in the midst of harder days

Oh, hey there WordPress.

I know, it’s been a few weeks. Actually, I had something planned for you week before last – a more personal post than usual, but it fell apart a bit.

You see, I wanted to write a little about navigating that tricky space between looking after yourself and wanting to grow. (And you’ll get that post, eventually.) But then Tuesday turned to Wednesday, Wednesday turned to Thursday, and I realised I was in a bit of slump. Not a writing slump but, by Wednesday night, a ‘ugh, I can’t even bring myself to watch TV instead of just lying in bed’ slump.

A ‘I cannot even think about that shit right now’ slump.

A ‘oh, I think this is one of those weeks where my depressive symptoms are coming back a bit’ slump.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face this year – a few years on from when I would say that I stopped continuously cycling in and out of depression – is coming to terms with what it looks like for me to be sad, as opposed to actually experiencing depressive symptoms. I feel like I’m only just starting to be able to identify my red flags for when it’s making its little rebellious comebacks. When I started getting better, I assumed that my emotional infrastructure was just fundamentally broken due to my past. For a long time that belief hid the fact that some of the symptoms I was experiencing weren’t ‘normal’ for me, were not feelings and thoughts that could coexist with my-mind-not-on-depression.

The last week, thankfully, has been a lot better. (Just incredibly busy, but when does life let up?) And for the most part, thankfully, this isn’t something I have to deal with a lot. But instead of pushing myself to try and get straight back into the thick of things and putting all sorts of expectations on myself, I’m trying to create space for myself to be at rest. To breathe. To ground myself in a peaceful but firm center. To slowly ease back into what I love, what matters to me, without allowing static goals or unyielding expectations to undermine the process of becoming exactly who I want to be.

Because for me, my goals and planning are a way forward, to cultivating and nurturing myself to grow into someone who can meaningfully live out my values and hopes for the world. Some of that is more ambitious – to work towards positive social change on the issues I deeply care about – and sometimes it looks more modest – to be joyful and at ease in my day to day life.

Although they’re pretty different, in a funny way I think that this post has inadvertently become a kinder, gentler version of the one sitting in my drafts. A few thoughts about how to love ourselves dearly and care for ourselves in the midst of harder days.


Questioning the genius

If you love a good story, and especially super satisfying spooky stories, one of the greatest gifts of the past couple of years is the emergence of narrative podcasts. One of the first and best of these is Pacific Northwest Stories’ The Black Tapes. The show is based in the Unites States, and features local radio/podcast host Alex Regan as she chronicles the unsolved supernatural-seeming mysteries documented by renowned skeptic Dr. Richard Strand. The series has been running for almost two seasons now, but something that immediately grabbed me about the show was the representation of Dr. Strand. Strand is what TV Tropes would call an Insufferable Genius. We are introduced to his character by way of a range of experts in paranormal phenomena, who all express anger at his position within their field of study. He is known for heavily criticising any research affirming the existence of the paranormal, and by extension, these particular researchers. It’s a professional grudge, but due to his characteristic derision, it also runs much deeper than that.

Now, I actually consider portrayals of the Insufferable Genius to be white male intellectual power fantasies. Not merely because these characters are usually white and usually male (especially in their most well known iterations), but because they reflect a supposed ideological commitment to developing knowledge as objective and independent of concerns of gender, race, and other forms of social stratification – but instead end up perpetuating a form of knowledge production which fundamentally centers a privileged white male perspective. Portrayals of the white male ‘Insufferable Genius’ usually rely on being condescending and dismissive towards other people who are considered intellectually inferior, and while almost all other characters will bear the brunt of this, it is women, people of colour, and other marginalised characters that will often experience a particularly potent form of disdain. White and male power fantasies can come in a number of different forms, but in contrast to say, the male power fantasy based on physical strength, the intellectual fantasy is often perceived as comparatively enlightened. We are supposed to believe that these men are superior because they use their brains rather than their (non-existent) brawn, when in reality both are used as tools of power. Both narratives are invested in and valorise exercising power over others.

You may be wondering why this critique is essentially attached to masculinity and to whiteness, why female and non-white characters could not embody the archetype just as fully or with the same problematic implications. It is impossible to untie the Insufferable Genius archetype from our historical beliefs about who is capable of being a critical and knowledgeable thinker. Both women and people of colour have historically been believed to lack the capacity for critical thought, and these beliefs were created and utilised to establish oppressive social systems and undermine claims for equality. Not only have women and people of colour been historically denied access to academic institutions, but in academia knowledge production is fundamentally shaped by white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of social stratification. Our understanding of objectivity and what it means to do objective research relies on believing that we can produce unbiased knowledge. Unfortunately, in a society where privileged white masculinity is the norm, we can never truly revert to a ‘default’ perspective – privilege is fundamentally ingrained in how we see the world, and unless challenged by marginalised perspectives, is almost impossible to eradicate. But in the paradigm of objectivity, marginalised perspectives are treated as inherently suspect – another bias to avoid rather than a vital challenge to a system blinkered by privilege.

