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Category Archives: Better Living Through Stories

(Personal) Moving Forward, Looking Back

sankofaThe picture on the right is a sankofa bird, a symbol from the Akan art culture of West Africa. Sankofa is a word that comes from the Twi language, and it roughly means “Go back and get what was left behind.” The sankofa bird has been a big symbol for a long time in Africa and among the African diaspora, and it stresses the importance of remembering your past in order to ensure a better future. I came across it researching Afrofuturism, and I think I first heard about it in the This American Life episode highlighting the movement. The idea, of course, is that even while we step into the future we keep an eye on the people and events that have shaped us.

Afrofuturism is an idea that exemplifies this attitude: we go back to retrieve the things we might have lost along the way, the things that are worth preserving, in order to take the best of ourselves into the future with us. No matter what we think about the past — that it’s irrelevant, or that it doesn’t define us — it’s as much a part of us as our self-determination and our idealized selves. We can’t escape it, no matter how much we try, but we can learn from it and take those lessons with us to build a better future.

Personally, this means going back to pick up all those things I dropped when I fled Baltimore: the black part of my identity; the trauma and complicated feelings I have around my family; the fact that there are so many people still trapped in poverty and hopelessness in our inner cities; addressing the problematic attitudes that alienate so many LGBQTIA brothers and sisters. It’s important to hold all of this with me as I forge ahead with my writing and my life. They’re a part of who I am, and I can’t hope to make an honest future without them.

Culturally, it’s so important for us to recognize and accept our history. The United States has abandoned the lessons of our history — and knowledge itself, it feels like — because acting on those lessons means hard work, discomfort, and acknowledging truths about ourselves that can be really difficult to admit. None of us are as altruistic as we’d like to think. We can be selfish, mean, willfully blind. But not taking an honest look at the worst within us will always lead us to justifications for some truly monstrous shit: take a look at the political rhetoric burning through our population right now and tell me I’m wrong.

Our past is called our roots for a reason: our experience, culture and traditions ground us firmly in the world and give us something to hold on to when the wind kicks up and storms are lashing us. We obviously don’t have to keep every little thing from our pasts, but I think we’ve swung too far in our desire to look forward. We’ve lost something valuable, and it’s time to look back and retrieve it.

 

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(Writing) A Future With Me In It

Myth 150It’s getting harder for me to look at the news these days without feeling like I’m staring into the void of our own self-destruction. The current US administration seems obsessed with assuaging the bruised ego of the President, making the lives of the poor and working class as difficult as possible, and letting the rich and powerful get away with whatever they want. It’s times like these where I need an escape more than ever, and science-fiction/fantasy provides a wonderful avenue for that — up to a point. It’s also getting harder for me to ignore that most characters in science-fiction and fantasy stories don’t look like me or even share a lot of my same experiences. That’s why I need to read and write Afrofuturism stories more than ever; I want to have characters like me going on adventures, and I want to imagine a future where people like me can thrive — but most importantly, I want to be comfortable in my own skin and tell stories from my particular perspective.

There aren’t a lot of characters of color in modern science-fiction and fantasy, even though there are a lot more than there were. The biggest thing going in the genre right now is arguably Blade Runner 2049, the incredible sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal cyberpunk masterpiece. While it’s wonderful to be sure, you see more Asian writing on the screen than actual Asian characters; there are only a few black characters who are never seen beyond a single scene; and Hispanic characters are limited to a cameo appearance or two. Like so many movies in the space today, people of color are used to fill out crowd scenes and give the appearance of diversity, but the characters you spend the most time with are overwhelmingly white — with a few exceptions. American Gods and The Expanse, I’m looking at you.

We never get to read a portal fantasy where the protagonist pulled into a strange new world is a person of color, or how their race and background experience would influence their reaction to such an incredible event. We don’t often get to see people of color doing their thing in some far-off future, especially in stories where we extrapolate the history of their culture into that distant imagining. When people of color are stripped out of these stories by casting directors, the pushback against the outcry revolves around not making everything about race; whenever people of color are added to these retellings, people often complain by posing the hypothetical question of taking one of “our” characters to illustrate how silly that is. “When do we get a movie with a white Black Panther?” “I can’t relate to Rue as much now that you made her black.” Boosting our visibility is always decried as political correctness run amok; erasing us from a possible future or an imaginary past is never a big deal, though.

The #OwnVoices movement has been in full swing for a little while now, at least, and we’re starting to see stories told about people of color, queer and transgender people, people with disabilities, and all kinds of other minorities, written by members of those groups themselves. The space is changing, and these stories are getting recognition for introducing us to different ways of thinking and being — not only in different times and places, but right here and now. That’s tremendously exciting to me, and I want to be a part of that. I want to read and promote stories that center on non-white experiences; I want to write stories with non-white, LGBQTIA protagonists, or characters with disabilities. I want to promote worlds in my fiction that has a place at the table for all of these people, that present the world not as we wish it to be, but as it IS — a diverse and wonderful place filled with folks from different backgrounds. Poor, inner-city black geeks deserve to go to Narnia too.

