Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

28 Feb 2010, 15:13 p.m.

Making The Hard Look Easy, Feminism, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Mary Anne Mohanraj recently wrote about sprezzatura, the nonchalance and easy grace that make all one's accomplishments seem effortless. She mentions that she's trying to cut down on that behavior, because she thinks its deception causes harmful expectations and self-loathing in others.

Mohanraj's post instantly reminded me of an ex. He told me of a compliment he'd once received: "You seem to be gliding through life." What does it say about me that I'd think of that as an insult, not a compliment? My take was: If you aren't visibly struggling, you're not working hard enough, your life is easy, and you're probably spoiled, lazy, and uncurious. How much of that is my workaholism? How much is insecurity, or resentment of privilege, or ignorance of my own privilege? Stupid female-socialized insecurity and self-sabotage for the sake of fitting in is, as I stipulated, stupid, and harmful both to the speaker and the hearer. But there's a difference between struggling to appear effortless and batting away compliments with a stick. I'm gonna quote myself from a column I wrote a few years ago:

There are people who say there's no such thing as arrogance, who would see nothing wrong with saying they're awesome, to whom humility, embarrassment, hubris, etc., are useless concepts that get in the way of efficient markets....

There is this thing called kindness, and it includes not eating a Snickers bar in front of a hungry person, and it includes not bragging about your skills in front of people who are trying valiantly to accomplish what you attained, especially if you got there without much effort....

Am I an expert at anything now? The larger my realm of experience gets, the more insignificant my tiny efforts seem.

What do I deliberately practice? What skills have I mastered? And what did my parents give me, in nature and nurture, that let me leap ahead?

I have no perspective on my own expertise, and no expertise on gaining perspective.

When something great happens in my life, I tend to think it's because of luck and discount my own effort. I aw-shucks my own accomplishments. And then I envy successful people instead of admiring them.

Envy comes from impotent desire. Role models get admired, the admirer assuming that he can get there too.

That's the difference, too, between destructive and constructive acknowledgments of one's accomplishments. Compassion, and hope.

Related essays that sprang to mind included some notes on protection and mentorship by Bitch Ph.D. She says that her strengths include calming students' and junior academics' anxieties by telling them the profession's unspoken rules, such as "No one reads everything they cite." I might turn her paragraph below into my new anthem:

I don't believe in unwritten rules, or at least I don't believe in not telling people what they are; I don't believe in meritocratic bull****; I don't believe that making people paranoid is the way to get them to do good work; I don't believe that competition need be cruel. I'm an extrovert, I'm honest, and I don't like to lie.

(Some thinking on meritocracy, in case you take reflexive umbrage at Bitch Ph.D.'s dismissal.)

When you're perceived as successful, you can more credibly criticize the system you've mastered and the game you've won. For example, because she takes the effort to look femme and stylish, she can awaken students to how much work goes into performing femininity: they "think more critically about why they spend so much time on their appearance, and what the costs and benefits of it are." This goes back to Mohanraj's hope that she can use others' compliments as an opening to encourage them, rather than discourage.

These days, I just keep trying to expose the work under the beauty.... I cheated and used a pre-made sauce for the base -- let me show it to you. Exposing the hard labor (or the clever workarounds) that are necessary to trying to do it all, for the sake of family, of profession, of self, of community. I believe that labor offers a different kind of grace.

Speaking of labor: On the difference between labor and work, via Dara. "What is your work now?" may go into my toolbox of party questions, as "what are you reading?" and "what are you obsessed with?" aren't surefire conversation-starters.

Mohanraj is Guest of Honor at this year's WisCon (feminist science fiction/fantasy convention, late May, Madison, Wisconsin). So I can barely segue into talking about some speculative fiction that's caught my eye.

"Sundowning" by Joanne Merriam is a little bit like "The Second Conquest of Earth" by L. J. Daly (both good, same magazine, five months previous): interesting female point-of-view character trying to outwit or outwork a terrifying antagonist.

Got an interesting fictional take on the Ramayana? An anthology is seeking submissions.

I got to go to the launch party for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy) a few nights ago. And then I inhaled the entire book over the next 24 hours. To quote another reviewer, it's "full of danger, sensuality, and wonder." And it works as a self-contained book, by the way.

Reasons I wanted to read this book:

So it was overdetermined that I'd read the book. I'm glad to have loved it as well.


01 Mar 2010, 0:47 a.m.

Yours is the second post I've read within 24 hours raving about 100K Kingdoms! Now I have to get it.

02 Mar 2010, 2:42 a.m.

Loved this post. More please.