Hello friends. Nominations are now open for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the two biggest honors in science fiction. If you’re eligible to nominate for either award–which means being or becoming a member of WorldCon (in the case of the Hugos) or a member of SFWA (in the case of the Nebulas)–
I’d be honored if you considered nominating The Actual Star for Best Novel.
If you can’t nominate for either, no worries! Just spreading the word–especially to your science-fiction-reading friends–helps enormously. Feel free to pass on my homemade “highlight reel”—tweeted here, Instagrammed here, and embedded here:
I had the distinct pleasure of conversing with Hal Stern about The Actual Star. By day, Hal is a technology executive with a pharmaceutical company, and by non-day an avid consumer of sci-fi, music and good sandwiches. He writes on Medium and Substack. And, well, he asks damn good questions. See his intro and the conversation below.
TL;DR version: I got to interview Monica Byrne about her new book, The Actual Star, which is one of the most thought-provoking and hope-filled books I’ve read in a few years. If Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt and Remember is the scientific template for our long-term survival, then The Actual Star is its future hagiography.
Full backstory: I’ve been asked a few times “How do you get to interview writers?” It’s basic business networking–I ask a question about their themes or ideas (usually via Twitter or Instagram), the conversation turns to an application or interpretation of their work, and it expands from there. The same pattern played out after I read Monica Byrne’s The Girl In The Road last spring–I read it as a hajj or pilgrimage story, and asked her about some references, ended up joining her Patreon (please support writers), and then received an early copy of The Actual Star. Our email threads after I raced to finish the book covered religion as a startup, symbolism that puts F. Scott Fitzgerald to shame, acrostic clues in the text, threads I missed and those I interpreted through the weave of the three parallel storylines. In addition to being an exciting and daring book, it’s crafted with care so you can easily, stealthily, breathlessly follow what took nine years–and the merging of three book ideas–to complete.
Stern: First up, thank you for sitting down at parallel keyboards to talk about The Actual Star. I absolutely loved the book as it integrated so many approaches I treasure: parallel storytelling, our feelings of place and space, how and why we create myths and their pageantry, and a post-climate apocalypse future where the kids are remarkably alright.
Can we start with the basic structure of the book? It’s told as three parallel stories set 1,000 years apart. The past is set in the late stages of the Maya people in Belize in 1012; the current timeline follows a young woman from Minnesota as she searches for her roots in 2012; and the future is in a nomadic, highly fluid society where only eight million people have survived economic and climate disaster.
Byrne: If you can believe it, I originally imagined it as a trilogy of three separate books. That’s how we first tried to sell it in 2016. We submitted the first book (the 1012 era, called The Nameless Days) and an outline of the other two. Editors were intrigued, but just couldn’t visualize the whole picture. One editor, in his kind rejection, suggested combining all three books into one. So after a period of mourning, I went to a coffee shop, made color-coded index cards for every scene, and spent a whole day just arranging them on a big wooden table. I eventually settled on a structure of 1012-2012-3012-repeat, because with so much to keep track of, a chronological order imposed some sense of familiarity.
Stern: Once I found the first link between the three timelines, I was reminded of the “ah ha” moment I had during the This Is Us pilot episode. Your parallel storylines are elegantly crafted with Easter eggs dropped forward through time and sometimes space. I’m going to have to read this at least one more time to find and cherish them and their reflections.
Byrne: That makes me so happy! This is a weird book, because once you read how each timeline ends, it changes the way you read the other two. So ideally, it’s meant to be read twice–once to see what happens, and then again, to see all of the foreshadowing seeded throughout. That happened with me, too!–every time I revised, I found new threads to connect.
Stern: I first described The Actual Star as the evolution of pageantry over 2,000 years, rooted in religion and our social views of religion. An old boss used to joke that religions are the worst startup because they take 1,000 years to get their models right–but you jumped right into that evolution of belief systems. So much of the book resonated with me around aspects of storytelling, myth creation, and our interpretation and personalization of those over long periods of time.
Byrne: I definitely thought a lot about how religions evolve. I saw a beautiful statue of John the Baptist recently, and thought about how he was just this filthy skinny guy in the desert two thousand years ago, wearing goat skins and yelling at people; and now there are statues of him all over the world, carved in marble and gold. How did that happen! It’s mind-boggling. Why him, and not some other skinny guy in the desert? (That’s why I put in Niloux’s line, “History is so arbitrary. Let that be recorded.”)
In terms of evolution, of course the religion I know best is Catholicism, which has done a terrific job of upending everything Jesus ever stood for. But no religion or ideology is exempt from this: the founding feeling, that sets a generation afire, becomes rigid dogma; and worse, it becomes the excuse for abuses of power. You definitely see that happen in the 3012 timeline, when both sides are so convinced of their rightness.
Stern: When working on “The Clock of the Long Now,” (a clock that will run for 10,000 years), Danny Hillis told me that anything we intend to survive for a long time becomes a religion. As you explore the rise and fall of religious practice, with the central era–the Age of Emergency–dominated by capitalism, I have to ask: Is capitalism our current religion? Is hoarding an extreme (fanatical) form of capitalism?
Byrne: Those in Laviaja would consider us all hoarders. Me included. I have a whole apartment full of Stuff–even that is grotesque to viajeras. But of course, they’d think far worse of those who accumulated far more. They consider billionaires psychopaths, and honestly, so do I.
There are many aspects of capitalism that have the feeling of incontrovertible gospel; for example, the idea that growth is only ever good. I was shocked when I found out they don’t even teach degrowth in business schools; then again, I shouldn’t be. How would business schools continue to exist without the endowments of the high holy elders of capitalism, who won the game, by exploiting laborers for decades? These are not bastions of truth or ethics. There are rules about what you can and can’t say, what you can and can’t challenge. That definitely has commonalities with fundamentalist religion.
Stern: Threads of loss–of family, of belief systems, of totems–are so carefully woven through the story. Your discussion of the Maya diaspora–not disappearance–is equally lovely, as seen through modern-day Leah’s eyes. The story of the Maya people is told indirectly through Leah and then amplified in the future timeline. There is longevity in those stories even if there is no direct lineage; it made me think of your essay, “The End Of My Line.”
