Tag Archives: diversity

Harper Lee is releasing a sequel and I am incredibly skeptical.

3 Feb

I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at the command of my 8th grade required reading list. It was the summer of female heroines in all their near-diversity: I met Francie from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Scout from the aforementioned Mockingbird, and the host of Chinese mothers and daughters from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. I had mixed feelings about Tan’s and Smith’s work, but Lee’s opus I immediately and thoroughly fell in love with.

But to be honest, I haven’t really returned to Mockingbird since 8th grade. I’ve kept it on my shelf, smiling at its cracked spine and yellowing pages (I’d gotten my book second-hand to begin with) and thought fondly of Scout and Boo Radley and Atticus Finch and the fight all of them wages against the war of their time. Yeah, I’ve got some major nostalgia going on, but I remember that the book discussed the themes of racial injustice in its time in a nuanced and direct and honest way. It pointed out the injustice of its time and made the world stare very, very hard at it. It is a good book. It is a book about lost innocence and learning hard lessons about a hard world. It is a book with meaning and worth and challenge. It is a book I dearly hope people continue to read.

But it’s a book I am… uneasy, I suppose, about giving a sequel.

Haper Lee recently announced that yes, she is releasing a sequel, presumably to be titled Go Set a Watchman. The book, apparently, was written in the 1950’s and features events contemporaneous to the time. Watchmen was in fact Lee’s intended first book, featuring an adult Scout who looks upon the events of her time through the lens of childhood flashbacks. Lee’s editor, however, liked the flashbacks so much that he advised Lee to turn those into a book instead. Enter Mockingbird.

I don’t know Lee’s motivations for wanting to publish that original attempt about adult Scout now, half a century later, after her “dear friend and lawyer” Tonja Carter discovered the old manuscript. I can guess at the motivations of Lee’s publishers.

But, I mean, whatever. It is Lee’s right as an author to publish a sequel – or anything else – if she wants to. The woman has already proven herself. She’s witty and smart and eloquent and endearing and ballsy. Her first published attempt at a novel became a classic, and it even did so during her lifetime. That’s impressive. The woman can publish whatever she damn well pleases.

But distancing Watchmen from the force of a woman that is the individual Harper Lee, I… worry.

Mockingbird was revolutionary for its time as a social commentary. It was a book that looked at the engrained, systemic injustice of a society and said that no, this is wrong. This is bad. What we, the whites, are doing is bad. We are bad to everyone who does not conform to us, even other whites. This is not okay. This is not working. And through its characters, the book got angry about it. It got confused about it. And this was good and necessary and meaningful.

But… it was a white’s awakening. Scout is white. Atticus Finch is white. There are white defenders and white villains and white protagonists and whites saving the world from other whites for the poor black people who were suffering because of what the whites did to them. And all of this was narrated by a white woman.

Again, by the standards of the time for when Mockingbird was published, this was a step forward. A woman author challenging those around her to step up and check their racism and rape charge duality? Sweet.

But… it’s still pretty damn white-washed.

I want to trust Lee. I want to believe that Watchman will be as grand a masterpiece as Mockingbird. But honestly, if it’s another book full of white main characters about a history where things happen to black people instead of through them, I’m not sure I want it. Remember all those hashtags that’ve been floating about saying #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseAuthors? Yeah, those aren’t just trends, for the moment. Those are desperate truths. The publishing landscape throughout fiction is starving for color of every kind. Race. Disability. Gender. Sexuality. All those other identity markers.

Lee wrote a book about the white experience amidst black oppression. And she did it well, the first time. I don’t really think we need a second iteration.

I worry that Watchman just won’t be able to stand up to Mockingbird. I’m afraid that if Watchman falls short, it will taint the work done through its predecessor. I don’t want what was a really good thing warped by an inept follow-up. And I don’t want a movement that’s fighting really hard to become a reality, a movement of variety of voice and eyes that can tell you what they see from a first-hand perspective, to be overhauled, however momentarily, by the excitement that this famous white woman wrote another book commenting on black people. It’s good that a book by an author of any particular race include characters of not-the-author’s-race, yes, but they shouldn’t just be caricatures and they should be more than just plot props. They should be real goddamn people. Not just historical background noise.

And I’m just not sure that’s going to happen in Watchman.

Maybe Watchman will be great! I don’t really know yet, do I? I haven’t read the book. I’ve barely had a synopsis available for perusal. I could totally see Harper Lee completely blowing us all away yet again. And that would be a good thing.