To be clear though, anybody can find the Insufferable Genius emotionally compelling. In fact, I totally bought into these narratives too. (For some relevant context, I am neither white nor male.) I’ve loved House MD, BBC Sherlock, Artemis Fowl, and I’m sure many others that escape me now. I found the fantasy of putting others in their place with superior knowledge and a hint of disdain fulfilling. Especially as a nerdy girl growing up who didn’t feel like she had much going for her but her brain, but even then sometimes feeling a little insecure in her intellectual abilities. But this is precisely the point – power fantasies help us seek validation for areas in which we both feel insecurity but recognise a potential pathway to greater control over our lives. And even as someone who is deeply passionate about how popular culture can validate our feelings and support our journeys in developing identity and being empowered, I think we can acknowledge that sometimes the narratives that we internalise can be emotionally unhealthy, or even dangerous in particular circumstances. We see endless cases of disaffected men perpetuating violence, especially when denied access to something they feel they deserve as a result of privilege. And this fantasy can result in a particularly vitriolic misogyny in nerd and geek culture, where the appeal of the intellectual power fantasy is most compelling.

Now, back to The Black Tapes. In the second episode we are introduced to our first Black Tapes case. Strand keeps paranormal cases he hasn’t been able to solve yet (in case it isn’t clear, his emphasis) in black VHS cases, and his solved cases in white VHS cases. The first Black Tape is that of the Torres family who have suffered from an inexplicable and disturbing presence haunting their young son, Sebastian. We soon discover that the shadow figure that now follows Sebastian followed his father in the past. However, while Strand provides some scientific explanations for the symptoms of the problem – basically, he speculates that everyone is suffering from something he calls ‘apophenia’ (seeing connections between possibly weird but entirely unrelated events), and that the unhappy couple are externalising the problems within their marriage – but he cannot meaningfully address the problems they are facing. It’s also worth highlighting that Strand implies Sebastian’s mother, Maria, is seeing paranormal signs due to mental illness. (This is notable given that there is a long history of women’s resistance to patriarchal systems and norms being attributed to madness, with women experiencing institutionalisation as a result. Nowadays, this dynamic is often reflected in the way women’s legitimate feelings and experiences are disregarded as “crazy,” “hysterical,” etc.) When we finally meet the Torres family, Sebastian’s parents have separated over this issue, with his mother infuriated at how her concerns have been delegitimised and desperate to protect her son.

What Strand can treat as simply a frustrating intellectual dilemma, his clients are forced to live with their whole lives. Conveniently, few of his cases are like that of the Torres family – many are retrospective looks at phenomena which do not continue to occur in the lives of the survivors. The Torres family are one of the few exceptions who continue to suffer. At the end of the episode, Alex confronts Strand about his dismissive attitude:

Alex: You don’t find that a bit patronizing? To reduce their experiences, which sound frightening to them, to a bad marriage?

Strand: I never find the truth patronizing.

Alex: Okay, but, in the little time I’ve known you, I’ve heard you talk about the importance of evidence. But there’s very little evidence that they have a bad marriage.

Strand: They’re separated right now, aren’t they?

Alex: Okay. On the subject of evidence, I’ve seen four distinct cases of something strange in photographs and videos surrounding the Torres family. Also, there’s the anecdotal evidence from all three of them.

Strand: I wouldn’t call any of that evidence.

Alex: You know, you’re actually bordering on condescension at this point.

Alex goes on to observe that “I don’t think he’s being purposely smug, it’s just that he seems to have an answer for everything. And those answers are occasionally dismissive of people’s subjective experiences.” (x)

What is so notable to me about this portrayal of the Insufferable Genius archetype is that, not only is Strand challenged on his rudeness and the limitations of his methodology inside the fictional universe of The Black Tapes, but that he is also being fundamentally undermined by the format of the show. We, as an audience listening to what we recognise as a paranormal fantasy podcast, know that something is going on in this universe. Whether it’s demons, ghosts, some vast non-paranormal conspiracy, or another thing entirely – we recognise that the people we meet are telling the truth, that their stories are connected, that something is going down. So the validation that we would normally get from the portrayal of a character like Dr. Strand becomes somewhat empty. That fundamental ingredient – being right, and everybody having to put up with your bullshit because of how clever you are and how effectively you can solve the problem at hand – is taken away. And then all that is left is a total refusal to respect others or their lived experience, despite their clear trauma. All that’s left is a character who is unable to meaningfully address the evidence in front of him or recognise the weaknesses in his arguments due to an arrogant adherence to his intellectual paradigm. All that’s left is a hollow rendering of the white male intellectual power fantasy, flaws laid bare.

