Friday, March 30, 2012

Rue the Day: Hunger Games and the power of race in our collective imaginings

It's been a couple of days since I read about it on Gawker Media. There are (or were) some vocal fans who were intensely disappointed to discover that a tragic young character from the books was being played by a black actress. Not because she was white in the books -- she wasn't -- but because they had pictured her in their heads with white skin.

I've talked to friends all over the world about it, talked to my wife, and read the detailed analysis of many commentators and have yet to find anyone else who rises above the "How are we still here after all these years?"

The simple answer is that if you draw together a huge and diverse cross section of humanity, you're going to get some racists. Twitter, of course, is about encouraging the broadcasting of surface thoughts and soundbytes. That's the simple answer. But some questions defy the simple answer.

Many of the posts from Twitter were racism in the starkest terms. I have nothing to say to those people. If you hate someone because their skin color or think yours makes you superior, I have nothing to say to you; that the amount of melanin in our skin somehow denotes our value is anathema to me.

However, many of the tweets (most deleted since Gawker threw a spotlight on them) included hashtags like "#ihatemyself" and a lot of the posters seemed genuinely taken aback by their own racist brains.

It is to those people that I choose to address myself.

Because they were surprised by their own feelings and confused by them. The internet is not a place where calm and rational examinations of feelings and nuance are encouraged, but this is my space to stand and speak and I choose to dig for the nuance. Not to make excuses, but to hope that those who are surprised by their own feelings are those who are open for change.

I am going to dig into this as deeply as I can go in a blog post and I am going to end it without having answered any questions.  That's the nature of the thing: There are no easy answers, there are only more questions.

Color is woven so deeply into our culture that most of us are unaware of it.

There is an implicit association between "good" and "fair" in the English language and the culture it influenced. But what many don't realize that when the Grimm brothers called Snow White 'the fairest in the land' it is her pale skin that is being referenced just as in her name. She's the whitest white girl in the land. This was because in Medieval Europe, fair skin meant you did no work in the sun.

Shakespeare makes use of this dual notion of 'fair' in several of his plays and sonnets. In Sonnet 18: "Every fair from fair sometimes declines" when he is warning the recipient of his verse about how too-short the summer of our lives and by Sonnet 130, when he's in the throes of love to his mysterious "Dark lady" he describes her thus in pointed contrast to the lies told by other sonneteers...

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head...
Her breasts are dun, which is a shade of brown and he doesn't care who knows it, nor will he conceal it with false flattery. Because calling them 'fair' or 'alabaster' or any one of a hundred other metaphors for pale skin would be considered flattering and in Elizabethan England, white still equals beauty and our poet defies that convention.

Fairy tales, and sonnets, and history, oh my! But what does it and have to do with the Hunger Games? Because it's all about the power of words. About the power of our assumptions. And it's about the implicit associations between a word like fair or innocent and the mental image of Snow White, a child of pale skin and blue eyes.

This reminded me of a story told by Studs Terkel in the introduction of his book Race:
"My wife was driving down the street in a black neighborhood. The people at the corners were all gesticulating at her. She was very frightened, turned up the windows, and drove determinedly. She discovered after several blocks, she was going the wrong way on a one-way street and they were trying to help her. Her assumption was they blacks and out to get her. Mind you, she's a very enlightened person. You'd never associate her with racism, yet her first reaction was that they were dangerous."
In the 1940's, Mamie and Kenneth Clark conducted a series of experiments with African American children where they were asked to choose between two dolls: identical except that one was white and one black. When asked to choose the pretty doll, the 'good' doll, they overwhelmingly chose the fair-haired and white skinned doll.

The experiments demonstrated something called 'implicit association', which is what Studs was talking about in the anecdote about his wife. It's the deeply-ingrained reactions that our society programs into us without our necessarily being aware of them: that dark skinned folks are scary, or at the very least, less trustworthy. It's in our movies and our fairy tales and our cartoons. The Clark Doll Experiments demonstrated this in stark terms, that the fair-haired cultural stereotype was so deeply ingrained that even those who recognized themselves in the toys presented to them chose the white baby as better, prettier, and more desirable. The study compared kids from segregated schools and desegregated schools and the differences were marked. By some accounts the Clark's testimony was instrumental in the Supreme Court's landmark Brown -v- Board of Education decision that made desegregation the law of the land.

