Monday, January 24, 2011

CityLove 2011: Baltimore

photo credit to Bawlmer Pixtures, Hon

Maybe you know of Baltimore as the resting place of Edgar Allen Poe or the birthplace of the National Anthem. Maybe you know of it as a hotbed of civil rights conflict from the musical Hairspray, or as the home of its writer and director, John Waters. Maybe you're a part of the kidlit community and you read about Baltimore in Nat Standiford's fabulous How to Say Goodbye in Robot. Or you might associate it with the violent drug trade depicted in the show The Wire. You might know it for its once-thriving port community, or for how that's expressed now in the city's reputation for delicious Maryland crab cakes (the best ones, by the way, can be had at G&M). Or maybe you'd recognize Baltimore for its quirky side, from the hons of Hampden to the lawn flamingos that litter our yards, porches and roofs.

Or maybe, like much of the world, you don't know much of anything about Baltimore at all.

For a city that's so often overlooked, Baltimore inspires surprising loyalty in those who call it home. It harbors a thriving community of artists, writers, do-it-yourself-ers, and students lured by the absurdly low cost of living and hooked on the city's unique atmosphere. These are just a few of my favorite things about the city:

People & Ideas
  • The Effervescent Collective is a young organization dedicated to bringing contemporary dance to Baltimore's inhabitants in an accessible, experiential way. The collective strives to bring dancers and non-dancers together to generate "sacred, high-energy movement and shared ideas." In their interactive performances, workshops and online community, the collective creates an ongoing creative dialogue in Baltimore through dance. (P.S. You can read about the collective's extraordinary founder, Lily Susskind, here.)
  • In its first year, Glass Mind Theatre was voted Baltimore's best new theater in Best of Baltimore 2010. Run by a group of Baltimore's best and brightest recent grads (including my awesome roommate—hi Sarah!), the company based its first performance on the ideas tweeted, Facebooked and emailed to the group's founders. In March, they'll perform Neighborhood 3, a critically acclaimed show about suburbia, gaming, and zombies.
  • I don't harbor any delusions about my musical expertise; I'm about as knowledgeable as a brick when it comes to the names of band members or the newest trends in music. But 89.7 WTMD, Baltimore's listener-supported radio station, reminds me how much I love the stuff. And between Unsigned Baltimore and Detour: the Folk Roots & World Music Hour, their shows keep me up-to-date on the music scene in Baltimore and around the world.
  • The Urbanite is, in my opinion, one of the best magazines of its kind, nation-wide. The free magazine features outstanding writing on thoughtful topics like innovation, family, and sustainability. The always well-designed publication also makes room for local artists and writers to share their stories. I can't help but devour the new issue each month, and I'd kill to have a conversation with those writers and editors.
  • Speaking of some of the best writers in Baltimore, Kevin Griffen Moreno made it onto my radar this past year with his blog, Unsung Baltimore. Kevin is not only a talented writer and photographer, but also a devoted advocate of the people of Baltimore City; in addition to serving the city through his position at the Baltimore Community Foundation, Kevin gives credit to the extraordinary talents and ideas of Baltimoreans in his fabulous blog posts.
  • Evening Red Press is one of Baltimore's newest literary arts magazines, off to a strong start with three online editions, all showcasing some of Baltimore's finest multimedia art and writing.
  • In contrast, Smartish Pace is one of Baltimore's oldest literary magazines. I have a special attachment to the magazine since I began my literary career as an intern for the magazine in 2006, and I've discovered some of my favorite poets, from Lynnell Edwards to Maurice Manning, in its pages.
  • When I was very young, my parents used to bring me into the city for shows and soccer games, and I would stare at the glowing top of the Bromo Seltzer Tower with wonder. Raised on The Lord of the Rings, my seven-year-old self was convinced that the blue light at the top of the tower was a spell cast by the wizard who I was sure lived there. Though it might not be home to a wizard, The Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower does house dozens of Baltimore artists in its studio space.
  • Bad Decisions has made a name for itself in Baltimore and on the Food Network for its Bacon and Beer Happy Hour, but many of the city's inhabitants knew and loved the bar long before the first B&BHH. Don't be deterred by the bar's divey appearance; itsowner, John Reusing, is one of the city's most creative and skilled bartenders. His original drink recipes, scrawled in a drink-wrinkled marble notebook, stand testament to that fact—where else can you get a Pickletini, a Bloody Mary with crab juice in it, or (one of my favorites) a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster?
  • The first of its kind, The American Visionary Arts Museum calls Baltimore home and showcases the work of self-trained artists, from PostSecret's Frank Warren to"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening. More an adventure than a museum, the AVAM celebrates creativity in the odd and overlooked, the secret work of those compelled to create, and the crafts and tools of people who haven't had the option of arts training. The museum's supporters also celebrate the quirkiness of their mission each year with Baltimore's Kinetic Sculpture Race, an event you have to see to believe.
Now it's your turn, Writer Friends! Celebrate your city! Post what you love about your city today, and then post a link to it in the comments for this post. Let's take a tour of the world via CityLove!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

