Thanks to a generous grant from the fine people at Oregon Humanities, we'll be spending the next few months exploring identity and sexuality in young adult literature here on the Bitch blogs.
Judy Blume is known for writing about topics like teen sex, masturbation, and menstruation before it was cool to do so, and she's often credited with redefining young adult literature as we (or our parents) knew it. Fast forward to 2012, and we're in the middle of a young adult lit heyday. YA lit sales are way up and publishers and book stores are catching on. As the book business continues to invest more money into bringing YA lit to the masses, we're seeing more and more books that are pushing the boundaries of YA lit in really exciting ways, exploring issues of teen identity and sexuality while remaining honest and challenging. During this series, we'll talk with authors, teachers, librarians, and teens who are dedicated to making sure that every teen is able to find books whose characters they can relate to and be inspired by.
I'd like to talk a bit about a feminist utopia written in 1905 called Sultana's Dream by Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain. This short story is set in a place called "Ladyland," where men are behind the purdah and women run the country much better than men ever did.
In this role-reversal fantasy, men are kept confined to the inner courtyards and kitchens, crime is eliminated (since dudes were the one who were creating all the trouble, obviously) and women are doing fantastically well, thank you for asking. Working in laboratories and flying planes, the women in Sultana's Dream are charming, reaching far higher than women in 1905 were deemed capable of—and then the dream ends. The story is jarring in many ways, especially when you realize the women feel so little about confining men, thinking of them as lesser beings. Hossain has the last laugh when learn this unease does what it is supposed to: make us question power inequalities in gender relations, and how little things have changed in the last century or so.
Named after a fictional girls' etiquette handbook, Elissa Schappell's 2011 short story collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, offers a multi-perspectival, intergenerational portrait of American womanhood. Told with impressive care and patience, the eight stories of the collection inspire a familiar uncertainty at odds with the trite didactic moral lessons the title promises.
The protagonists of the stories are involved in an intricate web of acquaintance. Characters mentioned in passing in one story appear later as main subjects, all the while coping with the shattered illusion of safety that so often pushes people toward adulthood before their time. The collection is bookended with the stories of Heather, the "school slut" whom we see first as a teenager and later as a concerned mother. The six stories in between jump forward and backward in time, examining the characters' set expecations for their own lives versus the realities they face.
"Transnational feminism" is given a lot of weight—negative and otherwise—and most said it couldn't be done, 'til Playing with Fire came in 2006, that is. A quick introduction: Playing with Fire was originally a collective diary that seven NGO workers in Sitapur, tucked away in North India (Uttar Pradesh), kept while they worked as Sangtins (a Sangtin is a term used by a woman to refer to her companion who sees her through life's struggles) with the State-funded project called Mahila Samakhya (MS). The seven writers, along with Richa Nagar, documented their journey through Sitapur, an act that was enough to enrage their superiors at the Mahila Samakhya UP Branch, and eventually that got the Sangtins fired. The Sangtins flaunted their diaries fully aware of the risks they were taking, in publishing a book that critiqued the very organizations that fed them, as well as revealing intimate details of their lives.
If you read Bitch, you are likely at least somewhat familiar with Gloria Anzaldúa and her work with feminism, her beautiful writings, and her advocacy for women of color. She was a Chicana-Tejana-lesbian-feminist poet, theorist, and fiction writer, born September 26, 1942, in Raymondville, Texas. She passed away on May 15th, 2004, but still remains one of the most widely read, respected, and loved queer woman writers of color in history.
Along with economic, political, sexual, social exploitation, and god knows what else, colonialism drained South Asia of its resources; this much we know and agree on. But, this encounter also unintentionally opened spaces for women and the ex-untouchable castes in areas like education and politics. Admitting to this history would mean also accepting that a "pre-colonial" society wasn't ideal after all, and there is no point waxing nostalgic about such an era.
A book about us? Could I get the audio version? I'm a bit busy at the moment...
The book Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (SmartPop/BenBella Books) was something I could not resist, despite the very real possibility that it would not only not answer my lingering Season Two questions, but also offer spoilers for things I didn't even know I didn't want to know about yet. Beyond the Wall, compiled by fantasy writer and editor James Lowder, is a collection of 14 essays on both the books and the show. It covers textual elements like their take on time and chronology ("An Unreliable World: History and Timekeeping in Westeros"), as well as ruminations on their place within literary and fantasy categories ("Beyond the Ghetto: How George R.R. Martin Fights the Genre Wars")—a close read, in other words, on the Song of Ice and Fire phenomenon itself, and on the themes and images that pervade it.
However, today, a question lingers with this sense of relief: Which families even have inner courtyards? Which families have traditionally segregated their women? Historically, it has always been the privileged few—the upper-castes and classes of the Indian social order within most religions—that have practiced veiling, segregation, and separation. This isn't to pit the working classes against the bourgeoisie, or the Dalits against the upper-castes, or any community, for that matter, against another. These communities do not inherently become evil or overtly patriarchal just because they practice segregation. Neither do communities that do not veil their women, for instance, become immediately resistant. Sometimes, it all comes down to who can afford to have their women not venture out of the house, or who can afford to have working women veiled in a manner that will not interfere with their labor practices. How did some of us start voicing the experience of all?