Two Short Story Collections – Tania Hershman

Jersey Festival of Words begins this Wednesday – hurrah! I’ll be flying out on Thursday and coverage of events will start on here on Friday, although I’m sure I’ll be doing some tweeting before then. As final preparations happen, I’m covering short story collections this week beginning with those of Tania Hershman.

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Hershman has published two collections, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) and My Mother Was an Upright Piano (Tangent Books, 2012). Part of what she does is combine science and creative writing, often in interesting and less obvious ways than you might expect.

Many of the stories in The White Road were inspired by pieces in the New Scientist. Hershman begins these with a quotation, showing where the idea came from. For the title story, it’s one about the completion of a road to the South Pole. Hershman imagines the ‘Last Stop Coffee’ place, run by the story’s narrator, Mags.

Today is one of them really and truly cold days. You’re probably thinking cold is cold is cold, either everything’s frosty or you’re sipping margaritas by the pool in Florida, but let me tell you, there are degrees of freezing.

Like many of the characters in both collections, Mags’ tale is one of loss and longing. It’s also notable, in The White Road in particular, that many of Hershman’s women break stereotypes: there’s the bride who lifts her husband over the threshold, the woman who had to give up studying physics and now makes scientific cakes:

The Sun: chocolate cake ball made in Christmas pudding mould, orange icing with brown smudges for sunspots, angel hair spaghetti mesh for the solar clouds, blue-dyed pasta as plasma shooting out from the solar storm.

The woman on a first date on a spaceship:

‘I’ve heard of men being hard to pin down,’ said Agnes, ‘but this is ridiculous. Didn’t you read the gravity section in the manual?’

Bill floated helplessly above her.

The woman who plays roulette and the one who knows how to keep a secret. If you’re wondering how some of those break stereotypes, you’ll have to read the stories!

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While The White Road is an enjoyable, varied and interesting collection, for me, My Mother Was an Upright Piano is where Hershman really finds her voice. The book is a collection of fifty-six flash fictions ranging from a paragraph to two or three pages. The scientific theme continues but is often less explicit than in The White Road. This leads to more experimental pieces and often an element of magical realism.

He meets a girl, it could almost be an accident, the way she slides into him, tips his cheek with her elbow, makes eyes at him, his whole body quivering, noticing her. It could almost be an accident, at a bus stop, or a train station, or the line for the launderette change machine, or an ice cream vendor, or someone making fresh crêpes, the egg swirling, hardening into solid substance. It could almost be an accident but it isn’t; this is what she does. She is a spy, The Devil pays her well for sliding into him, tipping his cheek with her elbow, making eyes, and she slips the cash into her bra, not trusting pockets, knowing how easy it is to finger ways inside, like electricity, and extract.

There are some fabulous single lines:

When you came back with the post, you held the letters out to me as if the red ink would burn through you like acid.

“If you sell your soul, can you buy it back later, even if it costs more?”

 A wonderful piece about Art (and science?):

We just love Art in containers, any sort of glass jars, or Tupperware, even. We adore that sense of containment, the feeling that the Art isn’t going to, well, leak out.

 Which makes an interesting contrast with this woman’s story:

She keeps her dirt in jars, in rows, on shelves, in rooms. She lives, of course, alone. Jars are labelled, jars are all the same. She does not touch the dirt, does not let it glister through her fingertips like stardust. The jars are sealed and left. If asked, she could not say why. But no-one does.

Hershman also writes perceptively about relationships. In ‘my uncle’s son’ the narrator realises:

I did not know then that sometimes you just need to give and keep giving until you pull the other person with you, until they are pulled over the edge and you are flying together.

And in the title story, music becomes a metaphor for passion:

My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro. My father was the piano tuner; technically expert, he never made her sing. It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.

The stories in this collection are a joy to read; when they really work – which many do – they soar. Hershman’s skilled at creating a whole tale in a very short space. She has a third collection coming early 2017 and I’m already eager to read it.

