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(Many layers to that title. And warning: not heavily edited because I have homework to do. Expect typos.)

“It’s too feminist. Our audience is men, and men wouldn’t read that. I mean, speaking as a man, I wouldn’t read that.”

When Larbalestier's Liar, which features a black protagonist, was published with a white girl on the cover, the blogosphere raged. But where was the response from Publishers?

I heard it echo across the classroom, seemingly unnoticed by anyone else. We were in Introduction to Publishing, analyzing fake query letters  that our classmates wrote for possible acquisition into the mock publishing houses our small groups were supposed to represent. The acquisitions process for a book isn’t common knowledge, so I’ll do my best to briefly explain. Normally, the author writes a query letter to a press, telling a little bit about the book, offering a sense of tone and an idea of the potential market for it. The press then decides whether they want to read more (a process skipped in this classroom exercise,) based on several things. An important two that many people don’t think about is that it’s important for the acquisitions editor/team to think whether a book fits their mission statement and the audience that reads their books. Sometimes a press has to decide that they just can’t do a book justice or that they specialize in other things (for example, maybe they just don’t publish YA or historical fiction.) and can’t take on the project even if they like it or would read it in another circumstance.

But back to the narrative. I don’t know why this classmate’s comment reached my ears in this particular circumstance when I had my own batch of query letters to evaluate and the din in the classroom was enormous. Perhaps I heard it because it seemed so angry and vehement, so contradictory to the typical tone of the class, which is usually a welcoming place full of inquisitive classmates who will be boons to the industry. But, there’s another reason, and I’m pretty sure you’ve thought of it:

Why couldn’t a man read something with a feminist bent? Why did they assume that only men would be buying their books, despite the fact that statistically women buy more books? Also, as this class happened to be 95% female, how could he expect that for this assignment that he would get work that ignored women as potential readers?

I feel bad using this event as a starting point because it might cast the school I’m at in a negative light, so I’m going to say here and now that it was the individual student, not the environment of the program, that caused this statement. But I am going to start here because it’s an excellent launching point to discuss what I’ve come to realize are major anxieties people have concerning publishing in general and big publishing in specific.

Entrenched as I am in publishing school and Ooligan Press projects, I’ve barely had time to think and reflect. Although I do read pretty constantly and have been peripherally aware of the process of preparing a book for market, publishing does feel like a world that keeps to itself, a strange bureaucracy turning and churning, and so now I’m flooded with new information. I’d forgotten to consider that what I was learning was not common knowledge; that my pre-publishing school self, naturally, was not the only one not privy to this information.

Today, as I started doing research for my final paper on publishing books involving minority groups, inspired by the controversy generated by Bloomsbury Book’s recent whitewashing of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, which, unbelievably, was followed up last month with their release of Jaclyn Dolamar’s Magic Under Glass, I’ve realized pretty quickly that it’s going to be frustrating and pretty damned near impossible to get inside opinions on what’s gone wrong. I mean, this is nothing new, but why is it still happening? Why is the only commentary I can find Publisher’s Weekly’s rather weak, neutral article and Bloomsbury’s rather transparent plea that they’ve added a new layer of meaning to the book with their cover? Why do I have to go to the author’s blog to find this:

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

Why aren’t there hundreds of publishing blogs saying that this is an example of irresponsible publishing or that the tactic is a one-way ticket to irrelevancy-ville? If I have missed the din, then I apologize. If I have missed a lone blog, I apologize. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but their responses were surely drowned out.

How is it that she, an author with multiple books out, did not know just how common this was without talking to her friends who are publishing insiders? I’m not blaming her; I’m wondering at publishing’s secrecy.

The fact is, people don’t know how books are published. When reading another blog post on the controversy, I was surprised that a book review blogger had to preface her post by saying, “I’ve read/heard repeatedly that authors have little say in the final cover choice” (Reading in Color.) That is, I was surprised that this was not common knowledge. At a Wordstock panel last fall, an audience member asked Karen Cushman how she wrote the summary on the back of her book (I think it was Cushman. It may have been Fletcher.) She looked confused, and then surprised that people thought she wrote her own back cover copy. I know taking these things out of the author’s hands may sound sinister, but coming at this from both a publishing and a writer perspective, I can definitely say that authors sometimes don’t know how to best portray their story’s own strengths–are sometimes far too attached to their work to be able to distill it into an image or a blurb. I mean, I can’t do that for my own work. That is to say, publishers can use their powers over a book for good (though I do think okaying what you’re doing with the author is probably the responsible thing to do.)

Publishing is a funny business. On the one hand, it is a business, and wanting to make enough money to keep the business going and pay your workers a living wages (a near impossibility in an industry that famously, even in established publishing houses, makes a negative profit in the first few months of a book’s release and may never make that money back) is hardly such a bad aspiration. On the other hand, you’re dealing with art and culture, which is heavy stuff, and should be treated as heavy stuff. On a third level (to mix my metaphors,) you also want to entertain. Finding a balance between all this, or at least, making an honest effort to, is responsible publishing.

So now that I’ve had time to reflect, I realize that people assume that Publishing is dominated by that loud voice that I heard in the corner of the classroom. Though my small program, designed with a small to mid-size press focus to make best use of our fantastic Pacific Northwest Publishing hub, is certainly not an accurate microcosm of the publishing world, I have to wonder if perhaps if something similar hasn’t happened at places like Bloomsbury. A voice like that, that speaks so authoritatively and angrily always makes itself sound practical. It waves money around, not considering that there are Black YA readers, for example, that might enjoy seeing a Black woman on the cover or that maybe White YA readers don’t care that much or that there are YA readers who fit into neither of those categories and still might enjoy the book. That there are, in the case of my class’s project, women who read graphic novels who might enjoy reading something with a feminist slant (though I do not know what his definition of feminism is,) or men, or people who fit into neither of those categories. That being responsible and starving don’t always have to go hand in hand.

And yes, it goes without saying, that there’s a more important, higher-cause kind of getting out important bits of culture aspect to this too. I’m just not going into that here because I think most people have heard it, and the so-called voice of practicality doesn’t respond well to it. I just don’t see why we can’t find a way to do both, perhaps making lower profits, but does everything always have to be about making the MOST money?

I don’t know if this voice on the other side of the classroom swayed that group’s decisions or not—I actually suspect the answer is no for reasons that I have no place going into here. But I do think we, as publishers, need to learn to address this voice, which claims to be so worldly, so contrary to any idealistic, bookish, eyes on great Canon sort (which has diversity issues of its own, we often forget. Oh why, oh why is it always one or the other?) who might be left in the publishing industry.

