identifying the enemy | 2018.07.23

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck | Review

Steinbeck, John_The Grapes of Wrath

Publication: The Viking Press, 1939

Genre: Historical Fiction, Political Fiction

Pages: 455 | 20 hours 43 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook, eBook

Source: MCL

After reading this one, I found myself disturbed by the political implications. What just happened? What was Steinbeck trying to say through this story, exactly?

Gloom and doom seem close to the heart of the novel for sure. Is this book about the value of being allowed the space and resources to pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps? Is it about socialism, the text and plot both serving, as is often proclaimed, as a truly American socialist’s battle cry? Is it perhaps jointly about how economic trajectory, no matter the founding governmental structure or theory, will ultimately always get in the way of the goals of communal, socialistic living while simultaneously destroying the great “American” ideal of individual-made success? Is Steinbeck saying that both capitalism and socialism are doomed each by turn? Capitalism because the machine of the invisible hand in this book became the disease that killed the aspirations of the individual, and socialism because the governmental plans to revitalize the economy in the 1930s failed so devastatingly?

There can be no doubt, in my conjecturing opinion, of the timelessness that Steinbeck achieved in this novel. And I’m guessing that is because the types of questions noted above are still up for debate even in the political climate that the United States is struggling with today. For example, our current incumbent was chosen because he spoke to the depression and self-styled oppression (let’s come back to that in a bit, shall we?) felt by many of the working class of our “great” nation (at least this seemed to be evidenced by interviews with a number of his supporters before his election).

Surely, The Grapes of Wrath has everything to do with showcasing the demise of life for the community-supported (and in turn, the free-to-be-independent, I’m going to argue) field worker, farmer, shop owner, and others like them. But I believe the conversation has become confused within our current state of quick and lightning-reactive politicos. (This is an extremely complex web, so your patience in my attempts at untangling is appreciated.)

In our current political environment, the would-be independent and self-sufficient, frontline workers, who supported the agenda of the current head of state, repeatedly speak about being tired of having to step aside in the name of giving room to people that the “other side” of the argument calls marginalized. Many of the frontline workers in our country have turned the screw of confusion even further by arguing that these same individuals who they refuse to call truly marginalized are marginalized only because they don’t belong within the borders of the United States of the great and wonderful America. As a result, the small business owner, the frontline worker (no matter your original nationality or political heritage), and anyone else feeling dissatisfaction at whatever short end of the stick the system has handed them are pointing fingers of blame at each other while ignoring the systemic root causes for their own discomfort and tribulations. We are fighting amongst ourselves to show who is the most marginalized to spite the system of “greatness” the other side is aligning themselves with.

It’s interesting that what makes a country great, just like with literature (Steinbeck’s book often being touted as the great American novel . . . and, well, sure!), can be predicated on opposing ends of a very wide spectrum. Again, this web is complex in its intricacies, no doubt, making “the enemy” a difficult fucker to adequately identify.

In Steinbeck’s novel, the enemy, that dark and inevitable force of destruction that made the book’s main characters homeless and drove them to the very edge of the Pacific Ocean was comprised of the banks backed by the often faceless system of capitalistic grasping and bulldozing for perpetual growth, growth, GROWTH! Ursula K. Le Guin (sorry to go on and on and quote her yet again) talks about the need capitalistic economies have for this type of self-engorgement. She quite pointedly states, “Capitalism is a body that judges its well-being by the size of its growth. Endless growth, limitless growth, as in obesity? Or growth as in a lump on the skin or in the breast, cancer? The size of our growth is a strange way to judge our wellbeing.” (If you’re interested, this comes from her essay “Staying Awake While We Read” in her book sold under her adjoining novella Wild Girls.) So is socialism the answer, then?

Socialism is predicated (in my estimation) on giving the individual space to create their own definition of success within the support of a strong community. Whether such individual success has anything to do with the amassing of wealth comes from such an absolutely subjective perspective, I feel. And I feel Steinbeck’s novel is arguing this also. Because if the individual is left enough space and is given enough resources, they can then be free to pursue their own happiness. The example I’m thinking of is seen in how the Nordic governments try to give their citizens the room and the resources to create their own success-definitions by allowing individuals to take care of each other within a strong community setting.

