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.
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.
A couple of years ago, I was at a conference in Berlin, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation. The last speaker was this trans woman punk from Italy, whose proposal for some kind of anarchist feminist utopia included slamming Islam and conflating it with terrorism.
This was followed by question time, which was kinda awkward ’cos everyone heard what she said and I was sitting there cursing and fucking under my breath. So I got up and returned the slamming. To which she replied with, “Oh, I was talking about ISIS, not all Muslims.” More muttering from me to those I was sitting with, “Nah, you said Islam, we all heard you, we know what you mean, and I’m not touching that reply of yours.”
After the conference, a friend of Ms. V.’s came up to me, he said, “Have you seen The Taqwacores?”
It’s the last Friday of Ramadan. A month ago I had no intention of doing this. The Friday evening before Ramadan started, I had a chat with myself, something like, “Just do the first day, you don’t have to do the whole month, just the first day.” “Awww but Sahūr, Frances, it’s at 230am, and Iftar’s at 930pm.” “Ok, so just have breakfast when you usually do, and then go till İftar.” “But that’s not Ramadan.” Can you hear me whining? I was whining. “You do what you can, that’s all. If that’s what you can do, even if only for one day, that’s what you do for that one day.” “But—” “Just one day, babe, just the first day, just for your Gran, that’s all.”
One day turned into another, into a week, into two, into a month. And here I am at the last Friday of Ramadan. Still here, still doing what I can.
This isn’t a post about why I do Ramadan, or how I do or don’t justify not doing it strictly — which for some is the same as not doing it at all. I know why I do it, just as we all have our personal reasons for doing it. I know who I am and where I come from.
Islam is a fucking surrender.
Knowing that you don’t run the show, staying mindful of it in everything you do.
Take your hands off the wheel. See how it feels.
Islam isn’t about ayats and hadiths, and niches, and lamps.
It’s about us. All of us.
Allah’s too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed.
I’m so Muslim. I am so Muslim.
I can say fuck Islam.
You know Imam Husain said,
“He has no religion, let him at least be free in his present life.”
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.
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.
I’m writing this thrashing Against Me!‘s 2014 album Transgender Dysphoria Blues and all fucking sweaty excited cos they’re playing SO36 on December 22nd cos I thought I’d have to Leipzig to see them. (I like Leipzig, would totes go there to see them.)
Laura Jane Grace. Tranny. Best fucking title ever.
This is the second book in my trio of trans women* autobiographies I picked up on the weekend. Two down, one to go. Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness barely lasted the weekend; Tranny got me till Tuesday afternoon; Julia Serano’s Outspoken (not strictly autobiography, more of a reader) might take a bit longer cos it’s doing tag team with a couple of other books, but unlikely to make it beyond next week.
I came straight off Redefining Realness and into Tranny. In so many ways they’re completely different stories and lives of growing up and living as a trans woman. Janet, a multiethnic woman of colour living in Hawai’i transitioning in her teens, going to university and getting an MA in journalism from New York University; Laura a white punk from Florida touring the world, drinking and drugging, transitioning in her thirties. Both of them though were in the public eye before publicly talking about being trans, Janet as an editor for People magazine, Laura as the lead singer of Against Me! and being public figures is what both their autobiographies and audience interest turns on.
When I was reading Redefining Realness, I was reminded of similarities in my life in New Zealand, something I wasn’t at all expecting to find. In Tranny, well, I was a teenage punk and getting smashed at gigs, squats, anarchist politics, wasted sex, not showering, all that, of course it was familiar. The year Laura started Against Me! I started full-time training as a dancer and had moved from punk into Warp records experimental electronic territory, only coming back to punk in the mid-’00s for a bit before going Very Metal since then. I’ve listened to Against Me! before, but it’s only since reading Laura’s autobiography that I’m actually listening to them.
Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout is a band memoir — the second part of the title gives that detail away — one in which the protagonist struggles for decades between living a white, hetero bro punk life and being a woman. Take away that and it’s still a solid, funny, harrowing story of an intense life lived in vans, busses, hotels, touring the world, pubs, venues, stadiums, and getting way too fucked up far too often to not expect horrible crashes. Laura kept journals since her teens, and these entries intersperse her narrative, co-written with Dan Ozzi. Without those journals, both as excerpts and informing her writing it would be a much thinner story, not the least because the incessant touring, drinking, drugging over years would blur into an undistinguishable mass more fictional musing on imagined past than lived, personal history.
