Monthly Archives: April 2018

Do All The Things

Pardon me while I talk about zombies again.

I’ve had several variations on the same conversation recently–re: diversity and inclusion in fiction–and I feel like the next step in working through my thoughts is to put them to writing. (If you’re among the people with whom I’ve had this conversation–and to be fair, if you’re reading this, you probably are–well…here we go again.)

The catalyst for these recent conversations was this tweet by The New Yorker‘s TV critic, Emily Nussbaum:

“One thing that barely even comes up in KILLING EVE is that four major characters are Asian & aside from their nationality, this isn’t an explicit factor in the show. It’s the best kind of baked-in inclusivity.”

 

Now, I haven’t seen Killing Eve and I could be taking this concept in a slightly different direction than she intended (the woman has a Pulitzer, after all, and I’m over here all trying to earn my Junior Critic’s Art Awareness badge), but “baked-in inclusivity” seems to be a great way of expressing a thing I’ve been trying to articulate for a while: namely, as she put it, including underrepresented characters without making diversity an “explicit factor.”

This is a thing that I tried to express while chatting with Thing 1 and Thing 2 about Zombies, Run! on their podcast. (There are other examples of this, of course, but this one has become my go-to.) When I first got into that story of post-apocalyptic England (back in early 2013, mind), one of the things that struck me was not that a main character is gay, but that we jump right into a rather heart-wrenching story about her and her lover without ever even doffing a cap to the “revelation” of a non-heterosexual character. Here’s Maxine, an American doctor and vital member of the team. Ten episodes later, here’s a recording of Maxine’s girlfriend’s (possible) final moments. This is going to sting a bit. Zombies detected, moving on.

Obviously, there’s long been a push for more diversity in storytelling, and I’m all for that. But what I realized with the Maxine experience (and then going back and taking note of what a range of genders, ethnicities and other human experiences are represented in ZR–something I hadn’t been conscious of at first because, again, they don’t stop to point it out) was that I’m accustomed to a level of self-consciousness accompanying diverse storytelling. As I said on the podcast, a non-heterosexual (or non-male, or non-white, etc.) character usually comes with some kind of doff of the cap, or self-congratulatory pat on the back, or some other nudge-nudge, wink-wink acknowledgement of this “other” quality, all, “see what we did there?”

Or, as Nussbaum pinpointed much better than I could, an Asian (or gay, etc.) character’s inclusion is often made “explicit to the story.”

The result of that explicitness is that diverse storytelling tends to feel like a PSA, like an after-school special about diversity…

…which make diverse stories feel less like nuanced artwork and more like tedious homework through which the audience is educated about the experiences  of these “other” people…

…which is to assume the audience requires this kind of explanation in order to accept the presence of these characters…

…which is to assume the story is speaking to an explicitly straight/white/cis/male audience…

…which is to assume that that straight/white/cis/male is the baseline for human existence.

When an explanation is used to justify the presence of non-white, non-straight, nonbinary characters, even diverse stories are still, to use a jingo-y verb, “othering” them.

That kind of self-consciousness bleeds through to the audience experience, I think. You can feel it. The implicit assumption is that straight/white/cis/male is the standard baseline, the “correct” or “normal” experience that’s reflected between audience and art. If you happen to be a person who deviates from that baseline, it’s great to see a character you can identify with, but you can still sense the character’s other-ness, and you still feel excluded. (I’m thinking back to the token tomboys in kids’ sports movies whose self-conscious backstory only underscored that I was an oddity. Of course the boys play sports; we need to explain why the girl is here.)

Yours are qualities that need explaining, that need justification. The “normal” characters just get to exist.

Thankfully, I think this kind of self-conscious inclusion is on the decline, and probably has been for a long while, especially in the better corners of the storytelling world. (In fact, let’s just acknowledge right now that the stuff that feels profound to me is very basic and old-hat to all of the folks who are smarter than I am. Plenty of people have had this shit figured out for a while now.)

That being said, my own slow epiphany tells me how vital it is to have these diverse stories charging forward without slowing down to explain themselves, to have this baked-in inclusivity. To have an apocalyptic landscape where female soldiers lead the way while sensitive young men tell you about their feelings, with a stable of athletes of all genders and ages and backgrounds (as well as a one-legged, bisexual Canadian dude), with romantic storylines for gay doctors and straight runners and trans scientists and a family with two moms and one dad, to have nonbinary heroes and pansexual foils, where the whole point of everything is really just to stick together and avoid being eaten by zombies.

