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Radical Reading: Dirty River

Confession time: I’ve actually had the book reviewed below for quite a while, and with apologies to the Arsenal Pulp folks. I spent so much time thinking about it and how to write about it that this blog has been stalled out for a while as I go through that process. But hopefully, better late than never, as it’s a volume I think many of you should absolutely pick up.

cover of Dirty River, drawing of a brown femme with a flower in her hair, leaning on a cane next to train tracks with industrial buildings in the background and a river flowing from themOne of my favorite poets, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, recently released a memoir that is somehow both a gut punch and a sweet femme-of-color lullaby, telling a story that is neither completely linear nor what you might expect from what frames itself as a survivor’s tale, but bursting with sense memory and relevance—particular for QPOC and migrant readers. Dirty River (published by Arsenal Pulp Press) focuses mainly on a period of Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life in the late 90s where she lived in Toronto struggling with both poverty and relationship abuse, but it is neither a sob story nor a clichéd “overcoming adversity” narrative. The complexities of the story are conveyed with a tight relationship to geography, the confusing nature of memory, and a sense of celebration for queer brown crip femme survival.

Like many great books, particularly those by women of color, this memoir made me think about the nature of storytelling. The path to healing is often not very simple, and this story wrestles with that. It’s a narrative complement to all the great radical books on violence in the context of racism and colonialism published in recent years — with all the references to Courage to Heal in the text, I actually found myself thinking much more about how Piepzna-Samarasinha’s story lines up with the lessons of The Revolution Starts at Home. 

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Radical Reading: We Are Many

The We Are Many anthology, edited by Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire and published by AK Press, is an ambitious project. In 435 pages, it attempts to both document the historical activist moment that is Occupy and provide a collection of practical lessons for activists. The editors acknowledge that the book is a work in progress, rather than an end, and I would agree with that assessment. This is an accessible book, but it is not a practical manual. The work of assembling all the relevant voices necessarily stands in contradiction to the work of providing something that on-the-ground activists can easily use. That said, the collection is full of gems, some of which could be extracted for a future more practical guide.
What the anthology does excel at is the work of documentation. I was impressed by the diversity of voices included, and the unique “conversational” format that lends itself well to a work that positions oppositional views in one place, for example on race in Occupy or the role of the police. There are no sections in this book–instead there is an editorial ebb and flow where themes come up but are not explicitly labeled. I really liked this technique, and the way journalistic pieces, personal accounts, practical tips, photos, and drawings were displayed alongside each other.
The style of the book gives the reader who was never present at an Occupy a real sense of the movement, an important task given the way on-the-ground activism and writing/reading are sometimes divided and the unsurprising media bias around Occupy. As a writer/reader type who does most of my activism through this blog, Twitter, and public teaching, I found the book incredibly valuable in this sense. The stories included give a picture of the breadth of Occupy both geographically and in form/focus (for example, see the pieces on Occupy Research or the occupied farm on land owned by UC Berkeley). The pictures and personal accounts are powerful narratives that place the reader at the center of the movement and lend both frustration and inspiration. I particularly liked Michael Andrews’ detailed account of one New York march, capturing the joy and collective spirit of a group that confounded the police with its size and evoked a sense of hope for the future. I also flagged Janelle Treibitz’s piece for future reference: her documentation of specific examples of how cultural resistance works is the kind of thing we need to see more in writings from radical organizers.
Of course, this is not a movement without its problems. Authors in this volume at times question the utility of the 99% model and some of its particular issues: are the police really part of the 99%? What about successful artists and gallery owners? How do 99%ers treat each other? Racial tensions are of course a big part of this picture, as is the treatment of certain groups within the 99%. In an excerpt on Rochester’s Take Back the Land occupation, Hubert Wilkerson comments on those occupiers who complained that homeless residents of the occupied park were “stealing” donated food. “So I’m saying whoa, it’s the reality of an occupation where people are trying to change the world, but haven’t started changing themselves.” (p. 53) This uncomfortable theme of hypocrisy within the movement also comes up in the CrimethInc Ex-Workers’ Collective contribution, which discusses the idea of a “black bloc” of violent protestors within occupy that was described by a non-violent occupier and then used to Other fellow occupiers. The Collective suggests that this tactic might explain why Oakland lasted longer than other movements: when protestors used this language, they handed the FBI a very useful device for a divide and conquer strategy, allowing the FBI to extrapolate from a type of action to a type of people “terrorists” that it could then condemn. Rose Bookbinder and Michael Belt discuss the importance of labor in their piece: while many occupiers were young protestors from the suburbs, organized labor represents the actual community being occupied, and it is crucial that labor therefore be included. Similar critiques have of course been made of the idea of “occupying” already-occupied Native land.
If it were possible to summarize Occupy, this would be a much shorter book, but I like the three logics Joshua Clover describes as considerations to use in considering future activist strategies: Occupy had no single demand, no one body could meet Occupy’s demands, and any demand with meeting could not be met by the current social arrangement. (p. 99) This is, as I see it, an essential statement of what it is to be “radical.” Though I was not an Occupier and had many questions about the utility of Occupy, We Are Many has helped me to understand its value as a manifestation of this radical vision: community microcosms with not one vision but many, impossible to achieve through simple government action, grounded in the need for tough conversations and revolutionary paradigm shifts.
We Are Many is available through AK Press.

