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Nasty Women eds. Heather McDaid & Laura Jones

nasty-women

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.
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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.

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Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman

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FAIRYTALES FOR LOST CHILDREN is narrated by people constantly on the verge of self-revelation. These characters – young, gay and lesbian Somalis – must navigate the complexities of family, identity and the immigrant experience as they tumble towards freedom. Set in Kenya, Somalia and South London, these stories are imbued with pathos, passion and linguistic playfulness, marking the arrival of a singular new voice in contemporary fiction.
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Fairytales for Lost Children came across my radar primarily through Roxane Gay, but the idea of a selection of short stories based around immigration, homosexuality, and African life was immediately appealing.

Osman’s collection is a short one – barely 150 pages – and made up of 11 stories and illustrations; the art is line drawings in what we might describe as a traditional African artistic style, but also incorporating Arabic and elements of modern political cartooning into it. They bear at first glance little relation to the stories they illustrate, but give a flavour of Fairytales For Lost Children; the mixed cultural heritage, the imagery of gender-transgression, and in many cases a certain flirtiness to the portraiture combine to create a sense similar to that of the stories.

Those stories are a revelation. Osman’s writing is incredibly human, incredibly gentle, and incredibly visceral; by gentle, I don’t mean that Fairytales for Lost Children pretends life is better than it is, but rather than Osman slips into the lives of his characters, brings the reader with him for a brief snapshot, and then slips out again. Whether it is Zeytun, the protagonist of ‘Earthling’, a schizophrenic lesbian who has to deal with the loss of her sister, or Hassin, of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, an immigrant in London who is isolated and longs to build a relationship, Osman creates whole characters, human characters, in a very short space, and brings them painfully to life. There is a degree to which most of these stories are tragedies, but at the same time, some have true catharsis at their close, such as ‘Earthling’; despite being on the surface horrendous stories, they have a sense of rightness and closure about them too.

Fairytales for Lost Children is ineluctably erotic; almost all the stories include Osman describing sex, although the stories of women loving women tend to have less of this, but ‘My Roots Are Your Roots’ is practically pure pornography, beautifully evocative erotic writing that mixes at once the idea of immigrant communities, the homophobia that traditional families sometimes bring with them, the exclusion from both community and country that this can create, but also the idea of the gay community and the community of love. It’s a strange story, at once dark and light, sexual and playful but also threatening; of release and ending all at once, wonderfully.

Osman is also wide-ranging. His stories touch a mix of experiences; queer youth (‘Shoga’, ‘Fairytales for Lost Children’); queer life in Somalia (‘Watering the Imagination’, about being the parent of a lesbian; ‘Shoga’ again); about being an immigrant (‘The Other (Wo)Man’, among others); about mental illness (‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You’), but also a variety of different kinds of queerness. As well as homosexuality, and the gender-transgression of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, there is the genderqueer protagonist of ‘Pavilion’, presented with humour and affection by Osman, but without becoming a comedic character; Fairytales for Lost Children never sympathises more with oppressor than oppressed, but does have a certain sympathy for the oppressor, the straight, the cis. Osman seems to understand the imperatives that make people discriminate against, attack, verbally abuse queer people; and he presents those who do this as human too, especially the relatives of the queers he is portraying.

It’s a fascinating, beautiful, haunting collection that won’t leave the reader happy, per se, but will leave one satisfied and wanting more all at once; Osman, in Fairytales for Lost Children, has unleashed a truly amazing collection on the world that every queer-basher, and every racist anti-immigrant demagogue, should be forced to read. It drips empathy off every page, and that’s a rare, and beautiful, thing.

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

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Set against the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and then just before the outbreak of the Civil War, The Freedom Maze explores both political and personal liberation, and how the two intertwine.

In 1960, thirteen-year-old Sophie isn’t happy about spending summer at her grandmother’s old house in the Bayou. But the house has a maze Sophie can’t resist exploring once she finds it has a secretive and playful inhabitant.

When Sophie, bored and lonely, makes an impulsive wish inspired by her reading, hoping for a fantasy adventure of her own, she slips one hundred years into the past, to the year 1860. On her arrival she makes her way, bedraggled and tanned, to what will one day be her grandmother’s house, where she is at once mistaken for a slave.
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As the blurb suggests, The Freedom Maze is a deeply political novel, and a not entirely comfortable one; Delia Sherman is dealing with the treatment of slaves and with the problems of racism in 1960s America through the eyes of a privileged white Southern girl from the 1960s, for whom now-unacceptable terms are seen as “polite”.

