Monday, February 24, 2014

The World We Live In

I've been reading a lot of Middle East-centric stuff lately, trying to understand more of the world we're in. I think we've talked before about how strange it is that we read so much, like, Japanese lit in IB, but never did anything that would help us understand the issues that were shaping our lives. Like maybe they stuck to choices made sometime around the founding of the program--and the Cold War--and didn't adapt post-2001.

My roommate gave me Mary Doria Russell's Dreamers of the Day for my birthday last year.  I've read it once and listened to the audiobook. It's set in 1921, told from the perspective of an American woman who takes a trip to Egypt and ends up making friends with the figureheads engaged in the discussions that would shape the Middle East--Churchill, Lawrence. There were themes in it that would have ignited discussions in Theory of Knowledge, history, world lit... And there we were reading Life of Pi and Thousand Cranes, like it mattered if the tiger existed or what the birthmark symbolized in the face of the world we actually lived in.

But maybe that wasn't the point, exactly. I know I didn't feel mature enough to understand a lot of what we read then. Maybe it just matters that we read a variety of things, so that when we were older we'd still seek out the variety--that we'd engage with current events when we were actually able to affect them?


I just think I might have understood more, been more engaged, with books that made sense in the contemporary global context rather than in a post-1984 world that still thought 1984 was possible.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

My Background in Connective Thinking

I did IB.

If you did IB, that statement speaks for itself. If you didn't, you probably have no idea what I mean.

IB stands for International Baccalaureate. It's a worldwide program that effectively means that every student enrolled takes the same standardized tests at the end of high school, or the equivalent, but it's more than that. First of all, the official IB program is two years, like A-level years in the UK. At my high school, though, we entered Pre-IB in freshman year, taking classes that would prepare us for the "official" program, getting us used to writing the essays, to doing the community service hours, to balancing the homework. Pre-IB gave us the foundations in language and science we would need to go into IB-level courses, offered us the opportunity to take the Advanced Placement courses we'd get credit for at colleges that didn't understand IB. Really, though, these first two years weeded out the smart kids who maybe didn't thrive on that kind of intensity, and ensured that those of us who would continue into "real" IB were enrolled at the same school, because most of us weren't districted for it. It wasn't a state secret that they'd started the program at our school to bring up its test scores.

Maybe it sounds like I'm explaining a sort of intense AP program, those test-driven courses that give students at schools all over the country yearly breakdowns, but IB is more than that. As a snobbish teenager, I believed IB existed as an attempt to provide American students with an educational equivalent to hardcore European academic courses like the French baccalaureat. But then, why would the IB headquarters be in Cardiff? Why would there be IB programs in countries that have the bac, A-levels, and other rigorous exams? Why would the program require service hours, a thesis-like essay, and the signature course Theory of Knowledge? Why the regimented courses--five required subjects, one elective--rather than allowing tests to be sat à la carte like AP or SAT IIs? Because IB was created to be something more.

Doing IB, which is how current and former IB students refer to our time in the trenches, connects students across the world. My current roommate did it as well, in a school in New Jersey that only offered the program for five years, and although our experiences were totally different, our shared experience connects us in other ways. It's more than that she understands the phrases of my high school experience--EE, sixth subject, Internal Assessment. Students all over the US can bond over the structure of AP exam DBQs. IB affects the way we interact with the world. The program focuses on interconnectivity. Often we read books in English that illuminated something we'd covered in History of the Americas. Analyzing a play for IB Theater led you to reconsider something you'd said in a Theory of Knowledge discussion. This was why we couldn't take IB Biology and not English, why dropping out of the program often meant switching schools--to somewhere that you could get away with As in Chemistry and Ds in History--and why choosing to take Math Studies barred you from taking Chemistry.

