Today, I found a four-leaf clover

I never really knew what to do with this blog, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at how long it’s been since I’ve written anything here. And I guess it should surprise me even less that a review of a series I ‘previously abandoned’ (written for a year-long reading challenge I would, after just one month, also abandon), is my most recent blog post, written over 14 months ago.

I have a habit of starting things and not following through with them, abandoning goals and endeavors as soon as I start to feel in over my head. And I should emphasize: when I start to feel in over my head, whether or not I actually am. This is a common experience for people struggling with OCD and/or depression, and I have been in treatment for my mental difficulties long enough to be aware of exactly what I’m doing when I leave projects (like this blog) for dead — I get so wrapped up in getting it “right”, that I end up not doing it at all.

Despite also knowing that pushing myself to write regularly has always helped to manage my depression in the past, I have such a hard time returning to it. Once a story or a project has been (prematurely) abandoned, I tend to “wait for the right time” to jump back into it, which, of course, turns out to be never.

Another crucial, yet often neglected, part of my self-directed treatment plan, is going outside. This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I can sometimes go weeks at a time without ever leaving my house. Most weeks, I do leave the house at least once (Friday nights are DnD nights, and I can’t let the party down, y’know?), but if plans get canceled or my depression is just too loud, I stay put. Just like with writing, perhaps even more so, the longer I stay in the house, the harder it becomes for me to leave.

Leaving has been especially difficult lately, and I had all but resigned myself to this pattern of hermit-dom until last week, when I was about to run out of clean underwear and, going to do my laundry, realized that was all I had in my dirty clothes’ hamper — 13 pairs of dirty underwear, one night shirt, and nothing else. I had effectively gone almost two full weeks without even getting dressed, and the idea horrified me. This wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I had been here before, over 10 years ago, and fought like hell to get better. That pile of dirty underwear was a wake-up call, and I decided that if any time was the “right” time to get my ass out of the house and start healing again, it had to be now.

Since then, I have gotten myself dressed almost every day (leaving room for imperfection is important, too!), finding any excuse to leave the house, even for 10, 20 minutes at a time. I joined my sister and our dog for a walk in the park. I went to Home Depot to help choose vegetable plants for the garden. I volunteered to run to the bank or to the grocery store, and took a walk to Panera Bread for coffee, instead of making it at home.

Today, despite having nothing planned and feeling generally exhausted from doing more exposure therapy in one week than I had in months, I decided to take the dog out for some playtime in the backyard. And I found a four-leaf clover.

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I’m not really one to believe in “signs” or anything, but I couldn’t help but consider this a good omen of sorts. I had actually never found a four-leaf clover before, and if I had just stayed in my room, in my pajamas today, I wouldn’t have.

My therapist is always reminding me that recovery comes from making “skillful choices”. OCD and depression aren’t things you can choose to turn off, of course, but recovery cannot happen unless we choose it. Recovery looks different for everyone, but it always starts the same way, by saying, “Today, I want to feel good, so I’m going to make that happen by choosing to [go outside, take my meds, write in my journal, etc., etc.,].” I made my choices this week, and it worked out pretty well.

This brings me back to writing. I have wanted to revive this blog for a long time, but could never decide on how, or when. The longer I left it, the longer I put off coming back. So, I’m choosing to do it now. I may write a new post every week; I may write one every month. I may not write here again for another year, or I may write a new post tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. What matters is, I chose to write today. This post is imperfect, largely unedited, and no one will probably ever read it, but that doesn’t matter.

Today, I found a four-leaf clover. Today, I chose to write.

2016 Reading Challenge: A Book You Previously Abandoned

Things have gotten off to an embarrassingly slow start this year. Between added responsibilities at my day job, working on a bunch of new writing projects, and reading mostly short fiction in my downtime (one of my Christmas presents was a subscription to Lightspeed Magazine), I have really been neglecting getting started on this reading challenge.

So as a nod to my procrastination, I decided the first choice from the list should be “a book you previously abandoned”, and finally got all caught up on volumes 1-5 of Saga.

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Artwork by Fiona Staples

Though Saga is an ongoing comic series and not a book in the traditional sense, I’m letting it count anyway. The total word count across the first five volumes makes it just as long as a standard novel, and I have been itching to get caught up on the series ever since I read Vol. 1 over a year ago, and just…never purchased Vol. 2 (until now!).

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Saga Vol. 1: buy from Comixology

Saga takes place in a massive, centuries-long war that began as a conflict between the “wings” of the planet Landfall and the “horns” of Wreath, Landfall’s only moon. Though no one remembers the actual reason for the fighting, the conflict has made its way out to the furthest reaches of the galaxy, with nearly every planet, dwarf planet, and moon taking up arms to fight for their chosen side. We start the series following Alana and Marko, a young married couple who spend the first few pages of the comic welcoming their newborn daughter Hazel into the world. But because Alana is a “wing” and Marko is a “horn” and both are military deserters, there is little time to revel in the joy of new parenthood before they are back on the run. Out of fear for what their inter-species relationship (and especially the existence of Hazel, the first winged/horned child ever born) would mean to the warring galaxy, both governments have hired out help in finding and eliminating the couple. We follow these pursuers, as well — a rugged freelancer hired by Wreath and a robot prince recruited by Landfall — as they navigate the war-torn world and their own personal battlefields on the way to their targets. These complex, interconnected storylines are narrated in retrospect by an all-grown-up Hazel, and her words and reflections add such an eerily beautiful touch to the tone of the story.

