And some I gave their own posts to ’cos they were utter bangers, and some I might even give their own posts, ’cos also bangers. So many books. I can only take one fiction and one non-fiction with me? Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Rehearsals for Living, and Tamsyn Muir’s Nona the Ninth. And one book of poetry? Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us.
Another in the small pile of books out of Aotearoa I’m getting all up in my memories about reading. I haven’t thought about Witi Ihimaera for decades. Same with Peter Wells. Old names in an anthology of mostly young Millennial and Gen Y poets and writers. Some of the other old names I can’t read past knowing they were rad-fem-les-sep transphobes back in the day. Cool if they’ve grown from that, but irrelevant to me; they did the damage then and I don’t need to read them now.
Dasniya said, on Thursday when their nohinohi little one was all big eyes and focus as I sung old Māori songs I seem to have remembered for them, she was seeing a show as Sophinesaele by Pelenakeke Brown and I said that name sounds familiar, reckon I’ve just been reading them. And I had. Her writing, A Travelling Practice, one of the couple of non-fiction pieces, and one of the couple that really stuck with me out of all the writers. The other was Jessica Niurangi Mary Maclean’s Kāore e wehi tōku kiri ki te taraongaonga; my skin does not fear the nettle, not the least for reminding me te Reo Māori is grammared but gender neutral, ia, tāna, tōna … like all the best languages. I photographed Pelenakeke’s piece and sent it to Dasniya before she saw her performance.
I should have marked all the writers I really liked. Forgot to do that with my usual oh I’ll remember of course I won’t and now I spose I could go back through. Almost finished my most recent stack of books and the upcoming pile is heavy on Māori Pasifika and I’m very fucking happy about that.
I joked I reckon I’ll know some people in this book. Turns out wasn’t a joke. Turns out it was much more personal than I expected, even when under that joke I knew I bought this book to remember history. My history. History around me. History I should know.
Long time ago, young me worked end-of-week nights in the needle exchange in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, binning returns and handing out fresh packs. Which led to me being nights at the NZ Prostitutes Collective drop-in centre, because being a young transsexual, the only work available was sex work. Or selling drugs or doing robbery, more or less in that order. I never did proper street sex work on Karangahape Road, but did occasionally crack it opportunistically, sometimes just so I’d have a bed for the night. All the transsexual women who worked the street passed through the drop-in centre of an evening, Māori, Pasifika, and the one of two Pākehā. Later, they’d be up the Ponsonby Road end, and when I lived in the old brothel, above the sex shop looking down Howe St, I’d see them on the corner.
My Body, my business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change reminded me of a lot of history I’d forgotten, and connected things, filling in blanks, explaining details. Like the probable identity of the old Greek man who owned the house in Pirie St I lived in when I was (once again) homeless, the upstairs apartment home since the ’70s to various Māori trans sex workers. Or the doctor at Three Lamps in Ponsonby who used to prescribe hormones to all the transsexuals, also known since the ’70s. I don’t think I ever saw him, but pretty sure it was a woman Doctor in the same practice.
And just the general truth of it all, how it was in the ’80s and ’90s — even though most of the oral histories were slightly before my time. It was all so familiar, reminding me how deep I was in that life, how they were the ones who guided and saved me. And how it was so easy to have that all taken away.
I wonder how my life would look, would have looked, if I hadn’t been through conversion therapy. Would I have started dancing (probably, I was incredibly naïve about what trans girls and women could and couldn’t do)? Would I have moved to Melbourne? Maybe, though staying in Sydney is perhaps more likely. Gone to VCA? Realistically I wouldn’t have made it through the auditions, because being trans and a dancer has only been a possibility for the last decade or so. Even my — in current language — non-binary self bashed up hard against the rigid and strict cisheteronormativity of dance back then.
This is a reminder. Where I came from, what I lived through, who were my contemporaries, family, whānau, who I owe an obligation to.
