Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Unspeakable Things

When reviewing a book, I like to give a sense of its trajectory, and pull out a few specific examples from the text that highlight the book’s strengths and weaknesses. With Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, I find that approach difficult, because each chapter is so vibrant. Penny considers her subjects with such depth and grace, such honesty and intelligence, that to leave anything out is unsettling. I can’t quote the whole book to you; I can only say that I really hope you will read it. Penny, who is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, has long been one of my favorite political writers, due to her clear grasp of the intertwined nature of the political and the personal.

Unspeakable Things arrived at my doorstep at an opportune time. As a young writer, I am learning the consequences of speaking one’s mind in public, that it’s dangerous business simply to exist as a woman and be good at what you do. Why, I wonder, are so many men shocked and offended that women have the audacity to narrate their own stories, instead of letting someone else do it for us? With this question on my mind, I cracked the spine of Unspeakable Things:
This is not a fairy tale. This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine. (1)
Laurie Penny is not afraid to name the causes of women’s legitimate anger, nor the repercussions thereof. “One sure test of social privilege,” she writes, “is how much anger you get to express without the threat of expulsion, arrest, or social exclusion” (1). She goes on to lay out the realities of love, sex, and gender under neoliberalism, and the prevalent ideologies that dictate discourse about these subjects across the political spectrum. Penny understands that the problems we face are structural, and that their solutions will involve more than simply tweaking the existing rules. The system is broken; the storyline is flawed. And we need to overturn it if there is to be any hope of moving beyond misogynist norms. She writes:
There comes a time when you have to decide whether to change yourself to fit the story, or change the story itself. The decision gets a little easier if you understand that refusing to shape your life and personality to the contours of an unjust world is the best way to start creating a new one. 
There comes a time when you have to decide what you will permit yourself to want. 
While we’re on the subject, here’s what I want. I want mutiny. I want women and queers and everyone else who’s been worked over by gender and poverty and power, which by the way means most of us, to stop waiting to be rewarded for good behaviour. There are no gold stars coming and there are few good jobs left. Even if we buy the right clothes and work the right hours and show up every day with the same cold gag of a smile clenched between our teeth, there’s no guarantee we’ll be left alone to grow old before the flood waters come in. 
Forget it. It’s done. The social revolution that’s been clocking and stumbling down a gauntlet of a century and more, the feminist fightback, the sexual re-scripting, the tearing up of old norms of race and class and gender, it has to start again, with all of us this time, not just the rich white kids who needed it least. So it has to be mutiny. (21, emphasis mine)
What do we want, anyway? What are we supposed to want? Desires are constructed within a web of expectations about right ways of being women or men, such that sometimes what we think we want and what we actually want are not the same thing. And when you begin to realize that, to reject the story you’ve been told, the trajectory you’re supposed to follow, what then? You are confronted with the choice of refusal, of saying no to the world as is, and yes to wanting something else, something better. And you will likely be punished for that desire.

Throughout Unspeakable Things Penny lays bare truths both women and men don’t want to speak of, don’t want to hear. From “Fucked-Up Girls” and “Lost Boys” to sexism on the internet and love in dangerous times, each chapter is a treatise on a particular feature of the current landscape of gender and sexuality. Together, they make a compelling case for her central claim: that gender polices our dreams, and that all of us -- each and every one -- have to imagine a way forward together, a way out of the tangled web of categories and boxes we try to squeeze ourselves and everyone else into. We have to dare to want something more than what is currently offered, something more than “hard work, bland beauty and romance leading to money, marriage and kids: the definition of total freedom that has been allowed to conquer our imaginations, leaving no space for any other lives. But what if we want something else? Is that still allowed? What if we want freedom?” (21).

I worry that it’s not allowed. Not now. And we must dare to want it anyway.

Doubtless there are theological connections here, which Penny herself would not make but would, I hope, excuse me for wanting. The current matrix of neoliberal capitalism, of violence and social control, is not the kind of freedom Christians are called to, despite how the church has been sucked into that narrative. A vision of life beyond human categories that define and separate, of freedom made possible in the Christ who heals us all and makes us whole, as creatures who are more than the limited definitions we try to project onto one another -- sadly most of us are not taught in church to imagine that kind of freedom.

Unspeakable Things left me with a deep hunger, one that has gnawed me for years but has only now been named. I decide, daily, what I will permit myself to want -- not only for myself, but for the world I live in, for the children I may never have, for the sisters and brothers who labor day in and day out in a system that it seems will never change. What will you permit yourself to want?

I fear that I want too much.

What does it mean to refuse to change my life to fit the story, and instead to change the story itself? To use my body, my life, my voice, to help reshape the contours of an unjust world?

Penny named so many things I have felt, so many injuries I bury deep down, wounds I have almost forgotten are there but can never fully leave behind. Wounds I know are only a small part of widespread epidemics. And yet, Penny ends her book with more hope than I can sometimes muster. “Revolution begins in the human imagination,” she writes, and I want to believe her. I don’t have that kind of hope in us, though I think she is right that we must dare to imagine something more, something else, and that means relentless hope, rejecting the story as it is now being told, and joining in the re-scripting of a world turned upside down by grace.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Femmonite Book Club

I had so much fun reading and reviewing Roxane Gay’s fabulous essay collection, Bad Feminist, last month that I decided this sort of thing should become a regular feature on the blog. A Femmonite Book Club, minus the need to squeeze an extra meeting into your no doubt already overstuffed schedules. You might think of this as me turning the Femmonite into a mini virtual classroom on feminism and literature, or simply as a way to choose which of the many books published each month are, in my highly subjective opinion, worth your time.

If you’re interested in reading along, here’s the full schedule:

September: Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution
October: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
November: Mallory Ortberg, Texts from Jane Eyre
December: Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl

Look for my review of Unspeakable Things TOMORROW!