And, finally, why don’t we talk more to readers and writers? Why keep the publishing process a mystery? I mean, not everyone does (in fact, that’s one of Ooligan’s missions. Yay Ooligan! I promise I’ll try not to become like a giant advertisement for my program,) but there needs to be more dialogue—or, I guess, polylogue (I think Bahktin had a term for this that I can’t remember)—between readers, writers, and publishers because we all have a common interest: books and stories.

Every year, Portland hosts Wordstock, a giant book convention celebrating writers, local small presses, and bibliophiles. Last year, going was something of an inspiration; I had an inkling that someday I wanted to be part of this group. I browsed the stalls with excitement, asked questions to the independent writer’s guild, and bought my first Chin Music Press book. I attended a panel on the future of book reviews feeling fired-up and ready to write.

This year was a little different. Having just applied to PSU’s really exciting publishing program (yes, exciting is an odd adjective, but, really, what else do you call a publishing school that lets you work at its press for credit,) I approached the stands with a little trepidation. The state of being in application limbo colored my mood; I wanted to be their peers, and though I don’t need a masters to do that, it feels like I do simply because I applied to the program. Somehow taking steps to accomplish my career goal made me feel more like I had something to prove, which was frustrating when I just wanted to enjoy myself. It probably didn’t help that there were less panels I was interested in/could make.

Nevertheless, I had a great time. I finally got to meet Bruce and Josh from Chin Music Press, which was great because, as I’ve said in previous posts, I really admire their ability to create artful books that are as focused on the text as the object. (*waves* hi guys!)  I’m always floored by the sheer number of interesting publishing projects going on in the Pacific Northwest: Oni Press, which publishes Queen and Country (my current pleasure reading) is here in NE Portland, Fantagraphics in Seattle, Little Otsu, a clever graphic press out of San Francisco and Portland (and run by super nice people, btw,) a whole slew of literary journals, Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center, and Bitch Magazine, just to name a few. I hope someday to truly call these creative people my peers: their creativity, talent, and attitude really prove that paper publishing can still be relevant in the midst of today’s digital age (or some other such cliché name for it.)

I’m afraid I don’t have as many analytical things to say as last year because the panel I got to see was not on a particularly controversial topic. I went to see Karen Cushman’s panel on creating worlds in historical and fantasy fiction. She invited some of her peers of the young adult writing world: Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howards, Jodi Sensel, and Mary Jane Beaufrand. Strangely enough, I think this was the only all-female panel at Wordstock, though it’s difficult to know if this is because Karen Cushman knew more women who were well-suited to the panel or whether women writers find that they get more respect in the realm of YA literature because they don’t get dismissed as chic lit or niche lit. (I also sometimes get a sense that a lot of really good plot-based fiction gets published as YA because it’s not dismissed there either.). I’d like to do an entire post on this, but I don’t feel I know enough to write it. Maybe someday.

Now if I don’t suddenly get the plague again, and don’t die of “waiting to hear back from grad school” anxiety, you’ll hopefully get some more posts coming your way. I’ve got some thoughts about the depiction (graphically and textually) of Tara Chase in Queen and Country, some musings about writing about people who are different from you (Aka- I’ve just started reading David Mack’s Kabuki because I’m on a graphic novel kick, and for something that so far seems to be about a woman and her relationship to her identity and her face, I’m surprised that he does not list a single woman author or artist on his list of works that inspired the series. I can’t really make a judgment on the series yet as I’ve only read a few chapters, and I’m certainly not saying that this automatically dooms the work, but it’ll be interesting to see just how convincing he’ll be.) and, who knows, maybe some other stuff. Maybe I’ll do a giant rant about “The Big Bang Theory.” Who knows? I have the luxury of not having to post here uninspired, but I’ve been taking advantage of that too much lately. I’m still here, thinking, but life and work, for better or worse, have to take precedence.

Hope you’re all enjoying fall–it’s my favorite season. So gorgeous here in Portland today.

I was going to do a summer reading snazz, but being half-way through October, I’m a little late. Still, I’ve been wanting to

Oh! by Todd Shimoda is a book you actually can judge by its cover!

Oh! by Todd Shimoda is a book you actually can judge by its cover!

highlight a few of the awesome books I’ve read/been reading over the past couple of months:

Oh! A Novel of the Mono No Aware by Todd Shimoda- This is a perfect book for traveling though I can’t explain why. I don’t usually enjoy reading heavier things when I travel–well, while I’m in transit to be more precise–because I find the experience disorienting. Airplanes are the worst offenders. But there’s something about Oh! that works perfectly for traveling; perhaps it’s the way Shimoda captures his protagonist, Zack Hara’s, own sense of being out of sync with the world.

In Oh!, Hara, a technical writer from LA who is plagued by emotional numbness, goes to the part of Japan where his grandfather grew up in order to rediscover his ability to feel. Along this journey, he kindles a strange friendship with a psychology professor and embarks on a side quest (well, several, really, but they all are part of one thing): to understand the concept of mono no aware (literally: stuff of emotion or the emotional essence of objects.) To add to the story, Todd’s wife, Linda, created a series of gorgeous brush paintings inspired by the work that are interspersed through the text.

Though stories of people trying to find themselves in foreign countries or reconnect with their roots are everywhere, Shimoda really delivers something special in Oh!. I really enjoyed how so much in the novel was, well, displaced: emotions onto objects, one man’s search for his daughter onto another man’s search for himself. At first I found Zack’s inability to deal with the root of his problem, his depression (take that word however you wish,) frustrating. As I read on, it became fascinating, and I became impressed by Shimoda’s ability to blend literary aesthetic with human emotion and have it still feel authentic and real. That is, despite all the displacement going on in the novel, mono no aware never becomes an excuse or stand-in for the emotional core of the novel. The characters still feel real and not merely the means of enacting a metaphor or concept.

To top it off, Chin Music Press, which, as you all know, I greatly admire, published this book so it is, as you would expect: meticulously designed. What I really love about CMP is that when they publish a book you know the whole package has been thought out to the last detail: the design will never overshadow the content because they love what they publish, but it will work to enhance it. The only thing better than a good book is reading a book that has been designed in such a way that the text’s best elements have been enhanced to create a fantastic reading experience. Their work with Oh! is no exception.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak- A Holocaust book narrated by Death? That description alone probably intrigues some of you, and some of you ready to skip to the next book on my list. Seriously, I find that Holocaust literature really divides people. I, for one, have a difficult time reading it because it depresses  me (and I typically can enjoy depressing literature.) Still, The Book Thief is one of the very best things I’ve read recently. Death is actually quite an engaging narrator, giving away just enough to heighten tension and delivering appropriate bits of wisdom. The book itself tells the story of a girl named Liesl who discovers for her own the power of words to change people, as all around her in Nazi Germany, words are destroying life for many German citizens.

