“Trapped Inside the Gaze of Strangers”: A Conversation with Aimee Parkison and Carol Guess

Andrea Scrima: Girl Zoo, which has just been published by the FC2 imprint of the University of Alabama Press, is a collection of stories that takes contemporary feminist theory on an odyssey through the collective capitalist subconscious. Scenes of female incarceration are nightmarish, hallucinatory: each story exists within its own universe and operates according to its own set of natural laws. But while there’s a fairy-tale quality to the telling, none of these stories departs very far from the everyday experience of institutionalized sexism: the all-too-familiar is magnified just enough to reveal its inherently devastating proportions.

Aimee, Carol, I wonder if we could begin by talking about the collaborative process. How did the idea come about to write a book together?

Aimee Parkison: As an artist, I’m always trying new things. I have a wide range and want to expand and explore. My creative process is vital to the way I experience the world. I like the excitement of a new project, a new idea. I write all sorts of stories, from flash fictions to long narratives, from experimental to traditional, from realism to surrealism. Some of my fictions are character-based and others more conceptual. I often focus on the lives of women and am known for revisionist approaches to narrative and poetic language. My writing is often categorized as experimental or innovative. I’ve published five books of fiction, story collections, and a short novel. I’ve been published widely in literary journals. Among my previous books are Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman (FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize) and a short novel, The Petals of Your Eyes (Starcherone/Dzanc). I admire Carol’s writing and had interviewed her for a couple of articles I was writing for AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle magazine. A year or so after the interview, she emailed me, inviting me to do a collaboration.

Carol Guess: My approach to writing came through music and dance. Years ago, I studied ballet and moved to New York to try to make a career in that world. Obviously that didn’t happen, but my early experience with failure made me determined to be good at something else! I’d always written for pleasure, so I began taking my writing more seriously, initially focusing on poetry. I did my MFA in poetry; I’ve never actually taken a class in fiction writing. I put my first novel together as an experiment. I wanted to teach myself how to write a novel, and so I did. Since then I’ve published twenty books, each one an experiment and a challenge. I’ll ask myself, “What would happen if …” and then set out to answer my own question. Read more »

Know Thyself: The Riddles of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx

by Ryan Ruby Sphinx Book Cover

Taking its cue from French politics, French experimental writing has always been a clubby affair. Unlike in Britain or America, where economic and political liberalism have encouraged writers to view themselves as individual talents engaged in private agons with tradition, in France, with a few notable exceptions, avant-garde writers have presented themselves as members of an organization, complete with founding documents, by-laws, regular meetings, and a leadership structure, in short, as citoyens of a mini-republic.

Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature, known by its acronym, Oulipo, is the longest-lasting experimental writing group in history. Oulipians marry two strange bedfellows, literature and mathematics, adopting and inventing rigorous formal constraints—most famously, the lipogram, in which the use of a certain letter is proscribed, and the n+7 rule, in which every noun is replaced by the noun that follows it seven entries later in a dictionary—to generate poems, novels, essays, memoirs and “texts that defy all classification.” From its ten original members, all but one of whom are now dead, the group has nearly tripled in size, “co-opting” (to use the group's official term) writers from Italy, Germany, the UK, and America. Although it has by no means achieved anything close to gender parity, five of its new co-optees have been women.

The Oulipo owes its longevity, in part, to its refusal as a collective to entertain any kind of political line, despite the avowed leftism of many of its members. In so doing, it managed to avoid the power struggles, excommunications, and splintering characteristic of the avant-garde movements that were fatally drawn into the orbit of French Marxism and Maoism. But its survival can also be attributed to the fruitfulness of constrained writing itself. The widespread availability of constrained writing techniques has enabled Oulipians to identify those who are working along parallel lines and co-opt them.

