Posts filed under 'patriarchy'

Fascism and Fairy Tales: Ulrike Almut Sandig’s Grimm in Review

A significant project: to rethink the world within a time of political and economic crisis, wherein the female body is particularly precarious.

Grimm by Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated from the German by Karen Leeder, Hurst Street Press

“Is someone shaking the stories”, asks the narrator in the penultimate poem from Grimm, the new collection by the German poet and performance artist Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by the German scholar Karen Leeder and published by the Oxford-based Hurst Street Press. The collection’s slant retelling of the Grimm tales, considered integral to the German psyche, belies a significant project: to rethink the world within a time of political and economic crisis, wherein the female body is particularly precarious.

Myth, legend, and folklore provide frameworks to writers and readers across all languages and cultures within which they can understand and contextualise crises, serving also as survival strategies for everyday existence and persistence. Grimm focuses on concerns that are central, yet which are by no means exclusive, to Germany, including, the rise of the far-right, misogyny and patriarchy, and the refugee crisis. The collection’s success is that by presenting itself as a poetic cycle, and by its use of language, it suggests that all these phenomena are related. Moreover, if the Grimm tales represent the collective German imagination (indeed, according to the critic Jack Zipes, the Brothers Grimm collected their tales in order to uncover the linguistic “truths” that formed the German people), Sandig reveals its violent, misogynistic, and patriarchal dark side, connecting the tales to the fascism, patriarchy, and racism of the German present and past. If, as Leeder notes, the collection directs a “rage” at this collective consciousness and the injustices it undergirds (‘Grimm’ also means ‘rage’), this rage is inscribed within the broken language of the women to whom Sandig’s retellings give voice.

We can see this at work in the poem “Fitcher’s Bird”, taken from the tale of the same name where a young girl is kidnapped by a man who wants to marry her against her will. During her confinement, the girl discovers the mutilated bodies of her sisters who had previously disappeared from the village. She brings them back to life, escapes disguised as a bird, and then musters the village to exact vengeance on her kidnapper. In the poem, the girl is multiply alienated from herself. Not only does her confinement alienate her from her body and the outside world, so does her disguise as her friends no longer recognise her: “I am an odd/ bird, nobody/ knows me, I/ scarcely know/ myself.” Crucially, this alienation is rendered linguistically. Her imprisonment and her kidnapper’s mutilation of her sisters confine her voice in short, staccato lines, of which the protagonist is well aware: “a globe is/ stuck in my throat/ that I can’t get down […] the beautiful bodies/ of my sisters are/ piled inside.” At the poem’s end, the girl resolves to “make/ all those anew, all those/ who were butchered overnight”, intimating how Grimm in its entirety interrogates the conservative, sexist didacticism inherent in the Grimm tales by exclusively representing female characters that resist patriarchy and sexism.

The collection’s opening poem, ‘Grimm’, connects the girl’s linguistic crisis with a political crisis. Two characters write messages on eggs which smash due to the urgency of their communication, their need to express their concerns. Then, most unnervingly, they “raised [their] sticky arms/ in salute and waved in greeting. then/ lowered [their] heads to a well-nigh limitless/ supply of fragments and rage most grim.” Their rage at the status quo, their political impotence, has broken their language, their selves, and their world-view. In the poem, the girls’ rage, their inability to express their needs or have their voices democratically represented has been misdirected to support the far-right, half-concealed here in the Nazi salute. All they are left within this tragedy are the broken eggshells of their words and a right-wing anger that, thanks to Leeder’s wordplay, is ‘grim’: both evil and implicated within the German cultural consciousness synecdochically represented by the Grimm tales.

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Sex, Drugs, and Identity :Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things in Review

This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine.

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, The Feminist Press, 2018. 

Anglophone fans of Virginie Despentes are celebrating the release of Pretty Things, the fourth of her novels to be published by The Feminist Press, but the first translated from the French by Emma Ramadan. Ramadan, a long-time fan of Despentes, says in an interview we conducted with her this summer, that she accessed her raw vernacular parlance by speaking sentences out loud, watching French soap operas, and simply being a young, ambitious 20-something-year-old woman (much like many Despentes protagonists). It worked. This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine. Where public and private, self and sister, butt heads. It’s a novel of desire and fear, love and insecurity, a woman trying not to allow other people’s expectations to mire her in the muck of society’s ugliest pathologies.

