Monday, March 29, 2021

How to Be a Shitty Ally

A post by Mary Fan
Hey everyone! Mary here, and I was supposed to do a Back Jacket Hack Job, but then a murderous piece of shit went on a rampage around Georgia and killed a bunch of Asian women - women like me. It's been a tumultuous few weeks, emotionally speaking. I just loved getting on the NY subway after that, knowing that people who looked like me had been randomly attacked in the city while sitting in a train car just like I was. So you can see why I'm not particularly in the mood for writing a fluffy joke post.

The response to the shootings has been as telling to me as the tragedy itself. And it stirred up a lot of old anger and frustration that goes back years. Some of the same people who'd previously brushed off and derailed my attempts to discuss anti-Asian discrimination were now posting sad-face statuses about how shocked and appalled they were by this headline-making public tragedy. To those folks: Of course you were shocked. It's easy to be shocked by something you weren't paying attention to, even when it was right in your face. Oh, you don't remember those conversations? Well, it's only natural to forget things you didn't think mattered!

So instead of a fun bookish post, here's a sarcastic rage post. Enjoy.

How to Be a Shitty Ally

So. You’re a good person. More than that, you need everyone to KNOW you’re a good person. You have a super strong sense of right and wrong, and whatever the situation, you always have the answers. Then a public tragedy strikes and *alert**alert* this is not a drill *alert**alert*! It’s time to spring into action. Especially if the tragedy struck those with marginalizations you don’t share.

So you want to be a shitty ally, the kind who cares more about being right and appearing good than hearing what anyone else has to say. Here’s your how-to guide.

Derail the conversation with Oppression Olympics

Someone from a marginalized background brings up an issue that impacts them directly. Don’t you dare let them get away with making it about them for once! Bring up a bigger tragedy to silence them! Asian Americans trying to bring up discrimination? Well, at least it’s not the Holocaust! What are they going to say to that? You’re right, and they have to shut up.

Completely ignore what’s being said

You know, sometimes you don’t have to say anything to win at this game. Just totally ignore what the marginalized person is trying to say and change the subject, as if they never said it! Better yet, do it in a group setting so you have plausible deniability! And if you happen to cut them off, well, that makes the plausible deniability even stronger if they later try to confront you about it. After all, how could you have brushed them off if you weren’t listening in the first place? 

Focus on your feelings and how the terrible things in the world affect you 

You’re listening and learning. Your thoughts and prayers are with the victims. You feel SO BAD about what’s happening. You’re crying. You want to do better. You had no idea things were this bad. You don’t want to be part of the system of oppression. You want to show that you’re a good person. You. You. You. Make it all about you. 

Don’t bother with little slights; only big splashy tragedies matter

Anyone remember that decade-old SNL skit with a white actor playing the Chinese president and literally saying “ching chong ching chong” over and over while a white actress “translated” with a stilted accent? Of course not! Because it was just a bit of fun—why would anyone make a big deal out of it? Remind them that they have no sense of humor and that they should relax; it’s just sketch comedy. Nothing is a big deal, not even the deaths of elders in random acts of violence. No, that’s not worth your precious ally time. That must be preserved for big splashy headline-making tragedies. Use the previous tactics mentioned. Derail. Ignore. Focus on your feelings—especially if those feelings bring up a bigger tragedy that will make the person bringing up the little slight feel awful. You win again!

Bring up people from marginalized backgrounds who disagree

Hey, someone from a marginalized background is trying to bring up that pesky old -ism conversation again, and you don’t agree! And guess what, neither does this other person from that same background! Well, then it must be okay, right? Japanese people in Japan don’t care about whitewashing Ghost in the Shell. Some Asian Americans find Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s absolutely hilarious! You’re right, and they’re wrong because they’re treating their own identity as a monolith when it ain’t so! Checkmate!

Refuse to see differences

You’re a humanist. You don’t see color, or gender, or anything else. The entirety of homo sapiens is like the mascot from Community—a featureless blob. And if you don’t see any of these things, how could you possibly wrong anyone?

