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Back when The House of Binding Thorns came out last year, Aliette de Bodard wrote a guest post for this blog about the treatment of pregnant people and the trope of dead mothers in science fiction. Now that In the Vanishers’ Palace, a brilliant queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a science fictional universe and with mothers playing key roles in the plot, has come out, she’s back here with a follow up…
On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures
I’d expected motherhood to impact my life, because of course having young people in the household and being responsible for them will bring about huge changes.
I hadn’t expected it to make me so keenly aware of erasure in media and stories.
To put it bluntly, mothers are just not there . While pregnancy is either monstrous or sacred, either body horror or the delivery of the chosen child, motherhood is defined by its absence. We aren’t characters: we are people-shaped holes. We are empty spaces or hollowed-out characters, whose sole purpose–when the story bothers to give us one–is to erase ourselves for the sake of our children.
By far the most obvious hole is that left by death: our books and media are littered with the death of mothers of main characters. Star-Lord’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy, Elizabeth Swann’s mother in Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones’s mother in The Last Crusade–the list is endless. The death can be at birth, can be off-stage, can be in the story, but it’s always either a minor inconvenience, something so far ago that it’s never even mentioned, or mined for a main character’s pain (and said character is almost always a cis man). We talk a lot about the fridging of women characters (and rightfully so): whenever a mother walks on stage I brace myself for the slamming of the refrigerator door, for it seems that we belong there permanently, our corpses there to serve, at best, as pleasant memories or motivations for our children. Nothing quite becomes us in life as our leaving it.
But there are other deaths. There are the mothers not mentioned and not named, as if they were utterly trivial (Belle’s mother is never mentioned in the original Beauty and the Beast; Arwen’s mother is similarly not mentioned in the Lord of the Rings movies , Killmonger’s father in the otherwise excellent Black Panther gets plenty of screen time, his mother doesn’t even rate one explanation). And then there are mothers who fail to have a story other than caring for their children, whose entire personality and motivations are subsumed in the act of motherhood (Lady Jessica in Dune, Frigga in the Thor franchise, who actually manages to both fail to have a plotline unrelated to her two kids and to be fridged in the second Thor movie).
One of the ways in which is this utterly toxic, in addition to killing off the actual characters, is that this devalues the work done by mothers by making it seem invisible and unnecessary: we seldom see the tremendous amount of work that goes into raising children (because dead mothers are usually replaced with indifferent, absent or abusive authority figures rather than warm adoptive parents ). And when works that centre complex, thoughtfully depicted motherhood are written, they are dismissed as of no importance, over-centred on boring relationships and over-concerned with trivial matters.
Whenever I bring dead mothers up, I generally get two explanations: the first is the natural occurrence of death in childbirth, and the second one is that this is a convenience, for how could a hero (especially but not only teenagers) go off on adventures with their mothers alive?
Let’s get the first one out of the way first: yes, death in childbirth was a major cause of death… in the past. But so were the deaths of children (a quick reminder that in 1800 more than 40% of children would die before seeing their fifth year), and popular media has way more dead mothers than dead infants (or people dying from typhus or cholera or a myriad ways lives were cut short, historically speaking). To say it otherwise: we are being awfully selective, as a culture, about which historical truths we’re choosing to perpetuate. Not to mention the fact that in we’re in SFF and that historical accuracy isn’t the best justification when we’re dealing with stories that have dragons and fairies and spaceships in them.
The second one… the second one is part of an underlying fallacy that I’m sympathetic to: the idea that mothers can protect their children against everything. I understand the desire and where it stems from, but the truth is that this is an impossibility. There are things far too large for parents to protect their children from (failure to protect a child against the consequences of war isn’t a parental failure, and it’s victim-blaming of the highest order to pretend that it is); and even if I could materially protect my children from events… the reality is that I cannot keep them forever safe, and nor should I. Part of parenting (and especially motherhood) is the art of gracefully letting go: of accepting that my children will have their own lives and their own challenges to face, and that such challenges, no matter how I may wish otherwise, will be dangerous. And yes, some of this will happen before they are ready, but our children cannot and will not always be ready for everything in spite of every one of our efforts.
