Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Thoughts on feminism, femininity and being female in the 21st century

On International Women's Day, here's another very personal essay, this time on what it is to be a woman and how to be a feminist in the modern world. Be warned, it's a long 'un. 



It’s International Women’s Day today. To me, that includes all women, of whatever skin colour or belief system, whether they were born with vaginas or not. It also includes people whose gender doesn’t neatly fit at one end of the spectrum or the other, yet still possess vaginas and want to continue possessing them. It also includes men, with or without penises at birth. Importantly, men have to be included in dialogue in order to promote understanding and support on both sides.

Let’s be honest: your nads are your business. You can be feminist if you have a vagina, if you have a penis, if you have neither or both, if you get your tits out in an international fashion magazine, if you keep yourself covered fully in public. We’re 17 years into the 21st century, for crying out loud. It’s who you are and how you treat people that should count. 

Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll be upfront. I have a specific issue I’d like to talk about, and about which I’ve spent a long time thinking and wondering whether to shove my oar in. So here goes nothing:

Too much has been written recently about how trans women (the area seems to be a bit greyer where genderqueer or agender people are concerned) shouldn’t be included in today’s festivities, shouldn’t be included in feminism, and shouldn’t even be considered women. The thinking, according to at least some of the writing I’ve read, seems to be that these are men who, almost on a whim, decided they quite fancied being women – as if they’re just playing dress up, playacting at being female.

A lot of the rhetoric seems to exclude the personal torment, the mental health issues, and the stigma they will have faced in coming out and beginning the process of transitioning. It also ignores the fact that transitioning is never done lightly – it can’t be, because there are too many barriers, legal, medical and otherwise.

For many trans people, it might have taken a lifetime to get there. They might be treated like freaks, shunned by their families and their communities. For some, too, at the very best, it might mean facing ostracism and scorn, and the very worst, violence and death, just as so-called “real” women have in other circumstances. 

The people who engage in the kind of thinking that treats trans women as “fake” women would do well to remember that trans women most assuredly have their own struggles, equally real and even equally painful. What’s more, if you’ve lived most of your life as a man, of course it’s going to take time to learn the realities of being a woman. Of course you’ll see things through a male gaze. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn, or that they should be forbidden from trying. 

These people would also do well to remember that, just as there are people who are physically male and want to become female, there are those for whom the reverse is true, who will have endured many, if not all, of the same struggles, and who also deserve a place at the table. Would you devote as many column inches to saying trans men aren’t “real” men? I doubt it. Why do it to trans women?

While I don’t agree with it, I admit I can see where this exclusionary mentality comes from. At least to an extent, men who transition must have enjoyed the privileges that go along with being male. They haven’t had to suffer the same knock backs and discrimination and dangers as those assigned female at birth and who’ve grown up in a world that tells them they’re inferior because of their sex.

They are, however, prepared to drop all their male privilege in exchange for ridicule and condemnation, so that they can stop hiding.

The problem, really, is that this mentality speaks of a mindset that is in fact extremely outdated: women are this, men are that, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Whether intentionally or not, it actually seems to support the very rigid definitions of gender that created the dangerous divisions between the treatment of men and women in the first place. 

The fact is, the idea of being transgender simply hasn’t been part of the mainstream consciousness for long enough to have generated the same levels of oppression. The issues around it are still being unpacked. But that doesn’t mean trans women shouldn’t be included in the discussion of feminism and on how to go forward. Why can’t we add their struggle to the existing one, and work together? Why can’t we all be on the same page? All people should be treated equally. Can’t we agree on that at least?

Here’s my thought process: it’s not about eroding the position of either women or men, or the hard-won rights that feminists have fought for over the centuries. In fact, at a fundamental level, I’d argue there must be a definition of what a woman or man is, physically, mentally and emotionally, for someone to identify as one or the other. You can’t have trans women without women, or trans men without men. But being born with the “wrong” genitalia doesn’t exclude you from aligning yourself with one gender or the other. It doesn’t mean you have to be one thing or the other. Male is not the opposite of female. You can sit at either end of the spectrum, whether you were born there or not, and anywhere in between. 

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to be masculine without being male, and feminine without being female, and that, I’d argue, is another great example of the strides humanity has made. You have that choice now. I’m a (cis) woman, married to a (cis) man, but that doesn’t mean I have to wear frilly frocks and stay at home and make his dinner every night. I could choose to, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone else making that choice. But at the same time, we’re equal partners and neither of us is lessened by not fitting into a “traditional” role.

