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Vaulting ambition March 3, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, childhood, memories.
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An alternative title for this post: Why Gymnastics Is Exactly Like An MFA Course (Sort of. Mostly).

Yes, this is another response to that article by (thankfully, former) MFA professor Ryan Boudinot. See also Foz Meadows, Laura Lam and Chuck Wendig for some further context. At first glance, I might seem an odd person to be adding my voice to the mix. I’ve never done an MFA (and don’t plan to), I’m not a writer of fiction and have no intention of ever being one in the future.

However, I was a gymnast for ten years.

You might be forgiven for wondering what the hell that has to do with Ryan Boudinot, creative writing courses or this whole kerfuffle, but allow me to explain. Gymnastics left me with a collection of bizarre anecdotes, excellent time-management skills, very good balance in certain contexts, and messed up feet and ankles. It also provided me with a clear example of something many people – including, it seems, Ryan Boudinot – fail to understand: nobody is born so talented at a skill that they cannot improve with practice and teaching. The myth that innate talent is enough to get someone awards, acclaim and success is profoundly damaging. It gets applied to creative pursuits all the time, but they are skills like any other, and if I extend it to gymnastics, the ridiculousness of the myth becomes apparent.

I started gymnastics when I was seven years old, encouraged by my mother, who had noticed that I seemed to spend every waking moment climbing trees, turning cartwheels and doing handstands against the walls of buildings. My initial classes were an hour a week, squeezed in on Saturday mornings after swimming lessons, and their aim was simply to get the children who attended moving, building up a collection of skills of increasing difficulty. By the time I was seventeen, I was training twelve hours a week, in three four-hour sessions which began with an hour of strength and conditioning, followed by three hours spent practicing the same skills again and again until they were consistently perfect, stringing the skills together into routines and repeating those routines until they could be performed with the illusion of effortlessness. The goal of all this was to perform those routines in annual regional and state-level competitions, and hopefully get good scores and win lots of medals.

I started with what might be considered the baseline requirements to get by as a gymnast: I was small, I was slim, I was able-bodied and physically fit. I was at a disadvantage in that I hadn’t started as a four-year-old, and because I was extremely inflexible. In other words, the potential was there.

But without lessons and training I wouldn’t have got anywhere: I would have been just another child turning cartwheels on the school playground. I got better because I practiced, and I got better because of teaching. Whether it was for one hour a week or twelve, my execution of various skills got better through repetition, and the difficulty of those skills increased over time because I was able to build on the basics I’d learnt to begin with and apply the same principles to more complex skills or combinations of skills. And I was able to improve because my coaches knew what to do to make me better.

I had multiple coaches over the years, but the best ones combined excellent communication (that is, they were able to convey with words what I needed to do with my body to make a routine look effortless) with a good feel for each of their coaching charges’ strengths and weaknesses, ensuring that we didn’t just work on the apparatus we liked or the skills that came easily to us, and creating routines for us that covered up areas of weaknesses and emphasised areas of strength. (For example, my lack of flexibility made certain common elements of floor routines really difficult and inelegant for me, so my coaches substituted them with moves which highlighted my upper-body strength.) And with coaching and practice, I got better every year: stronger, with the ability to do harder skills, and a more intuitive sense of what to do with my body if I wanted it to tumble, flip, twirl or leap in a specific direction. In my first ever competition I leapt up onto the beam, promptly fell off, climbed back on, only to lose my balance and fall off again. By the time I quit, I was learning how to do backflips on that same apparatus. I am profoundly grateful to the series of patient, perceptive coaches whose hard work helped to get me to that point.

I was never going to set the world on fire as a gymnast. I would never compete in the Olympics – the height of my ambition was a handful of apparatus medals at the annual regional competition. But I learnt a really useful lesson at a very early age: with practice and, crucially, proper training and support, I could start as an absolute beginner at something and show constant, steady improvement over a month, a year, or a decade. My point in all this is not to demonstrate that every able-bodied child who starts young enough is born with the talent to become an world champion gymnast. My point is that practice, repetition, and, above all, the support of teachers will lead to improvement in just about any skill. And writing is a skill like any other.

Nobody springs from the womb as a fully-formed, award-winning fiction writer. Writing is a skill that needs to be taught. It is improved by practice, and by working with teachers who can recognise areas of strength and weakness. Bestselling, award-winning novels don’t just fall out of a writer’s brain and onto the keyboard. They are honed and shaped by critique and training. Maybe that training takes the form of an MFA. Maybe it doesn’t – maybe a writing workshop, writers’ group or critique partner is more your style. And maybe you still won’t win awards or sell millions of copies of your novel, but your writing will be better. I’m tired of this almost mystical reverence for creative endeavours, whether music, fiction-writing or visual art. It’s a lazy justification for avoiding collaboration, training or criticism of your work. No, we do not start on equal footing when it comes to writing, even when you take away structural inequalities such as wealth, gender, race, disability and so on. As with any other skill, some people are going to find writing easier, some are going to find it more fun, and some might have a better sense of where the money and/or acclaim lies than others. But the fact remains that anyone who writes is going to get better through a combination of practice and the support of good teaching. I learnt that by doing gymnastics as a child and teenager. It’s a shame Ryan Boudinot didn’t get that same teaching.

Linkpost is all around us February 16, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, linkpost.
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This post is somewhat late, and as a result you may have seen some of the material included in it elsewhere. Hopefully, however, there will be enough new material for everyone to enjoy.

First up, a powerful post by Kari Sperring about the unseen, unromanticised ‘women’s work’ undertaken by older women. Athena Andreadis’ older post ‘Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction’ is an excellent companion piece. Rounding off this trio of posts on older women, check out Catherine Lundoff’s (frequently updated) post of recommendations of SFF literature featuring older women.

