Scholar, writer, editor

Tag: musings

What next, as we all have become Cassandra

I’ve started writing this countless times now. And to tell the truth, I am not quite sure what to say or how I even feel about the election. It is an odd space to be in as someone whose job was at different points covering news, or commenting on current events. Its an odd space still for someone with my varied research interests, who writes for a living, because right now the words just won’t come, or they continue to feel laden with the curse of Hecuba’s daughter. And so I join the ranks of unwilling Cassandras, screaming into various voids, unable to be heard by those unwilling to listen, to believe what their own eyes would show them if they would only look.

I guess, first, is that I can’t quite seem to stop holding my breath; its not over until there is a concession, until we see the change and the damages undone in a way that they may never be done again. I am scared for the people who I care for who are more marginalized than I am, because they are watching a lot of allies who no longer themselves feel threatened take the results of this election as a win, instead of a harbinger of how much there is left to fight for. I’m tired of analyses from the outside with no context of the greater complexities or histories behind the current state of things, of the questions, the disbelief of where we actually are, of being forced to give time, energy, and credence to the privilege of other people’s shock, and feeling obligated to listen and respond nonetheless. And yet, there remains an overwhelming weight of resignation: what is the point of writing, of speaking, if it is always going to have to be fettered and constrained by other people’s understanding, especially those who don’t know or recognize the depths of work they have to do to not make these moments feel inherently violent, to not make these conversations add to the threat I have felt for years, or recognize that what they put me through, so too have at least 50 other people as their token whatever box they have stuck me in at any given time.

And under the resignation, the smallest rise of audacious hope as I heard the newly elected leaders speak; the conflict and emotion of seeing two people whose policies I fundamentally find too weak, too flawed, and too conservative to meet the needs of the current moment speak and yet bring hope simply through the appearance of competence. And realizing that as much as I need to punch back at the centrist middle ground rhetoric for the danger it poses, 10 year old me needed so badly to see that woman on that stage, to hear Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris say:

“So Congressman John Lewis, Congressman John Lewis, before his passing, wrote: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” And what he meant was that America’s democracy is not guaranteed. It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it, to guard it and never take it for granted. And protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice. But there is joy in it, and there is progress. Because we the people have the power to build a better future…Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before, but know that we will applaud you every step of the way.”

from “Transcript: kamala Harris’s victory speech

I still, several days later, cannot read that without crying. I cannot deny how gratifying it was to in a single person see the definition of what it means to be from my country expanded so much. I cannot forget the lightbulb moment, seeing her in white, of understanding why I eschew color so much, why I wear so much black to blend in and efface my difference, elide my comparative darkness which is so stark in lighter colors, why I have remained so hesitant and afraid to stand out. I cannot deny the empowerment of being given permission this far into my life to be myself, unapologetically, through a new reflection of what I might have one day strived to become if I could have ever seen that image of success as possible.

And yet I still know it is not enough; Harris might embody a new story, but as N. K. Jemisin has recently pointed out in an incredible Twitter thread, we do not know how to tell better stories than what we are up against, and too many people are too willing to buy into their own feel-good stories and simple narratives about what went wrong instead of looking at all the hard fixes, the should-dos, and the ways in which they themselves might be culpable in the ills of the nation. The Overton window keeps shifting right and the people who are not under direct threat keep accepting it all as normal without even noticing that the rights affirmed in the 1960s have been systematically chipped away in every way since then – and those dragging the country back to a time when many nations were banned from immigration and only certain people had the right to vote or even live in certain areas are aiming to take away even more. Instead, they fixate on phrasing that scares them and fight it and dismiss it even though they have no idea what it refers to nor do they have the presence of mind to learn about it before reacting. And they pull the conversation to their fears, and away from the people those conversations are meant to protect and liberate. The moderates and centrists we’re meant to appeal to, who dominate every damn analysis on the air right now, do not know that they do not know how to dream, and see any potential difference as a nightmare. And the rest of us look to the impeding nightmare, and wonder how far down this road we will need to go for them to wake up, if they ever will.

