Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Available for purchase here.

Perhaps it’s because Game of Thrones just ended so spectacularly, and introduced possibly the greatest of all it’s characters to date, Lady Lyanna Mormont, but her actress, Bella Ramsey, is the only person I can imagine doing justice to Nimona should a live-action adaptation come to fruition. There has never been a more badass young girl onscreen than Ramsey and there is no one else equal to Stevenson’s titular adorable anti-villain.

Nimona takes place in a universe that combines medieval fantasy tropes with cutting edge science fiction, where heroism and villainy are matters of assignment, and everything is held together with a healthy dose of quirk. Magic exists alongside science, old time jousting is organized by modern bureaucratic methods, and the most moral character is Lord Ballister Blackheart, the designated villain with a long history of going tete-a-tete with Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, the handsome but bumbling and amoral hero.

Nimona is a young shapeshifter with a penchant for dark deeds who wrangles herself a sidekick apprenticeship with Blackheart, who loses focus on his allegedly dastardly plans trying to rein in Nimona’s more evil tendencies and minimize the loss of life that tends to follow her around. Blackheart is further thwarted by Goldenloin (think of them as the MCU’s Thor and Loki, with even more gay subtext and way less fraternal complications) his friend turned enemy, and Nimona’s refusal to submit to his experimentation to discover the source of her shapeshifting powers.

While almost thoroughly delightful, Nimona packs an emotional wallop. We spend most of our time with the irascible heroine and her boss having adventures, but Stevenson doesn’t ignore the implications of the universe she’s created. Blackheart and Goldenloin’s friendship has been torn asunder, and Nimona is an abandoned child–when the series veers into serious territory it’s all the more heartbreaking.

If there was one thing I’d change, I’d ask only that the gay subtext be actual text. Otherwise, this delightfully subversive comic hits all the points of a feminist fantasy.

Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie

Available for purchase here.

Westerners, myself included, have a tendency to lump all of the Middle East into a single image, one supported by mainstream media and political agendas. Pakistan is Afghanistan is Iraq, and so on and so forth. And while those cultures have grown up with our great artists and writers as their cultural touchstones, we rarely return the favor, which is of greatest detriment to ourselves, because we are missing out on truly engaging, beautiful work.

Shamsie is a contemporary writer whose novel Broken Verses examines life in immediate post 9/11 Karachi, where the heroine, Aasmaani, is working for Pakistan’s first independent television station. Aasmaani is an upper class woman, well-educated, living alone although very close to her sister and brother-in-law. On the surface, she seems to have everything going for her, great career, a loving father, a stepmother who treats her like her own daughter, and a burgeoning romance with one of her producers, but in reality she is haunted by the disappearance of her mother some fourteen years earlier.

Aasmaani’s mother, Samina Akram, was a feminist famed throughout Pakistan as much for her activism as her relationship with the Poet, an incendiary writer known only by his moniker. When Aasmaani was fourteen, the Poet was beaten and kidnapped, presumed dead. Two years later, her mother disappeared.

Disappearance was par for the course for Samina, who spent Aasmaani’s childhood in and out of exile in various countries for her political actions. It’s a fascinating dichotomy–Samina flees to escape persecution, but Aasmaani can easily access her on school holidays. The final disappearing act, however, is for all intents and purposes, permanent, and modern-day Aasmaani lives her life under the assumption that her mother is dead.

After the launch of the quiz show Aasmaani works for goes live, she begins to receive letters written in her mother and the Poet’s secret code, stoking the fire of hope that one of them is still alive. Aasmaani descends into the world she’s left behind, a delicate balance between power and persecution that shadows the brilliance of her otherwise bright, happy life. As much as the dangers around searching for her lost family her inner demons threaten to bring her down, and the whole story is a beautiful blend of internal and external struggle.

Light hints of the story lend a personal touch to the global struggle faced by Middle Eastern Muslims. Aasmaani’s love interest talks about his time in New York, a city he lived in and loved, which ceased to love him back after 9/11. Combined with a few short interludes about what it’s like to work during the day while celebrating Ramadan (hint: everyone is grouchy) helps make the Pakistani setting more real and vibrant than a hundred biased news reports.

