Tag Archives: gender

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

How do we categorise the people we meet? By what we see? By ethnicity, colour, gender, age and in the UK those tiny indicators of class. Whole systems of exploitation have been built on the genetic features, especially ethnicity and gender. 

In recent years we have been encouraged to believe that our genetic composition determines our characters. Think of those people who look for criminal genes, or speak about inheriting certain characteristics from their parents, such as sporting ability. Think of the tv programme Who do you think you are? in which ancestors are traced, implying they can explain the person featured. 

The Vanishing Half questions these ideas about inherited attributes. It challenges how people are identified by ethnicity, or gender, and looks at some people who choose to ‘pass’. And it does this through a moving story of twins who ran away and their daughters.

The Vanishing Half

Twin girls, Desiree and Stella, are born in Mallard, a small town in the southern state of Louisiana. Their father was light skinned, and was murdered by white men in front of the twins. The town of Mallard is inhabited by light skinned African Americans, and its population values lightness above all. The consequences of maintaining the lighter skin tone in the town creates an oppressive environment. It was 1954when the twins ran away but 14 years later Desiree, returns without Stella. This is the starting point of the novel, for Desiree is escaping a violent marriage and is accompanied by her very dark skinned daughter, Jude. Stella has disappeared. Early Jones is a tracker paid by her husband to trace Desiree, but they become lovers and his attempts to trace Stella on her behalf produce no results. 

The story shifts down a generation. Jude suffers from her dark skin in Mallard and escapes as soon as she can, to LA on a university athletics scholarship. Stella lives in an exclusive, white neighbourhood, ‘passing’ as the white wife of a rich man, with a beautiful pale skinned fair haired daughter called Kennedy. They too live in LA and of course the paths of Kennedy and Jude cross. 

Stella, living as a white woman, is perpetually in fear of discovery. She is oppressed by  the consequences of her decision to be seen as white. She must be secretive about her early life, and does not mix socially. When her neighbours discover that a Black family will move into their exclusive community she leads the campaign of resistance. But she cannot resist befriending the wife of these incomers when their daughters play together. Kennedy does not know her mother’s secret, but when the cousins meet Jude works it out and tries to convince her.

Jude, in the meantime, has fallen for Reese, who has his own secrets. And they are friends with Barry, who has a successful drag act, while being a teacher in his day job. So many lies. So much acting.

There is no happy ending to this novel. Each of the characters must find their own way to live. Stella returns to Mallard to visit her mother and her twin only once and then resumes her wealthy, secretive, white life. Her daughter becomes a soap actress, recognised as the character she plays, not as herself.

Kennedy’s role in Pacific Cove as girl-next-door Charity Harris serves her well when she retrains to become a realtor:

A model home was nothing but a set, if you thought about it, the open house a grand performance directed by her. Each time, she stood behind the door, bowing her head as jittery as the first time she had ever taken the stage, knowing that her mother would be out there in the audience watching. Then she put on a big Charity Harris smile, opening the door. She would disappear inside herself, inside the empty home where nobody actually lived. As the room filled with strangers, she always found her mark, guiding a couple through the kitchen, pointing out the light fixtures, backsplash, high ceilings.
‘Imagine your life here,’ she said. ‘Imagine who you could be.’ (319)

So what is identity? Can you make up your own identity? Does your genetic heritage determine who you are? Or are you who you choose to be? It is not only the actors who have to pretend a role in life. Don’t we all have to do this to some extent? 

It’s a good novel that can pose pertinent, important questions and carry a compelling story at the same time. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, published in 2020. I read the paperback edition from Dialogue Books. 366pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

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Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

It is so often the case that if you are female your childhood will be tougher than your brother’s, especially if you are also Black and born into a rural setting in a colonial country. Nervous Conditions is set in Zimbabwe when it was still Southern Rhodesia and under British rule. Rural poverty is a real impediment to Tambudzai; as a girl she has responsibility for collecting water, cleaning latrines, laying the dung floor, child care. Her cousin Nyasha has spent some of her childhood in London. She has forgotten her first language, Shona, and many of the ways of her family. Both girls live with nervous conditions, despite their differences. 

