans who won him the presidency and the respectability politics he seemed unwilling to depart from. In some ways, the most powerful essay in the book was the prologue, written after the “black-lash” against the second Obama term that resulted in the election of what Coates calls the First White President. The compilation of all of these articles together along with the essays that introduce them and close the book, make it worth getting a copy of the book and not just re-reading the articles online. This was one of a handful of books that before I’d even finished my library copy, I’d ordered my own to keep.

Notes
Published: October 3, 2017 by One World
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Date read: February 18, 2018

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

The focus of probably the first half of When They Call You a Terrorist was not what I expected since Khan-Cullors’s recollections seemed more about her brother’s experience with an inadequate public and prison mental health system than it did on her brother’s blackness. Which is not to say that his blackness was ignored or even that his blackness didn’t greatly affect the way the mental health and law enforcement systems responded to him. I simply didn’t know much about Khan-Cullors before listening (I think literally the only thing I could recall hearing about was her partner’s being detained trying to come into the country from Canada) and so did not expect the lengthy discussion of mental illness. Her compassion for her brother and the way the family tried to treat him and have others treat him with as little force as possible made me hurt for her. (Khan-Cullors reads the book herself, which added to the tragedy inherent in many of the sections.) Because so much of the first half of the book is simultaneously a study of being black and having a mental illness, I would go so far as to say that if you’re interested in hearing about the lived experience of trying to obtain mental health care in a broken system, this is a powerful book for that alone.

Khan-Cullors lived experience was about as diametrically opposed to mine as possible, with the idea of “organizing” being something I don’t think I had heard of in any real sense before Obama came along (and then probably in a discussion of how he wasn’t “qualified” since that was all he had done). In contrast to my privileged and sheltered life, Khan-Cullors was reared in an atmosphere of social organizing, going to a school that focused on social justice issues, and having a diverse group of friends—both racially and on the gender spectrum.

I have literally nothing negative to say about this book because it is her lived experience and, unlike say J.D. Vance, she doesn’t use random anecdotes from her life to cast aspersions on an entire group of people. Khan-Cullors sticks pretty closely to her own story and, in doing so, comes across as credible—one can disagree with her politics but you can’t argue that this was her life.  The audiobook features a short interview with Khan-Cullors after the book where she says that one of her goals was to write a “truth-telling, healing-justice” story. She succeeded.

Notes
Published: January 16, 2018 by St. Martin’s Press
Author: Patrice Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele
Date read: March 8, 2018

This Will Be My Undoing: Living At the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America

Admittedly, of the three books featured here, this one probably made me the most uncomfortable, but mostly because I don’t read very many books that prominently feature essays about labia and vibrators. Which, let me quickly add, were not mentioned for shock value—this wasn’t a book that I felt like I wanted to put down because it veered into the gross-Lena-Dunham-esque territory. There were just a few moments of “oh—I don’t know that I’d talk about that publicly but here we go.”  I will say, this book probably made me the most uncomfortable of the three, though it was an uncomfortable that, like Hunger, was probably good for me to sit with.

Jerkins book is, like Coates, a series of essays—this was a bit of a mixed-bag for me. Each essay stood alone which made the audiobook easier to put down and pick back up but it also meant the stories jumped around in time a bit. The vision I had of Jerkins and her experience at one point in the book was changed when she revealed some piece of her early upbringing in a later essay. I wouldn’t call this book a favorite but it is a book I’m absolutely glad that I read—as I mentioned before, I want to push the boundaries of what I find comfortable and I want to specifically read more memoirs and essays from people of color about what it is like to have lived in their shoes—as Jerkins says, at the intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in White America. I recommend this book specifically because it did make me uncomfortable and because Jerkins’s voice is like none other I’ve heard. For someone so young (oh god, the authors are starting to be younger than I am!), she has a powerful voice and I look forward to seeing what is to come from her.

Notes
Published: January 20, 2018 by Harper Perennial
Author: Morgan Jerkins
Date read: March 19, 2018

Header photo credit: Daniel Garcia

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman


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It scarcely matters what is actually happening. She could kill them. That is the profound truth of it. She lets the power tickle at her fingers, scorching the varnish on the underside of the table. She can smell its sweet chemical aroma. Nothing that either of these men says is really of any significance, because she could kill them in three moves before they stirred in their comfortably padded chairs.  It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.

Synopsis
The Power tells the time period during which the power balance shifted—women (starting with teenage girls and waking in older women) have gained the power to electrify those they touch and, as a result, have become the default stronger, more powerful sex. Suddenly men find themselves in an unfamiliar landscape where every interaction with a woman can suddenly turn dangerous.

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Power has drawn numerous comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale—I understand this comparison but it is somewhat misleading. In plot, The Power is the exact opposite of The Handmaid’s Tale.  Rather than men running the world and a shortage of women, the world of The Power flips the power dynamic entirely and places women at the apex of power with men being the ones subjugated. Where the comparison rings true is the message and POV of the book. Alderman was literally mentored by Atwood and both books highlight the evils that arise when men are the sole sex in charge—Atwood by describing the extremes of men in charge and Alderman by narrating what happens when women take over and the gender-roles of power are flipped.

