In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado #DiverseDecember #2

In the Dream House is a ground-breaking memoir of an emotionally abusive relationship. Ground-breaking in that it is one of only a handful of examples of an abusive relationship between partners who share the same gender identity and also in terms of the form Machado chooses for it.

Machado takes us into the dream house via three epigraphs, each on a separate page. It is clear from the start that she is building something new, shifting our perspective on ideas and structures that already exist, asking us to look at the gaps and see what’s missing from our understanding of the world.

Sometimes the proof is never committed to the archive – it is not considered important enough to record, or if it is, not important enough to preserve. Sometimes there is a deliberate act of destruction […]. What gets left behind? Gaps where people never see themselves of find information about themselves. Holes that make it impossible to give oneself a context. Crevices people fall into. Impenetrable silence. 

As Machado relates the story of meeting the woman who becomes her abuser and the ways in which this abuse manifests, she plays with literary devices, genres, tropes and references to popular culture, naming each chapter after one of these. For example, the first time Machado is late to meet her girlfriend due to supporting someone in distress, her girlfriend is furious and her reaction disproportionate to the situation. The chapter is titled ‘Dream House as Omen’. 

Possibly the most effective use of this structure comes in the ‘Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure®’. Those of us who read these books in childhood will recall that you read a passage and then have to choose what the next move will be. Once you’ve chosen you turn to the relevant page and keep going until you either run out of options or are successful in overcoming all the obstacles and completing the quest. Machado turns this into a circular exercise from which there is no escape. Her approach mirrors exactly how it feels to be trapped in a situation where there is no correct answer and you’re left questioning your own judgement and your self-worth. 

In the Dream House succeeds on every level. It is a heart-breaking account of emotional abuse in a shared gender identity relationship and a piece of experimental non-fiction which breaks and remakes canonical ideas and structures. It is an incredible piece of work. 

In the Dream House is published by Serpent’s Tail. The copy I read was my own purchase.

The Wild Remedy – Emma Mitchell

I’m not going to mince my words: I suffer from depression and have done for twenty-five years. So begins Emma Mitchell’s nature diary, The Wild Remedy. One of the things Mitchell has discovered about her depression is that it ‘lifts a little’ if she can manage to leave the idyllic sounding cottage where she lives with her family and go for a walk in the woods. She acknowledges that she isn’t the first person to have made this connection –  that there are references in literature as well as the Victorian cures for a range of illnesses – but there are also now a number of academic studies which support Mitchell’s personal experience.

The diary runs through the course of a year, beginning in October as autumn descends. Mitchell walks with her lurcher puppy, Annie, who is a constant, lovely presence throughout the book (even when she chews pencils because her walk’s delayed). As they walk, Mitchell looks for signs of the season – plants, insects and birds. She takes photographs, some of which she turns into sketches when she’s back home, and collects samples of plants and bird feathers which have fallen on the woodland floor. The latter Mitchell turns into collages. The collages, sketches and the photographs illustrate the book, beautifully demonstrating the natural cycle as the year progresses. It’s interesting – and quite stark – to see the way the colour drains from nature then begins to pop up in little splashes until we reach summer and things are in full bloom again.

While the countryside becomes gloomier, Mitchell’s depression has the same effect on her. As she promises at the opening of the book, she doesn’t mince her words, taking the reader through the effects on her brain of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and showing how her depression sometimes […] has a massive party and invites over its pals Crippling Anxiety and Suicidal Ideation for a knees-up. It doesn’t make for easy reading but Mitchell’s honesty and the fact that this is part of a cycle helps to show the ebbs and flows of depression. It’s a reminder to anyone who suffers that, even at the lowest points, it will loosen its grip eventually.

Some books are difficult to review without exploring my own experience as a reader and The Wild Remedy is one of them. I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety and insomnia, sporadically, for almost twenty years. Often they come in pairs, sometimes all three descend at once. When Mitchell talked about her experience of SAD, I recognised it. My mood often plummets in November and December, lifting again once the cherry blossom blooms and the clocks go forward. I live in the city and the awful cliché that it’s grim up north often feels true during winter; there are days when it’s continually grey and it feels as though we might never see sunlight again. Most days I crave being by the sea because I know I feel better – and sleep better – when I’m there. Reading about Mitchell’s trips to the seaside, at various points in the year, helped me feel that I’ve not simply internalised an unscientific Victorian cure-all and that there is something in spending time in nature that helps to lift my mood.

The Wild Remedy isn’t just an interesting and beautifully rendered book, it’s an important one. By sharing her experiences and her knowledge, Mitchell shows how nature can help us and why we should take more time to be in tune with our surroundings.