I’ve really appreciated Malinda Lo’s series for Diversity In YA on perceptions of diversity in book reviews. There are currently two posts published of a three-part series.

Rachel Manija Brown is gathering recommendations for diverse literature. (Content note: discussion of abuse.)

I’m not eligible to nominate people for awards myself, but I am using Amal El-Mohtar’s nominations post as a source of recommendations.

As an Australian, I’m pleased to see that Alexandra Pierce has started writing a regular column at Tor.com on Australian and New Zealand SFF publishing news.

I’m a big fan of The Book Smugglers, as I find the blog a breath of fresh air and positivity in what can sometimes be a very negative internet. As such, I’m thrilled that their first foray into publishing has been a success, with a BSFA nomination for one of their short stories, ‘The Mussel Eaters’ by Octavia Cade.

The new issue of Lackinton’s is out. I’ve been enjoying reading through its stories, and particularly liked ‘Tiger, Baby’ by JY Yang, with art by Likhain. You can find links to further works by both writer and artist in the biographical information at the bottom of the story.

Finally, Jupiter Ascending was ridiculous, joyful fun. Kate Elliott thought so too.

Where young linkposts would meet when the flowers were in bloom February 6, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, fandom, linkpost.
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It’s Friday afternoon, and that means it’s high time for your weekly links. Most of these were gathered via Twitter, because I follow some fabulous people over there, and they keep finding and doing wonderful things.

A.C. Wise’s monthly post for SF Signal on women to read in SFF is filled with some great recommendations. This post is part of a series, so if you want more recommendations, you’ll be able to find them in the related posts links under the article.

Jim C. Hines is calling for guest posters to write on representation in SFF, so if you think you fit the criteria, you should definitely try and submit something. He’s already run a previous series of posts on this subject, which were collected as an ebook, the sales of which have gone to support the Carl Brandon Society’s Con or Bust programme. The call for guest posts runs until tomorrow, so get in now if you want to be included.

I’m really looking forward to Aliette de Bodard’s new Xuya short story. She’s posted an excerpt on her blog.

This post by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz about the struggles people face when trying to speak up (or even speak at all) is powerful and important.

Kate Elliott’s short-story collection The Very Best of Kate Elliott is out on the 10th February. She’s been blogging up a storm recently. I particularly appreciated her guest post at The Book Smugglers on self-rejection and the courage to say yes.

Also from Kate Elliott, ‘An Illustrated Love Letter to Smart Bitches and Trashy Books’, which does exactly what it says on the tin. I’m not a regular reader of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (which recently celebrated its tenth birthday), but I am a firm believer in unapoletically loving the things you love, and not shaming other people for their fannish choices, so this resonated with me a lot.

This guest post on Ladybusiness by forestofglory is full of great short-fiction recommendations that I will definitely be checking out.

Finally, I went on a bit of a Twitter spree about cultish behaviour and abuse dynamics in fandom. These tweets should be considered the preliminary stage of a more detailed post that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Charles Tan was kind enough to collect my tweets together on Storify.

Happy Friday, everyone! Enjoy Armenian teenager Vika Ogannesyan singing ‘Plava Laguna’ (the opera song from The Fifth Element).

Linkpost makes the world go ’round January 30, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, linkpost.
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Welcome to what I hope will become a regular feature here at the Geata: weekly posts of links to wonderful things. There are no criteria for inclusion: the links will just be things that have caught my eye in any given week, but I’m trying to focus on positive and/or thought-provoking material from a diverse range of perspectives. This is all part of my goal of collaborative and community-building writing for this year.

It was a great week for SFF podcasts. I particularly enjoyed Amal El-Mohtar and Natalie Luhrs on Rocket Talk with Justin Landon, talking about all things blogging and reviewing.

Fangirl Happy Hour is a new project by Ana of The Book Smugglers and Renay of Ladybusiness. Their second podcast is on sex and romance in science fiction, nominations for the Hugo Awards and The Very Best of Kate Elliott (which has rocketed to the top of my wishlist).

Renay also wrote a fabulous, heartfelt post about being betrayed by stories that the rest of your community has universally praised. Read the comments too.

A. Merc Rustad’s short story ‘How To Become A Robot In 12 Easy Steps’ is something I didn’t realise I’d been wanting until now. Almost anything I could say here will be a spoiler, but I feel I should provide a content warning for depictions of depression.

Amal El-Mohtar’s short story ‘The Truth About Owls’ hurt my heart in the best possible way.

No Award is not a new blog, but it is new to me, and is a breath of fresh air. I’m often frustrated by the US-centrism of the online conversation on media and social justice, so I’m thrilled to find a blog by a pair of Australians tackling these issues from an Australian perspective.

Finally, I really appreciated Foz Meadows’ epic blog post on Teen Wolf. I don’t agree with all her conclusions, but I am particularly happy about her comments on Scott McCall, whose gentleness, kindness and adoration of powerful women goes against all the usual stereotypes about boys raised by single mothers.

I hope you all have fabulous weekends. Since Eurovision is officially upon us, why not generate your own Eurovision song title?

Stop, collaborate and listen! Blogging goals for 2015 January 25, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in announcements, blogging, internet.
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One of my goals for this year is to post a lot more on this blog, and to do so with a bit more coherence in terms of content and aims. Last year was my year of speaking up. I made a conscious choice to talk more, to join conversations online, and to ignore the little voice saying, ‘but why would they want to speak to you?’ and just see what happened. The result was a whole bunch of new friends, some really interesting conversations, and the courage to raise my voice in situations where previously I would have kept quiet. So I want to build on this and approach blogging — and the entire online conversation about books, media, writing, reviewing and stories — with my intentions laid out clearly from the start.

