Daughters of Dystopia

Dystopia: relating to or denoting an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.

I love a great dystopian novel, it’s a genre that can veer into classic science fiction, but the ones I love the most are the ones you can imagine happening in your world, if the circumstances changed just slightly, a world power got that much more control, a disease could not be contained or the general populace let things that are deemed as unacceptable become acceptable, little by little. Ordinary people trying to survive, railing against the system or changing it forever.

When I began reading Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed, it was no surprise that both the victims and heroines of the story were young girls. Melamed is a psychiatric nurse who specialises in working with traumatised children. The girls in this debut novel slowly come to the realisation that the only world they have known is filled with lies and not as idyllic as their leaders have taught them it is.

The girls live on an island, living a puritan life, where everyday decisions and everyone’s lives are constrained by a set of rules set down by “The Ancestors”. The male descendants of these original peoples who fled The Wastelands across the sea run the island along rules to suit their own needs. Young girls are married off to older men as soon as they come into ‘fruition’, at puberty.The rules set down, called Shalt Nots, include practices that are definitely of benefit to the elder men, not their young daughters.

Every summer until then, the children of the island run rampant, rarely going home, sleeping rough and enjoying their freedom until the shackles of childbearing and helping the community survive are placed on them.

Told through the eyes of the older girls who are all about to reach fruition, chapters are given over to each girl in turn and I enjoyed the pace of the book and the way the author slowly revealed the horrors of being a young girl on the island. Little is shown of the feelings of the young boys, or the men’s justifications for their actions.

The main heroine is Janey, who should have reached fruition at 17, but is so desperate not to be a woman and succumb to the demands of a husband, she is slowly starving herself. She and Vanessa, who has access to her father’s library of books from past days, give the other girls knowledge and courage, trying to find a way to escape, or at least effect change.

Janey wakes early the third morning, at the first tint of crimson shattering the black night sky, as if someone had shaken her from slumber. She takes the precious moment gladly and watches the girls sleep peacefully. Let this last, she prays, she knows not who to – certainly not the ancestors, or their puppetmaster God. Just for a little while, let them have this. Let them have it. Please.

It certainly had a hint of Lord of the Flies or The Handmaid’s Tale at times and I kept imagining it as a film, but I’m never sure if that is a good thing.

If you love a good dystopian tale about strong young women who decide to take a stand, this is your book. I powered through it in a few days, which is pretty amazing for me. I was in turn heartened and horrified but kept on turning the pages, wanting to see the fate of these young heroines clinging onto their childhoods to save their lives.

Gather the Daughters
by Jennie Melamed
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781472241719

Regretting Motherhood

Cover of Regretting motherhoodHow would you answer these questions?

“If you could go back, with the knowledge and experience you have now, would you still become a mother?” 

“From your point of view, are there advantages to motherhood?”. 

The Particpants who were interviewed for the Regretting Motherhood: A Study by Orna Doanth responded with a resounding NO!  Not surprisingly most participants wanted to keep their identities private, and the author acknowledges that this sort of admission is not at all socially acceptable. Any mother can recount those times when the stress, worry and tiredness make the whole experience a waking nightmare, but to face up to major regret is, in my mind anyway, huge.

This is not a book about making life easier for mothers, it’s not about more access to childcare or the ability to have a career…

Thus even though there are conditions that can alleviate the hardships of motherhood, this does not necessarily mean that difficult conditions accompanying motherhood, or rigid social dictates determining how women must mother, can completely account for suffering or lack of satisfaction in motherhood

The women interviewed felt that they were good mothers and that their children would not be aware of their regret. They did a good job, but it gave them absolutely no satisfaction. Many felt that they were pushed into becoming mothers, it was expected, and they wished they made other choices.

This is an honest and at times confronting book.  There are a number of books that deal with the subject of not wanting children, but this is the first one that I am aware of that deals with regret after the fact. The interviewees are honest and compelling, the writing easy to read and the subject is incredibly thought provoking.

The tale of a murderous governess

Cover of Jane Steele: A confessionIf you loved the Brontë classic Jane Eyre but always wished Jane had been a bit more… murderous then Lyndsay Faye’s novel, Jane Steele: A confession may be just your glass of arsenic-laden brandy.

The novel follows another unfortunate 19th century orphan girl looking for her place in the world, but she’s a good deal “spunkier” and prone to violence than Miss Eyre. In fact, she’s rather more modern than Jane Eyre in a number of ways (sex, swearing, self-defense etc.)

