I just got a text message from my wonderful collaborator, Jaki Bradley, that we handed in our registration, so I can go ahead and announce: What Every Girl Should Know is going to the New York International Fringe Festival! We got news of acceptance a few weeks ago and have been rushing to put together our materials and make plans. We don’t know dates yet, or even our actors or crew—just that we’re doing it, and that we’re committed to doing it really fucking well. We also had to come up with a name for our production company on the fly, and so, on Monday at Kinko’s in the rented computer booth, The Order of St. Margaret Sanger was born.
Jaki is amazing. She’s not only been my partner in applying, but she’s also going to direct, which makes me happy beyond words. I got to know her as part of the Delta Boys avant garde cohort from a few years back—she was going to play Desdemona, and I Bianca, in an adaptation of Othello that got delayed indefinitely—but we became friends and stayed in touch as both of our lives accelerated. She went to Malaysia on a theatre Fulbright; she interned for TCG and currently does graphic design for Signature Theater; she was awarded a place at this summer’s Lincoln Center Director’s Lab. In other words, she’s on fire. And deservedly so.
So, I hereby introduce The Order of St. Margaret Sanger, composed of Jaki Bradley, me, everyone who made the original production, everyone who loved the original production, and everyone who will take part in future productions for all time to come.
This Mother’s Day, I realized I’d never have written The Girl in the Road if my mother hadn’t died.
Which is a difficult thing to realize about something that gives me so much joy. Last night, out of the blue, it hit me very hard that while I’m so happy with my life, how I’ve built it is very much a response to my mother’s death. I know it’s not the same thing as being glad it happened. God knows I’m not. But the weepy feeling remains, a balance on a seesaw, neither side ever landing.
I wonder what my life would look like now if my mother were here. Maybe instead of writing this novel, I’d have written another novel. Or maybe I wouldn’t have become an artist at all. Maybe I’d be a pro softball player. Maybe I’d be married.
As Aslan says to Lucy in the magician’s house, Child, no one is ever told what would have happened.
I’m in the penultimate phases of novel editing now, and at this stage, I need to outsource some expertise in a few areas. If you or anyone you know would be a good fit for the subject areas below, please get in touch at email@example.com and we can talk scope of work and payment. Thanks so much!
(1) A native Hindi speaker. I’m especially interested in Hinglish, colorful expressions, slang and curses, with an eye towards how the language might evolve in the next fifty years.
(2) A native Malayalam speaker (a language spoken mostly in Kerala, in southern India). Same as above: I’m especially interested in Malayalam slang, curses, and colorful expressions.
(3) An obstetrician or midwife who has performed or is very familiar with C-sections, especially in cases of obstetric trauma.
Picture: Wellesley archives.
HowlRound this week is devoted to discussions of gender parity in theatre. The week’s not up yet, but I feel like its very premise is still stuck in a place of hand-wringing and helplessness, operating under the assumption that women are—not are constructed as, but are—a special subset of human being. While somewhat useful in the short term, resulting in women-only prizes and reading series (and colleges—of which I’m a beneficiary), this framing is not useful in the long term. It reinforces separatism (“women are fundamentally different from men”) and essentialism (“women write fundamentally different stories than men”). Same goes for any kind of gender or racial categorization: “Y is fundamentally different from X and will write fundamentally different stories.” These assumptions then allow for categorical criticism and dismissal based on supposedly inalienable characteristics.
Instead, I would love to see the community operate under the assumption that women are human. Full stop. Then we’d see clearly that half the artistic contributions of the human race are ignored for no reason. Then we’d see clearly that the current state of theatre is quite embarrassing. Then we’d see clearly that all explanations for discrimination along the lines of “quality,” “readiness,” and “artistic freedom” are bankrupt.
And when we have data—which are forthcoming, as far as I understand—we will see clearly those who’ve taken conscious measures to dismantle internalized sexism and those who haven’t. As it is now, when my play gets rejected, I never know if it’s for the reasons they say it is, or if it’s because I’m a woman. The unfortunate thing is, often, neither do they—that’s the nature of unexamined bias—but it’s still discrimination. And the only antidote to discrimination is to put systems in place that protect against it.
Here’s what I want to see: by the end of 2014, a boycott of theaters that haven’t demonstrated or made a public commitment to gender parity. For our purposes, gender parity is defined as follows: a season of playwrights, directors, choreographers, dramaturgs, actors, musicians, and designers that reflects the gender makeup of the available labor pool to within a certain percentage; the percentage depends on the size of the theater and its workforce. (As for the statistics, theaters are responsible for tracking and reporting them. VIDA tracks these data for literary journals. Strange Horizons tracks these data for the speculative fiction journals. If they can do it, individual theaters can.) A boycott would take both the bravery of those with more power, because they will necessarily be taking stands against friends and colleagues; and the bravery of those with less power, who know that speaking up against institutions may endanger their opportunities going forward.
