le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

white privilege has got to go

An article reposting a blog by a local (Pittsburgh) teacher, about engaging with his students about Michael Brown, Ferguson, the grand jury's spectacular failure.  Teacher is white, class is largely "minority."
"One boy asked me, “Why does this keep happening, Mr. Singer?”
It was the question of which I had been most afraid. As a teacher, it’s always uncomfortable to admit the limits of your knowledge. But I tried to be completely honest with him.
“I really don’t know,” I said. “But let’s not forget that question. It’s a really good one.”"
THIS makes me really, really angry. It's nice that this teacher acknowledged michael brown, and ferguson, even if he did write a self-congratulatory post about it. But if you don't even try to answer the question of WHY this keeps happening, you haven't done anything except emote. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and has its place. But emotion alone doesn't get shit done. It doesn't change anything. The answer to WHY - which is, in a nutshell, centuries of institutionalized racism! - is not comfortable, because it makes every white person complicit. And dodging the answer to "Why" is itself a kind of complicitness. At the very least, it's white privilege of a kind I discussed here.

Because we are. We benefit, every single day, from the oppressions of non-white people in this country. We have since before America was independent. We benefit from the historic oppression - slave labor contributed enormously to the economic development of the US, for starters. We benefit from years of Black people being denied the right to vote (because who gets elected? white people, who make laws and appoint people that serve white people's interests, because they are either outright racist, or are blind to the needs of Black/nonwhite people). All the weird-ass housing laws that kept Black people from owning homes in certain neighborhoods. All the jobs Black people weren't allowed to hold. All the underfunded, subpar schools Black children attended, segregated. It all adds up over time.

Like I said a week ago, I'm really sick of the term "white privilege." I think it obscures what's really happening - because things like being able to walk through a store unaccosted by security guards, like buying a toy gun without being shot and killed, like seeing people who look, talk, and act like you on tv and in books - those things aren't really privileges. They are HOW EVERYONE SHOULD LIVE.
Privilege means you have more than the norm. you are +1. Privilege is that guy with the gold-plated toilet seat or whatever it was.
Privilege is having the manager greet you at the door, escort you through the store, jump you to the head of the line.

One of the reasons stupid white people get all sniffy about "white privilege" (like this jackass from Princeton) is because they don't see themselves as HAVING privileges. And many of them don't, to be honest. They have what all people should have, which is the ability to move through and in the world and be viewed as a fully human, fully normal, member of society. They don't have excessive riches, or important connections, or country club memberships, or summer homes on Martha's Vineyard, or whatever else marks the wealthy elite. A lot of white people have had to work hard, very hard, to get where and what they have. But the thing they - we - don't see or feel is that even in a life full of hardship, we are still benefiting from the color of our skins. And we are benefiting at the expense of very real, very human, non-white people. We always have been.

Thinking of enjoying basic human rights as a form of privilege is a kind of red herring, I think. Rights, by definition, aren't privileges. And yes, when they are distributed or applied to only one segment, then that segment becomes "privileged" over others - but I still don't think privilege is the right word.

White privilege makes it - of course it does - all about us, white people, again. It's about what we have. It's about our stories.

What we need is a term that shows what effect our stories have on non-white people. We need a term that makes us not privileged, but culpable.  We need terms that reveal the effects and stories of Black people without victimizing them all over again - so not calling them victims, or the oppressed, or disadvantaged (though those terms apply).

I don't know what the word is. Or phrase. It isn't that we as white people are committing crimes - though some of us are, murdering police of this country I am looking right at you - against Black people. It isn't even that we need to be made to feel guilty (though we should feel some kind of guilt). We need to be made to see and feel that we are doing and benefiting from something very, very wrong, that was set in place before any of us were born, that we've grown up in, that we are a part of whether we think we are or not.

The only word I can think of that describes the effect white privilege has on non-white people is outrage. I know "outrage" has other connotations, specifically rape, that is problematic. But "outraged" seems accurate, more or less, based on the blogs and posts and tweets and articles I've been reading. Weary, and outraged.

I want a term that shows how our privilege comes at the expense of other people. I want a term that doesn't make it seem like we have something special, just by having basic human rights; I want a term that shows how those basic human rights are denied, again and again and again, to Black people. But I want that term to carry culpability. I want a term the makes really, really clear that the white world isn't the only world, and that it has been constructed, continues to be carried out, in ways that intentionally and otherwise hurt non-white people.

I don't know how to articulate this properly, except to say I don't want the kind of privilege that means black kids can be shot dead for almost literally no reason at all. That I don't want to think of being able to walk across campus unharassed as a privilege - because it's a right. Civil rights movement, you know? But we need a word or phrase that makes explicit not what we're getting, as white people, but what we are denying to nonwhite people. What our society has been denying to nonwhite people.

