Making Babies/Babys machen: Laurie Penny’s short stories

Laurie Penny Book Launch

This will be somewhat roundabout, so please bear with me.

Last night I was at HAU, the Hebbel theater Am Ufer, to listen to Laurie Penny read from her new book of short fiction („Babys machen und andere Storys„, published only in German as yet, by the admirably clairvoyant publisher Edition Nautilus), and it’s about … a whole lot of things.

But wait, aren’t personal stories the way to go?

So here’s a quite personal story that will hopefully lead back to Penny’s book, and last night’s event: I’m assuming the Hebbel theater gets its name from the 19th century German author Friedrich Hebbel, whose play Maria Magdalena we read at university, in a class that was called “Tragedy and tragedy”, only in German, where it sounds less unwieldy: “Tragik und Tragödie”, so it’s more like „Tragicness and tragedy“. Anyway.

The class dealt with whether we still had a true sense of the tragic, because maybe in our enlightened and progressive times, there were no such far-reaching dilemmas anymore, because we could basically do what we wanted, and get away with it (I’m simplifying the amazing course content and design here). So Maria Magdalena is about a young lower class girl who gets pregnant, and the guy is an upper class military man, and won’t marry her. So after a lot of soul-searching and hand-wringing (it’s actually not that long a play), the girl drowns herself, mainly to avoid the shame she would cause her father if she had this baby out of wedlock. There’s probably more going on, but that is the part I remember, and the part that’s crucial to my story.

Our distinguished and quite lovable professor (I say lovable because he possessed this thing that seems so rare at contemporary (and also early 90s, which is when this happened) institutions of learning, higher or otherwise … passion. Genuine wonder and marvel and enthusiasm for his subject matter, and for teaching. Which, to him, meant mainly asking questions, getting us to think). Umm, where was I? So our professor asked us what poor Mary’s alternatives would have been. Remember that she drowned herself so she wouldn’t have to face her daddy’s disappointment and rejection.

In my memory, nobody offered anything much of an alternative. They probably thought, well, it being that time, I suppose there was not much you could do when you were in the family way but couldn’t produce a legitimate husband, or someone at least willing to become one. The professor asked again: So what else could she have done?

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And then I spoke up.

“She could try and tell her father.” And he replied, almost patronizingly: “Oh, you say that as if it were an easy thing to do.”
And I said: “No, I don’t. Cause it’s not. Cause I just did that, with my own father, and my own unplanned and unwedded pregnancy.”

When I went into his office hours a few days after, to discuss an assignment, the old professor returned to that awkward moment in class. He said he had three grown daughters of his own, and my reply made him think about what he would do if one of them came to him with the same “problem.” And he asked if I needed any help. I said I was fine, and we left it at that. Maybe I taught him something that day, if teaching means making people think.

So, Making Babies.

Babys machen tonight at HAU. Back from Hebbel to Laurie Penny, from the 19th century via the 1990s to the present. How far have we come? (I warned you I would be somewhat roundabout) The event was book launch, very brief reading (but I cannot wait to read the rest of that story, about a somewhat wayward angel in love with all-too-human mortals!), but for the most part, it was a conversation, an extended interview, with Missy Magazin editor Sonja Eismann asking Penny lots of questions, and the feminist writer trying to be unboastful, almost self-effacing, while she talked about the stories of her book, feminism (duh!), the appeal of science fiction (especially for women), reproductive rights (and the many recent attacks on them), mediocrity and meritocracy, „Cologne“ and the nefarious attempts of especially right-wing groups to harness it to their agenda-wagon („How dare you assault German women? That’s our job!“), the ever-recurring topic of the massive (and, to me, baffling) amount of online harrassment she deals with ona daily basis, and many more things.

Feminist pop star?