Not that we didn't have choices. We chose our language, our science, our sixth subject--aka the elective in which you be examined on an IB level--and our math. But no matter what track we were on, class discussion usually meant we had some understanding of the road we didn't travel. We did cross-discipline projects in science. Our Calculus teacher sometimes spent time explaining a concept we hadn't grasped in TOK. Our French readings were about current events, we read novels to understand the zeitgeist of historical periods, and our writing abilities were tested in epic math projects that required a knowledge of Fibonacci's history. Everything connected.

This connective thinking was celebrated at my liberal arts university, enough so that it helped land me my scholarship. The Core program there mimicked IB's emphasis on applying one subject to understand another. So, basically, I've spent the majority of my time as an engaged, thinking person examining things in a larger context, using multiple disciplines, and knowing that nothing exists in a vacuum. It effects everything I do. I've been particularly aware of this in my reading lately--a lot of Middle Eastern lit--and it made me think about the content of my high school experience, not just the context, which is why I wanted to give this detailed background before I go into my thoughts about current events, the complexity of cause and effect, and how I see all of that affecting my own thought processes.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Scholarship and Self Update

A comment on my recent post about The True Adventures of Nicolo Zen has made me think I need to add a caveat to this blog:

I'm a scholar by training. I read a book thinking about tropes, and agency, and that book's place in conversation with literature in general. To the average reader, a book may be a "rollicking adventure," but even if I agree with that--which I do in the case of Nicolo Zen--I can see the parts of the book that are problematic. I like parsing these out and determining what they mean to me in the context of the book, and in a broader context. That doesn't mean anyone who reads the book must do so, that they can't enjoy it, or that I don't enjoy it. I purposefully didn't frame that post as a review, because it's not. It's an amalgamation of my thoughts, which are by nature scholarly. Blame my MA.

Anyway, today's post is the more personal update I promised would come. There's a lot going on in my life currently. On the writing side, things are good. I participated in PitchWars as an alternate. My mentor Jaye Robin Brown and her mentee Nina Mareno got third place, because they are FABULOUS.

Lifewise, things are less excellent. I'm mostly recovered from the spinal fusion surgery I had in October, but still have some pain and stiffness. My life is in limbo, because I'm planning another minor surgery in March, and don't want to find a significant job position and then have surgery within my 90-day probationary period, because that did not end well last time. I am going to take on freelance work in the meantime, and am unashamedly pointing people toward my GoFundMe page if they have the resources to help me stay independent in the meantime. The other reason I am so willing to ask for help and not to find a fulltime position yet is that I haven't returned to Boston from Christmas yet. My terminally-ill father is in hospice, so I've stuck around to help my mother with my little brother for the duration. I'll probably be back up north in a couple of weeks, one way or another.

So that's now in a nutshell. More pretentious thoughts to come this week, I'm sure.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Stereotypical Representations in Nicolo Zen

I have been a horrible blogger for a long time. I can’t promise I will get much better, but I want to do better at putting my thoughts out into the world, mostly to save my long-suffering mother and roommate from having to listen to me ramble constantly. I have personal things to get you, my friends and readers, caught up on, but for today my thoughts are centered on the book I just finished The True Adventures of Nicolo Zen 



WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD


 This is a middle-grade novel set in eighteenth-century Venice. Nicolo Zen is a newly orphaned musician who disguises himself as a girl to get into an elite orphanage orchestra, overseen by Master Vivaldi. Christopher dealt surprisingly well with the lose of privilege Zen takes on in becoming a girl, and the story of Nicolo’s disguise, the intrigue in the orphanage, and the characters—vile and angelic alike—made the book initially promising. There were problematic elements already, though. Both of the villains within the orphanage walls were disabled. Aldo is a blind boy who has the clichéd enhance senses and milky eyes given to every blind villain. Additionally, his lack of vision means he is allowed to be in the girls’ presence without worry of impropriety—arguably denying his sexuality—and then he takes advantage of this privilege. The traditionally repugnant housemother, Marta, is a former member of the orchestra, deafened and embittered thanks to a “fall” down a flight of stairs. Her deafness supposedly prevents her from correctly reading situations, causing her to punish girls for nothing because there’s absolutely no way for her to know what’s going on without hearing their voices. Oh, but she may be faking the extent of her disability, because of course.

