By now it’s obvious that 2016 ‘totally sucked’. Right?
The affront to consciousness that is the Trump presidency immediately springs to mind, but there were plenty of contenders for low-point of the year. Britain’s racist smoke-bomb out of the EU, for instance. The Pulse nightclub massacre, one of the worst ever hate crimes against LGBTI people in history. The fall of Aleppo, in which thousands were captured and killed while the then President Elect had a go at Anna Wintour on Twitter. No one can deny it was an awful year in global terms.
I love a good 2016 meme as much as the next person, but just for a second, I want to question if last year really was the anomalous fuck-up it’s purported to be. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in Australian politics, 2016 was a year of fairly routine cruelty. It was a year of escalating abuses towards asylum-seekers, Indigenous people, and the poor, punctuated by real shocks which were all but dismissed by large sections of the media and the political class.
Asylum-seekers self-immolated and Peter Dutton told activists to stop giving them such silly ideas. Sickening footage revealed abuse at Don Dale detention centre, and the investigation of the death of Ms Dhu made it clear, once more, that our justice system is set up to treat Indigenous people like human garbage. Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico, but we’ve been slowly stacking the bricks up on our own racist fortress for years. Now it’s pretty much business as usual.
So, life goes on. Personally, I had a pretty rocky year too. I started a Master of Fine Arts, then changed my mind and started working full time. In the middle, I was barely employed, thoroughly depressed, and my hobbies mainly comprised listening to podcasts and crying in the bath. I also re-discovered the pleasure of reading. When you’re doing it right, reading feels private and world-opening. And that’s a pretty good feeling to have, especially when you are hanging out full time on unemployed self-aware feminist island, population: 1. So I wanted to share my top ten(ish) recommended reads and listens from 2016. You might like them too.
Chances are, if I’ve seen you in the last 5 months, I have told you how obsessed I am with Naomi Klein’s writing. If not: hello, sorry I forgot to tell you, Naomi Klein is my idol. Klein’s worldview is unapologetic, incisive and totally spot on. She rigorously attacks neoliberal ideology, and she doesn’t buy into the colour-blind and often outright racist free-market promises of the right and the new left. Both The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything are terrifying but you feel so angry the whole time that you can get through it.
Though her research is meticulous and her scientific knowledge impressive, for me the most compelling writing in This Changes Everything is where Klein uses her own experiences with IVF and miscarriage (she experienced several during the writing of the book) to illustrate the how the 'extractivist' mentality abuses people and the planet. Where doctors would tell her to ‘push back’ and force a pregnancy her body was clearly rejecting, she decided instead to listen to her instincts. And she draws the same simple analogy to action on climate. She asks: doesn’t it feel like the planet is asking us to stop pushing it to the edge? And she asks it in an extremely bold and intelligent way, mapping out a socially-just plan for saving our arses and our children’s arses from climate Armageddon.
I know these books are bricks but I am telling you to get in the bath and give it a good solid crack because the payoff is worth it.
Think about every woman you’ve heard about in the news who has come forward with an allegation of sexual harassment or assault. Or women 'outed' for dating married or older men. Or women who have the misfortune to make a man look bad or even criminal in some way, usually by saying they were raped when they obviously weren’t. You know how you rarely hear from them after they are shamed in the media? Read The Natural Way of Things.
Then read Fight Like a Girl, Clementine Ford’s memoir/manifesto. Aside from being a fizzing, raging down-to-earth feminist polemic, it’s just damn good writing that makes you go ‘yes!’ a lot. Ford is hilarious, doesn’t mince words, and is full of anger and life. Her passion is infectious and she is the foremost voice in contemporary Australian feminism. I’d even go so far as to say she’s the foremost voice in contemporary Australia, full stop, given how prolific she is. This should be a set text in schools.
3. The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir rocked my world. Her experiences growing up in suburban Sydney amid casual and not-so-casual racism are tremendously affecting. Her writing is lyrical and beautiful, drawing a blistering portrait of suburban life in the 90s.
Being a beneficiary of Australia’s culture of white supremacy myself, it was a revelation to see the world through Maxine’s eyes. It made me think about the injustices my non-Anglo friends at school must have experienced, often silently, and about how different our schooling experience must have been. From the stares of people on the street, to the singsong curiosity of teachers interested in her cultural difference, to the amount of snarling racist bullying she experienced by peers and adults, there are so many facets to this story, which is also one filled with adolescent self-consciousness and bravado. I love what Clarke does with language and storytelling to talk about the fact of racism, riven as it is throughout Australian society and her own life. Her writing gave me frequent liquid shivers of recognition, and surprise.
