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Tell them stories, twenty years on October 17, 2017

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fandom, fangirl, memories.
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Twenty years ago (or nineteen years, nine months, and about twenty days ago, if you want to get really technical), I was a restless thirteen-year-old, stuck inside during a rainy week on holiday down the south coast of New South Wales. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, which meant that I was carting around a massive haul of books, given to me for both my birthday and Christmas. I had read all my new books — all except one, whose cover put me off. My younger sister, fed up with me moping around the house complaining of ‘nothing to read,’ made the very sensible point that I hadn’t read that book. ‘I don’t like books about animals,’ I objected. She insisted. I am forever grateful that she did. Feeling resentful, I sat down to read Northern Lights (or, as my edition was called, The Golden Compass), the first in Philip Pullman’s sweeping, expansive children’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. I was hooked from the first page, inhaled the book in one sitting, and, once I’d finished it, opened it up at the beginning and reread it without pause. I reread the book four times over the course of that one-week holiday.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like, to read that story as a thirteen-year-old. I was already a voracious reader, and I had already encountered many beloved stories, books I would reread incessantly, or borrow repeatedly from the local library. There were already books I felt fannish about, and whose characters I identified with and drew courage from. But this was different. It was like being seen for the first time. It was as if ideas, beliefs and fears I had long felt but was not yet able to articulate had been given voice and shape on the page. As a teenager, my many rereads of Northern Lights (and, after impatient waits of one year and three years, respectively, for its follow-ups The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) helped guide both my reading tastes, and my burgeoning sense of political awareness. My love of the series got me a paid newspaper reviewing gig at the age of sixteen, and I continued to freelance as a reviewer for various Australian broadsheets for ten years after that.

Ten years ago (or, if you want to get technical, ten years, nine months, and a couple of days ago), I was in a bad place. I had returned to my hometown after graduating university, and although I had a good job and a lot of family support, I was desperately unhappy, and felt isolated and directionless. All my friends seemed to have adjusted to adult life in a way that I was incapable of, and I felt left behind. In a fit of desperation I — who mistrusted the internet and who barely went online except to check email — typed ‘His Dark Materials fansite’ into Google. I found something that saved me. 2007 was not a good year, but it was made infinitely more bearable by the incredible collection of people — most of whom lived on the other side of the world — who hung out in the forums of that site. Most of them had been there for years, and were all talked out about His Dark Materials, so instead they analysed other books, shared music tips, or just vented about their daily lives. Although by their standards I was a latecomer, they welcomed me with open arms. For a long time, the only thing that got me through the day was the prospect of hanging out in the IRC chat room they’d set up — the international composition of this group of fans (plus the fact that most of them were students or otherwise kept odd hours) meant that someone was always around at all hours. This was my first foray into online fandom, and I made friends for life. Meeting the sraffies — as we called ourselves — was like coming home. Being with them was, like reading the books that had brought us all together, like being seen for the first time. I was able to relax and be myself and feel safe in a way that I hadn’t really anywhere since becoming an adult. Ten years have passed since then, and the group of us have gone through so many things together. We’ve graduated from university, changed jobs and careers, had books and academic articles published, moved cities, emigrated, fallen in and out of love (in some cases, with each other), mourned deaths, and supported each other through whatever life threw at us. We travel specifically to meet up with each other, and if work, study, or holidays bring us by chance to each others’ cities, we make a point to hang out. One of the friends I met through His Dark Materials was even a bridesmaid at my wedding.

I recently did a reread of the trilogy, wanting to refresh my memory before reading Pullman’s much anticipated foray back into the world of His Dark Materials. I was anxious that it wouldn’t affect me as it had when I was younger, that I would pick up on flaws, that its emotional notes would leave me unmoved. I shouldn’t have worried. Reading Pullman’s words again, returning to that world, was like falling into water. Like the best and most meaningful of stories, it gave me something different, as it had done with each reread, and reading it as a thirty-two-year-old woman was different to reading it as a thirteen-year-old girl, or when I was in my twenties. But, like Lyra relearning to read the alethiometer as an adult after losing the unconscious ease with which she read it as a child, it was a deeper, richer experience — not better, not worse, just different. In the years since I first opened Northern Lights and read those resonant first words, Lyra and her dæmon, I’ve finished high school. I’ve graduated three times from two different universities, with an Honours degree, MPhil, and doctorate. I’ve changed careers three times. I’ve emigrated, lived in two new countries, acquired a new citizenship, learnt two new languages (as well as many dead languages), presented at conferences, been published academically in two very different fields, fallen in love, had my heart broken, and fallen in love again. In those years, I found my home, and I found myself again. In other words, I’ve done exactly what His Dark Materials urges: live, as much as I can, feel, as much as I can bear, and learn, as much as I am able. On Thursday, I will collect my preordered copy of La Belle Sauvage, the first of Pullman’s prequel trilogy that will return readers to the world of His Dark Materials. I will sit down and read it in a desperate, yearning rush. I wonder what the twenty years that follow will bring. I know that having read this new book — and those that follow — will help me cope with whatever those next years throw at me.

