Tags: rants


Mostly about maths teaching: a rant

Radio 4 is talking in a very interesting way about maths and maths teaching and it's making me think about how I was taught.
Which was badly. What I learnt early on was that maths was scary and hard, that girls in particular were never going to be good at it and that mistakes were something to be ashamed off, because they were badges of inadequacy. Boys, on the other hand, were naturally good at it, and this was a sign of how much better and more important they were. This gendering has stayed with me lifelong -- as an undergraduate, I was regularly patronised and shamed by male friends because I was 'only' studying an arts subject which they assumed was easy. (I should, in retrospect, have handed them a chunk of Old Irish and said 'Fine, it's easy: so translate this.') This putting down and patronising of me because I'm neither a mathematician nor a scientist has continued throughout my adult life. About 4 years ago a man told me he'd decided he did respect me after all, because a 3rd party had convinced him that history is a science (sort of) after all.
I was silenced. I could not think of a single thing to say that wasn't, essentially, 'wtf?'
It's okay, even now, to put women down in public because they aren't brilliant with numbers. Girls see this happen to their mothers, teachers, friends all the time.
I had one year of good maths teaching in my entire school career and that year I got the top marks of any student in that year. I speak 3 languages (and have some ability in 2 others) and I can work with sources in a further 6. We grow up and are educated in an environment that is toxic for women. Our culture continues to handicap, discourage and bully women and girls when it comes to maths and science education.
This R4 programme suggests there are people out there who are working hard to redress this. That's great. I'd love to go and learn maths alongside this cohort of junior-age children, because it sounds like they are being taught to learn by positive reinforcement, not by the use of shame, fear and gendered expectations.
So, if you find yourself on the edge of putting someone down about their mathematical ability, especially if that person is someone who was disadvantaged by gender, race or ableism at school, I have a suggestion for you: don't. Bite your tongue. And then ask yourself what assumptions you've internalised about others.

Skirt of the day: short blue bird print.

My new computer: a rantette

Oh, look, February. How did that happen? I seem to have spent much of January travelling and doing laundry (and sitting under cats). I hope all is as well as possible with everyone out there in LJ land. I, alas (oh, woes!) have a cold and no concentration *and* a new keyboard all at once, none of which are good for my typing skills.
Oh, and a new computer.
I really hate Windows 8. And Word 2010. (Please don't tell me to get a Mac. We have to be compatible with various other systems and those run on Windows.) I have a rant about it, and everything, but the gist is that a) my PC is not a phone b) my PC is my work tool and I object to having my work treated as a marketing opportunity. I object very strongly, in fact: the pre-installed shortcuts and sneaked-in adverts are, in my view, not only inappropriate but unethical and say something very disturbing about the attitude of their producers to the end users. (No, Mr Rich Business Owner, I am not your resource when I'm working. I am not here to be lured or cajoled or browbeaten into buying something. The fact that you think I am those things does not entertain me. It doesn't amuse me. It makes me angry. Treat me with respect or lose my custom: you don't own me and when I'm working I'm not interesting in shopping.
I don't want buttons to touch or press with a mouse wave. I'm not on my phone or my tablet -- I don't have a tablet, I probably don't want a tablet, I am here to *write*, which means hours at the computer. Virtual keypads are small, portable keyboards are small. They aren't raked or curved enough to protect my wrists and shoulders from more damage. I repeat, I am here mainly to work and your innovations are making that harder.
(And this new keyboard? |Too narrow, and insufficiently raked. But it was the least worst in the shop. Because what matters is style, apparently, not usability. Not impressed by that, either, oh sellers of computers (and makers of keyboards that are readily available. When my keyboard breaks -- and the old one just did -- I want a replacement without having to hunt on the internet and wait days or weeks. This is, I repeat, to do with my work.
I really don't want a touch screen monitor. This is a work machine, not a games console. And I have cats. Cursor patting cats. Moon sends enough emails and adds enough letters to my writing, thank you, without being helped to send me to random sites, to load programmes I don't want to use, or heaven knows what else.
I don't want to ahve to bother the marquis to get at the programmes I actually want to use, because they've been tucked away behind the adverts and the flashy stuff I don't in fact use. I don't want to have to spend three hours finding out how to turn the sound back on because you've introduced a new layer of boxes to check that weren't there before and aren't documented in the help material.
And then there's Word 2010. I don't need more ferocious templates and styles, thank you. I am, in fact, quite smart enough to lay out documents for myself. I don't want to have to change screen view to save or to find the symbol menu and I particularly don't want to spend three hours hunting about trying to find out how to double space things, because it requires a group on the toolbar in a particular screen which is, in fact, not there, and the help does not explain how to find and install that said group. I've put up with years of unwanted interference and assumptions written into Word by its designers (Techno-tip, oh designers, your end users are in fact not stupid and don't need to have things done for them. Mostly, they know what they're doing at their various jobs far better than you do. The arrogance and assumptions that underpin the ever-increasing bossiness and prescriptiveness of Word speak loudly of its designers contempt for their users -- for the 'secretaries' and so forth who are deemed to be stupid, inflexible, incompetent and in need of having their jobs done for them. Sexism on screen (and yes, I know many many non-secretaries use Word. But most of its worst bossiness is around the sorts of jobs people who are not and never have been secretaries think secretaries do -- which is not the same as what secretaries actually do, and tells me a lot of negative things about the designers). Word -- any word processor -- needs to be a *tool*, not a master or a tutor and designing it to jump to conclusions and to enforce things the user might not, in fact, want (thus wasting said users time undoing the things Word has done) is the opposite of helpful. It tells me you think I'm stupid, that I need to be shown how to do my job, that I can't make my own decisions. Offer me options, yes, but let me decide that I want to use them, don't impose them and make me turn them off.
I've worked with Word for 20 years. I've had enough. I'm buying Scrivener, as soon as I can find a source for it in the UK (if anyone can recommend one, I'd be grateful).
And then I'm going to spend time I don't want to spend hunting about online for a better, wider keyboard with more rake and hoping I can tell if it's going to work for me from a photo, not, y'know, from getting to touch it and try it out, because, oh noes, space in shop! Not high enough sell-through!
Colour me unamused. And sneezing.

