MATT POWER: An Appreciation

Yesterday, the internet exploded with tributes to my dear friend Matt, who died in Uganda on Monday (probably of heatstroke), while walking down the Nile on assignment for Men’s Journal. I wrote a couple griefstricken posts on Facebook and a bunch on twitter, but Matt worked best in longform. He deserves as many words as I can give him.

I met Matt in 2004, at Breadloaf. He was 29. He’d just published his first piece in Harper’s and he was very excited about it. So excited that when I met him, this skinny, t-shirted guy in a pair of jeans that he’d bought in maybe 1992,  across a crowded room full of writers, he had a gin and tonic in one hand (for me) and a copy of the Harper’s issue The Poison Stream appeared in, in the other. His enthusiasm was so high that I mistook him for some strange entertainment, perhaps a Breadloaf Welcoming Committee, but no, he was just Matt, and his pleasure in whatever he did radiated from him in all directions.

There was some question over whether he had ideas that I’d read his article right then, in the middle of cocktails, but luckily, I’d already read it, by fluke, on the airplane to Vermont, and so I was happy to crow with him, this total stranger, now my friend. Matt and I became instantly close, though I was in the fiction section and he was in nonfiction, in, as I recall, Ted Conover’s workshop. He had just emerged from living in New Delhi (and I think he might have gone back to India post-Breadloaf) when I first met him, and he was tanned and bony from roaming. He only kind of fit in at Breadloaf, where most people were newly writers and straight out of grad school, or comfortably established with houses, not wandering and already making this kind of career.  People referred to him as “That Harper’s Guy” – but he was also “That Radio Workshop Guy” and “That Guy with the Grin.”  Breadloaf is all cocktails and campfires, swimming holes and late night dance parties in the barn, and I kept seeing Matt whirring through it, in his element, periodically pointing out an obscure constellation, then whooping from somewhere on the other side of the fire.

Obviously, there was no way I was letting Matt out of my life. This was not a conference friend, but a friend for life, and that’s what we did for the next ten years.  The next time I saw him, a few months later, I had just sold the book I’d pitched at Breadloaf, and Matt screamed for celebration. I never heard him, in all the time I knew him, jealous of other writers. He’d smack his lips and generally bellow with laughter, and shout when someone made a big deal, or sold a lot of books, and it wasn’t that he was not paying attention to things like that. He was. He lived on the internet as much as he lived in daily life (recently we had discussions of how Twitter was like a giant party, and thus was irresistible).  It was a mixed bag, though, because not only had I sold my book and come to NYC to meet my publishers, my dad had also committed suicide. So I arrived in NYC three days after my dad’s death, rocked and weird, having not really cried, and came to Matt, who looked at me with one eyebrow up and demanded stories of my weird Idaho childhood, of my dad’s hoarder house. He was willing to hear all the horrible things I couldn’t talk about, until I could finally unknot myself. I’ve been thinking of that this week, the generosity that took. We didn’t know each other well. I told him every weirdness from my sled-dog raising Idaho childhood, and Matt, being Matt, was like, “Nah, that’s not so weird I can’t understand it. Tell me more.” I imagine this must be how it felt to be interviewed by him. He listened calmly to everything, asked questions, and then said, “Damn. Do you need me to go out there and clean up the property? I can get a ticket to Idaho and hitchhike out to your place.”

This was Matt at his brokest. This was Matt to a new friend.  This was Matt making this offer in December, when everything was frozen.

And so nearly ten years passed, in friendship, in celebrating each other’s publications, in sitting over tables muttering over our parallel careers. In me driving Matt over the border to Canada from Seattle a few years ago, because he’d been banned at some point, and was afraid he would get turned away if he flew. He wanted a distraction in the driver’s seat for the border guards. The guard had many questions for Matt – who was still in the system, though he wasn’t supposed to have been – and asked me what I was doing with “this firebrand.”  I said this firebrand was my friend.  I got to dance at Matt and Jess’ wedding. I got to hang out in their backyard, and sometimes, when I came to New York, I never even made it to where I was staying, because I just stayed in their house, sitting in their garden, watching Matt crow over his raspberries, paddling my feet in a wading pool, and talking to all the interesting people who roamed around all the time, living in the house with them, or just hanging out.

I moved back to NYC from Seattle post-divorce a year and a half ago, and purposefully planted myself walking distance from that house, because Matt and Jess were family, and I wanted to live as close to next door to them as I could. Only ten days ago, two days before Matt went to Uganda, I tweeted my joy at texting them that I was cooking, and having them show up half an hour later, bearing wine and warmth. Matt and Jess together were the kind of couple who could make a feast out of a crust of bread and a few olives – not only in their own space, but in anyone’s.  When I moved into my apartment, we sat on the floor amid boxes and ate random items, while Matt inspected every corner of my apartment muttering about holes in the walls and badly done light fixtures. He’d become, in the last few years, with he and Jess’ place in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, a house renovation fiend. He liked the details. A few months ago, he came over to help me hang my taxidermied crocodile on the wall, and we had to call in another friend, because it turned out we couldn’t properly lift and hang a crocodile. Again, we ended up gluing all the rattling furniture, eating 9 hours of meals, and cackling before we flew out to three parties in one evening.

Matt had a personality that was visible from space – but it wasn’t the kind of personality you’d normally think of in those terms. He wasn’t obnoxious, though he could talk, and if you weren’t up to holding up your end of the conversation, he might vaudeville you for a while. He was gleeful, most of the time, and game for anything. He was intrepid. There was a reason he was an adventure writer, but in truth, almost everything he did was adventurous, even if it was just walking from his and his wife Jess’ house a mile north to my apartment. He’d arrive, bouncing on his heels, say “Hello, Sweetheart” at my door, grab me up and hug me, and and then shamble into my kitchen and uncork whatever he had in his hand. We’d commence the real business of breaking the universe down, into not just manageable chunks – that was not Matt’s specialty – but into connect-the-dots narratives, drawing ingredients from all of human history, when we could.

Matt did a lot of reporting over the ten years I knew him, and a lot of living, too. He traveled all over the world, and wrote a ton of pieces, each one fascinating, always gorgeously written, and notable for their empathy, curiosity, and vigor. He climbed mountains, rode motorcycles in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and with Jess on the ring road in Iceland. When he met Jess, he called me and said “I’ve met this girl named Jess, the one. I can’t believe it.” He was so giddy that the three of us drank a bottle of champagne the next day, and he spent the entire time beaming and levitating at his luck.  Jess is worth it. She was his perfect match, and as adventurous, generous, and insightful as he is. Matt got even more thrilled with existence in her presence: he tromped through jungles, and through deserts, and onto the eagles of the Chrysler Building. Matt was also a full-on New Yorker, in the old style. He was an engaged pedestrian, fascinated by small alterations in buildings, new plants in gardens. He talked to every small child he saw, and knew half the people on every street he walked down, in seriously any neighborhood I was ever in with him. When we were hanging out together, I’d often hear him make a sound of delight from another room, only to discover him looking at anything from an interesting bug to a wobbly table leg that he was in the process of fixing, to a photograph on my wall he’d loved before, but happened upon again, and loved as gleefully the second time around.

If you went to a party with Matt – and I did, lots of times, when one or the other of our partners couldn’t attend – you’d see him orbiting the room, and hear his laugh, as he talked to absolutely everyone there. One of the key things about Matt was that there was almost no way to get him to leave a party. Everyone who loved him knows this. Man could stay at a party, getting more and more happy, even until sunrise, if he was allowed. He did not like to leave, not when there were still strangers to meet and friends to greet.

The fact that Matt had to leave this party, this Earth, so fucking early (he was only 39, and every time I see the timeline, 1974-2014 I want to frantically scratch out the last number) breaks my heart.

I knew he was walking the Nile with explorers in Uganda. I’d finally gotten around to not worrying about him every time he traveled – after 10 years of intermittent nerves. We’d talked at dinner about the trek itself, and the kind of terrain, the weight of his pack. We talked about hippos and their ferocity. This was nothing compared to some things he’d done over the years. The first five years I knew him, he’d regularly text or email me on his way to far-flung locales, or from random airports, and it’d be “off to K2,” or “motorcycling to the highest point  in the Himalayas.”  The fact that his life ended while he was walking down the Nile makes a certain kind of narrative sense, but it’s miserable sense. I can’t believe the guy with the grin is gone. He seemed like he’d live forever. He liked a river story. He liked to start at the source, and make his way down. He did versions of this several times, in the Amazon, on the Mississippi, with varying degrees of success, across Nicaragua by boat on the Rio San Juan, following in the path of Mark Twain. Years ago, when he had the idea for Mississippi Drift, the piece he wrote about floating down the Mississippi with a bunch of anarchists on a salvage raft, we talked about the glorious analysis of the American Dream way the piece *could* be structured. Then he actually got on the raft, and it became a stalled-out situation. The piece he ended up writing about the Mississippi was funny and weird, but not noble-glorious. There’s no wham bam American dream in it – unless we’re talking about the American Dream of Walmart and dumpster diving, which in truth was always part of Matt’s assessment of the interesting things about the world, scavenging, selling, seeking, battling with nature and sometimes losing.

Everything he wrote, he wrote with acceptance of situations most people would find hard to place in context – but Matt’s context, for everything he reported on, was humanity and the diverse pleasures of being human. His piece The Magic Mountain, about economics in a Philippine garbage mountain, has haunted me for years, because he describes walking that mountain tremendously viscerally, and also with grace. You can smell the garbage. You can also see a beautiful mountain made by men. Matt, while recently particularly known for his work writing about adventurers-by-choice, also wrote a lot of pieces about the underserved and ill-treated.  I edited a draft of his Pine Ridge piece years ago, as well as one of the piece he initially wrote for the NYT Mag, ultimately for Slate, on the harm-reduction injection drug clinic in Vancouver, moving things around and changing tenses, trying to shrink stories into wordcounts without mangling them, trying to get to the guts of the story without doing disservice to its subjects. Matt was a generous reporter. He reported evil in the world, but not in his subjects. He saw people as complicated, and most of the time, he liked them for their complexity. He wasn’t a naive wanderer – I realize some of this makes Matt sound blind to badness. He wasn’t. If he thought someone had transgressed against one of his close ones, he would offer to punch them for you. If he thought someone had done something morally unsound, he would rant. (Matt and Jess were the good examples of journalists I was thinking of when I wrote this piece on journalistic ethics & the Dr. V. article a couple months back –  we’d just had a dinner conversation about permission, about telling a subject’s secrets, and about the horrible things that can happen when you tell a story and it gets shrunken into a soundbite, or worse, incorrectly rendered once it’s out in the world.) He had a wicked sense of humor right alongside his generosity, and occasionally it would come out and startle you into laughing til you cried.

In 2007 (?) he emailed me a very due –  first draft of Escape to Mount Kenya, from his apartment in Brooklyn, and then got on a train to meet me in Manhattan for dinner. I’d bribed him into Manhattan with my editing services during the 40 minutes he’d be underground, and by the time he arrived, I’d redlined his poor piece into oblivion. He had faith. He accepted all the edits. That is a certain kind of person, a guy who trusts an editor enough to accept all her changes without arguing. Matt was that kind of person with his friends, and I suspect also pretty much that way with his more official editors.

I met a lot of them last night at a bar where we all toasted our friend and told stories. Matt was loved like crazy, by strangers, by people he met once, and by his loved ones.  All those categories were crying at the bar as his obituary was read. There were two walk-in randoms in the bar last night, the only people not there for Matt. One of them asked me “Who was that guy? He sounds like someone from a movie.” And then when Matt’s obituary was read, I saw that stranger crying.

