Wednesday, June 10, 2020

My Anti-Racism Plan for #ShutDownSTEM

Yes, another post about a hashtag. This one only came to my attention a few days ago. #ShutDownSTEM is a movement within academia, research and technical fields to take an inconvenient break from our regular work in order to spend time addressing institutional racism in our work places and our lives.

Yawn, you say--another diversity and inclusion session that makes white people feel like they're doing something without any actual positive effect on people of color. But in fact, that is the point of the day: making a plan for going forward, with the acknowledgment that becoming anti-racist is not a one-and-done deal but a constant, difficult, intensely personal process.

The reason I'm writing this here is for accountability. I'm finding it difficult to walk the line between speaking out as an ally and performative allyship, so what better place to publish my process and intentions other than a public-but-barely-read blog?!

My goal for the year, italics with updates of incremental progress.
  • Education
    • How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Bought June 10, 2020
    • Join reading group to discuss above Joined June 8, 2020, Group starts June 11
    • Prioritize podcast listenings: Code Switch and The Breakdown by Shaun King
    • Read at least one more book: Women, Race and Class or White Fragility, and/or...
    • Sign up for at least one D&I class offered at work (even though they are never convenient for my schedule)
  • Teaching my kids
    • Read Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. This is a history of racism in the US, written by a well-known MG writer (Ghost), intended for educating kids. Purchased May 2020, next-in-queue of bedtime reading books with my kids (unless they pick it up themselves first)
    • Next: share with them the names and stories of Black people killed by racist actions as they happen, instead of the lump of stories I gave them to explain/motivate them to participate in in the current Black Lives Matters protests
  • Donations: 
    • I will increase the proportion of our family's donations to organizations fighting institutional racism to 5% of our income (while maintaining other donations so it will be a financial sacrifice although not even close to the income disparities in the US between white people and people of color.
    • Part of this will come from 14% of my 'personal' money (my husband and I give ourselves an allowance to spend on clothes, hobbies, personal outings, gifts, etc.,) as well. 
    • These are the organizations led by Black people that we support financially:
      • Color of Change: Organization led by people of color to increase Black political power
      • The Action PAC: Shaun King's organization that has been working on changing legislation concerning police brutality well before the current wave
      • The North Star Shaun King's media organization
      • Nami Thompson, Boulder Parenting in Diversity cofounder
    • Purchase (instead of borrowing) books by authors of color  
      May 2020: finished book II of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth Triology
      June 2020: started reading with a daughter Tomi Adeyemi Children of Blood and Bone
      June 2020: purchased How to Be an Antiracist (see above)
  • Personal actions
    • Wear my Black Lives Matter shirt in uncomfortable situations
    • Finish a conversation with a friend of color who called me out on a statement in which I was lecturing her on 'American culture'. I said I would follow up, and never did. I need to bring it up and apologize for my statement, and thank her for having the courage to speak up and educate me.
    • Publish the blog I wrote about the above incident if I get her permission to do so
    • Write a letter to the elementary school principal about what seemed to be disproportionate punishments for Hispanic kids at the school. They happened before his time but I still need to make sure he's aware of the research about this
  • Accountability
    • Made a calendar event for June 10, 2021 to revist this plan, publish what I completed and failed to complete in this document, and make a new plan for next year. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


I’ve been hearing misconceptions during casual discussions, agent panels and even from a classroom instructor that #OwnVoices means fiction writers must constrain ourselves to write only what we know from personal experience.  I believe this is missing the point and has the potential to unwind the progress that has been made toward including more diversity in fiction.

That push for more diverse representation has caused some authors to write more inclusively. Two problems resulted:
1) If a writer’s lived experience is on the powerful side of a societal hierarchy, they are unlikely to have a strong understanding of what it is like to be on the less-powerful side. Therefore, the diverse stories written by them often do not ring true to the audience who was supposed to see itself represented. Also, their more privileged readers obtain an illusion of understanding something they actually don’t.
2) Since the publishing industry shares the biases of larger society, the people selected to tell these stories are more likely from the privileged identities. The result of this is that the already-represented people are making money off of the stories of marginalized people. This can be compared to colonization of those stories and is the cold, hard cash argument for #OwnVoices.