June Reading Wrap Up!

I thought it would be nice to include little reviews of all the books I’ve read each month on this blog. Between this and Instagram, I’m hoping to peer pressure myself into reading more consistently. It was pretty successful this month!

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz – 5 stars

While I enjoy a lot of young adult fiction, contemporary fiction is very hit and miss for me. But I adored this book. Aristotle and Dante become friends as teenagers, and the story follows their relationship over time. The portrayal of all the characters, but especially Aristotle’s inner world, was so vividly explored and revealed so much of the pain and beauty of growing up. If you’re anything like me, prepare for waterworks in the final stretch, but this book is definitely worth it.

By sad coincidence, I finished reading this book just as the news of the Orlando shooting was breaking. Benjamin Alire Sáenz wrote a beautiful post in light of the shooting titled ‘A Safe and Sacred Space’.

Sisters In The Wilderness, Delores S. Williams – 4 stars

For the most part this book was incredible. It is one of the first books written about womanist theology, published in 1993. Delores Williams draws on the story of Hagar to explore African American women’s experiences with regard to exploitation and oppression under and after slavery, and discuss the implications of this for black women’s experiences of faith and the development of womanist theology. The most interesting part of it for me is what Williams calls a ‘survival or quality-of-life’ hermeneutic, which she contrasts to the belief of liberation theology that God is committed to, and actively bringing about, the liberation of the oppressed. It is very difficult to see God’s actions in Hagar’s story as ‘liberating’ Hagar from the oppression she faces, so Williams provides another interpretative framework which claims that God is equally concerned with ensuring the survival and quality of life of those living under oppression. She claims that God is intimately involved with black women’s struggle for survival and quality of life, especially in circumstances where securing full liberation isn’t possible at the time. I had to dock a half star because the last chapter goes in the strangest direction (I skimmed it so you don’t have to – you can and should skip the last half of the final chapter entirely), but other than that I would highly recommend it.

The Queen of Attolia (Book 2 of the Queen’s Thief Series), Megan Whalen Turner – 5 stars

This was a reread for me. I adore this series, and this book is probably my favourite of the four. I could never do it justice, but these two reviews of the series are brilliant. (I should also note that ‘Made Herself Queen’ is a reference to one of my favourite passages of this book.)

Authority (Book 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy), Jeff Vander Meer – 3 stars

This book, like the first in the series, was pretty bonkers. I thought the thing that was fascinating was that, in the first book, you’re frustrated because you can tell that there is some logic, some underlying principle of (super)natural science governing Area X, but it’s impossible to make sense of. It’s so beyond what we can imagine that you’re left with no real key to interpret the events unfolding in front of you. In this book, while that element remains, most of the intrigue and mystery is related to Southern Reach, the agency responsible for figuring out what the hell is going in Area X, and it’s governing body, Central. Which means a good portion of the frustration you have is at fellow humans who are keeping you in the dark for goodness knows what reasons. Personally, I find stubborn humans more agitating than weirdly creepy and disturbing, so I didn’t love it quite as much as the first book. But I think my favourite elements were the unreliable and strange narration, the haphazard way the writing style went back and forth to disorientate you and create an increasing sense of unease, and the satisfying string of revelations at the end (even if we don’t get ‘answers’ as such). I enjoyed this look behind the curtain of what is going on at Southern Reach. I can’t wait get into Acceptance, the final book in the series.

Redefining Realness, Janet Mock – 4 stars

I was struck by how deeply personal and relatable this book was. Janet Mock masterfully explores how intersections of gender identity, race, and socioeconomic status come together and shape the lives of trans people, particularly young people, low income people, and women of colour. But her openness with her life, with her most painful experiences, with her flaws and mistakes, with her deepest thoughts, is what makes this book so remarkable. This book will break your heart, and then fill it to the brim with its wisdom and courage.

I also posted last week about what this book taught me about reading across difference, if you want to check it out.

Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans – 4 stars

It’s funny now that I was so uncertain about reading this book this month. When I started it I was still reading Redefining Realness, and I was ambivalent about reading it because I have read very few memoirs and wasn’t sure if I liked them enough to read two at a time. But, like Redefining Realness, I was blown away by how open and deeply honest Rachel Held Evans was in this book as she takes us through her journey with the church throughout her life and reflects on her experiences. While she challenges the church and the traditions she was brought up with, she also challenges herself and doesn’t hesitate to share her doubts, her fears, her mistakes, and her pain. She also shows a deep love for the church, its traditions and community, despite recognising its flaws. Rachel also begins a chapter with a quote from one of my (many) favourite Taylor Swift songs, which is always a reliable way to endear yourself to me.

So I might be learning to love memoir. Which is a wonderful thing because I’ve got a couple more eagerly waiting their turn on my shelves.

