Saturday, April 29, 2017

Red

When I think about Courtney Summers's All the Rage, two points spring to mind:

1) It's as visceral and unforgiving and brutal as everyone said it'd be--and for good reason; it handles the subject matters of rape, bullying, and victim blaming as unflinchingly as they need to be handled.

2) Romy Grey and her red lipstick and red nails.

The book kept coming back to point two, so I kept coming back to it with it. It was this little detail that formed her personality and a little narrative device that inherently had so many layers to it. The obvious is the use of her surname in contrast to a bold color like red, and what it means for her to not only return to it, but to find strength in it. The other is how we so often frame red in terms of themes--the color of anger, red lips the stereotypical color of a two-dimensional femme fatale, the color used to brand a "sinner" in The Scarlet Letter, the color of blood, the color most often associated with love,  the color of sacrifice and courage, etc, etc.

The fact that it's make-up and nail polish which feel like armor to Romy adds more dimensions to it--the lines of femininity and masculinity meshed and blurred.

I like color in books. I like it in movies too. My college professors and a good deal of fellow readers might find them a little gimmicky, but I have an affinity for them. Maybe because a great deal of superheroes have color associations.

Anyways--it was mostly because of Romy that I finally gave red nail polish a try.

I hated nail polish when I was little. I hated the smell of it and thought it looked tacky and ugly 100% of the time. It didn't matter if my eleven-year-old friends were applying it on each other or whether someone got it professionally done, fake or painted nails always looked repulsive to me. My mom conned me into getting my nails painted for my 8th grade formal, and I hated that salon more than I hated the dentist.

I don't know what eventually turned me into it. I think it was seeing the colors on Ren's hands. It made them a little more vibrant. While writing a particular rough chapter of one of my books, I told Ren I was thinking of painting my nails in an effort to encourage me to write. I thought, if I have something pretty to look at, I'll be more inclined to keep typing.

(Typing is my favorite part of writing. Love for my characters goes in second place).

She ended up agreeing. She said she found she was more productive with her hands when her nails were painted.

Of course I started with black polish, roughly $2.00 a bottle. My mom was horrified when she saw the end result. I'd fucked it up so badly--my hands were shaky and I didn't know how many layers to apply or how thick the consistency was supposed to be when you drew it out of the bottle. The color bled over the edges and tainted my fingers. I tried to use this cheap bottle of perfume I'd bought at CVS a year ago to rub out some of the stains (since I didn't have rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover)  but it barely helped. My mom ran to Walmart (despite my protest) and bought me top coat, q-tips, and nail polish remover. She told me if I was gonna wear black nail polish of all things, I might as well make it presentable.

I'm still not very good at it and it takes me an eternity. But I managed to come to red finally, and even if it now really bleeds over to my fingers, I like it. My hands don't look like my hands. They look like Romy's.

By pure chance, twenty minutes after I painted my nails red, thinking of Romy the whole time, I watched The Handmaid's Tale.

(Red, the color of the handmaids).

I've never read the book, though I have read other works by the great Margaret Atwood. I do think she's a great writer but I find it a little annoying that she so often rejected the label of science fiction for her work (although it's not quite as aggravating as the way Harlan Ellison and Terry Goodkins rejected sci-fi/fantasy). I can almost understand her, in the sense that I can imagine maybe she'd feel the need to make the distinction if she worried her work would be easily dismissed by critics, which they'd be far more prone to do when the writer is not only a woman but writing about deeply feminist issues.

I find it even more annoying that the lead actress behind the Hulu adaptation was a complete chicken shit about the label of "feminism." To a point where I feared any overt feminist themes would be seriously diluted because of it. It ended up taking my excitement for the adaption down a notch and I didn't jump to watch it the day it premiered.

Thankfully, that doesn't seem to be the case for these first three episodes.

 I was hesitant to give it a try without reading the book first, but over at the subreddit AskWomen, shortly after the premiere date someone asked what we all thought about the show. Most people said, "it hurts because it feels real."

Shorty after seeing it, I was talking with someone who said they could not stomach the series. They asked me, a little appalled, why I'd want to sit through something so horrible. And to be fair, people weren't lying: it did hurt. I held out as much as I could then ended up crying at the birthing scene of the second episode.

There's many reasons why I want to keep watching--I think it's well-made, the acting is good, the writing is great, I'm intrigued to see where the characters go and what happens to them, how they'll choose to act, what'll happen to this regime, etc. But I ended up saying, "because I think it's important."

I'm not of the opinion that a story can be saved by a good message. Execution matters more than anything else. But I will be drawn to a story if I get the sense it'll explore themes and ideas I find intriguing. If it does it well, then I've found something truly worthwhile.

