Monthly Archives: October 2013

Looking into the heart of light, the silence

Colonisation is violence, and there are many ways to carry out that violence. – Philip Gourevitch

It’s no small thing that I quote from Philip Gourevitch’s harrowing book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families at the beginning of my story in We See a Different Frontier, “A Heap of Broken Images”. Read in a summer off from college, it’s a book that has stayed with me in all the years since. Some of it is naturally the sheer horror of the subject matter – wrenching and vivid without feeling prurient, the descriptions of the Rwandan genocide nevertheless slotted neatly into a blood-soaked part of me that has been there since I was very small. I think this is part of why I wrote the story that I did and part of why I continue to write the stories that I do – I’m fascinated by evil, and the evil that most fascinates me is not supernatural in origin but evil in all its everyday mundane banality, the fundamentally casual nature of an attempt to erase an entire people. Supernatural evil always seemed to me like a cop-out, a way to avoid the real problem.

So as a child I was fascinated by the Holocaust. I devoured books, though somehow I never had the strength for films; books were approachable and at the same time immensely more horrific, a kind of horror that I could soak in without the onslaught of images. And yet there were images too; in middle school I discovered Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, and my fascination with mass death expanded into the practice of warfare itself. These images were somehow a middle ground between film and prose – I could still use them to approach the truth, to go into dark places.

It was probably at this point that I began to intuit the second thing that has lingered with me long after finishing Gourevitch’s book: the inability to approach the truly evil, the desolate tyranny of silence that reigns when we run out of words – or can’t find them at all. We tell stories as a way to, in the words of Douglas Adams, “sidle up to the problem sideways when it’s not looking” but in the end it always sees us, and we look back, struck dumb.

It shouldn’t escape us, then: the violence inherent not only in silence but in words, not only in seeing but in being seen. Colonialism is an orgy of violence in every sense, violence physical, psychological, emotional, cultural, environmental. All colonialism is, to a greater or lesser extent, a kind of genocide in that the ultimate aim is to cripple or destroy an entire people; all too often throughout history it has been devastatingly effective. It’s a violence that is also fundamentally atemporal: as culture and history are erased, the past is destroyed, with the loss of the past, there is no sense to be made of the present, and without the past or the present the future becomes mutilated and distorted. It’s not enough to call these effects scars, because a scar only becomes a scar when it has healed – it would be more accurate to describe them as rips in the fabric of reality itself, bloody gashes through which something horrible creeps. It’s too simplistic to say that “violence begets violence” – violence is violence and violence devours everything. Violence erases meaning.

Years later, early in my graduate studies, I encountered Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, another book that’s stayed with me. In the book’s first section, Scarry draws distinctions and connections between warfare and torture, and makes the point that nuclear war is where the lines become hopelessly blurred. Beginning with a singular devastating event, the effects of a nuclear strike don’t end with the fallout; as I had already learned from Nakazawa, the effects go on and on for years, lingering in cells and psyches, destroying lives long after the conflict itself is over. Scarry talks as if nuclear war was unique in this respect.

But I think we know it’s not.

How do we talk about this? Where do we find the words?

What I was trying to do in “A Heap of Broken Images” was not to approach the unapproachable but instead to capture the impossibility of approach. My main character, Shairoven, struggles to make sense of the massacre perpetrated on her people by human colonists, and she does do within the context of a culture that makes this nearly impossible – literally without words to describe the feelings of rage and loss that accompany such an atrocity, there is nothing to say about it. The humans themselves certainly don’t help matters, with their empty gestures and their clumsy attempts at owning what they’ve done while declaring that it’s all right now and clearly it will never happen again. They study the killing as if it were something separate from themselves, as if they were impartial and unconnected observers.

One of the story’s early scenes is nearly lifted wholesale from what was, for me, one of the most devastating images from Gourevitch’s book, where the bones of the dead are viewed where they’ve fallen in a classroom, scattered and clean and strangely lovely:

The dead at Nyarubuye were, I’m afraid, beautiful. There was no getting around it. The skeleton is a beautiful thing. The randomness of the fallen forms, the strange tranquility of their rude exposure, the skull here, the arm bent in some uninterpretable gesture there – these things were beautiful, and their beauty only added to the affront of the place. I couldn’t settle on any meaningful response: revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension, sure, but nothing truly meaningful. I just looked, and I took photographs, because I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it, and I also wanted an excuse to look a bit more closely.