Always remember, you have all the answers

“Well, actually” are your favorite words. Ok, so maybe it’s more of an attitude—now that those actual words are known, you might dance around them instead. But it all comes down to the same meaning: You have all the answers, and they, whoever they are, know nothing, even regarding their own experience. In fact, you know better because they can only speak to their own experience while you, in all your wisdom, know of every experience! When in doubt, interrupt and bring up someone more marginalized. Shift the conversation away from something they have background in, into one that’s either all about you or about something neither of you can really speak to. You’re right, and they’re wrong.

Congratulations, you’re a shitty ally. Change your profile pic to a damn safety pin.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Google Search: Am I Normal?

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame
We all search for a sense of identity. Some of us search by going on literal or metaphorical journeys of self-discovery, testing our limits to find out what makes us really tick. Others search Google.

It's my turn for a Google-search-based post here, so I thought I'd try to discover what Google knows about how people define themselves.

Searching "am I," here are the autocomplete suggestions:


It seems that most people are curious about their internal state, which makes sense. Even with the progress we've made in discovering more about the brain and mental health, human minds—even our own minds—are still full of mystery and confusion.

Then there are the people who suspect they are pregnant, and decide to hit up Google instead of a doctor or pregnancy test. When Google fails to tell them if they are pregnant, they try "am I pregnant quiz," and I'm not that kind of doctor, but I don't think a quiz can tell you that. Come to think of it, a quiz isn't the best way to tell you if you're depressed either.

A core part of identity is comparing yourself to everyone else. In my psychology work, trying to measure things like personality and intelligence, a consistent theme I see is that most people think they are different, but most people are not (and, mathematically, can't be). The normal curve is very normal, and so are most people. I'm sure you're just full of delightful quirks, but those are the exceptions to countless other measurable variables that you're smack dab in the middle on. A quiz can't tell you with certainty if you're depressed, but Google's auto-complete can tell you that you're not the only person trying to figure out if you're comparable to other people in how you think, who you're attracted to, or how you're feeling.

What else can Google tell us about being normal?


Ok, a lot of things about blood there. Yeah, we're all full of the stuff, sometimes it leaks out, and we all bleed the same colour. But aside from that, we are mostly searching to see if we are sadder or "crazier" than other people.

That got me thinking—is this a recent thing? 2020 was an unusual year for a lot of people. Let's look at Google Trends:


There you have it. Searches for "am I normal?" reached an all-time high in October of 2020.

It's normal to worry about being normal after a highly abnormal year.

Whether you're writing the inner workings of a character in a book, or just trying to figure yourself out, I think that it's important to remember that almost all people are struggling to figure themselves out, especially now.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Reading Non-Western Stories: A Note to My Fellow White Readers
 I saw a Twitter post this morning with a screen shot of a rejection from an agent to an AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) author, and the agent was basically saying, “Your manuscript is great! But it has a lot of foreign worldbuilding elements that our [white] readers aren't going to connect with, so I’m passing on it.” I'm paraphrasing, but I've seen this sort of thing happening plenty of times before to authors of color. It always surprises me because white readers are perfectly happy jumping into complex fantasy and science fiction worlds full of aliens and elves and trusting that it will all eventually make sense, but we can't extend that same good faith to authors who write stories set in real (or semi-real) but non-Western settings.

Another thing I saw on Twitter this week was a tweet from Joyce Carol Oates (which I'm only screenshotting and not linking to because it's a totally crap take): 

What got me grinding my teeth in particular was the "come of age reading great novels of ambition, substance, & imagination" part. She illustrates her point with examples of notoriously white, Western authors. Is Russian fiction "Western"? For this purpose, I say, yes, it is. She's comparing apples to oranges for one thing-- auto fiction is basically a genre of memoirs/autobiographies where some elements are fictionalized, and I don't think Faulkner ever wrote anything like that. Another thing is, in 2021, a purportedly progressive, feminist author is still standing on old,  mostly male, Western canon as examples of what constitutes "ambition, substance and imagination". UGH! Really?

With me being due to write a post for ATB, it seemed like an appropriate time to say: Hey, white/Western readers, we have biases we may not be aware of. We've become accustomed to Western (of primarily European and North American origin) themes, language, structure, belief systems, etc. And we, often unknowingly, impose those customs on whatever we're reading. Because of that, we're missing out on exceptional literature and shutting out some really great authors. We can do better.

