Friday, September 2, 2016

It's in the air we breathe

I wear the label proudly. The "Feminist" label surrounded by flowers in the shape of a heart, pink background - ordered for me by my daughter, who manages to be fierce and vulnerable all at once - is affixed to my laptop for all to see.

Actually, that is a lie. It is affixed just beneath the keyboard so it is mostly covered because you see I am old and can't deal with the shit; I'm not nearly as brave as my daughter who wears her giant fighting heart on her sleeve, or more precisely across every spare inch of her laptop case, on the outside for all to see.

I wear the label proudly and then sometimes, for a moment, I am not sure if I have the soundbite ready to fire off if asked "well, then, why are you a feminist?" I think the reason for this is because it is in the fucking air we breathe. Misogyny that is.

In 2016 we have the Most Dangerous Man to ever run for President of the United States of America filling our screens with the sort of hate and fear mongering that makes comparisons to Nazi Germany not feel like a stretch running against the Most Qualified Candidate to ever run for President.

The fact that the Most Qualified Candidate happens to be a woman means she is the subject of the sort of scrutiny and barbs and daily questions as to her "likability" that a male candidate (even one as heinous as Trump) has never been subjected to by a media that does not comprehend (care) that the question itself is rooted in a sexism that is hard to see because it is in the air we breathe.

It is everywhere: it is the pay gap; it is the critical eye we cast daily over our own female bodies; the catcalls and harassment along with the condescending demand from corporations (hello Dove) that we celebrate our own beauty rather than demand that we put beauty in its place; it is the dismissal and invisibility of women as they age and/or fail to adhere to a stunningly narrow ideal of beauty; it is a feminism that deems caring work as wasted potential rather than demand that caring work be recognized, celebrated, supported and rewarded; it is the "he was a dedicated family man and all round great bloke" narrative that seems to emerge after each and every 'family' murder-suicide committed by a "loving" husband/father; it is the "why didn't she leave?" while governments cut welfare benefits to single parents and defund shelters for women and children; it is considering books about boys and men as having universal appeal and books about girls and women as a niche market; it is the veneration of motherhood minus the provision of paid parental leave; it is the speed at which men who enter female dominated professions rise to the top and the "Mathilda Effect" whereby women in male dominated professions are judged by a tougher standard than their male counterparts; it is pads and tampons being taxed as if they are a luxury and girls in developing countries being denied an education when they have their period due to the failure to provide adequate toilet facilities; it is the use of the female body to sell every consumable imaginable while the use of a breast to do the work for which it was designed, providing nourishment and comfort to new human beings, is considered obscene if done in public without cover . . .

Sexism and misogyny are so common, so unremarkable, that it is not so hard to forget that it is there, always there, not just in front of us but behind and underneath and even inside those of us who wear our feminist label proudly; and it is exhausting to keep noticing because then our days will be spent in a state of rage that all too often morphs into despair.

It is hard to see because it is is in the air we breathe.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Best Books 2015

These are just some of my personal favorites from 2015. I could easily include another five but my list is already longer than the standard Top 10 so I will stop torturing myself and hit publish.

Best Books (published in 2015)

Mia Alvar, In the Country (short stories)
Elisa Albert, After Birth
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
Mirielle Juchau, The World Without Us
Sofie Laguna, The Eye of the Sheep
Edan Lepucki, California
Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life


Mary-Louise Parker, Dear Mr. You
Vivian Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City

And some pre-2015 books that I really enjoyed this year

Akhil Sharma, Family Life
Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing
Susan Minot, Thirty Girls
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
Kim Thuy, Man

Friday, January 1, 2016

My reading life in 2015

2015 was a busy year for me and busy in mostly really good ways. However, busy and reading are not the best combination so I really did struggle to get under the wire with my annual #52books52weeks goal this year.

My Reads of 2015

Caroline Kneps, You
Edan Lepucki, California
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Justin Torres, We the Animals
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist
Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
Jenny Erpendeck, The End of Days
Jill Alexander Essenbaum, Hausfrau
Holly LeCraw, The Half Brother
Akhil Sharma, Family Life
Megan Abbott, Dare Me
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
Susan Minot, Thirty Girls
James Salter, Light Years
Lauren Groff, Arcadia
Josh Weil, The Great Glass Sea
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
Ruth Galm, Into the Valley
Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Mohsin Hamid, How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia
Jonathan Franzen, Purity
Bill Clegg, Did you ever have a family
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread
Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing
Elisa Albert, After Birth
Kim Thuy, Man
David Nicholls, Us
Henry James, Washington Square
Jami Attenberg, Saint Mazie
A. L. Tait, The Mapmaker Chronicles

Short Stories
Mia Alvar, In the Country

Australian Fiction
Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Project
Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda
Sophie Laguna, The Eye of the Sheep
Mireille Juchau, The World Without Us

Non-fiction & Memoir
Jon Krakauer, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution
Mona Eltahawy, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Mary-Louise Parker, Dear Mr. You
Vivian Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Alice Hoffman, Survival Lessons

Fanny Howe, Second Childhood
Edward Hirsch, Gabriel
Marie Howe, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

I love working out my reading stats, so here are some for this year:
75% fiction.
70% of authors women.
Only 4 books were by Australian authors (far too few).
8 memoirs (or hard to categorize but memoir comes closest).
82% of the books were by authors I had not read before.
I read two novels by one author because she is so great: Lauren Groff's 'Arcadia' and 'Fates and Furies'.
I read only one classic, Henry James' 'Washington Square'.
My reading was split almost 50/50 between paper and e-book formats.