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Is Feminism Relevant Today?

by Tara* Kaushal Deepika-padukone
My take on the evolving conversation around feminism today. Image courtsey bollywoodlife.com.
The other day, at a gathering of distant relatives, I was introduced to this older lady as a “feminist writer”. After the polite hellos, she said, “So, you're a feminist, huh?” I nodded. “Well, I don't think feminism is necessary nowadays… Look at all walks of life, women are now equal. At the forefront even.”
What is Feminism?
It was the first day of feminism class in our all-girls college in New Delhi. Dr Abraham walked in and asked us whether we were feminists. We all nodded yes. “What is feminism?” Three years before, I'd written an essay on the subject to get into college, and to Dr Abraham I remember answering “freedom” and “equality”. Thus began my journey of understanding this complex subject, but even now, I always reach back to my first answers about what it is. Then, simplistically, I thought it was about women being equal to men, and freedom being the ability to live life without gender constraints like men in India seemed to. Now, I see feminism as a way towards an egalitarian, utopian world for everyone—man, woman, either, neither, irrelevant—by addressing the issues faced by the gender that bears the brunt of gender discrimination.
Now, I'm not unfamiliar with the arguments against feminism. Those who advocate them fall in to two broad categories: those who believe that women are genuinely the weaker sex that deserves to be subjugated for religious or sociocultural reasons, and those who believe, like the lady from the party and many subscribers to the Women Against Feminism movement, that women are already ‘equal'.
The End is Nowhere Near
To the former type, I have nothing to say (not here, idiot). It's the latter reason, especially coming from those living in a country like India, that actually astounds me. As a rookie many years ago, one of my interview questions to British author Helen Cross was whether she was a feminist. And she answered that people don't really ask that in England “because they just sort-of presume that everybody is, because it's kind-of beyond that point”; she said she was asked that a lot here because it was an “active and dynamic” conversation.
I especially don't understand it when the women here say that.
A) How do YOU think you got here, wearing jeans, having careers, taking selfies in your bikinis, living with your boyfriends, eh?
B) Are you really ‘equal' and ‘free' from any sort of gender discrimination—at work, on the street, in your relationships? (Answer ‘no' straightaway if you get a male friend to drop you home at night.)
And C) Is every single woman around you as ‘equal' as you—is there really no family you know where the son roams wild and free while the daughter's expected to obey, or woman who has been harassed for dowry? There, you have your answer.
This is not to say that countries where women are highly emancipated, like the UK or US, have done away with gender discrimination and no longer need feminism. While they, for the most part, may not have to contend with issues as basic ours, women continue to bear the brunt of lookism and media stereotypes, battle the glass ceiling, and deal with sexual violence. In India, we deal with the whole range of gender issues—from child marriage and dowry to ‘First World' concerns like those listed above, judgement-free promiscuity, maiden surnames and independent choice.
Take this week, for instance. A leading movie star has taken a leading newspaper to task for a headline that calls attention to her cleavage with an open letter about choice, reel/real (an quick summary here), spawning much conversation about double standards—the newspaper's, the film industry's and even hers. In another India not so far away, the grave of a toddler girl, suspected to have been buried alive and rumoured to be a ‘goddess', became an impromptu pilgrimage site for hundreds of villagers, who came to offer prayers, fruits, flowers and money.
While I have oftentimes wondered at the futility of writing about ‘evolved' concerns when there's so much work on the basics that is yet to be done (read here), I'll end with this: Feminism is beyond the bra burning and the wild lurch from domesticity to feminazi; it's beyond first wave and second wave; it lives in plurals and pluralities, evolving as society has, addressing a problem here, another there. It is a means to an end. And until genders are equal on all levels, the feminists' fight is far from over.

Public Display of Divorce

by Tara* Kaushal Heart-Break-Sahil-Mane-Photography

Breaking the taboo of divorce in largely conservative India. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

A Bit of Background

Last year, I put up this status message on Facebook: “Today, the 15th of February, is the 10th anniversary of my first wedding. It's interesting how far both of us, my ex-husband and I, have come since our divorce in 2006. And how different life—lives—would have been if I had stayed. Oh, thank god!”

People have always asked me why I talk about my divorce, including this article featured in Mirrors across India a few weeks after I got remarried two years ago. I have several reasons.

I got married to Shiv when I was 19 and he was 30, back in 2003, when the world was different, I was different. After one failed attempt in July/August, we got separated in December 2005, when I moved to Mumbai, and divorced 10 months later.

First, a caveat. I spoke casually about being divorced much before I got remarried, much before I found love with Sahil. I spoke about it when I was down, devastated and broke; when I was single; to friends and strangers; and at job interviews. I even spoke about considering one the very first time I met a woman who is now a friend—a young divorcee herself, she said (and I remember this vividly), “Are you sure, Tara*? I find now that I am perpetually ‘ the Divorcee'.” I put that in right upfront, as I realise it could seem convenient to talk about it now, when all has turned out okay. For instance, though there were many years in between, my grandparents didn't tell anyone in Dehradun, the small town in North India in which they live that I was divorced until I got remarried (the veritable ‘happy ending').

