GE17: A victory for progressive politics

A lot has happened in 24 hours but, in all practicality, not that much will actually change. Theresa May has refuted calls to resign and it is likely that by the end of the day she will have made a deal with the DUP – whether as a minority government, or part of a coalition, we don’t know.

However, last night was an achievement for millions across the UK. An ‘unelectable’ leader did what no-one else has managed to do and has achieved what was considered impossible two moths ago. He delivered the Youth Vote, which turned out to be decisive in undermining the Conservatives. May called the election to increase her majority, with many commentators predicting a Tory landslide. To have run a campaign which engaged young voters, won back seats and ultimately broken the Tory majority is nothing to scoff at – Corbyn has achieved some momentous strides for progressive politics.

There will be dark days ahead. A Tory-DUP pact will likely deliver a hard Brexit, and will likely continue policies of austerity and cuts. Hopefully, a small majority will be blocked on bills such as Fox Hunting and a repeal of Human Rights. The important thing is that with an increased number of progressive seats, the MPs we have elected can challenge the Conservatives and better represent us. But we cannot grow apathetic again. We must stay engaged, keep campaigning and promoting a more positive, inclusive and hopeful politics. And whether the next vote comes in 5 months or 5 years, we have to make sure that we build on Corbyn’s success, making the Youth Vote a powerful force in politics.

This article was originally posted on Voice Mag

 

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Cambridge Literary Festival 2017

Last weekend I had the privilege of being able to visit Cambridge Literary Festival and seeing some of the best writers and academics discussing a range of subjects.

Although I saw a range of different talks, from literature to history to politics, there were some really interesting recurring ideas which came out of the weekend. In the panels on The Good Immigrant, Women on the March and Where are all the Women, the importance of representation was focused on; ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ pointed out Lennie Goodings.

Yet Darren Chetty showed us that for children of colour, even when they are encouraged to read diverse books in school, they exclusively write about white characters – based upon an assumption that stories have to be about white people. Equally, Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Stateman points out than when we think of professors, academics, politicians and economists we think of men. So these events were looking at what we can do to overturn these assumptions, by pushing harder for representation, to break stereotypes and create more opportunities.

Equally these talks also focused on the importance of speaking openly about sex and women’s bodies, particularly for women of colour, whether it is making sex less taboo as Coco Khan advocates for, or dealing with issues like FGM, which Nimko Ali argues is specifically gender based violence – you are only at risk of it if you are biologically female. With women such as they talking openly about these subjects, and encouraging others, and even politicians to do the same, it is the first step towards dealing with these issues. As Elif Shafak says these conversations are happening, but in homes and cafes, and we need them to happen in a political domain and in the media.

The range of talks show a clear concern about how geo-political history is affecting contemporary society, with talks on Russia from the fall of the Berlin Wall through to Putin, an examination of Trump’s first 100 days and Elif Shafak speaking on contemporary politics in Turkey. We are seeing a growing concern over relationships with Russia, divergent politics and the spread of populism throughout the Western world.

For both Sarah Churchwell and Elif Shafak polarising views and the inability to compromise is dangerous, and we risk diverging further by refusing to listen to and converse with our opponents. Equally Shafak and Coco Khan both demonstrate how nationalism is concerning. For Khan, it is alienating and threatening, while Shafak sees how in Turkey it is damaging free speech, academia and democracy.

Despite the apparent range in the subjects of the talks I went to, there were many recurring themes which illustrate common concerns within contemporary society, but these talks also aim to explore solutions, stoke debate and help fuel action and change.

Overall it was a great weekend and I was excited to see so many wonderful speakers, and be involved in such interesting discussions on literature and politics.

 

Feminist February – Week 2

In case you missed it, I have decided to spend February reading exclusively on feminism! Check out the books I aim to read and the reasons behind my Feminist February Challenge

The second week of the challenge was a lot slower than the first. I should have rocketed through the next few books on the list as they were so short but unfortunately life got the better of me this week. On the plus side I finished two books which made another great pair, as well as starting two seemingly different books without realising that they actually had a similar theme.

