Review: The Qualities of Wood

The Qualities of Wood
The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I got this thinking it was a literary novel. It tries to be, but it wants to be more a mystery novel. It doesn’t do so well on that either. The “secrets” that are hinted at don’t amount to much. There were some good secrets that could’ve been worth chasing: why doesn’t the town acknowledge its Indian heritage? What was up with the gun? Why, indeed, was Chanelle’s arms at her sides when she died? There were so many secrets and ‘mysteries’, but the it was as if the author was afraid to poke deeper at the many plot ideas she had, so she threw a whole bunch in together. It made for a book where we look at things from a distance, but not really getting to the meat of things.

Minute details bogged the story down to a crawl. The author had to describe every little action that had no bearing on the plot whatsover. I found myself flipping pages more than reading them.

The only time the book came alive was during Nowell and Lonnie’s arguments. In fact, probably the most fleshed out character was Lonnie, mainly because he was the main person to actually rile up the characters. Vivian through the plot in a clueless daze, or through dull flashbacks most of the time, and when she did do something proactive, usually when drunk, her actions made little sense. Katherine ‘clackety bracelet’ demeanor irritated me to the point I was skipping most of the scenes she was in. Nowell whined about his book and mainly hid a lot. Mr. Stokes was set up as a ‘mysterious stranger’, but even he felt distanced. Most of what we learn of him is through hearsay. Vivian’s interactions with him felt too timid.

I guess I was hoping the book would live up to its title, which I’m still trying to figure out why it’s named “The Qualities of Wood.” I wanted more, which I got through mundane detail, but not enough to satisfy or care about the resolving of secrets.

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A brief note of thanks

There’s been a lot happening with Wiscon the past few weeks. I won’t go into it–there are other places you can read up on it– but this week the Wiscon Concom released this statement that Jim Frenkel is permanently banned from Wiscon.

I’m not going to go into the ban itself other than to say it was sorely needed–again, others did a better job of it of explaining why. Also I’m local, so I feel I’m too close to things to share my opinions in public. I’m also a relative newcomer to the con scene, so I don’t think anything I say about Wiscon will have much impact. But there is one thing I do want to say:

In the past few weeks I saw a lot of expressed anger and hurt feelings. I saw turmoil and disappointment. I saw several people step down from the concomm. I also saw a lot of people who said they were angry, but they weren’t going to give up on Wiscon. They were going to work to make things right.

These are the people I want to give their due. Because they worked hard, and they’re still working hard as I write this. And it’s not just local people. It’s people all over the country, people who could’ve just as easily boycotted Wiscon…

(…although this was probably the first time I saw the use of boycotting actually affect change. I’m so used to hearing people decry, “I’ll boycott X or I’ll boycott Y” and for the most part, everyone is like ‘meh’. Many of the people I spoke to who announced they were boycotting Wiscon wasn’t doing it out of spite. They were genuinely concerned for the con and the safety of its attendees. And that helped spur the change within Wiscon itself.)

An institution is only as good as the people that make it up. The Wiscon concom is not perfect, as so many of you pointed out. But they are working on it. And because Wiscon is my home con this is one of the few cons I can go to, the fact that there are people here who are willing to humble themselves, say they’re sorry, then work on change, makes me appreciate them. Deeply.

So thank you, Wiscon, for doing the right thing.

(8/7 Edited to add Skepchick’s wonderful post: Your Well-Written Anti-Harassment Policy is Insufficient)

 

Thoughts on Dialect (‘cause y’all keep buggin me ‘bout it)

So I’ve been following with great interest the discussion about dialect in fiction. It started off by Daniel Jose Older’s comments of a review of his anthology Long Hidden in Strange Horizons, and followed by Abyss & Apex doing an editorial post on the decision to post two different version of a story with a Carribean dialect. There have been many thoughtful essays on it, including Tobias Buckell, Amal El-Mohtar, and Ferrett Steinmetz, so I don’t think I have anything to add except to tell my experience. Which isn’t much, but it’s my two cents, so take that as you will.

Personally, I’ve struggled with dialect in my fiction. Growing up, I was the kid who was teased for "talking proper". I understood Shakespeare better than the slang kids used around my neighborhood. So when I write fiction with black kids, I always worry that they don’t "sound black enough". But now that I’m thinking about it, I was at least aware of it–we tended to drop our ‘g’s a lot, mainly in -ing suffixes. "I’m goin to the store."  Using the d sound for th–what’s dat? Is it over dere? You know what I miss? ‘Fin’. As in "She finna go to the store." "Did you wash the sheets like I axed?" "Man, I FIN to!" 