I discovered Simone Weil during my (now abandoned) Masters research. Weil was a French mystical philosopher, one of Simone de Beauviour’s rivals at the Sorbonne. While Simone de B was sharing black turtlenecks with Sartre, Simone W went to work in automotive factories so that she could understand the experiences of the working class. She needed to experience things in her body: the exhaustion of physical labour, the single-mindedness needed to complete repetitive tasks, in order to write her philosophy.
I didn’t read the whole of Gravity and Grace, her opus, but the bit that left a mark on me is about ‘attention and will’. She talks about the transformative power of attending to things: to tasks, to people. If we take proper time to think about things and to attend to the specific actions they demand from us, then we will find the right solutions. I know this sounds a bit like a line from Affirmation by Savage Garden, but I really love this idea and I think about it all the time in plenty of different situations. Because most of the threats we face as humans and as individuals are attempts to divert our attention from the things that we know really matter. I don’t know about you, but thanks to my iPhone I am mostly unable to focus my attention at all and it seriously scares me.
I also loved Playing and Reality by DW Winnicott, a psychoanalyst and child psychologist. He has an incredibly intimate conception of what play is, and how children think and learn. It’s a beautiful, sensitive clinical book that touches on how art of all kinds can be an imaginative, attention-full space. I loved the two ideas together, and I recommend reading them as companion pieces even though that might be wrong according to actual philosophers.
5. Not by Accident (podcast)
I started listening to Not By Accident in an effort to try and consume more Australian and less American audio content. And when I heard it, I realised what was missing from all of the expensively-produced NPR and Slate podcasts I’m addicted to: vulnerability.
Not by Accident is a personal documentary by Sophie Harper, all about her decision to become a single mother on purpose, through artificial insemination. It’s a pregnancy story like I’ve never heard before, as Harper recalls her decision and her sometimes fraught experience, half-narrating to her daughter. What do you tell your new boss, for instance, when you don’t have a partner and have become pregnant entirely of your own volition? And how do you even do such a thing alone, not because you split from a partner, but because it just felt right to do the whole thing by yourself?
Harper’s story is told with honesty, depth and humour, and great production values (she is also a filmmaker) including audio recordings of phone calls and interviews with key people. It is breathtakingly intimate, and feels like a friend trusting you with their own secret history. I extended my walk home on several occasions just to keep listening.
6. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Another major shock to my system (in a good way) was The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. It’s a kind of memoir, but one shot through with literary and theoretical observations, clever stabs at philosophers that are revered without good cause, and other gemlike bits studded throughout. The whole piece culminates with the birth of Nelson’s son, and her partner’s gender transition, and later being a mother and how that changes things. Nelson’s writing is so spiky and sure-footed, and I really responded to the strength she invests in the personal, and the domestic (I was going to write 'mundane'- that's patriarchy). I definitely had some sort of awakening reading this book but I don’t know quite what it is or how to explain it yet.
7. Revisionist History (podcast)
This podcast is so good, I could listen to it instead of eating food and probably be completely fine. It just feels so nutritious.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s journalist Malcolm Gladwell re-considering conventional understandings of various historical phenomena. The premise is quite simple, but the implications are massive. Sandwiched somewhere in the middle is a mini-series on the inequities in the American college system that is totally engrossing. These are stories that are at first look small and isolated, but Gladwell shows them to reveal massive rifts in narratives that shape policy, identity and culture. Even that idea is itself revelatory.
8. Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit put this up for free download after Putin made Donald Trump president, and I’m so glad she did. It’s a slim book that came out in 2004, about the history of activism, and the wellsprings of hope and action that have made incremental, but powerful impacts. Solnit argues that while we might long for big revolutions, it’s actually little acts of resistance and protest, in the most hostile circumstances, that make the greatest differences. Like everything Solnit writes, Hope in the Dark made me feel like my brain was being stretched by poetry, big ideas and new information, and I emerged feeling energised.
9. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
You know how water is a good drink? Between the World and Me is a good book in exactly the same way. It slips beyond the category of good and into essential: a missing part found.
10. The Nauru Files
This is not a book and I didn’t read all of the more than 2,000 leaked documents when they were published by the Guardian mid-last year. But I did read enough of the documents (which were also read aloud in various protests around the world), to glean something of what life is like for the people detained indefinitely under inhuman conditions in our names. Even through the stilted officialease of incident reports, these documents are soaked with despair. Reading them marked all of the other reading I did in 2016, and since.