Joy Post: This Week’s Favourite Media

Nine days into a tricky work schedule, I’m having a rough time not letting my exhaustion get the best of my mental state, which possibly explains the melancholy nature of my “joy” selections this week–but hey, a) it’s nice to know one’s not alone with certain feelings, and b) look! Week Two of this type of post! I can almost call it a series now. Almost.

Netflix Event: Maria Bamford’s Old Baby

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I watched two comedy shows this week that played with location–Bamford’s, and Vir Das’s Abroad Understanding. Das gives nearly identical comedy sets in two different venues–a small New York comedy house and a huge stage in New Delhi–and generally uses his platform to advance a globalist approach to the human experience, while mostly teasing Americans for, well, America. Not everything lands (e.g. throwaway jokes about Africa), and I had to push myself to wait out the opening guitar number, but there are quite a few good laughs, and the overall message is optimistic–which is why my pick this week is Bamford’s set instead.

Bamford also plays with location, aided by the excellent directing of Jessica Yu, in a way that offers its own, understated commentary. Bamford–a versatile voice actor playing dozens of parts on Adventure Time–has bipolar spectrum disorder, a diagnosis I share. But whereas I simply become furious with myself three or four times yearly for wanting so much to engage with the world, when I know full well the impossibility of ever being understood, and the greater likelihood that I’m just doing harm to myself and others in the process… she has centred, in her artistic practice, that relentless wavering between wanting to connect through performance and wanting to crawl away and never risk engaging with another human again.

In this special, she starts in front of a mirror and the tiny audience of a living room, counselling viewers who were dragged to this Netflix special and who are already irritated by her voice to take a victory lap, secure in the knowledge that they’ve been good people in indulging their friends this far. As the special develops, so too does the size of her audience, and with it, the force and verve of her comedy–but never her confidence with self-promotion at post-show merch stands. The seamless interweaving of locations with material allows her comedy to reflect her own, relentlessly changing relationship with pursuing this career at all–and without coming to definitive conclusions; without finding “peace” in the end. As such, it made for precisely the reminder I needed this week, that struggling and not giving up is still possible.

Poetry: Safia Elhillo’s The January Children (2017)

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Technically, I read this book as part of one of my side-jobs, but I was so glad I had. I was fortunate to have a translator help mediate this text on two accords–first, through cultural references like Abdelhalim Hafez, who plays a huge role in this work; and second, after my reading, through explaining some of the Arabic phrasing. Even without full comprehension of all the language in these bilingual poems, though, the work sings. Elhillo, a Sudanese slam-poet-turned-page-poet, especially excels at presenting the free-associative chaos of memories and experiences trapped between languages and cultures, while remaining, by and large, cleverly in control of how this effect is managed on the page. Where gaps in comprehension exist (for this non-Arabic speaker), the poems instead invite conversation on, and reflection about, what it means to live in such gaps all the time. I was highly moved by a number of individual pieces in this collection, but also the strength of will with which Elhillo reclaims reductive identity labels and life in the diaspora throughout.

Graphic Novel: Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This (2017)

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Memoir is a huge sub-genre of graphic novels, and I’ve read my share of fair to middling specimens. This one, though–this one stands out for reasons I’m not certain I can do justice to with words alone. Suffice it to say, Imagine Wanting Only This is a reflection on all the ways in which things can end in even a gentle life, an “easy” life (and our protagonist does have the means to brood in some pretty fancy changes of scenery), and how one carries those losses as questions not meant to be answered in full. Our protagonist meditates on this theme through the loss of a relative, the stages of loss in a young relationship, the inherited health risks that loom over everything in her life, and the ways in which other people she stumbles into–strangers, really, out of time and space–have lost themselves in their own attempts to understand and immortalize loss. It was a mesmerizing hour’s read, and a testament to the author’s understanding of the distinct benefits that text and image can bring to the same page.

Music: Perfume Genius‘s “Slip Away”

I came to Perfume Genius from the song “Queen” on Mr. Robot‘s TV-show soundtrack last year, and Mike Hadreas just released a new albumNo Shape, this week. On the one hand, I resonate with this work for pretty unsubtle reasons: I read a familiar ache into Hadreas’s overtly queer-theatric music videos. Granted, everyone across the queer continuum has distinct issues (bisexual female persons like myself, for instance, face higher rates of a whole spate of health problems, which seem at least in part to stem from a lack of full safety and belonging among both queer and straight communities), but I feel there’s a fear of something being especially doomed about queer love that male-queer persons seem especially well-situated to convey in art. (Perhaps because gay culture has been haunted for decades by HIV’s impact on one’s sense of life prospects? Or perhaps because male portraits of queer experience have a more prominent place in the canon? Or perhaps I’m just stereotyping–who can say for sure!)

On the other hand, though, when Hadreas’ music veers towards–well, euphoria–as this piece does, it feels earned in a way that musical acts more frequently centred around the free-wheeling happiness of human interaction (for me) don’t. Put simply: I smiled a lot this week thanks to this piece’s place on my soundtrack.

And… on that note, it’s time for me to finish a book review before running the bookstore for the day, then coming home to mark and tackle course prep for the week. I didn’t have time for full works of fiction or proper films this past week–but I’ve got my eye on a collection of journalistic character portraits and a handful of wonderful speculative stories, plus one movie I’ve been looking forward to for a while.

