I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been to the cave I first fell in love with in 2012. But for the sake of the sacred number of Xibalba, let’s say it’s been nine.
I spent my birthday there this year. We got to the terminal chamber where the “Crystal Maiden” has been lying for a thousand years, so called because her entire skeleton is preserved in glittering calcite. I sat there for awhile in silence. Francisco and I talked about how she isn’t bound like captives usually are; her ribs are collapsed forward, as if her chest cavity had been opened and her heart extracted; she’s splayed out, as if she’s been pushed; or as if she was left there in the dark without food or water, and finally just laid down.
My next novel The Actual Star imagines her as a fierce, brilliant, and lusty teenager, a royal heir of an ancient city-state, taken captive by the neighboring drought cult. But sitting right next to her made me question the ethics of inventing a story around this very real body. We know almost nothing about her. We don’t even know if it was a man or a woman (the jawbone apparently argues for the former, and the jury’s still out). The story I will invent is almost certainly not the “real” story—just one story that doesn’t contradict any of the existing data. There are a thousand possible solutions to the uncollapsed probability function that is her body. One might argue that any story that fits the data is as ethical as the next, given that, like in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the full story is fundamentally unknowable. But given that I serve specific masters—namely, the commercial and narrative concerns that govern the modern USian novel—my actions feel like a form of neocolonialism: projecting a story onto a body that can’t speak for itself.
I don’t have any answers, except to proceed with this in mind.
I went to a book club meeting last Friday as their guest author. Which was like pleasure crack. Nevermind that they made custom drinks called “Snakebites,” but HOW wonderful it is to be in the midst of seven thoughtful and generous readers who’ve just surfaced from immersion in your book and have all sorts of questions and other things to say!? One of them told me it’d given her seasickness nightmares. I was sadistically pleased.
I also asked them the thing I always ask people who’ve just finished it: “So who do you think the old woman at the end is?”
And I got a SIXTH unique answer. I thought I’d heard them all. I was so pleased.
To me, who you think that woman is is really important. Not because of getting it “right,” but because it’s a reflection of how you read the entire book, and the meaning you made of the events that preceded. It’s true that there was always one answer in my head as I was writing. It’s also true that there are multiple interpretations not disallowed by the text. I wanted it that way. I wanted you to participate in the final meaning of the book.
So who do you think it is, and why? Say in the comments! And thank you to the wonderful book club that invited me.
My parents in 2001.
The morning of the day Mom died, the sky was white, as if there was a cataract covering the eye of the world. Clare woke me up and said, Come downstairs, her breathing has changed.
Julie made pancakes, because we still needed food. Then we just sat in her room, listening to her breathe, draped over the furniture like clocks in a Dali painting.
Donald said, What is this like? And someone else said, It’s like being at a baseball game.
We said, yeah…how each catch of breath feels like a foul ball where we sit up and say, “This is it!” and then it’s not, and we settle back in our seats.
How we would leave to go get more food, and then come back to our seats. How we would leave to use the bathroom, then come back to our seats. And ask, which inning is it now? Because we didn’t know how many innings there would be.
She died at 2:12pm.
My Dad has been changing a lot in the last six months. I hate the word “decline.” I hate even saying “his body isn’t working anymore.” It’s working, but according to the laws of a different universe. We have no idea how much time we have. Pam and Tierra take good care of him. Julie, Clare, and Donald come to help when Pam visits her daughter. I visit twice a week.
We honestly don’t know if it’s the final inning, or the first inning, or if we’re even in the parking lot yet.
So we just sit, and love, as best we can.
You guys. It’s been just three days, and we’ve raised $300 per column. This is more than half of the goal of $550 per column that Wired would have paid. This is amazing. I’m going to go hard fundraising this week to make the full goal, because honestly I want to JUST GET SETTLED IN ALREADY to write about all the things and people and ideas I want to write about. Like, even in the short time the campaign’s been up, ridiculous shit’s gone down, like Nancy Kress saying “geez why we gotta talk about race all the time” at the Nebula Awards while white cops brutalize innocent black teenagers in McKinney.
NONE OF WHICH is unrelated to pop culture. As Aamer Rahman says, pop culture is “the normalization of fantasy.”
So. Work to do. Let’s divert the mainstream.
So the Wired culture column Wired didn’t want to publish? I’m taking it elsewhere. Right now, it’s not a question of whether the column would have a home, but where. That’s a great thing.
But Wired, being Wired, had money. Most of the places offering to host the column can’t pay the rate that Wired could. But writing is how I make a living, and I already do plenty of it for free. So to make the column good, I have to make enough money to justify the time I devote to it.
So here’s my deal with you:
(1) A professional rate would be $500 for 1000 words. Patreon takes 5% and credit card and transfer fees add up to around another 5%. So if we reach $550 per column, I launch the column.
(2) For a year, I promise no less than one column a month, and no more than two columns a month.
(3) If you support the column, YOU can use Patreon to post artists whose work you want me to see.
(4) WHAT IS THE COLUMN, ANYWAY? Hey, great question. It’s about artists who create the future through their work. The founding assumptions being:
That it is possible to divert the mainstream.
That artists are the first architects of our common reality.
That that future is already here, and it’s just a matter of those who see it and those who don’t.
That art and social change are lovers, and always have been.
