Summer has come and gone. The expiry date for my ten books of summer has passed. I only made it to No. 6. I apologise.
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous outshines anything else on my reading list. In fact, I would go so far as to say it outshines anything else on anyone else’s reading list. In whatever genre. Forget genres. Here is something new.
Vietnamese and from a refugee family which immigrated to the US when he was two years old, the poet burst out of his allotted lowly refugee status and on to the literary scene with a T.S. Eliot prize winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry, 2017) On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.
I do not know what there is to say about this book. Next to Vuong’s poetry and prose any routine use of language that I might come up with would instantly collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy.
On Earth takes the form of a letter to Vuong’s mother who was violent towards him and who married a man who was imprisoned for violence towards her. In short Vuong grew up surrounded by violence, whether or the domestic or other kind, in Hartford,
…where we made a kind of life digging in and out of one brutal winter after another, where nor’easters swallowed our cars overnight. The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends at the C-Town checkout with black eyes and cut lips who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say mind your business
… where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces Oxy-Contin gaunt
Thank goodness the author does not mind his business. Thank goodness for his genius to humanise modern America, to bring the worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience. How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK
“OxyContin, first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996 is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form”.
If you find this a totally inadequate review, so do I. “Brilliant “shattering” “luminous” “a masterpiece” are some of the epithets I took from the publisher’s back cover. But I would say this. Ocean Vuong is a writer whose work will appear on exam syllabi into the future. This is a writer whose work will be studied, written about, lectured on, whose work will be the subject of dissertations and doctoral theses.
But loos are the least of the gender data gap problems, a symptom of a much wider malaise. Structural male bias is everywhere. Accurate data is vital for research and appropriate solutions. Yet accurate data is not available if half the human race is excluded from its gathering simply because no-one has thought to consider whether one size really does fit all. If you base your research on skewed data, you get a skewed result. This is obvious, perhaps, when it is baldly stated but not at all obvious in the accepted course of knowledge production which has been going on for millennia. This term ‘gender data gap’ is something I barely understood before reading Perez; now I understand it, it is frighteningly omniscient, and it is costing female lives.
I have chosen to look at two areas that the author discusses, health and the formulation of GDP.
I start with health – the most important thing for a human being before you get to the wealth or happiness bit. Go into any bookshop (assuming you can still find one) and look at the medical and anatomy sections, Perez suggests, you will discover that the human figure is male. The author found that:
‘as recently as 2017, the covers of books labelled ‘Human Anatomy’ ‘were still adorned with be-muscled men’
Because it is assumed that the human body is male and that on a one-size fits all model (ie, apart from the reproductive bits there is not much difference) what works for the guys will work for the gals. Horrifically this appears to be current medical thinking! Women are as a result largely being excluded from medical research. Why? Because the results of clinical trials are being presented as valid for both men and women, even when women have been excluded from the study and even though as a result of this data on whether a particular drug will be efficacious for a woman is unknown.
This despite the fact that researchers have found sex differences in every tissue and organ system in the human body as well as in the ‘prevalence, course and severity’ of the majority of human diseases.
“Sex differences appear even in our cells: in blood-serum biomarkers for autism; in proteins, in immune cells used to convey pain signals; in how cells die following a stroke. A recent study also found a significant sex difference in the ‘experssion of a gene found to be important for drug metabolism’. Sex differences in the presentation and outcome of Parkinsons disease, stroke and brain ischaemia … have also been tracked all the way to our cells …”
The inclusion of sex specific information in textbooks is dependent on the availability of sex specific data, but because women have largely been excluded from medical research this data is severely lacking. And because this data is lacking, it is not being taught in medical schools.
Most early research into cardiovascular disease was conducted on men
Women represent 55% of HIV positive adults in the developing world … we also know that women experience different clinical symptoms and complications due to HIV. Yet a 2016 review of the inclusion of women in HIV research found that women made up only 19.2% of participants in antiretroviral studies, 38% in vaccination studies and 11.1% in studies to find a cure.