Three weeks later. Well, yes, that was a notably idyllic day, despite absence of sea, mountain, and forest. Partly it’s northern German Berlin winter smashing me once again, but it’s been a grim slog the last two months, and I haven’t had much I felt like writing about, and writing itself felt — and feels — like an effort I’m not capable of. It’s been a year of cheerless news, raking many of us who aren’t part of the ascendant ethno-nationalist lot, like daily sandpaper to the face. And in this, there’s been so many moments of — for want of a better word — progress, as if, after twenty-five years at it, I can see sometimes evidence of being heard. And then, the very ones who have a voice, who are given a platform and an audience, who fucking know better, once again push any mob who isn’t them, part of their group, under their bus.
Sometimes I feel like such an old cunt, doing this battle now into my forties, and it’s all same old, same old. Do you ever fucking listen to us? I’m using the rhetorical ‘us’ here, I slide along the interstices between many groups but feel an outsider in all. I know that it doesn’t matter what I feel, it’s how I’m seen and marked, and I know that even if I am not part of a group, I cannot fight for my life without fighting for theirs. In all this, there’s one group which can be relied on to not do the same.
White, cisgender women can’t be trusted. Their feminism also. Whether hetero or lesbian or queer, the history in my life of white cisgender women who call themselves feminist is they will fuck the rest of us over, whoever we are. They don’t see us as equal or deserving or really even human. I’m tired of them opening their mouths and some transphobic, racist, Islamophobic, anti-sex worker, anti-BDSM, colonialist, ableist, or any and all of the other –ist shit coming out. I’m tired of them not getting it, not learning, not listening, not educating themselves. I’m tired of the unnecessary shit they bring down on everyone not them.
We have obligations, wherever we are located in the hierarchy of shit, to those who have it harder than we do. We need to understand where we are located in this hierarchy, individually and as members of multiple groups, and how this location has shifted over history and place; that the primary agenda of any of the groups is only a sub-set of the larger, hundreds of years old struggle for emancipation and restitution for us all. You don’t ever advance your own agenda by shitting on those below.
I mainly wrote this after yet another white, cishet woman shat on trans women. Again. The same bullshit from the feminism of my teens continuing unabated twenty-five years on. The word feminism is so hot right now, but youse all have to understand it hasn’t been great for a lot of us, who aren’t the right kind of woman, or don’t live the right kind of life. It’s actively tried to erase us, legislated against us, denied us our rights and selfhood, incited hatred and violence. That’s your feminism. Go and learn your history, then come back and clean up your mess.
I was thinking of political parties last night, and the term, ‘to stay on message’. I wonder if it’s so difficult for white feminists to stay on message because they think they’re exceptional and the message doesn’t apply to them. So here’s the message:
Every time you talk about feminism, you say:
- Trans women are women, and suffer discrimination at a higher rate than cis women. The issues facing trans women are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Non-binary and gender non-conforming people suffer discrimination at a higher rate than heteronormative-presenting cis women. Their issues are our issues, and are feminist issues.
- First Nations and Indigenous women and non-binary people face greater discrimination and barriers than white women, and face specific generational trauma. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Black, brown, POC, and BAME women and non-binary people face greater discrimination and barriers than white women. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Muslim women and non-binary people face specific discrimination and barriers that non-Muslim women do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Women and and non-binary people with immigrant histories face specific discrimination and barriers that women without this history do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Women and non-binary people with disabilities face specific discrimination and barriers that women without disabilities do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Women and non-binary people who do sex work face specific discrimination and barriers that women who do not work in this field do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Women and non-binary people who are in prison face specific issues and hardships, more so for trans women and men. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Working class, poor, un- and underemployed women and non-binary people face specific issues and hardships, that educated, middle-class women do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Queer women and non-binary people suffer discrimination at a higher rate than heterosexual, cisgender-presenting women. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Intersex women and non-binary people suffer discrimination at a higher rate than non-intersex women, and are often subject to non-consensual surgeries. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Reproductive health is not just for cisgender women. Some men have uteruses, or menstruate, or are capable of pregnancy; some women have penises; some have both or neither. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
- Many women and non-binary people belong to multiple combinations of the above, they face specific and amplified overlapping discrimination, barriers, and ostracism. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues. This is intersectional feminism.
