On Alison Bechdel’s search for her mother

After reading her first graphic tragicomic for my exam last term Fun Home I quickly made the decision that her second graphic novel would be making its appearance onto my shelf very soon. I made a good choice.

Although not as comical as her first novel, this is equally as gripping and interesting. It follows Alison’s life as she tries to explain and understand the relationship that she has with her mother. Are you my mother? is a memoir that reveals how her relationship with her mother influenced the person she is, her interests in literature, in writing and also her sexuality. It follows her journey through therapy as she investigates and tries to get to the cause of her anxiety, whilst being followed by her mother’s career. Classified as a memoir I would say that it doesn’t really seem to fit. Yes it accounts Alison and her mother’s history non-chronologically, but it also is a metabook. It narrates its own creation. The plot follows the progress and also regress of Bechdel’s struggle to complete her second novel; especially after receiving such success from the one based on her father, Fun Home.

What I particularly liked about this book was that there did not seem to be a coherent narrative. We jumped around from past to present, from mother to Alison, good times to bad: and it worked really well. It was compatible with the storyline. The search to discover who we are and why we are the way we are is a long process, it would not occur in a coherent and linear way. Progress is a not a continuous process, it speeds up, slows, plateau’s, picks up and then storms ahead; and not necessarily in that order. What I am trying to say is that within the novel there are multiple story lines interwoven and developing at different rates; with the relationship between mother and daughter at the heart of it.

Honest descriptions.

Honest descriptions.

The relationship between mother and daughter is the most interesting, complicated and inspiring of all relationships for many reasons. The daughter is interested in the mother as she is the first female that she comes into contact with, they have a bond that cannot be replicated. The mother grows and protects the daughter who will potentially do the same to her daughter. The mother has a duty to protect her daughter until she is independent. What makes this novel particularly heart-felt is that the relationship Alison had with her mother is not the usual sunshine and rainbows that you expect. Alison explores the reasons why she has always been independent, not been close to her mother and ultimately whether that influenced her sexuality. Similar to what made her first full length novel so successful is the way Bechdel takes the normal and regular and manages to make it slightly uncanny, familiar and yet simultaneously new and odd.

Bechdel is truly talented and this is a brilliant read. Graphic narratives really are the way forward, the convey both heavy messages and are also light hearted, and so appeal to many people all at once. I truly recommend this book, not as easy going and comical as the first, but just as inspiring and page turning!

Feminism and The Yellow Wallpaper

Women. Females. Men. Males. What really is the difference between them. Gender and sex, another two words that seem to be pretty interchangeable in our society, and yet they both mean completely different things. But that one word, that word that has so much negativity attached to it, needs to be corrected.

Feminism.

A status was posted onto facebook about Angelina Jolie’s recent operation: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Brad Pitt today after the news about Angelina Jolie”. I like to hope that this was just an inconsiderate and poorly worded post and that the painfully obvious sexist undertone was a mistake. Sadly, I doubt it. The double mastectomy was to decrease her risk in getting breast cancer. If anyone was able to prevent a potentially painful, horrific, upsetting and stressful event, they would. This post also follows on from the lecture by Jackson Katz I wrote a couple of weeks ago. What is the problem is that sexism is embedded so deeply within our society, due to years of patriarchy that it almost acts incognito. Often going unrecognised and with an invisibility cloak.

Feminism is not bad. It is not a movement of bra-burning, hairy misandristic’s who would do anything to see men pay for what they have made women suffer over the years. No. Simply no. Ok, that is a fairly exaggerated statement, and I am sure that most men understand that feminists just want equality. But what also seems apparent is that there are a lot of women who are unaware of what feminists want. That is the problem. A woman who is not a feminist is like saying they are happy to be second best. When in fact there is no best, because there is no competition. Or at least there should not be.

In Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ short story The Yellow Wallpaper the protagonist, narrator (possibly called Jane, although it is not explicitly stated, so for all intents and purposes she is not given a name), is locked in the attic of her house as a treatment for her hysteria, which turns out to be nothing more than post-natal depression. She is prevented from writing because it tires her out too much, and so her only pleasure is taken away in order to help her recover. Her husband John is also her physician. He has prevented her from using her imagination as he fears that it will only cause her condition to deteriorate, but it does so because she is not allowed to use it, and so does it in secrecy. The story is written in the form of her diary entries and so skips around a bit, is rushed in places when she can hear her husband approaching.

To the kitchen.

To the kitchen.

To me, this novella is a criticism of the patriarchal society and the way it is organised. Jane, or the narrator, or just another Victorian woman notices a woman trapped in the yellow wallpaper that covers her room. It isn’t until she makes the connection between herself and the wallpaper woman that she realises that all women are trapped within their marriages and the societal conventions. That women have to creep around, avoid breaking the social rules, lurk in the corner. In order for the narrator to realise this, she has sadly lost herself. She no longer is just imagining these dark things, but is actually experiencing them, in some form of breakdown. She cannot return to the life she had before with her husband, she has noticed the cracks, the invisibility cloak has been removed.

