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.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Writing Contest: Three... two.... one....!

So, my bestie, Steph, talked me into participating in a writing contest, which I hadn't done since college. It was a fun endeavor, though, more like improv comedy than short-story writing. The premise is simple: on a designated Friday night, you receive a prompt that includes a genre, a place, and an object. You have 48 hours to incorporate these elements into a story.

For this round, I received historical fiction, a phone booth, and toilet paper. I hated this prompt, and I
spent a good 36 of my 48 hours avoiding my task, until I decided to just tell the story in my heart and make the required elements fit. When you're immersed in a learning journey about race, it can become all-consuming, and this story was a wonderful outlet for it. (Shout out to my mom for posting this meme on Facebook - it is actually hilarious and totally how I feel every day now!)

I loved the resulting product. So, I decided to share it! The contest requires a maximum of 1000 words, but I am including the authentic draft instead of the trimmed version. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it!


December, 1992

Alicia fumed, stalking her way out of the Italian restaurant, her chunky pumps slamming against the sidewalk and leaving her blind date in her wake as he settled up the bill. She had earned every single nickle of her sirloin steak - after all, she'd had to fight for that when her inconsiderate date ordered a salad for her.

And after listening to him talk about himself for an hour, she'd had no patience left when she found out he voted for Bush! As if. No way she was dating a republican. She was a Clinton girl and relieved that the handsome governor had won the presidency. Now just a couple of lame-duck months of the republicans, and then it would be smooth sailing.

It was a chilly December afternoon, and Alicia pulled her stylish, shoulder-padded blazer tighter around her as she stepped up to the sidewalk to hail a cab. A gust of wind up her mid-calf length floral dress, though, sent her muttering curses under her breath when the first two were occupied.

"My place is just two blocks from here," her date, Carl, piped up behind her.

"Thanks," Alicia said, only turning halfway back and hoping he would take a hint. "I'll get a ride."

He didn't, and she deflected him three more times before he finally left.

To add insult to injury, the skies opened up and a trickle of rain plopping drops on Alicia's nose soon became a downpour. Her outfit would be ruined in this weather, she worried, and these pieces were classics. She ducked into the first shelter she saw, a telephone booth.

"Oh ho!" a deep male voice exclaimed in surprise, when Alicia pressed her way into the small space.

"Oh oh!" her own voice returned, just as surprised - the windows on this phone booth were dingy, and with her eyes downcast to keep the water dripping out of her once perfectly-teased hair, she hadn't noticed him inside already. The discomfort settling on her, though, was more than the surprise, more than being shoved in a space the size of an airplane bathroom with a man, and she felt her elbow clamp down on her purse under her arm.

"What are you doing here?" Alicia asked, noting that he wasn't holding the phone. He didn't look homeless - if anything, he sort of looked stylish, in that urban way. His dungarees had one shoulder unfastened, and his striped yellow-and-purple t-shirt matched his dual-colored baseball hat that he wore forward, not backward, like a hooligan.

"Waiting out the rain," he answered, with a lifted intonation that seemed to call her question obvious, although he followed it with a light hearted laugh: "These fresh digs will get trashed up in this storm, feel me?" Alicia laughed - that was precisely the reason she had ended up here, too. "What are you doing here?"

"....Waiting out the rain," she echoed, with a timid laugh. "Do you mind…?"

"Want me to leave?" he asked, and Alicia tilted her head. She had burst in on his shelter, but he didn't feel entitled to it?

"No!" Alicia said, reflexively, politely… although the truth was that she did want him to leave. She just knew that wasn't the right answer. With a smile, she tried to play it off, as if this were about anything except her own discomfort. "I bet the rain will let up soon. Although there's… there's an Italian restaurant, just there. It would be more comfortable."

"You for real?" he returned, incredulous. He glanced toward the street, and when he spoke, it was with the inflection of a joke even though somehow Alicia doubted that it was one. "A black man walking into a nice restaurant just to wait? They'll probably call the cops."

Alicia's brows raised, and she took the last two-inch step back and her back hit the grimy wall, and her elbow knocked the phone loose from its cradle. The muted dial tone filled the awkward silence in the breath before her forced laugh and excuse: "Oh I don't… I mean, I don't see color. I'm sure they won't either!"

She knew that was a lie, though, and her eyes fell in shame… and she noted that his shoes were purple, his tube socks, a bright mustard yellow. He had probably put more time and thought into his outfit than she had.

