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(Review) Why Black People Don’t Time Travel

Reading 150Edana Peterson is a writer who works temporary jobs to make ends meet; during one of these jobs, she meets a white, blue-collar worker named Kevin Franklin and falls in love with him. Kevin rejects his racist family in order to marry Dana — not something that’s easy, but it was especially so back in 1976. As the newlyweds move into a small place together, Dana gets dizzy while having a conversation with her husband. The room begins to spin; her vision blurs. And suddenly, she’s in a river with a drowning child. She saves him, and in reward for her trouble she’s attacked by the boy’s mother and nearly shot by a white man wondering what she’s doing off of a plantation.

This is the first of a half-dozen incredible trips back in time and across the country for Dana, the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s seminal work Kindred. Over the course of the novel, she learns that she’s being pulled back through time to save a young man named Rufus Weylin, who turns out to be an ancestor living in slavery-era Maryland. However, Rufus’ calling her have massive and long-lasting effects on Dana and Kevin; the first-hand experience of American slavery leave deep and lasting scars on both of them that they struggle to deal with.

Kindred is essentially a fictionalized slavery narrative that does something vital — it recovers the true extent of the slave’s experience and contextualizes it for modern-day audiences. One of the greatest disservices that have been done to American history is the sanitization of this period. So many stories set during this period are “lightened” so that audiences don’t lose their stomach for the tale while still hopefully learning how difficult it was. But what that does is distance ourselves from the very thing we need to be connecting to — no matter how difficult it is, knowing exactly what happened to black Americans during slavery and who perpetrated these horrors is essential in understanding the social and psychological impact it had on the people and institutions of modern-day America.

Both Dana and Kevin see themselves as progressives of the time, but the forced confrontation of the reality of their history is still hard to take. Their experience gives them no choice but to re-examine the idea they had about slavery and the choices that people under that brutal regime had to make in order to survive. Kindred illustrates just how people could possibly come to accept the abuses they endured and why they did it; it gives shades to those “Uncle Tom” and “contented mammy” characters that were caricatured in stories like Gone With The Wind; and it restores agency to so many other people trapped in the huge social ecosystem of the Southern plantation. The slaves that Dana meets when she’s transported through time don’t belong to merely a few stereotypes; their rich inner lives shows us the vast array of responses to their enslavement and how those decisions came about.

Perhaps more than anything, Kindred makes me understand just how much black women in particular suffered under white patriarchal supremacy in the antebellum South and how much they continue to do so today. They were perceived as nothing but property by all of society, and were subject to the base desires and whims of their masters. When all of the world was arrayed against you, you had to think very carefully about how you rebelled; it wasn’t simply a matter of worrying about your own life, because you had to think about the lives of your children and family as well.

One of the most fascinating things about the novel is how the shared experience of Dana and Kevin affects their relationship. Even as they become separated across time and space, what they have to endure changes them. Kevin has to disabuse himself of several notions about the struggle of black Americans in both the slavery South and the more “enlightened” times of 1970’s Los Angeles. When he returns to his “world”, it’s clear that he can’t really absorb what happened and move forward. Combined with Dana’s trauma, the couple must struggle to build a life together as best they can. The novel ends on that difficult, unresolved, yet hopeful note.

I think that’s the ultimate lesson of Kindred; fully facing a difficult history will change you in ways that are irrevocable and possibly damaging, but ultimately necessary. We can no longer go on as a society thinking that we don’t have the scars we do. If we don’t pay attention to our collective wounds, they will continue to fester and grow infectious, poisoning the very life-blood of our society. This unwillingness to look at the legacy that was left for us by our ancestors results in the continued abuse against minorities of those in power; the persistent inability of our legal system to properly recognize how those abuses have been perpetrated, largely unbroken, to this day; and the unchecked, raw anger and resentment that so many of us black Americans feel for our brothers and sisters with different ideas, lives and stories as well as the broader society that we’re all struggling to integrate into.

Kindred teaches us that clear understanding of our history is difficult but also healing. We are not whole people; we’ve done and endured terrible things. Facing that teaches us to better grasp the decisions of others within that system, see how its consequences are still baked into our society and have more compassion and empathy for our ancestors and each other. Realizing the hell we were all in simply gives us better orientation to get ourselves out of it.

So, if you can, read Kindred. Precisely because it is difficult, and will change you.

 

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(Personal) What Happened in January?

