Long Hidden, Edited by Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older

long-hidden

  • Genre
    • Short Stories, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Alternate History
  • Plot summary
    • This isn’t just any short story collection featuring authors of some minority or other. These are the stories that, for so long, people in Western Society haven’t been able to tell. These are the stories of the resistance, of the people who had to hide their identities in the margins, of the ones who were too busy surviving to write and who, if they had, would have had their voices muzzled by the colonizer’s need to only see narratives that paint them as heroes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Varies by author, but on the whole, these are stories unafraid to make you empathize with characters who are dirtied, broken, and ready to fight with nothing to lose. 
    • The focus is on protagonists of color, but you also get protagonists who are trans, disabled and political dissidents. If you’ve always hungered to see yourself in a story, odds are there’s someone like you here.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • These stories will make you feel fierce. There is always a heartbreaking element to them. Some characters survive and triumph. Others are broken, but take their oppressors with them. But whatever happens to them, they are wild, they are angry, and they are free. 
    • In short, if you liked the way Rogue One made you feel, get this anthology.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • If you want to sample a lot of award winning authors of color at once, this is a great option. 
    • An encyclopedia of East African ogres
    • Gangsters squaring off against sirens
    • Baba Yaga teaming up with striking coal miners
    • Enchanted soldiers rising to challenge the conquistadors
    • In short, all the cool monsters and fierce fairies you could ask for
  • Content Warnings
    • Not for the faint hearted. Blood, guts, violence, dark magic and scary monsters, the scariest of which are often human.
  • Quotes
    • “I dream in shades of green. The dusty hue of swallow herb; the new growth of little hand flower; the deep forest shade of cat’s claw. Plants are my calling and, as in waking life, they sprawl across boundaries.” – The Dance of the White Demons, by Sabrina Vourvoulias
    • “Out in the middle of the Cross River there is an island. It appears during storms or when the river’s flooding or sometimes even on clear summer days. And sometimes it rises out the water and floats in the air. The ground turns to diamond and you can hear the women playing with the sparkling rocks. I call them women, but they are not women. So many names for them: Kazzies. Shuantices. Water-Women. The Woes. I like that last name myself.” – Numbers, by Rion Amilcar Scott
    • “You got to sell your heart for freedom… I’ve been watching them round up your people. Soldiers come knocking at the door, don’t give nobody time to gather clothes. Everything you had is gone. They take the children in one wagon, the parents in the other, just to make sure nobody runs. You think they dreamed that up special for you? The ones who run – well, they don’t listen to their hearts, do they? Their hearts are as cold as ice.” – Free Jim’s Mine, by Tananarive Due

How I Name My Characters, Part One: Finding a Name

God, I haven’t done something purely writerly in a while. I’ve been a bit distracted lately. I dunno if you’ve noticed, but our country is desperately backpedaling from the cliff’s edge while an orange troll yanks our handlebars forward, muttering “fake news media claims thousand foot drop may cause injury or death. SAD.”

Anyway, it’s nice to do a post on one of my favorite aspects of writing. I don’t think naming is the most important part of character design. My favorite show, Parks and Recreation, sounds like they wrote common names on slips of paper and pulled them out of a hat; Tom, Ron, Chris, Ben, Andy, Ann, April, Donna, Larry/Gary/Jerry. The most evocative name in the whole cast is Leslie. But I do think a well-chosen name can enrich a character and help the reader keep track of your cast. Also, I personally have an easier time connecting to my characters once they have been named. It’s like, in my head, an unnamed character is a quantum particle, potentially one of many things, and then it’s only when I’ve named them that I’ve properly seen them, and snapped them into a single, solid reality (feel free to explain to me how badly I just botched quantum mechanics). So the only real hard and fast rule I have is to choose a name that works for me.

That said, names are not blank slates. They come pre-loaded with associations, and picking one that will help the reader connect as well as me is always a plus. That’s the real challenge of picking a good name. There are many things that give names their public associations; famous namesakes, fashion trends, or use in slang or idioms, for example. Everyone has their own private associations as well. I, for example, have color-grapheme synaesthesia, and I like to match the colors of a character’s hair, eye or favorite clothes with the first letter of their name. That said, there are four things that I think authors in general should be mindful of when choosing names.

