Resistance & Hope: an interview with Alice Wong

When I came out as a cripple, two people in particular were my guides. One is artist Riva Lehrer, the other is Alice Wong. I’ve talked about Riva before, and will again. Today I want to talk with and about Alice.

Alice Wong is a disability activist, media maker, and consultant. She founded and directs the Disability Visibility Project® (DVP), a community partnership with StoryCorps and an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture. Alice is also a co-partner in DisabledWriters.com, a resource to help editors connect with disabled writers and journalists, and #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan online movement encouraging the political participation of disabled people.

Alice’s areas of interest are popular culture, media, politics, disability issues, Medicaid policies and programs, storytelling, social media, and activism. She has been published in Bitch MediaTeen VogueNew York Times, Rooted in Rights and others.

From 2013 to 2015 Alice served as a member of the National Council on Disability, an appointment by President Barack Obama. She has a master’s in medical sociology and worked at the University of California, San Francisco as a Staff Research Associate for 15 years. Alice launched the Disability Visibility podcast in September 2017 and currently works as an independent research consultant as part of her side hustle. Because, yes, so many of us have side hustles.

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Image description: Photo of Alice Wong, Founder and Director of the Disability Visibility Project, an Asian American woman wearing a multicolored scarf and bright red lipstick. She has a Bi-Pap mask over her nose attached with a gray tube. She is wearing a black jacket and standing in front of colorful street art.


I became aware of Alice on Twitter as I became aware of how the tentacles of ableism don’t affect just my immediate day-to-day life but wrap around and strangle almost every aspect of disabled peoples’ lives, including—especially—our interactions with the world. This of course includes our cultural lives. We talked about writing: disabled writers, disabled characters in fiction. ‘We need a hashtag,’ I said. As a result, Alice and I now run #CripLit, an occasional Twitter chat for disabled writers. She interviewed me for the publication of So Lucky and today I’m asking her questions about her just-published anthology of essays of crip wisdom, Resistance & Hope. Because now, more than ever, we need to hear where and from whom others find and draw hope—what sustains  us in hard times. It’s as important to talk about joy as about difficulty because it helps to be reminded of the positive things we’re fighting towards, not just what we’re fighting against.

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Image description: Illustration by artist Micah Bazant featuring a midnight blue sky with little white stars. Below is a log with mushrooms growing out of it in multiple shapes and colors. ‘Text reads: Resistance & Hope, Essays by Disabled People, Crip Wisdom for the People, Edited by Alice Wong, Disability Visibility Project.’ The ‘o’ in ‘Hope’ looks like a full moon.


An interview with Alice Wong

Tell me about yourself and your path to this book, as an activist and as a media maker.

It’s amazing how everything leads to something else. I don’t feel like I’m a ‘real’ writer and yet these last three years I’ve been writing more than ever. My background is in qualitative research and sociology. The curiosity and interest I have learning from other disabled people in research led me to writing in non-academic journals and on social media. I fell into activism and writing because the social conditions that we live in compel me. The predominant narratives about us suck and I know there are so many amazing stories and untold histories about disabled people that need to be documented and shared. The reason why I started the Disability Visibility Project in 2014 was to collect oral histories from the disability community and to record our history in the 21st century in our own words, on our own terms. As the DVP expanded into an online community, I’m having a lot of fun telling stories through podcast interviews, blog posts, and Twitter chats. Resistance and Hope is one example of stories about what’s happening now in this particular political climate through a disabled lens.

I’ve said, often, that I write to change the world—but also because I love writing. How about you? Why do you write?

I write in order to contribute to a broader conversation, to engage in ideas, and to offer my unique point-of-view. I don’t write frequently; I usually write when motivated by ongoing thoughts that have been bubbling in the back of my brain in relation to current events. When I write, I don’t want to echo other perspectives that are already out there. For example, I wrote an essay this past Mother’s Day about the visibility of Senator Tammy Duckworth as a disabled parent of color. The images of her with her infant daughter in Congress moved me deeply and I wanted to bring in voices of other disabled Asian Americans/Canadian women who rarely, if ever, see themselves in the media. To me, this was an exciting opportunity to share my feelings and include others. In short, I write to carve out larger spaces for all of us.

Why this book in particular? What was the impetus?

Creating something is the best antidote to feeling powerless in the face of oppression. I felt scared and troubled the evening of Election Day 2016 and wanted to do something in response for us, as disabled people, but for all people who don’t know how we’ve been resisting way before Pussy Hats. I never self-published or published a book in my entire life so I thought it would be an exciting creative challenge.

What was the process like? Did you put out a general call for submissions or was it invitation-only? If so, how did you choose the contributors?

