Book Review: ASH

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Malinda Lo’s Ash is a quick read packed with interesting ideas. The book explores themes of femininity, liminality and power all wrapped up in a queer coming-of-age retelling of Cinderella. Aisling—nicknamed Ash—winds up working in her stepmother’s house as a servant after the untimely deaths of first her mother and then her father. Her father’s death saddled her stepmother, Lady Isobel, with unforseen debts, and Lady Isobel tells Ash it’s her duty to work those debts off by way of servitude. Ash grows up a servant in Quinn House, where she cooks and cleans for Lady Isobel and her stepsisters Ana and Clara. But while her days are taken up with the minutia of housekeeping, Ash’s nights are her own. She explores the nearby woods, where she meets first a fairy man with an ominous and mysterious interest in her, and then the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, for whom Ash falls hard. The crux of the book comes when Ash decides to strike deals with the fairy, Sidhean, in order to spend time with Kaisa. The book is full of cusps and precipices: Ash wanders from the human world into the fairy world, from childhood to adolescence, is a servant but masquerades as a noblewoman. It’s a book about choices and about boundaries with a very welcome and agentic female protagonist.

Lo was intentional in her use of fairy tales throughout—the reader knows, going into the book, that it is a retelling of a common fairy tale. We come in with expectations based on that. The style of the book is distant and regal, old-fashioned. There are few contractions and a measured pace, the likes of which we associate with “once upon a time” writing. Occasionally this was too literal for my taste, but Lo generally carries it off and uses this tone and language to create truly lovely imagery throughout. But, what’s most interesting is that there is, at play here, a meta-textual relationship between the fact that this is another iteration of a common fairy tale and the role of fairy tales within the book. Ash reads and rereads a book of fairy tales throughout her childhood and adolescence. Ash and Kaisa flirt by telling each other their favorite fairy tales. They discuss the role of fairy tales, the lessons they teach, and how regardless of their veracity they become real, living institutions. Ash uncovers the fairy tales of her own history—of her mother’s life—over the course of her relationship with Sidhean, a living fairy. It’s a fascinating thing to read which never becomes overly clever or gimmicky.

Part of the reason the fairy tales within a fairy tale aspect of the book works so well is because Ash’s world is so well-drawn. It’s an especially feminine book; by that I mean that it is a book much more concerned about women’s lives and women’s roles and women’s sources of power than men’s. While Lady Isobel and her two daughters first appear to be yet another two-dimensional incarnation of the evil stepmother and wicked stepsisters trope, Lo takes the time to fill them in and give them realistic motives and limitations. They never become sympathetic, but they become understandable people who are both trapped in their circumstances and so entrenched in those circumstances that they see only a handful of options. Lady Isobel is a woman heading a household and managing a mountain of debt without any real income—it makes financial sense for her to take her stepdaughter and turn her into a servant she doesn’t have to pay. It is unfair, but it makes sense. And it makes sense for her to push her oldest daughter, Ana, to marry well. She sees Ana as her one chance at pulling her family out of the hole, and Ana is groomed and indoctrinated accordingly. Clara, the second sister, has a number of interesting conversations about marrying for money and status with Ash over the course of the book. Ash, being a servant, is in a position where marrying for love is a much simpler and much more accessible option. That Lo points this out humanizes and contextualizes the book’s antagonists.

Marriage—who does it and who doesn’t—is a broader theme in the book. The outlying towns where Ash hails from are held together by rural greenwitches, who work as the town’s healers and sources of wisdom and who traditionally don’t marry. Ash’s mother was one prior to her marriage to Ash’s father, so Ash is steeped in that community. The King’s Huntress, a position of high status and visibility, is another role of feminine power tied to a tradition of not marrying. And in contrast, there is Lady Isobel and her daughters who, through circumstance and their institutional lack of a viable trade, use marriage to claim and assert an altogether different kind of power. This running conversation about women’s lives and women’s choices—and the extent to which those are real, true choices rather than prescribed ones—made this book a joy to read.

While Ash was a finely drawn character, I would have liked deeper characterization of the tertiary characters. Kaisa, specifically, remained a cipher through the text, someone who was more role than real person. I rooted for them to work out, but mostly because I was rooting for Ash; their romance felt rote and unfinished at times, but perhaps that was . Ultimately, my biggest complaint about the book is that it was too short and too restrained for my taste. I wanted more history, more exploration of the characters’ interaction. I wanted more raw anger and sexuality. But this was a YA book, and Ash adheres to the conventions of YA lit—short, fraught with tension that culminates in a couple of tongue kisses and nothing more. None of this is a criticism of the conventions of YA literature; these are more my personal tastes. Ash is an excellent book by any standard, and an excellent YA book in particular.

4 stars

The Hearthstone #2: Dear Medical Establishment, Please Stop Fat-Shaming My Toddler

this is my baby giant next to her totally normal sized grandmother

this is my baby giant next to her totally normal sized grandmother

 

There is an ongoing discussion in my household: is my kid a giant baby or a baby giant?