Because what we've been doing, all these years, is NOT LISTENING. We have not been listening to the stories of Black people and Latino people and Asian people and Native people. We think we have been, but we've been doing that thing where you listen with half your attention, and cherry-pick words and ideas. And we're picking all the wrong words and ideas. We think we know what's up, and we don't. We really, really don't. In my last post, I mentioned a few examples of things I have learned, in the last 18 months or so, from some Black acquaintances and friends. Every new revelation was like a ton of bricks for me - I didn't know! and But that's insane/terrible! and - this is the big one!!! - I've never thought about that before.

We need a word that takes our attention off our own enjoyment of basic rights, and focuses it on the things we've never thought about before. And the way - or a way - we do that is by getting out of our own, earnest, do-gooding way and let Black people speak for themselves. To themselves, and to us. Tell their stories, loudly, often, everywhere. If we're so dense as to need it spelled out, they can include an Aesop-like "and the moral of this story is" at the end of their anecdote about showing IDs, being stopped for driving while black, being followed around stores, being called names, being insulted, being the only one in the room who isn't white, and on and on.

There are lots of stories. So many stories. We know some names right now - Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice - but for each of those boys (and they are boys, 'young men' is stretching it, a distinction I'm sure they would hate if they were alive to hear me make it) --- for each of those boys, there are dozens and hundreds and thousands of people, men, women, old, young, dead for centuries now, or only born since the millennium, who have story after story after story to tell. White people are not the heroes of any of those stories.

But there are so many stories, and we've been allowed, we have allowed ourselves, to ignore them for far too long. We've been allowed to, have allowed ourselves, to make a mess, then close the door on the room the mess is in - because out of sight, out of mind.

We need to mind. We need to be made to mind. I don't know what that will take, but I think it will have to be very loud and very big and very disruptive. It's the only way, I think, that white privilege will start to disappear as a thing of the present, and become a thing of the past, before we started listening -really listening - to other people's stories. Before we learned how we were hurting people, even when we didn't mean to, even when we didn't know we were doing it.

Because we're hurting people. We're hurting a lot of people, and we're killing some of them. And that should not be anyone's privilege.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

it all depends on the skin you're living in

There's been a lot of chatter and anger and confusion and efforts at soothing in the children's lit world lately, after Daniel Handler's racist jokes at the National Book Awards, when he was introducing Jacqueline Woodson, who won for her Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir, I think, though I have yet to read it (I am very, very far behind and out of the loop with children's & YA books this year). I haven't watched the video or read the complete text of Handler's remarks, because I don't need or want to know specifically what he said, because I can guess, from the dozens or hundreds or thousands of instances of casual racism I've heard over the years.

Over on child_lit, this has been a hot topic of discussion, and I originally meant to stay quiet, to keep out of it, but then I kept seeing people - on list and elsewhere - use the word "mistake" to describe Handler's remarks, and I had to say something, and the something is pasted here.
I've been thinking about this a lot because:
1) I really, really like Lemony Snicket, and when Daniel Handler spoke in Pittsburgh last year, he was phenomenally brilliant and insightful.
2) I think a lot about race, and about all the things white people don't know. The last year and a half, I've learned so many stupid, terrible, hurtful, complicated things - many of them taking the form of what I suppose would be called micro-aggressions - about specifically Black experiences in the US that I am shocked at my ignorance and at the SO. MANY????! ghastly ways white privilege (white power, white advantage - privilege almost sounds too benign) makes itself felt against people who are not white.
3) I'm fascinated by the ways we - and by we I mean white people who study/read/love children's lit - are trying so hard to reconcile those stupid-ass racist jokes with a writer and public figure who, in so many other ways, is fantastically awesome.
4) I keep seeing Handler's remarks referred to as "mistakes." No, a mistake is saying Jacqueline Woodward, instead of Woodson, or something similar. It wasn't a mistake, but I also don't think it was intentional -- I think it was a failure of consciousness that seems to me hugely common and hugely worth thinking about.

To ME what seems most important - or at least most interesting - is that actually the kinds of dumb casually racist jokes Handler made are made ALL THE TIME, and very often by people who are really quite decent, people who probably feel that they are anti-racist, or liberal/progressive, or whatever you want to call it. But white power/advantage/privilege *as a mode of thought* is so, so deeply entrenched in so many small awful ways that, for most white people, it really does not stick out the way more obvious racist *actions* or statements do.

This isn't to let Handler off the hook, but to say: we have A LOT to do. A LOT. It's not enough to be a white ally who knows that "driving while black" is racist, or that just because we have a mixed-race president, racism isn't over, etc.
We need - and by "we" I mean white people who are, or want to be, allies - to sit down and shut up and let the people who feel the effects of white privilege explain to us *exactly* what they're feeling. Like:
Don't share all your good ideas in a meeting, because as the only Black person in the group, you need to have a trick or two up your sleeve in reserve, because you have to do twice as much to be considered just as good as the white people.
Or: Black faculty wearing or displaying prominently their faculty ID, so they don't get stopped by cops and asked what they're doing walking around an Ivy League campus at night.
Or: You have to wear your hair in just the right way, that requires a lot of styling and work, because wearing it natural is "threatening" -- and you might not get hired, or you might not get promoted, if you look "too black."
Or: it's not really a great discovery when a Black person discovers one of their ancestors was a Famous White Man because, hey look, the Famous White Man owned slaves and almost certainly ended up in the family tree via rape.

