Tag Archives: Gender

Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones

Black Maria - Diana Wynne JonesBlack Maria – Diana Wynne Jones
Published as Aunt Maria in the US

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2000
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

In Black Maria, Mig, her brother Chris, and her mother visit their aunt Maria in a seaside town. On the surface, Maria is everything one may expect of an elderly aunt in fiction: she is a little stiff and boring, she upholds the social conventions, and the children are not particularly fond of her.

Quickly, however, Mig and Chris discover that something more and entirely different is going on beneath the surface. With her polite correctness, aunt Maria seems to control an awful lot of people in their life, stifling them with correctness, so to say. The men, meanwhile, all appear to be grey-suited zombies without a will of their own. When Chris rebels against her aunt, she turns him into a wolf. It is now left to Mig to try to turn her brother back into a human, and to do so, she has to go against her aunt and the social mores of the town..

As always, I turned to Ana for advice on what to read next by Diana Wynne Jones. She recommended Black Maria since she knows I am interested in gender. I admit, I was a little sceptical. I don’t particularly like the cover for this one (I admit I like it a lot better in retrospect) and I don’t know.. I just had trouble to look past that. But of course I should have known better. Ana knows what she recommends, and Diana Wynne Jones was too smart to merely have this be the cutesy tale that I somehow expected from the cover.

What makes Black Maria such a great read is the combination of Jones’ utterly engaging writing style and storytelling with a very smart and layered commentary on gender relations. To be more precise, through Aunt Maria’s particular position and the social conventions of the town, Diana Wynne Jones magnifies the power relations and consequences of a strict interpretation of a “natural” gender divide. Moreover, by turning this divide on its head, by having women as naturally belonging to the domestic sphere, but also giving them the control of the village instead of the men, she also questions emancipatory ideas that use the “natural spheres of men and women” argument to argue that women are actually more capable of ruling. She then counters those experiences with the arguments of a few men who fight Maria’s regime, who also use the idea of “natural” gender competences in their effort to gain power. All this is preceded by small comments of Maria on how Mig should behave more in a manner that befits a girl, thus leading up to the larger themes underlying the novel.

In the midst of this fictional and very well-executed world that always remains subtle in its references to the critique below the surface, it is a joy to follow Mig in her navigation of all these claims and power relations. To see her waver, but also find her own path.

[insert contented sigh here]

What more can I say? This is Diana Wynne Jones, everyone: of course you should read it. As for me, I am happy that I still have so many of her books left to explore. And yet, with every new treasure I find, I am also saddened knowing that it means I have one book less to look forward to.

Other Opinions: Things Mean a Lot, We Be Reading, Shelf Love, Yours?

TVD 4×04: or, the fail of watching through a gender-lens

I was going to write another post today, but somehow I cannot get a word written. And the failure of the last episode of The Vampire Diaries keeps popping up in my head. I know a lot of the readers of this blog don’t watch this show. And I apologize for veering off-topic on my blog [then again, it is my blog]. I’ll have bookish posts again soon. I feel I just need to get this off my chest. Because.. you see, TVD is my guilty pleasure. And guilty pleasures are supposed to be fun. If they have you rolling your eyes, it should be a pleasant eye-roll. Instead, this week had me very very angry. So yeah.. After the cut you’ll find my TVD 4×04 thoughts. Obviously, the post contains spoilers for all seasons including this last episode.

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Sunday Salon: “Preaching” and Practising Diversity in Reading

This week, I participated in a discussion over at Jillian’s blog, A Room of Ones Own, on the Western Canon. Now, the more I consider this topic, the more the canon becomes flawed. The dominant discourse of what is worthy of recognition as a classic and the privileged white male selection mechanism is a well-known argument, but reading through the comments it became a lot more visible how this line of thinking still influences much of how we view “quality” and “literature” unconsciously. The more I think about it, the more I want to reject the canon and establish counter-readings of literature that “could just as well have been canon”. Except that to do so I think the word canon is insufficient anyway. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I enjoy reading “classics”, I like looking through lists such as the 1001 books you must read before you die list, but browsing them it is hard to ignore what has been so consciously omitted. Why so little women? Why so little literature outside of Northern America and Europe? Why so much general fiction? Why so little fantasy? These are questions that need to be asked, I think. It is important to be aware of them.

