Sunday, October 27, 2013

Chapter 110: In Which I Discuss Linguistic Warfare

I like this video. It addresses the list of criticisms aimed at the Millennial generation, who have, in no time at all, become vilified in every corner of media. The most salient point is that the problems Millennials face were bequeathed to them by baby boomers. This is true. The kids who just got out of college did not cause the mortgage crisis, or global warming, or anything else that is going to make living on this planet over the next 50 years a dismal proposition. My favorite dig in there was how Millenials get disrespected, despite being on the front line of two decade-long wars. It's true, and it's a sad fact.

It is telling (and, I'm sure, intentional) that all of the actors in the video are white, and performing stereotypes of the white middle class. Because that's who all this talk about the "trophy generation" is aimed at. The critics aren't addressing youth of color, because they already have a system in place to demean black and brown youth. We are at an interesting moment in which, for the first time in recent memory, a large group of people born into privilege are now facing crushing poverty. And the language used to put them in their place is the exact same used on communities of color.

On this boomer vs. Millennial thing: my father is a baby boomer. He doesn't run banks. He doesn't start wars. He doesn't foreclose houses. He would often say the selfishness of baby boomers ended up ruining this country, but I had a hard time associating his faults with the sadism of a corporate heir like George W. Bush. It just doesn't add up. And I don't hear my dad talking about how entitled I am, because he does not profit from doing so.

And that's the crux of this hate thrown at white, middle-class Millenials. Lazy. Entitled. Whiny. This is the same language that has been used to put down communities of color for centuries. Blacks were characterized as "shiftless," although America's fortunes were built on our labor. The same stereotype is applied to the siesta-loving Latinos, a propaganda campaign made murderously physical by the criminalizing of black and brown bodies. The Millenials are being insulted with the exact same word choice. And it serves the same purpose: to make the victimized feel that they are at fault.

Just make that guy white, replace his watermelon with an iPad, and you have the textbook insult lobbed at Generation Y.

This has nothing to do with iPads, or the internet, or how many trophies somebody got when they were a kid. It has everything to do with attacking the working-class.

You know who else is "entitled"? Welfare queens. This myth of black women using their government handouts to buy cable TV and nice clothes. A CEO who costs his workers their jobs by outsourcing feels he needs another yacht, but I guess that's not entitlement. I guess it's not entitlement when Halliburton decides they need more oil wells, as if they don't already have plenty. According to the corporate media, you have poor black women who keep popping out babies in order to buy themselves a new car.

This is, of course, bullshit. The CIA shipped drugs into the country, then created a decades-long War on Drugs to get black men in jail. This started after Vietnam to make sure all those well-trained army veterans, who could have joined organizations like the Panthers, ended up as addicts and convicts. As a result, we have four or five black generations raised solely by women. Instead of being applauded for their single motherhood, they get demeaned for having to take government money. It helps to kill their self-esteem, but also helps in controlling the white working-class, who now view their problems as a result of niggers using up taxes. The stereotype of the "welfare queen" is as much a weapon against the working-class as the drugs are.

I don't want to write another blog piece telling people how they need to check their privilege, because white kids are hearing enough of that from the corporate media. But they do need to know their history. What they're hearing now is old news to people of color. This linguistic warfare is being used on the latest group to get screwed by the system. The hope is that young adults will decide, "Hey, I am at fault," and fall in line with a world of low pay, no healthcare, no pension, no social security, and record corporate profits. I know plenty of young people, myself included, working their butts off in unfulfilling, low-paying jobs. That's the point. To get them working without question, and certainly without demanding benefits, for fear they will lose their job to the next down-and-out person.

Here's an anecdote: hardly anybody I consider a close friend graduated college. They rode trains, dumpster dived, lived in punk houses, rejected the birth-school-work-death road. You could not tell them they weren't happy. You couldn't tell them their lives didn't matter. They don't measure self-worth by money. Young people nowadays need to be taught the same values.

Everything about anti-Millenial rhetoric is couched in capitalist terms. The Millenials are criticized as failed economic units. They work low-paying, part-time jobs, which means they don't pay as much in tax. They have kids later in life, which means they're not making new consumers. They rent, which means houses aren't being sold. Plenty of people who are born poor find themselves in these same situations. What has changed is there is now a large group of white people who have found their privilege shrinking, and the system cannot afford to see them radicalized. Hence, they are told it's their fault for getting worthless degrees. "You knew that degree in the Humanities wouldn't get you anywhere. You should have gone into computer software and engineering." Never mind that not everybody can get a job in our nation's few growth industries. Or that the banks were happy to help with those "useless" degrees when they were dishing out loans.

Education is a wonderful thing. It is also an entirely different thing from college, so I'll leave the "should you go to college" argument for some other time. A degree in the Arts, or any other low-paying field, is only worthless if you look at everything through a capitalist lens. If college is meant solely to churn out workers, then, yes, these degrees are useless and shouldn't be offered. If you look at it through the lens of personal betterment, there is much to be gained from such a degree.

For instance, I work at the University of Louisiana. A lot of people come here to learn engineering and get jobs with the oil companies. Petroleum offers guaranteed profit even in a low-level position. I know a guy who is making $100,000 a year doing nothing but data analysis. The people who work the rigs make mad money, and they are considered as low on the totem pole as you can get. Solution to this generational crisis? We should all work for Big Oil!

No. First of all, there's not enough jobs even in well-paying industries. Second, working for energy companies is to be complicit in murder and ecological destruction. There is a lot of blood on that money. Some people can set that aside, and others can't. There are all sorts of industries--the drug trade, law, politics--where you can make cash by compromising your ethics. Having ethics, I feel, is a more valuable judge of character. Ethics existed before capitalism. And living an ethical life should be celebrated.

My fear for anybody growing up in this recession is that the hardship will make them think money is the end-all, be-all. There is worth in being an artist. There is worth in being a writer. There is worth in being a journalist. I don't know if anyone reads this blog, but if you are, and you've been hearing criticism about your entitlement: you are more than an economic unit. You are more than a dollar sign. And everything being said about you is nothing more than a traditional tactic of the state.

Seriously, think about a situation where every adult around you encourages you to go to college as the way to a better life, then calls you stupid for taking out loans. It couldn't be that they have some way to profit from your debt and poverty. Nobody has to go to college, of course. But I don't hear of high schools having a lot of "trade school fairs." And even if you learn a trade like plumbing or computer software, good luck joining any industry, with organized labor gutted like it is.

Again, every term used on Millenials has been applied to communities of color: inferiority, laziness, idiocy ("Well, you have two college degrees, but not getting it in a growth field makes you dumb!"). And speaking of college: the US college system has been privatized and corporatized, and we're seeing budget cuts in all disciplines that aren't big money. Soon, college will be nothing more than job training. One of the best things to come from Millenials is the rise of online courses, which a) give degrees without the debt, and b) are causing the death of the traditional academy, which needs to die. Academics are learning the lesson that black schoolchildren learned long ago: those who run this country do not want an educated populace. The academy has been permanently poisoned, but online education is very exciting.

Anybody who argues that class warfare isn't in full swing is, quite frankly, an enemy of the poor. The Republicans just shut down the federal government, giving government workers a furlough, all so they can deny poor people health care. Think about that. Comic book villain levels of evil from these bland, pasty bureaucrats. All this coupled with the call to cut food stamps, and its evident they're trying to put the poor in their place.