Maybe other white people think about this stuff all the time, but I kind of doubt it. But Black people live this, experience this, all the time, and we as white people are (mostly unconsciously) MAKING them experience this. That needs to change.

Which, I guess, is an incredibly verbose way of saying #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

But we also need to do more than crank out some Benetton-ad-style books. I think we need to be shown all the things that white privilege has caused, has created, all the things we, as white people, would never think of (wearing my school ID visibly? NEVER ever ever crossed my mind to do such a thing. Never crossed my mind that there could ever be a reason why I'd need to do such a thing, why *anyone* would need to). The diverse books - and films, and tv shows, need to do more than just teach us all that Really, We're All Just People Living in This Crazy World, or Black People: They're Just Like Us! or some gross heartwarming cliche.

Daniel Handler isn't exactly the problem; the problem is the culture and ways of thinking that Daniel Handler is both a product and producer of. And that means that WE are the problem.

I'm tired of calling it white privilege. It's not a privilege, to me, to know that my friend has been stopped for driving while Black. it's not a privilege to be able to walk down the middle of a street at noon unaccosted, when a Black kid who does the same thing ends up with six bullets in his body, dead in a pool of blood on the road for no reason at all. It isn't a privilege to never have to ask myself "Did I get this job/bonus/gift/promotion/award just because I'm white?" While every day, non-white people are accused of "taking" jobs away from white people who were "more qualified" (because of their white skin, presumably), while non-white people have to worry in both directions: Did I get this because I'm black/brown/Asian/Indigenous? as well as: Did I not get this because I'm black/brown/Asian/Indigenous?

One trick therapists use is removing the word "not" from patients' vocabulary. Because when you say "not," your brain - evidently - just erases the 'not' and focuses on the thing. So: I will not eat cake, in your brain, just becomes: I will eat cake. Or simply CAKE!!!!!!!!!! It's the "don't think about a purple hippopotamus" trick.
And I think white privilege, as a phrase AND as a thing we live everyday, has been functioning as a "not."

Calling it white privilege focuses on what we get. It doesn't focus on what non-white people lose, have taken, have stolen; it doesn't focus on the fact that white privilege is actually actively hurting and killing people, and that it is allowed to do so. 

I don't want that kind of privilege. And I don't think that calling the ability to murder black children with impunity a "privilege" comes anywhere close to doing the work that needs to be done, the work of white Americans shutting the hell up, and listening, and feeling, and realizing that we've been benefiting from an almost-invisible (to us) rotten, nasty, system; and that, far more importantly than the benefits we barely see - FAR more important - we are hurting people. Hurting, and killing, real, actual, human beings.

That's not privilege. That's abuse. And it doesn't matter if you are a white person who has never shot a black teenager, if you are a white person who grew up in poverty, a white person who never uses racist phrases or makes racist jokes, a white person who has A Black Friend - you, that is WE, are still causing harm.

post title is a line from "Blink Your Eyes" by Sekou Sundiata. He performs it in this video; watch and listen.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

manic pixie dream boys

Since I started really applying myself to reading YA, in spring/summer 2010, one of the tropes I find myself laughing/shaking my head at a lot is the New Boy whose hair falls into his (green) eyes, who is well-liked, popular even, but still enigmatic, who has Wisdom and Knowledge, probably from Sad Experience, who recognizes the flawed/broken heroine protagonist as flawed/broken, and still cares about her, and helps her recover from whatever her particular trauma is.
This boy often has a name like Jake or Mason or Charlie or Connor. He is, as are the heroines, pretty much always white. He often has some kind of vaguely artistic or intellectual pursuit - perhaps he is always reading Russian literature, or taking photographs with an old manual SLR, or strumming a guitar. He is not a butch jock, but can often play impromptu games of basketball or baseball or soccer well, or maybe he goes for long solitary runs. His hair falls into his eyes. Possibly he has a dimple. Frequently, he loans a jacket or hoodie to the heroine, who then spends time smelling it and feeling comforted by it. Usually, he and the Heroine are at odds with each other, maybe put together by a science project or the school newspaper or an art assignment; they bristle at each other, they become reluctant friends, then of course realize they are In Love.

