Reading: Janet Mock — Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More

I’ve had Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness on my To Buy List since before it was published, the start of last year. I reckon Janet would read my tardiness and why in a second. Cos she’s wicked smart like that.

I’ve been following Janet on Twitter for I dunno how long, she turned up multiple times from various sources at least four years ago, around the time of CeCe McDonald, Isis King, and others being in the news. She also appealed to me because she writes about being women who are trans and multiethnic, women of colour. And quite frankly she’s amazing.

As for trans women autobiographies though, I read any and all I could get my hands on in my teens and twenties and since then have little interest in the narrative conventions. If you think of sci-fi or romance novels having stereotypical storylines, the same applies here. I have a lot of “blaaah why do you expect me to care?”. So I’m reading Redefining Realness and it’s right in that storyline, but here I am, slammed it in an afternoon and an evening.

I was writing at 3am this morning about being in the Grassi Ethnological Museum and going through the collections from Australia, Aotearoa and Polynesia, North America, having this strange disconnect between being in Leipzig, Germany and seeing this art and culture and going, “Yup, I know this … I know this too … and this,” remembering people and places. My history is so different from Janet’s, yet there were these moments reading where mine and hers were the same.

As a teenager, writing to my father whom I’d not seen for years, telling him what I was up to and if he didn’t accept it that was his problem, not mine. Him writing back, a multiethnic, working class South African living in Toronto, saying, “You sound angry. You don’t need to be angry with me. Whatever you do, I’ll always love you.” I don’t have that letter, or anything from him anymore, but amidst all the abuse, violence, the loss and rejection of family and friends, the world I was living in on an island far from North America, his unconditional acceptance in the face of my ultimatum shamed me. Shamed me because I expected rejection from him, and however much it hurt the one powerful thing I could always do was walk away from everyone.

Still as a teenager, in poverty, often homeless — homeless of the kind where you sleep on friend’s couches or floors — on the edges of street sex with the trans women on K’ Road in Auckland, though unlike Janet, loaded on drugs. Also Dutchess, the tough dyke former street kid in Wellington who loved Michael Jackson, not Janet’s Wendi to me but I thought of her while reading Janet. She was staunch, she knew what I was about even if I couldn’t say it, and “Fuck them all, let’s go rob a chemist,” remains the unequaled statement of friendship to me in the face of rejection.

I didn’t know Janet had survived her teens and paid for her life with sex work. Sometimes I’m kinda vague, pretty sure I must have read that, but yeah, vague; I know I’ve admired her all along for her uncompromising advocacy for and representation of trans women of colour, and that for many, being a trans woman — even more so if you’re not white — means sex work is not merely the only option, it’s expected of you. But I still didn’t connect her with this until I read her working the streets in Hawai’i. And then I remembered the women working K’ Road who were just like the women on Merchant St.

The similarity of our lives diverges here. Though we did both go to university. What I see and read with Janet is that she had just enough support to make it through. Not perfect, ideal support, but enough that it didn’t hinder or destroy her. The Janet who did not have family who accepted her from a young age would be a very different Janet to the one who wrote Redefining Realness, if she was even alive now. The Janet who didn’t have Wendi likewise. A liveable life turns on these not insignificant things. One person is enough to make that difference, in either direction.

I was reading another trans woman last night, on Twitter, who said, “Transition memoirs sell b/c their audience is curious cis ppl. They satisfy cis curiosity/voyuerism.” Redefining Realness is a transition memoir, its audience is curious cis people, and it satisfies their voyeurism. It does more than that though. Janet uses her position as a high profile, conventionally attractive, heterosexual trans woman who works in media and has an MA in Journalism to educate this part of her audience, to make them see us as human. So there’s another audience her book is for: #girlslikeus. Trans women, especially trans women who are multiethnic, who see in her something of themselves. Janet writes to represent us.

Reading: Jo Walton — Necessity

Necessity, the final part of Jo Walton’s superb The Just City, trilogy about which I’ve already dealt to part one, The Just City and part two, The Philosopher Kings, and I stand by whatever bollocks I wrote then: finest fucking trilogy out, right here.

