Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eowyn - "I am no man": Woman warriors and gender bending in myth and story

When I was growing up, my immigrant parents seemed to think everything came from India. Like "Mr. Everything Comes from India" on the British serial Goodness Gracious Me, who thinks that Father Christmas is Indian, my parents often pointed out the Western cultural appropriation of all things Indian. (Among other things, Poseidon ripped his trident off of Shiva's trishul, and Yoda from Star Wars was apparently copied from a sketch from Sukumar Ray's book of nonsense rhymes Ha-ja-ba-ra-la - I don't know, George Lucas, take it up with the 'rents.)

But the other night, watching the tail end of one of my favorite (Western) stories of all time, the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein, I felt like I was channeling my parents. I happened to catch that amazing scene during the battle of Pelennor Fields outside of the White City of Minas Tirith (yes, I am a LOTR geek) in which Éowyn of Rohan confronts the Witch-King, Lord of the creepy Nazgul. She's disguised herself as a (male) soldier, a helmet over her long blond hair, and she is challenging the Witch-King after he has fatally injured her beloved uncle and king, Theoden. In the film, Mr. creepy Ring Wraith guy says something about how he can be felled by no man, and to that, (haha!) Éowyn sweeps off her helmet and says, "I am no man!" and totally, like, wastes him. It's pretty awesome.

But the scene from the book is even, I must contend, awesom-er.  You see, there's a 1,000 year prophecy that the Witch-king will not fall "by the hand of man." To which, Éowyn says,

"But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and king. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him."

(I told you. Totally awesome-er. Any declaration that uses the phrase "am I" followed by the phrase "I am" is inherently fabulous. Throw in a "begone" and the word "smite" and it's a winner, hands-down.)

But then, as I'm watching the film, something begins to nag at me. Where had I seen this particular scene before? Ah, yes, the myth of the Hindu goddess Durga. Which, sorry to say, totally, like, preceeds Tolkein. Being super-ancient and all.

You see, the buffalo demon Mahisa was wreaking havoc on all three worlds. Having received a boon from Bramha (in other versions of the story, from Shiva) that he could be killed by no man or god, he was pretty much indestructible. All the gods were distraught. "What should we do?" They wondered. Soon, there would be nothing left that was whole and unpolluted in this world or any other.

And so, they all got together and did the only logical thing. They made a woman. A warrior goddess to be precise. Durga, ten armed and mighty, astride a fierce lion. Wielding sword, discus, bow and arrow - the best weapons of each of the gods. Mother, savior, warrior - she is still the deity supremely worshiped in West Bengal, the region of India from where my family hails. (here she is smiting the buffalo demon - 'I am no god, but a goddess!')

Gender bending woman warriors are actually pretty common in Indian myths and epics. The Mahabharata is chock full of them (along with gender-bending men dressed as women - the heroic warrior Arjun, for instance, dresses as a female dance instructor during the years that he and his brothers the Pandavas must live in exile from their kingdom. For a great book on this see The Man who was a Woman and Other Queer Tales of Hindu Lore by Devdutt Patnaik).

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's dance drama Chitrangada, has a similar story line to the one of Éowyn at its heart too. Based on the Mahabharata character who was the wife of Arjun, Tagore's story is about the daughter of the king of Manipur, a brave warrior princess named Chitrangada, who is the only child of the king and therefore the heir to the throne. She dresses as a (male) soldier and protects her people valiantly. When the hero Arjun comes to Manipur, she falls instantly in love with him, but fears he won't love her as she is, all boy-ed up and all. (Sounds a bit like Éowyn's love for Aragorn, eh?) So Chitrangada prays that she may take the form of an irresistible woman - she does, and Arjun falls madly in love with her. But Chitrangada knows there is something missing - she wishes Arjun could love her for who she really is. When the kingdom is threatened, the people lament to Arjun that their warrior princess is missing. Arjun is moved by their stories about their brave princess and longs to meet her. And of course, Chitrangada appears as herself again, and fights alongside Arjun, who now loves her for her true self. (Take that, Aragorn!)

So, in the end, are my parents right? Does everything come from India? I'm not sure it's an argument worth pursing, beyond the fact that all writers are influenced by other myths and traditions, and that most world myths and traditions have echoes of each other, or at least, resonate with similar themes.

To me, what's most intriguing about at least the Indian tradition of woman warriors is a space for female power within the culture. And of course, the space for male and female energies to exist together - think of the Hindu figure of the Ardhanarishwara, half-man, half-woman.  From a more scholarly framework, what's at work here is also the suggestion that gender, as theorist Judith Butler has contended, is a type of performance with no 'inherent' qualities other than the performativity itself. Because what's happened, at least in Tolkein's tale of Éowyn, is that gender has been reduced to a semantic. Darkness cannot be defeated (by a man)? Well, then it'll just have to be defeated by a woman.

But of course the woman warrior in Western or Eastern story does not signal some sort of freedom from sexism or gender. Quite the opposite. This type of gender-trickery only works because we still use phrases like "by the hand of no man" to be synonymous with "by the hand of no one." The moment the male gender stops standing for the universal human is the moment that this slight of (gendered) hand stops being interesting. But of course, that's not the case yet.  Because we all still gasp when Eowyn removes her helmet, and cheer when she delivers her line. Not unlike that old puzzle about the female surgeon,* the woman warrior is still the exception to the rule. Hopefully, not too much longer. 



[*You know the one, a boy is in an accident in which his father dies. He is brought to the hospital, where the surgeon says "I cannot operate on this boy, he is my son." How is this possible?]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Indian Ghosts and Demons Like to Rhyme: "Guest Ghost" spot on Pseudonymous Bosch Website

This week, I had the honor of being the "guest ghost" on "The Name of this Website is Secret" - the author website of Pseudonymous Bosch, author of such fabulous books as The Name of this Book is Secret and most recently This Isn't What it Looks Like. 
 
The story, "The Brahmin Ghost" is an adapted tale from the Bengali tradition of ghost stories - West Bengal being, of course, the Eastern region of India from where my family hails. If you read it, you'll see just how different Bengali ghosts are from Casper and your other traditional chain-clanking, boo-ing specters in the Western tradition.

