A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Personally, I’m not a fan of the word ‘genius.’ It’s derived from ‘genie.’ The idea that a little imp comes and sits on your shoulder and gives you an idea, and that’s where your fantastic work comes from. To me, that detracts from the graft, the inspiration, the dedication, needed in order to produce something of wonder and beauty. As Adam Grant points out in his TED talk, one of the reason people end up with beautiful creative things is that they create lots of average or crap things first, which means that their practice and honing of talent produce something pretty impressive in the end. The word also implies a disconnection, as if a celestial firebolt has been flung at the head of some unsuspecting person.

For that reason, I wouldn’t describe Eimear McBride as a genius. She has produced something singular and beautiful that no doubt shows flair, imagination and rare talent, but I don’t want to give the credit to the little green guy whispering in her ear.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a tough read, for many reasons. Firstly, the prose. It is disjointed and poetic, freely flowing with unusual syntax and grammar (no commas!). This fluid style takes a while to get into and absorb, but somehow it seems to capture the voice of the narrator so much more internally than ‘regular’ writing does. The second reason is the ordeals that the central character goes through. It’s not light reading, but it is important reading, for many reasons.

Most reviews I’ve looked at tend to focus on the prose style. Which is understandable. At times it moves into something almost incomprehensible – when the protagonist is undergoing some deep trauma, the prose becomes barely anything but noise; a deep, guttural response to the awful things she is subjected to. It’s one of the things which makes this novel so special. The other, which I’ve not encountered nearly as much, is the exploration of female sexuality. Perhaps the interviewers were too embarrassed to ask, suspecting it was autobiographical (an assumption levelled far too often at female writers) or perhaps, like so much of the world, they’re terrified of the possibilities of female sexuality. An intellectual debate about her language neatly sidesteps the incredibly important issues she exposes.

Early on in the book, she is raped by her uncle when she is thirteen. The way she recounts this event is very important. She does the unthinkable – she acknowledges that a young teenage girl is a sexual being. Feelings she cannot name arise within her. She hears and knows of sex but cannot comprehend the implications of what it is. These feelings are aroused by her uncle. From her perspective, she feels as if it is reciprocal, that she has led him on, that it is a mutual act. Exposing this complexity is important. Grown men have claimed underage girls were ‘asking for it’ in order to defend themselves from statutory rape. Judges have even accused schoolchildren of ‘grooming’ adults in abuse cases. The graphic and uncomfortable scene in McBride’s book reveals the obvious truth – it is the adult that carries the responsibility. No matter how ‘flirtatious’ a young girl may seem, she is merely beginning to explore the sexual possibilities of her body, she is certainly not begging to be raped. Her inability to understand her abused nature is a central point in this heartbreaking narrative.

If female sexuality were not so feared, perhaps little girls would not feel the need to police their clothes, actions or speech in order to maintain archaic ideas of ‘propriety,’ be it inflicted by religious dogma (as it is in the novel) or to fit into societal expectations. The mantra that ‘boys will be boys’ and cannot help themselves is as insulting to men as it is to women. In the book, McBride shows us how the shame she is encouraged to feel for her sexual activities places the blame squarely in the lap of the victim, not the creepy uncle who continues to hound her into adulthood.

Later, too, we see highly promiscuous behaviour. While we can see that the girl is damaged, it is not necessarily saying that a sexually promiscuous woman has to be broken in some way. In fact, she uses it as a tool for power and control, in situations where she feels she has none. Dealing frankly with what young people actually do in bed and why is far more important than pretending that males still prowl around looking for targets, while females ‘let’ themselves be preyed upon, or not. The protagonist actively seeks out sexual partners, and enjoys it. That’s not to say her experiences are entirely positive, and all too often she is taken advantage of and abused, but it is interesting to see a female character so open and experimental.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending. Wouldn’t want to put spoilers in, but it did seem a bit of a disappointment, a nice arty way to round it off but not particularly convincing in light of the harsh realism that we were treated to up to that point. But endings are always tricky. What’s more important, is what we’re left with.

