Saturday, 8 October 2016

Speechless: Keep punching up

A while back, I wrote a post about disabled siblings in fiction, and the way they are so often dehumanised, used as macguffins and turned into inspiration porn. People with disabilities are not ofter allowed, in fiction, to be the protagonist in their own lives, and if they are, their story is more often than not entirely about their disability. Many of the LGBQ people I know hate that so often stories about people who are on that spectrum fall into either the 'coming out to self' or 'coming out to the world' category - there are more interesting things going on in queer people's lives than coming out! Likewise, trans and nonbinary acquaintances hate that the only storylines available to trans people in fiction are often 'person realises they are trans' or 'trans person is outed, dies'. People are affected by their marginalisation, yes, but they are not in entirety defined by it. We all have more complexity than our identities, but media is in many cases still catching up to that fact.

I do not mean to say that there is no merit in a coming out story or a first love story. There can be a great deal of meaning, particularly, I find, in YA fiction where children and young people see those who look like themselves and are thrilled to be acknowledged. But let us not pretend that gay life is all coming out, first love and the deaths of our lovers. Let us not pretend that trans life is all violence, black life all racism or disabled life all being treated like a prop to further our siblings' stories.

All this to say, I'm rather enjoying ABC's new show Speechless, a story about how disability and the attitudes to it from those who should know better, affects a whole family. It's a pretty standard setup for a sitcom: two parents, still married, three children, one brainy, one sporty and one with cerebral palsy which means he uses a wheelchair full time and uses assistive technology to communicate and express himself. You see how instantly, the kid with a disability is entirely defined by his disability? So easy to do.

And yet. The character of JJ, played by the talented and charismatic Micah Fowler, who himself has CP, is way more than his disability, even in the pilot. Smart, funny and silly, JJ is presented as a very normal teenage boy, with a subversive sense of humour and a screw-you attitude to authority. The fact that he struggles to articulate his fingers separately doesn't stop him flipping the bird to some oglers in a car park; when assigned an aide to speak for him, interpreting from his technology to give him a voice, he decides that she sounds like a fairy godmother and delights in making her say things about pumpkins and 'bibbidy bobbidy boo'. I've worked a lot with young people, and JJ is presented as a very typical teenage boy, in a way that is utterly delightful.

Not only that, he is flawed. Like many (dare I say most?) teenagers, he is at times deceitful, rude, and a bit of an asshole. He uses other people's perceptions of him against them for his own gain. He says things which are deliberately hurtful when lashing out. His sense of humour is not victimless. He objectifies cheerleaders in a very teenage way. He's charming, but not always nice. Which I find particularly refreshing. JJ is not inspiration porn, and the show acknowledges this in the first episode. His new class try to nominate him as class president, citing that he's 'so inspirational!' Bemused, he says, 'Why? You don't know me.' The joke is on the short-sighted teacher and class, and is not made at the expense of people with disabilities.

JJ's mother, Maya, played superbly by Minnie Driver, is likewise a hoot. Determined to get everything JJ should be entitled to, she goes to bat for him with a vengeance, pulling him and his siblings out of school and into new districts when she feels it will be possible to get better provision for her son. Quickly frustrated by school administration, she rails against the barriers and hurdles JJ encounters. Maya is shown to be quick to judge, melodramatic and fiercely loving and protective of her children, particularly JJ. One of the themes which seems set to emerge is the way that JJ, at 16, is ready to begin enjoying some independence from his, at times, overbearing mother, and how difficult it is likely to be for her to allow this. Although Maya is a character played for laughs, the show never seems to shy away from the fact that what she is doing is from a place of love and is the right thing to do for her child. The show is not laughing at parents of kids with special needs, but with them. It's punching up, not down, as the best comedy does, and it manages to do it without being preachy.

I do have some concerns about the show, but so far they are fairly mild. One is that the viewpoint character, if one had to be chosen, is Ray, JJ's brother. We see life from the perspectives of all of the family members, but more Ray than the others. I am anxious that the show avoid falling into the trap of 'disabled sibling exists to make abled sibling's life harder'. I hope this show will do that, and one of the ways it can will be by placing the whole family front and centre, not just Ray.

