Saturday, October 13, 2018

My NaNoWriMo Project: #NaNoRBG

I've dubbed my NaNoWriMo project #NaNoRBG, not so much because it has anything to do with Ruth Bader Ginsberg or the Supreme Court particularly.

More because of Ruth Bader Ginsberg's quote: "When I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, 'When there are nine,' people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that.”

More because I'm furious that Brett Kavanaugh got away with every inch of how he behaved in his hearings and still got the Supreme Court nomination, while Serena Williams shows anger and loses her game and her title. (One of the two of these things lasts for life, too.)

More because, when I was early on in exploring professional writing advice online, I came across an article that told me that it's best to write stories with male protagonists because the publishing industry wants to be better able to market to boys, and I hated that article so much.

More because Shannon Hale is right when she puts the blame on adults for discouraging boys from reading books about girls and gendering books as "boy" books and "girl" books.

More because, when I read The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson for a grad school class, we had a whole discussion about how it felt like there were so many female characters, but even in a story set in a matriarchy, it's just better than half the named cast.

More because it's so easy for a website like ScreenRant to come up with a list of fifteen movies that have literally no female characters, but I'm having a hard time finding any with literally no male characters, even in this age of genderbent reboots.

So, I'm writing a novel where all the named characters are female, female-identifying, or nonbinary. Every. Single. One.

It's a book about a teen psychic who gets abducted by a demon and narrowly avoids getting sacrificed on the table of prophecies by channeling a powerful prophecy of her own. But, once she's given the demons a window into the future and an opportunity to thwart their human adversaries, the weight of consequence falls heavy on her shoulders. If she doesn't escape from the depths of the demon library where she's being held and warn mankind of the impending doom, the world could end--and it would be her fault.

Teen psychic Cassandra is joined by demon hunter in training Kennedy, an orphan trained from birth by the mysterious Hands of the Seers. Kennedy's mentor was killed in in the same ambush that led to Kennedy getting captured and thrown down in the pits of the demon library. She knows they'll feed her to the vampires or cut her open and bleed her out for some dark ritual if she doesn't escape, but she doesn't see a way out, until Cassie appears, mopping the hallway outside Kennedy's cell, and the potential collaboration sparks a glimmer of hope in her heart.

Throw in a fossilized gryphon egg that--turns out--isn't so fossilized for added spice.

That's my #NaNoWriMo project. If anyone else wants to write (or has) a novel they're working on with exactly 0 named male characters and wants to borrow the hashtag #NaNoRBG this month, you are welcome to it!

Whatever you're writing, whether you're all in for NaNoWriMo or you're working at your own pace like the rockstar you are, I wish you the best inspiration, motivation, and time to work your writing magic out there.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Doctor Who: More Please!

Today is one of those days when I dearly miss my friend Jason. His birthday is coming up, and also I would love to share the new Doctor Who with him. He's the friend who introduced me to Doctor Who, who started me on Eighth Doctor, of all places, back when Tennant was Ten. He made lighthearted references to episodes from Nine and Ten's seasons that I hadn't seen yet, so that when I watched a moment, I could come back to him and geek out. He was the best kind of fan--the kind who welcomed everyone to come and enjoy.

Other friends, too, shared Doctor Who with me. I stopped watching shortly after the Capaldi seasons started because the writing didn't hold me the way it used to, or because I didn't have anyone to directly watch and discuss it with. Probably a bit of both. But, today I shared this new season premiere with two friends.

I think Jason would like Jodi Whittaker as the Doctor. I know I did. There are so many things I can list as reasons why I loved her, so many things I enjoyed about this episode. And from here on there are (mild) spoilers. If you haven't seen the episode, and you don't want spoilers, turn back. (I'll actually use a jump break so that if you're viewing this from the top page, you can just scroll to the next post.)


