Non-Fiction


“When Mary’s mother was young, she had been taken against her will to Jamaica, from her home in Africa. On Jamaica she was a slave, like thousands of other black people. They were made to work very hard and were not free people. Mary’s mother was lucky because after a while she was given her freedom back…”

“England was not at all like Jamaica. Because there were not many black people, Mary looked different. Some people pointed at her and called her unkind names because of the colour of her skin. When she was older, Mary wrote about how children had made fun of her.”

This is a short, simple account of Mary Seacole’s life, with lots of “real” pictures (photographs and contemporary engravings or other images of the people and places mentioned). Suitable probably for children from about the age of three or four on up, it covers the main ground without either talking down to the reader or making things too confusing / difficult to understand. We like it.

It’s also a great way to start talking about slavery, racism, and the position of women in general and black women in particular. We have also spent quite a while talking about what war is and why people do it and how much hurt it causes.

(Subtitled: The true story of Phoolan Devi)

India's Bandit Queen, Mala Sen“There are various versions of what happened to Phoolan Devi after Vikram Mallah’s death. When I spoke to her she was reluctant to speak of her bezathi (dishonour), as she put it, at the hands on the Thakurs. She did not want to dwell on the details and merely said, “Un logo ne mujhse bahut mazak ki”. (Those people really fooled with me.) I was not surprised at her reticence to elaborate. First of all, because we had an audience, including members of her family, other prisoners and their relatives. Secondly because we live in societies where a woman who is abused sexually ends up feeling deeply humiliated, knowing that many will think that it was her fault, or partly her fault, that she provoked the situation in the first place. Phoolan Devi, like many other women all over the world, feels she will only add to her own shame if she speaks of this experience.”

This book investigates the story of Phoolan Devi. She was born into a low caste, and into a poverty that was brought about by her father having been swindled out of his rightful inheritance by a ruthless older brother. Her fighting spirit, her refusal to allow this theft go unchallenged, got her into trouble right from the start when her influential uncle and cousin ensured that she was brutally punished for her protests. The consequence was that she was married unusually young, to a man who turned out to be brutish and unable to protect her (as was the intention of her marriage) from the trouble that her uncle and cousin could and did bring.

To cut a long story short, she was kidnapped by dacoits (people living as outlaws in the ravines, surviving primarily on robbery and ransoms) and ended up becoming a bandit herself. She suffered unspeakably at the hands of various men, but at the same time was tough enough, sharp enough and clever enough not only to survive but to come out more or less on top – she had her revenge, she surrendered on terms that she has herself dictated, served her prison sentence and so escaped ravine life. (Postscript – after publication of the book, Devi was released from prison and later murdered, apparently by those she is said to have wronged in her bandit days.)

As for the book, I think this was a better one than Death by Fire in that there was much less in it of Mala Sen’s own personal feelings and difficulties. It is more objective. And that’s important, because Devi’s story is already complicated and confusing enough (often involving unresolved conflicts between different versions of events) without having to hear about how hot it was in the author’s taxi.

I do have some reservations about the book as a True Story, though – just because there has been so much controversy surrounding the film that is apparently based on the book.

In commenting on this, I am somewhat hampered because I will not watch that film. It reduces Devi to a rape victim turned revenging angel and spends too much time depicting rapes, rapes and more rapes. Rapes that Devi will not even talk about or admit to in any specific or explicit way. In a film made without even obtaining (not in any real sense) Devi’s consent and for which she was paid three-quarters of sweet FA.

More about the film:

  • Two contemporary articles by writer Arundhati Roy, who knew Devi and talked to her in detail about the film after it had been made. (Here and Here.)
  • A two-part article published after Devi’s death, detailing the views of Indira Jaisingh, the lawyer who helped Devi sue the film-makers for falsifying and distorting her life and for portraying numerous rapes without her consent. (Part 1 and Part 2.)
  • A contemporary review of the film by Madhu Kishwar. (Here.)

Given those massive problems with the film, and given that Sen willingly co-operated with the film-makers and (according to Indira Jaisingh) was the person who got Devi to sign up to the making of this film… how does that make me feel about Sen and her book?

