Promoting the “Other” When You Don’t Fit the Bill

nong-vang-577609-unsplash
Photo by Nong Vang

Storytelling is one of the most fundamental, universal aspects of the human species. We tell stories to learn what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes. The notion that you can’t tell someone else’s story is ludicrous, and so is the idea that you can’t learn someone else’s tales. Will you tell it the same as they could? Almost assuredly not. Does that make you any less genuine in intent or depiction? No. Does it make the story any less important? Hell no.

The key is consideration versus appropriation. Empathy is critical.

Example: a character should not be included simply because they are black, or trans, or bipolar. These are aspects, not the sum. A scene should not unfold where a character enters and we are left to think, “and here is the gay character.” It’s an aspect of who they are. It may be completely unimportant to the story you are trying to tell. Yet they are there, and they should be there, with stories to engage. That story should not begin and end with their gayness, blackness, mental illness, disability, etc., but hell if each of these traits don’t affect a person’s life to varying degrees. They are important. They matter.

We’re all human. We have love lives, yes. But we also have passions. Doubts. Fears. We have quirks and faults.

It is the sum of our capabilities and failures and deeds—not the prominence or lack of any one—which makes us who we are.

It is unfathomably tricky to write outside of who you are with the care it requires, but I also fully believe that those with the power and stage to write should, as well as working to open the doors to equal voices throughout, in the meantime, speak for those who can’t. To do so, they must work as hard as possible to be authentic. One of the main points of writing is, after all, to tell the stories of people we may not recognize, so we might better understand everyone.

The story is not about you, but it can be about people, as much as ideas and events.

The word of the day is nuance, and it should accompany any scribbles. Yet it is especially important when including the traditionally underrepresented – particularly if you aren’t one of them. I dare say it’s more important now than ever, as the world slides into an age of illiberalism and authoritarianism, lashing out at one and all seen as “the other.”

There are some out there who do take umbrage with people who write outside their element. Whether it is an extension of the belief that writing is experience and nothing more, or  addressing things beyond your own experience is disingenuous, or even using the idea as a convenient way to stifle inclusion, the fact is the uncertainty shows one important thing: it’s not easy. As such, if you’re not a member of the community you’re writing about, you must be amazingly respectful.

Note I don’t say “should.” I say “must.” Treat your subjects as any less than human for an instant, any sense of caricature, and that’s it. You’re done. That’s all she wrote. Pack up the bags and head home, because you just undid everything you were trying to do.

To those who say don’t do it, I say: as long as you recognize your space, your power, and your limitations, approach it from that. Be open to feedback, be prepared to accept criticism, but most importantly, work hard to do it right and open a space and opportunity for the voiceless to come forward.

To those who fear appropriation, I certainly can’t blame them, but I urge just as much caution. After all, to silence ourselves entirely for fear of facing appropriation anywhere, we lose chances left, right and center to learn about the myriad identities which make up our world. More people should be able to write and engage with who they are and what that means—but people should also be able to think and opine outside of who they are. Fiction lets us do that, and sometimes it does it wrong, horribly wrong, but the best writer acknowledges this when it happens and uses it as an opportunity for serious discussion.

So what it all comes down to is this: nuance is good. Engagement is good. One needs to do it without being insincere, but they do need to do it. All of us have a responsibility as creators and influencers to do better.

It is our responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.

Advertisements

Literary Rogues in a Bardic Market

the_bard
The Bard by John Martin (1817) – AKA, “STRUMMMMM!”

There are those among us—flamboyant, extroverted souls—for whom marketing and self-projection and sharing is, beyond all shadow of a doubt, a real knack. Certainly, it’s something that seems to be paramount for the modern age of communication, even amongst publishers eyeballing potential writers.

I am not one of those people. I have never had that privilege.

Sorry, potential publishers.

In regards to those I meet and bond with, I make a fierce, dedicated connection. If it’s in my power, I would do it for them. Yet I do not connect easily. I wrap myself in thick cloaks and try to go through life covered up, lest someone see something they don’t like. I can ask questions and assail political and fantastic intrigue with abandon; turn the question around on me, and I introvert hard.

In that way, I may be a writer in a world which prefers bards.

This may also be why I’m the rogue of most adventures. I do my best work in the shadows.

Which is a problem, because stories unite mankind.

