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Difursity Review: Come So Far, But So Far to Go

The social justice reckoning in our little corner of the Internet has been inspiring to see. Furries have listened to and amplified the voices of its BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) population, and we can speak up about our unique experience in the fandom more than ever. But the cultural divide we’re trying to bridge has proven to be both deeper and more nebulous than any of us realized. It’s a process that contains many unseen pitfalls, and even the most well-meaning of us are bound to stumble now and again. All of us, even me, have our blind spots. 

Difursity: Stories By Furs of Color is an anthology that aimed to challenge the monolithic whiteness of publishing by starting in our own space. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Thurston Howl’s Bound Tales imprint brought us five stories told from an outsider’s perspective…mostly. Four are intriguing tales from writers in the Asian diaspora, representing Singapore, Laos, and Vietnam. The fifth is an opportunity to learn how to discuss these pitfalls we’re bound to run into as we seek to better understand each other.

My favorite story in the anthology is “Vietnamized” by Allison Thai. Mindy is an Indochinese Tiger taking the big step of introducing her African Elephant boyfriend, Ugo, to her traditional Vietnamese parents. Their initial, strong disapproval sets off a chain of events that leads Mindy to lose her grasp of the English language entirely. The shock of the tragedy, and the long period of adjustment to her new life, brings Ugo and the family of Tigers together through connecting with Mindy’s native tongue. 

The situation is a bit far-fetched, but Thai grounds the story with strong characters and a compelling narrative. As someone in a mixed-race relationship, I sympathized strongly with Mindy and Ugo — it’s never easy to navigate through the difficult terrain of introducing someone into a wholly different and sometimes insular culture. Mindy’s nervousness about her family’s reaction to Ugo felt real to me, because I’ve seen my husband wrestle with those same emotions. When you love your family and want them to share your life, it’s very hard to deal with intolerant views. The complicated, intertwined feeling of love, anger, and disappointment can be torture to go through, and Thai illuminates that quite well. 

The story also does a great job of blending its furriness into its setting. Thai peppers her narrative with small details that point to the lived reality of animal-people — Ugo twisting his trunk with nerves, or Mindy’s display of affection by stroking his tusks, or Mindy’s father unsheathing his claws to count the reasons her boyfriend is a bad match. It’s another small but important step of grounding the world, which makes Mindy’s improbable turn much easier to buy.

AlSong’s “Rekindling” is another solid effort. Charlie, a Laotian Small-Clawed Otter, comes back to his small hometown from his Seattle university for spring break. There, he tries to reconnect with a few important aspects of his history — the language and culture of his family, and the few friendships he made in high school before leaving. I love that AlSong balances the frequently opposed identities that are nonetheless important for him to keep — his identity as a Laotian-American, and his identity as a cis gay male. While Charlie struggles with leaving one identity to incorporate the other, his friend Ford struggles with following the path to a larger world and more opportunity. There are also nice furry touches here, like the indoor pool of the Vongphachanh’s apartment being the place where the family gathers to eat papaya salad and watch Thai soap operas. Overall, it’s a nice encapsulation of the second-generation experience for an immigrant family, and how tricky it can be to hold onto your traditions while embracing the opportunity of a cosmopolitan future. 

MikasiWolf’s pair of stories, “In Better Times” and “Where Souls Go”, are a bit less successful. The first features a concept that could work, but falls down in its presentation. The cadence of the prose is a bit too repetitive, and the images conjured are too general to have much impact; it would have been better served by punchier prose that pointed more towards the specific details of the world he was building. “Where Souls Go” lands better, but the characterization could have been stronger and I would have liked to see Little Biscuit learn the lesson he did more actively; most of the story is a fairly static conversation with his dying grandmother, so we’re told a lot more than we’re shown. I couldn’t connect to Little Biscuit or the souls he was meant to help because they don’t really interact and influence each other. Both stories could have used cleaner prose to focus their points. 

Then there’s “No Substitutes Allowed” by Laurie Hall, which is — and there’s no easy way to say this — a racist story. It casts the Big Bad Wolf of Little Red Riding Hood fame as a jive-talking woodland creature who has an arrangement with Granny to break bread and keep the peace. It’s written in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by a white author from New England. The word “uppity” is used in the first paragraph and three times in a short three pages. 

