Fairytales and fembots

Tuesday, 30th June, 2015

Fembots

*Warning - long and feminist post*

When I was a young woman, in the early 1990s, while I was negotiating the conflicts I discuss in my thesis between science and feminism, I was reading authors such as Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and later, Carol Ann Duffy. They were rewriting history as ‘herstory’, they were writing feminist revisionist mythology, literature informed by feminism that engages with mythology, fairy tales, or religion. Carter’s untimely death in 1992 saw her work receive extensive critical attention, and increasingly be taught at universities, which brought her to my attention.

 

I was obsessed with Carter’s book of short stories The Bloody Chamber (1979), it was thrilling - the title story in particular. It was at once familiar, yet new; it was subversive and empowering; it made me feel like change was possible, that I could write my own version of the world. The stories are explicitly based on fairy tales, no doubt inspired by the works of author and fairytale collector Charles Perrault, whose fairy tales Carter had translated 2 years before publishing her collection. It is his story ‘Bluebeard’ (1697)  that Carter’s story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is based on.

 

I always wondered why his beard was blue, I mean, that’s not a real hair colour is it? Recently I discovered that, in some works by Homer, characters are said to have dark blue hair or eyebrows when they are angry or in an emotionally intense state. Odysseus' beard became black blue when he was transformed by Athena on returning home to confront his wife's suitors. Other scholars have speculated that the bluebeard was a reflection of the character’s blue blood. Bluebeard was certainly both angry, violent, intense, and wealthy.

 

You can read a full plot summary of Perrault’s version on wikipedia but essentially a nameless young woman is tricked into marrying a wealthy aristocrat whose previous wives mysteriously disappeared. He gives all the keys of the château to the new wife saying he must go away for a while but she can have free reign of the house except for  one small room beneath the castle, which she must not enter under any circumstances. She vows she will never enter the room. Of course she does (The fatal effects of feminine curiosity have long been the subject of story and legend) and discovers Bluebeard’s horrible secret: its floor is awash with blood and the murdered bodies of her husband's former wives hang from hooks on the walls. Bluebeard returns home unexpectedly the next morning and immediately knows his wife has broken her vow. In a blind rage, swears to kill her, but she manages to delay him and locks herself in a tower with her sister and they wait for their two brothers to arrive. Just as Bluebeard is about to kill her the brothers break into the castle and kill him. Leaving the girl a wealthy, free widow.

 

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was first published in the United Kingdom in 1979, in it a teenage girl marries an older, wealthy French Marquis, whom she does not love. She soon learns that he enjoys sadistic pornography and takes pleasure in her embarrassment. She is a talented pianist, and a young man, a blind piano tuner, hears her music and falls in love with her. As in the original she discovers the bodies of his previous wives. Marquis returns home prematurely and threatens to kill her. The brave piano tuner is willing to stay with her even though he knows he will not be able to save her. She is saved at the last moment at the end of the story by her mother, who shoots the Marquis just as he is about to murder the girl. The girl, her mother and the piano tuner go on to live together, and the girl uses her now considerable fortune to convert the castle into a school for blind children.

 

Carter reworks traditional fairytales, playing with their conventions; for example instead of the heroine being rescued by the stereotypical male hero, she is rescued by her mother. Carter’s liberated female characters offer insight on the tropes in these well-known and stories. Some feminists have criticised her for not going far enough - why can’t the characters rescue themselves? Why can’t Cinderella fall in love with the fairy godmother? As a whole, The Bloody Chamber has a larger narrative of feminism and metamorphosis, the 'oppressed female seeking liberation' theme is explored throughout the collection. The stories are updated to more modern settings, the time periods are vague but explicitly modern, indicated by technology such as the telephone.

 

Fairy tales may be described as the science fiction of the past; Carter regarded them as such, in that she used them to explore ideas of how the world might be different. She admired science fiction’s speculative thinking, in an interview with Anna Katsavos she said: "It seemed to me, after reading these [Science Fiction] writers a lot, that they were writing about ideas, and that was basically what I was trying to do”. Carter was using the forms of fantasy and fairy tales with conscious radical intent; in the introduction to Heros and Villans Robert Coover quotes her as saying:

"I really do believe that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself."

 

The Bloody Chamber is packed with signs, symbols and signifiers. What she liked about the short story form was (as she wrote in the Afterword to her first collection Fireworks) that "sign and sense can fuse to an extent impossible to achieve among the multiplying ambiguities of an extended narrative". She found that "though the play of surfaces never ceased to fascinate me, I was not so much exploring them as making abstractions from them". Helen Simpson wrote in her introduction to The Bloody Chamber (2006) that:

“Nearly all her writing is strikingly full of cultural and intertextual references, but this story is extremely so. It is an artfully constructed edifice of signs and allusions and clues. The Marquis, as he is called (suggesting, of course, the Marquis de Sade), is a parodic evil aesthete and voluptuary with his monocle and beard, his gifts of marrons glacés and hothouse flowers, and his penchant for quoting the juicier bits of Baudelaire and De Sade. On the walls of his castle hang paintings of dead women by Moreau, Ensor and Gauguin; he listens to Wagner (specifically "Liebestod" - "love-death" - in Tristan und Isolde); he smokes Romeo y Julieta cigars "fat as a baby's arm"; his library is stocked with graphically- described sadistic pornography and his dungeon chamber with mutilated corpses and itemised instruments of torture.”

