Last week, I was on the treadmill at the YMCA late at night. On the TV was Lisa Ling’s show This Is Life, with an episode about coroners. I was watching passively, until they started showing a scene of a body going into a crematorium. I thought with a sort of dark humor, “Oh hey, that’s what happened to my mother’s body,” and kept running. And then they kept showing images, of smoke coming out of a smokestack, and the ashes and pulverized bones being scraped into a container. I started wringing my hands and shaking my head violently side to side to get whatever was coming up to go away, but I couldn’t, so I stepped to either side of the treadmill and doubled over.
I stayed that way for a long time. I was aware that everyone on the floor was looking at me and calling to me and waiting. But so much had come up that I had to get it all out, first, before I could say anything. When I finally opened my eyes, I tried to tell them, “The TV, they showed ashes, that happened to my mother, I wasn’t ready.” They were confused but very nice. They offered me a towel to dry my face. I left quickly, and drove home, and screamed a lot on the way.
It was fourteen years ago, and still.
Sometimes I think about how losing my mother young and my being solo non-monogamous are related. Not that it’s pathological or unhealthy, but just to acknowledge that there is a connection. I don’t remember very much about my home life from ages 8-16. Which is strange, because I remember everything. I was journaling at the time. I recorded all the intimate details of my school life from that time, for example. But I very rarely mentioned my mother, even though we shared the same house and the same dinner table. I shut her out, emotionally and physically, for years. I was so angry with her for getting sick. And by the time I was mature enough to try to build a better relationship with her, she was far too gone for it to have anything like the meaning I wanted it to have. She died when I was twenty. It took me years to process the guilt and regret I had (and still have) about that.
Sometimes I think that that pent-up love got saved somewhere in my body, and is coming out now.
And it’s free, and never-ending, for those who would share my skin. And sometimes I feel like no one lover could ever be able to take how much I’d want to give. Which is why I have to have many.
“Here, take this worship, displaced in time; drink deeply, it will never go dry.”
Photo: The western sky in Belize, at sunset, on November 20th, 1012. Courtesy Neave Planetarium.
I spent the better part of my working day yesterday figuring out what day my novel starts on. Then, I could figure out what the sky would have looked like, which was extremely important to the ancient Maya and, so, would have had significant bearing on their actions that day.
I had only two constraints: that the day be in the year 1012, and fall during Wayeb’, the period of “nameless days” at the end of the solar year in the Maya calendar.
In the year 1012, that period began on November 20th. Venus was in its evening star phase, the moon was waning gibbous, and—most incredibly—Mercury was transiting the sun, which only happens once every seven or eight years. In addition, that day was 10 Eb’ in the Mayan divinatory calendar (which was distinct from the solar calendar). According to the K’iche’ Maya Day Keepers in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, Eb’ is a good day for a man to ask a woman’s hand in marriage.
Well. And that answers a major unresolved plot point.
Working this way is like retro-divination. Facts provide surfaces on which my ideas can nucleate. And then new facts will constrain those ideas, which will lead to more ideas, which will lead to new facts.
And that is how a crystal grows.
Photo: That time I trolled Donald Trump with a bloody middle finger.
Last week, I shot a new Patreon video with my friend Saleem, aka KidEthnic. It’s going to be a video about the deliciousness of short stories and a new financial model for supporting both the form and indie publishers, and I’m really excited about it.
But when we looked back at the footage, I noticed that my eyeliner was smudged—something that’d be hard to notice at first, but a viewer would catch eventually. I knew it’d bug me, at least.
Saleem graciously offered to reshoot and I took him up on it. But I felt bad. The words “diva” and “narcissist” kept coming to mind. Why did I really want to reshoot? The eyeliner was a valid reason, but more broadly, I’d just looked very strange to myself. Even though I was working with someone I trusted, it was the first time I hadn’t been in total control of the camera, and felt a degree of vulnerability I hadn’t felt before.
I asked a few artist friends whether they ever get used to seeing themselves on video. The answer was no, across the board, so it’s a universal dysphoria. Of course, there’s an extra dimension for women: namely, the compulsive measuring of oneself against how women are supposed to look if they want to be heard in public life.
If I make concessions to those expectations, am I really helping to create a world where other women won’t have to?
And around and around we go.
Artists brand themselves. They have for millennia. It’s part of the gig, and one I actually really enjoy, for the most part.