Since I am a complete newbie at self-publishing, I decided that this was going to be a small collection of powerful essays. I wanted to make the process as efficient as possible so I did not publish a call for submissions since there’s a lot involved in responding to queries and notifying people. I had a list of people that I admired from diverse backgrounds that all have something powerful to say. It was important that the majority of the writers are multiply marginalized disabled people of color because I wanted their stories front and center. Originally I had a goal for 25 essays and I ended up having 16 essays by 17 contributors and couldn’t be more delighted each one of them.

Editing and publishing always turns out to be much more work than we initially expect. What surprised you, or challenged you, or delighted you?

I learned a lot! I didn’t go the traditional route and try to get a book deal because I thought it would take too long and that I might lose creative control. I started work on the anthology January 2017 so this entire process has taken almost 2 years. It took me much longer than I thought even though it’s just 16 essays! First, it took a while to receive all the essays from the contributors. I also needed to hire a copy editor, the fantastic Robin M. Eames, to propose edits and work with the contributors for their approval. I had to learn all about self-publishing using Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords (e.g., ISBN numbers, formatting, pricing, etc). I collaborated with a fantastic Bay Area artist, Micah Bazant, who created the book cover. I had to get a lawyer to create the writer’s agreements and have all the writers to sign them after they approved their final drafts. I learned about marketing, writing a good book description, and press release thanks to Corbett OToole of Reclamation Press and Rosalie Morales Kearns of Shade Mountain Press. And to be honest, it took me time to accumulate enough money to cover fees for the writers, book cover, copy editing (thank you to my Patreon supporters). Good shit doesn’t happen out of thin air!

I learned that it’s ok to take your time, especially if you want to do something right. It’s ok to delay things and disappoint people if it’ll create a better end result. While all of the things I mentioned were challenges, I am humbled and grateful for the labor, talents, support, and time people shared with me.

What did you hope this book would achieve? Do you think it’s working?

It might be too early to guess, but I want people to read this anthology and use it as fuel for whatever they are passionate about. I want people engaged, energized, and open to the crip wisdom from our elders, ancestors, and communities. It’s all around us if you just take the time to look.

I hope that this anthology will be used by activists from various movements as an introductory primer on resistance by disabled people. I’d like people to read and share it in classrooms and among friends, families, and community organizers. I want people to value and appreciate the talents and expertise of the 17 contributors and learn more about them.

Another purpose of the Resistance and Hope is to raise money for HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities). HEARD is the only organization in the nation that works to correct and prevent wrongful convictions of D/deaf and hard of hearing individuals. I wanted to make the anthology free on Amazon but found out I couldn’t set it from the beginning. Having Resistance and Hope affordable and accessible is important to me and rather than profiting from it (never my intention), this was a great way to support an organization steeped in disability justice. BTW: the anthology will be free via Smashwords.com in multiple formats.

As a disabled activist and media maker, who or what are you most determined to resist? And where do you find hope?

I resist policies and programs that keep disabled people from living the lives they want. I resist low expectations and tokenistic attempts at disability diversity by organizations and institutions. I resist the feelings of shame and isolation that still plague many of us, including me. I resist the idea that nothing can change and that every system is broken. I resist the idea that representation is enough when what we really want is power.

I find hope in my friends and family. I find hope in the amazing ways disabled people create and get things done interdependently. I find hope and joy in the simple things—excellent conversations and meals. And cat videos.

So what’s next for you?

I’ll be continuing my #CripLit chats with you, and #CripTheVote chats with my co-partners Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan in 2019. I have some great podcast episodes slated for this winter and next spring. And who knows what else…the sky’s the limit!

For more about Resistance & Hope: Essays by Disabled People

#CripLit chat Sunday 10/28: Resistance and Hope

#CripLit 1028

Image description: Graphic with a yellow background and text in black that reads “#CripLit TwitterChat New Resistance and Hope, October 28, 2018, 4 pm Pacific/ 5 pm Mountain/ 6 pm Central/ 7 pm Eastern/ 4 pm Pacific, Co-hosts @Nicolaz & @DisVisibility. Details: DisabilityVisibilityProject.com.” On the left is an illustration of a clenched fist and on the right is an illustration of an ink pen. Both illustrations in black.


Resistance and Hope
#CripLit Twitter Chat
Sunday, October 28, 2018
4 pm Pacific/ 7 pm Eastern

You are invited to the thirteenth #CripLit chat co-hosted by novelist Nicola Griffith and Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project®. This chat is timed to celebrate the publication of Resistance and Hope, an anthology of essays by disabled people, edited by Alice Wong. But the questions are for all of us—all disabled writers are welcome. We want a good conversation about our community’s values, joys, and struggles around resistance and hope!