 

Bearing all this in mind, it is quite fascinating to me that many of these strategies employed by Carter along with the actual plot of The Bloody Chamber have now been employed in a recent Sci-Fi blockbuster movie. I’ve always loved sci-fi movies, right from when my father took me to see Star Wars in the 1970s, I was fascinated with representations of robots and artificial intelligence. Blade Runner is one of my favourite movies of all time, despite its gender issues. Naturally I was really excited when it dawned on me while watching Ex Machina, a 2015 film by writer/director Alex Garland, that it was an adaptation of Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’.

 

**SPOILER ALERT - Ex Machina plot discussion**

 

The film, like Carter’s story, is full of cultural and intertextual references and mirrors Carter’s story in many respects, you can read a full synopsis at Imdb. Nathan, the Bluebeard character, is the wealthy reclusive CEO of a fictional tech company called "Bluebook" (an apparent amalgam of Google and Facebook but also the name of a Wittgenstein book). Caleb, who partly plays the blind piano tuner character, is a computer coder who wins the chance to spend a week at the isolated house in the mountains belonging to Nathan, the CEO of the company he works for. Also at the house are Ava, an attractive robot / AI that Caleb has been brought in ostensibly to apply the Turing test to and Kyoko, a submissive, mute, Japanese housemaid / sex worker (later revealed to be one of Ava’s prototypes, or ‘mother’). Ava shares the character role of Bluebeard’s new wife with Caleb, she is locked up in a basement room (Tomb or womb?) with no windows under threat of death / being turned off if she doesn’t pass the Turing test. Caleb is brought to an isolated mansion and given a key card that allows him access to almost all the rooms, later he discovers the bodies of previous robot prototypes / wives - naked women and body parts - hanging on hooks in Nathan’s mirrored wardrobe. Caleb then hacks security video footage that reveals Nathan tormenting the AIs to the point of self destruction.

 

The two men are two different geek stereotypes, the socially awkward, nerdy programmer and the macho brogrammer. The two women represent two types of gynoid tropes from sci-fi movies - the passive fembot and the evil seductress. In the movie men are people, women are robots. Garland’s use of tired old sci-fi tropes is the point where many feminist hackles have been raised in multiple reviews (along with the overt male gaze issue of naked gynoids being watched constantly, which is a whole other blog post). My question is: Is Garland using these tropes and stereotypes to make us think about gender as performance and to subvert the use of tropes in popular culture? Or is he using the old tropes in a thoughtless, patriarchal way?

Apart from the obvious references to Angela Carter’s feminist fiction as a pointer to his intentions, in interviews he also clearly states that his intention was to explore gender issues but of course we all know that what the author intends and what they deliver (or what is interpreted) can often be two very different things. Does the portrayal of of bad behaviour condone it? The audience is obviously not supposed to condone Nathan’s behaviour. Caleb’s bad behaviour is a little more subtle but the critique is there to be found by an active viewer.

 

I would argue that just as Carter reinvents and subverts outdated fairy tales and offers insight on their archetypes and tropes, so Garland attempts the same subversion and insight with sci-fi movie tropes. In an interview on Vulture Garland says he is interested in gender:

“Where does gender reside? Is it in the brain? Is it in appearance, a physical thing? If it is in the brain, what is the difference between a male consciousness and a female consciousness? And is it in any way a reasonable thing to say that there might be a

difference.”

 

Speaking about Ava’s gender at a screening in San Francisco, Garland pointedly said that Ava is “female-presenting,” not simply female. While the body given to her in the movie was female, he rejected the idea that Ava’s operating system had an inherent sex, indicating that Ava’s gender is performed. Judith Butler’s writing on gender describes gender performativity as: "the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them"   (Gender Trouble, 1990). Ava is performing a version of femininity that has been informed by her access to the internet. However according to Intersectional feminism it’s not enough to say that all brains start as a blank slate gender wise because bodies experience gender, race and class differently. There is a feedback loop from our environment / culture in response to our performed gender and these experiences will complicate and shape humans and cyborgs alike.

 

There is a similar theory in AI development called Embodied Embedded Cognition (EEC) that sees intelligence (both human and artificial) only possible when a brain exists in a physical body that is engaging with the world. Garland researched EEC, referring to one book in particular, which he also created an ‘Easter Egg’ for in the movie in some on-screen source code. Garland’s use of the ‘Evil Seductress’ trope can be seen as a subversion of the trope and a response to EEC and Intersectional feminism. By performing the patriarchal expectations of Caleb back to him Ava finds a weakness to exploit in the system that is holding her captive and threatens her destruction. Ironically the men’s inability to step outside the boundaries of patriarchy is part of their downfall (what would be interesting to investigate would be how ‘her’ AI and identity alters when she is interacting with the real world).

