“Everything written by any woman was written by all women…”: Heather O’Neill, Scaachi Koul, and Erin Wunker

Notes From A Feminist Killjoy by Erin Wunker

I finished this excellent book a couple of months ago, and I still find myself looking at things differently than I did before reading it. I underlined so many parts that I’m surprised at myself for not writing about it yet. But when I saw that Notes From a Feminist Killjoy was nominated for the Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing and the Margaret andJohn Savage First Book Award at the Atlantic Book Awards this year, and the Evelyn Richardson Non-Fiction Award for the 2017 East Coast Literary Awards, I felt motivated to finally put my thoughts down.

Along with an Introduction and a Postscript, this short book of “notes” is divided into 3 sections: “Notes on Rape Culture”, “Notes on Friendship”, and “Notes on Feminist Mothering”. Erin Wunker puts herself out there as she uses her personal experiences to help talk through her thoughts on feminism.

Many of us already know that rape culture and patriarchy exist, but reading this book helped me to see it more clearly than I did before, and to pay more attention. It helped me to see why I should be paying more attention, and why I need to make more of an effort to actively be doing something about it. I want my daughters to live in a world where they can walk down the street at night without worrying. I want them to be able to assert themselves without feeling apologetic. I want them to be able to share their lives with a like-minded person who is an equal partner in every way. And I want my son to be one of those partners for someone else.

What I wish for my children, and children everywhere, couldn’t be said any better than the wish Erin Wunker has for her own baby…

May you be comfortable in your body and know it is yours. If your body doesn’t fit you, may we find ways to make it yours. May your body only know pleasure and empowerment. May we give you the language to say yes, to say no. May the world be gentle with you. May you not lose that unselfconscious you-ness we hear from your crib when you wake up, singing. May you know the fierceness of strong friendships with women. May you be kind. May you feel held. May you write your own stories.

 

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

This book is a collection of essays about Scaachi Koul‘s experiences, in which her culture and her family play a big part. Scaachi’s parents immigrated to Canada from India before she was born. In these personal, honest, and funny essays, we learn what it’s like for her as a first generation Canadian with brown skin and enormous amounts of hair all over her body. We learn what it’s like for her to travel to India and realize that she doesn’t fit in there any better than she does at home in Canada. We learn what it’s like for her to fall in love with the “wrong” man. And, even though one day we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter, right now we are here… and it matters.

By writing about her personal stories and experiences, Scaachi Koul covers topics such as fear and death, family and guilt, immigration, racial identity, “shadism”, cultural differences, inequality between the sexes, self esteem, rape culture, and making meaningful connections. Her essays are honest, insightful, moving, and entertaining. I laughed and I cried.

The immigrant experience…

Immigrant parents, when they first move to North America, push towards whiteness, towards assimilation, to survive and thrive. Naturally, their children do too for the first half of their lives. This usually tips the other way, but before we’re taught anything, we’re taught to hide.

Marginalization…

We are deeply afraid of making marginalized voices stronger, because we think it makes privileged ones that much weaker.

Rape culture…

Surveillance feeds into rape culture more than drinking ever could. It’s the part of male entitlement that makes them believe they’re owed something if they pay enough attention to you, monitor how you’re behaving to see if you seem loose and friendly enough to accommodate a conversation with a man you’ve never met. He’s not a rapist. No, he’s just offering to buy you a beer, and a shot, and a beer, and another beer, he just wants you to have a really good time. He wants you to lose the language of being able to consent. He’s drunk too, but of course, you’re not watching him like he’s watching you.

Moms…

I was still a teenager and prone to typical boundary-pushing. I lied about dates and friends and drinking. I smoked cigarettes and wore poorly-applied makeup. I was doing what you were supposed to do, and it was all okay because I was home with my mom. She yelled at me with unbelievable bluster, threatened to murder me in such a subtle fashion that “no one will know” or with such flair that “everyone will see”. She’d chase me around the house with a wooden spoon, threatening a whipping if I ran my mouth one more time. None of it led to much of anything. I was never in danger. Nothing bad can happen to you if you’re with your mom. Your mom can stop a bullet from lodging in your heart. She can prop you up when you can’t. Your mom is your blood and bone before your body even knows how to make any.

Best line: A place, any place, can be beautiful and perfect and damaged and dangerous at the same time.

Thank you to Random House Canada for sending me a review copy of the book by way of their Goodreads giveaway.

 

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

[May contain spoilers]

This book is making the rounds right now as it was longlisted for the 2017 Women’s Fiction Prize. And most of what I’ve been reading is high praise. But some people have found it too hard to read with all the child abuse, sex abuse, and substance abuse. And it is rather depressing because of all this. And to make it worse, it’s set during the Great Depression. But the story is told from enough of a dreamy kind of distance that these horrors didn’t completely crush me. It was the targeted emotional abuse of the children that got to me – the lies told to Pierrot by his abuser about how it was all his fault, the lies she told to both Pierrot and Rose with the aim of keeping them apart. And then later, it was the way in which Mr. McMahon planned on tearing the two apart once they had finally found each other. It might have been easier to take if he had just killed them both. But the way their story plays out is much more devastating than death.

I also found it painful to read about how the children in the orphanage were treated, and that the nuns running the place actually believed they were doing what was right and good for the children. The fact that Rose and Pierrot had each other is what saved them. And their love of performance. This part of their character made me think of the power of Anne Shirley’s imagination. It saved them from a dreary love-less, hopeless life.