Interesting aside #1–my mother always mocked us when we said "ovuh dare" for "over there". She said it made us sound like country hicks. That was the only thing she corrected our speech on. Either that or I’ve blocked out what else she corrected us on.

Interesting aside #2–in college, I dated a white guy who one showed me how to use the ‘th’ sound. Up to that point, I didn’t think there was a difference until he showed me how to place my tongue at the back of my teeth. And by that, he showed me using his tongue. Looking back at it now, I have super mixed feelings about it: on the one hand, there’s the dynamic of a white guy teaching a black girl how to speak ‘properly’ (I’m sure he didn’t think about that at all–only thought he was doing a good thing). On the flip side, damn if that wasn’t the sexiest linguist lesson I ever had….

So I just wrote those two asides, and I thought huh. Actually, those two asides play a lot into how I write. I’m coming from a background where "proper English" was correct, not just grammar, but also pronunciation. My mother didn’t want me and my sisters to sound like uneducated hicks because she wanted us to have clear diction, which in her opinion would get us better jobs than working at McDonalds.. My boyfriend wanted me to speak the way he did. And in the African American community, we don’t have the option where the way we speak is consider a "second language" or a "foreign dialect". With us, "white english" equals proper and preferred, "black english" equals ghetto and uneducated. I could show proof, but ain’t nobody got time fo dat.

Angry aside #3–I once dropped a white ex-co-worker from Facebook because of that. Seemed to be a nice guy, went to church, volunteered at our community center. When he learned that Obama had been re-elected, he wrote on his wall "Mo welfare fo us all!" I wanted to say, "How can you mentor those kids at the community center and then turn around and write such a thing?" but I was too upset to respond to him Instead, I dropped him like a hot potato.

It would be good to change black english from being a stigma to something more legitimate. One way we can do so is through stories, because it allows us to tell our own narratives. The problem is that there are those who will always see those dialects as low brow and ignorant. How can we move beyond that? I don’t have an answer. It’s something that is far larger and deeper than I can touch on. The notion that I’ve been bending  towards the white dominant culture is something I’m just now beginning to recognize in my life. I’m working on a separate blog post about it–it’s pretty long and deep, and I’m still trying to decide if I’m going to post it here or somewhere not as public

But what I can do is strive to have more black dialect in my writing. And for me, that means becoming more aware, paying attention, listening. Advocating it more. And having more conversations about it. I liked what Apex Abyss did in putting both versions of Celeste Rita Baker’s story "Name Calling" on their site. (Interestingly, I found the original patois version more engaging. I could hear her voice in my head, whereas the edited version was okay, but more muted.)

Isn’t that the point of stories? To push us? Transport us? To take us out of our lives and put them into another’s?

We also need to give writers a safe space to write stories in their own voices. I thought the point of Long Hidden was to give marginalized voices a chance to be heard. And those voices should include ‘black english’ because that is just as legitimate. It has its own rhythm, its own music, and to erase that is to erase voices that groaned in captivity, that sang in both joy and sorrow, that shouted for justice, and to this day continues to unsettle, unnerve, and push comfort zones to make itself heard.

Now, if you excuse me, I finna go work on my writin, cause dat’s wha’ its’’ ‘bout, son.

My Wiscon 38 Schedule

It’s that time of year again! I plan to be at Wiscon 38 this year, with GoHs N. K. Jemisin and Hiromi Goto. And of course, I have a schedule!

Friday, May 23

Reading at Michelangelos
4:00–5:15pm

Come join me along with Greg Bechtel, David D. Levine and James P. Roberts as we read short stories. I’ll be reading “21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus 1)”. Also, there will be chocolate!

POC Dinner, Room 629
5:30-7:00pm 

Are you a Person of Color? Going to Wiscon? Come to the POC dinner! Details can be found on the official FB invite. If you’re not on Facebook, we also have a Google Doc where you can sign up and specify the type of meal you want.

Dream Apart: A storygame of the fantastic shtetl, Solitaire
8:00-11:00 pm

I’m participating in a storygame with Benjamin Rosenbaum. A GM-less, collaborative, rules-light, historical fantasy storygame of sorcerers and scholars, midwives and matchmakers, soldiers and klezmers, dybbuks, gossip, pogroms, trolls, rebels, betrothals, demons, angels, blood libel, lusts, and secrets in an Eastern European Jewish shtetl, circa 1850. There’s still a slot open!

