Womanist literature

I have chosen a Way – dear Friend – I must hold to it. Think of me if you will as the Lady of Shalott – with a Narrower Wisdom – who chooses not the Gulp of outside Air and the chilly river-journey deathwards – but who chooses to watch diligently the bright colours of her Web – to ply an industrious shuttle – to make – something – to close the Shutters and the Peephole too – you will say, you are no threat to That. You will argue – rationally. There are things we have not said to each other beyond the – One – you so starkly – Defined. I know in my Intrinsic Self – the Threat is there.

Roland Michell is a scholar in 1980s London, studying the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. He finds some drafts of a letter between the leaves of a book from Ash’s own library, which leads him to investigate a possible connection with another Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte – which leads him to a LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey. The story is about the four of them – Roland and Maud tracing the connection between Randolph and Christabel – and where it all took them. It’s also about language, and poetry, and solitude, and relation, and academia, and stuff. Oh yeah, and feminism.

It took a very long time to get going, this book, and the “action” was intermittent even then – but there is action and there is insight, and poetry, and there is even feminism. I did like it, I did want to get to the end of it, I did gain something valuable from it, I have even found myself influenced by it in several directions – I just don’t think I would want to read it again! It had – too many words. The library fine will be enormous.

An Amazon link.
As hinted above, mine came from the library.


“The street veered sideways and vanished. Beneath her now was only an expanse of roofs, criss-crossed with brilliantly lit roads. Suddenly it all slipped sideways, the strings of light grew blurred and vanished.
Margarita gave another jerk, at which the sea of roofs disappeared, replaced below her by a sea of shimmering electric lights. Suddenly the sea of light swung round to the vertical and appeared over Margarita’s head whilst the moon shone under her legs. Realising that she had looped the loop, Margarita righted herself, turned around and saw that the sea had vanished: behind her there was now only a pink glow on the horizon. In a second that too had disappeared and Margarita saw that she was alone with the moon, sailing above her and to the left. Margarita’s hair streamed out behind her in wisps as the moonlight swished past her body.”

The Master is a writer working in Moscow who – among many of his fellow citizens – falls victim to the satanic Woland, who has come to Moscow with his coterie to throw his annual ball – and to cause a little havoc while he is at it. The Master, a gibbering wreck after all the strange things he has seen – including the apparent murder of his friend Berlioz – ends up in an insane asylum.

Margarita, the Master’s (married) lover is offered the chance of reunion with her beloved by the demon Azazello, if she will follow his and Woland’s instructions. She agrees, and becomes a witch, later to be hostess at the devil’s ball.

Interwoven with this story is the manuscript of the Master: the story of Yeshua (Jesus) and his execution by Pontius Pilate. Unlike the fantastical events in “contemporary” (1929) Moscow, the ancient story of Yeshua is told with a quiet, calm realism.

Sounds surreal? It is a bit. Mostly it’s political, although I try not to worry too much about that… What I mean is you can’t help noticing at least some of the allegorical elements, but I prefer not to dissect such things unduly, it’s not my way – I don’t want the novel to die on the table.

So I loved Margarita, adventuresome and courageous, and the only non-demonic character to profit by Woland’s visit – taking the bizarre in her stride, accepting the unacceptable, and demanding what is good from what is, to say the least, morally ambiguous. Big wow.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I already had a copy (I read it in a book club I was in years ago).

I admired my mother in some ways, although things between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once.

I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.

I finished this book a while ago, but I wanted to let it sink in before I wrote about it. I had been saving it, and I wanted to savour it. Of course, there is risk in this approach: I might have lost all impetus and forgotten what the book was about. Well, I haven’t.

The scenario is that in a world not too far into the future, there has been a religious revolution in the geographical area currently known as the United States. A fundamentalist Christian sect has started running the country and renamed it the Republic of Gilead. Faced with environmental pollution that has caused infertility and birth defects to be common, coupled with a revolutionary fervour for population growth, the men have set about structuring society so as to give population growth (and therefore uterus control) total priority.

Men fall into various groups, all carefully labelled. The Commanders are the most privileged, serviced by Wives, Marthas and Handmaids (see below), living in large comfortable homes, working in comfortable sinecured jobs. The Guardians – called Angels if they are promoted to the highest rank – are the men who do the work and they may be allowed an Econowife if they are lucky but most are forced to be celibate (unregulated sex is strictly forbidden and viciously punished).

Women fall into carefully labelled groups, too.

The “privileged” women form part of the cook-Madonna-whore triumvirate. The blue-robed Wives have the highest status (irrespective of fertililty). The green-robed Marthas – remember Lazarus’ sisters? – are domestic servants who cook and clean and do their work. The red-robed Handmaids have the lowest status, the least dignity, respect or privacy – despite having on the face of it the most “valued” role. They are the women who have been medically screened for fertility and whose role it is to become pregnant and to hand over their children to the Wives.* The Handmaids do not serve the men: they serve the wives. How bitter for them both.

(* Remember the story of Rachel? The jealous, childless wife – give me children or else I die – who in her desperation for a child gave her handmaid Bilhah to her husband Jacob for the purpose of impregnation. Further reading: The Red Tent)

Aunts are the women who train the Handmaids: their role is indoctrination, they are the circumcisers. Other women must be “Econowives” – women who must be wife and housekeeper, and bear children if they can. The least fortunate are the Unwomen, sent to do dangerous work such as clearing up pollution, without protection – the disposable nonhumans. The final category is the secret one, the unacknowledged one: the prostituted women, working in government-run brothels.