I was standing adrift in the center of the room when Matt and Jess’ friend and former housemate Par Parekh walked in, and beelined at me to hold me tight for the next several minutes. It was the right thing, in saying goodbye to a man who gave hugs that could save a person’s life. I know Matt gave hugs like that to so many people, and standing there last night, these two deep friends  of Matt Power (always referred to by his full name, because come on, he was a superhero) holding onto each other because the guy who was guiding our expedition had died on the river, that was right.

I can’t believe Matt Power died on the river. I can’t believe Matt Power isn’t still trekking and toasting the joy he always had, for everything he did, for his amazing wife, for his amazing life. So many people are grieving him right now, and grieving the words he won’t write, too.  There are a lot of broken hearts all over the world. He was loved.

I believe Matt guided the expedition, though, up mountains and into the sky, across countries, into the unknowns of the human heart. His work was cartographic and compassionate, and every piece I read taught me something new about how to see the world. The last thing we said to each other – in the last few years, we got into this happy habit – was “I love you so much. I’m so glad you exist.”

I’m gonna say it again, right now. And I’m going to remember to say it to the people I love, because frankly, you can never say that enough.

Here, I leave you with some last lines from Matt’s work. From years of taking passes at his drafts, I know how he liked stories to end, with movement and change, with the feeling that everything, while unresolved, was still glorious. That there was room on earth for fascination and for a million stories, and that they were still happening, all around us.

That nothing was ever finished.

The pounding surf of the Caribbean echoes through coconut groves, and where the river meets the sea, the ghosts of a thousand journeys drift on a slight breeze.” – Exploring the New Nicaragua, National Geographic Adventure, September 2006

“All his clothing, his journals, photographs, identification – everything but his life – had been lost, and he found himself in a place he had often been: broke and homeless, coming ashore in a strange city. The river, of course, continued on without him.” – Mississippi Drift, Harper’s, March, 2008

“A cliff swallow glides into the sheltering alcove, and rises on an updraft without a wing beat. It levitates a moment, as if painted into the landscape, before returning to its nest of mud and straw, built just where the Buddha’s head had been.” – The Lost Buddhas of Bamiyan, Harper’s, March 2005. 

“I am nowhere near home. The train is waiting for me, it hasn’t pulled out yet. All the ghosts of the workers who built this railroad, all the people who have, knowingly or not, helped me across this huge continent, all swirl around me in those few moments. This is the great secret of trainhopping. And this is what it means to be alive.” – Trainhopping, A Modern Day Hobo’s Journey across Canada, Blue Magazine, December 2000. 

“The flooded forest is the epitome of all childhood nightmares, and yet I’m not afraid. I now understand the realization Stafford came to while crossing the Napo delta: He learned to let himself float, to feel the tranquillity of the moment he was in. Stafford has a long way to go, perhaps 18 more months, but you can’t rush an expedition like this. It will take as long as it takes.” –  Lost in the Amazon, Men’s Journal, June 2009. 

Read Matthew Power’s work. It’s beautiful. It will be worth your time. He was worth mine. I wish I’d had more of him on this beautiful planet, in my living room, in my kitchen, in my inbox. He was one of the great loves of my life, after all, and how many of those do you get?  There’s no past tense for Matt Power. I love the hell out of him.  I’m going to miss him every day.

You can’t rush an expedition like this. This is what it means to be alive.

OF MICE AND WOMEN, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG TRANS MAN, THE GREAT GONZALEZ, & OTHER WORKS OF GREAT LIT THAT DON’T EXIST (YET)

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about storytelling in the last month. I’ve been thinking both about the useful powers of story, and also about the negative powers of story. Why? There’ve been things in the news lately (ahem, Woody Allen) involving the depiction of the lives of storytellers,  which have consistently not taken into account the capacity of storytellers to revise their own narratives in order to create a Socially Palatable POV. In the case of American audiences, that POV – the one most of us learned from not just the world around us, but from literature too, is the point of view of The Hard-Working White Man Who Means Well. Never mind that the events being discussed actually often don’t fit that narrative at all. Precise storytelling can make people believe unquestioningly in a narrative full of omissions and excisions.

Why?

I’ve been thinking about how this happens, culturally, how we end up with a culture wherein a certain set of stories & protagonists seem immediately plausible and valuable to us, while another set of protagonists and stories do not. Because I’m primarily a fiction writer myself, I’ve been thinking specifically about storytelling in written form, and how it influences thought and perceptions ongoingly.

For many of us, the highschool Great Literature Curriculum is our first experience of Story as Literature, and thus as  “Valuable Story.” These are the books from which we first learn that there are certain kinds of stories that will last forever.  These are the books from which we first learn about the things that matter in a story, about tragedy and about narrative power.

The default definition of Great Literature on the High School Curriculum Level (which is all many of us ever get – and then operate according to – these things have weight) is that the “Valuable Stories” are Stories Told By Straight White Men, About Straight White Men.

Don’t believe me? Let me make a list for you. If you’re American, you could probably make the same list. I’m talking about the public high school curriculum. The classic version, as most of us know, contains a list of usual suspects, not all American, but all white men:

ASSIGNED READING:  Great Books

  • Of Mice & Men (1937)  & The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
  • The Old Man & The Sea (1952) -  Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
  • The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) – James Joyce (1882-1941)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) – Mark Twain (1835-1910)
  • The Scarlet Letter (1850)  – Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
  • Lord of the Flies  (1954) – William Golding  (1911-1993)
  • Animal Farm (1945) – George Orwell  (1903-1950)
  • The Catcher in the Rye (1951) – J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

The median age of the above-list of authors when the above-listed books were published was about 40. So, here we’ve got a list of books written by nine 40ish white men, all native English speakers, all from America and the UK, born between 1804 and 1919, all dead now.

Three of the books actually have the word “Man” in their titles.

The entire list was written  prior to the Civil Rights Movement.

Depending on your highschool, you might also have gotten:

  • Fahrenheit 451 (1953) - Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)
  •  To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) – Harper Lee (1926-       ),  the only book on this list written by a woman, and also the only book on this list written by someone who is still alive.

MAJOR CHARACTERS OF COLOR

  • Jim in Huckleberry Finn. He’s a runaway slave.  There are many, many ways this book fails to depict anything close to full humanity for Jim, who, though a sympathetic character, is also totally minstrelized, mocked, and abused by Huck.
  • There’s also Santiago in The Old Man & The Sea, or so you might think – the book is set in Cuba. However, Santiago is a Spanish immigrant from the Canary Islands to Cuba, has blue eyes, and is not Latino.
  • If you add To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s Tom Robinson, a black man, who is accused and convicted unjustly of rape. He’s subsequently shot and killed.

MAJOR FEMALE CHARACTERS

  • Of Mice and Men has Curley’s Wife, who never gets a name, and is entirely made of Sex & Ego. Lenny kills her.
  • Grapes of Wrath has Ma Joad (fierce, gritty, and positively-depicted) & Rose of Sharon (shallow, self-absorbed, and ultimately most important for the fact that she is lactating).
  • Gatsby has Daisy (shallow, self-absorbed and a destroyer of men’s lives) Jordan (aloof & frigid) and Myrtle (cheats on husband and subsequently dies).
  • Portrait has Mary Dedalus, Stephen’s mother, who is mainly a vector of argumentative religion, and Emma Clery, Stephen Dedalus’ beloved, but she’s a shadowy character, and we never see much of her, beyond just that she is beautiful. There are also a bunch of nameless prostitutes.
  • Huck Finn has the Widow Douglas, who is Huck’s civilizing influence and mother figure, but mostly an instiller of rules and religion.
  • The Scarlet Letter is the only book on this list which has a female protagonist, and that protagonist is Hester Prynne. The book’s entire plot, of course, revolves around the epic, many-year punishment for her adultery (never mind that she thought she was a widow), and her quiet dignity and honor in not disclosing the name of her partner.
  • Animal Farm has two female horses, Clover (the slow-witted and motherly mare who has lost her figure giving birth to foals), Mollie (the white mare, who is cowardly, self-involved and vain), and a goat, Muriel, who can, at least, read.
  • Catcher in the Rye has several female characters in the form of nameless prostitutes (ahh, the nameless prostitutes of Great Lit), but there is also Sally Hayes (conventional, shallow, “phony” and according to Holden, vain, though pretty), and Holden Caulfield’s little sister Phoebe, who at 10 years old is, with Ma Joad, one of the few unambiguously positively-depicted characters on this list – but since she’s ten, she can’t do anything but ride a carousel. Her influence on the action is very limited.
  • Fahrenheit 451 has several female characters. Clarisse, a 17-year-old girl who is curious, interested and spurs the narrative, but who gets kills by a speeding car. Mildred, the protagonist’s wife, who is shallow, self-absorbed, and betraying, and two of Mildred’s female friends, who are representatives of badness and anti-intellectualism in the novel.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird has a female narrator, the only one on this list. She’s a little girl, Scout. The hero of To Kill a Mockingbird is, however, is Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, a brilliant white lawyer who defends Tom Robinson.

MAJOR LGBT CHARACTERS

  • Ahh, right, there are exactly zero LGBT characters in any of these books, or at least none that I can remember. Can you?

***

SO. Why does this matter? Why do I keep muttering about it?

What would it be like, what effect would it have, if Americans were raised on a public high school curriculum of Great Literature written by and about someone other than Straight White Men? Would it matter?  (Spoiler: Yes.) (Spoiler: Fuck yes.)

In my imagined scenario, in which a high school kid gets raised on a curriculum of Greats who are not The Usual Greats, I’m not talking (necessarily) about a kid being raised as a reader, nor even as a writer. I’m talking raised as a person. For a lot of people, the lit stops here, after high school. Tons of people never read novels again, but most people read the ones on that list.

If you’re many people, your concept of “Valuable Story” in written form stops here too, with a list of novels by and about only straight white men. All of our story consumption, particularly formative story consumption, has a ripple effect into our news-cycle awareness, our understanding of hierarchical roles, our tendency toward social activism, and everything else that constitutes a functioning rather than a fucked society.

The excision and omission of other narratives results in a version of America in which the only universally acknowledged “Valuable Stories” are the ones by and about the ruling class.

If the primary “Great Literature” “Valuable Stories” in a society are the ones written by and about the ruling class, then all other stories – whether fact or fiction – end up influenced by that same dynamic, when editors decide what else to publish, when newspapers decide who to feature, when news is reported from one angle, and not another. When television shows are created, and contain only upper class white people. When movies are made and there are no gay heroes. When movies are made, and they’re full of black villains and white heroes. When all the Oscar contenders are movies starring ensembles of powerful straight white men changing the world, and/or suffering in their dead-end jobs, working hard, and never getting what they clearly, given their literary status, deserve.

A deeply skewed list of Great Literature helps to create all those things.

It helps to create disasters in the world too: Our perceptions of crime, for example, get skewed to the protagonistic innocence of the ruling class. This results in things like election apathy and economic collapse, voters voting against their own interests in order to support narratively trustworthy white male POVs. Even if said white men are actually lying, cheating and stealing. It results in rape victims being perceived as ruiners of the lives of promising young men, as happened in Texas, rather than as innocent victims of violent crime.

These things are not minor things. This is a discussion of literature, and of story, but stories are simultaneously the products of society, and the creators of societies. They influence policy. To Kill a Mockingbird is constantly cited as an inspiration by powerful white men interesting in working on social justice, but it also contains a narrative in which a young black man is unjustly accused, unjustly convicted, and murdered. Where is the Great Lit on that list in which a young black man is a ferocious social advocate and lawyer…and not only doesn’t get accused of rape, but doesn’t die?

Where is Of Mice & Women? Where is A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Trans Man? Where is The Great Gonzalez? I know I sound like I’m joking around with those titles, and I am, a little bit, but I’m also rather certain that these books are being written. There is another version of Great Lit, and it’s not being taught in highschools. It should be. A version in which humans are trained to see things from only one narrow point of view is neither rational, nor useful.