Self Improvement 150January 2016 was an extraordinarily busy month; everything just took off like a rocket, and it was all that I could do to hold on. Most of the work was anticipated, but I think I under-estimated the effect of a lot of it, and of course my still-developing organizational skills weren’t quite up to the task of keeping everything in order so I could get stuff done. I spent the last day of the month traveling from New York back to Silicon Valley, so exhausted I didn’t even realize how tired I was until I got a good night’s sleep.

Even still, I can’t say it was a bad time. I did a lot of stuff that was fun and enriching, and now that I made it through the worst of it I can take a breath, look at what went right, what went wrong, and how I can use the momentum of the month to propel me through my projects for this one. Here’s a brief rundown of the major events last month:

The Jackalope Serial Company
On New Year’s Day or thereabouts, I launched the Jackalope Serial Company. It’s an idea that had been brewing through the last six months of 2015, and I felt I was finally in a good position to make it happen. The JSC is basically the label through which I tell serialized erotic stories, one chunk every week, until it’s finished. The idea is to put up parts of 1500 – 2500 words a week on the Patreon, then edit those parts into monthly chapters that get released to SoFurry, Fur Affinity and Weasyl at a later date. The first serial is The Cult of Maximus, which I’m expecting to be a 100K-word story when all is said and done. That should take us through the first year of the JSC’s existence.

Launch was reasonably successful; to date I’ve got 17 patrons donating just over $100/month for the cause. I appreciate every single one of them! John Cooner did a bang up job on the launch poster/wallpaper, business cards and other assets that will be rolled out in the next month or so. And I’ve put up the first three parts of the story in January, with parts 4 and 5 coming (hopefully) this week to close out chapter 1.

I wasn’t as regular as I would have liked to be starting out, for reasons that I’ll talk about below. I’ll be spending much of this month and next trying to build up a small buffer so I can make sure the schedule is regular even if something unexpected happens. For now, though, I’m flying by the seat of my fluffy white tail. Thanks to my patrons for the patience they’ve displayed and the feedback they’ve given so far; really looking forward to having things settle into a routine this month!

Further Confusion 2016
This is kind of the biggest furry event of the year for me, and this year was no exception. I took part in five panels this year: “Power and Privilege in an Anthropomorphic World”, “Furries and the Other”, “Write Now!”, “Brainstorming in Real Time” and “Mindfulness and Transformation Workshop”.

The first two were the biggest surprises and fulfilling experiences I’ve had at a convention in a long time; there’s a real receptiveness to the idea of exploring our differences and power dynamics through furry fiction, and the audience was lively, insightful and wonderful. This is definitely a keeper; I’d love to be involved with it next year. The second two were awesome mainly because I just got to hang out with members of my writing group and talk with other writers about ways we can push ourselves past our blocks or think about constructing stories in a different way. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much as I did in those two panels.

For Mindfulness/Transformation, my friend Kannik and I tried a structure to make sure we went over the most important ideas we wanted to transmit and I think that went over pretty well. The exercise portion of the panel could still use some work, but we talked about how to adapt that depending on the read we get from the audience; next year, I think we’ll have a pretty good handle on things.

Away from the panels, having conversations and meals with a few people I don’t get to talk to that often were the highlight. This fandom is full of such a varied mix of interesting, passionate and unique people, and cons are one of the ways we can plug into that directly. I love talking to people and seeing their perspectives on all kinds of things; it makes me fall in love with the community all over again.

The Day Job Summit
This was a bit of a wrench. My company had merged with a similar one in Europe after being bought by a holding company last year. Initially, the plan was to bring everything together slowly and carefully, making sure the customers for each side didn’t feel spooked by what was going on. Apparently, the executives discovered that was no longer a concern and ordered a giant event for the merger kick-off this last weekend in January.

So, this was the first work trip I had ever taken, which is another milestone in my professional development. Thankfully, my husband came with me to hang out and be a tourist, so I was able to enjoy the vacation side of things through his eyes. We also know quite a number of people in the area, and we were able to visit with a few of them.

The overall effect of the summit was building a sense of community between two very different sides of the company; I’m not sure how well that came off, but I know that my particular department (Technical Support) grew a lot closer through the experience. I got to meet a lot of really neat people in European tech support, and we traded war stories. But for maybe the first time, I feel like a fully-accepted member of the team I work in, and that’s just incredible. I can legit say I love the company I work for, and the people I work with.

We also saw our first Broadway show while we were out there — the runaway-smash musical Hamilton. If you haven’t listened to the soundtrack yet, do yourself a favor and pull it up on Spotify or your music-streaming service of choice. You will NOT be disappointed. It’s a hip-hop/rap musical about a founding father whose story almost never gets told, Alexander Hamilton. The inversion of race (Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson and other major characters are black) really punches up the drive of the Founding Fathers, brings their tragedies home in a way I had never considered, and makes me empathize with them in a way I never had before. It makes this old, distant history alive and personal. It’s so good.

