[Book Review] The Henchmen of Zenda by K. J. Charles

I received an ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Henchmen of Zenda was an absolute delight. It is a truth universally acknowledged that villains have all the best lines, and these villains did not disappoint. Jasper Detchard is a henchman, a disgraced army officer, a sarcastic bastard – and, surprisingly, a loyal friend to the death.

“I left the army with numerous prizes for swordplay, a dishonourable discharge, a reputation for cheating at cards (fairly earned), another for indulgence in the fuck that dare not speak its name (ditto), and a request from my family that I no longer claim kinship with them, since they wanted none with me.”

As with all of K. J. Charles’ books the dynamic between Jasper and his love interest made me cackle with glee. She leaves no trope unturned but approaches them in a fresh and knowing way every time, and that self-knowledge is all part of the fun. The sexual tension dazzled, the repartee was witty, and their relationship was frank and realistic.

The most wonderful surprise of all was Jasper’s close relationship with his dearest female friend, and the introduction of the b-plot in which they must collude to save her daughter and take her lover out of the picture. Together they were sweet, witty and charming – and a lot of fun. This b-plot really shored up the other elements of the novel and took it out of the realms of straight parody and into something fresher and more meaningful, with a really excellent spin on the original material and heroic perspective. The moment when Jasper and his female friend are reunited in secrecy and speak frankly for the first time, no longer playing their roles as mistress and henchman, was when I knew that this novel had legs and was going to use them.

K. J. Charles is always a delight and this book is no exception – her nuanced exploration of historical queer identities and her restoration of women into the narrative puts the complexity of history back on the page. Sarcasm, swordfights, and sex – what’s not to love?

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[Book Review] Undoing Gender by Judith Butler

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I often see people warning potential readers to stay away from Judith Butler due to the ‘incomprehensibility’ or ‘difficulty’ of the material. Should the style in which something is written decrease the value? Should all works be written to the same style and standard in order that they are acceptable?

Is comprehensibility a so-called valid outcome?

Butler addresses the issue of style in the new foreword to Gender Trouble: “It is no doubt strange, and madden-ing to some, to find a book that is not easily consumed to be “popular” according to academic standards. The surprise over this is perhaps attributable to the way we underestimate the reading public, its capacity and desire for reading complicated and challenging texts, when the complication is not gratuitous, when the challenge is in the service of calling taken-for-granted truths into question, when the taken for grantedness of those truths is, indeed, oppressive.”

I would argue that easy answers are harmful. Can complex ideas truly be encapsulated in ‘straightforward’ writing or a simple diagram? Does the reduction of the idea to digestible simplicity remove the nuance? Finally, does simplicity of presentation argue an answer, rather than a question?

We claim to have answers to many concepts, and present them as fact, framework, acknowledged truths. Time, space, gender, history, sex. These ideas are often presented in summaries, as answers, as truths – and one would do well to interrogate the cultures and societies that bring forth these truths, these understood facts. Life is a question – a perpetual conversation.

Undoing Gender is a conversation. Butler never attempts to answer the complexity of gender; rather she asks question upon question, changing her approach and focus, pulling in new concepts and theories as the book progresses. Butler challenges the legitimacy of recognition of the diversity of being – who recognises? Who regulates? Is recognition harmful or helpful? In recognition, are we reduced to answers, rather than questions? We ‘do’ ourselves as we do ‘gender’ – perpetually, over and over, rewriting the self and the understanding of the self. We learn to present ourselves in a discourse that “denies the language [we] might want to use to describe who [we] are, how [we] got here, and what [we] want from this life.”

Language limits us. Structure is dictated by power. When we ‘do’ gender, and categorise it using understood norms, do the understood norms apply or are they categories differently interpreted by the individual? When one ‘does’ woman, as another ‘does’ woman, is the category ‘woman’ a convenience and understood norm? If we ‘do’ woman differently, what is ‘woman’?

This books gifts us with questions – I have a lifetime of questions. I will ‘do’ myself and overwrite myself as I live and the world lives alongside me. Will we reach a point when the multiplicity of genders that are done – a multitude, an infinity of genders – will be admitted into the terms that govern reality? Will we develop “a new legitimating lexicon for the gender complexity that we have always been living?”

2018 Reading List: Global Feminisms

2018

As it is International Women’s Day, I have taken the opportunity to finalise my reading list for the year. My focus is on expanding my feminism and activism to take into account the global landscape, rathern than the Global Northern landscape.

Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith

From the vantage point of the colonized, the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked with European colonialism; the ways in which scientific research has been implicated in the worst excesses of imperialism remains a powerful remembered history for many of the world’s colonized peoples. Here, an indigenous researcher issues a clarion call for the decolonization of research methods. Exploring the broad range of issues which have confronted, and continue to confront, indigenous peoples, in their encounters with western knowledge, this book also sets a standard for truly emancipatory research. It brilliantly demonstrates that “when indigenous peoples become the researchers and not merely the researched, the activity of research is transformed.”

Masculinities by Raewyn W. Connell

In Masculinities, Connell argues that there is no such thing as a single concept of masculinity, but, rather, that many different masculinities exist, each associated with different positions of power. She explores global gender relations, new theories, and practical uses of masculinity research. Looking to the future, her new concluding chapter addresses the politics of masculinities, and the implications of masculinity research as a way of understanding current world issues.

Re-Orienting Western Feminisms: Women’s Diversity in a Postcolonial World by Chilla Bulbeck

The agenda of contemporary western feminism focuses on equal participation in work and education, reproductive rights, and sexual freedom. But what does feminism mean to the women of rural India who work someone else’s fields, young Thai girls in the sex industry in Bangkok, or Filipino maids working for wealthy women in Hong Kong? In this 1998 book, Chilla Bulbeck presents a bold challenge to the hegemony of white, western feminism in this incisive and wide-ranging exploration of the lived experiences of ‘women of colour’. She examines debates on human rights, family relationships, sexuality, and notions of the individual and community to show how their meanings and significance in different parts of the world contest the issues which preoccupy contemporary Anglophone feminists. She then turns the focus back on Anglo culture to illustrate how the theories and politics of western feminism are viewed by non-western women.

A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia by Bina Agarwal

In this comprehensive analysis of gender and property throughout South Asia, Bina Agarwal argues that the most important economic factor affecting women is the gender gap in command over property. In rural South Asia, few women own land and even fewer control it. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including field research, the author addresses the reason for this imbalance, and asks how the barriers to ownership can be overcome. The book offers original insights into the current theoretical and policy debates on land reform and women’s status.

Beyond the Masks: Race, Gender and Subjectivity by Amina Mama

Psychology has had a number of things to say about black and coloured people and some of which have reinforced stereotyped and derogatory images. This text is an account of black psychology, exploring key theoretical issues in race and gender. It examines the history of racist psychology and of the implicit racism throughout the discipline. The text also offers a theoretical perspective, and should appeal to all those involved with ethnic minorities, gender politics and questions of identity.

The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty by Aileen Moreton-Robinson

The White Possessive explores the links between race, sovereignty, and possession through themes of property: owning property, being property, and becoming propertyless. Focusing on the Australian Aboriginal context, Aileen Moreton-Robinson questions current race theory in the first world and its preoccupation with foregrounding slavery and migration. The nation, she argues, is socially and culturally constructed as a white possession. Moreton-Robinson reveals how the core values of Australian national identity continue to have their roots in Britishness and colonization, built on the disavowal of Indigenous sovereignty. Whiteness studies literature is central to Moreton-Robinson’s reasoning, and she shows how blackness works as a white epistemological tool that bolsters the social production of whiteness—displacing Indigenous sovereignties and rendering them invisible in a civil rights discourse, thereby sidestepping thorny issues of settler colonialism.

Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism by Aileen Moreton-Robinson

Aileen Moreton-Robinson “talks up” in this provocative interrogation of feminism in representation and practice. As a Geonpul woman and an academic, she provides a unique cultural standpoint and a compelling analysis of the whiteness of Australian feminism and its effect on Indigenous women.Through an extensive range of articles by non-white scholars and activists, she demonstrates the ways whiteness dominates from a position of power and privilege as an invisible and unchallenged practice. She illustrates the ways in which Indigenous women have been represented through the publications and teachings of white Australian women. Such renderings of Indigenous lives are in contrast to the many examples provided of life writings by Indigenous women themselves. Persuasive and engaging, Talkin’ Up to the White Woman is a timely argument for the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in developing the teachings and practices that impact on Australia’s pluralistic society.

The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam by Fatema Mernissi

Convinced that the veil is a symbol of unjust male authority over women, in The Veil and the Male Elite, Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi aims to investigate the origins of the practice in the first Islamic community.