In addition to having engaging characters and lovely prose, the novel’s strongest point is that it really drove home that it was German citizens (well, if they weren’t Polish or French or…) dying in death camps. That they were also Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, etc. was just another facet of this. I know many of you probably think that we don’t need another book explaining that we are all human and killing each other is bad, but, considering that people don’t listen, I guess we have to keep writing them. And if books this heart-wrenching, charming, and well-written come out of it, then by all means, continue writing.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan- Though technically a picture book–in fact, a wordless picture book–Shaun Tan’s little gem really takes the old “immigrant story” to a new level. With gorgeous, detailed illustrations, Tan has created “new world” full of technology, creatures, and foods as mysterious to us as it is to the man whose journey we follow. Despite the lack of words, the story is simple to follow. Tan’s artwork stands on its own, really, but what I do appreciate about his work here and in Tales from Outer Suburbia is the way he really makes issues surrounding multiculturalism, immigration, and empathy come alive so that they at once can make sense to children, and yet still feel fresh and relevant enough for an adult audience.

The Rabbi’s Cat (1 and 2) by Joann Sfar- A graphic novel about the life of a rabbi in 1930’s Algiers, as seen through the eyes of his subversive, opinionated cat. I checked out the first volume of this from the library on a whim, expecting it to be cute, but what I got instead was 100 times better. As a narrator, the cat is something between a snarky philosopher and a quintessential cat, by turns loyal and critical. His views on the world around him, from the sometimes shaky relations between the Algerian Jews and Muslims, to the difficulties of dealing with French rule are dealt with in a way that feels real while still mixed with a touch of humor.

One thing that this book really captures is the contradictions inherent in living every day. The rabbi at once is happy to see his daughter married, and yet saddened by what it means for his life: he is getting older; his daughter will no longer live with him. All of the Jewish characters struggle with their beliefs, the apparent realities of their situations, and their desires. The cat lies but sometimes understands the truth better than any of the other characters. The result is a fascinating glimpse at a group of people living a life that’s less dogmatic and more discovery.

Oh yes, and Volume 2 is worth reading for the Tintin cameo mockery alone. Because while I know those comics have their good points, Tintin is really kind of the quintessential Eurocentric character, and it’s funny to call our nostalgia out on that, even if it was a product of its time. Or, at least, I’m amused.

Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson- I find Winterson’s books difficult to do write-ups on, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps its just the plethora of imagery and myth she manages to interweave into one story. Maybe it’s the way her prose is so amazingly quote-able. Who knows? In any case, though not quite Lighthousekeeping, Sexing the Cherry is a beautiful book. As hinted, Winterson’s prose is gorgeous and lyrical in the best sense.

However, though I really enjoyed both Jordan and the Dog Woman as characters (particularly the Dog Woman,) what really stands out about this book to me is the strange cast of characters who populate their journeys. There is a city where words pollute the air, and cleaners must fly up in balloons to clean it. The 12 Dancing Princesses of fairy tale fame all live together in one house after escaping their husbands in various dark or amusing ways. I found myself not so concerned with where the books was going and simply enjoyed the ride.

That being said, I’m still not sure how I feel about where the book ended up, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’ll leave that discussion to anyone who wishes to have it with me.

Of course, these are only a few of the books I’ve read recently, but these felt the most relevant to the blog. Plus, they’re all excellent and deserve your attention.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I have a bit of a thing for mysteries and hardboiled noir. I’m by no means an expert on either Hell_Of_A_Womangenre, admittedly, but it’s a hobby interest of mine. I just really love the way gender plays out in them: in the “Golden Age” detective novels, sleuths like Poirot, or, to go far back to the grandfather, Sherlock Holmes, were supposed to use their “manly” reason to solve problems. When a woman would step in, such as Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, her detective work is, at least superficially, chalked up to her feminine intuition.

The American hardboiled genre takes this and turns it on its head; these sleuths think with their gut. The city landscapes of Noir are dark and corrupt—operating on logic within their irrational world would get you killed. And yet, we think of the hardboiled genre as being very “masculine.” Gendering genre still feels weird to me, because, of course, there’s nothing intrinsically male about any of the aspects I’ve listed and am about to list, but within the culture, these films (like many others of their time and now, admittedly) came from a distinctly male perspective. The cynical, money-hungry sleuths of the genre looked upon their cities as embodiments of the fallen American dream, and encountered villans who either didn’t play by the rules of the dream, or were amongst the groups not even allowed to play the game: women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. There’s a lot to say about the later two (and I’ll touch on a little bit of race later on in the post,) but I’m going to focus on women for now.

To hurry to the point, I’m going to simplify this a lot: In hardboiled fiction and film noir, writers portrayed women either as helpless and virginal, or scheming, sexy, and ambitious. The latter, of course, is the famous femme fatale, who would kiss and then kill to move up in the world, if need be. In films she is usually cold and selfish: sensuality without feeling. The former, well, her character usually seemed an afterthought to the femme fatale, there more to act as a last-minute love interest or foil to the femme fatale (who sometimes was even her step mother! Holy Brother’s Grimm, Batman!) than as a character in herself. In her introduction to Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, Val McDermid puts the problem quite nicely:

“I blame Raymond Chandler. I blame him for writing too well. Here’s the thing with Chandler. He had a problem with women. Vamps, victims, and vixens are the only roles he provided for us. And his perennial popularity has guaranteed his twisted view of women would remain the template whenever the hard-boiled boys hatched a new tale of the mean streets. For years, we’ve been stuck in this gruesome girlie groove because of one man’s screwed up sexuality.”

To be honest, I don’t know if it’s fair to blame it all on Chandler; I think a lot of screwed-up relationships with women contributed to this genre, and social mores contributed to this and other genres. But the point is that Noir is a very strict, template-reliant genre. We know the story: “It was dark in the city that never sleeps. She stepped into my office with hips like…” We’ve seen it parodied dozens of times. Given the format, how can you break down these gender roles and still write Noir?

Well, unsurprisingly, many of the people who find Noir fascinating are women and/or ethnic minorities. As logically follows this, many of these writers have started to take Noir back. I was introduced to woman-centric noir soon after I got out of college and had more time to read for pleasure. For my birthday last year, a friend got me Megan Abbott’s Queenpin and the aforementioned short story anthology Hell of a Woman, which Abbott edited. I later picked up another of Abbott’s novels, The Song is You.

At first, I was unimpressed; I think I had been expecting the stories to feel completely different, or at least feel more self-aware of the genre they were working in. They didn’t—QueenpinThe Song is You, and all of the stories I’ve read so far in Hell of a Woman play Noir straight through. The femme fatale still uses her sexuality to get her way. Money is still power. For the most part, no one gets a lesson about racism, classism, or sexism. So what’s the difference?

