Reading … An 8th Anniversary

Let’s get it over with right away: there’s gonna be no Fiction Book of the Year this year. Even Non-fiction is sketchy. Last year was a scorcher: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, Nicola Griffith’s HildAfsaneh Najmabadi’s Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary IranCaroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, and H. Jay Melosh’ Planetary Surface Processes. Just typing those, far out last year blazed! What’s gone wrong Frances?

I think it’s mediæval art. Well, not the art itself, but the people writing on it. They are quite frankly a little … boring … need laxatives (less charitable Frances says: elitist wankers actively excluding anyone who doesn’t fit their clique-ish posing). I mean, come on, mediæval northern European history is mad crazy. I know this cos I’ve read heaps, and know most people think it’s all peasants pushing muddy sticks in muddy fields, falling over with the plague, waiting for the Renaissance to kick off—that’s the look people give me when I say “mediæval” I see it behind their glassy eyes, “…muddy sticks…” But it’s fucking not. It’s shitloads more progressive, analytic, philosophical, creative, than much of the following hundreds of years. Seriously, have you read Descartes? Set Europe back about 1500 years.

Also I did not read so much this year. A mere 36 books, of which 22 were fiction and 14 non-fiction. I blame my slightly out-of-control internet addiction (now under control courtesy System-level blocking of a chunk of the internet Sunday through Friday night), for the decrease, as well as not so much science-fiction being published that tripped me out—I do read a lot of fantasy, and some of it was pretty good, but honestly if there was say twenty writers of the Banks/Leckie/Miéville/Stross level splurting out skiffy, I’d either be hoovering a book a week of the stuff, or more likely dispensing with it altogether for the high fibre stuff. As for non-fiction, preceding paragraph.

I was going through supernaut a fortnight ago, finishing cleaning all the old images, which meant also looking at what I’d been reading, which in turn reminded me of being in China and the difficult relationship that place has to its history (mostly conversations like “…5000 years of history!”), which I then thought about specifically in Germany and its relationship to history (older history, let’s say pre- arbitrary mid-point of the reign of the Fredericks, like the Great, mid-1700s), and while everyone goes bonkers for Tang and Song Dynasties (618-907 and 960-1279 respectively) you’d be really hard-pushed to get an equivalent or comparable “Woo! Fukkin yeah!” reaction about Regnum Teutonicum, early Hanseatic League, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hildegard of Bingen. I’m all enthusiastic about it, but the writing, so so many wrist-slitting pages of tedium.

There’s less resistance to change in Chinese studies, given that substantial archives are still being opened—and moreover simply it’s not Europe, so for Euro-Anglo-American-based scholarship, there isn’t that subjective rewriting of identity which I think is deeply tied into writing on European history. Just to witness the concerted and heavy resistance in both academia and broadly across culture to the presence of Islam and brown people (North African, Arabian, Persian, Central Asian) as part of northern European history demonstrates the inflexibility of European historical narrative. And on that, of course we’ve always been here: the trade routes along rivers, across the Baltic, Black, and Caspian seas make any other history patently false.

Yar, so. The books:

Fiction first. A couple of late arrivals—K T Davies’ Breed (haven’t written about yet) and Steph Swainston’s The Castle Omnibus (three books in one and pushing 900 pages)—saved the year from being a total washout. Breed was a sweary anti-hero loser sucker for punishment (Davies liked pushing him off a cliff every few pages for shits and giggles), who turned out to be Saviour of Everyone, who then tells everyone Thanks But No Thanks, Also Fuck Off because that’s what you do when people treat you like shit ’til you’ve got something they want. Mad Staunch is our Breed. It’s definitely in standard fantasy land, but the swearing and horribleness takes it almost into Oglaf.

The Castle Omnibus, on the other hand, is dead serious reading. There’s a scene in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series where they land on a parallel world full of things which eat anything living. The insects here, the Shift (both a place between worlds and the fabric in which all worlds are held), even the feudal mediæval island (let’s call it Great Britain) could easily be the Stross’ universe from a different perspective. It almost, almost convinced me to be Book of the Year, but … Look, I’m totally down with a first person narrative who’s a fiend for the needle and spends the first part of every book smug in a “kicked my habit for good this time” state and fifty pages later is blasting three times a day, and who has wings, and who’s punk/goth/streetkid/bitter/sexy/unreliable narrator, but a few of the important female characters were iffy, kinda “Wow, the guys are wankers, but the women … fukkin’ bitches.” That and the unsatisfactory post-climax resolutions which are a structural function of how Swainston tells a story. Probably will read subsequent Castle novels in the absence of skiffy.

