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


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

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.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon



Also posted to goodreads.

When I read the blurb for this book, "a worthy successor to Octavia Butler" stuck out as quite a claim. I wondered if the book would reach the expectations set by that sentence and honestly felt like that sentence might be too much for any writer to live up to. After reading this book, I can say very confidently that the claim is true. Rivers Solomon is a fantastic writer whose prose an ideas have marks of influence from science fiction greats like Butler, but which also stand out beautifully on their own.

An Unkindness of Ghosts takes place on a large space vessel called The Matilda. The ship is basically a fascist hereditary dictatorship and theocracy. It is intensely stratified by race, class, gender, and other measures with the lower decks occupied by enslaved women and others and the upper decks occupied by the rich, predominantly white, privileged classes. Each deck has it's own culture, accents, and sometimes languages. Enforcement of these divisions is often defended as the will of God as the ship careens at near light-speed towards a promised land that has been promised now for centuries. The story is told mostly through a third person narrative centering Aster and her experiences, but also has a brilliant touch of interspersed first-person journal-like entries from other characters in the story. This allows the reader to see the story from multiple perspectives, adding to its richness. The story is part dystopian/apocalyptic science fiction, part afrofuturism, part mystery, a little bit coming of age, and a dash of romantic and platonic love.

Solomon did her research regarding the medical and scientific aspects of relativity, medicine, psychology, and other tools used to propel the story forward. A story like this could have easily become boringly structured around blatant hierarchy, or a cheesy space saga, but it does not. The story is rich with believable and interesting characters, honest understanding of the daily affects of and reactions to complex trauma, nuanced expressions of hierarchical interactions and identities- including when oppressed groups can be pinned against one another, and captures what it truly feels like to be powerless and powerful at the same time.

Topics tackled in the book include slavery and indentured servitude, Mammy archetypes, gender nonconformity, female masculinity, male femininity, androgyny, intersexuality, queerness, consent, racism, fascism, sexual abuse, suicide, authoritarianism, and many others. The presence of all of these themes makes the story complex and more believable rather than bogging it down. In my opinion, this story shows the reality of places like the United States- and some other areas of the "West"- through the use of science fiction and allegory. This is my favorite kind of scifi when done well as I believe it can change the world. Rivers Solomon does it amazingly well.

I hope that this book takes off and is seen for just how great a feat it is. I would be completely interested in a series that continues or expands upon the story told in this novel as well as completely new stories from this author. I look forward to seeing much more from Rivers Solomon in the future.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: Blessed Body: The Secret Lives of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Nigerians


This review can also be found on my goodreads.

Blessed Body is a book of stories from a variety of LGBT Nigerians. In Nigeria, LGBT rights are not only unrecognized, but any homosexual activity can be punishable by 14 years imprisonment. It is even illegal to hide one's knowledge of an LGBT person even if oneself is not gay. Learning these facts at a reading I attended by Unoma Azuah gave me an even greater appreciation for the level of courage it took for all of the people in this book to risk telling their stories.

This review has taken me longer to write than most. It is difficult to know the best way to discuss a book about such an important and delicate topic- as a queer, transgender, and white resident of the United States from birth- and give it the description it truly deserves.

Content note: the rest of this review contains discussion of sexual assault, physical violence, and other abuses. Proceed with care.

The stories in this book highlight well just how many barriers there are for someone in Nigeria to understand their own identity let alone express it out in the world. Due to British colonialism, the homophobia of many Christian churches was forced upon people in Nigeria. In many areas of pre-colonial Africa, including Nigeria, gender and sexual expression were allowed to be much more fluid. At times it was even seen as special and/or celebratory. In post-colonial Nigeria, many people's idea of love and acceptance for LGBT people involves taking them to church for "deliverance" which often involves physical punishments. More horrific mistreatment of LGBT people commonly includes corrective rape (where men rape perceived lesbians in feigned attempt to turn them straight) and "jungle justice" (where mobs of vigilantes take anti-homosexuality laws into their own hands, resulting in severe beatings or death of suspected LGBT people.) The stories in this book include many of these experiences.

Many people discuss not even having words for the romantic, sexual, and gendered feelings they were having at young ages since some religious Nigerians believe that there are no LGBT people in Africa. Others believe it is a manifestation of illness. And those who are accepting or are LGBT themselves must keep everything hidden. These barriers not only keep children from discovering who they are, but it also causes them to be silent when they are abused out of fear that they will be punished. Many of the stories include abuse of children and adults by others in which they blame themselves.