Part three: The Just City in spaaaace! On a planet called Plato. Why yes, Jo Walton is still trolling magnificently. I have only read the first pages, Apollo is dead, returned to immortality, and so does the Olympian deity equivalent of an evening binge-watching for a few million years by hanging out in stellar nurseries as they go thermonuclear.

There’s very, very little Jo Walton could do to have me come out the other end of 331 pages and not be calling this Book of the Year, and one of the best series I’ve ever read, fighting Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch for trilogy I can’t enthuse over enough. Excitement beyond excellence! I want to gorge on its entirety now.

Reading: Jo Walton — What Makes This Book So Great

Jo Walton. Not a writer I’d give to just anyone. “Frances! I want sci-fi to read!” “Iain Banks!” I will say, “With or without an M.” Jo Walton though, you have to do some prep-work first. Or love libraries. Or anyway read a lot. Iain Banks you can go from “What is ‘Book’?” to guzzling the Culture series in a matter of hours; Jo Walton, you need the padding first that comes from some form of literary guzzling.

Jo Walton. One of my rare favourites. Among Others was first, four years ago. Got my dubiously prestigious Book of the Year. The Just City and The Philosopher Kings. Whatever I might have written here (without clicking those links, I’d like to remember it as favourable), my memory of them is of books I feel I’ve read more than once; books for when someone I know will appreciate this kind of literature, I will say “Jo Walton. You should read her”. Which is the heart of What Makes This Book So Great.

Jo Walton, reader of more than one book a day. Sure, if it’s Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, I can sort of keep up — for a day. No endurance here. She’s a beast. Reads like that and writes like that. This is a collection of her blog posts from from 2008-2011. The Contents run for six pages. It’s like Among Others where she references fifty or sixty — no, 169! books from the history of science-fiction and fantasy, and manages to comment on all of them all the while carrying on a story not quite a spectacularly depraved as The Wasp Factory.

I sold a box of books recently. fifty-ish. Exchanged them for credit at Saint George’s. Books for books. It worked out to be around 5:1. So I have ten or so new ones I’m dealing to, trying to make a dent in my wish list. I shuffled potential candidates for an afternoon, and this was one that made the final cut. I’ve finished two others before even beginning to write this, slightly out of synch here. Not to worry. Jo Walton is a brilliant, sensitive writer whose vocation fits perfectly her love. I get a mad kick out of reading her for the transcendental moments when her ideas riot in improbable, literature-saturated thought experiments. She starts with an essay / blog post on re-reading, the joy of certitude when returning to a favourite versus the treacherous possibility of disappointment in reading something new; and conversely old favourites that now reveal themselves as thin and lacking; new works that open entire worlds. I read her and think of my own re-readings, think of books that have moved me, changed me.

Reading: Jo Walton — The Philosopher Kings

Jo Walton. She’s on my very short list of authors I’ll unquestioningly read whenever they publish. Jo Walton of Among Others, my book of the year in 2012 (fuck! 2012!), which in the intervening years my memory has transformed into something of a witchy The Wasp Factory. Yeah, I know, there’s no comparison, it’s just a feeling. I could dredge up a comparitive list of why that feeling is valid, but it’s the feeling itself that matters, makes me return to an author.

My Real Children won the Tiptree Award, but I didn’t like it so much. Then she comes out with The Just City, smart and clever as all shit and the first of a trilogy. The Philosopher Kings is the second.

She probably got called smartarse at school when she was all, “Oh! The Thatcher government attacks on Welsh miners can be seen as a failure of Socratic Virtue” and half the class would be all, “WTF?” and the other half all “Think yar fukkin’ smart cunt, d’ya?” the teacher would be, “Jo, really?” and she’d just be, “What? What’d I say?” and hide in the library at lunchtime to avoid a beating. And read Plato.

