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Archive for February 2012

Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by bell hooks

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Wow. So, after making a quick trip to a cousin’s wedding and having to replace my old computer, it’s been really hard to get back into the rhythm of writing about what I’m reading. It’s been made no less difficult by the amount of school work I need to make up, and by the amount of time I’m spending with my band preparing for SXSW next week. In any case, I woke up early this morning, so let’s see if I can eke out just one post real quick!

Feminism is for Everybody was our first pick for The Year of Feminist Classics 2012. It’s a brief introductory text that covers a number of topics and is both inclusive and honest about the strengths and weaknesses of feminist movement politics. hooks maintains a relaxed tone and seems to speak directly and comfortably to the reader about the relationships between feminism, sexuality, class, race, gender, U.S. history, parenting, love, and more. Short chapters keep the reading brisk and engaged, but remain substantive. In other words, it was a great place to start this year’s project.

hooks wrote this book to be a straightforward primer that would serve to explain some of feminism’s key concepts to the uninitiated or misinformed, and in that sense I’d say she the book is a success. However, it isn’t perfect. I wish she’d done a bit more contextualizing, for example…feminism in the United States didn’t start with the Second Wave in the ’60’s and ’70’s, and this work was very much grounded in a specific era of feminist thought.

On the project discussion page for this month, Amy asked:

do you think this book would convince someone who didn’t identify as a feminist why it is important to do so / that they might want to do so?

I really like what onereadleaf had to say about this. She describes coming to identify personally with feminism as a process, and my experience with it was similar. Many of us have had “click moments”, but for me those had to be followed up by long bouts of introspection and info-seeking before I became comfortable using the term “feminist” to describe myself. So, I don’t know if this book alone would “convert” someone who wasn’t already a feminist or at least interested in feminism, but that’s okay: instead, it works to familiarize the reader with a diverse and conflictual set of related questions and beliefs; to reveal the ways in which the struggle for gender equality is relevant to us all, no matter who we are. It’s a place to start.

But, while I would recommend this to new feminists or people interested in feminism, I would include with it recommendations to more contemporary sources, including blogs. The book is only about ten years old, but as onereadleaf also points out, the internet changed a lot of things for popular feminism and this book predates those changes. The content of the book isn’t outdated because of that, I don’t think, but some of the language marks it as very, very ’80’s to me, which: fair enough! bell hooks is certainly the product of an older time, even if the book is new. I was especially struck by her repeated use of “females” and “males” as nouns, for example, because I only ever see them as adjectives in feminist writing now, IF that. Also, phrases like “white male capitalist patriarchy” are not inaccurate in describing interlinking systems of oppression, but they are just so typically ’80’s (and so typically bell hooks, too). I don’t think these things are a big deal, at all. But they don’t feel entirely current.

And another thing: my recommendations for new feminists or those curious about feminism would need to include specific examples about the ways in which we’re all affected by sexism and the strategies that feminists might use to think about them or act against them, too. hooks is great at introducing feminist sensibility, but she can be very vague about it’s application!

Amy also asks:

hooks defines feminism simply as:

“A movement to end sexist oppression”

What do you think of that…?

I like it. I like that it’s simple and cooperative, rather than individualistic. I like that it’s flexible and open to interpretation. I also like “the struggle toward gender equality”, as it’s more about making something than ending something. I like that hooks argues that feminism is and must always be political, and that she emphasizes activism. I don’t think you have to be an activist to be a feminist, though…unless you consider challenging your own viewpoints, the sexist status quo, and standing up for the gender equality you believe in to be activism 😉

All in all, I trust and respect bell hooks, and agree with her most of the time if not all (she said something about prostitution in one chapter that made me lift an eyebrow). I think it makes a good introduction to certain feminist issues, particularly those first articulated in the ’60’s and ’70’s which have persisted to trouble us in the early twenty-first century. I would gladly pass it along to those who’d like a primer, but it probably wouldn’t be the only thing I’d give them. A list of other recommendations deserves it’s own post, perhaps one day to come…

For now, please excuse the possibility of another lengthy blog silence. I will try to schedule some updates for when I’m out of town the next few weeks, but no guarantees. I’ve been reading some really great stuff, and can’t wait to talk about it with you eventually!

ETA: OH, I forgot. This book also counts toward the Read and Resist Tucson challenge, as it’s one of the books that was banned there in conjunction with ethnic studies!

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Written by Emily Jane

February 29, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Going Quiet…Back Next Week (I Hope)

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Hey everyone, just a quick note to let you know that my computer is dead 😦 I’m also going out of town next weekend, so it might take a little time to get myself all set up with a new one. I’m afraid I’ll be pretty far behind on reviews, both mine and yours, when I get back, but what can you do? I’ll still have intermittent e-mail access, though, so don’t be shy about sending me links to things you think I can’t miss (address can be found at my “about” page), and happy reading to you all in the meantime!

