I had a chance to sit down with my good friend and fellow writer Jessica Prado, whose new novel, Silver Awakening, released in 2015 in paperback and eBook. She had some great ideas to share on how to write a debut novel as a busy mom and how to navigate the world of e-commerce once the writing is done.
ESH: You have a novel out now. When did you start writing it, and did it start out as something else?
JP: It started as a short story back when I was in college. I think that the idea started at that point, however it evolved a lot from what it was originally. I really only had a few passages written originally.
ESH: What kinds of things did you learn in school that helped you write your first novel?
JP: English wasn't my major—I was actually an art major. I've loved to write, and when I was in grade school I wrote this little book called Winter Is Fun. That was my first book that I ever wrote. Of course it’s not published or anything, but it was bound in construction paper. I’ve always known I enjoyed writing, so in college I tried to take classes that geared toward my interests in creative writing. I think what I learned there was how to edit things down and cut things out. I’m pretty good about not getting so attached to something that I can’t cut it out, and I think that helps me with pacing in a story.
ESH: You've mentioned before that you're a big reader. What kinds of influences do you have? Which writers do you like, and what have you learned from them?
JP: I’m more interested in story than in individual writers. If a story appeals to me, then I’ll read it, but at the end of the book, I want to feel good. I’ve read a lot of fantasy and young adult fiction. Obviously Harry Potter is one of my favorites because there’s just so much fantasy in it, and it’s clean and it’s fun and it makes you feel so good when you read it. I’ve read a lot of the Other World series, and right now I’m reading the Miss Peregrine’s series. I was a photography major, so I love the photos in that one along with the style and the fantasy elements. I don’t read a lot of romance novels, but I love books that have romance in them. I liked Twilight, even though there were some things about it that I would have done differently if I had written it. [laughs]
ESH: You mentioned before that you had some friends read your manuscript early on. Did you ever take your book to a workshop setting to get feedback that way?
JP: I started a group that I called my Secret Readers' Club. It started as a Facebook group that was just my friends and a few family members who love to read. I got a lot of feedback on the early parts when I was developing the story. They helped me with organizing the book. An example of this is when I wrote the first chapter. I started out with all of Noah’s perspective and then all of Silver’s, and then after workshop I went back and added transitions instead.
A lot of what I struggled with, that I think the Secret Readers’ Club helped a lot with, was the love scene. Love scenes are such a sensitive subject, and I had to be really careful about making sure the characters were still likable afterward. I think I tested it out three or four different ways with the group, and I could not have written that part of the book without them.
ESH: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s been like in terms of getting something sold online as a paperback and an eBook?
JP: That’s actually really hard, and it’s still new for me. Where I’m at with it right now is, I kind of feel like I’d like to conclude the series before I start marketing it. When I talk to other authors who self-publish, they’ve shared their experiences about marketing pressure and not worrying too much about the first book. A lot of times people want to buy a book once the series is finished, so I’ve just been doing my own little promotions here and there until the rest of the series is ready. I’ve done a few Facebook ads and promoted my book on different blogs and things as well, and I’ve followed a lot of marketing advice I’ve found on the web.
ESH: If someone came to you (maybe someone reading this conversation) wondering where to start when writing a novel, what would you suggest?
I started with kind of a bulleted outline in Word showing the general story of the novel. It did change when I ended up writing the story, but at least having that simple nutshell helped get it going. It also helped in writing the chapters, with what needed to happen in each one. I kept a lot of notes, especially because I was working with fantasy, and I used Track Changes comments in Word to keep track of things that I wanted to do as I was editing. Now that I’m doing my second novel, I have all the comments from the first one in its own document. I can go back and use it, especially when I’m keeping track of time divergence. That has helped me a lot.
I don’t think I’ve gotten though a single feminist research project without seeing a reference to Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. As I bummed through a mall bookstore on a rare day off last week, I picked up my own copy, designed in purple, in true Alice Walker fashion, and sped home to start reading.
I had known that this was a book about womanism, Walker’s term for a deeper shade of feminism that embraces black heritage, love, curves, food, camaraderie, and joy. What I did not understand is that the book is an excellent source of literary criticism in the feminist world, particularly with respect to how black culture has often been marginalized. Reading Walker’s critical work gives deeper perspective on both her creative work and the works of other women who have faced marginalizing forces in their own literary production.
Rather than go into the whole book (the entire thing is an enjoyable and critical read), the best place to start learning with Walker’s book is in the very first essay, “Saving the Life that Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life.” In the piece, Alice Walker discusses a key problem that she and other womanists and black woman writers have faced in writing creatively. She mentions Toni Morrison’s famous advice to write the kind of books that you, the writer, want to read. Walker takes this advice a step further, detailing how many of Toni Morrison’s works are without a clear influence because of the canon’s marginalization of black women’s stories, told from their own perspectives. Walker digs deeper, recalling her own discovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which had been out of print by the early 1970s. This discovery sparked a need in her to uncover other black woman writers and storytellers to help establish a literary tradition that subverted a canon that is ultimately sexist and racist.
