I’m reading Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures by Sahar Amer for story research (a brief break from reading about Alexander legends in Armenia and the Caucasus for my MA thesis!) and she’s used a really interesting epigraph for one of the chapters that I thought others might want to read:
A willingness to descend into that alien territory split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism or multi-culturalism of the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. (Homi K. Bhabha, Location of Culture)
Sahar Amer’s own words are also very interesting. I heartily recommend her article “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women” (JSTOR access required – I found it hosted elsewhere online for free last year but that seems to have disappeared, so if anyone can’t get into JSTOR or any other academic resource, I’m happy to email the PDF), especially the quote about “the saffron massage” from the writing of the male poet Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Tifashi, who says of scissoring: “This operation is dubbed “the saffron massage” because this is precisely how one grinds saffron on the cloth when dyeing it.”
Meanwhile, in Crossing Borders, she quotes the Anglo-Norman Etienne de Fougères on lesbian sex:
In twos they do their lowlife jousting
And they ride to it with all their might;
At the game of thigh-fencing
They pay most basely each other’s share.
Euphemisms for lesbian sex are the best ever.
Poetry-friends, a question: have any of you published (or read) poetry about Sappho? I am writing an essay for my MA about Sappho and sexuality and personal reception, and am interested in other people’s writing about her. I already know Sonya Taaffe’s “Ψάπφοι Σελάννα” and several blog posts about Sappho, and Cat Valente’s translation years ago in Xelas Magazine, but what else is there?
(It is Sappho who makes me wish I read Greek. My languages are Akkadian and Sumerian; I want to continue with Akkadian this autumn, and the next on my list may be Classical Armenian, because it would open up under-studied aspects of the Alexander Romance, which is what I want to write a PhD on, eventually. Starting in autumn of 2014, I hope. So I am re-reading Sappho via Anne Carson, whose edition is beautiful; even in translation, Sappho’s words are wondrous.)
In gratitude for any poems you can give, and because I want to share this, a grave inscription by Nossis (whose wikipedia page yielded a book I want: Rabinowitz & Auanger, eds. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World):
Stranger, if you sail to the land of lovely dances, Mytilene,
To catch fire from the blossom of Sappho’s graces,
Say that a friend to her and the Muses, this Locrian land
Bore me. And knowing my name is Nossis, go on!
As the sparcity of posts has probably indicated, the MA is eating a huge amount of my time – it’s delightful, it’s making me so happy, it’s also a bit like this.
But! I found something cool today that I want to share.
I’m reading an article about the education of Assyrian princes (7th C BCE), when all of a sudden it quotes a letter from Šerua-eṭirat (eldest daughter of Esarhaddon, the king) to Libbali-šarrat (wife of Assurbanipal, crown prince of Esarhaddon at this time, later king):
Why don’t you write your tablets and recite your exercise, or people will say ‘Is this the sister of Šerua-eṭirat, the eldest daughter of the succession palace of Aššur-etelilani-mukinni, the great king, the legitimate king, king of the world, king of Assyria?’ And you are a daughter-in-law, the lady of the house of Assurbanipal, the great crown prince of the House of Succession of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria.
I love finding women in history. Here is proof of the princesses’ literacy. Here is a conversation between two women, where one admonishes the other for not studying hard enough. Here is evidence of women’s lives for a change.
It also makes me think of all those fantasy novels set in a secondary world where women are nothing more than walking vaginas, illiterate and possessing no skills of “worth” (on which note, please read this post from Kate Elliott on why her character Cat sews: because it is practical, because it is important to survival, because it is a communal activity among women, because sewing has a place in a secondary world adventure, because it is not remotely worthless). Here we have Assyrian royal woman – of course, the most privileged in their society – existing in a very male-dominated society and living lives not wholly revolving around men. (You will find that even less privileged women’s lives did not revolve around men. Gasp!) Here we have written fucking proof of some women’s skills.
It makes me hate shitty male fantasy writers even more for their wet dreams of worlds where women do nothing at all.