Now one major difference between Bengali ghosts and demons and Western ones is their penchant for rhyming. Yes, they all tend to speak in rhyme, even when they are threatening to decapitate someone or suck the marrow from their bones. Although the ghosts in "The Brahmin Ghost" don't rhyme, I did begin the story with a poem about a ghost to give it that special Bengali supernatural flavor. Reprinted below is the poem and just the beginning of the story. To read it in full, go to the "guest ghost" post on the name of this website is secret!



The Brahmin Ghost

By Sayantani DasGupta


There is an old man in the coconut tree
He catches bad children will not let them free
Like long white radishes, two teeth hang
His back’s like a drum that no one dare bang
Floppy ears waggle in the north breeze
His eyes blaze like coals that make your blood freeze
A knotty old rope twists round his waist
He wanders through homes for children to taste
The boys who wail, he throws in a pail
He’ll box their ears with ghostly sneers

Be careful you children from far and from near
Be sure when you cry, the old man doesn’t hear!

--------

A long time ago, in a land called Bharat – a place that is now known as India, lived a man of the priestly caste, who was very poor. Despite being learned and good, the Brahmin knew there was no possibility of him finding a good wife without a hefty bride price.

“You’ll have to ask all our friends and neighbors to lend you the money,” his mother told him. “Lord knows you’ve done them enough favors over the years.”

And even though he was ashamed, this is what the Brahmin did. In those days, it would be unthinkable not to have a wife to complete his home. Besides, his father was long dead and although they loved each other, he and his mother sometimes got on each other’s nerves. It would be nice to have someone else around to talk to.

So beloved was the good Brahmin by all who knew him, that within a few weeks he had two enormous pots filled with gold. The Brahmin had enough to marry, and to feed all his friends and neighbors in great style.  There was feasting and merry-making for days, and everyone went home with a full heart and even fuller waistline. 

The Brahmin now had a beautiful and loving wife to talk to in the long evenings. And the Brahmin’s mother had someone young and strong to do all the things she didn’t like to do around the house, like fetch wood for the stove and cook the family meal.

Whenever the daughter-in-law would leave the house to gather wood, the Brahmin’s mother would say, “Remember to tie your hair neat and tight, daughter. They say the trees at the edge of the village are filled with ghosts.”

Now this may sound bizarre to you and me, but in those days, everyone knew that hollowed out trees were the favorite hiding spot for ghosts. Bhoot, petni, shakchunni, there were as many different types of ghosts in Bharat as there were people.  ...

(to read on, go here)

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Butler Gets a Break (A Bellweather Tale): Giveaway and Interview!

My first post as a blogger on From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors  is up! Here is a reposting, but leave comments there to enter to win!

Have you ever heard about the three most important aspects of a middle grade novel? Voice, voice, and, oh, yea, voice.

Luckily, Kristin Clark Venuti, author of Leaving the Bellweathers and The Butler Gets a Break, has it in spades. Or, maybe I should say that the real author of these novels has a wonderful MG voice. Because in writing her novels, Kristin partially channels the voice of a butler named Benway, who is 50% Jeeves and 50% Mother Theresa, sworn by an unfortunate “Oath of Fealty” to the Bellweathers, residents of the Lighthouse on the Hill in the village of Eel-Smack-By-The-Bay. The Bellweathers are “most chaotic family ever to live”: there’s the eyebrow waggling inventor Dr. Bellweather, the wall-painter Mrs. Bellweather, a son named Spider who saves Vicious Endangered Animals (including albino alligators & attack squirrels), a daughter named Ninda who advocates for the Oppressed (whether they like it or not), and a set of triplets named Brick, Spike and Sassy who think removing a few stairs from the staircase (thus causing the butler to break his leg) is an example of ‘negative space’ in art.

I was hoping to interview the intrepid Benway, but was happy that my first post as a new blogger on From the Mixed Up Files is a chat with Kristin Clark Venuti about writing, publicity, laundry, and the Power of Capitalization.


Check out the interview below – one lucky commenter will win … a butler! No, but you will win a copy of The Butler Gets a Break. How’s that for a New Year’s present?  (Winner announced Dec. 23rd on From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors):

When I was reading your wonderful novels, Kristin, I felt like you knew my deepest, darkest secret. Because the truth of the matter is, I have always wanted to have a butler (who hasn’t?): someone to do my laundry and dishes, feed me tea and crumpets with Devonshire cream, put my, er, ever-so-delightful children back to bed …  four hundred and eighty three times in the span of 30 minutes… Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Now Benway seems to have it hard. Those Bellweathers are not only Loud and Quirky but all too often Up To No Good.  Do you anticipate him successfully leaving the Bellweathers at any point? Or, er, leaving their bodies in some unmarked literary location?

Great question!  I too, have always longed for a butler – just as I too, have longed for someone, anyone, to put my children back to bed four hundred and eighty three times in the span of 30 minutes.  Benway’s only hope is for the children in his charge to grow up.  Even then, I imagine he’ll be stuck with the childish Dr. Bellweather… but I like the thought of that.  I sort of picture them growing old together, heckling one another, but appreciating their differences.  Sort of like the Odd Couple, only Felix is British and Oscar is no longer taking his meds.

Now, I adore Benway and, of course, have ALWAYS WANTED A BUTLER (did I mention that already?), but did anyone ever challenge the choice of having a grown up be such a central character – the protagonist, really – in a children’s book?  How did you make that choice?

I was actually pretty concerned about how having an adult protagonist in a children’s book would go over, since it is a notion that was challenged on more than one occasion.  But Benway has a personality that kids can relate to.  He definitely has it together better than the Bellweathers do.  He fulfills the need for a straight man in order to show that the family’s actions are out of the norm, even by the standards of Eel-Smack by the Bay. Still, there’s enough privately held petulance coming through in his journal to keep him from being a saint. That makes him more interesting.  At least that’s what I hope.
BTW – when I myself started to question whether or not Benway as a main protagonist would work for kidlit, my husband pointed me in the direction of Mary Poppins.  I don’t know that anyone ever dreamed of chiding P.L. Travers for her choice there. I’m no P.L. Travers, but it was nice to be reminded that there are successful exceptions to every rule.

