Archives for the month of: October, 2014

My favourite character in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was Zora. She reminded me very strongly of myself in a variety of ways, a chubby, intellectual girl who was persistent, ambitious, and unafraid of talking frankly and using her talent for finesse to get what she wanted from professors, which ends up making her the closest thing to a hero that the novel has in the end. Her biggest flaw is, according to the narrative, her lack of real commitment to the causes she lobbies for, which is supposedly superficial, but I saw it more as a common trait of intelligent nineteen year olds still trying to figure out their identity and what matters to them. Instead of taking it out by playing devil’s advocate with other people’s beliefs, Zora throws herself into causes and works hard on giving them the best of her brain and labour.

But what was most interesting to me about Zora was how her relationship with her parents played out. The majority of Zora’s parental interactions, and what ends up being the fulcrum of the novel’s denouement, were with her white, British father. I never got a sense in the novel that Zora was as invested in her relationship with her black, American mother as she was with her father. She engages with her mother, but those interactions didn’t seem to matter as much to her. Her father is clearly someone she admires and wishes to emulate.

This resonated with me strongly, because I felt the same way about how my relationship with my parents played out. My Canadian, white, Jewish father, even though he died when I was 13, was always the parent I sought to model myself after, and whom I ended up being most alike in terms of ambition, life goals, humour, and personality. My Blackfoot, American mother, on the other hand, is someone with whom I have a strained, chilly, and superficial relationship. My mother is still alive, I still talk to her (about once a month now) and I strictly limit the topics to shallow niceties, because that is all that I can really discuss with her without upsetting or confusing her. My queerness, my chosen career in academia, my love life, my political activism, my social life, are all beyond her understanding. This has sometimes caused me internal anguish, at being a mixed-race child and preferring my white parent, and being in a sphere of academia where there are few people who look like me, understand my cultural dynamics, and can appreciate how it shaped my perspectives.

But that is why Zora is so important to me. Even though she is younger than me, she doesn’t have much existential anguish about clearly preferring her father and wishing to emulate him. Now and then in the novel, the legitimacy of her and her siblings’ blackness will get called into question, but she does a considerably more graceful job of navigating that than either of her brothers, and aside from moments of great upset and hurt, such as when her heart is broken, any identity angst or guilt she may be feeling is far below the surface of what the reader is allowed to see, and she seems to have dealt with whatever there was of it by the conclusion.

It is interesting to note how both herself and her younger brother Levi are both positioned at times as though they are engaging in a performance, Zora when she is around other academics who are older and more experienced than her, Levi  when he wishes to find solace in a community of primarily Haitian boys who come from a very different part of Boston than the white suburban neighborhood he calls home. But Zora’s is shown as having a chance to grow into herself, rather than having the performance limit her or be kept to a mask she dons when she’s around academics. And I do say so for myself, young mixed race aspiring academics do grow, do change, and do get a chance to get more comfortable, once they stop trying to find meaning to be delivered to them from others. Zora will definitely handle that transformation and personal growth quite well.


While searching for grad school advisers, I came across a really interesting researcher from UBC whose work includes “research in Siberia around the history and experience of residential schooling among indigenous Siberian Evenki.” My eyes nearly popped out of my head at that. Residential schools for Indigenous peoples is, of course, a subject I’m already deeply familiar with. Details are still being released over Canada’s own residential schools for Indigenous children, the most horrifying being the exact number of deaths, the sexual abuse, the “nutritional experiments”, and in one case, an electric chair being used on students. There is great literature on the history of Indian Boarding Schools in the United States and its impact on American Indian communities in its creation of multigenerational trauma.

I’m going to pick up this book, but before I even open it, it’s already proved useful. The very existence of residential schools during the Soviet period (according to the snippet of the book from Google) is proof enough to debunk three common myths I’ve encountered about Russia/The Soviet Union in the past year. The myths are:

1.) There was no colonialism in the Soviet Union, and, from that stretch, what is happening right now in Ukraine cannot be analyzed through a postcolonial lens

2.) Russian news media and Russian political powers (Russia Today for example) are a good ally for Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world to rely on for accurate, fair, and solidarity-minded coverage without an agenda

3.) Russia cares about Indigenous peoples and their well-being and survival and it is therefore in the interest of all Indigenous peoples worldwide that they supplant the United States as the global superpower

Happy reading to me!