The difference is that when Noir is written from a woman’s perspective, we understand why the femme fatale is the way she is. She’s no longer the embodiment of anxiety.  Whereas in typical Noir, the femme fatale is evil because she is selfish and ambitious, overstepping her gender role, in female noir (to use Hell of a Woman’s phrase,) in female noir, she is no more power or money hungry than the men she’s dealing with. The Noir world has very strict rules, as I’ve mentioned. If she does not want to be passive, if she wants to make her mark, she’s got to play by the rules of the world. And, if the world doesn’t expect brains and beauty to match, well, her brains become a hidden trump card in the game.

These women live in worlds where performing as the femme fatale is sometimes the key to being taken seriously, as in Abbott’s Queenpin. Here, a young woman learns the ropes from mobstress Gloria Denton, the queen of the underworld. Instead of suffering through a boring secretarial job where she finds herself subjected to sexual harassment, she suddenly finds herself controlling her sexuality—and making more money at that. Also interesting is Abbott’s inclusion of an Homme Fatale, a man we all know from the start will betray her in the end, but whose beauty is such that she can’t resist. Silly? Yes, but no more than the idea that a beautiful woman can destroy a man’s judgment.

“The Chirashi Covenant” by Naomi Hirahara takes on the “Femme fatale has the hapless hero kill her husband trope, as well as the exoticizing of Asian women in one stroke.  I find this one fascinating precisely because I can imagine how different the story would be if the white male antagonist, Bob Burkard, had been the protagonist instead. Instead of being an alluring exotic woman who seduces him and begs him to kill her husband, Helen Miura is an intelligent, lonely Japanese-American woman struggling with the insular nature of her life after the WWII internment camps who has an affair with Bob. (In this story, she takes no part in her husband’s murder; it’s Bob’s impulse.) As often happens in fiction, her identity conflict becomes summed up in romantic questions, as if dating outside your culture is the ultimate way to betray it. Of course, things become even more deadly as the story takes a further turn into the Noir, and Helen is no angel in the midst of all that happens (I’m not talking about sexually either.)

Although most female noir works that I’ve read so far have female protagonists, Abbott’s The Song is You doesn’t have the gender-reversal perspective. After a brief prologue from the point of view of a murder victim’s sister, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Gil Hopkins, a studio publicist in 1950’s Hollywood, who takes us through the rest of the story. Hop, as he’s called, has privilege problems and cannot seem to connect with the women in his life–not so different from a archetypical Hardboiled hero. But as he tries at once to solve a two-year-old murder and keep others from solving it, he finds his ideas about women challenged. He starts to understand the nature of the game. He questions whether he should really blame women who have ventured into dangerous situations to help keep afloat in the dark side of Hollywood and found themselves victims (I know that one’s a no-brainer to most of us, but, as I said, Hop has privilage problems.). In one of the most poignant moments, of the novel, he realizes the full extent of what it meant to have abandoned Iolene, a black woman, at a sleazy club with known sexual predators. With horror, he realizes that if the men he left her with treated white women so inhumanely, he could not imagine how they would treat a black woman. No, guilt is not enough, but it’s these moments where he begins to understand the privilege behind the typical Noir judgments that we really see the subtle ways that Abbot is playing with the formula even without a woman’s perspective to guide us through.

I suppose it would be easy to argue how much these stories help really feminism or find many ways in which they are problematic (but, as we’ve been discussing, so is much fiction.). After all, Noir is a genre which glamorizes the dark underbelly of the city, to borrow its own phrase. Ultimately, even if it’s fun to see women level the playing field or have the upper-hand, despite them having to use their “feminine wiles” to do so, it’s still unfortunate and uncomfortable that these are the options they have in this world to be assertive and independent. But I think that part of the point of female noir is exposing these problems; this is, from a Noir perspective, the result of asserting independence and ambition when society only sees you as your body. Also, well, ideal or not, I’ve got to admit that I find them a lot of fun despite the dark subject matter. If you’re a fan of thrillers, they’re worth checking out. They raise a lot of interesting questions about gender, genre, and how to re-imagine a story that’s been told one-too-many times.

NOTE- I apologize in advance for any incoherence. It’s been over 100 degrees F here, which I’m not used to, and I’ve not gotten much sleep because of it. Still, I didn’t want to waste my guest blogging week, and so here you go.

(Cross posted to Feministe.)

[Ginny Maziarka] cautioned that her group would let people know that the library was not a safe place unless it segregated and labeled YA titles with explicit content.

Some citizens of West Bend, WI, would like to make distributing this book a hate crime.

Some citizens of West Bend, WI, would like to make distributing this book a hate crime.

I’ve always thought of the public library as being a safe place. Part of it is just the way I’ve always romanticized books in my head, but there’s also always been the liberating feeling that I am free from all judgment as to what I read and check out. I know this might not be everyone’s experience with the libraries in their area, but in my mind, the ideal public library would make media available, not tell people which media is culturally appropriate. Particularly with the price of books and database subscriptions being so high, it seems incredibly important to have a place where reading and information are free. If some materials do not meet people’s standards, well, even terrible trash can spawn valuable discussion. And sometimes I think all of us, regardless of our views, would benefit from at least reading the other side of the story (agreeing is a different matter.)

So when my friend, who’s working toward her MA in library science, sent me this article, it gave me a lot to think about. Here’s the long and short of it: After the West Bend Community Memorial Library in Wisconsin included Francesca Lia Block’s Baby Be-Bop (link goes to Powell’s) in a library display, several groups of locals were outraged, and the book found itself the target of blistering hate. City residents Ginny and Jim Maziarka demanded that the library segregate “sexually-explicit.” Another local filed a suit with the Christian Civil Liberties Union, asking for $120,000 in damages (seeing the book apparently damaged them emotionally,) and the resignation of the West Bend Mayor.

From a certain standpoint, this is nothing new–I mean, it’s old for reasons aside from the fact that the ALA article came out in June. Of course, books, particularly books for children and adolescents, face antagonism all the time. From Harry Potter to In the Night Kitchen (yes, the Sendak one,) people can come up with infinite reasons as to why a book is obscene. Nevertheless, the hatred this book in particular has aroused terrifies me:

…[T]he complaint by Braun, Joseph Kogelmann, Rev. Cleveland Eden, and Robert Brough explains that “the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” specifically because Baby Be-Bop contains the “n” word and derogatory sexual and political epithets that can incite violence and “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”

[T]he plaintiffs also request West Bend City Attorney Mary Schanning to impanel a grand jury to examine whether the book should be declared obscene and making it available a hate crime.”