Even with these tropes, which Christopher obsessively attempts to balance out with a kindly cook who lost a leg in the Navy, I think I would have enjoyed this story if it had been a historical fiction novel about a boy giving up his male privilege to become a great clarinetist. Instead, his attempt to foil Aldo’s system of kidnapping helpless girls leads to his being outed as a boy (perhaps more realistically than most disguise novels) and thrown out of the orphanage. No matter, though, he has his friend the cook to help him away, and he has a deus ex magician.

You see, Nicolo’s clarinet is magical. It doesn’t play itself, exactly. It teaches him to play. Either way, it takes his agency long before he disguises himself as a girl. And its maker, Massimo the Magnificent, is the king of agency-taking. His assistants seem beholden to him, he threatens Nicolo against losing the clarinet even though he implies it will only work for its first owner, he demands without giving—and this is never acknowledged. Moreover, he is almost rewarded. After he gets angry over Nicolo’s friend Adriana’s decision not to become his new assistant, he demands they bring him a replacement. Juliette, the girl who Nicolo and Adriana effectively give to him, eventually marries him. The text may want you to think this is a love match, but the undercurrents of Massimo’s need for control makes it sit wrong.

Worst of all, Massimo solves most of Nicolo’s problems for him. Nicolo isn’t a weak character. He attempts to reclaim his agency by asking Massimo to take the spell of his clarinet, and he rescues his friends from Aldo’s clutches on more than one occasion—again, as girls they can’t save themselves—but in the end (LOOK A SPOILER) it is Massimo who directly and indirectly solves the Aldo problem. And when Nicolo looks at Aldo for the last time he remarks: “The crows had yet to pluck out Aldo's blank, milky eyes, but I would be lying if I said I felt a shred of pity for him at that moment.” (232) This connects Aldo’s eyes—his blindness, his disability—with pity, implying that looking at those eyes should incite pity. Indeed, implying that the fact that the crows have yet to pluck them out is a negative in some way, that even the birds aren’t attracted to this ugliness, or that even in death he is unequal to his able-bodied thug friends.

I honestly believe this might have been a better book without the magical realism. It is probably meant to evoke the operas of the time, something about which I know very little, and there are themes of doppelgangers, agency, and ability that might not come out in a more realistic novel, but the period and subjects could be really interesting if explored in-depth. Most disappointingly*, to me, the world of the Venice orphanage is set up so well, with so much detail, but once Nicolo is yanked out of it, his surroundings become much more superficial and the characters surrounding him much less interesting, the magic overshadows the realism to an unnecessary degree, and the stakes no longer seem dangerous.


I wish this had continued to be a book about a boy who disguised himself as a girl in order to succeed. It would have perhaps taken more suspension of disbelief without the magic, but I would have enjoyed it more.

*I accidentally typed "disapprovingly" in my first version of this post. Thanks to a helpful anon, I found the error and fixed it. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sometimes What You're Not Supposed to Do Teaches You the Most

It's well known that I despise narratives that contend that there are positive things that can be learned from the "school of pain." Stories that contend that pain is some kind of device meant to teach patience and grace, to be overcome in favor of goodness, sacrifice, and martyrdom. I can't say that this isn't the case for anyone, but I can say what pain has taught me over the past year. It has taught me fear.

Today, I was lucky enough to have lunch at Café Pamplona with a certain author who sometimes plays tamborine for his wife, who is a rockstar. As I waited for him, I remembered the last time I'd been to that particular coffee shop. It was on an OkCupid date with a guy whose profile mentioned that he was writing a play about being a person with a disability. This intrigued me, so I asked him about it early on in the conversation.