Thursday, October 4, 2018

Lirael, and Being Whoever You Are

Note, reiterated: There's no such thing as spoilers for a book that's more than, like, ten years old. Still, if you want to read the Old Kingdom series for yourself untainted, here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

Look, somehow, I can't start talking about Lirael without making a Steven Universe reference today, so here we are. If I spent most of the book wishing I could grab a ukulele and chase Lirael and Sameth around singing loudly at them, "Why don't you let yourself just be somewhere different? / Whoa, why don't you let yourself just be whoever you are?" can you really blame me?

Because this is a book that begins with fourteen-year-old who has not gained the same magical gift of future vision as everyone else in her community. And she looks different from everyone else. And she feels so hopeless because of what she isn't that she decides she should commit suicide. It's such a gut-wrenchingly painful place to start: She isn't like everyone else, so she might as well stop existing.

Fortunately for all parties involved, the arrival of Queen Sabriel and King Touchstone throws a wrench in Lirael's suicide attempt, and when she's discovered eavesdropping, hiding in a snowbank, the two powerful twin seers Sanar and Ryelle let her know that they didn't come into their ability until they were sixteen and advise her to do something with her time besides wait for her gifts to develop. And so Lirael becomes a librarian.

(And, the Library of the Clayr is definitely at least subconsciously part why I wanted to be a librarian for a while there. Sorry, Rothfuss, but it's still cooler than the Archives.)

It takes Lirael nearly seven hundred pages to begin to see herself as who she is, to recognize and embrace her unique talents. (Granted, she splits those pages with Sameth, but for me it's her book.) There's this distinct difference between being told that it's okay that you aren't like everyone else, and actually feeling like it's okay, and Lirael struggles with that difference. The people around her would technically accept her as she is (though their acceptance is passive at best when their lives are so full of their Sight that they have a hard time being present in the moment). Even if it were more active, their acceptance bears less weight until she starts to see herself differently--

Not as what she isn't.

But as what she is.

So, on the one hand we have Lirael, who wants desperately to be like everyone else even though no one else is pressuring her to become a seer. A girl with no apparent destiny. A dusty forgotten book on a shelf.

And on the other hand, we have Prince Sameth, who is assumed to be the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, destined to take his mother's place fighting the Dead. Only, he's terrified of Death, and he's pretty sure he can't do the job everyone expects him to do. He's got this great talent for making things with charter magic--which the people around him ignore because, well, who cares if you can make a charter magic frog thing that can eat mosquitoes while you travel when you've got a Grand Destiny to live up to?

Instead of fessing up at any point, instead of feeling safe to tell even his family how he really feels inside, he bottles it up and tries to live to the expectation. If he's going to be Abhorsen some day, well, he'll just have to suck it up and figure it out, won't he?

Except life doesn't work like that.

How many children end up with all kinds of bottled stress and anxiety because their family expects them to live up to a set of expectations, and they have something else in their hearts? How many artists get shoehorned into more practical jobs and forced to treat their craft as a hobby at best? How many members of the LGBT community try to fake being straight and cisgender because that's what's expected, and maybe if they try hard enough, long enough, it will somehow work out?

How many people suffer from depression and harbor thoughts of suicide because we aren't a little bit more vocal about how much we love what makes them unique? Because we can't accept them, listen to them, and lift them up?

Sameth puts pressure on himself to be something he's not because of the active expectations placed upon his shoulders. Lirael puts pressure on herself because of the passive awareness of the societal norms she doesn't fit. And it feels so good when both let go of what they aren't, and they start to see themselves for who they really are.

Looking forward to Abhorsen next, because this aunt and her nephew are positively powerhouses in their own right once they cut loose and embrace their own identities.

(Yeah, Lirael is Sabriel's little sister. Which makes her Sameth's aunt. And it makes me glad that Garth Nix had Lirael shut down Sam's little smidge of romantic interest even when they didn't know it because, well, that would have been awkward.)

As one final note: THE DISREPUTABLE DOG. The Disreputable Dog. Oh, my stars. The Disreputable Dog. 10/10 would pet and provide with tasty table scraps.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Horror Movie Marathon

I found myself with a lonely day: my roommates were tired, my husband traveling, Stephanie already back at school. I embraced this - after a weekend cruise that involved crowds, a cramped cabin, and constant stimulation, a day to chill was welcome.

