“Gennesaret” and the Crux of Humanity

I’m to spoil the living hell out of Phoenix Alexander’s “Gennesaret,” which I just finished over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you’re like me and haven’t read this story from March, you’re averse to spoilers, and if you aren’t triggered by violence to children, go read it first. Otherwise, I’m about to prattle on.

What’s enthralled me and simultaneously left me queasy about this story is the way in which it keeps re-framing its central questions, and what that does both to me as a reader and to the story itself as an exploration of humanity and the politics of humanity.

It starts simply enough. For a value of simple that involves a lizardlike variation on Homo sapiens. By simple I mean, we have Alissha and Ibliss taking two sides of a debate: do you suppress what makes you unique, or do you embrace it?

It’s a question immediately reframed and complicated by a local disaster which threatens the very lives of their people. Cultural expression here may or may not have a cost: Ibliss believes the only way to get aid for the situation is for everyone to look “civilized,” hiding or completely removing all the physical parts of themselves that don’t look like what those in power on the other side of the water consider human.

Alissha thinks the only way to gain the help of others, though, is to be all the things Ibliss thinks they fear. Culture and heritage are what makes them strong, and what’s worth saving, right?

This alone, this question of what counts as civilized, of what counts as human, of who decides and why they get to decide is already heady and painful (especially when Alissha and Ibliss’s child is caught in the middle).

On the surface the answer here seems hard but obvious, so when Alissha makes a run for freedom, it feels like: okay here is where we’re going. Except not. Because Alissha faces direct violence on the opposite shore even as she runs for safety, at which point: hell, am I supposed to be satisfied with a world where Ibliss was right?, where the only means of survival is to literally cut pieces of yourself off in order to pass for what the current power structure agrees is human?

And just when I’m feeling horrified and distraught and thinking how horrible Those People are for what they’ve done to Alissha and all the people she represents, that’s when the story reframes again. Just like Alissha, I don’t have the option to stop, which means I run full force into the climax of this piece, which isn’t a hail of gunfire.

Here is perhaps the greatest trick the story pulls. Because it traded on my reactions, on my hopes, on my desire to believe that humanity can be better and that people who think like me are that hope. I invested, and then:

Alissha finds a place for sanctuary, but it’s with folks who — while touting their sympathy at the horrors of all this, of the ways in which Alissha has been de-humanized — continue to do exactly that. It’s a horrible sort of twisted mirror, as the question of Alissha and her son’s status becomes more important than the humanity which that status fails to reflect, as their suffering becomes more important than their lives.

Because, while they convince themselves of how deeply they feel this Other’s pain, Alissha’s ‘saviors’ relish that pain’s value for the political changes they can work with it. A couple cry into each other over the tragedy they’ve witnessed, the heartless acts of their opponents, and fuck if I don’t feel exposed, if the very story doesn’t feel like it’s broken its chest open to expose its innards and force the reader to question everything.

I’m still sort of wobbly about how to reconcile it all, to be honest. Is my reading the story just another self-satisfied couple having a good cry while someone else dies? Hell, is all the worrying about I’m doing in the mechanisms of the story an action or an inaction?

I don’t think there’s meant to be an easy answer, of course, but the unease of that is surely a thing I can’t quite shake. Is it vapid to applaud that?

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Swagger vs Swish in Luke Cage S2

For the most part, I’m not the person to be diving into the cultural explorations at play in Luke Cage‘s second season. Issues of colorism, black exceptionalism, and cultural tensions within the black community are all woven into a strong second season, but they’re also explorations a white dude shouldn’t be judging the success of.

One of the other themes of the season is a recurring motif on what it is to “be a man,” a theme which interacts (intentionally or un-) with the show’s decision to reveal and introduce gay men in the cast. On that score? I have Feelings.

Spoilers for season two follow. Fairly significant ones. If you prefer to watch the season un-spoiled, you can always bookmark this and come back later. The internet remembers everything, but you’ll only get a fresh watch once.

Back to it, then.

