Reading: China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.

This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.

Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.

He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.

There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.

A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.

Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.

I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.

China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

Quote

The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by …

The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by Muslim Duma deputies immediately after the February revolution, was fast approaching — but before this, on 23 April, delegates gathered in Kazan in Tatarstan for the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress. There, fifty-nine women delegates met before an audience 300 strong, overwhelmingly female, to debate issues including the status of Sharia law, plural marriage, women’s rights and the hijab. Contributions came from a range of political and religious positions, from socialists like Zulaykha Rahmanqulova and the twenty-two-year-old poet Zahida Burnasheva, as well as from the religious scholars Fatima Latifiya and Labiba Huseynova, an expert on Islamic law.

Delegates debated whether Quranic injunctions were historically specific. Even many proponents of trans-historical orthodoxy interpreted the texts to insist, against conservative voices, that women had the right to attend mosque, or that polygyny was only permitted — a crucial caveat — if it was “just”; that is, with the permission of the first wife. Unsatisfied when the gathering approved that progressive–traditionalist position on plural marriage, the feminists and socialists mandated three of their number, including Burnasheva, to attend the All-Russian Muslim Conference in Moscow the next month, to put their alternative case against polygyny.

The conference passed ten principles, including women’s right to vote, the equality of the sexes, and the non-compulsory nature of the hijab. The centre of gravity of the discussions was clearly Jadidist, or further left. A symptom of tremulous times.

October: the story of the Russian Revolution, China Miéville

The National Gallery

All the art I saw in The National Gallery.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1600-1700: Salvator Rosa: Witches at their Incantations

Between the great religious and classical Italian Baroque works of Mattia Preti, Carlo Dolci, and Luca Giordano is Salvator Rosa. It is dark, blasted, full of nightmarish, skeletal creatures. It centres on the swollen, stretched and broken neck of a hanged man drooping from the bones of a destroyed tree. Women in pairs and trios, many naked and ravaged by age pull corpses from coffins, grind bones into brew, one pulls a baby from the carapace of a monster; a knight in silver armour and a bearded man with his unsheathed sword prepare the blade. For what? Who else will die after this rite is finished? The light gutters in a scrap of blue on the horizon, burning red the torn darkness. For a painter primarily of typical Baroque themes, Witches at their Incantations is a disturbing canvas, more so because he returned to the subject more than once.

I thought it deserves its own post, because it’s so horrific, because it’s so singular. It is a work of villainy and wickedness, not of the witches, rather of the artist and the European world of the 17th century. It debases women, age, unchristian lives, judges, yet cannot see itself as the the one who in fact is walking in darkness, who brings nightmares into the world. Part of me, the young me who was all about cool Satanic imagery loves this painting for all its Metal-ness. It’s a Black Sabbath album cover, or Slayer, proper Heavy Metal territory, screaming vocals and trashing noise to get kicked out of home by. I still love it for that, and any of the detailed photos would make most excellent album art. A more recent version of me sees this as when women were being pushed from European public life, when colonialism and the philosophy of white, European supremacy was greedily consuming the world: it’s a seductive painting of hate. Some may see traces of Goya in this, but there is no comparison. I don’t think Rosa’s rebellious or satirical streak extends so far as to make the kind of social commentary Goya did, or we might today pull from such a painting. Look at Los caprichos or Los desastres de la guerra or Goya’s late Pinturas negras series. He was painting from the other side, judging the history and morality of Europe.

Reading: Julia Serano — Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism

The third in my triumvirate of awesome trans women autobiographies I picked up end of November. First up was Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, followed by Laura Jane Grace’s brutal Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (who’s playing with Against Me! in SO36 in a couple of hours and fucking sold out, so fucking pissed about that), and last — and third book from her — Julia Serano’s Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism.

Not actually an autobiography, but a collection of spoken word, poetry, essays, blog posts from the early ’00s till 2014, though they’re often so personal or drawing on personal experience that it reads to me like one so I’m going to call it that.

I first read Julia Serano at the start of 2008, when I was splitting my time between Adelaide and Melbourne, so long ago I’d only just started book blogging. Whipping Girl — A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity was the first book to have a profound effect on me since Judith Butler, in fact I read it shortly after Undoing Gender, which was very much one of those ‘right book at the right time’ affairs and there’s no way all the people i can remember sleeping with… would have become the work it did without it.

Serano filled a lot of gaps in my thinking and understanding of feminism, queer, trans *, femininity, and the interwoven hostility to each of these individually, sometimes from without, but substantially from the first two towards the latter two. Even though, Serano has some shortcomings around intersectionality in both Whipping Girl and her next book, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.

I read Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness a month ago, and it was her talking about doing sex work to survive that stuck with me. What I often find missing in white feminism is survival. Struggle, sure, that’s there, but survival, and the things one needs to do to survive, these are not the same. I often find myself in queer / trans situations feeling somewhat displaced. There’s a lot of people doing sex work, but it’s out of choice and it’s an acceptable, even celebrated choice — my point here isn’t to criticise sex work or other choices, it’s about having the ability to choose.