50 in '11 Update: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

What I liked most about Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi's Printz-Award-winning sci-fi novel for young adults, was its characters. Nailer is just the sort of smart, good-hearted hero we can follow from a post-global warming slum to a clipper ship on the high seas. His cohorts, Pima and Nita, are both distinct and strong women (and, it's worth noting, both are women of color who don't come off as token diversity picks). And the story's most threatening villain, Nailer's father, is an incredible piece of character work―he's one of the creepiest literary villains I've ever read, and while he is almost entirely evil, he nonetheless never seems one-dimensional and thus fabricated. The fact that Richard Lopez is horrifying but still human makes Nailer's fear of the man―and ultimately his need to break free of his influence―something to which the reader can relate, and ultimately gives the adventure story some real depth.

Ultimately, the transformation that Nailer needs to make in this story is not from ship breaker to "swank," but rather from the "Lucky Boy" who runs from his father's beatings to the young man who is finally able to stand up to his father. By the book's end, Nailer will have to confront not only his father, but also his fear of growing up to become another Richard Lopez.

That theme is one I've seen exhibited in countless narratives, from novels to films and even works of nonfiction. I first started thinking about it when I read Melvin Burgess's Smack (published in the U.K. as Junk) for a course on subversive children's lit. Like Nailer in Ship Breaker, the hero in Smack, Tar, runs away to escape his father's beatings. But he never succeeds in confronting his father and putting the man's legacy behind him. Rather, as Tar's father tells the reader towards the end of the very dark novel, Tar becomes just like the man from whom he fled; he hits his own wife. The novel seems to warn about what can happen when a boy fails to confront (or, in a psychological sense, "kill") his father's legacy; he fails to become more than another representation of it.

I'd venture to say that one of the myths or beliefs our society constructs around the ideas of boyhood, manhood, and coming of age stories is that a boy must overcome or kill his father in order to become a man himself. Perhaps that belief came about naturally in a monarchical and inheritance-based society, in which a son literally did have to wait for (or, I'm sure in some cases, cause) his father's death in order to come into his own power, and has stuck with us through the dissolution of those ways of governing and transferring property. Maybe it's something even more deep-set and psychological. Whatever the case, it crops up in ancient literature like the story of Oedipus, it's noted by Freud and other psychologists, and it's still being pointed out today.

But noticing this trend, especially in children's books, makes me wonder: is there a female version of this myth? Are girls' coming of age stories similarly haunted by the need to overcome an oppressive matron? Could we argue that the evil stepmothers in so many fairy tales are an embodiment of the feminine version of this myth? Are there any more contemporary examples?