When I was just starting out as a journalist, I remember one of my first editors told me a fun fact about local journalism.

“Honestly, we could kill the headlines, kill the articles, and most people wouldn’t mind,” he said. “So long as you have the obituaries and the sports and the puzzles, people will keep coming back for more.”

linda-lithe%e2%95%a0un-darantha
Roguish Art by Linda Lithen@Darantha (From the Critical Role Fan Art Gallery)

All of human existence is based on interaction, on the notion of society—finding ways to work together. Some cave person somewhere woke up one morning and went, “Bloody hell, I’ve been living next to that fellow down the mountain for 10 years; he could have figured out the means to ride sabretooth tigers, and I would never know.”

Stories make people more real to us. They break down fear and hate and grow empathy. The person sitting in the coffee shop reading about the 80-year-old former air force pilot in town who died this week isn’t doing it because he’s plotting out which zombies might be best for his necromantic army—he’s reading the story of someone he never got to know in life, learning of the wife and children left behind, the opportunities for other human interactions and adventures yet to be told.

Of course, it’s harder for a story to be heard when you’ve no audience at hand, isn’t it?

Apathy breeds discontent. It breeds fear. We don’t try because we’re afraid of what might happen. We’re afraid of what people might say. Somehow, the stigma of trying and failing has become worse than doing nothing at all—no matter how dependent we are on the outcome.

In my case, the whole matter isn’t helped by a severe clinical case of depression (which, like so many other personal details, I don’t talk about all that much publicly). I expect the world to have struggle. We all should. But my own mind struggles with me—it plays up the bad and laughs in the face of logic.

Of course it’s bad, it’ll say. No one cares. But it could certainly be worse…

And when people ask, that little voice is right there to remind me of the people who turned away because they were sickened by that hurt and weakness, and tell me it’s better to suffer in silence than be true. “I’m in pain” becomes “I’m fine,” and I become complacent in my own destruction.

Some rogue, setting off my own traps.

In a way, it’s the same with writing. You get what I put out there, what you see—not necessarily what is. Thus, for many writers, for performers, for the lot, it can all appear so effortless.

It’s not easy. Not for me. Not for a lot of people. There are days nothing more than sheer necessity allow me the strength to muscle out of bed. This past month, in the wake of the disastrous election, I’ve found it particularly difficult to write. Nothing comes without effort—there are whole days I spend struggling to convince myself I should exist. I feel like I’m drowning, flailing in a dire attempt to gulp one more mouthful of air.

Some days are easier, some days grueling. I try to create because it’s intrinsic to my being. The need is always there, but it is agonizing to do in the face of my own innards.

I stumble.

I fall down.

I break.

I fail.

You don’t see that, because of that introvert tendency.

But you need to understand that I’m human. The same as the person on the other side of that counter, as the child sulking in the corner of the playground, as you. I’m over here trying to tell myself this doesn’t make me weak.

It just means I need to be better about accepting and fessing up to my human failings. If that doesn’t make me the most desirable catch economically, well…

I’m just going to have to keep fighting through the terror and doubt to keep on living anyways.

In Captivity: Expectations

(Welcome to the dramatic conclusion of the Internet exclusive short story, “In Captivity.” Be sure to check out Parts One, Two, Three, Four , and Five if you need to catch up. Now we ask the final question: what is the difference between animal and man? Because at times, there may only be a trigger between them.)

So.

Here it is.

It’s like—somebody’s had the destiny talk with you, yeah?

Two men sitting at a table. There’s a gun between them. One of them’s got his finger on the trigger and one of them’s fish food. They know it. You know it. It’s just a matter of time.

And here we are. Call it the lonely end. Oh I teach and I preach and I call it good—but it’s not good. It’s never good. It’s never been good.

Because nobody ever acts. I talk and I talk and what do I get? There’s nobody like me. I’m me. You’re you, and look where we are. Here, handing your life over to someone else.

But you.

But you.

People walk in false securities. Success doesn’t breed success; it breeds an inevitability of failure. We don’t learn anything from success except that something we did worked. Once. Will it work again? That’s what we think we learn, but that’s not it. It comes. It goes. And there we are, wondering, hoping that finger on the trigger will be ours, and that our bodies had the sense to move move move out of the way.

But you.

