Sunday, 29 September 2013

Review: The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie

This is a really slim volume, just fifty pages and it's light, simple, deep, elegant, intriguing. It's very much about the place of things, in time, space, nature, imagination.

I'm really interested in her "Five Tay Sonnets" sequence which seem to be partly an exploration into how far you can stretch and bend a poetic form before it becomes something else. It feels like she built around the sonnet form rather than within it, like she used it as a  starting framework and then grew her poetry organicly and wild around it. Which absolutely suits the contents of the sequence as it is about the ebb and flow and intertwining of relationships between humans and nature

Lots of these poems are an exploration and discusion of a sense of self in space and time in relation to the place of other things and how that sense of self changes and shifts such as in Fragment 1
"so how can you tell
  What form I take?

What form I take
  I scarcely know myself

adrift in a wood
 in wintertime at dusk"
 Fragment 2

"Imagine we could begin
all over again; begin

afresh, like this February                                                  
dawn light....

...we could mend

whatever we heard fracture:
splintering of wood, a birds

cry over still water, a sound
only reaching us now"

 And Hawk and Shadow

"Being out of sorts
with my so-called soul,
part unhooked hawk,
part shadow on parole,"

The theme of time runs subtly but consistently throughout this collection, months and seasons and cycles, dawns, dusk, moonlight, tide changes, the brief, beautiful, and seemingly inconsequential life of flowers,  a description of an excavation to unearth a bronze age boat
The mix of Scots and English is interesting and while natural for a poet who comes from Scotland  it brings up issues of language accessibility and who language belongs to and whether the things said in that language only really belong to the speakers of that language,   The reader who only speaks English will bring their assumptions that majority language speakers have the right to be able to read things in their own language. the expectation that minority language speakers who also speak a majority language should make their writings accessible, especially if that language/dialect is spoken by a minority because of colonisation.

This is a beautifully layered book, on one level a beautiful sequence of descriptions of the Scottish landscape  but it opens up and out to layers of mediations on the self and nature and the boundaries and connections between them. The simplicity of the language used leaves space for the words to flow and become liminal, luminous, breathtaking, while at the same time letting the descriptions become concrete and tangible.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

This is why it matters, because womens voices matter

     so, anyone who pays attention to literary corners of the internet will probably have stumbled across the misogynist, racist, up his own arse, literature professor who refuses to teach anything but white male writers because he only teaches what he loves. And you know fine, if he only read white male writers because that's all he loves, well I'm still going to judge him and not actually believe that he's read much of any other type of literature, but he wouldn't be hurting anyone but himself. But refusing to teach any other writers to his classes when he acknowledges in a later interview that "almost all my students are girls"  means that he is sending the message to his students that women can't write as well as men, and by extension women's voices are not as important as men, he is teaching  his male students that they don't need to listen to women and he is teaching his women students that they are not worth listening to.

Some of the responses assume that the whole thing was a deliberate stunt to help Gilmore sell books, which may be true, but the fact that he thinks so little of women and people of colour that he thinks its okay to say things like that for whatever reason is bad enough (and his "apology" does nothing to paint him in a better light) But this is also a really common sentiment heard from people both inside and outside academia, that women and people of colour can't write, or can't write well, or are too biased, (as if anyone writes from a non biased perspective) that only white men understand and have "universal" experiences that anyone else would want to read about. Some people are obvious and overt about only reading white men and will justify themselves at length but other people are ether more subtle about it or don't even notice it and they get incredibly defensive if they are expected to explain or justify it (and yet if you tell them you are only reading women they lose their shit). As Literary Magpie says

David Gilmour is the rule, not the exception. Young, eager writers learn there’s only certain things worth writing about, certain histories that deserve to be told. Some people never get to see work from people like them valued. Some people never learn to value people who are not like them.

This is a subtle process. I’m not saying that his students aren’t capable of figuring this out for themselves. But having taste projected onto you is insidious; it seeps into your brain. You might logically know that it’s artificial, but when everything you read is one way, you start to question your logic.

And I wish he would consider this: What is your job as a teacher? What kind of teacher do you want to be? Do you want to tow the status quo of how we imagine Literature, or do you want to open minds? Do you want to regurgitate or expand? Do you want to rehash for yourself, be the keeper of knowledge, or do you, yourself, want to learn each time you teach?

Just a thought.

This Way Lies Pedantry adds

He may well be the norm in the multitude of gatekeepers that close off writing for anyone but white, straight males. First the teachers, who refuse to teach or validate experiences save for those that are white, straight and male – and then the publishers, who refuse to publish save from the canon of white, straight maleness. This is how literary experiences are marginalized...And by the way, his very existence nurtures more people to become like him and take on his ways. A lot of students love to style themselves like him in literature. Academic machoness is a really widespread intellectual cliche that’s very contagious to vapid college boys.