One of my side-gigs is being a co-assistant editor at Cast of Wonders. A lot of what I do in that role is reading submissions and making decisions with my co-assistant editor and senior editor about which stories we'll accept for publication and audio-production. We're open to receiving stories from authors of all backgrounds, and we've made a point of trying to produce more stories that show the diversity of the authors who submit to us. Sometimes that requires opening our minds to stories that are not written in formats that are familiar to us as primarily Western and/or white readers. Sometimes we fail, despite our best intentions.

Recently my co-assistant editor, a member of the AAPI community and a talented writer himself, brought this shortcoming to our attention. Primarily his point was that often our comments as slush readers reveal our biases against non-Western structures and elements in ways we aren't aware of. He linked to great thread on Twitter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa to demonstrate and exemplify ways this bias appears in our editorial language and what it indicates:

The point of this post isn't to accuse anyone of racism. Rather, it's to remind myself and readers like me that we can and should question our biases. We can be more critical of our responses to media that include unfamiliar themes, settings, and cultures. It's also my attempt to challenge us to stretch our analytical muscles, to broaden our minds by purposefully broadening our media selections. 

Maybe learning how to be receptive to non-Western story structures will take some practice. Maybe we'll have to use Google to help us understand, to look up the meaning or translation or location of something. I promise it won't hurt, and it might actually do us some good.

Here are some places where we can start--stories that I (and some helpful friends) enjoyed and challenged me to think a bit outside of my white/Western comfort zone:

"This is How you Remember" by Phong Quan (a short story and audio story) :

"Common Grounds and Various Teas" by Sherin Nicole (a short story and audio story):''

"The Forbidden Books of  Da Lin Monastery" by Andrew K Hoe (a short story and audio story):

"Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (a SFF short story):

Ken Liu's "The Grace of Kings" (a novel)

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (a semi-memoir):

"Lagoon" a novel by Nnedi Okorafor (a novel):

"Ficciones" by Jorje Luis Borges (Magical Realism short story collection from their South American roots):

"Black Sun" by Rebecca Roanhorse (a fantasy novel):

"Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience" by Rebecca Roanhorse (a short story)

"The Devourers" by Indra Das (a novel):

"The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday" by Saad Hossain (a novella or very short novel):

"Brown Girl in the Ring" by Nalo Hopkinson (a novel)

"The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God" by Etgar Keret (short story collection):

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” by Marlon James:

Monday, March 15, 2021

A Room of One's Own


I learned about quotation marks in dialogue from my babysitter. Her name was Maria, a red head with more freckles than face and an attitude to match.

“It’s so people know what they’re saying,” she said. “Otherwise it all just blurs together.”

Maria was full of great writing advice. She told me to start at the beginning and end at the end, that I wouldn’t always know which was which, but that was probably okay. She said people like adventures, and that people could have perfectly fine adventures in their living rooms if they wanted.

She told me I needed space to spread out. To write. She’d been reading Virginia Woolf, she said, who knew a thing or two about it.

As a nine-year-old, I figured I was pretty worldly. I’d moved at least three times—once to Gibsonton, FL, known colloquially as Carnie Town because it’s where the off-season carnival folk settle—had a cat named Yoda, and had seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show (by accident, at my aunt’s house). I was the oldest, with four brothers and sisters who looked up to me when they weren’t beating on me and was called “Little Mama” by my relatives because I was the small child wrangler at holidays and family parties. So when I sat down to write a story, I figured I knew what I was doing.

I didn’t have my own room (and wouldn’t for most of my life, moving from sharing with two little sisters to two daughters and then a wife) so I sat in the backyard on a slab of concrete that had great ambitions to be a patio, but never quite lived up to its potential. I wrote on loose-leaf notebook paper that sometimes blew away when a big gust of air cut through the yard, with a pencil that had a cupcake eraser on the top, the cherry long bitten off by one of my brothers.

