2018 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Classics, Contemporary, Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Joan Didion, Non-Fiction

“Joansing” for Didion

While Halloween has always held a coveted spot in my heart and imagination, the truth is, I used to get almost as excited for the 4thof July. It was like the summertime version of my favorite autumn day, where the rules were bent and the pure joy of living was the day’s entire purpose. I distinctly remember people from my childhood commenting about my love for this holiday, and about how patriotic I must have been. But that was never the reality.

What I loved were the barbecues and the being outside with friends all day, playing kickball and having water balloon fights, and getting so bloated on hot dogs and ice cream that I thought I’d burst before the big city fireworks show. I loved the morning parade, being in it as a Boy Scout and, when Boy Scout days were over, arising early to save the family seats along the sidewalk, close enough to grab candy and other goodies from the parade participants.

And I can still hear the sound of the ice cream truck, softly in the distance. I can see my friends’ faces as they heard it too; we’d look at each other at just the right moment, realizing it was time to pause the game, rush home to beg for a dollar, and then get back out into the street in time to stop the truck as he came tinkling down the road. But more than anything, it was the fireworks.

Reading Joan Didion is like reading the 4th of July. It is fireworks in my brain and sitting down with an old friend to chat about and think about everything and nothing, and leaving exhausted by the pure and exhilarating experience of being together again. There’s no special magic to fireworks, once you learn they’re little more than powder, a match, and some cleverly timed fuses. In the same way, one can “figure out” the technical and creative style of Didion in order to explain just how she does what she does, and why it is so compelling. But even now, that knowledge, about fireworks and Didion, remains subliminal, and I continue to be, above all, caught up in the spectacle, in the color and rhythm and choreography of it all.

The White Album is a collection of essays written in the “aftermaths of the 1960s.” Her subject matter ranges from personalities like Doris Lessing to events like the Manson murders. What holds it all together is the skeptical and, in hindsight, sobering but accurate perspective of an often-mistaken view about the United States’ “greatest decade.” Didion takes an unflinching look at the optimism of the 1960s, the supposed freedoms, and the many breakdowns and reckonings of that idealism, the unmasking, as it were, of one decade by its disillusioned successor, the 1970s.

In the first essay, from which the collection takes its title, Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” In other words, the writer’s work at this time was to try to make sense of the senseless, and the 1970s more than any other time revealed that, sometimes, the narrative is simply wrong.

In later essays, she writes about architecture, like governors’ mansions and museums, as signifiers of our culture’s shaken and superficial, even misleading, view of our own past. In “The Getty,” for example, she writes, “the Getty tells us that the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it.” If the collection has one unifying theme, it is this critique on what we Americans think we know about our own past, and how quickly truth and reality seem to slip through our fingers. To read this collection now, in 2018, is a particularly painful and humbling experience.

One of the most under-rated essays in the collection is its last, “Quiet Days in Malibu.” In a way, this piece, written between 1976-1978, is the logical concluding piece not just because it comes near the end chronologically, but because Didion writes about the personal experience of living in Malibu in order to reveal that it, too—the reality of her hometown—is different from how it is perceived by those who live outside of it. Malibu, California has an aura about it that relates to nothing real, according to Didion, just as the 1970s exposed the truth of the 1960s, puncturing its aura forever. Aptly, and somewhat ironically, at the center of her experience in this essay is an immigrant who runs a local flower shop for decades. His are some of the most expensive, sought-after plants in the world and, like everything else, their position is precarious. Danger and uncertainty, instability and tragedy, are always lurking. And yet, so is hope—inexplicable, untraceable, blind hope.

I adore Didion’s writing, so beware my bias. That said, this is perhaps her most tightly themed collection. Despite an essay or two with which I had some intellectual or emotional disagreement (there is one titled “The Women’s Movement” that left me feeling more than conflicted), I felt a fierce and powerful sense of grounded awe while reading these essays and after finishing the collection. This is what I’ve come to expect, personally, from my time with Joan Didion.

The rocket’s red glare. The bombs bursting in air.


This was the fifth book read for my TBR Pile Challenge.


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Criticism, Essay, Jane Austen

Considering the Secret of Northanger Abbey

Although I’m not hosting Austen in August this year, I did want to dip my toes into something Austen-related, at least. Old habits die heard! As many of you know, my favorite Austen novel is Northanger Abbey. It is not her best, but I have a special affinity for it, for a few reasons. I recently read an article that takes a different view on its characters, so I thought I would consider it and respond here.

Edward Neill’s “The Secret of Northanger Abbey”is largely a critique on the “imbecility” of the characters in Jane Austen’s novel. Neill refers to each character individually, pointing out their less admirable traits, without paying much attention to what positivity or sensibility the characters might actually bring to the story. The article revolves around negativity, and does not take into consideration multiple-motives or interpretations.

For instance, when discussing an argument between Catherine and Henry Tilney, over Fred Tilney’s actions with Isabella Thorpe, Neill writes, “Catherine’s condemnation of [Fred’s] caddishness seems more accurate than Henry’s blustering indulgence” (Neill 23). However, Neill only allows for Catherine’s behavior as proper in this circumstance, refusing to acknowledge the fact that Henry must first (especially in the time this novel is written, when familial ties are of the utmost importance) align himself with his brother; furthermore, if we look at the novel itself, it is clear that Henry Tilney understands Isabella’s character, as well as his brothers, and he finds them both equally at fault. Henry touches on this sentiment when he responds to Catherine’s one-sided assault against his brother, essentially stating that, in order for one to fret over Captain Tilney’s treatment of Isabella, one would need “first suppose Isabella to have had a heart to lose, – consequently to have been a very different creature; and in that case, she would have met with very different treatment” (Austen 150-51). Thus, Henry does not disagree that the Captain’s behavior leaves much to be desired, but also that one such as Isabella need not expect, nor deserve, any better.