We also deserve to go into space. We deserve to have the lands of our ancestors share in future advancements, have their economies explode in ways they never thought possible, reach the stars and explore the galaxy on their own terms. There are so many futures written where black people are all gone, or alluded to as poor sods worse off than the protagonist for some reason. There are so many books where Africa has been left out of the unified government taking humanity into its next phase as a multi-planet species, or where African scientists are simply along for the ride as exceptional examples of a culture that still hasn’t ‘caught up’ to the rest of the world. Even those stories that feature Africa as a technological power — like Black Panther, for instance — finds ways to skirt around spotlighting the culture and history of the continent, or the astonishing variety of civilizations that flourished before being stamped out or forever changed by European colonialism. One of the only SFF movies I can think of set in Africa, District 9, used aliens as a metaphor for the actual treatment of people of color in South Africa and refugees of color all around the world.

There aren’t many stories that spotlight African culture without exploiting the problems or historical bloodshed that has taken place on the continent. Where are the stories that feature a healthy, confident African diaspora honoring their culture and traditions while also embracing the future? Does every story that centers on blackness have to be about slavery, rape, poverty, or war? Where are the hopeful stories about what Africa could be? About what her many children all around the globe could aspire to?

We desperately need these stories. All around us, there are these markers that point to how little progress we’ve made overcoming the historical disadvantages forced upon our ancestors. The natural resources of Africa are being plundered to increase the wealth of foreign corporations; the many African-descended people who live elsewhere around the world are forced to suffer continued institutional racism that others refuse to even acknowledge; in America, so many of us live and die in hopeless poverty, unable to believe in the possibility of getting a fair shake. We need to be able to envision a world where that’s true if we hope to make it so. Stories give us that power, a signpost to work towards. We have to conjure hope for the people who have none.

This deeply matters to me, personally. I grew up in inner-city Baltimore as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I never felt accepted by the culture I was raised in. At school, my religion and my geekiness made me an easy target for the students who fit in more easily to the black experience; at the Kingdom Hall, my family situation and lack of social skills made it impossible for me to be accepted by my peer group. I grew up thinking that my own culture was hostile and dangerous, that there was nothing there for me, that my only choice was to leave and never look back.

Now I see that’s not true. There are a ton of black geeks out there with varying experiences and relationships with black American culture. It’s been a revelation to me, the idea that I could be myself — a gay black Buddhist furry — and still embrace my culture and background at the same time. Now that I know it’s possible, I can’t stop until I make it real.

That means learning how to absorb my personal history and accept what happened, putting it in the context of the societal pressures that drive that behavior, and teasing out the lessons that I can take from that to improve myself — but also talk about how black American culture can be improved. We limit ourselves by adopting the limited historical perspective of the past; we dishonor our own values by denying our brothers and sisters the right to self-determination; we keep ourselves down by continuing to dismiss and demean those who think and believe differently. We are so much more than what we have been; we could be so much more than what we are now. Wild, imaginative, authentic stories could show us how.

Afro-futurism is more than a genre to me; it’s a lifeline. It feels like the thing I’ve been moving towards all my life, the thing that will give me hope at a time where that’s been so hard to come by. It’s a framework I can use to understand my past and imagine my future; it’s what I need to have a complete sense of myself. It’s a beautiful, complicated, contradictory thing. That suits me perfectly.

 

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I’m…37? Yeah, 37.

Self Improvement 150Yesterday I celebrated my 37th birthday by watching Kubo and the Two Strings, playing two rounds of mini-golf, and having a dinner out with a few friends. It was tremendously fun, and I really appreciate folks coming out to help me ring in another personal new year. I have amazing friends, and to say that I appreciate all of you would be an understatement. You inspire me, you encourage me, you elevate me closer to being the rabbit I would like to be. Thank you all so much for being in my life.

Year #36 for me was a pretty big one. I went back to school for a time, reconnected with my family in fairly tragic circumstances, fought with despair and anger about the direction our country is going, and always kept trying to build on the gains that I’ve made — wherever they might be. Through the loss of my sister and helping my mother, the passage of time and the inevitability of death have been weighing on me. In three years, I’ll be 40; it’s such a strange thing to write because of the weight we place on middle age. In a lot of ways, it feels like we should be calcifying into the person we are by then; change happens much more slowly, through concentrated and difficult effort.

That doesn’t feel like the arc of my life at all — or the arc of most of the people I know. Human beings are nothing if not adaptable, and I watch as my friends struggle to cope with the setbacks of life, changing and strengthening through their experiences. Some of us have figured out our path and the struggle becomes how to walk it consistently; others of us are still seeking out a foothold that will allow us to see the way forward. But no matter who we are, we are constantly changing, molding ourselves towards our goals and the times, becoming the people we need to be.

