Friday, 6 February 2015

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This was not the book I requested for Christmas. I'd asked for Thomas King's The Back of the Turtle, and was very much looking forward to delving into his fiction for the first time. Instead, one of my sisters intercepted the Christmas book list and substituted this. (In my family, in theory, we've supposedly stopped doing gifts in favour of stocking stuffers and a book each. In practice, this has looked pretty much like every former Christmas with piles of gifts, just more confusion about whether or not we're breaking the "rules," and who is the worst offender. It's my mother. If you're wondering.)

That makes me sound a little cranky about this. I'm not, really. I will get to the Thomas King book eventually, and in the meantime, Sarah knows my tastes pretty well, and reads as fast and as much as I do. (When she was unemployed for a bit right after she moved out of the country, she was reading far more, if you can believe it!) So I was more than willing to give it a crack, and as I might have predicted, she was right that this was something I'd enjoy.

This is a collection of essays by Roxane Gay, whom I mostly know of through twitter posts, and, I believe, the new The Toast spin-off site, The Butter? Let me check...yup! She also published a novel this year that is burning up the many Best of 2014 lists which I am totally not collating to come up with a master list of books I should read. Totally not.

No, you look shifty!

But to this book, the nonfiction of her two works to come out this last year, and which is almost as popular on those self-same Best of 2014 lists which I am not being obsessive about.

I enjoyed it. But I am having trouble coming up with something coherent to say about the book as a whole, hence the many paragraphs of dithering you just waded through to get to the point where we are right now.

So let's just scattershot it. The three essays that give birth to the title of the book are great, about the necessity of feminism, and the impossibility of living up to the expectations of our own feminism and the expectations of others all the time. Of enjoying things you know that probably, technically, theoretically, shouldn't. Of being fucking bad at this but doing it anyway because what other choice is there, really? Accepting imperfection, but not backing down from being a feminist. Making peace with contradictions.

Speaking of that, her piece on the Sweet Valley High books is great. I read them too, although I didn't attach nearly the importance to them that Gay did. I think I was more into the Babysitter's Club. And the Narnia books. And Anne McCaffrey. But it's a great look at them from the perspective of nostalgia and affection without being uncritical. This is where life is sloppy, when you like things you know you shouldn't, and yet, you do. You can't be ideologically pure all the time, but still, that also doesn't mean a reflexive defensive reaction is the right one either.

Let's see, other stand-outs? Her delve into the world of competitive Scrabble made me laugh out loud a few times. The essay on being a newly minted tenure track professor made me want weep and be insanely jealous at the same time, because I'm at that spot where I'm so close to being done my own Ph.D., and what she's describing sounds so incredibly difficult, and yet also so much what I want, and it hurts because I know that with the academic job market being what it is these days, and the student debt I carry around now so huge, whether or not I'll get a job in my field is a huge question mark.

The essay on trigger warnings is so good, and so complex, and embraces those shades of grey that so much of internet discourse seems to want to pretend don't exist. And for the rest, most of the essays are very good, some are not as great, but on the whole, this is an excellent paean to being imperfect but not uncritical. I look forward to trying her novel at some point.

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