Hello, class and also readers of my blog! I am hilariously inept at technology, so this is my convoluted way of supplying a link to my PowerPoint for the class where the narration will still works, because I don’t know how to make presentations in anything other than PowerPoint and, since it’s finals time, didn’t have time to learn. So this is a download link for Dr. Salyer and anyone else who’s interested in hearing me talk about monster teens!
Dear everyone: stop pitching me your picture book ideas.
The first and frankly best reason for this is that I don’t write picture books! I had to try my hand at it for a workshop in my Master’s program, and while the experiment was kind of fun, the end result was very bad. I don’t have any ideas for picture books, and I have no desire to offer my feedback on anyone else’s.
Yet, far too often, when a new acquaintance outside of my writing or academic circles hears that I’m a children’s lit person, I’ll get, “Oh, I’ve always had this idea for a kid’s book …” Cut to some long-winded explanation of a picture book idea, a so-what-do-you-think look, and my awkward excuse of, “So I actually write for adolescents …”
I say “excuse” because I generally use that line to get out of saying what I really think, which is that nine times out of ten, these picture book ideas are very, very bad.
The number of people who have full on drafted a picture book without looking up, like, how many pages a picture book needs to be is genuinely astonishing. (Interestingly, usually they dramatically undershoot it, which makes me want to ask: have you ever held a picture book in your own physical hands? Have you ever read one to an actual human child.) (Also, no, just spreading out the words you have over the appropriate number of pages won’t fix things, because then you’re going to have a nightmare of pacing on your hands.) But, honestly, folks who want to describe your picture books to random children’s lit people you don’t know, please first ask yourself this: do you actually like and respect children at all, or do you just think you have something to teach them?
Listen, writers write because they think they have something worth saying. My own ethics and beliefs are all up in my fiction. I’m not saying you can’t have any kind of message in what you write. But if you’re just thinking about ~imparting your wisdom on young readers (and in this case, very young readers) without also considering what they might find genuinely entertaining, please immediately delete your Word document with the incorrect number of pages and leave the picture books to people who don’t see kids as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with morality tales. In fact, anyone who starts sentences with “kids don’t know …” or “kids don’t understand …” should step away from children’s media entirely.
With all of that said, I think pretty much anyone who gives me their boring pitch about, like, sharing or whatever is no longer in any danger of receiving the Worst Idea Award. That trophy has been (hopefully permanently) handed to a recent Unfortunate First Date. I have been on many Unfortunate First Dates (someone save me), but usually they’re unfortunate in just a tedious, no connection sort of way. This one, at least, was unfortunate in a way that entertained me at the UFD’s expense.
(It’s possible that I’m getting meaner now that I’m 30? Eh, hopefully that’ll appeal to someone along the way.)
The conversation went more or less as follows:
UFD: There’s actually a series of picture books that I’ve always wanted to write, but I’m not really much of a writer …
Me: (rictus grin) Oh?
UFD: Yeah, they would be “project management for kids.”
Me: (laughing, because surely this is a weird joke that I don’t yet get) What?
UFD: Like using the skills of project management to make playtime more effective. (NB: “make playtime more effective” is verbatim from this actual human man’s mouth. I couldn’t make that up.)
Me: (still laughing) What?
Me: (realizes that he is, in fact, not joking)
At this point, I made a few decisions very quickly. One: there wasn’t gonna be a second date. Two: there was no way out of the sitcom-level “laughed until I realized you were serious” mess that just happened, so I might as well just lean into the moment and continue laughing. Three: this fellow needed to know this was not a good idea. Not that something like this is in any danger of getting published — at least, I sure hope not — but just, like, on behalf of children everywhere, he needed to know.
Me: What age is your audience for this??
UFD: Like three- and four-year-olds. Before they can read on their own, so their parents would read this to them.
UFD: (warming to his explanation, lord love him) And it would teach them things like how they shouldn’t build sandcastles near the water at low tide, things like that. There would be different examples of how to plan, like … (At this point he launched into explanations that included words like “agile,” “waterfall,” and “scope.”)
Me: (hands on face in incredulous horror) And you would … include this vocabulary … in your book for toddlers?
UFD: Well, yeah, so then they can use those tools to (and I can’t emphasize enough that these were his exact, repeated words) make playtime more effective.
Me: Why does playtime need to be ~~~~effective? (I’m pretty sure my tone conveyed the tildes.) Can’t they just learn things through trial and error?
UFD: Well, with a little planning upfront (VERBATIM), they could have a better time.
Me: Could they?
UFD: Yeah, I actually tried writing one, but it came out kind of boring.
Me: (I swear I’m not a total jerk, but you try not laughing in someone’s face at that)
UFD: It had this whole character arc, where a kid was kidnapped by pirates, but they were all really bad at being pirates, so he teaches them how to be better …
Me: … with project management?
Okay, so I think the whole incompetent pirate angle actually has potential as a funny story (sans agile and scope and whatever), which I did tell him, so I’m not a complete asshole. But THEN:
UFD: Yeah, but I don’t really think kids that age are interested in characterization.
Me: (several seconds of wide-eyed horror that’s edging into delight at this point, because if I’ve gotta have a bad date, at least I get a can-you-believe-this-guy story) Buddy, I’m pretty sure most kids are more interested in CHARACTERS than PROJECT MANAGEMENT.
UFD: (with genuine, honest to god bemusement) Really?
SO YEAH. That all happened. Funnily enough, I am a TA for an intro to childhood studies course right now, and literally one day before this date, the topic of conversation had been about how children receive very early pressure to Prepare For The Workforce, so basically every professional opinion I have hated this idea. But honestly, is there a more egregious example of just having no respect for your audience? Deeply embedded in this idea is the assumption that children are dumb, that they have to be led to solutions, that they can’t solve problems on their own, that learning has to be explicit and forced and direct. Who on earth would want to read a book by an author who thinks that way about you? I sure wouldn’t!
