The Utility of Tragedy

This one’s gonna ramble a bit and talk about depressing stuff some, so consider yourself warned.

So Saturday night was my 29th birthday, and I was in a show, and afterwards I went out with a couple of friends and drank beer and — impassioned and tipsy — tried to get them to explain to me what the utility of tragedy is in the current world.

This question sprang up out of the intersection of a few different trains of thought. It’s October 2017, and a year ago I was hugely confident that by November 30th I would have finished first drafts of two plays and have a female president. Turned out I was extremely wrong about both of these things!

We’re well into the first year of USA’s 45th presidency. Ten months of nearly constant crisis mode and psychological battering. Ten months where I slowly realized that I’m living in a bizarre but very real informational war zone under an incompetent but very dangerous head of state installed by a foreign power. About ten months where I’ve had regular episodes of existential despair over the possibility of nuclear war. (And all this, of course, doesn’t even take into account my last few years of deepening my understanding of racial injustice in America, of refugee stories, and of gun violence, which provided a nice foundation of “boy howdy the world’s a shitshow” for this year’s panoply of awfulness.)

The other day I was binge-watching pop culture video essays, and found myself intrigued by The Nerdwriter mentioning that “passable movies” are ones that are “a far cry from great or noteworthy or something you’d like to see more than once.” That got me thinking about what stories I’ve come back to multiple times in 2017. I’ve seen plenty of movies and plays and read plenty of books this year, and enjoyed and liked plenty of them.

2017coolmovieswithemojis

Just a sample. It was a pretty good year for movies, all things considered.

But there weren’t many I went back to more than once, despite frequently exclaiming as I left the theater “I would totally go see that again!” Movie tickets are expensive and I am lazy. That doesn’t mean they weren’t amazing movies — Moonlight and Hidden Figures are unquestionably very well made movies that I only saw once, and while I know people are divided on Atomic Blonde and Wonder Woman I thought they were both extremely well constructed. It just means I haven’t seen them twice. (But I did actually see Get Out twice in theaters.)

While I was thinking about that, I also watched the Nerdwriter’s take on Black Mirror.

I’ve only seen a couple episodes of Black Mirror, one of which was the notably uplifting (and yet slightly ambiguous??) “San Junipero,” and a big part of why is what Nerdwriter articulates in this video:

What Charlie Brooker, the intensely smart creator of Black Mirrorhas given us are tragedies that are often senseless — in other words, tragedies that withhold catharsis. The result, I think, is that we end up feeling much closer to these stories. The cathartic appreciation that’s meant to transform our pity and our fear never comes, and we’re just left with the pity, and the fear.

I remember once asking my mother if she wanted to come see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and she told me, essentially, “I’ve spent my whole life seeing people be awful to each other. I don’t need to pay money to go see two hours of it.” There’s a lot of dark/serious/tragic media that I feel similarly about, especially right now, in 2017, in this time and place. Just waking up in the morning and looking at Facebook or Twitter or the New York Times headlines in my inbox feels like adding a piece of glass to my shoes. Why would I feel the need to spend money and time consuming a story that reminds me how terrible people are and how insignificant our actions are in the great, tragic roll of the wheel of fortune?

And yet.

The stories that I probably spent the most time with this year, the ones I discovered for the first time and came back to over and over, were tragedies. Specifically, Hadestown

And Rogue One.

Animated gif of Cassian, Jyn, Bodhi, Baze, and Chirrut.

447px-aias_und_kassandra_28tischbein29

Ajax and Cassandra, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1806

I also spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year with the myth of Cassandra, working on my own storytelling and wrestling with the fact that Cassandra’s story is one of bad thing after bad thing happening for no good reason to a woman that culminates in her murder, and that I hate writing stories with downer endings. (I’m bad at writing endings in general, but that’s a slightly different personal writing problem.)

