Friday, December 31, 2010


The year we made contact.

In January, I stood outside of a house in Pittsburgh where they were holding a New Years punk dance party. Right after the countdown, some friends set off homemade fireworks. They actually went off this year, and did not dissipate as they fell down. Two guys with fire extinguishers ran into someone's backyard to put it out. Since this is Pittsburgh, you could hear fireworks going off all around. There were also some popping sounds that weren't fireworks.

In February, I held my first birthday party in 13 years. It was small, and cozy, and all of my Cyberpunk Apocalypse housemates were there. I read a whole hour-long story for my friends. "Graveyard Shift," the zombie story. Then we danced to New Jack Swing.

In March, I was working at the Pittsburgh Job Corps Center as a residential advisor. I find that the only jobs I can really tolerate are ones where you interact with real people, such as this one, where I was responsible for a dormitory of 80+ 16-24 year old men. Any job where you're just saying "Thank you" and "How may I help you?" is 100% soul crushing. Social work is occasionally soul crushing, but the rewards are stupendous. At Job Corps I saw true poverty. I grew up poor, but not that poor. Men who could not afford to take a bus anywhere, leaving them stranded at the center, waiting desperately for the meager check they got every two weeks. A whole network of relations around the borrowing of change, laundry soap and bus passes. There was also a fair amount of thievery and drug use, and some deadbeats who could care less about their children. Seeing firsthand how the system creates whole generations of neglect was pretty heartbreaking. The light was in seeing the people who actually got their lives together. I remember one young man who had a serious drug problem before he came to Job Corps. He was very focused on getting through the nursing program. Unfortunately, the dorms are not the ideal place to make a life change, and he started to wear down from all the people stealing his stuff and acting disrespectful. I was so happy to see him at the graduation in July. Hopefully he's gotten into a medical program by now.

In April, I waited in the drizzling rain outside the house of my publisher, Nathan. He emerged carrying a box. In this box were the first copies of my very first book. I thanked him, put them in my car and drove to the Cyberpunk Apocalypse to drop the books off. Then I drove through the rain to go to work. Pretty low-key fulfillment of something I've dreamed of since I was a little boy. Anyway, we had the book release party later that week. Many thanks go out to the friends who made that possible.

In May, I read in Cincinnati, the last stop on the Elvenslaughter Tour and, in my opinion, my best tour performance. We were staying with an old friend of Dan McCloskey's mother, in a house with cable, which meant we got to watch HBO. You forget how good a bed can feel after so long sleeping on couches. Dan and I had an hour to kill before the performance, so I did the only thing I could think off to do in Cincinnati: drive across the Kentucky border and go to the Cork 'N Bottle. The trip took way longer than it should have, and, yes, we did get lost looking for the Buttermilk Parkway exit. However, hallelujah, we reached the liquor store. Dan: "Since we're in Kentucky, we should get Jack Daniels." Jack Daniels is from Tennessee, but anyway. We ended up buying a bottle each of cold duck, that country-ass pseudo-wine my father used to drink like water. By the time we got back from our impromptu road trip, everyone was at the U.Turn Art Gallery, ready for the show. "When the Law Come" was the first story I read on tour, at the Bloombars open mic, and I don't think I did very well. I still had to work out how to perform that particular one. By the time I read it in Cincy, it was killer. Seeing people get so delighted by a fantasy story is amazing to me. I want to do it again and again. After the show, we met some good folks, went back to Dan's mom's friend's house and toasted a successful tour with cold duck. Then we watched True Blood. Then we watched The Wrestler. And then we slept, well.

In June, I was still working as a residential advisor at Pittsburgh Job Corps. Every week we got new guys in the dorms, gave them some basic materials and assigned them a room. Two young brothers got put in a room with the section leaders, i.e. students who ran the chores on the dorms. I don't know who started the beef, nor did I care. The new guys were certainly immature and prone to shit-talking. The section leaders were certainly arrogant and covetous of their space. Either way, an ungodly fracas arose around midnight, with everybody up in everybody's face, everybody telling the other guy to put his money where his mouth is. The section leaders told the kids their shoes were emitting an odor, and they replied by spraying a whole bottle of Axe on the shoes. It was like somebody set off a chemical weapon on the dorm. I made some room moves, obviously. The first move was the kid in the room with asthma, who could have straight up died from that. I stayed an hour after my shift was done airing out the dorms, weeping from the stench of Axe. Then I went to the bar. I'm happy to say that, last I checked, the two brothers had acclimated themselves and become more responsible students.

