Train to Busan (2016)

Train-to-Busan

I’m not going to ruin this movie for you. I loathe spoilers in general, and I loathe spoilers of really good films in particular.

I will simply say that this is the best zombie movie I have ever seen. It may in fact be the best zombie movie ever made, although I can’t claim to have seen them all.

It is certainly the only film I’ve ever seen which seriously rivals the original Night of the Living Dead in quality and relevance. I include the entire directorial career of George Romero post 1968 in that estimation, to put things in context–in my opinion he has never made a better film than the original NotLD, and neither had anyone else–until Train to Busan.

I may write more about this film later, possibly in a post that’s clearly labeled with spoilers. For now, I just want to deliver the simple message: this movie is on Netflix now. You should see it.

 

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Your Black Friend

Ben-Passmore-Your-Black-Friend

In the course of my reading for the Woke As Fuck Club this year, I’ve picked up a few titles that are not really in the wheelhouse of the club. Ben Passmore’s brief and poignant Your Black Friend is a single-issue comic which has the word count of a prose poem and the impact of a much longer essay.

Your Black Friend is addressed to the white friends of black Americans. It’s about a subject which is becoming increasingly urgent in modern discourse, which I would summarize as The Racism You Don’t See–the anti-blackness that is invisible to white people, whether it manifests in the world around us, in the white people we interact with, or in ourselves.

The framing device of the comic is a scene in a coffee shop. A white woman with “an Eat-Pray-Love vibe” is chatting with the barista, and talking about “this sketchy black guy” that she reported to the police recently, whose crime was “coming out of this backyard with a bike”. When the barista asks for a description, she describes a the bike better than the man. But her “sketchy black guy” turns out to be a perfectly innocent and ordinary person, a neighbor that the barista knows well. He lives in that house, he owns that bike, he’s a regular at the coffee shop.

Your Black Friend, the narrator of this comic, can clearly see that this white woman has been openly caught out in a moment of racist prejudice which could easily have endangered a black person’s life. The barista has revealed her racism–but he does not actually call her on it. And neither does the white friend sitting across the table from YBF, reading her “Yoga Cook Book” and oblivious to the conversation.

This experience of being thrown under the bus is a universal of being black in America, with or without white friends. As he puts it, “What white ppl fear most is ‘making things awkward’.” Even people who call themselves friends would rather be controlled by their fear of humiliation than stand up for black people. Even the minimal risk of using their privilege, their RIGHT to be vocal and labeled “angry” without serious repercussions–is too much to ask.

What follows is a haunting and lyrical monologue from the point of view of Your Black Friend, opening up with real vulnerability and expressing his deep discomfort with his position between the two colliding suns of blackness and whiteness.

Your-Black-Friend-Page

I don’t want to spoil it, because buying and reading this comic is a pretty smart way to invest five bucks, especially if you happen to be white and have any interest whatsoever in being a better person. But I do think it is worthwhile to talk about the issues that he brought up which made me feel personally uncomfortable and guilty.

Ben Passmore took a significant risk and opened his heart to share his discomfort with me, and he deserves the courtesy of having his reviewers interrogate their own shame. I think I have some of these attributes of whiteness, at times. And I am ashamed to the degree that I am a bad friend.

The Fear of Making Things Awkward.

I’m not going to beat myself up endlessly over this, but it’s definitely a fear of mine that crops up when trying to speak up for black people. Especially when black people are present.

I can’t presently untangle the knot of motivations and emotions that make up this fear. Some of it is actually positive intention, and the desire not to cause negative impacts. I know from recent experience that black people can suffer unwanted and exhausting repercussions when their white friends and colleagues start running their mouths. This is why caution and a little extra thought is needed before you tag them on Facebook or link to them on Twitter. Every POC author, critic and game developer in my network is at risk of being harassed and having their energies drained by trolls. If I want to consider myself a friend, I need to battle those trolls myself, if anyone’s going to.

Some of it is probably just personal weakness. I have some issues with social anxiety. And it must be said, I have always had a tendency to Make Things Awkward since I was a small child. This does not make me a bad person in the moral or ethical sense–in fact, I get lots of pats on the head for being a person of integrity and courage. But there is a price to be paid for being The Girl Who Called Bullshit. Making people uncomfortable can be a curse as much as it a blessing. Some people will always love me for my ability to speak up–some will hate me.