Alice Wong
Alice Wong is a disability activist, media maker, and consultant. She is the Founder and Director of the Disability Visibility Project® (DVP), a community partnership with StoryCorps and an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture created in 2014. Alice is also a co-partner in DisabledWriters.com, a resource to help editors connect with disabled writers and journalists, and #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan online movement encouraging the political participation of disabled people.

Alice’s areas of interest are popular culture, media, politics, disability issues, Medicaid policies and programs, storytelling, social media, and activism. She has been published in Eater, Bitch Media, Teen Vogue, New York Times, Transom and Rooted in Rights.

From 2013 to 2015 Alice served as a member of the National Council on Disability, an appointment by President Barack Obama. She has a master’s in medical sociology and worked at the University of California, San Francisco as a Staff Research Associate for 15 years. Alice launched the Disability Visibility podcast in September 2017 and currently works as an independent research consultant as part of her side hustle.
(Bio adapted from Disability Visibility Project.)

Nicola Griffith
Nicola Griffith is the founder and, with Alice Wong, the co-partner of #CripLit. She was born and brought up in Yorkshire, England, where she earned her beer money teaching women’s self-defense, fronting a band, and arm-wrestling in bars, before discovering writing and moving to the US.

After her 1993 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis she focused on writing. Her novels are Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always, Hild, and So Lucky. She is the co-editor of the BENDING THE LANDSCAPE series of original queer fiction. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in a variety of journals, including Nature, New Scientist, Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, and Out. Her work has won, among others, the Washington State Book Award, the Tiptree, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, the Premio Italia, and Lambda Literary Award (six times), and is translated into 13 languages.

She has served as a Trustee of the Multiple Sclerosis Association and the Lambda Literary Foundation. She is now a dual US/UK citizen, holds a PhD from Anglia Ruskin University, and lives in Seattle with her wife, the writer Kelley Eskridge.
(Bio adapted from Nicola Griffith’s website.)

Additional Links

How to Participate

Follow @DisVisibility and @nicolaz on Twitter for updates.

When it’s time, search #CripLit on Twitter for the series of live tweets under the ‘Latest’ tab for the full conversation.

If you might be overwhelmed by the volume of tweets and only want to see the chat’s questions so you can respond to them, check @DisVisibility’s account. Each question will tweeted 6-8 minutes apart.

Check out this explanation of how to participate in a twitter chat by Ruti Regan: https://storify.com/RutiRegan/examplechat

Check out this captioned #ASL explanation of how to participate in a chat by @behearddc

Introductory Tweets and Questions for 5/19 Chat

Welcome to the #CripLit chat to celebrate Resistance and Hope. This chat is co-hosted by @nicolaz & @disvisibility. Please remember to use the #CripLit hashtag when you tweet.

If you respond to a question such as Q1, your tweet should follow this format: “A1 [your message] #CripLit”

Q1 Please introduce yourself and share your journey to writing, and writing about resistance in particular. #CripLit

Q2 Tell us about some of your resistance writing. What or who are you resisting? #CripLit

Q3 As a disabled/sick/chronically ill writer, who or what sustains you and gives you hope? #CripLit

Q4 If your resistance writing is published and out in the world, how do you feel? Would you do it again? Why? #CripLit

Q5 What impact has this work had on your writing and/or activism? What are you working on now? #CripLit

Q6 What advice do you have for other disabled writers about editing or writing about resistance? #CripLit

Q7 What new anthologies by/about disabled writers would you like to see? Who and what is missing when it comes to diversity and different perspectives? #CripLit

Q8 Where should we look to discover the new voices of #CripLit, and how can we help each other?

Q9 What would you like to see next for disability literature? How can we increase its reach and visibility—how can we spread our crip wisdom to the people? #CripLit

Thank you for joining our #CripLit chat. Please continue the conversation!

A  recap of this chat will be up tomorrow. Check the #CripLit hashtag. Feel free to contact @DisVisibility and @nicolaz with any ideas/feedback 😀

Booksellers, this one weird trick could increase your bottom line by 25%!

On Friday I was at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show in Tacoma where, with Annie Carl (owner of The Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds) and Kate Ristau (author, most recently, of Clockbreakers), I talked about how booksellers could potentially increase their revenues by 25%.

The answer is simple: make your bookstore—and website, and social media—accessible. According to a CDC press release in August, “One in 4 U.S. adults – 61 million Americans – have a disability that impacts major life activities.” If those 61 million cannot access your store—or website, or social media—they can’t become your customers.

Simple, though, isn’t easy, which is why we put together this panel to offer tips, suggestions, and resources. What follows is a summary of what I said on Friday, plus what I remember of Annie and Kate’s suggestions and the input from booksellers in the audience. If you have other suggestions, please add a comment below.

