On Moral Fiction by John Gardner- Theory They’d Rather be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley – Hugo A Case of Conscience by James Blish – Hugo The Iliad and the Odyssey by Alberto Manguel The Big Time by Fritz Lieber – Hugo Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak – Feminism What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton – Genre
The original tells of Orpheus and Eurydice and the story of her death, but focuses on Orpheus and his efforts to locate her and bring her back to the world of the living.
Sarah Ruhl‘s Eurydice focuses on what happens to Eurydice in the Underworld.
She dies on her wedding day, kidnapped by the Lord of the Underground who promises her a letter from her dead father.
She arrives, confused and with no memory of life among the living. Her father, who has never forgotten her, finds her and together they rebuild her memories.
Meanwhile, Orpheus tries everything he can think of to get to the Underworld to rescue his beloved wife. His music makes the gatekeepers weep, and he is let in to bargain for her return. There’s a condition for her departure, Orpheus mustn’t turn back. Turning in response to hearing his name called, Eurydice is sent back to the Underworld, where she dies a second time.
San Jose’s City Lights Theatre Company’s bilingual performances in American Sign Language and English provided an exquisite twist to the usual theatre production. Each character was portrayed both by an English and an ASL speaker. The ASL actors made it a sort of play within a play, interacting with their English speaking counterpart and each other. CLTC’s intimate setting is a perfect place to see small productions like this.
It’s been about a week since I attended and I’m still struggling with how to write about it. The theme of love, both filial and romantic made me tear up in unexpected ways. As did themes of memory and communication. To be loved that much, to be cared for that deeply, to be led back to memories and learn better communication … I found it moving, unsettling, challenging, and thought-provoking.
Most memorable for me is Lauren Rhodes as the English speaking Eurydice, whose shouted, “I’m very angry at you!” made me proud. Women are so rarely allowed to show their anger, that to allow Eurydice to express hers is a high note. It’s one that sticks with me even now.
And I must mention Erik Gandolfi (English) and Dane K. Lentz (ASL) who perform the Lord of the Underworld with unhinged glee. Gandolfi’s costume in the underworld features a school boys’ uniform with short pants and a bright red jacket. The eerie little boys’ voice made this performance all the more chilling.
After Orpheus loses Eurydice the second time, he stands at the threshold to the world of the living expressing his anguish and grief. In a cross talk dialogue, he says, “Your timing was always off! I would tell you that if you didn’t come in on the downbeat, you’d lose everything.”
Meanwhile, Eurydice stands in the Underground shouting, “I’m sorry!”
Stephanie Foisy (ASL) added a poignant dimension to the already distraught Orpheus, portrayed by the English speaking Robert Sean Campbell.
As I left, tears in my eyes and my heart filled with unprocessed emotion, I walked past a table with pieces of paper and pens made available for anyone who wanted to write a note to someone who’d died. It occurred to me that I didn’t really get to say a proper goodbye to the friend I’d known for over 30 years who died from cancer nearly five years ago. So I stopped and wrote a little note to him.
Out into the bright Sunday afternoon light, I tried to make sense of how such a performance could have a profound effect on me. A week later, I’m still sorting it out but no longer hurting as deeply as I was then. Emotions wax and wane, it’s their nature. We just gotta hold on for the roller coaster ride.
“Being a successful, middle-aged, overweight woman, people are so angry that you’re stepping out of line,” she said. “Sometimes it really gets me down.” (Alexandra Alter, New York Times, The Evolution of E. L. James, April 12, 2019)
I would amend E. L. James’ comment to “being a middle-aged, overweight woman, people are angry when [they think] you step out of line.” Something else we agree on, the women she describes are invisible.
That’s where our agreement ends because as much as I adore writers, and believe we get to write and read whatever we want, the woman who wrote fan fiction based on teenaged vampires is not someone whose work I would ever read.
People in the know tell me Fifty Shades of Grey really damaged the kink/fetish community because she wrote about it wrong. And from what I hear it wasn’t about consent at all. It was abusive. And now I read her new book is more of the same.
Let’s be clear, I am against censorship, and I am in no way encouraging she not be published. Nor am I encouraging people not read her.
