Tag Archives: violence

Strange Fruit – Lillian Smith

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Banned to the hilt and consequently a bestseller, a book set in 1920s smalltown Georgia. It is often billed as a tale of interracial love, between Tracy Deen, a young white man from a wealthy family, and Nonnie Anderson, a young black woman who is a college graduate and is now working as a maid. But it is certainly no “forbidden romance” in the genre of “Romeo and Juliet” – this is a story of white supremacy, the misogyny at the heart of heterosexual coupledom, the objectification and trafficking of black women by white men, and the damage done by “well-meaning” progressives. Thankfully, there is no construction of a pre-existing force of romantic love that clashes with cruel social forces and ends in tragedy. Smith therefore gets at something far more insightful than many “feel-good” narratives that simply aim to tell us that, after all, love is love, and offer very little understanding of the violence done by inscriptions of normativity. The novel skips between characters almost dizzily, taking us into the heads of many townspeople who reflect on the Tracy and Nonnie, a murder that takes place, and a lynching. We see how white supremacy is reproduced and how it shores up the identity of white citizens, including those liberals who espouse social justice. Towards the end of the novel, the psychic fragmentation experienced by some characters is depicted in exhilarating modernist prose. There are many reflections of the 1940s white supremacist culture Smith herself wrote out of, representations of black characters that are jarring to a twenty-first century reader. But her striving for representation of this white supremacy, her vivid and daring representation of queerness, sexuality, and desire, as well as the racist and sexist violence that pervades the novel, is a reminder of what we still need from radical writers today.

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Wounds of Returning: Race, Memory and Property on the Postslavery Plantation

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How has the southern plantation evolved after slavery? Why the enduring obsession with, even nostalgia for, the physical space of the antebellum South and its Georgian mansions, places where terrible violence and exploitation occurred? This book combines literary analysis, historical research and first-person ethnography to track a genealogy of the conversion of human beings into capital in the US South. Adams posits that consumer capitalism has continued well beyond abolition and the Civil War, in tourism, souvenirs, incarceration and rodeos. She traces Storyville brothels, narratives of turn-of-the-century new Orleans, plantation tours, Bette Davis films, Elvis memorials, Willa Cather’s fiction, lynching, and the annual prison rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Here is a disturbing portrait of the way the slave past, its violent equation of people as property, haunts all American culture. This is a sociological and cultural take on trauma that packs a much bigger punch than a psychoanalytic one. It asks us to question our tourism practices, visiting sites that have been reconstructed in an attempt to elide the violence embedded in their foundations. In this book, slavery’s physical and psychic violence is always alive within scenes and landscapes of nostalgia.

Freedom: rip it up

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TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault

A suburban comedy-drama, monumental in the way only a middle-aged, middle-class straight white American man would have the audacity to write. In this case, as in most, the monument does not yield the audacity it promises. Not even close. Here, the problem is not that the characters are simply unlikeable: they are dull, cliched, and not even believable. None of the truth, ugliness, attraction of most unlikeable characters in literature. The plot is a mess, but not a beautifully chaotic postmodern mess, simply a directionless, pointless collection of events nobody cares about. Franzen’s social realism is proudly middle-brow, what he seems to consider ambitious, without any sense that his execution of the mode is highly conventional. Yet even his realism isn’t believable: convenient events and plot holes abound. His language is trivial, ugly, too repetitive to justify six hundred-plus pages. The structure is fundamentally flawed, switching between the “autobiography” of one of the main characters, Patty, and the various viewpoints of three men, in a charade without function or finesse. If it was written by a woman, it would be read as a gossip column, dismissed as “chick lit,” hardly a Tolstoyan masterpiece of social realism. At the heart of this novel’s problem is its meanspiritedness; what Franzen sees as irony is slathered indiscriminately across the pages, the kind of sarcasm only a middle-aged white man can apply to everything that crosses his path, until the final pages when he seems to want us to care profoundly for his characters. Too late: the snow-love he wraps his ending up in is only sentimentality. In this vein, to read this book without being painfully aware of the almost unremitting misogyny is to inhabit the same world that Franzen does, the world that praises “Freedom” as a contender of the “Great American Novel.” A sexual assault early in the book is represented so gratuitously, so callously, with such a lack of understanding, that it undermines every attempt Franzen makes to cite this trauma as the “reason” for the myriad of Patty’s later issues. Women are described in terms of age, attractiveness, and pliability to men. Numerous references to men’s genitalia as cognisant conquerors and women’s as passive receptacles grow tiresome. Women and girls are the root of all of men’s problems. Later in the book, a rape fantasy is described lovingly. Every sarcastic pot-shot is a cheap shot: rather than being a sweeping, ambitious tome, it is an outdated triumph of the conventional, liberal, white, heterosexual American male in a world of (thankfully) splintering perspectives that offer far more interest and insight. But it is a high price to pay to realise, again, that the most worthwhile writing comes from women, people of colour, queers, all of us on the margins. If misogyny isn’t enough to turn a reader off this novel, let it be the presumptuousness of six hundred-plus pages of misplaced irony, directionless satire, complacent liberalism.