There’s a lot wrong with this, but first, let me say that I don’t believe the author was malicious in her intent at all. The patois she uses evokes the Br’er Rabbit tales and Disney’s problematic Song of the South. I read the story as an affectionate homage to the unique speech of southern Black Americans. But the use of the language is not something you should do carelessly, and that’s been done here. 

AAVE is an aspect of the Black American experience that has frequently been hard to reconcile. It’s so ubiquitous, especially on the Internet, that it’s frequently adopted in wider circles, and there’s no clear consensus on the unspoken rules for what’s acceptable and what’s not. Most of the time, problematic speech is a “know it when I see it” kind of thing. What makes it so difficult to use if you’re not a Black American is understanding the context in which the language developed. When it’s used to evoke a set of stories inextricably linked to a time in American history we still haven’t fully coped with, like the antebellum South, it’s incredibly important to understand the effect that will have on an audience. 

The particulars of AAVE require a knowledge of its history and/or the lived experience of its culture to understand. That’s why it’s so easy to stumble over a false note or cause offense; a word that might seem innocuous on its surface can be loaded with meaning invisible to those outside of the culture. AAVE has also been weaponized by racists to paint us as stupid, uneducated, and mentally inferior. People who aren’t Black are always going to draw side-eye when trying to use it, because it’s something that connects us to our shared cultural experience and a painful history we’re still feeling the effects of. When the dominant culture comes in to treat such a fundamental part of our identity as a costume, or a writing exercise, it feels belittling. It’s a flattening of our culture that shows a lack of understanding, not only of the language itself, but of the shared trauma from which it was birthed. 

The word “uppity” points directly to that trauma. It has a long, established history of racist connotations, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable to see that word coming from a white writer who, for all intents and purposes, is pretending to be Black while telling this story. What’s worse, seeing this in an anthology nominally written by furs of color as the only story speaking to the Black experience is disheartening. It sits there, third in a group of other stories that offers needed insight into the lives of the Asian diasporas, as an example of how even well-meaning attempts to bridge our cultural divide can instead highlight how far apart we really are. 

While the author should be aware of the problematic nature of the story, its inclusion in Difursity is an editorial failure. I don’t know what the editorial process was like, and I certainly understand the difficulty of making sure an author is from the background they’re representing in their fiction, but the author’s bio links to her Facebook page. There’s no indication that Hall is a furry there (or at her Amazon page), or that she’s BIPOC. That should have given the editors pause in itself, but the fact the story was written in digital blackface should have been disqualifying right on its own. 

I hope the editors take greater care with their story selection for the upcoming second anthology, and at the very least employ sensitivity readers or cultural consultants for stories written by authors outside of the culture highlighted. 

Overall, Difursity is a welcome effort at expanding the idea of what furry fiction can be. However, it’s also a misstep that shows we still have work to do when it comes to responsible representation. There are resources available for Writing The Other that I strongly encourage all authors use to check their blind spots, and I encourage editors to be mindful of welcoming other voices into the slush pile. It may make putting together the next anthology a more difficult, slower process; but very few things worth doing are easy. 

I sincerely hope that this experience is one we can learn from and use to be better. I’m rooting for the success of this initiative.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

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(Review) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Reading 150The most shocking thing about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is how pleasantly it presents its dystopian setting. The World State as it exists in AF 632 (or the year 2540 as we know it) is a paragon of monolithic stability where nearly every aspect of life is manipulated by the government. Human beings are lab-grown, given chemicals that will assure their development into one of five separate castes. Once their development is complete, they’re immediately indoctrinated into the beliefs the World State wants them to have: that they are glad of the caste they’re in, they like the activities appropriate to their castes, that consumerist pleasure (sexual and otherwise) is the ultimate goal in life, and that all troublesome feelings are to be deadened through the liberal use of soma, an opiate drug. Everything that could inflame the human spirit — like art, literature, religion, even monogamy — is seen as ridiculous and savage by the enlightened citizens of the World State. 

One man, at least, is not satisfied by this blissful status quo — Bernard Marx, an Alpha human who nonetheless doesn’t conform to the physical or emotional standards of his class. He’s shorter than most Alphas, and his depressive nature exacerbates an inferiority complex stemming from that. Instead of seeking out company and casual sex, he prefers his own company and melancholy thoughts. Lenina, a fetal technician at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center, seems to like him anyway — even though his insistence on being sad is something she can’t understand. 