The other underlying fallacy is that mothers and adventures are incompatible, which is a terrible thing to assume on two fronts: the first, that mothers themselves cannot have adventures (see above for my objections: obviously motherhood is an important thing in mothers’ lives, but mothers’ lives cannot and should not be reduced to the importance of their children). The second is the fallacy that it is impossible for families to have adventures together: that any children’s adventures (I use “children” here as the opposite of parents rather than as an age category) have to be exclusive of parental presence. It is a very particular perception, coming from a society with socialization greatly stratified by age as well as strong individualism, which makes us see adventures with parents or older people (or, for that matter, parental presence in our lives ) as undesirable rather than commonplace occurrences.
There are exceptions to these rules, and I treasure them all: Jackie and Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, the numerous mothers in Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince trilogy, Jess and her mother (and her four sisters) in Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives trilogy, Tralane Huntingore and her daughters in Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, Essun and her daughter in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Consort Jing in Nirvana in Fire, Mme de Morcerf in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, Queen Talyien in KS Villoso’s Wolf of Oren-Yaro, Anyanwu in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Cordelia Naismith in Barrayar, Lillian in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling…
In my own fiction, I made a deliberate choice to have mothers as characters, and to have them with their own vastly different stories. My latest book, In the Vanishers’ Palace, is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they are both women, and the Beast is a dragon… except that Yên, my impoverished scholar and Beauty analogue, has a mother who is the village healer, who is very much present and important in Yên’s life; and Vu Côn, the shapeshifting dragon who is Beast analogue, is herself a mother to two teenage children, who are both an important part but not the main thrust of Vu Côn’s own life or story. I wanted to make a not very subtle point that mothers are their own characters: Yên’s own mother is crucial to Yên’s view of the world, but she also very much has her own outlook and her own life: she is the village healer and aims to remain that way, unlike Yên who only dreams of escape. And meanwhile, Vu Côn is certainly struggling with two over-inquisitive dragon children on the cusp of adulthood, but the main thrust of her own story is her relationship with Yên (she takes Yên as payment for a debt, and finds herself attracted to her–knowing that she cannot act on that attraction because she’s Yên’s mistress and there is no consent between master and servant).
I think of this, and of the mothers in my other stories and books, as necessary work: as my own brick in the wall to make sure that mothers aren’t erased, that the holes we have become in the fabric of stories are instead filled with genuine, complex and rich characters instead of faceless, nameless and unimportant cyphers. Some days I worry that my stories are such small stones in a universe full of such holes, but then I remember that every wall is built brick by brick, and that not everything can go up as fast as I’d like. I remember that we have to try–that we all have to try, because how can we do otherwise?
 Throughout this blog post, I’ll be making a deliberate gendered distinction, because the set of expectations is vastly different between cis mothers and fathers. People who don’t fall in either of these categories (trans, non-binary people, and other marginalised genders and sexes) are even more at risk of erasure, othering, demonization, etc.
 I’m talking about the movies here: in the books Arwen’s mother is Cerebrían, who passes into the West prior to Arwen’s meeting with Aragorn following torture at the hands of Orcs (which is again erasure but of a different kind).
 The idea that adoptive parents and adoptive families in general are trumped by blood relations, no matter how much love they might have poured into raising children, is another hugely problematic one.
 Source: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality
 Some parents are terrible, abusive and should be excluded from lives: I’m not saying parental presence should be the norm or that all parents are loving–simply that their absence cannot and should not be the only narration that exists.
Are you a feminist? Do you believe women are human beings and that they deserve to be treated as such? That women deserve all the same rights and liberties bestowed upon men? If so, then you are a feminist . . . or so the feminists keep insisting. But somewhere along the way, the movement for female liberation sacrificed meaning for acceptance, and left us with a banal, polite, ineffectual pose that barely challenges the status quo. In this bracing, fiercely intelligent manifesto, Jessa Crispin demands more.
Why I Am Not A Feminist is a radical, fearless call for revolution. It accuses the feminist movement of obliviousness, irrelevance, and cowardice—and demands nothing less than the total dismantling of a system of oppression.