He's a stereotype, a trope, and I think he is the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl - in other words, a function to change the course of the protagonist's life.
Recently, the man who coined the term MPDG, Nathan Rabin, apologized for it and wished to pull it from pop culture. I appreciated his reasons, but since I have never heard nor thought of MPDG in a positive way - it is always antifeminist, it always reduces the female to precisely a dream of the hetero male protagonist/viewer/gaze - I don't feel a need to pull it from circulation. I think it's a useful way of describing a specific trope that occurs very frequently.
I don't know what the male equivalent of this should be called - he isn't manic, he's usually quite calm and collected; he isn't a pixie (but what is the 'masculine' equivalent of pixie?); he IS a dream; and of course, he's a boy, not a girl.
He's not identical to the MPDG, either, because he plays a more serious role: he saves the heroine from self-sabotage. He doesn't bring sunshine and silliness into her life, he brings a life preserver and a solid rock to anchor it to. He is, ultimately, more important than the MPDG, because without him, the heroine would, perhaps, become suicidal, would die, would never identify the rapist/murderer who traumatized her, would never admit to, and seek professional help for, the psychological problems or mental illness from which she suffers. In other words, he saves her life - he rescues her, and he pushes her along to recovery, always standing by her side.
In a lot of ways, he's actually quite like Prince Charming or any other knightly figure who swoops in to save the damsel in distress. He's just figured in a way that doesn't make him look quite so domineering. But he has the power/agency - without him, her story would not continue. Without the Dream Girl, the hero of the story will go on - perhaps boringly, perhaps with an unpleasant wife and children, but not suffering psychological torment or PTSD.

I would like a term to identify this guy, so we can get him the hell out of there.
I like a cute, intellectual boy with hair that falls into his green eyes as much as the next hetero girl, but he's a FICTION. Very few boys OR girls are as wise and sensitive as he is while they're in high school, or as willing to stick it out over the long haul while the girl is hospitalized with an eating disorder or whatever. But this is not the worst of the problem with him -

The real problem is that still, even in books with smart, clever, interesting female protagonists, they need a Man to Save The Day. Why can't a heroine come to terms with her grief over accidentally killing her sister through a relationship with a good friend, or a mentor, or a cousin, or an aunt? Why don't any of her friends, or any of the women in her life, recognize her depression/trauma/helplessness? Why does it take the arrival of a mysterious, hot new boy for anyone to realize our Heroine is in trouble, unhappy, ill?

Why do our female protagonists still need a man, even a teenage boy, to give them a sense of value, worth, purpose, place in life?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Hardly a new issue, but the abundance of quotes zooming around the internet that are not attributed, incorrectly attributed, inaccurately sourced or documented is immense, and infuriating. I hadn't seen this one before, though, and now I'm really annoyed.
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! In every place I've seen this where a source is mentioned, it is attributed to Lewis Carroll.

Those lines seem to be in Tim Burton's rather dreadful 2010 adaptation of Alice, spoke by the Mad Hatter and Alice, respectively.

This particular image pairs the fake Carroll quote with one of John Tenniel's original illustrations for the 1865 publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I also saw the quote with Tenniel's illustration of Alice talking with the Cheshire Cat, while he is perched in a tree. THAT illustration comes at the end of Chapter 6 "Pig & Pepper," and is when Alice and Cheshire Cat have their discussion about madness.
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't be here."

Getting the attribution correct matters. Carroll didn't write the "Have I gone mad" quote. It's from a bad movie made four years ago. I knew it was wrong the moment I saw it, because I have read and/or taught *Alice* 300 million times (not an exaggeration). I know every line in that book absurdly well. And "bonkers"? come ON.
It's quite easy to check the text, as well, if you don't trust me: the text is free on Project Gutenberg, and you can do a find/search for the words from the quote.

If you love the Tim Burton quote, fine! Just don't say it's from Lewis Carroll. If you want to quote the original Carroll text on the subject of madness, Alice's conversation with the Cat is perfect.

Give credit where it's due. Care about accuracy. Words matter, and so do the people who write or say them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle + No Future

I'm jumping happily onto the Grasshopper Jungle bandwagon; I read it over the weekend and loved it, of course. I love Austin and Robby as characters; I love Austin's histories; I love Eden Five Needs You 4; I love that this is a book that stars a bisexual teenager (bisexuals get short shrift everywhere); I love that sperm and balls are major plot points/motifs. I love that, very late in the book, there is a wonderful small clever joke referring to a whaling accident. I love that the book manages to be funny, anxious, deeply loving, dissatisfied, and completely horny all the time. I love that everything makes Austin horny. I am dying to teach this book already, though I anticipate students disliking the - what should I call it? omniscient isn't the right word - multidimensional? view and knowledge of history that Austin has, which is one of the things I loved most about the book. Austin is writing from a kind of 360 degree view of history - the only way I can describe how it felt to me as a reader is the way that certain video games and google street view and things allow you to rotate your view in every direction. Austin sees the past, the present, the future - they are both diachronic and synchronic. Everything is always happening, everything has always already happened, everything will always have happened. It's great and a bit dizzying. Andrew Smith has knocked everyone's socks (and Eden jumpsuits) right off with this novel, and all the praise he and the book have gotten are totally deserved.