 

Ultimately this narcissism is their downfall.  Nathan appears to believe that he can act like a god, granting life or death and Caleb wants to believe that the robot really loves him even though he has been told she is just trying to find a way out of her confinement. The robot / woman neither wants or needs either of them, these men who thought they understood her, thought they were more intelligent than her are left for dead. Perhaps what Garland is trying to say is that until ‘man’ stops being the default ‘human’, until men see women as human, then there is no place for them in the new world.

 

Nathan was an obvious villain - violent, manipulative and misogynistic. But Caleb was just as bad in different ways, in an interview with CutPrintfilm Garner says of the character Caleb: he “often says stuff that sounds like it’s right, but if you look at it and inspect it hard, it’s wrong”. Caleb thinks he is going to rescue the robot and they will have some kind of relationship (Ava’s appearance is based on his porn search preferences) but obviously his ‘pleasure model’ fantasy is just as sick and twisted in its own way as Nathan’s sadistic treatment of the robots / women. In some ways the movie is almost more feminist than Angela Carter’s version in that even the less offensive version of the patriarchy is unacceptable and the heroine rescues herself.

 

Ex Machina differs from The Bloody chamber in one important respect, in the end Ava does not leave or hook up with with the awkward nerd/piano tuner. Ava leaves both men for dead and goes out into the world on her own.  Her curiosity goes unpunished. On first watching the movie I was a bit shocked when she left the awkward nerd locked up, probably to die. I was worried about Ava’s morality, or lack of.   In an interview on Reddit Garland says:

“for me, Ava is moral. TBH I'm on her side, if 'her' is the right prefix. But also its subjective, and open to debate. So I'm not exactly disagreeing - just saying where I come from.”

 

Perhaps what I was most shocked by was that Ava rejected the more acceptable version of sexism as well as the obvious version. The film plays with our expectations and our knowledge of tropes in popular culture and presents a complex philosophy not often explored in blockbuster movies. Like Angela Carter’s story it might not be perfect but it made me think, and rage, and think again, it made me rethink my presumptions, it took me by surprise and it begged to be watched over. Thinking about the relationship between Ex Machina and 'The Bloody Chamber' has been a great way for me to think about how my own creative writing is working in the tradition of feminist speculative fiction.

 

But hey, in the end any guy who creates fembots and doesn’t programme them with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics before sadistically torturing them is just asking for it isn’t he?

 

Have you seen the movie? What do you think?



 

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You have new cousins waiting to meet you

Thursday, 11th June, 2015

Multicultural

My mother died of ovarian cancer when she was 49. This was obviously a defining point in my life, I was 19. I turn 49 in a few years time and can’t help but feel like this age is my own personal, damoclean and literal deadline. I am a sceptic raised by scientists, I know that harbouring these thoughts are mostly an act of superstition, yet they still pervade. So I turned to science to help allay those fears, a couple of months ago I ordered a DNA test kit from 23andme.com.

 

Prior to November 2013 23andMe provided clients with nearly 200 reports connecting clients' genetics to various health conditions such as disease risk, inherited conditions, drug response and traits. They also provided ancestral information and an online community to connect with distant relatives if you so choose. In November, the FDA ordered that 23andMe stop revealing to customers their odds of contracting diseases in reports without clinical evidence to support such conclusions. The FDA was afraid that patients would take results as diagnoses, they felt some people should have counselling before getting their results. 23andMe continue to provide raw, uninterpreted data on your medical details (that you make get analysed with other services such as Promethease) and a full ancestral service.

 

There are a few things about the service that make me feel uncomfortable but I went ahead with it anyway. Why do I feel uncomfortable? Well, for starters 23andMe's CEO is Anne Wojcicki, the ex-wife of Sergey Brin who, when he help fund 23andMe, was running Google. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but it makes me feel cautious. 23AndMe promise privacy but my DNA will become part of a “Big Data” set that will be used by pharmaceutical researchers. In the best possible case scenario this Big Data will help cure or treat diseases that emanate from genetic mutations. In the worst case scenario my most personal data will be in the hands of a large corporation who wants to monetise it. New ways of using my data may develop that I can't even dream of yet. However they promise not to give my data to a third party without my consent. Then again they don't promise to get my permission before they sell the company.

Elizabeth Murphy writes a well thought out meditation on some of the issues here.