Why I Am Not A Feminist is an immediately gripping title, especially with Jessa Crispin’s chosen subtitle: A Feminist Manifesto. A feminist manifesto from someone who says they are not a feminist? That’s a fascinating idea, and the interviews and coverage around the book really intrigued me, so I picked up the volume…
Crispin’s title is explained in the introduction to the book, and is a theme she returns to throughout the book as a touchpoint: Why I Am Not A Feminist sets up a model of “universal feminism”, to use Crispin’s term, that she says is embodied by people like Laurie Penny: unthreatening to the capitalist kyriarchic system, narcissistic in its focus on individual choice, and losing all meaning by attempting to appeal to everyone (or at least, all women). Having set up this strawman (an interesting one, given the rise of feminists protesting capitalism on feminist grounds, including one Laurie Penny), Crispin sets out a radical feminist (again, her term) manifesto for the rest of the book, consistently centring the discussion on women, and how women take part in their own oppression.
The actual programme Crispin lays out is an interesting one; Why I Am Not A Feminist is very much focused on the role of women in not only dismantling the present patriarchal status quo, but the whole heirarchical and kyriarchic nature of society. Crispin looks at multiple different vectors of the way women are, themselves, complicit in the oppressive nature of society, and the way much modern feminism fails to challenge that: rather than calling for more women in the boardroom, she says, we should be tearing the whole boardroom down. This is especially important when she talks about women as engaging in kyriarchic discrimination against other marginalised groups: she consistently points out racism, homophobia, and an unnamed poverty-hatred as relevant here. It’s a powerful and effective argument that she marshalls strong evidence for, with a series of pointed chapters each focusing on one way “universal feminism” fails to do that.
However, this also reveals one of the flaws of this manifesto: Crispin’s insistence of doing this is very much also about emphasising the rehabilitation of second-wave feminism, and specifically Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin. Why I Am Not A Feminist fails to engage with significant modern issues in feminism around gender diversity, and specifically trans issues; trans people are never mentioned throughout the whole book, and the “universal feminism” movement is supposedly attacking second wave feminism purely because of its anger, rather than because it has continued to try to exclude, attack, and rip down trans people.
Why I Am Not A Feminist has an interesting three-page section at the start of its seventh chapter addressing men; this is the only time, throughout the whole book, that Crispin addresses men. Here, she, like Laurie Penny in Bitch Doctrine, talks about the discomfort men may feel reading feminist theory – and states that it is not women’s responsibility to reassure them, or do the emotional labour of helping men through that discomfort. It’s one of the most powerful parts of the book, and strikes an interesting contrast with the rest of that chapter, which is about not making an enemy of men. Crispin has some very fascinating things to say about the importance of not idealising women or demonising men, and the importance of feminism as opening up space for everyone by dismantling the capitalist kyriarchic structures of society.
In the end, Why I Am Not A Feminist would be an absolutely fantastic book, were it not for Crispin’s failure to engage with the trans-exclusionary tendencies of radical feminism and the second wave in particular, which make it a hard book to talk about.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.
What does it mean to be transgender? How do we discuss the subject? In this eye-opening book, CN Lester, academic and activist, takes us on a journey through some of the most pressing issues concerning the trans debate: from pronouns to Caitlyn Jenner; from feminist and LGBTQ activists, to the rise in referrals for gender variant children – all by way of insightful and moving passages about the author’s own experience. Trans Like Me shows us how to strive for authenticity in a world which often seeks to limit us by way of labels.
At this ‘trans tipping point’ (thank you, Time), a lot of people still don’t know anything about trans people outside a famous few: Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock. All of them are beautiful, and identify as women. CN Lester doesn’t: like me, they are genderqueer, and want to open up the discussion about trans issues to a more diverse array of genders. Trans Like Me is their book-length attempt to do that.