These intentions can be summed up rather handily with the phrase ‘stop, collaborate and listen’ (with apologies to Vanilla Ice and good taste, I guess). It’s not as silly as it sounds.

Stop
This is probably going to be the hardest element of the three. The current culture of the internet communities in which I hang out is primarily one of passivity: passively reblogging and retweeting other people’s words without engaging or reflecting to any great degree. This is something that is very hard to unlearn. This is not to say that reblogging or retweeting are terrible things in and of themselves: it’s crucial to get other people’s words and perspectives out there, and there are many occasions in which spreading news and information quickly is of critical importance. But I sometimes worry that we’ve sacrificed context and reflection for ease of dissemination.

So when I’m talking about stopping, what I really mean is taking the time to stop, think, and evaluate the wider context in which particular tweets and posts appear. Can I guarantee that the information being spread is correct? Do I have the time to investigate the truth of any given post? Do I have the time to investigate the context in which it appears? Is the poster or source someone whose voice I want to amplify? If not, is there someone else saying the same thing who is more deserving of what little amplification I may provide? Are there multiple people saying the same or similar things, and would the information benefit from adding their voices to the mix? Would a post benefit from additional commentary by me, and do I have the time and ability to provide such commentary? These are all things I’m trying to stop and consider before hitting the reblog button or firing off those 140 characters.

Essentially what I’m saying here is that if I don’t have time to stop and investigate the wider context of something, I don’t have time to hit retweet, reblog or share.

Collaborate
One of the things I love the most about the internet is that it has opened my eyes to myriad, diverse perspectives. I can talk and listen to people from all over the world, people whose life experiences are different to my own, and who carry these experiences with them when telling their own stories or reacting to the stories of others. I am only one person, and no matter how much I listen to and empathise with people whose backgrounds and experiences are different to my own, I can only bring my own perspective to any given piece of media or any given situation. And I think our understanding is enriched and deepened by seeking out a broad range of people and listening to what they have to say.

It is with this in mind that I want to work harder at finding opportunities for collaboration in writing and reviewing. In some situations, co-reviewing might be the way to go, although it remains to be seen whether my blog (read on a good day by about fifty people) is an appropriate venue for such reviews. I also feel very strongly that I should be hosting guest reviews or interviews, but again, my limited reach might be unhelpful in this regard. However, I wanted to at least raise the possibility and say that yes, I am very interested in opportunities for co-reviewing and hosting guest bloggers, and please do get in touch if you want to participate.

There is one other form of collaboration which is a bit more passive, but certainly more achievable by me at the moment. I’m talking about linking to and sharing the words of others. I want to make regular link posts a feature of this blog (probably with a mirror at Dreamwidth). One of the features I admire most in my favourite review blogs is the provision of multiple links to other reviews of the same work so that readers can get a wide range of perspectives and thus a bigger picture of the conversation going on around any given text. That is definitely something I will be incorporating into this blog.

Listen
This is probably the most important goal of all, and it is ultimately all about context. I want to stop and think before sharing the words of others or adding my voice to the conversation, and I want to work with others so that the conversation is enriched by a multiplicity of perspectives, and this involves listening and investigating the wider context. This means finding a balance between the source and the words or actions themselves. I will continue to give more weight to praise and criticism by reviewers praising and criticising depictions of things they themselves have experienced. But I will give even more weight to the words of writers and reviewers who work hard to amplify marginalised voices, who act as mentors, who offer kindness and support, who take abuse and harassment seriously, no matter the target, and who welcome conversation, collaboration and the space for dissent and a diversity of opinion.

That’s why listening is so important. Whereas last year I was trying to find the confidence to speak, now I want to find the patience to listen. My impulse has always been to leap right in, as I feared missing out on important conversations if I didn’t react in real time. But the words will all still be there, and I will still have my spaces in which to respond to them. Listening will allow for a more thoughtful response.

Conclusion
I want to reiterate that these are goals and guidelines for me, and for me alone. If others find them helpful and want to make use of them, feel free, but I intend no prescription here. But I talk so much about judging people by how well their actions match their stated intentions that I thought laying my own intentions out here would give me a bit of accountability. We’ll see if I live up to these lofty intentions of my own at the end of 2015, at which point I will pause for reflection and, if necessary, adjust or rework my goals. For now, however, they seem like a good place to start.

A long way down November 13, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, reviews, television.
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This post will contain spoilers for Season 1 of The Fall. It will also involve discussion of misogyny, rape culture, sexualised violence and murder.

The first episode of Season 2 of The Fall will air tonight. The release of the new season has prompted a flurry of discussion of the same elements certain critics disliked in the first season: the show’s perceived sexism and voyeuristic attitude to gendered violence. While I understand where such criticism is coming from, I think it is misguided.

The Fall is the story of the hunt for a serial killer in Belfast who targets victims of one demographic: attractive, young, single professional women. It’s an unusual show in that we know who the killer is from the first episode, following him as he goes about his daily life as husband, father and grievance counsellor, and as he goes about his hidden life as a misogynistic, unspeakably cruel killer. As such, the focus and point of view of the show is split evenly between that of Paul, the killer, and Stella, the police officer leading the investigation into his crimes. It is this focus on Paul and insight into his mind that has led, in part, to condemnations of the show for misogyny. The other problem is that in making Paul a viewpoint character, his murders are shot through his eyes, and so the audience sees the women he kills as he sees them: helpless dolls whose murdered bodies are his to handle (the way he bathes and lays out his victims’ bodies in their own beds — in which he has killed them — is one of the most horrifying aspects of the show).

