Hey, yeah …

So it’s been a while. I wanted to jump back into blogging, but so much time has passed that I feel some explanation is obligatory. Last year was pretty shit, but it managed to be awesome for the same reasons. I came to the end of a relationship that had lasted over a decade. At the same time, I launched myself into a new career as a copy editor (mostly working on books, specialising in fiction) after four years of not having a job. I finally got my driver’s licence and mostly got over how much I hate driving. I’d returned to Cape Town after living in Ethiopia and, post-breakup, I moved into a stupidly expensive apartment and initially tried to support myself as a newbie full-time freelancer, which was as short-sighted as I am (i.e. very).

I worked like a (very quiet, homely) demon, talked to people way more than I usually do (they’re often wonderful, as it turns out) and embraced a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude to deal with personal challenges that normally have me tied up in knots. It doesn’t work for everything, and I’m still an awkward, introverted mess, but I can achieve a lot simply by saying, “Just don’t give a fuck” and getting on with it. This works because it has the word “fuck” in it and I love to swear.

Profanity doesn’t help with workloads though. Multiple transitions, starting almost from scratch, and having endless to-do lists with amorphous work hours has made it hard to read and write for my blog, or even for leisure. These days I mostly read books because I’m editing them and I need to take breaks from it in a way that wasn’t necessary before. Freelancing part-time tends to mean that I always have work to do and leisure time is tinged with guilt about my to-do list. Blogging is personally and professionally fulfilling, but it doesn’t pay directly, so as much as I’d like to go back to reading and reviewing at least one book a week, I’m going to have to find my way to better circumstances before I can do that.

My life continues to evolve though. Not as dramatically as last year, but things are changing. I’ve got a few book edits under my belt now, including the snarky and violent Blacker than White by the talented Matthew MacDevette, in which you get to hear Lucifer tell her side of the story (more on that soon). The lovely Helen Moffett offered me an internship in collaboration with Modjaji Books, an independent feminist publisher, and I start this week. It pushes me to pursue a passion while pulling me way out of my sff comfort zone.

Now I’m faced with deciding what to do with the rest of 2016. I have a lot less time on my hands, so what do I spend it on? What skills should I learn/develop? How do I stop procrastinating and actually do all the things I want to do? How much sleep do I really need?

I could mull over this forever, so in the spirit of getting shit done I’m going to stop giving a fuck if this post is good enough and just hit ‘publish’.

Government-owned telecoms = fewer posts

Regular readers may have noticed that Violin in a Void has had fewer posts recently. My standard schedule is three posts per week – two reviews and one Up for Review post announcing upcoming publications on my tbr pile. Lately, it’s been more like one post per week.

Part of the reason for this is that I’ve been busy with a few other projects. This hasn’t made a huge impact though, so I’m still keeping up with my reading. The main reason this blog has grown quiet is something I can’t control – my internet connection. For those who don’t know, I live in Ethiopia and I’ll be here for another two years. There is only one telecommunications service provider – the government-owned Ethio Telecom or EthioTel. And Ethiopia’s authoritarian government is less concerned with connecting its people than it is with keeping tabs on them.

Ethio Telecom logo

This article from the Economist gives a good overview of the current situation: the government is keeping a tight hold on its “cash cow” and making deals with Chinese telecoms to “preserve state dominance” and get “more control over its citizens”. Bypassing online censors can get you thrown in jail for 15 years. Two years ago a student was arrested for showing customers in an internet cafe how to make online calls.

My partner and I are internet junkies, so we got the best package we could. What this means is that, on a good day, our internet connection meets basic requirements in terms of speed and accessibility (although some sites are permanently blocked). On a bad day, the connection is so slow it’s useless.

Whatever EthioTel has been up to lately has made the service even worse. There are days when I can’t access half the websites I use regularly, and WordPress is usually one of the sites that get cut off. Hence, fewer posts.

Even if I have something written, I may have to wait until I can access WordPress to post it. I even lost my connection completely while writing this, and I’m wondering if it’s because I accessed that article on the Economist.

Anyway, readers, publishers, please forgive the shortage of posts. I’m still reading and writing, I’m not planning to stop, I’m just a bit disconnected. Hopefully the situation will improve soon.

