MAGONIA COVER REVEAL!!!

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YES. That, folks, is the Magonia cover. She’s not out til April 28th, so for the the next few months you can look at this, and mutter about how it’s not available yet. At least it’s mouthwatering! Here’s the Magonia page at HarperCollins with links to various pre-order places.

Art is by Craig Shields and cover by the spectacular HarperTeen design team. I’m very lucky to have this particular publisher sharing my imaginary kingdom with me – they totally get it! I love this cover so, SO much.

MAGONIA is my young adult debut, a novel about a badass, broken, deathly ill teenage girl from earth who finds herself in a sky kingdom. Here’s the description:

Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live.

So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.

Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia. Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was.

In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—and as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war is coming. Magonia and Earth are on the cusp of a reckoning. And in Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?

The genesis of this book? Peter Pan. Which has always pissed me off. Wendy’s role in that book, the way she gets converted into a mother for Lost Boys while everyone else has legit adventures? No, thank you. And then there’s Tinker Belle, and Tiger Lily, and Mrs. Darling, and all told, COME ON. A bunch of bummer for all the female characters. I spent my childhood wanting to be Peter Pan, but wanting Peter Pan to be a girl, thank you very much. I was an adventurer. I didn’t see why Wendy couldn’t be too. Instead, she’s stuck wearing her nightgown, sewing on buttons, and cleaning up after Lost Boys!  Ack! GRRR. ARRRRGH.

Yeah, I kinda became a writer just so I could furiously revise some of the stories that were already in the world.

So, all that said, a J.M. Barrie riff is not actually what MAGONIA is – it’s not a Neverland situation at all – but it came from my early aggravation, and became something else entirely.

This book is for readers 13 and up, and Aza Ray Boyle, the protagonist, is 16 – but the guts of the story come from me imagining what would happen if a ferocious, firebrand, real person of a teenage girl ended up in a kingdom in the sky, full of ships, pirates, stormsharks, and tiny birds that nest in your lungs and sing with you. And what if that girl actually had power?

So this visual depicts both the earth Aza Ray has been on for 15 years, and the sky she’s heading into, Magonia. The feather is transformation, and depicts the feather of a canwr, one of the lung-singers in the book. There are birds and bats and squallwhales in Magonia, and environmental warfare. There are a whole lot of female ship captains. There’s magic, and there’s weird science.

There’s also sorrow, loss, love, death, and pain. Even though this is an imaginary world, it’s got a lot of real stuff in it, and I think it’ll probably make you cry. This book means a lot to me. I can’t wait for you to read it.

THE END OF THE SENTENCE NOVELLA, AND MAGONIA ARCS

SO many long-gestating writing projects have become reality in the last few days. Updating on the various things, which I know, make me look like I had a perhaps very-crazy writing frenzy, but really are because a couple of years of writing all happen to be getting published at once. Which is not a bummer!

This is what I look like lately. Um, a little bit happy?

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That’s me the other night looking rumpled and grinny in my Brooklyn kitchen, photo by my friend, the musician king Sxip Shirey. I’m wearing an apron that says We Ship, Midnight Galley, which I made a couple years ago. Life is sweet.

THE END OF THE SENTENCE:

Last year, I wrote a little ghost/monster/blacksmithery horror novella with Kat Howard, for Subterranean Press. THE END OF THE SENTENCE is 187 pages, which we passed back and forth for the month we were writing them. It’s semi-epistolary, sad, creepy, romantic, full of myth and folklore from all over the place, as well as fairy-tale elements, and in short, we are SO DAMN PROUD OF IT. It couldn’t have been a smoother or more fruitful collaboration. I’ve never written a book so quickly!! You can read it in an evening, and I suggest you do it right now, because it’s actually set during the month of October, and the first letter in it is dated today.

It’s shipping now in both limited glam and signed editions, and trade editions from Subterranean Press, and you can also get it in ebook, though the hardcopy is wildly gorgeous.

These are some of my author copies, which I got yesterday and whooped over. Plus flowers, knife, and cocktail, because obviously.

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Here’s a page at the Subterranean site, with bits of reviews, and a short interview with us done by the magnificent Gwenda Bond.

Here’s a wonderful little bit of review from Fantasy Literature:

Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard have taken the darker aspects of fairy tales and come up with a new tale set in contemporary America, complete with contemporary American problems of automobiles and broken marriages. These horrors that happen every day are combined with the horrors of a supernatural creature that seems to soothe in order to terrify, to provide for all his victim’s needs so long as that victim might be useful… This is a beautiful novella, a modern fairy tale that any reader of the French tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ will recognize, but so different from that story that it is something entirely new.

And one from Tor.com

The End of the Sentence only really represents an evening’s reading, but be prepared to feel the fallout of this fairytale—perfectly formed from a hodgepodge of half-forgotten mythologies—for far longer than the few hours it takes to unfold.

Here, if you’re interested in process,  at Kat’s site, is the longer version of that interview, which contains some sweary, brainstormy, giddy backstage emails we sent during the writing process.

And here’s another interview we did, this time with the divine writer Sarah McCarry, for Tor.com.

(You might want to read the novella before you read those interviews – there’s a lot in them, and some of it might want to have context.)

If you read THE END OF THE SENTENCE, hit us up and tell us what you thought, or put a review up in any of the usual places. We’d love to hear from you.  It was a huge pleasure to be invited to write this book together.

AND NOW FOR THE NEXT HUGE ITEM!

TWO BOOKS IN TWO DAYS!

MAGONIA

MAGONIA, my young adult debut, is in Advance Reader Copy Form, and I got the first copies a couple of days ago, as a surprise! It’s not out til May 2015, (which is sooner than you think) but the cover will be revealed on Epic Reads on October 13.