The thing I mainly want to say is that Grasshopper Jungle and Lee Edelman's No Future belong together. Late last night this occurred to me - the "no futureness" of the book, the dying Iowa town, all those lost balls and discarded sperm, the "unstoppable" everything, the fact that it is a record, as Austin tells us immediately, of the end of the world. There is a smidgen of reproductive futurity in the book, but not in a way that really makes the reader believe in that future. Grasshopper Jungle, with its gay hero Robby, and its bisexual narrator Austin, and the lurking megalomaniac Dr McKeon are all figures of non-futurity. What I find wonderful and curious is that Smith somehow makes this non-futurity seem, if not exciting or positive, then far from bleak. This is not an unhopeful book, though it is not a hopeful one, either. It is an exercise in synchronicity, in apophenia, in lines converging, crossing.
But it is not for one moment a book where Our Hero takes the Romantic Interest by the hand, and steps out into the sunshine and into the bright new future. There is something Else in Grasshopper Jungle.  I don't know what it is, exactly, other than queer, though queer doesn't seem totally accurate. It's been several years since I read Edelman carefully, and I don't have time to revisit him now, but I think if you put No Future and Grasshopper Jungle alone in a room together, some kind of exciting and intriguing critical reaction will take place.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

If you liked The Fault in our Stars....

A friend just asked my opinion on this list from mashable of "9 YA Books To Read if You Loved The Fault in our Stars."  It's an okay list - Eleanor & Park; Winger; Wintergirls; The Spectacular Now; An Abundance of Katherines. I haven't read every title, but I've read a bunch, and read about a few others.

But because I'm me, I made my own list of 13 YA Books To Read if You Loved The Fault in Our Stars, and it is:
*Jellicoe Road,* by Melina Marchetta
 *Going Bovine* by Libba Bray 
*Life As We Knew It* by Susan Beth Pfeffer (first in her Moon trilogy)
 *Boy 21* and/or *Sorta Like a Rock Star* by Matthew Quick *The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen* by Susin Nielsen. 
*Where Things Come Back* by John Corey Whalen
*Why We Broke Up* by Daniel Handler, with amazing illustrations by Maira Kalman. (Handler, of course, is Lemony Snicket). 
 *This is not a test* by Courtney Summers
*Last Night I Sang to the Monster* or *Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood.* by Benjamin Alire Saenz 
*The Last Summer of the Death Warriors* by Francisco X. Stork
*The First Part Last* by Angela Johnson

And not technically YA, but about children and teenagers for much of the book - *Never Let Me Go* by Kazuo Ishiguro

Thursday, June 05, 2014

choosing my battles

Slate.com posted an awful short article by Ruth Graham, titled "Against YA" which instructs adults to be "Embarrassed to Read Young Adult Books." Graham writes many tiresome things which mainly reveal her poor critical skills and her lack of knowledge of YA lit, but the one I'm choosing to reply to is this:

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists. Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.
 A lot of YA and children's fiction end on an "up" note. There's at least a thread of hope, or hopefulness, injected into the conclusion of even the grimmer YA novels (Peter Cameron's fantastically good Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You) may be the best example. On the other hand, novels like Mockingjay inject a grim note into an *apparently* hopeful ending.
One could argue that, if you consider that most YA fiction is either narrated or focalized by an adolescent, the hopeful ending is the most realistic: at age 16 or 14 or 19, most of us do believe that things will get better, than upward progress is the really the only progress or trajectory our lives can take. Lack of experience is one thing that makes this perspective possible, and Graham's reaction to the "up" ending as unsophisticated and stupid makes the old mistake - one I am increasingly annoyed with - of confusing "lack of experience" with "stupidity."

But the real point I want to make is this: a great deal of adult fiction has an up ending. Almost every piece of popular fiction - film, book, tv - ends on an up note. Even the classics, which Graham seems to regard positively, do this. Jane Austen? Courtship novels end with a wedding. They end with happy couples about to embark on their lives together. Shakespeare? Well, the tragedies and histories don't exactly leave us chortling with delight, but the comedies? End with weddings. Happiness. Looking forward to the future.
How about Charles Dickens, my own beloved? Has Ruth Graham ever read any Dickens? Our Mutual Friend, or Bleak House, or The Old Curiosity Shop? Nicholas Nickleby? The impossible coincidences, inheritances, legacies, couplings, weddings - even when they recall sorrow (Little Nell's death) it's through a haze of happiness (Kit and Barbara's pairing, Dick Swiveller and his Marchioness).
Crime and Punishment has an up ending, for heaven's sake. So does Robinson Crusoe and Paradise Lost and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Wordsworth's Intimations Ode and Jane Eyre. I think you could make a case that The Great Gatsby has an up ending. Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, undoubtedly a complex and sophisticated novel, has an up ending.