Brian K. Vaughn’s masterpiece is, at its core, a tale of destruction and creation and the relationship between the two, where every hero and villain is nuanced and fully realized in their own, screwed up ways. Saga is West Side Story meets Star Wars meets something out of any SFF fan’s wildest dreams, with decidedly feminist overtones and a wonderful range of racial and sexual diversity. Throw in absolutely breathtaking artwork by Fiona Staples, and you have quite possibly one of the greatest ongoing speculative fiction stories of the decade.

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Artwork by Fiona Staples

Yes, I know — I can’t believe I put this series down, either. But I am actually glad I was able to binge-read it the way I did, because there is a profoundly different feeling that comes from having the whole weight of the story hit all at once. Though the first five volumes of Saga span years (both in the comic and in publication date), I experienced it all within a week and a half. I witnessed beloved characters change in unexpected and sometimes monstrous ways. I read on as enemies became unlikely heroes or even allies, while previous alliances were severed by betrayal or untimely death. I dove back into the series thinking I knew what to expect, but so much story over such a short period of time left me gut-punched and winded in the most wonderful, wonderful way.

Now that I’m caught up, I’ll likely read the comic month-to-month as new issues come out. I’m so pleased, however, to have been able to experience the first five and a half volumes this way — this may just be the one and only time my procrastination has paid off!

2016 Reading Challenge: Let’s Go

 

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I feel like every time I’ve come across a cool year-long reading challenge (be it on another blog, on Pinterest, Twitter, etc.), the year has already been half over. I know there’s no ‘rule’ or anything about starting what’s supposed to be a year-long challenge in July, but I am way too perfectionistic and precise about that sort of thing to jump in in the middle. We’re just past the first week of 2016, so I’ve decided that this year, is my year. I’m going for it.

Here’s what I plan to do: There are 12 books on this list and, of course, 12 months in a year. I’m going to take it one book a month, which is a more-than-doable schedule and will give me time to read other books, off-Challenge, as well. I’m also going to blog my way through it, so look for a write-up at the end of each month!

Since three of the [many] goals I’ve set for myself in 2016 are to read moreblog more, and get better at actually finishing what I start, this challenge is perfect. Not only will working my way through this list keep me on top of my TBR pile (which, with a busy work schedule and agonizingly needy mental health issues, is unfortunately not always easy), it will also keep me on top of my goal of writing at least one post on here a month. As for “finishing what I start”, well… I’ve already announced it, so I’m going to look pretty ridiculous if I flake out in March.

SO… 12 books. 12 months. Lots of words. Let’s go.

 

Keeping Track of the Good Things

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The “Happiness Jar”

Happiness Jars have been a thing for years now, and I really wish I had made one for 2015.

This was just…not my year. 2015 was the year that nothing happened; or, at least, nothing good. I had declared 2015 a failure as early as mid-September, dragging myself for all the wasted days and failed attempts/missed opportunities to make it better. Because I enjoy making myself suffer oh-so-much, I decided to write a list of all the things I didn’t do this year, all the things I tried and failed, and all the things that just went flat-out wrong.

I didn’t feel too great by the end of this little exercise, to say the least. In fact, I was livid. Angry at myself for all the things that went wrong this year, sure, but also suddenly angry at the very notion that my 2015 was a total and complete disaster. Seeing all of my failures and shortcomings down on paper made me oddly defensive, and perhaps a bit desperate to prove to myself that 2015 wasn’t all bad…after all, only a Sith deals in absolutes.

I didn’t have a Happiness Jar to fall back on, so I went back through my memories of 2015 to see if I could come up with any Good Things to pit against my list of crap.

Here’s what I came up with:

Took a really scary writing workshop that became much less scary by the end. It was taught by a Nebula nominee and the other students gave incredibly…thorough…feedback. But I pushed through and it was worth it in the end because…

…I finally began drafting the fantasy novel I’ve been sitting on for years. I brought in really rough drafts of the first two chapters, and it was surprisingly (to me, at least) well received. I was given plenty of notes on things to improve upon, of course, but for now I’m just happy having introduced a group of people to characters I’ve known and loved for so long, and knowing that they loved them, too.

Wrote a review of a book I really enjoyed and the book’s author found it, read it, and Tweeted it

Introduced myself to one of my favorite authors at BookCon. I was shaking and terribly awkward but for a fleeting moment her attention was on me, which is plenty to feel good about.

Landed a job I had wanted for awhile, then had the courage to quit when I realized it wasn’t what I wanted, after all. I wrote about it here.

Asked another employer (who I have been with for three years) for a raise and have since received TWO. Ask and you shall receive. Seriously.

Completely reworked how I thought about my day job, and it has made a world of difference. I work from home as a web content writer. It’s not a particularly fun job and it can get lonely and underwhelming not having an office outside the house to go to every day. This was the year I really began to understand that this job is my income, not my profession, and that working from home gives me the freedom to schedule in time to work on other writing projects…my writing projects.

Saw MISERY on Broadway as a “Halloween present” from my sister. I am 100% in favor of Halloween presents becoming a thing, especially when they consist of seeing Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in a play based on one of your favorite books by one of your favorite authors.

Discovered new means of managing anxiety…through baking.

Saw my name in print as an editorial assistant of a lit mag for the first time.

Was invited to participate in my first literary reading. I have since been told the event has been pushed back to December 2016, but it feels nice to have been asked (and now I have a whole year to write an awesome story to read).

Quit smoking. !

Got a puppy. !!!

 

Of course I would like to see things improve for me in 2016. Of course I have goals for the coming year and hope they don’t go up in flames like so many of the goals I made in 2015. But things are going to go wrong, and I’m going to get discouraged and it’s going to feel like my own personal apocalypse all over again…I’ll just have to remember to keep track of the Good Things, too.

I’m going out tomorrow to find myself a big, fat Happiness Jar. Here’s to filling it to the brim with Good Things in 2016.