Byrne: Absolutely. There are so many ways to be a mother. I think I learned that early, when I lost my own mother, and so many other kinds of mothering filled in the vacuum–self-mothering, sister-mothering, aunt-mothering, mentor-mothering, father-mothering, future-generation-mothering. All of those roles feel far more important to me than actually birthing a child from my own body, and I’m grateful for that clarity, especially as we enter such a time of global uncertainty.
Stern: There is this continuous balancing act between what is real and what is not that amplifies the religious themes. It was most obvious to me in the future era scenes where psilocybin is taken in efforts to discover the “god of a place.” There are shades of everything from ritual wine to Carlos Castenada in there, and it’s a fantastic way to push on the question of “what is actual?”
Byrne: Totally.One of the hallmarks of the psychedelic experience is the “noetic quality.” That is, you have no doubt that the truths you’re experiencing are real, actual, timeless. That’s how I tried to describe the gods in the ancient Maya timeline: when you see the gods, you know they’re gods, because you have no doubt that they’re gods. You just know. And that certainty stays, even when you come out from under the influence.
Stern: I want to explore this idea of a “god of a place” a bit more. You and I have strong connections to certain geophysical locations–for me it’s Prague and Kiev. The first time I walked through Prague, horribly jet lagged, at 5am, I felt that I was retracing the footsteps of my family going back three generations. I didn’t even have to get into the Slivovitz to feel that I had some personal history there; on the other extreme I was a slobbering mess after visiting the Babi Yar memorial in Kiev. I felt like I was walking on the remains of relatives of that same Prague-grounded generation.
Byrne: Yes, yes, yes. That’s real. I’ve felt it many times too, and that’s the feeling I was trying to codify into, well, a whole book. Why do we feel so drawn to some places and not others? Even if we don’t have ancestry there? Belize draws me back over and over–and I feel similar callings back to Kerala and Iran–but other places, like Costa Rica or San Francisco, feel barren. For a materialist or atheist, maybe that feeling can be explained as the resurfacing of some subconscious memory. But for me as a theist, it feels like evidence of reincarnation, possession, and/or ancestral memory. It’s no coincidence that I first went to Belize because my mother had taught there in 1963. She loved it and always wanted to go back, but never was able to before she died. Even then, I felt like I was going “for” her–I just had no idea how strongly I would feel once I got there.
Stern: Against this backdrop of religious evolution, you’ve created this incredible future world with a gender and work identity system that eludes our preconceived or biased notions by simply starting from the ground up.
Byrne: The gender system was a long time evolving. Originally, I used the word “gender” to encompass the entirety of a person’s identity. But then I hired an amazing consultant who’s the head of the Transgender Health Program at UNC, who patiently educated me on the fact that gender, orientation, and penetrative preference are all distinct from each other. For example, she said, a kid generally knows what they are (girl/boy/nonbinary/agender) by a very young age; and later in puberty, usually a general preference develops toward one mode of sexual action (penetrative/receptive/both/neither). So that’s how the genéra/manéra/preféra system came about. It’s based on the most current science!
Stern: Add in to that mix the idea that a profession is selected, trained through osmosis and then practiced with guidance from the all-seeing, resource-balancing ai. In “The End of My Line,” you describe writing out a future family map of names of professions, and your sister questioning this planned family, “How will you control what they’ll be?” I think you answered the question with your gender and vocation fluidity; it’s not just what, but who they will be.
Byrne: Right. The idea is that everyone performs certain essential tasks as needed by the local collective–maintenance, cleaning, repair, companionship–that ensure everyone’s basic needs are met. But the rest of the time is free to pursue your vocation. That could be anything–observing wildlife, making art, taking care of children, studying supernovae, and so on. That’s an extreme version of what people hope would happen with UBI–that anyone would be free to pursue what they love, and the world would be a better place for it. (I should also say that I got this model from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which illustrates these principles in action more beautifully than anywhere else I’ve seen.)
Stern: There’s a lot of sci-fi that speculates about children being raised in communal creches, freeing the adults for more critical roles piloting ships or blowing things up. Your world separates children and their birth parents to eliminate temptations of selfishness (which would lead to hoarding again) and to emphasize the global village raising the child. I’m reminded of the synthetic families created in the Rwandan Agohozo-Shalom Youth Village for children orphaned by the genocide in that country. In both cases the synthetic family model–your zadres–provides structure to move past exceptionally difficult times of loss like your Age of Emergency.
Byrne: I didn’t know about the Rwandan models! That is fascinating. I also got the idea of shared, detached parenting from The Dispossessed. It seemed important to me to specify “Esta ninx es tu ninx” and not “Cada ninx es tu ninx”–we can’t care for every child, world over; we can only care for the child in front of us. But if everyone does that, (and is ensured by algorithm wherever there are gaps), then theoretically, every child would be taken care of. It’s a utopian vision, but….that’s the point, as Niloux says during the dinner in Persia. “This is as close as we’re ever going to get. And we’re still unhappy!”
Stern: You seem to have spent considerable energy on naming people, creating linkages across the timelines and suggesting all sorts of interpretation. There are acrostic identity clues, much like the strange initial-named siblings in Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.
Byrne: Well hell, I need to read that. And yes, I took the naming convention straight from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, with a slight change–instead of the reincarnated characters’ names beginning with an I, B, K, or S, my reincarnated characters’ names each contain an X, a J, and an E.
(Tanaaj’s name was actually “Saraaj” for the majority of writing, and if I’m honest, that’s the name I still think of her by. I changed it because I was so frustrated with how I was writing her–passive, reactive–that I thought if I gave her a “stronger” sounding name, it’d be easier to write her as a more active character. It did help a little, but now I want to go back and change it back to Saraaj. Oh well, too late!)
