Saturday, 15 February 2014

Wheelbarrows and Flowered Bums

When I was younger, some of my male friends had an inexplicable compulsion to define femininity for me.  It seemed arrogant, speaking as an authority on something they couldn’t possibly experience, like Stephen Fry saying women don’t like sex.

I’ve only recently come to understand that feminine in our culture equates to what is sexually appealing to heterosexual males.  Masculine is based on what heterosexual men are comfortable having around them in the locker room – i.e. something that won’t give them an erection.  No one else really has a say in the matter.  Not even Stephen Fry.

Kind of a waste of resources, wouldn’t you think, basing cultural norms on such a small portion of the overall population?

A few years ago when the Butler and I first viewed the house we eventually moved into, the agent stopped outside a door with a look of glee and said that beyond this magic threshold lay my room.

I’m thinking really cool writing space, lots of bookshelves, kick ass windows with kick ass views, maybe even a window seat and a priest’s hole . . .

The Butler in his kitchen.
She opens the door on an enormous kitchen and the Butler goes, ahh!  As he ran his fingers over the 3 oven Aga, I actually thought, where’s my room?  And then I realised this was my room.  I don’t have the penis so I get the kitchen.  A woman in my fifties and still that stupid. 

After we moved in, a man came by to fix the damp and saw our wheelbarrow.  You’d think I’d been sacrificing small children in the Butler’s new kitchen, the state of the man’s dismay.  How could I have insisted my husband go about his work with a pink wheelbarrow and its untamed polka dots?  The binary presumptions in his reaction boggle the mind.

A clean version of our wheelbarrow.
For the record, the Butler chose  pink.  But how did a wheelbarrow become a totem of gender?  Or how did a colour?  Or polka dots?  Or any nod to beauty? 

One dark winter’s morning, the Butler put on a pair of black jeans and headed off to work.  A colleague pulled him aside to let him know there were black embroidered flowers on his back pockets.  He was wearing my Gloria Vanderbilts.  The Butler said, ‘Yes, aren’t they nice?’ and went on with his life.

(I wondered why a guy  checking another man's ass worried about flowers being there, but that’s another blog post.)

The rules in play here are stifling.  And while I’m not about to bang a drum for oppressed white heterosexual males, isn’t this entire gender juxtaposition constricting for everyone?  And to what purpose?  If it made sense, maybe I’d behave myself.  Or maybe not.  Let’s not get giddy on silly notions.

I would suggest that we stop laughing at men who buy tights or scowling at women who voice opinions, that we let our children choose colours they like and toys that inspire them.  Let men cry and women rage, stop thinking anything’s gender appropriate unless it has a biological basis to it.  Like toilets with seats or trousers with front zips.

Who got what?
In the mean time, here’s a photo of this year’s Valentine pressies.  Which is for me and which is for the Butler?  Two perfect expressions of love, and isn’t that what’s important – that we each feel worthy and cherished, even when flowers are embroidered on our bums?

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Possum Gargoyle & Panti Bliss

So there I was, minding my own business, expecting to get my hair done, and she says to me, ‘Would you want a cat?’  A big ole neutered tom, age in double digits who still had the collar mark in his fur from being turfed out, probably because his old fella died and the family too mean to keep him.  She has another cat, also a stray and not adjusting to the tom, so last in, first out.

He seemed nice enough when we met him, and we reckoned a cat that age would sleep all day.  He turned into Son of Satan when we got him home. 

All attempts to re-home him through official channels, even via cat rescue and the vet were met with the suggestion to put him down.  Life as we knew it ended, but since, among all his other health problems, he has a brain tumour, we keep telling ourselves we’ve only got 18 more months of this.

I should mention that the tumour is on whatever affects growth, so he looks like a gargoyle with possum hair.  Not this kind of possum,

But this.

There’s not even the cute factor to make us like him, but in an odd sort of way, we do.  He’s well treated and adores (has taken ownership of) the Butler, even shows respect for the other cats’ personal space.  A modicum of respect.

So what does that have to do with Panti Bliss?  Well, when we tell folk that gargoyle death is the only option for getting our life back, people are all, ah . . . the poor thing.  Even cat rescue said to put him to sleep?  Ah . . . and this is a cat.  Not even the same species. 

Now let’s look at the LGBT community.  Fellow humans, for those who are unsure.  Humans whom we publicly debate about – whether they should get married, play sports, have children, work with children, be around children as if being LGBT were an infectious disease.  We publicly debate this, in print, on the internet, the telly, in groups.  We spread the word that whole nations kill LGBT people and praise or boycott Coca-cola for including a gay couple in its Super Bowl ad.  Just in case there’s any LGBT folk out there who haven’t copped onto themselves that they really aren’t the same as the rest of the civilised world.

Then Panti Bliss got into a bit of bother over an interview on RTE. 

This speech about homophobia says many wonderful things, but what impacted me the most is Panti’s description of what it feels like to live in an environment that relentlessly signifies being LGBT.  A trans woman once said if she’d committed murder, her family would visit her in prison, but this . . . they wished she’d died rather than come out to them.

So you haven’t lived until you’ve been ostracised at least once and if you’re old enough to read this blog, I assume you have been.  And by ostracised, I mean there you are, doing nothing beyond simply being, living, breathing in air and for that, you’re criticised.  For breathing in air. 

There she is, breathing in air, the right bitch. 

And then when you don’t stop yourself from breathing in air, people start looking at you funny and when you speak to them, they get a little smirk or pretend they didn’t hear you.  Before you know it, all the standard little things stop happening or take on great importance such as being able to stand in a queue outside a club or picking up milk during daylight hours or living in a house that doesn’t have graffiti sprayed on it or being spoken to civilly by your colleagues.  If you’re stupid enough to ask someone in authority to help, somehow it’s your fault.  You breathed, now, didn’t you?

