Monday, November 24, 2008

Gender and more YA fiction (The Dream-Maker's Magic)

I've mentioned the childlit listserv before--this is about another book I read thanks to that list, and a thread on the list about kid's books addressing intersex themes, which the initial question-asker, Rebecca Rabinowitz (her blog is here) defined this way: "Just so we're clear, intersex isn't about being caught between genders or not feeling like one belongs to either gender. Those feelings can of course be felt by an intersex person, sometimes, but those feelings can be felt by non-intersex people too. In any case, those feelings are not the point. Nor is intersex an identity. Intersex isn't about self-identifying or about feelings; intersex is an umbrella term for situations in which the bunch of physical details that society uses to determine a person's sex don't all fall neatly into a category of either 'male' or 'female.'"

Sharon Shinn's The Dream-Maker's Magic was mentioned and sounded interesting, so I put it on hold at the library and read it thinking specifically about the ways that the book relates to trans/intersex identity (I think the two got conflated in the child_lit conversation, and the list expanded to include books in which a character did not present his or her gender clearly).

As I was reading it, I posted a facebook status update that said "Elissa is reading an awesome genderfuck young adult fantasy novel: The Dream-Maker's Magic, by Sharon Shinn." But in the end, I don't think it's really about genderfuck, which I might define as redefining and/or erasing gender norms.*

I'd say it's certainly a novel about gender identity and how we occupy our assigned and chosen gender roles, but really in the end it turns out to be about how the protagonist (Kellen, genetically female and girl-identified, raised by her mother as a boy, as her son) defines "girl." Born to a mother who insists she is a boy, who insists that she gave birth to a son, and forced/encouraged by her mother to "dress like a boy" and "act" like a boy, while those around her know "the truth" (I use too many quotes when talking about gender, but what else are you going to do?), we meet Kellen at nine, who has "come to appreciate the privileges that fell more to boys than to girls, and to take advantage of them when I had the opportunity." But at eleven, a new teacher in town insists that she attend school, and Kellen and her nascent gender identity run head-on into the world of school and what we learn at school. As a middle school teacher, I think that what we learn in school at Kellen's age is primarily about identity, both personal and social, in all the ways that identity can be social. As I see it, this often takes the form of learning how to pass (a.k.a. fit in, though they aren't completely synonyms), whatever that might mean to each child. Pass for cool, pass for normal, pass for more Chicana than white, pass for more white than Black, pass for mature, pass for stupid, pass for smart, pass for a slut, pass for a jock, pass for a druggie kid, pass for a good kid... Kellen doesn't pass for any of the things she might want/need to pass for, she just hangs there in between. Middle school is also about learning to punish the children who don't know how to pass. This is partly because fucking with them takes the attention off you, keeps you safe, but I think it is also because the ones who don't know how to pass, don't want to pass, don't need to pass are the ones who will fuck up/disjoint/complicate your society and your culture later on.

My favorite scene--besides the awesome scenes between Kellen and his best friend Gryffin (who I totally have a crush on)--is one in which Kellen, at thirteen, has an interesting conversation with one of his country's/culture's "Safe-Keepers," who travel the country hearing people's secrets and keeping them safe. Kellen meets the Safe-Keeper, Ayler, when Ayler comes to stay with Kellen and her mother in their home, an informal bed and breakfast. At this point Kellen is passing as a boy with anyone from outside her small town, and locals may use one pronoun or may use the other (I can't figure out if there are consistencies--I didn't examine this too closely). Kellen realizes who Ayler is:

"You're a Safe-Keeper," I said.

He nodded and swallowed. "Do you have any secrets you wish to confide?"

"No. But if I did, I could tell you and you would never repeat them to anyone, ever, and you would die and they would still be secrets."**

He considered this as he cut himself another piece of bread. "Sometimes secrets only need to be kept for a time," he said. "Sometimes my role is to protect them until they are strong enough to stand on their own."

"If I told you a secret, I would never want you to repeat it."

He nodded. "And some secrets will go with me to my grave."

"I"m a girl," I said, all in rush (sic). I was a little surprised to hear myself say the words. I had not bothered to give this information to any of our other guests, and there was no reason Ayler needed to know it.

"And is that a secret?" he asked gravely. [I love this question here, and Kellen's response.]

"Not exactly. Some people know it, some people don't. My mother wishes I was a boy." Before he could speak again, I added dryly, "That's not a secret, either."

"And what do you wish you were?" he asked.

I had never actually thought about it that way before. "I wish I was a girl who would do whatever she wanted," I said at last.

He swallowed another piece of bread. "And isn't that what you are?" [That's the best part, but Kellen's response and then Ayler's are useful too.]

I had never actually thought about that, either. "Maybe," I said, my voice uncertain. "But there are days I don't like who I have to be."

"There are days all of us don't like who we are," Ayler replied serenely. "And there are days we work to become people we like better."