The cover, by the way, is totally amazing. This is the spine. I can’t show you the cover yet! I am dying to. But trust me.

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Skyships, squallwhales, female pirate captains, and a teenage girl at the center of it all who finds herself immersed in a world she’d never imagined – but belongs in.

Magonia is a sky kingdom story, and at its center is Aza Ray Boyle, a teenage girl who has never been able to breathe properly. She has a rare disease – so rare it’s named after her. Sicker and sicker, and finally, one day something goes horribly wrong. Aza dies.

And wakes up far from home. Maybe things aren’t as they seem.

Maybe Aza Ray doesn’t belong on earth at all? But if she doesn’t, if in fact she belongs on a ship in the sky, singing a song that can shift the weather, surrounded by bird people and ferocious warriors, what about her best friend Jason? If the sky is warring with earth, where do Aza and her song fit in? How can she choose?

This is for 13 and up, and frankly, given the people who’ve read it thus far, the up is as far up as you want to take it. I think adults will like this book as much as teenagers will. It’s dark, and sad, and strange, and very full of magic and chaos. This has been a while in the works, and I cried when I saw the ARCS, because man, it’s been a rough and complicated couple of years, and you never know if you’ll get lucky enough to publish a book again, let alone to publish a book you’re this excited about. Magonia is a really personal project for me, and it was scary to write it, but I feel so lucky to be publishing this book with Harper, and my editor there, Kristen Pettit. They are doing amazing things.

I know that I’ll be at ABA Winter Institute in North Carolina in February to talk about Magonia to all, so if you’re a bookseller, put it on your calendar. I’d love to meet you.

2014 Short Stories & Novellas Thus Far – With Teasers for Stories Soon To Come

Note to new followers: This blog is a mashup of my ongoing political opinions, essays and mutterings, as well as a place to keep track of the fiction I write. I write a lot of fiction! If you like my essays, you might like the fiction too. Suffice it to say that my opinions about female heroes and active female characters are reflected in everything I write.

So, a compendium of the short stories and novellas I’ve published and sold to be published thus far in 2014, so I can keep track, and perhaps so you can too.  I’ll keep updating this throughout the year. There are little teasers here for a few things that aren’t live yet, and links for some that are.

The Tallest Doll in New York City – Tor.com (February, 2014. 2600 words)

A Damon Runyonesque riff of a Valentine’s Day fantasy story involving a love affair between a couple of major NYC landmarks. This was exceedingly fun to write – the Runyon style is a challenge, and the idea of two objects falling in love pleased me.

The Cloud Club’s open since before the building got her spire, and the waitstaff in a Member’s Own knows things even a man’s miss doesn’t. Back during Prohibition, we install each of the carved wood lockers at the Cloud Club with a hieroglyphic identification code straight out of ancient Egypt, so our members can keep their bottles safe and sound. Valorous Victor dazzles the police more than once with his rambling explanation of cryptographic complexities, and finally the blue boys just take a drink and call it done. No copper’s going to Rosetta our rigmarole.

 

I’m at the bar mixing a Horse’s Neck for Mr. Condé Nast, but I’ve got my eye on the mass of members staggering out of the elevators with fur coats, necklaces, and parcels of cling & linger, when, at 5:28p.m. precisely, the Chrysler Building steps off her foundation and goes for a walk.

 

Dim Sun: Lightspeed Magazine, Women Destroy Science Fiction (June, 2014. 5500 words)

A politically rageful lark of an SF story involving an insufferable restaurant critic in outer space, and his best friend Rodney, a tag-a-long with a huge appetite. The two men face down the critic’s ex-wife Harriet, who has lately become president of the universe. This one’s a little bit Douglas Adams, a little Roald Dahl. I had unholy amounts of fun writing it. I like to write comic things as much as I like writing terrifying things. The story isn’t online – it’s exclusive to the ebook and print editions. Which are so worth it! The whole volume is awesome. There’s also an author spotlight in there about the story.

“Rings of Saturn,” the chef says. “Deep-fried, flash drenched in Mars water-ice, and then fried again.”

 

His assistant is standing by with a fire extinguisher, but this is nothing. The rings are small, a bit blurry, and clearly crisp. They glow a little, which might be worrying for some, but Bert Gold and I are invulnerable. We’re connoisseurs of spice. These rings are fried in some kind of astral napalm. I take one, and crunch into it with my front teeth, feeling it beginning to burn the roof of my mouth. It makes me hard, I’m telling you. I miss onion rings. Back in the day, me and Bert were at a bar one night, and I put seven onion rings around my business. Didn’t end the way I thought it might. I was looking at the ladies. They were laughing at me. People, it turned out, didn’t feel the same way I did about rings. There’s a photo somewhere.

 

The Badger Baby – Glittering Scrivener (June 2014. 2900 words)

A horror story regarding a real painting of a baby in a lake, by an artist named T.H. Badger. I stumbled on the painting on eBay, and have since been trying to exorcise it from my inbox. This story was an attempt. I put it up on my own blog as a free story, because the exorcism was time sensitive. :)

The baby had been painted in a lake, not in a baptismal way, but in a way that suggested the water was its habitat. It drifted unanchored, surrounded by mist. The portrait depicted only the baby’s upper chest, shoulders, and head. Its arms were at its sides in the lake, which was rendered in lavender and slate, shading to navy at the edges of the oval, a bit of yellow, some grayish pink where the baby’s body presumably was. The baby looked directly out at the viewer, with black-eyed certainty. From certain angles, the baby seemed inhabited by something other than a baby.