Skirt of the day: long blue cotton print.

On duty, censorship, fantasy and madness.

So two things I read last week have set me thinking. The first was this post on principles by Nancy Jane Moore at the Bookview Cafe website. The second was a question posed on twitter by kateelliott on twitter. Two proposals, two remarks -- 'the first thing a principle does is kill someone' 'do you self-censor and why/' -- that spoke straight to my core, to that part of me that sits back and tries to drive. To, if you like, my madness, and the ways in which I work with, through, around the world.

I've talked before about rules and how they accrete in my head. I am trained to accept rules, to be mindful of them, to be, I suppose, law-abiding. I'm trained to be, as the tag sometimes notes, a Professional Good Girl. Professional Good Girls keep to the rules and remember all the things their friends and relations and acquaintances don't like, don't want, don't approve of. Professional Good Girls end up with a head full of voices telling them about all the things they are not allowed to do. Don't say X or do Y, because person P hates that. Don't think Q or wear R, because person S doesn't like them. Don't think the mean things, even in the space inside your head, because Good Girls don't. Good Girls sit still and accept the blame, the pain, the anger, because Other People matter more than they do.

It's not an easy space, being so Professionally Good. And that's just the bit about what I'm allowed to do and say and think.

Then, there's Other People. Other People have more rights than me. Other People are more important. Other People must be pandered to, served, obeyed, deferred to. It gets, frankly, tedious. Especially when all this Goodness and deferring runs up against a principle.

You see, I believe in principles. Principles matter. Principles are the flood defences, the storm shelters, the shields that hold back cruelty and injustice and unfairness. Principles stand between us and the madness of pure, unbridled self-interest. In my head, anyway. Principles matter to me, because they are at the foundation of who I am, of what I believe. I may be, as my friend M once said, the last old-fashioned socialist in captivity, but that's fine with me. I'm proud of my principles. It matters to me, to stand by them.

I don't want to bore you explaining what my particular principles are. That's another post. But the thing that caught my attention, between Nancy Jane Moore's blog post and Kate Elliott's question was this: what happens when the rules and the principles collide.

The answer is fairly simple. I get into hot water. Any time I have my throat exposed in public, any time I post one of my rants or long commentaries, you can be pretty sure that a rule and a principle have met. The last time I really got into an on-line mess? That started because I felt that a third party had been harmed, and should be defended. That's one of the principles, you see. I cannot stand by and let someone else be bullied, harmed or undermined. However much I hate conflict -- and I do -- I am not allowed to look away, because someone has to do something, and I can't be sure that anyone else would. Because Good Girls help. This particular behaviour -- which is a rule and a principle (It Is My Duty To Help, combined with Bullying shouldn't be condoned) has been getting me into trouble my whole life. But I can't unlearn it. In my head, that need -- that duty -- to stand up for others is bigger than any inconvenience or pain it may cause me, however much it may frighten me. In my head, it's never right to put my self-interest or comfort ahead of the need of others who are less privileged than me, who are being belittled or dismissed, who are being treated unjustly. I may, alas, be the stuff of which martyrs are made. It is my duty -- and my sense of duty is harsh and strong and unrelenting -- to speak out, to act, to Do Something, because somebody has to, but the only person I can be sure will is myself. It doesn't make me nice to know, sometimes. It certainly doesn't make me comfortable, to myself or others. There's a piece of me that empathises on some level with that cold, principled, unkind man Robespierre, who on a number of occasions chose what he considered the common good over his own wishes and desires. (I don't agree with his policies. But, pace Simon Schama, he wasn't a monster, only a man driven to his extremes by his harsh, unforgiving principles. Saint-Just may have been a monster.) Principles can be hard, and cold and even cruel. But they matter, because without them, the tentacles of selfishness grow too strong.

This attitude of mine is, frankly, somewhat annoying. It drove my teachers mad 'don't get involved'. It used to drive my colleagues mad, because I would insist on asking the questions that the powers that be did not want asked. It drives the marquis mad, because I get myself into messes and arguments. It drives me mad. I am harsh on myself, and, sometimes, judgemental of others. I am bound up with ideas of duty that drive me bonkers. But I can't not do it.

And yet, I self-censor. I think most people do, in one way or another. There are lots of reasons. Other people's privacy, for instance. It's not up to me to decide what to say, what to reveal, sometimes, when others are involved. Rules -- those noisy things that infest my head. There are things I don't say, because I know it will upset or annoy or distress others. There are a handful of things I don't say because I don't want to deal with the consequences. There are things I don't write about because I feel they are better expressed face-to-face. And there are lots of things about which I don't think the world really needs my opinion, where I don't know enough. None of this means I don't care about those things. But I have chosen not to join in.

And then there are the ones that make me angry. The places I self-censor because of the Rules. The places I am silent because I've been taught that I Am Not Allowed. Don't say X, Kari: Y won't like it. Here's a list of things I self-censor not out of principle, not for any of the reasons above, not even entirely out of fear, but because someone else's voice is too loud in my head.

American exceptionalism
Gun control
The Labour plan for I.D cards in the UK
Scottish Independence
Julian Assange
Private education (in certain circumstances)
My own blasted country and its history
Why I really, really don't enjoy sunshine and heat

In a sense, none of this matters. Except... One of my principles is that I should not silence others. Silencing someone, particularly someone who has less power, or less privilege, is never good. Free speech -- if you believe in that (and I only do up to a point, because I live in the UK which has different rules on hate speech to those of the US, say) -- must be granted to all participants in a discussion, not just those with the loudest voices or the biggest sticks. Any statement that begins 'Your opinion doesn't matter because...' is a warning sign. It's an attempt to control, to dominate, to insist on a single story. Other people may well be right or they may well be wrong, but they should be listened to with respect.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to fantasy -- and to sf, for that matter. Principles are out of fashion right now. Since the 80s, at the latest, we have lived, in the west, in the realm of the Individual. It's all about Us. Heroes are mavericks, doing it Their Way. Other people have to get on board or be run over.