[I realised this when I had gone for my granddad's 80th birthday celebrations a few years ago, only to be startled by questions of “Shiv kahan hain, beta?” “Aapke husband Indonesia se nahi aa paye?” (“Where is Shiv?” “Your husband wasn't able to come from Indonesia?”) That's when I pieced together the story they had been telling, or letting brew, partly grounded in the truth—my ex-husband is, indeed, currently in Indonesia, just with a different wife.]

Because of this, I've been asked this over and over, from the curious as well as the concerned ‘what is the need to wash dirty linen is public', I'll tell you why I speak about it.

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Clothes & Fashion, Feminism & Other -isms

by Tara* Kaushal

The clothes, models and visual imagery standards set by the fashion industry leave women across the world to balance complex dynamics in their personal style choices. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

Feminist-Fashion-Sahil-Mane-PhotographyThat clothes and, by extension, fashion, are a feminist, gender, class, financial, social, political, psychological, cultural, historical, ageist, religious, lookist, etc. issue is a given. Our ability and reasons to wear, or not, the clothes we do is charged with individual choice rooted in environmental dynamics, and is remarkably telling of our who, what, where, when and why. Though Abraham Maslow does refer to “differences in style of hair-dress, clothes” in his important hierarchy of needs theory as “superficial differences in specific desires from one culture to another”, clothes themselves would probably rate from basic needs all the way up the pyramid to self-actualization.

So I start with a few caveats: I'm not talking about the sartorial ‘choices' of women living in places of the world where religion and/or laws determine what to wear—the burka is beyond the scope of this column. I talk of socio-cultural environments where people can wear what they choose for the most part, despite traditionalists expressing varying degrees of disapproval, though even here I leave out those who, in Maslow's words, “live by bread alone”.

My premise is that this demographic of people the world over taps in to and is influenced by global fashion culture rooted in Western styles in various ways and degrees, consciously or sub—either directly on the internet or through more traditional media feeding off the internet, either fresh off the international runways or through its influence on their country's own fashion convention. And these Western styles continue to incorporate global influences, making for a hotbed dynamic with exponential possibilities.

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Love in the time of robots

by Thomas Wells

Here-is-a-robotThe robots are coming. Even if they don't actually think, they will behave enough like they do to take over most of the cognitive labour humans do, just as fossil-fuel powered machines displaced human muscle power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I've written elsewhere about the kind of changes this new industrial revolution implies for our political and moral economy if we are to master its utopian possibilities and head off its dystopian threats. But here I want to explore some more intimate consequences of robots moving into the household. Robots will not only be able to do our household chores, but care work, performing the labours of love without ever loving. I foresee two distinct tendencies. First, the attenuation of inter-human intimacy as we have less need of each other. Second, the attractiveness of robots as intimate companions.

Robots will allow us to economise on love

Robots are smartish machines that will soon be able to perform complicated but mundane tasks. They will be, relative to humans, low maintenance, reliable, and tireless. If they cost the same as cars, which doesn't seem implausible, most people will be able to afford at least one. That would effectively provide everyone with command over a full-time personal servant (actually more than full-time since they presumably won't need to sleep). Imagine how much easier life will be with someone else to do all the household chores (an incremental improvement on dishwashers and vacuum cleaners) and also the household care work like potty-training children (a revolutionary improvement). But also, imagine how this may disrupt the political-economy of the 'traditional' household and our dependency on love.

As feminist economists have long pointed out, households are factories in function and corporations in identity. They are factories because they apply human labour and tools to convert inputs like groceries, nappies, houses, etc. into things worth having, like meals, children, homes, etc. They are corporations because they are unified economic units, separated from the individualistic competitive market that operates outside its walls. The individuals who make up a household, like the employees of any firm, are supposed to work together as colleagues to advance the success and prosperity of the corporate 'family' as a whole, rather than to advance their own individual material interests as actors in a market would. Organising production outside of the market in this way makes economic sense in many circumstances, and for the same reasons we have business firms. Using the market comes with transaction costs associated with establishing trust and quality assurance between self-regarding strangers.

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