Pure Sound

We’ve all repeated a word until it stops sounding like a word. When that happens, it’s easy to notice how, regardless of their meaning, some words and phrases sound good (cellar door) while others just don’t (moist).

Just as there seem to be some universal mathematical underpinnings to visual art, and some universal wiring behind our basic facial expressions, there does seem to be some human consensus about which words sound pleasant or feel nice to say. If you are want to go down a fun linguistic rabbit hole, google phonaesthetics. Tolkien was a fan; it’s how he designed Elvish to sound ethereal and sophisticated, and the Black Speech to sound gutteral and snarly.

The science there is still fairly fuzzy, but anyone can say a word or name aloud, over and over again, and see what it really sounds like, apart from any meanings or cultural associations. When you do that, you start to notice things that help you match them up with a character.

    • Your tongue clicks through both Tristan and Keiko, but Tristan rolls into a clean ending with the “n” while Keiko bounces off of it’s final vowel. To me, both feel like young, active characters, but Tristan wears ties and shakes hands, reserving his fun side for his close friends, while Keiko laughs freely and has a touch of ADHD.
    • Short names feel simple; Dean, Hope, Anne, Ron. They get right to the point, and fit characters who are humble or practical. Long names feel complicated; Nicodemus, Gwendolyn, Roderick, Cordelia. The attention and time they demand from you suggests sophistication, or perhaps intellectualism, or possibly just arrogance.
    • Names almost can’t help sounding nice when they are mostly rs, ls, ms and vowels. Oliver, Leilani, Eleanor, Lamar, Amelia. I like using these for especially attractive characters.
    • Hortense twists your tongue so much you almost gag. I would never use this for a character; I would hate her too much to end up making her interesting. Honestly, can any of you come up with an uglier name, I will name you Lord/ Lady/Gender-ambiguous High Commander of the comments. 

My favorite thing about this is you can use it without making a name sound contrived. The risk of putting too much thought into a character’s name is that it could end up sounding like the author put too much thought into it. Just like everything else in a story, a good name has a purpose that enhances the story, but feels like it naturally belongs there.

Meanings

This is the part of names that we obsess over the most, but fairly often, they don’t actually matter. Take Armand and Bob. Let’s suppose I was going to pick one of those for a suave, successful businessman whose face you see on magazine covers at the checkout stand. The other one is an army sergeant from Kansas. It’s pretty obvious which name fits which description. But Armand means “soldier”, while Bob means “bright fame.”

Names have meanings because they come from words. Robert comes to English name books from the Normans. It’s composed of the old Germanic elements “hrod” and “beraht.” Beraht turned into bright when it came to words but “bert” when it came to names, and somewhere out there is a very smart linguist who can tell you why. That person is not me. Armand also came from the Normans, but took a detour in France, where it picked up a Parisian flair. It has the same roots as Herman (“hari” for army and “man” for, well, man). When names travel circuitous routes like these, their original meanings become overwhelmed or lost completely.

On the other hand, some names stay close to the words they came from. On the opposite end of Robert and Armand are common word names; Rose, Pearl, April, Joy, Melody, Robin, Gray. In addition to the sounds and cultural associations, these are names inevitably flavored by their literal meanings.

This isn’t a tidy binary between word names and everything else. It’s a spectrum. One tick down the scale from Grace and Faith are names like Viola. A viola is a musical instrument, and also a plant closely related to the violet. If you aren’t much of a musician or gardener, you might not know that, but you don’t really have to. It sounds something like “violet” or “violin” and invokes the beauty of strings and petals, regardless of whether or not you  know that connection is literal. There’s a whole class of names like that which do technically have meanings, but because they are jargon, or regional, or archaic, the names feel like names first and words second; Felicity, Mason, Cooper, Bonnie.