Zadie was born three weeks early and was on the small side at the start of her life, but she grew like a weed. Her growth curve is abnormal, exponential. A pediatrician once described her growth rate as “explosive.”

She started small, but by one she’d crept up into the 90th percentile for her age group’s height, weight and head circumference. By two, she was already three feet tall and over fifty pounds. She turned three recently, and at her annual well-baby check-up we learned that she’d shot up another six inches and gained another ten pounds. She’s in the 100th percentile for everything. I am a statistician by trade and training (when I’m not, you know, writing about elves and whatever), and she is literally off the charts—like, several standard deviations above normal. As in HOLY SHIT MONSTER BABY big. Just a really, really big kid, this one. It makes sense—her dad is a big bear of a man, and my sister is a broad-shouldered wide-hipped tall drink of water.

She runs all the time. She plays constantly. It is hard for me to keep up with her, but I try, and when I run out of energy I let her push me (5 feet tall, 160 pounds) around in a wheelie chair that desperately needs to be oiled. I have seen my toddler shove our couch across the room, and it was not on casters. She is a big, meaty linebacker of a three year old, and she’s tall enough to pull dirty dishes out of the sink and drop them on the floor if left unattended for a split second.

But her pediatrician wants to refer us to a nutritionist. Even though I cook vegan dinners twice a week and she eats the leftovers for days after, even though she loves vegetables and fresh fruits and is (mercifully) the least picky eater I’ve ever seen, he thinks she should see a nutritionist. Even though we rarely ever give her sugar because HOLY SHIT WE ALREADY CANNOT KEEP UP WITH HER she should see a nutritionist. Because, you know, she’s kind of…chubby.

The thing is my kid is a toddler beefcake with a sleek layer of baby blubber. She’s physically in great shape. The doctors are just concerned you know because of obesity but the thing is that there’s a lot of obese people who are perfectly healthy. My beefcake toddler with the insane energy who runs for literal hours every day? She will probably be one of those perfectly healthy obese people. And her doctors will probably tell her year after year that she should just lose some weight. Not because it’s actually detrimental to her but because, you know, being fat is bad.

My kid was assigned female at birth. Her gender is an open question , but I know firsthand that growing up FAAB in this society leaves you scarred with body issues even if you stop identifying as a woman. And I refuse to tell her she’s not good enough, that her body isn’t good enough, that she needs to be smaller and smaller and smaller still just because. Unless there is a direct medical reason to lose weight I am not allowing anyone to tell her to do it. What’s the nutritionist going to say? To keep feeding her kale?

I don’t want her to hate herself growing up. I want her to revel in her body. It’s going to hard for her to be “the big girl”, and she’s going to be that kid that dwarfs all the other kids in her class at school. Her pediatrician thinks she looks great, just great. There’s no medical reason to suggest that her weight is a problem now or that it will be a problem except for social bias. So, let’s just check that one at the door.

Book Review: HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING

I cannot tell you how much I love this cover.

I cannot tell you how much I love this cover.

For reasons both good and bad, How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ reads like it could have been written yesterday. Actually, the book is older than me—published in 1983—but Russ’ smirking, clear-eyed perspective is still relevant.

How To Suppress Women’s Writing investigates historical and social reasons that may have kept whole generations of women from writing in the first place (things like differential rates of literacy, disparate access to education, women’s historical lack of leisure time and position as wife as a second work shift). She also interrogates how it is that when women somehow do manage to write that women’s writing is ignored, slandered or undercut. The book was published by the University of Texas Press, which puts it squarely in the realm of academic works, but the writing is colloquial and accessible throughout. You do not need to be steeped in literary criticism or feminist theory to read and understand Russ’ arguments here, which is a great strength*.

She argues that what is considered “good” or “worthy” literature (and by extension, that which is taught and thus survives across generations) is designated as such by privileged groups who have a vested interest in keeping themselves privileged. The ways in which they limit entrance or access to literature are by mental acrobatics such as assuming women writers didn’t really write their works, or that it doesn’t matter if they wrote it because it’s the wrong kind of work, or that maybe they wrote it and maybe it’s good but it’s the only good thing she ever wrote. Some of this is deliberate, but just as much is unconscious bias. Each chapter is broken into one tactic that has been used to suppress women’s writing, and Russ packs her chapters full of anecdotes, survey results, and historical examples to support her claims. And, somehow, she does it with a wry and witty voice that makes the writing lively.