In July, I read at Bluestockings in New York City with four out of five members of my writers' co-op. It's a space I always wanted to read at. I'd been trying to book a show there for ages. Here I was, walking around New York City in the blistering heat, when I look up and see a raging inferno down the street. Biggest damn fire I ever saw. Destructive and beautiful. NYFD handled it, thankfully. The reading itself was sparsely attended, and we only made enough money to get a return on the coffee we bought, but that was fine. My only regret is that all five members couldn't come. Simply being in New York is a gift that I appreciate every time I'm there. Have you ever seen Central Park? Have you ever seen Spanish Harlem? Have you ever seen Broadway in the summertime, the endless surge of humanity? Hands down one of my favorite places on Earth.

In August, I left Pittsburgh for the Bay. The plan was always to return to San Francisco. Yes, it's an insidiously racist place, worse than anywhere I've encountered in the East. Yes, it's damn near impossible to make a living. I was leaving a steady lifestyle in Pittsburgh, and a woman I had fallen in love with. We had so many adventures in a short time, traveling around Pittsburgh and exploring hidden places. Leaving her was difficult. There was also the spectre of urban renewal: the G20 obviously, companies scouting out the city, so-called radical anarchists moving to the area to buy property and appear in Levi's commercials, turning into the new landlords. Gentrification is finally happening to my city, and I leave. What would I do if I was still there? I don't know. I think that it's impossible for me to stay in a place that's so easy and familiar. Then again, I've found that it's impossible for me to stay anywhere for too long. Maybe I'm just a floater pretending to be the sedentary type.

In September, I was knee-deep in classes at Mills College. It was the only school that accepted me in the Bay, so that made the decision easy. I took Reading and Writing the Body (body theory), Fiction Workshop and Theories and Strategies of Teaching Writing. Theories and Strategies was amazing purely because of the interpersonal dynamics. People were at each other's throats over the notion of how to teach English. I loved this. Education is a serious thing and should be taken seriously.

In October, I worked on my first audio project. Using borrowed equipment, I recorded "Dead Teenagers" on Audacity, complete with music and sound effects. There's a bit of an amateur quality to it, but for a first shot it came out pretty good. I've long wanted to add an audio supplement to my stories, maybe make mix tapes like Li'l Wayne. When I write there's often music going on in my head, so it's good to have a creative outlet for that. The program Audacity is amazing. Since "Dead Teenagers" is a Halloween story, I tried hard to get it uploaded on the 31st, only to find there were no internet sites that had the bandwidth. It still sits there on my computer. I'm hoping to turn it into video and post it to my Youtube channel, providing thrills and chills for the Easter season.

In November, I wandered from Berkeley to Oakland after the Meserhle verdict came down. I have long known that the lives of black men are forfeit in this country, but getting such a clear reminder of it made me physically ill. I was dating a woman at the time who was very much into relationship drama, and the last thing I wanted to do was call her. When you feel like there's a giant target on your back, and all you need is some reassurance that your life has value, the last thing you want to hear is "Why are you pushing me away?" Acknowledging I felt that way was pretty much the end of that relationship. None of my friends on the east coast were picking up their phones and there was no one to talk to on the west coast, and the only outlet for my rage was some downtown protest where they assembled every cop in the country to arrest people. Pure loneliness. Pure anger. Pure misery.

In December, I decided to do like Neil Gaiman does and write a Christmas story to send to my friends as a card. If Gaiman does something, it must be right. I finished the story, but never got around to making the cards, so I just emailed it to my friends. It was called "The Piper's Christmas Gift", my homage to early 20th century children's lit. I had great fun writing it. I think my friends enjoyed reading it, as well.

That's just glossing over what was an undeniably exciting chapter in my life. Another great year, filled with family and friends, and some adventures to top it all off. I feel so grateful for the love that has surrounded me. See you in 2011.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chapter 38: In Which I Discuss Black Folklore

"Everybody's got a laughin' place, a laughin' place, to go-o-oh..."

The two stories in my collection that have gotten the most effusive responses when I do readings are the ones based out of black folklore. People get excited by the concepts and archetypes used in this particular style. I've been happy to provide what, for some people, is their first introduction to a forgotten American art form.

The stories are called "When the Law Come" and "How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice." The first one is a collection of vignettes, structured sort of like the way folktale collections are structured, except there's an overarching narrative. The other is a straightforward ghost story told in black folklore style. Both employ the supernatural, trickster motifs, humor, and use the language of oral storytelling. I started writing "When the Law Come" in the summer of 2008, right before I dropped out of the University of Maryland. It was shopped extensively at the Berkeley Writers Circle, then published in The Dirty Napkin in summer 2009. I began "Brother Roy" in late 2007/early 2008, as I recall. Out of all the stories in the collection, these two changed the least between inception and their final published form. The main critique I always received was "less dialect."