Tsitsi Dangarembga quotes Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) as the novel’s epithet and source of her title:

The condition of native is nervous condition.

Nervous Conditions

Tambu is born and lives her early childhood in the rural homestead of her family. She has two younger sisters and a brother. Her mother finds life hard and her father is feckless. Her brother is privileged, receiving education at the local school. Her UK-educated Uncle provides fees for her brother and when he is older takes him to the mission school where he is headteacher.

Meanwhile Tambu had to give up schooling because the family don’t have the money for her fees. She is so keen to go to school that she begs mealie seeds from her father raises her own small crop to sell. Her brother steals the mealies. Later he dies while away at the mission school. Tambu now becomes the privileged sibling.

I was not sorry when my brother died. (11)

This is the rather shocking but realistic opening sentence of the novel. It pitches us immediately into the different trajectories of girls and boys.

Tambu takes her brother’s place at the mission school, leaving the homestead behind. Tambu and her cousin Nyasha become friends and allies in their Uncle’s very fine house, even though their attitudes are so different. Nyasha questions everything, but Tambu is grateful to her uncle for the opportunities he provides. 

We see how her education takes Tambu away from her rural roots when she returns to the homestead for holidays and family gatherings. These provide the setting for some great drama and humour. A dare takes place, a kind of council of men, to discuss the difficult problem of Lucia. Lucia is a splendid character, full of self-worth, and undaunted by the menfolk. She undermines the dare and achieves her aims of employment and education.

Tambu, Nyasha and Lucia are all beholden to Bamabukuru, the headmaster uncle, for the advantages they gain. Tambu is especially torn when he opposes her ambitions to enter the White Catholic Convent in Salisbury. She depends upon him for her advantages, but chafes at his rule. This is the fate of peoples who are colonised and patronised everywhere. 

Nyasha, with her UK experiences, finds his most pompous pronouncements and rules unbearable and defies her father, while also seeking to improve her future through education. After Tambu leaves for the convent, Nyasha declines into bulimia. 

Tambu’s mother finds it hard that daughter’s aspirations and Bamabukuru’s patronage will remove Tambu from her family roots. 

‘Tell me, Tambudzai, does that man want to kill me, to kill me with his kindness, fattening my children only to take them away, like cattle fattened for the slaughter? Tell me, daughter, what will I, your mother say to you when you come home a stranger full of white ways and ideas? It will be English, English all the time. He-e, Mummy this, he-e, Mummy that. Like that cousin of yours. I have seen it happen – we saw it happen in our own home. Truly that man is calling down a curse of bad luck on my head. You have survived the mission so now he must send you even further away. I’ve had enough, I tell you, I’ve had enough of that man dividing me from my children. Dividing me from my children and ruling my life. He says this and we jump […] If I were a witch I would enfeeble his mind, truly I would do it, and then we would see how his education and his money helped him.’ (269)

This is the cry of the colonised to the colonial power, caught in a dependent relationship that mostly benefits the colonizer. This novel was set only a few years before Zimbabwe fought a bitter battle to end colonial rule and written after Independence was gained in 1980.

Tsitsi Dangarembga

I read this book for three reasons: it is the first of a trilogy whose third volume This Mournable Body has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. My second reason is that I spent a month in Zimbabwe when it was still young, in 1986. It was a country of such hope and possibilities at that time. I heard Tsitsi Dangarembga interviewed recently and that too inspired me to read the trilogy: Nervous Conditions (1988) The Book of Not(2006), This Mournable Body (2020).

She was born in Matoku in Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1959, and spent some of her childhood in England, her childhood resembling Nyasha’s more than Tambu’s. She had planned to read medicine at Cambridge but returned to Zimbabwe University to read psychology and become involved in theatre and film as well as writing fiction. Last year she made international news when she was arrested for taking part in a peaceful anti-corruption demonstration in Zimbabwe. 

