Saturday, May 5, 2018

Book Review: What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America

Image: The cover of the book is a white background with "what truth sounds like" in gray capital letters except for the word truth which is in larger, black letters. In small, red capital letters next to the word "like" sits the byline of the book. A black line divides the title from the author's name below written in black capital letters. Next to his name is a gold circle that says "New York Times bestselling author of tears we cannot stop."

When I began Michael Eric Dyson's "What Truth Sounds Like," I found myself wondering if this book was going to be for me. I was previously unfamiliar with Dyson's work and the first passage of the book seemingly speaks of heroes and patriotic martyrs. I worried I was walking into another neoliberal revisionist telling of important histories of racial struggle and justice in the United States. You know, the kind where we hear things like Rosa Parks was just a tired woman on the bus and not a radical civil rights activist. I was pleased to find that continuing forward lead me into an informative and fairly well analyzed catalogue of race issues in the United States. Dyson's writing style is captivating and held my attention throughout.

It is clear that Dyson thought deeply about this book and his position in society before writing it.  His attention to his own perspective and how that both informs and limits his knowledge clearly helped him write the book. While the book's title references a discussion between RFK and James Baldwin, this discussion is not what the entire book is about. It is more of a connecting thread that Dyson uses to analyze elements of social justice, pop culture, politics, and policy throughout the decades. We do learn about this conversation, about the Kennedys (and their shortcomings regarding understanding race,) Baldwin, and other important figures present in the conversation such as Lorraine Hansberry. But, Dyson also discusses a wide range of public figures who have spoken about or influenced racial justice in some way including Harry Belafonte, Muhammad Ali, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Colin Kapernick, Cornel West, Ta-nehisi Coates, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton among others.

Dyson's book is fairly inclusive of a variety of intersecting struggles with race. He regularly mentions gender, sexuality, class, colorism, immigration status, and other issues. This is particularly important given that James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry were gay and lesbian on top of being Black which added a whole other level to the amount of social sludge they had to trek through to make their way in the world. There is also a great deal of information that Dyson included that showed the multidimensional nature of people the left likes to view as perfect, infallible heroes (which strengthens our toxic call-out culture.) The book is well researched which creates a good foundation to build the analyses Dyson expresses in this book. I feel like I understand more about what it was like to exist in different time periods than I did previously.

Dyson does well criticizing the racist and oppressive history of the United States without sugar coating it, but in the last third of his book he does fall into neoliberal patterns I was worried about. He has a whole section on Hillary Clinton in which he jumps through several hoops to defend or ignore the extensive problems with her, essentially blames Black people and other radicals who criticized her during her campaign as at fault for Trump winning, perpetuates the myth of the "white working class" being responsible for electing Trump when most Trump voters were affluent or at least middle class whites,  and other problematic and false assertions. During this he does make some good points such as rich famous academics not having as much to lose or that people critiquing Clinton did not do the same when Obama took similar actions. But, he completely glosses over the fact that the system is completely corrupt, many people with felonies could not vote due to extensive criminalization that Clinton supported, and the 2016 election was essentially a choice between two republicans: one closer to the center (Clinton) and one further to the right (Trump.) Clinton's convenient adopting of social justice language last minute cannot erase decades of racism, homophobia, war crimes, and other such beliefs and policies that have had deadly effects. Dyson's assertion that people should only be critiquing Trump instead of Clinton shows ignorance that does not fit in with the rest of his well researched and nuanced analyses he presents in the rest of the book. Forcing people to vote for someone who took active steps to keep them from having rights, because someone else does this more, makes voting pointless.

Overall, the book is interesting readable, and well timed. Dyson must be a fast writer because there are issues he talks about in this book that I remember happening quite recently. It is worth the read while keeping in mind that Dyson occasionally contradicts his radical analyses and politics at times by falling into neoliberal trappings.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book Review: Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

Image: The cover of the book has a white background with 4 wide horizontal strokes of yellow paint going down the page. In black capital letters, the top two say "Eloquent Rage" and the bottom two say "Brittney Cooper." In between them in black letters it says "A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower." The bottom of the cover says ""Cooper is the Black Feminist Prophet we urgently need." -- MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH"

Brittany Cooper's Eloquent Rage is an appropriately titled collection of essays by one of the founders of Crunk Feminist Collective. I have followed CFC and "Crunktastic's" writings for years and thus looked forward to this book. It did not disappoint. Eloquent Rage is written with grace mixed with blunt honesty about many difficult topics. While I do think that anyone can- and should- read this book and thoroughly enjoy it, this book was written with Black women at the center. Cooper does not spend her time placing whiteness as a reference point for every experience in Black peoples lives. She does not shy away from tough discussions and questions because she did not write the book to pander to the white reader or respectability politics. Cooper's writing style is highly accessible despite her coming from an academic background. She weaves her personal experiences and stories throughout the essays making the book read a bit like a memoir in a good way. The book is highly quotable and entertaining and was easy to settle into.

"Real radicalism implores us to tell the whole ugly truth, even when it is inconvenient. To own the hurt and the pain. To own our shit, too. To think about it systemically and collectively, but never to diminish the import of the trauma."

This quote appears near the very end of the book and sums up well how many of the essays are written. Cooper tackles topics such as Black girl friendships, nonromantic true love, being a southern Black girl in the hood who loved white pop culture items like the babysitter's club, white supremacy manifesting in Black culture, the struggles of being a Black nerd in a predominantly white gifted program, toxic Black masculinity and patriarchy, straight dating while feminist, backing neoliberals as a Black feminist radical, internal conflicts when our desires don't match up with leftist dogma, interracial relationships and abuse, the benefits and pitfalls of Black Christian churches, pop culture feminism vs academic feminism, generation gaps and lessons, and many others with an inviting honesty. 
(CONTENT WARNING: Sexual Assault and abuse mentioned)
The essay "White-Girl Tears" tackles so many extremely sensitive topics with nuance and bravery. I have been waiting for a long time for someone to put everything she said in that essay together in a way that hits on all the things at play at the same time. Cooper did this. Discussing things like white tears and femininity as deadly weapons, Black women being forced to choose their race over their gender, white men lynching Black men and raping Black women, Black men raping white women, white men and women lying about rape, interracial consensual relationships, the choice and political nature of who we love and desire, Black womens bodies and lives being used as "practice" for abuse, white women/femininity being seen as a conquest or prize, and many other complicated and/or horrific topics is no easy feat. Until reading Cooper's chapter, I often found discussions of some of these things reductive and leaving me needing more. "White-Girl Tears" had it all and I am eternally grateful for both personal and political reasons for that and all the tough conversations she has continued.

I did not agree with Cooper on everything. There were a couple times I thought she was too reductive or went too easy on someone, like Hillary Clinton. But, that doesn't mean she won't change my mind. I will be thinking about many of the things she has said in this book and will be coming back to quotes from it time and again. This book is readable, accessible, entertaining, brave, and important. I highly recommend it to anyone of any background because I think everyone can gain something from it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Punitive Drug War & Reductive Journalism are not Solving the "Opioid Crisis"

Image: An orange transparent prescription pill bottle lays on it's side, open, spilling pills and supplements onto a white surface. The pills are a variety of different shapes, colors, and sizes.
Content note: This post mentions medical abuse, drug addiction, suicide, and oppression. Read with care.

A friend of mine regularly sends me interesting or relevant news articles that she reads during her down time at work. She chooses everything from interesting research finds to things we can mutually hate-read and critique together. Today she sent me the reductive and insultingly titled "Is chronic pain something more people should accept? Amid the opioid crisis, the concept of “pain acceptance” is gaining credibility." Since I have not written more than book reviews on here in quite some time, I decided to share my thoughts on this article.