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Tania Hershman appears at Jersey Festival of Words with poet Jo Bell, Saturday 1st October 5pm in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.

Daughters of Decadence and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This week, my favourite publishing imprint (for obvious reasons) Virago is reissuing the short story collection Daughters of Decadence: Stories by Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, edited by Elaine Showalter. The collection includes stories by Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Mew and Constance Fenimore Woolson, amongst others. Possibly the most famous story included is feminist classic ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Rather than cover the whole collection, Virago asked whether I’d focus on this one story and, having last read it as an undergraduate student some twenty years ago, I’m delighted to revisit it.

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‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is narrated by an unnamed woman. She has moved, along with her husband, John, into an ‘ancestral hall’ for the summer whilst work is carried out on their home. The house is cheap and has been uninhabited for some time which leads her to believe ‘there is something queer about it’. Her husband disagrees. He also disagrees with her when she tells him she is ill.

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

[…]

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?

Not two pages in and already I’m furious at Freud – he’s got a lot to answer for when it comes to society’s views of women. Did someone mention the patriarchy?

The narrator goes on to describe the room which they’ve taken for their bedroom. The room was her husband’s choice – ‘I don’t like our room a bit’ – and she’s particularly perturbed by the wallpaper:

I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur in others.

No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.

As the story progresses, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, convinced that there are two different patterns to it and that they change with the light. Then she discovers there’s a woman behind it, trying to get out…

Two key things I haven’t mentioned yet are – one – that the narrator is a writer but her husband and her sister-in-law disapprove of her pursuit. She writes the story in snatched moments, hiding her work when one of them enters the room. By making her a writer, Gilman highlights how women have been denied their own voices and the right to tell their own stories. Two – that the narrator is a mother. It’s four pages into the story before she mentions the baby and we never see him. Here the possibility that the narrator is suffering from post-natal depression is raised. Why don’t the men in her life consider this? At the time the story was written it had only recently been recognised as a condition. Also, why would a new mother be depressed? Having a child is what women are made for, isn’t it?

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ considers the merits of the rest cure and finds them lacking. It looks at the feelings of entrapment women experience trying to survive in a patriarchal society which dictates their emotions to them, tells them what they need and expects them to conform to marriage and motherhood without protest. It’s an incredibly powerful story and one that continues to resonate more than a century after it’s initial publication.

 

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

The Greatest of These – Part Four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon

An absolute treat today: part four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon, author of the hotly anticipated The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I loved the novel, which I included in my Ones to Read in 2016, and will review it in full next week. The story – ‘The Greatest of These’ gives a real flavour of the novel in terms of introducing some of the main characters, the tone and the themes. If you haven’t seen parts one to three, a list of all the places the story is appearing is below.

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Mr Forbes swung his arms about and stamped his feet. ‘I think we should spend a little less time worrying about butterflies, and a little more time clearing this snow. We’ll run out of food.’

‘And television,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘We need more man power.’ Eric Lamb stared at Mr Forbes’ shovel, where it rested in a bank of snow, and then he stared at Thin Brian, and Thin Brian stared at the sky, as though it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen in his entire life.

‘Don’t look at me,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘My knee’s given me a lot of gyp since I did that sponsored walk for orphaned children.’

‘That was in 1967, Harold,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘Exactly.’ Mr Forbes sniffed the air, and his knees did an awkward bounce, to prove their point. ‘I need to restrict myself to giving directions.’

Mr Forbes gave a lot of directions. Eric Lamb needed to dig a little more to the left, and then a little more to the right. He needed to stack the snow a little higher, then a little lower, and he was too diagonal and then not diagonal enough. Mrs Forbes appeared half way through the directions, with a mug of tea and a selection of Fondant Fancies on a doily, because Mr Forbes said he found giving directions quite taxing. We all stared as the last cake disappeared into Mr Forbes’ mouth, and Eric Lamb grew very red in the face.