On the upside, rape and pornography have been utterly stamped out.

On the downside – everything else. Freedom from (rape, assault) has been achieved at the expense of Freedom to (live your own life). Nobody has much freedom and women have the least, fertile women least of all. Freedom of speech has ceased. Freedom of religion has ceased. Freedom of association has ceased. Reproductive choice has ceased: indeed, those who carried out abortions in the pre-Gilead days are hunted down and executed. Unwomen are entirely disposable and unprotected: these are the women who do not comply, the feminists and rebels, the worn out prostitutes. Unbabies – those born with some kind of defect – are disposable too: disability is not tolerated.

So much for the set-up.

Fundamentally – although this obviously is a powerful dystopian vision and a feminist masterpiece – what spoke to me most loudly were the words about motherhood.

Clearly, this is a novel about enforced motherhood of the kind that the Handmaids (and, come to mention it, the Wives who must rear another woman’s child and be joyful for the gift) are obliged to undertake.

But it is also about the motherhood that happened before the age of Gilead. It is about the narrator’s motherhood, and about her own mother.

The narrator – whose real name we never learn, although she is referred to as Offred (of Fred) – had a child before Gilead, a little girl. Her marriage is decreed null and void because her husband had previously been divorced; her daughter is thus illegitimated and taken from her. We never find out exactly what has happened to this daughter, although it seems that she has been taken to a “privileged” life, possibly as a future Wife. The narrator’s (I cannot call her Offred) yearning for this daughter is a key element of the story, and indeed is used cynically against her by the Wife she serves. Her yearning for her first daughter is used to overcome her near-indifference to any future child.

But, more, the narrator has a mother. This mother was an ardent second wave feminist (she was sent to be an Unwoman). She was a deliberate single parent – she insists repeatedly that the narrator was a wanted child. A wanted child. And the two of them were often exasperated with one another: the mother wanted a radical feminist daughter, at least a conscious daughter; the daughter wanted to live a life of her own choosing, a postfeminist life. So much for postfeminism. So much for radical parenting.

That’s all I have to say, except –
Are there any questions?

Here is an Amazon link.
I bought my own copy, obviously.

“Now, Miss Thompson has been telling me some very distressing things,” the vicar began. My heart began to thump.
“She has told me that someone has been calling names. We don’t have people calling names in the house of God. Come out to the front…” I waited for Michael’s name to be called. Now, I thought, God will show him how wrong he is, how bad he is to hate difference. But the vicar said, “Ada and Angela.”
At first I didn’t move, I thought he’d made a mistake.
“Come on out to the front,” the vicar said, beckoning us. Sonia pushed me and I stood up and walked to the front. So did Ada, slowly. The vicar put his arm around me and Ada. Ada held her head firmly on her chest. I looked up around me and saw Michael grinning. Then I dropped my head too.
“Now Ada and Angela and their families are coloured, but that does make them any different to you or me. We are all God’s children and in the sight of God, everyone is equal. Now we will sing the chorus together.” The vicar held on tight to me so I couldn’t’ go back to my seat. Then he began to sing “Jesus loves the little children.”
And everyone joined in…
When the chorus was finished the vicar patted us each on the head. Then he let us go.

In this compelling novel, narrator Angela Jacobs witnesses the slow death of her father and remembers the scenes of her own childhood, growing up in London as the youngest child of her Jamaican parents. The characters most strongly drawn are Angela herself and her parents – her father is so real you can see him.

I don’t know what else to say except: read it. It is real, unswerving, and funny too – as vivid a portrait as you could hope to find.

“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.

The skin I’m in looks good to me.
It will let you know one small way to trace my identity.

But then again

the skin I’m in will always be just a covering.
It cannot tell my story.

If you want to know who I am you have got to come inside.

This book has a quality I love in children’s books (well any books really, it’s just that it is so much rarer in books aimed at children): a slightly offbeat rhythm, half-rhymes – not quite the easy verse we are used to, but poetry nonetheless.

It isn’t a story as such, but it will be meaningful for – and a good way to start a conversation with – any child who has got questions about race, colour and identity, or who has experienced or witnessed prejudice or exclusion and is trying to make sense of why and how much race matters.

Ariel likes the pictures.
I do too: they are bold, bright and sassy.

(And fortunately the somewhat creepy line “you have got to come inside” will probably be lost on most young readers…)

We drank and threw our cups into the water. She leaned on the rail, her face half in the light, half in the shadow, as perfect as a statue. The ruby earring flared as the sun struck through it, and her white shirt billowed out in the freshening breeze. That is how I will remember her.

Set in the early part of the eighteenth century, this is the story of two young women escaping disaster by joining a pirate crew together. Nancy Kington is the 15 year old daughter of a Bristol trader on the brink of ruin. When he dies, her brothers ship her to Jamaica to be sold as the wife of a black-hearted man who makes her flesh crawl. Minerva Sharpe is a young house slave in Nancy’s Jamaican home, who becomes her friend and then finds herself in grave danger from the equally cruel overseer of the Kington sugar plantation. The story has everything – pirating, swashbuckling, treasure, danger – and the impossible search for a place to be: a place of safety, a place of dignity, a place to belong.

A great novel for young (and not so young) women, spoiled only by the author’s insistence on running the story through with heterosexual romance. Oh well…

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