Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Why of It

Trevin asked me an important question the other day:  “Why do you write? What do you hope to fix?” (I know, that’s technically two questions.)

At the time, I was emotionally distraught and had no answer to give. All I knew was that the idea of giving up, or letting my art fall from focus, filled my belly with dread.

But I’ve had time to think since then.

Books provided me with my first strong female role models, the kinds who could do for themselves and didn’t measure their self-worth by their relationships with men. Books gave me my first look at what non-toxic masculinity was like. Books allowed me to explore forgotten lands, feel the wind of places I’d never visit. Books gave me a country where social justice was normal, where bigotry was the minority, where the guilty party couldn’t buy a lighter sentence.

In books, I found my beliefs distilled and mirrored back to me in a place and time where I was only supported in private. In books, I found epic struggles that made it easier to ignore how my ideas and feelings were ignored, simply because I’d been born female.

I write because the written word was the first place I could express my ideas in their entirety without fear of dismissal or interruption. I write because I want to see more media with strong heroines and heroes who know how to feel. I write because someone, somewhere needs his or her ideas of real justice mirrored back. I write because those who’ve come before me have given me gifts that I cannot keep to myself, not in good conscience.

I write because the written word is one of the places I can go to learn and grow. I write because the paper draws me in, and ignoring its call leaves me depressed and angry. I write because I can go shopping and come home with a hundred ideas. Those ideas need a place to nest.

In short, I write because to do anything else would be a disservice to myself and the precious gifts I’ve acquired through doing so.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

This is Not a Void

[Content note: this post contains examples of topics that may be triggering (fat bias, rape, rape culture, misogynistic slurs, gun violence)]

We do not live in a void. The things we do and say have consequences larger than the immediate ramifications that are apparent to us. This goes especially for marginalizing tropes and “jokes” that feature mendacious stereotypes as the punch line.

“But it’s just a joke,” you may say. Except that it isn’t just a joke.

“Jokes” that feature marginalizing tropes (like “dumb blonde” jokes or “put down the cheeseburger fattie” jokes) aren’t just an attempt at poking fun. They entrench and normalize ideas that make living difficult for individuals who aren’t thin enough, white enough, male enough, heterosexual enough (etc...) for society at large. They present a falsehood as fact and pretend an entire population of people can be described by a single adjective.

“What about free speech? I shouldn’t have to police my words to save someone’s feelings,” you may say. Except that it isn’t about feelings.

It’s about medical professionals whose fat bias is entrenched to the point they ignore a fat person’s symptoms, resulting in further injury or death. Talking about obesity as if it has only one cause and pretending it causes disease allows such individuals the comfort of their hatred. It’s about white men shooting young black boys for using a sidewalk. Narratives that paint all black men as violent gave this shooter his mental ammunition. It’s about teenage girls being raped by their boyfriends because those boyfriends are taught that women “don’t say what they mean” and have no right to refuse because they’re no better than dogs (i.e. calling women who don’t act like you want “bitches”).

“That’s not what I meant,” you may say. Then say what you mean. If someone who is a member of the group you’re marginalizing can see the bias in your words, then so, too, can someone who believes that group IS lesser.

“You’re being too sensitive,” you may say. How do you know? Have you lived in the shoes of the person you’re hurting? Have you been forced to listen to those same tropes day after day, sometimes from people who claim to love you? Have you ever been denied a job, healthcare, or marriage rights because someone believes those tropes?

I could go on.

These are all silencing tactics. Ways to prevent yourself from hearing that your attempt at humor was harmful to another person. Ways to prevent yourself from learning something new and being expected to change because of that learning. Ways to prevent yourself from having to examine those you’ve put down and realize they’re people.

And I believe you’re better than that. I believe you can grow past mendacious tropes and see the beauty in diversity.

I believe this, and I expect it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Having a Central Observation

I was watching a video blog post about the real work an editor does in preparing a book for print when the author speaking out of my Youtube mentioned the “central observation” of the work.

And my brain did a worried stutter.

What about Bloodline? I wondered. Does it have a central observation? If so, what is it? If not, does it even need one?

Every piece of “serious” writing (a.k.a. homework) I’ve ever done needed a theme, a single important point, to hold it together. It stands to reason a work thirty times the length of a research paper might need one, too.

One question down.

The trouble is…I wasn’t thinking about a thesis statement when I was pounding brain to keyboard. I didn’t hack and slash through edits based on any one theme, aside from realism.