We were all so busy, we didn’t see the man straight away.

Eric Lamb’s digging had become very loud and interesting, so Mr Forbes was having to shout, May Roper was explaining religious symbols to no one in particular, and Mrs Forbes was having a conversation with the butterfly, which had landed on the doily and stared up at her from a handful of crumbs.

It was Tilly who noticed him first.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘Someone’s waving to us.’

We all stared at the bottom of The Avenue, where the man stood in snow up to his knees. He wore a brightly coloured scarf and a brightly coloured jacket, and a hat which seemed to wind itself around his head. As we watched, the man lifted his legs out of the drift and started to walk towards us.

Tilly put up her hand to wave back.

‘He’s not from around here.’ Mrs Roper grabbed an edge of the duffel coat and pulled Tilly’s arm back down again. ‘What could he possibly want from us?’

‘We’ll never know if we don’t wave back,’ said Tilly, but the man kept walking anyway, and I watched everyone tighten their lips and their eyes, and Mr Forbes fold his arms around his waist.

And the butterfly left Mrs Forbes’ plate, and it danced around in the air, and we all waited for the man to tell us.

His name was Mr Dhillon and the hat he wore was called a turban. You couldn’t tell where it started from, and Tilly and I walked around him several times to get a proper look, although we were very subtle about it, so I doubt anyone even noticed.

He said he was stuck.

‘It’s my car.’ He pointed across the estate, beyond the snow-packaged roof tops. Except you couldn’t tell where the roof tops ended and the sky began. It was as if they’d been welded together by the weather. ‘It’s on Rowan Tree Croft. In a drift,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you’d help me push it free?’

Mr Forbes did a knee bounce and Thin Brian stared at the sky, and Mrs Forbes made a big fuss of rearranging her doily.

‘Can’t you ask the people on your own street?’ said Mrs Roper, from behind her blanket.

Mr Dhillon said the people on his own street were all elderly. He said there was no one from his own street who could help.

‘We’re all in the same boat,’ he said, and he smiled.

Mr Forbes’ hands found their way around his back, where they linked together and made him look even more stout than before, and even less interested in what anyone else had to say. ‘The thing is,’ he bounced, ‘we have enough on our plate here, without digging other people out of their problems as well.’

‘Then perhaps I could help you in return?’ said Mr Dhillon, and he picked up Mr Forbes’ spade (which was still asleep in the snow), and he started to dig.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

American Housewife – Helen Ellis

The women of American Housewife tell their stories in tales that range from between a page and forty pages in length. Some, anonymously, tell us about themselves:

I shred cheese. I berate a pickle jar. I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy. I strangle defrosted spinach and soak things in brandy. I casserole. I pinwheel. I toothpick. I bacon. I iron a tablecloth and think about eating lint from the dryer, but then think better of that because I am sane.

Others give instructions about the ‘Southern Lady Code’, ‘How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady and ‘How to Be a Patron of the Arts’, the latter seemingly a guide to Ellis herself as much as to the reader.

The first real gem in the collection, ‘The Wainscotting War’, is told entirely through emails between two neighbours in an apartment building. Beginning with passive-aggressive lines: I’ve returned your basket to our shared mail table, which I believe is an antique toilet, to blatant dislike: Our hallway looks like a room at the Met that makes schoolchildren cry, to outright aggression: To quote your graffiti: Suck it, to an ending that will make you reconsider ever getting involved in a dispute with a neighbour.

Many of the women hide real sadness behind their snide retorts and one-liners. Like the wife of the pilgrimage-worthy bra-fitter who begins her story with: The Fitter is mine. Myrtle Babcock can get her flabby pancake tits out of his face and ends it with the secret as to why business is booming, and the women in ‘Hello! Welcome to Book Club’ who cover up their sorrows with their regular meeting and ‘Book Club names’.