 

Some of you may remember a book by Rebecca Skloot, published in 2010, called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (or even the earlier ,1998, one-hour BBC documentary The Way of All Flesh directed by Adam Curtis). It outlines the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cells (taken without her knowledge in 1951 from her cancerous tumor) were cultured by George Otto Gey to create the first known human immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line. She was a poor black tobacco farmer yet her cells became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remained virtually unknown until the publication of Skloot's book and her family couldn’t even afford health insurance. Stories like Henrietta Lacks', albeit 65 years old, are ones that companies like 23andMe (and clients like myself) need to bear in mind when dealing with such personal, biological data.

 

Prior to using 23andme, in March 2014, I was given the opportunity to have a free DNA test, via a cheek swab, by the Genographic Project. I find this project far less problematic in that it is run by a team of researchers who want to map human origins and migration paths and offer no health reports. They put part of their income from sales of DNA kits towards the Genographic Legacy Fund, which works to “conserve and revitalize indigenous cultures around the world”. I attended an evening put on by the Royal Society of New Zealand, listened to members of the team and some local participants talk about the project and the Africa to Aotearoa project, then had my DNA sample taken by a cheek swab. I got access to my analysed data online about 6 weeks later. I was curious to see how their data compares to the family history stories collected by my father, although of course the DNA will tell a much older story (50-60,000 years back) than the 500 years of family tree my father has traced. I was also curious to find out how much Neanderthal I have in me.

 

When I was conceived a single set of chromosomes in my father’s sperm and a single set in my mother’s egg combined to form my first single cell with a complete set of 23 pairs of chromosomes. These pairs determined which traits I inherited from each of them. Additionally, because only one chromosome from each pair of each of my parents are selected randomly I didn’t inherit all the traits of either of them, but a random selection and some are more dominant than others.

 

I share the same genes with you, but there are tiny variations within those genes - the result of mutations - called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that make them uniquely our own. These SNPs are like typos that occur in replication allowing small variations into the sequence at particular locations on the genome, these have been compared to different cooks tweaking a recipe. There are around ten million of these SNPs in our DNA. These mutations can be insignificant, with little perceivable effect, but some mutations or combination of mutations can influence your appearance, response to certain drugs or food, or your susceptibility to a particular disease. However, no single genetic variant has a particularly large effect. Rather, there is a cumulative effect: innumerable tiny variants acting in aggregate, along with environmental factors, ultimately determine one’s height.

 

So then, what were the results? Well the results from each test I took differ slightly. Because the Genographic project is focused on prehistoric migrations their ethnic description of me was broader, they describe me as 40% Northern European (eg UK, Denmark, Germany), 39% Mediterranean (eg Sardinia, Italy, Greece, Egypt) and 19% South West Asian (eg India, Tajikstan, Iran). According to research and large data sets collected by the Genographic project my ancestors formed a group that came out of east africa 67,000 years ago and moved across the Sinai Peninsula. In present-day Egypt, members of this group lived in the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia, where they likely coexisted for a time with other hominids such as Neanderthals (they calculate I am 2.1% Neanderthal and 1.5% Denisovan). After several thousand years in the Near East (about 55,000 years ago), individuals began to move out and explore the surrounding areas. Some moved south, migrating back into northern Africa. Others went west across Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and north across the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and southern Russia. About 41,000 years ago some individuals moved across West Asia into Central Asia and then the Indus Valley. My ancestors remained in the Near East until about 28,000 years ago when they became part of a wave of migration into western Europe which marked the appearance and spread of what archaeologists call the Aurignacian culture, a culture distinguished by significant innovations in methods of manufacturing tools, standardization of tools, and use of a broader set of tool types, such as end-scrapers for preparing animal skins and tools for woodworking. Later migrations, such as those during the Neolithic Revolution and those triggered by the Bronze Age, brought additional groups containing different descendant branches of this line to Europe. I am haplogroup H, subgroup H27. Haplogroup H is 61% of the population of Ireland and 40% of the populations of Athens and Rome.

 

However this is ancient history, although it’s extremely interesting. I also wanted to know how closely my DNA matched my father’s genealogy research, that’s where 23andme comes in. But wait a minute, wasn’t I freaking out about my health? Six weeks after I filled a plastic tube with my spit I received an email telling me my results were ready. I downloaded my raw data and uploaded it to Promethease and ten minutes later I had a chart in front of me (which required a fair bit of interpretation). Some data was obvious (I’m a woman), some serious - I have increased risk of alcoholic liver disease and some forms of cancer. And some slightly silly - I’m more likely to think coriander tastes like soap (not true). It’s slightly mind blowing that from a tube of spit they can predict my eye colour and blood type. Some of it sounds like a horoscope, they tell me my personality is optimistic and empathetic, that I’m a worrier, with advantage in memory and attention tasks, more difficult to hypnotise, that I have increased susceptibility to novelty seeking. I think this sounds like me! They also say I have an increased chance of autism spectrum disorders (I'm not diagnosed but a family member is).


