Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Interview with Chameleon

Chameleon of Redemption Blues recently contributed to my project by providing very thoughtful answers to my interview questions. Kudos, Chameleon!

Interview

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Do you identify as a “feminist”? How important, if at all, is being/not being a feminist to your identity?

Chameleon: I happily identify as a feminist. Indeed, being a feminist is probably as important a constituent of my identity as being a born-again Christian once was, with all the commitment and passion this implies. I may not stand in busy thoroughfares handing out tracts to convert the “unsaved” as I once did, but in any initial conversation with a new acquaintance the identification will crop up sooner rather than later.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Whether or not you identify as a feminist, what does “feminism” mean to you?

Chameleon: My (male) PhD supervisor described feminism to me as “a pernicious, reductive ideology”. By that stage I was able to shrug off his remark as a shudder of dread at the erosion of (barely contested) privilege. It is always worthwhile as an intellectual exercise to remind yourself why feminism is relevant in spite of the constant onslaught of the apathetic who claim that now we have the vote and a handful of us are paid wages almost on a par with men that we should shut up and stop whingeing [sic]. Once your eyes have been opened you can never see anything in the same way again: what once appeared trivial or harmless is revealed as a small component of a series of representations reinforcing the status quo, however subtly (in fact the very subtlety is what renders the effort so successful, as it assumes the appearance of being “natural”, that is, “meant” to be or “the way things are”, beyond the reach of social intervention).

Becoming a feminist reminds me of the scene in The Matrix when Neo is given the choice between two coloured pills: feminism is definitely the red pill, ripping you out of whatever uneasy compromise you may have had with your oppression and plunging you into a harsher environment of constant struggle.

From an early age, I was determined not to make do with my mother’s lot. She had been denied an education by her own mother, who used the excuse of not being able to afford the uniform to prevent her from attending the private school to which she had won a scholarship. Whereas my grandmother took out her bitterness at having toiled away on farms as the wife of an itinerant ploughman, giving birth to five children, and never being permitted to achieve her potential on her daughters, my mother was more generous in spirit and gave me every possible encouragement to improve my chances through study. Fortunately for me, I was able to benefit from a social mobility, which has been almost completely eliminated in contemporary Britain.

My mother stayed at home during the day, cooking and cleaning, before working part-time in the evenings as a hospital cleaner and, once she had obtained the relevant qualifications at college, a domestic supervisor. Having been brought up in a working-class environment it never occurred to me that I would not have to earn my living independently.

At school, I was reviled as a “swot” and for my denunciations of marriage. Again, it was a fairly inchoate sense of innate injustice that inspired me, an abhorrence of containment, stifling, like putting on a corset and pulling the cords so tight you can never breathe freely again – I still had not even heard of feminism. Outcast status left me yearning for company. When I converted to Christianity at the age of 14 at a “Christ is the answer crusade” meeting in the local city hall, I swallowed the teachings of the church wholesale. I felt that I belonged, fitted in for the first time, so poured every ounce of devotion into the fellowship. The message preached was one of utter subordination and obedience to men. The wife must accept the authority of her husband. Women could not occupy any leadership positions in the church either. The most that a female believer could aspire to spiritually was heading a prayer or house group, but only if its membership was exclusively feminine. As soon as a male put in an appearance, he was in charge. Divinely ordained superiority.

For a few years the relief of being accepted outweighed any reservations that might have caused me to question the doctrines. Then the anarchy of sexual desire threw my faith into turmoil. Two of the men wanted me as their girlfriend. I felt completely trapped. I couldn’t be expected to take such a momentous decision (not even a relatively innocuous kiss on the lips was sanctioned outside marriage), God had to intervene and reveal His will to one of them. I had to abdicate all responsibility to follow the teachings I had absorbed, yet I was supposed to submit to both suitors, which presented me with an intractable dilemma. I attempted to express my desperation in a short story, a thinly fictionalised version of what was happening, a copy of which I gave to the pastor. The result? I was punished by being forced to burn the story along with all my other writings. It was all my fault. I must have led them both on, teased them, played them off against each other. So much for my dutiful, righteous passivity. I was accused of false prophecy and the demons that had possessed me had to be cast out. With the emotional distance I have now, it all seems perfectly absurd, yet I willingly embraced humiliation rather than renounce my God.

