Monday, February 17, 2014

5 Reasons Bad Books Are Good For Us

Kale salad
Kale salad (Photo credit: Salim Virji)
Are you a writer who hates reading bad books? Let me explain why, like kale (or so they tell me), bad books are actually good for us.

1. Bad Books Give Us Hope

Ever finish reading a fabulous book and be plunged into such deep despair you consider never trying to write again? I will never, ever, be able to write anything near this brilliant, we think. But when we read a bad book, especially one published through a big publishing house, we are all smug self-confidence. I know I can turn out something that certainly ain't any worse than this train wreck.

2. Bad Books Fight Book Hoarding

Do you have shelves filled to overflowing, stacks of books here, there, and everywhere, that you can't bear to part with, because those books are your favorites (all three thousand of them)? Bad books, on the other hand, are quite easy to stuff in a bag to donate to your local charity.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...
English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. Bad Books Give Us Something to Rant About

Let's face it, when we've been suckered into dropping our hard-earned cash on the latest blockbuster book that turns out to be a total waste of time and money *cough* Girl with Dragon Tattoo* *cough*, it ticks us off. And anger is one of those emotions that needs to be taken out for a walk from time to time. Most people suppress anger and swallow it in unhealthy ways, so having a legitimate target for our anger can be a very good thing.

Just be cautious re: ranting via an acidic book review on Goodreads or Amazon, if you ever want to make a connection with the author, his agents, or her editors.

4. Bad Books Help Us Get Shit Done

Gray vacuum cleaner
Gray vacuum cleaner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With a great book, we can't wait to race home from work and dive into it.  We neglect everything else we "should" be doing, like housework, or our own writing, because we have to find out what happens next.  We'll stay up into the wee hours of the night reading it, because we can't wait to find out how it ends.

Bad books let us put them down and get some sleep, have an actual life.

When we're reading a bad book, we're more likely to say, "Let me just write this blog post first," or "Another ten pages on the MS before I go back to reading," or, more rarely, "I think the vacuum cleaner is calling my name."

5. Bad Books Teach Us How Not to Write

Bad books often teach us more about the craft of writing than good books do.

Plodding plotting? Dreadful dialogue?  Typo typhoons?

With bad books, we can gleefully pick apart why they didn't work.  The main character didn't have any.  There was so much head-hopping we needed Dramamine to quell the nausea. The sex scenes were about as erotic as a visit to the gynecologist, only with less lube.

Often I've read something that jumped out at me as terrible writing, and the second thing that jumped out at me, along with a flush of shame, was, "Holy rejection letter, Batman, I do this too!"

So there is value not only in the existence of bad books, but in actually reading them.

Just not too many of them in a row, please.

Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling, of seeing some blunder in a crappy book 
and realizing that you do the same thing in your own writing?
What have you learned from bad books?
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, February 3, 2014

Slut of the Month: Saartje (Sara) Baartman

Cover of "African Queen: The Real Life of...
Cover via Amazon

Orphan. Widow. Slave. "Hottentot Venus."

The tragic story as spun by many is that Saartje Baartman was a young African woman, ripped from her land and her people, exhibited to staring, pointing and laughing crowds as a freak with a huge derriere, who ended her life as a penniless prostitute, dying alone in Paris, far from home. After her lonely death, her body was ravaged by curiosity seeker who cut out and put her genitalia in a jar, and her skeleton on display, for almost two hundred years.

Victim of Racism and Sexism? Or a Bootylicious Bawse Before Her Time?

When I first heard Sara's name and various variations of her story, I wept with shame and pain for this beautiful young woman, and the way she was treated.

And yet. As I began researching this piece, my preconceived notions about her history got turned on their head. Maybe what we "know," or think we know, about the life of Saartje Baartman and how she felt about it becomes distorted by the lens we see her through.

Saartje (pronounced Saar-key, with a rolled R) makes a handy symbol for whatever point we want to make: the evils of colonialism, the sexual exploitation of women, the fetishizing of women of color...