So how can we pursue our own happy success without throwing everyone else under the bus? Without engorging profits that rely on cutting out the working class? Do we offer our own breast milk to the starving homeless? Maybe. Or maybe we should also ask how we got here in the process. Let’s find out why the homeless. Let’s find out the current-state, systemic cause of why the working class feel so oppressed by the already marginalized. Let’s find out why we keep circling this same spiral of self-destruction. Do we dare even take on such a task? And how can we think about these aspects of our own troubled and oftentimes troubling society without shaking in our boots at the prospect of sharing the goal of growth without engorgement? Maybe we should be shaking.

emergencies of addiction | 2019.04.22

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon | Review

Laymon, Kiese_Heavy

Publication: New York, NY : Scribner, [2018]

Genre: Autobiographies, Memoirs

Pages: 241

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook

Source: MCL

“But what about the emergencies made by the folks who say they love you?”

Well, what about them? Are they that unusual, when we really stop to think about how relationships usually work and don’t work? Maybe the tendency to not stop and think about the truth of relationships is why this oft reality of emergencies catches most of us so off guard during the course of our lives. Laymon certainly doesn’t hold back in relating the realities of his personal experiences in his memoir, as should be in any good story about ourselves.

This book is written as if it were an almost ranting love letter to his mother, utilizing the second person motif. When we love someone, we want to speak truth to them, or at least our own very personal perspective of the truth. And being given the chance for our own truths to stand for a while in the limelight, after years of trying to simply absorb another person’s ideas of truth that have consequently left no room for our own perspectives, this is what Laymon’s book is most ardently about.

The truths distilled within the prisms of perspective that are shown in Laymon’s memoir span topics all the way from racial prejudices, the reactions of those racially prejudiced against, the addiction of eating in fits of rage and depression and with the plea over and over again for some semblance of control, the addiction of exercising for much the same reasons to the point of pushing one’s body-form to its utmost limits, the addiction of wanting, the addiction of loving and of sexing, the addiction of gambling, the addiction of seizing and expressing with violence a power over women and all others not born with the white, cisgendered man advantages of today’s society, and the constancy of vying for a parent’s love.

Besides hitting all these extremely difficult and important topics, Laymon also achieves a standard of musical prose to match that of Anthony Burgess, Milan Kundera, and Joseph Heller. If you get the chance to listen to Laymon’s reading of the audiobook version — do it!

I loved Laymon’s warning toward the end of the book where he proclaims so boldly, “We cannot live healthy lives in the present if we drown ourselves in the past.” This quote helped me remember that the goal in writing a memoir can be forward-looking. How can we move past the emergencies of our pasts and the relationships therein to a better future? How do we give room for our own personal perspectives while simultaneously giving room for the perspectives of those who have loved and maybe also hurt us? Can this make a relationship better, and why do we long for such a resolution?

To that end and with a wide-eyed view of those aforementioned love emergencies, this book also leans heavily on the theme of forgiveness, but not on the kind that ignores accountability and consequences. Truly bipartisaned (not a word, I know, but literary license?) forgiveness takes each party’s willingness to reach a conclusion that still includes a way to perpetuate growth. First comes openminded listening, then comes acknowledgement, then comes . . . the reality both parties choose to create out of the messiness of continuously crashing lives and unending perspectives.

The details that Laymon chooses to include in his memoir make it sometimes hard to breathe through the passages. But this is how real life exists in the chasm of personal experience. And I truly applaud his fearless honesty.

expanding the perspective | 2019.05.19

Transgender History by Susan Stryker | Review

Stryker, Susan_Transgender History

Publication: New York, NY : Seal Press : An imprint of Perseus Books, LLC : A subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc, [2017]

Genre: History

Pages: 303

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook

Source: MCL

I read this book while trying to figure out what to say and how to say it in my review of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. The leap from race to gender topics may seem a bit wide, but really what drove me to Stryker’s book was my own dissatisfaction with the minimalist’s perspective society has given me with respect to intersectionality. I’ve been attempting to write several feminist-leaning short stories and have recently found myself leading a women’s book group, both of which have left me wondering whether I have enough information to speak intelligibly about these hard topics (and whether the world needs women’s-focused book groups and, if so, why). “I don’t know how to talk about these topics appropriately and in such a way as to encapsulate inclusivity,” was my seemingly eternal complaint. A friend told me once that if a person is worried about being too exclusive, they’re probably already on the path to inclusiveness.