Tell me about your writing process. Because your books are a combination of Benway’s diary entries and third person POV prose. Do you and Benway have a collaboration in the strictest sense or are you a sort of translator and interpreter? (and I’m assuming you are sharing the royalties with him, or else I think Ninda Bellweather is really going to have a labor case against you!)

He definitely gets a share of the royalties!  As long as he promises not to write a tell-all book about ME.
Actually, I wrote Spider’s albino alligator story first. I originally envisioned three short stories that had characters in common. But they kind of grew together and morphed into the Bellweathers.  Benway was present in all, but not integral to any. (He’d be astonished to hear me say that though.  He considers himself the most important part of any story).

Later on, it became evident that Benway needed to not only relate the kid’s stories, he needed one of his own.

Was Leaving the Bellweathers was your first children’s book? Can you tell us about the process of getting it published?

Leaving the Bellweathers is my first book for children.  I have to thank my lucky stars that it was in the right place at the right time on all accounts.  I had never written for children and wasn’t sure I was on the right track. (I could go off on a tangent here about language choices and vocabulary for kids… but instead I’ll let that slide so I can sit back and enjoy the all-too-rare feeling of self control)

Someone told me about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and mentioned a conference that was sure to have workshops addressing craft.  I sent the first 15 pages of what was then a forty-page manuscript to the national summer conference in LA.  The fabulous Kim Turrisi passed my ms along to a lovely woman who was a junior editor at Harper Collins.  Jaira loved it, invited me to send it to her once I was finished with it.  Of course, by the time I did so, she was no longer working at Harper Collins.  Back to the conference I went, learning all the way. (The workshops on craft are super-helpful).

Through the SCBWI summer conference I met Tracey Adams of Adams Literary, who really liked it and had a good idea of who in the industry might share our slightly dark, slightly twisted senses of humor.  Fortunately for us Regina Griffin at Egmont US, too, has a peculiar sense of humor. Egmont US bought LTB and it came out the next year, which is lightning fast in terms of a publishing timeline.  The sequel, The Butler gets a Break came out a year later (October 22nd, 2010) again, lightning fast in terms of the publishing world.

I once heard you give a fantastic talk called “I’m published… now what?” (undoubtedly you had a more clever title, but along those lines). What are a couple pieces of advice for writers to create their own publicity buzz? What’s worked for you? (Tell us about the stuffed animals!)

Ahh, yes.  The old author as public relations person.  I’m very fortunate in that my book was on the launch list of Egmont’s US venture (they’ve been around forever in Europe, but just decided to get into the US market recently) so my book got maybe more publicity than it otherwise would have… still there’s a lot for me to do.

Middle grade fiction writers are lucky in that if they’re halfway decent at presenting, they have a captive audience in elementary school kids.  What kid wouldn’t rather go to an assembly than sit in class? So getting school visits is a great way to publicize a book.  Another way to increase buzz is through blogging, but this is a strictly do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do-you-ninny sort of a thing.  I am very bad at it.

One marketing thing I stumbled upon though, turned out to be a lot of fun.  I found a website that had these cute little albino alligators for sale.  (In my book, the oldest child brings an Endangered Albino Alligator home to live in the Lighthouse.) In my other life, I’m a scenic artist, so I ordered some alligators and then painted these little crates for them to live in.  I sent them to my agent’s kids for fun.  She thanked me on Facebook, at which point my Very Funny publisher, Elizabeth Law, saw them and let me (and our hundred or so mutual Facebook friends) know she really thought SHE should have one too.  So I made a special one for her (it had a lot of needs, as I recall, such as injections four times a day among other things).  The head of marketing at Egmont US saw the alligator and liked it so much that she ordered hundreds of them to be used in promotion.  She even had them custom made with red eyes. This was a very nice thing.  I carry them with me when I do school visits, and leave each school library with one as a mascot.  The alligators come with a letter from Sir Tennyson Prufrock that details how they are to be cared for.  It’s a lot of fun – and again, a very nice, above and beyond kind of a thing for my publisher to have done for me!

I have read on your website , that you are in fact a Very Untidy Individual. If you had a butler…say, Benway… working for you, what would you have him do? I know your family is the inspiration for many of the Bellweather children, would they be as awful to Benway as Spike, Ninda, and the triplets?

I am indeed a Very Untidy Individual – and may I just say, that the world (and in-laws in particular) became far more forgiving about this personality trait once I became a Published Author.  Here’s how folks see the math: Untidy Individual = Lazy Housekeeper

BUT Untidy Individual + Published Novel = Creative Genius.  It may not be true, but it works for me!
If Benway lived with me, I think I’d just have him fold and put away laundry.  Really.  I often have visitors to my house sign my laundry room walls – but it’s usually a pigsty.  If a first time visitor is invited to sign, I try to make sure a copy of my book is Prominently Displayed, so I can wave toward it airily – as if to say Published Author here, Don’t Judge.  It doesn’t usually work, but it makes me feel better.

As for my kids mistreating Benway – it’s true that the Bellweather kids are based in large part on my own tribe, however my kids really are Very Conscientious Individuals, who have been raised to take the feelings of others into account…so, no.  I don’t think Venuti Villekula would be as hard a place for Benway to work as the Lighthouse on the Hill.

The Habit of Capitalizing Important Things in your text – tell me about it. Is it an Homage to The Bear of Very Little Brain? (Ie. Pooh?)

You know, it’s funny.  Capitalization is one of Benway’s quirks.  He uses it to draw attention to phrases he thinks are important – but I never considered where this quirk might come from.  Now that you mention it though, I am a huge A.A. Milne fan, and it very definitely seems like one of those things that creeps into one’s subconscious and works its way out in writing.  Good call, Sayantani!

I also read that one of your inspirations for the Bellweathers books was Roald Dahl. What other authors – from your own childhood or now – do you turn to for inspiration? (and do they have butlers?)

Roald Dahl is by far the biggest influencer in terms of tone, but the Cheaper by the Dozen books by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth had a big influence, as did Little Men by Lousia May Alcott, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (my house is named for Pippi’s), Helen Creswell’s books about the Bagthorp family, and of course, the Moffat books by Eleanor Estes.