Brown ended segregation in the United States. It meant that my upbringing in rural Missouri was not all white faces and white culture. But it did not mean racism was at an end any more than the inauguration of President Obama meant that we were exiting a racial phase of our culture.

Flash forward to today, in our supposedly post-racial America and The Hunger Games...

Susanne Collins makes it clear in several places that Rue has "dark brown skin and eyes" but the innocence of the character drove these readers back to their societal default: fair skin and light eyes. So that confronted by the visual contrast between their expectations and the reality of a lovely young actress with African skin, the dissonance drove them to sound off on Twitter.

While this is sickening for many of us who hope daily that we will get past this horrible phase of our history, it is all too apparent that we are not. And while it would be easy to decry the mile-wide-inch-deep nature of Twitter, I cannot. Because I think that getting this stuff out in the open will -- I hope -- turn out to be a positive thing in the long term.

If culture is the lie we tell ourselves about ourselves, then let this show how thin the 'post-racial' lie really is.  Which is sad, but I can't help but hope it's healthy for our society as a whole to see itself clearly in the mirror.

The Huck Finn kerfuffle last year should have warned us this was still lurking out there, but race still has the power to sneak up on us. And I think nothing surprises us more than the fact that we're surprised by it. This is the ongoing power of literature and movies to bring out that which would otherwise be hidden. Our preconceptions and our prejudices laid bare...

If nothing else, it's a wake-up call to those who think we are in a post-racial phase just because we elected a black man president.

If sunlight is the best disinfectant then this is a good thing. Let us be aware of ourselves, warts and all. Let us do something about it in the light of day rather than shoving uncomfortable subjects under the rug where we can pretend they don't exist.

In Paradise Lost, Milton noted that: "Long is the way and hard that out of hell leads up to light." We have a habit of burying our sins and thinking our culture more civilized than is warranted and times like this are necessary to remind us that though there is a rocky road behind us, there is yet more ahead.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Idle Hands: Where I've been...

Idle hands, my mother has often assured me, are the devil's playground. I have to assume that she knows from observing someone else, because I've never known hers to be idle, so it cannot be from personal experience.

These are my mother's hands. I photographed them the day after her surgery for breast cancer. 

It was one of the few idle moments she had and the only day she really spent resting... at least by my definition of the word. Before I knew it, she was inviting relatives over and cooking a turkey dinner.

These are not idle hands -- these are fighting hands.

It was a strange learning experience for all of us, I think. There are not many moments in your life that you can point to and say "This is a point where this changed" but this was one of those moments. Mom is an ace at not being idle and has a genuine knack for keeping her son's hands from being idle either...
Pro Tip: Before you volunteer to help someone out after surgery, first find out whether they have a deck that needs to be stained and plan (or at least pack) accordingly.
That week, I discovered that I could help clean and dress wounds without fainting (my condolences to everyone who lost money in the betting pool). Yes, I stained a deck, and I also discovered that radiation suites often don't get decent WiFi. I also awarded an honorary Nobel prize for awesomeness to the innovator that brought us the hotel lobby espresso stand. I did some sewing, some writing, and some thinking.

I am happy to say that my mom did well. I was able to return home just in time for my 12th wedding anniversary. The universe gave us the gift of a broken hot water heater. 

We decided that the water heater was officially a piece of modernist sculpture (since art has no function, I couldn't feel bad that it wouldn't heat my water). It's a particularly ugly piece of sculpture, so we keep it in the closet. It's our story and we're sticking to it. Together, we mopped the floor, turned off the power, drained it, and went out to spend the day on the town. 

We bought each other a bag of books. 

