31. We should all be Feminists 

This sneaky little volume has crept into a very quiet month of reading. I’m afraid I have abandoned Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and I think that unless I have a really strong desire to write a blog post about the books I don’t finish, I’m simply just putting them aside. What is reading if you don’t enjoy it hmm?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a name that has been on my radar for a while. I recently met someone who is very interested in African literature and it is something that I have been readying myself to explore a little. We should all be Feminists is an adaptation of Adichie’s Tedtalk on the topic which can be found: here!!! The Tedtalk is about half an hour and the published volume that accompanies is very slim and pocket-sized. I read it in about an hour. But do not be fooled, it may be small, but it is mighty.

We should all be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I am a big fan of feminist texts. I am a big fan of any text that underlines the importance of gender construction and how damning it can be culturally. As you can imagine this is a text that does just this but it is closely interwoven with Adichie’s personal experiences from Nigeria. Too easy in the west I believe we forget that gender expression is very ridged in other parts of the world.

However, We should all be Feminists can be universally understood regardless of where you are in the world. It begins with Adichie’s first encounter with the word ‘feminist’, flung at her as an insult, with a tone implying being such was akin to being a terrorist – this is something I have encountered recently and it never fails to amaze me when it happens. A ‘feminist’ is someone to avoid and that ‘feminist talk’ will ruin your marriage if it gets in your head. Adichie describes a much stricter social landscape than the one we are used to in the west, women are not greeted when they enter a restaurant with a male counterpart. It is assumed that women alone are prostitutes when they try to enter a hotel without a male companion and bars and clubs will not let women in alone unless they are with men.

It’s chilling. Gender expression is something that has actually been at the forefront of my mind recently. I have been debating with myself how easy it is for human beings to pressure one another into labels and in to social behaviours to define themselves and others. How in doing so they are comfortably aware how their world is built, how they fit within the society puzzle, and how others do also. But also in defining yourself so strictly you also open yourself up to limiting the potential of who you are and who you can be. You are instead actively limiting your behaviours and internalising repression.

Which is, in part, something relatively central to this text. I would also like it to be added to the record that this text is not only a comment on how women move in Nigerian society,  but is also how men are expected to perform within a very narrow definition of what masculinity is. The Hard Man, as Adichie puts it, the pressure to be masculine, not cry, not be sensitive and to be physically impressive is certainly a concept that I think is easily recognised without much difficulty in the west.

The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations. – We are all Feminists, Adichie, p.35. 

I really enjoyed this text, it is not overly complicated, and it is a very broad but concise snapshot into gender construction within Nigeria and of course, why we should all be feminists.

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30. Anatomy of a Solider 

“Imagine the story being told through the objects around you.”

Hello! This is an odd choice for me, as usually this isn’t a genre I regularly engage in. But it was a very interesting read, particularly for the way it was written. This is a novel that follows the journey of a solider from able bodied, to severely injured, to adapting to life without legs. It is written by veteran Harry Parker, who has had very similar experiences to his protagonist Tom Barnes.

The reason that this novel came into my life was my friend who thought I would enjoy it as I am very interested in writing about objects in unusual ways. Anatomy of a Soldier has a very interesting structure and is written entirely from the perspective of different objects that litter the landscape of the novel, from Catheters to tourniquets.

Anatomy of a Soldier – Harry Parker

This is a very ambitious novel. Firstly, you spend each chapter asking yourself the question: “What am I now?” Sometimes the answer is easy and straightforward, but sometimes you have to work for it. These objects are also aware of feelings and thoughts carried by whom ever they are observing so they act as omniscient narrators to a story that flicks about quite a lot.

The narrative flashes backwards and forwards and dances around several groups of characters that as a whole act as a prism into which the story is viewed through. As the reader you spend a lot of time with Barnes in the war zone and in recovery, but also spent time pulled between the lives of the locals and extremists amid the turmoil. Each chapter is a puzzle of what am I, where am I, and who am I with? This in itself can be a little repetitive but some of these object changes are really jarring and surprising. From being an object with a very intimate function with the body, suddenly you may be the violence of an explosion, a bicycle, a battery, or a panic button on a hospital ward.

However before reading prepare yourself, this is not a novel that smooths over details this is a novel that is full of broken bodies and twisted flesh. It is grizzly and unflinching in it’s descriptions of war and surgery. It is dull in it’s long periods of walking and the slow unfolding of what is to come. It’s a jump from a supermarket carpark to the chaos of a firefight.

There are elements I really enjoyed about the narrative, like Barnes recovering and being very much a fly on the wall during surgery. But there were things that I found really bored me purely because of its a genre. I think I will likely dip into this to revisit how Parker uses objects, but it’s unlikely I’ll read it cover to cover again. If you’re after a novel that is a little surprising in it’s structure and perspective, give it a go. But if you’re after dragons, this one isn’t for you.