It’s not illogical for a story concerned with the amorphous concepts of manhood or masculinity to feature queer characters. To be sure, excluding them is a base level fail. I’m not sure, though, that the writers room at Luke Cage managed anything particularly next level, either. They got as far as “what about gay dudes,” but didn’t / couldn’t conceive of even the barest mention of trans and nonbinary characters. I’m not even sure how much they really thought on the subject of gay cis men, either.

Credit this much: we discover more than one man on the show has explored homosexuality. In a world where queer inclusion is usually limited to The Gay One, plurality is a plus.

Alfre Woodard’s Mariah reveals that her late husband was a gay man. She traded being his beard for the chance to change her name and her own circumstances. Of course, that revelation comes as part and parcel of a gut punch Mariah delivers to her daughter on her true parentage. In that context, what might have been an insight into the various ways in which we hide and negotiate our identities turns into not only was he not your father, but he was (gasp) gaaaaay.

While that particular reveal was frustrating for its context, it’s a blip compared to the other gay subplot of the season, when Theo Rossi’s Hernan “Shades” Alvarez and Thomas Q. Jones’ Darius “Comanche” Jones spend an evening standing watch for enemies, literally back to back. Their conversation is itself coded, but it becomes clear that Hernan and Darius weren’t just close friends, but in fact had an intimate relationship during their time in prison.

I found the scene itself powerful. Hernan repeatedly attempts to brush aside the past, claiming it was just a thing that happened. A thing, it’s nice to note, he thinks is not to be ashamed of, but also a thing bounded by time and place. It’s the past. It’s over. Darius refuses to take the outs Hernan gives him, however. For him, what happened there wasn’t an exception, it was a truth. And, for Darius if not for Hernan, it’s not something he’ll forget or abandon.

The conceit of the scene means that neither actor can look at the other, and yet their faces carry so much emotion and subtext. Whatever else I have to say abou the season, that scene really is an amazing piece of work.

And then in the next episode, Hernan murders Darius.

I can only assume that moment is meant to be as powerful as the night in the barber shop, standing guard. As Shades, Hernan has spent a season and a half murdering people without remorse in pursuit of his loyalty to various mob leaders. The ultimate show of his love and loyalty for Mariah, now, is that he’s wiling to murder a man he’s loved like no other man in his life when he finds out Darius is reporting to the police.

You shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t work like that for me.

It certainly doesn’t help that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is trotted back out more than once as the season concludes as a means of first enraging Hernan, and then, later, so that Hernan can compare the relationship to the Gay Until Graduation paradigm. Hernan only had those feelings for one man, and that man’s dead, so.

Let’s be clear: I think a lot of definitions when it comes to sexuality are unreasonably intractable. I don’t subscribe to the common wisdom, reflected in everything from pop culture to blood donation guidelines, that a single sexual encounter between two men Makes You Gay. I’m more than willing to concede that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is a thing he feels no need to recreate going forward.

What that leaves us with, however, is a season in which straight cis men learn to stand up for their morals, to take fatherly responsibility, to look for balance between rage and restraint, to compromise for the sake of their community. They fall from grace and rise to the occasion. When it comes to them, the show has a whole host of answers to its central question of “how to be a man.” The only gay men, however, are either dead or have renounced their identities. It’s a scenario suggesting that Luke Cage‘s answer to “how to be a man” when it comes to also being gay has a single answer: be buried.

New Story: If Only Kissing Made It So

“If Only Kissing Made It So,” my story about boys kissing and possibly time travel, is live at Cast of Wonders today, narrated by Max Gladstone.

Yes, that Max Gladstone. To say this was a pleasant surprise would be whatever is more under than under in understatement. I’m just saying: the email listed the narrator, and then I did a few double takes and at least one “wait, for real?” I did not do a spit take, because I am professional and have composure. And also I wasn’t drinking anything.

Also also: Gladstone knocks it out of the damn park. So.

It’s appropriate to get an awesome surprise as this story finally makes its way in the world, since that’s what this story was.