Part of Knowing Your Worth is Knowing When to Stop “Paying Your Dues”

Up until recently, I had just one rule about leaving a job: If you want to quit, do so only after one full year of employment.

I broke that rule for the very first time last week, and quit a job I had started just less than a month before.

The job itself was pretty cool — I was a content writer for a media website specializing in “nerd culture”, tasked with writing news articles, reviews, and think-pieces about my favorite comic books and Sci-Fi shows. The problem, was that they weren’t going to pay me; or, at least, not pay me very much. After I had already applied to and accepted the position (which was advertised as a paying job), I found out that my pay would be entirely based on the ad revenue generated from my individual posts. For a small and recently founded website like this one, that meant 60-cents to a dollar an article, at most.

I was devastated. After two-and-a-half years as a freelance content writer for mostly online retail companies, I was so excited for the chance to write about topics I was more personally invested in. I wanted this position to work out so badly, and spent weeks trying to justify my staying on: “It’s okay,” I thought, “I’ve never written about ‘media’ before, and I’m gaining experience; I’m building a portfolio; I’m just paying my dues.”

Only when I started telling myself I was simply “paying my dues” did I realize how ridiculous (see: crap) this job situation was. I am 25 years old with a Master’s degree and years of experience as a content writer — should I really still be “paying my dues”? To pay one’s dues in the professional world essentially means to spend time learning the ropes, gaining the knowledge and skill set needed to become apt enough in your chosen field to move forward and actually begin to make a living. But what have I been doing the last two-and-a-half years if not “learning the ropes”? Aren’t I at the point where I should already be making a living from this?

Now, the truth is that any job, no matter how experienced you are, should teach you something; but what would I be learning at this job that another, higher-paying job couldn’t teach me just as well, if not better? Especially at this point in my career, already “knowing the ropes” of online content writing, did I really have as much to gain from this experience as I originally thought? There are plenty of sites out there that would pay me a lot more money for the same sort of content, and with more exposure, as well. Not to mention, if I ever do want to write opinion pieces about media without getting paid for it, I could simply do it here (and I have). No matter how I looked at it, two articles a week for less than $10 a month was just not going to work out. So I quit.

The whole ordeal did teach me something, however; something even more important than what I had intended it to. Working through the dilemma of a dollar-a-week job forced me to admit to myself that I have value — a lot more of it than what this site was capable of recognizing, and more than even I was capable of recognizing until now.

Because I knew, even before I applied, that this was not going to be a high-paying job. I expected more than a dollar per article, but with only a couple thousand followers on social media and little name recognition elsewhere on the internet, I doubted this site would be able to compensate much. Strangely, this was part of the appeal — I expected about $30 per article, and this was perfect, I thought, because I honestly did not believe anyone would pay me any more than that for my writing. Despite having received a steady wage for my work for years now, my standards were shockingly low. I still thought of myself as a beginner, still “paying my dues”, because, come on — a decent, livable salary for my work? my opinions? my writing? I didn’t think I was worth it.

It took the shock of earning 60-cents an article to make me realize I am worth more than that. I wish I could tell you some beautiful, inspiring story about softly awakening into self-worth, but the truth is the realization came in anger. I believe, “I’M TOO F**KING TALENTED FOR THIS SH*T,” were my exact words (not to the employer, of course), and I’m writing this now because I want you to know that you are “too f**king talented for this sh*t”, too. No employer or client is going to tell you that, because the moment they actually admit to you what you’re worth they’re going to have to start paying you accordingly — and no one is going to pass up the opportunity to hire cheap labor. I feel like this happens a lot with writers, especially, because we are supposedly a dime a dozen and clients know there are people out there who will work for “experience” or “exposure” alone. And maybe, for them, experience is what they need — everyone needs to start somewhere — but recognize your experience as legitimate when you have it, and start working for what you’re worth.

The week I decided I had value, I contacted the clients for whom I’ve been working the longest and raised my rates. I based my raise on how much a professional web content writer should be making in salary (it’s $40,000 – $60,000 a year, at least), because I am a professional and need to be compensated as one. Knowing this may very well cause me to lose clients who aren’t willing to pay more, I went online and searched for other websites that will pay me for articles, because there are too many of them out there to waste my time on people who aren’t willing to properly compensate me for my labor. 

I am through settling for less and thinking that “less” is what I deserve. We all have to “pay our dues”, but I am through paying mine and it is time for someone else to start paying me, instead. It’s scary for me to say that, and as I read it over my instinct is to either delete it or apologize for coming across too strong. But people who know their worth do come across strong, and brilliantly so. It’s just something I suppose I’ll have to practice getting used to.

So yes, up until recently, I had just one rule about leaving a job. Now I have two: If you want to quit, do so only after one full year of employment…or if they refuse to pay you what you’re worth.

Review of THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley

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A dark star is rising, and for the first time in over 2,000 years the world is on the brink of a cataclysmic event; an event that threatens to destroy whole countries and wipe out the entirety of the world’s people…Or, one version of the world’s people.

In Kameron Hurley’s THE MIRROR EMPIRE, Book 1 of the WORLDBREAKER SAGA, two parallel worlds find themselves in a fight for survival, pitted not only against each other, but themselves. Each world is a morphed version of the other, with dopplegangers that may be near-identical in name and appearance, but who are starkly different in personality and motivation. As a dying star poisons the air and sky of one world, the militaristic Dhai people of that world are invading and attempting to slaughter as many people of the other world as possible, to save themselves before it is too late. Because here’s the catch — travel between worlds is possible, but only if your doppleganger on the other side is dead or non-existent. For one world to live, the other has to go; only one people can survive.