Albino Alligators, Attack Squirrels – what next? For the Bellweathers, Benway, or for you, Kristin?

I worked nonstop on the Bellweathers over the last two years, so that the sequel could come out so soon on the heels of the first one.  I love him, but Benway is taking a bit of a break. I look forward to revisiting him and the Bellweathers in the future. There are at least two more stories to tell regarding that family’s misadventures.
Presently I’m at work on something completely different, though. I’m Very Excited about this new project and it’s going Extremely Well, but I’m keeping it under wraps for now.

Are your stories good medicine? [And I don’t mean in the sense of  “I had to go to the hospital at Eel-Smack-By-The-Bay because I broke my leg on some negative space, er, art.”]  How so?

I am a firm believer in laughter being the best medicine. I used to write tortured short fiction for adults.  It was all very depressing, but that’s just what I was interested in at the time.  Then, a week after his 18th birthday, my Godson was killed by a drunk driver.  We were all devastated.  It occurred to me during that time, that there was enough sorrow on the planet – and that there were enough people writing about important issues – and writing about them better than I could at the time.

I stopped writing for a while – but eventually I started again. I wanted to put some light back into the world.

I began writing about the Bellweathers, and I’d read what I’d written aloud to my Godson’s mother.  In spite of the tragedy of her life, she would laugh.  It really was very healing, the discovery that there were still funny things in the world. That there were reasons to smile let alone to laugh. So yes, I’d say Leaving the Bellweathers is good medicine.

Thank you Kristin, for your time, generosity and humor! And most of all, your fabulous middle grade VOICE!

Leave a comment on the From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors Website to enter to win a copy of Kristin’s book! Twitter or post to your FB (and tell me about it) and increase your chances of winning! Check back on December 23rd to see if you’ve won!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

White Vamps, Black Witches: Race Politics and Vampire Pop Culture

Ok, so I'm watching the Vampire Diaries marathon on the CW this week and...

Stop laughing. No, I mean it...stop.

I am a YA WRITER I was doing RESEARCH on, er, stuff that teens like. Like vampires, and high school drama, and, er, kissing, and stuff. RESEARCH, I tell you.

As I was SAYING (before I was so rudely interrupted), I'm watching the Vampire Diaries this week and the race politics finally hit me in the face. As a facebook group and several online discussion boards have actually noted, pretty much all the vampires in this show are white, while almost all the African American folks are witches/warlocks.

What's this about?

Now, I'm a bit bored of the 'skinny mainstream white heroine and her black/lesbian/fat/different/witchy BFF' trope. But clearly, there is something of a theme here with this on vampire tv shows. For vampire lover/doppleganger Elena from Vampire Diaries is her witchy Black BFF Bonnie (pictured above, hazy). For vampire slayer/lover Buffy is her witchy lesbian BFF Willow (think Wicka, Womyn-ly energy, etc.). And then there's vampire lover/waitress Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood and her Black BFF Tara, who's not a witch but gets possessed by one. And Sookie's other BFF/Tara's cousin Lafayette who's not just Black but also the most flamboyantly gay and fabulous thing to hit the tiny town of Bon Temps in, like, ever.  But regardless, the trope remains.

So what's the deal?

The 'different'-BFF-as-foil thing isn't new. It provides some nod to multiculturalism or inclusion while not challenging the notion that the main character(s) in most YA fiction/television must be, well, white, able bodied and heterosexual. Even a show like Glee, which makes such gestures to inclusivity in its cast in fact still reinforces white able bodied heteronormativity (check out this great article called "The Trans-Continental Disability Choir: Glee-Ful Appropriation").

Similarly, in Vampire Diaries, the central pouty-lipped triumverate of Stephan (good cop), Elena (oh no! which brother shall I choose?), and Damon (bad cop. bad, bad, so bad he's...mmm... good cop) are all white. But then there's the added twist of the supernatural stuff. Pretty much all the folks who are vamps on the show - old vamps, kinda old vamps, brand new vamps - are white. Any exceptions to the 'vamps are white and toothsome' motif (more on this later) get dispatched rather quickly. For example, there was a cute mother-daughter Asian pair of vamps, Pearl and Anna, but they died unnecessarily the tail end of Season 1 (what, they couldn't keep them on just to keep some Asian American actors working? For shame...). Then there was ONE Black vamp awakened from the tomb (long, unnecessarily complex story), but the show creators were clearly so uncomfortable with having a vamp of color that they insisted on making him weirdly NICE - not just nice, but a little too bow-y and scrap-y for my taste. They obviously didn't know what to do with someone who was (probably) a slave being awakened in the modern age (someone who used the term "Miss Pearl" to refer to above Asian lady vamp)... so he got killed off too, right alongside her. (Great, take out all the people, er, vampires of color in one fell swoop, why don't you.)

And then there's the Bennett family of witches, who are all (relatively light skinned) African Americans. Ok, I get it, they're a family - genetically related - and therefore it makes sense they are all similar ethnically. But there are no other Black people around this town? (Except random walk ons who then get eaten?) And more importantly, WHY is this family of witches Black? We are told the Bennetts are supposedly descended from some 'powerful Salem witches.' Are the makers of the show hinting that they are descended from the slave woman named Tituba who supposedly 'read the fortune' of all those young white Salem girls and got their vicious imaginations spinning?

But no, Tituba is never mentioned by name. Nor ever, ever, ever the word slavery. Which is weird, no?

Because here is a show about a small Virginia town (Mystic Falls) that is, yes, overrun by hot vampires, but also obsessed with its past. It's Civil War past, to be precise. And not just the mythic/mystical town, but the show itself is obsessed with Scarlett O'Hara et al. There are frequent flashbacks to times of crinolin and Confederate soldier-y. In fact, back when he wasn't, er, un-dead, hottie Damon was a Confederate Soldier. Yet, we are pointedly told that Damon quit the army because he "did not agree with their ways" (huh? because he was against slavery? spit it out, writers!) There are also references to a Black woman/witch named Emily (pictured above in bonnet, foremother of hazy witch Bonnie) being the 'servant' of the super-baddie and super-skinnie white vampire chickie Katherine. Yet, despite both the show and the town's historical obsessions, not once do I think the word 'slave' or 'slavery' is ever used. (Nor do we ever get close to finding out how, in Civil War era Virginia, an Asian woman and her daughter could own a store, and said Asian woman could romance a white 'founding father' of the town. REALLY, writers? You think us Asian folks could just sweep into town in our hoopskirts and set up shop in the 1800's? Gimme a break.)