29. The High Lord 

“Invasion, chaos, exile, and revelations.” 

So it comes to an end, I was starting to think I had lost my capacity to finish a novel after my last two failings. But here we are, the Black Magician Trilogy is done at last! (though there are other novels that sort of follow on which I haven’t read) I enjoyed this revisit. The Magicians’ Guild was the simplest narratively but a good welcome into the world. The Novice is the most interesting in my mind as Sonea, our protagonist, is learning about magic and facing difficult odds. The High Lord is a good concluding novel, but I have tiny niggles with it.

The High Lord by Trudi Canavan

In this third instalment, a year has passed and Sonea is no longer tormented by her classmates after her duel with Regin. Akkarin, the High Lord and leader of the Magician’s Guild is as distant as ever. Until (dun dun dun) he starts to reveal secrets to her, both his own and things long forgotten and hidden by the University. Sonea’s understanding of ‘black magic’ starts to change as does her understanding of Akkarin himself. The novel is mostly built on revealing secrets and creating a rich elaborate back story for Akkarin and for ‘black magic’ itself. You’ve been waiting long enough for it folks and the High Lord finally delivers on the trilogy’s namesake.

While all of this is going on Sonea’s childhood friend Cery has been busy building a status for himself within the Thieves. Now a Thief himself, he is set on the task of finding the murderers that have persistently been entering the city and wreaking havoc. This isn’t all that happens to Cery though as he meets a mysterious woman who starts to aid him on his mission. (Because there would have to be a mysterious woman, wouldn’t there?)

Dannyl is set on the task in Elyne to root out a group of ‘rogue’ magicians, nobles who are set on learning magic outside the Guild’s instruction – which is very dangerous. To do this he must leak compromising information about himself as rumours to provide the nobles with leverage. His task ultimately leads him back to Imardin, just in time for Akkarin’s secret’s to be revealed to the entire guild.

A lot happens in the High Lord, a lot of what you’ve waited to find out more about for two novels. The Magicians Guild reveals a tiny snippet of where the trilogy ultimately leads and the Novice is a confused mess of Akkarin being the bad guy. But does it feel satisfying? Well… sort of… I feel it drags a little mostly because Akkarin’s backstory takes such a long time in this trilogy to be revealed. It’s a whopping long wait to suddenly pitch this guy as not the bad guy and I’m not entirely sure if I’m convinced by how quickly Sonea has a change of heart on black magic and on Akkarin.

I am not sure if I’m wholly convinced that it’s a move true to Sonea’s character as the suspicious underdog slum magician, who has been essentially imprisoned by Akkarin AND he separated from the only real friend she has, Rothen, AND who lives in complete fear because of knowing what Akkarin is (a black magician). As compelling as it is and for all of the proof Akkarin provides, I’m not sure of if how quickly she trusts him is accurate to the character of two novels ago.

There was also that little shit Regin, apologising, as if he hadn’t been a complete ass-hat for an ENTIRE NOVEL. He doesn’t actually say the words “I’m sorry” either, just makes an attempt at an excuse or an attempt at justifying why it was he and the other novices made Sonea’s life hell the previous year. *grumble grumble grumble*

And there were also some moments of revelation that appear in the last hundred and fifty pages that were necessary, but I felt were a little clunky and forced. I’m pretty sure there are three or four conversations that happen verbatim during this time between different characters. I’m aware that characters need to come to the conclusion of why before they can say: “He was telling the truth! And this is why he couldn’t tell us he was here ALL ALONG!” but I feel there could’ve been a different way to achieve this mass epiphany.

Overall this is an ambitious conclusion. A lot happens, at 630 pages it is the longest out of the three and it is the novel that moves the most geographically. It really it is a very difficult task to unload all of this information, to shoe horn in a love interest (oh yeah, that happens, twice), and maintain a compelling rhythm and motion. Out of the three this is the most complicated, there are a lot of balls being juggled here, but overall it’s a good read. Will I return to this trilogy? Very likely. They’re too easy to gobble up not to return to.

28. She Came to Stay 

“Affairs, existentialism, and Paris.”

I am sad to say that again, here is a novel I have no will to finish. This novel comes quite shortly after my last abandoned conquest Gulliver’s Travels. There are many reasons why I put this novel down, it wasn’t for a lacking writing style or for lack of interesting subject matter, I just simply believe that I am at the wrong point in my life for this novel. It is an awful shame because I am a fan of Simone de Beauvoir’s second wave feminism. I have been engaging with her ideas for five years now, alongside other literary critics, so much that their works have become like braille to me. I do not simply read or write these ideas and concepts I feel them. So I’m terribly disappointed! This could’ve been a wonderful affair. It’s just not the right time.