In Neil Gaiman's Coraline, the title character must overcome her wicked "other mother" in order to return home to her true family and mend her relationship with her father. But I'm not convinced this is really the same myth. To me, the unconscious myths at work in Coraline seem Electral, and I'm not sure that the sexual component of that myth is matched in the male version I've described. Though I group the Oedipus myth in with my examples of stories in which boys overcome their fathers to become men, I still find that these stories aren't primarily about a fight for sexual dominance. Even fairy tales seem to have more of a sexual component; Snow White incurs her stepmother's wrath by being more beautiful and desirable, and Cinderella's stepmother can be seen as hating the girl for being so beloved of her father. In contrast, sexual competitiveness seems to play a secondary role, if any, in the conflicts between sons and their fathers in literature.

Am I wrong? Have I missed books that show the feminine version of this conflict? Let me know!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Announcing the CityLove Project 2011!

Writer Friends! Most of you probably know that I am from Baltimore, and that I'm fiercely, passionately, loudly in love with my city.

This past weekend I attended Create Baltimore, a participant-created conference for artists, entrepreneurs and techies who are passionate about and committed to making this vibrant city an even better place. The awesome people I met, the three fabulous round-table sessions I attended, and the overall atmosphere of intelligence and excitement reaffirmed what I already knew: that I live in a darn cool city.

I was also lucky to meet Kevin Griffin Moreno, whose writing has impressed and inspired me for ages, and who epitomizes so much of what I love about this city's inhabitants: that they're not only brilliant, but also committed to doing good; that they see beyond the sometimes unpleasant aspects of this city and inspire confidence in positive change for themselves and the rest of Baltimore; and that they love to celebrate this city and each other.

And this reminds me of you, Writer Friends! Because you make the publishing community awesome! Because you love to celebrate your fellow writers! And because you probably live in really cool places too, all over the country!

So a week from today, on January 24th, I'm going to tell you all about the greatest places, people and ideas in this city. I'll post links to my favorite arts organizations, cool grassroots initiatives, local businesses and publications, and all-around awesome individuals in Baltimore.

And here's the cool part: I want you to do the same. Celebrate your city! Tell us all who you admire, what cool ideas are taking hold in your area, and what makes you call your city home! And once you've done so, post a link in the comments to my post so we can all celebrate each other's cities!

Let's give credit to our local movers and shakers! Let's explore some places we've never been! Let's learn from each other's cities, and find more ways to make ours awesome! I can't wait. See you next week!*

Why Write?TM series will return right after this brief interlude, promise! Look for the last post in the series, all about literary fiction, in two weeks.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

50 in '11 Update: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

Though I've kept up with feminist and activist articles online (especially those related to the book business), it's been a while since I sat down and read a serious book on gender or feminist theory. Whipping Girl manages to do both in a series of essays explaining the trans experience, the way the brain and body work together to create gender, and the way society (often wrongly) perceives transexuals.

I didn't buy every one of Serano's points, but I did find her take as a geneticist and a doctorate of biology fascinating. While the differentiation between "gender" (psychological) and "sex" (physical) is becoming widely accepted in America, Serano argues that it's not enough—that a person's gender identity is made up of an even more complex combination of unconscious inclinations, instincts, socialized behaviors, inherent traits, and more. I'd recommend her book for the vocabulary she introduces, if nothing else. Armed with the terms Serano introduces and explains, one can begin to see how we see such a wide variety of gender inclinations and expressions in people of all sexes—how there can (and should naturally) be feminine men, masculine women, androgynes, and those on the trans spectrum (in a whole range of ways and for a variety of reasons).

From the perspective of a rabid consumer (and often a builder) of stories and media, I was also fascinated by Serano's deconstruction of presentations of trans women in the media—specifically, of how they are almost always depicted in the act of "putting on" their femininity, a selective viewpoint which serves to emphasize its supposed artificiality, perpetuating the idea that no one sexed male at birth can possibly experience genuine femaleness.