The situation had still not been resolved when I left for university, but, away from the direct surveillance of the fellowship, I slowly began to extricate myself from its grip. This was no easy undertaking: my immortal soul was in jeopardy. We had been taught to sneer at the “established church” in a most uncharitable and intolerant fashion, so a more conventional, non-charismatic brand of Christianity offered no refuge. The choice was stark: stay with the new covenanters or face eternal damnation. I responded by devising my own set of beliefs, a bespoke blend of pantheism and reincarnation with cosmic balance (as opposed to sin) thrown in for good measure, my primary and more urgent concern being to demonstrate my spiritual purity in spite of the mockery of my detractors. This involved purging my body of meat. Blood was the carrier of life and consuming it blunted sensitivity. I lived as a vegetarian for eight years.

In the meantime, I became a single mother and started in remunerated employment. Although a friend from university never tired of extolling the virtues of Simone de Beauvoir, I had never really listened to her. In my isolation abroad, cut off from all support networks, I purchased a copy of The Beauty Myth, the first feminist book I read. I had my reasons, transgressing more than one norm with my unrepentant unattached state and having put on 30 kilos during the pregnancy. After that, I spent a substantial proportion of my disposable income on feminist literature, one bibliography leading to another.

It was not feminism that finally freed me from the residual guilt of religion, however, but Emile Durkheim’s masterpiece The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

Feminism equipped me with an interpretative framework with which to decipher my experiences and place them within a wider context of discrimination and oppression. Feminism is an emancipatory project beneficial to women and men alike. It focuses on the here and now and demands an end to inequality, unlike the sop of religion, which might afford some comfort, a compensatory fantasy of better things to come for the conformist (I am tempted to say defeatist). It both absolves and imparts a greater burden of responsibility. It engages with arguments, never shying away from controversy. It quickens the mind and removes the fetters of passivity. It glories in its subversiveness: feminists will always challenge the dominant social order.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Do you or have you ever kept a blog or blogs? When you spend time online, do you read blogs? Are there any blogs you read regularly?

Chameleon: I do keep a blog, Redemption Blues (www.redemptionblues.com).

In common with most other bloggers, I have a small number of regular reads. Every morning before the commute to work, I sit in front of the computer and check for new entries on my favourite blogs. This is as integral a part of my morning ritual as the coffee I sip whilst reading on screen.

The quickest answer to which blogs I read regularly is: check my sidebar. As we are focusing on feminist blogs, the ones I check every day are The F-Word (http://www.thefword.org.uk/index), Mind the Gap! (http://mindthegapcardiff.blogspot.com/) and Philobiblon (http://www.philobiblon.co.uk/).

This does not remotely imply that I believe that the others, such as Queer Dewd formerly known as be elle (http://blog.pulpculture.org/), or I Blame the Patriarchy (http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/), to name but a couple, merit less attention. On the contrary, although I check the other blogs listed on Redemption Blues less frequently, I tend to print out the material and mull it over more carefully, which, by definition means that I consult them at weekends when my mental space is less cluttered.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Tell me about your blog(s)? How long have you been keeping a blog?

Chameleon: I began writing Redemption Blues in May 2004 when I was on a post-doctoral research fellowship and had some spare time to fritter away.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: What made you want to start a blog? What was your inspiration?

Chameleon: The godfather of my blog is a friend in Canada who discovered blogging when he split up with his long-term partner and used it as a means to articulate his pain. He told me that he had come across Belle de Jour and was convinced that I would like it. He was also certain that the blogging format would be the perfect outlet for my shorter pieces of creative writing. He was right.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: How would you describe your blog?

Chameleon: When I first started writing Redemption Blues, I conceived of it as “an autobiography in fragments”. However, it has grown and changed. I have two main categories of comment and criticism, Gilead (from Margaret Attwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale and always prefaced by a quote from that work), encompassing my feminist output and XXL, which groups my fat advocacy articles. I also conduct interviews with feminist activists and intellectuals, such as Serap Cileli or Beverley Skeggs.

A Blog Without a Biccyle: Does your blog have a theme or does it focus on a particular issue?