We went through the first room and out the far side. There was another room and another and another and another. They were all full of bodies, and more bodies were scattered in the grass, which was thick and wonderfully green. Standing outside, I heard a crunch. The old Canadian colonel stumbled in front of me, and I saw, though he did not notice, that his foot had rolled on a skull and broken it. For the first time at Nyarubuye my feelings focused, and what I felt was a small but keen anger at this man. Then I heard another crunch, and felt a vibration underfoot. I had stepped on one, too.

In “A Heap of Broken Images”, what makes confronting the massacre so difficult for us as humans is that we face our own complicity, and our first and strongest instinct is to escape self-incrimination. But there are the bones and there are the broken skulls, and we can’t help but look. And here am I, a white Westerner, existing in the context of a society wherein I have benefited indirectly but greatly from colonialism as an ongoing historical process, as real violence done to real people who I will never meet. So I consider the humans in my story and I think that maybe they shouldn’t say anything at all. Maybe their task – and it’s the most difficult task in many ways, not that they deserve sympathy – is to listen.

And here is where I perceive a flaw in the story: Shairoven and her people don’t speak about the massacre because they lack the words, but the words were not taken away from them by the colonizers; they never had them to begin with. I am sitting here in a world in which my people have stolen words, violated words, erased words, and left our victims to scream into the tyranny of that silence, unheard.

It is possible to use stories to break that silence. They might be one of the few things that can.

I am lucky – and I need the ACA

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Trigger warning: This post contains descriptions of chronic illness.

I remember the days before my sister Emma was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the GI tract. We didn’t know what was wrong with her. It was terrifying. Perversely, discovering that she had a severely unpleasant chronic disease that increases the risk of all kinds of fun complications was a relief – we knew what the problem was. We could start to do something about it.

That’s the key here: We could do something about it. We could afford to. For us, it wasn’t a heart-rending and potentially bankrupting choice. We were lucky. She was lucky.

Normally this is a blog devoted mainly to writerly things, but right now we’re at a crucial point in how health care is dealt with in the United States – a point in time with immensely important implications for writers and creative types as well as all the other people who simply can’t afford the care that keeps them safe and alive.

This matters to all of us. Or at least it should. So here is why it matters, personally, to me. I’ll let her tell you.

~

When I was a junior in high school, I started getting sick.  It began as just sporadic abdominal pain, but once summer arrived things got worse.  I was losing weight, making numerous trips to the bathroom every day, and the pain went from sporadic to chronic.  My primary care doctor tested me for everything she could think of – giardiasis, parasites, other bacterial infections – but nothing came back positive.  I had to start cutting certain foods out of my diet in case it was an allergy or Celiac disease.  I stopped eating gluten, and then I stopped eating dairy, but it didn’t make a difference.  While the rest of my friends were attending theater camp or working summer jobs, I was in bed, curled around my laptop, downing a rotating cocktail of ibuprofen, Tylenol, and Pepto Bismol in a futile effort to get my body under control and curtail the worsening pain.

So I was referred to a pediatric gastroenterologist.  He was the best doctor I’ve ever had – he was thorough and no-nonsense, but he talked to me like an adult.  He knew that the only person who could give me accurate details about my condition was me, so he listened to what I told him and respected my input.  He ordered all the same tests again, just to be safe, and said we would go from there.

My senior year of high school started.  I had been so excited to go back to school and do all of the things I was normally involved in – soccer, chorus, theater, and art – but my body wasn’t strong enough to carry me through the day.  I was missing day after day of class.  I was benched even more than usual during soccer games because I couldn’t play for more than ten minutes without needing to rest.  The pain was nearly constant, with occasional bursts of agony that were so bad I had to stop whatever I was doing to focus on riding it out.  I walked through the hallways bent double, with one arm protectively guarding my midsection.  Between the chronic pain and the frequent trips to the bathroom, I couldn’t sleep through the night.

In retrospect, it was probably at about this point that my parents began worrying about cancer.  It wasn’t the likeliest option, but we had already ruled out bacterial infections, Celiac disease, food sensitivities, and parasites.  I had my first x-ray in the middle of October, and when it came back negative, I’m sure they were relieved, because as far as anyone could tell there were no tumors in my GI tract.  But to me it was another defeat.  It meant more tests, more time, and still no diagnosis.  I was so tired of being sick and so ready to find out what was wrong with me that I was distraught over a clear x-ray.