(A brief woeful anecdote regarding hunger for major female characters, as a teenager in Idaho: I first read Lolita (1955), because I thought it would be Great Lit from the point of view of a girl, instead of from the POV of Humbert. I was ready! I was willing! It was not what I thought it would be! I learned a lot about Humbert, and only a little about Lolita (12, sexually “precocious” seductress “nymphet,” dead at 17 giving birth to a stillborn daughter) and ultimately I wound up tossing the book across the room, feeling betrayed by Nabokov. I felt it should have been titled Humbert Humbert (& More Humbert). Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, I continue to feel that this novel’s nearly universal Great Lit categorization helped along a bunch of bad narratives culturally, narratives which continue to recur in our depiction of rape victims, teenage girls, and women in general.)

So. What would it be like if you skipped the classic Great Lit books and replaced them with equivalent works written by and about women, people of color, and queer people?

I asked Twitter for thoughts on Great Lit Written by People Other than Straight White Men, and lots of names came in:

Aphra Behn, Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Lady Mary Wroth, Eliza Haywood, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Julian of Norwich, Anne Askew, Marguerite de Navarre, Alexandre Dumas, Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Naomi Mitchison, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Naomi Shihab Nye, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Wright, Yusef Komunyakaa, Amos Tutuola, Fae Myenne Ng, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Rita Dove, Li-Young Lee, Sharon Olds, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Octavia Butler, Gayl Jones…

(I have followers from all ends of the genre and form spectrum – as is probably fairly obvious! Poets on there too. That was just with a speedy ask late at night.)

***

People will disagree on what’s Great – but keep in mind where your notions of “Great” might have come from. This is also wildly abbreviated. It’s just a few things rather than a ton. The difficulty in constructing a curriculum of Great Books from a pool of books which have been ever-othered, is that I’m sitting here, staring at a long list, and feeling overmatched. There are so many Great Books, so many possible versions of this curriculum. This is just one to show that it’s not that hard to quickly construct a list of books that are not only completely different in terms of protagonists and authors, but also ambitious, socially conscious, and revolutionary. They are stylistically unique, literarily viable, and contain stories in which Straight White Men are not the only characters with agency. They vary politically, and are not perfect (the above accepted “Greats” are not perfect either). Would I stand behind all these books as The Ones Which Must Be Read? Not necessarily – but I wouldn’t stand behind some of the ones above either. I consciously kept the list to a “classic” list, rather than to newer writers, because I wanted to echo the “works that have stood the test of time” structure of the above list. That said, this means my below list is completely missing trans writers, and I’d love to do something about that.  There are always more, and more, and more things to add to a list like this. It’s part of the fun of making one.

This is just a list of possibilities, and like all short lists, it’s blatantly full of gaps and omissions. It’s not because I’m not trying – it’s because it’s short, and only a random list. I’d love to see yours.  The comments are for your own lists and additions. I look forward to them.

ASSIGNED READING SPEEDILY REVISED: Great Books Like The Usual Great Books Except Not

  •  My Ántonia (1918) - Willa Cather (1873-1947)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) – Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
  • The Awakening (1899) – Kate Chopin (1850-1904)
  • Orlando (1928) – Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
  • Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965) – Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)
  • Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) – James Baldwin (1924-1987)
  • Nightwood (1936) – Djuna Barnes (1892-1982)
  • Native Son (1940) – Richard Wright (1908-1960)
  • Tell Me A Riddle (1961) – Tillie Olsen (1912-2007)

***

All errors above, particularly those of calculation, totally my own. Again, I’d love to see your lists of required reading in the comments…

SINATRA’S COLD IS CONTAGIOUS: Hostile Subjects, Vulnerable Sources & The Ethics of Outing

NOTE TO READERS: I corrected a couple errors in the below: “Transgendered” is changed to “Transgender” and I apologize for getting it wrong in the initial draft of this post. Suicide statistics (error in sentence formulation) were changed to suicide attempt statistics. If you see something egregious, and are a generous person, send me a tweet at @MariaDahvana, and I’ll try to fix it ASAP. Many thousands of people have seen this post, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and it would appall me to put an offensive term up by accident. If you see one, trust me, it’s an accident. I posted this because I spent most of a day feeling troubled by the piece it’s about, and by the ethics of writing and publishing a story from the angle it is written and published from.

Thank you for showing up.

***

THERE ARE THINGS ABOUT BEING A WRITER THAT SUCK. One of them is that as a writer, you’re sometimes sold a bill of bullshit.

Here is a prime example: The Story Is The Most Important Thing. 

This line is a lie, but in order to make students pay for writing instruction – and sometimes in order to fuel our own egos as writers who often professionally neglect the people in our lives so that we can sit in silence making things up – we have to have a culture in which story matters more than anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a writer. I make my living at it. I think story matters – but I also think one of the ways story matters is TO ME. Being a writer is in many ways a wildly selfish way of spending my time. I’m not off building houses for those who’ve lost their belongings in storms. I’m mostly writing stories for comfortable people to be entertained by. I tend these days to write fiction, but when I write creative nonfiction, and I have – I work on a balance of telling my own story as it sidles alongside the stories of other people. I’m generally trying not to fuck other people over. I’ve not always been successful in this. There are some nonfiction stories I’m not going to get to tell, or at least, not for some time, because though they are about my life, they would irrevocably damage the lives of other people, and I can’t figure out a way around it.

So I’m not telling those stories right now. There are lots of stories to tell. The world is fucking full of stories.

YOU DO NOT HAVE TO WRITE ALL OF THEM.

THE STORY, EVEN IF IT IS A GOOD STORY, IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.

Which brings me to the things that inspired this post. This morning I read an essay in Grantland by Caleb Hannan, a writer I don’t know. It’s a sports story, a piece of Creative Nonfiction entitled Dr. V’s Magical Putter. It has echoes of its inspiration – there’s a kind of minor gonzo Hunter S. Thompson aspect to the piece (the author experiences no risk as a result of his self-assignment, but portrays himself as a victim of its consequences), but also some clear style and framing references to Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, published in Esquire in 1966.

This isn’t a surprise – that essay has long been lauded as the best piece of creative nonfiction ever written. It’s taught in journalism programs. Everyone’s read it. It’s a Thing. And it concerns a hostile subject, who refuses to grant an interview to the narrator, Talese. Talese trails after Sinatra for months, interviewing everyone around him, observing him at close range, never interviewing the man himself. He  ultimately writes The Profile, a piece which has been justly heralded as both badass and resourceful. It’s some really good writing. It’s also writing about a public figure, a person whose secrets, life, and lies had at the time of the profile been much discussed – Sinatra was insanely famous. His life was in the news. He was, in short, public on purpose. Talese was vastly less known than Sinatra, and anything he wrote about him would live alongside Sinatra, The Man, The Myth, as part of the greater Sinatran legend. If he revealed anything unknown about Sinatra, Sinatra would obviously have been able to publicly respond to it, at volume.

So, let’s talk about Hannan’s piece. It’s an essay, initially, about a new golf club, and (at first) peripherally about the woman, Dr. V, (or Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt) who invented it. Hannan gets interested in the golf club, and then in its inventor’s colorful backstory, which includes working on defense contracts, a degree from MIT, etc.

He approaches Dr. V, and Dr. V agrees to be interviewed, but is quite explicit about permissions. Dr. V. does not wish to talk about her life, nor to participate in a profile of herself. She wishes to talk about golf clubs.

So, she’s a hostile subject.

Mind you, Hannan doesn’t treat her as such, at least not to her face. He states that he’s worried she’ll be a difficult interview, so he goes around her, working at digging up her history on his own, while continuing to interview her about the topics she’s agreed to discuss with him. Well, okay, the “greatest piece of Creative NF ever written” was about a hostile subject, Sinatra –  and a much more hostile subject than this one, because Dr. V does in fact speak to Hannan.

So do Dr. V’s friends and colleagues. Hannan tests the club personally, and finds it to be very good – in fact, “magical.” It follows, according to the crap logic typically applied to innovation by the lazy, that the invention is magical because of Dr. V, rather than because of its actual properties. (The club, even in the piece, is described as something unusual, in terms of shape and handling – it is the journalist who is being lazy in this case. The seduction of Dr. V’s colorful story has seized him, and though he does state that independent professionals have found the club to be terrific, his most important analysis of it is that once Dr. V’s story collapses, the magic of the club is gone for him, the journalist, because of course he is the protagonist of this story, and his success or failure is the most important thing here) Dr. V is clearly a genius, and the story within the essay regarding the genius invention of the club is downplayed with sentences regarding Dr. V’s gender – she’s a woman, which makes the fact of her inventing a golf club all the more unlikely.

Really.

One of the magical things about Dr. V. is that she is apparently attractive and striking. 6’3″ and a redhead. In the piece, Dr. V. is discussed as capitalizing on beauty privilege in order to get her golf club noticed.

As the piece goes on, and Hannan digs deeper into Dr. V, it becomes clear that much of Dr. V’s backstory is unclear, contradictory, and that some of it is actively untrue.

Does this have bearing on the golf club? No. The golf club remains the golf club. But as the piece progresses, Hannan’s own angle on the club devolves into a sense of personal betrayal, that this subject, who explicitly did not grant him permission to write about her, has lied to him about the facts of her life (facts which he seems to feel are his personal property.) The club he previously treasured becomes a club he now finds unmagical, and its inventor, he decides, is a con artist. (Which con, exactly? She invented a better golf club. People like it. It’s good. We’re not talking about theft, we’re talking about selling a product that people like. That she is part of the product’s legend – though clearly not much: Hannan himself states that she doesn’t appear on the videos regarding it, and that her image is not actually being used to sell it, is apparently enough of a betrayal for Hannan that he feels provoked to actively harass the club’s creator in the name of journalism. Never mind that also in the name of journalism, he’s earlier represented himself as a journalist writing about the club, not writing about the scientist who invented it.)

It is during this section that it is revealed – with a drumroll –  Hannan’s discovery that Dr. V. is a transgender woman.

OMG, GIANT GENDER LIE.

Thus, in the skewed logic of the piece, it follows that Dr. V. is due a public shaming. She has lied about her gender. She has capitalized on the beauty privilege afforded a gorgeous woman. It is not fair. The public deserves to know.

Why the fuck does the public deserve to know this?

Some notes on the obvious from me, here:

1) Being transgender does not mean that you are “lying” about your gender.

2) Being transgender is not a con. It is not a lie meant to advance your social status. Suicide rates for transgender people are appalling- a 2010 study reported a 41% attempt rate! Transgender people have a hard damn time in the world, and regularly get killed, fired, beaten up, and generally fucked with for being transgender. Dr. V. is a woman who was born in a male body. Fuck it. This happens. So, the moment Hannan begins to sell the fact of Dr. V’s trans* status as part of the evidence that Dr. V. is a liar… well.

3) I get fucking pissed. Actually, I was pissed already.

Hannan goes to one of Dr. V’s investors, who sees her as difficult, and outs her as transgender.

Then, using what he sees as journalist’s rights, pressures Dr. V for more information, to “come clean” – she isn’t out as trans* and he feels, mysteriously, that it is his job as a journalist to tell everyone the “truth” about her, and her history. Because of his story.

He neglects to realize that his story is not the most important thing here. Dr. V. happens to be an inventor of a better golf club, and a woman with a complicated and difficult past. She is not a world-class dictator with a record of oppression of vulnerable minorities. She is not a religious leader who has spoken out against trans* rights. In these cases, perhaps it would be relevant to the story to unearth and publish the facts of someone’s gender history.