I admit, I do wonder about the validity of labelling children as transgender at very young ages, as I think there has to be a certain amount of maturity, a certain amount of understanding present before one’s identity is fully formed. Kids do go through phases – I myself wore my hair short and liked being mistaken for a boy between the ages of about nine and eleven – and sometimes, they stick, but sometimes they don’t. In my opinion, it’s better to let kids figure things out for themselves and make up their own minds about their identities. It’s better to let them know it’s ok for them to go against the “norm”, and help them understand gender identity, but don’t prejudge them or force them into a pigeonhole. Then, if they themselves feel their gender doesn’t match their sex, support them and stick by them if they decide to transition. 

(Let me interject here that being transracial is not a thing. The constructs around race and ethnicity are wholly different to those around gender and sex. Let’s leave that alone for now, but read this, by someone much cleverer than me, if you still can’t grasp it.)

I also concede that it’s totally daft to stop putting on productions of The Vagina Monologues, or stop talking about issues that pertain solely to women who were born with female genitalia, such as reproductive rights, because it supposedly excludes trans women. 

The point here is that there will be issues that affect trans women only, issues that affect cis women only, issues that affect black women, Indian women, Muslim women, Christian women, small groups of women, large groups, medium groups, all of the above, some of the above, and varying combinations. We don’t have to exclude one for the benefit of another, and nor should we: it risks derailing feminist discourse altogether. 

Instead, we need to be as aware of all these issues as we can, and to take stock of the intersections and the differences that make us so amazing and diverse and cool. We all need to be part of the discussion, and we all need to be thinking about ways to make things better. We need to stop saying, “you’re excluded because you don’t have this” or “you’re only included if you do have that”.

Feminism is not the exclusive domain of a single group. Everyone can be a feminist, and everyone should be. As I’ve said before, we need to use whatever privilege we have to help those who don’t have it. 

Full disclosure: I admit, I don’t understand what it is to be transgender and never fully could, for the simple reason that I’m not transgender. My personal privilege is largely attached to my skin colour, but also to the fact I’m (more or less) cisgender. I don’t have that experience and never will. 

But I also accept that it’s not for me to decide how someone else presents themselves. It’s not for me to tell them they can’t be who they are because it doesn’t sit neatly within an outdated definition of manhood or womanhood. If you’re not hurting anybody, you do you. What’s going on under your clothes is really none of my business. Now let me welcome you to the table, and let’s start talking.  



Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Sassy

Here is some microfiction, explaining my feelings about the word "sassy".


“Sassy,” Kenneth said.

“Sassy?” Elaine asked. “Sassy?

“Yes,” he said. “Sassy.” Elaine sighed.

“Kenneth, we’ve talked about this,” she said. She picked up the bronze paperweight from her desk.

“I know, but…” he protested. He raised his hands in front of his face, as her eyes filled with rage. 

“No buts,” she said. She lifted the heavy moulded metal high above her head and prepared to throw it.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Why speculative fiction? A guest post by Shona Kinsella

The lovely and talented Shona Kinsella, author of Ashael Rising, has written this fabulous piece on the world (or worlds) of speculative fiction. You can read my interview with her here. Her buy links and social media details are below. Enjoy!  



While I do occasionally step outside of speculative fiction, it’s fair to say that the vast majority of my work falls there, from my debut novel to my flash fiction. So, what’s the draw of the genre? Or, more accurately, collection of genres: fantasy, sci-fi, horror, utopia, dystopia, alternate history, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and superhero (according to Wikipedia).

I often joke and say that I like to write fantasy because I don’t have to do any research – I can just make it up as I go along. That actually isn’t true, though. I do quite a lot of research because I think the accuracy of the mundane details makes the magical more acceptable – it helps the reader to suspend disbelief.

The real reason I love speculative fiction so much is the sheer breadth of possibility. If you set up the world right, you can make anything at all happen; it just has to make sense in the context of the world you have built. For example, in Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson, it’s established early on that on the storm-ridden world of Roshar, the energy of the storm can be caught in gems called spheres, which are then used for light. It’s then plausible that the energy could be captured and utilised in other ways, too – and so we have characters who can use the "stormlight" to perform inhuman feats.

Of course, the flip side of this is that your world must be built well and be internally consistent. In KalaDene (the planet on which Ashael Rising is set), the Folk are a tribal people, hunter-gatherers who live in harmony with their planet. This harmony allows them to manipulate the life energy that suffuses everything. However, since the source of their magic is life force, I can’t have them running around casting spells everywhere with no limit – they can only use the energy that is available and if they take too much from one place, they are taking life itself. To have their power be unlimited would not be internally consistent.