Here we are. You and I. Sitting. And there’s the pistola between us. Oh, I wonder; will they kill him when he gets away? It’s possible. But pirates, call us sensible at least. They are like me in one way: loyalty is when we can gain from the moment. If there’s no gain, there’s no sense in the loyalty. And when I’m dead, there’s no gain in you. Just a silly white boy wriggling his way upstream.

But you.

The blood on your hands. Can you take it? It’s the question I never asked. Never ask. I can take it. I took it. And death? It comes for all. I knew it was coming for me the first time I made a head bloom red, fishy. I grew up in it. I thrived on it. It don’t bother me none; death is an old friend. He’ll shake my hand and say shit, what took you?

But there are people. They don’t get it. When you pull the trigger they think it changes them. Well it does. But not the way they think. It’s all just meat and blood and shit, but it does change. I mean, look at dogs—you train them their whole lives on kibble and bits, and they’re the good puppy. The loyal puppy. Give them the hunt. The warm rush of the kill. And there’s no going back. They’ve had the blood-taste, and there it is—the wolf that was. The animal.

You people train yourselves to be puppies. To be something less, and yet more, than natural. Me? I just embraced the other. The real. I didn’t hide behind names and titles and so much air. I did what I did and all the rest was—someone else. Something else.

I don’t know how you got out. I don’t care. It’s good to see. I’d rather it be this than some drugged out pisspot thinking he’s better’n me, yeah? Because I’d be old then. And if I’m old it’s me doing it wrong, you know? Animals—they don’t get the years men do.

So what are you? Animal or man? It’s a thing, Americana. It’s a thing. How you say: hot mess? Ha. Yeah. That’s what I’ll be. That’s what you’ll be. It’s in your eyes, but what’s truth? Guns—they make it easy. Too easy.

Humanity’s just a hairline trigger. And—

In Captivity: Sanity

(Welcome to Part 5 of the Internet exclusive short story, “In Captivity.” Be sure to check out Parts One, Two, Three, and Four  if you need to catch up.)

Just a little further now, fish. We’re almost there. It’s getting hotter, and that’s a good sign. And the tracks? Oh, you don’t see the tracks, but they’re there. Camels and shit and bones, I tell you. It might as well be Agrabah to you, but it’s destiny, my friend, because somewhere in there is a nice little man with a nice little fortune and he’s going to hand me dough for you. Your family? Your friends? They don’t even know you’re here. For all they know, you’re dead like all the rest—but you, you get to spend a lifetime unknown, forgotten, living as some old bag of wrinkles shoves his prick up your bag.

How’s that for fucked? Like two lives intersected at the same person but…one just keeps going, and the other—he’s stuck in neutral. Forever.

And it’s because you don’t make the choice. It’s coming, you know. All you got to ask is: which is better? Death or slavery? Now, it’s not an offer, fishy. I won’t let you die. Death is like life, you know? You take it. On your own terms, or it stretches you out good.

Sanity, you know, I hear one guy say it’s—it’s the ability to tell real from unreal. Isn’t that simple? Real and unreal. But what if you wake up one morning and everything that was real has changed? Say one morning you’re little miss priss, with a big bank account, and friends, and a little miss priss sucking your prissy prick, and then the next, bam, it’s…you’re here, and it’s all gone, and your clothes are burned up, your money don’t mean shit, your friends are dead, and your prick—well, it’s all for your own hand, buddy. And there’s this pirate. And you’ve never seen a pirate before, I mean—where’s the rum and shit, right? Where’s the boat?

That’s pretty crazy. I mean like, you tell me that, I say, you got a fucking problem in your head. That’s unreal.

Except it isn’t. You can’t pinch yourself awake. You see this little dot on the horizon getting closer and closer and you think it might be the light but it’s only shadow, and the sun’s beating you down and your skin’s breaking and all you can think is: when? WHEN? Because there IS no waking up. And inch by inch you come to think: but all these things I knew are gone, and all these new things, things that make no sense, they’re everywhere, but me…I’m still feeling all the shit.

And that’s when that line blurs. You don’t see it anymore, because you just don’t know. If there’s no control, how do you test? Yeah. Insanity, my friend. It’s as simple as a thought. You just keep picking away at that thought until it’s all you’re left with—because you can talk yourself right out of sanity. The moment you begin to wonder if it’s real—that’s when you know you’re a goner.

Sanity…shit, talk about a dream.