New York City is a hell of a town. We visited Wall Street, saw people fondling the bull outside of the NYSE, visited Trinity Church and Fraunces Tavern; we went to Brooklyn and had brunch at Flatbush Farm with a major sci-fi/fantasy author (!!); and partied pretty hard at Celsius in Bryant Park, The Eagle on the lower west side (?) and Grand Central Terminal. We saw subway dancers who were amazing, listened to cellists and jazz ensembles, saw the knock-off mascots threatening people in Times Square. All in all, a hell of a trip.

Writing/Reading
I started out strong in January, finishing my first short story of the year for MegaMorphics (“New Year, New You”) and wanted to have “A Stable Love” done but the JSC work sucked up all the oxygen in that room. I started The Cult of Maximus, but didn’t get as far with that as I’d like, so this month will be a bit of righting the ship as far as that’s concerned.

I did read an awful lot, though. I’m catching up on my backlog of comics — I’m finding “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” to be a singular delight, and I’m really digging “Sam Wilson: Captain America”. I finished Kindred by Octavia Butler, and that has been a life-changing book for me. It fundamentally changes my idea of black women for the better, and I’ll need to let that cook for a moment or two. I started The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin, and I’m looking forward to finishing that, and I finished the third collection of the Apocalypse Triptych, called The End Has Come. It features (mostly) post-apocalyptic stories, many of them continued from stories in the other two collections. It was a neat idea that had a satisfying and surprising set of conclusions, and I’m looking forward to talking about that later.

Meanwhile, my reading stack grows all the time. 🙂 Since it’s Black History Month, I feel like I should be reading something theme-appropriate, and there is no shortage of books that fit that bill. I’ll talk a little bit about that tomorrow.

So that was my January in a nutshell; incredibly busy, full of wonderful and enriching experiences, as well as a lot of opportunities for growth and learning with various personal projects. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about my plans for this month and what I hope to have achieved when looking back on it sometime in March.

How was YOUR month? What were your highlights? What stories did you complete or make progress on? What things did you notice that you could do better?

 

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My Writing Guide to November 2015

Self Improvement 150October was a pretty intense month. I went in for full training on changing my position at work, which means there are a LOT of holes in my technical knowledge that need to be filled. The shift also means that I’m down in the trenches with coworkers a bit more, and that means an opportunity to change the culture that I’d feel awful not taking. It’s important to me that any community I’m a part of feels more like a community because I’m a part of it — that may sound egotistical, but I like being a glue. I want to make people feel more connected, like someone has their back.

But that means paying attention to work in ways that I hadn’t before, which also means that it has to get a lot more of my time and energy. Because things happened so suddenly, I had to drop any other plans I had made in order to make sure I had the emotional space for it. Now that there are a few weeks of this under my belt, I think I’m able to take a beat or two to see where my head’s at and what I feel I can do.

I’ll still need to set aside a chunk of time to learn more about the technical aspects of my job, like getting to know Linux from the command line and how to work with PostGreSQL and maybe even learning more about SOAP API. But I’d also really like to use whatever remaining time I have for writing and reading — immersing myself in stories that matter to me and learning how to tell them better.

I won’t be able to join NaNoWriMo this year; there’s simply too much going on, and I’m too far behind on a few other things. Still, in the spirit of the month I’d like to set a few goals. They’ll be a bit more modest than what I may have originally planned, but I think they’re a good challenge for what I can handle right now.

WRITING
Ugh, I’m so far behind. On everything. But no worries! This month I’d like to focus on making writing a regular practice, so projects are geared towards that. In addition to making sure The Writing Desk is updated three times a week, I’d like to work on articles for other blogs like [adjective][species] and perhaps Claw & Quill. I’m not sure I’ll have anything ready to show this month — besides, at least with [a][s] they have a pretty solid line-up of posts to take us through the holiday season. Seriously you guys, I really think you’ll like what they have planned.

But there are things about the culture of the fandom I’d really like to write about — what we want out of an art/writing/music community portal, how the broader politics of other SFF fandoms influence our own, how the fandom treats mental illnesses, social maladjustments, and the expression of fetishes that aren’t seen as acceptable or respectable by the society at large. It’s interesting stuff to me and there are no easy answers for this, but it’s all top of mind and I think we should be talking about it, at least in a high-level way.

