le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Can't Stop Thinking About September

This summer I read Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.  (link to my very brief Goodreads review & Goodreads page for the novel)
I can't remember how or where I first heard of it, though I suspect it was from one of the always-on-top-of-things members of my listserv. I did hear a little bit of buzz about the book, though, so I put in a hold request at my public library and waited for the book to show up.
When I got it, I had more than a little trepidation. Whimsical fairyland stories are becoming a dime a dozen, and it's so easy to get it wrong. And a bad fairyland story is - really bad.  Lots of authors think they're either playing with, or paying homage to, old-school fairyland stories when really they're just copying them over, badly. It's not a form of flattery; it's a form of cheap failure.

Valente's book started off promisingly, and got better all along. The downright weirdness of her Fairyland appeals strongly to my own sense of weirdness, as well as my familiarity with the equally weird nineteenth-century fairy stories of writers like Jean Ingelow and Juliana Ewing. Valente knows her Fairyland(s) - she's got wyverns and witches and guardians and magical folk of all kinds populating the place. She also throws in twists and wrenches that both defamiliarize Fairyland and create it anew (the polygamous witches are just the start, really).
And it is in the defamiliarizing of Fairyland that I think this book makes its magic. We all already know fairylands of many kinds: we know Wonderland, Neverland, we know Oz, we know Faerie, we know the Back of the North Wind, the back of beyond, the Almost Anywheres, the nearly-generic Fairylands that crop up all over the place. We know Narnia, and Middle Earth, and the Magic City, and Nowhere and the North Pole. Even the most carefully crafted, intricately detailed fairylands have a family resemblance to each other, and many more contemporary fantasy lands seem to be simple variations on the same family face.
But Fairyland, circumnavigated by Valente (and September), manages to take what we know and feel comfortable with, and turn it that quarter- or half-rotation to make it startlingly, or just delightfully, new. The herds of migrating velocipedes. The town made entirely of fabrics. The magical university town. The sentient lamp and shoes. The hybrid Wyverary. The weird temporal twists and turns - because time, in Fairyland (as everywhere else, really) is a strange thing. The gorgeously-named Leopard of Little Breezes.
I admit to feeling confounded by questions of audience and address - Valente has written a quasi-19th-century children's book for grownups (her narrator at least once clearly indicates an adult audience). But in great 19th century fantasy form, Valente has also managed to make these kinds of questions practically irrelevant, interesting to the scholar of children's literature or narratology, but for the casual reader, essentially immaterial.
I need to read the book again; I was tempted to keep it longer from the library, for a second reading, but the waiting list was long, and I had another pile of new titles to work through, so I took this one back. In all likelihood, I will end up teaching it, or just buying it, within the next few months. I'm desperately eager for the second installment of the Fairyland books; September's adventures are not at a close, and my interest in Fairyland is only whetted by this first book.
The more time has passed since I read it, the more I realize what an intriguing and fantastic (in every sense of the word) read it was. I find myself thinking about the book, daydreaming sections of it, at odd moments, unexpectedly - this kind of unlooked-for afterthought usually signals, to me, that a text was more interesting or awesome than I initially realized. And then, a few days after having surgery on my shoulder, I lay in bed with nothing much to do except think of Fairyland, and a thought floated through my mind that has hugely changed my thinking about this novel, and makes me feel even better about giving it five stars on Goodreads. What crossed my mind was this: Catherynne Valente's book is the fantasy novel The Wizard of Oz was trying to be. L. Frank Baum's book, for all its popularity and sequels, for all that its film adaptation is fabulous, is still a remarkably unfanciful fantasy. Valente does Baum one better, and then laps him again, with this wonderful Fairyland of her own making.       

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


NPR reports today that the national teen unemployment rate is 25%. In Washington, DC, teen employment is at a staggering 50%. NPR also tells us that the last time teen unemployment topped 20% was 1981 - but that this is the third summer in a row that it's been above 20%.

The piece doesn't do a very good job of dealing with the potential fallout or implication of teen unemployment, though of course one of the two teens they interview gets it right away: ""I'm going to my senior year, so it's like, how am I supposed to help gather the extra money to go to college?" he [Jacquan Clark] says."