Finally, I particularly appreciated Serano's take on feminism. As someone who has had the experience of observing how others treat her when they believe her to be a man and when they believe her to be a woman, she's in the unique position of being able to make some very reliable judgments of how traditional and oppositional sexism are still at work in our society. Her description of the change in the way the same words and actions were received when she began to live as a woman rather than a man was fascinating, and a call to action for anyone who believes that men and women are no longer treated as unequal. She makes the point that, even in cases in which women are not discriminated against, femininity is devalued. She argues that we must change society's bias against femininity, whether expressed by men or by women, if we are to make the world a better place for people of all genders, sexes and gender expressions.

I'm heading back into the realm of fiction with this week's book, the 2011 Printz Award winner: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. I'm enthralled already!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

WHY WRITE?: Historical Fiction

I’m not going to lie—this week’s WHY WRITE?TM installment was a real challenge for me. When I took a look at the voting for this series and saw how popular historical fiction was proving itself to be, my first thought was that I couldn’t possibly do the topic justice. What do I know about writing historical fiction? What do I even know about reading it?

To quell my anxiety I turned to research, seeking out authors’ accounts of how and why they write historical fiction in hopes of justifying my own speculation on the matter. The articles I found helped inform and guide my thinking about historical fiction.

And then I began to realize that I do know something about historical fiction. True, it’s not one of those genres that I instinctively seek out—more often, it finds me. And, in the way that truly successful historical fiction can, it made its way into my heart without ever striking me with the thought that I was enjoying history (something which would have horrified my sixteen-year-old self, and which surprises me even today). And in examining what made me, a somewhat forgetful young woman with an aversion to date-memorization and name-recitation, fall in love with books like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, I think I’ve come up with some answers to the question of why you might want to write historical fiction:

Because you want to explore an unfamiliar world. In a way, your reasons for writing historical fiction might not be so different from another writer’s reasons for tackling speculative fiction. It gives writers and readers alike the chance to experience another way of life vicariously. With the speed at which technology advances, political power changes hands, and trends come and go, the past can sometimes seem even more remote and unimaginable than any sci-fi universe—so historical writers, like authors of speculative fiction, are in the business of introducing their readers to new worlds. That opportunity is alluring to writers and readers alike; as Katherine Paterson says of her historical fiction, “…If I wrote only about what I know, I would never write. I write to find out.”

Because you love to learn, and you love to teach. But, unlike speculative fiction, historical fiction is firmly grounded in the rules of the real world—perhaps more so than any other fictional genre, since the events of the past are already written. For those who love research, historical fiction offers a chance to put that passion to use. What’s more, it can offer writers a way of sharing that passion with others. Events that may never have piqued a reader’s interest when encountered in a history textbook come to life when presented in the form of a story. And once that story takes root in a reader’s mind, it can plant seeds of curiosity that drive the reader to explore history all on his or her own.

Because you want to get to know not only the “what” of history, but also the “who.” One of the most powerful strengths of historical fiction is the ability it has to put a human, relatable face to events that seem far-removed from us now. Historical fiction gives writers a chance to explore long-gone times and places and to meet characters they never could have confronted otherwise—characters with whom both readers and writers can connect, even across the boundaries of time and culture. It’s no coincidence that, despite the fact that I count some works of historical fiction among my favorite books, I couldn’t immediately call to mind any that I’d read. When I think about The Kite Runner, I think of it first as a story about people, and second as a story about the conflicts in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the relationship that I built with the novel’s characters spurred my interest in that time periods and the conflicts that surrounded it, and I began to see the people I’d read about in the paper and in textbooks as individuals, each with their own story.

Because you want to give a voice to someone who hasn’t had it. I see a lot of subversive potential in that power to put a human face on history. Every society has, somewhere in its history, a group of people whose stories have not been heard. Sometimes social and economic factors (like the fact that slaves were not taught to write, or that the lower classes often lacked the leisure time required to do so) keep certain minorities from sharing their stories. In other cases, their stories are intentionally rewritten or overshadowed by the voices of the majority, significantly altering the way we learn and understand history. We’ve all heard that the “winners” in any conflict are the ones who get to write the history of it. However, a writer of historical fiction can subvert that trend. Laurie Halse Anderson managed it in Chains, a novel in which she featured an African-American slave girl (someone whose viewpoint, I’d argue, is thrice-suppressed—for her race, her gender, and her age). When done respectfully, empathetically, and often, imagining history from the perspectives of those who are or were historically oppressed can give a much-needed voice to their struggle.