Jane Steele’s life is a mirror to Eyre’s in many ways from attendance at an abominable boarding school to securing a place as governess in a home that harbours secrets. Although the deaths are always justified after a fashion, the bodies do start to pile up and a worryingly perceptive policeman may just be onto her.

Author Lyndsay Faye is a fan of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and in the historical afterword reveals that it was the author’s scathing rebuff to her critics in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre that partly inspired her to write the novel, in particular the quote, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion”.

And so she’s succeeded in creating an unconventional heroine imbued with more than a little “self-wrongedness”. Jane (Steele, that is), doubts herself, her worth and her goodness constantly but loves fiercely and loyally… much like that other Jane.

There’s a good deal of mystery in the story from Jane’s mystery inheritance to the traumatic past of her young charge and the plot gallops along like a runaway horse making it a fairly riveting page-turner, and… Reader, I devoured it.

So if ladies in corsets (who also carry knives in their skirts) sounds your thing then I’d highly recommend Jane Steele for your next wet weekend.

Further reading

Review: Dear Ijeawele

Cover of Dear IjeaweleI first came to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s work via The Thing Around Your Neck. I like short story collections for discovering new authors because there’s so much less commitment — I read a couple of stories and if I like them I continue; if not, I’ve only lost a few minutes of my time. The former, in this case.

I finished The Thing Around Your Neck (full of eloquent, insightful and sometimes snarky observations on being Nigerian in Nigeria vs. the US) and later had my heart broken by Purple Hibiscus. Since finishing Americanah in 2013 Adichie has stepped away from fiction to write concise manifestos of feminism: first We Should All Be Feminists (fairly self-explanatory), and now Dear Ijeawele, on how to raise a feminist. Both are very short and easy to read so you can easily finish one in your lunch break.

It’s all very common sense stuff but depressingly it apparently needs to be said. Things like: Don’t let motherhood consume you. Share parenthood equally. Bin the concept of gender roles. (That last one especially difficult to do in today’s blue and pink segregated toy aisles.)

I cannot overstate the power of alternatives. She can counter ideas about static ‘gender roles’ if she has been empowered by her familiarity with alternatives. If she knows an uncle who cooks well – and does so with indifference – then she can smile and brush off the foolishness of somebody who claims that ‘women must do the cooking’.

Some advice is more specific to raising an Igbo daughter, but you can easily substitute your own cultural heritage in her suggestion to cultivate a strong sense of identity, or in recognising the pros and cons of the society you live in.

Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people. This is the only necessary form of humility: the realization that difference is normal.

I wish someone had sat me down as a child and explained some of these things to me. Especially that I don’t have to be nice to everyone: kind, yes, but I don’t owe it to other people to be nice to them when they are hurting me. It can be difficult to have opinions on the internet without being stomped on, but that doesn’t mean we should silence ourselves.

I don’t have any children but I have an interest in making this world easier for everyone to live in, and the suggestions in Dear Ijeawele seem like a good place to start.

Cover of The Thing Around Your NeckCover of Half of a Yellow SunCover of Purple HibiscusCover of AmericanahCover of We Should All Be Feminists
Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN: 9780008241032

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

y648This doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like, but I can honestly say that I loved this book! I’ve only ever really thought of Jackie French in terms of children’s and young adult fiction so was pleasantly surprised to see her grown up offering – If Blood Should Stain the Wattle.

Now it is probably the Australian in me, but I especially loved how Jackie uses famous Australian poetry and folklore that brought a ‘familiar’ spark to the story for me.

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle is full of wonderful, well established characters that have appeared in Jackie French’s earlier ‘Matilda’ series. I haven’t read any of these books yet but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this one; instead it made me want to experience them all.

There are fabulous strong female characters who are making their mark in Gibber’s Creek, finding love and setting their sights on conquering the world. Okay, maybe just Australia. Then we have the odd spiritual moment where they converse with ghosts and even manage to peek through time itself. But this is the seventies so the story wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a hippy commune on the edge of Gibber’s Creek and a ‘cult leader’ who is receiving messages from aliens. Did I mention that this is also the story of the Whitlam government coming to power?

