Firstly this week, a beautiful book by a writer I have never read before: Edna O’Brien. I love the 1950s style cover for a book which has had great reviews, and comes with a warning about the harrowing nature of the subject: the suffering of a young African girl at the hands of ‘The Jhiadis’.
“I was a girl once, but not any more. I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.”
Kate Bornstein is a trans writer and activist who I have long admired – and this week I finally caught up with a copy of My Gender Workbook which was published in 1998. It is just that – a workbook full of questionnaires and activities to encourage the reader to think about gender at both theoretical and personal levels. I have only flicked through it so far (trying hard not to get engrossed!) and I can see that it is full of insight and wisdom:
”In Gender Outlaw, I wrote briefly that the role of transgendered people in the culture might in effect be the role of the trickster or the fool: that we by our very presence hold up a mirror to the culture so that it might better see its own foolishness when it comes to its blind obedience on the subject of gender. And I still think that’s the deal. That’s how we’re going to do it. We’re seen for the most part as a joke; well, it’s not that far a leap from joke to jokester, and jokester has an honourable tradition.’
‘We hold up to each side of that border the foolishness of both sides; and we’re not gonna be loved or revered by the folks who live comfortably on either side. We do what we do with a sense of humour, sure, but is there anyone who as a child saw some circus clown and wasn’t frightened?’
‘As part of a movement, we can educate, reform, succor, lobby, protest. But who’s got the energy to be part of a movement twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for all their lives? An when we’re not ‘politically active’ as part of some group, it’s gonna come down to one-on-one politics. in that arena, we as fools can only shock into awareness, or seduce and recruit. As members of a political movement, yeah, we need to address gender. As individual fools, I don’t think we should be shackled to any identity…not even transgender.’
It is clearly a book which I need to help me with the current obsession with labelling of genders and sexualities which I sometimes find amusing, sometimes perplexing. In the early twentieth century homosexuals were dissected into ‘types’, hundreds of different types, mainly by doctors and early psychologists. By the 1970s we fought against that, we didn’t want to see our character, our ‘being’ medicalised and treated as a type. But now we seem to be moving backwards to not just embracing this classification but actually creating those classifications ourselves! This can only end in the fragmentation of shared demands and a weakening of the bonds which bring us together.
‘Wild Girls: The Love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks’ is another every-home-should-have book by Diana Souhami, this time concerning the lives of Barney and Brooks, two artists who lived in Paris in the early part of the twentieth century and cultivated a widespread lesbian family.
‘Lie with Me’ by Phillipe Besson is a gay ‘first-love’ story which, according to reviews promises to be both ‘very French’ and ‘the French Brokeback Mountain’. Hmmm…but what really drew me to this is that my copy of signed by the author and by the translator, who just happens to be Molly Ringwald, the writer and actress who starred in one of my favourite films of the 1980s, ‘The Breakfast Club’. Yes, a very facile reason for buying a book (hey – it may be good!) but I don’t care…Molly Ringwald!
And finally, some new Zadie Smith in the form of a short story collection, ‘Grand Union’. I love Zadie Smith and have been looking forward to this for so long…and it is so worth the wait, especially as it contains 11 new stories amongst the 19 strong collection. Beautiful cover too.