Speaking for myself, I’m fine with that. I’m a resident playwright with an amazing company, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, that is committed to gender parity. I don’t want to work with a theater that doesn’t practice gender parity. I don’t want to send them my work and I don’t want to see their shows. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve disqualified themselves from the conversation.
Who gets to define the conversation?
Because I’ve decided I do.
You do, if you decide you do.
That is how systems change.
My illuminated letters took a hiatus while they were with my friend Allie, who took beautiful portraits of the letters for the Etsy shop I plan to open. This is the last letter I made in Belize: E is for Estrellas. Dear to my heart, as the star is my birth symbol.
The book deal happened four weeks ago. It feels like four years ago. Thanks to the hedonic treadmill, I’ve absorbed it into my day-to-day bloodstream very quickly.
I think this kind of adaptation is a peculiar feature of sudden good fortune. For that reason, it’s at least as important to practice gratitude in good times as in bad.
The other day, I sat down to sign my book contract before heading out the door to cycling class. I realized I was about to rush through it. So I put my pen down and closed my eyes and leaned my forehead against the edge of my writing desk, and started remembering things, like…how difficult Ethiopia was. And then the remembrances turned immediately to thanks, which started to snowball: “Thank you, Sisay, for taking me to dinner in Addis at a place I never would have found on my own. Thank you Melissa, my boss at Catalent, for hiring me even though I insisted on 40-hour weeks and it cost you, later. Thank you Steffi, my writing partner, for reading a first draft of the novel that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Thank you, all beings seen and unseen whom I enlisted for help along the way. Thank you, my dear friends. Thank you, my dear family. Thank you, Mom. Thank you, God. Thank you, spirits. Thank you, universe. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Once I started saying it, I couldn’t stop. Like a dam had broken.
Above: Wounded Amazon by Franz von Stuck.
These days I’m thinking a lot about my body and my relationship to it for two reasons. One, after the book deal, I’m aware of being a more visible public figure. Two, after a traumatic hiking experience in Belize, I started working out pretty intensively, just because I wanted to be stronger and healthier. Pilates, weights, cardio, yoga, strength, cross-training, cycling…you name it, I’m doing it.
Meanwhile, I’m observing the body-related thoughts that pass through my head. I notice a pattern. For example:
1) I wake up in the morning without clothes and stand in the sunlight in front of my mirror. I think I look amazing. Muscled but soft, like a cross between an Amazon warrior and a Rubens goddess. Then I step on the scale and it reads 184. I’ve heard that that’s “bad.” I have an impression from media noise and social cues that it’s “bad.” So then I feel bad.
This is an absurd situation.
2) I do Warrior One pose in yoga class in front of a full-length mirror. My upper arms are thick, almost like calves rising up out of my sleeves, and my tummy rounds out from between my T-shirt and drawstring pants, and I feel strong. But again, I have the impression from media noise and social cues that these are “bad.” That these are “problem areas” I need to “work on.” So I feel bad.
Then I clear my head and focus on my alignment instead and happen to see another woman in the class, in the mirror behind me, and find myself admiring her gorgeous body. Then I realize she has a body just like mine.
This is an absurd situation.
3) A friend posts a blog that contains pictures of herself working out. She’s my workout hero and has a body I consider gorgeous and attractive. But in the post, she criticizes various aspects of her body. Her X is not okay, she says. I think: her X looks like my X. Does that mean my X is not okay, either? Does she imagine how others might feel, reading that? So I feel bad.
And then I think: I wonder whether she would insist that my X is not like her X. That my X is fine, or better somehow. That I don’t have to “worry” about it.
And then I would insist that her body image is distorted.
And then she would insist that my body image is distorted.
This is also an absurd situation. The absurdity stems from the dissonance between my instinctive love for the human body and the message that there are only some bodies I should love, and that my own is not one of them.
Recognizing this inherent absurdity is useful, going forward. After all, I know whose side I’m on.
This is what my room in Belize looked like after Melissa Hillman wrote me to say, “Impact Theatre would love to produce your play, What Every Girl Should Know.” Which is to say, I jumped on the bed screaming and threw my pillows/laundry everywhere.