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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).

Hold your colour October 23, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in fandom, fangirl, music.
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Pendulum as a band is extremely concerned with the visual elements of music. I don’t mean that they care hugely about image, but that their music is all about visualisation. (Most particularly colour: they have albums called Hold Your Colour and Immersion, after all.) Each album is about construction: they start with the kernel of an idea and gradually build upon it. It’s a story, but a small story (that is, not in the same way that Massive Attack’s album Mezzanine is the story of the beginning, decline and end of a relationship), a single idea that slowly expands and becomes refined. It doesn’t progress, it just becomes clearer.

(And thus Hold Your Colour is about a journey through space, In Silico begins in outer space but shifts the focus to a siege or a doomed relationship, Immersion is essentially a journey beneath the waves, with hints and allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.)

The emphasis in particular is on colour, made explicit through song titles and lyrics, but the connection is more complex than that. They evoke colours and imagery through their sounds. (Hold Your Colour, the most electro-sounding album, evokes video games and computer games through its heavy use of smooth, flowing synth. When I hear it, I see pixels and rushing galaxies.)

[This is an old post, a fragmentary series of scribblings I discovered on a handout from some long-forgotten seminar on aideda or death-tales in medieval Irish literature. Obviously it was a thrilling seminar.]

Fridged daughters, wayward sons June 13, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in fandom, fangirl, reviews, television.
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I finally feel able to put down a few scattered thoughts about the latest season of Supernatural. [Naturally, these thoughts will be full of spoilers.] Before I do so, however, let’s get this out of the way: Supernatural has an appalling track record in matters of race and gender. Pretty much every female character and PoC on the show has been killed.* The treatment of Lisa in this season amounted to little more than depicting her as a vehicle for Dean’s moral development, and the way her story ended was disgraceful. Supernatural always has been the story of a bunch of straight, white men.** I recognise this, I know it’s wrong, and I wish it could be otherwise. With that said, I am now going to speak exclusively about what happened to these straight, white men in the show’s most recent season.

One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write anything about Supernatural‘s latest season is that the reactions and rhetoric among different segments of the fandom have been particularly vitriolic and I wanted to let the dust settle and my thoughts collect themselves before saying anything myself. Broadly speaking, there have been two reactions to the season finale, representing two major groups within the fandom: fans of Castiel (who may or may not be Cas/Dean shippers) and those who view Castiel as a one-season character who diverts from the show’s true purpose, the story of the two brothers (who may or may not be Wincest fans).

Their reactions can be summed up thus: Castiel had no choice but to do what he did, Dean is a terrible and ungrateful person, because everything Cas did, he did out of love for Dean (and, to a lesser extent, Sam and Bobby), which is the attitude of the Cas fans, and that Cas did something unforgivable, Dean has been betrayed and now the show can return to its roots, which is the attitude of the anti-Cas faction.

I think both sides have a point. When I was reviewing Season 5, over on Livejournal, I made the point that, at its heart, Supernatural is a show about communication, with characters who for various reasons find communication extremely difficult:

The characters in Supernatural – the Winchester brothers, and an ever-changing group of others (I hesitate to call them ‘secondary characters’) – are misfits because they struggle with emotions and connections. They cannot deal with, process or express emotions, and they cannot form meaningful relationships – or rather, they struggle to articulate how much said meaningful relationships mean to them. Everything is so repressed and bottled up insides – feelings (of fear, of self-hatred, of rage, of despair) and words are internalised, never demonstrated or spoken. On watching it, I was struck by how, for the main characters (Dean in particular, but all of them have it to a certain extent), words seemed to be forced out with great effort as a sort of desperate, last resort. Unlike the characters of a Whedon show, who use words as weapons both defensive and offensive, the Winchesters and their gang are repeatedly tricked, deceived and manipulated by words, and as such, they don’t trust them.