Trans Like Me is written very much for a cis audience. That is, it’s written with the intention of educating a cis audience about trans issues and trans lives, and the reality, complexity, and diversity of those lives, rather than to a trans audience as a rallying cry or political manifesto. Lester certainly has a political agenda, but it’s one that involves getting cis people to sign up to trans rights; hence, explanations of how dysphoria can feel from the inside, discussions of the reality of discrimination against trans people on an everyday basis, and explanation of the medical and legal obstacles trans people face in getting recognition as ourselves. They lay these things out excellently, while also combining them with calls for change in how the world handles trans people: Trans Like Me suggests how the medical and legal professions can handle trans people better, with concrete ideas for recognition.
Lester’s marshalling of evidence is an interesting combination of scientific data and personal anecdote; much of their argument about gender diversity not being a mental health condition comes from their own personal experiences of having mental health conditions, rather than discussions of psychologists’ research. Trans Like Me does use scientific evidence and historical evidence in other areas though; for instance, Lester makes a very strong argument using historical evidence from a broad swathe of the past to demonstrate that gender diverse people have always existed and been part of (Western) society in varying ways.
One of the key elements of Trans Like Me that distinguishes it from most volumes on trans issues is the way Lester engages with gender diverse people who are not, like themself, binary trans people. Trans Like Me talks about a range of gender expression, from genderfluidity to nonbinary, and how they fit into the discussions of trans issues that we usually see; thus, they open up a space for nonbinary people in the discussion of trans issues and of what needs to be done for a more trans-inclusive society. They are also very clear on the importance of allowing flexibility and change in one’s gender over the course of one’s life; this includes discussion of raising children who are gender diverse, through to late-life transition.
There are weaknesses and gaps in Trans Like Me; Lester unfortunately doesn’t discuss agender people at all, assuming gender is something everyone has, and their discussion of intersexuality (as distinct from the range of trans identities) is both brief and focused largely on undermining the idea of a biological binary of sexes. Lester also at times tends towards the defensive; while necessary when trans people are under attack from a variety of fronts, it would have been nice to see them put forward a stronger argument of itself, rather than strong arguments against trans-exclusionary positions. I would also have liked to see a more clear set of proposals for change: Lester does have some policy ideas, but they don’t really have much of a programme for social reform, or concrete suggestions for action.
Those weaknesses are relatively minor, though; Trans Like Me is an absolutely fantastic book for educating a cis audience about trans issues, as well as opening up the world of nonbinary issues for binary trans people, and I heartily recommend it.
Disclaimer: I am hosting an event with CN Lester and Kaite Welsh at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street on August 17th. Please join us!
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.
The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics
From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.
In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.
Gail Simone’s Women In Refrigerators has spawned, in the years since 1999, one of the most storied and respected careers in superhero comics (that of Simone herself); numerous conversations about feminism and the role of women in superhero narratives; and the very term “fridging“. Now, Catherynne M. Valente has gotten involved in the conversation, with a kind of running together of superhero fridging narratives and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, The Refrigerator Monologues…
The Refrigerator Monologues is essentially a mosaic novel, made up of a series of characters describing how they came to be in the afterlife; essentially, the stories of fridged women, from their own perspective, rather than centring the men. Valente links the monologues with a broad framing narrative, the Hell Hath Club, of the fridged women sitting in a kind of cafe-bar in the underworld discussing what brought them there in a setting reminiscent of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The frame narrative isn’t much, although it’s quite a fun afterlife – Valente makes a lot of the fact that things don’t exist until they’re extinct, and that the dead exist in the clothes they’re buried in.
What this is really about it the narratives of the different fridged women. The Refrigerator Monologues is set in its own superhero continuity, which shares recognisable similarities with especially the DC universe in terms of what superheroes are present, what villains are around, and what powers look like. Valente brings characters like Mary Jane, neck snapped by Spider-Man trying to save her, and Harley Quinn, lover of the Joker, to life in their own right, and gives them their own stories; The Refrigerator Monologues oddly doesn’t really centre them in their own stories though. These are the same stories we get told in comic books, with more anger and more wit, but still tending towards how the deaths of the women have impact on the men.
