Tag Archives: Diverse Books

Getting Out of the Box

Last week, we addressed the #MeToo movement in the literary world by focusing on some of the headlines and debates that were taking place regarding the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the revelations regarding Junot Diaz.  Today, we thought we’d take a look into the literary implications of #MeToo, and the way the movement is changing how we read and write fiction.

Not surprisingly, perhaps the most prominent field where such changes have been occurring is romance, where issues of consent and power have always been debated and discussed pretty prominently.  Now, as The Guardian observed, we see workplace romances getting reconsidered, and the consent being made extra-explicit and enthusiastic (by a number of authors, if not across the genre as a whole).  And that is terrific.  As I reader, I have long been awaiting a turn in the genre to something more out-and-out progressive, feminist, and focused on fulfillment.

But it seems that other genres have been thinking hard about the portrayal of women in literature, as well.  The Hugo Awards for science fiction have been honoring the achievements of women and people of color for several years now, despite some highly-publicized campaigns to derail those efforts.  The establishment of the Staunch Book Prize launched a wide-reaching and generally thoughtful debate about how we treat out female characters, why we hurt them, and what we can do about it.  Heck, there is even an opera due for release in the UK this summer focusing on the victims of Jack the Ripper, in order to restore humanity to women who have been historically described by their gruesome deaths.

Via Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay

But have such sentiments actually translated into our literature?  To an extent…yes.  The world of publishing is not quick to react at the very best of times, and it will most likely be some time before the paradigm shift that the #MeToo movement has been establishing will be truly reflected in the books we read across genres.  But I’ve been noticing a trend over the past few years, as discussions and debates surrounding women’s issues, women’s lived experiences, and the intersectional problems that people of color, LGBTQIA people, working-class people, and people with disabilities face on a daily basis in our world have grown in prominence–stories are, in fact, beginning to change.  It sometimes subtle–and sometimes it isn’t at all, and that’s super, too.  But it is there.  So if you are looking for some works that are tackling issues of power, abuse, identity, and truth-telling, here are some ideas from around the world of fiction.  Some of these books are overtly speaking to the current cultural moment, and some are merely reflecting on them in a way, but all of them, in their own way, are acknowledging that it’s time to think outside the proverbial box–and we are all the better for it.

Note: This is not to say that older books have not tackled these issues.  They absolutely have.  See Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or Barbara Vine’s A Dark Adapted Eye.  But this is a round-up of a few new books that reflect some of the positive changes and debates taking place in fiction right now.

The Nowhere Girls: Amy Reed’s novel is at once a wonderfully fulfilling coming-of-age, misfits-united novel, and a searing indictment of the rape culture in which these characters are growing up.  Grace Salter is the new girl in town, whose family was run out of their former community after her southern Baptist preacher mom turned into a radical liberal; Rosina Suarez is the queer punk girl in a conservative Mexican immigrant family, who yearns for a life outside of their plans; Erin Delillo is obsessed with two things: marine biology and Star Trek: The Next Generation, both of which help her cope with her concern that she might be an android.   When Grace learns that Lucy Moynihan, the former occupant of her new home, was run out of town for having accused the popular guys at school of gang rape, she’s incensed that Lucy never had justice. For their own personal reasons, Rosina and Erin feel equally deeply about Lucy’s tragedy, so they form an anonymous group of girls at Prescott High to resist the sexist culture at their school, which includes boycotting sex of any kind with the male students.  This is a story with worlds of positive representation, from queer characters to female characters with autism-spectrum conditions, from religious and cultural difference to debates about sex and feminism–but it’s also one heck of a compelling read, especially as these Nowhere Girls lead a crusade for justice that is as applicable to the world outside the book as it is to them.

Anatomy of a Scandal: Sarah Vaughan uses all the insight and nuance she gathered during her career as a journalist in this story about political scandals, accusations, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to endure.  The novel focuses on Sophie and her husband James.  In Sophie’s eyes, James is the model of a good man–a caring father, a devoted husband, and a highly successful politician.  But then James is accused of rape, and  Kate Woodcroft is appointed by the Crown to prosecute him.  Kate is convinced that James is guilty, and is willing to bring all her legal expertise to this fight to bring him down.  But as this story unfolds, with the help of flashbacks and shifting narrative voices, we as readers are shown that no actions are isolated, and that all actions and all choices have tremendous impact, far into the future.  Vaughan is especially talented at crafting her female characters.  Sophie and Kate could not be more different, but they are both nuanced, compelling, and, in their own way, sympathetic characters, which makes their journeys in this book uniquely harrowing and suspenseful.  A top-notch courtroom drama as well as a pertinent look into the effects of power and privilege, this is a psychological thriller that fits in beautifully with our current real-world debates.