"For real? That's not why you grabbed your purse the second you stepped in here?" he asked. His voice had an easiness to it that Alicia liked - he managed to discuss the elephant in the room, but... without judgment. He wasn't angry, wasn't accusing. Just saying, straight up, what Alicia knew was true, but hadn't even been able to acknowledge to herself.

All of the sudden, Alicia's eyes were burning. Discomfort turned to shame. She was a democrat! She believed in equal rights! She wasn't a racist! But now she felt like one, and it was unbearable. Groping blindly in her purse, her hand fell on the roll of toilet paper she carried around everywhere, just in case she ever got caught in a public bathroom out of supplies. She drew it out, tore off a few squares, and tried to save her face before running mascara destroyed it…

"Whoa, girl, it's okay," he reassured her. Through blurred vision, she saw his hand lift as if he might want to touch her shoulder in comfort… but then he withdrew it. She knew he was worried she would take it the wrong way, and all the sudden, she realized how much danger she'd put him in, being here alone. And she realized how his back was pressed against the door, like he might need to make that break for it through the rain after all. Both those thoughts made her just cry harder.

Overhead, thunder cracked.

"Now it's raining in here, too," he laughed, when he realized all he could do was lighten the mood.

Alicia glanced up - did he think her tears were funny? She couldn't decode his face, not quite, but if she had to guess, she would say he wasn't judging… he just wasn't surprised.

"Look, it's not your fault." Racism. He spared her by not using the word. "It out of our hands; it's the world." He glanced out the window with a smirk. "It's the rain. Best we can do is hide from it."

Alicia sniffed, hard enough that she snorted. She hadn't grabbed her purse because of this guy. Hadn't wanted him to leave because of anything he did. Nothing she'd felt had been a conscious choice. Instead of trying to look anywhere else or only notice the acceptable things, Alicia let herself actually see her shelter-partner. He was a little younger than her, she guessed. Tall, thin, clean-shaven. When she smiled back at her, his grin was lopsided and it gave his face a handsome boyishness to it.

"Then let's go hide in that Italian restaurant," Alicia proposed. His smile waned hesitantly. The question they were both asking themselves was so absurd that neither could voice it: had she just asked him on a date? Alicia couldn't answer it herself. So instead, she just tucked her toilet paper roll back in her purse. "They won't call the cops if you're with me."

He nodded, and Alicia noticed that his nose scrunched up in the cutest way when he smiled. He cracked the door open with a press of his shoulder, as if he was some action star in a movie, like Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard she had seen last week. "Let's run - in three, two, one…!"

Monday, September 10, 2018

Part 3: White Fragility in The Hate U Give: The White Ally

In contrast to Hailey, whose white fragility worsens throughout the book, Starr's boyfriend, Chris, is provides a dynamic look at the "white ally." He comes from a wealthy family, goes to a private school, but he's enamored with black culture and dates one of the few black girls in school. As the book begins, the reader has to wonder if he has tokenized Starr, especially since the first story we have about him is when he pulls out a condom, even though Starr has clearly stated that she isn't ready to have sex. This is a red flag that perhaps he doesn't fully respect her. He proves himself throughout the story, though!

In one notable moment soon after Khalil is killed, Starr has a freakout-flashback when Chris touches her, her unconscious mind connecting him to the white officer who shot her friend. Starr hasn't told Chris about the shooting, though, and so he's confused about why she is upset. When he presses, she blurts out, "You're white, okay? You're white! ...You're white, I'm black. You're rich, I'm not."

Chris's reaction shows a step in white fragility. He turns the attention back to himself: "God, seriously? This is what you're pissed about? This is why you're giving me the silent treatment?" It is painful for the reader to know what Starr is going through and to see that Chris's first instinct is to focus on his own pain and to blame her for it. He seems to catch himself when Starr shows obvious offense, but his next move - although made in better conscience - is yet another problematic one. He says, "It just… it doesn't make sense to me, okay?... Maybe you can help me understand." This interaction is significant: Although we know Chris is conceding and trying to learn better, DiAngelo still cautions white people against expecting people of color to educate them about race. Again, it is intentions over impact - even good intentions can have a negative impact on the person of color. Starr, exhausted, is not up for the task. She can either set aside her own feelings, passively excuse what is wrong in Chris's behavior, and pretend everything is okay… or she'll likely lose him. So, she does the former. It broke my heart for Starr, but also, uncomfortably, made me wonder how often my friends and family of color have done the same.