But until then, I’m going to sit here amidst all this white washing and be pretty damn skeptical.

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Joy

20 Apr

I hear that it’s a holiday – a holy day – today. I hear it’s called Easter.

I don’t know what that word conjures up for you, when you hear it. A Midwestern-bred Catholic who decided to expand to the larger term of “Christian” in her early college years and now claims no grand ability to judge the Ultimate Truths of the universe, calling herself no one dogmatic label but saying she is open to learning, to questioning, to experiencing, and to revising ideas – the word “Easter” conjures up a lot of rather disparate images for me.

Countless Easter baskets, each of them packed with neon green and pink and purple plastic shavings, filled to the brim with garishly designed chocolate-encasing wrappers, maybe even some of those 25 cent plastic Easter eggs you can buy at every discount and drug store right around this time of year. Probably some horrid but oh-so-delicious chocolate mockery of a rabbit. (Seriously, why do those things even exist? “Here, kiddo, today’s all about celebrating new life, NOW RIP ITS HEAD OFF WITH YOUR SALIVA-DRIPPING TEETH AND FEAST UPON ITS CORPSE WHILE ITS MELTING BODY SMEARS ALL OVER YOUR FACE!”)

Uh, yeah. Easter baskets.

There are images of family parties that pop up, too. Somebody – usually my grandmother, I think – probably made a ham. Not that I’d be eating it, thank you very much. There would be some Easter egg hunt, little plastic capsules filled with quarters and dimes and HOLY FUCK THIS ONE HAS FIVE DOLLARS strewn around the front yard or the backyard or the living room, if the weather were too wet or the adults got too lazy. I’d participate for maybe ten years or so, then help moderate for the littler ones as I got older. (“Hey, three-year-old cousin, stick with me and you’ll be good to go. I’ve got inside information.”)

For a long stretch of years, there are images of church. Me and my younger sister and my mother and every other female there decked out in our best dress, many of us probably having bought a new one just for the occasion. (Why are Easter dresses a thing? Why must small children be bedecked in white fluff and nonsense that they’re only going to complain makes them uncomfortable and probably get grass stains all over within five minutes? Why don’t we all just wear jeans? The day’s about freedom, yes?)

A lot of those years, the church-going was fairly mindless. You went to church on Easter because that’s just what people did. It was like stopping at red lights or eating soup with a spoon. That’s just the way things worked. You stood outside in the cold (because of course Missouri would decide to revert back to freezing temperatures instead of the spring it had been inching toward – I mean, wouldn’t want to overheat the occasion or anything by venturing above 60 degrees Fahrenheit…) and waited for a really long time and got really bored and then you went inside and the adults around you mumbled some stuff and belted some songs and went through this routine of sitting and standing and kneeling and sitting and kneeling and standing and burning weird-smelling stuff and generally doing lots more waiting and being bored…

And then in my first two or so years of college, there was nobody around to tell me I had to go to Easter mass. Or even what Easter mass to go to. I went because at that time, I wanted to. I went because the Catholic and then broader Christian faith held meaning for me. Helped me get through the fucking large amount of hurting I was going through at the time. A day where I could go to the Pentecostal church the next suburb over and throw my hands in the air and sing as loudly as I could in a room full of people clapping their hands and waving their bodies and smiling at me, at each other, at the ceiling past where they imagined their God to be, where we could make noise and stomp our feet and feel things because that’s just what we wanted to do, just how we wanted to show our belief and our thanks, and whatever we brought to the table, our God would find that acceptable? Would find it good?

I went to that kind of mass for a while.

And now, Easter, being a word associated with that set of religions that I’ve become not entirely sure about… it brings up flashbacks of scenes of doubt and anger – at the God I had been taught to believe in, at the men I had been told to believe. Discomfort and hesitation, because the book I was told to put so much stock in had some passages that seemed to not make sense, or to exclude people I knew were damn good people, better than a lot of the Christians I knew – more loving, more supportive, more accepting, better parents and spouses and partners and friends, sometimes even better believers – I was being told that I was supposed to “pray for their souls,” because they were sinning. Or something like that. There was a whole sector, multiples sectors of human life, human experience, that had so many rules and regulations, many of them seemingly arbitrary, that the joy there… just died.

I thought Easter was explicitly about the opposite of joy dying.

My journey of faith and un-faith and re-faith and not-quite-faith and whatever the hell the proper words for the dynamic spot of saying I don’t know all the answers and I’m just going to love and serve people and celebrate this earth and its inhabitants as best I can and hope that any deity out there will look on and understand my story, understand that I am doing the best I can in the place I am at – I don’t know exactly what to call that, but the story of getting there is long intricate and person and complicated, and that’s not exactly what I’m trying to talk about here.