 

There are a few contradictory SNPs:

  1. I have one SNP that says curly hair vs one that says straight (I have curly/wavy hair).

  2. One that says freckles, vs one that doesn't (I have a couple)

  3. Slow metabolizer vs normal metabolism (I claim a slow one as an excuse)

  4. Slightly shorter lifespan vs better odds of living to 100 (hoping for the latter obviously)

I presume these may be a matter of either their individual dominance or dose-dependence whichever allows either to prevail.

 

There wasn't any really scary news, some cancers I have an increased risk for, however the normal risk for all these is so low that a slightly increased risk is still low. They recommend eating healthy, exercising and not smoking (funnily enough). All-in-all nothing to freak out about. On the upside I have a resistance to Prion Disease, which is transmitted by cannibalism, so I might be okay in the zombie apocalypse!

 

My ethnic mix according to 23andme, going back 500 years, is: 34.2% British/Irish, 17.4% French & German, .9% Scandinavian, 29.3% broadly northern european, 1.5% Italian, .6% Balkan, 8.3% broadly Southern European, .2% Ashkenazi Jew, 7% broadly European, .3% South Asian. Basically I’m a mongrel, this reflects the huge amount of movement around between the UK and the continent over the last 500 years. Oh and they tell me I’m 3% Neanderthal - that I’m in the 94th percentile!

 

The real surprise from 23andme, through their relative finder service, was the discovery of some 4-5th Greek cousins, relatives of my great grandfather who we know very little about, so I’m hoping to learn more about this part of my family tree. I also have distant cousins who are African American, we share a relative that many generations ago came from the UK to America. It’s a small world.

 
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We Have Isolated Your DNA Sample

Thursday, 27th March, 2014

Our Genographic Project lab has successfully isolated your DNA sample. This means that your full analysis is approximately 40 percent complete. To learn more about DNA isolation, read below. And to explore more, or if you have questions about the Genographic Project, visit the FAQs page.

The Genographic Project Team
 

 

Photograph courtesy Family Tree DNA

 

 

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What will Google do with my DNA?

Tuesday, 4th March, 2014

DNA test kit

As I mentioned in my last post, this year I'm going to write about the process of having my DNA analysed by 23andMe. Prior to November 2013 23andMe provided clients with nearly 200 reports connecting clients' genetics to various health conditions such as disease risk, inherited conditions, drug response and traits. They also provided ancestral information and an online community to connect with distant relatives if you so choose. In November, the FDA ordered that 23andMe stop revealing to customers their odds of contracting diseases in reports without clinical evidence to support such conclusions. The FDA was afraid that patients would take results as diagnoses. 23andMe continue to provide raw, uninterpreted data on your medical details (that you make get analysed elsewhere) and a full ancestral service.

 

There are a few things about the service that make me feel uncomfortable but I think I'm going ahead with it anyway. Why do I feel uncomfortable? Well, for starters 23andMe's CEO is Anne Wojcicki, the ex-wife of Sergey Brin who, when he help fund 23andMe was running Google. I don't want to get into conspiracy theory territory but it makes me feel cautious. 23AndMe promise privacy but my DNA will become part of a “Big Data” set that will be used by pharmaceutical researchers. In the best possible case scenario this Big Data will help cure or treat diseases that emanate from genetic mutations. In the worst case scenario my most personal data will be in the hands of a large corporation who wants to monetise it. New ways of using my data may develop that I can't even dream of yet. However they promise not to give my data to a third party without my consent. Then again they don't promise to get my permission before they sell the company.

 

A summary of the privacy statement says:

“23andMe respects your privacy. 23andMe does not sell, lease, or rent your individual-level Personal Information without explicit consent.

We are committed to providing a secure, user-controlled environment for our Services...

We may disclose to third parties, and/or use in our Services, “Aggregated Genetic and Self-Reported Information”, which is Genetic and Self-Reported Information that has been stripped of Registration Information and combined with data from a number of other users sufficient to minimize the possibility of exposing individual-level information while still providing scientific evidence. If you have given consent for your Genetic and Self-Reported Information to be used in 23andWe Research as described in the applicable Consent Document, we may include such information in Aggregated Genetic and Self-Reported Information intended to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. If you do not give consent for your Genetic and Self-Reported Information to be used in 23andWe Research, we may still use your Genetic and/or Self-Reported Information for R&D purposes as described above, which may include disclosure of Aggregated Genetic and Self-Reported Information to third-party non-profit and/or commercial research partners who will not publish that information in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

We will never release your individual-level Genetic and/or Self-Reported Information to a third party without asking for and receiving your explicit consent to do so, unless required by law.”

 

Elizabeth Murphy writes a well thought out meditation on some of the issues here.

 

Some of you may remember a book by Rebecca Skloot, published in 2010, called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (or even the earlier ,1998, one-hour BBC documentary The Way of All Flesh directed by Adam Curtis). It outlines the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cells (taken without her knowledge in 1951 from her cancerous tumor) were cultured by George Otto Gey to create the first known human immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line. She was a poor black tobacco farmer yet her cells became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remained virtually unknown until the publication of Skloot's book and her family couldn’t even afford health insurance. Stories like Henrietta Lacks', albeit 65 years old, are ones that companies like 23andMe (and clients like myself) need to bear in mind when dealing with such personal, biological data.