My opinion of Chris changed late in the novel, though. When Starr and Seven go to rescue Davonte from King's house, Chris insists on going with them. There is a direct parallel between Starr's insistence and then Chris's, and it happens twice: first when they get in the car and then again when they go into the house. In both cases, Seven wants to go alone, and Starr insists she will come, and then Chris insists as well. This parallelism is important because although Chris is doing exactly what Starr did, his racial status makes his situation very different.

As a white ally, this was a lovely moment of Chris using his privilege. Although the stakes are high and Starr certainly believes that King will hurt or kill them if they are discovered - she says to Seven, "You go out there and you're dead!" - as a reader, I actually doubt that. If anything happened to Chris, or if he witnessed something happen to his friends, he would call the cops. He even proposes it, and his friends shut him down: "'Maybe we should call the--' 'Chris, man, come on!'" While this was certainly an insensitive thing for Chris to suggest given Starr's experience with the police, as a white person, his call wouldn't be the same as hers. They would respond. Chris would be believed. If he was hurt, his wealthy white parents would see to it that justice was served in a manner Khalil's never could. The system is set up to protect Chris, and he uses that privilege to add a layer of protection to his friends. It is not a huge act of heroism, not like Starr pulls off in the climax of the novel, but it is a significant example of how to use privilege.

I encourage all of my white friends to read these books. Socrates is rumored to have said, "I am the wisest man alive, for I know that I know nothing." This encapsulates my experience with these ideas - as I learned more about who I am, and how the system works against people of color, I begin to see nuances, complications, emotions, and more that I could never have noticed before. My takeaways from these examples are that I should:
  • Admit even unintentional racism and apologize
  • Avoid using intent to excuse the pain I cause others
  • Confront racial discussions, even if they are uncomfortable
  • Don't expect people of color to explain racial issues to me, unless they volunteer to
  • Don't deny my privilege, but use it to help others
  • Read more
  • Definitely see the new movie!
There are a million more; this is the tip of the iceberg. But in this moment in time, we see a rebound of overt white supremacy, nationalism, and racism.

There is no more room for good people to do nothing.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Part 2: White Fragility in The Hate U Give: The Racist Joke

This post will examine Hailey, one of Starr's friends who displays racially problematic behavior throughout the book and demonstrates white fragility clearly.

In one moment in the story, the teenagers observe a basketball game and joke about their "food babies" after a hefty lunch of fried chicken in the cafeteria. When they decide to get in the game themselves, a white player chides the black player for being to slow, saying, "Pretend the ball is fried chicken. Bet you'll stay on it then!" Starr takes offense to this and leaves the game.

This moment is expertly crafted. It is obvious why Starr is upset - fried chicken as a favorite of black people is a well-known stereotype. However, they had just been joking about how full they were after a lunch of fried chicken in the cafeteria. So, as a reader, you understand Starr… but you also understand where the joke might have come from. But did it solely come from the lunchroom? Or did the lunchroom reinforce her already-handy stereotypes? Or, perhaps more importantly, does it matter? If Starr was hurt by a joke referring to a common stereotype, why dwell on where it came from instead of how much it hurt our protagonist?

The author did a beautiful job of playing out the resulting scenario. Starr is offended, and her white friend, Hailey, makes all the moves DiAngelo described in White Fragility. First, she tries to make the joke about anything but race; here, the meal served in the lunchroom. Then, she displays the binary thinking when she says, "You think I'm a racist? Really?" Because to say she is racist is to say she is a bad person. The truth is that we white people can draw on stereotypes we were enculturated with without thinking or intending harm. We don't have to be maliciously racist to sometimes say racist things. It happens. And so Starr reacts to this, saying, "You can say something racist and not be a racist!" (112). She's being both realistic and kind, trying to help Hailey save face. This is likely an authentic reaction since Starr tends to speak her mind, but let's not ignore the fact that many, many, many people of color will feel compelled to excuse white racism, especially when unintentional, simply because they might face social sanctions if they do not. A quick search on Google tells me that about 77% of the United States is white. Imagine if 77% of Starr's community refused to talk to her. Could she be honest about whether they were hurting her - or would she decide to endure it and hope for the best?