They’re good stories, though. Julia Ash’s story, ‘The Heat Death of Julia Ash’, is a kind of intimate retelling of the story of Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force, from her own perspective; it refocuses the story on the unfair way Jean Grey is treated by the X-Men, and the way Professor X disposes of her once she becomes inconvenient. ‘Happy Birthday, Samantha Dane’ is the last monologue in the novel, and arguably the titular one; it ends with Samantha dead, stuffed in a refrigerator, recalling the famous Green Lantern #54 scene which gave the trope being sent up here its name, and looks at the effect of the life of a superhero on those around them. Perhaps the least strong monologue is that of Harley Quinn replacement, Pretty Polly; her whole monologue feels very much like it is based on the worst, most abuse-justifying portrayals of Harley, and never really seems to question those portrayals nearly as much as it needed to, instead of just retelling them.
In the end, The Refrigerator Monologues is a fun, angry little novella; it isn’t perfect, but it is enjoyable, and it’s really very much worth reading for every comics fan out there, if only to spot all the references Valente has dropped in to comics and creators!
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.
As you should all be aware by now, from my review on Monday of The House of Binding Thorns among other intimations, I am incredibly fond of Aliette de Bodard, both as an amazing human being and as an incredibly good writer; before The House of Shattered Wings, she provided a blog post here on the topic of diversity and gender roles in her Fallen Paris setting and her writing more broadly, which I greatly enjoyed. So when she asked if anyone would like to host a post on the topic of motherhood in fiction, and further intimated that the stunningly excellent artist Likhain had provided an illustration for the piece, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. It’s a brilliant essay, and I am so glad to have the honour to share it with you:
Horrific pregnancies and dead mothers: motherhood in fiction and how I learnt to love my pregnant character
You know where you stand with mothers in fiction and media.
They die in childbirth, they die of illnesses, they’re dead long before the story starts, allowing the main character perhaps a modicum of angst, perhaps a touching memory of safety–allowing for danger and conflict, for which it would seem that peculiar loss of safety is a prerequisite. And it’s mothers specifically–fathers tend to be a source of interrelational conflict, because they tend to have those fascinating jobs and lives–because they have an existence outside their children, whereas mothers’ jobs seem to stop somewhere between giving birth and raising their kids (a job that incidentally is devalued as being natural and easily accomplished when it’s anything but!)
Laura’s mother and mother-figure Gabriela both die in Logan, Peter Quill’s/Star-lord’s mother likewise in Guardians of the Galaxy. The mothers in Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are both dead before or shortly after the story starts. Queen Amidala dies in childbirth at the end of Star Wars III. And that’s just the first few examples I could think of, off the top of my head!
And, if mothers have a rough time, pregnant women have it even worse. Births in SFF tend to be monstrous or holy. Ripley in Alien incubates an alien that will erupt out of her body and kill her. Melisandre in Game of Thrones gives birth to a horrific demon. Pregnancy is body horror, a twisted, dreadful experience exploited for viewers kicks.
At the other end of the spectrum, pregnancies can be sacred: necessary for the accomplishment of prophecies, the only hope of devastated worlds and oppressed people: the vampire Darla gives birth to Connor in Angel, an impossibility fated to kill a powerful demon; Kee is the only pregnant woman in the world in the movie version of Children of Men, the symbol of hope for mankind. Someone, after all, has to carry the chosen one, but Heaven forbid they should actually matter. They’re a vessel whose own bodies don’t belong to them, a thing to be worshipped and protected; an abstraction on the way to some more important story (Darla in Angel literally kills herself to give birth).
When I started writing my novel, The House of Binding Thorns, I was onto my second pregnancy, and beyond annoyed.
The book is set in an alternate Gothic turn-of-the-century Paris, a city devastated by a war between magical factions and where the powerless struggle to survive amidst political and magical intrigue. I wanted one of the main characters (Françoise, a queer Vietnamese/Annamite who is the lover of Berith, a Fallen angel, and expecting her child) to be pregnant, because pregnancy is an important part of life for some of us–and because I wanted to tackle families and motherhood in this book.
It turned out to be a hard balancing act. I wanted the pregnancy to be dangerous, because it was disingenuous not to acknowledge childbirth as a major cause of trauma and death for women; and I wanted it to be magical because it was a dark fantasy book–and I had to do all this without turning it into body horror or chosen one narrations!