The ‘half-formed thing’ that Eimear McBride leaves us with is an objectified female, but not just a victim. She is marginalised and judged for her sex and her sexuality, and demonised for her knowledge and understanding of those restrictions placed upon her. Because she refuses to bow to religious dogma or traditional roles for herself, she is pitted against her family, her peers and the religious establishment. But she is so much more than this. The novel is a jarring yet harmonious call for the status of females to be reimagined outside the cages that are set up for them. I like to think that McBride is hopeful, that, for some girls, they flower into a fully-formed woman, and are given the grace and freedom to do so.

Genderspecs – The Gendered Gaze

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Genderspecs – unpicking gender stereotypes, one blog at a time.

The Gendered Gaze

Come on, you’ve done it too, haven’t you? Described your mate Terry as a ‘man’s man’ or as ‘bloke,’ your mate Fiona as a ‘girly girl.’ These are broad brushstrokes we all recognise. Terry probably likes football, or some sort of sport, while I can bet that the canine following Fiona round the house is not a wolfhound. Gender is a nice simple set of rules we can assign to people. The problem is, it isn’t as simple as that. Not only this, but Terry and Fiona deserve better. We all do.

The most interesting conversation I have with my A Level students happens around the time we start to talk about feminist criticism and literature. I get them to write down ‘male’ and ‘female,’ then get them to think of as many things they associate with each one. What they never fail to do is write down a whole lot of words that are associated with gender, not sex. The problem is, we’ve spent so long assuming that sex (as in, the contents of your pants) and gender are the same thing, the reactions we have to people that move outside of our expectations can provoke deeply uncomfortable, or violent responses. But these are all things that we’ve created.

I cringe at my own female gaze. The times I size up a woman, assessing whether or not I think she can pull off her outfit, if I think someone that age be wearing that length of skirt. It’s some sort of triggered instinct that surges into my brain before I can stamp it down. Changing the way we see each other takes effort. Not because it’s wrong, but because we’ve been trained to think in these simplistic ways from the first time we were swathed in either a ‘Mummy’s Little Monster’ or ‘Daddy’s little Princess’ babygro. But we can do it.

And the view isn’t as rosy on the other side either. As Norah Vincent discovered in her research for the book Self-Made Man, where she lived as a man for eighteen months, entering the privileged land of the patriarchy has its own drawbacks. From pseudo-emotional drinking in a bowling team, to stifled feelings in a monastery, to downright misogyny in the door-to-door salesman trade, she discovered that the magic combination of white and male isn’t so great. It meant scaling back her listening skills, repressing her emotions, not being able to say what she wanted to say. She felt far more restricted in her clothes, too. While assessing the wardrobe is never an easy task, I do think that having the binary option of suit or jeans might get a teensy bit boring. If my other half wanted to chuck on a skirt or a stretchy top that showed off his lovely chest, why should I care?

Recently, I’ve become for more interested in not just those who challenge gender stereotypes, refuse to be coloured by the male or female gaze, but those who actually cross boundaries between the two. I distinctly remember a time on the bus, I was probably eight, and there was someone on the bus whose gender I just couldn’t figure out. And how I stared. Trying to find some hint; stubble, makeup, anything that would allow me to settle into comfortable recognition and go back to thinking about what to buy with my pocket money. Where does this obsession come from? It’s not surprising, really. When I was growing up (old lady alert) the projections of gender I experienced were very rigid, and growing up in the 90s didn’t do much to dissuade that (although thanks to Sarah Cox and Zoe Ball I may have ruined my liver in the quest to ‘be as good as a man’). In every glance, we’re looking to seek comfort from categorising people. If we find people who seem fluid, or are dressed or portraying an image of something other than what we see as their ‘real’ gender, it doesn’t fit with our pigeonholing. And why should it? I’ll be damned if I’m going to wear heels and a skirt every day simply because I have a uterus, so who am I to assign strict rules of visual presentation to others? I can’t imagine how it must feel to not have your body line up with your mental image of yourself. It’s bad enough when you feel like a gorgeous sex bomb (usually about three drinks in) and you catch yourself in the mirror and get a full view of your wrinkles and red eyes in the harsh lights of the pub toilets, but to look in the mirror and not see your true self, that must be dreadful. If altering your dress, your mannerisms, your body, to something you feel more represents you makes you happy, then we should be applauding it, not denigrating it.