 Before delving into this, I want to say, I have an especially cautious reaction any time a journalist who does not have a background in science and/or medicine writes an article on science and/or medicine. It's not that I think they never should. I only have a Bachelor's in science and worked in research for 5 years- I'm hardly a world-renowned doctorate science expert and here I am writing about it. But, when I did work in research, I would hear the stories of researchers having their work reported on in the media in fanciful and often false ways in order to make the story better or draw connections between things the research didn't connect. In one case, the publication even made a FAKE GRAPH about my PI's results and put it into an article about his work. Or for instance, when articles came out about research showing plants respond in certain ways to their environment. What is more interesting, "Plants respond to their environments and environmental networks" or "NEW RESEARCH SUGGESTS PLANTS FEEL PAIN." The latter, however bullshit, gets you clicks. Basically, you cannot trust a lot of articles to tell the truth about medicine and research (including even some written by doctors, but that's for another post.)

The idea of mind over matter and pain acceptance is a nice idea. People like it because it creates the illusion of control. People without chronic pain especially like it because it allows them to have their prejudices against those with chronic pain while knowing if they ever develop it some day that they can just think their way out of it. While pain acceptance may work as a solitary treatment for the times that opioids are just thrown at people for a stubbed toe or whatever (I hear about this in the articles about the drug war all of the time but have never met anyone this has actually happened to,) it's really not possible as a singular treatment when you're chipping your teeth from grinding them trying to "accept" your pain even while you are on your medication. Or when doing things to "distract" aggravates your pain, when just breathing or turning your head makes it worse, and when pain medications are the only thing that lets you leave your bed or house. I worry about a lot of these narratives that are coming out about simple and magical alternative to pain management drugs that are going to solve the "opioid epidemic." These articles almost always fail to understand social factors and biases that go into such "crises." (I am using quotes because there have always been drug crises and it never became a focus until suburban white people began dying in larger numbers.) A key sentence in the article is highlighted, "Even people who believe that accepting pain has benefited them don’t necessarily think it should be used as a way to cut down on prescription opioid painkillers." Yet, it becomes buried in the hyperbole of an article that associates pain acceptance treatment with a solution for ending opioid addictions and deaths which are extremely complex issues. Rhetoric like this is even leading to Medicare- government health insurance for disabled people and/or elders, people most likely to need long-term pain management care- announcing that they are going to stop paying for some opioids. Let that sink in for a second.

The end of the article finally gets down to some of this:

Pain acceptance is not without its detractors. Vox recently devoted an episode of its podcast “The Impact” to pain acceptance. The episode called it “a possible future for pain treatment.” In response, the website The Mighty, which describes itself as “a digital health community” with more than a million users, published several posts critical of the idea. “The podcast prompted a backlash from people with chronic pain, who argued that saying a level of chronic pain is ‘acceptable’ essentially abandons chronic pain patients,” an editor for the website wrote in one post. “Rather than tell them they need to accept their pain, they need more pain-relief options, doctors who are willing to fight for them, and less stigma against using opioids responsibly.”
That backlash may be fueled by fears that some people with chronic pain have expressed that the health care system is leaving them  behind in the rush to condemn opioids. Some doctors and patients warn that the movement to decrease opioid use for chronic pain has gone too far, amounting to a dangerous overreaction that risks cutting people off from medication they need.

Will anyone absorb these incredibly important statements and follow these external links discussing how ridiculous the idea of "pain acceptance" replacing opioid treatments and helping solve the "opioid crisis" in an article written like this? All of the people with the most experience and information are a side note at the very end. Most of the chronic pain sufferers represent the critical voices at the end of the article, and the other two case studies are of people benefiting from acceptance therapy, one of whom may still be taking opiates (it never mentions if Gwen has stopped completely,) and the other who only survives her flares with an extensive amount of resources and a support system not available to many people.

"In contrast to traditional cognitive therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy asks people to accept thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily sensations that are beyond their control, rather than attempt to change or get rid of them. The therapy then encourages people with chronic pain to take part in activities that add value and meaning to their lives, even as pain persists."

I don't believe I can honestly write a post like this without talking about myself. I have multiple chronic pain conditions. Chronic, severe constochondritis makes it difficult for me to breathe, speak, move my arm, and do many other daily motions and things most people take for granted. Joint pain from arthritis in pretty much every joint make walking, standing, sitting, lying down all painful or uncomfortable at best. Fibromyalgia that I was first diagnosed with as a teenager makes all of this worse and also causes my body to feel like it's covered in bruises and the worst sunburn of your life or like I have been hit by a car or have fallen down several flights of stairs. I am on social security disability for these conditions as well as other things (cancer, heart conditions, etc), but my chronic pain and fatigue are what destroy my life. I have lost many friendships and relationships, I have little to no social life, I cannot do most things I used to love like biking, dancing, etc. I am on 20 prescription medications. I am also a recovering addict with over 13 years clean, so the decision to take any opioid pain medications was one of the most difficult ones of my life. I take several non-narcotic medications to avoid this, yet the drug war continues to limit my access to those medications as well.

Along with heavier opioids, I had three doctors suggest the opioid drug I chose to take to me before I would agree to try. I was terrified of becoming addicted to it. That drug is mentioned in this article: tramadol. I have gone great lengths to not let my pain medication graduate from tramadol (a very weak opioid that also has SNRI properties) to something stronger (yet) in my life. But, before I took tramadol, I was laying in bed crying because every technique I tried did not work enough or made me worse. I got injections into the joints in my chest, I did physical therapy, I tried supplements, diets, ice, rest, heat, topicals, patches, I read chronic pain books, tried acupuncture, yoga, different exercises, not exercising, meditation, tens units, therapy, psychiatric medications, sleep hygiene, and many other things- many of which I had to crowdfund for as they are not covered by insurance (more on that later.) Some of these, doctors actually instructed me not to do anymore (such as yoga and strenuous exercise) because my conditions are made worse by them. One day, I was laying in bed with an ice pack on my chest, breathing shallowly, in tears after cortisone costochondral joint injections had increased my pain for weeks rather than reduced it. I picked up the phone and called my doctor's office. "I will try the tramadol." Years have now passed with me taking this drug multiple times a day every day, managed by my doctor. I can say with 100% certainty that it was the correct decision. I can't magically predict what I would do with a life I did not lead, but I am pretty sure that I would have attempted suicide without tramadol.

For the past week or so I have been taking the maximum amount of medication I am allowed per day (which I very rarely do,) because it feels like someone is smashing a sledgehammer into my lower back, possibly from an untreated spinal fracture. My rheumatologist has not gotten back to me. When I take the drugs, I cry less. I also use ice, heat, topicals, patches, rest, meditation, distraction, and a lot of other shit, but the drugs are key. One night, I said to myself, "I am gonna win over the meds, I am not gonna take the last one, I am gonna meditate through it." I lay there in bed with tears running down my face showing what a tough guy I could be when really I could have taken my fucking meds and gone to sleep which would have been better for me and my health. Part of the reason my pain has recently skyrocketed is because of the kind of acceptance in this article. For a couple of weeks I did too much- went to multiple doctors appointments and also social engagements. I accepted things hurt so bad and just powered through. I got sicker and sicker. I carried ice packs with me to shove under my seatbelt, cried in my car between events, coated myself in capsaicin and anti-inflammatory patches so often that I ripped my red, raw skin off with them, and told myself suck-it-up you can do this. Live life! Don't let pain run your life! Every time I "accept" my pain and don't give into it, it will conquer me with a greater army later and I end up taking larger quantities of drugs in the long run. You can just go out to a movie instead of "fixating" on the pain? GOOD FOR YOU. I can't breathe or move my left arm when I do too much so driving there is gonna be a tad bit difficult (not to mention unsafe for me and others.) Right now I can barely stand up straight. I am not trying to get on that person- this is a shot at the journalist for how she framed it. Even the person is who is sharing her acceptance shares that when shit gets bad, her life falls apart and she has all these things and people to fall back on. Not everyone has that, so they take the drugs to get groceries because they don't have a huge support system to clean their house and get groceries for them. They don't have a big disposable income to order takeout three times a day and not eating is obviously unhelpful.

