Stories are all we have

This week, I met with a group of new students to talk about what is meant by “success.” They expected I would lecture them about things like time management, and they were surprised when I chose to instead talk about story.

I asked these students, who are studying to be nurses, engineers, computer programmers (and many other professions) to consider what they’d most like their story to be, ten years from now. I asked them to think about their narrative so far, and further, I encouraged them consider, especially in this strange and difficult time that lies ahead for all of us, that every other person in the world also has a story.

I read to them from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby:

Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them… To love someone is to put ourselves in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story… Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop.

It seems to me that change has arrived not like an ambulance but like a tumor erupting to the surface of public consciousness. It’s vitally important just now to remember that we each have a story, and we can refuse to allow any one person’s story to be invalidated. Racism, for example, is a complex and hateful set of complicated, intertwined stories the powerful tell about Others to the rest of the world. Sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia are stories, often composed of outright lies, fabrications sewn together from a patchwork of misunderstanding, fear and willful ignorance.

It seems paramount that we tell our stories and support #ownvoices storytelling. Today, to me, it feels like survival, what resistance looks like. It seems imperative that we make art to share stories of what the future can be.

This is not a new idea. Marginalized voices have been saying this, for a very, very long while. When stories are suppressed and rendered invisible, replaced with lies, people with bodies in the real world are cut off from opportunities, suffer, bleed and even die.

Let’s fight back by telling our stories, reading stories, sharing stories. Because I really think that in the end, they’re all we have.

On Photography (Sherman)

tldr: Sherman at the Broad! and are selfies art? how is self-portraiture kinda like selfies?

I am unreasonably excited about the new Broad Museum in Los Angeles,  which opened in September of last year, but less excited about the average wait time of two hours (!) to enter the place. I’d resigned myself to hoping that the wait time would decrease over time, and that I’d visit eventually. HOWEVER.

In a few days, the Cindy Sherman exhibit opens, with over one hundred of her works on display. As a fan of photography generally, and of her work, along with that of Carrie Mae Weems and Francesca Woodman, I’m tempted to jump on the chance to reserve tickets, as admission is already booked through June. SIGH.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #58
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #58

Sherman’s work is not without its issues, but I’m inspired by her inventiveness and flexibility as an artist. Her Film Stills in particular make me want to pick up a camera again (and if you have never seen James Franco’s homage to her work, it manages to be wry and earnest at the same time).

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #10
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #10

Her self-portrait work can certainly viewed in light of arguments condemning or celebrating the selfie as narcissistic or liberatory (see links below). Sherman, like Weems and Woodman, takes the self as the primary subject, presenting her body in a wide variety of contexts. She creates characters and caricatures; she invites, deflects and subverts the gaze of the viewer, to put it simplistically. As an adult versed a tad in visual theory and feminism, I enjoy looking for story and meaning behind Sherman’s careful compositions.

As a teen, I was fairly unschooled in visual theory but obsessed with black-and-white photography and often used my own body as subject. I vividly recall my father complaining that I couldn’t “do a regular pose like a normal person” while he attempted to get a snapshot of me in my flapper prom dress. Few of my own photos from that time remain, as many were lost or water-damaged before the advent of digital storage. But over the past few years, I’ve collaborated a bit with my partner-in-crime (or rather, in-life) to create a few images with which I’m fairly pleased.

untitled, at IKEA (Remy Nakamura)
untitled, at IKEA (Remy Nakamura)

Bodies in tension make for interesting composition, as do colors and contrasts, light and shadow and movement.

The Tilt is Me, laptop selfie #1
The Tilt is Me, laptop selfie #1

But I’m interested in the stories that photos tell, and I’m resistant to the notion that using one’s own body as subject is narcissism (or that selfies can’t be art or have liberating significance).

untitled, at the Figueroa Hotel (Remy Nakamura)
untitled, at the Figueroa Hotel (Remy Nakamura)

In fact, using oneself as subject is quite different from using the bodies of other people, which is often objectification. For example, as prolific and fascinating Vivian Maier might have been as an artist, as keen as her eye may have been to composition and story, she often photographed people around her without their knowledge, positioning herself as the teller of their stories.