The character “flaws,” as Neill understands them, are not the only aspects of Austen’s novel with which Neill finds fault. He goes on to examine Catherine’s growth as a character, and rather than applauding Austen for allowing Catherine to develop over the course of the narrative, Neill states that the character growth from “imbecility sprouts at an alarming” rate (Neill 24). I would argue, however, the old adage that one cannot truly grow, or appreciate one’s own self-worth, without first making mistakes (or, “it is better to learn from your mistakes, than to be doomed to repeat them.”) Why does Neill find such fault in a character’s ability to learn and to grow – as Catherine does – with each new experience? It is also clear that her most important life experience to-date is happening at this moment in narrative time, when Catherine is visiting Bath and largely responsible for herself for the first time, so it seems natural that this is a time when she would obtain a great deal of self-awareness (as well as social, political, economic, etc.), even rapidly.

The third issue I take with Neill’s reading of Northanger Abbey comes by way of his deconstruction of an interaction between Catherine and Henry. As the two characters discuss their reading of The Mysteries of Udolpho, Neill labels Henry’s irony “self-reproachful,” then goes on to state that Catherine misunderstands Henry’s intention with his statement that he has read the book and thus, must “gain points” with her (Neill 25). Neill seems to think that Henry is mocking her, and, though Tilney does use sarcasm often enough to get his point across, as when he says, in jest, that “nature has given [women] so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half,” it is also made clear, early in the story, that he does read and enjoy novels (Austen 79). Therefore, I would argue, this scene is not meant to diminish Henry’s nor Catherine’s character; instead, it is Austen’s way of bringing the general popularity and importance of the novel to the forefront.

Neill’s essay is an interesting piece of criticism, and it does have its value. It offers one way of reading the characters in the novel and leaves room for argument and further consideration. Further, it concludes that “Northanger Abbey contains the meaning of Northanger Abbey” which Catherine, mostly by accident, discovers (Neill 29). The article opened up my own reading of the text by making me look more closely at the way Catherine’s character develops throughout the novel, and how it is her stumbling and misinterpretations of situations, or perhaps more generously, her intuition which allows her to become the true heroine of the novel. What does it mean, for instance, that “not only is she not absolutely wrong, she ends by seeming closer to being right than anyone else?” (Neill 28) Neill is correct that Catherine somehow interprets the natures of John Thorpe, General Tilney, and Captain Tilney; however, I would have to argue that, even though she does not, at first, understand the reason for her “gut feelings” about these people, she is the only person to recognize that there is something wrong. Thus, in my opinion, Catherine is no “imbecile.”

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Neill, Edward. “The Secret of Northanger Abbey.” Essays in Criticism 47.1 (1997): 13-32.


All work found on roofbeamreader.com is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.


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Blog Post, Criticism, Culture, Essay, writing

The Dystopic Villainy of Book Clubs

I was recently informed that someone out there on the interwebs has a serious problem with the “Classics Club Spin.” Now, normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t phase me. Different people like and appreciate different things. So it goes and who cares? But then I visited said blog and read the post, a self-congratulatory and sweeping criticism of modern-day “book clubs.” The most intense criticism is saved for the joyful little spin, however, and the rationale is beyond bizarre.

The blog post begins thus: “But there is a strange new trend, a marketing plan for glamorous curators of books. Publishers can now con readers into subscribing to book clubs where the “editors” choose the monthly books for the customers.”

That’s a pretty reasonable critique, save the part of this being anything new.  In a way, this trend has been around at least as long as Dickens, who—along with other serial writers—created the market for subscriber-based fiction. That said, the idea that there is a “great con” in a book club is simplistic and dishonest. Do subscribers really not know that editors will be choosing each month’s selection for them? Do they not sign up for the program themselves, and continue it month-to-month so long as they are satisfied? Can they not choose to return the book, or “DNF” it, or read it, love it, and rate it on Goodreads, if they want? Where, exactly, is the con?

But it gets worse.

At this point, the writer goes on to criticize specific clubs.

First is the NYRB Classics Book Club, which she thinks is too expensive. In this, I probably agree, but again, where is the con? Don’t have the money? Don’t join the club. In most cases, these clubs also post their reading selection(s), so guess what? A person could join along as they see fit or not, with different editions and even electronic copies, if they want to save money or choose to avoid certain selections.

Then, The Art of the Novella Subscription Series from Melville House is called out for choosing books that do not count as novellas. The criticism here is that the book club facilitators do not know what a novella is. She indicates that books such as The Awakening and Jacob’s Room are novels, not novellas, and so these editors need to learn what is what before they can earn her loyalty (though at this point, I’m beginning to doubt they would receive it regardless). The intense scorn, based only on two examples, seems inappropriate at best, especially considering the fact that The Awakening and Jacob’s Room certainly come close enough to being novellas. Merriam-Webster defines a novella as “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.” Most dictionaries of literary terms further limit the novella to between 17,000 and 40,000 words. Well, The Awakening surpasses the limit by about 6,000 words (45,965) and Jacob’s Room comes in at about 54,000 words. So, in the strictest sense, are they novellas? Perhaps not, but I think more than enough readers and scholars alike would accept that they come close enough and that the reader of short fiction/novellas would receive more benefit than harm from their inclusion, particularly if they are aspiring writers. Maybe I’m just missing the “con” again.

Next on the chopping block is Asymptote Book Club which the author says she has “never heard of” and thereby sarcastically dismisses its claim that it is “the premier site for world literature in translation.” I’m not sure what sort of argument, “it can’t be true because I’ve never heard of it” falls into, but it seems to fit our times. To be fair, though, she’s also not a fan that the choices are “surprises” and that they are selected by an “award-winning team” (“who are they?” she asks. That’s a fair question, but did she bother to read the “about” section, or send an email? “Reader beware” is a nice catch-phrase, but doing a tiny bit of work is also acceptable, especially for someone who finds personal choice and responsibility such a virtue, as will be demonstrated below.) As it turns out, this Asymptote club works with independent publishers with similar missions. I for one can support that.