What I am saying is women have a hard enough time being taken seriously anywhere, and fantasies written about men sweeping an unlikely candidate off her feet and abusing her in the name of love are not helping.
Glorifying non-consensual unbalanced power relationships just sets everyone up to believe that’s okay. Fetish/kink is all about consent. Nothing happens between people unless there is a clear understanding of what’s allowed and isn’t. We should all be so lucky as to know what we’re in for.
“Bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadism are ‘varsity-level’ sex activities, as the sex columnist Dan Savage might say, and they require a great deal of self-knowledge, communication skill, and education. Fifty Shades eroticizes sexual violence, but without any of the emotional maturity and communication required to make it safe.” (Emma Green, Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades, The Atlantic, February 10, 2015)
I may have taken more than a little glee in Sophie Gilbert’s glorious take down of James’ new book. Maybe.
“It’s not just that [the book] is bad. It’s that it’s bad in ways that seem to cause the space-time continuum itself to wobble, slightly, as the words on the page rearrange themselves into kaleidoscopic fragments of repetition and product placement.” (Sophie Gilbert, The Indelible Awfulness of E. L. James’s The Mister, The Atlantic, April 18, 2019)
I will end by saying good for E. L. James for following her passion and getting published. That’s a dream most writers never see come true. And good for her for making so much money, and being smart about it.
It’s disheartening that such obviously poorly written books about a sexually abusive relationship which is emotionally dangerous is so popular. Women all over the world probably think this is the way romantic relationships are supposed to work, and will continue to pine for their multi-millionaire fantasy man to rescue them from a dreary, sexless reality.
Stand up for yourself! Engage your own agency and find happiness within yourself. If kink is your thing, find a community which will help you explore it in a physically and emotionally healthy way. Get a vibrator for goodness’ sake. No man is going to rescue you.
In a silly mood recently, I thought there was a joke to be made about how in my more confident days, this was a picture of me taking dictation from my muse. I mean, look at that gorgeous skin …
The painting was used by someone on Twitter and as is my inclination, I went off on a search.
The introduction of Artemisia Gentileschi began with this article which points out if one were to invest in art, one could do worse than investing in her paintings
“She has a position both as a feminist icon, who grappled with the not always beneficial attentions of the opposite sex, but also as an exponent of a robust style of figurative painting.” (Colin Gleadell, The Telegraph, 4 Dec. 18)
“Wait! Who is that?” I wondered and the search widened. Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of Orazio, himself a painter of some repute. She became known for paintings of strong women taking charge. Her best known painting is probably Judith Slaying Holofernes (below), in response to her own rape by her mentor, Agostino Tassi. Tassi was hired by Artemisia’s father because women weren’t allowed to attend the art academy. (Tassi was eventually convicted of rape.)
Wow. As I read further, I learned about the Power of Women, an artistic trope depicting “an admonitory and often humorous inversion of the male-dominated sexual hierarchy.” (Wikipedia, op cit)
This is the truncated version of how I finally got to know Artemisia Gentileschi and her work. There’s much to sort through and think about while placing her in the realm of feminist icon.
And, the name of the painting finally revealed itself at Robilant + Voena, in an exhibition of works inspired by La Artemisia.
Title: Binti, Binti: Home & Binti: Night Masquerade
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2015, 2017 & 2017
ISBN-13: 9780765385253, 9780765393111, & 9780765393135
Publisher’s Blurb: Binti is a story about a brilliant young woman, and the responsibilities she bears: to her society, her family, and to herself. While travelling through space for the first time in her life, Binti must survive and adapt to an encounter with fascinating and deadly aliens.
“We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it. Otijize is red land.” (p. 13)
There’s no way anyone could prepare themselves for the times their self-identity bumps up against bigotry. This is one of the things I admire most about Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Trilogy. In choosing the incidents which would populate Binti’s life, Okorafor chose to include the prejudices her traveler would encounter, both from outside and within herself.
It’s hard to write about this without cliches. Pain of all types makes us stronger, we hate when people say that to us, but there it is. The most incredible part of reading these books was the honesty with which Okorafor writes; of war, prejudice, outright hatred, ignorance, and fear. And that she managed to wrap it all up in 462 pages, while flinging us through the stars and back again is amazing to me.