I feel the pain of my generation because of the lack of jobs. Life was always going to be a struggle in a system built on concentrating wealth. And nobody is exempt. In Oakland/Emeryville, I see the tech yuppies buying condos, and I hope they're saving up, because every last one of their jobs can be sent to India.

It's a scam, and the corporate media is hoping that young people will be so busy crying in remorse over how many trophies they got that they won't realize where their problems actually came from. For the love of Odin, do not internalize that. A black woman is not automatically a slut. A black man is not automatically a thug. A white Millenial is not a failed unit.

Here's where the video fails. The correct response is not sarcasm. It's anger. They should be angry that they were good enough to fight George Bush's wars, but not good enough to have economic security or respect. "Millenials don't try to change anything. All they do is whine on the internet." Bullshit propaganda. Occupy Wall Street was a prime example of the revolutionary force in this country's youth. One that made an effort to avoid the white supremacy of previous social movements. Another example: the young overwhelmingly turned out for Obama in 2008. He--surprise surprise--turned out to be an awful technocrat whose invasions of privacy would make Dick Cheney smile in his bunker. But Obama ran as a progressive. He got into office on lies about ending war and closing Guantanamo. The potentiality for social upheaval is there in every kid who cast a ballot for him.

In fact, there's something exciting about so many Americans contributing so little to capitalism. The system has unwittingly created a generation of oogles.

Here's how this story is going to go. The Millenials will toughen up. They'll struggle, and scrape, and provide an example for all those in a tough spot. They will take practical jobs in nursing, retail, and the service industry. Here and there, somebody will invent something that makes a lot of money, and that money will stay in his family for generations. Otherwise, Millenials will overcome the privilege they were born into, learn to live with less, and embody that can-do American spirit. History books will applaud them. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor will grow more severe. This is not a failure of capitalism. This is the point. What we are looking at is the apex of the system, where you have the extremely wealthy, and everybody else is a serf. What nobody addresses is a) how disgusting it is to have a system predicated on 99% of society starving, and b) that white people are now employing against their own children the language they've used to demean communities of color for 400 years.

The state already knows how it is going to frame this narrative, and the kids today can follow along. Or: take a page from Athens. When the young anarchist was murdered, his friends did not post snarky videos on the internet. They set Athens on fire. Take a page from Cairo. They overthrew a dictator.

The most devastating result of America's downfall would be if the current generation embraces the propaganda used against them, wrapping their sense of worth around money. Or they can realize they are being targeted, and act accordingly.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Omaha Lit Fest

Just a reminder that this weekend I'll be a panelist at the Omaha Lit Fest in Omaha, Nebraska. I'll be shooting the breeze on writing with several other brave, experimental authors. And I'm not the only fantasy writer! Excited! I'm a big fan of Alyssa Nutting in particular, so it'll be cool to do a panel with her.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Story Genesis--The Revelation of John

Sometimes, the key to a story is finding the proper format for it. That was certainly the case with "The Revelation of John."

Four of the stories that went into Jack Daniels Sessions and Hard Times Blues were started in 2007-2008, during my graduate studies at the University of Maryland. At the time, I was reading a lot about Jim Crow, and had ideas for a number of segregation-era stories. I would publish them all together in a book called Elwin Cotman's Most Depressing Book Ever. I was thinking about how fantasy could be applied to my political interests, and also reading Charles de Lint. As de Lint culls from different mythologies, I wanted to do the same. The Bible seemed ripe for some riffing.

I don't know how it hit me to combine the Flood with the Book of Revelations. As a Bible reader, I've always found the New Testament pretty boring, with the exception of Revelations (aka the founding text of all things metal). I wanted to explore the idea of apocalypse. I wanted to speak to this infuriating oppression that happened around the Flood. It seemed appropriate to look at the Old South through Christian mythology, as it is so important to black culture. I first learned about the flood from references made during Hurricane Katrina (though never made in the corporate media). After all, 1927 was the first time the levees broke. The subject took hold of me and, King James Bible at my side, I wrote "The Revelation of John" as a prose piece with Biblical language.

It got excoriated at workshop. The prose was hyperbolic and purple. The line between fantasy and reality was confusing. I'd long ago learned not to catch feelings over what people say in workshops. Whatever critique you feel lacks merit, you disregard. I agreed that it looked strange as a straight piece of prose. The best advice came from the professor, which was to make the apocalypse more localized, more Mississippi. I worked on it a little longer before putting it on the shelf.

Flash forward to 2011. I was doing the Interdisciplinary Writers Lab, and wanted to work on an experimental piece for the anthology. So I dusted off "Revelation." The performance aspects of the story were developed while studying under Brenda Wong Aoki. I saw where I could rework it in order to make it richer.

I read Rising Tide, which has a plethora of info about the sociopolitical climate in the Delta leading up to the Flood, and of the abuse toward black people that took place during and afterward. Everybody should read it. The Flood of 1927 was a major event in US history, especially regarding the Northern Migration. After the savagery visited on them, it made perfect sense for black people to be like "fuck y'all niggas, I'm outta here" and move to Chicago.

I learned more about Mississippi folklore and worked that into the piece. More importantly, I gained a better understanding of the Book of Revelations. It's a screed. A political work, written by a political prisoner. The symbols of lambs and dragons are jabs at Rome, using the then-new concept of Christian eschatology. Pretty much everything in there is representative of something else. I worked symbolism into "Revelation of John." I included more historical elements. After four years, it was almost like writing an entirely new piece.

"Revelation of John" did not go into the IWL anthology. As documented in a previous blog entry, I could not find a space in which to type the story when I was on 2011 tour, and ended up submitting "Pulp" instead. But I performed "Revelation" for the IWL shindig at the end of the workshop. I found myself in the strange situation of having a piece that worked better as performance than prose.

Last semester at Mills. Last MFA workshop. I submitted "Revelation," only this time it was formatted like the Bible. Well, not exactly. The language of the Bible can get really repetitive ("And...", "And...", "And...") which doesn't fit my style. So I used it as a jumping-off point to write a sort of prose poem. "Revelation" was my return to poetry.

The response from this latest workshop: "So, all the biblical references. I don't get it. Maybe you should include footnotes."

I wonder if John of Patmos had the same problem. And if he just told people to Google it.

The biblical formatting was a relatively late element in the story's evolution, but one that changed it completely, and for the better. Now I'm thinking of other old pieces that might find their way if I change them to another genre. Using the Bible format was inspired by a Bible as Lit course I took at Mills, where I was reminded that much of the book is poetry. The Song of Songs and the Psalms, for example, are straight verse.

So I got inspiration from workshops and lit classes. I did most of my research at Mills, and wrote most of the story at Mills. Could it be that all of this schooling has actually helped my writing? Naaah. Probably not.

What I thought might be an inaccessible story got a lot of positive reactions when I was on tour. I'm glad, as it's subject matter I feel people should know about. "The Revelation of  John" is probably, pound for pound, the densest story I've ever written. No footnotes included.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chapter 109: In Which I Write Essays About Anime

So, I haven't updated lately. That's because I've been working pretty hard, even though we live in a post-employment economy. Instead of jobs, we have internships; instead of employees, we have contractors and adjuncts. People in the service sector can't even afford food and rent. But at least they get food stamps! Oh, wait. The millionaires in DC are cutting food stamps? Let them eat cake, I guess. This country is going down the tubes so fast it's silly, and frankly, all the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" bullshit isn't going to fix it. In two years, ain't nobody going to be questioning what Occupy Wall Street's message is.

