Saturday, August 21, 2010

Guest Review: Nuala Ní Chonchúir's You

           You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir
           New Island Books, 2010,
           Reviewed by Rachel J. Fenton

Nuala Ní Chonchúir's début novel tells the tale of a young girl who interprets the life she and her siblings inhabit in their urban gothic surroundings with simple yet insightful prose. Set against the ominous and symbolic backdrop of the River Liffey, You contrasts the seeming simplicity of the girl's conclusions about her eventful life with the deeper and more complex ramifications of her mother's behaviour.

There is a central, and somewhat obvious, tragedy to Ní Chonchúir's story, and readers who are unfamiliar with her work may see this as the core of the novel itself; however, Ní Chonchúir is a quiet intellect and You is far more complex than the breezy, fast-flowing, colloquial narrative suggests. The real tragedy of You is its framing of society's criterion for a failed woman.

Woman, in all her broken states, is embodied in You's character tour de force, and each has her patriarchal compare. The protagonist's mother takes up with the picaresque Kit, local butcher and lad about town, and in a scene redolent of Joseph Ferdinand Geuldry's The Blood-Drinkers, he takes her a meat offering which the protagonist turns away from in revulsion. In accepting the bloody gifts, the protagonist's mother is made a prostitute in her daughter's eyes, even if the young girl does not yet know that word, and perhaps an addict in the reader's. The mother's seeming inability to direct her own course in life is a source of consternation to her daughter, yet, in the novel's pivotal scene, it is the inaction of three males which brings about what will be regarded as the books most memorable tragedy.

Ní Chonchúir's skill is her ability to subvert and to break down labels, racism and sexism included, into their core traits and to show they are seamless, as an estuary.  She makes accessible to a wide audience what has often hid in the dense prose of high-end literary fiction and been the seminar agitator of choice for academics. Her prose is both dignifying and empowering to her subjects, and it is her psychological ableness which will mark Ní Chonchúir as a writer of significance.

Rachel J. Fenton is an English writer who paints and lives in Auckland.  Her flash piece "Rogue Trading" was shortlisted for the Fish 2010 One-Page Prize, and links to more of her published work can be found at her blog: She is currently seeking representation for her novels.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cecily Tripplehorn: The Six Percent, A Survivor’s Story

Maybe it was just mother’s intuition. In retrospect it seemed like a premonition. We couldn’t have predicted that my mother’s advice would eventually give me the courage to save my own life.

 “If anything ever happens to you, if you’re ever attacked, scream your lungs out and resist with all your strength. Your chances of attracting attention and getting rescued are better while you’re still in a public place than if you’re taken,” Mom would lecture every time a news report popped up covering someone like Natalee Holloway or Chandra Levy.

“Sure, Mom,” I always replied, humoring her and thinking, what are the odds?

May 17, 2006. Twenty-six years old. It happened in Amarillo, Texas, at a park in an upscale neighborhood referred to as the good side of town. I didn’t have the patience to sit through my boyfriend Jim’s softball game, so I rollerbladed around the field in the humid spring air under the bright stadium lights. The sounds of softball fans cheering drowned out everything else, and the smooth, even rhythms of my stride calmed me and erased the stresses of daily life.

Finally, muscles aching, I headed toward the parking lot to grab my water out of Jim’s truck. That night the fields were so crowded we had to park on the front row. “Perfect,” Jim  had muttered earlier as he squeezed his black Dodge Ram into the tight space. “Right in the fly ball zone.  Might as well paint a big target on my windshield.”

I climbed back into the tall truck and gulped down some Evian like I’d just crossed the Sahara. My breath returned to normal and I stepped out of the truck to make my way toward –

Someone grabbed me in a headlock from behind. Surely just one of the teammates playing a joke, I rationalized. Not Jim though.  He’s busy pitching. Whoever it was threw me into the driver’s seat of another truck beside Jim’s Dodge. A leering face in a red, white and blue doo-rag hovered over my wide eyes and gaping mouth, and it was definitely not Jim, or one of his teammates, or anyone I knew. All logical thought processes froze at that moment as he pressed up against my dangling legs so close I couldn’t move. “Don’t scream,” he snarled as he put his hand over my mouth. Those words made me snap back to reality, and I started screaming as hard as I could. But my screams were indistinguishable from the cheering fans just about 50 feet away.

Then, a flash of silver in front of my face. “Shut up and get in the truck or I’ll slit your throat.” His voice was full of rage. Images of everyone I loved flashed through my mind.  In that instant I knew I wasn’t afraid of death, but I was deathly afraid of what he might want to do to me first. Thoughts of Jim, alone and frantically searching for me after the crowds dispersed before having to call my parents when he realized I was gone were too much to bear.

