Rachel Carson

Image of Rachel Carlson

Thirty minutes into this documentary about the American marine biologist and author, Rachel Carson, it became apparent how incredibly resilient and dedicated she was. How, after working the whole day as a writer and having dinner with her mother, she would lock herself in her room and write until dawn. By the end of it, I had realized how daunting her self-imposed mission was and why it required so much effort.

Working as a junior aquatic biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries, she had access to thousands of official papers and studies about the ocean, all written in a very specific way, and her goal was to read, understand, connect and synthesize them all, so that she could then tell it in a prose that was accessible to people everywhere. 

From war records to submarine research, she would use any piece of information she could find to call attention to the dangers of environmental contamination to humankind. She had to translate the pile of material on her desk, written in academic and technical language, into something easy to comprehend. She had to transform it all, while still being true to it, to tell us that everything is connected, that we all share the environment, and that we must share responsibility for it.

Her journey as a nature writer started when she was 14. Later, in her early 20s, she saw the ocean for the first time and fell deeply in love with it. From that point onwards, she lived a life of the mind. An isolated existence full of responsibilities: Her father died when she was 28, and her sister when she was 30. She then became the sole provider for herself, her mother, and two nieces. She never got married. Later in life, she also had to provide for the son of one of her nieces, who she adopted as her own son, shortly before dying.

The ocean was her parallel universe. She wanted to tell the world about its beauty. Pitching stories to newspapers, she was determined to become a full-time writer. So she used weekends and evenings for creative work.

Her three first books were beautiful odes to the sea. Then, in 1962, her masterpiece came along: Silent spring – a book that aimed to demonstrate that the survival of men depends on the balance of nature. The same men that believed then that pesticides were not poisonous to humans or the land and water resources around them. The same men that still believe that they can control nature. 

Man’s endeavors to control nature by his powers to alter and to destroy would inevitably evolve into a war against himself, a war he would lose unless he came to terms with nature.

Nobody knew what the ocean was really like before Rachel Carson. Nobody talked to the public about pesticides, radioactive nuclear fallout, and their relationship to cancer, infertility, and birth defects. By writing and publishing her books, she challenged corporations and authorities of one-sided science; she raised the level of awareness of the general public. “Her body of work is one of science, literature, and art”. And one that spearheaded the environmental movement around the globe.

Keep reading about Rachel:

 

Bacha Posh

Today I watched the documentary “She is my son: Afghanistan Bacha Posh, when girls become boys” and learned about the consequences of a deep-rooted belief, in Afghanistan patriarchal society, that “Every woman must have a husband beside her. If not a husband, a son will do.”

And what happens when a couple has only daughters and no sons? The daughter will do, as long as she dresses in male clothing, has her hair cut short and uses a male name. By doing so, she is allowed outside the house by herself, and she can start working to help the family make money. These girls are known as “Bacha Posh“, which means “dressed up as a boy“.

It’s a documentary directed by Alexander Avilov, which is available on YouTube and the RTD documentary channel. To those interested, I’d say: Stop reading this post, press play and watch it now. It is worth it.

In less than half an hour, you’ll have a glance at the lives of four girls: Fazilya, Asiya, Najla and Amena. My head starting spinning from the very first minute. I was, above all, interested in what the girls themselves had to say, how they felt and how they coped with the imposed gender-swap, so I typed the words of a couple of them here (mixed with the voice-over of the narrator for context).

Narrator:

Asiya likes the freedom that her boys’ clothes bring her. A privilege that her female friends can’t enjoy.

Asiya:

In Afghanistan, people don’t have the same rights. In other countries, men and women are equal, but that’s not the case here. Maybe that’s why I became a Bacha Posh. Women aren’t able to do what men are. Even sports! A man can play sports, but if a woman does, people say it’s a disgrace. A woman must stay at home and take care of children. People don’t want women to work like men. At school, they don’t let me be.

Amena:

Even though I’m a girl, I must become a boy. I want to do something good for my family, for my father, that’s why I’m a Bacha Posh.

Narrator:

Dressed in boys clothes, Amena goes to the center every day to sell water. Outside of her father’s hearing, she confesses that she hates the job. It’s hard to hide from passersby that she is a girl. (She is bullied in the streets).

Two years ago, there was some hope to Amena’s parents. Mohammed’s wife gave birth to a boy. The family of modest means had only two months to celebrate the heir before he tragically died. Amena’s mother can’t have more children now, meaning that she will have to remain a boy for a few more years.

The person behind the camera asks Amena’s father:

How long do you want Amena to stay a Bacha Posh?

Amena’s father:

Until her sister grows up to the age of 11. Then I’ll make her a Bacha Posh and Amena will be able to continue her education.

Narrator (talking about Najla):

Girls dressed as boys is an Afghanistan tradition. It’s concealed but not taboo. But when Bacha Posh girls come of age, they go back to dressing as girls and their parents try to marry them off. Usually to a relative. It’s a rare exception who refuses to start a family and have children. She wants freedom. And in Afghanistan, only the men have that.

So many questions in what is now my very dizzy head. The biggest of all, being: “Why?

Deep down, I already know the answer, and “The Second Sex“, by Simone de Beauvoir, comes to mind striking like lightning.

Thankfully, the book is carefully and proudly shelved in a special section of my library, which allowed me to find the passages I was looking for quickly:

Simone de Beauvoir:

In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.

If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.

 

Billie Jean

I watched Battle of the sexes last night, and it’s fair to say it’s been a while since a movie touched my heart so profoundly. This time it wasn’t the movie itself – which is well produced and has fine actors – but the details of Billie Jean’s story: A tennis player who, back in 1973, put everything she had conquered (dozens of titles) on the line, hoping that, by winning a match against a man, women would be seen and respected as athletes, not as “female athletes”, and, therefore, “less skilled”.

