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Authors steer boys from toxic masculinity with gentler heroes

Children’s writer Ben Brooks is on a mission to redefine masculinity for young boys. “I want to help boys become better, happier men and open up a debate about what we think of as masculinity. I want to question the idea that it’s weak to be emotionally open, to demonstrate that it’s fine for men to be vulnerable and kind, and to recognise the courage it takes to be different.”

Young adult fiction author Brendan Kiely is on a similar quest. “A definition of masculinity that emerges from a culture which silences, shames and gaslights women is dangerous – it harms women and robs boys of the potential to be better human beings. Seeing Trump in all his ugliness has acted like a wake-up call to male authors. We need to teach boys that they do not need to perform outdated gender norms to look like men.”

Hey Dad, I’ve been writing you letters but am now posting them to a mailbox. I took a trip to Australia last year…

It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout. The point of using Lorem Ipsum is that it has a more-or-less normal distribution of letters, as opposed to using ‘Content here, content here’, making it look like readable English. Many desktop publishing packages and web page editors now use Lorem Ipsum as their default model text, and a search for ‘lorem ipsum’ will uncover many web sites still in their infancy. Various versions have evolved over the years, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose (injected humour and the like).

Dear Julia, twenty five years ago I moved to Germany and never came back. I am reaching out after all these years because…

It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout. The point of using Lorem Ipsum is that it has a more-or-less normal distribution of letters, as opposed to using ‘Content here, content here’, making it look like readable English. Many desktop publishing packages and web page editors now use Lorem Ipsum as their default model text, and a search for ‘lorem ipsum’ will uncover many web sites still in their infancy. Various versions have evolved over the years, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose (injected humour and the like).

Dear Dave, I’m finally writing after all this time because you might not ever read this letter. After…

It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout. The point of using Lorem Ipsum is that it has a more-or-less normal distribution of letters, as opposed to using ‘Content here, content here’, making it look like readable English. Many desktop publishing packages and web page editors now use Lorem Ipsum as their default model text, and a search for ‘lorem ipsum’ will uncover many web sites still in their infancy. Various versions have evolved over the years, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose (injected humour and the like).

A Talk with Jesse Jarnow, Author of Wasn’t That a Time

Why are the Weavers still important in 2018?

The Weavers were pretty much the first band to successfully channel politically radical ideas into mainstream music and actually score some hits doing so, and—as my book argues—legitimately changed the world in the process. They’re not exactly a blueprint, since new bands probably wouldn’t want to also go through the experience of being destroyed by the right-wing media in active collaboration with the United States government and major media networks—but it’s certainly topical!

The Weavers sound so innocent. They’re just a singing group. Why would they be investigated by the United States government?

Yeah, there’s certainly been an escalation in affects since the 1950s, but listen closely and you can hear the revolutionary undertones in the Weavers. For example, seek out a recording of them doing the Spanish Civil War song “Venga Jaleo” led by Ronnie Gilbert’s absolutely electrifying voice. Translated, part of the lyrics read “clap out the rhythm, dream of a machine gun.” The title song of this book, “Wasn’t That a Time,” was very much about the climate following Henry Wallace’s defeat in the 1948 Presidential election, connecting Communists jailed under unconstitutional Smith Act charges to the brave Americans of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The song resulted in all four Weavers being served subpoenas by the House Un-American Committee over the course of their career, and three of them being called to testify.

So, were the Weavers actually Communists?

Sure, but so were many young progressive-minded people in the years surrounding World War II. “Communism” only became demonized in the years after Republicans took control of the White House and Congress in 1948, using it as a slur to describe the previous sixteen years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and bowdlerized further when people like Joseph McCarthy began creating made-up connections between the utopian American Communist Party and international espionage by the Russian government. As Lee Hays was fond of pointing out, right-wingers should hold Franklin Roosevelt as a hero. After all, when the Depression ravaged America, he saved capitalism.

Who else did the Weavers influence besides protest musicians?