In an Afterword added to the edition of the book I read, Mala Sen goes back to talk to Devi in 1994, at the time when the controversy about the film was blowing up.

In the Afterword, Sen downplays her role in the film, saying that it was “based partly on this book – and on other various sources – and directed by Shekhar Kapur.” She then details a number of Devi’s objections to the film, but does not mention the central objection that Arundhati Roy and Indira Jaisingh highlight – the fact that it portrays Devi as little more than the sum of her rapes and the vengeance she took for them.

Sen’s own comments on the matter? She was “saddened by the rift” between Devi and Kapur. She thought the film (despite the fact that it portrays her as being guilty of 22 murders that she had denied committing) would help in her fight for justice. She seems to dismiss Devi’s own position (“I felt bad watching – my mother felt bad – it’s wrong, all wrong”), saying that Devi “had made up her mind to take a stand” – with the implication that it was because of this that she refused to listen to reason – and then suggesting that her battle to prevent release of the film may not be in her long term interests. And then, perhaps tellingly, Sen ends by saying “I have yet to resolve the moral and political issues surrounding the film.”

So – although the book reads well, although it struck me as balanced and well-researched – there is just something that leaves me feeling… unsure.

Anything we love can be saved, Alice WalkerIn the Sixties, many of us where plagued by the notion that, given the magnitude of the task before us… our individual acts were puny…

I sometimes felt ashamed that my contributions… were not more radical…

It has become common feeling, I believe, as we have watched our heroes falling over the years, that our own small stone of activism, which might not seem to measure up to the rugged boulders of heroism we have so admired, is a paltry offering toward the building of an edifice of hope. Many who believe this choose to withhold their offerings out of shame. This is the tragedy of our world. For we can do nothing substantial toward changing our course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small, imperfect stones to the pile…

Sometimes our stones are, to us, misshapen, odd. Their color seems off. Their singing… comical and strange. Presenting them, we perceive our own imperfect nakedness. But also, paradoxically, the wholeness, the rightness, of it. In the collective vulnerability of presence, we learn not to be afraid.

In this book I am writing about the bright moments one can experience at the pile. Of how even the smallest stone glistens with tears, yes, but also from the light of being seen, and loved for simply being there.

This collection of essays, letters, articles and speeches, subtitled “A writer’s activism” ranges across topics as diverse as motherhood, Winnie Mandela, daugtherhood, Fidel Castro, dreadlocks, Malcolm X, political activism, Audre Lourde, writing, FGM, and cats. It reads like the best kind of blog, a collection of various thoughts and memories and ideas, some deeply personal and some openly political – and all engaging.

Somebody, send Alice Walker a cookie.

Oh, and hey, does this sound familiar to any women bloggers out there? It refers to an incident that occurred during a sit-in protest in Georgia, back in the day:

A mob of white supremacists who threw rocks and bottles and foul language at me, and at the women and men and small children who had joined our protest… They actually felt, at the time, that by expressing a need to be black and free, in a society constructed by white supremacists to serve their own racist ends, I was insulting everything they stood for: their ancestors, their religion, their “Southern Way of Life”, the sanctity of the white skin itself.

Eve, Petrina BrownIt was widely accepted for most of history that women knew instinctively what was best for women in labour. The success rate of midwives appears to have been high compared with that of doctors. Home deliveries were infinitely safer than those in hospital, as hygienic practices were not followed by doctors and nurses who had little knowledge of bacteria and cross-infection. The ‘old wives’ were much more patient and also less likely to interfere, they seldom used instruments, and rarely inserted their hand inside a labouring woman, unlike the male doctors. Their technique was natural, which in turn meant fewer complications, and the midwives’ patients had great confidence in them…

Although midwifery was free from domination by male doctors during this period, midwives were not free of interference from the religious authorities… In 1591 the midwife Agnes Simpson was burned at the stake for trying to relieve birth pains with opium: God was being deprived of the earnest cries from women who would beg for mercy in their agony… It was also felt that a woman in childbirth was vulnerable to supernatural forces, and many midwives were suspected of practising witchcraft. The caul, placenta and umbilical cord were rumoured to be treasured ingredients for the cauldron, and a stillborn child was also important in the rites of witchcraft. Members of the clergy suspected that many midwives chose their profession in order to facilitate their double lives as witches, and there are records of midwives being executed for allegedly murdering newborn babies and dedicating their souls to the Devil.

