#20BooksOfSummer Book Two – James Baldwin, ‘Notes of a Native Son’ (1955)

A e-reader with a picture of the cover of Notes of a Native Son. It shows a black and white photograph of the author as a young man wearing a white shirt with his arms crossed.

I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.

James Baldwin, ‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son (1984)

James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He was a novelist, essayist, playwright and a social critic who was active in the civil rights movement. He spent many years of his life in France where he went to escape the racism and homophobia he had experienced in the United States. Notes of a Native Son was his first book of non-fiction. It was published in 1955 when Baldwin was just thirty one, two years after his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.

The essays in Notes of a Native Son are grouped into three parts. The first considers representations of African American people in literature and film. The second is based on Baldwin’s experiences of life and politics in the US. The third is made up of reflections from his early years in France. It feels like this structure is quite deliberate and is intended to take the reader on a journey with Baldwin.

The book’s ‘Preface,’ written thirty years later in 1984, is fascinating. Here James Baldwin reflects on what he was trying to achieve when he wrote Notes of a Native Son. He discusses how the essays reflect his struggle to locate himself within his inheritance because, ‘one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance’. It’s unsettling to see that some of his observations in the Preface (itself now over thirty years old), could easily still be applied today. Baldwin talks about the way African American people are always told to wait for things to change and to be patient. He speaks of the ‘panic stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have been turned’, something I think we have seen recently in the ‘debate’ over removing the statues of slave traders from public spaces.

For, if trouble don’t last always, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend

‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son

As a white, British reader, one thing that feels a little strange to read is Baldwin’s use of the word ‘negro’ to refer specfically to African American people. It isn’t language we would use now, but it is important. Baldwin doesn’t use it as a neutral term to refer to black people; it seems intended to convey something uniquely American and highly symbolic, an identify, or perhaps a figure, that has been created through an immense weight of history and cultural meaning (Black people as seen by the white culture), meaning that Baldwin wants to engage with in these essays.

Quite a lot of the content in the first three essays went rather over my head because I haven’t actually read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Native Son by Richard Wright. Nor have I seen the film Carmen Jones. It’s still comprehensible, though, because Baldwin is discussing what these texts tell us about beliefs that underlie the representation of African American people. The essays in this section remind me a little of Roland Barthes’s book, Mythologies, which was published a couple of years later in 1957. Here Baldwin was already talking about the way certain ‘signs’ and ‘mythologies’ are created and imposed upon people. He is critical of all three texts and wrestles most, I think, with Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son. It’s clearly an important work, which on one level Baldwin identifies with, but he argues that it turns its subject into a monster and leaves him nowhere else to go. Baldwin’s friendship with Richard Wright did not survive the essay.

The next section is based on aspects of Baldwin’s life in America. ‘The Harlem Ghetto’ is about ‘the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet’. It considers the role of black leaders, newspapers and religion in the struggle for civil rights, including the difficult subject of anti-semitism in the culture of Harlem at the time. ‘Journey to Atlanta’ is about Baldwin’s younger brother’s experiences of working for (and being exploited by) the Progressive Party. Again, as a white British woman, a lot of this went over my head! But it was an interesting read which uses humour to tackle the way Black people were being used by the party at the time.

The middle section contains one of the most powerful essays in the book, ‘Notes of a Native Son’. This is an incredble, searing piece of writing about Baldwin’s father who died when his son was nineteen, on the same day as his youngest sister was born. His father’s funeral took place on the same day as the Harlem Riot of 1943. The essay’s place at the centre of the book, its doubling with the title, and the dedication of the work to Baldwin’s youngest sister, Paula Maria, indicates its power and central importance.

I’ve read Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on The Mountain, which fictionalises his experiences as a child preacher and his difficult relationship with his father, so I knew something of the story. Baldwin’s father was a deeply troubled and damaged man who simply could not connect with other people. Baldwin says hauntingly, ‘there was something in him ‘groping and tentative which was never expressed and which was buried in him’. His father encouraged his son’s brilliance, as long as it manifested itself as something he approved (preaching), but he was also controlling and oppressive. As Baldwin leaves Harlem and encounters the racism of the white world, he begins to understand his father’s rage and trauma. This experience brings him to the point of breakdown and a confrontation that endangers his life. As he says towards the end of the essay, ‘I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain’.

The essays in part three are told from the perspective of Baldwin’s early years in France. There is an essay about encounters between the Aftrican American people living there and people from various countries in Africa and how hard that meeting is. There’s an essay about American students living in Paris while studying on the G.I. Bill which probably feels the most dated in the collection now. There is a funny and horrifying essay about Baldwin’s kafkaesque experience of getting arrested for stealing a bedsheet, being put in a French prison for eight days, and finding himself unable to communicate with the criminal justice system.

The final, and brilliant essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’ brings the collection full circle. Here Baldwin uses reflections on his time spent living in an entirely white Swiss village to delve into the relationship betweeen white Europeans and Africa and how this has played out in the history of slavery and white supremacy in the US. In the Swiss village, Baldwin finds himself treated as ‘a living wonder’, a creature that is hardly even human, and realises that the people there have no idea about the history with which he lives: ‘People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them’, he says. He discovers startling racist customs, such as ‘buying souls’ in Africa for conversion to Christianity (something my own mother did at school in the 1940s) and people ‘blacking up’ during carnivals. He considers the difference between being the first white man to be seen by black people in Africa and being the first black man to be seen by a village full of whites; the difference is conquest and power, what it means to be controlled by white culture and the inescapable rage this creates. As he says,

‘this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarecly Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconqured continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time. The shock this spectacle afforded is suggested by the promptness with which they decided that these black men were not really men but cattle’.

A decision which has shaped history and from which there is no way back to the ‘simplicity’ of this European village, ‘This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again’.

Baldwin talks about many things in Notes of a Native Son, but there are two striking silences. Women are almost entirely absent from the essays and Baldwin avoids talking directly about his sexuality. Women are mentioned here and and there, but Baldwin seems to be referring almost exclusively to men and addressing a presumptively male audience in which women appear to be subsumed and have no separate voice. Maybe it’s a 1950s thing. I don’t think it has anything to do with his personal attitudes because he was a close friend and supporter of many black women activists and creators, including Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansburry, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, so I’ll be interested to see whether he addresses this issue in later works.

The biggest silence, though, is the silencing of Baldwin’s sexuality which clearly couldn’t be spoken about openly in a book published in 1955. There are only shadowy hints beneath the surface of the text. It does feel like a big ommission because no doubt his sexuality had an enormous impact on his life experiences. He went to France to escape homophobia as well as racism. As with many LGBTQ people throughout history, sexuality can provide the motivation to get out and create new lives elsewhere.

Notes of a Native Son is a powerful collection which gripped me despite gaps in my knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading Baldwin’s later essays and novels now to see where his thinking developed, especially The Fire Next Time.

Read for #20BooksOfSummer20


Documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

February reading round-up

Barbara Hambly, Dragonsbane (Winterlands #1) (1985)

I blogged about Dragonsbane here. It’s a fun fantasy adventure with interesting middle-aged protagonists, lots of action, and a great dragon. What more could you want? Perfect for a rainy afternoon.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (2019)

I’m going to write a proper post about Burnout when I have a moment (hah!), but in summary, this is a mostly useful book. I found the chapters on the science of stress particularly helpful and have changed my own behaviour in response. It’s written for women and it’s nice to have a self-help book that actually names the problem (‘patriarchy ugh!’). However, I don’t think the book is so strong when it comes to long-term solutions and, while it nods to intersectionality, it lacks any class consciousness.

