You Two Should Feel Very Lucky and ugly sexiness

My short story “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky” went up in Iridium Zine in April. I didn’t write a blog post for “Borrowing Ark Sutherland” earlier in the year because I already vented lots of blustery thoughts about it in the author interview for Luna Station Quarterly (which you can find here). But I also have lots of thoughts about this one.

My relationship to this story has changed somewhat between its writing and its publication. The reason for this might seem a bit tangential–I lost weight. Not a lot of weight, but enough to bring my body into legibility for a general audience. I was never heavy enough to experience the strongest cruelty of the informal social regulation that lays over all interactions between our bodies and other human beings, but I was heavy enough to feel ashamed when I ate in public. And I grew up heavy. I grew up ugly. Disheveled and often unshowered if I’m being totally honest with you. I didn’t pluck my eyebrows until I was seventeen.

The experience of living in that body and living in my current body were very different. I didn’t lose weight to love my body more–I loved my body already. I lost weight for other people. People smile at me more often. I fit into more clothes. I plan to lose enough weight that I can enjoy myself if I go to an onsen someday. Enough weight that when people’s gazes cut my way I never have to think, is it because I’m fat? And I could say, for my health and so on, but honestly, I was young enough to have no health issues related to my weight; my movement and the internal sensation of my joints and muscles don’t feel any different. In essence, all I did was purposefully normalize myself.

At that time, I had also stopped shaving my body hair. But the terror that shot through me when I went through US border security in a tank top and had to lift my arms for the indifferent young TSA agent was a dent in my confidence. I might still go back to au naturel; I liked honoring my second-wave Dykes To Watch Out For lesbian foremothers, and I spent less precious time in the shower. But at this moment I can’t handle it. It leaves you vulnerable and too seen. It stings like a nerve open to the air in a worn-down tooth.

The things that I escaped by normalizing myself are the results of a body-surveillance that I was thinking a lot about when I wrote “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky.” In the beginning, I thought of this surveillance as being about womanhood, but I no longer think that’s central to it. Certainly women are more heavily surveilled, but people will bring down the brunt of their judgement just as quickly on men with inconvenient and unattractive bodies. (Every neckbeard joke ever tossed out on Twitter by girls with perfect eyeliner still pricks at me. I’m not trying to one-up their oppression credentials or whatever, I just want to make a note.)

In fact, I think the surveillance is most centralized and intense on people of all genders with “marked” bodies, in the sense of the opposite of unmarked. Many of them are people with visible disabilities, which is not an experience I can speak to. But there is a category adjacent to that category, the “neckbeard” category, of “voluntary” ugliness, “fixable” ugliness, that betrays an unwillingness to conform to standards of public viewability and is, therefore, deeply offensive to many who believe that they have a right not to view bodies that surprise or alarm them.

So–in some ways this story used to belong to me and now it only belongs to a past me. But even though I no longer look like a person who should have written a story about being in a bad body, the experiences I had and didn’t have as a possessor of that neckbeard type of ugliness shaped me intensely. And probably it belongs to a future me as well. I’m very aware that my public legibility as a young, able-bodied, normal-weight white woman with her eyebrows plucked is fleeting and will be gone before too long. We all get old, and for all I know I’ll end up spliced in a teleporter too.

One last thing is that other than the strangenesses of living in an illegible body, when I was writing this story I was thinking about us ugly people loving each other. It astonished me when I read somebody express, on their 2009 sex-positive queer poly feminist blog (remember those?), that you didn’t have to be sexy to have good sex. Isn’t it bizarre how it had never occurred to me? That sex and love more generally wasn’t something that happened for a camera, or for an audience, or for surveillance. That you didn’t have to self-check for ugliness when you were undressing alone in your home. That you could be ugly and still find joy in your body, and appreciate the body of another ugly person.

When you kiss somebody, you don’t experience them as a visual object. You experience them through your skin. There’s no ugliness to the touch. I guess I thought that was worth writing about too.



Yes, you should do NaNoWriMo!

The most wonderful time of the year! I haven’t participated in National Novel Writing Month in many years, but November 1 always brings the flood of good tidings across Twitter that catapults me back to the nervousness and excitement of the years I did participate.

