Saturday, July 15, 2017

Invasion of the Imposters

Yesterday as my husband and I rode around in a tour bus, playing the role of tourists in a place I spent half my life, I realized there is a term for the relationship I’ve always had with Hawaii: imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is typically used in other contexts to describe successful people who secretly fear their success was not rightfully earned, and if they are not careful they will be exposed as a fraud. I didn’t do anything special to earn my status as a resident of Hawaii—I was just born here, and lived here for the first eighteen years of my life, when I had no say about where I live—but then neither did anyone else from Hawaii. Yet whenever I’m here, or whenever I talk about being from here with anyone who knows Hawaii, I’m constantly worried about being exposed as a fraud, that I’m not truly local like everyone else.


When I was twelve, I moved across town and transferred to a new middle school. On one of my first days, a teacher was talking about an upcoming field trip and explaining that we could either bring lunch from home or order a bento box. Because I was haole—white—she assumed I had moved not from another part of the island but from the mainland, so she paused, singled me out, and started to explain, “Ben, a bento box is a plate lunch in a to-go box, with—” Embarrassed to have all the other kids thinking I was from the mainland, I stopped her and reminded her that I had just moved from Hawaii Kai, so of course I knew what a bento box is. She laughed, apologized, and moved on.

The truth is, before that conversation I didn’t know what a bento box was. My ignorance probably came from a combination of two things: although I was born in Hawaii, my family had come from the mainland just a year before I was born, so our home wasn’t as saturated with local idioms, food, and culture as homes of families who’d been in Hawaii going back several generations; and we were poor, so it would have been pretty rare for us to go to a restaurant and buy a bento box rather than just packing peanut butter sandwiches in a paper bag. Whatever the case, I didn’t know it, and I felt like I should, and if people found out I didn’t then they’d know I was a fake local, just like they assumed from the moment they saw my pasty white skin.

Growing up white in Hawaii, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider. Everyone is hyper-conscious of race, whether it’s simply used as a descriptor (“You know that one Tongan guy, the really big one?”) or in jokes based on racial stereotypes (“You’re so stingy, why you gotta be so Chinese?”). Adults may mean it harmlessly, and they typically do, but children have a tendency to be cruel. In 10th grade P.E. class, one day a boy who was just a couple shades darker than me asked, “Why are you so white?” I joked, “Same reason you are,” and he immediately body-slammed me, knocking me to the ground. Later, he attacked me again in the locker room. In history class we’d learn about the atrocities committed by Europeans and Americans against the Hawaiian people—not to mention atrocities committed against Native Americans and Africans—and I felt all eyes in the room on me, blaming me for things done hundreds of years before I was born. Toward the end of high school, my friends nicknamed me Slappy White and White-White Boy, and I embraced it because I was tired of feeling like there was something wrong with me because of the color of my skin, and joking about it was the best way for me to own it.

A flip side of my imposter syndrome here is that I feel like a fraud talking about my childhood as if I were a victim of racism, when in fact I’m part of one of the most privileged classes in America, as a cisgender white man. There’s truth to this, because apart from a couple of bullies my life was never in danger, I had no barriers blocking me from education or career (being poor actually helped because it qualified me for Pell grants and scholarships), and changing my minority status was a simple matter of moving to any one of the other forty-nine states, which I did immediately after high school. But my experiences, mild as they may be in comparison to harsher ones, did have a psychological effect on me that extends beyond my feeling like a fake local in Hawaii. At work, I constantly fear my colleagues will figure out I don’t really know what I’m doing, or that I don’t work as hard as everyone else, or that I don’t really deserve my position. When friends make a joke I don’t get or a reference to current events that I’m unaware of, my immediate reaction is to laugh or smile and nod instead of asking them to explain.