What do 9/11 truthers, ebola conspiracy theorists, and “aliens built pyramids” types all have in common?

They’re all trapped by the illusion that non-Westerners are agency-lacking puppets whose only movements, decisions, and tragedies can be calculated and executed by mysterious all-powerful omnipresent white (or extraterrestrial) forces. Their conspiracy theories reveal their lack of respect for the intelligence, free-will, and humanity of black and brown people, because they believe that there is no way they could have played a part in shaping their own destinies.

“I am Envy, begotten of a chimney sweeper and an oyster-wife. I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burnt.”

The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus

I’m generally not a big fan of performing armchair analysis or making assumptions about other people’s mental states. But I’m willing to make exceptions for some people who wholeheartedly deserve that, and among them is Andrea Dworkin, the infamous anti-pornography, anti-sex work, and anti-funfems radical feminist and author, mostly known nowadays for two things: being willing to collaborate with right-wing conservative governments and organizations in order to make sure trans women and sex workers and porn stars had their lives made more dangerous and miserable, and being the living embodiment of the ugly, hairy, man-hating, frizzy-haired, overweight feminist scold that carries on to this day.

Dworkin came to my mind because I stumbled on a quote by someone, looked up the author, and discovered that the source of it was her life partner, who was a gay man and a radical feminist/anti-pornography crusader right alongside her back in the day. I started thinking about what might inspire Dworkin down a life path where it was clear that her basic incentive was nothing more than puerile and unfettered misogyny. All of her work, all of her actions as an “activist”, all of her speeches and books, were clearly built on a foundation of hatred of women, and a resentment of her own womanhood.

Then I remembered the quote from Doctor Faustus above. It’s the monologue of one of the Seven Deadly Sins, Envy. As he makes his way across the stage, he expresses, in the most concise way possible, what separates envy from simple jealousy: “I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burnt.” The envious don’t simply covet what they do not have, they make it their task to destroy either what they covet, who possesses it, or both.

Dworkin was envious of the power and social capital that she would never possess, as a woman under patriarchy. Dworkin didn’t direct this rage too much at the men who held this power, since she was willing to collaborate with them in order to “abolish” pornography or deny trans women their healthcare. Instead, she projected that power onto other women, as a casualty of her own deep misogyny, and took it out full force on women whom she wrongly perceived as having power: Women in sex work, and trans women, and, to a lesser extent, any woman who didn’t slavishly conform to her ideals of being liberated or working towards liberation from the patriarchy.

And that ends my dabble in psychoanalyzing dead radical feminists and the roots of their vicious misogyny. Maybe if Andrea Dworkin, among other radical feminists, had had a chance to talk out her rage, her envy, and her neuroses with someone who could assist her in working through them, we might have a very different history of Second Wave Feminism to look back upon.

When I was in grade 7, I got it in my head that I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what kind, I just knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was in grade 7 (or age 12 if you’re not sure what that means) what “being a writer” meant to me five things:

1.) Wearing really beautiful clothes, including a sash around your waist, a skirt that was just high enough on your legs, a scarf, an oversize pair of glasses, and a perfectly darling hat

2.) Going to conferences and book signings, with a Mont Blanc pen, ready to autograph, armed with a fresh tube of lipstick so I could kiss the autographs for that special extra touch

3.) Drinking lots of coffee, lots of wine, and lots of a peculiar beverage that was bright traffic light green and gave off strange dreamy swirls like a witch’s potion (later I found out that this was, in fact, absinthe)

4.) Having extravagant parties where you listened to jazzy old records, made recordings of your guests improvising their own fairy tales and ghost stories, and then mixing it up with torrid love affairs held in closets while everyone else danced

5.) Writing, on occasion, penning a masterpiece when it came to you

That year, after a long struggle with cancer, my father died, and my vivid imagination evaporated. I lost all interest in the wonderful world of writing that I’d imagined. I felt like there was no point to writing, at all, because the depression over my father’s death had robbed me of the ability to easily churn out stories, poems, and essays. My grade seven writing teacher noticed, and gave me a somewhat silly but memorable piece of advice at my protestations that I’d write “when the ideas came to me”. “Leah Jane,” she said, looking as sternly as a kindly old hippie sailor cum teacher could manage, “saying ‘you’ll write when the ideas come to you’ is like saying ‘when Nolan Ryan throws the right pitch, I’ll hit home runs for the Yankees’. It doesn’t work that way. You have to write, every day, no matter how you feel or what ideas you have. That’s how you make the ideas come to you.”