I wanted to send off a little note of encouragement to anyone who’s unsure if they’re cut out for NaNoWriMo, a little bit late to catch those of you who might be starting to waver. Don’t think I don’t remember how that first weekend feels when you fail to catch up to the word count you promised yourself. But even if you do fail, what you’ll get out of NaNoWriMo is still valuable, and it’s more valuable the more you do. Here’s why:

The point of NaNo isn’t actually to write 50,000 words. You know this. The hundreds of thousands of words I wrote over most of my years of NaNo were, I say with the greatest possible tenderness toward my preteen self, dreck. But, like all dreck, and like my current dreck, and like your dreck, they were on the page, which is numerically better than Pulitzer-worthy prose that’s not on the page because one is better than zero by an infinite margin. Your dreck is better than an unfinished David Mitchell novel. How’s that for an ego boost?

Last year, I rolled my eyes to see creators I otherwise admired poo-poo NaNoWriMo for this reason. Sniggering about how it encouraged writers, especially new writers, to write for quantity instead of quality. When you think about it, this viewpoint is really weird. I guess the idea is that nothing good could possibly come out of the absurd licentiousness of . . . sitting down to write a certain amount every day. I mean, 1667 words isn’t even that much for some people, and it’s certainly not so much that it’s obviously unachievable without sabotaging all your prose beyond salvageability–which is I assume what these folks were concerned about and why they are far superior to me and you and our pitiable ilk, etc. Quantity of writing and quality of writing aren’t skill trees you have to specialize in. You can do both, or one and then another.

Certainly, I enjoy writing much more when I’m focusing on finding new, dense, tasty ways to express ideas. But what I’ve found is that a daily word quota, any daily word quota, forces me to find that kind of beauty in areas I might not have otherwise. My quota wavers between 750 and 1500 words when I institute it (I guess I’m a bit frail of constitution for NaNo these days). And when I enforce it on myself, it makes me look at the next chunk of a story and think, “I have to write this today–so how can I enjoy writing it? What can I focus on in this scene that’s vibrant and telling and interesting and surprising, so that I don’t just keep having people look at each other meaningfully all the time?”

So you should do NaNoWriMo to finish a book, sure. But the real rewards of the month are the methods you learn to motivate yourself and write the next 1000 words rather than closing your document and going to watch Stranger Things, which, really, they absolutely sabotaged somebody’s NaNo dreams this year, didn’t they. Is there some kind of blood feud between Netflix and NaNo that we should know about?

If I could offer one tip to brand new and newly returning NaNo writers, especially those of you who aren’t sure you’re going to be able to get through the month, it’s just to reflect on your thought processes when you stretch yourself to the limits of your creative energy. Think about how you can work with your brain to get that extra 500 words. Take a mindful moment to feel what you’re feeling when you really, really want to stop writing, and learn how you can get just a little bit more worthwhile writing out of yourself every day. Keep a writing journal–where you can vent your sorrows, but also where you can consider why some scenes are harder than others, why you’re bored with some plotline, why that easy 3000 spilled out of you so cleanly.

I think that’s why you should do NaNoWriMo, even if you don’t win, and even if you write dreck. It’s always valuable to step out of your comfort zone and see what you find there.


What’s wrong in all my first drafts

The stuff I’m editing right now is totally inscrutable to me. Even though I wrote it. I mean, I wrote it a while ago, and it’s quite weird, and it’s on that edge where you seriously can’t tell if it’s good or bad. So I’m trying to do more reflection as I edit, hone the lens as it were, and maybe someday I’ll be able to tell if this is an interesting story or if my past self was doing serious drugs. But, you know, drugs that caused her to write a first-person voice who can’t stop going on about weird math.

As I barrel through edits, I notice that there’s some second-draft changes I’ve been making a lot across stories lately. Some of them are good? Some of them are just kind of weird?

The first thing I do–I almost always have to chop at least one entire scene. Usually it’s because it was taking too long to do something that should have been done in two lines. Then I nail those two lines onto the end of the dialogue in the previous scene or the next scene.

Usually I know what scene is getting cut before I even finish the story. But I can’t just not write that scene, because it always seems like the next logical step when I write it. I probably couldn’t even write the scene after it, the one I want to keep, if I didn’t write that middle scene. Thanks, weird middle scene, and goodbye.