The Mirror Empire, $12.78 on Amazon

$12.78 on Amazon

THE MIRROR EMPIRE is a fast-paced and exciting read, and the start of quite possibly one of the greatest political dramas I have ever picked up. Using classic fantasy tropes in wholly unique ways, Hugo Award Winner Kameron Hurley has created a masterpiece epic that has surely secured her place in the world of fantasy writing, and won me over as a lifelong fan. I started recommending THE MIRROR EMPIRE to people before I was even a quarter of the way through, and now that I’ve finished the book, I can’t. stop. talking. about it.

But first, a note on how to read this book. There is a certain level of skill that needs to be applied to tackling a book like this, and it is not really a novel I would recommend for first-time fantasy readers. All works of speculative fiction, by definition, require a willing suspension of disbelief, but there are some books that demand a creative interaction with the text in order to fully comprehend the world that exists within its pages. THE MIRROR EMPIRE is one of those books.

The worldbuilding is rich and thorough, with gorgeous description and a lot of really cool (and often terrifying) things happening on every page — divine satellites and people who can draw on their power; hungry walking trees and trees that spit acid; fierce women warriors serving an alien Empress; temples that are alive and breathe and speak; giant dogs and bears with forked tongues; portals to other worlds opened by blood magic; ritualistic cannibalism. There is a lot going on in this world, and Hurley does not hold our hand through any of it. She has built this world and set out, with careful intent, a path for us to follow, but we are on our own to understand the kind of place this is, with all its countries, cultures, wildlife (which, in the Dhai Woodland, often includes the plants), and magic. There is a glossary in the back of the book if you need it, but I only recommend referencing it when you really, really have to, because figuring it all out along the way is an integral part of the journey. And it is a challenging journey, not one for travelers who expect a tour guide and little mints on their pillow, but for adventures who are willing to take the plunge and fully immerse themselves in this strange, foreign land right alongside the people who inhabit it.

And there is a lot to say about the people of this world. The characters in THE MIRROR EMPIRE are so vivid, so engaging, that they have actually featured in my dreams (which is rare, and I think of myself as a pretty avid reader). THE MIRROR EMPIRE is a multiple point-of-view book, and each POV character is chosen impeccably well, with their own trajectories that each add something unique to the overall story without feeling detached or out of place. We follow Lilia, a woodland Dhai originally of the other world, as she embarks on a journey to fulfill an old promise to her mother, while discovering secret powers she never even knew she had. Roh, a Dhai with the ability to call on the power of Para, one of the three heavenly satellites, seeks adventure in a foreign land in order to save his people and change his own fate. Zezili, a half-Dhai legionnaire in the country of Dorinah, attempts to uncover the secret behind a military campaign that has her slaughtering Dhai slaves and, once she has her answer, must decide whether to remain loyal to her country and Empress, or do what needs to be done to stop it. Taigan, a sanisi from the country of Saiduan, is bound by blood to search Dhai for those with the ability to draw on the power of the dark star, their only hope in warding off the other world’s invaders. And Akhio, the unlikely new leader of Dhai, tries to keep his country together amidst political turmoil and attempted coups, all the while grappling with the knowledge of the other-world invaders, who look, but do not act, exactly like his own people.

We cannot talk about the worldbuilding and the characters of THE MIRROR EMPIRE without also talking about gender and sexuality. Arguably the most striking and important elements of this book are the opportunities Hurley takes to represent different gender identities and sexual norms. Gender-queer and non-binary representations are a core part of THE MIRROR EMPIRE: In Saiduan, we are introduced to ataisa, the Saiduan word for folx who identify as neither male or female and take on gender-neutral pronouns ze and hir. Taigan is gender-fluid, identifying as both male and female, but at different times — Taigan’s genitals and inner organs are constantly in flux, and we see Taigan contemplate Taigan’s gender-fluidity through Taigan’s feelings of isolation at not really identifying as ataisa, and not as strictly male or female, either.

Relationships between characters in terms of sex, love, and power dynamics are used to highlight sexual diversity and gendered violence. Queerness seems to be widely accepted across the whole of this world, and almost all of the characters are at least bi- or pan-sexual. The Dhai are unproblematically polyamorous and polygamous, and it is common for a Dhai family to consist of multiple husbands and wives who all have sex and children with each other, and for those husbands and wives to even have lovers outside of the marriage. We also get to see a loving, sexual relationship between an older Dhai woman and a younger Dhai man, a flip on the old Hollywood and literary trope of pairing older men with much younger women. Consent is also an important part of Dhai culture, and permission is required to even touch another person on the arm, an important nod to our-world conversations about boundaries and consent when it comes to physical or sexual contact.

Dhai is egalitarian when it comes to gender, if not slightly matriarchal in that its founder and all of its former leaders have been women. Saiduan more closely resembles the patriarchal culture of our world, but in the matriarchal country of Dorinah, things are very different. In Dorinah, women are the sole warriors, lawmakers, holders of all important positions of power, while the men stay home as subservient househusbands, wear makeup and girdles, have their wives’ initials cut into them as a mark of ownership, and are expected to be sexually available to their wives (and their wives’ female relatives) at all times. We see this dynamic primarily through Zezili’s relationship with her husband Anavha, a “gift” given to Zezili by the Empress of Dorinah for her service as a top legionnaire.

In terms of highlighting issues surrounding gendered and sexual violence in Dorinah, Hurley achieves something that most other writers, filmmakers, showrunners have only tried to do. Instead of relying on graphic depictions of violence against women and women’s oppression under patriarchy — concepts that have become overused to the point of laziness and actually work more to uphold patriarchy than dismantle it — Hurley flips the script. It is the men, now, who are subject to sexual harassment, absurd beauty standards, and being considered property. In taking long-held sexist attitudes towards women and turning them on their head, Hurley creates a matriarchal culture that in many ways is a dark parody our own, real-world patriarchal society. It’s all brilliant and horrifying, and effective in forcing the reader to contend with these issues without invoking worn tropes.