I’ve also turned this into a PDF that you can download for future reference.

STATISTICS
  • August CDC press release:
    • 1 in 4 adults in US have a disability
    • For all ages and sexes, the 3 most common disabilities are:
      • mobility (14)
      • cognition (11)
      • hearing (6)
    • I’m not bookseller, so I can’t speak to your customer demographics, but as an author I can tell you that a huge proportion of my readers are women ages 45-64
    • According to CDC, fully 30% of women 45-64 have a disability that makes major impacts on their life
    • If those women can’t get into your store—or use your website, or read your social media posts—they won’t be buying my books from you; you’ve lost their business
ACCESSIBILITY

It can be difficult, and expensive, to turn an inaccessible building into a universally accessible one. But it’s pretty easy, and inexpensive, to make a few simple, helpful changes.

Here’s a list of what, in an ideal world, what every bookstore should offer its customers. In parentheses next to some items are suggestions for ways to begin if your store is small and your budget tight.

For Customers:

  • Level entry. No stairs, of course, but also no lip: even 1″ can be insurmountable. (In ascending order of expense and difficulty: if you do have a threshold lip, you can buy heavy duty rubber threshold raps/mats online for just lips 1″- 2.5″ for around $100, depending on brand and size. If you have outside steps, you can buy and install a Garaventa wheelchair lift like the one at Elliott By Book Company–this is what I have at my house; I found it secondhand for less than $7,000.)
  • Accessible counter height at point-of-purchase. (If if would cost too much to replace your splendid, chest-high edifice, just add a low table to one end that someone in a wheelchair can see over. And clear space at one end for someone to approach from the side.)
  • Reading nook w/space for a wheelchair (because people in wheelchairs, too, like to settle in and take a deeper look at a potential purchase without being banged into or bothered)
  • Accessible bathroom on ground floor or accessible via elevator (one small thing you could do immediately: install grab bars in a stall).
  • Wider aisles (begin by moving things apart a little, and clearing the floor space; parents with strollers will also thank you)
  • Clear signage (buff-coloured card, black ink, large, well-spaced lettering)
  • Temperature control. (Depending on your location this could be as simple as fans and opening windows. When your budget is healthier, consider split-duct air conditioning.)
  • More accessible websites (e.g. good contrast, mindful of visual difference/colour palette, include image descriptions; plus a link to your disability policies and access info, including contact info)
  • More accessible social media (image descriptions; clear spacing; hashtags like #CripLit and #OwnVoices)

For Authors and events:

All of the above, plus:

  • In event space, no steps to the dais
  • No podium but a sturdy table a wheelchair user can get her knees under
  • Good lighting
  • Sound amplification
    • small store: small Bluetooth speaker is fine, but put speaker halfway up event space—front two or three rows will be able to hear the author just fine. (You can buy 60w Bluetooth speaker with both lavalier and handheld mic for $85 online)
    • Big store, you probably already have professional system, but make sure you buy lavalier mics, too, anywhere from $15-$180 (It’s very difficult to hold a microphone, turn or swipe a page, hold a hardcover book/iPad at the same time and talk at the same time…)
  • Hands-free microphone:
  • Lavalier/lapel is best, not just for disabled authors but for all of us. (Any idea how hard it is to hold mic, hold book, read aloud, and turn pages at same time?)
  • But good adjustable mic stand okay—and cost less than $20
  • ASL and/or CART (real-time captioning). (Individual interpreters are usually certified and listed by local government: the state, the county, the city. There are also various agencies. Interpretation costs can be shared between local bookstores and by the publisher—this is what I did recently for the So Lucky launch. Phinney Books, Elliott Bay Book Company, and the publisher (FSG x MCD), shared the cost.

Both:

  • Decent books to read:
    • Disabled people read all kinds of books, not just fiction and nonfiction about disability
    • But what many of us are really hungry for is books that reflect us; books with disabled characters whether or not the book’s about disability
WHAT IS GOOD #CRIPLIT?

Note: not all disabled people use the same language. I like identify-first language: disabled person. Others prefer person-first language: person with a disability. I tend to refer to literature by and about disabled characters as CripLit; others prefer Disability in Literature.