The other most important structural change I always make is shoring up the ending. When I finish writing, I’m usually so relieved to be ending the damn story that I just want to be done, and the last 500 words is a vaguely related collection of deep-sounding reflections. Honestly, not sure I have managed to upgrade many of these endings from “vaguely related collection of deep-sound reflections”, but maybe they’ll get there someday. And practicing endings is one of the specific reasons I wanted to write more short stories, so in the long term, this is a positive!

There’s also prose changes I’m always making:

  • I cut the preposition half of a bunch of phrasal verbs (like cutting “up” from “looked up”.)
  • People are always looking at each other in my first drafts, so I have to get them to do other things.
  • Dialogue has gotta be more interesting in the second draft.
  • Every time I see “There was” or “It was” I’m like, could this literally be turned into one adjective in the next sentence? (“There was a red table, where Lee sat.” should be “Lee sat at the red table.” Please, past Meg.)
  • I think more about the unreeling of time in every sentence. Like, when I’m writing a first draft I just want to get an action down, so I use a lot of “Lee kissed his teeth after Alex gave him a real mean look” or whatever. But I’m trying to be more strict about communicating the actual passage of time with sentence construction? Thinking about ways to do this a lot, and reflecting on the section about time in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, actually. Hmmm.

The booby prize: I find that I liked much longer sentences in July than I do right now. And this is almost definitely just because I’m reading The Shipping News. Here’s the start of the chapter I just read (p. 219 in my edition, which is the one with Kevin Spacey on the cover):

Quoyle jumped down the steps. He would drive. But walked first down to the dock to look at the water. The boat charged against the tire bumpers. The waves pouring onshore had a thick look to them, a kind of moody rage. Looked at his watch. If he stepped on it there was enough time for a cup of tea and a plate of toast at the Bawk’s Nest. Clean up the oil piece then down to Misky Bay to the marine archives. Check boats in the harbor. Supposed to be a schooner there from the West Coast.

Just trust me, after a couple hundred pages of this you look at the subjects of your own sentences like “What are you even doing here? I don’t need you, bud!” It’s contagious. Someday, when I’m reading another book, I’ll probably look back on these sentence subjects with fondness and miss them terribly.






Reflections on June stories

In June I wrote my first-ever short stories. Even when I was a kidlet my ambitions always ran towards novels, and then in high school when my ability to finish long projects failed I never even really gave much thought to trying out the short story. Then, mysteriously, in like January, I regained the ability to write and dug in to some very ambitious and possibly ill-advised projects which are now on ice. And finally in June I left a temp job and decided to wring something productive out of my vacation month. Blood Still Flows, one of the June short stories I’m currently hashing out the second draft for, was definitely the first thing I’d finished in ~6 years that wasn’t exclusively intended for the eyes of my Special Person Not Otherwise Specified. So: man, am I ever excited about short stories. Finishing things feels awesome.

I meant to do a short story a week, but They Came to Calgary has ended up expanding to novellette length, which means it’s probably going to be impossible to sell but maybe I’ll end up putting it up here or somewhere similar one day when I give up on it. So I count June an 80% success. In July and August I did too much travelling to write much, but in the latter half of August I got to check off another personal goal that I’ll keep under wraps for now. (I also did a lot of language study, and realized if I really apply myself and can learn a language to N3/B2-level fluency every five years that’s…a lot of languages over my whole lifetime. And similarly, if I wrote a story every week that would be a lot of stories!)

In September I’m thinking of doing a story-a-biweek to finish the two stories lurking in my Dropbox that are still WIP. There are a few deadlines I want to shoot for in fall (including a Christmas deadline for a gift). After that things will be up in the air again a bit. But I suspect the granularity and structure of the short-story-a-week format is a good way to stay accountable. Let’s see how it goes; here’s to another academic school year and maybe not being plunged into any deep depressions this time?


Lessons learned: reading in summer 2017

Summer 2017 was a whirlwind of travel, which meant lots of time curled up in planes and automobiles with books. (I scoured my memory for a train to complete the triforce but, reader, I did not take a train.)

Complaining about things I didn’t like is a sort of gauche look. So here’s five stories I really liked this summer. (There were more, but this post was getting long.)

