Friday, October 21, 2016

Chapter 118: In Which I Discuss the Literature of Transience

So, I'm getting kicked out of my apartment. I'll probably have to leave the San Francisco Bay.

This is the third time I've had to leave the Bay. The first was after I moved here in 2008, and quickly ran out of money. I worked a summer job in Pittsburgh, and ended up staying. Wouldn't trade that for the world, as I made a lot of connections with other writers that have lasted to this day. The second was right after graduate school, when I had no money, and took the first job I could find in Louisiana. This time, I am not broke. I'm doing pretty well. But not well enough to stay in one of the world's most expensive cities.

This comes on a wave of bad luck. In May, I got fired from my teaching job at a private school. It was a toxic atmosphere (the kind of school where they fire a teacher in May, instead of March like a decent person) and it was small loss. Right now, I'm living at a house in West Oakland, in a unit with my landlord, a pretty abusive and miserable person. The kind of person who arbitrarily decides to evict someone, which is happening now. Both job and house were white privilege spaces in which I had to keep my mouth shut in order to save money. I won't miss either. I'm excited for the next step, which will most definitely be an improvement.

Something I notice is how good I am at moving. I've trained myself not to acquire too many things, assuming I'll have to leave whatever space I'm in every two years. I have enough stuff to fit in one suitcase. I accept the fact that I have no control over my circumstances, particularly being a black person in an area where most black people can't afford to live. Where 12,000 blacks left in the last four years. The Bay is being remade into the center of the tech thing, and it's awful. It's a effect of capitalism, not a personal failure. In other words, getting displaced is old hat for me.

The last time I moved was in 2015, when I got evicted from my apartment. Before that, I left Louisiana. Before that, plenty more moves, leading me all over the country. It's interesting to see the things I've carried through so many moves. I keep a lot of things from students, going back to when I first began teaching ten years ago. I have cards from them, notebooks, artwork. Also, I keep all the notebooks and notepads for my writing. Hell, I have post-it cards and receipt papers I wrote on back in 2010. Newspapers from college. These are all things I feel I need to have around me for when I revise certain stories. I'm keeping things that could be helpful with stories: an anthropology conference program, some photocopied notes on the Arabian Nights. I have programs and guest badges from myriad conventions. A subway ticket from Barcelona.

I have a violin I don't even know how to play.

One thing that occurred to me is that most of the fiction notes I've kept are for short stories. The last time I worked on a novel was also the last time I had the space and comfort to do so: during my MFA. It was called The Motley & Plume Players, a project I know I'll finish, as it's stayed in my head for so many years. During my MFA, I was all jazzed to work on it. Then I moved to Louisiana, and had to move twice during that time, and, well . . . I ended up writing a lot of nonfiction pieces for journals.

I loved writing lit crit. It's also something I can write relatively quickly compared to the more journalistic and research projects I'd like to Ta-Nehisi out sometime. And my interest in performance art fell entirely by the wayside when I had to rebuild my community every two years.

I'm finally starting to see how being displaced has influenced my art. Moving so much has made it impossible to have the proper head space, or resources, for longer projects. Case in point: these last few years I've working on a narrative podcast. I went to the L.A. Podfest, learned some things, got all revved up to do it . . . and then my landlady kicked me out. The podcast will have to wait until I'm resettled. I wonder if writers who started later in life, like Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison, had the same economic problems that I have keeping them from really delving into their writing careers. Moving has also exposed me to new things all the time, and short stories provide an outlet for that.

Simply put, I've been writing what I can. Things that can be easily digested by whatever writing group I have at the time. My pieces have gotten longer, which is the novelistic impulse coming through. I want to do longer work, and am determined more than ever to write around the transience. And, yes, maybe I should have just become a lawyer. But I didn't.



I recently watched the Cowboy Bebop movie, Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Now I'm sure of something I've always suspected: the Japanese might as well have stopped making cartoons after this show. It really is the apex. It's been nothing but moe stuff for otaku since then, and I think the decline in anime quality is correlated to the lack of creativity in Hollywood, where the Japanese always took their ideas. And part of what makes Bebop so great is that it's a show for adults. I love Attack on Titan, but it's a show for teenagers, Harry Potter with vore. Watching the movie, I found I could relate to Spike like I couldn't as a kid. He makes a big deal about how the Bebop is a purgatory for him, and he ultimately confronts his past to find out if he's really alive. In doing so, he dies.

Here's the thing: Spike is alive. He was alive the whole show. He has a job. He has a work partner and does hobbies in his free time. And his job is literally about life and death. He kills people. Spike is living the life of a rover, but his unfinished business makes him feel purgatorial. I think that can describe the experience of a lot of people in their 20s and 30s. If he'd never confronted Vicious, or found some way to kill Vicious without dying himself, he would go on as a bounty hunter and maybe retire. So much of my own life feels ephemeral, when in fact I've been building my writing career at every juncture. Spike's sense of aimlessness, contrasted with how life goes on, is a typical adult experience.

I'm starting to realize the cynical reasons why so many of my peers find a way to legally bind a roommate to them for life, and then fill the house with human beings who they biologically create. None of this was ever my bag (particularly the children part). But within transience there is a lot of room for permanence, which I'm discovering with every move. Regardless, leaving the Bay will be sad. But part of life is learning to say goodbye.

I'll miss the area. Until I return.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"What is the American Dream of a brown peson, except the dream of America leaving us alone?"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XX7FWtFKqfg

The best part of this poem is the last line, which does what good writing does: makes me look at the world differently. I live with a dog whose owner never never plays with it. It's allowed in the yard to run about and constantly yelled at for barking. And damned if that dog doesn't start barking right as I'm listening to this poem. Of course she barks. I would bark, too.