Stop, come back! Don’t be put off by the inclusion of politicians and their shenanigans within the pages. Jackie French has cleverly woven the information into short excerpts from newspaper reports, and by having characters Jed Kelly and Matilda campaigning to support a Labor government. No boring political twaddle in sight; instead we get to experience first hand what it was like when the Whitlam Government came to power in early 1970s Australia and the subsequent historic dismissal of Gough Whitlam by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr.
This book really does have something for everyone and it won’t disappoint.

The Matilda series began as a trilogy, became a quartet. It was meant to be a history of our nation told from one country town, and the viewpoints of those who had no political voice in 1892, when the series begins: women, indigenous people, Chinese, Afghans.
But, by book four, I realised that history didn’t stop just because I was born, and that the series will continue as long as I live.” (Jackie French)

The quartet Jackie French is referring to is now a sextet – and who knows how many more there may be. So if you want to start at the very beginning the titles in order are:

  1. A Waltz for Matilda
  2. The Girl From Snowy River
  3. The Road to Gundagai
  4. To Love a Sunburnt Country
  5. The Ghost by the Billabong
  6. If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

Cover of A waltz for MatildaCover of the girl from Snowy Riverimage_proxy[3]Cover of To love a sunburnt countryCover of The ghost by the billabongCover of If Blood should stain the wattle

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
by Jackie French
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781460753118

Podcast – Indigenous women in leadership

Speak Up Kōrerotia logoChristchurch City Libraries blog hosts a series of regular podcasts from specialist human rights radio show Speak up – Kōrerotia. This show is created by Sally Carlton.

In a break from the usual format of panel discussion, this episode is a recording of Sacha McMeeking and Hana Skerrett White of University of Canterbury and Arihia Bennett, CE of Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu who presented on the topic “Indigenous women in leadership” for a New Zealand Human Rights Commission event to promote the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) and #IWD (International Women’s Day).

The three talks discuss themes such as:

  • Hero-leadership vs Service-leadership (Western leadership vs indigenous leadership)
  • Māori woman leaders in history
  • Examples of leadership amongst women in your own whakapapa
  • Women and whānau, and changing roles

Transcript of audio file

Find out more in our collection

Cover of Māori and Aboriginal Women in the Public Eye Cover of Crossing the Floor The Story of Tariana Turia Cover of The spirit of Māori leadership Cover of Te Puea: A life Cover of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Cover of Te Ara: Māori Pathways of Leadership

More about Speak up – Kōrerotia

The show is also available on the following platforms:

All About (Nasty) Women — WORD Christchurch

This blog talks about two live-streamed talks from the Sydney All About Women event, but after looking at their website I’ve realised how many interesting talks are happening that aren’t live-streamed. For instance Life on Mars, about Carmel Johnston’s year living in the HI-SEAS Mars simulation on Hawai’i. (I just re-watched The Martian so it caught my eye.) Luckily All About Women is filmed and put on Youtube so those of us who missed out can still watch when they’re uploaded.

Geena Davis on Gender in Media

If you’re skeptical that media representation and the lack thereof can influence the way we view ourselves and others, Geena Davis and her institute on gender in media can provide a few facts that might change your mind. In 2012, the year of Cover of Brave: The essential guideBrave‘s Merida and The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, the participation of girls in archery competitions more than doubled. Which is great! What’s not so great is how rare that positive representation actually is. The gender disparity in film is just as bad now as it was 1946, and that’s not an exaggeration. I recently read Jessica Chastain’s essay on how amazing and rare it was to work on a set that has 20% women (The Zookeeper’s Wife, directed by Niki Caro). 20%! Sometimes she was the only woman on set at all. I sometimes forget, working in a field that is so woman-friendly, how isolated we can be in the workplace.

As depressing as those facts are I highly recommend having a look at Geena Davis’ website and the footage of her All About Women speech when it goes up. In person she is very, very funny and has inspired me to look even more closely at the media I consume. I recommend you do likewise, particularly animated children’s movies, which from the stats seem to have the worst record of gender disparity and negative stereotyping.

Backstage interview with Jessa Crispin

Crispin rejects the label of feminist because today’s feminism isn’t feminist enough. Too many people are calling themselves feminists, she says, by just co-opting the ideology others have created rather than inventing their own. To make real change we need just a few really hardcore radical women willing to tear down the system, we don’t need to convert everybody to the cause.