1) The short story that stuck with me the most was Ashok K. Banker’s “Tongue” published in August’s Lightspeed. Linguistically, this story was astonishing. I’ve played with the idea of evolving English into the near future for a project called Uncrypt that shall no longer be spoken of for at least a few years, but my attempts have fallen pretty flat. I was excited supposing that “Tongue”‘s dialect is a future Indian English, although let’s be real that my knowledge of Indian English is limited, and if it is it’s pulled off with supreme naturalness. And speculative linguistics aside, the pacing in this story is fantastic and every twist gave me a full-body wince. I’ve been thinking about female embodiment for “Splice”, and “Tongue” provokes the kind of horror and desperation and feeling of trapped-ness that I’m trying to paw at as I edit that story. (I listened to the audio version read by Pooja Batra and I’m sure her awesome narration, with just the right balance of chirpy pleasantness and warbly pathos, contributed to the impression this story made on me.) Lesson learned: Speculative linguistic prose can work.

2) Just yesterday I finished Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman on audiobook. I’ve never wanted an HBO miniseries so bad. Where it’s pulpy, it’s very juicy pulp. I caught some really nicely arranged prose and it talks about identity and the lack of identity in ways that I hadn’t seen elucidated before and that ring very true. I was thinking when I started listening to it that it would be the kind of book that uses homoeroticism rather than all-out lesbian love, and about the relative merits of both, because I do think there’s something special about sexual tension that never gets resolved and about the power of the unspoken and implied. But I was wrong and I’m glad I was wrong because honestly, codependent adolescent lesbian cultists anchors pretty deep in my id. Lesson learned: “Filthy in a good way” is a legitimate emotion to dig for when you’re trying to get good writing out of yourself.

3) I finally got around to The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. It’s been a long time since I read a really hard sci-fi and I’m so glad I did, because the absolute joy of ideas is laced into this book everywhere, and I had almost forgotten how much ideas could buoy me through a book. I had heard some people say they found it cold or boring, but understated emotion is not boring! Even though many things in this book are described plainly, I think Cixin Liu has such an eye for beauty and wonder that when I really settled in to picture what he was telling me it would wash over me all of a sudden like warm water. Lesson learned: Sometimes selecting the right detail does the work for you and you don’t have to select a scintillating word; let it breathe.

4) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer was one of the first books I read this summer. I was struggling with what was left to do with Lovecraftian creeping horror before this book, you know? I actually rarely get the full effect of horror in books for whatever reason–I’m working on it, but I read quite fast and don’t always let things sink in and percolate–but when the main character has to go back up the stairs I probably squealed. (Vaguest spoilers ever?) Lesson learned: It’s emotionally effective when the consequences of reveals are just as bad as the punch, or even worse.

5) I availed myself of Tor’s Book of the Month club to read Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. The cadence and vocabulary of this book is very particular and pleasing–I love the romance of the archaic language, the taste of the words–and I suspect we all could work on incorporating sexuality into stories as elegantly as Kushiel’s Dart. Even the masters often seem to make sex awkward in prose. When Ben Okri can end up on a “bad sex in fiction” award shortlist, you know a well-integrated sex scene is a universally difficult undertaking. Kushiel’s Dart solves the problem by being so extra all the way through. Honestly, I should be reading more well-written romance books. I enjoy writing romance, and like many people who pretend to seriousness I’ve nevertheless avoided reading romance books because they’re, oh, you know, so girly.  Lesson learned: Time to suck up my internalized misogyny and find good romance. That’s what ebooks are for.

It’s moral fiber all the way down

Here’s the most recent thing I’ve been thinking myself into circles about. I’ve tried to write this post three times because it’s something I keep realizing for a split second then forgetting my reasoning, and I’m too upside-down to figure out if this post actually even conveys that reasoning. Also, I think this is truly entry-level ethics, the Death Cab for Cutie of ethics, and don’t want to present it as if I’m making a revelation. But perhaps it will be an interesting thing to chew on for others who have only a vague idea of the body of work behind the phrase “determinism.”

Suppose Annie and Benny are both struggling in school. They have bad grades and keep disrupting class by talking loudly to each other or arguing. They’re taken into the principal’s office one day and he tells them they have to shape up or they run the risk of having to go to that one sullen building in every hometown which tidy middle-class kids like me learned surprisingly late was for kids with vague behavioral problems and probably poverty, because tidy middle-class families never talk about it, and we never encountered any kids who had gone there and come back out.

Benny puts his nose to the grindstone and improves quickly. Annie doesn’t. She continues to get easily distracted or whatever and ends up being sent into the cursed building and Benny loses track of her and goes to a local university to get a GIS degree.