Other bloggers have talked about the sudden outrage over this book, but many of them hadn’t read it.  I had: I discovered it back in Jr. High, and read it over and over. I remember lying on the couch in the living room, sick with some sort of bug, re-reading it all in one sitting (Admittedly, this was not a huge feat—it’s only about 100 pages.). Over the years, I had forgotten about it; I had left it behind with most of my other Jr. High favorites, but it never left me.

So when I heard about the hubbub, my first reaction was: “Why now? [the book came out in 1995.] And why that one and not every other book Block has written?” (Of the books of hers that I’ve read, the majority I can think of at least contain gay or bisexual characters.) The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to re-read it. So I did. Re-reading it, I discovered two secrets: 1. Why the homosexuality was considered so much worse in that than any of her others and 2. Why it had been so important to me as an adolescent.

Now, as I said before, I don’t think it’s the library’s place to judge or pry.  When it comes to the issue of book banning, particularly where libraries are concerned, I find content irrelevant. Still, in this case, Baby Be-Bop is such an interesting work that I feel it’s worth assessing what about it could cause such anger, and why I feel it needs our protection. I should note that follows will, eventually, contain what are technically spoilers. I do not believe that they actually spoil the book because it’s more about emotions than plot; the beauty is in the details.

Set in the early ‘90s, Baby Be-Bop is the story of a young man named Dirk McDonald, who lives in a beautiful cottage outside of Los Angeles, CA, with his grandmother Fifi. He has always known that he was gay and wishes he didn’t feel he had to hide it. He wants to be strong and unafraid. When he is attacked at a punk club (ostensibly for insulting a man’s swastika tattoo, but it soon turns into a gay bashing,) he almost gives up hope until he is visited by the spirits of his great grandmother and his father, both of whom had passed on before he was born. They tell him their stories about how they grew up and fell in love. Although they both were heterosexual, they assert that they see no difference between their loves and Dirk’s. As his great-grandmother says without pause or hesitation, “Any love that is love is right” (66).

I also think it’s important to understanding the outrage that this book inspires to keep in mind that by love, Block means sex as well. In Block’s fairy tale, masturbation, fantasy, and sex are just as natural and beautiful as “spiritual love.”

I wish I felt like there was more to analyze here, but I’m afraid that this is the whole dark secret of the book. There is violence, but it is never glorified. There is hate speech, but only from the mouths of despicable individuals. Some of the characters smoke, but I don’t think that’s what’s triggering people. On the whole, it is a book that says, “It’s okay to love how you love,” and I think that scares people.

Far from being damaging, Baby Be-Bop is a healing, empowering story. It encourages teens to speak up and tell their stories where they have felt silenced. It encourages teens not to be afraid of their sexual sides. I think that’s why I read it as a teen. Though my parents were as encouraging as Block, my school was run by a rather conservative religious group (despite the school being a secular school,) and their messages sometimes leaked past the positive ones I got. Although I was pretty sure that I was heterosexual, it just felt so good to hear someone else say that my body wasn’t dirty. I don’t want to pretend that this book single-handedly saved me, but I consider it part of the remedy. I like to think it’s helped other teens of all sexualities and genders in that way too.

Of course, the book has its problematic moments; in particular, I’ve never been comfortable with Block’s tendency to use LA’s minority populations to help exoticize the city and enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere of her stories. There’s a lot to talk about in that aspect of Block’s work in general; Said would have a field day with her bohemian love of “the East.” Sadly, I do not think these were the racial problems the plaintiffs in this case were concerned about (not that I would advocate banning the book over them.).

Nevertheless, on the whole, if sharing Baby Be-Bop is obscene, then I will gladly be obscene. If encouraging love is damaging, then I will damage. And I will do all I can to support libraries so that any teen who has been taught that ze is dirty and wrong will check out this book and others like it and begin to feel clean.

(Cross-posted to Feministe.)

So, remember that little section I used to have called “The Snazz?” It was a place where I used to post the snazzy media that I was reading/watching/listening to/ seeing/etc.. In any case, you might notice that it’s gone. Vanished, for good and for better. I decided that the format just wasn’t working–the page wasn’t serving any purpose whatsoever. But, because a cultural critic should be steeped in media, and blogs are meant for sharing, I’m revising The Snazz.

So here we have the new and improved Snazz: Every Thursday I will do a post about the media that I’m indulging in this week, and you can share your

I'm going to see Coraline this weekend!

I'm going to see Coraline this weekend!

recommendations, rants, comments,  concerns, musings, etc. Links may include anything: blogs, comics, games, YouTube videos, magazines, etc. Because with so much frustrating media out there, we need some snazzy stuff. (All book links go to the Powell’s website because I’m a snob like that.)

I’m reading:

  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie- I’m very torn about this one so far. Rushdie gets a little too symbolic for his own good. Also, New York Times, it’s very problematic of you to label a single novel as “A continent finding its voice.” Just saying.
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore- This book does insane things with genre, and I love it for it. Also, the ending makes me profoundly uncomfortable, in a very good thought-provoking way. I’ll stop there to save space.
  • The Feb/March issue of Bust (my subscription finally arrived!)- Still delving in.

I’m Watching:

  • Zaïna @ The Cascade African Film Festival– A Moroccan film about a very awesome 11-year-old girl! Includes nomadic life, horse racing, and the impersonation of ghost queens.
  • Coraline (tonight or tomorrow! So excited!)- Yes, I’m a Gaiman fan like everyone else.  This Bitch blog post makes me a little bit sad about the production though. I’m still going to see it and probably love it. I hope the puppet-sculpting crew members end up getting A) jobs and B) the respect they deserve.
  • the “X-Files” (though there’s nothing really new and exciting about that)-because I find watching Scully in all her geeky genius to be a very cathartic activity.

Also, I’m going to try and make it to the Portland International Film Fest at some point, if I can. I’m thinking of adding “Mad Men” to my tv watching line-up. Anyone seen it?

I’m Listening:

  • Wir Sind Helden– Die Reklamation- Totally danceable German rock. (Link goes to their official page, which is in German. Don’t feel bad–I can’t read it either. For all I know, their songs could about killing puppies, but my flatmate assures me otherwise.)

I’m Seeing:

Mandy Greer Dare alla Luce @ The Museum of Contemporary Craft – (okay, so I saw this last week. I’m stretching my rules.) An incredible installation of textile art at my favorite free museum in Portland. It’s mind-blowingly beautiful (and about a Roman myth in which breast milk created the Milky Way). Snazz indeed.

So, everyone, what are you reading/watching/listening to?