The use of dialect is what attracted me to these narratives in the first place. The idea that not only is the plot magical, with turpins and wolves all running about, but the language itself is askew: it's English, but not the type you typically see in a book. It pops out at you, it has energy, and there's a feeling of oral telling in it that makes people pay attention. My introduction to the stories were Joel Chandler Harris' Brer Rabbit tales. These are amazing pieces, with all the drama and violence that mark your average fairy tale, plus the humor of Afro-American folklore. What a lot of people don't know is just how thick the dialect is in the Uncle Remus stories. Trying to read it in your head is like reading Chaucer. The only way to translate meaning from them is to read them out loud.

What also attracted me was the fantastic. Sure, there are talking animal stories, but there's also a religious aspect. God and the Devil enter frequently. This isn't Satan as an all-powerful source of evil, but the Satan who appears in a lot of European fairy tales: an active participant in the story who, for all his power, acts as a pretty local demi-god, and can be tricked by the wily protagonist. It's absolutely cool to see the Judeo-Christian mythological characters alongside West African animalism, sort of a storytelling Santeria. Black folklore is a cultural mishmash if ever there was one. The popular book Little Black Sambo, with its notorious pickaninny imagery, was an East Indian folktale adapted to America. As a kid, I was simply blown away by the idea of a child in the American South encountering tigers.

The other thing that struck me is the humor. Much of black folklore (like a lot of white folk cycles) revolves around off-color jokes. I remember a particularly long one about a black, a Jew and a Mexican going to Hell, and them arranging with the Devil to get let out. It's an extremely long set-up for a punchline about black people being cheap. All sorts of stereotypes pop up in these stories about crackers and Yankees and Jews. There's also black stereotypes: the mammy, the northern dandy, the shiftless coon. Plenty of self-deprectating humor to go around. I can see where humor developed: if you're a slave or living during Reconstruction, you have to have something to get you through. I have to wonder, though, if blacks added all the negro stereotypes, or if they were added to the folktales by white writers.

As with Hans Christian Andersen, I went back to these tales when I was older. I had been writing urban fantasy for a while, and was looking to expand the styles I used. This led me more towards fairy stories, the inspiration for urban fantasy (and Tolkien and Dunsany and all those guys). Black folklore is amazing because you can see the immediate relevance. All of these tales were transcribed less that 200 years ago, and fit within a uniquely American perspective. Needless to say, I had to write my own.

"How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice" was a blast to write. I loved the characters and I loved the setting: 1920s Florida, which was at the time still a fontier. When I was young, I read a Remus story called "Why the Nigger's Palms are White," in which a slave master gets upset at an uppity slave, so he pretends to be a ghost and scares the slave so bad his palms lose their color. Years later, I write a story where a black laborer scares his boss with a real ghost. Inspiration? Maybe.

"When the Law Come" offered me a chance to blend mythologies, adding some Greek and Arthurian legend. Inspired by the folklore I was reading, I wrote the different vignettes in pretty short succession, putting down all the crazy ideas that popped into my head. One thing that always caught me about the old tales is the theme of black empowerment. Put in the context of slavery, this makes so much sense. Brer Rabbit does the kind of thing every slave wished they could do, roaming the countryside freely, giving grief to the Powers That Be. Blacks in the 19th century developed fok heroes, uniquely American heroes with American names, like Petey Wheatstraw. "When the Law Come" has a theme of independence which I think is in keeping with the original tales.

The introduction to these stories for many people was the film Song of the South, which has been famously banned from DVD release by Disney. Meanwhile, the horribly anti-indigenous Peter Pan gets a 2-disc special edition. I'm sure the Arab-phobic Aladdin did as well. Disney works under the popular notion that the best way to overcome the sins of the past is to pretend like it never happened. This is of course nonsense, and seems to be a type of nonsense targeted primarily at blacks (for instance, we are told often and loudly to forget Jim Crow, but tell a Jew to forget the Holocaust and you're automatically marked as the asshole you are). So Song of the South gets banned. Never mind that it's one of the few movies out there about black folktales, and it does so beautifully. The animation is exemplary of Disney from that period and James Baskett kills it as Uncle Remus.

My main issue with the movie is the one I always had with Harris' writing: the Confederate revisionism inherent in the Uncle Remus character. Harris was a gifted storyteller, but he had a pretty horrific agenda. The Remus stories take place in an idealized Confederate past where the war never happens, presenting a slave who is perfectly happy with his station in life and is treated well by his masters. This doesn't mean Song of the South should be banned. It also doesn't mean that Harris' stories should be put on the back shelf. What I would like to see are more black writers reclaiming these stories. Zora Neale Hurston and Virginia Hamilton do just that. I think it's absolutely imperative that those who actally had (or whose ancestors actually had) these experiences shape the dialogue on the stories. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a great read, but give me a real slave narrative any day.