Still, the book is not a perfect one. It’s centered very squarely on white middle class women’s experiences. Russ occasionally throws in an anecdote about her friend and colleague, Samuel Delany, a Black scifi writer, but he himself is tokenized in the doing. Clearly throughout the text she attempts to draw parallels between gendered exclusions in literary circles and race-based exclusions, but Delany pops up over and over again as if he is the only Black writer she knows (and as if Black writers are the only voices who can counterpart the voices of white writers). White lesbian authors pop up far more frequently than writers of color, and women writers of color are virtually never mentioned in the main body of the text. This lack of intersectional focus irked me while I read it—it’s such a good book, and also such a clear example of the failings of second wave feminism. Russ uses the Afterword to acknowledge her failing here, directly addressing her unfamiliarity with and inability to capture the struggles of women writers of color. She talks about stumbling across a beautiful, rich treasure trove of writing by women of color—a parallel canon, as it were—which unintentional struck me as fetishizing and exoticizing of women of color’s experiences.

That said, her idea of a parallel literary tradition is what resonated with me most. The book is predicated on the idea that the established canon should include more women, which yes, it should. But underlying that idea is an assumption that women writers should want to be part of that canon, which I’m not entirely sure is the case for all women writers, or all marginalized writers more broadly. This, again, strikes me as a distinctly white middle class second-wave feminist reaction: when barred entry break through the bars. Personally, when I am turned away from something I return to my community and make a safe space there (be that along class lines, lines of gender or lines of sexuality). I am more interested in creating and participating in alternative literary traditions, exploring what the limits of queer or working class or trans* writing can be, than gaining approval of wealthy cis straight white men. I’m pretty much done trying to impress wealthy cis straight white men.

But (always there’s a but) not everyone has that option. I am not trying to make a living from my writing, but other marginalized people are. And, frankly, to make a living off your writing you still have to impress wealthy cis straight white men to do it because they hold the keys to the kingdom. A quick google search shows that women’s writing is still suppressed a full thirty years after Russ wrote her book:

Unfortunately, the following passage is just as true today as it was when she first published this book:

Women’s lives are the buried truth about men’s lives.

 

The lives of people of color are the buried truth about white lives.

 

The buried truth about the rich is who they take their money from and how.

 

The buried truth about “normal” sexuality is how one kind of sexual expression has been made privileged, and what kinds of unearned virtues and terrors this distinction serves.

 

4/5 stars

*Russ points out in the book that “women always write in the vernacular” and that this difference in language is one way that women’s writing has been historically devalued. The same can be said of the less-educated and working class—a consistent criticism I have and have heard about academia is that it uses language as a barrier to entry and as a membership check. That is, academia trains you to use words like reify and polemic and semiotic and in the doing makes your work utterly unintelligible to people without higher degrees. As someone whose work in graduate school was explicitly focused on class identity, this was a tension I ran into over and over again: how to communicate with the groups I want to communicate with given the resources I suddenly received without speaking “too low” to my adviser and “too school” for my friends and family.

Book Review: THE MASTER AND MARGARITA

The-Master-and-Margarita-Bulgakov-Mikhail-9780141180144

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is rightly considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. It is a strange, vicious, witty book steeped in irony. It was a book I struggled with* and found hard to read at first, and one that came alive for me in discussions about it with friends. It is a rare book which is more philosophical than narrative, but whose philosophy is hilarious and exciting and violently delivered. This book is the opposite of dry.

The plot of The Master and Margarita starts with a grisly and untimely death which just happens to be witnessed by the devil himself and becomes more bizarre from there. Ultimately, the plot centers around the titular Master, a writer whose novel about Pontius Pilate has landed him in a Stalinist psychiatric ward. The devil arrives with an entourage of sinister slapstick companions and turns Moscow upside down in his pursuit of rescuing the Master and his lover, Margarita.

The Master’s novel about Pontius Pilate is nested within the broader narrative, with whole chapters scattered throughout. There is a clever intertextual relationship between the Pilate sections and the modern Moscow sections of the book. The style and narration of the Moscow sections is fascinating: the writing is conversational and digressive, coyly unpolished:

It must be added that from the first word the foreigner made a repellent impression on the poet, but Berlioz rather liked him—that is, not liked but…how to put it…was interested, or whatever.

As the above quote shows, the fourth wall in this book isn’t so much broken as it never really exists in the first place. The Moscow sections, at least, are cruel and mean-spirited. The best word I can come up with to describe the tone is spiky. In these sections, Bulgakov draws the reader in as a confidant. It felt, to me, like a very witty and bitter man cornered me at a party, proceeded to get progressively drunker as the night went on, and told me all the catty, mocking secrets he could think of about everyone else in attendance. It’s delicious, and it’s vicious, and it has the bizarre effect of reading something written entirely at the expense of the characters.

The contrast between the Pilate and Moscow sections is stark: the Pilate sections are much more narratively conventional, and they have a realism and steadiness the Moscow sections work hard to upend. The Moscow sections tap into the weirdness and the looming terror of Stalinist Russia, permeating every page with this sense of unpredictability, of randomness, of cruelty. It may be my unfamiliarity with Russian names, but it seemed to me that the Moscow characters were intentionally interchangeable—there is an Ivan Nikolaevich and a Nikolai Ivanovich that drift in and out of the story. The Pilate sections, though, are aggressively realistic. Jesus appears, but just as a beggar-philosopher. The canonically mystical elements of the crucifixation—the resurrection and the empty tomb—are explained away in decidedly natural ways. The characters here are fully realized, distinct individuals. Going from a Pilate section to a Moscow section creates a sense of whiplash in the reader, one that was certainly intentional and reiterates again and again how bizarre it must have been to live in the Stalinist regime.