To be honest, it’s been a joy to watch — and to experience. For all the difficulties this year has brought me, it’s helped me to see how change can be weathered and how the support of the community can be essential for that. When Teneka died suddenly back in April, so many people stepped in to help when they really didn’t have to. They gave me emotional support, direct assistance, financial support; knowing that I didn’t have to face this nightmare alone helped pull me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. It restored my faith in humanity at a time I badly needed it, and it helped encourage me to try and do the same for others. This tragedy, and all of the chaos that followed, made me stronger and more compassionate. I have everyone who helped to thank for that.

Looking towards the future, it’s easy to be frightened and overwhelmed. Personally, it feels like there’s an ugly undercurrent in our society bubbling up to the surface, threatening to consume us all. Beyond an erosion of trust in our institutions — our governments, our media, our businesses — there seems to be an erosion of trust in the concept of society itself; it feels like so many of us distrust the goodness within our fellows, that the purpose of our lives is to take as much as we can for ourselves and maybe the people closest to us while we can do that. The American Dream isn’t a just and prosperous society; it’s elevating the “virtue” of selfishness above all.

This kind of thinking will lead to our ruin. We have not evolved to be a purely self-absorbed species; we are a social animal, built for collaboration and cooperation. We share this planet with other human beings with different ideologies, cultures, histories and perspectives; we share this planet with other animals who depend on us to make sure we keep things in balance as much as our limited understanding will allow us. We can’t focus only on the things that we have while ignoring the suffering of others. We can’t preserve our safety and prosperity if our neighbor is poor and in danger. We can’t keep taking whatever we want without making sure there’s something left for others, for our children.

I really don’t know how we rebuild our trust in our society. I don’t know how to encourage people to care about each other. I can only trust in the goodness of my fellow beings, know the selflessness and compassion I have seen in others, and see that in everyone I meet. I can only treat people as if they were their best selves already, because in so many ways they are — fearless and resourceful and far more beautiful than anyone gives themselves credit for. I want to be a mirror that reflects the Buddha-nature of everyone I meet.

But that takes a lot of difficult and consistent practice. In order to shine and reflect as well as a still pond, I must first smooth out the ripples of fear and anger within me. In order to reflect Buddha-nature, I have to realize my own.

That, I think, is what I will strive to do with myself in year #37. I’ve lived through a difficult year, and I know that I can live through another one. That’s not enough. I want to develop an equanimity through difficulty that helps me move through my own fear and anger; I want to be calm and reflective in even the most difficult of circumstances. That sense of stillness doesn’t mean inaction, or disinterest in the world around me. It means that no matter what happens, I can engage with a clear mind and a full heart. It means recognizing the poisoning influences of fear and anger, working with those difficult emotions, and ensuring my actions don’t only come from those places. That is much easier said than done.

Thankfully, I have 36 years of experience to draw upon. I have the help of my community. I have the wisdom forged by countless difficulties through thousands of years, lived and remembered through the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves. I have the hope that one day, we will look at someone different and see not a stranger or an enemy, but ourselves and our capacity for boundless compassion and love. I only hope that we won’t make things too difficult for ourselves before that happens. I only hope that we don’t fall to our fear and anger and destroy ourselves.

I love all of you. I know I’m scared. I know I’m angry. But I am choosing to struggle past that. There is something so much better on the other side.

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Zootopia, Finding Dory, Moana

Entertainment 1502016 was the best year for Disney animation in a very long time, and it pleases me to no end that I’m able to say that. Walt Disney Animation began the year giving furries their new generation-defining obsession in Zootopia, which was also an all-around excellent film; in June, Pixar Animation rebounded with their best sequel since Toy Story 2; and in November Walt Disney dropped Moana, a celebration of Pacific Island culture loaded with an infectious soundtrack of great songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda. After losing their way a little bit with the ascendancy of Pixar, Walt Disney is in a great state of creative flow right now; their current brain trust has proven that the studio is in excellent hands.

Zootopia (2016)

zootopia

Good lord, SO furry

When I write about the things I really love I have a tendency to gush; I’ll try not to do that too much here, but seriously you guys Zootopia is one of my absolute favorite movies in the last 15 years or so. It hits just about every sweet spot I can think of: there’s an adorable, inspiring rabbit protagonist; the theme of the story tackles issues of prejudice both inherent and hidden directly and responsibly; the world-building is so strong it’s incredibly easy to fall in love with what’s presented and imagine what life is like outside of the story; and the size difference is baked into the setting in ways that are just incredible. It’s the total package, and joins Robin Hood (1973) and The Lion King (1994) as the Disney film that serves as an entry point for a whole generation of folks in the fandom.