Genre Bending

My first book of the week was The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, a series of short stories which rework well known fairytales. These stories are often pinpointed as feminist due to advocating female agency, and dealing frankly with, and embracing, female sexuality. The stories presented show a range of women from heroines to victims, including women who openly undergo sexual awakenings and come to terms with their bodies. Many stories, for example those based around Beauty and the Beast or Red Riding Hood, use transitional states to explore the significance of the body in female sexual identities.

I decided to read a graphic novel alongside The Bloody Chamber for the way it deals with genre; Ms Marvel reworks conventions of superhero genre. Kamala Khan is the first female Muslim lead of her own comic. Her origin story follows the typical trajectory of feeling at odds with the world and so assuming a superhero identity and larger purpose. She discovers the ability to shapeshift and initially starts to save people in the guise of her hero Captain Marvel. However, rather than hiding behind a blonde Captain Marvel – which she could do if she desired, she chooses to embrace her Muslim identity, with a costume based upon the traditional ‘salwar kameez’ . As in Carter’s stories, transitional states become a symbol of Kamala’s struggles as unlike her hero, her super-power is to shape-shift. This also breaks typical conventions of idealised and sexualised female bodies in the genre, as she is often depicted disproportionately and she can manipulate and use her body the way she wants to.


Reclaiming ‘Bad’
week2pt2

The next two books I have started Bad Girls Throughout History and Bad Feminist are both non-fiction. The first is an illustrated compendium of the stories of 100 remarkable women who changed the world, while the latter is a series of essays by Roxane Gay. Both reclaim the word ‘bad’: Ann Shen looks at how all of these women broke rules and pushed boundaries to make change, while Roxane Gay uses it in acceptance of the fact that there is no one perfect form of feminism. Either way these books make being ‘bad’ not so bad after all.

I’ll be ploughing on with these books over the next week and hopefully also starting On Beauty to complete my original list. Stay tuned!

Dystopian Fiction for 2017

Sales of dystopian fiction have skyrocketed since President Trump’s inauguration. This may be in response to his extreme Executive Orders or as backlash against ‘alternative facts’. The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 have been flying off the shelves, but there are some less obvious novels which can also offer some commentary on or insight into the current political situation.

Here are the best for you to check out:

The Plot Against America

The rise of the authoritarian President in this book could almost be based on Trump’s success,  and nigh on predicted it almost a decade beforehand. It is also a good example of how Trump’s policies could begin to spiral out of control and end up being much more than supposed ‘security measures’. The way this book shows potential for institutionalised racism and racial segregation to become the new norm makes it seem less like dystopian fiction than a possible historical narrative. On that note it will also make you question all the history you know – talk about alternative facts.

The Parable of the Talents 

Not unlike Roth, Octavia Butler pretty much predicted Trump through her violent autocrat Senator Andrew Steele Jarret. Jarret has a lot of parallels with our current president, as do his supporters, for example through religious intolerance and mob-like behaviour. He is described as “a demagogue, a rabble-rouser, and a hypocrite,” and it becomes obvious that his right-wing politics is pushing his party and supporters towards fascism. The part that will really send shivers down your spine will be his rallying call to “make America great again.” You can’t make this up.

Inherent Vice

Pynchon’s penchant for real estate moguls is fascinating in his critique of American capitalism and Mickey Wolfmann from Inherent Vice is the most relevant – as well as being the face of American capitalism, his dubious business ties indicate illegal dealings, and his actual property includes a strip mall who’s only business is a brothel, not to mention the ‘gentrification’ which verges on ethnic cleansing in order to drive property prices up. Oh and his body guard is a neo-nazi. It would be incredibly easy to see this as a telling satire of a Trump-like figure, but the novel does more than this – despite being rooted in the 70s it is rooted in the issues that concern us today – suggesting we haven’t moved all that far.

