Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Great Divide

By Nancy Jane Moore

Gwyneth Jones, ruminating on feminist SF and related subjects, wrote the following in a post on her blog called "Shora":

Meanwhile, my personal investigation kept coming up against the wall, the real problem. Speaking bitterness in a society that oppresses women, but doesn’t know it (such as the sf community, as addressed by “seventies feminism”), is brave, but it’s easy. Celebrating the feminine, the womb above the penis, motherhood, lesbian starship captains, sexy cyberbabes, is easy too. Though if you miss out the rip-roaring adventure fantasy you won’t catch many punters, and if [you] don’t, it’s hard to see how the story differs from any old sf, (where the feminine has always been celebrated, ask Robert Heinlein). It’s all easy, as long as la lutte continue. The wall is when economically liberated women, readers and writers, have to face the fact that when patriarchy goes, we all go.

No one is born a woman. No one is born a man. You can have an evil patriarchy that is secretly an evil matriarchy (which is too damn close to the situation in our world right now, IMO). You can have a corrupt liberation, informed by the “Spirit of the Beehive”, as Guevara says (cf Joanna Russ’s chilling, prescient, The Two Of Them). You can have a matriarchy that secretly, shamefully oppresses men, and denies it, and lies about it with every breath (cf The Gate Into Women’s Country, Divine Endurance etc etc). You can’t have the goals of feminism, if you want to keep the Great Divide. And we, we in the editorial and every other sense: everyone, including myself, we do not want to lose the Great Divide. [emphasis added]

(I recommend reading the whole post, and also her follow up "Shora Revisited" to get the full sense of Gwyneth's point.)

I hesitate to proclaim myself as different, to set myself apart from this we, and yet -- and yet -- every fiber of my being tells me that I would love to be rid of the Great Divide.

Oh, I'm not without qualms. Even the smallest change is hard and this one is a mind blower. While I've had no problems putting women into roles once reserved for men (starship captains and other rip-roaring adventures), I find that I run into limits when I try to put men in women's shoes -- literally: I cannot imagine men in high heels except as art or parody. (I am sure this is in part because I have so much personal contempt for high heels and the roles they represent.)

I came of age in a world of feminist change and have spent a lot of years doing things (practicing law, studying martial arts) once reserved for men. But I also live in a world in which calling a man a "girl" remains one of the worst possible insults. Shifting women into roles traditionally called male comes easy; opening the door the other way is trickier.

These days there's a lot of pseudoscience "explaining" brain differences between men and women, pushed of late by a book by a female author, Louann Brizendine, called The Female Brain. I have not read the book -- it sounded so absurd in the reviews I was unwilling to read it -- but the linguistic scholars on Language Log have critiqued the significant errors in the underlying research and the whole different brain movement very effectively. Their most recent post is here and a list of links on the subject is here.

That even women scientists are trying to build a career around the differences between the sexes presents a strong argument for Gwyneth's point that none of us welcome an end to the Great Divide.

The other night I was watching the new Doctor Who. Earth was being invaded by Cybermen, who proclaimed that they would solve all of Earth's inequities by making everyone a Cyberman -- no race, no gender, no difference.

I think people are afraid if we give up the Great Divide, we'll become Cybermen. And Cybermen are not only neuter; they're automatons.

I don't want to be a Cyberman, either, not because it would mean the end of the gender divide, but because Cyberman aren't individuals. And -- in this way I'm very much a product of my US upbringing -- I'm a great believer in individuality.

I don't think the core individual -- the person at the heart of each of us -- is male or female. When I'm dealing directly with my friends both male and female, I don't think of them as one thing or the other. But at a little more remove, I tend to make sex-linked distinctions. It's easier; it's an old habit.

In Timmi's interview with Chip Delany in the WisCon Chronicles, Chip puts it like this:

In my ideal world, there is one gender with infinite variations; not two with the variations limited to what lies between them.

That isn't Cybermen. That's a world of infinite individualism. I'm sure that frightens some people as much as the Cybermen do, but it appeals to me. Of course, in such a world, it would be very difficult to pigeonhole people by gender. Or, in fact, to pigeonhole them at all.

Personally, I am very tired of being pigeonholed. Today at least, when I'm sick of a world in which over-the-top myths about masculinity dominate international relations and corporate structures while equally overblown myths about female nurturing are used to limit the participation of women, I welcome the revolution.

To hell with la lutte. Vive le manque de difference.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Marian Roscoe Sussex (1916-2007)


By Lucy Sussex

My mother Marian Roscoe Sussex died on 13 July 2007. She was an artist and lifelong feminist, mother, unconventional Christian, charity worker, wife and writer—in no particular order. Like many older women, she was gifted at anecdote, and told stories of her life. And from her words I draw a portrait; as she drew me.

Everybody is a product of their nature and nurture, time and place. From the hindsight of the 21st century, we think those born 90 years ago lived in interesting times, in the Chinese sense of a curse: 2 world wars, the depression, then the cold war. Yet Marian was part of an extraordinary generation, who were interesting, tough, adaptive people precisely because of those times.

James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon) was her contemporary, and there were similarities and also differences in their lives. They both came late to their true careers, both suffered greatly from depression and prescription medicine, and also from the roles that society had mapped out for them. Intelligent, gifted girls had a tough deal in the early 20th century, both in the US and my mother’s Australia.

Marian Roscoe Wilson, b. 1916 in Melbourne, Australia to a father, Alfred, who would be a major force in Melbourne Anglican (in the US Episcopalian) Church, ending as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, and a mother, Florence Hearn, from a large country family, a woman of determined character. Marian was the 2nd daughter, which was very important. As a small child, overhearing her mother lamenting her lack of sons had a profound effect on her. At the very least it radicalized her in terms of gender politics: she would use the term ‘second-class citizen’. Thus she couldn’t, because of her sex, follow in her father’s footsteps. Had she been male, she might have made a somewhat heretical Vicar. [At this point the Vicar conducting the funeral service smiled in agreement--the Rev. Janet Turpie-Johnstone is not only female but of Australian aboriginal descent]. Gender also meant that she didn’t, as was the case with young men of her generation, fight in World War II, from which so many came home scarred or not at all.

Vignette 1: a young Australian woman finds herself in Salisbury, and from there walks to Stonehenge, in high heels. She has the monument entirely to herself. Because, on that day, World War II is declared.

That’s very novelistic, but it’s real life, true.

She knew before then that she wanted to be an artist. But the life of art is never easy, and certainly no way to earn a living in the midst of the Great Depression. Vicar’s daughters do not have independent incomes. One of her art tutors told her, decades later: ‘You could have been a Grace Cossington-Smith’—a major Australian stylist, now highly collectable. It was not something about which she was bitter. She appreciated her children, and the art she belatedly did.

Instead of following her natural inclination, she excelled academically, winning a scholarship to Melbourne University. She might have been a Don—or she might have been a Vicar’s wife, like her mother, for she got engaged to a Divinity student. The two occupations were probably not compatible. In any case they ceased to be options in her final degree year. Broken engagements do not make for high marks.

Vignette 2: a young woman, who is desperately unhappy, visits a Fortune teller—who tells her she will marry at 25 and never have to worry about money. Which turns out to be a perfectly accurate prediction. More novelistic but true stuff.

Back in Melbourne, she meets Ronald Sussex at a dance and they marry. She becomes an academic wife, a hard-working and supportive sector of womanhood. It means: going anywhere the jobs are, entertaining the vice-chancellor to tea, and in the days of year-long sabbatical leave, managing a household with children, overseas and on the road in foreign countries. I don’t know how she did it.