Then, what is the thread holding Sven’s story together?

I recall addressing the fallacious notion that people are a monolith and knowing one detail about them can tell you everything else you might need to know. Which is really as simple as creating complex characters with their own motivations and emotions.

Throughout the novel, Sven (Bloodline’s narrator) points out the pervasiveness of racism in the Empire. I also went into detail about the real ways this harms marginalized individuals.

I also address the myriad ways in which Sven values and devalues himself, the criteria by which he measures his worth. (A struggle I deal with, as well.) If anything, this is the only thread I’ve ever thought about in any significant way before now.

Yet, when I look back at the manuscript, all three of these themes see equal attention.

Then again, all three share their own common thread: the manifestation of personal bias about both the self and others. Bias is what tells a person that anyone with X trait is automatically going to be like Y. Bigotry is bias’s disgusting cousin, which comes about when unchecked bias refuses to change when presented with evidence refuting its claim.

One’s self-worth can also be affected by biases about what it means to be a “real man” or a “good person” or “strong” or any other desirable trait. And what traits are considered desirable are also based on bias.

Thus, despite some desire to examine self-worth through Sven, it seems my hemispheres colluded to create a much broader analysis within the text.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Listen to Learn

This is post number two in the My Art, My Activism series.

In my last post of the series, I mentioned vigilance, working to eliminate slurs and unintentionally hateful language or images from one’s work. (If you are so inclined to cross creativity with activism.)

I was thinking about vigilance, and a question found its way into my brain case.

How does a privileged person know when he or she is creating in a marginalizing way? How does someone outside of a marginalized group recognize othering or hateful language if the words they use aren’t intended in that fashion or don’t seem harmful?

It sounds difficult.

It sounds like a huge effort requiring a person to know everything there is to know about every kind of marginalization that exists in the world and then somehow put him or herself into the shoes of that marginalized person. But there’s still the chance for a mess up because no one’s perfect, and how do you fix that?


Listen and learn.

Go to the places where marginalized groups speak about the hardships they face. Read and listen to the words. Then act accordingly. If the community identifies a word or phrase (such as “lame” for instance) as hostile to them, do everything you can to work that word out of your vocabulary. Learn to say what you mean (like calling a rule “unfair” instead of “lame” for instance). Learn to own up to a mistake and be more diligent after you’ve made one (instead of calling the group “overly sensitive” or moaning about the unfairness of being “word policed”).

Rinse and repeat.

This part of vigilance is a cycle. We’ll make mistakes. But we can learn from those mistakes and do better. The important part is apologizing where it’s appropriate and continuing to be vigilant.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Toxic Signage

Over the past week, I've had to read a sign every day as I drive home from the night job. It reads, "Love is free. Approval is earned." And it's been bothering me...because it isn't true.

For two main reasons:

1) Love isn't free. It takes work. Love requires a certain level of intimacy combined with understanding. A certain kind of acceptance and support that allows the other person to be who he or she is without judgement, but with the willingness to help if said person wants to change for the better. Love requires you to pay attention to where a person is in his/ her life.

Compassion, on the other hand, IS free. All you have to do to be compassionate is to acknowledge that everyone has unique stresses and struggles and accept that your views and experiences are not the entirety of the human experience.

2) Approval isn't earned. We give approval to things every day simply by choosing not to speak out against them. Bias, hatred, marginalization. By offering no dissent against slurs and "casual" bigotry, we tell the one offering those things that it is acceptable behavior to do so. And while those truly harmful things are accepted, we show dissent for things no one can change:  height, appearance, race, gender, sexual orientation, mental illness, illness, etc... We decry behaviors that are actually healthy: removing oneself from a toxic home environment, family planning, establishing personal boundaries, expressing emotion or affection, being our unique selves, defending those who are marginalized, etc... If approval was actually earned, these things wouldn't happen.

Plus, approval is a basic human need. We all find ourselves in situations where we need someone to appreciate the place we are at as individuals. We all DESERVE to have our intrinsic worth validated. Because we are all different, coming from different experiences. We all have different ideas of prosperity, love, honor, faith, intimacy, etc...and that's fine. We deserve a place where those around us accept and acknowledge that fact. And we deserve that without ever having to do a thing.

So a healthy sign would read: "Approval and compassion are free. Respect is earned."