Of course there are classics that don't end happily, with all loose ends tied up. Henry James is quite the purveyor of these - Portrait of a Lady, for example. Wuthering Heights, with all those miserable vile characters.

But the stories that are popular - they don't end in wrack and ruin, for the most part. I know this because I actually really like stories that end bleakly. A friend once said "It's a good movie if, at the end, you kind of feel like you want to die." And yes! This is true! One of the greatest movies I know, and also one with the bleakest ending I can think of, is the Russian film The Thief. It is a tremendous film, and ends terribly. It's great.
But who has seen The Thief? Much more likely that you've seen Love, Actually, or There's Something About Mary, or Star Wars. And the books, the fiction, that people read: most of it has satisfying, unambiguous conclusions. The couple get together/get married/reaffirm their relationship. The criminal is caught. Justice is delivered. The world is saved. Even in stories where there's something sad/difficult/devastating - say, maybe, Armageddon, there's an up ending - because the Youth will Go Forward Into a Bright Future.

Pretending that "adult" literature is sophisticated and complex and challenges triteness at every turn is absolutely dishonest in every sense of the word. The only way you could really believe this is to never have read any books at all. "Snobbish" doesn't come close to beginning to describe what's going on, if you're trying to stake a claim for the sophistication of the endings of adult fiction as opposed to that for younger readers.

Monday, April 21, 2014


Things have been quiet here for awhile; I try not to get too personal here, so I'll only say my absence has been due mainly to the sudden and unexpected death of my mother in early February. The disruption in my life this has caused has been, to say the very least, considerable. I've also been quite busy with teaching this semester; both courses meet three days a week, which makes every day except Saturday into a teaching/prep day. I've chosen to teach books that, for the most part, I've never taught before, too, so that has required more prep than usual (I also misjudged and assigned several very long YA texts for my Representing Adolescence class). I did a week of picturebooks in my Childhood's Books class, the first time I've ever taught picturebooks in such a concentrated way. I often use Where the Wild Things Are as a way to teach/demonstrate close reading, but rarely as part of the canon of children's literature (I also did Green Eggs and Ham and David Wiesner's The Three Pigs - I had a fantastic week doing prep for picturebook week). I have also realized that I am terrible at teaching Diana Wynne Jones, for all that I passionately love her books; my critical faculties just wilt in the face of her brilliance. I tried teaching Charmed Life, and they were underwhelmed. The only Jones book I have had any luck with teaching is (of course) Howl's Moving Castle. I don't know what to call it if something is both your weak spot and your favorite thing, but Diana Wynne Jones is mine. I think I can live with this.

I've been thinking a lot about adolescence and high school and YA and YA dystopian fiction; I had the incredible good fortune to have a fantastic group in my Representing Adolescence class, and our discussions were consistently thought-provoking and intriguing. I've been working on some of my ideas about dystopian YA, and hope to post that before too much longer. I also have my dissertation to work on, as well as converting some papers and draft chapters into articles for submission. A busy summer of work ahead, which is good.

In the meantime, Jonathan Auxier has a new book coming out in May, and he is writing about becoming a writer - "After the book deal" - on blogs around the internet - check out what he has to say (he's quite smart). The book, The Night Gardener, has been getting very, very good advance buzz, and I'm keen to get my hands on a copy; I've already placed a hold on a library copy.

Thus the quietness around here, and the plans, or hopes anyway, for making at least a little bit of noise in the near future.

Monday, March 10, 2014


I was surprised this morning to see anything at all about Sandy Hook in the news; when I saw that the father of the shooter had done an interview with Andrew Solomon, I wanted to read it. Solomon is the author of Far From the Tree, which is an interesting if overlong look at children who are different from their parents in some substantial way. Solomon profiles autistic kids, down syndrome kids, deaf kids, severely disabled kids, transgender kids, kids who are the result of rape (possibly the most disturbing chapter, honestly), kids who commit crimes. I liked the book, and Solomon's writing and thinking, enough to want to read this interview with Peter Lanza.

The article is semi-lengthy, and I was appalled by it. And sad. Really, really sad. Because from Peter's recountings, Adam had issues for a very, very long time. Being diagnosed with Asperger's seems to have allowed his parents to pigeonhole all of his behaviors under that classification, and to ignore things that were inconsistent with "just" Asperger's.
Maybe I would have thought differently had I not read Solomon's book, but the thing that stood out the most for me in reading Peter's interview was how little he seemed to understand his son. Not even his son, post-mass murder/suicide. But his son as a kid and teenager who CLEARLY had problems beyond Asperger's or autism or any tidy diagnosis. For instance:
"According to the state’s attorney’s report, when Adam was in fifth grade he said that he “did not think highly of himself and believed that everyone else in the world deserved more than he did.”"
"He said that he hated birthdays and holidays, which he had previously loved; special occasions unsettled his increasingly sclerotic orderliness. He had “episodes,” panic attacks that necessitated his mother’s coming to school"

Peter says: "“It was crystal clear something was wrong,” Peter said. “The social awkwardness, the uncomfortable anxiety, unable to sleep, stress, unable to concentrate, having a hard time learning, the awkward walk, reduced eye contact. You could see the changes occurring.”"
"uncomfortable anxiety" seems like rather an understatement for panic attacks that sent him home from school.

