Welcome to 2009.
An assumption underlying my Silent Girl story, “The Snow People: 30-46 AGM,” is that the Arctic ice will melt and oceans will rise high enough to seriously endanger people living in low-lying areas of the earth. I started writing the story after I read projections that the ice could be gone as early as 2040 and that sea levels could rise as much as 13 feet. The story is set in the future, but not too far ahead, maybe 70 years from now. It opens with the Snow People’s creation myth:
To the child in my womb I say: the blood passing between your heart and mine comes from the very first Snow People, two lovers who defied an ancient taboo and ate the liver of a polar bear. It should have killed them. Instead, it turned their skin and hair as white as the great bear’s fur and their eyes the colour of a glacial lake. The lovers had seven children, all with the same white skin and hair, all but one with the same startling eyes. For thousands of years, the lovers’ white-skinned, white-haired descendants worshipped The Land and survived on what it bestowed until even the winter ice began to thin and fewer of the fish they caught and fewer of the animals they hunted passed their way. One year the ice refused to return, and water swallowed The Land. The Snows loaded up their boats and began the Great Migration south. After many seasons, they landed on an island populated by people the Snows called Rainbows in a republic called New Columbia. The Rainbows took their boats away and the Snows could no longer hunt and fish. They could no longer worship The Land.
I don’t consider my story science fiction, because its use of hard science is minimal. It’s more of a futuristic fantasy, but I didn’t realize how important the scientific projections I based it on were to me until NPR reported on a new study that predicts a sea level rise at closer to six feet than 13. And a CNN report about a NASA study says it won’t be more than three feet by the end of this century.
This is good news for those of us living on islands, but I can’t tell you how much it deflated me. I had intended to develop my story of Selanna, her son Akintunde, and Chloe, the messiah of Akintunde’s dreams, into a novel. Granted, it’s fiction, and you should be able do whatever you want in that genre, but it took the prophetic winds out of my sails. So, I decided to embark on a different novel. The change in sea level projection wasn’t the only reason. Until I wrote “The Snow People,” I didn’t realize how much of a bias against science fiction/fantasy writing exists in some circles and I’m just not ready at this point to buck that tide.
“The Snow People” is my editor’s favourite story in the collection and I heard from one reader that she also liked it best. But others have told me it’s not their “thing” because it’s set in an unfamiliar time and place. Two members of my writing group were relieved I decided to abandon my idea of turning it into a novel, because they just can’t “get into” fantasy and science fiction. And a former professor told me that some literature professors she taught with refused to read even Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake because they don’t read futuristic literature on principle. They consider it beneath them — akin, I suppose, to bodice rippers and paperback westerns.
I’m glad I don’t have such principles. I would have missed out on Atwood’s brilliant work, not to mention Frank Herbert’s Dune series and Ursula Le Guin’s probing stories. In my unschooled opinion, if the primary value of literature is that it deepens our understanding of the human condition today, futuristic literature can allow us to reflect on how the human condition might evolve in a hypothetical tomorrow that begins right now in our minds.
What say you?
“Read my ‘tory?” my now-grown daughter, Katie, would ask when she was little, toddling up to me with book in hand. One of her favourites was The Squirrel Twins’ Ride, a Tiny Elf book in which Chipper and Chatter board a train to see their Aunt Maria. On the way they meet various characters, including an old owl. When I read it to her, I did all the voices—Chipper’s and Chatter’s were high and fast, Old Mr. Owl’s deep and slow. When a character whispered or shouted, I whispered or shouted. If I slipped up on one of the voices, Katie would let me know.
Since we enjoy such expressive reading when we’re children, why do so many authors read to us in muffled monotone? Before I launched Silent Girl this past May, the only book readings I’d attended were torture. Performance poetry events, on the other hand, were often electrifying. I had the opportunity to see Sheri-D Wilson last year and could have listened until her voice ran out. Wanting to not bore the pants off of my audiences, I enlisted the help of my writing group before the launch of Silent Girl. I asked them which passages from various stories I should read. And I asked them to listen to me practice.
Don’t hurry through your words, they said. Don’t drop your voice at the end of a sentence. The title story includes a character called Maw-Maw. “What does she sound like to you?” Diana asked after I read from that story. Both intimidating and injured, I replied. A woman whose “flesh as spongy as dumpling dough spilled from the sleeveless arms of her dress, trembling with each plop of the spoon.” A woman with a smoker’s voice.
I got to work trying to replicate that voice. It set off a small coughing fit at my first reading, so I tempered it to protect my throat. My editor wants me to project Maw-Maw more loudly, but my friend Suzie says she finds the softer tone more sinister.
I’ve been told my words are big, but my voice is small. When I asked another woman for advice—Victoria’s petite performance poet Missie Peters who doesn’t need a microphone in the fullest of rooms—she said, “Speak from your diaphragm and your heart.” (I resisted the temptation to tell her that, at my age, I haven’t needed a diaphragm for years, but I can still find my heart.)