Articles like this don't highlight that part of chronic pain- this article's first case study is reductive and makes it seem like she just got better. I wonder if any reader will notice that they don't mention if Gwen stopped taking her opioids. All they mention is that acceptance helped her- of fucking course it did. She probably still takes drugs, too, just less of them. Anyone with chronic pain is already doing "pain acceptance" because drugs never kill all of the pain. Every time I have had a surgery, I have still had significant pain even while on the max amount of drugs, acceptance is always part of it. Is getting better at that a good thing? ABSOLUTELY. But, the false association that it's going to solve the opioid crisis is complete bullshit. The throwaway bit at the end is not what the majority of prejudiced people will take home from this. This is not what doctors with racist, sexist prejudices are going to take home from this. They are going to say "See those women are just whiny and they just need to learn to suck it up and deal with their hysteria! This article proves it!" The scientists will be like "Uh actually...." like they always are but the damage will be done.

Everything is always well timed in these articles with whatever the current social idea is around pain management and disability. Since we've recently gone from it not being managed enough to "everyone's just a drug seeking junky so let's take away their healthcare," articles like this fit nicely into that. Sometimes I think nonscientists/doctors shouldn't be allowed to write articles like this. Then again, I have seen some horrendously bigoted and ignorant things written by doctors, too.
I would like to see more articles and studies on people who have been denied pain management or abruptly had their coverage or drugs taken away. How many of them felt great? How many of them just accepted it and suddenly started living great lives and going to the movies? How many of them committed suicide? How many of them got worse because doctors dismissed their pain as not real or not that bad (very often the case with Black people, women, trans people, and I would bet any marginalized person, especially those with multiple intersecting oppressions)? How does race fit into these articles when studies have shown that doctors believe Black people have less sensitivity to pain? It's interesting that this article links opioid use to a decline in American life expectancy, but does not discuss the link between chronic pain and that decline. They did not discuss how people take excessive opioids because they get stuck working injurious and painful jobs because they are denied disability and opioids are the only way they can survive it. As a person who navigated the 2+ year $0 annual income poverty of the social security disability application and appeals process that about 80-90% of applicants go through if they even make it to the end without dying or giving up, it is not at all surprising to me that some people choose to take morphine and keep working at a job that may injure them further. They didn't talk about people getting hooked on opioids because their insurance won't pay for "pain acceptance" treatment or physical therapy. They didn't talk about people getting hooked on opioids because they are single mothers and no one will help them care for their children and they are working 3 jobs and have no time or money for lengthy non-narcotic treatments that only partially work. They didn't discuss how the drug war is preventing disabled people from getting their medications filled at pharmacies because of capitalism rather than healthcare. They don't discuss the stigma and impossibility of using mobility aids in a world that makes many of them near impossible to use, so people take drugs to keep walking instead of using a wheelchair. They don't discuss the societal aspects of opiate use. They just call everyone addicts because our country values punishment over healing, restriction over moderation, blame over trust, and capitalism and profit over people. 

This post is already long, so I am ending it here for brevity's sake. But, much more could be said about the history of the drug war, prisons and prisoners who are victims of it, medical abuse of people based on their various identities and traits, private and government insurance, drug and alcohol dependence, and many other things I mention here. I encourage people to continue having conversations about these things rather than eating up whatever the buzzphrase of the moment is as it is almost always a fraction of the truth.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Book Review: The Intersectionality of Critical Animal, Disability, and Environmental Studies - Toward Eco-ability, Justice, and Liberation

Image: The cover of the book. There are 4 panels on the cover divided by yellow lines. The panel across the top is a picture of an outdoor protest on a city street. A large white banner is centered in the image with red lettering that says "Keep the oil in the ground." The next panel down is hunter green with "Edited by Anthony J. Nocella II, Amber E. George, and J.L. Schatz" in white letters, the main title of the book in yellow capital letters, and the secondary title of the book in white letters. The bottom third is divided into the last two panels situated side-by-side. The left panel is an image of a white cat with black spots who is using a wheelchair outdoors and has their mouth open in mid-meow. The right panel is an image of a beagle, seated with a lead around their mouth attached to a leash and a blue aware ribbon on their neck.

The Intersectionality of Critical Animal, Disability, and Environmental Studies is an academic text that interested me because the blurb describes it as "an interdisciplinary collection of theoretical writings on the intersectional liberation of nonhuman animals, the environment, and those with disabilities." The book does start with a nice dedication "to all of those that have been insulted, shamed, pushed out, and marginalized because of their disabilities within the animal and ecological movements." It is part of a series that claims to link "theory with practice and emphasiz[e] the immense importance of animal advocacy for a humane, democratic, peaceful, and sustainable world." Literature is truly lacking that addresses the intersections and overlaps between disability, environmental, and nonhuman animal struggles so the aim of this book is a noble one. However, I do not think it managed to achieve its goals until after the half way mark. The best chapters in the series by far were those by Sarah Conrad, Sarah Roberts-Cady, and the last one by Amber E. George. Many of the other papers left me wondering if the authors and editors knew what intersectionality was.

The first half of the book has many essays that make the mistake of assuming that parallel suffering is the same as intersectionality. There was generally a lot of, "Animals suffer in these ways. People with disabilities suffer in these other ways," always separating the two categories as if they do not overlap and without showing any meaningful links between the two. As a result of this misunderstanding of what intersectionality is, this a book I would be very cautious handing to someone who is disabled or involved in disability justice work who holds an unfavorable view of how animal and earth liberation movements tokenize disability. Sunaura Taylor's "Beasts of Burden" does a better job and is more accessible. Intersectionality is not about trying to stack oppression to further one's argument. It exists to describe how those dealing with intersecting oppressions in the same body or space are dealing with unique circumstances and struggles that cannot be described simply with, for instance, Black plus woman equals Black woman. Black womanhood is an entirely new experience, not simply a combination of what Black men and white women deal with. Since there is a cat using a wheelchair on the cover, I assumed the intersectionality involving disabled nonhuman animals would be focused on more, but was only mentioned in passing. 

The writings in the anthology do improve as the book progresses. Authors after the halfway mark have a much stronger grasp and better execution of the complex ways that disability animality, ecology, normality, who is considered subhuman, and so on are intertwined in our societies on our planet.  In "(Re)Imaginings of 'Community,'" Mary Ward and John Lupinacci dissect ways in which different activism communities can play into normative dualisms that harm disabled and other marginalized members and also offer solutions and new ways of thinking about problems. Sarah Conrad's "Consider the Spoons" is an excellent and desperately needed critique of the barriers in eco-activism to the inclusion of people dealing with persistent fatigue and other invisible illness and/or disabilities. Conrad offers multiple practical solutions and opens and important dialogue. "Activists are often passionate optimists and idealists. This is what makes activism so powerful... However, these same characteristics can sometimes make activists easily judge... compromising choices that don't reflect a pure and total commitment to the cause." Sarah Roberts-Cady's chapter, "Exploring Eco-Ability" examines a variety of topics but one that stands out is the way in which intellectual ableism is used to marginalize and oppress any group of people that dominant groups deem inferior- both human and nonhuman animals. "Instead of comparing levels of rationality, a more productive way to respond to this injustice is to challenge the underlying assumption that those with greater intellectual capacities may or should subordinate those with less intellectual capacities." Finally, in "Pride or Prejudice?," Amber E. George critiques the portrayal of animals in Looney Tunes, showing how present homophobia, transantagonism, sexism, ableism, racism, and other oppressions were used to create humor. George successfully details the harm caused by regularly exposing the children to such stereotypes.