There’s a scene where she’s on a tour bus somewhere, the other guys doing tour bus stuff, and she’s hiding in her bunk reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, afraid of getting sprung. This scene points to something Laura does a pretty good job of obscuring: she’s smart, intelligent, thoughtful, more than capable of stepping outside the intense world of bands and touring that forms much of her story and would otherwise make it a kinda generic ’00s punk band memoir — generic any era band memoir. Maybe that obscuring goes with her isolated, high school dropout, Crass punk history, a lot of believing you’re gutter even while revelling in it. Listening to her lyrics and Against Me!’s music it’s obvious she’s crazy talented and always was. It’s these nuances that make what she’s doing, and her herself qualitatively different, especially since she came out as a trans woman.
At the end of writing about Redefining Realness, I wrote, “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.” I think the difference between Redefining Realness and Tranny is one of audience. The former is for a mainstream audience; it was a New York Times bestseller. Tranny is for the weirdos, or whatever still isn’t or imagines itself isn’t mainstream.
As well, Janet is astute at media and is explicit in using her position to educate and effect change. This almost requires that transition memoir storyline, if for nothing else than to combat misrepresentation, to tell her own truth. Laura, there’s a lot more “Fuck you” in Tranny.
I’m also not sure Laura’s is a transition memoir in the way Janet’s is. Yeah, there’s that, struggling with arsehole doctors and taking hormones, bouts of guilty buying of clothes then trashing them, but these moments are not especially prominent amidst all the other chaos and drugs in her life. It lies over her life like smog, an unabating grinding out of her life over decades. She’s barely able to articulate it even to herself in her journals. Whereas for Janet it was a desperate flight always forward.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying one or the other was the right way to be trans, nor did I want to write this as a comparison of Janet’s and Laura’s stories, just that reading them back to back emphasises the stark differences in their lives and their experiences, and I’ve been thinking constantly about this. Particularly because I see pieces of my history in both and what reads as hopeless, profound misery, fear, deeply internalised transphobia is so familiar to me as to be unremarkable.
There’s an episode of Orphan Black where Cosima is challenged with, “So, you’re gay?” and responds, “My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me.” For both Janet and Laura it’s evident this is also the case, for their gender, identity, selfhood. Yet it’s at the same time critical to who they are. By talking about this, they become and participate in representation for all trans women. We see something of ourselves in them, we’re no longer invisible, we exist. Without this, Against Me! would be just another white boy punk band I vaguely recalled the name of, no idea who the lead singer was. Instead, I’ve spent money on Laura’s book, been listening to her music and am gonna get my sorry arse to SO36 on December 22nd to see them play.
*A 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. Tranny, though, totes fucking ok with that one**.
New books acquired on the weekend: Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny, and Julia Serano’s Outspoken. Yes, there is a theme here, and I’ll be doing my usual writing on reading of these three pretty soon.
It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) 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.
I fucking loved the shit out of this book. Hated the ending.
Let’s get the ending over with, otherwise it’s gonna hang around like a dead thing. It’s the ending you write when you don’t want to make an already heavy book a morality story, when you don’t want the reader to leave going, oh, it’s about this and means that, and here’s the resolution, and it’s poetic and all works out somehow. It’s a Greg Araki Totally Fucked Up, or Doom Generation, ’90s nihilism ending which Nevada didn’t need because it was already about something and had committed to saying that something. It’s the ending that happened because it needed to finish somewhere without going on to a third part, and with a second part that only half-worked and didn’t leave many other options.
Anyway, fuck the ending, this is one of my books of the year. I said to Dasniya last night, while hobbling on crutches, I have a book I want you to read. I say that a lot, or, you should read this book. This time I said, this one I want you to read, it’s not like the others, it’s important.