That being said, I think it’s very clear that the show is condemning such actions. We are not voyeurs gazing on the dead women: we are voyeurs gazing in horror at the workings of Paul’s mind.

The show’s broader context supports such a reading. This is due in great part to the character of Stella, who repeatedly condemns Paul’s actions as the work of a misogynist, who is herself a sexually independent woman, and who calls out the wider culture as supporting the extremes of Paul’s actions in refusing to condemn smaller, more everyday forms of misogyny. The writer has also stated in interviews his insistence on portraying Paul’s victims before he murders them, so that the viewers can see them as human beings with jobs, friendships and familial and other connections. This acts as a sort of direct refutation of Paul’s perception of them.

Most importantly, it’s one of the few shows to receive mainstream acclaim I’ve seen to include an explicit discussion of rape culture and the ways it enables murders like those of Paul’s victims to take place. Stella has several conversations with her (female) colleague Reed about the ways women and girls warn each other about male violence, and about the way that they must be constantly guarded against a culture that will try to blame them for their own abuse. Stella also shuts down a male colleague describing one of Paul’s victims as ‘innocent’. What if his next victim is a sex worker? she asks. She refuses to let any discussion of innocence or blame enter the narrative of the case.

There is one final, and most horrifying, example of the show’s condemnation of society misogyny. Paul’s pattern in his murders is to build up to them by initially sneaking into his victims’ empty houses and moving their belongings around in subtle ways in order to assert his control and unsettle them. His second victim notices that her belongings have been moved and calls the police. Rather than believing her, they try to deny her own experience and knowledge of her own space. There’s no sign of a break-in, they say. Could her things have been moved by her cat? She is sure that this is not the case, but their words put doubt in her mind, so that when they ask her if she could stay with her sister, she feels as if her fears were unfounded and decides to stay put. Of course, after the police leave, Paul sneaks back in and murders her in a way designed to cause maximum, drawn-out terror and trauma. In this way, although Paul is the one to actually kill the women, The Fall shows how damaging, misogynistic societal attitudes (particularly the refusal to believe women when they say they feel unsafe) contribute to and enable his murders.

In this way, The Fall, while heartbreaking, terrifying and harrowing to watch, is much less harmful than, say, the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, which purports to be a series condemning violence against women, but which actually engages in a great deal of victim blaming. While it is not enjoyable to watch women killed in situations of extreme psychological torment, it is satisfying for once to see the blame for their deaths put where it truly lies.

Oh, the humanity! February 2, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, fangirl.
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This blog seems to go through phases in terms of content, and its current incarnation appears to be Narrative Tropes That I Like (and Why Most Authors Do Them Wrong). This post is an attempt to unpack one such narrative trope, and to explain why, when done right, I love it so much. And that theme is non-human beings and the humans who love them (and why and how they love humans). I’ll accept pretty much any twist on this formula. Gods and humans? Vampires and humans? Angels and humans? Demons and humans? Fairies and humans? Sentient robots (or cyborgs, or androids or whatever you want to call them) and humans? Pencil me in! I love them all. The basic requirement is that at least one character is an entirely mortal human being (although they may have supernatural abilities of one kind or another) and at least one other is completely, utterly inhuman.

I like this particular (rather broadly-defined) theme because it has the potential to go almost anywhere, but, when done right, gives yet another answer to that all-important question: What does it truly mean to be human? And, in answering this conundrum with this particular set of tools, storytellers open up a whole new range of questions: If humanity equals consciousness plus emotions plus social cooperation plus empathy, what does that make a conscious, cooperative, empathetic robot? If vampires can feel love, what does that make them? Is human morality based entirely on human mortality, and, if so, what is the morality of immortals, and can it ever be reconciled with that of human beings?

And that’s before you’ve even got on to the fun bits of human-inhuman character interaction. One of the most pleasing things about shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that the forced proximity and shifting alliances of the human characters and supernatural beings causes a sort of blurring of the lines between humanity and inhumanity. The vampires become a bit more human, and Buffy herself becomes a bit monstrous, but this all happens so gradually that it appears entirely natural and understandable. The same goes for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – Sarah’s very success in her life on the run from murderous cyborgs necessitates thinking like them, feeling like them, and so the woman becomes a little bit like a machine. The Terminator Cameron Phillips is a foil to Sarah – a machine who discovers her own humanity.

But as much as I love Buffy and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, neither goes quite far enough in this direction (although the cancellation of T: TSCC means that we’ll never know if this was a deliberate narrative decision or not). I want women who walk with monsters and become monstrous but always remain human, and monsters who love humanity but remain monstrous. I want machines who gain consciousness and emotions out of love for human beings but remain strictly machines, and I want humans whose love for machines forces them to question their beliefs on personhood but never cease to be human themselves. I want humans who tremble at the reality of what their demon lovers are, but walk into their arms with their eyes wide open. I want demons who find humanity terrifying and humbling and disarming, and can do nothing but love before its power. In short, I want stories about human and inhuman characters who know exactly what each other are, and love each other for it.*

What I don’t want, however, is Twilight. You may think this is kind of a low blow – picking on a story that is almost universally loathed and considered to be of very poor quality, but I actually have a lot of time for wish-fulfilling paranormal romance stories aimed at teenage girls. I think they do a good job of exploring the way love feels at that age – overwhelming, all-consuming and full of terrifying transformative potential. I am probably odd in that it wasn’t the cliché-ridden prose, nor was it the glamorizing of abusive relationships (although I did hurl New Moon at the wall when it was blank for a few pages to indicate Bella’s catatonic state at being left by Edward) that made me give up on the story. No, I gave up on it when I realised that Meyer was going to turn Bella into a vampire so that she could live together, forever, with Edward. The most interesting thing about fictional relationships between mortals and immortals is that one will eventually die, and one will live on forever! (The other imbalances of power in the relationship are interesting too, because in the hands of a competent author, it’s possible to present the ostensible weaknesses of humanity as a kind of power too.) I need my mortals and immortals to be secure enough in their identities to allow themselves to change one another – but only up to a point. In other words, if such characters are a metaphor for anything, they should be a metaphor for the way the most important real-world relationships change people, but also make them more secure in their identities. True love – familial, romantic or platonic – gives people the space to grow and to be themselves more completely.