The first time I picked up Zora Neale Hurston, it was 2001 and she was back in print and featured on high school summer reading lists, thanks to contemporary writers like Walker and Morrison. For me, it wasn’t strange at all to see a black womanist tradition forming before my eyes, but for Walker writing her essay in the 1970s, that canon needed some help to emerge. Walker’s main point in the essay is to draw on Morrison’s advice to become your own role model in writing creative work, breaking down fences in literary style in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s unique unfolding of magic realism or Toni Morrison’s girlhood perspectives on beauty, sexuality, northern racism in The Bluest Eye. Today's literary canon is still far from perfect, but it's been refreshing to track the re-emergence of fascinating writers like Hurston and Ella Cara Deloria, who lost traction for a while mid-century.
Walker’s essay on creative bravery sparked my own thought process in a very strong way. Her analysis is framed within womanist fiction but urges all writers to go beyond trend or established literary models and discover new ways of doing things. For someone like me, a new-ish creative writer operating in a world of glittery vampires, swooning love stories, and other market-driven tropes, it’s enormously helpful to begin thinking of story and narrative not in terms of how other people do things but how I want to do something. Alice Walker gives me and writers of all backgrounds permission to pull in all corners of our lives—the mundane all the way to the fantastic—to come up with a new tradition. As we take new steps, particularly in the world of making feminist literature more widespread, we also lay the path for others who might otherwise lack influences to join us. By saving our own literary lives, we make tremendous strides in creativity and in forging new avenues of literary thought.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
Most feminist book lovers I’ve met can’t get through a top-five list without gushing about a Brontë, and I’m not going to be the one to change that stereotype. Having fallen in love with Charlotte the semester before, I started reading into the lesser-known sister and her two modest novels during year one of graduate school. Agnes Grey appealed to me, with its Anne Shirley–esque theme of the independent, working governess, but the moment I skimmed the back of a dusty copy of Tenant I fully recognized myself. The book is about a crappy, failed marriage to an oppressive A-hole and the heroine’s steps toward independence, new love, and even a budding art career—practically the story of my life after college. While there are some points of plot that are a little bit cringe worthy by modern standards—like the trope of the angelic, long-suffering wife who for moral reasons should not officially divorce her abusive, philandering husband—the novel holds so many questions that would have been crucial for me as a wee middle school girl about to walk right into the trappings of patriarchy, the cultural marriage mandate, and sub-par male-female relationships.
The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan
In a similar vein to Brontë’s novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife braids together a rich historical setting with a feminist narrative that can be an enriching place to start for teen girls. A few scholars I’ve read, including Karen Dodwell, talk about removing the feminist discussion to a faraway culture or time period to help newcomers to feminism understand and process it better without getting all tangled up in their own cultural scripts. (Think in terms of modern-day conservative students shying away from Shulamith Firestone but fully embracing Charlotte Brontë.) In pedagogy—or in my reading recommendations to my former teen self—this suggests potential for a historical Chinese diaspora novel like The Kitchen God’s Wife, which shows old and new, East and West, while bridging those gaps to illustrate the universality of the themes without reinforcing orientalism or cultural chauvinism. This book was an eye opener for me to pick up as an adult due to its domestic violence themes, especially on the emotional front, so a teenager could do much worse than to learn about good and bad relationships in the milieu of Japanese-occupied China during World War II, from one of the best modern American writers out there.
The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
I’ll just come out with it: I am a dystopia junkie. Dystopia, plus any other iteration of Foucault’s –topias, for that matter, from Thomas More’s Utopia or Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, to heterotopias like Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black, to downer dystopias like The Parable of the Sower. Octavia Butler’s novel about US societal collapse in the not-too-distant future is an engaging piece of ecofeminist thought that is age appropriate for teens. Unlike many teenage dystopias, Butler does not focus on the constructed totalitarian society but examines California life as it crumbles from unsustainable environmental, economical, and social practices. Aside from the mind-spark messages that would have been new to me as a middle schooler, the book is simply well written and engaging. A book like this one, if read early, would have opened the door for me to engage with ecofeminism as well as a canon of dystopia writers like Margaret Atwood, Cormack McCarthy, or Ursula K. LeGuin—some of my now favorites, who I didn't even know about until college—a little sooner in the coming-of-age process.
The Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea
This novel wasn’t around back when I was in middle school in the late-1990s, but I wish it had been, and I wish I’d had the foresight to pick it up. As it happened, I was 25 when I bought the bargain hardback, which I’d judged for its striking foil stamping and for the title’s proclamation that this was a novel about girls. I started reading it on a rainy day in my study and didn’t put it down until I’d turned over the final leaf. Unlike so many of the books I’d read so far, this book was not written from the Western perspective, and it served as my introduction (as a mostly Christian American from a tiny midwestern town), post-9/11, to what real Muslim women’s lives are like in a place like Saudi Arabia. This wasn’t a Westernized reactionary piece, out to “rescue” all Middle Eastern women, and it wasn’t an outright vindication of the godliness of Islam and the evils of the West. Because this book failed to fall into either stereotype of how Americans tend to see Islamic life, it affected my reach into world literature and global feminism in a deep way. In short, Rajaa Alsanea’s perspective on being young and educated and fashionable in an Islamic state helped elucidate for me the real feminist questions happening in the Islamic world, outside of the blurred contexts of Desert Storm, 9/11, and other East/West battlegrounds. The novel is written in the form of an e-mail publication, with teen-accessible language in the English translation. If this book had been in my hands in the late nineties, I would have been able to skip all the Western-born stereotypes about Islam and jump into something useful.
Originally posted May 1, 2015
In just under a year, Charlotte Brontë turns 200. It feels appropriate, to me, to be gearing up for her birthday celebration as I launch a zine exploring feminism and girlhood from a textual perspective. Birthdays are—if nothing else—a mark of time well spent, a simple increment on the trip from being a kid to being a grown up. And Charlotte certainly had a lot to party about.
But she wasn’t alone in her literary greatness. A lot of people know that Charlotte wrote her tales of female stars alongside her two sisters, Emily and Anne, but a lot of casual readers miss out on the whole package when they just remember the Brontës for Jane Eyre. Even Charlotte herself felt like her sisters deserved wider credibility:
“I may sum up all by saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers, less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.”
It’s safe to say the Brontës wrote a lot from experience, and a lot of that had to do with each other. Their sisterly collaboration in the creative sphere remains, even today, prime fodder for girls to soak up between basketball practice and math homework. Reading Anne and Charlotte, it’s apparent that the feminist utopia, or females gathering around for mutual influence, meant a lot to their idea of bringing up stellar girls. Charlotte has Jane spy on a group of Brontë-esque sisters as they bat ideas back and forth by the hearth and sets parts of Villette and Jane Eyre in girls’ academies. Anne shows Agnes Grey opening a girls’ school with her mother and even has her heroine Helen Graham adopt her mother’s maiden name and set up house and shop with her lifelong female servant and good friend. Something about the community of women and girls clearly fed the Brontës and gave their stories a uniquely girl-positive light. Both in their fiction and in real life, the sisters explored their mutual creativity through words and art, leaning always on each other for support, criticism, and muse.
The trio’s childhood home and ground zero for their work is now a museum, operated by the Brontë Society, and their communal writing table is now a fixture there once again thanks to a generous grant. Sitting around that table, these literary sisters brought so many of us our first awakenings of a raised consciousness, and even more still a recognition of our maturing selves. Even though not all books dwell at great length like Jane Eyre does on girlhood, all tackle the coming-of-age progression and show strong girls who notice wrongdoing, work hard, and make a mark, eventually evolving into strong women. For that, the novels are detailed roadmaps for navigating girlhood. We readers find in these books a critical eye cast toward the pressures on girls and women, and if read carefully, they’re a great primer on growing up.
We don’t have to dig too far at all to find glimmers of how to be a successful girl in the novels, and at the same time, there are countless hints toward the restrictions these brilliant women faced as they made their way as writers. After all, the three wrote mid-nineteenth century, all publishing originally under masculine—or at least neutral—cover. The world didn’t know Charlotte, Emily, and Anne for some time, but they ate up Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Brontë scholar Winifred Gérin attemps an explanation. She ties at least Charlotte and Anne’s pen names to female figures that were objects of their admiration. This feels a bit more positive than calling themselves by random masculine names, but even so, it remains that the sisters could see the need for some kind of unobtrusive cover in the first place. Like Malala Yousafzai writing under the name of her favorite Pashtun heroine to protect her identity, the Brontës lived in a world beset by backlash anytime women tried to do something public. The feminine-masking pen name concept feels retrograde in twenty-first century Anglo-American society, where we have things like Title IX and sexual harassment laws in the United States, but it feels pretty brave, looking backward, to take on even male-sounding names if it means getting your work out there for people to read. The Brontës didn’t dismantle the father’s house, but they did rework the tools to build the addition.
A lot of the positive girl buzz generated in the Brontë novels stems from the fact of the family’s lower middle class station. The family wasn’t rich, but they had education and each other. One could do much worse than to take Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre as instructional booklets on owning girlhood. Anne writes Agnes in a somewhat autobiographical way, giving her an education and a job of her own. Agnes moves away from home while young with a thirst for earning her bread. She uses her humble and industrious upbringing (with parents encouraging her to be an actor in her own fate) to land a governess position over girls in much fancier positions than she’s used to.