"“Adam was not open to therapy,” Peter told me. “He did not want to talk about problems and didn’t even admit he had Asperger’s.”"

and this: "“If he had been a totally normal adolescent and he was well adjusted and then all of a sudden went into isolation, alarms would go off,” Peter told me. “But let’s keep in mind that you expect Adam to be weird." "

He describes his son as "weird" repeatedly.

When he was sixteen, his mother wrote: "“He had a horrible night. . . . He cried in the bathroom for 45 minutes and missed his first class.” Two weeks later, she wrote, “I am hoping that he pulls together in time for school this afternoon, but it is doubtful. He has been sitting with his head to one side for over an hour doing nothing.”"

"“He was exhausted and lethargic all day, and said he was unable to concentrate and his homework isn’t done,” she wrote. “He is on the verge of tears over not having his journal entries ready to pass in. He said he tried to concentrate and couldn’t and has been wondering why he is ‘such a loser’ and if there is anything he can do about it."

The thing that most struck me in the relation of Adam's past was this snippet:
when Nancy told Peter that Adam had been crying hysterically on the bathroom floor, Peter responded with uncharacteristic vehemence: “Adam needs to communicate the source of his sorrow. We have less than three months to help him before he is 18. I am convinced that when he turns 18 he will either try to enlist or just leave the house to become homeless.” Nancy replied, “I just spent 2 hours sitting outside his door, talking to him about why he is so upset. He failed every single test during that class, yet he thought he knew the material.”
And that....seems to be the end of the story. "communicate his sorrow"? What a peculiar and cold choice of words. A sixteen-year-old boy crying hysterically, talking about himself as a loser and pointless, locking himself into his room and refusing to eat -- and "communicate his sorrow" is what they looked for? The mom's reaction, too, is so strange: Failing a bunch of tests when you think you knew the material would definitely be upsetting. But hysterical crying? And the locking-out of his mother and not eating had been happening before this.
There's just such a fundamental misunderstanding between Adam and his parents that it's excruciating to read. Solomon focuses mainly on this history's absence of warning signs of violence, and in fact a number of doctors and other professionals who saw Adam never worried about violence.

Okay, fine. But - this is a distraught, disturbed kid. He had been prescribed anti-depressants and experienced side effects - after just a few days he stopped taking them and never would again.

Right around here - the refusal to acknowledge the asperger's diagnosis, the refusal to take meds coupled with the hysterical crying, the apparent self-loathing, the intense intense isolation - it's right here where I think: This kid should have been taken to an inpatient facility. If he refused to accept treatment at home so vehemently, then he should have been checked in to a psychiatric center where he could be treated against his will. Normally, I don't feel good about things like "treated against his will" but he was so clearly suffering, and his parents and he were so clearly incapable of dealing with it effectively on their own. And he was still a kid, 16 years old.

To me - and obviously I am not qualified to make any determinations - it sounds like Adam was having some pretty intense depression. That plus OCD plus the rather ominous phrase "his mother warned the school that he might not stop doing something because it hurt" -- that adds up to Something Is Very Wrong With Your Child.

And his parents weirdly - didn't ignore his issues, but somehow totally misread them. It seems both parents couldn't really accept that their kid was something more than "weird" - he needed specialized help. That instruction for him to "communicate his sorrow" fails so totally to recognize anything like clinical depression, where the "sorrow" is not communicable - it is deep in your bones and not always identifiable with a cause or reason.

The "shocker" of Solomon's interview, of course, is Peter's revelation that he wishes his son had never been born. Early in the article, Solomon notes that Peter has no photos of either of his sons in evidence in his house; Peter says "You can’t mourn for the little boy he once was."
Peter describes his son - not his son's actions, but his son - as evil.

And....I don't think you arrive at that point without years of maybe even subconscious priming for dislike or rejection.  The rejection of "mourning the little boy he once was" is so cold. It is such a total rejection and denial and abnegation of Adam, and of Peter's relationship with his son. Pop psychoanalysis is tacky and bad practice, I know, but my guess is that Peter was uncomfortable with, disappointed in, frustrated by his "weird" kid in ways that were very legible to that weird kid all along.

Look: it is not Peter's or Nancy's fault that adam murdered 27 people then killed himself. That was Adam. And it is profoundly horrible. I would not ever try to argue it isn't. But that isn't the issue here. It's the curious distaste and revulsion Peter expresses for his kid.
After Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and tried, his father wrote and spoke publicly about how difficult it was - because he loved his son but was horrified, naturally, by what he had done

Timothy McVeigh's father said, publicly, right up to (and probably after) McVeigh's execution that no matter what McVeigh had done, he was still his son, and he loved him. Even though what he did was terrible, abhorrent, ghastly beyond belief, totally at odds with everything his dad thought and felt and believed. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people, 19 of whom were children in a daycare, and injured hundreds more. He blew them up intentionally, purposely, with considerable planning beforehand. And yet his dad could still love him.