Pauline and Claudine are twins. They’re identical, but there’s no way to mistake one for the other. They have the type of beauty that’s fashionable at the moment, and Claudine learned as soon as she hit puberty to harness her beauty’s enormous power through her own objectification. Pauline finds it disgusting, this shallow game of power and submission, and makes a surly public display of her dissent. They don’t get along. Claudine, having recently moved to Paris to try to make it big, ropes Pauline into making a record with her. Pauline’s voice and Claudine’s personality are meant to equal one perfect pop star. The night of their first concert, while Pauline is on stage, Claudine jumps out her apartment window. Pauline, arriving at the scene after an evening of impersonating her sister, simply continues to do so, thus committing her own sort of suicide. Both sort of dead and in one living body, they start to suture the split that occurred between them in the womb.

While Pauline started with a plan to be half a woman, she spends the rest of the novel integrating two halves into a stronger whole. “Equilibrium needs to be restored. It was constructed opposite her sister, a force exerted on another. She has a clear image in her mind: two little women in a bubble, each pushing with her forehead against the other’s. If one of the two little women is removed, the other immediately topples over, falls into the other’s domain.” She learns to convincingly pass as Claudine. For two weeks, with the help of their friend and manager Nicolas, she locks herself in the apartment and learns to apply makeup, shave her legs, and walk in heels. When she finally emerges, she’s shocked to realize not only how people treated her sister, but also what it feels like to be treated that way. Simply presenting herself differently makes her vulnerable to scrutiny, jealousy, greed, and desire. She can empathize with Claudine for the first time—the whiff of sexual power also tempts her to sacrifice things like genuine human connection and self-respect, even as loneliness and self-disgust take their place. She doesn’t exactly miss her sister, but perhaps instead mourns a life spent too isolated to truly know except by inhabiting it.

The text yields dramatically different readings if one considers Pauline and Claudine to be more one or more two; autonomous individuals influenced by their relationship to each other, or solely a set of relations to each other—neither character whole unto herself. And yet both readings are not just valid, the ambiguity is crucial. On one hand, if both sisters are fully realized individuals, Pauline’s nonconformity is the stronger, more successful choice. It indicates her inherent intelligence and builds in her the strength to withstand the same conditions that wore away at Claudine until she jumped out her window. Claudine ends up dead and Pauline ends up… well, I won’t spoil the ending. But just as the music industry feels entitled to her body, she feels entitled to their money. On the other hand, Pauline and Claudine are the thesis and antithesis of a dialectical concerning femininity in society. Two sides of one coin. In this scenario, Pauline killed a part of herself the same night that Claudine did—and kept a part of both of them alive. By the end of the novel she represents the resolution of the two not into some transcendent, separate, enlightened woman, but a sort of balance of the two pre-existing options. There is no right way for a woman to behave in the face of social expectations, but each mini personal revolution yields a bit of progress. The reader is left with simultaneous, contradictory truths.

Even the text’s imagery is ambiguous on the extent to which they are one or two. For example, the novel describes the gender dynamic between the girls’ parents. Their father is aggressive and self-centered. Their mother exists only as an auxiliary appendage. Until their mother gets a job that she’s good at and begins to gain confidence and independence. The twins were conceived in response to his fury: “From that day on, he started fucking her like he was nailing something into the ground, all the way inside so she would get a fat stomach and stay put.” Two twins from one “nail.” But then, while their mother is pregnant, the parents argue about names. They decide to each choose one. “And so it was done, her stomach ripped in two.” Separate. We don’t learn much more on the topic until Pauline begins to take over Claudine’s life. In some ways she seems truly alien, trying to comprehend a way of being entirely foreign. For example, during a phone conversation with one Claudine’s lover/colleagues:

“She [Pauline] listens to him a little distantly, makes little agreeable sounds, trying to get it through her skull that he’s talking to a girl [Claudine] that he watches on all fours, and filmed from behind doing things like pretending to be a cat, whenever he wants.”

But when her guard is down, she’s simply existing, their mutual friend observes, “Familiar silhouette, he likes to watch it move. Intact shreds of a lost being, obsolete traces that he finds bewitching.”

