The unlikeable female character

Books, writing

I’ve just put aside a short story which has failed to find a home. It was something true and honest, maybe a little too honest, maybe a little depressing, and, at least for now, it’s going back in the drawer. It was about a woman who, despite a magical discovery, only gets older and more unhappy. She does find something to hold onto in the end, though not necessarily something someone else would want or understand. Yep, maybe too depressing.

N.K Jemisin has written an interesting piece Tricking Readers into Acceptance about something similar, or at least the ways in which she strived to make readers accept a protagonist who was an “unlikeable fortysomething woman of color”. As Jemisin says, “The problem is that readers have been trained to like women less. Writers have to work against a weight of deeply-embedded societal bigotry which literally, actually causes readers to have trouble empathizing with anyone who’s not a straight cis white guy. We see this empathy failure everywhere and not just in fiction.” Be warned, there are major spoilers for those who have not read The Fifth Season. Jemisin makes lots of good, strong writerly arguments and I very much admire her work. I did notice that many of the comments were from readers who said that they emphasized with this character from the start. But then they too were women.

Speaking of great writing advice, Ursula Le Guin is responding to questions over at Book Cafe. And if, like me, you are in the mood to read more prickly women characters, Tansy Rayner Roberts is doing a series on SF Women of the 20th Century. This link is to her article on Octavia Butler.

Happy reading

Image via HJS Designs



I’ve just finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. What a book! With one of the main characters a quantum computer on an intergenerational starship hoping to find a new home in the Tau Ceti system.

For much of the book, the quantum computer/Ship is the narrator, allowing Robinson to seed the story with all manner of facts and figures. The problems of such a difficult and long-term undertaking are never minimised. It’s the kind of science fiction I know I have no hope of writing, so full of technical knowledge. There were a few moments when I felt Robinson was tipping into info dump, but there were many more glorious passages.

During the voyage, the ship muses on the nature of consciousness, of Artificial Intelligence, of Turing’s test, of love, of politics. And, of course, it is an outsider’s view of human nature. All our flaws and fallacies and wishful thinking exposed.

There is a transcendent passage where the ship is flying close to the sun, but despite that, the ending (and look away now if you’d rather not know) seems almost a polemic against starships, or at least a warning against a blind love of space travel at all costs. And there is an argument for earth as the true human home, the place we must care for and maintain, because there may be no other.

As I read, I marked some passages to share, but now, only a day after I read them, they don’t really capture the way I felt, sitting, reading, thinking. The nature of consciousness, demonstrated, here. So difficult to convey.

Someone asked me what I was reading yesterday and I saw their eyes glaze as I described, very briefly, the book. But books like this are why I love science fiction. There’s something glorious and bold and profound and wondrous that I don’t think you find anywhere else.

Write like a man


I can’t stop thinking about Catherine Nichols’ article Homme de Plume: What I learned sending my novel out under a Male Name.
My first reaction was … I want to say disbelief, but that’s not quite right. Something more akin to weariness, something like really, still, again? And then I thought about one of my writing classes. The tutor was a woman, a much loved, insightful, published author. But she did favour the boys! And it took me a while to get my head around that. A person I admired, whose opinions I cherished who, nonetheless, was more laudatory of male writing, more critical of female. And someone who, I think, though I’m truly guessing, would be horrified to realise this bias.
And then there’s this interesting article by Jessica Norell which discusses some of the workplace experiences of transgender people. The same person, different gender perceptions, different treatment.
It’s tempting, but I don’t think I’m quite prepared to submit using a male name. Though I have thought one up that matches my initials. Just in case.
johnny depp 3

Something stoic


Marcus Aurealis
This wonderful image is a panel from Zen Pencil’s Marcus Aurealis comic. Words of wisdom as well as zombies, what could be better! (I love Zen Pencils. His latest creation contains a Frida Kahlo quote)

We are all fighting our own battles, all, as Ram Dass says, just walking each other home. But for the times when those on the walk seem not so helpful and you need something tougher, and this quote from Meditations is a good reminder that even when you meet “the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial”, there is no need to “be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on [you] what is ugly.”

Be strong, fellow travellers!

Everyday fictions


The fiction
Apologies for R’s late arrival at school. She was feeling queasy in the early morning but felt well enough to come in later.

The truth
R had a mini existential crisis revolving around an unfinished assignment. She persuaded her mother to let her stay home and complete it. Her mother made her a cup of tea, came up with an advertising slogan, shaded in a poster and, several hours later, drove R to the train station. Unfortunately when R got to school, she found the teacher was, once again, away sick. R thinks the teacher is pregnant. And as she keeps coming to school, vomiting, and going home that may well be the case.

The fiction
Please excuse R’s late arrival at school. She missed her train.

The truth
R took the opportunity of her older sister’s absence to ransack her room. (Many things were found. None of them the desired black jacket) The resultant lack of the good hair straightener led to a hair emergency which necessitated a quick trip to Woolies for hair ties.

The fiction
R has been battling a debilitating flu and was unable to attend her eisteddfod solo.

The truth
R has been sick, but she was sufficiently well enough to dance. However, she stayed up all night talking to a boy she is not sure that she likes but who, nevertheless, is very entertaining. When woken at 6.30 in the morning, she mumbled something and went back to sleep in much the manner of a bear returning to hibernation. Her mother went back to sleep too. It was Sunday morning. The eisteddfod was an hour’s drive away and it was dark and cold.

Wise words from Wendell Berry


(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

(Found via the inspirational Brain Pickings)

I like to party and by party I mean …


read books. So said the sweatshirt worn by a woman I saw this morning on Bourke Street. And I knew exactly what she meant. I’ve been travelling a little lately and, despite the weariness and the longing for home, managed, extraordinarily, to read almost two books in what seemed like one strange, elongated sitting. The first was Daniel Handler’s wild and unexpected We Are Pirates. And the other was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, found in a bookshop for $10. Whenever I read her, I think, well that is a ludicrously high and probably unreachable writing bar. But mostly I sat in the sun (various seats, always light streaming in, sometimes over clouds) and read. And was particularly happy while drinking coffee under high arches and listening to Paris by Black Atlass. Small blessings.

Music with stories


I have Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade running around in my head, all because I’m playing in Mosman Symphony Orchestra’s 40th anniversary concert this Friday and Sunday. (March 20 and 22) Scheherazade is, of course, based on One Thousand and One Nights and the tales Scheherazade told to save herself from execution. There are some beautiful solos and fantastic orchestral work. Copland’s Appalachian Spring, perhaps less dramatic, but just as appealing, begins the programme.