Also three from Ayize Jama-Everett, his Liminal series (The Liminal PeopleThe Liminal WarThe Entropy of Bones). Best writer you’ve never heard of. A little too calculated and superficial—his ability to write is more impressive than the scenes and characters, which often shrink into the panoply of heterofanboy fantasy (like the tough martial arts chick of Entropy). But still I devoured all three, ’cos I’m desperate for good sci-fi/fantasy that isn’t white people. Best read smoking weed and listening to Asian Dub Foundation.

William Gibson made a fucking spectacular return to Neuromancer levels of Fuck Me This Is Good in The Peripheral, then blew it equally spectacularly with bullshit bandwagon du jour for sci-fi and fantasy writers who wanna be cool: trannys! Yes, Gibson has a tranny. So does Rachel Hartmann in Shadow Scale. A tranny is a particular stereotrope cisgender writers love. They’re defined by metonymy: big hands, secrets, crying, physical stature, striking appearance. They occur in two places throughout the story: once in the past in male form, again in the present as female, but we’re not told this person is one and the same except for via these metonymic ‘hints’. The reveal is a plot device which comes with all manner of ‘trapped in the wrong body’ exegesis, more tears, more big hands flapping, while fulfilling some surprise plot twist the author evidently felt only a chick with a dick could accomplish. Yeah, Gibson, Hartmann, Tricia Sullivan, I’m giving you the side-eye (and all you cis writers who suddenly have always been all about Teh Tranz). Please, just stop, you’re fucking embarrassing.

Ysabeau S. Wilce drip-fed me a tiny bit of joy from her Flora Segunda world in Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: Stories of Califa, as did China Miéville in his collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp was another rare gem, so much of a world barely explored, as with Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets, which would be my Book of the Year if I was going to give it to any.

I noticed as I was writing this that I find it difficult to remember one fantasy work from another. It’s all the same, magic and dragons and shit, and curiously white-ish generic western European ‘mediæval’. Even BreedThe Castle Omnibus, Shadow ScaleArchivist Wasp rely heavily on this for some aspect of the world, and as much as they surmount this narrow world in other aspects, it’s tiresome. Being heavily critical here, I’m not sure many Euro-Anglo-American writers can write outside this. It’s not enough to shift the setting to Generic Africa or Generic Asia, or have characters who are otherwise indistinguishable from inner city heteroboys be muslim or have a checklist of exotic defining attributes. This is where I think authors like Saladin Ahmed and Ayize Jama-Everett get it right (and conversely G. Willow Wilson doesn’t). To be clear, it’s not about the ‘authenticity’ or not of the writer. I think it’s more of a question of misjudgement, that the author thinks it’s sufficient to attach a set of attributes to a character or location, and fails to realise that each attribute is an entire world. To be a muslim or a transsexual person (I’m currently using that latter word because trans, trans*, transgender are all seriously shitting me) is to experience the world in a fundamentally different way; for all the quantitative differences there might be, these do not in themselves add up to the qualitative difference I’m talking about.

Moving on, non-fiction:

I’m still on my Caroline Walker Bynum bender, though close to finishing her œvre. I threw Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages across the room once. I forget why. It’s not often that happens, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t something she said, but a quote which made me want to burn a thousand years of Europe to ashes and salt the ruins. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women escaped damage, as did Mechthild Of Magdeburg’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anna Kuhlmann’s (eds.) Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914 deserved such a beating, but at 60€ I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s definitely an inverse ration between scholarship and price in academic publishing, and sure, there were a few bits and pieces I’m glad I read, but nothing was substantially above the extended inquiry into the subject I’ve read around the internet, and quite a bit I would fail if I was marking undergraduate-level essays. The other stuff though, I think part of the difficulty in reading is extricating the valid ideas from the misogynistic, religious, social structures and limitations of the time. It’s not always pleasant work. Conversely, persuading contemporaries of its value butts up against equally frustrating limitations. It’s safe to say that the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment ages all did a hatchet job on the mediæval era which remains to this day.

Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts is useful in exhuming this, coming as it does from the peak of continental superiority (geographic and temporal), and I am enjoying it, paragraphical asides on Dürer and the Reformation lead to hours following the migration of ideas across Europe, getting lost in the Beeldenstorm iconoclasm, following the Hanseatic League (again). I wonder to myself, for what? At times I feel on the edge of understanding—broadly, generally, continent- and era-sized brush stroke kinds of understanding—What Happened and What It Means, and then … nope, gone.

And on that, non-fiction book of the year does exist: David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, and Karen C. C. Dalton’s massive and glorious Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood. It’s an odd choice for me, being in the coffee-table realm of printed matter, but the essays are significant and valuable; as is the project in itself, beginning in the ’70s, to document the history of people of colour in European art. Look, you can gawk at art from the past millennia in these ten volumes and see not only changing attitudes to people outside and on the margins of Europe—and those people within the many Europes that we somehow continue to convince ourselves is and has always been homogeneous—changing ideas of representation, for religion, for gender, for social status, for ethnicity; you can also see the change in what constitutes European self or subjecthood, and following from that what is Other. The history of European art documents extraordinarily clearly over hundreds of years the emergence and ascendency of colonialism, racism, ideas of superiority—of ethnicity, gender, class—as well as resistance to this, all inextricably interwoven with religion. And for all our pretence that things are different now, what’s remarkable is how familiar a thousand years ago is.

Ok, there’s a few fiction and non-fiction I have to mention: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos’ The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series, Book 1: Air because fukkin’ #korrasami and being one of the best series animated or otherwise this millennia. Howard W. French’s China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, which really deserved better paper stock, and despite its shortcomings is one of the current required texts on the very-much hot subject. Udo Kittelmann and Britta Schmitz’s (eds.) Gottfried Lindauer: Die Māori-Portraits, from the exhibition at the Alte-Nationalgalerie, made me miss Aotearoa something fierce. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, not as good as the first one, but having just finished the third, and planning a binge of the trilogy, can say it’s crucial reading. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction, who occasionally shows the brilliance of his first novel, and worth it just for that. Charles Stross’ The Annihilation Score, a dependable early-summer arrival, didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as some of his other stuff though. Jo Walton’s The Just City, the first of a trilogy, I think. Not sure if it’s excellent (compared to say, her Among Others), but enjoyed very much. And I cannot not mention Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod Poems, as it’s the last thing Banks will publish and that guts me beyond words.

Maybe I’m just a grumpy, entitled cunt, cos from right here that looks like a pretty fucking sweet year of reading.

Enough.

Books! Just like vinyl, they’ll never die. I unashamedly love books and reading. I love the weight of them, the resistance in their spines, the smell and feel of the paper and ink. I adore when the typeface and setting has been done with love, and adore also the works of art that are the covers. I love seeing a pile or stack or shelf of read books (as much as I cringe with embarrassment at the spilt and splashed food, drink, dirty fingers, smudges, I inflict—seem to have retired from marking pages by folding the corner though, so some progress made). A book is as much a work of art for how it is made as for what it contains; and for what it signifies and stands for, fiction or non-fiction: literacy, ideas, the love of knowledge, philosophy, these things that cannot be reduced to an economic sum. To read—to be able to read—is one of the greatest luxuries and privileges.

And that necessitates obligation. Reading in itself is not a human right. Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!