If feminism is universal, if it is something that all women and men can “get on board” with, then it is not for me. If feminism is nothing more than personal gain disguised as political progress, then it is not for me. If by declaring myself a feminist I must reassure you that I am not angry, that I pose no threat, then feminism is definitely not for me. I am angry. And I do pose a threat. — Jessa Crispin, Why I Am Not a Feminist

Cover of Why I am not a feministI found listening to Crispin frustrating because while I agreed with some of what she said (feminism needs to be more inclusive racially and economically) I disagree with how she thinks we should solve it. Slacktivism is a problem for many causes, not just feminism, so rather than sneering at the lip-service feminists as not being feminist enough, why not work to inspire more of them to take more active roles in achieving gender parity?

If you were there (or have read Crispin’s book, Why I Am Not a Feminist), I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Nasty Women

So many smart, articulate ladies on this panel. Some of the best quotes:

No one is looking after us, it’s only us. And if you don’t get active in democracy, you get Trump. — Van Badham

 

The moment we shut up we let them win. — Yassmin Abdel-Gamied

 

Cover of Shrill: Notes from a loud womanSimply presenting my body to the world and insisting that it has value is a political act. It freaks people out. — Lindy West

 

You have the strength of all the women with you, who came before you, and who will come after you. — Van Badham

 

We have to mobilise everyone. Tell our kids that activism and standing for office are part of our civic duties. —Lindy West

 

It’s when people mobilise around the issues that are actually more important than the vacuum of hate, that opinions can change and we’ve got to have hope in that message and our capacity to organise, to speak to people about what’s really important to them. It’s only a tiny percentage of people who are really defined by hatred and will vote hatred more than anything else. — Van Badham

 

The idea of changing the entire world is overwhelming, but the idea of having an impact on the few people who are around us is very very achievable. — Yassmin Abdel-Gamied

One (very small) way that I try to make a difference is to support marginalised authors by buying, reading and reviewing their books. It takes very little effort on my part and I get to read great books! Win-win. If you’re looking for new authors to read I recommend We Need Diverse Books as a great place to start.

WORD Christchurch – All About Women

All About Women Satellite 5 March 2017Yesterday a car pulled up next to me while we were sitting at the lights, and the gentleman inside (I use the term loosely) rolled down his window. ‘Cheer up!’ he called. ‘Come on! Smile for me!’

If this doesn’t happen to you on a regular basis then perhaps you won’t understand why my immediate response was one of stifled rage. Sure, it’s one of the more innocuous forms of putting women in their place, but it exists on the flipside of the coin marked Nasty Woman. And if you’re looking at the USA thinking That’s so much worse, at least our last prime minister was only grabbing ponytails, don’t be too complacent. Unfortunately kiwi misogynists are looking at global politics for more ideas of how to be horrible to women.

If this depresses you, I have good news! WORD Christchurch is live-streaming a collection of talks by smart, feminist women straight to Christchurch. Geena Davis will be talking about women in Hollywood and the film industry, Jessa Crispin will be discussing her new book (Why I Am Not a Feminist — A Feminist Manifesto), and Yassmin Adbel-Magied, Van Badham and Lindy West will be on the Nasty Women panel. I’m especially excited to listen to Lindy West, as she was one of my favourite staff writers at Jezebel.com a few years ago (and has since published a book, Shrill).

I look forward to hopefully seeing some of you there, but if you can’t make it (or you need something to read in the meantime), check out our staff’s favourite feminist titles here.

Cover of Shrill by Lindy WestCover of If You Knew Me You Would CareCover of Speaking Out by Tara MossCover of Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford

Summer reading, had me a blast

So, what usually happens with me over the summer is I drag a big pile of books and DVDs home and then I do an average to poor job of getting through them all over the Christmas and new year break, because even though I might not necessarily be at work, there’s still plenty to do at home (taking the Christmas tree down, letting the 3 year old help, cleaning up after that disaster and so on…)

This year I had the misfortune of getting a cold in the new year that turned into a chest infection and necessitated quite a bit of lying in bed feeling sorry for myself. Which as everyone knows is the perfect time to get some reading done. Here’s what I managed to rattle through as a result *cough*.

Cover of American GodsAmerican Gods – As recommended by Pickle Bronwyn, this is a great read. It spans a great many topics – Norse mythology, theology, Americana, First Nations beliefs – and it’s also kind of a road-trip novel. Engrossing and enjoyable.