Another is Kenneth, JJ's new aide. Lampshaded as 'the black guy' in the town - yes, this show is spectacularly white - he is shown to be cool, laid back, easy going, caring, gentle and strong. All good attributes, and particularly important in bringing to the forefront the gentle side of black masculinity and caring. As long as Kenneth avoids being written as a stereotype, the show will do ok, but it would be preferable to me if the cast was more diverse. I love the barriers they're breaking by having this gentle, caring guy - but did the one named black guy in the show have to start off as a janitor? Break a stereotype, make a stereotype. The other one lacks a name, and is a cop.

I write this having seen the first two episodes, and I'll keep watching with interest. I really hope this show turns out well. It seems to be written by careful people who are aware of the harmful tropes that they could inadvertently perpetrate, and I hope that that remains the case. At least we can be pretty sure that in this realistic series, there will be no miracle cures. Thank goodness.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

An Exotic Holiday

Anastasia Socks
During the summer, Mr Handmade and I did something we've long talked about and never actually done: we rented a holiday cottage with some friends and did a proper grown-up holiday with some of our favourite people.

We chose a small town on the edge of the yorkshire dales, with the promise of a little walking, a little shopping and some days out to encourage us. We found a cottage and took it for a week in July, just before most of the schools went on summer holiday.

When the time came, we crammed four adults and all of the bags and baggages we thought we'd need or want for a week away into my tiny purple car, and set off. Driving a heavily laden car around some relatively steep inclines was... interesting, but we arrived, got fish and chips from the local chip shop, and settled in.

The holiday was lovely - very restorative - and included a little of all the things we enjoy. Mr Handmade and I sneaked off on our own and wandered around Acorn Bank, a national trust property with excellent gardens and a house in the early stages of renovation and setting up. We had lunch at a chocolate factory in Orton and bought fresh bread from the town bakery each day. We played most of the board games we took with us. And I took one of the friends and the car and we went to a yarn shop and visited Farfield Mill.

Farfield Mill was... interesting. It was mostly given over to shopping, with artists having individual little divided spaces and selling various things. I think my mother-out-law would love it, but I'm not sure that we are the target market yet. Downstairs, it has some great displays and a pretty good presentation on the 'Terrible Knitters of Dent', who knit in a sort of whole-torso rocking motion and were apparently very fast. I'm quite sad that their sort of knitting - known as swaving - has died out, but there are not very many accounts of it, and no video evidence that might enable us to recreate how they did it. I am aware that a certain blogger claims he has worked it out, but I have watched his videos and he is wrong. What he is doing is knitting, cottage style, with bent needles, not swaving.

We enjoyed Williams' Wools, a lovely shop where the owner was very happy to let us browse at length. I bought some West Yorkshire Spinners Signature 4 ply in the Kingfisher colourway, which knit up very rapidly indeed into some socks which were claimed by my grandmother. Overall, the holiday was a distinct success, and one we plan to repeat in future. Holidaying with friends is very different to going with family or just as a couple, and we liked it a lot.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Recipe: Peanut Butter and White Chocolate Cookies

I've been making variations on these cookies for years, having initially adapted the recipe from the Good Housekeeping recipe book my mum's had since before I was born. I've never actually made them to the recipe in the book, and just keep fiddling and messing until I find something I like.

Having slightly hurt my left wrist doing too much deadline knitting, I'm cutting down on the knitting for a couple of days. My big project is done, and my next knitting deadline isn't until December. I don't mean by that what you think - I'm not planning to knit gifts for people this year as I have other plans. My best friend is anticipating a new family member, so I'm using this as an excuse to make all the cute baby clothes and accessories I've had my eye on for ages.

Being fat, I'm careful about knitting baby things in public. I have a sock on the go for that, to avoid the embarrassment of the conversation which goes like this:
Stranger: "Aww, when are you due?"
Me: "Not pregnant, just fat."
Stranger, embarrassed, wanders away

Anyway, baking uses different muscles to knitting, and I was itching for a creative outlet this morning. Baking cookies is a great way to start the weekend. These are particularly excellent about 10 minutes out of the oven, when they're still warm and a bit chewy inside. When they cool, they have excellent snap and a slightly complex sweetness, not too cloying.