In the longest story in the collection, ‘Dumpster Diving with the Stars’, a writer of an out-of-print cult classic goes on a reality TV show suggested by her best friend, a ‘chick-lit’ writer who publishes a book a year. Her roommate and partner in the competitions is Mitzy, former Playmate and girlfriend of Hugh Hefner. She’s an identical twin and it’s the first time she’s ever been separated from her sister. Structured through the ‘Cardinal Reality Rules’, the first person writer narrator shows us the reality behind reality TV – who’s hiding what and why; how the contestants are manipulated – and delivers some interesting points about the difference between literary and commercial fiction.

American Housewife is as much about writing as it is being a housewife in 21st Century America. Several stories in the collection involve a writer, mostly revolving around ideas of how to survive when your career isn’t going as you dreamed it would. Getting a sponsorship deal with Tampax isn’t the answer, it seems.

The women in the book who aren’t writers are somewhat unpredictable. Beneath their polished veneers, they’re plotters, kidnappers and murderers. Their stories are delightfully dark and twisted, showing that while women might not seem to have the upper hand in society, they’re damn well going to take it anyway.

American Housewife is an absolute jewel of a collection: dark, piercing and laugh-out-loud funny.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere – ZZ Packer

Bar one, the protagonists who populate ZZ Packer’s debut short story collection are young women on the brink of discovering something about themselves, life or both. They push boundaries and challenge authority often hiding the vulnerability they feel from those around them but not the reader.

In the title story, a young woman, Dina, is one of the few black students at Yale. During an orientation exercise, students have to state which inanimate object they wanted to be. Having grown up being ‘good in all the ways that were meant to matter’, Dina says she wants to be ‘a revolver’ and ends up with a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling.

“You’re pretending,” Dr. Raeburn said…”Maybe it’s your survival mechanism. Black living in a white world.”

…Dr. Raeburn would never realize that “pretending” was what had got me this far. I remembered the morning of my mother’s funeral. I’d been given milk to settle my stomach; I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere. Some Arabic-speaking country where the thick coffee served in little cups was so strong it could keep you awake for days.

Race is mentioned in several stories: in ‘Doris Is Coming’ there’s a discussion about the phrase ‘flesh coloured’ and its inaccuracy; in ‘Speaking in Tongues’ as teenagers Marcelle and Tia meet in the bus station before Tia runs away, Marcelle says the bus driver won’t notice them, “We all look the same to them anyway”, and in ‘The Ant of the Self’, the young male narrator and his father attend a race rally in Washington, selling birds. However, besides ‘Brownies’, the first story in the collection, where a girl from a troop of black brownies, accuses a girl from a group of white brownies of calling her ‘a nigger’, the stories aren’t centered on race. They seem to root themselves equally in being female in a male world and on the protagonists finding their own path, or not. At the end of ‘Brownies’, the narrator, Laurel, says, “…and suddenly [I] knew there was something mean in the world that I could not stop’.

In ‘Every Tongue Shall Confess’, Clareese Mitchell, member of the choir at Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized, curses the Brothers’ Church Council who’ve decided the choir must wear white every Missionary Sunday ‘when her womanly troubles were always at their absolute worst!’ That’s the thin end of the wedge for her though as far as the behaviour of the Brothers and her patients she tends to at the hospital. While in ‘Our Lady of Peace’, Lynnea comes up against the barriers in the education system, the care system and those exploited by a police officer.

Two things stand out about the collection: the first is that the stories don’t rely on the jazzy, unexpected twist at the end. There are twists but they mostly feel more organic as though the stories could be real. ‘Speaking in Tongues’, in particular, feels as though it could be the real life story of a young girl who takes a bus to Atlanta searching for her mother and ends up in a world she wasn’t aware existed.