But that dot? It’s no mirage. It’s YOUR dream, and it’s coming for you, night by night. Pucker up, sweety. It’s not much further now.

In Captivity: Blindsided

(Welcome to Part 3 of the Internet exclusive short story, “In Captivity.” Part One and Part Two are in the links. Language warning.)

New foot. Clean slate. Wakey, wakey, little boy.

Look at that. What you wake to. Natural thing, that. You hide it quick, like the other fish have taught you to, but for that instant I could see it—the anger, raw. Like sushi, yeah? You could cook it up, but then it just wouldn’t be sushi anymore.

Why is it you Americans are so obsessed with sushi anyways? Like it’s part of your culture or something. Hipster. Hip-hop. Hippedy-fucking-hop. Hell, if somebody said no more sushi for you, you’d probably go to war with them. Uptight little pricks you are. Somebody threatens to make things a little harder, a little less tasty for you—even if it’s something you have never owned, never have the right to own—and you go kill for it.

And that’s okay! It’s only human. It’s a damn shitty thing to do, don’t get me wrong, fish-boy. But it’s only human. We want and we want until we convince ourselves it’s need. We’re all part of the same family but that don’t mean shit when little brother steals our toys or sis takes our lunch money.

Oh, oh, oh, I know, family’s everything. You’re right! They’ll always be in our hearts, so we convince ourselves everything we do is as much for them as for us. That in making ourselves better, well, we’re only making them better too, right? Because who’s not happy to see their little brother happy? Well that’s the thing. You let them into your heart and you know what happens?

Bam. Blindsided and back-stabbed, carved open and gutted like a fish every time. They may not mean to do it, but every time, they come, prodding you with their sorries and their what do we do, what do we do? Because oh, look at that, everything’s judged on the nature of choice. CHOICE. As though any of us have a fucking choice. We’re urges bottled up inside just waiting to burst and they think some CHOICE is going to change anything?

Well, of course they do, because they hope our choice will somehow help them. Cheeky bastards.

Just like you. You thought it was quite a choice to come here, didn’t you?

 

In Captivity: Drops in the Ocean

(Welcome to Part 2 of the Internet exclusive story, “In Captivity.” Part 1 can be found here. We find ourselves free of our cage-homes for the moment, stretching our legs as we flesh out a bit of the topic of humanity. Please, avoid any sudden movements.)

Empty Lake Bed, (from iDesign iPhone Wallpapers)
Empty Lake Bed, (from iDesign iPhone Wallpapers)

…Let me tell you—you don’t understand what war is. Keep moving, fish–it’s okay, we’re still good. I didn’t used to understand what it was either. It was the right bumper on a controller shaped perfectly to the needs of carpal tunnel, fueling the medical machine that led to–

What? WHAT? Am I boring you, motherfucker? Well it’s history time. So you be a good little boy and you keep those little legs moving and those little ears listening and I won’t take this gun and shove it up your…

Good. Good. You have no idea how much that pisses me off. Little pricks coming around here, thinking they own this turf. Isn’t a soul alive should dare to stick a dagger in this dirt no more, friend. If each man is an island, then you’re best calling this an archipelago. You know what that is, right? A chain of islands—dot,  dot, dot—but they’re not all lined up all pretty like some kid’s flipping drawing, no sir, they’re different, every one unique, shaped and carved to a different sort of perfection and scattered like grains of sands across the ruthlessness of the ocean.

But still they come. More drops. More islands. The chain keeps growing and I swear, sometimes, you just drop from the sky. We can’t all be fished out of the ocean, love, not like the little fish you are. Know how many times I’ve considered tossing you back in? Oh, but that wouldn’t do. Little prick, you’d probably just swim back up stream and then where would we be? Another island choking off my flow. Won’t do. Won’t do at all.

Oh, it’s a war alright. You can practically see the natives paddling out from their islands at the boatload, spears and machetes and whatever else that not so benevolent bastard in the sky took on himself to gift our vain and varied verdicts of vengeance.

And you’re—hey. HEY. You’re looking at me. What is it shooting around up there that makes you think you can look at me? Huh? Huh? I’m the one standing here, you little stain. You think this is a snake between my legs? It could blow your head off. A BABY COULD DO IT. Just tap tap a tune out on the trigger and there you go, and if you were out here and I was in there it could be you, but walls come for a reason, little man, and you were born on the wrong end.