I first became aware of Danez's work at the 2014 National Poetry Slam in Oakland. Poetry is very important to me, and slam particularly so. I honed my skills as a writer at poetry open mics. A few things I learned:

1. Do not get a festival pass to a slam competition. You will end up hating slam.
2. It serves a unique purpose as far as being hiphop for conscious people. You cannot walk into a poetry slam and say oppressive shit. You will get hated on and shamed. If you're a mainstream rapper, you're encouraged to say such nonsense. Slam poetry is the safe space for outsiders, minorities within minorities.
3. It's not real poetry It's dramatic monologue. I can think of very few slam poems I've heard that would work on the page. I have seen few slam poets pay attention to things like meter, enjambment, all those words that come up in your graduate poetry class. But what's important is that they call it poetry. Stake their claim when they take the name of an art form that is, although a little under the radar, very important to white men. They sure do like their sonnets and villanelles, their Whitmans and Shakespeares and every other way they can say how cultured they are. Appropriation of the word "poetry" for something so formless, something that is straight up not poetry is, for me, an intensely subversive act.
4. Slam, at its best, can move me like no other artform. There have always been elements of slam in my writing. The climactic scene in "The Elvis Room" was written with slam cadence in mind. For me, that cadence almost works the way a song does in a Broadway musical. When my characters go about their lives, things can be minimalist or descriptive. But when they feel strong emotion, it turns into slam.

The Nationals were the first time I've seen Danez' work, and I'm pretty sure he did "Dinosaurs in the Hood." That's the one envisioning a 90s movie about fighting dinosaurs, where the people of color are empowered. It was interesting to later find it on my friend's poetry syllabus for her seventh grade class. I've taught it twice myself. The first time was with seventh graders who came from OUSD schools. The second time was with super rich kids at a private school in Dublin, CA. Both times it worked great. Like, "Can we see it again?" great.

I've seen Danez spit a few times, both solo and with the Dark Noise Collective. I suggest you (all eight of you; I check views like a fiend) go out and watch/read everything he's done. His work speaks directly to the genocide of black people. It's also blatantly fantastic, which is my jam. "Dinosaurs" drew me in by his delving full force into such a creative spec-fic scenario. "Alternate Heaven for Black Boys" works with Christian mythology to address genocide. Its based on the idea of black boys murdered by whites finding a paradise in death, which is profound in itself, but made moreso by how important the mythology of Heaven is to black people. Our ancestors were convinced to become Christians by being promised as a place where suffering ends, where you're no longer a slave, and I'm pretty sure the Heaven they envisioned was entirely black. Else it wouldn't be Heaven. I wish more writers in general would mine Christianity for its fantasy properties.

"Genisissy" is an Old Testament riff about the awesomeness of queerness. "Dear White People" (the one which spawned all kinds of dumbass responses from the aforementioned race) is about leaving this busted planet and going to space to get away from whites' racism. I wish I knew more poets who use fantasy elements not only to form the narrative (like Neil Gaiman does, and does well) but to get political. Saul Williams has always excelled at this, as well.

Anyway, enough fangirling. Right now I'm finishing up the manuscript for my new collection. Off to bang out a few more pages.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Chapter 117: In Which I Discuss an Educated Populace

Earlier this year, I attended AWP. It's still a good time. As usual, overwhelming, exhausting, a great way to see friends. It was in California this year, meaning I saw pretty much every writer I knew. It's also depressing. There's no quicker way, as a writer, to feel you don't matter than going to AWP. You're surrounded by people who've also written books, a small percentage of whom have made money at it. And if you're working a dealer table, as I was, you cease to be an artist and become a salesperson. In other words, you ain't shit. Everybody's on an even playing field, trying to sell, until the elegiac final day in which they're just giving the stuff away for free so they won't have to take it on the plane. Maybe you sell enough books to pay the cost of the table, but there's no profit, which is fine, until you consider the conference itself has to be making millions off an event whose main draw is off-site readings. As usual, I found myself surrounded by more successful writers, and it was insanely humbling.

The question being: did I have to leave my house and travel all the way to L.A. just to be humbled? I'm pretty humble already.

Every year I ask myself this, and every year I register again. I think things would be different if I'd put out a book recently; without having new work to show the world, my fire for the writing life has cooled. I don't like promoting old stuff, no matter how good it is, when I know my best work is waiting in the wings.

One thing AWP did very, very well this year was their diversity programming. I went to a lot of panels involving black writers, speaking directly to the genocide of black people in the United States. The keynote speaker was Claudia Rankine, whose so popular she "sold out" the auditorium and I had to watch her speech on video in the run-off room. However, I smelled a conspiracy. Last year, the conference got in hot water because one of their board members, Vanessa Place, was using racist iconography on her Twitter. I'd never heard of her before, but apparently she's some avant-garde, New Wave poet type from long ago. She was removed from the board. Then, all of a sudden, they're inviting black people onto the board! All of a sudden, you've got more panels about James Baldwin and Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde than you can handle.

Which is maybe why I keep coming back to AWP. Why the community of small press writing appeals to me, with its valuing of ideas. When accusations of racism came up, the conference runners tripped over themselves to not be associated. Which makes them the exact opposite of mainstream white America right now. These people identify themselves as scholars and intellectuals, and as such outwardly reject the blatant stupidity racism entails. They don't want to be associated with the mouth breathers at the Trump rallies. Do a lot of college writing programs have a racist bent to them? Sure. For fucking sure. But diversity programming based on fear for reputation is good, far as I'm concerned. In the end, it provided a platform for writers of color they might not have otherwise received.

