Something that I noticed last year – well, less “noticed” and more “was insistently thrust upon me repeatedly” – was the pervasiveness of sexual violence in the books I was reading. I couldn’t go two books (fiction and non-fiction alike) without its presence – the threat of it, the act of it, the fear of it – coming up. I began noting it when it came up, and it did, often.
(and yes, the imagery in that paragraph is not lost on me)
I have no doubt that this pervasiveness is linked to the fact that I was reading so much female writing last year. Something that is difficult for men to comprehend is how very much this constant threat shapes the way that we as females move in this world – we learn early – are taught early – to be aware, to guard ourselves, to know that the men around us are potential threats, to know that blame is an ugly and slimy black finger that touches victim and perpetrator alike. Many, many women have already articulated this – I add here my voice to theirs.
Recently, a colleague came into my office. I’ve had numerous chats with this colleague about this very threat – it’s frustrating, but as a tall, white man, his idea of violence is punching and war; the kind of violence that I as a woman understand, the awareness when an unfamiliar male comes into my office, or walks behind me in a city, or enters an empty lift with me, is invisible to him.
During this particular visit, I can’t remember what we were talking about. I remember only that he said, in relation to moving freely and how his daughter and I and women generally have a different scope of movement, “But that is a threat I will never know, because I never have to think about it.”
It seems like a small thing, but it was so meaningful to me. It felt like the words I had been saying hadn’t been lost, not entirely. And even if someone else triggered that realization, it feels – good to have it seen and visible and known.
In my earlier post on my 2016 reading, I wrote that I don’t know if there’s a fundamental difference between male and female writing, but if there is, I would hazard a guess that it lies in this – the knowledge of a kind of world that is invisible to men. Which makes no sense, given that the actions of men are such an integral part of this knowledge.
Over the weekend I read Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi and Naomi Alderman’s The Power, and it highlighted this difference for me.
I had real trouble getting through Habibi, a 600 page tome about two slaves in a kind of Mad-Max-esque version of the Middle East, Dodola and Zam. The artwork is amazing – bold and detailed and beautiful (although some of the facial expressions are a little hard to parse), drawing on Arabic calligraphy. It’s clever, too, in the way it draws together Biblical and Qur’anic stories, twisting them into one spine that supports the mythology of the book.
It was easy to read and follow – it was difficult to watch Dodola get raped repeatedly, her naked body an object for so much of the book. Zam’s violations, too, were difficult to read, but they were in no way as graphically depicted or dwelt on as Dodola’s.
The reviews on the cover of Habibi dwell on the love story – it didn’t read that way to me at all. For the first hundred pages I was really troubled by the Orientalist overtones, the fetishization of Middle Eastern culture. It felt racist to me, but I’ll put a few reviews (of many) here which sum up how problematic it is.
“The Qur’an and Mysticism: A Review of Craig Thompson’s Habibi” (this one’s by G.Willow Wilson)
The Power was a real palate-cleanser after that. The premise of the novel is simple – at some point in our history, a “power” wakes up in girls of 15. This power is electric and deadly, and can be passed from younger women to older ones. With this power, women around the world rise delightedly, no longer at risk of rape or deadly force or abuse. The Abrahamic religions reform around Mother Eve, Miriam, Fatima. The sex slave trade is brutally destroyed. Women move freely.
“There was a time that a woman could not walk alone here, not if she were under seventy, and not with certainty even then.”
There is violence, and wonder, and fear. Written from a future in which all this is history, this is dystopia and speculation, and after Habibi, it was a relief, at first.
“The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami. You have to tear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.”
But because, of course, we are all human, man and woman alike, it all goes, quite frankly, to shit.
“At first we did not speak our hurt because it was not manly. Now we do not speak it because we are afraid and ashamed and alone without hope, each of us alone.”
A point that the book makes quite well is about the grinding of history – that systems of oppression are not the work of a day or an hour but of years and years of thought and internalization; that we forget the history that does not serve us; that we twist things to fit into our belief systems.
Just before sleep, Margot thinks of winged ants, and how there would be just one day every summer that the house at the lake would swarm with them, thickly upon the ground, clinging to the timber-clad frame, vibrating on the tree trunks, the air so full of ants you thought you might breathe them in. They live underground, those ants, all year long, entirely alone. They grow from their eggs, they eat what – dust and seeds or something – and they wait, and wait. And one day, when the temperature has been just right for the right number of days and when the moisture is just so…they all take to the air at once. To find each other.
Something lighter, next, I think. I have a collection of essays by Neil Gaiman standing by.