I was going to write a story, I decided, about a little girl with dark hair and scabs on her knees and a noisy house full of too many people. One night, when the girl couldn’t sleep because her sisters were snoring or talking in their sleep, a leprechaun would come to her window and whisk her off to a magical land where there were more trees than people. I’d read the Chronicles of Narnia—I knew that when children were brought to a magical place, eventually, they would have to come back. But this was my story. It was all well and good that the Pevensies were happy to come home, but my little girl could stay in the magical land for as long as she wanted. Forever, even.

I wrote many, many stories after that one and the theme running through most of them was escape. Girls and women who were so boxed in by their lives, when the first chance to run away came along, they took it. My escape came through them. With earphones on and Word doc open, I drifted away to new times and places and though 99% of those stories never saw the light of day, I remember them as doorways to escape from work, from life, from children and parents and siblings who all needed something from me when I didn’t have much to give.

My wife asked me what I wanted for my thirtieth birthday.

I told her, “A room with a door I can close.”

I’m thirty-four now and writing this from a chair in the corner of my living room. It’s seven in the morning on a Saturday. It’ll be hours before my wife and teenagers get up, so I can almost pretend that this is my space. But I can hear the clock on the wall ticking away the minutes until they’ll want breakfast and attention and for me to alleviate their inevitable boredom by planning a full day of Target runs, drive-through lunch, and maybe a walk if the sun stays put and all I can think about is what I wouldn’t give to be whisked away to a magical land with more trees than people.

I announced in December that I’d finally signed my first ever multi-book contract with a publisher. Along with it came a decent advance—not enough to quit my job, but enough that it bridged the gap between “maybe we could someday buy a house” to “let’s buy a house.”

After eight years in a tiny apartment with only so many nooks to escape, I knew what I wanted.

As we scrolled through listing after listing, I told my wife, “I want a room with a door I can close.”

On April 2nd, we close on a hundred-year-old house in the city, with delightfully creaky floors and stories in the walls and at the end of the hallway, with two windows facing the backyard—a magical land with more trees than people—is a room with a door that has my name on it.

“This,” Maria would say, “This here is a beginning.”

I tend to agree. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

An Unusual Breed

Mark Smith Photography

By Cheryl Oreglia

John Updike said about writing fiction, “nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that mankind has invented.” Meaning, we’re not only writing a story, we are revealing more than we know about our own quirks and nuances in between the lines of our story, like finding yourself naked in a dream, but you’re also running around trying to find a barrier for your nakedness ~ when there are none to be found. Such is the life of a writer.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” Dorothy Parker

It’s as if you’ve agreed to have a live stream video attached to your home 24/7. As Dani Shapiro says, “we are constructing the very thing that holds us. We have nothing to latch on to. If beginnings and ends are shorelines, middles are where we dive deep, where we patch holes, where we risk drowning.” As Loyd Alexander says “fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”

The strange thing about being a writer, aside from the benefit of humiliating family and friends, is that it requires very little physical risk, but a shit load of courage. I’m not one to fill my bucket list with skydiving expeditions, scuba excursions, or mountain climbing but when I’m tucked in bed, slugging down my fourth cup of coffee, my thighs heated from balancing my MacBook for hours on end, the house empty, the dog asleep next to the bed, and a light rain is beginning to fall - I’m as fearless as Evil Knievel (the guy that broke every bone in his body, google him).

“Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.” Jessamyn WestIt’s

It's as if I’m scuba diving for treasure, I stay down until I’m almost out of air, then using restraint I slowly rise to the surface, flushed with excitement. Most of the time I come up with nothing but an empty hand, maybe a broken shell, but on those rare occasions when I do find something of value, I hold it up to the light, positioning it for all to see. 

But as we all know courage and fearlessness are very different mobilities, courage asks us to do what we are compelled to do, feeling the fear, but doing it anyway.

Writers are a strange breed, don’t you agree? I mean who would prefer being cooped up in their room, avoiding life so they can try and tap into some deep-seated knowledge about the nature of humanity and the meaning of creation or a solution to the zombie Apocolypse? 

“I think horror, when done well, is one of the most direct and honest ways to get to the core of the human experience because terror reduces all of us to our most authentic forms.” Alistair CrossI

I can spend hours typing every little thought that comes into my head but I end up deleting more words than I keep. I have to remind myself that this isn’t normal, most people avoid writing, or find the task so distasteful they hire someone to write for them. So how is it I’ve come to believe they’re the crazy ones?

