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Month: December, 2016

‘and leave your senseless, sinful land’

What do you do when your home no longer feels like your home, but it is – it has to be?

I first became preoccupied with this question in a small way; in relation to the village in which I’ve lived all my life, and specifically how isolating it felt to grow up there as a closeted lesbian.  But perhaps this year – which has been so difficult for so many of us, in so many different ways! – I’ve been made to think of it more broadly.

I came across 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, the new collection edited by Boris Dralyuk, in the library the other day and I could hardly believe my good luck.  I’ve been excited for it since I heard about it prior to its release, and usually it takes a good long while for recently-published books to make their way to my local libraries, so finding it there was Christmas come early.  I haven’t finished reading it yet, but my favourite from the collection so far articulates the question of belonging perfectly for me; a poem by Anna Akhmatova written in the autumn of 1917. My preoccupation with home and belonging in ‘real life’ is something that I’m always trying to seek out in books and she treats it so well, here, and expresses things just as I feel them.

England is home to me as Russia was to Akhmatova.  Whatever the future holds, next year or any year, it is still my home.  On a smaller scale, however isolating it may feel to be the ‘only gay in the village’, and how lacking in community in comparison to the city I still find it, it is still my village.  These are storms I must weather.

When the nation, suicidal,

awaited German guests,

and Orthodoxy’s stringent spirit

departed from the Russian Church,

when Peter’s city, once so grand,

knew not who took her,

but passed – a drunken harlot –

hand to hand,

I heard a voice.  It called me.

“Come here,” it spoke consoningly,

“and leave your senseless, sinful land,

abandon Russia for all time.

I’ll scrub your hands free of the blood,

I’ll take away your bitter shame,

I’ll soothe the pain of loss

and insults with a brand new name.”

But cool and calm, I stopped my ears,

refused to hear it,

not letting that unworthy speech

defile my grieving spirit.

Anna Akhmatova (trans. Margo Shohl Rosen and Boris Dralyuk)

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I saw Tale of Tales at the cinema the other weekend and it made me wonder: what do men and boys think when they see (or read of) the degradation of women?  How do they react?  What is their response emotionally?

I find films most difficult to bear in this respect, in terms of their cruelty to women – perhaps because they’re most vivid, because the images of these things are given me and I have no control over them.  And perhaps I’m more careful with books; I think by now I’ve read widely enough to know what I like and what I don’t, so that in the last couple of years my tastes, as I’ve narrowed them down, have become very specific.  But it still happens – of all the books I’ve read this year I think The Crimson Petal and the White was the biggest disappointment (#freeagnes), and this summer, less than ten pages into A Storm of Swords, at the passage about how Softfoot got his name, I finally decided to stop trying with A Song of Ice and Fire in all its forms.  We, George R R Martin’s treatment of women and I, were never meant to be, as much as I tried to make it work and look past it.

There’s so much talk these days about young people being overly sensitive,  about safe spaces, whatever else.  But honestly: I read and watch films, for the most part, to get away from the problems of real life.  If I wanted to read about female suffering, I would read the news, and that I can do for free on the internet without buying a book or a cinema ticket; and that’s not to say I don’t think books “shouldn’t” contain such content, only that it’s a personal preference – it’s not want I myself want to be reading. You can say whatever you like about this kind of willful ignorance, but why? Why should I watch characters like me be abused, raped, humiliated – punished in a way punishments are often not meted out to male characters in quite the same way – undressed and made an object of in a way men are not?  Especially those like me? And all this for entertainment, apparently – make me, honestly.

For me, as a girl, I can hardly bear these days to watch such things.  It’s too close to my heart; it’s like watching myself.  As I was watching Tale of Tales and wondering whether I should walk out and go and do something more meaningful with my afternoon or stay put (I had paid for it, after all!), I thought properly for the first time: How do men and boys see what I am seeing? Do they think nothing of it?  It’s difficult for me to try and articulate this without either making generalizations or not-all-men-ing and feeling that I have to, I don’t know, soften things.  I don’t mean to accuse or presume: these are questions, genuinely.  I wish I knew, because it would help me make sense of their treatment of women in ‘real life’.  Which comes first? – they feed, I suppose, into one another.  Are we people to them, or is there some way in which, in their minds, we are quite not on the same level?  Do they feel pity, watching our degradation? Do they find it entertaining? Do they like it when women (as so often in Tale of Tales, for example) are seen undressed while men are not, and the camera takes its time over our bodies, or do they think it exploitative, as I do?  Do they feel nothing at all? Have we all of us become desensitized to such things?

But also: am I just being silly? – for I do wonder if it’s me.  Everyone I know who has read or watched Game of Thrones, for example, has enjoyed it.  We are reading the same books, my sister and I, but while I find them cruel and lacking in compassion and respect, she enjoys them and takes no issue with their depiction of women.  Am I too conservative? Is that what it is, conservatism – is it conservative, to not want to see yourself or people like you suffer, or bodies like yours exploited and put on show?

I don’t know why I’ve written all this, because there’s no good ending; I have no answer, I only wish I did.