This is not an exhaustive list. The language will date rapidly, indeed it already is clunky. That’s both on language and on me. My ability to even formulate such a list is due to the many women and non-binary people whom I have learnt from, FNI, Black, Muslim, immigrant, queer, trans women and non-binary people. There are faces I see with each of those sentences.
The history of feminism is intrinsically tied to the history of colonialism, white supremacy, and oppression. It is as much prone to essentialist nationalism of the body as racist nationalism is, with all the imperatives towards taxonomising, segregating, and labelling bodies as acceptable or not, human or not. If you want to use this word, you must reckon with its history, with what has been done, to whom, in its name. The above list is the bare minimum, even less. That’s the work that has to be done if feminism wants to claim for itself the bodies of women — and even then, there will be many of us who want no part in your feminism. You have to live with that, and do the work to make amends.
It is work. It is hard, ceaseless, decades and generations long work. It’s work you have to do, and it’s work you can do. When I think of where my interests and attention lay a decade ago, I cringe at how shallow my grasp of this was, in no small part because my grasp of myself and my own history was also shallow. I fuck up, make mistakes, apologise, try to do better, learn from my betters — who have far more pressing concerns on their time than me using it — try pass on that learning and rep them whenever I can, sit down and shut up when it’s not my place, speak up when it’s required, remind myself that people can change and it’s my obligation to encourage this. There’s no embossed certificate at the end of this, no letters before or after your name for all the work you have to do, on yourself first and those around you once you start to get it, you won’t be finished in three or six years, or sixty. But that’s the work, it’s the bare fucking minimum.
Lately I think it’s not for lack of knowing all this stuff that is causing white cis women to dependably shit on the rest of us. I think they do know all this, they’ve heard it their whole lives but they’ve decided they don’t care. It’s not that they don’t know about the issues facing trans women, they are quite sure we’re not women. They do think brown and black immigrants — especially Muslims — are terrorists or genetically misogynist. They truly believe that because it wasn’t them doing the invading and colonising, it’s not their fault, and damned if they’ll take any responsibility. And on and on down the list, making an exception for each one, not my problem, fuck you mate, I’m alright.
I’m saying this as someone who grew up in a white world and was told that was what I also was. Extricating myself from that, knowing my history, is lifelong work. And that’s also what we fight against: the breaking of history and community, atomising each of us, leaving us in one generation without the means to speak to our grandparents, or even knowing who they were. This erasing of history is the greatest ongoing work of colonialism and white supremacy. If feminism wants to stand against anything, wants to contribute anything of worth, it must stand against that, 500 years of that. And in that, white cis feminists must understand that the answers and ways out of this aren’t going to come from them.
And if you can’t do that, take your feminism and fuck off.
Another year of reading. Ten years I’ve been at this, blogging every book I read (almost every, a few slipped by over the years). Going from just blogging the book covers, to a few lines on why I was reading, to my recent frankly absurd multi-thousand word essays on some of Iain (M. or not) Banks novels. Trying to rein in that latter particular excess.
Usually at this point, I look at what I wrote a year ago, so I can aim for some sort of consistency.
A lot of fiction this year, almost twice as much as non-fiction, for a total of 34 books read — or attempted, I gave up on a few, and there’s a couple that I’ve already started but won’t make this list, ’cos I haven’t blogged them yet. Blogging is reading, just like rubbing is racing.
The year got off to a brilliant start with three biographies by trans women: Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, and more a collection of essays over decades that becomes biographical, Julia Serano’s Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism. And Tranny is my Book of the Year. There’s a couple of others equally or maybe more deserving — thinking of recent reads Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction and China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution — but Miéville’s had a couple of Books of the Year already, so that’s him out. Tranny just spoke to me on a very personal level (as did Redefining Realness, different but no less personal), and Laura Jane Grace has been making miles in my head all year, I’m listening to her now. I’d marry her, it’s that kind of thing.