Radical Reading: When We Were Outlaws

Jeanne Córdova’s memoir When We Were Outlaws: a memoir of Love & Revolution, recently released from Spinsters Ink, fills an important gap in the existing first-person accounts of the history of gay and lesbian liberation, but suffers from an unfortunately inconsistent tone.  When students take up gay or lesbian history in the US, the starting point is often the Stonewall Riots.  The picture of gay and lesbian liberation has a decidedly East Coast slant, or it is told more generally in the context of national movements–homophiles, gay liberation, lesbian feminism, and so on.  Córdova’s strength is in the details she provides on the day-to-day life of lesbian activism in 1970s Los Angeles, centered around the strike against the Gay Community Services Center.  Her weakness lies in a tendency towards melodrama and an inflation of her own importance in the broader story.

The reason why accounts such as Martin Duberman’s Stonewall are so gripping and effective is that the narrator or the individual subjects of the story are portrayed as mere players in a bigger picture.  The power of those individuals in the narrative comes from how subtly their story is told.  Córdova has an amazing story–the details of the relationships between gay men and lesbians in LA at the time, the struggle between gay liberation and labor movements, and Córdova’s journalistic relationship with “her Nazi” are particularly interesting.  There is a good balance between broader themes and particularly interesting historical snapshots in the book.  Where it starts to come apart is Córdova’s tendency to drop into melodrama in describing her personal romantic relationships, non-monogamy in the movement, and her own role as an activist.  The dialogue doesn’t come alive, and whenever Córdova focuses directly on analyzing herself at the time or her role in the movement, the subtlety that helps a reader relate to a narrator is lost.  The dynamics of butch and femme in the 1970s LA lesbian community and the trend of non-monogamy are interesting, but the moralistic tone that weaves through the narrative will make it uncomfortable for some.

I would recommend this account for those who are particularly interested in first-person history of lesbian liberation on the West Coast, but with reservations.  A shorter, more tightly controlled narrative would be more effective in communicating this particular story.

 

Radical Reading: What You Really Really Want

For this Radical Reading column, we’re doing something a bit different.  I was lucky enough to be part of the group that workshopped Jaclyn Friedman’s What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety.  This groundbreaking workbook takes the lessons learned about rape culture from the Yes Means Yes anthology and helps the reader take sexuality into his/her/hir own hands with practical guidance on sex, sexuality, and enthusiastic consent.  One of my favorite things about the book is how it breaks down our culture’s sexual scripts and encourages us to define our own sexuality–a skill that few of us are taught otherwise. I’ve invited Jaclyn, and some of the other folks from the workshop, to stop by Radically Queer on the WYRRW blog tour for a roundtable discussion on sexual agency and defining our own sexualities.  

 

Avory: Thanks so much for stopping by, everyone!  I wanted to start things off by just saying a little bit about my experience with using through the book to help define my sexuality, and hear where you’re all coming from.

