Six Degrees of Separation: from The Handmaid’s Tale to Red Dust Road

I’m a day late for November’s Six Degrees of Separation. I’m blaming my anxious refreshing of the Presidential election count page on The Guardian website yesterday. This month, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best has given us a sort of free pass on the starting book. We’re starting our November chains with a book that ended a previous chain. For anyone new to Six Degrees, the general concept is explained here.

I’ve gone back to my chain for August 2019 which ended with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve chosen it because Biden’s projected election to the US Presidency, and the accompanying election of Kamala Harris as the first woman, and woman of colour, to the role of Vice President, gives me hope that the contemporary march toward Gilead that 45’s presidency represented can now be reversed. I’m hoping to see reversals of anti-abortion laws and reinstatement of support for Planned Parenthood centres, for starters.

I’m jumping from a fictional account of the overt subjugation of women in a speculative future where proponents of the Men’s Rights movement and the more recent Proud Boys organisation, both of which emerged after Atwood published her dystopian masterpiece, have asserted the right to chauvinism, to a non-fiction account of how the world is stacked against women. Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women covers a variety of ground, from the refusal to acknowledge that women’s specific biology makes the chemicals used by predominantly women in the home and the workplace have higher toxicity than for men to the fact that crash test dummies used to test car safety are modelled on the male body, from the lack of consultation with women across the world on imposed changes intended to improve their lives to the fact that smart phones are designed for men’s hands, and all the sexism in between. Reading it made me angry and exhausted because the world should not be like this.

I’m celebrating a strong Black woman with my next book. Audre Lorde understood the challenges faced by women in a world run by men. She understood that a new, radical way forward had to be carved out. Joe Biden reaped the benefits of the feminist activist work of women like Lorde this week. Biden has acknowledged that, without the work of women of colour in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan, his road to the White House would have ended short of the doors. As I noted in my review of The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Lorde’s essays are a call to dig deep, find our passion, harness our anger and make a permanent, radical change to the assumptions that underpin the world we live in. One way this can happen is to ensure that the next Democrat president of the USA doesn’t make Black women do the work in securing his or her election.

I recently went to an online in-conversation held by the Manchester Literature Festival between Jackie Kay and Angela Davis. Davis is a contemporary of Lorde’s, and someone I have shamefully yet to read. The talk was inspirational, full of challenges and hope. Davis spoke of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, on a street divided by segregation. Davis’s side of the street was Black, the opposite side was white. She grew up with a sense of the possibility of resisting, she said, thanks to her community, her mother and a belief that the status quo didn’t have to be accepted. Her 1982 work, Women, Race and Class, reissued last year, stems from this belief, documenting the lives of Black women who refused to accept the lives into which they were born and shining a light on the racism inherent in white feminism. Now that Black women like Stacey Abrams of Fair Fight, and LaTosha Brown of the Black Votes Matter Fund have underpinned the election of a Democrat president, there has to be a move towards diversifying US politics more effectively.

Another feminist writer who calls for a transformation of the gender constructs that disrupt equality, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TEDex talk in 2012 that ended up being published as an extended essay in 2014. We Should All Be Feminists was Adichie’s call to her fellow Africans to allow women to be strong and independent, something that many African cultures don’t allow, particularly Adichie’s own Nigerian culture. When I read it, I found that some of the ways in which Nigerian culture keeps women down were similar to those used in Britain.

Remembering Adichie’s essay has brought to the fore of my mind a book I read very recently. Abi Dare’s The Girl With the Louding Voice is about the ways in which women are and are not allowed to be strong and independent in Nigeria. It is a story about the very poorest and the very richest in Nigerian society. It cuts across traditional beliefs and imported Western priorities and reveals both to be lacking in different ways. At its centre is a strong young woman, determined to forge her own path in the world.