Two themes stuck out to me when I finished the book. The first is the durability and power of narratives. I generally dislike it when writers write books about writing and literary circles. It strikes me as masturbatory and ultimately uninteresting. But this book handles that beautifully. Partly this is because Bulgakov doesn’t reify or romanticize the act of writing. The writers in Moscow are no better, no wiser or more insightful, than anyone else in Moscow. Partly this is because he needed to nest the Pilate narratives within the larger book and bringing them in diagetically as a novel written by one of the characters is a brilliant way to do that. The use of narrative throughout, the way narratives split and are reinterpreted and rewritten, the way some narratives are twisted into unrecognizability while others retain a core idea, has to be a commentary on the way actual people’s lives were written and rewritten by Stalinist Russia via disappearances, visits from secret police and so forth.

The second theme which emerged and developed over the course of the book was a moral grayness. At the end of the book, the devil and Jesus together decide the Master and Margarita’s shared fates. It’s a fast and simple thing; there is no negotiation, and they both come to the same conclusion. They wind up at the same decision, these beings who canonically are supposed to be forever at extreme poles. And the devil has moments where he is kind or appreciates kindness in others right alongside his propensity to incite madness and violence in the Muscovites. Everything, Bulgakov seems to say, is so complex, so shaded and counterintuitive, that ultimately very little makes sense. Right and wrong are, perhaps, not the correct lenses through which to view human behavior. Good and evil are false dichotomies.

A note on the translation: I read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Given that much of the book is a commentary on Stalinist Russia, and given that much of the book is also Bulgakov’s way of talking smack about other Soviet writers and the literary circles he traveled in and was ousted from, my reading of the book was deeply enriched by the context this translation provided. Pevear’s introduction, which contextualizes when and why Bulgakov wrote the book and the effect it had when it was (eventually) published, combined with the footnotes, helped to clarify how it must have read to Russians.

4/5 stars

 

*It’s possible that reading something as earnest and hopeful and sweetly captivated with humanity as Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday literally right before this book made it hard, at first, to engage with Bulgakov’s bitterness.

Transistor Radio #2: The Myth of the “Correct Gender”

you don't need to know your gender to know you love cherry tomatoes

you don’t need to know your gender to know you love cherry tomatoes

Last month, my kid turned three years old. There was a cake, and a brand new pop up tent to play with, and a couple of weeks later there was an annual check up with the pediatrician. I didn’t go, but I got the full debrief from her mom and dad who took her. Zadie’s great! Healthy as a horse*! Hitting all those milestones! Well, except for this one thing.

“There was a question on the survey they give you,” said Jon. “It was something like ‘how often does your child correctly identify his/her gender?’ The options were ‘always’, ‘sometimes’ and ‘not yet.’ I put ‘not yet’ for Zadie.”

And I went on a tirade. Bless his heart, he listened. He always does.

As a trans person, this question ruffles the shit out of my feathers because it presumes that someone other than the child themself decides what is correct. When I was Zadie’s age I could correctly identify the gender that had been assigned to me, but to call that my correct gender would have been presumptuous at best (given how I turned out) and full-on erasing at worst. Some of us know what gender we are by the time we’re three. Sometimes that matches what everyone’s expecting of us (cisgender kid) and sometimes that doesn’t (transgender kid). For a lot of us, though, gender is a slippery thing. It took me over twenty years to correctly identify my gender—if by correctly we mean identify gender in a way that makes sense and is comfortable for me. To put it another way, it took me over twenty years to reject what I was told, over and over again, is my correct gender. The constant stream of “You’re a girl, you’re a girl, you’re a girl” the whole time I was growing up confused the shit out of me.

As a trans person, this question is bullshit because it conflates sex and gender, which are separate constructs for a reason. Sex describes biological aspects of a person**; gender is an identity that people express through presentation and enactment. Gender is as psychological and sociological as it is biological, and an important part of that means that it is learned, and a thing which is learned requires time to learn it. By the time kids are three certainly they have received a shocking amount of gender-based and gender-focused socialization. But they don’t yet have the cognitive development needed to interrogate and articulate all of this. Gender is brewing at age three, but it is not done yet. For most people, how a person identifies gender-wise at three is consistent at age thirty, but the whys and hows and meanings are different. And some of us change! Some of us are different at thirty than we were at three.

