I went to see Hidden Figures last week after being excited about it for a long time. There are a lot of reasons I loved it. Loooooved it. Go and see it. But it also made me think about the harder-to-tell parts of that story - insecurity, uncertainty and flaws.
When somebody asks me how I got to where I am, there are a few words I use generously: luck, serendipity and kind people. I want to give credit where it’s due, and acknowledge the people who helped me and supported me to get to where I am. If I’m honest, it also makes for a better story, too.
Part of me wants that tale I tell to be engaging and modest-sounding (I’m British! Boasting is Terrible). But that mythology I find myself trying to build up is probably harmful to others as well as myself.
Telling a story of finding a job in Berlin through luck, settling in here through the help of kind people, being in the right place at the right time through serendipity - that all gives a much easier impression of my career, of not trying too hard but finding my way. It’s charming, but not threatening. It’s also an incredibly gendered approach to talking about myself.
This year, I loosened my resolve to read only books by women, partly for practical reasons and partly to see if I could notice a difference when starting to read books by men. (Spoiler: most of the time, I can - if only thanks to terrible descriptions of women’s feelings or bodies.) I just about read fewer books than in previous years, but more pages, according to Goodreads.
I’ve put *s by my favourite picks, and lists of the books I read are under each section. Recommendations are always very welcome.
I’m coming up to two months in my fellowship at Data & Society, and I’m trying my best to appreciate it, and not take any of it for granted. The fact that I’m getting paid to read, learn, discuss and debate is still a little bit surreal!
One thing that I have been thinking a lot about is the privileges and the opportunities that the fellowship grants me. Along with the fantastic Data & Society network and community, it’s been such a nice break to be assigned reading lists and books in preparation for discussion groups, debates and seminars.
With that in mind - and as someone who thoroughly appreciates when others make curricula public - here’s everything that I’ve been assigned to read over the past two months.
I’m almost 2 months into my stint here in the US, which means I’ve spent a lot of time on subways over the past few weeks, and I’ve been listening to a lot of podcast episodes. I love reading lists generally, so here’s a list of my favourite podcast episodes.
"I thought then: no matter how deep the dung, no matter how long the task, if you just go at it one shovel at a time the day will come when you can see clean earth at the bottom of the pile.
...I know better now. The unit of time that must be taken into account here is not decades but centuries, and tens of centuries. It has meaning only in the context of eternal time... I was a human being; I was ill-prepared to set my mind to plans that must be based upon thousands and thousands of years. Nothing about me was large enough to stretch itself to such a scale. And so, because there was quite literally nothing else to do, I set Time aside. I pretended that there was no such entity as Time; I abandoned it utterly. And then I set my shovel to the pile. I began to do whatever I humanly could. Outside the context of Time.
Warning: really long post. For a reading list of books, blogs and more which take a critical perspective on tech/data and are written by women, scroll to the bottom, or check out this Twitter list of the women mentioned below!
In 2014, I followed the #readwomen movement very strictly, and prioritised reading 50 books by women. In 2015, I loosened slightly my resolve of reading only women to reading mostly women, and I set myself the target of reading 25 books. I did that for a number of reasons; it meant I took my time over books more, and I wasn’t so bothered about reaching the target, though it turned out I did quite comfortably, as I read 37 books in the end.
I carried on trying to focus my reading habits around areas I was travelling to, and I also read a lot more non-fiction than in previous years, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I discovered a new sub-genre of books, too: microhistories, the “intensive historical investigation of a well defined smaller unit of research”, as Goodreads puts it. This year, issues around accessibility annoyed me more than in other years - I was trying to do a lot of reading as research for my podcast, but came up against paywalls a lot, unfortunately.
I recently spent a couple of weeks in South Africa. Beautiful landscapes aside, it was a fascinating trip, and I was lucky enough to come across some wonderful books to give me a tiny insight into the culture and history. Anyway, I love reading lists, so here’s a post of book-related recommendations about, or from, South Africa.
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak at Datengarten, the Chaos Computer Club Berlin’s (CCCB) monthly meet up. I decided to talk about technology in international development; partly because it’s a topic I feel comfortable with, but also because the narrative and general conversation among the development sector is a world away from what I imagine CCCB to be talking about.
One of the biggest issues I’ve come across with those working in international development, or ICT4D, is low levels of technical literacy. People are keen to tout the benefits of technology, but they have little training or critical perspectives on the potential consequences around security, data (mis)management, and more. The audience I was talking with at CCCB are, in a way, the polar opposite of this - all very, very technically literate, but potentially with not as much exposure to people in vulnerable situations, for whom technology could have big benefits.
The video of my talk is below, along with the slides I used. It’s also the first public talk I’ve done in German, which was a nice milestone to reach - especially as it happened to be on my 4 year anniversary of arriving in Berlin! It was great to have such a friendly audience for the talk, and some interesting questions afterwards, too.