This particular metaphor, however, should only ever whisper in the margins. The worst thing a writer can do is saddle the relationship between humans and supernatural (or robotic) characters with too much real-world metaphorical baggage. A particular gripe of mine is the tendency to use the struggles of paranormal beings as an analogue for real-world civil rights movements. (Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood, I’m looking at you! Harry Potter is a culprit of this too.) So, your vampires have just come ‘out of the coffin’ and want to be accepted by human society? Don’t layer on the similarities with the LGBT rights struggle! Vampires – even if, as in the case of True Blood, they eventually are able to replace human blood with a synthetic alternative – kill people. At the very least, they hurt and exploit them. The analogy with LGBT people (or any other group that experiences real-world discrimination) is offensive.**

I’m for the gods, monsters and machines, the humans they love and who love them back. I’m for misfits of all types, who feel uncomfortable in their own skin (or metal, or whatever material angels are supposed to be made out of), and who cling to other misfits in the face of everything. I’m for the human and inhuman coming together and making each other whole.

_________________________________
*I am not talking only about romantic love, although it’s true that in a lot of these stories, that it is the kind of love being explored.
**One of the many things I love about Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon trilogy is her acknowledgement and aversion of this analogy. One character is gay. He also happens to have magical powers. Magicians in the world of this series enhance their power by feeding people to demons. The character (who at that point has done no such thing) hid his magical abilities from his sister. When she angrily confronts him and says, ‘but you told me straight away when you realised you were gay’, he replies that his being gay doesn’t hurt anyone, but that being a magician is a potentially harmful thing.

On wish-fulfillment fantasies January 15, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, reviews.
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When I was in the early years of secondary school, I invented a character called Amber. She was short, slender and pale, with a cloud of dark hair and one bright blue and one bright green eye (in other words, what I considered the epitome of beauty at the time). She lived in twelfth-century Ireland. Her father was the illegitimate son of an Irish ruler, and her mother was the daughter of a Japanese nobleman. Her Irish grandfather had five children by his first wife, seven by his second, and six illegitimate children, and the entire family had basically carved up the entire west coast of Ireland among themselves through a combination of ruthless diplomacy and strategically tactical marriages. Amber was married to Pagan Kidrouk (that is, she was married to the fictional character on whom I had a massive crush), and they had an ever-increasing brood of perfect children. Pagan had hitched his star to Amber’s family’s cause, and the two of them spent their time riding from relative to relative, keeping the whole family’s quest for political power afloat, forging alliances and seeing off competition. Amber’s younger sisters were in her social circle and they all treated one another with complete respect and love at all times. Even the backstory of how Amber’s parents got together was over-the-top: her father, despairing of ever finding his One True Love™, had mournfully cast a multilingual message in a bottle into the sea in the hope that whoever found it would seek him out and agree to marry him. The bottle wound up in Japan, and Amber’s mother’s decision to marry her Irish father essentially saved her from the events of the Genpei War. The entire story was completely ludicrous.

In other words, she was my teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. Amber joined an existing and ever-expanding cast of alter egos whose stories I recorded in diaries over a series of years beginning in early childhood and continuing for the duration of my time in secondary school. Sometimes I didn’t commit their stories to paper, but rather narrated them to myself in my head as I went about my daily life. They all existed in a range of time periods – some belonged to families of witches in pre-Christian Ireland, others had been captured by Vikings and lived in exile, while others were my contemporaries in late-’90s Australia. These alter-egos shared certain key characteristics and experiences: they were the best at everything they did, they (mostly) had perfect husbands or boyfriends who fell in instant love with them and whose identities were entirely subsumed by the causes that were important to the characters and their families (in other words, they were love interests who required no sacrifices or effort because they existed only to support the characters’ lives), they shared a social circle with their siblings (who were usually younger sisters whose interests aligned perfectly with those of my characters), and they were valued and rewarded for their competence and hard work with acclaim and adoration.

A lot of people treat the wish-fulfillment fantasies of teenage girls as something inherently damaging, ridiculous and embarrassing. I cannot bring myself to participate in such blanket condemnation. I’m much more interested in working out why particular fantasies (especially published fantasies such as the Twilight or Hunger Games series) gain such traction in particular instances. My own (unpublished) fantasies are pretty explicable: I wanted to be loved but feared having to change anything about myself in order to attain it, wanted to be admired and rewarded for what I perceived as my talents, and wanted the kind of relationship with my sister that I saw happening among siblings in my favourite stories. To put it more bluntly, I felt uncomfortable and powerless in my own skin and set about creating stories in which I had power and control. I cannot regret or feel embarrassed about doing so. My alter egos made my teenage years infinitely easier. Whenever I felt frightened or sad, I was usually able to lift my spirits by imagining a better world, and I was able to motivate myself to work or continue at things I found boring by telling myself that my idealised characters wouldn’t give up in the face of boredom or difficulty.