Charlotte Gilman Perkins was a utopian feminist. Writing over 100 years ago she had her sights set high for the work that women could achieve. Granted there have been many improvements in most cultures around the world. But in no society has sexism been abolished, nowhere has sexual equality. Cultures have adapted to the reforms that feminists have pursued and forced into the public eye, but they are still very much controlled by men, for men.

Like the narrator in the novel, she was blind to the truth and then once it was discovered it completely altered the way she saw life. This is what we need. We all need the cloak to be revealed for us. Men and women together. Then we can deal with the changes together.

 

Losing my graphic novel virginity: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Another one of the texts that will be making an appearance in my exam in a few weeks alongside The God of Small Things, Lunch Poems and various others is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic novel. Surprisingly, I loved this book. I honestly cannot express how much I enjoyed reading it contrary to my expectations. Having never read a graphic novel before I didn’t know what to expect from it. I was unsure if the combination of images and writing would work effectively enough to portray the important issues that Bechdel was writing about.

But I could not have been more wrong. Not only did the form make the text simple and elegant to read but the images helped exaggerate what Alison was talking about in the text. My favourite example of this was at the end of the first chapter when Alison commented that the obelisk her father wanted instead of a headstone was ironic as it was a similar shape to a shape he enjoyed in real life…then just to make sure that all the readers picked up on the joke, the next page was dedicated to a single of image of a large obelisk, looking particularly phallic. Bechdel writes about pretty heavy-handed material. Death (or potential suicide), homosexuality, coming-out, growing up, a dysfunctional family. None of the subject matter is easy on the emotion. Yet expressing them through the medium of a graphic novel makes them more accessible and reader friendly.

The non-linear narrative means that we know her father is dead and that there were questionable circumstances around it, but we don’t know the full picture until the very end of the novel. Alison herself doesn’t seem to understand her father’s life until she has mapped it out for the reader, almost as if the text is her stream of consciousness. After his death she looks back and seems to evaluate her and her father’s lives, to try and notice if there were signs. Indications of what would follow. At the time she didn’t notice that her father would stare at the choir boys while they were in church. She didn’t notice that he had an overly friendly relationship with their gardener and babysitter. She also didn’t notice that her father wanted her to look pretty and dress up while all she wanted to do was wear boys clothes. I like this type of narrative. The kind that doesn’t make sense at the beginning, but it is interesting enough to draw you in and make you read on. Similar to The God of Small Things, it doesn’t make sense until you turn over the final page.

The eyes give everything away.

The eyes give everything away.

 

Perhaps I enjoyed this book more because it was my first graphic novel. In fact, although a thick book you could easily read it within a couple of hours because there is barely any text. After re-reading it I also discovered many other pieces of information, symbols and motifs that appear throughout which are not necessarily apparent the first time round. You may not even pay attention to the images whilst reading, or just look at the pictures and ignore the text. In fact, by  doing either you would still understand the plot of the text. Which is what just makes the book so fantastically clever. This could just be the medium acting here, and I being a graphic novel virgin I am unable to compare.

However after enjoying this so much I went ahead and ordered Bechdel’s follow up graphic novel Are you my mother? which I will be reading as soon as the exam season is over. Then perhaps I will be able to offer a less subjective opinion.

Gendering in our society: Violence and Silence

I am honestly nearly finished reading the book. Some reason I just haven’t been able to find the time just to sit down and read for hours – I blame exams and revision for this. Whenever I begin reading All Change Please or my recent choice Birdsong, I feel immensely guilty and stop after 20 minutes or so because I should be re-reading Gatsby or Eliot in preparation for exam season.

But yet again in another attempt to procrastinate (and if I am brutally honest, I am pretty sure I should be classified as a professional procrastinator. I mean, the amount of stuff I am able to get done whilst not doing the stuff I should get done is impressive. I mean I watched all of Seasons one and two of Game of Thrones in anticipation of Season three in 3 days. I know, I understand your jealousy…) and prolong judgement day, I found myself on TED Talks earlier.

I came across Jackson Katz and his Violence and Silence talk. It focussed on the culture of our society where violence is such a prominent issue and yet gender violence prevention is still almost a taboo. He argued that gender violence is lexically viewed as a feminine one. Men seem rarely to get involved, they are women’s issues that from time to time receive help from a few good men. And that this needs to be changed – it is a male problem. Gender is not synonymous to women.