Here’s the question: Why didn’t Annie improve? Under what circumstances could we possibly say, “Annie could have done better than she did, but she didn’t try hard enough like Benny, so she failed?” In other words, under what circumstances could we say that Benny deserved his outcome and Annie deserved her outcome, and therefore justify, as a society, why Annie’s quality of life lowers?

Scenario 1: Annie just found it a lot harder. She has undiagnosed ADHD and a bad home life or something, and so she wasn’t able to apply the same focus to the problem as Benny. I think most people in my circles agree that this is sad and wouldn’t blame Annie for her outcome. The solution is to, say, get Annie on Ritalin and let her move to her nice aunt’s house and finish high school in the next town over, and the assumption is that if Annie and Benny were on an equal playing field, Annie would do just as well as Benny or even better.

Scenario 2: Annie straight-up cared less and didn’t try as hard. Annie has a fine home life and no underlying impairments, she just doesn’t care about school and decided she wanted to play Call of Duty instead. To make the problem clear, let’s say that Scenario 2 Benny has lots against him, which is why he was having trouble at school–he often goes to school hungry and has to work a part-time job–yet when he applied himself, he succeeded where Annie failed.

This is the scenario where I think everyday assignment of blame starts to break down. I think lots of people would attribute good qualities to Benny, let’s call them moral fiber, and bad qualities to Annie.

It seems to me like the sort of “folk model” of good and bad outcomes is that everyone has the same amount of moral fiber (you can also think of it as motivation). (I should note, too, that the folk model of where I live, a very liberal urban area in Canada, is likely quite different from the folk model others may draw.) Some people have bad circumstances which understandably affect how they draw on their moral fiber. I think most people find this generally sympathetic, even if they don’t judge situations as we would expect them to judge them based on the model. For instance, most people in Scenario 1 have sympathy for Annie who has bad circumstances, and are happy to see her enter better circumstances so she has greater capacity to utilize her moral fiber. But Scenario 2 Annie is very unsympathetic. She had no excuse–she just decided not to draw on her moral fiber.

But if Scenario 2 Annie has the same amount of moral fiber as Benny, why doesn’t she use it? What causes her to make a decision to be “bad” and Benny to make a decision to be “good”? It has to be some internal factor that differs between them, right? A factor whose presence causes them to care about school? A factor whose presence permits them to decide whether to do unfun things like studying instead of fun things like playing Call of Duty so they can have better outcomes in the long term?

Isn’t that just…moral fiber again? (Moral fiber2, maybe?) So if it’s moral fiber2 you use to decide to use your moral fiber, and Annie and Benny have the same amount of moral fiber2, why on earth did Annie not do the same thing as Benny? Or if they don’t have the same amount, does moral fiber2 vary between people, and if so, does that variance come from genetics or environment, and if either, isn’t it also not fair to expect Annie to magically accumulate more of it? Or is it also supposed to come from some internal virtue, and if so, how far down do I have to go before it becomes clear that moral fiber3, moral fiber4, and moral fiber5 all have the same logical problem?

So you begin to see why there doesn’t seem to be a point in assigning moral blame to Annie. It’s logically much more consistent to say that the decision to not study was itself instilled by genetics or environment, neither of which Annie could control.

I obviously recognize that not everyone thinks society has a duty to ensure everyone under its aegis lives a life reasonably free of avoidable suffering. But even many of those people would agree, I think,  that this folk model comes packaged with the idea that society does have a responsibility to protect two types of people: people who work according to its expectations to produce value (it would be “unfair” if after Benny’s work his teachers failed him just because they dislike him) and people whose environments and genetics are judged to have prevented them from working according to its expectations (for an extreme example that I don’t think will cause any object-level quibbling, it would be “unfair” if Cala, who has Down Syndrome, had her family killed in a car crash and died of preventable injuries in the hospital because she couldn’t figure out how to handle health insurance and nobody would help her). But for the third group of people, who don’t work according to society’s expectations but don’t visibly have genetics or environment to prevent them from doing so, society relies on moral fiber to justify withdrawing its support, and it doesn’t seem like moral fiber is a very solid foundation. If you become convinced there’s no such thing, as I have, everybody falls into the second category and society has a duty to care for them. Right?