#DiversityInSFF: Readers and Reviewers

If you weren’t following yesterday, I highly recommend you check out the #DiversityInSFF hashtag that Jim C. Hines started on Twitter yesterday. Twitter can be one hell of a time-waster but it has its moments and following last night’s discussion was undoubtedly time well spent. The problem is a clear one often talked about in sff circles: these genres – or at least their English-language versions – lack diversity, with the major problem being that white male authors and straight, white, predominantly male characters are favoured.

Reading through the hashtag gives a good overall idea of who and what is underrepresented: anyone who is POC, female, gay, transgendered; settings and cultures that aren’t North American or European; non-western folklore and mythology. Saladin Ahmed raised the issue of class (“I want fewer kings and starship captains, more coach drivers and space waitresses.”). There’s also the issue of world sf – most published works in English come from American and British authors or favour those settings.

As several tweeters pointed out, the problem isn’t just with authors and the fiction they produce; the issue is systemic. It exists at the level of publishing – the people hired in the industry, the works they choose to publish, the changes they sometimes require (like removing gay or POC characters), the cover art they produce (objectifying women, whitewashing POCs).

Of course, authors and publishers are influence by readers, so the problem also exists at the level of readers and reviewers. I wanted to talk about this specifically because it’s where I fit in and last night’s discussion had me thinking about my choices as a reader and reviewer. Here are some of my favourite tweets on the subject:

Reading widely is in itself a solution. The paradox of sff is that it can take you to other worlds but still be horribly provincial. A case in point was an indie novel I reviewed this year:  Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle. In the story, a human colony settled on another planet, alongside the indigenous aliens, but their lives were little different from suburban America and most of the humans never speak to the aliens or get over their xenopobia. An excellent counterpoint to that novel is the short story: “The Children of Main Street” by A.C. Wise. In Wise’s story, human colonists also replicate suburban America on another planet, except for their children, who have somehow all gained the ability to change sex whenever they feel like it. Many of the parents are disturbed by this, but one mother becomes increasingly disappointed by the adults’ the aversion to difference and their refusal to change. Why travel to other worlds and build new societies only replicate the one you came from?

A lot of sff does that for their readers, transporting us to other worlds that look less like exciting new landscapes and more like small corners of the world we already live in, with lots of people, lifestyles and cultures kept out of view. Vampires in western cities and suburbs, elves and dwarves in some version of medieval Europe, spaceships crewed by straight Americans – these things often aren’t as adventurous or fantastical as they purport to be. Promoting diversity in sff means reading more diversely. And what readers choose to read influences what publishers choose and what authors are encouraged to write; it’s a knock-on  effect.

One of the major lessons I got from the #DiversityInSFF discussion is that this diverse reading really has to be a conscious effort on your part. Because sff suffers from so many biases, simply sticking to preferred subgenres or ignoring the gender, race etc. of the authors you choose means that you’re going to end up reading mostly white male authors who write white male protagonists simply because they are in the vast majority.

I’m pleased to say that, fortunately, my tastes naturally lean towards a measure of inclusivity. I like books that offer me something unusual, and in sff genres, “unusual” often coincides with diversity: POC protagonists, gay and transgendered protagonists, settings that aren’t European or North American, non-European folklore and mythology etc. It also includes female protagonists; they’re easy to find in genres like YA fantasy or paranormal romance but can be harder to find in other sff subgenres.

As a reader and reviewer from South Africa, I’ve also been encouraged to look for ‘world’ sff, simply because the local sff scene is blossoming. What this emphasises is that those genres don’t belong to the American and British authors who dominate the market, and when local authors promote South African and other African speculative fiction, I’m encouraged to look further as well. So when I hear about Nnedi Okorafor’s short story anthology Kabu Kabu for example, or a novel based on the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki, my interest is immediately peaked and I request a review copy.