As a nonbinary genderqueer trans person, this question gets under my skin because it presents the gender binary as fixed, immutable and true. Can I correctly identify my gender? Maybe—it depends on if the person asking accepts the categories I put forth. Is there a write-in category? Why does my kid have to choose between girl and boy? What if she’s somewhere in the middle? The phrasing and intent of this question reifies the gender binary, and in the doing, treats me as something that cannot exist.

And as a parent, this question rankles me because it is insensitive. My kid has a trans parent, and (not so shocking) I have trans friends. My kid interacts with a wonderfully gender-diverse group of people. And she’s at the age where she is learning to read and name social categories. That’s really what this question is getting at—whether or not she understands and can place herself in relevant social categories. But she doesn’t have the same exposure or environment that other kids her age do. She sees a lot of femme women and butch women, big burly dudes and fey elfin men. She sees others, like me, who are in a third category. Watching her interact with the world, it’s become apparent that she maps other people onto her family, categorizing strangers as Daddy-like (typically cis men), Mama-like (high femme people of any gender) and Baba-like (usually short-ish glasses-wearing people who are not so easily gendered). I have heard her call people “girls”, “boys” and “babas”. So she knows. She gets gender. She just gets more of it than most people.

And she is exploring her own gender organically. Over the course of the same week, when I’ve asked her if she’s a girl or a boy in the name of SCIENCE, she’s given the following answers:

“I’m a boy!”

“I’m a boy. I’m a girl. Baba!”

“Girl.”

She’s all over the map, and that’s ok. We let her pick out her own clothes, and she tends to gravitate towards t shirts with dinosaurs and pants. She likes her hair kept short because it’s thick and hot and it tangles and gets in her eyes. She violently resists whenever we’ve tried to do anything at all with her hair except let it just lie there. She is almost always assumed to be a boy outside our house. AND she’s curious about her mama’s make up and will paint her cheeks purple with eye shadow. She loves to dance. She wants to cook and plays in her toy kitchen all the time. She loves trucks and baby dolls. She’s just who she is right now, and there’s no pressure on her to even be a ‘she’ for any longer than she wants to be. Honestly, she seems not to care much about gender. She loves Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra, and sometimes she tells us she’s Aang and sometimes she tells us she’s Korra.

The problem with this question is that there’s a chance that my kid, like me, is trans. Who knows? I certainly don’t, and she doesn’t either. And this question is telling me, a parent of a toddler, that it is a developmental milestone for her to have internalized the gender binary and the conflation of sex and gender so well (reinforced, of course, by my parenting choices) that she already knows how she’s supposed to identify and that ‘correct’=‘cisgender’.

How can it be a developmental milestone to rip that choice away from her, to silence her, before she even knows what she has to say about it?

*There was, apparently, talk of putting my three year old on a diet, but that’s getting its very own post, so stay tuned.

**Conversation for another day: I believe in a binary of biological sex as much as I believe in a binary of gender—that is, not in the least.

Process Questions Relay

I was tagged for this by the talented Matt Cresswell, editor of Glitterwolf Magazine!

What am I working on?

I’m about two-thirds of the way through The Incoming Tide, a sequel to Extraction. Tide expands the narrative scope laid out in Extraction—more characters, more locations and bigger political and emotional stakes.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

What I write, I think, falls largely under the high fantasy umbrella— there is magic in Tide, there are elves, it’s set in a time and place that vaguely resembles pre-industrial revolution Europe. My elves, I think, are more foul-mouthed than most. They are not delicate Tolkienesque creatures. High fantasy tends to hew closely to the chosen-one-hero’s-journey-big-world-changing-event type of narrative, but I tend to draw a much narrower focus. The big world events are only interesting for me to write about insofar as they push characters forward.

Every writer has distinguishing features. My are not necessarily unique themselves, but presumably the particular constellation of my writing quirks is unique to me, yes? I am a very earnest writer—I can’t do satire or irony for shit. I’m also a very frank writer; subtlety is not a tool I use often. I think I have an ear for colloquial dialogue.

Why do I write what I do?

I write speculative fiction (mostly fantasy, but some science fiction and paranormal stuff, too) because I love the flexibility created worlds and futures hold. I love the way speculative fiction can push the envelope of what is considered normal or acceptable by existing societal standards. I love playing ‘what if’.

I am deeply interested in understanding why and how institutionalized oppression exists and I’m even more interested in how those oppressive structures can be torn apart. Speculative fiction can be a place to explore that. I want to read speculative fiction books that present a different view of reality, that make radical shifts, books that put people in power who, in the real world, have had power historically stripped from them. So, I write the kinds of books I want to read.

How does my writing process work?

There’s no magic to it, nothing glamorous. I’m a workhorse writer. I write most days like clockwork, usually on my bus commute to work. I write first drafts with very little planning, quite fast, and then I tear it all down and write the second draft with a clear structure in mind. I am not a perfectionist. I am willing to breeze past an awkward sentence in the first draft knowing it’ll probably fall by the wayside in the second draft.