Anyway, right now, please listen to my ‘tory, Silent Girl. The first five minutes of it, anyway. Click on the link below. Any suggestions for how I might read it better the next time?
Exactly three years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, only eight months after walls of water two stories high swept entire villages to sea and killed a quarter of a million people in a dozen other countries. The Indian Ocean earthquake that raised those walls is said to have released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.
Katrina had nowhere near that force, yet after nearly every levee in metro New Orleans was breached, 80% of the city and many areas of neighboring parishes were flooded for weeks. Seventy-one percent of New Orleans’ occupied housing was damaged, making it the largest residential disaster in U.S. history.
The title story of my collection, Silent Girl, is bookended by these catastrophes of biblical proportions. I researched them for that story and like to check in from time to time to find out how recovery is proceeding. Whether we’re talking about New Orleans or Asia, the ones who suffered the most were the most disadvantaged to begin with.
For example, over 100,000 undocumented Burmese migrants were working in the rubber, construction, and tourism industries on Thailand’s western coast when the tsunami hit. Those who survived were deliberately excluded from all official assistance, denied shelter in camps, and left on their own to survive.
Remember the pictures of the mostly poor, mostly black people in New Orleans abandoned to primitive conditions at the Superdome? As Ruth Gidley reports in this Reuters News article, “Katrina not only changed the way the rest of the world views one of the richest countries on the planet, it changed the way storm survivors think about their government.”
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey revealed that most New Orleans residents still feel forgotten by their government and their fellow citizens. Contributing to that feeling is the fact that less than half the federal money set aside for rebuilding has actually been spent on it. Similarly in Asia, $1.6 billion was earmarked for rebuilding after the tsunami but war and politics have slowed down the work. A UN-led effort has begun to install tsunami-warning systems in the Indian Ocean, but work on strengthening the levees in New Orleans won’t be done until 2011.
This is on my mind right now because I’ve been following coverage of the Democratic Convention in Denver and trying not to get swept away by the rhetoric on change. It’s tough, though. I shed a few tears during Ted Kennedy’s speech. Not due to affection—I haven’t forgotten Mary Jo Kopechne—but because of his call for “a better world” with “justice for the many.” It brought me back to the days of JFK when I, like the many young Obama disciples today, were eager to stand on the edge of the “new frontier” he spoke about. I wept during Michelle Obama’s speech, too, when she recalled Barak saying we too easily accept the distance between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.” And I wept during his acceptance speech when he said, “Enough!” and “America, we’re better than that.”
I’d like to believe he would lead the effort to bridge the distance between what is and what should be but my hope is tempered by history. Time and again we demonstrate how little we care for the poor and the others we marginalize. We send money when disaster first strikes but we quickly lose interest, junkies for the next sensational story, unwilling to share long-term with others. It’s difficult for us to sustain the effort required to effect lasting change. In New Orleans, that would involve dealing with the deep-seated racism and class divides that are barriers to a good education for all, decent housing for all, and livable wages for all.
In Canada and many other parts of the world, I’m guessing it would be the same.
A few days ago, as part of an outdoor arts event, I read excerpts from two stories in Silent Girl, one of them “Kesh Kumay,” which takes place in Kyrgyzstan. I related the statistic that a third of marriages in Kyrgyzstan result from non-consensual kidnappings (versus the consensual kind we call elopements). A woman came up to me afterward and told me she had traveled extensively in countries we criticize for their treatment of women.
“We shouldn’t be too quick to judge them,” she said. Maybe a third of marriages result from kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, she noted, but “one in four women” in our country are assaulted by their partners. “Exotic” abuse is always more interesting to talk (and write) about. We should mind our own business before pointing fingers overseas.
So, is it one in four – 25%? The latest stats I could find, from Family Violence
in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2005 from Statistics Canada, indicated that seven per cent of women and six per cent of men end up abused by their current or former partners. In terms of numbers, that works out to an estimated 653,000 women and 546,000 men. The reported abuse included having something thrown at them and/or having been:
• pushed, shoved or grabbed;
• threatened to be hit;
• beaten or choked;
• kicked, hit or bit; and
• sexually assaulted
The data showed that female victims of spousal violence were more than twice as likely to be injured as male victims. Women were also three times more likely to fear for their life, and twice as likely to be the targets of more than 10 violent episodes. And, overall, female victims were twice as likely as male victims to be stalked by a previous spouse.
So, women are at greater risk of serious injury than men but what are we to conclude about the nearly equal numbers of men and women reporting spousal abuse?