Structure and Writing
Alderman’s writing is well-constructed and snappy—there aren’t long poetic runs of prose, except in the religious “excerpts” where the prose fits the Biblical-style. Despite presenting four major viewpoints, Alderman is able to distinguish the voice and present distinct points-of-view for each character. Adding to the narrative are selected “primary” documents – letters, pictures of artifacts, excerpts from The Book of Eve. This could easily become gimmicky but because Alderman uses them sparingly, they add to the story. It is worth noting that with the use of the female-based religion (venerating the Mother over Jesus specifically), this book could easily become distasteful (or downright blasphemous) to devout Christians. The book is presented as a countdown to some unknown event so the timeline remains in flux—while the book doesn’t need a mystery element like this to be page-turning, it does add an additional element of the unknown—the book had a very clear climax that it worked towards.

Depth and Breadth
Arguably The Power’s greatest strength is also it’s biggest flaw. I was hard pressed to think of any gender role, stereotype, or gender crime that didn’t get flipped and addressed. I’m sure I missed some but the list includes religious-based sexism/gender-roles; how women can “control” sexual impulses (for both genders) by just keeping their (in this case) arms crossed; the plagiarism of women’s writing and the need to use nom de plumes in order to have women’s writing reach a wider audience; the rates of domestic violence and murder of women; gender-based gang violence; women who are opposed to feminism/women having power; women wanting to be men because of their power; women needing to take self-defense classes; parents worried about how girls are being victimized in school; gender roles in newscasting with a patronizing man covering business topics and the giggly woman covering serious topics like bobbing for apples; having a war correspondent be known/popular for how hot she looks when reporting; gender roles within families; having to have permission to travel/having to be with a guardian in public; genital mutilation; internal classes within gender where those who have less of the traditional (or new traditional) features of “masculinity” or “femininity” are judged/less than; and historians interpreting historical artifacts based on the current understanding of power (and discounting that which doesn’t fit).

There was a point at which it almost felt like too much—like Alderman was trying too hard to fit absolutely positively every gender issue into The Power. On the flip side, I know there are many who think this is an impressive feat that Alderman accomplishes and that each of these issues deserves to be mentioned, if for nothing else, than to show the impact misogyny has on absolutely every area of life. At the end of the day, for me it felt like hammering just a little too hard but wasn’t so distracting that it took away from the reading experience for me.

End game
It is easy to rue men’s current leadership and latch on to the idea that if women ran things the world would be better—everyone would be more gentle, there would be no war, and we’d all skip through fields of daisies, holding hands. Had this been where Alderman took The Power, it would have been a weak utopia. In contrast, Alderman’s message (one of the many) may be the idea that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Where Atwood left open the possibility that a female-run world would be better, it’s not clear that Alderman’s world is actually better. Certainly, it’s better for women and you can make a convincing argument that men have had the run of things for a couple millennia so it’s our turn. But Alderman doesn’t buy the idea that women in charge automatically means a more harmonious world. It wasn’t entirely where I expected the book to go but it was the right choice—both logically and for purely for the story’s sake as well.

Recommended
As noted, this book is a bit gritty and raw in plot—it is unapologetically and in-your-face feminist. I loved it and am glad it was my Book of the Month pick this month—it is still available a la carte to add for future months if you’re a current member. It is also well-crafted and well-written, hitting those notes in my grammar-and-structure-loving heart.

Notes
Published October 10, 2017 (in the US) by Little, Brown and Company (@littlebrown)
Author: Naomi Alderman (@naomi_alderman)
Date read: October 19, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon


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…Ritu auntie only waved her off, as if she thought Dimple were being demure—who on earth went to college with anything but the aspiration of landing a marriageable partner? Dimple thought of Insomnia Con., of Jenny Lindt, of SFSU, of Stanford. Of all the things she’d jeopardize if she called Ritu auntie a backward, anti-feminist blight on democratic society…

Synopsis
Dimple just needs to get out of the house, with her mother constantly foisting eyeliner and dreams of the IIH (Ideal Indian Husband) on her, to InsomniaCon., a six week coding conference where the winning final project gets to work with Dimple’s idol, Jenny Lindt, to develop and market an app. Rishi is also going to Insomnia Con…to meet Dimple, the girl their parents have arranged to be his wife (a fact about which Dimple is completely unaware). As the novel comes to a head, Dimple has to choose between following her passion for coding and web development and a growing passion for Rishi….or does she?

