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.

 

 

Book Buys, Word of Mouth and International Girls’ Day

Restless seeking to find stability, worthless seeking to fill sense of self, call it evasion, elopement or ostrich flight syndrome… the book buying spree is ongoing. But all of¬†the books I bought below come from personal recommendations, mainly via social media.

A trio of blue
A trio of blue

After¬†posting a review¬†about Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, dear blogger friend Susan Osborne recommended Kathleen Jamie’s nature essays, while Dorothy Nimmo and Steve Erickson were mentioned with some admiration on Twitter. Dorothy Nimmo apparently spent the 1960s as a ‘trailing spouse’ in Geneva, and her intriguingly succinct bio¬† says: ‘DN was an actress for ten years, a wife-and-mother for 25. In 1980 she started to write; in 1989 she ran away from home.’

Monochrome happiness
Monochrome happiness

My Canadian friend and¬†fellow book fanatic¬†Sylvie ¬†sent me the small volume Lire la rue, marcher le po√®me (Read the street, walk the poem), a series of short essays and ‘provocations’, workshop notes¬†and samples of written¬†work¬†to inspire teachers to use poetry in the classroom. Meanwhile, the indefatigable Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions has sent me the proof copy of Saleem Haddad’s moving novel about growing up queer in an Arab country.

Not a girl in sight in the title, but there may be one in the text...
Not a girl in sight in the title, but there may be one in the text…

This one has a more complicated lead-in. When Sarah Savitt (then working at Faber) visited the Geneva Writers’ Group in 2015 and gave me some feedback on my WIP, she was very excited about a book which she was about to launch, Kate Hamer’s The Girl in the Red Coat. I was initially somewhat sceptical, having overdosed on books with ‘girls’ in their title, but when I read it, I thought there was a very different and unique voice at work there. Nearly two years later, my novel is nowhere near completion (sorry, Sarah!), but Kate Hamer has written a second one, which will be released in February 2017. When Sophie Portas from Faber asked who wanted an advance copy, I knew I had to request it, especially since it appears to once again feature a young girl’s view on life.

Speaking of which,¬†today is the fifth International Day of the Girl, so here’s to all the wonderful creatures and future generations of women out there! May your way be much smoother than the previous generations’. Here’s a poem by Phoebe Stuckes written just for you.

Let us build bonfires of those unanswered prayers.
Let us learn how to leave with clean and empty hearts
Let us escape these attics still mad, still drunk, still raving
Let us vacate these badly lit odd little towns
Let us want none of what anchored our mothers
Let us never evolve to be good or beautiful
Let us spit and snarl and rattle the hatches
Let us never be conquered
Let us no longer keep keys in our knuckles
Let us run into the streets hungry, fervent, ablaze.

You
Are a mighty thing
A captive animal, woken with a taste for blood.
Feed it,

You Amazon, you Gloria, you Swiss army knife of a woman.

International Day of the Girl banner from UNICEF, Haiti
International Day of the Girl banner from UNICEF, Haiti