 Kaitlin Mcnabb writes directly back to Gilmore saying

Women writers are not a novelty item or a token presence, first and foremost they are writers who happen to identify as women. Women writers write about the same things men do and even different things too because isn't that what makes a literary canon wonderful -- diversity in opinion, experience and style?

By not being accountable to your actions (re: they're sexist) and attempting to "check yourself" you reinforce the whole white male privilege thing that got us here in the first place. Saying you don't like women writers is inherently sexist because you are generalizing a whole group of people -- most of whom I'm assuming you haven't read -- and then saying "no."

I don't know how to sum up this third statement other than to say "your misogyny and white male privilege are showing." Constantly stating you teach "only the best" ipso facto "women aren't the best." You don't have to worry about male writers being left of the list. So...
I love that these bloggers and others have cared enough that they wrote these posts but I want us to go further than that. I want us to support women writers and support publishers that publish women writers. I want us to create spaces where women can talk about women writers and women's literature. Where women can teach each other that their voices matter, that we have things that are worthwhile to say, that deserved to be listened to

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

women writers

Usually I am really not a fan of  "X number of books to read" lists. but how often do you see a list made up exclusively of women writers? Most of these lists don't even have anywhere near 50% women writers. So check out 50 books you will want to read by women. Make sure you check out the comments as well, there's a lot of recommendations in them too!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Todays Book Haul

I went to Cardiff today to have coffee with a friend and then we had a look round some of the second hand book shops and this is what i came home with

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Review: Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi

                                  Aung San Suu Kyi, the key note speaker of the 17th Forum 2000 
                                 Conference opening ceremony on September 15, 2013, in Prague,

 This book is a collection of letters written for a column in a Japanese newspaper. It was written during the first year after the end of Aung San Suu Kyis first period of house arrest. I know very little about Burma, I vaguely remember my headmaster presenting an assembly about Aung San Suu Kyi and I read some essays about Burma written by John Pilger ages ago, so I was looking forward to reading something written by a Burmese woman.

I really enjoyed this book. A lot of the letters are obviously very political but there are also lots of descriptions and explanations about food, culture, festivals, the natural world, religion, social relationships and customs, so I learnt a lot of things I didn't know and that helped me understand the political relationships better. She also writes a lot about how the  totalitarian military rule is damaging and changing the social and cultural landscape of Burma.

She doesn't talk a lot about gender politics but when she did the passages jumped out at me. When writing about the birth of a friends granddaughter she says:
  In societies where the birth of a girl is considered a disaster the atmosphere of excitement and pride surrounding my friends granddaughter would have caused  astonishment. In Burma there is no prejudice against girl babies. In fact, there is a general belief that daughters are more dutiful than sons.
This was interesting to me as Burma is pretty much sandwiched between India and China, both countries which are known for their widespread negative attitude to the birth of female children

 Her party seem to advocate a form of compassionate capitalism. When I first read that she advocated a free market economic policy I was surprised because I associate  free market economics with  entirely unregulated consumerist capitalism that rides roughshod over peoples needs and rights. But later on in another letter in the book she writes of  foreign businesses who are looking to invest in Burma: .

 Perhaps they do not know of the poverty in the countryside, the hapless people whose homes have been razed to make way for big vulgar buildings, the bribery and corruption that is spreading like a cancerous growth, the lack of equity that makes the so - called open market economy very, very open to some and hardly ajar to others, the harsh and increasingly lawless actions taken by the authorities against those who seek democracy and human rights, the forced labor projects where men, women and children toil away without financial compensation under hard taskmasters...If businessmen do not care about the numbers of political prisoners in our country they should at least be concerned that the lack of an effective legal framework means there is no guarantee of fair business practice or, in cases of injustice, of reparation. If businessmen do not care that our standards of health and education are deteriorating, they should at least be concerned that the lack of a healthy, educated labor force will inevitably thwart sound economic development.
There are many letters detailing the detentions, imprisonments and sometimes deaths of her colleagues and friends. It is obvious how stoic and brave and determined the members of her political party and their supporters are when they know they could be removed  and punished at any time, imprisoned for decades and possibly killed but they do the work they are doing because of their commitment to democracy and truth.