But beyond developing a more inclusive mentality, we should be careful of the communicative categories we use. What do I or others mean when they use vocabulary words like “female”, “male”, “cisgender”, “transgender”, “transsexual”, “bisexual”, “asexual”, “woman”, or “man”? Basically, I was asking the age-old question: “What exactly are we talking about?”

In Stryker’s book, I found just what I was looking for in regards to groping my way toward understanding the multiplicity of some of the identities people hold most dear. Did all of it take? Do I now understand the difference between sex and gender, for example? Honestly, I’m not sure, but I’m still willing to give it a go, because mistakes made in the midst of honest effort is all I’ve got. So, I ask the gentle reader to judge just as gently please. (The LEAVE A REPLY button at the bottom of the page is ready and waiting for your wisdom.)

The most impactful portions of this book, for me, had to do with feminism. Specifically, my fear of how exclusive the mantras of feminism might be has been at the forefront of my mind for some time now. Stryker recaps the history of feminism (especially second-wave feminism) and its hesitancies to merge its goals with anyone who is not born-female who want to find acceptance within the feminist sphere. If you weren’t born with a vagina, do you have a voice in the feminist march toward equality?

For myself, feminism is about leveling the societal playing field between the two binary genders we call “men” and “women.” In that vein, feminism needs to encapsulate a voice toward equality for all who want to identify or who are immediately identified by society at large under the gender category we call “woman” when juxtaposed with all who want to identify or who are immediately identified by society at large under the gender category we call “man”. In other words, I’m looking for a way to free our cultural perception of each other from the pitfalls of gender normative prejudices.

While I was working my way through Stryker’s book, I couldn’t help but stop every few pages to look wistfully over at my partner and explain to him yet another new aspect of the gender equality discussion that had just dawned on me. These discussions led us pretty quickly to Nina Paley and her rejection of transgender identities as manifested through preferred pronouns. Now please understand, I’m all for Paley’s rejection of the cultural constraints instituted by copyright law. I applaud her work in the realm of copyright as well as her political stance on the topic from the perspective that artistic expression is and should be a shared endeavor (while still giving credit to those we borrow from along the way). However, I’m struggling with her idea that, “everyone is free to identify however they wish, but not to force me to identify them the same way.” My initial reaction to this is to ask where’s the respect aspect here? It seems to have been flushed straight down the toilet if we prescribe this type of mentality to our understanding of something like a person’s gender identity, just like it goes completely sideways and misses the point so absolutely if applied to rape or domestic violence.

Within her explanations of second-wave feminism, Stryker hits on the destruction this type of attitude can initiate in discussions of gender. But, I guess if I want a world where everyone’s perspective is given the respect its due, maybe I can’t condemn someone like Paley for holding to an opinion that I find condemning in and of itself. The flow of respect has to go both ways in order for constructive conversation to flow between the “camps” involved in the discussion. I guess what I’m hoping is to leave room to listen to Paley’s and other TERFs’ opinions to try and understand the starting point of their perspectives, even if I ultimately end up still disagreeing.

Here, I’m talking about boundaries, a topic every abuse survivor is, or should be, very familiar with, no matter the form that abuse has taken in their life. We create boundaries to keep ourselves and those around us safe. To be sure, those born into the female sex have taken a beating throughout the history of civilization going back to the discovery of agriculture (if you’re hearing the influence of Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman, then you should congratulate yourself as having sussed out my current reading list). So, the initial boundaries toward a safe space that the first and second waves of feminism created surely shouldn’t be dismissed. But, what happens when the reality of voiced societal norms shift? Can a male who identifies as a woman ever feel completely safe in the men’s world ascribed to her at birth, and how can she truly feel accepted in the women’s world she associates herself with unless others around her stop trying to put her in the men’s categorical box and begin to accept her as the her she wants to be seen as? To this point, does safety equate to acceptance and vice versa? If your boundaries are not ones I’m comfortable with, can I still accept your boundaries, and if I choose to do this, am I denying my own person safety? I think the answer probably lies within the topic the boundaries are encapsulating.