Quiet by Susan Cain

Available for purchase here.

Extroversion is prized in nearly every American subculture–school, church, big business. Even the most modern and purportedly forward thinking environments are organized around the concept of collaboration and shared expression, which are not inherently bad but are a minefield for introverts, myself included.

Introverts are people depleted by social interaction, who require time alone to rejuvenate, recharge, and rest. Extroverts gain energy from others and are depleted by being alone. All things being equal, introverts and extroverts would exist in perfect symbiosis, but of course, we live in a world where we prize certain traits and de-value the opposite. And our world is structured to the needs and strengths of extroverts.

Women are often expected to be extroverts: to be charming and witty and exhibit great social grace. Women and introverts are often treated like niche communities, despite collectively making up 50% of the population (women) and at least 1/3 of the population (introverts). And good luck negotiating the social landscape if you happen to be both.

Cain’s book examines both the biological and cultural roots of introversion (famous introverts include Steve Wozniak, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Tina Fey, Vincent Van Gogh, J.K. Rowling, Audrey Hepburn, Martha Minow, and Susan Cain herself), once a celebrated–or at least, respected–personality type that’s been increasingly stereotyped as “shy”, “weird”, and “anti-social” as our society has moved more and more towards the nature of shared space–both physical and intellectual.

Even though some of the great artistic, scientific, and academic achievements in the world have come from introverts, and even though we have evidence suggesting biologic predisposition as well as cultural conditioning, the fact remains that introverts are asked to justify ourselves in a way that extroverts are not.

It’s exhausting when part of one’s identity falls under scrutiny and stereotypes. Introverts face a pale shade of the imbalance faced by more egregiously marginalized groups–poc, LGBTQIA+ folks, the differently abled–but they are among those groups as well, and the more we insist that someone justify themselves due to a label, the greater difficulty we place on someone who already has to live within a marginalized identity. So, if you are an extrovert, the onus is on you to learn more about us. We already live in a world built for you.

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Available for purchase here.

Amanda Palmer is one of those people who’s so unreservedly cool she inspires immediate awkwardness in people like me. I deliberate, she decides. She finds jobs that will allow her to pursue her art until she reaches the point where she can support herself on her art, while people like me just sort of marvel at her ability to do so.

This, of course, is the kind of binary thinking her book The Art of Asking seeks to dismantle. Palmer may be unabashedly cool–and in fact, reading her book makes her seem even more so, but she’s also unflinchingly honest about her struggles as an artist and just as a person. She examines everything from the new sharing economy brought about by sites like Kickstarter to the inherent offer of dignity in accepting a gift to how questions shape a marriage to feeling like an imposter the whole time.

“Imposter Syndrome” is a real thing, the voice in our heads telling us we’re faking it even when everything outside our minds is telling us we’re good: at our jobs, at our relationships, at life. And it’s incredibly reassuring to know that someone like Palmer lives with it, despite all she’s done (short list: performance art, collaborative and solo musical acts, modeling, writing) because if the voice in her head is still shouting her down, it’s a good indicator that it’s more aligned with our insecurities than any actual reality.

Palmer’s life has taken so many twists and turns off the beaten path it’s amazing how relatable she remains. Her work as an artist means she is inherently asking of her fans: their time, their money, their attention. And coming from a privileged position, she struggles with the responsibility that comes from that request. She’s slept in the homes of people who had to double up on beds to accommodate her and her tour, she’s taken gifts from people who have little to give but freely offered anyway.

Refusing an offer sincerely given often comes from a place of love. We don’t want to take from those who have little to give, but there’s a beauty and dignity in taking that which we are offered, especially when the person offering has limited opportunity to be generous with what they have. When we deny a gift given in kindness, we do more harm than good.

Palmer’s struggle with acceptance makes up only one half of the overarching theme of The Art of Asking. She also struggles to articulate her needs, and imparts an important lesson: if you don’t tell people what you want, they can’t give it to you. One incident she relays after she and her husband Neil Gaiman (yes, that Neil Gaiman) suffer a personal tragedy strikes particularly hard. Gaiman is withdrawn and silent, Palmer is aching for some affection and reassurance. She summons up her courage and tells him she needs a cuddle and discovers that Gaiman grew up in an environment where he was taught that when people are sad they need space and quiet–in short, he took from her what she needed precisely because he didn’t know she needed it.