12 years ago I said "I do" to a lovely lady who kindly agreed that she would too. You think a bit of malfunctioning junk like a hot water heater can touch that?

Life happens. Sometimes it seems to happen all at once and sometimes it stops happening before we're ready. Hug the people you love. Tell your friends how you feel about them. Because you never know when you will quite suddenly lose the chance to do so. 

Also, please talk to the women in your life, tell them you care. Ask them when their last exam was. Make the appointment. Go with them if you have to. Give the gift of life and health: encourage yearly mammograms and for all women to have a baseline scan at 35.

Women's health is not a women's issue -- it is a human issue. We seem to be a society that is locked in a perpetual state of forgetting that one person's fight is everyone's fight. We may be two genders, but we are one species. That's what it really means to be a nation. We're supposed to have everyone's back because we know everyone has ours. 

E pluribus unum -- from the many, one. I've got your back because I know you've got mine. We're in this together.

How different our world would be if we could just cling to that one simple truth.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Is it a First Edition?

Because anyone who is around me for more than a minute or two realizes that I'm a book hound, I often get asked how I know something is a first edition.  I've been contemplating writing a post about it, but then I discovered to my delight that Abe Books beat me to it in style...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Stories to tell...

Everything is a story. Given sufficient supplies of coffee and time, I will prove it to you.

A psychologist I used to know told me that making stories is a defense mechanism, a game our psyches play to help us make sense of trauma. A story is a box to put things in, a safe place to keep things until we unpack them carefully in front of our loved ones and let them be amused or thrilled.

Then they go back into the box and get put away for a time.

I have a lot of those boxes stored away, my own and some I’m holding for others. The only difference being that I view them all as spare parts boxes, to be opened and plundered as the need presents.

For writers, all boxes are spare parts boxes. We riffle through them for the bits and pieces from which we invent new stories or retell old ones. Thus, we allow of stories out into the breathing world, as Frankenstein's monsters, with bits of this and bits of that, and an aspect which -- if we are good enough -- will inspire our readers to the churchyard to dig up their boxes, to check that everything is still there. And to ponder how the writer knew these things, these secrets we never tell anyone, and to ponder anew a world where stories live in the open air even when we are certain they are nailed into a crate and buried as deep as ever we could dig.

The best stories, of course, are usually made from the parts of our lives that we actively tried to avoid. That's just the nature of the thing.

All stories are reflections of one another because they are all part of the same larger picture, the same overarching story that we call our 'culture' or our 'society' but really mean 'our shared story'.

Stories are going on all around us all the time, and though we may fancy ourselves the hero of our own tale, in reality we are bit players in someone else's story. It's the strange and awesome truth that we are not always in the story we think we are. We are not always playing the role we thing we are playing. And we are not always fully aware of the endings, the beginnings, or who the heroes and villains around us truly are.

When a story is happening, it's just life.  

It's the writer's role to understand that, to recognize it, and to choose the arbitrary points of initiation and conclusion so that the stories we tell reflect the ones that you don't tell. Because when we walk through the world, we're the ones whose eyes are up and looking around, filling their boxes with spare parts.

Ask a writer where they get their ideas and you will get a panoply of answers, most of which are untrue. Because the simple fact is that while appear to be trying to come up with an answer, for the most part we are really trying to imagine how anyone could walk through this world of stories and not trip over at least a few.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Up in the digital tree house: Forming Online Writing Groups

I'll be honest: I've never been a big fan of writing groups. I'm sure they're great for some people, but I've brushed up against too many that are snake pits of negativity and unnecessary competitiveness.
Illustrated by Joel Reid, copyright 2012

The trouble, as they say, is people.  It seems a kind of magic, pulling together a group of people who are of like mind who are willing to set aside ego and meet in civil and constructive conversation about their work. It's even more difficult when you take into account the geography. Finding all those people within driving distance of a central meeting place that serves coffee and/or wine.

I found it once, briefly, and then it slipped my grasp and I haven't been able to pull it off again.  Maybe that makes me a miserable misanthrope, but I think it's just the nature of the beast.