Next comes a whole band of names that are no longer words, but have visible roots with their origin. Sometimes they only drift one letter away, as with tailor and Taylor. Other times, you might need a large vocabulary or a second language to see the connection. Amy shares a root with “amiable” and “amity,” but as we learn these words later in life the association isn’t nearly as visceral. Perdita comes from Latin for “lost.” In English, the most common influence is “perdition,” which doesn’t quite mean the same thing anymore. But it also ties into the common Spanish verb “perder,” so to a Hispanic person it might feel more destitute.

The last degree brings us to misleading similarities. Timothy doesn’t mean timid. The connection between Jean and blue jeans is completely coincidental. Melanie is not a variation on Melody. Yet, Timothy sounds like a shy person, Jean is practical, and you can easily see Melanie singing, dancing or playing an instrument. Or at least, that’s how I’ve always seen them.

In brief, a name’s meaning makes a difference, when the meaning is still kept alive in the reader’s language. But that connection isn’t a direct line. It is subject to the whims of history, as well as the reader.

Cultural trends/origins

I think it is useful to think of your character’s name not only from the perspective of the author, but from the perspective of the person who named them in story. Usually this is a parent, but, depending on the story, they could choose it themselves, or it could be the nickname their older sister gave and that just stuck, or perhaps in their village the astrologer names every child, based on what is lucky for their birthdate, or maybe they were named by the scientist who grew them in a lab. Wherever it came from, it will break suspension of disbelief if the name is something the namer would never have come up with.

The point of caution here is not to over-rely on a character’s cultural background. There are so many names out there that are stereotypically the Hispanic name, or Black name, or French name, or baby boomer name… A good character is informed by their cultural background, not defined by it. The same goes for their name.

Namesakes

Namesakes are powerful associations. The problem here is that, like wasabi, they can be too powerful. It can be too obvious that a character is named for someone else, and they can feel like copies instead of homages. There are a few ways to get around this though.

  • Make a more obscure reference. If your heroic mutant with superstrength is named Hercules, it’s obvious what you’re going for. If his name is Jason, you’re still referencing a mighty hero of Greek mythology. It’s just less of a neon sign, more of an Easter egg.
  • Disguise the name. You could the character who conquers your dystopian post-apocalyptic landscape Caesar, but your audience will probably roll their eyes and think, “gee, I wonder what the writer is trying to tell me about this character.” Julian or August, on the other hand, wink at the reference without drawing your readers out of the story.
  • Disguise the reference. It’s one thing to name your character Merlin because he’s an elderly magical mentor of your chosen one. But what if he’s a clairvoyant child, constantly disoriented by his visions? What if he’s a mentor, but is in his thirties, clean shaven and never seen without a perfectly knotted tie, and is teaching the protagonist the fine art of insider training? What if he is a crotchety bastard who lives in a trailer and initially refuses to help the heroes, an anti-Merlin in every respect except age, then, after your readers have come to associate Merlin with “trailer park asshole” and not “King Arthur’s teacher”, he gradually comes to like and guide the protagonists? In other words, let the name be a reference to a facet of your character, not their entirety.

I’ll go more into background and namesakes in part two, where I talk about how to use names in a way that serves your whole story. In the meantime, here’s some helpful links

  • Behind the Name – each name has a ratings tab where you can see other people’s impressions of a name. Many names sites allow people to rate names, but this one lets people break down their impressions into fourteen categories, including intelligence, strength, formality, and humor. It also has a section that sorts names by thematic meaning, a name translator in case you need the Dutch version of Margaret, a surname themed sister site… basically it’s my favorite online resource
  • SSN baby name records – perfect for checking the real world history of popular names in the United States
  • Nameberry – the official site of Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, the queens of baby names. Their books are essential for the writer learning to think about the images popularly associated with baby names. While their target audience is parents, and some of their advice must be adjusted accordingly, there is probably no one else on Earth right now who knows more about names. 

Happy writing!