The final club to be critiqued is the good old-fashioned Book of the Month Club, which has narrowed its monthly offerings down to five (from a previous “catalogue” of options). This club receives the least amount of scrutiny, for whatever reason, but it also serves as the set-up for what the writer introduces next: an incomprehensible and frightfully misinformed view of The Classics Club’s “Classics Spin,”which the blogger deems “horrifying.”

The writer begins by suggesting that participants in the spin “have a problem with choice” and that she herself only bothered to look into it because “some very good bloggers participated in this:  otherwise, I’d never have heard of it” (so, again, if this person does not know about it, it must not be important or substantial – what a healthy opinion to have of one’s self).

Ultimately, we arrive at the strangest and most harrowing critique of the entire piece, reserved not for a corporate book club out to make money, but for our small, independent, volunteer-based little club:

Why are people ceding their choices to curators and chance? My husband speculates that people no longer want responsibility. If they do not choose their own books, or if they merely draw a number in a lottery, they have less commitment to the book. If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it. My own theory is that “they” are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse. Soft addiction to tweeting? Good. Choices? What choices? It’s going to be really, really terrible.

Where to begin? “Ceding choice?” Perhaps, because this writer is only interested in what she already knows, she did not bother to read anything about the Club. You see, Clubbers choose all of their own books, and the spin itself is a self-selected list from one’s own previously compiled list. That means “Spinners” have literally made their own choice twice.

Avoiding “responsibility”? What sort of responsibility would that be? The responsibility we have to ourselves to choose our own books? The responsibility to choose to finish or not finish the book? The responsibility to choose to write about or not write about it? The responsibility to decide whether or not we join the club or participate in any/all of the spins? I suppose each of these things is, yes, a personal responsibility and choice. I’m happy to say, all of these choices are in fact the responsibility of each club member, which is what makes it such a compelling, eclectic, and lively group to be a part of: no one “Clubs” the same way.

“If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it.” Once again, the writer seems misinformed about the nature of the list and the club. The clubber/spinner does choose to put that book on their list, so whether or not they read it is “their fault,” as she writes. How to classify a reading choice as a “fault” or not, though, is beyond me. If someone dislikes a book, they dislike it. There can be any number of reasons why, but in six years I can share this much: no one has ever blamed the fact that they didn’t like a particular book they read for their Classics Club list on the fact that they read it because it was a spin selection. What flawed logic that would be; fortunately, we have escaped it thus far.

But if all of that wasn’t strange enough, her final lines turn out to be the most ridiculous and shameful of all: “My own theory is that ‘they’ are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse.” So, this writer actually thinks that The Classics Club, which has existed for six years simply because people love to read and write about classic literature, is a kind of totalitarian groupthink in disguise? It takes something beyond a stretch of the imagination to conclude this way, and it starts with total ignorance of the club and its purpose and methods.

To be clear: members of the Classics Club choose their own list of books and set their own pace. They can modify their lists at any time. They also choose their own Spin lists and can join or not, at any time. Members come from all over the world and the moderators are volunteers who spend their own time and resources keeping up the website, social media accounts, etc. The entire purpose is to read, with added encouragement on review and discussion. Anyone who thinks the Classics Club is “facilitat[ing] the despotic politicians of the dystopian future” needs to go back to class.

How does one develop such a strange antipathy for something so simple? I’m not sure, but my grandfather had a favorite saying that comes to mind now: “Any club in which [s]he’s a member is not a club I want to join.” Perhaps these book clubs should consider it a blessing that they do not count “mirabile dictu” among their ranks. And perhaps, if she first became familiar with the things she critiques, she might develop a different perspective on them.


You can read the original post here: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/02/the-glamour-of-book-club-curators/

Edit: She appears to have removed the original post. A new post is here, for those who care: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/06/the-missing-bbc-adaptations-of-george-gissing/

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Essay, Feminism, Kate Chopin, Literary Criticism, writing

The “Awakenings” of Edna Pontellier

awakening.jpg“She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is the story of one woman’s realization of the world and potential within her. In her Journey, Edna Pontellier awakens to three important pieces of her own being. First, she awakens to her artistic and creative potential. This minor but important awakening gives rise to Edna Pontellier’s most obvious and demanding awakening, one which resonates throughout the book: the sexual.

However, though her sexual awakening may seem to be the most important issue in the novel, Chopin actually slips in a final awakening at the end, one that is hinted at early on but not resolved until the last-minute, and that is Edna’s awakening to her true humanity and role as a mother. These three awakenings, artistic, sexual, and motherhood, are what Chopin includes in her novel to define womanhood; or, more specifically, independent womanhood.

What seems to ignite Edna’s awakening is the rediscovery of her artistic inclinations and talents. Art, in The Awakening becomes a symbol of freedom and of failure. While attempting to become an artist, Edna reaches the first peak of her awakening. She begins to view the world in artistic terms. When Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna why she loves Robert, Edna responds, “Why? Because his hair is brown and grows away from his temples; because he opens and shuts his eyes, and his nose is a little out of drawing.” Edna is beginning to notice intricacies and details that she would have ignored previously, details that only an artist would focus and dwell on, and fall in love with. Further, art is a way for Edna to assert herself.  She sees it as a form of self-expression and individualism.

Edna’s own awakening is hinted at when the narrator writes, “Edna spent an hour or two in looking over her own sketches. She could see their short-comings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes” (90). The discovery of defects in her previous works, and the desire to make them better demonstrate Edna’s reformation. Art is being used to explain Edna’s change, to suggest that Edna’s soul and character are also changing and reforming, that she is finding defects within herself. Art, as Mademoiselle Reisz defines it, is also a test of individuality. But, like the bird with its broken wings struggling along the shore, Edna perhaps fails this final test, never blossoming into her true potential because she is distracted and confused along the way.