This is not to say that wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed teenage girls should be above scrutiny. Although I believe that they are treated with scorn to a much greater degree than the fantasies aimed at teenage boys or adult men (I don’t see, for example, Batman or James Bond receiving the amount of contemptuous vitriol aimed at Bella Swan or her fellow YA paranormal romance heroines), nothing is above criticism, and reviewers and bloggers should be honest in pointing out things that bother them in media that they encounter. It is with this in mind that I turn to a book that has been receiving a lot of internet buzz among YA reviewers and commentators, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

The main character in this work, Karou, lives a carefree existence as an art student in Prague, flitting from cafe to cafe and hanging out in an interestingly bohemian circle of friends. She has a secret existence as a messenger for the shadowy, supernatural figure Brimstone (who raised her), which enables her to travel instantaneously anywhere in the world. Her position as Brimstone’s protege grants her certain privileges – as long as she has enough currency, she can wish for whatever she wants, even the impossible (such as dyeing her hair permanently blue). In other words, Karou can do what she wants, go wherever she wants, and has a real-world existence that is already pretty cool. However, secrets from her unremembered past slowly begin to catch up with her, and as she is drawn more and more into Brimstone’s world, she realises she is in deadly danger, and that her identity as seventeen-year-old, human Karou is a lie.

So far, so harmless wish-fulfillment. The world Taylor has created is quirky and engaging, and great fun to hang around in. However, there is one element of Daughter and Smoke and Bone that bothered me so intensely that I had to devote the remainder of this blog post to it. Karou has no female friends.

This is not entirely correct. Karou has one female friend, Zuzana, who is a fellow student at the art school. However, Zuzana is marked from the start as being no equal to Karou: she is an ordinary human girl and knows nothing about Karou’s supernatural adventures. And, most importantly, she is already safely paired up with a boyfriend.

Literally every other young female character is portrayed as competition for Karou. Her human ex-boyfriend Kaz (whom Karou doesn’t even much like) acquires a new girlfriend whose sole characteristic seems to be jealousy of Karou. Even Zuzana admits to finding Kaz attractive and castigates Karou for giving him up. And a major plot point hinges on another female character being jealous of Karou’s appearance and envying her the (unwanted) attention she receives from another male character. In this way, Karou is marked as being both more desirable than all other female characters (because multiple male characters pursue her, and her alone) and more discerning (because she rejects the affections of those would-be love interests due to character flaws which are portrayed as being obvious only to her). So not only are the other female characters in competition with Karou, Taylor gives us the impression that they are stupid for doing so, because they appear blind to the flaws in the male characters which only Karou perceives. This is a sadly familiar pattern in wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed at women: we find it in Twilight and its imitations, as well as in a lot of paranormal romance aimed at adult women (such as The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series).

As someone who wrote a story about her book boyfriend being in love with her idealised character, I have a lot of sympathy for teenage (and not-so-teenage) wish-fulfillment fantasies depicting their protagonists being pursued by a multitude of love interests. It’s a powerful trope for girls who may be feeling unlovable or simply baffled at how to have romantic relationships. However, this desire to be desired should not be portrayed at the expense of functional friendships among teenage girls. Portraying all female relationships as inherently competitive and antagonistic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in the real world whereby girls and women view all other girls and women with suspicion, undermining one another instead of supporting each other. I can say from personal experience that it has been extremely rare, from adolescence onward, that my close female friends and I were in competition for the same things (apart from, on occasion, the best grades in class).

I am not saying that there is a moral imperative for YA authors to write every relationship between female characters as being devoid of competition or even hostility. However, when every single such relationship fits this paradigm, I fear we have a problem. It’s the main reason that I will be much more cautious in seeking out works by Laini Taylor in the future. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. It has the dubious honour of being the narrative which caused me to evaluate every text (particularly those aimed at teenage girls) against whether or not its protagonist has (non-antagonistic) female friends. This has become my version of the Bechdel Test. It’s not a perfect gauge of a story’s quality, but it goes a long way towards creating a favourable impression.

Liebster Award November 26, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, life, memories.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
2 comments

I was nominated for a Liebster Award. Says Catie, who nominated me, the Liebster Award is a meme for small blogs (with under 200 followers) where you answer 7 questions and then ask a new set of 7 questions to 7 people. I’m not going to tag other people, but I will answer the questions provided by Catie. And they are:

1. Have you ever read a book that changed your life, or your reading habits?
A book, or rather series of books, did both of those things – at the same time. Most of you probably know that I’m going to say the His Dark Materials trilogy, and you’ll probably know why. But to recap:

When I first read HDM, it pushed my reading habits in a much more fantasy-oriented direction than previously. This led, firstly, towards me developing an interest in medieval literature, which ultimately led to me becoming a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, meeting an amazing group of friends, and my current boyfriend, and deciding to, if at all possible, live in Europe for the remainder of my life.

Secondly, HDM got me a career as a newspaper book-reviewer! When I was 16, I read what I considered to be a very poor review of the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass. I wrote the reviewer – the children’s books editor at The Sydney Morning Herald – a very snotty letter accusing her of not reading the book before she reviewed it. Rather than throwing my letter in the bin, she offerred me the opportunity to write my own review. This led to a ten-year career writing reviews and interviewing authors for various Australian newspapers.

Finally, HDM saved me, because it introduced me to the people at bridgetothestars.net at a very low point in my life. Those people were there for me when no one else was, and I’ve met so many people I love through that site. btts introduced me to the best friend I will ever have, a woman I consider to be my fourth sister. More broadly, btts was my introduction to online fandom and online friendships and community more broadly, and it remains my gold standard in all such matters, a model of how to do fandom and do friendship right.

I will never stop being thankful to His Dark Materials. It changed my life in such profound ways.

2. If you could recommend one book to the world, what would it be?
To be honest, I’d like to recommend the entire corpus of Victor Kelleher novels, but if I had to select just one, I’d say The Beast of Heaven, which is a deeply unsettling, remorseless and transcendentally beautiful exploration of what it means to be conscious and human. I doubt I will ever read another book more perfect than that. It encapsulates my views on human nature, morality, history and the future completely.