What worries me, though, is that maybe at least PART of the reason I fear “awkwardness” is that I am afraid of losing some of my in-group privilege as a white person. If I’m “Awkard”, if I become known as Always-Angry Arinn, maybe I’ll have fewer white friends? Fewer career opportunities? Fewer invitations to conventions and anthologies which are run by white people? Fewer dates…?

It sounds stupid and petty, once I type the words. But maybe it’s a legitimate fear. I have no reason to think that I will suddenly be embraced by black people just because I’ve alienated white people. And hell, maybe there are people of every race and background who just wouldn’t care to be associated with an Angry Person regardless.

It doesn’t really matter why I’m afraid of “awkwardness”, though. What matters is that my fear of awkwardness should never overshadow my fear for the lives, safety and dignity of black people in general, and my black friends in particular. And whatever loneliness or disadvantages I might suffer as a consequence of speaking up are staggeringly trivial compared to the consequences for black people if I don’t.

Putting On “Black Voice”

Ben Passmore mentions the white mimicry of black speech patterns on page 2 of this comic–it’s one of the first things to come up on his list of uncomfortable things that he doesn’t really know how to bring up. He describes his white friends “putting on linguistic ‘black face’ (he calls it ‘black voice’) with unfamiliar black people and especially black kids.”

Speaking of awkward? Yeah. This one is very awkward for me. African-American Vernacular English is recognized in academic circles as an official dialect of the English language. It has internally consistent rules and like most dialects, it serves a specific population of people as an in-group marker. It is at least partially designed and intended to mark those who cannot speak/understand it, or who cannot perform fluently, as outsiders.

I do not speak AAVE, and I would not ever try to use it to appropriate an unearned insider status with a black person I’ve never met. But I do consume books, music and art which are created by AAVE native speakers. And these artists have influenced me, sometimes in ways that I haven’t explicitly acknowledged.

I have been a fan of black blues musicians since my teens. Since the mid-1980’s I’ve been listening to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Koko Taylor, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Aretha Franklin…and their white imitators and proteges, like Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin. The imagery, emotions and lyrics of the blues are now a part of me, and it’s a part I value. I still count it as one of the high points of my life that I got to see John Lee Hooker live before he passed. And if it wasn’t for the blues, I’d have nothing to sing on karaoke night.

I could say similar things about my early reading of black authors like Iceberg Slim, who hit me like a train when I was in my late 20’s. I would still count him as one of the most original voices in the English language, and I can’t really calculate how powerfully he shaped my ideas of what racism is, or what the 20th century felt like for black Americans.

This being said, when I saw the blonde girl on page 8 say, “Can I be ‘woke’?” it gave me a pang of guilt and sadness. Because despite the fact that I run a study group called The Woke As Fuck Book Club, the truth is…

I can’t be ‘woke’.

I can use the word, but it isn’t mine. It will never mean to me what it does to a black person.

“Woke”, to a white person, is a state of compassionate, honest and active awareness about the world around me. It’s my willingness to recognize how privilege works and how people without it are marginalized and harmed. Being “woke” for me, as a person with a lot of privilege, is always going to be about listening, learning, and taking action whenever and however I can.

“Woke” for a person without privilege, particularly the black community that originated the term…means something entirely different.

For them, “Woke” is not just awareness and activism, it’s threat management. It’s a state of hyper-vigilance, the soldier’s edge, the boxer’s dance. Looking for the next blow before it lands, moving to block or dodge it. Keeping your eyes open and your phone battery charged so that you can record your interactions with the police. Staying alert and being ready to respond in a heartbeat to preserve your life, your job, your family, your community, your people as a whole. Listening to the daily barrage of micro-aggressions and making strategic choices about whether to respond. Being unwilling to take promises and statements at face value, because you’ve been lied to a thousand times.

Woke is a lot of things that are all about blackness…an existential state that excludes me from its Venn diagram.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to change the name of my study group. No one has asked me to, and the fact that Ben Passmore points out that white ignorance and entitlement make him uncomfortable is just part of the benefit I’ve received from pursuing this path.

Forming the Woke As Fuck Book Club was one of the better decisions I made in 2016, and I’m becoming a better and stronger person every day because of it.

That said…I’ll always be a white woman. “Woke As Fuck” is a goalpost that will shift eternally out of my reach, and I need to make peace with that reality. I cannot fix the world so easily. I cannot unmake my privilege or dismantle systematic racism by reading a few good books or writing even the most thoughtful review.