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” Graham Greene

When I fail to make space for writing it’s as if I need a blood transfusion, the words pumping the rich oxygenated cells throughout my depleted body, without it I believe I would simply die?

I’ve been in a writing group for over a year now, we have always met on Zoom, as our formation happened at the beginning of the pandemic. Our group consists of nine people from around the world, half male, half female, different ages, temperaments, and ethnicities. We meet once a week to “encourage and support” one another. We’re more like a murder of crows, squawking about this and that, watching for subtleties in our writing, pushing each other to break out of ingrained patterns, fly out of formation so to speak, knowing we can bring each other to greater heights with the subtleties of gentle underpinning.

As Dani Shapiro says, “Each and every day that you approach the page, you are reaching for it once again. At times, it will elude you. At times, it will seem to have abandoned you. But in the face of this, be persistent, dogged, patient, determined. Remember that this moment, this day, is one stitch in a tapestry of days.” I love that.

It’s an occupation where one never actually arrives, we just glide with the wind of our thoughts, see where they take us, the destination matters not, it’s all about the journey.

"The only bird that dares to peck an eagle is the crow. The crow sits on the eagle's back and bites his neck. The eagle does not respond, nor fight with the crow; it does not spend time or energy on the crow, instead, he just opens its wings and begins to rise higher in the heavens. The higher the flight, the harder it is for the crow to breathe, and eventually, the crow falls off due to a lack of oxygen.

Learn from the eagle and don't fight the crows in life, just keep ascending, the detractors might be along for the ride but they'll eventually fall away. Do not allow yourself to succumb to the distractions...keep your focus on the things above and continue rising." Solara. 
“As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.” kurt Vonnegut
We are indeed an unusual breed, trained for a specific task, and therein lies our value, because it is both a privilege and an instinct to bring a banquet of stories to a starving world. 

Join me in the comments! Love to hear your thoughts on being a writer in the world today. 

“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Martin Luther

When I'm not writing for Across the Board, I'm Living in the Gap, join me when you can. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Bad Reviews

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!

Hey, kids! Schedules don't always pan out so I'll be taking over for Katrina this week. Don't worry, she'll be back to take my usual slot next Monday.

When my third novel was released, I included this paragraph on the last page:

"Thank you for reading BILLY AND THE CLONEASAURUS. Whether you liked it or not I hope you’ll take a moment to leave a review on Amazon. Reviews are vitally important to me as an author both to help me market my book and to improve my writing in the future. Thank you!"

As an author, I choose all of my words very deliberately. And for this carefully constructed call-to-action, meant to be charming and reasonable rather than desperate and mercenary, I took extra care. So when I said “whether you liked it or not I hope you’ll…leave a review” I meant it. I want bad reviews.

People don’t believe me. It’s not surprising. It sounds coy, or even like feigned humility. “Oh, yeah, just be honest, tell me if you hated it” sounds like someone begging to have their feelings spared. But for an author, bad reviews aren’t just helpful and necessary, they’re absolutely vital.

To illustrate why, let me tell you a story.

For her birthday a few years ago my sister asked for a yoga mat. I can honestly say I wasn’t even 100% clear what differentiated a yoga mat from any other kind of mat, but I figured many people much dumber than me have successfully bought yoga mats in the past, so surely I could handle this simple task.

My first decision was not to go to the store, because if I went to the store for the purpose of purchasing a yoga mat, you can be damn sure I was leaving that store with one, regardless of quality. And the odds were that with a brick-and-mortar store there was probably only going to be one type of yoga mat.

So, instead, I sat down at my computer and went to my online store of choice (hint: Amazon) and typed in some key words (hint: “yoga mat.”) As they are wont to do, a number of choices populated my screen. As (presumably) every yoga mat in the world now stood before me, I decided to whittle down my choices by price. There were yoga mats available in the $500-$1000 range (presumably hand woven by the Dalai Lama himself) but most of them were more in the $20-$40 range, so that’s where I focused my search.

Next I looked at which were the best reviewed. I picked a $35 yoga mat (well within my price range) that had 500 or so reviews. About 290 were 5-star, so this was a well-reviewed yoga mat indeed. Then I did what everyone in this situation does: I immediately clicked on the 15 or so 1-star reviews to see what the complaints were.