I think about two women artists who are really important to me: Beyoncé and Amanda Palmer. Both have had babies. They handled them in ways that appear to be very different, on the surface. Beyoncé allowed almost no pictures during and immediately following her pregnancy. Meanwhile, Amanda posted naked selfies with downy legs, throughout.
But I think it’d be a mistake to say one controls her public image and the other doesn’t. They both control it in a very deliberate and considered way that feels both safe and truthful to them. They both clearly enjoy the process, as I do. And it’s that sense of control that allows them to create change: Beyoncé performing with a giant sign saying FEMINIST in an age when even teenage girls still consider it a bad word. Amanda Palmer turning the music industry on its head by setting up a direct gift economy with her fans.
Likewise: the photo above is a selfie with menstrual blood dripping down my arm, to troll Donald Trump after his dumbass comment at the first Republican debate. To counterbalance the risky element, I made sure I looked attractive in the photo, without which it would likely get far less play.
Sometimes I wonder whether I’m trying to change the game, or whether I’m just trying to win the game.
But I’d like to think there’s a space between the two poles, where artists make constant concessions to make constant progress. And that that’s the space where most change actually occurs.
Above: Dalia Hernández in the film Apocalypto, which is very problematic re: authenticity about the ancient Mayans for many reasons, but holy shit, the casting.
In his Paris Review interview, Norman Rush says this:
Before I start a novel I make a dossier for each character, even minor ones. Life history, curriculum vitae, oddities of culture and taste and background, appearance, gait, voice: it all goes in there. These dossiers can grow quite extensive, and some get completely out of hand. I’ve had to train myself not to keep expanding them endlessly when I should be working on chapters. Even so, with the book I’m working on now I’ve almost driven myself mad, writing dossiers.
How much from each dossier works its way into the novel?
Often very little, directly. But absorbing that deep background gives me the sort of conviction about each character that allows me to write.
Do you map your plots beforehand in a similar way?
No, just the characters. But the characters write the plot. Their natures do.
So of course, I made dossiers for all of the characters in The Girl in the Road. Here’s the one for Arjuna Swaminathan, whom Meena meets early on in the book.
Name. Arjuna Swaminathan.
Birthday. December 5.
Age. At the time of meeting Meena: 34.
Zodiac Sign. Sagittarius.
Gestalt. World traveler, wealthy, smooth, charming IT prince.
Ayurveda Doshas. Pitta primary, Kapha secondary.
Race & Ethnicity. Persian and Indian.
Religion. Nominally Hindu.
Sexual Orientation. Queer masculine dominant.
Education. Educated at Mumbai Boys Preparatory, then Eton after his parents divorced and his father took him to Britain. Returned to India for college at IIT-Bombay.
Family. Only son of divorced parents, Sunil Swaminathan and Neeloufar Kadivar.
Occupation. Weird energy developer.
Appearance. Handsome, dark, clean-cut, confident. Works out on a regular basis.
Gait. Like a member of Ocean’s Eleven.
Favorite Food. Margherita pizza from a certain Italian restaurant where he knows the owner.
Favorite Color. Silver-grey.
And this week, I had to stop work on The Actual Star to write a whole bunch of dossiers. I knew the three main characters very well, but every time they encountered someone new, it was like they were a big blank question mark, and so I had to make some quick choices about who the heck they were interacting with. The above categories don’t work in Terminal Classic Mayan times, though, so I had to figure out new ones. And, like Norman says, those choices will inform how the action goes; and then sometimes the action will develop such that the characters need to be altered, and so it goes, back and forth. This is what I have so far:
Body and Gait.
Spirit Animal (wy).
…and I have pictures, too. I don’t share those, because sometimes they’re faces I pull off the Internet, and sometimes they’re faces of people I know, and yeah, that’d be weird. Except when the face is already out in the public sphere!—like that of Dalia Hernández, above, who played Seven in Apocalypto. But in my book, she’s a very different character, by the name of Ixul (pronounced “ish-ool”)—full name, Princess Ixul Lahun N’oj’ of Ekwitz, heir to the realm of the Monpan.
So, this is ridiculously exciting: The Girl in the Road made the long list for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, last won by Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland.
I got the news via Twitter, from writer and artist Indrapramit Das (thank you!!). It was noon at the Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata, where they announced it. But it was 2:45am on Saturday morning in Durham, where I was in line at Cosmic Cantina, after yet another world-ending epic dance party by my friend DJRang, after which everyone was badly in need of carbohydrates. Including the very drunk Duke freshmen pouring out of Saferide vans and stumbling after us up the stairs, as I was explaining to my friend that Cosmic was the very first place I ate in Durham, when I moved here to become a writer, on September 1st, 2005.