Elly Griffiths, The Outcast Dead (2014)

Book six in the Ruth Galloway series, which has been keeping me in bedtime reading for a few months now. In this one, Ruth is involved in a TV show about the bones of a woman accused of being a child murderer, while her police friends deal with the case of a mother whose three children have died in mysterious circumstances. Then another child disappears. I found The Outcast Dead enjoyable enough, although Griffiths has failed to make me care about Judy and her relationship with Cathbad, which is a major plot point in this one.

Nalo Hopkinson, Falling in Love with Hominids (2015)

Last, but definitely not least, Nalo Hopkinson’s fantasy/horror collection, Falling in Love with Hominids, was no question the best book I read during February. I’m hoping to write a post about it, so I won’t dwell too much here, but it’s a wide-ranging collection of thought-provoking and often startling stories, which ‘mix the modern with Afro-Carribean folklore’ (Goodreads). Hopkinson has an incredible imagination and a straightforward, direct style of writing that lures you into her tales of zombies, ghosts and monsters before usually subverting your expectations.

2018 Reading Round-Up

I was aiming to write regular posts about the books I enjoyed during 2018. In this, I mostly failed! I may still get around to writing about some of them, but in the meantime, here’s a long, rambling post about everything I read this year.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Image shows the cover of Trail of Lightening which features a young woman dressed in black standing on stop of a red car driven by a young man. She holds a gun and lightening plays around her.

My favourite book was Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse. Set in the post-apocalyptic world of Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation), this story about a monster-hunter had me gripped from the beginning. It takes what is now quite a well-worn trope (young woman with special powers hunts monsters) and does something fresh with it. I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Check it out of you like Buffy, Wynonna Earp or Seanan Maguire’s books.


Image shows the cover of the novel which features the title in large white stylised letters on a black background surrounded by a design based on moments in the book, green plants, a knife, a key, a puma, a pen and in the bottom right corner, a woman with a pistol.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss came a close second. It’s is a lovely read in which the daughters of all your favourite nineteenth-century Gothic “mad scientists” get together and start to investigate their origins. I managed to write a post about this one.




The biggest surprise was Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, which came as part of a Humble Bundle I bought last year. I guess this is the joy of bundles, they make you try things that you wouldn’t usually pick up. The representation of women is not great and McCammon goes full throttle with the “magical negro” trope, but I got a lot out of this book. It captures something about the way children use fantasy to interpret their experiences of the world and the exploration of loss and grief is really powerful. I’m still thinking about it months later.

Image shows the cover of Children of Time. It features a spaceship approaching a green planet.

I read some good SF novels. The most enjoyable was probably Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, with its story of a ship looking for a new home for its cargo of frozen humans, only to arrive at a promising planet and find it already occupied by sentient spiders, the result of a science experiment gone wrong. I don’t think it quite lives up to the superlative praise it received, but it’s fun, hopeful and quite moving at the end.



400 Billion Stars by Paul McAuley is a thoughtful, beautifully written and very serious story about a telepath press-ganged into investigating alien life on an eerie planet. I will read more of his work. After Atlas, Emma Newman’s novel about the forms that slavery might take in the future, is very good, but so bleak and depressing I can’t say I really enjoyed it.

I quite liked Taylor’s Ark by Jody Lynn Nye, but didn’t warm to the protagonist and found it rather slow-going. She has several series though and I will try some of her other works. Caught in Crystal by Patrcia C. Wrede is a very light and pleasing fantasy with the unusual feature of a protagonist who is middle-aged and a mother.

Image shows the cover of All Systems Red. It features a painting of Murderbot in its full armour and helmetI read some novellas. I’m enjoying the adventures of Martha Well’s Murderbot (along with pretty much everyone else it seems) and read the first two in the series, All Systems Red and Artificial ConditionBinti by Nnedi Okorafor is lovely, but a little too YA for my tastes – get it for your daughters and nieces though! Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Arkfall is a nice, gentle SF story about an underwater civilisation.



I read far less short stories that usual. Ted Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life and Others is excellent, but the stories are very dense and challenging and, honestly, a lot of it went over my head! Maybe it wasn’t the right time for this one. I was quite excited by the conceit behind Alien Artifacts (ed Josh Palmatier at al), but found the stories disappointing. None of them really stood out for me.

I re-read a couple of beloved books, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Crime Fiction

Image shows the cover of What the Dead Know. It features a photograph of a girl in a red dress walking behind a tree. As she emerges her body has faded and become translucent.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman is probably the best serious, literary work of crime fiction that I read in 2018. Clever, elegant, haunting, but very dark and disturbing. I admired it more than I liked it.

Alafair Burke’s The Ex is good too. I saw the twist coming, but it didn’t really matter. I also read the second in her Ellie Hatcher series, City of Fear, which is entertaining, but comes with a massive content warning for depictions of sexualised violence against women.

I really liked The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves, the first in her popular Vera Stanhope series, but was disappointed by the second novel, Telling Tales which is full of boring, unsympathetic characters – the only interesting person is dead and even Vera is sick of everyone by the end! I’ll probably try the next one though.

Image shows the cover of The Stranger Diaries. It features a painting of a flowering plant against a blue background with writingThe last book I finished in 2018 was The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths which is a really fun Gothic mystery. A good one to take on holiday.  I also loved Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, a meta-fictional response to Agatha Christie and two solid mysteries for the price of one. These are both books written with the intention of entertaining the hell out of you, while also making some good points about the function of literature.



Speaking of Agatha Christie, I worked my way through all the Miss Marple novels in 2017 and was finishing up the short stories at the beginning of this year. The Thirteen Problems and Miss Marple’s Final Cases were both decent reads, but not really a patch on the novels. I also read one Poirot novel this year which was The Murder on the Orient Express. I knew the ending and it still had me gripped. I guess that’s why we call her a genius.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sovereign, the third in C.J. Samson’s Tudor detective series. This series is far more dudely than I would usually read, but it’s a world to sink into and has me hooked.

Image shows the cover the novel Stoner McTavish. This edition features a painting of the Grand Teton mountains with a Stoner sitting on a black horse in the foreground.


Special mention goes to Stoner McTavish, the first in Sarah Dreher’s much-loved lesbian detective series. It has its flaws but is very enjoyable and I would hate to see Stoner fall into obscurity. I wrote a post about this one.



I was disappointed by Stephen King’s Finders Keepers. Mr Mercedes certainly wasn’t King on top form, but it was a good read. Finders Keepers had an interesting premise, but I found the characters dull and too much of it was told from the POV of the extremely boring villain. I probably won’t bother with the next one.

General/Literary Fiction

Image shows the cover of Astray. It features a sepia toned photograph of a chain of old keys

I’ve been really off literary fiction for the last few years, so there isn’t much in this category. I liked the haunting stories in Emma Donoghue’s collection Astray enough to write about it.

Otherwise, it was all re-reading. I read Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, both for a lesbian book group I occasionally attend. I’m not really a Winterson fan, with the exception of Oranges and the memoir, which is basically another version of Oranges! I disliked Sexing the Cherry even more on reading it again. I’m still fond of Rubyfruit Jungle. It’s an important novel from a queer historical perspective, if not a great work of literature.

I usually re-read something by Jane Austen and this year it was Persuasion.


Image shows the cover of Forbidden Lives. It is a plain brown cover with the title and author's name in black capitals and a small Welsh dragon in black on the right hand sideMy favourite work of non-fiction this year was Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales. As a Welsh LGBTQ person myself, I was delighted to see a book published about our history. I’m very aware of what a challenge this book was in terms of doing the research. The result is a collection of fascinating stories that in many ways highlight, and even celebrate, the ambiguities and elusiveness of queer lives in the past.


I read CN Lester’s Trans Like Me which I found an accessible and moving personal account of transgender experience. It covered a lot of issues and didn’t shy away from areas that might be considered challenging.