Hannan keeps digging. He finds evidence of her past life as a mechanic, and her birth certificate, referencing it as “She was born a boy.” (A cursory look into acceptable language on this would reveal that “born a boy” is a shitty formulation. “Born in a male body,” okay. But oh, dear ones, that would not suit the structure of this Creative Nonfiction goldmine: born a boy is more inflammatory, more startling, and the goal of this piece is ultimately to depict a journalist’s betrayal and shock that someone might wish to keep her private life separate from her public life, that someone might wish for a journalist to, indeed, depict the Science, not the Scientist, not to depict the complicated life of someone for whom basic existence has been a challenge. He finds evidence of a checkered employment history, and a suicide attempt in 2008. He chases her friends, family, ex-wives, and colleagues. Dude keeps digging.)

Why does he do this?

Because The Story Is The Most Important Thing.

What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself. Yet the biggest question remained unanswered: Had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?

In this case (and just a note on how crappy the above formulation is, again)? Woman invented a golf club, is not out as trans* and explicitly states to the author that the publication of this story will result in its author committing a hate crime against her. As in, she will kill herself.

There is a discussion of proof being provided of Dr. V’s history, in exchange for Hannan not writing about it. He states that he can’t take that deal, implying that he can’t not write this story.

Can’t? Because to Not Write this story would be some sort of betrayal of…what? Hannan’s own journalistic ethics? He’s already stalked an unwilling source, and outed her as transgender to an investor. He’s already chased her friends and family. He’s already informed her that he Knows Her Secrets.

Ah, he must write it, because to not write it, would be a betrayal of A Good Story.

He cannot betray his Art.

She sends him a final email, which he quotes from. It is both frantic and sad. It speaks of someone whose mental health is crumbling.

A few days later, Dr. V sent one final email. It had her signature mix of scattered punctuation and randomly capitalized words. Once upon a time I had brushed off these grammatical quirks, but now they seemed like outward expressions of the inner chaos she struggled to contain.

“To whom this may concern,” it read. “I spoke with Caleb Hannan last Saturday his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies, his sole intention is to injure or bring harm to me … Because of a computer glitch, some documents that are germane only to me, were visible to web-viewers, government officials have now rectified this egregious condition … Caleb Hannan came into possession of documents that were clearly marked: MADE NON-PUBLIC (Restricted) … Exposing NON-PUBLIC Documents is a Crime, and prosecution of such are under the auspices of many State and Federal Laws, including Hate Crimes Legislation signed into Law by President Obama.”

Ah, so this came out of nowhere. The chaos is her own creation, not at all the reaction of someone who is being harassed by a journalist.

Hannan concludes:

People had been hurt by Dr. V’s lies, but she was the person who seemed to be suffering most.

By people, I assume he mainly means himself – now unable to use the magical golf club, and betrayed by the fact that Dr. V was upset and harassed by a journalist digging into her private life, when said journalist marketed himself as someone writing a story about the club. Poor journalist.

Dr. V. kills herself.

Her ex-brother in law calls Hannan and says:

“Well, there’s one less con man in the world now,” he said. Even though he hated his former family member, this seemed like an especially cruel way to tell me that Dr. V had died. All he could tell me was what he knew — that it had been a suicide.

Again, poor journalist.  Someone has been cruel to him. Hannan goes on to write this article, an expression of his upset that someone has lied to him and not understood his feelings as a story teller, his responsibilities to the reading public. What responsibilities? Which ones? Why is Caleb Hannan the man assigned to out this woman? Why is he the person whose version of the truth matters?

Because he’s a Storyteller. And in the  version that’s been sold to nonfiction writing students – and to fiction writers too – if you unearth a good story, man, you have a Giant Responsibility to tell it.

Except, why?

Dr. V is not George W. Bush.  Dr. V is also not Ann Coulter.

Dr. V. is not Frank Sinatra, and if Frank Sinatra had been born in a body societally designated Francine? If Gay Talese had discovered this in the course of research into a non-cooperative Sinatra? If Sinatra himself had told Talese that he’d commit suicide if said fact was revealed, and Talese had proceeded to reveal this to Sinatra’s record label, because Story?

I’d be judging Talese as harshly as I judge Hannan.

The final paragraph is as follows:

Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience. What makes it that much harder is that Dr. V left so few details — on purpose, of course. Those who knew her in her past life refused to talk about her. Those who knew her in the life she had created were helpful right up to the point where that new life began to look like a lie. The only person who can provide this strange story with its proper ending is the person who started it. The words she spoke came during our last conversation, when she was frantically trying to convince me of things I knew couldn’t possibly be true. Yet though they may have been spoken by a desperate person at one of the most desperate times in a life that had apparently seen many, it’s hard to argue with Dr. V’s conclusions. “Nobody knows my life but me,” she said. “You don’t know what the truth is.”

He has not, of course, written a eulogy. He has written a condemnation and trivialization of the life of a transgender woman, who was harassed into suicide by a bully.

If we were talking about someone who’d harassed, for example, a trans* teenager on Facebook, a person who’d changed schools and started over, a person who, say, had attempted suicide the year before, who’d managed to make it work at a new school by saying that their voice was low because of a crushed larynx in a car accident, a person who’d lied about certain facts in order to live – if we were talking about harassing that teenager by stating that their non-public gender status would be disclosed in an open post?

What would we call that? Would we call it bullying? Would we call their subsequent suicide a suicide motivated by bullying?

Yes.

The story is not the only thing that matters. As a writer, it is not simply important to consider the repercussions of your research on persons who would otherwise be private citizens, it is important to consider that your source may be vulnerable. That your need for a good “tale” does not trump their need to survive. Do not, as a writer, value your narrative over someone’s life.

Your writing is not more important than someone’s life. It is only writing.

It is not the mandate of a writer to keep pursuing a private citizen’s secrets (secrets which have exactly no impact on the product you are writing about, nor on anything else public good) until they kill themselves. This is not an honorable act.

I have a lot of friends who write creative nonfiction, and they often deal with the lives of vulnerable subjects. I watch them work, and am very aware of the lengths they go to to protect their subjects, to obtain consent, to approach stories from angles that educate and increase awareness, while not contributing to the abuse of the already incredibly vulnerable. I’m appalled to see this piece alongside their deeply considered work.

For an account of a writer’s response to a subject’s suicide that goes in a quite different direction, I point you to this - a journalist analyzing her actions ferociously, as well as doing followup work in regard to suicide prevention, policy regarding same, and a variety of other related topics.

End rant. Do better, writers.

***

UPDATES: Grantland’s Editor in Chief, Bill Simmons has written this apology for the Dr. V article. It’s a more thorough apology than I would have expected – and I think this has a great deal to do with the power of Twitter/social media spreading critique like wildfire over the weekend. First, yay! Apology. There needed to be one. I won’t critique the whole thing, because it’s a pretty good self-critique of privilege creating blindness on the part of editorial staff. Second: There are some problems with it, namely that Hannan, the author of the article, who at 31 is not remotely a child, seems to have thus far chosen not to apologize publicly himself. Personally, I think that’s pretty questionable. Bill Simmons heaps a great deal of blame on his own head – which as the editor, he very much deserves. He’s the person under whose watch this article got published. But the writer owes the trans* community his own apology. Something that has gotten overlooked apology-wise are the lingering effects of a story like this on a community that regularly has to deal with prejudice, injustice, and profound disrespect from the media and otherwise. The impact of this story is huge – in both good and bad ways. I’ve been happy to see the widespread discussion of outing, and of trans* issues – but I’ve been less happy, possibly counterintuitively, to see the focus of precise shame on this one author. Hannan did several things ethically very wrong (as I say at length above) – but for this discussion to create lasting change, it needs to be bigger and longer-lasting than just the discussion of his & Grantland’s failings. What we’re talking about, or should be talking about, is a screwed up tradition of disrespectful and hurtful depiction, and damaging objectification, which happens everywhere from pieces like the Dr. V article, to places like Katie Couric’s interview with LaVerne Cox. (Which you should watch.)

As well, Grantland posted this piece by Christina Kahrl, on the many things the Dr. V piece got wrong.  I don’t need to tell you that it’s very good – it obviously is. One thing I’ll say about the discussion I’ve seen surrounding it, and the original article, however, is some critique regarding the concept of “stealth” – as in, being out as trans* – and some implied critique of Dr. V for not being out herself. There are, as noted in the Kahrl piece, so many reasons someone would not be out. As well, it’s a personal choice, not one that people who aren’t Dr. V should be critiquing. The foul tradition of outing comes from people feeling comfortable critiquing people whose shoes they’ve never walked in.  There are a lot of things we don’t know about Dr. V, but I think we can agree that being out does not guarantee one’s safety, mental stability, and success. Out trans* people are subject to awful things, and it is, I can only imagine, pretty scary in many situations to be out, just as it is scary to not be. CeCe McDonald is an out trans* woman. She defended herself from a violent bigot, got convicted of manslaughter and had to serve time in a men’s prison from which she was just released. 21 year old Islan Nettles was murdered – beaten to death by a stranger who catcalled her and then learned she was trans*, in NYC last fall, in front of a police station, with multiple witnesses. She was out. Outness is not any kind of guarantee of safety. There should never be critique, implied or otherwise, of someone’s decisions in that regard. We are not them. We do not know their individual challenges.

I have a couple of  suggestions for Grantland, and for others who realized, during this discussion, the depth of their analysis-fail.

The publication of this essay was, as discussed by Grantland editors and everyone else, a really bad choice. The reporting of this essay led (I’d love to say that there is doubt of this – I’ve reflected on this a lot, and I don’t think there is any)  to the death of its subject. It is only reasonable that profits made from this piece – ad revenues from THE MANY page views, etc – be donated to an organization such as GLAAD or Transmedia Watch, to help support the living. This article engaged in a tradition of depiction that endangers trans* people. Period. The publication of it made things worse. I hope the discussion makes things better, but nothing about that changes the fact that a woman is dead, and that the article went out into the world full of damaging material. Do some good with the profits. They are profits earned from damage. It is not okay to make money off this, Grantland.

For a useful piece on writing about trans* people – read this. For a basic rule, this one from me, remember that the people you are writing about are people, not something else. To assess trans* subjects as other than human is an incredibly hideous tradition. Do not be the writer who continues it. One of the saddest and most upsetting factors in the Dr. V piece was the way people initially (and in some cases continue to – look at some of the comments here, allowed up for their educational value) reacted to the suicide of a person by valuing “crazy story for my entertainment” over “person died for my entertainment.”

2013 AWARD ELIGIBLE STORIES, &,&,& ETC!

Greetings:

I decided to just post these all in one onslaught. I published lots of stories in 2013. Also I co-edited an anthology with Neil Gaiman! Which has some new stories in it! Which are also eligible! Yip!

SHORT STORIES

The Traditional (3824 words. Lightspeed, May 2013): Post-apocalypse collapse involving giant worms + The Gift of the Magi + J.G. Ballard’s sensibility regarding sex. What can I tell you?  It’s scary. It’s  hot. Also, it’s funny, out the side of its mouth. Locus gave it a Recommended and called it “extreme and audacious…sharp and intense.”

The Krakatoan (4857 words. The Lowest Heaven & Nightmare Magazine, July, 2013): A horror-y hollow-earth story involving volcano sacrifices, observatories in reverse (i.e. looking down instead of up) and a child protagonist whose astronomer father cannot see for stars. This one’s a bit of me fussing with binary gender too, as can be seen in the variety of genders assigned to my narrator in reviews. It’s also the Earth story in the Lowest Heaven, an anth of stories based on celestial objects.

Such & Such Said to So & So (4271 words, Glitter & Mayhem anthology, July 2013): Me writing noir.  A cop, his ex, a speakeasy club full of sentient cocktails, and the problems of liking one’s drink too much.

The Psammophile (2213 words. Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Nov 2013): Stylistically, this is the lushest thing I published this year. it’s a riff on Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum. A letter from one far-flung oddity collector to another, a catalogue of imaginary objects, and a sand-loving hourglass dwelling insect that can make time move backward and forward at will. Lois Tilton Recommended this story – and it’s also 2013 Reviews in Review List of favorites.