The second is Packer’s use of language which is precise and illuminating with regards to the human condition. In ‘Geese’, the group of young people sharing a room in a country that’s foreign to them struggle: Things simply made all of them cry and sigh. Things dredged from the bottom of their souls brought them pain at the strangest moments and the protagonist has a plan: Or rather, it wasn’t really a plan at all, but a feeling, a nebulous fluffy thing that had started in her chest, spread over her heart like a fog. While Tia, the runaway in ‘Speaking in Tongues’ describes her aunt’s love as: …a smothering sort of love: love because you had to, never getting the chance to find out whether you wanted to or not. And sometimes, she simply tells it straight, like in ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ where Dina’s expected to take part in the trust exercise where you fall back into someone else’s arms: Russian roulette sounded like a better way to go.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is an impressive collection: eight distinct stories with distinct voices, considering life (mostly) in America for a range of (mostly female) young people. Packer’s been working on her debut novel for over a decade now, on the strength of these stories I’m adding myself to the queue of people anticipating it.

Every Kiss a War – Leesa Cross-Smith

I first came across Leesa Cross-Smith’s work last year when her short story ‘Crepuscular’ made it on to my radar (and into In the Media where I often include her work). I loved it. I particularly loved the line, ‘I told him ties were just penis arrows’, which I still think about regularly. That particularly story doesn’t feature in her debut collection Every Kiss a War but 27 stories with lines just as startling and memorable (in many different senses) do.

The collection’s about our battle with love: to find it, to keep it, to get over it once it’s gone. Cross-Smith explores love in all its forms beginning in ‘Skee Ball, Indiana’ with teenage best friends. Although it’s the love one of them has for the other’s mother who takes in her after her abortion that stands out: Jo Carpenter, stuck to my heart like a temporary mom tattoo, along with Cross-Smith’s understanding of teenage alienation: “I’m always outside of myself,” I said, “like I have to remind myself to climb back in.”

Another teenager gets a boy to give up his other girls then leaves him with a note: Come on. I am a lioness on a big, hot rock. I told you that. Another sits with her college boyfriend in his car, your heart beating like two quick tick-tocking clocks, like two fists with their muffled punching.

Adults negotiate all the different stages of relationships. The beginnings where in ‘Put Your Wild Heart Between Her Teeth’ He tied the thick, heavy, gasoline soaked Knox-knot in her stomach the first night they met and in ‘Absolutely’ where His mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read. A year into marriage when Violet in ‘What the Fireworks Are For’ runs away from her husband Dominic and finds herself torn between him and baseball player Roscoe Pie: I searched the radio for songs about how it ached in the same place whether you were leaving or heading home. And when you’re unsure whether you should be breaking up or staying together: And staying in love is like trying to catch a light. To hold it in my hand. Even when it looks like I have it, I don’t. (‘Kitchen Music’)

The stories are infused with musical references, with whisky and cowboys, with bodies. Many of the characters drive to and from places, their physical journeys echoing their internal ones. Cross-Smith ranges confidently from first to second to third person narratives, giving voice to both female and male narrators. The length of the stories spans flash-fictions which leave an impression of a moment, to linked stories covering break-ups and new relationships.

Two things about this collection in particular are impressive: the variety of relationships and situations Cross-Smith writes about, from high school romances to the aftermath of a husband shot dead when his wife’s five months pregnant, and the precision and poetry of the language. There’s a puff quote from Roxane Gay on the book (yes, that Roxane Gay) which says ‘Where she is most stunning is in the endings of each of the 27 stories…creating crisp, evocative moments that will linger long after you’ve read this book’s very last word’. I first read Every Kiss a War at the beginning of the year and many of those moments did stay with me. It’s a book I’ve thought about often and re-reading it last week showed me I was right about how beautifully written it is. Cross-Smith is the best writer you probably hadn’t heard of until today.

 

Thanks to Leesa Cross-Smith for the review copy.