A great deal of this confusion is owed to the second awakening in Edna’s character, the sexual awakening. This awakening is, without doubt, the most considered and examined aspect of the novel. As Edna Pontellier begins to realize that she is an individual, capable of making individual choices without being another’s possession, she begins to explore what these choices might bring her. Her first sexual awakening comes in the form of Robert Lebrun. Edna and Robert are attracted to one another from first meeting, though they do not realize it. They unwittingly flirt with each other, so that only the narrator and reader understand what is going on. For instance, in the episode where Robert and Edna speak of buried treasure and pirates:

“And in a day we should be rich!” she laughed. “I’d give it all to you, the pirate gold and every bit of treasure we could dig up. I think you would know how to spend it. Pirate gold isn’t a thing to be hoarded or utilized. It is something to squander and throw to the four winds, for the fun of seeing the golden specks fly.

“We’d share it and scatter it together,” he said. His face flushed. (59)

The two do not understand the significance of their conversation, but in reality, the words speak of desire and sexual metaphor. Jane P. Tompkins writes, “Robert and Edna do not realize, as the reader does, that their conversation is an expression of their unacknowledged passion for one another” (23). Edna awakens to this passion whole-heartedly. After Robert leaves, and before the two have opportunity to truly explore their desires, Edna has an affair with Alcee Arobin.

Though it is never directly spelled out, Chopin uses language to convey the message that Edna has stepped over the line, and damned her marriage. For instance, at the end of chapter thirty-one the narrator writes, “he did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties” (154).

However, it is not only in situations with men that Edna’s passion is flared. In fact, the “symbol for sexual desire itself,” as George Spangler puts it, is the sea (252). It is appropriate that the most concentrated and artistically depicted symbol for desire comes, not in the form of a man, who may be viewed as a possessor, but in the sea, something which Edna herself, once afraid of swimming, conquers. The narrator writes, “the voice of [the] sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (25).

This is perhaps the most sensual and passionate chapter of the book, devoted entirely to depictions of the sea and to Edna’s sexual awakening. It is pointed out here that “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.” Still, as Donald Ringe notes in his essay, “[The Awakening] is too often seen in terms of the question of sexual freedom” (580).

The true awakening in the novel, and in Edna Pontellier, is the awakening of self. Throughout the novel, she is on a transcendental journey of self-discovery. Edna is learning what it means to be an individual, a woman, and a mother. Indeed, Chopin amplifies the significance of this journey by mentioning that Edna Pontellier “sat in the library after dinner and read Emerson until she grew sleepy. She realized that she had neglected her reading, and determined to start anew upon a course of improving studies, now that her time was completely her own to do with as she liked” (122). That Edna is reading Ralph Waldo Emerson is significant, especially at this point in the novel, when she is starting a new life of her own.

This new life is signaled by a “sleep-waking” metaphor, one which, as Ringe points out, “is an important romantic image for the emergence of the self or soul into a new life” (581). A seemingly excessive amount of the novel is devoted to Edna sleeping, but when one considers that, for each time Edna falls asleep, she must also awaken, one begins to realize that this is just another way of Chopin demonstrating Edna’s personal awakening.

Another transcendentalist link to awakening can be found in the inclusion of Emerson’s theory of correspondence, which has to do with life’s “double world, one within and one without” (Ringe 582). Much of Edna is contradictory. Her attitudes toward her husband, her children, her friends, and even the men with whom she has affairs. These contradictions are encompassed within the idea that Edna was “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (33).

So, Edna’s true awakening is to the understanding of herself as a human being. But the awakening goes further still. She also becomes aware, at the end, of her role as woman and mother. At one point, early in the novel and before this awakening, Edna tells Madame Ratignolle, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me” (80).

William Reedy describes Edna Pontellier’s character and conflict when he wrote that “Woman’s truest duties are those of wife and mother, but those duties do not demand that she shall sacrifice her individuality” (Toth 117). The last awakening, to this realization that womanhood and motherhood can be a part of the individual, comes at the very end of the book. Toth writes that “Chopin makes the ending attractive, maternal, sensuous” (121). Edna meets with Madame Ratignolle again, to see her while she is in labor. At this point, Ratignolle cries out to Edna, “think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (182). It is for the children, then, that Edna takes her life.

Though the signs are confused, they are throughout the book; with a broken-winged bird symbolizing Edna’s failure, and the sea concurrently symbolizing freedom and escape, Edna’s suicide is in fact a way of her maintaining her independence while also putting her children first. It is ironic that the point in her life when she realizes a mother’s duty, is at the moment of her death. She does sacrifice herself, as she claims she never would, by giving up the chance at all she could have in order to protect her children’s future and well-being.

Spangler explains this when he says, “primary was her fear of a succession of lovers and the effect such a future would have on her children: ‘to-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier – but Raoul and Etienne!’” (254).  Edna gives up the newly found passion and understanding, she gives up her art, and her life, to protect her family.

The Awakening is a complex and beautiful novel, filled with contradictions and sensations. Edna Pontellier journeys through life, awakening to the transcendental beliefs of individuality and connections with nature. She discovers sensual joy and power in the sea, beauty in art, and independence in sexuality. However, though some critics claim the ending to be the novel’s downfall, and what keeps it from top status in American literary canon, the fact is that it wraps up the novel in as beautiful a way as it was told all along. The novel ends in confusion and wonder, as it is told.

Edna spends her life, since the awakening, questioning the world around her and within her, so why not remain questioning to the end?  Spangler writers in his essay, that “Mrs. Chopin asks her reader to believe in an Edna who is completely defeated by the loss of Robert, to believe in the paradox of a woman who has awakened to passional life and yet, quietly, almost thoughtlessly, chooses death” (254).