At the end of the day, everyone has things they know and things they don’t know, regardless of where they grew up or how smart they are. I don’t need to pretend I know the way to that one beach all the locals know, or that I like poi, or that I talk Pidgin (I don’t). I am who I am, and that includes both my knowledge and my ignorance. If you’ll allow that of me, then I’ll return the favor. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Everyone's a Little Bit Sadist Sometimes: An Argument for Moderation (Most of the Time)

Last night I was chatting with a neighbor about politics, as one does, and we were lamenting the radical polarization of politics, also as one does. "What does it say about us,"  I asked, "that we keep electing these politicians who are so incapable of compromising with the other side?" And it's not just compromise; our politicians are incapable of having rational conversations with their opposites. If you look at political discourse on social media, it's not terribly surprising that these are the people we elect. We as a human race seem to take pleasure in ridiculing those we disagree with. Like, if I can just get one more jab in, you'll finally see how superior my point of view is--and therefore how superior I am. We all know how fruitless this effort is, but we engage anyway.

And yes, I mean we. I know I do it. If you can sincerely say that you don't take pleasure in mocking or arguing with people who are wrong, then my sincere kudos to you. You are more mature than I am. I like to think of myself as a moderate liberal, capable of engaging in productive conversations with people I disagree with, and sometimes I pull that off--the conversation with my right-of-center neighbor last night was quite friendly and I learned about his point of view--but a lot of times I don't. I tend to swing far left and become combative in certain trigger situations. These triggers include my hot-button topics, which for the most part are cases where I perceive people being hurt; especially when those people are part of the LGBTQ community, women, or people of color, all of whom I broadly think of as "my people," even though I can only claim membership in one of those groups (why I don't think of straight white men as my people despite being a white man and having several straight white male friends is a topic for me to explore another day). Other triggers that make me dig into my ideologies and become obstinate are when I'm engaging with an obstinate person from the other end of the spectrum, when I'm engaging with a stranger on social media so I have nothing to lose, when I feel attacked or threatened, when I'm grumpy for unrelated reasons, or when I just have a really good joke that happens to be at the expense of people I disagree with.

My perceived correlation between the political spectrum and niceness. An admittedly oversimplified view.
Generally speaking, I see a correlation between political moderation and niceness, and between political extremism and meanness. This is absolutely true of me: When I'm more moderate, I'm more willing to listen to other people, to speak respectfully and be nice. When my more extreme political views take over, that's when I get belligerent, sadistic, just plain mean. I'm making it sound like I believe the solution to all the world's problems is for everyone to be more moderate, and to a certain extent I believe that, but unfortunately it's not so simple. There are situations where it's not appropriate to be nice. When people are actually being hurt, sometimes the only way to make it stop is to dig your heels in and forcefully say NO. If someone's pointing a gun at my children, I'm not going to worry about hurting his feelings--or his body--as I do whatever it takes to stop him and protect my children. The difficult thing is identifying the threshold for those gray situations between "you're pointing a gun at my children" and "I disagree with your personal beliefs" at which point it becomes appropriate to set aside niceness.

The key, I suppose, is being honest with ourselves about our motivations. If I'm being a jerk just because my ego is threatened, because I'm hangry, or because I'm reverting back to that basic human tendency to take sadistic pleasure in being mean to others, then I'm part of the problem. If I'm being a jerk because it's legitimately the most effective way to stop someone from being hurt, then I will be that jerk. And maybe some problems take both the moderate approach and the more extreme approach. Both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were fighting the same injustices, but the two fought in very different ways. I believe both were necessary. I'm going to work on being Martin whenever I can, and being Malcolm when I need to.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Constellations

Last night my husband and I watched To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar with some friends. I'd seen it before, but that was more than twenty years ago when I knew next to nothing about drag culture, trans culture, or gay culture, so it was fascinating to watch it again with a new perspective. It's such a great movie with such a great message, but I had a hard time getting past the way they blur the line between being a drag queen and being transgender. The lead characters, played fabulously by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo, start out by explaining the difference more or less accurately:
Noxeema Jackson: When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man's body and has a little operation he is a Transsexual.
Miss Chi-Chi Rodriguez: I know that.
Noxeema Jackson: When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen.
Vida Boheme: Thank you.
Noxeema Jackson: And when a tired little Latin boy puts on a dress, he is simply a boy in a dress!