Another thing I love about speculative fiction is the ability to take issues of importance in the real world and look at them in a different context. Issues such as racism, religious persecution, environmentalism and gender equality have all featured in speculative fiction in forms that allow them to be examined in a way that may not trigger the same level of emotion that a more "realistic" novel is likely to engender.

This can be a really useful tool and can be very eye-opening for the writer. For example, in Ashael Rising, the cams are gender-equal, with men and women both taking leadership roles and nurturing roles. No one is assigned tasks or limited in their choices because of their gender. Writing that sort of culture made me realise how gendered our use of language can be. In an early draft, I had a character dismissing something as "female intuition" without thinking about how these people would not frame intuition that way.

For me, the only downside to writing speculative fiction is that when you create another world, you have to keep track of so much information. I have files on the flora, fauna and climate of KalaDene, on the races and their cultures, on the history that brought them all to where they are now. If I had written a book set in Glasgow, a lot of the information I needed would already be known to me or would be just a Google search away. Instead I had to make everything up and then keep track of the implications of that. I’m sure my world-building files will only get bigger as I continue with the series.


Find out more about Shona, and buy Ashael Rising (The Vessel of KalaDene: Book One):



Blog: www.shonakinsella.com
Twitter: @shona_kinsella
Instagram: shona.kinsella
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ashaelrising/
Ashael Rising is available for purchase at: http://bit.ly/ashaelrising

You can also buy the book at Unbound: https://unbound.com/books/ashael-rising 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Take my privilege: a personal essay

I’m white (obviously) so right out of the gate, I’m privileged. Believe me, I’m fully aware of that. I’m also educated to degree level. More privilege. On top of that, I’m middle class. Yet more privilege. I’m also (more or less) heterosexual. Still more privilege. I’m able-bodied. Even more privilege. I might lose a couple of points in the area of gender: I’m female, although my gender presentation falls a little more towards the centre of the spectrum. I might lose a couple more in the area of mental health: I suffer from depression and anxiety. But that’s it. Otherwise, I’m right up there. I’ve been afforded pretty much all the blessings modern Western civilisation has to offer. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not super rich or anything, but I’ll probably never have to worry about my economic status. I’m almost as privileged as I can be. I know that.

Meanwhile, my husband, also educated and middle class, has been afforded a measure of the same privilege, even though he’s not actually white, because he’s half white. Therefore, by some people’s reckoning, he’s only half as threatening as if both his parents had been from India. He also claws back a little more privilege by being male. But he’ll never have the same level of privilege as I do because he’s not fully white, and that immediately places him lower down the ladder. It places him in another category, that strange limbo of otherness that allows him to go about his life under the radar, as long as he continues to fit into the space society has allotted him. I don’t say that because I think it’s right, or that’s the way it should be. I say that because it’s true. What I want to do is use my own privilege for something meaningful. What’s the point of having it if I can’t try, in some way, to share its power with those who don’t have it?

I was brought up in a predominantly white area, with few families of colour, or even families who weren’t from the North East of England, so that has shaped my experience and my understanding. My sphere of existence, for a little shy of the first two-thirds of my life, was very small. Since then, of course, I’ve travelled and met plenty of people with different experiences and different backgrounds. But I’ve never really had the hard conversations, the ones about race, about what it feels like to have people hate you just because of the colour of your skin. That, I think, is at least part of the problem. People like me rarely want to step too far outside our safe, comfortable, protected bubbles. But I want to have those conversations. I want to hear those words and try to comprehend them. I know I’ll never properly get it. I can’t. But I want to do my best. Make me uncomfortable. Shake me. Wake me up.

I’m not asking anyone to think for me, to do the work for me. I’m not trying to make it all about me, because that, I know, is what people like me do, all too often. I’m asking what I can do to redress the balance, on an individual level. Anyone who knows me, knows I believe in equality. I believe skin colour, religion, upbringing, sexuality, economic status and any other aspect of one’s being over which one has no control should make no difference. Belief is all well and good, though. “Should” is all well and good. Wanting a world in which no one is treated as superior or inferior just by dint of their skin colour is not the same as doing something to bring it about. Deploring police brutality and the killing of people in the street is not the same as doing something to make that stop. I know that.