Certainly not in any type of mainstream, big money industry. Yes, Jay Z makes money--making ultra-capitalist, cynical art. Black creators speaking to the black experience are in an especially unenviable position. When I was a child, Spike Lee was everywhere. Anytime some news station wanted to talk about race, he was there in his Malcolm X shirt, talking shit. This is because, in the 80s and early 90s, white people were feeling alienated. So, like in the 20s and 30s, they turned to black culture as a way of finding authenticity. Hiphop changed the world. Black filmmaking came out of the grindhouse and into the multiplex.

Nowadays, Spike has to crowdfund his movies. That's because white people are no longer interested in the black experience, even for voyeuristic reasons. This is the era of gentrification, the era of Lena Dunham's Brooklyn. They want us gone. After the cities are reclaimed and they've settled, they will get alienated again, and turn back to other cultures for something real. There are, of course, other things at play such as the rise of white supremacy in the country. White voices are the only ones that are currently valued in the mainstream.

Literature, however, real honest to god literature, is still a place for a non-white person to have an in. Because learning about other people and places is, ultimately, why people read books. Literature is a challenging artform, not something for the cowardly, or those closed off to ideas. It really is about the life of the mind, as well as the fun of reading.

At AWP, I went to a great panel with the poet laureate of Los Angeles. And he said, straight up, that a world in which people read would be one where Donald Trump got no traction. So real. The rich intentionally keep the poor ignorant, degrade reading, degrade intellectualism, and perpetuate the myth that everyone's opinions are equally valid, the expert and the raving hatemonger. Poor people buy into this, and they suffer.

As I see it, the main advantage of reading and educating yourself is realizing that so much of what we perceive as normal is, in fact, engineered. Global warming isn't real? A little research shows the "experts" are paid off by corporations. Black people are a race of thugs and drug addicts? A quick Google search reveals crack was shipped into the community by the CIA, as part of the Nixonian scheme to destroy the black community, doubled down on by Reagan and Clinton to criminalize black people and fill prisons. White people are naturally superior? A quick read will tell you whiteness was invented as a way to keep indentured servants from teaming up with African slaves. Capitalism is human nature? Plenty of societies have actually stepped up to the challenge of being an intelligent animal and lived communally. The danger of self-education (i.e. reading books) is the lower classes becoming aware of their education as something that was done to them. A conspiracy. A set-up. Somebody else reads a book and tells you what to think.

Literature is still the realm of ideas and self-education. And that is why I love the community, why I come back again and again, why I travel to spend time with writers. I will always be challenged in such a space, and find art that reflects the diversity of the world. It's awesome. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Chapter 116: In Which I Discuss Nostalgia and Continuity

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaL6NxTvWRM

This track gets me so pumped up. I listen to it and start feeling like this guy.



I just saw Mad Max: Fury Road. My lord, it is glorious. An instant classic. Proof that George Miller needs to direct every movie. There is so much heart and imagination and pure joy fit into those two hours that I'm still reeling. What a masterpiece of fantasy.

One thing (of many) that I found interesting was that it's a reboot that doesn't feel like one. Reboots/remakes/sequels are all the rage now. They seem to be rebooting Spider-Man faster than they can release the things in theaters. But Fury Road feels like it could easily fit into the established canon. Like its the lost film between Mad Max and Road Warrior. It's no surprise to find it was originally supposed to film in 2001 with Mel Gibson before it got pushed back.

George Miller has said the Mad Max films are supposed to be mythic Sergeo Leone-style movies with no real continuity. I suspect he's a bit of a troll. There are both visual cues and character beats that establish a continuum over the trilogy. Even without these cues, I felt no real disconnect between the new film and the old, except Max has a new face.

Also, thank Poseidon Mel Gibson is nowhere near this film. Some movies might need the nostalgia value he brings to sell tickets. Fury Road is making money based purely on quality. He would be nothing but an albatross around the film's neck. His presence is absolutely unneeded and Tom Hardy is great as the new Max. (Needless to say, Charlize Theron is an acting goddess.)

It seems to me that Miller did the impossible: he resurrected a franchise after thirty years without a bit of nostalgia. All the gags and storytelling and action beats feel fresh; you don't have to have knowledge of the old Mad Maxes to enjoy this movie. Miller is looking ahead with his filmmaking, to the point I can't even really call it a resurrection.

After all, you can't resurrect what was never dead in the first place.

In our current milieu, "new" is uncool. It seems that all of today's entertainment is geared towards making adults relive their 3rd grade summer vacation. Later this year, Star Wars is reemerging as part of Disney's campaign to mass market everyone's childhood under their umbrella. I would not be surprised if we soon got Lisa Frank: The Movie. And as a genre fan, I'd really like to see something new. Even anime, which has yielded some of the freshest shows and movies I've seen, has descended into moe, otaku-made, otaku-served navel gazing.

There are upsides to this nostalgia, of course. The main being that a lot of the stuff from our childhood actually sucked. I've never watched My Little Pony, but by all accounts it's a better-written toy commercial than the toy commercial it was based on. I hear there's going to be a new Masters of the Universe flick. Hopefully, since the studio can see the dollar signs, they won't kneecap it like Cannon did to the almost-good 1987 version.

Then there's a part of me that's like, "Wait! That He-Man cartoon sucked in the first place. Give me something new." Is the future so bleak that we're all trying to be kids again?

I just answered my own question. I live in California, where we're facing a water drought that will inevitably end with rich people having water while poor people have to pay out the ass for it. Water privatization is coming. Water riots are coming. We're staring at the world of Mad Max in real life and I can see why a lot of adults with the time and money (i.e. mostly white people) would want to throw on their Ninja Turtles jammies and pretend like none of this is happening.

But back to entertainment and the hipsterization of American culture. The last blockbuster movie I can recall that offered something new was The Matrix. They took a little bit from anime, a little bit from John Woo, a little bit from Grant Morrison, but in the end it was their creation. And it was a great movie. I thought the sequels were bloated and tension-free and nonsensical, but they were all the Wachowskis'. They stand alone as works of art.

