Reviews

Thoughts on the Tensorate Series

BTOHSo my partner recently handed me the Tensorate series by Jy Yang and…Wow! That was a great decision.

The Tensorate Series consists of 4 novellas written by Jy Yang. They follow a loose timeline around the lives of the Sanao twins, Akeha and Mokoya. I love the world Yang created as a backdrop to these stories. Yang lives in Singapore, and their surroundings seem to influence their writing. Throughout each novel, we see a country, the Protectorate, that is an actual melting pot: people of various Asian backgrounds, religions, classes, all roiling together in the same stew, rubbing up against one another. There is still stratification in the Protectorate–for instance, the Kuanjin ethnicity seems to be privileged over Kebangilans and Gauris–but there is also an awareness of this in Yang’s writing that I rarely see in fictional novels. If anything, they bring the differences to the forefront to be commented upon. Characters are not shy about noticing one another’s differences and are not frowned upon for bringing it up as much as people would be in the United States. I enjoy hearing the Asian-ness in the writing.

While Yang’s writing style remains impressive throughout the series, I think the soft spot in my heart is always for Akeha’s story, The Black Tides of Heaven. This title comes from a saying that Akeha’s lover says, “The black tides of heaven director the courses of human lives…but as with all waters, one can swim against the tide” (166). Yongcheow says this to Akeha when Akeha claims his mother believes he is a mistake. Akeha is a lovable brute. Perhaps this says more about me than him, but I relate to him greatly. As a child, he is dauntless, reckless. It is interesting to watch him navigate his bond with his sister when they are children. At the time, both Mokoya and Akeha are non-binary. They live in a society that confirms gender later in life than at birth. Mokoya is clearly a controlling factor in Akeha’s life. He seems to put her wishes and desires before his own. I actually felt proud of him when he yanked the reins of his life out of Mokoya’s hands. He confirms his gender as a man (an unexpected move–none of the Protector’s other children were men), and promptly leaves the Protectorate for 18 years. To, you know, grow up and shit.

My heart breaks for him when he leaves Thennjay. Sadly, I don’t have much sympathy for Mokoya in the first book. She seems spoiled and a little ungrateful. Maybe also, it’s queerer for Thennjay to love Akeha than to love Mokoya. (I have no biases here at all, obviously). He gets just one kiss for all those feelings he has. Then he wanders into the woods to become Yongcheow’s honey and a Machinist. All in all, I think Akeha does pretty well for himself. I love a good rebellion, and it seems like a good choice to put our endearingly grumpy murderer twin in its waiting hands.

My heart breaks for him again when his niece dies. The irony of the century is when Akeha finally comes home after she dies. I remember reading that part and thinking, dammit Keha, couldn’t you have stopped being a butt-hurt little shit some time before that moment? There is something about stories that are both beautiful and sad, though. They are always the most memorable to me.

The other three novellas take us on a roller coaster of narrative styles. The Red Threads of Fortune tell us about Mokoya’s perspective after her accident. I like that Yang chose to write her in that way. She becomes a much more approachable character as a slightly broken, grieving mother than as The Prophet Of The Protectorate Married To The Head Abbot. Things I like about this book: Rider does really cool things with the slack. Mokoya fights with Thennjay Sometimes. Good to know. Mokoya and Akeha love each other. Yay. There’s a background thread of how the Machinists, the Monastery, and the Protectorate are kind of all at odds with each other, but it gets a little lost. The plot that I was most interested in was the one of intrigue and betrayal between Rider and Mokoya, and what they find out about Wanbeng.

In the third book, The Descent of Monsters, Yang takes a turn into darker secrets of the Protectorate. Of the four novellas, I thought this was the darkest one. I don’t know if it was meant to be hokey, but there are times when Chuwan Sariman is so oppositional to authority that it’s over-the-top. Granted, she does seem justified. The authorities are kind of gross in this book. They seem totally cool with sweeping the deaths of several people under the rug, not to mention the torture and abuse of several children. Maybe this was one of those Star Wars things: make really hard political themes easier to swallow with goofy and lovable main characters. The narrative style was also great, but presents a few pacing problems. For example, since we gain information through reports, interviews, and journal entries, the big reveal about the prophet-children does not feel as big as it possibly could have been. We only really know it is true at the very end. We spend a lot of time wandering around the lab, but some of it is repetitive. This is fair, since a number of the characters experience the same crime scene, but perhaps it could have been done just once–in Rider’s journal, for example–and the reader would get a feel for why covering up what happened at the lab is so horrific.

