Monday, May 25, 2015

Political Fantasy Writing vs. Avoidance

    To cope with the onslaught of the world, so to speak, I've learned to start compartmentalizing in terms of what I could do with the shocking or devastating information I learn, how I could use it in a book, whether that quote or that statistic could be incorporated into my latest story. Not "how can I take action and make people aware of this?" or "how can I change this?" but "how could this fit into my novels?"
    This is a problem.
    On Friday I was at a talk on the state of Gaza after the Israeli war last summer, and I was trying so hard not to break down into sobbing the whole time, I was trying to see these pictures and hear these stories with a distant ear, a writer's ear, so that I could channel this devastation and this tragedy at a later moment.
    But this voice in my head nagged me, saying, "their tragedies are not yours to use, to take and bend and put in a book set in a universe that will never exist, with characters who live only in your head."
    Why was I trying to keep this distance, trying not to cry? It wasn't that I wanted to remain unmoved by the accounts of terror and desperation and misery, but that I feared being broken by them. That it was easier to process if I transplanted their stories into my imaginary world.
    But that is not where they are happening. Those collapsed buildings and shattered homes and tortured people, I did not invent them and they will not go away if I tie them neatly into my fantasy stories.
    I like to think that I write fantasy because I can make political commentary subliminally, that I can worm subversive thoughts into people's heads without them realizing what I am actually talking about. But maybe I also write about fantasy worlds because I am afraid to write about the real one. Afraid to co-opt stories that aren't mine, afraid to "get it wrong," afraid to face what is going on here for real, instead of piecing together a fantasy world based on Palestine-Vietnam-Iraq-Chile-whatnot.
    I went to a writing conference where the keynote speaker was Aminatta Forna, an author from Sierra Leone, who spoke of writing about politics and how in the Western world, so many see this as taboo, a borderline that fiction should not cross. Whereas in the rest of the world, almost every book is inherently political, because "politics"--that icky, gritty sphere we like to keep at arm's length--colors every aspect of people's lives in a way that we over here have likely never experienced. We can live in our snow globes and poke things away as we wish. If politics is too messy and unappealing (or, heaven forbid, won't sell well enough), we can just leave it by the wayside.
    I guess in my snow globe, I've been watching the world through the glass--not ignoring, never ignoring, but not interacting. I reach out and snare little pieces of what's swirling around out there, and then spin it into my own story so the snow-globe-bound might start to care about what's out there.
    But that is a limited narrative. And even reading the last paragraph, I notice how US-centric it is--"out there," especially. The people who live "out there" are inherently "not here"--it's othering. Do I write, then, from a divisive standpoint? Also, the ones here, the "snow-globe-bound," tend on the whole to be less bound by any outside forces than anyone else--it is their own fear or ignorance or indifference that keeps them stuck inside. They are not the ones who need the world brought to their doorsteps--it is already there, if they would care to see it.
    If I am employing this language, if I am focusing on little pieces of the world like I'm casting a selective fishing line through it, I am still seeing with snow-globe lenses. I am not representing anyone's story fully, I am bringing nothing to light. I am giving in to the same narrative that says "politics should stay out there, I don't really need to think about it." It is from a very privileged worldview indeed that I can say, "I don't want to think about that too hard because it makes me so desperately sad, so I'm going to put some of it in a story instead and distill it out so I can handle it."
    It makes me sad? I am afraid I will be broken by it? I, who live at such a reserve from all of this "war stuff," as a friend of mine deemed it? I must protect my delicate psyche by averting my metaphorical eyes from it? I can do that--it's been made so easy for me. But how many people can't, don't have that compartmentalizing option, to separate the terrors of the world from the everyday going-ons of their lives, because they are one and the same?
    Transferring those feelings and stories to fantasy also inherently brands them made-up, not real. And isn't that the last thing I want to do--dismiss the suffering around the globe (largely wrought by the US)--but is that what I have been unintentionally doing? Not extremely egregiously, I don't think, since of course the real world influences all stories we write, made-up or not, and there's a line between doing what I meant to do--placing real-world events in a fantasy context to generate new thinking about the world--and avoiding it. Armed with avoidance tactics is not how I want to live in and view the world.
    Some sorts of these thoughts have been germinating in my head since I heard Aminatta Forna give her talk. If I want to write about politics, if I want to crack the snow globes, why must I stick to a hypothetical situation loosely based on catastrophes happening right here and now? If I want to write a story influenced by the US war on Vietnam, why not set the story in Vietnam? Why not write about the Palestinian children in the presentation I saw, rather than pluck up their stories and replant them elsewhere? Can not a story set in its own habitat be more powerful than any distant, distorted reflection?
    Fantasy often need be a vehicle to talk about the real world, but need not be one to avoid that real world. If I am trying to escape it, trying not to feel the intense sorrow and pain and horror of the world by imagining how I could use it in my stories, I am doing no one a good service. Fantasy writing as activism is a powerful thing only so long as it does not keep me from fighting for and with the real people whose lives influenced my writing. And that's what I'm afraid my compartmentalizing of our horror-wracked world has been doing.