So I googled: best horror movies on Netflix. I love horror movies… but so often, they disappoint. Horror as a genre should be about taking a slippery-slope into the darkest fears of the human experience, but I find that mainstream horror tends to be more slashers or torture-porn, and I usually roll my eyes at the trailers.

However, I do think there has been a resurgence of quality horror lately. After all, Get Out and Quiet Place were among the best films I've seen in years. This made me feel like giving this list a try. I had a delightfully frightening day, and so this post will be a review/analysis of the four films I watched. There will be spoilers, so I recommend watching them before reading on. All of them are worth it!

Raw

I started with a movie that has been on my list for months: Raw. The summary intrigued me, and I had tried to find it on Netflix while visiting my sister-in-law in France this summer. It wasn't available at the time, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a French film! Get on the ball, French Netflix.

The premise: A veterinary student endures hazing as she enters school. One ritual involves eating a rabbit liver raw, which is a problem since she is a vegetarian. She caves, only when her sister, an older student, pressures her into it. Soon, she craves every kind of meat and ends up with a disgusting but unique zombie / cannibal syndrome.

This syndrome echoes the experiences a young person might have as they transition away from their home and supervision of their parents into drug or alcohol use. The pressure to indulge is high, it is difficult to find moderation, she doesn't quite understand how it will affect her, and she ends up hurting herself and others. The plotline effectively explores our deep fears of addiction and loss of self control, especially due to peer pressure and the fear of being excluded. But this is nicely balanced against the relationship developed between the two sisters. (I love, love, love the way horror lends itself away from tired romance plots!) The older sister knows the ropes of both the school and their syndrome well, and she knows how to manage it… until she doesn't, and frequently lapses herself. The sisterhood is co-dependent, but co-destructive.

Star Garance Marillier (excuse the pun) killed her performance - at the beginning, she sells the quiet-girl schtick so well that by the time she turns feral, she had turned all my expectations upside down. Also, the love interest was super hot (and spoke French the whole movie, hell yes!).

It Follows

This was definitely the scariest of the four! A young woman has sex with her new boyfriend, and gets a unique STD: a curse. She is cursed to be followed. There is a demon that can take any form that will just walk toward her at a slow-to-moderate pace. If it catches her, she dies.

The protagonist, Jay, is surrounded by a group of friends who believe her story, although they cannot see the demon themselves, and commit to helping her. Although there are romantic notes in this story, it's primarily a story of the power of friends, especially in groups. The romances that do develop bloom out of those friendships, which is a nice deviation from the tropes of the "friendzone" or "love at first sight" narratives we see too often.

This resonated with me very much. I live at quite a distance from my family - yes, we live on opposite ends of the country, but we also have large distances in our philosophies and approaches to life. They continue to be religious, where I am a militant atheist. They are conservative, and I'm very liberal. On Sundays, they go to church, and I go to boozy brunch. We still love each other, but such differences mean that it's not always easy to open up to them because there's so much dissonance. So, I have built a family around me here. I live with my husband and his brother, and two married roommates and friends. I have Stephanie, who might live across the country, but who I know would come to my aid if ever I was haunted by a slow-walking demon. So, I really understood when Jay refused to tell her parents about the demon or ask for their help - she had her friends, who were every bit as reliable, committed, and loving as family could be.

Another aspect of this story that caught my eye was the way in which everyone around Jay expected
her to accuse the boy who had given her the curse of rape. The police ask, pointedly, "Are you sure it was consensual?" and she nods. Yes, it was. Even her friend shakes his head and says, "What did he really do to you?" I appreciated these moments because so often, there is this false narrative that women call RAPE! out of revenge, to punish her partner when she is disappointed after the act. Of course, Jay is upset at being used and terrified by the curse, and in many ways she was victimized even if it was not through sexual assault specifically, but she, herself, never goes there. Everyone expects her to. They would "rescue" her and punish the boy, if she gave them cause… but she doesn't. Jay refuses to do that, as I expect most women would.