Like a Queen – To say Aussie writer and mum Constance Hall is a phenomenon is not overstating the case. Her posts on parenting and relationships and the importance of building other women up rather than tearing them down are massively popular, largely due to Facebook. In only a couple of years she has recruited a legion of fans (or “Queenies”) from all walks of life who love her brash, no-BS yet tender approach to modern womanhood. Her book is more “hippyish” than I usually go for but it’s brutally honest and raw too which is very affecting. A great, affirming read for harangued and under-appreciated mothers.

Cover of You can't touch my hairYou can’t touch my hair: And other things I still have to explain – Phoebe Robinson made a fan out of me within about three pages. She’s wickedly funny, scathing and more than a little bit goofy while tackling pretty important issues like racism and sexism. I learned a lot about African American hair from this as well as what sexism looks like to a female actor/comedian. I LOVED this book (even though I cannot fathom why she put The Edge at the top of her “which order I would have sex with the members of U2 in” list. The Edge. REALLY?). It’s a humorous mixture of pop culture, social awareness and general badassery. Highly recommended.

Cover of Talking as fast as I canTalking as fast as I can – Actor Lauren Graham’s memoir is a lot like what you imagine her personality to be – considered and cheerful with plenty of quips, non sequiturs and tangential observations. It’s a must-read for Gilmore Girls fans and recommended companion reading if you’ve recently watched the rebooted “A year in the life” series. Don’t read this expecting to get the low down on any Hollywood scandal though. No careers are ruined. No beans are spilled. But it is a light, amusing read that makes me keen to check out her first novel (a second is in the works) as well as her screen adaptation of The Royal We. There’s also a handy “writing process” guide borrowed from another writer included that I may well put into use. Also, how much is that cover photo crying out for some book-facing? So. Much.

Exhibit A.

Cover of The world according to Star WarsThe world according to Star Wars – I am a sucker for any book that indulges my desire to ponder the many facets, nooks and crannies, and minutiae of the Star Wars universe. And Cass Sunstein, one of America’s most highly regarded legal scholars, obviously feels the same since he wrote this book, seemly to fill that exact niche. It’s a mixed bag (the section on the U. S. constitution was a bit tenuous, in my opinion) but there are plenty of opportunities to ponder the meanings, symbolism and politics of this most popular of sci-fi series’ and to view it through a variety lenses. Recommended for fans.

 

The Atomic Weight of Love

Book cover of The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J ChurchThe Atomic Weight of Love is the debut novel of Elizabeth J. Church and I hope we see a lot more books from her. This book is an ideal Christmas present. It appeals to a wide audience and will make a great holiday read and is not without a little racy love interest.

Meridian has won a place at the University of Chicago where she studies ornithology working towards a graduate degree and eventual doctorate. Just as her wings are opening and she starts to glimpse new horizons she falls in love with a college professor two decades older than herself and her wings are clipped.

It is written in a memoir style following Meridian as a woman growing up in the 1940s through the fifties and sixties into the seventies and the emergence of women’s liberation. You will find yourself reflecting at times how so much has changed yet still remains the same.

Meri marries Alden and follows him to Los Alamos where she attempts to fit into the group of ex-academic wives she meets there. It is the era when a wife is expected to follow their husband and make the best of it. She struggles to be a good wife while salvaging something of her studies by continuing to study Crows, having left her graduate study dreams behind her.

The novel’s dual strands, the place of women with the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, and the atomic bomb with its resulting anti-war Vietnam and Korean war movements, almost splits it characters by gender over its two themes.

Some of the characters could do with more development – they feel a little clichéd. It seems women have little to say on war in this novel and men little say on the home front. Even for the times this feels a little stretched. She skims over the women who Meridian meets in Los Alamos except her best friend Belle, a strong woman who urges her not to minimise herself yet when it comes to the crunch still tells her to stay in her marriage and try to make it work.

That being said bird studies draw amusing parallels between human and bird society. Each section of the novel starts with an ornithological reference “A Parliament of Owls”, “A Deceit of Lapwings, “A Murder of Crows”. When Meridian meets Clay, a young hippie ex-marine about two decades younger than her, it seems they are about to repeat past mistakes. Her husband seems not to understand her sacrifice while her lover urges her to soar again.

Read the novel to find out if she does.

It is an enjoyable debut novel with a poetical style and reminds me of The Guernsey Potato Peel Literary Society, The Light between Oceans and The Shipping news. If you like nature and have a slightly scientific bent you will enjoy it and even learn a little physics on the way.

The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J. Church
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008209292