Now more than ever, with extreme right wing views becoming increasingly mainstream, those of us who want that better world and who have the kind of privilege I’ve described need to get off our arses and do our utmost to fight back. We need to use our bodies and our voices to bolster those who’ll suffer most as a result of this flood of nasty, insidious politics and to stem that tide. I want to start doing that. I want to stop being fuzzy and wishy washy.

So I’m asking to be taught. I want to hear and learn and then use that learning. Let me put it to the best possible use. I want to stop wasting this. Imagine if you had the world’s most beautiful voice but you never sang. This is like that. I’m in a position to do something and I want to do it. I just don’t know where to start. To be clear, I’m not seeking plaudits or a pat on the back. I’m trying to be as genuine as I can be, given this is the internet. I’m trying prise open those narrow spaces. I’m trying to take those first steps towards on the road to bringing that world of equality into being. I want to do what I can, and what I must. I’m opening my door. Take my privilege.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Mr Wilmot

This is my #whimword entry for this week. As always, I'll be reposting it on Scriggler and Medium, so keep an eye out there, too! Also, as always, don't forget to check out my Unbound page, where you can find out about and pledge on Abernathy, my debut novel: http://unbound.co.uk/books/abernathy

Carol scrunched up her face against the freezing rain, and it occurred to her then, as always, that doing so made absolutely no difference. If anything, it probably just hurried along the onset of lines on her forehead, which bothered her more than she cared to admit. It had been a bad day.

She’d overslept, skipped breakfast, missed her train, and then Darren had called. Fucking Darren. She’d been planning to dump him for weeks, but she’d never managed it. Darren was boring. Darren was stupid. Darren was crap in bed. Darren was also hard to shift. He was always just sort of there, with his big, pathetic brown eyes and some ridiculous tale of woe. Then she’d feel guilty and chicken out.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve met someone else.” Carol was stunned.

“You what?” she whispered.

“Her name’s Donna. We’re moving in.”

“Well, you can just piss off, then, can’t you,” she said, hating herself for how hurt she sounded. Donna was a slapper’s name anyway, she thought, but checked herself for thinking something so unfeminist, and then felt cheated out of her rage.

After that, the day was a catalogue of failures. She’d forgotten her umbrella, and arrived at work, drenched and freezing, to find her appraisal had been moved to 10 o’clock, giving her twenty-seven minutes to dry out and calm down.

“This isn’t good enough,” Mr Wilmot shouted. Her pompous, priggish boss narrowed his eyes over his glasses. “You’re sloppy. You miss deadlines. And today, when you should be looking to impress more than ever, you’re half an hour late and you look like you’ve spent the night a ditch. This is your final warning. Either you shape up or you’re out.” Carol swallowed, blinking back tears.

“Yes, sir,” she muttered, and dashed out, praying to make the ladies’ before she started crying. It took her fifteen minutes to collect herself, and when she emerged from the bathroom, she saw Wilmot ambling past, carrying his briefcase and an umbrella that probably cost more than her car.

“Early lunch, is it?” she muttered to Sheila, who sat opposite.

“His mum’s in hospital. Stroke,” Sheila said, and Carol felt like crying all over again.

Wilmot wasn’t married. He didn’t have kids. He lived alone. His only family was his mother, and without her, he’d have nobody left. It niggled at her the rest of the day, sapping the last of her concentration so that she spilled her coffee and burned her tongue on her soup. She wanted to seethe, wanted to hate him, wanted to think up creative and revolting ways for him to meet his maker, but she couldn’t. She felt sorry for him.

When the wretched day was over, she wanted to drown her sorrows. She wanted to hide in the pub with a bottle of red, but in the end, he’d denied her that, too. There, sitting at the bar by himself, was Wilmot. She sighed.

“Hello, sir,” she said, and sat down beside him.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The End

Here's my #whimword entry for this week. You might have guessed I'm feeling a little apocalyptic what with one thing and another. While you're here, mosey on over to my Unbound page, where you can pledge and make yourself feel a bit better about life by doing something positive. 

James looked over at the rows and rows of burning buildings on the horizon. It was almost pretty, glowing red and amber against the starless sky. Small consolation. He drew nearer to their little campfire and turned to look at Samira.

“You ready for this?” he asked. She smiled, sadly, but didn’t meet his eye.

“No,” she whispered. “I don’t think anybody’s ever ready to die.” Samira pushed her hands through her tangled dark hair, leaving a streak of grime on her forehead. She stared into the fire and James could see tears glinting in her eyes. He sighed.

“D’you… d’you think we did enough?” he murmured, more to himself than to her. She shook her head.