This post is part of a blog tour. You can see what other reviews thought of A Wild Remedy at the sites listed below. Emma Mitchell posts beautiful collages and things she’s seen on her walks on her Instagram and Twitter accounts; I highly recommend both.

Review copy of A Wild Remedy provided free by Michael O’Mara Books.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (translated by Lizzie Davis)

August is my favourite bookish month of the year: women in translation month. Lots of bloggers and publishers get involved; you can follow what’s happening via the hashtag #WITMonth and the @Read_WIT account run by Meytal Radzinski who founded the whole thing. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else is reading and discussing.

First up for me is a very timely book in terms of the recent incarceration of immigrant children in America (although there are messages here for many other countries including the UK). It’s a little bit of a cheat too as Luiselli wrote some of the text in English – the book began life as an article for Freeman’s and then was expanded on in Spanish and those sections were translated by Lizzie Davis – but this is an important piece of work and #WITMonth seemed a good time to review it.

In 2015, Luiselli begins work as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children who’ve crossed the border from Mexico into the United States of America.

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

Luiselli divides her account of her experience into four stages: border, court, home, community. This comes from a list her niece sees on a board in one of the interview rooms; it’s there to help the migrant children recall their journey into the country. She parallels their journey with parts from her own life. Luiselli and her husband are also migrants. Having applied for their green cards, they can’t leave the country so drive across to Arizona as a holiday. They are stopped by border patrol who want to know what business they have being there.

The forty questions in the book’s title refer to those the children are asked in order for the group of charities who offer support to assess how they might build a legal case for them. Question seven is “Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?” This allows Luiselli to give us the statistics:

Eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.

The number of abduction victims between April and September 2010 was 11,333.

Some sources estimate that, since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared in their transit through Mexico.

She makes it clear that listening to the children’s stories horrifies her but it is these details that can be used to strengthen their case to stay in the U.S.

As she undertakes this work, Luiselli teaches an Advanced Conversation class at a local university. There she begins to discuss the immigration crisis. This leads to the students deciding to do something positive and hopeful and allows Luiselli to follow one of the boys she has interpreted for to something close to an ending. What this also highlights though is how the U.S. is complicit in the creation of these migrants: the boy, who she calls Manu, encounters the same problem in New York state which led him to leave Mexico in the first place.

Of course, America isn’t the only country to create a situation which leads to migration and then close its borders – the UK and other European countries have done the same, most recently with Syrian refugees.

Luiselli’s reason for writing the book is a very clear message to us all:

…perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalising horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.

The horror and the violence are made stark in Tell Me How It Ends. It’s a difficult book to read at times but, as Luiselli says, it’s also one we can’t afford to look away from.

Cut from the Same Cloth edited by Sabeena Akhtar

Occasionally I use this blog to write about projects that I think are important/necessary. Today it’s one that’s being crowdfunded via the innovative publisher Unbound. Cut from the Same Cloth is an anthology of essays written by British hijabis and edited by the brilliant Sabeena Akhtar, who you might know from her work with Media Diversified, Bare Lit Festival and Tilted Axis Press.

From the Unbound website:

Perceived as the visual representation of Islam, hijab-wearing Muslim women are often harangued at work, at home and in public life yet are rarely afforded a platform of their own.

In books and in the media we are spoken on behalf of often by men, non-hijabis, and non-Muslims. Whether it is radical commentators sensationalising our existence or stereotypical norms being perpetuated by the same old faces, hijabis are tired. Too often we are seen to exist only in statistics, whilst others gain a platform off the back of the hostilities we face.

Cut from the Same Cloth seeks to tip the balance back in our favour. The collection will feature essays from 15 middle and working class women of all ages and races who will look beyond the tired tropes exhausted by the media and offer honest insight into the issues that really affect our lives. From modern pop culture to anti-blackness, women’s rights, working life; this first of its kind anthology will examine a cross section of British hijabis and the breadth of our experiences. It’s time we, as a society, stopped the hijab-splaining and listened to the people who know.

It’s time for change.

This anthology will include essays from Sabeena Akhtar, Azeezat Johnson, Hodan Yusuf, Myriam Francois, Ra’ifah Rafiq, Raisa Hassan, Rumana Lasker, Shaista Aziz, Sofia Rehman, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Suma Din, Sumaya Kassim and Yvonne Ridley.

Back in December 2015, I was part of the #DiverseDecember campaign. It feels as though things have begun to move on since then – The Jhalak Prize was founded in 2016; The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded in three days, went on to be a best seller and was voted the British public’s favourite book of 2016 at the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards; four of the six books that make up this year’s shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are written by women of colour. But there remains a hierarchy of acceptability with regards to whose voices appear on our shelves and in our media, whose voices we listen to. I’ve contributed to Cut from the Same Cloth because, to quote Flavia Dzodan, ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’. As I type, the project is 69% funded; if you’re able and would like to contribute to the project, the crowdfunding page is here.

