In the Media, May 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

Jenny Diski at the LRB bookshop in London.

The last fortnight’s been dominated by death. On Thursday, Jenny Diski died less than two years after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Literary Hub ran ‘Remembering Jenny Diski‘ including pieces from Hayley Mlotek, Michelle Dean, Joanna Walsh, Bridget Read, Laura Marsh, Marta Bausells and Charlotte Shane. The Guardian ran an extract from her cancer diary. Joanne Harris wrote a found poem ‘Opium Ice Cream‘ from Diski’s tweets, and The London Review of Books opened Jenny Diski’s entire archive to non-subscribers.

The previous week comedian Victoria Wood died. A.L. Kennedy declared her, ‘My Hero‘ in The Guardian; Helen Walmsley Johnson wrote, ‘Victoria Wood gave us the gift of being able to laugh at ourselves‘ in The New Statesman

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Although he’s not a female writer, Prince also died just over a week ago and so much brilliant writing by women has come from that: Porochista Khakpour, ‘Prince’s Woman and Me: The Collaborators Who Inspired a Generation‘ in the Village Voice; Maya West, ‘A Hierarchy of Love and Loss and Prince‘ on Jezebel; Bim Adewunmi, ‘Celebrating Prince For 48 Hours In Minneapolis‘ on Buzzed; Heather Haverilsky, ‘Prince Showed Me a Whole New Way of Existing‘ on The Cut; Amanda Marcotte, ‘Sexy MFers, unite: The feminist power of Prince’s sex-positive songs‘ on Salon; K.T. Billey, ‘Prince and the queer body: Our dirty patron saint of pop gave me permission to think outside the gender binary‘ on Salon; Kaitlyn Greenidge, ‘Surviving a Long Alaskan Winter with Prince‘ on Literary Hub; Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, ‘Prince Spent His Life Elevating and Mentoring Women‘ on Jezebel; Lily Burano, ‘Why Prince Was a Hero to Strippers‘ on The Cut; Ashley Weatherford, ‘Understanding the Politics of Prince’s Hair‘ on The Cut; Mona Hayder, ‘Prince Was a Demigod Who Uplifted the Masses Through Music‘ on Literary Hub; Naomi Jackson, ‘Prince: Finding Joy Outside Conformity‘ on Literary Hub; Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, ‘Prince conjured the kind of sex you’d want to have – filthy and fun, and sometimes offensive‘ in The Independent; Tracy King, ‘We should celebrate Prince for championing female musicians‘ in The New Statesman; Laura Craik, ‘“I loved him because of how his music made me feel”‘ on The Pool; Michelle Garcia, ‘Prince gave black kids permission to be weirdos‘ on Vox; Ijeoma Oluo, ‘Prince Was The Patron Saint Of Black Weirdos‘ on The Establishment.

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Other brilliant writing about music came from the launch of Beyoncé’s new album Lemonade. Brittany Spanos, ‘How Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ Reclaims Rock’s Black Female Legacy‘ in Rolling Stone; Mandy Stadtmiller, ‘How Lemonade Helped Me Talk to My Husband About Cheating‘ on The Cut; Treva Lindsey, ‘Beyoncé’s Lemonade Isn’t Just About Cheating, It’s About Black Sisterhood‘ in Cosmopolitan; Caroline O’Donoghue, ‘Monica, Becky With The Good Hair, and the power of the Other Woman‘ in The Pool; Diamond Sharp, ‘Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ Is an Anthem for the Retribution of Black Women‘ on Vice; Morgan Jerkins, ‘‘Lemonade’ Is About Black Women Healing Themselves and Each Other‘ in Elle; Daisy Buchanan, ‘What can Beyoncé’s Lemonade teach us about love?‘ on The Pool; Vanessa Kisuule, ‘Why Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Shows a Refinement of her Artistry‘ on Gal-Dem; Carrie Battan, ‘Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” Is a Revelation of Spirit‘ in The New Yorker; Priscilla Ward, ‘Beyoncé’s radical invitation: In “Lemonade,” a blueprint for black women working through pain‘ on Salon; Ezinne Ukoha, ‘I Will Do Better By My Sisters‘ on Medium; June Eric-Udorie, ‘Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and the power it bestows young black women‘ on The Pool; Rafia Zakaria, ‘Warsan Shire: the Somali-British poet quoted by Beyoncé in Lemonade‘ in The Guardian; Juliane Okot Bitek wrote, ‘On the Poet Warsaw Shire, Nobody’s Little Sister‘ on Literary Hub. While Jamila addressed Piers Morgan’s criticisms of the album with ‘Dear Piers…‘ on her blog.