The Road

The apocalyptic event that has resulted in the world of McCarthy’s The Road is unspecified, however it isn’t hard to imagine it being the result on the environmental destruction caused by the current administration. Equally it could very well have been due to a nuclear blast, courtesy of a trigger happy president thanks to a twitter war gone wrong. In all seriousness though, this novel shows us what we could be in for and there are now a myriad of ways we could get there.

Catch-22

Catch-22 is rooted in a very specific historical period, however the sheer ridiculousness of bureaucracy and incompetence in it is perfect. Moreover the business rhetoric of Milo Minderbinder is reminiscent of another American businessman, and despite Milo’s failings in his syndicate, and lack of any leadership experience, he finds himself thrust into positions of power in towns and countries across Africa and Asia. Sounding familiar? The novel also encompasses and reflects a big problem for those of use who would love to see Trump impeached but are terrified of Pence in power, giving us a second reason to look at where the phrase Catch-22 came from.

Bonus – one for younger readers:

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Yertle the Turtle 

If you didn’t already know Dr Suess is the pinnacle of political commentary then don’t knock it because there is so much more than just a children’s book here. This book was actually an allegory of Hilter’s rule and a warning against authoritarian leadership. A warning we clearly didn’t listen to, because you will definitely recognise something in Yertle’s behaviour. Trump’s need to prove he is the best, regardless of things like truth and fact can be seen in Yertle’s desperate need to be higher than anyone else.

Goodreads Review – Autumn by Ali Smith

AutumnAutumn by Ali Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t think any book has had me crying, then laughing again in such a short page span. It is beautifully written; a perfectly pitched political satire without risking cynicism. Smith has made this so current and relevant, capturing the atmosphere of political tensions after Brexit, reflecting the horrors of the refugee crisis so poignantly, and questioning how we look at and interpret the world using utterly beautiful explorations of art and literature.

The exploration of 1960’s pop art culture, as well as interwoven allusions to texts such as Brave New World, A Tale of Two Cities and The Tempest were seamless, incredibly clever and, on occasion thought-provoking, challenging the reader to reconsider their readings and interpretations – something which Daniel makes Elizabeth do throughout.

I particularly love that this book avoids being ‘doom and gloom’ or entirely apocalyptic despite the difficult political events it draws on for material. Despite it being ‘autumn’ and the awful state of increased racism and intolerance which pervade the novel, it maintains a sense of beauty and hope, rooted in the on-going theme of art.

It is a very ‘literary’ novel and so those hoping for strong plot or character may be disappointed, however it is a sad, beautiful, relevant and thought-provoking analysis of our society today. I am looking forward to Smith’s next instalment and only hope she can capture more recent political events, since Autumn was published, with the same touch.

View all my reviews

The Man Booker Prize 2016: Round-Up

With the announcement of the winner this evening, here is a round up and some final thoughts on the Man Booker shortlist:

Hot Milk

A weird and wonderful, very contemporary, abstract analysis of female sexuality and different female relationships. Levy’s style is much like DeLillo but far more readable, making her a top contender. As this is her second nomination for the prize, Levy has been an early favourite to win.

His Bloody Project 

The second novel of Graeme Macrae Burnet has certainly been an underdog, going from a small Scottish publisher Contraband, to being the biggest seller of the shortlist according to Amazon. The novel has been incredibly well received by readers, but the question is whether commercial success will translate to prize-winning?

Eileen

Very engaging and easy to read, as well as entertaining, which comes as no surprise after author Ottessa Moshfegh admits the novel was an exercise in writing a best-seller. While there is no doubt the seeds of success are there, the big question will be whether Moshfegh has pushed her luck with this confession.