In an effort to continue this discussion of safety and acceptance, one of the transgender heroes that stood out most adamantly to me in Stryker’s book was Sandy Stone. The more I learn about her journey and her work, I can’t applaud her enough. It strikes me as incredibly brave that anyone born with all the cultural advantages of being born male would want to put themselves into the woman gender category or (perhaps more intensely) into the female body, with all the inherent disadvantages these realities are fraught with within our society.
For example, when I was a preteen and then a teenager, I found myself in the throes of what I thought was a very disturbing body transformation. This transformation was like the scariest magic act that disappeared the skinny, straight-lined, self-identified non-gendered kid, whose only love was for long walks alone in the sparse forests of my many home towns in search of the perfect reading or story-writing tree to claim as my own personal hideaway from all the aggression my mother’s husband brought into my childhood home, and replaced that young kid with a ridiculously curved, albeit, or perhaps consequently, awkward woman who didn’t understand the very real and very dangerous implications of having to carry such a body. Anyone who would willingly take on such a transformation is a giant of heroic stature in my book.

Yet Stryker explains that Stone was ostracized by the second-wave feminist groups of the 1970s and 1980s because she was not equipped at birth to fully comprehend the true feminist struggle. She was seen as an infiltrating force in the realm of feminism, as a result.

Earlier, I spoke about boundaries and how they are designed to keep us and others safe. In relation to the women’s book group I recently found myself leading, a woman I respect beyond words asked why our group of women needed such a “safe space” as we had been attempting to create in our little club. This brought me up short at first, but the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve begun to wonder if we simply wanted a space to “bitch” (excuse the phrase please) about the misogyny (however micro-aggressively expressed) inherent in many of the pieces of literature being chosen and discussed in the other coed book groups my posse of women had been frequenting. I think feminism is like this — it wants a safe space in which to express female concerns. But should these spaces of safety be for females only, especially in the context of our current societal shifts, keeping out all others? I guess I’m realizing that, for myself, the concerns of females are also the concerns of women, whatever sex they were born into.

To this end, I’m going back to the mentality mentioned in some of my more recent book reviews where I talk about the dangers boundaries can pose when they separate and keep out those who also need harboring. Because a boundary works simultaneously to keep some safe by categorically keeping others out. I don’t think I want this type of feminism. If the goal of feminism is to level the playing field, wouldn’t inclusivity (while still listening to all the perspectives, which maybe should go without saying) be paramount?

But I’ve waxed perhaps too philosophical. Maybe I’ll experiment with the book groups, as a way to get out of my own head on these topics. In any case, I can see why Stryker’s book is a common textbook for college courses on these topics nowadays, as it certainly provides a plethora of insight, history, and a bird’s eye view of the vocabulary we use to describe and understand issues of transgenderism.

no takebacks| 2019.06.16

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review

Le Guin, Ursula K_The Word for World is Forest (2)

Publication: Berkley Books [1976]

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 189

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback

Source: MCL

“You must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason.”

Le Guin’s anthropological interests scream through this novella. The history of human civilization has certainly taught us, if we have been listening, that cultures influence each other, they bring new ways of seeing crashing into one another, usually with such astounding violence that the participants often don’t understand the true impact until they’re left standing in the resulting rubble. The Word for World is Forest captures this concept with frightening skill, exploring the multitude of perspectives involved in these types of cultural struggles. It is this story’s ability to exemplify various opposing perspectives simultaneously that I’d like to argue is the true mastery of the story.