When Agnes cares for a well-to-do Rosalie Murray, she looks on as the girl makes vain choices that ultimately land her in a less-than-happy situation. Rosalie likes the finer things and dreams of being a titled lady above all else—not unlike the vacuous Lady Lowborough of her other cautionary proto-feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Agnes, though, comes from a set of parents who married for love over money. She grew up hearing her mother say she’d rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man, and she finds out later that her mother was disinherited from a sprawling fortune because of the marriage. While so much girl fiction—contemporary and otherwise—seems to focus on the marriage plot and the pursuit of a prince, Agnes’s story dwells at length on the folly of thinking in terms of marital gain alone. Agnes knows she has to work hard right from the beginning, and she feels her social disadvantage at not belonging to the well-primped and wealthy set, as well as her gender disadvantage at not being born male and able to be an agent over every aspect of her happiness.
In a strikingly modern passage, Agnes looks on as Rosalie is showered with happiness, all because of her beauty and her willingness to play into the scripts that dictate how girls should perform their femininity. Rosalie is raised to value flirting and love matches over bookishness—Agnes’s strong suit—and the double standard between the Christian ideal of inner beauty and the reality of outer beauty’s power is not lost on our heroine:
“It is foolish to wish for beauty,” muses Agnes. “Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper no doubt; but are such assertions supported by actual experience?”
Agnes is understandably bitter at how unfairly things are shaking out for her, despite her hard work toward the ideal of cultivating her brains over her looks. She goes on to say that if a girl is pretty and good, she is praised for both, while a plain and good girl scarcely makes a mark on anyone. Likewise, pretty girls who are awful on the inside get away with things that a plain girl never would. It’s a stark lesson and an interesting assessment that still holds weight for girl readers today. Girl culture critics Susan Douglas and Joan Jacobs Brumberg are right at home with Agnes in their dissection of why we value pretty over good or smart. What’s disappointing is that almost immediately after Agnes’s bold critique of beauty standards and performing femininity in exchange for happiness, she admits that she’s begun to take a page from Rosalie in dressing prettier for her crush, Mr. Weston.
The societal compliance ends up working out for her. Agnes ends up with Weston in the end (he shows up out of the woodwork to marry her, as so many nineteenth-century heroes do), so Anne has just proven through Agnes that women have to make concessions if they want certain kinds of happiness. Agnes Grey is a very clear criticism of what too much money and vanity can do to people, but she applies an inversion technique to show—quietly and without rocking the boat—why that kind of thing still short changes women in the long run, just like she shows Tenant’s Helen Huntington nearly undone in the end by following the good girl trope all her life. It all feels a lot like awkward teenager Daria of the 1990s MTV series, whose defiance of acceptable teenage girliness is met with awkward moments on the show, but for the purpose of asking us to re-evaluate the way we think about girl scripts. Daria is a feminist with one outfit in her closet, but when faced with her crush, she still ends up getting her belly button pierced—against her normal judgment—to appear dangerous and sexy. It’s a way to show that girlhood is a minefield of double-standards and forced compromises, even within feminism, and that it’s human to get sucked into what you’re fighting.
All of this Anne talk is not to diminish Charlotte. In fact, Jane Eyre feels like a companion read with Agnes Grey. Both star governesses who rose from modest means, dealt with spoiled wealthies, did their work demurely, and ended up with some variety of happiness. Unlike Agnes’s “prince” though, Jane’s is loaded—but blinded—at the end. I hesitate to position Jane Eyre as a road map for girls because Jane’s relationship to Rochester feels more like a caretaker role, something Nel Noddings might endorse for its care ethic and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar might decry for its angel-in-the-house female martyrdom. Both novels seem flawed in that neither Jane nor Agnes seemed to have much choice over whom they fell in love with, and they do both circle back to a convenient ending served with wedding cake. On the other hand, they are also alike in that they show strong girls rising up and doing something in a world that says they should probably be written under pen names. The novels aren’t perfect, but then feminist scholars have been squabbling for decades over what makes a text feminist. Ideas range from female authorship to womb allegories, and it feels like there will never be a quickie answer to how exactly a text can be feminist. And that’s why it’s so exciting to study.
With several semesters of women’s studies behind me, I revisit the marriage plot in the Brontë novels and start to think of it as more of a reward for doing the feminist thing than a damning tell of non-feminist writing. In a highly matrimonial world, it makes sense that a writer has to show her readers that they can paint, write, teach, work, and be strong while still attaining the socially acceptable happiness of marriage. The message to girls seems to be that it’s okay to be both subjects and authors; feminists don’t have to end up alone with their work, and their generative power doesn’t have to stop with childbearing. While the fantasy of “having it all” needs some work—via squashing gender bias in the K–12 classroom and creating a world where women have access to childcare and equal pay—it’s heartening to see books written in the 1840s with something to contribute to that ideal besides, “all that satisfaction will be too much work.”