When I began writing my story “Deep Dark Waves,” I intended to portray a “typical” domestic abuse situation: man as aggressor, woman as victim. But my research unearthed a more intriguing scenario: woman gets off on violence, is in fact addicted to it. It was so much more interesting to me as a writer. But I realized the story could be controversial. A woman who interviewed me on the radio said she was “conflicted” when reading “Deep Dark Waves” for that reason.
Several people have reviewed the book but, so far, the radio interviewer is the only one who has commented on the disparity between what we believe to be true about domestic violence and the scenario my story presents. Because we don’t believe that women are violent, we don’t have any services in place to counsel those who are. And because our society considers a man who can’t defend himself against a “mere” woman to be weak, he may be too ashamed to seek help. If he does, we can’t offer him much. So, our beliefs aren’t doing us much good.
Three years ago, I completed a story that drew upon the phenomenon of bride kidnapping, or ala kachuu, in Kyrgyzstan. That story, “Kesh Kumay,” part of the Silent Girl collection, was ignited by Petr Lom’s moving documentary “Kidnapped Brides “on CBC’s Passionate Eye in 2004. At the time, I had no idea that women were kidnapped into marriage in Kyrgyzstan. How many women, Lom didn’t know. In this interview, he said, “there are almost no scholarly studies on the subject, and the international human rights community has given the subject almost no attention.”
As a woman, I was horrified by what the documentary revealed. As a writer, I was excited. I had been looking for a modern counterpart to Shakespeare’s Kate (The Taming of the Shrew). When one woman tells Lom, “After the kidnapping, you’ve no choice —you start loving, even if you don’t want to, you have to build a life,” I knew I had found my Kate in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.
It took me many months to write that story as I needed to research life in Kyrgyzstan as well as the history and practice of ala kachuu. My research led me to conclude that women had fared better under the Soviets when it came to human rights. It was the Soviets that had made ala kachuu illegal as far back as 1927. It is still against the law, but ever since Kyrgyzstan became an independent republic in 2001, incidents of ala kachuu have become more frequent and the police seem to look the other way. As this 2004 article in Women’s News relates, the status of women fell in many areas following independence.
Recently I came across the name of Dr. Russell Kleinbach, professor of sociology at Philadelphia University. He was a Fulbright Lecturer at Osh State University in Kyrgyzstan from 1998-1999 and has made bride kidnapping one of his scholarly pursuits. (Apparently Petr Lom did not know about Kleinbach’s work with Sarah Amsler, instructor of Sociology at American University in Kyrgyzstan.) I wrote to Kleinbach and inquired about the current situation.
“I can say small progress is being made on the ala kachuu problem,” he wrote back. “For the first time, there are now crime statistics on kidnapping.”
He sent me a table of those statistics for 2006. Out of 73 cases that were registered with law enforcement agencies, 53 were dismissed and 16 were treated as criminal. It’s hard to say how many cases go unreported. Articles I had come across during my research indicated that as many as a third of Kyrgyz marriages result from non-consensual kidnappings (as opposed to consensual elopement type kidnappings). Kidnapped women are pressured by their parents to accept the marriage so that they won’t be “cursed.” Often the marriage is consummated by force, leaving the woman “spoiled” and unlikely to attract another husband.
Dr. Kleinbach also wrote, “We have done enough research to know a lot about non-consensual kidnapping, including that it is not an ancient Kyrgyz tradition, in addition to being illegal and not allowed in Islam. While the practice continues with tragic consequences, it is sometimes successfully resisted. This summer we plan to begin a one year study to test the effectiveness of our anti kidnapping educational program.”
For months, I’ve been a junkie for news about the Clinton/Obama nomination race. But out of laziness, I’ve relied on The New York Times online for my news. Just a click away, a break from writing without leaving my chair. Plus, living in Canada and not being a big TV watcher, I’ve been spared the divisive advertising and talk show host chatter that have assaulted my fellow Americans stateside.
However, the drama of the last few days of the campaign – will Hillary concede, will she endorse Obama? – drew me into a number of blogs to gain a broader perspective. I highly recommend Antonia Zerbisias (both her Toronto Star column and her blog Broadsides) for her unflinching look at women’s issues. I also recommend http://feministblogs.org if you’re looking for a compendium of current feminist blogs. It led me to Shakespeare’s Sister (how serendipitous is that?), now called Shakesville, where Melissa McEwan has been posting “Hillary Sexism Watch” in multiple parts over the course of the nomination campaign. From McEwan I learned:
• You can buy a Hillary Clinton nutcracker for $19.95.
• In Salem, NH, Clinton was greeted by a man shouting “Iron my shirt” and holding up a sign reading the same.
• When John McCain was asked by a supporter (a woman, no less), “How do we beat the bitch?” he laughed off the comment and changed the subject.
• On Fox News, author Mark Rudov said, “When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, ‘Take off for the future.’ And when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage.’”