Image shows the cover of Eat Up. It features cartoonish drawings of good on a pink background

Then there was Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up, a delightful and thoughtful book of essays about food and eating which also has a queer and feminist sensibility. A very healing book, I think, and recommended for anyone trying to recover from eating disorders, or just wanting to get off the diet roller coaster.




The rest was a bit of a mixed bag. I’m fascinated by con artists and fraudsters, so I was keen to read The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. It was worth reading, but felt a bit padded out and repetitive. I would have liked more stuff on how to resist falling prey to confidence tricksters. I was a bit disappointed by Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Papagianni, but this was mainly because I wanted more on the actual lives of Neanderthals and this book is more the story of scientific advances and the study of the subject. How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman is readable, like all his books, but not as fascinating as Misquoting Jesus.

Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Made Simple does what it says on the tin and offers a nice, simple introduction to Buddhism, if that’s what you’re looking for.


The best recipe book I bought this year was The Modern Cook’s Year by Anna Jones. I feel I should say that I don’t entirely approve of Anna Jones’s general attitude to food and eating.  I’m all for eating your vegetables, but I find her approach rather restrictive and a bit inclined to pander diet fads like “clean-eating”. Also, many of these recipes are not cheap to make. Having said that, I do own all of her books because the actual recipes are innovative and delicious and The Modern Cook’s Year is a beautiful book full of ideas.

The most useful book I bought was The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer. My partner and I both work full-time and this book has helped us to feed ourselves well without too much work and washing up. I just bought the follow-up, The Green Roasting Tin, which looks just as good, and is exclusively vegan and vegetarian.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a mostly enjoyable, if unfocused, year of reading. I mainly read genre fiction. The majority of the books were by women (72%/20%), and a reasonable number by queer/LGBT authors, but I could do better at reading more books by people of colour.

If I had the time over again, I would set a page limit at which to ditch the book if I’m not liking it, because I still wasted too much time slogging all the way through some books that I didn’t enjoy.

2012 Reading Round-up

2012 was more of a thinking and talking year than a reading year. I read less than I usually do and didn’t get around to writing about many of the books that I did read, though I’m still intending to write about some of them this year.  My general preference leaned towards large works of fiction, which I think indicates a desire to lose myself in stories.

Book of the Year: Alison Bechdel, Are You my Mother? (2012)

Every now and then you come across a book that changes you. For me, there is a “before Are you My Mother?” and an “after Are you My Mother?” and that’s why it’s my book of the year. This book fundamentally changed the way I think about myself and my relationship with my own mother.  There was also something empowering about reading a book that takes seriously the subject of relationships between lesbians and their mothers, a subject that mainstream heteronormative society really could not care less about.

Literary fiction

Favourite work of literary fiction: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)

Wolf Hall is a huge achievement in making a well-known story fresh again. I knew exactly what was going to happen and yet found myself utterly gripped from beginning to end.  I really liked Mantel’s direct style and this would be on my list of books that aspiring writers should read to see what can be done with prose. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Shirley Jackson’s chilling collection The Lottery and Other Stories (1949) is another book on my “must read list” for aspiring writers, especially for aspiring writers of short fiction.  Jackson has an amazing ability to encapsulate a situation or a character in the opening paragraph and is a writer absolutely in control of her material.

Toni Morrison’s Love (2003) was another tremendous read. I’m still thinking about it months after finishing it.  Love packs a huge amount into its 202 pages: civil rights, racism, patriarchy, relationships between black men and women, the nature of good and evil and more. I’m not someone who hangs onto books as a rule, but my copies of Toni’s Morrison’s works are going nowhere.

Alice Munro’s A View from Castle Rock (2006) is a sort of fictionalised memoir which I didn’t like as much as her other short stories. I thought the historical parts imagining her family’s move from Scotland to Canada were the best, but the ending dragged a bit and wasn’t as satisfying.

The only nineteenth-century novel I read this year was George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874). Reading it for the second time I was struck by just how funny it is, something I didn’t really notice the first time around. I still think this is one of the best novels ever written, just a beautiful book with a quietly devastating ending.

As for the rest, I enjoyed Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and even managed to write a post about it.  Michele Robert’s Daughters of the House (1993) is the sort of literary prize winning book that tends to end up filling the shelves of charity shops, but I found it pretty compelling, gorgeously written, and it just about managed to avoid pretentiousness. Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask (2004) was a very entertaining historical novel about the eighteenth-century sculptor, Anne Damer, not Donoghue’s best work, but I’d recommend it as an excellent lesbian holiday read.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Favourite Book: Gardener Dozois (ed.), The Mammoth book of Best new SF 21 (2008)

This was my favourite simply because it turned me on to a whole range of science fiction writers that I haven’t read before. I’m now looking forward to pursuing the likes of Elizabeth Bear, Nancy Kress, James Van Pelt, Alastair Reynolds, Vandana Singh and Pat Cadigan, among others.  It also contained Stephen Baxter’s ‘Last Contact’ which makes my best ever short stories list and actually took up quite a large portion of one my therapy sessions.  Like most SF anthologies this suffers from a white, male bias but the quality is very high and there was at least an attempt at showing diversity.

Samuel R. Delaney’s Tales of Neveryon (1979) was an absolute joy to read. I loved the way Delaney wove critical theory and philosophy into his story in a way that was delightful rather than pretentious and didn’t get in the way of the narrative. Check it out for an example of how to write women as people as well.

The strangest fantasy novel I read last year was Clive Barker’s Imajica (1991). It was also probably the longest at over 1,000 pages. I found it too long in the end and didn’t think the male hero quite strong enough to sustain the epic narrative, but I really liked it too, especially the take on the suppression of female divinity by patriarchal religion.

I read and enjoyed two of Iain M. Banks science fiction novels: Inversions (1998) which had a sort of Ursula Le Guinesque feel and the more straight-up space opera of Consider Phlebas (1987) the first in Banks’s ‘Culture’ series.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling (2000) was a strong science fiction story with a lesbian woman of colour for a protagonist – it’s not her best, but it’s very good. Her young adult novel, Voices (2009) didn’t grab me and I won’t bother reading the third book in the trilogy, but it’s well written and would make a good present for any young teenager. It was refreshing to see a female character for whom “growing up” doesn’t equal romance, but rather coming into your own and exploring the world.

As for the rest, Caitlin R Keirnan’s excellent The Red Tree (2001) was quite terrifying and had a lesbian protagonist, one to check out if you like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  C.J Cheryh’s The Pride of Chanur (1981) was a bit of classic SF fun. I liked the way it imagined the arrival of humans in space from the point of view of the aliens.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1992) wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I’m glad I made the effort to read it.

I was disappointed by George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings (1998). It kept me reading, but it was more misogynist, racist and padded out than the first book. I mean, really, it felt like there was a rape in almost every single chapter.  Also, Cersei Lannister is one of the worst written female characters I’ve come across in some time. I may give the next book a go because I sort of want to find out what happens, but it did turn me off this series.

However, the worst book I read in this category was Celia Friedman’s Black Sun Rising (1991).  I don’t know why I persevered with this since I’m way past the age of forcing myself through books I hate, but for some reason I wanted to give it a chance.


I only read two poetry books this year, both by lesbian poets, and I can’t choose between them in terms of my favourite.  Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World (1988 – 1991) is challenging and difficult and I think one of her best collections, whereas the poems in Mary Oliver’s Dream Work (1986) are deceptively simple, but lead into disturbing territories. Both are haunting collections.


Favourite book: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2010)

I read quite a lot of popular science books in an attempt to compensate for the appalling science, technology and maths education that I received at school.  My education may have denied me the opportunity to ever have a career in any of those areas, but I can still enjoy reading about them.  Bryson’s book puts the history of science into a narrative that is both hilarious and moving.  It’s another big book, but I tore through it in a few days.