First, I think calling anything “protest music” devalues it almost immediately. The Weavers grew out of the collective People’s Songs that Pete Seeger ran, and their goal was to perform organizing music, to bring people together, charge their energies, and provide a collective base to get together and work around causes. Weavers concerts broke down barriers in some ways. To members of the Grateful Dead, they were the first place where music turned from a performance into something participatory. David Crosby told me that, despite his own left-wing political leanings, his love of the Weavers was purely musical. Al Jardine of the Beach Boys told me that the Weavers were pretty much a cautionary tale about what not to do, and has used them as a way to keep politics out of the Beach Boys.

What do you love about the Weavers?

All of the above! I love their work towards radical musical inclusion, I love their harmonies, I love their song choices, I love their personalities, I love their politics, I love their optimism, I love their belief that they could change the world, I love that they did, I loved the way they remained collaborative as a band (even at their most unharmonious), I love singing along to their songs, I love Lee Hays’s deeply learned surrealist humor which comes across as incredibly human despite the band’s frequent cheesiness, I love Pete Seeger’s utter earnestness, I love Ronnie Gilbert’s absolute coolness, I love the way they began conversations about folk music that remain contentious in the 21st century, I love their songs, I love the way their story improbably resonates now in 2018.

What blew your mind the most when you were researching the book?

Yeesh, so many things. I’m a total sucker for archives, and especially ones that nobody’s really gone through or made an attempt to organize in an instantly searchable way, where I don’t really know what to expect—and putting this book together was just one of those after another. I had moments like that with all four Weavers—going through Ronnie Gilbert’s meticulously saved boxes of correspondence, Lee Hays’s papers scanned by the Smithsonian, Pete Seeger’s jumble of an FBI file, and some never-read early journals and other early writings by Fred Hellerman. I got to see Fred and Ronnie’s LSD therapy files, too, which was insanely personal.

Maybe the most mind-blowing thing happened near the end, when I located a very rare unreleased recording of a teenage Jerry Garcia singing the title song of my book, “Wasn’t That a Time.” It was extraordinary in several ways, not the least of which is that I’m an enormous Dead freak, but then speaking with his girlfriend of the time and learning how important the band was in Garcia and his songwriting partner Robert Hunter’s conception of the world. Explains a lot to me!

Literary Wonderlands: The World of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

“God is a National Resource” in this remarkably powerful, feminist dystopian novel about a repressive American theocratic dictatorship.

In 1984, when Margaret Atwood began writing her dystopia set in a near-futureAmerica, she made the decision not to include technology that was not already available, nor anything human beings had not already done in some other time or place, so she could not be accused of, as she put it, “misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior.”

The transformation of the U.S. into a theocratic dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead has been brought about by true believers, religious fanatics driven by a determination to establish God’s kingdom on Earth, much as the Puritan settlers (who included some of Atwood’s ancestors) were determined to do in seventeenth-century New England.

Prior to the beginning of the novel, fundamentalist Christian extremists assassinated the president and Congress, pinning the blame on Islamic terrorists and allowing their army to declare a state of emergency, in which the Constitution is “temporarily” suspended, news is censored, identity cards issued, and, with the new religious rulers in place, new rules imposed. Overnight, women lose the right to have jobs, or bank accounts, or to do anything except submit to the will of their husbands. And all are subject to the rule of the Commanders of the Faith, who claim biblical authority for every act, having abolished any distinction between church and state.

The narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale is a young woman known only as Offred—“Of Fred”—designated as the legal concubine of a high-ranking Commander whose first name is Fred. Only a few years before, she had a name and a job, a husband and a child, friends, and freedoms she took for granted. But the family left it too late to cross into Canada with fake passports, and now her husband is either dead or in detention, her daughter adopted by a childless couple. The only thing keeping Offred from being shipped off to perform slave labor in “the Colonies” is the possibility she might bear a baby for the Commander and his wife. For another major element driving this bleak vision of the future is that from a multitude of causes—including radiation, pollution, and untreated STDs—there has been a steep drop in human fertility, so women of child-bearing age and proven fertility are very valuable.