Later on in the story, Hailey texts Starr, saying just, "I'm sorry." When Starr presses, Hailey says she is sorry "that you're upset with me." Starr reflects meaningfully that this does not show remorse for Hailey's own actions, but instead blames Starr for the way she reacted to them. This is a classic move of white fragility: intentions over impact. If Hailey did not intend to harm, then she should not be responsible for the hurt she caused. It is a form of victim blaming. However, this is compounded by Hailey's white perspective. According to Irving, white people are particularly enculturated to conceal pain (and negative emotions in general) and project optimism. Therefore, Hailey likely views Starr's expression of pain here as being particularly weak, impolite, and inappropriate, which is a culture clash that is so prevalent that we've stopped noticing it.

In Part 3, I will look at Chris, the white boyfriend and struggling white ally.

Back to Part 1

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Part 1: White Fragility in The Hate U Give

Walking selfie! 
This summer, I made a commitment to walking 3-4 miles a day for fitness. I live in a house with four other people who all do Crossfit, but that's not really my speed. (It's not only hard as hell, but it's also a little culty, let's be honest.) Going into this commitment for my physical health, though, had an unexpected result of being good for my mental health as well. All of the sudden, I had an hour or two of free time for my mind, and I had to decide what to do with it. I would catch up on late night comedy from the previous day, listen to clips of the news… but honestly, the news is exhausting these days.

I found myself introduced to the world of audiobooks. I'm not going to lie - I've been really hesitant to try audiobooks because I pride myself on being a reader. And readers read with their eyes! Right? I have also trained in speed reading, and the slow pace of audiobooks annoyed me at first. I knew that if I picked up the paper book, I could move through it three or four times as fast. But, I realized, I am listening to youtube videos and news clips all the time, and I don't chastise myself for not reading the transcript instead to save time. Time, I had. So I embraced audiobooks, and I fell in love. Not only could I listen to them while I was walking, but also driving, washing the dishes, cooking dinner. Think about how much time I wasted not reading over the years!

The the end of last school year, my husband came home with a book recommendation for me: Waking Up White. It chronicles one woman's journey moving from feeling race-neutral, to understanding what it means to be a white person, to pursuing justice and equality from her position of privilege. Her book was a thoughtful personal narrative that benefited from her honesty, even though it resulted in uncomfortable vulnerability and embarrassment.

The next audiobook I tackled was White Fragility, which I had read about on Facebook. This book was written by an anti-racism workshop leader who would go to businesses to help them understand why diversity in their workforce was escaping them. It was more an informational text than a narrative one, although the anecdotes were wonderful.

From these two books, I learned so much. I learned what "white culture" is. I had always assumed that culture was something other people had, but my family and society were just "normal." Values like optimism, efficiency, frugality, individualism, meritocracy - these are aspects of white culture and are not necessarily universal, as I had assumed. (I am hoping, in my further study, to understand the chicken-egg relationship between white culture and dominant culture, since obviously these traits are not exclusive to white people.)

I also learned the "symptoms" of white fragility. These are things like binary thinking - a belief that racism is an intentional hurtful act: racists are bad, so if I'm a good person, I cannot be racist. The resulting defensiveness, "I am the least racist person you have ever met!" Trying to absolve oneself from the racial discussion: "I've been in an interracial marriage for ten years, so I cannot be racist." A focus on intention instead of impact: "He didn't mean it like that." Bringing the focus of attention back to the white person through anger or crying, which detracts from the actual discussion of race at hand or the offense to the person of color.

Next, I read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas which was my choice of the assigned summer reading choices from my school. Having just read Waking Up White and White Fragility, I was in such a good place to read this book. The story is about a teenage girl, Starr, who witnesses her unarmed, black, teenage friend killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. Throughout the story, Starr dates a white boy and struggles with a white best friend. In this post, I would like to examine a few moments from The Hate You Give that I felt were enhanced by my slightly-more-"woke" position as a white person, reading this book.

Many white readers will love this book for its authentically-written insights into a black character's mind, but the truth is that it is impossible for a white reader to truly immerse into a black character's experience. It's a step in the right direction, absolutely, but your own perspective and worldview will color what you read, and that is what I hope to address here. Years back, now, I read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It was wonderful book, to be sure, but it asserts that one can overcome their initial or instinctual reactions through exposure. The more a cop trains under pressure, the better they will perform under pressure. The more fires a firefighter fights fires, the better they will fight fires. (Try saying that ten times fast!) And thus, the more a white person spends time with black people, or reading from black authors, the less racist they will be. But that just isn't exactly true in the same way. As white people, we have privilege that effectively shields us from all this racial discomfort. It is more akin to a fireproof superhero fighting fires: he might see how much the victims are burned, but he's never really felt that pain.