Working out how to live: Places I Stopped on the Way Home – Meg Fee and Love & Trouble: Memoirs of a Former Wild Girl – Claire Dederer

After finishing the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, I wanted something different to read. I picked up two essay collections by Americans, one written by a woman in her early thirties, the other in her mid-forties. What they both have in common is they’re working out how to live, how to be, by looking back at their younger selves.

They were timely for me. It’s a year today since my marriage ended. While I try not to attach too much significance to dates, it’s interesting to compare the ideas Fee and Dederer discuss to my own thoughts on what I’ve learned in the past year and what I want my life to look like now.

Places I Stopped on the Way Home is about the years Fee lived in NYC. In the first essay she mentions the man she’s dating at 18, the man she moves to NYC for. He’s six years older than her and surer of himself. One night he plays Ella Fitzgerald and asks Fee, Who is your Ella?

Which is to say, what do you love? What has meaning for you? What fills you with joy?
[…]
I found Ella as I sat on too-long subway rides furiously scribbling notes in the margins of books. “Ella” became not a question of who, but what. And the answer, fundamentally, was language – words written and spoken and sung. Language, endlessly malleable, and frighteningly insufficient and still human.

Through language, Fee makes sense of her time in NYC. In a non-chronological order, she writes about her relationships, her friendships, the eating disorder she develops, how she feels about the city, and what she learns from it all. Although Fee’s almost a decade younger than me, I found myself frequently marking lines and wondering how Fee had sussed so many of these things long before I did.

I am human, flawed and imperfect, which is, of course, all I ever was and all I was ever going to be. It is unbearable.

The truth is, we are all damaged at best, and we are all still worthy.

But for so long I confuse his not good enough with my not good enough and that becomes the story I tell myself. That I am not good enough.

It’s an engaging account of a young woman shaping a life that shows her what she does and doesn’t want, ultimately allowing her to become the person she wants to be.

At 18, I wouldn’t have had Fee’s problem, I knew who or what my Ella was. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted: I feel more and more like the person I was at 20. As if everything I’ve experienced and learned has sent me back there because I already knew who I was, I just didn’t know how to be her.

In Love & Trouble: Memoirs of a Former Wild Girl, Claire Dederer turns 44, realises she’s done everything right – friends, job, marriage, house, kids – but:

As you sit there, you find that all of a sudden you can’t stop thinking about her, the girl you were.

The thing is, you don’t really remember her that well, because you’ve spent so long trying to block her out […] It’s as though you’ve hidden yourself from yourself.

Dederer goes looking for her diaries which she then uses to write about the girl she was and the woman she’s become.

Playing with the form, Dederer writes ‘How to Have Sex with Your Husband of Fifteen Years’ in second person, creates a list of all the things she doesn’t want to think about: ‘The, You Know, Encroaching Darkness’, and uses the structure of Dante’s Inferno to write about her trips to L.A. with her best friend, Vic: ‘Dante and Virgil in L.A.’ These are interspersed with pieces about her youth: attending and dropping out of college twice, moving to Sydney on a whim.

Where she excels is in writing about sex, both from the perspective of a married woman in her 40s and that of a teenage girl/young woman, as she tries to understand why her sex drive has undergone a sudden resurgence.

In the middle of the collection is a piece titled ‘Recidivist Slutty Tendencies in the pre-AIDS-Era Adolescent Female’. Written in the style of an academic case study, Dederer examines ‘the near-rabbit levels of sexual activity’ she engaged in between 1980 and 1985. She doesn’t draw any simple conclusions but does relate her experiences to a time of sexual freedoms and the male gaze focusing on young girls: Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski. Two of the other essays are addressed directly to Polanski at a time when Dederer’s daughter is the same age as Samantha Gailey. Dederer herself was also 13 when Jack Wolf, a friend of her father’s, climbed into her sleeping bag and pushed his erection against her thigh. What Dederer is really examining is society’s views on women’s sexuality and how her view of herself has been shaped by them. It’s a timely assessment in the #MeToo era.

Both collections made me consider the way society views women and the way we view ourselves. They’re interesting explorations of ways of being a woman. It is Fee’s words that have stayed with me, although ultimately they could be used to summarise the key idea of both books:

It turns out that so much of growing up is about walking away from That Which is Not Right in pursuit of something better.

Thanks to Icon Books and Tinder Press for the review copies.

