Belated summer reading

While I’ve read lots of great books recently (hello, Sally Rooney) I haven’t written any reviews. Conveniently, I stumbled across a review I wrote back in my summer break which I had forgotten about. It talks about three great feminist memoirs: Emilie Pine’s personal essay collection Notes to Self, Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object and Viv Albertine’s To Throw Away Unopened.

In her piercing and gripping essays, Pine reflects on her troubled teenage years, and the ways in which she has internalised the prevailing ideology that, as a woman, she should not speak up. About anything. But especially about the painful experiences that are relegated to the sidelines purely because they are regarded as female experiences. While her essays tackle structural issues in Irish society, such as the illegality of abortion and (formerly) of divorce, the way the Constitution privileges unborn babies over their mothers, and the way the neoliberal ideology underpinning university administration places undue stress on academics, Pine also tackles the taboo: menstruation, body image, self-confidence, and sexual assault. She cogently links a male colleague’s comments about her “cute” appearance to the broader iniquities of the patriarchy, writing “[usually] sexist comments in the workplace don’t involve references to genocide, and this can make them easier to live with, but also easier to miss.” She is also highly attuned to the nuances of privilege and silence, making reference to the irony that sometimes she can struggle to publicly call out misogyny, but at the same time, as a lecturer, she talks for a living: “you can be silent and loud at the same time, it turns out.” Each essay is filled with insight, compassion and forgiveness- including for herself. This book won the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year award 2018 and I would urge everyone to read it- once I started I literally could not stop.

Valenti’s memoir is a disturbing catalogue of the sexist violence that has surrounded her since she was born. Growing up in an under-privileged borough of New York, Valenti was confronted by flashers and molesters on the streets and on the subway as she made her way to school. Generations of women before her have experienced sexual assault and abuse. A long line of boyfriends treated her badly. Then, as she became a feminist writer, she started receiving death threats, and had to move out of her own home when her daughter was very young to escape these threats being carried out.

Like Pine, Valenti also interrogates the silence that has been enforced on generations of women in her family. Valenti talks about how her mother and grandmother were both sexually abused, by either family members or close family acquaintances, and how she herself has been raped. Her call for everyone to speak out to protect women has taken on a new urgency with the birth of her daughter who has selective mutism, and therefore finds it literally impossible to speak in front of strangers.

These disclosures are all shocking and made me recommit to calling out misogyny when I see it. However, the thing that really drove home to me how the struggle for our own bodies is still subject to institutionalised ownership and control is when Valenti has her baby. She writes “no one quite prepares you for the sheer number of people whose hands will be inside you”. Despite the doctors making the decision that she was having a caesarean, the nurse still shaved her vagina. How does that happen?

To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine, formerly of the punk band The Slits, is a reflection on her mother’s life and death. After her mother dies, Albertine finds a bag among her mother’s possessions with the label “to throw away unopened.” Naturally, she opens it.

The bag contains clues about her mother’s experiences that she rarely discussed, including her enforced abandonment of her son from her first marriage. This is a caustic, empowering and heartbreaking book in which Albertine is brutally honest about her own shortcomings and struggle to fight back against sexism and violence, but also about the irreconcilable inequities within families and between siblings. After a spectacular physical fight with her sister as their mother lays dying, Albertine later reflects that they had been set up for such a fight for nearly six decades, because her mother nurtured competition between her daughters. What stands out is Albertine’s appreciation of, and reconcilement to, the complex relationship she had with her mother. While there were moments in which the only support she had was from her mother, at other times, particularly during her parents’ divorce, both parents behaved abominably towards Albertine and her sister. When interviewed by the Guardian, Albertine said:

Some people will say that I’m bitter and twisted, but so what? I’m 63 and I’ve been an outsider as far back as junior school. When you’ve fought and fought to keep positive and to keep creative even though there was not a space to be creative, well, you show me any human who is not angry after 60 years of that.

I can’t wait to get my hands on Albertine’s first memoir, Clothes Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. You can also listen to an interview by RN’s Kate Evans with Albertine on a podcast extra of the Bookshelf.