Uncle Remus was my first introduction to black folklore. This was my second. 

Oh yeah.

Even that image itself holds all kinds of meaning, acknowledging what Warner Brothers never did: Bugs Bunny is an updated version of Brer Rabbit, and so many of those classic cartoons owe a debt to black culture. This movie shook my world up when I was 12 years old. I will be eternally grateful to my father for assuming that all cartoons are for kids and renting this weird, insane, hyper-violent X-rated movie for me about 7 or 8 times. Looking back, I owe so much of my storytelling style to Coonskin (or "Streetfight" as it was called in my day). It's a movie that uses humor and surrealism to excoriate American culture, which I appreciated, and still appreciate.

Like the Uncle Remus stories, Coonskin is black folklore related by a white man: animation master Ralph Bakshi. The same man who had the balls to adapt "Lord of the Rings" back in the 70s. The movie is a satire on black culture based off Song of the South. Anybody who thinks black culture isn't ripe for parody isn't paying attention. Black gangsters, crooked preachers, pimps, hookers, bums and drug addicts are all mocked in this film. Stereotypes are thrown around with alarming regularity. Literally the entire history of the African-American in the U.S. is held up to laugh at. Bakshi got a great deal of grief when this came out, since he was a white man doing what the producers of The Boondocks do every week. Does a New York Jew putting the critical eye on black culture make him a racist? I don't know. The level of satire in the movie is not that simple. Let's say he's a racist. Great film, regardless.

What makes Coonskin great is that it also ridicules the institutions which created blacks' situation in the first place. Bakshi is equal opportunity in his bashing. Cops get dissed, southern crackers, Jews, gays, Italians (a lot). White men and their exotification of black women come up a fair amount, as do condescending white liberals. Jim Crow comes up as well. In an insane world, insanity becomes the norm, and the ugliness of the black characters is par for the course in Bakshi's America. This film is Bakshi's greatest satirical statement, showing why he was one of the foremost humorists of the 70s.

What also makes it interesting is that it is a straight up blaxploitation movie. Blacks are heroes, whites (or, more accurately, white racism) are villains, and blacks win in the end. This is all done in the milieu of 1970s gangster culture. Blaxploitation films are a direct offshoot of folklore. They updated the folk heroes for modern times, sometimes literally; Rudy Ray Moore made a series of fabulously stupid films about Petey Wheatstraw. The stories created by African slaves evolved into urban myths about pimps and pushers; urban folklore of the 1970s reads like a blaxploitation film. As always, the idea of the wily underdog succeeding against explicitly white oppression is key. Shaft is Brer Rabbit is John de Conquer is Anansi the Spider is Sweetback is Superfly. That Ralph Bakshi picked up on this is part of the movie's genius. A large section of the film is dedicated to satirizing The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-winning glorification of sociopaths. The main antagonists of Bakshi's film are more or less the Corleones. At the end of Coonskin, Brother Rabbit deals with his mafioso enemies in a way that brings the melding of blaxploitation and Uncle Remus together wonderfully. Watch the movie. It won't make you feel comfortable. It might even make you feel terrible. Watch it.

Lately I've been reading Appalachian and Ozark folktales. It shares so much overlap with black tales. Brer Rabbit is a trickster character, as is the Scots-Irish character of Jack, as is Coyote of Native American myth. High John de Conquer is a swaggering folk hero, the kind who shows up frequently in white American mythology, only the character is tweaked to be a black liberation hero.  Appalachians also share blacks' fondness for off-color humor. There's something intrinsically human about this; wherever you go, if somebody farts, people will laugh. Africa being the cradle of civilization, you can determine that these archetypes developed over there. It is fascinating to see how they changed after humanity split up and then reconvened on the American continent.

A lot of people assumed that I had read Zora Neil Hurston before writing my own folktales. In fact, I was unfamiliar with her work until I started on the second edition of JDS. "Brother Roy" takes place in Florida, and I wanted my Florida dialect to sound authentic. Thus, I finally read Hurston, and I'm glad I did. She was a very experimental writer, willing too mix genres and write about experiences that were not her own. In order to work on the Mississippi dialect in "Assistant," I read Faulkner and Mildred Taylor. For "When the Law Come," I went back to Uncle Remus. Of course the question comes up: how much dialect do you use? "Well, I is sho' gwine climby up dat dar hill yonder" does not translate easily. Faulkner's dialect is incredibly thick, which I love reading. Ultimately, I went the Mildred Taylor route, using key phrases and certain words to reflect the language of the place, but keeping it decipherable for the uninitiated. As I have read more experimental authors, the thickness of the dialect seems like less of a problem. Somebody like Antunes or Lispector doesn't care if people have to work to understand their language, which is why their books are incredible. It's worth noting that Charles Dickens also used dialect like it was going out of style. I'll see how I feel about it if I ever write another such story again.

