Category Archives: Thoughts

Another Discussion on Misrepresentation in Literature

After my post the other day, and completing Alberto Manguel’s The Traveler, The Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), I wanted to talk ramble a bit more about the quote I highlighted:

But if we are gregarious animals who must follow the dictates of society, we are nevertheless individuals who learn about the world by reimagining it, by putting words to it, by reenacting through those words our experience.

As I commented last post: what does it mean that we ignore the experiences of so many? What do we learn, or not learn, by not putting those experiences to words? 

Previously I was talking specifically about rape in literature, but there are implications much more broadly. There is no such thing as true representation in literature. It isn’t just sexual assault that gets stereotyped and misrepresented in literature, when it is discussed at all. We also see a lack of true diversity around race, sexuality, gender, nationality, religion, and more in our popular literature.

Along the same vein, another book I read recently asks us to consider more carefully what does get published. In Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press, 2013), Lila Abu-Lughod talks about the international human rights regime and the ways in which it interacts with Muslim women. Among other themes and discussions, she spends one chapter picking apart the popular literature that exists around Muslim women. This literature, she contends, falls mainly into two categories:

  1. The human rights approach that gives us examples and numbers and statistics about the violence that women live with.
  2. The pulp fiction novels telling sensationalized (and often fairly pornographic) tales of escape from forced marriages, attempted honor killings, and other extreme situations.

All of these books, Abu-Lughod contends, allow the reader – who is necessarily assumed to be ‘Western’ and non-Muslim – to feel good about their own situation and countries and imagine that they are superior and enlightened. By donating time or money, these books tell us, we can fix these “other” cultures which are so backwards and bring them to modernity. We don’t have to think critically about the same issues of violence and murder that happen in our own Western countries because they are individual cases, not cases stemming from cultural reasons. And we don’t have to think critically about factors causing the violence in these Muslim countries, because we can be assured they stem solely from the ‘backwards’ culture and religion.

(Note: This is not to say, the author makes clear, that these instances of abuse and violence aren’t true or that we shouldn’t care about them and work to end them. What she is saying is that we need to think critically about all of the causes of the injustice and violence instead of simply placing the blame with religion or culture.)

The language of women’s rights and Muslim-women-needing-saving-from-Islam simplify and exaggerate. The language also ignores all the other factors that lead to situations of violence and lack of autonomy. Politics, economics, religion, histories of colonialism, class inequality, developmental agency and government policies, violence and oppression especially state or war related, and more all work together to cause women’s oppression. Some of these issues were caused or are still caused in part by our own consumption habits and foreign policies.

As she says:

 […] honest self-reflection about how the privileges of elites or middle-class people might be connected to the persistence of devastating inequalities – whether on distant shores or in our backyards – is essential to any ethical stance toward women’s human rights. (page 225)

What she points out in the section on the literature, which I thought was especially interesting, was that we need to think critically about why certain types of books are published and become popular. The Muslim pulp novels about women who escaped from brutal situations became especially prevalent and popular around the same time as the justifications were being made for the war on terror. These books and ideas often go hand in hand with the religious Right, Christianity, and justifications for going to war. They all let us think that the only place left to improve the rights of women is in other countries, and that war and occupation is the way towards that.

(Random side note: due to the fact that I recently alphabetized my non-fiction shelf, Abu-Lughod’s book now has to sit shelved unhappily next to Ayan Hirsi Ali…)

Stereotypes and prejudices exist in literature, sometimes purposely and sometimes not. What gets published is determined in large part by a handful of large companies. What gets media attention is determined by the same groups as control the regular news media in most cases. When the argument in a book is too easy and is simply telling us to export our culture and ideals onto other peoples, we should stop and question whether we are truly getting the full picture.

Basically these two rambling rant-posts are my reminders to keep thinking critically about what I read, what is and is not included in each book or article that I read, and what I’m not able to read because it’s not been considered worth publishing.

Hello dear readers (if any still exist after my prolonged absence).

I’m putting together a collage of sorts, and am looking for more excellently bookish quotes, or favorite quotes from books. I tend to forget to write down most of the quotes that I love while reading, so I don’t have all that many. I’d love to know what yours are to possibly add to my list.

Here are a number of mine:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us… It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.

—Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

For what good is freedom of expression if you lack the means to express yourself?

—Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English

The relationship between book and reader is intimate, at best a kind of love affair, and first loves are famously tenacious. […] First love is a momentous step in our emotional education, and in many ways, it shapes us forever.

—Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book: A Sceptic’s Adventures in Narnia

“Choice” is sometimes not a choice at all. It is an outcome determined by the economic, physical, sociological, and political factors that surround women and move them toward the only action that allows them to survive at that point in their lives. Survival can sometimes be a woman’s act of staying alive, but it can also be her act of refusing to put what will become an impossible burden on her shoulders.

—Merle Hoffman, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom

I learned that this is what “at least” means: Move on. Get over it. Let’s not talk about it. It could be worse, so it must be better.

—Jennifer Gilbert, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memoir of Life Through Events – the Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don’t

I wonder at how many of us, feeling unsafe and unprotected, either end up running far away from everything we know and love, or staying and simply going mad. I have decided today that neither option is more or less noble than the other. They are merely different ways of coping, and we each must cope as best we can.