Now it’s October, 2015.
I am really so happy.
Resources, up front:
- Durham Police Department non-emergency line: 919-560-4600 or 919-560-4601.
- Know Your Rights (via EnoughNC).
- Services provided by the Durham Crisis Response Center.
On Monday morning of this week, I received an abusive email from someone I barely know. This person also happens to be a member of the arts and activism scenes of Durham. The email contained no physical threat, but was certainly verbally abusive. It was a concern to me because (1) they live in my community, so we have to share public space and (2) in general, I have a zero-tolerance policy for this sort of thing—when it’s directed at anyone, whether they’re public figures or not, and especially at women.
Given that I’ve learned a ton in the last few days about legal options, I wanted to share that with my community in Durham. Please note that laws vary considerably in other cities, and the particulars of this case meant that I learned only very particular things that aren’t universally applicable. (To cover a broader range of cases, check out the Durham Crisis Response Center.) Here, I’m using the pronoun “they/them” is meant to obscure the gender of the individual, not name it.
Briefly: I met them eight years ago, when I lived in Chapel Hill. From what I remember, they would crack racist, sexist, and other off-color jokes in an attempt to be “edgy,” which didn’t endear them in my social circles. After a certain point, if I saw them, I tended to avoid them. They confronted me about it via email, and I deflected, saying that I didn’t want to engage (I was about to leave for Ethiopia) but also that I hadn’t meant to cause them hurt, and wished them well. In the intervening eight years, if I saw them, I avoided them.
Two months ago, they approached me in public. I immediately told them I didn’t want to talk to them. They became belligerent. I had to say “I do not want to talk to you” five or six times before they finally walked away, which left me feeling scared and shaky. Then, just this Monday, I got that email through my public web site.
I asked friends for advice and very quickly got tons (and support and love, too, which I deeply appreciated, because getting that email was not a great way to wake up). The first step they overwhelmingly recommended was to file a police report. If that seems like an extreme step, it’s not—it’s a way to immediately establish a paper trail in case the situation should escalate, so that you can demonstrate in court that you took the abuse seriously from the beginning. Also, if others experience the same thing in the future (or have already), it’s a way to get their name in the system.
So I called the Durham Police Department non-emergency line, 919-560-4600 or 919-560-4601. The officer came over and we talked through my options. He asked whether the person had any history of physical violence; again, I barely know them, but there was no history of physical violence that I or our mutual friends were aware of yet. Since there was no immediate threat, he advised sending back one short email expressing the following (after which any further contact can be acted upon by the police or legal system):
I do not consent to receiving any further emails from you. I do not consent to any further contact with you in any medium, including in person. Any further contact in any medium will be considered harassment, and will be documented and filed as such with the Durham Police Department. Do not contact or approach me again.
I was hoping it would end there. But that night, I came home to two additional emails, one of which threatened to sue me. (On what basis, neither I nor anyone I talked to could imagine.) Given that this response is now legally actionable, I filed another police report, again via the Durham Police Department non-emergency line, 919-560-4600 or 919-560-4601.
Two days later, I talked to a lawyer who specializes in these cases. She pointed me to a number of amazing resources, including EnoughNC, which lays out your legal options in clear language. To wit: if you have no previous relationship with the harasser, you have the option to file for a 50c no-contact order order. It’s free to file, and all one needs to file is the harasser’s name and date of birth, which an officer can provide you; but you do need to appear in court for it to take effect.
The other option is to file criminal stalking charges. From the web site: “Stalking is defined as ‘on more than one occasion, following or otherwise harassing… another person without legal purpose with the intent to’ either ‘place the person in reasonable fear either for the person’s safety or the safety of the person’s immediate family or close personal associates’ or ’cause that person to suffer substantial emotional distress by placing that person in fear of death, bodily injury, or continued harassment and that in fact causes that person substantial emotional distress.'”
So, now you know as much as I know. And people of Durham? I love you. And I want to build a community that doesn’t tolerate this kind of behavior from its members. If something like this happens to you, this is where to start.
Again, the resources:
- Durham Police Department non-emergency line: 919-560-4600 or 919-560-4601.
- Know Your Rights (via EnoughNC).