The next best non-fiction was Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace (2012) by Kate Summerscale. This is a fascinating and often disturbing look at the position of women in the second half of the nineteenth century, when changes to divorce laws and developments in ideas about sex began to impact on British society

I read two books about Shakespeare, James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2011) and Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare (2012).  Shapiro’s book considers where the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him comes from. I really enjoy books that take this rather Foucauldian approach of taking a step back and instead of answering a question, unpack the politics that lead to the question being asked in the first place. Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare was a delight and puts Shakepeare’s life and works firmly back in the historical contact that produced them.  Both these books renewed my interest in Shakespeare and sense of why the plays are so important.

My least favourite non-fiction was Lyndall Gordon’s Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feud’s(2010). This is not a criticism of the book itself, which is very good, but reading about the appalling behaviour of Emily Dickinson’s selfish, money-grabbing, narcissistic relatives really quite upset me.


I only read one book that could be called religious this year, Stephen Levine’s A Gradual Awakening (1979) which is a book about Buddhist insight meditation. I found some of it quite useful, especially the parts on mind, but it’s very ‘70s’ and got it bit weird towards the end.

Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1996)

Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that change when it comes cracks everything open (p. 48).

Dorothy Allison is a lifesaving writer. Every time I read her work, I feel like she’s reaching out to us in an authentic attempt to communicate something important about surviving in this world.  In a world in which it can feel like there is little in the way of authentic, honest, communication, and in which so many interactions seem to be about what people can get out of each other, Allison’s writing is a great gift.

Continue reading

Diana Souhami, Wild Girls: The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks (2004)

Natalie Barney (1876 – 1972) and Romaine Brooks (1874 – 1970) were lesbians whose extremely long lives and 50-year non-monogamous romance spanned a period of time from the fin de siècle to Stonewall.  They were both from wealthy families and active in the arts – Natalie was a poet and novelist and Romaine was a painter.  Between them they seem to have been friends or lovers with most of the famous lesbians of the period.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think this is a very good book. It reads like an extended gossip column (all description and little analysis), the prose is serviceable at best, the title is inappropriate for a book about two such highly complex women and Souhami weirdly intersperses the narrative with episodes that are apparently drawn from her own life.

However, I also have to admit that I enjoyed reading Wild Girls and might call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ if, that is, I felt guilty about reading silly books. Even in such an unsophisticated take on their lives, Natalie and Romaine come across as fascinating characters and I really enjoyed finding out more about them and their relationships with women like the poet Renee Vivien, Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly, lesbian writer Djuna Barnes, the dancer, Ida Rubenstein, and of course Radcliffe Hall and her partner Una Troubridge.  Truman Capote once referred to Romaine Brook’s paintings as ‘the all-time ultimate gallery of famous dykes’ and you really can’t argue with him on that one.  The book includes some great photographs and images of Romaine’s paintings.

Romaine, in particular, had an incredibly traumatic upbringing and I would have liked to read a more nuanced and sympathetic approach to her subsequent mental health problems.  Actually, it was the attitude to mental health that made me most uncomfortable with this book, as a lot of the women had problems which come across as sensationalised – Renee Vivien’s anorexia is one example and Dolly Wilde’s depression and addictions another

Wild Girls is a non-challenging introduction to a specific lesbian sub-culture of the fin de siècle and first half of the twentieth century and it’s probably the kind of book best read while lying on the sofa sick with the flu.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Directed by James Kent and written by Jane English

I was pleasantly surprised by this beautifully filmed drama based on the life of nineteenth-century diarist, Anne Lister (1791 – 1840).  Some parts of Lister’s diaries are written in code which, when cracked, was found to contain remarkably frank descriptions of her romantic involvements and sexual relationships with women. This all rather demolished the idea that unmarried women necessarily had little access to knowledge about sex or lesbian culture before the twentieth century.  It’s apparent that, not only Anne, but also the locals who called her “Gentleman Jack”, had a very good idea of what she was about.  The Lister diaries suggest that there was a well-developed discourse about lesbianism which was available, at least to upper-class women, as a way to understand themselves in the nineteenth century.

One of the most refreshing things about The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is that it doesn’t make concessions to the straight audience: it doesn’t explain, or apologise, or dumb down the lesbian representation, but nor does it use the lesbian theme to titillate the viewer.  There is one sex scene which I thought very well done.  This may be because the producers were aware that only lesbians and people already interested in the history and literature of the period would be likely to watch it, so there wasn’t much point in trying to entice a wider audience.  It was cast thoughtfully with actresses who made credible nineteenth-century lesbians, and I was particularly pleased to see that thought had gone into how a butch lesbian might have presented herself during this time.   Maxine Peake played Anne with tomboyish energy and great charm, Anna Madeley, as her long-time lover Mariana, was believable as a woman caught between her sexual desires and the life she has chosen as the wife of a wealthy man.  Susan Lynch was excellent as Anne’s hard-drinking ex-girlfriend ‘Tib’ who’d still like to be more than friends.  Gemma Jones and Alan David were also lovely as Anne’s slightly bewildered, but ultimately accepting, aunt and uncle.

I really liked the film but found the documentary with Sue Perkins, ‘The Real Anne Lister’, even more fascinating.  In order to make the drama watchable for a modern audience, the writers modified what we know about Anne to make her appear a great deal more sympathetic than she was in real life.  As Sue Perkins reads the diaries she rather struggles to like Anne, who comes across as a terrible snob and not a particularly nice person.  For example, in the drama, her last relationship with the heiress, Miss Anne Walker, is sweetly presented, but in the diaries it seems a far more cynical arrangement based more on Anne Lister’s desire for a submissive wife and her need for money to invest in her mining projects.  Of course money and companionship were considered perfectly acceptable reasons for marriage in the early nineteenth century, but what is fascinating is that the two Annes do seem to have considered themselves married and even managed to get their relationship blessed by the church.  My own feeling is that Anne Lister probably had to become a rather ruthless person just to be able to live the life she lived in this period.

I would highly recommend this drama and the accompanying documentary for anyone interested in lesbian herstory.

Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about

In Search of our Mother’s Garden’s reminds you just what a great writer Alice Walker is: a novelist, a writer of short fiction, a poet, and a tremendous essayist as well.  She writes the kind of prose that just carries you along.

The book is a varied collection of essays and short pieces held together by common themes of writing, literature, black women’s experiences and creativity, feminism, civil rights and economics.  There are so many pieces in the collection that all I can do here is mention a few of the ones that stood out for me.

My favourite essays are the ones about writing and literature. In ‘Saving the Life that is your own: the importance of models in the artist’s life’, Walker pays tribute to the models who have had a ‘life saving’ impact on her work, in particular Vincent Van Gogh, Flannery O’ Connor, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer. ‘Beyond the Peacock: the Reconstruction of Flannery O’ Connor’ is a fascinating essay about O’ Connor enacted through a visit that Walker and her mother took to O’Connor’s house.  Walker’s writing is hugely influenced by O’ Connor and they come from the same area, but the racial and economic differences in their positions causes Walker some ambivalence.  ‘The Divided Life of Jean Toomer’ looks at a black writer who struggled to accept his identity and yet wrote Cane, a groundbreaking prose-poem about the lives of black people.  There are two essays about Walker’s idol Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale’ and ‘Looking for Zora’ which explores Walker’s belief in the importance of rediscovering and valuing forgotten black women writers and artists.  Her efforts in this area led to an important reappraisal of Hurston’s work.