However, after reading about the topic on Jillian’s blog, while posting comments and etcetera, I started to contemplate if I practise what I preach. And I came to some startling (or not so startling) conclusions.

Overall, I read, and write about, more books written by women than by men. It is not so much a conscious decision (on some level it is, but that would be a whole different post), but I do consciously not care to make the numbers more equal. Why? Because there is an overload of male authors being reviewed over female authors, so I think I could justify writing more about women (not that I think my small blog has any effect, it’s just that, as I said before, I want to be conscious about what I’m doing).

There’s one exception though. And that is Dutch Lit Month. If there was one chunk of reading that skewed the male-female ratio more towards equal it was my dedicated month of reading Dutch literature last year. I reviewed a grand total of two Dutch women authors. Two! One of which was a DNF. This, of course, needs to change. So I have been looking into some details, trying to find a way to make my reading more equal this year. To this purpose, I took out this book from the library:

Women's Writing from the Low Countries 1880-2010, edited by Jacqueline Bel and Thomas Vaessens // Amsterdam/Manchester University Press, 2010

It contains small informative summaries of the lives and works of numerous Dutch women authors. Disappointingly, there is no list of translated works included, even if the book itself is written in English. And here the other problem I have in trying to write about more Dutch women authors comes into play: the issue of translation. Let me illustrate that.

This is a row of twenty books my parents received as a present when they subscribed to a national newspaper recently. They are a specially issued series of “the best Dutch debut novels”:

75% of the novels pictured above are written by men. Only five out of 20 were written by women. Only two of those have been translated to English (most of them were translated to German).

So here’s the thing: How do I keep the number of Dutch female authors reviewed during Dutch Lit Month equal to the number of men, without reviewing books of which I can only hope that they will one day be translated to English? I’m not saying I’m not going to try, I’m browsing the library and books at the family like crazy, and I’m sure I’ll figure something out this year. But in the long run, there’s the fact that if I want to continue Dutch Lit Month with a focus on books that are available to English readers, how do I keep from a skewed gender balance?

Apart from a gender imbalance in books read and written about for Dutch Lit Month, there is also the factor of ethnicity, race, country in my general reading.. My focus is heavily on European and North American lit. I sometimes read a few books from Australia, Africa, Asia (never yet from South America, I think?), but it simply is not enough. And here, I cannot blame translations or availability so much. I can only blame myself. For not taking a more conscious effort to remedy this. To be lazy enough to read books I bought, and get books from the library, that are so undeniably “Western” in their focus and authorship. So, I think I see a project coming on, or something, anything, to do better on this score. And to turn awareness into actually doing something about it in my personal reading. Knowing myself, I will find this incredibly difficult. I already feel myself thinking in terms of problems and what I have to “deny” myself in reading plans, instead of in terms of opportunities.

I am not sure if I will be able to change this overnight. I am pretty sure I cannot. But the least I can do is write it down, and acknowledge it publicly to myself, right? In the hope that I will make more of an effort. In the hope that some of you might help make me accountable to myself.

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot

Dotter of Her Father's Eyes - Mary M Talbot and Bryan TalbotDotter of Her Father’s Eyes – Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Dark Horse Comics, February 2012

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes is a graphic novel that tells the story of both Lucia, the daughter of James Joyce, and Mary Talbot, daughter of eminent Joycean scholar James S. Atherton. These two stories have more in common than the connection to Joyce, as it traces opportunities and oppression through social expectations and gender politics of two women in different historical contexts: Lucia’s story takes place in Paris in the 1920’s, while Mary grows up in Northwest England in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

I have not read many graphic memoirs, or graphic novels (this book falls in between both categories – I think), having only read the Persepolis books before. Moreover, I am not a Joycean scholar. To be honest, I have never even read Joyce. Both, however, did not in any way detract from my enjoyment of the book. I am still reeling from the impact of the combination of images and texts, and this book had me both laughing out loud, crying, nodding my head, and enraged at the prevalent attitudes of other people in Lucia and Mary’s life. Let me explain.