I’ve spent six years now actively, if not longer in truth, watching people turn away, turn to conspiracies, bury their heads in whatever comforting lies they need to in order to keep their days ‘normal’ their connections with others ‘civil’, and feeling the sense of doom rising. When faced with the unfathomable they turn to the stories that shore them up individually instead of grasping the pen and creating new ones that might give safe harbor to everyone. And so I guess I remain among the ranks of unwilling Cassandras; we are many, often women, often marginalized in some way, often othered one way or another, still fighting to be heard, to encourage people to step forward into truth so that a new reality might be built once the one we are actually in is faced. But I cannot force anyone to look any more than I can for them to see, nor can force anyone to hear us any more than I can beseech them to listen. I can only hope, in the most audacious ways, that there will be a lesson learned from the history we know before we become ourselves even more of a cautionary tale.

Beginnings and Endings (and beginnings again)

I remember when I used to be a lot more active, I would go open water or lake swimming or running early in the morning with friends, and I would be so hungry afterwards that I would eat a four egg omelette, pancakes or waffles, bacon, a fruit smoothie, and either orange juice or tea or coffee afterwards. There was this feeling of joyous depletion afterwards, of having worked hard and pushed my limits, and an awe of what a body took to function after that kind of expenditure. That part of my life is over for now, but I felt that hunger again this week – after the successful defense of my dissertation with minor corrections, the culmination of either three years or a lifetime of mental preparation come to fruition.

As an ending, this was a beautiful moment. I had one of the best conversations of my life with two people I greatly respect, while marveling at the amount of interest that people like them might take in the things I find most interesting. I cannot express how grateful I am to my examiners for this, or how much I am still buzzing from it, even as it all blurs together in the following days. It was also a complete turn around from how I felt when I arrived in Cambridge three years ago, very lost and overwhelmed and unsure of what I was going to do. It has been a long road, but in that online meeting room, I could understand how much growth I have experienced, and how much I have found myself on the journey.

My dissertation finished in such a different space than it began, in terms of its topic, the angles, and what I wanted to do with it. I feel very accomplished with what I produced, what I learned that I wanted to say with my experience and my time. And at the same time, my viva showed me how much more there still was to say on these topics, how many more articles I still might write while considering further future directions. But what I am most grateful for is how at the end of almost two hours of talking about it, I realized how much I love what I do – the work of academia in terms of the research, the writing, the deep thinking about everything and tracing all the different little threads as they weave themselves together. It was both exhausting and energizing.

I was expecting to feel like I was walking off the edge of a cliff – a sense of, well, what next? And to be honest, I’m not feeling that way at all. It could be, in part, that the viva is not really the end – just the beginning of the end. There are still the corrections, the approval of those corrections, getting the hardbound copies, and graduating (most likely in absentia for me given the state of the world). And yet, it is also a profound new beginning. In ten days, I’ve got a slightly altered name and I’ve changed titles twice: from Ms. to Mrs. and now, Dr. I’m no longer in that half-existence of apprenticeship; I can hold my own and join these conversations that are much bigger than my own ideas, and continue to learn, but also, help others learn and think about things in new ways. All the open space ahead, all the possibility to come, is exciting.

There is another layer of new beginnings; the hunger to do more, to learn more, and then the hunger of the day after the viva, of realizing the depths to which I had to reach to do this thing, and achieve this goal. And I know this is not sustainable. That feeling of hunger and depletion was a welcome marker of what had been done, and that this has been a long process of hard work, which I have trouble acknowledging. And it was good work, which I also have trouble acknowledging. So the hardest thing as I am resting and starting to feel more relaxed, has been to not let myself jump straight back in, not keep acting like I’m fighting to prove that I am enough on some undefined measure to do what I do with my life and my time. Rest is a hard habit to learn; to let my mind recover so that my body can recover, until I am ready to start again, and this time, learn to work at a different pace. A friend recommended a book called Rest to be read in the time between hand in, and the wedding and the viva, and a few weeks ago I would have thought it was just good advice. Rest in order to work better. But now, it is realizing that rest is about living, having space to live around the work. And if I can use the next few months to learn that around a small handful of already existing projects and deadlines, without adding any (realistically speaking, too many) more, I am going to be set up better for longer in whatever adventure comes next. That’s the other beginning at play here: not finding the next thing, but beginning the next phase of my life the way I mean to go on. There is no cliff edge, no uncertainty, just many potential ways forward. The viva process as a beginning is, for me, truly a beautiful one, even as it means I am on some level saying goodbye to something, or even, someone I used to be.