The biblical book of Genesis includes the story of Jacob, who married two sisters, Rachel and Leah. When Rachel produced no children, she told Jacob to impregnate her maid, Bilhah: “and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” Thus, under a regime that fears and mistrusts all science, preferring to find the answer to every problem through selective reading of an ancient book, the solution to childlessness, at least in the upper ranks, is to establish Rachel and Leah Centers for the indoctrination of “handmaids” to be assigned to the households of all childless Commanders. (Naturally, the centers are not named after the handmaidens who had Jacob’s children, but after his wives.)

In Gilead, society is rigidly hierarchical and divided by gender: Commanders of the Faith at the top; below them the Eyes (secret police), then Angels (soldiers), Guardians (low-level police duties), all male civilians, and all women. Women have no power of their own, and are valued only as wives and the producers of babies. Some unmarried women are assigned other roles by the state—the “Aunts” who indoctrinate and control those who have been selected as potential surrogate mothers and “Marthas” who work as cooks and cleaners. A few women survive by practicing the oldest profession—a brothel known as Jezebel’s is permitted to thrive, and the men in power take liberties forbidden to others.

If a handmaid fails to conceive after three different postings she is declared an “Unwoman” and sent off to “the Colonies.” This is a euphemism for forced labor camps, where lives are brutal and short. Women likewise become “unwomen” if they refuse to submit, or the men in power have no more use for them.

Women are not the only victims of this repressive, rigidly stratified, coercively heterosexual, white dictatorship. Enemies of the state regularly tortured and then executed include Catholic priests, Quakers, doctors (if they ever performed an abortion, prescribed contraception, or are accused of having done so), and “gender traitors.” African-Americans, called “Children of Ham,” have been resettled in distant, underpopulated areas such as North Dakota, now designated a “National Homeland,” and Jews were given a choice between conversion and emigration to Israel.

Offred’s life as a handmaid is relatively easy, but deeply boring. Most of her time is spent waiting. The occasions when the Commander must attempt to impregnate her are as de-sexualized as intercourse can possibly be (“This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty.”) and she wonders if it is worse for his wife, or for her. Her room is as bare as a prison cell, almost everything we would take for granted is classed as a luxury (hand cream) or a sin (reading). She is marked out by her red robes, as the wives are by their blue ones and the Marthas in green. Her daily walk is taken with another handmaid, and they are expected to police each other: If one tries to escape or does anything wrong, the other will be punished, too.

No one is allowed to suggest that a man could be sterile—infertility is always the woman’s fault. But of course it is known, and the Commander’s wife is desperate enough for a baby to arrange for Offred to spend time alone with Nick, their handsome young chauffeur. Their intimacy, after so much deprivation and misery, is almost enough to reconcile her to her situation. How little it takes, to make someone stop resisting. How easy it is to be distracted.

Although every aspect of this society is supposedly justified by the Word of God, as presented in the Bible, only the Commanders are allowed to read it, and they use it selectively, to say the least. A famous line from Karl Marx, changed to include the expected relationship between women and men, is attributed to St. Paul when repeated to the handmaids-in-training: “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.”

The city where Offred serves is never named, but it is evidently Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University. The university where Margaret Atwood once studied has become the seat of oppression, a detention center, and the site of mass executions. Atwood has said that one of the elements that inspired her to write The Handmaid’s Tale was a fascination with how dictatorships work (“not unusual in a person born in 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II”). She explained: “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. The deep foundation of the U.S.—so went my thinking—was not the comparatively recent eighteenth-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of seventeenth-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”

 

  • First published by McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
  • Margaret Atwood dedicated the book to Mary Webster and Perry Miller. Mary Webster, believed by Atwood to have been one of her ancestors, was hanged as a witch in Puritan New England, but survived.
  • A 2015 Public Policy Polling (PPP) national survey conducted on U.S. Republican voters found that fifty-seven percent wanted to establish Christianity as the official national religion, and only thirty percent were opposed to the idea, which is specifically prohibited by the Constitution.

 

An excerpt about The Handmaid’s Tale from Literary Wonderlands: A Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, general editor Laura Miller.  Copyright © Elwin Street Productions Limited 2016.  First Published in North America November 2016 by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, an imprint of Running Press, a division of Hachette Book Group. Used with permission.  All rights reserved.