Ruminations on Gender and Subjugation in Ashputtle, or The Mother’s Ghost by Angela Carter- Jarad Johnson
Jarad reflects on this posthumously published story by Angela Carter
Gender and the ideologies surrounding are integral parts of our everyday lives. We see it in the way we dress ourselves, the different shampoos for men and women, what jobs are stereotypically done by men and women, and so on and so forth. The outward expression of gender, and thus the ideology of gender itself, is bombarding us every single minute of every day. It follows then, that if this gender ideology ingratiates itself in our lives, it’s also in our books, and appears everywhere in them. We use it to draw the line on what is male and what is female, leaving no room in between those two categories. However, once someone begins to study the concept of gender, then those categories become somewhat meaningless, and our understanding of gender is then challenged. But what then is the exact definition of gender? The answer is somewhat vague, as gender’s meaning and interpretation has become very ambiguous and multilayered, as such a complicated topic should be. However, it can be said without a doubt that gender and sex are not synonymous with each other, as many people often falsely conflate them together. Sex is usually used to refer to the biological aspects of a person, such as their reproductive organs. Gender occurs in the mind, and in the society.
A Secret History of Witches
Written by Louisa Morgan
Review by Jarad Johnson
The multigenerational novel takes us through five generations of witches, the Orchiere from 1821 France to England in WWII. The novel shows the reader a brief history of each woman, usually around the time she inherits her power, which is passed from mother to daughter. But, I have to say, for this to be a book about witches, there is surprisingly little magic in the novel, and the witches in the novel don’t seem to use their power all that much. I was curious about this, and after some googling, I found an interview in which the author called the sort of things we would normally associate with witches like cauldrons, broomsticks, spell casting, etc, “easy magic” and that “Their craft represents knowledge, and power, and the thing some people fear most in women—independence.” I actually really like this approach to witchcraft. (Of course, I still would have liked more magic to appear in the novel.) The novel has a strong feminist core, that comes to the forefront when the mothers insist that their daughters understand how their magic gives them power.
Here are some of the books Sacred Chickens wants you to read this week!
The Knife Thrower by Steven Millhauser
What? A collection of eerie dreams that take the form of short stories where a place as ordinary as a department store becomes a fantastical world of its own.
Why? Because Millhauser sees the world the same way as your old Uncle Morty does, thin spots here and there in the walls between reality and fantasy, haunted by the flesh-covered who imagine themselves mundane instead of the extraordinary accidents they actually are.
Written by Dan Flore III
Review by Julie Carpenter
There’s something light and clean about Flore’s poetry, even when he talks about stints in psych wards, homelessness, or other traumatic events. Reading one of his collections is like sitting at the beach watching the ocean wash over the garbage, cleaning the detritus wave after wave.
The Hate You Give
Written by Angie Thomas
Review by Mekayla Trout
In The Hate U Give, the protagonist, Starr, faces a series of heartbreaking challenges following the murder of her childhood friend Kahlil. Because Starr goes to a private school called Williamson, unlike most of the kids in her neighborhood, who go to the Garden Heights public school, she struggles with having censor herself around the different groups of people in her life. In the world of Williamson, Starr holds herself back, fearing casual racism from her peers. In the world of Garden Heights, Starr feels that she has to work harder to be accepted because she goes to a predominantly white school.
Your Uncle Morty has been listening in and once again some of the living are making him shake his bony old head in disbelief. Some of you think maybe there are no good choices to vote for. You think you won’t bother. What difference does it make?
Look at it like this. You live in a rickety, rackety, clickety clackety falling down apartment. You and the other residents are kind of ticked that you’ve had a series of bad landlords but you’ve never pulled yourself together to do anything about it.
An Experiment in Love
Written by Hillary Mantel
Review by Jarad Johnson
The plot of this novel is multilayered, multidimensional, and fluid. This makes it hard to know where to start sometimes, so I’ll try to begin by give a general overview of the book. The main character is named Carmel, and the novel follows her as she moves from her parent’s house to a boarding school. The reader follows her as she struggles with anorexia and her studies. The plot moves from event to event, memory to memory, and in that sense is very realistic, because when you recount an even it doesn’t come to you in a linear fashion. The novel is in a sense like looking into the mind of someone else- literally. It deals with many issues, including eating disorders, depression, body dysmorphia and abortion. Really, I can’t say that this novel is about any particular thing; it’s just Carmel’s life. There is no message, no point, it just tells her story, and leaves interpretations up to the reader. Not to say that there isn’t meaning, but there’s no agenda.
