ruth will always be my jane

it’s international women’s day, and i’m not that big on hashtags (despite sporadic participation), but i’m all about opportunities to share asian-american and [east] asian books-in-translation (i admit/acknowledge that my geographic focus is narrow).  here are ten books by international women i love.

  1. banana yoshimoto, lizard (washington square press, 1995)
  2. marilynne robinson, lila (FSG, 2014)
  3. krys lee, drifting house (viking, 2012)
  4. ruth ozeki, a tale for the time being (penguin, 2013)
  5. mary shelly, frankenstein (penguin clothbound classics, 2013)
  6. han kang, human acts (portobello books, 2016)
  7. helen macdonald, h is for hawk (grove press, 2015)
  8. charlotte brontë, jane eyre (penguin clothbound classics, 2009)
  9. jang eun-jin, no one writes back (dalkey archive press, 2013)
  10. shin kyung-sook, i’ll be right there (other press, 2014)

also, one of my favorite book quotes comes from yoshimoto’s “helix,” a story which can be found in her collection, lizard:

“even when i have crushes on other men, i always see you in the curve of their eyebrows.”  (64)

happy international reading!

the funny thing is that I don’t personally think trigger warnings per se would be that helpful to me! as most of these theorists have taken from the writings of actual survivors and people with ptsd and then recontextualized to harm those people pointed out, triggers can’t be mapped in any clean way. I always tell the story about how in the Ruth Wilson Jane Eyre I watched in a feminist theory class Mr. Rochester says something that was exactly what I had heard, you know, in a terrible situation, and I freaked out and spilled my coffee in the middle of the room. that is how it works! you can’t trigger warn for those things! how could you know? that’s the argument they want to pretend that they are making: how could I know that you’re triggered into panic and flashback when you hear a certain song or see an image of hipbones or whatever thing it is? triggers are, according to them, completely random. how could they know?

except they know because people are telling them and they are still refusing. and anyway, obviously, “triggered by Mr. Rochester” and “triggered by sexual violence that statistically a huge portion of your students experienced” are discernibly different categories which is what they are obscuring. they should know that a lot of people are triggered by rape scenes because they are grownups and they are getting paid so they should probably try harder. most universities, especially large public ones, will have at least a vaguely adequate sexual assault resource contact that can go over the basics with them, 1 in 4 or whatever. the least they could do.

but I mean, keep unpacking it: are these really all just scenarios where something “controversial” would be offhandedly mentioned in an assigned reading in a class already established to have controversial content? (a course about sexual violence. a course about the holocaust. a class in a women’s studies course identified on the syllabus as being about rape culture.) because I think that’s misdirection, don’t you?

what are we really looking at? probably fucking being asked to watch last house on the left in a semiotics class or some stupid shit. there is theorizing of trauma, there is teaching the practice of responding to trauma, there is literature (fictional or otherwise) that describes rape, there are testimonies of violence, there are documentaries of various orientations, and there are art films, and commercial films, and texts produced for market profit literally in all kinds of situations of actual violence, rape, and exploitation. my point: it’s pretty undisciplined for professors, producers in and of the academy, to act like they are not operating within those systems and have no obligation–not just ethically but, like, in terms of being a good scholar–to debrief, frame the source, and be real about parameters. (but if they did that, they would be exposed as Consumers, god forbid.)

I have had professors use something like trigger warnings! I took a class on childhood in film and we watched clips from a lot of difficult stuff, of course. Hard Candy, Hound Dog. and she would say, “this is what goes on in this scene” which, like, you should be framing your lessons anyway, right?

my chicano history professor worked on research about lynchings of mexican-americans in the nineteenth century and we read some pieces about this and when he introduced them he said something like, “there are some graphic descriptions in here” and then also said a few things about how important it was for him to talk about violence as violence in a class like that.

they were basically just…reasonably good instructors and scholars and not interested in being exploitative if they didn’t have to be. I mean, I also had a (white, unsurprisingly) professor of modern Mexican history show us color photos of Mexican victims of rape or decapitation in border towns, just, like, photos of their bodies, without warning or any sort of reasonable context, as powerpoint graphics. I hope that illustration brings out what I’m trying to say here about good teaching and exploitation and how it’s not just a matter of a good non-exploitative teacher just not using exclusive “politically correct” lingo as much as it is about some professors pretty obviously not caring that they make their money reproducing harm. (no, I don’t mean “harm” in the affect theorist way when I am talking about a white professor researching the drug wars without caring if he upsets his Mexican students. I mean, you know, “exploitation” and “oppression” and in this case “white supremacy.”)

I will restate the most obvious: people don’t request trigger warnings because they want to silence discussion of rape, they request trigger warnings so that they can discuss rape. “hey, we’re gonna talk about rape,” ok cool, let me prepare or whatever. people who are survivors of rape very very often want to talk about rape. people who might be triggered by discussions of child sexual assault very often take social work and women’s studies classes, or whatever, because they want to, because they want to participate, they want to help and they want to talk about it and, yes, believe it or not, think about it, theorize it, deconstruct their assumptions about it.

what we’re looking at is students who identify as survivors of trauma (etc.) organizing to make it easy for professors to accommodate the learning–yes, learning!–needs of a big portion of the student body. (and, I should say, they are often the same students organizing for more effective response to and prevention of on-campus rape, which is kind of a big deal nationwide and I think some of these professors should maybe be paying more attention to their campus politics or whatever.)

these theorists are literally only mad because they’re being asked to do something they didn’t think of doing first, because they really really don’t want to give up authorial curricular authority, because they’re mad that their position in (to steal Pritch’s phrasing) the neoliberal university is being exposed for what it is, and maybe most of all because if they can use Social Media to Take A Stand against the Reactionary Institution they can maybe try to obscure this structure of domination a little more and also feed their ‘68 complex.

and the funny thing is I’m not even mad about this because I require trigger warnings, necessarily. (I put myself into triggering situations all the time, a bit of a glutton for panic.) I’m mad about it because I’m not a stupid asshat and also, let me say this as many ways as I can think to say it, I am concerned more than anything about “accessibility” as a thing that operates on all kind of axes and should be prioritized if the institution wants to “reform” or “become better” or just even begin to pretend that it’s not a shithole industrial complex that should probably be looted.