In the midst of this apocalypse, I write essays about anime. I'm writing one right now about how the writing of different continuities helped Leiji Matsumoto redefine Bushido after the Second World War. Below is the linguistics essay I wrote recently that inspired me on this particular scholarly path. I took out the works cited, as I'm sure the reformatting on blogspot will make it look awful. If you are at all interested in linguistics, or space opera comics, I think you'll enjoy the paper.

“Only a Woman’s Pride!”:
Language and Gender in Space Pirate Captain Harlock

            Gender is an intrinsic part of Japanese communication, both verbal and written. The language is known for its sentence–final particles (SFPs) that express the speaker’s attitude toward the information and the person receiving it. These particles are arranged along gendered lines—those for women indicate indirectness, humility, and indecisiveness, while men’s articles are assertive and blunt. Particles are one way in which language is gendered in Japanese society; honorifics and vocal pitch also work into the complex set of rituals used by speaker/author to acknowledge the presence and status of the audience/reader. This is called keigo: a system of verbal choices used to honor the “other” in conversation. The Japanese call this cultural value aite no mi ni naru, or “take the other’s perspective” (Inoue & Wessell 76). Women are predominantly expected to show this deference in common speech.
The arts, particularly the 19th century novel, were instrumental in the development of Japan’s gendered language. According to Mayako Inoue, the late Meiji Era (1880-1910) “occasioned a shift in political climate toward a more reactionary position, skeptical of rapid Westernization, and people sought a ‘return’ to Japanese tradition, including imperial absolutism and Confucianism” (Inoue 396), which in turn led to “advocate[ing] the traditional virtues and values of ideal womanhood, such as obedience to father, husband, and, later, eldest male child. Far from primordial, this ideology derived from the Confucianism espoused by the ex-samurai class and from the imported Western cult of domesticity.” In the drive to create a Japanese literature to match that of Europe, linguists needed a uniform speech for female characters, formed around the concept of the obedient woman. Thus began not only the ascendance of a uniform language, but gendered speech distinctions.
            This linguistic movement extended to the world of manga, one of Japan’s most enduring cultural exports. The Japanese tradition of sequential art enabled post-World War II artists to make strong statements on their nation’s changing identity. Famous mangaka of that generation include Osamu Tezuka, Keiji Nakazawa, and Leiji Matsumoto, the creator of Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, and co-creator of the television series Space Battleship Yamato. Matsumoto’s sprawling, epic, yet often whimsical space operas deal with issues of honor, duty, and coming-of-age. Born in 1938, Matsumoto grew up under the American occupation. As a response to Japan’s demilitarization and the increased Western presence, Matsumoto’s heroes typify bushidō, the samurai code. In his essay “Heroic Honor: Chikamatsu and the Samurai Ideal,” C. Andrew Gerstle describes the post-feudal discourse on bushido as “concerned principally with duty, responsibility, and loyalty . . . Another influential . . . is that of Ito Jinsai and his followers who . . . placed emphasis overall on individual morality rather than on the individual’s relationship to the state, or the role of the state in controlling individuals” (Gerstle 310). Also, “By the end of the seventeenth century, terms such as haji (shame), na (name or reputation), and toku (virtue) were central to the samurai-led discussion on the concept of honor . . . The samurai myth remained heroic at its core: fearless readiness to die for honor” (314). These ideals, particularly those of death before dishonor, individual morality, and honor before institutional loyalty, are embodied in Matsumoto’s most famous creation: space pirate Captain Phantom F. Harlock the 99th. The futuristic pirate is portrayed time and again as an iconoclast among humankind that has grown lazy and complacent, or who advocate surrender. In the 1982 film Arcadia of My Youth, the parallels between Earth and the postwar occupation of Japan are made explicit, and Harlock refers to himself as a samurai. Like his contemporary Yukio Mishima, Matsumoto advocates traditional warrior values in order to reclaim Japanese identity. 
Matsumoto’s work takes place in what fans have affectionately deemed “The Leijiverse,” a realm of colonized planets in which his characters have adventures. Among the qualities that define the Leijiverse, I have found two of particular interest: the multiple continuities that eschew linear narrative, but whose recurring archetypal characters reflect the language of myth; and elements of European folklore, from medieval imagery to whimsical story structure. Since the late 1970s, a majority of Matsumoto’s work has been adapted for the screen, with comics such as Galaxy Express 999, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and Queen Millennia being turned into anime series only a year after their serial runs began. Adaptation has always been a key element in the proliferation of Matsumoto’s work and themes.
The first TV adaptation to gain widespread popularity was Shigeyuki Hayashi’s 1978 version of Uchū Kaizoku Kyaputen Hārokku. The series revolves around an invasion of Earth by an alien race called the Mazone. Harlock and the crew of his space battleship, The Arcadia, are the only humans putting up a fight against the well-armed and crafty extraterrestrials. What is immediately noticeable is that the Mazone are predominantly female, and their conflict with Harlock is often put in gendered terms. The name Mazone itself, derivate from Amazon, evokes both the feminine and the Western heroic stories that inform Matsumoto’s work. The nature of manhood is a major theme in Captain Harlock. For instance, in episode 3, Harlock entreats the young scientist Tadashi Daiba to join his crew. “If you’re a man,” he says, “you’ll do what you have to before you leave” (“A Woman Who Burns like Paper”). After giving Daiba a tour of The Arcadia, Harlock tells him, “You may not be impressed, but if you are a true man, come aboard Arcadia.” In Matsumoto’s universe, manhood is associated with individuality and duty, even if all around you have given up. The gender dynamics of the show arise in that Harlock, the ultimate masculine character, is thwarting a matriarchal society.
Before examining how gendered speech works in adapting Matsumoto’s themes for television, it is necessary to establish what masculinity and femininity represent in the Leijiverse. I have found that Matsumoto’s male and female characters follow two different western motifs, respectively: the epic and the fairy tale. Harlock is unique among anime characters in that he is distinctly European: his squinted eyes and chiseled features contrast with the round eyes and smooth features of others around him; he is both tall and realistically proportioned, unlike most of his crew, who are chibi caricatures. His two costumes are a skull-and-crossbones pirate outfit and an astronaut suit, and he wears spurs that jangle when he walks. Thus, Harlock represents several Western mythic archetypes. This is made most explicit in Matsumoto’s 1998 adaptation of Das Rheingold, in which Harlock takes the role of Siegfried. Masculinity is associated not only with the samurai code of honor, but with Western ideals of chivalry (knights) and individuality (pirates/cowboys). While the Mazone are an ever present threat, the true enemy in Space Pirate Captain Harlock is apathy. In this dystopian future, humans have lost all initiative. The leaders of Earth’s government are buffoons more concerned with playing golf and going to the horse races than staving off the impending alien invasion. Matsumoto’s heroes are active, and defy the urge to tie themselves to institutions. Masculinity in the series is characterized by decisiveness, individuality, and engagement with problems. As Matsumoto was writing during the Space Race, it seems only natural that outer space is the last frontier for his heroes to exercise their manly code.