I’m not even a baseball fan, but the simile must have worked, because I can still remember it, a dozen years later.And it became relevant to my life again because of my relationship to writing as a form of healing trauma, which started after my father died and continues as I try to work through the manifold traumas that have shaped and impacted my life, and my relationship to the literary world. I’m meeting one of my favourite authors, Thomas King, next week, and one of the themes in his literary work is his use of humour through writing as a trauma healing force. Reading his work, in particular, The Truth About Stories, helped me create new ways of imagining writing, not as an escape into a glamorous fantasy world, but a means of grounding myself.

Grade seven me would probably be disappointed at the lack of parties with absinthe and scandal that have made up my life in writing, but I’m satisfied with how it’s developing.

Today in class, my professor, who is the head of my department and a 20+ year teaching veteran, someone I greatly respect, was writing on the board, explaining a particular concept of research ethics to us. She then paused, nervously looked at her writing on the board, and then inquired to the class: “Someone at University 101 (something my university puts on) told me not to use columns when writing on the board, because it denotes hierarchy. Does anybody here have a problem with me doing that, or should I stick to this style?”

We all tittered and agreed as a class that it was absurd and stupid, and the relief on my professor’s face was absolutely palatable. My professor, mind you, is not a hard-hearted woman who doesn’t accommodate students’ needs. She gives me an extension whenever I’m having a bad autistic/brain fog day without question, keeps touch with students and alumni whom she bonded with, has won several awards for her excellent teaching, and uses the correct pronouns for her trans and genderqueer students with no questions asked or hesitations. This is not a question of a professor being insensitive, it’s a matter of a sensitive, articulate, brilliant teacher having her intelligence insulted by suggesting that she was oppressing her students by writing a certain way on the board.

If this is what I have to look forward to in academia, I best ready myself for a shower of well-intentioned crap from a particularly unusual social-justice minded set of bureaucrats.  I’m nowhere near as wonderful or patient a person as my dear professor.

“Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.” – Agent Dale Cooper, Twin Peaks

The best advice on self-care and mental health was the above quote, from TV’s Twin Peaks, a teen favourite of mine that’s being revived 25 years later. I’ve been re-watching the show recently with a friend who had never seen it before and was interested in it, and this particular quote from one of the episodes stood out to me, in my recent quest to improve my mental health and better manage my life.

So, for the past week, I’ve been doing as Agent Cooper suggested, and giving myself a present. Not planning it, just letting it happen. At first, I had a lot of anxiety about how I would manage that, because I have in the past struggled with my impulse control and was worried that I would go overboard, but the key was “a present”, not “presents”.

So, so far, here’s what my presents to myself for the first week have looked like. Keeping track of them helps me not only appreciate them more and keep up the practice, but also ensure that I don’t give in to poor impulse control.

Last week Monday: A package of comb honey from the Middle Eastern grocery store

Last week Tuesday: A bottle of port

Last week Wednesday: A trip to the bookstore (didn’t buy anything, being there was enough)

Last Week Thursday: Steak for dinner

Last week Friday: A nice long session alone with my vibrator

Last week Saturday: A new diary (You didn’t know I kept a diary, did you, world? Well, cat’s out of the bag now!)

Sunday: Making my favourite dish for dinner

Monday: Truffle oil french fries

Today: Well, I can’t plan it, can I? But this damn fine cup of coffee sure is a nice start.

Call me a sucker, but I love films that tell success stories about immigrants. Hoping that this would fit that bill, went and saw “Doctor Cabbie”, which was summed up as “a story about a doctor from India who is not allowed to practice medicine in Canada, who becomes a cabbie and a local hero when he serves patients in the back of his taxi”.

I went in expecting something similar to a Shyam Selvadurai novel, it was more like a Big Bang Theory episode, minus the laugh track. Instead of portraying immigrant life and the challenges and triumphs involved with it, I was treated to two-hours of overdone slapstick, misogyny dressed up as comedy. It wasn’t just that the film failed my expectations, it’s that it was a grotesque and just a terrible movie all around. I’m baffled that it broke Canadian box office records for Canadian-made films. It was the first time I’d ever left a movie theatre feeling like I needed a shower.