This really blows my mind.  Gargoyle possum draws all this sympathy and yet . . .

Any country that is part of the EU has agreed there are laws which say the debate is over, yet RTE paid silence money to a shower of bigots.  Trying to cure any form of LGBT-ism, opposing marriage equality, firing teachers for being gay, pummelling LGBT citizens with negative stereotypes, beating, raping, killing LGBT people, those are all hate crimes. 

To all those people who haven’t yet made up their minds, the debate has finished.  Get over it.  Start acting like an evolved life form.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

My January Book Non-Reviews

When you read, does an annoying voice in your head give commentary?  One part of my brain simply reads and enjoys (or doesn’t enjoy).  Another part breaks down why the book works or doesn’t work for me, and how applicable this is to my writing. 

Here’s the background music for my January’s reading.  Not reviews, but things I learned while reading the following books.

Beautiful Child by Emma Tennant
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson  
The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham

Two books have patiently waited on my shelf because they were connected to classic literature – Beautiful Child by Emma Tennant and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.  The postponement in both cases was unnecessary and regretable as both these books (as does Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard) have great prose.  In fact, the first chapter of The Hours (which describes Virginia Woolf’s death) is so excellent, I put the book down and didn’t go back to it for months. 

Do you ever do that?  A book is so well written, I can’t risk being disappointed if it doesn’t keep its promise from start to finish.  I needn’t have worried.  Cunningham has a wonderful pacing and turns sentences into stand alone works of art.  He reminded me that a writer must read and continue to read really good writing to nudge us forward in our craft.

Tennant’s voice is a different kind of good.  She writes with a familiar tone, as if I were the narrator’s long time friend with whom scandalous observations could be made in confidence.  Liberating, is how I thought of it.  A courageous voice that says, this is how you jump off buildings and fly.

I do find fault with Tennant’s over use of humour, such as the ever changing nicknames for the characters.  A tutor once warned me about this in my own writing, and I found it difficult to gauge when enough was enough.  Meeting this same flaw in Tennant’s book was an Aha moment for me.  I think I’ll more easily season delicately with my own humour because of this.

Beautiful Child is meant to be scary and for me, was.  In fact, I had to parcel the book out so I could sleep at night (but I'm a wimp).  However, the narrator has an intense experience later in the book and when reading it, I felt distanced from what should have been the most powerful passage so far.  Can you imagine the let down?

The frightening aspects of the scene were written as visual distortions.  I’m not a visual person, even have difficulty mentally visualising, so distorting vision isn’t that frightening to me.  The way the human brain processes information differs among people and for a writer to effectively communicate with a  wider range of readers, we should educate ourselves on those differences.  While I don’t claim to be an expert on the brain, remember the writing tutors who’ve told you to be aware of all five senses.  It’s a great place to start, if you want to pull more readers into your narrative.

Then Louise Doughty.  The book has a great concept, and her writing is seductive, her prose makes continuing to read an imperative like continuing to read, and kept me interested in people I didn’t particularly like (both main characters). 

For the first three quarters of the book, her pacing is organic, but unfortunately falls apart near the end, as though she doesn’t know how to stop writing.  I skimmed passages that seemed to come from nowhere and kept thinking, where’s her editor?  Why didn’t someone help her fix this?  Apple Tree Yard warned me that whatever standard I've set in the beginning of the book, I have to keep it up to the bitter end.

Interestingly, Doughty lost more than her pacing in the latter part of the book.  She puts a big effort into an intelligent concept, then reached out for a gimmicky ending by doing a Gotcha!  For me, that type of thing breaks the contract between reader and writer, because doing an abrupt and unanticipated about-face is only for the purpose of fooling me.  A writer as gifted as Doughty could’ve come up with a clever twist, and I would’ve admired that.

One last complaint about Apple Tree Yard.  The narration is coloured with science, which for the most part is done well, but then enter stage left, the psychologist.  Trying hard here to avoid spoilers, I’ll say that both technically and for continuity purposes, her psychology is unbelievable to anyone in the field and perhaps to readers who don’t have psych degrees and who haven’t been expert witnesses.  Big red flag here to all of us – don’t skimp on your research.  Have everything checked and rechecked by people in the field you’re writing about or risk blowing the illusion for a certain percentage of your readers.

So then I read two not-so-well written books, The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson and Mark Billingham’s The Dying Hours.  Billingham himself is a lovely guy, but not a writer I’d take notes from.  The crime genre is irresistible to me, like those nights you pull out a bag of crisps and eat the whole thing, only to wonder what craziness took hold of you.  That itch scratched, I won’t go back to Billingham for a long time.

But The Detective’s Daughter is billed as intelligent crime writing.  Although her concept intrigues, both her writing and characterisation fall short.  Again, I wondered about who edited this book, because it reads like an early draft rather than a finished product; there’s also several typos in the printed version. 

Along the same vein, Thomson’s narrative, in some instances, reads like the notes taken from her research, rather than prose.  I’ve done this myself, forget to dress up the research into a story, into fiction.  No matter how interesting we find our own research, reporting it isn’t the purpose of the novel.  You sneak it into the story, like the conniving person that a writer has to be.

The book also reads as if Thomson were beating several drums at once, and not in rhythm.  As a writer who has multiple themes going in my work, I know this is a tricky thing, and not one I always do well.  But no matter how strong our passion for a social injustice, it has to be distilled into art.  Fiction first and foremost is to make us believe a lie.  Whatever social change comes of it is secondary. 

So that’s January’s fiction reading and I learned something from all five of them.  If you’ve read any of these books, let’s discuss them.