Compare this to the nostalgia-drenched trailers for Star Wars. It might be a great movie. I hope it is. But the trailers are filled with cues to the original. So far, a lot is banking on people's love for a 38-year-old movie. My fear is that the new characters and their storyline will suffer. A bold move would have been to cut out the old characters entirely. Everyone's excited that Luke, Han, and Leia are back. That's pure nostalgia. The original actors also made Return of the Jedi. There's things to like about that movie, but it certainly doesn't come from Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher sleepwalking. The original cast are 2 for 3.

And it's frustrating after seeing Fury Road. Here you have an old school, honest-to-god filmmaker who crafting beautiful images and stirring sequences. He is obsessed with the craft, not at what callbacks he can make to something from long ago. There's no Mel Gibson cameo or gratuitous shots of a dog or putting a Tina Turner wig on Zoe Kravitz to signify she'll be the next Aunt Entity. It's a vibrant, alive movie. I don't know if modern big-budget filmmakers have the space to do that kind of auteurship anymore. Maybe Christopher Nolan, but who else?

George Miller pretty much created the post-apocalyptic genre. Everything from Borderlands to Fist of the North Star to every 80s metal band to the entire existence of Burning Man stems from Mad Max. If our current zeitgeist existed in Miller's heyday, we would have never gotten The Road Warrior. After making Mad Max, he would have been scooped up to do the third Dick Van Dyke Show movie in the 50s Sitcom Cinematic Universe.

I mean, they're resurrecting Jem and the Holograms (in a shitty manner, judging by the trailers) while we still don't have a proper Avatar: The Last Airbender film. Come on, people. Get on it.

Continuity

New creator = new continuity. That is my policy.

Mad Max has me thinking about this, as it is the only "soft" reboot I've seen that I would put in canon with the original films. That is because it remains Miller's singular vision. If they'd brought on a new director, it would automatically be new canon for me. This philosophy has saved me a lot of grief as a fan of spec-fic shows and movies. Big studios own the rights to intellectual property. In such a world, art is seen as capital, and artists as product creators. How to determine canon in such a world?

I came to this philosophy after reading a Wikipedia article on Alan Moore's Watchmen. For the character profiles, they included background info from Before Watchmen. And I asked: how could this info be listed in the bios for Moore's character's when Moore had nothing to do with the comic? When he was against it from the very beginning? How can you just insert your ideas into someone else's story without their say-so?

We have a word for that. It's called fanfic. I never wrote fanfic; having taken creative writing classes since I was a kid, I had it drilled into my head not to write something you can't market. But fanfic has it's place and people seem to get a lot out of it. What they don't get is the original creator's vision.

In fact, lately I've become, if not partial to fanfic, intrigued by it. Fanfic is the realm of the happy ending. For every individual fan, there is a realm where Spike got with Buffy. There is a sphere where the werewolf kid hooked up with Bella instead of with her infant daughter. There is a world out there where Charlie Brown hooked up with the Little Red Haired Girl. All you have to do is find it in the labyrinthine universe of online fanfic. I'm glad fans have their happy endings out there. Everybody ends up happy. The ones that tickle me the most are the Song of Ice and Fire fanfic, which usually take place in some sort of AU where the characters are high schoolers. Then, you know, Arya hooks up with Gendry or Sansa gets with Sandor and they all go to the prom. It seems like the only way to squeeze a happy ending out of George R.R. Martin's crapsack universe is to get rid of the universe entirely.

But Martin himself will tell you: those aren't his characters, that's not his story. Neither is the TV show Game of Thrones. It's head-canon, the same as Before Watchmen. The fact that DC chose to market that comic makes it no less fanfic.

I believe in artistic integrity. I loathe the idea that a different artist's take on a universe can ruin a good story or validate a bad one. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels, but they were overseen by the same guy who directed and produced the originals. Lucas may have messed it up, but it was his story and his imperative to do so.

J.J. Abrams' sequels? Whole new canon.

People say The Simpsons got bad. No, it didn't. The Simpsons we all grew up on was a brilliant show that lasted for an unparalleled nine great seasons. After that point Matt Groening turned his focus to Futurama. What followed was a series of mediocre shows with the same name and character designs. The Simpsons you loved ended when Groening left and remains untouched. Those who came after him were following a separate vision. Their artistic faults (as well as Fox's continuing to renew the show long after it had anything to say) has no reflection on what came before.

Greg Weisman and the other creators of Gargoyles had the cartoon wrested from them by Disney to make the inferior third season. All Gargoyles fans consider this season non-canon. The creator disavowed any part in it. But it exists as a separate continuity. Weisman's is a cautionary tale: he tried to continue Gargoyles in comic form, but had to quit because he couldn't afford to keep licensing his own characters from Disney.

But what of when the original artist cedes the story reins to a minion? What if they say it's part of their continuity? If so, then it is for me.

Until . . . continuity errors.

The moment continuity errors emerge, it's a new story for me. Simply put, if the artists don't care enough to keep things consistent, I'm not going to jump through hoops to do the storytelling myself.

An example of this is True Blood. Alan Ball left after season 5 and the new team was left to clean up the mess he'd left, with a dozen story arcs and a massive cast and a human-vampire war they couldn't possibly film. The spent much of season 6 retconning away season 5.

In that season, the character Terry gets glamored (read: hypnotized by a vampire) to forget his PTSD.
The problem? It was established in the first season that Terry couldn't be glamored because he has a metal plate in his head. This entire plot development is impossible based on what has come before. Everything falls apart.