So for that, I praise the Brontës. They may not have been as overtly polemical as Mary Wollstonecraft or rocked as many boats as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but they did something that in the right light feels a whole lot more effective than being an ardent proselyte for feminism. They took themselves and their ideas and wrote them into a narrative that many girls can relate to. They drew politics from the public world and made them comfy within the personal. Call it the power of storytelling. Through fiction, the Brontës reached girls and women of all ages, many of whom had no previous care or idea of what a feminist looks like. And in their vast and enduring impact on girls’ coming of age experiences, I totally agree with Charlotte—they were genuinely good and truly great.
Originally posted May 1, 2015
Which would you rather be: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw? Your answer can say a lot about you, aside from revealing your Team Charlotte or Team Emily leanings in the world of Brontëana. On the face of it, picking Jane makes you sharp and independent, and siding with Cathy betrays your fierce romantic streak. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright and journalist, opens with that in her literary memoir How to Be a Heroine, or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much. She played this unassuming “would you rather” game with her best friend and unwittingly went down a bookish road that began with revisiting the greats and ended up revealing whole new layers to some of Ellis’s favorite literary ladies.
More than literary criticism, How to Be a Heroine is about a word nerd’s journey from girlhood onward. Raised by Jewish Iraqi refugees in England, Ellis blends her personal coming-of-age story between witty commentary and in-depth analysis of her favorite literary girls and women. Beginning with the Little Mermaid and Anne Shirley, and moving to Esther Greenwood and Franny Glass, Ellis shows how re-reading her favorite girl characters allows her to parse her own lived girlhood scripts and reveal entire new truths about her womanhood.
“Because I started reading again the books that had meant so much to me, I remembered how I’d felt as a four-year-old wishing I was the Little Mermaid, or at twenty, wanting to be Lucy Honeychurch,” Ellis writes in the introduction. “It was hard to confront my mistakes, and I had to ask myself difficult questions. But I discovered that I did have an arc and a journey after all. I wasn’t just reading about my heroines, I was reading the story of my life.”
Ellis approaches her literary life map with a keen sense of feminist criticism, and the message is a strong push for a revision of how girlhood is presented to readers. She learned young, like Toni Morrison’s Pecola Breedlove, to envy the likes of Sleeping Beauty for their blue eyes and blonde hair, begrudging her own heritage and brand of beauty in the mix. On the other side, her adult reading of Pride and Prejudice shows that men can be into smart girls like Lizzy Bennett, even if they don’t seem attractive at first glance across a dance hall. L. M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott gave Ellis and the rest of us strong girl characters who defied dashing love interests for the better of their writing and intellectual journeys. And Sylvia Plath and Susanna Kaysen gave us all-too-real girl analogs for how to deal when life throws an invisible weight on your shoulders.
On the whole, the book is a smooth read and an excellent run-through of half a lifetime of reading femininity. Ellis doesn’t cover girl heroines alone, but all her subjects reveal quite a lot about what it means to be born a female and—as Simone de Beauvoir would put it—to become a woman. I for one am achingly jealous of the ingenuity behind How to Be a Heroine, but I feel like all of this is better coming from Ellis than from me. Because now I have one more heroine—Ellis herself—to raise my consciousness further, to be my guiding light into peeling away the improvised layers of life one by one, again and again.
“I don’t know where I’m going next, and for the first time in forever, I don’t want to,” writes Ellis on the final leaf. “I want my life to be picaresque. Fantastical. I want to say yes and.”
I have two Kate Spade journals, and it was really hard not to bring home another one when I came home from City Creek this weekend. Mine are both black, in a shout-out to my love of simplicity and elegance. One says "Leave something to the imagination" in a gold sans serif, and the other is a hand-lettered quote: "With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?" The latter holds a series of terse notes from books I'm reading, perfect fodder for a blog post series. The more you write down what you read, the more you remember. It's a goal I have, to be able to remember things as keenly as my dad remembers how they moved Abu Simbel when the new dam went in. Enter my journal, and the things I want to remember about my most recent read, I Am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.
- Malala Yousafzai was named after an Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand—who inspired defeat of the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan war. Malala's father gave her that name to reinforce his teaching that girls are to be praised and valued in society every bit as much as boys. He has worked for all of Malala's life to ensure that she understands her value and uses her voice to make her world a better place.