I don’t view all 90+ of McEwan’s examples of comments about Hillary Clinton as sexist. But, then, I’m so entrenched in the patriarchal value system, I no longer see the many ways women are discounted and dismissed every day. I urge you to read McEwan’s posts and judge for yourself. And here are three other articles deftly summarizing abusive rhetoric directed against Clinton:
I’ll be sending in my absentee ballot this fall. I’ve been ready for a female president for years; but Clinton lost me for good when she said, “I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran [if it attacked Israel]. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.” However I do wish I’d been more aware of how she was being slammed for simply being a woman. I applaud the people who spoke out against that and pointed out that we’re more sensitive to racism than we are sexism.
There was little outrage in the media against Clinton being made fun of because of her voice or because she wore pantsuits. In fact, members of the media often led the mockery. And more importantly, there has been no objection from Barack Obama to the disrespect shown Hillary Clinton throughout the campaign. (Please let me know if I’m wrong. I would love to be wrong about this.) All women need to be concerned about that and about John McCain’s laughing off the bitch comment. This isn’t about Hillary alone. If American women can’t count on their president to insist they be respected, then 51% of the population is disenfranchised.
But then, what’s new about that?
Personally, I’m making a pledge to speak out more often against sexism, racism and other injustice—and not just in my fiction. For starters, I’m gonna march down to the Hallmark card shop in downtown Victoria and complain about the greeting card I spotted last week. It illustrates Hillary Clinton as President of the United States and reads, on the inside: “See, there are scarier things than having a birthday.” Is there a similar card for Barack Obama or John McCain? I doubt it.
P.S. McEwan hasn’t been on watch for sexism alone. She’s also highlighting racial prejudice directed against Obama. You can find links to her sexism/racism posts at Double Whammy.
…comes the story of incest and imprisonment in Austria. In case you missed it, a man locked his 18-year-old daughter up in a windowless prison in the cellar of his home 24 years ago. He forced her to write a letter that convinced her mother, who spent 24 years not knowing her daughter was imprisoned in the basement, she had run away.
The man fathered seven children by his daughter. One of them died shortly after birth and he burned its body in an incinerator. Since three of the children were “cry babies” —more likely to be detected—he “discovered” each of them on his doorstep with a note from his daughter asking him and her mother to take care of them. Three other children, ages 19, 18 and 5, had never seen daylight until the nineteen-year-old became so ill, her father/grandfather deposited her with an anonymous note in the lobby of the building where he lived.
“Not Meant to Know,” the first story in Silent Girl, hints at incest when a small community discovers a fifteen-year-old and her two-year-old child in “Crazy” Haggerty’s house after he dies. The story was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a tale of a sorcerer, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda, who have lived for twelve years on an island inhabited only by magic spirits and the misshapen, orphaned Caliban.
I had intended to write my story about a girl who is kept hidden from the world by her father, but in the end, it became only a small part of a larger story about loss of innocence. Even so, I had to imagine what might have happened to my Miranda before she was discovered. I did not imagine something as horrible as what happened to the girl in the Austrian cellar: a 42-year-old woman, now, with prematurely white hair and no teeth, raped repeatedly and forced to carry her father’s seed. In fiction unimaginable but too horribly real in truth.
It will take a while, I’m sure, to understand how that father could have conducted such a double life for so long without anyone finding out. His wife’s sister was quoted as saying he ruled his family absolutely, insisting the children stop whatever they were doing and stand when he entered the room. Were they so cowed they didn’t question his disappearances into the cellar for long periods or wonder why he forbade anyone else to go down there? Possibly. But Austrians are asking themselves why no one else was curious enough to investigate an 18-year-old’s disappearance and the subsequent arrival of three of her children on her parents’ doorstep.
In “Not Meant to Know,” eleven-year-old Linda asks her father why nobody knew Crazy Haggerty had a daughter, and he says people were so afraid of the man they left him alone. It brings up the question that’s as old as the Old Testament: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It asks us to ponder the line between respecting someone’s desire for privacy and the community’s obligation to protect its vulnerable members.
What do you think?
Possibly the most boring people on earth are new parents and new authors. All we want to talk about are our newborn creations. How beautiful, clever and destined for greatness they are. I’m no different, nervously awaiting the birth of my first book, Silent Girl, and blabbing about it all over triciadower.com.
What I’d like to do in this space is give you a chance to blab with me about some of the contemporary issues that form the context for Silent Girl. Issues like gender politics, racism, forced marriage, incest, domestic violence,
sexual slavery, and other forms of oppression. We can introduce lighter topics, too—go wherever the energy takes us. I may end up having a discussion with myself for a while, but, hey, I’m a writer—accustomed to spending great blocks of time alone talking (or writing) to myself.
Between now and book birth—expected by May 1st—please leave a comment about which issues interest you most and why. Once Silent Girl emerges from the delivery room, we can pick one and start blabbing.