Palmer’s narrative is as warm and fuzzy as her stage presence is raw and aggressive. Reading her book feels like having a deep conversation with a wise best friend. She touches on human realities as well as artistic ones: she laments that her mother, a former computer programmer, never got the recognition she deserved for the creativity of her work, even from her professionally creative daughter. She deals with the reality of having a May December friendship and the implications of losing one of the foremost relationships/guideposts of her life, and has to deal with the ugly reality of rape culture when two concert attendants use her open trust and fondness for nudity as an opportunity to violate her. Even outside the creative fields, her writing has a very human reality.

Amanda Palmer TED talk

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Available for purchase here.

Fanfiction is, for those who don’t know, are stories written by fans of a given work (Lord of the Rings, Sailor Moon, the Avengers, etc.) using the characters and setting to create an original work. It’s a subculture with whole websites devoted to it, and exceptional writers have fan bases similar to those of the original authors and actors.

Fanfiction can be the subject of ridicule, even within the parameters of geek culture–even though beloved works such as the Disney Princess movies could arguably be called fanfiction of old world fairy tales. Since it is densely female, it’s hard to separate notions of sexism from the scorn it receives. It’s also a bastion of representation, since mainstream works rarely have homosexual or polyamorous romance, both of which abound in fanfiction.

Rainbow Rowell tackled the world of fanfiction in her novel Fangirl, which centered around college freshman Cather, a smart, introverted writer who pens fanfiction for the fictional Simon Snow series, a Harry Potter expy that enjoys the same popularity in-universe as it’s counterpart does in the real world. Fangirl resonated so much with readers that Rowell decided to write a real life version of Simon Snow’s final adventure.

That’s right. Rowell wrote fanfiction for her own work. FanCEPTION.

As a work, Carry On is an amusing take on the conventions of ‘the chosen one’, ‘the hidden magical world in the midst of reality’, and the ‘massive gay subtext between the hero and his worst enemy’ (don’t pretend like Draco and Harry weren’t half in love with each other).

Even though Rowell plays with fantasy conventions, she knows better than to re-write the Deathly Hallows with different names. The Harry Potter series ends like a modern day Noah’s Ark, all the characters paired off into a neat, happily ever after, even while they bear the scars of the books’ events. Carry On has a much less spectacular ending, one that subverts expectations. Her characters are left a little dazed, a little disappointed, and very, very real.

‘Orange is the New Black’ Season 4

I took a break from reading and writing (and sleeping and eating and wearing clothes that aren’t sweatpants) so I could binge-watch Orange is the New Black, which, to be fair, was only 13 hours. The rest of the time was needed to process my emotional reaction to the sucker punch of a season. 

I’m a bad bookworm. I’ve never read Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the memoir upon which the show is based. But since it’s a show based on a woman’s memoir, run by a woman, staffed by women writers, and starring one of the most diverse groups of women ever (young women! old women! middle-aged women! fat women! butch women! Black women! Latinx women! queer women playing queer characters! a trans* woman playing a trans* character!) this seemed an appropriate place to highlight the feminist ups and downs of the season.

Spoilers ahead.

So many spoilers.

Seriously with the spoilers.

Stop reading.

Apart from the first season, which focused on author expy Piper Chapman navigating a minimum security federal prison as a wealthy, well-educated, white (oh yes that’s important) woman who got busted on a decade-old minor drug trafficking charge, Orange is the New Black has spent each season peeling back the layers of social structures through the microcosm of prison life.

The prison is segregated by race, even when it comes to bunk assignments. For the most part, the inmates get along, until outside forces (prison privatization and overcrowding) stoke the latent fires of “us vs. them” mentalities to a boiling point. When Piper starts a prison business, mostly out of boredom, the inmates she employs are almost to a one destitute, desperate, and without options once their sentences are filled. So when the Latinx crew starts a rival business (selling used panties, for the record), Piper uses her privilege (white, pretty, upper class) to muscle in on their territory, an incident that escalates into a full-on race war.