I thought the question about her „pop star“ status in Germany was interesting. Penny has said elsewhere before that she doesn’t understand why she’s so big in Germany, and that at home, nobody knows who she is. When asked to venture an explanation for her popularity here, she was at a loss for an answer, but also said she didn’t really think anyone needs a role model to tell them what to do, and that she certainly doesn’t feel comfortable being cast as some sort of model „voice“ for women or anything like that. Then she added: „But culture changes in the weirdest of ways“, and that can mean that suddenly the spotlight hits one person, such as Caitlin Moran in the UK, and nobody expected her (by the way, amazing) book „How to be a woman“ to be such a massive worldwide hit, and then that sudden spotlight triggers a whole slew of similar or related books, and she sees herself swimming along on that wave. Not the worst fish pond to be caught in, I’d venture, but I admit I’m partial to Moran and her not-beating-around-the-bush style, even when she talks about things like THE bush.

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Feminism and anti-capitalism

Anyway, I kept thinking that it’s no wonder the Germans are fond of Penny and her books and columns. For one thing, we desperately need a replacement for the likes and generation of Alice Schwarzer, and despite the „anger“ that people often attest Laurie and her texts, I always hear and read a warm understanding of us puny humans, at least those of us who at least try to be decent ones, whether female or male. And, what may be another point, is her timely marriage of feminism and anti/post-capitalism. Somewhere in the conversation last night, they mentioned universal basic income, or Grundeinkommen, which thankfully is currently being discussed in a lot of places and contexts, often in relation to the wonderful Berlin-based initiative/project/experiment/crowdfunding/raffle Mein Grundeinkommen, which simply puts it into practice for a few people, to set precedent and see what it does to them. So part of Penny’s appeal with at least a certain set of people here in Germany might be the way she ties up various strands of (can we say „left-wing“, dare we still use that word in a positive sense? I do) political thinking together, and shows their interconnectedness.

Anyway, back to the book.

There were many fascinating topics in last night’s discussion, but as this is supposed to be about her stories, let’s briefly get back to those. I already mentioned women’s reproductive rights, which are under attack right now again in too many places. It’s a massive backlash really. And here comes this slight, one is tempted to say, elfin person, and writes a title story about devising a mechanical uterus. Outsourcing pregnancy, labor, and childbirth. She keeps repeating it’s a „stooory“, it’s fiction, helloooo?, but obviously, she’s hit a nerve, because the people who responded to it are taking offense as if she had proposed we really do that. And here comes the So what?, the What if?, the eternal Science Fiction questions. We do all kinds of crazy things, thanks to our technology, so why shouldn’t we get to a point where you can literally make babies, or better, have them made, instead of popping them yourself. It’s only a story, mind you, but quite obviously an explosive one.

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Coming back to my personal story about unplanned and unwedded pregnancy, I actually thought giving birth was a worthwhile experience, because it also taught me something (that is hard to put in words, though, and I’m already rambling on here – bear with me just for a few more lines, okay?), but I’m totally down with the idea that if we had an easier, safer, painless way of bringing babies into the world … hell, why not? The point, however, is less whether we can or should do it, the point is that a story like this opens up a field for discussion and for pondering the implications … it gets us to think, just like my old professor’s class those many years ago. Phew. I came back around. And before I take you on another round of my ruminations and impressions of last night, I’m going to leave you with links to two of the stories in the original English versions, alas, unavailable in book form so far. But if you like reading good stuff in German, buy a copy of Babys machen und andere Storys.

Here is „Blue Monday„, a quietly mean bullseye story about our brave new world … and here is „The Killing Jar„, a tale of what happens when hitman becomes a perfectly normal job. The Huxley reference suggested itself, since all the stories could be seen as dystopian, quite the currency today, but as Penny herself said last night (though she admitted she quoted it from someone else and couldn’t remember who said it first), „Utopia is the search for utopia“, and that basically means, at least for me, that we need to go on imagining, need to allow inspiration, teaching, and thinking to govern and guide our steps, not hate and fear. We need to make babies, if only with our minds; wondrous brain children of possibility and revolution! Good night.

(I couldn’t write this in German, since the flow that carried me through all those thoughts was English, if that makes sense.)

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