Saturday, May 24

Complexity in the World of Jem, Conference 4
4:00–5:15 pm

Join me, K. Tempest Bradford, Isabel Schechter and others as we talk ALL THINGS JEM! Let’s explore all this plus the show’s gender roles (why are Rio and Eric so controlling), how not to run a business (Starlight Records is a mess), and Jem’s curious distrust of the police and law enforcement (the Misfits never go to jail).

Sunday, May 25

No panels for me!

Monday, May 26

SignOut
11:30a to 12:45p

Stop by and say hi, and if you have the What Fates Impose  or the Dark Faith: Invocations anthologies, bring them by and I’ll sign them!

New story! “Sun-Touched” up at Kaleidotrope

I have a new story up! You can now read "Sun-Touched" for free over at Kaleidotrope.

You can thank Neil Gaiman for this one. In 2010, I was invited to attend “The Gathering of American Gods” at the House on the Rock. I was trying to think of a cool costume to wear and, well, okay, I was looking for an excuse to dye my wedding dress with tea. I came up with going as the Moth Queen, because I had a pin shaped like a butterfly, but this party would be at night, so moths fit better.

Well, the costume idea petered out, (I wound up going as a vaguely steampunk lady). But the idea of a Moth Queen stuck with me, and I began to play with the idea. How I went from a Queen to a Princess, Queen and Dowager, I don’t remember. but when I came up with the idea of butterfly people (papilion) being enemies of the moth people (doptera), and how the moth people are attracted to light, I knew I had a story.

I will confess, coming up with the backstory and history of the world was somewhat difficult. After I finished it, I shopped it around. One of the rejections I got mentioned that it was a very good story, but the editor wished the doptera and papilion were more insect-like. And this is true. But I had no clue how to make them more insect-like without making them relatable. And besides, I had a selfish wish to keep the figurines as is, which play a part in the story.

Hmm. Writing that though makes me wonder. Can I make a lead character that’s not human, completely alien, and yet make them relatable? At the time I wrote Sun-Touched, I didn’t think I could. Now? I might be able.

In the meantime, enjoy "Sun-Touched", and let me know what you think!

Review: Bodies in Motion: Stories

Bodies in Motion: Stories
Bodies in Motion: Stories by Mary Anne Mohanraj
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautiful sensuous read. We get small tastes of life of several generations of Tamil families. They are small, but intense tastes: love, passion, heartache and drama revealed in the burning taste of curries. Also, I loved that there were several settings in Hyde Park, one of my favorite places in the world.

There were times when I had to refer to the genealogy chart in the front of the book, because the names and people blurred together and I couldn’t tell who was the daughter of who. But I loved the stories, and loved to see who sought saftey in the marrying/baby culture, who broke out, who married outside their race, who did not married at all. My favorite were both of Mangai’s stories.

Now I’m hungry for curry.

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New short story! “21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus 1)” up at Strange Horizons

It’s now up! “21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus 1)” is up now at Strange Horizons! It has an illustration! It has a podcast! It is so cool!

The inspiration for this story came one day when I was on Google Plus (why yes…I do go there from time to time). Someone had posted an album of different spiral staircase pictures, and when I clicked on the album, it posted all the staircases at once. Seeing all those staircases and spirals got me wondering: what if spiral staircases appeared at random, with no reason whatsoever. What would be at the top? And then I wondered…if spiral staircases could appear out of nowhere, who to say it’s just a normal staircase? What other materials could it be made out of? How fanciful could I make these staircases?

Oh, I had a fun time coming up with the different kinds of staircases. But I didn’t have much of a plot until I came up with the idea that the staircase was a metaphor for epiphanies and enlightenment. Around this time, I had visited my folks back in Chicago, and wound up watching the Help with the womenfolk of my family, including my grandmother, who is awesomely badass. Talking with her and my own mother about growing up and raising kids, made me want to commemorate their strength, while at the same time showing how opportunities seem to open up more for each generation. So I decided to make the spiral story more personal.

The Momma in the story is a mash-up of my mom and grandmother. There are other true parts too; if you know me, you’ll figure it out. I never snuck out of my house, for instance. But the boyfriend part? That’s mostly true. So was the feeling of optimism. My dad never wanted to join the circus though.

Anyway, check it out and let me know what you think. What would your spiral staircase look like?

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