Unless you accept that this Terry and the one before are two different characters.  Yes, you go into the season knowing Terry is a short order cook with PTSD from the Iraq War and a wife named Arlene. You also go into every Robin Hood movie knowing he's a lord who went off to fight in the Crusades. They're still separate works of art.

The original True Blood ended on the cliffhanger of Bill drinking Lilth's blood and becoming a god. Then there was an unconnected two-season show with the same name.

When I was a kid in the 90s, there were a lot of Elfquest offshoots made by artists other than Wendy and Richard Pini. Warp Graphics was expanding and with it the EQ Universe. Most of those comics were of debatable quality, and twenty years later are entirely unmarketable, so it's best they're available for free online. Nobody would ever buy them.

This sucked.


One such comic called New Blood was just . . . bad. In a lot of ways, starting with the art. And it played fast and loose with the rules. Part of Elfquest lore is that elves use telepathy. But Barry Blair totally wrote a scene where some elves are stuck in a tree or something and don't know how they're going to contact their friends.

Nope. Elves use telepathy. It's always been this way. In New Blood, these powers can apparently short circuit. Different rules = different universe. New Blood is non-canon for me, and not just because it's a crappy comic. It's rules don't align.

I like the Elfquest Rogue's Curse comic a lot. Wendy Pini herself did some Rogue's Curse one-shots, so it's safe to say the original creator signed off on the storyline. Still, I remember that story having some parts that didn't gel with the Pinis' canon. Henceforth, it becomes non-canon, AU, What If?, Elseworlds, whatever you want to call it.

This theory feels liberating as a fan, but also frees up artists to tell the story they want to tell. Really, the new True Blood team shouldn't have had to abide by the set rules if that doesn't suit the story they want to tell. (Which is not to say I loved those two seasons. They were awful. Just a different kind of awful than what came before.)

There are exceptions for things like pro wrestling or superhero comics, where lack of continuity is the point. If you're asking yourself why Batman never ages, that's the point you put down the comic and pick up a novel. If you need to find reason in-character as to why CM Punk is a fighting champion one day and a cowardly heel the next, then you're over pro wrestling. The storylines are meant to be fluid. Then there are comics that follow a linear storyline, like the Dark Horse Conan comics. But the moment a new writer forgoes canon, or embarks on a complete tonal shift, it becomes a different Conan universe for me. And I get to choose which I like best.

Whew! That was a ramble. I haven't gone on a nerdy rant in a while. Feels good.

Watch the new Mad Max. It will kick your ass.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

On Anime Conventions, Part 3

Baltimore!

The power of black people is an unstoppable force. Beautiful to see.

In such times, it feels weird to devote a weekend of my life to an anime convention, but also necessary. Anime is the realm of the imagination, which they cannot take from us, even if they kill us for having imaginations.

Today I'll talk about my latest anime con. I was overjoyed to see all the black folks at Tekkoshocon in Pittsburgh last weekend. Most surprising to me was that black dudes were running the LARP. I generally avoid LARP, as the idea of giant aggro white dudes hitting me with foam bats doesn't sound appealing. But apparently we've taken over LARPing. When did this happen? Am I gonna see cats walking down International Blvd. in armor on their way to the club? Will we start donning armor to bash cops? Anyway, loved seeing a multicultural crew handling the LARPing, which was really friendly to beginners.

Some notes:

There has been a complete generational turnaround in anime fandom. I saw maybe three people I recognized from my con-going days in college. Two of them were vendors, which seems a logical step for a fan. One of them was the old chair, who was visiting for the day. It was cool, as I felt like I was stepping into an entirely new space, with opportunity to meet new people.

Sometimes I wonder if I can call myself a real otaku since I've never seen Evangelion. I caught maybe two episodes when it first came out in the late 90s. Didn't strike my fancy. Then it became a seminal anime. The thing is, first there was Neon Genesis Evangelion, then Death, Rebirth, End of Evangelion, now Rebuild. And it's all THE SAME STORY. I understand not getting it right the first time, but the second? The third? I'm sorry, but a story so convoluted it has to be remade every five years sounds sloppy.

At some point, I'm going to have to watch End of Evangelion for the weird imagery alone. But I won't enjoy it. Shinji Hikari is pretty much designed to be the most loathsome character in all anime. The whole point seems to be that these characters are miserable and unrelatable. I wouldn't want to watch one show about Shinji, let alone several shows getting made until the end of time.

The only anime I sat down and watched in the Tekko video rooms was Space Dandy. Shinichiro Watanabe is a maniac. That is all.

I saw a panel about putting on cosplay skits that showed some examples of good ones. I've seen a lot of bad skits but there are people out there who think of it theatrically and pull out all the stops to put on a show. I particularly liked this one, a tribute to the classic Duck Hunt game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSRLITM-KTw

Tekkoshocon taught me the true value of a good staff. All through the weekend, con ops was helpful as far as setting up equipment for my panels. They were easy to talk to, totally accessible. Around 10 pm Saturday night, there was a fire evacuation right as I was doing a panel on Leiji Matsumoto. Staff immediately got on directing people down the stairs and out of the building. Thousands of anime nerds made it outside just in time to see the fireworks from PNC Park. It was pretty magical. Then everybody came back inside (complete with a Daniel Bryan "Yes!" chant) and staff had to hold everybody on a bridge in David Lawrence Convention Center while they got the convention floor ready. This could have been a disaster, but we weren't waiting more than ten minutes before the con resumed. I went to con ops, which was already up and running, to see if I could get my panel rescheduled for the next day. I couldn't. You would have never known they'd just led an emergency evacuation, that's how professional they were. Amazing, especially considering so many on the staff are college kids. Competent staff can make or break a con, and these ones made it.

