Spoken words

I like words.  I like the look and the sound and the texture of them.  And I believe they are capable of more truth and communication than most of the human race typically permits them.  How are you?  Fine thanks, and you?  Can’t complain.  Well I can, and I do.

Presenting poems that make words do what they are supposed to.

‘If Only Out of Vanity’ by Stayceyann Chin If only out of vanity text

Stayceyann Chin’s vision of who she wants to be sounds like fun.  My version is one who can finally dye her hair bright purple (or maybe green) without needing to stew in bleach for six hours.  Defy all attempts to be reductionist with reality (and magic).  Ride a bike with a trailer and bright flags (and possibly a diamond tipped pointy thing).  And cross roads with a brood that knows to look on all sides before it walks.

‘Not your erotic, not your exotic’ by Suheir Hammad Not your erotic, not your exotic text

I like a lot of Suheir Hammad’s work but this one has a particular resonance for me.  For the many times I have felt like my beauty is invisible, replaced by a mirage of almond-shaped eyes and curls.  Every day I add to my list of ways in which who I am is reduced to someone else’s version of what I must be like – a cardboard cut out could replace me without most people noticing the difference.  But some will, because they know I have the kind of beauty that moves (bonus geek points if you know who I’m quoting here!).

‘The Low Road’ by Marge Piercy the low road text

Recently, Maia posted this in solidarity with the defendants in the Operation 8 trial.  If you have no idea what Operation 8 is, this is a basic introductionthis is what wikipedia has on it, and this is the best writing I have found on the subject.  The trial is a farce (ask me how) and I believe the charges should be dropped.  Marge Piercy is one of the most accomplished writers I’ve read.  And few people can read her better than Stayceyann Chin.   I have nothing to add to what has already collectively been said.  Except perhaps to state that I would like to be counted among the thousand who have solidarity with those demanding justice for the raided, Tino Rangatiratanga and Te Mana Motuhake O Tūhoe.

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Twilight: racism, misogyny and desire.

I am uncertain of the wisdom of writing about the Twilight saga in any way but, like many of my other decisions, have decided to do it nonetheless.  Mostly because this article was linked to recently on Feministe and I kinda disagreed with bits of it and it got me thinking about why, which bits and how.  I have read all the Twilight books (including the unpublished manuscript for the Edward-point-of-view-version-of-the-first-book) and seen all the movies so far.  I also intend to go and see the next movie.  Why?  Allow me to explain…

My book reading and movie watching taste is varied.  I will read pretty much any kind of writing that comes my way.  This means that while I have read some excellent books I have also read several truly awful ones.  This does not bother me.  I don’t tend to decide the worth of a book prior to reading it.  I also don’t tend to assume that I will like a book based on its politics.  I think Oscar Wilde had a point when he said – “Books are well written or badly written.  That is all.”  This does not mean that the politics of the books I read are irrelevant to me… they add to my personal sense of emotional resonance and enjoyment.  And the politics give me plenty to rant about when describing them to other people.  But literary criticism goes beyond what I like.  I could talk about a number of excellent books that I truly abhor, but I shall desist.

The Twilight Saga books are appallingly badly written.  I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to pay for them.  Some kind soul had uploaded the whole lot onto their livejournal page and I got to read them in amongst writing my thesis.  It’s not often that I find the writing and pace of fiction worse than a PhD thesis on the aetiology of sex offending – but this was one of those times.  So I’m not going to engage in any conversations about the literary value of the books – whether the argument is intrinsic (the book is excellently written and comparable to Wuthering Heights, I’m not kidding, it has been said) or utilitarian (so few books make young people read – we should embrace poorly written drivel for the sake of the youth).  I am however going to engage with the feminist discourse that has surrounded the books ever since their release.

There are two key issues that have come up/come under fire in feminist discussion as regards the Twilight series.  The one focuses on the obviously misogynistic themes of the book as exemplified by the role of Bella and her relationships with other characters in the Twilight world and second is the deeply problematic portrayal of Bella’s decision to continue or abort her pregnancy.  Another point made by feminists of colour (and allies, yay for allies!) focuses on the role of race, colour and indigeneity in the books as seen in the relationships between the werewolves and the vampires.

On the subject of race: When I read the first book I actually burst out laughing when the first-nations-peoples-as-werewolves story arc was introduced – it was just such a tired formula.  Where do I begin: the werewolves were the original custodians of the land, the vampires (the good ones who don’t eat humans) turned up and called it theirs and (like all good liberal vegetarian vampires) formed a treaty with the werewolves that involved the vampires having the right to parts of the land that used to the domain of the werewolves on the understanding that they would keep to the boundary and not kill humans.  This was done in spite of the mutual antipathy these species held each other in.  Only some of the members of the tribe (sigh) turn into werewolves and turns out the werewolf (/aggression) gene gets activated when there are too many vampires around.  The vampires are white and they sparkle (I suppose I should just be grateful they aren’t blue) and are cold to the touch, democratic and stoic and individualistic.  The werewolves are warm-blooded and instinctual with a pack structure wherein there is an Alpha who is in command and the entire pack can hear each others thoughts (thereby lending weight to the Great-Wavelength-of-Colour theory).  Race relations are not engaged with in the books and the portrayal of the Quileute tribe I would describe as racist, imperialist and unforgivably unimaginative.

