A while back, late-January this year, Vass asked me to write something for Yusra Magazine, for the big Trans Futures edition. I said, “Yaaah!” and continued to do nothing till pretty damn close to the deadline. When I whined to them, and in that strange way writing sometimes happens with me, threw down 1100 words in the middle of the night. Five revisions and four days later, along with a whole bunch of notes (’cos we gotta differentiate between a Mazda and a Boeing 767) is what got sent to them. And they translated it. Which I’m mad happy about, ’cos there’s nothing like having someone you know and trust (and share a true deep love for class hoonage) to do the tricky work of translating.
Real paper version arrives after Easter.
“Wait what, Vass, Easter?”
“Greek Easter, chica, what we have here in Athens. We run by the orthodox.”
It’s been a while. I didn’t have any spare cash for a bit, then I had slightly too much (as far as the Finanzamt is concerned), and then I realised I’d decided not to blog for a few weeks (thanks pandemic and enragingly piss poor response by Berlin, Germany, Europe, and so very very many str8wyt men in all those places), and now see me trying to make an effort like showing up for the exam and everyone knows I didn’t do the work.
Yallah, a pile of books I’m reading (pretending to read) in the second half of 2020, to which I’ll add another pile because I dunno, not enough money to buy anything substantial but just enough to incur a hefty tax bill if I don’t spend it. Weird how poverty is emplaced through institutional, structural and legislative punishment.
All the poetry, and I do mean all the poetry is entirely because of Omar Sakr. Him and Sunny Singh (of the Jhalak Prize) on Twitter are responsible for a large chunk of my reading, whether directly or retweeting interesting people who turn out to be writers and poets.
Also poetry, semi-poetry, poetry-ish, with a history in a festival, Rachel De-Lahay’s My White Best Friend: (And Other Letters Left Unsaid), mainly because I read anything with Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan in it.
Continuing the theme of books recommended by other authors, or cited in their bibliographies. Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History, which I already blogged, but these six-monthly book dumps seem to deserve all the books. No idea where I heard about this, but either Twitter authors or one of the blogs I read. And from that, Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Real-time internet archaeology as I write here, I likely read about both on In the Middle, the medieval studies blog, where, on Monday, Geraldine Heng responded to the hit-piece on her and this book.
Which reminded me of the double bind I periodically find myself in. The first time I personally experienced it was with JT LeRoy, who I read in the early-’00s and thought was a trans femme who I could relate to. Turned out JT only existed as a fiction of a white, cis woman, and she’s still making a profit and career off our lives. Funny how consequences slide off them like teflon. More recently it was Medieval PoC – who I used to contribute photographs of Black and Brown people in art when I was on my museum bender – and a deeply messy history going back years of her claiming Native, Roma, and other ancestry. And this year it’s been a regular feast of white cis women in academia and the arts getting sprung for building their careers on false claims of BIPoC ancestry. On the other side of the double bind, it’s white supremacy trying to flip medieval European history to its own agenda, and a ceaseless barrage of racism, misogyny, transphobia, and all the other shit against cis and trans BIPoC authors, academics, artists, very regularly from white, cis women in academia and the arts, like the 46-page (!!!) hit-piece Heng responds to.
I mean, I just wanna read books and have a good time and learn shit and be amazed and generally chill the fuck out with a bunch of words and instead it’s white people colouring up or white people doing hit jobs.
Last couple in the non-fiction pile, then. Peta Stephenson’s The Outsiders Within: Telling Australia’s Indigenous-Asian Story. The one she wrote before Islam Dreaming: Indigenous Muslims in Australia, which it turns out I may not have blogged either. That latter was a big one for me. And keeping on the Islam history thing, John M. Steele’s A Brief Introduction to Astronomy in the Middle East, recommended to me by Dr. Danielle Kira Adams of Lowell Observatory, and responsible for Two Deserts, One Sky — Arab Star Calendars (novel research things there).
Fiction, then. Science-fiction mostly. Becky Chambers, who I’ve been reading for the last few years and pretty content at the moment in reading another one from her, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. Another also from Charles Stross, Dead Lies Dreaming, though after fifteen years this might be the last I read from him, just not really doing it for me and the trans character is very written by a cis. Tamsyn Muir’sGideon the Ninth, which I’ve already read, and the sequel Harrow the Ninth, which I’m currently reading / wading through it’s corpsey gore. Claire G. Coleman’sTerra Nullius, Indigetrans colonial invasion sci-fi but not really sci-fi. And speaking of trans, Juno Dawson’sWonderland, which I kinda liked but wished the literary fixation on Alice in Wonderland stories didn’t exist (same like I wish dance fixation on ‘reimagining’ Swan Lake and the classics didn’t exist).