Women, however, come from the fairy tale mold. They are often mysterious, magical, and some form of royalty (Princess Starsha, Queen Emeraldas, Queen Prometheum, Queen Millennia, Queen Lafresia). Matsumoto has a unique female character design: women, no matter the race, are tall, sylph-like, long-haired, and almost entirely identical to each other. The elfin design contributes to the idea of females as otherworldly. Besides fighting as fiercely as the warriors their name evokes, the Mazone take the forms of sirens, fairies, and other fairy tale tropes in order to inveigle Harlock’s crew. It is implied that the Mazone infiltrated Earth thousands of years ago, and were the witches and sorceresses whom humans based their legends on. I have narrowed Matsumoto’s representations of women to five categories: the Mysterious Woman, the Evil Queen, the Girl At Home/Damsel in Distress, the Grandmother, and the Force of Nature. These characters invariably serve as guides, muses, and enemies for the male heroes. The Mysterious Woman can be friend or foe. For instance, Emeraldas (who appears in the series as an early incarnation called “Emeralda”) is as mysterious as the Mazone agents, but she helps Captain Harlock. What defines Matsumoto’s Evil Queens is that they start out with good intentions, but become corrupted. Queen Lafresia in Captain Harlock is a prime example of this: she wants nothing more than to save her people by giving them a home on Earth, but becomes increasingly cruel and callous in her efforts to win. 
I believe the reason Matsumoto chose fairy tale tropes for his females is because, in fairy tales, women are inherently magical. Mundane characteristics such as beauty, decency, and royal birth take on fantastic properties. While Matsumoto has created iconic females, his universe is male-centric. Females are predominantly supporting characters for the young boys who headline his bildungsroman stories. As such, the feminine, and feminine language, must be evaluated through its subordination to the male. The male represents individuality and steadfast commitment. In following his code, a man encounters beauty and glory, as represented by the angelic women who aid him. However, there is an inherent danger in the feminine, a threat to the rigid code of bushidō. The Mazone represent this, as well as representing the conflict in trying to live by a code. The Evil Queen trope from fairy tales is an analogy for moral corruption; Snow White, or any heroine, could grow up to become the apple-poisoning stepmother. Queen Lafresia is the series’ most interesting character in that she tries to live honorably and fails. Men like Captain Harlock cannot compromise their ethics because they are meant to be infallible heroes. Thus, women like Lafresia serve to show the other side of the coin.
In this essay, I will examine gendered language in Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and how it translates Matsumoto’s themes about manhood and bushidō. I will analyze dialogue in episodes that focus on the conflict between the sexes, fairy tale tropes, and challenges to honor. These are episode 3, “A Woman Who Burns Like Paper,” episode 15, “Tragic Love! The Northern Pole Aurora,” episode 26, “A Long Way Away Voyage,” and episode 30, “My Friend, My Youth.” As Japanese linguistics is highly gendered, a look at how the anime employs such language can shed light on how dialogue enforces the themes of an adaptation.
Elements of Japanese Linguistics
Language in Japan is predicated on levels of politeness. As women are expected to be gentle, feminized speech contains markers of “softness,” following the system of keigo honorifics. In The Japan Times, Jenny Uechi describes keigo thusly: “ ‘Sonkeigo’ (honorific language to elevate someone), ‘kenjogo’ (humble language to lower yourself), ‘teineigo’ (polite language ending in ‘desu’ or ‘masu’), ‘teichogo’ (a form of humble language that doesn’t require the speaker to be on the receiving end of an action), and ‘bikago’ (beautifying language, when ‘o’ or ‘go’ is put in front of a noun)” (Uechi). All Japanese phrases must end with a particle that indicates the speaker’s feelings toward the expression (Smith 60). The –masu suffix is attached to the ends of verbs to make the sentence polite, while -desu is the polite form of the Japanese copular verb da (to be). In relation to beautifying language, the prefix o- is attached to nouns and verb stems to indicate respect for the subject or action. Some SFPs are considered masculine in that they show aggression or emphatic assertion (zo, kai, ze, na) while others are considered feminine because they “soften” the expression, indicating humility (ne, kashira, wa, wa yo, wa ne, ne no, no yo, no ne), while others are gender neutral ( As Miyako Inoue states, the gendering of particles is not an ancestral part of Japanese language, but comes from the early 20th century move to establish both an ideal Japanese woman and a uniform linguistics. The sources from which the Japanese linguist movement created these particles that would define their national communication seem, at times, arbitrary. For instance: “Schoolgirls were reported to use a set of distinctive final particles, including teyo, dawa, and noyo, many of which are the essential linguistic features identified today as women’s language” (Inoue 406). Besides using schoolgirl slang to create a feminine language, Japanese linguists feminized regional particles that were considered vulgar slang at the time, then normalized the morphology through domestic novels such as those written by Natsume Soseki (405).
Regarding masculine speech, a recent study by Cindi Sturtz Sreetharan found that “Japanese men are reported to use polite forms of verbs less frequently than women do, and to use more verb endings that are assertive, blunt, and more direct than those women use . . . [T]hey use a smaller and less emotionally charged lexicon . . .  [and] they interrupt and take control of the conversational topic more frequently than women do” (Sreetharan 84). The notion of assertive speech is relevant to my research is that the TV series focuses on two different leaders, both of whom are perpetually giving directives to subordinates. According to a 1992 study by Janet Smith, Japanese directives are divided into three categories: imperatives (worded as orders), requests, and desideratives (worded as indirect desires). Imperatives are naturally the least polite form of directives (Smith 66), but within those parameters, there are varying levels of politeness determined by the SFD that is used. They run the gamut from the most direct, the –ro particle, to the least direct, which is the use of “please” through -te ne yo (64-65). Imperatives are certainly not unique to men, but less polite speech is associated with the masculine. 
            In lieu of the themes in the TV series, I am looking for language that equates manhood with individuality, associates femininity with danger, uncertainty, or wonder, and language that differentiates active from passive. I will examine specific episodes of Space Pirate Captain Harlock looking for:
·         Use of the desu/masu forms to indicate politeness. Inversely, use of the da form to indicate aloofness and impoliteness.
·         Feminine and masculine SFPs.
·         Kenjogu, or humble language used to denigrate the speaker.
·         Honorifics.
·         Use of directives.
In exploring which characters adopt the masculine and feminine linguistic forms, and under what contexts, I will analyze how language contributes to the themes of following bushidō, its relation to manhood, and the complications of pursuing an honorable life.
Space Pirate Captain Harlock
In analyzing the language of Space Pirate Captain Harlock, it is important to note that the dialogue is not Leiji Matsumoto’s. It is an adaptation and should be regarded as such. To learn more of the ethics espoused in the 1977 manga, I read an online translation by a group called Gantz Waiting Room, published on The anime and manga follow the same storyline: the discovery of the Mazone threat, the murder of Tadashi Daiba’s father, Daiba’s persecution by the Earth government and his choice to join The Arcadia, then the war against the Mazone. Whole panels are reproduced from comic to show. Similar or identical lines of dialogue indicate that the themes espoused on the show are the same ones from Matsumoto’s serial. For example, the equation of manhood with honor is in the frontispiece: “When all seas disappeared, mankind believed the world had come to an end. Men pitied themselves, without even thinking of the infinite space lying overhead . . . Only a handful of men, believing in humanity’s brilliant future, had enough courage to go and explore the ‘sea above’” (Matsumoto 3). In both texts, Harlock challenges Daiba to join the Arcadia if he would be a man. In both, the Earth government is portrayed as weak and apathetic, and this disgusts the protagonists. It is clear from comparing the two that the anime is loyal to the themes and storyline of the manga.  
A Woman Who Burns like Paper
            The third episode of Space Pirate Captain Harlock is essentially the beginning of the story, as it follows where the manga begins. The association of manhood with comradeship appears as soon as the theme song. The last stanza says: “Tomo yo ( my friend) . . . Inochi wa sutete ore wa ikiru (I will throw away my life and live)” (“A Woman Who Burned Like Paper”). The SFP yo is used for emphasis, and is primarily associated with the male, as the “soft” or feminine form is wa. The phrase roughly translates as “O friend,” emphasizing a great friendship between two male comrades. Ore is the masculine form of the first-person pronoun (the feminine form is watashi). Through choice of pronouns and particles, the idea of living by a personal code is tied in with the masculine before the episode even starts.