I’ve been holding off posting this week just because it feels weird to post non-inauguration-related things on  or around inauguration day. If you really want to know my thoughts, well, I’m really excited to see what Obama’s going to do. I’ve got no illusions of perfection, but it’s a relief to have a president who values intelligence, cares about women’s issues, and is not afraid of science. But, for Cracked Mirror purposes, I figure the more news-centric blogs have all the election stuff covered. Instead, I’m going to talk about media.

For those of you wondering how an unemployed feminist blogger spends her suddenly free time (aside from desperately searching for jobs), the answer is: we volunteer for our local feminist magazine! (Or, at least, that’s what I’m doing.) I had a fantastic time this morning at Bitch‘s funky Portland office (It’s a wonderland of posters, awesome books, and puppies, let me tell you. I can’t wait to go back.) and  doing research on feminist organizations (bookstores, community organizations, publishers, sex toy shops) they could contact for mutual advertising purposes. This was an oddly satisfying endevor, and not just because I was helping out one of my favorite magazines. As I dutifully searched, clicked links, sighed in frustration at finding stores that had closed (feminism isn’t necessarily a great money-maker), I discovered something odd: I barely needed to use Google.

Yes, I’m afraid that when it comes to looking for feminist places, Google only was of limited help despite my pretty decent google-fu. What actually was a huge help were the feminist bookstores themselves. Those with websites tended to link to fantastic organizations, stores, festivals, etc. in their community, providing me with endless links to savor, both for Bitch’s and my own purposes. Just through links provided  feminist bookstores alone, I found enough feminist media/community/culture outlets to fuel a fantastic feminist-centered roadtrip, and that doesn’t even include the bookstores (and, believe me, I’d visit those too)! I’d love to listen to the spoken word artists of Fierce Words Tender in San Jose, CA, check out the programming put on by Charis in Atlanta, GA,  and then have a great vegetarian meal at Bloodroot in Bridgeport, CT. Maybe I’d talk to some people at the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press in DC or visit Ladyslipper Music in Durham, NC.  On the way I’d probably hit up a concert put on by Indie Grrl.

This is why feminist media and feminist media outlets can stay alive, even in difficult times; I think, on a whole, we’ve (I say we, but I’m not really a feminist media outlet… yet) recognized the value of community. We’ve recognized that even if you want to call us a niche market, we’re a strong powerful niche if we support each other and get the word out to each other. I think what saved Bitch and In Other Words when it looked like closure was imminent was their intigration into the community (both Portland and Feminist community): We care about each other. How cool is that? I just wish there were even more link databases that were even easier to find on Google. The one slightly depressing part of the whole experience was noticing that the databases I found (not so much the link pages off of feminist bookstores/orgs./publishers) were often either way out-of-date, neglected, or really poorly organized. It’s a shame because the internet is a great way to create a community of feminists who will support feminist media (outlets)/orgs/etc. Let’s use it!

Being a tad under the weather in unusual Portland weather (the “snowpocalypse” is here), I’ve been more-or-less housebound for a few days. Idle hands led to searching for ways to keep my brain occupied, and the most logical way to do so (apparently) was the mostly-unproductive pastime of watching the old cartoons based off of Dr. Seuss books. The good ones. You know, the ones that he actually wrote the teleplays for, and so they actually are true to the spirit of the books. It’s really nice to see something from my childhood that I still think is really cleverly made. For one thing, the artists/art directors did a

Our friendly friend the Lorax at the Dr. Seuss Memorial in MA

Our friendly friend the Lorax at the Dr. Seuss Memorial in MA

fantastic job making Seuss’ winsome illustrations move (the machines in The Sneetches are particularly great, as are the Grinch’s myriad ways of stealing holiday ornaments in his famous robbery of Christmas). The lyrics to the songs, usually written by Seuss himself, are fun. And the stories, well, we know they’re good.

But really, I’m here to talk about our good friend, the Lorax. I’m assuming you grew up with the tale too, and if you didn’t, get ye to a children’s bookstore. Watching the movie again reminded me just why I’ve always loved The Lorax so much. It may seem like a simplistic environmental cautionary tale (not that there’s anything wrong with simplistic environmental cautionary tales), but it’s got so much going for it in terms of social commentary that even extends beyond the now-popular reading of Truffula trees as fossil fuel. Really, The Lorax teaches us the danger of single-mindedness, of thinking with one variable. Our culture suffered from this when Seuss first wrote the book in 1971, and we suffer from it now. And, to use the Lorax’s favorite word, unless we broaden our brains and get creative, we’re in trouble.

“But, Steph,” you may protest, “The Lorax is explicitly an environmental story!” And you’d be right: Seuss has said that he wrote the book out of frustration with the increasing development of the San Diego Coastline. He claimed that The Lorax was “one of the few things [he] ever set out to do that was straight propaganda” (in Judith Morgan, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel pg. 209) (I’m actually very puzzled by this quote of his. He published Yertle the Turtle and The Sneetches before it; how are those not propaganda of some sort?).

Still, even with an explaination from Mr. Geisel himself, I think it does a disservice to the book to simply say that the central message here is “Don’t chop down trees!” So many gray areas surround the idea of “progress” in American culture; Seuss knew this and recognized it. Despite being the “bad guy” the Once-ler is actually fairly sympathetic; he’s more tragic and misguided than evil. This becomes even clearer in his screenplay: the Once-ler speaks like one of the great capitalists of yore, a Henry Ford or a Rockefeller. In a scene not in the book, fans of the Once-ler surround him, singing of how he had risen above his humble origins through his industry and good fortune. He’s lived the American Dream, but at what cost?

Indeed, in The Lorax, why does the American Dream fail so terribly? Why does everything slip through the Once-ler’s fingers? Is it just because he chopped down a bunch of trees? Yes and no. It’s because he single-mindedly focused on “biggering.” All other aspects of his business plan–the resources, the environment, the product itself–get lost in the biggering.

Our way of doing things tends to focus on a single variable: money. How can we do this most efficiently? How can we save labor costs? But if you look at any situation through the tiny lens of a single variable you get terribly skewed results, results we cannot sustain. For example, from a monetary perspective, it makes perfect sense to feed cows and sheep discarded parts of their dead comrades; it’s an efficient way of dealing with the waste. You don’t have to pay to get rid of it, and you don’t have to pay for extra feed. The problem is, of course, that if you do that you’re ignoring the health of the cow (if you don’t care about the health of the cow, then please consider the health of the people who eat the cow.). Cows are herbivores, first and foremost, and also science has taught us that feeding something the tissue of another member of its species produces corrupt proteins known as prions. Viola! Mad Cow Disease! You cannot predict Mad Cow by merely considering monetary growth. From a monetary growth perspective, there’s nothing wrong with this practice, but in reality you have to deal with environmental issues, issues of sustainability. Mad Cow disease was a reality check, a dangerous wake-up call from nature saying, “You can’t keep this up! You can’t cheat reality just to make a buck! It’s going to catch up with you!” Like the Once-ler, we seem to feel that our reality check, if it’s coming, has such a delayed arrival that it shouldn’t bother us.