I could dedicate paragraphs to its many flaws, but I’ll stick to the two that were the most blatant: Namely, the lack of character development and the foul misogyny and racism coating the entire film. You wouldn’t think that a film that had an Indian protagonist could be so absurdly racist, but it manages to take that and run with it. The protagonist, Dr. Deepak Chopra (no relation to the public speaker and author beloved by Oprah and company) is the only male character of colour who can be described as a decent human being. The rest of them, such as his best friend Tony and his uncle, fulfill every Western stereotype of Indian men as perverted, slimy creeps who slobber over white women. There’s also a notable dearth of female characters of colour who have any significance to the plot. The only two of real note to the plot are Deepak’s mother, who doesn’t seem to have a life or a purpose outside of either uplifting or nagging her son, and an immigrant woman who attempts suicide after her parents discover she is pregnant with her white boyfriend’s child. Otherwise, apart from a taxi driver who barely gets any dialogue, a border guard who gets mocked for being Chinese by the mother, and an East Asian masseuse who asks “Happy ending?” to a white man, the cast of women is dominated by two white women, who fare no better with sexist characterization, but get more screentime than all of the woman of colour characters put together. The main character himself doesn’t have any notable characteristics. He spends the film mostly being benign and good, and doesn’t change from beginning to end through any of the trials of immigration, being unable to practice medicine, driving a cab, being arrested, and finding friendship and love and fame. He is unmovable. Basically, he’s boring.

The villains fare no better. They’re cartoonish caricatures of what racist rich white men look like in Canada: manipulative, sexist, and making cheap jokes about curry and rickshaws. The problem is, most racists aren’t buffoonish types who have no redeeming values. They’re perfectly ordinary Canadians who have unexamined attitudes about immigrants that translate into casual or malicious behaviour. Making the avatar of racism and misogyny in the film a caricature is a cheap attempt to move the audience away from the racist and sexist jokes they’re supposed to be laughing along to in the script.

I’m used to dealing with racism, misogyny, and other such nonsense. It’s Hollywood’s bread and butter. But normally, it isn’t this over-the-top and paired with a plot and characterization that insults my intelligence.

Now, I need to go take a shower to wash the memory of this movie off of me. Since it”s getting rave reviews, I hope that my review at least, might dissuade you from wasting money to go see it.

The most valuable skill that I have learned in my four years now of being heavily involved in social justice work and advocacy is a mental sifting technique. What used to be a general feeling of unease about a person can now be articulated as a warning sign that this is not a person with whom I’d want to work.

Oftentimes, the warning is that this person doesn’t actually have an interest in making the world a better place, bringing about positive change, or influencing people towards a more inclusive, compassionate, worldly viewpoint. Instead, their primary interest in being involved in advocacy is to find and colonize a social space where they will be given carte blanche to be rude, self-centred, obnoxious, and in some cases, outright bullying to other people involved in the organization, with the hope that their behaviour will go unchallenged because they happen to come from a marginalized identity.

It’s tragic how common these types are, but at least now, I have the tools to recognize them early before they inflict any damage on me or compromise my work.

Everyone in my social circle is outraged and shocked that the United Nations is apparently hosting a feminism conference… for men only.

But I’ll be honest: If you have a long memory and have been paying attention to trends in feminism in the past few years, this probably shouldn’t be surprising to you.It’s simply the natural consequence of what was popular in feminist academic/blogging circles a couple years ago, when Hugo Whatshisname and “masculinism” and blogs like “No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz?” were a popular item, and people became overly interested in this idea of “healing” or “redeeming” masculinity in some holistic pipe dream of feminism for men. The bubble burst rapid-fire when Hugo had a meltdown and the blogs quickly dribbled into silence once it became clear they really didn’t have much to do other than some intense masculinist navel-gazing and identity anguish, and these ideas went out of fashion very quickly in feminist academia. But some of the gunk stuck to the walls of Feminist Academia, as evidenced by the continued fetishization of bystander intervention, men’s groups, and perpetrator therapy, to throw around some of the fancy programs I’ve seen promoted by my own university to talk about men and feminism.

And now it’s trickled down, a long while in Internet Years (which are even more numerous than dog years) to institutions like the United Nations which aren’t exactly bastions of original, creative thought on any issues. Leah Predicts: In 2019, expect to see the United Nations holding conferences and lectures on the topics that are popular in the feminist discourse of today, such as Beyoncé’s new album and questions of gender and citizenship.