Monday, May 18, 2015

On Walking

     This isn't my usual sort of post--not political, not organized or angry or anything, just a scattered account of this restlessness that's gotten worse lately, and turned up in this very strange wandering session last Saturday. I haven't parsed the significance, if there is some, and I don't think myself really the type to delve into philosophical meaning, at least not right now, but I just want to record this, and maybe come back to it sometime.
     So. I'd just gotten off the train after a LGBTQ festival thing, and I was walking home when I took a detour off on a side street that ran past my first elementary school. I realized I was walking very slowly, sort of meandering, but meandering always had this light quality to it, like one was so wrapped up in the day or their thoughts that it just carried them around, buoyed them. I was wandering, which has a foggier, heavier pull to it.
     I started out singing Rise Against songs, because that's what I do when I walk, I sing--but by the time I got to the elementary school I'd moved on to Jackson Browne and Roz Brown. I walked past this little woods path that goes along an aqueduct, and I usually dislike woods and walking, but I deliberated for a few moments and then swerved to walk along the aqueduct. I'd sort of expected it to be enclosed and sheltered and quiet, a little enclave next to a school parking lot on a Saturday, but instead it edged up against people's houses, right into their backyards. I could see kids playing on a trampoline and I could hear a baseball game going on and it wasn't any kind of quiet retreat like I suppose I was looking for. I wasn't planning to sit on a log and think Deep Thoughts, per se, but I just wanted it to be quiet, to be alone.
     I walked up to a baseball diamond and felt very much like the scary punk kid who's always skulking in the background of public parks, the one the parents shield the children from. So I walked back the way I came and just kept going till I got to the library, taking all the back roads so I wouldn't have to decide whether or not to go home, since I really didn't want to go home just then but if opportunity presented I would have to choose, and I'm not so good at that.
     I got it in my mind that I needed to find this book by Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust, which I'd heard of but not felt the need to read before, since walking and wandering had never been something I'd been compelled to do--I mean, I walk to school every day and I've never felt so restless, so in need of someplace to wander, and keep wandering. But the library didn't have the book, so I got out several other Rebecca Solnit books and now am plowing through them. One's called The Field Guide to Getting Lost, and I guess I was a little lost on Saturday, or trying to find a place where I could find things or figure things out, but I couldn't get lost enough maybe. (Though I did wear my combat boots to pieces walking all over my town.) I want to travel desperately, though I think I've probably romanticized it in my head and the world's nowhere safe enough for me to traipse off to all these countries I want to see without some preparation, but I could list handfuls in an instant if you asked me where I want to go--Morocco, Iran, Venezuela, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Kiribati, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Mexico... It goes on.
     I'm always threatening to go run away to Mexico or Canada or planning to drive across the country with my friends once I can drive and can get or rent a car, and now I know why, and what I want to find on that journey. I want to get lost, and I want to become found.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