All of these things — the rich worldbuiding, the unforgettable characters, and the skillful upheaval of sex and gender norms — give life to a story so powerful it left me breathless by the final page. I’m usually pretty good at figuring out plot twists and endpoints in stories, but I couldn’t even tell you how many times during THE MIRROR EMPIRE I thought, “Oh, okay, I see where this is going…” only to be completely blindsided just twenty pages later. Or, if I was right, another plot twist, entirely unforseen, was just around the corner, or the journey to point A to my projected point Z was not at all what I thought it would be. It’s a story that keeps you guessing and white-knuckled the whole way, and the end contains some of the cruelest cliffhangers I have come across in a long, long time. Cruel, I tell you; just CRUEL.

Thankfully, THE EMPIRE ASCENDANT, the second installment of the WORLDBREAKER SAGA, is due out this October. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy, and am counting down the days!

Abuse is Not Our Whole Story: Harley Quinn as an Empowerment Fantasy

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TW: Discussion of abuse/abusive relationships.

Harley Queen has been a staple in the DC universe for over twenty years. I would definitely consider her to be one of my favorite DC characters and probably one of my favorite comic book characters, overall. I’m not alone in this, and it was the overwhelmingly enthusiastic fan reaction to the character’s first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series that took Harley from one-joke-wonder to one of the most beloved DC villains today.

I’m also not alone in my discomfort surrounding parts of her story, and for a long time I’ve grappled with my adoration for a character whose various arcs have so heavily focused on her devotion to and obsession with a man who abuses her, both emotionally and physically. As disturbing as her relationship with the Joker is, there was always something about Harley I really, really enjoyed. She was funny, she had a great costume (in the original design, at least), and I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was even something empowering about her.

I’m slightly more alone in this. Whenever I express the idea of Harley Quinn as an empowering character, I don’t always find people who agree with me. They agree she’s a great character and they enjoy her, sure, but empowering? More often than not, they cite how deeply entrenched in abuse she and her story are, and how, despite the abuse, she continues pining over and returning to the Joker time and time again. Therefore, the argument goes, she can’t be (or shouldn’t be) empowering.

Harley Quinn was introduced to us in the midst of her obsessive, abusive relationship with the Joker, it’s true, and their disturbing dynamic has been reproduced in canon many times since the original storyline. But it’s not her whole storyline, and it’s entirely misguided to suggest that 1) a woman character whose story includes abuse can never exist in other contexts, and 2) victimhood disqualifies her from being considered a symbol of empowerment for other women.

Women are abused, harassed, and mistreated physically and/or emotionally by men every day — on the street, in the workplace, at school, and at home by boyfriends/husbands or male relatives — so when we see these stories in our media it hits home. It is common for women to love, remain devoted to, and keep returning to their abuser for years and years, just like Harley did. Harley’s story is not one of disempowerment, but an emotionally realistic portrayal of how so many women live and deal with abuse. The long character arc surrounding the Joker only makes her more relatable, more real to those of us who have been there and know what it’s like. What turns these abused women characters into empowerment fantasies is how we understand them as people before, during, and after the abuse occurs.

Abuse doesn’t override all of the accomplishments and experiences that have come before it, and it doesn’t prohibit us from having accomplishments and good experiences afterwards. This is not to discount the significance of what happened, as abusive experiences have an enormous impact on the victim’s life for a long, long time. But having been abused doesn’t erase who we are as people; what was done to us by others is not. who. we. are.

And it’s not who Harley is, either.

Harley Quinn has so far appeared in over 700 comic book issues. Over 50 of those appearances are her own titles, many of those issues not including the Joker at all. She’s appeared in over 20 issues of Gotham City Sirens alongside Catwoman and Poison Ivy, and has had her own series with Poison Ivy, as well. She has her own issues in the Convergence series, spent time as a member of the Secret Six, and is now a member of the Suicide Squad. Not to mention she has an extensive backstory, which goes back even further than her stint as a doctor at Arkham Asylum.

That’s just a brief overview; there’s more! Clearly, if you’re looking for a good Harley Quinn adventure sans/in spite of the Joker, you have plenty to choose from. And if you’re one of those arguing that her defining character trait is woman-giving-into-abuse, you’ll want to rethink that idea after checking out some of the above titles.

Even in her original appearances in the 90s Batman cartoons, we see her question, challenge, and have experiences outside of her relationship with the Joker. Don’t even get me started on the hilarious and super well-done “Harley’s Holiday” episode, which only mentions the Joker once, and so briefly that I just had to think really, really hard about whether he featured at all. The scene in “Trial” where Harley finds out the Joker gave her up the last time she escaped from Arkham in exchange for a lesser sentence for himself is great, too, because she gives him the ear-full he’s deserved for a long time (though not quite to the extent that I would have liked her to!).

And then there’s Harley’s relationship with Poison Ivy. Let’s talk about the “Harley & Ivy” Animated Series episode for a moment, because I think that story is even more quintessential to understanding the character of Harley Quinn than “Mad Love”, her original origin story in the comics, is.

[Note: Below I’m discussing Harley and Ivy’s first meeting in The Animated Series, not the comic book. The comic book tells a different story but the tone is similar and the overall point and purpose of the relationship is the same. The Animated Series episode came first, anyway.]

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After the Joker throws Harley out of their hideout in yet another rage, she decides to try to make it on her own in the great, big world of crime. The next time we see her, she’s gone to the Gotham Museum to steal the Harlequin diamond (a heist she originally planned to carry out with the Joker). Harley skillfully avoids setting off the security alarms with a series of backflips, and stops in front of the diamond case to express out loud how happy “Mistah J” is going to be with her when she brings him the prize. Her face drops. “No,” she says, picking herself up again. “I’m keeping it for myself!”

