Friday, February 24, 2012

the dreaded "strong female character"


I’m actually kind of tired of this conversation. It seems to always be happening, and more often than not, those of us talking about this issue can easily identify what we hate and never identify what we love. We deconstruct, but never attempt to reconstruct, and this is dangerous.

If we’re constantly bashing the fictional women in the stories we read or watch or hear, for being too feminine or too masculine, what are we even left with? Everyone loves tearing down characters for not being strong enough or female enough… which is fine. But if we just leave it there, we do a lot of damage. Because the message that’s actually coming across is this:

True “strong female characters” are elusive. You can’t really know them – even when you think you do. We’re left wondering if maybe we haven’t even arrived at what it means to be strong and female yet.

Which is so not true, and never has been.

Honestly, all I want in stories is the truth. I want both my male and female characters to be real. And if characters are real, then they are going to be different kinds of strong.

Let’s take Firefly as an example. Of the nine main characters, four are female. I would argue that all four of them, while being completely different, are strong females characters in completely different ways.

Zoe is the traditional SFC. She’s a soldier completely loyal to her commander, a rescuer in the physical sense, and she knows how to use a gun and how to fight with her fists. She’s incredibly sexy, but she’s also intimidated by women who excel at domestic duties, and she struggles between loyalty to her husband and loyalty to her captain.

Kaylee is a highly skilled mechanic (a predominantly masculine role) always sporting grease on her face and eager to engage in shop talk. She is tenderhearted, a bit na├»ve, and believes in people’s inherent goodness more than anything else. When a gun is put in her hand, she can’t fire it.

Inara is a courtesan, and the one person with the most social standing on the pirate ship. She’s very comfortable with her sexuality and her career choice – which often puts her at the mercy of powerful men. She’s the one people open up to most, and feel most comfortable with. She doesn’t fight.

River is a child prodigy. She’s more intelligent than her brilliant doctor brother, and because of this and the experiments done on her brain, she’s seen as borderline insane. She’s supernaturally good at fighting – better than anyone else on the ship – and extremely dangerous. I like River because she represents a place for insanity within community - which is something I particularly care about. She may be dangerous, but she’s also brilliant and knows exactly what’s going on at all times. Most importantly, she defends the people she loves.

This is what I look for in stories: options. It's what I long for in this conversation. So, here are four options of what it can mean to be strong and female. But there are hundreds, maybe thousands, more.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

poetry on a thursday


winter
will seek us, my love,
always
it will seek us, because we know it,
because we do not fear it,
because we have
with us
fire
forever
-Pablo Neruda (from Epithalamium)

Monday, February 20, 2012

I’ve fallen hard for these two illustrators:

Abigail Larson 
Her website: http://www.abigaillarson.com/

Enmi
Her deviantart: http://enmi.deviantart.com/
Her blog: http://enmi.weebly.com/

Check them out. Their work is GORGEOUS. Go see for yourself.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

no place like home

          “Where is home? I've wondered where home is, and I realized, it's not Mars or someplace like that, it's Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there's no way I can get there again.”

Kurt Vonnegut said this in an article in the Globe and Mail, and the moment I read it, I felt my heart swell with understanding.

I’ve been thinking a lot about home, and the concept of home, over the past few years. The truth is, my home is disappearing. The people who I belonged to for so much of my life are growing older, forgetting, dying even. Some of us have moved on, moved away from the land we all knew and shared. And the farm itself… well. The barn is empty. The vines are ripped up. And one day, it will be sold. Other people will own those vines, other people will be living in those houses. That valley, those trees, the river – they won’t be mine to roam anymore.

So what happens when the place that has always been home belongs to someone else? When you can’t fall into your grandparent’s bed and soak up all the room’s memories? What happens when the people who have always loved and protected you no longer open their eyes, or breathe in the world?

