Sunday, October 2, 2011

Books that changed my life: Jade, Feminism, and Identity Categories

I have mentioned before that Sally Watson was a defining author of my childhood.  The moment I picked Jade off the library shelf is firmly engrained in my memory, because of what followed.  I remember looking down at the book, the description of which is:
Always a rebel against the conventions of the eighteenth century which require her to be a meek and obedient young lady, a sixteen-year-old girl joins the pirate crew that captures the ship she is traveling on.
Always on the lookout for historical fiction that involved girls going on adventures, I thought this sounded pretty good.  Not only was the heroine female, there were also female pirates!  Little did I know that this book (and the rest of the books by Sally Watson that I went on to find through interlibrary loan) would change my life*.  For the first time in my life, I had found a heroine that was as frustrated with identity categories as I was (and am).  For example:
People began to seem a great deal more complicated than they had.  Hypocrite and victim, brave and weak, were inadequate categories after all.
This book was also my first introduction to the type of feminism I believe in today, although I didn't realize it at the time.  I just knew that I passionately agreed with it.  For example, a description of her fencing teacher:
Here she wasn't merely a female named Melanie, but a human being called Jade.  Monsieur Maupin had no use for irrelevant categories such as male and female.
 And a conversation with the man she later marries:
"Well, I never did suppose you were the chivalrous sort." "No!" He curled his lip.  "Rotten stuff! If you want to help a friend, that's one thing.  Or someone who's helpless and can't help himself.  But why should anyone be babied and pampered just because she happens to be a girl? A human's a human.  Ought to be treated that way."
Rights for slaves and Indians** also feature prominently.  However, lest anyone worry that this is a book where a rich white girl saves the poor slaves, here is her slave's response to being "freed."
Domino [looked] pleased but neither astonished nor grateful.  Why should she be grateful for what she had considered to be her natural and inalienable right all along?
Finally, some advice for reformers everywhere, again from the fencing teacher:
"Remember to always demand more of yourself than anyone else', he warned her.  "Otherwise you become merely a tiresome rebellious young girl who wants that the whole world should change to suit her whim.  The world is full of such as these; most of them grow up at last, but are not particularly admirable, enfin.  They are against everything, for nothing."
This book was originally published in 1969.  The copy I re-read this weekend was the one re-issued in 2002 by Image Cascade.  What I found particularly intriguing this time around, particularly in like of all the identity theory I'm dealing with for my dissertation, was how relevant this book still is to me today.  While the named problems Jade fights (such as slavery and property rights for women) are in the past (probably the only reason the book was published) her ideals of equal treatment for all, pity as the ultimate insult for the oppressed, "drinking your own brew" when you take a stand, and breaking down any and all identity categories hold up rather well today.


*For example, her books are what led me to both Dancing and Arabic.
**Amerindians/Native Americans, yes, there is some problematic terminology/representations.

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