So that’s what, in my own way, I’m trying to do. Reaching across the virtual landscape to offer support to anyone who feels stifled or judged by the gendered gaze. Joining my voice with all the others who believe that a person is just that: a person, before they are anything else.

So here’s to the future, to change. To becoming more than visible. Personally, I hope that if I have kids, when they’re on the bus and they see someone who doesn’t fit with their ideas of a fixed gender, they don’t even bat an eyelid.

#TDOV #MoreThanVisibilty

Exposure

One of the key pleasures of reading (and, as it turns out, the one that makes you a better person) is the way you can be completely dissolved in the experience of a person which you will never know yourself. As a white woman living in London, there’s absolutely no way I can truly understand the myriad feelings experienced by a Nigerian moving to the USA. Being able to read about a fictional character’s experience in Americanah, through the eyes of Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, I can get much closer than if I read a book of statistics or research papers on immigration.

The reason being, fiction is immersive. Through the creation of characters, a reader follows the emotional journey of a person, which creates empathy and understanding. The devising of plot and narrative exacerbates this, as I then become caught up in the challenges and problems this character faces. I learn to care about them, the things that are important to them, and, at least for those few hundred pages, appreciate what it must feel like to look out of eyes that are not my own when I see the world. If for no other reason, this is why reading must be placed as a high priority for everyone. Sure, I could watch a film, but I’m still a passive observer, it doesn’t give me the same sense of appreciation of how that person must feel, because I am watching it from the outside.

In fact, for so many people who insist on spreading their hate and ignorance of others, I would prescribe a book. Try telling me everyone on benefits is a scrounger after reading Tony Hudson Bought me an Ice Cream Float Before he Stole My Ma, or that immigrants should all go home after reading Boy Overboard. The list is endless. Anger and hatred largely springs from fear of the unknown, or a lack of understanding. Call me idealistic, but if we all sat down and read a decent narrative about the people we don’t understand, the world would be a far more pleasant place.

Americanah is primarily a love story, a tale of the complexities and problems that still make themselves felt in what appears to be the perfect relationship. Echoing this is the convoluted and problematic love story between the people of Nigera and the idealised Western cultures of the UK and, primarily, the US.

Firstly, it’s just a great story. The characters are compelling and interesting, the language and description evocative. It also sidesteps the often problematic idealisation of the ‘homeland,’ where it is described as verdant, lush, fertile, exotic, in contrast to the cold and hard Western world. Although this is more of a trope of the old fashioned ‘colonial’ novels, in those as recent as Mr. Pip it’s all too recognisable. Of course, it may well be because it wasn’t written by a white person idealising a native culture.

Which is one of the well-crafted elements of the novel. It captures the struggles and concerns of non-white people in Western culture, as well as looking at the equally problematic Nigerian culture. It does it in a way that, through the voice of the main protagonist, is blunt and unapologetic.

The literary techniques employed by Adichie are also impressive. By making the central character a blogger, she is able to boldly comment on the nuances and hypocrisies of modern US culture. This allows (what one assumes is the author’s) personal experiences and grievances to be aired. The novel can make overt political statements without needing to awkwardly place them in the mouths of the characters (although this does occur in places. The sense of shared hope in the lead up to Obama’s election is beautiful).

She also directs her two central characters to different locations (US andUK) in order to illustrate two very different immigrant experiences. Even so, it doesn’t feel like a plot device, mostly because of the characters.