She Called Me Woman – Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak ed. Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan and Rafeeat Aliyu

I’m very pleased to have an extract from She Called Me a Woman – Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak, and a short clip of two of the book’s editors discussing their hopes for it. The book is published by Cassava Republic in the UK,

From the publisher:

She Called Me Woman is a collection of first-hand accounts by a community telling their stories on their own terms. This engaging and groundbreaking collection of queer women’s narratives includes stories of first time love and curiosity, navigating same-sex feelings and spirituality, growing up gender non-conforming and overcoming family and society’s expectations. What does it means to be a queer Nigerian? How does one embrace the label of ‘woman’? While some tell of self-acceptance, others talk of friendship and building a home in the midst of the anti-same sex marriage law. The narrators range from those who knew they were gay from a very early age to those who discovered their attraction to the same sex later in life. The stories challenge the stereotypes of what we assume is lesbian, bisexual, gay, and *trans in Nigeria and they offer us a raw, first-hand look into the lives and realities of our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers who are queer.

The editors:

Azeenarh Mohammed is a trained lawyer and a queer, feminist, holistic security trainer who spends her time training non-for-profit organisations on tools and tactics for digital and physical security and psycho-social well-being. Azeenarh is active in the queer women’s issues in Nigeria and has written on queerness and technology for publications like This is Africa, Perspectives, and Premium TimesNG. 

Chitra Nagarajan is an activist, researcher and writer. She has spent the last 15 years working on human rights and peace building and is involved in feminist, anti-racist, anti-fundamentalist and queer movements. She currently lives and works in Maiduguri, Nigeria, focusing on conflict mitigation, civilian protection and women’s rights. 

Aisha Salau has a BA in Marketing and works in communication and research. She is particularly interested in sex and sexuality in both modern and historical Nigeria. 

Why Do I Have To Ask You To Consider Me Human? 

In Yorubaland, girls have sex with girls all the time, especially while growing up – your next-door neighbour, your cousin. I have had all kinds of sex. I have had sex with men and sex with women. I like men but not in a sexual way. I love all the men in my life – but I’m not attracted to them. I refer to myself as queer because I’m more emotionally attached to women.

When I met the woman I’m living with now, she made me realise how much I love and enjoy talking with women. I really liked her. I said, ‘Let’s have sex and see if we enjoy each other’s bodies.’ When we moved to this area, we were formally dating but after we had lived together a few months, I realised she didn’t like children and that neither of us could have the kind of relationship we wanted. We are both still sexually attracted to each other and have sex but we are not seeing each other. We are just friends. I know she sees other people. For me, if I find somebody, that’s great but I can’t deal with a lot of the women I meet.

I have no idea if people around us know about the two of us. When we first moved to this area, we sat down in a bus and some random woman sat down beside us and said, ‘Awww, the way you treated your wife is so beautiful.’ I said, ‘She’s not my wife. She’s my sister.’ Some okada riders have said, ‘This your girlfriend is fine o.’

In my circles, we have long debates and my friends are pro-gay rights. They are feminists. I choose my friends well. All my male friends see me as an adventurous girl. I think they thought I was just experimenting about two years ago. I don’t know what they think now. When I meet them, I always go with her. Everyone thinks we are dating and it’s good. It’s like I’m making a statement. They tease us and they’re fine with it. On the other hand, I’ve lost jobs because of my sexuality. I got a job two weeks ago that I lost because somebody told them I was a lesbian. I was banking on that money.

Things have really changed on this issue since I was young. People weren’t so religious back then. They weren’t so corrupt. We use ‘lakiriboto’ to describe women who go against the grain, women who won’t sleep with men, including those who go with other women. The first time I saw two girls kissing was in my grandmother’s house – my aunt and one of the girls. They were all sleeping on this long mattress they would spread on the floor. The two of them would have sex and nobody would turn. My grandmother’s younger sister lived in Ghana for a long time. When she became old, she went to the house of this young girl who lived in the next compound and said she wanted to marry her. She promised to take care of the girl, send her to school, take care of all her expenses – and they gave her out in marriage. She married her so the girl could take care of her. They’re both dead now but the practice of women marrying women was common in the past – and I think it still is.

This is one of the reasons I love living in this neighbourhood. People are still living the way they were. Technology is not as fast here. They use old phones. We have a man who dresses obviously as a woman. Everyone knows him. They call him Baba Sango and think he gets possessed by the spirit of Sango. We have girls who dress like boys. Nobody looks at them in a weird way. We have all sorts of people and there’s still the polygamous way of life, which is a great way to cover a lot. Two women, best friends, would say they are marrying the same man, then they would marry other women for their husbands. They would say ‘I’m marrying a woman for myself and my husband can have part of it.’ A lot of these things are covered up under the Agbole system. You don’t know who has children or who does not because there are always children in the compound and everybody’s called by some child’s name. Nobody cares if you are married or not. The compound system really worked for them.