 

The Cull - The Toast (June, 2014. 1800 words.)

A debutante ball goes horribly wrong, and there is a literary assassination. Horror/black comedy. If you want a very short, very fun thing to read during a coffee break, this is the one.

It is unclear which of us began the rebellion. Perhaps all of us at once. A glittering, star-shaped pin came unfastened from a bodice. A clutch clicked open and a vial of explosives rolled out. An elastic garter sprang back against a thigh embossed with the outline of a derringer.

 

What There Was To See: Novella – Subterranean Online (Summer, 2014. 19K words)

Link to come when it goes up. The unlikely history of corneal transplants, rabbits, and German bears. Literary horror and ghosts, along with science.

There was something white in the center of the great lawn. She walked toward it, slowly. A chicken, possibly, caught by a fox. Or one of those rabbits.

 

She picked up her husband’s pajama trousers before she knew what they were, and found dirt on them, their edge partially dug into a divet in the grass. Then his shirt. She found, not thinking, no, not thinking, a ragged tear in it. She looked around, turning slowly in a circle. There was nothing else. No one. No Fritz. Here were his slippers, his pajamas, his robe.

 

Johanna turned to run back to the house, to tell someone. What would she tell them? That he’d shed his clothes and run into the forest? She paused, stepping over the place the pajamas had been.

 

There was something watching. She felt it. She looked around frantically, dread rising in her, her throat clenching, her fists closing. Something was all around her. And a horrible smell, dense woods, rotting meat.

 

As she stood, paralyzed, shaking, something tore a slash in her wrapper, long and jagged, and she felt a searing pain in her rib, the flesh opened by something sharp as a knife.

 

And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea (Lightspeed Magazine, 5500 words)

Link to come – it should be up in the next few months. Here is a teaser. A fantastical love story involving two monsters, both water dwellers.

I met you at the end of centuries spent alone. My body has been every decorative lily pool in Japan, and every waterfall in Africa. My body has been the Amazon, full of snakes, thigh-deep wading for explorers, and the Mississippi and her floodplains, spilling out across miles, looping and twisting to surprise the houses. My body was the last moments of the Aral Sea, the final drops drunk by a camel, and carried away. When you found me in that fishtank, I was too lonely to travel.

 

Who is Your Executioner? (Nightmare Magazine – 7400 words)

Link to come, should be up in the next few months. Here’s a teaser for this dark horror story about children’s games and inadvertent conjuring.

On the photo wall as we leave the prom, there’s a fully developed Polaroid of me and of Trev, with Oona between us, looking like a smudge of light, and inside that, the faintest outlines of a little girl, looking straight at the camera, her eyes glowing.

 

Later they tell us that somebody slipped LSD in the punch, but they never figure out who it was. Trevor and I each take her hands and we go out into the night, to Trevor’s car, borrowed from his grandfather. We ignore the sweetish smoky smell. We pretend it’s not there. Oona’s fingers lace into ours. Her hands are always cold.

 

“What was that?” I ask her.

 

“That was nothing,” she says. She looks at me. Her eyes reflect headlights, and then she gets out of the car and takes off running down the highway, five miles from anywhere.

 

The End of the Sentence: A Novella. Subterranean Press. Cowritten with Kat Howard. (33K, September, 2014)

This is a literary horror-fantasy novella published in book form, hardcover and trade paper. Order now! BookRiot says this about the novella – listed on their Best Books We Read in June.

Malcolm Mays flees to rural Oregon after a tragic accident that shatters his life, buying a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and doing his best to leave his past behind. But the house’s former owner, a mysterious and suspiciously prescient entity named Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, has other ideas for Malcolm: claiming he’s been unjustly imprisoned–for 117 years–Chuchonnyhoof demands Malcolm’s assistance with a near-impossible task. As the end of Chuchonnyhoof’s sentence approaches, Malcolm must decide whether he’s helping to free an innocent–or the Devil himself. A deliciously creepy and atmospheric mashup of old myths and new twists, Headley and Howard’s lush, sinister novella is a guaranteed treat for fans of the fantastic. -Sarah McCarry

 

And here’s a little excerpt:

I drove into Ione again, late at night. Moon up, yellow and thin as a toenail clipping. My granddad had been a captain working in the Gulf of Mexico, but early in his career, he’d been second mate on a Norwegian freighter. I thought about a story he’d told me once, about a ship made of the nail clippings of the dead. I heard him again like I was six years old, sitting with him on his porch in New Orleans.

 

“Naglfar, they call it,” said my granddad. “The nailship. At the end of the world, Naglfar comes loose from its mooring. You have to trim the fingernails of the dead, boy, or they go to build that ship. You don’t want to leave a deadman with his fingernails long.”

I saw my granddad’s white beard, his dark skin, and his glittering eyes. He stretched his fingernails out to show me. Trimmed to the rind. He looked at my face, and then laughed.

“Your gran told me not to tell you those stories anymore, or you’ll wet the bed, won’t you?”

 

“Will not,” I said. But I did, later that night, imagining the nail ship making its way through some terrible ocean, an anchor chain made of toenails, and a hull made of fingernails torn from their beds. I had nightmares about Naglfar for years. Now I was having waking nightmares about iron growing out of bones and I couldn’t make sense of them. I imagined nails, iron nails. I’d read a story years before about a woman who grew fingernails instead of hair, and I imagined that for a drunken moment, a miserable creature covered in hard, sharp, scales.

On the steering wheel, I looked at my own fingernails. For the first time in years I’d let them grow beyond their edges. What kind of fool thought he wasn’t five minutes from dying?

 

AND….