FellsideThis book is something of an outlier as a result of its age (it was published in 2016, which is by no means ancient, but what a difference a few years makes!), but M.R. Carey’s strange, haunting, and unforgettable novel deserves to be on this list for a number of reasons.  At the center of this work is a heroin addict named Jess Moulson, who is facing life in prison in the isolated and, frankly, terrifying Fellside prison.  Jess, we are told, is weak.  But no matter how many times the characters in this book repeat this judgement of her, Jess quietly and repeatedly proves she is anything but weak.  This is a story that repeatedly shows us the hopelessness of life, especially for those in prison–the ruthlessness of people who feel they have nothing left to lose, the craven violence of those who cling to power, obsession, greed, addiction…but this is also a story that repeatedly rejects those qualities in favor of hope.  Bleak hope, perhaps.  But hope.  So, for its discussions of abuse of power, its emphasis on the integrity and dignity of those whose humanity is so often overlooked, and the intimate discussions about what penance, sacrifice, and love really look like, this book definitely deserves consideration in this discussion.

And also, there are a huge number of romance novels to add to this list…but in the interest of time, we’ll have to get to them another day!

 

Resolve to Read: Romance Novels By Or About a Person of Color

As we mentioned here previously, we here at the Library are Resolving to Read (more…different….) in 2018, and tackling both Book Riot’s and Scholastic’s 2018 Reading Challenges.  In the hopes of encouraging you to broader your literary horizons along with us, here are some suggestions for books that fall within the categories of the various challenges.

Today’s Challenge: Book Riot 2018 Read Harder Challenge
Category: Romance Novels By Or About a Person of Color

We’ve talked a lot in the past about how we love romance novels here at the Free-For-All, and also about how we’re really ready to see more diversity in the genre at large.   So this week’s challenge is one very near and dear to our hearts.  There have been a number of sensation romances published in the past few years that feature People of Color–but that shouldn’t distract us from the classic romance novels that have stood the test of time and readers’ devotion.  What makes these books so great is that they are not only willing to confront issues of racial identity, but also to question issues of body image, sexual identity, class, and gender norms, making these romances as ground-breaking and thought-provoking as they are heart-racing.

So let’s take a look at some of the terrific titles that you can select to fulfill your resolution–and perhaps even discover a few new authors whose work you can savor for months and years to come!

An Extraordinary UnionNo list of romances featuring People of Color would be in any way complete or comprehensive without Alyssa Cole’s sensational novel of Civil War espionage and passion–and the first of what is sure to be an unmissable series.  Elle Burns is a former slave with a passion for justice and an eidetic memory. Trading in her life of freedom in Massachusetts, she returns to the indignity of slavery in the South–to spy for the Union Army. Malcolm McCall is a detective for Pinkerton’s Secret Service. Subterfuge is his calling, but he’s facing his deadliest mission yet–risking his life to infiltrate a Rebel enclave in Virginia. Two undercover agents who share a common cause–and an undeniable attraction–Malcolm and Elle join forces when they discover a plot that could turn the tide of the war in the Confederacy’s favor.  This is a book that confronts the horrors of slavery in America, but still holds fast to the belief that love will not only conquer all, but can redeem us, as well.

BreathlessBeverly Jenkins is among the royalty of the romance genre, and all of her books, frankly, are wonderful.  She creates wonderful, vivid, and beautifully empathetic characters, and places them in (generally speaking) historically accurate situations that allow her to reflect on issues of identity, power, and freedom in really creative ways.  In this book, Portia Carmichael is the manager of one of the finest hotels in Arizona Territory.  She has respect and stability—qualities sorely missing from her harsh childhood. She refuses to jeopardize all that by keeping company with the wrong man–but the arrival of an old family friend may have her thinking she’s found someone right.  Kent Randolph has learned his share of hard lessons. After drifting through the West, he’s learned the value of a place to settle down, and in Portia’s arms he’s found that and more. But convincing her to trust him with her heart, not just her passion, will be the greatest challenge he’s known—and one he intends to win…You quite seriously cannot go wrong with Beverly Jenkins work, so make sure to check out her many others books as you make your way through this resolution!