One of things I’ve read for the MA this week is a terrible book about Alexander’s Successors that was supposed to be a light, straightforward introduction to the chronology, as I want to write an essay about post-Alexander coinage issued by women, but turned out to be full of ridiculous statements that would make a fine drinking game (Robin Waterfield, Dividing the Spoils, 2011 – for the one or two of you who might actually want to know – drink whenever the words ‘megalomaniac’ or ‘purges’ are used!) but I did make a few notes from it, mostly things that had very little to do with the subject matter. I particularly liked this commemorative epigram, quoted as part of an aside:
All Nicomache’s favourite things, her trinkets and her Sapphic
conversations with the other girls beside the shuttle at dawn,
fate took away prematurely. The city of the Argives
cried aloud in lament for that poor maiden,
a young shoot reared in Hera’s arms. Cold, alas, remain
the beds of the youths who courted her.
(Posidippus 55 Austin/Bastianini; tr. Kathryn Gutzwiller. I am pretty curious about the use of the word ‘Sapphic’ – does anyone know if its use actually referred to lesbian relationships, or intimate conversations among women, or something else? I am assuming it’s in the original Greek; I don’t have that to hand…)
‘Sapphic’ conversations while weaving? I think it’s probably quite obvious why I like this.
This is also quite fitting, as I’m hoping to use November and the challenge-framework of Nanowrimo to revise the Turkmen YA novel, which has a lesbian and plenty of textile craft-work. Now I need to leave the library and get started on that!
“Under Falna’s Mask” will be published in the anthology The Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis and Kay Holt.
This is yet another story in the SF setting I’ve been working on a lot lately, and I’m really excited that it’s going to be published alongside a lot of awesome authors (the official TOC announcement is coming soon!) in a space opera(ish) anthology. One of the editors described my story as “a welcome shift to a view from the ground up”. Think: fewer (ie: no) space craft, more land-based, low-tech nomadic people.
I’m also really excited to be in this anthology because Athena is using it to address the imbalance that still occurs in a lot of science fiction, namely the overwhelming focus on men at the expense of women. Of the anthology’s purpose, Athena says:
“The Other Half of the Sky offers readers heroes who happen to be women, doing whatever they would do in universes where they’re fully human: Starship captains, planet rulers, explorers, scientists, artists, engineers, craftspeople, pirates, rogues…
As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” says: ‘We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.’ Everything.”
This is exactly the kind of science fiction I want to see more of.
I’ve been working on “Under Falna’s Mask” for some time, so it’s a relief to have it done. It wasn’t easy to write. I enjoyed writing it, though, and I doubt it’ll be long before I return to this part of the SF setting. (There’s already another story out on submission.) (“Under Falna’s Mask” is the SF novella I mentioned once or twice, which became an SF novelette after some extensive trimming. I’d still like to publish the full-length version at some point – perhaps as a standalone, perhaps with even more content than in the existing full-length version – but I assume that would have to wait until the exclusivity period on the story expires.)
Writing a story about burial mounds and ghosts and songs. I’ve been working on it for a couple of months, but the other day I figured out what it needed to make it even stronger. Now I think I can finish it.
I’m writing it with Patrick Wolf’s “Damaris” on repeat. I love the end (Oh oh rise up, rise up, rise up now from the earth!) but I also love the opening:
Floods the downs
Moles make mound
Round your bones
But nobody knows
The song’s origins are quite interesting:
“The latter song was inspired by a visit to a graveyard in Brede, a southern English town where most of Wolf’s ancestors are buried: “There are about 80 graves there from my family, and in the corner, under the shade of a tree, there was this small wooden cross with ‘Damaris’ on it.”
Inquiring at the church, Wolf was given a leaflet recounting its history, including the centuries-old story of Damaris’ ill-fated love affair with a vicar’s son. When the holy man forbade his son to marry a Gypsy girl, Damaris took her own life and assumed her quiet place in local history.”
And yet again I find myself drawn to the stories of women that would otherwise be lost if not for a drawing out, an act of art that brings them back into wider memory.
My story is in a different place, about different women – but it is a fitting song.
I saw this fantastic quote from Sandi Toksvig (upon whom I have a crush for being smart and funny and generally excellent) on tumblr tonight:
“When I was a student at Cambridge I remember an anthropology professor holding up a picture of a bone with 28 incisions carved in it. “This is often considered to be man’s first attempt at a calendar” she explained. She paused as we dutifully wrote this down. ‘My question to you is this – what man needs to mark 28 days? I would suggest to you that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.’