            The world of the TV show exists in the ruins of great civilizations. The remains of the Statue of Liberty and the Parthenon are shown in a desert. This visually enforces the theme of civilization gone stagnant. The audience is introduced to Dr. Daiba, whose language is aggressively masculine in how blunt and short his speech patterns are. When the leaders of Earth will not listen to them, he calls them “Bakayarou!”, or “fools!” He is equally blunt in communicating with his son Tadashi, using “itte kure,” the least polite request form (Smith 65). This is juxtaposed against the Prime Minister of Earth and his manservant. When Dr. Daiba barges into the minister’s bedroom, the servant entreats him to leave using the “soft” -itte kudasai particle. While hiding under his bedsheets, the Prime Minister tries to calm Daiba by referring to him as “Daiba-kun,” -kun being an affectionate suffix primarily used by women. He also asks questions using the ne particle, indicating uncertainty. The meaning is clear: Dr. Daiba is a man of honor, as indicated by his manly speech and virtuous actions, and the feminized bureaucrats will be nothing but obstructions. 
 Dr. Daiba father is not a fighter, but through his responsibility and initiative embodies bushidō. His strong masculine language builds the connection between manhood and bushidō ethics. Ironically, another character who speaks with the informal, and thus the masculine, is Queen Lafresia, who uses the SFP “no da” in telling her assassin to kill Dr. Daiba. The copula da implies an aloofness and directness. In this world, women are hard, while men can be incredibly soft, with no loyalty or honor. This linguistic choice ascribes mystery to the feminine: who are these calm women, portrayed in silhouette, who so blithely make choices about life and death?
The young Tadashi Daiba meets Harlock after the Mazone murders his father. Harlock is the archetypal assertive male, giving imperatives to Daiba while asking no questions. His language is gender neutral and emotionally moderate. Within the same episode, Tadashi meets Miime, who is both mysterious (she is an alien with no mouth) and the series’ most feminine character. She wears a long dress, has a soft voice, is demure and subservient to Harlock. In Japanese, women are expected to have both higher pitched voices and spend a longer time enunciating words than men. The voice actress does this when she says, “Watashi wa Miime,” drawing out the words. Miime is as feminine as Harlock is masculine. In this episode, Hayashi tie in the notion of manhood with responsibility and duty, and gives an air of mystery to both good and evil female characters.
Tragic Love
There are two women on The Arcadia, and both are very feminine in their expression. The navigator Kei Yuki ends every question with the inquisitive ne, refers to Tadashi as “Daiba-kun,” and frequently softens her sentences with the desu/masu form. She enunciates all of her verbs (“Mashita!”), whereas Harlock will say the abbreviated “yosh!” instead of “yoshi!” for “okay!” Both Harlock and first mate Yattaran use abbreviated words, and Daiba is prone to muttering and sighing to show emotion. Meanwhile, Kei and Miime are constantly acknowledging the “other” in the conversation. These feminized verbal affects indicate comradeship, which is part of bushidō, and stands in contrast to the Mazone, the corrupted women who hardly acknowledge one another in speech. In this episode, Miime shows herself to be as brave as Harlock, introducing herself to the villain as “the woman who has dedicated her life to Harlock,” before defeating her in what could only be described as a magic battle. Through these very feminine heroes, the showrunners indicate that it is possible for women to follow bushidō, as well. Feminized language aids the images, such as Miime speaking her quiet dedication to Harlock while following him into a blizzard in her long dress.
The use of English words marks Harlock as an idealized hero. In “Tragic Love!”, Harlock speaks more English than any other character. This includes “screen,” “curtain,” “blizzard,” “engine,” “local” (as in “localized blizzard”), “percent,” “bullet,” and “pulsar cannon.” These words are used functionally, in order to give instructions or convey information to subordinates. They are not only English terms, but terms reflecting technology. Considering how little dialogue Harlock has, giving him a significant amount of English was a very deliberate linguistic choice. Captain Harlock was made at a time when space travel was seen as the pinnacle, if not outright goal, of modern technology. With America at the forefront of aeronautics, the English language held a great deal of cultural capital in the field. Even the nominal techs in the crew of The Arcadia do not use English as frequently as the title character. This serves a two-fold purpose: emphasizing Harlock’s connection to the West and the European mythic hero, and showing his mastery of technology. Matsumoto’s stories aggrandize engineers to mythic levels; for example, Harlock’s friend, Tochiro Oyama, designed and built the space battleship Arcadia by himself. Harlock’s use of English associates him with the mythic grandeur of space and technology, increasing his cache as a bushidō hero.
On the inverse, Harlock is also the least verbose character, and this emphasizes the Matsumoto worldview on how a hero should act. Harlock is taciturn and monosyllabic, doing much of his communication through sounds. In “Tragic Love,” Harlock uses gasps to express surprise, whereas other characters say “Nani [what]”; he says “Hmm” as an affirmation, whereas others give a declarative “Hai [yes].” Harlock gives orders in simple affirmatives such as “Yosh [alright]”, giving the impression of one always in charge of the situation. He does not have to talk much to get others to obey, and usually speaks in order to move the plot forward. In deemphasizing the protagonist’s dialogue, Hayashi emphasizes him as a man of action.
The repeated use of Harlock’s name emphasizes his stature as a mythic hero. Harlock is assigned specialness by the fact that characters always address him directly. For instance, when Harlock goes into the blizzard to face the Mazone, Miime says, “Harlock, let’s return. Hurry . . . Harlock! . . . No, you musn’t go, Harlock . . . Even you [Harlock] might not be able to beat her . . . Harlock, you musn’t go. Harlock!” Of the six utterances of his name, five are used to get his attention. Naturally, throughout the scene Harlock is ignoring Miime, excited to face whatever foe is causing the blizzard. The implication is that Harlock follows his own initiative, which echoes back to Matsumoto’s themes of independence and individuality. The act of naming Harlock also ensures that he is center of attention, from allies and enemies; all the supporting characters are prone to beginning or ending any sentence directed at him with “Harlock.” This speaks to the bushidō concept of na, meaning name and reputation. The name is important because it is associated with honor, and Harlock will not compromise his reputation by running from an enemy. This presents Harlock as an epic hero in the mold of Beowulf or Odysseus, whom are lionized through name repetition in their respective epics. Harlock is also referred to a “kyaputen,” the Japanese pronunciation of “captain.” This stresses the character’s role as a pirate, and thus a rebel against the system. No other authority figure on the show has an English honorific, underlining the Western influence of the character. At the end of “Tragic Love,” the name works as a mantra, casting Harlock in messianic terms. There is a scene in which Harlock’s goddaughter, Mayu, is praying in a church. She hears the sounds of The Arcadia and runs outside, happy to see he is still alive. Meanwhile, a men’s choir sings a cappela over the soundtrack, their words translated as: “I wander amongst distant stars. People call me: Captain Harlock! Captain Harlock! I hoist my flag in this sea of no tomorrow. I live freely. The bird is singing. Under my flag, under my flag, I live in freedom.” The words “God” and/or “Jesus” are not mentioned in this scene, but the name “Captain Harlock” is, and the implication is clear.
The characters’ speech also reflects Matsumoto’s gender dynamics, being that women analyze while men act. Colloquial or unadorned speech is distinctive of other male characters, such as first mate Yattaran, who will use slang such as “yare yare [oh my]” to express exasperation. The audience avatar character, Tadashi Daiba, exists almost purely to give exposition, and expresses rage through profanity. This stands in contrast to the ethereal Miime. When the crew sees an aurora over the North Pole, Miime states: “Auroras were commonly seen on my planet. Particularly around the time the plant life made its rebellion, there were many auroras beautifully shining.” To which Yattaran replies, “Eh.” The adverb “beautifully” is an element of translation, developed from an adverbial clause around utsukushii, meaning “beautiful.” Miime engages with adverbial clauses while the men of the crew use unadorned language.
Female characters often use repetitive word phrasing. This is used to evoke feelings of antiquity and mystery, which reflects the Matsumoto trope of the fantastical female. In “Tragic Love,” Harlock encounters a Mazone who lives in a European-style palace in the North Pole. She appears to be made of ice, has unexplained powers, and her character design calls to mind Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen. The ice witch tells Harlock, “I have been waiting a long, long time for you to come here.” In a later scene, she says, “Day after day [itsumo itsumo], afternoon and night, all I’ve thought about is killing you.” Again, Hayashi ascribes verbosity to the feminine. In Matsumoto’s fairy tale world, women are highly powered to the point that they seem either magical or dangerous, good witch or bad witch. Hayashi employs dialogue to make this particular character seem ancient. The language works in tandem with the visual fairy tale elements, such as her castle, and the way she imprisons Harlock in an ice coffin reminiscent of “Snow White.” Also, as men like Harlock are not allowed to emote, Miime uses repetition to establish concern over the witch: “She is powerful. Dreadfully powerful.” Repetition puts the acknowledgment of fear where it belongs in Matsumoto’s universe: the female. 