A Bollywood AffairSonali Dev’s romances have it all–interesting characters, real issues, beautiful settings–but they also deal with issues facing women in India, from conforming to stereotypes and ‘proper behavior’ to the difficulty of balancing tradition with progress.  But there is also the deep bonds with family, the sensational food, and the meaningful tradition, all of which combine to make Dev’s books so enchanting.  In this story, Mili Rathod hasn’t seen her husband in twenty years–not since she was promised to him at the age of four. Yet marriage has allowed Mili a freedom rarely given to girls in her village. She was even allowed her to leave India and study in America for eight months, all to make her the perfect modern wife. Which is exactly what Mili longs to be–if her husband would just come and claim her. Bollywood’s favorite director, Samir Rathod, has come to Michigan to secure a divorce for his older brother. Persuading a naïve village girl to sign the papers should be easy for someone with Samir’s tabloid-famous charm. But Mili is neither a fool nor a gold-digger. Open-hearted yet complex, she’s trying to reconcile her independence with cherished traditions. And before he can stop himself, Samir is immersed in Mili’s life–cooking her dal and rotis, escorting her to her roommate’s elaborate Indian wedding, and wondering where his loyalties and happiness lie.  This book is Dev’s first, but each of the four she has published to date are winners, so keep your eye out for this author!

Such a Pretty Face: The blurb for Gabrielle Goldsby’s lesbian romance may sound like it’s a tale of revenge-bods and vengeance, but, in truth, it really couldn’t be any further away.  It’s a story about learning to love yourself, and to find people who can see the best in you no matter what–and that is a message we all need to hear from time to time.  Mia Sanchez is a Mexican American financial adviser who has recently bought a new house with her partner of four years. She is stunned when her Brenda tells her she has accepted a 5-month job in Fiji, and that she’ll be using the time to  “think about their future together.” Mia hadn’t thought words could be more painful until Brenda followed up hers with, “You’ve really let yourself go over the last few years.”   Hurt and along, Mia finds a little comfort is staring at Ryan, the stunning blonde construction worker at Mia’s work.  Ryan has her own issues with physical beauty, in the form of a scar on her face, but neither the scar nor Mia’s weight seem to be a problem when they finally start talking.  This is a funny, insightful, and wonderfully honest book about the power of real love to see past the superficial, and to transform that holds up even on the second or third reading!

 

We’ll be back next week with another Resolve to Read post, but until then, feel free to stop by the Library and let us help you discover your new favorite book of 2018!

Resolve to Read: The Pura Belpré Award

2018 is a year for expanding our reading horizons, and we here at the Free for All are thrilled to be bringing you suggestions and discussions based on two different reading challenges.  This week, we’re looking at Scholastic’s Reading Resolution Challenge.  It’s a challenge geared towards younger readers, but since when should that stop anyone?  The suggestions on this list hold appeal for readers of all ages (I read to my cat on a regular basis, for example).

This post features the challenge to read a Pura Belpré Award-winning book.  The Pura Belpré Award was established in 1996, and is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library (hooray for Librarians!).  It is presented annually, as the award’s website explains, to a Latino/Latina writer andLatino/Latina illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. It is co-sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), and REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking, an ALA affiliate.

As huge fans of #WeNeedDiverse Books, and as a Library community that revels in sharing all the cultural and personal differences that make our community such a rich one, exploring the books in this award was a real treat.  There are some stunning illustrations and moving stories to be found among the winners of the Pura Belpré Award, and we are thrilled to feature some of them here!

2017 Author Award Winner: 

Juana & Lucas, written and illustrated by Juana Medina: A spunky young girl from Colombia loves playing with her canine best friend and resists boring school activities, especially learning English, until her family tells her that a special trip is planned to an English-speaking place.  According to the award presenters, Medina “presents with breezy humor the day-to-day reflections and experiences universal to childhood—school, family and friendships—through the eyes of the invincible Juana, growing up in Bogotá with her beloved dog, Lucas. This charmingly designed book for young readers portrays the advantages—and challenges—of learning a second language.

2017 Illsutrator Award Winner: 

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, illustrated by Raúl Gonzalez, written by Cathy Camper: Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack, and Elirio Malaria are living the dream–they are the proud owners of their very own garage. But when their beloved cat, Genie, goes missing, they must embark on a wild road trip through a mysterious corn maze, into the center of the earth, and down to the realm of Mictlantecuhtli. Mic’s the Aztec god of the Underworld, but even worse: he’s a catnapper! Now it’s three clever compadres against one angry, all-powerful god. How will the Lowriders ever save their cat–or themselves?  According to the award committee, “The ballpoint pen art creates a fantastical borderlands odyssey, packed with subversively playful cultural references that affirm a vibrant Chicanx cultura.”

2016 Author Award Winner: 

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir, by Margarita Engle: In her memoir for young people, Margarita Engle, who was the first Latina woman to receive a Newbery Honor, tells of growing up as a child of two cultures during the Cold War. Her heart was in Cuba, her mother’s tropical island country–but most of the time she lived in Los Angeles, lonely in the noisy city and dreaming of the summers fly through the enchanted air to her beloved island. When the hostility between Cuba and the United States erupted at the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Engle’s worlds collided in the worst way possible. Would she ever get to visit her beautiful island again?  The awards committee noted that “Engle’s memoir of living in two cultures and the inability to cross the sky to visit family will resonate with youth facing similar circumstances.”