Insomnia

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Free will, destiny, a cosmology without answers. Senior citizens play chess and wear panama hats, deaths are preordained and wanted, carried out by bald doctors. An old man mourns his wife, cannot sleep, falls into a universe of auras and violence. The opportunity is missed to render the true horror of insomnia, cheapened and never threatening, a mere discomfort, never consuming, torturous, painful, insane. A strange plotline about reproductive rights, King’s misogyny never far from the surface, until a shrill, selfish, aggressive feminist meets the fate that is the second-best fantasy of every misogynist: decapitation. Peopled by the silly, beautiful-or-ugly women of so much men’s fiction, shaped by the paternalism of old Ralph Roberts, who sympathises with the abuser but saves a women’s shelter from the lone wolf on a shooting spree. Long, as always, too long, crowded with explication, repetition, one too many interjections from the dead wife. But 90s commercial fiction at its best: read at an airport, addled with jetlag, in a time-warp, expecting nothing.

The Timeless Land

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The opening of a trilogy, once-popular, antiquated: a 1941 take on white invasion/settlement (balanced awkwardly between ideology), 1788 to 1792, but always more 1941 than 1788. A canvas that struggles to contain the people it depicts, black and white, Wangal, Wullumedegal, Burra-matta-gal, Cammeraygal, officers, convicts, rich, poor, women, men, and the country it holds: the waves of Port Jackson, headlands, Parramatta, the Blue Mountains. Historical figures loom large: Arthur Phillip, Bennelong, Barangaroo. A “silent,” “frightening” place where the “natives” do not understand change, live blurred with the land itself, childlike, static. The self-congratulation of white transcription of Aboriginal experience. An attempt at understanding the conflict, the varied perspectives that merged and struck on Koori land, but, ultimately, a colonial act itself, a muffling of language, the words of the coloniser returning decades later.

The Daylight Gate

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The 1612 Pendle Hill witch trials, as real today, wilder than Salem, rich on paper. The August Assizes, Lancaster Castle, Daemonology, 1605 Gunpowder Plot, Hogton Hall, the Rough Lee, the North and its darkness, severed heads, poverty, women’s power crushed again and again, and still frightening. The foolishness of patriarchy, the banality of violence against women, children, the poor: all of this moves in a swampy sump, shifting point of view and allegiances. Spitting in the wind, galloping on horses, a woman with fire for hair, the inventor of magenta dye. She writes, rescues, and queers your dull grey Protestantism. Not only the gothic, but patriarchal and feudal oppression, fearfully resonant.

The School of Roots: Abominable, Rotting Birds and Women

          Hlne-CixousGr        I am returning to Hélène Cixous’ astonishing book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Roots.”

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“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21.

Okay, surely we have got beyond this notion of the impure, the abomination, tied up with the body and so with women (as women are apparently trapped in the body, and so abominable).

impureBut if we haven’t? Cixous wants us to question it not by ignoring this concept of the abominable, but looking at it more closely: “I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive.”

Why do we think of such things as unclean? Why do we struggle to think of women’s bodies as something other than inherently sexualised? Why do we still call menstruation stuff “sanitary products”? Why do so many still think of homosexuality as “unnatural” or, at least, a deviation from nature?

Again, we have arrived at Cixous’ great goal: to go deep, beyond even discomfort.

And so she draws on that “chain of associations and signifiers composed of birds, women, and writing.” The Bible sets out a great list of animals that are “abominable”: unclean, not to be eaten. And so many of them are birds.

a-harpyAnd so many laws about bodies, unclean acts, are about women.