— Shani Mootoo, Cereus Blooms at Night

It was in books that he first learnt of his invisibility. He searched for himself and his people in all the history books he read and discovered to his youthful astonishment that he didn’t exist.

—Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods

There is a group of people with no positive illusions, who get closer to the truth about themselves, who have a more realistic perspective of their abilities, of how the future will pan out and of the amount of control they have over things. Philip Larkin described them as ‘the less deceived’. Psychiatrists call them clinically depressed.

—Ian Leslie, Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit

Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.

—Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
next time
you should admit
you’re mean/ low-down/ trifflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry all the time
enjoy bein yrself

— Ntozake Shange, For colored girls who have considered suicide / When the rainbow is enuf

If you want to love
Do so
To the ends of the earth
With no shortcuts
Do so
As the crow flies

— Veronique Tadjo, As the Crow Flies

Truth is relative, and there is always something missing in truth that prevents it from being perfect.

— Nawal El Saadawi, The Novel

Words could be magic, but not in the abracadabra way that Deshawn believed. The magic that came from lips could be as cruel as children and as erratic as a rubber ball ricocheting off concrete.

— Tayari Jones, Leaving Atlanta

I realized then that advice is easily given. How can one really know what another woman has to suffer, or the problems she has to deal with, if one hasn’t been through the same trauma oneself.

—Bharati Ray, Daughters: A Story of Five Generations

What about you  – do you have particular favorites of your own? What are they? Please do share in the comments!

A Rant on Misrepresentation and Rape in Literature

I use Grammarly for proofreading because rants aren’t always very well written, grammatically speaking, so a “second set of eyes” is always helpful.*

While I read a fair amount, I don’t consider myself truly well-read. There are too many books out there, and too many new books coming out on a regular basis, and I can read but a small number of them; and rarely do I choose the ‘cannon’ books or the best-sellers. That being said, in what reading I’ve done, I’ve become more and more aware of certain trends around rape in literature. In this regard, it seems that books featuring rape follow one of three different paths.

  1. Stranger Rape, Done Well: This category of books contains such non-fiction as Lucky by Alice Sebold, Rape New York by Jana Leo, Jane Doe No More by M. William Phelps and Donna M. Palomba. It consists of such fiction as Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. These books take rape seriously; they delve into the ramifications on the life of the survivor and those around her. They tackle head on a difficult subject. The act also generally takes place in a dark alley, by someone or some group not intimately known by the protagonist.
  2. Stranger Rape, Done Poorly: In this category, we find authors in need of a dark twist, or an explanation for the heroine’s anger and hate, or perhaps just a dark and dangerous atmosphere. Rape here is an easy stand-in for ‘something that causes fear and a sense of danger’. Good job author, on taking the easy route instead of using any number of plot points and twists that happen to male protagonists in similar stories. As with the category I consider to be done well, this also generally occurs somewhere dark and scary where, come on, the protagonist shouldn’t really have been at that hour by herself etc.
  3. Non-Stranger Rape: Are we sure this is an actual thing? According to most authors who feature this type of event, it’s not. Rape or sexual violence by a boyfriend, a husband, a potential love interest, is generally a way to further the romance. It is supposed to be read, I get the impression, as actually sexy and lovely. The protagonist, obviously, comes to the realization that she did want it, and that she actually loves this person.

Now, I know this is rather generalized based on the small sampling of books that I’ve read in my lifetime (a notable exception that springs to mind is Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko). But it is still quite common for books to fall into categories 2 and 3. And even category 1, in many ways, can be problematic. You may not want to know why, but I will share anyway.

The most prevalent type of rape in literature is stranger rape, especially in non-fiction. This type of rape occurs the least frequently in real life. According to RAINN, 73% of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. 38% are friends or acquaintances. 28% are someone intimate. 11% involve a weapon of some kind. 84% involve physical force. Why is it that this type of rape is not addressed in non-fiction? Why can we still not acknowledge that it happens? Why are we so fixated on the idea that rape is rape only when it is a stranger in an alley? Why do we insist on silencing the other, much larger, group of survivors?

Related to this, why do we keep seeing authors use sexual assault as a point to further a relationship? If we’re going to discuss silencing survivors, here is a great way to do it. And lastly, it’s a slap in the face to be reading along and come across something so violent and painful and raw be used as a plot point: especially an unnecessary plot point.

I understand, really, I do. It is terrifying to think that all the things we’re told we can do – behaving properly, not walking alone after dark, avoiding that alley, not drinking too much, etc. – that none of these things will actually help. That in many cases, it’s the friend or partner or acquaintance whom you trusted, who was your ‘protection’ from walking alone at night. It’s terrifying to have to acknowledge that this narrative is a lie. It’s easier to go with it, to keep using the stranger danger as a plot point for fear and character growth, and pretend that is the world that we live in, that is the fear that we must try to avoid.

I just started reading Alberto Manguel’s The Traveler, The Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor and in the introduction is a line that really struck me. On page 4 he says:

But if we are gregarious animals who must follow the dictates of society, we are nevertheless individuals who learn about the world by reimagining it, by putting words to it, by reenacting through those words our experience.

It makes me wonder: what does it mean that we ignore the experiences of so many? What do we learn, or not learn, by not putting those experiences to words? 

*Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Grammarly, after having the opportunity to try their service out for myself, but all opinions and ideas within are clearly my own.