It’s been another sweltering week in Southern California. Memories of the feel of chilly mornings, long sleeves, or the sky being any other color but blinding white-blue are distant and dream-like.
On Wednesday evening, while enjoying happy hour sangria at a spot in our neighborhood, it began to rain. It was the first rain in months The sky, though, was still mostly sunny, and this made for a surreal, magical feel. The rain drew out this rich smells of the earth and air, while the sunlight turned golden and soft and the small rain cloud passed as quickly as it had arrived. A man walked by and remarked, “Only in California, sunshine and rain at the same time.”
The comment seemed appropriate to me on many levels. This year I have been humbled, seen some of my deepest brokenness and its impact on those I love, and felt a deep need for healing like never before. At the same time, I’ve been blessed in many ways. My job has allowed me time and a stress-free routine, and those that have come around me during difficult times have demonstrated the meaning of grace and love.
Maybe that sounds trite, but I am trying to looking for opportunities to be more vulnerable through this blog. As corny as it sounds, and as awkward as the metaphor is (“rain” in California is always a good and happy thing), I guess my point is that I am grateful for where I am right now.
Heading into the weekend, here are some good links:
In my last post about my novel (Part 1), I poured out a jumble of thoughts about deep ideas and themes. There are probably still a lot of questions about the story itself. But before I go there, I want to continue the big theme thread because these thoughts are what really prompted me to want to write fiction.
The bulk of my novel is the protagonist’s story– her identity, her conflicts, her powers, her journey toward understanding what has happened to her people and her role in saving the rest of humanity. Her story will also be the story of Indigenous America, a place with 30,000 years of history from Alaska to Chile. A place whose human wealth and potential were tragically interrupted, but live on in the stories, resilience, resistance, and traditions of a wildly diverse collection of cultures.
One of the big questions I’m asking is What would happen to the modern world if, like after Columbus arrived, diseases to which whole populations had no immunity utterly devastated civilization as we knew it? Pop culture is filled with such stories. But we rarely talk about the fact that this actually has happened before. The taking of North and South America by Europeans was nothing less than an alien invasion, an apocalypse.
In my story, I imagine an epidemic unleashed by the melting of the polar ice caps. Previously unknown viruses are being discovered in the carcasses of animals that had been frozen for thousands of years. I imagine that in this scenario, only people with mostly Native American ancestry are immune to this virus. Everyone else is vulnerable, and because that includes the majority of people, society pretty much collapses. But all of this only happens in the last part of the novel.
What we call “climate change” is actually the culmination of an idea, a process, that has been going on since Columbus first set foot on Turtle Island. There is no African Diaspora without an extractive economy that turned human bodies and stolen land into sugar and cotton for export. There is no industrial or technological revolution without settler colonialism and the systematic robbing of Native lands and their conversion into commodities like coal, timber, oil, uranium. There is no Latinx culture without conquest, settlement, rape, and the promise of fortune and freedom in “virgin” lands. There is no World War 2 or global economy or Internet without the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Manifest Destiny, King Cotton, the Middle Passage.
Climate change, or the ecological reckoning that awaits us, is not just the result of rapid modernization and economic growth. It was centuries in the making. And it was anticipated. For a people whose spiritual and cultural identity was tied to the living, breathing earth, the commodification of that earth was an existential threat. When the French and Dutch first arrived in what is now New York, they created an economy for beaver pelts that never previously existed. In a matter of two decades, that economy (along with European diseases) had fundamentally altered Indian societies. What they knew to be true about the natural order of things was no longer true. They became dependent on the beaver trade, and the very ecology of North and South America began a transformation that would never be reversed. As more settlers came, they were moved off of their land, demoralized and defeated.
Or so we are told, in stories that were repeated for the next 400 years.
My book will explore what might happen, in an alternate reality, if the that transformation actually did reach a turning point and began to reverse. What might happen if those people once again came to the forefront, in not just a demographic way, but a spiritual way?
Indian nations, with their ample resources and limited political power, have often borne the brunt of resource extraction. For the Lakota, the “Black Snake,” as many call the Dakota Pipeline, feels like just one more case of whittling away of their land—which is to say, breaking their treaties. And Indians can’t help but notice that although the reason they keep getting screwed is never acknowledged to be racism, the victims of the various ecological catastrophes through the decades are often members of their race. Between dams, toxic dumps, fracking, oil spills, and atomic bomb tests, the list of injustices against native communities could fill pages.