None of these stories ends well. Hadestown is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and ends, as it must, with Orpheus turning around and Eurydice being lost to him. Rogue One ends with every single one of the characters we’ve become invested in sacrificing themselves and dying. Cassandra is killed by Clytemnestra, alone and far from home. Sure, you could take any of these stories and follow the “how to listen to Into the Woods/Hamilton without crying” approach: just close the book or stop the movie or soundtrack halfway through, when everything is still hunky-dory. Where stories end, after all, is subjective — it all depends on how long you follow them.

But no. I like the endings of these stories, too. I don’t check out early. Partly, I think, because they’re cathartic, in the old-fashioned Aristotelean sense of the word. Belting along to a sad song or feeling my heart pound during a good action sequence feels good physically as well as emotionally. Each story is, to quote the Nerdwriter quoting Northrop Frye, “intelligible because its catastrophe is plausibly related to its situation.”

But I’ve also been coming back to a line from Hadestown, a sentiment that I echoed myself when trying to understand Cassandra and that runs through the end of Rogue One — and through many of my favorite horror movies. “It’s a love song / About someone who tries.”

Tragic heroes are traditionally heroes because they do everything in their power to do the right thing, the thing that will let them survive, the thing that defies fate — and they fail anyway. Hamlet tries to avenge his father and save Denmark — and fails. Oedipus tries to save his city and his family from destruction — and fails. The stories elicit pity, in that we feel the pain of the hero when they lose, and we fear for them as we watch them struggle, because we recognize what their great losses would mean to us if we experienced them.

I guess I find more pleasure in tragic stories where the heroes are overcome in spite of their best efforts, than I do in tragic stories where the heroes are overcome because they never had a chance. And it’s absolutely because I need to believe that trying, that striving for something, matters, even if the something is not achieved. I need to believe that because we beat health care repeal a few times, but the fight isn’t going away. And because the world’s getting hotter and the storms are getting worse and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and swathes of California are wrecked. And because I walk past a lot of homeless people in Seattle, and my friends are crowdfunding their medical care and their rent, and the world is just really hard to live in.

So I gotta believe trying makes a difference. That it bends the arc of the universe a little, or it saves that one seastar, or whatever.

Or maybe I just don’t like downer endings.

Recommended reading/watching/listening:

 

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To boldly go (a monologue)

Wow, I wrote this almost a year ago and never published it? Well. Better late than never. It seems to remain relevant.

A theatrical friend mentioned the quote below to me recently, and I ended up writing the following. It’s a little rough, as monologues go — it probably makes a better blog post. But I’m releasing it into the wild anyway; I’ve included a CCA license at the bottom that allows sharing and remixing.


The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is–it’s to imagine what is possible.
–bell hooks

JEAN: (Enters, wearing Spock ears. Addresses the crowd.) You ask people who the greatest artist of the English language is and people are like: Shakespeare. Or Dickens, or maybe Victor Hugo, ignoring the fact that he’s, you know, French . . . And they’ve all got their good points, but they’re all wrong. I’ll tell you who the greatest artist of the English language is. Okay?

It’s Gene Roddenberry.

And people think I’m joking, because come on, right. “Captain Kirk” Roddenberry? “Live long and prosper” Roddenberry? Y’know, “Khaaaaaaaan”? That guy?

Yeah. Star Trek: The Original Series is the most important dramatic work of art of the 20th century.

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A Year of Reading Diversely: Final Tally

One year ago, according to Facebook, my friends Jéhan and Heather challenged me to take the Tempest Bradford Challenge: for one year, stop reading stories by straight white cis male authors, and read only stories by people who identify as female/queer/POC/trans/disabled. I blogged about some of this under the tag “year of reading diversely“. So how’d we do?

Books Read

This is a mostly complete list; I wasn’t smart enough to start Goodreads page or anything because I figured I’d be blogging about each book, more fool me. Starred books are books I did not finish. ♥’d books are books I had read before.