Stern: Your post-capitalism world is managed by a true invisible hand–the aug and the ai that powers it. There are so many subtleties and the number of things left ambiguous was wonderful–you let your readers think about what makes sense for them, and in doing so we end up at different views of the future era. I found myself questioning the actual creators of the ai (who runs it? where is it? how is it powered? how much bias was infused into it, or how is the bias removed as the Age of Emergency came to an end? Or is it post Emergent?). What kind of germline editing was necessary for pelt creation? Why do pelts only manipulate secondary sexual characteristics? I thought this was an elegant way of marrying the gender and sexual preference into the story without needing four sexes or explaining how reproduction would work.
Byrne: I’m somewhat chagrined to admit that I got the idea for decentralized computing from HBO’s Silicon Valley. The only computing I ever learned officially was binary in seventh grade, so I’m probably going to use very clunky and inexact language here, but my idea about who “runs” the ai is that it’s a distributed decentralized network. So everyone carries a little bit of it in their implants; or even further, there are processing nodes planted everywhere in the landscape, like seeds. It’s just such an integrated software-hardware world that we have a hard time imagining it.
As for the ai aspect–yeah, I left that ambiguous partly because it’d be such a vast subject, and I wanted to create only as much of the history as I needed to to write the story. (One of scifi novelists’ favorite ways to procrastinate is endless, compulsive worldbuilding. In some cases I had to catch myself and just say, you know what? I’m not trying to invent these damn technologies. I’m just showing how they work in my characters’ daily lives.) And as for bias–the character Keira in Kaua’i mentions that she mostly gets assigned algorithm maintenance, meaning, bias weeding. As if bias were a weed that sprouts up and needs constant identification and pulling out, both on a local and global level.
Stern: In our early discussion of The Actual Star you mentioned the privacy aspects of the ai, the panopticon that records reality for global review, including criminal action. The first places my brain went were the Amish concept of shunning, the social capital whuffie accrued in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom, and aspects of shame. And likely Cory Doctorow’s views of privacy and pervasive monitoring and mine diverge here: I didn’t see the ai as endangering privacy because you challenge the notions of privacy with your future state: money, healthcare, sex, even religious views are lived out loud, publicly and communally. There’s a neat balance of healthy agency versus directed action from the ai. It’s a stark contrast to Shoshanna Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, because in a post-capitalist (and significantly smaller) society, the value of surveillance isn’t about directing action. If the aug provides relative assurance that the equitable distribution of attention and resources works to my advantage, then it’s significantly preferable to the panopticon that makes me an advertising target in our current system. It also bumps into this tenor of shame and vulnerability around religious practice; it’s been wrapped in the concept of confession whether it’s with a priest or the public Jewish confessional on Yom Kippur. It starts with teenaged Leah and carries forward into your “scrupes” who once again manage to pull shame from the vulnerability introduced by the aug.
Byrne: Right. A political scientist friend once explained to me that the original concept of the panopticon wasn’t just the guards monitoring the prisoners, but also society monitoring the guards. So it was less a one-way totalitarianism than a system of communal accountability. Can it still be abused? Absolutely, especially when there’s money to be made. But what if there isn’t? What value does privacy continue to have if there is no (or very little) discrimination and everyone’s needs are met? I don’t pretend to answer this question definitively, but I definitely pose it in the book. (I know that Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg and the other tech titans would say, they agree on privacy being overrated–but that’s because they enrich themselves and their stockholders from its exploitation. Different thing.)
Stern: The final comment I’ll offer is a bit of a reading guide. Once I got about six chapters in I found it very helpful to consume the vocabulary guide in the end matter. Sounding out the Kriol slowly helped read it more quickly, which is important as the current timeline story evolves, and don’t be afraid to translate some of the high Spanish so you don’t miss the subtleties of naming. I loved the fact that I had to work at understanding the book, and even a few weeks after my first read, I’m continuing to turn it over and find new facets. It’s definitely going on the holiday gift list, and thanks again for making us think.
Byrne: Fantastic. And yes! If you can’t figure something out from context clues, the glossary and Google Translate are your friends!
The Actual Star comes out on September 14th, and trust me, it’s the kind of book you’re going to want to talk to other people about. If you’re part of a book club and you choose to read it, let me know, and I’ll be happy to come visit on Zoom! Just drop me an email at monica at monicabyrne dot org.
Remember to pre-order from your local indies, whenever possible!–but if you can’t, you can pre-order here. And again, if you want to pre-order SIGNED copies, order from one of my local indies:
So remember, waaaaaay back in 2015, when I announced that the title of my next novel would be The Actual Star…?
It’s here. Publication date is less than a month away, and the blurbs and early reviews have been glowing. Much more to come, but for now, here is the gorgeous cover. And here’s where to pre-order.
…since Covid started, as it turns out.
But the good news is: I’m back. With lots of juicy things to share.
Stay tuned. I missed you.
Every now and then on Twitter, a thread goes viral about how the Real Path to Success in a Creative Field just comes down to a combination of persistence, resourcefulness, and “being true to oneself.” The authors tout them as some kind of secret knowledge when really, it’s just garden-variety meritocracy porn, almost always written by white men who imagine that their audience is also white men who inhabit a reality similar to their own. If the authors consider the realities of the rest of the population at all, it’s as an afterthought: “Oh right, and—I’ve heard none of this applies if you don’t look like me? Idk.”
To its credit, science fiction—the field I know best—has become much more self-aware in recent years. But I’ve recently started to follow screenwriters and showrunners, and I’m really surprised at how popular (and uncontested!) these threads still are.
So I want to write my own list, based on my own experience and that of artists I know. I’m a USian able-bodied white cis woman from a middle-class background, with a lot of educational privilege, so of course my perspective is informed by that, and necessarily incomplete. But I’m hoping it’s a closer snapshot to the lived reality of the larger artist population in the U.S.
Here are my Five (Actual) Factors of Success for Artists, ranked by importance. Some qualifiers: All the factors intersect with each other—it’s like a five-way Venn diagram, rather than five discrete factors. I wrote it specifically for the U.S. context, which I know best. None of the factors are meant to be determinative or absolute; there have always been exceptions and compensations. But overall, I hope it’s a more accurate picture of how creative success is achieved than the one presented in so many of those viral threads, where success is achieved by effort alone. In mine, an artist has control over only one and a half of these factors—#3 (Hard Work) and #2 (Connections). This isn’t meant to be discouraging; on the contrary, the only way we can change is to first tell the truth.