But then the movie goes on to get one fundamental thing about drag queens wrong: The three leads are in drag for the entire movie, including while driving cross-country, while getting ready for bed, and while playing basketball. As Ms. Jackson notes above, drag queens are not women; they are gay men who dress as women. They transform into a character for a show or a performance, and then they go back to being a man for their everyday lives. They do not actually identify as women--if they did, they would be transwomen, not drag queens. So the movie got that wrong, but it got so much else right: the way both drag queens and transgender people are treated in our culture, the courage and confidence it takes to be yourself when society tells you that what you are is wrong, and the way that courage and confidence can inspire others to make the world a better place.

I've been thinking lately about how works of fiction are like constellations, and this movie is a great example. When our ancestors looked to the stars in the night sky, they connected those glowing dots to make great bears, heroes, gods, and monsters. The mythological creatures they saw in the sky weren't actually there, of course, and in fact the stars that make up each constellation are typically light years apart, with no real-world relation to each other. That said, if you were to conclude that because constellations are entirely made up, they're useless, you'd be wrong. Arranging the stars in constellations allowed our ancestors to better navigate the seas and to identify patterns in the sky that led to a better understanding of the universe and our place in it. In other words, we took individual truths--the stars themselves--then made up false connections between those truths in order to illuminate other truths.

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Great fiction does the same. It doesn't matter whether a story is about drag queens, children competing in brutal survival games, or Amazon princesses; so long as the characters behave like real people would and the fictional world reflects fundamental truths of the real world, we can gain a greater understanding of humanity through those stories. Maybe we're making up the connections between the dots--and maybe sometimes those made-up connections are completely wrong--but if the dots themselves are real then the story will illuminate truth for us just as constellations lit the way for ancient sailors.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing With My Own Voice

Lately I have been spending a lot of time sending queries to literary agents, looking for someone to represent my work. This means I've been spending a lot of time reading agents' websites, particularly what they are and aren't interested in reading; it's a waste of time and shows a lack of professionalism to blindly send out queries without doing your homework first to find out whether the agent is interested in the type of book you're trying to sell. A common thread I see among many agents, particularly those who represent young adult literature, is a desire to find #OwnVoices authors, meaning authors who come from a minority class and write books with protagonists from that same minority. Many agents will tell you to put the #OwnVoices hashtag in the subject line of your query email, with the promise that they'll give your query higher priority.

I have conflicting feelings about this trend. On the one hand, I absolutely agree with the motivation behind it: all readers, but especially children, deserve to see themselves represented in literature, both by the characters and the authors. We've had hundreds of years of western literature primarily written by straight, white, cisgender men, and it's vital for the health of our pluralistic society to make room for other voices. On the other hand, I'm a white cisgender man and (a) I also have stories to tell, and (b) many of those stories I want to tell are about people who are different from me. Of the two books I'm trying to sell right now, one is about a Hispanic Mormon girl and the other is about a straight black boy with a speech impediment. The next book I'm anxious to write features a Native American trans lesbian as the protagonist. I struggle with questions of authenticity--I have legitimate fears that Hispanic, black, or Native people will read my books and say, "Who the hell are you to represent my identity?" I include a rather self-conscious line in one of my books where one black teen accuses another of talking as if he were speaking dialog written by a middle-aged white dude, because my usual response to discomfort is making a joke of the thing that makes me uncomfortable. At the same time, I don't want to be boxed into writing characters who are just like me. For me it's important that literature--whether I'm reading it or writing it--is as much a window as it is a mirror.

The real sting comes in the fact that I have a legitimate claim to minority status thanks to my sexual orientation, but I'm not capitalizing on it. As I mentioned last week, although I pretty much always include gay supporting characters, most of my protagonists are straight. Of the eight books I've written so far, only two have gay protagonists. This is partly because of what I was saying above, that writing characters who are different from me is important to me, but also, I think, because when I started most of these books ten to fifteen years ago, I was still in a place where I was figuring out what being gay meant to me. When I tried to write gay characters during that time, I found it extremely difficult because the subject was too raw to me--I didn't have enough distance to gain any perspective.