They still have it here but it’s changing. People are moving out of their compounds and becoming individuals. Now people have a really bad name for it. People are seen going to churches and mosques. Imams are saying that the women who sleep with women or the men who sleep with men are all going to hell. They pretend to be moralistic. They don’t remember that, when they were boys, they used to have sex with each other in all these corners. They still have these ‘all boys’ clubs’ where men meet. We all pretend to be religious and moralistic so that we can be accepted.

I want to see a community that is stronger, more educated, with people coming to knowledge of themselves. A community that is bolder. I want to tell people that they should be themselves. It’s when you are yourself that you can accept other people. I always say that it took me almost half my life to get to this point.

When I talk to young people, I tell them, ‘Don’t waste years struggling with yourself. Just accept yourself the way you are.’

– DK, age 42, Oyo

A Secret Sisterhood – Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

A Secret Sisterhood, the story of the friendships of a number of women writers, is out in paperback this week. It’s a book I think is important for what I assume are obvious reasons. Because of that, I’m reposting my original review from last year and the interview I did with the book’s authors Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, there’s every possibility you’ve also come across another brilliant blog about women writers: Something Rhymed. Something Rhymed is the work of writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. It looks at friendships between women writers. A Secret Sisterhood is the book that grew out of that blog.

A Secret Sisterhood looks at the friendships of a number of well-known writers. In some of the pairings, both writers are famous, as in George Eliot and Harriet Beacher-Stowe as well as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, while for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë they’re the well-known halves of their pairings.

The book is structured in chronological order beginning with Jane Austen. Austen’s featured friendship was with a governess in her brother’s house, a woman called Anne Sharp who wrote plays. Midorikawa and Sweeney reconstruct how the friendship might have played out from unpublished letters and notebooks, ‘largely unmined by literary critics’ written by Fanny, Austen’s niece and Sharp’s charge. This friendship is particularly fascinating as it crosses the class divide and no doubt made Austen’s brother uncomfortable. I can’t discuss this section of the book without mentioning one sentence in particular; it refers to Anne Sharp whose mother died in 1803, the year before she began her employment for the Austen’s. I’ll just leave it here for your delight:

In the early nineteenth century, a single woman in her position, without affluent male relatives to support her, would have faced the unenviable task of securing a respectable way to earn her keep.

Charlotte Brontë’s friendship was with Mary Taylor, author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, although they were schoolchildren when they first met. They did not hit it off immediately:

The girl looked miserable and antiquated to Mary – a sharp contrast with the fashionable young ladies of the school. Like the newcomer, Mary and her boisterous sister Martha were far from stylish. The blue cloth coats they wore outdoors were too short for them, their black beaver bonnets only plainly trimmed. They even had to take the extra precaution of stitching over new pairs of gloves to try to make them last. But, rather than empathising with Charlotte, Mary scorned the girl’s outdated dress and cowed demeanour. Why, she noted to herself, she looks like ‘a little old woman’.

They bonded instead over intelligence and common interests – politics and literature – the best type of female friendships, I find.

George Eliot and Harriet Beacher Stowe’s friendship is particularly interesting as they never actually met. It seems some literary scholars have underestimated the strength of their friendship on the basis that they were pen pals. Despite this, the two confided in each other about their families and their work.

Despite marked differences in their temperaments – Harriet being the livelier and more impulsive of the two – their shared experiences as the most celebrated living female authors either side of the Atlantic immediately drew them close. That the pair shared this extraordinary status makes it all the more surprising that their friendship has not gone down in history.

Finally, the friendship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield is revealed to be a friendship, rather than the mere rivalry it’s been painted to be.

At their best, both women recognised that when ‘afflicted with jealousy’, as Virginia would put it, ‘the only thing is to confess’. This lesson allowed these two ambitious women to benefit from their creative competition – a process that proved as valuable to their shared art as that experienced by better-mythologised male writing duos.

The book is well-written and curated, turning historical documents into something between recreation and critique. My only criticism is that I would’ve liked more – more pairings, specifically including a wider demographic of women, the choices are very white, anglo-centric. However, I do recognise what a difficult sell this book would have been and am glad it exists.

A Secret Sisterhood is an engaging look at the little written about female friendships of significant women writers. It’s a delight to see women as the focus of this type of work; here’s hoping there’s a sequel!

The Gender Games – Juno Dawson

Juno Dawson had me at:

Gender is not sex.
Gender is something else.
If that’s all you take away from this book, I’ve won.
Gender, as convincing as he is, is full of shit.
If you take that away from this book, even better.