And because of their routine exclusion from clinical trials we lack solid data on how to treat pregnant women for anything. Perhaps it is understandable that pregnant women would not want to take part in clinical trials, but that is no reason Perez states to throw our hands up in despair and do nothing.
The absence of female representation in clinical trials also means that drugs are not sex specific and drugs that work for men are finding their way into general use without anyone knowing if they work for women. Conversely, drugs that do not work for men are discarded during the clinical trial process without anyone finding out whether they would have worked for women.
The formulation of a country’s GDP is an inherently subjective process, states Perez.
She quotes Diane Coyle, Professor of Economics at Manchester University.
‘A lot of people think GDP is a real thing. But actually it’s a confection, with lots of judgements that have gone into its definition. And a lot of uncertainty.
Measuring GDP is, she says, not like measuring how high the mountain is.’
In the 1970s – a period which has always been seen as a ‘golden’ window for productivity GDP rose (in the UK).
But what was actually happening during that period is that women were leaving the domestic sphere and starting to do out to work. Work in the home had never been counted as part of GDP, as presumably it still is not.
So the things done in the feminised private sphere which were invisible, suddenly got visible and added to the male-dominated public sphere.
The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender gap of all. Estimates suggest that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries and as much as 80% in low-income countries. If we factor this work into the equation, the UK’s GDP in 2016 was around $3.9 trillion (official figures $2.6 trillion). In 2015, unpaid care and domestic work in Mexico was valued at 21% – ‘higher than manufacturing, commerce, real estate, mining, construction and transportation and storage’.
None of this is the result of some dire scheming or deliberate policy, it is because of structuralised, self-perpetuating sex discrimination which has become so natural to us that we no longer see it. Because women are invisible, it is not deemed to be necessary to collect sex specific data. Because there is no sex specific data, women are invisible.
“Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalise sex and gender discrimination – while at the same time somehow not seeing any of this as discrimination. Or really we don’t see it because we naturalise it – it is too obvious, too commonplace, too much just the way things are to bother commenting on. It’s the irony of being a woman: at once hyper-visible when it comes to being treated as the subservient sex class, and invisible when it counts – when it comes to being counted.”
“There is an overwhelming need for women to be more involved in research, the author concludes. “When women are involved in decision making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten.”
This book must have entailed a huge amount of work. It is thorough researched and detailed. Thank you Perez for showing us the male bias by which our still achingly patriarchal society is structured. Sisters, there remains a long road ahead of us.
Caroline Criado Perez is a writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist and human rights campaigner. She is best known for getting a woman put on the Bank of England banknotes and for campaigning for a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square.
This Summer I will be taking part in 20 Books of Summer. A great idea from Cathy@746 Books to review twenty books over the summer period except my 20 will be more like 10. I realise there are not quite ten books in the photo above! My other three titles are not yet available to be photographed but will be within the next two days. A Big Thank You to Sister Rune for trekking to the Hay Festival to make these purchases for me. The remaining three titles are:
Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Siguroardottir
Coleridge, The Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels. Adam Nicholson
River Voices: Extraordinary Stories from the Wye by Marsha O’Mahony
Caroline Criado Perez. Invisble Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men(Chatto & Windus, 2019
Women are used to queuing when they go out. Says Caroline Criado Perez in her book “Invisible Women” Exposing Data Bias in a World designed for men”. She meant for the loo of course. Any lady who has been to the theatre or opera or ballet or cinema in London or any city is used to queuing round the block in the interval, while the men pop in and out of their unencumbered spaces and have plenty of time to rock up at the bar for a nice cooling drink. Gender neutral only makes things worse. Because guess what. Women need cubicles and can’t use urinals. Men don’t – and can. Sorry if that came as a bit of a shock, Barbican management.
Apparently the Barbican hadn’t thought of that when they casually announced that all their loos – simply by changing to the sign on the door – were now Gender Neutral. Tada!! Fabulous. How many politically correct boxes that must have ticked with no effort or cost whatsoever.