The second half of this text does fall in line with the stated intentions of the book. I would recommend that people start at page 99 and work forward if they are looking for actual intersectionality and analyses that examine the connections and overlaps of disability, animal, and environmental justice.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Book Review: Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine

Image: The cover of the book which is a teal blue background with a drawing of a medicine cabinet in the center. The left door of the cabinet is halfway open showing three brown pill bottles. In the yellow reflection on the mirrored doors of the cabinet, there is a blue silhouette of a person from the middle chest up. Above the cabinet, in white letters, it says "Invisible." On the right, closed side of the cabinet in black letters it says, "How young women with serious health issues navigate work, relationships, and the pressure to seem just fine." Below the cabinet, in white letters, it says "Michele Lent Hirsch."

Also posted to my goodreads. 

When I began reading Michele Lent Hirsch's "Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine," knowing little more about it than the title,  I had certain expectations. I expected to be let down. As a trans and Queer disabled person, I am used to reading books about healthcare that do not include people like me and my friends. I figured I would get something out of it nonetheless and gave it a go. This is the first book of this kind that I have read- that was not specifically about LGBTQ populations- that didn't let me down. Hirsch worked very hard to include ALL women dealing with disability and illness: Queer women, trans women, women of color, poor women, scientist women, women doctors, young girls, teen girls, invisibly disabled women, wheelchair using women, and also the usual cisgender heterosexual white populations these books always include. I am a transmasculine person, am 35 years old, and have dealt with chronic illnesses from childhood. I have spent most of my medical interactions read as a girl and woman or as a testosterone-taking trans person who is too sick for surgeries and still has an "F" on their chart. As a result, I related to many things in this book, even though I am not necessarily the target demographic. Many things hit home so much that I actually had to take my time reading, despite wanting to devour the book quickly. The welcome validation reading an author who was a fellow Queer person, a fellow thyroid cancer survivor, a fellow chronic pain sufferer, whose experiences of surgeries, accessing care, fear, self-doubt, and general discrimination often mirrored mine so closely, was also very difficult at times. Now that you know where I was situated as a reader, enough about me.

Hirsch is an excellent writer. Her book is part memoir, part interview, and part research project. It is well organized and accessible. She weaves her own story seamlessly in and out through the different topics navigated. The book does an excellent job centering it's general target- the experiences of younger women while navigating health struggles- and also manages to hit on a great many specific intersections with age and gender. These include practitioner racism as a barrier for Black and other people of color receiving healthcare, gendered romantic relationships and how they relate to someone receiving support, class struggles labeling working class people as less ill and therefore less in need of care, capitalism's relationship to poor womens healthcare, how being a trans woman intersects with receiving healthcare for non-trans related issues, the difficulty of people with rarer conditions or in isolated areas being able to leave abusive doctors, the struggles of women with chronic illness to access reproductive healthcare, the measure of sick women by their proximity to stereotypical beauty, and many others. 

Hirsch understands deeply something so many books like hers miss: that all women's experiences are NOT the same just because they are women, young, or sick. Race, class, visibility, gender expression, geographic location, and many other factors are always at play simultaneously. "Invisible" is written with great intentionality from beginning to end. It is clear that Hirsch gave a lot of thought to how to present issues, how to question people, and how to share stories while also giving people the freedom to have their own opinions and assessments about their personal experiences. The way Hirsch uses language to describe illness, disability, experiences in healthcare, and womens lives comes from a well informed and educated place of respect. There was obviously a great deal of research that went into writing this book. I probably added more books to my to-read list from the sources she listed than I have from any other book I have read.

I do have two negative criticisms to make of the book. One is something that really disappointed me because of how amazingly inclusive and radical the rest of the book is. Near the end of the book, Hirsch interviews two animal researchers. They explain how their abuse and killing of female animals is "feminist." There is no way that forcing female animals to get addicted to drugs, then killing and disposing of them like trash, is feminist. The appropriate response to one oppression is never to deliberately harm someone with less power to get ahead. I found calling horrific mistreatment of female animals "feminism" to be incredibly insulting. Many feminist women have written excellent books about the connections between the abuse of nonhuman animals and the abuse of women so I will not reinvent the wheel by saying more here. The other criticism I have which I am far less perturbed by was that Hirsch repeatedly used the word "femme" as a stand-in for "feminine" often in reference to cis straight women. Femme is a LGBTQ identity specific to Queer femininity. Using it to describe straight cis women further erases Queer femmes and appropriates their identity. While I feel very negatively about the way animal testing was handled by this book, the section was very short and the rest of the book still far exceeded my expectations. As a result, it still gets 5 stars from me because nothing is perfect.

I really hope that this book attracts a large number of women with disability, illness, and/or frequent healthcare interactions who may not have thought about all of these intersecting issues before. I hope that this book feels validating for others who are used to their experiences being absent in discussions of health and healthcare. I hope that it brings the personal validation that it brought to me while reading it while simultaneously connecting us to struggles we may not personally have or experience. Hirsch took on a monumental task in hitting on so many issues in such a small space. It's 240 pages but it felt like 100 because it flows very well. I look forward to new things coming from Hirsch in the future and I definitely recommend this book to anyone working in healthcare or related fields. It should be mandatory reading for doctors and nurses.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review: How We Get Free- Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective

[Image: The cover of the book which is a cream colored background with a large black dot stamped in the center of the book. Inside the dot, it says "how we get free" in capital letters, followed by a white line underneath, and under the line "black feminism and the combahee river collective" in smaller white letters. The bottom of the cover says "edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor" in black capital letters.]
How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective is a set of interviews with Black feminist women, many of whom are queer or lesbian, that spans multiple generations. The book includes an introduction from the editor- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the original Combahee River Collective Statement, interviews by Taylor with Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, and Alicia Garza, and is closed out with comments by Barbara Ransby from a 2017 socialism conference.

One of the more interesting things in this book that surprised me was that, as far as the contributors know, the Combahee River Collective Statement is the first time the phrase "identity politics" was used. However, in this statement, "identity politics" did not mean what many have reduced it to today- as some form of oppression olympics or single-issue privilege dynamics. What CRC meant by "identity politics" was much closer to what Kimberle Crenshaw later coined as "intersectionality." They were discussing the worlds of Black women, including queer Black women, and how Black feminism represents lived experiences that cannot be placed into boxes of Black or woman or Black plus woman. Also, back when the statement was written, the phrase "women of color" was not in play and CRC referred to themselves as "third world women" in global solidarity. This book made me think a lot about how these words and descriptions being changed has changed how we look at things. It almost seems as if these descriptors have become pacified over time in some ways.

Another interesting thing I found was the critique of modern day [what some people are mis-naming identity politics] where people are taught or believe they don't have a place or purpose in the struggle if they are not a member of the oppressed group being centered in that struggle. Barbara Smith (and others) emphasized the critical need to "[cross] boundaries and [work] across differences." Do not mistake this for ignoring differences are refusing to focus on certain things- Alicia Garza speaks frequently of the problem with people constantly trying to change "Black Lives Matter" into "All Lives Matter," "Brown Lives Matter," and "Black and Brown Lives Matter:" "I know your shit is fucked up, too, but can we just talk about Black people?" Crossing boundaries and working across differences is critical and still allows the complete freedom to focus on Black people or whoever else is centered at the moment.

All of the interviews catalogue interesting and important struggles in Black feminist history that are required reading for anyone who considers themself a feminist. They also showed struggles that repeat over time such as Black women being forced to do most of the organizing labor while getting little to none of the recognition, Black queer and trans people being excluded and/or erased, and the constant push-back against Black feminist ideals and organizing despite the reality that fighting for the most marginalized will always help everyone.

My only criticism of this book is that the interviews read as if they are a direct paste of full transcriptions from an audio recording which made settling into the book distracting and difficult at times. Taylor's introduction, writing, and interview questions were all excellent. However, I believe these interviews should have been edited to both flow better and perhaps reduce some of the text. I think that a lot of someone's thought or what they are saying can be lost when it is written with sentences repeatedly broken in half with "Mmhm... yeah.... uh huh... [laughs]" over and over. I think the interviews could have kept their conversational flair and still represented the speaking styles and personalities of the interviewees without including every interruption to what they were saying.