The caricatures Le Guin uses in this book kept me wondering about the totalities of personalities that are often overtaken by one-sighted goals. In Captain Davidson (a Terran, meaning in this story that he’s from Earth), we have the epitome of self-indulgent evil. In the scientist Lyubov (also of the Terran persuasion, but of a more mediating make-up), the opportunity for an open-ended comprehension of “the other” is made almost possible. In Selver (a native to the planet Ashthe), the spirit of learned violence manifest as outward-facing retaliation is brought to light. These main players within Le Guin’s story move around the plot-line like pieces on a chess board, each given room to present their unique internal perspectives and goals.

How exactly does the conquering, self-appointed dominant species see itself and its actions? How does the mediating scientist become blinded to his place in what he can only foresee (and perhaps rightly so) as the impending doom of a native culture and ecosystem? What will be the eventual responses of the suppressed native culture as it tries to find justice and a way out of the insanity forced upon it? Is solidarity only accomplishable in the face of suppression?

As Le Guin points out within the narrative, “Revelation was lacking. There was no seeing everything at once: no certainty.”

Amidst all the nail-biting tension this book offers, one point in Le Guin’s story caught me completely off guard. Specifically, the Ashtheans’ massacre of the Terran women confused and shocked me as I raced through the pages where Le Guin described the Ashtheans’ attack of the Terrans’ Central encampment. By this part in the story, Le Guin had already made clear for her readers that the female gender role has a distinctive place of honor within the Ashtheans’ society, not to mention that the Ashtheans had, until then, no notion of why any sentient species would purposefully kill other sentient beings. Almost as quickly, however, I realized the significance of cultural influences Le Guin was proposing with this choice of her plot’s direction. The Athsheans had decided (or had, more pointedly, learned from the examples given by their oppressors) that the preservation of their species could only be gained through reactive violence. To the Ashtheans, a species exuding nothing but evil and destruction should not be given the option for reproduction, because to breed a species with the tendencies exemplified by the Terrans would be to breed that same baseline of evil and destruction. And to what I’m perhaps too boldly guessing was Le Guin’s point, the solutions to problems as learned by an oppressed people from such a cultural dominance as she is showing here should be exactly that level of shocking to the reader, to say the least.

Le Guin never seems to shy away from the harsh realities of consequences in her writing. I don’t think it’s off-base to say that this is why her story ends where it does, with the first-noted quote I’ve included above. The impacts each of the species in this story have on each other are certainly sobering. The Ashtheans learn how to end the lives of other sentient creatures when the continuation of those lives poses a threat to their world. And subsequently, the Terrans learn (eventually and with much flaying about in the process) that they are not as privileged as they once would have liked to think, to the end that some of them begin to understand the dangers of their influence on the universe they have been trying so desperately to bend to their will.

These themes show up in many of Le Guin’s other stories and books, so it would be easy to conclude that they were close to her heart. The scene in this novella that connects the plot within her Hainish universe comes in the very third chapter, where not only the ansible (a futuristic communications device Le Guin invented within her novel The Dispossessed, which allows instantaneous transmission of messages over lightyears of distance), but also in the idea that all sentient species across the unknowably vast universe were evolved from a single starting point of life. The idea of the inevitable interconnectivity of the universe is evident here. And further, the Terrans’ refusal to accept these “theories” of connectivity works very well to compound their proposed ignorance within the story’s plot.

Was Le Guin writing this in a fit of anger against the self-destructive behaviors of her own species? (In her essay “On What the Road to Hell is Paved With” she confirms this was in fact true, admitting that this book was her response to the Vietnam War.) Reading this book and some of her others in the Hainish series, it’s easy to see she held an all-out disgust for many of our species’s historical conquests made in the name of ”civilization” and in the name of “peace.” Drawing from another example, Le Guin offers the perspective of the conquered also in her novella Wild Girls, where raping, pillaging, and slavery are shown again within the reality of what they are: self-destructive, and therefore despicable, ways of existing.

I was left with a feeling of deep regret after reading this book in particular. What are we teaching ourselves in the perpetuation of the practices we so often qualify as our natural state of being while we grasp for our own survival, and what are we giving future generations as the examples of the true price for such survival? Is it worth it in the end? Maybe we should try harder and tread much much lighter in the wake of our own rampant ignorance.