But then, shock horror. It was discovered that the ‘gender neutral’ urinals were only being used by men who were of course also entitled – should they choose – to use the cubicles. All the Barbican had succeeded in doing is increase provision for men and exclude women. Needless to say, no sanitary bins had been provided in the so called ‘gender neutral’ urinals. The supposedly equal provision of loos had been done with men in mind. A male dominated management team, you think?
Another anecdote – if it can be called that – related by Perez is when a senior member of Google Sheryl Sandberg became pregnant and her feet swelled up, it came to her notice that she was having to walk miles across the car park because there was no provision for pregnant women to park nearer the main entrance. When she approached Google’s founder Sergei Brin about reserved parking for pregnant women he said he had never thought of it but that arrangements would be made. No wonder he had never thought of it. He is a man and will never be pregnant nor have to consider policy for those that will and are unless it is spelled out to him in words of one syllable. It had never presumably occurred to Sandberg either until it happened that she found herself unable to struggle across the car park.
And no, this is not a mere inconvenience if you’ll excuse the pun, easily rectified. It is part of a cultural and economic exclusion which even in the 21stcentury is still rampant across all cultures. One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap, says the author is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate. Quite the opposite it is a way of thinking that has been around for millennia, and is therefore a kind of not thinking.
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe
Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver
This is a tough read but beautifully written and poetic if such a thing is possible on dealing with the subject of child rape. The author was raped at age 9 by a man who is finally brought to justice on the chance of a random DNA sample – more than two decades later. By this time the author has married and had a son. But she painfully charts her mental and physical collapse – and her efforts to recover, the therapies she undergoes, the Court case. Traumatic memory is such that the part of the brain that deals with autobiographical memory (the prefontal cortex) cannot access the trauma which has been buried away by the amygdala that can only be treated by those with specialist knowledge of PTSD relating to sexual violence, all too often poorly recognised or understood.
‘How ugly ignorance is when it is concealed under learned airs,’ says the author. And she has good reason to know.
One of the most poignant parts of the book is the list of names, not unlike a eulogy, of those women (all victims of this same man) who could not bring themselves to attend Court. Who risk criminal penalties for failing to answer a subpoena rather than be forced to recount in public over and over again lurid details of what happened to them when they were six, seven, eight or nine. They are part of what is described as the ‘black number’ of victims of sexual violence. An estimated 90% of the victims of rape do not report it, and this number is even higher for child victims
Many are the books that I have read and many are the books that I have joyfully completed during my life. But then there are always those that I couldn’t quite get through and that’s fine. No-one can like everything and life isn’t long enough so, next please.
Having a week’s holiday recently I took a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. This is a considerable and beautifully crafted tome coming in at 666 pages just perfect for hours spent in a hotel room when I should have been enjoying the aprés ski if only (a) I drank alcohol and (b)I wasn’t so shattered from falling over on the slopes.
I spent my week and two plane journeys happily engrossed in it. But lo and behold at page 425 (the number is significant) with less than a quarter of the book to go I couldn’t read it any more. For some reason the magic had gone. When I got home I replaced the semi-finished copy on my bookshelf, but found to my amazement a second copy of – guess what – Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that I had forgotten I owned bookmarked at the last read page 415!
What led me to read over 400 pages of this excellent book and then give up on it in almost exactly the same place, twice? This required in literary terms a surgical examination. It almost felt like there was a point in the writing when the whole style of the book changed. Did I entirely understand the arguments about erroneous religious teachings or the disquisition on the philosophy of art? Probably not but up until that point I had been enjoying them – but they were not what caused me to stop reading.
I think the reasons I stopped reading were far more pragmatic and plot related.
I decided I couldn’t take Shekure’s two whining children another minute, thought Black somewhat feeble for giving in to her conditions regarding their marriage (he had to find her father’s murderer before she would sleep with him but the poor guy is an artist not a detective) nor regrettably did I any longer care who pushed Elegant Effendi down the well .