To Read Yourself Into a Book

If there is one event of internet rage that sticks out in my mind from the past year, it’s the controversy surrounding Meg Rosoff’s comments about diversity in children’s literature. I was actually on Twitter when events began unfolding, when a young adult author raised the alarm and expressed her disappointment that such views were being expressed by such a renowned author in the field. The offending comment, in case you missed it, was:

There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them. You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented.

While there are many things that are frustrating about this viewpoint, what hit me most profoundly was the expectation for marginalised people – children, even! – to learn from such a young age to read themselves into texts that don’t represent them, to have no expectation of seeing themselves as they are in a book. The fact of the matter is that children from marginalised backgrounds are already doing the work of bridging the distance between ourselves and a text by necessity. As a girl, I was a voracious reader. And if I didn’t learn to be able to see myself in the lives of white boys and girls, if I didn’t learn to bridge that disconnect between our respective lived experiences, then I would not have been a reader at all. That work was necessary because I had no other option. Actually, it took until last year, when I was reading Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay, for me to look up from a book and think ‘Wow, this actually speaks directly to my experience as a brown girl born to a middle class immigrant family in a Western country. I don’t think that’s actually happened for me before.’

Meanwhile, this expectation – which Rosoff had no qualms about placing on LGBTQ children and children of colour, often children who are facing significant struggles in a society that is heteronormative, cisnormative, and white supremacist – is something that privileged white children, especially boys*, get to live without. Privileged readers (and admittedly, most of us have some form of privilege), who have no need to seek out texts featuring marginalised characters, have the privilege of coming to texts with little responsibility to bridge distances between themselves and the character on the page, often because those characters look just like them. The bridging work that Rosoff lauds is not imposed on all of us equally – it is something that uniquely lands on the shoulders of young people of colour, queer youth, and often girls in more formal educational settings as well. But for the merits of this bridging work to be realised, for all young readers to be able to see themselves represented in texts while also being able to learn to bridge differences in identity between themselves and others, we need far more diverse books to represent all people. So that all children have the opportunity to both see a mirror of themselves in the books they read, and the opportunity to learn to bridge the divides between themselves and others.

But there is another potential pitfall here, to engaging in this bridging work as a privileged reader. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down to begin reading Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. As a young woman who is cisgender, and who had never read a book about trans issues before, I knew I had a lot to learn coming to this book. Which is why it interested me when I began to add quotes to Goodreads. I had a moment, when quoting a passage from the introduction, where I was debating whether to include a second sentence. The first sentence, which I loved and identified with, reflected a more universal experience. The second sentence put the first in the context of Mock’s lived experience as a trans woman. Being aware of my tendency to overpost and to make quotes as long as possible, in that moment I decided to post just the first sentence.

And although I know my intentions and recognise how small this moment was, something about it continued to bother me. Because, in the end, I treated a sentence that I did not identify with as superfluous, as meaningless to me. Because as beautiful as it is to identify with a book we’re reading (or something that we are watching or listening to), to connect with someone else’s lived experience when it is so different from our own lives, there is a risk of overidentifying with that experience and subsuming it into your own. Of failing to take care when you express your solidarity, not to step on the toes of those who have lived with the painful reality of that experience in full. This is the risk that is often betrayed by simplistic statements like ‘I don’t see colour’, like ‘we’re all the same, we all bleed red’, which ignore the particular experience of the person in front of us by imposing universality, and making ourselves more comfortable by negating difference rather than acknowledging and addressing it.

Navigating this tension, of recognising our common human struggles while truly honoring our differences, is an inherently fraught process. I don’t think that there’s an easy way to address it, no simple answer which will allow us to be perfectly considerate, to handle the stories of others, especially of marginalised people, with all the care they deserve. The work of bridging the distance between yourself and a text from someone with a different lived experience will often require drawing some connection between their experiences and your own, their emotions and your own. But like many things, it starts with deliberateness, awareness, and coming to these works with a sense of humility.

* I would argue that this dynamic exists, but differently, with regard to gender. Stories by woman and about girls for younger readers are more common but often devalued, by assuming that their subject matter is less worthy of study and could not be of interest to boys. There’s a wonderful post from Book Riot on the subject here.

Hello World.

I’m here because Sally told me to start writing. To start writing anything.

Honestly, I find writing to be excruciating. I often compare it to pulling teeth. It’s all well and good to have interesting, half baked thoughts bouncing around your head. But the moment you have to commit it to the page (or a word processor, as it were), the moment you have to fully draw out those ideas, the moment you have to organise your thoughts so that they are intelligible to other humans… it’s exhausting.

It’s a fraught process, because you go from a wide-eyed fascination with a half-imagined, idealised form to facing the harsh reality that birthing your thoughts into the world is never quite as perfect as you’d dreamed.

But here I am. With a blog post. On a blog with no organising theme or principle, besides the fact that I’m the one writing it. Because Sally told me to start writing.