Remember, the point of the #OwnVoices movement is to make space for writers from backgrounds who've traditionally been underrepresented in the publishing industry.

As fiction writers, our work may be drawn from our own experiences, but it is also imagined or researched. There are many great examples of writers creating characters who are not like them at all. The most negative result of the advice to only write exactly what we know is that writers will back off of including diversity in their fiction. Please, no.

How to proceed?

1)    Educate ourselves on the generalities of power dynamics and privilege.
-       Learn about privilege
-       Believe that people with different lived experiences than us are telling the truth about their experiences. (Much discrimination that can be argued away on a case-by-case basis can be proven in research studies)
-       Research the damaging prejudice tropes that are present in fiction and movies so we can actively avoid them. For example, I'm striving to keep my current middle-grade novel from falling into the 'white savior' trope. 
-       Seek critique partners who are familiar with these issues, and listen to each other
-       Educate ourselves more! Writing The Other is available as a quick-read work book and a large number of master classes and retreats

2)    Examine specific story ideas to ask ourselves if we’re the best person to tell it. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard was from an agent at RMFW 2019 (who I can’t seem to find online): if you’re on the higher side of a power dynamic writing a character from the disadvantaged side, don’t make the story about that marginalization.  For example, a male writer can write a female character but prudence suggests he might want to avoid making the story about the MeToo movement.

3)    Writing ‘up’ the power dynamic is less fraught than writing ‘down’ because the point is to make space for the less privileged to tell their own stories. Also, the stories of the powerful are so often told that marginalized writers do understand them better than vice-versa.

4)     Once we've decided that our work passes the above questions, it is time to get to work on specifics. Do your homework. Research communities you want to write about. Hire sensitivity readers from those communities (but don’t blame them if they miss something that you are later called out on). Be willing to make mistakes, admit your mistakes, apologize for your mistakes. This is how we learn and get better. (Just because you write something racist doesn’t mean you are A Racist.) Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

5)    Support diverse authors by reading and buying their books, which in turn supports our development as writers by giving new perspectives on these tropes.
As fiction writers, we have control over our products. It can be difficult to remember this. Is there something that could change that would avoid trampling on someone else’s story? 

I narrowly avoided writing a version of American Dirt. My first novel is set in the near-future, after the U.S. government has collapsed under pressure from climate change, and the pregnant protagonist must escape through the Colorado Rockies with her daughters. When I heard a radio report about a Syrian mother who had escaped to South America and made her way north toward the U.S. through horrendous experiences, I realized her story was the same as my protagonist's, but happening now. By switching to a present-day immigration story, I could have escaped the required categorization of ‘sci fi/fantasy’ under which I felt stuck because my novel was set in the future. But a few days thought of the research that would be involved in learning about these very real countries, people and communities suddenly made futuristic world-building look a lot easier, so I stayed with my original concept.

It didn’t cross my mind at the time that it wasn’t my story to tell. If I had written it, I could only hope that the agents and editors in my path to publication would have set me straight. Not by saying not to write something I didn’t know, but by asking if publishing and promoting my book would have taken away from a more authentic telling of the story. Traditionally published authors might look to these professionals to educate them, but obviously (see again: American Dirt) they can’t rely on that. Independently published authors bear the responsibility of educating themselves. If they don’t, there is no reason other authors shouldn’t educate them (see:  RWA).

We can all work together to make the publishing world truly better—inclusive in the stories it tells and the authors who make money telling them—to achieve the true goal: telling good stories that help us all understand each other better.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Seeing Both Sides: Housing Development

Several years ago, I went to a city council meeting to argue against townhouses being built on a property next to our neighborhood park. It wasn't that the park was going to be razed for houses, just that the road to them was going to be right behind the swings, and the parking lot would disappear. I had no hidden agenda other than maintaining the peaceful, open place where my children had the privilege of playing. My neighbors and I prevailed; in fact, city council decided to buy the private property and convert it to open space, and to this day it remains pleasant and open.