Written by Emily Jane

February 12, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Joining Two Challenges Last Minute

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That’s right. At the end of last year, I was aware of few challenges that looked interesting to me, but craving more structured reading I opted for creating two fun projects for myself instead. I’ll still be doing these, but I’m also going to join two new challenges, both because I want to support them and because they overlap significantly with my own projects and with my reading for a Year of Feminist Classics.

The first is Kinna’s Africa Challenge, for which I will read:

5 books.  That’s it.  There will be no other levels.  Of course, participants are encouraged to read more than 5 books.  Eligible books include those which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues. Note that at least 3 books must be written by African writers.

My previously-stated personal goal to read five books by Kenyan authors, and one non-fiction book about Kenya before my travels there next summer/fall, means that if I satisfy those goals I will also satisfy the requirements of the challenge. I’m going to read more than that, though, and include at least one or two books from other countries so as not feel completely that I’m cheating somehow (though I know overlap is okay). I read The Famished Road by Ben Okri last month, too, so I’m already one book into this challenge 🙂

The second I’ll be joining is the Read and Resist Tucson! challenge hosted by Melissa at The Feminist Texican. Like Melissa, I’m outraged about Arizona’s banning of ethnic (Mexican American) studies classes and the subsequent removal of more than eighty books from classrooms and school curriculums–from prominent Chicano/a and Native American authors like Rudolfo Anaya and Sherman Alexie to Howard Zinn and bell hookson the grounds that they supposedly:

    • Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
    • Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
    • Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
    • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
I see this as nothing but outright bigotry and dangerous, ideological obfuscation of history and power relations. So, to protest this decision I’ll be reading at least a few books from this list. I’m going to read Borderlands/La Frontera, by Gloria Anzaldua, and Feminism is for Everybody, by bell hooks for A Year of Feminists Classics already, and have Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen, on my shelves; so I guess I’ll start there.
A quick glance at all the reading I have to do for school this semester tells me that I might have to wait at least until summer to really make a dent in this stuff, but oh well! I think these are worth committing to.

Written by Emily Jane

February 6, 2012 at 5:08 am

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, by Xinran

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The “opening up” of China in the late ’80’s allowed Xinran, who worked for the state radio system before pursuing a career as a journalist in the U.K., to air a call-in radio show for women called “Words On the Night Breeze”. Nothing like this had existed in China before, and the popularity of the show was unprecedented. Women of all ages at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution, it seemed, were desperate to tell their stories and to listen to each other. This is an assemblage of the stories which most moved Xinran…or most haunted her.

This book was both riveting and harrowing from the beginning. It’s impossible to say anything more about it without noting that it should come stamped with a big, bold, trigger warning for rape, incest, sexual and other graphic abuses of all kinds. As should, maybe, the rest of this post. A girl who hurts herself so that she can stay in the hospital away from her rapist father, who keeps a fly as a pet; a mother who tries for over a week to console her injured daughter, trapped between two walls after an earthquake; sisters so impoverished that they must take turns leaving their cave in the one outfit they share while the others remain naked in the dark: these are the shocking, tearful tales that make up the modern China that Xinran came to know intimately.

Rape. There is SO MUCH rape in these stories, and it’s gruesomely detailed. My stomach did flip-flops as I read, and I thought I might actually make myself sick by finishing this book. There’s no doubt that it’s well-written and entirely gripping, but everyone’s got their limits when it comes to this kind of thing and these stories pushed me a little too far. I realize, of course, that it’s a painful reality that deserves both illumination and confrontation…but these incidents were recreated almost voyeuristically, at times, which made me feel I was committing a further degradation by reading about them. This is an entirely personal reaction, and I don’t feel entirely capable of teasing out what is my own discomfort and what  might be inherent to Xinran’s style, but there you have it.

All of these stories, while fascinating in many respects, were cries of silent suffering. Despite the inclusion of stories about women from different class backgrounds, from different regions of China, with different experiences of sexuality and everything else, the presentation of Chinese womanhood that I got from this book was one of pain and horror and not much else at all. It’s possible that I’m being naive: I know little about China or the women who live there. I know these tales of misery and terror are true (though they do read like fiction at times–or am I only trying to comfort myself?) and I’m glad that these voices are no longer hidden–but I kept hoping for counter-examples of happy women, confident women, contented women, even just conflicted women. Surely Xinran must have encountered just a few such women, right?!

A much smaller quibble I had was that I wanted to know much more about Xinran herself. Her story is revealed gradually throughout the telling of others, but it would have been helpful to know more about her from the beginning, so that her own questions and reactions to other women might be put into some sort of context.

So, I don’t know. I started out loving this book, and was really excited about it. A quick look through the book’s reviews on Goodreads suggests that for most readers, that initial mood held them through the end. But it took a heavy toll on me–and I’m sensitive, but not THAT sensitive. Slowly but surely, my estimation of the book sunk. I want to learn more about the condition of women from around the world, even when it’s entirely depressing, disgusting, and disturbing, as it all too often is. But I want to learn more than that stuff, too. In fact, I need to, to get through all the ugliness. I think we all do.

Written by Emily Jane

February 2, 2012 at 6:09 am

Posted in Non-fiction

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