And I wanted to include this story because it’s just lovey: Jessie Burton’s new novel The Muse includes a setting named after Waterstones’ bookseller Leila Skelton. Skelton does the most incredible window displays at the Doncaster shop which are often shared on Twitter.

The best of the rest:

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On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: 10th May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

It’s Mother’s Day in 80 countries around the world today. Not surprisingly, there has been a whole range of articles, from a whole range of view points, about mothers and motherhood this week. The Hairpin ran a series including  ‘Mommy Queerest‘ by Sarah Liss; ‘Thoroughly Modern Murdering Mothers; or, Women Who Kill for Their Children‘ by Meredith Haggerty; ‘A Joke, A Story‘ by Naomi Skwarna; ‘Going for the Burn: Revisiting Jane Fonda’s Workouts‘ by Alison Hamm’ ‘Mothers and Moms‘ by Haley Mlotek, and Randi Bergman, ‘The Weirdest Beauty Tips I Learned From My Mom‘.

Tameka Cage-Conley wrote, ‘Motherhood, Art, And Police Brutality‘ on VSB; Amy Shouse wrote ‘My mom never wanted kids‘ on Salon; Anne Enright wrote, ‘When Mother Leaves the Room‘ in The New York Times; Cheryl Strayed wrote, ‘The ‘Painful Personal Toll Lung Cancer Has Taken on My Life’‘ on The Huffington Post; Monica Hessler, ‘The long drive to end a pregnancy‘ in The Washington Post; Mary HK Choi, ‘The Dicks Of Our Lives‘ on Buzzfeed; Mary Elizabeth Williams, ‘Sorry about Mother’s Day, my childfree girlfriends: Moms aren’t any more special (or unselfish) than you‘ on Salon; Edwidge Danticat, ‘A Prayer Before Dying‘ on Literary Hub; Brogan Driscoll, ‘I Refuse to Celebrate ‘Dad Bod’, Until We Appreciate the ‘Mum Bod’ Too‘ on the Huffington Post

Catherine Bennett wrote in The Guardian, ‘It’s dehumanising to be ‘an oven’ for someone else’s baby‘; Jessica Roake wrote, ‘An Ode to the “Mom’s Night Out”‘ on Slate; Rebecca Mead wrote, ‘A Woman’s Place Is on the Internet‘ in The New Yorker; Sophie Heawood wrote, ‘I’ve read all the advice, but I still don’t know – am I raising a serial killer?‘ in The Guardian; Laila K wrote, ‘Up with the kids‘ in The Pool; Dahlia Lithwick, ‘“Bye-Bye, Normal Mommy”‘ on Slate; Christie Watson, ‘The Joy and Pain of Trans-Racial Adoption‘ on Literary Hub; Meagan O’Connell, ‘It’s My First Mother’s Day As a Mom. Now What?‘ in The Cut; Kate Spencer, ‘How I Finally Let Go Of Grief For My Dead Mom‘ on Buzzfeed; Domenica Ruta, ‘Can Having a Child Help Me Get Over My Abusive Mom?‘ in The Cut.

Danah Boyd, ‘I Miss Not Being Scared‘ on Medium; Melissa Duclos, ‘To the Doctor Who Reported Me to Child Protective Services‘ on The Offing; Christopher Frizzelle, ‘The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life‘ on Literary Hub; Lauren Laverne, ‘“Mum” as a diss‘ in The Pool.

And if you’d rather read a book instead, Literary Hub suggests, ‘Five Intense Books for Mother’s Day‘ and the Huffington Post recommends, ‘Mother’s Day Reads: Eight Great Mother Characters in Literature‘.

Photograph by Idil Sukan

In the UK, there was a general election. 3AM Magazine ran a whole series of reactions including, Lauren Elkin, ‘an open letter to mark-francis vandelli‘; Juliet Jacques, ‘london – 2015‘; Eley Williams, ‘rosette manufacture: a catalogue and spotters’ guide‘, and Rachel Genn, ‘you wouldn’t like me when i’m disappointed‘. Other reactions included: Laurie Penny, ‘Don’t give in: an angry population is hard to govern; a depressed population is easy‘ in the New Statesman; Joan Smith, ‘Almost a third of all MPs are now women – a milestone has been reached‘ in The Guardian; Janice Turner, ‘Why the north is in revolt against Labour‘ in The Times; Beluah Maud Devaney, ‘Unfriending Tories on Facebook Is Not the Answer‘ on the Huffington Post

And there were a few pieces written prior to the result that I still think are worth reading: Sam Baker, ‘When voting doesn’t make you feel good‘ in The Pool; Suzanne Moore, ‘By Friday we’ll be reduced to bystanders at a revoltingly macho political stare-off‘ in The Guardian; Concepta Cassar, ‘Food For Thought: Hazlitt, Malthus and the Tragedy of Food Banks‘ in Litro; Katy Guest, ‘Sandi Toksvig’s Women’s Equality Party is a movement for which time has come‘ in The Independent; Salena Godden, ‘Colour-blind: What colour are you?‘ on her blog, and Isabel Rogers’ poem ‘The truth about political correctness‘ on her blog.