I had a chat with an acquaintance on the last day of 2015 who has noticed that I really do like to read. I told him about my annual 52 books goal and he loved the concept so much he committed to reading a book a month in 2016.

Wishing you a 2016 that is filled with people you love (and no doubt you will find some of those people inside the pages of books),

Michelle x 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On CEOs, privilege and the taking of parental leave

The news this week that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be taking two months paternity leave with the arrival of his daughter is positive. Of course, at a practical level it does not change a thing for the vast majority of American workers whose access to any form of parental leave (forget paid!) is extremely limited if it exists at all. On the other hand, by coming out so publicly with his decision Zuckerberg does send a message to workplaces and parents, particularly fathers, who do have access to leave that they should absolutely utilize it.

Zuckerberg's public statement adds weight to the public policy argument for extending paid parental leave to all American workers. On his Facebook page he says: "studies show that when working parents take time off to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families". Significantly, his statement very firmly centers the needs of the child rather than the more commonly cited "economic" benefits that are used to justify what should be a universal entitlement.

At the same time, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has stated that she will be taking a mere two weeks off after the birth of her identical twin girls, just as she did when her first child arrived shortly after she took over Yahoo.

In her role as a CEO, Mayer faces a degree of scrutiny and criticism that is not experienced by male CEOs at the best of times, let alone when pregnancy, childbirth and parenting decisions enter the mix. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a male CEO feeling the need to publicly outline his plans for the care of a newborn, which is in part what makes Zuckerberg's very public statement so refreshing.

In a sense (and somewhat ironically, given her extreme privilege), Mayer's "choice" - while not constrained by personal finances , access to affordable (even quality) childcare or the 1000 logistical considerations that working parents face - is constrained in a way that is not unfamiliar to female workers. They must prove themselves against a norm that presumes there is a wife available on the home front who will look after all aspects of bearing, birthing, feeding and care of any offspring produced during the course of a working life. Nowhere is that outdated norm stronger than in the upper echelons of corporate America.

Mayer - and more to the point female workers - cannot win until paid parental leave is available to all workers and the expectation and reality is that it is utilized without fear of reprisal, of subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination on return to work by both mothers and fathers.

So again, yay Mark Zuckerberg for taking a stand for the utilization of paid parental leave but lets remember that he is protected by the privilege that goes with being male, a privilege that is not available to any female worker, even one who has reached the level of CEO.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Paid Parental Leave: Going beyond the 'business case'

It is rare for a discussion of provision of Paid Parental Leave in the media to not start and finish with a focus on the "business case". And too often proponents of PPL adopt the language and logic of the marketplace in making their case, rather than shifting the debate to one that focuses on the rights and needs of children and those who care for them. 

The limits and dangers of the focus on the "business case" to justify provision of PPL can be seen clearly in the language that has been used to describe Netflix's newly adopted far-reaching PPL policy: a "perk" to retain its "highly valued" workers and to attract new talent in the highly competitive Silicon Valley marketplace. 

Netflix's new generous policy does not extend to its less valuable employees (more easily replaceable) in its DVD division. The "business case" does not take into account the needs of babies, which are consistently the same regardless of the value of their parents as employees. 

The human rights case for PPL focuses on the rights and needs of babies and those who birth and/or  care for them. Babies needs, their complete and utter dependency on their caregivers for survival, must be recognized, honored and met and this basic human right should in no way be determined by the value of their parents as workers in a marketplace.

Provision of universal PPL recognizes that those who carry, birth, breastfeed and care for babies and young children are performing important, necessary work. That work benefits not just an individual baby, their parents and family but the whole society and as such that caregiver should not have to shoulder the significant economic impact of that burden alone. 

The human rights case for universal PPL recognizes that caring work remains highly gendered, that failure to support and compensate those who care for babies and young children - to recognize this care as 'work' - perpetuates patriarchy, reinforcing the lower social and economic status of women as a class. 

Failure to adopt a universal PPL scheme means that we tacitly accept that only babies born to privileged parents should have the right to have their needs fully met; and that those who shoulder the burden of caring for societies most vulnerable should bear that burden alone. 