Orange is the New Black is better when it’s subtle. A minor plot point involves established character, Black Cindy, who recently converted to Judaism, struggling to maintain control over her space when her new bunkmate, Alison, a devout Muslim, arrives and immediately asserts her right to take up space in her new, grim, home. The two women engage in both direct confrontation and escalating pranks to assert dominance, with true escalation averted at the last minute when they discover how much they have in common.

Contrast with the over the top speech given by one of the white supremacists, who claims she doesn’t read and launches into a detailed description of how reading encourages empathy and expresses multiple points of view, an argument too articulate and reasonable to come from a real life skinhead.

OitNB‘s ambitions frequently exceed its abilities, and in such cases the point being made has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In this season alone, the show tackles the problems of corporate profit taking the hard line over inmate safety, abuses of power, white privilege, the core difference between systemic and personal racism, the “luxury” of menstruation, and the failure of the mental health system all in thirteen hours.

Some of the better done storylines involve Judy King, a fictional domestic doyenne in the vein of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen. A celebrity, she is given special treatment without asking, such as a private bunk while the remaining women are stuffed four deep, or the power to reassign prison staff on a whim. These privileges are extended to her without so much as a request on her part, but how does Judy, who could change the prison dynamic with a phone call, use that gift? To get soft sheets and a roll in the hay. She dispenses little pellets of generosity among her fellows–a seltzer machine, some legal assistance, public displays of favor–but not once does it occur to her that she should use her power to affect change.

While Judy spends privilege like a right, Sophia Burset, who was sent to solitary at the end of season three after she was the target of a transphobic hate crime, needs the combined machinations of herself, her wife, two fellow inmates, a former prison corporate bigwig turned whistleblower, and the morally conflicted warden just to be returned to the general population. Black, trans, and a face among many, her rights are treated like privileges she hasn’t yet earned.

Meanwhile, the old guard are changed for a crew of combat veterans that was almost to a man, surely dishonorably discharged (never established except through my own head canon), and they use their authority to enact petty power plays against the inmates for perceived slights and minor infractions, with heavy doses of racial profiling, that by season’s end has amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

When the inmates engage in peaceful protest to get the captain of the guard, the cruelest and most calculating of the bunch, deposed, Suzanne (Crazy Eyes), an inmate who has long needed psychiatric treatment, whose crimes in backstory are due to her lack of understanding and supervision, becomes overwhelmed by the escalating tension when a timid guard tries to redirect her to her room, and turns violent. When her friend Poussey tries to intervene, the guard, an ill-trained novice cowed by his superiors, becomes panicked and distracted, an incident that ends with him inadvertently crushing the tiny Poussey to death.

Poussey, a fan favorite, was the brightest, cutest, most moral character in the span of the show. One of few characters with a somewhat bright future–she had a supportive father, a highly stamped passport, and was well-educated–Poussey spent the season falling in love and securing a job from the aforementioned Judy King, which made her death hit all the harder.

In real life, Poussey’s death echoed those of Eric Garner (suffocated by an LEO while saying she couldn’t breathe) and Sandra Bland (a black woman who died in custody and has her name and dignity sacrificed in the interest of protecting the prison’s legal interests). It’s a chilling moment, not only for the implications but because the fans have spent four years falling in love with Poussey–her friendship with fellow inmate Taystee provided much of the show’s heart and comic relief, and she was as beloved in-universe as out.

Of course, this is the point. Sandra Bland and Eric Garner were not news headlines, at least, not until they died. They were people with friends, families, hobbies, bad habits, quirks, even favorite tv shows, identities that have since been subsumed by the media, where everyone weighs in except the people who matter. And, like Poussey, the tragedy of their deaths is compounded by the fact that the responsible parties will not be held accountable, because they were individuals victimized by unjust power structures. 

Unless, of course, we who do hold privilege do something about it.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace

Available for purchase here.

Wallace’s novel was based on the real history of the typewriter, an invention by Pellegrino Turri for his lover Countess Carolina Fantoni, a married woman who went blind in the early days of her marriage.

