Sunday, 14 August 2016

Some False and Broken Notes

The 1929 Newbery Medal Award Winner, The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly, which (as you would expect from the title) is set in Kraków, is based upon a centuries-old Kraków tradition, and an accompanying legend. In Kraków, beginning at the stroke of each hour, a trumpeter plays a 5-note tune called the Hejnal (you can hear it here) out of each of the four windows of the tallest tower in St-Mary's Church tower. It's also traditional to end the Hejnal on a broken note. Kelly claims in the prologue to his novel that this tradition was created after a 1241 invasion of Kraków, during which the trumpeter faithfully stayed at his post to play the Hejnal but was shot through by an arrow before he could finish. It's a colourful story, but there isn't any real evidence that it's true. Kelly's version of this legend was the first to be written down. According to Wikipedia, there is an 1861 account of invading Tatars and a sentry who sounded the alarm, but this account does not mention the sentry's death. One trumpeter is known to have died while on duty and the broken note tradition may have originally been a tribute to him, but that was in 1901 and the trumpeter died of natural causes. It's unclear whether Kelly was misinformed (at the time of writing The Trumpeter of Krakow he did not yet speak Polish well), whether he combined or confused the two stories, or whether he was simply the first to record an actual legend.

All this aside, The Trumpeter of Krakow, set in 1461, is the story of a young trumpeter, Joseph Charnetski, who used the Hejnal to sound another alarm. It isn't a bad story. It has a decent plot, seems to be reasonably well-researched as to its period detail, and is a rather entertaining adventure story about a family sworn to protect the (fictional) Great Tarnov Crystal, and the villain and the alchemist who are determined to get their hands on it. It also has a certain frustrating woodenness to its characters and dialogue that keep it from being an excellent book. The characters are sketched in a few simplistic lines, especially in the case of the female characters. Joseph's father is honourable and brave, his mother is pious and gentle (and isn't even given a name of her own), and Joseph is a less-self-assured version of his father. Elzbietka, a young friend of Joseph, is kind and in need of a mother. Joseph's mother obliging steps up for this role and the two of them rush improbably into each others' arms the minute they meet. I will give Kelly some credit for having given Elzbietka a part to play in the story's action and for also having her question why, if learning Latin (as Joseph does) is such an excellent thing, it is not for women as well as men.

Kelly also used his characters' looks to define their personalities in a way that was common in fiction until mid-twentieth century or so -- one often reads about a "noble" or "refined" features in old novels. The Charnetskis are described as having honest or pleasant faces, and this is how Kelly describes Peter, the book's villain:

It was the face, however, that betrayed the soul beneath. It was a dark, oval, wicked face--the eyes were greenish and narrow and the eyebrow line above them ran straight across the bridge of the nose, giving the effect of a monkey rather than a man. One cheek was marked with a buttonlike scar, the scar of the button plague that is so common in the lands east of the Volga, or even the Dnieper, and marks the bearer as a Tartar or a Cossack or a Mongal. The ears were low set and ugly. The mouth looked like a slit that the boys make in the pumpkins they carry on the eve of the Allhallows. Above the mouth was a cropped mustache which hung down at the ends and straggled into a scanty beard.

Subtle, huh? Using one's character's appearance as barometer to their level of refinement or morality is a literary trope that may have had its origin in the pseudoscience of phrenology, and that, thankfully, has fallen out of fashion now. It's a nonsensical notion, and there's surely enough lookism in the world without our having to go to the extent of considering anyone's looks indicative of goodness or evilness.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Lindy West and Radical Goodness

I first became aware of Lindy West via Twitter several years back because my friends would often retweet some of her bon mots. I followed her myself after checking out her page, and the finesse burns West serves to the idiots who troll her made me reconsider my own online policy of not bothering to engage with anyone who didn't seem worth talking to. Then I began to read the columns she writes for The Guardian, and I admired her grasp of social issues and the way she consistently looks beyond individual bad behaviour and into the possible causes and solutions of the larger cultural problems they symptomize. In her September 2015 "The 'Dear Fat People' video is tired, cruel and lazy – but I still fight for the woman who made it" piece, she told the "Dear Fat People" YouTuber, "I fight for you in your capacity as a complex, fully formed human being with the right to autonomy over your body, even if that body gets fat." In "Now Roosh V and his band of sad men in dark rooms know how it feels to be bombarded with bile", a February 2016 piece written after Roosh V, a self-styled "pickup artist" who posts photos of himself standing by expensive cars and brandishing fistfuls of cash, and who with the help of his online minions has been doxxing and harassing women (including Lindy West) for years, was himself doxxed by the internet vigilante group Anonymous and revealed to be living in his mother's basement by the Daily Mail, West wrote that she took little pleasure in the blowback Roosh was facing, because "I want actual change, not whack-a-mole with a grandiose troll." She's a better person than I am by far. My reaction to Roosh V's outing was more along the lines of a tweet I saw that said, "I want to fly around the world and systematically arrange floodlights so 'ROOSH LIVES IN HIS MOM'S BASEMENT LOL' is visible from space," and any Guardian essay I'd have written on the topic would have mentioned that the photos of Roosh at his mother's door show him in a sweat-stained t-shirt.