Folktales are fascinating in that they are eternal, ever-evolving. Most children nowadays don't know Brer Rabbit, but they certainly know Bugs Bunny. In writing folkloric stories, I feel like I'm going back to the roots of something that never really went away. "When the Law Come' and "Brother Roy" were the last stories I wrote for my collection, and I am exceedingly proud of them.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Chapter 37: In Which I Discuss Mutual Aid

So I live in a hippie house. It's chaotic sometimes, which is to be expected. Tonight was not chaotic, however, with the various and sundry roommates at home for the holidays. I was in the kitchen, talking with whatever housemates remained about life in general, eating figgy pudding that Food Not Bombs donated to us. I tried to lead everyone in a rendition of Queen's "Thank God It's Christmas," but that failed. At some point, a random girl who was friends of a friend of a friend came in looking for a party that was supposed to be happening. She found no party. Ten minutes later, a man who none of us could identify came barging into the kitchen. I'm going to paraphrase what he said during his 5-minute introduction.

SQUAT GUY: I live at the squat down the street. Right now we are entangled in a legal dispute with the person who owns the property, the details of which I don't wish to go into right now. Our water's been shut off and we need water. We did the calculations on how much a gallon of water costs in the Bay...

ONE HOUSEMATE: I don't have any change on me.

SQUATTER GUY: It came out to fourteen cents a gallon. We need twenty-five gallons. So we pooled our resources together and I have...three dollars to cover it.

ONE HOUSEMATE: Cool. Just put it on that pizza box over there.

SQUAT GUY: I heard there's a party going on here tonight. There's a bunch of us right outside. We brought some wine.

US: Bring the party over here!

We have no idea who this motherfucker is. He ran outside, and I was left to wonder if I'd stepped into a Mad Max movie, with post-apocalyptic survivors going to great lengths to secure water. I go to the window to see about this group.

OTHER HOUSEMATE: He's bullshitting. There's nobody here.

ME: There's a whole fucking squad of people.

Indeed, there were six or seven black-clad strangers gathered outside the gate, whiskey in hand, waiting for our word on this water. And they looked like they stepped out of "The Road Warrior." Grabbing their shopping cart and plastic water coolers, they come back around. We attach the hose to the spigot.

SQUAT GUY: How long has this hose been in the sun? I'm concerned about plastic erosion and plastic getting in the water.

So they poured it straight from the spigot. In the interest of responsibility, I stood outside and monitored. All of the squatters came from different places. Oregon, New York, Poland. We BSed about life in the Bay. I watched as the Squat Guy informed one of our couch-surfers about the government oppression on environmental activists, prefacing it with a 5-minute long description of the World Bank protests in Seattle '99 to set the scene.  At some point during this chaos, one of my more straightlaced housemates came over, and I informed her that there was a horde of spangers out back taking our water. This upset her, and she informed them that no house decision had been made, so they could not do this.

SQUAT GUY: I am so sorry. If you feel this is violating the consensus method, we'll only take so much water that we have, and come back when you have your house meeting to explain our position.

ME: Well...they did pay. Three dollars.

Seeing that she was outnumbered by insanity, she acquiesced. The squatters took their twenty-five gallons politely, and I promised to inform them of the next time we had a house meeting, whenever that would be, and some of them used the bathrooms and charged their phones, and I was left to wonder if I'd accidentally taken a dose of acid. In all seriousness, there is such a thing as mutual aid. It is real, and it's wonderful when put into practice. Water for three dollars. Hell, water for nothing. Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail, too. Merry Christmas...from the hippie house.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chapter 36: In Which I Discuss 90s Nostalgia

Three of my good friends DJ the 90s Nite at Belvedere's. It started small, of course, about two years ago. Small crowd, once a month. Since then, they've expanded to bi-weekly, and the place gets packed with people dancing to the rhythms of the days of Zubaz pants and economic prosperity. My friends are rap enthusiasts, and really only play hip-hop inspired music. I actually like this. Jane's Addiction is a good band, but they are not dance music. And, unlike with other dance nights, I come to 90s Nite for the music. I could be on the floor, dancing to some Dr. Dre. I could be just as happy sitting in an armchair, drinking my Pabst and nodding along. It does occur to me that 90s nostalgia is in full swing, and it's about time.