Following that trio, I went straight into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Still in it. Not an easy read, needs the kind of mental preparation and focus I’ve been lacking the last some years, though strangely not for Caroline Walker Bynum, who I’ve been reading for three years now, one of my absolute loves, and Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe is also deserving of being a Book of the Year.
A couple of others on the non-fiction side: May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz (eds.) Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, I read after seeing it at Deutsches Historisches Museum’s Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente Seiner Geschichte Und Gegenwart exhibition. I’m didactic and prescriptive, and just like Peter Fryer, this (or whatever more recent work) should be compulsory reading in Germany, along with Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties and Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor — and a bunch of other stuff. But the last year’s European, American, and Australian politics makes me think we haven’t got a chance, walking with their eyes open while we shout and plead with them against where they’re going, where they’re dragging us.
I haven’t been reading much on China lately (or Afghanistan for that matter, but remedying that at the mo), but did read Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976, the final work in his China under Mao Zedong trilogy (preceded by The Tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s Great Famine). He’s one of the few historians writing on China I’ll always read, who’s also in the fortunate position to be able to publish semi-regularly (and for academic publications, not horrifically over-priced).
There were a few other non-fiction works, but let’s get onto the fiction, or science-fiction and fantasy, ’cos I still don’t read anything else. I went on a lengthy Iain M. (plus a couple of non-M.) Banks binge earlier this year. I needed to just read, eyes rush over the pages, know before I started I’d love the story, sink back into familiar worlds and lives. Obviously that mean starting with my favourite book ever, Feersum Endjinn, and this being my first Banks re-read in some years, I came to him with a tonne of new reading behind me, and wow did I ever write about all my new thoughts. I followed that up with Whit, which has never been one of my favourites, nor did I think of it as one of his best. Wrong again, Frances. Back to The Business after that, definitely one I adore, and have read at least 6 times, then back into his skiffy with the late / last trio: Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Matter. I feel a little unsure putting these in my year’s reading here, as though there’s nothing remarkable about reading him multiple times, or that this is supposed to be about new books I’ve read. On the other hand, fuck it, it’s my blog and my reading and I can fuck off if that’s the attitude I’m going to bring.
There was a sizeable dip early- to mid-year, disappointment in fiction, feeling apathetic about the heaviness of non-fiction (thanks, Twitter), and also perhaps just steamrolling through scores of books year after year is an unrealistic monotone that I’m not. I did have a thrill with one more of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels, Fair Rebel, followed almost immediately by Above the Snowline, and love that she decided to return to writing, ’cos she’s one of the best. Not easy, these are large, demanding works that don’t mainline narrative reward, but she’s got one of the most captivating and extensive fantasy worlds I’ve read.
At the same time as Swainston, I got my grubby mitts on Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger. Something of marketed as Young Adult (is not), and not especially long (longer though than his novella Slow Bullets), and it feels like a Girl’s Own bit of romp, then he massacres an entire ship’s crew and continues in his very, very dark and existentially terrifying way right up till the end. Book of the Year for me, right there. Then there was the aforementioned Banks tour, and not until I was in Brussels did I get mad thrilled about fiction again. Cheers, once again, Gala. Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series, A young Idris Elba / Stormzy cop with Harry Potter powers. A more cheerful Liminal People series. I started with number 2, Moon Over Soho, which meant reading the first in the series, Rivers of London had both plenty of, “I know who these people are,” and “Oh shit, her face is gonna fall off, isn’t it?” I’ve got the other 5 in the series on order.