The book is broken into sections with different topics pertaining to the group of stories. My favorite section, and also the section with most (but not all) of the best writing, was called "Unapologetic." It is an excellent ending to a book full of very difficult stories. While it does not contain only happy stories, it does contain ways that people found acceptance of themselves and escape from self hatred, even when they were in danger. As Gamal Turawa shares in their story about their journey:

"I learnt... that being true to yourself is a powerful force that can surprise and protect you if you trust it fully. A lot of us look for that acceptance in others when we should first find it in ourselves."

My constructive criticism of this book for future editions: I wish many of the writings, especially in the beginning, were longer. It took me a little while to settle into the book because each time I began to be immersed in someone's story, it would end and move on to the next person. I wanted to know more of many of the peoples stories. I also think it could be advantageous to have an edition of the book for people around the world like myself who are ignorant of some of the laws and practices in Nigeria. Some of the specifics I discuss in this review I had learned at Azuah's talk or from research online. I think having an introduction and/or epilogue that calls attention to the differences between homosexuality and gender nonconformity in pre and post-colonial Africa and gives some extra information would put this important text in better context for many readers. These things would have pushed the book to 5 stars for me.

Blessed Body is a telling. It is a necessary sharing of experiences that are hidden and silenced boht in Nigeria and elsewhere. I am very grateful that these people took the risk of telling their stories and am grateful to Unoma Azuah for contributing and editing the text.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Review: Sunaura Taylor's "Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation"

Also posted to goodreads

Image: The cover of Sunaura Taylor's book Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. The cover is a greyish blue with blue, yellow, and white lettering for the title and author's name. There are two figures silhouetted in white against the blue back drop. One is a cow and one is a human. Both appear to be using wheelchairs as you can see the wheels and spokes beneath each of them.
This book is spectacular. Carol Adams told me about this book about a year before it came out when I was talking to her at a conference. I mentioned that I don't know a lot of people who write about the intersection of disability and animal liberation and she told me that "Beasts of Burden" was in the works. I also read Sunaura Taylor's contribution to the Ecofeminism anthology which completely rocked my world. From that point forward, I eagerly awaited the release date of Sunaura Taylor's book. So, I went into this with very high expectations that were difficult to meet. This book surpassed them.

Sunaura tackles topics of disability and animal liberation without separating them from each other or many of the other oppressions that are intertwined with them like race, class, gender, and so on. At the same time, she give the topics and members of these groups the individualized attention they deserve. One of the best parts about this book is that Taylor does not shy away from the difficult conversations such as forced nonhuman animal research for human health issues, abolitionist rhetoric of rewilding animals and the extinction of domestication (and in turn- the maligning of (inter)dependence), some animal rights activists seeing themselves as "voices for the voiceless," the barriers to accessing vegan food for some people with severe health struggles, and so on. She tackles these topics head on, having discussions about issues where nonhuman animal liberation and disabled human liberation seem to collide- and often shows that they are connected rather than at odds with each other. Taylor also does not shy away from directly and honestly addressing the works of people like Peter Singer and Temple Grandin who represent famous and damaging representations of animal liberation in relation to disability and disability in relation to animal liberation. She is able to parse out the things that have merit while effectively calling attention to the things that do not.

I really hope this book becomes one of the staples of animal liberation discourse and disability discourse. Sunaura Taylor argues quite well that the two and intertwined and that ableism is at the center of nonhuman animal oppression and that speciesism is part of the ammo used to demean people with disabilities. It is an invaluable contribution that will hopefully help us create more connections between our movements.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Exploitation of the Marginalized Gets the Green Light

IMAGE: Two hooded Rats named Thelma and Louise sitting on their hind legs eating lentils and rice. They have brown heads and shoulders and white bodies. I chose an image of two rats who had names and personalities, different likes and dislikes, to remind us that the animals I discuss here are more than subjects of study.