  • If I rolled into your shop and asked for a good book, what would you point me to?
  • Disabled people want good books, just like everyone else (graphic novels, romance, military history, memoir, science fiction, historical fiction, crime fiction, etc)
  • But we also want to see ourselves; we need a mirror; we need to know we’re not alone: we want fiction with disabled characters and nonfiction with or about disabled people.
  • There are plenty of okay #CripLit memoirs—though many are either what I think of as misery memoirs or triumph-over-the-odds memoirs (sigh)—but very little decent #CripLit fiction, especially for adult readers.
  • Much disability fiction is not #OwnVoices—not written by disabled authors but by nondisabled authors—which unless properly researched and beta-read by disabled people can be not only full of misinformation but actively harmful
  • I’m guessing many of you have sold a lot of those books—you may even have thought something like ME BEFORE YOU, by JoJo Moyes, or STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY, by Katharine Weber, heartwarming or inspirational or poignant—but they send an extremely dangerous message that, in my opinion, should not be propagated, should not be read by disabled readers or nondisabled readers. These two books, in my opinion, should never have been published:
    • Both present a nondisabled woman in love with a disabled man
    • In both the man is rich, good looking, and talented; has the love of a good woman—he has everything, really, except use of his legs.
    • But because he can’t walk, his life is deemed not worth living; he kills himself so his wife can be happy and rich, unburdened by a cripple hanging about, and free to live a ‘normal’ life
  • Most people will be familiar with the Bechdel Test for women in film/tv.
  • Late last year disability activist Kenny Fries (pronounced Freese) proposed the Fries Test for disability in fiction
    • Fries Test = “Does a work have more than one disabled character? Do the disabled characters have their own narrative purpose other than the education and profit of a nondisabled character? Is the character’s disability not eradicated either by curing or killing?”
    • Fries Test is a low bar:
      • disabled characters don’t have to have names
      • they don’t have to talk to each other
      • and they certainly don’t have to talk about something other than disability
  • Fries Test is very low bar. Nonetheless late last year I put out a call on social media for suggestions for book-length fiction for adults that would pass the test.
  • I had hundreds of responses.
  • But so far only 55 books pass the Fries Test.
  • Think about that
    • Stanford lit lab estimates there are about 5m novels extant in English
    • given that 1 in 4 people now have some kind of disability, there should be 1.25m books for, by, and about us that, at minimum, should pass the Fries Test
    • But there are 55
    • Think of all those voices that are missing
    • think of how much your customers yearn, need to see themselves reflected in stories: you can help
    • 25% of your customers have a disability; how many books do you have for them?
      • Take a look at the list of books that pass the Fries Test for disability in fiction.
      • Read through the archived #CripLit Twitter chats for book suggestions
      • Read Annie and Kate’s suggestions
      • Go to the Disability in Kidlit website for recommended disability literature for children and young adults.
SUGGESTIONS

My biggest, boldest suggestion?

  • Have an association-wide independent accessible shopping day (like the UK’s Purple Tuesday scheduled for 13 November this year—they’re doing general retail rather than just books)
  • Perhaps link this to Independent Bookstore Day in April, or maybe LitCrawl, or just have a special day in November in time for holiday shopping
  • Every store should make a commitment to do 3 small things, e.g.:
    • put access info on website so customers know what to expect
    • improve entry accessibility (e.g. buy a threshold mat)
    • add grab bars to bathroom stall
  • If you’ve already sorted that, then pick three other things
  • Next year, add something else, etc
  • Eventual goal: association-wide accessibility standard minimums

Radical hospitality

Imagine you are recovering from flu and feel really tired and fragile. You walk into your bookstore. What would you need?

  • A chair near the door to rest?
  • A friendly smile from a staff member, and “What can I do to help you?”
  • Perhaps escort customer to high shelves in case they need help reaching down the book you’ve recommended?
  • Make information available so that everyone knows you can, for example, buy and download audio books right there from the store. Walk them through the process on the store’s iPad
  • Anything else you think might help: but always ask first, don’t assume they need help (and never, ever touch a customer’s mobility device without permission!)

Disability in Literature Shelf

  • Special Disability in Literature section (start with a shelf)
    • fiction and nonfiction
    • poetry and plays
    • memoir and graphic novels
    • adult and kidlit
  • But eventually you should be able to recommend at least one book from every single one of your sections, and recommend them to all customers, disabled and nondisabled

Build and share Resources list

  • On PNBA website, list
    • ideal accessibility standards
    • minimum accessibility standards (and aim to improve this year over year)
  • Suggestions for how to reach those standards—what’s worked for people, what a good price is—or maybe even share equipment (use unofficial Twitter hashtag, or build  unofficial Facebook group to avoid legal implications)
  • Maintain and increase list of good #CripLit

Outside Resources

And remember, this is just a beginning! You don’t have to do everything at once. Pick one thing and improve that. Readers are waiting!

Reading August/September

I’ve done a lot of reading the last couple of months, mostly fiction but some nonfiction. As usual, many of them are rather forgettable so today I’ll just talk about five that I enjoyed and are definitely worth your time, and then four others that do exactly what they promise to do and so might prove useful for an unchallenging read on a flight or long commute.