The next step, and arguably the biggest hurdle, was a combination endoscopy/colonoscopy.  I would be out of commission for three days; one to prepare for the procedure, one for the procedure itself, and then another to stay at home and recover.  The prep was terrible.  The purgatives were the worst thing I’d ever tasted, and by the end of the day I felt even weaker and more drained than usual.

The procedure itself was the easiest part, and the best thing of all was that when I woke up out of my drug-induced haze, we had a clear answer.  The camera showed clear signs of ulceration on the lower part of my GI tract.  We had to wait for the biopsies to come back, but my GI doc was almost certain that I had ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the colon.  I could start medication immediately.  But even that wasn’t easy.  My first medication didn’t kick in right away, so even though I had a diagnosis and I was in treatment, I was still getting worse.  So I began taking prednisone, which worked wonders for my colon but wreaked havoc on the rest of my body.  I even experienced the mania and irritability that characterize roid rage.

After over a year of tests, medications, and anxious waiting, I finally began to return to what was more or less normal.  Two (giant) pills two times a day was all it took.

I am lucky in that respect – my medication doesn’t always work so well for other people who have ulcerative colitis, and other medications are more expensive and time-consuming.  Some cases are so resistant to treatment that the only recourse is colostomy, which involves removing a portion of the colon and re-routing your GI tract so that your waste is expelled through a stoma in your abdomen.

It’s a strange thing to say, after going through what I did.  I am lucky.  I am lucky.  I responded to treatment.  I have relatively few flare-ups.  I’m covered through my father’s HMO, which is comprehensive.  My copay for my medication is only five dollars.  All of my procedures were covered.  I lived outside of a major city that was home to one of the best pediatric hospitals in the region.  Both my primary care doctor and my GI doctor were spectacular.  My teachers were completely understanding when I had to miss class and went out of their way to make sure I got the help I needed to stay caught up.  My parents were both willing and able to take care of me throughout the entire process.  My mother was able to miss work to help me get ready for my colonoscopy/endoscopy, and she and my dad stayed in the hospital with me for the whole day.  I got sick while I was still a minor and in school, which meant that I still had a massive support system in place.  When I took a year off after college and my coverage lapsed, my grandfather stepped in to cover the costs of COBRA.  After that I got into a good college, and being a student allows me to remain covered under my father’s plan.

I am lucky.  I am lucky.

In less than a year, I’m going to graduate from college.  I’ll need to find a job, and it’s almost a necessity that I find one that provides with me with health coverage.  And not just because of my medication.  If my condition worsens, I might need a colostomy – and not only will I need to pay for the procedure, I’ll have to pay for the colostomy bags and other medical supplies that come from such a surgery.  But that’s not the worst part.  People with ulcerative colitis have a much greater chance of getting colon cancer, and doctors usually recommend that sufferers of UC begin getting yearly colonoscopies eight years after their diagnosis in order to screen for cancer.  Even if I don’t get cancer, the cost of my disease will be considerable.

Under the Affordable Care Act, I’m covered under my father’s HMO until I turn 26 (I just turned 23).  The ACA prevents health insurance companies from denying me coverage based on my disease.  In the (likely) event that I can’t find a job that gives me coverage, I have an option outside of employer-provided health insurance.  I need the ACA, badly.  And I am one of the lucky ones.  I benefit from all kinds of privilege that other people in the United States don’t experience.  As much as I need the ACA, there are countless other people who need it far more desperately.  In truth, they need something much more comprehensive, but the ACA is worlds better than the current state of healthcare in the US.  Only the most fortunate people in the country are foolish enough to believe that the status quo is acceptable.

When “Tea Party” Republicans throw a hissy fit and shut down the entire government because they don’t like the ACA, what they’re essentially doing is communicating that their maniacal passion for small government trumps my need to not slowly starve to death.  What they’re doing is putting one poorly-informed ideology above the countless sick and dying people in the country who, without the ACA, have no recourse but to fall into massive debt or wind up homeless without much-needed insulin or other treatment.

I am one of the lucky sick people.  I need single-payer health care, but if the best my government can do right now is the Affordable Care Act, I will take that in a heartbeat.  As for the countless sick people who are far less fortunate than I am, the ACA could save their lives.  For us, it’s not about an abstract political ideology – it’s about a terrifying reality that no one should have to face.

Emma is on Twitter – @diegosafety.  She also has a music blog that will be opening its doors very shortly.