She had children, which she approached in a similar supportive but also creative spirit. She wanted to make something special for her first-born, my brother Roland, but it was wartime and fabric was rationed. The only fine woolen fabric she could get was khaki. So my brother ended up resplendent in khaki smocked in bright yellow and red—showing her sense of colour. Whatever we wanted to do, vocation-wise, she was there for us. Not many mothers would let a sixteen-year-old girl, my sister Polly, go to Prague to study cello. With me she corrected my grammar when I started writing, and told me my sentences were too staccato. None of this: that’s nice dear, if it plainly wasn’t. She knew when to criticize, and when to hold back.

It wasn’t until we moved to the tropics that she got what Virginia Woolf described as essential for a creative woman: a room of her own. It was a studio for her, where she worked first alone, then with a tutor, David Rainford. He told her when her art was too pretty-pretty, and encouraged her to draw with strength. Only when my father retired did she achieve her ambition of going to art school. Not many people do that at 60. She graduated, and became a printmaker, exhibiting locally and overseas.

She also did what many people think is very easy but is in fact very hard: wrote and illustrated a children’s book for her eldest granddaughter, Nicola, which was of professional standard and got published: The Magic Billy.

The unpleasant irony is that after 8 years printmaking chemicals gave her cancer of the throat. But though she gave up her printmaking, she made something positive of it. She always did that. She turned to using pastels, instead.

Last vignette. A woman artist in her 70s is invited to a church celebration, where her first love, an Anglican cleric, will be officiating. Also present is a famous former parishioner, later one of Australia’s best poets: Gwen Harwood. They are quite remarkably alike, these two women, and the cleric tells the poet’s biographer, who is present: ‘I loved them both!’ It is the first and only time the three corners of this old love triangle meet.

Again, another moment that is almost too novelistic to be true.

Novels are hard to end, and so are lives. Another Tiptree comparison—they both, at the end of their lives, found themselves caring for older husband with dementia, and in different ways it killed them. Ten months after my father died, my mother followed, worn out and suffering the belated effects of her cancer treatment. ‘Death is the price we pay for life and for all life,’ Ursula Le Guin wrote in a book my mother loved, THE FARTHEST SHORE. She paid it peacefully.

The mind replays memories, sometimes in creative ways. As a writer, I don’t like ghostly visitations in dreams as a plot device. Dreams are more inevitably more about the dreamer than what they dream about. Nonetheless several nights ago I dreamt I saw Marian. She stood in a half-open doorway, an interior scene. What was in the room behind her was uncertain. She looked out from behind her big glasses, then slowly closed the door. I woke at that point, so retained the dream, and mulled over it. “In my father’s house are many mansions?”—to be Biblical. ‘A room of one’s own?’—to be feminist. In either case, an artist’s studio.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grace Paley (1922-2007)

Speaking of writers who don’t write novels: Grace Paley is dead. Sad news for many of us. A friend with whom I constantly exchanged books back in the early 1980s introduced me to her stories by lending me The Little Disturbances of Man. Because she was the only one I knew who knew Paley’s work, I mentally placed her among the many little-known writers only oddballs like me appreciated.

A few years later, I discovered how wrong I was. Paley gave a reading in a large auditorium in Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus, and it was lucky for me that my party arrived fairly early, for adoring fans packed the room. As is often the case when I attend the readings of authors I’ve never before seen in the flesh, everything about her surprised meher physical smallness, her age, her wisecracking manner, the high pitch of her voice, and her energetic gum chewing of what sounded like a big wad of gum. The latter, combined with the wisecracking style, kept making me thinking of her as a mid-century adolescent, even as the sharpness of her responses to questions from the audience continually forced me to revise that impression. (But what did I know then, in my late thirties, about the reasons a post menopausal woman might have for chewing gum.)

Since I was struggling with my first efforts at writing short fiction at the time, I was particularly struck with her replying (impatiently!) to a question from the audience about how of course every story is really two stories. I’d been paying close attention to Isak Dinesen’s stories at the time, and this matter-of-fact assertion confirmed my own thoughts on short-fiction structure. And to my delight, Paley talked also of political issues, particularly about the malign effects of US policy in Latin America and the US’s complicity in the atrocities of the Pinochet regime on the lives of particular individuals. Paley always insisted that the political perfuses daily life, art, and indeed every aspect of our lives. I felt great pleasure when I heard Ursula K. Le Guin read a poem by Paley at a political rally in Portland a few years ago; her choice couldn’t have been more fitting.

After attending Paley's reading, I heard her so-distinctive voice in my head every time I read a story or poem of hers or an interview, imagining they rhythm of her sentences and the intonations of her voice as I read her words on the page. Today, paging through Conversations with Grace Paley (1997), edited by Gerhard Bach and Blaine Hall, I heard her voice again. Here are a couple of excerpts from her interview with Barry Silesky, Robin Hemley, and Sharon Solwitz for Another Chicago Magazine in 1985:

RH: In the story “Somewhere Else” in Later the Same Day and in other stories in this book, the politics seem like this nice gentle undercurrent informed by your wit, and that seems to me to be what makes it so digestible in a way. That you’re not strident about any political message.

GP: What I’m trying to write about is ordinary life as I know it, which involves politics. But it also involves ordinary life. So I tend to show politics as part of ordinary life. I tend to show it as arguments between the son and the mother, you know in the last story (“Listening”). Or among the women in the way they talk about that while they’re also talking about the kids. And I guess one of the things you try to do when you write is to write the story you feel like reading somehow. So when I began to write about women early on it was because they seemed to be missing from what I was reading. In lots of literature, it’s like unless someone’s working with very specifically heavily political people like Marge Piercy does, it’s as though nobody does any politics, as though nobody think at all, and it’s not true. I mean in many ways a lot of that stuff enters people’s thoughts.


BS: What do you think about the contemporary state of feminism? One of my colleagues at work, a woman from Italy who teaches mathematics, said when the word came up, “I’m not a feminist.” She made an effort to dissociate herself form that. And I was struck by that. Here’s a woman who is single, and heavily engaged in a professional career, and it seemed to me she’s only able to be what she is, in large part, because of the women’s movement.

GP: Here again, I think it’s an American effort, despite her being European, to refuse the politics of history and the history of politicsthe way in which their own lives are influenced by political currents. They say, “I’m not part of this wave, it has nothing to do with me,” and I think it’s painful. It’s terrible when it’s with older people because they really should know better. But with the kids, it’s understandable because kids don’t have a strong sense of history.

BS: I think part of it in her case, as well as with others is a reaction to what they see as the stridency of the more visible aspects of the feminist movement.

GP: Well, any movement is strident if it’s a movement. That is to say, since there are so many noises around it in the society, it’s got to talk louder or it wouldn’t be heard.

BS: Are you actively involved in any feminist work now?

GP: I’m really involved in a lot of feminist anti-militarist work. I’ve linked things together with my anti-war stuff. Many feminists don’t see it that way, by the way. There are a lot of divisions. Women say that’s not feminism; feminism is equal rights, day care, battered women, abortion. But they don’t see the connection between the patriarchy of militarism and the patriarchy of ordinary daily life. They don’t like that patriarchy but they don’t seem to mind so much the patriarchy of intervention in Central America.