Gender, despite anything he might tell us to the contrary, is nothing but characteristics we have assigned to the sexes. Like a group of horny teenagers with a Ouija board, Gender was summoned into being by us.

Yes, yes, YES. Not only do I agree with this, I love that Dawson gives gender a male pronoun and the connotations which come with this.

The Gender Games then is part-memoir, part-gender theory, part-cultural critique. Dawson interweaves all three of these aspects to discuss her transition from cis male to trans woman, considering the effect her transition has had (and is still having) on herself and her family.

The book begins with a reimagining of the day Dawson’s mother went into labour.

‘Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Dawson. You have a healthy baby boy.’
And that was where it all went wrong.

Once upon a time there was a little girl.
No.
Once upon a time there was a little boy.

Also no. Any creative writing teacher worth their salt will tell you that a great story never starts at the beginning, it starts when something changes. On 6 August 2015, I told my mother that I was a woman.

Her reply was, ‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.’

Dawson alternates between snapshots of her life – from growing up in Bingley, West Yorkshire, to being ‘a right pair of little cunts’ with a friend at school, to coming out as a gay man, to being a primary school teacher, to deciding to transition and the process of that so far – and discussions around gender theory. As someone who’s studying the latter as part of their PhD work, I found Dawson’s relaying of the key ideas of performative gender theory (the idea that gender isn’t fixed) to be clear, succinct and well-researched (there are footnotes) while maintaining the conversational tone in which she has chosen to write. As an introduction to gender theory alone, The Gender Games is worth reading.

There are many other things I loved about this book too: Dawson’s honesty is striking; she’s no holds barred in terms of discussing the shape her life has taken, including her sex life (a section which comes with four pages of warning for her parents encouraging them to skip this bit). She talks about being a teacher and the limits of the education system – just how bloody difficult it is to work in a system that values results over the well-being of students, teachers and parents. And she discusses the impact of culture on the way we view ourselves:

Culture and society are a two-way mirror. Ropey and clichéd, but life does imitate art as much as art imitates life. ‘The media is the message and the messenger,’ said Pat Mitchell, former CEO of PBS, in the fantastic 2011 documentary Miss Representation.

She looks at TV, film and music. She discusses wanting to be a Spice Girl, the impact Madonna has had on our view of women, and the idea of ‘strong female characters’ – a term Dawson seems to dislike as much as I do while acknowledging that these representations are beginning to shift our society’s view of women.

Dawson is very clear that she isn’t representing the trans community, this is her transition and her story. What I do think she does very well which she does – and should – own as representative, is discuss feminism and what it can do for women and men from her position as a modern-day Tiresias:

My credentials to speak on such issues have been challenged, but I think trans voices are uniquely positioned to discuss inequality. For thirty years, I was given access to the ultimate prize: white male privilege. As you’ll learn, I never ‘passed’ as a straight man, so it’s hard to say what power I ever really had at my disposal, but I have lived as both a man and a woman while at the same time never being accepted wholly as either. Like some mad soothsayer in mythology, I’ve lived slightly outside of my gender my whole life – and I’ve seen both sides.

The Gender Games isn’t just a cracking good read, for the times we live in and the fight we still need to win over the destruction gender wreaks on us and our society, it’s an essential one.

The Gender Games is out now and available from Amazon, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t an independent near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Two Roads for the review copy.

The Writes of Woman Interviews Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, there’s every possibility you’ve also come across another brilliant blog about women writers: Something Rhymed. Something Rhymed is the work of writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. It looks at friendships between women writers. A Secret Sisterhood is the book that grew out of that blog.

A Secret Sisterhood looks at the friendships of a number of well-known writers. In some of the pairings, both writers are famous, as in George Eliot and Harriet Beacher-Stowe as well as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, while for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë they’re the well-known halves of their pairings.

The book is structured in chronological order beginning with Jane Austen. Austen’s featured friendship was with a governess in her brother’s house, a woman called Anne Sharp who wrote plays. Midorikawa and Sweeney reconstruct how the friendship might have played out from unpublished letters and notebooks, ‘largely unmined by literary critics’ written by Fanny, Austen’s niece and Sharp’s charge. This friendship is particularly fascinating as it crosses the class divide and no doubt made Austen’s brother uncomfortable. I can’t discuss this section of the book without mentioning one sentence in particular; it refers to Anne Sharp whose mother died in 1803, the year before she began her employment for the Austen’s. I’ll just leave it here for your delight:

In the early nineteenth century, a single woman in her position, without affluent male relatives to support her, would have faced the unenviable task of securing a respectable way to earn her keep.