“Climate change is inherently racist,” said Nick Estes, co-founder of activist organization the Red Nation and a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. “The Anthropocene began with fossil fuel extraction, which began with colonization. The rise of temperatures began with the industrial revolution. And the damage was done to ‘expendable people,’ exploiting the labor of black people and the land of indigenous people.”
And here, the hints of a the spiritual “reversal” I talked about, and how it sees social justice and ecological justice as intimately linked:
People I met here felt that white people had strayed so far from their spiritual core that it was the Indian who would have to rescue them. A Pawnee hip-hop artist who calls himself Quese IMC (born Marcus Frejo Little Eagle)…told me that both racism and exploitation of the earth came from the same sickness: a lack of spirituality, which breeds a lack of compassion for other beings. “The earth is a spirit, the water is a spirit, and if you have no spirit, and you have no connection to those things, it will be easy to destroy them and not even care.”
When I asked Chief LittleSun what was so great about the gathering, he said, “The spiritual part of this movement. This ground is the holiest place on earth right now.” This was the first time in his entire life that he’d taken part in any sort of protest or movement. I asked if he considered himself an environmentalist. LittleSun shook his head. “I don’t even know what that is.” It was as if I’d asked him if he were if a “skin-ist” or a “body-ist.” He simply didn’t think of himself as an entity separate from the earth.
Speaking to the main camp circle, Begaye compared the Navajo code talkers who helped defeat Hitler to Native Americans today leading the fight to protect land and water. “We have always saved the white people from themselves!” he declared, and the crowd roared its approval.
While the Standing Rock protestors articulate a bold and passionate spiritual vision of justice and healing, Canadian author Naomi Klein comes in on the intellectual/political side. A few months ago, I read this article by Klein in the London Review of Books (LRB). Ms. Klein is an intellectual superstar on the progressive left. Her best-known books are The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. In the article, entitled “Let them Drown,” Klein connects the dots between the fossil fuel economy, colonialism, cultural genocide, wars and refugee crises, and much more. The whole piece is worth reading in full, but here are some tidbits:
A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat. When that happens, theories of human hierarchy – that we must take care of our own first – will be marshalled to rationalise these monstrous decisions. We are making this rationalisation already, if only implicitly. Although climate change will ultimately be an existential threat to all of humanity, in the short term we know that it does discriminate, hitting the poor first and worst, whether they are abandoned on the rooftops of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or whether they are among the 36 million who according to the UN are facing hunger due to drought in Southern and East Africa.
Klein goes on to talk about settler colonialism in Israel, the suicide epidemic among First Nations people in Canada, and the correlation between drought, the Arab Spring, and the U.S.-led campaign of drone strikes in the Middle East. Crazy, amazing stuff.
These articles did not inspire my novel, but when I found them I realized that they articulated the ideas I wanted to explore in fiction.
But all of this is the easy part. I have outlined and story-boarded most of the novel, and it is colossal. Now I am in the trenches: crafting scenes, determining pace, characterization, dialogue, world-building, historical and scientific research….in a word, getting words on the page.
Released this year to much acclaim, Marjorie Liu’s Monstress is a striking and beautifully illustrated comic series. The fantasy world she imagines is a violent one full of exploitation, sorcery, ethnic warfare, and ancient secrets. My only beef is that cats play a more prominent role in this world than I would like. Never been a big fan of cats.
Also of note: Marjorie Liu is Junot Diaz’ longtime bae. They both teach at MIT, and she even shouts him out in the dedication page.
Atlanta is Donald Glover(aka Childish Gambino)’s new series and it’s gooooooooood.
And just because I need want an excuse to share this, the world has to know about the Caucasian iconic-ness of Joanne the Scammer. Upgrade your lifestyle. Honestly. Truly.
Two selections here. The first, A Tribe Called Red, is a group of NDN DJs whose star has been rising this last year. Their new album recently dropped, and features a track with Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def). Some of their songs have been the soundtrack to my writing, including this one:
This track from the new album with spoken word poet Saul Williams is also cray:
The second artist I’m featuring is Rokia Traore, a singer from Mali. I first heard her playing in a coffee shop in Chicago during Labor Day Weekend. Good, good stuff:
So, the big debate is tonight. I’ll miss the fun of live-tweeting and memes, but I’m glad to be watching it with a group of friends.