Billie Jean’s contribution to women rights is massive, has been continuous, and happened both inside and outside the tennis court.

This movie is an excellent way to start, but if you wish to learn more about her, here are the titles of two books she wrote:

 

Anaïs Nin

I was listening to Essential Anaïs Nin uninterruptedly while making a cup of coffee and tidying up when it hit me. The freedom now available to me, or should I say finally noticed by me? The mobility, the lack of attachment to a room, sofa, bed, or chair. The no longer needed quiet corner, for Anaïs’ voice would muffle the external sounds. 

From now on, I could not only walk all around the house but also leave it and take her with me. She would whisper her many adventures in my ears on my way to work, while I wait for the tube or travel somewhere nearby or far away. She would help me sleep by telling me a story or singing me a lullaby when my arms are too tired to hold the heavy books I keep buying and for which I rarely have time.

It would take adapting and open-mindedness. It would mean leaving behind my conservative view about reading – one that always made me so proud, but that now, I finally understood, was based on ignorance and prejudice about new technologies for readers. The truth is that by deeming myself a true book lover, I held on for too long to the desire to turn and smell paper pages, and was blind to the most recent ways of getting to know new words and revisiting old ones.

Reading books in digital format was the first step I took away from bulks of paper bound together, and The Diary of Anaïs Nin was the first thing I read on my Kindle – at the time, still quite cynical about how natural the reading experience would feel until I finally surrendered.

So, in a way, it is no surprise – and serendipity comes to mind – that one year after getting acquainted with my electronic reading device, my first audiobook was also by Anaïs. She seems to take me further every time we meet, to guide me into the unknown — her thirst for new ways of living, of loving, of being — and my empty cup gets fuller the more I get to know her.

 

The Unit

the unit, childless

I haven’t read The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist yet, but this synopsis got me very interested in making time for it.

Who is dispensable?” That’s the chilling 1984-esque question that Holmqvist poses in her near-future novel. Childless women aged 50 (and men aged 60) must leave their homes and enter “the unit,” where they will live out their days participating in government experiments and donating their organs to younger, more “productive” members of society. When Dorrit arrives at the unit, she is ready to accept her fate, but when she unexpectedly finds companionship in another “dispensable,” she discovers a reason to live. Indie bookstore Orinda Books says, “A taut, creepy, yet thought-provoking page-turner, The Unit is a meditation on the consequences of complacency, the value of human life, and what we’re prepared to give up for security and comfort.

Source of the text: Literature at every latitude

 

Iris Murdoch

If my memory doesn’t fail me, about seven years ago, while still living in Sweden, I watched Iris. A beautiful movie in which Judi Dench and Kate Winslet share the heavy-loaded mission of acting Iris Murdoch extraordinary and sublime life in two phases. Ninety-one minutes was all it took me to fall in love with Iris.

A couple of years later, I found a job and moved to Ireland, her home country. I remember how excited I was at the prospect of being in places where she had been, of seeing what she had seen; I knew I would buy every book, every diary she has written for the possibility of scanning her brain through her own words, memories and twisted lies. I knew I’d read her works chronologically, as a timeline, and backward, as a palindrome.

To my complete surprise, for three years, whenever I entered a bookshop and asked for Iris Murdoch books, I’d get a shrug, or an “I’m not sure we have them”, or a “Check the women’s books section”. I assumed she would have her books printed in gold at the front of every Irish bookshop or library, but no, Joyce and Yeats were all they seem to care about.

Then today, in my last week living in Irish soil, by taking a new path to town, I came across a rare book shop I had never seen before. There I went, opening the door, and gazing at dozens of old and colorful book covers. The woman inside asked if she could help. I said “Yes”, she asked me if I was looking for something, I said: “Do you have anything by Iris Murdoch?“. She went: “Iris Mur… Yes, I have. Only one, though. But it is a signed copy!” My heart skipped a bit.

  • How much?
  • Err, let me see. 95 euros.

I tried not to act as surprised as I was. Then I rapidly converted the value into my home country currency: 95 EUR is something like 500 BRL, which is roughly 50% of a minimum wage in Brazil. Damn. 

After living abroad for almost ten years, I still convert everything into Brazilian Reais. It is as if, no matter where I go, “my currency” continues to be the base for financial decision making, which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever considering the very different economic contexts of both countries and the fact that now I’m paid in Euros, but still, the mind goes where it goes.

  • I’ll take it.
  • Do you want a bag?
  • Yes, please. 

Of course I wanted a bag. A bag to put and protect the most expensive stack of paper I ever bought in my life from the constant drops of rain coming from the skies above in Dublin. “But it is a signed one.” I repeated the woman’s line in my head. Not that I needed convincing, I didn’t. I knew the value of it, to me – the chance to touch pages that Iris had touched, to have a copy of the first edition of one of her books, a book made and bought in Ireland, where she was born and lived.

Who knows, maybe there is an Irish woman signing books as Iris and making a fortune thanks to fools like me. Perhaps the fraudulent woman is not even Irish. Who knows? 

Who cares? I don’t. I knew what having the book would do to me. This is the stuff dreams are made of. The fuel to believers, to faith, to hope. All that I’ve been looking for and that I need to start and finish my own books in this life.

Back home I went, feeling like happiness personified, carrying a pulsing body that is starving for more stories like hers and for more time to read all the stuff I buy, however much it costs. By the time I reached my doorsteps, I had this post written in my head, from the very first word to the last dot.