The Sellout 

An exploration of ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-Obama’ America, you cannot argue that this book is ahead of the game for contemporary fiction, with Obama not yet out of office. While this book couldn’t be more necessary or relevant in the light of the current political landscape in both America and much of the West, Beatty’s novel seems to be lagging behind the others.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien’s epic tale of 20th Century China is the only book so far touted as being worthy of the Booker Prize for its ‘literary’ quality. Last minute betting has put the odds in Thien’s favour, emerging ahead of Hot Milk, which was the early favourite.

All That Man Is

Winner of the Gordon Burn Prize at Durham Book Festival, this novel already has a prize under its belt, However. it has been controversial due to its form, with many arguing that it reads more like short stories than a comprehensive work, though the author has firmly maintained that it is a novel, making it an interesting nominee.

Final Thoughts?

I have only read three of the nominees – Eileen, Hot Milk ,and His Bloody Project, but have been keeping up with wider discussions. Do Not Say We Have Nothing currently seems like a favourite to win, but I am hoping Burnet does as His Bloody Project was a fantastic, clever, and incredibly well-written book. As well as the commercial success which shows it to be a best-seller, trumping Moshfegh’s attempt, I also think it has the literary quality to be a real contender. I have heard very little about The Sellout, although its relevance in the current social and political landscape shouldn’t be underestimated. I think that All That Man Is sounds incredibly interesting and I love the idea of the format, though it isn’t completely revolutionary – Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is a novel which is similarly structured through different short stories of the characters. Equally, I would find it disappointing if a book which largely centres on European male experience was to win, particularly after a similarly white, male and western-centric choice with Dylan winning the Nobel. At least if Burnet were to win, his novel deals with the nuance of mental illness within the justice system – something still very relevant today, and it would also champion small publishers, not to mention regional writing considering the Scottish heritage of the novel.

For Burnet to win would also make the Booker a bit more accessible – it is clearly the people’s favourite, whereas another ‘typical’ Booker winner would confirm the Prize’s ‘high flown’ and ‘literary’ status. Overall, my money is on Levy or Thien to win, although I would love for it to be Burnet, as the novel is my favourite so far (I will try to read them all!). However, even if he doesn’t it is clear he has already found success!

Empowering Women: Is Violence the Answer?

After winning Video of the Year at this years VMA’s Taylor Swift claimed that she is happy to live in a world where ‘boys can play princesses and girls can play soldiers.’ This stab at an inspiring feminist sound-bite however is quite problematic. One issue is ignoring the real life women who are literally battling in a masculine world to BE and not just PLAY soldiers.

But on a wider-scale this feeds into a difficult issue for feminism about women and violence in popular culture. Until now the debate has largely been around women as victims, however feminism has caused women to embrace roles traditionally portrayed by men. Often this is through asserting power, control and sometimes violence, raising the question of what impact this is having on feminism and culture in general.

This point is made through the increasing number of ‘badass’ women are popping up everywhere now, with Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood and Rhianna’s BBHMM showing women in empowering roles. We are also seeing a (perhaps too small) rise in the number of female action or superheroes on our screens, think Scarlett Johanssen as Black Window and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, amongst a few others who can be seen as women embracing their femininity and sexuality while ‘kicking butt’. While I accept that even the Black Widow has been slut shamed, the out-roar this caused surely shows us we are moving in the right direction; the next step is her own movie if anyone at Marvel is reading.

This badass image is great. It is empowering right? We are seeing tough women, in roles that, until now, men have monopolised. Except recently I’ve begun to wonder whether this is such a good thing.

I’d always wanted to be that girl, the one who could shoot a gun, take down a bad guy and protect herself. But upon finally reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, I’ve reconsidered this at great length. While I have great admiration for Lisbeth Salander, I am perpetually frustrated at her refusal to trust anyone and to achieve justice through law and order. While I wouldn’t deny that her the abusive men in her life got what they deserved, and more, I do think that the way to deal with such people is in a socially open way, where knowledge of their crimes would help start campaigns and charities, influence policies and legislation and, hopefully reform society. Think about it: the increasing measures to protect people against various crimes have only occurred because the crime set a precedent in the first place.