Who the fuck is Imogen Binnie? Why am I reading non-Skiffy fiction? And why am I swearing so much? Last question first: because I just read Nevada and it was like reading a story of me. Middle question: because it’s Imogen Binnie. First question:
So there’s this blog called keep your bridges burning that I’ve been reading for, I dunno, at least a couple of years, I have a feeling since early 2011, or maybe the writer had another blog before that and I jumped over from old to new. Anyway, of all the trans(*) inter queer feminist blogs I read (many) or have read (many many), this one is one of the best. I will always read whatever turns up in my feed from there. And every so often I’ll be reading something somewhere like PrettyQueer or Autostraddle somewhere else and there’ll be a piece that I’m like Whutthefuck? Who is writing this shit? (yeah, I actually do have conversations in my brain like that; it’s pretty adolescent up there. And, positive use of word, ‘shit’), or a comment or something and it turns out I’m back at those bridges again. And then there was this book, which I definitely read about on bridges at least early this year, and then forgot. Probably. And then I read about it somewhere else and thought hey that sounds kinda good and so obviously, cos I’m a bit slow it took me a while to work out the author is one in the same: Imogen Binnie.
I decided to add it to my most recent pile, not fitting in at all with the fantasy reading or the China stuff, closer with Julia Serrano, but really, no idea over here. And I started it and got through the first page or so of choking sex and thought yup, ok, I’ll deal with this one after some escapism.
To be honest, I wasn’t so enthused by that first page or two. I read a whole shitload of Gay and Lesbian Fiction in my teens and early-20s, almost all of it is utterly, utterly, horribly bland and mediocre and middle class white American dross of the ‘like I give a fuck?’ kind. I don’t, which is why I read skiffy. Reading pile depleted, I was up to Nevada and really, truly prepared to give it the best shot I could, after all, the blog, the author. I got through the first couple of pages and I was like, fuck! yeah! and read the shit out of it.
What else do I say? It was like reading part of me in my teens, the drugs, homelessness, euphoria and terror, the blankness when I was looking at myself, the anger also, the inability to even think coherently of my own identity, bound as that thinking was to some pretty odious language (substitute essentialist lesbian feminism in the second half of the book and it’s a good fit), the getting past that and finding still more blankness and inability, more anger, and the relief from that in books and riding my bike; being alone because I was and am best on my own.
I thought also a lot of people might not get anything from this, because it doesn’t speak to them subjectively. And I thought of me reading feminism in my teens, Daly and those other essentialist crypto-nazis, and that I’d not read bell hooks then because somehow I couldn’t see the relevance of a black American woman to my life in the Antipodes. Or perhaps even to feminism. Perhaps it takes discovering you yourself are not entirely white (and that the category ‘white’ is itself a racist construct, empirically without substance) to attain the subjectivity necessary to understand that reading someone like hooks is critical precisely because you can’t anticipate your own biases and prejudices. Equally possible is that I’m remembering my previous encounter with hooks entirely falsely. Supposing I am not then, reading Nevada should form a triumvirate with Julia Serrano’s Whipping Girl and Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender. And some bell hooks. Make that a quadrumvirate.
In the late ’90s there were these two books published, sort of semi-fictional autobiography written by a supposed HIV+ trans kid called JT LeRoy. I read those like I did Nevada, though with some distance; the world wasn’t the same, but it was still nice to read something that felt like parts of me and my life. Then it turned out JT was a middle-aged woman in NYC and we were all being bullshitted. A lot of pissed people, and a lot more scepticism since then when it comes to reading autobiographies or semi-fictional works. There’s the thing with bell hooks again. We need our own people; we need to say things for ourselves and not have white, male-identified, hetero- and/or cisnormative loudmouths shove their way in and take over. Like the way punk got taken over. Like the way gay, lesbian, queer got taken over. Lately I’ve been thinking the way the Voguing renaissance has been taken over by gay boys and cis women, and the trans women have been thoroughly pushed off the stage. Imogen Binnie is one of our people, and if you give a fuck at all about what it’s like to be a trans woman, you’ll read the shit out of this book also.
The reasons why I read sci-fi over all other forms of fiction have something to do with how it can help me regard myself and the world, given that there is a certain political and philosophical position underpinning the stuff I admire. Generally this is not the case for any other fiction, genre-based or otherwise, I think precisely because that underpinning is absent or secondary as a component in these other fiction forms. I read Nevada then, and find it something of a sci-fi work, because it embodies a political and philosophical position comparable to that of sci-fi (ok, let’s be clear here: I’m talking primarily about Banks, Miéville, and Stross); because I have to read it doing some heavy thinking. I also find it pretty confronting, and while I can’t bugger off like Maria with a stolen car and a sock full of smack, I am thinking, still thinking.