Thematically, this film seems to address our human fear that death is coming for us. Perhaps, it could be viewed as a story about a serious-to-fatal STD, like HIV, which you have to constantly treat or it can sneak up behind you. However, the film doesn't dwell so much on the sex that it could not be relatable for people who aren't sexually active, and the film doesn't slut-shame. Death could be "following" you for any reason - Jay's happens to be the sex she was duped into, but yours could be a car accident or a disease… or just age.

Cinematically, this was a traditional horror film - shot in third person, the actors beautiful young people in suburbia, intense music, jump scenes, and creepy over-the-shoulder shots of the demon closing in. Creepy, but enjoyable!

Oculus

This one stars the fabulous Karen Gillan, who I already loved from Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. It weaves together two narratives brilliantly, past and present. As children, brother and sister watched their parents suffer at the hands of an evil mirror. As adults, they try to "hack" the mirror to document and prove its evil before destroying it. In that way, it was a very "traditional" versus "modern" storyline, where the mirror used old-school magic and the protagonists used timers, cameras, and phones to stay one step ahead.

This film was also very traditional in its filming - gore, jump scenes, the works. Its power came from the unique villain: the mirror does not seem to be a specific ghost or demon, but instead mostly a complex self-defense system. It uses psychological tricks to outwit the humans who intended to hack its magic.

The film did a beautiful job of exploring the ways in which our minds can be tricked. It is infrequent that we realize how false our memories can be, how we can doubt or justify our actions for no reason, or act without thinking. This movie shoves this reality right in your face and won't let you turn away.

But in addition, I wonder if this does not represent the fear we have toward technology like Facebook. It can jerk us, emotionally, in any direction, any time, for its own interests. We struggle between that feeling of being coerced and a feeling that we can change the system, if we can "hack" it… but in the end, we only fuel it, at the expense of ourselves.

Creep

This film was the hardest for me to buy into, in terms the viewer experience. It features a videographer who is hired by a (supposed) terminal cancer patient to document his life for his (supposed) son-to-be, who will be born after he dies. Much of the film is first-person - you watch it through the camera of the videographer filming and minimally commenting from the other side of the lens. This was disconcerting, for sure, since most films aren't shot this way. But it was also uncomfortable because you watch the story unfold from the eyes of the "victim," but you have no control over what he does. It feels like being in the front seat, but not the driver's seat, as you drive off a cliff.

If you asked me to summarize this movie, I would say it is a "white Get Out." It delves into similar moments and catharsis as the audience shouts at the protagonist to get out of there!!! but watches in horror as the protagonist, Aaron, decides not to. It is distinct - he thinks it would be an overreaction or a sign of weakness to admit he is afraid, even when he sees clear red flags. And since, as a man, he has no real practice being afraid, he barely knows what to do!

Fundamentally, this film is about toxic masculinity. Literally no woman would have fallen into this trap. Go meet a man I don't know off an internet ad? Nope. Walk with him into a secluded forest? Nope. Oh, he sent you a package? Don't open it. Call the police. Stay with a friend - or lots of them (see also, It Follows, above!). He wants to meet to explain? Noooooo.

See, women operate under the daily assumption that we could be axe-murdered by any man, any time. Men don't. This film really plays with that. Aaron is afraid, he is terrorized, but he is unwilling to admit it or take action because that's not how men are socialized to react. This is nicely reinforced when he finally calls the police to report a stalker - the police are so dismissive that Aaron hangs up and resolves to "man up" and handle it himself.

This also addresses the real problems that we have as a society by not acknowledging the ways men are victimized. Women are a bit more comfortable asking for rescue because we are consistently told that we need it - see the whole "damsel" trope. But men can be targeted in the same way and instead be laughed off, even when they are in significant danger. Male victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and (in this case) stalking, are just not taken seriously and thus do not receive adequate help. Throughout this whole story, the villain relied on Aaron's unwillingness to acknowledge his fear and the fact that he would receive little support from authorities. A toxic but absolutely reliable cycle that the villain knew would work in his favor.