I think the women’s movement has done a lot for young men. I’m not telling you that because you’re young or anything. Do you think so? What do you think?

SS: I had a boy friend once who was an ardent feminist. He thought that women did see men as economic objects and that was one of the things that sullied male-female relationships. He was an abstract thinker and put everything in terms of polemic. He clearly thought that feminism had done a lot to benefit men.

GP: I just see among my son’s friends. I see the men with their kids, they’re all guys in their thirties, and they really are a wholly different bunch. And I think it’s wonderful for them too. I don’t think it’s just nice for Mommy.

BS: Different in the sense that they’re much more involved with the kids?

GP: They’re really interested. It’s not just that they’re doing it out of duty. They’ve really gotten into that process, which is a process of extreme patience that does them a lot of good.

BS: So you don’t necessarily agree with Nora Ephron’s comment that the one tangible achievement of the women’s movement in the sixties was the Dutch Treat?

GP: That’s a smart ass reply. I would have said, doing dishes. You can have really a very serious dinner party and not to your amazement any more, three guys will get up and do the dishes.

SS: We’ve been talking about politics and your interest which is more organic than intellectual; was there a time when you didn’t think much about politics and there was a sort of an awakening or were you from a family where it was part of the dinner table conversation?

GP: My parents didn’t do any politics. They did when they were young. They’d done a lot of stuff in Russia but when they got here, they just paid attention to business. They tried to figure out how to make a good living, raise kids, buy a house, but they always retained their interest in what was happening in the world. There were always a lot of political discussions.


Hillel Italie’s obituary of Paley for the AP quotes from a 1994 interview with her: "I thought being Jewish meant you were a Socialist," Paley said. "Everyone on my block was a Socialist or a Communist. ... People would have serious, insane arguments, and it was nice. It makes you think the rest of the world is pretty bland."

What she said.

What Is A "Real" Writer?

As I was browsing the table of contents of the 25th anniversary issue of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, the title of Susan Staves’ essay, “Women Writers≠Women Novelists," fairly leaped off the page and danced a tango as it snagged my attention. I’ve had many a conversation over the years with people who don’t write novels (or even fiction) who are either anxious and insecure about whether they’re really “writers” or frustrated with people who insist that only novelists merit the designation. The unspoken assumption that being a writer means being a novelist is pervasive; but I can’t recall ever having read a refutation of the equation before now.

Staves begins by declaring her love of curling up with a good novel. Preparing for a trip to Oklahoma to attend an academic conference, she decided to read Edna Ferber’s 1930 Cimarron, which chronicles “the opening of Oklahoma” in 1889. According to Staves, in her Foreward to the novel, Ferber says that although she did a lot of research for the novel, she didn’t attempt to “set down a literal history of Oklahoma” for she had to discard a lot of material “as unfit for use because it was so melodramatic, so absurd as to be too strange for the realm of fiction.” The stories that the novel can tell, in other words, are limited. In the world of “true history,” Ferber writes, “Anything can have happened in Oklahoma. Practically everything has.”

This observation will be nothing new to novelists. Even novels that attempt to grapple with the world as it is must bow to the strictures of the narrative models that determine what is plausible and meaningful. Fiction that bears the banner of “Realism” is as artificial as a 1950s sit-com: “realism” is a style, not an accurate description of a novel’s content.

Staves uses Ferber’s observation to reflect on her own period of expertise, eighteenth-century Britain, and on

the still-present temptation to make our history of women’s writing a history of women writing novels and the temptation to use novels as the primary source of our imaginative contact with the lives and minds of eighteenth-century women.

I say “our” here speaking as a literary scholar, my original role and one to which I am always happy to return despite occasional excursions into other disciplines. Feminist scholars in other disciplines usually do not succumb to this temptation. Indeed, one advantage of the interdisciplinary character of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies is that at these meetings we can—and should—seize opportunities to listen to our colleagues in other disciplines. I have found that the impression of eighteenth-century women’s lives that one gets from current work in textile studies or musicology or economic history is remote indeed form the impression one gets from novels. Outside of novels, eighteen-century women often seem considerably less abject, more aware of adult sexuality, less sentimental, and more knowledgeable about money. This is certainly true, for example, of the women letter writers we meet in Elaine Chalus’s Elite Women in English Political Life (2005).

Later in the essay, she reminds us that

novels, especially novels written by women, were relentlessly judged in terms of whether they were suitable surrogate conduct books for adolescent girls. The conventions of the novel that developed under those circumstances were generic conventions that were not equivalent even to the social conventions that applied to women in polite society, and certainly not the same as conventions thought appropriate to contemporary historical writing, philosophical writing—or even stage comedy.

The more detailed studies of women intellectuals who wrote in forms other than the novel that we have, the more we will appreciate the great range and variety of women’s experience and thought.

Hmm. I wonder what anyone could possibly make of our world today by reading the novels now being published. Anyone involved with writing, reviewing, or publishing fiction knows well that that the narrative forms available to fiction writers represent a fairly narrow range of experience and values and a limited number of stories that don’t represent most of the people living in the world (much less much about their lives). (The same, certainly, could be said about television and movies.)

Staves’ main point is that the “literary landscape” (as it used to be called) of the eighteenth-century Anglophone world encompassed a good deal more than novels. And so she urges the importance of bringing into print and studying the mostly ignored nonfiction produced by Anglophone women writers in the early modern period. Women who wrote essays and history and biography and philosophy and theology, she emphasizes, were writers. And should be recognized and respected as such.

Her reflections prompt me to wish that our current notion of Writer were as broad. Scholarly and intellectual writing can be a pleasure to readbut often isn’t. Much nonfiction writing has perhaps come to be seen as utilitarian and thus of no aesthetic interest. But why not? Consider the talented writers of nonfiction that make an art of their thoughtful articulations: writers like Joanna Russ (who would still be a “real” writer even if she’d only written nonfiction), or Rachel Blau DuPlessis (oh the pleasures of the Pink Guitar!), or Claudia Ranikine, whose Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is unquestionably an eloquent work of art, even if it isn’t a novel.

Here’s to fine writers who happen to write in forms other than fiction: may they win the respect and admiration they deserveand above all, keep writing.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Living in the Future

A few months back, Gwyneth Jones published
“We have the technology”
in the Guardian. She concluded:

Our gadgets are just like our children. They have the potential to be marvellous, to surpass all expectations. But children (and robots) don't grow up intelligent, affectionate, helpful and good-willed all by themselves. They need to be nurtured. The technology, however fantastic, is neutral. It's up to us to decide whether that dazzling new robot brain powers a caring hand, or a speedy fist highly accurate at throwing grenades.

A couple of months after Gwyneth’s article appeared, I read that California State Senator Joe Simitian had introduced a measure in an Assembly committee “that would prohibit an employer from implanting tiny ID chips in workers, block RFID technology from being embedded in driver's licenses, prohibit schools from issuing ID cards to track student attendance, and make it a misdemeanour to skim identification cards.” Despite Simitian’s efforts, likely, the fairly recent technology of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), used to track packages and shipments, will become yet another nail in the coffin of individual privacy in the United States.

A few years ago, Maureen McHugh actually wrote a story, "In the Air," in which a woman, anxious for her loved ones’ safety and with the best intentions, implants tracking chips in her teen-aged daughter as well as her mother (who has Alzheimer’s); the story confronts the personal consequences of the use of such technology.