But like all human beings, Saartje was much more than just a symbol. She was a living, breathing, beautiful and unique woman, with joys, sorrows, fears, pleasures, flaws and strengths. Yep, she was illiterate; so were many other people of the time, male and female alike. Being illiterate is not the same thing as being naive or stupid. Saartje had the intelligence to learn more than one language, played more than one musical instrument, and appears to have had much free agency in determining where she went and what she did, right down to helping develop her four-hour stage performance, to meeting (and charming) Dukes and dignitaries.

Some facts:
  • Birth: Around 1789.
  • Her people - Khoisan (Eastern South Africa) aka Hottentots (if you want to be insulting).
  • Captured (Rescued?) by Pieter Willem Cesars, a free black/mixed race hunter/trader, after her father (and fiance?) was killed. 
  • Skin Color: Honey (according to black history pages and contemporary illustrations), not the deeper brown as displayed in advertising caricatures of her.
  • Her height: about 4'7".
  • Her body: steatopygic (excess fat stored in buttocks).
  • Lived: Servant in Cape Town to Hendrik Cesars (brother of Pieter) and his wife Anna Catharina, also a free black, later serving as wetnurse to their adopted daughter.
  • Performed and exhibited in Piccadilly, London, beginning 1810.
  • Exhibited: France, beginning around September 1814.
  • Languages: Her native tongue(s), plus fluent Afrikaans ("low" Dutch), passable English, some French
  • Death: 29 December 1815 (age 25-26), in France.
  • Skeleton, brain, and genitals: Placed on display in Paris until 1974. After requests from South African President Nelson Mandela, and later by President Thabo Mbecki, Saartje's remains were returned to South Africa and buried on 9 August 2002.
In Rachel Holmes' African Queen, it suggests that Saartje had a lover or husband among the regimental drummers attached to the British Capetown regiment. Some sources say Irish, others say Negro, or perhaps West Indian. She continued to work for the Cesars, and wetnurse their adopted daughter, but lived with her drummer for two years, until their baby (no sources reveal the gender) died. Then she and her lover split up, and she moved back in with the Cesars.

Hendrik Cesars was employed by a surgeon attached to the local British regiment, Alexander Dunlop, who also had a sideline of exporting exotic animals to Europe. When Dunlop was relieved of his post after a dispute with the government over reimbursement for treating local women infected with venereal diseases, it meant the livelihood of Hendrik Cesars, and all his dependents, was at risk.

Somehow, a plan was hatched to smuggle Saartje to England (Hottentots could not leave the country without an authorization from the governor), and exhibit her as a curiosity there. Later, she expressed her belief that she had been promised she could return to her home country, rich. Was she duped into making the journey, threatened into it, or did she go willingly, even eagerly?

The Reality TV Show of the 18th Century

In this period, many people transformed an unusual body feature or deformation from a liability into an income-generating asset.

from African Queen:
Siamese twins and albino children (advertised as "White Negroes") were paraded at street fairs throughout the eighteenth century. In June 1810, a West Indian child advertised as "the Piebald Boy" was put on shoe in the Strand. Those who suspected he was painted were invited to scratch or rub him on the promise that they would soon find out he was genuinely mottled. Other popular freak shows in the area included "the Fasting Woman of Tetbury"; fifty stone Daniel Lambert, or Fat Dan, the fattest man who ever lived; Frenchman Claude Ambroise Seurat, "the Living Skeleton," conversely the thinnest, and nineteen-and-a-half-inch Caroline Crachami, the miniature "Sicilian Fairy."
Saartje was not the only African person in London at the time, nor was she the only person of the Khoisan present. So, how to make her appear exotic, dangerous, and different?

In the heart of Piccadilly, Saartje was not chained, caged, exhibited naked, though her ?manager? ?owner? sought to give that impression. She wore a tightly fitted, flesh-colored (I am presuming her flesh-colored) body stocking, with much jewelry arranged at neck, wrists and ankles so as to disguise where the garment ended and Saartje began. She also smoked a pipe. (Personal preference, or for the shock effect, since few women in Europe openly smoked?) There was an extensive stage set: painted wooden flats depicting the landscape and flora of Africa, and a faux grass hut, from which Saartje would emerge, at the beginning of her performance.