Two of the novel’s male figures in particular further nuance the portrait of gender dynamics at the heart of this novel. The twins’ father pits them against each other from childhood, ensuring their dependence on his affection by bestowing it upon only one of them at a time—and subjecting the other to repulsive cruelty. During a flashback, Pauline watches their father beat Claudine. Afterward, she reaches out:

“When he hits you I swear I feel it too.” Claudine stood up, turned to face her, grabbed her by the hair. Pauline didn’t scream so that her parents wouldn’t come. Claudine dragged her down onto the bed. “You’re sure you feel it?”  . . .  To really hurt her, she had taken the pillow and held it down against her sister’s face with both hands. To be absolutely sure she heard, she started to scream, “That’s weird because, when he kisses you, I feel nothing.”

The violence of a man ensures enmity between two women who (as young Pauline demonstrates) could instead have loved and supported each other. The second is Pauline’s boyfriend Sébastien, the only man to ever choose her over Claudine. They’ve built a loving, trusting relationship exactly on her refusal to look and act “feminine.” But a series of events calls into question the extent to which opposing the status quo really separates them from it. Having witnessed her transformation, he leaves her with these words:

“You never treated me disrespectfully, you never demeaned yourself. I was proud of you, as soon as I saw some bitch on the street I thought of you, I was so fucking proud. But now, look at yourself, look at how you’re dressed, look at how you walk… And who’s boning you, over there? Is it a bunch of guys? . . . Is it good, do they screw you how you like? I respect you too much, you don’t respect yourself at all anymore.”

We discover that his love and respect for her was never unconditional, but was just as possessive and ugly as her father’s and just as informed by social expectation as any other man’s.

The characters in the novel are both vivid and allegorical (as perhaps are people). In this way, the post-mortem reconciliation of the sisters demonstrates, however imperfectly, a way out of the dialectical thesis/antithesis model of femininity. The status quo and what’s against the status quo validate and perpetuate each other. Just as a woman degrading herself for a man gives her power over him. But discovering empathy for her sister at least gives Pauline enough distance to learn to use the system for her own benefit, rather than letting it destroy her. It’s far from a utopic path, but I suppose this is the same world in which little girls defend themselves from abusive fathers by crossing their frail little arms over their heads. It was never going to be perfect.

Lindsay Semel is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.

*****

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Rape à la Polonaise, or Whose Side Are You on, Maria?

"A hundred thousand furious women wearing black, armed with symbolic umbrellas. One hundred thousand women, undeterred by pouring rain."

A year ago in 2016, thousands of Polish women went on strike from work, dressed in all black and marched on the streets waving black flags and umbrellas to protest a proposal that would make abortion completely inaccessible to them. While they succeeded, Poland still has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. On the anniversary of the Black Protests this Tuesday, on Oct 3, 2017, Polish women marched again to demand greater reproductive freedom. Feminist writer and columnist Grażyna Plebanek recaps for Asymptote the year of struggle for Polish women’s rights and the role of literature in the protests. —Julia Sherwood

A year ago we women went out into the streets together—young and old, teenagers, mothers, grandmothers. Women from all walks of life. Women from small towns and big cities, educated and uneducated. When I first canvassed women in a Polish shop in Brussels to take part in the Black March last October, I was worried that the shop assistants and shoppers might respond in the time-honoured way: “I’m not interested in politics” or “I’ll leave it to the politicians.” Or the excuse that’s really hard to argue with: “I’ve got enough on my plate already.”

As it turned out, this is an issue that concerns us all: the issue of our freedom and dignity. In October 2016, every one of us in that shop—customers and shop assistants—poured out our grief over what “they” were planning to do to us, by introducing a near-total ban on abortion, making what is already one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe even stricter. The following day we marched shoulder to shoulder, united by a real threat—that of being robbed of the basic right over our own bodies. We were being dragged back to the status of women during the Napoleonic times. We would no longer be equal to men and have our lives directed by others, as if we were children.

We went out into the streets in Poland, in Brussels, Berlin, London, Stockholm, New York, and many other cities across the world. In Poland one hundred thousand women joined the protest. A hundred thousand furious women wearing black, armed with symbolic umbrellas. One hundred thousand women, undeterred by pouring rain.

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Sea of umbrellas. Warsaw, 3 October 2016. Photo © Tytus Duchnowski

The protests worked but in late August, almost a year later, Polish women once again went out into the streets of Łódź. Again, we wore black. However, this was a smaller and quieter march, an expression of grief. We were grieving for a young woman held captive for ten days by two men who had tortured and raped her. She ran away but later died in hospital. Her injuries were so severe that the doctors couldn’t save her.