A note on measurements: All ingredients are by weight and in imperial measurements. Although I am what's called a 'millenial' and learned metric in school, I was taught to bake by my mother and grandparents, who taught me in imperial, and so that is how I bake. Sorry.

Makes12 good size cookies.

3oz butter or margarine, softened slightly
3oz white sugar
3oz light brown sugar
1 egg
6oz self raising flour
2oz white chocolate chips
2oz smooth peanut butter
vanilla extract or chef's vanilla

Preheat oven to gas mark 4 or 180°c.

Cream together the butter with both sugars until smooth in consistency and light in colour.

Add the egg and a splash of vanilla extract (not too much - 1/4 teaspoon is enough) and mix until just combined.

Add the flour and chocolate chips and stir in gently. When most of the flour is incorporated, add the peanut butter and stir until mixture is even and no floury or excessively peanut-buttery areas remain. Make sure you scrape around the bowl to incorporate everything.

On a lined baking sheet, place 1tbsp sized dollops of mixture spaced well apart to allow for spreading. Bake for 12 minutes at 180°c and then check on them - they should be well risen and lightly browned at the edges. I find that the first batch tend to need 2 minutes longer, but for subsequent batches 12 minutes is enough.

Leave to cool on the baking tray until the cookies have sunk, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack or paper-towel-lined plate to cool the rest of the way, or eat warm with tea, coffee or glasses of cold milk.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Angelfall, or the problem with disabled younger siblings in fiction

You know how sometimes, there'll be a book that you pick up and put back again each time you go to the bookshop? One that draws you in but you can't quite make the commitment to buy and read? For a little while, that book for me was Angelfall, by Susan Ee. It looked cool - I liked the idea of the post-apocalyptic, angel-ravaged landscape, and the cover is pretty awesome. I also enjoyed the fact that it had a young woman as its main character and there wasn't any mention of a love triangle in the blurb. I picked it up, put it back, picked it up again, each time I went to the bookshop. Eventually, I bought it in ebook form, and read it that way.

Perhaps this pick-it-up-put-it-back cycle hyped it up too much for me, but I was kind of disappointed. Not in the plot, so much, or the world building, which I enjoyed a lot. Mostly I was disappointed by the way that disability was discussed in the book, both in terms of physical disability and mental illness, which I found pretty ignorant and kind of gross. (spoilers follow for the entirety of Angelfall)

The main character, Penryn, is the teenage daughter of a schizophrenic mother. The mother is constantly described as scary, dangerous, unhinged, unable to properly love her children. Certainly she is presented as unable to take care of her children, leading to Penryn having to effectively mother her younger sister. There is very little mention of a father - I don't remember it ever being clear where he was or why he was unable to help to raise his daughters. The mother is presented as having brief, rare moments of clarity where she is horrified at what she's capable of and does things like sign up Penryn to every martial arts class she can locate and pay in advance for the following couple of years. Then she's back to being scary, dangerous and talking to demons. My problem with this character is that she remains a distant stereotype, never becoming a real character. She is entirely defined by the fact that she is violent, scary, unpredictable, and ultimately a danger to everyone around her, including her children.

One of the results of their mother's mental illness is that, prior to the events of the book occurring, Penryn's little sister was gravely injured by their mother when nobody else was around to see it. This injury - which I infer to be a spinal injury of some description, though it's not stated explicitly - left Paige unable to use her legs, or, as Ee puts it "wheelchair bound". The wheelchair users I know really dislike that phrase - they're not trapped in their chairs, the chair gives them freedom to get about and do stuff. Ee also refers to Paige as having "lost her legs", although it's clear from the end of the book that Paige is not an amputee. I found this a strange and lazy way to say that she had lost the use of her legs.