It was from the 1-star reviews that I learned that people complained that the mat didn’t roll up easily, didn’t have handles, didn’t come with a storage bag, and the material was easily worn through with their knees. Armed with this new knowledge of what was important in selecting a yoga mat, I checked the reviews for a few other mats and finally made my decision.

For those of you just dying to know how this story pans out, I picked a $30ish dollar yoga mat with a handle (since my sister lives in the city and presumably walks to the gym) and in gray (since it’s a fairly neutral color.) What I just did there, you see, was I ran an algorithm. It was a very simply algorithm, and one based on almost zero data, but nevertheless I took some input on what I was looking for and came up with a solution.

Amazon runs billions of algorithms a day with obscene amounts of data drawn directly from millions of real shoppers. Its purpose is to keep suggesting stuff to keep you shopping. So since it knows that I’ve bought “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” it’s going to go right ahead and suggest “Day of the Dead” almost every time I log in. And once in a while it’ll suggest yoga pants since I bought that mat for my sister that one time. (Hey, it’s just a shopping program, not fucking Skynet, you know.)

Which leads me into the rather grayish area of Thing Authors Aren’t Supposed to Talk About™. Namely: bad reviews. I, like every reasonable, non-masochistic artist, hate reading that my work sucks. For those of you who aren’t artists, imagine someone told you that one of your kids suck. Or your work. Publicly. Where everyone can see it. Forever.

So, I would never say that I enjoy bad reviews. However, I do need bad reviews.

The Amazon algorithms function (sort of) like a person. Imagine if you clicked on a yoga mat with 500 reviews, and they were all 5-star. Even if they were all worded differently and they all highlighted different things, you would immediately suspect shenanigans. Honestly, you’d probably be right. Either the yoga mat was:

a) reviewed by nothing but the family members and friends of the yoga mat people, or

b) the yoga mat people paid for reviews

Either way, you’re not getting a realistic analysis of this mat. There are always going to be outliers, so even on some universally beloved product you’re going to have one-stars just from haters, trolls, and kooks. I mean, hell, the U.S. congress has an 11% approval rating. So if congress was a product with a hundred reviews, 11 would be 5-stars.

The Amazon algorithms “know” this, or anyway account for it in some kind of complex mathematical mambo. When they come across something that looks fudged, they just toss it out. Bad reviews, you see, lend strength and credence to the good reviews. Bad reviews suggest that this product really has been broadly used by the public, and the ratings are in: kooks, cranks, trolls, hippie star children, and all. Universal good reviews suggest shenanigans.

A lot of book reviewers have a policy of not posting 2-stars and below without the author’s permission. Some reviewers simply won’t do it, regardless of permission. I’ve begged and pleaded in the past with reviewers to please, please, please post their bad reviews of my books. And they’ve just refused.

I understand why. There are so many horror stories of authors behaving badly (just google "Kathleen Hale" or "Richard Brittain" if you don't believe me) which could be grist for a whole other blog post. Reviewers don’t want to be stalked, attacked, down-voted, harassed, or just otherwise treated poorly for posting honest reviews. So a lot of them just say, “Fuck that noise.” Which means a lot of our discourse in the book community is limited to:

a) praise, and

b) silence

Praise and silence is not helpful. It’s not helpful to me as an author trying to improve through constructive criticism. And it’s not helpful to me as a small businessman trying to sell my product. Amazon just frankly won’t suggest my books to people without bad reviews because they don’t consider products without them legitimate.

And, of course, there’s no real way that I can convince a reviewer that I want a bad review and I’m not a masochist or a nut or an author behaving badly. Except, of course, with a rather lengthy essay like this, but short of sending this essay to every reader and reviewer on the planet (hint hint) let me just suggest two broad courses of action:

AUTHORS: Shut up. Seriously. Just…shut the fuck up. Remember, when somebody writes you a bad review, they’re doing you a favor. When somebody writes you any review they’re doing you a favor. If you want to cry, cry. If you want to complain, complain. If you want to cut yourself…well, I wouldn’t recommend that, even jokingly. But however you deal with the grief of seeing your book panned, do it in private. And in public be gracious, and thank your readers and reviewers so they finally start to get the idea that even bad reviews are a favor. I might caveat this by saying you should probably thank your bad reviewers privately rather than in a public forum, since it could easily be misconstrued as sarcasm.