She Came to Stay – Simone de Beauvoir

What is it the novel about? She came to Stay or, in French, L’Invitée, was first published in 1943 as a debut. It is the fictional account of her and Jean-paul Sartre’s relationship with Olga Kosakiewicz and Wanda Kosakiewicz.

It is set in Paris on the eve of and during World War II, the novel revolves around Françoise, who’s open relationship with her partner Pierre becomes strained when they form a ménage à trois with her young friend Xaviere. In short, the novel explores existentialist concepts such as freedom, angst, and the other. There is a lot to engage with in this novel that simply I either do not have the energy or the will to handle right now.

The translation I have is beautifully written, it simply feels elegant on the page. But this is just the wrong moment for this novel. I’m not entirely sure when the apt moment in my life for this novel would be, perhaps when I have more time to engage with this on a level that I feel satisfies, perhaps when my mind is full of romantic inclinations. Who knows.

So with much regret, She Came to Stay, goes back onto the ‘to read’ pile, probably to be semi buried for a few years until I am ready for it.

27. The Vagina Monologues 

“Vagina, Vagina, come over, come near.” 

I’m not going to lie, when I finished this last night I got very excited and wanted to scream why it was exciting to the entire world online, but I was rather tired. But we need to talk about this. We need to talk about The Vagina Monologues because it is important and relevant and wonderful and just. I can’t even. Of course I haven’t lived under a rock all of my life, so I’ve heard of it before, I knew it was a stage play, I knew it was first staged in the 90s and set off this wonderful wave thought and visibility.

The Vagina Monologues – Eve Ensler

But, sadly I hadn’t read this until now because in a way I thought I may be too young to appreciate it, I questioned if it would feel relevant to me, if it would grip me like I wanted it to. If all of the hype would just be hype and I would be sadly defeated and disillusioned by the entire thing. But, there is hope here. This was a wonderful read. Truly wonderful. I haven’t been driven to tears by a novel for a while and this got to me, this really gripped the whole centre of my being and shook it awake.

I’m not entirely sure why, I don’t feel directly part of a community that has shut down the vagina, mutilated the vagina, there aren’t hate speeches shutting the vagina away in cupboards or stitching them shut to prevent girls masturbating, or burning women as witches for the sure sign of having a clitoris. However, there is avoidance, there is euphemism, ‘down-theres’ and ‘private-parts’ and I know women who don’t masturbate, or at least don’t admit to masturbation. (Why? Why? Why? WHY? You have an organ that’s soul purpose is pleasure, USE IT!)

Did the VM just give voice to a lot of things that I have felt for a long time? Probably. I’m not blind to the state of the world and I read and in the VM there is a sense of kinship with other vaginas. (I’m not saying women, because you do not need a vagina to be a woman but that is a discussion for a different day). So is this a sense of solidarity through flesh? Did I see myself? Yeah, I really did see part of myself in this text. Did it comfort me in some bizarre way? Yes! Absolutely!

The VM isn’t a text that bashes on the table and screams vagina at you (though that would be a great performance piece), this is a text that speaks in a calm resonate voice that: ‘these are stories about vaginas (and some of them will shock you)’. Some of these stories you will naturally empathise with, in some of these stories you will see your friends, your mothers, your daughters, your sisters in, your gender-fluid company.

The Vagina Monologues is based on interviews with women about their vaginas, it is about all kinds of vaginas, old vaginas, angry vaginas, vaginas discovering themselves, hairy vaginas, vaginas reclaiming ‘cunt’, vaginas doing vagina things, vaginas being abused, vaginas hidden away in cupboards, vaginas sewn up, vaginas that haven’t orgasmed, that haven’t seen light, that have been told that they should be spoken about in riddles, or that they are messy or they are clinical, anatomical, and unsexy. (I am getting to the point where typing vagina is starting to feel like rebellion in itself, vagina, vagina, vagina.)

Of course for every vagina who is repressed there is a vagina that is liberated and aware and alive.

But perhaps it is my own hesitation that I see underlined within The Vagina Monologues, I am reluctant to become just another woman ‘writing about her vagina’ and only recently have began this journey where I really dig into the body and break that hesitation. The VM celebrates not only sexuality and flesh but the kinship with it and others. It shocks, it had me crying, it had me laughing, it had me considering what my vagina would say if it could say two words, and what my vagina would wear if it could. It encourages being unapologetic about sexuality, unapologetic for the vessel you travel this world in, and pushes you on a mission for the reclamation of the body.

I guess this means I’m an advocate and the new poster girl, (vagina, vagina, vagina) for the VM. Does that make me ashamed? Absolutely not. It’s a shame that the word ‘vagina’ still feels like rebellion.