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.

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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.”

Gay Per Saying: Penguin, Iceman, and Queer Discovery

A few months back, I went on a little bit of a Twitter rant about the monoculture that’s grown up around what a gay narrative is. At the time, I was railing against Robin Lord Taylor’s assertion that his Penguin wasn’t “gay per se” because the character didn’t recognize a gay sexual attraction until his late twenties.

Twitter was enough spleen venting for me at the time, but recent responses to the new Iceman comic over at Marvel have brought the whole thing bubbling back up for me. In a turn which should surprise no one, the usual suspects are railing against the notion that an adult Bobby Drake is “suddenly” gay. Because it’s the usual suspects, I want to bat them aside and ignore them, but I keep coming back to Robin Lord Taylor, a gay man, supporting a very similar narrative about queerness:

Honestly, I feel that part of the reason why I don’t like to say that Oswald is gay per se in the sense that I’m a gay man, I’ve known I was gay my entire life, and for someone at the age of 28, 29, or however old he is to just suddenly question his sexualization wasn’t something I totally understood.

The “gay per se” is fine, because despite hard lines drawn in conservative social settings, there’s plenty of sexuality that falls between homosexual and heterosexual. If The Penguin acted to reverse erasure for bisexuality, pansexuality, demi-sexuality, sapiosexuality, all of that would be wonderful. That, however, isn’t where Taylor’s coming from.

No, Penguin isn’t “gay per se” because, ostensibly, the character hasn’t experienced this kind of attraction in his youth, like Robin Lord Taylor and many other gay people do.

That? Is a problem.

The Closet Isn’t the Only Room In My House

The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t much of a sexual being at all until my late 20s. When I started feeling sexual attraction, it was toward men. What the majority of people hear when I tell them that is that I was in the closet until my late 20s, but that’s not accurate. It’s the easiest story for them to tell, however, because that’s the one they always hear. A large swath of queer people will tell you that they always knew. I can’t count the number of gay men who tell some variation on, “When I was six I saw the neighbor with his shirt off and it was all over for me.”

It’s a prevalent story. It’s a valid story. It’s an important story, the closet, because we need to acknowledge the pain and despair of people who know who they are but choose to hide that because of societal pressures and fears, who may never come out, or who make tragic choices to escape lives of repression. I don’t want to minimize that narrative in any way. I just want to make the point that it’s not the only one.

When I say I wasn’t attracted to men until my late 20s, that’s not a euphemism. I don’t mean that I wasn’t comfortable approaching men until my late 20s, or that that I was afraid to acknowledge my attraction to men until my late 20s. I mean exactly what I’m saying: my queerness wasn’t a tangible part of me until then. The only thing shut behind my closet door was my winter coat.

Some Doors Are Riskier to Open

I get it, I really do. A large part of the queer rights movement is predicated on the notion Gaga anthemed: we do not choose queerness, but are born this way. The logic follows, then, that if queerness is inborn, it should also always be there, right? Drooling over a TV idol shortly after being able to form complete sentences is primal reinforcement of that. Beards and girlfriends from Canada allow for late-stage gay reveals without robbing people of the core reality of their sexuality.

Saying that people may not discover a queer identity until later in life risks opening a door. If queerness can appear late in life, then the same logic as above can insist that queerness may be quashed at a later point, as well. Enter torturous “conversion therapy” and other such nonsense.

Tract Housing Isn’t the Only Kind

If people were robots, I might agree with the logic of the above constructions. If who we are happened to be nothing more than a string of indelible code with predictable responses, then sure, everyone’s queerness would express the same way, at the same time, and follow the same patterns.

I don’t subscribe to that. I’m a gay man. I’m queer. My queerness is a part of me. The fact that I didn’t discover it, that it didn’t let itself be known to me until later in life, doesn’t make it less integral to who I am or less innate a part of me.

It doesn’t fit the more commonly expressed narrative, and by doing so it makes the wider arguments about that narrative trickier to navigate, but that doesn’t make my narrative any less real or deserving to be told.

I’m Out of Housing Metaphors: Fuck Structural Restriction, Anyway

It comes down to this: sometimes it just takes a neighbor washing his car or a ring of keys to make a person’s identity clear. Sometimes it takes encountering the time-displaced, alternate younger version of your mutant super-hero self. The thing that makes stories different and unique is that people are different and unique. So down with the universal closet and monoculture, and up and outward with queer narratives that celebrate their own variety over homogeneity. That’s half the point of diversity, of decolonization, of intersectionality: if you think you know how “these stories” go, you just haven’t read enough of them yet.