And she read so much she was all, “Ha ha! Imagine if Plato’s Republic was real and Socrates was there, and it was like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure but with smart people who served Plato his arse. (And boned each other. But only while pursuing Excellence. I’m gonna call one of them Arete. Pursuing Excellence. Hurhur.) And robots! And Athene and Apollo were there in disguise. And volcanoes! And they’ll travel through time and steal art and shit. And wrestling naked under the hot sun, oiling each other down afterOMGyissss!” And 35 years later she was all, “Socratic Virtue this, fuckers!” and threw down the Just City trilogy.

And turned Socrates into a blowfly.

Gonna be high on my list of book of the year next October.

Reading: Jo Walton — The Just City

Paul said he liked the US cover more. I said I thought this one was pretty good anyway. Now I’ve seen the US cover. It’s much better. It’s not the diabolical stock art mess that was the US cover of My Real Children, though a prominent and unnecessary blurb from Cory Doctorow really doesn’t do any favours. The US cover simply takes its audience seriously.

Anyway, I’m reading a book. Jo Walton, who is fucking brilliant. Among Others was my book of the year in 2012, and caused me to spend a lot of reading time reading a stack of the books she referenced (including I, Claudius, which I loved). I got about a page in to The Just City and am close to calling it for this year’s stock of reading.

Ooo! Ooo! Wait! No! Scrub that! The Just City is the first of a trilogy, the second of which either already out or due any day. Excitement! To the bookstores!

Reading: Emily St. John Mandel — Station Eleven

There’s a scene early in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven where one of the main characters is holded up in his brother’s apartment on the Toronto shoreline. An epidemic has just wiped out ninety percent of humanity; they’ve survived that through stocking up on essentials and making like mice for weeks on end. Now supplies are running out. His brother is disabled, so rather than be a burden as they travel the quiet post-apolyptic dystopia outside, does the honourable thing and offs himself.

Perhaps I’m needlessly grumpy today, but fuck the hell right off.

I read this a few weeks ago now, it was part of a small pile of necessary fiction to break up the very heavy non-fiction reading. I’m not sure where I heard about Station Eleven, but it seemed a lot of people were talking about it. Yeah, it was kinda disappointing and contrived. A great many ideas and narrative lines that went nowhere, an awful number of improbable relationships between characters spanning decades that didn’t add anything of significance. She could have written a whole book about the travelling theatre and orchestra group as decades passed and civilisation began to return, and that would have been well tasty. She didn’t. It’s not.

(I imagine an alternate reality where a different, better Emily St. John Mandel wrote Station Eleven. In this, the main character offs himself because he thinks he’ll have to do everything in order for his brother to survive. The brother, ex-military, pissed at his sibling’s typical selfishness goes off into the wilds of Ontario, joins the travelling theatre, falls in love with a hot bear, and lives ’til old age as head mechanist and general ‘fix anything with a length of number-8’ indispensable person.)

Reading: Rachel Hartmann — Shadow Scale

Got home Saturday with this brick of a book, read the dust jacket and realised Shadow Scale is the sequel to Seraphina, which I read almost two years ago and thought was well-smart. One of the smartest. I went through something of a fantasy reading stage back then, really trying to give it a go, and did find some brilliant works, like Jo Walton’s Among Others, and quite a bit of disappointment. More of the latter than the former. My expectations are so easily spoilt.

No connection then in my doddering brain between Rachel Hartmann’s two books, just reading in a couple of places that Shadow Scale was rather bloody good, and me needing some fiction respite, and knowing there’s months to go before all the things I’m actively waiting for get published, decided OK, I’ll give it a whirl, and only then realising the connection, but having such a poor recollection, was it that one that was quite good, or that other one (several ones) that were quite not-good? Good it is. Very good. Fucking love Seraphina’s world to bits.

Almost 600 pages too.

And so far it seems to have escaped the horrible default sequel abyss, the one The Matrix fell into (almost everything Hollywood does, and many things not) because the story has actually been told and now it’s just “Further Adventures of …” Just realised it reminds me of Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, in characters if not in something of the setting. Oh hey, and it’s YA (that’s Young Adult to you). Saints’ dogs but it never occurred to me. Amazing how much YA I read is so very better than A. Likely to be very high on my favourite books of the year, this one.