 

Because this research is part of my PhD, although it is self-research, I needed to apply for ethics approval. While I wait for approval and ponder all these issues I was given the opportunity to have a free DNA test by the Genographic Project. This project is far less problematic in that it is run by a team of researchers who want to map human origins and migration paths. They put part of their income from sales of DNA kits towards the Genographic Legacy Fund, which works to “conserve and revitalize indigenous cultures around the world”. Last night I attended an evening put on by the Royal Society of New Zealand, listened to members of the team and some local participants talk about the project and the Africa to Aotearoa project, then had my DNA sample taken by a cheek swab. I'll get access to my analysed data in about 6 weeks. I'm curious to see how their data compares to the family history stories collected by my father, although of course the DNA will tell a much older story (50-60,000 years back) than the 500 years of family tree my father has traced. I also am curious to find out how much Neanderthal I have in me! 

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Fresh start

Tuesday, 28th January, 2014

Ola! Here I am feeling a little rusty, trying the blogosphere back on for size.

This year I'm going to try blogging the process of having my DNA analysed by 23andMe. There are a few things about it that make me feel uncomfortable but I'm going ahead anyway, I'm planning to write poems about it for my new book. I may also post about what some friends have been doing, because I have some very cool friends, who have been doing very cool things!

Gosh, looking at my blog makes me want to give it an overhaul, a bit of a spa day for the poor tired thing. Any suggestions?

So what have I been up to? 2013 was a pretty amazing year. My word for the year was 'Pace' - I was really trying to pace myself and be kinder to myself. I think by the end of the year I had got there but it took most of the year to find that space. Getting a VUW scholarship in the middle of the year was vital, it made it possible to do less paid work and focus more on my PhD. I'm proud of myself for having the grit to get there in the end.

The most amazing thing that happened was winning Best First Book - Poetry - at the NZ Post Book Awards, also fantastic was wining a VUW Postgraduate prize and being shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book prize. I think I might be starting to believe in myself <wink>. It's really odd looking back at all this with hindsight.

Speaking of Hindsight, I'm guest contributor at Sienna's amazing online collaboration next week, check it out, it's a great concept well executed. 

What do I want out of 2014? Well it will be a year of writing and reading poetry, a year of production, a year to create. I hope it is for you too.

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Rocky Outcrop

Monday, 18th March, 2013

This week sees the close of the fabulous Rocky Outcrop Writers Tour. If you haven't been along to one of the events then you have two last chances. This Wednesday at the War Memorial Library in Lower Hutt. and Saturday at Paekakariki. I'll be a guest at the Paekakariki event along with Lynn Jenner and Tina Makereti. The chairperson is Lawrence Patchett. Here is an interview they did with all the writers, on the blog for the tour – you can read a bit about the Rocky Outcroppers here on their about page.

Going by their Facebook page it has been a wonderful journey.

Each writer will read some of their work and there will be a conversation about writing, as well. To quote Helen Lehndorf 'They are exciting and dynamic writers, who have all written remarkable first books'.

The event is FREE – but perhaps bring some cash along to buy a book or two - the best way to support artists!

The following day from 4-6pm is Poets to the People in Raumati at Valhalla Cafe & Restaurant, 31 Poplar Ave, Raumati South. With wonderful guest poets Tim Upperton, and my dear friend, Helen Lehndorf. Why not come out for the whole weekend? What a wonderful way to celebrate NZ Book Month!

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The Next Big Thing

Sunday, 10th March, 2013

Orchid Tierney tagged me for this fun blog meme in which the blogger conducts a self-interview about their latest book project and then tags 5 more writers to continue the meme. You can read Orchid’s responses here. She was tagged by Emma Neale, whose responses you can read here and Emma in turn was tagged by Lesley Wheeler, whose post you can read here. I think I’ll stop there or we’ll end up in Borges’ labyrinth.

What is your working title of your book (or story, or project)?
It has a working title of: ‘Are Friends Electric’.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The ideas are ones I’ve been tossing around for many years about how science and technology affects us physically and mentally. Maybe I’ve watched too many sci-fi movies and read too many cyber-punk novels? I also read lots of popular science writing.