Now I appreciate that many will say I am reading too deeply into this (sorry, I am an English Student, it’s what I do) but here we should work off the premise that what we see in literature, art, Hollywood and the music industry will begin to influence our cultural attitudes. As much as I love to see empowered women I don’t want to tell anyone that going to the police and reporting crimes is not being strong enough, or not fighting back. It is fighting back, in the best way possible. As well as the influence it may have on society it gives women a voice.

In fighting for gender quality having a voice and a platform to express themselves on is of crucial importance for women. This is why I am going to push ‘Bad Blood’ aside for a second to talk about Rhianna’s incredible video for Bitch Better Have My Money. While it has been slated for perpetuating gang violence this video uses the Tarantino-esque neo-noir genre to depict a woman asserting power and control through violence. As such the stylised nature of the video and deliberate fictionalising cinematography cements this as artistic female expression of violence in a genre and in a culture of gang violence which is typically male-dominated.

On the other hand Swift’s Bad Blood is worrying; while there is no doubt BBHMM is targeted at an adult or mature teen audience, Swift’s music is popular with far younger viewers and listeners. It glamourises guns, violence and playing soldiers. While this may have a part to play in the fight to empower women, I fear that lines like ‘band-aids don’t fix bullet holes’ romanticizes and most significantly normalises this kind of violence.

Looking at these three different examples of women and their relationships to violence in an attempt to empower poses a complex question. How do we find the very fine balance between empowering women and allowing them to take up roles usually reserved for men, and still promoting a culture of law and order which doesn’t condone violence. Some may say that I am taking the idea of the latter too far in applying it to literature, films and music videos but I believe this is important in a society where the few women who report attacks may not even be believed, where the legal system has a long way to go to become what we need.

Thinking through such issues and talking about them is also an important way of understanding them, and that is something we should be doing more of in society. After doing so with this issue I have drawn my own conclusion that depictions of violent women should always be taken with a pinch of salt and we shouldn’t embrace this as the norm of empowered women. Although I will say that if we are going to depict empowered women then it is Rhianna who is leading the way.

Dear Mr Corbyn, Let’s talk about ‘women’s issues’

Dear Mr Corbyn,
Let’s talk about ‘women’s issues’

I want to put politics aside and address an important issue which no party is doing enough to deal with. This issue is culturally embedded sexism. As a male politician you have done more than most and showed your willing to help and protect women, but unfortunately your new pledge and these ideas to prevent assault in public places is actually part of the problem.

Putting forward ideas to ‘help’ and ‘protect’ women contributes even more to their victimisation. Especially when that help and protection includes segregation. This is exactly what creating separate train carriages for women does. It suggests that ‘men will be men’ and that we should just stay out of their way. It suggests women are always victims and never perpetrators. It also doesn’t practically solve the issue: if women are being assaulted on trains where is it happening?

Without wanting to make assumptions it will be most likely happening on late night and weekend trains where there are fewer passengers. It is probably happening in toilet stalls and corridors rather than in the carriages themselves. Or on the other side of the coin it may be happening on overcrowded trains where you have little choice who you sit or stand next to and an inability to move through the carriages.

I also believe that this solution is very niche. How does it stop street harassment; women being catcalled, verbally abused and groped? How does it stop assaults in bars and clubs, at university or in the workplace? How does it address assaults in the home? Perhaps I am being harsh in expecting measures to address to much but I would be interested to see how much sexual violence and assault on trains contributes to the total figure.

These problems can no longer be sidelined as ‘women’s issues’. These issues affect everyone is society and so society needs to deal with them.

I do also appreciate that this is only an idea which you have put forward for further discussion, but I want to to point out that it is symptomatic of a wider issue in society. Rather than keeping women out of the way of potential harassers can we please nip the issue in the bud, so to speak? By this I mean we should address those who do, or potentially will, harass and assault. Seeing as we still live in a country where rape is under reported and under prosecuted I feel new measures such as the ones proposed will fall short of making any meaningful difference. Instead we need a widespread initiative to address attitudes in society.