At the beginning of this book, I wanted the Ashtheans to wipe the Terrans off the face of their planet. By the end of the book, I was ashamed at my own tendency toward the violent answer to a seemingly insurmountable injustice. (More on this, if you’re interested, can be found in Le Guin’s essay “About Anger.”) Again, the quote at the top of this review rings in my ears like thunder reminding me that I too have a long way to go to curb my own need for violence-driven vengeance (to clarify: I have never contemplated a violence as extreme as murder). Like the Hainish characters in this story, I‘m hoping to someday have the wisdom to know when to step back, and then when to step just enough forward to say to the aggressors, “It’s time for you to stop this behavior.” With her Hainish characters, Le Guin seems to remind her audience of the importance of choice, alongside the importance of looking the consequences of our species’s actions full in the face so that we can, however feebly, move toward (hopefully) a better existence as we begin to understand our place within the ecosystems and cultures we dare to traverse.

the reflection pool of motherhood| 2018.06.29

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer | Review

VanderMeer, Jeff_Borne

Publication: New York : MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction, Science Fiction, Weird Fiction

Pages: 323

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

Is Borne a person or a weapon? This is often proposed as the heart of the questions that permeate the identity crises in this book. Are people what they seem or even what they demand to be recognized as in their claimed inherent identities? Or are we all simply subject to what the rest of the world wants us to be without thought of what our individual potential could allow us to become if we were given a choice?

While I’ve found these questions are what most of the other reviews on this book seem to center around, I was also struck by this book’s ability to home in on ideas of perspective as linked to motherhood. To me, perspective, especially as has to do with one’s relationship to one’s parent-figures, is often at the heart of many an identity crisis. Parents, especially mothers, have such power to reflect a projected identity that this phenomenon often leaves little room, as innocently as it may be offered, for any perspective other than that very same reflection. But reflected perspective is often what holds us in the illusion of reality, it weighs us down just enough to allow a semblance of sanity. However, even as we simultaneously try to escape this reflecting pool, new responsibilities of the self-made kind need to arise to keep at bay the confusion inherent in cutting the umbilical cords.

To give an example from this book: Borne is presented as a newly formed child in the mind of VanderMeer’s main character through much of the narrative. This main character takes on the mothering tasks of teaching her new charge the essentials of survival, everything from language to ascertaining what entities in their universe propose danger. The weight of this mother-child relationship gives form to the perspectives this main character uses to bind herself with tasks and goals toward protecting both the child she has found in Borne’s identity and toward cementing her own purpose of “raising” him from seedling-sprout to raging bio-technical defender of the world.

Yet it is the former that demands a releasing of the mothering-identity of the main character, as the weight of her self-imposed responsibilities become at once too much to bear and as unreachable as a piece of fluff battered by a strong wind. I found this aspect of the novel, the breaking away from self-made perspectives to make room for the child-character’s independence, rang with extreme heartbreak in its metaphor of the mother-and-child relationship. The scene where Borne offers protection to his mother-figure by enveloping her as a rock-shield in the face of deathly adversaries could easily be seen as the turning point in their relationship, as the protected becomes the protector. In this scene, Borne is challenged to take up the reins of initiative.

VanderMeer does a brilliant job of letting the reader at this point wonder whether Borne had ever been in need of the main character’s protection to begin with. And, again, this has to do most deeply with perspective. VanderMeer’s main character struggles with this shift of perspective as she has to more and more contend with Borne’s self-imposed independence. This is so similar to the reactions of many (and there are always exceptions) of the mothers I’ve witnessed in my journey on this terrestrial plane. The burden of raising a child often eventually turns in on itself and suddenly becomes the unbearable lightness of being left behind by that same child as they slowly but surely claim their individual identity that can often be so painfully separate from their mother-figure.

