anthro-shorts | 2019.08.22

Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review

Le Guin, Ursula K_Changing Planes

Publication: Orlando : Harcourt, ©2003

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 246

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

“Wish I’d thought of this story-format!” As a lover of anthro-fiction, this was the first cry that inevitably sprang from my lips upon opening this short story collection. Pure genius! Le Guin, my darling and fearless author of all things anthropologically poignant, you’ve done it again. The premise of the stories encapsulated in this collection is explained in the first chapter of the book, and explained with all the fierceness and beauty Le Guin’s most polished writing can offer. With such a premise as offered in this book, the stories that follow it quickly become a practice in imaginative descriptions of our known reality’s most subtle elements while simultaneously carrying the reader to other worlds emanating with possibilities.

The premise? How does one pass the seemingly endless hours of waiting out an airport’s or airplane ride’s drudgery of boredom? Well, of course! Just turn a bit this way and sway slightly in that other direction until you’ve slipped onto another plane of existence. And voila! The universe of endless anthropological study questions is suddenly your oyster, baby. Le Guin makes sure that these cultural quandaries hit pretty close to home, I have to say.

On such a stage set as this, the book’s narrator is taught all about the mystical magical “Sita Dulip’s Method” of changing planes between various realities. Through this method, the narrator is able to take the reader through the Le Guin’s anthropologically-primed mind. The social structures Le Guin poses within the variable “planes” in this book become absolutely limitless with cultural observations and wonderings. What would a society look like if its inhabitants ceased all forms of communication after age six or seven? How would capitalistic initiative change a world that was previously devoid of such endlessly “gainful” ambitions? What would the second, third, or even hundredth rebirths and subsequent lives lived of each individual within a community do to the voting rights of such a community? If a planet’s years spanned 24 of those familiar to earthlings, with built-in migration patterns dictated by unconquerable weather, how would this change ideas of marriage and family, home and time? What would a society predicated on letting rage rule within strict codes of conduct look like exactly?

I was pleasantly surprised to learn (albeit and sadly after Le Guin’s death last year) that the “K” she insisted on keeping attached to her name was a nod to her father, Alfred Louis Kroeber, a cultural anthropologist who is still quoted to this day in archaeological reports on a regular basis. Having grown up with such a father, it stands to reason Le Guin’s literary endeavors would match the cultural interests that permeated her household during her youth. Arwen Curry’s film The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin showcases this influence beautifully, giving animated visualization to how Le Guin was “one of the very finest explorers of questions.” Truly, Le Guin’s stories, especially in this book, invite the reader to fill in the answers for themselves as she presents her endless questions about what makes civilization truly tick.

Changing Planes is not only a collection of short stories about fantastical and scientifically fictionalized worlds, but is at its heart a collection of “what if we really saw ourselves” quandaries. And herein lies the greatest appeal of the rawest kind of science fiction and fantasy storytelling. The cultural exploration in this book is as boundless as the author and reader could ever imagine. Le Guin writes elsewhere that “the purpose of a thought-experiment . . . is not to predict the future . . . but to describe reality, the present world” because “science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” (from Le Guin’s introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness) And it is through the multitude of questions, so masterfully spun story upon story in this book, that Le Guin is able to describe the reality of our world’s internal workings and desires.

This is true anthro-fiction at its best, in that the text challenges the reader to take a closer look at the world in which they truly inhabit and ask the hard “what if” questions. And not so much “what if the world looked this way or that,” but more in line with the “why” that may lurk behind our most-ingrained snap judgments of the cultural subtleties we might not at first understand. Take another look at the questions noted above that come out through the short stories within this book, and consider the implications of their actually being a quandary-based commentary on our here and now. You might be surprised at the similarities you find when thinking of these questions in the context of human history and even some of our cultural-nows.

not the story you made | 2019.06.28

The Chronology of Water: A Memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch | Review

Yuknavitch, Lidia_The Chronology of Water

Publication: Portland, Or. : Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, [2011], c2010

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 310

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

Like with my review of Jo Walton’s Among Others, this is going to be long and drawn out. I will not apologize, though, because . . .

My introduction to Yuknavitch was at my favorite pub in 2015 while I flipped idly through a local newspaper that focuses on creating “income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty.” I about peed my pants in my excitement at Yuknavitch’s brave proclamations of her life’s story in that article. I mean, SERIOUSLY! Who was this woman? With all the hurting and pain from abuse, both self-inflicted and at the hands of power-hungry, ignorant men (and at times also women), why aren’t there more Lidias in the universe who are willing to speak the ABSOLUTE TRUTH without apology about all the hurting and pain that . . . just exists in our lives, especially the lives of women, seemingly without explanation?

It takes me a loooooonnnnggg time to warm up to people or to ideas, so instead of running out to buy all her books immediately, I saved the article deep in my heart’s caverns of denial, telling myself over and over in a whisper of despair that I would never reach the same level of bravery to speak with such gut-wrenching honesty that this obviously magnificent woman had accomplished. My partner understood though and bought me a copy of Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto a couple Decembers ago, which helped me work up the courage to purchase and read her novel The Small Backs of Children shortly thereafter.