And it was a performance, lasting four hours at a time (imagine Bruce Springsteen, only without a backup band). Saartje sang folk and popular songs in Khoi, Afrikaans, and English, playing her own instruments, and dancing. She wore stage makeup. Contemporary sources say she had a pleasing voice, but was an even better musician.

Saartje was skilled on the ramkie (kind of a tin-can guitar, featured in the YouTube video, below), and the mamokhorong, a single-stringed violin.

Saartje was not of the tribe or skin color of these musicians, 
but the ramkie she played may have sounded like the one in this video.

Let's Be Honest. They Were There for the Sex (Organs)

It is true that, according to urban legend, women of the Khoisan had exaggerated, elongated labia, and undoubtedly many people flocked to see Saartje in hopes of glimpsing hers. Her stage name "Hottentot Venus" and her costume played up the sexual connotation, accenting her groin area with an apron featuring pearly beads, hide, and feathers.

Later, Saartje  would be offered large bribes by French naturalists, if only she would lift her modesty apron and show them her genitals. She refused to do so (and was, apparently, free to refuse).

Were there times she was touched and poked in the fundament by the curious? Yes, but we must remember, this was a time when most human curiosities were touched and poked - such as the "Piebald Boy," above. (At least nobody was permitted to scratch her.) Saartje also took carriage rides around St. James Park.

Now, it's certainly possible that Saartje was a naive victim who Had No Idea the crowds were interested in her crotch, her booty, or her presumably dark and dangerous sexuality. Perhaps she would've been shocked, shocked! and humiliated by that revelation.

It is also possible that this young woman, who had taken a lover, borne a child, and worked as a domestic servant, was totally "in on it," even cynical or jaded about this mysterious sexual fascination she was supposed to embody. If these English fools wanted to get titillated by something so silly, something she had no intention of ever revealing, let 'em go for it, laughing all the way to the bank.

And it's possible Saartje felt something in between, or sometimes one way, and sometimes another.

It's Complicated...

What does it mean that we often assume female p0rn actors, reality show stars, exotic dancers, musicians, and "curiosities" are being exploited, and we rarely assume the same thing about their male counterparts? Do we really think women are not as smart as men?

I used to have very strong ideas about the adult movie industry, and then I did some work for a popular director/producer, went on the sets, and talked with dozens of 'talent,' male and female, as well as grips, camerapeople, production assistants. All my preconceived notions about how exploitative p0rn was of women flew right out the window. Was/is there abuse and exploitation that occurred in the industry, if not on my friend's sets? Absolutely, but there was also free agency, delight in notoriety and good performances, pride in a job well-done, friendships and camaraderie among people in the industry, and often (if not always), genuine sexual pleasure. No woman ever expressed to me that she felt victimized or exploited, though yes, there were days they didn't want to come to work, as it were.

When I think about General Tom Thumb, or the family from Little People, Big World, I don't think "victim," I think they were making the best of the cards life dealt to them. The arguments made by Dunlop, "has she not as good a right to exhibit herself as an Irish Giant, or a Dwarf &c, &c?" may not be without merit.

This was an age (and still is, if you consider reality TV as the modern equivalent of the touring freak show) where being on display as a curiosity could earn an unusual-looking man or woman a great deal more money than employment in a standard profession such as carpenter or seamstress.

On the other hand, women have often lived in terrible circumstances where they are being exploited, or are victims of domestic violence and/or sexual slavery, and they truly need help. How do we make sure to offer a helping hand to those who need it, without being patronizing to those who don't want it?

In the case of Saartje Baartman, it is indeed possible she felt and was horrifically exploited while she was alive, and cried into her pillow (if she had a pillow) every night. It is also possible that she shrugged a shoulder to acts we now consider dehumanizing, much as a movie star tolerates the talk show circuit and paparazzi as part of the cost of doing business, or a queen was once expected to give birth or move her bowels in a room full of people.

My gut feeling is that sometimes Saartje felt exploited, and hated her life/job, especially towards the end of it, and other times, perhaps felt proud of her performances, and glad she wasn't scrubbing floors or carrying water any longer.