Steph Swainston — The Castle Omnibus
Steph Swainston — The Castle Omnibus
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Entropy of Bones
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Entropy of Bones
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal War
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal War
Aloïs Riegl — Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts
Aloïs Riegl — Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts
Caroline Walker Bynum — Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
Caroline Walker Bynum — Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
Jo Walton — The Just City
Jo Walton — The Just City
David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, Karen C. C. Dalton — Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood
David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, Karen C. C. Dalton — Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood
Mechthild Of Magdeburg — The Flowing Light of the Godhead
Mechthild Of Magdeburg — The Flowing Light of the Godhead
China Miéville — Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories
China Miéville — Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal People
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal People
Reading: Charles Stross — The Annihilation Score
Reading: Charles Stross — The Annihilation Score
Nicole Kornher-Stace — Archivist Wasp
Nicole Kornher-Stace — Archivist Wasp
Alastair Reynolds — Slow bullets
Alastair Reynolds — Slow bullets
Caroline Walker Bynum — Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages
Caroline Walker Bynum — Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages
Hannu Rajaniemi — Collected Fiction
Hannu Rajaniemi — Collected Fiction
Alte Nationalgalerie: Gottfried Lindauer — Die Māori-Portraits: Tamati Pirimona Marino (catalogue cover), undated
Alte Nationalgalerie: Gottfried Lindauer — Die Māori-Portraits: Tamati Pirimona Marino (catalogue cover), undated
Rachel Hartmann — Shadow Scale
Rachel Hartmann — Shadow Scale
Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod — Poems
Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod — Poems
Genevieve Cogman — The Invisible Library
Genevieve Cogman — The Invisible Library
Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, Anna Kuhlmann (eds.) — Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914
Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, Anna Kuhlmann (eds.) — Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914
Howard W. French — China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa
Howard W. French — China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa
Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos — The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series, Book 1: Air
Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos — The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series, Book 1: Air
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: Stories of Califa
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: Stories of Califa
William Gibson — The Peripheral
William Gibson — The Peripheral

Reading … A 7th Anniversary

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 GirlExcluded: 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.

And finally for the non-fiction is Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, recommended by a friend, and just one of those delightful, dense, heavy, demanding works written by someone so phenomenally talented and capable, and who simply loves her work. Completely a joy!

The fiction, also serious stuff:

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.

William Kinderman — Wagner's Parsifal
William Kinderman — Wagner’s Parsifal
Dayal Patterson — Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult
Dayal Patterson — Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult
Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)
Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)
Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation
Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation
Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs
Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs
Julia Serano — Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive
Julia Serano — Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive
Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran
Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran
H. Jay Melosh — Planetary Surface Processes
H. Jay Melosh — Planetary Surface Processes
Caroline Walker Bynum — Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond
Caroline Walker Bynum — Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond
Shi Nai'an, Luo Guanzhong — The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang (trans. John Dent-Young, Alan Dent-Young)
Shi Nai’an, Luo Guanzhong — The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang (trans. John Dent-Young, Alan Dent-Young)
Ysabeau S. Wilce — 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
Ysabeau S. Wilce — 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
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room)
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room)
Ysabeau S. Wilce – Flora's Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, and Learn the Importance of Packing Light
Ysabeau S. Wilce – Flora’s Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, and Learn the Importance of Packing Light
K. J. Parker – The folding Knife
K. J. Parker – The folding Knife
Imogen Binnie — Nevada
Imogen Binnie — Nevada
Ann Leckie — Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie — Ancillary Justice
Nicola Griffith — Hild
Nicola Griffith — Hild

Reading: Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System

I was very excited when Liao Yiwu’s For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System was published last year, then it turned out it was in German, and I had to wait until a couple of weeks ago for the translation to arrive. It was naturally completely worth the wait.

Liao Yiwu became for me the most important biographer and writer on China – Chinese or otherwise – when I read The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up in 2008. His next, God is Red: The Secret Story of how Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, I ordered as soon as I heard about it, despite the theme being something I’m not so interested in. Not quite as brilliant as the former, but there is no one writing on China like him.

And finally this one, an auto-biography. In 1989 Liao was a poet in Sichuan, doing what so many heterosexual male writers and artists have done: drinking, fucking, writing, not especially political nor especially self-reflected. Then June 4th happened. Whatever change that caused for him, politicising him, or at least causing an inarticulate anger which poured out in his poetry, it was the Chinese government that created Liao as the writer he now is.

The former two works, writings of his wanderings post-prison years touch upon those four years; it is this, written in prison, confiscated, rewritten, confiscated again, pieced together from memory in the years after that documents that time in its entirety. It’s brutal.

The first part, Liao before prison in the weeks leading up to his arrest, the Tiananmen Massacre, the poem he wrote in response, also his life is of a person who interests me not so much. Married and careless in his relationship, probably not a little misogynist even, Liao’s writing on himself from the distance separated by his prison years also seems to suggest he finds his former self not as admirable, important, honourable as he presumed himself to be in 1989.

