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Posts Tagged ‘Assumptions’

Everything is Not Awful

Note: Writerly process navel-gazing ahoy

I wrote the last scene, and the last line, of my next book, The Stars are Legion today. That doesn’t mean the book is done, mind you – it just means I finally know where all the disjointed tens of thousands of words are actually going. So now I get to go back and make it all make sense so it hits that final note…. And all that by December 1 (only two months late! Listen – that’s, like, 24 hours late in writer-time).

Much of the drafting process is a process of discovery, for me. I learn who my characters are, what they want, how their worlds work, by doing the actual writing of the dialogue and fight scenes. You can do a lot of planning and plotting beforehand, sure, but for me there’s no amount of planning that works as well as actually writing a draft. This is one reason I revise and revise and revise so much. Every pass is me distilling the story further. It’s like making spiced, clarified butter – straining out all the parts you don’t want, adding just the right spices in.

One of the struggles I’ve had with this book is that it’s basically a story about abortion and bodily autonomy. That can get really problematic and seriously depressing really quickly if you’re not careful – especially if your goal is to write a mystery-thriller-space opera. I’ve been writing complicated books about the body, about organic technology, about war and disease and slavery and oppression, for the better part of fifteen years now, and I admit I’ve gotten a little burned out on my own depressing view of the universe. It’s been pointed out that the action of the protagonists in the God’s War books was never about trying to incite revolution or change or trying to make the world a better place – it was always about maintaining the status quo. It was trying to ensure the world didn’t get any worse, not making it any better. The world getting better, the war ending, was a nice side effect, but never the protagonists’ end goal. They would never have dared to dream so big.  somebody_do_something

The Worldbreaker books are even darker, with a cast of characters given absolutely grim choices – grim, grimmer, grimmest, basically. These are fun and cathartic sorts of books, for me, but I admit that after fifteen years of writing books about how everything is awful, I – like many readers immersed in the grimdark world of the last decade – am ready to start reading about some characters who have something beyond dogged persistence going for them. I want to write about real revolutionaries who, yes, sacrifice things, but who are actually trying to build better worlds by doing so.

That should not be a difficult task, yet I’ve been banging my head against this book since February and the real ending has just now finally clicked into place (I’ve come up with at least half a dozen ways for it to end, half a dozen things for the “reveal” to be, in that time, and was writing toward all of those things for pages and pages, which means the book has a lot of strange directions that need cleaning up right now). The difficulty of finding hope in a broken world is a problem we’re all familiar with. All you have to do is turn on the news, or scroll through Twitter, and your dim view of humanity and our future in the universe is pretty much confirmed.

I was watching a documentary recently about how it took seventy years for leaded gasoline to be outlawed, even though everyone knew from the onset that it caused madness. Big money, bribes, and corruption were rampant. Then there was the automobile industries buying up and tearing out trolley lines all across America under false names. There was the eugenics craze. There was slavery. There is racism and homophobia and sexism and oppression and casual disregard for the environment that gives us breath. All of those things have been going on forever.

But what history also teaches you is that things can be changed. Inch by inch. The sacrifices it takes to change things are often brutal: people do die. They lose their livelihoods and their lives, in pursuit of justice and revolution. Thousands must commit every waking moment to their cause, to enact change. The losses are great. But the change is real. It is possible.

There is always hope.

I understand the necessity of sacrifice. I write endlessly about sacrifice, and I’ve given up my fair share of things to have the career I do. But what I’ve been missing for a very long time is the thread of hope. A happy ending, for me, was a character making it to the end of a book alive. That’s still my general definition. But I want something a little more hopeful in this science fiction future I’m writing, here. I want shackles to be cast off. I want humans who have been under the boot to fight back. And I want them to do more than fight: I want them win.

I want them to win because I don’t believe that we win enough, or that we are seen to win enough, in our own revolutions. The world is changing, yes, thanks to the tireless work of a great many people, people who have sacrificed their livelihoods and lives to get us here. But we don’t celebrate the winning enough. Instead, we tirelessly move on to the next cause. “Yes, that’s nice, that win, but what about HOW HORRIBLE THIS OTHER THING IS?” and we are off again, and again, until we wear ourselves out, we wear ourselves down.

Revolution is not an act, but a process.  And if we cannot take the time to not only imagine a hopeful future, but to celebrate the wins in the one we’re in, we’re going to gutter out.

I’m not ready to flame out yet. I have miles more to write before I sleep.

It’s Always Been Awful Under the Boot: On the Fatigue of Everyday Horror

In May of 1921, a group of vigilantes burned down a wealthy community in Tulsa, Oklahoma over the course of about 16 hours. More than 800 people were admitted to local hospitals and police arrested and detained more than 6,000 people. The riots left 10,000 homeless and destroyed 35 city blocks. Up to 300 people died during those 16 hours.

But you don’t hear about this 16 hours of madness in any history book – inside Tulsa or outside it.

There were no camera phones. No Twitter. Not even a fax machine. The event was purposefully omitted from local and even state histories, so that even many people living in Tulsa today have no knowledge of the events, and survivors of the events were often doubted because hey, if this was true, why haven’t *I* heard of it?

People didn’t hear about it outside Tulsa because it was physically erased from the collective memory.

It was a massive act of terror, of genocide, even, because those targeted for the slaughter were targeted because of how they’d been born.

They were targeted because they were black.

In case you missed it, the folks who burned down 35 blocks worth of homes in Tulsa were white, and the people they burned out, the 300 people who were killed, the 10,000 people left homeless – were all black. It was not until 1996 that the state even bothered to commission a proper history of the event that would be available to everyone, instead of relying on a spoken oral history maintained by survivors who were now dying.

When I heard about police cars blocking off roads and journalist access in Ferguson, Missouri last year, Tulsa immediately came to my mind, and I thought, “If you think the shit you’re seeing on Twitter is bad right now, can you imagine what they’d be doing to people right now if there wasn’t any Twitter?”

Tulsa.

You think anyone white was prosecuted for that shit?

I’d argue right now, even after all that’s happened, that the only reason Ferguson has not become Tulsa (for all the madness that HAS gone down there) is because of Twitter, instant communication, the easier access those not in power have to create their own public record. With all eyes on Ferguson, the abuses perpetrated there were and are going to be harder to erase, to wipe away. Oh, they will certainly be rewritten. History is written by the victors, and I expect a hard long slog for folks to change anything – even blatant evidence of wrongdoing, as we’ve seen time and time again, isn’t enough to change things. It takes a tidal, epic shift in society itself.

But evidence, the inability for folks in power, or those segregated into privileged spaces, to shut their eyes and wipe it all away, that helps the shift.

I hear folks despair a lot lately, about “how much worse” things are today, and that makes me laugh, because seriously, shit is not any worse than it was yesterday. All that’s changed is that from where you’re sitting in your comfortable place of privilege in the Capital, you can’t shut your eyes anymore. What’s happening out in the Districts is streaming right to your phone, to your TV, to your iPad, directly from the people it’s happening to. You can’t shut them up or shut them out.

If you’re not someone who’s put up with this shit for years – if you’re not a person of color harassed constantly by police, or a woman harassed constantly by men, or a trans person harassed constantly by both, it’s going to look like all this stuff just started happening, like the world used to be awesome and now, wow, look how bad it is.

But it’s always been awful for people under the boot.

If the horror of the world comes as a surprise to you, you aren’t under the boot.

11.04.08.05

I got my Master’s Degree in history, in the study of resistance movements against Apartheid during the 80’s in South Africa. I’m a privileged white kid from fucking America, and the shit I saw in that historical record, in particular the testimony during the Truth and Reconciliation Committee meetings, made me despair for humanity. It was like reading something out of fucking Assyria, with its piles of bodies and piles of tongues and piles of penises after some gory battle. The shit people do and have done to other people is fucking obscene.

But just because I was in the Capital and didn’t see it, and now I saw it, didn’t make the world any better or worse than it was the day before I read it.

If children are being tortured and murdered so you can live in freedom and delight in Omeleas, and you find out about it, it doesn’t change the fact that for you to grow up as you did, children had to be murdered and tortured. Growing up in the system, you become part of it. It’s yours as much the CEO’s. You tortured innocent people in Guantanamo. It was done in your name, my name, as it has been done many times before, as it will be many times again, unless you take action. Unless you give up your privileged space, unless you become one of those under fear of the boot, too. Because when you speak up, you become the enemy.