But on the downside I’m not actively seeking to make my reading more diverse. While I do look out for more interesting protagonists and settings, I’m one of those people who doesn’t normally take much notice of the author when looking for books to read and review. Also, I primarily use NetGalley to get review copies and I mostly request books from publishers I trust. What this means, in part, is that I’m basically just waiting to stumble across non-standard fiction, and in the meantime I getting a big dose of the norm. I still come across many female authors and characters this way, but finding POC authors and characters, non-US/European sff, gay protagonists and transgendered protagonists is far more unlikely. Looking over my reading for the year, I’m pleased to see an good gender balance, several Japanese novels and a few books that explore non-traditional sexuality, but it’s hardly as diverse as it could be. I’m not planning to avoid books I really want to read just because their authors and protagonists are white men; I think that’s silly and I’d miss out on some great fiction if I did so. What I’m talking about is finding more varied books to read as well.

Obviously what I read dictates what I review, and reviewing involves discussing and promoting those works, making them more visibile to readers. And visibility is the second major issue that grabbed me last night. The most obvious aspect of this is talking about diverse works of fiction on my blog.

The aspect I hadn’t really thought about much before was making diversity clear within a work of fiction.

Those tweets are directed at authors, particularly because many readers (of any race, gender or sexual orientation) will assume characters are white, straight and male unless told otherwise, and stopping them from doing so is important. Thus, I’d say the idea also replies to reviewers, since describing plots, characters and settings is part of what we do. So, should reviewers make an effort to point out the diversity (or lack thereof) in a work? Should we take care to mention, for example, that the main character is dark-skinned, bisexual and Muslim?

When these factors are central to the plot or whatever is discussed in the review, the answer is an obvious YES. What interests me more, are the cases where that information isn’t needed, when it’s an extra piece of information that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere.

My instinct thus far has been to leave it out. After all, I don’t provide full character descriptions based on every related scrap of information in novel; I stick to what’s relevant or notable. Skin colour might be as irrelevant as hair colour, and if the story doesn’t include a sexual relationship then it might not be worth mentioning a character’s sexual orientation. Also, I don’t go around pointing out that, by the way, this character is white or straight, so in the spirit of equality I don’t do it for POC or gay characters either unless it’s a major issue. I don’t want to be a twat howling “Look! The main character is a black female scientist! You have to see this!” potentially objectifying them as some kind of exotic artefact on display, instead of viewing them as a (fictional) person. And I kind of feel like I’m doing exactly that if I write something like “Jane is a black scientist on Mars” when Jane’s race isn’t an important plot point. After all, I wouldn’t write “Jane is a white scientist on Mars”.

Then again, there wouldn’t be any need for this discussion if things were equal. These characters are underrepresented. Often when they are present their difference is emphasised, with the fiction making the point of exactly how ‘Other’ they are. While those stories are also necessary to relate individual experiences or the experience of being othered, what we also need are stories that where being POC, gay or transgendered is normalised, where those characters can just get on with the plot without having to explain themselves or function as a representative of a minority. Those are the books for which I wouldn’t need to mention he particulars of the characters diversity, but at the same time that’s the ideal we should be striving for; is it wise to keep silent about it?

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find a smooth approach to this, like integrating it into a character discussion eg. “John can never commit to anything; he keeps changing jobs, boyfriends and the colour of his hair”. Alternatively, I might punt the book as breaking away from the norm, eg. “It’s not often that I get to read a story from the POV of a gay teenager with a disability”. And if all else fails, maybe I should be stating openly that “Jane is a black scientist on Mars” as a way of telling readers that hey, this book has a POC protagonist. It feels a bit weird, but then again this whole issue has the awkwardness of masses of people saying “Excuse me, but why the fuck do you keep ignoring me?” The solutions aren’t easy, but we shouldn’t shy away from them. So for starters, I’m going to take a closer look at my review pile and see what I can change about it.

Readers, bloggers and other reviewers, what do you think? Do you feel the need to assess your tbr piles and maybe make some changes? How do you address diversity in your reviews?

Elysium: Why is Max white?

Elysium

*A spoiler-free discussion*

I really enjoyed Elysium. It’s one of the few sff movies I’ve seen recently that is more than just an action movie. Its story about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots – now so distant they’re not even on the same planet – is old, a bit simplistic and rather heavy-handed, but it still makes an impact. Blomkamp’s gritty, violent style of filmmaking really brings home the brutality of the poverty divide, and doesn’t really allow you to entertain the fantasy of living with the privileged 1%. Obviously, everyone would prefer to live on Elysium rather than Earth, but the decadence and selfishness of the habitat is so realistically excessive that the thought of living there actually made me uncomfortable.