And—to be clear—none of this is new. A lot of folks have been telling this truth for a long time already.
- Privilege. Your privilege is a huge factor in your ability to achieve creative success. This is by far the most important factor, because it intersects with and constrains all the others. U.S. society is built for the advantage of white men (given changing definitions of “white” over the centuries), and has been since the Spanish invaded in the 1500s. If you’re disabled, trans, poor, queer, indigenous, chronically sick, neurodivergent, an immigrant, a person of color, a woman, or a combination of these, then our society is deliberately designed to make it more difficult for you to prosper, including in creative fields. The cumulative, intergenerational impact of this design is impossible to overstate.*
- Community and connections. An artist has two communities. The first is the one you’re born into, which you have no control over and largely overlaps with privilege. The second community is the one you seek out as you grow up, to whatever extent you’re able. Both of these communities determine your connections—that is, supporters and gatekeepers. Supporters are the people who love you, who encourage your work, who read it or listen to it or come to see it, who talk about it with you, who wish you well, who want to see you prosper. Supporters are essential, but they might not have access to capital. Gatekeepers do. Gatekeepers are the people who say yes, who buy your story, who read your screenplay, who loan you money, who give you a chance, who do you a favor, who pull some strings, who write a recommendation, who donate a space, who put in a good word, who pay the tab, who introduce you to other gatekeepers. Work and talent can only get you so far. A career is built on connections.
- Hard work. On this factor, I agree with the viral threads. Hard work is incredibly important. So much of the job is just showing up, day after day, and doing the work even when you don’t feel like it. I’ve seen so many talented artists give up after a few years, or a lack of attention, or a series of creative rejections; when setbacks, fallow spells, and rebuilding years are just part of the job. But again: the ability to put in the work—usually without pay, for extended periods of time—is largely determined by privilege.
- Talent. This one is controversial. I do believe in raw talent. That is, an artist either has the spark or they don’t, and it can’t be taught, only encouraged. But again, it’s nearly beside the point, because the question of who has talent is impossible to separate from the question of who has the opportunity to develop their talent. As Leila Janah said, “Talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not.”
- Luck. Again, it’s hard to distinguish pure luck from the cumulative “luck” of privileged circumstances. But sometimes, crazy things just happen because someone was in the right place at the right time. This factor is maddening because it’s the least controllable, but its role in “success stories” is very real—I know a lot of artists who’d put it higher on the list.
Again, as you can see, privilege is the factor that encompasses all the others. I don’t want to imply that anyone born to privilege has to feel guilty all the time. I do wish, however, that those born to privilege—including the authors of those viral threads—would express humility and realize their responsibility: humility, that whatever success they’ve achieved, they’ve achieved because they had the chance to build their skills in the first place; and responsibility, to help build a world where everyone has the same chance. I hope this list is a useful baseline for anyone who truly wants to do that. Also, I encourage anyone reading to comment with their stories of how these factors played a part in their careers.
Also: I approve all comments before they get published. So if you want to write about how white men are actually very disadvantaged or something like that, I’ll likely just delete it and block you from being able to make further comments. Thanks.
*If you’re curious about learning more about the role of privilege in U.S. society, I recommend “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the classic essay from 1988 and “The Myth of Meritocracy,” a new classic from 2019; The 1619 Project, which demonstrates how the U.S. was built by disenfranchised people who remain so to this day, by design; “The Case for Reparations” explains how to begin to right that wrong. And finally, “Explaining Privilege to a Broke White Person” and “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting” are really useful pieces by white people who came from poor backgrounds.
Above: Durham arts activist Laura Ritchie addressing City Council.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on December 19th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Andrew Aghapour, Laura Ritchie, Ed Hunt, Monét Noelle Marshall, and Mark Iwinski for sharing their comments. http://link? See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), here (September 19), here (October 10), here (October 24), here (November 7), here (November 21), and here (December 5th). This is the final installment in the planned speaker series. Thank you to all who spoke or showed up to support.
[Audio link forthcoming]
“My name is Laura Ritchie. I’m a founder of The Carrack, a community art space that opened on Parrish Street in 2011 and closed this September on East Main. I serve on the Public Art Committee, on the boards of several arts organizations in our region, and am a member of Art Ain’t Innocent. I’m here to share some of The Carrack’s story, and to call attention to the urgent need for increased funding for, and more equitable stewardship of, the arts in Durham by our city’s leadership.
The Carrack was started to address a need. A need for a radically accessible gallery model that could support underrepresented creators, including artists of color; queer and trans artists; and local emerging artists. And we did that. In our eight year tenure, we exhibited work by over 1,000 visual artists in more than 150 solo or group shows, and programmed hundreds of community gatherings, performances, and art events – all at zero cost to artists.
But The Carrack, like so many arts organizations, was dependent upon free labor. Labor I could afford to give because I am a white woman with a wealthy family. For most years as director, I worked more than 40 hours a week. I never made more than $8,000. Annually. At our best, under capable new leadership, two staff made $15/hour for a cumulative 35 hours a week. At the end of that year, they’d worked over 300 hours without pay. Though we achieved our mission outwardly, we failed the artists at the core of our organization – our staff. And rather than continue to center white, class-privileged leadership out of financial necessity, and thereby perpetuate the inequity we were fighting against in the first place, we decided to close.
I have heard Mayor Schewel emphasize the need for more private sector support. I’d like to respectfully counter that that was not the key to saving The Carrack. Our annual fundraiser drew 500 attendees four years in a row and many donors gave through our monthly sustainer program. What we needed was access to ongoing operational support so we could fairly pay our staff – so they could keep building on the development efforts we already had in place. These grants do not currently exist for organizations like The Carrack. The closest options, through our state and city arts councils, would have granted us a max of $10,000 annually, combined, and came with requirements that would have increased the strain on our already taxed staff.
I commend Monica, Akiva, and Marshall for their immense effort, and am heartened by the attention their proposal is receiving. It deserves it. I am also concerned that the work to protect, preserve, and nurture the arts has been left to us – the already overworked and underpaid artists and arts organizers – motivated by the urgency of our art scene’s potential disappearance and the harmful ways art has been wielded and discarded in the process of Durham’s gentrification.