Paige is kidnapped within the first five per cent of the book, and doesn't show up again until the very end. Rescuing Paige is the primary driving force of the novel, with Penryn as narrator making clear that everything she does is for her sister. The girls' mother cannot be trusted to find her young daughter, because she's too busy being scary and crazy, so Penryn, a teenager, has to find and rescue her younger sister. Paige is there only to motivate Penryn, basically a macguffin to drive the plot. Like their mother, she never evolves past her stereotype, which is inspirational disabled angelic victim. Paige is sweet, loving, beautiful and perfect, apart from the fact that she's a victim of their crazy scary mother. She's the infant version of Cousin Helen from What Katy Did, a woman with disabilities who is literally referred to as a saint.

There was one particularly troubling passage about Paige and how she was before the world ended. Penryn briefly describes her sister's friends - a kid with significant limb difference, a kid who drools, a kid who has a breathing pump - and then describes Paige: "Paige was their cheerleader, counsellor and best friend all rolled into one." I read this as presenting Paige through juxtaposing the difference between her and her friends - sorry, her 'flock'. Paige is clearly presented as the leader of this little group, more charismatic, smarter, more positive and optimistic than the other children. The way that the other kids' disabilities are described is in such a way that we, the reader, are supposed to understand the revulsion that people feel upon looking at Paige's 'flock'. By this contrast, we infer, Paige is much better. Less gross. She doesn't drool. She looks the most 'normal'. Of course this makes her the 'cheerleader' of the group, a role in American fiction that is intrinsically linked with beauty, attraction, charisma, popularity and success. The other disabled kids were invoked only to show us more about how perfect Paige is.

I think the main reason that Ee spent so much energy setting up how perfect/beautiful/saintly Paige is, is so that we would feel more of the wrench for Penryn when Paige reappears at the end of the book, transformed into a monster. Her spine has been operated on by the angels, returning her ability to walk, and somehow she has been given super strength, but her (previously perfect, angelic) face has been cut open to replace her teeth with vicious fangs, which also leave her unable to talk. I can see that, if we buy in to the depiction of Paige as this perfect child, her transformation into atrocity is deeply emotionally affecting. However, by the time this was revealed, I was already tired of the trope-y nature of the characters in the book, and ready for it to end.

One thing I probably should mention is that this novel is written in first person, narrated by Penryn. I suppose it could be argued that a teenager who hates her mother and adores her sister will not present them as anything more than the stereotypes as which they appear in this book. But I find it problematic and irresponsible that Ee didn't do more to depict these characters in a more three-dimensional way. Penryn is shown to be able to think in a complex way about other issues, but in terms of thinking about disability, it's the same old stuff.

Disabled characters in books seem almost always to be either saints or burdens, and almost never the main character in their own right. Penryn has both a burden and a saint to bear, in the form of her mother and sister, but the tropes around disability that Ee employed read to me as both lazy and ignorant. The disabled characters of Angelfall never get to be anything other than the stereotypes that are initially employed to describe them - the same tired, lazy tropes that we see everywhere. As described in this brilliant essay, the disabled characters of this novel exist purely to add difficulty, pathos and motivation to the life of the main character, an abled young woman.

This book is partly so disappointing because I wanted it to be better. I liked that the main character could generally take care of herself. I enjoyed the world building. The prose was pretty decent. That's what makes it such a shame that the characterisation let it down.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Fifth Season, by NK Jemisin

Reading a book is an act of trust. I've frequently been heard to say, 'Life's too short to read bad books,' and it's something I wholeheartedly believe. If I start reading a book and find that it's not to my taste, I'm doing nobody any favours by continuing to read it. Carrying on with a book is, to me, saying that I trust that the book will be worth my time. If I'm not enjoying it, the author has not inspired that trust in me, and I'll give up. I've encountered many people who finish every book they start, on principle. I'm the opposite.

Finding an author I can reliably trust to deliver work I'll enjoy and want to read to the end is amazing - like meeting someone and knowing they're destined to become an old friend. As a child, Diana Wynne Jones was one of these authors; I would take any of her books out of the library without even glancing at the blurb, because I knew I would love it, whatever she wrote. The same was true of Joan Aiken. I read everything of hers that I could get my hands on and loved it all - this was begun with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which I was given for my sixth birthday by my former childminder.