Charlotte Brontë’s friendship was with Mary Taylor, author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, although they were schoolchildren when they first met. They did not hit it off immediately:

The girl looked miserable and antiquated to Mary – a sharp contrast with the fashionable young ladies of the school. Like the newcomer, Mary and her boisterous sister Martha were far from stylish. The blue cloth coats they wore outdoors were too short for them, their black beaver bonnets only plainly trimmed. They even had to take the extra precaution of stitching over new pairs of gloves to try to make them last. But, rather than empathising with Charlotte, Mary scorned the girl’s outdated dress and cowed demeanour. Why, she noted to herself, she looks like ‘a little old woman’.

They bonded instead over intelligence and common interests – politics and literature – the best type of female friendships, I find.

George Eliot and Harriet Beacher Stowe’s friendship is particularly interesting as they never actually met. It seems some literary scholars have underestimated the strength of their friendship on the basis that they were pen pals. Despite this, the two confided in each other about their families and their work.

Despite marked differences in their temperaments – Harriet being the livelier and more impulsive of the two – their shared experiences as the most celebrated living female authors either side of the Atlantic immediately drew them close. That the pair shared this extraordinary status makes it all the more surprising that their friendship has not gone down in history.

Finally, the friendship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield is revealed to be a friendship, rather than the mere rivalry it’s been painted to be.

At their best, both women recognised that when ‘afflicted with jealousy’, as Virginia would put it, ‘the only thing is to confess’. This lesson allowed these two ambitious women to benefit from their creative competition – a process that proved as valuable to their shared art as that experienced by better-mythologised male writing duos.

The book is well-written and curated, turning historical documents into something between recreation and critique. My only criticism is that I would’ve liked more – more pairings, specifically including a wider demographic of women, the choices are very white, anglo-centric. However, I do recognise what a difficult sell this book would have been and am glad it exists.

A Secret Sisterhood is an engaging look at the little written about female friendships of significant women writers. It’s a delight to see women as the focus of this type of work; here’s hoping there’s a sequel!

You can buy A Secret Sisterhood from Amazon, Waterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Emily Midorikawa, Emma Claire Sweeney and Jessie Sullivan for the interview and the proof of the book.

Jersey Festival of Words: The Non-Fiction

I tweeted on Saturday afternoon that one of the things I love about Jersey Festival of Words is the number of non-fiction writers who also happen to be female who are hosted by the festival. In 2015, I saw Rachel Bridge, Irma Kurtz, Ella Berthoud, Jane Hawking and Dr Gilly Carr. This year, it’s Anne Sebba, Cathy Retzenbrink, Kat Banyard and Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum.

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Kat Banyard takes to the Opera House stage along with former sex worker Diane Martins on Saturday afternoon. They’ve come to discuss the ‘uncharted territory’ society finds itself in following the ‘huge and unprecedented expansion of the global sex trade’.

In her book Pimp State, Banyard discusses each area of the sex trade but for this event, he focuses solely on prostitution, looking at ideas around power, money, equality and policy choices. She states that ‘the global sex trade affects everyone’ as the trades weave themselves into the fabric of society. This promotes a message about the ways in which it’s acceptable to treat another human being.

Banyard reiterates much of the ground covered in the book with regards to sex buyers and their views; the women who become sex workers; those who control the trade, and the different legal stances, from legalisation to the Sex Buyer Law.

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Diane Martins supports women exiting the sex trade and campaigns to end demand for sexual exploitation through implementation of the Sex Buyer Law. She tells us her story, which you can read here.

She has some interesting things to say about the work she does with women exiting the trade, in particular. She talks about the disassociation she felt and other women often feel from their bodies, ‘My vagina’s not attached to me by velcro’ and how powerful words are, ‘The power of words is so strong. You’re worth nothing. You’ll do as I say. This is what your life is’. But she hopes that her words can help impart hope and change ideas.

Both Martins and Banyard comment on the Home Affairs Select Committee they were asked to give evidence at with regards to prostitution laws. The committee was chaired by Keith Vaz, who was later revealed to be a sex buyer himself. Diane talks about how vulnerable some of the women who gave evidence were and how difficult revelations like this make it for them to talk about their experiences.

Banyard ends by saying that men take experiences of the sex industry into other areas of their life: work and home.

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Photograph by Yasmin Hannah

On Saturday evening, the Opera House plays host to Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum, who’s interviewed by some blogger from the north of England. It’s difficult to talk about an event when you’re the person on stage asking the questions, but Turner’s fantastic: funny and honest. Her audience of 300 parents (mostly mums) roar with laughter as she talks about wanting to put the kids up on eBay, not having a kitchen with an island, the milking incident and What Would Ruth Do?