What am I trying to talk about? Well, now that you’ve got an incredibly long backstory, what I’m trying to say is that I hear today is a day called Easter. A holy day. A day of celebrating that we humans, with our quirks and differences and imperfections and doubts and diversity, are free and loved. A day of celebrating the joy that can be in life.

So. Whoever you are, however you are, I wish you joy today. Joy in being completely you, without boundaries or prejudices. Joy in loving as fully as you can, without any disapproval from lookers-on. Joy in being who you are, how you know you were created. Male, female, transgender, gender queer, intersex, agender – whatever the word you understand for yourself. Straight, gay, lesbian, hetero or homo, pansexual or asexual, questioning or certain or experimenting or just trying to be okay – because I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re all doing, the entire human race, just trying to be okay – whatever your titles or creeds or other arbitrary delineations we draw between us who are all made of skin and bone and muscle, hearts and lungs and brains and hands: I wish you joy. In being you. In being free. In being loved.

No conditions. No reservations.

Only joy.

Other Worlds: the Galapagos Islands

7 Apr

Ecuadorian flag island pic

Before I left for the Galapagos, I’d decided that when I got back, I was going to write a novel about it. Something with conservation and evolution and a plethora of landscapes. Something sci-fi with the Galapagos as the basis for world-building. It was to be a novel rooted in the fantasmic biological complexity of life. It would feature land and sea and maybe even air as homes for its characters. I was going to call it Other Worlds. I had most of the vague notions for it swimming around in my head. All I had to do, I thought, was go to the Galapagos, actually see and explore the islands, get their dirt under my fingernails. You know, go visit and so solidify my understanding of the place.

Ha. That, lovely readers, was quite a misguided notion.

Jeff leant me his underwater camera for one of the snorkeling trips. I'm kinda in love with the footage I was able to get.

Jeff leant me his underwater camera for one of the snorkeling trips. I’m kinda in love with the footage I was able to get.

I have now gone to the Galapagos. I saw, I explored, I got so much dirt under my fingernails. I swam with sea turtles, I paddled a panga through mangrove swamp, I even climbed volcanoes! I watched the mating dance of the blue-footed boobies, saw flamingoes fly, shared a rock with a marine iguana pile, and got bitten far too many times by fire ants. I was a voyeur to lava lizard courting, I learned how to distinguish the invasive from the native guava, I watched two frigate birds joust above our boat and shouted in delighted surprise as a manta ray jumped from the water and managed three flips before crashing back into the ocean. I counted rorqual whale spouts, chirped at ground finches, and can now tell the difference between a’a lava and pahoehoe.

All that, and the list isn’t even half done. And yet after nine days in the Galapagos, I know that while my understanding of the islands is certainly greater, it is by no means more complete. Definitely one of those “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” kind of things. I was constantly overwhelmed, in the most beautiful and wondrous of ways. There were times I actually felt like I was giong to explode from the sheer amount of coolness around me. The perpetual flow of strange and interesting and beautiful and curious and dangerous – I’m seriously flabbergasted as to how I didn’t just pop.

“Other Worlds” would certainly be an apt term for a book shaped around the Galapagos. My conception of the islands was completely blown apart by going there. On a map, the islands look so tiny. Barely even crumb-sized, next to the giant swatch of continental pizza that is South America. (I swear I’m not hungry. I seriously just ate. I have no clue where the food metaphors are coming from…)

Here, I've provided a handy figure for you.

Here, I’ve provided a handy figure for you.

Sure, I didn’t get a chance to visit all of the islands (oh, don’t worry, Galapagos 2.0 is totally already on my to-do list), and the islands I did explore were some of the larger ones, but still – the Galapagos islands are freaking hugeIt’s absurd, the amount of diversity, of flat out differentness (shut up, differentness can use fake words instead of their real versions if I want to) present on one island. At times, if I hadn’t known we were just visiting a different side of the same island, I would have sworn we had to have gone to another island. Another latitude, actually. There was no way we were at the same place. For example – lava fields, forests of Palo Verde trees, desert landscape where frigates nested among dry bark and cacti… all on Santa Cruz. And then there’s Isabella, where one half of the island is an expanse of miles and miles of uninhabited desolation, and the other half of the island is tourism central. Kitschy souvenir shops, cheap bars, untended trashcans and litter along the road… Really, the sense of complete separation of the two terrains speaks to how well the park officials and naturalists are doing at keeping the junk of human existence out of the National Park land. It’s not even a policy of “pack in, pack out” – because there are some items you just aren’t allowed to pack in to begin with. No gum, no liquids other than straight-up, plain-ol’ unflavored water, no food of any kind whatsoever, prepackaged or otherwise. Wrappers, foil, plastic – any chance to leave trash behind is almost completely eliminated.

