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Anna Hill

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock book review

Author:
mermaid mrs hancock

By Anna Hill

Content Note: sex work, sexual violence (in the novel, not in this review), racism

(just a note that I’m white and not a sex worker)

I first came across The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock when I watched a video with the author, Imogen Hermes Gowar, giving a tour and talking about sex work and Georgian London with booktuber ReadingBukowski [content warning for sexual violence and sex work in the video]. I was immediately really interested in checking out the novel on top of the personal buzzword in the name for me – mermaids! When the novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize For Fiction I decided to listen to the audio book, because it is one of the longest books on the list!

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a historical fiction novel set in the 1780s about a merchant called Jonah Hancock and a courtesan named Angelica Neal and how their lives intermix when the body of a mermaid is swapped for one of Mr Hancock’s ships.

Brimming with detail and interesting descriptions, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is also as far as I can tell a nuanced exploration of sex work. Rather than the many other representations of sex work (which are generally very negative), Gowar has created a novel that depicts the positives and negatives of the profession.

Angelica Neal talks of her love of her job – how “it appeals to her character in a great host of ways: she likes to live closely with other women and share her secrets with them; she likes to sing and drink and dance; she likes to be cosseted; she likes to be looked at […] she likes to be pursued, but she does not feel she is ever captured, for it is only by her own decision that they lay hands on her”.

Whilst I was expecting more focus on the mermaid, that’s not my only criticism of the novel, I also had some issues with the way the plot moved, the first volume was, overall, too thick and too heavy with description and then the second volume felt untethered to any surprising turns – I guessed all of the major plot points throughout, and the third picked up the pace in a way that was so at odds with the rest of the novel it really didn’t work, jarring us further out of the story. As such if I wasn’t listening to the audiobook I wouldn’t have finished the novel.

Although the writing and the complicated character development and exploration was thorough and in some parts beautiful, I find myself frustrated and somewhat confused with the representation of specific characters – namely the two black characters in the novel, Simeon and Polly Campbell. Other reviews have noted the lack of time these characters and their subplot get, as well as their lesser amount of development.

I would also say that the language that Gowar, a white author, used in describing these characters was uncomfortable; and although in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Gowar is clearly critiquing a sexist and tokenising approach to women and their bodies – paralleling them with the figure of the mermaid – she ends up treating Polly Campbell like a mermaid herself. Described as “a woman entirely out of the common water”, she slips in and out of the story only when needed, trapped in her own subplot that only extends as far as the second volume, quickly dropped when she isn’t deemed interesting anymore.

Sections of the novel showcase a nebulous sea-voice, meant to be a mermaid, and these are the parts of the novel that worked the best for me. They were lyrical and softer, more interesting and dynamic than the rest of the work which was so clearly researched that it made the authorship shine through. Unlike the mermaid’s perspective sections, the rest of the novel suffers rather than enlivens because of the research – the intensity of the detail and the facts shatter the fiction of the book – the specific language and contexts are almost too specific tripping the reader up, forcing us to think about the act of researching the book rather than simply allowing us to enjoy the world ourselves.

I went into this book really wanting to like it, from the beautiful cover to the potential for mermaids; but it ultimately disappointed me, with too many characters, too obvious plot points, it’s spurious representation of a side character and its hyper-detailed set up. Even the beautiful language couldn’t save it.

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy – a review

Author:
when i hit you

By Anna Hill

Content warnings: domestic and sexual violence

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy is the first book I’ve read from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year (you can see the whole longlist and the newly released shortlist here), and it has certainly set a high standard.

I’ve never read anything from Kandasamy before but after reading this I will be picking up her other works. I originally heard about When I Hit You when it was being talked about last year with its full title When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. I was really drawn to it because women, writing, and survival all interest me. The book has a pretty simple plot; it’s about a young wife leaving her marriage with an abusive leftist man. As a survivor of sexual violence I always struggle to figure out if I want to read things that I know will contain some traumatic experiences similar to my own because I’m searching for other ways to explore, survive, and escape from my own life, or out of a place of self destruction – out of an impulse to consume media that I know will be triggering for me. But the way this novel sets itself up – saying from the beginning that the unnamed main character gets out of her marriage – allowed me to read, and even enjoy, the narrative, and to find a kind of sisterhood within the pages, despite our very different experiences.