Living as we do in a society governed by the marketplace without reference to ethical questions or the general welfare, we know all too well that the applications of new technologies will never be limited to the benign and practical. One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to believe that every technology invented will be abused. If a technology can be used to control and exploit people (on both a small and a large scale), businesses will happily pursue the resulting profit and thus Make It So.

Still, until recently, certain uses of surveillance technology were considered impermissible in the US and thus were politically unfeasible. Very few politicians have shown any interest in challenging the NSA’s access to every email sent and phone call made by US citizens, nor to secretly accessing citizens’ computers and tracking their book purchasing an library records at will. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Demian Bulwa writes that the ACLU’s 19-page report “Under the Watchful Eye,”

argues that the cameras have proven ineffective in decreasing violent crime and recommends that cities replace them with less invasive measures. Short of that, the report calls for “intense public scrutiny” of surveillance systems…. The report comes after a week of renewed debate over cameras in San Francisco. Since 2005, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office has spent about $500,000 on 70 cameras placed at 25 high-crime hot spots, and the Housing Authority has spent $200,000 on 178 cameras for its sites.

Police have defended the 70 city cameras, saying they deterred crime, while acknowledging they have contributed to just one arrest in two years. City cameras are not monitored in real time due to privacy concerns. Investigators have ordered copies of footage about once every three weeks, police said.

Although the US Government is unwilling to help the many impoverished people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast rebuild in the wake of Katrina, it is happy to dole out funds for to keep streets and parks under surveillance. In a Boston Globe article last week, “US Doles Out Millions for Street Cameras: Local Efforts Raise Privacy Alarms,” Charlie Savage writes:

The department will not say how much of its taxpayer-funded grants have gone to cameras. But a Globe search of local newspapers and congressional press releases shows that a large number of new surveillance systems, costing at least tens and probably hundreds of millions of dollars, are being simultaneously installed around the country as part of homeland security grants.

In the last month, cities that have moved forward on plans for surveillance networks financed by the Homeland Security Department include St. Paul, which got a $1.2 million grant for 60 cameras for downtown; Madison, Wis., which is buying a 32-camera network with a $388,000 grant; and Pittsburgh, which is adding 83 cameras to its downtown with a $2.58 million grant.

Small towns are also getting their share of the federal money for surveillance to thwart crime and terrorism.

Recent examples include Liberty, Kan. (population 95), which accepted a federal grant to install a $5,000 G2 Sentinel camera in its park, and Scottsbluff, Neb. (population 14,000), where police used a $180,000 Homeland Security Department grant to purchase four closed-circuit digital cameras and two monitors, a system originally designed for Times Square in New York City.

Why in the world would a town with a population of 95 would want a camera in its park? Savage notes that

[Pr]ivacy rights advocates say that the technology is putting at risk something that is hard to define but is core to personal autonomy. The proliferation of cameras could mean that Americans will feel less free because legal public behavior — attending a political rally, entering a doctor’s office, or even joking with friends in a park — will leave a permanent record, retrievable by authorities at any time.

Businesses and government buildings have used closed-circuit cameras for decades, so it is nothing new to be videotaped at an ATM machine. But technology specialists say the growing surveillance networks are potentially more powerful than anything the public has experienced.

Until recently, most surveillance cameras produced only grainy analog feeds and had to be stored on bulky videotape cassettes. But the new, cutting-edge cameras produce clearer, more detailed images. Moreover, because these videos are digital, they can be easily transmitted, copied, and stored indefinitely on ever-cheaper hard-drive space.

In addition, police officers cannot be everywhere at once, and in the past someone had to watch a monitor, limiting how large or powerful a surveillance network could be.

But technicians are developing ways to use computers to process real-time and stored digital video, including license-plate readers, face-recognition scanners, and software that detects “anomalous behavior.” Although still primitive, these technologies are improving, some with help from research grants by the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate.

“Being able to collect this much data on people is going to be very powerful, and it opens people up for abuses of power,” said Jennifer King, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies privacy and technology. “The problem with explaining this scenario is that today it’s a little futuristic. [A major loss of privacy] is a low risk today, but five years from now it will present a higher risk.”

As this technological capacity evolves, it will be far easier for individuals to attract police suspicion simply for acting differently and far easier for police to track that person’s movement closely, including retracing their steps backwards in time. It will also create a greater risk that the officials who control the cameras could use them for personal or political gain, specialists said.

Yesterday’s Baltimore Sun has an editorial about the US Government’s plan to use satellites to spy on its citizens:

Once the federal government had rationalized its authority to violate the privacy of Americans by tapping their phones, reading their e-mail, surveying their library selections and poking through their bank records, it was only a matter of time before the Department of Homeland Security would point spy satellite cameras intended for foreign enemies into the private lives of Americans as well.

Indeed, the country is becoming so inured to the Big Brother tactics of the Bush administration, news of this intrusive new eye in domestic skies has provoked little outrage. Congress has apparently given the plan its blessing, totally abdicating its oversight role.

The Bush Administration has repeatedly used the al-Qaeda threat to make the case that a population under surveillance is Safe (though obviously in no way a “Safe Space” for anyone). I’m wondering how much my response of visceral horror is a legacy of growing up during the Cold War. Propaganda in the US took a two-pronged approach: celebrating materialism (availability of consumer goods) on the one hand and fear of police-state culture stripping individuals of the right to privacy and due process on the other. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so inculcated with a horror of the Stasi way of life, I wouldn’t now find the politicians’ foisting a police state on us so intolerable.

On the panel “Thinking About the World” at the Locus Awards weekend last June, Charles Brown, Neal Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, and Greg Bear discussed, among other things, changing attitudes about surveillance. Mark Kelly noted on his blog, Views from Medina Road:

The discussion veered into the virtual realm; Brown noted how much people want to be watched these days, in an inversion to 1984; Vinge sensed a sea change about what young people are willing to give away; and Stephenson cited the guy on a government watch-list who's put his entire life on the web, as a defense. Most people don't have anything to lose, he said; for most, it's a net gain to put their personal stories out there for everyone to see.

I took a few notes myself:

CB: Orwell’s 1984 was one of the most important sf books of the 20th century. Some of his predictions came true. But Orwell never imagined the webcam—the idea of wanting to be watched 24 hours a day. Predictions can never be strange enough.

VV: One of the strengths of sf is that we talk about possiblities—particularly “scenario planning”—think about extreme versions of what could happen and hen play them out. SF is performing a sociological function that dreaming has for human beings. I wonder about people who are 13-23 years old. Maybe young people don’t understand that there will be consequences in the future [for sacrificing their privacy].

CB: We’re heading toward Chinese attitudes toward privacy—what happens on the outside doesn’t matter.

NS: I’m horrified by what people are willing to put up on their blogs. The downtrodden value getting their stories out (unlike people at the top, who value their privacy). [NS cites the case of a guy who uses a 24-hour-a-day webcam to let the world know about his persecution by US authorities; when he’s stopped at airports, he tells TSA to look at his webcam as proof that he hasn’t committed any acts of terrorsm.]

Unidentified Audience Member: Children have been conditioned to be watched all the time—so that they don’t feel safe unless they are always being watched.

Jay Lake: Indirect surveillance is really total—most people are unaware of that [Sprint records, credit card slips, etc]

GB: In the past, we had judicial safeguards.