“Good afternoon, members of the council, thank you for your time.
My name is Ed Hunt. I am a 35-year Durham resident; I moved here in 1984. I am here to speak in support of the independent artists initiative.
A quick history:
My partner and husband Jeff Storer run Manbites Dog Theater, a company we founded in 1987 in downtown Durham. We were a vagabond company for our first ten years, performing in makeshift spaces in Durham and all over the Triangle with very little funding.
In 1998, thanks to grassroots generosity from our audiences and supporters, we were able to raise enough money for a down payment and purchased a building on Foster Street, which became our home for the next 20 years. During our 31-year run, we produced over 150 plays and presented the work of dozens of other local theater companies and artists.
Last year we closed down as a producing company, sold our building, put the resulting assets in a fund, and transitioned into a support organization for Triangle theater companies and artists.
In August, we awarded our first round of grants, totaling over $38,000, to support 25 Triangle theater projects being produced this season. Over 60% of these projects are being created by Durham artists and companies.
Our grants aren’t large – the maximum amount is $2,500 – but we know from experience how important that kind of support can be for small companies.
Our overall strategy is simple: more support for theater means more local theater. More support for artists means more local art.
I want to live in a city known for its locally created art, and that means a city willing to support and encourage its artists. That’s why I encourage your support for the initiatives being proposed.
Thank you very much for your time.”
“Good morning! My name is Monèt Noelle Marshall. I am an artist, facilitator and cultural organizer. I serve on the Public Art committee and I am a member of Art Ain’t Innocent. And I choose to call Durham home.
“Good Afternoon Mayor Schewel and City Council.
Thank you for fitting me in. I appreciate the opportunity and your attention as I speak before you today in support of the arts initiatives set forth in the proposals by Monica Byrne and her colleagues over these last sessions. Some of you may know me as a member of Durham Area Designers engaged in promoting good urban design for Durham through charrettes, including the vision plan for East Main Street and the light rail [The light rail is dead, long live the light rail.]. But you probably don’t know that I am a nationally recognized visual artist living in Durham since 2008, an art professor at Elon University and the recipient of multiple state and private grants from Vermont, New York and North Carolina as a 2010 North Carolina Arts Council Fellow.
The NCAC fellowship is an amazing award and as a fellow I can testify to its’ significance in bolstering an artist’s career. [So much so that I stood before the NCAC board of directors during a public hearing after a republican majority was elected to the legislature and arts funding was in doubt. I asked the chair and the board to protect the artist grants from defunding and was assured during that session that indeed they would be.] But NCAC fellowships only touch a small fraction of the artists in our entire state over a given year. What is being proposed here is a robust, visionary, localized granting program on par with other major cities which would ensure the longevity, vibrancy and diversity of the arts in Durham.
It has been written (Timberg) that the perfect combination for a strong cultural life in a city is “a slightly decaying downtown” we all know how Durham prides itself on its grunginess, “a university that gives you an interested public” we have two! [Three, if you count the suburb of Chapel Hill.] And “a scene”.
Here in lies the rub. A cultural, artistic scene requires investment and supporting institutions. Great cities have all recognized that long term significant investment in arts and cultural institutions needs to be part of their ongoing strategy. This is not just about importing Broadway here as the DPAC so effectively does. It is about attracting, engaging and supporting independent artists and arts organizations so that Durham is the generator of cultural export other cities desire. City’s which do so not only attract fortune 500 companies but see multiple spinoffs suffusing the local economy.
We do have the Durham Arts Council and their Emerging Artists Grants. But do they meet our needs? In a word no. The DAC and its granting process are completely insufficient to the task in their current iteration and will not be able to support or guide the mature growth and cultural investment necessary to make Durham a great cultural city. The grants themselves, progressive when first instituted, are now woefully inadequate financially to accomplish significant work. Fine for someone just out of school but as a true catalyst for serious artistic growth in the community they are wanting. And the DAC has a high proportion of administrative overhead compared to granting. Further, the grant process itself is hampered by limited thinking and lack of vision both by the board and those administering them resulting in a status quo that has not altered in over a decade.
No, a new visionary model for the arts in Durham required. And to reach a state of maturity all cities, [ states and nations] systematically invest in the arts. It is a sign of cultural and political maturity for a city to make such investments and Durham is poised to become that mature city. But only if you have the political will. The proposals authored by Ms. Byrne and her colleagues are a robust, mature vision for arts funding in Durham. Democratic government at its best should encourage and enhance the life of the mind. (Frohnmeyer) And so Durham needs to become a leader in the realm of ideas, to demand wisdom and vison from its citizenry and its institutions and to foster and substantially invest in this vision through access to and support for the arts, humanities and education.”
Above: Durham artist Meg Stein addressing City Council.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on December 5th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Meg Stein, Mary Alta, and Margaret Chapman for sharing their comments. You can listen to the audio here, starting at Item #19. See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), here (September 19), here (October 10), here (October 24), here (November 7), and here (November 21).
“My name is Meg Stein. I am a visual artist and a proud resident of Durham since 2006. I recently joined the Durham Cultural Advisory Board and also am a member of the local arts advocacy group Art Ain’t Innocent. I am here to speak to the need for more funding to individual artists here in Durham. I haven’t seen the proposal that Monica Byrne, Marshall Botvinick and Akiva Fox are writing, so I can’t say whether I support it, though I am very grateful for all their hard work. And I do very much support the idea of direct city funding to independent artists, but only if that funding is used to repair not exacerbate inequality in the arts.
Being an artist is very hard, but some of us are advantaged—usually not because of anyone’s intention to do so, but because of how social and cultural structures in our country are designed. Because I am heterosexual, I married a man who makes a higher salary than I do, one that I benefit from. Because I’m white and my husband is white, I inherited through marriage financial resources that allowed us to buy a home—wealth that my husband’s family started accumulating back when only the white portion of our population could own businesses and homes. Having access to generational resources means that I have had financial support—from my in-laws and from a home equity loan. That has meant I’ve been able to only work part-time and spend the rest in mostly unpaid artistic work in my studio. The affect that this kind of middle class access has had on my artistic career is profound. Of course I’ve worked hard, but I didn’t gain these resources through hard work alone—but because of structures that advantage people, and artists, who are part of dominant groups.