Representation
Representation matters and Sandhya Menon knocks it out of the park with When Dimple Met Rishi. While I’m by no stretch of the imagination a connoisseur of YA books, I can’t easily name any others with two Indian-American characters who feature prominently. (There probably are some but I think we can agree not enough given their statistical representation in the population.) I loved that Dimple defies old stereotypes of the demure Indian girl. Dimple wants nothing to do with boys, clothes, or makeup. She lives, eats, and breathes web coding and app development and damned if anything or anyone is going to stand in her way. I love that Dimple’s passion is technology and coding and love that Menon created an idol/mentor for her in Jenny Lindt (a fictional, successful app developer). Silicon Valley does horribly by women—more needs to be written (fiction and non-fiction) about women kicking ass and taking names in this field.

Menon goes further and generally defies stereotypes of the conservative Indian community, without minimizing or losing the power of the family. Dimple is a feminist and damn proud of it. Dimple isn’t strident but she also isn’t going to take your bullshit.   Even Rishi—who wants nothing more than to marry Dimple and live the happy life he has seen in his parents is a feminist and supports Dimple without constraining her. I wanted to stand on my couch and cheer. Yes. More female and male feminist role models in YA books. (Or in books period). I. Am. Here. For. It.

Dimple + Rishi
I loved this book for its portrayal of a teenager being comfortable enough in who she is and what she loves to refuse to play the stupid games. Makeup is fine if you’re Celia, her roommate, but it’s not Dimple’s thing and that’s totally ok. And not only is that ok, but you can have friends and even a boyfriend who loves that about you and still finds you beautiful. You don’t have to change to be happy or to get the guy—in fact, changing those things will typically only break your heart (a la Dimple’s roommate, Celia). We need more of this message in YA books, please.

Dimple’s character development and choices over the course of the book feel real. She thought she couldn’t have a relationship—she had to pick and choose. As a result she does some stupid things—she isn’t perfect. We’re all rooting for her, largely because she’s relatable (even if you aren’t, even a little bit, a techie).

In may ways it is Rishi, the male protagonist, who became the stereotypical “girl” character of the book—having to give up things he loves and his dreams in order to please others. He’s made himself (mostly) comfortable with these choices, even coming to accept them as his own. While I am not Indian-American, I was briefly married to one who voiced things very similar to what Rishi said here. When he went to college he would have loved to study other subjects, but had to study business because as the first-born son of Indian immigrants, he was expected to support the family and could not waste time on things like art or history.  This rang true in my limited experience and was a flip of the usual scenario.

The pace of the relationship—from Dimple meeting/hating Rishi to head-over-heels in three weeks felt a little silly and far-fetched….and then I remembered (cringingly) the pace of high school relationships. The timing is probably about right. My absolute favorite chapter was Dimple and Rishi’s first date at a book café where you eat while browsing and reading. That chapter could serve as a primer for the date planner on how to plan an excellent date, even for an adult. (Though in retrospect, this might not be the best first date for me unless you want to be talking to the top of my head while I read all night.)

NSF-School
Speaking of the relationship, this book does have a fair amount of sex for a YA book. The intended audience skews towards older teenagers though the main “limit” here wouldn’t be a hard age-line (in my opinion) but rather whether or not the teen reader understands sex and is beginning to understand when one should and shouldn’t have it. I’m not sure I’ve ever said this about a YA book (or any book) but—I appreciated the way Menon used sex in this book. There are characters who love each other, who think the decision through, and have sex because it is the right choice for them. Menon goes into enough detail in this scene for you to know what’s happening and that it’s a good thing for these two characters. It does get a tad steamy but I didn’t feel like it pushed over into being gratuitous, even for a YA audience. This scene is contrasted with another character who is having sex with someone she’s trying to impress and who doesn’t love her. By having both, Menon not only sets up a contrast and highlights the goodness and badness of these choices but also provides opportunity for good dialogue about these choices and when one knows sex is or isn’t right. I thought Menon handled these scenes deftly and delicately—they’re some of the best sex scenes I’ve read in a YA book.

Pace
When Dimple Met Rishi is a sizeable book, slightly on the longer end for both YA and a general contemporary fiction work. With that said, toward the end I felt like the narrative rushed. I appreciate that the overall length of the book was right—much longer and it would have needed some editing. At the same time, Insomnia Con is supposed to be a six-week conference and the entire last three weeks essentially pass in one sentence. I’m not sure ultimately that this was a bad thing or should be changed—I don’t know what before this point Menon should or could have cut to make room for the last three weeks in the narrative—so maybe this choice was fine. It was momentarily jarring in the sense that I re-read the sentence to make sure three weeks had just passed, shrugged, and moved on to find out what happened to Dimple and Rishi.

Conclusion
While I thought the book was incredibly well done, it is still a YA book. If YA isn’t your thing, this likely isn’t going to be the book for you. It has the shine of a YA book where things are a little too glossy and characters compare their feelings to bubbles at least once. If you love, or even just like, YA then this book is a recent stand out and definitely worth your time.

Notes
Published May 30, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Sandhya Menon (@sandhyamenonbooks)
Date read: July 5, 2017
Rating: 3  1/2 Stars