I’m not sure that the men on that panel are correct about the generational difference. But I’ll give the last word to Gwyneth:

It's hardly surprising if the children of the 21st century find it difficult to distinguish between a scientific discovery, this year's new gadget, and utterly fantastic concepts such as the man with the 50s 'do, who wears his pants over his tights and flies faster than a speeding bullet. After decades of stalling, it seems that science fiction is finally, rapidly, becoming fact - just as the first pulp writers and movie-makers were convinced it would, back in the 1920s.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Spot the Liar!

One of these things is not like the other,
One of these things is not the same...

Can you guess which one?

Oh, I take it back. They're all hilarious.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Distinguishing the Boys from the Girls

By Nancy Jane Moore

I wrote a story awhile back in which people were arrested if they presented themselves as one gender when they were "really" the other (as defined by a genetic test). In my story, New Orleans set up a separate section of the jail for those charged with gender crimes, rather than putting those people in with either men or women.

Perhaps Washington, D.C., needs to set aside a similar jail section. According to The Washington Post, three corrections officers have been fired for classifying a woman as a man and putting her in the male section of the jail.

She told the corrections officers she was female. So did at least one other inmate. She even showered with men. The story says the officers also made fun of her and called her a "thing."

The Post story is short on details. The story says she looks "androgynous," though I must say that I thought "female" when I saw the picture that accompanied the story. Her name -- which was apparently on her ID -- is Virginia Grace Soto. There's something about her covering her genitals with her hands, apparently making it impossible for the guards to tell she wasn't male. On one arrest (she was arrested twice, once for prostitution and once for crack cocaine), the gay and lesbian liaison officer classified her as a transgendered male, and the corrections officers put her in the male section. On her second arrest, she was apparently classified as a man because of the first arrest. A doctor eventually confirmed that she is female.

I confess I'd like to know what she really looks like. Is she really so androgynous in the nude? Is she one of those persons born with vague genitalia -- not clearly one sex or the other? I feel a little guilty about wanting more facts, because more detail would violate her privacy even more than it's been violated already by the publicity -- not to mention her treatment at the jail. I hope to God she sues, because this is a slam dunk case for significant damages.

But the interesting thing about a story like this is how it challenges all our assumptions on gender. If someone's gender isn't obvious when they're stark naked, then gender isn't cut and dried.

And if gender isn't cut and dried, then we either need more distinctions than male and female or fewer.

Setting aside the far from insignificant problem of rape -- rape being the first thing that occurred to me when I heard a woman had been locked up with men -- I'm for fewer distinctions. And given that rape is a significant problem in jail, it occurs to me that perhaps that we need to come up with ways to prevent it besides simply locking men and women up separately. Rape is no less terrible just because the victim is male.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Happy Independence Day, India and Pakistan!

Today and yesterday, sixty years ago, India and Pakistan became free of two centuries of British rule. Yay! I wish I were in New Delhi over-indulging in milk-sweets like everyone else. But celebrations aside, there is also need for reflection. India is home to an increasingly affluent middle class (a tiny percentage of the total population) capitalizing on the liberalization of the economy, while that same liberalization has farmer suicides on the rise in village India. What is the state of the environment? What news from the front lines of women’s movements? The struggle for freedom is not history but current events for India’s dispossessed. And the decolonization of the mind takes far longer than the decolonization of the country.

I remember assuming long ago that feminism and the idea of equality for women was the West’s gift to the world. This was back when I was a teenager. I had studied Indian history and knew all about how Indian women participated in the freedom movement, filling jails in the tens of thousands. Yet this notion persisted until my teens, when I went up into the Himalayas with an environment group to study a grassroots environment movement called Chipko. Seeing village women in remote valleys of the Himalayas making speeches at gatherings, hearing about their peaceful resistance against loggers who threatened their lives and livelihoods, I saw for the first time an indigenous, homegrown feminism. Many years later I heard about the way women in rural Andhra Pradesh, inspired by a literacy movement, spontaneously organized a campaign against government-sponsored alcoholism.

One of the disappointments I have with modern India is that we have not brought to the forefront an alternative, sustainable socio-economic system based on social justice and equity for all. Instead we seem to be determined to ape the West in its excesses and follies. With out-of-the-box thinkers like Gandhi we had a chance, but Gandhi is mostly given lip-service now by those who control the shots. But my experiences of the past as well as current struggles around India tell of a quiet, beneath-the-radar persistence of a variety of alternate ways of being in the world. To get a quick glimpse of some of the issues, here is a link for interested readers. The organization is a mostly student-run body based broadly on a Gandhian grassroots approach. http://aidindia.org/main/.

So here’s to the continuing freedom movement!

On Writing, Life and Gender

Recently I was on a panel at a con. The panel discussion topic (as described in the program notes) was about the intersection of writing, family obligations and day job, and how the conflict interferes with and/or enriches and changes one’s writing, and how we as writers negotiate these various demands on our time and energy. This is a topic close to my heart and has an obvious gender aspect to it that I hoped would come up. Instead the discussion was a mixture of the panel’s intent and something rather different.

Before I elaborate I want to mention, without naming names, that there were three women and three men on the panel, and one of the women was moderator. We began in the usual way by introducing ourselves and mentioning what our non-writing responsibilities are: kids, partners, jobs, etc. One of the male writers had stayed home for many years while his wife worked, in order to be there for his kids, and I had the same experience, leaving academia for 9 years to raise and home-school my daughter. Another panelist described the experience of her partner’s serious illness and how it brought home to her how much more important her partner was than her writing, which she willingly gave up for a long time. One woman mentioned how she could not write much at all while her sons were small, and finally, after they were old enough, she had the time to do so. I talked about how my being home for my daughter simultaneously frustrated my attempts to write but also made the writing richer and different. We exchanged some strategies we had come up with to manage children and writing without doing a bad job with either. Some time in the first part of the discussion, one of the panelists, who I will refer to as Mr. X, who is male and a senior veteran of the field, interjected that his reading of the panel topic was different from ours; that he was emphatically not interested in “Hints from Heloise” about managing children, but instead was interested in the relationship between the writer and Life. He said he and his wife had raised two children and he had probably done a bad job as far as his part in that endeavor, but he wasn’t interested in talking about that. He wanted to talk about how (as he said) a good writer has to necessarily be a rather unpleasant person --- a cold-hearted note-taker of humanity’s sufferings and foibles, a solipsist who willingly gives up closeness in relationships or fraternizing with people so that he can pursue his Art in peace. [Now these are my impressions, not direct quotes (other than the phrase Hints from Heloise, which I recall as spoken with a great deal of condescension)]. All this resulted in what was probably a shocked silence on the part of the panelists, and I could see one or two people in the audience nodding in agreement, at which point I could not keep shut any longer. So I said that I respectfully disagree, and that the model of the writer suggested by Mr. X was perhaps accurate for people like Ernest Hemingway, but that I knew plenty of fine writers who were fully engaged in life, family, jobs and so on, who wrote from a position of compassion for and engagement with the world. At some point somebody (I don’t remember who) brought forth an example. If your child was crying, and it was your sacred time to write, would you shut your door on the child and write? The obvious answer seems to me that if your spouse can take care of the child, then you can go ahead and write, otherwise of course you must take care of the child first. Why it was even an issue was beyond me (a view shared by at least one male writer and presumably all the women), but for some reason this took more than a few minutes to discuss. The discussion swung back and forth between the original intent of the panel and Mr. X’s topic, but never took the logical turn toward the issue of gender embedded in both. I take responsibility for my part in not introducing it overtly, but I think part of the reason was that a) about halfway through the panel my cell-phone buzzed --- it was my daughter’s pediatrician calling back about a test result (ironic, eh?). Since my daughter was otherwise OK and my husband was home with her, I could afford to wait and call the doctor back at the end of the panel discussion, but the whole thing really distracted me for the rest of the panel because I kept wondering about the call. And b) I was shell-shocked that I could sit in a panel in this day and age in America and hear someone be so openly and unashamedly reactionary about a gender issue as well as the process of writing. But also something interesting happened that contributed to avoiding the issue.