This book is definitely a must read for anyone interested in the history of feminism- as we all should be- especially the center and roots so often ignored that so often lead the way for many of the things we have today. How We Get Free is a great catalogue of stories by the powerful women who have lead and continue to lead the way for social justice. It is a great celebration of the 40-year anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book Review: The Body is Not an Apology - The Power of Radical Self Love

[Image: The cover of the book has a glittering purple background with Sonya Renee Taylor (the author) laying on her back in the center on a bed of blue, yellow-orange, and red flowers. She has a bald head, dark brown skin, purple eyeshadow, red lipstick, and a monroe piercing (which is a stud abuve her upper lip.) She is staring at the camera with one hand draped above her head and her nipples and pubic area are covered with purple flowers. A white Band across the center of the cover says "THE BODY IS NOT AN APOLOGY" in black capitalized letters and "THE POWER OF RADICAL SELF LOVE" underneath in smaller, orange capitalized letters.]

Also posted to my goodreads

This little book manages to be quite an inclusive guide and radical self love manifesto, especially for its size.  Sonya Renee Taylor wrote her book with all kinds of people in mind- especially those predominantly left out of many self-love conversations- and she makes this clear regularly throughout the text. She catalogues a bit about her journey towards creating The Body Is Not An Apology website, and then delves into tackling radical self love as an attainable concept and lifelong journey.

Taylor differentiates between radical self love and concepts such as self-esteem or self-acceptance, seeing the latter two as a "cease fire" with one's body. She invites us to seek out something more rewarding than a "truce" and that is radical self love. This involves things like tackling shame and guilt as well as creating a world that is supportive of all bodies- including those often pushed into the margins such as disabled people, trans people, people of color, and others.

Taylor also explains much of the indoctrination and abuse against us and our bodies in this world as all part of a system of "body terrorism," which I believe is a term coined by the author and her organization (correct me if I am wrong.)  I believe she did an excellent job of explaining just how entrenched toxic default societal expectations of how to have a body are in our culture. We are taught our entire lives that the "right" body is white, thin (but not too thin,) healthy, young, non-disabled, cis, heterosexual, and so on. Radical self love is for everyone- even including those who meet all of those characteristics, as this "ideal" is never attainable. Taylor teaches us that we must stand up for all bodies targeted by body terrorism- even if they are not our own- because, "When our personal value is dependent on the lesser value of other bodies, radical self-love is unachievable."

Where I found Taylor going above and beyond many "body positive" thinkers do was the way she talked about health: "Equally damaging is our insistence that all bodies should be healthy. Health is not a state we owe the world. We are not less valuable, worthy, or lovable because we are not healthy. Lastly, there is no standard of health that is achievable for all bodies." This was a nice and more radical break from the "but fat/disabled/trans/etc people are normal and healthy!" trope that I often see that- while very well-intentioned and existing for obvious reasons as a response to oppressive pathologizing- tend to leave out those of us who aren't healthy. It was nice to see someone acknowledge that people dealing with chronic illness or other health issues fit into the equation of radical self-love.

Even though this book is super radical and comprehensive, it is also exceedingly kind, patient, and loving. It continuously encourages the reader to keep going, to allow for and recover from mistakes, and to continue growing. It is a short read and a great companion to anyone interested in existing more comfortably in this world and especially at one with their body.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Book Review: When They Call You A Terrorist - A Black Lives Matter Memoir

[Image: The book cover which is an abstract painting of reds, orange, pink, and a little blue smeared all over. The title is written in in white lowercase letters, "when they call you a terrorist a black lives matter memoir." Below that in black lowercase letters the authors are listed "patrisse khan-cullors & asha bandele with a foreward by angela davis."]

Also posted to my goodreads

It is only February, but I can say without a doubt that "When They Call You a Terrorist" is one of the best and most important books of 2018. In fact, I woulld stretch that out to say this entire century. The book lists both Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele as authors, but the memoir itself is Khan-Cullors's story and life. I do not know how the process of writing went, but I can say that the writing in this book is phenomenal. It allows the reader to seamlessly enter the story and understand the pain caused by white supremacy, poverty, addiction, mental illness, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and many other attacks on the lives of Black and other marginalized people. It also captures the love, comradery, forgiveness, and resilience shown by many who are facing down the worst odds. The beginning of all chapters are peppered with appropriately corresponding quotes from some of the greatest writers and thinkers such as James Baldwin and Octavia Butler.

I could see this book benefiting someone with a similar life to Khan-Cullors or someone as different as an ignorant white republican who says "all lives matter" when someone says Black lives do. Perhaps I am being too idealistic, but I can't imagine how anyone could willingly read this book and not close it out with a visceral support for and better understanding of Black Lives Matter and other related movements and the atrocities that inspired them.

 "Twelve... was the year I learned that being Black and poor definied me more than being bright and hopeful and ready."

The prose in this book comes from writers with a multifaceted passion, able to build vivid worlds out of words. Memoirs aren't usually my thing, but this one definitely is. This book is not only an exquisitely written life and love-of-Black-life story, but also a manifesto for a better world. Skillfully woven throughout Khan-Cullors's story are statements about the world at large, statistics about these statements, and clear reasoning for actions taken and those that need to be taken. The book conveys the specific life experiences of Khan-Cullors which include poverty, abuse, a sibling who struggles with psychosis, multiple family members serving long prison sentences for mild nonviolent offenses (or not offense at all,) midnight raids while she and a partner lie asleep in bed, near constant police harrassment and severe police violence against multiple people in her life, loss of friends due to queerantagonism and misogyny, as well as huge and successful anti-racist and prison abolition organizing efforts, love and loss and love again, building new family and community, and a great many other successes against all odds. At the same time, the book captures the big picture of how all of these experiences fit into larger systems in a larger world and offers a variety of ways to understand and combat these systems.

"...there are no stats to track collateral deaths (as a result of police violence,) the ones that unfold over months and years spent in mourning and grief: the depression that becomes addiction to alcohol that become cirrhosis; or else addiction to food that becomes diabetes that becomes a stroke. Slow deaths. Undocumented deaths. Deaths with a common root: the hatred that tells a person daily that their life and the life of those they love ain't worth shit, a truth made ever more real when the people who harm you are never held accountable."

Khan-Cullors and Bandele also do well to make clear how Queer Black women were at the center of these organizing efforts- particularly BLM but also many others. Men have remained centered in much reporting Black Lives Matter. There is a long history of (often but not always straight cis) men silencing Queer women at the center of movements like these. This book is a clear antidote to that.  I hope that people will read this book as it is such an incredibly important and informative relic of our time. I believe it tells the past, present, and future. I hope it is a book we look back upon one day as an example of a critically important time in our history. If I hadn't already experienced the white supremacist patriarchal travesty that is public school system history class curriculums, I would say that I hope this book ends up being taught in high school. But, according to this book, maybe I deserve that hope:

"We say we deserve another knowing, the knowing that comes when you assume your life will be long, will be vibrant, will be healthy. We deserve to imagine a world without prisons and punishment, a world where they are not needed, a world rooted in mutuality. We deserve to at least aim for that."

Black Lives Matter.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Book Review: The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist

Image: The cover of the book. The title THE FEARLESS BENJAMIN LAY is in large white letters and THE QUAKER DWARF WHO BECAME THE FIRST REVOLUTIONARY ABOLITIONIST in smaller cream letters underneath. The cover shows a painting of Benjamin Lay standing on a dirt path in a green landscape with a fruit basket in the foreground and trees and a blue clouded sky in the background. He is a light-skinned white person with a light gray beard, brown cloak, shirt, pants, and hat. Lay is a little person who also has kyphosis. He is holding a cane and an open book in his right hand with his other facing the reader. He is also looking at the reader.