So please. Spread the word to anyone who’s never written a picture book but thinks they should. First off, google some industry standards before declaring you’ve got something publishable. Maybe read a few picture books before diving into your own. But much more importantly, stop thinking about what kids don’t know or understand, and start talking to them and realizing what they do. Ask them what they like and what they care about. Actually listen. Because there is no such thing as good art that doesn’t respect its audience. And if you think that a phrase like “good art” is misplaced or too pretentious in a discussion about books for toddlers … for the love of god, don’t write one.
At the very least, please don’t tell me about it.
What should I write my blog about this month? I asked myself when I woke up this morning and realized it was the last day of February. I answered that question with another question: Well, what’s just about the only thing you’ve thought or cared about this month aside from all the schoolwork you have to do? And the answer to that, gentle blog readers, was my new favorite sitcom of all time, Schitt’s Creek. If you have not already done so, please get thee to Netflix, where the first four seasons are waiting to delight you and also probably take up more time than you have to spend. (I have recently taken to literally unplugging my router to make myself stop rewatching favorite scenes and do my work.) (It’s open in another tab right now, god help me.)
Before you binge away, though, you can continue reading this blog, because I’m not really going to be talking about the specifics of the show’s plot. Instead, I want to discuss the reasons that stories like this one are so attractive to me. I commented in a Twitter conversation about the show that, to me, Disasters Learning To Love is the story type to which I keep returning. (Actually, what I really said was that it’s the only type of story that matters and is worth telling, because hyperbole is where I live, but also was I really being hyperbolic? Nah.) For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, Schitt’s Creek is about a filthy rich family that loses their fortune after their business manager embezzles everything away, and the one asset remaining to them is the titular rural town that they bought as a joke. Obviously, the resulting culture shock is … significant.
Basically all the major characters in this show qualify as awful babies, a term coined by my dear Anna to describe the best type of fictional character. I can’t remember if I’ve ever used this perfect turn of phrase on this blog before, so for the uninitiated (i.e., those of you who somehow haven’t heard me expound upon this in real life), awful babies are characters who are very bad at their own emotions (Anna once used the metaphor of “flailing ineffectually against the current of their feelings”) and are consequently Terrible. Not all awful babies are created equal, and plenty of different personality types can translate into awfulness. If I may be so arrogant as to use my own work as an example, I really enjoy creating characters who are very different from one another, but I exclusively write awful babies. In fact, “all your characters are assholes kathleen” (also from Anna) is one of the greatest texts I’ve ever received, and high on the list of my most prized compliments about my writing.
With all of that said, it may seem a contradiction to admit that when it comes to sitcoms, I really only like those with characters whose company I think I’d actually enjoy in real life. For example, I’ve never been a Seinfeld person, simply because I’d last about thirty seconds in a room with those characters before walking right out the door again. (I also fully understand that that was part of the point, don’t @ me.) But there’s a very important distinction between an awful baby and a just plain gross human being. The former do have the ability to experience personal growth — or, more accurately, to drag their own selves into personal growth kicking and screaming. That’s the story that makes me laugh and makes me care. After all, what can be more (often alarmingly) relatable?
My parents have the same sitcom sensibilities as I do, and after watching the first two episodes of Schitt’s Creek on my recommendation, they were unsure why I recommended it, because they mistook these incredible awful babies for gross human beings. I have been flat-out begging them to trust me, because this show has some of the best slow-burn character development I’ve seen in a long, long time. That’s also why I’ve refused to show them any of the scenes that I know would convince them that these characters are worth investing in, because they have to see them earn it. Everything is so much more satisfying when it’s that hard-won! I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that are Relevant To My Research Interests, which means I can’t just stop reading them when they fail to fully engage me. Honestly, one of my main complaints with fiction that bores me is when the main characters a) aren’t awful enough, which means that b) they don’t have to work hard enough for their victories.
Dan Levy, who is the showrunner and one of the stars of Schitt’s Creek and is now my latest creative idol, is committed to storytelling without cynicism. The many interviews I’ve been reading (those are two good ones) make this clear, but so does the work itself. And to me, being an awful baby aficionado as both a writer and a consumer of fiction is rooted in compassion and delight for people in general. We’re so dumb, bless us! We’re so bad at so many things, especially managing our own messy, scary, ridiculous lives. I love finding points of comparison between my own strand of melodramatic, vain, recalcitrant awfulness (that I hide, for the most part, relatively well (or at least I hope I do)) with fictional characters who are flailing just as wildly as I am towards something like happiness. Towards the ability to love, and love well. That’s a hard journey, but if you like people, it can also be a deeply funny journey.
I’m personally not a comedy writer. My stuff is just a wee bit too dark for that. (My newest project is about, um, death.) But that’s not to say my characters don’t make me laugh, especially when they’re at their awfullest, and I really hope that they’ll inspire the same kind of tender, indulgent fondness that I feel about the characters from Schitt’s Creek. Because you know what that does? It allows people to feel the same tender, indulgent fondness about themselves. And that’s what makes the stories worth telling.
You may recall that when the BBC’s Les Miserables miniseries was announced, I had a bit of a wish list. All I really wanted was a few trifles, really: constant symbolic light imagery, radical politics, and a transformative moral and spiritual experience. Now, I knew that I would not get everything I desired. For one thing, the book is too long to be condensed faithfully into a mere six hours, and even I realized that the literal halos were probably too big of an ask. Also, with each passing interview that Andrew Davies gave, I became more concerned with his takes on some of the characters and themes. But surely, I thought, there would be plenty of good along with the bad. I may be an adaptation grinch, but this is Les Mis we’re talking about. Just by virtue of being this story that I’ve loved for *checks watch* two-thirds of my life, it was sure to move me on some level.
Well, I wasn’t wrong. I was moved. To rage.
As with my last Les Mis post, I humbly ask you to bear with me even if you don’t care about Les Mis itself. What I’m really going to be talking about here is My Thoughts On Storytelling. Also, I will give credit where it’s due. I wasn’t filled with rage during every moment of this adaptation; in particular, I thought the last episode was the least bad — and yes, I am deliberately damning with faint praise here, but I actually did get choked up a couple of times. Also, the set design was very good, and the acting was uniformly excellent even when the characterization was not. Honestly, one of the biggest bummers of this adaptation has been imagining how great this cast could have been with a script that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out.
So here’s why I’m angry.