The Suffering, by Rin Chupeco

the-suffering

  • Genre
    • Horror, Supernatural Horror, Ghost Story
  • Plot summary
    • In this sequel to The Girl From the Well, Tark and Okiku learn that the miko who helped them before has gone missing in an infamous haunted forest. They journey back to Japan to help her, and along the way discover a curse that tests even Okiku’s strength. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • High once again. I noted in my review of the first book in this series that Okiku managed to be simultaneously terrifying and lovable, which is a hard combination to pull off. So it should be no surprise that the same characters I loved then continue to make this series great. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s a perfect homage to Japanese horror. Expect nightmares.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • One of those rare sequels that actually improves on the foundation built by the original
    • Opens with a haunted doll chase scene scarier than what most horror writers come up with for their endings. Goes on to top it easily
    • Cool use of Japanese elemental magic
    • More creepy monsters than your amygdala will know what to do with
  • Content Warnings
    • Did I mention this is a wee bit scary?
  • Quotes
    • “The air changes. Then that invisible spider crawls up my spine, tickling the hairs behind my neck.

      I have come to know this spider these last couple of years. It whispers there’s something else in the room, breathing with you, watching you, grinning at you.

      I hate that damn spider.”

Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson

sister-mine

  • Genre
    • Urban Fantasy, Afro-Caribbean Fantasy
  • Plot summary
    • Makeda deals with family drama, an ailing father, and growing up. It’s a little harder to do all that when your father is a disgraced nature spirit, your twin sister is a demi-goddess, and you’re the token mundane in an extremely magical family.
  • Character empathy rating
    • The characters in this are not only empathetic, but extremely likable. Makeda in particular has an individuality that I look for in all my favorite books. So often I’ll like every character in a book except the protagonist, who is just paper. Makeda is a snarky, impulsive, pig headed hot mess who reminds me of some of my best friends, and I want to go have a coffee and craft store friends date with her.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Fun! Even though things get serious and you will worry for the characters (the last few chapters will fly by), this book feels like an extroverted childhood friend; wild and bouncy yet deeply comfortable.
    • It’s also completely original. There wasn’t a single page where I felt like I was following something that could appear in any other urban fantasy novel, which is such a relief. I love the genre in theory, but, like much of fantasy writing, it can get mired in cliche and formula, when it should showcase human imagination at it’s wildest. 
    • And while it’s light and fun, it’s not shallow. The characters have rich inner lives, and when the scenes turn towards ancient magic, it really does feel like you’re seeing something just beyond normal human ken. Makeda’s arc is well constructed, and the end of her story left me thinking, in the best way.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Jimi Hendrix’s guitar is a character. He’s great
    • Also features Death as a favorite, if somewhat stiff uncle
    • A child medium scene where the kid was actually written. Half the time even kids in realistic fiction don’t feel at all like real kids, so I’ve come to peace with the fact that fantasy-novel magical kids are going to talk like tiny Yodas. Then Nalo Hopkinson comes along and completely nails a normal child who happens to channel the voices of the most eldrich gods.
    • A nursing home that has to deal with constant invasions of deer and raccoons because it’s the personification of the primal life force in there, and he kind of can’t help calling nature to his side.
    • Bisexual representation! Nalo Hopkinson is really good in general if you’re looking for some good queer fantasy
  • Content Warnings
    • There’s some consensual incest that isn’t nearly as off-putting as it sounds. Like, you know how, in classic myths, half the gods are technically married to their siblings and then cheat on them with sexy horses and stuff? This book… plays with how that would play out in a modern era. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it totally does.
  • Quotes
    • “Beauty and ingenuity beat perfection hands down, every time.”
    • “I’m going to check the world’s best source for spawning new urban legends, the Internet. What, you thought I couldn’t even type? The Web is just another threshold between one world and another.”
    • “When your elders are millennia-old demigods, you’d best take the injunction to respect your elders seriously.”
    • “Why? Because I played god with you? Baby girl, that’s what I do. And not lightly, either.” He thought about that for a second. “Well, yes, sometimes lightly. You know what they say about all work and no play.”