I became aware of The Fearless Benjamin Lay when I caught wind of an event with the author in my city. The event highlighted Benjamin as a Quaker, Dwarf, and abolitionist, so my interest was already piqued. When I sought out a description of the book and found that Lay was also an animal liberation proponent, it intrigued me even further. Benjamin Lay is someone that reactionaries would consider a dangerous, uber-radical, mega-snowflake by today's standards. It is truly remarkable that he held so strongly to so many radical convictions centuries ago- especially in a climate where he had few to no allies.

I want to note something before I get to deep into this review. I enjoyed this book and my review is mostly positive. But, the author makes a mistake that many white people make when writing about slavery. He centers whiteness. I do not mean that it is bad to talk about white people- obviously it is not in a biography about a white person. What I mean is that he makes statements- including in the title- that Lay was "the first revolutionary abolitionist." Two words are missing from that sentence: "documented" and "white." It may leave the sentence seeming not as exciting or sexy, but the way it is currently constructed plays into white histories of slavery that completely erase how enslaved and free Africans and Black people in general resisted slavery from the very beginning, but their efforts were violently oppressed and not documented. White abolitionists were absolutely critical to the struggle, no doubt. But, they were never the first. 

I considered knocking off two stars for this, but Rediker's "Conclusion" and "Author's Note" sections won me back over to 4 stars. He is not ignorant of these issues. He simply didn't express them well. The conclusion and author's note are the best part of this book. I assume Rediker kept them separate so that he could be objective in his biographical account of Lay's life. I would have preferred more of the analysis in the conclusion placed throughout the rest of the book to help offset what may come off to some as a lack of understanding of the bigger picture.
Rediker undoubtedly did extensive research for this book, digging into histories that I am sure were not easy to access. One of the more surprising things for me about the book was how much Quakers were into slavery at one point. In many radical and anarchist circles, we learn that we got consensus-based and some other kinds of egalitarian organizing methods from Quakers. The fact that so many of them went out of their way to not only defend slavery, but to silence all opposition to it, was new knowledge for me.

Benjamin Lay was little person with kyphosis of the spine and as a result, already dealt with disability based discrimination. This and his working class status absolutely informed much of his behavior and values, which Rediker aptly points out, exemplify a more accurate picture of abolitionism than what some historians portray. Abolitionists tended more to be people of lesser means rather than rich academics that are often highlighted today. Rediker also notes Lay's disability, class, and passion being part of the reason he is not remembered as an important abolitionist or American hero. Our country idolizes racist slavers like Thomas Jefferson and forgets abolitionist, animal rights promoting, disabled, poor, law breaking, Quakers like Benjamin Lay.

Lay was a deeply religious man and this definitely informed much of his thinking, but not in the usual way we are used to hearing about it doing so. Benjamin not only opposed enslaving people, but also opposed men holding high religious positions who used those positions to accumulate power and wealth. He opposed the exploitation of nonhuman animals, choosing to walk everywhere rather than travel by horse and choosing to eat a mostly vegan diet where he grew most of his food. The only animal products he consumed were honey from the bees in his apiary and some animal dairy.  Benjamin wore modest clothing and refused to partake in products that were produced through slave labor such as sugar. Lay did all of these things- that many people in the developed world with internet access and a credit card find difficult to do today (self included)- in the 17-1800s. 

I will not give away everything told in the book that Benjamin Lay does in his long struggle against pro-slavery Quakers and other slavery proponents. But, I will mention my favorite story, that is nestled in the end of the book as it is a good example of his determination and creativity in his mostly nonviolent activism. Lay attempts to speak to a white couple about their enslavement of a young Black girl. He tries to explain to them how slavery rips families apart and destroys lives. Theyrefuse to listen. Lay eventually sees their child alone and invites the child to his dwelling. He spends time entertaining the happy child for the entirety of the day until finally the parents come running to him, crying that their child is missing. He listens to their story and then tells them that he has had their child all along and now perhaps they understand a tiny fraction of what their enslaved girl's parents must feel at the loss of their daughter.

Benjamin's antics are relentless, unapologetic, and unwavering in the face of extreme resistance, excommunication, loss of community, and ridicule on top of what he already dealt with as a dwarf. His ideas influenced generations after him- including the children of men who would stop at nothing to stop him. Two sons of one such enemy of Lay's both grew up to be abolitionists and ethical vegetarians through inspiration from Lay. The Quakers eventually came around and acknowledged the horrors of slavery- yet they still held through respectability politics that Lay deserved what he got. Lay was the passionate, relentless voice that made many others seem reasonable. He paid the price and really never got credit or redemption he deserved. He made space for white folks that came after him to criticize slavery in real and serious ways- not just the welfarist terms they used previously (treating slaves "well" but supporting slavery.) As Rediker states, we cannot know due to lack of documentation how far Lay went in his hands-on liberation activities with enslaved Africans. Yet, this book offers part of a much larger picture and Rediker definitely does Benjamin Lay's life and work justice.

Also posted to my goodreads.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Review: Fat Gay Vegan - Eat, Drink and Live Like You Give a Sh!t

Image: The cover of the book which is lime green, white, and hot pink. Fat Gay Vegan is in a green box as white and pink lettering, the rest of the title in a pink box as white lettering, and Sean O'Callaghan's name at the bottom in a green box as pink lettering.

I would characterize Fat Gay Vegan as a self help book and tutorial that is written mostly for new vegans, single-issue vegans (meaning vegans focused solely on animal rights who haven't branched out to supporting other social justice issues,) or the veg-curious out there. I've been vegan over 12 years myself so I know going into reading books like this that there may not be much new information for me. However, I always like to keep an eye out for those working in the intersections between animal rights and other struggles for justice. I also just like to be open to books I may have as an option to pass on to a new vegan. This book fit both of those bills well.

One of Sean O'Callaghan's strengths in writing this book is something I would call a genuine and gentle preachiness. He offers the firm grasp of the importance of animals' lives that I want from a book on veganism, but he is kind and understanding of his audience. While the book is indeed trying to sway the reader towards intersectionality-based veganism, it also is light-hearted at times and holds the reader's hand throughout.

O'Callaghan shares about his personal life and journey which was a great way to put the reader at ease. Very few of us are raised vegan and I think it helps people to remember that. Hearing O'Callaghan's history as a once working class, gay, fat person also dispells a lot of the myths that all vegans are one type of person (usually pictured as thin, abled, upper middle class or wealthy, straight, and otherwise normative.)
  O'Callaghan also did well to include brief interludes of voices from other perspectives in veganism so he was not just, "a white man telling you why you shouldn't be sexist, racist, ableist, and transphobic." It was clear that he analyzed extensively his place in the world, where he was coming from, and how that affected his ability to process things. Since I am coming at this book with over a decade of experience with making (and hopefully learning from) mistakes, reading books, and doing my best to practice intersectional vegan feminism, I cannot say for sure how a brand new vegan or veg-curious person reading this book would process it. But, I did find the way that O'Callaghan eased the reader into these complex ideas of oppression, and why they were critical to abolish along with animal expoitation, to be accessible to a wider audience than many such discussions.

O'Callaghan includes a section on vegan travel. He both understands how class plays into travel's inaccessibility and also offers tips on making travel more affordable and vegan travel easier. There are some opinions O'Callaghan has that differ amongst some vegans (what counts as vegan, consumer activism, etc) but he offers well reasoned arguments for his. He finally ends each chapter with a little recipe that he sees as a staple of his own vegan diet which is a really nice touch. I haven't made the raw vegan ceviche yet but it's definitely bookmarked for my next grocery store trip.

Overall, this book would be a great primer for some people who are newer to veganism and social justice or for seasoned vegans who want to read an under-represented voice. It is firm but kind, direct but understanding. It is definitely one I would hand to a variety of people on a variety of journeys.