Instead, we see the creators attempting to approach the issue of race but in strangely obtuse ways. (Yes, this is the maker of Dawson's Creek I'm analyzing here for his racial politics, forgive me academic colleagues). As Lisa Nakamura and her colleagues comment in this great article, in HBO's Southern Gothic Vampire Melodrama True Blood, vampirism becomes a (only somewhat successful) metaphor for racial politics and oppression. In this show, vampires fight to make vampire marriage and other vampire rights legal. Anti-vampire sentiments become ways to explore homophobia and racism.

And yet, as Janani Subramanian notes in this other great article also from Flow TV, Vampire Diaries is Gothic-lite. One could even say, with all intentions of being ironic, that it's race-lite (yes, I did just bold the word race, read into it what you will). It uses race as an organizing principle in its Southern narrative, without ever really talking about it beyond such ridiculous sentences, as this one uttered by a Black warlock to Bonnie: "it's hard being different." (REALLY, writers, REALLY? That's the best you could do?)

Much has been written about the sparkly, white 'good' vampires of the Twilight books being some sort of a metaphor for the ideal Mormon family who are, per their scriptures, "white and delightsome." Then, of course there is the fact that these white and delightsome (yet, oops, bloodsucking) folks are fighting brown skinned Native American werewolves. Yea, too much to even get into here. 

I'm not going to speculate here if Stephanie Meyers was putting forth these ideas about Mormonism and whiteness to critique them or not, but what I do see is a perhaps unintentional mirroring of these patterns in the Vampire Diaries. In Mystic Falls, the African American witches don't want to get dragged into white vampires' problems, Bonnie in fact hates the vampires at some level, and hates their hold on her friend Elena. She can barely face it when their other friend Caroline (who is being called "Vampire Barbie" on Forever Young Adult - hah!) is turned into a vamp. So, yet again, we have a white supernatural world facing off with a supernatural world of color. Yet, and here is perhaps where the show is working off of some silly 'post-racial' imagining, each group really needs the other to survive. (cue audience applause and Oprah-style hugging).  Awwww.

So several questions remain: Is magical power a TV metaphor for the subversive strength that any oppressed community must develop to survive and thrive? Is it anger for past (and, ahem, current -- hello?) oppressions? Why are there no Black vampires in Mystic Falls? No white witches? And how can you not say the word 'slavery' in a flashback about the Civil War? And will Elena see the good in Damon, and give him a chance already, he loves her so much??? (Err, sorry, off topic...)

In the end, if vampirism is becoming a way for pop culture to interrogate race, let's get to it already. Television shows, even ones like Vampire Diaries, wield a sort of cultural magic - and that magic can be used for good or evil. By creating tensions around race and then refusing to deal with them, by bringing up Southern history and then refusing to name slavery, the show is only making more bad cultural ju-ju.  Not talking about race, or wimping out after bringing up race, doesn't make the world 'post-racial.' In fact, it's kind of racist.

I think it's time TV vampires sunk their fangs into their own racial politics.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Story Rx: Ygdrassil - The World Tree and Trees in Stories

Ygdrassil

Just saying it makes me feel as if I'm wearing flowing robes and a circlet of gold.

Ygdrassil

Hark, is that Aragorn, son of Arathorn at my door?

Ygdrassil

Fabulous how just a name, a sound, an idea can take root in our consciousness and give rise to branches and buds of our imagination...

Ygdrassil

Today I'm thinking about the 'World Tree' also called 'Odin's horse' - the enormous tree of Norse mythology that unites the nine worlds. I used to think it was just three worlds - the underworld, the human world, and the heavens... but I discovered last night during my kids' 'winter solstice' play that I was wrong. The entire school was studying Norse and other Scandanavian myths and has built a beautiful image of Ygrassil on stage, complete with serpent, eagle and rainbow bridge to Asgard. 

Ygdrassil

I like the feeling of just saying it, nonetheless thinking of its mythologic significance:  Nidhogg, the serpent who gnaws at its roots, threatening to destroy all of life, because if the tree dies, we all die. The gossipy squirrel who runs up and down its trunk, reporting on happenings from this world to the next. The four deer, representing the four winds, who run across the branches and eat the buds. The eagle in the top branches, who sees all.

I have no personal connection to Norse mythological traditions, in fact, I'm far more familiar with Greek, Roman, or Egyptian ones, but somehow, the strength of any mythological story is its ability to transcend personal history or even familiarity. A tree, of course, is an incredibly potent cross-cultural symbol. You don't have to do a lot of explaining - trees stand for life, sustenance, beauty, strength, nature, connection to both Earth and sky.

In Indian mythology banyan trees play an enormous role, both because of their age and strength, but also because of their symbolism - what looks like an entire forest can actually be a single tree. Banyans, like Ygdrassil, represent the interconnectedness of all life - both bad and good. Underground roots lie a foundation for reaching branches - if one is destroyed (or, eaten by a serpent named Nidhogg) the other dies. Similarly, if branches are burned (it is said in Norse myths that the fire giant Surt will set the tree on fire on the day of Ragnarok) so too do the roots suffer.

Trees not only have symbolic potency as symbols of life, but represent that which is ancient and unknowable. (Check out this story that came out recently about the oldest living tree on Earth.) In Indian ghost stories, trees are the dwellings of a pantheon of spooky ghosts - bhoot, petni, shakchunni. Just this week, I finished writing a story (that will appear online soon) about Bengali ghosts - who have a penchant for throwing unsuspecting travelers in the trunks of hollow trees.  The mysterious sound of the wind rustling through a coconut grove in an Indian ghost story;  the knotty forest floor and fallen leaves that made a bed for the Babes in the Woods; the fighting ancient forests of the Ents... all of these represent a tree's many faces.

