Sep 14, 2014

Defining and Representing Gender | The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance In Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

When my mother was pregnant with me, if I was a girl I would be named Kate and if a boy I would be named Jake. My next sibling would have been named Jake if she had been a boy. The sibling after that also would have been Jake had she been born a boy. It wasn't until child number four that my parents finally got their Jake.

For my parents, Jake was a name they liked. They wanted kids and I am sure were excited when they had a son, but they were also excited about their three daughters. Had they been living in Afghanistan, things might have been different.

In Afghanistan, not having a Jake earlier would have been a sign of weakness in my mom. A defect. And, what I'm learning from The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance In Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg is that me or one of my sisters might have been assigned the role of a bacha posh, or a girl who lives as a boy until reaching the age of puberty. This gender swap is thought to bring luck to the mother, making it more likely that she will later give birth to a son. It makes it easier for females in the household to have a male to act as chaperone when going out in public, because even a small boy is a suitable chaperone. It saves the mother the shame of being thought to be defective and unable to birth males. For the girl-turned-boy, it gives her freedoms she might not otherwise know. She can come and go freely from her house, wear pants, continue in school, work outside of the home. Once puberty hits, the girl-turned-boy turns back into a girl.

As I'm reading this book, I'm struck by how arbitrary our definitions of gender are. Sure, some of the biological functions are pretty clear. But other ways we express out gender identity are purely made up. The ways we define and treat gender so often leads to inequalities, although perhaps not always as dramatic as Nordberg describes in The Underground Girls of Kabul. My immediate reaction during my reading is to be angry at how little freedom women in that country are experiencing. But I also make a conscious effort not to immediately condemn another culture, even if that's my initial reaction.

When I stop and think about women in this country, I'm reminded of when my friend Delicious shared an article about calling girls "pretty" and suggesting that people might compliment his daughter instead by commenting on how clever she is. I think of the six-week-old baby I got to hold last week that was a pile of squishy cheeks and thighs, wearing a dress made of layers and layers of tulle and sporting an anklet. I look outside at the college boys and girls going out on dates, or whatever the equivalent is of a date in college-going culture now, where the boys are in casual shorts, tees and sneakers and the girls are strapped into skirts that barely cover their butt crack and heels that are an accident in the making ands boob hoisted up as high as they will reach.

And so I am still reading about these women in Afghanistan, living as boys. Sometimes living as men. Usually transitioning back to being women and going on to be mothers and leading successful, feminine lives. And I'm reminding myself, sometimes every page, that the definitions I'm reading of gender are different. Not better and not worse. But different. (I don't curtail my opinions about the freedoms the women are experiencing.)

And I'm trying to be a little more critical of how I'm choosing to define and represent my own gender. How I'm seeing it represented in pop culture. How I'm helping to instill it into nieces and nephews. That bit about a bacha posh helping give a prospective mom better luck in giving birth to a boy aside - because I can't really speak to that, the gender definitions we assign shouldn't cause so dramatic a difference in the life of a person as what Nordberg details in The Underground Girls of Kabul.

I read The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg as part of the From Left to Write book club.

I read The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance In Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg as part of the From Left to Write book Club. Nordberg discovers a secret Afghani practice where girls are dressed and raised as boys. Join From Left to Write on September 16th as we discuss The Underground Girls of Kabul. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Sep 8, 2014

When I Interviewed Tig Notaro on Huffington Post Live

Yesterday I got a Twitter notification from someone at The Huffington Post asking me if I’d be interested in interviewing Tig Notaro. I immediately said yes.

She contacted me because back in July at BlogHer, I tweeted this:
And from that, I had the opportunity to interview Tig Notaro! I mean, now when people ask me why bother with Twitter, I'll have an answer!

I assumed the whole thing would be a Twitter chat, which would be ironic since she doesn’t use Twitter. Then I found out I’d be using a webcam, which I thought was odd for Twitter, but whatever. Then today I find out it’s a video chat. And that there’s only be one other person on the line.

I almost passed out with excitement.

So this afternoon I took an afternoon call in a huddle room at work (I came in early to make up the time!) and got to interview a comedian I love and who I'll be seeing perform live in Cincinnati next month. Watch the complete interview with Tig Notaro.