Compare this photo of an unnamed woman photographed by Maier to one of the many “selfies” she took in mirrors:

street photo by Maier
street photo by Maier

To be clear, street photography has value. But if we’re going to be critical about what is intended by a work of art when the self is the subject, we should also consider the intent of the photographer’s gaze and the meaning produced.

For more on the critique of the selfie, this post contrasts internet selfie culture against Sherman’s work, arguing that the former is not art, whereas this from the same publication traces the roots of selfie culture to self-portraiture and the same to the advent of the mirror.

Wishing Heart

I rediscovered this album today, Grammy-nominated loveliness from 1997. Loeb’s quirky, fierce style still appeals to me, containing a quiet strength, an insistence on being heard even when words can’t quite capture the emotions behind them. This particular track is one I’ve listened to repeatedly today, and it’s an anthem of sorts to one’s own inner compass, not an angry song, but an acceptance of things that can’t be changed. The delight of the track, for me, however, is in the yearning for something that is just out of reach and worth striving towards.

The Future Fire Interview: Kathryn Allan

I’ve been a tiny part of the excellent publication The Future Fire for a few years now. I’m pleased to say they’re celebrating the zine’s tenth anniversary with TFFX, an exciting anthology that combines a “best of” with new material and artwork. From its inception in 2005, The Future Fire has focused on promoting feminist science fiction, queer SF, eco-SF, postcolonial SF, cyberpunk and horror with diverse and inclusive themes.


With just seven days remaining on the TFFX Indiegogo campaign, there’s still time to pitch in and receive some great perks, like an e-book pack that includes TFFX as well as We See a Different Frontier and Outlaw Bodies, signed art or even a zombie (“You as a Knitted Zombie!”).

Here’s a conversation between me and Kathryn Allan, associate editor and indie scholar who recently helped bring to life the outstanding anthology of disability-themed intersectional SF short stories, Accessing the Future.

Tracie: Tell us about your first experience as with The Future Fire. Was it as a reader?

Kathryn: I guess my very first experience with The Future Fire was a Twitter chat with Djibril about feminist SF and cyberpunk. That positive introduction led me to checking out the zine, and I thought it was pretty cool. A few months later, Djibril asked me if I could read a story submission that he needed a second opinion on. It didn’t take long after that when I joined TFF as a Reader and Associate Editor.

T: You wrote the afterword for TFF anthology Outlaw Bodies (in which one of my own stories appears), and in the afterword you describe the human body as a site of transgression and varied embodiment, mediated by “language and law.” How does the speculative fiction of The Future Fire highlight embodiment and normalization in terms of social issues?

K: I’m stealing this from TFF’s website because I think it partly answers the question: “TFF is open to submissions of beautiful and useful short stories of Social-political and Progressive Speculative Fiction; Feminist SF; Queer SF; Eco SF; Multicultural SF; Cyberpunk.” Aside from the awesome sub-genres listed, I love that the stories that TFF seeks are described as not only beautiful but useful. When thinking of embodiment–the experience of being (in) a body–it is easy to assume that one’s own experience of it is universal. But TFF stories demonstrate that the only real universal experience is diversity, adaptability, fluidity. It’s our social circumstances, what I had referred to as “language and law,” that shape how we understand ourselves in relation to others. People can identify as being at the centre, which is often a place where the assumption of universality is the strongest; or people can identify as being on the margins, which is where many of the stories in TFF arise from. These types of stories are the ones that challenge assumptions of what is normal and for whom, and it is in this way that they are useful: they teach; they offer places of belonging; and they extend the margins into the center and so help create new understandings of embodiment and what/who is “normal.”

T: You new co-edited TFF project, Accessing the Future, is exciting! Can you describe it a bit and tell us how has the reception of it been so far?

K: Accessing the Future is a disability-themed, intersectional SF short story anthology that I co-edited with Djibril. We ran a super successful crowdfunding campaign for it last fall, and the book made its debut this July. Honestly, I couldn’t be any prouder of this collection–it has 15 stories and 9 illustrations (that tells stories of their own) that place disabled protagonists at the centre. The response we’ve had so far has been wonderful: Publishers Weekly gave us a starred review, and Goodreads readers are loving it. I think that we’re going to be seeing a lot more attention in the next few months as word continues to spread about how creative, diverse, and just enjoyable Accessing the Future is!