This is a very readable trip through recorded history, from Classical to the present, on – well, it does what it says on the cover. The main topics are around fertility, contraception, pregnancy, birthing and the care of babies, with a little diversion here or there. What can I say? It isn’t a penetrating analytical work, and I didn’t agree absolutely everything said, but on the whole it struck me as sensitive, well-researched and even a bit feminist. If this is a subject that interests you and you haven’t read much about it before – it’s as good a start as any!

The History of Witchcraft, Lois MartinThe Aristotelian worldview of the medieval scholastics convinced them that all forms of sorcery and magic lay in the realm of the Devil and were at his command… anything of a magical nature derived its efficacy from the Devil. According to this view there could be no such thing as ‘white’ or beneficent magic and the scholastics argued that anyone who practised magic of any kind was dealing with the Devil. And the Devil, not known for his spontaneous generosity of spirit, didn’t do anything without wanting something in return. Herein lay the seeds of the pact, as scholastic theologians began to surmise that, in order to carry out any kind of magical act, one would first have to offer the Devil some kind of recompense or reverence, and this amounted to nothing less than heresy and apostasy.

This is not, as the title may suggest, a history of the practice of witchcraft by actual witches. Indeed, the author has some pretty strong doubts about whether there ever was – before Wicca, I mean – any real, organised cult of witchcraft (as opposed to local, probably solitary, practitioners of magic, which she accepts were common).

Instead, Martin traces the history of the ideas that informed the medieval stereotype of the witch: devil worship, the night ride, cannibalism (especially the murder and consumption of babies), obscene and lawless orgies, and so on. She explores the reasons why these ideas grew, how they developed, and how they led to the hysterical persecution and diabolical torture of those accused of witchcraft.

This is too brief, and covers too much ground, to be anything like a comprehensive text. It is more of an overview, an easy-reading introduction. Well worth a dabble.

Death by Fire, Mala SenThis is the story of Mala Sen’s exploration of violence against women and girls in modern India, which centres around her investigations into a number of individual women’s stories, and interviews – often informal ones – with key people involved in their cases.

First and foremost among these women is Roop Kanwar. She was an 18-year-old woman whose husband died shortly after their arranged marriage. She thereafter became sati, burning along with her husband at the village cremation ground in rural Rajasthan. The year was 1987. The perpetrators were tried for murder and acquitted. We will never know exactly how Roop Kanwar’s death came about and to what extent it was voluntary, but what is certainly clear is that it stemmed from a culture in which women have less than no value, and in which a widow is the least desirable kind of woman possible.

Roop Kanwar is the main subject of Sen’s investigation, but the book also tells other stories.

There is Selvi, a woman burned by her husband who barely escaped with her life and whose burn wounds will never fully heal because she feared to seek treatment at a proper hospital. Whether the “reason” – rather, the excuse – for this atrocity was a dispute over dowry is never altogether clear. But then, when a man burns his wife because the dinner is late again, we don’t split hairs over whether dinner actually was late, do we? The problem, again, is a culture in which violence against women for trivial perceived transgressions is so utterly normal that an event like this can take place without consequences. Selvi never even reported the event. Nor did anyone else. Her husband had to leave the village, but later took up a new wife and never faced any real consequences for his actions.

There is Bhanwari Devi, who was gang-raped by respected men in her village as retribution for having the temerity, in her role as a government-sponsored activist for women’s issues, to protest about a forthcoming child marriage. After her rape – and the beating of her husband – the humiliating and slipshod police investigation (on which she herself had to insist, with the police refusing even to examine her for several days) led to an acquittal of all the men involved, principally on the ground that they were respectable men and as such could not credibly be accused of rape.