What Zootopia has over the previous two, however, is a story that bakes in the themes of tolerance and community building right from the jump. Judy Hopps, our intrepid heroine, dreams of living in Zootopia — where anyone can be anything — and joining the police force. Being a police officer is a fairly dangerous job, and it’s typically reserved for the largest animals, but Judy is determined to be the first rabbit officer in the city’s history. She works incredibly hard, and makes the force! However, that victory is short-lived; she’s given parking duty even though she knows she’s capable of so much more.

Judy takes on the case of missing otter Emmitt Otterton against the wishes of her superior officer, Chief Bogo, and her line of questioning pairs her up with Nick Wilde, a street-hustling fox who can navigate the many different strata the city encompasses. Both Nick and Judy need to solve the mystery to prevent their lives from being turned upside down; if Judy doesn’t do so, she’ll lose her job, and Nick will be reported to the Zootopian equivalent of the IRS if he doesn’t help her. Over time, of course, they learn to appreciate and support one another, even though it’s an incredibly rough road to get there.

What makes Zootopia so exciting is that it’s a perfect marriage of plot, character, and setting. You could not tell the story the same way if the setting were different, or without Judy and Nick specifically. Judy Hopps is one of the all-time-great Disney protagonists; she’s Leslie Knope as a purple-eyed rabbit. Nick Wilde is a character I personally identify with — carnivores are a minority in this world, and foxes in particular aren’t well-trusted due to the stereotype. His early dream of being a Cub Scout was dashed by a heartbreaking encounter with bullies, and his idealism was beaten out of him right then and there. Where Judy learned to persevere against the social forces pushing against her, Nick shrugged and fell into the box society pushed him into. While you’d think that Nick would have the bigger arc of learning to believe in himself and make good, Judy’s upbringing as an herbivore gives her blind spots that she has to confront and overcome as well.

How Judy handles her mistake and its consequences is what really elevates the character and the story of Zootopia, and provides one of its most inspiring moments. In fact, there are numerous instances where characters are checked for social faux pas; both the way they’re alerted to the transgression and their responses are wonderful examples of how these interactions should go in an ideal world. Zootopia isn’t perfect, but most of the animals genuinely try to get along. In both their successes and failures, there are real-world parallels that we can readily recognize.

The movie, of course, is simply gorgeous. The world of Zootopia is one of the best-realized furry societies ever created, with a wide variety of animals living in a number of different biomes and in buildings designed for a dizzying array of sizes — from mice and shrews just a few inches tall to giant multi-ton elephants and 20-foot giraffes. What’s interesting is how natural the society seems, even when they’re playing with the distinctive problems that would arise with such vast size differences. Each species feels unique but part of a cohesive whole.

The plot, ultimately, hinges on the warring impulses within each of us to accept and celebrate our differences or give in to fear and alienation. Both Nick and Judy want to be the heroes in their own story, and both of them are faced with a society that doesn’t want to let them do that for various reasons. Judy, not just through her beliefs, but through her actions, convinces everyone around her to try to be better. It’s such a simple, yet difficult, thing, but she proves that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Zootopia is an incredibly furry movie, but it’s also not a shallow one. The presentation of a furry society is a near-perfect modern fable that we can apply to our own lives and social realities, and the fact that the character design and world-building are both incredibly appealing doesn’t hurt either. This is a quintessential Disney movie, a perfect example of what the House of Mouse can do when it’s at its best.

Finding Dory (2016)
I was fairly ambivalent about Finding Dory when it was first announced. Pixar had been dipping into the sequel well fairly often by that time, and a bit of the shine had come off the company. While Monsters University was decent, it wasn’t essential; going back to the world of Finding Nemo could retroactively tarnish the legacy of the first film. When Finding Dory was finally released in the summer of 2016, it was received really well; to this date, it’s got a 94% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and boasts the biggest opening and highest gross ever for a Pixar film. Andrew Stanton was very gunshy about a sequel; he wanted to be sure he had the perfect story before moving ahead. Finding Dory was well worth the wait.

The movie takes place one year after the events of Finding Nemo, and while life on the reef is more or less back to normal there are a few issues that need to be worked out. Marlin still struggles to deal with Dory, though Nemo has a much better rapport with her. During a school field trip, Dory has a flashback that reminds her she has parents; desperate to find them, she enlists the help of Marlin and Nemo to travel across the sea to California. They manage to make it all the way to their destination before they’re separated; Dory has to find her way back to her family on her own, while Marlin and Nemo have to find her.

Finding Dory handles interactions with people with disabilities the same way Zootopia handles interactions between people of different backgrounds. Dory’s parents are unfailingly patient and supportive, though they worry about how Dory is going to fare out in the world without them. Marlin’s neurotic need for safety and certainty proves to be a hindrance, not just for Dory but for Nemo as well; watching his father’s reaction to Dory makes him think his dad feels the same way about his limitations. The lesson, as difficult as it can be to learn, is that people with disabilities — even mental ones — navigate the world in a different way. While that can cause difficulties, it’s not impossible to manage. It just takes careful attention and sustained effort to learn how to interact in a way that works for everyone.