A friend and I write letters sometimes (she lives across the ocean) and in our letters we’ve started giving each other three words, and with those words we each come up with a short, short story. Here’s an excerpt from the one I just sent her, about this very feeling:

            …I didn’t listen. The wind seduces. It made promises, and curled its fingers around my hair. It coaxed me away from the warmth and safety of the house. Away from my home. I lifted up my roots and danced away with it. And now, here, far away from my ancestral soil, I find myself looking back, wistful.
            Nostalgia is a tricky thing. You can’t catch it, nor cup your hands around it. It’s made of spider silk, fragile and fleeting, only glimpsed when the sun strikes it. It makes promises it can’t keep. It says that home is a real, true thing. An irrefutable fact.
            But from where I stand, looking back, I can’t help thinking I’ve been lied to.

And this is where Vonnegut comes in. This is why I love fiction, and writers of fiction. They speak the truth, even when it’s painful. But there’s something about speaking the truth in a way that is painful, but also connecting. It hurts to realize that this sacred, precious thing – this place and these people I belonged to – is disappearing. But it gives me comfort to know I’m not the only one who knows what this is like. In fact, maybe everyone knows what this is like. And that soothes, a little. It says that, in some way, I belong everywhere, to everyone, and they to me.

In the meantime:

I try to store up memories, and kisses, and conversations at my grandmother’s kitchen table. I store up as much as I can, before the winter comes and takes it all away for good.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

space pirates, anyone?

Why (Oh WHY!) have I never watched FIREFLY before??

Okay, first of all, pirates. Space pirates. Space pirates fighting the Man, who happen to curse in Mandarin.

Not only this, but all the music includes a fiddle (seriously, I’m swooning here). Did you get that? Fiddle music in OUTER SPACE.

Also, the characters are awesomesauce! Kaylee is a whimsical, happy-go-lucky ship mechanic. Mal is the dark and witty (and sometimes adorable) captain who has a serious crush on a courtesan. The ship “has it’s own chaplain”, Derrial Book. Zoe kicks serious ass, and her husband Hoban, the pilot, is crazy about her. And Inara – oh, Inara! – the courtesan who bestows dignity on the pirate crew.

The other thing I love is the dialogue. It's snappy, but not cheesy. Example:

“I just have an image of a guy hanging from the ceiling.” – Zoe
“I have an image of it not being me. Let’s do the thing.” – Mal

Soooo. I'm going to watch another episode now...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

a book review of sorts


I just finished The Fault in Our Stars, a story about a sixteen-year-old girl named Hazel who has terminal cancer. The book is not about having terminal cancer though – I mean, it is and it isn’t. It’s about dying, but it’s also about living, and loving, and everything in between.

I spent roughly the entire second half of the book thinking “oh no oh no oh no…” not because I thought something terrible was going to happen every few pages, but because I knew (every few pages) that I was going to start crying all over again. Seriously, I wonder how many times John Green cried as he wrote it. A lot of times, I’m willing to bet.

But. This book isn’t just heart-wrenchingly sad. It is also deliriously witty. Most of all, though, it is beautiful, and intelligent, and *hopeful* in an honest way. Honest is maybe the key word here. I felt John Green was uncompromisingly honest in his telling of the story, and what I loved and appreciated so much about his honesty was that it didn't beat out hope. 

Aside from being my favourite line in the book (a line that isn't particularly hopeful... or maybe it is?) I felt like these words summed up the story completely:

It’s hard as hell to hold on to your dignity when the risen sun is too bright in your losing eyes.

I promise if you read The Fault in Our Stars, you won’t be disappointed. (Unless, of course, you have a deep aversion to crying your eyes out. If this is the case, consider yourself warned!)

_______________________________________________________________________

Addendum: okay, so I just read the last page again, and for heaven's sakes, go read this book!

Friday, February 3, 2012

what works


When I was nine years old, I read Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville. That was it, for me. I fell hard and fast for fantasy.

After high school, I tried to distance myself from the genre. I thought that as a grown up, things like magic and fairy tales needed to be left behind. 

Alas, that never worked.