Bernard and Lenina travel to a “Savage” reservation on holiday and find a World State expat who disappeared decades ago, now quite advanced in age and with a strapping young son. Lenina is horrified by the simple living, different cultural morality, sickness, infirmity, old age, and poverty; Bernard is fascinated by it. When he learns that John, the expat’s son, is the illegal offspring of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Bernard is all too happy to charitably bring both of them to London for a family reunion. 

It really doesn’t work out well for anyone. Linda, the expat, was so devastated by culture shock and the subsequent rejection of her native society, that she disappears into a soma hole. John, her son, is much like Bernard. They’re both disaffected outcasts failed by society, with no emotional outlet to even begin to understand their longing. What’s interesting, though, is that while John rejects the World State that wants to embrace him, Bernard abandons his dissatisfaction as soon as he gets that taste of fame and acclaim. John is determined to remain true to his personal experience, even in the face of alienation and suffering. Bernard starts blowing his social capital like he’s won the lottery, confusing his luck as a mandate to tell the world the way he really thinks. 

The World State rejects Bernard, ultimately exiling him to an island where he can’t participate in society any more. John, however, remains stuck in its suffocating grip to the very end. Both men are ultimately broken by the monolith they rail against, and what’s worse — nothing is changed by it. The vulgar orgies and soma abuse continue. No one treats them as anything more than a curiosity.

And that’s because neither Bernard or John are good advocates for their anti-society stance. Both of them have been emotionally stunted by their background in different ways, and their inability to express the difficult emotions roiling them end up isolating them from anyone who might be able to help. Bernard, to me, confuses his depression for depth in the manner of high school and college kids everywhere but lacks the courage of his convictions to really explore the root of it. Instead of examining his emotions, he turns his unhappiness outward on anyone he feels deserves it. His dissatisfaction isn’t borne out of idealism or empathy; ultimately, it’s selfish and self-serving. 

John, on the other hand, is self-focused because he was never given the opportunity to actually join a society. He was an outcast on the reservation and wasn’t allowed to participate in the rituals and ceremonies that marked his maturation into manhood or the connection to the land that all of his fellows shared. His own mother was too entrenched in her own pain to guide him through his, or to teach him how to work with his ideals. What results is a rigid and miserable man who clings to the devil he knows, unable to find any kind of balance that he might be able to work with. 

Contrasted against the relatively happy (if vapid) citizens of the World State, Bernard and John feel more like warnings about the dangers of individuality than anything else. Citizens are conditioned from “birth” to be satisfied with their lot in life, given jobs appropriate to their predetermined abilities, and allowed their choice of leisure activities. All they have to do to keep society humming along is what, if the conditioning holds, would make them happy to begin with. No one even misses high art or literature. As far as dystopias go, the one in Brave New World is almost seductive in its completeness and effectiveness. It’s actually disturbing to me that it feels that way.

Because, looking around in this day and age, doesn’t it feel like all people want is some way to feel marginally meaningful, occupied and content, with no reason to think any further than their own pleasure? What have free thought and expression provided for us? If the only way to stabilize the human race and ensure its survival is through biological and psychological manipulation, wouldn’t that be better than the suffering and war we have now? 

Brave New World was written in response to the popular utopian novels of the time, a kind of parody to the shiny optimism that had taken hold in post-World War I Europe. Huxley was concerned by the overreach of government, the radical shift in industry brought about by Ford’s assembly line, social manipulation through media, and how the short-term pleasure of people could be weaponized as an element of control. Scientific and cultural advancement is purposefully stunted by the World State in favor of stability and unity; technology as a disruptive influence is simply unheard of.

The World State is a strange hybrid of the worst excesses of capitalism and communism, with its strictly-defined castes and coercion to consume material goods above all else. People are straight-up brainwashed into being agreeable, discarding their own thoughts and feelings to keep the peace and happiness of the group intact. But the craziest thing is that, for the most part, the society works. Even the people who aren’t on board, for whatever reason, are given a place where they can be who they want to be without the pressures of groupthink. 

The effectiveness of the World State is what sets Huxley’s work apart in the canon of dystopian fiction. Most authorities rule through oppressive fear, secrecy, or a more incompetent social manipulation that cannot hold. Seeing an authoritarian society that has somehow managed a (more or less) contented populace forces us to really think about why the World State is a dystopia and not a utopia. Is it simply that our cultural values are so far removed from theirs, or is there some fundamental aspect of the human experience being violated? The citizens of the World State are free to do as they please — only the State has conditioned them to be pleased by State-sanctioned activities. Is it really freedom if society has programmed us to make specific choices? If not, can we truly be free in any form of social structure? 