I promised myself I wouldn’t mention it but there have been a few good pieces written about the birth of THAT baby: Sian Norris, ‘She’s not like other girls…‘ on Sian and Crooked Rib; Heather Havrilesky, ‘Royal Baby Girl Fated to Lead International Mob of Fake Princesses?‘ in The Cut, and Viv Groskop, ‘She’s a tiny baby, not a Kardashian‘ in The Pool.

Congratulations to Gill Lewis who won the Little Rebels children’s book award with Scarlet Ibis this week; to Emily St. John Mandel who won the Authur C Clarke award, and to Alice Notley who won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Foundation Prize. A gender balanced shortlist was announced for the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2015 and a female dominated one for the Branford Boase Award 2015. The ALS Longlist and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlists were also announced.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

Photograph by Cybele Knowles

The lists:

A Robot in the Garden – Deborah Install + Q&A

‘There’s a robot in the garden,’ my wife, Amy, informed me.

This, followed by some bickering between Amy and her husband, Ben – she’s left the gate open; he’s failing to maintain the house – is how A Robot in the Garden begins.

The robot’s four foot two tall, two feet wide, boxy, squat and shoddy. ‘…he looked like the very picture of a school project’. Ben’s sent out to talk to him.

I stopped a little way from him and paused. I was unsure how to begin a conversation with a robot. Though we’d never had one in the house while we were growing up, I’d known friends who did, and it was generally reckoned that they weren’t so bothered about greetings as long as they had a job to do. They were mostly domestic servants – shiny crome and white-plastic artists’ dummies who pottered round your house doing the vacuuming and making breakfast, and now and then maybe picking up your children from school. My sister had one and my wife wanted one, but I’d never seen the need with only the two of us in the house. Cheaper ones were available, too, which were not as shiny and had less functionality. These might only iron your shirts and take your recycling out. But I’d never seen one like this. Even the cheap robots weren’t this shabby.

The only information Ben manages to get from the robot is that his name is Tang and he seems to think it’s August. (It’s September.)

After a week of Tang sitting in the garden watching the horses in the next field, Amy decides she’s had enough. She wants an android, not a battered, broken robot. She also wants Ben to get a job and do more around the house. But not cook, she doesn’t like his cooking.

‘But I don’t understand why we need an android for the house. I could do all those other things.’
‘Yes, yes, you could. But you don’t do you?’
‘That’s not fair, Amy, I do stuff around the house.’
‘Like what?’
‘I take the bins out.’
‘You took the bins out two weeks ago.’
‘Yes, when the rubbish collection was due.’
‘Ben, the bins need taking out every few days.’
‘That’s ridiculous; they don’t fill up that quickly.’
‘That’s because I take them out!’
‘Do you?’

Ben sets about cleaning Tang and discovers a plate on his ‘undercarridge’ with some half legible words on it. Of course Amy catches Ben with his head ‘up a robot’s arse’, adding to the tension in the house. This only gets worse when Tang wakes them in the middle of the night repeatedly calling Ben’s name, then starts following first Ben and then Amy around.

Things come to a head after Ben overhears Amy on the phone to his sister/her best friend, Bryony:

‘And Ben’s talking about flying off to California to get it fixed. It’s a robot gap year, that’s what it is, but he’s thirty-four years old. He shouldn’t be backpacking, he should be getting a career and having a child, surely?’

This is the first Ben’s heard about Amy wanting a child. It’s not long before she’s leaving him, telling him she’s filing for divorce. Still grieving for his parents and now for his lost marriage, Ben decides he’s going to show Amy and his sister that he can do something; he’s going to California with Tang to get him fixed.

What follows is a hilarious road trip across three continents, taking in a robot sex motel, some of the world’s best robotics engineers, and a very dark story at the centre of it all.

Tang’s a great creation; he’s very child-like – some of his tantrums are hilarious (easy to say when you’re not the one dealing with them), and watching Ben learn to be responsible for another sentient being is an interesting experience (thank goodness it isn’t a child!).