  1. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
  2. Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson
  3. Fledgling, Octavia Butler*
  4. His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik
  5. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N. K. Jemisin*
  6. Under the Poppy, Kathe Koja*
  7. Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
  8. The Twilight Series, Stephenie Meyer*†
  9. The Vampire Diaries, L. J. Smith*†
  10. Dreamsnake, Vonda N. McIntyre ♥
  11. Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges
  12. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garbiel García Márquez*
  13. The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler
  14. Hurt Go Happy, Ginny Rorby
  15. Whose Body?, Dorothy Sayers
  16. Wind/Pinball, Haruki Murakami*
  17. Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie
  18. So You Want to Be a Wizard, Diane Duane* ♥
  19. Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers
  20. Strong Poison, Dorothy Sayers
  21. The Grown-Up, Gillian Flynn
  22. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
  23. The Door Into Fire, Diane Duane ♥
  24. Chalice, Robin McKinley ♥

†I include these for completeness’ sake and so you don’t get an idea that I was always terribly high-brow in my quest for authors. Also I read them for a job. No fooling.

Did I learn anything?

A few things about myself: I learned that audiobooks are awesome when you have long walking commutes, and that I read printed books a lot more when I have long transit commutes. I rediscovered a love of physical books that had waned for a while with the advent of smartphones. I learned that when left to my own devices, I reread favorite books a lot more than I seek out new stuff. I confirmed that I have almost zero interest in literary fiction, unless it’s genre fiction in literary drag, and even then it’s a tough sell. (Lookin’ at you, Borges and Márquez and Murakami. You too, Zimler.)

I learned a few things about access, too. I mentioned this in an earlier blog post, but one thing that happened was that I often had trouble getting copies of the books I wanted to read. I can get a copy of the latest James Patterson in any format I want with no waiting, but when I tried to get a copy of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in e-book format (twice), I had to get on a waiting list. Ditto Ann Leckie; ditto Naomi Novik. It seems like there’s a high demand for genre books by women, but the supply doesn’t necessarily keep up. (To counterpoint, though, I also had to get on the waitlist to get a copy of The Brothers K by David James Duncan — a straight white male author if ever there was one — but that probably had a lot to do with the fact that Book-It Repertory was producing a theatrical version of it (which was also why I broke the “no SWM author” rule to read it, because I was working on the play (which was also why I read Raymond Carver who is even more of a straight white male author than David James Duncan))).

It was also, generally speaking, easier for me to grab a book by a female author than by a male author of color. If I had nothing to go on besides a title and the name of an author I’d never heard of, I was more likely to go for a visibly female name than to try and figure out if a male author was not white or not straight. (Though I did try. Often that information is not easily available, for understandable reasons.) I don’t remember exactly how I got turned onto Richard Zimler, but I think it must have been a happy accident that I discovered he’s an openly gay Jewish author — otherwise it’s very likely I would have passed him by. As a result, I’m not totally satisfied with myself in that aspect of this challenge. My list of authors read is heavily skewed towards (presenting as straight and cis) white women. I’d like to read more genre fiction by men and women of color.

Reading so many female authors did throw two aspects of the male authors’ style into sharp relief, though: the writing of female characters and the writing of sex. In some cases — Borges — the women were non-existent. In some cases — Zimler, Murakami — they were written competently but with broader, less interesting strokes than the male characters. And in most of the books I read this year by male authors, I found the discussion of (always heterosexual) sex boring as hell.

[Computer shenanigans ate the final paragraphs here, which is okay because I wanted to edit in something anyway.]

But did you enjoy it?

I did, for lots of reasons! I read a lot of books that became new favorites: the Imperial Radch series, Binti, the Borges stories, and the Lord Peter Wimsey books feature high on that list. I read some books that I enjoyed while also having some problems with them: I liked the mystery and history in Last Kabbalist while finding the sex scenes off-putting, I liked the imagery and poetry of One Hundred Years of Solitude while finding the pace too slow for my taste, I liked the world-building of Left Hand of Darkness while also wanting to throw the book across a train at that one death. I read some books that I liked fine, but doubt I’ll reread.