I'm generalising, of course I am, but a lot of current sff is about personal success, personal goals, personal achievement. Even when this is set against a background that refers to improving conditions for others, the latter is very much a sideline, an also ran. The focus is on the hero and how -- while saving The Suffering -- he or she achieves personal gratification and happiness. There are very few heroes who walk away from their own interest for the sake of others. Sacrifice is as unfashionable as principles. You have to go back a way to find examples. Galadriel rejecting the one ring, and accepting that she must dwindle. Gandalf holding back the Balrog. Michael de Sandoval of Dorsai and his companions, holding the castle against high odds. The pilot who stays on board the dying spaceship to let others escape. These days, there always seems to be a get-out, a back door via which the hero escapes at the last minute to enjoy the glory. A happy ending, yes, but it's a cheat. Principles are not easy. Duty is not easy. And when we don't show that, when we cheat, we undermine them, we reduce them to toys and poses. We undermine their value and their importance. And we reduce those acts, those choices made by the characters to just high-jinks and flash. The story becomes all about the hero. The poor who are always better off under the stable-boy king become no more than window dressing, because they don't really matter to the plot. They are just there to make the hero look good. In a sense, such fantasy is dangerous, because it makes change look easy and cheap, and it seldom questions the idea that what really matters is the individual getting what they want. This kind of narrative silences the underprivileged, the poor, because it reduces them to tokens, subordinate to the personal success of the chosen few. They have no agency. They are a voiceless mass, awaiting rescue, and nothing more. That, frankly, is a pretty patronising approach. And this story -- Wam the trainee pilot saves the galaxy and becomes admiral -- is a lie. It's never that simple. History shows us that, over and over.

In the real world, self-interest and the interests of others will conflict, probably on a daily basis. Uncontrolled, unchecked, it leads to exploitation, deprivation, huge social inequity and the Conservative Party (also the US Republican party) (Yes, my personal political prejudices are showing). Greed is not good.

There's a reason why Yvelliane makes the choices she does in Living With Ghosts. A number of readers didn't like those choices much. They wanted her to live happily ever after. In the very first draft of that book (which was hugely different to the final version) she did. And everyone got ice cream and kittens. (Or, all right, that's not the case.) It was a rotten draft and a rotten ending. I was lying to myself, offering fluff and nonsense. Power comes with responsibility, and responsibility should -- must -- be shouldered. It's a matter of that cold thing, principle.

And it matters. It should matter in our genre, because books have power. Books effect those who read them, though seldom in the ways the authors expect or intend. When we omit people or belittle their experience, we harm them. When we imply that following our own self-interest is all that matters, we contribute to a culture that grows ever more selfish and unkind and unfair. PRinciples may be out-of-fashion, but they have a lot to offer us.

And there are authors now who still speak of them, write of them, write with them. Patricia Bray, pbray, whose heroes do what they must, what is right, in the teeth of their own wishes and needs. kateelliott, who writes about the effects of war and wealth on ordinary people. Ken MacLeod. Walter Jon Williams. Aliette de Bodard, aliettedb. Lois MacMaster Bujold, sometimes. The comforting ending, the personally advantageous decision are all too often not the best. The stable-boy king or space admiral is not really a hero, if it's All About Him. Because the world is always bigger than us, bigger than the hero. And that should be remembered.
Edited to add: Ursula K LeGuin has written about principles today, much more insightfully than me: http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2012/10/08/restraint/
Skirt of the day: denim.
Goth marquise

Rape in fiction: a rant

So I'm supposed to be fixing typos in Death and the Madwoman and I have No Time and, and, and...
But I am sick unto death of this notion that, in order to be 'helpful' or proper or decent or supportive to women, SFF Must Not Mention Rape.
Go and read it.
Okay? Read it?
I am mad as fire. Here's why
I understand where this idea comes from, I really do. There are far too many books out there where a rape is used lazily, slightly, harmfully, as a way of indicating villainy. There are far too many which use rape as a back-story, to explain and justify why a female character is strong or vengeful. Women, in our culture, aren't supposed to be tough or violent, there has to be a *reason*. Strong women are unnatural, odd, wrong, and thus we justify. And rape is an easy shorthand.
Let's be clear. Rape used this way: as a plot device, to excuse or prop up bad writing, lazy writing, poor characterisation, pandering to cultural discomfort -- is damaging and inappropriate. It's playing into rape culture, it dehumanises and exploits.
Let's be very clear. There is more than one way of writing about rape. And rape, however much we don't like it, is part of our daily cultural experience. It's real, it affects real people, men, women and children. It matters.
Calls for rape to be banished from fiction are no help whatsoever. When we remove rape from our writing, we silence women. When we say 'writing about this isn't helpful', we tell women that their experience must not be spoken off, must not be shared, must not be made public, must be discussed. When we banish rape from fiction, we banish female reality. When we banish rape from fiction, we silence women, tell them that what has happened, might happen to them is too shocking to mention, too shameful, too dirty and bad and wrong.
We uphold patriarchy. We uphold doctrines of shaming and blaming. We uphold male right to dominate public discourse. We uphold the status quo.
Rape must be talked about and written about. It must be discussed and debated and depicted. Women, in particular, must be allowed to write about what rape means, what it does, how it affects us, changes us, trammels and traps and frightens as shames us. Women must be allowed to write about rape, because rape is real.
Sometimes, what we write about rape makes uncomfortable reading. kateelliott's King's Dragon is a case in point. It's very hard to read about how a rape can reshape a woman's life. And that is what kateelliott does in that book. She puts the reader in that space and makes them think it through. She makes us live it. The rape is not an excuse or a justification, used to explain female 'abnormality'. It's about real experience.
We don't want to think about it, we don't want it to be true. And yet is *is* true, it does happen, globally, to millions. The easy option -- the option that makes us feel comfortable -- is to label things that make us uncomfortable as wrong and to forbid them.
There are different ways to write about rape. And, as I said above, using rape lazily, in place of thought and care and decent characterisation, is damaging and trivialising and unhelpful. But writing about rape with thought, with care, with attention to the very real experiences of very real women and men is the opposite.
Writing mindfully about rape is essential. If we don't write, we deny it altogether, we collude in rape culture, which undermines and denies female experience daily, which silences women daily, which props up, fosters and supports those who rape daily.
I don't care if reading about rape makes some people, male and female uncomfortable, when it's done well. It should do that. That's the point. Such writing is there to make us aware, to make us think, to make us confront the nasty areas of our culture, ourselves.
And, you know, when I see a man recommending that rape be banished from fiction, I don't see an ally, though I know he probably means to be such. I don't see someone who wants to help me. I see someone who doesn't want to be made uncomfortable and who has found what looks like a fix based on his lack of knowledge and experience. I see someone who wants women to make him feel safe. I see someone telling women what to write, what to think, what to feel.
I see yet another attempt to silence me, to silence my female friends and relative, to silence women on this subject which affects every single one of us, everyday.
I want to live in a world where my sever-year-old niece never, ever in her life has to say what I have heard myself say over and over: "I'm lucky. I've never been raped." It should not be a question of luck. It should be basic, it should be assumed. Rape should be unthinkable.
It isn't. It's everywhere.
And when we banish it from our books, we help keep it there.