Now that we're moving to Atlanta, Essie is away at school, and Lady Gwen is in that great chicken house in the sky, this piece, first published in 2013, fills me with nostalgia.
Perhaps you are wondering what it is like to be me? How glamorous it must be to sit around in the early morning and write a blog and some really weird stories that no one wants to even pay you for or possibly even read. Well...you are in luck because today I am going to let you know what a typical day in the world of Julie is like. I am sure you will come away thinking....I should write a blog myself or some silly stories or....not.
5:55 AM: I am awake. The alarm is set for 6:15. Why am I not asleep? I want to be asleep. I should be asleep. I close my eyes. I am not asleep. I open my eyes. I am tired. Who gets up at this unearthly hour? Why am I here? What is the answer to life the universe and everything? Why does it have anything to do with getting up before 6 AM? I hear the dog at the door. She somehow knows I am awake. If I don't get up now she will go and poop on the porch. I get up.
6:00 AM: I pick up my cat, Brutus, who needs to chew on my fuzzy house coat for approximately 3 minutes or all will not be well with the universe. I carry him to the food dish and feed all three cats.
6:15 AM: First attempt to wake up my fourteen year old daughter, Essie. I am pleasant. I turn on the light and tell her in a cheerful voice that it is time to get up. She pulls the blanket up over her head. I pull the blanket down so that I can see one glaring eye. "Get in the shower," I say loudly.
6:25 AM: I have started some bacon. I walk to the end of the stairs. I hear...nothing. I walk up the stairs. Essie is still in bed. I am no longer polite or cheerful. I bellow, "Get up and get in the shower...you are going to be late." I hear a shuffling noise and some banging around as I turn to walk back down the stairs.
6:29 AM: I realize that I have not given the cats their canned food. Brutus has also realized this. He is standing on the table howling, even though he is not supposed to be in the house. I take him down and split a can of some disgusting smelling tuna and egg between the cats. I bring up the remainder for the dogs. They are now unable to eat their morning food unless some small amount of canned cat food has been sprinkled on it.
6:32 AM: I get a bacon splatter on my arm. It hurts. I feel vaguely awake.
6:40 AM: I tell Essie that breakfast is ready.
6:43 AM: I tell Essie that breakfast is ready.
6:45 AM: I tell Essie that breakfast is ready. She says SHE KNOWS.
6:47 AM: Essie stumbles into the kitchen like the undead and eats half a piece of bacon and three tablespoons of oatmeal. I tell her to dry her hair and brush her teeth and find some shoes. SHE KNOWS.
7:00 AM: I take a break from reading emails and drinking coffee to yell up the stairs,"You have twenty minutes. Are you ready?" She has twenty-five or thirty minutes. Better that she doesn't know that. The sounds of I'M GETTING READY! rolls down the stairs. This means she has been sitting around petting her cat and contemplating her navel. She will now begin getting ready.
7:29 AM: We are on our way to school. I realize I have not let the chickens out. They will have to wait. Essie hands me some papers to sign. I remind her that I am driving. I sign them at the stop light.
7:48 AM: I drop Essie at school. A skinny kid dressed in baggy, superlong shorts that make his legs look like they belong to some sort of large prehistoric bird runs in front of my car as I am trying to leave. I would think that I am invisible to him but he turns to glare at me after I slam on the brakes to keep from hitting him.
7:57 AM: I am tempted to run through a drive-through and buy a diet coke on my way back home. I really need the caffeine. But it's probably really bad for me. I am too tired to listen to my own very persuasive arguments against buying the coke. I get it.
8:05 AM: I am in front of the computer. It's time to start writing.
8:06 AM: I am on the way to the chicken house. I have to let out the chickens.
8:10 AM: I am still trying to convince Lady Gwen to leave the chicken coop and walk across the yard with me. She is concerned that I have already let the rooster out. The rooster is angry because I have not let him out. I finally scoot Lady Gwen out of her own personal chicken house and let the other chickens out.
8:15 AM: I am in front of the computer. It's time to start writing.
8:16 AM: I am looking at FARK.
8:20 AM: I am looking at FaceBook. I am hoping you people have done something interesting so that I can continue to procrastinate for a few more minutes.
8:25 AM: Nope. Apparently you people have lives and you cannot spend all your time on FaceBook.
8:26 AM: I remember that I have not checked out Slacktivist's website since yesterday morning. I get on Slacktivist. Goody! He has a big list of links. Hmmm...the first one looks interesting. The second one too. The third one...meh. I should skip the ones that don't look interesting since I need to start writing. There are seven. I read them all.
9:05 AM: I am reading the comments on the link page.