I’m sharing all of this, because I’m not an anomaly. Everywhere I look I see how, even in our progressive city, white artists are more supported, more resourced, more listened to, more trusted than artists who are Black & Indigenous People of Color. Arts funding cannot and will not be impactful if it does not directly address these disparities and work to transparently, aggressively and clearly right our wrongs. Any city funding for independent artists must include mechanisms that guarantee a significant percentage of the funding will go to BIPOC artists and BIPOC-led organizations so that our whole community can benefit from this, not just some of us. I say we need to address racial equity over other forms of equity since race is the single greatest predictor of outcome across all of our institutions.
Many of us already know all this, but despite that these disparities remain, which is why good intentions are not enough. We need concrete mechanisms in place so that city funding outcomes do not rely on the jurors’ and administrators’ intentions alone. The City of Durham has precedent for including race-explicit factors in how it uses its money—for example, in how the city hires contractors. Since approximately half of Durham’s population are POC, then at least 50% of this funding should go to POC artists. Anything less is the equivalent of watching a concert where half the musicians don’t have microphones. Anything less hurts all of us because we as a community are not connected, are not supported, are not allowed to be creative. Thank you.”
“My name is Mary Alta, I’m the director of the Durham-based nonprofit Girls Rock North Carolina, and I’m here today to advocate for the proposed expansion of funding for the arts in Durham. Girls Rock NC was founded in Durham 16 years ago. We offer arts-based programs for girls, transgender youth, and gender- nonconforming youth in the Triangle, from second grade through high school.
Our mission is to work to empower young people of marginalized genders through music, creativity, and collaboration, to be more confident and engaged members of their communities. We do this work because we believe that creative collaboration, community building, and social justice education are some of the most powerful and impactful tools we can give young people that will serve them the rest of their lives.
Each year, we work with more than 350 young people through summer and intersession camps, in-school after school programs, a teen mentorship program, an adult program, and community workshops. We collaborate with other local youth-serving organizations like Student U, arts orgs like Music Maker Relief Foundation and Duke Performances, and loads of local businesses.
At our programs, young people learn to play instruments, write original music with others, and perform at music venues like The Pinhook or Motorco. They attend workshops on topics ranging from zine-making and DJ-ing to Transformative Justice and Oral History. Above all, we build a supportive community between and among young folks and our huge community of volunteers. Countless adults and young people come to us with stories about how this organization has changed their life. One in four of our young people receives financial assistance to attend our programs and we never turn anyone away. We do and build so much with so little.
Girls Rock NC began in Durham, grew up in Durham, and contributes hugely not only to the massive community surrounding music and the arts in the Triangle, but also to the lives of young people whose voices are traditionally not heard or not valued. Our mission is to elevate the voices of those most marginalized, and that is at the forefront of everything we do.
We work with more than 350 young people each year but can only pay a staff of two people. It’s difficult for me to talk to girls and trans kids about how much their voice matters and how they can use it to express their thoughts or to protect their communities when we the organizers know that our own work isn’t adequately funded or valued by our city. Thank you.”
“I’m Margaret Chapman and I’m co-chair of the Board of Directors of Girls Rock NC.
We are one of the first and longest running Girls Rock organizations in what has become an international movement. We have gone from being an exclusively volunteer-run summer camp in 2004 to having 2 year-round employees and a handful of seasonal staff who not only run 5 weeks of summer camp in two cities but also run multiple year-round programs. A quarter of youth participants in camps and afterschool get full or partial financial aid, and our teen-run programming is free. We are continually expanding our reach and our community, and we feel like the work we do amplifying youth voices and giving young people—especially girls, and trans, and gender-non conforming folks—a supportive space to be creative and to express themselves is more important than ever.
We do all this on a budget of around $150,000. About ¾ of that comes from programming fees; the rest comes almost entirely from small donations from our community.
Unfortunately, we are getting priced out of new Durham in many ways.
While Girls Rock is an international movement, it’s not an international organization. Each local girls rock is completely independent and autonomous. There is no umbrella organization that gives us any funding. When we look at other successful Girls Rock organizations, they often have access to government and foundational funding that just does not exist for the arts in North Carolina.
We still rely on hundreds of volunteers to run our programs. We do not want to exploit the passion of our overworked staff and incredibly generous volunteers. We are always nervous that we will burn through our seasonal staff because we can’t pay them enough, and that we over-rely on the good will of volunteers.
But given the rising cost of living in Durham, we are stretched to the limit making sure our current staff are paid a living wage. This is a situation many small local arts organizations face, one that sees many organizations closing because it is unsustainable.
Not to mention we’ve long envisioned having a space where we could run our year-round programming without having to pack up all of our musical gear each day, a place where our LGBTQIA teen group could meet regularly, where we could hold weekend and evening programming for our community.
But we are priced out of new Durham.
The women and non-binary folks who started GRNC and kept it going for the last 16 years represent part of what has always made Durham itself. The young people who have been part of our community over the last fifteen years are the activists, artists, musicians, community leaders who make Durham appealing today, who are driving this amazing and quite frankly overwhelming Durham renaissance.
We urge you to allocate competitive funding for small, local arts organizations like ours that could go towards operational costs. Please, as Durham continues to change, don’t leave us behind. Thank you.”
Above: Durham artist Emmett Holladay Anderson addressing City Council.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on November 21st, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Ranganathan Rajaram and Emmett Holladay Anderson for sharing their comments. You can listen to the audio here, starting at Item #22. See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), here (September 19), here (October 10), here (October 24), and here (November 7).
My name is Ranganathan Rajaram. I’m a DJ and Event Promoter – I’ve been based in Durham since 2013. My event resume includes DISHOOM at Motorco and Super Secret Dance Party at Arcana, 2 successful party concepts I’ve created and run for the past 6 and 4 years respectively.