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Inevitable Vacation

Soon-to-be-tidied “workspace.”

I’ve done it. I’ve finished the last assignment that had been churning in my anxieties. (“This is really good!” the surprise response from the editor.) I finished the sidebar, too, that had been pushed to the back burner by the main story and had, in its own way, been a source of intense anxiety all on its own. I submitted the invoice.

I submitted my tax return, too–also a stressor since well before the new year, and also, ultimately, with no reason for prolonged, anguished procrastination. (Huzzah, a refund! And a refund to rival a 300-word writeup or any other lone afternoon’s work.)

Ninety-nine percent of the time, a to-do list regenerates even as existing items are crossed off–new growth at the bottom creeps up as the top bits are pruned. But as of this moment, all of the things have been crossed off my list. Worrisome stasis. So now we wait.

We wait for freelance fees–and quite a few of them–to show up in the mail. We wait for new assignments, too.

Not that I don’t have plans for being proactive, and ones I look forward to. Tomorrow’s task will be to sort and stow the tax detritus that’s loomed on my table for four-plus months. Tuesday I have gift cards, and I plan to use them. Wednesday, a well-rested run. Thursday…I don’t know. Reading. Long walks. Playoff hockey. A trip to Target. Hopefully more self-driven writing projects. Hopefully for fun.

I’ve got to look for more work, too; obviously I do. But a day or two without a looming deadline is an opportunity, I think. An opportunity not to think.

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The Squirrel

 

 

T’was springtime (though in truth, quite hot),

I’d picked my book, I’d found my spot,

A cocktail and a comfy chair,

A plan for happy hours there.

 

Instead I fear I’ll ne’er forget

What happened next (I haven’t yet).

 

Settled under dappled sun,

I’d opened book and just begun

To read about some English rabbits

Who’d left their home and changed their habits

In search of far-off warrens that

Would keep them safe from owl, stoat, cat.

 

These creatures in their human text

Perhaps aroused what happened next:

 

For soon enough I came to sense

A presence on the nearby fence:

Grey and with a fuzzy tail

Was all I saw (I guessed him male):

A specimen Sciuridae.

He seemed a friendly little guy,

Who turned and bowed as if in greeting

And tempted me away from reading.

 

I felt o’erwhelming need to capture

This interspecies backyard rapture.

So poised my phone to take a pic,

And in that breath ere camera click,

My thoughts a thousand tales were spinning

Of this, our friendship, just beginning.

 

What exploits might befall a gal

And her new charming squirrel pal?

 

I dreamed perhaps we two might spend

Our afternoons as friend and friend.

He’d forage acorns as I read,

And when he felt himself full fed,

He’d laze away in nearby rays—

And that is how we’d spend our days:

And though there’d pass no words between us,

You’d know us friends had you but seen us.

 

Judge me harsh, I’m sure you do.

Hindsight hurts (and more things too).

That’s right, I thought I’d made a friend.

 

I’d learn my lesson, in the end.

 

For in that moment, eye to eye,

I failed to factor: squirrels fly.

And all my dreams aside were swept

When in that breath, the squirrel…he leapt.

 

Dear reader, hast thou aught experience

With airborne rodent interference?

Turns out my skills with sport and ball

Work not on squirrel. Not at all.

 

A twisty, turny grey torpedo

Launched at me as if I were tree, though

Nary leaves nor roots have I;

Instead of bark, my noble cry,

“SWEET HOLY JESUS WHAT IS HAPPENING!?”

Accompanied by flap and swing,

Did nothing to dissuade his flight.

Sailed past my limbs and did alight

Upon my shirt and clung securely.

 

I then responded, quite maturely,

With calm command, “Now down, Squirrel. Sit.”—

 

Just kidding, y’all: I lost my shit.

 

I tugged and flapped and spun and reeled,

I grunted, cursed, I cried and squealed.

(Neighbors who this whirlwind viewed

Might rightly guess I’d come unglued.)

 

The words I used can’t be repeated.

But in the end, my “friend” retreated.

 

And that, dear friends, is why I need

Four walls around me when I read.

He haunts me still, my psyche scarred,

I dare not set foot in the yard.

I tell this tale now safe inside.

If Squirrel comes back, please say I died.

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