All of the women are more prone to description, in line with traditional views of gender. Kei describes a bird as a “poor little creature.”  Queen Lafresia is the series’ most eloquent character. In Episode 41, “Duel! The Queen vs. Harlock,” she tells Harlock: “To the despondent, travel-worn citizens, and to all my the demoralized soldiers, I said: ‘Look, that shining blue planet is Earth . . . The lifeblood of us, the almighty Mazone.’” Adjectives speak to a need to explain and clarify. This is important in that Lafresia is trying to reconcile her compromised ethics with her royal duties. Harlock’s worldview holds no such complications. As a man, he reacts to situations through action. The Mazone, a race of women, are longterm planners. Hayashi phrases the dialogue to represent that women reflect while men act. However, this does not prevent women from action. At the end of “Tragic Love,” to explain how she overcame the witch, Miime says, “When she’s fighting for her life, even a woman becomes a strong warrior.” This is kenjoku, self-denigration by the speaker. Miime, the very embodiment of keigo principles, is showing how bushidō exists in the traditionally feminine. Also, her understatement serves to point out the fact that she has goddess-like powers, connecting her with the mystique of the feminine. She could just as easily be speaking about the Mazone, who fight fiercely. Through the content and morphology of the dialogue, Miime enforces the inscrutability of women.
A Long Way Away Voyage
Episode 26 deals primarily with the internecine conflicts in the Mazone ranks, and is where Hayashi uses female characters to show the ways in which bushidō can be compromised. The Mazone leadership is arguing over what to do about the civilians, who are tired from constantly fighting Harlock, and desire peace. Some advocate letting them go; others want to use the civilians as shields. All of them are facing conflicts with their moral compass that affects them on a deep level, making them more than cartoon villains. In this scene, the all-female characters are predominantly using the impolite da verb form. They give imperatives with gender neutral terms like koto (used to emphasize an order without being overtly impolite). Even the directives are neutral on the politeness scale, such as “Cleo no okunasai! [Retrieve it, Cleo!],” but lean more toward the masculine in their informality. This is in contrast to the masu/desu-inflected speech of Kei and Miime. It is also in contrast to the kindly Arcadia doctor, Zero, a male who communicates with female crew members using the ne particle. In other words, the Mazone talk at each other, while the crew of The Arcadia talks with each other. A room full of women speaking so impolitely to one another in anomalous in Japanese culture, demonstrating their problematic bushidō through a linguistic schism.
Much work is done in this episode to set up Lafresia as Harlock’s double, and Hayashi does so through honorifics. It is telling that Harlock gets the more modern moniker, whereas his enemy Queen Lafresia is always called “Joou Lafresia.” Her name connects her to the fairy tale just as his connects to the epic. The structure of Lafresia’s name is semi-Westernized, and in pronunciation the o in joou is emphasized. This in turn stresses her role as “queen,” which has a fairy tale context. Japanese honorifics such as -san, -sensei, or -hime are attached as suffixes to the end of names. Japan was ruled by empresses, not queens, and under Japanese honorifics she would be titled Lafresia-tennō. Thus, linguistically, Lafresia is a European monarch. The continued utterance of “Joou Lafresia” works in tandem with her representation: a coldly beautiful woman in dark colors who spies on The Arcadia through a crystal globe, similar to the magic mirror from the Disney version of “Snow White.” In this anime, a romanticized pirate/cowboy is fighting an Evil Queen. This is one more way in which Hayashi ties the series back to Matsumoto’s fairy tale elements. The other character in the series that gets a Westernized name is, of course, Captain Harlock. This sets up the female antagonist as a magical character, symbolic of the dangers men face when they enter the unknown. It is also sets up the difference between the two leaders. The pirate moniker “captain” indicates that Harlock is a rebel, while the title “queen” connects Lafresia to institutions.
As mentioned earlier in the paper, Meiji Era bushidō privileged individual honor over institutional loyalty. Harlock’s crewmates either refer to him by his name or as “kyaputen. This is a very casual way to speak with a commanding officer. The Mazone refer to their queen as “Joou Lafresia-sama,” the addition of the honorific –sama, meaning “lady,” adding more reverence to her title. This large level of sonkeigo works in tandem with the visuals of Mazone generals pledging their undying loyalty to Lafresia, a scene reminiscent of Nazi propaganda films. This scene of identical women swearing loyalty is intercut with a scene of Lafresia crying in her swimming pool. She has just murdered her friend Tesius, who sided with the civilians, and is telling herself that she can cry, as long as afterwards she is utterly merciless in order to defeat Harlock. With this linguistic touch, Hayashi characterizes the Mazone society. They are so built on maintaining order that they have developed a cult of personality around their monarchy. This desire to live up to the institution compromises the honor of both Lafresia and her subjects. Underneath the honorifics, they are fractured, disloyal to one another, the opposite of The Arcadia. As stated, Matsumoto employs his fallible female characters to explore the failure to follow bushidō. Lafresia wants to do right by her people, but the stress of the situation breaks her. The Mazone are not wrong because they are women, or because they are warrior women. They are wrong because, time and again, they compromise their ethics. Ironically, these women who use “rough” masculine language are cast in the same dishonorable light as the feminized men who run Earth.
There is one trait of feminized speech the Mazone maintain in this episode, and that is verbosity. Lafresia explains her actions through monologue. When Cleo is sent to bomb Tesius and the other defectors, Tesius tells her to tell Lafresia, “No matter how you forge it, steel without pliancy is quite brittle. The same can be said of a heart without mercy.” Men in the Leijiverse are not capable of such eloquence, as their manliness requires they be taciturn. Through women, who make the hard decisions, Hayashi can elaborate on the situation in an eloquent way.
My Friend, My Youth
The flashback episode “My Friend, My Youth” has several themes related to bushidō. It contains the most obvious comparisons between Harlock and Western archetypes, because in his past he was a cowboy on a desert planet. In order to emphasize this, Harlock orders “whiskey” at the saloon, while the other cowboys still order sake. This is the episode that introduces Harlock’s deceased friend Tochiro Oyama and his lover Emeraldas, and through them explores different aspects of bushidō.
Tochiro gets in a bar fight with cowboys at the saloon. It is the point where they question his manhood that he attacks them, reinforcing the importance of manliness. The cowboys beat him to a pulp, showing that he is no warrior like Harlock. It is during this point that Tochiro meets Emeraldas. The female space pirate, while a fighter, is entirely feminine in her language. She introduces herself as, “Watashi wa Emeralda, des,” using the female first-person pronoun watashi and a short form of desu. When she apologizes she says, “Gomenasai,” –nasai being a polite particle. In her speech, Emeraldas is every bit the ideal Japanese woman whom the linguists conceived of in the Meiji Era.
While her language is obedient, Emeraldas is not. She is wealthier than Harlock and Tochiro at that point in time, and tries to hire them for a job. She is more experienced than them and tracks them to their secret hideout. At one point, she rescues the heroes. The beautiful woman does become attracted to Harlock, but to the squat, bespectacled Tochiro, and only after she sees that he is an engineering genius. Through her language, Hayashi emphasizes how superficial gendered speech is. Emeraldas addresses others with respect and still maintains both control and independence. In her 1992 study of Japanese professional women in leadership positions, Janet Smith wrote, “They routinely cited the ease with which they were accepted by male (and female) subordinates as long as they were gentle, open, and considerate, when, in their own words, they stressed solidarity over authority” (Smith 63). If feminized language constitutes a show of solidarity in powerful women, then Emeraldas is practicing her own form of bushidō by respecting her comrades.
Throughout the episode, Harlock refers to Tochiro five times as “tomo yo,” meaning “O [male] friend.” This speaks to the value of loyalty. Tochiro is not a physically intimidating person, but he demonstrates the same courage as Harlock when they escape a cowboy posse, or break out of the prison camp. Just as Emeraldas is an atypical samurai, Tochiro is atypical. Harlock’s mantra of loyalty, “tomo yo,” puts them on the same level, as warriors.
There is a point in “A Long Way Away Journey” in which Lafresia commands Harlock to stop fighting her, and mocks his pride. Harlock replies, “The pride you speak of is merely a woman’s pride. A man’s pride is not the same thing.” At first this seems like a case of 1970s sexism. On closer examination, Harlock is simply throwing her taunt back at her. The ideal samurai is invoking haji, casting shame on an enemy who has lost her honor. The Leijiverse is a man’s world. One need not look farther than the narrator: the omniscient voice is that of a man speaking of traditional male values. Matsumoto’s choice to combine epic and fairy tale characters demonstrate his symbolism. As shown by gendered speech in Space Pirate Captain Harlock, to be a man is to be stable, unwavering in honor and ethics. To be a woman is to be inherently strange and changeable. It is the female that metaphorically represents the sublimity that men encounter when they follow their dreams. However, for the actual female characters in the Leijiverse, all have the opportunity to follow bushidō in their own way. Matsumoto’s redefinition of the samurai ideal shows why his work is still relevant after five decades.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Blackgate post

