The Responsibility of Self-Discovery

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The power of the self and self discovery…

Tehran Sunset

Hamed Saber via Compfight

I read a couple of articles over this last week about the (mis)appropriation of culture in writing. This got me thinking about our responsibility as writers and readers and also as human beings.

We all have our respective roles in life and we all have many. I am a Muslim, mother, daughter, nurse, writer, wife… As I grow older I will, no doubt, adopt other designations and still yet slough off others. What we have here, hopefully, is the making of a strong balanced evolving human being.

I started to wonder how much of this personal development influences my writing (or vise versa) or anyone’s particular preferred form of artistic expression.

When I wrote An Unproductive Woman over a decade and a half ago, my life was undergoing a major spiritual upheaval. The process of writing AUW was cathartic and, believe it or not, I was in many ways buoyed by the strength of my main character Asabe.
Those who know me and have read AUW have told me that they envision me as the main character, Asabe. I take that as a high compliment but I quickly set them straight. Asabe is the kind of woman I’d emulate and I believe this is what I was going for on the subconscious level when I wrote the story. Asabe is a deep down good woman who is imperfect.

These days I find that my main characters, usually women, reflect less of what I’d like to become and more the passionate rebellious spirit that already resides silently within me. They are usually good but deeply flawed and growing in ways they never anticipated. This would explain also, I suppose, why I frequently hit character development roadblocks, because I don’t know that silent part of me as well, that alter ego

Whether right or wrong, my writing is informed by me and me by it.

Recently a movie entitled The Innocence of Muslims by Sam Bacile received more publicity than it deserved. The film is an intentionally inflammatory piece of tripe meant, I would assume, to offend and harm the Muslim world community. Most of the Muslims I know found it laughable and unworthy and then of course you know, if you’ve watched the news, that other Muslims, to my chagrin and mortification, protested loudly and unfortunately violently. I certainly don’t believe that the film was worthy of any action or reaction barring disgust, but it does beg the question about the filmmaker’s intent.

We could begin by arguing about the right to free speech and thought. I believe Bacile had the right to make the film (with willing well informed actors), but what about his responsibility as an artist, as a person with the power, however small, to create change, to enlighten, to objectively protest what he may perceive to be wrongs. Obviously he had some grievances.

I feel that sense of responsibility when I sit in front of my keyboard. It weighs so heavily on me that sometimes my writing literally hits a wall. I am forced by some internal check to evaluate not just the direction of my story but “why” it took that direction.

I once felt as if my personal mores choked my creativity, but now I would say that they have actually checked my heart and motivations. This is a difficult balance to maintain no doubt, if one is so inclined, but not a balance I’m willing to forego just to maintain my right to say anything that comes to mind without giving thought to the potential consequences. I have a responsibility to myself and my craft and to a degree I also feel responsible for those who may read or be influenced by what I’ve said.

I desperately want to give life to characters that are human, not perfect cookie cutter fairy tale creatures (even in the midst of a fairy tale), but true representations of, in particular POC, women, and Muslims.  As we all know, no two people of any group are alike, so that is certainly not an easy task. While I wouldn’t say that only a member of a certain demographic can give true life to such characters, it certainly helps. Also there are people who manage to write their own demographic wrong. I don’t believe anyone has the monopoly on getting it right or wrong.

I listened to a book a few months ago in which the main character was a woman, a very stupid, childish, whining, woman, whose only apparent worth appeared to be her petite body, her fair skin, and her red hair. Granted the book was poorly written drivel, but this character existed happily as a face and body. I don’t know a single woman who would wish to be seen in such a shallow light. I kept screaming, “Really? What woman acts like this?”
This brings us to the issue, in a very round about way, of the subject of not just cultural (mis)appropriation, but gender and racial as well.

I can not expound on this subject with the fluid eloquence of Nisi Shawl or Aliette de Bodard, but I can say this: Writers have an obligation to get the facts right, even in fiction, and to tell the truth the very best way they know how even if said truths hurt and rankle the author’s own sensibilities, even if in the end their personal prejudices have been nullified.

Isn’t that what true art is all about?