What You’ve Been Missing (2910 words. Apex Mag, December 2013): Literary theory, the word work of dead white men, the brain’s compartments, the way memories can be rewritten, and the last days of love and living for a long-married couple, Bette & Joe. This story has two hippocamps trotting in the oceans of Joe’s memory, along with a lot of me meditating on death and forgetting.

Moveable Beast – (2915 words, Unnatural Creatures Anthology, April 2013): this one’s a little dark lark about a wandering forest, a teenage girl, and the role of the girl and her town in managing said forest. It’s funny, sarcastic, and you know. Deals with my ongoing obsession regarding women’s societal roles and how they could be more interesting.

NOVELETTE:

In some categories this story is a novelette, but in others it’s a short. It’s a short novelette! And a long story! It’s just short fiction in some awards. But it’s 8668 words, so there you go.

BIT-U-MEN (8668 words. The Book of the Dead anth, & Lightspeed Mag, Nov, 2013): An alternate history of the 20th century twined around the origins of the Bit-U-Men bar, which is in this version, made of mellified man. 1920′s Chicago candymaking, talking mummy, confectionary cannibalism – plus a love triangle. Again with me not giving a damn about gender binaries. I don’t, as it happens. So this love triangle is a man, a woman, and a mummy. It’s a cannibal story. But it’s about true love.

ANTHOLOGY – Editor

UNNATURAL CREATURES – Anthology, HarperChildren’s, April 2013) – I co-edited this one with Neil Gaiman. The anthology itself is eligible, I think, as are the co-editors. :)

It’s mostly reprints of awesome stories about unnatural creatures of various descriptions, but there are a few previously unpublished items in there too. In addition to the abovenoted story of mine, Megan Kurashige’s museum transformation story The Manticore, The Mermaid & Me is new and eligible for 2013 awards. So is Nnedi Okorafor’s Ozioma the Wicked, about a 12-year-old girl who can talk to serpents.

As well, the book is illustrated gorgeously by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, and I think that might make her eligible for some things too (forgive me for my vagueness – I’m out of the country and have nothing in front of me). So check it out!

I think that’s all from 2013! If you’d like to read anything not linked, drop a comment and I’ll send you a copy.

Thank you for reading and writing and being interesting people all over the place!

M

Whee! I’m a storySouth Million Writers Award finalist…

Totally unexpectedly, as it happens. Whoever nominated Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream, thank you! 

So this award is cool! It’s an annual award given out to celebrate the best fiction published online. Give Her Honey was published in Lighspeed, and was a Nebula Award finalist this year, so it’s had some nice recognition. It’s one part love story, one part betrayal story. There’s a witch and a magician and a labyrinth with a monster in it. I love that people enjoyed it. 

Finalists were chosen by editorial board, but the award is a popular vote. 

There are 9 other great stories on the list, and you can vote very easily for any of them, though if you liked Give Her Honey, I’d love it if you voted for her! It’s a click and a couple fill-in questions.

Here’s the page for the award itself, with all the story links – and links to the many lovely honorable mentions too. 

Here’s the VOTING FORM.

I’d love it if you’d vote! There’s a link to the story on the award page, and here’s a link to the Author Spotlight from Lightspeed which talks about the story and where it came from. 

Thank you, nice people! 

MARIA DAHVANA HEADLEY: SHORT STORIES 2013, A ROUNDUP

This post is an attempt to link up all my 2013 stories in one place, because I’m losing track of publications this year. The good thing about me writing a lot of stories: I’m saving you from the tragedy that would happen if I tried to write all these shorts as novels, which is what I’d otherwise be doing. Or maybe I’d try to cram them all into the plot of one novel. It would be a suck novel and it would have both giant worms and honey mummies in it, as well as volcanos full of animated sacrifices, hippocamps, lovers foiling eachother’s plans, and sentient cocktails.

So these stories are really an attempt to save readers from That Novel.  Really.

So, here, a series of links to this year. In terms of categories, these are all over the map. Horror, fantasy, SF, and all pretty loose in terms of genre and lit. They’re probably also in the Weird category, most of them. I wrote about love all year, apparently. Love is interesting. I also wrote about falling out of love. I wrote about long relationships with terrible flaws. I wrote a love triangle with a dead person. (Okay, dead might also count as a terrible flaw.)

I also wrote about dark things. I always think I’m not writing dark, and then discover people creeped out in the corners. There are several stories like that in here. While I’m at it, I want to say how much I love the Lightspeed & Nightmare model of the author spotlight focused solely on the story. It’s so much more fun to talk about a specific story than to talk about overall career stuff (which model often yields the same interview over and over)  and these interviews were all really fun to do. I stuffed them full of research glee. If you like the stories, you should read the spotlights too.

So, the current list: a few dark love horror SF fantasy celestial stories…I’m not sure this is the whole list. I don’t *think* I’ve forgotten anything, but it’s actually horribly possible I have.

***

I spent the first few months of 2013 writing a young adult novel at warp speed. I sold the novel in June, thank all gods of fire and wifi, and about the time I finished a draft of it, tons of stories came out, basically one a month.

MOVEABLE BEAST (Unnatural Creatures, April 2013): this is a little lark of a story about a teenage girl stuck in a crappy nowhere town that surrounds a forest. Inside the forest, there’s a beast. The town is charged with guarding it. This one is a story I started working on years ago, but I couldn’t quite figure out what the beast was. Finally, last summer, I did. It’s a mostly funny story, but no one will be surprised when I say that the inspiration for the beast came from Macbeth. Apparently dark and funny live together in the same ramshackle house in my head. It’s in Unnatural Creatures, the charitable YA anthology I co-edited with Neil Gaiman, and all profits benefit 826DC. This kept their doors open, I’m told, and that’s pretty awesome. Lots of other great new and old not-quite-natural history-y stories in there too, by people like Nnedi Okorafor, E. Lily Yu, Peter Beagle, Chip Delany, and many more. The story isn’t available online, but I linked to the anthology above. You should get it – the illustrations by Briony Morrow-Cribbs are exquisite, and it’s a great introduction to strange for younger readers, and older ones too.

THE TRADITIONAL (Lightspeed, May 2013): a post-apocalypse Gift of the Magi anniversary gift story, with giant worms, blood, guts, and romance. In my head this one was very sweet and romantic, but in reality people cut each other open, and dive into worm throats, and, well, yeah. I mean, love, it’s weird. It’s also about a female player, and a guy who tries to outplay her.  Here’s the Author Spotlight from Lightspeed.

THE KRAKATOAN (The Lowest Heaven & Nightmare Magazine, July, 2013): This might be my favorite thing I’ve published this year, but it’s also the least categorizable. It came out in The Lowest Heaven, an SF anthology in which each author got a celestial body to write about. Mine was Earth. This is a story about reverse observatories – or, volcanoes – human sacrifices, and a kid who’s got no clear place in any universe.  It’s got a lot of astronomy stuff in it, but it’s also horror, hence the Nightmare mag reprint. I recommend you get a copy of The Lowest Heaven too – the Jurassic London anthologies are consistently among the most physically beautiful books I’ve ever seen, and they’re also full of great stuff. Here’s The Krakatoan’s Author Spotlight from Nightmare. Here’s a review from Strange Horizons.

SUCH & SUCH SAID TO SO & SO (Glitter & Mayhem, AUGUST, 2013): Written for the Glitter & Mayhem anthology, this is a noir riff with sentient cocktails, talking animals, and a lot of boozy woozing around. It’s got a police officer, the woman he love(s)(d) and some bad drinks. This one was ridiculously fun to write, not least because I did a draft of it at ICFA, while sitting beside the pool surrounded by a bunch of smart writers, whose brains I picked mercilessly. Sofia Samatar, Theodora Goss, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Nancy Hightower and Kat Howard all helped confirm the plot of this one as I neared the finish line, screaming into my strawberry daiquiri. (It was days late already.) The sentient cocktail thing happened because I was joking around on Twitter about what I was going to write for this alt-nightlife anthology, and that came out of my fingers. Then I had to write it, having no idea what the story was. Sometimes that method works out. I think it did here, plus it was fun to play with noir tropes like: “She liked her drink too much.” Not available online, but here’s a link to the anthology.

BIT-U-MEN (The Book of the Dead & Lightspeed Magazine, November, 2013): The hardcover Book of the Dead – I think there might be a few limited edition copies left – is actually mummified. So cool. The book itself is all mummy stories, from people like Gail Carriger, Adam Roberts, Paul Cornell, and many more. This story is a love triangle set in 1920′s Chicago, and it involves mellified man, and the invention of the Bit-U-Men candy bar. So, yeah, basically it’s a confectionary cannibal story/alt history of the 20th century seen through the eyes of a honey mummy. What can I tell you? It might be too up my alley. I was almost not allowed to write it, because I felt so wicked using all that cool stuff in one story, and in truth, this one kind of really wouldn’t mind being a novel. Here is an author interview about this story, and I hope you read it, because it’s full of kind of rad research links.

THE PSAMMOPHILE (The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, November 2013) – This story came about because I saw a submission prompt for weird fiction about insects, and I couldn’t imagine I didn’t have something like that in my laptop. I didn’t have time to write a new story, because the deadline was the next day, but I found a birthday present I’d written for my sweetheart in the style of Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum, and in it, there was a sand insect inhabiting an hourglass. And because I’m me , and he’s he, the birthday present was totally a short story. If you ever wondered what it might be like to get a lovey dovey letter from me, this is a pretty good approximation. Here is an interview about the story, and writing, etc containing book recommends, a christmas soundtrack of songs about diners and woe, and a lot of other things…

WHAT YOU’VE BEEN MISSING (Apex Magazine, December 2013):  This is a story about neurological disorders, memory, and hippocamps. It’s sad, but it’s full of flying horses and a beach, and book-eating by professors. It’s in Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas’ last Apex issue, and I’m so pleased I sold it to them. Here’s a podcast version of the story, and here is a long interview about it, which I hope you read! It’s full of fun and sad and all kinds of things.

READERCON SCHEDULE, 2013

Here are my Readercon whereabouts from July 11-14.

Reading on Thurs. You should come to that – I’m not sure I’m reading all of the mummy story (it’s eight thousand words long, so if I’m reading it, at most I can read about 5k in 20 min) but it’s the one I spent a lot of time tweeting about a couple months back: mummies, gender, sex, candy, 1920′s. It’s coming out in Jurassic London’s The Book of the Dead in October, but you can get a preview here. I kind of love this one. 

Panels on Friday, Sat, and Sunday, two of which I’m leading. We’ll be talking about gender and agency (good timing for that one, given the fact that IT’S ALL I’M THINKING ABOUT LATELY), grandmothers or the Crone Role, and why it’s important/slash prevalent in lit (oh, look! another panel that’s all about my recent interests! Actually, I’ve always been intrigued by this topic, the shuffling of gender roles throughout a person’s life. So we’re going to talk about that a bit, and about how wisdom shows up for fictional women at the end of life rather than in the middle, as it often does for male characters…) And then the last one, the urban unknown, which I’m not leading, but which will no doubt be a lively discussion.

Otherwise, you’ll find me perched at this years non-pub bar, muttering and whirring. Lots of people I love at Readercon. Come talk to me if you’re there. I’m very recognizable. Big Horus tattoo on my right shoulder. I know my recent blog posts have been fire and brimstone. I also like to talk about ancient mummification rituals, vegetable lambs, and monsters. Actually, I like to talk about all kinds of things. Come see me if you don’t know me already. 

Thursday July 11

8:00 PM    VT    Reading: Maria Dahvana Headley. Maria Dahvana Headley. Maria Dahvana Headley reads the mummy-confectionary-cannibalism story “Bit-U-Men.”