Reading: Jo Walton — My Real Children

Jo Walton’s Among Others was my fiction Book of the Year in 2012. A new author for me then, when I was consciously moving to read women sci-fi and fantasy authors and trying to expand beyond my triumvirate of Iain Banks, China Miéville, and Charles Stross. Among Others was a work that barely seemed fantasy from the perspective of the narrative, yet the way of writing belonged undoubtably to that, even if ignoring the sublime homage that it is to libraries and science-fiction and fantasy from the ’60s and ’70s.

Surprisingly for me, I hadn’t then gone on to order all of Walton’s previous works, but as soon as I found out she had a new one coming out, I placed it on pre-order. My Real Children arrived on my bookshelf a while ago, though I’ve only now begun it. I have to dispense with the cover first.

Dasniya looked at it, then me, with a look of ‘What on earth are you reading? I hope you’re not going Romance Novel on me.’ I cringed. I cringed when I saw it in Saint George’s also. It is truly horrible in a sepia stock art and Photoshop text gradient way, long before taking in the image itself. A willowy young woman, superimposed over herself in two different poses, lace dress exposing the back of her neck and arms. Lens flare. Yes, lens flare. I’m surprised there’s not a delicate downy feather floating somewhere. It does a massive disservice to the book, even though it’s the story of a woman whose life seems to have split into two histories some time post-World War Two.

Compare it with the hard skiffy of Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice cover done by artist John Harris, a cover that recognises the content within, represents it uniquely, and even celebrates it, knowing what a substantial work it is and proud to say so. Walton’s – and I’ve only begun reading it – I suspect in its own way is no less substantial; she is a formidable writer and storyteller, yet the cover is a careless throwaway, disrespectful to both the writing and the author. It’s also condescending: fantasy is feminine and doesn’t need care or attention. Admittedly also Leckie’s cover plays into the hard sci-fi trope of masculine covers; contra that I could argue it represents its place in the history of hard sci-fi and space opera, and acknowledges the authors and artists that come before by having such a cover, as well as accurately portraying the spacecraft in the story. Walton’s cover does no such thing. Such a cover does not contain the possibility of Miami being nuked, which certainly happens somewhere in the story.

Perhaps my grudge here is that there is a potential (and real in at least my case) audience for My Real Children that is identical to that of Ancillary Justice, but the cover is a very hard barrier to the audience of the latter picking it up (metaphorically or actually), and this barrier is rooted in what I can only describe as misogyny. And quite frankly, any publisher that hasn’t been following the past couple of years of what’s been going on on this topic in sci-fi and fantasy, done some serious reconsidering, and worked to address these problems has not been doing their job and deserves to be fired.

It’s curious for me that when I write about a book lately, I spend so much time on the cover. I love a good cover. I love seeing its spine on my bookshelf, the specific colour, font, paper, texture making it unique, and an especially good cover for me makes the book itself even better because it shows that somehow in the process of publishing it they got it right, and they really care about the book. A good cover is a work of love. (An aside: Walton writes about the various covers for Among Others.)

So, in the pages then. An old woman suffering from dementia, who imagines two different histories, and the changing physical structure of the home she lives in seems to bear out this reality. Or perhaps it’s just the confusion. We follow her back through time to post-war Oxford, where she is a contemporary of Wittgenstein. Yes, this is Walton at her most beloved for me. I’m reminded also of Iain Banks’ Transition. Besides her writing and choice of words, I am drawn to her for the small stories she tells. It’s not Rajaniemi’s solar system-spanning apocalypse with whole planets dropping into black holes, nor is the entirety of humanity and all life on earth at stake (despite Miami), yet there is a vastness in her stories of a single person, and remain science-fiction, and beautifully written science-fiction at that.

I have a short pause the next three days, so I am dedicating myself to single-mindedly enjoy one of the best authors around. It’s unlikely to shunt Ancillary Justice off my Book of the Year pedestal, but highly probably they’ll be sharing it.