Then last year, she appeared again, at a local poetry reading, without warning. There she was! In the FLESH! Walking up to the microphone while I stared gobsmacked from the back of the room through my evening haze of booze-induced brain fog. My friends had to practically hold my feet to keep me from floating up over the heads of the rest of the audience on a gushing wave of over-enthusiasm to try and merge myself into her skin and being. “That’s Lidia!” I whisper-squealed in ecstasy. Her reading was comprised simply of quoting Christine Blasey Ford’s “indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter” over and over, inviting the audience to take up the chant with her.

After, I lingered at the back of the room like the complete freak my unforgiving mirror of self-worth always presents to me in the wake of any spark of hope or ambition. “Go away!” I shouted to my internal mirror, and then . . . there she stood in front of me and my hand was extending and my mouth was saying something probably about how much I loved her work and found it TOTALLY inspirational, and she was holding my quaking palm and fingers, steading my fluttering gaze. And THEN! She asked the mother of all questions any aspiring writer longs and yet dreads to hear, “Are you a writer?” I don’t remember what I said, what soppy, half-answer I gave, but I think I said maybe, “I’m working so hard at it.” And she nodded in approval and said something about the importance of my efforts and wished me the best of luck. I honestly don’t remember what we said to each other with our voices in the echoing chambers of reality, but what I HEARD from her eyes was something more encouraging than words could ever express. It was something to the effect of, “You are accepted. You can do this. Don’t give up, for the sake of all those you write toward liberation, and yourself, do NOT give up.”

Finally reading The Chronology of Water last week put all this in perspective. Often, I find that I’ll fall in love with a writer because of their life’s story as told through essays and philosophically-charged interviews, but then I’ll crash into the wall of disappointed expectations when reading their actual work. Yuknavitch took that wall and smashed it to smithereens with her memoir (and with her other books, for sure, but this one truly takes the cake and shoves it down the reader’s throat with the full, sweet force of all its glory). In this book, she is honest in a way I’ve never seen in any other memoir, and she does not apologize for her experiences, for her rages of anger against the abuse she suffered at the hands of her inappropriately horny and overly-possessive father, and at the absent hands of her suicidal and alcoholic mother. She also didn’t hold back from truth-telling when it came to her own mistakes, individual life choices, and ruckus adventures.

And her writing! Gaaaawwwwwwddddddd is it BEAUTIFUL! Where poetry and honesty meet, the gods of understanding and solidarity are born. Yuknavitch writes early in the book, “Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory — but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.” And she thus fearlessly creates a chronology of her memories, messy and out of order, just as they are often presented to us while we’re walking around trying to conduct the menial and mundane, or even the most important, life tasks of the here and now. Throughout her book she explains “why the micro movements of a girl woman’s sexual history matters.” She puts in perspective all the bits our unruly memories present over and over again, giving them meaning through the promise of the individual lens.

She also gives voice through this book to the safe places women so often glance right past: “In the women’s locker room after swim practice and skin and wet. Little girls holding in youth in V-shaped torsos. Almost women shaving their legs. The bodies of women and girls safe in a room with heat and steam and let loose hair. My head swimming, swimming. I want to stay. I want to belong to something besides family.” YES! I shout at this passage. Yes. Here is the solidarity of women and womanly desires for beauty and elegance and the steamy, messy, and sometimes not so elegant trajectory of sex, sex, sexiness that I’ve been yearning for (without the misogyny of heterosexual men who desire without regard for the individuality of the women they desire). Yearning for someone to just COME ON and admit it, already.

“Sexuality is an entire continent,” Yuknavitch writes. It needs, like life (with as many versions as you can conjure at that) to be explored. “The key is to make up shit. Make up stories until you find one you can live with [. . . .] Make up stories as if life depended on it.” Yuknavitch makes up the story of her life by putting her experiences to words, her own personal narrative becoming a word-formed treasure map of individual existence.

This is the promise writing and art holds, and deeply so for those of us who have been hurt, who are in pain, or who have been subjected to the poor decisions of others and of our own devising. The mantra on the cup I got at the writing center where Yuknavitch spoke the night I saw and gushed all over her states “I am not the story you made of me.” And, oh, brother and sister and all the others, I agree. We get to choose our own stories in the end. And I’d wager in the process of telling these stories, there will be others, oh sooooo many others, more others than we’d ever dared to imagine, to answer our call for solidarity, understanding, and synchronicity.

(That phrase on the cup, by the way, is one that Yuknavitch coined, I found out later, which makes everything seem to make so much more sense, but anyway.)

overgrown anger | 2019.07.13

The Power by Naomi Alderman | Review

Alderman, Naomi_The Power

Publication: New York : Little, Brown and Company, [2017]

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 386

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook

Source: MCL

“Feminism is a science fiction enterprise.” Alderman stated during the PBS interview she gave in March of this year. She went on to say that, “female advancement comes from recognizing equality.” With this in mind, I dearly hope the true goals of feminism don’t get stuck forever in the realm of fiction and pure speculation.