2017 Illustrator Award Winner: 

Drum dream girl : how one girl’s courage changed music: Illustrations by Rafael López; Poem by Margarita Engle: This lyrical tale follows a young Cuban girl in the 1930s as she strives to become a drummer, despite being continually reminded that only boys play the drums, and that there’s never been a female drummer in Cuba. Includes note about Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl in 1930s Cuba, who became a world-renowned drummer, and Anacaona, the all-girl dance band she formed with her sisters.  The awards committee said that “Rafael López’s masterful art brings to life the drumbeats in Margarita Engle’s story. His dreamy illustrations transport us to Millo’s tropical island,”

For a full list of Pura Belpré Award winning books, check out the full list at the American Library Association’s website!

Love What You Love

Conversations about books are some of my favorite conversations.

Via https://3appleskdk.wikispaces.com/

recent discussions among some book-minded companions led to a fascinating discussion the other day regarding “books that you love but that are in some way objectionable to others.”  It’s a tricky subject, and one with which a lot of readers tend to grapple, especially as they grow up, and realize that the books they loved at one stage of their development might not fit them and their world view now.

Let’s use my own experience as an example: It’s something of an open secret that I love Jane Eyre.  It’s a book that enchanted me as a fourteen-year-old first discovering early Victorian literature, and one that sustained me in high school amidst all those books I had to read.   But, as an older reader, out of high school and navigating what we usually call “the real world,” I began to realize how whiny, self-centered, and, let’s be honest here, how reckless and dangerous his behavior was.  Secrets aren’t sexy, Edward.  Especially when they involve fire, bleeding, and/or locking people up in towers.  (To be fair, I would argue a great deal of the Rochester mystique is a product of more recent times, but still…).  But, after some soul searching, I realized that I could, and still did, love Jane Eyre.  Because, as I grew older, I began to really appreciate just how strong, how self-reliant, and how confident Jane had to be in herself to survive in the world she did, and to protect herself from Rochester’s more harmful tendencies.  Jane Eyre herself became one of my favorite characters all over again as a grew up, even as I got more and more fed up with Rochester’s fragile ego and his ceaseless emoting.

Similarly, a friend related that they had grown up adoring Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and that they still turned to it when life was being difficult and they needed something familiar to love.  Stephen King is a sensational author and a super guy, but, as my friend noted, Stephen King doesn’t do very well writing about people of color.  They tend to fall pretty hard into the character trope known as the “Magical Negro” trope (Note: the word ‘negro’ is used to denote the archaic view of Black people that this trope embodies).  Briefly put, “Magical Negroes” are characters (created by white authors) who are generally (though not always) outwardly or inwardly disabled as a result  of discrimination, disability or social constraint, and who appear to save the white protagonist through magic.  In other words, they are not human in the same ways that white characters are human.   In the Dark Tower series, Odetta Susannah Holmes is a”Magical Negro”; she is disfigured by a subway train after a white man pushes her onto the tracks.  She suffers from a magical kind of personality disorder in which she embodies two people (each figured and disfigured by American racism) and she is repeatedly victimized to save Roland, who is a white male in the novel.

This is not in any way, shape, or form to imply that Stephen King is a racist.  Far from it.  But it does indicate that he might not be the expert on creating realistic, thoughtful characters of color.

But sometimes, it can be an issue with the author.  Another book brought up in this discussion was Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game.  This is a novel that shaped the childhoods of many, and is still beloved by readers around the world.  However, it’s very difficult for many readers to reconcile their love of this book with the knowledge that Orson Scott Card himself holds very public, anti-gay and xenophobic views.  For those who find these views troubling, spending money on purchasing an author’s work can be difficult. It can also be difficult to separate the author’s views from one’s love of the books they write.

So what is a reader to do?

First and foremost, love what you love.  If a book or a film or a song has personal meaning for you, helps you to grow, or guides you through a dark time, or makes you a better person, then you deserve that thing in your life.  As The Velveteen Rabbit taught us, the things we love become real, and become a part of us and who we are.  I became a stronger person by reading Jane Eyre, even as I learned not to put up with whiners like Rochester.  My friends learned fortitude and strength and insight from the books they loved, above and apart from the problematic aspects of their construction and their authorship.  This does not mean to be blind to their faults or shortcomings, but, instead, to love the thing for how it helps you.