In the fictionalized version, Fantoni tries in vain to tell her family and husband (fiancé at the time) that she’s losing her sight, but is continually dismissed by everyone except her good friend Turri as being silly and in love (why they equate lovesickness with blindness is never fully explored, but suffice it to say, while love is purportedly blind, I’ve never heard of a young bride losing her vision as her wedding approaches).

The bulk of the novel isn’t taken up with the invention of the typewriter, or even the slow burn of Carolina’s and Turri’s affair, but instead the continued loss of her sight. Carolina, who has always enjoyed a measure of freedom beyond that of typical girls, spends much of her time stalking out the grounds of her estate, trying to remain abreast of her environment. It’s a plucky move from a headstrong heroine, but she comes by her independence due to the overindulgences of her father, and at the protest of her mother.

Mothers in fiction, especially mothers of the upper class, are frequently cast as the primary hurdle for young heroines to overcome, a tradition that dates back to poor, misaligned Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Fathers, especially when they have only daughters, tend to encourage their fancies and feistiness, while mothers look on in worry, constantly having to be the killjoy who reins in their free-spirited daughter so she can make a good match in society (never mind that marriage was a career for women at the time, and the mother’s training was essentially marital grad school).

As a standalone novel, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine is a slim volume which uses a historical event to tell a love story with just enough gray morality to make it interesting. However, in terms of the mother, it continues a tradition of favoring the plucky young heroine over her traditional older mom (see again: Pride and Prejudice, not to mention every fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm). It’s hard to attribute a feminist message to a story which pits young and old women at opposite ends of conflict, unless, as in Disney’s Brave, they learn to appreciate each other.

Money Plot Points in Fiction

I’ve noticed a trend in some of the fiction I’ve been reading in the past few months, specifically The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, Shelter by Jung Yun, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and my current read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, (see here to purchase) where a major arching plot or subplot concerns money: specifically, the absence of money.

The problem with these narratives, all of which are gorgeously written if nothing else, is that the characters are all incredibly well-off, well-educated, and well-poised to subsume the perceived loss of income or investments. The “adjustments” the wealthy characters will have to make involve moving into smaller houses, sending their children to public schools/universities, and generally downgrading their lifestyles from extravagant to merely comfortable.

From a narrative standpoint, the tension created from loss of cash is routinely cheapened by the resolution. Wealthy friends offer stable jobs, wealthy relatives wipe out debts, an inheritance is diminished but still substantive. In terms of craft, it hews a little too close to deus ex machina.

In terms of storytelling and development, it’s hard to empathize with characters whose reduced circumstances would still be enviable to the majority of readers. In Linda Tirado’s illuminating Hand to Mouth, the true value of a dollar is examined through the lens of people who can’t afford gum as an impulse purchase, and while it’s the opposite extreme end of the spectrum of wealth, Tirado’s real-life circumstances are more relatable to readers who are almost always a couple of paychecks away from homelessness, hunger, or lack of necessities.

Money, is of course, an emblematic trope in fiction to provide conflict. It’s easily identifiable and eminently desirable. Pursuit makes monsters of saints, loss of it turns lovers into lockhorns. We can all understand the permutations of character that’s associated with money, and it’s a classic in terms of storytelling, but without high stakes it falls flat.

Part of reading is escapism, so it makes sense that these books, all bestsellers and well received by critics, never hew too close to reality to swerve into truly disheartening territory. Another part is representation, and those of us who have no wealthy benefactors to eradicate our hardships have to search to see a representation of our struggles that relates to the lives we lead.

Contrast The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, which contains many of the same conflicts as The Nest (sibling inheritance creates discord, complicated family history affects the current generation), but set amid a working class family where not only are the stakes greater (homelessness, unemployment), but represents the fifty-plus year span from the rise of an American city to the racial politics that led to its fall, and the recession that boosted its modern day renaissance. Modern authors should take note.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Available for purchase here.

There’s a method to the way we talk about mental illness. We deny it, we blame it for the crimes committed by people who have no known history of suffering from it, and when it claims the life of someone through suicide, we question how such a tragedy could happen to such a great person. And by and large, the cycle never alters or accomplishes anything that supports a greater social understanding of what mental illness actually is.

The best way to educate yourself is to go straight to the source. Even the most decorated doctors can only expound on talking points like symptoms, family history, and neurophysiology. But if you want to know what it is to live with mental illness, seek out the wisdom of someone who lives with it.