Report From a Town Hall With Tom Perriello

There’s been a lot of talk about the Democrats retaking Congress in 2018, but in Virginia, my home state, the fight starts earlier. While most states have elections every two years, here in Virginia there is a major election every year, which has historically advantaged Republicans. For reasons I’m still figuring out, Democrats across the nation don’t show up as regularly for midterms, and during off-off years this impact is compounded. I myself have missed most of my state’s elections because I didn’t know they were going on.

This year is a big one; among other key legislative positions, we elect a new governor. In this past month and a half, Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe has shown just how much a state government can do to protect their constituents from bad policies like those coming down from the Trump administration. He fought the Muslim ban, spoke out in support of the ACA over Trump’s block grants, and has repeatedly vowed to veto any bill that attacks transgender bathroom rights.  As great as all that is, we only have him for another year, and if the usual turnout rules hold, we could end up replacing him with a Trump puppet.

When Democrats show up to the polls, Virginia can go blue easily. In fact, it was the only former confederate state last year to go to Hillary, and it went to Obama twice before that. What we need is a way to get the word about this election spreading fast. One hope for the state is if somebody interesting is running; somebody who can excite the young progressives who are allied with the Democrats but disenfranchised with the way they seem stuck in the mud. Recently, Tom Perriello joined the race. He has distinguished himself from the other Democratic candidate, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, not with his policies but with his passion. He doesn’t stick to the language of normal politics from years past, when presidents spoke in complete sentences and at least pretended facts matter, but talks about the fight ahead in an intensely divided nation. He’s been giving town halls throughout the state, and I went to one nearby to see if he could really be the start of the grassroots progressive movement in Virginia, or if he was just an opportunist capitalizing on that language.

Frankly, he blew me away.

Tom Perriello

First, I was impressed at how he was willing to call the racism and bigotry in this nation for what it was. He didn’t shout and rant, he simply was willing to call privilege privilege and call oppression oppression. Democrats are only just starting to have the guts to do that. It’s like there has been an unspoken code; you will disguise your racism with dog whistling, and we won’t call you bigots to your face. It’s a nonsense tradeoff that helps no one and solves nothing. If it ever served a purpose, that purpose was invalidated the moment Republicans nominated somebody who unironically talks about “bad hombres.” The time to hold off calling political opponents bigots is long gone.

Second, despite that refreshing frankness, he had practical solutions for how to reach out to rural red district voters who are genuinely hurting. The reality is that solutions championed by Democrats, like green energy and socialized healthcare and education, would help the poorest in our nation most, including those rural blue collar workers who tend to vote Republican. But we don’t make our case for them in ways that will reach them. Their well being still matters and we have done a terrible job communicating that. He showed me he can get that message out. He got away from the normal rhetoric and talked about the practicality of education as an investment that, in the long term, saves the taxpayer money by creating someone who can take care of themselves. He also gave concrete examples of green energy investments creating jobs and revitalizing struggling regions.

As we put together our rising progressive movement, those two qualities paired are going to be absolutely essential. We cannot afford to keep letting bigotry off the hook, but neither can we afford to keep neglecting people struggling in red districts. In fact, the longer we neglect rural and blue collar workers, the easier it is for the white supremacist “alt right” to sweep them up with fearmongering and scapegoating. We can win this fight, but we can’t do that if we keep using the same talking points that Democrats have used for a generation. We need to find new ways to get our message across.

Which brings me to the final thing I liked about Tom Perriello. There’s things you learn about a person by seeing them react to questions in the moment. I loved the way he listened. I never saw him try to evade a question or change the subject. He gave responses that were practical, focused, well thought out and clear. I saw him remember details of people’s often long questions and answer them thoroughly. (My boyfriend was impressed, at the end, when, to save time, he took four questions in succession and then answered them all at once. Going in reverse order, he answered them as thoroughly as any other question, without needing to ask anyone to remind him of what they had said.) He never sounded rehearsed either. Obviously he had thought about these issues and prepared himself, but you can tell when someone has prepped soundbites and is waiting to deliver them. That wasn’t what he sounded like. He just sounded like a smart, well read human being who did his homework and was ready for your question. I had almost forgotten politicians could sound like that.