I’ve had a crush on Impact Theatre as long as I’ve known about it. They’ve produced edgy works by hot young playwrights—Milk Milk Lemonade by Joshua Conkel, Learn to Be Latina by Enrique Urueta—who then started working at a level I want to be at. I got acquainted with the Artistic Director Melissa via Twitter, where it quickly became clear to me that we were both passionate people who agreed on most things, and sometimes (passionately) disagreed. After one of these disagreements, I thought about writing her to say something like, “Hey, [gulp], let’s get coffee when I’m in Berkeley, because we’re both strong opinionated women and I think we’d be great friends and colleagues!” but I was scared to. I didn’t know her well enough yet, as much as one can know one, via Twitter. But it turned out not to matter: she read and loved Nightwork, and when I released What Every Girl Should Know, she asked for it, too. The rest is history.
I’m thrilled beyond words that this theater is producing my work. And I’ll be flying out to Berkeley to see it, this September. I will wear a bright, colorful dress, sit in the back row with my Bay Area friends, and probably get rill weepy.
In my last conversation with my agent, Sam, he brought up a topic that may be important in the near future: selling the film rights to my novel The Girl in the Road. He asked if I had strong feelings about that. I said I did, but on only one aspect: race-appropriate casting.
One of my greatest ambitions for the novel is to redefine Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces—the default human—as a brown woman. (It’s also to shift the central narrative of 21st-century world literature to the Eastern Hemisphere, but I’m getting ahead of myself.). There are no white people in my novel. Meena is Malayalee. Mariama is Haratin. Francis is Amhara. Mohini is Tamil. Yemaya is Wolof (though why she has a Yoruba deity’s name is another story). So in selling film rights, all I would ask is that characters with South Asian backgrounds be cast with actors of South Asian descent who have brown skin, and characters with African backgrounds be cast with actors of African descent who have brown skin. Not rocket science, right?
Ursula K. Le Guin’s foundational Earthsea series was whitewashed by the SciFi channel. Argo‘s main character, Tony Mendez, was played by Ben Affleck. Nina Simone will be played by Zoe Saldana in an upcoming biopic. M. Night Shyamalan cast four white actors as the four brown characters in The Last Airbender. TheaterWorks in Hartford cast white men as Puerto Ricans in The Motherfucker with the Hat. A movie set at my college, Mona Lisa Smile, sent out a now-notorious casting call coded for white women, protesting that they merely wanted to “reflect the time period,” ignoring the fact that there were women of color on campus in 1953. There weren’t many. But erasing them from the film was tantamount to erasing their existence. It hurt my classmates; it hurt all of us.
Whitewashing hurts people of color for reasons that should be obvious. Representation is power. The vast majority of the human population is brown, and whites are a small minority; their overrepresentation in art and media, especially in heroic roles, reinforces a collective perception that lighter skin signals a more valuable human. That sounds theoretical, but it hurts people I love on a daily basis. Including me. Whitewashing hurts white people for the exact same reasons: it subtly reinforces our sense of privilege, which we then have to work that much harder to dismantle in ourselves. It’s one more barrier to love.
I will not sell the film rights to my book without these stipulations. I’m sympathetic to every other concession needed to adapt a novel to film, but I will not make concessions to racism. Sam and my editor Zack at Crown/Random House both support me on this, even knowing it’ll make the film rights much harder to sell. I’m thankful for them. I’m thankful for other movements, like Racebending and Colorlines. I honestly don’t know how production studios can afford to continue to be racist when the world is shifting as it is; but for now, I don’t know how the world will change other than if people take a stand. I just feel lucky to be in a possible position to do so.
I’ve been reading this fantasy series for sixteen years. This is the fourteenth, and last, volume.
When I was a teenager, I cast each character with movie stars I saw at The Allen and supermodels I saw in Vogue. Mat Cauthon was 1996-era Leonardo DiCaprio, Moiraine Sedai was 1996-era Helene Christensen, and so on. I had a list of hundreds of them. The boys who were my friends/bullies in high school knew that the one surefire way to get under my skin was to grab the book out of my hands, turn to the last page and start reading aloud.
Then I graduated from high school, graduated from college, graduated from grad school, and moved to North Carolina to write. But reading Wheel of Time books was still a sacred ritual. Every time a new one came out, I bought the hardcover and got out The Traditional Bookmark, an accretion of relics collected over sixteen years, and peeled it apart to rediscover each one. And then I put on one particular album of Scottish folk music (Tannas’s Ru-Ra), which I listened to at no other time. If I’d encountered this series now, at age 31, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. But they got me young. And so I crack open the brick and fall into the world of Aes Sedai and Aiel and all the friends I saw leave their home village in the first book, and are now leading their world’s battle against darkness.
I’m going as slowly as I can, because when I finish this one, it’ll be over.