In a move Jason Bourne would envy, I grabbed the blade of the knife with my bare hand and went Billy Blanks on him. The blade sliced into my palm and fingers, but a rush of adrenaline suppressed the pain. Driven by survival instincts and the determination not to cause my family suffering, I resolved that this man could not, would not control me. There was no way I could kick him with my legs restrained by the weight of his body, but with the keys in my hand I went for his eyes. Never again do I wish to feel the primal urge to kill someone in defense of my own life.

Frustration began to overcome me with the realization that I wasn’t inflicting enough damage. His 5 foot 9, 195 pound construction worker’s build was stronger than my 5 foot 6, 130 pound frame, no matter how many cardio kickboxing classes I’d taken.

But then I sensed that the element of surprise was shifting. He didn’t want to be caught; that much was obvious from the look of shock on his face when I started to resist. And although we hadn’t attracted any outside attention yet, clearly I was more trouble than he had bargained for.

Nevertheless, the punches kept coming and stars danced in front of my eyes. Don’t pass out, I thought to myself. Keep fighting. Don’t pass out.

At last I got in a hard jab to his temple, and as he shook his head, I gathered all my strength to force myself out from underneath his grasp, falling and scraping my knees on the rough asphalt.

But it wasn’t over. He went to grab me again. Just then I looked up to see someone walking into the parking lot. Relief flooded my entire being and I suspected he was an angel disguised as an umpire. Somehow, with my hands shredded and still on rollerblades, I managed to scramble to my feet. Then I was standing near the umpire, Alvino Alvarez. Tears clouded my vision as I gasped, “Please get his license plate.”

My attacker jumped in his work truck with the construction company logo on the door and peeled out, almost running over a couple who tried to block his escape.

Then, a blur. Crowds of gawkers. Police statements. Ambulance. Hospital.

At the hospital, the shock wore off slowly, in layers, like scrubbing ink off skin. A detective was taking yet another statement while doctors and nurses buzzed around. I couldn’t remember my address. I wasn’t even sure about my age at that point.  “It’s okay,” the officer said.  “Temporary memory lapses are typical after trauma.”

“You did the right thing by fighting back,” a nurse commented as the doctor carefully inserted nineteen stitches. “Did you know only six percent of victims manage to escape like you did?” I feigned cheerfulness to assure my boyfriend that I really was okay. Jim stayed at my bedside until we were released an exhausting seven hours later at 5:00 a.m. After a quick stop at the 24 hour pharmacy for some pain meds, at last I could rest.

The next year seemed endless.  My relatively sheltered and comfortable life was now interspersed with periods of anxiety and apprehension. The day after the attack, I identified the attacker, Dewey Mack Evans, from a photo lineup at the police station. Other witnesses corroborated.  The following month, in June, U.S. Marshalls surrounded a gas station across the state border in Oklahoma and took Evans into custody. That September, Jim and I got engaged. The next June, we were married. Then in August, 15 months after the attack, the trial began. Evans and his attorney concocted an elaborate story claiming I attacked him.  The poor guy was just defending himself, the slick lawyer explained.  When they accused me of perjury it started to feel like I was the one on trial.

The jury deliberated for an excruciating four and a half hours before convicting Evans of aggravated kidnapping with a sentence of 80 years in prison. Since he was on parole for armed robbery at the time, he also had to serve the rest of that 10 year sentence. Evans wouldn’t be considered for parole again for at least 40 years at the age of 86. By then he would be too old and decrepit to harm anyone else.

The courtroom trial was over, but my emotional trials were ongoing. My emotions were a confusing mix of pride and guilt, vindication and cynicism, strength and vulnerability. While I tried to deal with the situation without dwelling on it, not a day went by that something or someone wouldn’t remind me of it. Never again would I feel comfortable alone in a parking lot or exercising outdoors by myself. But I was also bizarrely thankful that it had happened to me. If he had chosen a different victim, I might have turned on the T.V. that night to see another Natalee Holloway-esque story, and a predator might still be free.

The haunting faces of missing girls are a repeat occurrence on the nightly news. Each time their parents appear begging, pleading and crying for the return of their daughters, my eyes brim with tears and I feel an inexplicable kinship with these young girls and women I have never met. That could be my family, heartbroken and searching for closure they might never receive. My tears are followed by waves of guilt because I survived and they didn’t.

My happy ending could have been another victim’s final ending.