Needless to say, Tom Perriello has already convinced me that he’s the kind of politician I need to be backing right now. I’ve already signed up to volunteer with his campaign, and I look forward to reporting on my experiences there.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this. When asked about his prospects for the race, Tom Perriello said the biggest fight won’t be against any of his opponents, but against apathy. If anything like the number of Democrats who showed up last year vote in November, this election will be a cakewalk. But, as I said, a lot of Virginians don’t even realize there’s an election every year.

So do me a favor. If you have friends in Virginia, ask them if they know there is a race. If you are a Virginian, look into the race. Read up on the candidates. I’d love it if you agreed with my conclusion that Tom Perriello is the best man for the job, but it’s honestly fine if you don’t. The most important thing is that, whoever you support, you remember to vote.

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

I’ve taken a break from this series because I didn’t like the format I was using. I’ve been playing around with new ones and I hope you like this one. Also, I’m going to make an effort to make these a regular Monday feature, so check back next week for another recommendation!

  • the-bluest-eyeGenre
    • Drama, Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Plot summary
    • A series of vignettes, set in a Black community in a late 30s Ohio town. They center around Pecola, a neglected dark skinned girl who comes to believe that, in order to be happy, she needs blue eyes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Toni Morrison loves her characters. She loves their darkest thoughts and their most hopeless moments and the day when life strangled the will to be good right out of them. She writes them with so much gentleness and heart that you cannot help but love these ugly, broken people, even as they destroy each other.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • This book is all scenes that are hard to read, but you can’t put it down, because they are too beautiful. There are so many books that I’ve tried to read, because they are Informative and Very Important Grown Up Books That Will Change Your Life. More often than not, I leave them half finished, because they are so ugly I can’t read them and keep going through my day. Then I join the ranks of lying intellectuals who say, “oh yeah, I’ve read that. I too am cultured.” That didn’t happen with this book. It hasn’t happened with any Very Important Grown Up Book written by Toni Morrison, because she doesn’t lecture. She just loves so deeply that your heart breaks with her.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Talks about a period of Black history that often gets erased
    • Audible.com has a version that she narrates, and it’s amazing. Her lilting, smoky voice fits the novel perfectly
  • Content Warnings
    • If child abuse or sexual abuse are triggers, this might not be the book for you. 
  • Quotes
    • “All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we has a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.”

Why You Need to Watch Sonita

About an hour and a half ago, I was flipping through Netflix’s new releases, looking for something to keep me company while I tackle the lasagna dishes that I put off yesterday. I saw a documentary from a couple years ago, about a young Afghani woman who aspires to be a rapper, and thought “oh, that looks interesting.”

sonita

Goddamn.

God. Freakin’. Damn.

First of all, I seriously want to be Sonita’s real life friend. In her every action, this beautiful blend of gentleness and tenacity comes through. She’s someone who has lived through more than her own share of hardships, and still is fueled artistically as much by the desire to help others as herself. In her world, she defies both traditions and rules to be a voice for the unheard. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a documentary.

Second, speaking of real life being as good as fiction, her story is gripping. It feels wrong to praise the narrative structure of real events that are being captured, rather than imagined, but the crew got incredibly lucky with their material, and put it together masterfully.

Third, and you knew it was coming to this, this is a story that needs to be watched right now.

sonita-red-scarf

I don’t just mean that this is a story that people need to be aware of. I do happen to think that, even when you are fairly well educated about the issues, there’s some things you can’t grok until you see a human story dramatized. But right now, the need for stories like this goes beyond the need for the viewer to understand someone like Sonita. It’s about the world knowing that viewers want to understand someone like Sonita. It’s about the media being encouraged to spend their time and effort supporting women’s rights and immigrant’s rights and human rights. It’s about turning our backs on the bigots and white nationalists who want to control the conversation, and instead saying to each other, “have you heard about that Afghani immigrant who made a music video even though it was technically illegal in her country? How she raps about social justice? She is so epic I kind of can’t stand it.”