Now about gender roles: The roles outlined for Bella and her two suitors are typical and banal.  It has been said that Bella is a strong character and what makes her so attractive to readers is that she goes after what she wants and gets it.  It has also been said that the things that she goes after are part of her false consciousness under a patriarchal framework.  I don’t think that there are many feminists who would suggest that the world that Bella inhabits is not a misogynist one.  However, so is this one, so Bella’s decisions are made in a bounded world that has shaped her desires as well her decisions.  The only saving grace I can find is that, on one level at least, what Bella wants is equality.  She may want to be a vampire so she can live all her unlife with her boring controlling stalker of a boyfriend, but she doesn’t want to be the weaker part of the equation that is pitied or protected.  Plenty has been said on the stalker score – anyone who needs to know what should happen in that situation please watch this video of Buffy Vs Edward – so I’ll just skip past that.  Bella’s desires are not revolutionary – they are the desires of a person trying to get the most power they can within an unjust system.  The key point is that they are her desires and if I have to choose between a Bella whose desires fill me with horror and an Edward who acts as gatekeeper to her desire with a driving need to ‘protect’ (cough control cough) her  – I pick Bella every single time.

Oh and about the politics of pregnancy:  I don’t care what Stephanie Meyer’s personal politics on abortion are.  The book presents the abortion as necessary and Bella as being entirely opposed to having one.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with Bella making the decision to continue with her pregnancy even when ‘science’ and other people are telling her that hers is the wrong decision.  Bella has heard what they have to say (she’ll die, she’s being irrational, she’s being selfish and leaving Edward alone etc.).  Pregnant people always make their decisions in a context, and if the context is untenable the solution is to make the context less skewed, not to tell the only person who has the right to make the decision about their body that their decision is wrong.  It has been suggested the world of Twilight is a subversion of the real world because it is the men in her life who’re urging Bella to abort her pregnancy rather than the ones pressuring her into continuing.  Do I need to point out that the issue is not to what purpose the pressure is being applied but the fact that pressure is being applied?  And that in our non-Twilight-world, I have met many men who’ve pressured women into aborting pregnancies when they would rather continue?  Edward wants Bella to abort the pregnancy because the baby is killing her.  I have heard this argument.  I have also heard that the guy is in medical school and doesn’t really want to deal with having a genetic link out in the world even if he does not need to take on any parental responsibility.  Bella (and anyone else who’s pregnant) is well able to make their own decisions based on whatever yardstick they  happen to employ.  And if I don’t like the decisions being made then I have work to do on changing the context (so it is no longer life or death/the odds are improved/whatever the hell else) and live with the fact that other people having agency means that their decisions will be their own.

So that is my rant.  Thoughts?

पहले-पहले दिखातें हैं की …

That is how my stories begin.  Literally translated it means, “at first they show that…”.  And this is how my mother expects books, movies and life to be narrated.  So here it is, पहले-पहले दिखातें हैं की … there was a little girl.

This girl was desperately wanted.  So much so that she had been wished for and named a year before she was thought of and two years before she was born.  The people whose she was wanted very much to do right by her.  And they did.  Of course, she did not grow up to be exactly who they expected when they taught her those things; she didn’t even really grow up to be who she expected to be when she learnt them; but grow up right she did.

At least, that’s how I tell the story.

One of the things I was taught was that beauty (the having or not) was irrelevant.  That the way you look was (more often than not) something that was determined by an accident of genetic combination; and as such not something that my person-hood needed to be evaluated by.  Another edict drummed into me was that the only appropriate way to respond to a compliment was to say ‘thank you’.  That anything else tended to either insult the intelligence and judgement of the giver or suggest an unflattering lack of belief in their intention.  So when someone tells me I’m beautiful, I say thank you.  And then I wonder what they mean.

Beauty can be a capricious creature.  In India alone I have seen the standards shift to accommodate capitalist sales targets and global marketing standards.  History tells us that beauty has defined itself in various iterations.  But I think it’s fair to say that ‘inner beauty’ arguments not withstanding, it is something to do with the way you look.  And with how much effort you put in to conform to the prevailing model of beauty.  And the extent to which you succeed.  Which, to my mind, makes it a scary thing to base even a part of my self on.  Even with the best intentions of my parents, I still learned what it meant to be beautiful and it still confuses me.  And because beauty is so enmeshed in desire, parts of me want to be thought of as beautiful.  But desire and desirability are complicated.  Largely because I want to be desired for what I think makes me desirable.  How I move through this world, what I do, and how I do it.