The two events everyone was talking about though, happened on Saturday morning at the same time – Michael Morpurgo in the Opera House and Cathy Rentzenbrink in the Arts Centre. Obviously, I was at the Arts Centre (although I did run the length of St Helier to get a signed copy of Morpurgo’s latest book for the ten-year-old).

Rentzenbrink’s interviewed by Paul Bisson, Vice Chairman of the festival. I mention this because Bisson’s first question is about interviewing as Rentzenbrink often interviews writers and chairs panels (she chaired both the thriller panel and the history panel at the festival this year). She says she’s become a better interviewer now she’s on the receiving end of it. She used to accidentally be a little bit casual, not wanting to gush over writers. Now she tells them if she loves their work. She also comments that not everyone who interviews you prepares and sometimes you realise twenty minutes into the interview…

Bisson says there’s an irony in her saying in The Last Act of Love that she didn’t want to be known as ‘coma girl’ and now she’s known for her memoir about it. She says there’s dealing with the thing and dealing with how to communicate the thing and she feels a great sense of relief now she’s on the record about what happened and who she is. ‘I’ve wrestled it into a book,’ she says. She jokes that if anything were to happen to her husband and she has to return to dating she can use the book as an introduction, ‘Read it and see if you can be bothered to take me on’.

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How big Rentzenbrink’s book would be if it contained the whole truth.

She talks about the truth of the events, saying that ‘the written version becomes the true version’ and that although ‘there’s nothing in [the book] that’s not true’ there are omissions. These fall into two categories: people involved who didn’t want to be written about and things that were removed during the editorial process.

One of the reasons Rentzenbrink wrote the book was the misunderstandings around comas. She says they’re very clean on television, you either wake up or die. She quotes Henry Marsh, author of Do No Harm, who says that it’s easy to save someone’s life with emergency brain surgery but that they’ll almost never recover. He uses the phrase, ‘The collateral damage to the family’. Rentzenbrink says that she used to think she was crazy and mad but has since realised she’s not, it’s the events that happened to her.

However, there are many moments in the book which are funny. ‘Tragedy is funny because if you couldn’t find funny you’d die on the spot,’ she says. She tells us that she got the giggles at Matty’s funeral because she thought his friends were going to drop the coffin in an Only Fools and Horses type moment.

She talks about living and working in the family pub. How people who drink in pubs are very funny but that measuring your drinking habits against them when you’re seventeen isn’t advisable. However, she credits the pub with preventing the family from the isolation they might have suffered on bringing Matty home if they’d been living in a house. She also comments on how many people seem to miss the class element of the book. ‘I love my journey from Snaith Ladies Darts Team at sixteen to the main stage at Cheltenham Literature Festival.’

On writing Rentzenbrink says, ‘I think all of writing is about self-doubt management’. She mimics herself typing, squinting at the keyboard. She says it’s only in the editing she thinks about the reader but because of her work in prisons with men who don’t read well, she’s aware of a need to make books accessible for a wide audience. She wanted to take something complex and make it simple. While editing The Last Act of Love she became very aware of the lack of books on the subject of persistent vegetative states and pictured a builder who’d never read a book reading it. This led to her editing for clarity and deleting a whole thread about her response to a range of books. ‘That man does not need to read me twatting on about Julian Barnes.’

It’s so easy for memories to be overtaken by a decaying body, she says. Writing the book helped her to remember what Matty was really like. ‘I remember new things about him all the time. He feels completely real to me now in a way I thought I’d lost him. He sort of talks to me. It might be him, wouldn’t turn that down. I think it’s my memory having a conversation with itself.’ He’s encouraging, sweary and gives career advice. He’s fondly critical and calls Rentzenbrink to account with comments like, ‘What the fuck are you worrying about that for, you crazy bitch?’

There’s a theme of religion running through the book. Rentzenbrink describes herself as ‘a hopeful agnostic. I like a bit of smells and bells. I like married clergy, love being the answer and all’. She wonders why she doesn’t allow herself to go to church and thinks religion hasn’t caught up with medical developments. She was scared that religions people would be angry about the book and the decision her family took.

Rentzenbrink says that she considers herself a case study but doesn’t want to be a spokesperson for euthanasia. ‘Almost all of those arguments reduce the human.’ She says raising awareness is a great thing but, ‘I like the book to do that’. She says more cases have gone to court because of the book, people didn’t know it was an option.

She’s currently editing her second book, a non-fiction work called A Manual for Heartache which is about loss and grief more generally. She says if you remain silent people think you’re alright but when you’re honest, people say ‘me too’.

She’s also writing a novel. Doing so has liberated her from the need to tell the truth. She ends by saying that thinking about other people’s books, which she does for her Contributing Editor role at The Bookseller, ‘keeps me sane’.