Dory meets a host of characters who have disabilities or ailments that makes the world feel like a hard place to succeed in. There’s an octopus whose introversion has curdled into misanthropy; a near-sighted whale shark who keeps bumping into things; a beluga whale who believes his sonar is broken; and a very special bird you’re never quite sure is capable of understanding what you’re saying. Each of them learns how to deal with themselves through Dory’s influence; Dory herself has to trust in herself (and the lessons she can remember) in order to find her way back to anything familiar.

finding dory

The animation for Finding Dory is simply beautiful; it’s astonishing to think how far Pixar has come with water, fur, wet and dry textures, even lighting effects in such a short time. All that technical wizardry is in service to the story, which provides an incredible visual theme to reflect the mental state of the characters. Open water as a metaphor for their internal life comes back again and again, and each appearance is more powerful.

The writing in the film is breathtaking; dialogue is sharp and witty, but also resonant. Everything said influences the characters who hear them, and lines are weighted with double and triple meanings. What we take from Finding Dory is that what we say to one another matters more than we might ever understand; a kind word or off-handed put-down can lodge in someone’s brain, ready to be recalled in moments of crisis. Our encouragement or dismissal can be the thing that tips someone towards success or failure.

It underscores the necessity of kindness, of considerate speech, of encouragement and support — especially for those of us who have disabilities or illnesses. Finding Dory is a movie that could actually change the mindset of the young audience who views it, teaching them empathy and the consequences of cruelty in a way very few children’s films even attempt. Dory’s adventure, and the lessons everyone involved learn along the way, elevates both this film and its prequel. That’s an exceedingly rare thing.

It’s possible that of the three movies Pixar and Disney released last year, Finding Dory might end up being the one that’s overlooked. But I hope not. This is one of the best Pixar films to date, period; even though the decade of dominance looks to be over, they’ve still got it.

Moana (2016)
Hats off to Ron Clements and John Musker for creating such a wonderful film that highlights the culture of Pacific Islanders without exploiting them. Well, for the most part. Moana is a wonderful film that features Pacific Island mythology, talent, language and culture. The voice talent is loaded with Pacific Islanders, the songs are written in English, Samoan and Tokelauan, and Taika Waititi (a Maori New Zealander) wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Even as Clements and Musker took over story duties (the writing credit eventually went to Jared Bush), they took care to run almost every decision through an Oceanic Story Trust to make sure they were being sensitive. The result is a great movie that is truly unique in animation, a popular entertainment that features only people of color.

Moana is the headstrong princess of an island nation; her father is grooming her for rulership of her people, but there’s something about the open ocean that keeps calling to her. When a blight threatens the food supply for the island, she disobeys her father’s forbiddance and takes a ship to find Maui the demi-god so she can force him to restore the heart of Te Fiti and cure the damage he caused. Maui, being the trickster he is, would much rather steal Moana’s boat to escape the island where he’s been exiled. Forces align to push them together, however, so off they go!

The music for Moana is incredibly catchy, inspiring and beautiful — no surprise, when it was written and arranged in part by the great Lin-Manuel Miranda. The soundtrack peaked at number 2 on the Billboard 200, which doesn’t happen that often for movies these days. “How Far I’ll Go” is such an excellent song for Moana, full of longing, hope and determination; those themes ripple through the rest of the movie, underpinning her entire character arc. Music propels much of the action, providing characters with truly memorable introductions and anchoring set pieces amazingly well. The soundtrack really is Moana‘s secret weapon; it allows us to connect to the action on the screen with ease.

moana

The story itself is a mythic hero’s journey with Pacific Island trappings, told with sure-footed pacing and a joyous, colorful style. What’s impressive is that Moana and Maui must battle their own worst impulses as much as the monsters and gods that seek their failure; the internal struggle is every bit as important as the outsized beings they run up against. Again, themes of self-respect and support are essential to these characters, but they take on a heightened poignancy thanks to today’s political climate. There is almost no popular fiction celebrating women of color or providing them a role model to emulate, so the fact that Moana drives so much of the journey through sheer will is quietly revolutionary.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson kills it as Maui, of course, and now that I’m thinking about the voice talent there isn’t a false note anywhere. Jermaine Clement makes a memorable turn as a giant crab, and The Rock can belt out a tune when called upon to do so. It’s the best surprise, and I’ll always cheer loudly when people of color are allowed to show just how excellent they can be when given the platform to do so.