She says of Nervous Conditions

I wrote it as a fugitive. A fugitive from my first memories and of what my life had become. [from Guardian 27th March 2021.]

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, first published by the Women’s Press in 1988. I read the Faber edition published in 2021. 298pp 

The BBC poll of 100 books that shaped the world placed Nervous Conditions at #66.

You can find Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 10 reading recommendations here.

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Is Age a Barrier to Good Writing?

At a time dominated by the cult of youth, does the age of a writer matter? It always seems that publishers are looking for the next bright young thing. I have seen it suggested that this is to ensure that they will get a return on an author likely to write several books.

Things are changing. We live in an ageing society, in which more people are living longer. It is likely that there will be more older writers in the future. In our book, The New Age of Ageing, we considered the effects of our ageing population, not just on the individual, but also on families, our communities, policy. In this post I explore on the effects on publishing.

Ageism in society

Writing about age means identifying and confronting assumptions about age. There are plenty of discriminatory practices in our society. We can start with how older people are usually seen: conservative; physically weak and declining; not interested in sex and not sexy; defined by death (all those bucket lists).

My posts reviewing fiction about older women has revealed a more nuanced set of characters, with some feisty older women (see Moon Tiger, and The Dark Flood Rises) and some respectful views of older people with Alzheimer’s (Elizabeth is Missing) as well as caricatures of the eccentric and declining.

But what about older writers? We can count on Martin Amis to say what many people think about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Let’s look at late starters and writers who write into old age.

Late starters

Late, in the publishing world, means after 40. The most famous late starter was Mary Wesley, whose first book for adults Jumping the Queue was published when she was 70 years old. She went on to publish nine more novels and a memoir.

Dinah Jefferies, author of the best seller The Tea Planter’s Wife, published her first novel was when she was over 60. People had informed her that she wouldn’t find a publisher because of her age. Three of her novels have now been published. She told Saga Magazine in February 2016,

I read time and again that you have to be under 60 to be able to succeed at writing. All it made me think was, “I’ll show you. I’m not having that”. (Saga Magazine February 2016)

Keeping on

The list of writers who kept on writing, or who are still writing, is long and distinguished. Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Weslely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. And there are more.

I recently reviewed a novel by Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs. The author was 84 when she published this her 17th novel.

Margaret Drabble published The Dark Flood Rises when she was 77. It is her 19th novel.

Penelope Lively wrote Moon Tiger when she was 54. She’s still publishing at the age of 83.

It’s not age, stoopid, it’s sex!

So it is not so much age that is a bar to getting published, especially if you have a distinguished career behind you. Gender is much more of a bar to getting books published, promoted and sold. Year on year the VIDA statistics reveal the failure of literary publications to review books by women, or to employ female reviewers. The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was begun to help draw attention to excellent books by women.

Thank you to my co-author Eileen for suggesting the topic of this post some time ago, while we were writing The New Age of Ageing.

Related posts

Women and Fiction, for more on this theme. (September 2015)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (December 2015)

There are reviews of 25 books in older women in fiction series on this blog.

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Inevitably, it’s the word ROMP that comes to mind when reading Orlando. For Virginia Woolf, the word was FUN, as she wrote in her diaries in 1928. She wanted fun, and she described the novel as ‘all a joke’. However, we should not believe everything she said in her diaries for she also said, in the same paragraph, that she thought she would never write another novel. I will admit that Orlando: a biography is not a novel that I especially enjoy, even on second reading. But it has many merits.

264 Orlandobackinengland

Famously Virginia Woolf had a romantic and sexual relationship with Vita Sackville West. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote,

The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her. (From Wikipedia)

The novel is dedicated to Vita. Certainly it reflects the joyousness and exuberance of their relationship.

The narrative

264 Orlando cover

It is a romp through English history from Elizabethan times until the final pages of the book: ‘Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight’. At the start of the novel Orlando is a gentleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth. By the end she is a married mother in comfortable circumstances in the reign of George V.