With intersectionality, for each additional intersection, available choices rapidly diminish. As well, it’s impossible to talk about one axis of identity (and the commensurate oppression and discrimination) separate from the others. And often a thing that might be positive in one constellation (e.g. sex work or porn in white, cis queer context) becomes decidedly not when intersecting with another (e.g. hetero porn with white trans women) or multiple others (e.g. porn with trans women who are also brown and poor).

To be clear, I’m not denigrating or writing off the value of her work by saying, “Not intersectional enough!” nor would it be correct to interpret me as saying that. I do find while I read Serano — and I know she understands what I’m saying here, and I definitely love what she writes — I don’t entirely find myself there, these things around survival. Equally I don’t find the entirety of myself in Mock, but let’s not be asinine here.

Perhaps I’m mentioning all this because Outspoken, even though just published isn’t a new book; even the most recent essays parallel or even in some cases come from her blog. Looking at the Table of Contents, she covers so much, from ’00s punk poetry and performance to Whipping Girl era trans-misogyny, to the late ’00s and early teens Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) and the autogynephilia bullshit that went with it; the bisexual and/or trans women and queer scene hoopla on its own and tangled with queer activism, cisgender, cissexual privilege; and racism, and intersectionality, and the evolution of all this and her thinking and writing on this over more than a decade. It’s heaps to cover, and it’s powerful, crucial writing.

Change of tack here: When I was working with Melanie Lane on Wonderwomen we started talking about femininity. I gave her the chapter from Whipping Girl, Putting the Feminine Back into Feminism. I can’t quantify how much of an influence or effect it had on Mel, and on Rosie and Nathalie, the two professional bodybuilders in the work, but I do think it wasn’t insignificant. Which is to say, Serano’s work is vitally important and applicable far beyond the specific subjects of the title.

I’ve been swirling these three books around in my head the last month, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny more than the others, though writing on her much less, I don’t know yet how to, maybe to say of the three, I see myself in her the most. Old punk and all. They make good reading as a trio, especially Tranny and Redefining Realness, perhaps because those are autobiographies whereas Outspoken is kind of. I’d love to read a proper autobiography from Serano, that would make a hell of a trio of books. In the meantime, yeah, totally worth reading, now and in a decade when it’s going to be even more valuable a document of worldwide progress for trans people, particularly trans women.

Julia Serano. If you haven’t read her, I swear, I despair for you. She’s the irresistible force of trans feminism, trans women, trans femininity shoving the shit out of bigotry and stupidity for over a decade. I recommend her to bloody everyone.

*As I said at the end of writing on Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny, bit of a postscript on words: More or less I’m dodgy on terms like trans, trans woman, coming out, transitioning, etc. They play into and reinforce an idea of identity that I think is fundamentally bullshit. I’m using them here cos sometimes I simply can’t be fucked; I’ve only got so much capacity to resist.

Julia Serano — Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism
Julia Serano — Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism

Reading … Book of the Year 2016 (Fiction): Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria

My fiction Book of the Year for 2016: Sofia Samatar’s brilliant and entrancing A Stranger in Olondria.

And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 9th Anniversary.

Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria
Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria

Reading: Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria

How do you write to an author? To an artist? A fan letter? How do you say, “Your writing or music or dance or theatre has such a profound effect on me, I must put it in words to you”? And here they are, those words. And if you wait too long, the moment passes — or they die (Lemmy, Iain Banks, I’m looking at you). And if the moment hasn’t passed, what do you say? Do they need to read another more-of-the-same? Does a letter create an obligation? They’ve already written a book and now, what? They have to write a reply?

Fan letters. Frances overthinks them.

Here’s a fan letter:

Dear Sofia Samatar,

A Stranger in Olondria. I can’t find words to describe it. I liked it — I loved it so much I drunk words and pages until nothing was left. I saw its cover on my shelf last night and was so excited to continue reading, then remembered I’d already finished. I can see the story like a memory. I’ve already read The Winged Histories. I read it before this. Please don’t stop writing. No one writes like you. No one I’ve read, anyway. Maybe you’ve read writers who bring worlds to you like this, and maybe your writing carries traces of them. Maybe you write for them also. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation.

And then I run out of things to say, feel I haven’t said anything except on my own illiteracy, wish I could just write something like, “Yeah, Sofia, mate! Awesome book!” in a way that was neither inane nor self-consciously bogan.

I probably wouldn’t say:

Yeah, I was a little iffy on the cover—

Why were you iffy about the cover, Frances? Well, cos it’s a guy and as well it looked kinda a bit Young Adult, neither of which are grounds for me not reading, just wasn’t quite convinced I’d be into it. Plus I quite like the cover now.

So, yeah, a little unfairly iffy on the cover, and the effusive praise all over the place, cos usually that doesn’t pan out. I know, right? How wrong was I! The cover of The Winged Histories though, same artist, same style, but a woman, riding on a fucking gigantic bird! 100% would buy, totes dug that, hence read it first, only a couple of months ago. Loved Tav, and something in it caught and kept pulling at me, my day dreams wandered to the dry ground of Kestenya. I can’t describe it. It’s like a story I believe.