One of Walker’s great skills is her ability to use autobiographical material to illustrate political points. The title essay ‘In Search of our Mother’s Gardens’ is a really powerful piece that bounces off Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of one’s own’, taking the example of Walker’s own mother to talk about the ways in which black women’s creativity has been repressed but also how they have found ways around that repression.  Walker’s mother married a poor sharecropper at seventeen, had eight children and very little time to herself, but managed to find some space for creativity in her life by growing flowers in her garden:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as a Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in the work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of beauty,

Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down her respect for the possibilities – and the will to grasp them. (p. 242).

The essay ‘Brothers and Sisters’ is another much anthologised piece in which Walker uses the different treatment of her male and female siblings to critique the behaviour of black men in the family – Walker herself received a lot of criticism in return for raising these issues. ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self’ is a moving account of how she came to terms with the accident that disfigured and blinded her in one eye when she was 8 years old.

In ‘Writing The Color Purple’ she gives us an insight into the processes that created her most famous novel.  In general, though, I think this book is best read alongside the collection of short stories In Love and Trouble because it contains a lot of background to the stories collected there.

A writer who uses so much autobiographical material in her political writing is bound to experience some tensions and for Walker these seem to be particularly evident in her relationship with her family.   Her brothers and sisters can’t have been too pleased about the way she depicts them at times and I got the impression that her relationship with her siblings is ambivalent to say the least. But more discomforting is Walker’s ambivalence about motherhood and her decision to write about this ambivalence so publicly, apparently without giving much thought to the effect doing so might have on her daughter Rebecca when she grew up.  Walker and her daughter are now estranged and Rebecca has written about how hurtful she found it to read essays like ‘One child of one’s own’.  If you have a difficult relationship with your own mother, this essay is probably not a good place to start as it’s likely to cause strong feelings!

Overall, though, Walker comes across as an incredibly driven woman for whom writing is paramount and everything else in her life has to give way to her art.

‘Be Nobody’s Darling’

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.

Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.

Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or, The Murder at Road Hill House (2008)

In 1860, Francis Saville, the youngest son of Mr and Mrs Kent of Road Hill House in Wiltshire was found murdered.  He had been take out of his bed during the night and apparently suffocated before being stabbed and having his throat cut.  His body had then been thrown into a privy in the garden where it was discovered.  The fact that all the doors and windows of the house had been locked from the inside on the night in question made it difficult to see how anyone outside the family could have committed the deed, but who was guilty? The parents? One of Mr Kent’s four children from his first marriage? One of the servants?

The case caused a sensation in Victorian England, not only because it involved the extremely gruesome and violent killing of a three-year old child, but because it struck at the heart of the Victorian cult of domesticity, of the ideology of the loving family, of the home as a safe refuge from the difficulties of the world.  The murder implied that terrible secrets may lurk behind the closed doors of an apparently respectable family.  It’s striking that so many Victorian men jumped to the conclusion that Francis had been killed because he’d seen his father having sex with his nurserymaid, an assumption that I think tells you more about the proclivities of Victorian gentlemen than it does any truth about the case.

Enter Detective Inspector Jonathan (Jack) Whicher, a man who’d joined the Metropolitan Police during its early days and made a name for himself as an exceptional detective with almost uncanny abilities.  Whicher was one of a cohort of intelligent, young working-class men who’d been recruited by the organisation and made their way to the top on merit alone, something that was impossible in most professions at the time.

The endorsements on the jacket are a bit breathless and over-the-top, but if you’re interested in the history of policing, crime and crime fiction, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a fast-paced and interesting read.  Jack Whicher contributed much to the development of the figure of the detective.  He was the model for characters like Inspector Bucket in Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) and Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868).   Whicher played a part in the creation of the detective as a figure of difference, rather set apart from the rest of society, an exteme rationalist who isn’t subject to emotional manipulation like the rest of us.

The impact of the murder at Road Hill House also had an impact on fiction. It can be felt in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which often feature horrible goings’ on within supposedly respectable middle and upper-class families.  It also appears in some surprising places, such as M.R James horrifying ghost story, ‘The Mezzotint’.

From a feminist perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its depiction of how gendered discourses shape the way women are interpreted and treated by the criminal justice system.  Summerscale doesn’t really discuss this, but it’s very well illustrated by the case.  Setting his sights on Mr Kent’s 16 year-old daughter Constance as the most likely suspect, Whicher attempts to deploy the popular discourse of the degenerate, insane woman to support his case.  This figure (who was imagined to hide her mental disturbance and jealous rage behind a mask of calm) can be seen in fictions like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1862).  However, Whicher found himself in conflict with the counter-discourse of the innocent young girl, as Constance’s dignified behaviour inspired sympathy from the public.  Was she ‘mad’ and evil, or simply misunderstood and innocent?

Then there’s the nurserymaid, Elizabeth Gough, who Whicher thought innocent, but who fell under public suspicion mainly because of sexualized assumptions about working-class women.  Gough was pretty and viewed as being a bit above her station.  This led to a general feeling (the prefered version of men like Dickens who loudly and graphically promoted their belief in Elizabeth’s guilt), that she must have been up to something bad, probably with the master, and the poor woman’s life was almost ruined  as a result.

I find this phenomenon fascinating as well as disturbing.  Think of Lizzie Borden and Ruth Ellis.  We’ve seen its effects very recently in the trial of Amanda Knox.  Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is a great fictional take on this issue.  Women, it seems, can never be taken at face value when we enter the Criminal Justice System. We are always read in relation to gendered discourses that pre-exist us and over which we have no control.  Of course this isn’t just an issue for women accused of crimes, gendered discourses are something that every woman who’s a victim of rape or domestic abuse must contend with if she decides to take a case to court and they may very well decide the outcome.

Interestingly, Whicher overplays his hand and loses his case.  His downfall may have been triggered by middle-class offence at the sight of a working-class ‘upstart’ apparently harassing a middle-class girl, and in the process assaulting the middle-class family itself.  Constance Kent was freed, but her story was not yet over and there are several more twists in the tale before the end.

Summerscale attempts to solve the case and I think her conclusion is certainly a possibility, but we’ll never really know what happened to Francis Saville and the Road Hill House murder remains a haunting case.

I’m now looking forward to reading Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974)

I found The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft both compulsively readable and quite irritating.  My other books went on hold while I read it, but I read it with teeth gritted some of the time.

Tomalin is a very entertaining writer, one who doesn’t make the mistake that a lot of biographers do, of bogging the narrative down by quoting from too much source material.

However, I do not think this is either a fair or a sympathetic biography.   The author seems determined to depict Wollstonecraft as unreasonable, unstable and even narcissistic, without giving her enough credit or sympathy for the immense obstacles she was up against.  Reading between the lines of the rather snide narrative, all I see is an impulsive, brilliant and all too human woman who made the kind of personal mistakes a lot of us make in our lives (at a time when the consequences for those mistakes were much higher), but who managed to achieve more than most of us ever will.  For example, I thought Tomalin was far too indulgent towards the abusive behaviour of Mary’s lover, Gilbert Imlay. She even implies that Mary was stupid to be fooled by him and was rather unreasonable in her despairing response, but how many of us have fallen for a charmer at some point in our lives?  Only for a woman of Mary’s time, falling for a charmer meant being left a stigmatised single mother with an illegitimate child and no hope of retuning to respectable society.  What Imlay does to her is dreadful and he would have known about the consequences of his actions.

Overall, I felt that Tomalin’s own discomfort with radical feminism coloured her interpretation of Wollstonecraft’s life.  There are a few moments where she lets this discomfort slip.  For example, on p. 198, referring to French feminists during the Revolution:

The citoyennes certainly dealt a blow to the cause of their own sex, helping to build up male resistance to any idea of women’s rights and giving pause even to better educated women (a pattern that repeats itself in feminism whenever there is unruly behaviour from its adherents).