Blackgate Magazine is one of my favorite online journals about fantasy. Pretty cool to write about my recent tour for them. Shoutout to the Beelen Street punks.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Just popping in to say that blog updates are going to be pretty sporadic for the next two weeks. I'm on a marathon tour, doing a reading every day. It;s fun, and exciting, but also doesn't leave much time for blogging. So I'll report back when all is said and done, with an update here and there. In other words, same as usual. Cheers.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Chapter 108: In Which I Discuss Fruitvale Station

I love New England. I love the burgundy in the brick. I love the smell of the trees, the wind off the ocean. I love the occasional visit to Cape Cod or Provincetown. Philly is my current location, where I am gearing up for tour.


It's a tight schedule. New York one day, Quebec the next. Boston one day, Ithaca the next. Here's the schedule:


Saturday, August 10th--Brooklyn, NY--Molasses Books

w/Pol Doble, Eric Nelson, and Lisa Marie Basile

Tuesday, August 13th--Pittsburgh, PA--East End Book Exchange

w/Dan Parme and Jess Simms

Wednesday, August 14th--Philadelphia, PA--A Space

w/Shevaun Brannigan

Thursday, August 15th--Worcester, MA--Collective A Go Go

Dinner at 6:00pm, show at 7:00pm
w/Insurgent Theatre

Friday, August 16th--Brattleboro, VT--People's Bookshop


Saturday, August 17th--Boston, MA--The Lilypad

w/Militza Jean-Felix, Zach Buscher, and Shira Lipkin
$5 cover

Sunday, August 18th--Ithaca, NY--Buffalo Street Books


Monday, August 19th--Montreal, QC--Argo Bookshop


Tuesday, August 20th--Ottawa, ON--The Daily Grind


Wednesday, August 21--Toronto, ON--The 460

w/Kelly Rose Pflug-Back and Leah Bobet

Friday, August 23--Chicago, IL--Quimby's Bookstore

w/Patty Templeton

Saturday, August 24--Cincinnati, OH

Details TBD

Twelve dates, and this is after two cancellations. Other than not being able to do the obvious route of Philly, followed by NYC, I was successful getting every date I wanted. In comparison to previous tours, it was pretty easy. Finding crash space was also easy. I think is part of the goodwill and trust I've created from touring so often in the past.

I won't be touring next year. Hard Times Blues 2013 is my fifth tour in three years, and I'm tired. Writing, performance, and tour management are all separate arts, and to focus on one means neglecting the others. I don't make money from touring, so it's always been about exposure, which I feel I've gotten. It's a fun pasttime, and I will continue to read wherever people will have me. In fact, I'm putting together a list of sporadic readings for the fall. But I won't be doing readings to the extent that I've been doing them. After I come home, I'm refocusing my energies on writing, and like the Invisible Man will emerge from underground once I have something to show.