I’ve talked a lot about how important Moana is for its cultural context, but honestly it’s just a fantastic movie — Moana belongs in the Princess pantheon right alongside Belle, Elsa and Tiana. Disney’s focus on proactive, inspiring women in their stories is a very welcome trend, and Moana is the latest example of how telling great tales with diverse casts should be done.

 

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(Personal) Mission Statement

Myth 150This is an amazing world, inhabited by amazing people. We don’t have to go very far to see an animal or plant that does something incredible, if we stop to think about it. All around us, there are countless people each with their own rich inner worlds and intense, beautiful, heartbreaking stories. I think the single greatest challenge facing humankind today is the inability to maintain a perspective that allows us to live in harmony with each other and the world we share. This planet is the only home we’ve got, and as our population grows it’s going to be more and more important to focus on the impact each of us has on it and what that means for our friends, family, neighbors and fellow human beings. It’s frustrating to see that as thinking more about one another becomes more and more necessary for our survival, we seem to becoming more selfish, short-sighted and small-minded. I have no idea if this is a trend that can be stopped, much less reversed. But I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no hope of that happening, so I have to hope that it can — and will. It’s my mission in life to help connect people as much as possible, and to remind them that an attitude of collaboration is so much better than one of competition.

All of us move through our days with blinders, trapped in the narrative of our own making. We’re the protagonists of our stories, so everything that happens to us is filtered through that lens. If something prevents us from achieving our goals, it’s bad or unfair; if it gets us closer to where we want to be, then it’s great. The people who agree with us and help us out are good; those that don’t hold the same values as us, or who want something that we want, or who are just too different from us to relate to — they’re bad. Over time, this narrative becomes stronger and our belief in it absolute. We never question what the same reality looks like to someone else; we stop imagining what a situation looks like if we’re not the star of our own story.

So we start thinking that what’s good for us is good for everyone, or ignoring the complex and often invisible forces that have helped us along the way in addition to our own hard work. Our tolerance for other perspectives erodes, bit by bit, until we’re simply incapable of even imagining what the world looks like to someone else. We even become incapable of thinking that the world COULD look different to someone else. Our opinions become fact; other ones become wrong, even evil. We start to disconnect from more and more people until our world is small and hard, an oasis that must be defended from anything that would seek to change it. In extreme, everyone who doesn’t think exactly like we do becomes an enemy to strike down. Our way of life is a beacon of good; anything different, therefore, must be evil that is to be eradicated. Once that becomes our story, it’s nearly impossible to think it could be anything else.

But it has to be if any of us want to avoid a bad ending. We can’t keep alienating each other, dismissing the perspective and experience of other people. If we don’t learn to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes, we’re not going to stop fighting each other until no one’s left — or until there is nothing left to fight for.

I know where this idea can lead. So Jakebe, you might say, does that mean we have to understand why neo-Nazis see me as sub-human in order to avoid all-out war? Is that the message I’m supposed to take from this? Am I supposed to tolerate someone else’s awful idea just because not tolerating it means we can’t live together? No, of course not. Neo-Nazi ideology, or any intolerant, bigoted idea, should not be entertained or given quarter in civilized discourse. I cannot abide anyone who holds the idea that I’m fundamentally inferior simply because of who I am, and I cannot ask anyone else to do that either.

But, at the same time, the people who hold these ideas are not monsters. They are not fundamentally inferior, either. They hold abhorrent ideas and as long as they do I have no interest in entertaining them or their toxic perspective. But I try very hard not to forget that they’re people, and that whatever it is inside them that made them that way is also within me. That hatred, that fear, all of those awful emotions that make us shrink in on ourselves — that’s in me too. I could get there somehow, some day.

It’s very important for me to remember that, and to remind other people. We live in incredibly divisive times and just how our divisions are mended is really difficult for me to see. But we’re going to have to find a way to live together. And in order for that to happen, we have to stop seeing each other as monsters — or as pure evil, or unthinking hordes, or weak snowflakes, or enemies. We are connected, as difficult as that is to fathom, and each one of us has a hand in creating the world we live in. As flawed and frightening it is, we each have to look at what we’re doing to contribute to it for good or ill.

Personally, that means trying to be mindful of the role I play in someone else’s story. In every interaction, I try to be what someone needs in order to make their story that much better — though I know how often I fall off the mark. That doesn’t mean that I’m never challenging or that I never set myself up as an antagonist; if that’s what is needed, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m not going to subsume myself for the sake of someone else’s story.

It mostly means, though, that I won’t cause conflict needlessly if I can help it. I try to remind myself that each person who talks to me has their own story they’re moving through, and each “scene” with me is a chance to get them closer to where they want to be. If it feels like where they want to be is someplace that will actually lead to harm, I try to redirect that desire towards something better if I can help it; and if I can’t, then I try to be as honest and direct as possible. Which is the hardest, because I really get anxious about conflict.