I work in Scrivener. I write in a very linear way—typically just start to finish, no scenes out of order—but I really love that in Scrivener each scene can be its own document in the binder. I don’t move scenes around much, but it is extremely helpful for me to jump around and reread as I write the book. For something like Tide, which has multiple narrators, I color-code the scenes according to the POV character. Doing that helps me keep track and space out the narrative voices so they don’t clump up too badly.

Disability Diary #3: Meeting All The Deadlines No Matter The Cost

deadline

I am not an ambitious person. People don’t believe me when I say it, but it’s true. I don’t really care about external validation or accomplishments, but I gather them up anyway, so I can see how they’d be confused. But the truth is that I can’t help it. It’s my anxiety. I need stability, and stability comes from social and cultural capital—my ability to ape and secure a middle-class life for myself and my family—so I do what needs doing to get it.

My anxiety disorder and I are frenemies. On the one hand, the way it manifests makes it incredibly easy to pass. I am an extraordinarily productive person. I have to be doing things all the time. It’s like I have to leave a trail of created things in my wake to prove I haven’t wasted all this time I’ve spent living. I am writing this piece on the bus ride home right now. I cannot ever seem to just sit and relax like my partners can. I am, in fact, so anxious about being able to do all the things I’ve convinced myself I have to do that I’m a savant at time management. At work, I can get through in eight hours what would take colleagues of mine something closer to twelve hours. I have to, otherwise I never feel safe. Otherwise I feel like the ax is about to drop and I’ll be fired. And I’ve lived like this my entire life, so I have a hell of a poker face. Impossibly tight turnaround time? No problem! Scope of project far too large for one person? Says you!

Here’s the thing: it’s easy for me to pass because I’m productive. In this society, demonstrable productivity is used as a way to measure someone’s worth. To be a “productive member of society” is the goal. Schools are supposed to train children to grown up to be productive. Parents are supposed to give their kids the tools to be productive. The homeless and poor and unwell are a drain on society precisely because they are not productive. This is the rhetoric we hear every day. This is the rhetoric I have used to pass, because we don’t understand how mental illness can coexist with such culturally sanctioned productivity.

You can see where this is going, right? On the surface everything looks great. I’m high-achieving and high-performing by virtually every metric there is. But below the surface is another story, because as much as we’re taught to value productivity the truth is that productivity is not an index of mental health. I have a history of neglecting my physical needs in order to meet unreasonable deadlines imposed on me, things like working twelve hours straight without stopping to eat or go to the bathroom. Things like completely revising an academic article for revision to a prestigious journal without any help from my advisor at his behest while a month giving birth. I did that on essentially no sleep. My advisor was impressed; I received a pat on the back and a request to work on another article. That’s when I had an epiphany.

A month postpartum, so anxious about my baby that I literally could not sleep, I was both ridiculously productive and an absolute emotional wreck. It took me way, way too long to realize that I was living with severe anxiety in large part because the anxiety was manifesting in a way that is culturally sanctioned. I was productive, but I wasn’t ok. And looking back all I could see where the thousands of other times I’d been so anxious, so panicked, that I forged ahead and produced whatever needed producing instead of asking to be accommodated.

It’s a lot of work to unlearn the associations I have between productivity and mental health. I think this is partly because of me, because I’m a person who has always been happiest working, but a lot of it is society. My capacity to get enormous amounts of shit done has been a quality that has been praised and rewarded my entire life. It’s the thing that made me look sane. It’s still a tension I struggle with within myself, though I struggle now much more self-consciously.

I think about this a lot. This is like any other kind of passing—it’s a short-term fix with negative long-term consequences. I pass for sane, for someone with a brain that works right, because that’s safe. There’s still stigma. There are still biases. If I told my boss that I have an anxiety disorder it would change how I interact with her, and I’m an at-will employee who doesn’t want to take that risk. But the flip side of passing, in this case of being productive, is that doing so forces me to reproduce a particularly subtle and pervasive form of ableism. I’m not trying to change how my coworkers and supervisors approach mental health and accommodations. I’m not trying to make my workplace more emotionally sustainable for me and others. I’m trying to use the veneer of normalcy I have learned to project to get me through this day, through this week, through this month. And in the doing I enable my supervisors to develop unrealistic expectations for what I can/should be able to do in what timeframe and with what resources.

I can pass, but it takes a toll. I have to pass to feed my family, but sometimes it means choosing between productivity and my own mental and emotional health. Passing for sane is both a mark of privilege (since I can cover it and I can be productive the way society deems worthwhile) and a mark of marginalization (since I have to cover it in the first place). I can pass, and I do it, but I wish I didn’t have to. Using productivity to hide my anxiety disorder is like any other kind of lie: it grows in the telling and becomes its own prison.