My Matsumoto panel getting scheduled at 10pm was kind of weird. Its a panel on old school anime and gender roles, not really conducive for the J-pop rave and porn that occupies that hour. Strangely, the evacuation actually helped, as my audience quintupled afterward.

In other nerd news: The new Star Wars trailer looks great. I noticed they focused a lot on the characters, both old and new. I noticed they didn't focus on CGI cartoons, not so subtly letting everyone know the mistakes of the prequels would not be repeated. I didn't like that J.J. Abrams used Star Trek as his demo reel for Star Wars, but they seem to be making all the right moves so far. I'm also genuinely intrigued by Justin Lin bringing his diversity-minded sensibility to Star Trek. I might have to start watching both series again.

Synchronicity. I did a panel on anime and black culture. I was inspired to do it by the police murder of Darrien Hunt, an otaku who got shot in the back by police for cosplaying. And I began to wonder what draws black folks to anime, product of a culture as racist as our own. The intersections between our culture and Japanese culture are just so myriad. Tekko had an educational panel track this year called Tekko Gakkou, which I got into.

I had an hour and a half for the panel and I was the only panelist, seeing as how I live in California and don't know too many otaku in Pittsburgh. This was not what I wanted, to sit up there alone and pretend like I am the All-knowing Authority on Blackness. I was thinking of just picking some people from the audience to come up and riff with me.

On the Wednesday before the con, I did a reading at the Cyberpunk Apocalypse. It went well. Beer, wine, sausage, poetry, etc. Only complaint is that Pittsburgh was too damn cold to be having an outside reading like that. I told someone at the reading what I was in town for and she said one of her advisee's at Pitt was doing his senior thesis on anime.

My response: "Hook it up."

I ended up doing the panel with Tom Bautista and it went great. He's doing his senior thesis on representations of blackness in Afro Samurai. Really smart guy; it was cool to give him that space to share his work. I went first, with some historical info on how anime has influenced black culture, and the other way around. Then Tom got into his part. The discussion afterward dealt a lot with what the audience got out of anime, how black people have related to it, and anime fandom as a potentially anti-racist space. Between AWP and Tekko, I spent two straight weekends in the company of brilliant black people having serious discussions. No complaints.

Okay, racism. I can still complain about that.

All geek culture is together now. When I was doing cons, plenty of people cosplayed western characters. But I genuinely feel in our globalized world that it all occupies the same space. You can put your Frozen meme on Tumblr right next to your Naruto one. Or combine them. I went to two panels celebrating the ridiculous of 80s cartoons and none felt out of place. I think all cons now are multimedia cons, no matter their specified purpose.

I met a girl who referred to the Nintendo Gamecube as something from the early days of gaming. I told her I had an original NES. She had no idea what I was talking about.

Cons are the realm of the imagination. I attended a panel where a bunch of college kids sat up front pretending to be characters from Attack on Titan. The audience asked them questions based on the anime. What is more fun than pretending to be a cartoon character? It was nerdy and niche and entirely worthless if you're not a fan of the show, but it's all good. I noticed the girl playing Sasha stayed in character the whole time. Kudos to her.

On that matter, there were AoT cosplayers everywhere. I was always interested by the uniform aspect of cosplay, especially military ones. Once upon a time everybody cosplayed Full Metal Alchemist, and when you saw somebody else in the blue military uniform you were automatically in a brotherhood. Now you can join the AoT army. When I cosplayed, I made a lot of friends cosplaying Naruto. The popular anime of the day creates an instant bond between cosplayers that goes beyond apreciation of the show.

Cosplay has gotten really good. With the internet, there's fame and fortune for those who do great costumes, and you'll see a flurry of professional quality outfits at any con. Get on enough Tumblr posts and you're a celebrity cosplayer. AMVs are also really good, with the editing software to seamlessly splice all kinds of stuff together.

I had four panels crammed into Saturday afternoon and evening. There was a ton of interesting panels about gender, doll-making, translation, video game design, fashion . . . so much educational stuff. I went to an awesome one about wielding a katana where the audience got to go up and practice in the end. (With wooden practice swords.) Just fun paneling all around.

Anime fandom is queer, sexually deviant, kinky, bi, trans, lez, sadist, masochist, furry and pony, and I would have it no other way. I definitely saw a girl cosplaying the Nazi fetish furry slave from Hellsing. There were your requisite gay girls cosplaying gay boys. There were your standard femme boy ravers in fishnet shirts. I'm trying to remember if I saw a single male cosplay Levi from AoT. Otaku subculture has always been welcoming to different lifestyles, and provides a friendly space for queer kids to celebrate queerness in all its yaoi/yuri/beyond iterations. For many kids, cons are their only safe space for some healthy genderbending.

What I found interesting was how kids (and yes, I mean teenagers) were dressing in some very fetishy costumes. It was like Folsom Street Fair: PG Edition. I'm betting many of them will get into kink as they get older, with anime as their gateway. And I wonder if they're fully aware of the sexual aspect, or if it's more about dress-up at that age.

Anime is really normal now. The popular new show is about Satan working at a McDonald's. It's called The Devil is a Part Timer. And I'm thinking: so Satan is in this. At what point does he die and get resurrected as a sex slave for an evil warlord who cuts off his hands and feet so he can walk on all fours like a dog? I think a lot of otaku nowadays would vomit at the weird shit I grew up on.

Oh yeah! I almost forgot you weren't allowed bags in the dealer room. Somebody said you had to check your bag and it was $12 and there was a long line to do so. Fuck that. I carried my bag all weekend.

Also, Tekko needs to do day passes again. Fifty bucks isn't steep for me, especially since the panelists got reimbursed. The day pass exists so kids without tons of cash, and who have school on Friday, can still have a solid day at the con. It could be that only weekend passes cover the rent at the convention center, but its still unfortunate.