I get the feeling that when she wrote this biography Tomalin was one of those feminists who argue that women shouldn’t be too ‘aggressive’ because that will damage the movement.  Maybe this is why her Jane Austen biography is better – she seems a lot more comfortable with Austen’s more sneaky brand of feminism.

I’m now looking forward to reading Lyndall Gordon’s more recent biography, Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication which sets out to right her wrongs.

Readable, but rather biased.

Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (1989)

Though these tales of psychotherapy abound with the words patient and therapist, do not be misled by such terms: these are everyman, everywoman stories.  Patienthood is ubiquitous; the assumption of the label is largely arbitrary and often dependent more on cultural, educational and economic factors than on the severity of pathology. Since therapists, no less than patients, must confront these givens of existence, the professional posture of disinterested objectivity, so necessary to scientific method, is inappropriate.  We psychotherapists simply cannot cluck with sympathy and exhort patients to struggle resolutely with their problems.  We cannot say to them you and your problems, because our life, our existence, will always be riveted to death, love to loss, freedom to fear, and growth to separation. We are, all of us, in this together (14).

By the end of the ‘Prologue’ I already knew that I was in the company of a writer who was going to stay with me long after I finished reading the book.  Irvin D. Yalom is a renowned psychiatrist and existentialist psychotherapist who works at Stanford University.  Existentialist psychotherapy is one of the less well known strands in comparison to psychodynamic, person-centred and cognitive  behavourial approaches.  It is concerned with the “existence pain” that comes from our awareness of the inevitability of death, the terrors of freedom, our ultimate aloneness and the absence of any obvious meaning to life.  It is interested in finding meaning in what we do.

I’m not an existentialist and have no intention of training as a therapist in this particular tradition. Yalom also does quite a few things in therapy that I disagree with and hope I would never do if I was a therapist.  But I found his book profoundly moving as well as interesting.  In this world of “self-help” books and “positive thinking” in which we’re constantly bombarded with techniques we can use to make our lives better, happier, more profitable etc, it was so refreshing to read a book by a therapist that doesn’t propose any easy answers or quick fixes and acknowledges the fact that life is difficult and often painful, and that therapy does not necessarily cure everything.  Yalom depicts therapy as a deeply uncertain process in which two people work towards change. He assumes that change is the goal of therapy, but that the change which results may not be the one hoped for or anticipated by either party.

As a therapist Yalom is totally open to and engaged with his clients. Existentialist therapy does not accept the power relationship assumed in traditional psychoanalyses which sets up the therapist as the expert who interprets the words of the patient.  He is at times disturbingly honest about his own emotional reactions to his patients, but this honesty enacts his argument that the therapist is not superior to the patient.  He is also very revealing about the workings of transference, counter-transference and projection and how these dynamics can be put to constructive use in the therapeutic relationship.  Yalom often has to overcome his own prejudices in order to help his clients.

The client’s stories are fascinating.  Among them there’s Thelma, a 70 year-old woman with an all-consuming love obsession (Yalom totally botches her therapy too).  Carlos is dying of terminal cancer and believes that every woman he meets is irresistibly attracted to him.  Betty forces Yalom to confront all his prejudices about fat people.  Penny neglects her living sons because her favoured daughter died.  Marge suddenly manifests a completely different personality during therapy.  Marvin is an apparently boring and uptight accountant who has the most amazing dreams.  It is also interesting that the clients who present with the worst problems tend to do the best in their therapy.

Ultimately the stories affirm the incredible complexity and courage of people while demystifying psychotherapy and representing it as a deeply human encounter.

Marcy Alderman (ed.) Long Time Passing: Lives of Older Lesbians (1986)

While I was stationed in San Francisco, they sent me to Japan for a little over a year. I got there just in time for the witch-hunt. I didn’t know what was going on – none of us did.  Well, there we were in Japan, all these kids.  We were twenty, twenty-one and MacArthur had said he wanted American woman in Japan so that Japanese women could see what free American woman looked like.  I’m sure that what he meant was not the five hundred dykes who got off that boat. And I mean, dykes.  We had an all-woman band and they were all in men’s band uniforms (p. 166).

When I finished reading the first account in this book, that of Mary who falls in love with Jane only for them both to marry other people, live next door to each other for years, and never get together, I wasn’t sure if I could continue reading.  Were all the stories going to be just as heartbreaking?  But I persevered and overall it was rewarding, especially for the sense of reading about my history, about the kind of women whose lives paved the way for my own.

The book was published in 1986 and has a very second wave feel.  It claims to be “edited” by Adelman, but this is seriously ‘hands off’ editing.  As Dorothy Allison writes in her essay ‘Believing in Literature’, second wave feminists saw editing itself as a political act: ‘we questioned what was silenced when raw and rough work by women outside the accepted literary canon was rewritten or edited in such a way that the authentic voices were erased’ (Skin 174). Adelman’s project is all about authentic voices and she got a wide range of women to participate – working class lesbians, middle-class lesbians, lesbians of colour, white lesbians, feminist lesbians, and lesbians who couldn’t give a damn about feminism.  Adleman does not attempt to manipulate the material to create any kind of romanticised lesbian past that might be more amenable to the way feminists now would like to think about lesbian history. Nor does she provide any introductions to the women’s accounts to soft-peddle the content.  The book is all the stronger for it.

But this also means that it’s not a happy book: a lot of the stories are angry, sad, tragic and disturbing.  And these are not “nice” women.  Why should they be?  They have almost all of them lived very challenging lives. There are a lot of bad marriages to be escaped; others join the military.  Alcoholism is a commonplace in their lives.  Adelman does not edit out disturbing voices, such as the woman who admits, without any remorse, to having had sex with an 8 year-old girl when she was 13, or the woman who claims to be a bad ass radical feminist, but couldn’t manage to look after her own daughter because she was so drunk at the time, and has very ambivalent (and I would say potentially abusive) thoughts about her baby grandson.  They are tough women and you get the feeling that some of them had to become very self-centred simply in order to survive because if they hadn’t put themselves first, they probably wouldn’t have survived.

At the same time, the energy and determination of these women to carve out lives for themselves against all the odds is life-affirming and inspiring.  I liked the interviews best because they felt so immediate.  Most of them insist on the right to be seen as sexual beings. It was interesting to see how many were engaged in inter-generational relationships (and I mean with 30 or 40 year age gaps), a pattern of lesbian life that seems to be in decline now.

The book affirms the importance of the visibility of older lesbians and of preserving their stories because without their stories we will lose the history and without the history it’s very hard to learn.

Academic Texts Meme

My recent efforts at tagging have rebounded on me.  Irrational Point has honed the book meme and challenged me to list the academic texts (no set number this time) that have had the most impact on me.  Here goes:

1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, The Will to Knowledge (1976)

2. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990)

3. Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ (1980)

4. Gayle Rubin, ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality (1984)

5. David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (1996)

6. Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life (2000)

7. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Ninteteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979)

8. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (1984)

9. Diana Fuss ‘Inside/Out’ (1991)

10. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919)

Ok, I re-tag Andygrrrl.

I’ve left off the academic books that I included in the book meme.

Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence (2008)

I’ve always really liked Maitland’s short fiction.  There is something about the way she rewrites mythologies that I find particularly elegant.  Over the last year I’ve been feeling the need for more silence in my life, so when I saw that Maitland had written an entire book on the subject, I ordered A Book of Silence from the library.

Until quite recently, Maitland lived a very noisy life.  She comes from a large family, was educated at boarding school and Oxford, married a vicar active in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, had two children, got involved in feminism and became a relatively well-known author.  Everything went well for her until she hit a crisis in her late forties: her marriage disintegrated, she ran out of steam as a writer and, most frighteningly, began to hear voices.