I have been describing this adaptation to those who ask me about it as “Grimdark Les Mis.” Until just now when I went looking for that wikipedia article to link, I had never read an “official” definition of the term grimdark; I’d just come across it in various internet nerd circles and intuited its meaning from context. When pressed to explain it, I have personally been defining it as “self-importantly bleak, with a side of toxic masculinity,” which betrays my own biases. I am just not about that grimdark life.
Now, an adaptation of Les Mis was never going to be cheerful. As I noted in my last post on the subject, the title kind of precludes that. (As does the high percentage of characters who die before the end.) However, there is a difference in my mind between haunting and bleak. The Brick is the former. Its depictions of poverty and injustice are troubling, devastating, morally harrowing. The reader wants those images to go away. The text dares the reader to make them go away by doing something. Only then can the ghosts and demons of our society that it reveals lay themselves to rest. (Or only then could they rest; the work of this story and stories like it is nowhere near done, as Hugo himself foretold in his preface.)
Bleakness, on the other hand, is fatalistic. It doesn’t trouble readers (or viewers) with attention-demanding specters; it simply drags them down and leaves them cold. Haunting stories say, “People suffer and they shouldn’t, because people deserve better.” Bleak stories say, “People suffer because they suck.” Bleakness allows — more than that, it invites — cynicism.
I refuse that. I refuse.
Not every character individually sucked as a person in this adaptation, but the script was reluctant to allow them to be their best selves, either. This was particularly noticeable in the treatment of Jean Valjean, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster. In this version, he was very shouty. And aggressive. And controlling. This … was a problem.
Now, I don’t think that Jean Valjean should be angelic, and I think that he can be too perfect in some actors’ hands. Jean Valjean has to continually struggle for his morality; that is a large part of the point of that character. I thought that Nehal Joshi’s take on JVJ in the 2014 Dallas Theater Center’s production of the musical was a goddamn revelation, mainly because he laid this struggle bare in a way that most actors don’t. (Highlight reel here, but, uh, hit me up if you want to see more. I don’t want to just openly post a link — not that I have illusions about this blog being well-trafficked, and I know that Joshi in particular has given his tacit approval to bootlegs, bless him — but yeah, I didn’t travel to Dallas to see this production but have still managed to watch the whole thing, and you can, too!)
Still, for the love of God, Jean Valjean is not a good candidate for a transformation into a gritty antihero! He’s kind. A word that comes to mind when I think of Jean Valjean is grace. He’s sad and he’s hurting; he doubts and he internalizes all sorts of awful narratives; he often does not know how best to love his daughter and the world and least of all himself; but still he loves. He tries to understand, and he forgives. He does not manhandle Gavroche when he delivers Marius’s letter. He ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT manhandle Cosette, ever, under any circumstances. He doesn’t roar wordlessly (?!) at the Bishop, even though that is at the very beginning of his journey! He doesn’t fire Fantine on purpose and shout at her that she’s untrustworthy! What! Were all of these choices!!!
I felt like this adaptation just didn’t trust the audience to be invested in a protagonist whose Darkness isn’t simmering right on the surface 24/7. Either that or it couldn’t imagine expressions of pain that don’t look like anger. Both of those options are a real problem for me as both a Les Mis fan and a storyteller. And listen: I’ve got some angry characters! I recently received some notes on middle-grade story, and one that I dismissed outright was that my main character should be less mad all the time. (Disclaimer: of course it’s important to listen to criticism, but sometimes you just gotta say, “sorry, but you’ll pry my irritated 12-year-old disaster child from my cold dead hands.”) But I also operate on the assumption that people are interested in the good that my characters want and try to do. I am interested in that aspect of storytelling, because that’s what I actually want to see play out in the world.
When Jean Valjean lets Javert go at the barricade, I want it to feel hard but earned. This moment of understanding and pity has to be enough to undo Javert, after all. In this adaptation, I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine why this Valjean would let this Javert walk free. Compassion can’t just be flicked on like a switch; if your character is going to make this kind of self-sacrificing move, you have to start establishing it in their behavior well before they actually go through with it.
Davies also made some real strange choices with Javert. Honestly, I’d say that JVJ and his antagonist were the least like their original counterparts, which is a surefire way to make Les Mis not feel like Les Mis. Davies was clearly primarily interested in the cat-and-mouse aspect of the story, but he reduced Javert’s obsessive pursuit of JVJ to an all-encompassing personal obsession with the man, instead of a symptom of his unyielding belief that The System Can’t Be Wrong. This led to some bizarre and unintentionally funny moments (since when does Javert wholeheartedly believe that JVJ is behind all the revolutionary activity in Paris??), but it also severely undercut the political impact of a character like Javert.
Again, I want to stress that I hold none of this against the actors. I’m a big fan of David Oyelowo, and I think he did a great job with the script he had. This is also perhaps a good time to discuss the racial implications of the casting. I am 1000000% for making Les Mis less white in adaptations, and despite what some newspaper articles have insinuated, there’s actually nothing unrealistic about a police inspector being Black at this time in French history. However, here’s a list of major and/or plot important characters who were white in this adaptation: Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Enjolras, the Bishop. Here are the main characters who were people of color: Javert and Thenardier. In other words, the two characters who have the most negative impacts on the rest of the (white) characters were not white. That’s … not the choice I would have made, especially considering the fact that Les Mis should always reflect current systems of injustice whenever it is retold. Depicting white people all suffering under the abuses of POC really does not do that.
Of course, Thenardier being a person of color meant that his children were, as well, so there was some non-antagonistic representation. As far as Gavroche goes, no notes, other than I wish he’d had more screen time! He was Good. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the treatment of Eponine. I knew going in it wasn’t gonna be great, considering Davies had run his mouth about how great it was that Hugo has Eponine “teasing Marius with her sexuality” when they meet, which is a Very Bad Take. Oh, and then Davies decided to augment that supposed sexual tension with Marius having a wet dream about Eponine. And then Marius sees her again working in a brothel when Grantaire and Courfeyrac take him?? To said brothel?? Which: holy shit why. Neither the wet dream nor the brothel are things that remotely happen in the book, and I cannot begin to express how much I hated these choices. First of all, the fact that Marius does not objectify Eponine in the book is a significant reason why this exploited teenager falls for him so hard! And in placing all of the importance of Eponine’s “sexuality” onto how it affects Marius, Davies objectifies her even more, which means the viewer watching this unfold is put into the position to do so, as well. I very much do not want to do that! Ever!!
