Thursday, 30 January 2014

Trees Hold All The Stories

It’s about time I posted again. I’ve been working on a review the last few weeks but essay deadlines have made it difficult to work on it solidly. In the wake of submission dates, I was distracted by a post from one of my favourite bloggers, The Girl Who Married A BearIt was about feminism and I just wanted to add some thoughts and to write about a poet I've recently been reading.
    I think one of the best ways to come to feminism is not to be afraid of it. In the conservative village I grew up in, my parents’ house seemed an enclave of radicalism. I was sheltered by their socially liberal ideas. For them, it didn't matter whether I wanted to craft with my grandmother, go to ballet classes or sit on the benches of the under ten football team. I could do all of these things. I was encouraged to read books and show an active interest in world events. I was equal in the eyes of my parents. The language of feminism was already deeply engrained in me. However, in my late teens I became averse to the word feminist. I found it difficult to equate how I felt about my own ideas of freedom and the violent determination of previous generations. The word seemed unnecessary. In the academic environment, feminism was widely seen as a truism. I have come to appreciate that the acceptance of ideas and the practise of them are not necessarily companions. Our culture is founded on patriarchy, it takes time to make the fundamental changes needed for equality. 
     I’ve become more attached to the word through a clearer understanding of the tradition and the fight. The flourishes of language that feminism can make possible is truly worthwhile. Another reason I felt I needed to contribute to the conversation was because I was truly astounded to discover that I was in a tiny minority of women in my seminar group who whole heartedly embraced the ideas of feminism. A great deal of the trouble was caused by confusion about what it actually meant to be a feminist. After some explanation, people were still divided and one student told me that feminism was simply “chicks being angry about their own inadequacy, looking for someone to blame.” Some of the girls shared the opinion that there was no need for feminism anymore. One girl, resigned, announced that women would never be equal and she didn’t see why she should be unhappy trying to make them so. I suppose this nihilism can be, to a degree, understood in the face of the imprisonment of the two Pussy Riot members and the current regressive attitudes from governments all over the world. I hope that something happens between now and the age of 26 for my classmates who stood against feminism.
     Feminism has become fragmented, like woman-ness. There is no sticking definition of what is woman, not even biological when we consider transgender. In this fragmented form, the pieces of what make us female can collide to create new hybrids of feminisms, which are constantly evolving.
     The poet Gloria Anzaldua is described as Chicana Lesbian Feminist Literature. Feminists can run the risk of becoming insular in their struggle, ignoring other plights. This was a charge directed at the Suffragette movement. Many at the time saw that these women were fighting for a very narrow stream of woman-kind, a cultural elite set apart by private education and private incomes. The sturdier and longer-lived suffrage movement, also fragmented, stood for universal suffrage.
     Anzaldua’s poetry is all of those things, but also something more. In her interview in the anthology of Innovative Women Writers she talks about extending oneself into the world and relates to the interviewer’s experience of talking to a tree and needing that dialogue to be open during times of creativity. Otherwise that creativity dries up. Anzaldua draws a brilliant balance between acknowledging that the tree is a pathway to the interviewer's creativity and discussing the possibility that the tree is in fact a different entity, she then goes on to wonder whether the tree is an extension of the woman's self and that the body of the tree and the mind of the writer are interconnected.
     Whether you believe any of that, you’ve got to admire the way she thinks, embracing all possibility and being willing to talk about it constructively.  There is a wonderful poem, called Interface, about an ethereal creature that wills herself into flesh:

What does it feel like, she asked
               to inhabit flesh,
wear blood like threads
              constantly running?*

The word feminist is important because it reminds us of the struggle and should deter us from taking regressive steps. Feminisms should be allowing us to express our gender freely, not confining us to one particular idea of woman. Freedom of mind and body are the basic rights we should be fighting for. For all.

I’m going to leave you with one of my favourite stanzas from the poem Del Otro Lado:

She looks at the Border Park fence
posts are stuck into her throat, her navel,
barbwire is shoved up her cunt.
Her body torn in two, half a woman on the other side
half a woman on this side, the right side
and she went to the North American university,
excelled in the Gringo’s tongue
learned to file in folders.
But she remembered the other half
strangled in Aztec villages, in Mayan villages, in Incan villages.*

I’ll probably write more about Anzaldua at a later stage. She’s really piqued my interest. I’m still learning but feminism and women writing is definitely going to be a recurrent theme.  

Ygdrasil watches over the valley

* Both extracts are from Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews ed. by Elizabeth A. Frist and Cynthia Hogue (USA: University of Iowa Press, 2006)


Sunday, 12 January 2014

"We dress ourselves in stories"

Rabbit Back Literature Society Review

I read this book recently, it told me about the way I think. It told me about how nothing makes sense whilst being very entertaining and not trying to tell me anything. Afterwards, I went outside and slept under the apple tree wearing my story-trimmed cape. This is the time of nonsense. The time when the stories all mix up and flirt and dance and go home with the wrong person. This is the time when Helene Cixous whispers about earth and shit and sex all being one and Eleanor Roosevelt does the Hokey Cokey to a tuneless orchestra all dressed in lavender branches. In the garden is a phantom, but he’s only there when the rain drizzles and the frost gathers in the bird bath and the sun breaks through grey storm clouds. He seeks the cool, dark-green upper reaches of the conifer trees in the summer; where the crows perch. But for now, he is spinning through the un-pruned upper reaches of the apple tree and rubbing himself against the twisted lichens, chasing the passerines as they scatter. He ignores me, my face covered in moss and only the stories visible. Only when I wake up, do I try to grab the strands of his terrified tale. ~ Me  

Set in a small Finnish town, The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a book about ghosts real and metaphorical. It’s also a brilliant dissection of the process of writing. A famous author takes nine school children she deems talented enough for her attention and teaches them how to look at the world from a writer’s point of view. Writing becomes their lives and at times their ruthless devotion appears pathological, they cannot conceive of any other career. Outside this small group are hundreds of other Rabbit Back inhabitants who write and form book groups, writing groups and fan clubs for the famous authoress Laura White and the successful writers. The Society is deemed a sure-fire way into the literary world and the rumour is that they’re looking for a tenth member.  Ella, our heroine with the lovely curving lips and defunct ovaries, becomes that tenth member, but just before she has the glory of meeting her idol, Laura White, the famous authoress disappears in a tragic and wonderfully unbelievable accident. White is the ghost of the novel; she haunts the lives of the Society members she’s scarred with years of emotional abuse. The whole town is having dreams about her Zombie body coming to call and the books that were once loved by the children of Rabbit Back are getting thrown out, to exorcise the ghost of the writer.  Ella starts to unravel the secret lives of White and the members through their own invention, The Game and you begin to see the misery, the selfishness and the dirt that goes into making these great writers. The Game hollows you out, allows the other player to steal your experiences for the purpose of writing as they “spill” everything, the truth; no embellishments; robbing you of your defences. 

Not only does the book analyse what it means to write and the psychosis behind writing but it also explores the hyper-real of invented worlds and how sometimes they take on a lifeless life of their own. This reminded me a lot of the Moomin stories. Jannson’s beautifully surreal and expressive stories are often overshadowed by the cartoons and merchandise. The woods and gardens in Rabbit Back are full of wooden carvings of sprites and beasts that hide the real sprites and beasts that lurk there.  There was a review on the dust jacket, comparing the book to Twin Peaks. It has the same uncertain horror of where it’s going to go and the mix of everyday “cup of Joe” ordinariness with the supernatural. Jääskeläinen invented the term Reaalifantasia to describe it, an off-shoot of magical realism.

Photograph by Luke Thompson