This emphasis on communication continues in Season 6. I was repeatedly struck by how easily all their problems would be resolved if the characters could’ve just spoken honestly to one another. Instead, they keep things from one another. They justify this by saying it’s for the other characters’ own good. And so Dean is kept in the dark about Sam’s resurrection because he has supposedly earned a picket-fence existence with Lisa as a reward for stopping the apocalypse and should be left in peace. Cas doesn’t tell the brothers about his deal with Crowley in order to spare their feelings, and he doesn’t let them have a great deal of knowledge about his conflict with Raphael, which is mostly kept off-screen. Dean tries to keep the true danger of reensoulment from Sam, and above all, no one speaks openly to one another.

Cas was backed into a corner, but not because of Dean’s ingratitude. He had spent the past two seasons enjoying a crash course in moral ambiguity at the side of the Winchesters, and yet is completely unable to comprehend why this most recent piece of moral ambiguity (making a deal with the devil, essentially) is intolerable to them. If he had given them greater access to the true horror of what he faced, he wouldn’t have fallen into this trap.

The Winchesters, and in more recent seasons, Castiel, are repeatedly shown that united they are invincible, divided they fall. I suspect that Bobby – the least damaged and only sensible main character on the show – knows this already, but, due to the whole communication problem, is unable to satisfactorily convey this to the others. Just as the Supernatural characters cannot talk, they cannot listen. They are slowly learning from their mistakes, but until the learn this one thing, I don’t see much in the way of sunshine and happiness for any of them.

______________________________
* The exception is Becky, but since she’s a meta-character whose purpose is to reflect and interrogate the show’s fans, I wouldn’t read too much into this.
**And how interesting it might’ve been if Sam or Dean (or both) had been female. Instead of a show about two brothers, one dutiful, one rebellious, we could’ve had a dutiful sister, or a younger sister keen to escape the family and live out in the world. Oh well.

Honour among ‘thieves’ May 4, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in fandom, internet.
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Please note, the word ‘thieves’ is in quotation marks for a reason: it’s ironic. I certainly don’t view fanfic as theft – quite the opposite. Also note that this post contains spoilers for Gillian Rubinstein’s novel Terra-Farma.

Some of you may have noticed author Diana Gabaldon’s rant against fanfiction. As well as this highly condescending post, she goes on in her comments to compare fanfic writers to paedophiles, spouse-stealers, flower-thieves and lynch mobs. (Surely a Nazi comparison isn’t too far away.) I am not intending here to address her ‘points against fanfiction’; her commenters, many of whom are producers and consumers of fanworks themselves, have been doing so with great eloquence for a while now. What I intend to do here is comment more broadly on the kind of mindset that provokes opinions like Gabaldon’s.

Fanfic can seem alarming when you first discover it. I remember the first time I heard of fanfic. I was about 16, it was the early 2000s, and one of my school friends told me in hushed, horrified whispers that ‘people wrote stories about Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. As a couple. ON THE INTERNET!‘ I was shocked and disturbed. I didn’t really understand why anyone would want to do such a thing, or how such people could see such a relationship in Rowling’s fiction. But I wasn’t involved in online fandom at all then (in fact, I detested the internet), and I promptly forgot about Harry/Draco slash.

When I got involved with online fandom (in 2007), fanfiction came back on my radar, and I was more equipped to think about it in a less sensationalist manner. What suddenly occurred to me was that, in my own way, I’d been writing fanfic my entire life.

As a small child, I’d been obsessed with a short story called ‘The Deep One’, where a prisoner named Sam is thrown into the eponymous dungeon, only to realise that he’s already dead and is haunting the gaol. I promptly began playing a game (which I would pick up on and off for years) where I was a female prisoner called Sam(antha) who lived in a modern-day gaol with the entrance to The Deep One being a trapdoor under her cell. A modern-day AU, with added gender-bending!

My sister and I spent ages writing picture books about dinosaurs who went to boarding school. We were writing crossover fic based on the boarding school novels we read, and a series of books where dinosaurs go to school in a modern USian setting!