Eponine (again, as the adaptation’s most prominent woman of color) got the worst of the script’s sexism, but Fantine and Cosette didn’t escape it, either. Fantine’s descent is never pretty, nor should it be, but this script really didn’t allow her to experience any emotion that isn’t crushing misery from the moment Tholomyes leaves her. It didn’t go into her backstory as a street kid who managed to retain her optimism and begin to make a life for herself, and it didn’t allow her to hold onto some strange, startling charm even when she’s dying in the hospital. She was more just Suffering Woman than vibrantly, specifically Fantine.
The treatment of Cosette, meanwhile, suffered a great deal from her juxtaposition with Angry!Valjean; instead of having a loving relationship with her father, they are at constant odds as he tries to keep her from experiencing anything of the world. Davies made his disdain for Cosette from the book clear in interviews, which, first of all, is boring. Sure, she’s a 19th century heroine, so she can be underwritten and undercut by the author’s own frequently-not-great gender politics, but she does have plenty of her own specific character traits and emotionally nuanced moments. Davies’s approach also once again demonstrates his lack of interest in compassion as a driving character motivation — and, once again, I disagree. A father and daughter smiling and pretending for each other’s sake that they aren’t both lonely because they don’t want the other to be sad is far more poignant to me than that father bodily wrestling his daughter away from the front door as she shouts at him that she hates him.
Like I said before, this adaptation did have its moments. Dismissing the breadwinners from the barricade was done really well and completely gutted me, as did every interaction between Enjolras and Courfeyrac once the barricade was taken. I already sang Gavroche’s praises, and I adored the Bishop. Also, not that I actually like this character, but Gillenormand was right on target. A lot of very talented people were involved in this production, and I could see how much they all cared about the project.
I just wish that the script had believed in more. Showcasing misery will never be enough. You have to love the miserable ones. That’s what hurts, and that’s what haunts you. That’s what will make you act.
Happy almost 2019! This was a year of many changes in my life, as you may gather from the embarrassing dearth of actual posts on this blog. Didn’t exactly nail that particular 2018 New Year’s resolution. But 2018 was nothing if not a learning experience for me, and I will be taking what I learned into a hopefully slightly more work-life-writing balanced 2019.
By far the biggest change in my life this year was getting accepted to and embarking upon a PhD program in childhood studies. This is probably a decision I could have/should have made earlier in my life, but see aforementioned learning experiences, I guess. The first semester was INTENSE (everyone promises it will be the most intense, and I’m holding them all to that), but it was also such a welcome change after working jobs that really weren’t right for me over the previous four years. Even when academic work is ridiculously hard, it still feels like what I want to be doing (it’s like writing in that way). This also marks the time I’m being paid to do something I fully want to do, so that’s certainly an exciting development!
Still no one is paying me to write things, but, as ever, I’m working on that. I completed my first middle-grade manuscript this year (for varying definitions of “completed,” of course; revise til publication or death is my motto). I really enjoyed working on SKY CHILD. A good antidote for writing career dissatisfaction is to just write something your 12-year-old self would’ve been super into.
I also had my first publication this year, albeit not a creative one: my paper “Beyond the Collapse of Meaning: Narratives of Monstrosity in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials” appeared in University of Toronto Quarterly’s special edition on monsters. I actually had a really good first experience with academic publishing, which is saying a lot considering the first notes I received basically boiled down to “so you’re gonna need to redo this.” (They worded it very gently and helpfully, though.) Also I love the idea that maybe someone might cite me when writing a paper about HDM and/or monsters. Maybe someone already has! Maybe some student out there happened upon my paper while listlessly scrolling through Project MUSE and thought “finally!” (or at least “eh, that’ll work”). All of these scenarios delight me, so I’m going to believe that they’re true.
In the world at large, 2018 was often … rough. As a consequence, so was/is my anxiety. But another development this year was that I found a new therapist once I moved to South Jersey, like the good millennial that I am. I don’t particularly want to say anything else about that, but it felt like something I should acknowledge in a post about this past year, because I don’t want to only talk about having anxiety when it’s not really that present in my thoughts. So people dealing with their brains, I’m here with you and for you! Being a scared person and being a good, kind, interesting, original person are not mutually exclusive. I should know.
(In werewolf story, a minor antagonist tries to make my protagonist feel bad about herself by asking her how she can be so clever and calculating after a bunch of really awful crap went down. “Shouldn’t you be horrified?” She tells him that she’s always horrified, but “I’ve learned to multitask.” So here’s me, terrified and fabulous, multitasking.)
I hope that everyone who reads this blog has had a wonderful holiday season and will have a great New Year! I know that in 2019, I will be doing a lot of work that I really love, and I’m so lucky and grateful that that’s a guarantee in my life. I look forward to sharing it with you!
Now, as is becoming traditional, I’d like to leave you with a little fiction excerpt to close out the year. In honor of completing a working middle-grade manuscript this year, I figured I could share something from that story! Unlike the previous two New Year’s Eve excerpts, this is actually taken from the manuscript itself. Perhaps some of you will recognize my Ninna from Writing II at Simmons; literally everything about the plot has changed since then, and she herself has become considerably pricklier, but she definitely still loves flying. For 2019, I hope you all find and/or nurture the things in your life that make you feel as free.
The city of Zimbir awaited a hero. For nearly one hundred reigns, great princes and leaders had gone forth to fulfill their destinies and returned victorious to take their places on the throne. These men relied on their strength, their wits, and the favor of their patron god — usually Zaluru, God of Storms, who understood power. It was Zaluru who had revealed the trials of the First King Nameshda after the waters of the Deluge receded, and Zaluru who had told Nameshda how and where to build the high walls that enclosed the great city. Ever after, Zaluru’s champions had defeated monsters, discovered treasures, and brought great glory to Zimbir.