It turned out the trickiest one to avoid was the sacred pregnancy. I was simultaneously pregnant while writing the book (a very weird experience but one that allowed me to be reasonably confident I was describing symptoms and mindset of the character reasonably accurately), and it was my second pregnancy, so body horror was very far from my thoughts. Though I did wait until after I gave birth to research particular life threatening complications: it turns out that in a 19th Century setting without antibiotics or healing magic the main difficulty is finding pregnancy/birth complications that don’t actually kill the character!
The messiah aspect of the pregnancy was harder to avoid: because of the unusual family structure (not so much the queerness, which is par for the course in the universe, but the Fallen/mortal lover dynamic which is very unusual in-universe) it was rare and therefore precious, and it’s a short step from there to “awe-inspiring”, especially in a post-apocalyptic city of broken streets and destroyed monuments, where it takes on the heft of hope without any deliberation or effort on my part.
I tried to avoid that by making it matter to the characters, so that neither Françoise nor Berith were reduced to mothers of the special child, and by making them, not the child, be the target of political intrigue. In fact, at one point a character explicitly says that the child is not a problem, because “who would teach (them) vengeance?”
Berith and Françoise have to navigate the tricky waters of expectant parenthood and adjust to becoming parents while having their own lives and their own communities. And I’ll only mildly spoil the story by saying that they both survive–that they’re not fridged as some sort of sacrifice for their child’s survival (which is doubly significant as they’re queer in a stable relationship, and we all know how these ones have a tendency to end in media: badly). They can have all the time to discover that the trickiest thing may not be carrying the child to term or giving their life for them, but rather the long, long years of actually raising said child.
But that’s a story for another day!
Art by the truly fantastic Likhain, aka Mia Sereno, whose work you really ought to check out either by clicking through earlier in this sentence or on the image itself. Seriously, support an amazing artist!
Now for the giveaway! I’ve got two copies of the beautiful Gollancz mass-market paperback edition of House of Shattered Wings to give away to two lucky winners, so enter here…
With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.
People, politics, pressure, punk. From working class experience to sexual assault, being an immigrant, divides in Trump’s America, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, Repeal the 8th, identity, family, finding a voice, punk, role models, fetishisation, power – this timely book covers a vast range of being a woman today.
Nasty Women is a phrase that, of course, became popularised by now-President Trump during the election campaign, referencing Hillary Clinton, his (more qualified, more honest, BETTER) opponent in the Presidential election; in the wake of the horrifying election of the Misogynist-In-Chief, new Scottish independent press 404Ink decided to put together a collection of essays by “nasty women”.
It’s an interesting collection; Nasty Women consists of 22 essays (although the ARC I’m reviewing only included 20), by a mix of authors from different backgrounds – women of colour, a woman with disabilities, women talking about a variety of religious experiences, and a trans woman (namely, punk rock icon and Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace). As a whole collection therefore, it’s usefully intersectional; rather than focusing on a specifically cis, white, Scottish, Christian/nonreligious experience of being a woman, it contains a variety of different ways of being a woman.
It’s also got a variety of different approaches to essay in it; Laura Lam’s essay, for instance, is genealogical, looking at the history of the women on her side of the family, while Elise Hines’ essay is autobiographical, about her own experiences and history, and Alice Tarbuck’s essay is a historical survey of witchcraft and foraging as feminist praxis. Nasty Women, by taking in all these approaches, creates a more interesting and varied collection than any one form alone would, and allows for a variety of answers to the implied question of the title: what is a nasty woman?
There are some essays I want to single out for specific comment, but with 20 in the book, that obviously can’t be all of them. The one I found most interesting and engaging was Ren Aldridge’s ‘Touch Me Again And I Will Fucking Kill You’, a look at gendered sexual harrassment in the punk community, both the music and activist sides; taking a broad look at sexual harrassment as it is manifested on a community that often hails itself as progressive, and how the perpetrators of it are protected, and how that is changing slowly, it is a fascinating essay on a particular manifestation of a gendered heirarchy. It is also notable for being the essay most concerned with inclusivity; Aldridge puts an asterisk by “woman” throughout to demand the reader considers what the category means, explicitly invokes nonbinary people and trans women, and talks about issues of cisnormative and ciscentric thinking as well as misogyny.