Lastly, The Ascent to Godhood takes us on a more intimate, sentimental journey. In this novella, we learn about Lady Han’s relationship with the Protector. After reading this book, my thoughts were that the Protectorate has seen some shit! Also, the Protector’s family is a riot. I’m not sure why, but I felt like pacing was again slightly off. Granted, it is a drunken monologue by Lady Han. Perhaps questionable pacing is the point. I feel the story could be improved if pacing was done more intentionally. For example, if Lady Han kept going back and forth in time, then the lurches might make sense. Again, Yang seems to skip over the parts that are truly revealing. A lot of groundwork was laid for Hemana’s betrayal of Hekate, but there didn’t seem to be as much for Hekate’s betrayal of Han. The reason is there and justified, but it comes as a small revelation, followed swiftly by the arrival of Xiuqing and Han’s escape. The end is actually more interesting to me than the beginning–and in other stories about rebellion leaders, such as Lawrence of Arabia or even The Empire Strikes Back, we get to see more of a before-and-after turning point that makes a rebellion leader. Then again, a novella is a rather different art form than a feature-length film. Perhaps the beginning–Lady Han and Hekate as young women–was all Yang wanted to get across.

In short, Yang has done some stunning work with this series. There are deep insights about gender, resistance, and being human embedded in each novella, and Yang does a great job of not hitting you over the head with some tired message. The characters in the series experience development and honest emotions like grief, fear, resentment, jealousy, and triumph. They also get to have secrets, which I feel makes them even more human and engaging. I deeply appreciate the world Yang created. Even with magic, it’s a reflection of a world that feels more real to me than that of most other books.

Thoughts on Wordslut

wordslutSo I recently read Wordslut (2019) by Amanda Montell. I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, the writing is very good. Montell has a great sense of humor and keeps my attention throughout the entire book. This is an impressive feat–my attention span is pretty short and my next blog post would have been 6 months from now if it had not been interesting. But after reading through the whole thing, I think it also has some glaring shortcomings.

I do appreciate that Montell is a Millenial who really has her generation’s back. It’s refreshing to find a non-fiction, academic book that is written by someone who was born after 1985. It is rare for someone that young to write non-fiction that is significant enough that it’s on the New Non-Fiction shelf in the library. Montell’s tone is prosaic, which I think is a strength; she really isn’t trying to impress academia by showing how much linguistics jargon she knows. Her writing is accessible, and that’s really fucking important. It can reach a wider audience because it is not trying to be a textbook. In addition, she is very affirming of young women (111), queers (229) and Black folks (95) and how they all use language. Indeed, the claim could be made that these are the people who invent new language all the time. This is a notable quality–all of these populations have a significant impact on our country. Just look at how much Democrats start crying when they don’t show up to vote.

One of the more important points made is that men and women fundamentally use language differently. Men mostly seem to use it to put forth ideas, or request or exchange information. Women seem to use it for SO much more. Women use language to create trust, to enforce relationships, to reach consensus, and to navigate a myriad of fluctuating social dynamics (125). On a sarcastic note, this makes me wonder why we allow men to speak at all. Their use of language is so limited. Though I also realize, this is probably what we condition both genders to do. Women have access to the fullness and richness of language, while men are encouraged to eschew it. This would account for why women, and not men, are adept at communicating feelings. To me, this is sad. We systematically set men up to fail at the things that bring people closer together. Their violence betrays the isolation society conditions them into.

One of the shortcomings of Wordslut is that it is so English-centric. Montell does use examples from other languages to explain certain things about English, like how people who speak Yoruba explain siblings (143) or how in the Native language Kwak’wala, you can’t pronounce certain words without vocal fry (117). But much of the book focuses on English-speaking media and how non-mobile, older, rural men (NORMs) (127) treat young (white?) women. I feel like the feminism of the book could have really been strengthened if there was any information in it about folks who are bilingual, multilingual or people for whom English is a second language. How do those populations conceptualize gender and sex using the English language? In what ways are their accents and butcherings of English actually radical? I realize that since linguistics is still so young a field, this information might not exist yet. But diluting the whiteness of any non-fiction work is definitely something I encourage by any means possible, and it feels like it could have been possible in this case.