 

Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairytales About Sex – Joanna Walsh

You’d assume a short story collection about sex might focus on the act(s) itself but whilst Walsh’s stories do include a number of sex acts – penetration, masturbation, orgies, remote sex – Grow a Pair concerns itself mostly with transformations.

A girl passed a penis-bush growing in someone else’s garden, and picked a ripe dick because she couldn’t resist it. It came off easily in her hand. She took it home and tried it on right away, knowing that, like the peas in her icebox (‘from field to fresh in under one hour!’) it would be better fresh.

From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas.

These changes are explored from the point-of-view of the person transformed and occasionally in terms of their affect on others. The girl who discovers the penis-bush ‘wondered if she was in the right bathroom but when she tried the men’s she left, overcome by a similar unsettling feeling’. ‘Just because I have a dick now, doesn’t mean I am a man’, she tells her girlfriend who shies away from the penis, inviting her friends over to take a look at it instead. They remain unimpressed.

Of all the characters, these women are the only ones to spend little time thinking about sex. For others, it seems to preoccupy them. This is particularly true of the virgin princess and the three big dicks, the only two stories in the collection that are direct transformations of well-known fairy stories.

The princess in ‘The Princess and the Penis’ has ‘never met a cock IRL’, she’s only seen photographs sent by acquaintances:

She was waiting for her one true cock, but none of the cocks in the photos seemed to fit. She wanted one that would fit like a glove, or rather like the finger of a glove which she used on herself while waiting for the proper cock to arrive.

She invites men to the palace, guillotines their penis and places each one in turn under a stack of mattresses, waiting for the one.

Similarly, the three big dicks are searching for pussy. They procure different materials with which to build their own pussy and I’m sure you can see where this is going. The problem, however, like any big dick is that when one of them goes for a walk:

No sooner had he stepped from its shade into a wide green meadow than he met a cunt, which he failed to recognise, never having encountered one before.

Walsh’s stories are filled with touches of humour. One of the many penises in the book turns out to be a speaking cock.

I don’t know what it said to her – I wasn’t there – but it was something dickish …The cock shouted something even more prickish…

As well as the intertextuality of fairy stories and fairy tale convention, in ‘The Minutes of a Meeting Between Mrs Darsie Hurlbutt, Hortense Shakely, Raymond Maths and Doctor Maxman, Including a Skype Call from Mrs Gustie Slovak’ the characters’ speech is taken verbatim from spam emails:

Hortense Shakley (who is a man) said, Wanna get laid tonight?

Doctor Maxman said, Make her shiver in ecstasy and desire more!

Raymond Maths said, S..A..F_E_-&_F-A..S..T..—P_E N I S___-E N..L-A R-G E M-E N_T-

Again, this alludes to the amount of time and to the extent which sex penetrates (pun intended) our days. As in real life, the characters in these fairytales are divided into those who go hunting for sexual organs and those who stumble across them.

It would be easy to dismiss Grow a Pair as a bit of fun, transforming fairytales from moralistic stories designed to keep women and children in their place to titillating narratives about sexual experimentation but to do so would undermine the ideas they explore. Walsh considers whether we’re defined by our genitalia, whether our sexual organs make us male or female. Her women aren’t sexually passive, they have control of their own sexuality and aren’t afraid to seek out whatever fulfilment they desire. It’s a confident collection, satisfying in terms of its links between stories as characters’ paths cross at different points. It’s also highly entertaining as well as being smart and thoughtful.

There’s an interesting moment at the end of ‘Simple Hans’ when, after amputating part of a woman’s body, he says:

I’m trying to tell you what it was – to cut into this thing that should be sacred, the thing we can’t question, to make it a thing just like any other – which is what it becomes when you cut into it, when you cut it off.

By cutting into sex, female desire, genitalia and gender identity, hopefully Grow a Pair will contribute to the conversation that takes sexual behaviour out of a prescribed patriarchal/hetero/cis fairytale world and into one where sex is ‘a thing just like any other’.

 

Thanks to Readux for the review copy.