And then prison. When I lived in Guangzhou, there was a prison around the corner, perhaps an investigation or detention centre like he spent two years in. One day a bus pulled out, bars on the windows, full of prisoners. I saw a man sitting towards the back who somehow had obtained a syringe and was openly preparing to shoot up. Whatever this place was like inside in my imagination or from what I’ve read elsewhere, I can now only imagine it as like the places Liao was consigned to.

A menu of famous Chinese dishes and delicacies run for four pages. These are not to be eaten as such, more handed out as beatings, humiliations, torture. Liao as a poet, intellectual, counterrevolutionary often escapes the worst, sometimes receives even heavier punishment, nonetheless is neither lower class nor upper class in the prisoner hierarchy. After four years he is released. Little is said here on the years after, so reading this first then The Corpse Walker would probably be a good combination.

Liao escaped China in 2011 via Vietnam and through his publisher’s help came to live in Berlin. Returning is for the moment not a possibility, which also means these three works are something of a trilogy, unless he has a pile of notes from his wanderings that can be turned into subsequent books. So, read it. There is no other writer I know of who writes on China as Liao Yiwu does – poetry and documentary – the real China, the one that is a dictatorship built on the corpses of tens of millions.

Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs
Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs

吴皓 hao wu released

Read all about it on Free Hao Wu.

China: Wu Hao released

Filed under: About Hao Wu, News, Nina’s blog — Feng @ 1:05 pm

Following nearly five months in prison, blogger, documentary maker and American permanent resident Wu Hao has been released, as noted in a July 11 post on his sister Nina’s blog:

刚刚得到家里电话, 被告知皓子出来了.谢谢大家的关心,但他需要清静一阵子.
如果还有什么消息,将更新在这个BLOG.

Just got a call at home and informed that Wu Hao is out. Thank you everyone for your concern, but he needs some silence for now. If there is any new information it will be posted on this blog.

Set up soon after her little brother’s arrest by Chinese authorities, Nina’s blog has served as the centerpoint in the campaign to have Hao released. English translations of each of her posts recounted the hostility Nina received in repeated unsuccesful attempts to gain any information on her brother’s whereabouts. Frustrated and fearing how the news would affect her parents’ health, in late May she wrote that her brother had been denied access to a lawyer.

Support was strong across the blogsphere, with hundreds of fellow bloggers posting on Nina and Hao’s story, as well as putting up Free Hao Wu tags. Support was there from some mainstream media, with the Wall Street Journal chipping in just a week ago, and a piece written in The Washington Post by Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon coinciding with Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to America:

“Hao turned 34 this week. He personifies a generation of urban Chinese who have flourished thanks to the Communist Party’s embrace of market-style capitalism and greater cultural openness. He got his MBA from the University of Michigan and worked for EarthLink before returning to China to pursue his dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker. He and his sister, Nina Wu, who works in finance and lives a comfortable middle-class life in Shanghai, have enjoyed freedoms of expression, travel, lifestyle and career choice that their parents could never have dreamed of. They are proof of how U.S. economic engagement with China has been overwhelmingly good for many Chinese.”

Several members of the U.S. Congress wrote letters of concern on Hao’s behalf. We are also grateful for some diplomacy – both quiet and open – conducted elsewhere. Late last week free speech group Reporters Without Borders announced a successful lobbying attempt aimed at the European Parliament, which ratified a resolution on freedom of expression on the internet. Included in the resolution is a list of nine imprisoned bloggers and cyberdissidents, including Hao.

— Free Hao Wu

吴皓 hao wu
吴皓 hao wu

释放吴皓 free hao wu

I started reading Feng 37 a few weeks ago for his endless translations of contemporary Chinese poetry, and being another Guangzhou blogger, he pretty quickly became one of those blogs I’d hope had something new for me to read every day. Early last week, I got an email from him about another blogger who wrote Beijing or Bust, 吴皓 Hao Wu, also on my avalanche of rss feeds, but I didn’t really know much about him, like he’s a documentary filmmaker, and the North East Asia Editor for Global Voices Online among other things.

He’s not writing there at the moment, and if you’re outside China, you can read why at Free Haowu, which you probably can’t even access with anonymous proxies in China, though the mirror hosted here is still open. I don’t usually write about political prisoners, so many other China bloggers do, and I usually don’t think I can add anything, and there’s just so many getting hauled in all the time, I’d have to change my blog name to “supernaut … i whore for dissident of the day”, but one of my closest friends is a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker like Hao Wu, and I keep thinking it’s only a quirk of geography and arbitrary politics that separates the two.