Around the same time, a close friend and neighbor suffered a tragic divorce. Unable to take on the mortgage of her house, she moved back to Kansas City to be near family. Once there, she told me, "Everyone here is divorced!". In my town, she had barely known anyone who was. Of course, this could be explained by more than one reason, but the connection to housing prices struck me. If a single parent can't afford a house in our town, we are effectively selecting for our children to grow up surrounded only by intact families.  Intact, well-off families, who they will assume to be the norm.

The Yes In My Backyard Podcast by Planet Money episode connected the stories for me. My neighbors and I were only doing what we wanted to make life nice for ourselves and our children, but our actions inadvertently denied the opportunity for other people to be able to live here and appreciate it. We inadvertently denied our children a chance to know others who aren't as advantaged economically as we are, and to help them form a more appreciative view of their own privileged lifestyle. 

I believe the 'inadvertent' is key here. It's so easy to assume that those on the other side of an issue have some nefarious plan to hurt me or those on my side. Surely there are a few of these. But I've come to believe that most people are simply trying for a result they truly think is right--for themselves, others, or principle--and figuring out the logic of the other side can help me to understand the entire issue from a larger perspective. 

Not to mention, thinking this way makes the world a more pleasant place for all of us to live in.

Have you been negatively affected by development limits in your town, or have you participated for or against development in your neighborhood? Or are there other issues you find yourself on both sides of, or have come to understand the other side? Please comment!

Monday, March 2, 2020

Book Analysis: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

When an accomplished author emulates the voice of a mediocre writer, she runs the risk of turning off readers who only see the inauthenticity or unbelievability of the story. This risk increases when it takes half of the book to come clean on the experiment--that what we thought was a complete story is really only one, flawed version, and others have different versions to tell.

That's what I heard at the meeting of the Boulder Writers Alliance Writers Who Read book club hosted by Gary McBride (His webpage features slides with links to a fascinating analysis of this novel and many more). Many participants had that experience and it made me wonder what proportion of readers were turned off by the story and never got that midpoint payoff.

Because it was a big payoff for me. Maybe it is that I love stories that turn upside down or inside out at their midpoint: when the good guys are shown to be the bad guys, or the Good Place everyone is searching for is revealed to be imaginary. This story became more interesting to me once the second narrator started picking it apart.

And then I made the same mistake again: trusting that the second narrator was telling the truth. Well, not completely, because her language made it clear that there was more subjectivity at play. But I certainly did not pick up on some of the biggest surprises in the text.

Don't read further if you want the fun of piecing together the puzzle yourself. I wish I had finished the entire book before the discussion so I'd have had time to cobble together my own theory.

Sure you want to keep reading?

Adriel Trott has a great theory: three of the male teachers are in fact the same person. One person at the book group found evidence for this in that their genitals were described similarly. Another support for this theory is that the second narrator tells us that the first broke her into several different, fake characters. Seems a lot like the author is telling us that's exactly what she did with the teachers.

This immediately raised the question to me: if the major male characters were redundant, how about the (female) narrators? It clearly doesn't work for the third narrator, as she is presented as the offspring of the second. But what if the second narrator tells the other side of the first's story, the side that is angry, the side that got pregnant and abandoned and lost her dream of greatness?

An interesting book to think about, if not entirely enjoyable to read.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Seeing Both Sides: The Bike Path

I'm a frequent user of the multi-use paths around my house. I bicycle to work almost entirely on trails. I walk with my parents, my neighbors, and occasionally a group of friends. I run, and in the last decade I spent a lot of time jogging with a stroller and/or small children on their bikes.  I walk a dog when we're dog sitting. When it snows enough, I have even cross-country skied.

Participating in so many uses has made me realize how easy it is for the trail users to get in each other's way.  Dogs wander all over the trail, connected by a leash that blocks the passageway. Children on bikes need a lot of space and make sudden, erratic moves. Joggers wear headphones and so don't realize people are coming behind them. Groups of walkers focus on their conversations and are unaware of how much space they take.  Bike commuters are focused on getting to work instead of paying attention to how high their speed is relative to the other users.Walkers find the ski tracks an easy path to take through the snow.