I’ve talked before about my decade and change of writing nigh-on-nothing. “If Only Kissing Made It So” is the primary exception. Before I finally managed to drag myself back into the thick of things, I made a largely abortive attempt several years prior.

Attempt is probably a mischaracterization. It suggests there was a lot of maturity and willpower. The first draft of this story was more what happened when my story brain crossed its arms and refused to eat anything because oh my god that is so groooossss, and I told it dessert was available if it would just try one bite of everything on the plate.

I pretty much never go into a story without expectations for what it might be, but this time I did. I sat down, set a timer for twenty minutes each morning, and wrote whatever the hell came out. I think the first day or so wasn’t even narrative. I vaguely recall things like “what am I even doing this is stupid” and “you will never write anything else, no you shut up” on those pages. Eventually, after much eye rolling and sighing and assorted other protestations from my story brain that it hated all of this and I couldn’t make it change its mind, we got to “If I’d known Lucas Medina had rung the doorbell, I would have thrown on a good shirt.”

No, that isn’t the first line of the story now, but part of that is because I had no idea what the first line was, because I didn’t even know what the story was. Lucas showed up, and there was awkward interaction and trying to tamp down on crushing and then, eventually, story brain looked up and said oh wait, what if we did this. And I tried not to smile visibly when story brain started eating like macaroni and cheese wasn’t the only acceptable meal.

As I mentioned, this wasn’t the triumphant return to regular writing it sounds like. When I finished the first version of this story, I subbed it to exactly one market. When that editor failed to marvel at the wonders offered, story brain went to its room, slammed the door, and sulked for several more years while Lucas and Marty sat abandoned on my hard drive.

Though, obviously, we did eventually reach a day when story brain came back out to play. And when it did, and Submit All The Things Dammit brain joined in, “If Only Kissing Made It So” got to see daylight again, and now it’s made friends with the lovely folks over at Cast of Wonders.

So, if you haven’t already, it’s not too late. click on over and join the loop.

Story About Not Letting Go Returns

Hey, so happy surprises in the new year. “Blood and Water,” my story that dropped from Cast of Wonders in May of last year, is back again as a 2017 Staff Pick. It’s always nice to get another spotlight, and Marguerite Kenner’s new commentary is the kind that gives me all kinds of writerly warm fuzzies.

If you didn’t have a chance to read / listen before, now you’ve got a second chance and more options. Huzzah!

Monsters On the Internets

So I fell off the wagon with doing story posts, but in a turn of good luck, “Drowning Joys,” from the second issue of Aliterate recently made its way to the Aliterate site, so for anyone who didn’t buy the issue, it’s new to you, which is an excuse I’m fine exploiting for some new wonk.

The origins of this one are, honestly, pretty simple: I wanted a story where no one wondered for a minute if that jerk who walks around telling people to smile was, out of the gate, the villain, because fuck that dude. The problem is that the story I started with wasn’t much of anything: smile-guy wound up eaten after asking the wrong person to smile, the end. Cathartic, sure, but it didn’t really serve as much more than some dark wish fulfillment.

But then I thought, well, what if smile-guy is the monster? I mean, all the smile-guys are monsters, but I mean the kind of monster entire cultures write warning stories about. A vampire seemed obvious (smile = teeth = fangs, you get the idea). And since smile-guys are a breed one hopes is maybe dying out, I wanted a monster that didn’t get quite as much pop culture play.

Enter Callum the Kelpie, sexy murder horse with more swagger than he deserves and a history of judging humans for failings he may be just as full of:

Still, when a wild stallion’s coat and mane are fine and strong and carry a whiff of the river far from shore, you’re courting death to touch his hide as well you are to eat dark berries when you can’t tell black nightshade from deadly. If you’re eager enough to survive, you learn the difference. If you’re not, then it’s hardly fair to ask the world to write clearer signs for you.

And by maybe I mean pretty much guaranteed. He’s still opens up with that damn “give us a smile” line, after all.