I have no idea how to solve this problem except with highfalutin long-term ideas like UBI. If Annie and Benny can both live reasonably happy lives even if Annie, by genetics or environment, has much less moral fiber than Benny and doesn’t study or show up for work on time, then we don’t have to assign her bad outcomes based on something she can’t control. Benny might get a slightly better outcome even then, but trying to regulate how good an outcome Benny gets is a bit sour even for me. But then, can we even morally justify being okay with Benny getting extra just because of his genetics or environment?

Queer is the map, not the territory

Epistemic status: I only write to hear myself talk; please read in a tone of bafflement and not condescension.

I’m gearing up to read Whistling in the Dark, a collection of 21 interviews with Indian men in various homosexual and homosexual-adjacent behaviour patterns collected by R. Raj Yao and Dibyajyoti Sharma. Here are some things its first bit reminded me of that it’s easy to forget going to an upper-class university with a rainbow-painted crosswalk (and not even the slick six-color, I’m talking the original Baker Eight, magenta sex included, you better believe).

A. Shit is really bad for some of us out there and no matter how life-and-death Internet baby fights feel sometimes, we Westerners owe at least, at least to our faraway sibs the respect of giving a thought to their stories sometimes, and that doesn’t mean using them as a rhetorical tool to bash other WEIRD Internet gays, and yes I recognize that I’m sounding real smug for a person who just read three chapters of one book, but it’s much more a reminder to myself (drowned recently in the old Discourse Spiral) than a subtweet at anyone else in particular.

B. Queer is the map, not the territory. Lesbian is the map, bisexual is the map, trans is the map. Are we still conducting ourselves like we’ve uncovered some secret truth present in all the world and named and defined only by us and taxonomied like plant life? I’m asking, does it make any more sense to call hijra “Indian trans women” than to call trans women “Western hijra?” I feel like there’s this sense that there are “cultural genders and sexualities” and then there’s, you know, the scientifically proven LGBT rights which we need to Educate everyone about. Or maybe this is just something I filtered myself because it’s not like I’m in any position of enlightenment, I just thought of this like two weeks ago. I’m just saying  we’re still out here beating each other up over fuzzy sets with definitions we invented ourselves. I’m just thinking even the most expansive term we have, “queer,” like, queer is also a cultural sexual orientation. Where is our shared territory? Gender dysphoria and crossdressing and same-sex sexual/romantic behaviour? Or is that list itself influenced by what seems queer to me?

Man I don’t know I’m asking you.

Here’s the R. Raj Rao list of who’s represented in the interviews: gay, bi, MSM, hijra, koti. MSM is what gets to the heart of what I mean I think. Even when it comes to rural Westerners, there’s men who have sex with men but would never consider themselves gay or bi. Are we really going to be out here enthusiastically telling them that their definition of gay is wrong and they’re wrong about their sex identities? That they’re gay whether they like it or not? Guys! We made it up! Just like we made up everything in our hoarder’s closet of a semantic collection of concepts loosely linked by association! Just like everyone did!

How to avoid doing eugenics: Adam Cohen’s “Imbeciles”

I have been managing to get some reading done in the last month or so and to build up a record for myself of having actually finished things, I’m dumping some rambling thoughts on Adam Cohen’s book Imbeciles here. Warning: This post talks a lot about eugenics based on IQ.

This book is very very very effective at getting you to mistrust authority if, like me, you tend to put your faith in edifices that are supposed to trend toward justice. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the Supreme Court cases that Cohen brings up where the Court made a straight-up evil decision, and I guess I should have, but we hear a lot about cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia (evidence–these were the only two Supreme Court cases I could name off the top of my head) and less about say Lum v. Rice, 30 years prior to Brown v. Board, which the Court ruled that it was totally fine to disallow a Chinese girl from going to high school with whites, which is itself a fascinating and horrifying case in terms of horizontal relations between people of colour in early-20th-c America because apparently the defense was essentially “Okay, but she’s not Black, so what’s your problem?”

I also gather from talking to others about this book that other people had a better sense of the scale of eugenics around this time period, but I definitely was not aware that, for instance, Harvard and Stanford taught classes on eugenics, or that for a time eugenics was scientific consensus even though it seemed like the science was really really fudged. Eventually truth won out and other scientists started interrogating data more carefully, but the bad science was sufficient to convince a generation of lawmakers that America was being dragged down by “feebleminded” individuals reproducing at a disproportionate rate, even when it seems so clear in retrospect that a) it makes no sense that should have suddenly started happening in 1920 to lead to the apocalypse that the proponents envisioned and b) something is wrong with your test if you can judge as huge a population of the States as they did “feebleminded” when nobody had ever, like, noticed before that apparently a third of the population or something had the mental age of a 9-year-old. You’d think we would have noticed.