It’s like a story I know. I don’t know this story. I feel like now I know this story, I’ve always known part of it.

Not sure I’m anywhere near fan letter mode anymore.

I wasn’t so keen on the main character being a guy at first. Just not so into reading bro’s right now. Turns out it’s the story of a young woman, he’s just there to tell her story. Plus he’s not bad, I kinda like him, especially how cashed up and DTF he is with the Bain locals. He’s there so we can travel from his homeland to Olondria and see the land, we see through him, and if there’s a memory of anything, it’s of the land, of warm island villages, then ocean, then a city like a colossus like paradise, of the roughness of travelling, of climates shifting northwards, cooler, losing their heat and bright intensity, of forests, hills becoming mountains, closing in, and coming to a standstill at the edge of desert, land flat and empty, dressed in winter, drained of colour and light. And then to return, one full circle.

Let’s try fan letter mode again, to finish up:

Dear Sofia,

I loved A Stranger in Orlondria so much I’m embarrassing myself here.

Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria
Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria

Reading: Sofia Samatar — The Winged Histories

Not keeping up with my reading here. I read Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories a couple of weeks ago. I’d seen her name around the last years for her A Stranger in Olondria which was getting well raved about. I hadn’t gotten around to reading that one before The Winged Histories came out, and being on my reading wish list as it was, plus me flush with bookshop credit, I went for this one first.

It’s super nice. I could say Samatar writes like a poet, but poetry’s poetry and novels are novels (even though she’s also a poet and has a Ph.D in literature). It’s poetic like a dream is, in the wash of language, and like a dream it’s unclear what is happening (if you’ve read Joyce’s Ulysses, I mean it like that). If you’re looking for didactic expositions, this isn’t the book, but if stories that seem to resolve themselves only in retrospect, as a feeling, are your thing, well, I’ve got A Stranger in Orlando on order, so that’s my answer as to how much I liked this. Pretty high on my Book of the Year list.

Even though I hated the second quarter.

Because I loved the first. I could have spent an entire novel or series of novels with Tav. She reminds me somewhat of Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora Segunda, or of some of Iain Banks’ (I can always find a way back to him if I like a work), like Against a Dark Background. It’s a story of war, of colonialism, of the few at the top making decisions that destroy the lives of the many, of family and the selfishness of family obligations, though this is seldom stated explicitly. The story itself, civil war and fighting for self-determination (even if that self is only nominally of the ones making the call to battle), sits over the narrative like a storm on the horizon, while most of the action for the four women whose stories make up the four parts is mundane or fragments of their shared history. And there isn’t a resolution, a proper finish; it’s a moment in time towards the end of the great events from which these histories take on a particular timbre.

I really liked this book. Samatar makes up one of a strange group of sci-fi/fantasy writers for me at the moment, along with Ann Leckie, Ysabeau S. Wilce whose imagination of worlds draws me in. There’s other authors, like Jo Walton or Nicola Griffith some of whose works have a similar deep effect on me, but I’m grouping these three together because I could imagine reading them all at once and there’d be a sympathy between each. Highly deserving of a re-read.

Sofia Samatar — The Winged Histories
Sofia Samatar — The Winged Histories

Gallery

This Poem Is Not A Panic: Some Photos

Some photos from This poem is not a panic, performed at Kunsthaus KuLe Berlin, July 9th with Virginia BarrattDasniya Sommer, and  Neha Spellfish. Thanks also to Roni Katz, Jassem Hindi, Johanne Merke.

This Poem Is Not A Panic

The delightful Ms. V., Virginia Barratt, she of VNS Matrix is once again in Berlin. No Francesca da Rimini this time, nor wild boar sausage, stinky cheese, and heavy German bread. But Neha Spellfish is here, and last year Dasniya and Virginia were working together in PAF, so it seemed like a good moment to make a variant on things we are all working on separately or together — especially with Virginia driving the mayhem.

So: Saturday night in Berlin: Us!

This poem is not a panic

chaotic lines unspeaking sense in a sonic field of deep data and hammering silence, chaotic lines tying dissociated limbs as speech becomes gesture dressed in corpse paint. let’s be self conscious, awkward and embarrassing, let’s make angst from speech and produce a humorous balm from the awful. laugh cry laugh laugh cry. the ocean is an ocean of tears. the wind is many sighs. creep around the uncomfortable, making monsters out of reason.

neha spellfish: sonics
virginia barratt: performative crying
dasniya sommer: creeping butoh corpse and rope
frances d’ath: black metal bedroom
schnucki rennpferd: bondsman

10:30pm – 01:00am, Saturday, July 9.

Kule e.V.
Auguststraße 10
10117 Berlin
Germany

Thanks to Kunsthaus KuLe,  Institute Sommer, Jassem Hindi, Roni Katz, Johanne Merke

This Poem is not a Panic
This Poem is not a Panic