But Edna Pontellier is not defeated by Robert. She is the one making choices, as she has determined to do all along. Her death was not thoughtless; in fact, it seems almost pre-planned, a “coming home” to the sea. Edna strips off her clothes and becomes one with the very source of nature which helped to awaken her to her own power and individualism in the first place. Further still, that she goes quietly is not an admission of defeat, but a testament to Edna’s ability to end her life the way she lived it.

Each decision that Edna Pontellier makes throughout the novel is done quietly, suddenly. The dinner party, the move from her home to the “Pigeon House.” There is never any ruckus or chorus, just simple, impassioned change. Thus, the novel’s conclusion is a statement to the enduring power of womanhood and individualism. Chopin is affirming that, even in death, perhaps only in death, one can become and remain truly awakened.

References

Adam W. Burgess, “The ‘Awakenings’ of Edna Pontellier.” Adam Burgess, Writer 03 Aug. 2018. https://adamburgesswriter.com/2018/08/03/the-awakenings-of-edna-pontellier/.

Kate Chopin, The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications,1993.

Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The AwakeningAmerican Literature 43 (January 1972) 580-88.

George M. Spangler, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” Novel 3 (Spring 1970): 249-55.

Jane P. Tompkins, “The Awakening: An Evaluation,” Feminist Studies 3 (Spring-Summer 1976): 22-9.

Emily Toth, Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.

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Blog Post, Essay, Personal, Politics

On Civility

On Civility

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

― Henry David Thoreau (“On Civil Disobedience”)

Recently, a restaurant owner politely asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the restaurant because her support of this administration’s homophobic and racist policies made some of her staff feel genuinely uncomfortable. Imagine, after all, hearing your own President call your people “rapists” or seeing his justice department argue in court that you don’t deserve the right to be treated equally in the marketplace, and then having to wait on and clean up after the woman who reports that information to the world.

The backlash from media pundits and republican leaders was swift, and even the President of the United States thought this civil request, following his own Supreme Court majority’s decision to deem it Constitutional for a bakery to refuse service to gay patrons on religious grounds—so despicable as to tweet lies about the restaurant’s supposed dirty/unsanitary conditions in retaliation. In response, Congresswoman Maxine Waters made it clear that any member of an administration that makes telling lies commonplace and that holds equal justice in contempt, should be prepared to face public consequences, such as protests.

Conservative politicians and main stream media, and even many prominent democrats, responded by sharply criticizing Representative Waters’ position and by calling, in some cases genuinely but in most cases opportunistically and hypocritically, for a “return to civility.” Such civility was demonstrated by President Trump and conservative actor James Woods, for example, who responded to Maxine Waters by calling her “low IQ” and threatening that she had better “watch out” (Trump) and by telling their followers to go out and “buy guns” because the war is coming (Woods). Oh, to find such practitioners of civility in our body politic, guiding the way for all of us.

The reality is, this group has no real desire for civility except from and only from the other side. What I mean is, these are the perpetual “victims” who tell themselves, and each other, that they are constantly under attack and therefore it is their right, their responsibility to fight by any means necessary; and yet, when anyone rebuffs them even in the slightest, most harmless sense, they cry foul. These are the bullies. These are the manipulators. These are the people, from Fox News and the Trumps, from the Huckabees to the father of it all, Newt Gingrich, who must have everything their way at all costs, who refuse to acknowledge the valid opinions—even the humanity—of anyone unlike them, and who created and perpetuated our culture of fear and divisiveness and now wish to sit comfortably in their power while claiming continued victimhood. They are, after all, in control of the Presidency, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and more than half of U.S. Governorships and State Legislatures, and yet they think they are being oppressed.

We have seen this kind of behavior in society and politics throughout history. We know that authoritarian governments rise by preying on peoples’ fears and doubts, by othering easy targets, like the Jews, the blacks, the Mexicans, or the gays. They lie about their opponents, usually projecting onto the other political party exactly the kinds of things they are guilty of doing, such as being “uncivil.” Take the anti-choice crowd, for example. They stand outside of clinics terrorizing women and men who are consulting medical professionals, a situation which should be wholly private and safe. They get people like Bill O’Reilly, a man with a massive audience, to denounce abortion-performing doctors by name, calling them “baby-murdering Nazis,” night after night on television, until someone shows up at that doctor’s home—Dr. George Tiller–and murders him. Other right-wing conspiracy theorists on Fox News, Breitbart, and InfoWars, such as Sean Hannity, Steve Bannon, and Alex Jones, spout ridiculous stories like the one about a child sex ring in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor, and claim that a former First Lady, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate is a part of it. They say it over and over and over again until someone shows up at that pizza parlor with a gun, demanding to be taken to the “baby sex basement,” only to discover the building does not even have a basement. Not only does republican leadership refuse to denounce these things, but instead, people like Steve Bannon become a part of the President’s staff, working in the Oval Office. And people like Sean Hannity speak to the President on the phone every night. Is this civility?

After republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who openly mocked a disabled reporter; when republican leaders and base republicans stand by a President who calls NFL players exercising their first amendment rights to peacefully protest, “sons of bitches”; when republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who calls Mexicans “rapists and murderers”; when republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who brags about sexually assaulting women and using his power to keep them quiet; when republican leaders and base republicans stand by a President who refers to cross-burning, Nazi- and confederate-flag waving, crowd-attacking white supremacists as “very fine people”; when republican leaders and base republicans continue to support a man who insists all Haitians have AIDS, all “black countries” are “shitholes” and all Muslims are terrorists who should be banned from our country; after republican leaders stood by, and base republicans railed about, “birthirism,” called Michelle Obama a “monkey in heels,” performed public hangings-in-effigy of President Obama; and when republican leaders and base republicans say they “don’t care” about immigrant kids in cages, that we should “stop trying to get [them] to cry about” children who have been torn away from their parents by our government, and that the immigrants are “lucky we didn’t assassinate them,” now. . . now they call for civility. Why? Because the President’s mouthpiece, the one who presents all of this to the world, was asked politely to leave a restaurant. That was civil.