Some books I bounced off of pretty hard. I didn’t enjoy Fledgling, despite enjoying Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis books a great deal. I know I need to give Murakami a second chance with something that’s not his first novel, because while I didn’t connect with Wind/Pinball, I found his foreword to the collection engaging and inspiring.

But I read so much more in the last year than I’ve read . . . honestly for years, maybe since my freshman year of college. I finished fifteen books! Eleven of them new to me! At some point I fell out of the habit of carrying a book with me everywhere, and in the past year I’ve gotten back into it. My library card has gotten a fantastic workout, and given SPL’s extensive audiobook collection on Overdrive and their Your Next 5 Books service, I expect to keep patronizing them.

So what’s next?

I’ll be honest, I’m looking forward to reading Stephen King again, especially with the Dark Tower movie slated for next year. I also want to give some of the books I didn’t finish another chance, and read some different stuff from the authors I didn’t quite connect with. And even as I pick up some of my favorite books up again, I want to keep this awareness of a wider range of voices in mind as I read more new-to-me stuff. Moreover, I want to carry it into the other stuff I read, not just fiction. Comics, plays, even research materials — I want to keep looking for the female, queer, non-white, disabled, non-Christian authors first.

I always say the solution to most problems is not to solely take away a bad thing: it’s to add more good things. It’s to tell more and more and more stories, not fewer — and it’s to hear more and more and more stories, too.

Now I am that funky soldier and I shall be free

(I love this Shawshank Redemption fanvid.)

I guess it’s time for a link round-up because I’m mad and sad and confused about a bunch of things and I don’t want to spam Facebook.

  1. To get it out of the way: 2016 has kicked off with some shitty, shitty losses.

    I’m just — sad. Death sucks. 69 feels very young. 69 feels like Rickman and Bowie still had decades of art to create. 69 feels unfinished.

    I take comfort in the fact that I got to share the world with artists like this, even if they died before our spheres had a chance to intersect. And I take them as inspiration. Alan Rickman especially. I often feel, at the ripe old age of 27 when tons of my friends are already walking red carpets and living their dreams as actors, that I’ve missed the boat, that it is now and always will be too late for me to get back into acting. If I haven’t made it by now, I’m never going to make it. And Alan Rickman’s acting success later in life gives me comfort. Meanwhile, David Bowie’s ability to do a little bit of everything reassures me that I can play around and experiment as an artist.

  2. David Bowie: Time to mourn or call out?, Aida Manduley
    Relatedly, this is a very good piece on grieving and yet not whitewashing a figure like David Bowie. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to figure out how to reconcile the fact that someone you know — personally or otherwise — can give you many good things and also cause harm, to you or to others. (I don’t think you can reconcile it, precisely, but you can learn to live with the cognitive dissonance.) Highly recommended reading.
  3. The white man pathology, Stephen Marche
    So this article has been making the rounds of some of my friends, and it seems to be resonating deeply with them. And I … confess myself confused, because I bounced off it. I’d like to hear what people think of it, and why. What’s resonating for you? Did parts of it surprise you or what?
  4. Why Are SO Many Millennials SO Uncool?, POWERevolution
    I’m so mad about this essay. SO MAD. I lost an hour and a half of sleep to being mad at this cooler-than-thou hipster nonsense.duty_callsSO MAD. So of course I’m going to link to it. Well done hitting my anger buttons, POWERevolution, and enjoy your hits.
  5. The Dark Tower Officially Casts Idris Elba as Roland Deschain

    pdc_idriselba5

    No, Idris! He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father!

    So at least there’s that.

A Year of Reading Diversely: Sister Mine

Previously on A Year of Reading Diversely.

sister-mineSister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson

Check it out if you enjoy: Someplace to Be Flying, Anansi Boys, urban fantasy that’s not about vampires

Buy it here!

