Archive for April, 2012

The Hunger Games











I went with my daughters to see The Hunger Games this week.  Although I knew the basics of the plotline as the girls are avid readers of the series – I was unprepared to actually witness the violence perpetrated by children against one another which is central to the film. The fact that the central character (Katniss Everdeen) is, like my daughters, a teenage girl, who has two attractive but dangerous young men vying for her attention (like Bella in the equally popular Twilight series) is obviously one important draw for fans of the books, but so too is the relative power she wield.  In a society of beaten down sheep,  Katniss is tough, resourceful, non-sentimental (except where her younger sister is concerned) and unbeatable with a bow and arrow.  And although we watch her offer succour to a younger rival, Katniss is nevertheless willing to kill other rivals when necessary with little sign of remorse.  I winced repeatedly at the forms of power this teenage fantasy is making palatable to my daughters – though as my older daughter said – “the killing doesn’t seem as bad in the books as it looks in the film, mommy”. Another instance of the difference between how our minds process verbal and visual information differently, I guess, but I know what she means. 

I appreciate science fiction fantasy, and the ways in which it comments on contemporary social concerns and debates – in fact the film most reminded me of the fantastic and equally brutal short story by Shirley Jackson called “The Lottery” first published in 1948 in the New Yorker

 The story, set in an unnamed suburban town moves from small town intimacy to fully-fledged horror in the space of fewer than 4,000 words.  The suggestion of violence among women and children and within families evoked a perfect storm of controversy and this story received more negative responses than any other in the New Yorker’s history – a sure sign it struck a nerve. Like the novel The Hunger Games, Jackson’s story hints at the violence rather than relishing the gory details. Moviemakers take the gory road – and indeed a film version of “The Lottery” shown in my school caused me any number of nightmares throughout my childhood (why couldn’t they just get us to read the story?).

Is Katniss a heroine or a victim in her violent society?  And what does it mean when we root for her to win and the other children to die in her place?  Am I overreacting?


Women, Windows, Mirrors, Diaries

Bank Holiday Monday, and I had the first opportunity in some time to have a good long look in the mirror.  And what did I see?  What does the writer ever see – the disconnect between mind and body, between that other in the reflection and the me whose words long to scream out across the paper. So I sit down to write.

The figure of a woman standing in front of a mirror is a recurrent one in Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and critic Emily Dalgarno has argued that such images are related to a childhood trauma that Woolf recounted in her 1939 memoir “A Sketch of the Past.” In “Sketch,” Woolf recalls the “small looking-glass in the hall at Talland House” and the “looking glass-shame” she continued to feel, and links this shame to being molested as a “very small” child by her much older step-brother in front of that hallway mirror.2  Dalgarno argues that that this event constitutes the primal source for Woolf’s fiction in which:

“the moment of becoming a female subject often occurs before the looking-glass.  Although many of her characters use the mirror to check their social identity, others glimpse the split between visual subject and object that brings subjectivity into play.  … the mirror scene in Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’ figures the process by means of which her fiction challenges and accommodates the ideology of patriarchy” . 

Dalgarno concludes that for Woolf, such mirror images reflect “not a face, but a structure in which the face is visualised in the context of its resemblance to its lineage” , and thus confront the split between subject and subjectivity – the felt divide between one’s public and the private self that is the central dilemma in virtually all Western women’s writing. 

For many women writers, diaries worked like mirrors, reflecting this split between self as subject and self as object – but they were also windows – framing and offering escape from, the split-voiced selves of the writers that composed them.  Moreover, in the major fictions of writers like Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Louisa May Alcott, we encounter not only mirrors but also numerous images of windows, open and closed.  If Woolf’s mirrors symbolise her characters’ resemblance to, and divergence from social and familial expectations, and Mansfield and Alcott were likewise concerned with the divide between their public and private selves, between family duty and artistic desire.   These concerns, I would argue, were first reflected on in their diaries and then reimagined, or reframed, into new forms in their fiction: into symbols of mirrors confronted and avoided, windows open and closed.   While the stories that Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott published are very different, their shared need to construct a written borderland between self-reflection and public revelation is striking. Their diaries functioned as transformative locations in which personal concerns became textual artefacts. As Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott turned from journal to storytelling and back again, their diaries enabled them to define their writerly efforts against the past, and transform the split they felt between their public and private selves into figurative discourse.

Towards the end of her life, there is a perceptible difference in Woolf’s tone in the journal, as its focus turns decidedly inward. In one of her final entries she considers this change:

I intend no introspection.  I mark Henry James’s sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency.  By that means it becomes serviceable.  Or so I hope. […] I will go down with my colours flying.  This I see verges on introspection; but doesn’t quite fall in (DVW 5:357).

By such observance of both her public and private selves, and her negotiations of the division she felt between them, Woolf’s diary offers more than biographical fact or insights into the sources of her fiction: it was a mirror in which she could reflect upon her ancestry and her private desires, a frame in which she could contextualise her duties as a Victorian daughter and a public figure, and an open window that allowed her to transform these struggles into a symbolic language of subjectivity. For this reason her diaries stand alongside her novels as her flying colours, her statues against the sky.

The Mother Tongue

“…when women speak truly they speak subversively–they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you–I want to hear you.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin

Good Friday today and I am in the process of collecting essays from colleagues across the world for an edited collection on Life Writing and Human Rights, following on from a conference held at Kingston University in July of last year.  One of the strangest things about the academic world is its insularity:  the conference and publication process, for example,  we write up our research (which in humanities is usually done on one’s own in a library or archive), present it to colleagues in our specialist areas at a conference, and then send it off to get published in a specialist journal we hope will be read by more colleagues in our specialist area. While this insularity is useful and even comforting (it is good, though sometimes daunting as well,  to know that other researchers care about  the same things I do) accusations of navel-gazing hit home nevertheless. 