ETA: Ian and I have discussed this elsewhere, and he has made it clear that he didn't intend to be silencing, and that he was not trying to lay down rules. Rather, he was targeting unthinking writing, that reaches for the easy option without contextualising or care or respect. And he's right to do that. I'd like to thank him for his patience with my short fuse.

The "Best People": a rant

So, there's a phrase I keep hearing lately -- 'the best people'. It nearly always crops up in circumstances in which someone is defending the status quo. "We have to pay huge salaries or we won't attract the best people"; "We have to do it the way we're always done it or we'll miss out on the best people"; "If we give support to that group, we risk not supporting the best people" and so on.
The assumption underlying all of these statements is that the speaker -- usually a highly privileged man, let's be honest -- knows who these "best people" are, and others don't. The assumption is that "best people" can be quantified in terms that everyone is expected to know, but which are seldom, if ever, actually laid out anywhere. The assumption is that the system we already have is the best one, because changes to it risk losing those precious "best people".

Fair enough, you may say. It takes an expert financier, say, to recognise another expert financier. The rules and regulations and habits that have created the system have been in place for a long time, and the people who operate them have doubtless refined and reformed them, and are competent and reliable. They know what they're doing. It works, don't fix it.

Except, of course, that much of the tine, these systems *don't* work, or don't work well, or only work for some people. Except that, of course, there are many, many systems that have been in place for a long time that are demonstrably damaging and uneven and unjust. Systems like patriarchy, privilege based on race, privilege based on class, privilege based on sexuality. Except that we *don't* necessarily know who these "best people" may be, and nor do those who appoint or laud them. What we know is what the system likes us to know. What we know are the mechanisms that prop up the system and the interests -- racial, gendered, class-based, ableist and so on -- that that system upholds.

When I look around me at the "best people", this is what I see. They tend to be male. They tend to be white. They tend to come from the upper social classes. They tend to have a particular educational profile. They tend to have money and to come from families with money. They tend to be friends with a lot of other "best people". They are, in short, the very people that modern free-market capitalism, sexism and racism are all designed to privilege most. They are the oligarchs. (Yes, there are exceptions: there always are. But I'm speaking of the general here.) And every time a banker, say, or a government official speaks of the "best people" I know what they mean -- and so do they.

But the thing is, I don't know if these people really are best. I have no way of judging: I don't have material against which to compare them, by and large. What I do know is that when they are performing well in their jobs, the lives of ordinary people don't seem to benefit very much -- but when they perform badly, they get to keep their privilege, by and large, while ordinary people pay the penalties. Bankers who fail leave their positions with huge bonuses. Public sector workers who are reduced to break-down by overwork and aggressive management are forced out of work, offered pensions that average well below a living income, demonised in the press, and threatened with having those small pensions cut. And they pay tax at the normal rate. Famously, up until 1918, men who were mad, who were murderers, who were alcoholic, incapable, could vote and women, however intelligent and able, could not, here in the UK. But the law of the land held that men were the "best people" as far as the franchise was concerned. Our default images of power and ability remain male: the male politician, the male scientist, the male explorer. This week, the women's football (soccer) world champions (Japan) travelled economy class to the Olympics, while the male team from the same country, who are not considered to be particularly good, travelled first class. The reason? The men were "professionals": they were the best people, even though, in fact, they are not. In job after job, I've watched as women -- gifted, competent, brilliant women -- cluster in middle grades while men are promoted past them. As a culture, we assume that men are better: why else the annual breast-beating over school exam results and the current Tory re-working (yet again) of the exam system? Boys, we are told every year, are being beaten by girls. And this, it still seems, is not acceptable. Because culturally we are told that boys are to be the best people. The same series of lies, assumptions and obstructions underpin issues of race; block the access of people from non-white backgrounds to education and employment, to justice and opportunity. The system of "best people" has little to do with real merit. It's simply one of the many many weapons our culture uses to uphold and retain privilege for those who are already at the top, and to deter, prevent and hamper those below them from "infringing" on what is seen as their rights.

So: next time that phrase comes up, stop and think. Ask what we mean by "best". And ask why we think that.
Living With Ghosts