Fourth, it is so full of hope. In addition to the amazingness Sonita herself, there are so many beautiful moments of love and empowerment. It was sad, and scary, but also warm and lovely and ultimately so happy. Trust me, you need to feel the way this film will make you feel.

Go, watch it! It’s amazing.

sonita-smiles

The Electoral College and the White Supremacist’s Advantage

In these first few weeks of the Trump Administration, we’ve seen truly awful executive orders. We’ve also seen a historic rising up of people, organizations, and businesses. Even normally lazy and intractable politicians are taking the hint. This isn’t shaping up to be the smooth ride Donald wanted.

While this encourages me, it isn’t actually him who scares me the most. He’s the current manifestation of something that has been around a lot longer, will probably outlast him and is a lot more dangerous; the white supremacy movement.

How to create a truly diverse and equal world is a complex conversation with many different valid perspectives, but any decent human being should agree that it should exist. If your fundamental goal is to deny the humanity of anyone based on their race, language, nation of origin or ancestral ethnicity, you are not a legitimate political movement. You are an organization of hate. In recent years, white America has patted itself on the back for racial progressiveness, all the while ignoring dog whistling, southern apologists, and the piles of evidence for ongoing institutional racism. Now that white supremacists have put themselves back in the public eye, they have an opportunity to put themselves back on the table as a political perspective that we treat as normal. That cannot happen.

It is well known that your odds of being racist inversely correspond with your actual experience with people from different races. This effect can be mitigated by taboos against discussing race, institutional racism and socially acceptable racism, but in general, when people are allowed to socialize with other ethnic groups, discuss their differences and also find common ground, the idea of institutionalized racism becomes abhorrent. As America moves towards both greater demographic diversity, and also a greater social conversation about race, white supremacy loses more and more footholds. This excellent development means that, as time goes on, they only have a few regions of the country where they even have a chance to spread their ideology.

Simply put, they are better off in rural regions than urban areas.

This advantage doesn’t come from any moral superiority of city dwellers, but simply the fact that in a city you become more and more likely to run into people who are different from you on a daily basis. You are more likely to get inoculated against white supremacy, even in a society where racist institutions still exist. Rural areas are more isolated, and so easier for white supremacists to infect.

Now, the fact that they are so isolated should give white supremacists a disadvantage politically. This is where the Electoral College comes in. Because of the Electoral College, every Presidential election, voters in highly rural get their votes weighted double or treble over voters in states with major cities. With every Presidential election, they get a chance to control the public conversation about race. They get a chance to appoint Supreme Court Justices by proxy. They get a chance to dictate global policy. Without the Electoral College, white supremacists today would have no chance of putting their platform on a global or even national scale. With it, well, we are all seeing what has happened.

I think we will defeat Donald Trump. He’s too easy to mock and rally against. What scares me is the prospect of someone taking advantage of the galvanized white supremacist movement that he created. I worry that someone will come along who is smoother, more subtle when it comes to concealing their crimes, and altogether far less easy to mock. Not only do I think this is possible, but right now I think it’s inevitable.

What isn’t inevitable is that person’s victory. Even now, with so many racial problems still infecting our country, I believe our population has become too diverse for a true white supremacist to win the national popular vote. But as 2016 has proved, it’s possible for even a very unlikable one to win the Electoral College.

Activism against the current threat is wonderful, and we should keep doing it. But we should also have an eye on the future. The Electoral College is life support for neo-nazis. We need to unplug it.

This is part of an ongoing series on why I care so much about the Electoral College and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If I’ve convinced you that the Electoral College is something to be concerned about, or just want to know more, please check out the NPVIC’s site. If you want to take action, the best way is to call your state governor and representatives and tell them you want your state to sign the NPVIC. On their homepage is a search bar, where you can type your zip code and find out who they are. 