I have to admit, I have always been reluctant to be uncivil. I try to be a kind person, above all else, which makes the idea of civil unrest and confrontation extremely difficult for me. But I realize now, even though I did not vote for this administration and even though I tried to explain to everyone in my circle of influence why I felt this administration would be a disaster for us all, I may have, indeed, been “too civil” about it. I may have been quiet when I should have spoken. I may have wanted to keep the peace with friends and family, rather than stoke a potentially permanent and irrevocable animus. In retrospect, I think I was wrong. That time is over.

  • I was civil after they called him “Kenyan Muslim.”
  • I was civil after they hung him in effigy.
  • I was civil after they called her an “ape in heels.”
  • I was civil after they murdered a doctor for doing his job.
  • I was civil after they mocked the disabled.
  • I was civil after they cheered a “pussy-grabber.”
  • I was civil after they called peaceful protesters “sons of bitches.”
  • I was civil after they allowed a foreign government to influence our elections.
  • I was civil after they called white supremacists “fine people.”
  • I was civil when they chanted, “lock her up.”
  • I was civil when they inserted religion into the state and elevated just one above all.
  • I was civil when they mocked a dying Senator by calling him, “irrelevant.”
  • I was civil when they cozied up to dictators.
  • I was civil when they called our neighbors rapists, murderers, back-stabbers.
  • I was civil when they walked away from human rights.
  • I was civil when they lied about the disaster in Puerto Rico and continued to refuse aid.
  • I was civil and they gutted healthcare.
  • I was civil and they made corporations “people.”
  • I was civil and they came for social security and Medicare.
  • I was civil and they attacked our free press as “enemy of the people.”
  • I was civil and they threatened to end due process and violate international law.
  • I was civil and the First Lady wore an Italian pro-fascist slogan (“I really don’t care”) on her jacket.
  • I was civil and they stole children from their parents, then lost track of them.

Here’s the thing about “being civil,” my friends. There are two types of people who, in environments like these, respond to basically civil protests with calls for civility and decorum: The first is made up of the type of people outlined above, those who call for civility but who have no intention of ever practicing it. They use it as a tool against the very people who do crave a fair and peaceful society for all. The second group is composed of the type who generally agree that something is wrong, but who do not want to “rock the boat” too hard. These folks, like David Axelrod, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer (all of whom criticized Waters, a black woman, for her call to action), tend to be white, wealthy, and politically privileged. So, while they believe they are on the right side of the fight, there is only so much skin they are willing to put in the game. To do more would be to threaten their own basically comfortable place in the world. I think, also, they have not realized or accepted just how much our body politic has changed and just how irrelevant they make themselves with these attitudes about the resistance, which has been incredibly civil (they lied, we marched. They murdered, we marched. They called us godless, immoral, criminals, anti-American, and we marched).

In many ways, with people like Pelosi and Schumer, I am reminded of the scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone replaces Tom Hagen as consigliere. Michael loved his brother Tom. He respected Hagen, and he knew the man to be brilliant. But Hagen could no longer be effective in the new environment. We need a war-time consigliere. We need to go to the mattresses. Here’s what I believe, now: I can remind kind. I can remain good. But I can no longer continue to be civil in their fashion. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

I began with a short quote from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” and I would like to end with one, too. But let us also remember that over the course of history, justice has been won not only by statesmen in board rooms and at tea parties, but by the hard work and persistence of the people. People in the streets. People disrupting injustice. People sabotaging authoritarian plans. People marching, yes, but also people raging, storming, shouting, and standing up, at all costs, until their friends, their neighbors, their co-workers, and the rest of the world could not ignore the cry anymore. Until they, too, recognized the danger and revolted against it. These were people who were told, “if only you could be a bit more civil,” and realized this was a lie.

Bullies will cry foul at the first encroachment into their dominance. If given a concession, they will take more and more and more, until they are stopped. They will not listen to reason because they do not respect reason. They will not be swayed by justice because they believe in only the justice they create and that favors them above others. They will cry for civility because they know the people they are dealing with want civility, desire justice, believe in a moral imperative. But remember: the bully, the dictator, the authoritarian, they do not believe in these things and they will not accept them willingly.

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”  ― Henry David Thoreau

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Blog Tour, Culture, Essay, Literary Theory, Literature, misogyny, Politics

Reading Literature Causes Misogyny?

Parnaso 09Recently, Electric Lit published an essay by Erin Spampinato titled, “The Literary Roots of the Incel Movement.” In it, the author argues that a culture of reading and privileging “white male” (para. 5) texts has resulted in the modern-day incelmovement (note: the term “incel” is a portmanteau for “involuntary celibates.” It is most often used by white, male, heterosexuals online who claim they cannot “find love/romance” because of contemporary culture’s “demands” on their gender [read: supposed emasculation]. The term is now often used as analogous to misogynist because these self-described incels believe they have a “right” to sexual intercourse, without condition).The author names titles such as Great Expectations, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Things They Carried, to support her point that much of our school-taught canon (aside: I was not required to read any of these in school) is made up of books whose protagonists are sexually frustrated, then connects that literary frustration to modern-day “young men [who think] that male pathos is so pathetic, so worthy of tribute” (para. 1). Just a few sentences later, she connects that sentiment to the dawn of “the incel,” a “monstrous birth of our casually cruel and anonymous internet culture [and] a product of Anglo-American literary culture, which treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all” (ibid). 