It was a moment that changed my life. In that second I stopped to question almost everything I had been taught about the past. How often had I overlooked women’s contributions?”
I want a big flashy sign that says THIS THIS THIS RIGHT HERE THIS.
It’s especially fitting as, just earlier this week, I was writing about similar things in the roundtable for the next issue of Stone Telling, which is due to be released quite soon.
And, in a little over a month, I’ll be returning to academia, where at least some of what I intend to do will be focusing on the women of the ancient world.
First: I have some stories to edit this weekend.
(I am alexdallymacfarlane.tumblr.com if anyone wishes to follow me there. Expect mostly reblogs of art, foxes, social commentary and A:TLA/Korra gifs.)
This is one of the best discussions of sexual harassment and assault I have read.
I find it interesting that in the past five years I’ve shifted my social circles so that I am predominantly hanging out with other women. Because, see, I spent two years at school doing this: “Some of the woman decide to just quietly put up with [being sexually harassed], because they’ve learned that no one will really side with them and it’s easier to go along than to lose one’s entire community.” And I don’t really want to do it again.
A few very disparate links.
A transgender scientist who has experienced the scientific world first as a woman and then, after transitioning, as a man, offers a damning critique on the various opinions for why there are not many women in science. It’s a fantastic article – I really recommend that you read it.
The final paragraph is especially cutting:
Which may account for what Prof. Barres calls the main difference he has noticed since changing sex. “People who do not know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”
Genevieve Valentine talks about bad experiences at this year’s Readercon: first being talked down to and patronised as the only woman on a panel, then being sexually harassed and stalked through the con by a man. She provides an excellent manual for not being a harasser:
A brief conversation is not an opportunity to try your luck.
When someone moves away from an overture you are making? You are done.
When someone indicates something you have said makes them uncomfortable and then turns their back on you? You are done.
When someone turns to you and tells you in no uncertain terms that you are not to touch them again and moves off at speed? You are so incredibly done.
And when you have offended a woman with boundary-crossing behavior, you do not get to choose how you apologize.
If a woman has indicated you are unwelcome (see above, but also including but not limited to: lack of eye contact, moving away from you, looking for other people around you, trying to wrap up the conversation), and especially if a woman has told you in any way, to any degree, that you are unwelcome, your apology is YOU, VANISHING.
The rest of the post contains detailed context. As Genevieve points out, this is not isolated activity. This is not a one-off. This kind of behaviour remains commonplace and needs to stop right now.
Onto lighter matters.
This is a stunning collection of poetry, of deeply felt, painstakingly crafted expressions of doubt, hope, fear, courage, transformation, transgression, and other emotions and experiences that beg to be given form. More than that, though, it’s also a strong, undeniable collection of voices, all of which make their own individual cases to be heard.
My poem is mentioned as one that provides a lingering image: “the woman who sews the gold candle-holder into her wrist in Alex Dally MacFarlane’s ‘Beautifully Mutilated, Instantly Antiquated’”.
“Little Talks” by Of Monsters And Men is an awesome song with an even more awesome video. Watch here:
I am also very fond of their “Slow and Steady”, although it’s pretty depressing. Their album is out this August.
io9 has a piece about 10 civilisations that disappeared under mysterious circumstances, which includes one I find very interesting: Çatalhöyük in Turkey, which thrived between 9,000-7,000 years ago, and is architecturally very interesting, as it “contained no roads as we know them, and was instead built sort of like a hive, with houses built next to each other and entered through holes in the roofs. It’s believed that people farmed everything from wheat to almonds outside the city walls, and got to their homes via ladders and sidewalks that traversed their roofs.”
I vaguely recall finding out about Çatalhöyük in the big museum in Ankara, but it had slipped from my memory until I read this.
Curious, I went over to the wikipedia page about Çatalhöyük and found the following: “In some cases, graves were disturbed and the individual’s head removed from the skeleton. These heads may have been used in rituals, as some were found in other areas of the community.”
THIS IS SO INTERESTING.
When I was researching the story set 16,000 years ago in the Kebaran culture with interesting fox burials, I encountered this, as skulls of humans (and foxes!) were moved between graves for a presumably specific reason. This grew more widespread in the Natufian culture, which followed the Kebaran – but that’s still a lot of millennia before Çatalhöyük! I need to go bibliography-searching to find out more about this.