- Services provided by the Durham Crisis Response Center.
Hey all. My patrons have known this for awhile now, but I’m stopping writing the column New Suns. It has nothing to do with how fiercely I believe in its philosophy, nor how generous and gracious Electric Literature was in hosting it; and everything to do with some stark realities in my life that came to the fore very soon after I started writing it. You can read the full explanation here, which I just opened to the public.
As you can see in the comments, I was, and remain, overwhelmed by the generous spirit of my patrons. And you can also see that the Patreon is NOT going away, but is continuing in a different form (about which I already have some exciting news; stay tuned…) But meanwhile, I wanted to find a place for the original manifesto to live on the Internet. Because it IS a four-alarm fuck-this deep-truth response to the bullshit in arts criticism about what constitutes “mainstream” and how it must change, and I stand by it.
More soon, mis queridas.
You might have read about how I had a culture column at Wired, and then didn’t, after I pitched a bunch of artists that included a lot of women, queers, and people of color. I got the response, ‘we only do pop culture’. To which I responded, ‘Are you interested in helping decide what pop culture is in the first place?’
I never got a reply.
There’s no way for me to say what was going on behind the scenes. What I can say is that unconscious bias is a fact, in aggregate; and that the white male gaze counts on silence, in aggregate. So this time, I spoke up.
The response was (and continues to be) overwhelming. The post got a lot of attention, including coverage in The New Republic. Lots of people from around the world via Twitter, Facebook, DM, PM, blog comment, text, and private email called for the column to have a home elsewhere. And behind the scenes, that’s exactly what’s happening. Right now, it’s not a question of whether the column would have a home, but where. That’s a great thing.
But Wired, being Wired, had money. Most of the places offering to host the column can’t pay the rate that Wired could. But writing is how I make a living, and I already do plenty of it for free. So to make the column good, I have to make enough money to justify the time I devote to it.
So here’s my deal with you:
(1) The rate Wired would have paid me was fifty cents per word, or roughly $500 for 1000 words. Patreon takes 5% and credit card and transfer fees add up to around another 5%. So if we reach $550 per column, I launch the column.
(2) For a year, I promise no less than one column a month, and no more than two columns a month.
(3) If you support the column, YOU can use Patreon to post artists whose work you want me to see.
(4) WHAT IS THE COLUMN, ANYWAY? Hey, great question. It’s about artists who create the future through their work. The founding assumptions being:
That it is possible to divert the mainstream.
That artists are the first architects of our common reality.*
That that future is already here, and it’s just a matter of those who see it and those who don’t.
That art and social change are lovers, and always have been.
That genre, like gender, is a construct of the past.**
That the United States is not the center nor the leader of world culture.
That science, art, and religion are all impulses of the same human capacity for wonder.
That the majority of humankind is brown women, and those artists’ work will be privileged above all others without hesitation or apology.
That “mainstream American art” is almost exclusively created from within, and to serve, the white male colonial gaze. That is an established fact that requires no further proof or validation going forward.
…I guess some would think of the above as “radical.” To me, it’s the most basic shit possible.
Here are some artists I want to talk to about the futures they’re making:
Ana Lily Amirpour. Ayesha Siddiqi. Nnedi Okorafor. Angel Haze. Hye Yun Park. Sofia Samatar. Daniel José Older. Meshell Ndegeocello. Ana Tijoux. Usman Tanveer Malik. Shirlette Ammons. DJRang. Alaya Dawn Johnson. Skylar Gudasz. Shirin-Banou Barghi. Jeff VanderMeer. Saleem Reshamwala. Ted Chiang. Dessa. Clint Smith. Lupita Nyong’o. Priyanka Chopra. Delano Dunn. Zadie Smith. Amanda Palmer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Howard Craft. Nalo Hopkinson. Young Jean Lee. Janelle Monae. Danielle Durchslag. Kim Stanley Robinson. Lauryn Hill. Hari Nef. Elnathan John. Habib Yazdi. Kristine Stolakis.
Who gets to decide what pop culture is in the first place?
And we will.
*Credit: Walidah Imarisha, “Rewriting the Future.”
***I’m white. This doesn’t make me “objective.” In a racist society, there’s no such thing as a neutral position. So here’s my subjective position as I understand it: being white means having profound privilege, and for me personally, I intend to use that privilege to redistribute power. I wrote more about that in The Atlantic. If you have any thoughts about this, I would love to hear them at @monicabyrne13.