This is the thing that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the ‘Savage’ in Brave New World. The World State really forces you to think about the value of the individual over society, and what one would be willing to give up for stability. It’s disconcerting to face those questions in a way that makes you reconsider the answers, but that’s precisely what the book invites you to do.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2019 in Novels, Reading, Reviews

 

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Interesting Times

Last week was fairly interesting. Over the weekend I knew almost immediately that something was wrong with me, so I told my boss I’d work from home on Monday to make sure I had everything I needed on hand; I’ve been dealing with an ongoing health issue that’s easier to manage from home. So I put in my nine hours, and by the end of it I wasn’t feeling very well. By 5 PM I felt so cold I was shivering, and by 8 PM or so I had a fever of 102. Ryan took me to the emergency room at around 9:30.

To make a long story short, it turns out I had some kind of bacterial infection and an internal problem that’s relatively easy to clear up. I was given antibiotics and sent on my way. The rest of the week was spent flushing the infection from my system and gradually getting better. I was tired most of last week, and so much of my time revolved around dealing with health stuff that I simply didn’t have much energy for anything else. So that’s why I disappeared from the blog last week, and why I’m a little late coming back this week. Hopefully the worst of my health issues are behind me for now, but I’ll try to let you know if something is happening a bit more quickly.

In the meantime, I hope it’s back to business as usual with the blog here. I’m still planning four posts a week — a general interest post, two AFI movie reviews (at least until I’ve caught up) and a bit of short fiction from a project I’m working on. I’m really hoping to sharpen my movie reviews; I love the idea of exploring these stories that are widely regarded as the best examples of American cinema and breaking down why they’ve struck such a deep chord with audiences throughout decades. And while I know appreciating art is largely a personal affair, I think there’s something in the discussion of it that helps us to understand its message a little better.

Mostly, I’m hoping to get better at reviewing because I’d like to expand the reviews to furry fiction. This is a post for another time, but I think it’s important to apply the same kind of standards inside the fandom that we do for entertainment of a broader genre. I’d like to seriously discuss the writing of our little internet community as an art form — trends that tend to pop up among and between writers, common themes in ‘modern’ furry fiction, what our writers tend to do well and where we could be better. I think that level of discussion and scrutiny could help us out, or at least make us more aware of what we want out of our writing.

Right now, though, I’d like to talk about my own writing! I’ve been posting the “Unstable Future” snippets for Friday fiction the past few weeks to get my head around two of the main characters. My ultimate goal with it is to try and launch an ‘episodic’ storytelling model, where short stories are released at the same time every week for a certain length of time. Each short story is self-contained, somewhat, but also carries a larger arc forward until that too is completed. That marks the end of a ‘season’, and depending on the response further seasons are written.

I think this is a model that could work well, and “Unstable Future” is a great story to start with. In order to try and kick-start myself into writing it, I’ve decided to make it my project for the Clarion Write-A-Thon. The Write-A-Thon is a great fundraising drive for Clarion and Clarion West, a pair of six-week workshops where aspiring genre writers are taught various aspects of the craft and business of writing from folks who’ve made it. This year some lucky folks will be taught by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill!

However, in order to make the whole thing work and to make sure the people who deserve to be there can actually afford to be there, a little help is needed. The Write-A-Thon is a great way to do that; each writer makes a goal for the duration of the drive and posts excerpts and updates to his personal drive webpage. And his or her audience can make either flat donations of pledges based on word count. It’s a lot of fun, and a great way to meet some of the folks associated with Clarion. A lot of the people who participate are Clarion graduates!

I’ll be writing at least 25,000 words of “Unstable Future” for Clarion, and I would like your help to spur me on. I’ll be posting daily updates here on the blog, and excerps of the story at least once a week. If you would be so kind as to offer a small donation — like, say, $1.00 for every thousand words — I’d very much appreciate it. I’m setting a goal of raising $500 for Clarion this year, and I’d love to make it.

Here’s my author’s page, where you can take a look at my progress and make donations: http://clarionwriteathon.org/members/profile.php?writerid=177495

All right, I think that’s it for now. I have quite a lot of writing to do in order to catch up to things, and I’d better get started.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Furries, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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