These initiatives should address the men who still believe they are entitled to something from women. It should address the catcallers and the husbands and boyfriends who still see it as their right. It should address the men and women who are guilty of slut-shaming, yet another form of victim blaming. It should address the attitudes of women and girls that they need to be modest and appropriate otherwise they will be judged. It should change the attitudes of children now, so that they grow up thinking differently to their parents.

I understand that this is far easier said than done. It will take effort, planning, motivation. It will need to come from top down as well as grassroots projects. It will need to be featured in different areas of societies, through schools, workplaces, TV and social media. But I believe that if any politician can do this it will be Jeremy Corbyn. And that is the kind of thinking I want to see from politicians.

I hope these ideas, coming from a number of writers and bloggers will make politicians and people in general realise that these problems can no longer be sidelined as ‘women’s issues’. These issues affect everyone is society and so society needs to deal with them.

Obama’s wise words for the west

Obama’s comments on Saturday at the National Prayer Breakfast are words we should be paying very close attention to rather than criticising. While there is no doubt about the seriousness of terrorism on the world stage and the threat posed by Islamic State, Obama instead addressed the attitudes contributing to drastic increases in Islamophobia in recent years. By telling the western world, and specifically its Christian population, not to get on a high horse over extremism Obama bravely confronted the issue from a perspective that had gone on to be criticised and even be labeled ‘offensive’.

President Obama, photography by Wikimedia Commons
President Obama, photography by Wikimedia Commons

Yet nothing Obama said was offensive.  Furthermore, his examples were completely true. Regardless of anyone’s opinions on the issue it is undeniable that many people have suffered as a result of Christian endeavors or at the hands of the white western world. While it would be wrong to condone extremist actions due to an unsavoury history of them in the western world, Obama wisely acknowledged that a white western population with roots on Christianity cannot take a moral high ground over extremism. More specifically he noted that extremism is not a phenomenon exclusive to Islam. On this side of the pond at least many seem to forget that once up on a time, not so very long ago, terrorism was a thing of the Cold War or linked to the IRA. Moreover, it becomes ever more apparent extremist actions are not attributable to any group as a whole.

Those eager for confrontation, retribution and revenge have to remember that in taking such action, we must ensure we are not encompassing the millions of Muslims who condemn IS and extremist groups. These people have far more right to take a moral high ground as their religion and identity has been affected by both those groups and the western world which refuses to differentiate. To put current events into a wider context, we must remember that different religions have been opposed, in conflict and exploiting others for hundreds of years, we can go back to the crusades and the inquisition, like Obama, or even recall the extent of anti-semitism perpetuated by Christianity, right up to the holocaust. It would be wrong not only to believe ‘we’ are morally better, but especially to feel justified in launching any violent retaliation. While there may be limited options of how to deal with the increasing activity of ISIS, we must remember that any action will have wider repercussions, and as military action always does, affect a number of completely innocent lives.

Obama has done something rare in politics, namely leading the way…


Furthermore, returning to the President’s address, Obama’s comments on free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were perfectly poised between a defence of the right to free speech and a condemnation of using it to offend or insult a religion. He took a stand of solidarity with the targets of such verbal attacks claiming ‘we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — and stand shoulder to shoulder with religious communities.’ While many are criticising the presidents words claiming them as offensive, I would like to suggest that it is refreshing to hear a world leader express such a sentiment. No longer needing to appeal to his audiences for votes, Obama has done something rare in politics, namely leading the way rather than attempting to pander to his voters. This shows that if we really want to take the moral high ground and not, as Obama warned against, the ‘high horse’ (a subtle but significant difference) we must approach the issue in a way that condemns both extremism and racial prejudices. Unfortunately I do not know what that is. However, as shown in his incredibly wise address, if anyone can start is down that road, it is President Obama.