A woman in the audience mentioned how difficult it was to get her husband to help her with household responsibilities, and that this was why she found it very difficult to get any writing done. In response, one of the male panelists spoke up. This was the guy who had stayed home for many years to be with his kids, who, by the way, is a person whose works I fervently admire. He said: “Well, why can’t your husband cook dinner?” At which point the poor woman had nothing to say.

The discussion wrapped up soon after that, and I was left fuming and profoundly dissatisfied. It took me some time to process my thoughts on the subject; here they are now, at least semi-processed.

A quick note: I don’t name names involved in this panel discussion partly because I don’t want to get into a pointless debate with Mr. X (although it is unlikely he’ll read this post), but mostly because I want to use my impressions of the panel as a jump-off point to cogitate on some thoughts about writing and gender. But also I have to say I feel sorry and embarrassed for Mr. X, being so old and so not-having-gotten-it in front of a vast room-full of people, and part of it is my Indian upbringing about disagreeing politely rather than lashing out --- much --- (especially at the elderly). So here goes.

(Break to fix lunch for hungry child and self).

First, if there is any doubt at all that feminism is a done deal in America, the attitudes revealed in the panel discussion tell me that it just ain’t so. Here are my impressions about attitudes that still prevail, that I’ve come across in other places as well (and therefore are not limited to or entirely drawn from the panel discussion). I’d be interested in impressions from other people as to how widespread these attitudes are, since I can’t really make generalizations from my limited experience. So these are in the nature of educated guesses about attitudes I’ve encountered personally that might prevail beyond the boundaries of my experience.

(1) Since child-rearing and cooking and taking care of spouses are women’s work they are not worth having a panel discussion about, so let’s talk about something more interesting.

(2) If you are a good writer you put your art above such mundane things as relationships and crying children; you lock yourself in your room with your Art and your unpleasant, egocentric self; if you don’t do these things how can you really be devoted to your art? It’s all or nothing, isn’t it? And by the way your attempt to gauge what life is all about is nothing to do with raising children and housework responsibilities, because of course these are incidental things unrelated to the Big Questions.

(3) If you are an enlightened male who has done his share of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing, you can dismiss the concerns of women who don’t have husbands like you by asking why they can’t get their husbands to help, like it ought to be so easy.

Here are brief thoughts about each.

(1) On Domesticity being Women’s Work and therefore not important: Even thought things might have changed from 1950’s America, I suspect that domesticity is still largely the responsibility of women. Domestic work, when it has to be done as a pre-assigned role, where one has no choice and is given no respect, when the role is taken for granted by others around you and society at large --- such domestic work can be degrading and soul-destroying. When it is done as a partnership, when it is not a requirement for being female, when it is done with mutual respect and sharing, domesticity can be a joy for some and (if nothing else) at least a less taxing experience. Men who believe that domesticity is women’s work will not understand why discussing the intersection of writing and life’s other obligations is important. Simply put, without help on the home front, women can’t write, or can’t write as much as they would have. I wouldn’t have been able to attend the con if my husband couldn’t have stayed home with daughter and dog.

Privilege (and I’m talking gender privilege) makes it easy for men to ignore or dismiss domestic responsibilities, because, simply put, they can. It takes a rare man, plus a lot of training and negotiating, to go against the patriarchal grain and shoulder his part of the responsibility.

For god’s sake, does all this still have to be spelled out in the bloody twenty-first century?

(2) On how you’ve got to be an unpleasant egotist above mere mundane concerns in order to be a good writer: I am reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” in the collection The Language of the Night. I write this from memory since I can never find the book --- it is in a perpetual state of being lent out. But if I remember correctly the essay talks about the different ways some men and women approach writing. There’s the Hemingway/ Joseph Conrad school, where the guy shuts himself up and takes no interest in the doings of the household, and where his wife is a mere presence not even worth naming who takes care of his physical needs (this is from a quote from Conrad). The act of writing is described by Conrad as wrestling with the Lord, as though the Lord is clutching to His lordly chest all of Conrad’s brilliant work and the two must duel it out like the men they both are. Then Le Guin quotes a number of women writers, starting with Louisa May Alcott in the voice of Jo March, talking about writing as a vortex into which she willingly falls --- writing as a participatory process. I know some male writers will also identify with this. Le Guin notes that various women writers attribute their work to the supportive community of family and friends who help out with domestic work and thus enable the writer to write. I wish I remembered enough about the essay to do it justice. But if you can find it, read it.

My personal experience has been that having a child and a family (and, in the last four years, a job outside the home) has been limiting, exhausting, frustrating, exhilarating and enriching all at once. I’m not saying that you have to have children to be a good writer, or even that I’m a good writer; what I’m saying is that being intimately involved with life and people gives you a kind of perspective that can inform your writing. To dismiss domesticity in its joys and horrors is to miss a large chunk of experience.

I know writers whose writing touches me deeply, who are open and vulnerable to the world, who live in a complex web of relationships, whose vision is rooted in compassion. I suspect there are all kinds of good writers who approach their art in a myriad different ways. To lump all good writing into one school is downright ridiculous.

(3) On how women who have trouble balancing writing and household work should simply get their husbands to cook dinner: Ah, enlightened males! They are few and far between. There is an excellent book by sociologist Allan Johnson (I think) called The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy, which talks about how men and women are both trapped by the unseen and invisible bonds of patriarchy. While clearly women are the ones who suffer the most, men also are caught in a bind --- after all, a power relationship entraps both victim and perpetrator. From what I’ve heard and experienced, the invisible nature of patriarchy to men (it is painfully obvious to many women) makes it incredibly difficult for men to acknowledge that there is a problem. I’ve heard more men than women declare that feminism is no longer necessary, as though they have any authority or credibility to make such a statement. (Ask the women, damn you!). It seems to me that because patriarchy is the air we breathe, whether in America or elsewhere, enlightened men are made, not born (in general). Women have to negotiate with and train their male partners, or consciously bring up their male children to go against the grain (both of which can take years); and men have to shed their blinders and their arrogance and acquire enough humility to actually listen and do, in order to become true partners. (And from what I’ve seen/heard/read, men are generally happier being enlightened than not. Is that so? Enlightened males please enlighten me on this).

So, kudos to enlightened males. But even such men must watch out for a condition I dub “enlightened male syndrome.” This is where you assume that because you’ve seen the light, it is trivial or easy for other women to get their husbands to cook the dinner. Relationships between men and women are so complex --- there’s that whole mix of emotions, love, guilt, fear, as well as people’s upbringing and societal expectations. The panelist who is the enlightened male in question is a writer I greatly respect and admire. But he, too, fell into the trap (unconsciously I suspect) of telling a woman what to do and thereby denying her experience and her pain.

It was a strange panel all round because the attempt (conscious or otherwise) to shut women up was being made by two opposite kinds of men: Mr. X the chauvinist and Mr. Enlightened Male.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we haven’t yet come a long way, baby.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Syntax Police Are on the Move: Equal Must Be Separate

What does it mean when a right-wing ideologue slings the rebarbative infamous epithets of “girly” and “sissified” at those who use a syntactical structure he’s declared anathema?