The plot is a bit buggy, but I’m willing to forgive that. I like the awkward relationship between humanity and machinery. And yes, Elysium is also a great action movie – I loved the fight scenes and the special effects. But it’s an action movie with substance and that raises it above its peers. The hero isn’t a sexy martial arts expert who delivers stunningly choreagraphed death in a way that makes hardship look cool – he’s an ex-car-thief in an exoskeleton who’s fighting because he’s going to die if he doesn’t, and suffers greatly all the way to Elysium. I think I like this movie more than District 9.

But there is one serious question I have to ask – why is the hero a white guy? Yes, I know Hollywood is biased in favour of the straight white western male, but in this case the bias looks ridiculous, and considering the racial overtones of the movie, it could have been better.

According to the plot, Earth has become a slum thanks to overpopulation, overconsumption, climate change, etc. The world’s wealthiest people have escaped to Elysium – a high-tech habitat in Earth’s orbit. Elysium is a paradise of mansions, pristine blue swimming pools, perfectly manicured lawns, and beautiful overdressed people. They have everything they could want, including healing pods that can cure any disease and fix any injury. Every home has one, and this technology is at the core of the plot and its attack on elitist healthcare policies. The rich can be instantly cured of absolutely anything; the poor will suffer and die because there aren’t any health pods on Earth.

Now, the movie is cast so that almost all the characters on Earth are POCs (people of colour) while everyone on Elysium is white (except for one Indian guy – President Patel. Yeah.) To put it in oversimplified terms, the privileged few are white, the oppressed masses are black.

The major exception is Matt Damon’s character, Max. Max grew up on Earth, a lone white orphan boy in a population that’s primarily Latino and black. He’s a fairly ordinary person, no more skilled than anyone around him. He lives a meagre existence and works in a factory that makes the robots for Earth and Elysium – the same robots that beat him up early in the movie for looking suspicious, and who would shoot him if he set foot on one of Elysium’s perfect lawns. He’s forced to be an agent of his own oppression, just like lots of other people. Max gets a lethal dose of radiation poisoning at work, forcing him to find a means of getting to Elysium where a health pod could cure him – a quest that becomes increasingly revolutionary. Lots of other people are in a similar situation. Lots of other people are criminals, like him, who have the contacts and skills to do what he does.

So why, once again, is it that a white man has to step in and save humanity? Especially when he’s almost the only white guy around? Have we not had enough of this shit? Watching the movie, I was reminded of this article on ‘Why film school teachers screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test’, and this quote in particular:

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

And isn’t that exactly the case in Elysium? Why can’t the hero be black or Latino when the majority of society is? When every other character involved in the rebellion is a POC, why is it still that they can’t get actually achieve anything without Max, the white guy? If the hero was black, would the fight with Elysium look – to some people – less like justice and more like a barbarian invasion?

Just to be clear, I like Matt Damon and I enjoyed his performance. I just think the character should have been cast differently. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with his character being white, but when viewed in the context of an overwhelming bias in favour of white heroes, it’s a problem. Also, I know that it’s not impossible for this character to be white. Obviously there are still lots of white people on Earth – they’re not all rich enough to live on Elysium. The nun who helped raise Max and the factory manager are cases in point. And President Patel surely isn’t the only POC on Elysium. Rather, I’d say that the movie’s casting is a means of reflecting the fact that the wealthiest and most powerful people on Earth are mostly white, and the poorest and most disempowered are mostly non-white. As I mentioned before, the way this is done is simplistic, but not invalid.