Because of this life-long love affair, I have very particular taste in books of the fantastical nature. If there’s way too much exposition, or way too many tropes, or, frankly, just boring magic systems, I get antsy.

This happened today. I have a bunch of unread books that I’m trying to get through, and none of them are striking a chord with me. I keep picking up a book, reading pages, then putting it down. After a few moments of twiddling my thumbs, checking twitter, getting a snack, I pick the book up again and read a few more pages. And then I put it down again.

Now that I’ve done this three times in one hour, I’ve decided to just forget trying to read. I'm going to write a blog post instead. And, what better topic than “the things that draw me into a story"?

So, here are my three biggies:

Magic Systems

They need to be unique, realistic, and utterly fantastical. I want my mind to be blown.

Examples:

“Your father, on the other hand, favored a mahogany wand. Eleven inches. Pliable. A little more power and excellent for transfiguration. Well, I say your father favored it – it’s really the wand that chooses the wizard, of course.” – Harry Pottery and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 82

“Mosrael.” The second bell, a harsh, rowdy bell. Mosrael was the waker, the bell Sabriel should never use, the bell whose sound was a seesaw, throwing the ringer further into Death, as it brought the listener into Life. – Sabriel, 80-81

Literary Style

I want to devour words, not clench my teeth and force myself through. I want words that are beautiful, rhythmic and compelling. Like these:

The wind on the moors is a tricky thing… Of every aspect of the moor, the earth and stone and rain and fire, the wind is the strongest one in Near. Here on the outskirts of the village, the wind is always pressing close, making windows groan. It whispers and howls and it sings. It can bend its voice and cast it into any shape, long and thin enough to slide beneath the door, stout enough to seem a thing of weight and breath and bone. – The Near Witch, 2

In fall, she knew it was Death who sweetened the apples. He made her see the sun in a blue sky and hear the trees in a spring wind. He made her see how much she loved her friends, for all their trouble, and how much her grandmother loved her, and oh, he made her love the breath in her lungs.” – Keturah and Lord Death, 191

You can run and run. You can run and grow fitter and faster. You can run so much and so fast, you turn back into wolfgirl, running endlessly, effortlessly, through the swamp…You can outrun your memories, but sometime, you will have to stop. And when you do, there will always be Stepmother, waiting to be remembered. – Chime, 120

Really Awesome Girls or RAGs (I just made that up)

I’ve talked before about reading in order to find ourselves reflected back to us, and to become better, braver versions of ourselves. As a girl, this is why girl heroes are important to me. I want to be reminded of who I am and what I’m capable of.

Here they are, for the win:

“You tricked Iofur Raknison?”
“Yes. I made him agree that he’d fight you instead of just killing you straight off like an outcast, and the winner would be king of the bears. I had to do that, because-"
“Belacqua? No. You are Lyra Silvertongue,” he said. “To fight him is all I want. Come, little daemon.”
She looked at Iorek Byrnison in his battered armor, lean and ferocious, and felt as if her heart would burst with pride. – The Golden Compass, 305

Sybel’s face grew as still before him as the still full moon. “It is you who are ignorant,” she whispered. “I could have Ter rip you into seven pieces and drop your bloodless head on the Plain of Terbrec, but I am controlling my temper. Look!”
She unlocked the gates, her fingers shaking in an anger that roused through her like a clean mountain wind. She snapped private calls into the dream-drugged minds around her, and, like pieces of dreams themselves, the animals moved toward her. – The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, 14

“I… I fell in love. I –" She shot him an abashed glance before revealing what she had so far told no one. “It started at the Battle of Bullfinch. The fighting was over. It was after, during the gleaning. I found him dying and I saved him. I didn’t know why; it felt like the only thing. Later… later I thought it was because we were meant for something.” Her voice dropped and her cheeks flamed as she whispered, “To bring peace.” –Daughter of Smoke and Bone, 401

And that’s it! Hard to do, but worth it, I think. Because all of these books I’ve read at least twice.

Now. Back to reading…