She started to crave silence and decided to try and incorporate more of it into her life.  But as she cut out the noise, she was surprised by the alarmed reactions of friends and family, who interpreted her desire for quiet as some of kind of mental breakdown. She began to notice the negative associations that silence has accrued in our western capitalist society – silence is frightening, dangerous, oppressive, a possible source of madness, the place of death and chaos, something that is waiting to be broken. There is less and less space for positive silence in our lives, but what effect, she wondered, is all this noise having on us, physiologically speaking?

Maitland decided to try and expound the positive qualities of silence.  She spent an ecstatic forty days alone in a cottage on Skye and then visited a range of silent places, the most extreme being a spiritual retreat in the Sinai desert. Eventually she built a little house on a moor in Northern Galloway where she still lives alone. One of the most interesting chapters is the one entitled ‘Silence and the Gods’ in which she discusses a number of creation myths, comparing those that depend upon silence bring broken (i.e. Genesis; the “big bang”) and less well-known ones that depend upon the maintenance of silence.

Maitland does acknowledge the dark side, the dangers of silence.  On a symbolic level, in a world in which entire groups of people are “silenced” by various forms of oppression, it is important not to romanticise silence, or forget that in order for silence to be a positive experience it must be freely chosen.  More literally, imposed silence can indeed be dangerous.  Maitland recounts one frightening experience of being snowed in alone and losing all sense of control.  She also experiences a certain amount of accidie, the lethargy that has plagued silence-seekers all the way back to the desert hermits. She finds the silence spiritually fulfilling, but then it makes it harder for her write fiction.

Still, all in all, I felt she made a convincing case for the experience of silence as a necessary aspect of human life and for silence as “multiple” – there are so many different kinds of silence.  I have a very noisy life – I’m a loud person, with a loud family and lots of loud friends living in a noisy inner-city area. While I have no desire to go to the extremes of silence enjoyed by Maitland in this book, I do intend to make more effort to create silent spaces in my life.

The fact that I’m writing so much here shows that A Book of Silence also got under my skin and troubled me.  This is not least because it has its own deep silences.  I knew that Maitland was a Christian feminist; what I didn’t know is that after her marriage ended she converted to Catholicism, but she glosses this decision in about two sentences when it must have created some conflict for someone who is in many respects a radical feminist.  I also became a little concerned that I was about to be unwillingly plunged back into Catholic theology.  This wasn’t really the case, as Maitland is careful to keep her book generally spiritual rather than specifically Catholic in nature (she makes efforts to explore the silences of Buddhism and Quakerism) until, that is, the chapter on the ‘Desert Hermits’, which I did find uncomfortable reading because it put me back in touch with that extreme, uncompromising, anti-modern strand within Catholicism.  And I couldn’t help but feel that Maitland actually regards this kind of silence as her ideal.  She now aims for eighty percent silence in her life and prays for three hours a day. She is practically a hermit.

Class is also silenced in the book. After all, Maitland’s ability to carve out a silent life for herself is largely based on the privileges enjoyed by an upper-middle-class white woman from a wealthy background, who has had a lot of doors opened by a public school and Oxford education.  As a result, Maitland is able to do things that simply would not be possible for the majority of women.  Despite her “voice hearing”, for example, she is well able to stay out of the mental health system which I very much doubt would be possible for a working-class woman reporting the same experiences. She occasionally complains about not having much money, but she is able to build her own house so I’m not sure that her conception of being hard up is exactly the same as mine!

Perhaps the greatest silencing in the book is the silencing of gender.  As I read, I had an increasing sense that there was something unusual about Maitland’s narrative. I couldn’t put my finger on the source of the strangeness until Maitland decides to experience the silence of the stars by driving into the Derbyshire hills for a few days and sleeping in her car at night. Then it dawned on me: there was no fear in the narrative? No fear of doing any of this as a lone woman, no fear of being attacked, or robbed, or raped, of the car breaking down and being stranded in the middle of nowhere?  If I spent forty days alone in a cottage on Skye, there’s no doubt that gendered fear would be part of my experience.  The fact that I felt the lack of such fear made me realise the extent to which the expression of gendered fear has become a part of the cultural construction of femaleness.  A narrative that absolutely refuses to express fear comes across as oddly de-gendered.  When Maitland does experience fear (when she’s snowed-in for example) she still keeps gender strictly out of the picture and gives a lot of examples of men having the same kind of experiences.  The fear she experiences is not articulated as having anything to do with her being a woman in this situation.  This may well be deliberate of course.  She doesn’t express any guilt either, although I very much doubt that she has totally escaped the accusations of “selfishness” and “self-indulgence” that generally accompany any attempts by women to behave in ways that are traditionally reserved for men.

Although Maitland repeatedly identifies herself as a feminist in her book, the role that feminism plays in her journey into silence is also oddly silenced, which I think is a shame because I suspect it’s actually fundamental to this journey. Maitland places herself in a tradition of radical female Christian mystics who have rejected their gendered responsibilities and adopted male spiritual prerogatives.  If you think about it, what Maitland has done is refuse the kind of gendered responsibilities that she would probably be expected to shoulder as a woman in her fifties, particularly the social responsibilities of caring for other people. When her family do make demands on her, she becomes deeply frustrated and feels burdened. I think it’s very interesting that one of the first things that goes while she’s on Skye is any care for her personal appearance, something she gives up with evident joy and relief. On consideration I began to feel that this spiritual odyssey is also the logical culmination of Maitland’s own radical feminist journey, an utter rejection of culturally constructed femininity and a radical attempt to live an uncompromisingly authentic life.

Fascinating and disturbing.

Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking Sex Class and Literature (1994)

What I have tried to do in my own life is refuse the language and categories that would reduce me to less than my whole complicated experience (213)

Skin is a compelling collection of essays.  Dorothy Allison shares with Joan Nestle an ability to make complex ideas and arguments accessible.  It’s interesting that both these writers come from poor working-class backgrounds and I suspect they brought their “no bullshit” attitudes with them into their feminism.  Allison is particularly good at getting to the heart of difficult issues.

She grew up in South Carolina, a member of what she calls “the bad poor”, the American underclass. She experienced horrific physical and sexual abuse from her stepfather. She came out as a lesbian in her adolescence and and got to university where she became involved in feminism.  Since then she has become notorious for being on the “sex positive” or “pro-sex” side of the feminist “sex wars” (she was a founder of the Lesbian Sex Mafia and has been open about her femme identity and interest in BDSM). She also writes fiction and poetry.

As you would expect, there are essays about sex and pornography in this collection, but I think it’s important that Allison is not simplistically reduced to the role she has been ascribed in the feminist “sex wars”.  The essays show her interest in a wide range of issues, such as class, lesbian experience, abuse, violence, creative writing and science fiction.

‘A Question of Class’

This is about how her experience of coming from “the bad poor” has shaped her politics. It explains a great deal about Allison’s uncompromising attitude and insistence on speaking out about the complexities of identity.  Where she comes from, not speaking out is fatal:

I grew up poor, hated, the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and I know that suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us – extraordinary (p. 36).

I can see why this essay is the first in book – it is the basis for everything that follows.

‘Public Silence, Private Terror’

Here she talks about her experiences of the feminist “sex wars” and the impact they had on her. It is unapologetic, but makes it apparent that she honestly didn’t foresee that speaking openly about her views on sex would get her into so much trouble with other feminists. She took the radical feminist incitement to women to talk about their experiences very literally and then got burned in the process of doing just that. You might disagree with her views on sex, but I think this is an important essay to read:

The hardest lesson I have learned in the last few years is how powerful is my own desire to hang onto a shared sense of feminist community where it is safe to talk about dangerous subjects like sex, and how hopeless is the desire.  Even within what I have thought of as my own community […] I have never felt safe. I have never been safe, and this is only partly because everyone else is just as fearful as I am. None of us is safe because we have not tried to make each other safe. We have never even recognised the fearfulness of the territory. We have addressed violence and exploitation and heterosexual assumptions without first establishing the understanding that for each of us, desire is unique and necessary and simply terrifying […]

As feminists, many of us have committed our whole lives to struggling to change what most people in this society don’t even question, and sometimes the intensity of our struggle has persuaded us that the only way to accomplish change is to make hard bargains, to give up some points and compromise on others. What this has always meant in the end, unfortunately, is trading some people for others.

