Empowering, Inspiring, Energetic and Fun: Janelle Monae

You may remember I had planned a whole summer of activities, trips and events to celebrate my birthday this year. This was the last but perhaps most flamboyant event in my calendar: attending the Janelle Monáe gig at The Roundhouse in Camden. All of the usual arguments came up: too tired, too busy, too old to be standing for hours, too expensive, too self-indulgent. But I ignored all of that and had an absolutely wonderful time. She is even more pretty, energetic and amazing live than she is in her (zany and infectious) videos. I am utterly in love!

This was a celebration of being a woman, being black, but also being whatever the hell you want to be. A really warm, inclusive atmosphere, with a hearty dollop of confident feminine power (not of the Spice Girl kind) thrown in for good measure. Four people were invited onstage to dance to ‘I Got the Juice’ – one was an actress, two were female audience members and the last one was a girl in a wheelchair, who perhaps got the biggest applause of all.

Janelle has so much charisma, she could easily become a cult leader. She had us in the palm of her hand, we were ready to do whatever she asked – sing along, shout ‘I’m dirty! I’m proud!’ and even lie down on the floor. She talked about standing up for what you believe, daring to be different and how love is the only thing making the world worth living in, but this was not someone who was using the stage as a political platform or who loves the sound of their own voice. She sang and danced pretty much non-stop for 2 hours, and gave a great encore, so she certainly gave value for money.

What surprised me most were all the humorous little touches. I’d seen them on video, but it was so much more obviously sheer complicity with the audience (winking, a little sideways smile, teasing with her body poses). This was a performer who was having fun on the stage, by herself, with her dancers and musicians, and with us the audience. I found myself giggling out loud at some of her antics, like her long-drawn out end to a song. There were thoughtful, gentle ballads too, and a rather touching tribute to Prince at the end of a song with a purple light shining on an empty stage.

Most of the songs were from the most recent album Dirty Computer¬†(which is after all the name of the tour), but there were a few of the most popular songs from previous albums too to keep fans happy. Crowdpleasers like ‘Electric Lady’ and an encore with ‘Tightrope’, but also quite emotional renditions of ‘Primetime for our love’ and ‘Cold War’.¬†

I dressed up for the occasion in a golden skirt, black top and a matching ring (my new favourite piece). Although this middle-aged lady here felt very tired standing for 2 hours before the show started (I did not feel the pain during the show itself) and is still recovering from getting home at 1 a.m., I came out of the venue immensely energised. That’s just the way she makes me feel!

Gender, Sex and Identity in Recent Fiction

I love the serendipity of reading two or more books on similar topics in quick succession. It must be the subconscious at work rather than deliberate choice, but through this enforced proximity the books always end up illuminating and enhancing each other.

watchdisappearEva Dolan: Watch Her Disappear

You know by now how fond I am of Eva Dolan’s work, which is a sophisticated mix of police procedural and social commentary via the Hate Crimes Unit in Peterborough. Her writing style in the first two books was very rich, of such literary quality that almost every sentence begged to be read twice, to become fully aware of all the implications. Since then, perhaps because of editorial pressure, her style has become a little more down-to-earth. Although I miss the earlier style, I have to admit that this does make for much faster reading, without ever becoming pedestrian.

The plot: middle-aged but attractive Corinne Sawyer is attacked and killed while out jogging by the river. At first the police suspect it might be a serial rapist escalating his crimes, but when it turns out that Corinne was Colin until a few years ago, the Hate Crime unit gets called in. Zigic and Ferreira soon discover that she was not the first trans woman who has been violently attacked in the local area. As usual with this hate-crime-fighting duo, they encounter deep-seated prejudice, accusations of being bigoted themselves, and families where resentment and bad feelings rule supreme.

The author has the knack to take on really difficult and topical subjects, and make us question our assumptions about them. We get to see not only the unhappiness and fear of transgender and transvestite people, the lack of understanding and support which they experience, but we also come to see the impact it has on their friends and families. These are complex situation which deserve sensitive treatment and our loyalty is often conflicted, our sympathies lying with both sides. There is just the right balance between compassion and judgement, sadness and justice.

Dolan seems to have covered now nearly all aspects of hate crimes with her series set in Peterborough: migrant labour, white supremacists, disability and now the trans community. There are hints that their unit might be wound up and I wonder if that is because the author fear she may be running out of topics to write about without repeating herself. Sadly, the hate crimes themselves seem to be here to stay.

guapaSaleem Haddad: Guapa

If¬†Dolan’s book makes you think¬†it’s hard being a transvestite or transgender in England, you should try being that – or gay – in a Middle Eastern city (unspecified country, although there were bits which reminded me of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria). A fish out of water regardless of where he goes, both in the US and in his home town, Rasa describes 24 hours of his life after he has been discovered having sex with a man by his grandmother. Politics, hypocrisy, corruption, violence and shame all jostle in a world where nothing is quite what it seems but the truth seems far too dangerous to discuss openly.

Rasa is an interpreter for Western journalists by day, an occasional protestor during the¬†Arab Spring and,¬†at night, he parties at Guapa (which means ‘beautiful’ in Spanish), an underground club catering for the ‘hidden’ LGBT community in the city. He is also desperately in love with Taymour, who is about to get married to a girl in order to please his family.¬†After Rasa’s grandmother makes her shocking discovery, one of Rasa’s friends, the drag queen Majid, is arrested by the police for political protest.

Within the space of 24 hours, the novel¬†gives us a generous slice of Rasa’s world, showing¬†an increasing alienation from both Western culture and his own, as he tries to untangle his own ‘betwixt and between’ identity. The author himself is a mix of Lebanese-Palestinian and Iraqi-German, has grown up in Jordan, Canada and Britain,¬†and worked for M√©decins Sans Fronti√®res, so he knows what he is talking about.

The prose is slightly pedestrian at times, and there are occasional instances of information dumping. Some readers might be put off by the polemical discussions between Rasa and his friends about what constitutes eib (shame, unclean), or between Rasa and his fellow students in the US about Islam. It can sound more like a treatise than fiction at times. However, for me it was quite eye-opening: being a double outsider in a world where so much is forbidden, and even more is swept under the carpet. A nuanced insight into a world that to us in the West is often presented as a straightforward dichotomy: black and white, extreme poverty and obscene wealth, inner city rubble or luxurious hotels and oil sheikhs in fast cars.