The 80s thing started way too early and lasted way too long. This is coming from someone who frequented 80s Night at Club Laga, then at Belvedere's, dancing to the sounds of DJ Hatesyou while the hip young Pittsburghers did lines of coke in that little-ass restroom. What always irked me about 80s nostalgia are the absurdly strong blinders people have to put on to celebrate what was without a doubt the lowest point of the 20th century. VH1 is partly to blame, with its lazy-ass pop culture programming. I always figured 80s nostalgia got so prevalent because it enables the laziest aspects of youth culture. All the people who can't bother to match their clothes and only know one herky-jerky dance move can simply say they're "being 80s," go to the bar and rock to the sounds of the "So Bad It's Good" Decade.

Unlike a lot of people who dig such things, I actually remember the 80s. Now, I was very young, but I distinctly remember being five years old and cognizant that things sucked. I couldn't really tell what the problem was, but somehow I was privy to the overwhelming stench of powermongering right-wing lunatics, absurd corporate oversight, knee-jerk patriotism, cultural blandness and horrible, horrible fashion choices. This VH1-inspired glossing over of everything that was shit makes me dread when they do "I Live the 00s." I think they already did that, actually. And I'm sure Mo Rocca was on there, wisecracking about how wonderful and funny it was to have a cowboy for president.

The 90s were actually cool. That's not just me saying that because it's my childhood. I am aware that the part which mattered most to me--endless reruns of "Salute Your Shirts" and "Wild and Crazy Kids"--was not cool. The fashion was cool. The movies were cool. Clinton? Coolest president ever. Yes, he killed a ton of people, like every president has. I don't adore him like most black folk, who worship his image with a devotion we usually reserve for rappers, basketball players and characters from Judaic fairy tales. But Clinton was undeniably cool. His impeachment was one of the great repudiations of cool in world history, paving the way for outright dweebness like getting up in other people's sex lives and walking around aircraft carriers in flight suits that give you a wedgie.

Even MTV, that bastion of American trash culture, was cool. The thing about the 90s is that artists were given free reign to be weird. So you had a wave of weird music videos, weird game shows, weird cartoons. Seeing something like Oddville or Aeon Flux on TV was just amazing.

And the music--Sometimes the stars just align and everybody fires on all cylinders. The alternative was Green Day, the Pumpkins and the Chili Peppers when they still did drugs. RnB was TLC, Janet and New Edition. Hip hop was NWA and Pac. Your best-selling pop star was Alanis Morrisette, an actual songwriter who wrote personal lyrics. Even some signature 80s artists had their renaissance in the 90s. "Lucky Star" and "Material Girl," for all their chintziness, have nothing on songs like "Take A Bow" and "Vogue." During the 90s, every single genre got a shot in the arm, and listening to music was such a joy. With the current influx of nostalgia, I may have to start going to the club again.

Nostalgia itself is a lame thing, a rose-tinted glasses approach to history that is all about gawking at the past while doing nothing for the present situation. Compare Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, an ADD-style repetition of childhood images without a story to hang itself on, to The Social Network, a movie with hardly any contemporary references but that says so much about the state of a generation. That's the difference between nostalgia and actual art. Since the decade remembrance thing has to happen, it is nice that for the next ten years we'll be reminiscing about the cool.

Monday, December 13, 2010

About dreams and metaphorical things

Where have I been lately? School and the resultant finals have been taking up much of my time, but its almost done! I also managed to see two heavy metal concerts during this time: Blind Guardian and Epica. I liked the Epica show better, because there were four bands and the energy kept up all throughout. Serious mosh pit going on. Could have done without the fat smelly guy falling all over people to get close to the band, but anyway. It was my first time seeing Epica, second time seeing Blind Guardian. I appreciate that, though they're the biggest power metal band on the planet, they don't take themselves seriously. Hansi Kursch comes onstsage, makes jokes about "Lord of the Rings" and smiles because he's gotten to travel around the world doing this shit for thirty years. I still wish they'd switch up the setlist a bit. A band like them has so many songs, it would be great to hear something obscure. Seeing a band like Epica feels more like being at a slambang mosh pit metal show. Blind Guardian feels like taking part in a ritual, chanting the classic songs as millions of others have done at BG shows for 30 years.

I read and wrote an essay on Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente. I've had a copy of the book for awhile (autographed!) but only got around to reading it now for a class. I genuinely think Valente might be the closest thing we have an honest to God genius working in fantasy at the moment. There is such a level of precision in Palimpsest. Every word, plot point, motif, even the character names work in conjunction with one another to prove her point about the destructive powers of desire. She pulls from different cultures and languages, finding the common ground in these histories/mythologies and weaving them together with delicious prose. Everything is deliberate in her books. Its literate, its intelligent, and it takes risks. The fact that she puts out work of this quality once a year shows a level of creativity that is just uncommon. I could see her getting talked of in the same way that Dickens is a hundred years from now.