So, I'm seeing a lot of posts and items lately celebrating the appearance of fantasies that are not 'European'. Which is fair enough. Writers will and have written books inspired by all sorts of things and places, it's what writers do. It's important that books reflect a world that is wider than just Europe or 'the West'; that it reflects the experiences of all peoples, not just a privileged (pale-skinned, all too often) subset. It's important that we recognise and respect the experiences of others, although we must *not* pre-empt their right to speak for themselves, arrogate that right to ourselves, silence their voices, misrepresent or warp their experiences and cultures for our own self-seeking ends. It's important that we recognise that, even if we are related or descended from that people or culture or both, the culture and people are not identical to us, will have changed, will have different interpretations and usages that we should not 'correct' or represent as debased or damaged or wrong; and that in many ways their interpretations, experiences, and usages are the primary ones and their claims on their myths, stories, traditions, beliefs, history and culture take precedence over ours. (And yes, this applies to me as a person neither Welsh nor English. Being of mostly Welsh descent doesn't make me Welsh, and I don't own that culture.)
But here's the thing. I'm European. Most of the European fantasies I have read and loved and delighted in -- and the ones I've read and found dull, and the ones that I hated -- were not written by Europeans. And that's fine. I believe writers should explore and expand and think outside their place of origin, and examine the stories of their ancestors and so forth. I am deeply unhappy with a model that says that a writer can only write about their very own backyard (a position which, amongst other things, restricts writers like Meera Syal, say, to only writing about being British-Indian and the 'British-Indian Experience', which is, frankly, a form of ghettoising). Some of my favourite books were written by outsiders or descendants. But -- you knew there would be a big but in here, didn't you? -- there's a knot of annoyance somewhere inside me at all this jubilating over the new wave of non-Euro fantasy.
Because, you see, many -- most, indeed -- of those books do not read European to me. They are based on our cultures but they are not rooted in them. They represent us, but they do not, all, speak for us or even about us. Mel Gibson can never be William Wallace, not with that script and that set of beliefs and assumptions about who I am, who the Scots are, what our history is. (Braveheart is an easy target, because it's so historically fake and so marked with Gibson's own prejudices. But it's also a well-known one, so...)
This does not mean that these aren't good books -- some of them are. It does not mean that I think they shouldn't have been written. All it means is that they feel like outside narratives to me.
None of which matters, of course. It's easy to argue that Europe has had its day, that we are a bunch of ex-Imperialists still whinging because we lost our Empires. That we have been culturally significant for far too long and we should shut up and let others shine. There is probably a lot of merit in this view. We spent hundreds of years plundering and silencing others. That's an inescapable part of the histories of at least some of us. We are not, of course, a monolith, and there are many parts of Europe which did not have that experience of Empire, or had it in a distant past, or were on the conquered, not the conquering side. (For the interested, Ireland did, in fact, have its colonialist, dominant phase, in the period from the 2nd down to the mid-9th centuries. Scotland, culturally, is an Irish colony, whose indigenous practices and leaders were supplanted and overridden by an invasive culture which remains the major one to this day, although in a distinctive regional form.)
But part of me still watches the currently dominant culture metaphorically shaking the dust of my stories, my histories, off their feet and moving on to something fresh, while declaring my past, my myths worn-out and useless.
They're still useful to me, thank you, in my home context. I still see the footprints of that past outside my windows, travel in its traces, speak and think and explain through the lens of its stories and experiences. And I will deny to my last breath the changes that the outsider narratives have tried to impose, the re-readings that simply feel wrong. I will not relearn my past to include liberated 'Celtic' warrior princesses and tree-cuddling druids. They are not there, they did not exist, they are a fantasy and they belong in fantasy. And they are not my fantasy. When I see an outsider reading European books and complaining that those writers don't have a right to say what they said, or that they got the -- European -- stories wrong -- I see red. Because the outside narrative does not trump that of the inside. It is not 'more right'. It can't be. It can only be different, and much of the time it will remain outside. (This includes anyone telling me that their coven leader/spirit guide/avatar of the gods told them that Mists of Avalon, say, is 100% true and I have no right to question is, or am 'too English' possibly to be right. Without even getting into the large amount of French influence on the Arthur stories, and the ways in which the Welsh stories borrow from the latter, and the ways in which the early traces of the stories are nothing like the story everyone knows, the bottom line is that that book is not history and, as a Briton, I get to say that as loudly as I want. My country, my story. And, y'know, my academic specialty.)
I really, really love the Cardinal's Blades series of books by Pierre Pevel. Part of that is, of course, because Pevel is drawing on Alexandre Dumas, who, as we know, I adore. But an equally big part of it is that, when I read them, I heard the voice of the Europe I know. They are rooted in our experiences, our interpretations. There are no high school heroes (and I am so over high school football team hero d'Artagnans) or kick-ass Buffy clones. The series reads French, not French-flavoured.
I am, of course, not French and I am myself guilty of French-flavouring and I get it wrong and I try to do better. I am not in anyway innocent of going outside my own culture and being careless, though I do try not to do it on purpose. I'm not better than anyone else, and I'm a lot worse than most. As I said at the top, I don't believe in putting writers in boxes of their own culture and not letting them out. There are reasons why I write what I do -- there's the whole write-what-you-love thing, and I love Dumas and Balzac and Sagan and Moliere and Hugo. I read academic French history for pleasure and have done so since my late teens. And then, I am, by training, a historian of early mediaeaval Britain and Ireland. The histories of the English, Gaelic and Celtic speaking peoples in the British Isles are work, to me, and I don't like to mix work of that kind with fiction writing. And -- and this is the one I rarely say -- there isn't much space for me to write fiction in my own histories and myths any more. It's pretty full, mostly with outside voices, and the Big Audience has declared it dull, over, cliched. As I write, I'm trying to think of a British writer currently writing British-set, British-inspired fantasy and I'm not coming up with many names. Stories based in the myths of the British Celts written by British Celtic writers or even mixed up mongrel writers like me is even rarer. I'm coming up with Mike Shevdon, whose books are partly rooted in English folklore, and, umnmmm... someone help me out. It's getting hard, going into bookshops, to find fantasy by British writers altogether (though they are not as rare as British sf by British women published here). We are there, but we are writing other things, or we are only published overseas. But the last major sff series inspired (partly) by British Celtic materials by a British writer I can think of is Gwyneth Jones' Bold As Love sequence, which was finished in 2006 (and is, as I said, only partially and obliquely inspired by Celtic or English myths, though it is very rooted in our recent histories).
And so, and so... I suppose what I'm saying is this: fashions change, cultures rise and fall in terms of their influence and importance, and this is how the world seems to work. It's good for old Empires to decay and face their own evils. But to people inside a culture, that culture will not feel 'over', those myths and histories are still part of them. They still need them, even if it is only within their own small space. Those stories may not be what outsiders think they are, too. (Personally, I am baffled by the 'hanging on to Empire' thing, as that has never been part of my experience as a British woman. Worried by and distressed by and guilty over, yes. And there may well be politicians who long for that kind of power, and scions of some upper class families who want to behave as though they still had their grandfathers' privileges, but they are not part of my normal experience, nor are their narratives the dominant ones I hear in our media. The problems caused by that Empire, yes: those are everywhere and we continue to struggle with them and -- I hope -- try to do much better, now.) But the bulk of may experience of the myths of my country have come to me in foreign accents, since 1980 certainly, and in some cases as long as I can recall. And now those outside voices are bored, feel -- in my head -- that they have wrung us dry and are ready to move on -- and -- and here's the kicker -- in some cases are saying that they are the ones who can say it best, far better than the peoples whose histories, stories those are first.
And that latter is not on, frankly. Certainly, step outside your home box, but do so with respect, please, and don't claim to speak for or trump the native voices. And remember that what bores you is still a living culture to someone else. And they get to go on valuing it, and telling stories within it.