A little over four years ago, I discovered a new author of the trustworthy kind: N K Jemisin. I'll buy anything she writes. I've loved all of her novels so far, and all of her short stories that I've read. I've given copies of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as gifts to friends and family at least half a dozen times. During my first Masters degree, I wrote a paper on her first published novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (it was about the fluidity of Nahadoth's gender and Heidegger's 'gift' and Da-sein), which means my paperback copy of the book is frilled with placemarkers and post-it notes with all my scribblings on them. When I wrote this essay, I emailed her letting her know that I had enjoyed her work and she emailed back so graciously that it really just cemented my enjoyment of her work. Not only is she a hell of a writer, she's either a really great person, or exceptionally good at pretending to be (I suspect the former).

I don't recall how long ago I preordered The Fifth Season - months, at least. I read about it on her blog when she was writing about curse words and the way they betray the values of a society, when it was still being called the Untitled Magic Seismology Project (UMSP) and I've been waiting for it with growing excitement since then. That was in 2012. So, three years? Ish?

Anyway, The Fifth Season was released this week, and it is amazing. I trust Jemisin to write stuff that I'll want to read, and will buy pretty much anything with her name on it. But this is her best novel yet. Even before I had finished it, I was enthusing to friends and theorizing and realising links and connections between characters and situations and it's just a triumph. It's amazing. I love it.

The Fifth Season is about three women - one child, leaving her family to be taken and trained to use her orogenic powers (magic based on and involving the earth and seismic effects); one young woman in control of her powers who has been sent away with a man she can barely stand, to do a job she doesn't want to do, and is expected to return pregnant if possible; and a woman fully grown into herself and her powers, facing the loss and death of her children. I was more than halfway through the book before I realised that it's the maiden, the mother and the crone, but of course all of these characters are more than that.

This book is about oppression and love and protection and identity and power and fear. It's about parenthood and childhood, family and strangeness. There are characters who are queer and poly and trans; there are characters who are hated and feared because of what they are and punished for what they cannot help but be; there are characters with black skin, brown skin, white skin, with straight and curly and kinky hair, with and without epicanthal folds. The world that she has built looks, in many ways, different from our own, but the diversity of experiences and people is there. And it's there because Jemisin has made it matter that it is there. She does this on purpose (I assume that everything in her books is there on purpose, because Jemisin is a very purposeful and thoughtful writer.) and it makes all the difference. It matters that there exist books where the main characters are bisexual and polyamorous, where there are prominent trans characters and gender fluid characters, where characters have disabilities of various types. Jemisin writes about oppression in various forms in all of her books, and she writes about it from the point of view of a person who notices things and thinks about them. There is no 'writing about the default' in her work. It is a thousand miles away from medieval-Europe-white-people-sword-and-sorcery, and so much the better for it.

It's impossible to express how much I loved this book. I'm composing a list of people who deserve or need to get this book for birthdays or solstice and currently the list stands at 'everyone.' I'm looking forward to buying it in dead tree version so I can reread it and still have a new experience with it. If and when the audiobook becomes available in the UK, I'll buy it and listen to it. I think it will become my favourite book by my favourite living author. It's amazing. I loved it. I loved it.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Women are not things: Mad Max's "Feminist Propaganda"

Last weekend Mr Handmade and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Roads.

I haven't seen the first three in the franchise. I don't know how I've missed them; I think my Dad even has them in a DVD box set in their living room, but I've never (to my knowledge) seen any of them. I'm aware of the general idea (cars in a wasteland, and Mel Gibson being a silly action hero). Fine.

So we went and watched the newest one. You can probably guess whose pick it was; moreso when I say that I went in with little knowledge and no expectations. Cars, wasteland, some actors whose names I recognised, and he wanted to watch it, so okay. We saw it in 2D (we both hate 3D movies).

It wasn't until after we came out that he told me that it had been making MRAs (Men's Rights Activists, aka whiny anti-feminist types) angry. Had he told me that before we decided, I would have been much more excited to see it.

The premise of the film is pretty simple (spoilers ahead):

Max is captured by a society of white-painted 'War boys', led by their scary-faced repulsive leader who keeps a throng of people in thrall to him by limiting their access to water. Then Imperator Furiosa, the driver of their largest, most impressive vehicle (a tanker with half a VW Beetle welded to the top of it) rescues their leader's "wives" to take them away to a semi-mythical 'green place' where she grew up before she was kidnapped by the war boys as a child. One hell of a car chase ensues.