Then they talk more about Ayler's job as a Safe-Keeper. I love their conversation--fantasy can be a pain in the ass (again, see footnote #**), but it can also be a way to create situations that allow for conversation about things that our culture just doesn't manage to discuss. (Kindred being maybe my all-time favorite example of this, though I have a very limited knowledge of the genre.)

The book gets less interesting as Kellen learns how to be a girl better and better, and though the book stays multidimensional and pretty great, and, thank god, never turns into a love story, there are implications of heteronormativity and living happily ever after.*** Gender norms certainly do not get erased. But a girl/boy does learn how to subvert them to her advantage, and Kellen surrounds herself with some good people who respond to her gender questions and her, uh, highly gendered life? in some great ways.

I don't have a conclusion. I like blogs for that. Thoughts are enough, conclusions are not necessarily necessary. Though it might make me lazy, and less likely to ever finish anything.

*Wikipedia says "Genderfuck refers to the self-conscious effort to 'fuck with' or play with traditional notions of gender identity, gender roles, and gender presentation. It falls under the umbrella of the transgender spectrum." For what that's worth.
**Initially I read this as the kind of back-story and world-of-the-story-development that can sometimes make fantasy very tedious, but it turns out to be more important than that, if handled somewhat awkwardly.
***It's true, but I kind of just wanted to put "implications of heteronormativity" and "living happily ever after" in the same sentence in this post because it cracks me up in a really super-nerd-o way.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Today in the suburbs on my way to work, I was behind a silver Hyundai Santa Fe (SUV) with a tiny bumper sticker just below the license plate that said, "i guess i used to be punk rock once"

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Description of Place

I am reading this novel right now that isn't really the kind of thing I'm usually into, but I can't put it down: Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. It's set in the near future, the story of a seventeen-year-old tech geek kid who gets in trouble with the Department of Homeland Security after terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge--and the BART tunnels underneath the bay, & the thought of that made me cringe for real. You can see why I can't put it down. But anyway I am thinking about place. Writing about it, having students write about it. Reading about it, and how when it's done well, it can be one of my favorite things to read about, and done well it can nail a piece, done wrong it can damage everything around it beyond repair because you get stuck in the wrongness. I liked this one a lot. It's Doctorow's first-person narrator describing his walk home from Van Ness and Market Street in San Francisco to his home in Potrero Hill:

The walk back to Potrero Hill has an easy route and a hard route, the latter taking you over some of the steepest hills in the city, the kind of thing that you see car chases on in action movies, with cars catching air as they soar over the zenith. I always take the hard way home. It's all residential streets, and the old Victorian houses they call "painted ladies" for their gaudy, elaborate paint jobs, and front gardens with scented flowers and tall grasses. House cats stare at you from hedges, and there are hardly any homeless.

It was so quiet on those streets that it made me wish I'd taken the other route, through the Mission, which is ... raucous is probably the best word for it. Loud and vibrant. Lots of rowdy drunks and angry crackheads and unconscious junkies, and also lots of families with strollers, old ladies gossiping on stoops, lowriders with boom-cars going thumpa-thumpa-thumpa down the streets. There were hipsters and mopey emo art students and even a couple old-school punk rockers, old guys with pot bellies bulging out beneath their Dead Kennedys shirts. Also drag queens, angry gang kids, graffiti artists and bewildered gentrifiers trying not to get killed while their real estate investments matured.


On a related note, I am thinking about how teaching helps my writing, helps my reading. I am still extremely dubious about how much the MFA in creative writing helped my writing, though it did help my reading, which you could argue is the same thing as helping my writing. But as I've said before, teaching keeps complicating the ways I see the world. Which helps everything.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More good stuff on Prop 8.

From Craig and Dean's "Statement":

"Current conversations about Prop 8 hide how the same-sex marriage battle has been part of a conservative gay politics that de-prioritizes people of color, poor people, trans people, women, immigrants, prisoners and people with disabilities. Why isn't Prop 8's passage framed as evidence of the mainstream gay agenda's failure to ally with people of color on issues that are central to racial and economic justice in the US?"

Read the rest of their statement and the stuff they link to.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cars on the road.

Today I was behind a lovely old diesel Mercedes.

It had a bumper sticker that said BIG TREES CAUSE RAIN.

Proposition 8

I wish marriage was not such a big deal, for anybody. I continue to be baffled as to why it is a political institution at all. You want to get married, then go to church and get married in the eyes of whatever god or gods matter to you. Why does that have anything to do with your legal rights? Especially why does it have anything to do with my legal rights? Plus who are we fooling with this idea that marriage is a sacred institution that must be protected? My parents got divorced when I was still a kid, and probably yours did too. If they didn't get divorced, then I hope they were/are happy and love each other well, but pardon my cynicism.