Now I understand that not all violent relationships are the fault of the male. In fact depending on the nature of the relationship, men may not even be present at all. But Katz’s talk focuses on the attitude of society and the attitude men take. And this really got me thinking about our society, not just from a feminist stand-point, but in general. Patriarchy is still such a dominant force that if you look closely enough, it appears in the most unlikely places. In the lecture, Katz gives an example of the nature of sentence structures and how in relation to domestic violence there is a tendency to focus on why the victim became the victim, rather than why the person who did it, did it. (Starts around 4 minutes) This completely altered my attitude towards literature. The active and the passive role that words play in sentences had never really been drawn to my attention before, other than in French grammar lessons.

Fun Home: A family tragicomic

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

But also, if you think about it on a much larger scale, the sheer number of books, poems, plays, text, fiction and non tend to be patriarchal. It is almost like it is inherent in out being. The way we construct out views on Gender and the roles that specific genders play. The relationship between gender and sex. Is there even a difference? Do people recognise how important it is to differentiate between the two and that they are not just synonymous? A really interesting piece of literature that touches upon this is Fun Home  by Alison Bechdel, which I will review soon. By writing in the format of a graphic novel and not a traditional, archetypal novel she even does something to undermine the conventions of authority.

I also saw this status not long after watching this talk and although funny, and I can laugh about the casual sexism, there is still something prevalent within our society that makes it acceptable for such a statement to be classified as humour and not abuse:

BBQ RULES:

We are about to enter the BBQ season. Therefore it is important to refresh your memory on the etiquette of this sublime outdoor cooking activity . When a man volunteers to do the BBQ the following chain of events are put into motion:

(1) The woman buys the food.

(2) The woman makes the salad, prepares the vegetables, and makes dessert.

(3) The woman prepares the meat for cooking, places it on a tray along with the necessary cooking utensils and sauces, and takes it to the man who is lounging beside the grill – beer in hand.

(4) The woman remains outside the compulsory three meter exclusion zone where the exuberance of testosterone and other manly bonding activities can take place without the interference of the woman.

Here comes the important part:
(5) THE MAN PLACES THE MEAT ON THE GRILL.

(6) The woman goes inside to organise the plates and cutlery.

(7) The woman comes out to tell the man that the meat is looking great. He thanks her and asks if she will bring another beer while he flips the meat

Important again:
(8) THE MAN TAKES THE MEAT OFF THE GRILL AND HANDS IT TO THE WOMAN.

(9) The woman prepares the plates, salad, bread, utensils, napkins, sauces, and brings them to the table.

(10) After eating, the woman clears the table and does the dishes

And most important of all:
(11) Everyone PRAISES the MAN and THANKS HIM for his cooking efforts.

(12) The man asks the woman how she enjoyed ‘ her night off ‘, and, upon seeing her annoyed reaction, concludes that there’s just no pleasing some women.

 

So whilst feeling bad about finding the humour funny after being inspired to such a degree I decided to write about it, I couldn’t help but think back to the video. I am sure that it will linger with any of you that watch it for quite sometime because I honestly cannot recommend it enough.

To see the entire video click here.

 

Review: Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife

I read this collection of poems a couple of years ago now, but the following two have always been more memorable to me. Remembering them while walking down the road, something I see triggers my memory. There are 30 poems in Duffy’s anthology, but these seem to really capture aspects of female life that are completely different and comparing them together offers . The poems are adaptations of famous historical male figures that have been changed to reveal a female opinion. Wives, daughters, mothers, sisters, goddesses and fariytale figures all feature in the poetry.

The Worlds Wife

The first is Little Red Cap, which is the first in the collection. I particularly liked this because of the reversal of roles, Little Red Cap is in control, she seeks out the wolf for her own pleasure. She uses him to help her become an adult, he buys her her first drink. At the end of the poem when she no longer needs him, she kills him. Instead of being the sweet little girl in the fable, she is empowered and she enjoys the appeal of an older wolf. Their sexual relationship  is one of exploration, she uses him to develop as a person, he teaches her about life, poetry and love; all things that she wanted as a child.

The poem seems to be a journey of love, her love of poetry allows her to find the wolf but it also helps to write the poem. The wolf’s lair is full of language, books and passion. Little Red Cap for me, seems to represent the curiosity of young girls on the cusp of adulthood. They are interested in experiences, in adventure, in all things that she should not have. Her love of adventure allows her to be brave and accept the wolfs first drink, then to follow him home. In comparison to the Brother Grimm’s tale however, she is not left helpless and powerless, she takes her life into her own hands when she realises that the wolf is no longer enough to satisfy her curiosity and appetite. She kills him “one chop, scrotum to throat” and in doing so she not only liberates herself but she also prevents the wolf from praying on other young girls.