I came into academia late, after many years working in the “real world” at advertising agencies, auction houses, magazines, and film production offices. So to me the university world was both intriguing and kind of silly.  There is a great scene in Ghostbusters, when Dan Akroyd and Bill Murray have just been fired from their jobs researching paranormal activity at a New York university.  “We can’t take it in the real world,” Akroyd’s character says. “It’s not like academia.  In the real world they expect results!” In fact, to me, the whole self-serving and insulated protocols of university life seemed not only old-fashioned but, dare I say it, patriarchal.   

As the best selling writer Ursula K Le Guin put it when she gave the commencement address to you women graduating from the prestigious Byrn Mawr in 1986:

“The dialect of the father tongue that you and I learned best in college is a written one. It doesn’t speak itself. It only lectures. Many believe this dialect … is the highest form of language, the true language. All the great scientists and social thinkers wrote it. It is the language of thought that seeks objectivity… His language expresses the values of the split world, valuing the positive and devaluing the negative in each redivision: subject/ object, self/ other, mind/ body, dominant/ submissive, active/passive, Man/nature, man/ woman, and so on. The father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard.”

Soon after, LeGuin embarks on a description of what she calls “the mother tongue”:

“The mother tongue, spoken or written, expects an answer. It is conversation, language not as communication, but as relation, relationship. … It is the language stories are told in… Not claiming something: offering something.”

As Le Guin suggests, there is something very “gentlemen’s club” about sharing your work with people in your own field, being dismissive of those outside your field and racing to be at the top of your own silo.   What does it all matter?  So several years ago, I determined that I would find a way to make my work matter to the larger world in some way – and the key to doing that is interdisciplinary research.

Witnessing  the joy on the faces of academics listening to the work of researchers outside their own specialist area is reason enough to recommend such initiatives, but the real reason we gathered at Kingston last July was to find ways of forging socially useful projects (both locally and internationally) that make use of life writing and trauma studies. 

At the conference were well-known writers, Eva Hoffman;  Patricia Hampl: ; Annette Kobak; Vesna Goldsworthy;

Documentary filmmakers such as Rob Lemkin;

political bloggers such as Emin Milli; Human Rights activists and barristers, and politically and socially engaged activists of various kinds, all of whom are involved in the study and practice of using life stories to make a difference, whether socially, artistically or judicially.  Since then, our MA and MFA students at Kingston have run initiatives working with the local elderly community and with troubled teenagers, as well as with offenders and ex-offenders, using life writing and poetry workshops to alleviate loneliness, anger and trauma. Further projects will arise in the future, including some life-writing work for victims of trauma in post-conflict countries in the Middle East.  And all because a group of (mainly female) academics chose to use the mother tongue: not claiming something, but offering something.

Lethal Weapon Syndrome

I have had a very busy few days, coming to the Easter break, lots of meetings, the kids home from school and doing reading for my book club.  This week’s book is John Le Carre’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – an absolute classic and the very first spy novel I ever read.  I loved it so much that I read all the rest of Le Carre (no mean feat)  After all my years of reading literary fiction and in the past twenty years, mostly literary fiction written by women, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a whole new genre to embrace. But when I finished with the LeCarre books, I was bereft and starving for more spycraft so I tried Len Deighton and some other so-called spy novelists, only to find they were no good (to me anyway). Turns out it wasn’t really spy fiction I liked- it was Le Carre’s fiction. And I do like it still, despite such work being the antithesis of what I usually read, teach and research (or maybe because of that).  Most such fiction (and the films that are based upon these books) ignores the female part of the human race, or relegates us to very, very small parts (usually as one dimensional betrayers, prostitutes, unwitting accomplices or innocent, though beautiful,  victims.) I call this the “Lethal Weapon Syndrome” derived from the film of that name starring the once desirable Mel Gibson.  This syndrome occurs in much male fiction and film in which the central characters are two men – one a family man, wishing to flee his responsibilities and seek freedom, and the other a wild man who has no such ties as his wife, daughter, girlfriend or mother is dead or gone  (usually brutally murdered  but sometimes just disappeared) and is torn between the freedom this allows him and a death wish (usually signified by heavy solitary drinking).  This format can be found in tales from Moby Dick and Huck Finn (Ishmael and Huck are the man fleeing civilisation and seeking freedom, Jim and Ahab the men with a death wish- one chasing a white whale and one travelling south to escape slavery) Gatsby and On The Road (Nick Carraway in Gatsby and Sal Paradise in On the Road want rid of their family ties, Jay Gatsby and Dean Moriarty are obsessives and self-destructive) and of course in good-cop bad cop films like 48 hours, Midnight Run and Gibson’s Lethal Weapon.  What such stories do of course is set women up in an impossible and contradictory position: they are both the ball and chain – the domestic handcuff keeping these men from freedom, but are also the angels that will rescue them from self-destruction.  And this formula is used everywhere in storytelling, from film to television to fiction.  Any three dimensional females in brilliant and multi-Oscar nominated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?  No, not really.  Though the George Smiley’s relationship with his wife, Anne, is at the heart of much of the tension – she is, like many female characters, the “absent” heart of the story, present only as an absence, a lack, a loss.  Which is probably why, with the exception of LeCarre,  I have spent the last twenty years reading literary fiction writing by women.

Can anyone recommend a female spy fiction writer? Or is that like asking a cat to bark?