This requires, in my opinion, the honest desire to do justice to the work of art and an honest effort to make that happen. Even if the facts are wrong I think most of us can tell the difference between willful deviance from truth and human error. I’m willing to make allowances for that. That said, none of this can be accomplished without self-exploration and the understanding that must necessarily be born of that.

When I was in nursing school, one of my professors spent an entire class discussing the importance of understanding our personal limits. The context was this, that every nurse will come across a patient(s) whose cultural, religious, personal practice may come at odds with their own. Sometimes enormous odds. Do you ignore your limitations and fail yourself and eventually the patient as well? Do you admit to those limitations and seek help, guidance and/or a solution? Before doing either, you have to understand yourself.

You have to know you.

reflections (B)

Camil Tulcan via Compfight

It is because I understand my personal limitations (to a degree…I’m still learning and growing every day) that I step back and evaluate my actions with my most challenging patients. I do this so as to ensure that I don’t cheat them of appropriate care just because I was annoyed or having a bad day.

Question: If an author is unable to approach a subject with honest objectivity, should they approach it at all?

We could hold up, as an example, the debacle of Revealing Eden, which I could not finish reading. Even today in the midst of nearly unanimous opinion that Foyt  is racist for having written something as blatant, I still take issue with calling her such. I’m more convinced that she is instead, woefully ignorant about how to write an intelligently nuanced piece dealing with the immensely touchy subject of race. I believe Foyt was lazy and that she did not do her research. I think she is guilty of being arrogant enough to think she didn’t have to and for not fessing up when called out on her failure. Besides being terribly written, as we all know that there are many terribly written bestsellers, I think she failed because she didn’t do the self-discovery required to write a story with a subject matter so potentially charged.

Did she ever ask herself, “How do I really feel?” Or “Why do I feel this way?” Or “What do I hope to accomplish?” Had she asked any one of these or other questions requiring true self-discovery, she might have been able to anticipate the negative backlash that has since ensued.  She might have been able to write a truly enlightened and revealing piece of literature

I think it is just as incumbent upon readers to call out those authors who were too lazy to make the effort at self-discovery, let alone fact checking.

As for the man who produced the derogatory film about the prophet of Islam, well that thing (which I could not and would not ever watch) is akin to a temper tantrum. And as such, it was, like any other tantrum, empty of sense or worth. It was a literal mess. I’m not angry that he had the tantrum but I am disappointed that he didn’t try to do better, or that he couldn’t be bothered to at least be honest with himself and the veracity of his obvious anger, which he is entitled to, if he wants to live with it.

But what has he benefited? What have we benefited? What was the point?

Only I can decide what my personal motivations are and as much as I may want to, I can’t decide that for anyone else. (Don’t worry, I don’t really want to. That’s too much responsibility and work!) In the end the truth of it lays solidly in the lap of the artist. In the end the artist has to be at peace with the results, opinions be damned.

But isn’t that what the artist is in search of anyway? Opinion, preferably the favorable kind?

Blade Runner. Not So Much.

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I watched Blade Runner for the first time a few weeks ago.  Knowing that it’s a sci-fi cult classic, I was very interested to see if I would hold it in as high an esteem as so many other people seem to.

I’ll admit that up front, I was impressed with the movie.  I watched the newly remastered copy.  The effects, dark color and ambiance, and the sophisticated visual style of the film are amazing considering it was produced in 1982.  Visuals are the first indication as to whether or not I will tolerate watching a film.  A film that’s just plain ugly to look at won’t likely hold my attention no matter how great the plot is.

Plot.  This is my none too subtle segue into what I really thought about Blade Runner.
It has taken several weeks of letting what I watched of the movie marinate in my mind, of sloughing off my first impressed impressions and allowing the full weight of the story to settle, before I could sufficiently make up my mind about my feelings about this movie.
In short, I don’t like Blade Runner and I will probably never watch it again.  Let me tell you why.

I will begin by stating what is probably already obvious to many of you.  Blade Runner is based on a book authored by Philip K. Dick called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  I haven’t read the book in its entirety yet, but I believe it is safe to say that the movie takes liberties with the original plot.  With that said, the book may very well be far more enlightened than the film.