Just as we should not rely on the logic of the marketplace to support the case for PPL, we should not be satisfied with a situation where access to PPL is entirely dependent on a combination of the goodwill and fortunes of employers.

America needs to adopt a universal PPL as a matter of urgency and as one of the last countries in the world to do so it is in the fortunate position of having a wealth of models and experiences to look to when devising its own version. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

We've taking to correcting each other.

"You got the mult-I-grain bread" said my daughter.

I gasped. "Mult-I-grain. You said 'mult-I-grain. Its mult-eeee-grain."

We giggled. And she accused me of similar crimes.

"You sound so American when you talk to shopkeepers. I've really noticed this lately."

We are social creatures (even the engineers among us). We cannot help but mirror the speech patterns of those around us.

Yesterday, my husband said we needed 'to-may-to sauce'. Of course, if he was truly Americanized he would have said ketchup but this was enough for us to pounce.

"To-may-to" we said in a chorus. "We don't say to-may-to. Its to-maaaah-toe".

My kids still seek out the 'bubbler' when thirsty, a far more evocative word than the utilitarian sounding 'water fountain', but my youngest was recently mystified when I offered him an 'ice block' rather than a 'popsicle'.

This morning I watched my youngest checking himself out in the bathroom mirror, rearranging the strands of hair that fan his neck and face. And as he explained to me what he was doing it dawned on me the degree to which his accent has become Americanized.

He was surprisingly slow to pick up the American accent, given that children are the most susceptible. The fact that his accent has now shifted to the degree that it has is a marker of how far he has come since we arrived, from a shy 4-year-old to an 8-year-old who is spending the last few weeks of the endless summer break for the most part happily participating in that most American of institutions, Summer Camp.

My oldest son is the biggest corrector. He can't stand that his younger brothers sound so American, to the point that sometimes to our ears it sounds almost comic,  as if they are deliberately exaggerating the way they speak.

I lecture and berate him about not lecturing and berating them: "There is no right way of speaking. They live here, we live here. Their accents are going to change."

I don't mention the changes that have taken place in his own speech patterns, less noticeable but still distinct changes in his inflections that mark him out as an Australian who has been here for some time.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Year of Reading 2014 #52books52weeks

Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season
Amy Tan, The Valley of Amazement
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
Nathan Filer, Where the Moon Isn't
Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Carol Anshaw, Carry the One
Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
Sarah McCoy, The Baker's Daughter
Emer Martin, Baby Zero
Maggie Shipstead, Astonish Me
Anton Disclafani, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
Francine Prose, Blue Angel
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
Joel Dicker, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens
Bret Anthony Johnston, Remember Me Like This
J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Anthony Doer, All the Light We Cannot See
Yiyun Li, Kinder Than Solitude
Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Good Squad
Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper
Lily King, Euphoria
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
Lydia Millet, Mermaids in Paradise
Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White
Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation
John Darnielle, Wolf in the White Van
Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase

Australian Fiction
Ashley Hay, The Railway Man's Wife
Evie Wyld, All the Birds Singing
Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows

Short stories and Novellas
Jamie Quatro, I want to show you more
Karen Russell, Sleep Donation
Francesca Marciano, The Other Language
George Saunders, Tenth of December
Alan Gurganus, Local Souls
Aimee Bender, The Colour Master
Amy Bloom, Where the God of Love Hangs Out
Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans
Edan Lepecki, If You're Not Yet Like Me
Lorie Moore, Bark

George Eliot, Middlemarch
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Benison O'Reilly and Kathryn Wicks, The Australian Autism Handbook
Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Innoculation
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch

2014 was a great year for books. I discovered new writers - or at least writers who are new to me - that I plan to return to via their backlists and future releases (Amy Bloom, Molly Antopol, Edan Lepecki, Francesca Marciano, Michal Faber) and caught up on two brilliant books that have been sitting on my shelf for more than a few years (Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Good Squad and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall). I refused to read Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch until I had actually read George Eliot's Middlemarch even though Mead kindly reassured me (and no doubt countless others) on Twitter that familiarity with the classic was not a prerequisite.

I started the year with a rare detour into the world of sci-fi/fantasy with Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season and will be following up with the sequel in 2015; read my first ever graphic memoir,  Alison Bechdel's (creator of The Bechdel Test) Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic; and ended the year with a completely addictive work of Danish crime fiction by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase.

I love author talks and was lucky enough to attend quite a few in 2014: Amy Bloom, Molly Antopol, Rabih Alameddine, Francine Prose, Ruth Ozeki and Amy Tan.

My reading this year was pretty much evenly split between paper and e-books. I have a large pile of both awaiting me in 2015, including books I did not quite manage to finish in 2014. I am on a mission to start Margaret Atwood's Mad Adam trilogy, to complete at least two classics and to reach more often for books I already own.

Wishing you all a happy and fulfilling 2016,

Michelle x