(Also posted to my goodreads.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Book Review: To My Trans Sisters

Image: The cover of "To My Trans Sisters" which is a pale pink with black letters including the title in the center between two black bars, "Edited by Charlie Craggs" on top in small letters, and "A love letter to our community from the women who understand' -Jennifer Finney Boylan" on the bottom.

To my knowledge, To My Trans Sisters is the first book of its kind: An anthology of letters written by trans women, and a few other trans identified AMAB people, written for the same demographic. I will begin this review saying that I am not the target audience of this book. I am a trans person, but of the AFAB, butch/genderqueer/transmasculine persuasion. That said, I was still inspired by the advice many women in this book gave. Many of their stories are unique to trans women and femmes, but many are those that all kinds of trans and gender nonconforming people can relate to. Cisgender people (non-trans people) will gain insight into the lives and experiences of many women who share their stories in this book. Most people will recognize at least a few of the names in the book and people who have been part of LGBTQ communities and who follow LGBTQ Western media may recognize many of the names. It was lovely to see women from so many different backgrounds come together to send a message to other women and trans femmes out there.

One of the main strengths of this book is the sheer range of diverse experiences expressed by the women whose stories were included. From what I could tell, ages ranged from teenage to eighties. There were voices from countries from most continents on Earth (though it is very heavy on English (UK) representation because that's where the editor is from.) There are women who are activists, physicists, athletes, programmers, artists, military personnel, celebrity reality show participants, musicians, politicians, doctors, dancers, and many others. There are women of many different racial backgrounds and many different ages of transition. Disability is underrepresented, but Emily Brothers' letter- along with her acknowledgement about how disability and illness compound struggles to obtain medical transition- was very nice to see as a disabled trans person. While the book does heavily highlight the voices of famous and wealthy trans people, there is still a wide range of experiences among them and other voices included as well.

Another one of the book's strengths is the vast range of opinions expressed on gender, womanhood, transition, gender expression, passing, sexuality, and so on. Due to generational, geographical, cultural, and other differences, there is a wide range of terms people use for themselves and their experiences. But, there are also a wide range of tips allowing the reader to take what they need and leave the rest. Some women say to tone down your look in order to pass, others say to look however extravagantly you like and ignore the haters. Some women say they were very supported when they came out, others say they lost everything. Some women have very traditional trans narratives, others have more fluid experiences of gender.

Regardless of these differences between entries though, there is a common thread that runs through all of them: Sisterhood, an insistence on the great value of the women and other trans people who are their target audience, and a message that being who they are is right no matter what anyone else says. Regardless of their differences, all of the writers in this book express a love for and solidarity with their target audience. Other more common pieces of advice that ran through many writings were making sure being transgender doesn't become everything in your life, to still hold on to things you enjoy, to never settle for an abusive partner because you are trans, and also not to assume that everyone in the world is ridiculing- or even paying attention to- you. It was nice to see these messages of hope tie together such a wide range of peoples experiences.

I thought hard about whether or not I wanted to critique the voices of trans women in a book that I was not the target audience for. I decided that I would tread cautiously. So, what I will say is this: There are quite a few women in high ranking military positions in this book who have very pro-military messages that do not line up with many messages I have heard from LGBTQ people (and women in general) in military or related fields who were out or outed. These type of messages, as well as messages coming from women who successfully feigned hyper-masculinity, amassed great wealth and rose to the top of a male-only or male-dominated fields before coming out or transitioning may upset or simply not apply to trans women/girls and other trans people reading this who are poor, of color, who were always clocked as femme/gay/gender nonconforming, or who have otherwise not had the same privileges or access. That said, I realize that there is a place for these voices as there are women right now who are in the same position, waiting to come out, who need that last little push from someone who is in the same position as them. I also realize that privilege and even a neoliberal or conservative political bent does not mean a woman's experience is not valid. Furthermore, women in these positions tended to address and be well aware of the difference between themselves and a poor girl who began transition at 15 or something. I will limit my criticism to that paragraph.

Another thing I noted while reading the book is that a few of the entries mention that they were asked by Charlie Craggs (the editor) to write a letter to their younger selves. However, only a few of the 85 letters included in the book followed this model. I really wish that more of the letters would have followed this model as some are very short and I really wanted to hear more from those people. I am not sure if it was lack of resources, organization, or just being able to get what she got from people. I would have liked to read a book with fewer entries if it was a little more cohesive in this way and a bit better edited, and that is why I am giving it 4 stars out of 5.

Overall, I am happy this book exists and happy to have read it. I believe it could bring some joy and companionship in the sea of loneliness one can sometimes feel living as a trans person in the world. I am very grateful to all of the women and other trans people who shared their letters in the book and to Craggs for taking on this project.

Also posted to my goodreads.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Book Review: Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Image: The cover of Laura Jane Grace's book "Tranny" which is all white with black stenciled words and Laura's eyes lined with thick black eyeliner, nose, and mouth in the center of the cover.

I read this book as someone who became interested in Laura Jane Grace after she came out. That definitely shaped how I approached reading this book and what my interest in Grace is centered around. The first time I heard about Against Me! was when several of my friends in anarchist communities were hurt and saddened by "I was a teenage anarchist" being released. Their anthem, "Baby, I'm an anarchist" meant a lot to them and they felt betrayed. This book put so much more context into that entire event that I wonder if any of them would still feel angry having read Grace's side of the story. When she came out, many people did seem to wake up a little and embrace her more, but then again, my circles were mainly queer people. I am not sure if the cishet anarcho punk world ever came around.

I want to comment on the title and design of this book. I really loved the illustrations and overall graphic work put into designing the print copy of this book. I often don't comment on these type of things but, for this book, it is a definite part of the experience. I very much enjoy the unapologetic, self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek title. However, I put black electrical tape over the word "Tranny" when I took the book to read in the doctor's office. As a trans person, I didn't want to have to discuss it if someone asked what I was reading. There's something about that word being on the lips of cishet people that really bothers me. Can cishet people speak this title? Will it make them think they can start saying that word otherwise? I sure hope not. And, I don't think that's Grace's responsibility anyways.

Grace is honest and brutally self-critical in this memoir. Anyone within punk scenes that saw her as a thoughtless sellout will be challenged in reading this. There was great struggle going on through every step of the way and even at her most "mainstream" moments in music, she and the rest of Against Me! were facing regular social and financial ruin. The struggles of any kind of fame, regular drug and alcohol issues, and the great struggle of discovering herself and her gender are apparent throughout the book. Mixed in with Grace's present day writings are excerpts from her past journals which are edited in nicely throughout the book. I noticed regularly how well written Grace's journal entries were.

Throughout the book, there are a lot of critiques of punk and/or radical cultures that are sound and also extend out to various other countercultures.

"Initially I had been attracted to punk and anarchism because I saw them as a means to make a positive change, where everyone was equal. While there were some people in the scene who upheld those values, the more punks I dealt with, the more I realized that most of them were privileged white kids taking advantage of this idealism."

Even if we don't agree that "most of them" are, there is a great, stinging truth to this and I think anyone over 30 (or probably younger) can agree with this sort of assessment of punk and/or anarchist movements. It doesn't mean we stop believing in the causes, but we have become jaded.

As Against Me! began to make any sort of living through their music, they faced backlash and attacks from parts of punk scenes, including violence and having their van tires slashed among other things. Grace's 2005 journal remarks, "Where are you supposed to go when you no longer feel welcome in the places you turned to because you didn't feel welcome anywhere else?" Grace does not merely dismiss these criticisms, though. While expressing her upset with ostracism and attacks from some punks, she also acknowledges other critiques that she believes were correct.