What has happened in Poland between the two black marches—between the protests of 2016 and the funeral procession of 2017? READ MORE…

Huda al-Attas: A Writer Who Speaks for the Women of Yemen

In her stories, Al-Attas documents Arab women’s lives in general and Yemeni women’s lives in particular.

This essay is the first of a series of three which will highlight three women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who never before have been translated into English. The series was catalyzed by Asymptote’s call this past winter for a Special Feature for the Spring Issue dedicated to literature from the countries covered by Trump’s travel ban on certain predominantly Muslim countries. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they tend to face greater hardships in getting published, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Yemeni writer and journalist Huda al-Attas, born in 1971, is a pioneer of women’s short-story writing in Yemen and other Arab countries. Al-Attas has been writing for more than two decades. She was born in Hudarmut, in southern Yemen, and was raised in Aden with her brothers by her mother. Her family members are her biggest fans and greatest supporters. As a journalist, she is a regular Yemeni newspaper columnist. Her short stories have been published in Yemen and all over the Arab world.

Al-Attas has a broad fan base, consisting of not only conservative middle-aged literary readers but also a new generation of young, liberal readers. Contrary to stereotypes about the Arab world, Yemeni culture has been hospitable to writers, male and female alike. Interestingly, Al-Attas’s Yemeni audience can be divided into two parts: a liberal, secular audience that desires progressive change and a conservative audience that does not believe in women’s rights and even goes so far as to believe that a woman could not be the author of such daring work.

Well regarded by writers around the Arab world, Al-Attas is known as a liberal advocate of human rights and equality between people. She was well known before the Arab Spring as a bold writer who shed light on religious, social, sexual, and political taboos in a conservative society that shackles both men’s and women’s rights and prevent progress. Her personal bearing is as daring as her literary work: for example, pictures of her not wearing a scarf (a breaking of taboo in her culture) appear frequently in newspapers. She has received awards from many different Arab countries, such as Yemen and UAE. Her collections of short stories include Obsessed Spirit…Obsessed Body (hājisrūḥwahājisjasad, 1995), Because She (li’annaha, 2001), and Lightning Training to Be Light (bariqyatadarrabalada’, 2003). Her work has been translated into many languages. Topics that she addresses include incest, patriarchal ownership of women’s bodies, child brides, child begging, child labor, and khat addiction, to name a few. She explores these topics through innovative literary techniques that are as liberating as her subject matter.

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Calling All Translators of Indian Literature

Asymptote celebrates the diversity and dissent within Indian writing

Only two weeks left to submit to Asymptote’s first-ever Special Feature on Contemporary Indian Language Literature in English Translation!

Since we first announced the Feature in August, we have received some very exciting work from all across the Indian map. And we can’t wait to find more voices, because in a country so large, we know there are more out there.

Take advantage of these last two weeks to revise your best translations and send them in!

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Theatres of Conflict: A Conversation with Susannah Tresilian of Project ARIADNE

"Because we all learn from role models, and these are women who are worth following and learning from and who are eager to pass that on."

Project ARIADNE is a revolutionary global arts movement promoting woman-led theatre in current and former zones of conflict. Their mission is to provide a stage to women across the world making theatre either because of the wars they have lived through, or in spite of them.

Susannah Tresilian is a founding member of the project and its current Artistic Director, collaborating with theatre-makers around the world, including Hope Azeda (Rwanda), Dijana Milosevic (Serbia), Frédérique Lecomte (Burundi), Iman Aoun (Palestine), Patricia Ariza (Colombia) and Ruwanthie de Chickera (Sri Lanka).

Her corpus of work focuses predominantly on the promotion of gender equity within international theatre. Recently, her work has seen her collaborating with the Belarus Free Theatre in London and Minsk on Soul Power: The Opera. The Belarus Free Theatre is an underground theatre troupe banned in their home country by the presiding Lukashenko regime, often described as the last dictatorship in Europe. The artistic directors of the group are currently in political exile in London, and are residents of the Young Vic Theatre. The Arts Council offers a bursary for actors and theatre-makers to travel to Minsk and work with the troupe in lieu of their exiled members. Tresillian is covertly working with them, enabling other actors and theatre-makers such as Jude Law, Michael Attenborough, and Sam West to make the journey.

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