The Freedom Maze deals with issues of race and gender through a lens of speculative fiction, in the form of a time travel narrative; Sophie gets sucked into the past, into a hole created for her, where she is unexpectedly mistaken for a slave by her white ancestors – albeit, the slave offspring of the family – and treated as such. This allows Sherman to look at both modern (well, 1960s) white views of slavery – as having been an idyllic time where black people, by being enslaved, were “improved”; where there was somehow no abuse perpetrated – and compare Sophie’s preconceptions with the reality of her situation, which includes rape of slaves by whites, the intentional splitting up of families, the corporal punishment, and so on.

The Freedom Maze isn’t an unflinching exposé in the way Twelve Years A Slave is, or even as brutal as Django Unchained (the scene where a slave is ripped apart by dogs is an impressively understated one from Tarantino); it pulls its punches, somewhat, by having Sophie owned by “benevolent” masters. Sherman wrote this for a young adult audience, which perhaps explains why the book does pull those punches, especially in averting a rape scene and in avoiding the really ghastly elements of whipping, but at the same time it means The Freedom Maze ends up buying into some of the myths it is trying to attack.

The Freedom Maze also falls into a slight problem of ending up making slavery all about Sophie, the white privileged girl in the 1960s. This is a bildungsroman, but it is Sophie’s bildungsroman; Sherman is interested in the way that Sophie comes to understand her privilege and that means that we’re not following, say, a black slave, seeing their interiority, but a white girl with privilege who suddenly becomes a slave, a very different prospect. Sherman does avert this somewhat by having Sophie slowly forget her 20th century life and fall into believing that her 19th century past is the reality, but at the same time, this still isn’t total, and that she is used to save a black slave and get her to freedom is rather white-saviourish, even if she is at the time seen as black.

The novel isn’t just a tale about slavery, and about race and privilege, though; it’s also a story with characters in. The Freedom Maze does actually do really well on this front, and Sherman’s skill at writing believable, different, unique characters with their own individuality is really obvious; every character who appears has a different feeling to them, whether it be caustic or gentle, brutish or kind, selfish or generous. Characters are defined very much by their relationships to others, which creates an interesting situation for Sophie as she is thrust into the past; she has to develop new relationships in order to develop a new sense of selfhood, and Sherman is fascinating on how one’s associates influences one’s self-definition.

She also has an excellent prose style; The Freedom Maze draws the reader in and through the novel with the consistent simplicity of its prose, stripped down to what it needs to be rather than effusive, but also avoiding excessive technicality. The language isn’t so much simple as precise, or exact; the prose flows through the novel, moving the plot along as it does, carrying the feel of the novel in its waxing and waning, bringing us into the mind of Sophie. The way each character speaks reflects their specific time and place, their education and personality; but Sherman doesn’t fall into bad dialect or frustrating attempts to render accents phonetically, instead capturing the feel of speech rather than its literal letter-by-letter rendition onto the page, a difficult skill but a vital one in a novel like this.

In the end, while The Freedom Maze does have some problems, Sherman has written a story that does go some way to expose the evils of American slavery and to highlight the nature of white privilege; and she has created a readable and enjoyable one, at that.

Kaleidoscope ed. Alisa Krasnostein & Julia Rios

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What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgendered animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories!

Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage.
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Diversity is an increasingly strong theme in discussions of the state of the genre, and the inculcation of that diversity, but rarely are practical steps taken. Rios and Krasnostein decided to take a practical step through Krasnostein’s Twelth Planet Press publishing business, and with the help of Pozible (a crowdfunding site), Kaleidoscope was born!

I have to declare a certain interest here; Kaleidoscope is dedicated to me (in the Acknowledgements section – flip to the back and check!), and I have consistently supported the project and cheered as Krasnostein and Rios brought a host of voices both veteran (Garth Nix! Karen Healey!) and new (Sofia Samatar!) to bear on the broad theme of “diversity”, an idea that the fan community is coming to terms with but that is still seen as too “PC” a theme for an anthology by some. Kaleidoscope is an excellent artistic rebuttal of that.

Entirely made up of original fiction, Kaleidoscope covers themes from trans narratives (though not the narrative you’re expecting!), ablism and the perception of the disabled, and neurodiversity (two stories centre on OCD, one on schizophrenia) through to immigration, class issues, racism, and a lot of sexuality; it’s impressive to see the broad scope of “diversity” Rios and Krasnostein have embraced in collecting and curating this anthology, and the avoidance of some of the common, awful tropes that tend to reoccur in stories. There are no magically fixed people here, and indeed magical fixing as a theme is interrogated quite harshly; there is no sudden cathartic moment of universal reconciliation, and no utopias of perfect acceptance. Instead, the fantastic is used as a lens to interrogate our own prejudices, our own ideas of normalcy.