Not discussed here: one novel that angered me so much that I’ve decided it requires its own post. Stay tuned.

Recommended Books

The Air You Breathe, Frances de Pontes Peebles (August 2018)
It opens in northern Brazil on a sugar cane plantation in the 1920s. Young Dores, a gangly plain orphan brought up by the housekeeper, has the run of the Great House that is between owners and mostly closed up. Then new owners move in with their spoilt, pretty, daughter, Graça. What follows is a clash of wills that, despite their vast class difference, turns into the relationship that dictates the rest of their lives. Dores is smart but Graça is ambitious. They both fall under the spell of music and start to sing for the estate’s workers. Eventually they run away and, still teenagers, end up in Lapa, the heart and home of Samba in 1920s Rio. Dores writes songs for Graça, who sings her way to Hollywood where she becomes Sofia Salvador, the Brazilian Bombshell.

This is a sensual book: we smell, and hear, and feel the heat and jungle of north Brazil then Rio in the 20s, and Hollywood and Las Vegas after that. The living beat of the book, though, is samba. The rhythm and duende of samba winds through the prose–pitch perfect, except for the occasional over-the-top moment–and twines through the reader’s heart, pulling us in. Music drives a deep hunger in both women, but while Dores hungers for Graça, Graça hungers only for fame. (Imagine that the real Brazilian Bombshell, Carmen Miranda, had met Chavela Vargas…) Unlike most Hollywood stories, though, this time it’s the straight girl who dies young and the lesbian who lives well and long.

It is strongly written, well-structured, and steeped in longing. It is an adventure, a history, and a love song. One to reread on days when you need an excuse to feel too deeply and yearn for something larger and more vivd than life.

The Parting Glass, Gina Marie Guadagnino (March 2019)
Read The Parting Glass for its rich tapestry of 1830s lower Manhattan, where the stately drawing rooms of wealthy WASPs on Washington Square are sustained by the cheap labour drawn from the tenements nearby whose streets are lit by fires you have to pay to be put out, awash in the blood of slaughter houses, and drained by both the ‘protection’ demanded by the Irish mob and the constant pay-offs to Tammany Hall to stay in business.

Or read it as a fascinating study of immigration and social class, race and ethnicity, religion and sexuality in early New York. Or as the tale of Maire O’Farrell and her twin brother Seanin, fresh off the boat, who are everything to each other, who help each other lie and change their names to survive, to get work in a wealthy household—until they both fall in love with the daughter of the house. Or read it as a tragedy of lies and triumph of love, or a delicious subversion of the marriage plot. Is it perfect? No. I think we could have done with a lot less of Maire’s mooning over Charlotte, which I didn’t really believe, and a bit more of the frank and uncomplicated sex between Maire and Liddie. But it has a clear-eyed view of class and community that I admired, and it’s enormously satisfying. So, yep, read it how you like, but read it.

Transcription, Kate Atkinson (September 25, 2018)

I’ve enjoyed Atkinson’s work since 1995 when I found Behind the Scenes at the Museum, an unexpected novel from a perspective, era, and place I know: a Yorkshire family in the second half of the twentieth century. I liked everything of hers I’ve read, though never really warmed to some of it, such as Life After Life.

Transcription is told by Juliet Armstrong, who, in WWII London, was recruited by Britain’s domestic secret service, MI5, to transcribe the tapes of secretly recorded conversations between fifth columnists/fascist sympathisers and government spies. (I marvelled over the old-school spy tech.) The novel begins in 1950, after the war, with Juliet as a producer of children’s programming at the BBC. Naturally, the narrative doesn’t stay post-war long but loops back to the past. Equally naturally, nobody is exactly who they seem. Atkinson must have had a great time nesting identities inside identities, plot loops inside plot loops, disguises inside disguises. While the story reads cleanly and simply, it is anything but. Atkinson creates a sense of the mundane–the dreary deprivation of war-dimmed Britain with its ugly cardigans, rationing, and general dinginess–living in perfect harmony with the slick sophistication of upper-crust society. The thrill and tension of lives and nations in the balance is matched by a deliciously absurd sense of humour. This is a hopeful, thought-provoking, and absorbing read, both a gentle but beautifully wrought guide to the lessons of history that are applicable today and a reminder of how far we’ve come yet how so much never seems to change.

Broken Ground, Val McDermid (December 5, 2018)

Val McDermid is another writer with the gift of combining gritty realism, history, and a good read. Perhaps it’s a northern thing. Once again, we’re dealing with the fallout of decisions made in the second world war, only this time we’re in present-day Scotland with DCI Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit. Artisan gins in Edinburgh, vintage American motorbikes buried under the turf by an upland croft, dead Highland Games athletes, and cold-eyed, well-dressed, yoga-and-flat-white-devotees who plan murders are all part of another satisfying, expertly-plotted narrative by a master.