Book Review: SWEET THURSDAY

sweetthursday

John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday revisits the people and places of Cannery Row. Set after World War II, some of the cast of the Row has changed—Lee Chong has moved on, and his store is taken up by a clever criminal by the name of Joseph and Mary Rivas; the Bear Flag brothel is now under the care of a star-chart-reading madam named Fauna; while Mack and Hazel still remain at the Palace Flophouse, the rest of the tenets have changed over the years. The book is centered around the two biggest changes: Doc has gone to war and come home again, and a girl named Suzy arrives on Cannery Row. Both are wounded, stubborn, deeply lonely people, and the folks of Cannery Row take it upon themselves to get the two together.

As is typical for Steinbeck’s work, Sweet Thursday appears simple but is actually rather complex. It is, on the surface, a somewhat saccharine love story. It’s a love story mostly about how a woman can save a man, can fix him, which means that the love story is really about the man and much less about the woman. That’s one of my least favorite kinds of love story, frankly, which meant this book was not always what I wanted it to be or what I wanted to read. But a deeper reading makes this a weightier, darker book. This book is as much about redemption as it is about love. It’s as much about reconciling the past as it is about building a future. Doc comes back from the war changed—hollow and flat and listless and angry, or what we today might call PTSD-stricken. We don’t know what he saw in the war, but I’m sure it was nothing pleasant. Suzy shows up on the Row penniless and hungry, on the run from what is hinted to be a nasty failed marriage. She is angry and listless, too.

To some extent, this is a slapstick book. Steinbeck’s raucous, corny style of comedy is in play throughout. But counterbalancing that is a weirdly pervasive casual violence. Characters who seemed so gentle in Cannery Row, like Hazel and Doc, pick fights, break bones and nearly strangle others. Doc spends several pages literally enraging octopi to the point of death. It’s threaded through the book, start to finish, and I found it a little disturbing. Everything in the book reads like a desperate scramble to right things, to get things back to the equilibrium of the first book, both in the plot and in the writing itself.

Sweet Thursday is not Cannery Row—and I doubt it’s really trying to be, so while one is a sequel of the other it’s ultimately an apples-to-oranges comparison. It’s a different book: where in Cannery Row the characters were the backdrop and the place was the protagonist, the characters take center stage here. Sweet Thursday has a much more linear and traditional narrative plot, which, perhaps, comes as part of it being more about the people than the place. It is a good book on its own merits, but it feels unfocused. It feels like Steinbeck’s heart and his brain were trying to write two different books here, and he was never quite able to resolve those inconsistencies.

bookreview3stars

Transistor Radio #1: [repost] I am B, and I am a they (Not Melissa, and not a she)

Some of you know this already, and some of you don’t, but just so we’re all on the same page, I am officially coming out as genderqueer. I am a trans* person. I’m also just plain queer (i.e. not straight) while I’m outing myself. If you end up bored and don’t read past this first paragraph what this means for you is that I prefer to be called B (not Melissa) and that I prefer singular ‘they’ pronouns to female pronouns (so don’t call me she). Also, please don’t call me a mother – Zadie calls me her baba.

For those of you remaining, know that I am about to vomit gender feelings all over the internet. First, I’m going to attempt to describe my current relationship to my body, how it’s gendered, how I experience gender, etc. And then, I’ll go into why I think of myself as a they and not a she.

Me, Myself & I: Gender Weirdness Extravaganza
Do you have any idea how often we are asked to disclose our gender? I have come to dread this. Buying plane tickets sucks. Signing up for websites sucks. Any form of intake sucks. They suck because I have to put down female, which is then taken to mean woman, which is increasingly uncomfortable to me.

Gender has always been complicated for me, but it’s grown much more so in the last few years. The other night while I was walking home from work I was struck by a realization that when I was kid, maybe like eleven or twelve, I used to think a lot about the directions my life could go. Maybe I’d be a courtoom lawyer (like Sam Waterston in Law & Order!!). Maybe I’d be a rabble-rousing politician. Or a scientist. Or a musician. And I remember imagining myself in these possible lives and invariably imagining myself as a man. A man, incidentally enough, who didn’t look all that different than I do these days. It was a simple thing, and it wasn’t the ache and yearning thing you see in a lot of culturally sanctioned trans* narratives. It was just…I knew I was going to grow up a woman, but I ended up with this vision of myself as a man anyway.

Note that I said in that first paragraph that I’m genderqueer, not a trans man. After years and years of grueling work coming to love my body, of living in it and being it, I am as much a woman as I am anything else. But that’s the kicker: womanhood is just part of it.

These days I have this instinct to get flippant when forms as my gender. Gender? Chimerical. In flux. Weird. Fuckery. Paradoxical. That’s what fits me.

The Reason For They
I know for a fact that some of the people who will read this are grammar nuts who are totally fine with gender variance, but not really that fine with the bastardly singular they. There are likely people reading this who could give a rat’s ass about pronouns because they will never respect the facts of my gender identity, but those people can go fuck themselves. This section is addressed to the grammar nuts (I love y’all!)