REVIEWERS: Don’t shut up. Post every review, as long as it’s honest. Don’t allow a few assholes to bully you. One thing you’ll gain is integrity, and no one can bully your integrity away. Bystanders recognize real integrity. If you want to keep your policy about not posting two-stars and below, genuinely contact the authors, and mention that bad reviews add credence to their good reviews, and positively influence their Amazon algorithms. They may not even be aware of this.

Well, that’s my essay on bad reviews. Did I nail it? Bolo it? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

A Look at Irish Writing, Language, and Culture: My Interview with Enda Brennan



St. Patrick's Day is soon upon us, and many Americans don't celebrate the holiday beyond drinking and wearing a lot of green. I felt it would be a great idea to dive more into how Irish culture has shaped us, so for March, I decided to interview a dear friend and expert in Irish language and culture, Enda Brennan. Enjoy!

What got you interested in studying the Irish culture and language?

I'm Irish-American and I grew up in a really insular Irish-American environment in Southeastern Massachusetts, with many people around me being first and second generation - largely from Cork and Kerry. My father, interested in heritage himself, was always rich with stories and I latched onto Irish folklore at a young age and had a few books on mythology and faeries, etc. I grew up Irish step dancing as well, from the age of 8 until my late teens/early 20s both competitively and with a local pipe and drum band. So I guess you could say an interest in my heritage formed due to my environment at a very young age and has stuck with me well into adulthood. 


How long have you been studying Irish writing?

Not that long. I read some Joyce and McCourt in my early 20s and covered Yeats etc in college but it's only been in the last couple of years that I have consciously sought out Irish writing and writing from the diaspora outside of academia.

How much have Irish works of literature influenced you as a whole?

The musicality and anti-climactic trajectory of Joyce's prose are major influences in my own writing, but it's more the rich Irish tradition of oral storytelling that has inspired me -- this seemingly culturally inate tendency towards using language to color expression and stories to frame experience. 

Who are some Irish writers you deem most important in understanding the culture?

Lately I've been reading a lot of Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet. His works so deeply examine both the Irish landscape and psychological condition in a quiet, understated way. I also strongly recommend Dinneen's Irish-English dictionary. Published in 1904 and meticulously researched with monolingual and bilingual Irish speakers in Gaeltachta (Irish-speaking regions) -- the dictionary captures so much of the beauty and inherent poetry of the language. 

How much has Irish culture ingrained itself in the United States?

Heavily. There is so much in my own upbringing and formative environment that, looking back through the lens of my own present research, is so quizzically Irish. For instance: traditionally in Gaelic society land was divided by a head of household among living offspring instead of being bequeathed posthumously-- which meant multiple generations often occupied the same land and raised the children communally. Where I lived in Massachusetts, often people of Irish descent lived within walking distance of grandparents who took a major hand in raising them. I've also been in environments in Appalachia where people of Irish descent live in trailers or smaller houses on the land of older relatives. There is so much Gaelic influence in 1920s American slang and Irish influence in uniquely American things such as tap dancing, bluegrass, and even the blues -- with many descendants of freed slaves combining themes of spirituals and old slave songs with Irish laments. 

What subject matter do you like to cover most?

I'm fascinated by the relationship between Irish-Americans and American Blacks -- one that has been deeply fraught, often violent, yet in many instances has contained moments of beautiful cultural exchange. Despite centuries of colonial dehumanization, the Irish have frequently exploited their white privilege in America and gained many advances in society on the backs of Black people. At the same time, many freed slaves took Irish names. Irish indentured and African slaves shared space in the Caribbean, Irish workmen and Freedmen fought for scraps at the bottom of society in American cities from the late 1860s well into the early 20th century. The banjo is a re-configuration of a West African instrument that was introduced by Black musicians to Irish musicians in the American South where it is a central part of bluegrass. It eventually made its way back to Ireland in the 20th century where it became a staple of Irish traditional music in the folk revival movement. 