Conclusion

At the end of the day, I realized this was a terrible idea because the same solitude that afforded me the space to spend all day watching awesome scary movies meant that I did not have my big, strong husband to keep me safe when I went to bed! Every bump in the night had me wide awake, and I only drifted off when I started streaming the news on my phone for white noise.

But, totally worth it!


Saturday, September 29, 2018

If Reading Builds Empathy...

Note: This is an opinion piece. This is not a scholarly essay. It's not going to have well-cited sources. I've read all the books I discuss here. I've been forced to read them in high school, and re-read them for graduate school. I've read teacher guides on them and listened to teachers discuss the merits of teaching these books. Everything here is anecdotal. It's more of a question than an answer.

I have a vehement hatred for a specific sub-genre of realism: White Boy Attends Prep School and Reveals the Human Condition.

See: Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

White boys attending prep schools are in a minority in the US. They are definitely special, in that they have unique experiences that are pretty much inaccessible to the wider population. Reading books about their experiences should be like an anthropological experience.

"Here, we see this bizarre subculture where everything is cutthroat and emotions must be bottled up and buried because discussing them is a sign of weakness. They claim the law of the jungle is kill or be killed, that life is hopeless and without meaning."

Instead, high school curriculum treats these boys' experiences as somehow thematically reflective of all humanity. Holden Caulfield deserves our empathy even while he views the whole of the universe with a cynic's eye and calls anything and everything phony. The boys of the Lord of the Flies teach us lessons about how we're all little murderers at heart.

For a long, long time (and I know things are changing, and I know some teachers who are doing great work within the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement), the protagonists taught in High School English looked and behaved like Brett Kavanaugh. Placed on pedestals, the subject of essays and classroom discussions for decades. The ones that were treasured, listened to, given the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe no one (or very few people) intentionally taught that because these protagonists were worth studying, representative of the human condition as they are, that made white boys clearly superior and more genuine and more believable. But I have to wonder at the correlation.

If books teach empathy toward their subject matter, and the books that decades of people have been forced to read teach empathy specifically toward rich white dude protagonists, then does this mean some people are more likely to believe the rich white dude when his victim is equally credible? Is there some small bit of familiarity because of common ground in books?

#WeNeedDiverseBooks because we need empathy for all people. We need all voices to be viewed as equally deserving of empathy, not just one minority population.

It's not about replacing the classics. It's about contextualizing them, pairing them with books that demonstrate similar themes with other faces or contradictory themes that underscore problematic assumptions.

We need books like The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart, where the young woman attending the prep school hijacks the top secret boy's club and manipulates its members and gets burned by her own toxic behaviors.

We need books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, where we develop empathy for Starr as she navigates cultural pressures in all aspects of her life, at home and at school.


We Need Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli to feel the pain of a homosexual student in the closet.

We need immigrant stories like The Good Braider by Terry Farish.

We need so much more than prep school boys can ever teach us.

We need to teach how valuable all voices are.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sabriel, and Local Problems

I've been taking far, far, far too long to get around to reading Clariel and Goldenhand by Garth Nix, and I decided that in order to get myself in the right place to do it, I would reread the original Old Kingdom books.

I have not been disappointed.

My initial reaction was, "These books hold up well ten years after publication."

Then I had to remind myself that the 90s are now, you know, twenty years ago.

Then I felt old.

Note: There's no such thing as spoilers for a book that's more than, like, ten years old. Still, if you want to read the series for yourself untainted, here there be spoilers.
That aside, two things that struck me with Sabriel:

First, Sabriel doesn't set out to be the Chosen One or Save the World. A spirit approaches her from Death and presents her with her father's sword and necromancer bells, and she refuses to believe her father is dead. She leaves on her quest purely and entirely to rescue her father. There's so much that's personally at stake for her, and all the other stuff about Kerrigor and the deterioration of the Old Kingdom is completely second string.

You as the reader know, or at least strongly suspect, that Touchstone is the true king. You pick up on how much of a threat Kerrigor is beyond just being the thing that stands between Sabriel and her father. You know that Sabriel is stepping up into her destiny, preparing to take her father's place, and that any moment she has with her father before the end of the book is going to be a Mufasa in the Clouds kind of moment. But all the epic saving-the-world fantasy that surrounds Sabriel doesn't matter quite as much as her loss of her father, her desire to protect her friends, even her connection with the soldiers on the wall.

