Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Women of the Revolution: Forty Years of Feminism, ed. Kira Cochrane

A landmark anthology of feminist writing covers forty years of zeal, wit and outrage.

The cover of Women of the Revolution.
Spot any pink? *satisfied grin*
 Can you hear that noise? It’s the sound of rebellion – one which reverberates ever louder with each successive page of this collection, which ought to be bought up, kissed, studied and prescribed by and to every woman, man, library, bookshop, cultural historian and gender studies university department in the world. Women of the Revolution is itself revolutionary in being a feminist book which does not feature any ‘ironic’ pink inking, dolls, body parts, models or other bullshit on its cover. Edited and selected by the Guardian’s women’s editor (and now staff writer) Kira Cochrane, it’s a compendium of some of the newspaper’s feminist writing from 1971 to April 2010.

Full disclosure A: one of my briefer columns (a tame one) is in it. Disclosure B: in the run up to the publication of the collection, Kira Cochrane and I have been speaking at some of the many events which are part of the current resurgence of feminist activism in this country. She has talked about the book and the inspirations and challenges of putting it together, so I’ve learned something about the thinking behind Women of the Revolution, which I am drawing on here. There were many articles to choose from in the 1970s, from interviews with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller and Simone de Beauvoir to features on women workers uniting and striking, the dismissal of men’s violence against women and attitudes to rape. The tone of these pieces is so fresh, inquisitive, exploratory and new that one is filled afresh with the energy of these political pioneers, putting into words what so many millions of women have felt. Shocking, though, that Brownmiller's famous book about rape, Against Our Will, is still so very pertinent.

In the 80s, however, there is a noticeable change as the decade wears on. The fire and inspiring rage of features about the Yorkshire Ripper case, the genius of Maya Angelou, a day at Spare Rib and the brave women of the Greenham Common anti-nuclear demonstration becomes more circumspect, more nuanced and shadowy, more troubled. There are thrilling (to me as a critic and reader) and painful (to me as a woman) articles on that particular intersection of misogyny and racism, Judaism and Islam and their attitudes to women, the challenge of making a feminism that is truly global and the first appearance of writer Joan Smith, a heroine of mine, who confronts the normality and banality of misogyny: “Women-haters are not freaks or outcasts....but ordinary men,” runs the strapline.

Compared to the other decades in Women of the Revolution, the 80s are thin and wary. It is awfully tempting to put the blame, not on male perpetrators, whose hatred and violence have never really wavered, but on one Margaret Thatcher, a woman who used her great power to make sure no other woman got anywhere near the Cabinet. As Kira said at one talk, laughing ruefully, “Thatcher pretty much killed feminism. And then we were onto the nineties and this strange thing called post-feminism. Which is funny, because that phrase presupposes that there was a feminist era, which we have now moved beyond. If there was a feminist era I’d really like to hear about it.”

What we hear about in the Guardian during the 1990s may have been written in a general climate of gender-political complacency, but it is some of the most thrilling and confrontational writing in this collection, because it makes a global, precise, holistic and ultimately devastating critique of women’s position on a broad scale. It is tough, enthralling reading, tackling women who kill violent and abusive partners, systematic rape in war, women’s survival despite violence, Catholicism and misogyny (spotting a theme here, feminist religion watchers? It’s not going so well for the holy men, those pious-faced pricks), the perceived ‘whiteness’ of Anglo-American feminism and appearances from women writers who are still stars of the paper, like Maya Jaggi, bell hooks, Beatrix Campbell, Germaine Greer and Catherine Bennett. Star billing goes to Andrea Dworkin for her painfully funny open letter to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Just to get it straight – he did not have sex with that woman. She sucked him off and spat his jizz on her frock. Because that’s so much better.