Do you think there are any stereotypes of Irish language and culture that continue to burden the writing community?

Absolutely. The idea of Irish writers and Irish people in general as drunks lacking general direction and work ethic is a pretty heavy one. I also think this idea of the Irish language as a dead, mystical tongue and Irish-Gaelic culture as obsolete has snuck its way into genres like fantasy and neo-paganism where you see a heavy amount of cultural appropriation.  

Tell the readers a little about yourself and your writing. 

I live in Texas, far removed from tangible trappings of Irish culture, and it's been this separation that has forced me to consider my ethnicity as a major part of my identity. I have an academic background in poetry and creative non-fiction and these days I write mostly about Irish-American history and culture, as well as about post-colonialism. I also write about recovery, transgender rhetoric, a fair amount of poetry, and some occasional fiction. 

Do you have a publication you are especially proud of?

"The Port Of New Orleans" in Another Chicago Magazine

How much has religion influenced Irish writing?

Hello in Irish is "Dia duit." God be with you. The response is "Dia 's Mhuire duit" -- God and Mary with you. Historically the formation of literate Gaelic culture occurred around Christianity -- monastic communities being the first centralized areas of written culture in Irish history. Writing was considered a sacred act, a way of participating in the miracle of God's creation -- all the while contemplating the mystery of shape begetting meaning. Before Christianity the role of bard and historian were intermingled -- stories of gods existing alongside those of kings. The connection is, in my opinion, irremovable in many instances. There has also been such a complicated and often abusive relationship with the Church in Ireland that is explored very deeply by many modern Irish writers and filmmakers.

Are there any modern Irish writers you would say have a positive influence on the culture?

Theres so many amazing Irish films at the moment, I just wish I could remember the names of the writers. A lot of them, like Black 47 and Arracht, are largely in Irish -- which is really exciting. Normal People was also a smash and somewhat surprising international hit, considering its insular nature (kinda like Derry Girls) based on the book by Sally Rooney.

If one were to start studying Irish culture and writing now, where should they begin?

An Gorta Mór. The Great Hunger. In order to understand the bulk of modern Irish history -- the diaspora, the Troubles, and the present struggle of Irish people to define their own national identity-- you have to understand the history of brutal colonialism and particularly of genocide. Irish culture and language was systematically suppressed for 800 years and the miracle of its present existence is a testament to Irish cultural tenacity ☘


 Enda is an accomplished writer. Check out his article, "Port of New Orleans." 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Google Search: What do I...

Hey everyone! Mary here with another entry into our Google Search recurring segment! Like seemingly everyone else, my brain has been on the fritz for a spell now. Just this weird fatigue and inability to think up basic solutions sometimes. Maybe that's why I just couldn't for the life of me figure out something clever to search for. I literally just sat there staring at that Google page, wondering what I could enter that would produce entertaining (or even just mildly interesting) results, and white noise filled my head. Pandemic brain, you're a real pain.

In despair, I started to just type in "What do I google" and stuff popped up after the "I", so... why not, let's run with it:

What do I want for Christmas

All I want for Christmas... Is uuuuuuu...niversal vaccinations so we can get out of this never-ending plague. Or near universal - whatever is close enough to make this stinkin' 'rona go away. Considering Christmas is over 9 months away, hey, that's a possibility I guess? Stay positive?

What do I want to eat

Yeah that's a good question... something about being stuck at home makes eating feel like an obligation. Like you've just got to fuel up every so often whether you feel like or not. I'm starting to get why techbros dump gross-looking rebranded Slimfast shakes down their throats.

What do I need to get a passport

...for? Apparently, NOTHING. Cuz we can't go anywhere!!! *wails*

What do I want for dinner

Can my body just figure out photosynthesis so I don't have to bother with this question every day? Or with the dishes... dammit I know it's been nearly a year, but I still can't figure out where all these dishes are coming from...

What do I need to open a bank account

Money, I guess.

What do investment bankers do

Gamble with other peoples' money and take a cut for their troubles, whether said other people win big or lose everything. Something like that. I dunno, watch The Big Short.

Ok so the above isn't some of my better blogging. Like I said, my brain is on the fritz.

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