In comparison to Little Red Cap is my favourite poem Mrs Darwin: 

7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him—
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

Th simplicity of this poem is what I love about it most. The suggestion that Charles Darwin’s most important work The Origin of Species is only a discussion of something that has always been noticeably apparent to others just seems to demean his work. Now I am a fan of Darwin and her theory of evolution, but in this poem the combination of the simple rhyme, short lines and form just seem to completely undermine his work. Also the poem written in the form of a diary entry relates to the main medium of communication Darwin used. He recorded all his findings in his diaries and journals while he was travelling on the Beagle and it makes sense that his wife would have too.

Review: The History Boys by Alan Bennett

Education and knowledge are always interesting points of discussion. Learning the right information just so that you will pass the exams at the end of the year, or knowing for the sake of knowing. It is sad that in the modern day schooling system that knowledge has become a necessity and not an enjoyment, even those who go on to read a subject at university normally only do so to further there career. Fast-track way to get a better job in theory…

This issue seemed to be at the heart of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, with the two different teachers Irwin and Hector. Hector taught his boys things that they enjoyed and that they would remember in their last days, poetry recitals, French plays and gobbets of information that could potentially be useful in an exam, but wouldn’t necessarily enable them to make the cut and pass the Oxford entry exam. Whereas Irwin has been specifically hired by the school to help the boys study what they will need to get into the prestigious university, he is their private tutor.

History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.

This was one of the problems that was central to the progression of the play, the clash of old and new in the schooling system. Hector is there to teach the boys ‘General Studies’ things that should help them in later life, but in the current climate the boys have no need to waste time memorizing Thomas Hardy’s Drummer Hodge they want to get into Oxford or Cambridge and so they should be studying for those exams.

The play also questioned the extent to which pupils should have a relationship with their teachers – and I mean that in every sense of the word. The sexuality of both the teachers and the students are not only questioned but pushed to the very limits, which I found very interesting to read. In my school experiences I never saw a student openly ask a teacher on a date and yet it didn’t seem too odd that it could happen at this school set in 1980’s Sheffield.

"History is just one fucking thing after another"

“History is just one fucking thing after another”

Although the narrative jumped around and was in no-sense of the word linear, the flash-forwards and flash-backs because of the intertextual references make the setting believable. The play is set in the past, it is also set in the present day, it also talks about the past even further back than the 1980’s. This is a school where students learn, regardless of what they learn, the primary intention is the pursuit of knowledge. For me, it was this that helped the play really connect with me as a reader. Everyone has been in a classroom and it is a place that is safe, ok you may have to sit a horrific exam in there at some point, but nonetheless it is still a place where you can develop as a person. The characters in the play felt like real people. Real people who just want to do the best and the most they can with their lives.

Review: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

America. Alienation. Adolescence. These three words, to me, seem to summarise The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger’s only full length novel focuses on the troubles and difficulties of growing up and the desire to belong whilst maintaining ones own identity.

The protagonist Holden Caulfield leaves his school after realising that he is unhappy being surrounded by people he doesn’t like because of their annoying personal habits or their outlook on life. Phonies. Phonies is the go-to word of the narrator. Adults that he meets whilst spending time in New York city drinking, smoking or just generally wandering the cold winter streets are phonies. They are superficial products of the post second world war society. The worst part for Holden is that everyone is unable to realise their phoniness. Even sadder is the fact that Holden doesn’t realise that he is a phony himself. His compulsive need to lie and the speed at which he disregards people because of this highlights the phoniness that is present in the world.

Holden is both alienated and alienates. He is unwilling to grow up and take that final step into the adult world, like a traditional bildungsroman. He also refuses to like various characters in the book because of their artificial qualities. He also alienates himself because relationships confuse him. Opportunities for emotional and physical relationships present themselves to Holden throughout the novel but he inevitably declines because he wants to remain individual and apart from the norm.

The Catcher in the Rye

I think it this that has left The Catcher in the Rye with such a legacy. But also a universality. So many people can relate to Holden as a character. He is just one small person trying to be himself in a world full of phoniness and change. His fascination with the natural history museum shows how isolated and alone Holden both is and likes to be. The creatures frozen in time haven’t changed since he was young and this is one of the only static elements of the novel.

In a world that is rapidly developing, with technological advances and a booming economy, there is no time to build up the intimate relationships that Holden believes should exist. His romantic view of the world is outdated and again he prevents himself from belonging. Sex is prevalent throughout the novel, with his need to lose his virginity and his apparent interest in it. Holden is a product of this changing society. He wants to lose his virginity to someone he respects and loves but is also aroused by people he doesn’t care for and considers stupid.

It is this inability to grasp the world which makes the character of Holden so relatable. Although the reasoning behind his self-alienation and inability to connect with the real world is unique to him, I feel that I can relate to him as a character. The social pressure to belong in a constantly moving, changing, growing world is something which cannot be done without trouble. Everyone has problems. Some people are just better adjusted at coping with them than others.

Phonies