I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to specialise academically beyond ancient (and very ancient) history. It’s all too interesting on this side of the Common Era.
Imagine: a group of women living together without men. It’s been imagined by men – see: the Amazons – generally as an object of eroticism or fear. The ultimate emasculation! Nothing is more horrifying than women who don’t need men! Especially if those women are fierce.
Imagine women doing whatever they want, un-harmed and un-limited by misogyny, forming relationships of all kinds only with one another. It’s a very gender binary view and it’s not the solution to our problems – nor do I want to kill all men. (Honest!) But for someone who is comfortable IDing as female, it can be wish-fulfilment.
But no, no, we can’t have that. Men! Heterosexual love! Pregnancy! Everything must eventually lead to these points.
Earlier this year I read two books, almost back-to-back, in which female-only societies that have thrived for centuries are undermined by the presence of a man – specifically, by heterosexual love with that man.
The first book is Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, which is otherwise a dreadfully dull story about a horrible man and his friends going to find Prester John. I’m sure Baudolino is meant to be a sexist, racist dick because ~historical~ but I don’t see why I should find that in any way enjoyable. But suddenly, amidst hundreds of pages of gross gender essentialism, we meet the hypatias.
“You must realise that a thousand thousand years ago, in a powerful and distant city, there lived a wise and virtuous woman named Hypatia. She had a school of philosophy, which means love of wisdom. But in that city also some bad men lived, who were called Christians; they did not fear the gods, they felt hatred towards philosophy and they particularly could not tolerate the fact that a female should know the truth. One day they seized Hypatia and put her to death amid horrible tortures. Now some of the younger of her female disciples were spared, perhaps because they were believed to be ignorant maidens who were with her only to serve her. They fled, but the Christians by now were everywhere, and the girls had to journey a long time before reaching this place of peace. Here they tried to keep alive what they had learned from this mistress, but they had heard her speak when they were still very young, they were not as wise as she had been, and they didn’t remember clearly all of her teachings. So they told themselves they would live together, apart from the world, to rediscover what Hypatia had really said.”
OH MY GOD
IT BURNS FOR THEM
They utilise the trope of using males (non-human males, in this case) as sperm donors and keeping only the girl-children, sending boy-children back to the males in order to be raised as future sperm-donors. I have a bit of a crush on that trope. It’s not exactly a complex role-reversal and I’m not going to claim it’s particularly feminist or anything, but again: the wish-fulfilment of a female space in which males are irrelevant.
But naturally Baudolino falls in love with the hypatia he meets and they have sex and she realises that men are great and she gets pregnant.
In fairness to Baudolino, the hypatia chooses her people over a man and she doesn’t share Baudolino’s idea that he’s entitled to help raise the child if it turns out to be a girl (whereas she’d give the boy to him, because why would she keep a boy?) so that’s something. It’s not as bad as in the next book. But I want to know why this even needs to happen at all? Why can’t the hypatia remain uninterested? After a millenia of no hypatia expressing an interest in a man, why now? It’s true that they don’t encounter men often, but I struggle to believe that Baudolino is the first ever. Of course, the answer is that Baudolino is the hero of his book and he needs to score with the hot hypatia, because the narrative cares about him far more than it does about any woman at all.
Meanwhile I’m going to sulk in my corner and write hypatia fanfiction.
Which leads me onto Shan Sa’s Alexander and Alestria, which AUGH WHY. I have an academic interest in fictional treatments of Alexander’s story, especially cracktastic ones (that anime, that anime), and this one is certainly terribad. Speaking of fanfiction, like much bad fanfiction it deploys the trope of the raped woobie, with Alexander being raped by his father and many other men as a child, then turning into a messed up adult who occasionally rapes other young people. O…kay. The writing style itself is overtly dramatic, to the point where it becomes laughably angsty. Bad Alexander fanfiction, basically – which I’d forgive, sort of (except for the rape), especially as it makes a vague attempt to depict Alexander as genderqueer (but not really), if not for the fact that the Alestria in the title is the queen of the Amazons.