I get to this point of writing, and I’ve added the covers of all these books, so I’ve got a nice visual treat in front of my mug, and I scroll through them … smiles all the way. And a little shiver of goosebumps. I’m lucky as all shit to be able to buy new books almost every week even when I’m on the verge of poverty (cheers, Germany and your incomprehensible to Australia attitude to cheap books), and lucky as all shit to have the time and education and all the rest to be able to read them. It’s a human right and every day I give thanks to the people (shout out to Eleanor Roosevelt here!) who fought and continue to fight for our inalienable rights.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
And speaking of designers and artists, I decided to do a Book Covers of the Year thing, dunno why I haven’t before now. Mainly because both Revenger and October have covers that smash it. Also the original Feersum Endjinn, class late-20th century sci-fi cover art there.
Thrilled and awed by all this reading? Here’s the last years’ anniversary lists:
- Reading … A 9th Anniversary
- Reading … A 8th Anniversary
- Reading … A 7th Anniversary
- Reading … A 6th Anniversary
- Reading … A 5th Anniversary
- Reading … A 4th Anniversary
- Reading … A 3rd Anniversary
- Reading … A 2nd Anniversary
- Reading … An Anniversary
One of the number in my partial re-reading of Iain Banks’ (with or without the M.) novels. I read Surface Detail after Whit, when I was trying to find a good follow-on to that quiet, delightful work of beauty. I tried a couple of pages of The Algebraist, but it didn’t quite fit: I needed to stay with his novels where women are at the front.
Surface Detail is one of his later novels, what I think of as his third period, starting with The Algebraist — though as with all attempts at Banksian division, some of his third-period novels aren’t so dissimilar from his second (The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and Stonemouth, belonging more with The Crow Road), but whatever, when I was reading those last four M. novels — Culture novels the lot of time — I thought they formed part of a recognisable evolution and period in his story-telling.
This is one of his heavily, obviously political works, dealing with slavery, racism, rape, and is something of a deeply satisfying revenge fantasy. What happens when a brown woman returns to exact retribution on her enslaver? It’s also another story, like Whit, where Banks deals with religion, selfhood, identity in computational afterlife Hells. What happens when we shut down Hell?
I’m not going to write a 2000-word essay here like I did on Whit or Feersum Endjinn, but maybe to mention one theme I find carried through all his novels, that of the idea of the benign intervention. This is an idea deeply rooted in European colonialism and racism — even within the ethics underpinning the EU and Human Rights, and it’s one Banks chewed over his entire life. When is it permissible to intervene? Should intervention happen at all, or should we just adopt a neutral observer perspective? And this for him is both an abstract thought experiment for an “in play” interstellar civilisation, which can lay at least partial claim to prior neutrality (having no previous involvement in a newly contacted civilisation), as well as for the reality he watched in his lifetime: the invasions of Iraq, the Yugoslav Wars, the effects of colonialism both in former colonies and in the UK.
I don’t have an answer for any of these questions this thought experiment invokes, I’m not sure it’s even possible for us on Earth, with the last 500 years of colonialism and genocide to argue for anything other than a rigorously enforced “stay the fuck out” policy — and yet the very nature of the current “in play” actors means that unless “stay the fuck out” is unequivocally respected by all, it only serves to let a different colonialism in. So I’m left with a novel that manages to adroitly simplify this enough to give a vicarious thrill of revenge, restitution, and a (mostly) happy ending. I wonder if that’s also where Banks ended up, that there are no simple, easy, obvious solutions that don’t ultimately collapse into authoritarianism, and we can only have small victories in isolated instances which nonetheless matter greatly to the people involved.
They’ve always hated us. We disgust them & they want us dead. If they can’t kill us outright, they’ll hurt us for the sake of it. If you don’t understand this, you’re stupid and you will die.
Continuing my circuitous re-reading of Iain Banks for the nth time. Of his lesser-acclaimed works at that. Whit was a birthday present from Gala in 2007. Coincidently, I bought Whit for myself the same day. So I have two copies. This is the one Gala gave to me. Unlike Feersum Endjinn or The Business, both of which I’ve read near-double figures of times, Whit I’ve only read three, maybe four times. It’s a strange one, possibly aligned with works like The Wasp Factory or Feersum Endjinn, rather than the ‘return home’ novels like Espedair Street, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, or Stonemouth. It occurs to me here that his classic form of these ‘return home’ novels all have a white, cis, hetero male protagonist, and that this genre in Banks’ œvre is the one for which he received the most mainstream, authentic acclaim — whatever acclaim he received for his Culture novels, they’re sci-fi, and in the world of literature, genre is never authentic.