Ding dong bell.
Two other books I am struggling with: the Booker shortlisted Everything Under by Daisy Johnson an examination of a relationship between mother and daughter which can only be described as savage it’s words seeming to jump off the page and scrape at the bones; and the Booker prize winning The Milkman. Although I love what Anna Burns has done with the narrative voice, even a Booker judge admitted it was a bit of an uphill struggle to keep reading.
I‘m nervous about books from the Booker shortlist but every year I forget my nervousness and pile in. I’ve had failures before including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Although I adored (and definitely finished) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the book that didn’t win the year it was nominated but should have.
But then no reading is every wasted. And reading is like life. A work in progress. I certainly don’t intend to spend precious time feeling guilty. Next please.
Are we the unreliable narrators of our own lives with our porous memories, shaky realities, versions of our own truth? If so, where does this leave history or perhaps the question is where does history leave us. These are matters which have concerned Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro since his first novel A Pale View of Hills was published in 1982.
It is fascinating listening to Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture which I highly recommend.
The author speaks of how he pieced together what he termed his fragile ideas of Japan (a country he left with his parents at the age of 5) from his own childhood memory, from books and comics sent by his grandparents, from ancecdotes and stories told to him by his own parents who for years talked of ‘returning to Japan next year’ and who therefore saw themselves as visitors to these shores, rather than immigrants.
It was never a given that Ishiguro would set a book in Japan, a country which had been Britain’s bitter enemy during the second world war. Now, in a time when writers leap to tell their stories of ethnic or linguistical differences to set themselves apart in a crowded field, it is hard to remember how in the 70s and 80s that was not at all the case. Race was a linear thing and in terms of English Lit it was preferably white and British.
Thankfully, as a student of Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter on the far-sighted and, back then, completely innovative University of East Anglia Creative Writing course, Ishiguro was encouraged to write a story about Japan, set in Nagasaki. That story became his first book.
After A Pale View of Hills he went on to write a second ‘Japan’ book An Artist of the Floating World
“Shintaro, I said, why don’t you simply face up to the past?”
A pertinent question which runs through much of the writer’s oeuvre. Answer: because its too difficult and we often don’t either individually or as a nation.
The Booker prize winning The Remains of the Day later made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thomson, is a story which concerns itself with that acme of Englishness, the butler in a grand house. There is a moment in the book when the main character Stevens, realizes not only that he has lived his professional life to the exclusion of any possibility of a personal one but, shatteringly, that he has faithfully served a master who serves a false, nay evil, ideology.
These books were followed by: The Unconsoled a story about a pianist which I have attempted and failed to read three times, and in which nothing is what it seems to the extent that it drove me mad; Never Let me Go, a dystopian science fiction story also made into a film; When we were Orphans and The Buried Giant, another study of memory and loss set in the deeps of anglo saxon history where giants still lie. The problem of national memory, is examined in this book.
Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.
During the lecture the author talks about a visit that he made to Auschwitz/Birkenau; how his guide showed him the gas chambers which Ishiguro describes in his lecture as ‘neglected’, a choice of word which initially shocked me. Why would you choose to preserve the gas chambers? Let them rot away into the ground. But that which we allow to rot away is not by definition going to be around to inform the future. If we erase the gas chambers – or rather neglect their preservation to the point where they self-erase – don’t we also erase the murderous ideology which produced them?
This is the great dichotomy and it is one which museums of the 21st century will increasingly face. How to remember and what to remember. Not only Museums but writers too have a responsibility to address the major issues of their time. It is a responsibility that Ishiguro has not failed to shoulder. (https://wordpress.com/post/volatilerune.blog/354).
Since 2016 both Europe and the US are finding out that the tide of liberal humanism which washed over our western democratic societies in the second half of the twentieth century – and which we thought was forever – wasn’t. How will writers of the future address the history that is being made now.