I think what I want to say is no one is safe from prejudice or bigotry. It’s a part of the very fabric of being sentient (human). We are all different, we are all insecure about something and we all compare ourselves to others hoping to make ourselves feel better. This comparing and contrasting can make us even harder on ourselves for not having the life we imagine someone else has.
Binti is brilliant, and as self-aware as she can be at the age of 16. It’s frequently difficult to remember she is still a teenager, and lacks the maturity that only experience can proffer.
Along the way, she literally becomes a part of unlikely families. Some, like the Meduse, are another species altogether. Others, like the Desert People, turn out to have been family all along. They all play a part in her evolution, taking her on a journey which is more than just a university education. What she is taught along the way is she must be careful of her own prejudices, making sure they don’t keep her blind to the work she is destined for.
The story is almost magical, and nearly breathless, in some places. Nnedi Okorafor’s tight writing tells a big story which deals with complex issues. The character Binti studies the lessons we should all study. Learn to accept yourself, and others, as they are. Don’t force your set of rules onto someone else. Hesitate before you say or do something you’ll regret.
Most importantly, I think, is the lesson to face our fears and look deeply into the hard truths we don’t want to know. That way lies the harmony we all struggle to find.
This slender trilogy is a big story about an adolescent Himba girl who learns to stay grounded, fly among the rings of Saturn, fall in love, and forgive herself for the imagined pain she’s caused herself. Okorafor’s writing is splendid, and I’m looking forward to exploring her other books.
Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher’s Blurb: The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its image and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States and is now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and a tour de force.
“This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me ever.” (p. 144)
“Gilead society was Byzantine to the extreme …” (p. 311)
This is my second time reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s more terrifying to read in 2018 when basic reproductive rights are threatened by government. The juxtaposition of what is against what could be should send chills down every reader’s spines and give pause.
When democracies fail, totalitarianism fills the vacuum. The Republic of Gilead is formed as a “Christian” society based on the Old Testament. But, as in all things human, is hypocritical in this endeavor.
All citizens must convert to this warped government’s rule, or suffer the consequences. Neither Baptist nor Quakers are considered Christian enough. Jews are considered the “Sons of Jacob,” and allowed the choice to convert or move to Israel.
The most dangerous policy in Gilead is the treatment of women, especially those of child-bearing age who are used as proxies by the elite for childless married women.
The justification for this is quoted before the book even starts. The epigraph quotes Genesis 30: 1-3, the story of barren Rachel who tells her husband, Jacob, to go to her handmaid, Bilhah, and get children on her. This is the bedrock for the use of handmaids to repopulate Gilead.
And here, we read the basic hypocrisy of Gilead, supposedly based on the Old Testament but free to pick from the New Testament as well. Same as those in our world who cherry-pick the bible to prove their actions are sound.
And what of the misattributions? If intoned properly with authority, those too can be made to sound biblical. One of the Aunts tells the Handmaids, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This is the last line of Milton’s “Sonnet 19,” a reflection on what Milton thinks God may want from him by making Milton blind.
And this from Karl Marx, “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.” Scholars disagree over the origin of this phrase, some believing it has a basis in the Acts of Paul in the New Testament. It’s my contention that the Marx version is the most well known, and therefore used to illustrate how policy is set by what’s most convenient to prove a point.
The darker motives of the elite can be found in Offred’s Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, obliquely suggesting there are other ways to get pregnant if the proscribed Ceremony isn’t working. A wink and a nod to excusing a Commander’s lack of viability and still providing the Wife with a child.
The Commanders provide themselves with relief from the child-bearing proscriptions of government with visits to the illicit club Jezebel‘s. Ironic because of the possessive, as if there was one Jezebel to whom the club belonged, not the elite men who make sure it operates.
Part Playboy Club, all underground brothel, Handmaids who don’t make the grade are given the choice to work at Jezebel’s or go to the Colonies where a painful death awaits them cleaning up toxic waste. While not widely advertised among the patrons of the club, it’s a relatively safe space for lesbians.