Hidden in the darkest and deepest corners of the web are secrets beyond what most of us would believe possible. Jamie Bartlett’s book, The Dark Net, dives into these secrets, and gives us a guided tour - the fora that many of us never frequent, the places where you can place a bounty upon someone’s head, or order illegal substances and have them delivered to your door.
But Bartlett’s attitude to many of these online spaces and the resulting behaviour, is largely uncritical, perhaps in his attempt to be a neutral and objective guide to the space. Take this statement about a Reddit community whose aim was to “troll” other community users, “generating laugh at someone else’s expense”, as he puts it.
Game of Trolls was eventually banned by Reddit; a highly unusual step for the otherwise liberal site, but testament to the pervasiveness and persistence of the Reddit trolls.
Full list of books I read at the bottom of this post!
I just reached my 2014 reading challenge target of 50 books this year, all by women! I’m so glad I did it, for a number of reasons. I wrote about some of these when I was halfway through the ReadWomen2014 challenge. As well as reading more this year than I’ve done in a really long time, this year has also been the first year that I’ve written so regularly, and I can’t help but connect the two; maybe putting so many new ideas and perspectives in my head had to result in a bigger “output”, too.
Looking back on the list of books I read revealed a few surprises to me, such as that the majority of authors I read are from the US. I had an inkling that this was happening about halfway through the year, so I tried to avoid books from North American authors in an effort to widen my perspective - but it proved more difficult than I had thought! I found that lots of writers were African-American, living in the US, when I had thought that they wouldn’t be related to the US in any way from a quick scan over their initial biography and writing topic.
One of my favourite things to do while travelling is to read a fictional novel set in the place I’m travelling in. Whether that be region, country or city, especially in areas I don’t know very well, I’ve found it to be a brilliant way to get a feel for the country. Some of my favourites have included reading Shantaram while backpacking around northern India (there’s nothing quite like sitting in the same cafe as the main character in your book!) - and, more recently, Indonesia Etc while I was in Indonesia last month, which, although non-fiction, is written in a really engaging and easy-to-read way.
So, as I’m travelling to Costa Rica tomorrow, I’ve been looking for books written by Costa Rican women, or set in Costa Rica, that I can download on my Kindle. Somehow, I’m having very little luck! Among all of the books in this Goodreads list of ‘Books set in Costa Rica’ none of them really take my fancy, or they aren’t available on Kindle (or, are written by men- which I’m not reading this year)
On Monday, I co-presented a short show on Berlin Community Radio, with my friend Kate McCurdy, on a topic that has been fascinating us for a little while now – feminist science fiction. We looked at a few key pieces of science fiction from as far back as 1905, with a short reading from Sultana's Dream, another reading of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (one of our favourite pieces!), and talked briefly about Afrofuturism, too. We were joined by April who provided us with some awesome spacey tunes.
We did a fair bit of research for the show, which I've arranged below into an article, with links to works we mentioned– we said much of what is written below in the radio show though, which you can listen to online here. Suggestions for future radio show segments are welcome, as are recommendations of other feminist science fiction books to read!
Image credit: Joanna Walsh, who came up with the campaign
It's July already, which means I'm six months through my challenge of a. reading 50 books this year, and b. only reading books by women, as part of the #readwomen2014 campaign, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.
People close to me have now stopped recommending books by men as default, and caveat recommendations with “Next year, you could check out...” – which I appreciate. Other people who I tell about my women-only reading habits have been pleasantly curious, and upon thinking about it, have almost unanimously agreed that they probably read many more books by men than by women.
One of the nicest things, though (and this is perhaps more related to the quantity side of the challenge) – is that for the first time in years, I've started to set aside time for reading. Prioritising a few hours each week for the delicious act of curling up in my chair and delving into a book feels like such a luxury, and yet practically speaking, relatively easy to obtain.
In an era when complaining about being busy has become somewhat of “a boast disguised as a complaint”, escaping 'the busy trap' and making space for those few hours was initially slightly bizarre for me. Sorry, I can't meet you for dinner, I have to read. No drinks after work, I have reading to do. These reasons sounded strange to my ears to start with, but I soon lost that hesitation, and realised that actually, they are very valid.
I've been keeping track of my books over on Goodreads, after I realised last year that it was difficult to remember what I'd read throughout the year. Having them all set out in a list allows me also to find patterns among my reading choices: Ursula K. LeGuin is by far my most preferred author (6 books out of the 23) and the majority, just, of the books are written by women of colour (12 books out of the 23).
My favourite book out of all of them – and one that I've passed on to friends and recommended to more people than I can remember – has been The Left Hand of Darkness, which was a book which genuinely changed my behaviour, and made me realise things about myself that I hadn't really considered before. In terms of reading, it was the first science fiction book I've read, and it hugely whet my appetite for a genre which I'd previously ignored, proof of which can be seen through the 7 other scifi books I've read this year.