Cecily Tripplehorn is a survivor, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a high school English teacher.  For this article, she consulted the work Kidnapping: An Investigator's Guide to Profiling by Diana M. Concannon, 1st ed., London 

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Review: Susan Slaviero's Cyborgia

Cyborgia by Susan Slaviero
Mayapple Press, 2010,
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Susan Slaviero's first full-length poetry collection, Cyborgia, takes on the ambitious project of imagining what "female" would look like at the dawn of a post-human age, and her playful, cerebral, at times demanding poems rise to the challenge, densely packed and fully loaded with visceral imagery and wickedly inventive wordplay.  These poems are worth reading because they are fun, provocative and at times disturbing but also because they have something to say about a moment in our collective future that may come sooner than we think and what it could mean for one gender in particular.

The epigraph by Donna Haraway is a quote I'd come across as a college student, when the territory of feminism was much more familiar to me than that of cybernetics, and it made an impression on my evolving feminist consciousness, as well as the way I viewed technology, having been one of the last in my class to hold on to her Smith-Corona word processor rather than trek down to the computer lab:  "I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess."

That statement opens so many areas of inquiry surrounding the dynamics of power between genders, the nature of the choice to claim a sexual identity or identities versus androgyny, and the fundamental question of what it means to be human.  It prompted a shift in the way I viewed technology and its relationship with my gender, past and future.  Slaviero's collection explores all of this territory with a welcome balance of optimism and caution.

In the two sections that comprise the first half of the collection, "The Red Queen Hypothesis" and "Celluloid Marionettes," Slaviero imagines the genesis of the female cyborg.  In "Agalmatophilia," she is an animated doll, who "sees you as architecture, as blue libido," and in "Parthenogenesis," she is a mother of mutinous clone daughters.

The cyborg creations in these sections are largely passive, deriving what power they may possess from what they lack, the vulnerability of human flesh and how that shades consciousness.  Violence is enacted upon them, but they only respond insofar as they are programmed.  In "Bride of Frankenstein 2.0," the cyborg speaker hears "the cadence" of her "own dissection" but is indifferent:  "... This flat/ affect is characteristic of my vampire/ < species > / I will not burn, even at blue temperatures."

"Consider the Dangers of Reconstructing Your Wife as a Cyborg" ends on a different kind of note, in which self-awareness implies grave danger for the would-be cyber-Svengal addressed in the poem:  "... You are superfluous.  This house is fully of zygotes, the tran-/ sister radio, the refrigerator.  Lampwire and smoke detectors.  In the/ twenty-six minutes since I've been resurrected I have devised about/ ten different ways to disassemble you.  Imagine what I could do with/ an hour and a box of power tools."

The third section, "Boolean Fairy Tales," was the most fun for me, as I've admired Slaviero's unique takes on folklore and mythology for several years.

There is a millennia-old tradition of myths being adapted and re-adapted to accommodate new questions that crop up as a culture's technology evolves and its prevailing values somewhat laggingly absorb the shock, and here Slaviero brings familiar tales and tropes into the Cyber Age.  It's a brave new world of robot wolves, cybernetic mermaids and gynoid armies.  

And again here there is a progression of the poems' cyborg heroines from animated dolls to self-aware agents.  The section begins with "Bluebeard's Clockwork Bride," where the familiar villain grows bored with his new creation because she cannot suffer, and so he remakes here so that "This time, he gives her skin./ This time, he programs her/ to be afraid of fire."

However, in "Gretal Discusses Her Prosthetic Arm," the heroine delights in what she can do for herself:  "... Now, this/ mechanical limb works better/ than flesh.  I chop onions for stew/ with a built-in chef's knife, open/ wine with my corkscrew thumbs./ I have become more than mere/ girl; I am an armory/ dressed in gingham and lace./ You would never suspect/ that my ulna is a loaded gun,/ that the bend in my elbow bears teeth."

In "A Cybernetic Mermaid Dreams of the Sea," the speaker claims to have "... no interest in catching sailors/ or cliff diving.  I have become something different/ than what you intended...."

"The First Cyborg Epistle:  Mythology," from the final section, "Ontology of the Virtual Body," addresses the curiosity of a corporeal race toward our inscrutable successors:  "You try to understand me as ergonomic, the random flickering of cir-/ cuits for this dolls' apocalypse.  Yes, I dream, but not of sheep, electric or oth-/ erwise.  I am the corkscrew universe, my eyes metalmoons, the planets/ hidden between aluminum rods of warped spine.  What monstrous/ couplings and recouplings make this avatar of steel ships and colored/ wire?  You ask for clarification but I am not programmed to answer/ your metaphysical questions...."

It's not a new problem.  How can anyone fathom the universe behind another's eyes, whether the computational machinery ticking there is carbon-based or silicon?  We're all enigmas to one another at the same time as we're reflections of the star-stuff of which we're all made.  But in the post-human age that Slaviero imagines, in which one self-aware being can fashion another, turn her on with a switch, and then run for cover, things get just a little more complicated.