I'm in a better place now, though, and if writing gay characters will make me more marketable, then that's what I need to do. I'd feel cynical coming to this conclusion if it were really just about marketability, but it really isn't. Writing gay characters is very much in line with my personal mission as a writer, and I'm looking forward to exploring what it's like to be a gay teenager, now that I have some perspective. So I've decided the next book I polish and shop around to agents will feature a gay protagonist. I could polish up one of those two I've already written with gay protagonists, but neither of them is speaking to me at the moment. I could write a brand new book--honestly, I could claim #OwnVoices with the trans lesbian book I've been plotting, especially since her two best friends are a couple of gay Mormon boys--but it's important to me to polish up and sell the books I've already written, so that I don't end up spending my life writing rough drafts and never finishing anything. My husband suggested I just make the protagonist gay in one of the two books I'm shopping around now, and I considered it, but it doesn't feel right for either of those. But that made me think of the next book I was planning to revise, and making that protagonist gay works quite well. He already has a girlfriend and a gay best friend, so I just need to switch their relationships so that it's a boyfriend and a female best friend. And his coming out process will fit quite nicely with the existing themes of the book.

And if, at the end of the day, all those years of gay teenage angst pay off in making me a more marketable author, I won't complain. I deserve something for going through all that.

Friday, June 9, 2017

My Catalog

I don't love talking about writing. It feels so pretentious to talk about myself as an author when my publishing credits include only a handful of short stories, personal essays, and scholarly articles. I fear I come across as some delusional dreamer with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. One thing that separates me from the average Joe who calls himself a writer but hasn't actually written anything is that I have written quite a bit--I think more than most unpublished authors--but that claim begs evidence to back it up, and I despise talking about things I've written even more than talking about writing in general. My stories are so close to my heart, and attempting to sum them up in short taglines invites scrutiny that I'd rather avoid; I fear that no matter how good the actual book is, my attempt to describe it will just sound dumb.

That said, a necessary step toward becoming a published author is selling my work--to literary agents, publishers, and eventually readers. To do that I need to be able to describe it, to catch people's attention with a very short pitch. So, as an exercise in learning to sell myself, I give to you my catalog of unpublished novels (each is complete beginning-to-end, but some are more finished than others):