Guys, I really like audiobooks. I got on the bandwagon kind of late, but since I’ve been doing most of my commuting on foot this summer, I’ve found they’re a great way to consume fiction on-the-go. (And considerably safer than my usual method of gluing my eyes to my phone while navigating Denny Way. Nothing has really changed since I was a kid, when my mom constantly told me to stop reading while I’m walking — only the medium.) But they do present a couple of challenge when it comes to reviewing. It’s harder to go back and reference stuff, for one thing; I don’t have spellings of names and places easily available, for another. Most of all, though, listening to someone read the book adds another layer of interpretation between me and the author’s words, and I have to take that into account when talking about my impressions of the book. So reviewing a novel I consumed on audiobook is a little more like reviewing a play or a movie: there are the author’s words, and there’s the performance and interpretation of the reader.

And but so anyway. Sister Mine is a 2013 urban fantasy novel by Jamaican author Nalo Hopkinson. The story centers around Makeda Joli and her sister, Abby. Abby and Makeda are formerly-conjoined twins with a fraught relationship, and they’re biracial — in that they’re half human and half god. Their father, Boysie, is Papa Bois, the Trinidadian god of living things; their mother, Cora, is a human woman. Well, was a human woman. She’s a lake monster now. It’s complicated. You know how gods are.

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A Year of Reading Diversely: Ancillary Justice

Recently, I asked my social circle for book recommendations — specifically genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror … basically anything that wouldn’t be called “literary” fiction by the New York Times), by authors who aren’t straight white men. My friend Jéhan mentioned K. Tempest Bradford’s challenge, which is based on the idea of reading only non-straight/cis/white/able-bodied/male authors for an entire year. At which my friend Heather, being a competitive sort, threw down the gauntlet and dared me to take up that challenge.

So here we go! A Year of Reading Diversely. First up:

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPAncillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Buy it here!

Check it out if you enjoy: Star WarsMass Effect, Battlestar Galactica, The Vorkosigan Saga

I started with Ancillary Justice because, well, I had a long list of authors and books, and Ancillary Justice was the first one that was actually available as an ebook from the Seattle Public Library. It seems telling to me that the very first thing I experienced when embarking on this challenge was an obstacle of accessibility. In many cases, SPL just straight-up does not have enough copies of books by authors from marginalized communities — women, LGBTQ people, people of color — to keep up with demand. I’m delighted to know that so many people in Seattle want to read Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler, sure. But just as many people must want to read Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I was able to get immediately. Obviously there are best-selling authors from marginalized communities that I can check out easily, like Suzanne Collins, but my “Recommended for you” screen includes starts with James Dashner, Dan Brown, and George R. R. Martin.

Anyway, on to the actual book.

Ancillary Justice is told from the point of view of One Esk (alias Breq), an ancillary: a human body inhabited by a fragment of an AI that once ran a warship called the Justice of Toren. The novel opens with the narrator on a remote planet in the Radch empire, where she discovers one of her former captains lying beat-up in the snow outside a bar. For much of the first half of the novel, the narrative switches between Breq’s attempts to find a reclusive doctor with her extremely unhelpful captain in tow, and an extended flashback to Justice of Toren‘s time on a newly-annexed planet.

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emerge (v).

Here’s a thing I learned today! The verb “emerge” comes from the Latin emergere, from the roots “ex-,” meaning “out” and “mergere,” meaning “to dip or sink,” so the verb “emerge” creates an image of something coming up out of liquid. Snazzy.

This is relevant because next week I get to emerge onto Seattle stages as a writer, as part of the Intiman Emerging Artists Showcase — August 4-6 at the Center House in the Armory, 7:30 PM each night. (Admission is free! Just RSVP here.)

image

Look at this attractive and talented group of artists! Damn, son, that is a fine looking group of artists.

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