The Lorax may claim to simply be speaking for the trees, but he’s actually got a better grasp on the big picture than the Once-ler. Contrary to popular belief, the Lorax is not single-minded. While the Once-ler sees dollar signs, the Lorax sees how the truffula trees fuel the ecosystem of the area. They sustain the birds, the bar-ba-loots, the fish. They make it a pleasant place to live. Furthermore, he sees Though the Once-ler’s crafty marketing claims that everyone needs a thneed, a thneed, we soon realize, is useless without a high standard of living to enjoy it in. A thneed is not a basic need, but truffula trees are, if only in the sense that they served as an anchor to the area.

One of my favorite additions to tv-version of The Lorax is the Once-ler’s clever marketing ploy to sell his first thneed. He places a sign by the roadside which declares, “Last Chance to buy a thneed for 100 miles.” At this point, no one really knows what a thneed is, but the shrewd wording entices the passersby. After all, a thneed must be important if you have to worry about not being able to buy one for 100 miles! The Once-ler has created an instant market niche for his product; he seems to be a crafty entrepreneur. The praise lavished on him throughout the film-let reminds me of how we tend to allow “but it’s profitable” as a reasonable excuse for most anything in our culture. It’s okay to have degrading advertising if it works (no need to think about what this advertising says about our culture); it’s okay to use non-sustainable agriculture because we need to make a profit off of food. And, really, I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing people for wanting to make money–that’s fair. But don’t just make money–think about the big picture. When we get single-minded about money, we forget that we only have one earth that is fragile and bound by biological pathways. We forget that people are human beings with lives, families, health, and basic needs. In other words, we forget all the variables which make our businesses ethical and sustainable.

This is why the name “Once-ler” has so much power. Not only does he think with the number “one,” look out for number “one,” and only use materials that can be used “once,” but also he ultimately finds himself reduced to living in “once upon a time.” His glory days have passed and will stay in the past. As the Once-ler learns, what good is his money when his unsustainable business practices lead to a world which is so dirty, polluted, and lonely that he cannot enjoy it? I’m reminded of Phoney Bone in Jeff Smith’s charming comic/graphic novel series Bone, who is dismayed to learn that his hard-earned currency, the money that he was willing to get himself kicked out of his own home-town to get, is worth nothing in a village where people barter goods. Once the richest man in town, he is now a pauper, forced to wash dishes to pay for his meals. I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but it’s worth remembering that money is only helpful if you can use it. To me, this makes it a rather suspicious variable to focus on at the cost of all others.

I love The Lorax because we live in a culture that spends way too much time once-lering. Our medical supplies are crafted in China, shipped to Mexico, and are assembled there before arriving at their final destination in the US (air travel pollution, aside, what are we going to do if we get cut off from the rest of the world for whatever reason?) because the cost of labor is cheaper. We tire out the soil using huge monoculture plots and feed livestock growth hormones (why is it a good idea to throw about willy-nilly the chemical regulators that control everything from the way we digest food, to our development, to our sex drive?). I’m tempted to take the metaphor out of the environmental and into the artistic (after all, a lot of times record companies and book publisher will only publish which record or text they think will make them an easy buck instead of looking at quality), but for simplicity’s, and my poor, sick brain’s sake, I’ll leave it at that.

If Seuss were alive today, he’d be amazed. When he wrote The Lorax, the environmental movement was just beginning to materialize beyond twinkles in activist eyes. The book was actually banned in a school district in California, and dismissed by many as being unnecessarily preachy. Now, green is in, as anyone will tell you. You can even buy green movement tote bags at Target. But being green is not simple. Being green is not “don’t cut down trees.” Being green is being sustainable, and being sustainable is thinking about what you’re doing. Being sustainable is accepting that what you’re doing may only start to pay off in the long-term. But UNLESS we start thinking of the long term, we’re as good as “once.”

So go out and plant a truffula, mes amis!

*I apologize in advance for any extra-rambliness this post may contain. My brain is, as I mentioned at the beginning, currently full of snot.

While making my Wordstock rounds–independent press here, literary journal there–

Super Spy by Matt Kindt

Super Spy by Matt Kindt

I stumbled upon Super Spy, a graphic novel by Matt Kindt. The stylized artwork drew me in, as did the promise of pages lined with secret codes and hidden messages. When I took it out of the library, however, I was surprised that what kept me reading was neither the art nor the puzzles (though both were fun), but rather the characters.

I’m not going to delay my verdict on the novel until the end of this post: it was fantastic. Super Spy not only makes great use of the graphic novel medium, but also tells a story which at once captures the thrill of the spy genre and looks at very human issues. It manages to shed the romanticism of spying, and yet, not make it completely unappealing.

How can you exist as an individual, with aspirations, attachments, and desires, when your life belongs to your country? How can you build relationships when your identity has become a swirl of lies? Though there is no lack of gadgetry and secret codes, Super Spy is, at core, about the spies. It’s about an Allied spy who marries an Axis officer and has a child with him, only to feel racked with guilt over the marriage and fear for her baby. It’s about a man who, despite knowing the dangers of allowing his emotions to compromise his work, falls in love with, and reveals himself to, a fellow spy.

Kindt deftly deals with the clichés of spy fiction–the double agent only out for revenge, the cocky egoist, the lose-cannon who loves the killing aspect of his job more than he probably should–and makes us feel for them again. We have seen them before, but in the sketchy lines and sharp dialogue they become real. We care for them, we don’t want them to die, and feel shocked when, almost without warning, they do. A throat is slit; the Nazis come–Kindt early on warns us that the lives of us characters are constantly in danger and can end or change without warning. His characters are always on edge. They constantly debate how much they can reveal to the ones they love. It’s an unfortunate side effect of war, and the fragility of their lives makes them all the more real and precious to us.

One of the really unique aspects of the novel is the narrative structure: Kindt tells us the events out of chronological order, but provides a dossier key in the table of contents so that the reader can go back and read the chapters in order if they choose. Well, I say unique, but it reminds me of Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch, which offers you two different ways to read the chapters, in order, or by jumping all over the book according to page numbers at the end of each chapter (think of a “Choose Your Own Adventure Novel” where the path is prescribed for you.). Though Kindt is not the first person to write a story like this, his use of “jumping chapters” here is fresh and really powerful. Because of the disorganized narrative structure, he creates the odd experience of viewing a character’s

A Russian agent is briefed for her mission.