Apparently It Isn’t Woolf They’re Actually Afraid Of

I’m still reeling a bit about a recent decision by the estate of Edward Albee re: a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

According to sources, the estate of the late playwright, Edward Albee, demanded that a theatre company in Oregon, The Complete Works Project, who was producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, fire the black actor playing the role of “Nick” and be replaced by a white actor or they would rescind the rights to the show.

I don’t know which wrongheaded defense to tackle first, not least of all because of the conflation of multiple arguments. So how about I break the arguments apart first, since my answers to some of them are different than my answers to others:

1) The Rights of the Albee Estate

I’m seeing defenses of this which cast this argument as one about the legal rights of the Albee estate. They assert the rights attached to production of the work, assert the law, and so completely miss the point that it’s no longer a point, but rather a round blunt object.

No one, including the theatre which complained about the decision, claims the Albee estate isn’t invested with the legal power to exert its rights.

Rather, people are following the standard trajectory of free speech: the Albee estate is fully entitled to make fucked up, racist decisions. And everyone else, likewise, is fully entitled to call out just how fucked up and racist those decisions are. You would think that anyone running the estate of a man whose work is rife with people calling each other to the mat might be able to recognize that pattern outside of a three act structure.

2) The Importance of Authorial Intent

As a writer, obviously I have a soft spot for authorial intent. When I write something, I’m attempting to evoke some range of emotions and thoughts in my audience.

However, I’m also well aware that what I want as a writer and what the audience of my work will take away from it aren’t the same thing. If it’s co-opted by a group whose ideology I find abhorrent, and if that co-opting happens in clear breach of my copyright, I have legal recourse to remove it from their use. I can’t, however, control what they think about my work, what they take away from it. The only art which isn’t a conversation is art which has no audience in the first place.

This is especially true in collaborative arts. Yes, the playwright is important. I’d go so far as to say they’re essential. They are not, however, the only aspect of their art. Again, unless a playwright is writing work which they never want to see performed, the nature of their work is to be adapted and interpreted through the lens of those other artists (actors, directors, designers) who attach themselves to it.

And unlike, say, film or television, live theatre is in constant intepretive flux. Hell, something as small as an actor’s mood on a given night can drastically shift a performance. Live theatre is at its core alive. That means it changes, it grows. If it doesn’t, it no longer serves a purpose.

Shakespeare wrote all of his work to be performed by exclusively male casts. He wouldn’t, at the time he wrote his plays, have even conceived of a performance where his female Ophelia was actually played by a woman. Nor would he, for that matter, have imagined the panoply of temporal and environmental backgrounds future theatres might use as the setting for his stories. Last I heard, however, no one’s spending much time grousing that Shakespeare’s intent has been bastardized by contemporary artists bringing new and different influences to bear.

Rather, the response by many is to praise Shakespeare for providing a template which continues to resonate and inspire, which ebbs and flows in a way that allows it to remain relevant, rather than proving itself a hidebound cultural dinosaur.

3) The Slippery Slope

Otherwise known as “Good God! Next you’ll say you want women playing men” and … probably?

Look. I am just the wrong audience for this kind of thing because I’m not seeing the problem here. Aside from my previous point re: Shakespeare, honestly, even if your show is explicitly “about” men, I still can’t think of a lot of instances where there isn’t something interesting an artist might bring to the work through variable gender casting, not least of all interrogating the notion of Man.

Also, let’s be honest, there are still painfully few acting roles for women with the same richness and variety as exist for men. Ditto actors of color and other marginalized identities. If it takes women in traditionally male roles and ethnic minorities in traditionally white roles for audiences and playwrights (or their estates) to stop making lazy, default cultural narrative choices about what constitutes a character of a given gender expression or a character of color or a character of disability or a character of a given sexuality or, or, or? Then I say re-cast the hell out of that shit.

4) “Historical Accuracy”

I’m sorry. I can’t even write that phrase without the scare quotes.