3. Do you read when you’re out and about or just at home?
Obviously I read a lot for my PhD, so by definition I read while I’m out and about – in libraries. I also read for pleasure when I’m out and about. I tend to carry novels with me everywhere, and my favourite thing to do is sit alone in cafes and read.

4. Is there any genre that you don’t read, and why? Or do you only read one particular type of book?
I pretty much read everything, although I tend to steer clear of epic or heroic fantasy written by men. Modernist literature isn’t my cup of tea either, although I’ve enjoyed books by Faulkner and some poetry written during this time period.

5. What is the first book that you remember reading?
The first novel I remember reading was Rainstones by Jackie French. It’s not actually a novel, but rather a book of short stories, but I was immensely proud of myself at the time for being able to read a ‘chapter book’. I’d obviously read picture books before then, and had lots of books read to me by my mother, but I don’t remember the first.

6. What is the last book that you read that was outside your comfort zone?
I read a book of crime stories in German over the (northern) summer, and that was out of my comfort zone because I’m still not completely fluent at reading in German. But it was good to push myself.

7. If you had to memorise a novel or book of poetry to preserve it à la Fahrenheit 451, which would it be and why?
This question makes me so uncomfortable and upset! It reminds me of this neo-Victorian novel I read a few years ago, which has a scene where one character asks the (bookish) protagonist to imagine a scenario where every copy of the great works of the literary canon are being drawn along a conveyor belt into a furnace. The protagonist has a gun. If she shoots and kills a human being, the conveyor belt stops. Reading it, I started to hyperventilate. Is one human life worth more than the Western literary canon? It is unbearable to be forced to confront that question.

In light of that anecdote, I think I’d have to say the complete works of William Shakespeare should be saved. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of canon – any canon besides a personal canon, that is – and yet I love the plays of Shakespeare and can see how they have influenced so much writing in English and say such interesting things about humanity. And on a more political level, I love how the foundation of the English literary canon is a collaborative effort of people who stood somewhat outside the boundaries of ordinary society, and its prime mover was an aspirational, lower middle-class man who somehow managed to educate himself and say such clever things. It appeals to my socialism and belief in the power of education.

I’m not going to tag anyone, but if you’d like to join in, consider yourselves tagged. These are my seven questions:

1. How have your reading tastes changed in the past ten years? In the past five?
2. Do you read book reviews? Do you think they influence your reading habits?
3. What is your opinion of sites such as Goodreads and reviews on Amazon?
4. Do you note down quotes from books or poetry? What is a quote that means a lot to you?
5. Which fictional character did you identify with as a child or teenager? Looking back, do you think that identification was accurate?
6. What is the most important thing you learnt from a work of fiction?
7. And I’d also like an answer to the same question I was asked: in a Fahrenheit 451 scenario, which book would you save?

Failed analogies, weak narrative, wasted opportunities: Season 1 of The Legend of Korra June 21, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, meta, reviews.
Tags: , , , , ,
3 comments

[Note: this review is sprinkled with spoilers for both The Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender.]

When I think of all the good things The Legend of Korra had going for it (a pre-existing world with lots of potential for further storytelling, a creative team who’d achieved something miraculous with their previous work, an active, engaged, enthusiastic and appreciative fandom) and how it failed to make use of those things in any substantial way, I feel a profound sense of disappointment. In some ways, perhaps, the success of Avatar: The Last Airbender (hereafter ATLA) could have been more of a hindrance than a help to the team behind Korra, since they apparently went out of their way to avoid everything that was characteristic of ATLA in the spin-off series. There are many grounds for criticising Korra; I’ve seen some excellent posts taking the show to task for sexism, for Mako’s characterisation, for the reduction of Lin Beifong to Tenzin’s ex-girlfriend. It would be worth poking around on the ‘korra’ tag on Tumblr as there’s a lot of excellent meta along those lines there. What I want to focus on here, however, is what I see as a broader failure on the part of the writers to create a rich, engaging or meaningful narrative. The characterisation issues I mentioned can be included under this larger umbrella problem of narrative failure.

I really didn’t want to be that fan. You know, the one taking creators of a spin-off to task because the spin-off is nothing like its parent text. But the problem is not so much that Korra isn’t ATLA but rather that Korra lacks the ingredients that made ATLA so successful. As I see it, ATLA’s quality rested on the interplay of four elements (see what I did there?). These were:
1. A cast of rounded, complex, human characters whose actions made sense in relation to their characterisation, who changed over the course of the series and who drew us into their world;
2. A completely three-dimensional, endlessly fascinating setting that reflected the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of the people who lived in it;
3. An engaging narrative which kept you watching and kept surprising you; and
4. Themes and real-world analogies that resonated but could be interpreted in multiple ways and on multiple levels.

Korra lacks all of these things.

Let’s start with characterisation. One of the things that drew me into ATLA was its fascinating array of diverse, fully-rounded characters who each had their own struggles, desires and arcs that were resolved over the course of the series. Thus, Aang, struggling to balance his playful and compassionate personality with his duty as Avatar and his responsibility towards the entire planet. Katara, filled with rage at her mother’s death, a burning desire to succeed as a waterbender and a tendency to mother everyone around her. Sokka, a skeptic in a world of mystics, labouring under a false belief in a certain kind of masculinity and desperate to prove himself to his absent father. Toph, filled with confidence but treated like an invalid. Zuko, unable to live up to his father’s expectations. Azula, the product of a terrible upbringing. Ty Lee, always overlooked. Mai, forced by her parents to repress all emotions. Even secondary characters like Suki and Jet, or those who appear in only several episodes, have comprehensible motivations, distinct personalities and complete character arcs. And the major characters learn from their experiences and change, but they don’t have personality transplants. The beauty of ATLA was that characters grew by recognising the essential aspects of their personalities and channeling them in a productive way. (Hence, Katara’s motherliness becomes a source of strength as she’s able to support Zuko in his fight with Azula and know when to step in and save the day, Aang faces his fears and confronts Ozai, but without neglecting his cherished beliefs, and my beloved Sokka realises that there are many different ways to perform masculinity, and the way where you share your strengths with awesome women and let them make up for your weaknesses is the best. And so on.) And the narrative gave them time to transform. Season One Zuko is very different to Season Two Zuko, who is different again from mid-Season Three Zuko, for example.