Against those mainstream genre works — which I also love, just not dealing with here — we have the majority of the rest of his works which feature women, sometimes straight, often queer, brown as often as white, and if we’re talking his sci-fi stuff then by today’s language they’re all trans. And yet.
Of course, it could be me. I could be wrong. Always check the equipment for sensor error first.
Says protagonist of The Business (which I’ve also just re-read and have to write about) Kate Telman, shortly after she’d mused, “Maybe they’re both closet misogynists.”
My love of Iain Banks, of the critical utopia he proposes in the Culture, of him as a person and what he stood for (diversity, feminism, and hooning!) makes it difficult for me to not find what I’m looking for. It’s there. I read him and I find this. Right down to the Indo-Scottish fusion he himself says (in Raw Spirit) he took to mouth-wateringly hilarious lengths in Whit with haggis pakora and other Indo-Gael cookery (which is a thing, and I would eat it).
I said Whit isn’t a ‘return home’ genre, yet that’s not strictly true. Isis, or The Blessed Very Reverend Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Beloved Elect of God III, has more in common with Asura/Count Sessine from Feersum Endjinn, Lady Sharrow of Against a Dark Background, or Vyr Cossont of The Hydrogen Sonata than Prentice of The Crow Road or Alban of Garbadale, though like them, she uncovers family secrets in her journey away from and return to home. Unlike those latter two, she’s a woman, and as with some of the main characters in Feersum Endjinn, she’s queer, at least bisexual if not more, though highly compartmentalised in her personal desires, describes her close physical relationship with her neighbour as sisterly, and herself as not knowing what or who she wants, if anything. As well, possibly slightly neurodiverse, another aspect of selfhood Banks repeatedly wrote, whether Bascule in Feersum Endjinn, Oramen in Matter, or the mob who make up most of his stories who live with PTSD, depression, and other variations. So here’s the main character of a novel who’s a queer, bisexual, somewhat asexual woman who’s handy working the fields and taking out Nazi skinheads with Tabasco Sauce-filled water pistols. And she’s brown. It’s there in her name: Saraswati, her grandmother a daughter of immigrants to the Hebrides from Khalmakistan, another one of those parallel Earth Himalayan countries like The Business’ Thulahn. (And I said Banks doesn’t really do multiverse, so draw your own conclusions.)
One of those meme-type things that sweeps around Twitter and Tumblr is, “Where did you first see yourself represented in sci-fi / fantasy / art?” I’d never had an answer to that, but now thinking about it, I read Iain Banks because I’m desperate for seeing myself and I find myself, or the possibility of me or what Judith Butler calls a liveable life, not in a single work, but in what he proposes in both Culture and non-Culture works. Indeed, as there’s always such an imperative to divide his work up into these categories, or Iain with or without an M., or sci-fi non-sci-fi, or … and maybe this is the point: there is no division; all his works propose this idea in varying degrees, sometimes more explicit, sometimes less, and sometimes he just wants to hoon an F40.
So I’m wondering if I’m trying to read too much into him, check equipment for sensor error and all, or if what he’s written is even enough.
What I like also is he proposes a kind of interstitial world: not x, but not not-x. Here’s a book written by a self-professed evangelical atheist (who, given how that has become the domain of exactly the kind of braying white hetero men he is so continuously and emphatically against, he might no longer choose that term) who writes a story of religion that understands the impossibility of evidence for faith yet always striving for a consistent logic, and the value of community whether a sect like the Luskentyrians here, Islam, or the Culture. A book of immigrants and children of immigrants who move between religions, sexuality, gender, selfhood in a way that takes all these parts of one’s identity as self-evident and unremarkable, and fundamental to who they are. Besides all that, or along with that, because these are his fundamental themes, Whit is Iain Banks’ attempt to propose faith and religion within a Culture universe. Nothing if not internally consistent logic is our Banks.
