Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, briefly discusses the history of the medical profession and its views concerning and treatment of women. The authors discuss how so-called medical and scientific logic have basically been utilized as weapons against women.
Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the medical community postulated that women were inferior and inherently ill. The very fact of their womanhood caused them to suffer from deficiencies that men were unaffected by. The mere presence of the womb, of reproductive organs, caused women to be chronically ill. Because of this, many physicians and spouses of the women in question prevented women from being active or pursuing intellectual activities. Not only did this view allow for women to effectively be “from participating in life outside the sphere of the home, it also provided doctors (almost all male) with an endless supply of patients. Womanhood was an illness to which there was no cure, but there was always a “treatment” that was available for purchase.
One thing the authors do bring up is the question of how sick some of these women actually were. Of course women faced medical obstacles that men didn’t (like childbirth and a higher probability of contracting TB), but it seems sickness became like a hobby to women in affluent households; it gave them something to think about, somewhere to go (various appointments/visits to doctors’ offices), and a strange sense of importance (“I have a problem to be solved. I must do something about it.”)
The authors postulate that the physical fitness/abilities and treatments for women were divided down class lines. Upper class women were frail creatures who should not be overworked or over-stimulated and who should not take part in any intellectual or strenuous outside-of-the-home pursuits because they were in danger of falling ill. They had a natural delicacy that prevented them from participating in such active schemes. Women of the lower classes, often consisting of women from races and origins deemed “unfavorable” by the upper classes, were naturally suited to hard work, but were carriers of disease and would bring filth into the homes of the rich families they worked for. These two narratives were essential for keeping up the status quo: if all women were weak, how can society force lower class women to work? And if all women are strong, how can society force women with class or racial privilege to remain silent?
All of the above just barely taps the surface of the issues the book explores. Anyone interested in the conjunction of feminism and medicine should definitely read this book. Ehrenreich and English leave us with a few thoughts on the implications of this system: by developing our views of our bodies and our health through the filter of the patriarchal system, how can we form ideas about what constitutes a true “female nature?” They also stress the importance of viewing health and feminism from many different perspectives; the health issues and access facing affluent white American women are different that those facing poor immigrant women of color. If we’re working together to find solutions, we need to make sure those solutions include all women, not just some.
WHAT IT IS: The Thing Around Your Neck, by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a collection of short stories that deal with feminism, female autonomy, and the struggles for identity people face in a country that is rapidly changing around them as well as when moving to a new country. The majority of the main characters of the stories are young females, and although the situations they deal with vary – in one, a woman moves to America for a better future, but is abused by an uncle and forced to make her own way in the world; in another, a young woman is married to a man and moves with him to Brooklyn, where she finds out he is not what she thought he was, and also that he wants to squash her Nigerian identity out of her – through each of these stories, Adichie very clearly articulates hardships many women (particularly immigrant women) face.
WHAT I THINK ABOUT IT: First of all, Adichie’s writing is simply beautiful. The novel reads like tributaries flowing into a larger river; it’s graceful and purposeful, with each word exactly the right weight for the story. Aside from being beautifully told, these stories all feature strong women. Even if Adichie doesn’t leave us with concrete solutions for these women’s problems, we are left with the idea that, using their inner strength, they will be able to overcome them. Even when feeling lost, abandoned, beaten, and scared, Adichie’s women show strength, grace, and determination; they are feathers quills of steel.
WHY I READ IT: Like many people, I first became aquainted with Adichie’s work from being exposed to the sampling of her TED talk in Beyonce’s song “Flawless.” I watched that talk and several more, and upon learning she was a writer, I became interested in reading her work.
WHAT IT IS: If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, is a novel that presents itself as a collection of short stories. Or a collection of short stories that presents itself as a novel. Or a novella connected by a series of short stories; I haven’t quite decided which. The chapters of the novel are divided into two parts: the first part describes the adventures of “you,” an avid reader who goes in search of the missing parts of a recently purchased novel, and the second part is the beginning of each novel “you” find.
The beginnings have two things in common: they leave off at the climax, and they are never continued in the rest of the book. Indeed, that is the quest of “you” – to find the rest of the novels to which these introductions are part of.
HOW I FEEL ABOUT IT: If on a winter’s night a traveler has been one of the most difficult books I’ve read in the last year. It mainly seems to be dealing with questions of authority, authenticity, and trustworthiness. Can I believe what an author says in his books? Is what the author describes a true belief or a contradiction meant to point out an inconsistency? Like the mirrors described in one of the novel beginnings, this story acts as a kaleidoscope, infinitely expanding and reflecting and collapsing back upon itself.
To be honest, I’m still not sure what I think of this book. Was this a true meditation on the purpose of readers, writers, and novels in general? Or was it meant to point out the futility of such questions? I don’t know, I don’t know! But it’s definitely on my list of must re-reads.
WHY I READ IT: My partner gave me this book as part of my Christmas present. He got me “Cosmicomics,” also by Italo Calvino, for my birthday, and since I enjoyed that one he figured he’d might as well get me another. Plus one to him for deductive reasoning.
WHAT IT IS: Bad Dirt is a collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx. Many of the stories center around the small Wyoming town of Elk Tooth. The stories feature a vast array of interesting characters – state Game Wardens, uncomfortable New York transplants, vegetarian bartenders, and grotesque high school bullies all grown up – and describe problems they face and the interesting ways they solve—or don’t solve—these problems. These small-town dramas are all played against the backdrop of beautiful and cruel Wyoming landscape.
WHY I LIKE IT: Proulx uses a mixture of magical realism, desolate landscapes, and black humor to tell her stories. The stories themselves are all about deaths; they describe the actual bodily death of characters, the death of relationships, the death of the emotional self, and the death of the wild-west countryside and rancher lifestyle. They are about characters desperately trying to get themselves out of difficult situations – some of them with ingenious, creative solutions, and others with nothing but bad luck and even worse endings. However, even when things don’t work out for the characters they way they (or the reader) would want, Proulx adds just enough humor to keep us from giving up on them. Overall, I felt this was equal parts deeply sad and deeply funny.
WHY I READ IT: I found this book while aimlessly wandering through The Strand’s fiction section. As a result of my recent cross-country drive, I’ve lately been really interested in stories about the West and living in the western United States.
For 2015, my goal is to read 50 books written by authors of color, nonbinary or nontraditional gender or sexual identities, women, or international authors.
Why do I want to do this? Well, for one, this will provide a greater variety of stories. Different identities provide different mediums, metaphors, and ideals, which translate into plots that haven’t been broached in the canon of American White Male Literature. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with Faulkner or Hemingway because of their identities – it’s just that the majority of my literary experience has been shaped by these kinds of voices. So on a superficial level, expanding my reading will allow me to be entertained by all manner of new stories.
Additionally, people’s experiences and viewpoints are reflected in the stories they tell. By reading these stories, I can become exposed to and subsequently begin to understand these viewpoints and experiences. This will (hopefully) facilitate better understanding and communication between people with different identities from me and myself. My reality is different from the reality of millions of other people; I should recognize and respect these differences, and I can do that through reading. This is especially important considering America’s incredibly complex and violent history regarding those considered to be different.
Julie Otsuka, Sherman Alexie, Ursula LeGuin, and John Okada are among the authors whose work I look forward to exploring. If you have any suggestions for reading that would fit the aforementioned categories, please feel free to leave a comment – I’d love to hear your recommendations.