The reason for Hao’s detention is unknown. One of the possibilities is that the authorities who detained Hao want to use him and his video footage to prosecute members of China’s underground Churches. Hao is an extremely principled individual, who his friends and family believe will resist such a plan. Therefore, we are very concerned about his mental and physical well-being.

— RConversation

吴皓 hao wu
吴皓 hao wu

Continue reading

中国农民调查 An Investigation of China’s Peasantry

The authors of the book 中国农民调查 An Investigation of China’s Peasantry on the appalling lives and working conditions of China’s peasants have won the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. The book is currently banned in China, though easily available through the usual black-market outlets across the country, and the authors are currently spending much time in a courtroom defending themselves against one of the odious, corrupt parochial cadres who are the reason the book was written in the first place. The 50 000 euros they have won is about 515 000 rmb, more than what the average peasant would earn in a lifetime.

The first prize, worth 50,000 euro, was given to the Chinese authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao for their unprecedented and controversial book Survey of Chinese Peasants, (People’s Literature Publication Company, Beijing 2003, Chinese). The explosive text is the first thorough investigation into the economic, social and political conditions of the approximately 900 million Chinese peasants, which are almost unknown in the West. It describes the problems of despotism, of arbitrariness, of corruption, of violence which sometimes extends to murder, and lawlessness, along with unjust taxation, from which a large part of the rural population suffers. The book also shows how China’s enforced industrialisation is built largely upon the impoverishment of the Chinese peasantry. This book, compiled with immense courage despite enormous personal risk, swiftly became a best-seller in China. Several million copies were sold before the book was withdrawn from sale in governmental bookshops following an official directive, and now it is only obtainable in pirate form.

中国农民调查 An Investigation of China's Peasantry
中国农民调查 An Investigation of China’s Peasantry

stainless steel mouse

I’d heard about the stainless steel mouse for a while now, but didn’t know any details beyond she’s been arrested and imprisoned for “cyber-dissidence”. International Herald Tribune interviewed her a couple of days ago, which brings the personal reality of repression in China out in ways that standardised reporting of it fail to do. The whole article exposes how easy it is to fall foul of China’s censors, and is an especially good read at the moment with the increased censorship of on-line liberties during the current Hu/Wen/Jiang factional battle.

The restaurant in the fashionable Qianhai district is almost empty, courtesy of the afternoon rains, though a small young woman is sitting on an upstairs sofa, slightly uncomfortable in her chic surroundings. With her oval glasses, shy demeanor and slightly hunched posture, Liu Di looks like a bookworm.

What she does not look like is a threat to anything, certainly not the Chinese government. Yet the government has already imprisoned her for a year. And in recent months, during sensitive dates on the political calendar, officials have posted security officers outside the Beijing apartment she shares with her grandmother.

“They think I’m a dangerous figure,” said Liu, 23, giggling slightly at the thought as she picked at a Thai rice dish.

It is Liu’s other identity that has made her a target of the Communist Party. In the cyberspace of China’s burgeoning Internet, she is Stainless Steel Mouse, an online dissident whose incarceration over her writings attracted international attention from human rights groups that demanded, and eventually helped win, her release.

internet under surveillance

Reporters Sans Frontiers recently released their report Internet Under Surveillance, which includes a country-by-country analysis of “Obstacles to the free flow of information online”.

With a total of 61 Internet users in detention at the start of May 2004, China is the world’s biggest prison for cyber-dissidents. It is also the country where the technology for e-mail interception and Internet censorship is most developed. What’s more, the authorities recently decided to tighten the vice and roll back the few gains made by Internet users in recent years.

The Chinese authorities use a clever mix of propaganda, disinformation and repression to stifle online free expression. Initial hopes that the Internet would develop into an unfettered media and help liberalize China have been dashed. What has happened in China has shattered generally accepted ideas. The Internet can indeed become a propaganda media. On its own, it will not suffice to support the emergence of democracy in any significant way. And it can be totally controlled by a government that equips itself to do so.