There’s Always (More Th)a(n One) Woman

I’m perpetually behind in my reading, so it’s only just now that I got around to listening to Aimee Ogden‘s “The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey,” which went up on Cast of Wonders several months ago. Spoilers for anyone who’s similarly behind, but there’s no way to talk about the positive buttons this pushed for me without them. You’ve been warned.

The story premise is intimate and simple: small gardens have a tendency to find Calliope, sprouting suddenly in teapots and baking dishes, thriving in all manner of tiny spaces throughout her cozy apartment. Then one day, a garden goes missing. But even after Calliope retrieves it, the garden seems to want to leave her for the teenage girl downstairs. Cue angst.

As with most things, the wonderful bits happen here in the execution. Not least of all in the way Ogden deconstructs the notion of the Kick Ass Woman.

No, nobody enters into fisticuffs. I’m talking, instead, about the idea that there is only ever one Kick Ass Woman, where kick ass is a stand in for “really good at something.” We see it all the time: an ensemble of male characters of varying abilities and specialties, and the The Woman, who is better at her one thing than any other man (for which: hooray), but who also seems to be the only woman around who is competent at anything, much less her kick ass thing.

And should another woman show up, she will either be completely artless so as to show us our woman’s kick ass-ness, or she will be kick ass on exactly the same vector as our woman. In which case, what must inevitably ensue is a showdown to prove who’s really the kick ass one and who’s the pretender who will give it all up.

Because, of course, there can be only one. It’s yet another riff on the stale maiden-mother-crone paradigm no one who’s made it through high school English can avoid learning, and for which there is no real male parallel. This isn’t just a fictional trope, though. It’s a trope built on a persistent societal thread, that women are replaced by “the younger model.” That unlike men, women aren’t competing against their entire field, only against their fellow women for those limited spaces available to them.

And for a moment, as Calliope worries that the loss of one of her gardens will inevitably lead to the loss of more, to the loss of all, that if she shares the thing that makes her feel the most wonderful with another woman, she will lose it to her, I’ll sheepishly confess I worried the same thing. Like Calliope, I wasn’t sure where this was all headed. Like Calliope, I fell right back on that tired societal trope that told me if a new, younger woman was showing up with a similar skill, things could only end if one of them soundly trounced the other.

Ogden has other ideas. And she’s had those ideas from the beginning. The story’s resolution isn’t a twist so much as an object lesson in paying attention, in the reminder that worldbuilding isn’t just atmosphere, it’s integral to story. We know that gardens have been finding Calliope for years, that the number of gardens has been growing. There is literally nothing to suggest that one garden departing changes this fact. But because we’re ensnared in a binary, in societal notions that one woman can’t succeed unless another woman fails, we ignore logic and reason and facts.

The author doesn’t, though, and the result is an incredibly kind surprise as the story takes its final turns, and a reminder that, like surprise gardens, life isn’t nearly so restricted as we’re wont to believe.

A World Built on Top of Ours: Finding Queerness in Midnight Special

I recently had the chance to watch Midnight Special, which applies an indie film filter to the “child with mysterious powers” spec-fic staple. That’s more dismissive of the movie than I mean to be, but effective shorthand, since I’m less interested in the overt text of the piece than I am with what I find around its edges and in the spaces between it.

So we’re all up to speed, the short version of the plot goes like this: Roy (Michael Shannon) is attempting to get his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) out of the reach of the cult which raised them both — and which has currently built a religion around Alton’s otherworldly abilities. To do this, he enlists the aid of his childhood friend — and Texas state trooper — Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and eventually Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), moving cross country at night (and blacking out windows during the day) to avoid overloading Alton’s light-sensitive powers.

Before we go much further: I’m not convinced this is a film trying to interrogate its source materials so much as present them with a different aesthetic. However, because that aesthetic involves saying half of what you need to say, of meaningful stares and thoughtful silences, it nevertheless feeds directly into my Subtext Engine.