Or swam into it. Whatever. Don’t make me mix up my metaphors, eh? I may never get them back and then you think you know angry but you don’t. You don’t get it at all, preppy, with your pretty shirt and your iTunes world.

I’m keeping that, by the way.

But the war. Oh yeah. The war. We’re all in it. Little fish fighting for the way upstream to fuck our way into oblivion on the off chance some new upstart little shit will do things better, do things right. Or the islands, yeah—so many, but beneath that sand and dirt is volcanic churning, waiting to get out. We’re going to BURST, man, and everyone’s screaming is it you or me, you or me, and you know what I say?

I say fuck you, you little shit. Crawl back into your cage and cry, because story time’s over.

War is nature. It blindsides you and it sweeps everything else away. The war is absolute, the reasons are secondary—the reasons change, but the war is unchangeable, predetermined. Animals, all of us. Put you in my place, with this gun, and yeah, my brains’d be splattered all over these bars. Ha! Now there’s a thought. Too bad, you know?

If I was anybody else, I’d probably root for you.

In Captivity: Hard Landing

(Some of you may remember my “In Captivity” internet exclusive segment from back in the day. For those of you who don’t [these were the wordpress.com days, after all–forgive my youth], I figured it was about time to ship it on over to the new digs.

The following is free flow dialogue. The images awaiting you will be what your own mind summons from its murky corners. It is one piece of a six part whole. Marvel, hiss, or shake a walker at me–but I hope you enjoy the step outside my usual domain.)

Dunes

Hard Landing

“Damn, son. And they thought I was crazy. But there’s no crazy like American crazy, lemme tell you. Whoosh. Just like that. Sea howls and the sky roars and you know what it spits out of that diarrhea-streaked fishbowl? You, like you think you’re some merman or something.

Well the desert isn’t no place for a fishy, boy. Fish boy. Yeah. I like that. You ever think of yourself like a fish, eh? Where’s the rest of your school, fish? What’s that? I can’t hear you. Let’s try again: WHERE’S THE REST OF YOUR SCHOOL, FISH? Oh, you look scared, man. I know. You think I’m crazy. I tell you lots of people think that, you smile or nod your head? Oh, but they don’t say it to my face, so you just remember that.

You want to know where the rest of your school is? Swam, swam away for the summer. That’s what you all wanted to do. Turistas, eh? It’s a funny thing when you think about it. ‘Mama, papa, I just want to be anywhere but with you for a while, and don’t you worry, it’s just me and my cock and a lot of sun. I’m responsible!’ Now that’s love. You don’t get it’s about family. It’s always about family.

And so now where’d all that crazy love get you? Here. Washed up in the middle of the fucking desert. Never saw that coming when you decided to play explorer now did you? Never saw yourself in a cage, no.

But that’s what happens. Americans. You all think the ocean is just like everything else. Manifest Destiny. Some fat old man, he says it’s sea to shining sea but some point came around, and someone else came up and they said sea to shining sea damn well best include the seas themselves and look what happens. It’s one big fucking party!

That is, until you’re two hundred miles off shot, and the world’s all storms, and you’re huddled in the smell of your own piss on your knees praying oh God, oh God, for the sake of the stars and stripes and my fathers and my little semen children save me, I’m a good and faithful shit, and only when the water’s up over your head and the sun’s blotted out of your sky do you begin to finally realize real religion: if there’s a God, he’s one vindictive little shit, or he doesn’t wear a red, white and blue suit.

It’s not all about the shiny but—hey, you know, I like the shiny, so, it’s not all bad, yeah?

I think your friends probably learned that already too. When you hit the rocks, you know, you usually don’t die right away. It takes time. The blood runs out until you can’t move anymore, or the bones break and you can’t move anyway, and all you can do is take this time before the sun or the hunger kills you, wondering, just wondering: what about me? What about my life? Why did I have to be sliced open like a fish?

Wriggle, little man. It’s what fish do. And there’s only so long you can breathe out of water.

But it’s good you’re here, you know? That you let me find you. It’s good. Real good. Gives us time for lessons, see. And it gives me opportunities. There’s a lot of money in the pretty lilies, samaki. Real big. And it’s fun, you know? That’s what we’re gonna have. Real fun.

Now let’s get that gag in. It’s a long way and you stink, little fishy, and we wouldn’t want you to choke.”