Scifi aside, my favourites so far have probably been Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, which is one I'd been meaning to read for a while, Mia McKenzie's The Summer We Got Free, which was beautiful and mesmerisingly written, or perhaps Taiye Selasi's debut novel, Ghana Must Go, on identity and immigration.
In terms of non-fiction, bell hooks' The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love is another one of those books which left a long lasting impression on me, and which I've recommended widely since. My other favourite is on a very different topic; Emily Parker's “Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Underground”, which looked at internet activism in Cuba, Russia and China, and was a wonderful example for me of recognising cultural differences when considering online behaviour.
It's also pretty satisfying, looking through my list of books read in 2014; next up is I Do Not Come To You by Chance, and The Book of Unknown Americans, which will be my first book this year written by someone from Latin America.
I've also started taking note of lists compiled by others of books written by women:
50 Books By African Women That Everyone Should Read – (there's currently only 25, but the rest coming soon)
A Buzzfeed quiz on the 102 greatest books by women
7 great novels by African women writers, by Minna Salami
The Year of Reading (Arab) Women – a book for every month that has been translated from Arabic into English
Any other recommendations – especially those written by women from Latin America, Asia or Africa (especially Francophone Africa – I feel I'm missing that perspective) – would be really welcomed. I'm looking forward to see what else I learn about in (hopefully) the next 26 books over the rest of 2014!
For me, a good book is one that makes me change how I think about things, or how I behave- for better or for worse. Thanks to multiple readings of Anne of Green Gables when I was younger, I still recognise an occasional gut feeling of trust or tribe with strangers by categorising them in my head as 'kindred spirits'; last year's Americanah has left me unable to read anything about the “global” feminist movement that's written by white feminists without feeling deeply suspicious; and now, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness has left me questioning my own, and others' behaviour, through a stronger gender-critical lens than I think I've used before.
A bit of background: the inhabitants of the planet the book is set on, Gethen, are permanently without gender. The main character, Genly Ai, is from another planet, and he is a man; for this, he is considered strange and alien, and the very idea of a whole universe out there with 'permanent' men and women is the biggest hurdle for the people of Gethen to understand about their planetary neighbours. Any of the people of Gethen can, once a month, assume either gender, during which they go through a period of being “in kemmer”, ie. able to mate with a partner. Crucially, as anyone can be male or female during this time (and it can change month by month), anyone can become pregnant and go through childbirth, meaning that caring for children is, by definition, equally spread throughout society.
I found Genly Ai's description of the difference between 'permanent' men and women, particularly interesting:
“I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one's life, is whether one's born male or female. In most societies it determines one's expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything. Vocabularly. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food... It's extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones.”
I also found very clever the way that Le Guin used gender to describe certain behaviour, throughout the book – for example, when describing a mistrusted character:
“Estraven's performance had been all womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit.”
The same character is later classed as having “effeminate deviousness”.
This gendering of characteristics and qualities came back to me several times this week, as the first day of my new job role also happened to be the first day of a week long conference, which brought together people from around the world, all of whom were essentially experts on the topic of my new project.
Firstly, the reactions of people to this were rather telling:
“Wow, throwing yourself in at the deep end, that's great!”
“Wow, lots of input... that's really brave of you!”
Guess who said what?
Though perhaps loosely related here, it came back to me again while having lunch one day. A young woman and I got talking about how we had ended up working in this sector; she held two degrees, had years of experience in the field, and yet, sometimes, she said, she felt like a bit of a fraud amongst all these experts.
I found myself nodding along; I have, occasionally, felt like I've somehow found myself sitting among a lot of people who know a lot more than me, though I generally value (and cherish!) my 'blagging' skills to get me through those bits without too many issues.
Someone (a man!) who was sitting on the other side of us called us both out for this though, as he found it ridiculous that either of us would feel like that, given our experience, skills, and knowledge.
And then, of course, it hit me. We were displaying minor signs of Imposter Syndrome!* This would never happen on the planet of Gethen. The thought that society's expectations and treatment of women might have had such an influence on how I perceive my own actions terrifies me, and has left me determined to think more closely about how I attribute my successes. It's also left me determined to encourage my peers to think about this too. And all because of a planet named Gethen.
There are many, (many!) other aspects of the book I found thought-provoking, and I'll probably write about them once I've finished reading it, for the second time, in a week. And if that's not a strong recommendation, I don't know what is.
* For a hilarious parody on this, see here.