Anyway, I am just going to post links to a couple things I thought were interesting, both of which I found at Racialicious.* They focus on claims that blame black voters for the success of Proposition 8 in California.** In Dan Savage's fucked up rant on the subject, he says, "I do know this, though: I’m done pretending that the handful of racist gay white men out there—and they’re out there, and I think they’re scum—are a bigger problem for African Americans, gay and straight, than the huge numbers of homophobic African Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color."

Hello, false dichotomies, anyone? I love Savage Love but I do not love this idea that there are a handful of racist gay white men (all the rest are of course fighting to end bigotry on all fronts?) and a whole lot of homophobic African Americans. Not hard to guess where Savage's allegiances lie. I also think it's interesting that he doesn't say "homophobic straight African Americans," but also doesn't examine any of the reasons why black people might like queers or even be queer but still not be all "Yay gay marriage, this is the issue for ME!"

The first of the links from Racialicious, to Daily Kos, analyzes CNN's exit poll that gave birth to the statistic leading to the blame. The second, to Disgrasian, looks at some other ways the same poll could be analyzed, to lay the same blame in other places. Which is how it always works, really.

Finally, Toby posted a link to Jasmyne A. Cannick's editorial as his facebook status update today. The author talks about why gay marriage is not an issue she, as a black lesbian, is interested in fighting for, and she also discusses how what the people leading the gay marriage effort did and didn't do to gain support in their fight against Proposition 8. Makes sense to me. I think it's ridiculous and fucked up to amend the state constitution to deny someone rights, but I also think it's ridiculous and fucked up to spend this much money on a "right" that I don't see as relevant to most of us. (Hey Lisa, the "us" would be the queers, okay? And some other people too.)

Talking this over with Megan, she reminded me that it's not as easy as "marriage is dumb, why are we/they fighting for this right?" because we do live in a world where being able to get married is closely tied to having full rights as a parent, partner, and all that. I said, "I know, but I wish," and she said, "I know..." and I said, "guess I should clarify, huh?" so here. I get that for a lot of people living in our world the way it is, marriage is important. But yeah, I wish we'd work on changing that so that everyone has health care (for example), married or not, rather than buying into it by fighting for the right to get married as the primary battle.

*Okay, maybe that's not all I'm going to do. But it started that way.

**According to Wikipedia, which we know is not always a reliable source, here is a brief summary of Proposition 8 for anybody who's been under a rock: "Proposition 8 is a California State ballot proposition that would amend the state Constitution to restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman. It would overturn a recent California Supreme Court decision that had recognized same-sex marriage in California as a fundamental right. The official ballot title language for Proposition 8 is 'Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry.' The entirety of the text to be added to the constitution is: 'Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.'"

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Out of the City

On my way to work today, I was reminded that Hillsboro was a small town not too long ago, and is still almost rural. I was behind a huge Ford pick-up truck on Cornelius Pass with the following bumper stickers:




Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Work emails.

Today I got this email from a colleague at school, blank except for the subject line:

there is a very nice crockpot left in the kitchen from friday-who's is it??

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Art and Buddhism.

At the Seattle Asian Art Museum today, I was looking at this Bodhisattva that was a thousand-armed something-or-other (you can see a picture of it here--click on Bodhisattvas and it's the figure cut in half, on the right), and I said to a couple who came up while I was looking at it, "I think it really does have a thousand arms!"

The woman said, "Did you count them?"

I said, "Just that row."

She said, "You must be September or December."

I said, "July--I'm a Cancer."

She was shocked till I explained that I didn't used to be like that before I was a teacher, but it's the kind of question kids will ask: "Does it really have a thousand arms?" and then it/you/the museum/Buddhism in general will totally lose cred if it doesn't.

I love the ways I think because of teaching, the different ways I see.

Advice for Poets

Wislawa Szymborska's write-in advice column for aspiring poets, excerpted here, is terse and cranky and fabulous. I chose three of my favorites to put here, but go read them all.

To Grazyna from Starachowice: “Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we?”

To Boleslaw L-k. of Warsaw: “Your existential pains come a trifle too easily. We’ve had enough despair and gloomy depths. ‘Deep thoughts,’ dear Thomas says (Mann, of course, who else), ‘should make us smile.’ Reading your own poem ‘Ocean,’ we found ourselves floundering in a shallow pond. You should think of your life as a remarkable adventure that’s happened to you. That is our only advice at present.”

To Michal in Nowy Targ: “Rilke warned young poets against large sweeping topics, since those are the most difficult and demand great artistic maturity. He counseled them to write about what they see around them, how they live each day, what’s been lost, what’s been found. He encouraged them to bring the things that surround us into their art, images from dreams, remembered objects. ‘If daily life seems impoverished to you,’ he wrote, ‘don’t blame life. You yourself are to blame. You’re just not enough of a poet to perceive its wealth.’ This advice may seem mundane and dim-witted to you. This is why we called to our defense one of the most esoteric poets in world literature—and just see how he praised so-called ordinary things!”

Makes me like her even more than I did already.