Just as she’s about to remove the diamond, the security alarms go off, so she smashes the case, grabs the jewel, and runs for the exit. The cops are already there, but so is Poison Ivy, who tripped the alarms while stealing plant toxins (because what else?) from the museum laboratory. The two meet, combine skills and resources to evade the police, and get away in Ivy’s car. Their partnership takes off from there.

Throughout the episode, Ivy actively challenges Harley’s devotion to the Joker, tells her she deserves better, and introduces her to a way of life without her abuser. Ivy takes Harley under her wing and they do awesome villain-y things together like terrorize a men’s club and shoot a bazooka at a car of obnoxious cat-callers. It’s a super fun episode to watch, and it’s the first time we see Harley Quinn really, truly happy, and being treated well. That is, until she starts to miss the Joker. Despite how much she’s enjoying time with her new friend, Harley calls her abuser on the phone and the Joker — furious that Harley didn’t come right back to him as he expected and, instead, is overshadowing him in the headlines for the crimes she’s committing with Ivy — tracks her down and shows up at Ivy’s home.

This narrative is so familiar it’s painful: victim leaves the relationship but still holds onto the hope that her abuser really cares for her, and abuser becomes furious when his victim leaves, so he stalks her and violently tries to get her back. This episode single-handedly defines Harley’s early character arc not as woman-giving-into-abuse, but as woman-struggling-to-leave-abusive-relationship.

This episode isn’t the end of Harley’s relationship with the Joker, and she continues to struggle with his abuse for a long time afterwards. But “Harley & Ivy” became a huge turning point that not only gave Harley a friend and ally, but framed Harley’s struggle in a relatable and even hopeful way — “Harley has someone (Ivy) who cares about her now. She can get there! She can be okay! She’s not there yet, but she can be!”

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Harley Quinn is still thriving, sometimes with but often without the Joker at her side. And, as recently confirmed by DC Comics, Harley and Ivy’s relationship is a lot more than friend-love: they’ve been having sex this whole time! Of course, this is no surprise to the fans, who have speculated the sexual nature of their relationship for years, but confirming the relationship as canon only strengthens the argument that Harley Quinn is, in fact, an empowerment fantasy for women, especially those who have been abused. Abuse is really good at making the victim feel like she is nothing. Survivors of abuse are often traumatized into thinking that they are wholly undeserving of love or being treated well by other people — sexually, romantically, or otherwise. But Ivy loves Harley, and Ivy treats Harley well. To Ivy, Harley is not nothing, and it shows all of us that there can be life, and love, after abuse.

When we’re talking about a fictional character, convincing personhood is key to how we as readers and viewers relate to that character, and Harley (outlandish costumes and body count aside) is as relatable as they come. She is a victim of abuse, but she’s also a survivor, and most importantly, she’s a whole person — her own person — outside of what has happened to her. Abuse is not her whole story.

Harley Quinn keeps on keeping on and keeps on kicking ass, and those traits, more than anything else, are what define the character for me.

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Yes, Your “Harmless Greetings” are a Form of Street Harassment

“10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman”, a video released by the anti-street harassment organization hollaback!, went instantly viral after being posted to YouTube on Tuesday. (watch it here)

As the video started to flood social media newsfeeds, a wealth of (necessary) criticism began to pour in: writers and social justice advocates pointed out that the complete lack of white men depicted in the video (which the video’s director later admitted was done intentionally), inciting concerns that the video was doing more to justify racism than shed light on street harassment. It was also noted (by hollaback!, as well as others) that the harassment experienced by women of color and LGBTQ individuals (especially transwomen) is different than the harassment experienced by white women (like the actress in the video), arguing for closer attention to these experiences of harassment, which often escalate to physical violence and murder.

I am glad all of these criticisms exist, and encourage everyone to read them and keep an eye out for further conversations surrounding the intersections of race/class/gender and street harassment. This is the kind of criticism we need for movements to push forward, unlike the critiques on the opposite end of the spectrum, which, unsurprisingly, have come from men (and some women) completely denying that street harassment is a problem, or that it even exists.

Such gross denial of the reality of street harassment has come from the usual, expected sources like Rush Limbaugh, as well as unexpected ones, like men and even women from my own social circles. Aside from the so-overplayed-it’s-now-a-cliche “not all men” choir, the most common response on this end has been to criticize the woman for being “rude” to men who “were just trying to be nice”.

“You can’t even say ‘good morning’ anymore!”
“I just won’t say ‘hello’ to a woman ever again. That’s the only way not to be considered a harasser, it seems.”
“Women complain when we don’t talk to them, then complain when we do! They were just trying to compliment her. Men can’t win!”
“All I saw were a bunch of harmless greetings. Women need to get over themselves.”

These are all things I have seen or heard in response to this video, and all of them miss the point at the center of distinguishing street harassment from normal conversation. Street harassment isn’t defined by what is said, but the fact that the words are uninvited and delivered in a way that is not meant to initiate conversation, but to call out and draw unsolicited attention to the individual they are directed towards.

Put as simply as possible, here is what happens: You are a man who sees a woman walking down the street. The two of you don’t know each other. You also do not know whether or not the woman wants to be bothered or spoken to, but you speak anyway. In doing so, you are acting on the belief that it doesn’t matter what she wants, and that your desire to say something completely trumps her desire to be left alone.

You may not be yelling “hey, sexy” or “nice ass”, but your uninvited “hello” cuts through the same space to reinforce the dismal reality that a woman cannot walk down the street without being watched and gazed upon by men. Your seemingly “harmless” greeting is painful because it speaks to the fear that women cannot go anywhere without our bodies, motions, and presence becoming the subject of someone else’s gaze.