A second essay I really want to pull out for its excellence is that of Claire L. Heuchan, ‘Black Feminism Online: Claiming Digital Space’. A mix of personal autobiography and discussion of racism and misogynoir in online (feminist) discourse, it really brings into stark relief the way so much of feminist discourse is centred around, and assumes, whiteness; and the way misogyny aimed at black women, online especially but hardly absent in the offline world, differs from that aimed at white women. It’s an interesting piece that also talks about carving out a space for oneself; Heuchan talks about the way she came to be a blogger and online presence, to the extent that she is known now for her work as Sister Outrider. I do need to add a caveat to this endorsement, though, and one that stands in stark contrast to the previous essay; while the essay, thankfully, does not reflect this, Heuchan is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and outspokenly so on the blog this essay is about; for an essay collection with only one trans contributor, her inclusion can be seen as an error in judgement, regardless of the excellence of her essay.
Nadine Aisha Jassat’s essay ‘On Naming’ takes a different approach to looking at being a woman of colour in a white supremacist world; Jassat talks about the way her name is perceived and read by a white-dominated society, the way people make assumptions based on it, often racist ones, and the way it is often mangled by strangers and what that means to her as a person. It’s a fascinating essay on the importance of naming to identity, and the importance of claiming and asserting one’s name as an assertion of identity; one I perhaps overidentify with, albeit along a different and distinct axis.
The final essay that is a display of stand-out excellence is that of Bella Owen, ‘Liberation or Segregation’; it is the only essay in the collection to discuss disability, and it discusses it through a mixture of analysis and personal autobiography in a way that really drives home the ways that Owen has had to deal with an albeist society putting restrictions on her. The specific venue for much of the essay is music gigs, which are a theme running through many of the essays, but Owen’s experience of being a disabled woman at them is obviously different to that of Laura Jane Grace as a trans star, or Elise Hines as a music photographer who is a woman of colour. The specific and the general experiences drawn out in this essay are really noteworthy in that they are also stories we are rarely told, so it is good to have them seen.
No collection will be all gems, though, and two essays just did not work for me. The first felt simply badly written; Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism’ appears to be trying to emulate the writing of Nan Shepherd, who it praises, and Robert MacFarlane, which it dislikes rather strongly, but falling somewhere between into a kind of poetic nothing, which while making some strong points along the way, and ending on a powerful note, has a tendency to descend into some very strange romanticisations of the past and of certain historical practices as feminist in a way the evidence presented in the essay doesn’t seem to support.
The other is Chitra Ramaswamy’s ‘After Expecting’; while this is an excellent essay where it limits itself to Ramaswamy’s experiences of pregnancy, when it talks about wider issues of pregnancy, it falls into a couple of (common) errors. The first is a kind of mysticism around pregnancy that it seems to also want to dismiss, as if it is necessary and intrinsic to a woman and a deep secret, even while demanding that it be made more open and understood. The other issue reflects a failing noted above, of a failure to register trans issues; the essay suggests that “while death happens to all of us, birth happens to women.” Either this is suggesting that only women are born or, and it seems this is likely what Ramaswamy means, that only women give birth – which, of course, is not true, and erases AFAB trans people.
A final issue to bring out with the volume is an uneven use of content notes. It is unclear whether these were added by the editors, or requested by the authors, but a number of the essays which talk about sexual violence in various forms have them; however, those which include (necessary and relevant use of!) racial slurs, sexist language, etc, do not, and not all the essays which include passing mentions of sexual violence have content notes. Nasty Women could easily have paved the way and demonstrated an excellent and consistent approach to content notes, it is intead rather a mixed bag on that front.