The racial issue is emphasised by Sharlto Copley as Kruger, an Elysium special forces agent on Earth, tasked with things like shooting down ships full of people trying to go to Elysium. Based on Copley’s performances in District 9 and The A-Team, it seems he excels at playing crazy characters, and this time he makes a truly terrifying villain as an Afrikaner straight out of Apartheid-era South Africa. His penchant for violence, particularly violence against the oppressed, coupled with his strong Afrikaans accent, misogyny, overbearing demeanour, and use of racist terms like “boytjie” (meaning ‘little boy’ but used to refer to a black adult man) and “blackie”, holds a kind of deep-seated historical terror even for someone like myself, who was born when Apartheid was dying and enjoyed opportunities my parents were denied. Racism is still alive and well in SA, and contemporary versions of Kruger can easily be found in the more remote areas of our country. So on the one hand I grinned almost every time he used words like “kak” (pronounced “cuck”, meaning “shit”) or “lekker” (good, nice, but also a sweet/candy) or said something in a way that sounded particularly South African, because Afrikaans is part of my culture too and seeing South Africanisms in a big budget movie is a rare treat. And on the other hand, Kruger scared the shit out of me in the way that any crazy white supremacist would.

Perhaps Kruger’s significance is something best appreciated by other South Africans, but he really reinforces the underlying issue of a white/non-white power divide, while acting more explicitly as the guard dog of the wealth/class division. The fact that director/writer Neill Blomkamp is going so far as make a statement about racism with his casting choices and characters like Kruger, makes it that much more disappointing that Max’s character is white, whether that was Blomkamp’s decision or the studio’s requirement. A white hero and white villains, controlling the fates of POC victims who only play supporting roles.

Now that I’ve got that critique out of my system, I have to add that, although Elysium is guilty of bowing to Hollywood’s straight white western male bias, it’s a hell of a lot better than its peers that do the same. Because at least the issue is clearly on the table, and it’s giving you something to think about even if it’s making its point with a sledgehammer. Most of the time the bias just slides by as norm or as tradition and it’s easy to forget it’s there. I’m sure conservatives will be in an uproar about this movie because it makes statements about race, wealth and privilege that they would prefer not to hear. The one very positive thing I can say about casting Matt Damon as Max, is that at least no one can seriously argue that the movie is trying to say all white people are evil. Ok, no doubt some people will say that anyway (and even if Max were black that would be missing the point completely), but it helps to forestall that particular bit of close-mindedness with a strong counterargument. If the movie was more sophisticated it wouldn’t need to do that, but for a big-budget action movie it’s more progressive than what we could normally hope for.

Can the burqa ban promote gender equality?

Yesterday the French parliament voted on and approved a contentious bill banning citizens from covering their faces in public. That’s the official description, but around the world it’s become known as “the burqa ban” as if effectively targets the minority of French Muslim women who veil their faces when in public. It’s another bold step in a secular movement that saw the banning of headscarves and other religious symbols in French schools. If the bill is passed by Senate in September, it will become law, making it illegal for Muslim women to wear burqas.

 A variety of reasons have been cited for the ban: security purposes, the improved integration of immigrants into French society, gender equality, the preservation of French secular values. Those who object to the ban argue that it will further stigmatize and marginalise Muslim minorities and that it violates women’s rights to personal freedom and freedom of expression. Legal authorities have pointed out that the ban may be unconstitutional.

My concern regarding this issue is a predominantly feminist one: is an official ban on the burqa an effective means of promoting gender equality? Or is it a form of discrimination in itself, exacerbating the prejudice against Muslims and Islamic culture as well as violating women’s rights to individual choice and freedom of expression?

 If the burqa were merely a personal fashion preference – whatever the wearer’s reasons behind it – I would argue that a ban is ludicrous and unconstitutional. Governments should not be able to tell people what to wear, except perhaps in terms of certain (debatable) standards of common decency. A reasonable exception in terms of face coverings would be in places where security requires that the face be revealed, such as in banks, airports, and casinos.

However, the burqa is not just a sartorial option. It embodies the ideology of hijab which views female sexuality and the female body as corrupting and therefore dangerous. Women must therefore be covered in public to protect themselves, men, and society as a whole from the morally degrading influence of their bodies.