"Oh, that," he said. "Yeah, I want to get back to that. I just haven't had the inspiration since I left college, you know? I just haven't had the muse hit me."

"Mmm," I replied. The converation continued in this vein--I'd mention one of his supposed interests, and he'd say yeah, he kept meaning to get back into that. Theatre, reading, music. As far as I could gather, all he did was hang out in is apartment with his cat. And he had been a theatre major. I'd never met more a dispassionate theatre person, and when he told me he'd started the last Harry Potter book but never finished it, I realized I'd never met a less passionate person.

I am passionate about writing. The kind of passionate that means I think about it constantly, almost always have queries out, and want it to be my future. But my modified Nanowrimo plan to spend an hour a day on something new hasn't panned out well. It's easy to blame this on my back. I am, after all, essentially on house arrest until December.

"Does writing hurt?" my lunch companion today asked, with a sympathetic wince.

I quickly agreed that it does, and it's true. Every time I think I've positioned my myriad cushions in a way that keeps the pain away for an hour and is condusive to using my laptop, a different pain crops up to hinder this. But then, there I was sitting up painlessly at the coffee shop table for an hour and a half. I'm not meant to sit up much, but with my brace on I can for an hour or so a day. For meals and such. But I haven't been. I've eaten on the couch, or in my room. Surely I should have been using that hour, then, to sit at my desk and pound out an hours' worth of words.

My head floods with excuses at this thought. My desk covered in pajamas, because I can't bend over to reach the pajama drawer. The weird PT said I shouldn't sit in rolly chairs. I don't write at my desk when I'm well--why start now?

But the truth under all of these questions is that I'm afraid. Afraid that it will hurt? Yes, a bit. But I'm not stupid. If it starts to hurt my back, I'll give it up. I want to heal. But I think the true fear comes from the fact that I haven't written anything truly new in a year and a half. That I still don't have an agent. That I'm never going to make it. The kinds of fears I never used to listen to, because I knew they'd turn me into the kind of dispassionate person who gives up before they even begin.

I know what it is to give into fear. The fear of pain kept me holed up in my apartment for the majority of this year. It cost me opportunities, self-esteem, and probably a lot of other things I won't even realize I lost for a while.

I walked home from the cafe. I'm not meant to walk farther than the distance from my bedroom to the couch, but it was a gorgeous fall day, my favorite kind of day, and by the time I'm off house arrest, those will be lost to the snow, of which I have proper reason to be afraid. The walk isn't far, but before the surgery, my lower back would have been hurting by the time I got halfway home. This time it didn't. To me, that's a sign that all this is going to be worth it. That I can make it through this period of house arrest, because on the otherside there will be a life where fear of pain won't dictate my every decision.

In the meantime, I'm not going to let another type of fear take away my passion.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In the Magical World

Due to the nature of my back pain, and the nerves involved in it, lying prone is generally the msot comfortable position. This isn't very comofortable for writing, but it works for reading. Moreso on my iPad than holding a book up, which may be the root cause for the phenomenon I'm about to discuss, but I don't think it is.

See, I've definitely been reading books--new ones, and old ones, letting myself reread for the first time in years--but I've also spent a lot of time reading fanfiction. Harry Potter fanfiction, specifically. Now, this isn't a new thing for me, I spent the better part of my teen years active on fictionalley.org, both writing fanfic and reading it. By the start of college, I'd become fairly well-known in the Grey's Anatomy fan world, enough that I skipped orientation events to write fic. Rainbow Rowell's latest book Fangirl resonated with me, deeply. 

But it'd been a while since I'd really delved into Harry Potter fandom. I reread the books before coming to Boston in 2010, but they'd sort of become a part of my past. My room still has Potter figurines, and posters, but when asked to list my favorite things, it didn't always come first. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I reread Sam Starbuck's story Stealing Harry on a whim. It's an alternate universe (AU) story about Sirius Black and Remus Lupin taking Harry away from the Dursleys, and it's wonderful. It was written before the series finished, and I read it in high school so I didn't fully appreciate the nuances. And that's the thing, I think, that sparked my subsequent dive into Sam's entire backlog, as well as Fernwithy's Remus/Tonks story Shifts, which I also read when it came out.