COMING UP IN 2015, my young adult novel debut, MAGONIA, from HarperCollins. It grew out of a little piece of folklore from both the 8th and 11th centuries, and involves a sky kingdom.

From Publisher’s Weekly:

 

Kristen Pettit at HarperCollins has acquired two books by Maria Dahvana Headley, author ofThe Year of Yes and Queen of Kings, both for adults. Her YA fantasy, called Magonia, stars a razor-tongued teenage girl caught in a collision of worlds – her familiar home on the Earth’s surface and the desperate, hidden civilizations sailing the “sea” of the earth’s atmosphere. Summer 2015 is the projected pub date.

 

And a little teaser…

 

“Aza Ray,” says someone, way, WAY too loudly. “Aza Ray, wake up.”

I put my head under the covers. Absolutely not. There will be no waking up for me, because it is clearly five AM, and this can only be cruel night phlebotomy. I have a spinny, achy head, leftover from whatever got me here, and yes, I remember some of it, and yes, some of it was bad, but it’s been bad before, but here I still apparently am, so it can’t have been that bad.

 

I’ve been sleeping like the dead. That’s a joke I’m allowed to make. Whatever drug they’ve got me on, it’s working. If they ask me, I can say pain scale zero, which has never happened before, not in my entire history of hospitals.

 

The voice gets sharper. This nurse has no sense of nice. Her voice is both way too loud, and way too high-pitched. I yank the covers higher over my face.

 

“AZA RAY QUEL. It’s time to wake up now!”

 

Something sharp pokes me. My bed shakes.

 

I reluctantly open my eyes and I’m looking at–

 

An owl.

 

A HUMAN SIZED OWL, a, what? WHAT? A WORLD-CLASS HALLUCINATION.

 

The owl stretches long yellow fingers and runs one over my forehead. It clacks its beak at me.

 

“Still fevered,” it says.

 

A SHORT LIST OF MOVIES YOU WILL NEVER SEE

GRAY LINES

Cate Blanchett is a double-dealing politician who is secretly running a drug ring through the maritime trade of her homestate, Louisiana. Lupita Nyong’o is the crack investigative reporter who busts her, setting off a scandal throughout Washington and uncovering layer upon layer of corruption, up to the highest levels.  Federal policy on no-bid contracts is rocked, as are American notions of truth, justice, and blondes.  Best Picture Oscar, and shared wins for both Blanchett & Nyong’o in the Best Actor category. (Yes: Best Actor.) 

Cate Blanchett & Lupita Nyong'o photographed by Cliff Watts for Entertainment Weekly, Feb 2014

Cate Blanchett & Lupita Nyong’o photographed by Cliff Watts for Entertainment Weekly, Feb 2014

****

Late last night I got into a rip-roaring feminist mood, which is not unusual. I am, after all, a woman, and a writer, and I spend a lot of my time looking at heinously genderskewed media, whether it’s film, theater, TV, or books. Most typically, particularly in the Award-Winning Categories, the ones that designate things Serious Stories For The Ages, there are piles of narratives about men changing the world. Check them. Oscars, Emmys, Pulitzers. We’re utterly used to seeing awards ceremonies during which, for example, ten (usually white, naturally) men stand up, and thank an audience for giving awards to their great art, art which almost always features a bunch of male movers and shakers. We’re used to seeing movies and plays about serious topics which have almost entirely male casts. We don’t even blink. Why would we? These are the kinds of stories that mean something. The equivalent movies (or media) with all female casts would almost certainly be marketed as chick flicks, be vigorously less serious, and would contain discussions of weddings and menopause. (How often, in a serious male-cast film have we heard a character say to another guy “I’m really having trouble with my prostate, man. It’s why I can’t focus on shooting that villain.” Things like this, regarding hot flashes, morning sickness and cramps come out of female character’s mouths all the time.)

This is how we’ve been taught to see the world.

These Award Winning films, plays, TV series, etc, are set in the science world, the financial world, the social justice world, the crime world. Sometimes they’re set in the near future, or in critical moments in the past. There are usually a couple of female characters in each of them. They’re always beautiful and young, and also they’re usually secretaries, interns, or cheated-on wives. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they might be dead daughters, which means they’ve got a narrative arc with which to push their grieving fathers into the action that ultimately…changes the world.

Their only means for changing the world are getting injured or killed (to drive male characters toward revelation and revenge), getting married (to achieve “Important Because of the People In This Conversation” status), or getting the right piece of paper just in time to the guy who is ACTUALLY going to change the world, but who probably also has time to take a long look at her ass as she walks out the door, having delivered the missile codes.

This isn’t unusual to see, of course: this is Hollywood, and it is also mass media popular storytelling, which is why I regularly hit critical mass on it. These are the stories young girls are consuming. These are the stories that tell women what they can be. These stories, folks, are fucked up. They break us. Stories are how we learn to live.

Stories which calculatedly and carefully do not include active women tell us that women are not useful parts of society.

Do storytellers not realize that women are impactful parts of the world? 

Do audiences not realize that women are impactful parts of the world? That women change the world? That women are, indeed, as interesting as men are? Why are all the women offstage in the important stories?

Those last are rhetorical questions. The charitable interpretation is that we don’t realize, and that oops, we just need to have it pointed out. (It’s been pointed out. A lot.) The less charitable interpretation is that the system has been fucked for centuries, and that narratives featuring women as impactful characters have always been in short supply.