I’m going to end with a book by Jackie Kay, just because I love her so much. Better known as a poet (she’s the Scottish Makar), Kay’s autobiography Red Dust Road documents her search for her birth parents as she tried to understand who she was and where she fitted in. Born in Scotland to a Scottish nurse and a Nigerian student, Kay was adopted as a baby by a white couple who were Communists. As evident from the in conversation event with Angela Davis, Kay was inspired as a young woman by the Black Feminist activists in America. It was the impending birth of her son that set her on the course of tracing her birth parents. Although I haven’t read the memoir, I have seen the play that is based on it, which is full of joy, as Kay herself is, despite the racism she has encountered throughout her life. Her encounter with her Nigerian father, a born again Christian who does not recognise his own sin in fathering and abandoning a child but instead frames her as the sinner for existing, has echoes of the societal attitudes at the heart of The Girl with the Louding Voice, too.

This month I’ve been very much focused on the politics of America and the role of women, and particularly Black women, in the outcome of the Presidential election. I’ve travelled from a dystopia it felt at times that we were heading towards in real time, to books which question the status quo and call for women to dismantle the Master’s house with their own tools. Why not visit Kate’s blog to find out what books other people have chosen?

16 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from The Handmaid’s Tale to Red Dust Road

  1. I love this post, Jan. So much to think about. I’ve dipped into a variety of book and literature festivals lately. How come Manchester’s has passed me by? I was a student there after all! I’ll try to catch up. And it was you who recommended The Girl wit the Louding Voice, which I’ve just finished and much enjoyed. The Patient Assassin has just arrived from the library for me. You see, you have become one of my go-to book reviewers! I’ll bookmark many of these. Just not the Margaret Atwood. I’m more or less the only person I know that can’t be doing with her dystopian tales. And that election – it ain’t over till the fat lady (or fat man in this case) sings. Can we afford to relax yet?

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    1. Thanks, Margaret, I’m glad you enjoyed it. MLF started in 2006, but I only became aware of it a couple of years ago. The events have usually been really small, in often tiny venues like The Anthony Burgess Foundation and Central Library. None have ever been filmed as far as I know. This is the first year they’ve done anything online and they chose a platform that only allowed ticket holders to watch live or watch back for 72 hours. It’s a shame not to be able to access them again. I would happily watch the Kay/Davis talk again. An oversight on their part, I think. Perhaps hosting the content for longer was beyond their budget.

      I’m not a huge fan of Atwood’s dystopias. I read The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager and it’s more speculative fiction than out and out dystopia. I enjoyed Oryx and Crake, but hated the following books in the Maddaddam sequence. They felt like lazy rehashes of the first book to me, which was clever. I haven’t bothered with The Testaments yet. Her other books are much more to my taste and why I love her as an author.

      And yes, I agree, the US election is only truly over once all the votes have been counted and the electors ratify them in January, but we have to trust that the system is stronger than the machinations of a corrupt faction in one of the parties. That almost 71m people voted for fascism, though, is terrifying – either people are so wedded to Republicanism that they couldn’t bear to vote Democrat in protest at the incumbent, or they agree with his right wing policies. Either way it’s not great, is it? But still, 51% of Americans almost certainly aren’t fascists. 😉

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      1. Indeed. I saw a suggestion on Twitter that Biden foregoes the inaugural ball in January and cracks on with reversing Trump’s executive orders. Joking aside, though, the Democrats need to start working on why so many people are so in thrall to Trump’s brand of populism. They needed to start 4 years ago, really, but now’s a good time, too.

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      2. Education… it all starts with that… we’ve been cutting into education budgets so badly for so many years (beginning in the 80s), that it has ended up letting evil people teach children what to think instead of HOW to think!

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  2. Excellent and timely chain, Jan. I haven’t read any of these except your starting book, but I have read other Adichie, and I gave had a Lorde book next to my bed for years. I love your comment on that selection. I really hope Harris gets to play a big role in the coming term. I wonder if she negotiated something with Biden in the disc ssion about becoming running mate.

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    1. It will be interesting to see what happens, won’t it? He called himself a transition president and a bridge to a younger generation when selected to run, so I think you’re right to wonder what discussions he and Harris have had.

      I intend to read more by Lorde and Adichie. I’ve read both of Adichie’s essays but only one of her novels so far. I’ve got the Davis reissue on my pile, too, and am looking forward to it.

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