- Pakistan was created as an Islamic state in 1947 after India gained its independence from British rule. Mohammad Ali Jinnah founded the new country as the world's first Islamic state with a keen sense of religious freedom in the new territory. A series of overthrows gave Pakistan periods of both dictatorship and egalitarian rule, where citizens cycled between brutal and unfeeling leadership and egalitarian legislation.
- Benazir Bhutto was the first female prime minister in the Islamic world, and she was eventually assassinated for her participation in the public sphere. Malala takes her example as a call for girls everywhere to feel at ease as leaders and educated thinkers. When I looked up women in leadership across the world, I was interested but not surprised to note that many Middle Eastern countries are well ahead of the United States for women's representation in government. The United States is below Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq but is only slightly ahead of the quite westernized UAE. Bhutto and other Middle Eastern women representing bravely in their governments really gives me pause about how the west views the east as inherently backward and uncivil toward women as authority figures. We are still waiting for our first woman president here in 2015 United States. Time to re-define "backward" (a common thread to my academic dabblings these days).
- In Pashtun culture, white is a masculine color.
- Malala's father notes that Maryam is named in the Koran when detractors try to say that women are not named there, deliberately, because they do not deserve a public voice. In Christo-Islamic mythology, this is Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth, who is considered a prophet in the Koran. Malala and her family have a knack for pointing out how Islam isn't one big bad omen for women and shouldn't be enforced that way.
- Malala notes that thing about Khadijah—the prophet Mohammad's first wife—being a once-married, older, savvy business owner, whom Mohammad worked for and adored. It goes to show that there are so many examples of strong women in Islam (like Aisha dictating hadith), and how the Taliban's militancy often overlooks the positive light in favor of patriarchy and control. The piles of money in the book's glossy picture spread hint at why this is a thing.
- Malala's pen name for her anonymous blog project was Gul Makai, from a Romeo and Juliet–esque Pashtun tale in which the girl, Gul Makai, plays a huge role in convincing the parents that the union is okay. Malala's girl power and feminist activism comes from a very informed place and bears nuances that mark her as a revolutionary in Digital Age discourse on girls.
- Against all literary elitism, Malala is both a Nobel Prize winner and a Twilight fan.
- People can talk all they want about Malala only gaining worldwide recognition because she is a girl who was shot. At the end of the day, the fact remains that she engaged in so much brave activism before she became a target that she scared the Taliban into taking action to silence her. They took away her country and (temporarily) the nerve that made her smile, but they haven't taken her voice or her faith in a better Islam. She has since started her own school and continues to work for her title.
- Malala's region of Pakistan experiences what it does because too few people speak up.
I have 92 books on my nightstand. To be fair, I'm slowly working my way through, but with required reading for grad school, and work requests pinging my email every eighty seconds, it's pretty slow going. A few are nonfiction books I'm reading in between novels that make me cry in the tub about what it means to carry on aboard this hostile, unfriendly speck we call Earth. Sometimes—for sanity's sake and to re-light the pilot in humanity's boiler room—you just have to pause 60 pages from the end of Jude the Obscure and pick up Where the Girls Are or Unveiling Kate Chopin. But that last sentence only accounts for 3 of the 92. And that nightstand is just one of the spots in my house that is literally—not figuratively—overrun with the printed word. My sprawling book collection isn't all that bad on the face of things, until you fold in a fierce pack-rat streak, disposable income, and at least a half a dozen bookish thrift shops that I could walk to. (I don't though—instead I waste fuel, in direct opposition to the green ideology of Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring is about four down in the pile that holds my teacup.) Once a month, or whenever I've had a day that isn't awesome, I take out thirty bucks and see what all I can get my hands on. It really is a trip shopping for books at stores usually praised for their gently cigarette-burned '70s furniture. I feel like I never really know what I'm going to find crammed between copies of What to Expect When You're Expecting and every James Michener phone book ever. And I'm always surprised by what people have decided to give up.
Nestled, as I am, in the conservative Main Street berg of Provo, I always go to the Mormon-run thrift superstore with a hint of hesitation. "I cleaned out everything moving or remotely incendiary last month," I moan to myself with unfair intellectual elitism. "If I waste my time, I'm bound to be up to my tits in pregnancy how-to's and DOS manuals." Still, I go. I skip the LDS section (because I've promised Neil I'll stop bringing home laughably outdated homemaking tips and Korean translations of The Book of Mormon), but before I've made it to the end of the first four-foot section of shelving, my arms are overloaded and I'm dropping shit everywhere. By the end of the three long rows that I carefully scan for gems, there's always some guy by the magazines who offers—more concerned than anything—to carry my books, or who cracks wise about how I should get a library card. I then edge through the clusters of meandering shoppers and palpable B.O. (which, as an un-showered, pajama-clad freelancer, I'm certainly contributing to) and head to the registers. I separate my finds into price-specific piles to make it easier for the cashier. "Three for $3, six for $2, seven for $1, three for 50 cents," she says. It's almost always under $30, yet I walk away with an armload of stuff that has to be double-bagged to avoid my having to pick up a spilled pile of paper and glue and cardboard halfway to my car. My hands are definitely grimier for the experience, but I feel like Bonny of "and Clyde" fame as I hurry away with all the humanity and life that's printed on those thousands of pages. For less than what it costs to get my nails did or buy a mildly-fancy toaster, I own the ideas that brilliant people have slaved over, and whenever I feel like it I can dig through my overstuffed bookshelves and find that one I bought forever ago and now feel like crying about in the tub.