And you must ask yourself which is worse: living in fear, becoming one of those in fear of the government as so many others have been, but speaking your mind, or shutting your eyes to the world and drinking its riches and pretending your iPhone was made by adults making a living wage and the people at Walmart can afford healthcare and innocent people aren’t choked on the street for having the audacity to walk there.

And this is what gets me with folks who are fatigued with the shit, and I get it, I do, I get fatigued and I have to take a fucking break too, but I don’t want people to shut up, I don’t want to close my eyes, because whether or not I heard about it Tulsa still happened. And I cannot sit on my hands and cheer for Katniss burning down the Capital and the folks walking away from Omeleas and then say, “Shit, could the rest of you just shut up about your problems because it sure makes me uncomfortable.”

It should make me uncomfortable. It should get me to question everything I’ve been taught. It should rouse me to take action, to not be silent, to amplify voices, to, above all, help ensure we do not erase this shit.

Whether or not you are looking, or you notice, terrible shit is happening right now, a lot of it perpetrated in your name by your country, by your government.

Closing your eyes doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It doesn’t mean the world is any better.

I get that we are all tired, and we can’t do bullshit every day – I take a lot of Twitter and news breaks, too. But I don’t pretend I once lived in a utopia that’s now going to shit.

I know very well what kind of world I live in.  What gives me hope is that it’s become harder for for those in segregated, privileged spaces to pretend otherwise, and if the privileged can no longer be fooled into thinking they’re living in a utopia, it’s far more likely they work will with those under the boot to change it.

Even if we must be pulled – kicking and wailing – into a better world.

Writing, Editing, Inclusivity: We’re All in This Together

I’m supposed to be hip-deep in writing content for other spaces right now, but I wanted to say a little bit about the role of editors in this whole push we’re seeing for more diverse books, especially after that wild Hugo weekend. I will likely have a little more to say about that later, too. But for now, here are my thoughts on the role of editors in building a brighter future for SFF.

I was on a panel at Readercon about masculinity in fiction, which was nearly derailed when one of the male editors on the panel said he really wanted to get more diverse work, but no one was sending it to him. Another editor on the panel pointed out that if you want diverse work, you need to go out and find it. That’s your job as an editor. You don’t just sit there reading slush – you actively go out and solicit stories from people, and you put your desire for diverse work in your submission guidelines.

It’s no secret that there are magazines I stopped submitting to over the years. Analog I never bothered with, but for years I submitted to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in vain. The only venue publishing work like mine, back when I was actively submitting a lot of short stories, was Strange Horizons, and that’s where I made some of my most memorable story sales (The Women of Our Occupation, Genderbending at the Madhattered). No one else grokked them.

I turned to writing novels, primarily, after that, until very recently, when Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin approached me for a story for their anthology The Lowest Heaven. I wrote a really fucking weird story for them, Enyo-Enyo, which I honestly don’t think I’d have thought I could get away with anywhere else. Yet it has since been reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

So, clearly, I don’t write the shittiest, most unpublishable stories anymore.

But there are places I’m still not going to send them. Because those venues are, to my memory, if not actively hostile to work like mine, then simply not friendly to it.

It turns out I didn’t go to Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink and say, “Hey, I want to write this thing about llamas.” I didn’t know much about A Dribble of Ink or Aidan, so had no idea he’d be open to such a thing (there are still editors out there actively hostile to what I write. You don’t know which are which, all the time). Nobody really knew who I was, much, either. And Aidan’s blog got way more traffic than mine. It would never have occurred to me to ask. It was Aidan who came to me after reading something I’d said in a comments section somewhere – Justin Landon’s blog, maybe? – about women in combat. My MA is in the history of resistance movements in Southern Africa, in particular women’s role in same, and I more or less sometimes know what I’m talking about.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was Aidan who came to me and asked for a post about women in combat, and the reality that women have been part of every fighting force. And though yes, it was ultimately me who wrote about llamas without hitting people over the head with terms like “feminist” and “cis-gendered” and “patriarchy” this post would not have been written if Aidan hadn’t asked for it.

This is what I mean when I say that building a better future, or a more inclusive genre, isn’t just about writers writing better, more inclusive stuff. It’s about everyone at every level of the industry actively going out and requesting and looking for work from more diverse writers, on more diverse topics. Aidan has done a great job of this at A Dribble of Ink, in particular the last couple of years, highlighting work from more diverse artists and requesting work from a variety of writers. I also think it’s no coincidence that Lightspeed Magazine finally won its first Hugo the same year it’s Women Destroy Science Fiction issue came out. Christie Yant actively pursued women writers for that issue who had never considered writing science fiction (I’m trying to remember who it was who had the story about insisting, again and again, to Christie that she didn’t write SF and how Christie came back again and again insisting she could [I’ve been told it was Amal El-Mohtar]. The story would not have been written if not for the editor asking for it).

Now, of course, there are all sorts of venues I could send fiction to and feel like they understood what I was doing: Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Gigantosaurus, Tor.com, Apex Magazine. And if you asked every one of those editors if they just sat back and waited for diverse and wonderful stories to come in, I suspect they would laugh and say that no, they actively look for new writers, invite writers to submit, and have welcoming, inclusive guidelines. It’s not an editor’s job to just read slush. It’s an editor’s job to get a little dirty sometimes, forge out into the world, and haul the best stuff back in.

Ten years ago, people talked a lot about how the old SFF magazines were dying: Analog, Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction were publishing a lot of same old stories for the same graying audience. They just weren’t bringing in new readers. And though circulation will never be what it was, I see a far healthier short fiction market than there has been in some time now with the proliferation of online magazines, which are getting funding through all sorts of innovative sources.

I’ve been telling SFF to adapt or die for some time. Many of us have. We don’t want to see science fiction and fantasy die. But it had become a monolithic dinosaur, always looking back and back and back, full of nostalgia. There is a place for nostalgia, I know. But nostalgia does not bring in new readers. It doesn’t get people excited. It doesn’t build a future to anywhere.

Building the future of the genre isn’t just all us writers out here typing. I’ve been typing for a long time (admittedly, I’m better at it than I was, I know). What we need are the folks curating work to actively go out and find it, and let us know they’re open to it, and they want to build the future with us, too.

 

How People Really Talk: Language and Signaling Difference

So just last week I happened across this video by Daniel José Older about why we shouldn’t italicize words in other languages while writing in English. If you have yet to see it, enjoy it here for the first time:

I laughed my ass off watching this, because anyone who’s actually known people who speak more than one language will recognize that how people talk in real life – the fluidity of language between English and Spanish, or English and Hindi or English and Zulu, or Zulu and Spanish, or any other combination thereof – is indeed exactly as Daniel describes. There’s no Pause for Effect. There’s no: AND NOW I AM SPEAKING FRENCH.

My grandmother was French, and moved between languages often. She did not wait to speak French until she was eating a baguette and wearing a beret(!). The same with my dad, my uncle, my aunts, my cousins – those who spoke French conversationally or fluently would flit back and forth when chatting with my grandmother without too much thought. It was just how everyone talked.

What I found interesting was the wrapper put around this conversation as it applies to how we offset these “foreign” languages in English text. The italics actually drew more attention to the words, it… othered them. When in fact, moving between and among two or more languages isn’t weird or other at all – it’s just how people talk.

Though folks may not think this is a huge deal – to italicize or not italicize – if you look at it in the context of othering, and how we normalize certain patterns of speech, and certain types of behaviors, it actually means a great deal. It signals that *this is something not like the rest.* Funny enough, words we’ve wholly adopted into English – like resume, faux pas, adobe, armada, schadenfreude – get a pass on the italics. So who decides when a word has been subsumed into the English borg collective and is no longer othered? Certainly not those who seamlessly move between languages every day.