Before I forget, and before I start making more lists of things I want to read this year, here are the top books I read this year.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sharp, funny, accurate, and refreshing to read a book about people leaving their home country not because of conflict, but simply because of (perceived) lack of opportunity, or 'choicelessness'. I also read Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun this year, both by the same author, but Americanah was by far my favourite.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. A child's perspective on experiencing a complete culture clash.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – this was full of terrible, terrible events, but written in a way that made me pick it up and barely put it down until I had finished it. Warning: emotionally very difficult to read.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri – a collection of short stories. The stories centre around people moving from Bengal (either Bengali regions of India, or Bangladesh) to the UK or the US, and its accuracy of relating the experiences of the first or second generation immigrants moving between those two cultures genuinely startled me at points.
A Golden Age by Tahmima Aman. I've mentioned this before on my blog, and this is one of the very few English language fiction books about Bangladesh that I could find.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng– in a funny twist, some friends sent me this book the day after I booked flights to Malaysia. By far the most emotionally taxing book I read this year (with his other novel, The Gift of Rain, coming in a close second) – but so, so beautifully written.
Las venas abiertas de América Latina, or Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano. I started reading this in preparation for a visit to Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, purely because it was banned by right-wing military governments in all three countries in the 70s. This was also the book that Chavez presented to Obama – an amazing gift.
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns. An incredible and engaging introduction to the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was recommended to me by friends who have spent time in the DRC, so I have faith in its accuracy too.
Two Lives by Vikram Seth – I took far too long to get round to reading this, not least because Vikram Seth is one of my favourite authors. It focuses on the life of Seth's uncle, from India, while he moves between Berlin (where I was reading it) – and London. A gorgeous memoir, a lovely story, and a new perspective on the Second World War.
A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous) – a close contender for 'book that made me cry most this year'. Another new perspective on World War II, or at least the terrible consequences. The book was actually a diary, and the author has remained anonymous (and it was only published after her death.) Haunting to read, but highly recommended.
This was so hard to put together that I've resolved to start using Goodreads this year. You can find newly created account here.
I've been looking for some books to read about Bangladesh for a while now, both fiction and non-fiction, so when a discussion about books covering the historical and political context of the country came up in an online group, I wanted to make sure these great suggestions didn't get lost.
Thanks to Jenny Gustafsson, Uzumaki Kyuubi, Allison Joyce, and Andrew Bostrom for the following suggestions! (And if you needed any persuading as to why you might want to find out more about this gorgeous country, check out this A-Z of what to love about Bangladesh by Jenny Gustafsson)
Non-fiction - history and culture
Any other suggestions, tweet me @zararah!
I just finished reading Mohammed Yunus' first book about the Grameen Bank, 'Banker to the Poor'. I'm starstruck, and impressed, and in awe, of the incredible work he's done. He took an idea and turned it into real, concrete action, having positive effects on millions of people's lives, in a tough environment to work in.
The distinction he makes between the poor and the very poor – the most destitute, those who don't have a roof over their heads, or enough food for themselves or their family, is key to the scheme. He rightly identified that identifying the poor and the most destitute together in one bracket generalises over some key differences; namely, that the most destitute have just one chance to get out of their poverty, and they were given this chance by being allowed to borrow tiny portions of money. They had everything to lose if they didn't make the most of this chance; this, as Yunus describes, makes them ideal borrowers, as they needed to pay the loan back if they were to continue on their path away from destitution. (and the figures have proven that his hypothesis was correct, with over 96% of loans being paid back on time – this is higher than in most commercial banks)
Identifying that women were the key change makers in families living in extreme poverty made a huge change, too. At least in Bangladesh, it is/was traditionally the man's role to deal with financial matters for the family; subverting this trend has proven to be a great success, and the associated issues of men feeling threatened by their spouses' newfound 'power' is also dealt with in the book. Receivers of loans from the Grameen Bank are 97% women, and the bank is actually owned 95% by its borrowers.
From the conclusion of the book, one paragraph in particular stood out for me:
Information and communication technology is raising the hope that we are approaching a world which will be free from power-brokers and knowledge-brokers... Any power built on exclusive access to information will disintegrate. Any common citizen will have almost as much access to information as the head of government. Leadership will have to be based on vision and integrity, rather than the manipulation of information.
This book was written in 1999. Nearly 15 years later, these predictions haven't come true, but they should have. In part, I was thrilled to see that the the basic message of the organisation I work for, the Open Knowledge Foundation, is/was shared by Mohammed Yunus; but isn't it sad that we need to be actively campaigning and working towards a world free of 'knowledge-brokers', as he puts it? Shouldn't it have justhappened naturally?
Happily, the tide is beginning to turn, thanks to the incredible open movement across the world, but Yunus' hope that 'any common citizen will have almost as much access to information as the head of government' is still a long way off.
One last quote to think about:
Easy access to credit, and easy access to a global network of information for the poorest women and men anywhere in the world will eliminate poverty from our planet more surely and speedily than anything else will.