When I saw West's tweets about her forthcoming first book, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, I was quick to put a library hold on it, and very eager to read it. I thought there was a good chance it would be one of those consciousness-expanding reads that permanently changed the way I saw the world. It wasn't, but then few books are, and then too as a feminist who is fairly well-informed about most of the issues West writes about, I am among the converted rather than among those for whom her perspective would be new or challenging. For me, reading Shrill was much less a revolutionary reading experience than one of deep recognition.

In a book that's half memoir and half polemic, West writes about growing up in a society that indicated in so many cruel ways that she should not be taking up space or expect to be a success or to be loved or even treated with basic respect because she was "a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men", and about her journey towards confidence, towards not only owning the space she occupies but enlarging her sphere until she became a force for helping others reclaim theirs. It's a journey I recognize because it's so similar to the one I've made myself. The abuse I experienced growing up destroyed the sense of self-worth I needed to combat it, to protect myself from further bad treatment at the hands of others, and even to live my life with any real enjoyment, and I was a long time acquiring a sort of hothouse confidence and learning how to fight the instinctive reaction that if someone treated me like shit, it must be because I am shit. As I read Shrill I kept thinking of a minor but telling incident from when I was 21. One summer day I got on a TTC bus and sat down near a couple of boys in their late teens. One of them said, "What about...?" and inclined his head towards me. The other made a disgusted face and snorted, "No!" I'm 42 now, and if something like that happened to me these days, I'd tell the boys that if they don't learn to treat women with more respect, they are going to be virgins until they die, and then move to another seat, but at 21 I had no defenses against that kind of garbage, and I just sat where I was and felt terrible.

West writes about growing up fat in a world where being fat is considered "not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing", about the painful shyness it created in her, about the lack of media representation for fat girls (she provides a scraped-from-the bottom-of-the-barrel list that includes Miss Piggy and Lady Cluck from Disney's Robin Hood), about how she stopped doing ordinary things like going swimming or hiking with her friends, about being so revolted by her own menstruation cycle that she could never bear to tell her mother she was running out of tampons, about the men who wanted to have sex with her but didn't want to be seen in public with her. Then she writes about becoming a woman who decided that, screw it, she was valuable and that she was damn well going to not only wear crop tops and bathing suits but also write and publish a piece about being fat illustrated with a full-length picture of herself and call out not only the guy next to her on a plane trip for being a dick but also her boss (who was, by the way, Dan Savage) for the "obesity epidemic" pieces he was publishing. It's glorious and inspiring, and I love the fact that what proved to be West's salvation, and her prescription for anyone who's uncomfortable with their own or anyone else's fatness, is so simple and down-to-earth: look at pictures of fat people online until you get over it.

But it wasn't as though West's acquired confidence broke down all barriers and made her bulletproof. Her chapter on what it's like to fly when you don't fit into the airplane seats made me first want to shed a few tears for her and then force every airline executive in the world to read it. She continues to face obstacles and to receive bad treatment from others, she writes about it all and about the systemic misogyny it stems from... and then she faces a barrage of online and offline harassment for it. But she pushes back against that too and she's had the satisfaction of seeing a resulting change not only in some of the individuals she interacted with but also in the larger cultural milieu. Dan Savage changed the way he wrote about fat people. One of her most abusive trolls (he set up sock puppet Twitter account for West's father, who had very recently died) actually backed down and apologized to her after reading an essay she had written about how his specific behaviour made her feel, and he didn't stop with only an apology, but also changed his own life. Twitter's CEO told his employees that they needed to get serious about preventing abuse on their platform. Some of the comics she's criticized for misogyny have started to rethink the kind of rape jokes they make.

Shrill isn't a landmark book, but it is a very worthwhile one that should be read and discussed, as the documented lived experiences of all marginalized people should be. We'll never improve this society of ours until we start really listening to those who are most affected by its failings. The man who is now West's husband told her that during their first moments of real connection, "I started to realize that you weren't just funny--I'd always thought you were funny--but that you might be a really, really radically good person." He was absolutely right, and I can't be thankful enough that Lindy West's particular kind of radical goodness, with its unflinching honesty, compassion and respect for humanity, will be shining a light on and before us all for many years to come.