Oh, are you about to remind me about, say, Lady Macbeth? Okay. Point taken. Lady Macbeth is a complicated female character in a sea of male characters (who are busy changing the world), yes. She’s also a villainess who controls men with her vagina and ambition. She’s powerful. But she’s the dark side of Opinionated Broad. In tons of the kind of story-telling I’m talking about – mass market, mainstream, award winning, there’s a Lady M character, for whom no one really deserves a cookie. Lady M is easy to achieve. I’m going to remind you now that Lady M, opinionated broad that she is, also loses her mind and commits suicide offstage for her sins, late in Act 5.

Impactful female characters should not just be villains and secretaries, and  – category unto themselves – Beautiful Girls. They should also be complicated heroines, changers of policy, battlers against civil wars. But we’re used to putting one woman for every ten men into a story and feeling that we’ve done enough to show that there are women in the world, and that we know it.

Every time I see a story with no impactful female characters, I wonder if the writer notices that indeed, they ARE changing the world. Badly. I suspect many story-creators do not in fact realize this. Because they think of the world in terms of men changing it.

***

WOAD

First century AD, and the world is in turmoil. The Roman Empire seeks to violently colonize the domain of Boadicea (Angelina Jolie), Queen of the Iceni tribe, in Wales. The warrior queen, painted with blue battlepaint, leads a revolt against colonialism, leading 100,000 troops against Rome, and defying the Emperor Nero. She nearly prevails, though in the end she dies heroically on the battlefield defending her country, and raising her fist in the air. She doesn’t have a husband. She leads male troops. In the end, her troops mourn her, and burn her body. The final shot is smoke. 

Angelina_Jolie_2

Angelina Jolie, Date & Photographer unknown, but looking like she could tear Rome with her teeth nonetheless. We’ll just pretend those lips are indigo blue.

***

Films about Boadicea have been in development for years, and regularly seem to collapse. They’re expensive. Conventional wisdom – based on the prevailing myth about what important stories consist of – tells us that audiences will not come to a giant historical action epic focusing on a female hero. Why not? Would you go to see the movie I just described? I would. At this point in human history, we should have Oscar Contender movies about people like Ada Lovelace, Boadicea and many, many others. We need them. The last time there was a major Hollywood movie about Marie Curie, it was 1943. 1943!!!!! Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), often described as the world’s first computer programmer, has never been the subject of a major Hollywood film, though I’m quite sure people have tried. There’s never been a biopic about Josephine Baker, though it’s been mooted and collapsed repeatedly, with stars ranging from Diana Ross to Rihanna. The civil rights leader Diane Nash has never been the subject of a biopic, and indeed, is often edited from the action in larger depictions, despite her radical bravery, ferocious commitment to social change, and clear influence on the action. There are countless other examples of things that should exist…and don’t. Yet the male equivalents do.

Let me be clear here: What. The. Fuck?

Not only does this not make good sense in a There Are Amazing Women in the World context, it does not make sense in a storytelling context.

Perhaps I should point out now that intriguingly, given the many centuries of wrongs done to women, that the stakes are actually HIGHER for heroic female characters than they are for equivalent male characters.

High stakes = better stories, right?

A female character going up against a world of men to fight for justice is more likely to have her life threatened than a male character is. Female characters often are put into stories to disappear. In the real world, women who fight for justice (or walk down the street), in any medium, are likely to be casually threatened with rape and murder. I am. Pretty much daily. Centuries of stories have taught men that it is okay to treat a female character like a walk on, that it is okay to reduce her lines to zero, to reduce her power to pretty, and to reduce her impact to whether or not she is hot enough to walk down the street in front of them. The same is radically not true for most men.

Thus: female characters fighting for justice, doing impactful things? Are actually working harder than than their male equivalents, because the deck is stacked hard against them. Why would we not wish to increase the stakes in our stories by featuring female characters risking EVERYTHING, as opposed to male characters risking their careers, or reputations?  Men typically get threatened with humiliation and loss of material possessions. Women get threatened with violence and loss of life.

The women who have changed the world have done it against significant, intense, life-threatening odds.

If that’s not Great Story, I don’t know what is.

***

I was having a conversation yesterday afternoon with a friend of mine who teaches theater to teenagers. She’d been in a classroom watching group-created performances, seeing them for the first time, and was startled to discover that the teenage girls in the classes had cast themselves in improv roles in which they were nearly all dead or dying, women suffering injuries, raped, murdered, hit by cars, and otherwise destroyed. The only women who spoke tended to talk about men. The other role the teenagers had given themselves was the role of Hot Walk On.

This was, needless to say, not the case with the boys in the class, who all had lines and actions. But everyone had tacitly agreed that the women in the room were more important for their bodies than their brains, and for their capacity to motivate male characters into action, specifically by being sacrificed.

Why? Because these are the kinds of stories we recognize as a society. Because these are our current big stories. Because this is the fucked world we’re living in.

My friend taught her students about the Bechdel Test, and then talked about why female characters should be doing things other than dying. She gave them, it sounds like, the serious gift of revelation: you have a voice. You are impactful. You can play a character who is a whole person, not just a tool to help male characters achieve their goals.

You can change the world. 

***

FALL PHENOMENA

A team of the world’s best scientists (Kerry Washington, Michelle Yeoh, Helen Mirren, Salma Hayek) are recruited to intervene when a meteorite is headed toward Earth. They must find a way to minimize impact – and their skills are put to the test when they discover that the meteorite is not celestial, but engineered material, and that someone on Earth has actually rigged the fall as an act of war. (Note: This is not a world in which all the men are dead. This is simply a world in which the most qualified scientists in this room happen to be women.) Their intern (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) occasionally distracts them with sex appeal, but is largely mute, though in a key moment, he does provide a single, startling line of insight.

credit: Mike McGregor / Contour by Getty Imageswashingtonkerry__130718174844michelle-yeohxn6nh9rx5ljvjlr

 There is no random shot of all these women together, so this is the lineup. Imagine them saving the world. 