That is why the “they were just trying to be nice” defense is not only misguided but so, so dangerous. Calling out to random women on the sidewalk enacts and reinforces oppressive power dynamics that tell men they have the right to impose themselves on women’s spaces. It is NOT the same as “approaching” a woman you are interested in. It is NOT the same as giving a woman a “compliment”. It is NOT the same as “simply saying hello”. It is a violation of her personal space, an imposition justified by violent notions that normalize the objectification of women. And, yes – it is harassment.

If men really want to “be nice”, they need to learn to recognize when their voices are unwelcome, and leave women alone.

For an alternative to the “10 Hours” project, check out Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere, by Jessica Williams of the Daily Show.

The 5 Best Anthropology Books for Non-Anthropologists

Anthropology is an incredible discipline, responsible for a wealth of scientific, social, and political contributions, and possessing a keen ability to propose whole new ways of thinking about human life. The problem I have with most anthropological writing, however, is that such important works are often weighed down with so much jargon that they become inaccessible to non-academic audiences, who generally (and understandably) don’t want to wade through pages and pages of dense, tedious text in order to learn something new and exciting.

This strange loyalty to jargon-coated information and the academic/non-academic divide has always bothered me, especially in a field like anthropology, which just has so much cool knowledge to offer. I think anyone, anthropologist or not, can greatly benefit from reading anthropological research, and luckily, there are many wonderful books out there that are very much accessible (and bearable) to non-academic audiences.

Here, I’ve compiled a list of books, in no particular order, that I consider to be the best anthropology reads for non-anthropologists. And I promise, these books are as informative and engaging as they are jargon-free.

Happy reading!

The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along the Rio Grande,
Angela Garcia

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The Pastoral Clinic is a powerful and confrontational depiction of heroin addiction in northern New Mexico’s Española Valley, home to the highest rate of herion-related deaths in the country. Intimate and frequently jarring, Angela Garcia’s award-winning ethnography chronicles the lives of several Hispaño residents as they navigate a landscape of addiction littered with systemic and institutional violence.

Arguing that widespread heroin use in the region is historically rooted in the material and cultural dispossession experienced at the hands of colonialism, Garcia’s work is a scathing critique of the institutional disparities that continue to fail the people of the Española Valley, and a loud call for reform. Beautifully written and heart-wrenching in content, Garcia’s narrative brings to light the politics (and the failures) of institutionalized care in the United States, and is a forceful invitation for us to reconsider the space between life and death, addiction and recovery, and the past, present, and imagined future.

Insectopedia, Hugh Raffles

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Yes, this book is about bugs. Let me explain:

No matter where in the world we live, we are surrounded by insects. Those teeny-tiny creatures encourage some of our greatest fears and annoyances, yet we know very little about them and rarely pay them much mind until they’re crawling along our bedroom wall. Raffles is a long-established anthropologist known for his interest in human/non-human relationships, and in this book he aims to explore all of the varied and complex ways in which humans relate to and understand their co-existence with insects (like it or not).

Insectopedia takes the reader all over the world, from China to London to Raffles’s own New York City apartment. The chapters are arranged in alphabetical order (like encyclopedia entries), and range in length from one- to two-page vignettes to full-length essays. Through conversations, meditations, memories, and observational narratives, Raffles tells a beautiful and engaging story that, for me, succeeded in doing the one thing I never thought possible – it actually made me care about bugs.

Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism,
Kristen Ghodsee

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Lost in Transition brings together Kristen Ghodsee’s twenty years (1989 – 2009) of fieldwork and research in Eastern Europe. Immersing the reader in a narrative of political transformation through a lens of the everyday, Ghodsee brings to light the struggles of life in Bulgaria as corruption, unemployment, and complete social upheaval followed the tumultuous transition from communism to democracy in the former Soviet bloc.

Through captivating stories that chronicle a whole range of personal experiences (including her own), Ghodsee shatters common misconceptions of what the transition out of communism actually meant for people, and shows us, instead, how and why many remain nostalgic for the days before democracy. Haunting, raw, and brilliantly crafted, Lost in Transition is the story of the former Soviet Union no history textbook will ever tell you.

Ordinary Affects, Kathleen Stewart

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Kathleen Stewart adopts an interesting ethnographic approach in Ordinary Affects, in that the project is, in essence, a prompt for us to turn an ethnographic eye on ourselves. Arranged in a series of vignettes, Ordinary Affects is aimed at looking at how our little, everyday encounters work to shape the way we see, feel, and react to the world around us.

Though the vignettes are based on Stewart’s own observations and experiences (many of the passage are, in fact, quite autobiographical), she writes in third person to further demonstrate the ways in which politics of the body, emotion, and perception are linked to the outside world. With its lyrical passages and keen insights into the most intricate experiences of the everyday, Ordinary Affects will leave you with a heightened sensitivity to the world around you, and will not be a book you will be satisfied in reading just once.

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Lila Abu-Lughod

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In the words of the author, “Anyone seriously interested in Muslim women’s rights must follow them as they move.” This is precisely what Lila Abu-Lughod does in this book, inspired by an article she wrote in 2002 of a similar name and premise. Chronicling the lives and experiences of individual Muslim women, Abu-Lughod addresses (and tears apart) the common tropes that have come to surround Muslim women in today’s socio-political narratives.