So Cixous tells us: “If I gather these beings to talk about them in the same way, if I am worried by the fate of birds and women, it is because I have learned that not many people – unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – can really love, tolerate, or understand a certain kind of writing; I am using women and birds as synonyms.”

crowBirds frighten me. I shudder when I see a feather. Maybe Cixous can explain why.

“What is interesting is that birds, writing, and many women are considered abominable, threatening, and are rejected, because others, the rejectors, feel something is taken away from them. But let me leave women aside for today, since this is a controversial issue, and keep only birds and writing. Neither birds not writing take anything away, yet people feel that some forms of writing do take something from us. Clarice Lispector has never been a feminist, Genet is not a feminist, though theirs are writings that may hurt, may dissatisfy, and give the feeling that something is taken away.”

Hmm. Yes. But we need more on what it means to be “abominable,” and why it is so frightening.

evilwomen“That is my theme for today: to be ‘imund,’ to be unclean with joy. Immonde, that is, out of the mundus (the world). The monde, the world, that is so-called clean. The world that is on the good side of the law, that is ‘proper,’ the world of order. The moment you cross the line the law has drawn by wording, verb(aliz)ing, you are supposed to be out of the world. You no longer belong to the world.”

This is what I want from writing, and reading, after all. But birds?

“So why are those birds imund? Because. As you know, this is the secret of the law: ‘because.’ This is the law’s logic. It is this terrible ‘because,’ this senseless fatal ‘because’ that has decided people’s fate, even in the extremity of the concentration camps.”loudearth_full

Maybe that’s why people seem unnerved when I cannot provide an answer to the riddle of The Loud Earth. But I don’t know how.

“Writing is not put there, it does not happen out there, it does not come from outside. On the contrary, it comes from deep inside. It comes from what Genet calls the ‘nether realms,’ the inferior realms (domains inferiéurs). We’ll try to go there for a time, since this is where the treasure of writing lies, where it is formed, where it has stayed since the beginning of creation: down below.”

Is it a hell located in the body? In the way in the cultural imagination hell has always been located in women’s bodies?

“It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and it closes like a door. This does not mean that it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think.”

She must be getting at something beyond that patriarchal dichotomy: mind/body, which pairs up with man/woman, the first term in the binary being always superior. I guess collapsing them is scary.

Cixous traces this collapse in Lispector’s work: “Clarice effects an interior return journey, since we began as matter before moving away from whence we came. She makes a return journey to our concrete origins, though the journey is a spiritual one. The journey is spiritual because it is not enough to put one’s foot on the ground to come back to earth. It is an extremely spiritual exercise, reintegrating the earthly, the earth, and the earth’s composition in one’s body, imagination, thought. Clarice does not do this simply: she proceeds by feeling her way, by desiring; she moves blindly, since she is an explorer in the domain, methodically, making mistakes.”

For some reason the earth is more frightening than the spiritual.

“Our fear, since we know perfectly well that we will reach the dangerous point where those who are exclude live – and we hate exclusion. This is our emotional, our personal, and political problem, the fact that we can’t bear exclusion. We are afraid of it, we hate to be separated, that is why we are apt to commit all kinds of small crimes, self-denials, and treachery.”cmccarthy_impure

That is why we must have a “school of roots.” We must be schooled in roots. Otherwise we sit complacent with our pretty clichés. This is where Cixous believes writing and literature can help us be brave, if only we put in the work: “Kafka insists paradise is not lost, it is there. But we are lazy and impatient. If we were neither lazy nor impatient we would be back in paradise. But we have to deal with this laziness and impatience. And of course with all the representatives of “Those Bible.” There is a whole list of institutions, media, and machines that make for the banishment of birds, women, and writing.”

She uses “Those Bible,” that strange construction, as shorthand for all those mind-numbing clichés: shopping centres, weddings, Cosmo, football stadiums, MTV, James Patterson.

shoppingmall      footballstadium

That stuff is only dangerous because it distracts us from real danger. They make the banishment of the abominable seem natural. Exclusion is normalised, until we have a whole range of things deemed impure.