It took me a hot minute after entering “African-American professors 1962” in Google to have third party verification of what I shouldn’t have to prove to reasonably well-educated people: not only did African-American professors in the US exist in mixed race settings, but they’d been around for over a century already:

1849: Charles L. Reason is named professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin and French at New York Central College in McGrawville, New York. He appears to be the first African American to teach at a mixed race institution of higher education in the U.S.

That Albee couldn’t conceive of a scenario in the 1960s where such a character could exist without hopelessly straining credulity says a metric ton more about institutional erasure and the success of privileged narratives than it does about verifiable historical reality.

That those caring for Albee’s estate continue to be unable to imagine such a scenario in 2017, especially in a play where every other damn thing the characters say has two or three meanings and / or is elaborate fiction meant to stymie genuine interaction — where the primary actors go so far as to invent people who don’t actually exist but apparently it’s too difficult for the rights holder to imagine people who do — borders on intellectual failure of the sort that, come to think of it, deserves Albee-style disdain and mockery.

Suddenly Free Fiction

Mike Allen has posted five stories from Clockwork Phoenix 5 online for free. Including my own contribution to the volume: “The Wind at His Back.”

I’ve already talked about this story, so I’ll keep things short. Set in what I’ve been calling the Tallverse – a weird western world where tall tales and folklore are real – this is the story of Benito Aguilar, small town sheriff and former tornado wrangler who just wants to live a simple, happy life with his husband Casey. It’s a story about living with your past, about the strength of acceptance and community. It also has tween giants and snakes that put themselves back together and magic fruit trees and storms with souls.

And now, you can read it start to finish all for free. So if you’ve got a second, click on through and take a look.

With the Twist Baked In (Zero Sum Game)

Sometimes there’s a bit of a “knowing how the sausage is made” problem when I read stuff. I’ve ruined I can’t tell you how many movies by calling an ending based on meta-narrative information, e.g., “the only reason to have a character give us X piece of information is if it results in Y.” But sometimes, my love of how it all gets put together means I hit a thing and get to have my own little “oh, crap, that is beautiful” moment witnessing Craft Happen.

Why yes, I did just have one of those (see? You ruin surprises, too, so nyah!).

Spoilers for SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game because, look, I’m drooling over a well constructed plot here, which I can’t do without, you know, talking about the plot. You’ve been warned.

Speaking of meta-information, I knew that telepaths were involved in Huang’s Russell’s Attic series based on solicits for later books (I’m a late starter, all right? I’m only just hitting season 2 of Steven Universe, too, so bask in all your awesome early-adopter-ness and then we’ll move on). Given that the main character of the series is a young woman with a preternaturally fast mathematical ability, an ability we find out about pretty much in the first paragraph of the book, more super-humans wasn’t something that I would have been surprised by, anyway. If I buy in to one super-hero, it’s easy to buy into more, so I wasn’t really worried about spoiling myself on that particular score.

Except (aha! Plot twist!).

See, Huang’s take on telepaths is a lot more involved than the usual psychic handwavium. And, it turns out, is intimately tied to the ways in which she sells the reader on the mathematical powers of her main character, Cas Russell. Realizing that gave me a whole new appreciation for everything that lead up to it.

The book spends its early sections not only slowly building its central mystery and character arcs, but showing the reader just how seemingly physics-defying super math can be. This is important on its own, since the notion of hyperspeed mathematical calculation is fairly abstract. Huang makes the applications concrete, and in doing so helps the reader understand how broad the implications are.

Things start small-ish, with calculating angles and velocity to know how to roll just right with a punch, for example, or calculating exact dimensions and speed to zip in and out of traffic in movie-stunt-driver fashion. But as we’re eased into the idea, the effects ramp up, as well. Having witnessed the aforementioned feats of fighting and driving, we buy the relatively more sedate concatenation of environmental adjustments (tipping a garbage can, say) to create the perfect acoustical hotspot for eavesdropping on people half a block away. Having bought that convoluted stacking of pieces, we’re likewise set up to buy into an sequence of acrobatics and property destruction that might be over the top even for Captain America.

All of that’s impressive on its own, of course, and a great use of immersive escalation in worldbuilding. But that base, that build, isn’t just in service of selling Cas’s abilities, but in service to eventually selling our antagonist, as well.