Secondly, as in so many other matters, the library can help you in these circumstances.  For example: do you love an author, like Stephen King, who may not be the best at portraying people of color (…or women? …or another group of people?)?  Why not come to the Library and learn about some authors who do?!  Use your favorite author or series as a jumping-off point to explore other works of literature than can become new favorites.  In the case of the Dark Tower series, we might recommend books by N. K. Jemisin, or Nnedi Okorafor, for example.

Finally, the library is a super-terrific place to access material that you might not otherwise want to contribute your hard-earned dollars.  As we discussed in our post on Fire and Fury, you can have your literary cake and eat it took by borrowing the book from us.

Ultimately, it’s a win-win-win situation when you come to the Library and learn to love the things inside it.  And we are here to help you find the books and films and music that you can and will love, and that will help you be better.  Just keep loving what you love, and we’ll be here for the rest of it.

 

Towards a Better History…

Pardon me while I climb up on my soap box…

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

Okie dokie, now….Who watched the Bloomberg TV broadcast of the Boston Pops concert and fireworks last night?

Do you remember the montage of Boston that they’d played right at the beginning of the night?  Right after Brian Stokes Mitchell sang a stunning rendition of “American the Beautiful”, and added “sisterhood” after the line about “brotherhood”?

I know I did.  So did my cat.  And what we both noticed was that after a performance that honored not only the humanitarian goals of America (symbolized by “brotherhood”), but the determination and activism that is trying to bring us closer to that goal (symbolized by the “sisterhood”), as well as the recognition that America is made up of lots of different peoples…

…We get a montage about Boston that features images of men.

And I, along with my cat, who is himself a keen student of history, let out a huge sigh.  Not only because this kind of stuff happens all the time, because it does.  All the time.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  A Slate.com article last year pointed out that popular history books are not only largely about men, but are also largely written by men.  Click on the above link for more information, as well as a truly eye-opening graph about the state of the history publishing industry.   The problem with this isn’t the books themselves, or their authors (as long as they use good research practices and conscientious citations).  The problem is that these books, together, have the effect of a bullhorn–it makes it that much harder to hear any other stories being told around them.  And there are so many more stories that still need to be told.  Not only about Boston.

A painting recreating the Battle of Lexington and Concord

But Boston (and Massachusetts in general) is a phenomenal place to start telling those stories!  From the opening shots of the American Revolution fired in Concord and the riot that was the Boston Tea Party to the The Combahee River Collective in the 1970s to the being the first state to legalize gay marriage, Massachusetts has a history of producing and remembering people who change the status quo.  And to overlook that is to do a great disservice to its history, as well as upholding a troubling precedent of overlooking their contributions to history.

So let’s put together a list, shall we, of histories and people who weren’t discussed on Bloomberg TV last night, and celebrate all the people who make this area, this country, and this species we call humanity, so fascinating….

The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley:  The woman we know today as Phyllis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753, and was sold into slavery around the age of seven.   She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, and named after the ship that brought her to North America.  The Wheatley children taught her to read and write, and their parents, John and Susanna Wheatley encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.  Phyllis was emancipated in 1773, and became the first published female African-American poet the same year.  She corresponded with George Washington and the King George III, and wrote movingly about the rights of slaves in the emerging United States.  Phyllis Wheatley died at the age of 31, while working as a scullery maid in order to pay back her husbands’ debts.

Improper Bostonians : lesbian and gay history from the Puritans to Playland: Drawing on sources ranging from newspaper accounts to private archives, and incorporating more than 200 images, this book is one of, if not the most comprehensive LGBT city history around. Showcasing an extraordinary variety of perspectives and periods, subjects and sources, from Prohibition to World War II to  urban development to the AIDS epidemic, to tell a new and vitally important history of Boston.  The History Project is a volunteer-based organization that works to collect and preserve the history of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people in and of Massachusetts, and have a pretty remarkable digital archives on their website, which you can check out here.

Louisa May Alcott: A Biography: One of the faces that Bloomberg TV showed was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was, by far, the most well-known of the Transcendentalists living in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.  But, nothing against Emerson at all, he was famous because he was the most mainstream of all the Transcendentalists.  He didn’t go build himself a cabin in the woods like his buddy, Henry David Thoreau.  He didn’t create a big scandal by implying that children had minds of their own and should be encouraged to think and contradict their elders, like Bronson Alcott.  And he wasn’t a rabble-rouser like Bronson’s daughter, my friend Louisa May Alcott.   Did you know that Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote?  The state legislature passed a bill in 1879 permitting women to vote in town elections dealing with children and education, and Louisa knew that this was the first, critical step, to women gaining a voice in politics.  You can read all about Louisa’s remarkable life, and her unique family, including her mother, who worked at a shelter for abused women in Boston in the mid-nineteenth century, in this phenomenal biography by Madeline Stern.