Instead, NPR subtly turns the focus to outcomes for the longer-term future of those kids, and, more importantly, the outcomes for present-day bosses and hiring, heavily citing Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute, offering this nugget: "But working a summer job as a teen is not just about earning extra spending money. Saltsman says it's also about learning skills so you can become a good worker later in your adult life."

Yes. This is true. It's great to have work on your resume straight away - it helps in hiring, in applying for all manner of things, it helps you mature and learn things and blah blah blah. All of those things are important, don't get me wrong. But the real immediate stakes are potentially even bigger, and Jacquan Clark hits it on the head: what about college?
There are a lot - a lot of teenagers who depend on their summer or year-round part-time jobs for more than just "extra spending money." I know I needed my jobs for any spending money, but also for things like buying clothes, traveling home from college, eventually buying a car and helping to pay for my semester abroad. And I was pretty well off; I had friends whose jobs paid for their college, period. With the cost of tuition rising everywhere, and student loans getting harder to get, teenagers, especially those from less privileged backgrounds (and I'm not even talking about truly poor backgrounds, though of course they are included), need every red cent they can accrue. For some, working really is the difference between going to college and not going.
It's very hard to "take a year off" between high school and college to earn money; it's hard to get back into the mode of academia. Taking standardized tests and applying along with your own class cohort streamlines the entire process, and keeps you moving along the college-bound track. The minute you step off that track, it takes you double or triple the number of steps to get back on.
Jacquan Clark, the teenager in NPR's piece, mentions the cost of college applications, which he will evidently be on the hook for. This adds up rapidly; where are those hundreds of dollars supposed to come from, if a parent can't or won't supply them?
This also ignores the fact that there are, in fact, teenagers in this country whose families depend at least partially on that teenager's income. Poor is poor is poor, and every dollar is needed. In other situations, a teenager's income goes to pay for everything he or she might need beyond the absolute basics of home and food: clothing, new shoes, adequate winter gear, school lunch, transportation, test or other school-related fees. None of that covers the other "necessaries" of teenage life, like the right kind of clothes, or an iPod, or a cellphone, or bits of cash for going for coffee or to diners or the movies or whatever it is teenagers do these days.

It's good that NPR is reporting on this - definitely good, and I applaud and appreciate that. But it is disgraceful that their focus is not so much on how this impacts teenagers qua teenagers, but on how it impacts them as future cogs in the capitalist machine.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Stravaganza: post-it note

I'm reading (re-reading and continuing on) Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza books. I know I read City of Masks some years back, and at least started City of Flowers, but I have no real memory of reading them, or what I thought. So I'm working through the series now; I'm halfway into the third book, City of Flowers. It's not a bad series at all, though (more than) a little formulaic.

But what I really want - and should look for - is a good piece of critical writing about the books done by a disabilities studies scholar. Something about the way Hoffman uses illness or injury, and wellness or healing, in her books feels interesting/important/possibly very problematic.

I don't have any training or expertise in disabilities studies at all, or I'd do the thinking-work myself.

In the absence of my expertise, I'd love to read the thoughts of someone at least moderately well-versed in dis/ability studies about Hoffman's books. At least as far as this third volume, illness, health, ability features as a fairly integral sideplot, and I think one would need to read them all to speak to the way dis/ability functions here.
Anyone? Disability studies scholars, read some Stravaganza and write about it!!

Friday, August 05, 2011

You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby, or Trailing Clouds of Glory

Wandering around the internet, I come across a newish hubbub over "sexualization of children!!!!!!" in the form of 10-year-old model Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau, who has been cropping up in fashion editorials for awhile, but for some reason (which I haven't got time to figure out - quick google searches didn't reveal the why now) is drawing attention now.

The usual suspects are trotted out: Let a Child Be a Child! (whatever that even means, and frankly, why not turn that attention to the children who have to work to help feed their families).
Too Young To Be Sexy (or Sexualized)! (Because evidently there IS a right age to be sexualized and objectified)
You're A Bunch Of Stuffy, Pedestrian Squares Who Don't Get Edgy Hip Fashion! (self-explanatory).