Blade Runner is a dystopian tale set in the future (2019 Los Angeles) where most of humanity has moved to off world colonies.  Replicants (androids that are almost indistinguishable from human beings) have been created and mostly work in mines off world.  It is illegal for replicants to come to Earth due to a past replicant rebellion.  Replicants only have a expiration date of four years because it is determined that after that point they develop emotions and become somewhat unstable.

In the opening of Blade Runner we learn that a group of the newest model of replicants, the Nexus 6 models, have come to Earth to find their creator and to find a way to extend their lives.  As this is illegal and as they are not distinguishable from the general population there is a great deal of concern with tracking them down.  Deckard, a cynical and bitter blade runner (bounty hunter employed by the police) is commissioned to search for and retire (execute) three rogue replicants.  He is the best in his field and a pro at administering the Voight-Kampff test which is a test that measures empathy, a trait that the Nexus 6, unlike human beings, do not possess.

Deckard meets with Tyrell, the head of the Tyrell corporation with the purpose of determining if the Voight-Kampff test is sufficient to expose this newer model.  Rachel, his first test subject and control, is Tyrell’s niece.  After much scrutiny, Deckard realizes Rachel is in fact a replicant.  The catch is that Rachel is an experimental model and is not aware that she is a replicant.  Tyrell had her programmed with a series of memories originally belonging to his real niece who I presume must be dead.

The rest of the movie follows Deckard as he investigates and eventually retires the three replicants he is in search of.

In my opinion, the bones of the story are interesting; a bunch of androids who have developed emotions and who want to live (like any other human being, right?) and who desperately struggle to find a way to do that.  And on the other side, human beings who, afraid of the unstable nature of said androids, seek a way to eliminate them.  Simple and smart, there are innumerable directions this story could take from seek and destroy to exploring the spiritual nature of human beings our failures and our ultimate arrogance at thinking we could recreate a creation of God and our ultimate failure.  And, I do see glimpses of that deeper meaning stuck in the hidden nooks and crevices.  You name it, this story can go there.  But it doesn’t.

While I am typically able to overlook some flaws in books and movies, as suspension of disbelief is necessary especially in SFF, there are two flaws that stood out, and that are deal breakers for me.  The treatment and portrayal of women and the utter lack of people of color in 2019 Los Angeles.

There are three women of consequence in Blade Runner, Pris and Zhora both of whom are replicants and Rachel.

Pris is described as a “pleasure model”, which alone should say enough about her.  She is shown in the movie in various modes of partial dress (or undress), is considered pretty, and who I believe, also poses as a prostitute.  She is attached to Roy, a fellow rogue replicant.

Zhora, is described as a super soldier type.  Since landing on Earth, she has been living incognito as an exotic dancer.  Right.  Once Deckard manages to track her down, she leads him on a chase through the streets.  She is fast and agile and deadly and dressed in what can only be described as a combat bikini and a see through raincoat.

I’m going to wander off topic here for a sec and address something that bothers me immensely about movies that seem to make a special effort to exploit the female form for entertainment.  No woman with the option and in her right mind in a situation of imminent danger, such as combat, would wear clothing that would expose her to the elements or fail to support her.  Take for example Ada Wong in Resident Evil.  High heeled pumps, and a floor length evening gown… while being chased by and fighting zombies.  Really?  No doubt some idiot man’s sick fantasy, but definitely not practical, reasonable, or smart.  End of diatribe.

Lastly, there is Rachel.  She is different than Pris and Zhora for the obvious reasons.  She’s always believed that she was human and learning that she isn’t is a blow to her sense of self.  She turns to Deckard, who has been ordered to retire her but does not.  I skipped the scene, but it is fairly obvious that she becomes his love interest.  Whether human or replicant, Rachel is an enormous disappointment of a character.  When she first appears in the movie, Rachel is a cold buttoned up character (like she stepped out of some 1950s movie with her big tight hair, huge shoulder pads and pencil skirt) with an attitude and little else in terms of emotional depth.  That said, this did make her a mysterious kind of character that made me want to know more about her, especially after learning that she was a replicant.  However, from that point forward she proved to be a rather stiff and emotionally fragile in a schizoid way.  Much less mysterious and way more annoying.