The story of Ben and Amy’s divorce is another interesting strand to the novel. This – as well as the Ben/Tang story – could easily have descended into the overly sentimental but Install does a great job of veering away from this and from the predictable. Ben’s journey – both literal and metaphorical – is convincing and the end of the novel is all the more satisfying for feeling realistic.

I absolutely loved A Robot in the Garden. It’s good fun, it’s got a lot of heart but it also has some serious points to make about societal divisions and the way in which big corporations work. Oh, and try not to read the later chapters in public or you’ll end up crying in a coffee shop.

I’m delighted to welcome Deborah Install to the blog to answer some questions about Ben and Tang.

Where did the idea for Tang, Ben and Amy come from?

The idea for Tang came out of a conversation with my husband one night about the awfulness of newborn nappies. He said they had an ‘acrid tang’, and I said that sounded like a robot from East Asia, though I have no idea why! Overnight the idea played around in my head and by morning I knew the robot would be bashed up and neglected and on the run, with a best friend called Ben who himself had problems. Then Amy and the rest of Ben’s family presented themselves as something to provide antagonism, but always the hope of reconciliation.

Tang is quite childish at times (which is hilarious when you’re not the parent dealing with his behaviour); did you intend to make him child-like from the beginning of the writing process?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t think that’s what I intended, as such, it was just how he always seemed to me. Before having my own baby I had very little experience with small children, so I was in a sense writing these elements of Tang in a vacuum. I just had to go with my gut and hope these characteristics felt authentic to the reader. My son (a toddler) now demonstrates similar behaviour to Tang from time to time though, which is reassuring!

A Robot in the Garden seems to be set slightly in the future in a time when robots are commonplace in the home; how did you go about creating a world where this was believable?

When I try and explain Tang to people who haven’t read the book I say for Ben’s world it’s like the equivalent of him having an old mobile phone when everyone else around him has a smartphone. This only works for the look of the AI in the novel, however. I was determined that everything else in the world should be the same as it is now, or at least that any advances would be logical. I’m a big fan of technology and try to pay attention to where it seems to be going, so it was relatively easy to see where robotic engineering might be focussed. I also knew absolutely that I didn’t want the AI in the novel to be a warfare application – I wanted a more optimistic view, and one that is perhaps more accessible those outside the military.

For the darker elements of AI use in the novel I drew from interests I hold elsewhere. More below.

The search for Tang’s creator takes him and Ben around the world; what sort of research did you do for their journey?

For some sections I drew from my own experience – as part of my gap year after uni I travelled by grayhound around the US, for example. I have also been to Japan twice and absolutely adore it. So broadly speaking I relied on my own memory for these countries.

Where I had no direct experience I did a lot of online research – photos, google maps, streetview, that sort of thing. I also did journey planners and looked at timetables for feasibility. I even had a map of the world on the wall with a bit of cotton going from one stop to another, to make sure the journey made sense.

There are some dark elements to the story, including some class distinction between robots and androids; was addressing some of the more unpleasant things in our society part of your intention?

It more just fell out like that, I think, rather than a conscious decision. I have an interest in William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery, so it was probably natural that it should come out in the story. I also just feel I’d have been remiss to talk about the servitude of robots without asking ethical questions, even if that wasn’t the main point of the book.

The other dark elements are also taken from an interest in history and social justice, and since there are still inequalities in this world so I saw no reason why AI would not react the same way to difference as humans do, both in the positive and the negative.

As far as the Hotel California chapter is concerned, it seemed logical to me that it wouldn’t be long before AI found its way into the sex trade, although I confess I had intended for the episode to be more humorous than I think it has been received!

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

I’ve loved Margaret Atwood since I was a teenager – The Handmaid’s Tale taught me that science fiction need not be a) genre fiction and b) written by a man. I mean no disrespect at all to the genre, I spent much of my formative years reading it and it holds a firm place in my heart, but it does still seem to be considered unusual for a woman to write anything sciencey. It is often assumed that ARITG is a children’s book because I am a mother writing about a robot, and I have wondered whether the same would be said if I were a father instead. I digress.

Secondly I adore Jane Austen, because she is as good a teacher in writing observational comedy as I could ever hope for. And I love how she makes ordinary events extraordinary.

Thirdly I am utterly and completely inspired by JK Rowling, because as far as I am concerned she is the queen of character creation and I don’t know how she does it. I don’t think I could keep that many in my head at one time. I have also never been so haunted by a book as I was by The Casual Vacancy. Truly traumatised. She is also a favourite because of the effort she puts into giving extra to readers, and for the use she has made of her platform for charitable causes.

Thanks to Deborah for a great Q&A and for Transworld for the review copy of the book. This is part of the blog tour for A Robot in the Garden, details of the other blogs involved are below.