Now my Ma worries that she did it wrong.  That she made me believe I wasn’t beautiful.  She didn’t.  She made me believe that whether or not anyone else thought I was beautiful said more about them than it did about me.  So if you think I’m beautiful, thank you.  Now let’s talk about how.

Feminism, colonisation and migration: a tale of caution

If anyone had suggested that I would be regularly identifying myself as a feminist in political spheres, I would’ve laughed at the improbability of it.  Coming from where I do, feminism was something that liberal, individualistic, upper-middle class, privileged women did to gain greater space and visibility in groups with people with less privilege and power than them.  Like Marxism, which got bantered around predominantly as a power play used to educate the uncouth and falsely conscious working classes, feminism was a means of wielding power over others rather than something to take strength from.

I therefore learned to distance myself from the discourse of feminism and to a lesser extent from those who espoused it.  There was quite a lot in the history and mythology of hindu and secular India that attested to the variety of roles played by women in the struggle and I rarely felt the need to use a largely white, middle-class discourse to contextualise or justify my actions.  Had the discourse of feminism been a part of a power-neutral conversation with those engaged in other struggles, my resistance to it would have been reduced.  It wasn’t.  It was, naturally enough, subject to the inequities rampant in our society and as such something that academically gifted, english-language educated, relatively privileged had access to.  I suspect if the discourse had been less elitist mahila mandals up and down the country would’ve found something to appreciate in it.

And then we immigrated to New Zealand.  Sigh.  Cue to radical re-analysis of context, politics and philosophy.

Over the years that I’ve spent in New Zealand (and now Australia) I have come in contact with young feminists from the Indian community.  It’s been fun getting to know them and I’ve learnt a lot.  One thing I’ve noticed is that (much more so than it is in India) feminism and alt scenes are a key means of rebellion and escape.  At the time that I was in India, I was younger and deeply rebellious myself but I’m sure I would’ve noticed if all of us were being pulled towards feminism as the answer to our problems (or the means by which to understand our problems).  We were definitely pulled towards anger and disillusionment with the state of things,  and we definitely got together to talk and organise, we just didn’t frame our conversations under the banner of feminism that’s all.

Let me be clear here: this is not a post about how feminism is bad.  It’s not a post about how Indian women can’t be feminists.  It’s not a post about how because the practice of feminism has been subject to the same flaws and power-imbalances as the practice of all political organising everywhere –  it needs to be abandoned and/or reviled.  For me, living in Australia, identifying as a feminist is a protective, productive and strategic decision.  What I am highlighting here are the radically different meanings of identifying as a feminist in India and identifying as a feminist in Australia.  What I am further trying to tease out are the consequences and effects of identifying as a feminist in Australia if you happen to be a non-indigenous woman of colour.

One advantage of rebelling against gender norms while in India is that (generally speaking) the radical examples of gender do not come from a white perspective.  When I moved to New Zealand, I had to work hard to find non-white voices in feminist writing and only when I had found them did I begin to feel some resonance.  But finding the words of non-white immigrants and indigenous peoples is hard when reading feminist work.  Oh and this is as good a place as any to clarify that that is what I’m concerned about.  Because to me feminism is primarily about solidarity.  And while I’m talking about books a lot, the discourse of whiteness is enmeshed with that of feminism in many different spheres (most often I’ve seen it expressed as unthinking racism in feminist organising).  The doing of feminism has not been the sole prerogative of the middle classes, but again, the finding of these stories is hard work.  And I always find it interesting to tease out the intersections between stories of working class struggles and stories of migration and colour.

If you are by any chance a feminist of colour living in a colonised white-privileging country and reading this; I have this to say: don’t give up, and don’t stop rebelling.

The white-middle-class-able-bodied-female-identified feminist discourse is a great introduction to rebellion and it is a great place to start.  It is not the sum of experience and most likely, if you don’t fit neatly into the categories outlined above, it will not come close to being the sum of your experience.  So take it as a measure of solidarity and acknowledge its limits.  You don’t have to fight to be heard if you don’t want to.  Often the costs of fighting (loss of friendship, accusations of racism, isolation) are higher than the benefits.  But do remember that the parts of you that don’t fit the box still exist and deserve to be valued.  Oh and it is tempting when faced with one oppression to treat it as fixed – try to avoid this as much as you can!  Privilege and solidarity are both context dependent.  So resist the urge to become complacent in your state in the world.  Chances are things are hard enough on a day-to-day basis to make it difficult to be complacent anyhow.  Believe me, there is a wealth of strength and solidarity to be found in other discourses and feminisms – so find it.