I've felt my anger rise when I've come across examples of people acting these ways. Yet, since I've almost always been in the other user's place, I know how easy it is to make those mistakes myself. Having the perspective of both sides means I can understand why there is a conflict, and I can forgive others for making the mistakes because I hope to be forgiven myself. I've come to believe that those are the two keys to maintaining the peace of my day.

First, seeking understanding of the other person's experience. Putting myself in their shoes: what it feels like when a bike comes flying by a precious child, what it feels like to be late for work when you're already putting in the effort to save carbon emissions and getting exercise, what it feels like when your dog won't listen no matter how much effort you've put into training, how great it feels to be lost in conversation with your friends, or surrounded by music or an audiobook.

Second, forgiving their mistakes. The hiker doesn't know how precious those unspoiled cross country tracks are to the skier. The cyclist might have been under stress and forgot to proceed cautiously. The parent failing to steer a jogging stroller might be on the cell phone with a doctor who finally called back. The dog walker might be unprepared for how vigorously the dog will want to meet another of its species. The group walkers are getting exercise and socializing, both keys to their health, which benefits all of society. Should we be angry at that? Does it help annyone?

These two actions--understanding and forgiveness-- can go a long way toward resolving many conflicts that naturally arise from occupying the same space as other people, which is basically life as a social animal.  My spouse and I are trying to teach our children both to strive for an awareness of the other,  and at the same time forgive the other when they don't meet our expectations. I'm starting this series of posts to explore these sorts of topics; not to claim one side is better than the other, but to seek understanding within apparent opposition.

Are there issues you find yourself on both sides of, or have come to understand the other side? Please comment!

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Review: Let Me Hear a Rhyme

Let Me Hear A Rhyme
 by Tiffany D. Jackson

I loved the use of mystery: small and large. Small questions are raised that kept me reading, and as well as a story about a group of kids trying to get their dead brother and friend's music heard, the story is also a murder mystery. The author drops clues, and none of them lead straight to their obvious conclusion. The answer involves many of the players in ways I never guessed. (An interesting point raised by the Educator's Guide is that my incorrect guesses are a window into my "beliefs, biases, knowledge or ignorances of Brooklyn and [its] kids").

The characters were complex: characters who seem like jerks end up being helpful; characters who seem helpful end up being jerks. On smaller scales, too, like when a serious character appreciates the joy of a dance club (according to the author's note, this was taken from her experience). This is great for any novel, but when combined with the murder mystery, it adds to the possibilities and surprises.

I read through most of this thinking the multiple POVs weren't necessary. I cared a lot about the female protagonist and didn't find myself too invested in the two male friends and didn't think they were contributing much to the plot. On reflection about those complex characters, though, the two strongest examples were known in their initial state by those two friends, and those secondary characters play a pivotal role in the conclusion. So, as I preach to my critique group, I will continue to maintain that many stories could be stronger by the writer figuring out how to supply the reader information through fewer points of view, but I'll begrudgingly admit it paid off in this case. 

The flashback POV chapters worked for me because I cared about the dead character (probably because I cared about his sister, and she cared about him) so I relished hearing from him, much like the other characters relished hearing his recordings after his death. My only complaint was that these chapters dipped into omniscient POV; I'm not as biased against this as the current publishing environment seems to be, however, it was jarring not only because it was different (the 3rd person was, too, but that wasn't a problem) but because it was about ninety-five percent in the one character's POV with occasional pop-outs. I think it would have been stronger to either stay in the limited POV or make much more use of the omniscient.

The author worked hard to make the teens' scheme believable, including by showing the characters themselves arguing about feasibility. I could buy some of the rationale for their plan but I couldn't believe they didn't come up with a better excuse/cover to start with. They did eventually try to come clean and the author did a good job coming up with a way to delay that reveal. My main concernn with believability, though, was that there were no shown consequences for what the characters did at the end.