Fruitvale Station

I saw the Oscar Grant movie. It was amazing. Don't know if I ever want to see it again. The main emotion I got from it was anger, and I don't know if I need a movie to remind me I should be angry. As I was leaving the theater with a friend, we saw some motorcycle cops. She said their very presence disgusted her. I told her that was a legit response.

What struck me about the movie was its authenticity. Not exactly to a life, but to a culture, a way of life, an experience. There is a part where Oscar and his crew are coming up the escalator at the Montgomery station. I have done that many a time. Taking that long ride, never knowing what San Francisco will bring you. That they could capture that moment shows a director who understands, and loves, the Bay. Even down to the small details, like the dance party on the BART, which surely happens on New Years in Oakland. For an hour and a half, I saw my experience as an Oaklander replicated onscreen.

Therein lies the movie's power. It moves with the rhythms, the language of a world that on the surface is black, but on deeper inspection is the melting pot America always advertised. Oscar's extended family is black and Hispanic, his friend is Asian, they're all heavily influenced by black culture, yet live in a white supremacist world. It all feels so incredibly natural, which works for what the film is trying to accomplish: humanizing an everyday man who experiences an, unfortunately, everyday tragedy.

I'm in Oakland, watching Oakland actors, Oakland locations, telling an Oakland story about how the cops get away with killing us. There is no joy to be taken, because the tragedy of the black experience permeates every frame. I'm glad I didn't see it opening weekend, as hearing the Zimmerman verdict right on the heels of that would have been too much of a gut punch.

With the ending established right from the start, the movie goes into horror movie mode with a series of What If's. What if Oscar took the car? What if he hadn't been pulled off the train? This is also one of the few films to truly address the influence of high speed communication on our culture. Cellphones are ubiquitous, used even in mundane interactions like helping the woman out at the grocery. This was a brilliant detail on the filmmakers' part. It was phones that caught Oscar's execution, and spawned the anger.

Another interesting choice they made was that it was the blond guy, not the bald screaming asshole, who ended up being Mesehrle. The dude who killed Oscar worked the fact that he never got adequate weapons training into his defense.  That means, at best, he was a real life Prezbo from The Wire. But he had military grade weapons and the power over life and death. One of the biggest surprises to me was learning that the chief of BART police stepped down after firing the other cops responsible. You mean people were actually held accountable for killing a black man? BART's cooperation with the film feels like penance to me. Like they hope they can somehow make it right.

Part of the tragedy of racism is that, since black youth are considered dangerous, you cannot grieve for them. We never see black mothers grieving onscreen, though they lose their babies more commonly than anybody at Sandy Hook. Fruitvale Station delivers that in its powerful, and absolutely necessary, final ten minutes. To suggest that black life matters is, in the context of this country, a revolutionary act. 

I read an interesting blog post recently about how even black entertainment is depressing, simply because black life is depressing. Which makes me think why a film like Fruitvale Station feels utterly authentic, while a buppie-fest like The Best Man feels like a bunch of people trying to avoid reality. I think the tragic parts are the parts that keep resurfacing no matter your economic position as a black person. The hatred and fear of black people has done as much to elevate us in the public conscious as our music, fashion, and style. The film addresses this, albeit subtly. Oscar is aware that his dark skin makes him a target, and I think this partly informs his anger. Police don't even show up for most of the movie, but when they do, it's like the rage Oscar feels has been there all along.

What a sad, sad movie. But, there is happiness to be taken in the fact that Wallace from The Wire has grown into a fine actor, and that a young black director with such skill got to make this movie. And that there's one of a small cadre of films out there that treat black life with respect.

Thug Shaming

Can this be a term? 'Cause it should be.

Since the name Oscar Grant is back in the news, people are taking the opportunity to dig up his corpse and beat it with a shovel. I'm talking specifically about the review from Forbes Magazine, which I won't link to, because fuck that guy. But he brings up Oscar's criminal past and, while repeatedly saying he didn't deserve to get executed, goes onto say just that in a trademark case of "I'm not racist, but..." nonsense. It's the same reasoning they used to convict Trayvon of his own murder. They were mad dogs who needed to be put down. Yes, Oscar went to jail for drug dealing. That apparently is justification for his death. George W. Bush got into trouble with the law when he was a kid, and the same people who cheer on Oscar's death feel Bush was qualified to be president of the United States.

Let me break it down. Oscar was arrested for drug dealing. Drugs should not be illegal. It should be the individual's business if they want to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, shoot dope. The presence of drugs in black communities is itself a crime against black people that the CIA has basically admitted culpability in. It's a scam to destroy and incarcerate blacks. The fact that Oscar, like so many black men, fell for it does not make him deserving of death.

Oscar was convicted of weapons possession. So what? What idiot deals drugs and doesn't keep a piece on him? So far, I see no serious crimes being committed. Those who are anti-black would have you believe Fruitvale Station is a whitewashing of an "established criminal." Part of what makes the movie great is that it is not a whitewashing. They show him in prison. They show him dealing drugs. They show him losing his job and threatening his boss. They could have made him a saint in the movie, but they chose a more nuanced portrayal. 

What has certain critics up in arms is the notion that he was trying to get his life together. I don't know how it's so hard to believe that a former convict who worked at a grocery store and was raising a child would want to go straight. But that interferes with the narrative that he was a mad dog. Was Oscar as thoughtful and sincere in real life as he was in the movie? I don't know. All I know is Steven Spielberg made an Oscar-winning movie based on the patent falsehood that Abraham Lincoln cared about freeing slaves. Spielberg gets rewarded. Start suggesting that black men are multidimensional, and you get called out for historical accuracy.

Only a person of extreme privilege thinks youthful indiscretions make someone a demon. Growing up black in America is basically being born into a warzone. Of course people in a warzone act like soldiers. But it does not make them deserving of death.

The media also thug shamed Lovelle Mixon, by the way. He was the Oaklander who, not long after Oscar's execution, was pulled over by some cops and killed a few before getting away. The modern-day Robert Charles. After he shot those cops, the media immediately labelled him a rapist. He was never convicted of raping anyone. But they had to resort to the Jim Crow-era stereotype of the "beast." 

Killing the cops sealed his fate, of course. He still managed to take down two more before the SWAT team killed him. Then again, maybe his fate was sealed the moment he was pulled over. Nobody ever addressed the protocol of the police. For a young black man, being pulled over by cops is the equivalent of being trapped in the woods, surrounded by a pack of starving wolves. For all we know, he was given the choice of being shot in the back like Oscar Grant, and took the option of getting shot in the chest. The man had a criminal past, sure. This was used to justify his summary execution by a SWAT team that had no intention of taking him in for trial. Thankfully, he died immediately, unlike getting burned to death like Charles Dormer.

If being a thug makes someone deserving of death, then Mitt Romney deserves death for the homophobic bullying he did in college. Or maybe, just maybe, everyone deserves the compassion and understanding that was afforded him. Maybe we should start putting things in perspective. Maybe we could rank lying to start wars and polluting the Gulf coast as crimes equal to, or even greater than, execution-worthy crimes like battery and drug dealing.

Just a thought.