Lucky last. Fiction but more like Chingona autobiography ghost story, Myriam Gurba’sMean. Recommended to me by Vass. Thanks babe, she’s fucking with me.
That’s a lot, eh. Piling up, getting partly read then left, words look smaller than they used to and I need glasses but that means organising shit like ophthalmologist appointments and shelling out cash and fuck it I can squint. Though I wonder if the reason why I’m not reading as much as I used to is ’cos words in book form’s blurry all the time.
The only thing I’m not enjoying about this book is its high expectations on my reading list. Twenty pages in and I’ve ordered four books mentioned in the notes.
Where did I hear about Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History? No idea. Maybe someone on Twitter, or, more likely what I’d been reading circulates around this subject and one of the authors mentioned it.
Obviously very much here for her writing on Saint Mauritius, and shoutout to Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina and that statue of him. And for the bibliography, ’cos there’s been a heap of new stuff specifically on Germany / German-ish regional history that is totes my jam. Probably going to be one of my Books of the Year. If I was still doing that. And it’s making me miss my rando trips to small German cities to gawp at mediæval art something huge.
There was a big gap this year when I had a little money for and no way of getting books. All that talk on social media of supporting artists during pandemic quarantine by buying their books hit up against furloughed supply chains.
Completely off topic here, I discovered yesterday I’d been using the entirely wrong word, furlong instead of furlough (and lifetime usage of either is in the single digits). And then I discovered furlong is 1/8th of a mile, so now I have Vin Diesel, or rather Dominic Toretto in my head going, “I live my life two furlongs at a time.”
Back to buying books. And no, e-books are not an option. I like paper, I like the feel and smell and aesthetics of books, I like how line lengths, page size, fonts, typography, layout, margins, the density of ink on paper, all that, I like how it creates a specific way of reading. So, no new books for some months and a rapidly dwindling pile of that variety which take months or years to read (Spivak, I’m looking at you.)
And then my favourite bookshop let me know books were available again and damn did I go hard. First, the Jhalak Prize announced its 2020 long and short lists and the winner, and I’m doing that thing again where I’ll end up throwing cash at about half the long list.
What is the Jhalak Prize (’cos clicking links scares me or something)? It was started in 2017 by Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla, and the sadly defunct Media Diversified and is an annual award for British and British resident writers of colour in any genre. And it’s consistently a banger. If I had the cash, I would without question by everything on the long list as soon as it’s announced.
And second, a bunch of weird old books I’ve been hitting my bookshop up for availability and prices for absolutely years turned up. A couple I’ve been asking about for five years. No, I cannot say no.
Some of these books have been sitting on my reading shelf since last year; some of them I finished months ago. I’m not doing that way too intense essay per book and annual Book(s) of The Year thing anymore, pumped the brakes on that. I still want to remind myself and celebrate a pile of authors who, all of whom did that indescribable magic a book can do. Some of these (’cos that’s my tendency) are hard, painful reads. Even these have beauty and joy and hope in them, and I reach for that. All these authors are my teachers and I’m grateful beyond words to have enough space in my life that I can read and appreciate and celebrate them.
While reading Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, I was continually reminded of the photo of Angela Peoples at the Women's March in 2017, holding a sign saying, “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for Trump”. The resistance by white people, especially white women and white mothers, to the unequivocal truth of the disparity between who they voted for and who Black, Latinx, Asian and everyone else voted for remains, not just in the US but everywhere white supremacy never went away: Australia, Canada, UK, Germany, across Europe, and elsewhere. “Their white motherhood meant teaching their children lessons in racial distance, in a racially determined place in society, and in white supremacy.” (p.237; quote above p. 240)
I cried the first time I saw Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan read This is not a humanising poem. And every time since. And when I read it just now because I wanted to quote it. Every time since the first I know what’s coming, and I tell myself, “Nah, I’m good, it’s not going to hit me like I remember it did,” I’ve got immunity now, I’ve read it so many times now, so, nah, not this time, silly, not this time. Every time.
Probably Twitter. Probably Omar J. Sakr, probably Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff. Probably that moment when science-fiction and fantasy had disappointed me again, not having the range, the political, social, personal, religious, aesthetic range, and finding that, so unexpectedly, in poets.
A conversation, outside my local café on Sonnenallee, talking political authors and all:
“D’ya know … ah shit, I forget her name, poet, Muslim, London, The Brown Hijabi?”