There is no biblical justification for the presence of Jezebel’s, or Jezebels, in Gilead but it is winked off by Offred’s Commander who, in essence, says “boys will be boys.” Only the elite men are allowed to blow off a little steam. Women are not allowed such a diversion. Neither are lower level men afforded this dispensation. Not even the single men have a legal outlet for their frustrations.
All this to say, duplicity is the name of the game in such dictatorial societies. It only matters when people get caught, as Offred does by the Commander’s Wife. It is occasions like these when the Eyes are called upon to remove the offenders from sight.
The ever present spies, who depend on the citizenry to catch, and report, all transgressions. Punishment to be doled out in such savage rituals as the Salvagings when the Handmaids and their pent up emotions are allowed to rage and put to death the wrong-doers. Dictatorships don’t need a balanced justice system, just a lot of angry citizens who need an outlet. Let the mob sort it out.
Rigidity leads to rebellion. Gilead is no different. A nascent underground moves women to some form of safety. The “femaleground” can also be justified as scriptural in the Exodus story of Moses, who rescued Jewish slaves from the Egyptian pharaoh. “Let my people go,” is a rallying cry for all who would work to see injustice righted.
For all who wince at the possibilities of Gilead becoming a reality, let it be a reminder that scripture, biblical or otherwise, can be twisted to justify everything under the sun. Margaret Atwood says she doesn’t consider her book SF/F dystopian because everything in the book has already happened in human history. That should terrify us all.
Title: God’s War
Series: 1st of 3
Author: Kameron Hurley
Publisher: Nightshade Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx’s ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war — but at what price?
God’s War is the first of three books in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series.
I long for the day when we don’t have to think about feminist or masculine tropes, that we can write and read good stories without the heavy load of “male gaze” or “women don’t/shouldn’t do that” (same goes for men). It seems unfair to have to point out that Kameron Hurley’s work is uniquely feminist, and that her reasons for being so amount to “enough is enough, women can too do that.”
It’s unfair because Hurley is a damned fine storyteller. She has said repeatedly she’s written characters like Nyx based on Conan the Barbarian and Mad Max. Her bookThe Geek Feminist Revolutionhas two essays which specifically address this. Hurley makes it clear that if a male protagonist can do it, so can a female protagonist.
And that’s how we got Nyx, the badass who can take on Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Nyx is a nasty piece of work, and she is everything a hero/antihero needs to be.
God does not answer the phone
If the goal of feminism is for women to be treated equally to men, then Kameron Hurley’s God’s War succeeds in many ways. In her world, women are in charge and visible at every level of society. As she tells the story, “bēl damê, [is] an old Assyrian/Babylonian term for a blood avenger … ‘owner of the blood’ and ‘collector of blood debt.’” She wanted to write about a bel dame in disgrace. Nyx hobbles through the world taking any contract that will pay the days’ bills.
If feminism is about being seen and heard, then nearly all the women who populate Nyx’s world have succeeded. But sexism still exists. Never mind the details, the women are the sexists in this world. They leer and catcall just like any ill-mannered male in other books.
What’s striking to me is while Hurley has turned the anti-hero trope on its head by making women the lead characters in a dismal, apocalyptic world, she does not give women a pass on bad behavior. These women are so far from prim and proper, and polite, it’s laughable. Yet Hurley is making a point, that women can hold the plot of such a story just as well as men. Women are in every corner of society, just trying to get along to the next day.
The main thrust of the plot is an alien gene pirate has landed and threatens any potential of “balance” in this world. It’s presumed her ancestors had a part in starting this war centuries ago for reasons no one remembers anymore. The pirate becomes a wanted woman and the queen calls on Nyx to deliver her head.
That’s what bounty hunters do, they behead and deliver it to the contract holder. Or they kill outright. But they only get paid if they follow the contract’s instructions to the letter.
So think about this, Nyx is a woman mercenary who’s good at tracking and killing people. She’s been kicked out of the guild of government paid assassins because even they couldn’t handle her. She’s given up her ability to transport zygotes in her uterus because she sold it for money to get to the next stop, wherever that might be. This is who she is, what she has become. And she has no illusions about her place in life. And the queen calls on her, not the bel dame, to find and behead an alien.