Just last week, I was teaching Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, a story in which a tree takes on central significance to the protagonist. As she struggles to articulate her experience, the teen protagonist similarly struggles to represent a tree in art class - through sculpture, painting, wood work - capturing the essence of a tree becomes symbolic for finding her own voice, strength, inner rootedness, and her ability to grow after injury.

And then of course there's the childhood classic The Giving Tree - a tree who gives a boy fruit and shade, a young man timber to build his home, and finally an old man a seat to rest upon. (I know people love that story - I was always bothered by the gendered implications... and how the boy took her for granted... but that's another story for another day...)

What are your favorite stories that use trees as central symbols? Alternately, what are your favorite tree poems?

Hm... I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree -- Joyce Kilmer

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Story Rx: Is Achieving a YA Voice That Important Afterall?

Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er-fraught heart, and bids it break.

              --Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act IV, Scene 3
 
We've all heard it. There are three crucial ingredients to any YA novel:

1. Voice.

2. Voice.

3. And oh, yea, did I mention -- voice?

Since I've ventured into the brand new and exciting world of children's literature, I've heard this focus on the voice in writing time and time again. Voice of course refers to how engagingly a tale is told. But it also means hitting that correct note so that your writing will connect with your readers. For a writer of young adult fiction, this means finding your inner teen voice. Which, unless you are actually a young adult yourself (think S.E. Hinton, or, for a modern day non-novelist, Taylor Swift), ain't always that easy.

Recommendations on how to go about this vary tremendously - from listening to popular song lyrics, to hanging out in school cafeterias, to reading lots of children's novels, to eavesdropping in Starbucks. Meg Cabot, author of the tremendously popular Princess Diaries books among others, is known for dropping popular culture references in her writing, while Prinz award winner Libba Bray writes faboo paragraphs like the following (from Going Bovine):

The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World... I know what you're thinking: WTF? Who dies at Disney World? It's full of spinning teacups and magical princesses and big-assed chipmunks walking around waving like it's absolutely normal for jumbo-sized stuffed animals to come to life and pose for photo ops. Like, seriously. (p.1-2) 

Sure, Libba Bray uses phrases like "WTF" and "Like, seriously" in the above sentences... but when we step back and think about it, do these authors really sound like teens? The fabulous combos of Rachel Cohn & David Levithan (Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, Dash & Lily's Book of Dares) and John Green & David Levithan (Will Grayson, Will Grayson) write teen voices that are smart, edgy, witty, brilliant and, quite honestly, a little not-teen-like.  Consider the following dialogue from Dash and Lily's Book of Dares between the main character Dash and Lily's 80 year old aunt, whom they call Mrs. Basil E:

"I need to gauge your intentions," she said, "before I can allow you to dillydally with my niece."

"I assure you I have neither dillying nor dallying on my mind," I replied, "I simply want to met her. In person. You see, we've been -- "

She raised her hand to cut me off. "I am aware of your epistolary flirtation. Which is all well and good - as long as it's well and good. Before I ask you some questions, perhaps you would like some tea?"

"That would depend on what kind of tea you were offering."

"So diffident! Suppose it was Earl Grey." (p.150-151)

The ensuing banter about various kinds of tea is one of my absolute favorite passages I've read this year. And yet, can I imagine a teen engaging in said banter - nonetheless said references to dillying and dallying or Earl Grey? Maybe not.

But does it really matter? And here, I'm not arguing that YA writers should NOT sound like teens. Not at all. Rather, I'm wondering aloud what the purpose of YA literature is for teens altogether. And if YA literature, like any form of literature, in fact seeks to illuminate otherwise internalized experiences, giving form and texture to that which would otherwise remain hidden, maybe it doesn't need to sound exactly like every inarticulate teen. Because if it did, it wouldn't accomplish it's goal, which is to narrate all those difficult, gushy, mixed-up, confusing feelings and experiences that probably feel utterly un-narratable to most young people.

The other evening, I had the honor of guest teaching a class on the YA novel to a Teacher's College seminar on Narrative Medicine and Secondary School Students. I had assigned Laurie Halsie Anderson's Speak, a book with whose voice the students struggled. Many felt it sounded too much "like an adult" rather than "a teen." Until one of the students told us how, as a teacher, she really didn't like the book when she had assigned it to her high school students, but was surprised to find her students loved it. We tried to dissect what this could be about - an adult who thinks the book sounds inauthentic, but a teen relating utterly to it. And then one of the other students explained it perfectly. "I can imagine," she said, "a teenager looking at this paragraph and saying, 'yea, that's it! that's exactly what I was feeling!' Maybe this kind of writing gives kids the words to say what they couldn't otherwise." Interestingly, the paragraph she was referring to is all about 'giving words' to experiences (from p. 9):  

It is easier not to say anything. Shut your trap, button your lip, can it. All that crap you hear on TV about communication and expressing your feelings is a lie. Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say.

In a world where teens are still silenced, where their voices are not given the space to sing out, perhaps it is the responsibility of YA literature to provide (sorrow) words. And not in the sense of ventriloquism, but in that magical way that all literature can help you find that part of yourself you never knew you were searching for. The way that I can still open a book and blush, or have my heart race, wondering if the writer somehow knew my innermost experiences or thoughts. The way I can quite literally see myself in the bodies and lives of characters on a page (all the characters quoted above) - characters who are ostensibly nothing like me, but who are, really.

Maybe authenticity of (teen) voice doesn't matter as much as just plain old authenticity - that ineffable ability of literature to connect with our lives. To give words. To be both a mirror and a place of aspiration and imagination.

What do you think?


Thursday, December 9, 2010

From the Insitute of Barbie Studies: Video Barbie as Feminism's Worst Nightmare

Oh, makers at Mattel, I know you're all really women's studies majors, mavens of cultural representation, expert scholars in gender, the gaze and embodiment. How else could you have dreamed up this latest addition to our collective commercial mythology? This goddess of (self) voyeurism? This flaxen haired cyborg idol? This siren with batteries in her legs (seriously), a lens in her chest (really), a video panel in her back (no joke), and USB port in her, er, hip (I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried!).