However, despite some shortcomings, Nasty Women maintains a high standard of excellence across its essays, and has some really good insights into the lives of women; as Margaret Atwood says, it is “[a]n essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.” I highly recommend it to you, and am looking forward to seeing what 404Ink do next.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on an ARC of the book provided by the publisher, 404Ink, which does not include essays by Kaite Welsh and Anna Cosgrave. I put money into the Kickstarter that funded this volume, and I helped organise the launch of the book yesterday (6/3) at my place of work. Laura Lam, a contributor to this volume, is a friend.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.
Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world. Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction – and its possible salvation.
I’m a big fan of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha and enjoyed Mirror Empire, so when I heard that she had written a new, stand-alone piece of feminist science fiction, I was inevitably very ready to jump on board; thanks to the kind generosity of Penny Reeve at Angry Robot Books, I got to do that a little earlier than most of you…
The Stars Are Legion is in many ways the archetypical Kameron Hurley novel; angrily and unapologetically feminist, grimdark and brutal, and with some very odd biopunk things going on in the worldbuilding. We go in expecting those now, though, so their presence per se is almost not worth commenting on; instead, their specific manifestations are relevant.
The novel as a whole is quite a fast-paced read, powering through a lot of plot very quickly; at times this makes it very choppy, as time is disjointed and unclear (if this was intentional, it isn’t clear that was the case, rather than something approaching carelessness), and at times it founders on repetition of things that were covered earlier being driven home, especially if those things are relevant to the thematic underpinnings. That’s something of a habit for Hurley; this is less choppy in many ways than previous novels, and has a much better approach to concealed information, with Zan’s lost memory and the way Jayn, our other viewpoint character, talks about things feeling naturally avoidant rather than forced for plot reasons. The eventual resolution feels forced though, and doesn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the novel; whether Hurley or her editors wanted it, The Stars Are Legion wraps up in a way that grinds harshly against what came before.
In terms of character, though, the tight focus of The Stars Are Legion means it’s one of Hurley’s most accomplished books so far. Having only Zan and Jayn as viewpoint characters means we really get into their heads very deeply, and having quite a small ancillary cast to those protagonists allows Hurley to paint them vividly through both interactions with the principals and with each other; across the novel we see a variety of different expressions of personhood accompanied by different responses to the weird world Hurley has constructed. It’s an impressive feat to achieve that kind of variety, and to draw out the characters so powerfully and individually; although Zan’s characterisation seems to falter at the end and her decisions come out of left field, rather than reading as a natural extension of her development up until that moment.
This is a dark novel; The Stars Are Legion, as mentioned above, is hardly out of line with the place in the grimdark movement that Hurley has carved for herself. The worldbuilding is incredibly biopunk-centred, and that means that not only do the sections involving violence towards other people have viscera and gore, but much of the travel does; this is also a book in which we see multiple births, although those are almost sanitised compared to much of the rest of the viscera Hurley provides. It’s an interesting contrast, then, to look at the birthing scenes in contrast with, say, violence done against other people; there’s much more focus on bodily fluids in the latter, much more on noises in the former.
The Stars Are Legion is an all-female novel, set in an all-female world; that leads Hurley to make some decisions which are… arguably problematic, especially for trans people. For a start, no trans people exist in this world; every human is a cis female born with a working womb, for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses, but they still all identify as women, as if there’s some other thing they’re identifying against, despite that clearly not being the case. Furthermore, in this world shorn of trans people, a sincere and deep wish of many trans women, for working womb transplants, is not only possible, but something that happens on multiple occasions; it’s not regular, but it’s clearly doable, which feels a little painful to this queer. However, the feminism of the novel is otherwise very strong, with the cast being clearly marked as not white (and whiteness being noted as an exceptional state in one character) and the approach to culture being to create it virtually wholesale.
In the end, then, while The Stars Are Legion isn’t a perfect novel on either aesthetic or political grounds, I think it is probably Hurley’s best work yet, and a brilliant piece of feminist science fiction.
DISCLAIMER: I am friends with Kameron Hurley and support her writing on Patreon. She has previously contributed two guest posts to this blog. I am also friends with Penny Reeve, publicist at Angry Robot Books, UK publishers of The Stars Are Legion. This review is based on a finished copy sent to me by the publisher.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.