Enter the world of social media and the advent of the online book group...

It's been said that being a successful writer in the modern sense is about 1% talent and 99% being able to ignore the internet (which is a talent of its own). There's certainly some truth to that, but the internet has its uses too, and one of the primary uses seems to be drawing together people of like mind who might otherwise never meet and lending a megaphone to the voiceless.

It's no secret that social media has played a hand to some degree in every popular uprising from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wallstreet. What it is doing to authors is no less revolutionary.  And while it's not all good, and I'm normally not the biggest fan of Facebook as a company, the idea of the thing is wondrous.

Our online group was formed around the time I was writing Howard Carter Saves the World. We supported one another through that stint of NaNoWriMoing and had so much fun that we stuck together. If Facebook has become the virtual neighborhood, we built a tree house in the vacant lot down the block and hung up a sign: Dreamers Only.

It's where I go when I'm having trouble with something I'm writing, but it's also where I go when the real world rises up and wallops me with a mallet. Real friends, digital tree house. In the zany, text-based world of the internet, across thousands of miles, we sit down and share, and kvetch, and dream together.

I hope you find a place, either online or in what we laughingly refer to as 'real life'. Build a tree house, hang up a sign, choose a secret handshake. We'll wave to you from our tree and tip our paper hats across the neighbor's fence.

Just don't touch our Otter Pops... because we've got Howard Carter in our tree house and he's been filling water balloons and cackling maniacally for about a week now. Best not to tempt him.

Friday, March 2, 2012

It's Story Time In America: Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss

There were two people outside of my family that inspired me to become a writer: Jim Henson and Dr Seuss. But that dream would have been meaningless if there had not been two people inside my family who told me it was okay if I wanted to write a novel, as long as I got my homework done first.

The children of readers become readers; a lucky few get to be writers.

Today is Dr Suess's birthday, which coincides with the National Education Association's "Read Across America" celebration. It's an entire day about childhood literacy.

I have come to understand that I was a lucky child; growing up it was a rare day indeed that wasn't about childhood literacy. From my earliest memories there was a shelf of books in my room. There was an orange shelf in our room stuffed with Golden Books, picture books, and Storybooks telling tales from Disney and the Bible... I romped with the Pokey Little Puppy, and sailed to a far off land where the Wild Things roamed. I helped The Little Engine up the big hill and helped Grover avoid the Monster at the End of his book. 

Why my dad painted that shelf bright orange, I will never know. Maybe my memory is faulty and it was really turquoise, but whatever the color, it was where we found our books. It was at my elbow when I sat by my sister, wandering the desert with the Israelites and I enduring the Long Cold Winter with Laura Engels Wilder.  

That shelf of a peculiar color seemed so large at one point and then suddenly it wasn't big enough to hold our library. My sister and I branched out on our own, leaving behind story time for the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Brothers Hardy. More and larger shelves replaced it, a library that grew at the same rate we did.

Today is a day that celebrates childhood literacy. Today is a day when I encourage everyone to sit down with a child and read if they can and donate to an organization that does if they cannot. But it takes more than that to make a reader: You have to read too.

Most people think of the image in the photo above when they think about encouraging children to read, sitting with a kid on your lap, doing all the voices as Grover tries to keep you from turning the pages. But that's not how my parents turned me into a reader. 

If they ever did that, I don't remember it.  

Of course they read to me, but the way they turned me into a reader was by being readers themselves. They made time in their day to turn off the television and open a book. They did it consistently across the entire course of my life. And for all my rebellions -- and they were many -- that was the image of adulthood that I carried with me.

So celebrate childhood literacy today. Read to a kid. Donate to the cause. Buy books for your local libraries and schools. But understand that childhood literacy isn't a holiday. It's not something we do once a year like Thanksgiving or Halloween.

If you make one day about literacy and you have made a start.  Make every day about literacy and you've made a reader.  

Visit the NEA Foundation's website at to learn more about how you can help improve childhood literacy in your area.