It is not easy to write with dispassion of the odious semicolon, but let me try: Except for its function in one copy-editing circumstance, the semicolon is worthless. It is the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented. Sensitive editors should abolish it forthwith. Forthwith!

So begins James Kilpatrick’s attack on the very idea of allowing two equal, independent clauses to be joined within the marriage of a single sentence. (God forbid that three equal, independent clauses be joined in one sentence: this idea is so unthinkable that Kilpatrick doesn’t even mention it.)

The semicolon is a belly-up guppie in a tank of glorious Siamese fighting fish. It's girly. It is not just probably the most useless of all forms of punctuation. It is absolutely, positively the most useless of all such marks ever invented….Why is the semicolon so obnoxious? For one thing, it serves no useful purpose not already abundantly served by the period and the colon. For another, this pathetic hybrid is so shy, so bashful, so gutless, so easily overlooked, that a reader runs right over it. We stumble. We backtrack. What happened to the sentence that was there a minute ago? Now you see the semi, now you don't.

Pathetic, bashful, gutless, easily overlooked… Oh yeah, that’s “girly” for you. I scent an ideological agenda here: equal, for Kilpatrick, must, it seems, be separate and held apart, such that two ideas lacking a proper hierarchical relationship are never allowed to be part of the same thought. He is willing, after all, to allow two unequal clauses to exist within the same sentence. A sentence made of two unequal clauses will not be “run right over” or overlooked; a sentence made of two unequal clauses will, rather, be “a glorious Siamese fighting fish,” manly, a veritable warrior of a sentence.

Okay, so I understand that Kilpatrick is a reactionary right-wing ideologue: naturally he hates even the faintest whiff of egalitarian practices and attitudes. But why is he so worried about everyone else’s manhood? Presumably he’s not just worried about the manhood of the men he’s addressing in his column, but of the women, as well. (If that weren’t the case, then he’d be directing his remarks to a minority population, speaking for and to a Special Interest Group, viz., literate males, and of course James Kilpatrick would never do that.)

See, I’m one of those “creative writers” he mentions in his column who embrace the semicolon with both arms. Is he calling me “girly” and “sissified”? Since I was a girl for the first couple of decades of life, being called “girly” is, I suppose, meant to infantilize me. And yes, babies are bashful, shy, and gutless. Maybe even pathetic. But “sissified”? Last time I heard, that was one of those homophobic epithets meant to terrorize boys and men into becoming mean bastards and support the party line. (Siamese fighting fish?)

Do I want my sentences to be Siamese fighting fish? Sometimes. But why must every sentence I produce constitute a vector for aggression? Is discourse merely a tank of Siamese fighting fish?

I don’t get it. But I suppose that's because when I was a girl, of all the fish in my parent's aquarium, I preferred the guppies. It bothered me, of course, that they ate their young, but their grace and beauty fascinated me. I haven't laid eyes on a guppy in years. Maybe they'd strike me as bland now. Or even pathetic and gutless. But even so, it would never occur to me to put them in the same tank with Siamese fighting fish.

I guess that's because I'm just a girl.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Reflections on Becoming Jane

This weekend I saw Becoming Jane, a film that fictionalizes Jane Austen in the same way that movies have fictionalized her novels. Yes, I know the novels are fiction. But the film treatments of these novels in a certain sense fictionalizes the texts they are based ongoing beyond mere reading or interpretation of the texts to willfully create an entirely new entity with independent lives of their own. And so it is with this movie’s treatment of “Jane’s” (as opposed to “Austen’s”) life (for which we do not really have a text, since lives are not texts, however many documents it may leave behind). And although all biographies and history are fictional in the sense that they use narrative and speculation and imagination to make sense of the “facts” that come to us through documents, fictionalizations are conscious, willful departures from texts and documented facts.

Becoming Jane fits into both the “Heritage” genre (as cultural studies scholars call it) and the more widely recognized genre of biopic which can range from the charmingly ridiculous (think Shakespeare in Love, Amadeus and Impromptu) to serious (Frieda and Vincent and Theo). Altman said about Vincent and Theo: “I’m sure my film is not factual, but I hope it’s truthful.” I suspect Julian Jarrold, the film’s director, imagined he was being in some sense “truthful” with his fantasies about “Jane.” Since most people’s sense of truth fondly imposes anachronism on texts and lives alike in service to the cherished notion of the “Universal,” I was fully prepared for the sorts of anachronistic distortions that typify the whole “Jane” film genre (and largely account for their appeal to such a widealbeit largely femaleaudience)which was, of course, exactly what Becoming Jane delivered.

Near the beginning of the film, we see Jane seated at a desk, writing, with a pair of scissors positioned near her ink pot. And then we see her sister Cassandra, reading the letter Jane has written her that is literally full of numerous rectangular holes, cut with meticulous precision, so that Jane’s beautiful script is not marred by inked out deletions. Jane, it seems, wields a pair of blades to edit her letters (rather than producing a clean second draft through copying, as we see her doing with her fiction). Likely the filmmaker provides this image to amuse his viewers (and it certainly did amuse me), but it reminded me from the outset that one of the reasons we know little about Jane Austen and her private life is because Cassandra purged her sister’s letters after her death, to be sure that no minor blot or imperfection would mar the image of her sister that Cassandra wished to project.

Which is to say, since her death, very little has been known about Jane Austen’s private life or, indeed, about her personality or the character of her social relationships.

My sense of dead authors generally takes one of two modes. In rare instances, I will have read the author’s letters and diaries or memoirs, their essays and other nonfiction, and possibly biographies about them. In some indefinable sense, what I know about such an author will merge somehow with my reading of their work. My sense of Virginia Woolf, for instance, partakes of that mode. But the most common mode is that of the author as a near-blank. In this mode, I know a few facts about the author but have no real picture of their life or personality: the author is a name and the producer of a voice that I do know. In other words, I know the second self that the author created. My sense of Jane Austen partakes of that mode. I never think of the real person who produced the voice in which her novels are written when I’m reading her work: she is absent and may as well not exist.

So, as browsing the Seattle movie listings I read that the film was showing (the first that I knew it had even been made) and decided to see it, I realized that I lacked an image of Jane Austen substantial enough to be challenged or affronted by whatever image the movie had chosen to create of her. And I found that an odd realization to make, especially as I went on to consider how the fans of the “Jane” film genre have invented a “Jane” (largely based on their consensual re-invention of “Lizzie,” as so many call Elizabeth Bennet) they are sure they know intimately and do, of course, love.

This train of thought called to mind D.A. Miller’s celebration of Austen’s voice in the opening passage of Jane Austen: or The Secret of Style:

Whereas Emma’s talk merely held Harriet with the charm of a person, what Austen’s writing channeled for us [who read Austen earlysay, at eleven or twelve, the age when she began writing] was the considerably more exciting appeal of no longer being one. Here was a truly out-of-body voice, so stirringly free of what it abhorred as “particularity” or “singularity” that it seemed to come from no enunciator at all. It scanted person even in the linguistic sense, rarely acknowledging, by saying I, its origination in an authoring self, or, by saying you, its reception by any other. We rapt, admiring readers might feel we were only eavesdropping on delightful productions intended for nobody in particular. And in other constituents of personnot just body, but psyche, history, social positionthe voice was also deficient, so much so that its overall impersonality determined a narrative authority and a beauty of expression both without equal. The former, bare of personal specifications that might situate and hence subvert it, rose to absoluteness; while the latter, likewise emptied of self, achieved classic self-containment. No extraneous static encumbered the dictation of a grammar that completed, and an art that finished, every crystalline sentence. Altogether, such thrillingly inhuman utterance was not stylish; it was Style itself.