But these heroes did not come along very often. All of the kings of the past century had earned their throne simply by being the brother or son of the previous king. Now, the people of Zimbir were hungry for proof that the age of heroes was not yet over.
Ninna ignored the people of Zimbir whenever possible.
Unfortunately, she could not ignore her mother. Ninna turned wearily as Sunemi opened the bedroom door without knocking, narrowing her dark eyes as she took in the almost-finished clay bird in her daughter’s hands.
“I assume this means you have finished your homework,” Sunemi said, in a voice that meant she assumed the opposite.
“Mm.” Ninna turned back to her bird. She swiped her thumbnail along its tail, giving texture to the earthen feathers.
“Ninna, it’s late.”
“Good night, then,” Ninna said pointedly.
There was a pause in which an argument may have started, but Sunemi just sighed and said, “Clean your hands before you go to bed. I won’t scrape clay from the linens again.”
When the door closed, Ninna relaxed her shoulders, and her wings made a shushing noise as they slid along the mud brick floor. She completed the finishing touches on her bird and carried it to the window to dry alongside its flock. A dozen little figures stared up at the sky, their wings readied for flight. A careless observer might believe they were flesh instead of clay, and that they were simply waiting for the right moment to leave the windowsill behind.
Ninna washed the clay from her hands in the small basin she had used to wet her latest project. Her homework tablet, dry and unmarked, lay abandoned in the corner. The flames from her clay lamps illuminated her bed, clothing chest, and little table, which was cluttered with more creations: a bird’s nest with eggs, a mouse that Ninna had studied when it scurried into the room, and a handful of votive figures ready for dedication. If only Ninna had been born to unwinged artisans; then her station would match her skills. Yet if she had, she would not have been quivering in anticipation of what she was about to do next.
Ninna snuffed the lamps and flopped onto her bed, leaning her chin on her hands. Unwilling to close her eyes and accidentally fall asleep, she stared into the darkness. Finally, she heard the soft, dull thud of hooves outside her window. She smiled and threw off her bed linens. As quietly as she could, she crept into the cool hallway, down the stairs, and through the kitchen. She paused, straining her ears for any sounds of wakefulness above her, then felt for the lacquered wood of the back door and pushed, letting the starlight in to pool around her feet.
All of the fashionable houses had walled back courtyards surrounded by palm trees: a miniature city for each winged noble. Ninna’s house, so small and far down the Great Hill, could not necessarily be called fashionable, but it at least had the courtyard and trees. The flowers around the central shrine were muted shades of purple in the darkness. The moon was at the half; the mortal world never kept the Moon Goddess Sueniti’s interest for long, and she had begun to turn her face away. Still, her light was bright enough to allow Ninna to pick her way past the garden and shrine to open the back gate.
As expected, a lamassu was waiting for her, his black eyes glinting in the moonlight. His powerful bull body was still and relaxed, and the fierce face, framed by his thick, curling black hair and beard, could almost but not quite be described as human.
Ninna whispered, “Come in, my heart.”
The lamassu smiled. The expression sat strangely on his face, giving it a lopsided cast that most would have found unnerving, but Ninna knew not to fear. The gods had sent the lamassu after the Deluge to protect the hapless humans. The spirit beasts rarely took interest in individual people, but this one had shown up on the day of Ninna’s birth and had never really left. When she was too small to realize how presumptuous it was to name a lamassu, she had begun calling him Lugu, after his crooked smile. Lugu didn’t seem to mind.
Presently, Lugu walked into the courtyard and knelt by the wall. Ninna didn’t need his help anymore, but she stepped onto his broad back anyway, careful not to tread upon his small wings. She held her balance as he rose to his full height, and from there, it was easy to pull herself up onto the wall. The tops of the rough bricks pressed the remnants of the day’s warmth into the soles of Ninna’s bare feet.
Ninna tied her thick hair away from her face with a scrap of fabric, feeling the wind shift around her. Her wings responded, spreading out to her sides and pivoting minutely to catch the air. Ninna tucked her elbows in, grasped her wrists in front of her —
After one, two, three wing beats, Ninna took her place high above the courtyard and just below the tops of the palm trees. By day, a coiled thing lived inside her chest, but every night when she took to the sky, it finally unfurled.
The sky was hers, and hers alone.
The wind, cool and sweet as river water, flowed around her. The hem of her nightdress flapped around her knees. Ninna closed her eyes and waited for that perfect moment when she couldn’t tell where her body ended and the sky began. She felt as invisible as the air. When her eyelids fluttered open again, she realized that she had drifted well outside the confines of the courtyard and had almost reached the branches of the palm trees. Dipping her right wing, she turned into the wind.
The maneuver was less graceful than Ninna would have liked, though at least now she could turn without plummeting. She flapped clumsily, rising and falling like a toy boat in a swinging bucket, and landed heavily back inside the courtyard.
“I’m getting better, aren’t I, my heart?” she said.
Lugu didn’t answer. Lamassu never did. He rustled his own wings and looked towards the sky, yet he remained on the ground, and would forevermore. His wings were too small and weak to carry him, like the wings of all other spirit beasts — and humans. Except for a single set.
Zimbir awaited a hero, but it did not know that one had already been born.
I know that I said I was going to take suggestions for future blog topics, and I am, but we have once again come up against one of those news cycles that prevents me from thinking or screaming about anything other than the dumpster fire that is our country. That happens a lot these days. Many, many people have written about the violent and dishonest man trying to get onto the Supreme Court, and many of them have made better points than I ever could, so I won’t write about him. I also don’t want to write about traumas that I have not experienced or borrow emotions I have not personally embodied.
But I can write about the first time I understood misogyny, because it’s a memory that I’ve been thinking about a lot over this past week. It is, in fact, a very specific memory from when I was around 15. It’s not a traumatic memory. It didn’t even make me particularly sad at the time, though it does now. The fact that I can pinpoint this light bulb moment is probably somewhat unusual. I feel like systems of oppression typically reveal themselves over time. On the other hand, it took a while for me to even grasp the whole idea of “systems of oppression,” which I think happens a lot with white people like me. As a consequence, at 15, I still thought of prejudice as a personal failing.