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and writing, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been planted in one of those tea candle holders. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

An Open Letter to Kellyanne Conway

Dear Ms. Conway,

Yesterday I caught your interview with George Stephanopoulos. It was disturbing, on many levels. You dodged his very reasonable question about why Donald and press secretary Sean Spicer both lied about attendance at the inauguration, and when he did what good interviewers do, (that is, repeat the question until you gave a real answer) you accused him of harping on an issue. Even when he clarified that he agreed it shouldn’t be important, but stressed that the falsehoods were worthy of discussion, you kept treating him as if he was single handedly standing in the way of talking about real issues.

That was abusive, Ms. Conway. That was practically gaslighting.

And that wasn’t the only time you used tricks from Manipulation for Psychological Abusers 101. You used promises of future good behavior to bargain for free reign now, when past behavior clearly indicates those promises will go unfulfilled. You encouraged viewers to confuse “less bad” with “good” when you talked about Donald’s inauguration speech. True, it was not as horrendously crass as we are used to, but it was also fearmongering and an inaccurate characterization of our nation. I know you want to people to equate “he’s not being quite as nasty as we are used to” with “he’s actually fine,” because that’s a classic trick manipulative people use to convince others to trust them. It saves them from the inconvenience of a real apology.

That brings me to the one thing that made me more angry than any of the other abuser tactics. You used one of the most sadistic mindfucks of all; using your victim’s defenses against abuse as justification for that abuse.

The press criticize you, so it’s fine that you exclude them and dodge their questions. People protest you, so it’s fine that you lie and cheat and bully. You treat other people horribly, but that’s fine, because by having the audacity to stand up against their own bad treatment, they justify your abuse.

No. That’s not how this works.

We all saw this dumpster fire of an election. We saw how your candidate bullied, insulted, and incited violence at every rally. Every newscaster and journalist saw how he changed the tone of the entire election cycle. He spent more time insulting Mexicans alone than talking about concrete policies, and still had time left over for African-American communities, women, people with disabilities, Muslims, refugees…..

Let me break this down for you. Until Donald Trump makes a genuine apology for everything he has said over the past year and a half, you have no moral high ground to criticize anyone’s conduct or civility, period. Here’s what that apology would look like;

  • Admitting, without reservation, that he was crude, demeaning, and even abusive to millions of people.
  • Naming specific individuals and groups and directing individualized apologies to them.
  • Admitting that this was damaging on both a personal level and damaging to our national culture.
  • Taking full responsibility for what he said and the consequences, and apologizing for going so long without an apology.

Having trouble picturing the Donald we all know doing that? Well, tough. That doesn’t change the fact that this is the only thing that would even give you the right to criticize other people’s tones. You don’t get to adjust the goalposts for him to something like;

  • Going nearly fifteen minutes without adding to the list of people he has crassly insulted.
  • Being polite to people who are knuckling under and giving him everything he wants for fear of being abused even more.
  • Giving one of those fake apologies where you explain how nothing you did was actually your fault.
  • Stating that things are going to be better in the future and expecting forgiveness on credit.

And since I’m having to explain these basic things in detail, I might as well add that if such an unlikely apology were to be given, it would only give you the right to ask for civil discourse to begin again. It would not give you the right to avoid doing any of the following;

  • Answering questions from the press, including ones that could potentially make you look bad.
  • Listening to the concerns of people, regardless of whether they voted for you or not.
  • Tolerating peaceful protests from people who decide, for any reason at all, that they aren’t happy with your actions.
  • Educating yourselves collectively on the issues, and evolving your stances.
  • Compromising and being happy with getting some of what you wanted, instead of whining that you didn’t get to steamroll over those with a slightly different take on the world.

Those are all just basic consequences of getting to live in a democracy.

Based on Donald’s past behavior, we can’t even picture him dealing with that final list of to-dos. That’s why we hate your boss, and that’s why we protest him. We are expressing anger and fear at a man who has gone out of his way to be infuriating and scary.

This has been your refresher course on Basic Decent Human Behavior. If you don’t like it, get the fuck out of here.

Sincerely,

Lane William Brown