Here Comes The Judge

Slavery had been abolished in the United Kingdom at that time, and there was great political debate over the institution, and the role English citizens played in financing or profiting from it elsewhere, from the slave ships that brought Africans to the United States, to economic interests in the American South and West Indies.

Zachary Macaulay was secretary and active member of the African Institute, an organization formed to "civilize and improve" Africa, and for "the entire and universal Abolition of the Slave Trade." Macauley and others became convinced that not only had Saartje been illegally smuggled out of her own country (true), but was in fact enslaved and abused by Cesars and Dunlop, her ostensible promoters/managers. There was a large "ick" factor about the not-so-hidden sexual nature of the "Hottentot Venus" program for Maccaulay, son of a Scottish priest, and also a member of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and editor of the Christian Observer newspaper, which also took positions against dancing, theater, and novel-reading. From African Queen:
The abolitionists understood that Saartjie, promoted as a semi-scientific ethnographic curiosity, offered sexual tourism dressed up as education. Buffed, powdered, lubricated with glistening oil, trussed in silk and cotton, adorned with feathers and beads, ethnically accessorized, face painted like a virgin sacrifice, Saartjie was got up as an embodied fetish, her costume designed to accentuate her supposed "idiosyncrasies and abnormalities." In Londoners' eyes she was the epitome of potent European fantasies about female African sexuality.
A battle for public opinion raged via letters and editorials in the local newspapers (which only boosted ticket sales). Many had seen Hendrik Cesars raise a cane towards Saartjie in a threatening manner, when she balked at performing while ill with the flu. (Serious abuse, or staged for dramatic effect?) In November 1810, the case was brought before the Court of the King's Bench in London. Legal counsel for the defendants (Cesars and Dunlop) suggested that Cesars be removed from the exhibition, and that a proper legal contract with Saartjie be drafted and signed.

Whether there had been a previous verbal contract or not, the formal written contract would benefit Saartjie's prospects immensely. She and Dunlop visited a Dutch-speaking public notary, who translated and read the contract out loud in Dutch to her, twice. Saartje confirmed that she understood the contents and that it was to her satisfaction. Later that day, she was visited by representatives of both the African Institute and Dunlop and Cesars, along with two Afrikaans-speaking merchants, and questioned for about three hours regarding her contract, whether she displayed herself willingly or was coerced.

When neither Dunlop nor Cesars were present in the room, Saartjie swore that she was indeed willing to perform (though she wanted warmer clothing, which she would receive), and that she expected to receive a portion of the profits. Could there be elements of duress, domestic violence, or Stockholm Syndrome influencing her statements, including the one that she did not wish to return to South Africa at that time? Absolutely. It is also possible that Saartjie meant what she said, and however rocky her relationship with Cesars or Dunlop might be, perhaps she felt "the devil you know" was better than these well-meaning strangers, because who knew what their hidden agenda might be, and whether they could be trusted. From African Queen:
Saartjie's response to the case brought on her behalf suggests a combination of naive obstinacy with sanguine practicality. The white wigs might argue over whether she was slave or freewoman, but Saartjie knew that she was seller and commodity in one, and must take care of herself.
The court case was decided in favor of the defendants, Dunlop and Cesars.

The "Hottentot Venus" show closed in Piccadilly in May 1811 and went on the road, touring London, Brighton, and Bath. In December 1811, "Sarah Bartmann" was baptized at the Collegiate and Parish Church of Christ in Manchester. In July 1812, Alexander Dunlop died, and Saartjie would disappear from public view until 1814. Was she mourning? Married? Having another child? There were rumors, but no evidence of any of these things, nor even where she was living.

Bonjour, Paris!

It is unclear if Saartjie and Hendrik Cesars were lovers, business associates who remained in the same locale following the death of their mutual patron/promoter Dunlop, or whether following his death they had each gone their separate ways. What is clear is that in the summer of 1814, the "band had gotten back together," and La Vénus Hottentote show then moved to Paris, there to solicit interest of the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, and one of its preeminent board members, Georges Cuvier, for an exclusive preview.