Friday July 12

5:00 PM    F    Agency and Gender. Eileen Gunn, Maria Dahvana Headley (leader), Rose Lemberg, Maureen F. McHugh, Paul Park. When we talk about women’s agency in literature we’re often talking about violence: fighting off a would-be rapist or choosing to risk her life in battle, for instance. Men’s agency is frequently demonstrated in a wider variety of ways. The notion of agency itself varies from one culture to another. How do cultural perspectives on gender and cultural concepts of agency inform characters’ choices and the results of those choices? How are decisions related to cultural assumptions of gender (whom to sleep with, what to wear) portrayed differently from decisions unrelated to cultural gender?

Saturday July 13

9:00 PM    ME    To Grandmother’s House We Go (but She’s Not There). Paul Di Filippo, Ron Drummond, Paula Guran, Maria Dahvana Headley (leader), Samantha Henderson. In two recent novels, Alastair Reynolds’s Blue Remembered Earth and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, the protagonists are propelled by the death of a grandmother to explore and expand on her schemes and secrets. In folklore and fairytale traditions grandmothers often take similar roles as instigators of quests and providers of information, but usually they do it while alive. What is it about the grandmother role that makes grandmothers so central and important to these novels despite not being physically present in them?

Sunday July 14

2:00 PM    F    Stranger Danger: Secrets and Discoveries in Urban Settings. Amanda Downum, Lila Garrott (leader), Maria Dahvana Headley, Stacy Hill, Patricia A. McKillip, JoSelle Vanderhooft. In folk stories the forest is full of dangerous secrets and the village is usually safe as houses. When the village becomes unsafe, it’s because the forest has violated the sanctity of civilization, as when the wolf takes the place of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. However, a slew of recent books find their dangerous secrets within the confines of cities: the many neighborhoods in Kathleen Tierney’s Blood Oranges, the occupied city in N.K. Jemisin’s The Shadowed Sun, the monster-populated New York in Seanan McGuire’s Discount Armageddon, the gas-filled walled Seattle of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series. What is it about modern life that leads writers and readers to look for discovery and the unknown in cities? How do we cross the border from safety to danger when it’s not marked by anything so concrete as the edge of the forest?

THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION SWIMMING CLUB: More Thoughts on SFF, Sexism, Racism and General Badness

Part three in a series of discussions of What The Hell Went Wrong.

Let me take you to a swimming pool. Let’s call it The Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club (Members Only.) It’s the late 50′s. There are cabanas and stripey umbrellas. There are cocktails in high-ball glasses, with their own little umbrellas in them. There are a bunch of people at said swimming pool, some reclining on lounge chairs, some in the water splashing around with floating creatures and toys, and everyone’s wearing tinted sunglasses. The women (though there aren’t tons of them, maybe three or four) are in bikinis. The men are in trunks. Everyone looks fantastic and is having a fantastic time. One of the men reaches out and playfully slaps one of the women on the derriere.

‘Oh, you!’ she says. ‘You’re naughty, but you’re a genius.’

The man grins, puts his cigarette out in the ash tray shaped like a golliwog, and dives into a pool. Everyone else follows him. There’s splashing and laughing and groping. It’s a beautiful day. There’s even a sex robot serving drinks. 

***

At the moment, a lot of us are in agreement that culturally there’s a segment of the SFF community (and frankly, the world, but this is just about this moment, this scene) which remains frozen in some kind of gropey amber, their universes paralyzed circa the early 60′s, when it seems a bunch of people fell into sap and stayed there, warm and safe, dead but not realizing it. Not everyone. Lots of people of that generation kept moving right along with the world.

But there is, and has been, a vocal minority who’ve always Don Drapered it up in conventions, at parties, and now, across the internet. Some of the current crew of Drapers didn’t even live through the 1960′s. They were born in the 70′s or 80′s, or even 90′s, but still willfully decided to time travel. They chose to miss the way the world had moved on beyond the alleged Golden Age. It is as though they got Instagram Golden Age of SFF filters and applied them to everything – but the filters were really fucking bad, the kind that edit out anyone of color, anyone female, and leave a happy little gold-tinted circle of white male friends and fans, all happy together, all brilliant, all joy. (Well, not all the women got edited out. The ones who were nice and hot and uncomplaining got to stay in the picture.)

Ah, those golden years. And by golden years, I’m not even really talking about the official Golden Age of SFF (the post-pulp/pre-New Wave period) but the Social Golden Age, by which I mean the Golden Age of SFF Interaction, Convention Heaven, Lady Editors In Bikinis, and Writers Walking into Parties, Waiting For the Prettiest Young Ladies To Be Alone, and then Introducing themselves with the line “Hi, I’m ________, wanna fuck?” to everyone’s major amusement. (Or maybe not everyone’s. In fact, I’m pretty sure some people felt like they were being massively creeped on, but were too vulnerable to say anything critical in  rooms full of people who found harassment hilarious. And perhaps, just perhaps, this policy encouraged a kind of jolly-rapey cultural norm that has since been very fucking difficult to eradicate.)

***

It’s a few years later. The pool at The Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club is still a pretty great place. All the cocktails are half full, not half empty. There are more people here now, a lot of people.

‘Look at that Lady Writer! What a fanny on her,’ says one of the guys in the pool, as he pinches the fanny. The woman gets up, and leaves the pool, affronted. One of the guys talks about how she’s too sensitive. There are some high fives, but also some weird looks. Someone throws a life-preserver. “You might want this, buddy.”

At poolside, a man walks by. He’s black. He steps onto the diving board. The guys in the pool look up, startled. Some of them are okay with this. Others are not. Regardless, it’s an oddity. At least one guy in the pool is totally freaked out. He does what mammals have always done when claiming territory. 

He pees. The pee colors the water around him. Things start to look a little yellow in The Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Pool. 

“This is our pool!” says the guy. ‘You’re not welcome here!’

At this point, a lot of the writers in the pool climb the ladder, and get out of the water. 

“Maybe let’s get a new pool,” say some of them. “This pool is no longer golden, but pee-yellow.”

But some people stay in it anyway, splashing around. 

***

That Golden Age.  The one that seems to have taken place from roughly the late 50′s to the early 70′s.  During that period of time, the great imaginations of SFF made a lot of things. They invented worlds in which we traveled through space, in which universes full of amazing things were invented, in which we came upon native populations on various planets and taught them about sex and liberty (here begins an oh no), in which we kept falling into masses of nubile women of all colors and sexual orientations. The cover art of said Social Golden Age books reflected this glorious reality: golden bikinis, tantalizing thighs, spectacular manes of hair on women who were not really human women but beautiful “aliens” and “savages.”

Because that’s what aliens are for, really: we fuck them. And if they object to that? We fuck them up.

What population would not want to be fucked (or fucked up) by the Social Golden Age of SFF?

Mind you, in the real world, a lot of things happened during the years I’m talking about.  Science Fiction became reality. There was a moon landing. Several of the marginalized (and beyond marginalized) groups rose up and protested the fact that they were consistently being crushed under the cracked heels of this one small group.

But in SFF, a small group stayed in the 60′s. They missed the 70′s. They wrote about, but missed the moment when the world became transparent, when the internet emerged, when equality became a thing.

They stayed in the pool. Some new people were born, and joined them there.

So now, it’s fifty years later.

We’ve still got a culture of ghostly influence here, a posse of dead notions, but SFF, no matter the progress in the actual writing – and holy shit, there’s tons of it, spectacular things being written both by people new to the scene and people who’ve been around – remains culturally a very peculiar place.

It’s like we time-traveled.

Or, at least, like some of us time-traveled. For me, walking into certain rooms in genre fiction has been like zipping on a pencil skirt, filling up a decanter of bourbon, and pouring my boss a 10am drink, just before I light his cigarette. When I turn to leave, he grabs my ass. Did I mention that in this time-travel scenario, I’m a secretary? I am.  Or, you know, a Lady Writer.

***

It’s the present day. The Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club has gotten a lot smaller. 

In fact, now there’s a much tinier pool. It fits about a dozen people, give or take, plus a couple of blow-up dolls, used as flotation devices. But people have been claiming territory in that water for years. 

Now the Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club is just a hot tub full of pee. 

The rest of the swimmers are elsewhere. There are better swimming pools in the world. Ones that have LBGT people and people of color. Ones where women’s bikini tops don’t get tossed around as fun and games.

But the Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club still periodically announces, loudly, that this is Where Science Fiction Has Fun

***

This is a new Golden Age, and things have changed and are changing for the better. That’s what all this is. It’s not pretty, some of it, but it’s happening. If you’re still in that hot tub, you’re sitting in a public health hazard, and it’s in the process of being drained and boarded up. I know. It doesn’t feel great to suddenly be exposed, sitting in toxic waste, with your arms around the blow up doll.

Maybe you need to imagine a new world yourself – I think people can change, though can and will are two different things – or maybe you just need to do as Mary Robinette Kowal recommends.  Because seriously?

The rest of us, the ones who haven’t been sitting in that water are like: WTF?! We aren’t in that damn hot tub.

That hot tub is full of boiling piss.

PIRATES OF DESPAIR & NEON – HOW NOT TO BE A CONVENTION CREEP

A follow up post to BUT HE DIDN’T KNOW HE WAS HIJACKING YOUR SHIP: ON CONFERENCE CREEPS.

Thanks, people, for sharing the above with your networks. Talking Honestly and Rigorously about these things = Better Times for All.

One of the things that’s come up a lot of places is people feeling nervous that they don’t entirely know what proper behavior is.

So, what do we mean when we say Creep, or Creeper?

I asked Twitter for some crowd source definitions.

@cmpriest: Someone who pretends not to notice how uncomfortable his/her behavior makes others.

@lunafish1wish: to creep: unwelcome hovering, esp. when accompanied by unwelcome touching. creeper: person who does the previous.

@BBolander: Waiting until a woman is alone, then approaching and saying I’M SORRY I OGLED YOU IN YOUR DRESS LAST NIGHT.
@KatWithSwordAnyone who refuses to stop whatever they are doing, after being told no or walked away from.
@alwayscoffeea person who loiters and/or behaves aggressively, making another person uncomfortable. Usually violates personal space.
@StinaLeicht: Acting in a way intended to intimidate recipient/target. That is, manipulate their behavior for UR benefit in a sexual context
@meijerjt: Passive aggressive intruder in the personal space. who does not stop when called upon but circles around for a new approach
@maggiekarpharassment. Unintentional doesn’t make it different.
@random_scrubCreeping: violating the boundaries of personal space or acceptable sexual discourse while maintaining plausible deniability.
@BJMuntainTo creep: to make someone uncomfortable, possibly fearful, through over-familiar interactions. Creeper: one who does this.
@wallrikeCreep. v. To satisfy one’s lascivious urges at the expense of another. To put one’s sexual desires above another’s humanity.
@geoffreygSemilinked, Philip K. Dick used “creeper” to signify a bad turn of events, “if something goes creeper” (Solar Lottery, p. 76)

I like that last one particularly, just for metaphor’s sake. But I especially like @random_scrub’s version, “Violating the boundaries of personal space or acceptable sexual discourse while maintaining plausible deniability.

That one seems to particularly describe what we often deal with in connection with SFF conventions. People violate and harass, but do it in such a way that not everyone agrees that it was even questionable. Thus we can have things like people pressing other people against walls, and blaming crowding, people inappropriately touching other people and blaming confusion over signals, etc. People blaming the victim for being uptight, people saying, oh, that’s just how such & such famous writer IS, you can’t blame him, etc.

Really? Yes, I can.  We are all grownups. If a toddler comes up to me and grabs my leg, I assess that as the action of someone who doesn’t know quite what they are doing and is looking for support. They’re a kid.  If a grown person comes up to me and grabs my leg, I assess that as a choice to touch a body that doesn’t belong to them. Even when they say they are just “kidding.”

We are not children here. We are responsible for our actions.

Don’t get me wrong: I think inadvertent creeping exists too. I address it below, so that you get a sense for what I’m talking about in specificity, and rework yourselves so that you don’t do it. It is unnecessary to creep.