When I was talking to this person, they brought up that it's just as valid for them not to want to watch The Handmaid's Tale so not to be subjected to such an overwhelming horrifying portrayal of rape as it is fair for someone not to want to watch Game of Thrones due to the violence.

And in theory I agreed--but then I remembered that this person does like Game of Thrones and has seen every available episode. And Game of Thrones has done something worse with the subject of rape. It's thrown it in there for cheap shock and cheap characterization, it's sometimes ignored or lessen the severity, a few times it's even fetishized an aspect or framing of it. (Which is arguably an issue with all of the writing as the series went on--death and violence are included so often and are so poorly set-up that they no longer carry an impact).

So how could one justify watching the subject be so thoroughly mishandled in Game of Thrones while being put-off by how visceral it's portrayed in Handmaid's Tale? (Which manages to be horrific without any nudity or physical violence).

And they said it's simply because it's not a focus-point of Game of Thrones. It's easier to stomach. It doesn't hurt.

It hurts when it's in The Handmaid's Tale. It hurts in All the Rage. Pretending it shouldn't is such a disservice to the people who have survived it.

But that's just a little too unpleasant for some of us, I guess.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Coming to You Live From Chapter 18

I hate this chapter.

But only because I want it to be so perfect that it becomes my favorite piece of anything I've ever written.

Unrealistic expectations of my work that are shattered as soon as I try to actually craft something amazing are not an uncommon component of my writing process. But this chapter tends to hurt in a very acute way. I can see how far I'm trying to reach and how little I'm accomplishing.

A lot has changed from the first draft of this chapter. I know that partially because I have the first draft printed and propped up in front of me and also because I've spent the last half of the year rewriting the whole thing. The essential beats are still there and the characters are still roughly the same. But I tried to add more depth (and probably fattened up the story--don't ask me about a word count cuz I'm too scared to combine the chapters and find out) and more details. Now I'm in the same place I was roughly three years ago--struggling with the one scene that's supposed to deeply affect the main character and change the course of the story. It feels like the point of a book where a reader could easily go, "soon as that chapter hit, the book lost me."

I wish it got easier with more revisions. Or that I found enough of a reason to believe I've steered this in the right direction.

But I won't know until I get the book to someone else. Someone with an impartial view who'll read it and tell me, "this does/doesn't work."

And that's gonna suck, but it'll probably be freeing. I've been sensitive to criticism before, but I'm starting to think I'd rather take that than wallow in the confusion brought about by self-doubt.

So let's see if I can get this chapter done today. I'm running on Coke Zero and shrimp tempura sushi and Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile album. That's gotta help.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Resolutions

Now Playing: Highly Suspect - My Name is Human

Last week, I:

1) Read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

2) Watched Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele.

I've been thinking about these two stories in the context of how our world influences fiction, and of the narrative choices we make as creators--not necessarily in a "good choice" vs "bad choice" kind of way, but in how those choices differ because of framing, tone, what we feel is best for our stories, and how we react to real life events.

Both The Hate U Give and Get Out deal critically with the subject of racism, but they approach it in different ways. The former is mostly focused on police brutality (although it also touches on the complexities that arise from conflicts within poorer black communities and the kind of struggles a kid, Starr, who straddles two worlds is forced to face). It's mostly about the kind of racism that arises from hatred--a white community looking down to a black community. Always assuming the worst. Get Out is almost about the opposite, instead dealing with prejudices born from a misplaced, ignorant racism that has a white community "admiring" black people for completely asinine reasons. Both have their own ignorant justifications, and while the attitudes are different, the outcome is the same in the way that the black heroes/characters are mistreated, at times villainized, often scrutinized, etc.

They differ in tone too. There are amusing, funny scenes in both, but The Hate U Give is clearly trying to set a more serious tone than Get Out, which is never ridiculous, but it does have a closer relationship with the hyperbolic given its genre. It has an almost equal amount of tension and comedy and horror. Tonally--and again, just because of the differing genres--it sets them apart.

I wouldn't necessarily be comparing the two if it hadn't been for their endings.

(SPOILERS HERE AFTER).

It's not necessarily the focus, but Get Out does acknowledge the presence of racism within law enforcement officers, and in the ending, it very clearly played with our expectations. I believed--the second that Chris made that call to 911 as he was escaping the house--that he would be arrested for the "murder" of the white family. And I know I wasn't the only one--I felt an overwhelming sense of relief go through the theater audience when we saw it was his friend, Rod, who'd arrived not in a police vehicle but a TSA car. It didn't, however, surprise me to find out that Jordan Peele had originally written out the ending we feared: Chris getting arrested and most likely falsely tried and convicted for the deaths of the family.

