Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

I don't know why, or how, I came to Margaret Atwood so late in my life. She seems to be the perfect author for me and, as prolific as she is, I seem to have read much more of her non-fiction, than her fiction. I read Cat's Eye on holiday.

One of the things that struck me most about this novel was its insightful portrayal of relationships among girls and women. The protagonist, Elaine Risley, is a successful painter who returns to the town of her childhood, teenage and early adult years to attend a retrospective of her work. Alone in Toronto, she begins to reminisce about her life, and in particular her friendship with Cordelia: her nemesis, or a foil, or the example of what the protagonist herself could have become.

This post is not a review. Atwood's work is excellent, and I highly recommend her if you haven't read her already. Like much else on this blog, this post is about ME.

Cat's Eye got me thinking about my relationships with girls and women. I was a resilient child; I grew into a resilient adult. I had a large family and network of siblings and cousins of both sexes. At home, I was closest to my brother in age and, as a child, in games. I don't remember my very early childhood years but my mother's anecdotes tells of a brash, outspoken, cheeky and rather confident brat. I haven't changed much. I am hoping any child I may have will not be like the young me (I'd like her to be much better behaved!).

The first primary school that I went to had kids from a mish-mash of many and varied cultural and ethnic groups. I formed friendships with almost everyone: Indigenous kids, Islander kids, fellow Viet kids, Chinese kids, Lebanese kids, Greek kids. They were all girls.

Even in early primary school, I knew we weren't 'cool'. We were generally excluded from games of 'tiggy' (a chasing game) and I, in particular, was banned from 'catch and kiss' (I had punched the last person who caught me, before he could kiss me, because he grabbed me around the waist. I did not play by the rules.) We spent our lunch hours in one corner of the playground. There must have been a reason for that, beyond mere choice. After all, the monkey bars and the swings were in the diametrically opposite corner of the playground. I remember playing on the monkey bars and swings AFTER kids had left school for the day. So there must have been someone preventing me from doing so. I have no recollection of who they were, nor why. Although I'd be quite happy to take a racialist stab in the dark.

In grade five (aged eight), we moved from inner city, mixed class, multi-cultural, to outer suburbs, blue collar, mono-cultural. I and my brother were the only two Asian kids the school had ever seen. The school I attended was a very small school, which was a shock to me. Previously, there would have been more people in one of my classes, than in the entire school. It was not large enough to form cliques, so most of the time, everyone played with everyone else. But there was the occasional spat. I got into fights a lot. I have previously posted about one particular not-quite fight.

Grade 5/6 was when the social outcasting bullying set in: I would have been 10/11. My brother was in grade 7, the last primary school year, at the time. At that age, everyone was at markedly different stages of physical development. I was still small and weedy and childlike. So was my brother. Some of the girls who were my friends had begun to develop breasts and hips, and a giggling interest in boys (still germ-filled in my eyes). Some of the boys had a swagger and were heads and shoulders taller than everyone else.

One rainy lunchtime, I came out of class to sit with the usual circle. As I fought for a space between two people, they turned their backs to me, shuffled forwards and closed me out again. I got up and went to sit beside someone else, also in the circle. The same thing happened. I persisted and sat there eating my lunch in a strangled silence. A few of the group got up and moved. Then, one of the girls came over to me. She had, a few weeks earlier, declared that she was my best friend. She whispered that everyone was unimpressed with me because one of the boys, whom another of the girls liked, might have a crush on me. That boy was my brother's best friend, and he was, of course, full of cooties. While she was talking to me, her head swiveled back and forth; she was watching how the other girls were reacting to her talking to me. "I hope you don't mind," she whispered, "but we've all agreed not to hang out with you", and then she scuttled back to the group, who were by now all facing towards me, hands menacingly on out-stuck-hips.

I remember being bewildered, and not saying anything, but feeling that it was absolutely necessary that I did not move; that they move. So I just stood there, looking back at them. I may have looked sad or fearful or confrontational. I don't really know. It did feel like I had done something wrong, but I was definitely not going to say sorry. And they had not exactly done anything to allow me to lash into them, as Craig had. They whispered together, giggled together, and then left. After they had gone, I deflated, and slunk off into the library.

The next day, I did not bother. I went to join the kids in the junior school and sat with kids 2 to 3 grades below me. I played on their swings and monkey bars and fortresses. I played chasey and skipping rope games again, instead of sitting around gossiping at lunch.

Though my friendship with the older girls re-ignited, it never felt true afterwards. I was wary. And if they shut me out, I defended by disappearing off to have more fun with the younger kids. Some days I just played their games, which were much more fun anyway.

In high school, three girls one grade older than me decided I would be fun to pick on one term. Wrong choice. They gave me a nickname (midget), because I was short, and I hung out with girls, one in particular, who were at least a head taller than I was. One of my friends became quite friendly with them, which was fine by me. The three would be sweet as pie to me when my friend was around and horrid to me when she wasn't. My friend did not understand why I didn't want to spend time with them, like she did.

I had quite quickly developed a reputation at high school for being arrogant - I presume because I was reasonably confident in my abilities, and tended towards cold silence when angered. I do recall being hurt by them, but I always did my utmost not to show it. When they taunted, I stared at them and waited until they left. If I was walking by, and they would begin to taunt, I would stop and look at them, stubbornly standing still until they went quiet. Then I would move again.