And all in a fabulous glittery zebra-striped hoodie besides! (If you don't believe me, check out this faboo video comparing the relative aspects of the Cannon 7D vs. Video Barbie)

Everything's raining down Barbie lately, so I've decided to begin the Institute for Barbie Studies over here - a semi-professional, only semi-serious organizations dedicated to the study of all things... well, you know... All from a position of irony please. Scholars without their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks need not apply.

First it was that song that got Ken all hot and bothered: I'm a Barbie girl, in a Barbie Wooorld. (Life is plastic, it's fantastic)

Then my 6yo got in the act, thinking that it would be a good idea to mix modern commercial mythology and ancient Hindu mythology by putting on a show in which Barbie rescues Ganesh from a pair of... er... scopophilic binoculars.

Then came Journalist Barbie (who I'm sure is hard at work cracking the case of Video Barbie and all her potential voyeurism: the fear that she'll be used by pornographers to lure children: ewww, Barbie, how could you?)

And of course who could forget this Orientalist nightmare - the (ancient) Japanese Barbie and Ken.  Not to mention Indian Barbie - who sometimes comes with her own  snap-on sari (I know my daughter has one and now we can't find the darn sari in the toy box any more.)

I mean REALLY, makers at Mattel, REALLY? I know it must be easy to ignore the thousands of feminist diatribes about Barbie's impossible proportions, her enormous breasts, her dental floss thin waist... But REALLY you thought it would be a great idea to make her into a video-fem-bot? It better be that you guys were making an ironic commentary on the way that society views female bodies and body parts, upholds white beauty standards (ever read The Bluest Eye? Anyone? Anyone?), and commercializes sex, gender, and bodies... Otherwise, I don't want to hear about it...

Let's just say that I look forward to the marketing of "Video-TSA-Barbie" - a doll which drinks all your liquids, wears killer shoes (all the better to make fun of the fact that you don't have any on) and shoots backscatter X-rays out of her eyes or some such bizarre horror - because it's the next logical step in this progression.  (although nothing can be as bizarre as this Pamela Anderson PETA commercial mocking - I think - the TSA... but I can't be sure of exactly what's being enacted here...)  

Sorry guys, I don't think my kid is getting Video Barbie this year for the holidays. Although I'm sorely tempted to get one myself, just so I could continue mocking her and how bizarre our notions of gender, race, and the body have become...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cartoons and Cougar Backlash: Disney's "Tangled" as Postmenopausal Mommy-Bashing

We live in a culture obsessed with looking young. Even cartoon characters, especially when they are women, seem obsessed with youth culture. And hey, who can blame them? They aren't bad, really, they're just drawn that way.

Think about Mother Gothel, the new Disney villainess from Tangled. She's a curvaceous cougar who remains that way over the centuries because she's found, not the fountain of youth, or Dr. 90210, but this magic golden flower thing that zaps all her wrinkles and leaves her firm-skinned and bouncy (Avon needs to bottle some of that, yo). But it's all dermatology, not biology. Because, despite her moniker, the magical golden flower thing doesn't, apparently, affect Mother Gothel's ovaries. No, despite her hotness, there's no baby-making in this villainess' life - nor any love interest either (because infertility is apparently a requirement of all cartoon lady meanies... Oh, I guess except Cinderella's evil stepmother...).

Anyhoo, in order to fulfill the prophecy of her name and become a mother, Mother Gothel's got to rely on baby-stealing. 'Cause The Man (king's soldiers) has come and stolen her glowing flower from where she hid it, under a... er, bush. Hark! Someone even more deserving needs that flower's (vaginal?) power! The kingdom's pregnant queen is dying! (And she's a woman of appropriate reproductive age! Someone who deserves state assistance!) When queenie drinks said golden flower thing and passes its magical youth-enhancing powers to her fetus-in-waiting, witchie-poo has no option but to kidnap the princess Rapunzel and raise her for the next eighteen years in a tall, doorless tower so that she and she alone might make use of Rapunzel's 70 feet of magical, very blonde tresses, which work better than Botox and a box of Preference in keeping Motha wrinkle-free and raven-haired well into her 200's. How does she keep Goldilocks-and-locks-and-locks in this enormous, all body chastity belt? Certainly not with anything so last millenia as a lock. No, no. This mean motha uses those age old maternal weapons: guilt and emotional manipulation. 'Natch.

In Disney's new adaptation of the Grimm's brother's classic, Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy) doesn't actually quote from Sir Walter Scott ("Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive") but her message to Rapunzel is essentially the same: do not cross Mother, for Mother knows what's best for you. In fact, she belts out a fAAbulous number called "Mother Knows Best" in the grand style of that ultimate stage mother, Mama Rose. ("Mother knows best, listen to your mother, it's a scary world out there. Mother knows best, listen to your mother, something will go wrong I swear!")

The film's actual plot revolves around Rapunzel's breakin' her poor (manipulative) mama's heart by leaving her tower of power/fortress of solitude/childhood home with certain cartoon cutie named Finn Rider. Ok, yea, he's the first guy she's ever met. And kind of a jerk. And oh, yea, a thief. But girls - even really hairy girls - just wanna have fun, right?  In the end, the film's message is about the emergence of adolescent autonomy and the need to, literally and figuratively, 'kill the mother' in order to achieve adulthood.

Now, don't take all my snarkiness the wrong way. I liked the film, I did. It was fun and witty and visually appealing. But, frankly, I'm a little bored with this killing off of parents in folk/fairytales, as well as modern MG and YA novels. In fact, there was a great article in Publisher's Weekly this fall about the "Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome," a phenomenon which, yes, frees up the young protagonist(s) to find their way and have adventures, but simultaneously gestures to an inability of children's literature to deal with parents altogether. Which is why I really enjoy it when authors like John Green write parents well, while remaining true to their bildungsroman (coming of age) plots. (As the character Hassan says in Green's "An Abundance of Katherines, "...what kind of a bastard would lie to his own mother?")