The reading experience, far from triggering me, was actually surprising, at points funny, and ultimately hopeful. The tone of the novel was something I was absolutely not expecting: it’s this clear-sighted voice, which at times is poetic and at others has a kind of astute dry humour. In part it was the tone of this novel that allowed me to read it, and to read it as fast as I did. There are these accurate, painfully funny moments scattered throughout the entire novel. The opening can provide some kind of glimpse into the irreverence of the narrator and the way she creates in-jokes between her and the reader; when talking about how her mother retells her escape she notes that, “this is how my story of Young Woman as a Runaway Daughter became, in effect, the great battle of My Mother versus the Head Lice”.

As the subtitle would suggest, this book is not just one about domestic violence, it’s also about the act of writing itself and the way that fiction and stories can help you escape. The narrator thinks during an episode of violence from her husband that “I just have to wait for this to end and I can write again”. The instruments of fiction allow an escape from the abuse which is such a relatable impulse, and a really interesting one. Kandasamy is so eloquent about the way that writing your own story and crafting a narrative is an empowering and sometimes life-saving tool, with the young wife talking about her impulse to survive as her “restless urge to tell a story”. This desperate wish propels her out of the pain, and offers her a balm. When she is writing a poem about the situation she says “the poem is the healing, I tell him. It’s by writing this that I can get over it.”

Another aspect of the book that I wasn’t expecting was the way it ruthlessly presents men on the left’s deep misogyny and “distilled hypocrisy”. The abusive husband at one point writes a poem which articulates the horrendous and almost laughable approach to violence against women that they have:

When I hit you,

Comrade Lenin weeps.”

Like so many Leftist men he uses left ideologies as “a cover for his own sadism” – always presuming his own integrity is superior, his own violence is called for – “in this marriage in which I’m beaten, he is the poet”. Later on, the novel covers the difficulty in calling out abusive political men and how consistently people ask you to find kind things to say about abusers. When I Hit You exposes some of the ways that the left wing specifically (but also people in general) facilitate and allow domestic and sexual violence against women – and how it refuses to genuinely listen to women alongside feminist critique.

The novel intensely and clearly debunks myths about victim blaming throughout; why and how women stay in abusive relationships, who is vulnerable to abuse, and even how abuse is underplayed and how the outside world (and language itself) refuses to intervene. In my paperback copy of When I Hit You, one of the reviews of the novel is included at the back, and I’d like to end my review by sharing some of it. The review is formatted as a list of people who should read the book and this is part of number three:

Women who have escaped or those who need to know they have a right to”

This is such a kind book to us. Kandasamy’s affectionate concern for her fellow survivors triumphs over any editorial demands of explicit sensationalism. Trigger warnings are folded in gently at the beginning; I was married to a rapist, he beat me, I left and am living still. This is not the kind of binary story that says the only acceptable survival is escape or death – every tiny rebellion, every pragmatic compromise is documented, meticulously, as the victory it is. Kandasamy understands that winning sometimes looks like just coping.

(emphasis mine)                          

In case you do want to read this and you’re a survivor, as this review and the quoted one covers there’s obviously a general warning for the whole book of domestic violence. More specifically (in the paperback version) there is a mention of sexual violence against the narrator as a child on page 60 and intense description of rape from page 163 in depth for about 20 pages. Please do take care and remember that you don’t have to finish the book if you can’t!

Naming myself witch

Author:
moons

By Anna Hill

As a kid I desperately wanted to be a witch. Now I’m grown up (kinda…) and I am one! I was always fascinated by the idea of witchcraft, but it was only in January 2017 that I really decided to dedicate time to witchcraft and develop my own practice. I think my first witch was The Worst Witch, and then the next were from Harry Potter. I vaguely remember that when I was five I wore a beautiful black and gold velvet dress to be Hermione Granger to go and see the first film in the cinema. I was so proud to be dressed as such a powerful magical girl. I’ve come a long way since then, in terms of perspective, age, understanding, dress sense and more. Despite this, that core spark that draws me to witchcraft stays the same: femme power.

Before I talk more about my witch identity I just want to be clear – being a witch is not the same thing as being a wiccan. Of course, you can be a wiccan witch, but you could also be a Jewish Witch, or a witch of any other faith (or no faith). Secondly, there are many ways to be a witch, many different paths to choose (or not choose) from. Examples of these might be an Eclectic Witch, or a Kitchen Witch, or a Solitary Witch (here’s a video about 13 types (although there are many more!)). Lastly, you don’t need anything to be/come a witch – if you want to be or decide you are a witch, then that is what you are! You don’t need to spend money on anything (unless you really want to, of course)!!