On the trip before last I hungrily yanked George Sand's Indiana and the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay from the shelves. I gasped and almost yanked Neil's arm out of alignment once when I saw Silent Spring, complete with a retro-patterned 1960s library cover. I've seen countless books I already have, and surprisingly lots that go along with my feminist lit bent. Book hunting in the heart of Conservatown has given me things like Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar, Ella Cara Deloria's anthropological Native American narrative Waterlily, a Chicana poetry anthology, the writings of Aphra Behn and Phyllis Wheatley, feminist literary criticism, Adrienne Rich, and the whole of Virginia Woolf minus The Three Guineas.
This cornucopia of intellectual gender studies and quality women's literature is fairly opposite from what I expected of a town that is known as the Traditional Gender Roles capital of the reddest of red states. But that's just another bullet point on my practical gender studies self-lecture tour: stop thinking in stereotypes. Just because the town is full of by-the-book Bible types doesn't mean that these people aren't smart. I'm always fighting that stereotype when non-Mormons are surprised that I went to BYU—"But, you're so smart"—and even though I spend quite a bit of my time defending where I went to school as a scientific and intellectual font of knowledge, with one of the best libraries pretty much ever, I still buy into that crap about how a culture that pushes traditional families and stay-at-home wifery must be entirely backwards with regard to its intellectual habits. True, I have met quite a few Mormons who forget what they learned in BYU lecture halls about evolution being a thing, or bell hooks having a point about feminism belonging to more than just rich white ladies. But for the most part, this town has a remarkable population of people who know what's out there and make informed decisions. In short, people who read. Which is, after all, what being religious is really all about.
I think my compulsive reading—and need for cheap books that I could write all over—sprang from the Mormon thing, or maybe it was just natural that I started to discover the world around me while I happened to be in college. The idea of religion taught me—if nothing else—that it's important to engage with a text instead of just dragging your eyes over the pages, with one eye on Road Rules, so you could say that you'd read something. After all, religion is one of those things that we came up with, along with agriculture and government and cave paintings, to help us put some order to things so we could see beyond the cycle of birth, toil, and death. When we started folding those solutions into literature, we captured a unique power to sort things out in ways both more individual and universal, all at once. You can read a good novel the second, fifth, or eleventh time and learn something completely new about life or yourself, and people are literally giving these things away to musty boneyards filled with junk.
The guy by the magazines is definitely right about the library card (though I do have one). But while I can, I'll be the crazy lady who fills every available surface with second-hand books that smell like cheap paper and someone's basement. Even though I look at my 92 bedside reads (not to mention the rest of my hoarde, from paperback thrillers to the classics) and confront the impossibility of ever reading everything I want to, I know I'll keep adding every time I see something promising. There is sure to be a time for everything, even DOS. My to-read list will always get longer, not shorter. But I've decided that's a good thing. Better there be too many thoughts and dreams on paper, infinite like our own star-dust makeup, than too few.
In this, her second book, Rebecca Solnit leaves a literary chronicle of her experiences in two stages of western U.S. conflict, the Nevada Test Site and Yosemite. Her prose is part historical and largely memoir, leaving a sterling impression of the battles and consequences on the western landscape and its people. With clarity, Solnit demonstrates a theme of continuity and intersection among the conflicts, land, and people she discusses, from the plight of the “downwinders” living near the test site to the erasure of native culture from the Great Basin region and Yosemite. In her book, Solnit splits her time between the Great Basin and northern California and draws her parallels with fluidity and with purpose.
In the opening section, Solnit sets her landscape with a cruise down Highway 95 and into the maw of the Nevada Test Site. Her style is literary and evocative, and she misses no insight on what it means to be a part of this larger world. She goes on to detail her time spent with the pacifist groups working for disarmament. There, Solnit encounters a striking array of activists who all see unique and personal threats issuing from the bomb. Solnit meets those who preach the ill health effects of fallout as well as environmentalists who seek to protect the rights of the landscape. Many of the players are women, including Janet Gordon, a downwinder who lost more than a few loved ones to radiation poisoning, and three repeat-activists at the site (dubbed the Princesses of Plutonium) who all go by the name Priscilla, after a particularly volatile detonation during the 1950s. Further, Solnit encounters a strong presence from the indigenous Shoshone people, who stand mired in conflict with the federal government over land use rights. All have unique ideologies behind quelling the bomb, yet all causes intersect in a global effort to achieve peace and level the playing field for all people involved in the conflict.