I got my final copies of MIRROR EMPIRE a few days after watching this video, and as I flipped through it, I realized one of the last changes I made between submission and ARCs was that I got rid of all the italics on the various made-up words. There are three major languages in the book, and folks move between and among them quite often. The first few drafts of the book, I italicised all the words from one particular culture, but then not the other two, as the folks in those two cultures moved between these languages more often, and I started to wonder… who was considering which language other? Should I be italicizing all the Dhai words in the chapters from a Saiduan POV and the Saiduan words in chapters from Dhai POV or italicizing Dorinah words in a Dhai POV or… or…

It became a horrible inconsistent mess. The more appropriate thing to do, when I’m working with folks who are fluent in at least two or all three of these languages, is to just pull out the italics all together. It simply made more sense. Language is language, and they use all of.

Offsetting words implies there is one Standard. There is One True Common Tongue. But the truth is… there isn’t One True Language. There’s not Universal Common. Not in real life, and not in much fiction, either. Offsetting words which are “other” sets up reader expectations that there is one way, one real language, and that it’s your dominant culture, the dominant culture of your “hero” that decides that. But there is no One True Culture, either. And if our goal is to have more diverse, and interesting stories, we need to shed the trappings of our own preconceptions about what’s “normal” and what’s other and how we speak about that.

The Increasingly Poor Economics of Penning Problematic Stories

My spouse has been trying to get me to play Space Run for awhile. It’s just this cute little game where you build your own space ship and take it on missions. I played through the tutorial recently, only a little annoyed that I wasn’t able to choose a female gendered character. The tutorial was OK. I moved on to taking the first mission, which is given to you, the protagonist, by a female CEO. After getting the mission, my heroic avatar felt the need to comment to his android sidekick about how “hot” the quest giver was.

I turned off the game.

The reality was, I had plenty of other games to play – Portal, Skyrim, Monument Valley, The Room and replays of Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age Origins, not to mention books to read like City of Stairs, Shield and Crocus, Hild, and Steles of the Sky – that were better entertainment and not annoying sexist face-punchy.

It was in this moment that I realized the true economics of what’s going to drive the storytelling change. See, it used to be the only media you could consume was the racist, sexist, homophobic sort. That was simply all there was. So you either ate it, grimacing the whole while, or you opted out of it (I opted out of comics. I read pretty much no comics until the last six or seven years, as finding things that weren’t punching me in the face was hard).  But these days? Well, there’s a LOT of media out there, a lot of entertainment, and there are, increasingly, more diverse stories and choices we can make.

It’s gotten to the point where I’ll actually ask before I choose a film if it’s got any sexual assault or threats of same before I decide to watch it. When I’m as annoyed, stressed and exhausted as I am, I don’t want to spend what should be entertaining downtime gritting my teeth through uncomfortable micro-aggressions aimed at women. I get enough of that all day. I want some fucking escapism. And if there are films that can give me that, I’m going to prefer those over the ones that don’t.

book_moneyI’ve been noting for awhile that it’s the changing demographics of the US that will force many media companies to make changes – by 2050, 50% of the US will be made up of people of color. But women have always been 50% of the US…  So why haven’t we seen more media treating us like humans? It didn’t occur to me until I turned off Space Run in annoyance that what’s also going to change things up is that media itself has opened up. Just about anyone can create a game and put it online. Anyone can write a book and post it on a retail platform. We’ve got far more opportunities for choice now, and though big Hollywood studios and publishers and things are still publishing primarily status-quo stuff, they’re changing, too. What they see is that when presented with more choices, less problematic choices, people are quite often choosing them over their messy face punching bullshit.

The funniest part about my experience with Space Run is that it wasn’t even egregious. I’ve gotten through far worse things – True Detective, Bioshock Infinite – that I endured because there were other aspects of the storytelling that were so good. But when you give me a mediocre experience and *then* punch me in the face, well, you know… fuck it. This is why I’ll put up with Guardians of the Galaxy having a weirdly womanizing hero and its sole female protagonist called a whore, because it offers, at least, other things that I enjoy. I will still, of course, call out this problematic behavior, but, you know, if the rest of the movie was ALSO shit, I wouldn’t bother with my dollars. What studios will start to understand, though, is that if I was given an equally good romp of a show that had more heroines, none of which were called whores, and an actual nice-guy hero who didn’t confuse women with paper towels one minute and act like a human with feelings the next, I’d choose that over the more problematic Guardians of the Galaxy anytime.

Freeing up the story platforms – video, publishing, gaming – so that more people can play has indeed given us a glut of shit. But it’s given us a glut of choice, too, and we can choose media that doesn’t insult us a lot more easily now than before. It’s not just the bullshit on the same four television stations. I can root out shows like Orphan Black and even Snowpeircer among the dreck, and turn off the stuff that annoys me. I can find other stories. As a creator, I can actively write other stories, and deliver them to people, more easily too. And, increasingly, I find that what I considered I was writing – stuff on the margins – is actually pushing in a bit toward… well… if not mainstream, then at least carving out its own niche with audiences like me who are actively turning off bullshit stuff because they know there’s more interesting work out there.

We can rant all we want about how it’s hard to find the good stuff in the bullshit – but opening up those floodgates has also made it possible for the storytelling narrative to diversify and shift. I like more choices. I like being able to choose better stories, instead of being forced to endure the shitty ones or go without.

On Becoming What You Hate

This is a late night weekend post, which I almost never write, as, you know, metrics and all that, marketing data, numbers, analysis. But sometimes you’re not posting things to be read. You’re not posting them for prime content push times. You’re posting them because you have some things to say.

I sent an email tonight cleaning up some old business. There is still a lot that needs to be done on that, but more later when it’s done. What I realized, going round and round in this messy bullshit we’d been batting back and forth for over a year, is that I was, in truth, becoming everything I hated about the person I was arguing with. Stubborn. Egotistical. Self-entitled. Most of all: unwilling to back down unless I got my due, unless I got what was owed. Anger. Bile. Gnashing of teeth. Lost revenue. A wash of ire. It stole the energy I needed to move on, to move forward, to successfully launch a new series.

In World War II, my grandfather spent much of his time stationed in Germany and France cleaning up dead bodies. Primarily from concentration camps. He hauled the bodies and drove the trucks. He watched an entire people nearly annihilated. Today, when I turn on the television, I’m watching the children of those same people annihilating another people, wiping them off the face of the earth.

trippy2bI’ll often say it takes just ten years for a generation to turn on itself. To begin eating its own tail, but it’s actually far less than that. It’s actually no more than a moment, really, a digging in of heels in the face of what one perceives to be imminent death. It’s the survival instinct in full force.

I don’t know why we murder ourselves, all of us, eventually. It’s why I wrote Mirror Empire. It’s what the whole bloody book was about, really: being confronted with an impossible choice. Knowing that in order to live, you must become everything you hate, knowing that if you back down, you’re annihilated. What will they do, in the end? What choice will they make, when it’s them against the wall, fighting themselves?

I am a book and a half into the series, and you know what?

I don’t know what they’re going to do.

I have an outline, sure, because you have to have one to sell a book. But when I turn on the television, when I look at my own willingness to blindly forge ahead using the same tactics as the person I hated, I realize I can’t be quite sure what they will do, until the end. I’m not sure what I will do. What any of us will do, when our backs are against the wall, when we’ve dug in so deep there’s no going back.

I heard some other stuff today about so-and-so and such-and-such, stuff that would have illicited in me a deep sense of schadenfreude just a year ago. But instead of feeling smug or savage I felt deeply mournful.  Mournful for people hurt, reputations tattered, hate turned on people who spew hate. I realized that I’d have felt very differently about the whole thing before I wrote Mirror Empire, before I had these people set up in this impossible situation, where to back down meant certain death, but to live meant destroying everything they were. Impossible. No escape. No way out.

Sometimes you look at what people are about to do, what they are about to become, and you wonder if there was ever a point at which it could be stopped; if there was ever a point of return. But often, I find, that once you’re looking for the point of no return, it’s already far behind you, lost over the horizon.

It turns out that sometimes when you write a book you’re not trying to change the world. You’re trying to change yourself. 

I don’t fight so much against the world anymore as seek to actively change it; fighting leaves you bloody, bloodies another, but change is about compromise, about politics, about raising a hand and writing a story. Destroying another human being destroys me. Ostracizing them, removing them from a place they can do harm, is one thing. But destroying them? Throwing corpses into trucks and driving off with them?

That’s quite another.

It’s like peeling off your own face, and finding theirs underneath.