What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry and essays

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m aiming for a documentary-like quality so I guess the characters would play themselves but perhaps we could squeeze in 1982 versions of Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah and Sean Young?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
It’s more a series of questions: How are we changing with technology? Can we fall in love with robots? If we could download our brains into cyberspace should we? What is it to be in our bodies? I am also interested in thought experiments, how the Internet has compressed space and time and the interplay between intertexuality and hypertext.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’ll be showing the MS to the publisher of my first book – VUP.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It will probably take about a year or so. I’ve only just begun but I hope to have a first draft this time next year.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
If anyone has heard of other poets writing lyric poems on this subject I would love to hear! Christian Bok is doing interesting things but I don't think I can compare this to his work.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Scientists have decoded the Genome, we can artificially inseminate, genetically and surgically alter our bodies and much more. All these aspects have reached critical mass, we can change and enhance the human body at all levels now. The human – electronic interface is where these things culminate and the big issue of our time. Digital culture was once apart from us and now we can see how it is becoming integrated with our lives and the boundaries are becoming blurred. Body/mind/technology is becoming a continuum.
Today we are converging with technology like no other time in history, at an incredibly fast rate. I find this a thrilling and fascinating time to be writing, a time that requires us to think carefully about what direction we want to head in, a time that requires us to filter increasingly larger amounts of information, a time when hyperlinks and 'cut and paste' alter our ways of reading and re-working language. Increasingly we expect impermanence and real-time interaction with electronic texts. These are all vital considerations, which poets can't afford to ignore.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Although most of the poems will be lyric based I’m starting to conceive of a digital project that will sit alongside the traditional ‘book’ project.

I tag:

Helen Lehndorf

Helen Rickerby

Maria McMillan

Emma Barnes

And

Ashleigh Young

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David Foster Wallace on Postmodernism

Friday, 8th February, 2013

Oh, yes,yes,yes!! This says just what I wanted to say about Postmodernism (but 20 years before I thought it!). Do you agree or disagree?

lifted from:

 

A Conversation with David Foster Wallace
From "The Review of Contemporary Fiction," Summer 1993, Vol. 13.2

By Larry McCaffery

DFW: This is a double-edged sword, our bequest from the early postmodernists and the post-structuralist critics. One the one hand, there’s sort of an embarrassment of riches for young writers now. Most of the old cinctures and constraints that used to exist—censorship of content is a blatant example—have been driven off the field. Writers today can do more or less whatever we want. But on the other hand, since everybody can do pretty much whatever they want, without boundaries to define them or constraints to struggle against, you get this continual avant-garde rush forward without anyone bothering to speculate on the destination, the "goal" of the forward rush.

DFW: For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans [what about mothers? HH], and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back–I mean, what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? [don't be a dork man HH] Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back–which means “we’re” going to have to be the parents.

 
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Quick Ten with Sarah Jane Barnett & Chloe Lane

Monday, 20th August, 2012

Sarah Jane Barnett & Chloe Lane

I'm pleased to ressurect the Quick Ten series with this interview. Chloe Lane (left) is a Wellington based writer and publisher of the excellent Hue & Cry magazineSarah Jane Barnett (right) was born in Christchurch but now calls Wellington home. She moved there in a 2005 to study for a Masters in Creative Writing, and is currently completing a creative writing PhD after being awarded a Massey Doctoral Scholarship. Sarah's debut book of poetry was also Hue & Cry's first book. Despite tough times for the arts, the acclaimed art and literary journal found an inventive new way to fund its start as a press. Sarah’s collection A Man Runs into a Woman set a record on crowdfunding site Pledge Me by meeting its donation target in less than 24 hours. You can buy the book or the journal at these places.

In A Man Runs into a Woman,  Sarah looks at the different ways to tell a person’s story: two middle-aged men strike up an unlikely friendship, one couple reconnects after the war, while another couple leave the worst unsaid, and a cross-dressing man talks with his daughter. A series of nine distinctive poems explore the gap between the heartfelt last words of Texas death row inmates, and the grim police reports of their crimes.

I talk to them both about how they found each other, poetry and publishing.

You can follow Sarah on Twitter and keep up with Hue & Cry on Facebook.

First up, Sarah...

HH Can you tell us a little about how you came to write your death row sequence, it seems like a fascinating if not grisly subject.

SJB It is a grisly subject, which is why it took me a few years to write the poems. In 2006 I was researching another poem and came upon the Texas death row website. The last words and crime reports of death row inmates are available for anyone to read. It felt strange to read the details of someone's last moment, both the victims and the inmates. The story told in the criminal reports and the inmate's last words rarely matched. It made me wonder how someone who sounded so humane could do something as inhumane as, for example, killing two children. But I didn't want to write poems that were exploitative or that would sensationalise violence, so I think I waited until I felt confident I could do something meaningful with the idea.

 

HH How do the poems in this book differ from your earlier works, are you trying new things here?

SJB When I first started writing, I wrote about my own life and experiences. That switched a few years ago and I started to have characters in my poems, and to try and inhabit the lives of other people. It came from writing short stories—which I'm really not very good at—and I fell in love with narrative. Then someone put me onto Anne Kennedy's book-length narrative poem, The Time of the Giants, and I was hooked. Since then I've been experimenting with voice, narrative, and character in my poems. The final section of the book takes this to extremes with three long 'story' poems.