Some of you may know that I suffer from multiple chronic pain conditions that leave me unable to work. There is a lack of viable treatments out there for chronic pain conditions- especially those that cannot be aided by manual fixes like surgeries, braces, physical therapy, and so on. Combine that with the war on drugs making more and more medications (both narcotic and non) more difficult to obtain (despite these measures doing nothing to help people with addiction struggles), insurance companies refusing to cover effective preventative and helpful treatments, and the general state of the world that does not make room for people with disabilities to function with in it, and you have a recipe for frustration.

Recently and article was sent my way in which a man named Mohab Ibraham tortures rats in order to research the effects of green light on neuropathic pain. All articles on the subject that I can find refer to "rats with neuropathic pain" as if the rats are being done a service by the study. Anyone with knowledge about pain research involving nonhuman animals knows that they are deliberately caused injury and pain in these types of studies- most of the time by exposing them to a painful stimulus like injecting them with acid, placing them on a hot plate, electrified floors, and so on. In this video, Ibraham says flat out that the animals "developed a better capacity to handle uncomfortable stimulus." Videos linked later in this post mention "paw withdrawal latency" which means that Ibraham and colleagues likely injected the rats feet with something painful. In other research, Ibraham and colleagues have induced spinal injuries in rats.

Putting the ethics aside for a moment, this study is ridiculous for a multiple reasons. 1) Rats have different visual perception of color than humans do- they can see green but they see it differently and see other colors differently. 2) Injecting rats feet with inflammatory agents in a box is not the same as dealing with chronic pain caused by a variety of neurodegenerative or myalgia conditions. 3) This study could have easily been effectively done in humans (as can be seen in the aforementioned video) and there aren't any regulations that would prevent exposing humans to green light. In fact, studies on humans using green light existed before Ibraham was torturing rats to study it.  Regardless, Ibraham and his crew have presented it as a novel discovery (as well as referred to people who use narcotic pain relievers generally as being drug addicts- blaming them for the "epidemic" of addiction)

It should be noted that there is no recent epidemic of drug addiction- drug addiction has been an epidemic for centuries, but since the face of the addict in the mainstream has become white, middle class, and addicted to prescription pills rather than of color and addicted to crack (despite white people doing more drugs on the whole)- this "epidemic" has received more attention. But, that is for another post. 

Ethically, if you have read anything else on this blog, you may guess that I oppose confining and abusing anyone against their will for research- human or nonhuman animal. This harms both humans and other animals. I am sure the big old grant that Ibraham was given was a good amount of wasted dollars that could have been used on a far more accurate, ethical, and sound study using human volunteers.

But, there is another intersection here- disabled people are used as pawns by researchers like this in order to get grants for future studies. I do not believe that all researchers are bad people who don't care. However, I do come from a background in cognitive neuroscience and I know how research communities value detachment and "objectivity" to the point that it allows for neglect and cruelty. There is a long history of disabled people, people of color, poor people, and so on being forcefully and/or coercively experimented upon, sterilized by, and studied by usually white male doctors and researchers who always defend their mistreatment by saying they learned something. Harriet Washington's book Medical Apartheid details the ways in which enslaved black people and black Americans have been experimented on against their will from gruesome gynecological studies on enslaved women to decades long studies of the effects of syphilis infection to faulty studies on predispositions to violence done on black boys. Eli Clare and Sunaura Taylor both detail in their writings the ways that disabled and other marginalized people have been exploited in research. Sunaura Taylor specifically explores how nonhuman animal exploitation is used as a vehicle for the exploitation of humans.

Our culture likes to uphold sciences as pinnacles of all that is good and right with the world. But, Institutional Review Boards exist as a result great abuses committed by doctors and scientists. And still, IRBs can only protect so much and often fail to do what they were intended to do. Marginalized people and species of nonhuman animals- especially those not covered under the animal welfare act like rats and some birds- are always at high risk of being victimized by people who are part of an industry of grants, sexy science, and a quest for knowledge that is willing to conquer anyone they need to to get an answer.

Unethical research is never worth the knowledge gained. Unethical research on humans and nonhuman animals is never excusable due to knowledge gained. With those two things said, this pain research on rats gained no knowledge and simply repeated something that can already be safely done in humans. As a result it is doubly inexcusable.

When you see articles heralding "advances" in medicine via the exploitation and torture of nonhuman animals, question what you are reading. Look past the "rats with neuropathic pain" to see the "rats confined to a box who are repeatedly injected into their paws with acid in order to study something that is already safe and effective in humans." See the truth.