Anime cons basically exist for young people to have fun, and that's what happened at Tekko. Not much has really changed since my con-going days, including the requisite scene drama that people would mutter about over the course of the weekend. Friends having falling outs, sleeping with each other's boyfriends, hating somebody for winning some cosplay award, etc. I was never into con drama, as I go to these things to have a good time. The drama feels oddly quaint and fun because the stakes are so low. It seems less like a stressful thing and more like a feature of the space.

Good lord, I wrote a lot. It feels good. Hopefully, generations to come with be finding their imagination stirred by the art of Japanese animation. I know I have.

Baltimore!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chapter 115: In Which I Discuss the Myth of White Male Meritocracy

I just got back from AWP in Minneapolis. Had an amazing time, as usual. It's funny about AWP. Every year I do the same thing. Go to readings, speeches, panels, old friends, new friends, drink. This might have been the best year because I had a hotel and got to fully experience the conference. But no year feels any better or worse than another. It is all a blur of activity that's over too fast. I'm starting to think AWP exists outside of time, like a perpetual conference that takes place over an endless weekend in a pocket universe into which I periodically materialize.

Mark-out moment: getting a hug from Pulitzer nominee/dragon highlord Karen Russell.  "Keep writing weird," she told me. Yes, Karen. I will do that.

So, onto less fun topics. Puppygate. Black Gate Magazine has a pretty nice writeup of the controversy.

http://www.blackgate.com/2015/04/07/sad-puppies-and-super-puppies-the-2015-hugo-train-wreck/

Basically, a cabal of straight white male Republican writers decided the Hugo Awards have been hijacked by a leftwing conspiracy. According to them, this is the cause for stories with progressive topics winning Hugos over the last few years, as opposed to changing readership. As a response, they hijacked the Hugo nominations and filled it with candidates of their choosing.

Writers far more eloquent and experienced with the Hugos than I have debunked their conspiracy theories. http://grrm.livejournal.com/418285.html. Not like it matters, because talk of making the Hugos more "diverse" and fighting a "leftist" agenda is all poppycock. Simply put, some people who weren't supposed to get through the gate got through anyway, so the gatekeepers are closing it again.

The rhetoric of straight white males is strangely steeped in victimhood and this weird idea of them being the little guy. The dialogue from the Puppies side certainly reminds me of the Tea Party rhetoric from a few years ago. A lot of whining about big government coming to oppress them. The Tea Party was a scam, a Republican get-out-the-vote campaign disguised as grassroots organizing, appealing to those whites who think they are "losing everything."

As Chris Rock said, if they're losing everything, then who has it? 'Cause it sure ain't us.

What we have here are straight white males, a.k.a. the people who run the publishing industry, asserting their dominance over the marginalized. It all comes down to fear. In a way, they are the little guy. In the acronym SWM, the S is the only letter connotating a majority. So much of white supremacy stems from them knowing they're surrounded and acting out of fear.

In reading the Black Gate article, I was struck by the language of the Sad Puppies side. I am not going to quote because I don't want to read that shit again. One was the SWM language of false equality. At the suggestion that Hugo voters will No Award their nominations and nullify the entire ballot, Vox Day claims this is an extremist thing, and it is up to the "other side" to "negotiate."

Like Israelis killing thousands of Palestinian children while getting double digit casualties is a "war." Like a photo of a black boy hugging a cop means there is hope for reconciliation between our two sides. Like everybody is on the same footing. Painting the oppressed as a rival power instead of the underdog is a key trick of the oppressor. And Day's insistence that his side is winning smacked of demagoguery.

What I found most interesting was the notion of "deserving." Did Resdshirts "deserve" best novel? Did Rachel Swirsky's  dinosaur story (which conservatives hate) "deserve" best story. He's talking issues of meritocracy in a fan-based scifi/fantasy award.

That Rachel Swirsky, man. If only she'd pull her pants up and start speaking correct English, maybe she'd get somewhere in life. But you had to give her a Hugo handout and now she'll never go away.

America is based around the notion of meritocracy and it's a complete myth. It's easier for a SWM to succeed when the whole system is made for him to do so. Ironically, meritocracy becomes real when applied to the marginalized. To get a dark-skinned man in the Oval Office required him being the most amazing negro who ever lived. His predecessor was actually sold as "the guy you want to have a beer with." Mediocrity was his marketing point. Bush had everything handed to him from the moment he was born but in the eyes of his supporters he's a bootstraps story.

Their ancestors created a world in which they can coast. I am assuming that most white male writers, no matter how bad their elementary school, were not criminalized from a young age. I would wager they were given the tools for success and had a support network on their way to publishing. I'm guessing they never had to worry about police gunning them down in their own neighborhood. But so many are told from the beginning that they are a badass who can do anything and internalize the myth of work and reward. Really, their forefather who shot that Native American is the one with claim to badassery. What we call merit in America is actually inheritance.

And it isn't just related to POC. Gamergate was structured around slut-shaming a female journalist for who she slept with. You now what? I don't care. Plenty of people move up in their industry because of who their friends are (again ,the myth of meritocracy). Mark Zuckerberg is an industrious dude, but he had the right friends. Being rich, white, and going to Harvard also helped. Whether or not he slept with the Winklevoss twins is irrelevant to the fact he had them in his corner in order to start Facebook. But with a woman, all of a sudden her sex life is the biggest part of the argument against her.

I went to Day's website once and had to leave quickly at the echo chamber of mouth-breathing and hatemongering. This is the troll who called N.K. Jemisin a "savage." Her response was far nicer than mine would have been. The Hugos are officially about straight white men versus everybody else. But they always have been. When it was only SWM on the ballot (plus or minus a lightskinned black man or a woman writing under a male pseudonym), science fiction imprints like Ace and Ballantine were highly exclusionary as to who they published. The war was going on, just not out in the open. Puppygate is not an uprising but the status quo trying to protect its spot.