I am going to hold on to October 2020 as a bunch of beautiful moments. Success and joy, endings and beginnings coming together in ways I could not have imagined even a year ago. Trust me, as I am now a doctor of things fantastic and Disney fairy tale, there is so much more potential to be claimed from life, from things that bring joy and are fulfilling, that deplete us in a good way so we learn how we are strong and might be built back up. We gain from the things that make us hungry, for knowledge, or food, or community, or anything else, because when that hunger is sated again, we will grow from that experience, and most importantly, we learn what it is we crave and what will satiate us. And from there, we can always begin again.

Your childhood faves are probably problematic – and we can learn from that

A few months ago, I made one of my normal screaming-into-the-void posts somewhere on social media about how, in light of a certain author of a certain Wizarding World’s TERFy statements, I was personally okay with being done with those products as a source of comfort (except for a vested interest in close reading them academically or as a cultural critic). It provoked some strong responses, both from people currently affected by the recent intolerance, and those who had reasons for why the author’s statements did not bother them. I was reminded again how art and cultural, and study and response to them, are not neutral, and how much individual positionality matters in media consumption and criticism.

As a child I rarely fell into liking things because they were popular. If not for my fiancé’s family’s insistence at the first Christmas I spent with them, I probably would have gone my whole life having never watched a single Star Wars film. Loving the Harry Potter books happened gradually. I was given the second as a birthday gift when I was in elementary school, and by the time the films were coming out, was swept up in both the cultural moment and what became a family tradition of enjoying these stories together. But the idea that Hogwarts was my “home” too, or somehow open to people like me? That never quite rang true. You see, when you’re young and you’re used to not seeing yourself represented in books or on screens, when you’re aware of the stereotypes deployed for not only your own kind of otherness, but other kinds as well, you become quietly aware of the absences. You swallow them – what else are you going to do? But that bitter taste never quite fades, nor does the subtle sadness of other peoples’ failure to see that absence. In my case, as with many, you put it aside, justify it, and try to celebrate the bigger, broader messages of hope and inclusion with the rest. But its a conscious choice. And at a certain point, we have to stop making that choice to hurt ourselves through exclusion, to accept the bad justifications for how we are written out of existence. Making that choice often means looking back at beloved things and saying, yes, I loved this. But yes, it is also wrong or harmful in many ways. I am convinced, in my paltry thirty years on the planet, that this is the only way that we can learn to build better art, culture, literature, or anything else.

The moral binaries that undergird Western European and North American (WENA) societies mean that it is hard to accept the paradigms where both sides of the paradigm can be equally true. After all, a moral binary implies that something must be either good or bad, and once that judgement is determined, then one might go forward with further analysis. But accepting multiple paradigms can lead to different conclusions, and can lead to industry growth rather than so-called culture wars seeded in most cases in this day and age by the far right (or in this specific case, TERFs in the UK who claim to be upholding feminism). Yes, the Wizarding World has been a phenomenon on many counts and people all over the world have found acceptance in this fantasy space when they needed it most. Yes, it simultaneously has always had massive problems with anti-Semetic tropes (the goblins), tokenism and stereotype in how it has handled diverse representation, erasure of LGBTQ representation, embedded misogyny, really twisted depictions of facism on both sides of its moral line, and as it has expanded its internal world to North America, has engaged in serious and damaging fictionalization and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. And yet, criticisms have largely been written off until the present moment, when the author herself through her statements on trans rights and identity has made it impossibly to ignore these embedded biases, and maybe reconsider the arguments that any of these things were simply accidental or oversights. Art and literature cannot be separated from the maker in this case; but there is a lesson to be had in problematizing childhood favorites from this situation.