I’m a person who tends to trust in scientific consensus where I can find it, and this really concerned me! I don’t know how early the rumbles of “this is bad science though?” started coming from people who understood genetics, but Cohen writes as though there was a period of about a decade where the foremost people in the relevant discipline all thought this super unethical thing was totally necessary for the greater good. And as consequentialists we have to sort of trust in what experts tell us will be the consequences, sometimes; when it comes to large-scale decisions it’s impossible for each of us to individually make the choice that will lead to the best consequence without the input of people who have intimate knowledge of what the different options entail. But the experts can be wrong, too, especially the “experts” who write extremely popular books and prosecute court cases.

And there’s a maddening, farcical, pathetic story near the centre of this case–the prosecutor, Audrey Strode, who Cohen describes as the most infuriatingly Lawful Neutral person in the whole mess. Basically, this guy drafted the legislation to permit doctors to sterilize the “unfit”, at the request of the doctor (Priddy) who wanted this to be allowed in Virginia. But it’s really, really bad legislation, in ways that he absolutely knew would break the law if somebody really wanted it to be broken. Cohen argues that he was essentially building the exhaust port into the Death Star. Cohen thinks he didn’t really believe in eugenics. And then he prosecuted the case, because Priddy asked him to. And then they went to the Supreme Court. And then they legalized eugenics in Virginia. And then they forcibly sterilized hundreds of women. It’s just really stunning to think that somebody might have started out the case thinking “I’ll break this from the inside” or even “there’s no way this will get too far,” and ended up being a part of something so terrible, and never really dared to take a stand and divorce himself from it, maybe because It Was His Job, or he liked the doctor, or he wanted to argue in front of the Supreme Court.

What I took away from this book is that allowing yourself to believe things that don’t make sense because they suit your sense of what should be right can be really, really dangerous. Something to remember when I’m tempted to keep defending something that sounds good and right which I think in my heart may not be true, which has happened more than I am proud to admit as I poke my head outside the ethics cyberbubble I was in in my teens. I feel like if everyone in this case had looked really hard at their evidence they would have been unable to avoid seeing that it was straight-up-and-down false. The central quote of the case–“Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” from the decision in this case written by the unbelievably Lawful Evil judge Oliver Wendell Holmes–is literally based on a lie, because the “third generation” he’s talking about was like a six-month-old baby and their evidence for her being an “imbecile” was a nurse saying she seemed, like, oh, I don’t know, somehow lethargic. That’s pretty goddamn scary.

Mesmerize, magnolia, masochism, and other anachronisms

A while back I was kindly tagged in a tumblr post where somebody was saying that they found my babbling about conlanging interesting. (Thanks, person! I’m really sorry I’m about to make an example of one of your opinions.) In that same post, on a different conversation topic, they mentioned that they found it really annoying when people in historical fantasy said “Okay” because it was anachronistic.

This is a hard pill to swallow for me, I said as I defensively covered all the times in my first draft that “Okay” appears because I didn’t think about it much and wrote the first thing that came into my head. To start off, language is not constructed such that you can easily tell what words are actually anachronistic. Some people are devoted enough to get serious about anachronism in their prose–Mary Robinette Kowal said on Writing Excuses one time back in the day that she has a database of Regency-era words and in her later drafts she coldly eliminates all anachronistic language based on earliest etymological attestations like some kind of “okay” executioner. But many people who will complain about “okay” are probably not that serious! They may well have used words such as “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” and “masochism,” which are not only first attested well after 1700, but are based on the names of specific human beings; your conworld may have foxes as we’ve all accepted that we have to take some shortcuts, but I doubt it had the author of Venus in Furs.

And more importantly to this post, Kowal is writing about English. Kowal has a specific year in which the novel takes place. I am not writing about English! I am writing about Sobonese. “Okay” is exactly as anachronistic to Sobonese as “satire”, “palm tree,” and “the.” None of these words exist in the novel! English doesn’t exist! There is no “corresponding year” to compare etymologies against to even begin to lead words to the guillotine. I guess we can try to compare technology levels, but that gets so hopelessly granular and painful so quickly. Carts never really came to West Africa, even though they had some animals that could pull carts, and the wheel, and trading empires, but there’s carts in my novel right now because otherwise everything would be too bloody inconvenient. (Upcoming: An agonized post about whether my book should have carts?) So do I cut from the fourteenth or fifteenth century?