Because you need to make sense of the world we live in. The statement that we must learn from our history or else be doomed to repeat it may be a cliché, but it’s nonetheless true that, as Katherine Paterson says, “History gives us a pair of powerful eyeglasses with which to examine our own Times.” Sometimes as writers and readers we aren’t yet ready to confront the horrors we experience within our lifetimes—whether that means terrorism, war, or the prejudice we witness in our own society. But we can understand them better, and we can comment upon them or experience much-needed catharsis from them, through the lens of history. Ron Rash says it best in Publishers Weekly: “That may be the best that any work of historical fiction has to offer—not just to its author, but, more importantly, to its readers—a chance to grapple with the mysteries and complexities of the past, in hopes of seeing the present a little clearer.”

Now it’s your turn to educate me. Readers and writers of historical fiction, what draws you to the genre? What are the strengths that I missed? Do you disagree with any of the ones I listed? Let me know in comments!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

WHY WRITE?: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction

Thanks for waiting patiently (more patiently than I did, that’s for sure) for me to get my computer back up and running so the Why Write?TM series could return! I’m back in action now with a shiny new hard drive, and I can’t wait to hear all of your thoughts on speculative fiction.

You probably know that I love a good piece of speculative fiction, whether it’s a short story by Neil Gaiman, a novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, or a TV show like Battlestar Galactica. I’ve written and read my fair share of literary criticism on speculative fiction, and recently had my socks rocked off by the Sci-Fi Museum in Seattle (which I highly recommend, if ever you’re in the area). Recently The Rejectionist got us all psyched up with her awesome Feminist Science Fiction Week, and it seems the book world still hasn’t run out of things to say about fantasy since the last Harry Potter book was released more than three years ago. It’s clear that speculative fiction has made a huge impression on us in recent years, so this is an area I’m particularly excited to explore. So with no further adieu—why write science fiction and fantasy?

Because you want to be part of a community. From the Trekkie to the Renaissance Faire regular, fans of science fiction and fantasy are a breed of their own. They devour every piece of speculative fiction they can get their hands on, they gather in rock-concert-crowd numbers for conventions, signings, and midnight movie showings or marathons. As readers, they tend towards a religious devotion to the science fiction and fantasy section of the bookstore. They know the cover clichés and spine fonts to look for, and they’ll approach new and established authors alike with the same eager, open mind. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more devoted fan base.

Because you want to get away. It’s no surprise that science fiction and fantasy tend to see an uptick in sales during times of political unrest, war, or economic strife. To some extent, all reading is about escapism—the chance to experience the unknown through another’s eyes for a few hundred pages—but nowhere is this more true than in speculative fiction. In sci-fi and fantasy we find an escape from the monotony (or downright unpleasantness, in some time periods) of everyday life. I’d guess that, in large part, the genre gains such devoted fans because the worlds it imagines, with all their wondrous possibilities, are positively addictive.

Because you want to channel your other passions into your writing. J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist and linguist whose first job was with the Oxford English Dictionary; C.S. Lewis was an influential lay theologist; and James Tiptree Jr. (whose real name was Alice B. Sheldon) was a photointelligence expert for the U.S. Army Air Force and a doctor of experimental psychology. Great science fiction and fantasy has been written by biologists, astronomers, physicists, psychologists, philosophers, mathematicians, political theorists and more, and for good reason. The challenge of inventing an entirely new world forces writers to draw upon all of their areas of expertise, and many writers take delight in the challenge. For many who write speculative fiction, part of what makes the genre so much fun is the chance to invent a new language for the world’s mythological creatures to speak; to describe the properties of an imagined world’s extraordinary flora and fauna; to accurately depict the physics of spacecraft motion; or to create an entirely new social structure, government and religion. Writers and readers of speculative fiction take delight in finding their other passions woven into the stories’ plots.