This film was not unproblematic. One of the biggest issues was the way that the main antagonists were so deathly pale - falling into the Evil Albino stereotype. I found it slightly unclear whether we were expected to infer that the warboys had their complexion due to painting themselves white, or whether they were meant to be that pale naturally, but the fact that it didn't wear off through the film in the way that the body paint of other characters did suggests to me that we are to infer that their pallor is natural.

There were also certainly moments of male gaze - shots of supermodels wearing nothing but gauze bikinis. The wives in general weren't particularly well fleshed-out, although they were shown to be intelligent people with their own wants and needs. I'm not sure that the characterisation they got made up for the slightly gratuitous semi-nudity.

On the other hand, this film defied Hollywood convention in many ways that I enjoyed. There was no romance, for one thing. The main characters were just that - characters. There was no love interest. No woman reduced to a hero's sexual plaything. All of the women were there on their own merits.

In fact, the men who did use women sexually against their will were demonstrated clearly to be evil men, symbols and products of an evil society. The good men were those who appreciated and respected women under their own merits - which is painfully rare in current film, particularly film of this genre.

However, what I loved most about this film was the character of Furiosa. A woman with a visible disability (left arm amputee) that's never used to denigrate her, who defies the will of her boss and takes control of a situation that nobody would want to be in. A butch woman whose femininity is not threatened. A woman who is brave, tough, strong, kind and loving. A woman shown to be capable of using many weapons, both physical (fists, elbows, knives, guns) and mental (logic, persuasion), and deciding according to the situation which is the best to use. A woman shown, in short, to be capable of many things. I think it's mostly Furiosa that has the MRAs decrying this film as feminist propaganda. As one parody puts it, she 'doesn't even show us her tits'. Furiosa is beautiful (played by Charlize Theron, of course she is) but not defined by it. Rather, she is defined by her formidable ability to survive in the harsh world in which they live.

After reading in many places that this self-consciously silly action film was being seen as 'feminist propaganda', I began to think about precisely which messages it was that these men had taken issue with. Propaganda is, by definition, misleading.

Was it the part of the film where a woman was shown to be able to throw a punch that knocked a man to the floor? The part where a woman could shoot as well as anyone else?

Was it the idea that a woman could be logical? Know how to fix or modify a car?

Or was it simply the message made explicit early in the film upon the women's escape from their captor? Perhaps the most chilling interpretation of these men's ire is that what may be the central message of the film is seen by these men as misleading, biased or in some other way 'wrong'. It's writ large across the film, painted onto walls and said by sympathetic characters many times: Women are not things.

Monday, 11 May 2015

A mishmash

Karina has written some interesting thoughts on knitting/crafting and lifestyle blogs and curation of personal 'brand' and image. She refers to it as 'Gooping', as in Paltrow. I think that a certain amount of curation is not only advisable, but necessary. We don't need to know gnarly inside details of everything and everyone's life. On the other hand, allowing some 'mess' to creep in is needed.

There can, I think, be a temptation to avoid admitting when things are hard, to keep things light and bright and sparkling. Those blogging about knitting and quilting rarely blog about their mental health issues or the homophobia they face in the street or being victims of any number of crimes and microaggressions daily. It seems almost compartmentalised away from that, as though creating a creative space requires no allowance of negativity.

For me, when I have brainweasels, it's hard for me to create. I can tell I'm depressed when I have no interest in knitting or sewing or spinning. I only really do these things when I'm happy - maybe that's linked to it. But I certainly identify with what Karie says about the mint/peach blob. The lives of most of these people don't really resemble mine in any meaningful way.


I'm looking for audiobook recommendations. I've recently listened to and enjoyed Tell the Wolves I'm Home and I've just read The Rabbit Back Literature Society which was quite good and Alif the Unseen which was wonderful. Heard anything great lately?


I listen to this poem sometimes just on repeat. I think it's one of my favourites.

Have a good Monday.