Dodie Bellamy once wrote that “the monstrous and the formless have as much right as anybody else,” and this quote – I think – speaks to the core of how I make magic and how I make sure to centre my rage, ugliness, and wildness in my craft. I feel very lucky to be able to share my energies within a coven, although not all witches do practice in groups. My coven is a space of care and sharing, where we practice collective self-care and validate the shit out of each other – both in terms of our traumas and our victories. The solidarity and inspiration I feel from practicing with such a lovely group of strong, interesting and open people helps me survive under the oppressive hellscape we live in.

Being a witch to me is also about seeing and stoking my own inner power and using it to make the world better and to heal/endure my sometimes sad, always queer life (and yes, I do believe cursing people is a valid way to engage with magic). Naming myself as witch is a way to mark out that I should be feared because I am vengeful and emotional, I am fluid and free.

Witchcraft, and specifically the eclectic type of witchcraft I practice, is also very accessible to me as a disabled person. I am in control of what I do and can adapt or create spells and rituals that need only small amounts of energy or that don’t require me to stand up for long periods of time. Being a witch whilst you’re sick is also a way to contribute to the revolution(s) even if you can’t leave your house, or even your bed.

To me, being a witch is about making sense of myself; using magical tools to understand myself and find wisdom. Through tarot, for example, I can figure out potential ways to change my behaviour or perspective on topics or my future/past/present. Naming myself as Witch is also an invitation to look closer at the world, and noticing is a kind of worship. “Looking closer” includes re-examining my identities, holding myself accountable, working towards self acceptance – and maybe even self love.

Being a witch allows me to trust in something or somethings, whether that’s my own inner power, the moon’s protection, the earth, my coven, or even the stars. I’m a Capricorn, so I feel connected (and often disconnected) to the Earth. I’m also invested in a kind of activism that centres our roots; the lineages of survival of mad and queer people. Naming myself as witch is a way to resist dominant toxic ideologies and instead focus on the “smaller” things, on the histories and people who are erased and hurt, and to lift them and myself up.

Being a witch is fun! The joy I take in my practice is radical too; it keeps me alive, it keeps me connected, it gives me a vocabulary and even a culture that helps me enjoy life and my friends. The art of my witch identity is inspiring – I make zines and watch art that is about, or is, actual witchcraft and it’s fun and exciting and close to me. Naming myself as witch is a way to see the beauty in the world and the beauty in being alive and present.

With all that being said, it can be overwhelming to know where to start with your own craft so I have compiled some resources that I hope will be helpful to you!

Cool resources/people to follow and check out

For those interested in activism and witchcraft

the yerbamala collective

This is an incredible anonymous collective who create and share words and poetry and artwork that is about countering fascism (focused in the US). They release these incredible and powerful spell books and encourage other witches to make their own as forms of antifascism!!

YOUWILLNOTWIN is my favourite spell book, but they are all incredible! You can see links to all the documents here.

W.I.T.C.H

I’ve written about W.I.T.C.H before, but it is basically an international witch group, with anonymous branches in various places, fighting against oppression of all kinds. On the starter groups website (W.I.T.C.H. PDX)  it says this: “A single witch is a dangerous outlier. A coven is a force to be reckoned with. An international circle of witches is unstoppable.” For more inspiration and witchy activist art check our their winter 2017 zine here!

For those interested in tarot

Little Red Tarot

This is the best tarot resource I’ve found online so far!! Not only does the blog try to centre marginalised, and especially queer, voices, Little Red Tarot is a cute shop based in the UK (really helpful if you are looking to buy some independent tarot decks but you can’t afford shipping from the US). There are some regular columnists on Little Red Tarot and my two favourites are called See the Cripple Dance by Maranda Elizabeth (about disability and tarot, generally) and Heathen’s Journey by Abbie Plouff (about Runes).

Other specific folks to check out:

Asali Earthwork

Maranda Elizabeth – especially their zines Telegram #36 and Telegram #38.

I really like this tumblr although it hasn’t been updated in a little while!