The obvious queer angle I could take would be turning Alton’s super powers into a metaphor for queerness, but Alton seems a clear stand in for a different Other. And an important one, though I’m reticent to delve too deeply, as there are folks far better equipped to comment on how well or poorly the film does it. Nevertheless, Alton’s abilities had a much more obvious resonance for me: he suffers intense sensory issues, issues which his caregivers argue repeatedly about how to manage, and (possibly most importantly), Alton doesn’t “get better” until he’s allowed to be involved himself, until someone listens to him about what he needs. It sounds almost beat for beat like the struggle people on the autism spectrum face daily.

Rather than in Alton and his powers, then, I found queerness in the more mundane elements at play. Namely, in Roy and Lucas. In point of fact, for much of the opening of the film, I kept trying to parse whether or not Roy and Lucas were a couple. It wasn’t until the mid-film appearance of Sarah, when Lucas finally drops exposition about how he joined this little caper, that I was certain they weren’t. And even then, well, intended or not, the film is riddled with elements that still play queer to me.

Lucas, we learn in the aforementioned infodump, was a close childhood friend of Roy’s. They were “real close for a long time. Until his parents moved him out to The Ranch.” The Ranch being the film’s name for the cult compound Roy et al are currently fleeing. Word choice is important, here: it isn’t that Roy’s family moved out there and he had to go with them, they moved Roy out there. It plays like nothing so much as a conversion therapy narrative.

Lucas makes it clear the two have had little or no contact since the move, but years later, when the life of his child is on the line, Roy goes first to Lucas. He doesn’t call, doesn’t test the waters to see how much or little he might be able to trust Lucas. He just shows up on his doorstep. And here’s the thing: Lucas isn’t the only person Roy can go to. The pair make multiple stops on their journey, getting help from at least one other former cult member besides Sarah. Roy had options. What he chose, though, was Lucas. There’s an intimate trust there which is profound given the stakes, and whatever past these two had with each other was enough to tell Roy he could count on Lucas to be worth that trust.

Then, too, there’s those meaningful, silent looks that this kind of film is known for: where a character looks at an object or a tableau and we’re meant to read what they’re thinking from the way they consider it. Lucas has more than one of those, several of them at the sight of Roy and Sarah and Alton altogether. He even expresses his regret at one point, telling Sarah that the three of them “would have made a nice family” if there had “been a way out of this.” It isn’t much of a stretch to attach a second meaning to what roadblock “this” represents.

And when it comes to the way out, when the film reaches its climax and the group has to separate to get Alton where he’s going, Lucas — who has always been the muscle, the one with the gun, the defense training, the physical endurance to shrug off shotgun impacts — stays with Roy, not Alton, for a final, rousing chase. Not to drive the car, mind you. Roy’s doing that. Not to shoot at the military; Alton’s made clear that the military has orders only to fire if fired upon. Nevertheless, he’s at Roy’s side.

He’s there to see Alton’s “world built on top of ours” with Roy, and when it’s all said and done and he’s under interrogation by the government, who are none to happy with his responses, he has only one story to tell “because it’s the truth.”

This is obviously a lot of me building a secondary story out of spaces and looks and inference. Sure, great, you might think, we can add it to a Buzzfeed list of wacky fan theories next to the secret origin of Jesse from Toy Story. But certainly there are numerous films where no one has to lay out arguments for a queer presence. Surely we’ve moved past the point where we have to decode film to find its underlying queerness, where writers sneak in subtext by lying to the male lead about intent and writing around it.

Except sometimes maybe we still do. Because there are still young people who grow up in small or large towns, whose communities don’t like talking about this kind of thing. Young people who, if they get too close, if they insist on telling a story because it’s the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes the establishment, wind up shipped off for re-programming. People who have to live their lives at night, who have to worry about what they say and who they say it to because doing the wrong thing in the harsh light of day still risks destroying everything. Maybe people from states that continue to actively debate their rights.

Maybe for those people, we still need to build a world on top of the one that everyone else sees. A world with people like them. Because, as Alton says, “They watch us. They’ve been watching us for a very long time.”