The stories of Lucia and Mary are interwoven in a manner that works really well. The book alternates between the lives of both, relating Lucia and Mary to each other on such themes as ballet, career, stifling gender-expectations, and family life. One of the overarching themes is the way in which both women are affected by their self-centred fathers, who pay too little attention to the emotional welfare of their daughters, as they are too caught up in their own careers. Mary eventually manages to find her own place in society, but sadly, Lucia is not as lucky and ends up in various mental institutions. While both stories are sad, and Lucia’s lot is tragic in the end, I thought the “overlap-yet-divergence” in their stories portrayed the impact of societal structures of gender, class, and social expectations, without reinforcing a hegemonic framework where every life in such circumstances is exactly the same. Because the effect of the combination of images and text works so well in this graphic novel, Lucia and Mary truly come to life, allowing the reader to feel for them, almost from the very first page. Because of this personal aspect to the story, especially since this is in part Talbot’s memoir, the more abstract issues of gender and class politics really hit home.

Of interest, too, was the portrayal of religion in the book, because it shows it in many of its facets. One page has Mary taking part in the annual “Walking Day” parade of her church, and shows the transformative qualities on the streets, as they are pictured less gloomy. Another has a favourite teacher transform to an angry (and quite frightening) one, when Mary remarks that they are in biology and not religion in face of the description of contraception as sinful. And then there’s Joyce who possibly names Lucia after St. Lucia as the patron saint of the blind, but who also means to spare her daughter the “very troublesome burden of belief”.

It was the very personal, emotional, and yet nuanced approach to both stories that made me love Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes. I am happy to learn from Nymeth’s post that Mary M. Talbot is an inspiring academic on gender and linguistics, while Bryan Talbot has more graphic novels to his name. This means, of course, that I am far from done reading their works.

What made me laugh in spite of all the tragedy, you may ask? Well, it is a little embarrassing, since it may unmask me as the utter and complete nerd that I am. Worse, it is actually a sad scene. But the reference to Bourdieu, who I have had to study endlessly in university, in a manner so fitting, and in the context of recognition of feeling left out on the playground, was perfect to me.

I received a review copy of this book through Netgalley.

Other Opinions: Things Mean A Lot, Back to Books.

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Sunday Salon: Continuing A Year of Feminist Classics

After a year of somewhat, on my part, failed hosting of the first reading list of A Year of Feminist Classics, Ana, Amy, Emily Jane and I decided that this project was too worthwhile to have it only last one year.

We decided to continue with a slightly different format, as we now have 8 other hosts joining us! Thus, we have aimed to guarantee that every month will see a number of post on the book under discussion. The project is still pretty much the same, with at its root the idea that we “think of this project as an informal feminist reading group. You don’t have to commit to joining the discussion every month, but we’d love to hear your thoughts whenever you’re able to.” In coming up with the list of books we have aimed to fill in gaps from last year’s list, which resulted in a list that features some more recent works, but that we feel are still influential enough to fit the word “classic”.

The reading list we will be reading from, starting February:

  • February – Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks (Amy)
  • March – The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine De Pizan (Jean)
  • April – Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (Cass)
  • May – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë read alongside Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Iris)
  • June – Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (Emily)
  • July – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Nancy)
  • August – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Lauren)
  • September – Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua (Melissa)
  • October – The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (Jodie)
  • November – Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi (Ana)
  • December – Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis (Emily Jane)
  • January – Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practising Solidarity by Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Eva)

Join us, for one, all, or a selection of, the above titles? 

Personally, I am uncertain whether I will be able to join in for all the books, especially since I do not have enough money at my disposal to buy books not available at my library. But I’m trying not to worry about that, I’m much too excited to be part of this project again.