Grace's teenage anarchist song takes on a new meaning when you read this memoir, realizing that she was dealing with a regular fear that she would lose everything if she were to be out about who she was. She already lacked support and was in a very rigid, macho environment. When she did come out, she did lose a lot in part because of stigma but also because many things simply had to change. She struggled to adapt and, like many of us, doubted herself and her transition. She tells an accurate account of her struggle to access basic trans medical care- all too familiar to many trans people. All the barriers standing in the way of trans people are a recipe for self doubt, shame, and regret. But, it wasn't all bad, she states:

"There was also a new community of trans and gender-queer fans that I'd picked up in the year and a half since I came out. Some of them weren't even interested in punk; they just came out to support me... Many told me that my visibility helped them to understand their own gender identity, and meeting them often did the same for me."

The only thing I would have liked more of in the book is more about Laura Jane Grace's beliefs, politics, etc. Perhaps this book is written for the person who has listened to every Against Me! song and not someone like me, thus it centers almost entirely on Grace's day to day interpersonal experiences. Since Grace and I are almost the same age, I was able to put all of her experiences in context with my own and what was going on in the world at the time. But, I would have liked to hear more of her thoughts and beliefs about the larger world- what does anarchism mean to her and how has that changed throughout her life? I understand that many people want memoirs to be short, though I would have been happy to read more of her story.

Laura Jane Grace brings the book to a close in a lovely way, full circle again referencing a music icon that inspired her as a child- Madonna- and sharing a similar moment with her own daughter. Even though the book is full of lots of struggle, depression, and defeat, she leaves us believing it all might be ok. Afterall, this journey is still in its infancy in comparison to how long she had to wait to come out. She doesn't have to hide anymore. That's a great start to a new life.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Book Review: APHRO-ISM Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters by Aph Ko and Syl Ko

[Image: The cover of Aphro-ism is a brown-gold background with three vertically aligned geometric symbols leading down to the heads of Aph and Syl Ko. Aph and Syl are shown from the side, shoulder to shoulder, and facing opposite directions towards the left and right of the image. They are each dressed in bright, multi-colored astronaut uniforms and the images have a watercolor paint effect filter. Below them is a purple bar with the book's title in pink and white letters.]
Also available on my goodreads.

I have been reading the writings of Aph and Syl Ko since the beginnings of APHRO-ISM and Black Vegans Rock as blog sites. Back then it was already very exciting to see people coming out with ideas that were not only tackling topics at the root of huge fighting and divisions between vegan, animal lib, and social justice communities, but doing so in fresh new ways. Aph and Syl both have brilliant minds and ways of combining their powers together through conversation then reproducing them beautifully on the screen (and now page.) When they put the word out about their book, a lot of us were extremely excited. Many of us have been learning from their wisdom and/or feeling validated by their work.

The essays in APHRO-ISM explore critical theory in ways I find somewhat more accessible than a lot of critical theory out there. Many of the arguments made against academia and critical theory include the reality that some people are trying to tangibly survive while academics sit writing think pieces. But, what Aph and Syl do in this book is show the importance of thinking through things to liberation. There is a call for the defense of thought and culture- of "Black LIFE" not just Black lives and bodies.

Many of the essays are speaking directly to Black people- both vegan and nonvegan. This stays with the consistent theme of the need to decenter whiteness in movements for justice and liberation. Many arguments are well made that white supremacy teaches Black and other people of color to spend most of their time calling out and educating white people rather than decentering them and creating futures without them. The book does a good job creating this literary space in practice. I had the honor of seeing Aph give a presentation similar to the last writing in the book, "Creating New Conceptual Architechture: On Afrofuturism, Animality, and Unlearning/Rewriting Ourselves" at a conference and was incredibly motivated and moved by it. There Aph uses models of the solar system to construct a model of a reality we are not seeing: that the "social solar system" does not revolve around white folks or the most privileged of society, even if it appears that way, just as everything appeared to be orbiting the Earth upon early observation of the night sky. The reality is that the marginalized and oppressed- those seen as subhuman- are the Sun at the center of the solar system, and without them, the most privileged could not survive or exist.

Aph and Syl also focus in multiple ways on how animality is used to oppress people. Even though humans belong biologically to the kingdom Animalia with other animals, and even though marginalized and oppressed human beings are biologically homo sapiens along with ruling class white abled cis male humans, oppressed humans and animals all are forced into a space of "subhuman" that is created by white supremacist patriarchy. As Syl states, "The human-animal divide is the ideological bedrock underlying the framework of white supremacy. The negative notion of 'the animal' is the anchor of this system." As a result, animality must be reclaimed and factored into our analyses of oppression. This is a genius argument that is made well throughout several essays in the book.

The book is not limited to topics of Black veganism or animality and also goes into discussions of social media, tactics in activism and critical thinking, and others. It is at the forefront of new and needed systems of thinking, moving on from intersectionality as a technique to afrofuturism as a practice and model for the future. APHRO-ISM is a satellite that helps us see who is really at the center of our social solar system. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book Review: Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices From Solitary Confinement

[Image: The cover of the book is black jagged angular lines making boxes that spiral in towards the center of the cover. In the center is a white space with a drawing of a person curled into the fetal position. They have black hair, brown skin, and are wearing an orange prison uniform. Above them is the title of the book in white hand drawn letters and below them is the byline in the same letters. The bottom of the image has both corners blacked out where one side says "edited by..." and the other lists "Jean Casella, James Rdgeway, Sarah Shourd."]
Also posted to goodreads.

Hell is a Very Small Place is partially a collection of essays of people who are or were in solitary confinement telling stories about their experiences. It is also composed of essays from lawyers, professors, psychologists, and journalists about why solitary confinement is unethical and illogical.

The essays telling the stories of peoples experiences are diverse in demographics and eerily similar as far as the abuses and torture suffered in each place. All of the essays tell stories of the descent into madness that occurs when one is deprived of human contact (physically, verbally, and otherwise,) natural light, medical care, food, and other basic necessities. Solitary confinement always causes lasting damage- especially when prisoners are held in it for extended periods of time. The essays by a trans woman and a gay cis man show how being LGBTQ and/or gender nonconforming is a punishable offense in prisons while being couched in the idea of "safety" and "protection" for LGBTQ people in prison. The essays also show how prisons lie to insist there is a need for solitary confinement based on ill-defined parameters such as gang affiliation, mild infarctions such as talking back to guards, or to quell any organized resistance such as hunger striking to improve the conditions in prisons. Once one is placed in solitary, a cyclic nature of getting stuck there for these reasons created by the oppressive institutions that are prisons begins.

I have had prison pen pals who have spent time in solitary, including one for extended amount of time due to an accusation of gang affiliation and the other for perceived homosexual activity (which would also garner you a sex offense and placement on a registry for something like two women consensually hugging.) I can say that the stories in this book are not unique. My friend in solitary for the longer time slowly lost his mind in permanent ways and has had a very difficult time readjusting to general population despite wanting to be out of solitary.

Even if one is heartless enough not to care about prisoners and their torture in solitary, it makes no sense as a punitive or rehabilitative measure. When people leave solitary, they are always worse off whether they are in the prison population or back out in the world. They struggle with relationships, open space, authority, and other things far worse than those never placed in solitary confinement.

The essays in the latter part of the book range from descriptions of the researched psychological effects of solitary by outside clinicians and/or researchers, the laws in place to keep solitary confinement going, or stories of those held there as they are perceived by someone on the outside. These essays are mostly good, but I found one topic to be lacking and that was the discussion of LGBTQ prisoners in solitary confinement. Given that multiple stories told by these people existed in the first part of the book, I would have liked to see at least one essay in the latter part focused on homophobia and transphobia in prisons and why such large percentages of LGBTQ people in prisons end up in solitary without even disobeying any written rules. LGBTQ prisoners are some of the most ill treated in prisons, especially when their identities intersect with other oppression such as racism and misogyny. That is why this book gets 4 stars instead of 5.

Overall this book does a good job showing how solitary confinement is literal torture that some prisoners describe as a sentence worse than death and one essay describes as "a living death sentence." It is an important read for anyone interested in prisons and could be handed to any person who is ignorant of how prisons are hellish places that do not rehabilitate or stop future crime.