Saartjie was much less protected in Paris than she had been in the UK. Among other things, slavery was legal in France, its form of governance had recently gone from a Napoleonic empire to a restored monarchy (read: domestic turmoil), and while in England, Dunlop had served as a buffer between her and Hendrik Cesars. Now Cesars was all she had (and vice versa), though he had assumed the alias of Henry Taylor. And Saartjie was performing longer hours, from noon until six, then spending the evening soliciting more business by making the rounds of bars, cafés, restaurants, private parties... Still, she seemed happy. From African Queen:
A transformation came over Saartjie in Paris. She became overwhelmingly amiable and ebullient onstage, and joked with her audience in Dutch and English. She danced with energy and her singing in "her own mother-tongue: charmed the Parisian critics. This behavior was ambiguous: was Saartje genuine cheerful, or was her exuberant jollity a mask for misery? Freed of Dunlop, she had a fuller share of her earnings, and the novelty of a new, warmer foreign city. Possibly she had a new lover; there were unsubstantiated press reports that she married in Paris. Yet Saartjie's greater engagement with her audiences heightened rather than lessened her aura of loneliness and isolation, and it suggested an increasingly cognac-fueled desperation at the realization that her circumstances were inescapable.
And then the performance hours were increased, from six hours a day, to ten. (In England it had been only four.) This took a serious toll on Saartjie's health, and she was again struggling with recurrent flu. Napoleon re-entered Paris (hello, governmental conflict!), and a showman named Réaux bought ?Saartjie herself? ?her contract? from Hendrik Cesars, who returned to Cape Town early in 1815, and following his death in 1841 left his wife two thousand ryks dollars. Did he abscond with money belonging not only to himself, but also to Saartjie, not only deserting a (possible) lover, but embezzling from a business partner? Or did he leave Saartjie with an equal share, and amass these funds amassed upon his return to South Africa?

Whatever had been their relationship, however ethical or unethical his business dealings with her, once Cesars deserted her into Réaux's keeping, Saartjie lost heart, and would soon lose her life.

Life Model, Death Model

In spring of 1815, Saartjie was to pose for three days as a "life model" for a panel of scientists and artists associated with the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle.

On day one, Saartjie arrived wearing her stage costume, and refused to remove a stitch. Eventually she was persuaded to pose nude, but, with a handkerchief she held modestly over her genitals, switching it from hand to hand as fatigue forced her to shift position. Persuasion and bribery failed to convince her to remove it, though she was sketched by some as though she had.

via Wikipedia Commons
In late December 1815, Saartjie lost her life to (as African Queen tells it) a fatal combination of flue, bronchitis, and excessive drinking. Other sources suggest venereal disease (which I find unlikely) or other cause(s) of death. There is no evidence, rumors aside, that Saartjie ever became (or was pimped out as) a prostitute.

Knowing of their prurient scientific interest, Réaux gave the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle a heads up notice of Saartjie's death. It would appear that her body, rather than being humanely buried, was seized upon and bought, as a scientific curiosity by them, though French laws prohibited them doing so or dissecting her remains.

They did it anyway.

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I feel it was an outrageous violation of her humanity. On the other... The person most eager to cut out, examine, and preserve Saartjie's genitalia and brain was Georges Cuvier. He himself had his own body dissected and his brain preserved, after his death. My own parents donated their cadavers for medical research, and I have also designated that my own body, after any organ or skin donations that could benefit a living person be made, be donated for medical research. So I am not as horrified by the desecration of Saartjie's body after her death as some may be.

Still. Saartjie did not will her body to be dissected and hoarded, skeleton, brain, and genitals, as Cuvier chose to treat hers. She did not anticipate that a mold would be made of her remains and placed on permanent display, as though she were a dinosaur or ape, rather than a human being.

Handed over among her remains: her contract with Dunlop, her 1811 baptismal certificate, and a crumpled handkerchief.

Life After Death

For nearly two centuries, Saartjie's body cast, skeleton, brain and genitals were on display at Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle. In the 1970's, they were removed from exhibition. In 1994, newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela made the first request to have Saartjie's remains returned for burial. In May 2002, she was finally returned to her homeland, and buried on the banks of the Gamtoos River in August 2002, following a Khoisan cleansing and dressing ceremony. About two and a half thousand attended - there was music, dance, poetry...