Sexism, of course, was something that I knew. I’d been a girl child among boys who said girls were gross. I’d heard stereotypically feminine interests derided as overemotional, shallow, or weak. Plenty of men were sexist, and I obviously thought they were wrong. But though I knew the word misogyny, I couldn’t come up with anyone in my life who hated women. I knew such men existed, because I knew sexual assault existed, but I didn’t think I knew anyone who would fit that bit. Who was angry enough to hate women? Who didn’t have a woman in his life that he loved? To me, misogynists were violent outliers, and sexists were just ignorant men who could, ultimately, be proven wrong.
In fact, I thought I could prove the sexists wrong. Sexists thought boys were smarter than girls? Check my report cards, bro. Sexists thought boys were stronger than girls? …Well, I couldn’t prove that one wrong, but other girls with actual hand-eye coordination and/or muscle mass could. Sexists thought boys were deeper, more logical thinkers than girls? Watch me debate you into the ground. With my stubbornness and my intellect and my ambition, I was a walking, talking refutation to sexists everywhere, and if they just saw me, they would realize the error of their foolish ways.
Then, in high school health class, that cesspit of gender relations, I sat in the back of the class learning about ovulation. The teacher explained how the ova were pushed down cilia in the Fallopian tubes, which she described as “tiny hairs.” Next to me, a boy whispered to his friend, “Ew. They can’t even shave it.”
Oh. Oh. Misogyny.
In that moment, I realized that I’d been looking at it all wrong. Misogyny didn’t require men and boys to hate every specific woman or girl. It didn’t require the nonstop anger that I had previously thought was necessary for true hatred. Anger, of course, is present in misogyny, but so is disgust.
Now, of course, this boy was probably mostly trying to be a little edgelord. I don’t think he actually thought that women should be able to shave their internal organs. But there was genuine revulsion in his voice. Never mind the fact that he wouldn’t exist without those cilia. They weren’t pleasing to his sensibilities, so they had to be derided. Any part of me that wasn’t for him was subject to his contempt.
And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about that.
I could get good grades and write good stories and make good arguments. I could, and did, and still do make my appearance conform to certain standards of beauty that men have set along the way. But I could not shave my fucking Fallopian tubes, and so I could not prove this boy wrong.
Now, before I go any further, I would just like to note that a woman does not need to be in possession of Fallopian tubes or any other characteristic associated with XX chromosomes (up to and including the chromosomes themselves) for a misogynist to find her disgusting. My point is just that on that day in high school health class, I realized that I was up against something bigger than personal ignorance. I realized that the problem of misogyny was not entirely about the concept of female inferiority. It was about the simple fact of female existence.
As I said, I didn’t feel sad or even personally offended when this boy made his absurd comment. After all, he’d just made it clear that it wasn’t personal, because it wasn’t about me as a person. I did feel disgusted by his disgust, and while I’d like to say that I delivered a gloriously scathing rebuttal, all I actually did was give him an extremely dirty look. In a way, this boy helped me. He made me see that if I wanted attitudes like his to die out, I had to think outside of myself. He started to show me the system.
Now, though, I am sad, because his attitude has not died out. Female existence, down to the microscopic level, still disgusts the men in power. Any part of a woman’s life that doesn’t please them, that isn’t for them, is inconvenient at best and revolting at worst. She is to be thrown out like all disgusting, abject things.
There are ways to fight this. Voting is one. For the love of all things holy, vote for people who don’t throw us out. Education is another. I shouldn’t have been 15 before I knew that sexism and misogyny are not just personal failings. (Though, to be clear, they are also that. Like, if you are a man who enacts misogyny, you are a product of a system, sure, but you also suck as an individual.) There sure as hell shouldn’t be grown-ass men holding up female friends and relatives as human shields as though a not-actively-despised woman’s presence in a man’s life equals the absence of misogyny. We have to know what we’re up against, both from others and within ourselves.
So I will fight. But I will also be sad, because it’s all so personal, and because it’s not personal at all. I can scream all I want to, but I haven’t shaved my cilia, so who will even listen?
Two days ago, I “finished” middle-grade story (a.k.a. SKY CHILD). Finished is in scare-quotes because, ideally, people will eventually tell me to do more things to this manuscript, because, ideally, someday someone will want to publish it. So it’s really no more finished than story or werewolf story (THE CHILDREN’S WAR and MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES, respectively), but it has joined those two manuscripts for my own definition of “books I have written.” So. I’ve written three books in my twenties. That’s sure not nothing.
I remain determined to see each of these manuscripts through to publication. This is not an easy thing to want or believe in, but I do want it, and I do believe. I don’t know if that makes me naive, stubborn, or brave. Maybe there isn’t really a difference among them when it comes to ambition and art.
But really, I’ve never chosen easy things to want or believe in. I’m starting a PhD program in a week and hope for a career in academia. I want to be a mother one day. With my work, I want to help make the world a better place, which requires the belief that the world can be a better place. I think I’ll have to be naive, stubborn, and brave to pursue all three of those goals.
I don’t know what the next “____ story” will be, but I don’t expect to last more than a week without a new project lined up. I do know that I’m starting several new chapters in my own story, and I’m excited to see what they look like. I’d like to start a new chapter for this blog, too, which I have severely neglected this year. I think I’ve said all I really need to say about myself for a while, so I’d like to write about other topics that people would be interested in hearing about. I’ll periodically ask for suggestions on Twitter and Facebook, and I hope you’ll throw some out there.
I spent a lot of my twenties “finding myself” (which is my family’s preferred euphemism for “flailing around in life”). I think (hope) I can now consider myself more or less found, and I really want to go forth into my thirties finding my place in a community. So I’d like to make all aspects of my life, including this blog, more of a conversation. I look forward to continuing that conversation with all of you soon!
In two weeks, I’m moving down to South Jersey to begin working towards a PhD. Not long after, my parents are going to move to the mythical Central Jersey to downsize/be closer to their children/be closer to my grandmother. The Childhood Home (which has on occasion been an interim adulthood home, including right now) will soon be someone else’s, and I’m soon going to actually know where I’ll be living for far enough in the future to actually register to vote in someplace that isn’t my hometown.