Skirt of the day: heavy black cotton.

It's Tina's turn: a rant

So I really don't know why I watch Glee, a lot of the time. It's sentimental, it's shallow, it's full of cliches and stereotypes and it rarely features music I like. And I really, really, really hate many of the characters. It's Beverley Hills 90210 with show tunes.
And yet I go on watching. Partly that's down to season one, which started so well. It offered us a genuinely varied set of characters from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of issues. And it seemed to want to honour that, for about half a season. But then the agenda appeared. I loved Kurt: I loved his gallantry and courage and sense of self, I loved his gift for friendship and his ability to understand others. I have always hated Rachel, but back then her sheer selfishness was a feature and we were not expected to sympathise. Will... meh: it's not a teacher's place to share his personal life with his students in that way, and I find him creepy. But Mercedes rocks -- she still does; and so do Santana and Brittany and they have all had reasonable plot lines. Over the three seasons, there have been some great arcs: I am delighted by the Santana/Brittany relationship and how it's been allowed to develop. I love that Mercedes stays tough and isn't skinny, and gets to be cute and sexy and smart and attractive -- and to tell Rachel where to get off. I'm delighted that Artie talks back, has big dreams, can behave like an idiot or a hero like anyone else (the wheelchair user is a Person Just Like Anyone Else). I'm pleased that Kurt has Blaine and that that's presented positively. And ever once in a while, the show has great dancing, and I am, as we know, all about the dancing.
But, but, but...
There's Kurt again. He's still fabulous. All the way to all those scenes where he lectures and humiliates the female characters and is Right. Male problems always trump female ones. Women are always Wrong about things and cause their own unhappiness. Gee, thanks. Those young women are his friends and allies, but the writer wants them to know their place. That hurts. (Blaine is kinder, thankfully. But I sense that the script is on Kurt's side, slut-shaming. The way he spoke to Quinn in the latest episode and the way, in particular, he was a mouthpiece for making sure we all know that a girl who gets pregnant, is thrown out by her parents, is humiliated at school, marginalised and patronised, made to give up her child and then made to behave in ways that suit others, hasn't really suffered at all, because... Well, Kurt claimed everyone went on loving her really, which is just not true within the show's own continuity. But men have it worse, in Glee world. Note we did not get a plot-line about Santana starting, say, to self harm, when she was outed and her grandmother rejected her. She's just a girl, after all.)*
And then there's Tina. I love Tina, she was my favourite character from the start. The shy misfit girl who *doesn't* have a huge ego hiding her insecurity. The bright one who no-one really seems to want to know. The one who wants to be liked but only knows how to pretend. At the start, she got some attention from the writers. She got to increase in confidence, to form a very sweet relationship with Artie. In season two, she got to stand up for herself. But she has never got fair screen time. She gets one or two lines. She doesn't get songs, or even, very often, lines in songs or close-ups. She doesn't get to do anything except back-up Rachel on stage and off. That's been the pattern for two seasons now, and was rather the pattern in a lot of the first. She was given a song, remember, and Rachel complained, and Tina was nice about it, gave it up and that was it. Rachel learnt nothing, except to add to her entitlement. The script told us Tina was a good girl, 'taking one for the team'. Because the people who don't matter must do that.
And Tina doesn't matter. Like the song says, 'Nobody's Asian on tv'. Like original Star Trek back in the day, Glee is leaning back on its laurels, patting itself on the back about how inclusive it is -- while tokenising its Asian characters completely. Apparently it's enough that they're there. Oh, we get the occasional crumb. Mike got a typical Asian story earlier this season, when he got an A- and his parents were angry. Because the Asian characters can't be real people, oh no. (There was briefly a Chinese family on Brookside, the defunct UK soap. They did nothing, because the writers apparently thought that only 'Asian' stories could be told about them, and they only knew one or two of those. Same is true of the characters of Indian origin on Eastenders: nothing to write about there except white assumptions about perceived prejudices in their religion, and arranged marriage.)
I hoped, for 4 or 6 episodes, back at the start of Glee that Tina -- and Mike,when he joined the main cast -- would get to be a real character, like Rachel or Kurt or the eternally boring, pointless Finn who we're all supposed to find so fascinating. But I was put right pretty soon. Tina isn't a person, she's an Asian Face, and that's supposed to be good enough.
It isn't. Not in any way at all. It's racist. It's unacceptable.
At the end of the current season, several of the characters graduate and, in theory, should leave the show. Including Rachel, Finn and Kurt. In theory: the rumour is those characters will still be around somehow. Tina isn't a final year student (Mike is). Season 4 could be her turn to shine. The show has a great chance here to show us that she is a person after all. She has hopes and dreams and problems -- not just 'Asian' problems. In my world, this could be the year Tina gets to be the star, to have a life just like Rachel and Kurt. Or maybe she could share the spotlight with Mercedes: they are, we are told (but seldom shown) great friends. There could be some wonderful stories in that, friends becoming rivals or, even better, refusing to be made into rivals and finding new ways to share and deal.
It won't happen, of course. Tina isn't white-bread pretty. Tina doesn't tick the boxes that define 'people'. Tina's only Asian. What we'll gt is a new set of angst-ridden, plot-absorbing pretty white characters, with maybe, if we're lucky, a bit more screen time for Mercedes (but she won't be the star, either, because she isn't thin enough, she isn't white enough). Mike will graduate and go and never been seen again. Rachel and Finn and Kurt will be back every other week, to suck up all the screen-time and take all the starring roles. Because they're the only kind of people who matter.
And that makes me angry and sad, because it's a lie, and a pernicious one. And this show claims that it doesn't do that kind of thing. That it's all about celebrating difference.
So long, of course, as you're white.