As a writer, this means that I want to use my stories to remind people of the connections we share, the values that are most important to me, and ultimately a vision of what the world could be like if we just did a better job of looking out for one another. I want people to come away with a desire to engage with the world and with their fellow human beings; even if the story is a tragedy, I want it to be one that fosters compassion in someone else.

My life, my purpose, is to be structured around this goal. I want to live the way I’d want everyone to live — mindful of the responsibilities we have for one another, but to see that responsibility as a joy and an honor. To me, there is no greater thing than inspiring your fellow humans to live well, to encourage them to feel connected with the world around them, not above it or in enmity of it.

I know that I fail at this goal frequently, and I’m trying to get better. I may never achieve perfection with it, but that’s not the point; the point is the process, the attempt to get there. Even if I never reach my destination, the journey is what makes me a better person.

 

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(Review) The Shame Locked Away in Giovanni’s Room

Reading 150The Paris in James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room is a kind of hell in which desperate men step on each other to climb out of the hole they’re in, never realizing it’s possible to help lift one another out of their predicament. Fear motivates everyone; they’re afraid of anyone finding out who they really are before they can, but they also need somewhere they belong. So they draw people just close enough to be used, and then cut them as soon as that need has been fulfilled. That fulfillment doesn’t last long, though, and it’s not too long before they need something else again — companionship, money, distraction. David, the protagonist, enters this scene as an unrooted American trying to find himself. What he discovers is someone whose fear overrides his capacity to love, with disastrous consequences.

David meets Giovanni, the bartender at a gay bar in Paris, as he’s asking an older acquaintance for money. Jacques hits on the mysterious Italian and strikes out; David manages to strike up a friendly if challenging conversation. Conversations leads to dinner and drinks, which leads to sex; David, with nowhere else to go, moves into the waiter’s small room where they talk and have sex all summer. Eventually, David’s girlfriend Hella announces that she’ll be coming back to Paris after their “trial separation” and he’s faced with a choice — does he fall in with the expected path to adulthood, with marriage and children? Or does he break things off with Hella to continue his relationship with Giovanni? Complicating matters is the fact that Giovanni loses his job in the gay bar where he works after the owner makes one too many passes at him.

Throughout the novel, David sees people as a means to an end; they can provide him with something that buys him more time to figure out what he wants and who he is. Jacques, the old gay man he leans on for money, is someone that David doesn’t like or respect — and he makes it clear that he thinks the feeling is mutual. However, he exploits Jacques’ sense of shame to get the money he needs to remain. His relationship to Giovanni is built on that same impulse. He feels a physical lust and confused attraction that he doesn’t know what to do with; the poor Italian is there to ease that tension, so David uses him. Later, when faced with the prospect of Hella’s return, he hooks up with a distant acquaintance just to prove to himself he’s still attracted to women. His partner, Sue, realizes she’s been used at the same time she makes a few hesitating attempts to actually connect with him. The fear of being responsible for someone else’s happiness is just as much a reason that David distances himself from Giovanni as the fear of committing to an alternative sexuality.

What’s most interesting to me about Giovanni’s Room is how sensitively it deals with David’s bisexuality as one piece of the character’s larger issue — his inability be open and honest with himself. Giovanni isn’t David’s first homosexual encounter; as a kid, he slept with a friend that he then bullied in order to hide his guilt. He also overhears an argument between his father (who is prone to drinking) and his aunt where his dad says that he just wants David to be a “real man”. Unable to work out for himself what that is, David begins drinking himself.

baldwin quoteWe see how things like abuse and neglect are internalized by the victims of it, and how that expresses in a cycle of perpetuation eventually. David was never taught how to be reflective, how to cope with hard truths, how to anticipate and manage consequences. He only knows how to run away from discomfort — into the bottle, or the arms of someone who can make him feel good, or a new city full of distractions.

The culture he falls in with is populated with people who have no idea how to rectify that, because they’re running too. Wealthy, established men run away from the pressures of having a high status in a society that would not accept them for who they really are; their shame is assuaged by one-night stands and brief, tumultuous relationships with broke younger men who need a job or a place to stay. Each partner secretly hates themselves for what they’re doing, and resents the other for taking advantage of their own vulnerabilities; it’s an environment where the basic interpersonal relationship is built on competition, not cooperation. Each partner is looking to get the most out of the relationship while putting in the least amount of work.

This underworld, full of men who want everyone to look at them admiringly but are unable to even look at themselves, encourages the worst impulses in people like David and ruins anyone attempting to be vulnerable and sincere. Even those rare moments of self-reflection are accompanied by a resignation that these men are trapped this way; any attempt to live honestly would likely end with a very long and painful fall.

The tragedy here is that so many people end up being warped and twisted in the most delicate and dangerous periods of their lives. Unable to navigate their own strange feelings, the only community they have shows them that sublimation and distraction is as good as it gets — there’s no reconciliation to be found. Society’s disrespect for their “particular tastes” becomes personal disrespect, and their behavior stems from that. Since everyone in the scene is despicable, it excuses all manner of similar actions.