Image courtesy of Images Money

CROWFLIGHT: The players

So who exactly are the people who populate the world of Crowflight? What’s their deal? Here I offer some answers, while keeping things as spoiler-free as possible.

8870200266_3104ed4d7f_o-220x330Turn: The protagonist of the book, a young woman of the Crow tribe who is preparing to take her place as a Psychopomp – a guide of souls across the space between the worlds to the lands beyond death. She is skilled, competent, and as the story begins, optimistic about her future. However, that all changes rather quickly, and she’s thrown into fear and uncertainty. She’s brave, as far as it goes, but she’s also reluctant to shoulder responsibility after it backfires on her so extravagantly. The book is at least in part the story of her struggling to accept the responsibilities thrust upon her, even if she never becomes entirely comfortable with them.

I often pick names with some meaning behind them, and Turn’s name was chosen based on the role she has to play in the larger story – that of a catalyst for change, of pushes forward and u-turns back toward what’s come before alike.

Sene: Turn’s lover, and also her emotional support. They haven’t been together long, but their bond is strong, and they both believe that they have a promising future with each other. Sene is a skilled artist, a painter of murals for the wealthy of the Crow city of Lune, and while he isn’t wealthy himself, his talent allows him to scrape by. A fiercely loyal partner, Sene admires Turn as much as he loves her, and wants to do all he can to help her succeed in her chosen vocation. But when Turn’s life is thrown into upheaval, their bond will be tested, perhaps beyond 413px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_Crow_on_a_Branch_-_Kawanabe_Kyosaiwhat it can bear.

Corvi: A master Psychopomp and Turn’s mentor. Corvi is old beyond reckoning and extremely wise, though also possessed of a healthy sense of mischief. She rarely does things the conventional way, though she also takes great care to protect and guide the students under her tutelage. But even she may not be able to shield Turn from the chaos to come, and good intentions sometimes have terrible consequences.

Gen: Turn’s best friend – one of her few – and a fellow student. Gen is boisterous and good-natured, outwardly a little shallow and over-focused on gossip and romance but also intelligent, brave and loyal. When the world appears set against Turn, she is one of the few who stands by her, and proves willing to go to great lengths to help her.

Ava: A member of the Raven tribe, Ava is a mysterious figure, though a powerful ally to those with whom they choose to align themselves. They are possessed of significant magic in their own right, though they are uninterested in using it for any personal gain. They know the Shadowlands well, and can travel swiftly even across dangerous terrain. They are one of a large minority of the Raven tribe who are of neither wholly masculine nor wholly feminine gender, and accordingly they prefer ungendered pronouns.

raven by oddstockMori: A leader of the small group of Ravens of which Ava is a member. Mori is steadfast and strong-willed, as well as kind, even to outsiders. He takes his position as (unofficial) leader of his caravan very seriously, but also feels an obligation toward the Carrion Kind as a whole, and when they are threatened, he is will to do whatever is necessary to eliminate the threat.

Yavon: A sorceress of the Ravens, skilled in all forms of magic, Yavon also possesses a sharply cheerful sense of humor and a great pride in her work. She is a teacher of other Ravens, and enjoys guiding them toward a greater understanding of their own power. Like Mori,  she feels a deep commitment to the protection of all the Carrion Kind, despite the mistrust that the Crows and Rooks feel for her people.

Renna: Chief Minister Renna of the Rock is the leader of Lune, and a hero to its people. When the Calamity of the Split Earth nearly destroyed the Crows, she held the city together in the aftermath, restoring order and providing for the injured and suffering. While she is generally a just and fair leader and determined to do anything she has to do for her tribe, she is also extremely proud and not especially merciful to those she deems undeserving. To many, she appears cold and aloof, but most feel that this is an unfortunately necessary part of the strength she has to show as ruler.

Joran: One of the most senior Psychopomps, despite his relative youth, Joran is Renna’s most prized student from her days as a mentor. His attractiveness and charisma, as well as his skill as a Psychopomp, make him something of a celebrity in Lune. While he isn’t stupid by any means, all of this attention has gone to his head somewhat, and he tends to be arrogant and boastful. He is also absolutely loyal to Renna and eagerly does whatever is asked of him – no matter how questionable it might be.

That’s the cast – roughly. There are many other characters, enemies and friends Turn encounters on her way, people she’ll love and hate and some of whom she’ll lose in the end. I hope you enjoy them all as much as I did writing them.

And a reminder: you can enter to win a free copy of the book over here until the 13th!

image by devra

image by devra