I’m writing this very slowly while reading other Banks books. Presently I’m three ahead of this one, having read The Business, followed by Surface Detail, and currently on The Hydrogen Sonata. Something I’ve noticed on this re-reading cycle is how he describes the protagonists. More or less, he doesn’t; it’s a “one and done” process for him in broad, almost meaningless generalities: tall, short, old, young, hair long or shaved or dark or silver; body generally default humanoid which requires little additional detail unlike the aliens who often receive degrees of elaborate descriptions. Skin also: brown, pale, dark. All just enough to fulfil the barest imaginatory requirements. And on this flimsiest of structures he builds the character through what they do and think and say, through how they live in the world, through their own imagination of themselves, alone or with others.
A friend, Justine, said to me — and paraphrasing so wildly here it’s like making things up — that we care for Banks’ characters because the story is about their journey. It’s about what happens to them and how they go often from a state of not knowing to revelation. This was part of a conversation where we were both heavily critical of a novel that is currently receiving plenty of acclaim, Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning, where I can’t even remember the characters’ names, let alone much of what happened to them. Perhaps Banks’ method of writing is more conservative, as in of an older, safer approach. Yet here I am, re-reading his works again, and still finding new depths of critical analysis.
What Banks as an author expects from us as reader is to retain pertinent information for the duration. Pertinent information can frequently be a line here or a word there, and he seldom signals its importance at the time. There’s gradations to this as well, like shells enclosing shells — which is literally the worlds he builds, whether the actual Shellworld of Sursamen in Matter, or the structure of a Culture ship, with layers and nested spheres of habitable space, or that of a ship Mind, or the fastness Serehfa of Feersum Endjinn. As with the recurrence of landscape and architecture like Scotland and its castles so too are there shells. A castle is perhaps the blueprint for this, the keep being the deepest and least visible part, working in layers all the way out to the colossal curtain wall and its placement in geology and landscape. How we move through this as literal space as well as narrative simile can be found perhaps most clearly in Use of Weapons, where two (or more) stories begin from opposite directions and interleave across the course of the book.
Bearing all that in mind, the first, simple physical description is something we’re expected remember, which modifies the character in every instance. It is pertinent information that accrues over time. It is not just a young woman who takes on a some Nazi skinheads, it’s a brown, short-haired, unworldly, queer, androgynous young woman who first tries unsuccessfully to communicate and reason with violent white Nazi skinheads, then tries reading their newspaper to understand them and educate herself, and later, to defend her black and brown crust punk friends, returns looking for trouble and maces the quartet with Tabasco sauce. If you’re familiar with ’70s through ’90s UK (and British colonial) history, BNP and NF skinheads, and just how perilous it was to be visibly different, looking like an ‘immigrant’ or queer or both, reading this scene is terrifying and jubilant.
When I wrote about Feersum Endjinn, I was broadly trying to make a few notes on themes that I was drawn to in Banks’ novels. With Whit those themes seemed to be much clearer to apprehend. As with all Banks novels, there’s multiple stories, so if I focus on one for a moment it’s not at the diminishment of another. After all, he’s writing intersectionality. I read Whit as a story of immigrants, of coming from the colonies or former colonies to the UK, of being on the periphery in both instances, of being the children and descendants of immigrants, of being emphatically of this place and also of elsewhere. This last point is one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, wondering how to make it succinct. A fundamental precept of nationalism, of ethnic identity as well, is one cannot hold allegiance to two places. It operates on absolutist principles: There is only a finite amount of self to go around. If one is both ‘from here’ and from elsewhere — or as in all British and European colonies, really, originally ‘from here’ — then this can be codified, given a fraction or percentage. It’s inherently racist and demeaning. It informs a jurisprudential position as well as actual law, such as the Half-Cast Acts and other acts that enforced cultural genocide in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, and means any person who is multiethnic is forever inferior, culturally, physiologically, morally. It is European racism’s greatest philosophical victory that this belief holds strong when the reality is diametrically opposite.