As a teenager, I wrote a dreadful, novel-length story where Pagan Kidrouk from the Pagan Chronicles married a medieval Irish woman called Amber (Amber spelt R-O-N-N-I) and they had twins named Lyra and Pantalaimon. A crossover fic! With a self-insert Mary-Sue!

I also rewrote the ending of Gillian Rubinstein’s Terra-Farma book so that Allyman and Presh escaped, lived for a while in Coogee and then started working at Cirque du Soleil Alegría, being chased by Project Genesis Five the entire time. A fix-it fic!

What I was doing was a crude, less intelligent version of what most fanficcers do when they create a fanwork: engaging with elements of my favourite stories as a way of expressing my deep love of said stories. This is what Gabaldon, in her condemnation of ficcers as thieves and rapists, profoundly fails to grasp.

Some ficcers might be writing in order to get writing practice, or to reach an inbuilt audience, or to garner praise, or because they’re unable to create original characters of their own, but ultimately, what they are doing is expressing their love for a particular story, their love of writing, and their love of communicating with a group of like-minded people. The difference between the Naruto slashficcer on Fanfiction.net and my self-insert Pagan/His Dark Materials crossover, between the writer of that Merlin high school AU and the Emma high school AU that is Clueless is one of quality and degree, not in kind.

One thing I’ve discovered in the years I’ve been online is that most fans have a highly developed sense of morals about the works with which they’re engaging, and the creators of those works. No ficcer would dream of claiming ownership of their source material; most fics begin with disclaimers. Authors who are opposed to fanfic are generally well-known (I, for example, know that Anne Rice, Anne Bishop, Robin McKinley and Anne McCaffrey have requested that people do not create fic based on their stories) and their wishes are respected. None of the commenters on Gabaldon’s journal were suggesting that she was wrong to ask them not to write fic, and I daresay most of them will comply with her wishes. What they were objecting to was being told that they were an immoral bunch of thieves.

The whole debate reminds me of a spat I got involved with on Livejournal a while back. I followed the blog of Karen Miller, an Australian fantasy author who also writes Star Wars tie-in novels. She posted an angry rant about fans who perceived a gay subtext in her latest Star Wars book, and seemed unable to grasp that the fact that the fans were reading a gay subtext into the book did not take away her own interpretation of the book.

What I see happening is partly generational and partly related to the extent to which such authors engage with online fandom (since there is some overlap between age and lack-of-online-participation). I see a profound incomprehension of postmodern, remix culture. For authors such as Gabaldon, there is a book, and its meaning is limited to what the author intends it to mean, and readers interact with it passively.

But we live in a world where Danger Mouse makes a mashup of The White Album by The Beatles and The Black Album by Jay-Z and calls it The Grey Album. A world where people paste satirical subtitles on the bunker scene in Downfall and stick the heads of Batman and The Joker onto the figures in ‘Caramelldansen’. A world where Emma and The Taming of the Shrew can be transplanted to 90s American high schools and a bunch of university students in the US can make a musical of Harry Potter. And a world where, yes, I can imagine what would’ve happened if Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale or Castiel had been a demon instead of an angel or the vampires from Twilight had found themselves transported to ninth-century Ireland or, Goddammit, where Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter were doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel over the course of seven books – and write stories about all these ‘what ifs’ and share them with other people.

What Gabaldon doesn’t seem to understand is that none of this has any effect on the words that she has put on the page. Her book is still there. I’m reminded of what Philip Pullman said, when asked what he thought of the film adaptation of Northern Lights (called The Golden Compass) ruining his book. He went to the bookshelf, pulled a copy of Northern Lights from it and said, ‘Look. Here is my book. It’s not ruined. It’s right here, and that film, whatever its quality, doesn’t change that.’

Gabaldon is completely within her rights to request that no fanfic be written about her works, and I suspect if she’d done so, the reaction would’ve been very different. Where she falls down is where she suggests that fanfic writers are somehow lesser, bad fans. They are not. They are engaging with the objects of their fannish devotion in a way that is natural to them. They are participating in a multilayered, ongoing discussion of the source material among like-minded fans. They are not claiming to own the source material. What they own is their reaction to it, and calling them thieves and rapists does not take away the ownership of that reaction.

To conclude, I’d like to restate what I said in relation to the Karen Miller Star Wars debacle:

‘Your book is not my book. I may not see what you want me to see, but I’ll defend to the death your right to see it.’ And I’ll defend to the death the value of fanfic as a form of fannish engagement.