But I find it most interesting that Jordan Peele decided to end the film with hope. Not because he was trying to squander or minimize his original message--I don't think the new ending takes away from that. But because he does feel hope and he wants us--and his hero--to feel that hope too. As the article states, "Peele explained that when they finally got around to making the movie, times had changed a bit, and the perspective of society regarding racism was a little “more woke,” thanks to headline-making stories about police shootings."

Maybe because I'm wildly idealistic, I wanted to have a bit of that hope too as The Hate U Give was ending, even though I knew--because I wasn't surprised--that the outcome in the book would be the same as it often has been in real life: the white police officer who murdered an unarmed black civilian is not indicted.

In an interview she gave to Ebony, she talks about how the real deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland pushed her into writing and finishing a novel with a such a difficult, taxing subject matter. And I couldn't help but wonder, if in an earlier draft, or even just as a fleeting thought, she ever considered giving Starr a far happier ending.

I don't think she would have. The tone and overall structure of the story riles on realism, so diverting from that had a higher chance of hurting the book than of helping it. But I still wonder if she ever considered it, if only because it could only be in fiction that some sense of justice would be claimed.

The Hate U Give doesn't end completely bleakly, but it's clearly not the outcome that Starr would have wanted. Of course because I'd grown to care for her, I wanted the best for her, after everything she'd been through. But I'm not mad about the ending or feel like it should have been done differently, despite how brutally realistic it is. And I don't think the ending to Get Out needed to be different either. Just like The Hate U Give doesn't have a completely bleak ending, Get Out doesn't end in roses and rainbows either. It's a balance, even if they did pick slightly different directions.

Both stories found the ending they needed and the endings the rest of the narrative built up to. As someone who struggles with figuring out endings, I have to admire The Hate U Give and Get Out. It speaks volumes to the talent of Thomas and Peele that they were able to give completely powerful resolutions to very complex stories with heavy (and personal) subjects. And that, despite some similarities in themes, the stories develop and resolve in completely different ways.

Side note: I'm glad they've both gotten critical acclaim and been a huge hit with audiences. It brings me back to that perpetually-challenged hope I have that art can change culture.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Innovation

Ever since I discovered a wedding planning subreddit, I've been obsessed with analyzing all the wedding dress posts that go up there on the daily. I've shown them to my mom on occasion because it can be fun to critique fashion with her. She has a very minimalist approach to it. A single flower on a collar can ruin a dress for her.

I like to think I'm forgiving with most of fashion. I tend to like weird, crazy stuff you could never wear anywhere except for on a runway. But I tend to be overtly critical of wedding dresses. I find them most often boring or forgettable. Sometimes quite ugly. Which is a little strange because I feel like I should give them more leeway--there's only so much a traditional wedding dress can be. There's only so much variation you can bring out of beads, lace, the established necklines and skirt types, and various shades of white. Most often I find I hate too many repeated aspects of wedding dresses that ultimately cause me to rule out several styles from the get-go. I find sequin tacky, I dislike off-white colors like champagne or ivory, I find layers of sheer fabrics on puffy skirt a little too ugly, really huge flowery patterns makes me think of tablecloths, and transparent sleeves with lace never look that good in my eyes.

It sounds way too negative and a little ridiculous, but it is one of those things where I look at wedding dresses and I want to find one that somehow doesn't break from using traditional materials/designs and still somehow comes out looking beautiful and unique. I've found a couple I like--even if they utilized aspects that I tend to hate on their own or in different dresses.

I got to thinking that's a (subconscious?) apprehension I have with all of art. I can't help but wonder with all the years humanity has spent making music, writing books, or utilizing visual mediums, well, how do we keep coming up with new sounds and new wordings and images and stories? Though admittedly instruments, language, and techniques have evolved, it still sometimes feels like we should have ran out of ways to tell new tales in new ways or to arrange musical notes in a way that have never been arranged before.

So maybe that's why I'm obsessed with wedding dresses. Every style tries to be innovative despite the limited groundwork/materials it so often must adhere to. And sometimes, even if I think it ugly or boring, it manages to find a glimmer of individuality despite the limitations.
"Science and science fiction have done a kind of dance over the last century... The scientists make a finding. It inspires science fiction writers to write about it, and a host of young people read the science fiction and are excited, and inspired to become scientists...which they do, which then feeds again into another generation of science fiction and science..."
- Carl Sagan, in his message to future explorers of Mars.