But in Korra, the characters start out fairly roughly drawn, and then don’t change. Korra is still headstrong and unfocused. Asami is still a characterless cipher. Lin gains no depth upon the discover that she and Tenzin used to be a couple. Mako seems simply a prize to be fought over by Korra and Asami, while Bolin has no discernible personality beyond being funny and friendly. What is frustrating is that each character had potential. There was a story in how Mako felt responsible for his brother Bolin and how he learnt to recognise Bolin’s competence. There should have been a story about the deaths of Bolin and Mako’s parents. The fact that one was a firebender and one was an earthbender in a world still reeling from Fire Nation aggression should have been brought to the fore. But instead they’re merely killed by Republic City criminals in order to get them out of the way so that Mako and Bolin can be standard fantasy adventure story orphans. There was a story in Asami’s relationship with her father. And above all, there should have been a story in Korra’s journey towards becoming the kind of Avatar her era needed. But none of this has happened. All we’re left with is a series of events in which one character or another does something awesome and brave. That’s all very well, but when the end result is merely that every character can be described as ‘badass’, we have a problem.

And that problem lies in the narrative. Quite simply, not enough happens. In a twenty-two-episode show, slow pacing is understandable. In a shorter season, it’s unforgivable. Way too much time was wasted on the pro-bending. It should have been a small background detail, but instead it tied up the narrative for the first half of the series. More emphasis should have been given to the fact that Korra – like every Avatar before her, it seems – is stuck dealing with problems caused by the previous Avatar. Above all, the narrative should give her reasons to grow and change. The problem is, the writers were backed into a corner by the fact that Korra (along with all the other characters) lacked much of a personality to begin with. And if you’re going to set your entire series in one location, you’d better make sure that this is supplemented with bucketloads of character growth.

This brings me to my third point. One of the best things about ATLA was the mobility of the central characters. They were constantly travelling, and this meant that the viewers managed to see and experience the myriad cultures that made up this richly-imagined world. We saw how the whole world fit together, how different places affected each other, and how the characters were transformed by the places they visited. Who can forget Sokka donning Kyoshi warrior makeup and learning not to be such a sexist idiot? Or Zuko going on a date in Ba Sing Se and realising that the Fire Nation was just one part of a rich and wonderful world? Or Mai in the Boiling Rock, discovering the strength within herself to stand up to Azula?

The problem with setting an entire show in Republic City is not the static location per se, but rather the fact that the writers aren’t doing enough to make the city interesting. They seem more concerned with saturating us with what they think is cool about the world 70 years post-ATLA (metalbending police force! pro bending! predatory criminal gangs! technology!) rather than showing how all those things evolved out ATLA society and fit together, and how these things shape the characters.

Which brings me to my next point: the massive analogy fail which is the Equalists. Like many things in Korra, the idea behind the Equalists is interesting and good, but poorly executed. It makes sense that people without bending power would be resentful of those who had – we saw it with Sokka, after all. Except ATLA was full of examples of people who had worked out ways to get the best of those with bending abilities. Suki and the other Kyoshi warriors, Ty Lee, Mai, Jet and his rebels, the Machinist and even Sokka himself by the end of the series are more than a match for even the most talented of benders. Even the Fire Nation colonial forces were an example of benders and non-benders working together towards a common goal. Yes, Amon is annoyed at benders on a personal level because they took his bending away, and people are resentful because benders have formed criminal gangs, but it’s never portrayed as being reasonable anger.

This is where the analogy failure comes in. It’s pretty clear that Republic City is meant to be an analogue to a cosmopolitan Chinese city in the ’20s – Shanghai, probably. Which gives the Equalists the unfortunate implication of being an analogue to the Chinese communist movement. Which, well, no. Leaving aside the later horrors committed by the Communist regime when it was in power, the movement – like most left-wing movements of the time – arose out of a genuine sense of anger at the inequalities and injustices of society at the time. Right-wing critics of Evil Socialism™ always portray it as a movement of bitter people who resent the abilities and possessions of others and want to take those abilities and possessions away in order to reduce everyone to the same level. As a social democrat, I say ‘huh’? What most people to the left of the political spectrum want is to create a system where everyone starts on an equal footing. Not by taking things away from those with power, but by enabling those without power to have those things too. The Equalist analogy doesn’t work. (For it to work, they’d have to be giving bending to everyone, not taking it away.)

From this rather ranty post, you’d think I hate Korra. If I hated it, I would have stopped watching. What I feel, overwhelmingly, is disappointment. ATLA was so good, so rich and rewarding. I fell in love with its world and its characters, I cried at their pain and rejoiced in their hard-earned victories. I feel completely detached from the characters of Korra. I think the Airbabies are adorable, and I find the fight scenes breathtaking and the artwork pretty. But I don’t appreciate anything on a deeper level. My overall impression of Korra that it is a rushed, circumscribed and superficial series. I wouldn’t mind so much, but compared to ATLA, which was well-paced, boundless and full of depth, it feels like such a waste.