For me, what was really useful in going through the exercises is they tend to be open-ended.  At one point, for example, we were asked to just list the things we do and don’t want when it comes to sex.  I ended up listing things I want that seem sort of inane, like being fed by hand, or having my hair petted, or a hand on my throat, and then listing common sexual things I don’t want, like having my breasts touched.  Coming up with that list from scratch was new for me because most of what I’ve learned about sex, even from comprehensive, liberal sources, is that there’s a straight script, or a gay script, or a lesbian script.  As a genderqueer person, no one ever gave me an appropriate script, so part of what I’ve done with this book is thought long and hard about how I define pleasure.  A lot of that has to do with things like food, and sensation, and power dynamics, that aren’t included in traditional “sexual” activities.  I’m still struggling with how to communicate these things to a partner, but it’s a big liberating step to climb out of the box of what’s generally seen as “sexual,” and often based on gender expectations.

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Radical Reading: Embodied Resistance

I read Embodied Resistance, an anthology that just came out from Vanderbilt Press (editors Chris Bobel and Samantha Kwan), with a certain degree of skepticism in mind.  As a friend reminded me when he read the Amazon blurb, people are often perceived to be resisting when they are simply living their lives.  Transgender people, for example, are seen as “deviant” whether they want to be or not.  It’s simply the cost of appearing to be different in a society that can often be very cookie-cutter about its body norms.I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the chapters in this volume did, in fact, tackle the question of intentional resistance.  A chapter on the bear subculture among gay men, for example, notes that “[t]he degree of intentionality behind the embodied protests of bear and big men’s groups varies.”  In a short essay on how she came to write about fat sex, Hanne Blank notes that “[a]s I wrote I began to realize that I have a knack for pointing out things that to me are glaringly obvious but that other people seem to have a hard time spotting–that I exist, that people like me exist, that there are millions and millions of fat people in the world, and despite all rumors to the contrary, most have love and sex lives.”  Embodied Resistance does, then, at least in some of it chapters, acknowledge that “resistors” may simply be living their lives, and that the body as a protest may not be intentional but rather constructed through others’ perceptions of “normal” bodies.  Ideally, I would’ve liked to have more discussion of what it’s like to be in this situation, rather than simple acknowledgement, but it is a first step.

I did find it interesting that in some cases, those perceived as resisting were actually using a group of “resistors” to normalize their bodies.  In many groups made up of non-normative body types, the members talk about the safety of that group space, whether it’s roller derby girls embracing their size and propensity towards “unladylike” injuries or women with body hair talking about their experiences in the somewhat artificial setting of a classroom experiment.  This first chapter of the book on female body hair was actually the most relatable for me, as a female-perceived person who does not shave underarms or legs.  For many women, this is an intentional form of protest, but for many of us it is simply a natural state, and others’ attempts to define us as intentional resistors can be uncomfortable.

On the whole, Embodied Resistance is a good overview of a wide range of topics related to non-normative or resisting bodies.  The book does tend towards mostly white subcultures in the US, but there are exceptions.  There is also a fair balance in documenting the experiences of different genders.  From belly dancing while pregnant to the female dominatrix to the transgender “bathroom question,” the book will prompt plenty of interesting classroom discussions.

Note: I was bothered by the inclusion of a chapter on pro-ana, and need to mention this as a trigger warning for some readers.  The authors of this chapter acknowledge the problematic nature of the movement, but it nonetheless may be very hard to read–it was for me.  

Radical Reading: Freeing Ourselves

The following is part of a new regular feature called Radical Reading, which will come out roughly once a month.  I’ll be reviewing books of particular interest to a queer, feminist, radical audience.  If you have a book that you would like me to review or would like to put me on the list of reviewers for your press, please contact me at judithavory [at] gmail.com.

Freeing Ourselves: A Guide to Health and Self Love for Brown Bois, put out by the Brown Boi Project, is a guide to healthy living unlike anything I’ve seen, but quite like guides I’ve imagined.

Focused on MoC (masculine-of-center) people of color, Freeing Ourselves is an accessible, engaging guide to overall health presented in a unique format.  The educational material is interspersed with powerful stories, poetry, and photographs that reflect a wide range of racial and gender identities.