When Cas and her partner finally track down someone who reveals the existence of telepaths, it turns out they’re actually hyper-empathic people. Where Cas recognizes and calculates physical variables at a speed that would make your average computer jealous, telepaths do the same thing with emotional cues. If Cas has a stratospheric math IQ, telepaths have the same thing with emotional intelligence.

If we’d been hit with this out of the gate, I think it would have smacked all kinds of false. If hyper-math is hard to wrap a head around, hyper-body-language is even harder. In context, in sequence, however, it slots into place easy as you please. Huang has been walking us from easy math to mind-blowing math to the point where we believe a young woman can tear bars out of a wall in mid-air in the space of a few seconds.

Having used observable proof to sell the reader on just how many impossible things are possible with the right kind of advanced intellect, she flips the switch and presents advanced emotional intelligence, the kind of thing that’s much harder to prove or see or wrap our heads around, using this huge mountain of Awesome Physical Feats to sell the concept for her. This isn’t Cas is super smart, and Now There Are Psychics. It’s that Cas is super smart, and “psychics” are ALSO super smart in ways which make them seem magical.

The story has made it clear, believable, and above all concrete the ways in which an unerring ability to calculate multiple physical forces allows a single person to perform what seem like miracles. Having done that, it’s only a mild upsell to convince us that a different set of miracles would be possible with a sufficiently advanced ability to calculate the psychological / emotional / social factors in a given interaction.

So this isn’t the turn in the worldbuilding I was expecting. It’s not an escalation of super-powers from super-thinker to brain-beams. It’s a logical, almost inevitable, extension of exactly the notions we’ve been buying into since the get go.

And that, my friends, is how solid worldbuilding turns math proofs into psychic powers.

Experimental Structures and Invisible Illnesses

I’ve been remiss, in that I’ve not spammed you all about my most recent publication. “Fragile Insides” just came out as part of the second volume of the Orthogonal anthologies, Orthogonal: Code.

This is another story in my sci-fi, genetic plague, asteroid colony Detritus setting. It’s probably the closest to a linchpin story as I’ve done. Heady’s been the common factor for all the Detritus stories thus far, so it was inevitable that her story would pull from all the others (seriously, one of the alternate titles I was playing with was “Connective Tissue”).

Even given that, I still believe this story stands on its own. If you’ve read the other stories, there are also a lot of easter eggs and pointers to how all the other stories line up and interconnect, but the pieces here all feed Heady’s specific character arc for this particular narrative.

Given the conceit of this world, wherein all residents of The Rim suffer ill effects from the inscrutable Skew epidemic, disability has been an ongoing element. “Detritus” introduced the world through the eyes of a woman who discovers her own late in life, after having convinced herself of a natural immunity. “At Her Fingertips” explored more obvious physical deformity. And “Broken” moves inward, looking at neurodiversity in a setting where every notable difference is labelled a weakness. A Deficiency, in fact, the terminology of the world, and an intentionally loaded one.

“Fragile Insides” is my attempt to tackle something I hadn’t yet in these stories. Several of my friends suffer from so-called “invisible” physical ailments, the sort which routinely meet resistance by the larger world through thoughtless rejoinders of “but you look fine.” Heady is inspired by those friends, her combination of seeming almost super-heroic in size while constantly battling pain, or the threat of same, let me try to explore those themes in what I hope is a compelling and empathetic way using a speculative context.

Oh, and about the format on this one: blame Laura. Initial drafts of this story were very much structured like the other Detritus narratives, because in my head, that’s how you tell a Detritus story.

Heady’s story, possibly because it’s such a linchpin, possibly because I’m a bucket of fail, possibly due to the machinations of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just didn’t want to play nice, though. Presented like its compatriots, the story was staid and pat and didn’t seem to get us anywhere. I joked with Laura that I was tempted to turn the whole thing into a cross-referenced digital journal, because Heady would be the kind of person to keep (and constantly update references in) something like that.

Then she went and told me to do it, dammit.

So, yes, the cross-references all work. But, as with reading the other Detritus stories, you don’t have to follow them around. You can start at the beginning and move to the end in a linear fashion, and the story still builds in a way I’m more than happy to have you experience.

If at some point you also want to go jumping between sections as they’re cross-referenced, though, you can do that, as well. It won’t be the same experience, but it’s just as much one I built. I have the notepad full of scrawled entries and link codes and more-than-mild headache to prove it.