9:10 AM: I realize that I am not writing yet.
9:20 AM: I have my blog page pulled up and I am ready to start. I have to go to the bathroom. I go to the bathroom.
9:25 AM: I realize I left some laundry sitting in the washer last night. I go downstairs and put it in the dryer. I realize that I don't have any clean socks or underwear and load the washer too.
9:35 AM: I am back at my computer. It's time to start writing.
9:40 AM: I am not sure what to write. I had some good ideas for a story but I maybe should write a blog post...it's been a week. Actually, I should really write down the ideas for the story before I forget them. I will do that first.
9:45 AM: I am trying to remember my ideas for the story. Wait! I knew this was going to happen. I wrote them down.
9:50 AM: I am looking for my gold notebook. Found it!
9:52 AM: I realize that I wrote down my ideas in the black notebook. Why do I have two notebooks?
9:58 AM: I am cleaning up my office in an attempt to find my black notebook.
10:15 AM: I remember that my black notebook is in the car. Oh well...the office is a little cleaner.
10:30 AM: I am writing down my ideas for the story. Now that I have written them down...I don't like them. This is insane.
10:35 AM: I go out to see what Brutus is crying about. I suddenly realize that I can fix the story. I rush back to the computer to write down the new and better ideas. I trip over the dog.
10:36 AM: I sit down and write out a few ideas for the story. This might work.
10:45 AM: I am a little stuck. I unload a few dishes from the dishwasher and put them up while I am thinking.
10:46 AM: I realize the dishes were still dirty. I try to remember which ones I just put up and put them back in the dishwasher. I finish loading the dishwasher and run it.
11:00 AM: I am writing.
11:30 AM: I am hungry.
11:35 AM: I realize that I have not been to get groceries this week when I look in the refrigerator.
11:36 AM: I contemplate showering. I reject the idea in favor of lunch and just brush my hair and find some shoes. Makeup? No.
11:45 AM: I am at the Mexican restaurant.
12:30 PM: I am driving home and I realize that I am out of dog food.
12:40 PM: Tractor Supply
1:00 PM: I am back in front of the computer. I check out FB. I start writing.
1:45 PM: I have to do some more laundry, walk the dogs and get a package ready to mail before I can pick up Essie. Writing time is over for the day.
And that my dear readers is the story of how this blog gets written.
This blog post is an older one, but I've been thinking a lot about narrative and empathy lately. In fact, Jarad, Morty, and I are thinking about doing a series of posts about the intersection of narrative, literature, politics and reality in general. So I decided to repost.
I wrote my master’s thesis on the use of narrative as an argumentative device. I believed then, and still believe, that stories are the best way to convince someone else of your truth, the best way to come to any idea at all of what the truth might be. Stories add layers of complexity.
Narrative allows us to see that every person has choices to make but at the same time they are victims of the choices of other individuals, families, and societies, or even the natural world. Story embraces the paradox of life. Many things can be true at once when you see them in a narrative context. Life is messy and much more like a web than straight line. Stories create empathy and acceptance. Teaching your child to read, especially stories that are written with the perspective of a particular character or characters in mind, not only promotes academic success, but also empathy.
This empathy that we gain from reading should lead to greater understanding of others, but it should also lead to greater understanding of ourselves. To put it more bluntly, after you read a story…you might find that you have traits in common with the villain - as many as you do with the hero. You might BE the villain. The more I write stories, the more I realize that there’s only one place to go fishing for the sins and follies of the characters and that’s in the depths of my own dark heart. Why do I point this out?
Because being a human, I find that this is not the way we (I) like to read stories. For goodness sakes, if Cinderella’s stepmother read the story of Cinderella, she would probably identify with Cinderella. She might take a moment to consider how unfair the story was to stepmothers – maybe, maybe not. But given the kind of person she was, I’ll just bet that she had convinced herself that she was terribly overworked and under appreciated – especially by her horrible step daughter. Bad people don’t always know they’re bad. They’ve spent years convincing themselves that their actions make sense and that they are the victims. Look at any person that’s thoroughly bad. I can guarantee you that they at least started off seeing themselves as reacting to evil not causing it.
Being exploited, duped, discriminated against or otherwise victimized is common to the protagonists of stories and movies. There is always something to overcome. We tend to identify with the protagonist of a story. The stories we tell ourselves as a culture often focus on a clear cut narrative, hero versus villain. Along with the hero, the reader or movie goer gets to feel heroic without actually being locked in a tower for years, or being forced to live in the forest with a group of merry men clad in tights, or being tracked down by Russian spies – whatever your choice of hero has to suffer before the big win.