Almost completely. Unfortunately, there was still the occasional stray chapstick cap or dropped pencil (yes, I did backtrack a quarter of a mile to retrieve a pen I’d lost; don’t worry, the pen is now safe and sound back in my apartment, not leaching chemicals into Galapagos soil or anything). Any time we did encounter an errant invader that we couldn’t reach to clean up ourselves (some trails are covered by a boardwalk), Ernesto, our naturalist, noted it so that he could inform the park officials that removal maintenance was required.

Trail maintenance! For the tortoises, of course.

Trail maintenance! For the tortoises, of course.

 

Honestly, the Galapagos is doing a damn good job of keeping human mess to a minimum, largely thanks to the efforts of naturalists like Ernesto. The man, he’s amazing. Having been a naturalist for over 20 years, he basically knows everything. Sure, it’s because he’s studied the material, but it’s more because he also sees the reality, week in and week out. Ernest knows what the papers in scientific journals say about the Galapagos, but he also knows what he sees for himself, in real time, on the ground. And he’s not afraid to explicitly point out when there’s a difference. (Like when he pointed out the carpenter bees that “don’t exist” on Isabela…) I don’t think I’ve ever seen so beautiful a combination of book-smart intelligence and real-life common sense in one man before.

And the winner of this season’s “Miceala’s Idol” is…

Ahem. Anyhoo. I’ve barely just started to tell you all of my adventures, but already I’ve rambled quite enough for one blog post. Sorry for the delay in this first report back, by the way. I honestly just hadn’t known where to start. There’s so much.

But no worries. I have started, and it’s like the floodgates have opened. There will be more.

You might just have to wait a bit for it.

Goodnight from Santa Cruz Island.

Goodnight from Santa Cruz Island.

Names, Not Labels

31 Jan

I love words. Obviously. I’m a writer. “Love words” is kiiiiind of in my job description. Words are lovely, useful, wondrous things with a great deal of power. And I understand that it’s important for people to have words, to have specific terms with meaning, they can use to describe themselves. To understand themselves.

But all the same, sometimes I wish we didn’t use some of the words the way we do. Because as important as naming terms are, there can be a lot more damage done when they get turned into labels. When a word is no longer purely an identification but a categorization. Identifications expand an existence. Categorizations shrink them.

I wish that certain words would describe but not delineate. Specify but not separate. Define but not divide.

Words like trans, male, gay, butch, woman, and straight. Words like disabled, elderly, mentally ill, druggie, cutter, and poser. Words foreigner, Democrat, GOP, Libertarian, celebrity, homeless.

These words are not an evil unto themselves. But too often we – you and me, people – use them to draw a line between us, the “people,” and the others. By calling someone a label that we don’t share, we push them beyond the realm of the experience we have in being human. By carving humanity into little boxes of likeness, we lose sight of the fact that we are all, in the end, human.

And inevitably, some – even ourselves, even if unwittingly – are bound to assign a “naturalness” to one of the terms out of a group. “This is what’s normal, this is what the null hypothesis looks like, this is the ground state of humanity.” And the ones who don’t fall under that term become something strange. Something different from that which resides within us. We deny full legitimacy to those without our particular label and come to understand them only in terms of deviation.

Thanks to The Lazy Yogi for the image.

Thanks to The Lazy Yogi for the image.

But what if we didn’t look at all the ways humans can exist as deviations from ourselves? What if we recognized each as a fully true expression of all the possibilities of what humanity looks like? What if we viewed the human condition not as bound and filed in a dictionary but as interwoven with no particular hierarchy into a novel? What if we stopped categorizing all the words we might type out of those four keys in our DNA and started seeing how they all fit together to make a larger sense? What if we gave ourselves names, instead of mere lists?

I’d like it if human thinking as a whole could move beyond trying to force us all into our separate encyclopedia entries and started using all the words we’ve got around to describe, not prescribe, instead. I want an identity, not a categorization.

You can get more information out of a narrative, anyway. Encyclopedias and dictionaries have always been so limited in what they have to tell you.