I hear, often, than self-annihilation is in our genetic makeup. That we are violent, hateful creatures by nature. But I don’t buy that. I don’t buy it because I learned the tactics of the people I hate by parroting what they did to get ahead. I saw how the world rewarded them, and I mimicked it. If getting ahead meant being a loving, nurturing, fabulous, kind person, I’d be that too – and, increasingly, I’ve learned to be that, in convention spaces, in social spaces. I’ve learned how to unlearn being an asshole, because if I was an asshole my whole life, I’d never be able to form a relationship with a human that wasn’t some bitter, broken thing. But different situations call for different hats, and though I hate those vapid, horrific faces, I’ll put them on myself if it means I will survive in a world that values assholes and money-hording. I will play up what the world rewards.

But with old age, and writing epic fantasies about genocide, I find my taste for putting on the grim masks of the magic-makers less and less appealing. Just like those carnival masks in that Twilight Zone episode that give those who wear them the ugly, sorrowful face of the mask itself once they take it off, you realize that every time you put on that face, it gets harder to take it off again the next time.

I don’t have any answers for myself, or for the world, or even for my characters right now. I just have this profound sense of sorrow.

On Writing the Good Fight: Hugo Roundup

In the first grade (3rd grade? whatever), my best friend ran for some student office, a rather innocuous one, I believe, like Treasurer or something like that. Treasurer was – I knew, even then – a good bet. He was an exceptionally gifted kid: smart, funny, brilliant; played violin and piano, read chapter books to the class, and had already skipped a grade.

He was a great pick for the office, but I remember being shocked at his chutzpah when he announced he was running and asked me to be his campaign manager. I knew we were both deeply geeky people, and putting me, another deeply geeky person, next to him on stage pretty much nailed the coffin shut on his chances. So I declined to be campaign manager, and he made a smarter choice  – a funny, far more popular guy who could bring in a few more votes outside the non-geek crowd.

If you think this already sounds way too politic for a bunch of elementary school kids, you don’t remember much about being in elementary school.

When he and the campaign manager got up onto that stage and did their campaign sketch/speech it was perfect. It was funny, engaging, smart. I was deeply proud to know the guy.

I knew he was running against a more popular candidate, but I couldn’t help but think, while the students laughed and clapped at the end of his speech, that he’d win it regardless. He’d win it on talent, because he was a smart kid who made good choices.

I believed.

When the ballot results came in, I sat at my desk clasping my hands in front of me, riveted to the PA speaker as the principle read out the list.

I believed.

My friend and his campaign manager stared too. Anticipation. Hope.

Hope for us, at least.

Looking back, I expect the class already knew the results.

When the principal announced the name of my friend’s rival as the elected treasurer, I felt sick. And the utter look of shock and devastation on my friend’s face is one I carry with me to this day.

We both learned a valuable lesson that day, him far more than me – the right people, the most talented people, don’t always win. In fact, the majority of the time, the right people, the most talented people, lose hard.

And it’s an ugly loss.

I’ve always viewed the Hugos and other “popular” fiction awards like the Gemmell as a rigged game. It’s a popularity contest. It always has been, since the very beginning. Popular awards are as messed up and corrupt as any other election.  The most engaging, insightful, and technically lovely work doesn’t generally win (whatever “the best” is). What wins is the work the most people have read and liked, or, barring that, the work the most people have heard of.

It’s no wonder that we’re seeing more and more folks hitting the Hugo list who have massive online followings – people of every sort.  When Scalzi won his Hugo for Best Novel last year, there was plenty of snark, as much snark as there will likely be when Wheel of Time rolls off with it this year, despite a fine showing by ANCILLARY JUSTICE as the year’s best book (ANCILLARY JUSTICE 4EVER).

WoT will win because it’s been read the most. It’s loved the most.  It’s a bloated, ambitious mess, but it’s OUR mess. And it will be rewarded for it.

Any book that’s only been out a year just doesn’t have a chance.

Is that fair? No.

It’s politics. It’s elections. It’s popular awards.

I can see your ugly disappointment already.

But that ugly disappointment is not more or less than other years. There’s no more or less politicking.

Many folks on the ballot are folks who’ve learned how to move the internet – myself among them – and I find it disingenuous to say that it’s OK for me to move the internet but not OK for others. Would I prefer that we only shared awesome, happy, not-oppressing-every-fucking-person screeds on the internet? Sure! But it’s the fucking internet.

All you can do it use your own voice for good. And amplify other good voices.

“We Have Always Fought” is the first blog post, ever, to be nominated for a Hugo Award. It’s also been read by more people than all of my books and short stories combined, and possibly read more than any single book in the Best Novel category except the collective Wheel of Time.

We can chomp about the evils of the Internet, and how it’s used to manufacture bullshit messages about oppressing people. But I want you all think about this: “We Have Always Fought” is not about silencing others, telling women to get back into the kitchen, or a piece of Nazi sympathizing.

It’s a post that asks creators – fiction writers, screenwriters, game makers, every creative person telling stories – to rethink the tired old narrative that erases women from history, from the present, from the future. It’s a cry for change, and the resonance it generated within the community shocked me.  I don’t have current stats, but six weeks after it came out last year, we were already at 50-70,000 hits. And the vast, vast VAST majority of the responses were overwhelmingly positive.

And when the Hugo nomination came out?

My friends, that shit is making the rounds again.

Can’t stop the fucking signal.

We spend a lot of time concentrating on backwards bullshit. I know why we do it – people whose mission in life is to basically to strip away your human rights are fucking scary.  As the member of a couple of groups that a lot of people would like to throw in a gaol or drag to death behind the back of a truck, I get it.

But I’ve been blogging for ten fucking years. And let me tell you – if I wrote “We Have Always Fought” ten years ago, it would have been ignored at best, and widely ridiculed at worst.

I could point to exceptional work in every category here, just like every year. And blatant bullshit, just like every year.  But you know what? Before we all throw up our hands and say, “What the fuck is the point and fuck everything and NOTHING WILL EVER CHANGE!” I invite you to take a look at, for instance, what the Best Fan Writer Hugo looked like ten years ago:

  • David Langford
  • Jeff Berkwits
  • John L. Flynn
  • Cheryl Morgan

And David Langford would win it AGAIN – as he had for the last 15 years (yes. 15 times) and as he’d go on to win it until the streak was broken by Scalzi in 2008 (at which point Cheryl was FINALLY able to win in 2009).

Politics, much?

No, no, surely no one has EVER politicked for the Hugos! Surely this is the Worst Year Evah!

Ahem. Well.

Sorry, gotta put on my historian hat for that one, my friends. Because I have a sign over my desk for whenever I get worked up into a frenzy that’s a quote from Paul Henry that says, “In times like these, it helps to remember there have always been times like these).

So, now let’s look at the Best Fan Writer list this year. Because I can fucking tell you, it’s an impossible list of nominations. I don’t think I’ve seen that many outrageously, outspokenly feminist women on a list outside the fucking Tiptree.  I’d have told you last year, even this year, that that list of women all on any single list for the fucking Hugos of all things was im-fucking-possible.

So as much as I’d like to spend all my time being mad at how shitty politics are in high school popularity contests – like we all say every year – you know what? It’s been a lot worse. So much, much worse. This is not an unprecedented amount of politicking. This goes on every year.

The real surprise is that so much good work makes the ballot at all, among all the bullshit. It reminds us that lots of bullshit gets through, yeah, but there’s hope.

There’s always hope.

game-of-thrones-the-avengers-hugo-awardsRemember my buddy from elementary school? He went on to be a successful immigration lawyer, fighting the good fight against ICE; protecting the vulnerable, giving voice to the voiceless, and all that shit. He does real, life-changing work that has nothing at all to do with whether or not he won a popularity contest for Treasurer in fucking elementary school. His life is measured by the work he does, and the lives he makes better. Not a cash prize, a tiara, a nomination for “cool dude” listed in the Guardian.

I’m proud to say I knew him back in the day.

The good folks aren’t always the people winning shit. The good folks are the people doing the fucking work. Sometimes they overlap – usually, they don’t.

Always. In life. In fiction.

There are a ton of good folks who will never, ever be nominated for any awards ever. They will struggle on writing incredible work that people love and never get acknowledged for it. And there are plenty of other folks who actually make a living writing fiction who won’t be nominated either, who I’d trade all my award nominations to, just so I could have their sales numbers.