Over time, my work has shifted towards high budget private events, which while more lucrative, have taken me away from community/nightlife events, which is why I got into DJing in the first place.
This led to the creation of DISHOOM, an open format international dance party. Rooted in Bollywood/Bhangra music, we combine a plethora of musical genres throughout the night, culminating in a high energy experience complete with live drums, dance lessons, and retro visuals on the big screen!
This involves quite a bit production. One event employs 15-20 people and has expenses in the neighborhood of $3k. The parties, while always well attended (200-400), don’t always turn a profit, and are usually break evens or slight losses. It’s increasingly difficult to cover all expenses out of pocket while running a business and supporting a family.
Recently I’ve been approached by a national organization that is interested in sponsoring the event. This sponsorship allows us to both increase artist pay and make admission free to the public.
Prior to this opportunity, it was my plan to end or downsize the party. Without this investment the event would be over as we know it.
However, I got lucky here. I was approached out of the blue – an extremely rare occurrence, which I am thankful for. It makes me realize that there is a lack of similar opportunity for artists in our city.
To be honest, I originally was skeptical of this proposal, and wasn’t planning on attending today. I’ve seen the benefit that this type of program would have on our community and must voice my full support.
The proposal for a direct artists fund would go a long way towards ensuring Durham specific events, which employ our artists and are for the people, are not lost as our city grows.
Thank you for your time.
Hello everyone. Thank you for giving me the time to speak today. I’m here to encourage you to allocate funds toward Durham’s independent artists.
I have been making theater in Durham since 2003, when my youth theater company rehearsed in what is now The Parlour. Since that time, I have come and gone from Durham a few times, forever drawn back to this vibrant city. I see so much potential: spaces that could make amazing blackbox theaters, people walking downtown on a Friday night who would go see independent theater, creatives moving here who I would love to collaborate with. The reality, however, is that until there is more funding directed toward independent creative endeavors, I simply cannot afford to live or make art in this city.
From 2006 to 2016 I was a member of a theater ensemble called The Delta Boys. As a group of energized young people with a relative amount of privilege, we were able to make theater without paying ourselves for that entire decade. We relied on the generosity of landowners to gift us rehearsal and performance spaces. In 2016, we produced a sold out 3 week run of ORLANDO at Manbites Dog Theater. We had no outside funding. We bought costumes, props, and paid designers from our own pocket. This was one of the most successful shows that Manbites Dog saw in its 30 year history. I don’t share this to pat myself on the back, but to express that even with full houses of paying audience members, we needed support. Our budget was minimal. We had a small cast and an even smaller crew. For the 3 months of labor that went into this show, we paid ourselves $1,000 each. And in terms of indie theater, this was a big paycheck. And only because of the privilege we were all coming from were we able to do this. Imagine how many talented artists in this city could never possibly afford to invest so much time into something with so little financial payback.
I love making art on a shoestring. I don’t think that art needs to be expensive to be moving. When I talk about money I’m talking about paying for artists’ time, rehearsal space, performance space, and essential technical elements. What would be a relatively small amount of money to Durham could be a game changer for an artist making a life in this city.
Several things have shifted for me lately. I turned 30. I started valuing the 20 years of training and experience I’ve put into my craft. I stopped saying yes to unpaid gigs. And I stopped asking other theater artists to work with me without pay. This has essentially put my work on hold.
With support from the city, I would be able to produce theater here again. Art has the unique power to bring community into conversation with itself. It allows us to dream bigger, to be the most compassionate versions of ourselves, and to do the necessary work of imagining new futures. Broadway tours at DPAC won’t do this, but I could give you a list of 50 local artists who will. By investing in independent artists, you would be investing in the continued deepening of these conversations and the resiliency of Durham’s vibrant ecosystem. Thank you.
Hello Council Members and city staff. It’s nice to be back and see all your faces! I’m here to provide an update on the status of our proposal on behalf of independent artists.
At the request of the Mayor, we’ve begun meetings with the Cultural Advisory Board, the CAB, whom he has charged with providing an evaluation of our proposal in time for the upcoming budget cycle. Yesterday, the chair of the CAB graciously permitted my colleague Marshall Botvinick and I to attend their annual retreat. We had lots of productive and clarifying conversations with city staff and board members. In light of the Mayor’s charge, the chair of the CAB has committed their next two meetings—in December and January—specifically to discussing and evaluating our proposal. Of course, our hope is that the CAB will choose to recommend it. The next steps are: (1) that the CAB members will send us questions and concerns about the proposal; (2) we will answer them and try to clarify them in a revised proposal, and (3) we will send it back to them by December 15th, in time for their meeting on December 18th. And we will go from there.
Meanwhile, there are two Work Sessions left in the calendar year. There may be more than three artists at each of them, since everyone is now rushing to have their say, but the formal speaker series that began in August will end on December 19th, as planned. We thank you, as always, for your attention.
Above: Durham artist Jessica Flemming addressing City Council. Photo by Ashley Melzer.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on November 7th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Jessica Flemming, Holland Gallagher, and Dawn Reno Langley for sharing their comments. You can listen to the audio here, starting at Item #29. See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), here (September 19), and here (October 10), and here (October 24). If you are an independent artist in Durham and would like to speak to the Council on this matter, please get in touch at monica at monicabyrne dot org.
Good Afternoon, My name is Jessica Flemming. I am a performing artist with over 20 years of experience. I have been working professionally as a theatre artist, technician, and educator for over 10 years and I’ve been living and working in North Carolina for over 7. Thank you all for your continued concern and attention to the needs of the artistic community in Durham. While I do not live within the city limits, the bulk of my non-creative career as well as almost all of my creative projects have been based in Durham. I have continued to pursue opportunities in Durham over Raleigh because of the culture and quality of the art that has been created here.
I was raised in a city with the exact opposite problems that Durham is currently facing. Flint, Michigan was a shrinking city with little hope and even less opportunity. Despite that, I grew up with access to art because of local, independent artists who believed in the importance of expression and community. And that might be why I fell in love with Durham in the first place. The artists I’ve met here have much of the same desire and determination as the people who inspired me to pursue the arts as a young person.