Anyway, enough gushing. There's a wonderful part in the book where a character goes to the dream-city of Palimpsest and gets her fingers cut off. She returns to the "real" world to find that the fingers are still gone. She says, rather off-handedly, "Now we can count out this dream stuff," or something to that effect. At this point in the novel, it seems like Palimpsest might be a dream place, where different characters' obsessions are materialized by their subconscious to make some comment about their frame of mind. Um, no, it's actually a city with rivers made of coats and sharkmen and trains that are alive. It's real.

Reading a book like this reminds me why I dislike metaphor. Don't give me dreams. Give me living, breathing worlds. Give me danger. Give me wonder. Give me things that matter not just in the head, but in the whole body. Palimpsest would not be nearly as effective if it was just a book about hallucinations.

I generally don't book fantasy-specific readings, or read in genre spaces. I've done one scifi convention in the past year. This is because I don't want to ghetto-ize myself, and I'm sure that people who don't appreciate your typical fantasy literature would still appreciate the good yarns I spin. I relate to them; I don't appreciate typical fantasy either. Because of my choice of venue, there have been multiple occasions where people come up to me and say "I really liked that story with the drug trip at the end" or "I really liked the one where they had the weird hallucinations."

My response. "It wasn't a drug trip. Those were real dragons."

I always found this reaction funny. If you assume the dragons are part of a trip, all of a sudden you have a drug story. If you assume the protagonist, from out of nowhere, has a vision of dragons, all of a sudden you have a piece about mental illness. It changes the context, plot and characters of the story entirely. Never mind that nothing I've written in the story leads up to this. If I'm writing a story about drug users, I will establish early on that they're drug users. Hell, even William Burroughs' crazy ass stated at the beginning of Naked Lunch that his characters were junkies, before diving into their bizarre fantasies. Yet people come up to me talking about the metaphorical creatures in my stories, and what they represent, though I haven't said anything about metaphor. Apparently, its easier to assume that I'm a bad writer than a fantasy writer.

There is no metaphor in my stories. I'm kind of old school like that. Nor is there symbolism, no hallucinations, and there are sure as hell no dream sequences. The dragons are always real.

I know many people who hate the "it was all a dream" thing, and I know why. It is a staple of lazy writing; taking chances with the piece and then saying "No, I was just kidding." It's absolutely horrid and the audience can spot it from a mile away. It's a way of doing something wacky once you've run out of ideas, but lacking the storytelling balls to follow through on this and see where the gamble takes you. Something I realized recently: real writers don't use this gimmick. My experience with it, and my detestation for it, come from television and movies. Sitcoms are notorious for it. Episodes of Fresh Prince where Will dreams that he murders Carlton or something. The dream thing is a card in the sitcom handbook, right up there with clip shows.

Again, real writers don't use it. L. Frank Baum crafted an entire fantasy universe based out of unbridled imagination, where anything can happen. The writers of the MGM Wizard of Oz musical decided to make it all a Technicolor dream Dorothy had after getting hit in the head. Don't ask me why. Baum's Land of Oz is real. Dorothy really goes there, and she really lives there at the end of the series. At the end of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, it's left pretty ambiguous whether she was dreaming or not. Lewis Carroll was a writer; he knew that the idea of finding a bizarre and dangerous world down any rabbit hole was exciting, so he kept it open that she could return (and she did). Real writers use dream sequences to enhance the narrative. Hacks use them to dismiss the narrative.

And why would you want something to be a dream? There's enough rationality to the human experience (life is not rational, but we like to think it is, and approach it this way). Why is there an instinct to explain everything away as "These characters must be on acid"? A fantasy world is far more fun than an acid trip. Yeah, Pan's Labyrinth could just be the hallucinations of a girl as she lay dying from a gunshot, but why would you want it to be? (By the way, there's a clear tip-off in the movie that the faun and everything else are real, but you have to watch for it.) I'm with Valente on this one: the magical place should be an actual world with rules and consequences, and everything that happens is the result of character actions, not the subconscious running wild. It's much better that way.

The story I'm writing for my split book with Christine Stoddard is like that. What starts out looking like a Fight Club scenario turns out to be far more involved, interesting and fantastic than the characters realize at first. I'm having a blast writing it.