For those interested in astrology/horoscopes

Chani Nicholas writes amazing horoscopes and I personally love Mask Magazine’s monthly poetic and radical horoscopes written by Corina Dross!

General people to follow/information

To ensure your witch practice isn’t culturally insensitive or appropriative I would recommend firstly doing your own research and also checking out this zine as a starting point!

Haylin’s beautiful and gentle witchy newsletter is a must read – it often focuses on the moon cycles and rituals of self care.

The Hoodwitch, or Bri, has a great website

Two Witchblrs (witch tumblrs) to check out: Wishful Witchy and The Witchy Stuff.

PBG’s Top Queer/Feminist books 2017

Author:
1 we are never meeting in real life the militant baker samantha irby jes baker

By Anna Hill

Do you like feminist and queer books? I’ve read some really incredible stuff this year – some are just new to me in 2017 and some were published in 2017!

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samanth Irby

I read this at the very beginning of the summer and it was so enjoyable, incredibly funny and heart warming. It had me crying and laughing regularly. I also loved the honesty with which Samantha Irby talked about her life as a marginalised person – the book is a collection of personal essays basically talking informally about Irby’s life as a queer poor fat black woman and about life (lessons) in general. Some of it was so relatable! Some of it was a little heartbreaking and tender in this very self-depreciating voice.

Irby is so so funny and I would 100% recommend this to everyone but especially people who enjoy reading memoirs by women. There is some cissexism, especially in the first chapter and ableist slurs used throughout as well as some depictions of abuse, vomiting and drug/alcohol use.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

This is such an incredible book!! It’s a mix of memoir and queer theory and it focuses a lot on pregnancy and motherhood. Nelson’s style is really poetic and the work she does in making space for motherhood to realise its queer potential is really beautiful, and I personally found it pretty accessible.

Her work comes down to a discussion about caring, how we care, who cares for us – that’s something we all need to consider within our lives. Never to undermine or erase carers or care work but also to see the radical potential mothering has. I really think all feminists should read this and also all queer theorists – most of whom love to misogynistically disregard mothers as heteronormative and disregard people with wombs as irrelevant to true queer futures!! Which they aren’t!!

Sea-witch Volume 1 and Volume 2 by Never Angel North

Sea-Witch Volume 1: May She Lay us Waste is an experimental trans-memoir graphic novel about love, community, girl-ness and pain. It speaks to the experience of Sara and the time she spent living inside a witch god named Sea-Witch. It’s also about family and Sea-Witch’s community of sisters and the 78 Men Who Cause Pain (78MWCP) via making laws and being cops and fighting against so called monsters like Sea-Witch. The story is told through scribbles and sigils, words, quotes, drawings and photographs.

Sea-Witch Volume 2: Girldirt Angelfog is just as weird, interesting and beautiful as the first one! Both are so expansive and monstrous, creative and painful, confusing and challenging. The second volume continues Sara’s journey but linear narratives aren’t particularly important to Never Angel North, who is such a fearless breathless author.

These books are for all the freaks who love mythology and all the sapphic witches and lovers of the sea. Its for all the people invested in caring for one another and in creating and sharing hope even in the face of holding pain.

I was lucky enough to read the second volume via pdf because I support Never on patreon, I would just say its difficult to content warn for this series because it so tumultuous and open but there is definite discussion about trauma and pain laced throughout both volumes. I’m so excited for the third volume to come out in 2018!!!

Small Beauty by Jia Qing Wilson-Yang

Small Beauty is a short but poignant and affecting novel about grief, processing and ghosts. The book tells the soft and introspective story of Mei, a mixed race trans girl, whilst she is mourning and evolving, unearthing the lives and deaths of some of her relatives. Its also about this deep love and community, about support and identity, rage and, yes, sorrow too. The writing is subtle and quiet and lyrical – I marked so many of its pages because I found it so beautiful.

The novel is an own voices story and it consistently refuses to cater to cisgender people, Mei isn’t forced into narratives that eroticise or fetishise or simplify what being trans is like and Mei and all the other characters, including a transphobic dyke, are treated with forgiveness and represented with nuance. It’s a book for folks who are growing but not grown and for those who are new to adulthood. Content warnings for grief and death as well as a depiction of a transmisogynistic physical assault on pages 66-67.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

This year I became invested and interested in care and mothering in a way I never was before and as such I couldn’t resist listening (via audiobook) to this novel about a woman named Yejide and her husband, Akin, trying to get pregnant and have a family together.