The Green Man’s Heir, Juliet E McKenna (March, 2018)

The Green Man’s Heir is, like the two previous discussed novels, set in the UK, and, again, harks back to the past, though this time much, much further, to a world of British myth and folklore. And, like the two previous novels, it begins with a crime. However, unlike those city-based narratives, The Green Man’s Heir is firmly grounded in the English countryside, specifically the Peak District.

This novels is almost, but not quite, what I think of as an English landscape fantasy such as Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. A love of trees and wildlife shines from every page. Those books, though, concern (mostly) ordinary people stumbling upon the extraordinary otherworld that over- (or under-) lies our own. Daniel Mackmain, on the other hand, is a greenblood, the son of a dryad who can see naiads and dryads, shucks and boggarts. An ordinary human might hear the farm dog barking frantically but they can’t see the boggarts tormenting it. Dan knows that the recent murder of a woman in the woods is not the work of a serial killer but supernatural in origin. But it’s hard to solve murders when you don’t want to be tracked on CCTV because you can’t allow yourself to be in any national databases. After all, most people don’t age so slowly…

If you like woodworking, folklore and myth, trees, a good story, a bit of sex, and protecting the innocent, this book is for you. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Books that do what it says on the tin

Firefly, Henry Porter (October 2018)

Workmanlike prose, great research, and a timely subject: a young Syrian immigrant codenamed Firefly is on the run in Central Europe as he tries to avoid organised criminals and the terrorist he has betrayed. Meanwhile Paul Samson (a character who reads like the lovechild of Le Carré and Alastair Maclean) scrambles over hostile mountains and slips across international borders to save him. This is absolutely as described by the publisher, a “timely thriller following the refugee trail from Syria to Europe…a sophisticated, breathtaking race against time from an author who brings a whole new level of urgency to the genre. A cut above most in the genre.

The Dream Daughter, Diane Chamberlain (October 2018)

Apparently Chamberlain is a prolific bestselling author of romance-flavoured fiction but I didn’t know any of that when I picked up The Dream Daughter. (That is both a positive and negative of the lucky dip that is NetGalley but I wouldn’t change it. It reminds me of being a young reader when every book was a new adventure and I had no idea what to expect.) The prose isn’t great, and there’s a gaping plot hole drive like a stake through its heart but I finished it anyway. This is a super straight family-oriented Christian-tinged fiction with time-travel. (Yes, it’s as odd as it sounds.) Carly, a young widow, discovers that her unborn child has a heart defect that, in 1970, is unfixable. But then her sister’s handsome, sensitive but mysterious physicist husband, Hunter, tells her there is a way. Hunter, it turns out, is a tie traveller from 2017 where they do things like fix foetal anomalies in utero. Of course, not everything goes smoothly because Hunter sort of forgets to include 9/11 in his calculations… Why did I finish it? I’m not sure. Probably because I wanted to see how Chamberlain would navigate Carly through the eras and plot obstacles. So maybe you will, too.

The Burglar, Thomas Perry (January 2019)

I loved Perry’s early Jane Whitefield novels about a member of the Seneca Wolf clan with extraordinary skills who helps those in danger disappear. (Start with Vanishing Act.) The protagonist of his latest, Elle Stowell, is also a young, fit woman with extraordinary skills. She’s a burglar, a very good one; to stay safe she never lets anyone into her personal life. But then on a job she stumbles over a triple homicide and suddenly none of her old rules apply. Perry’s prose is weirdly stiff in places, but if you’re after a niftily-plotted take-down-the-bad-guys read, this one’s for you.

Past Tense, Lee Child (November 2018)

Lee Child’s series about Major Jack Reacher, US Army (Ret.), follow the same pattern: Reacher, the 6’5″ ex-military cop, is hitching about the US. He gets dropped off in the middle of nowhere with only cash, cash card, and toothbrush, has assorted adventures, initiates serious mayhem in service of saving a bunch of locals from Black Hats, has some good and respectful sex, then hitches off alone into another sunset. A modern version of Shane, the famous film gunfighter. (Interestingly, Alan Ladd, who starred in Shane, was about the same height, 5’6″ or maybe 5’7″, as Tom Cruise who plays Reacher in Jack Reacher and Never Go Back.) Past Tense breaks no new ground, though Reacher does a bit less than usual in sorting out an illegal hunting operation (spoiler: they don’t hunt animals…). Also as usual, it pays not to look at the plot too closely because it doesn’t really make sense. In this one part of my active suspension of disbelief involves a young, untrained, unfit, unarmed woman who ends up killing two experienced hunters armed with bows and night-vision goggles. But who cares? Jack Reacher is doing what Jack Reacher does, and the status quo is restored.