I broke my silence, once.

I was walking along the crossover area between the grade nines and grade eights, going to class, I think. I was by myself, as frequently occurred. Ahead, I saw the three girls, surrounded by a bunch of guys, one of whom was my friend's boyfriend. One of the girls called out: "There goes lonely little midget. When is she going to get a friend?" I stopped. I turned towards the girls. My friend's boyfriend said: "Oh, leave her alone. She's alright." I spat at him: "I don't need YOU to defend me. I'm FINE on my own." I started to walk off when one of the girls began laughing: "I know what gets midget. Someone CARING about her. Not so tough now, are you midget?" I straightened my probably already ramrod straight back and kept walking.

The girls moved on from taunting me; they probably found another target.

University was different: there were no obvious cliques at university, and the cool girls who would have done all this alienating stuff just did not seem to be around. But they were back again at the very first job I started. Silence and staring does not work so well when you have to co-operate together on projects. I just pretended I was part of the group during working hours, and ate my lunch with other people or by myself, and let the sniggers behind my back be just that: sniggers behind my back. My clothes were not as nice, and I did not like the same movies. If they couldn't be my friends, they were nevertheless work colleagues. They might not like me, but they were definitely going to respect me.

The cliquey work girls did respect me: they sought my advice and assistance when things went wrong. And I would give them my advice and assistance, and raise an eyebrow and sigh when they excluded me from invitations to lunch or nights out.

In a moment of blogosphere coincidence, Minor Revisions has a wonderful piece on this intangible form of bullying, called "Why don't you like me?" I like Post-Doc's mum's advice: (paraphrasing): There are too many people in this world and they can't all like you. And there will be worthwhile ones who do like you.

That's good advice.

I can hear my defensiveness as I proof-read this post. I am defensive. It does hurt to be excluded. But if people don't like you, that's their problem: just as long as they respect your work. Now, I figuratively stand still and stare people down: I stare them down with my work.


post-doc said...

I had nightmares about The Handmaid's Tale, but I do enjoy Margaret Atwood. I think you were and are stronger than I am. There's always a part of me that wonders why I'm different or excluded and how I can fix that rather than just accepting Mom's statement, standing firm in my beliefs and work, and staring people down. I tend to run and hide instead.

The thing that helps is hearing that people I like and respect were also less than completely popular and beloved growing up. So thanks.

Cee said...

This behind-the-scenes glimpse is so different to how I see you - although admittedly I don't know you terribly well. But my image of you is a completely socially confident woman, enormously popular, making friends wherever you go and so on.

I'm glad I haven't come across any work cliques as yet, or if I have, I've been oblivious to them. The older I get, the more I see myself becoming like (how I see) my father, blind to social cues and unspoken rules. And now I've gone completely off-track with my original comment and have forgotten my point, if there was one. I found my first grey hairs this morning, I think it's affected my brain :-)

honglien123 said...

Like Cee, I've always been completely oblivious certain social cliques. Additionally, I have a habit of putting my foot in my mouth and so any friends I end up having were all acquired either haphazardly or because they're related. Luckily, the amount activities I have directly contribute to my not thinking much about it but sometimes I so admire men for being able to just go through a burst of violence and getting over it rather than the politics of women.

Oanh said...

Post-Doc -

I recently read the Handmaid's Tale and it is nightmarish but so well drawn; I was going through a serendipitous spate of dystopias (also Octavia Butler and Cormac McCarthy's The Road).

I have a very good friend whom I think is much like you and in high school I tried to make her use my techniques to deal with her own bullies. It did not work. Run and hide worked for her. (She hid with people who loved her.) And that's OK, too.

Cee -

Welcome back. I've been going grey ever since my mid-high school years. I love my grey hairs, especially the weird ones that are black to brown to red to white. Fabulous.

Yeah, I probably do come across confident (or arrogant, if you don't like me). Confidence is a trick, much like public speaking.

Hong Lien -

I love the idea of haphazard friends!

On a small scale, a punch-up can resolve issues. But on a big scale *shudder*.

Hedgehog said...

Due to my blunt nature, I have always found it challenging to maintain (close) relationships with women all my life. Admittedly I had far more boy-friends at school than girl-friends. Like you, I was 'dumped' a few times by girlfriends who were supposed to be my best friends, which made me wary of women-relationships and thus, still up till now I only have a handful of girl-friends who I can be totally comfortable with. I like friendships with men in that they will tell you straight what they think when women are more likely to be over-sensitive and thus, more likely to cause misunderstandings.

Oanh said...

Hedgehog -

Even with my history of uncomfortable relationships with girls and women, I have many more women friends, than men friends.

I'm not persuaded that boys and men do tell it straight, but in my experience, they don't suddenly decide to play excluding games with you.

Kirsty said...

I'm a bit late coming to this conversation, but in another spot of blogosphere coincidence I've been thinking about this too. I really have so much to say about this topic, but I don't want to vent on your blog, and I'm not sure about the wiseness of venting on my own. Maybe I just should read Cat's Eye.

Oanh said...

Kirsty -

You have me, as ever, intrigued.

I'd love your thoughts, wherever you choose to put them, if you do. And if you don't, I suspect reading Cat's Eye will make you want to vent somewhere ...

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