Alderman’s book works hard to be a warning of what could happen if the power of existing in a male body while living in a male-dominated world was merely flipped on its head. (Opinions about the male versus female brain may bulk at this conjecture, but I’m still intrigued by this thought experiment, so . . . let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and go with this perhaps tenuous premise for the duration of this review, shall we?)

As you may have noticed from some of my recent posts (not that this hasn’t been a common thread since I began this book review website), I’ve been wrestling with ideas of feminism. How can feminism encourage true equality instead of simply generating a space for more violence, for more emulation of the bad behavior that women so often have to fight against in the midst of the patriarchal world we currently inhabit?

As part of my reading and thinking about Alderman’s book, I did a very quick preview of Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman. Interesting food for thought, especially as I’ve always been of the opinion that the history we ascribe to with regards to our currently male-dominated culture has its roots (or some of them at least) in the patriarchy of our religious perspectives. While Alderman utilizes the influences of religion in her novel, I’m going to take this book review in a different direction (mostly because I’m still chewing on this concept, so I’ll probably return at a later date). The concept of how power seems to inherently breed religious fervor is not lost on Alderman in her book’s narrative, for sure. Again, interesting food for thought.

Also while traveling through Alderman’s story, I reread several times Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “About Anger” in which Le Guin talks about the anger and rage that first initiated the feminist movement. It’s true that to feel angry about an injustice has immense power. But then Le Guin also makes the genuinely beautiful, and terrifying, point that a rage exercised to the point of becoming a very powerful and effective weapon can quickly lose its effectiveness if those welding it do not know how or when to put that same weapon down when the initial need for indignant rage has begun to subside.

Both Alderman and Le Guin seem to be exploring a similar message about feminism here, that being “if feminism was the baby, she’s now grown past the stage where her only way to get attention to her needs and wrongs was anger, tantrums, acting out, kicking ass.” (This quote is from Le Guin’s essay mentioned and linked above. I didn’t find any online responses to Alderman’s book directly from Le Guin, but many articles push the two authors together for the themes they most obviously shared in their fiction.)

Throughout her novel, Alderman tempers the rage of women with the backlash of having that same rage, in its rawest form, run rampant, no matter the sex or gender of the person who is carrying forward into “the battle” that weapon of anger-infused indignation. She mentions in her interviews with both BBC and PBS that she didn’t want her book to be saying that women are intrinsically better than men or vice versa.

And Alderman is right, I believe, in presenting this idea, because whenever there is a winner, there will also always be a loser, and that is not equality. That is just a power structure being inverted so that all of the advantages of one portion of society become the disadvantages of another portion of society.

If feminism’s true goal is to fight against the injustices that women have been subjected to for far too long, then a complete eradication of those injustices, no matter who the inflicted or the initially powerful party may be, needs to be at the basis of any social justice action. By keeping this goal of true equality at the forefront of our minds, maybe we can continue to pull the empowerment of women out of the realm of SciFi and categorically “speculative” fiction.

brushing the third act | 2019.04.21

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas | Review

Thomas, Angie_The Hate U Give

Publication: New York, NY : Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, [2017]

Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Race Relations Fiction

Pages: 444 | 11 hours 45 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook, eBook

Source: MCL

It’s a common screenwriting rule that if there’s a gun in the first act, then it must go off in the third. This mantra has as much to do with foreshadowing as with setting your audience’s expectations. On my second read-through of Thomas’s The Hate U Give, I realized she had set such a stage, incorporating all the props that she had perfectly situated around her characters with an almost guru-like subtly of foresight.

We learn early that the suspected “gun” in the car door of the book’s initial victim of racial violence turns out to only have been a hairbrush. With this as the setting, the weapon that is at last seen firing in the book’s third act is the voices of those repeatedly subjected to racial prejudice. The idea seems to become, then, that a person’s most valuable weapon is their ability to speak out against injustice.

The main character of Thomas’s book reminded me of my first (and only, as I guiltily haven’t re-read To Kill a Mocking Bird since high school) impressions of what Harper Lee was trying to expose about the ugliness of societal prejudices through her characters. Thankfully, Thomas is able to do this without the white-savior complex that Lee’s editors ultimately pushed for in their publication of To Kill a Mocking Bird. In both these books, however, there’s a tension set early that the audience longs to see manifest in the resolution of an explosion. Yet how can we explode toward such a resolution without more death resulting from anger’s fallout?

I loved the honesty Thomas’s story presents throughout the narrative when dealing with the often-at-odds demands for respect versus forgiveness. Her main character has to decide what friends really matter to her, and this beyond the color of their skin. In this way, Thomas shows both sides of prejudice, and how saying you’re sorry another person feels the way they do is grossly insufficient in the realm of coming to grips with true understanding and actual communication toward growth.

I hope this book is read and taught in high schools for many generations to come, since the world Lee was writing about has certainly changed, or at least is still trying to. I also hope our society can find ways to explode toward a culture where perspectives can be heard before the gun shots that have taken too many lives already.

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.