Honestly, I have been dreading this. I’ve become so jaded and demoralized by this election that I am almost to the point of not wanting to hear or read anything between now and election day. And for me, that’s saying a lot. I know I’m not the only one feeling this–that the level of political conversation and quality of leadership our country seems capable of producing make a dumpster fire look attractive.
That’s why the timing was just right for finding this yesterday. The #BlackLivesMatter syllabus came out a year or two ago, and this is the Fall 2016 edition. Major respect to whoever assembled this list of resources, because this is what it should look like to be politically engaged and educated in these United States. This is leadership, intelligence, passion, and compassion. Please look at this syllabus and share it widely.
People have asked me if I am a Clinton supporter. The simple answer is no, but in explaining why I will (probably) vote for her (I say probably because living in California, the outcome of the election does not hinge much on my anti-Trump vote) I always bring it back to movements like #BLM and #noDAPL and the Dreamers movement. A Clinton administration, for all its neoliberal awfulness, would at least engage with and give concessions to grassroots movements. It might try to co-opt them, it might stall and bullshit and do all the things administrations do to avoid taking big risks. But I am confident that Hillary’s people will be savvy enough to recognize their own interests in advancing at least some of the progressive agendas.
A Trump administration would…well, you already know. At least Hillary and per people can speak the language. Trump is like the Ruler of the Spirit of the Air. Young people who don’t remember the Bush 2 years: please don’t get caught slippin’ this year. This is no joke. Here’s us four years from now if Trump wins (it sounds like they even have the same speechwriter):
But more importantly, don’t stop at voting. This syllabus is a great example of what it looks like to be doing the real work of politics and policy through activism and organizing. It is not the only way, but it is a good model that can be applied to any of the issues you care about. In a country where the highest leadership is increasingly venal and morally compromised, the need for leaders who care and understand is so much greater.
That’s my 2 cents for the day. I hope you all enjoy watching tonight, or at least have enough booze on hand to remain sane. And remember, self care is important.
You may have figured it out by now, but I am no longer on social media. This has allowed me to devote a lot more time to reading and writing (the reason I am off social media — and have a new phone number and email — is completely unrelated). To be honest, it has been hard to be away. I suffer from serious FOMO. But I have to admit that the freed up time has done wonders for my focus and creativity as a writer.
Last year around this time, I developed a creative writing idea. I started with the question: Imagine the book that I would want to read — what would that book be? My imagination took off. Soon it was clear that the only format that could contain it would be a novel.
Although the more I’ve thought of it, it could also be a pretty kick-ass series of graphic novels. If anyone out there knows any comic book artists, hit me up!
I’ll reveal more about the details of my novel as I go along (that’s part of why I re-started this blog in the first place), but I would classify it maybe as…. historical post-apocalyptic climate change anti-racism de-colonial fantasy/supernatural fiction. If that wasn’t already a thing, it is now.
My story features a strong female lead. She is immortal, and the story spans centuries. There is a love interest. It links climate change to colonialism and racism. There is a global epidemic unleashed by a virus that was locked in the polar ice caps for thousands of years. There is an epic showdown between good and evil. And there is, of course, a huge twist at the end.
The other day I read an interview with a young and emerging Native American poet, Tommy Pico. He lives in New York but was born and raised on the Kumeyaay reservation in Southern California. The interview highlighted this line from one of his poems:
a post-apocalyptic America / that started 1492
When I read that, it clicked. That is the heart of my novel. That is the idea I am building my entire narrative around. 1492 was a world-historical pivot. History hinged on that encounter, and not only because it resulted in the erasure of nearly 1/5 of all humans and their stories and their cultural and spiritual vitality. The taking of the Americas was the blueprint for the modern world, for capitalism, slavery, the cultures that became American and Latin American and Black, for the plunder and poisoning of the natural world, and ultimately for the re-shaping of the biosphere and all of the destruction (some of which we’ve seen, much of which we have yet to see) that goes along with it.