IT IS ALSO, AND LET ME BE VERY CLEAR, UNNECESSARY TO DISRESPECT WOMEN AS PART OF A SUCCESSFUL SFF CONFERENCE EXPERIENCE. JUST BECAUSE A CERTAIN KIND OF CULTURAL ATTITUDE HAS LONG BEEN PREVALENT DOES NOT MEAN CHANGE IS NOT A VERY GOOD THING.

THESE CHANGES  WILL ENRICH THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE GENRE.

Me, and other people posting things like this is not “taking the fun away.”

You know how I have fun at conventions? I do. That’s why I go. I have fun exercising my brain in the midst of a bunch of smart and interesting people, many of whom love books, stories, and the analysis of same as much as I do.  That’s what’s fun about SFF conventions. The not-fun is all of this, and it doesn’t have to exist.

The posting, and heightened awareness of things like this is – I hope –  making it more possible for all of us to attend and enjoy conventions. I saw a great tweet from Michael Damian Thomas a couple days ago:

 ‏@michaeldthomas: I am not scared to walk around an SF convention by myself. It is BULLSHIT that my friends & colleagues need escorts & safety plans.

A lot of the responses I’ve seen after the talk in the last few days, the original Elise Matthesen post, the many posts in response to it, from a variety of women on the scene who have experienced nasty things in the course of professional business, have expressed shock that this sort of behavior continues. Many men have been supportive and appalled, and a lot of people have said that they had no idea things were this bad. I believe you, many of you, because I think the way a lot of these things go down is with their own little cloak of invisibility around them. If it isn’t happening to you, you often don’t see it happening.

I also heard from a lot of people feeling nervous that they might be creeping themselves, or feeling hostile (a minority) at what I was describing as harassment, saying that it was all fun and games, and not in fact unacceptable behavior. A couple of guys asked for proof that harassment happened, which…um, how exactly would you like me to prove someone grabbed my ass in a crowded room?

I saw this tweet from Josh Jasper, which gets to the heart of some of the systemic problems in the genre:

@sinboy: Stopping a culture of harassment means acknowledging that we have multiple, invisible, effective systems in place to protect harrasers.

In quite related news, I just read a June 2013 interview with Harlan Ellison. In 2006, famously and publicly, he grabbed Connie Willis’ breast, onstage at the Hugo Awards. Check it out, here’s a video. It happened.

Here’s a link to the interview from the Guardian, in which he says (to interviewer Damien Walter):

HE: You are enormously kind and gracious. Just for the record, I never, ever threw anybody down an elevator shaft.

DW: [Laughter] I didn’t want to ask you that question, because I’m sure you always get asked that, Harlan. Everyone always seems to ask you, have you killed anybody, did they survive?

HE: Well, that’s a different question. That’s a different question. I’ve never thrown anybody down an escalator shaft, and I did not grab Connie Willis’s breast.

DW: I didn’t want to ask you that question either.

HE: Oh, that just infuriates me. That just infuriates me.

DW: Do you want to – do you have anything you want to say about it?

HE: About Connie Willis? I think she’s a brilliant writer.

So, yeah, maybe I’m just not getting the joke here. Maybe Harlan is being hilarious. Maybe Harlan is just being Harlan.

But no matter how I shake it? That joke isn’t funny, and one writer grabbing another writer’s breast and then insisting jocularly that he didn’t?

Creepus Maximus. Piracy on the High Seas. And not that unusual. Harlan Ellison just did it on a grand scale, but it happens like this all the time.

We are better than that. Let’s be better than that.

***

I’m posting here a short manual (my personal one, but still) for HOW NOT TO CREEP. All of these discussions have made me assess my own behavior too, in the context of interacting with other people. I would die of horror if I made someone feel uncomfortable in their skin, and yet people do it to me all the time. I go out of my way to get permission to touch, to hug, to sit in proximity. I don’t assume that I get to touch you, even if I know you in person. But here. Let’s get more specific.

I’m going to do this in a Choose Your Own Mis-Adventure format.

As always, by woman, I mean anyone who identifies female. By man, I mean the same. And I know this is a pretty gendered post, but there seem to be far fewer examples of men being harassed at cons for being male. (There are, of course, examples of fucked up harassments regarding transgendered people, and to that harassment, like all of it, I can only say WTF!!!!?!! RARRRRR. People. Get yourselves under control. Stop harassing.)

***

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE: SFF CONVENTION EDITION

1. You walk into an event at a convention. It’s a packed room full of people, some professional, some fans. You see a woman you want to talk to, someone you know from Twitter, and from her writing, say, but not in real life. You:

a) Walk up to her, introduce yourself politely at a distance of at least a yard, and put your hand out for a handshake. 

If you choose a) go to 2.

b) Walk up to her, and embrace her. After all, you know her from Twitter and you really like her tweets. She is awesome, and it’s okay to hug someone if you’ve exchanged tweets. You’re friends.

 if you choose b) go to 3. 

c) Wait until she’s alone, say, in the elevator, or on the way to the bathroom, and then approach her. You feel anxious in groups, and so it’s better for you to talk to her one on one. Get close to her. After all, her tweets are friendly and feel intimate. That means you have an intimate bond with her. It’s better for you to talk at close range, because you feel safer and more comfortable that way. 

if you choose c) go to 4. 

2. She looks at you, nods, and puts her hand out to shake your hand. ‘Hi,’ she says. ‘It’s nice to meet you.’ You say:

a) ‘It’s nice to meet you too. I like your work. I follow you on Twitter.’ Then you bring up something specific you’d like to talk about, whether a common interest, a panel topic, a request for an autograph, whatever. If she responds conversationally, yay. If she does not, you don’t press. Tell her that it was nice speaking with her, and walk away. 

This is the correct response. In this case, imagine that the woman you’d like to speak to is a man. Would you ask Robert Silverberg about his cleavage? Would you press your face to John Scalzi’s face, and ask him what it’s like to be a male writer? Would you tell Samuel R. Delany he was looking hot as lava? Would you crawl up on Saladin Ahmed and, while looming over him, ask him if he was “one of those militant feminists who don’t believe in rape scenes?” Probably not, but all these things have happened to me at conventions, both from pros and fans, and I’m a professional just like the above-named men are. There are a few exceptions (I’ve seen men being groped about the biceps and chest, and also I’ve seen quite a few tattoo-related uninvited gropes of men (and of me – people have done things like pull off the top of my shirt in order to get at my tattoos) – but in this case, it was a combo tattoo grab and feel-up. Once I saw a woman prostrate herself to a writer friend of mine. I’ve seen some female stalkers, for sure…) but I’ve rarely seen men being generally crept on in the same way women are at conventions. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, though, at all. 

b) ‘I just saw you on a panel (read your book, read a short story you wrote, read an interview with you). I disagree with you on the following points and want to explain things to you. I’m an expert in a thing. I have a lot to say.’

This is not inherently creeping, but it is, depending on the level, potentially annoying and may have bad results. It becomes creeping when you continue to pursue a woman through a convention, telling her The Thing, and refusing to leave her alone. It also becomes creeping when you explain that she doesn’t know The Thing because she’s female, and seek to aggressively explain to her, over multiple cycles, what is wrong with her. This is mansplaining. It’s sucky.

c) ‘Did you recently get divorced? That was the #1 predictive search on your name when I just googled you.’

This is a bad choice. It’s not creeping, quite, but it’s right on the border. It’s also really, really a wrong choice. Do not come up to me to hit on me within the first moments of meeting me. Mentioning my personal life when we do not know each other is creepy. Mentioning it repeatedly, particularly my romantic life, is Creeping. 

I’m here at a convention as a writer. My love life is not the point of my presence. We are not in a live action version of SFF Edition OK Cupid. 

3. She hugs you back but awkwardly, possibly patting you hard on the back and then drawing away, her body stiff. She looks startled. She takes a step back from you, and looks around the room, her eyes moving rapidly, but she doesn’t say anything. You:

a) Assume all is well. Keep hugging her. In fact, hug her again. She didn’t say no. She’s supposed to say No if she doesn’t want to be hugged, right? Besides, hugging feels good. Who  wouldn’t like hugging? Mean people, that’s who. You’re just a jolly teddy bear.

Congratulations. You’ve just Crept. She would be well within her rights to report you right now. She would also be well within her rights to yell at you, slap you, or tell you loudly to move away from her. This is your fault, not hers. You pressed your body against her body without permission. That is not okay. When I talk about piracy, this is what I mean. You just got onto her ship without her inviting you aboard. Then you tried to steer. 

b) Step quickly back and say “I’m sorry. That was inappropriate. I shouldn’t have hugged you.”

You’ve already transgressed, but a quick apology and Never Doing It Again may make it better. If it doesn’t, though? Don’t keep following her around staring at her mournfully and trying to apologize. That is Creeping. One apology, polite respect, and no more attempts. Got it? You’ve transgressed, but it’s still possible it was Accidental Piracy. As long as you leave it alone from here on, no promises, but it’s probably okay. 

Here, a brief anecdote: I met another writer at a convention a couple of years ago. We met quite briefly after a panel, and then later, at a dance event, he came up behind me and rested his chin on my head. He’s a lot taller than I am. I wasn’t happy. I felt captured and dwarfed. He did it in front of a group of other writers. They weren’t happy either. He got schooled. He could have reacted with offense and more bad behavior. He didn’t. He immediately stopped the behavior, apologized, and analyzed himself. It helped. He never did it again. Now we’re friends and I respect him for looking at himself and making the right choice.

c) Hug her again, tell her she’s so hot you can’t help yourself, and slide your hand down her back to cop a feel of her ass. She didn’t say no, after all, and she’s still standing here, so she must want it. Even if she doesn’t, she’s hot, and she’s here, and no one is watching. 

You just shifted from Conference Creeper into Criminal. Neither thing is okay. Nothing about it is okay. Not only did you get aboard her ship without permission, you’ve just taken it hostage and assaulted the captain. Yeah, what I just described? That’s sexual assault. It’s illegal. If you did this on a train in NYC, you could be arrested. See this piece from the NYT for an account of subway groping and an arrest following it. What you just did isn’t different.  It’s just that people rarely report this kind of interaction at cons, because it is startling and so unpleasant that all they want to do is flee. That’s about to change. If this is what you do? I don’t believe you’re clueless or confused. I believe you are trying to steal my body from me. My body is mine, just as your body is yours. This is basic. Keep off, or suffer the consequences. 

4. She looks at you, with surprise on her face. She didn’t expect to be accompanied to the bathroom/into the elevator. She leans back into the wall, and looks quickly around for her friends. She tries to go into the bathroom without you, or presses herself stiffly against the elevator corner. You:

a) Apologize. You’ve just made her uncomfortable. Get out at the next floor, or walk away from her, making sure you give her space to move, and that she can actually get past you. 

Again, if you did this? Stop it right now. Don’t do it again. You messed up,but it’s still a relatively minor matter. See 3B. There may be consequences, but at least you’ve stopped the behavior. Know that behavior such as this makes many people uncomfortable. Look at it in another setting: No one likes to be followed to their car. That’s what you just did. 

b) Follow her into the bathroom, or off the elevator and to the door of her room to keep talking.

Creeper. Creeper. Creeper. Do this, and you have no one but yourself to blame. Without a spoken invitation (‘Would You like to come to my room?’ is an invitation, but it’s not an invitation to do anything more than come to a room. ‘Would you like to have sex?’ That is an invitation to have sex. If you don’t have an invitation, do not EVER assume it is implied.)  You should not ever follow a woman into a private space. Not into a bathroom. Not off the elevator and to the doorway of her room because you’re not done talking to her. It doesn’t matter that you’re not done talking to her. It matters that she is trying to leave you behind. Respect her wishes in this matter. 

c) Try to make out with her. I mean, she’s here with you, after all, she must want it. 