In this treatment, the Amazons are a tribe of girls who love horses, adding to their numbers by adopting girls across the steppe – generally girls who have been orphaned or cast out. No men are ever welcome in their tribe. They sleep with them sometimes, for fun, but they kill them quite a lot. They also sleep with other women. Oh, and if they get pregnant then they (might) die. GUESS WHERE THIS IS GOING.
Alexander and Alestria meet and fall in love and this fierce Amazon queen, who has fought and beheaded men and never been weak, is reduced to the trophy queen by Alexander because he doesn’t want her (an experienced warrior) to see war.
Here’s where she falls in love with him:
“He forged himself a path in my belly, worked his way up into my blood vessels, found my heart, and broke the wound that acted as my shield. He found his way onto my internal steppes…
How could he read inside my head? A burning torrent made my legs weightless, flowed through my chest, and spread down my arms. A beam of light struck my head and burst inside my body, transforming itself into the Milky Way. I have no more questions. Alexander has defeated me. I am his.”
Unfortunately, she doesn’t see this defeat as a bad thing; utterly in love, she marries him and leaves the Amazons.
Alexander continues his campaign out of Central Asia and into India, running back and forth between the front and Alestria – who does get annoyed at one point and demands to join him in battle, but ultimately doesn’t because he convinces her with the power of his love. Naturally she falls pregnant and, despite the Amazons’ belief that pregnancy kills them, decides to carry the baby to term because true love with a man. To my pleasant surprise, the baby doesn’t kill her (she’s basically Roxane, so this is the miscarriage attested in some sources), but what ultimately causes her death made me want to tear the book into tiny pieces.
More on that in a moment.
There is a redeeming factor: Tania (or Ania – the Amazons drop the T when they leave the tribe). The handmaiden to Alestria, she follows her to live with Alexander – and rages, unending, at the way love has blinded Alestria and broken apart the tribe.
“Our ancestors were right to forbid love, which turns a woman into the living dead!
Alestria, my queen, had become a stone statue.”
“I, Ania, was incensed. Was this love: hiding away a woman as capable of fighting monsters as himself? Was this love: making an Amazon die of boredom and wealth and powerless power? Was this Alexander’s love: putting a bird of the glacier in a cage and leaving it there to wither and die?”
(And this is why I’m not entirely sure what Shan Sa’s objectives were with this book, because Tania is excellent and true – and intentionally so, surely – but other things in the book are so fucking terrible.)
So at the end of the book, Alexander gets crippled in a battle and Alestria decides to carry him back to Central Asia and rejoin her tribe. Before too long, Alexander’s injuries kill him. Then Alestria goes away to die because she has no reason left to live. Then, after that, Tania goes away to die.
WHAT. THE FUCK. NO.
Female-only societies are an ultimate chance of women-positive narratives, right? For me they represent a refuge against the male-dominated landscape I live and read in, a place where women are not measured against male expectations, not perceived through the male gaze, not shackled by internalised male standards, not constantly found wanting – a place where femaleness is normative and safe and good.
It’s not every woman’s idea of escape – what with us not being a monolith and all – but I doubt I’m the only one who finds the idea of female-only societies interesting and welcoming.
But no, what we really need are stories of female-only societies – set up as wonderful havens for women – being infiltrated and undermined by men, with women capitulating to the trueness of heterosexual love and becoming the weaker partner in a heterosexual relationship, perhaps dying once the man dies because we literally can’t live without our man, because it’s not like that story is almost everywhere els- OH WAIT.
Can’t we keep these male-free narratives? There are so many narratives (some bad, some good) where men and heterosexual love are important – but if we want to escape that, can’t we have somewhere to go?
Aliens: Recent Encounters
I'm the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters, a reprint anthology of science fiction stories, OUT NOW from Prime Books.
Coming in 2014
The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women
I will be editing an anthology of powerful, important science fiction stories by women, showcasing the unforgettable contributions made to the genre in recent decades.
Out in late 2014.
- TedWest on Women Without Men: A Constantly Undermined Trope
- Crystal Lynn Hilbert on CALL FOR REPRINT SUBMISSIONS: Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women
- Alex Dally MacFarlane on CALL FOR REPRINT SUBMISSIONS: Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women
- Lorraine on CALL FOR REPRINT SUBMISSIONS: Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women
- Autumn to winter | Hel Gurney on White-centric SF: people still take that seriously?