Above all, characters are Adichie’s forte. The language to show their expressions, appearance and mannerisms are what truly makes this book a delight to read. Ultimately, it’s through the desires and actions of the characters that subtle political messages emerge, highlighting the myriad issues and problems in both Western and Nigerian culture, and clearly showing that there aren’t any simple solutions.

After all, this is surely the gateway to greater understanding. As Atticus says in To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s hard to understand someone until “you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” If we are able to empathise and relate to an individual’s experiences, it is far harder to lump them int a homogenous racial or gendered group that judgements can be made about. We are firstly, people. We would do well to remember that.

Roll Up, Roll Up

Honestly, the way everyone keeps on going on about boring politics (apart from, unsurprisingly, The Metro) anyone would think there was a major election about to happen. Oh, hang on…

So what is a person to do? In the UK, it would seem, this is a far more complicated question than you would think. You might assume that just voting for a party whose policies you actually mostly agree with, and are a little bit more how you would like the country to run, seems like a safe bet. Apparently not.

But why does it have to be so complicated? The first place to look is, of course, our voting system. After having read what people from other countries think about our the way our votes work, it was interesting to note that this ‘First Past The Post’ nonsense is seen by others as a bit of a strange UK habit, rather like having beans for breakfast or putting milk in our tea. If it weren’t for this absurd system, there would be no need for the website that allows you to ‘swap’ votes with someone in a pivotal seat, or for the cry for ‘tactical’ voting not just by the people, but by the MPs themselves. Which I would treat with extreme caution. Of course the main political parties want you to think it’s a two-horse race. When I told a friend I was voting Green, I was greeted with “oh, you don’t want your vote to change the government then.” I was incensed. Of course I do, that’s the whole bloody point. As long as voters continue to buy into the idea that they only have two (or at best, three) options, the ‘minority’ parties will not be treated with the respect they deserve. Until we get a better voting system, it’s the best we can do. Here’s a radical idea; what if everyone that believed in them voted for them? Then the powers that be would be forced to reconcile with them, accept that the majority of the public are no longer happy with their limited view of the progress of the country, and actually be forced to take their policies seriously. Seems obvious to me.

Or, you could not vote at all. Russell Brand says so (well, apparently now he wants you to vote Labour). But then, he says a lot of things. While it’s great that someone so prominent gets us thinking about politics, let’s not get too swayed by someone just because he looks good in skinny trousers and has opened a trendy cafe in Hoxton. So yes, you could be a ‘protester,’ and say that the parties have nothing you believe in, and refuse that right to vote. But the problem is, no one will know. Or rather, no one will be able to tell the difference. You might be sat at home tweeting furiously about your brilliant slap in the face to modern politics, but when the votes are counted, how will they tell the difference between you and the person that couldn’t be bothered to get off the sofa? Or got the date wrong? If you genuinely believe you are protesting, then actually protest. Go to the ballot box and mark your slip with your dissatisfaction. Lobby your MP, start a protest group, do something. Because until you do, you’re just another person moaning about the system without actually doing anything about it.

Whatever you decide to do tomorrow, don’t buy into the rhetoric that nothing you do makes any difference, that it’s all the same. It isn’t. If we don’t stop bouncing around between two same-yet-different parties, this country will bear the scars. More than it already does. Having worked in the education system for years, I was completely disillusioned at the new ‘policies’ that got thrown at us on a daily basis. At one point we were teaching three different year groups three completely different syllabuses, all because of knee-jerk reactions to concerns about ‘standards of education,’ rather than real change fuelled by actual research. Until we send a clear message to MPs that we are not interested in this kind of politics, that we want a more stable, mixed government, that looks for long-term solutions to problems, not quick fixes, we won’t get anywhere.

So I’m voting for a party whose policies I mostly agree with, and have a vision a little bit more how I would like the country to run. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that difficult after all.

Just remember, not so long ago, the only people that could vote were white, privileged men that had no connection to the average person. How ironic that this same demographic now basically runs the country. We don’t want that anymore, do we? See you at the polling booth.