And I wish I could say it's not important, but it is. Look at South Carolina. If you remove the voices of marginalized people, it is easier to dehumanize them. Shoot them down in the woods like deer. If we don't express our truth, someone else with no emotional investment will do it for us. Literary awards factor into this. Toni Morrison's Pulitzer. Jhumpa Lahiri's Pultizer. Their stories are part of the global consciousness.

Even in defending their position, people like the Sad Puppies can't set it outside of political arguments. This is about diversity in the Hugos. The storm of misogynist rape and death threats last year was (in)famously softpedaled as being about "ethics in game journalism." None of this has to do with life and death matters. These trolls could walk away form the internet and their lives would go on as before. They could simply read the books they like and not care about awards and they'd be fine.

But for POC, visibility is about life. Things suck, but not as much as when we had no voice. The blues happened, then rock'n'roll, and all of a sudden black people had access they never had before. In the long run, whites benefited more from the music. But what we were doing was expressing our humanity, reacting to oppression. And doors opened. For artists of color, the political is entirely personal.

Of course, there are those who want to close the doors. As the saying goes, that seat on the front of the bus was leading us straight to a prison cell. It will be interesting to see how Worldcon voters react, and what the atmosphere at the con is like. I often debate how much I want to engage in scifi fandom. Sometimes I go to cons and do panels, but the idea of struggling against men like the Sad Puppies for a spot in their world sounds stupid. Better to just write stories and get them out to my audience, while staying away from places like Worldcon. Better to burn it down and make something new.

What's a nerd to do? I find my joy in anime fandom. This weekend, I'm doing four panels at Tekkoshocon in Pittsburgh. Anime is a truly international art form that people around the globe  celebrate. It is a youth-oriented fandom, with few of the intergenerational battles you see in scifi/fantasy spaces. Anime has always been a friendly space to females and LGBT. Yes, the art form itself comes from a culture that racially oppressed most of Asia, and there are problematic elements. But the moment a cartoon leaves Japan, it becomes part of the world, loved by people of all colors. Anime fandom is far from perfect, but it sure as hell ain't the shitstorm of this Sad Puppies thing.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On Anime Conventions, Part 2



Otakon 1999

Otakon was the first convention I ever went to. I ran upon an ad for it randomly while surfing the net and saw that it was that very weekend. Needless to say, the fact that they had conventions for ANIME blew my mind. I knew they did it for comics and scifi, but anime? This was new to me and I was beyond hyped.

This was shortly after my freshman year of high school and I had yet to assemble an otaku crew. Hell, the name otaku itself had yet to gain the cultural cache it would among US anime fans. It was weird to find a convention called otakon, as in a con of otaku, as in a con of desperate nerds. As to not be wandering around Baltimore by myself, a called up a kid named Darrell who I didn't know very well, but knew he was into that anime stuff.

ME: Dude! You're not gonna believe it! They have conventions! For anime! This is gonna rawk!

Darrell came over on a Saturday and my mom drove us two miles from Montgomery County to Baltimore. It was my first time that I can recall visiting America's most famous hood city, which didn't seem so scary when hanging around the Inner Harbor. Otakon was a strange, overwhelming thing for someone who'd never been to an anime con before. Even back then, it was crowded, stuffed full of panels and more things to do than my mind could track. I remember you could get a day pass back then. I also remember the lines being short, in contrast to the four-hour mire they would turn into over the next few years.

There were a lot of Final Fantasy 7 cosplayers, as it had recently bridged the gap between anime and games. Most of the cosplay was pretty obscure, as there weren't a lot of mega-popular shows at the time. There was certainly more cosplay of 1970s properties like Yamato than you see nowadays. The Ota-Cafe with its daylong karaoke was a great idea. Whenever we got bored, we just went and watched more karaoke. I wanted to go to every panel possible, whether it was voice acting or model kits or an academic treatise on Evangelion. I was already drifting away from video games but played with other otaku in the game room nonetheless. Me and Darrell were basically running around the whole time, trying to fit in as much anime-related sights as possible.

The big deal that year was a performance from Yoko Kanno, who I'd never heard of, but had nerd popularity from scoring some ridiculous-sounding show called Cowboy Bebop. Even then, she was accomplished from shows like Escaflowne, so getting her to come was pretty special. Sad I missed her.

Ota had a good sized dealers room with a bunch of obscure stuff. In those days, the dealers room had stuff that you simply couldn't get anywhere else, so it felt like finding a treasure trove. And it was priced like treasure. The cost of a single J-pop CD made my brain bleed. With my limited amount of spending money, I bought a Satoshi Urushihara art book. Also known as: porn. Ah, the good old days when nobody checked IDs for anything.

The best part was making a new friend and bonding over this obscure thing we liked. And it set the template for the next few years, when Otakon or Katsucon was the reason to load everybody in someone's mom's van and go be ourselves a while.

In a twist straight out of an 80s movie, while I was having fun, my mom and little sister got lost driving around the Baltimore ghetto. When it came time to leave, I called her on a payphone, during which she told me she'd seen a man with a penis wrapped around his neck. I'm guessing said phallus was fake. Anyways, my mother was distressed. When I asked if we could stay longer, she emphatically said no.

It's interesting looking back at photos from then, because Ota 99 wasn't very crowded. For one of the biggest cons in America, there weren't huge numbers. Around 4,500. In fact, it only took up half the convention center, the other half hosting a Muslim convention. But at the time, it felt like an otaku tsunami. In fact, I was at the cusp of what would be an explosion in anime fandom, and the numbers would only increase.