Politics being what they are, Nyx discovers hidden agendas and wanders into fights, literal and figurative, which call everything she knows about who she is and what she’s fighting for into question. In the end, people die or are banished. Nyx argues with the Queen over ideology and realizes, just as the rest of us do, there are no happy endings. We just keep going on.
Every one of the characters in God’s War are broken. There’s no repairing them, and most know it. Hurley does not spare us from the atrocities of warfare, sexism, and politics. She builds a world in which a paid assassin, part of a guild, would break under the burdens one must bear just to get through.
And although it was slow to get started, and it is bleak and horrifying, I found God’s War to be a good story. Which is what all readers are looking for, isn’t it? And thank you Kameron Hurley for making this the feminist apocalyptic story it is. Women can be just as badass as men, if not more so, and deserve the chance to tell their stories.
Title: The Queen of Crows
Author: Myke Cole
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture
Publisher’s Blurb: In this epic fantasy sequel, Heloise stands tall against overwhelming odds—crippling injuries, religious tyrants—and continues her journey from obscurity to greatness with the help of alchemically-empowered armor and an unbreakable spirit. No longer just a shell-shocked girl, she is now a figure of revolution whose cause grows ever stronger. But the time for hiding underground is over. Heloise must face the tyrannical Order and win freedom for her people.
I’m just a woman who has been hard done, who has lost those who she loved. I am angry, and I am tired, and I am through making deals. (p. 245)
Let’s first acknowledge author Myke Cole’s feminism. Heloise is a hero for all times, but it also important to note that Heloise is a young woman leading the battle against the totalitarian religious government. In The Armored Saint, she literally had greatness thrust upon her. In The Queen of Crows she begins to accept the leadership role she finds herself in and works to be the leader her people need her to be.
Cole does not make a big deal out of making his protagonist a young woman, and I’d like to say neither should his readers. But it is a big deal because so much genre writing is overwhelming men fighting to save the day. Cole shows us a woman who is up to the task of leadership and fighting against the dangers of the oppressive regime called the Order.
Brother Tone, on the other hand, not only wants to put the village in its place as devoted to the Order, he wants to put Heloise in her place as woman. At every turn, he sneers and belittles her, and those who she has sworn to protect.
Heloise is imperfect. Stubborn, insecure, paranoid, with a narrow world view. At one point, she has gone through so much she refuses to leave her alchemy powered suit of armor for any reason. The armor has become talisman, protecting her emotionally from all the horrors she’s survived in service to both her village and the bands of Kipti they encounter.
The Kipti are led by the wisdom of women who have a few magical tricks in their toolbox to be used against the Order. And while the Kipti are nomadic, and suspicious of people who want to settle into a village, they recognize the mutual enemy and combine resources.
Reluctantly recognizing Heloise as leader, the two bands of Kipti come to realize that she in her armor, who killed a devil in The Armored Saint, is the best hope for a victory against the Order.
Victory doesn’t come in The Queen of Crows. It is an agonizing, brutal story which deals both with the realities of war and of going against a regime whose demand of loyalty to the Emperor grates against everything Heloise has come to question.
It is also a story of hope against tyranny as word spreads across the land that a Palantine, an Armored Saint has gone to war against the Order. That a young woman is delivering all from the hell that is totalitarianism.
“You are Heloise the Armored Saint, who turns back the tide, who delivers the wretched from misfortune, who will save us all.” (p. 250)
Heloise is no Joan d’Arc who believed in her God given leadership to support Charles VII, reclaiming France from England. Heloise doubts herself, and her role in her war. She is a reluctant leader, herself questioning her wisdom, her ability, even her gender to lead. But as people gather to follow her, she knows she must and follows her instincts.
Heloise has her detractors. They don’t much question a female leader as much as they question how this young, inexperienced villager could possibly lead them against the Order. Further, these few wonder why they should be following her at all since it was at her hands the Order is now intent on putting down the unrest.
Both The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows can be read through a feminist lens celebrating the young woman who questions the status quo and leads her followers against tyranny. They can also be enjoyed as ripping good tales, which happen to have a leader who is a woman.
I am of the opinion that Myke Cole, and Heloise, should be recognized for deliberately making choices which demand more of genre, both readers and writers.