Boo-fucking-hoo. Life isn’t fair. Looking at my bookscan numbers, don’t I fucking know it.

But you know what I have? I have hope. More hope than I had ten years ago.

Why?

Because if you’re worried about the future of science fiction – and sure, who wouldn’t be? –  I’ll leave you with this parting thought.

Here’s the Campbell list this year:

  • Wesley Chu
  • Max Gladstone
  • Ramez Naam
  • Sofia Somatar
  • Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Welcome to the fucking future.

Keep writing the good fucking fight.

 

Some Men Are More Monstrous Than Others: On True Detective’s Men & Monsters

Spoilers ahoy!

 

When I was sixteen, I dated a guy a with a madonna/whore complex. I had no idea what that was, at the time, being a young woman from a rural town where belittling women as sluts and whores was pretty typical. You were either “the type of woman men married” or you were… well, probably a slut. All I knew was that when he talked about me, he said I was some transformative goddess, superior to all other women – smarter, and sexier – and all other women he spoke about were bitches or whores. He disrespected his mother and grandmother – got into screaming fights with them and belittled them. He had no female friends. I took him for a poor abused and misdirected kid too smart for his own good.

Boys who backlashed were to be pitied and sympathized with. They’d just had rough lives. You needed to sympathize with them, and I could, I really could, because the world was filled with stories of men who’d had hard times, and who lashed out at others because of it. I had a fistful of excuses, as did he. We had a narrative on TV, in the movies. Men ran after you and screamed and got upset because they loved you. Men were abusive, maybe, even… because they loved you.

We know this story.

What first really bothered me, though, was when he made fun of a former friend of mine because she was fat. That might seem weird, after all this other behavior. But the reason it bugged me is because as he sneered over her being another man’s “fat girlfriend” I couldn’t help but note that she was, in fact, thinner than me.

His extreme compliementariness toward me had nothing to do with me – setting me up as a singular goddess was his way of justifying his relationship with me. Because if all women were bitches and whores, the fact that he was in a relationship with a woman must mean I was something different. Something else. So he made me into something I wasn’t: a perfect picture of womanhood. A crowned goddess.

But woe to the goddess who falls.

Needless to say, a perfect picture of womanhood I was not, and have never been. Things began to fall apart in the typical way they do when these sorts of guys finally wheedle you away from family and friends. When we moved in together, a five hour drive away from our hometown, things got pretty bad. Not that they were candy before – I tried to break up with him three times during the two years of our courtship prior to us moving in together, once because he cheated on me, and twice more for outbursts of screaming temper. But then came the weeping, the apologizing, about how he was imperfect, and I was a goddess, and could I please just give him another chance…

Once we moved in together the swing between these behaviors became more extreme. There would be screaming fights. He’d throw things. I put on a bunch of weight and starting wearing frumpy clothes, secretly hoping this would finally be the thing that got him to break up with me. When that didn’t work, I actually hit him on the shoulder once, during a fight, hoping he’d hit me back and I could justify leaving him. I contemplated suicide – anything to get out.

In the end, he joined the military to spite his grandmother, who’d cut off his money for college, and the break gave me the chance to call up my parents and pack up on home. When he returned from boot camp, we went round again for a few weeks, trying to “be friends.” When that didn’t work, the death threats started.

They didn’t stop until he got a new girlfriend.

I have heard stories about him and his wife, still, and they remind me of that old life. Bullet holes in the ceiling. Screaming fights. I’m told he justifies this by saying he simply has “a temper.”

Some people never change.

True Detective is a cop bromance that takes us on a journey across the poor, rural south of the 90’s – when I was a teen – following an odd-couple cop duo as they track an occult serial killer targeting women and children.

I’m pretty burned out on murder shows featuring slog after slog of dead women, but the weirdness of the opening murder, paired with the bromacing odd-couple and great opening credit sequence intrigued me.

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There are a number of things to praise in this show, from a storytelling perspective – the narrative jumping between 1995, 2002 and 2012 is remarkable and skillfully done. The writing is superb. I haven’t bumped into writing this good since… Well, OK, we’ve had a resurgence in excellent TV lately, and Mad Men and GoT come to mind, but even those shows are not, to me, this narratively ambitious. True Detective trusts viewers to connect the dots; it invites us to take a leap of faith.

I was amused to see a little of my own grim humor in the character of the introverted and this-world-is-fucked-up Rust, but the character that made me laugh out loud was Marty.

Why Marty? Because, as I said to my spouse during episode two or three, “Holy crap! I DATED that guy!”

My spouse looked appropriately horrified, because though it’s one thing to hear about a thing, it’s another thing to see it. Watching Marty neatly box up different aspects of his life, telling lies about how he lives and his morals and *believing them* while cavorting with young women and putting his wife on a pedestal was oddly cathartic, for me, because it was a validation that these type of people exist, and they are, indeed, their own brand of monstrous.

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True Detective is a bromance at its core – if you think this is not a romance story, I challenge you to watch that scene in the Monster’s Liar at the end, when Marty is reaching out to Rust, and then cradles him in his lap, and you tell me that’s not some Greek hero romance shit. It’s a story of men incapable of living in the very society they purport to protect.

But unlike Marty, Rust understands his own monstrousness. He understands he’s had to become evil to fight evil.

Marty continues to think his behavior is normal, and he is rewarded for it, even partially pardoned by his family with a lukewarm reunion there at the end in his hospital room.

True Detective’s failure is the same failure of its heroes – a failure of empathy for, and acknowledgement of the humanity and autonomy of – the very women and children these men insist they are here to protect from men far more monstrous than themselves.

Marty’s inability to draw this line  – if it was not made clear before – was made crystalline at the very end of the series, when he does finally end up  fucking the former 16-year-old prostitute he hands a few hundred dollars to seven years before to help her “get out of that life.”  Rust snarkily says at the time “Is that a downpayment?” and, of course, it turns out that it is.

Where the show pulls its punches with Marty, here, is by making the girl the instigator of this relationship, later on in the show. It doesn’t have the balls to make Marty the one pursuing her, though it would have been a much more narratively accurate choice. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was Harrelson himself who rewrote this bit to make Marty more likable – by painting the woman as the primary problem. By perpetuating this narrative of the sexy lady instigator, Marty is painted as in irresponsible child who can’t resist the flirtatious temptations of a 21-year-old former prostitute. What man can control his dick, amirite? (counterpoint: Twin Peaks’s Agent Cooper). But however much they tried to tamp this down to reduce the impact, the text was still there. The women in Marty’s life were virgins and whores – his wife and everyone else.

When he loses his shit at his mistress for telling his wife of their affair, his true nature becomes apparent. Even more than trying to control who his mistress dates, and bursting into her home unannounced to beat up the guy she brought home, it was the screaming phone conversation where he says, “I’m going to skullfuck you!” that really peeled back the layers of affable family man to reveal the raging, poisonous monster beneath (calling his daughter a slut came in a close second. Have I mentioned that ex of mine has two young children now, at least one of them a daughter? Yeah).

Rust, by contrast, understands his own darker impulses. His backstory is not a fridged wife, interestingly enough, but a fridged daughter; I expected laziness here where his whole family would have gone out in a flaming wreck, but it was more telling that he lost a child through accident, but a wife through an inability to cope. When he goes off the rails and becomes a horror, he recognizes that he’s not fit to associate with the very women and children he’s chasing after serial killers to protect.

He has no illusions of what he is.

Pulling his punches does not make him any less of a monster. This is brilliantly illustrated again and again, but in particular in his fight with Marty, when he lets Marty beat the shit out of him, right up until the very end, when he grabs hold of his wrists the way he did years before, when he told him he could break his hands. You see the death grip. You see the monster in his eyes. You see Marty is about to never be able to hold a gun again.And then a group of other men pulls Rust away, and Marty keeps his hands.

Monsters wrangling monsters.

We are also not fooled after watching the crazy shoot-out in the projects, where he joins with a biker gang to go terrorize an entire community. Though he is given his “save the cat” moment by sparing a young boy in the house and telling him to hide in the bathtub, and though he tries to incapacitate instead of brutally murder the neighborhood folks as they try and defend themselves, it’s clear he knows exactly what he is, and exactly what he’s capable of.

