Politics round-up

This is an awesome project giving examples of how expressions of power and privilege play out in everyday life:  Microaggressions.com.  There’s also a post discussing the project at Madhushala

A great post from Another Angry Woman, We still need to talk about consensus , about the problems which still affect activist groups, and which are just as relevant to feminist groups as they are to anarchist groups.

From Liberal Conspiracy, The perfect victim theory of rape

From Big Think, Attention Space Cadets:Do not proposition women in the elevator. Good points here about the requirement that women be constantly vigilent about the possibility of sexual assault.

From Pink News, Lesbians Speak up! We can’t see you.

And a humorous one from The Onion, Vatican reverses stance on gay marriage after meeting Tony and Craig

Sarah Schulman, Rat Bohemia (1995)

Rat Bohemia has a special place in my heart as the first lesbian novel that I read, excepting The Color Purple, which is more of a novel with lesbian themes than a lesbian novel per se.  I have no idea where I laid my hands on my copy because Schulman is not at all well known in the UK.  I think she’s one of our best lesbian writers, but the topics she explores don’t make for popularity.  Rat Bohemia sets out to make connections between the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the heterosexual family.

The novel is definitely postmodern, but written in an accessible style. Schulman never overwrites and her deceptively simple, clear prose masks a complex, carefully thought out narrative structure.

Rat Bohemia is divided into four parts, each narrated by a different character. Like most of Schulman’s work, it’s set in a run-down, gothic New York.  And like much traditional gothic fiction, the text is a patchwork of interlinked voices telling the story from different perspectives.  The first narrator, Rita Mae Weems, is a Jewish lesbian in her early thirties, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she works for Pest Control and is obsessed with New York’s rat problem.  Rita has never got over being thrown out of home at the age of 16 when her father caught her in bed with a girl called Claudia.  The second part is narrated by David, a gay Jewish writer and activist living with AIDS who is desperate for some acknowledgement and love from the family members who he feels are trying to kill him.  The third section is narrated by Rita’s best friend, Killer, a bohemian career plant-waterer who is involved in a passionate affair with the enigmatic Troy Ruby.  Along the way, there are other voices: Rita’s Cuban lover, Lourdes, successful closeted lesbian writer, Muriel Kay Starr, and David’s upper-middle class lawyer father.

Rat Bohemia is an angry novel about devastation, the devastation wrought not only by the AIDS crisis, but by society’s lack of adequate response to that crisis. Schulman locates the source of that deadly neglect in the family, daring to make connections between the Holocaust and American society’s ignoring, even cheering on, of the suffering and death of thousands of gay men in the 1980s.  The novel is a no holds barred critique of the family and its contribution to the suffering of queer people, and  Schulman is totally uncompromising in her representation of the way heterosexual families rationalise their cruelties to their queer members.

I remember when I first read it being struck by her point that heterosexual kids usually get some kind of parental cheerleading when they start to date, something that queer kids have to do without.  She doesn’t let heterosexual siblings off the hook, pointing out the ways they can take advantage of the situation.  This is a problem in the structure of the nuclear family, in which love is treated like booty to be parcelled out to members. She has no gratitude whatsoever for scraps of tolerance and ends the novel with the statement that every child deserves someone to be on their side and defend them.

There isn’t much light in this novel, though Schulman keeps it from being depressing with her warm, blackly humorous tone and her faith in friendship.  The only hope for us, she seems to say, is to be found in love and community between queer people.

This is still a radical book and I think I found it all the more powerful on re-reading.

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (2009)

Dr Faraday, a lonely, unmarried, middle-aged, country GP becomes involved with the family up at crumbling Hundreds Hall where his mother once worked as a servant. This house impressed him deeply when he was a little boy, but since then the family has diminished into genteel poverty – the household now consisting of flighty Mrs Ayres, her plain, spinster daughter, Caroline, her injured war veteran son, Roddy (who has had some kind of nervous breakdown in the recent past) and a couple of servants.  As Faraday allows himself to become emotionally entangled with this family, mysterious and increasingly terrifying occurrences begin to plague their lives at Hundreds Hall.

I got the impression that lesbian readers were divided by The Little Stranger into ‘loved it’ and ‘indifferent to it’ camps.  This is not very surprising since it’s the first of Waters’s novels not to feature a lesbian relationship, or a self-identified lesbian character.  The style of writing builds on Affinity and The Night Watch, becoming even more understated, cool and precise, and even more of a slow-burn than those novels.  So if you prefer the fast-paced romping style of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, The Little Stranger may disappoint.

I absolutely loved it though, reading most of it during one train journey to Manchester and finishing it on the way back.  But my enjoyment may have less to do with loyalty to Waters than the fact that I love the kind of Gothic writing she draws on in this novel, the ‘really about what haunts society’ tradition of ghost stories.  The cool, but terrifying, ghost stories of M.R. James are clearly an influence here, as well as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I don’t know if she’s read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but that feels like an American cousin of The Little Stranger.

The ghost haunting The Little Stranger is the ghost of class resentment, the trauma of war and the post-war shift in the position of women.  You may find the strange, ambiguous (as well as very sad) ending frustrating if you like things tied up, but I enjoy that sort of thing, and it goes with the territory in the kind of tradition Waters is writing in.

Also, it’s the first Sarah Waters novel that I could allow my mother to read.

Hilary Mantel wrote a very good review in the Guardian.

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.