There is Karrupayee, a mother accused of killing her infant daughter. She had two surviving daughters, and a girl and boy baby who had each died in the first few days of life – when her fifth baby, a girl, was born and died soon afterwards, she was charged with infanticide. She seems to admit the crime, and her husband (who faced no charges despite his initial arrest) seems to admit complicity. Yet this is not the whole picture – for female infanticide is common. The male to female ratio in India is something like 1000 to 917. Rich people have scans and legally abort the foetus if it is female. Poor people continue to practice illegal infanticide if the baby once born is female. Midwives are paid more if a girl baby dies than if she lives. A crackdown on infanticide harms the poorest people without doing a thing to resolve the underlying causes of the problem.

Doing away with daughters is rife, and is an obvious and horrific consequence of the dowry system. When a daughter can only marry if her family pay a substantial fee to the husband’s family*, a fee beyond the means of many parents, why not do everything in your power to avoid having girls in the first place? And in a culture where female life is of so little value, why not simply do away with a daughter? Billboard adverts for foetal sex screening say things like – “Pay 500 rupees now or 500,000 later”. It is the practical thing to do.

[* And woe betide any woman whose dowry is found wanting, for she faces all manner of violence and even death at the hands of her in-laws once she is in their power, even if the agreed money or property has already been handed over. And why not, given how little she is valued and how much could be extorted from her family by threatening their daughter?]

Sen paints a horrifying picture of women’s position in modern India. The dowry system is at the heart of it all, coupled with a universal callousness towards women and girls, a universal failure to treat them as having equal value and humanity with men. The evils perpetrated against girls and women all spring from the dowry system in the sense that this system creates the conditions where such violence can seem to be an inevitable, even a sensible, course of action. Yet the dowry system alone would not create these evils if Indian society had not failed in so many fundamental ways to recognise and appreciate the humanity of women and girls. It is not just the violence against women which stirs the blood, it is the indifference of the government and politicians, and of men in general.

******************************

PS – A final quibble.
The book was as much about the author’s own experiences and her own voyage of discovery as it was about the women whose lives and deaths she explores. This at first seemed like a powerful way to bring the reader really in touch with the stories, to really get involved. Yet, perhaps because I could not warm to Sen as a person, in the end I found her narrative approach to be irritating and self-indulgent rather than truly engaging. Which is a shame, because the women whose stories are in these pages deserve a clear voice.

Cunt “Without honoring Whores, we cannot truly understand and transcend the dynamics of violence, destruction and ignorance fostered in our cuntfearing society. The fact that some women are considered “bad” is a puritanically based value judgment that reinforces a fatal division between women.”

“The measure of respect Whores receive is in direct proportion to the measure of respect all women receive. Until there is an established, respected place for Whores in this society, no woman will have an established, respected foundation of power.
There is no circumventing this.

Until there is a shift in consciousness about the potential of Whores, we will continue to live in a society which offers no formally acknowledged Teachers to awaken us to our power as sexual beings.
Aint no getting ’round this one either.”

“Whoredom is a constant. Perception fluctuates evermore.
I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of respecting things that have been around a lot longer than me. I drive old cars and live in old houses. I gravitate towards old souls and listen to what old folks say. My favourite games – chess and backgammon – are old, old, old.
So you see, if I were to find Whoredom and the Perception Surrounding Whoredom at a garage sale, I’d definitely buy the Whoredom.
Even if it was dented up, needed a new paint job and cost a coupla bucks more.”

Wow. Just wow.

This is to cunts what Fresh Milk was to breasts – and then some.
It is to The Vagina Monologues what Fresh Milk is to, say, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.

It is the sort of thing you can’t read cold, but also the sort of thing which, if read warm, will fire you and inspire you and make you think. And think again.

Although it was intially grating, Muscio’s voice and style soon grew on me. She is fresh and colloquial – she refuses to let her vibrant ideas and her amazing personality be bogged down in the careful, perhaps formulaic style of the typical work of non-fiction. She lets it all shine through in bright colours. (And it sure beats the jargon-filled sociological doublespeak of certain other writers I have tried to struggle through.)

Drawing on her own life and that of her sisters (biological and otherwise), Muscio covers one heck of a lot of ground.