Often when a work is problematized one of the most bandied about retorts is that it is “of its time” – from the racism of Dr. Seuss to the whitewashing of early Disney, to considerations of Shakespeare’s works and why medieval studies are so consumed by whiteness, to all of the nonsense in Tolkien’s worlds. We cut authors and creators a lot of slack by asserting that in comparison we live in a far more progressive era, and those who came before simply didn’t know better (whether due to the time they lived in or their relative geography i.e. the continued use of and defense of Blackface in Europe). I personally have a very hard time believing that platitude on two counts. First, we have enough historical counter-perspectives to accepted and manipulated hegemonic histories that asserting anything general about any period of history in terms of attitude towards anything like race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. is just lazy and bad praxis. Second, such statements give us in modernity far too much credit: we don’t actually live like we know better today.

The amount of resistance to the idea of needing to revisit things that hold nostalgia for ourselves personally and better come to terms with the fact that just because we ourselves might love them doesn’t mean that they did not also cause harm to others, does not bode well for the creation of a more enlightened, progressive society being built in the current moment. Especially when it comes to works of children’s literature, media, or family-oriented traditions that center on a conception of or focus on childhood, we need to learn to hold both criticism and nostalgia simultaneously.

One of the challenges of this, of course, is that criticism of something that feels formative to us, can also feel like a criticism of ourselves. Especially in academia, we become so good at separating the self from what we choose to analyze and how, that we can lose sight of how much our selves actually impact our work and how we approach different media phenomena. But academics or not, we need to learn to grapple with this challenge, in order to have a better response to someone else saying , ‘hey, this thing you like? it hurts me.’ Fundamentally, “this hurts me” (even if it is not put in those exact words) is a very different statement from “this offends me” or “I don’t like this,” and yet, more often than not, our reactions to criticisms of a beloved, nostalgic thing are much more in line with the latter two statements. We need to be better at stepping outside ourselves and listening, in general, to other peoples’ pain. It is hard but it is necessary.

For example, can we imagine for a moment if, when a Black woman was cast as Hermione in the Cursed Child stage play, in the face of the backlash Rowling’s ret-conning that the character was always meant to be able to be imagined as Black was not accepted as some kind of magnanimous answer. Because the truth is that Hermione had been depicted in sanctioned illustrations for many years prior, and not as a Black child. Such retconning simply allowed Rowling to sidestep the scandal, allowed fans to justify the whitewashing of the Wizarding World (if all your diversity involves token stereotypes including the Irish boy with a penchant for making things go boom, you have created a world that demands problematizing), and lost us an opportunity to push the gatekeepers of the publishing world to do better – and in doing so cause less future harm. The same issue comes to mind regarding the retconning of Dumbledore as gay; every time those of us not directly affected by an instance of stereotype or misrepresentation excuse it, we contribute to causing harm to the people who do feel directly harmed by such representation and the accompanying excuses.

Children’s and young adult literature and media sometimes feels like it contains the highest stakes regarding this issue, both because it is current and evolving, and because nostalgic feelings run high. Attachment to fictional worlds is strong precisely because when we find one that fits, it can feel that much more real than our own spaces. But it is precisely because this current moment is ripe for evolution, growth, and change, that learning to sit with the discomfort of recognizing that we can both like something, and that that thing might be problematic, becomes that much more important. Understanding that we need to reconsider what we put on pedestals as a society, that we need to interrogate things that become landmarks in the mediascape despite – or in fact because of – popularity will lead to a better mediascape, one that is sorely overdue. If we start to look carefully at the last thirty or fifty odd years of media, there is probably much that needs to be put under a different lens, and handled critically. A lot of old favorites will probably have moments that make us wince or cringe today. And that is okay – so long as we are willing to see those moments and learn how to do better from them, and not brush them aside as we continue to enjoy these things, but rather, continue to confront them.