In examining the activists’ varying perspectives, it’s easy to see a range of motivation at play. For the Princesses and for Gordon, Solnit hints how conflict manifests in the form of the patriarchy using the bomb to assume control over the women’s bodies through the bomb’s fallout. There is also a parallel between using the landscape against its will and to its detriment, which places all interconnected systems of earth and humanity in jeopardy. Further, Solnit chronicles how Gordon recalls a 1950s test site propaganda film that sought to mollify a nation by likening a nuclear detonation to a beautiful, God-given sight, akin to a rainbow. Outraged, a now-adult Gordon rejects this manipulative message and sees it as a way of exercising power and privilege to meet terrible ends.
Solnit’s book takes issue most with land-use conflicts between the U.S. federal government and the indigenous people who involuntarily fall within its jurisdiction. The conflicts she describes show a struggle that is fundamentally a racial one but stretches wide to intersect again on the other side with feminist and environmental issues. To illustrate these, Solnit describes at length the decades-long struggle between the Dann sisters and the federal government.
The Dann sisters—Mary and Carrie, hearty Shoshone women—occupied a ranch on their people’s land, situated in the heart of government-controlled testing and mining grounds requisitioned in the latter-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Solnit describes how one day a federal agent visited the Danns’ ranch and informed them that they were trespassing on federal land that had been purchased from the Shoshone. The ranchers informed the agent that their land, in fact, fell within the Shoshone boundaries dictated in the Treaty of Ruby Valley and had never been up for sale. This event sparked a long and fierce battle between the federal government and the Danns, with the government attempting to run the Danns from their land and with the Danns standing their ground. After decades of fierce battle, another visitor arrives on the Danns’ ranch, a government agent who literally twists the arm of now-fifty-nine-year-old Carrie Dann in an effort to force her to stand down from her land and surrender her livestock to the government. In true feminist fashion, Dann stands firm and fashions an ultimatum for the agent to either produce the bill of sale from the Shoshone to the United States, or stand down and let her people be. Solnit describes Carrie Dann’s fortitude and brings all conflics full circle:
Thus two decades of legal battle came to their culmination. The federal government versus the Western Shoshone boiled down to Joe Leaf twisting Carrie Dann’s arm. I had come to Nevada because of the great apocalyptic end-of-the-world war, a war of great bombs and technologies annihilating cities or continents or species or the weather itself, and it had changed into a man bruising the wrist of a fifty-nine-year-old woman over some cows, but it was still the same war, and in this round, she had won (Solnit, 167).
Solnit goes on to describe the ill treatment of the natives in the late nineteenth century when the treaty was signed, including the rape of Shoshone women and forced cannibalism against the native people. Similar cases arise when the federal government seized control of Yosemite and snuffed out much of the native population of surrounding Mariposa County—a heavy tale discussed at length in the second portion of the book. Through this juxtaposition, Solnit shows how the past atrocities against indigenous peoples are alive and well in modern conflicts that crop up in the same places, as if nothing has been learned at all. In the Great Basin and Yosemite alike, the push is the same at the date of Solnit’s writing as it was a century or more prior: the privileged classes suppress the underprivileged (native peoples, women, and others without a voice) in a power play that transcends a variety of power structures.
In this way, the federal government’s injustice toward the Danns and other indigenous groups represents an intersection of oppression that reaches beyond pacifism and visits heavily upon feminist, environmental, and racial questions (an idea expressed at length in Rosemarie Tong’s chapter on third-wave feminism). Pacifism raises the question of why the bomb must be detonated at all. Feminism asks why a male government worker can feel justified in coercing a Shoshone woman to give up her livelihood against her will, or why the federal government can expect that a native Miwok woman practice her people’s lost crafts as a lookie-loo exhibit for white Yosemite tourists. Environmentalism asks why the Great Basin was long ago depleted of its indigenous plant and animal species in favor of the forced agricultural lifestyle of non-native white settlers, upon which the Danns are now forced to depend. Finally, race explains a keystone in the interplay of all of these ideas: the indigenous peoples, as “fourth-world” citizens, are perceived as having lesser importance than the citizens of the “first world” and must be subjugated to fit the will of the ruling class.
Solnit shows in vivid color how a host of ideas converge to trespass on the basic human rights of the Shoshone, the Miwok, and countless others as well as on the basic natural rights of the landscape. Her wayfaring memoir shines light on the complexities of what seem to be very straightforward conflicts and expose the intricacies with light and courage.