Come the 2000s, according to Kira, and obvious from this collection, the intensification and sheer urgency of feminist feeling has been reflected in the number and range of features. Each piece crackles with anger, yes, but this section of Women of the Revolution shows a marked change in tone. Underneath the ire, the humour, the punchiness and brilliance of the writing is a haunted, prowling chagrin that while so much has changed, so much remains the same. The challenge of achieving equal pay, the endemic nature of male violence against women, the question of police attitudes, sexual harassment... these issues are revisited with ever greater brilliance and incisiveness, but deeper despair. How long must we say the same things, turning ourselves inside out as we writhe in frustration while the perpetrators continue abusing and the apologists, those civilised men and women, the writers, the judges, the officials, the businesspeople, the friends of friends, the politicians, the commentariat, the dinner party guests, carry on victim-blaming?

In addition to this, though, the 2000s section very clearly reflects certain new aspects of mainstream culture, of the general society in which we all live, and which shape both women and men. These new aspects may well be a reason for feminism’s revived zeal, along with the across-the-board outrage at the Con-Dem chaps’ cabinet of Eton-educated wankers, who between them have put together a budget which punishes women. The tackiness, objectification and outright misogyny of so-called raunch culture, attitudes to working mothers, the effects of the pornification of culture, the mainstreaming of the sex exploitation industry, the realities of sex work and the consequences of porn on young men’s and women’s intimate relationships are all examined.

Feminism is about to change the world again. It did it during the Suffragette era. It did it in the 1970s. It’s doing it now, at last. It doesn’t, I admit, feel like it when you’re in the middle of it. But Women of the Revolution: Forty Years of Feminism is proof of our triumphs and a testament to our achievements, as well as a sometimes heartbreaking record of what is done to us. Many of the issues written about with such concern and revelation in the early pages of the book are now theoretical ‘givens’ in the fight for justice, emancipation and equality. The extent and seriousness of domestic violence, relationship abusiveness, rape, harassment and discrimination are accepted if not resolved. Western women’s participation in the world and our fundamental human right to have a say in what happens to us are accepted, happily or grudgingly. We are able to blow the whistle on misogyny – we can even take the government to court. And yet still, despite that, we exist in the gaps between the lies and myths told about us, the violence done to us, the excuses of those who condone the perpetrators, the use of our labour and the never-ending sneer/jeer/leer/exploit/ignore creed of regular, normal, ‘civilised’ society.

Women of the Revolution is an inspiration to activism, a spur to creativity, a spark to fellow-feeling, a prompt to sisterly glee and a brazen, honest, wide-ranging collection. It is extremely readable and funny and very, to use a patronising word, accessible. As the closing feature, an interview with the brilliant Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi, demonstrates, it is women’s famous strength and resilience, our ability to fight without violence, which will see us through the next forty years, whatever they bring. The last words salute her, as they salute every woman in these inspiring pages, and every avid reader, and every woman who has thought or felt that something wasn’t quite right, and did something about it: “A fighter to the last.”

Women of the Revolution: Forty Years of Feminism, edited by Kira Cochrane, is published by Guardian Books, £18.99

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Nahal Tajadod, Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes

A cutting edge non-fiction portrayal of a bustling, contradictory Iranian city.

Extract from the book cover, designed by Lyndon Hayes 

In modern Tehran, an ancient image of womanhood reigns. It was ushered in by the Islamic revolution and cruelly veils Iran’s true history as a civilisation that was the pinnacle of Persian culture, language and architecture. Now, writes Nahal Tajadod, “Everything is uniformly ugly.”

Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes is not, as its flippant and self-belittling title implies, a chick lit novel about a young Iranian gal trying to make it in love, life and whatever. Quite the opposite. A Francophone intellectual who lives in Paris and is an expert in Chinese culture and Persian history, Tajadod is from one of Iran’s elite families. Her grandfather was the Sheikh of Iran and Iraq and her father helped overthrow the Qadjar dynasty. The surname Tajadod is one he assumed. It means ‘modernity’.