I do hope it will make me a better friend, though.

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Vaginomicon

Vaginomicon

Just a quick note to say that I’ll be getting together with some fabulous women to read some of my fiction for Women In Horror Month, this coming Sunday.

Local friends and fans–don’t miss it!

Vaginomicon: The Vagina Monsterlogues
February 12, 2017
7:00 PM

Couth Buzzard Books
8310 Greenwood Ave N
Seattle, WA 98103
(206) 436-2960

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Imperial Ghosts

Deep-Magic-Imperial Ghosts

Some kind words from Deep Magic, who published my story “Imperial Ghosts” in the December 2016 issue of the magazine.

Get your copy here: http://amzn.to/2gpTov0

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Ms Marvel: No Normal

Ms._Marvel_Vol_1

I’ve been working this week on catch-up reading, piling through the works of G. Willow Wilson–in addition to a lot of her earlier works, I’m also having a look at her most popular series, Ms. Marvel.

Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, is one of the most important characters in modern comics.  No Normal is compiles issues 1-5 of the series, introducing the Pakistani-American teenager and the major secondary characters in her life.  G. Willow Wilson is possibly the best-known Islamic writer currently working in comics, and by far the most popular in North America.

In many respects, the new Ms. Marvel is a culmination of ideas and passions which appeared in proto-form in Wilson’s earlier works, including her autobiography The Butterfly Mosque, and her early independent comics, Cairo and Air (Volume 1-4).

Without giving away too many spoilers, I think that No Normal touches on some of the critical concepts that will define the ongoing series:

  • Representation, and specifically the power of representation to define and evoke heroism.
  • Youth culture, and specifically the modern tendency to denigrate millennials and teens–the campaign to make young people feel stupid, worthless, and bereft of any meaningful future.
  • Community, and the sometimes uncomfortable jostling of international traditions in the new cultural environment of the modern USA.
  • Heroism, and the qualities that define an extraordinary person–regardless of race, religion, gender, or age.

What makes this comic a triumph in terms of representation is the range of Muslim characters it offers. Kamala Khan is a beautifully written child of first-generation immigrants, and this window into her life depicts the people who surround her with warmth, sympathy and an eye for detail. Her conservative Pakistani father and mother, her willfully devout brother Aamir, her Turkish-American friend Nakia, the imam at her local mosque…even her best kafir friend, Bruno, are all very lovingly drawn here.

The ongoing engagement with these characters and the evolving relationships within her community are the real bread and butter of this book, but I appreciate the fact that the creators slather them liberally with fun, fresh connections to the larger Marvel universe.

These opening issues are a solid beginning to a series which gets even better as time goes on.

 

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Your Disposable Fat Friend

I didn’t have glasses in the 1980’s. But I did have braces and a couple of shirts like this in junior high.

As I mentioned earlier, I started a Book Club on Facebook.

I’m currently re-reading the work of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, including her debut novel Signal To Noise. The second paperback edition of the book came out in 2016, with a pretty cool new cover. In the corner, there was a blurb that compared the book to the popular Netflix horror series Stranger Things, which got me thinking.

Signal-to-Noise-2

I found this an interesting observation, and it rings true in some respects–Stranger Things is about being a child or teenager in the early 1980’s in suburban America, and Signal to Noise is a similar story about kids growing up in urban Mexico.

The book and the show cover some similar territory. Normal kids weather an encounter with the Weird, and are transformed by it. Similar exploration of their relationships with each other, peers outside their group of friends, and parents.

Signal to Noise has a smaller cast of characters, which is understandable. But I definitely saw some parallels, particularly the presence of the character I’d tag as Disposable Fat Girl. She’s the voice of self-care, common sense, or maturity in a lot of stories about young women growing up, but she’s never the protagonist or a romantic rival, and far too often she is fridged/butchered without much thought.

In Signal to Noise, Daniela is that character. She is not the sharpest knife in the drawer where magic or academia is concerned, but she has a wealth of emotional intelligence. And for a wonder, she is not thoughtlessly killed. The epilogue of the book finds her a successful wife and mother, who has made a career out of her impulse to nurture other people–she’s a cook. Recognizing the value of Daniela’s friendship in childhood is actually one of the signs of the protagonist’s growth as a human being:

“Well…” Meche said, grabbing her arm. “Thanks. I don’t think I ever said thanks to you.”