The Trouble Between Us : An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement: Inspired by the idealism of the civil rights movement, the women who launched the radical second wave of the feminist movement believed fundamentally in universal sisterhood and a color-blind democracy. Their goals, however, remain unrecognized to this day.  Winifred Breines explores why a racially integrated women’s liberation movement did not develop in the United States, using sources as diverse as protest posters, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches, and oral histories with some of the most influential and active of the second-wave feminists.  Of particular focus in her work is the Combahee River Collective, a Boston-based organization of Black women whose published statement (which you can read here) is considered a bedrock of the Black feminist movement to this day.  This isn’t an easy read, but it is a vitally important one for those seeking for ways to improve the dialogue still taking place about race and feminism today.

Interesting in reading some more of Boston’s–and Massachusetts’–fascinating, diverse, and revolutionary history?  Come into the Library and we’ll be happy to help you find just want you’re looking for!

 

The Hugo Awards and Puppies

The nominations for the 2017 Hugo Awards were announced in April, dear readers, and anticipation is steadily building over which  novels will win.

The Hugo Award is the the longest running prize for science fiction or fantasy works, having been established in 1953.  Up until 1992, the award was known simply as the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, but was subsequently named after Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the pioneering science fiction magazine Amazing Stories.  Gernsback was also responsible for creating the idea of a ‘fandom’.   When readers wrote into Amazing Stories, their addresses were published along with their letters.  As a result readers began to become aware of themselves as fans, and to recognize their collective identity as devotees of the science fiction genre–not bad for 1926.

But “fandom” has its downsides, as well, as few institutions know this better than the Hugo.  See, the Hugo Award nominees and winners are chosen by supporting or attending members of the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, with attendees providing nominees, and then the whole group voting in a runoff vote with five nominees per category (unless there is a tie).  For each category of Hugo, the voter may rank “No Award” as one of their choices. Voters are instructed that they should do so if they feel that none of the nominees are worthy of the award, or if they feel the category should be abolished entirely.

If Jeopardy! recognizes a Thing, it is a Thing.

Anyway, back in 2013, author Larry Correia began speaking with other sci-fi writers (all of whom had been nominated for Hugos, but hadn’t won), and saying wouldn’t it be great if Correia’s novels were nominated for the Hugo Award in order to “poke the establishment in the eye” by nominating “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic[tion]”.  That led to the beginning of a not-so-covert voting bloc that attempted to get Correia’s work Monster Hunter Legion nominated.  The bloc called themselves the “Sad Puppies” after a commercial for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal, showing, you guessed it, Sad Puppies, after a blog comment that equated puppy sadness with “boring message-fic winning awards”.  And just so we’re clear here, Correia explained what he meant by “boring message-fic winning awards” in an interview with Wired:

He felt that the Hugos had become overly dominated by what he and others call “Social Justice Warriors,” who value politics over plot development. Particular targets of Puppy derision include two 2014 Hugo winners: John Chu’s short story, “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere,” in which a gay man decides to come out to his traditional Chinese family after the world is beset by a new phenomenon: whenever a person lies, water inexplicably falls on them; and Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, whose protagonists do not see gender.

The movement was taken over in 2015 by Brad Torgerson, who explained, in the same Wired interview about

“…what he called “the cognitive dissonance of people saying, ‘No, the Hugos are about quality,’ and then at the same time they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”

So the Sad Puppies coordinated, and tried to influence the Hugo nominations by presenting a whole slate of books en masse.  They weren’t terribly successful.  Seven of the twelve 2014 nominees made it to the final ballot, one nominee each in seven categories, including Correia’s Warbound.

Then, in 2015, the “Rabid Puppies” emerged.  And this where things went from generally xenophobic and unwelcoming to flat out virulence.  The “Rabid Puppies”, were led by a man named Theodore Beale, but who goes by the name Vox Day, which is a bad attempt as “Vox Dei”, or “Voice of God”.  Day is the only person to have been kicked out of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in its nearly fifty year history for horrid, racist remarks he made, and posted, directed at N.K. Jemisin (you are welcome to look them up yourself, should you wish).  He delights in being known as “the most despised man in science fiction”.   Anyways, in both 2015 and 2016, Beale published a slate of nominees, mostly conservative writers and people from his own publishing house, and told his followers to vote them. In 2016, they nabbed over 60 nominations, with four categories dominated by Beale’s picks.