I also feel like a weakness of the book is that it does not talk about how English has been a colonizing force in the world. What does colonization have to do with feminism, you say? Well, it played a huge role in subjugating women, frequently forcing them to become even more objectified since they were able to give birth and thereby produce a labor force. Colonizers like their labor forces because their lazy asses don’t like doing work themselves. What contributions have those years of colonization (and it’s like, a good 500 years) had on the language? We know language changes in as short a time as 50 years. Surely this process has affected the English language, the language spoken by what was once one of the largest colonizing nations on the planet? Yet nothing is said on this subject.

All in all, Wordslut is a fun book that scratches the surface of what feminism in the English language could look like. However, I find the premise on which it is written to be a little naive. The truth of becoming a gender-equal society requires looking at the ugly history of what English has been used for. Should the dominant language of the world be one that came to dominate through unparalleled violence? Should we expect we will gain gender equality by continuing to speak this language? Sure, these were not the questions Montell set out to answer. But in the world right now, where the governments of large and powerful populations are leaning far enough to the right to be called fascist, can we afford to ignore these truths? Can we afford to think that we should focus only on our own (very wealthy and very powerful) country? I think the spirit of optimism is important to carry out our hopes for a better world, but not without looking critically at the English language.

Thoughts on 9 1/2 Weeks

9.5 weeksWow, so I watched 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) yesterday after this friend suggested it. Sometimes I question this person’s sense of normal, so I was hesitant to watch the movie at first. The description on Google contains some hints of kink and that alone puts me on edge. But I found the movie easily enough on Netflix and I had nothing to do on a Tuesday night, so I figured why not?

The movie stars Mickey Rourke as John, a Wall Street trader, and Kim Basinger as Elizabeth, an art gallery assistant. It is set in the 80’s. Admittedly, I kinda both hate and love the 80’s. I hate that nearly every male protag of that era is a white Wall Street guy. I also hate that it is around the time when being worryingly skinny becomes quite stylish for women. In all the scenes where Elizabeth is in her underwear, you can totally see her hip bones. Basinger wears preteen-sized panties in which my South Asian thighs would probably tear a hole. But also, it’s a great decade for fashion. Basinger is often dressed to the nines in lacy tops, translucent camis, flowy skirts, garter straps, high heels, lipstick, heavy gray eye shadow, and heavy dark eye liner. Then on top of that, she’ll wear a giant shaggy man-sized coat, or something with shoulder pads the size of the Empire State Building. It’s fantastic. In one scene, she’s literally in men’s clothes. I love the androgyny, and also the extreme dissonance of masculine and feminine aesthetic in the same outfit.

I also love the music choices in this crazy movie. The brilliance of using a Eurythmics song, a band that conjures images of disillusionment about love, to a scene where Elizabeth is masturbating. I think the opening song is “I do What I Do” by John Taylor–another great choice. Those haunting questions–“Do I touch the way you want to be touched? Have you heard the words you wanted to hear?” And I think “Bread and Butter” for a kinky food scene was really funny.

I love the gorgeous long scenes that focus on the female lead. The masturbation scene comes to mind (holy shit, the fact that they put a masturbation scene in this movie. A person with a female body giving herself pleasure in major motion picture?! Even by 2019 standards, that is groundbreaking). I really liked the dance scene, too.  Basinger is fantastic in this sexy dance number. She isn’t touching Rourke at all–in fact, while you can tell she’s doing this for him, she also seems to be enjoying herself, doing something that she thinks is funny. It’s as much about her. In fact, if we pretend he isn’t watching, Basinger almost just looks like she’s had slightly too much to drink and is letting loose for a bit. It’s so much less contrived than music videos of this decade, and the focus is not on women giving pleasure to men. To me, it’s more about how a woman chooses what she wants to do with her body–if she wants a man to enjoy it, that’s her choice. If she wants to show it to the whole world, that’s also her choice. But this other human doesn’t have a say in what she does with her body. In fact, John seems to derive enjoyment because Elizabeth is doing what she wants.