While I find much of Spampinato’s argument regarding the tradition and its still-too-exclusive canon compelling and accurate, the leap she makes between reading literature (even literature of the white male) and becoming a violent misogynist and/or internet troll, is tenuous at best. Consider two prominent incels (I refuse to use their names, but they are easy enough to find) who made headlines for their violent attacks in North America: one, a self-identified incel who carried out the recent Toronto van attack was 25-years-old; the other, described as the Toronto terrorist’s “hero,” murdered six people at a University and was 22-years-old. Isn’t it just as (perhaps even more) likely that the dominate narrative exposure these young men had was not from literature, but from, say, streaming television and social media? 

In addition, study after study suggests that reading classic literature/literary fiction, among other genres, makes people more humanist and empathetic. In addition, study after study demonstrates that people are reading less and less (especially “literature”). People having these conversations (writers and readers of articles like this one) are discussing these very ideas about men and women, masculinity and femininity, race and class, nationalism and colonialism, patriotism and religion, in literature and elsewhere. Are we to believe that these “incels” are reading literature and also having these discussions? Reading these books but ignoring their themes or interpreting them differently? Treating The Awakening, for exampleas a story about woman who got what was coming to her, rather than an example of a courageous woman who boldly demands her sexual freedom in a time when that was nearly impossible? And, assuming they are readers, what’s to say they’re not reading someone like Ayn Rand?

I take Spampinato’s point that we must continue to diversify the canon and discuss what gender (and other) disparities in reading and publishing have done to readers, writers, and cultures to date; however, I think the author’s primary thesis is unsound and no evidence is given to support her major claim, that reading classic literature causes misogyny. Do we have statistics, for example, on incel members and their reading habits, including choice of texts, frequency of reading activity, or favored genre? Where does the writer’s assumption originate, that literature causes these tendencies rather than helps people realize them? After all, without any data, isn’t it equally possible that these men simply do not read literature and therefore are less empathetic because of lack of exposure to humanistic ideals; or that they have not studied literature and therefore lack comprehension skills and global awareness? 

Indeed, while some kinds of reading might make human beings “better people,” other genres seem designed to do the exact opposite. How do we know these men are not instead being influenced by, say, classic westerns or true crime novels, or comic books? (no shade meant to these genres!) Spampinato suggests that the problem is classic literary fiction, specifically, and its focus on male sexual superiority, that causes cultural sexism/misogyny, but fascinating textual analysis aside*, where is the evidence that would support this claim? As a part of the larger context, certainly our literature is a contributing factor to how we think about and communicate with the world around us. But to claim it is the root? 

Perhaps, if we accept that these “incels” read classic literature/literary fiction, we should also look at the difference between “reading” and “comprehending” (or learning). If we are to grant that what she says is true, an overabundance of white male literature that privileges male sexuality is to blame for misogyny, must we then jump to the conclusion that it is because young men are simply reading a lot of these stories? Or is it possible that they are reading without understanding (or discussing) the issues? Here’s an excerpt from the essay: 

The literature we choose to teach our children evidences how untroubled we are by this disturbing cliché that rage and a fascination with violation are characteristic features of (again, white) male sexuality. This is of course one of the main points of O’Brien’s beautiful book, but it doesn’t change the fact that as a teenager I had read many fictional accounts of men’s rape fantasies long before I had ever read a literary account from the woman’s perspective of rape, or even of consensual sex. I was trained to accept that male sexual frustration was a serious issue because I read hundreds of pages about it before the age of 20, far more than I read about issues of undoubtedly greater social import, like the legacy of slavery, the alienation of women and people of color from public life, or the violence of the settler colonialism on which the United States was founded. Perhaps these novels even coached me into taking male sexual frustration seriously through a kind of frightful education: look what happens, they seemed to say, when men don’t get what they want. (para. 6)

I have highlighted two sentences in this excerpt because they are profound personal post hoc reflections from a thoughtful and critical reader (although she problematically provides just one scene/motif from each representative novel, all of which are arguably complex, and then suggests that these books are “about” that scene/motif). I think it is important to recognize, however, that while I believe she is accurate and honest in what she describes here as her own experience and edification, the anecdotes are also being presented in such a way as to suggest a generalization about larger reading outcomes for other groups/populations. I am not a female-identified reader, so I cannot speak to how broadly the author’s personal experiences translate to other women, but I believe her. As a gay man, I certainly felt the lack of LGBTQ representation (or at least the acknowledgement of it) in my own classes, even throughout college.

It seems important to acknowledge, however, that literary criticism itself has existed for generations because of these very individual interpretations and analyses, and that attempts to assert cultural causation (with any kind of media, really) have been regularly and resoundingly defeated. In other words, Spampinato’s personal reflections on and responses to the assigned reading she was given in school are an important and valid part of this conversation, but I am reluctant to accept them as examples for causation between reading literature and becoming “fill-in-the-blank” (in this case, militantly misogynistic), if only because it stems from a projection of her experience onto others’ reading experiences (all the while assuming that these other people have done the same reading and absorbed the same messages). It is also reductive to say that the incel movement is born in any single thing (i.e. “a product of Anglo-American literary culture”). Perhaps this is hyperbole to generate discussion about our (this community of readers) reading habits, or to illustrate just how systemic and institutionalized the problem of misogyny is; but if that is the case, it needs to be stated more clearly.

In the rest of this passage, Spampinato suggests that reading a number of texts that include, for example, rape fantasies, results in a kind of acceptance of or resignation to rape culture. If this is true, is that not a fault of the teaching and study of literature, rather than the literature itself? Perhaps that is too fine a distinction, but for those few remaining high school programs teaching classic literature, the question would seem highly relevant. It reminds me much of the debates over teaching books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which some people object to based on its use of racial slurs (despite that fact that reading in context would and does reveal a great deal about why Twain chooses to use those foul terms, and about history itself). If “we choose to teach our children” literature that is violent or fascinated with white male sexuality, does that mean we accept those features as good, necessary, or normal? In other words, does “reading make it so?” (Et tu, “violent video games create violent people”?) Do we look at every other feature or theme in literature independent of its context, whether classic or some other genre, and suggest that reading a lot of it makes us think that only those issues are important or that only that way of thinking is the right one? Or is teaching these texts an opportunity to have these very discussions? To reject them, question them, teach alongside them? And is that happening? 