I like they. I am a they. I like the expansiveness of it; I like its encompassing nature. My gender contains fucking multitudes. It is an ensemble film. It is a moving target. ‘They’ captures that. ‘They’ articulates this dual and tripled and quadrupled sense of gender I have: that I am sometimes a woman and sometimes a man and always both and always neither.

‘They’ plays with and breaks the binary. A singular they, to me and in reference to me, is politicized: a rejection of the contraints of a language that has been influenced by binarism, coercive gender assignments, and cis privilege.

There is, to me, a sense of potential when one uses they to describe a person whose gender is not known. Could be either. Could be neither. I like this protean quality it has; in the morning when I wake I could be either, could be neither. They is an umbrella term for all the possibilities and iterations of me, grammar be damned.

So, call me B, and call me they. Call me Zadie’s Baba. I’m asking nicely once. I’m reminding you that it’s only decent to do this, and also stating for the record that I don’t much care how confusing this is for you or how hard it is for you. I am always willing to answer questions, but I reserve the right to ignore those questions if they bother me.

This is a huge scary thing for me, and I’m telling you all this because it’s important to me.

The Hearthstone #1: I Would Never Hurt You, or Parenting as a Survivor of Childhood Abuse

me not hurting my kid

me not hurting my kid

“Don’t hurt me.”

The first time my child said this to me, we were at Target. I’d just told her to put a box of something or other back, and she stared up at me with these huge, innocent blue eyes and whispered it in a low, sad voice. It shattered me. I swept her up into my arms and hugged her tight. “I would never,” I said. “I would never hurt you.”

The thing is that my kid is a liar. She’s two and a half, and she’s clever, and like all kids that age she is old enough to manipulate the people around her but she’s not old enough to have developed a sense of morality yet. I don’t know where she picked up this particular phrase. Adventure Time, maybe. Or Babar. Or from some other kid at play group. It doesn’t really matter where she learned it; what matters is she doesn’t really know what it means. When my kid says not to hurt her, what she’s really saying is I don’t like this, why are you taking that dangerous thing away from me, don’t turn off my tv show! It’s not about physical injury. She’s not scared of me. It’s a prelude to a tantrum; a baby’s feint. I know this, I do.

My reaction to her words has less to do with her and more to do with how I, at nearly thirty years old, am still making peace with how I grew up. My kid is experiencing a very different kind of childhood than I did. “Don’t hurt me,” she says, and specters of my childhood creep up: I’m twelve, and my drunk mother is throwing plates at me. I’m ten, and my mother is driving drunk with me in the car. I’m sixteen, and my father slaps me hard across the face—not once, but four times in quick succession. I’m thirteen, and my mother paws at me like a sedated bear in a drunken stupor while I try to pull her out of the bathroom during yet another botched suicide attempt. My kid tells me not to hurt her, and all I can think about is the sad resignation I lived with for so long, that knowledge that the people you should be able to trust can and will hurt you. That your place is to bear it, to live through it, until you can finally get away.

My child doesn’t know about terror. She has not two, but three adoring and doting parents. She is protected and loved and cherished, and our home is safe and stable and decidedly non-violent. Her father, who himself had a wonderful and loving childhood, sometimes has to translate our daughter’s words for me. “Don’t hurt me,” she says, and he watches my face fall. “No, no,” he says, “she’s not scared of you! She’s not! I promise!”

But how could he know? I am a psychologist by training. I know the literature; I know that abuse is cyclical, that abused kids often turn into abusive parents. It feels so fatalistic sometimes. I also know I’m not my parents—I am not an alcoholic, I work intentionally and authentically on my mental health. In the parlance of the small, poor Texas town in which I grew up, I have my shit together. Or, at least I think I do. I am perpetually afraid to let my guard down. I am afraid that if I don’t watch myself like a hawk I will turn into my parents, and I will hurt her—on purpose, with full knowledge of what I’m doing, in some kind of sick power-play. I love her so much that I’m scared to trust myself. It’s unreasonable, this lack of trust. It’s a scar from my own childhood, where I spent so much time apologizing for my parents’ behavior. It’s their mistakes I bear like a cross, now, and not my own. But these scars run deep, and they are hard to eradicate.

“Try not to take it personally,” her dad says. “She says it to me, too.” But hearing those words from her mouth dredge up in me a visceral, PTSD-like physical memory of the abuse I survived. I wonder, sometimes, how she and I will talk about her childhood when she’s grown. Her experience—solidly middle-class in a nurturing and attentive family—is so different from mine. I know, logically, that she’s telling me not to hurt her precisely because she doesn’t really know what being hurt by her parents means. I also know that it’s hard for survivors to articulate our pasts to those who haven’t lived through similar ones.

“Don’t hurt me,” she says, like my own personal nightmare.

“I would never. I would never hurt you,” I tell her, holding her close. And it’s a promise to her, and it’s a promise to myself. A way to reassure her and to keep myself sane. She is safe with me, not safe from me.