Just to give you an idea of how significant this was

And authors responded.  In 2015, “No Award” was given in five categories, meaning that a majority of voters decided that not giving out an award was better than awarding a Puppy pick.  Some categories did award Hugo’s to authors that Puppies had selected, ut they were authors like Neil Gaiman, who was popular enough to win anyway.  In 2016, a number of authors declined their nominations, including Brian Sanderson who wrote a blog post regarding the issue.  In part, Sanderson said:

I didn’t like the way many of the Puppies talked. They could be belligerent and argumentative, using tactics that felt more likely to silence opposition instead of provoke discussion. In addition, they associated with people even worse…Some leaders in the movement verbally attacked people I respect and love…These awards are supposed to be about the best of sf/f. We are not supposed to vote or nominate simply for our favorite writers, nor choose things just because they advance our viewpoint. (Though things we nominate and vote for can indeed do both things.) We are to examine pieces outside of authorship and pick ones that represent the best of the community…I felt that the slate the Puppies were advocating was dangerous for the award, and against its spirit.

Seriously…

Connie Willis pulled out of presenting a prize, saying her presence would “lend cover and credibility to winners who got the award through bullying and extortion”.

But instead of giving up, or giving in, the majority of science fiction writers voted…and in the end, all four categories for works of fiction went to women, three of whom were women of color, which is pretty terrific, considering that in 2007, there was only one woman nominated at all.

It’s truly disheartening that, rather than supporting the evolution of the genre, or welcoming new authors…or publicly addressing perceived issues with the nominations process in a manner that would allow debate and discussion, a small group of disaffected people would not only attack a valued and deeply significant institution, but would take such delight in it.  Correia’s original argument was that the Hugo had become classist, discriminating against perceived ‘low-brow’ authors (we’re going to tackle this tomorrow), and while there is a very valid discussion to be had about class and ‘literature’, there is no call to punish other authors–to insult other authors, to attack other authors–because the market around you is changing.  The fact is, it’s no longer 1926, and the kind of privileged literature that could use science fiction as a vehicle for racist, sexist, and generally xenophobic messages has long passed, and the genre has grown and developed too much to go back.   And why would we want to, when there are so many other incredible worlds, fascinating ideas, and strange new futures awaiting us in the pens of new authors who are, and will continue, to bring a new worldview to the page?

After the 2016 season, the rules for the Hugo were changed in an attempt to prevent the Puppies from “breaking” the Hugo any further (George R.R. Martin claimed the award had been “broken” by Beale and his pack).  And this year’s nominations seem to be pretty straightforward, with the Sad Puppies not mounting a recognizable campaign, and the Rabid Puppies succeeding in securing only one ludicrous nomination among a spectrum of titles that have been both commercially successful, and diverse in terms of content and their author’s identities.

So maybe this year, there is hope for the Hugo.  I sincerely hope so.  You can read the full list of nominees here.

Some thoughts on the Bechdel Test

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I literally cannot wait for Wonder Woman to appear on our screen on June 2.  I tell random strangers about it.  I rage about the lack of advertising for this movie on a regular basis.  And if it is as….unfulfilling…as the other DC films in this franchise have been, I will eat my proverbial hat.

But I digress…in the midst of scouring the internet for excellent information on this most wonderful of superheroes, I noticed a whole ton of articles regarding the now oft-remarked ‘Bechdel Test’, and I had a few thoughts about it that I wanted to share.

For background, the ‘Bechdel Test’, is not really a ‘test’ in the same way, say, a ‘Driving Test’ is a test, or a ‘Blood Test’ is a test.  It is, instead, a way of thinking about the presence of women in films, the ways in which they are represented, and whether they get to be fully human.  The idea came from American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who drew the follow comic for her regular strip in 1985:

In case you can’t read it, the rules are:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Bechdel based her test on a quote from the great and glorious Virginia Woolf, who wrote in a 1929 essay:

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that

In other words, despite the fact that real women’s lives are shaped by personal relationships with other women, very, very few forms of fiction (particularly film) represent those relationships.  Instead, women are shown as single, isolated entities who support men’s journeys.  If more than one woman is portrayed, it is usually because one (or both of them) is trying to attract the love/attention/desire of a male hero.

The Bechdel Test isn’t perfect.  To highlight one example, the assumption that any discussion of a man makes a movie “anti-feminist”.  But the point of the test has raised a good deal of debate within film circles, and helped to emphasize how far we really have to go to achieve any nominal sense of equality in our representations.  For example, an article in The Wrap cites a study conducted by by Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  The study examined the 100 top-grossing films from 2015 and 4,370 speaking characters for gender, racial/ethnic representation, and LGBT status.  The results?