On the Tsarnaev Trial Verdict

     I was about to leave a school club yesterday afternoon when a kid lifted his computer to show us the screen, with a Twitter news alert which read "Boston bomber sentenced to death."
     The room went silent, and I just felt this seeping exhaustion, like turning around a corner on an easy walk to find a sudden grueling uphill. I closed my eyes.
     I don't know which I would rather wish for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: death or a life condemned to the US prison system. I am appalled to find myself wondering whether the latter might be the worse option, that the death penalty of all things could be mercy for this young man.
     With how horrible this affair has been--and I mean the entire affair, not just the bombings but the atmosphere afterwards, the SWAT team manhunt through Watertown, the media's portrayal of the event and the perpetrators, the rapid, ubiquitous adoption of Boston Strong, the calls for capital punishment from people I thought would have abhorred such an institution--I might be glad that it's drawing to a close, but I am still sickened that this is how it is ending.
     And it is not even really over: the media was exclaiming this morning that an appeal could take ten years--so a decade from now, all this frenzy, all this pumped-up patriotism, all this shallow appropriated sorrow, all of it could be dredged back up for us to feed on. So we can continue to fear sensationally for our country and ourselves, to support or pity the victims but never seek the deeper causes of their suffering, to condemn the bombers and their religion with no soul-searching of our own.
     I am also reminded that the family of a victim of the bombing specifically asked that Tsarnaev be kept alive and made to spend his life in prison rather than receive the death penalty. Beyond all helpless fury or bitter sadness I feel over the verdict, it is denying the families the closure they asked for. What kind of closure beyond a sick satisfaction could the death penalty ever bring us?
     The US is the only country in this hemisphere with the death penalty. Think about that. Think about our foreign policy of capital punishment, too--all the wrong-place-wrong-time crimes around the world that have been penalized by death thanks to the US military machine. Think about civilians incinerated in Pakistan by drones; think about prisoners tortured in Iraq; think about every leader we've overthrown and every country on which we've visited chaos, violence and unendurable suffering. Think of how very much we've done to provoke hatred.
     I don't condone the Boston Marathon bombing. I grieve the dead and wounded, and I remember that day well; my father and brother were barely a few blocks away when the explosions went off, and it was terrifying when they called me to assure me they were safe while I watched muddled, panicked news reports of bombs and death hit the internet. But if the brothers truly were acting out of fury at the US's overseas can I say they did not have just cause?
     9/11 was blowback, mostly-unforeseen consequences of this country's actions--consequences few expected and fewer connected the dots for. Our collective response consisted, unhelpfully, of more of the same policies that provoked the attack. The Boston Bombing response was not, of course, as severe--we didn't start two wars, for one--but the same deprivation of context is evident. Acts of terror are rarely entirely senseless and groundless. They only appear that way because we lack the context to understand their motivations. Disproportional, irrational, futile it may be, but terror in the general political sense springs from deep wounds of injustice, which are rarely in the public eye. This lack of understanding only creates a breeding ground for more blowback. An endless positive feedback loop of destruction, if you will.
     I also suppose the Tsarnaev trial jurors might have been thinking of themselves and the repercussions they personally could face from fanatics who would have been furious to see Tsarnaev live. It's the patriotic thing, I suppose. The need to feel vindicated, to imagine that "justice"--in this country so devoid of it--has been served up, like dead meat on a dinner plate.
     Eye for an eye, are you happy now? Just as everyone wanted--more collateral damage, so many wrongs that will never be made right. Eye for an eye.
     No wonder this country is blind.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

An Entreaty Against Indifference

"When it all comes down, will you say you did everything you could?"

The answer to this question, when it comes time for me to give it, I hope with all my heart will be yes. I'm not an activist because I think it's trendy, or for the shock value of telling people I tried to push through a police barricade once. I fight--and I'm not even a particularly strong fighter or one who's seen much of the world or thrown themself in much danger--because I am a privileged American who refuses to add apathetic to that already condemnable description.

Today I was trying to explain to my brother two things that I learned in eighth grade that took until ninth grade to actually sink in: the construct of race, and neoliberalism. The construct of race exploded into a heated and dead-end discussion/argument in my eighth grade class, and for that one my brother was mostly just dismissive of what had been up for debate, why it mattered. The nuances of racial relations are already something I've come up against a brick wall with him about (a la microaggressions...), but today I was just frustrated to tears again.