The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory by He-Yin Zhen

He-Yin Zhen (ca. 1884-1920?) was a theorist who figured centrally in the birth of Chinese feminism. Unlike her contemporaries, she was concerned less with China’s fate as a nation and more with the relationship among patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism, and gender subjugation as global historical problems. This volume, the first translation and study of He-Yin’s work in English, critically reconstructs early twentieth-century Chinese feminist thought in a transnational context by juxtaposing He-Yin Zhen’s writing against works by two better-known male interlocutors of her time. The editors begin with a detailed analysis of He-Yin Zhen’s life and thought. They then present annotated translations of six of her major essays, as well as two foundational tracts by her male contemporaries, Jin Tianhe (1874-1947) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929), to which He-Yin’s work responds and with which it engages. Jin, a poet and educator, and Liang, a philosopher and journalist, understood feminism as a paternalistic cause that liberals like themselves should defend. He-Yin presents an alternative conception that draws upon anarchism and other radical trends. Ahead of her time, He-Yin Zhen complicates conventional accounts of feminism and China’s history, offering original perspectives on sex, gender, labor, and power that remain relevant today.

Women in Class Society by Heleieth Saffioti

In this important theoretical and historical work, Brazilian sociologist Heleieth Saffioti deals with the interaction between the universal division of society based on sex and the capitalist division into classes. She focuses on two forms of capitalist society, the advanced and the emerging, with attention to the role of international capitalism in determining the particular problems of any minority in a dependent country.

*This list was built with reference to Raeywn Connell’s excellent list of academics in her lecture Decolonising Gender.

[Book Review] The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson)

“Tell me about a complicated man…” This opening line has been quoted in every single article about Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey – and for good reason. Tell me a story about a complicated man, in uncomplicated language – free of flourishes and embellishments, quick and exact, and without conceits so as to make it feel sufficiently “classical.”

Emily Wilson’s translation has the simplicity, the rhythm, the immediacy – and all hard won. Her translation is compressed into exactly the same number of lines as the Greek original, moving to a swift and pounding beat that gives the English-language reader the closest experience they could possibly get to reading the original. Her 100-plus page introduction is vital to understand the decisions that she has made, why she has made them, and how her translation impacts our impressions of key characters and events in the book.

I not only enjoyed her translation immensely but often felt myself deeply moved by her stark and honest language in scenes of deep emotion. She lets meaning trickle in, sparingly using her words in favour of making space for the silence and the shape of the emotion.

This made him want to cry. He held his love,
his faithful wife, and wept. As welcome as
the land to swimmers, when Poseidon wrecks
their ship at sea and breaks it with great waves
and driving winds; a few escape the sea
and reach the shore, their skin all caked with brine.
Grateful to be alive, they crawl to land.
So glad she was to see her own dear husband,
and her white arms would not let go his neck.

This is my Odyssey – free of the bullshit, the froth, the gravitas and the spin. Complicated, human, and raw.

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[TV Review] Nirvana in Fire

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Nirvana in Fire is a drama set in sixth-century China, revolving around a terminally-ill political strategist entering the court using a false identity in order to seek justice for the dead. He must help the unfavoured virtuous prince take power, hide his identity from his lost-love-turned-army-general, and prove his family’s innocence.

It’s over fifty episodes long, entirely in classical Mandarin Chinese, and enormous swathes of the show are poorly dubbed.

Honestly, it’s one of the most satisfying things that I have ever watched.

The heroes are modelled on the eight heavenly virtues:  Filial Piety, Sibling Harmony, Dedication, Trustworthiness, Propriety, Sacrifice, Honour, and Sense of Shame. It’s difficult to express how refreshing this is. The heroes don’t deal in moral shades of grey; the villains aren’t particularly sympathetic. Nirvana in Fire is reaching back to a worn-in definition of heroism that is comfortable and uplifting.

What really hooked me into this drama was the classic story of an underdog triumphing against the odds – with a political twist. One of the main plots of the show is the drive to replace corrupt figures in the government – those who have benefitted from family connections and centre their actions around power struggles, not around the benefit of the nation – with neutral, competent experts who do their jobs well.

In 2017, that’s exactly the story I need. The attention to the intricacies of bureaucracy became addictive; an omission from an inventory becomes part of a calculated play for power. There are other plots, of course: war and intrigue between two countries; vengeance for the dead; lost love and sacrifice. But the government bureaucracy! Every tiny move towards a functional working government; every corrupt minister forced out; every soft word by a concubine coaxing the emperor to her way of thinking…absolutely delightful.

The show is exquisitely made, from beautiful landscapes to lush costumes, and every single camera shot is carefully crafted and important to the plot. The characters are compelling, the emphasis on friendship, trust and respect is balm for the soul, and the show as a whole is a masterclass in storytelling on an epic scale.