  • Temporal Integrity (2002- ). Sixteen-year-old sci-fi geek Mike learns that until a time travel accident massively damaged the timeline, he was actually in his twenties, married to a beautiful woman, and working alongside her as an agent of Temporal Integrity Maintenance and Enforcement, whose mission was to prevent just this type of disaster. Or, possibly, he's just crazy. 
    • This was the first novel that I finished. With that in mind, it wasn't great, but I loved the story enough to rewrite it from scratch in 2012, approaching it as a more experienced writer. This will be the next one I polish and shop around to literary agents. 
  • Don Quimby of BYU (2002-2006). College freshman Adonis Quimby becomes convinced that he has superpowers and drags his roommate, Santiago Pérez, along for his quixotic superhero misadventures. 
    • I wrote this with a Mormon audience in mind but had no luck with LDS publishers. I still think it's a fun book but I doubt I'll ever put in the effort to rewrite for a general audience. 
  • The Posthumous Adventures of Charles Dickens (2003-2005). The ghost of Charles Dickens visits his descendant, fourteen-year-old Joey Dickens, and dictates to him the sequel to one of his most beloved works: The Posthumous Adventures of David Copperfield. The book is good enough and Joey's claim about its authorship controversial enough to propel Joey toward fame, until Joey has to decide between claiming that fame for himself or standing by the truth he knows. 
    • This novel was my master's thesis for my creative writing degree, which means you can find a copy of it at the BYU Library
  • A Little More Than Kin (2004- ). While directing his high school's production of Hamlet, Rick Sorensen devises a plan to get revenge on his uncle-stepdad Hal for supplanting Rick's father at home, at church, and in the community. 
    • I haven't touched this one in ten years but I think it has potential so I'll likely return to it eventually. 
  • Xscape (2004-2017). Remy Johnson is the only powerless child of the Johnson Five, a family of teen superheroes who rose to fame three decades ago. When Remy's uncle J.J. is killed in action, Remy embarks on a quest, along with his superpowered cousins, to discover the truth behind J.J.'s death--and his life. Along the way, Remy will also uncover secrets about himself, and learn whether he has what it takes to be a hero, with or without powers. 
    • This is the book I most recently polished, and now I'm shopping it around. 
  • Sacred Fall (2005- ). While on a Boy Scout camping trip, Jacob gets lost in the mountains of north Oahu along with one of the Scout leaders--who Jacob happens to be in love with. 
    • Pretty much all my books have gay characters, but this is the only one so far with a gay protagonist. (EDIT: Ha ha, that's totally a lie. Kenji from Freerider and Boost below is also gay.) We'll see if I feel inspired to return to this unpolished draft after returning to Hawaii this summer for my high school reunion. 
  • To Zion: A Love Song (2006-2017). Dora Pérez wants nothing more than to sing on Broadway. When Dora’s little sister Toto stows away on her trip to New York, Dora gets swept off on a cross-country adventure in search of Olyvia Zion, a reclusive pop idol Dora’s never heard of, and before she knows it she’s part of a hip-hop/metal/folk fusion band and competing in a nationally-televised talent competition.
    • Recently polished and currently shopping around. Incidentally, Dora is the little sister of Santiago, one of the main characters in Don Quimby above. I like the idea of my books existing in a shared universe. 
  • Freerider and Boost: The Beginning of the End (2008-2010). After discovering an ability to telekinetically control--and talk with--his snowboard, Kenji Nakayama joins a cult of superheroes preparing for the end of the world. 
    • This is meant to be the first in a five-book series, my personal Harry Potter. After polishing it I shopped it around a bit, but gave up pretty quickly. I should probably try again, but feel like I should do another revision first, since I'm a different writer now than I was seven years ago. 
  • Alice's Restaurant (2017- ). This one doesn't belong on this list because I haven't written even a rough draft yet and I'm not ready to talk about the plot, but it's the first new concept I've been excited about in years. I've been plotting it for almost a year now and I'm anxious to dive in to writing something brand new, after focusing so much on revision lately.  
Image result for books

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Raising Wonder Woman in Man's World, Redux

Wonder Woman opens in theaters this weekend and I'm excited for a number of reasons: Gal Gadot was the best part about Batman v. Superman, so an entire movie devoted to her sounds fantastic; early reviews suggest that the DC Cinematic Universe finally got one right on their fourth try; and this film leads us toward this fall's Justice League, which I've been waiting for since I was twelve. Above all, however, I'm excited for Wonder Woman because, nearly forty years after Richard Donner's Superman and nearly thirty years after Tim Burton's Batman, it's about damn time the boys stepped aside to let their female counterpart shine.

Image result for wonder woman

I haven't always called myself a feminist, mostly because I wasn't sure I had a right to the title. I read Xavière Gauthier in college and applied her theories to feminist critiques of Batgirl comics and E.M. Forster novels, but in my mind I was an outsider borrowing ideas from someone else. When a feminist critic publicly attacked me for perceived misogyny in essays I published in 2005, I was flabbergasted because gender equality is a concept so deeply ingrained in my value system, but still in defending myself I didn't dare to call myself a feminist, for fear of being called out on my ignorance of the full body of feminist literature. I didn't understand at the time how diverse feminism is, or that not even the most educated feminists have read all the literature. 

I don't remember how or when, but eventually I came to realize that, despite the fact that I'm a man and despite the fact that I don't know everything that every feminist theorist has ever said, I can still be a feminist. To me, being a feminist means that I believe men and women should be treated equally, and that I recognize the many ways we are not treated equally. It means when I see injustice I speak out and do what I can to change it, even especially when that injustice favors me. It means I question the assumptions we as a society and I as an individual make about gender. 