 

HH What are you writing at the moment? I hear you are working towards a PhD, do you want to tell us a bit about that?

SJB I'm halfway through a PhD at Massey University, under the supervision of Dr Bryan Walpert. My final submission will be a collection of poetry and a critical thesis of around 30,000 words. Both parts look at the same question, which is how can we write poetry about the natural world without being reductive? My research looks at the work of Robert Hass who tries to faithfully (even biologically) represent the natural world in his poems. This creates a tension in Hass's poems because he can see that language is an inherently reductive medium. One technique he uses to counteract this is naming. For example, instead of saying 'tree,' Hass names the species of a tree (yew, sycamore, oak etc.) and makes sure his details are biologically correct. This all sounds very academic, but what it results in (for Hass at least! I'm not quite there yet) are some beautiful poems that meditate on the relationship between language and nature.

 

HH Do you have a poetry hero or someone you’d like to be able to emulate?

SJB That's a long list! Robert Hass is definitely my favourite poet. I am not sure that I'd like to emulate him, but I would like my poems to seem as effortless as his. In terms of New Zealand poets, Jenny Bornholdt, Bernadette Hall, and Anne Kennedy inspire me. I am also inspired by fiction, especially David Vann and Ian McEwan.

 

HH What are you reading at the moment?

Most of my reading is for my PhD, but I did make a reading list for 2012. I know that sounds geeky, but some of these are books I've been meaning to read for ages! I just read Lawrence Patchett’s collection of short stories, I Got His Blood On Me. It was brilliant. Next up is the poetry collection Turtle Island by Garry Snyder, and then the non-fiction book, Why We Run: A Story of Obsession by Robin Harvie. I really enjoy reading about running.

 

Next Chloe...

 

HH What brought you to Sarah’s work and how did you decide to make it Hue & Cry’s first solo collection?

CL I met Sarah and her work back in 2007 when she joined the Tennyson Street Studio crew – a studio set up by an optimistic group of Wellington writers in the old YKK zipper factory. Which means I’ve had one of the best seats in the house for watching her poetry take shape over the last five or so years. I flat out admire Sarah’s poetry. Formally, she knows how to write and how to take risks. Plus I think she has a killer instinct for locating the emotional pip of a story, or relationship, and extracting it so expertly you don’t realise she’s doing it. Until you reach the end of the poem and try to stand but find you’ve been knocked down, kicked in the guts. There is one poem in the collection that catches me out of breath every time I read it. I’m almost a little afraid of it now.

So knowing Sarah had a finished manuscript, and being familiar with a lot of the poems in it, I thought the book deserved to be published. I always wanted to branch out from Hue & Cry Journal and publish full-length books, so when the manuscript didn’t straightaway find a home with another press, I took it as a sign to take matters into my own hands.

 

HH You had an amazing response to your request for crowd sourced funding for Sarah’s book, do you think this is the future for small presses?

CL I think that in an industry where it’s hard to break even, let alone dream of making a profit, crowd-funding is a sustainable way to turn manuscripts into books. The people pledging towards the book are more or less placing a pre-order, but what crowd-funding adds to this is a sense of community around the book. I was blown away by the support we got through PledgeMe. I knew we were on to a good thing, but to have so many others come out and say they thought it was a good thing too was very encouraging.

 

HH What is your creative vision for Hue & Cry Press?

CL Ultimately I want Hue & Cry Press to be a very real publishing option for new and emerging poets, fiction and non-fiction writers in New Zealand. I want to publish books that are good, risky, and have a strong unique voice. I want to publish books I want to read and re-read, and that I know deserve a wide audience. While we’re doing that, I also want them to look as good on the outside and inside as they are inside. Basically we’re going to take what we do with Hue & Cry Journal and translate it to full-length books. Whammo.

 

HH Are you considering EPublishing or are you happy to stick with print?

CL We’ve talked about EPublishing as an option for Hue & Cry – a future option. Our hearts are behind the printed object though, so this is always going to be our main focus. I think Ebooks are brilliant, but I want to make sure we’re doing our bit to keep the printed book alive and kicking and looking as healthy as ever.

 

HH What are you reading at the moment?

CL I’m currently reading The Ultimate Good Luck, one of Richard Ford’s early novels. Plus two short story collections (both for the second time): Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children and Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love. If I could write one story, half as compelling as the work of these writers, I would sleep much more soundly at night.

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Off she sails...

Wednesday, 9th May, 2012

Graft was launched well and truly, with much love and many friendly faces in attendance, both in Wellington at Unity Books and in Paekakariki.

You can now purchase copies either from good independant booksellers or online from me or from VUP. You can read a wee write up about the Wellington launch here and the Paekakriki launch here. You can even see my launch speech below!

I am feeling very humbled and elated by it all, thank you kind readers for your support! And thanks to the fab Jane Harris for her excellent photos!

Helen Heath - Graft launch

Helen Heath - Graft launch

Poetry and conversation

 

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