*I don't agree with Quin that suicide is never an option. And the plot about Karofsky's suicide attempt is heartbreaking and all too realistic and I hate that young gay men are subjected to these pressure. But that's not my point. My point is that the show put the lines about suicide being selfish and bad into Quinn's mouth, not, say, Artie's or Puck's, and then reveled in having Kurt tell her off and reduce her experiences to trivia. And that isn't acceptable. Oddly, being publicly slut-shamed, pregnant and rejected destroys young women's lives and some of them attempt suicide too. And that isn't a lesser form of suffering just because they aren't male. I suspect, too, that Quinn is about to be killed off, to angst-up Rachel, and because she's just a spare woman these days, and those don't really matter. The fact is the show did not need to humiliate a woman to have this plot-line (and the earlier one about Blaine coming to terms with his sexuality did not need to include a speech from Kurt humiliating Rachel, with the script on his side).

Inequality and compromise: a rant

The thing is, I don't believe that anyone is born solely for the benefit of others. But neither is anyone born solely for themselves

That looks like an odd thing to say, I realise. But what I mean by it is this: unless you live in total isolation, you're part of a society of some kind or size. It may be as small as your immediate family. It may be as big as the world, and all the sizes in between. We are not born to be a solitary species: we flock, we gaggle, we clump, we clot. And when we do that, we have to deal with other people.

There are many different ways of doing that, of course, and they range from the intimate to the extreme remote, from simple to difficult, from pleasant to vile. We have to learn to adapt, to refashion, and, yes, to compromise.

Compromise is a dirty word these days. It's seen as weak and measly, as a halfway house that pleases and helps no one. But daily life is all about compromise, about negotiation, anyway, like it or not. We share space, we share resources, we hold open doors and exchange assistance. We walk further than we really wanted to, because the bus only goes so far or our friend can only drop us on that route. We make do, and, by-and-large, those around us do likewise. We co-operate. We do our best. Ideally, we do our best for others, as well as ourselves.

And we deceive. It seems that in every period and places, those clots of humans have sorted things so that some people get more than others, that some people get away with more than others, that some people receive less and give more. A lot of the time, those people who serve and don't receive have been women. Sometimes, shamefully, they have been slaves. Pretty much always, they are the poor. And more and more the justification is heard that those on top, those gaining most, somehow deserve that. They were born to it. They possess the right genitalia, the right skin colour, the biggest army or bank balance. They're special. They're above the rest, above regular social exchange, above -- it often seems -- the law. And when this happens, we get to the sentence with which I started. Some people are told they were born to benefit others. Other people are told they deserve to get the best of everything. It breeds resentment and worse. It breeds suffering and exploitation, needless death and pain, abuse and exploitation. It breeds oppression and violence. It breed entitlement behaviour and victim-blaming. It breeds laziness and cruelty and prejudice. It breeds a culture in which people believe they have rights but refuse to accept they might also have duties, in which they happily grab for themselves but begrudge giving anything, however small, to others. It breeds refusals to compromise, to consider the needs of others, to give up any piece of privilege or comfort, however small.

And that, frankly, stinks. You can believe, with Hobbes, that humans are naturally self-seeking and unpleasant, or, with Rousseau, that we are naturally decent and cooperative: that's up to you. But we are a social species: we can't get on without some form of society. But you cannot have a decent, liveable society without compromise, without limits on selfishness, on privilege and narrow-mindedness, and greed and entitlement.

We live now in a society where we are told that some of us are worth more than others based on financial value. We are told to support the interests of the rich at the expense of the interests of the many, of the poor, the deprived, the excluded -- and of ourselves. We are fed, frankly, bread and circuses, while the banks fiddle and society burns.

You can, of course, call me a hopeless idealist. ("You're a hopeless idealist, Kari.") When it comes to human nature, I fall somewhere between Hobbes and Rousseau. But I believe this: we can learn. We can think, we can ask questions, we don't have to let the big machines -- Big Money, Big Media -- roll over us. We can compromise. My comfort doesn't have to mean your misery. Your success doesn't have to mean you grind me under your heel. We can find a medium, if we have the will. We can share and support and be just a little kinder. It may not be the easy option. Usually, it isn't. And perhaps you can sleep at night, knowing you put yourself first, last, always. That's your choice. But I can't do that.

And so, Mr Cameron, I don't agree. I don't believe in me first and devil-take-the-hindmost, I don't believe in My Country Right Or Wrong, in I'm Alright Jack. We are, you claim, all in this together. That's true. But here's the thing: it's your turn, yours and your financial sector friends', to shoulder some of the burden and share some of the pain.

In traditional marquise fashion, I'm lobbing something at the internet and promptly vanishing for a while. I don't do it deliberately, I swear. Tomorrow, the marquis and I are off to look for yet more castles in Spain, and my internet access may be patchy. But I will listen and read and respond, I promise.

Skirt of the day: denim.

Other people's toes: a rant

So yesterday I finally got around to reading the May issue of the SFWA Bulletin, the one focusing on the Nebulas. Lots of interesting stuff, as usual and all the regular features, so far so good. And a piece by Connie Willis on Blackout/All Clear.
Now, I was underwhelmed by seeing these win the best novel award, because the historical errors in them are, frankly, parlous, and -- as an Oxbridge historian -- I am personally rather offended by how stupid she thinks my kind are, apparently (I had the same issues with Doomsday Book). But that's my opinion, and the Nebulas are a US award and people do make cultural errors. So and all...
Then I read her short piece in the Bulletin. Here's the key excerpt. 'That era [Britain in WW2] is just so fascinating -- the blackout, the gas masks, the kids being sent off to who-knows-where, old men and middle aged women suddenly finding themselves in uniform and in danger, tube shelters and Ultra and Dunkirk, and running through it all, the threat of German tanks rolling down Piccadilly! What's not to like.'

That was when I looked up, and said, very sharply, 'How about all the dead civilians? That's not to like at all.'
Because, you know, the Blitz was *not* fun. My Uncle Bob served in the army and was at Dunkirk, and subsequently, due to shell shock, was put to digging bodies out of the rubble left by bombs in London. He never got over it. My Auntie Florrie contracted TB of the bone while working as an army nurse and died young as a result. My mother, then a junior school child, lived less than 8 miles from where Hess was being kept as a prisoner, though she didn't find this out till she was in her 50s. She remembers the evacuees, too, miserable and terrified and confused. My father can remember finding the hand, still in its glove, of a Canadian pilot whose plane was shot down. None of that is fun.