“For what?” Daniela asked.

She thought about all the times that Daniela had put up with her, showing kindness when Meche was a bundle of nerves and impatience. Smiling at her when Meche made a sour face. Listening patiently when Meche ranted. Meche had just accepted all this as fact, never questioning Daniela’s devotion.

“For everything.”

Daniela smiled, drifting towards the other end of the room.

Comparing the role of Daniela in Signal to Noise with the role of Barbara Holland in Stranger Things is a grim exercise. Barbara is a very similar character in a similar role–the BFF of the female protagonist, a de-sexualized and underappreciated support system to a young woman coming of age and making choices about boyfriends etc.

But Barbara’s fate in Stranger Things is much, much darker than the life that SMG envisions for Daniela. She doesn’t get to step gracefully aside to make room for the drama between the romantic leads, letting them work out their problems as adults. Instead [spoiler!] she is brutally assigned to serve as the show’s only significant Monster Chow.

I didn’t like this aspect of Stranger Things, but it certainly felt “true” to me in some respects. This was definitely the fate that was assigned to me as a young woman in the America of the early 1980’s. The fact that I rejected the role and refused to be the weak, disposable sidekick of a more conventionally attractive girl definitely limited my social opportunities in junior high and high school. Sometimes if you refuse to be a wingman, you don’t get invited to the airshow at all.

I don’t particularly see myself as Daniela OR Barbara in reality, but I feel a sense of truth to these depictions because I recognize that this is the way the world WANTS to see me… and the way people want me to see myself. A fat girl or woman is a comfort doll, a supportive and unthreatening doormat, a ritual sacrifice, etc.–but she’s never a romantic protagonist, a hero, a sex object. In other words, she’s not a valid human being or a complete woman with all the dimensions that a female protagonist in fiction should expect to have.

When you reject the few limiting positive tropes for plush female bodies, the only other roles that are really common in horror are the Scary Fat Ladies that you see in Stephen King, Clive Barker and their imitators. Essentially, the message that the genre delivers to plus-sized women and girls is “YOU WILL BAKE ME COOKIES AND GIVE ME HUGS OR YOU WILL BECOME THE MOTHER OF ABOMINATIONS IN MY STORY”.

Speaking for myself–gonna pass on both options, and see what’s behind Door Number Three.

At any rate–these are just a few random thoughts about minor characters in two works of art that were linked by the marketing department. Signal to Noise is a rich novel that opens a lot of subjects for reflection, and I’m engaging with all of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work this month. I would recommend that all of you do the same.

Arinn-at-14

Me in 1984, at my Maximum Barb Phase.

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Eye Cups

One of the fans on the Kerberos forums brought up an interesting topic today: “What’s your favorite good luck charm?”

As an archaeologist and anthropologist, this is an incredibly tough question. I find fetishes, amulets and apotropaic objects REALLY fascinating, regardless of what culture they come from, and I’m always delighted to learn more about them.

That being said, if I have to pick one favorite? It’s got to be Greek Eye-Cups.

This is what the Eye Kylix looks like when it’s just sitting on the table or the shelf, which is already beautiful. But it’s intended to be a drinking cup for wine, and there’s an extra dimension to the object when you lift it to your mouth and take a sip.

I think that this is pretty neat. I also find it fascinating that this was a relatively brief fad, and that a lot of these cups were made for export to Italy and other Mediterranean trade partners of the Greeks in 540 BCE – 480 BCE. Like a lot of Greek pottery of that period, the majority of intact pieces have been recovered from Etruscan graves.

So these are my favorite good luck charms–they’re intended to ward off evil. What’s yours?

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A Cheat Sheet For Playing God

playing-god

Wonder what I’ll be doing on my birthday this year? Spending it at a convention! And not just any convention, but a really cool one, where you get to have lots of intimate interaction with your fellow attendees–including the guest of honor, the best-selling author Patricia Briggs, and a whole lot of other very cool working writers who will be teaching workshops and participating in the programming.

I’ll be starting off the day bright and early at 9:30 am at Foolscap, giving away all my quick and dirty world-building secrets for free.

If you want my cheat sheet for playing god, you’re just going to have to come!