T: Of these projects, what’s one story that’s stayed with you?

K: I honestly can’t pick just a single story because my mind returns to different ones depending on how I am feeling. Sometimes when I think of Accessing the Future, I think of it as one complex narrative that is being told by many voices. I often find myself picking up my copy and turning through the pages, reading a paragraph here, a page there…each time I do this I make new connections between the stories and so my appreciation and understanding of the anthology as whole continues to shift.

T: What’s next on your creative radar?

K: More things than I can possibly do! My biggest project, however, is writing a book that thinks through the relationship between disability studies (i.e., the academic study of disability) and science fiction. I’m interested in making a theoretical intervention by bringing these two fields of study together, so it feels pretty daunting at the moment. But I’ve been steadily researching for the past several years and I think I’m now ready to sit down and start writing in earnest. I just need to make sure that I don’t get distracted by one of the many other creative projects (I want to write and edit all the things!) that swirl around in my mind when I should be sleeping.

Kathryn Allan is also editor of the interdisciplinary collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013, Palgrave MacMillan) and the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow (2014). Her writing appears in both academic and creative publications, such as The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 7 (2013), Outlaw Bodies (2012), and Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (2015). You can find her blogging and tweeting online as Bleeding Chrome.

Where should stories begin?

Short screenplay provides examples of some of the tightest writing! As an exercise, take a few moments to watch just the opening of this Twilight Zone episode, “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” (written by Rod Serling).

The scene begins with close focus on a man, and then the world expands, one detail at a time. A bottle, a carriage, a pistol. The face of a man silently watching.

Ask yourself, where should your story begin?

An Internal Process

Motherpeace Tarot Ace of Wands
Motherpeace Tarot Ace of Wands
I’ve posted a few “tarot of the day” recently, and I’ve decided, to my surprise, to discontinue.

The Motherpeace Tarot is amazing. Some of the art is crude-seeming, but the message of the deck is deep internal process and growth. Each card’s interpretation asks you to consider the ways in which self-aware change is possible. I’m still looking at a card every day and discussing with my dear friend, but I’ve only posted the barest detail of the card reading here. I think it’s because the process I’m actively engaged in is an internal one, and frankly not very interesting to share! It feels more intuitive, less quantifiable.

I’ll end my public exploration here, with one of the most enjoyable images of the deck, the Ace of Wands. Huzzah!

Thursday’s Motherpeace Tarot Card

Motherpeace Son of DiscsRight on target!

The vibrant green of this card and the energetic stance of the Son of Discs make this card a welcome one. And look, a little assist from a pair of winged friends.

In the Motherpeace deck, the court or “people” cards are Daughters, Sons, Priestesses and Shamans, corresponding to the traditional King, Queen, Knight, and Page. The deck strives for a sense of the egalitarian and of lifelong learning and progress.

Today’s Tarot

Tarot #1My dear friend Danielle and I have a Motherpeace tarot deck in common, and yesterday we talked about meditation and daily tarot cards as a part of our shared desire for spiritual renewal.

Here’s my card(s) for the day (click to embiggen):

9 of Discs: in this deck, the nine of Discs depicts a woman creating a sand painting in the desert. The card meaning indicates the beginning of a solitary, creative period.

The Hierophant: in most tarot, a representing order and hierarchy. Here, the Hierophant directs worship toward himself and blocks access to nature, “a direct source of information and authority.”

Why Quakers?

I’ve always been a seeker, and a couple of years ago, I realized that personal truths are evasive because we’re constantly changing. On this blog, I’ve written about pagan ideas and observed practices along the lines between paganism and Unitarian Universalism. Each has its beauty (and flaws), and after years of leadership in those traditions, I felt the desire for a radical faith community that would give me space for introspection. I left behind the UU community and its seemingly ever-present infighting in favor of The Society of Friends.

The Quaker practice of sitting in silence together was at once new to me and completely natural and welcome, and the value placed on mindfulness, nonviolence and a non-dogmatic experience of divinity (only sometimes called “God”) met my needs. Does this mean I’m no longer a pagan?

Not at all. Interestingly, the practices have more in common than not.