The guide takes self as a starting point, and does an excellent job of framing self in a way that includes, rather than excludes.  It presents self-awareness as a way to fight back against the lack of medical knowledge or outright hostility that many MoC people face.

I particularly liked how this guide acknowledged right up front the way healthy masculinity is defined by the colonial oppressor.  I believe that one of the huge problems marginalized communities face in terms of health care is that racial identity, gender identity, and self-actualization are all problematized.  Medical transition, for example, isn’t available without the othering diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder.”  Women are framed as hysterical, black men as dangerous.  The medical establishment doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is part of an institutional framework that uses gender as a weapon.

When recognizing common threats in people’s lives, the guide lists common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety alongside structural problems like oppression and abuse.  This guide does the best job I’ve seen so far at acknowledging that structural harms and internal “illnesses” operate in similar and interconnected ways to bring a person down and threaten that person’s health.  It also acknowledges how Western society harms relationships and connections, encouraging men to compete rather than to embrace each other.

There are a number of practical tools and charts included, such as guidance on when to see a health care provider and information about the risk of STIs for different races and genders/sexualities.  The information about sexual and reproductive health is particularly useful, since many health care providers are completely unaware of safe sex practices and risks for non-heterosexual or non-cisgender people.  The information on STIs here is not only focused on penetration, for example.  There is plenty of helpful advice about gynecological exams for those who do not identify as female, and about the risk of breast/chest cancer.  In addition, this guide provides detailed information about transition and the different options available.

I also found the information about pregnancy and forming a family particularly to be done particularly well.  There aren’t any assumptions made about whether and how MoC people might want to form a family.  The guide acknowledges the creativity of individuals to form families in a multitude of ways, as well as providing information about pregnancy and birth options.

The last section, while perhaps not as focused on HAES as I am, did a pretty good job at acknowledging and accepting different body types.  The holistic approach to food and physical practice has a strong ayurvedic influence, with information about “cooling” and “warming” foods.  The suggestions for exercise are varied, though limited attention is paid to people with disabilities.  Finally, this section includes specific information about the physical effects of chest binding and explains STP (stand-to-pee) devices.

Overall, I would recommend this book for any MoC person of color who has been frustrated by the healthcare system.  I also think this book would be an excellent tool for providers, who often seem to be undereducated on some of this issues covered, and for gender non-conforming people generally.  As someone who is neither masculine or feminine of center, but rather a blob off there in the corner somewhere, I still found quite a bit in this guide that is relevant to me.  The guide is available from the Brown Boi Project on a sliding scale, with $20 being the value of the book itself and the rest going to the project as a tax-deductible donation.

Review: Captive Genders

I received a review copy of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (coming out this month from AK Press) at the perfect time.  I’ve been frustrated by the growing focus in recent months on two of the things I care least about when it comes to queer rights, the two things that the mainstream LGBT movement seems most adamant about: marriage and the military.  It’s impossible to get away from those two topics if you’re following LGBT news, but this book also turned my focus to another problem–that the most-covered “alternative” issues, those focused on individual rights, are still not the most important priority.  Employment and housing discrimination are important but they focus on the middle class.  Hate crimes are a problem, but the kneejerk response of hate crimes legislationtries to solve that problem by using the same harmful official system that terrorizes queer and trans people on a daily basis.

I would recommend this book to any activist, but especially to white, middle-class activists in the “LGBT movement.”  The pieces in this anthology encourage us to get away from the white, middle-class idea of “safety.”  Strong sentences for hate crimes don’t make us safer.  Nor do most of the priorities of LGBT rights organizations.  It is only from a privileged position that we can even believe that there might be a safe, mainstream, assimilated place to work and live.

Conservatives and moderates in the movement, and outside of it, want you to feel safe.  It’s another story of us versus them: it helps those who are disgusted by trans people of color, by poor queer youth, by public queer sexualities, to tug the most powerful and heavily funded segments of the LGBT population away into a zone of “safety” and assimilation.  Of course, many queer and trans people don’t have that luxury, and it’s foolish to think that any of us really do.  Queer and trans people in prison, juveniles in the child “welfare” system, immigrants, sex workers, the homeless, and other marginalized groups are often victims of a cruel and unusual system that targets minorities and encourages oppression.
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