I followed up on Thylane Blondeau at all because the very smart Debbie Reese tweeted briefly about the response from the photographer (Dani Brubaker) who shot most of the images of Blondeau. Brubaker, who clearly has never visited My Culture Is Not a Trend, states that she "grew up by the code of the Native American Indian" which "venerates children yet allows them freedom of expression."

Wow, unpacking that statement could take all night!
I'm working on being more concise, though, and I'm expecting a friend from college to arrive soon for the weekend, so - in short:
There is no single "Native American Indian" with one single "code" about anything. There are, and were, many indigenous tribes with a variety of cultures, languages, and ways of life, including attitudes toward children. Presumably also including attitudes toward freedom of expression, as well.
Staging white Thylane Blondeau (I mean, Blondeau? irony?) in hipsterish "Indian" garb is just not okay. It's just not. It doesn't matter if Blondeau is 10 or 20 or 50 - the appropriation and misuse of articles of Native cultures is not okay. Especially not when these are, essentially, fashion/modelling photos, as opposed to some kind of art photography that is attempting to make some kind of commentary or statement on, or with, the appropriation of aforementioned culture. Fashion and modelling photos exist to sell things: in this case, to sell us, I guess, a 10-year-old girl, and an aesthetic.
Which brings me to "freedom of expression" - Brubaker may honestly believe that she is living some kind of code of freedom of expression, but being staged and photographed by someone else is not freedom of expression for the model. It's Brubaker's expression, or the stylist's, or the fashion designer's. The object of the gaze is very rarely the one with all the power, or even most of it, and this is compromised doubly, trebly, by the status of the object: a kid, in the benighted "costume" of a minority/oppressed culture(s).

I don't object to the sexualization of children, per se, though to be very explicit I don't especially condone it, either. What I object to is the sexualization and objectification of people, specifically women and girls (because how often does this question even come up around little boys? How often do we see boys posed the same way adult models are?)

Laura Mulvey wrote her game-changing article ("Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema") on "the gaze" in the early 1970s (published around 1975). 36 years later, the gaze is still going strong: still held by men, still object-ifying women. The women keep getting younger (though even in the 1970s and earlier, young women and girls were made public objects - that's nothing new) and the media keep getting more and more diffuse and omnipresent, but the essentials haven't changed.

Gods know I don't believe in things like "childhood innocence" or some kind of inherent wordsworthian idyll of childhood - those trails of glory are all in the eye of the besotted beholder, usually the new parent(s) and/or grandparent(s). But I do believe that people, most often women, should be able to live their lives as subjects, not objects.  They should have every choice available to them; they should be able to choose when, how, under what conditions, and why they might position themselves as objects in a public way. These are complicated choices to make, and the stakes can be quite substantial, and because children lack the experience that helps inform these choices, it's essential parents and other caretakers aid them in making those choices.
I have a possibly-unreasonable bias against "trick children." I hate child models, child actors, child performers - not the children, exactly, but the system, the process, of converting childhood humanity into a product. I especially mistrust and dislike the parent(s) who guide their children into that system. There are too many bad stories about children exploited for their money, being used, used up, cast aside (Michael Jackson is only the most spectacular example of this - the way he raised his own children should speak loud volumes about his own experience as a famous child). To be sure, there are positive examples - Jodie Foster seems to be doing all right.
When I see photos like those of Thylane Blondeau, I immediately think: there's all the evidence you need to take that child away from her parents. Not necessarily in a literal sense, because I am sure she loves her mom and dad, and they love her. But her parents have also foreclosed on her options, by turning her into a spectacle. They've made their daughter into a very successful, highly paid object.
She might love it. Who knows? She's 10. She doesn't have a whole lot to compare it to. And her life is forever altered by this fame as a model, as a "sexy child."
What good parent looks at their child and thinks: "I hope my kid grows up to be someone people masturbate to" or "I hope someday my kid will pose naked for a popular magazine"?
It has nothing to do with the child as The Child, nothing to do with Romantic ideals about childhood. It has everything to do with the continued, continual objectification and reduction of girls and women to nothing more than, literally, their component physical parts.