There is a wide range of types of storytelling on display here, from Samatar’s tragic and beautiful ‘Walkdog’, in the form of a book report, through Susman’s archival compilation of emails, phone transcripts, application forms and more in the stunning and unexpected ‘The Lovely Duckling’, and achronological chapter-sectioned wonderfully self-referential myth in El-Mohtar’s ‘The Truth About Owls’. The table of contents also boasts a lot of more conventional stories, including Roberts’ ‘Cookie-Cutter Superhero’, a truly wonderful subversion of superhero narratives and brilliant satire of the comics of the Big Two all at once. Indeed, to highlight every story here that is a stand-out beauty would take too long, and involve listing every single one; this is an anthology of what would be highlights in any other anthology, truly superlative work.

There is, unfortunately, one misstep in Kaleidoscope, and it is Flinthart’s ‘Vanilla’. ‘Vanilla’ is the sole story that discusses nonbinary genders (there are multiple stories about trans characters, but all within the gender binary), and it situates that nonbinarism in its aliens; that is, literal, non-homo sapiens aliens. Indeed, the story includes the idea that even without gender, the being carrying the child is made female by the act; that femininity is defined by the ability to give birth. Now, it’s inevitable that one story in the anthology would be problematic, and ‘Vanilla’ is, in its discussion of immigration and integration, amazing, but it feels rather unfortunate that the problems in the story punch me in the face.

That said, Kaleidoscope is overall a wonderful, monumental achievement and a really stunning collection of good fiction quite apart from Rios and Krasnostein’s efforts to foster a sense of diversity, empathy and understanding. If you can, buy this book. If you can’t, ask booksellers to order it in so you can buy it. Give it to teachers, to teenagers, to educators of all kinds; to politicians, to friends and family, to community leaders. Kaleidoscope deserves to be distributed far and wide, and its message needs to be distributed far and wide.

And it really is that good.

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Super Bass by Kai Ashante Wilson

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Gian returns to Sea-john from the Kingdom’s wars certain that he has skills beyond killing, death and destruction. He needs to prove to himself that love is just as strong, if nor stronger, than his hate. The Summer King gives him this opportunity.
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Tor.com has fast become one of the best publishers of short fiction on the internet, and its openness to a wide variety of works within the realm of “genre fiction” is admirable. Kai Ashante Wilson’s story, published last May, is especially relevant in the context of the Abyss & Apex anti-dialect piece, using as it does dialect (albeit an amalgamation of various dialects, per here) to give a sense of setting and place, and to emphasise certain elements of the story.

To tackle that first, Super Bass tends to not use dialect heavily in the narratorial voice, but almost all the dialogue is in dialect. This is slightly problematic given that the narratorial voice appears to be embracing Gian’s point of view, and perhaps the whole would have been stronger had it all been in dialect. As it is, the use of dialect reinforces that the story has a cast almost entirely of people of colour; Gian is mixed race and the only speaking character who isn’t black, as the other white characters haven’t learned the language and are spoken for by their black husband. Indeed, the application to whites who are immigrants to a black locale of images of immigrants to Western nations is rather brilliantly carried off.

The romance that the story is structured around is also well done. Super Bass doesn’t make it a Twilight-esque “romance” of abuse, nor an Eddings-like romance without any feelings, but rather Wilson very effectively draws on a number of strands – insecurity, acceptance, love, fear, the whole gamut of emotions that appear in a relationship – in order to create a love that is convincing and beautiful. He also portrays a society organised into triads as the basic unit of marriage very effectively; that the triads can be of any gender – we see two-male-one-female, three-female and various other configurations in the story – is simply accepted, and Super Bass normalises that stunningly well.

As far as plot goes, Super Bass leaves perhaps a little too much to the imagination at its close; whilst hinting around Gian being abused by the Marshal in the wars, it never really makes it clear what form that abuse was, and Wilson never quite clears up a lot of the background to the story. However, the internal plot hangs together well, as the relationship between Gian and Cianco developes and we learn more about each of them and their role in the society; it’s a very well carried off piece of writing.

Super Bass is almost exactly what I was looking for when I started looking for Queering the Genre pieces; queer, normalising that queerness, and also challenging other heirarchies of power, in this case race. An excellent story, and, wonderfully, free to read here!

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