See 3C. If a person wants to engage sexually with you, there will be an invitation. It needs to be spoken. Never assume that just because you like someone, she likes you back. Never assume, that just because you would like to kiss someone, or grope someone, or have sex with someone, she agrees and feels the same. Often, in my experience, me being nice – as in, I smile, I greet people in a friendly fashion, I am chatty – gets misread as me wanting to engage sexually. Remember that it is my job at a convention to be friendly. It is not my job to make out with you. That’s not what I’m here for. If I wanted to, I would tell you, using my words. 

____

That was only one scenario, but it applies to lots of things. I also want to contribute a short list of tricky multiple choice identifiers:

1. YOU ARE NOT A CREEPER, IF:

a) You grew up around strong women, so you know what women go through, and understand them.

b) You are married to a badass feminist.

c) You like to write female characters. Your books are full of them.

d) In the 60′s, you were a leader in progressive thought in the genre.

e)  You do not transgress against the boundaries and personal space of other people by ignoring signs, information, and basic courtesies. You do not touch inappropriately, loom inappropriately, lurk, follow, stalk, and otherwise harass. You treat other people with the respect of equals.

The only correct answer is E. All the rest? You could still be harassing women, even if you’ve pre-excused yourself because of your history or CV. Action is what matters, folks. 

_____

I’m not the only voice here, nor do I get everything right. I’m sure of that, because hell, I’m not the Queen of Everything. But I’m attempting with this, and a little levity, to get at some of this problem and keep our voices raised toward a new standard. I want this to get better. I like this community, and I like so many of the people in it. I want to go to conventions and feel safe and happy. I want to have fun. This isn’t a Be Scared of Conventions post, I hope – it’s not meant to be. It’s a Let’s Change The Culture Of Conventions For The Better post.

Let’s.

Thanks all who contributed definitions, and all who’ve raised their voices about this, by forwarding my posts, or by writing posts, or by sharing any of the posts by Elise.

My last post, at last count, had over 8000 views. That’s a big conversation. Let’s keep having it.

BUT HE DIDN’T KNOW HE WAS HIJACKING YOUR SHIP: On Conference Creeps

So, all day today there’s been an epic twitter storm regarding sexual harassment in the science fiction and fantasy convention circuit, specifically the means for the official reporting of same. See Elise Matthesen’s post quoted in full at John’s Scalzi’s WHATEVER for the events that led to said storm.

I feel the need to weigh in on the topic, given that I’m a female writer who attends conventions regularly as part of my professional life, and given that I have been harassed all over convention hotels from here to San Diego. Despite the fact that I’ve also experienced a lot of great stuff at cons, smart and fabulous people, there’s certainly been a lot of Other as well.

I’ve actually never made an official report, largely because I’m so used to being harassed that I’d just chalked it up to basic workplace suck. Of course, my position on this – that I should tolerate it, rather than battle it – was wrong. It was very helpful to read Elise’s post, in which it’s revealed that someone with a seemingly long record of sexual harassment had no record of official complaints filed against him. So, that sucks for obvious reasons, one of which is that he has apparently continued, for years, happily harassing women right and left, without repercussions.

That looks to be changing.  Scandals right and left, and rightly so.

I’ve been working professionally as writer for 17 years, as a playwright first, and then as a prose writer. I’ve been in this genre for about three years. I know a lot of people. I don’t go to every convention, but I go to several every year. I’d love to say I’d been to any conventions in the SFF field wherein things like this didn’t happen.

Or as Kat Howard said today in response to me tweeting the following:
Me: “It’s really shitty that often what happens is that one’s friends have to circle up and protect you from someone harassing.”
Kat: “I’ve never been at a con where my friends and I haven’t made rescue plans. Harassment happens everywhere.”

So in weighing in, what I want to do is give a sense of the things that can happen, sexual harassment-wise as a baseline at conventions, using some examples of things that have happened to me, and to my friends.

Today was, I think, eye opening for some people who didn’t realize the breadth of the snarl.

My female friends and I are a group of writers who’ve sold books and stories professionally for years. We’re a pretty formidable group of women (and men, but here I’m mostly talking about women getting harassed. I know people who aren’t women get harassed too – yes, oh, I do. But today? It’s about my experience as a woman in the genre.) Among us are NYT bestsellers, award winners, lawyers, doctors, and various badasses. On panels, we hold our own – sometimes against significant odds. In rooms, we hold our own, again, sometimes against significant odds. On the internet, we hold our own, despite exactly what you’d expect, significant odds.

We’re outspoken women who write about history, monsters, sex, battles, cities, science, love, myth, creatures, the worlds above and below. If you met us at a convention, you’d think – accurately – that we were confident, smart, and capable professionals. You might not realize that most of us had been harassed at the very convention you were meeting us at. I’m not using names. But I want to say a few things about things that have happened to me.

There’s been a lot of talk about conventions being “safe spaces” – but one of the very unfortunate things is that a lot of conventions, while being safe spaces for people who don’t fit into societal norms, have also managed to make themselves safe spaces for sexual harassers.

As follows. Here, a partial list.

1. My first convention. I’m at a party, where I know maybe 2 people. A respected SF writer beelines up to me, kisses – with tongue – up my arm from wrist to shoulder without introducing himself, mutters “stunning” and is gone. Later that night, he googles me, sends me an email through my website informing me of his identity, and telling me that he is the man who left his “spoor” on my arm. I write back. I say, “you know, you should have actually spoken to me. I’m an interesting person, not to mention I’m one of your fellow invited pros, and I’m smart, and a writer.” He writes back to me, having done some more googling. He says, oops, I didn’t know that you had a husband (and, implication mine, are his property, therefore not on the open market). I didn’t mean to disrespect him. (Ital mine.) My soul is yours. I’ll blurb you if you need a blurb. He doesn’t speak to me or acknowledge me professionally ever, though we are at the convention together for days.

2. Same convention, some guy in the dealer’s room with whom I’ve been having a brief conversation about whether or mot my book is stocked picks me up and holds me in his arms, as though I am a toddler. I instruct him to put me down. He looks bewildered. It’s because i’m little, he says, and because I’m wearing green, which is his favorite color and which means we have a connection. I’m 5’3″. I’m not big. I am also not a toddler. And even if I was? I WOULD NOT BE ASKING A STRANGER TO PICK ME UP. EVEN IF THAT STRANGER LIKED GREEN. I DID NOT WEAR MY GREEN DRESS IN ORDER TO BE PICKED UP. My dress is not an invitation, yo.

3. Moments later, another guy, a fellow writer, hugs me tenderly from behind, though I do not know him. When I turn, startled, to protest, he says “You have the greatest smile. It just makes me want to hug you.” I’m doomed to avoiding him for the rest of the con, because he’s always wherever I am, charging at me with open arms, hugging me in elevators and moving at me to hug basically just wherever I go. It’s gross. He becomes known to my swiftly formed girl posse as The Hugger in the Hat. And when I say hugger, I mean full body contact with erect bits against my thigh. I don’t report him. I’m new to the scene. I feel awkward. I’m used to being harassed in the world. This is bad, but it’s not insane in terms of how much wrong attention I get from creeps in cities. So, I don’t report.

4. What Cherie Priest says in her post on this is true. We form protective posses. Descriptions of  creepers are traded like cards. Women say things such as “Do you need back up when you walk through that room?” “What color is his shirt?” “Oh, I saw The Hugger In The Hat in there – I’m getting between you and him.”

5. Conversely, when I complained about The Hugger anecdotally to men, most of them said he was just clueless and didn’t mean to creep me out, and that if I was clear that I didn’t want to be hugged, I wouldn’t be, because The Hugger was a nice guy. Don’t get me wrong. Most men are great. But I think most guys have also not been witness to a lot of this. Creepers wait til you’re with your girls, or alone. Because Creepers calculate.

6. The Hugger wasn’t hugging the guys. Nor was Spoor Guy licking their arm and then sending them love letters. Nor was Dealer’s Room Guy lifting them off their feet.

7. Notice that I’ve not even mentioned anyone giving me any kind of respect for being a professional writer here. In these scenarios, I’ve been A Pretty Writer. It’s part of my job to be nice to people at conventions. I don’t like to cause scenes and be ill humored. I’m inherently a friendly person. Sometimes this bites me in the ass, literally. Sometimes it gropes me in the ass.

8. To ask me to be someone who is not friendly is to ask me to be someone other than myself. Yet, people who have heard these stories, have sometimes said “Maria, you should be less friendly. It’s not their fault they get confused. You’re pretty and nice.”

9. So, apparently pretty and nice means I should change, not the harassers. But how should I change? It’s not me who is at fault. It’s historically been unusual that anything is a harasser’s fault at a SFF con. They often self-market as misunderstood, and act as though somehow their creepy, stalkerish behavior is the natural result of Mean Pretty Women of SFF who are also Crazy Feminists Who Don’t Know How To Have A Good Time. Creepy men often self-market as Innocents Abroad. This, when they have long been attending conventions with women, and in fact, have been schooled before, usually beginning in kindergarten, about what constitutes an inappropriate touch or action.

10. This pisses me off. I feel pissed off when i find myself followed into an elevator and have to get off the elevator because i don’t want to be followed to my room. I feel pissed off when I find my group of friends joined at the bar by someone who seats himself on the arm of my chair and insists that because he wants to buy us a drink, he is allowed to sit there, then curses us for denying him. I feel pissed off when my space is invaded repeatedly by someone who wants to stare at my boobs, over, and over, and over, and who cannot seem to keep himself away, despite being spoken to by a defender. I feel pissed off when I have to dodge away from a guy who has no personal space and keeps pressing me hard against a wall. I feel pissed off when suddenly i’m getting a neck massage I didn’t request. I feel pissed off when in all of this?

NO ONE EVER ACKNOWLEDGES ME AS A WRITER. Which is the whole reason I’m at the con to begin with.

11. Post-witnessing a creepy interaction, people often say things to me like “You seemed like you knew how to handle yourself.” It’s true that it is unusual for me to feel frightened. I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I’ve never felt myself to be in danger. What I have felt is that my time as a writer is being wasted.

I’ve had, for example, small toys pushed down the front of my dress, as though this was a playful thing to do. I’ve been on panels where i’ve been asked questions that began “As a female writer” – when everyone else on the panel was a guy, and didn’t have to answer the equivalent. I’ve had my ass grabbed in an elevator and proclaimed “perky.” I’ve been called “feisty” because I protested sexism in a conversation, and the person i was speaking to told me I was “cute and sassy” for speaking out, but that I didn’t understand the history of the genre, and how what I was protesting was actually just normal.

I have no huge conclusions here, just aggravations and airing of a pretty basic account of my pretty basic female writer experience at SFF conventions.

On twitter today, I said:

“After my first convention, I almost didn’t go back to any others. It was that bad. Everywhere I went, there were dudes waiting to grab.

And if you question how bad it would have to be to make me feel upset? Know that I used to be a pirate negotiator in the maritime industry.

The pirates in the maritime industry were generally a great deal more polite than the creeps in the SFF world. They stuck to terms.

In the SFF world, the nasty that happens is as follows: ‘He was confused,’ rather than “HE JUST TRIED TO HIJACK YOUR SHIP.’

But I’m here to tell you, people have regularly tried to hijack my ship, and then protested that my real problem was a bad ship and bad weather, rather than dudes trying to board me.

This is, alongside all that has been said today, a plea to convention attendees, to writers, to people, to watch for these things and work with us to stamp them out. They suck. They make conventions un-fun for women, and for everyone. If you see something, say something. If you watch something, walk up to the something and intervene. If you feel uncomfortable with someone’s action, chances are the person who is experiencing it is too. It’s likely that she would like you to chime in with her.

And me? From now on, I report officially. It’s the right thing to do.