Here at The Writing Desk, I’ll try to tighten the focus to storytelling and the lessons I’m learning from it — which means more reviews of the stuff I’ve been reading, more thoughts on the lessons we can take from our stories to the broader world, and how our experiences in the broader world are baked into our stories. I’ll talk about the bricks of my Afro-Futurist philosophy as I discover places for them, and the ideas that are taking shape in my mind as I’m writing stories.

As for the stories themselves — well, I’ve got three short stories that I’d really like to finish before I really dive into anything new. “A Stable Love” is a commission that a friend of mine has been waiting on for years, and while I’ve been marching towards completion it’s well past time it was done. Another friend generously donated to my Clarion Write-A-Thon fundraiser, earning a commissioned story that I’ll begin as soon as “A Stable Love” is draft-complete. And then there’s a short story that I would love to submit for the People of Color Destroy Science Fiction anthology coming up next year. I have the idea and the outline for it in my head, and I’m really excited to get started on that.

I’ll also be working on a collaborative project with a few friends called “A Changing Perspective”. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story spun off from an interactive over on writing.com; since that website has issues with advertising for their interactive space, I can’t ask friends to go read those chapters in good conscience. A group of four writers has made an informal pact to revisit the interactive through Twile, and cone we’ve got significant chunks of the story underway we’ll find a way to host it.

So for November, I’d like to finish “A Stable Love” and write 12 chapters for “A Changing Perspective”; update The Writing Desk three times a week; and have at least one complete article for both [adjective][species] and Claw and Quill. It’s an ambitious schedule, but I think I can do it if I keep my focus.

READING
I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I should. I’ll be honest — I’m a slow reader, and I often spend time I could spend reading doing something else, like playing mobile games. Making an effort to read more means spending more of my downtime devoted to it, and that’s something I’m very much in favor of.

This month, I’d like to finish two (I believe) short novels that I’ve been wanting to read for a very long time — Kindred by Octavia Butler and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. The former is a great introduction to one of the biggest black voices in science-fiction, and has been served to me as an Outlander-type story of the slavery South. It sounds like it’ll be incredibly rough, but an illuminating read. The second is a good introduction to one of the best black intellectual voices from the Harlem Renaissance, and that alone has got me tremendously excited. Reading up on black literature — not just sci-fi/fantasy, but novels, essays, and poetry — is something that I want to feel better rooted to the tradition I’m coming out of. I’m hoping that it will help me better understand why my community is the way it is these days, and better imagine what my community will be like in the future, or how it would deal with magic, or how my personal experience fits in to an Afro-Futurist context.

I’ll also be reading through the slush pile for New Fables, though we generally only have poetry to deal with at this point; short stories and novels from friends, of course; and the comics that are coming through the pike as part of All-New, All-Different Marvel. Exciting times, and as usual there is no shortage of reading material.

ELSEWHERE
There is no shortage of demands for attention these days — it’s tough to distill your life down to the essential things that you want to be doing. One of the things I’ve been trying to remind myself is that everything I do is a choice; if I spend a lot of time doing something that doesn’t get me closer to being a writer or someone with good technical skills, that’s a choice I’ve made. If I goof off instead of do something equally enjoyable but possibly more enriching, that’s a choice I’ve made. At this point, it’s important to make good choices about how I spend my time. There are only so many hours in the day, and it’s in my best interests to make them count.

This is a bit of a tangent, but it’s a bit like shaping your diet so that you eat better. If you’re trying to make sure you only eat a certain number of Calories per day, then it becomes a lot more important to make sure those Calories are doing something for you — either helping you with your exercise routine, or making sure you’re full for longer, or helping out with your digestion. When your Calories become precious or finite, the impact of empty Calories — those in say, candy or a milkshake — becomes startlingly apparent. If I’m holding myself down to 2000 Calories in a day, I really can’t afford to spend 650 of them on an Oreo milkshake, no matter how much I want to. It’s either that, or dinner.

Bringing that awareness to my time is a lesson steadily, painfully being learned. There’s only so much free time that I have on a weekday; an hour before work, if I wake up on time, and maybe two or three afterwards. What am I doing with those four precious hours? Am I playing Marvel Puzzle Quest on my phone? Am I looking at Facebook without actually absorbing any of the information I see there? What else could I have done that would help me get closer to the life I’d like to be living?

This month I’ll try to make more responsible decisions about how I spend my time. Don’t get me wrong — I know that I’ll need to blow off some steam, or do something inconsequential sometimes to relieve some stress. I’d like those activities to be a mindful choice, though, not the easiest option available, or some sort of default.

To those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck! This will be a crazy and exciting month for you. I hope it’s fulfilling as well. Let’s get to work.

 

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