Reading: Hartmut Lutz — The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab

In late-1880, ethnologist Adrian Jacobsen bought two Inuit families from Labrador to be exhibited in zoos in Berlin and around Europe. By mid-January 1881, all eight were dead from smallpox, which they had not been vaccinated against. Hartmut Lutz’ translation and editing of The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab, along with art and forward by Alooktook Ipelle and photos by Hans-Ludwig Blohm is an unusual turn in my reading, one which I wouldn’t be making were I not working with puppet theatre group Das Helmi on their project for the Dahlem Museum on Adrian Jacobsen.

Reading about Jacobsen is educational, though I wouldn’t say enjoyable. He, like the majority of Europeans of that colonial and imperial epoch were convinced of their racial superiority, engaged in establishing colonial domination through a variety of means, from actual land grabs and genocide to de facto claims by returning with artefacts for the newly-established national museums, and by today’s standards is a difficult to reconcile with as Wagner. This book, the diary of one of the unfortunate victims of the journey, is not what we’re covering in the project, which focusses on his north-west coast of Canada and Alaskan journey. It is though crucial to understanding Jacobsen, the culture he lived and worked in, and the economic and social reasons why families from one continent would uproot themselves to be looked at like animals in a zoo and be eager to do so. It’s also very sad reading of the country I was born in.


Das Helmi: Reisebericht — Block 1

While I was in Zürich working with Das Helmi and Theater HORA on Mars Attacks!, Florian asked if I’d like to help on the Helmis’ next production, a project with the Dahlem Ethnological Museum – one of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin of which I am lately possessing a Jahreskarte for unfettered access. I said, “Yes!” because working those weeks in Zürich had been such a pleasure, and having known Florian for something over a year find him one of the interesting and admirable directors.

Last Saturday then, after a previous week of meetings, discussions, researching gear and equipment, trips to the camera hire shop, we began moving everything in. I spent some of Sunday messing around with the camera (a Canon 5D Mark III, which I knew) and a couple of lenses (which I didn’t). After the first day’s rehearsals and shooting, I swapped the lenses, and ended up using a Zeiss Planar T* f1.4 85mm for most of the remainder of the week (as well as writing a gear list for what I think will work for the next block).

Shooting puppets – specifically Helmi puppets – for film or still image is a bit like shooting macro images from far away while on a trampoline. The space they occupy, handled as they are by full-size humans, is obviously full-size human, yet the smallest puppets are hand-sized, and using a manual focus lens while shooting hand-held (actually a shoulder-rig I rebuilt to hang around my neck like a Fig Rig) was at times a long exercise in out-of-focusness. Lucky it’s digital and not film.

By the end of the week through trying many variations, I’d found the beginnings of something that actually worked, the Helmis had a rough work running around 25 minutes, puppets, props, sets, light and other bits and pieces were finished or being built, and days were approaching a calm length. For me, very enjoyable to be working in theatre and with a group I think are one of the smartest (definitely the funniest) around. So, here are some stills from various days, from a very quick pass through six days of filming.

As for Herr Jacobsen, The Museum in the 1880s, The Inuit, Aleut, First Nations of the North-West Coast of what’s now Canada and Alaska, it’s a troubling story that makes me uneasy even while I’m laughing as the Helmis perform their usual humour autopsy. Jacobsen returned with some 7000 artefacts, some of them plundered from graves. Contra that, the devastation the nations of North America were undergoing meant he probably saved something of their cultures from complete loss, though all but a few of those thousands of items remain to this day boxed up the the museum archives, so it’s nevertheless ambiguous. For me, having been born and grown up in Canada – admittedly far from where Jacobsen went, either around Baffin Island or Alaska – it’s something of a churning over of very faint and distant memories, as well as more recent ones, as I’ve seemed to deceive myself into paying attention to Canada over many years without being aware of it (Meech Lake Accord, anyone?).

We return to the Alte Kantine Wedding for the next round of Jacobsen in July after Heppenheim.