So when we insert ourselves into stories, we tend to insert ourselves right into the shoes of the hero without ever considering the size of our own feet. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s good to understand someone else’s suffering, good to understand their choices, good to feel their strengths and weaknesses. It’s good to follow along with someone as they make heroic choices. It makes us more empathetic to goodness. But this method of reading is problematic as well.
A very good example of this is religion. Most children who are raised as Christians – I can’t speak to other religions since I have no experience in how other forms of early religious education teaches children to insert themselves into narrative - are taught, implicitly, to identify with the disciples, the women who fed Jesus, the children who came to him, the crowd that ate his miraculous loaves and fishes. They are taught to identify with the heroes like David who bravely killed a giant. The empathetic distance is close when the student is taught or reads a narrative where the protagonist is virtuous, displaying desirable traits.
However, when David’s flaws come into the narrative later, - you know, little things like murdering one of his generals to cover the rape of the man's wife, the empathetic distance moves the reader away from King David, into judgment. The reader sees the story now from the perspective of the prophet Nathan, who clearly delineates David's sins.
Why is this a problem you ask? We want to emulate the traits of heroes, of good people. David bravely fought a giant. Robin Hood bravely fought the Sheriff of Nottingham. Cinderella had to wait patiently mucking the pigs and scrubbing the floors until a prince showed up to relieve her of a life of servitude (yes…she’s a sucky hero...but her circumstances didn't leave her a lot of leeway).
In fact, if you really think about it, the story of David nicely illustrates the point I’m trying to make. David ended up murdering a man to sleep with that man’s wife because he thought of himself as a hero, a king, a mighty warrior. The protagonist. A good person. And good people don’t have to worry about doing bad things. But in the end of the David/Bathsheba narrative David clearly realizes that he is the villain.
The prophet Nathan comes to the King and tells him this story:
A rich man and a poor man lived in the same town. The rich man owned a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had only one little lamb that he had bought and raised. The lamb became a pet for him and his children. He even let it eat from his plate and drink from his cup and sleep on his lap. The lamb was like one of his own children.
One day someone came to visit the rich man, but the rich man didn’t want to kill any of his own sheep or cattle and serve it to the visitor. So he stole the poor man’s little lamb and served it instead.
David was furious with the rich man and said to Nathan, “I swear by the living Lord that the man who did this deserves to die! And because he didn’t have any pity on the poor man, he will have to pay four times what the lamb was worth.”
Nathan responded, "You are that rich man! Now listen to what the Lord God of Israel says to you: “I chose you to be the king of Israel. I kept you safe from Saul and even gave you his house and his wives. I let you rule Israel and Judah, and if that had not been enough, I would have given you much more. Why did you disobey me and do such a horrible thing? You murdered Uriah the Hittite by having the Ammonites kill him, so you could take his wife.
CEV version of the Bible 2nd Samuel 12 1-9
It was upon hearing this story that David realized…he wasn’t the hero at all. He was the villain.
There are times time that the villain should speak most intimately to our hearts. There are times when the value of a story is not in propping up our good feelings about ourselves or making us feel heroic but instructing us in how our actions tyrannize or otherwise afflict those around us.
What if you read the gospels and realize that you are a Pharisee? Someone who has so much confidence in petty acts of religiosity that he actually protests a healing, or people eating when they are hungry? (Has this realization happened to me? Maybe…)
Stories are the best places for us to understand the only evil we can do anything about. Our own. So next time you read think about asking yourself if you’re identifying with the right character. In the meantime, here’s a Mitchell and Webb link with some people who are coming to terms with just that.
Also check out this link to the Slacktivist. Fred Clark does a great blog post about not being on the wrong side of history. It was his post that reminded me about the skit.
This Friday's Book Review will feature Orla McAlinden's new book The Accidental Wife. She is an award winning Irish author (her new book won the Eludia award in 2014) and she has written several book reviews for Sacred Chickens.
The following blog post is published here with her permission. It's a lovely rumination on writing and grief. Please check back in for the review and the link to her book on Friday. The link to her new book is also found throughout and at the end of this essay.
Guest Post by Orla McAlinden
Burial to book launch…
I never intended to write a book (or three) it just kind of happened. Now that the launch for my first published book, entitled The Accidental Wife is organised and confirmed for Wednesday 21st September, in Barker and Jones Bookshop Naas, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote a few years ago about how the floodgates opened and the words poured out. I should of course have shared this two weeks ago, on my dad’s birthday, but that’s me…the genius idea always comes a bit too late.
