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.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

A Special Gift

In knitting circles, there is semi-regular discussion of 'knitworthiness'. Someone who is not knitworthy will accept your handmade gift and then set it immediately aside, sneer at it, refuse to ever wear it or fail to follow care instructions, so that when the knitter later asks (yes, yes, much safer never to ask after a gift...) the recipient says 'oh, I washed it on hot and it shrank so I gave it away/cut it up/gave it to the dog...'

The general consensus is that knitworthy people are to be cherished and protected at all costs. They are worthy of the hours of work, the silks and cashmeres and handpainted yarns. My nanna is knitworthy - she got a shawl that I made for her in Wollmeise. The supervisor for my undergraduate dissertation is the most knitworthy non-knitter I've ever met; I made her a fichu and a pair of fingerless gloves and gave her a shawl during the time she was teaching and supervising me, and each time she admired the item in detail, from the pattern to the colour to the texture, and each time I saw her using the item around campus. That's how you get more handknits from a knitter! I would knit for her again like a shot. I don't know if she knows knitters or if she's just naturally gracious and knitworthy, but she is the very model for gift receiving. 

Of course, even close family have to prove their knitworthiness. I've known more than one knitter who will knit cheerfully for friends and acquaintances but refuses to knit so much as a cotton washcloth for their sister/aunt/mother who has demonstrated their unworthiness of such an honour.

I haven't seen a similar idea in quilting circles, or maybe I'm just not a reader of enough quilting message boards. But there is certainly one person in my life who is very worthy as a recipient of handmades, and that's my fiance, Mr Handmade. 

His quilt has been on the go for a while now, but he has never nagged about it. When I finally got myself into gear and finished it off, he was thrilled. He snuggled under it immediately I gave it to him; he put it on the bed so it would be close and warm and useful straight away; he laid it out and told me which blocks were his favourites ("All of them! Especially this one... and this one... and this one...") and he told me over and over how soft and lovely it is, how much he loves it, how talented he thinks I am for making it.
Oh, my lovely, knitworthy, quiltworthy love. I will make him all the quilts he asks for. He's proved he's worthy of them.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

A(n almost) finished object!

Please excuse the artifical light in this picture - I just wanted a record of how I spent my Sunday, working on this UFO.

I started this morning with a pieced top and the fleece backing ready to go - and it had been like that for over a month - and hoped to get up the energy to baste it by the end of the day. About lunchtime I swept the floor, spread everything out and started the long and arduous task of crawling around with safety pins. I can definitely see why so many quilters use those gadgets to close safety pins - it'll be days before my fingertips recover.

I had some clear ideas about how I wanted to quilt it, but only partial ideas. First things first, I quilted in the ditch between each block, and then looked at it to assess how much more quilting it needed. I wanted it to be a soft, snuggly quilt, so not too much quilting was in order, but it definitely needed more quilting than just a 12" grid. My issue was mainly how to quilt it with all the squares being so different to each other, and give it a sense of unity within the quilting.

I began with the ones with a clear square in the centre - the middle two, the churn dash above them, the star from 'made' fabric, and so on. I quilted around that square. Then I looked for similarly sized shapes in the others, and quilted square or square-ish shapes in those. In the house  block, for instance, I quilted around the shape of the house. I quilted around the central square of the pinwheels block and the inside octagon of the bowties block. The four squares that meet in the middle of the nine-patch block were treated as one square in the quilting. For the string block, I found a place where three of the quadrants had seams that met, and quilted that diamond, even though it meant going down the middle of the strip on the other quadrant. Finally, for the 'breaking out' block, I quilted a square set on point around that central pinwheel.

I bound it using seven fabrics that are either represented in the quilt or from the same collections. I didn't want to hand sew the binding to the back because of the fleece backing, so I consulted this tutorial from Cluck Cluck Sew and machined it. All that remains is to bury all of my threads, and the quilt is completed. Not too shabby for one afternoon's work.

This is deeply imperfect. There are so many seams that don't match up, I was astonished when I found any that did! There are fabric choices and colour choices that I would definitely not make if I was making the same blocks today. The blocks came from the We Can Do It skill builder and were almost all made in 2011 or 2012. I made those blocks when I was still getting to know my sewing machine, totally new at sewing. The blocks moved home with me 5 times before they got put together. When I made them I was an undergraduate - now I have 3 degrees and a proper job. This quilt was started in a totally different chapter of my life to the one in which it will finish. Funny how quilts can span ages like that.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Resolutions after all

I don't blog much about anything, but I particularly don't blog much about my life, I think. I try to keep stuff craft focused. This is in part because of my job (I work with nosy kids who will ferret out any information they can about the adults in their lives, up to and including searching tirelessly for them on social media), and partly because I'm uncomfortably aware that my life is very much in the vein of barely-stopped-being-a-student. I mean, I have a 'proper, grown-up job' but I just six months ago got done being a full time university student, which I had been for six years. So in many ways I still feel like/live like a student.

Anyway, for much of the latter half of this year, I had no central heating in my house. This was fine in September when the weather was still pretty warm, but by the end of November was really cramping my style, and by the time it was fixed at the beginning of December was definitely necessary. This was due to an issue with the gas, so I also had no oven or stove cooking facilities at the time. The people around me were horrified that this was how my life was, but (student mindset!) I just got on with stuff.

Anyway, I realised that there are a couple of other things leading me to still live like a student and honestly, I'm done with it. Two things in particular: I have no light in my living room or bathroom.

The bathroom I'm pretty certain just needs a new lightbulb. Unfortunately the ceilings are pretty high for a house I'm pretty sure was built in the 20th century, and it's going to be a stepladder job, and I'm 5'2 first thing in the morning if I've slept particularly well. Also there'll be screwdrivers involved to take the light fitting apart. What I'm saying is that there are reasons that I haven't got around to sorting this yet, but it needs doing because showering in the dark is not the funnest thing ever and while I can pee with the door open (I live alone) it slightly prohibits having guests around outside of daylight hours.

The living room is not a lightbulb issue. It's had new lightbulbs and still doesn't work. I don't know what's wrong with it. I'll have to have a handyman round to sort it out, which means phoning my landlord and making a fuss. But in the interests of not living like a student any more, I should just do that. I don't have a good excuse for not having done that already (plenty of excuses, mind, just none that hold water). So that's the other resolution. Get the living room light sorted out.

Is there a word for that sort of thing? Where you sort of say, 'oh, the light doesn't work. Okay, I'll put a lamp in here/pee with the door open/absent mindedly sort things out so that it's still sub-optimal but not as bad as it could be'. Is it the missing stair that you get used to jumping over? You put a bit of carpet over it and tell the guests, 'by the way, that step's missing, so don't stand there.' It gets ridiculous, but you're used to jumping over that stair, so you fail to notice how silly it is. Just get the repairmen in. Fix the damn stair.