I have not traditionally been known as someone who is, shall we say, good at change. I’m better than I used to be; it does help when you get frustrated enough with your life that you really, really want a change. I’m extremely excited about going back to school, and I’m not quite mourning the loss of the Childhood Home (yet). The whole moving situation has put me in a nostalgic mood, though, to the shock of precisely no one. (A conversation I once had with my mother revealed what an exhausting child I was to raise, as I began a sentence with, “As a kid, I would get preemptively nostalgic about …” and she interrupted me to say, “EVERYTHING.”) So this will be a preemptively nostalgic blog about a house that has not yet been vacated but knows that it’s about to be.
My mom has loved the house as a home, but does not love the house as a building. She never wanted to live in a split-level; she prefers Victorian houses, especially those with porches. I can never quite let her mention this without prompting her to admit that it’s been a good house, because I haven’t learned to accept that the people I love don’t always get 100% of what they want. I compulsively try to erase all trace of disappointment or regret, no matter how minor — especially if I somehow factored into the decision, as I obviously did when my parents moved here.
My sister and I were eight and had just finished second grade. I did not love the house as a home for a while. In our new elementary school, the friend groups were quite solidified; while I wasn’t friendless, I certainly wasn’t granted permanent membership within a group. A little over a year after we moved, my paternal grandfather died; a little over a year after that, my paternal grandmother followed. These losses contributed to a mythologization of “when we lived in Staten Island” in my mind. I saw those first eight years of my life as a time of wholeness and ease. Without entirely articulating it to myself, I felt that moving away had broken the unchanging spell of childhood, and now other, worse things were allowed to change, too.
(Goodness, but it’s obvious in hindsight that I was going to have OCD, isn’t it? Incidentally, after my grandma died, my parents made me go to therapy. They are Good Parents.)
I have the same impulse now that I do when I insist to my mom that we love this old split-level. I am afraid of making it seem like I had an Unhappy Childhood. I want to assure anyone reading this that I have plenty of happy memories from third through seventh grade, which I absolutely do. I don’t want anyone to feel sad thinking that I have disappointments or regrets (…which I absolutely do). But I can reassure you without lying: I did learn to love this house as a home. Even in those early days, I can see things that I loved in my memory. The exact configuration of my sister’s and my Barbie families on the guest room floor. The swing set in the backyard under the trees. The snow tunnel we built with our neighbor that entirely collapsed on all three of us. The books upon books upon books that I read late into the night, sprawled on a beanbag in my room.
And then, around eighth grade, I became friends with the people who are still my friends. Or I should say I became close friends with them; I’d known and liked them since I was eight, but hadn’t quite realized that they were my people. Throughout most of middle school, I’d floated around the outskirts of friend groups, wallowing in the common pubescent suspicion that I didn’t really have anything in common with anybody, only to figure out that yes, I did, and they were right across the cafeteria.
From that point on, The Kellett Basement became a hub of adolescent girl weirdness. If my life were a novel, critics would almost certainly call it a liminal space. I never felt in a hurry to grow up when my sister, my friends, and I congregated there; we allowed ourselves to be extravagantly strange without feeling like we were sacrificing our fragile teenage maturity. Or perhaps I’m projecting and should only speak for myself, so I’ll say instead that I felt that way, and I am grateful that my friends allowed me to. They completed the transformation of this house into home.
This house has absorbed so many good and bad memories. In the kitchen, women of several generations tended to their assembly line of vegetable chopping while the men cleaned and shucked an alarming number of clams in order to make enough clam chowder to feed a small army (a.k.a. my extended family). In the living room, my father played the piano; ragtime and jazz mostly, but also Christmas carols when seasonally appropriate, and my sister would sometimes wander in to sing. For ten years, a beloved and poorly behaved Portuguese water dog tore through the backyard and barked at the phone. Throughout the house, I experienced periodic cataclysms of anxiety and found safe places to weather them. I read and listened and made choices about the kind of person I wanted to be.
My new apartment is the second story of an old house that my mother will probably like as a building. It has patterned carpets and long windows. I hope that when my friends and family come to visit, they will feel at home. When that happens, then I will, too.
I have a list of media pet peeves a mile long — like most writers, I suspect. Usually I prefer to use this blog to talk about things I do like instead of things I don’t (except when I write about politics), but today I’d like to talk about a trope and a mindset that I’ve been ruminating on lately: the Badass. Join me, won’t you, in what will probably be a rambling explanation of why I don’t consider any of my own characters badasses, and why I don’t think declaring any character a “badass” is a particularly useful thing to do.
First I should probably define my terms. These are going to be entirely my own perceptions, and if anyone disagrees with them, I’d actually love to discuss it. But in my mind, “badass” is a term that connotes several qualities. The first (and most positive) is taking no shit. I have no arguments with this particular characteristic. I enjoy characters who don’t allow people to push them around or talk down to them, and I have definitely turned to the assertiveness of fictional people for inspiration when my own natural spring of assertiveness has run dry. (Which it does pretty quickly. I’m working on it.)
However, based on my purely anecdotal observations, I think that the aforementioned assertiveness is often conflated with stoicism when people talk about badass characters. Now, obviously the degree to which a character does or does not wear their heart on their sleeve varies. Some characters play things closer to the vest than others. I certainly don’t expect every character to be as overtly emotional as, say, I am. But I think the designation of badass often imbues stoicism with a positive or aspirational connotation, when it’s actually at best a neutral trait and at worst a sign of repressed emotions. In fact, I’ve taken several of my characters on a journey from Don’t Show Emotions to Feel Your Feelings as they learn to deal with the hardships in their lives in healthier, more honest ways. That doesn’t mean that they’re widely broadcasting their every emotion; they’re just not hiding them as much as they used to.