Self is not finite; it is always 100%, and each addition is also 100%. Isis Whit is entirely Scottish (just go and look at where Luskentyre is) and entirely South Asian Khalmakistani. She is not half one, quarter the other; one does not diminish the other, indeed, the opposite is true. Another friend, SJ, also from Australia, I was talking with maybe almost two years ago, probably at the same Alevi café in Kreuzberg, my local favourite. They are the one to change my thinking on this, to understand what is meant when this language is used. In the midst of a long conversation about family and identity, I said something like, “Are you half or quarter Aborigine?” They replied, “Nah, it doesn’t work like that; you either are or you aren’t. Dividing like that is a racist tool. It was and is used by Europeans against Blackfellas.” Again, always poorly paraphrasing here. They continued, “I’m Koori. The colour of my skin doesn’t matter. If I ask to walk onto Koori land, and tell them who I am, and where I’m from, that’s enough: I’m Koori. There’s no half or quarter or whatever; you are or you aren’t.” And what if someone is but doesn’t know their history? You wanna read about the Stolen Generations here.
All this helps explicate how I read Whit and Banks’ interstitial world. I am or I am not. Whether or not I know my history, I am. Whether or not I know my history, it can and has been used against me, and not knowing is not a defence. So, I am, whether or not I want to be. Erasing history and telling people they’re white is a tool of racism working hand in hand with fractionalising. I am still formulating how to talk about this, and make no claims to being anything other than my own history and my archaeology of it. At best I can say I’m the child and grandchild of Muslims in South Africa who may have been Turkish and Afrikaans, and I was named for my grandmother. That’s one side of my family, which as I’ve tried to explain in reading Whit is an entirety, just as the New Zealand side is another entirety, and migrating through the Commonwealth (let’s not pretend dropping the British prefix changes anything) is another.
Back when I was reading Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction, I wrote:
Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference.
I want to say he also proposed something similar for the entirety of identity — with a huge bunch of caveats. With regard to ethnic selfhood, he was not proposing a kind of universalism, “we’re all the same deep down, aren’t we,” ‘post-racialism’; nor was he ignorant to or dismissive of the very real situation in Scotland and the UK for anyone not white or British or whatever enough; nor was he trivialising how fundamental ethnic selfhood is or glibly suggesting we try on different ones like fashionable clothes. He was also aware of his position (at least publicly, nominally) as a white, cis, hetero male meant he always wrote from outside the perspective of his protagonists, and the commensurate probability of slipping into Orientalism. If he explicitly stated this at all it was only within the Culture civilisation, where he was already dealing with a critical utopia and the default for human-basic bodies was brown.
For the rest, his non-Culture novels like Feersum Endjinn, or Earth-bound novels like Whit or The Business, this position is absent only if there’s some wilful ignoring of what he’s written going on. It’s always there, and only becomes more clearer and more explicit over the course of his 29 novels. It’s a little like MedievalPOC’s long project of documenting people of colour in the history of European art. After a while, you realise some artists were always doing this, always painting the same people into their work, painting them like they knew them, like that was the world they lived in, like Peter Paul Rubens, or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
I was thinking as I thrashed at these last paragraphs, trying to tease out a coherent line of thought, that I’d love to read a story where Isis Whit and Bascule met each other — well, besides the one called Feersum Endjinn where she decides Asura is a good name for herself. I don’t have an ending for this, nor do I think it’s going to get any more coherent or benefit from a reduction in dodginess by more rewriting, so I’ll end with this:
Banks writes for us, writes for me. I am his audience, the not- and not not-. And like Banks intended, sometimes I need to find and see myself explicitly, and sometimes I just want to hoon. And sometimes I want to do both, and for it to be unremarkable.