At some point in my process of coming to identify as a feminist, I published an essay that I'm still quite proud of, "Raising Wonder Woman in Man's World." At the time I was in a mixed-orientation marriage and, ever since that feminist critic had attacked me five years earlier, questioning how my decision to marry heterosexually would be perceived by others, particularly my daughters. I was worried about inadvertently sending a pro-patriarchy message when that was the opposite of my intent, and concerned that my life was too enmeshed in patriarchy to successfully teach my daughters anything but. In the comics, Wonder Woman was raised on Paradise Island among the Amazons; how could I raise girls to be strong like her in my world of men? 

Displaying WW001.tif
THIS is not the version of Wonder Woman I wanted to raise.

Seven years later, I can't say that my home, headed by my husband and myself, is any less of a Man's World. We do our best to teach gender equality and oppose patriarchy, but at the end of the day it's two men calling the shots. Nonetheless, our daughters and our son seem to be doing pretty well when it comes to understanding the wide range of options available to them. The conclusion I came to in my essay still holds true: I do what I can, and where I fall short others step in. My children have a number of great female role models, between my ex-wife, my husband's ex-wife, aunts, grandmothers, school teachers, music teachers, dance teachers, church leaders, and friends. And now they have a kickass live-action Wonder Woman to look up to as well. We still have a long way to go, but today is a good day to be a feminist. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Lighting a Lantern for Mom

Last week on Mother's Day, I flew to Seattle for business. The business I was there for didn't actually start until Monday morning, so Sunday evening I visited my alma mater, the University of Washington, and walked from there to Green Lake. I walked around the lake, taking pictures of the gorgeous sunset. And then I happened upon something unusual: A group of four women releasing floating lanterns into the sky above the lake. It was such a beautiful sight, I couldn't help watching and taking photos. But then I felt creepy for photographing these people I don't know doing something that appeared to be some kind of intimate ceremony. So I approached them afterward, apologized for taking photos without permission, and offered to delete the photos and/or share them. The women gratefully accepted my offer to share the photos with them. They explained they had been sending the lanterns off in memory of their mother, who had passed recently. I told them that my mother had also passed recently, about a year ago, and they unexpectedly offered to let me light a lantern for my mom. I was touched by their willingness to share this experience with me, and thankful for the opportunity to participate.


As I watched the lantern float away into the sky, I thought happy thoughts about my mom and imagined those positive feelings going out into the world, my mom making the world a slightly better place through me and others she touched for good. I remembered laughing with her, I remembered how she worked hard as a waitress and single mother to support me and my siblings, I remembered how she gave me her love for learning and for music.


After I thanked the women and started walking away, another take on the experience occurred to me: Sending that lantern into the sky could just as easily be symbolic of me letting go of the more negative effects of my relationship with my mother. I won't detail my mom's shortcomings here because that's not my purpose, but I will say that in many ways she was not emotionally equipped to raise children. I believe she did the best with what she had, but I have spent much of my adult life realizing how abnormal and deficient my childhood was, and how unhealthy my relationship with her was. My life can be split into three parts: The first eighteen years I spent unable to distinguish my mom's emotional needs from my own, the next eighteen years I spent slowly separating myself from her emotionally, and now since she passed I finally feel free to be myself completely, with my own needs and all. In the past year I have come into my own more than I ever managed to before. From that perspective, letting that lantern fly away was cathartic, like releasing the baggage that my mom left me with.

I am not ungrateful for all my mom did for me and all she gave me. I love her and I miss her. I also feel relieved to be free of the more difficult aspects of our relationship. No human relationship is all good or all bad. Perhaps the contrast between the good and the bad in my relationship with my mother is more stark than in most. Regardless, it was nice to say goodbye to Mom--both the good parts and the bad parts--one more time. She is part of who I am, and now more than ever I'm happy with the person I've become.