See, the majority of Sam and Fern's stories are set during and after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. They feature different versions of Remus Lupin, the lost, itnerate, rejected man who is beholden to the whims of a body that attacks without his consent, and Sirius Black, a man condeemed to spend every day ttrapped in one house, able to socialize only on other people's terms.

I find, suddenly, that I idenitfy with both men more than I ever imagined possible. 

I never used to like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I didn't understand Sirius's bitterness, or the way he clung to the past. When Remus attempted to reject Nymphadora Tonks in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I wanted to join Tonks in shouting at him to get a clue--his disease didn't define him. 

Now, tied as I am to the whims of my own, painful, medical conditions, and other people's decisions that have landed me on a couch in my apartment basically 24/7, my sympathy for both men has increased grately. As a child and a teenager my Harry Potter sympathies lay mostly with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I wanted to have their adventures. To be swept away into a world where the magic made up for the challenges. I liked Remus and wrote about him a fair bit, but always to do with romance and usually as a teenager (I met my best fandom-friend through shipping Remus/Lily). I never thought much about the other side of his life, probably because I saw how it reflected my own condition, and I didn't want to admit the truths of what could be. I'm also no longer annoyed with Sirius. I finally understand why so many mourned his death, and I resent instead those who did not see how depressed his entrapment must have made him. Those who could do something about it, which his fifteen-year-old godson could not.

And maybe that's why I'm immersing myself in fanfic. because fanfic authors see the trials of both men. They explore Remus's pain, his loss, and his attempts to keep Sirius sane in spite of everything. They examine the tedium of Sirius's confinement, the mistakes he made, and the mistakes others made. They admit that even in the magical world adulthood is not easy, or perfect, or even desired, but it can be okay. And, of course, all of these elements are also part of the Potter books, which I plan to reread during my recovery. There are many types of lives within those pages, and an invalid twenty-four-year-old can find herself in them the same way an awed nine-year-old could.

Going back to the world of Harry Potter is like coming home, in a way, but it's also like seeing a friend again after so many years and discovering that they've changed, and yet you still have more in common than you ever thought possible. And, in a way, that friend is there to remind you that, in spite of everything, hope is possible and magic, of a sort, is real after all.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Avoidance

The other day, my mom mentioned that I hadn't updated my blog in a while and suggested that I do so. I think she did it to try to give me additional ideas for occupation--I need them these days--but, really, attempting to write here more frequently will hopefully solve several of my current problems.

But why should I, a newly-employed young professional, need a list of ways to spend her time? Simple. I'm no longer employed.

A sudden development, I know, when you consider that I'd only gotten the job three months ago, but it has a fairly understandable explanation. My spinal surgery was supposed to take place on August 26th, but it got postponed because of issues related to my July hospitalization. It's now scheduled for October 1st. I couldn't work through the interim, partially because I'd be in pain, and partially because I have to avoid getting another sore that could lead to infection. Unfortunately, I hadn't finished my ninety day probationary period, and so there was no way for them to give me the extended leave I'd need to cover the additional four weeks of waiting plus the (at least) six weeks of my recovery. So, the best option was for me to exit gracefully. I might be able to be rehired once I'm well. We'll see.

Either way, I'm unemployed. And although having the next four weeks free would seem to be a great opportunity for a writer, the pain makes it difficult to find a good position for writing or revising. I'm querying, but other than that I've spent a lot of time lately staring listlessly at a Scrivner file and not working on it. My plan is to start something new as soon as I can post-surgery. Still, the guilt lingers. I'm a writer. I should be writing.

And that's what I'm doing here. Writing about the things I've avoided talking about, and hoping it's enough to convince myself that I'm still a writer.