In Part 2, I will examine Hailey, Starr's problematic white friend. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Right Perspective

This first draft manuscript I'm working on right now has me thinking a lot about perspective, when to shift perspective, and whose perspective matters most in any given moment. I've got a central protagonist, but it's also a bit of an ensemble cast with multiple dynamic characters in play.

One of my favorite things about third person is the ability to shift perspective fluidly. First person gives you a tight focus and a lot of insight into a narrator's thought processes, which can be a solid decision for some stories, but it always throws me out of rhythm when a first-person novel shifts to third person for a scene. (I'm glaring at you, James Patterson's Ghost Writer(s) on the Maximum Ride series.)

Some stories can be told with different first-person narrators each chapter, but the use of multiple first-person viewpoint narrators requires a schema, a rhythm, a reliable pattern to keep a reader from getting lost. I just started reading One Of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus, and its whole murder mystery conceit is that one of the first-person narrators is lying, as per the title, so it seems an example of a story where first-person narrator shifts will make sense.

With third person, it's unwise to change perspective too often, but you can do it without needing to include text features like a chapter header with a character's name in it to define who "I" refers to now. A light touch of a few sentences that delve into a character's thought processes will shift the focus. It's so easy that it's almost too easy--and there was a time when I'd shift perspectives way, way too often in my drafts. Like, every paragraph.

Orson Scott Card, in Characters and Viewpoint, discusses viewpoints as if they were cameras filming the story with different levels of penetration. (It's been a while since I read it, so I'll butcher it if I try to summarize, but it's worth checking out.) Building from that, then, third person perspective is like working with multiple cameras to get the best angles on a moment in the story. When a film switches visual perspectives too quickly, a viewer might get dizzy or disoriented. The same is true in text. But, multiple perspectives give a writer some options to work with.

So, whose perspective matters most?

I know it might feel like the protagonist's perspective matters most, since you know, they're the protagonist. (And that's why first person works!) But sometimes the protagonist is too caught up in a moment, or incapacitated, or they're being deceived, or they aren't even in the room when something is happening that affects them drastically. Sometimes when a reader knows more than a protagonist, it adds an emotional charge to a scene that wouldn't be there otherwise.

Example: In Redwall books, there are often quick scenes interspersed throughout the story where we learn about the villain's plans. The good abbey creatures (or Salamandastron badgers and hares, or what have you) are unaware of how hideously evil the villain's plans really are. I'd always be on the sidelines rooting for the good guys twice as loudly once I knew the whole shape of the danger in their path.

And, sometimes, an ensemble cast has multiple dynamic characters who are each tackling the central conflict of the story in a different way, who each deserve some focal time.

The best time to determine the best perspective isn't necessarily the first draft of the story. Right now, I'm writing scenes from perspectives that feel most natural for a given moment. If my drafting mind suggests I should write a scene from Lira's perspective, then Lira it is. Maybe I write the same scene from multiple perspectives until I have a sense of the whole shape of it.

In rough draft, the perspective that matters most is the one that enables me to actually write the scene.

In revisions, with a larger picture in mind, I can make stronger editorial decisions. That's when it comes down to two things:

1) What provides the best overall balance to the story?

Some Questions to Ponder:
  • Is there a character I'm neglecting?
  • Does a perspective shift for this scene enhance or throw off the emotional throughline?
  • Does anyone actually need to be witness to this, or was it just for me to know as the author at this point?
2) Who is the best witness to the heart of this scene?

Some Questions to Ponder:
  • Which character has the highest emotional stakes in the scene?
  • What does the scene do to further establish plot, characters, or setting? Whose perspective would compliment that purpose?
  • Will someone be entering, exiting, or becoming incapacitated in a way that makes them better or worse as the perspective point?
The answers depend on the story, the characters, and the emotions that I'm trying to convey through my writing. With perspective, there is no one right answer for all situations, no one Ultimate Perspective.

And that, friends, is one of the most beautiful things about writing.

(And, maybe, one of the most frustrating things sometimes, too.)