She starts with the word. I’ve made my peace already with the word, so let’s skip that for now, except to savour Muscio’s most luscious contribution to vocabulary, a word that you must love even if “cunt” still freaks you out. The word is Cuntloving. Oh, yes.

Moving on, we note that what all women have in common is one thing: cunts*. We go on to celebrate the coolness of Blood and to drink in the suggestions that we get totally in touch with our bodies and their cycles, embrace cuntloving ways of dealing with the Blood, and start throwing menarche parties for girls on the appearance of their first period.

[* Ahem. What about transwomen? We’ll get to that later.]

Now we come to reproductive control for cunts.

Abortion. The absolute necessity of choice. The idea of being able to avoid the physical trauma of a medical abortion by the kind of oneness with our cunts that is needed to bring on, with the help of a few choice herbs, a natural abortion. (And, while we’re at it, some thoughts about male gynaecologists and why the hell any cuntloving woman would give such a man any money when three are perfectly good cunts we could pay for our cuntcare.)

Contraception. Such as: chemical birth control methods; condoms or other barriers; using oneness with our bodies to absolutely KNOW when the blighters might stick. And some thoughts about using alternatives to heterosexual penetrative sex (e.g. masturbation and sex with women). The politics of the birth control industry.

We move on to Whores – the cunt queens. I think the extract cited above gives you an adequate flavour. Wow – a brilliant chapter with a new perspective that gave me a different way to think about women who before I had more or less only thought about as either exploited or, at best, perhaps the “happy hooker”, oblivious to the harm done to all women (exploited participants and commodified bystanders alike) by the existence of prostitution.

Then to Orgasms, with a nod at educating girls on the OK’ness of their sexuality and a fantastic comparison between Aristotle and Valerie Solanas which leads onto some thoughts on why it is that male-specific health problems get so much more attention than female-specific ones. And some gems like this: “if I were a man, and had no biological idea what it was like to have such a complex orgasm mechanism as a cunt – with so many intricate, endless and fascinating possibilities for achieving pleasure – I’d be pretty nervous making love to a woman. And I might find millions and billions of ways to camouflage my nervousness, rather than be like Jesus and just humble myself.” And, even, a reading list!

Acrimony deals with female cunthatred. It deals with the way we don’t like each other much and don’t support each other like we should. Racism. Classism. Bad stuff.

Then there is the chapter on Rape. Muscio is big on self-protection. I have mixed feelings about that. I do however totally adore her remarks on SILENCE. And her proposal that women should get together to publicly humiliate men who have raped their sisters. How would you feel if, say, all the women in your street built a giant severed penis and burned it on your front lawn?

In the final part of the book, Muscio sets out her “womanifesto”. The chapter is captioned “I will kick your fucking ass – Ancient Goddess Mantra.” It just gets better from there. She then sets forth about a hundred and three ideas for how women can get together and be cuntloving superstars. Many of her ideas will inspire you. She talks about woman-centred culture, woman-centred business and woman-centred life. It’s brilliant.

My edition finishes up with extras. There is an afterword, and there is the Cuntlovin’ Guide, which lists cuntloving resources and businesses for use by the cuntloving American woman. The former is of more interest.

The afterword gives a few further thoughts on how Muscio’s ideas about the world had changed since writing Cunt. She completely missed out transwomen, and she redresses that balance. She clarifies her pro-choice stance in relation to abortion, in response to claims by some anti-choicers that her anti-surgery/pro-self-help remarks represent an opposition to abortion per se. She talks a little more about rape, broadening the perspective from men raping (biological) women to the powerful raping the powerless. Broadening again, we are treated to a cuntloving perspective on planetary crisis before the last hurrah.

As I mentioned, a lot of ground is covered. I can’t say I totally agree with all that was said. But I can say that I totally love this book. It is inspiring, bloody, honest and vocal. It speaks loud, and it tells us all to speak loud, to shatter the silence.

Let’s talk about cunts, it says. Let’s talk about what they mean and what they do and how we can look after them. Let’s talk about how cunts can look after each other. Oh, yes.

Next Page »