68.6 percent of named characters were still male, and only 31.4 percent female across the 100 top‐grossing films of 2015 (making a gender ratio of 2.2 male characters to every female). This figure has not changed since 2007.

In addition, females were over three times as likely as their male counterparts to be shown in sexually revealing clothing (30.2 percent vs. 7.7 percent) and with some nudity (29 percent vs. 9.5 percent).

Additionally, this is also a great time to talk about the enormous disparity in film makers, as well.  How are we supposed to tell new stories without new storytellers?

But in studying this material, I couldn’t help but think–what about men?  How many men can you name in film or literature that have meaningful relationships with other men?

This week, Vulture magazine published an article that stated:

…but nothing has troubled filmmakers as enduringly as the mysteries of female bonding. For whatever reason — our inherited medieval imaginations, the cycles of the moon, perhaps — in their short life the movies have been perennially haunted by a fear that when two or more women are left alone together, some kind of dark magic will inevitably rear its head.

Interestingly, though, The Atlantic published an article a few years ago that discussed the very real difficulties that men suffered, especially in later life, keeping friendships.  The reasons cited were: jealousy over friends’ personal and professional achievements, a lack of communication skills, and a society that teaches men not to express emotion.   All of which indicate to me that this gendered structure we’ve set up here is hurting both women and men, forcing them to perform to strange, unrealistic expectations that are harming all of our individual and collective abilities to make connections.

So I figured we could explore some books today that celebrate close relationships that help pave the way towards thinking about relationships differently.  If we’re going to make the world a better place, after all, it’s nice to have some blueprints!

Three Comrades: We’ve discussed this book a lot since our Classics Book Group met this book last year.  Most people were introduced to Erich Maria Remarque through his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which focuses on the experience of young German soldiers in World War I.  But Remarque wrote a great deal more than that, including this novel, which focuses on three German veterans of the First World War and the auto body/mechanic shop they open.  The narrator of the book falls in love, yes, with a woman named Pat, but that love only brings these friends together more–indeed, rather than shunning her, or shying away from the couple, Pat becomes a member of their circle of friends.  This is a story about love, friendship, loyalty and acceptance, and is absolutely unforgettable.  Also of note here is the way in which Remarque portrays Berlin at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power.  His love letter to a world about to fall is as heartbreaking as any experience of his titular Comrades.

Boy, Snow, BirdHelen Oyeyemi is a marvel at re-imagining traditional fables and fairytales with a contemporary edge, and feminist observations, and this book is a showcase of her remarkable talent.  This story, which echoes the Brothers Grimm’s  “Snow White”, emphasizes the female hatred so often found in fairytales, but with the broader canvas of the novel, and a richer story-line, Oyeyemi has woven a tale of racial tensions, familial jealousies, and complex relationships between the women. Though for much of the novel half-sisters Snow and Bird are separated by Bird’s mother, Boy, they begin to write letters to each other sharing snippets of family history as well as their own secrets and girlish curiosities about each other. Their friendship, in the end, is not about men, but about their mutual quest for a stronger kind of bond, and the sense of themselves they find in communicating with each other.

Ancillary JusticeAnn Leckie’s novel doesn’t so much pass the Bechdel Test as leave it behind in the dust, as her Radchaii empire don’t care much about gender, and their language does not make distinctions between male and female.  Moreover, Leckie’s choice to make the default gender distinction (which, in English is “he”) female makes the world of this book feel strangely alien.  Once, the heroine of this tale, Breq, was a Justice of Toren –a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.  Now, she has nothing left but her desire for revenge against the many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.  But the real power of this book lies in Breq’s relationships with One Esk and Lieutenant Awn–two characters who are difficult to describe, as Leckie does such a wonderful job letting the reader conceptualize them on their own.  Though not always an easy book to read, the characters and their bonds are so real and so believable that this story becomes a visceral treat that even readers who aren’t big sci-fi fans will enjoy.

The Kite Runner: Not only is Khaled Hosseini’s story an emotionally wrenching tale of male friendship, but it also a perfect example of our “Reading Without Walls Challenge” books, too!  The novel follows the story of Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Kabul, and Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant. As children in the relatively stable Afghanistan of the early 1970s, the boys are inseparable, spending idyllic days running kites and telling stories of mystical places and powerful warriors–until an unspeakable event changes their friendship forever.  Amir and his father flee to America as the monarchy begins to crumble, but the ties between these two young men is too powerful to be severed, and years later, Amir’s yearning for his friend’s forgiveness will lead him on a journey to a home he can no longer recognize.  Though this book deals a great deal with the pain that relationships can cause, Hossenini reminds us over and over again that they are still absolutely worth the pain, because they remind us who were truly are.

Happy reading dear friends!