There’s a ton to unpack here and the depth of the available themes in this book had me within the first few paragraphs. VanderMeer has a masterpiece in Borne that his earlier books seem to be reaching toward. Or maybe I have a hangup on the level of irresistible intrigue with regard to the concepts noted above. Or perhaps, I’m simply in love with the audiobook narrator who did the honors on this book (Bahni Turpin, you’re truly brilliant). In any case, I found this to be a fantastic novel, on all the measures listed in my previous post about what elevates a piece of literature.

reclaiming personal identity| 2019.05.10

Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley | Review

Conley, Garrad_Boy Erased

Publication: New York, New York : Riverhead Books, 2016

Genre: Memoirs, Autobiographies

Pages: 340

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

In some ways, this book hit close to home for me, as it illustrated how religion can influence not only people’s struggles for individual identity, but also their striving to find a place to belong within society. The story captured in this book is about Conley’s experiences while in the Christian reform program known (ironically, I’d like to argue with my fist planted firmly in the pavement of my frustration at this type of misnomer) as Love In Action (LIA), a kind of pray-the-gay-away organization founded in 1973.

It’s funny (not funny) to me that this organization is the foundational backdrop for this book, as Conley’s initial mention of it immediately invoked memories of my own from when I attended a conservative Christian university back in the early 2000s. There I was in one of the many semi-required chapel sessions, and suddenly the proud college leaders were marching onto the stage a troupe of advocates for a program that we conservative students needed to know about. While the name of that particular program now sadly eludes me, I remember distinctly the focus of the program was to help “poor homosexuals” reject their sexual deviances and come back into the fold of the Jesus freaks (I’m not trying to be disrespectful by using that term, by the way, as Christians have codified the phrase as their own way of reclaiming the would-be insult).

I remember thinking that the program visiting my college that day was proclaiming a rather uncomfortable premise. I remember being even further confused at the, once again, staunch rejection of anything outside the Christian circle. The saddest part of this type of program, which sets itself up to “deprogram” groups of individuals (therefore inherently boxing people into singular and often quite binary definitions of identity), is that, when seen from a non-Christian perspective, it paints religion in such a negative light of intolerance. If your identity is wrapped tightly inside a group-security that demands complete sacrifice and ultimate servanthood to “a higher power” that is constantly being interpreted only by the leaders of that security group, how can anything “other” be allowed room to voice any kind of alternate, personal experience.

As a memoir, personal experience is certainly what Conley’s book brings to light. His story pulls out all the stops and forces the reader to deal face-to-face with the dangers of group-think-identity as driven by religious mantras. I find Christianity’s rejection of personal identity (like whether a person identifies as being gay) to be pretty ironic, because Christianity proclaims itself to be built on individual experience, with all of its praise for the personal testimony (a phrase in the Christian realm defined as a person’s individual “coming to Jesus” story). Christians often pride themselves on being part of a religion that is based on personal relationships with God and Jesus. However, ultimately, the strict code of conduct they ascribe to seems to simultaneously encourage a perspective that says the only experiences (translated as “testimonies”) that seem to matter to the Christian group-think mentality are those that align to the interpretations of Christ’s teachings as proclaimed by the Christian leadership in vogue at that moment in history.

At the risk of turning this book review into my own personal rant against the Christian faith, I’d like to point out a detail that Conley also discusses toward the end of his book, namely the fact that LIA found it had to rebrand itself in 2012 as Restoration Path and had its leaders make multiple public attempts to try and clean up the mess its former leaders had made in the wake of their antigay therapy practices because too many of their students were ending up either victims of suicide or recovering from multiple attempts of suicide. But it should’t surprise us that if we are taught to believe that such an integral part of our identity (such as our sexual orientation) has zero chance of being accepted, the ultimate result will be the deepest kind of inescapable despair.

Conley explains in his book that LIA was very good at isolating its students into a place where they “had to [. . .] leave people behind who were harmful to [their] development, who reminded [them] of the past.” This drips of addiction counseling, as if a person’s “gayness” is linked to some kind of illicit drug that initiates continuous “bad” behavior. To combat addiction, you take away the triggers, as any former alcoholic or smoker will tell you. With LIA, the leaders encouraged its students to demonize past relationships, along with their own sex-drives, in order to isolate out these “masters” of purported deviant behavior. Conley writes of himself and his fellow LIA students, “We had to be willing to give up any ideas about who we were before we came to LIA.”