Jenny Lawson, who authors the hugely and deservedly popular site The Bloggess, condensed the stories from her life as a wife, mom, and writer into Furiously Happy, a chronicle of her everyday mishaps and foibles and their effects on her, her precocious daughter, and her perpetually put-upon husband Victor. On the surface it sounds like a mommy blog with a healthy twist of geek (Lawson is a personal friend of nerd king Wil Wheaton), but in actuality Lawson suffers from anxiety and depression, and despite her light heart and numerous cat-related anecdotes, her life is irrevocably affected by living with mental illness.

Lawson makes the reader laugh ten times as often as she induces tears, but her more emotional passages pack a punch. It’s easy to get swept up in her zany humor and the reactions of her husband, the long-suffering straight man to her wacky wonderfulness, but whenever one starts believing that perhaps depression is as easy to accommodate as say, a peanut allergy, Lawson delves into the dark spaces that she occupies in between snuggling koalas and searching for humanely taxidermied raccoons, when she struggles with the urge to self-harm and the need to hide away from the world while she rides the wave of anxiety until the tide comes back.

In all her writing, Lawson provides a touchstone, a reassurance that those who suffer do not do so alone. She offers a chance for those who similarly struggle to see her in all her highs and lows, the opportunity for them to whisper to themselves “Me too.” She has created an online community that builds people up and offers support when the real world gives neither.

Lawson is, of course, only one voice in the community of mental health awareness. It’s a group as diverse as any other. But in the effort to understand the lives lived with depression, her work is a perfect place to start.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Available for purchase here.

Annabel is the story of Wayne, born in the wilderness of 1960’s Labrador and growing up as a sensitive, imaginative child among the harsh conditions of his surroundings. Wayne befriends girls and is beloved by the women of his community, a marked difference from his masculine peers which worries his Thoreau-figure of a father, mostly due to the circumstances of his birth–Wayne is intersex, a fact that is concealed even from Wayne himself.

As we learn more and more about the nature of gender and identity, the stories of intersex people are close to breaking into the mainstream zeitgeist. Our genders occur in our brains, but within seconds of exiting the womb, we are fitted into the role deemed fit for us by our genitals. For intersex people, this is often accompanied by unnecessary body modification and secrecy–Wayne’s ultimate fate.

In story, Wayne’s penis meets an arbitrarily chosen standard of length, and upon this reasoning, he’s raised a boy, with the doctors stitching up his vagina in an outpatient procedure, and sending him on his way. Only Wayne’s parents know the truth about his body, with the exception of their neighbor Thomasina, still nurturing her grief over an accident that cost her her husband and daughter, a twelve year old girl named Annabel.

Throughout the novel, Wayne is treated like a son by his father and a daughter by his mother, both of whom keep their secret between themselves and their child. In private, Thomasina calls Wayne by her daughter’s name, and Wayne’s childhood is spent in a balancing act between the role his father and community expect of him, and the role he feels more comfortable in.

At the crux of the story, Wayne goes through puberty and develops unusual growing pains. When he confides to Thomasina, she reveals the truth of his birth and takes him to the doctor, where it’s discovered that Wayne has been menstruating, his stomach swollen and distended with unshed blood. The physical realities of Wayne’s growing body force the secrecy to come to light, but Wayne’s whole identity before and after the reveal play in the subtle nuances between gender identity and gender role.

At the end of the story, all the cards on the table, Wayne is still exploring the nature of his own identity. He experiments with dressing en femme, dabbles in twisting the rigid roles of the time and place in which he was born, and is as uncertain of his place at the end as he was before the reveal.

The terrifying implications for the real world Waynes are that doctors and families of intersex babies do feel it’s both their right and responsibility to raise a child as a boy or a girl, and cut into their tiny baby bodies to modify them into a narrow binary. We are all limited by strict gender roles, but intersex and transgender folks are more greatly restricted by existing outside the predetermined norms.

What’s truly sad is that when people don’t conform to sexuality norms the people who love them do the most harm by pressuring them to change so they won’t be left out or left behind. It’s not the individuals that need to change, it’s the way we think about normal.