***

All these movie scenarios I’m describing are essentially gender-reversed plots of films we’ve felt totally comfortable watching. We’ve become so used to Opinionated, Strategic Woman = Villain, and Beautiful Women = Piece of Ass With Perhaps Secondarily A Surprisingly Good Brain, that it’s hard to imagine an Oscar-style movie in which women like these are heroes, and in which their interactions have nothing at all to do with men. It’s totally rational that in the real world they could be. Women in the real world regularly kick ass in the sciences. They risk their lives photographing warzones. They spend a great deal of their time having nothing to say about men, weddings, menopause, periods, or their vaginas, and often can be found, you know, analyzing medieval marginalia, drafting policy arguments for politicians, and running through the park thinking about string theory.

Really.

Yet the movie versions of us – the mainstream Award Winning versions of us – are more typically found offscreen, coming on to serve the male world changers coffee, tie their neckties, support their ambitions, and look beautiful. We can be found bending over backwards in heels to show men how well we can shake it, while still maintaining the ability to raise small children, which startling capacity will, of course, help the male main character realize that he should be more emotionally available, and that he should also perhaps take some vengeful action against the things that have hurt the woman he loves.

This is pretty crazy.

This is pretty sad.

This leads to female characters whose main event is offstage suicide. This leads to girls who do not realize that their main event can be anything they want, that it does not have to be pretty, nor does it have to be sexy. That it can, in fact, be about nothing but brain.

And…

Lest you think I am trying to create a non-entertaining universe of media, something that is all about politics and nothing to do with fun, I present you in conclusion with the following scenario, which will be familiar to you from years of movies we’ve accepted unblinkingly as popcorn and soda classics, as fun bubblegum, as the stories we want to see when we want our brains to be empty and then filled again with a bunch of pretty things.

***

THE ROLLOVER

Sleek, impeccable and brutally charming, international con-artist Miranda Plaza (Tilda Swinton) violates parole to organize the perfect heist. Together with former partner Rene Lamar (Penelope Cruz) the duo employs 8 of their former heistwoman colleagues to pull off a gigantic multi-national bank robbery. The heistwomen are contortionists, lock picks, munitions experts. None of them use sex appeal to achieve their goals, but they’re smart and skilled, and the dialogue is rapid-fire, stylish, and fun as hell. Plaza’s ex-husband (an unknown) plays a minor role, the only male role in the film. But damn, he’s fine. 

So fine that this film – much as Thelma & Louise made Brad Pitt’s career – makes him famous.

See? I’m fair.

Tilda Swinton & Penelope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, 2012

Tilda Swinton & Penelope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, 2012 – Do these two women not look like they’d pull off any heists they wanted to?

***

Here’s a storified link to the series of Tweets that inspired this essay: #FeministBecause

 

THE BADGER BABY

 Image

This 1857 painting, by T.H. Badger, is for sale on eBay right now. It haunts me. I had to write a story about it. After eBay listed it, it sent me repeat reminders: “Are you still looking?” “Are you still interested?” all illustrated with this scary baby face. It costs $399. If you want it. If you need it. It waits for you.

This story is free.

 

***

 

THE BADGER BABY

 

I bought the baby because it begged, not because I wanted it. The man I thought I was in love with strenuously protested my acquisition, but I couldn’t help myself.

“I don’t know,” Peter said. “It’s pretty awful. The longer I look at it, the less I want it coming into my house.”

My house,” I said. “I mean, ours. But you’re not there yet, so.”

He’d been in the process of moving in for a while. All he had was a chair leftover from an ex who’d had taste. He claimed he was a minimalist, and the baby wasn’t minimal. The baby was replete. I could see why he didn’t like it. I didn’t like it either.

The baby was life-size, delicately rendered in oil, and framed in a gilded oval of carved wood. It had a round face, with deep pink cheeks, and a fishbelly pale forehead, which took up half its face. It had black hair, parted perfectly in the middle. This hair was out of focus, blurred at the edges, but the baby’s face was finely rendered, as though pushing through a fog which had encompassed the rest of it. The baby’s eyes were also dark, with very little white around the irises. The baby frowned, with lips unnaturally red. The baby was naked but for a fine, lacy froth about the shoulders, where its skin met the water.

This was the other oddity. The baby had been painted in a lake, not in a baptismal way, but in a way that suggested the water was its habitat. It drifted unanchored, surrounded by mist. The portrait depicted only the baby’s upper chest, shoulders, and head. Its arms were at its sides in the lake, which was rendered in lavender and slate, shading to navy at the edges of the oval, a bit of yellow, some grayish pink where the baby’s body presumably was. The baby looked directly out at the viewer, with black-eyed certainty. From certain angles, the baby seemed inhabited by something other than a baby.

I felt nauseated, but it might have been too much coffee, no breakfast. Peter didn’t believe in carbohydrates. He was ginger-haired, and had been bullied.

“Don’t,” said Peter, shuddering as I fumbled for my wallet, and I put my wallet back and said, “I know, I know, I never would, right?”

“Painted by T.H. Badger. Nov. 1857,” the back was marked, in careful indigo block print. The T and the H were outlined, in order to make the letters empty boxes, and 1857 was underlined twice.

I examined the Badger baby for a while, trying not to buy it. Its varnish was severely crazed. That was a reason. Maybe it was damaged. Maybe it had gotten wet. We were at an antique market outside Boston, and there was nothing else terrible there. The usual assortment of figural mugs shaped like revolutionaries, minor etchings. I turned the baby so that it faced the back of the stall. The teenage vendor, daughter of the stall owner sipped wanly at a lemonade, and as I turned, I saw her spike it with vodka.