I do not want to do that.

I do not want to require any woman to do that.

I do not want to claim a safe and comfortable life for myself that is purchased at the cost of some other woman’s needs or desires. But over and over again I see us being pushed to do just that. (113 – 114)

‘Survival Is the Least of my Desires’

This is about writing as catharsis, something Allison seems to believe in very passionately. Some quotes:

I believe the secret in writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage. The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough’ (217).

It seems to me the only way I have forgiven anything, understood anything, is through that process of opening up to my own terror and pain and re-examining it, recreating it in the story, and making is something different, making if meaningful – even if the meaning is only in the act of telling (p. 218).

That’s what I believe to be the important of telling the truth, each of us writing out of the unique vision our lives have given us (219).

Her essay ‘Believing in Literature’ is also very good.

‘Skin, Where She Touches Me’

I found this the most disturbing essay in the collection. It left me feeling shattered and emptied out and it took me a little while to figure out why. It’s about her relationships with two of the most important women in her life: her mother and her first lover.  Both of these women betrayed her in extremely painful ways, her mother though her inability to leave Allison’s abusive stepfather, and her lover by not caring enough to give up the heroin that eventually killed her, so both chose other things over Dorothy. But I think that what’s so disturbing about this piece of writing is the truth it expresses about the way women can have such complex and painful relationships in which we commit terrible betrayals and yet at the same time carry on loving each other because we do understand why it happened.  This is not something we like to talk about.

All in all, I found it by turns a difficult, challenging and inspirational read.

A short post about Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road (1970)


84 Charing Cross Road proved the perfect antidote to Housekeeping’s chilling effect on me. This twenty-year correspondence between an American writer and a British bookseller contains warmth, generosity, friendship and feeling in abundance.  It is a book about human connection, particularly the way we sometimes make connections in unexpected places. It’ll restore your faith in humanity if you’re feeling jaded.  I cried at the end, but in a good way.

A short post about Stephen King’s On Writing (2000)

I have great affection for Stephen King. His books provided places for me to lose myself in during the more depressing episodes of my adolescence from ages 14 to 18.  King churns them out at such a pace that there are bound to be some stinkers in his back catalogue, but at his best I think he’s a very effective storyteller.  My favourite King novels are The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne and The Shining, and one day I intend to work my way through everyone else’s favourite, The Stand.  I also like King’s non-fiction.  I’ve read his book Danse Macabre: An Anatomy of Horror about three times and my copy is looking pretty worn out, so I was looking forward to reading On Writing.

The first section is an attempt to explain how he became the kind of writer he did and, as such, it fails. It doesn’t really explain why he grew up to become a compulsive and prolific writer of horror fiction, but this doesn’t matter because it’s such a great read.  I really enjoyed his positive attitude to his experience of being raised by a tough, self-reliant single-mother. King, it seems, can make a story out of anything he has lying around.  Did you know that he plays in a band with Barbara Kingsolver and Amy Tan?

The second section of the book is practical advice for people who want to write. It’s all useful, sensible stuff:

  • If you’re not prepared to work your arse off, don’t even bother
  • Read a lot – you learn about writing through reading
  • Write a lot – King recommends 1,000 words a day minimum
  • Leave out everything that isn’t the story
  • Know who your ideal reader is
  • Expand your vocabulary but use it appropriately
  • Understand the basic rules of grammar
  • The adverb is not your friend
  • Shut the door of the room in which you write
  • A partner who takes no shit off you is also a boon

In the last section King tells the story of the near fatal accident that really does feel like an episode from one of his novels.  It’s a trauma narrative and also quite fascinating.

Linda Nicholson (ed), The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory

In between everything else, I’m working my way through The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson.  The book leaves out a lot because it’s limited to more highly theoretical feminist writing, but it contains some very influential work. I’ve only read the first section ‘Early Statements’ so far, but I already feel like I’m gaining a better understanding of how we got to where we are today.

One interesting factor, which Nicholson draws attention to in her introduction, is the division between the ‘Woman’s Rights Movement,’ which emerged in the early 1960s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement, which emerged out of the New Left in the later 1960s. The Women’s Rights Movement was basically what we now call liberal feminism.  It was largely made up of professional women who put pressure on organisations to end discrimination against women in the workforce. It drew on the dissatisfaction felt by a lot of middle-class housewives at the time.

The Women’s Liberation Movement developed the approach now known as radical feminism.  It was concerned with getting women and men ‘to recognise the importance of women’s oppression, its presence across large stretches of history and its fundamentality as a principle of social organisation.  This meant developing a theory that explained the origins of women’s oppression and the means by which it has been sustained’ (2). Of course these different strands were not completely independent of each other but they represent radically different approaches to the same problems and it’s important to be aware of them.  While much of the creative thinking (and therefore most of the essays in the book) came from the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement has been hugely influential in determining the feminist agenda.  These days you quite often seem to get people working with a combination of the two strands in ways that can be problematic.

The first chapter is the ‘Introduction to The Second Sex’ (1953) by Simone De Beauvoir. In trying to account for the historical oppression of women as a group, De Beauvoir argues that physiological differences between men and women gave men the opportunity to define themselves as subjects and women as ‘other.’  Biology therefore became elaborated as gender:

‘It amounts to this […] there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as testicles, and that they secrete hormones.  He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.’

I love the opening quote:

“For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more of it’ (11).

The quarreling about feminism over? In 1953? Oh how we laugh now!

The second chapter is from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Drawing on Marx and Engels Firestone continued the project of trying to account for women’s oppression by locating the problem in biological differences, specifically reproduction, arguing that women’s capacity to bear children put them in a relation of dependence on men which allowed men to oppress them.  The solution:

‘to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing.’ (24).

Is that all then?

It’s a powerful argument, but also a problematic one.  As Nicholson notes in her introduction to the book: ‘Are not all of us dependent on each other in some way or other?’  Does the existence of relations of dependence really explain the oppression of more than half the human race?  What about all the women who have never born children with men? And why should reproduction automatically be interpreted as a reason to oppress women?  Why was it not interpreted as a source of power, as seems to have been the case in some early societies? Perhaps Firestone answers these questions in the rest of her book, but I think her argument also puts women with children in a difficult position with regard to feminism because under current conditions there is no way they can seize total control of human fertility.  In having children with men at all, they are doing something arguably anti-feminist.

I prefer Gayle Rubin’s argument in the following essay, ‘The Traffic in Women’ (1975), which locates gendered oppression in the exchange of women which takes place within kinship systems.  I also love this essay for its sheer audacity. Rubin manages to weave together Marx, the anthropology of Levi-Strauss, and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan.  I’m going to write a separate post on  this one because I think it deserves a more in-depth discussion than I can provide here.

The next chapter is The Combahee River Collective’s ‘A Black Feminist Statement’ (1979), which I also think deserves a post of its own.  Basically, the statement defends identity politics, rejects separatism and insists that gender cannot be abstracted form race and class:

‘The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.’ (63).

More on that when I have a moment

The final essay in this section is the ‘The Equality Crisis,’ the one Women’s Rights Movement piece in this section and I haven’t read it because… I can’t get up much energy for liberal feminism at the moment.  I may go back to it later, but right now I have skipped to the next section which is on feminism and Marxism and interests me more.