This can be a tricky show to get into. I certainly had to watch it with a family tree and character profiles with photographs open at all times, and often had to do a lot of background reading in order to give events the correct weight. I recommend these resources:

To watch, head over to Viki.

For the funny character primer, Julad’s blog post is absolute gold.

For the complex character primer, JoeCole’s Station has your back.

For episode-by-episode recaps that explain the intricacies of the culture and language that you might miss, The Problematic of the Unproblematic is an excellent resource.

And dramakite’s family tree laying out the relationships between all of the characters saved my life.

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[Book Review] Nivedita Menon: Seeing Like a Feminist

Seeing Like a Feminist is a stunning introduction to Global Southern feminism for the intersectional feminist. The ‘Western’ feminist voice overwhelmingly dominates feminist discussions, and we have grown lazy and unwilling to do the work even as we pat ourselves on the back for occasionally reading outside of our comfort zones.

This book blew my mind. In a single moment it flipped my entire perspective on its head, and I opened a closed door in my mind that I hadn’t realised existed. I was standing at my bookcase flipping through the book, interested, and then Nivedita Menon perfectly and beautifully explained Butler’s theory of gender performance to me in a way that sang in my bones. I stopped. I picked up my highlighter. I sat down on the floor. And four hours later, I finished the book.

The wham moment for me was this. I had always been taught Butler as this basic formula: gender is constructed through a set of acts that are said to be in compliance with dominant societal norms. Gender is performed. Butler is incredibly difficult to read, although incredibly rewarding, but unless you are undertaking a degree in sociology you don’t break past the first layer.

But then Menon writes this: “…it is gender that produces the category of biological sex. And gender produces sex through a series of performances.” Menon goes on to explain that, just as gender is on a spectrum, sex is on a spectrum. Sexed bodies are created by societally prescribed genders: over time, we alter our bodies to fit this performance. The biology of bodies is so complex that they cannot be divided into two ‘legitimate’ types, but exist in a multitude of beautiful and true ways. We attempt to adhere to a binary that has never existed: we express a binary of sex through a binary of gender by creating a multi-layered and prescribed performance in our actions and with our bodies. Furthermore, the pervasive templates of binary genders originated in European cultures and, through colonialism, have overwritten pre-existing, nuanced, unique and diverse conceptions of gender and sex.

Menon explores the history and conceptions of sex and gender in Global Southern cultures, and examines the damage that Western scholarship has created by misrepresenting these cultures through its assumption that gender identities and social hierarchies follow a universal pattern – the Western pattern. Societies, cultures, religions, genders, sexualities – all misrepresented through a cracked lens. Her interrogation of the dominance of Western voices does not stop at the gender binary but continues through to queerness, kinship, representation, activism and sexual violence.

Her challenge to the ingrained assumptions and worn paths of Western feminism is relentless and sharply critical: one by one she dismantles the reigning discourse and challenges us to reconstruct our feminism/s as more critical, more aware, and more cognisant of other pathways and traditions, especially those irrevocably damaged by Western colonialism – our feminism/s should be a challenging journey forward without completion.

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[Book Review] Yoon Ha Lee: Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire Book 1)

Ninefox Gambit is probably the most challenging and frustrating science fiction novel that I have ever read.

This is not a criticism.

I firmly believe that the purpose of science fiction is to reach beyond the way we perceive our reality. My most common criticism of science fiction novels is that they fail to reach beyond their own world and unconscious biases when constructing their new universes and futures.

Ninefox Gambit centres on Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate, disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretical forces. She is given the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics.

Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news: Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.

The bad news: Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.

Reality in Ninefox Gambit appears to be shaped by strict adherence to a ritual calendar. Warfare is governed by a mathematical and calendrical system where battle tactics are created by formulae that create or nullify physical effects depending upon the positioning and timing of troops and their timing within the cycle of the calendar. The opponents of the ruling regime are so-called ‘heretics’ – those who refuse to adhere to the calendrical system and cause ‘calendrical rot’, changing and redefining the formalised rules of the current reality.

Mathematics in this universe is closer to magic that anything that the reader is familiar with. I had to actively force myself to suspend my disbelief as I tried to immerse myself in a universe so different from my own; that gave me little to no cues as to what the setting, the characters, and the mathematical battles looked like. The writing is beautifully sparse and I felt as if I was reading a partial black and white sketch of a book in which I could grasp the vaguest shape and motion of the characters and their world, but was trying to comprehend something so far removed from my own experience of reality that it could not be visualised.

Ninefox Gambit is an absolutely fascinating mental exercise in visualisation and comprehension, and I have never felt so exhausted and rewarded as a reader.

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