“You got questions about ‘im?” she asked.

“No,” Peter said.

 “Who is it?” I asked. “Is it a him? I can’t tell. It’s wearing lace.”

“Dunno,” she said, and shrugged. “It’s a baby. My mom’ll give it to you cheap, you wanna.”

“We don’t though,” said Peter, and took my hand, trying to draw me out into the sun.

But as I stepped out into the light, I heard a baby crying. I whipped round, looked at the girl. She was sucking on her straw.

I bought the Badger baby for two hundred dollars while Peter was searching for the bathrooms. I had the girl tie it up in brown paper, and I wrapped a too-expensive log cabin quilt I didn’t want around it, feeling like I was keeping the baby warm. I put it in the back of my pickup, and I said nothing to Peter.

The baby had cried for milk. I felt it in my breasts still, and not only in my breasts. I felt it in the back of my skull. 

On the way home, it started raining, and I pulled over, got out, and brought the baby into the cab. Peter stared at me. 

“I knew it,” he said. “I knew it. You couldn’t leave it there. That’s creepy, you know.” 

“I like creepy,” I said. 

“It’s morbid. I bet it got painted after that baby died or something. That’s what I bet.” Peter downed the rest of his coffee, and shivered. “I’m fucking freezing. It was supposed to be nice today.”

“It is nice,” I said, looking out. “Isn’t this nice?” I could see a rainbow. The baby in my arms was heavy and damp, and I unwrapped it from the quilt and brought it out into the light.

Peter drove us to his apartment, and got out.

“You’re not coming with me?”

 He’d been supposed to stay over, eat dinner, do our usual weekend things. I wasn’t sure I loved him anymore. I’d woken up in his arms that morning, and felt caged.

“It’s him or me,” Peter said, and didn’t succeed in smiling.

 “It’s not a him,” I said, trying to seem funny. “It’s by a painter who’s in books. It might make me thousands of dollars. Have you ever seen those shows?”

Peter kissed me stiffly on the cheek, and went into his apartment to sit, I suspected in his lonely chair. I put the baby in the passenger seat, and drove home, hammered a nail into my entryway, and hung it there for an hour, until I started thinking it needed to go upstairs, to the guestroom. I put it there, and then moved it again, to my bedroom, where the Badger baby stayed, echoing against the wallpaper I’d paid too much for. I’d paid too much for everything, I decided.

 I boiled milk and then poured it down the drain. I had never wanted a baby before. I didn’t want this one. I poured bourbon instead, and sat on my porch.

I heard someone crying from far away, an astonished and ravaged sob, the sob of someone who’d woken alone in the dark. Find me, said the sob.

Clearly I’d lost it. This was what people meant by biological clock, this is what they meant by one day everything will change. I had blue hair. I was not meant to be a mother. It had taken work to achieve, bleach and repeat applications. Peter was an aberration. Why had I bought a baby? I could have properly had a baby, with a nice woman, and instead I’d ferretted a baby from a stack of landscapes. I tugged at my earrings, trying to disavow my purchase.

From upstairs, the Badger baby cried again, and my neighbor’s corgi barked a bark of short legs and slow heft. The baby was too old to cry like that. It had hair. It could probably talk in sentences. It was a baby from 1857. I took a slug of bourbon and it cried more. I felt a lullaby roiling inside me. I wanted to give the baby my finger to suckle. I wanted to immerse myself in the lake and walk on the bottom. I wanted to try to breath beneath the water. I thought about the baby floating in its own light, out in the center of the lake, its arms frozen at its sides, its body an unknown shape and size.

I fell asleep on the uncomfortable Eames knock-off couch. The baby didn’t go with my house either. Maybe babies never matched décor. The gilt frame and the Badger baby waited upstairs til morning, when I had to pass them on my wincing way to the shower. By then, I’d come to my senses. I loaded the baby into my truck and drove to Peter’s place, where I rang the bell and left the baby on the stoop. 

Milk, the baby shouted as I ran down the stairs, and I ignored the pangs. Milk, the baby shouted. Flood. But I was in my truck, driving as fast away as anyone could drive.

 “I’m not your mother,” I said to myself, talking to the radio which sang out ‘hey, I just met you,’ and the passenger seat said nothing, but on Peter’s stoop, the Badger baby waited. I imagined him falling over it as he opened his door. A ginger man, a black-eyed baby not his own. The baby wasn’t mine either. It had only begged me. Not the begging of something vulnerable, but the begging of the kind of busker who might stab you later, in a darker part of the night.

 My phone buzzed.

 I can’t believe you, said the message.

 I don’t want this stupid baby, said the next message.

This isn’t funny, said the last one.

 A couple days later, I was at work, and my phone rang with a number I didn’t know, and someone said they were going to pick me up at my office.

“Who is this?” I asked. My body had gone back to normal. I no longer felt swollen, nor did I feel protective. Remember how you loved him, said my body, a couple of times, but I didn’t choose to remember. My hair was bluer than it had been. I’d tried a new product and now the color crackled through a gleaming varnish, a kind of gel that stiffened everything into a beautiful Chinese pottery sheen.

 The person who picked me up came in a police car, and still I didn’t feel terribly concerned. I was thinking about the way I felt bruised and blue on the inside, like something in me had indigoed, the way I felt made of egg yolk and pigment. At home I’d had to strip the wallpaper, but that was okay. I hadn’t liked it anyway. Now the plaster beneath it was clawed by the tiger tool. I’d looked at myself in the bathroom mirror after showering that morning, seen myself emerging from the steam, my face too pale.