It took Conley eight years after he left LIA before he felt finally comfortable enough to write about his personal experiences while inside LIA’s teachings. This is perhaps a telling illustration of the despairing power that can be obtained by isolating, so as to then inculcate, individuals into a belief system. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this book is that we need to do better at seeing individuals first by accepting them with all the complexities of the intersectionality that makes up their personal experiences and ultimately their individual identities.

striving for awareness| 2019.02.17

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo | Review

Oluo, Ijeoma_So You Want to Talk About Race

Publication: New York, NY : Seal Press, Hachette Book Group, [2018]

Genre: Intercultural Communication, Racism

Pages: 248

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

Based on her title, Oluo’s purpose in writing this book seems clear enough. Her text reads somewhat like a guidebook for people who may not have had many firsthand interactions with racial issues (or who haven’t been previously aware of the racial issues they have already been a part of), and who want to realize the title’s pretty direct implication. To help her readers with this goal, Oluo tells the story of race within this book by using her personal experiences growing up and living as a black woman of biracial parents in the United States.

The real-life examples she gives are powerful, even as some of the stories may wander into the territory of being a bit uncomfortable for the white reader. On the one hand, I found the stories of Oluo trying to answer her white mother’s questions and “revelations” (emphasis mine) about race endearing, in a way, as the effort of trying to get something right when we’re talking about sensitive topics like race can be embarrassing at first, and hopefully the effort leads to productive results. On the other hand, I think a large part of why Oluo wrote this book was to challenge her readers to look at issues of race and racism even when they may be uncomfortable topics to face head-on.

In reading this book, I felt that discomfort. I am a white (and therefore inherently privileged) cisgender (another privileged position, which society is currently set up to advantage) woman. And I am privileged in so many ways because of my whiteness and because of my gender identity, even with all the non-privileged aspects that that third definition of my being (the sex I was assigned at birth) brings to the table. Oluo calls this type of awareness (or striving for awareness) “checking your privilege.” It can be weirdly cathartic to carry the victim-label (thinking of the many mantras of self-reported “suppression experiences” from white supremacy groups as an example). But Oluo seems to be asking her readers to look at all aspects of what it means to live in our current society. Through this type of open awareness, she challenges her readers to be honest about the complexity that is individual human existence while recognizing how the color of a person’s skin plays into all that they have or don’t have because of the prejudiced way our society is currently set up to function.

So after I took stock of my inherent privileges and dealt with my uneasiness at realizing that a good portion of my advantages in life are not advantages I’ve actually worked to earn, what else did Oluo’s story bring to the forefront? Her story reminded me that anyone not immediately seen by others as categorically white have disadvantages I will never know because of society’s continued prejudiced practices, and that my whiteness will remain a part of this systemic problem as long as society (with myself included in that society) refuses to recognize the manifestations, however subtle, and the root causes of racial prejudices.

In short, Oluo’s book reminded me that we as a species have a very ugly tendency toward deep-seated prejudice against anyone and everyone outside our “tribe,” and that we need to step up onto the stage of admittance before we can even begin to think about taking steps toward change. I learned I have a LOT to learn about intersectionality, and how this concept can bring better understanding to the individual, their race, and the multiplicity of other identities a person can (and has the right to) claim. I learned that being uncomfortable about the structure of our currently inherently prejudiced society (even if you or I may not feel personally responsible) is a needed first step toward driving change forward.

Lastly, and probably most poignantly, this book reinforced for me that the categorical boxes—-the stereotypes, really—-that we wrap around ourselves and others are really just illusions of a neat and tidy perspective on what is in truth very complex and messy aspects of an interracial-transgendered-cisgendered-gay-and-lesbian-black-white-brown-religious-atheist-and-it’s-really-none-of-your-business world. People are certainly much much more than the color of their skin, more than any of the categories we might be tempted to assign to them (especially without their permission). With all this in mind, I’m hoping to be able to focus more on the individual, seeing people through whatever intersectional lenses they want to claim as their very individual and personal identities.

Please note, the last chapter in Oluo’s book may be especially discomforting for some readers who are trying to reject the “categorically-boxed society” model. Again, I think this discomfort may be Oluo’s point in this book so that we can work on extricating the societal-driven prejudices in our midst. I’ll let you read it, however, and decide on your own.