This book probably isn’t for everyone, but I found myself being pulled in by O’Neill’s writing and ended up feeling very invested in the outcome of their story. This is no “happily-ever-after”, but the ending suits the story and is quite satisfying.

Besides being an unusual and harrowing love story, this book also brings up interesting questions about good and evil, love and hate, freedom and power. As much as love seems to conquer in this story, in the end it’s freedom and the desire for power over others that drives Rose. It made me wonder if it’s possible to have both?

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is full of performances, but the most magical part is that, despite the atmosphere of hate and shame that Rose and Pierrot come from, they both grow up to want to make other people happy.

“I can’t make myself happy. Nobody can really make themselves happy. But they can make other people happy.”

The views of the nuns….

In the wisdom of the nuns, the children were wicked just by virtue of existing.

If there was one thing responsible for ruining lives, it was love. They were in their pathetic circumstances because of that most unreliable of feelings.

Rose’s view of women…

It was important to be a little bit stupid as a woman. It was important not to feel proud of yourself. You were supposed to feel pride only when your husband did something. If you were talented, you ran the risk of making your husband feel bad about himself. So it was best to keep your talent in check. Or become talented at things that he didn’t like to do himself. So you could be his very adept assistant. But Rose couldn’t accept this.

Rose’s idea of love…

… like companions and not like competitors. I stopped worrying about things. It was like I was in a boat and the boat stopped rocking. He made me feel safe so I could have all these dangerous thoughts. I think that might be what love is.

McMahon’s idea of love…

He loved Rose so much, he needed her dead. It was the man’s right to kill the woman he loved.

Pierrot…

The world didn’t need Pierrot’s type of sadness now. No, the world was a violent place, and it was gripped by a madness that Pierrot had no way of expressing. He didn’t want to read the newspaper or listen to the radio anymore. He didn’t want to be a grown-up. There are some people who are just no good at it.

Best line: Everything written by any woman was written by all women, because they all benefited from it.

Heather O’Neill is also the author of Lullabies for Little Criminals (shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Women’s Fiction Prize, as well as a Canada Reads winner), The Girl Who was Saturday Night (shortlisted for the Giller Prize), and Daydreams of Angels (also shortlisted for the Giller Prize). So, what do you think – did I start with her best one?

Do any of these tempt you? What good books written by women have you read lately?

 

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23 thoughts on ““Everything written by any woman was written by all women…”: Heather O’Neill, Scaachi Koul, and Erin Wunker

  1. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel says:

    Great reviews. The lonely hearts hotel was on my TBR and then I decided not to read it since the abuse content might depress me. I like the second book. I have seen it before but I did not know these were essays in immigrant experience etc. sounds like a good read

    • Naomi says:

      I can see why some people might feel hesitant to pick up The Lonely Hearts Hotel. In one sense it is an easy read because the writing feels so smooth, but it’s hard to read about the abuse.
      I think you would like Scaachi Koul’s book!

  2. susanosborne55 says:

    What an interesting and complementary selection of books. I already have an eye out for the O’Neill and the Koul sounds fascinating. I’ve often thought that the second generation, caught between two cultures experience must be a very uncomfortable one.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s always eye-opening to read about the feeling of in between-ness that immigrant families often have. And she’s so good at explaining it in an entertaining way – some of her observations of both Canada and India are laugh-out-loud funny.

  3. drlauratisdall says:

    These all sound so interesting! I read O’Neill’s debut Lullabies for Little Criminals (also dealing with disturbing issues of child abuse etc.) a long time ago and was impressed by how she managed to avoid sensationalising the topic.

  4. Brian says:

    Thanks for the great reviews. What an interesting combination of books. I’ve ordered O’Neill’s as I enjoyed her previous work.

    • Naomi says:

      I was originally just trying to play catch-up with my reviews, but then noticed that they kind of had a nice theme going on!
      Which of O’Neill’s books have you read?

    • Naomi says:

      It’s very good! And I have read more depressing books. Since it’s from the library, maybe you could read the first couple of chapters before you decide. I think I was hooked after the first couple of pages!

  5. annelogan17 says:

    that first book has an amazing title. I’m getting more and more interested in ‘feminist’ works, especially now that i have a daughter 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Both are great! And also the kind of book that you can read snatches of in between other books.
      There were so many thought-provoking passages in Erin Wunker’s book…

  6. The Cue Card says:

    Yes I plan to eventually read Heather O’Neill’s new novel. Have you read her others? I liked The Girl Who Was Saturday Night which my book club read a couple years ago. It’s good! but it also contains some crushing poverty & hard times. If you say this novel despite all its abuse didn’t crush you, than I will get it too. I agree that O’Neill’s writing is uplifting (or fanciful?) in a way that make her stories totally worth it. She seems to appear all over Canada, ha.

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t read any of her others, but I own Lullabies for Little Criminals, so that one’s probably next on my list. I’m glad to hear you liked The Girl Who Was Saturday Night!

      • buriedinprint says:

        I think you will just love Baby in LfLC. It really seems like your kind of story (and I loved it too)!

  7. DoingDewey says:

    The last book sounds too dark for me, but the first two sound fantastic! I’m particularly enjoying books that clearly articulate feminist ideas now because I think it’s more important than ever to be able to defend women’s rights articulately in the current political climate.

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