“So in the same line of substitutions you find: Jews, women, niggers, birds, poets, etc., all of them excluded and exiled. Exile is an uncomfortable situation, though it is also a magical situation. I am not making light of the experience of exile. But we can endure it differently. Some exiles die of rage, some transform their exile into a country. I understand those who die of (out)rage.”

I wonder how Cixous foresaw so clearly how I would write about the exile in The Loud Earth. It was excruciating writing about such a recluse. I wrote about her out of hatred, yet I had love for that hatred.

It must be a reluctance to go into hell.

Only in hindsight did I learn from Clarice Lispector’s conception of hell. This was how I had been painting the cave, the grotto, the cellar in The Loud Earth:

“And if many times I paint caves it’s because they are my submersion into the earth, dark but clouded with charity, and I, nature’s blood – extravagant and dangerous caves, Earth’s talisman, where stalactites, fosscavesils, and stones together and where creatures crazy through their own evil nature seek refuse. Caves are my hell. Caves, dreamlike always with their mists, memory or longing? Frightening, frightening, esoteric, greenish with the ooze of time. Rats, with the crosslike wings of bats, hang glimmering in the dark cavern. I see black, hairy spiders. Rats and mice run frightened on the ground and along the walls. Among the stones the scorpion. Crabs, unchanged since prehistoric times, through countless births and deaths, would seem threatening beasts if they were human-sized. Ancient cockroaches drag themselves along in the half light. And all this am I. Everything is heavy with dreams when I paint a cave or write to you about one – out of it comes the clatter of dozens of unfettered horses to trample the shadows with dry hooves, and from the friction of the hooves the rejoicing liberates itself in sparks; here I am, the cave and I, in the time that will rot us.”

I am glad I didn’t read that before I wrote the book. It is too beautiful.

So how can we get up the courage to access this place of darkness, the roots?

buttressroots“How do we cross borders? It can be done in a completely indifferent and apathetic fashion, although the person who crosses borders in an indifferent fashion never crosses borders. The person who doesn’t tremble while crossing a border doesn’t know there is a border and doesn’t cast doubt on their own definition. The person who trembles while crossing a border casts cellarstairsdoubt on their own definition.”

Not only do we have to cross into darkness, we have to be aware that we are doing it. That can be almost excruciating.

For me this evokes José Esteban Muñoz’s embrace of doubt. Can we be lost in the darkness, amidst the roots, and find something worth finding? He thinks yes:

“Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order. The dispossessed are appropriately adept at critiquing possession as illogical. To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.”

aliceinwonderlandCrossing borders, trembling, casting doubt on our own definition, is essentially queer. So, essentially anti-patriarchy in the radically feminist way Cixous embraces.

That is why fiction is a necessary part of the feminist project: it allows us to imagine beyond the established borders: “The immersed author necessarily comes to the point of questioning his/her limits, his/her frontiers, his/her passages, his/her alterations.”

When we areRotting_Fruit trying to feel our way back to the roots, maybe to a place we have never been physically or imaginatively, but only psychically, then we have to embrace the abominable. Even if it will never stop being impure or unclean to us.

“There is passage through the animal state, then through the vegetal state, and so we move away from humankind; from the vegetal we descend into the earth, by the stem, by the root, until we reach what doesn’t concern us, although it exists and inscribes itself, which is of the mineral order, although it doesn’t hold together since we are aiming toward disassembly, toward decomposition.”SW_Queen

Rotting? Death? If women are thought of as closer to nature, more “bodily” than men, then our bodies must be closer to death. Is that why we have so many fearful women? Witches, poisoners, stepmothers?

Cioxus asks if “we have to be dying to go to the School of Roots.” And: “Yes, if we understand it to be an exercise in that delicate and respectful form of life we call dying. It is a difficult apprenticeship, but it has to be tried. For instance, if we are in joy and in love with writing, we should try to write the imund book. The imund book deals with things, birds, and words that are forbidden by Those He.”

forestwitchLet us think of “Those He” as, less impressively, the patriarchal order. Then, “from the heart where passions rise to the finger tips that hear the body thinking: this is where the Book (Alive)-to-Live (le livre Vivre) springs from…”

Cixous asks us to radically collapse that ultimate patriarchal construction: mind vs body. It is something we have to keep at the forefront of our heads and our fingers, because it has made us what we are. We have to undermine it self-consciously.

“We must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth. Humble work. Without reward. Except joy.”