Here's my point. History is not a theme park. It's not a story, either. It's people's real lives. If you're going to write about it, about any part of it, you need to do your homework properly, you need to be respectful, because -- as Ms Willis did with me -- otherwise, you're going to find someone's sore place, someone's vulnerability, someone's sacred or difficult or secret thing, and you're going to do damage. Other countries aren't theme parks, either, nor museums, nor big bags of useful resources. They're homes to millions, they're people's lives, too.

I didn't know I had a hot button about the Blitz. I was taken aback, rather, by how strongly I felt about this. Doomsday Book annoyed the hell out of me, because the errors were so egregious and so easily avoidable. The same is true of the errors in Blackout/All Clear. And I'm inured to people's assumptions about how stupid, how dim, how un-rigorous and unscientific and woolly historians must be because, after all, anyone can do that job, anyone can read books about the past, can't they? You don't spend 30+ years specialising in an obscure historical period without hearing every negative view going about your value, status, skills and profession.

But the Blitz is not likeable, it's not fun, it's not an adventure playground. And talking about is as if it is lessens us all. I'm sure Ms Willis didn't mean her comments that way, either. I've never met her, but what I've read suggests that she's a perfectly nice, intelligent woman. She written some books I like and some I don't like. That's on me, not her. I'm sure she didn't set out to hurt or offend. This is about my perceptions, my reactions. I accept that completely.

And while I'm talking about this, let's have a look at another phrase I'm seeing a lot lately, 'Eurocentric fantasy'. This, as far as I can tell, means fantasies set in backgrounds drawn from a sort of default idea of mediaeval Europe (usually Western Europe at that). I understand what people mean by this, and what they are thinking about. The thing is, as a European myself, these fantasies don't feel 'Eurocentric' to me. They don't feel like Europe at all, they feel like a mix of 50s Hollywood historicals and Las Vegas, they are theme park fantasies -- right up there with that 'England' where everyone is either Hugh Grant or a Cockney, and we have names like Rupert and Gwendolen (not in my lifetime, oh Buffy -- and Wesley is a surname, not a first name in the social class that Wesley Windom-Price is supposed to come from). I get how this happens -- we have 'theme park' America here, a land of cowboys and drive-ins and deep-fried bacon. I got into a discussion a few days ago on jimhines blog about the term 'First World', and how to me it means something different to what it seems to mean to many non-Britons. We have different understandings of the world, depending on who we are and where we live, on what we are, on what we have learned and observed. But when I see the whole 'Eurocentric' thing as a slam, while my head understands what is meant, my heart hears something else. My heart hears, "well, *your* past is rubbish and overdone and bad, and we've mined it out and used up all the fun stuff anyway and now it's just this huge negative thing that we don't want any more". (I am not here demanding that we get a free pass against the many many bad things done by the British through history. I am talking about 2ndary world fantasies drawing on European cultural tropes.) Plus, some of the tropes and themes mean different things to us now to what they did in the past, or to what they mean to the European diaspora.

I'm not saying all fantasies based on European histories are bad. There are many good ones -- I've written about Judith Tarr's and Kit Kerr's before. And there are more. But those are properly researched, properly thought through. They're not highlights and assumptions and 'isn't this cool'? I do my best to be careful with my own books: I read about the same volume for my fiction as I do for my academic writing and I try to do my best. I probably make mistakes. My feet are clay. I hope I'm not doing too desperately badly.

I guess what I'm saying is, at bottom, very simple. Be careful, when you talk about other people's things, histories, homes. We don't all understand the same things in what we read, we don't all have the same assumptions. We start from different places. It's far too easy to discount, to elide, to erase people by not respecting that they may not be just like oneself. It's far too easy to trample, to damage, to stamp hard on sensitive toes.

And this is a very British blog post. I seem to be turning into the poster girl for this kind of thing, lately. But it sits in my head and it niggles, and... Well, that's me, I guess.
I'm friends'-locking for now: will open it if others think that would be a good idea.

Skirt of the day: jeans.

Saturday update: I'm still here reading but today I won't have time to post. I will be back and commenting tomorrow. Have a great day.

The women who could

I'm mulling, still, on jemck's excellent post yesterday. And in my head, a play-list is forming of all those female fantasy writers who have built worlds I love, opened doors, set standards, taken steps into the new, the unknown. So here, in no particular order, are the writers who made me think, made me see fantasy as space where I could be, who broke new ground, who shaped the genre as I know and love it.

Hope Mirrlees, who opened that door between worlds with wit and wisdom.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, who brought elegance and grace.
Katherine Kurtz. I outgrew her books, but she was an innovator with her approach to High Magic, to religion in fantasy and in her expression of the High Mediaeval mode. I read everything with fantasy on the label in the 70s, and Kurtz was genuinely different: the fashion when she first appeared was still Heroic/swords and sorcery or 'low' style fantasy. She harked back to Morris and Dunsany, but in a far less mannered, far less forced mode.
Katherine Kerr (aberwyn). Other writers had done Celtic-influenced things, but Kit's Deverry books have a really solid, authentic, well-supported and internally consistent basis in real history, they aren't riven with new age thinking, historical wishful thinking or sentiment. And they're good.
Tanith Lee. Queen of the Universe. No arguments. She is easily as innovative a writer as Moorcock, yet she gets a fraction of the recognition and respect. (Yes, he has an important editorial side too. But I'm talking about books.)
Susan Cooper.
Diana Wynne Jones.
Alis Rasmussen (kateelliott: The Labyrinth Gate prefigured the whole steampunk fantasy thing by nearly two decades. Nobody seems to remember.
Judith Tarr (dancinghorse). One of the earliest writers of mediaeval alternate history, yet we had to wait for a book by a man for the applause to start.
Mary Gentle.

I could go on and on. But these are the writers whose books lit up my reading world. There are many more who I've discovered more recently, many women writing wonderful, innovative, intelligent fantasy. We need a banner and an anthem. We need a parade. Who would you honour and invite?