The book, translated expertly by Adriana Hunter, is a non-fiction account of what ought to be a simple procedure. Tajadod is in Iran for a short time before returning to Paris and she needs to get her Iranian passport renewed. First, she must commission professional photographs in which she has transformed herself into a woman of whom the Islamic regime approves: “no hair appearing beneath the scarf, no visible make-up, no smile.” At the photo place she sees an advert for wedding photos. It’s a groom holding flowers for his bride. Except that there’s no bride in the picture as the law forbids displaying photos of women. Women are also forbidden from wearing high heels, “because the clicking of a woman’s heels as she walks could always arouse a good Muslim [man], therefore provoking dangerous sensations.” In the entrance to all government administrative buildings is a compulsory clothing check. Women’s handbags must contain no make-up or nail varnish, veils must permit no peek of hair and sleeves, trousers and coats must be of the right length and looseness.

It seems, in this early pages, like an Iran that readers in the West are all too aware of. There is the policing of women’s behaviour and appearance and the malicious double-think of blaming a woman for men’s violence against them. But Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes develops into a viciously witty, perceptive and unique portrait of an Iranian people, women and men, suffering under the yoke of an oppressive, illogical and absurd regime. The passport quest turns into a thrill ride through the black market, populated by photographers who double as hairdryer mechanics, a passport-agency insider who’s also a surgeon who trades body parts out of the morgue of a local hospital while doing property deals and taxi drivers who are also maths professors trying to supplement their incomes. In the shadow of the Islamic regime is a maze of alternative routes to getting things done. A fittingly smart and human counterpoint to the rigid bureaucracy of the regime, Tajadod’s experiences reflect not just the comedy but also the necessity of contingency. It is only through fixers, lucky encounters, bribes, clandestine meetings and helpful strangers that anything gets done. Tajadod’s girlfriends are a network of seemingly meek and nice good Islamic ladies who, in fact, are educated, intelligent, worldly and hell bent on proving that Tajadod, with her Parisian ways, is being hoodwinked and cheated at every turn.

Tajadod’s position as a highly international Iranian sophisticate, simultaneously loving of her country’s past and appalled by its present, makes her the perfect guide. Tehran’s people, by and large, emerge extremely well. Its government, not so much. Along with Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, this is set to become another modern classic in writing about the cultural conundrum that is today’s Iran.

Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes is published in Virago paperback original, £11.99

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Michelle Paver, Dark Matter

Dark Matter leads us into a haunting, and haunted, Arctic winter.

Michelle Paver has just won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for the latest instalment in her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series of Young Adult novels. Her latest novel - her first for adults - is called Dark Matter.

excerpt of cover image from Dark Matter

The Arctic, 1937, an endless polar season of constant darkness. This is the intriguing setting for Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver. Jack Miller is the ambitious protagonist, a promising physicist whose family’s poverty and bad luck force him to abandon his academic ambitions. He agrees to join a small expedition to the Arctic as a wireless operator and data recorder. His new colleagues are confident and privileged young men, among whom he feels a class-unease so intense that he marks every word of his own banter in case it belies his upbringing.

The callow, virtually novice crew travel to Norway and then across the ice-filled sea to the Arctic. They arrive at Gruhuken, a (fictional) part of Spitsbergen that has been explored, exploited and abandoned by successive groups of trappers, miners, whalers, sealers and scientists. They find a wooden hut full of previous residents’ rusted knives, behind a sinister looking wooden post – a bear post. They demolish the hut, build a new one and begin their Arctic existence. Then darkness falls. 