I learned a lot about hip hop without feeling lost or preached to, and I was stoked to find a soundtrack to listen to the songs mentioned, as well as a recording of the verses written by Malik-16 for the book. There is also quite a bit of Brooklyn and Black history. I happened to be listening to the School Colors podcast simultaneously, and learning from both about Weeksville and Bed-Stuy and even Brevoort. I'd highly recommend that to others unfamiliar with the area.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Story on Plot Twists From The Hidden Brain podcast

Spoiler Alert delves into plot twists and surprise endings, examining what it is about the brain that can be tricked, and even more, why we like to be tricked in this way.  I heard it soon after seeing the current movie Knives Out, which was clever and one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen in a long time. It made me think how much I love the kind of stories where everything is turned on end at some point--where the bad guys end up being the good guys, where the world is really not what it seemed, where the audience/reader had no idea what was going on even though the evidence was all there. It seems so advanced to try to write a story in this way... but perhaps a good challenge!

Monday, January 13, 2020

2002 Reading List

As I've learned about writing I've had a hard time finding books that are compelling to read.  I just can't fall into a good book and forget the writing anymore and I've had trouble finding books with writing I admire. However, I know that reading good books is important to my development as a writer (and I do love reading), and I know there are good books out there, so I'm committing to do more reading this year.

As I blogged about, I read On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong through the Writers Who Read book club hosted by Gary McBride. He provides careful, thorough and (even) numerical analysis of a wide selection of books through the Boulder Writers Alliance meetup group. I will attempt to read and make his meetings, because not only do I like his selections and analysis, but I think more when I know I'll be put on the spot at the meeting to say something interesting. Asterisks in the list below denote books for the group

 I'm going to try to read one additional book per month. Sound paltry to many of you (and good for you!) but I doubt I've even read twelve books in a single year since I had kids.  I will update the list below as I start and finish books. I hope that I read more than intended, especially as I'm reading a lot of middle-grade books right now in order to get a sense of the genre, and they are quick reads.

On going (with my kids)
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous* by Ocean Vuong. Read from 12/23-1/4.  Review
Trust Exercise* by Susan Choi

Ghost by Jason Reynolds, Started 1/6 (loaded to a friend on a hut trip.. on hold)
Zepheria's Call by Nathan Lowell (audiobook, ongoing...)

The Lady In The Lake* by Laura Lippman

Fleishman Is In Trouble* by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead* by Olga Tokarczuk

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Review: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

It was no surprise to learn that the author is a poet. The phrasing is wrenchingly gorgeous. The text is packed with figurative language and juxtaposition that forces the reader to grapple for connections.

It is also no surprise to learn the author is an academic. The fourth wall is broken, the act of writing is examined, the use of metaphor is ultimately questioned, the format is malleable, and historical and current writers are referenced.

What did surprise me was easily finding a classic three-act structure within what appeared to be unstructured text. The author even splits the books into three labeled parts. Part I is clearly family (thesis, childhood), II is romance (anti-thesis, adolescence), III brings family and lover together under the theme of death (synthesis, adulthood).

Another classic plot-driving technique the author uses is raising questions. I had a hard time putting the book down, despite there not being an obvious plot and realized that the author was using
the unstructured nature and incoherent timeline to introduce and develop characters and events in a way to keep the reader going, searching for the next tiny hint or larger answer. Who is the woman holding the girl? Who is the soldier by the road? Who is the white, teenage boy and why is he bleeding? These are the kinds of questions I've learned from Rachel Weaver that compel the reader to continue through more conventionally structured novels.  The key, though, still is character: I had to care enough about the protagonist and his friends and family to want to find out what was happening.

One of the major questions I had while reading was how much was drawn from the author's life and how much was fiction. I read an interview with the author in which he said his poems aren't always from his point of view, and indeed it is too easy for readers to assume a protagonist who matches the author in gender, race, age and apparent life situation is drawn just from that person. However, this book apparently qualifies as auto-fiction, which is somewhere between fiction and memoir.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it, it tugged on my emotions and I had no trouble finishing it, which is a significant accomplishment at this stage of my life and writing career.  (More on that in my next post!)

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Writers Who Read book club hosted by Gary McBride. 
Click on the title (of this, and many more) for his slides containing an intensive analysis of the text.