To sum it up, the women in this movie are either half-naked replicants or wimpy weepy creeps.

Now to address the lack of people in color.  Let me reiterate that this movie takes place in Los Angeles in 2019.  According to the 2010 census there were 3.8 million people in LA, half of which are white, the other half are not.  Why is it that all but two people (Asians at an outdoor fast food joint) in this movie were white?  Deckard ran through the crowded streets of LA and not one black or hispanic face in sight.  How likely is that?

I’m more upset about the women though.  I’m sick to death of watching movies and reading stories where women are merely pretty, silly, place holders.  Had I known, I would not have started watching.  Once I realized this, I could not finish the movie.

Meh.  Cult classic to some, but I’ll leave it.

Something Entirely Unique In Gameplay

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I play video games with my children.  I think it is important that I do, that way I know what they are playing and thinking and what interests them.  We talk about the games and together decide what is appropriate.  We also have fun.  While I play games, I am no gamer, which means I pretty much suck, but that has never stopped me.

I prefer first person shooter type games with unique story lines and non-default titular characters.  In fact, few things annoy me as much as being forced to play as the default white guy.  Actually, no one can force me, I’ve just decided that I no longer will.  I appreciate games that allow me to customize my character.  EVE, a new online game sounds pretty interesting and customization seems limitless, but alas, my three year old laptop can’t handle the graphics so that game is off my list.  I still haven’t completed Mass Effect.  The storyline is complex and smart.  There is a challenging little mystery that keeps you intrigued and interested.  Even better, Commander Shepherd, the main character, can be customized as a male or female.

I imagine that the cost in time and and dollars is far greater when it comes to games that allow customization, which would no doubt influence the creation of such games.  Additionally, it may be critical to the plot of the game that the character not be customizable.  I can understand this, but I am averse to the same old tropes…muscle bound white guy with attitude rides in to save the day.   It’s just that it’s been done, over and over and over again.

There is one game that is a favorite among the women in my house.  Mirror’s Edge.

This game is sheer beauty to behold with its sweeping clean lines and bright primary colors.  The art is simply stunning and you probably won’t see anything remotely like it in another game.  The plot is unique to games but is one we know well from books.  Think Orwell’s 1984, or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Mirror’s Edge takes place in an unnamed dystopian city[21] where life is comfortable and crime almost non-existent. But the city’s state of bliss is the achievement of a domineering and totalitarian regime[22]which monitors all communication, controls the media, has policies which include the outright illegalisation of smoking, and, it is strongly implied, operates sham trials and a sham democracy. Eighteen years before the events of the game they had opened fire on a protest against their rule, killing many civilians… (Wikipedia)

The titular character, a woman named Faith, is a runner.  By runner, I mean to say that she spirits around her city using amazing parkour moves.  Check it out.

She is nothing to joke with.  She can fight, dodge, and deal like the best of them.  Besides the fact that Faith is a woman, a characteristic not all that uncommon in games, she does have three very unique qualities you’d be hard pressed to find in games today.

  1. Faith isn’t hyper-sexualized and dressed in a combat bikini or strategically ripped, body hugging gear that ignites the fantasies of young men and anorexia in young women.
  2. Faith isn’t comic relief, the ditz in need of saving, or the sidekick.
  3. Faith is Asian.

Why does it make a difference?  I suppose for some people it doesn’t, but for people like me and my daughters it makes a world of difference.  Why should we feel consistently marginalized by our literature and our art and our games?  Let me rephrase that.  Literature, art and games that consistently marginalize us don’t belong to us, the us that wants to see characters that are whole well drawn representations of the real people who live in this world.  We aren’t all white, or men, or hoochie warrior hoes, or comfortable stereotypes.

I would posit that such homogeneous representations don’t just harm the marginalized, but they also harm those who exist as members of the accepted inner circle.  How can we hope to connect with our fellow human beings if we’ve managed to erase them from our collective works of art and by extension our consciousness?

I highly doubt such exclusions are intentional (I pray they aren’t) but I do think that its probably easier to pretend the others don’t exist.  That means less effort on the part of game developers, right?  Well, if there are more people out there like me, that means less dollars in their pockets too, because I’m not buying it.