Throughout my creative career, I have worked alongside people with steadfast determination to create art and music and stories. And my life has been made richer because of these people and the work they create. I’ve seen the impact of truthful and meaningful art in a community. I’ve also seen artist’s sacrifice and struggle: The balancing act of art with 40+ hour work weeks, family, and other responsibilities; Choosing between gainful employment opportunities and the creative work that gives you purpose for little and inconsistent pay ( A cross roads I found myself at 3 years ago); The constant hunt for money, resources, and space with no sustainable solutions.
The work that my fellow independent artists have been doing is essential and we are very much looking forward to partnering with the Cultural Advisory Board. The possibility of city subsidized funding would be an immeasurable boon. The access to art, music, and storytelling can be life changing and life saving. There is so much talent, drive, and heart in this city. Making the investment and commitment to the people who are here would speak volumes. The opportunities and impact of sustainable art funding will pay dividends in the short and long term.
Growth and change in this city is inevitable. Innovation and development in Durham shouldn’t be limited to tech companies and other well funded institutions. Having a strong foundation of art and culture is only going to make this city stronger. Investing in Durham artists is a direct investment into Durham itself. Thank you.
Hello City Council. I’m Holland Gallagher, a working filmmaker here in Durham. I spent my adolescence in Durham and moved back to the city as an adult after graduating from UNC, working with the creative team at Runaway downtown and writing and directing films. Most recently, I’ve directed documentaries for the NC Arts Council on Durham rap group Little Brother and premiered my scripted series Hype at the Carolina Theatre.
Hype is a show about the shifting culture of our city; how the influx of startups and wealth has impacted the independent arts scene, and that’s what I’m here to speak about today. The changes in Durham have been sweeping and front facing over the last decade, and I think one of the selling points that the city has made in its pitch to newcomers is on the strength of the independent arts scene. This grant proposal ensures that that arts scene is supported and sustained.
Within the arts, I can speak specifically to film. Though the state of North Carolina has film tax credits that incentivize productions to shoot in our state, the floor to qualify is in the millions-of-dollars range. The credits are set up to court Hollywood, not to develop independent films done by creators within the state. The cost of cultivating emerging filmmaking talent in our city, of which there is plenty thanks to our great state universities, cannot fall solely on the filmmaker if we want to build infrastructure that lasts.
Durham artists and citizens carry a deep pride for our city, which echoes in our work. That sense of pride fueled Hype, which was to be a show like Atlanta or Portlandia that was place-specific, independent, while telling a Durham story. We crowdsourced just ten thousand dollars from the community and, using Durham actors and crew and locations, we created
twenty-minute episodes of a story that was by and for Durham. Between the cast, crew, extras, premiere attendees, and contributors to the soundtrack, that investment in the project reached hundreds of Durhamites, and thousands more have since streamed the show online. Everyone involved came together to make a web series about Durham not because it was profitable, or the best career play for everyone, but because of our collective love for the city and a desire to tell our own stories with our own voices.
However, particularly in recent years, I’ve seen many of my collaborators leave Durham for places where there is a more established industry. Grant programs like the one we are proposing, one that is comparable to our neighbors in proportional money given to directly to artists, affords an opportunity for the filmmakers and the storytellers of Durham to do their work
and tell our stories. It affords the time to build networks and grow infrastructure, the connective tissue of an arts scene. It affords relief from the immediate financial pressures that lead to artists fleeing to more developed arts-industry cities or quitting the arts altogether.
Without an investment in our own arts culture, I fear that Durham in its rapid growth, runs the risk of becoming the type of mid-sized city indistinguishable from its peer cities across America.
The arts are a city’s handwriting, that unreplicable part of its culture. We are working with the Cultural Advisory Board to refine our grant proposal, and I hope the council considers the value of our city’s artists and the great benefit that direct grants would afford them.
Good afternoon. First of all, I want to thank the members of the council and Mayor Schewel for your consideration and for listening to us speak to you today about a $1.2 million direct granting program for the arts.
I’m DRL, and I write. I’m also president of Rewired Creatives, Inc., a member of the Carolina Theater Board of Trustees, a teacher who runs workshops for writers in the Triangle area, a member of the North Carolina Writers Network, and a reviewer for Triangle Arts and Entertainment. I’ve written since I was able to put a sentence together, have 32 books out (with more in the works), and have written hundreds of articles, essays, poems, and reviews. In addition, I have taught at the high school and college level in the Triangle and currently teach an online class at the MFA level. I am a Fulbright scholar, a TedX speaker, and a PhD evaluator for several universities in Pakistan. I’ve straddled the creative communities here in Durham, becoming a rehabber/house designer responsible for bringing some of our buildings back to life, while writing, editing, and teaching to make ends meet.
When I moved to Durham in 2005, this city was locked down at night. Many of the downtown shops were shuttered or, worse, had plywood over their windows. It wasn’t a place where I wanted to live, but my husband had a job at Duke, so we made it work. I became involved with the writing community and connected with some local artists, and within a few years, I realized this city was coming alive, largely because of the creative individuals who live here and have invested their time and energy in the arts.
Everything that my fellow creatives do takes time and energy. Our output generates a lot of capital for the Durham area. Yet the artists, musicians, dancers, writers and other creatives usually make less than the federal poverty level of $12,490 a year/for one person. However, the cost of living in the Durham area is approximately $13,200 (and I’ve just accounted for average rent and utilities).
I’m one of the more successful writers, yet my income last year was below $13,000, though I work 60 hours a week. It’s a struggle, but we create every day because, here in Durham, we can see what the arts has made.
A $1.2 million direct granting program would not only help grow the current Arts community, thus creating a stronger creative economy in Durham, but it will also sustain the other businesses that ride on the coattails of the arts.
As former governor Jim Hunt said when I first heard him speak about the creative economy, “Creativity fuels innovation, and it’s what all states should strive to instill in the next generations.” Let’s do that for Durham. Let’s make sure the creatives who are here now are shown they’re appreciated and that they’re given the support they need to help the next generations of artists.
Thank you for your consideration.