Saartjie's Legacy

Born a small woman, Saartjie became a huge symbol, so much so that the living woman has generally been eclipsed. In England and France, she stood for the dark and mysterious, primitive sexuality attributed to African women, but she was also often used in plays and cartoons as a political symbol. She was even depicted in a deck of playing cards. In South Africa and elsewhere, her story was used to illustrate the evils of colonialism, apartheid, racism, even body-hating, and, as referenced above, the fetishizing of women, generally women of color, with ethnic body variations.

We now know that human beings can have all kinds of body types and sizes, and still be fit, and still be beautiful.

However, there is a deep sense of cultural pain expressed by many women of color, about the long history of objectification of women's bodies, and of profits made primarily by white men, (but sometimes white women,) by exploiting the bodies and talents of people of color. Regardless of whether Saartje Baartman herself was a victim, a free agent, or something in between, the reality is many women have been raped and sold as slaves (sexual or otherwise) and had their bodies used without their full consent, and much of the time, those women have been women of color.

Among the other things people found offensive about Miley Cyrus' performance at the 2013 VMA's and Lily Allen's Hard Out Here (For a Bitch) video, the use of female dancers of color twerking to enhance the performance of a white artist feels especially painful and triggering to many.

Many people are not fans of women of color used as "bitches and ho's" for male musicians, either, and feel a direct tie-in to the (self?) exploitation of Sara Baartman. Here's one passionate take.

It horrifies me how Saartje Baartman was treated while she was alive, and makes me retch to think of how barbarically her remains were treated after her death. It infuriates me when lovely young women of any hue dance and perform in music videos and on concert stages in ways that seem degrading, while the "star" sings about bitches and ho's.

And yet, am I bringing my own prejudices and privilege to this subject? Is it degrading of me to assume that these women are too dumb and weak to know when they're being pimped out or exploited, just as I found my assumptions about women in the adult film industry were wrong? For all I know, just as many Miss Americas have earned advanced degrees in a variety of fields, these dancers and back-up singers are just as bright, just as ambitious, and truly have made informed choices to "shake their moneymakers," not poor ignorant exploited victims.

Where I leave Saartjie in my heart, now, is allowing her to be a woman, and a survivor, not just a symbol, and allowing modern women, whether of color or whitebread like me, to be who they are: survivors, courageous, sometimes victims and sometimes bawses in charge of their own images.

from African Queen by Rachel Holmes:
Saartje suffered, but she endured, and as far as she could, rebelled. As an orphan, as a woman, as a curious, adventurous individual, she stepped always on the edge of danger, surviving for as long as possible in extraordinarily challenging circumstances.

Past Sluts:

Upcoming Sluts of the Month:
  • Mae West
  • Joan of Kent
  • Sandra Fluke 
  • Morgan le Fey
  • Aspasia
  • Madonna
  • Liz Taylor
  • Dorothy Parker 
  • Kassandra of Troy
  • Tullia d'Aragona
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Lillie Langtry
  • Eleanor Roosevelt 
  • Rhiannon
  • Shelley Winters
  • Mary, Queen of Scots
  • "Klondike Kate" Rockwell
  • Catherine de Medici
  • Lucrezia Borgia
  • Umrao Jaan
  • Sarah Bernhardt 
  • Cher
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine 
  • Theodora (wife of Emperor Justinian) 
  • Jeanne d'Arc
  • Margaret Sanger
  • Coco Chanel 
  • Isadora Duncan
  • Sappho
  • Joan of Kent 
  • Dorothy Dandridge
  • Eva Perón
  • Susan B. Anthony
  • Natalie Wood
  • Diana, Princess of Wales
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • Mata Hari
  • Lady Gaga
  • Malala Yousafzai

Is it possible that Saartje made the best of a horrible situation?
If you are a woman of color, do you feel that female dancers of color
are being exploited in the music industry today, or...?
Enhanced by Zemanta