“… ah, no, that’s the name she uses, The Brown Hijabi.”
“Yeah, anyway, she’s got a book coming out, forget what it’s called also. You should read it though.”
Postcolonial Banter. It’s her first collection of poetry. I love it. I love her. Alhamdulillah.
Pertinent reading for the turn of the decade — the turn of any decade in the last few hundred years. Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy came to me from I have no idea where, early last year. My ‘Want to Buy’ list is mad out of control, and taking 18 months for a book to circulate up to getting ordered is quick. I’m presuming it turned up in my RSS feed, or maybe Twitter shortly before I bailed from there.
I play this game when I’m reading histories of racial segregation. It doesn’t have a name, and it’s quite simple. It’s a ‘What if’ game and goes like this: ‘What if my dad or his parents lived there?’ How would or could their lives be shaped and changed by the laws and regulations at that place and that time? What might they be categorised as? I am reminded every time I play how conditional and tenuous ‘race’ is, how arbitrary the race line is, how those tenuous and arbitrary demarcations of where the line falls determine even if they could have married at all. And if they did, and if then my parents could — for the same reasons — the possibilities for life stop with me. White supremacy is, after all, bound at its root with reproductive heteronormativity and the eugenicist-defined ‘health of the White race’.
Around the time I saw the exhibition, Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente Seiner Geschichte Und Gegenwart, and while Germany was (and is) moving through its unfinished history with Namibia, I noticed the burden of proof that genocide had occurred always rested on the victims. Again, conditional, arbitrary. Namibia (then German South-West Africa): genocide; German East Africa: (now Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania), merely subduing of an uprising. If we accept the fact that the aim of European colonialism was to divide the entire globe amongst itself (clearly seen in its late-19th century form of the Berlin Conference dividing up Africa), we must also agree that two fundamental tools or strategies in that were (and are) race and genocide. Eugen Fischer, who was there in German South-West Africa, later with the Nazis, whose ideology shaped the Nuremberg Laws, said of genocide, “whoever thinks thoroughly the notion of race, can not arrive at a different conclusion”. Wherever colonialism happened, so too did genocide.
And after the Second World War, after anti-colonialist movements, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the End of History and all that, we didn’t magically cease to live in a racist, genocidal, white supremacist world. That should have been self-evident before the events of the last few years, and arguing this is again an instance of burden of proof falling on the victims.
While this book deals with a narrow time period and geographical context (primarily 1920s–1960s and the Jim Crow South; broadly the US), nonetheless the role of white, cisgender, heteronormative women in collectively and individually creating, enforcing, and adapting racial segregation is something we’ve seen continuously, around the globe, without pause, right up to the UK election result on Thursday. Whatever racist, colonialist, genocidal (and we’re talking about planetary scale genocide these days) white supremacist fuckery the straight white men who run shit get off on, it’s their women who, in all the little, everyday ways, from home to school to communities to government offices who make it happen.
This wasn’t meant to be a review or compilation of opinions, it’s a Sunday, I haven’t blogged for a while, I have a pile of books that Panda bought (Panda unilaterally does the buying, I get the leftovers, Panda is mad educated), and I’m thinking through a large piece of fiction I’m writing of which books like this are extremely pertinent. It’s the kind of book I say, “Read it if you can, then find and read the comparable books from where you live,” keeping in mind my own global history as a product and result of colonialism.
I swear this book will end me. Six months in and some days I read the first sentences of a paragraph and realise it’s the same paragraph I’ve been on the whole week. And it’s a Sunday. I’m having trouble reading books at the moment anyway. Fiction is out, because I’m in fiction-writing mode and the novels I’ve started are either dissatisfying for where I’m at, or feel like they’d influence my own writing. Non-fiction, well, yes, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, we are still shouting, “Fucking yes!” when we do manage to read a new paragraph (usually on the toilet because that seems to be where a balance is currently found), but I have no cash for the pile of non-fiction waiting for me to pick up. Lemme tell you how long-term poverty as a function of even a moderately ok life as a trans woman / trans feminine person / transsexual is a very real life. (I weirdly want to start using that ‘transsexual’ word again to fuck with cis queers and their ‘gender is cultural’ bullshit. Petty is as petty does.)
So, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, or First Class Spivak, because someone said she only flies first class, and even if that’s not true, I admire that image of her, and she is so so very first class. I keep reading and wanting to underline and quote, and as I haven’t blogged this month, here we go, one quote at least. from The Double Bind Starts to Kick In, p.108:
This much is at least clear: to imagine or figure the other as another self, you need to engage the moving edge of culture as it leaves its traces in the idiom. To reduce it to language—to semiotic systems that are organised as language—was a structuralist dream. But at least, whatever the subject-position of the structuralist-investigator there was a rigour in the enterprise. Its tempo was different from the impatience of a universalist feminism re-coding global capital. From existing evidence, it is clear that individual-rights or universalist feminists infiltrate the gendering of the global South to recast it hastily into the individual rights model. They simply take for granted that colonised cultures are inevitably patriarchal. I will not enter into historical speculation. I will take shelter in a figure—the figure or topos, that in postcoloniality the past as the unburied dead calls us. This past has not been appropriately mourned, nor been given the rites of the dead, as the other system brought in by colonialism imposed itself. There was no continuous shedding of a past into unmarked modernity.
Excluding re-readings of Iain (without the M.) Banks, Steph Swainston, Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds, and a few others I’ve forgotten because a) too poor for new books, b) too sooky to want to read new books, and c) very much wanting the comfort food of old books, even when I discovered I was hate-reading. Turns out I hate-read. I’m surprised and shamed at my pettiness, but here we are.
New books I did read though:
Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures, by Roma Agrawal, one on the shortlist for the 2019 Jhalak Prize, which in itself is guaranteed dead solid reading every year. And Roma has a podcast now. Buildings and engineering. Nice!
Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, by Liao Yiwu, who is the one Chinese political writer everyone should read, up there with Svetlana Alexievich.
Edges, by Linda Nagata, someone I’ve heard about for years and had never read. Strong reminders of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, high probability I’ll keep reading the series.
Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers, 1888-1970, by Jean Francois Bouzanquet. Large-format coffee-table-ish book of women hooning the shit out of fast cars. Obviously 10/10.
Geochemistry, by William M. White, which I picked up yesterday and haven’t actually started. One of my periodical forays into geology fun. This one’s packed with formula and equations, which is slightly intimidating.
The Gilded Wolves, by Roshani Chokshi, which I don’t remember much of, except it reminded me a lot of Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series, whose The Mortal Word I also read. Chokshi though, didn’t work for me, despite wanting to like it.
Growing Up African in Australia, by Maxine Beneba Clarke, along with Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff’s (of the awesome gal-dem) Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, both collections of autobiographical essays and both critical reading.
Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, by Brian Eyler, which I was expecting a lot more of, and got instead a weirdly messy history of the river like ’90s white Euro-American journalism.
The October Man: A Rivers of London Novella, by Ben Aaronovitch, this one set in Germany (or Germland as I’ve been calling it recently), and a very German take on “What if, Harry Potter, but he’s a black cop in London?” I also re-binged his entire series while in Spain at the rate of a book a day, “Yeah, seven books will be enough for 12 days …” (runs out of books.)
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, by Michael Azerrad, which I somehow decided was all about US hardcore. It’s not. A few bands I’ve never listened to, several bands I used to love, revisited while reading and was sad at how they didn’t touch me at all when they used to define the movement of my life. Very worth reading for a particular moment in time and place.
Permafrost. Hello, Alastair Reynolds. Not a novel, sadly, but we had the sequel to Revenger, this year, Shadow Captain, so, can’t be greedy. Basically he’s my Iain M. Banks replacement, and I love his terrifyingly dark Space Opera.
The Raven Tower, by another solid fave and Iain M. Banks replacement, Ann Leckie — probably neither would like being called ‘replacement’, but fuck it, me doing high, awkward praise. This is her venturing out of Space Opera into not-really-fantasy but no obvious spacecraft, and it’s both the best thing she’s written since the Imperial Radch trilogy, and her best stand-alone novel since her first. Very, very, very good.
The Rise of IO, by Wesley Chu, which I have almost no memory of, vague nudgings of recognition when I read the plot, but … nope, not much beyond that.
To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe, edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande, which I’m randomly picking at. Some essays, like dealing with being a black woman academic in Germany, are very head-nodding, yup, it’s all that, uh-huh, others are … Black, cisgender heterosexual (whether middle-class, academic or not) feminism that operates as though trans and queer are things that don’t need to be at all considered, are ancillary, not relevant — like white feminism of the same type — is a thing. Fucked if I know why, either. Especially because my experience of Black feminism / activism in north-west Europe is that it’s hella trans and queer. But maybe they’re not the ones in academia, getting to publish essays.
And that’s it. Potentially acquiring a stack of new books soon, potentially reading them, vague possibility I’ll blog them. It’s all a balance for me between enjoyable focus and going too far with it, pleasure becoming obligation, and all.