A Russian agent is briefed for her mission.

death before we know why we care about them or why they are killed. A character who seemed to be incredibly minor will suddenly become fleshed-out and beautiful. Events have a delayed significance to them, which means that the novel becomes more and more rewarding as you read along, until finally, in the last few chapters, Kindt deftly ties up the lose ends. Like a spy yourself, you have the ability to see only bits and pieces of what’s in store that sometimes don’t even seem to fit together, but you must stick with your contacts (the characters in the novel) until you have a clear picture of what’s going on. I really wish I had my own copy so that I could spend more time looking at the structure. It’s really quite skillfully done.

But, as I said before, what makes this novel really interesting are the men and women whose stories Kindt has created. The characters of Super Spy have to give up a piece of their humanity, their openness, their ability to connect with others, and yet, these are not things that one can force themselves to give up without painful emotional consequences. This becomes particularly clear in his female characters. At first, I was surprised to see an equal number of female spies in the book without one mention of any of them being underestimated or dismissed by their superiors. I was confused at first, and wondered about the historical accuracy, but the point soon became clear–female spies, though never treated as less competent, highlight the sacrifice a spy must make of their body for their country. As a spy, your country owns your body. Suicide missions are well within the range of expectation. But women, more often then men, have to sacrifice their bodies in other ways: they sometimes become exotic dancers and prostitutes, giving their bodies over to others so that a cause may live. And, often, no one considers what that sacrifice means to them as people. It’s heartbreaking.

This is not a graphic novel you just can’t  read only half-paying attention. The highly stylized art makes the character designs a little more difficult to recognize, but, as you can imagine, it’s crucial to remember the characters in order to get the full impact of the story. I often found myself flipping back to pick up more narrative clues that I had missed the first time around. This is not a weakness, per say, but something to be aware of. To read this, you have to be involved. Fortunately, it’s perfectly deserving of your full attention.

Goodbye Madame Butterfly

Goodbye Madame Butterfly

I’ve been looking forward to writing a book review for Sumie Kawakami’s Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage, and the Modern Japanese Woman ever since I was about half-way through with the book and realized that I loved it and wanted to do my bit to promote it (not that I’ve got a huge audience yet, but I’m also very patient.). But now I’m staring at the little white box, and I’m surprisingly unsure of how to begin.

Part of me is tempted to introduce the book by reminding everyone how Japan-obsessed Western culture is, and really, has been ever since the Opening of Japan. Back in Jr. High when I had a thing for Japanese rock music, I justified it with art history, pointing to the Japanese prints sneaking into the background of paintings by Manet. I suppose I could introduce this book that way. I could talk about scholarly works such as the Mechademia journal, which collects articles about Japanese anime and the surrounding fan culture both in Japan and abroad (They’re on my to-read list, believe me. They look fascinating.). But, really, Butterfly deserves a better introduction than that because, while it is a work about Japanese culture, it’s not really about the West’s (I really wish there was a better term for “Western” culture than “Western” culture.) obsession with Japan, and though it does offer some thought-provoking tidbits about Japanese culture, is not even really about Japan as some kind of uniform place that can be explained with one book. What makes Butterfly fascinating and beautiful is that, more than anything, it is about the women (and the two men) whom Kawakami interviewed to create it.

Apparently, according to a world-wide survey, Japan has one of the lowest rates of sex within marriage of any country in the world, which may seem odd in a country whose world-famous sex industry appears in film (Who could forget the scene in Lost in Translation when the company who hired Bill Murray to do commercials for them ordered a prostitute up to his room?), Wired Magazine, and (the internationally recognized) Japanese Pop Art (Links to images of Takashi Murakami’s sculpture “Hiropan.” Not work safe.). Journalist and single mother, Sumie Kawakami was no stranger to writing about marriage in Japan. An earlier work of hers, Tsumanokoi: Tatoe Furin To Yobaretemo (Wives in Love: Even If It’s Called Adultery), dealt with wives who commit adultery, an act so taboo when committed by women that its very name in Japanese essentially means immoral, but, as she said in the preface, she felt uncomfortable reducing their stories to single conclusions and, also, the kind of passing judgment that goes along with it.  She decided that her next book would be different.

In Goodbye Madame Butterfly, Kawakami decided instead to let the women speak for themselves. It’s the pointed lack of analysis that really makes this book radical and fresh. Instead of being “subjects,” these are the stories of human beings, many of whom have been rejected sexually by the very people who promised to cherish them forever. The approach is a fantastic success–Kawakami has captured her interviewee’s stories beautifully. The essays in this book are personable and page-turning without being sensationalist.

The other beautiful thing about the set-up of Butterfly is that, while it allows Japan to be its own distinct culture, it also allows its readers to recognize a common humanity. I think my favorite example of this was the jolt of recognition I had in reading one particular side comment in the essay “Synchronicity,” where Kawakami explains how many Japanese women are obsessed with Korean pop stars, finding in them a kind of gentlemanly quality that they believe Japanese men to lack. Funnily enough, amongst the Western fan base of Japanese rock and pop stars are women who have the same kind of escapist obsession with Japanese men. While I was discussing the book with my mom (yes, I have feminist book discussions with my mom.), she commented to me that “We have such unhealthy views on sex. Everywhere! Both women and men!” I have to agree with her to a large extent. It was strange, and depressing to read about the women who have access to the men that I know so many American women to fantasize over (perhaps it’s not mainstream, but there’s definitely a niche for it.) seeing the seaweed greener in somebody else’s lake (which is not to say that their frustration with Japanese men isn’t warranted–what depressed me is the way that we all objectify each other through idealization.).

I also want to dedicate a few lines to the book itself (the objet d’arte).  I’d recommend purchasing it even over taking it out of the library. Chin Music Press, an independent press out of Seattle, did a phenomenal job designing the book, and it is truly lovely. From the very creative table of contents to the carefully chosen fonts, to the lovely two-tone endpapers, the book (as an object) is a joy to hold and read. It costs only slightly more than an average literary paperback (think from Vintage International) and supports an indie press that is producing high quality work. They have also created a lovely companion website for the book with information about its production. Kawakami mentioned in the Preface that there would be a discussion board up for her book, but I can’t find the link anywhere if it’s up. Hopefully there will be one; I’d love to read other people’s thoughts.

Bottom line: Butterfly is fascinating and expertly crafted in both form and content. Period.

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From the Cracked Mirror is a blog about culture, both high and low, including art, literature, film, food, and advertising from a progressive and feminist perspective. I’m here to critique, elucidate, wonder, and gush...

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