I have always had an obsession with the monsters who walk among us; the ones our society excuses and supports, especially. I’m interested in the narrative that to fight monsters, you must, necessarily, become one.

Rust and Marty spend their lives limping along, trying to find ways to live in civilized society as casual monsters, but in the end, as shown in the brief and sadly funny roundup of how they’re living their lives in 2012 right before their final fight – they have failed at it.

Marty sits at home alone eating TV dinners in front of the tube, divorced and estranged from his daughters. Rust spent seven years working at a bar four days a week, and drinking himself senseless the other three. All they know how to do is fight monsters, because they know monsters. They understand them. They are uniquely equipped to fight them.

Because they are monstrous.

I’ve said often that there’s a difference between a show that portrays misogyny and a show that is misogynist. Mad Men portrays misogyny. True Detective, sadly, is misogynist. It paints the world in the viewpoint of its monstrous heroes, so I suppose it shouldn’t be any wonder that it comes out that way. But here’s what makes the difference, for me:

Marty’s wife, Maggie, tries to leave him, again and again. She asks Rust if Marty is having an affair – Rust knows he is, but protects Marty (remember, this is a bromance). Eventually the mistress confronts her, and she packs up her shit and leaves Marty for a few months.

But I know Marty. I dated Marty. I know this dance. And they have kids. Kids make it harder.

He woos her back. He gets down on his knees. He sweet talks and apologizes. He makes small concessions. They go to therapy. He quits drinking. But as his daughters grow up, we see his controlling nature rear its head again; he beats up the men having sex with his daughter. He calls her a slut. He pokes at her choice of clothing in a particularly amusing scene in which she tells him with the haughty voice of a disgruntled teen, “You can’t control what women wear, dad.”

And, years later, he has another affair. This time, Maggie knows. This time, she calls Rust again for confirmation. Rust again pretends ignorance.

Maggie knows she needs to leave Marty. She knows she needs something besides “you’re having an affair” because she knows how things will go. He’ll get on his knees. He’ll apologize. He’ll make excuses.

But there’s one thing he won’t stand for: another man touching what he considers his. She has spent her life wrangling this monster. She knows him intimately. She understands what she must do to beat him.

So she endeavors to have an affair.

She tries to pick up a man at a bar; no dice. Instead, she gets drunk and tracks down Rust. She knows her husband well, knows how he thinks, and knows exactly what will hurt him most and end their relationship with no blubbering apologies and promises to do better.

Though poor Maggie hadn’t been given a lot of screen time, and in fact, was only brought in (of COURSE) during the present-day interrogation to discuss this particular incident (because a woman’s role in a narrative is only as victim or whore, you know), I knew exactly why she’d chosen to do as she did, and I understood it. And I knew she was right.

I’d been there; boxed into a corner, unable to figure out how to get away. In the end, I hadn’t had kids. I’d been able to pack up my shit and move to Alaska.

Maggie didn’t have that luxury.

So Maggie has a quick coupling with Rust. Why she couldn’t have just made up having an affair, I don’t know – because, plot, I guess. Of course, Marty is also a detective. Perhaps she feared he would know if she was lying. He would demand to know who it was, interrogate her, try and find proof.

When she sits at the kitchen table with her glass of wine, waiting for him in the dark, she is finally, supremely confident. Because she knows this will wreck him. She knows, after all this time, she finally got him. Because she understands exactly what she is to him – a possession – and that the only way to bust herself down from that pedestal he put her on was to paint herself as a whore.

I hated Maggie for this as much as anyone, which was shocking. I knew Maggie. But the narrative! Oh, we know the narrative of the woman who ruins everything. Marty and Rust battle it out, naturally, after this incident, and are no longer friends. It feels like grim trickery for her to do it, and it is. But I completely understood her, and I sympathized with her. I knew she’d made the choice she felt was the only choice to free her from her situation; she’d done something awful, to escape something worse.

But I wondered, the way this whole mess was painted – how many others saw what she did as I had? How many others really sympathized with her situation? How many actually considered her a scheming whore, just the way Marty did?

Because when she shows up at the end of the show to see Rust, even knowing what I did, sympathizing as I did, I hated her. I hated that she’d hurt his feelings. I had to remind myself that she had, in part, also lashed out to hurt Rust because he’d known from the start that Marty was having affairs, and he’d lied to her about it. He’d protected Marty, and this was the most powerful way this fucked up, misogynist world had given Maggie to say “fuck you.”

It occurred to me that in a world ruled by misogynist monsters, they end up pushing people into becoming the very stereotypes they’ve created in their own minds. I flashed back to the gun fight in the projects – the four white men with guns terrorizing the neighborhood, getting them to fight back, and the cops and helicopters that swoop in. I imagined the scene in the minds of the cops who descended on the scene – “Those violent black people,” they’d say, when it was white thugs who’d instigated the violence in the first place.

Through force, abuse of physical and social power, neglect, these men perpetrate the very narratives they’ve created in their heads. They’ve made the world they imagined, and it’s a very terrible place.

Much has been made of the Cthulu mythos present throughout this tale of monsters fighting monsters. But in truth, this whole show is set in a fantasy world – the world as painted by two broken men who strive to extinguish a greater darkness than themselves in order to atone for and justify the darkness they themselves have delivered into the world.

If there was ever a show that so accurately represented that old cliché “Women take up with men to protect them from other men” this is it. What True Detective makes clear is that that saying could just as easily be “Women must take up with monsters to protect them from other monsters.”

It was for this reason that the show’s final lines, delivered by Marty, held a different meaning than the obvious one.

Rust says that when you look up in the sky, all is darkness, and the darkness is winning. Marty disagrees because, of course, in the beginning there was *only* darkness, and now the sun comes up again. So to his mind, light is making a fair bit of progress.

For me, this was not so much a glorious mythic handwave to the great literal battle between light and darkness, but the figurative one, the battle between darkness and light that goes on inside everyone, especially men given the power these two wield – the gun and the badge, the sword and the scales.

Power is a funny thing, because if you asked these two men if they had it, they would say no. They would say they were underdogs fighting a corrupt system.

But when you pull back, when you see Marty abuse prisoners and call his teen daughter a slut, and Rust cover up the shooting of a handcuffed man and sneer at Maggie, you recognize that their whole lives have been about fighting darkness to cover up their own, and raging at powerful men because those men treat them the same way they treat their wives and daughters – you understand that they cannot stand for enduring that type of abuse from powerful men. They cannot be made women in their own world.

The body they saw posed in the cane fields that day did not evoke their sympathy for it being the death of a human being, a woman. No, it bothered them because in it they saw the work of a man who believed himself to be more powerful than they, playing out a battle of wits with them writ large on women’s bodies, as so many wars between monsters have been waged.

xthe-true-detectives.png.pagespeed.ic.NVpHDik74DOn reflection, looking at shows like this and considering my own experiences, what fascinated me was that we have so many stories like this that help us empathize with monstrous men. “Yes, these men are flawed, but they are not as evil as THIS man.” Even more chilling, they tend to be stories that paint women as roadblocks, aggressors, antagonists, complications – but only in the context of them being a bitch, a whore, a madonna. They are never people.

Stories about monstrous men are not meant to teach us how to empathize with the women and children murdered, but with the men fighting over their bodies.

As a woman menaced by a monster, I find this particularly interesting, this erasure of me from a narrative meant to – if not justify – then explain the brokenness of men. There are shows much better at this, of course, which don’t paint women out of the story – Mad Men is the first to come to mind, and GoT – but True Detective doubled down.

The women terrorized by monsters in real life are active agents. They are monster-slayers, monster-pacifiers, monster-nurturers, monster-wranglers – and some of them are monsters, too. In truth, if we are telling a tale of those who fight monsters, it fascinates me that we are not telling more women’s stories, as we’ve spun so many narratives like True Detective that so blatantly illustrate the sexist masculinity trap that turns so many human men into the very things they despise.

Where are the women  who fight them? Who partner with them? Who overcome them? Who battle their own monsters to fight greater ones?

Because I have and continue to be one of those women, navigating a horrorshow world of monsters and madmen. We are women who write books and win awards and fight battles and carve out extraordinary lives from ruin and ash. We are not background scenery, our voices silenced, our motives and methods constrained to sex.