We follow Orlando through many adventures, of the heart, the pen, as Charles II’s ambassador to Turkey and as a gypsy, in the courts of successive monarchs, in the salons of the fashionable elite and mostly at home in the English countryside. Constant in his/her life is this country home and the oak tree from which can be seen most of England. And also constant is Orlando’s attempt to write a poem called The Old Oak Tree.

The style

Here is a passage from the opening chapter.

So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone,’ he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days perhaps thirty or forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky-line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountaneous among the clouds. (12-3)

The reference to ‘the record’ is an example of how Virginia Woolf draws attention to the act of writing. She refers to this, sometimes tongue in cheek as a historian with few documents, throughout the book.

It is also an example of the use of lists, elaborate, cumulative and increasingly stretching our belief. Orlando can see London, the coast, Snowdon and forty English counties all from his oak tree!

Her love of words is revealed in other lists, especially where they concern fabrics, and Orlando has many gorgeous costumes, both as a man and as a woman. And also in the names of the characters: Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine is her husband.

Within ten pages of the scene under the oak tree, the great frost descends upon England, and the River Thames is frozen over. The description of the scene on the Thames teems with life and people and reflects Virginia Woolf’s skills in observation. Her fondness for walking through the streets of London is well known.

You might also have noted the reference to waves, which often featured in her writing.

Gender in Orlando

You could hardly have your hero turn into a woman without some animadversions upon the differences in the experiences of men and women. Some of this was being worked on in Virginia Woolf’s mind as she prepared the lectures that would eventually become A Room of One’s Own which also questions the role of women in fiction, and how women who write fared.

It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry. (p103 A Room of One’s Own)

Orlando is independently wealthy and it is somewhat ironic that it was the sales of Orlando that allowed Virginia Woolf to spend money at last. In December 1928 she was reporting in her diary that Orlando was selling well and for the first time since she got married she was spending her own money. ‘My room is secure,’ she reports on 18th December 1928.

Virginia Woolf treats us to her wit and insights as Orlando makes the transition into a woman. She muses on what will be lost to her by becoming a woman. But it seems that neither sex come off well. We must ask with Orlando, why make so much of gender in social relations.

She reflects on these matters as she sails back to England from Turkey, and notices the crew’s response to showing ‘an inch or two of calf’.

‘And that’s the last oath I shall ever be able to swear,’ she thought; ‘once I set foot on English soil. And I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw my sword and run him through his body, or sit among my peers, or wear a coronet, or walk in procession, or sentence a man to death, or lead an army, or prance down Whitehall on a charger, or wear seventy-two different medals on my breast. All I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it. D’you take sugar? D’you take cream?’ And mincing out the words, she was horrified to perceive how low an opinion she was forming of the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong. ‘To fall from a masthead,’ she thought, ‘because you see a woman’s ankles; to dress up like a Guy Fawkes and parade the streets, so that women may praise you; to deny a woman teaching lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats, and yet go about as if you were the Lords of creation – Heavens!’ she thought, ‘what fools they make of is – what fools we are!’ And here is would seem that from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally as if she belonged to neither … (111-2)

Men of Letters

One group of people who come off badly in their meetings with Orlando are the men of letters. With pretensions to authorship the young Orlando invites Nicholas Greene to spend time at his country house. The experience is not a happy one. The poet lampoons his host. Later the 18th Century trio Addison, Pope and Dryden come in for some criticism. It seem that she can love their writing but on meeting them socially it transpires that they are not good company.

And …?

And what is one to make of all this. Well, I’m not sure, beyond the pleasure of the imagination at work. The extravagant and outrageous descriptions are a delight. I hope Virginia Woolf had fun writing it. But I prefer her other writings.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1928 by the Hogarth Press. I used the Penguin Classic version (1942, 231pp) in writing this post.

264 Peng Orlando

Related posts

This is my fourth contribution to #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog. Previous posts can be found through the links:

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf in January 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf in May

 

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