The past is a foreign country: people read different things there.
While currently surrounded by books of a feminist nature, I would revisit from time to time my old books from salad days, and think about how much (or little) I’ve matured in my reading taste. As a teenager approaching early adulthood, I had an affinity to books that tackled love and sexuality in the most unconventional way possible. Some were written (drawn?) in the manga format in all its seamless exuberance, some were quirky classics, and others half-forgotten naughty oddities. You could say that I embraced prurience if it was of the literary kind, snobbish even. But like I said, this was only in the past…
The height of my manga-reading days were spent poring over Kayoko Shigeta’s worryingly haphazard romantic quest in Moyocco Anno’s Happy Mania (1996-2001, 11 volumes). Kayoko: young, thin, and blonde-haired, would do anything in her search for true love – even fucking her workmate’s fiance, and sharing with another a woman a man who refuses to commit. While she comes across as completely self-absorbed and desperate right from the first page of volume one, she’s still a likeable and funny character with nuggets like “What constitutes a girlfriend anyway? Is it someone you have sex with? Or someone who cooks you dinner?” (Volume 1, pg 139).
Though re-reading that today is not quite as epiphanic as when I was at the cusp of learning about what relationships were all about. I know more or less what the answer to that is by now, thanks to a strange phenomenon called “growing up”.
Shojo has a kind of subgenre that might encounter the disapproval of many a parent here in the UK: the gender-bending love story for tweens. Princess Prince (1994) by Tomoko Taniguchi has a plot that could give Twelve Night a good run for its money. To legitimise a fantastic plot, it starts off with a mentally unstable king who decides to raise one of his twin sons as a girl after meeting an angel-prophetess. The “princess” grows up to be quite gender-confused and falls for a lady in waiting. Awkwardness and slapstick comedy ensue.
For a taste of melodrama, which I have a soft spot for, there’s the filler ‘The Tale of the Castle of Tears’. Although it’s got the ingredients of a good fairy tale: young love and marriage, a jealous baddie with magical powers, and a (quasi) happy ending, it’s the unusual subject matter of immortality and reincarnation in ‘Castle of Tears’ that I find more interesting as far as children’s books are concerned.
Speaking of immortality and reincarnation, Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf is one of those books that I’ve had on my bookshelf for years but not entirely sure if I’ve ever finished reading. Perhaps all attempts to finish it were aborted after watching the film adaptation (starring the fab Tilda Swinton as the title character). Orlando is written in Woolf’s characteristic stream-of-consciousness style but is more accessible than her other works. It tells the story of a man who, after deciding to never grow old magically wakes up to find himself a woman and lives for centuries in different personas but retaining the same intellect and personality throughout the process. I learned years later that Woolf wanted to establish a new genre that combined the conventions of fiction and non-fiction life writing (hence the alternative title, Orlando: A Biography). Which in the case of this novel served as a ploy to deflect the public’s attention from the controversy that surrounded her intimate relationship with Vita Sackville-West whom the book is written about and dedicated to.
I picked up Erica Jong’s Fanny (1980) from a pile of unwanted second-hand books in my uncle’s living room long, long ago. Jong, of the “zipless fuck” fame wrote Fanny in the style of 18th century prose. But that does not obscure from contemporary readers the juiciness of her protagonist’s adventures. A writer, explorer, pirate, and mother at different points of her life, Fanny is one of my favourite heroines. Only Fanny can seduce Alexander Pope with her witty charm and turn the gay love interest Lancelot straight – a sex bomb and a woman of substance indeed.
My first ever feminist science fiction novel? Beauty (1992) by Sheri S. Tepper. I remember buying it because I thought the whole time-travelling from the medieval past to distant future thing really cool, not because I thought it was a feminist novel. Princess Beauty, who is modelled after Sleeping Beauty, is whisked away into the future to escape a narcoleptic curse that befalls her kingdom. The future she discovers, is not pretty. Here, the baddies are horror and porn film-makers whose films lead its residents to rape, of which Beauty becomes a victim. The baby born from the attack grows up to be Snow White, a pea-brained beauty. Other modern and cynical re-telling of popular fairy tales can be found in Beauty which makes up the more interesting bits of the novel. The complex narrative that goes back and forth between time and space (the 14th century and the dystopic future, reality and fairy world) can be a little hard to digest.
A better review can be found here.
Finally there’s The Naughty Bits (2001) edited by Jack Murnighan. For people who watch films only to fast-forward to the sex scenes, this is the literary version. There are cut-out passages from the obvious (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Fanny Hill, Crash, The Kama Sutra, Fear of Flying), the unexpected (The Canterbury Tales and The Old Testament), and the more obscure such as this delicious piece from Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch that brings to mind and our senses the sovereignty of the seductive, intimate touch:
I touch your mouth, I touch the edge of your mouth with my finger, I am drawing it as if it were something my hand was sketching, as if for the first time your mouth opened a little, and all I have to do is close my eyes to erase it and start all over again, every time I can make the mouth I want appear, the mouth which my hand chooses and sketches on your face, and which by some chance that I do not seek to understand coincides exactly with your mouth which smiles beneath the one my hand is sketching on you.
You look at me, from close up you look at me, closer and closer and then we play cyclops, we look closer and closer at one another and our eyes get larger, they come closer, they merge into one and the two cyclopses look at each other, blending as they breathe, our mouths touch and struggle in gentle warmth … Then my hands go to sink into your hair, to cherish slowly the depth of your hair while we kiss as if our mouths were filled with flowers or with fish, with lively movements and dark fragrance. And if we bite each other the pain is sweet, and if we smother each other in a brief and terrible sucking in together of our breaths, that momentary death is beautiful. And there is but one saliva and one flavour of ripe fruit, and I feel you tremble against me like a moon on the water.
In my teenage days before I came to identify myself as a feminist, books were gateways to escape, to be read in bed and often stashed away under the pillow when someone walks in. Growing up in an environment where conformity was the order of the day, I became drawn to unconventionality. And so it isn’t a surprise that this reflected in some of my favourite books.
All images are via Wikimedia Commons and Amazon.co.uk