I cannot fault the show’s men for forgetting that; they’ve created the world as they see it. But I can prod the show’s exceptional writers, because erasing the narrative of those whose very existence is constantly threatened to be extinguished by these monsters, including monsters they trust whose natures vacillate wildly, you sided with the monsters.

I’m not a bit player in a monster’s story. But with narratives like this perpetuated across our media, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s how my obituary read; a catalogue of the men who sired me, and fucked me, and courted me.

Stories that are not my own.

Funny, isn’t it? The power of story.

It’s why I picked up a pen.

I slay monsters, too. And I won’t be written out of my own story.

Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum, or: Understanding the Complex Continuum of Internet Butt-Hurt*

I once stood at a bus stop in Durban while two young, drunk men murmured sexually explicit threats and promises to a young woman standing next to me. It was just the four of us – the woman being threatened, me, and the two perpetrators.

South Africa is not the world’s safest place, though with how often folks pull out guns to solve disagreements in the US – legally! – now, I’d argue it’s not so safe here, either. In any event, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren’t threatening her with an actual weapon. They were just talking about all the sexual things they wanted to do to her.

It didn’t concern me.

I didn’t want to get knifed, or attacked, or threatened in kind. Who wants that?

But after a few minutes, when they didn’t seem to tire of their threats, but instead kept at it, I finally lost my shit.

It was a fantastic losing-of-the-shit, because I’d spent the last six months hurrying back to my flat before dark, being told by every well-meaning person I knew that there were evil men waiting to rape, mutilate and murder me – maybe not even in that order! – even in broad daylight. I had one guy in a car slow down once on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the hill just outside the university where I was walking alone, who told me I best not walk alone, and best get inside, because people were likely to jump out of the woods and haul me off to the terrible fate all young white girls traveling abroad are assumed to inhabit, eventually.

I’d spent some time getting cat-called, yelled at, and solicited, though most folks in Durban were in fact quite lovely. In truth, I was to receive far more direct threats and harassment as a young woman living in Chicago than I did in Durban.

But that’s a post for another time.

To an outsider seeing my screaming meltdown at these two men, in which I raved and shouted and told them how they were utter assholes for harassing us, and they should fuck off, and who the fuck did they think they were, this might have seemed like the raving of some unhinged person. After all, from afar, all you see is two guys at a bus stop talking to a woman who seems deeply uncomfortable. But my rage, my “sudden” outburst was actually the result of the venting of six full months of increasing dread and terror inflicted on me not even so much by actual bad people, but people ostensibly concerned for my safety, whose admonitions that I “stay inside” and watch my back, and be careful, and who would then go on to talk about who’d been raped, shot, stabbed or mugged that week, had really started to get to me. It was a rage at the entire situation, at being expected to shut the fuck up and go inside all the time because I was a young woman. It was rage at the idea that the threat of violence so clearly worked to keep people in line.

After I raged for a few minutes, the guys milled about for a bit, confused, and finally wandered off. When they did, the young woman next to me breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you so much. I was afraid to say something, because I was afraid they’d knife me or something.”

When the internet loses its shit over what, to many, looks like a single, insignificant incident unrelated to anything else, it’s easy to say they’re fucking nuts. They’re raging over some perceived slight that’s been blown waaaaay out of proportion. That, in truth, is the easier narrative. There’s a reason folks say things like, “Women are crazy,” to explain away some perceived hurt or slight, because it’s easier than thinking through why that rage makes one so uncomfortable (often because that person is complicit in acts that contribute to that rage in some way by perpetuating both sexism and the belittling of women’s voices). It’s easier to say people are crazy than to try and figure out why.

Especially when you’re in a place where it’s never your butt getting hurt.

Internet rage is almost never a one-off. It happens in a continuum. It’s seen as one more event in a long line of connected events.

sopa-and-pipa-protest-takes-it-to-the-streets-in-nyc-video--2ed38c9bc2About ten years ago, some dude blogger with a big following would ask, about every six months, “Where are all the women bloggers? I don’t read any women bloggers. So women must not blog!”

And the feminist blogosphere would fall on him.

Every. Six. Months.

We’d clog up his blog comments with our voices. We’d link to other women’s blogs. We’d point out that the reason he never saw women is because it was easier to not see them. It was easier to link to the dudes that he knew.

You don’t see people you don’t listen to. 

That went on for a couple of years. At some point, after Wonkette got big and Amanda Marcotte got tapped to do social media outreach for a major political candidate, these conversations stopped (now it’s “here are all the white people you should be following on Twitter” lists that don’t have a single person of color on them, even though people of color make up over 40% of Twitter users and generate the majority of tweets and some of the biggest online memes and movements have originated with influencial folks on that end. Same shit, different pocket).

We got all sorts of push back on this, about how we should be more “civil” and “settle down.” We got told we were “over-reacting.” We were being “pushy bitches” and “making something out of nothing.”

But the truth was that unless we made a big fucking stink, people went back to the status quo.

Folks will always, always, always go back to the comfortable status quo, with its silent voices and lack of conflict, if you give them the chance.

“Settle the fuck down, you got your way,” also doesn’t work after a fight is over, because though dudes may go “Yeah, we get it, women blog” unless you’re on it like a fucking trainwreck, you’ll have the conversation again six months later.

They forget. They start rewriting the narrative.

Calls for civility, as good-intention as they may be, smack to me of folks telling me I should have swallowed my tongue at the bus stop. After all, it’s not as if the men were physically harming the young woman.  And I should have held my tongue when people said women don’t blog, because obviously, if I wrote well enough, and shut up enough, and acted demure enough, people would just magically notice me, right?

Clearly, ya’ll have no idea how this works.

Oh. Wait. You do.

tumblr_lofmt8jp8W1qc7mh1If I shut the fuck up, then all the people you quote, all the people who write the post-narrative, the big pieces that folks look back on to create the history and narrative of an event, even a successful one, will be made by the powerful, influencial people who believe their hurt feelings at being called out as problematic somehow outweigh the concerns of an entire community of folks with no media pull and no platform whose voices have been marginalized their whole lives, and are now being reduced to a crazy, screaming, angry mob acting up out of nowhere, instead of a passionate community of folks reacting to an event they see as existing on a problematic continuum.

We have a strange habit of falling back on “civility” as if every social movement was entirely civil. Like unions didn’t bust up on scabs. Like Nelson Mandela didn’t blow shit up.  Like MLK would tell us all to shut the fuck up, and women never chained themselves to the fences in city squares, stormed political buildings or committed acts of arson and violence in an effort to achieve suffrage.

Surprise!

My specialization is in the history of revolutionary movements, and let me tell you, folks – being nice and holding hands didn’t get shit done. Or sure, it was one tactic. But never the only tactic. I wish a nice circle jerk got shit done as much as the next person, but if it were so, history would look much, much different.

Change is messy. It’s angry. It’s uncomfortable. It’s full of angry people saying angry things, because they’ve been disrespected and forgotten again and again and again and again, and they’re tired of being fucking nice because it makes you uncomfortable if they act in any way that is not deferential or subservient to you and your worldview.

I’m sorry if we’ve interrupted your latest Kickstarter, or pin-up calendar, or the purchase of your million-dollar estate in California, and you’re throwing all your Hugo pins into Mount Doom in the hopes it will shame us into silence.

That must be really, really tough.

I’m sympathetic, I really am. Because I too know what it is to be comfortable and safe and pretend everything’s fine. I’m white. My parents aren’t poor, and I make decent money now. I get how annoying it can be, to get called out on that, and to have to listen to people who have problems you don’t. Real fucking problems and issues that exist on a continuum of shame, disrespect, and forced subservience they’ve had to deal with their whole lives.

For a community of folks who grew up reading comic books and farmers-who-become heroes, we sure do balk when we suddenly go from farm boy to hero. Because that’s a heavy fucking responsibility, and it’s easier to pretend you’re still mewling Peter Parker, complaining about how no girl will fuck you. You may not feel like you have power or influence, but you do – as do I.

There are a few things we can do when we have power and influence.

We can take our toys and go home.

Or we can get the fuck up and fight for the people who are continually shit on, and act like a fucking hero would act.

I know which I’d rather do.

_____________________________

*others have noted use of “butt-hurt” here is really annoying, dismissive, and problematic, as discussed here. I am aware. My use of it in this post in particular is in response to this dismissive tweet about latest rage, which employs it in its generally annoying way.