“What would’ve been enough? We fought as hard as we could. We… we killed people, Jimmy. I don’t see what else we could’ve done. It’s over now. We might as well dull the pain a little.” She took a swig from the whiskey bottle, which was almost empty. “Hey. We got any pills left?”

They’d swiped the liquor from one of the stores back in the city before the burning started and they’d been toting it around for days, hoping they wouldn’t need it. Its sole purpose was to allow them to be unconscious when it finally happened, and now it was coming. Unstoppable. Inescapable. They were maybe a dozen miles outside the city centre, but it wasn’t far enough. They hadn’t cleared the blast radius and they both knew it. Come daybreak, they’d be dead – and they were the lucky ones. The blast would destroy the last of them. Everyone else had already burned to death, or they were still burning.

“Yeah, a couple, I think. But Sami… we gotta be close to OD’in’ by now. They’ll kill us.” Samira laughed and handed him the bottle.

“With any luck,” she said, grimly. “You don’t wanna feel it, do you?” James didn’t say anything for a long moment, and turned to look back at the city again.

“Man,” he said at last. “I didn’t think it’d be this fast. I mean, I thought… I don’t know, I guess I thought I’d at least live to see twenty-one. Didn’t you?” Samira shook her head again.

“I never thought I’d get as far as I did, even before… well, you know,” she replied. “People like me, we don’t get to get old. We get as far as we can and we thank God for every day we make it through. But… I guess I didn’t think it’d end up like...” She broke off. Her shoulders were shaking and James realised she was crying. He scooted closer, and put an arm around her.

“Hey,” he whispered. “At least we’ve got each other, right? We don’t have to be alone.” He dug into his pocket, handed her one of the last of the little white pills, and swallowed one himself. She lay down in the dirt.

“Here’s to the end,” she whispered, and closed her eyes.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Eric

I haven't taken part in the #whimword prompt for a while, so thought I'd jump in again with this one. It takes place in the same world as Seed and Producers, but not at the same time. As always, while you're here, take a look at my Unbound page and pledge to pre-order my debut novel. 

“What is it this time?” Doris asked, without looking up. She didn’t much care what the answer was. She kept her eyes firmly on her desk, and waited.

“Labyrinthitis,” Bill said. “Inflammation of the inner ear. He claims he can’t stand up without feeling dizzy.” Doris sighed, and got up.

“All right,” she said, wearily. “Let me have a look at him.”

Eric was waiting for her in his quarters, eyes closed. He was supine on the top bunk, a pile of his laundry on the lower one. This was the third ailment he’d claimed to be suffering from in as many weeks, but he knew she’d come. He knew they were stuck with each other. It was just as he’d planned it.

Doris weaved her way through the maze of interlinking corridors towards the staff quarters. Eric was a world-class shirker, but she couldn’t get rid of him. Company rules prohibited letting anyone go who was actively unwell, regardless of the symptoms. They weren’t concerned about unfair dismissal: no one would come after them for that. They simply couldn’t be seen to be the source of any kind of outbreak. They were already in a precarious position, and a burnout would ruin them.

“If you can’t get up without feeling dizzy,” Doris said, “how did you get up there?”

“Slept here. Woke up feeling like this,” Eric said. He kept his eyes shut, hands folded neatly on his stomach. Doris clenched and unclenched her fists.

“Why do you do this?” she asked.

“Do what?” Eric opened his eyes at last and swivelled his head ever so slightly in her direction.

“This!” She gestured around the room, which, bar the unfolded laundry, was neat as a pin. “Pretend to be sick, lock yourself up in here! What do you get out of it?” Eric closed his eyes again. He’d barely been in the lab since he’d started a month earlier, and had instead focused solely on making Doris’s life miserable, as far as she could tell.

“I’m not pretending,” he said.

“No, of course not. This isn’t a ploy to get paid for doing nothing because you know I can’t stop you. That would be ridiculous,” Doris growled, jaw tightening.

“If you don’t think I’m sick,” Eric said, “fire me. Nobody would blame you.”

“Yes, they would! Knowing my luck, there’d be an outbreak the minute you set foot outside, and if they found out I’d let you go, you know who they’d blame, whether it was you that started it or not!” Doris shouted. Eric sat up slightly, and looked her in the eye for the first time.

“So what?” he said. Doris stared at him.

“So what? So what? This company is the last one left with the resources to fund this compound. We’re the only ones studying this damn disease. If they burn us out, there’s no cure, no treatment. That’s it. We’re done. We’re all done.”

“Well, then,” Eric said, “looks like you’re stuck with me.”