The most obvious potential problem with badassery is its association with violence. Here’s where, like, every character ever played by Bruce Willis comes in. (I honestly have seen very few movies with Bruce Willis, but don’t @ me, I’m still right.) Many characters are declared badasses specifically because of their ability to fight and/or use weapons better than anyone else around them. There is a Very Obvious issue of toxic masculinity here; I imagine the Venn diagram of “male characters most frequently called badasses” and “male characters I would never invite over for lunch” has a significant amount of overlap. But as a fantasy and scifi fan, I actually think there’s a lot more to unpack here. Those genres fairly frequently feature large-scale physical violence, so there are potentially many characters who know their way around a sword/bow/laser blaster/whatever. When these weapons-friendly characters, male or female, are also assertive and/or stoic (particularly if their assertiveness and stoicism comes with a side of sarcasm or general prickliness), they are almost automatically dubbed badasses.
I think this does them a disservice. I think the term “badass” establishes a set of expectations for the reader/viewer, and any behaviors or traits that fall outside of these expectations can wind up being written off as a “weakening” of the character. I saw an example of this in the comments of one of the many, many articles I read about Avengers: Infinity War after I saw it. More than one commenter was annoyed with the character Gamora’s emotionality in the movie. To be as spoiler-light as possible, Gamora, who ticks all of the boxes I listed above, spends a decent amount of her screen time in Infinity War visibly upset. She even cries. To these commenters, these emotional reactions were a disservice to the character and made her less badass.
Now, if you’ve seen the movie and you know me, you may guess that I have some opinions about Gamora’s arc. But it had honestly never occurred to me to read her emotional reactions as a diminishing of the strength she has in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (which have skyrocketed to the top tier of my favorite Marvel movies). I mean, in Infinity War, Gamora has kind of a lot to be upset about??? And I personally am much more moved by characters honestly experiencing their emotions than by them trying to suppress them. Plus, Gamora has always been more than just a badass, even if she does fulfill my criteria. The stoicism category is the most interesting in this case, because it is the one that sees the most over the course of the three MCU movies Gamora has been in. One of my favorite moments in Infinity War is the introduction of the Guardians, when Gamora is lip syncing to Quill’s music. She never would have done that in the first movie. She doesn’t have to hide what she’s feeling, positive or negative, anymore, so when the moment calls for some raw emotion — as several moments in IW do — she is at least able to express it.
Of course, there are many conversations and probably an academic monograph to be had about agency in the MCU, but my specific point here is that I don’t think that agency and emotionality need to be inversely proportional. Of course, when we’re talking about female characters, there may well be concerns with the former, but that doesn’t mean that writers should eschew the latter to make up for that. Female characters also seem to be the first to come under fire for perceived emotional weakness, as well. I understand that some of the criticism comes from, you know, centuries of women being perceived as “the weaker sex,” and consequently centuries of female characters genuinely displaying less emotional fortitude than their male counterparts. As a woman myself, though, my argument with this paradigm is not that women actually don’t have intense emotions; instead, I’d argue that having intense emotions is HUMAN, you can be emotional and resilient at the same time, and maybe more dudes should try admitting to the presence of a feeling other than anger once in a while. I mean, I’ve seen people criticize Hermione Granger for crying too much in Harry Potter — again, there are conversations to be had about her arc versus the male characters’, BUT MY GOD, do you know how much on-page crying there would be if someone documented my ages 11 through 17?
My philosophical objection to The Badass is probably clear by now. I dislike narratives that punish or dismiss emotion. For male characters, The Badass all too frequently upholds elements of toxic masculinity. For female characters, The Badass can comes across with a kind of not-like-other-girls defensiveness. (I don’t know enough nonbinary characters to make a sweeping generalization about their portrayals vis-a-vis badassery.) But philosophy aside, I artistically object to the category of “badass” simply because it’s boring. It’s flattening. I have characters who don’t take shit, who are varying degrees of stoic, and who are violent, but I wouldn’t call them badasses, because that would paint a picture in people’s mind. If someone describes a character as badass to me, for better or for worse, I feel like I know what to expect. I don’t want people to feel like they know what to expect from my characters at all!
So perhaps, as media consumers and media creators, we can describe the characters we love a little more specifically, paying attention to the times when they surprise us the most. And if something bad happens to them, don’t expect them not to weep. It’s what they do after they weep that matters.
Almost all the snow in my backyard has melted. We might get more on Monday, but I’m pretending that we won’t. I’m sitting in a quiet yellow room, waiting for life to start blooming again.
I finally managed to see A Wrinkle in Time, and I predictably loved it. It wore its heart right on its fancy, shiny, sparkly sleeve, and it didn’t feel self-conscious about it at all. I respect and admire that about any type of art. I can’t really speak to it as an adaptation, because I don’t quite remember the book well enough to do so, but as a movie for children and people who are not afraid of Big Feelings, I found it very successful.
Blooming is, I think, a good word for A Wrinkle in Time. Colors open up and spill out across the screen, music crescendos, hope turns its face towards the sun. Or, you know, towards Oprah. Though my dear Claire wondered if she would feel, as she perfectly and delightfully put it, Oprah-whelmed by Mrs. Which, we both agreed that all of the gloriously decked out celestial guides were perfect for both Meg and the viewers. Mrs. Which especially isso gentle in her power. Gentleness is an awfully underrated quality. It provides rich soil for seeds of hope to hide in when they’re not quite ready to grow.
Meg herself is not quite ready to grow for much of the movie. This movie is not remotely subtle, but Storm Reid’s acting is. Even though a lot of emotions wind up baldly (and I’ll admit occasionally jarringly) stated in the dialogue, Ms. Reid conveys a whole host of unsaid things, as well. She conveys Meg’s sense of isolation, of smallness, within the tension in her shoulders and the slight frown on her face. Meg, of course, is not small, but fear is a diminishing state, and Meg has existed in that state for a long time. She fears that she is unworthy and unlovable, and so she doesn’t look up or out, in case she finds evidence that she is right.
But her story makes her look up and look out and look within. In all directions, she sees the universe, and that universe, the movie insists, is glorious. The universe doesn’t care if you think it’s too sentimental or showy in its beauty. The splendor of existence won’t mind if you think it’s a try-hard. It will be as vast and spectacular as it naturally is, and it will make room for even the smallest, most frightened girl to be vast and spectacular, too. Because she is. Because she always was.
It’s spring, and there may be more snow coming, but it’s time to bloom anyway — gentle and powerful, hopeful and huge.