This book was published in 1997 and a lot has happened in Burma and in Aung San Suu Kyi's life since them so when I get a chance I am definitely going to check out her later writings and other books written by women from Burma

Saturday, 21 September 2013


Girlhood:On (not) finding yourself in books
These are the people I write about. These are the people I write for. For the girls they were, for the girl I was. For girls everywhere who are like the girls we were, troubled and angry and lost, who turn to books for a little bit of salvation or redemption or reprieve, in hopes that the story will find them, and that they will find themselves in the story and not feel so alone.
Left out: The Authors who Know Disability From the Inside
I was disappointed to read Paul Wilson's top 10 books about disability – what a missed opportunity. One of the slogans of the disability rights movement is "Nothing About Us Without Us" - and there was very little "us" in last week's selection.
The Ivory Tower Doesn't Yet Have A Room For Brown Girls
I’m a young Woman of Color majoring in art history at Yale. I know I’m fortunate to be here, and I don’t ever take it for granted. But sometimes, even with the bounty of its myriad resources and brilliant minds all at my disposal, I realize how isolated I am—not physically or emotionally, but in academia. I don’t really fit in. The authors we read, the works we discuss: most or all of them come from a discourse that neglects my existence. The ivory tower doesn’t yet have a room for brown girls.

 Where are all the women?
 What I do strongly believe is that the best of our nature writers and journalists provide fantastic inspiration for the rest of us, and especially for young people thinking about coming into conservation. And that’s where I think having women in the limelight is most important. There’s a growing body of research that shows that positive female role models are particularly important for young women in choosing career paths. The nature conservation world is crying out for more young people with the enthusiasm, knowledge and field skills to protect our natural heritage. Fifty per cent of that pool of potential future naturalists is female. Surely we want to give them all the inspiration we can?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Review:Otter Country by Miriam Darlington

This is the first book I read in my quest to find women nature writers. It details Miriam Darlingtons year long quest in search of the wild otter in Britain. She fell in love with otters as a child after reading Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and then Ring of Bright water by Gavin Maxwell, The book is packed with information and descriptions and little bits of knowledge about history, geology, ecology as it pertains to otters and their habitats.

It could have tipped into romanticism but it didn't it stayed very grounded in the reality and harshness of otters life cycles and their complicated relationships with human environments. Darlington writes a lot about land management and mismanagement and the book is shot through with the understanding that all land, even those places we think of as "wilderness"  have at some point been managed by humans sometimes to the detriment of wildlife and sometimes to the benefit

She talks a lot about how otters in an ecosytem are a symbol of how healthy the eco system is because otters being largish predators are at the top of the food chain and can't survive if the rest of the food chain is unhealthy or non existent. She writes about the need for otter "corridors" rivers and marshlands that run all the way through the country without being blocked by human construction so otters can spread out throughout Britain, which is something I never thought about before and is true for all non flying wildlife and so would make ecosytems healthier all over
Much of the book is taken up with her travels to find otters and her waiting, watching, at the side of riverbeds, pools, marshlands, and her beautiful  detailed descriptions of those moments. It struck me that if you want to know about otters how much else you need to learn. She writes about the life cycle and flow of rivers, about plants, about weather, about rock formations, about the other animals that effect the otters environment

something that really jarred me about the book was that all the otter experts she spoke to except two were men, which is not the fault of her or her book, but a fault of society that doesn't support or encourage women to get into those positions. (Also possible there's something about how society  is much more accepting of obsessions around nature in men than they are in women)

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of her writing style, she writes lyrical descriptive passages that flow interspersed with more knowledge heavy passages. It's not a style of writing I am used to but it is necessary and appropriate for the book

One of my favorite passages was her writing about going to Cardiff Universities  Otter Project , which is headed up by Dr Elizabeth Chadwick , to assist in an otter post mortem. It was a beautiful haunting passage that emphasised that the biggest dangers to Britains otter population are humans in cars.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Reading From The Margins

I've been thinking about this project for ages, and to be honest the content of my reading material won't change massively anyway, but I was given the final push by two things that happened recently. Firstly the  post "The Year I stopped Reading Men" or more accurately, the comments on the post. I am always astonished at how people loose their shit when you tell them you don't read or are going to stop reading men. Theres accusations of sexism, of imbalance  (because our culture isn't saturated by men's creations, men's assumptions, men's viewpoints, or anything),of the fact that women don't understand and can't write men any better than men can write women (are you kidding me? Women understanding men is a survival skill under patriarchy.) Comments about missing out on good writing (which assumes that women don't, can't routinely write as well as men.) that women's viewpoints are "biased"

And the other reason is that I have really got into nature writing recently but finding nature writing by women is really, really hard. Men  make up most writers in most genres but it seems that nature writing is even more male heavy than most so I want to read, review, and make a list of Women nature writers in case anyone else is looking for nature writing by women

As is happens I'm not entirely going to stop reading men. I'm going to stop reading mainstream male writers and then take other stuff writer by writer, which means I will be reading some stuff by queer men, disabled men, and men of colour.

I do have some books by mainstream male writers in my bookcase that I want to read eventually but I want to do this project for at least two years to see how it changes the way I think about myself and the world.