I was able to interview Tig Notaro on Huffington Post Live.

History in the Details: Looking at Jackie O’s Famous Pink Suit

My Week In Books

So many jobs take patience and concentration that I just don’t have. I like detail-oriented work and I actually weirdly enjoy repetitive tasks, but moving slowly and paying attention to tiny details… Forget about it. In The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby, a seamstress named Kate spends hours upon hours crafting clothing for the First Lady. In this fictional story about the romance between John F. Kennedy and Jackie, readers learn about the effort that went into being one of history’s most stylish first ladies.

While Kate works to create fine clothing for the president to give as a gift to his wife, she finds herself unexpectedly in a romance with a long-time friend, Patrick. Through their relationship, Kelby is able to share the nuances of being working class in America and having a family in the White House who is anything but working class. Unions expect Jackie to wear American-made clothing and hats made by American milliners, and she goes to great lengths to do just that, technically.

I am, of course, familiar with the famous pink suit that is the focus of this book. I love the idea of telling history with one artifact at the center of the tale. This book didn’t do it for me, though. While I enjoyed learning about the suit itself and how much painstaking work went into it, I was bored by the romance between Kate and Patrick. I’m glad I read The Pink Suit and know it will inform how I view couture clothing and how those designs make their way to the US, but I’m not sure that knowledge was worth the time investment.
The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby.

Sep 1, 2014

Exploring the Idea of What Makes a Life Exciting Enough for a Book Through Two Very Normal Lives With Different Resulting Books

My Week In Books

I was trying to explain a book I read earlier this week to my husband and said, "You know how all of our lives aren't interesting enough to really be the subject of a book?" His response was a well-timed, "Speak for yourself!" I stand by the question though. Not all of us lead a life that merits a book. That said, in the hands of the right author, maybe any type of life can make for an interesting read.

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I really enjoyed Someone by Alice McDermott because it was so beautifully written. I was surprised by how quickly I read it because it was also pretty painfully normal. Just on the right side of being downright dull. It was this book that inspired the conversation between Wonder Boy and I. I put it down thinking, "Well, that was a nice book about a nice person." And "nice" is certainly a positive word. But "nice" isn't what sticks in your memory days, weeks, months, years later. "Nice" is something you do to pass the time and set aside later.

Briefly, against better judgement, I had myself believing that stories had to be about interesting people to make for interesting books. I've many times over seen that that's not the case, and still...

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A while back, a co-worker of mine had her niece shadow her for a day, to learn about the workplace. Throughout the day the niece sat down with different people to learn what they did. With me, we spent most of the time talking about her art and love of cosplay, something about which I know and care very little.  She showed me her portfolio and it introduced me, briefly, to a world of fandom like I've never known. People were rendering characters in new ways, writing fan fiction, developing costumes they would like to see characters wear...  It was wild.

In Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Cath is not only comfortable in the world of fan fiction, she's one of it's bigger celebrities. She's fallen so in love with the world and characters in a series much like Harry Potter (I say, never having read those books), that she reinterprets the relationships between all of the characters, developing entirely new storylines. Thousands of people log in every days to read her new installments.

The fan fiction is an outlet for Cath when life gets too hard. When her dad falls too far into the depths of mental illness, when she misses the mother who long ago abandoned her and when she feels inferior to her outgoing, popular twin sister, Gwen. When Cath and Gwen go off to college, the world of fan fiction based on Young Adult novels seems less like a cool outlet and more like a safety net.

Over the course of her freshman year, Cath doesn't entirely let go of her fictional world, but she does learn her way through the more tangible, real world.

Rainbow Rowell is a delightful writer. I started this book before bed and then took advantage of a Labor Day off work and finished the book over a lazy, rainy morning indoors. I've now read three of the five books Rowell has penned (see Landline and Eleanor and Park) and I am looking forward the checking out the other two.

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Rowell reassured me that you don't need an outlandish tale to make a good story. Sometimes tyne simplest of stories can pull you in so that in a matter of hours, you've read an entire book. McDermott didn't achieve that with me, but her writing was the sort I lingered over to enjoy the words. And maybe that was pleasure enough.

Someone by Alice McDermott and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.