Because you want to take advantage of a blank slate. But there are more reasons to want to create a new society than simply to be able to weave your own passions into its structure. Every writer, regardless of his or her genre of choice, has to establish the rules that govern their story’s world. These rules can be as basic as gravity or as complex as socioeconomic class, and they often go unnoticed by the reader unless they are unexpectedly broken, but they are nonetheless crucial to a story’s believability. Most writers are stuck with the rules that govern the world that we live in—all except, of course, for writers of speculative fiction. Because they require the author to build a new world and society, science fiction and fantasy offer writers a chance to work from a clean slate and create whatever rules will best serve their story.

Because you have something to say… The chance to create their own worlds allows writers to critique the world we live in by calling rules we take for granted into question. In science fiction and fantasy, people of color can be in the majority; homosexuality can be typical while heterosexuals are considered unnatural; gender and sex can be fluid or altogether changeable; religion can be re-imagined or re-interpreted—the possibilities are endless. By presenting a different social structure as normal and fully functional, these stories call attention to the constructed nature of our own society and force us to confront our own learned prejudices. Writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip Pullman, James Tiptree Jr., Octavia Butler, and more have created functional new societies in which the rules of our society are turned on their heads. In doing so, they have encouraged readers to question the beliefs they’ve inherited from the world around them, open their minds to all kinds of diversity, and imagine a more ideal world.

…And you can’t always just come out and say it. Because of their incredible potential for subversiveness, science fiction and fantasy are often highly political and relevant to social and political climates of the time and society in which they were written. Often, the best works of speculative fiction subtly satirize or comment upon contemporary events. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World expressed fears about increasingly tyrannical leadership and the dehumanization of a society dependent upon modern technology; more recently, M.T. Anderson’s Feed expressed these same fears in a more updated form, featuring telepathic instant messaging and horrific pollution in a reflection of contemporary society’s obsessions. One of the things I love most about Battlestar Galactica is that it aired in the post-9/11 era and asked us to question issues of patriotism, fear, and our assumptions about or own humanity and that of those we treat as “others.” Episodes containing questionable election tactics or a character’s plea for a government that doesn’t make its decisions based on fear were startlingly relevant in the Bush era and remain so as the war in Iraq continues. In many ways the imagined-world context of science fiction and fantasy allows writers to make political statements that might otherwise be suppressed. And I think because there's a tendency in some lofty literary circles to write speculative fiction off as "too genre," it gets away with more than we give it credit for.

Do you agree? Disagree? Maybe there are other genres that do some of these things better. Maybe I missed a few good reasons. Let me know in comments!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

50 in '11 Update: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Happy New Year! Hope you all had a wonderful holiday season, and a safe and happy New Year’s Eve. Are you off to a flying start on your resolutions? We’re going to rock more socks than ever in 2011, aren’t we, Writer Friends? Yes we are!

Speaking of sock-rocking and resolutions, I’m off to a good start on my 50 in ’11 book list. I meant to make Cormac McCarthy’s The Road my first book for 2011, but I unplugged (somewhat involuntarily) over the holidays and tore through roughly a book a day, finishing The Road way before New Year’s Eve.

What struck me most about the book was its immersiveness; I quickly picked up on the main characters’ constant fear of ambush, and found myself looking over my shoulder in the dark long after I’d put it down, and locking my bedroom door at night.

In addition to being well-written in that regard, the book also included some gorgeously poetic (though not exactly upbeat) passages:

“There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.” (46)

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” (110)

I particularly like the book’s closing passage, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. If you have the chance to pick up a copy, be sure to read the whole thing.

I’m working my way through Whipping Girl by Julia Serano now, and it’s fabulous so far. Thoughts on that soon!