So here’s the essay, written three years ago when I hardly knew how to switch on a laptop!
My father’s parting gift
365 days ago, I had no idea that one year later I would have written a memoir. I have always known that I can make words leap and soar and bounce around, but I never felt I had anything about which to write. “How many books about Teenage Mutant Ninja Vampires does the world actually need?” I wondered.
My father and I, 1970s Armagh, clip-clopping along. We shared many interests: a passion for horses, history, old books, peace and quiet. These shared hobbies drove us out into the highways and by-ways of rural Armagh. He taught me to ride. He walked beside me, holding a long rope, for years, until I was judged safe, and released. During these long, self-indulgent trips a relationship grew that transcended the hero-worship small girls have for their fathers. We were friends.
My father died a year ago today, after an accident from which he was recovering slowly but satisfactorily. We re-arranged the furniture, on Friday, to facilitate his return from hospital on Monday. He died on Sunday morning.
The early, numb weeks passed in a straightforward fashion. I had four very young children, and a husband to organise. Women whispered at the school gates. “Isn’t she doing well? Isn’t she coping great?” I wondered what all the fuss was about. Friendly people commiserated and I would reply, “Yes indeed, he was a very elderly man. Yes, it was for the best. Yes, things could be a lot worse.” I really thought I meant it!
Afterwards? What I’d call ‘the lost weeks’. I would spend a morning full of murderous rage and frustration; tearing the house apart looking for my wallet, only to find it in the salad drawer of the fridge. I would return from Tesco to feed my family of six for a week, with a half-dozen unripe, unwanted mangoes, and no milk. I leapt to my feet, cursing, late for the school run, having sat down for five minutes, two hours previously.
As always, in times of crisis, I turned to the written word. I ploughed through heavy tomes by eminent psychologists and sociologists. Eventually I landed, by chance, upon ‘You’ll get over it’ by Virginia Ironside. She was full of wise advice and sympathy. I was not going mad; I was grieving!
A little secret tribute
On 27th July 2012, I opened my rarely used laptop. I would write a story, a family history. It would be a secret tribute to my father. I would show nobody. Three hours later, I looked at the work. It was a dusty, half-remembered family legend, passed on to me, probably accidentally, while he re-told and embellished it for his own friends. The piece was finished. It was whole and complete. I did not think, or pause for breath. I submitted it everywhere, I didn’t know any better, didn’t know that you shouldn’t submit your first story, didn’t know it’s supposed to be rubbish and live in a drawer forever.
It was published in January 2013, by The Chatahoochee Review in Georgia, USA.
Then I couldn’t stop
The writing continues. I sit down alone. Two hours later I read my new story. It spills out, fizzing, on to the screen, while I type, five or six disorganised fingers flailing, struggling to keep up with the words. Fiction, scripts, memoir, family tales.
A precious child-free hour, snatched here and there, equals a thousand words vomited into the open maw of a blank screen. During the other 160 hours per week the stories jostle and fight for position, shrieking to be released next from their incarceration. “Write me!” they plead. “Tell me.”
I edit in the kitchen, lunch-boxing a thousand ham sandwiches or stirring bolognese. Insomnia is my constant companion. I lie unquiet in the small hours; stories flash and streak across my mind until I long to clamp my hands over my brain’s ears, and scream “Enough! Let me be!”
My stories and memoirs whirl across the internet; a prize here, a shortlist there, hundreds of rejections. A short story which has arrived in a blur of busy fingers, unprovoked, uninvited, lurks in my hard drive. Each time I log on, that story- a young woman deceived by an American GI during the war- screams its rage and its indignation. “I am not a story!” it yells; “I am a PROLOGUE, get me out of here!”
And the tears have come too. I cry constantly. I cry, listening to the news. I sob at adverts for cheese, and at Tom and Jerry. I weep when my children laugh. Thank God for Virginia Ironside!
How long can this exquisite torture last? If the beehive of buzzing words sinks back into hibernation, leaving me sane again, I will be ever grateful that I, briefly, wrote. My hope is that I have been permanently blessed; my father’s parting gift.
Deep breath, everyone
Wow! I really wrote that. The extravagance of the words and the melodrama makes me cringe. Reviewing that piece makes me realise how far I’ve come, in a fairly short space of time. Endless, hypercritical revision has cut thousands of adjectives, adverbs and exclamations out of The Accidental Wife.
If I wrote that essay today it would be half as long, and a lot less hysterical. But the American GI has sneaked into The Accidental Wife, and the world can breathe more easily, because the long-form memoir is safely where it belongs, on a hard-drive, never to see the light of day.