A thing I loathe about myself is my inability to keep cool and logical during arguments; I lose my eloquence, I sometimes lose my voice. My mother told me I sounded too lecturing or some such today, and I wish I could exchange that tone for one of compassionate urgency, but I only come off as pleading, I think.

I didn't understand neoliberalism when my teacher tried to explain it in eighth grade, beyond thinking, "Oh, Anti-Flag sings about that. I know what it is. It's bad." And yeah, it's bad, but I had no idea what I was talking about until I read The Shock Doctrine, learned about economics and foreign policy and the US's legacy of overthrowing democracy abroad while subverting it at home...etc. Etc. So I was trying to explain why one ought to actually care about neoliberalism, and foreign policy, and my brother simply says, well, if he doesn't want to go into politics, why should he know all this? Why should he know about every terrible thing that goes on in this world when he'll never be able to change them?

This is something I come up against time and time again--why should I care? Why should I bother to change things? And, of course, the perennial "Of course I understand that it's bad, but I don't want to know all this--it'll make me too depressed."

To which I say a) you know what does not help with depression? Apathy. And b) you know what is depressing to me? Yes, wars and climate change and the agonizing suffering of the victims of US policies and all those things are depressing, but what is worst to me is how the people who have the most potential to effect change and the most power to demand action are often the most content to sit back and watch from their armchairs or through their TV screens as if this protest, that shooting, this bombing, that war, this overthrow, that suicide, this natural (or not so) disaster is just another commercial break before we return to the viewing of what we really care about.

We meaning generally white, generally middle- or upper-class, generally American people. The ones who can most easily ignore. The ones who are taught apathy and consume it like candy. The ones who are fed individualism until we are so disconnected and dismissive that we are the worst kind of hive mind.

And yes, when I impel my brother to act, when I plead with him to care what is going on in the world, when I ask him how apathy could possible be better than the depression of facing the world--yes, I know that he alone or I alone will not shake the world's foundations or change everything. But with every person who accepts the status quo and turns their back, how many die? How many of those who have no option of looking away will pay for the luxury of your indifference?

I know it sounds melodramatic when I say it aloud. But I have no idea how to break through to people who will never walk on the other side, who have every privilege you could possibly pull out of the privilege lottery, who will probably never understand a life in which political is something that you can't help but be.

My brother says yes, activism is important, but if he wants a well-paying job and a happy family, well, environmentalism won't cut it. But think about it--what are you really winning with that happy family and that nice job? How thick is your bubble? How long can you live like that, and only think of your own security? We live in a very rich-white-Jewish area, and the privilege bubbles here come safety-sealed and steel-reinforced. My brother attends a private school with the kids of upper-crust society, and the way they preach political correctness has turned him to mocking it instead of understanding the theory (a rant for another time). So I understand where his mindset springs from. I see it all the time. He is my archetype for the problem of privileged indifference, but he is not alone--and let me be very clear: he is hardly the worst. And I am no paragon either. I am not doing as much as I could, as I should. Don't let it be said that I think him heartless and uncaring; he knows more about the world than I'd wager most of his grade does. But the infection is there anyway, probably a contamination from the friends around whom activism and politics and selflessness are laughable, distant problems for distant people.

The thing is, you reap what you sow. The problems we have created and turned our backs on have festered while we hum away at creating new ones. The explosive fallout of American exceptionalism, of racism, of imperialism, of everything--that will not stay contained in faraway lands. We cannot drone-strike it out of existence. It will come back to roost. It is called blowback. So no matter how removed you are, how little you think you need to care, you will wish one day that you had paid attention. When it all comes down, you will be caught blindsided, with no context for what is crashing all around you. Remember 9/11? Oh, I'm sure you do. That was a taste of what I mean.

When it all comes down, my brother will have done barely a fraction of what he could. And that is what drives me to tears, what keeps me awake at night, what propels my ranting and my fury and ultimately, my activism. My need to answer that question (posed by Rise Against in the song The Eco-Terrorist In Me, by the way) with a yes. And hopefully-- "Yes, and I was hardly alone."