I don’t want to take away “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” or “masochism,” or indeed “okay.” That’s my point! Words are the keys to very, very specific locks. I am willing to put a flag in the ground that says there is nothing in the English language you could write to replace, in one word, the sweet-scented, milk-petaled, silky-smooth luxury and decadence of “magnolia.” “Magnolia” is a beautiful word and you should be allowed to use it. Words are technologies; they didn’t have camera dollies in ancient Scandanavia but nobody’s suggested Vikings should be told entirely through roving storytellers in stripey pants.

I mean, the actual reason is that for some people “okay” just ruins the atmosphere, and I take atmosphere very seriously; if you can pick every word, you may as well pick words that motion at things you want the viewer to look at. Which is why even though there’s no Polynesia to bring yams from, Akoro (the West African – inspired plane in Geometry of Ashes) has yams. I could make up a convegetable for them to have instead, but that throws away the valuable sentence real estate that could have pointed to West Africa to point instead to I’m really into ecology and have made up a whole vegetable ecosystem. That could also be cool, but it’s not this book. I think this is worth thinking about, because you get to pick whether you value what each “okay” is doing more than its alternative; whether you need to unlock okay and all right just won’t do. Because the meaning of “okay” is all bundled up with every social distinction ever layered on top of “okay.” It’s young and casual and carefree. There’s certainly people in your conworld who, if they were raised in Ontario, would say “okay” rather than “all right.” So why should they say “all right”, since they aren’t saying anything in English in the first place and you only have so much page space to make people understand who they are?

And in general I feel like there are books that you might want to allow to overbalance toward easiness and sacrifice atmosphere. I’ve thought I’d do this with a book about a hunter-gatherer society because people are so reluctant to think, what if I lived in a family band and travelled across a desert my whole life? My hunter-gatherers would shamelessly say “cool” and “okay”. Because you say “cool” and “okay” and we need a little extra wedge to get open a shell we aren’t familiar with and squeeze inside.

And, anyways, that’s like the fifth metaphor I’ve mixed in this post, so my credibility on prose writing is, I recognize, not excellent.




Guinea Coast art (and statue genitalia) at the Museum of Anthropology

I went to MoA just for fun when I was in Vancouver this weekend and not for a specific research purpose, but, as I should have expected, they had some really beautiful objects from my area of research! (INT, MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY, DAY: Meg stands in front of the ibeji statues, looking sidelong at other visitors and wondering how much they would mind if she suddenly interrupted their conversations to infodump about the statues’ missing penises.) Now that their online collections are back up, I had to go digging a little further.

The statues were particularly interesting because many of the males are missing their dicks, not to mince words. In Abiodun’s Yoruba Art and Language, he says that the penis and breasts of ibeji statues (these are statues created in memory of twins if one or both die) are considered to be the parts that really show a person is a master carver, because they protrude from the body and require a pleasing shape. I have to remember I’m no art historian and one source isn’t a scholarship, but I did immediately wonder whether the carvers of these statues were just not willing to risk messing up the part that would make people judge them, like an early artist on devArt who always draws figures with their hands clasped behind their backs, or if some faint-of-heart art collector had just chopped them off at some point, because heaven forfend there be a penis in the home of a respectable white art collector. This is obviously the story that gets my grit up, and I’m even tempted to email the collections people to ask if they know about the history of these particular objects, but I also can’t assume too hard that this isn’t the way they originally were made! Regional and personal styles are definitely a thing. But still…I mean, take a look at these poor babies.

Courtesy of the MoA Online Collection.

These are male figures according to the MoA. Since I saw them I’ve been going crazy with Google Search trying to figure out if their whole groinal area was how the carver made it, normal wear (perhaps because ibeji statues are often handled lovingly over many years) or an act of vandalism of some kind. The more innocent theories are looking more and more plausible, but I also don’t know what might have happened to the other figures in major art collections which turn up in cursory searches! A resort to some scholarship specifically about ibeji statues is probably going to be necessary. Add it to the pile.