Last night, while at Dasniya’s simultaneous departure gathering / private watching of the documentary video of Die Geschichte vom Soldaten, a friend remarked on how she needs to explain to over-enthusiastic lefties, brought on by a somewhat moronic person wearing a Burzum t-shirt at a queer shindig, that no, her Sunn O))) hoodie does not connote a crypto-facism. Oh, black metal, the empty signifier of all that is deliciously, seductively other.
This morning, taking the day off after absence of weekend, The Physics arXiv Blog brings me Moshers, Heavy Metal and Emergent Behaviour, where a bunch of researchers find that a mosh pit resembles a disordered 2D ‘gas-like state’, and a circle pit an ordered 2D ‘vortex-like state’. Though I’ll be picky and say I associate pits more with punk and hardcore, and various forms of headbanging and ‘hail satan’ arms with metal (I suppose the bro-ism of American nu-metal (hmm, should that have an umlaut? nü-metal … probably a ‘k’ or ‘v’ somewhere also. NÜ MKTVL?) crosses over substantially though being primarily concerned with appropriating displays of aggrotainment). Nonetheless, we shall overlook the link to the A7*cough*nümktxvl*cough*X moshpit … oh god fucking Hatebreed?). Maybe to say their physics is good but music preferences … This winter, I are mostly listening to Striborg.
(Parenthetically, I put Bolt Thrower and Crass on Dasniya’s iPod, in-between Munir Bashir and her ballet class music.)
I was thinking of Žižek’s Tarrying with the Negative, the cover is a flag with a circular hole cut at its centre, where the coat of arms with red communist star had resided; the flag of the anti-Ceauşescu revolution. The hole is an absence of the prior, yet not yet reified into the (sadly predictable) subsequent; Žižek describes it as “‘sublime’ in the strictest Kantian sense'”, an open void where the “symbol standing for the organizing principle of the national life” once lay. It is both an inchoate sign of opposition, and a convenient dumping ground; that is to say, whether we wave the flag or interpret it, this empty signifier is the ideal repository for all meaning; it is never full, nor, curiously, contradictory.
Guido says his thesis asks the question, “What does black metal tell us about the resurgence of nationalist politics and racial violence that emerges under pressure of the European Union and what is the underlying cause of these sentiments?” A pertinent question, and to be unfair, I’ve not read it yet, and this isn’t a commentary of his thesis. Rather I’m stringing together a few things from the last few days which have metal – specifically black metal – and neo-nazism in common.
“What does x tell us about n?”, where n is ‘plague of fucking nazis’ and x stands for the unknown quantity, an empty signifier. Why, specifically, black metal? What is fascinating, enchanting about it that, say, the nazi skinhead/punk scene isn’t? Both are established around an identification with a particular culture where music, bands, record labels, venues form the locations in space through which the protagonists move. Both also have clearly delineated visual codes, either overt or subtle; clothing, appearance, demeanour as pictograms or acronyms that are not legible to outsiders: an anarchist punk might have a Crass bum flap, while a nazi skinhead white laces in their steelcap boots. Both nazi skins and black metallers have engaged in arson; the latter of churches, the former of immigrant asylums.
Perhaps more germane is that irrespective of the culture, various forms of fascism, extremism, and bigotry reside latently within, and simultaneously the culture as a whole is always ripe for appropriation and acquisition by these forms. How these manifest, and how they are discerned from outside is perhaps a function of the theatrical and symbolic within the culture. And black metal has both in abundance.
Conversely, the further ‘right’ one goes, the greater the uncritical and unreconstructed flirtation with symbolism becomes (I would say that certain aspects of the ‘left’ are also prone to this, which is perhaps a symptomatic of how close they are to their supposed opposites), which goes hand-in-hand with a peculiar appropriation of symbolism rather different from the one that cut the hole in the flag.
Metal again. Christian metal this time. Stryper anyone? To Hell with the Devil illustrates for me horribly and enthrallingly these internal and external forms. Without their christianity, they would likely still be metallers, perhaps not as famous. Regardless, as much as they were manufactured, their ‘metalness’ is is genuine, in that they came from within the culture. Their ‘metalness’ is simultaneously false, the visual codes wrong; it looks right, but then it doesn’t, and the demeanour of the music similarly so.