Foolscap
February 3-5th, 2017
HILTON SEATTLE AIRPORT & CONFERENCE CENTER
17620 INTERNATIONAL BLVD, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON, 98188-400

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Race Is A Construct

“Race is a construct.”
 
Yes, yes it is.
 
Race is a construct, like religion, gender, and national borders are constructs.
 
People will happily kill you over a construct. Show me a national border which is not defended by armed soldiers. Show me a gender boundary which is not defended by violence and inequality. Show me a religious worldview which has no history of blood spilled, whether its adherents were being eradicated or forcing their views on others.
 
Yes, humankind draws a lot of arbitrary lines in the sand, lines which we use to define physical space, sexual space, spiritual space, political space. The fact that these lines are often arbitrary does not mean that these lines are not dangerous live wires through which powerful currents flow.
 
When anthropologists say “Race is a construct”, what we’re saying is that our ideas of race have no basis in sound biological science. In biology, “race” is a category of taxonomy that has some rational basis in geographic isolation, or mathematical variance within the DNA of a species. In order for a “race” of animals to exist, they have to be a strain that has enough in common with each other, and enough difference from other population groups, to justify the term.
 
There are very few human populations that have so much biological difference from other humans, and so much geographical isolation, that you could legitimately argue they might be a “race”. I could argue that the Sherpas and the people of the Andes might be the beginning of a “race” of humans, because of their physical adaptations to high altitude…but even that would be a stretch in the eyes of some biological anthropologists.
 
All the rest of us, scientifically speaking, are just “ethnicities”. We have ancestry, we can have some physical features that correlate to some broad geographic area, but our cultural constructs of “race” are not rationally defined scientific categories. They are historically defined political categories–we simply use race as a way to legitimize the distribution of POWER and RESOURCES in a given society.
 
Anyway. Upshot of all this is simple:
 
On behalf of other anthropologists, I’d like to ask people to stop misusing the principles of my scientific discipline to try and shut down important conversations about race.
It’s not helping.
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Carrie Fisher, RIP

carrie-fisher

My current favorite picture of Carrie Fisher. She looks and feels so much like my mother in this picture that it makes my heart go squish.

I honestly don’t know how to process her death. I think I first saw her at the Lensic theater in Santa Fe, during the first run of A New Hope in 1977. I know the first movie made a powerful impression on me at the time, although I think Star Wars and her role as Princess Leia had more formative impact on my development as a woman when Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were released.

Leia ended up being a role model for me in a lot of ways that were not necessarily positive. I definitely recognized myself in her: she was a tough, smart, competent woman with a quick wit and a penchant for sarcasm who was fighting with all her power for her principles, while the shadow of a destructive father figure loomed over her life.

Unfortunately, she also had a lot of romantic vulnerability, and a tendency to fall for men who were funny, passionate, and deeply flawed. Guys who faced the world with the wry half-smile of the wiseass who doesn’t just THINK he’s better than everyone else, and above the rules–he KNOWS it. And he’s happy to prove it at your expense.

I ended up getting involved with two guys in the Han Solo category, in the course of my life. Lots of passion, lots of regrets on both counts–those relationships didn’t work out any better for me than they did for Leia, which is one the reason that the scenes with her and Han in The Force Awakens gave me a pang. They felt…true. In a way that made me sad, guilty and a little uncomfortable. (Whatever, at least I don’t have a son who goes around trying to murder the universe. Okay!?)

carrie-fisher-02

One of my favorite movies for her was a bit part in The Blue Brothers, where she plays the vengeful, oft-jilted ex-girlfriend of John Belushi. That final scene with her and Belushi pretty much perfectly captures the dynamic of the relationship I had with my comedian ex. Here was a guy who would make me incredibly (and quite legitimately) furious–and then could fast-talk, pretty-boy, beg and emotionally manipulate me into forgiving him for just about any outrageous abuse. This went on for years–he would dump me on my ass every time I did forgive him, with about as much ceremony as Jake Blues dropping Carrie in the ditch.

I saw Rogue One in the theater, the night before her death was announced. The footage of 20-year-old Leia in that film, the Leia of 40 years ago, comes across as a haunting in retrospect. One of those stories about seeing someone’s ghost before you heard the news that they had passed.

I am incredibly sorry that she’s gone, and that she went so suddenly. She was a fixture of the pop culture multiverse in which I spend a lot of my time, like a star in the heavens.

Like all great lights, she will be missed.

 

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