On a final note: I did corrections on my book this week, got the proof back from the publisher. It looks perfect. I told him to fire torpedoes. I'll made a blog post as soon as it is sent to Createspace. Book launch party is scheduled for January 22nd at the Layover in Oakland. Would anybody like to read with me?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chapter 35: In Which I Give Thanks For the Whistleblowers

The European Union recently bailed out the banks of Ireland. Ireland is in debt to the EU. Maybe I've already touched on this before, but its worth mentioning again. The United States operates under an outmoded form of imperialism. These are the new superpowers: the EU, the IMF, the World Bank. They spread influence through their moneylending. We bombed our way into a recession. Almost ten years in Iraq with absolutely nothing to show for it, not even lower gas prices. Just another outmoded colonialist venture where we occupy a land, then have to spend our money rebuilding their bridges and educating their children. Watching the United States get outclassed by entities like the EU seriously makes me wonder if this whole America thing will last another hundred years. China is poised to overtake us as the world superpower, bolstered by money we gave them buying their sweatshop products. What kind of half-assed empire funds its own usurper? The Nazis brought the British Empire down, but at least you didn't see Churchill paying for Hitler's panzer tanks.
*sigh* In such a world, its good to see those who stand up for freedom. Those would include the good people at Wikileaks. The corporate media under-reported the biggest leak of classified military info in history, having long ago decided that anything which challenges the governemnt's Iraq mandate or honors the lives of Iraqis we've killed does not make for good news. Now the information is out there, about undocumented murder, lies, torture, and coercing other governments to go along with torture. I am so thankful there are people out there who think the uncomfortable truth should be readily available to all. The US government has declared jihad on them, and megacorporation Amazon cut their server, so now they're operating like folk heroes, broadcasting the truth from an underground bunker while founder Julian Assange dodges Interpol like some modern-day Lupin III. They say Assange is wanted on rape charges. This makes me skeptical, due to my knowledge of the Roman Polanski case.

1. European authorities think of rape and the prosecution of rape as a pretty subjective thing. It's just not a big deal to them.

2. If you piss off the United States, as Assange has done, you will be given free reign to travel within Europe's continental borders, just so they can say "Na-na!" to us from across the ocean.

Interpol wants this guy, which means he pissed off somebody big. I don't have high hopes for him. All I know is I want someone to keep Wikileaks up and running. I find the Obama administration's histrionic reaction to be pretty funny. They say Assange is a threat to national security, thus making a hero out of someone nobody knew about, turning a back page story into front page news, all so Obama can kiss up to the neocons who will never accept his black ass anyway, and I start to wonder if he might just be a one term president in the Any Idiot Can Get Two Terms Era, and I wonder if he cares, at this point. What really pisses me off is how this whole idea of killing the messenger has permeated our culture. Assange did not send the troops to Iraq, yet somehow he's putting them in danger by pointing out stuff that they did. It makes me yearn for the post-Watergate America of the '90s when people hated and feared their government.

We live in a strange age of loyalty to party and ideological leaders over country. It's also a manufactured age, devised, thought out and broadcast on Fox News by some of the brightest folks on the planet, in order to ensure that every indignity they commit on the people of the world is justified by commoners. This post-9/11 ideology was invented by Karl Rove. Anybody who talks about how we should not know everything the government is up to is putting up a smokescreen, dancing around the real issue. Those who talk about Wikileaks "endangering troops" have no loyalty to the troops. Their loyalty is to justifying everything George Bush did, and this is really scary.

They say history is written by the victors. That's true. Its also written by facts. Fact: these documents are out there. Fact: they were made by the U.S. military, which means they are true. Fact: when all is over, this will shape our dialogue on this whole weird Middle Eastern colonial adventure we've been on. The Pentagon
Papers insured that Vietnam would forever be known as what it really was. The same will go for the War of Terror and these docs. I feel so lucky to live in a world where people fight to tell the truth.

Location, location, location

I am writing a story that I will make into a Christmas card. I will mail this card to select friends. It takes place in early 20th century NYC, and will be filled with odes to old children's lit. I know it will be a lot of fun. Last week, I sat in the San Francisco Public Library, perusing old books about New York in one of their nooks. Now, the SF Library is not quiet. It has more straight-up yelling than most institutional buildings, let alone libraries. They also have the most overworked security staff I've seen. The last time I was there, I was reading on the third floor and, from what I could gather was an argument over place in line, the voices of an angry homeless person, a shrieking librarian, a pissed-off patron and an excitable child all combined in a swirling crescendo of noise that, from the third floor, sounded like a kung fu battle, complete with striking weapon sound effects.

It is not a quiet library. It is beautiful, though. Sometimes the best thing for writing is to find a new location. Lately I've been frustrated staring at screens in the Mills College computer labs. I'm thinking of going to the library, picking out some books, and finding a corner where I will write the story out longhand.

Jack Daniels Sessions

The cover for my book has been fixed. I did a last round of edits. I think Joe Abercrombie pointed it out in a recent blog post, how anti-climactic editing is. You go over and over the book, each time finding less mistakes. There was actually a point when making these edits was exciting, now it is tedious. The excitement will pick up only once I have a book out in the world again. Thanks to a technology malfunction, my publisher can't get to the document until next week. I want this up on Amazon in time for the holidays. We'll see.