Perhaps a better illustration – back to fucking nazis, and German ones at that – is a recent piece in Der Spiegel, YouTube Neo-Nazis: The Far Right Updates Its Online Image. Ignoring Spiegel’s usual sensationalism, and regarding solely the accompanying image, we see a group of burning torch-wielding, black-clad marchers wearing expressionless white masks. There’s a lot of acquisition of symbolism going on here. Aside from the tired cliché of burning torches and their history with nazis, romanticism, and 19th Century nationalism, the black is specifically appropriated from anarchist / antifascist, Black Block / Autonomism, while the masks copy a far more recent socio-political movement, Anonymous and V for Vendetta.
What’s striking and material is how it is unsettlingly wrong. The components somehow do not sit properly together. Perhaps also there is a sense it is too serious, lacking in humour, self-aware irony, or just a certain lightness. This, I think, demonstrates one part of what separates right extremism from the culture within which it seems to reside.
The second part is that contrary to the culture itself, the comparable nazi version always comes after. That is to say, whether it is punk, skin, metal, or any other genre and its associated culture, irrespective of any always already present and latent fascist tendencies, in no case have these emerged from a prior existing right wing or nationalist music; the nazification always comes after and always requires this sub-genre to build an ill-fitting appropriation of and affinity with the existing theatre and symbolism.
Black metal has perhaps become ideally suited for this at the moment, as the empty hole into which all fears are dumped. Nazi skins, however much they dominate the stereotype are just that, and their imagery is tired, as evinced by the pseudo-Anonymous Immortals, (Die Unsterblichen – sounds like a German Evanescence bland metal band) and similar attempts to remake the not-so-far right. In black metal our desire for a perfect right-extremist Other can be found, and does not all the symbolism, all the acts prove this? After all, is Burzum not the perfection of black metal in its entirety, made explicit? The propaganda of his deeds preceding the manifesto.
Perhaps too, there is a fear of the theatrical, the corpse paint, the hair and clothing; the peculiar, almost embarrassing obsession with satanism, paganism, and romanticism that disturb maleness in a way the hypermasculine of skinheads, or the anonymous normality of Die Unsterblichen doesn’t and can’t. And let’s be clear, even the queer left privileges certain masculinities over femininity, the former always more genuine, more real, less troubling than the latter.
Well yes, there is something inherently untrustworthy in black metal, exactly as there is in industrial music with their crypto-fascist costumery (Throbbing Gristle and Laibach are obvious examples), which slithered uneasily over into either genuine neo-nazism, or ‘taking it far too seriously with an absence of critical distance given the subject matter’ (Death in June), and the commensurate hysteria of the media, government and left groups in response.
There is also something entirely unsurprising that music and its surrounding culture can produce Crass or Wolves in the Throne Room on one side, and Skrewdriver or Burzum on the other. A more realistic attitude might be then to maintain a certain scepticism towards all music and its surrounding cultures; an expectation that all will always at some place devolve to result in a nationalist sub-genre, and indeed from even before the ur-genre always already have.
Which is a very unsatisfactory place to finish.
It might be worthwhile to note that black metal is not unproblematic within the right extremist, national socialist world either.
What still troubles me is why specifically black metal? Why over all other genres is the real and presumed neo-nazism such a site of critical importance? And why now? It’s not as though it’s new, Varg Vikernes and the original Norwegian black metal scene is 25 years in the past. It’s also abundantly clear if, for example, I say I like punk or ska I’m not talking about the nazi offspring of either, and there is no confusion – whether or not such an absolutist statement is true – that the former is to its core opposed to the latter. The obverse in respect to black metal, and metal more broadly is curiously also the case. To say, “I like black metal,” is to be held suspect, it requires of me an explanation that is never sufficient; there always lies suspicion that I’m going off to burn down a church, and light a burning swastika off the embers.
Admittedly I do this also. Hold black metal slightly suspect that is, not burn down churches, etc. Perhaps because the signifiers of National Socialist Black Metal are not so clear for me, in the way that, say nazi punk is. Though come on, Google NSBM, if the heavy-handed ‘Nordic’ symbolism doesn’t immediately give it away, the obvious band names or album titles will; that’s if there isn’t an swastika or some other silly neo-nazi sigil. As with Stryker there’s predominately some subtle or glaring identification which doesn’t allow much confusion. So despite the clarity of NSBM signifiers, guilt still spills out and accrues across not just black metal, but all metal.
Which still doesn’t address the questions, or come any closer to framing them coherently.