This was on the shortlist for the baileys women prize for fiction and that’s how I became aware of it, and I’m glad I did! It’s a very readable book chronicling tragedies and peaks in Yejide’s attempts to create a family and its complex representations of the behaviours and wishes of people are interesting and emotional. The prose is animated and so is the dialogue – it’s a very enthralling if sorrowful read. 

Power And Magic : The Queer Witch Comic Anthology edited by Joamette Gil

I loved this comic anthology so much!! All the comics are centered around queer witches, were made by women, demigirls and bigender writers and illustrators of colour. The 15 different comics all vary in tone and size. Some are adorable and sweet and others are sad but powerful or healing and kind, they cover themes of love, community, family and recovery.

My favourites were Your Heart Is An Apple by Nivedita Sekar which was a fairytale inspired love story including an ex-mermaid who was now a cane user and a girl with an apple for a heart. I cried at its utter loveliness. I also really enjoyed As The Roots Undo by Joamette Gil, especially the line “They called her witch. I called her moon.” And lastly the tender and gorgeous Songbird for a vulture by Naomi Franquiz. There are content warnings for each story on the contents page.

Here’s to a 2018 filled with beautiful, educational and healing reading!! If you want to diversify your reading in the new year you could continue looking for suggestions via this list of books to be published in 2018 by women of colour!

Happy Playland webseries review

Author:
happy playland

By Anna Hill

Do you like musicals? And stories that centre women loving women? Then oh boy is this the webseries for you!! Made by the incredible Candle Wasters who have also made great and queer inclusive adaptations of the Shakespeare plays A Midsummer Nights Dream, as BRIGHT SUMMER NIGHT, Much Ado About Nothing as Nothing Much To Do and Love’s Labour Lost as Lovely Little Losers. Their latest creation is the brightest and most charming of them all!

Happy Playland is the story of 3 people (Billie, Cris & Zara) who work at a children’s play gym – one of those ones you might have played in as a child; with a ball pit and obstacle courses and climbing nets. The story is told in multiple ways – from social networks outside of youtube (namely Cris’ Instagram) as well as within the episodes themselves. Sometimes we glimpse Billie’s internal monologue, or her dream. In another episode Cris is on skype but she’s present within the shot and it works really well – Cris even has a whole song in another episode where she orchestrates some romantic entanglements and narrates them, dancing the whole time. The webseries also shows a really sensitive and accurate representation of what anxiety looks like for some people, which was a bittersweet surprise!

For someone who is interested in arts I found a lot that reflected my experience in terms of chasing my own dreams. I am currently part of an art collective, so when Billie says her parents said that “anything with the word collective in it wasn’t a real job” it hit pretty close to home! How do you “follow your dreams” without losing people you love? And the discussion of success and anxiety was really pertinent too – the idea that you have to “be successful to make it worth it” has made me consider how I approach my own artistic success (whatever that means!).

The characters are so enjoyable to watch and the dialogue is funny and relatable. Zara and Billie are a lot more fleshed out than Cris but in some ways that’s refreshing because Cris is the token straight character in the series. She’s helpful in furthering the development of the two queer women together and is also some comedic relief – mimicking the way that queer characters are often used (and dehumanised!) in mainstream plots.

The aesthetics of the show are super fun! A riot of colours! With each character loosely wearing one of the primary colours (so Billie is yellow, Zara is red and Cris is blue), the clothing and colours make the whole show even more alive and vibrant (plus I have fringe envy over Billie’s cool punk pink/black hair).

The music in the show is melodic and varied and there are some really intense moments that show how talented everyone involved is! The harmonies are really great and the lyrics are generally painfully relatable and/or funny. You can listen to the music here. My favourite songs I think are I’ll Be Here and For Once and also maybe Stop and Think!! (this is hard, they are all so good and fun)

One of my favourite lines comes from Zara: “she talks in all lowercase letters, do you know how sexy that is? that’s like the modern day equivalent of Marilyn Monroe breathing too much when she talks”. This show was probably made for me – a lowercase writer, a queer femme musical lover; its so incredibly awkward and enjoyable (I think lots of us will have felt like the “stakes are too high forgotten how to flirt”). The bittersweetness of the way it represents relationships is what has brought me back to it to watch over and over again.

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