Chameleon: Having said that, it is impossible to pigeonhole the blog, which is probably one of the reasons why my readership is not vast! I view it as a resource and therefore am completely self-indulgent as to the length of what I post. For example, for the last two years I have been working on an essay entitled Women and Binge Drinking: Anatomy of a Moral Panic. When I finally complete it (and I have been working on it flat out over the last three months or so, which has also lost me readers as I have not kept it ticking over, time being a very finite resource), I will publish it in several instalments, but in total it will comprise some 400 pages. I do not make concessions length-wise, which some may contend disqualifies Redemption Blues as a blog. My reply would be that blogging is a loose format (its malleability being one of its most attractive features) and the individual reader chooses whether or not to risk RSI by scrolling all the way through. In short, I use my blog as a vehicle for my creative energies, to explore my intellectual interests.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: How do you define a “blog”?

Chameleon: I do not subscribe to a monolithic definition of a blog. Many will agree or disagree on additional subsidiary elements, but, for me, a blog is a tool for self-expression and/or social networking based on a series of dated entries posted on a more or less regular basis. Beyond that, it can refer to such disparate products as my teenage son’s magpie-like collection of internet curiosities, which appeal to his sense of humour and which he shares with his friends (no personal content whatsoever beyond the initial selection and a few sardonic comments thereupon) to Redemption Blues, which I hope will push the boundaries of what a “mere blog” can aspire to (here I am referring to some of the condescending appraisals made by “mainstream” journalists, such as Janet Street-Porter in The Independent, who seems blissfully unaware of the more serious side of blogging, such as political reportage, brushing the activity aside as narcissism and mind-bogglingly inane trivia).

A Blog Without a Bicycle: What qualifies as a “feminist blog”?

Chameleon: Here too, “feminist blogging” covers a vast spectrum of writing. If the author of the blog identifies as a feminist, this will permeate her words and that is good enough for me. A feminist blog, in other words, does not have to participate in the latest debates within the community in order to be relevant. It might deal with subject matter not explicitly flagged as feminist, but tackle it from an implicitly feminist point of view.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Have you ever participated in a blog carnival? If so, tell me about that experience.

Chameleon: I have participated in a blog carnival both as contributor and host.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Why did you want to participate in a carnival?

Chameleon: In both capacities, I submitted articles to a carnival to connect with an audience/community of like-minded individuals and contribute to current debates, to gain exposure for my blog and to become acquainted with other blogs and give them exposure (via sidebar links) in return.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: How did you find out about the blog carnival you participated in?

Chameleon: I found out about the Carnival of Feminists through reading the blog of the carnival founder, Natalie Bennett.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Now that you have participated in a carnival, what do you think about them?

Chameleon: In my opinion, blog carnivals provide an excellent opportunity to make contact with other bloggers interested in broadly the same area, to exchange ideas and become aware of issues that might otherwise have escaped my attention. They are highly informative and pleasurable too.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: What do you think is the best/worst aspect of blog carnivals?

Chameleon: Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any downside to carnivals. The best aspects are the showcasing and community-building.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Do you belong to or consider yourself a member of any online community? How do you define these communities?

Chameleon: Beyond my general affiliation to feminism and fat acceptance I do not belong to any online blogging community.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Do you think that activism can be carried out online? What are the possibilities of such activism?

Chameleon: If flash mobbing can be organised via text messages, there can be no obstacle to activism online. From signing government petitions to improve rape conviction rates, to lobbying MPs through e-mail, to protesting against misogynistic newspaper articles (which are increasingly being replicated online in the battle to preserve circulation figures), a multitude of possibilities for activism are opened up through the existence of the Internet. Its chief merit is that it has facilitated communication to an unprecedented degree. Rapidity of contact has also been revolutionised. I am certain that the Internet can help launch and hold together grass roots feminist organisations, the aforementioned Mind the Gap! serving as the perfect illustration. It is also easier to find information about existing local groups as well as facilities for women with the advent of the Internet.

A Blog Without a Bicycle: Do you think that feminist activism is being conducted online? If so, can you think of any examples?

Chameleon: I have no doubts whatsoever that feminist activism is being carried out online. The example that immediately springs to mind is the creation of a new feminist magazine, Subtext (http://www.subtextmagazine.co.uk/), with its primarily blog-based content, set up by the indefatigable Gil of Travelling Punk (http://travellingpunk.blogspot.com/). magazine). Then there is the campaign against
so-called “lads’ mags”, which shows up the loathsomeness of the genre to devastating effect by substituting images of women for ones of men (http://ladsmags.blogspot.com/).


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