Caveats:

These posts are not meant to function as in-depth assessments. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a combination of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood).

The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published (sometimes via using a kind of lucky dip system on NetGalley or Edelweiss, more usually being sent a galley to blurb), old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get either because they’re already old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, or a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. (This is the kind of book I’d read with flu, or doped up on opiates: it does not require full attention but is a great distraction from discomfort.) The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines.

I start many books; I don’t finish most. When that happens, I usually don’t discuss them. In terms of living writers, punching down isn’t acceptable and punching up can be counterproductive. On occasion I’ll do both but I have to feel seriously provoked in terms of either narrative choices (cripples as narrative prostheses; women as victims of sexual violence) or a writing habit that has pissed me off once too often. Punching dead writers often feels tacky, but I’ll make exceptions if I believe my commentary might prove useful to a potential reader or a new writer.

Tomorrow: Me and Maria Dahvana Headley, Seattle Central Library, Monday 10th September, 7 pm

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On Monday night I’ll be talking with Maria Dahvana Headley about her new and amazing novel, The Mere Wife, at the Central Library in downtown Seattle. See the Facebook events page for more details.

I loved this book. It is an unmistakably modern novel with the sensibility of now, but it excludes the appurtenances of the twenty-first century: smartphones, mobile internet, social media (though not security devices such as motion detectors and gate cameras). It is not timeless, exactly, but it is outside this particular time. It is set in the US, northeastern commuter territory, and is about women at war, in all the ways women have always been at war. Whether army vets or suburban wives, mothers or daughters, women have always fought: with blood and bloodlines, with love, with fury and vengeance, with the armour of composure and masks, with political and social spin. You should read this book.

Here’s the blurb I sent to the publisher:

The Mere Wife is an astonishing reinterpretation of Beowulf: Beowulf in suburbia–epic, operatic, and razor sharp. It uses Beowulf’s three-part structure and a fascinating take on Old English traditions of animism to create a story not of thick-thewed thegns but of women; women at war, literally and figuratively. It is Maria Dahvana Headley’s women who are the givers of grief, the dealers of doom. They are not objects but most definitely subjects whose primary allegiance is to each other. They rule and they fight. They fight as individuals and in groups (Headley brilliantly co-opts another Old English tradition of collective voice), as wives and warriors, mothers and matriarchs. Their chosen weapons are as likely to be swords as public relations, and they wield both fearlessly. Monstrousness is in the eyes of the beholder and these women are terrifying in defence of their people, their position, and themselves.

Maria’s a good friend, and we’ve been talking for years about some of the issues raised in The Mere Wife. Maria will give a brief reading, then we’ll be talking for about half an hour about race, gender, patriarchy and political smashing, inciting revolution, monsters and monsterhood, and the ways in which we can reimagine the past and tell it as it should have been told all along—and so much, much more.

The Central Library is wonderfully accessible. And the facilities people have promised they won’t make the air-conditioning too fierce.

So come and listen, and put your own questions to the ferociously smart, funny, fabulous (and fabulously dressed!) Maria Dahvana Headley.

 

Why stories matter

I’m not sure when most of this video was shot, but my part was done winter 2013/2014 when I was in the middle of the most horrendous few months of pain I’ve ever had. I wasn’t really sleeping, so I look pale and thin and fragile. That’s not how I look now—I just want to reassure you! But the message of all these authors is the same: story is woven into our lives; story is a human thing; story matters.

So your mission for the day: go find a good story and enjoy it.

Nearing the cliff edge

Charlie Stross has just saved me the trouble of writing another Brexit screed. He makes a lot of sense. Go read it.

I am so tired of talking to people in the UK who wilfully refuse to believe the coming shit storm*, who insist, “Oh, the government would never let that happen to us!” They are mostly white, middle-class, nondisabled straight Christians; they won’t be first against the wall. They are the people who voted Leave. They’re used to being Us, not Them. (Those of us who have been Them all our lives are much less sanguine.) Even so, if I were them I’d be stockpiling food, meds, and fuel. If I had room for stockpiled fuel, I’d buy a generator. I’d cancel plans for travel anytime after February 2019. And I’d be very, very glad that, when the unrest comes, there aren’t more guns in the hands of UK citizens.

For those in North America and Europe (and every other continent for that matter), remember that the more complex and intertwined a system becomes, the easier it is to break. And civilisation is extraordinarily complex. Short term, what happens here after Brexit will be nothing like the UK. Long term? You might want to start looking at your supplies.


* Just eight months to go…