Coincidentally, I recently read Women and Islam (also known as The Veil and the Male Elite) by Fatima Mernissi. She provides a historical analysis of hijab and the status of women in Islam, pointing out that Muhammad believed very strongly in sexual equality and his behaviour reflected this. His wives were active in political and religious life, and he often turned to them for guidance. Muhammad also had an open attitude to sexuality and sexual practice (within marriage anyway). Mernissi often notes the fact that Muhammad’s wife ‘A’isha had quarters leading directly off from the mosque, and Muhammad often went straight from her bedroom to his prayers.

Unfortunately, most of Muhammad’s Companions did not share his egalitarian attitude and did not want to follow his example in the way they treated their wives. They had come from misogynist cultures, and while they accepted most of Islamic doctrine, they objected to its interference in their relationships with women, especially such things as a woman’s right to inherit. In pre-Islamic Arab cultures, women were often treated as objects and constituted part of a man’s wealth. Because Islam treated women as individuals and gave them the right to inherit, the new religion robbed male Arabs of a large portion of their wealth and thus their power. It’s not hard to understand why they objected strongly to women’s rights, and consequently, how the hijab achieved such power within Islamic societies.

Mernissi analyses the famous hijab verse in the Qur’an, stating that it was not an injunction on women to cover up, but rather about creating privacy for Muhammad and his wives. The verse was recited at a time when Medina was on the brink of civil war and in addition many people had questions about the new religion. As God’s messenger, Muhammad was constantly harassed by the public, even in his home, hence the need for some privacy.

The demand that women cover themselves was made in a similar social context. The city was very unstable, trying to cope with conversion to a new religion that promised a better life but had also brought the threat of war to the city gate. Women were being harassed in the streets, sometimes as part of a political campaign against Muhammad. The men who harassed women claimed that they thought they were slaves. Muhammad’s Companions suggested the women cover themselves as a sign of status for the sake of protection. Muhammad was opposed to this, as it contradicted both sexual and social equality. Unfortunately though, he was getting old, he had serious social problems on his hands, so he gave in to his Companions.

Mernissi argues that this was the downfall of women’s rights in Islamic society. The hijab actually legitimates the sexual harassment of women, because it becomes a woman’s responsibility to cover up, not a man’s responsibility to treat women with respect. The unveiled woman becomes a legitimate target for sexual harassment and abuse. In addition, the pre-Islamic, pagan fears of female sexuality as corrupting or polluting survived and dominated the religion’s more egalitarian ideas. The hijab also legitimates the abuse of slaves, which again is a pre-Islamic, unegalitarian belief. Ironically, Mernissi says, the veiled woman has become the symbol of Islam, and yet hijab represents the failure of Islam to overcome pagan beliefs or instill social equality.

Mernissi’s book was a very informative perspective on hijab, but even with this in mind the question of the burqa ban is difficult to answer. There are women who want to wear burqas and whatever their beliefs, I believe in individual choice and I won’t say flat out that they should not be allowed to wear them.

I think what’s more important is that hijab ceases to be a moral requirement or obligation for women in Islam. My conviction is that hijab is a tool of sexual discrimination that itself is veiled in excuses about protecting women and preserving their purity. I have heard many Muslims, male and female, argue that the scarf and the veil protect women from the gaze of men who see them as sexual objects. However, that very idea of the protective veil implies that a woman IS a sexual object. They need to cover themselves because their bodies can ONLY be interpreted in sexual terms. In addition the idea of a protective veil implies that men have so little control over their sexual impulses that the sight of a woman’s hair, or the definition of her figure in fitted clothing drives them into a sexual frenzy. Any crime they then commit against unveiled women could be excused by a lack of control over their actions – a case of temporary insanity caused by the victim herself.

This is a problem that exists within Islam and Islamic society and it should be addressed as such. What is needed is a reform in the way Islam views female bodies and female sexuality. I doubt that a legal ban on the burqa could achieve this. Whether it is appropriate or not, the burqa is considered a symbol of Islam. Banning it will no doubt be interpreted as an attack on Muslims and their religion, and an issue that should be about women’s rights could easily be overshadowed by a debate on religious tolerance. This is not to say that the ban is simply wrong. It’s a criticism of what many see as an oppressive religious practice, and no religion should be protected from legitimate critique. Lets just hope that this particular critique marks the beginning of reform in Islam rather than reinforcing the “us vs. them” mentality that many already adopt.