So many novels about minority experiences in a particular place or time in history share this fundamental trait; the protagonist simply cannot make peace with themselves because society refuses to provide the basic respect needed to see themselves as someone worthy of that stillness. And so many novels project that this fundamental sociological rejection leads to anti-social behavior — murder, sociopathy, bitter solitude, misanthropy. This underscores the need for us to belong somewhere, to have communities that support and enrich us. But it also provides the blueprint for how institutional injustice curdles within the victims who endure it until self-hatred — and selfish, amoral behavior — oozes from our pores.

Giovanni’s Room is another cautionary tale in this vein. The closing moments of the novel find David wandering the streets of southern France all alone, imagining the miserable consequences he feels personally responsible for. We’re left to imagine what David actually does with his experience — does he sink further into despair and escape, or does he take the clarity he’s gained to make the necessary changes? Is that even possible?

I have to believe so. We can each of us unlearn the toxic ways we’ve learned to deal with each other and ourselves. But it requires claiming for ourselves the respect that society feels unable to give us, seeing each of our fellow people as individuals worthy of that same respect, and a keen, painful awareness of the consequences of demanding the things the world is not ready to provide. Living honestly is not easy by any stretch, but it is the way out of the hell people like David put themselves in.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2017 in Better Living Through Stories, Novels, Reviews

 

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(Writing) The Anatomy of the Story

Writing 150This summer I want to take the time and get really serious about my writing. That means working on it every day, reading stories from friends and colleagues as much as possible, and thinking about the aspects of my craft that I need to work on. When I asked my husband — the accomplished writer and wonderful dragon The Pen Drake — what I should work on first, it didn’t take him long to answer with “narrative structure”. After a moment’s consideration I totally see it. Plotting is one of those basic tools in a writer’s toolbox, and it’s one that I haven’t learned to use very well.

Plot is basically the series of events in a story that leads the characters through their arc. Ideally it should be interrelated with the character’s internal progression AND their external conflict; the main character’s main flaw is a significant barrier or source of conflict that needs to be overcome before the plot can be resolved. The main character is motivated to resolve the plot because it’s the only way they can get the one thing they desire. So the way the plot unfolds is inextricably linked to the internal world of the protagonist; the mistakes they make and the ultimate solution they come up with is based on who they are.

I think the main problem I have with plotting is, weirdly enough, having the protagonist actively work to achieve their goals and dealing with the consequences of those actions. In most of my stories the main character is little more than an observer, there to witness and chronicle the things that happen in the story. The protagonist takes in the action, but rarely actually initiates it, and the external stimulus is absorbed into their internal mental and emotional process.

What ends up happening is a lot of description; what’s happening in the world, immediately relevant to the viewpoint character, and how it makes them feel or changes the way they think. To be honest, I really love exploring how people are changed by the things they experience, and I love describing fantastic situations to explore how they’re interpreted through the lens of a particular person. But that’s only one half of the story; the insights you gain mean nothing until you put them into practice. You have to come down from the mountain, as they say.

So what I need to do is move further with the basic situations in my stories. It’s all well and good that a character’s life has been changed by something that’s happened, but what do they do about it? How does it get them closer to what they want? And what are the consequences of their actions on the world around them? What does that say about their priorities, and the setting?

The next Patreon serial I’m working on is a good opportunity to think about that. The plan is to make the protagonist the captain of a starship tasked with exploring the frontier and helping out in any way they can. In the first story, the crew of the ship contracts a disease that severely hampers their ability to carry out that mission; anywhere they go is now at risk of contracting the disease as well. How does the captain deal with that situation? How are his personal flaws going to make the resolution more difficult to come by? How do his actions affect the rest of the crew as well as anyone else they come into contact with? And what finally allows him to overcome those personal flaws to resolve the problem?

If all goes well, this will be the first serial of many in this setting. In future serials, the viewpoint character might shift so we’ll get a sense of how the captain’s resolution spins out to affect other officers and members of the crew. It’s ambitious, but that also means that the resolution of one plot becomes the catalyst for another — and that’s an exciting idea. To be honest, that’s what really attracts me to serialized fiction in the first place. Stories are never self-contained; they’re ripples on a continuum that keep extending outward.

Anyway, as I keep working on the pre-writing for this and other stories I’ll talk about my progress with this particular aspect of the craft. For now, I’m probably sticking to basic plots just to make sure I can construct a solid skeleton for the story I’m trying to tell. As I get more comfortable, I can move on to more complicated plots or figure out what kinds of twists I like.

If you have any advice on plotting, or any resources that have helped you figure out how to get better at it, why not share them in the comments? I’d be grateful for the help!