What living in South Africa taught me about racism in America

I’ve talked a lot about growing up in an area that was largely full of white people (I believe 98% of the county I grew up in was white during the 80’s). The effect this had on me, growing up, was not actually the one you might expect. Instead of (I thought) teaching me explicitly to be a racist, it taught me that racism was some kind of anomalous thing. I mean, *I* didn’t notice people of color. Everybody was the same to me! Racism was a silly thing that no logical person would ever buy into. It didn’t matter what color anybody was. I treated everyone the same, because it made no difference…. To me. Because I was white. I had the privilege of being able to care – or not – about race, because I was of the “invisible” race in the country, the default.

Beach goers in Durban, South Africa.

But like my starry-eyed belief that my gender also made no difference in the way I was perceived in the world, this was a short-lived notion that didn’t last much past my teens. What I started to realize is that it didn’t matter what I thought – there was already an institutionalized system in place, and it was the same system that ensured I grew up in a county that was 98% white.

When my great grandmother died, my great grandfather was showing us some documents from around the same time he bought his house in Portland, OR. This was in the 40’s, I think? I picked up this marketing flyer for the neighborhood that basically said how it was a desirable place to live because buses didn’t go there (read: poor people) and “undesirable” people weren’t allowed to live there (read: non-white people).  The area had, of course, grown much more mixed over the years, and as far as my great grandfather was concerned, this was the first step in its demise.  I remember him grumbling over the paper, “Things were very different in this neighborhood then. Much better.”

So of course I couldn’t really see segregation, and how it worked, because I was so neatly cut off from people who were different from me. I lived in a place of invisible race, full of white folks. The people I saw everyday were mostly white. At work, at school, at the mall – I just figured this was how it was. Of course race didn’t matter and we were all the same, I told myself, but it’s a lot easier to say that when all the people you see every day look the same way you do, and are the same people making the laws, and setting down the unwritten rules. And deciding where the white and non-white people live.

 

Because I was a white person growing up in white suburbia, it didn’t really dawn on me how stiffly our country was still segregated until I spent a year and a half living in South Africa. In the US, about 28% of our country is non-white now. In South Africa, over 80% of the country is non-white.

That meant that the way the world was segregated, even post-Apartheid, was glaringly more obvious to me. Most of the world was non-white where I lived, in Durban. It was only when you’d walk into isolated upperclass neighborhoods, or down certain streets, that you saw these little congregations of white people sitting behind their ten-foot barbed-wire topped fences. But even then, everybody had a housekeeper, and a gardener, and a handyman, and those people – in nearly all cases – were not white.  So when you walked into a white enclave, it felt exactly like a white enclave should feel:  not “normal.” It was abnormal to be in a neighborhood primarily filled with white folks.

I remember the first time I walked into a store in downtown Durban and realized I was the only white person there, just a couple weeks after arriving. It was a startling moment of dissonance. I felt like I’d done something wrong, like maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there.  I realized I was 22 years old, and had never in my life been the sole white person… well, anywhere.  And the knowledge of that, the striking realization that, in fact, the world I grew up in was a false one, that I had grown up under the false pretense that being white was somehow the norm, and that I had somehow picked up this strange illogical notion that the rest of the world was of course mostly-white too, was absolutely shocking to me. We expect that we’re smarter than that. That knowing something intellectually – of course the world is diverse and varied and wonderful and I had “known” that since I was a child– does not translate into real knowledge of that world until you experience it, was… really depressing, actually. Because I realized how many other white people in America had grown up just like me, in these false white rural and suburban ghettos where they had absolutely no idea of the actual composition of America.

But wait, wait, a lot of other rural/suburban-grown white people might say – this isn’t fucking South Africa. Most people in the US are white! Where I grew up is just a reflection of the country. Everyone really is just like me!

Well, unless 30% of the people you see every day are non-white – no, it’s not.

And here’s why:

It was constructed that way.

It didn’t take long for me to adjust to my initial weirdness over being so white in a place where that wasn’t the norm, of course. It became really normal for the world to *not* be monochrome. It was just life. Life was really vibrant when I lived in Durban. The people were incredibly nice, and the food was amazing. Oh, certainly, there was some terror and madness – the owners of my building hardly ever sprayed for bugs, often forgot to pay their water bill, and it was considered suicidal to go outside alone after dark – but I had a sliver of a view of the Indian Ocean, went to the beach whenever I wanted, and rent was the equivalent of $150 a month. I had a new normal.

After living in Durban for eight months or so, I flew home to visit my family. I had a layover in the Minneapolis airport. I remember sitting there on a bench near the food court, scribbling in a notebook as people streamed by. After about an hour or so, I realized I felt deeply uncomfortable. Something felt very off. Very strange.

I looked up from my notebook and looked at the people streaming by… and realized what the source of my discomfort was.

Everyone was white.

Just as I’d done when I walked into that store where I was the only white person, I felt a moment of dissonance. Well, of course, I told myself – it’s Minnesota. Of course everyone is white here. My brain neatly pushed that “normal” lever, where of course 99% white everything, everywhere is just “normal.”

It wasn’t until I went to the food court to get something to eat that I was reminded of the lie.

Because the people working in the food court?

Were overwhelmingly non-white.

South Africa’s segregation was easier for me to see because it was a foreign country.  I could look at it as an outsider, and point at all the flagrant abuses and government schemes that tried desperately to keep people separated. But seeing and experiencing that – and studying it deeply, which is what I was there to do – also allowed me to come back to my own country and finally, for the first time, see our own instituitionalized segregation. I could see how our government’s programs and policies – even those from just ten or twenty or forty years ago – had totally skewed the way we all experience the world, and though one’s experience certainly relied on many factors including gender and wealth, race was a huge one.

I was reminded of this experience during a very laughable post-election moment when I was viewing this video from a Republican poll watcher in Aurora, Colorado. He was deeply concerned about the fact that the “racial mix” at the polling station he was at skewed far darker than “the mix of people at the mall.” (!!) This, he said, was evidence of some kind of Democratic conspiracy to get more non-white people to this particular polling station.

What he failed to realize is that “these people” had been in Aurora all along – they simply didn’t move in the same spaces he did. The only time he saw them was now, on election day, when they all had to come to the same place to vote.  If he hadn’t been a poll watcher, he likely would never have noticed them. Because that’s privilege. Because that’s having the ability to live in spaces that have been built to exclude others, and give you a false sense of the world.

After living in Durban, I moved to Chicago, and experienced that eerie train ride from the north side of Chicago to the south side, where the composition of people on the train changes so dramatically that it looks… planned. Because it was. Planned and enforced. Just as it had been in my great-grandfather’s neighborhood in Portland, OR.

When I read a lot of golden age SF, I think about these guys who grew up in planned neighborhoods like my great-grandfather’s, where people who were “different” from the false middle-class white “norm” were excluded. I think of television shows that still give us this narrow view of what “normal” is – so very white, so very male, with strict standards on body sizes and face shapes.

If this is the world you’re fed every day, why wouldn’t you replicate it? Of course, the future is white and male and middle class. Of course the galactic empire is white and male and middle class. It is constructed that way. Just like our cities.

But no matter how many neighborhoods we gate off, or how many white faces we hand-select to deliver our media, it doesn’t change the truth. It doesn’t alter the math. Our world is a diverse and interesting one. It’s not monochrome. To pretend otherwise is to live in a bubble of self-defeating lies and denial that serves no one, and changes nothing.

So when people tell me that including “so many” non-white characters in my fiction is “political” or that I’m trying to make some kind of “statement” I can’t help but counter with the fact that the “statement” made by every writer with a white monochrome world is also deeply political, even more so because it’s based on a false sense of normal that’s been carefully and systematically constructed for hundreds of years in this country (and others).

I like to think that some folks slowly wake up to that lie, but until we succeed in desegregating the ways we live and work and actually start populating our media with an accurate representation of what our world looks like, I figure we’re still in for another fifty years of clunky – and increasingly ridiculous-looking – whitewashing.

As a creator, as a media-maker, I know I can choose to blindly perpetuate those myths, or help overturn them. But I couldn’t make that choice until I stopped eating up the lie of what the world was really like.