Indeed, the way the Chinese government has sabotaged online dissent offers a model for dictatorships around the world. Cuba and North Korea stifled online dissent by limiting the Internet’s development. The Chinese government unfortunately proved that the Internet can be developed and sterilized at the same time.

06-04

I wasn’t going to blog about this at all, especially because so many other people have done so and are able to say so much more than me. On Saturday night though, I was with my good friend Paul having drinks at his house with a couple of others, talking about art. The conversation moved from the stultifying nature of alot of art in Australia at the moment to how art can cause the kind of outrage and shock disproportionate to effect. How is it that works of art like Ken Park, Jake and Dinos Chapman, even Britney Spears acheive so much more attention than say the daily inexorable mundane deaths of miners in China, which is something really worth getting outraged at. So Tiananmen Square got mentioned and the whole deal of people not actually dying in the square but that the surrounding streets was where the massacre took place. They had read the articles in the paper on Saturday and said, “Well what about the stones in the square that had to be replaced because of bullet marks?”, which reminded me that even intelligent people who genuinely care are only able to experience an approximate truth unless a big effort is made. With the Communist Party amidst more pernicious revisionism of the whole thing, and the daily media too lazy to explain what the catchy title “Tiananmen Square Massacre” really means, rather than write about it, I thought I’d just link to everything I’ve read in the last week.

Living in China have a list of links to blogs and newspaper articles.

Brainysmurf – I’m Beat also has written about it a few times.

Glutter in Hong Kong has devoted much of the last week to the massacre.

Peking Duck also has a couple of entries from people who were there.

Daii Tou Laam has this piece about William Hinton, author of author of The Great Reversal: The Privitization of China – 1978-1989.

Recently I found a very poor quality video of the tankman, standing in front of the line of tanks, dancing around as the driver tried to go around instead of making paté out of him, climbing onto the tank, it’s much more real to me than the photo which has become a brand, however powerful its symbolism. For me though this photo is the one that reminds me the Chinese government is both absolutely insane and utterly corrupt, and brings the massacre to a human scale.

In 2000 in Melbourne I was a cyclist in the S-11 anti-globalisation protests. The bike couriers kept the whole thing coherent while it stretched across 1/2 of Southbank, provided communications, and much more, and were there when the riot police did their charge. I read that the couriers in Beijing were the ones who pulled people who had been shot out and took them to hospital, and were the first to be targeted because in the pre-digital era of only fifteen years ago they were the number one line of communication. While the rest of the world sees the man and the tank, I want to remember people on bicycles.

June 04 1989
June 04 1989

Reporters Sans Frontiers China Annual Report 2004

Reporters Sans Frontiers China Annual Report 2004

Reporters Sans Frontiers have released their Annual Report on China. The major event of the past 12 months was the change of power to the 第四代 disidai – The Fourth Generation headed by President Hu Jintao. In spite of high hopes this would usher in a more open era of social and political liberties, there has been little evidence of a government prepared t relinquish its absolute control of the population, as evidenced by the worsening press freedom.

“2003 was the year of the corruption of the Chinese media,” said Liu Feng, editor in chief of the weekly Zhongguo Xinwen Zhoukan. He said the Chinese media, dominated by the party, had no choice but to obey the wishes of top officials and to let themselves be corrupted. Bribes are commonplace in the profession, in particular to organise reporting or an article, to attend a press conference. In October, four journalists working for the Xinhua news agency in central Shanxi province were punished for acepting money the previous year from the owner of a mine where there had been a serious accident. The journalists did not report the news.

Although the Beijing government promised that journalists covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics would be able to work freely, foreign and special correspondents remained tightly controlled. The Chinese communist party refuses to allow them to freely investigate dissidence, underground religious movements, corruption, Aids in Hunan province, strikes, the plight of North Korean refugees, natural catastrophes or Tibetan or Uighur separatism. The battle of the airwaves hotted up in 2003 between the Chinese government and international radio stations broadcasting in Mandarin, Cantonese and Tibetan. In Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, several campaigns were launched to counter separatism condemned as “terrorism”.

The lengthy report gives details on all 23 reporters currently in prison, those who were arrested, physically attacked, threatened, and harassment and obstruction. Also covered are the major stories including the cover-up of SARS last year, the Nanfang Zhuomo newspaper issue, and suppression of internet dissidents.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!