Spampinato gets to these same questions near the end of her essay. She asks us to think about why we almost intuitively recommend Catcher in the Rye to a teenager, but not The Bell Jar. She suggests that we do not need to eliminate all these white males from the canon, but we do need to change the conversation and we do need to add more diverse voices. With all of these suggestions, I heartily concur. But just as we should avoid unexamined and habit-based recommendations in literature (casually or in the classroom), so too must we be cautious in suggesting, especially without evidence^ and in this age of anti-education, anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” that the activity of reading literature is damaging us morally, socially, or otherwise. That seems, to me, a leap too far. 

*Her analysis of this theme in the texts she provides is interesting and provocative. I would like to read more.

^No evidence is presented that incels are reading classic literature/literary fiction of the types addressed in the article and no evidence is provided that reading literature causes negative socio-cultural behaviors (indeed, most studies seem to suggest the opposite). For a comprehensive study of this phenomenon and why “the answer is not simple,” see Angela Nagle’s book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (John Hunt 2017).

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Culture, Essay, Gender Studies, Non-Fiction

We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a powerful and articulate essay that was adapted from the author’s December 2012 TEDx Talk. It serves as both a personal investigation and interpretation of what it means to be a woman today, but also a call to action for men and women around the world, all of whom, in Adichie’s opinion, should favor and support feminism.

The essay revolves around a single question: “What does feminism mean today?” It is developed out of an earlier TEDx talk titled “The Dangers of a Single Story,” which recounts the risks of succumbing to or perpetuating stereotypes. The expansion is logical because, as Adichie suggests, the word “feminism” has been damagingly stereotyped over many years and by many groups, some of whom simply respond to the word without knowing what it means and others of whom are fully aware, and know better, but attack the idea because it is an assault against their own privileged place in society.

What I found truly compelling about this reflection on feminism is that it is steeped in the culture and society of Nigeria, a country that still rigidly clings to the concepts of “gender roles.” Adichie provides a number of anecdotes that illustrate just how deeply rooted are these stereotypes and prejudices, such as the fact that restaurant hosts and servers will refuse to acknowledge a female customer if a man is with her, even if she is paying, because women are not supposed to have money and if they do, it must have been provided by the male (and never mind the idea that a woman might go out to a bar or club without a male chaperone). These examples might ring hyperbolic in the United States, but the reality is that this was our cultural response to gender not very long ago, as it was in Europe. The evidence that many countries are still oppressed by such stereotypes is a prescient reminder that our own society’s rules are new and thus relatively insecure, but also that we too still have far to go in seeking gender equity right here.

An interesting point that Adichie makes throughout the essay is that the “word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage” (11). She explains how pervasively peoples’ negative attitudes about feminism (or feminists) have spread, so much so that those prejudices often dominate the conversation and deny us room for reasoned discussion. How can we have a conversation about gender equality with someone who “turns off” at the first mention of just one word? It might be helpful to come up with a new phrase to help jumpstart and re-appropriate the conversation, bringing it back to a simple discussion about equity rather than the deafening, emotionally fueled debates about “man hating” and “angry women,” sort of like turning the conversation from “global warming” to “climate change” when it became clear that people easily conflated “warming” with weather and thus misunderstood the complexity of the systems involved and because it became apparent that people who wanted to mislead others about the topic could undermine the facts of the argument by making the word/situation seem ridiculous (“Oh, look at all that snow, we could sure use some global warming!”).

But feminism is what it is: a belief that men and women should be treated equally in all elements of society, economics, politics, etc. When taken this way, as Adichie suggests, few people think of this as a radical concept. So, how do we move past the word? Adichie believes that it has to start with all of us:

“I would like today to ask that we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently” (25).  

In other words, we need to take responsibility for the way that we see the world and perpetuate its injustices; we need to teach our children the benefit of seeing and being and creating a world that is better.

Adichie is clear that this means men and women must be equal partners in creating change, and that is in large part because anti-feminism hurts men, too. It oppresses men by prescribing their roles, too. Men cannot be free to be themselves, to truly think, act, and respond the way that they want to, if they are being conditioned to respond, always, in the “masculine role.” If a man is sad, why shouldn’t he cry? And why is that considered “un-masculine”? If a man loves his spouse or children or pets, why shouldn’t he express it? And why is doing so often considered “un-manly”? If a man finds relaxation in cooking or cleaning, why shouldn’t he do these things?

And the same goes for women. Feminism does not tell women not to enjoy cleaning the house, sewing clothes, or making crafts. It simply tells men and women to be who they are, regardless. Imagine the stress and anxiety that would be relieved and the freedom that would come to all of us if we weren’t being forced into predetermined roles that supposedly guide our every single response and our every single interest or ability.

“We teach girls shame,” Adichie writes. “We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something” (33). Likewise, we teach boys to be in control and to crave competition, but we teach girls to be conciliatory and to apologize for having opinions. But “what if . . . we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender” (36). For Adichie, it is clear that this is all feminism asks of us: allow a person to be him/herself. Teach everything we can, so that our children can learn and try everything they want, and then let them decide what to do and how to act from all available knowledge, opportunity, and experience. Personally, I think that’s a world worth building.

Ultimately, I found Why We Should All Be Feminists thoughtful, relevant, and relatable. Although it is based on an oral lecture, it reads well as a written piece. Despite repeating some of the typical supportive arguments about feminism, Adichie adds crucial context by relaying her personal experiences as a woman and a Nigerian. I read this one in close succession to Reni Eddo-Lode’s Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, which also deals with issues of intersectional feminism (as well as structural racism) but in the United Kingdom. I think the fact that these conversations about race and gender are happening on such a large scale, and happening all over the world, is promising.

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