What does good v. evil look like from the standpoint of marginalized, colonized people? What does heroism, redemption, an epic quest, etc. look like through the lens of, say, those whose ancestors died of smallpox in colonial New England, or those who survived the Middle Passage, or those who cross militarized borders in the desert? If they were the protagonists in a story that imagined good and evil battling on a cosmic, multi-dimensional level across time and space, what would their stories be like?
I’m starting with the idea that the entire Western capitalist society, because it has been fundamentally extractive, racist, and colonial, is spiritually and morally poisoned at its core. It destroyed and commodified human life, land, water, and air. What my story seeks to do is explore the moral and spiritual dimensions of that process through a fantasy/sci-fi lens. I want to position the “victims” of this history as the heroes, or even as the flawed saviors.
In my characters and their arcs, I’m imagining a world in which the Haudenosaunee and the Zuni and the Ohlone and the Ojibwe and the African diaspora from all across the Americas have power, voices that are heard far and wide, resources, and a shared worldview that shapes government, economics, ethics, religion.
As I dove into researching the world that was created in 1492, and specifically its impact on the indigenous people of the Americas, images and stories filled my head, and I had to believe that they are all connected. I want to write a story that makes some sense and some redemption out of episodes like these:
Hundreds of Peruvian Indians marching into the hellish bowels of the mountain at Potosi, tearing gold out of the earth until their bodies and breath failed.
The flayed skin and severed limbs of resisters and innocents, those who would not worship a strange god, from Ciboney (Cuba) to Patuxet (Massachusetts) to Ahwaste (San Francisco).
The mountains of bison skulls piled high on the prairie as glimmering railroad tracks were laid down and crossed a continent.
The damming of rivers, the leveling of mountains, the clearing of continental forests–and the disappearance of entire ways of life, whole languages.
The generations of children felled by suicide and alcohol and hopelessness
My novel will not be historical fiction in the strict sense. I am not necessarily going to dive into any of these (or other) historical episodes.
Rather, I will use my characters and the speculative fiction narrative to tell a fantastical story that weaves a common thread through all this history. It will take place in actual historical times and places (including the future), but the story I am telling will not be about any one culture or historical period. The point is to draw out the bigger, over-arching moral and spiritual meaning behind history and our modern world (racism, climate change, etc.) and to do that through an engaging and dramatic story arc.
In #noDAPL news, it was exciting to see the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council this week denouncing the pipeline as a violation of tribal sovereignty.
I am working on a post that will give more detail about my current writing project. Now that my mind always seems to be chewing on the themes and concepts I’ll be writing about, it’s amazing how often I seem to be hearing or reading things that relate directly to them: there has been no shortage of recentmediaattention on the racial and social impacts of climate change. The #noDAPL protests have also amplified a lot of voices that have helped me think through my ideas.
I have also been loving theselists of tips for writing fiction.
This is the state motto of Oregon, but don’t ask me why. I’m guessing the “she” is referring to the land itself, which Manifest Destiny always imagined as female and ripe for conquest.
I’m in the state capitol today meeting legislators to tell them about my organization’s role as a provider of quality child care and education and why they should support it/us. I really like the feel of the capitol here–it is much more laid back and manageable than California’s. The floor tiles have images of salmon on them. There are lots of maps. The two chambers and the legislators’ offices are laid out very intuitively. All of this makes for a comfortable environment to lobby in, especially as a newbie. Also, being a small state, it is easier to actually get face time with lawmakers. In CA, I have only ever met with staffers.
The drive from Portland this morning was beautiful, transitioning from suburbs to exurbs to thick green forests to farmland in the Willamette Valley. There was a thick shroud of fog over the town as I drove in around 8:30am.
Oregon is an interesting place–it is certainly easy to see the culture of “weird” that Portland prides itself on. Portland was hipster before hipsters were a thing. This morning I had coffee from a portable street cart that also served artisanal bagel sandwiches and was bumping the latest album from Minneapolis-based indie rap group Atmosphere on the stereo out on the sidewalk.
But Oregon is also very big and rural, with a large First Nations population. It is also worth noting that the lack of racial diversity the state has recently been getting attention for is rooted in a long and sad history of racism. in the 1850s, Oregon was the only state where blacks were forbidden to live, work, or own property.
It is nice, though, to get out of the California bubble. We tend to take ourselves too seriously and move too fast. Being here reminds me of what life was like growing up in a “smaller” state what wasn’t based on a culture of ambition and self-creation.