Sabriel's destiny does not overshadow Sabriel herself as she becomes an Abhorsen in her own right. I love that, so much.

Second, in my younger years, I didn't really believe that people could be so ignorant that they'd deny that there's a magical wall where sometimes the undead cross over from a kingdom beyond, and technology gets funky around the wall. As an adult, I'm realizing how little people care about local problems.

If it isn't in your neighborhood, if it doesn't have a celebrity spokesperson, local problems don't really register. Consider the Flint Water Crisis, which is still ongoing after four or more years. (And what other little towns and cities out there in the US struggle for access to clean water, and we don't hear about it at the national weather?) Or, the way that a particular individual with some authority in government can blatantly deny that nearly three thousand people died in Puerto Rico after Puerto Rico was all but ignored in the aftermath of two hurricanes. These aren't exactly tiny problems, but people who are farther distant from the tragedy seem to find it easy to dismiss.

So, now, I can most definitely believe that the government in Ancelstierre would be stupid enough to stop rotating the crossing point on the wall, allowing the dead to pile up in one location and grow worse and worse, against the advice of the military officials on the ground who know its a huge problem. There's a truth to it that I didn't notice or consider as a child.

One of my students is reading Sabriel right now, and I'm excited to hear what she thinks--if it's just my nostalgia and my adult perspective finding comfort in Garth Nix's words, or if I'm right and the story really does hold up.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

What Happened When Joseph Reported

Okay, so, there's this story in the bible. A servant is just doing their servant thing, when an individual in a position of power in the household where they serve attempts to rape them. The servant refuses because they don't want to break the commandments or look upon the face of sin. The person in a position of power claims that the servant assaulted them out of retribution. The servant gets thrown in jail because no one listened to their story.

This is the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Also, the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. Also, a story that is reiterated, over and over and over in the world around us. It is a story that is significant right now.

THIS IS THE MESSAGE: People in power abuse their power. Victims are blamed for things that are not their fault. The world may not know the truth, but the victim is still the victim. Joseph, the victim of sexual assault, is vulnerable. No one believes him. He did nothing wrong, and the only peace he has is knowing that at least he's right with God while he's in prison being blamed for the assault he was the victim of.

The message I saw broadcasted on my Facebook Feed today is: In the story of Potiphar's wife, we learn that women are terrible lying seductresses. Don't believe women when they're telling you that a man assaulted them. They want it.

This facebook post was in the form of a video, where the story was told by a woman. It was also shared by a woman. I struggle to understand how, in a Relief Society where we are taught that we are daughters of a Heavenly Father, filled with faith, virtue, vision, and charity, we're still sitting here calling ourselves lying evil seductresses.

Do you even realize how harmful that is? How much hurt it causes? Why are we teaching our daughters to value the futures of their male counterparts over their own dignity and virtue? Don't report, daughters, because that's what Potiphar's wife did, and see how it got poor Joseph thrown in jail?

I have spent the last few days seeing my friends share their own #WhyIDidntReport stories. Knowing that I have more friends who can't share their personal stories and knowing that could be why they're sharing so many other people's stories instead. These are stories of women and men who didn't or couldn't report because they were assaulted by relatives, bosses, priests, or military officers. They were college students on scholarships who were victims of the wealthy. They were on equal footing in a friendship and no one would believe them because their abuser is such a nice guy that he couldn't have done that.

These victims are Joseph, not Potiphar's Wife. They are Joseph. Their abusers hold all the power, and even when they do try to report, they are cast into emotional jail, cast out of friendships, cast out of jobs, made to feel that they are to blame.

How can we be so empathetic toward a victim falsely shamed and jailed in the Bible, and so deaf to the victims in the world around us?

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Those who have eyes to see, let them see.

Come on, people. If you claim the genders are equal and gender doesn't matter, at least have the consistency to read stories in the Bible for their power dynamics instead of their gender roles.