While Becoming Jane does not offer us an image of Jane Austen powerful enough to stamp the imagination forever with its imprint (or, I would guess, even set out to do so), its entire point, however, is to fix that voice to the fantasy of a particular person, body, and set of experiences that the movie imagines made Austen the author she became. (Hence, of course, the “becoming.”) Much of the delight of a film aimed at fans of “Jane” must, of course, be the constant occurrence of recognizable lines and figures from the film versions of the novels.

And so Anne Hathaway’s Jane herself is naturally an amalgamation of Austen’s heroines, while the people in her life and the situations she finds herself in are a combination of those to be found in her novels, fashioned onto a few carefully selected struts of the framework that is the little that is known of Jane Austen’s life. (For the record, the film’s hero, Tom Lefroy, was in real life a member of the bar in Ireland, had nine children with the woman he married in 1799, and became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1852; Austen did mention him in a few letters and remarked of him that he was “a great admirer of Tom Jones” [which book Austen no doubt read without Lefroy’s prompting] and that that admiration inspired his only fault, that of wearing light-colored and colorful coats.)

It’s a formula that works perfectly to create a film that fits nicely within the Jane-film genre. Thus, Jane’s mother, Mrs. Austen, resembles the two television-film versions of Mrs. Bennet; Judge Langlois resembles the General in Northanger Abbey; Lucy Lefroy resembles Mary in Pride and Prejudice; Lady Gresham (a wholly invented character) combines Lady Catherine de Burgh and Lady Dalrymple in Persuasion, and so on. Even more importantly, perhaps, the characters spout familiar lines.

If one were to take the movie seriously, one would have to conclude that Jarrold means us to believe that the Austen wit was all around her, ready for to be used: but of course that’s not the reason those lines can be found on the characters’ lips: like the resemblances between the film’s characters and those of the film version of the novels, they’re meant to afford the viewer with the pleasure of recognition.

Jarrold affords us occasional moments of recognition of scenes from other, non-Austen heritage films: how can we not recall Merchant-Ivory’s Room with a View when seeing Jane and the Countess running through the woods after LeFroy and Jane’s brother Henry, to watch them strip off their clothes & dive naked into the water (even as we also think of Colin Frith’s Darcy nude in his bath and later diving into a pond to cool off after a long ride home)?

Still, most narratives have subtexts, and this movie is no exception. The principal subtext is rather heavy-handed: the sexual excitement and romantic infatuation followed by self-sacrifice of her affair with Lefroy gave Jane the experience she needed to produce those wonderful novels. And yet a second, subtler subtext offers a kernel of truth to be found beneath the multiple layers of the film’s fantasy. This emerges in the scene in which Jane meets Mrs. Radcliffe, the Gothic novelist who actually made a living by her pen, and realizes there might be an alternative to the life her mother tells her she must accept. Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels involve wild adventure and exotic travel. When Jane asks her about her experience (which Tom has been telling her she needs to acquire in order to write Real Novels), Mrs. Radcliffe comments that imagination can make up for all that the writer lacks in experience.

Becoming Jane had a few jarring moments, of course. I can’t imagine what possessed Jarrold to have Jane make a crack about who may judge who’s really important, for the crack was obviously intended to draw attention to how much more important she would become posthumously, when all those who viewed her as an impertinent, insignificant chit had sunk into ordinary obscurity: thus winking to the viewer to enjoy the irony (which certainly did not need to be pointed out to anyone in the theater).

In sum, the movie was a frolic that accomplished its aim and I’ve no doubt it will give the fans of “Jane” repeated hours of pleasure. Still, it would have been interesting to have had Robert Altman’s version of Jane Austen: I can’t help but thinking he might have been more interested in elucidating the enigma D.A. Miller admires, rather than conflating the fictionalizations of the writer's fictions with the writer.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Aliens of the Heart by Carolyn Ives Gilman

I'm pleased to announce that Aqueduct Press will be publishing Aliens of the Heart, a collection of short fiction by Carolyn Ives Gilman, as a volume in our Conversation Pieces series; we'll be releasing it in October. The collection will comprise one original story and three reprints, including "Okanoggan Falls," which the author discussed in her post Some Thoughts About Women and War.

This will be Carolyn’s second volume in the Conversation Pieces series. Her novella Candle in A Bottle was published as Volume 13 and is, of course, still available from Aqueduct Press.

What the US Stands For

In an article for McClatchy Newspapers, Mike Drummond reports that a US Military base in Iraq has set up separate latrines for the Iraqis who work with them at tremendous risk to their lives. “It’s been nearly 60 years since President Harry Truman ended racial segregation in the U.S. military,” Drummond writes. “But at Forward Operating Base Warhorse it’s alive and well, perhaps the only U.S. military facility with such rules, Iraqi interpreters here say.” Iraqis are also face special restrictions in the dining hall. “It’s to keep problems from happening,” said Army Capt. Janet Herrick, a public affairs officer. “It’s a preventive measure . . . so no one gets belittled.” Drummond writes:

But the Iraqis who’re paid $80,000 to $120,000 a year for their interpreting services are offended.

“It sucks,” Ahmed Mohammed, 30, said of the latrine policy. He called the signs - in English and Arabic - “racist.”

He’s worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military since 2004. He’s college educated and well versed in the ways of Western plumbing. He said Warhorse was the only American base where he’d encountered U.S.-only signs on latrines and country-of-origin restrictions on dining hours.

“I live in the same tent with 80 Americans,” he said.

Mohammed works for L-3 Titan Group, a unit of New York-based L-3 Communications. He declined to have his picture taken for publication. He fears for his life. He said his brother was killed last year in Baghdad for working for an American company.

Drummond quotes Laila al Qatami, spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington: “I don’t understand having separate bathrooms. It seems to go against everything that the United States stands for.”

I suppose what she really means is that it seems to go against everything that US politicians and governmental officials say it stands for. For to me, a policy of separate bathrooms seems to be in tune with everything that the US actually stands for and more obviously seems to be in perfect harmony with our own national history. I’m old enough to remember seeing separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains in public places as a child traveling in the South. And the ink’s barely dry on the recent US Supreme Court decision sabotaging the long struggle for racial integration in the US’s educational institutions. Politicians like the POTUS often use phrases like “everything that the United States stands for” with deliberate hypocrisycovering over the ugly history and ugly reality with a smirk.

I realize Laila al Qatami is speaking here in the register of “should” rather than that of “what really is.” But I wonder just how useful that register is in 2007, given the ease and frequency with which US politicians speak lies.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A pair of links

The August issue of Bookslut has a review of Kelley Eskridge's Dangerous Space by Colleen Mondor. "In her new collection, Dangerous Space, science fiction novelist Kelley Eskridge pushes the boundaries of the status quo," Mondor writes. "She has put together a series of stories that make readers ponder issues of gender, sexuality, and the nature of free choice."

And yesterday's Boston Globe has an article by Vanessa E. Jones, "Race, the final frontier: Black science-fiction writers bring a unique perspective to the genre."