Through a close look at how headscarves, the burqa, and arranged marriages have become just some of the issues at the forefront of the Western crusade to “save” women in the Middle East from Islam, Abu-Lughod presents a poignant counter-argument to considering women’s suffering solely within the context of their religion. Islam, she argues, is actually a source of empowerment for many Muslim women, who are much less inhibited by their religion as they are by Western military intervention, border controls, a discriminatory legal system, patriarchal family traditions, and widespread poverty. A sobering tale with a brilliant post-colonial feminist edge, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? is one of the most important books on women’s rights and international politics to surface in years.

The Giver: On “Nice” Dystopias and the Dangers of Bliss

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Lois Lowry’s The Giver was my first introduction to the genre of dystopian fiction, and for that, it holds a particularly special place in my heart. I am thrilled with the recent resurgence of conversation surrounding the story, which is largely due to the long-awaited release of the movie, and my eager-to-eavesdrop ears perk up at the mere mention of it. Not long ago, I overheard an especially interesting comment on The Giver, between two young women who were sitting near me at a coffee shop.

One of the women said to her friend: “Am I wrong to think it wouldn’t be so bad to live in The Giver? I mean, there’s no war, no prejudice, and everyone gets a job and a house; it sounds pretty nice to me.”

However much of a joke the comment was intended to be, there was a telling honesty to it. The Giver presents a world vastly different than the worlds of many other well-known dystopias, in that it is, for all intents and purposes, conceptually “nice”. The Giver takes place in a society, referred to only as “the community”, where an order of ‘Sameness’ has existed for countless generations. Under Sameness, everyone is inherently equal, as there are no social or economic disparities, no hunger, no war, no pain, and yes – everyone is guaranteed a job and a house.

This is the “nice” part, no doubt, but it comes with a price: for the community’s widespread lack of conflict, prejudice, and poverty, there also exists a profound lack of choice and individual agency. Every decision – from a child’s name to a person’s spouse and occupation – is made by a Council of Elders. There are no individual birthdays, no privacy (not even in dreams), and all behavior is tightly surveilled and policed, lest it sparks a deviation from the established Sameness. Such control and surveillance are more familiar elements of the dystopian genre, but what the young woman in the coffee shop’s comment showcased – and what I really want to talk about here – is the disturbing quickness with which people are willing to surrender all agency and control if it means living in a world that feels “nice” to them.

Not unlike other popular dystopian stories, the world of The Giver is wholly dependent on the censorship of knowledge in order to maintain itself. What is different here, however, is that the people in the community, including the Council of Elders, have no knowledge of anything before or beyond Sameness. Only the ‘Receiver of Memory’ holds this knowledge, and it is through 12-year-old Jonas’s training sessions to become the new Receiver (a position chosen for him by the Elders) that we become aware of all the knowledge the community has given up for the sake of its Sameness. It is in these sessions that the current Receiver (the “Giver”) transmits to Jonas memories of everything from war, blood, hunger, and pain, to sunlight, snow, color, and music. None of the other members of the community have these memories, and so they live at peace with what they do have, purely on the virtue of not knowing anything else.

It is the epitome of what we mean when we say “ignorance is bliss”, and there is no doubt that the people in the community do live blissfully. But they also, by extension, live in ignorance, and it forces them to be content with their own brand of dystopia because they have no idea that anything else is possible. It is a comfortable life, but not very exhilarating, or even happy.

While the philosophical nature of “bliss” versus “happiness” is up for neverending debate, “bliss” is often understood as a divine state of being, a perpetual state of having nothing else left to want or crave. “Happiness”, on the other hand, refers more to what is felt when a particular want or craving is met. The person who is happy achieves this feeling only after a period of wanting, while the person who is blissful wants nothing at allBased on these definitions, many could argue that we should strive to become “blissful” over becoming “happy”, but I disagree. There is tremendous value in wanting – it is what drives ambition, training, and endless exploration of all the world has to offer. Bliss, or not wanting, can breed only more of the same, as there is no desire for things to be any different. While the security of being content is appealing, not much ever really comes from it.

This is why the community in The Giver has been able to exist for longer than anyone who lives in it can remember – if there is no desire for things to be any different, they never will be. A blissful world is a most dangerous dystopia because there is no desire to question or change it. Such desire can only come from the knowledge that another way of living is possible, and we see this happen in The Giver only as Jonas continues to receive the memories of the time before Sameness.

The desire for change is fueled as the memories quickly tear apart Jonas’s world of bliss and, in turn, begin to isolate him from his family and childhood friends. This is shown in an especially pivotal passage in the book, leading up to the novel’s climax:

His childhood, his friendships, his carefree sense of security–all of these things seemed to be slipping away. With his new, heightened feelings, he was overwhelmed by sadness at the way the others had laughed and shouted, playing at war. But he knew that they could not understand why, without the memories. He felt such love for Asher and for Fiona. But they could not feel it back, without the memories. And he could not give them those. Jonas knew with certainty that he could change nothing (pg. 135).

Of course, Jonas does find a way to change things, but if not for the memories, the knowledge, and his bubble of bliss being destroyed, he would have never realized there was space for things to change, and certainly would not have realized the need. 

This is exactly what the promise of “bliss” does – the idea of living in a world so effortlessly perfect and shielded from sadness is so attractive, so comfortable, that not only do we not realize there are other ways of being to strive for, we begin to not want to engage with or challenge the world around us for fear that it may not feel “nice”. It is actually a brilliant tactic of social control – to make people feel so comfortable that they don’t care to ask for more – but as we see through Jonas’s growth and revelations, such pristine bliss makes for a really awful way to live in the long-run.

The characters in The Giver had no choice but to live in a bubble of bliss, but we do, and that is why the young woman in the coffee shop’s comment disturbed me in the way that it did. For all the pain and confusion caused by the memories, Jonas comes to see that eliminating the knowledge of the bad will also eliminate the knowledge of the good, and ultimately concludes that without our ability to know, feel, and even want, we really do not have much at all.