Wherever your own readings and viewings find you, I hope there is at least joy in the little things in your lives these days. All best wishes for the work to come.

Why “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” Is Bullshit, and Writers Need To Do Better

I cleared this blog a few weeks ago, when I realized I needed to reflect long and hard on who I am and who I want to be.

The 2016 US Presidential Election has answered some of those questions in ways that do not invite further hesitation or doubt.

When I was in undergrad, I came across Margaret Atwood’s “The Writer’s Responsibility.” It was the first time I saw an acknowledgment of Canadian literature’s awkward position in the world. I got chills reading that

[w]e live in a society in which the main consensus seems to be that the artist’s duty is to entertain and divert, nothing more. Occasionally our critics get a little heavy and start talking about the human condition, but on the whole the audience prefers art not to be a mirror held up to life but a Disneyland of the soul, containing Romanceland, Spyland, Pornoland, and all the other Escapelands which are so much more agreeable than the complex truth. … We are good at measuring an author’s production in terms of his craft. We are not good at analyzing it in terms of his politics, and by and larger we do not do so.

And later, that

Oppression involves a failure of the imagination: the failure to imagine the full humanity of other human beings. If the imagination were a negligible thing and the act of writing a mere frill, as many in this society would like to believe, regimes all over the world would not be at such pains to exterminate them.

These words gave license to my preference for European literature over North American literature. My favourite writers were people who treated fiction as just one piece of a broader, more urgent social conversation, carried out in equal part by works of philosophy, political discourse, contemporary journalism, and dialogue within the streets. I wanted to write like these seemingly effortless internationalists, but how?

It would be years before I realized that Atwood’s essay closed doors even as it opened them. For all that her words ennoble the writer’s profession, they do so in a fashion that simultaneously limits our understanding of fellow human beings. Thus she writes that

[w]e in this country should use our privileged position not as a shelter from the world’s realities but as a platform from which to speak. Many are denied their voices; we are not. A voice is a gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech if possible.

Now, Atwood is certainly not to the first to express such sentiments; the concept is right out of Proverbs 31:8, “Open thy mouth for the dumb.” But damned if this presumption of voicelessness doesn’t construct a universe in which some are “gifted” with voice and some are “silent.” How easy it then becomes to speak over the voices that absolutely do exist in even the most oppressive global circumstances–and further, to assume that just because we haven’t heard X’s story before, it must be because of X’s silence, which thankfully we’re now here to rectify.

During the 2016 US Presidential Election, many voices arose within marginalized groups. Whole discourses about the state of North America’s social contract rose and fell within communities of (among others) Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, persons with disabilities, queer persons, female/feminized persons, Muslim Americans, recent and X-generational immigrants, the working poor, and trauma survivors.

On November 8, these voices were not silenced. They were simply (and devastatingly) not reflected by the power structure voted into office. These voices continue–even now–to march in the streets; to mobilize on social media and in local communities; to speak out.

So what do we really mean when we think about “giving voice” as writers?

Atwood’s “platform” analogy poses an answer by inferring–but only inferring–the existence of an audience. And yet, this is really the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Whose ear are we desperately hoping to reach? To whom do Canadian writers speak?

If it is to the world, then we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of speaking other people’s experiences at them, and from a place of greater security. If it is to ourselves, though–to awaken ourselves to the world and its needs–then the question becomes: Why aren’t we all in the audience, listening and learning? And are there options, as Canadian storytellers, above and beyond taking turns listening to each other narrate the world?

Of course there are.

And the onus lies on writers and educators alike to employ them.

Simply put: It does not suffice to write characters who are “fully human” unto themselves. This is a basic condition of writing competently–whether the characters in question come from communities down the street from the author, or halfway across the globe.

What we need are stories that bring whole other discourses along with our “fully human” characters from other contexts, other worlds, other already vocal communities.

We need to write characters who are plainly products of and ongoing participants in their own literatures–and we need to be aware of, and include, those other literatures, those other dialogues, when we attempt to assemble other people’s worlds whole-cloth.

We need to convey that our role is not to write other people’s stories, not to use the platform of the written word to aggrandize ourselves through the invention of other voices, but to create higher vantage points from which to identify other platforms, other audiences already engaged in their own, immense narrative streams.

It is not enough to awaken the reader to the existence of other human beings and their struggles. It is also a necessary condition of the work–now, as always–to foreground that other human beings had voices of their own long before we came around, and that good literature is a matter of truly listening to, not speaking for, the world on whole.

Our job is to leave readers with a greater awareness of the existence of other platforms, and with our own writing to direct these readers more fearlessly towards them.

And that may take some time. Other ways of thinking, and being, and persevering, will not come easily. We will try–whether we mean to or not, in keeping with the natural cadence of our work–to synthesize, compartmentalize, and otherwise “resolve” dissonant voices within the confines of our own traditions, our native vocal preferences.

Nevertheless, we must write in ways that open doors to whole other ongoing and longstanding conversations, and we must speak about our writing process in these ways, too: with explicit reference to others doing similar work already. Our inspirations. Our ongoing reading list. Our well-springs of vital information about the world.

We cannot signal-boost enough in the coming days, and weeks, and years. There are too many people, at home and abroad, for whom the maintenance of a full and equal humanity under the law relies on people in positions of greater social power paying attention to the many voices who’ve been speaking out all along.

But oh, can we try.

And we will.