But beyond just the Freudian/Oedipal/Elektra-ish need to kill off the parental unit before, well, being able to get your animated groove on, is the specifically anti-mother thing. Unlike Green's Hassan, Disney's Rapunzel does lie to her mother, but in the film, this lying is all in the spirit of autonomy, romance, and freedom.  A lot has been written already in the blogosphere about Mother Gothel as the latest in long line of Disney's female villains.  She is hot and cold, a "yeller" in an age of Stepfordly calm-voiced time outs; the kind of a mother who can mention that her daughter is getting a little chubby, but in the next breath swear "I love you more."

But Mother G. isn't the classic female villain either. She isn't exactly Mommy Dearest (there are no wire hangers in the entire movie, and when she brushes Rapunzel's hair, I didn't even see her pulling at any tangles), nor is she the evil queen stepmother prototype of Meleficent (who wanted to kill Snow White for being prettier than her after all, while Mother G. is perfectly happy to, er, share Rapunzel's beauty). She's no where near the psychiatric construct of the unavailable "refrigerator mother" whose coldness was supposed to have caused any number of mental illnesses (think Betty Draper from Mad Men). In fact, Mother Gothel's  overcontrolling/loving behavior likens her only to what I think is supposed to be some sort of universal 'ethnic' Mama figure (Italian? Jewish? Indian?). The kind of Mama who feeds you well (Mama G. keeps promising to make Rapunzel's favorite soup), supplies you with all you need to engage in various after-school activities (painting, knitting, hair braiding), hugs you to her (ample) bosom, but smacks you upside the head too, and puts almost insurmountable roadblocks on your progress to sexual maturity. In fact, we might call Mama G. a sort of castrating mother, unwilling to let her child leave the safety (and chastity) of the tower, and unwilling to allow anyone (but herself) learn the secret of Rapunzel's unique brand of (sexual) healing by climbing Rapunzel's, er... hair.

And this is where I started to squirm. And wondered if the other mother in the theater were squirming too. I mean, mothers have historically been criticized for everything - not being authoritarian enough, being too authoritarian, not being available enough, being too available. But if there's something that the mothers of my generation have been criticized for, it's being 'helicopter mothers' - hovering around, ensuring their children's safety and security, not allowing them to do enough 'dangerous' things. Which, to me, isn't that different than the 'ethnic' mother of a previous generation being criticized for being too overbearing, too loving, too protective.  And now this twist to the Grimm tale (which was loaded with enough gendered metaphors to begin with... virgin locked in tower by witch, prince scaling walls, etc.) - whereby the magic of a young woman's hair (didn't someone, like in Little Women or something, say that hair was always considered a woman's crowning beauty?), is the key to her mother's preservation of youth. So, are we mothers now going to be criticized for being too... what, attractive too? Is Rapunzel some sort of backlash to the cougar phenomenon? (After all, she is voiced over by Mandy, and not Demi, Moore!) Are we supposed to 'go gently into that good (AARP) night' lest we disturb visions of dating sugar plums dancing in our daughters' heads?

Mama mia keeps Rapunzel afraid, naive, and underconfident about her abilities to face the frightening 'real world.' ("Totally unprepared are you, to face a world of men, timid and shy and scared are you, of things beyond your ken..." OH, sorry, wrong movie, but you get the idea...) She sacrifices Rapunzel's sexual maturity to maintain her own desireability - a kind of sicko mother-daughter version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Mama G. can only remain a MILF if Rapunzel remains (at least psychologically) a wide-eyed, cookie baking, day dreaming tween.  In this way, Rapunzel's rebellion/autonomy becomes a slam of the (postmenopausal) mommy.

Get off the estrogen - er, magic hair - supplementation, Motha. There's only room for one hottie in this family!

Oh, yea, and pass the comb over here. 'Cause dead mothers can't brush hair.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Talking Health to Teens: Narrative Medicine and YA Literature

Stories are good medicine. It's the name of this blog. It's my firm belief. It's the question I always end my author interviews with ("are your stories good medicine?"). And ultimately, it's what ties together all my identities. As someone trained in pediatrics and public health, working in 'narrative medicine'/'medical humanities', as a parent, as a writer of essays, creative nonfiction, articles, and now, most recently, middle grade and YA fiction.

Stories are good medicine.

Stories are fundamentally the way we human beings make sense of the world. They are the way we interact with one another, and the way we make sense of ourselves for ourselves. Who am I? What happens next? How do I understand what happened before? These are all questions fundamentally rooted in stories.

Stories are also about power. Whose story counts? Who owns the story? What voices or stories go unheard? As someone also committed to issues of social justice, health, and embodiment, these are questions that often drive much of my thinking. Because, as 'nice' as we think stories are, as good that word makes us feel, ultimately, stories can also silence other stories - less 'neat', socially acceptable stories, stories from marginalized communities, stories that challenge the social power structures as they stand - the status quo.

For those of us who are teachers, clinicians, parents... stories are a critical way to engage young people around issues that may be difficult to otherwise bring into the light of day. Stories about difference, about violence, about suffering. In this way, stories are the first step in not just a shared consciousness, but in activism. We only have to remember that social movements from the Civil Rights movement to the 1970's feminist movement were rooted in the personal to political connection that enacted stories can make.

Recently, I wrote about how the 'it gets better' project began by Dan Savage and now taken up by many - from the ACLU to the youth pride chorus - has enacted change by trying to change the narrative of what it means to be an LGBTQ youth in this country. But, this is another case of how stories - no matter how well intentioned, no matter how powerful as agents of change - can still silence other stories. As important as this project has been, equally important are critiques of the 'it gets better' project as privileging a white, upper middle class narrative of social success while silencing other narratives, stories of teens of color, stories that don't involve economic success, etc.

I'm going to talk about the 'it gets better' project and its many complications this week in a class about narrative medicine at a teacher's college. I'm also going to use Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak as a text that shows how important speaking may be - but how a young person's silence is sometimes the most powerful story of all.

What are other texts I should go to? Stories about health, embodiment, medicine in the most broadest senses? Here are some YA novels I thought about:

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (about eating disorders)
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (about biotechnology and the question of what is human)
The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time by Mark Haddon (written from the POV of someone possibly with Asperger's)
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (national book award winner this year, about a narrator with Asperger's)
Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBride Johnson (disability based narrative)

Anyone have some other suggestions?