Re-reading Wide Sargasso Sea

I first read Wide Sargasso Sea because I had to. It was a set text for my English A-level. I loved it then, even though I’d fallen out of love with reading (I loved the idea of reading, of being seen as a person who read, but not the reading itself. The activity had been ruined, alongside many others, by the obsessive compulsions which had by that point taken over my teenage life).

I couldn’t have told you why I loved it. I felt sorry for the first Mrs Rochester, as one is supposed to, and angry for her, too. I liked the heat and colours of the book, the intensity, the feeling of remaining in a very small space however far you travelled. I found the rhythms of Antoinette’s voice, set against the drab entitlement of Rochester’s, perfect in their disorder. She got inside my head. Such a sad book and it felt like a sanctuary.

Our A-level teacher was a feminist. She used the title Ms and the boys would linger over it – Mzzzzzzzz, like the buzz of a bee – in an attempt to undermine her. A whole bunch of them, 18, white, middle-class and male, and already disturbed to meet a woman who wouldn’t define herself according to which man, husband or father, presumed to own her. We’d sit around the table, drawing spidergrams based on each character (poor Annette, poor Antoinette, surrounded by serious men with surnames – Cosway, Mason, Rochester – who would not listen). Then some boy would raise a hand to ask a question – was the treatment of women really so awful? – and he’d never, ever forget to slip in that little, buzzing reminder of misplaced pride at his male heritage. We’ll use the name you ask for, Mzzzzzz, but what we call you is not what we’re thinking. Always remember that. Continue reading

New Statesman: Birth wars: The politics of childbirth

Birth is divisive. It divides women from men, and women from women. It requires of the body an opening up, at times a cutting, or a tearing apart. “But to let the baby out,” writes Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts, “you have to be willing to go to pieces.”

So going to pieces is precisely what women do.

To be of woman born is a universal experience, yet women themselves remain a diffuse, fractured group. “What is a woman, anyway?” is still considered a deep, meaningful question to ask. The polite answer is, of course, “whatever anyone wants it to be”. More than that would close off the vessel, seal the hole, glue back together the broken shell. There’s a sense in which women are simply not meant to be whole. We need to be in pieces so that men can survive intact.

I have given birth three times and each experience has a different colour. For the first, I lay in the bedroom of our terraced house, staring at the brown wardrobe opposite, trying to think my way beyond pain. With each contraction I pictured a hill (“some women like to imagine themselves ascending and descending a mountain peak,” said the birthing guide) but it was grey, dull and unimpressive. Then just as the pain peaked, I’d see a figure emerging over the crest, a grey-faced man in a top hat and black overcoat. Jack the Ripper, eviscerator of wombs, an involuntary visualisation.

Read the full piece at the New Statesman

New Statesman: As pilots fight to pump breast milk at work, why is society so ashamed of lactating women?

People do not like to be reminded of the fact that human beings are mammals, members of the class in which females secrete milk for their young. It all sounds so primitive, placing us on a level with the beasts of the field. We’ve risen above it, haven’t we? All of us, that is, apart from those who still lactate.

Take the four female pilots who recently filed claims aimed at forcing their airline, Frontier, to make it easier for new mothers to pump breast milk at work. 12-hour workdays and five-hour flights are not, it turns out, convenient for the average lactator. One of the women had already received a written reprimand for pumping in an airplane toilet. Apparently this “raised safety issues” – but why wasn’t it thought of before?

Because nobody likes to think about the practicalities of breastfeeding, that’s why. We may live in a world in which every new mother is put under an inordinate amount of pressure to do it, but to consider the logistic and economic problems this raises? Hell, that would mean looking at actual business structures, and that’s difficult. Shaming women, on the other hand, is easy.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Thoughts of a person, with breasts

Breasts are curious things. They sprout on you, unbidden, transforming you from child – generic, self-contained, human – to woman, that cartoonish parody of a person.

The way in which they develop will influence the way in which the world receives you. Small-breasted women are bookish, intellectual, perhaps slightly repressed; large-breasted women are cheap, available, maybe a little dumb. Either way, growing breasts makes you fresh meat. It puts you on the market, regardless of whether that’s where you want to be.

I am a small-breasted virgin in the body of a large-breasted whore. A flat-chested non-binary in the body of a matronly ciswife. I have never quite been able to get the right personality in place to match my tits. God knows, I’ve tried.

For almost ten years I starved myself into almost-flatness, rolling back the first-girl-at-school-to-get-breasts humiliations of my final year at junior school. Then when I lost it – and lost it badly, so many cup sizes, almost running out of alphabet – I attempted to occupy my own space, sleeping around, taking sexist jokes on the chin, taking time to realise that one’s space is not a thing a woman gets to define for herself. Then there were the almost-breast reductions, two operation appointments turned down. I wasn’t sure what parts of me to keep, which to reject. I’m still not sure years later, stretched and tired by a third round of breastfeeding. My baby son sometimes moulds and plays with the flesh while he drinks, as though he’s handling plasticine. That’s what my breasts feel like to me: insensitive, roughly formed, shoved onto me while I wasn’t looking. A bad joke, a “kick me” sign pinned to my back. Continue reading