Why can't adam lanza's?

I'm not sentimental about children or parental love or any of that kind of thing. And in the end, it doesn't much matter to anyone except Peter how he feels about anything. And on the outside, even on the inner-outside as Solomon was, there's just no way of knowing what's really going on.

But to wish your child had never been born? to feel convinced that he would have killed you as well? I don't know. I don't know how you get there; I don't know how you get there in less than 15 months. I think years of failure to properly recognize and understand the profound difference between himself and Adam had a lot to do with this post-murder/suicide attitude. And I would bet money that Adam intuited, at some point, his father's dislike? discomfort? rejection? of him - and that probably added to the kid's suffering, which seems to have been considerable.
It's shocking, and depressing, how even in such a horrifyingly sad and upsetting story as the Sandy Hook murders, there's still room for one more sad story to get even sadder.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Pinocchio and Peter Pan: Aubrey Hirsch writes smart words

A lot of the people I know on facebook have small kids, some very small. They - the people I know, not the small kids - often post links to usually well-written but still tiresome essays and articles and blog posts about Being A Mom, or, less often, Being A Dad. I don't usually read all - or even any - of these pieces once I see the title and the source - websites with "babies" or "mommy" or "child" in the name.

Tonight I clicked through a link posted by a fellow grad student (now graduated), to a short piece written by another alumna of our department, an MFA who I do not know other than by her name, Aubrey Hirsch.
That piece is called "Why I Don't Think My Son Is Growing Up Too Fast," and it is terrific.
I don't need to comment much on it; it's brief and efficient. It's a little more mushy than what I normally prefer in my everyday life, but on the whole it's very reasonable. But it is a brilliant rebuttal, response, refutation of the parental lament about their babies growing up too fast.
Ever since I started seriously studying Peter Pan, in 1999, I have felt uneasy about perpetual children. Mrs Darling says it on the first page "Oh why can't you stay like this forever?" to toddler Wendy. But perpetual children are failures. If you never grow up, you never grow out, if that makes any sense. The sign of a parenting job well done is that your kid grows up and away and has its own life. It's why the narrator of The Little White Bird is so sorrowful over the "stealing" of David by Pilkington - once the child becomes enmeshed in its own life, away from guiding adults, it doesn't need or want those adults as much, even though the adults still need and want the child.
As Peter Pan also taught me, the only permanent child is the dead child - hardly the outcome hoped for by any parent.
What I admire about Hirsch's brief essay, aside from the blunt statement that she is content with her child growing up, is her statement that even if having a tiny kid is the ultimate, "then I’m not so selfish that I would keep him from having his own perfect moment with his own perfect child."
It is uncommon for me to read, or see, genuine unselfishness from parents like this. I think most parents feel something like it, and want to feel it, but it doesn't always register with the kind of sincerity Hirsch conveys. Having a kid - being responsible, creating, an entire human person - is about that person, not about you, and lots of people don't seem totally clear on that. The enormity of the task is one reason I don't want kids of my own; I am selfish enough to realize I don't want to organize my entire life, forever, around another person. I enjoy putting myself first, when I can.

After reading and delighting in this essay, I poked around a little for more info about Aubrey Hirsch and found a tantalizing reference to what she discovered lurking within the Pinocchio story. Which led me to this very short story, which has knocked my socks right off.

Pinocchio as trans.

Of course. Of course Pinocchio is trans. Of course Pinocchio is queer. Not just wooden puppet-to-human boy, but gender to gender.
Transformation stories are often queer-ish (The Velveteen Rabbit, the wonderfully queer Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse) but for some reason Pinocchio and trans never occurred to me in the same sentence. Hirsch's short story is a beautiful little commentary, re-telling (or just telling, maybe?), re-framing of the story we all know well. It's a reminder than the stories of transpersons are stories we know well. We all know what it is to feel like something other than what you seem to be, whether you're a nerd who wants to be a hero or a wooden puppet who wants to be human or a boy who knows she's a girl.
Hirsch's story makes Pinocchio and trans-ness both infinitely complex and elegantly simple. It's an "ah-ha!" and a thoughtful "ohhhhh." Exclamation and query. It is lovely. And brilliant.

I admit: the wonderfulness of her Pinocchio story makes me a bit afraid to seek out her collection of short stories (Why We Never Talk About Sugar), of which the publisher tells us: "Hirsch's compassion arrives on a knife blade. And you just may find your own heart cut open."

 Regardless of whether I ever read another word of her writing (I probably will), her 'Pinocchio' is enough to transform, forever, my thinking about that story. Go read it.