“We’re taking you around to the station,” he said.

 Peter was dead, I thought, and I wondered about myself, at the way that thought could echo inside me, banging around in my head like a bumblebee caught in a basement. I thought of the Badger baby. 1857. Double underline. Now it was a hundred and fifty some years later. I’d done some internet research. TH Badger had painted some other portraits. They came up for auction occasionally, not for high prices. There was one of Longfellow in which the poet looked bulgy-eyed and consumptive, and a set of paintings of a couple in which the woman’s smile lit out from the brushstrokes with a kind of devilish shine, but nothing was like the Badger baby, which was not, it seemed, documented anywhere.

 Peter was at the station. He wasn’t dead. He was pacing, skinny and ginger-bearded in the station waiting room, and when I arrived, he pointed at me.

 “Yes,” he said.

 “Yes, what, Peter?” I said. I’d been fully prepared to identify his body.

 “You have to take the baby back,” he said. His forehead looked higher than it had. He looked like he’d receded five years, and he looked bluish in the temples. He pushed the Badger baby at me. It was wrapped in a black plastic garbage sack.

“But it’s ours,” I said, my tongue feeling strange in my mouth.

 Peter looked at me, and his eyes bulged a little.

 The police officer shrugged.

 “You have to take the item back, ma’am,” he said. “He says it’s your painting.”

“It’s not my painting,” I protested. “It was an accidental, mutual purchase. We’re a couple, did he tell you that? We did this together. Maybe we need to return it to the people we bought it from.”

“I tried,” Peter said and scrubbed at his skull as though it itched. “No phone. Not there. Gone.”

In my hands, the Badger baby felt heavy, and the bag it was in felt waterlogged. The new product in my hair crackled and crazed over the blue. The police officer looked at us both like we were crazy, and we might have been. I could feel us becoming unmatched, the way our bodies twisted away from each other like strands of useless rope. Only days before, we’d sat opposite one another, our coffee cups warming our hands. The bag dripped fluid on my feet and I jolted back, choking.

 Milk shouted the baby.

 I gagged and Peter gagged too.

“It’s not just me, right?” I asked.

 “No,” said Peter, and covered his mouth with his hand.

 “Domestic property dispute,” said the officer, to someone we couldn’t see.

 “Neither of us wants it,” Peter said. “Can we leave it here?”

“There’s no protocol for that,” said the officer.

 MILK shouted the Badger baby, and Peter groaned, holding the back of his skull. I held the back of mine too. There was a migraine brewing like a thunderstorm in there.

“Okay,” said Peter, resigned. “Okay.” He walked out of the station beside me.

 “Okay,” I said. “It’ll be okay.” I was trying to convince us both.

 I drove. The Badger baby dripped and shouted between us, and both of us kept the windows rolled down. It smelled like water and the kind of black mold that sometimes grows behind basement furniture. That kind of mold can kill you, but it just smells old.

 Flood whispered the Badger baby from inside the sack and both of us pretended we didn’t hear it. I drove us first to a hardware store, and then to the lake. When I’d moved here, I’d thought of it as a lovely thing, a wonderful weekend activity location, picnics and swimming out beyond the floats, but now it was only desperation that took me there. Peter nodded, looking straight ahead. We’d canoed on one of our wonderful weekends, and gotten drunk on white wine while we paddled. It was a thing like the flea market, like the farmer’s stands, a thing from a life I didn’t know how to want. Nor did Peter. He had one chair.

Milk said the Badger baby, in a voice that was not at all babyish. The sack was full of water now, and it gushed for a moment, all over my legs and Peter’s too. I heard Peter sob, but I wasn’t sobbing.

“No,” I said. I parked the truck on the ramp that led down to the water, and I heaved the baby up. I turned to look at Peter. His hair was gone now, receded all the way back, and his shoulders were covered in ginger threads. His skin had gone the color of half-cooked egg. I had no idea what I looked like. I felt crackled, like my face was fracturing. In the sack, nothing moved. I put it on the ground and opened it. I brought the Badger baby out.

It looked nearly the same as it had. We stood on the end of the dock together, and the baby’s black eyes looked into mine. There was nothing but black there now, though there had been white to begin with. The Badger baby had the eyes of an animal.

Peter gathered stones on the shore. It was raining now in earnest, and he was drenched, his shirt hanging off his shoulder blades in a way that made it clear what he’d look like when he was old.

The Badger baby looked at me, its eyes gleaming. Inside it, there was something, and I did not want to know what it was. I couldn’t see the Badger baby’s teeth, but I’d woken up with marks around my nipples the night it slept in my bedroom, marks like an eel had fastened on. I was bandaged. There’d been blood. 

Peter put the stones in the garbage sack, and I pressed the Badger baby back in among them. I wrapped duct tape around the package, even though, from inside it, I heard

milk

flood

lake

and finally

mama.

Peter and I picked the Badger baby up together and swung it. One, two, three, and release. The package skipped like a stone over ice, floating for a moment, the mist and twilight fog of the early evening surrounding it. It shone like a dead fish, filled with something other than stones and dark, and then it sank.

The lake water looked lavender and grey, just as it did in the painting, and for a moment it filled with twirling yellow shadows, far enough below the surface that I couldn’t tell what they were, all of them writhing like worms or like tubes. Then the water was black again, dark as the baby’s eyes.

My heart felt cobalt, and my hair broke off, each strand an icicle as I walked away from the lake with the man I’d thought I loved.

Together, our foreheads high and white, our lips red, our bodies full of something other than bodies, Peter and I drove back up the ramp, and home for milk.

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!