Paver is already a prolific and internationally bestselling author of novels for young adults, including the excellent Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. Much of the power of her work there - and here - derives from her brilliant descriptions of landscape and nature. Her unsentimental respect for the grandeur of the elements is expressed in strong, bold, appreciative prose. She describes the sound of tiny bubbles popping in sheets of ice, “as if the ice is talking to itself”. Her sentences contain tremendous scale and space, as if each word is an easy mile-long stride into new territory: “As I write this,” notes Jack in his journal, “it’s nearly midnight and we’re still not through the ice. I can feel each turn the ship makes. The shudder of impact, the change in the engine as we reach a clear patch, the subdued roar as we push the smaller floes aside.” Further on, “a vast, tormented glacier spilled into the sea.” We feel every increase in Jack’s delight on the journey to Gruhuken: “It was eerie, peering through the fog at the sea turned white. Huge, jagged floes like pieces of an enormous jigsaw, dotted with pools of meltwater, intensely blue. …I leaned over the side and gazed down at the rocking, jostling shards.

When it comes to this majestic setting Paver misses nothing, belittles nothing, patronises nothing. She expresses the totality of the landscape with a miraculous lightness and confidence. Her research, travels and experience are all so ably corralled that her expertise bears the story effortlessly aloft. At the same time, however, the novel does not pander to readers’ gaping awe. The Arctic is a tough, living environment of animals – foxes, bears, birds, water creatures – and continually changing weather, sea and light.

When the small crew settle into their hut and begin their (doomed, oh, doomed!) stay in Gruhuken, Paver’s close observation and impeccable research bring their habits and tasks to life. We see the hut, Jack’s wireless equipment, the porch and boardwalk, the dogs’ enclosure and the bay and beach. I could have spent dozens of pages happily inhabiting these gentlemen explorers’ straw-stuffed winter boots, trudging around boulders, eating their provisions and soaking up the moon rays amidst the whalebones at the coast.

The drama that ensues is silly compared to the ardent seriousness with which Paver describes the everyday details of the men’s lives. Dark Matter is at its weakest where it ought to be at its most spectacular, despite its careful set-up. The crew members have nightmares and experience horrid intimations, dreaming of knives and violence, but do not tell each other. By various accidents and quirks of timing it is suggestible, hyperconscious, desperate-to-prove-himself Jack Miller who pledges to remain alone in the hut for several weeks of complete darkness.

Except that he is not alone. Gruhuken is haunted by the enraged spirit of an abject  man who was tortured to death by local trappers. This spirit takes the form of a black shape, an outline with “a round wet head” and “one shoulder higher than the other.” It lurks by the hut, inside and out, trudging, emanating hate and sending waves of dread through Jack, who grows steadily more crazed. Jack realises that he’s not a hero at all, but a dupe. The sailors and traders from the local area have always known Gruhuken was haunted. His crew ‘chums’ were desperate to leave. His desire to remain at the hut was an act of bravado which backfires horribly and destroys his life.

Dark Matter is an addictive study of the effects of darkness and isolation, a tribute to an incredible part of the word and a contemplation of the lives of many generations of visitors who have tried (with varying degrees of success) to survive there. One reads on, concerned for Jack’s welfare rather than intrigued by the tale of the tormented thing that stalks him. Paver’s descriptions of Jack’s increasing paranoia and feeble attempts to ward off his own fear are impeccable. But the spectre, the haunter, the zombie… whatever it is, to put it bluntly, it is not frightening. The care with which it is described, as a solid sodden shape with no features, is masterful. But the reader simply does not share Jack’s fear, and as there is no ambiguity about whether this is a real haunting or simply madness, that crucial shift from blissful ice escapade to nocturnal terror does not happen. Paver’s concision, so powerful and necessary everywhere else, means that the atmosphere of hauntedness, its nausea and mania, does not gain traction. The language plods thickly around the central mystery of the book as though it’s wearing ill-fitting snowshoes. Would-be chilling scenes are described with blunt economy. The tingle and flinch of real horror has been replaced by pedestrian prose.

Dark Matter is Paver’s first work of adult fiction. For all its intelligence, craft, clever structuring, beautiful writing, clarity and scale, it is too simplistic for adults. It is, instead, another utterly gripping and powerful work for the YA market – and on those terms, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Dark Matter is published on 21st October 2010 by Orion, priced £12.99