I actually thought the scene where Basinger is dressed as a man is very radical. John buys Elizabeth men’s clothes and “suits” her up so she can see what it’s like to be a man for a night. He also kisses her openly while she is still wearing a fake mustache. John doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the fact that Elizabeth passes for a man in this moment. In addition, when they are walking home, two men attack them because they believe they are “faggots”. In the fight scene that ensues, Elizabeth gets them to back off by picking up one of the attackers knives and, I kid you not, poking the other attacker in the ass with it. They run off screaming. In my experience, women rarely get to have a proper fight in an action movie, let alone a romance movie. This one was humorous, but effective.

I would argue the movie does not focus solely on sex, either, though it is a romantic drama. There are no sex scenes. There are intensely sensual moments. Rourke portrays a man who enjoys deeply physical experiences. There is a scene where John asks Elizabeth to stay in his house, and when he comes home to find she has been snooping in his things, he says he is going to spank her. She becomes enraged, and they have sex. I know in this decade, people would argue about whether or not that scene was a rape scene. My theory is that John is trying to get Elizabeth mad on purpose. He wants that heightened state because the sex is more intense that way. I’m not sure I’d say the ends justify means in this case–how do you consent to being made to feel angry for sex? Is John showing that he cares for Elizabeth in that moment, or is it a selfish act? I actually really appreciate older movies for including scenes like that. It shows that the rules for consent are not as black and white as contemporary academics want them to be, and that there is way more to discuss than the modern thinkpiece might suggest.

There are moments in which John still comes off as a little creepy–like that moment when they first meet and he’s just staring at Elizabeth while he’s right next to her. But I also think it is radical that he usually names what he is going to do before he does it. This allows Elizabeth to express when she is uncomfortable and she can leave the situation. For example, when he brings her to his apartment for the first time, John makes a comment about how she is taking a risk because she doesn’t know what he will do. Elizabeth realizes her discomfort and says she wants to go home. In another scene, he blindfolds her before rubbing a cube of ice on her body. Elizabeth gets kind of a “warning” of what’s to come–he shakes the glass filled with ice before he begins. I haven’t seen many other movies about kink (I’ve heard a little too much about how 50 Shades of Gray is an insult to human intelligence to want to see it), so I don’t have much to compare this to. But I will say, this is more communication than I see happening in the average post-2000s rom-com. Those sex scenes usually go like this: lots of kissing, suddenly the protags are having sex. There is no build-up to the moment. I like that Adrian Lyne really took a lot of time to lead up to a sex-related moment. It is as if foreplay is the climax of the movie.

The second John fails to provide adequate information, Elizabeth decides to end the relationship. The scene where John attempts to add a prostitute to their sexual encounters sends Elizabeth into a jealous rage. She leaves John a few days later, claiming they both knew neither of them would stop seeing the other unless one of them explicitly said to do so. I think that’s a profound thing to propose. It is a reference to something Elizabeth tells her friend, Molly, earlier in the movie. She says that usually, you can tell what will end a relationship, and you store it in the back of your mind until it resurfaces one day, and you cannot pretend you are happy any more. She says she cannot figure out how her relationship with John will end. Molly suggests that perhaps it is true love in this case.

I would disagree with Molly. I think the fact that women will so frequently put up with people who they know they don’t want is because society sets them up to think this is the only way they will be happy. The world gives women messages about how they must accept whatever man floats their way because apparently, a woman is most valuable when she is kind to men, regardless of how horrible and selfish the man is. Having men look at you is the pinnacle of being a woman. But perhaps if you can truly say no, if you can walk away and not encounter some kind of social backlash, this indicates you are actually on equal terms with the other person. Maybe that is why it is a strange feeling to Elizabeth–she feels she is on equal terms with John. She is not choosing to be with him out of pity or fear or boredom. She genuinely wants to be with him. Thus when she leaves, it is not because she has been pretending to be happy the whole time. She was happy, and he crossed her boundaries too many times. It was an honest end to a relationship.