That genre, like gender, is a construct of the past.*
That the United States is not the center nor the leader of world culture.
That science, art, and religion are all faces of the same human impulse to create.
That the majority of humankind is brown women, and those artists’ work will be privileged above all others without hesitation or apology.
That “mainstream American art” is almost exclusively created from within, and to serve, the white male colonial gaze. That is an established fact that requires no further proof or validation going forward.
…I guess some would think of the above as “radical.” To me, it’s the most basic shit possible.
Here are some artists I want to talk to about the futures they’re making:
Ana Lily Amirpour. Ayesha Siddiqi. Nnedi Okorafor. Walidah Imarisha. Angel Haze. Hye Yun Park. Sofia Samatar. Daniel José Older. Meshell Ndegeocello. Ana Tijoux. Usman Tanveer Malik. Shirlette Ammons. DJRang. Alaya Dawn Johnson. Skylar Gudasz. Shirin-Banou Barghi. Jeff VanderMeer. Saleem Reshamwala. Ted Chiang. Dessa. Clint Smith. Lupita Nyong’o. Priyanka Chopra. Delano Dunn. Zadie Smith. Amanda Palmer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Howard Craft. Nalo Hopkinson. Young Jean Lee. Janelle Monae. Danielle Durchslag. Kim Stanley Robinson. Lauryn Hill. Hari Nef. Elnathan John. Habib Yazdi.
Who gets to decide what pop culture is in the first place?
And we will.
*Credit: Dessa, “Fighting Fish.”
**I’m white. This doesn’t make me “objective.” In a racist society, there’s no such thing as a neutral position. So here’s my subjective position as I understand it: being white means having profound privilege, and for me personally, I intend to use that privilege to redistribute power. I wrote more about that in The Atlantic. If you have any thoughts about this, I would love to hear them at @monicabyrne13 or email@example.com.
Art by Hazel Lee Santino. Honeycomb and Castilleja.
My short story “Gustus Dei” (Latin for “the taste of God”) is up today on The Baffler. I love this story so much and I’m so happy to finally share it with the world.
(1) I wrote it for my application to Clarion in 2008. It’s based on a conversation I once had with my sister Clare at the Cleona Dairy Queen about how much we wished there was a “buffet bar” for the Eucharistic wafer.
(2) It has been rejected 51 times, as you can see in my anti-résumé. From the time it was last rejected in 2011 to when it was published in 2015, I did no revisions. It’s exactly the same story.
(3) So hey, fuck the “merit alone” argument. It was finally published because (Kim) Stan(ley) Robinson, who was reading Clarion applications in 2008 and loved the story so much that he called me on the phone to convince me to attend, remembered and recommended it to The Baffler a few months ago.
(4) This is why I always say that, while talent and hard work and luck and circumstance all matter to success as a writer, so do connections. They really do. For better and worse.
(5) Eat something you love today. Maybe while reading this story.
Photo: an illustration by Eric Battle and John Jennings from Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of the Phoenix.
A month ago, with the Hugo fracas in full swing, an editor at Wired wrote me and said, “If you have something to say, you have the platform.” Given Wired’s enormous readership, what an incredible thing. I wrote the piece in an afternoon, they put it up, and it did well.
Shortly thereafter, the same editor said she and the Culture editor wanted me to write a column for them. Which was even more thrilling. And given that my op-ed had been about systemic bias in favor of white men in literature, I thought they knew exactly what they were getting with me: a commitment to changing the conversation around what’s considered newsworthy art. I wrote to the editor, “Boyhood or the new Avengers movie? I could give a shit. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Crumbs? Yes, please. And it’s not even that I’m actively boycotting the former. It’s that I just don’t care. They coast on the assumption that these are stories that matter to everyone; they don’t. I think it’s important to say that, repeatedly, out loud, and point to alternatives, until the alternatives become a new mainstream that reflects the actual world.”
So I asked my friends on Facebook to send me stuff to look at. I got an avalanche of amazing material. I sent off a list of pitches to cover art and artists I was really excited about, and tie it into cultural phenomena that Wired, being “the magazine of the future,” would have a stake in. For example, in light of Ferguson and Baltimore, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s idea in Americanah that the only way to heal a racist society was through romantic love. Or how U. S. institutional theatre is condemning itself to extinction in part by ignoring the vast majority of nonwhite theatrical forms. Or how my generation of women is rewriting the script by choosing singledom, which paves the way for queer relationship styles like polyamory to go mainstream. How all of these trends are shaping the world we live in, the future that we will live in, and the films and books and music that we make.
The response I got was, to paraphrase: I’m sorry, but we don’t do zeitgeist-type pieces, and we only cover pop culture. Why don’t you start with a one-off, and we can go from there?
I was really bummed—I thought I had a column?—but hey, maybe I just wasn’t pitching quite the right stuff, and I was still game to find common ground. So I wrote back, “Thanks for this clarification, it all really helps…Here’s a more general question that’ll give me a clearer sense of who to approach: Is Wired interested in helping decide what pop culture is in the first place? I’m just wary of reinforcing the usual biases of whose work gets attention and why. So I’d try to find a happy medium between artists that are household names and those who aren’t quite yet, but I think should be, and interview them about their upcoming work.”
I listed Scarlett Johansson (about what she thinks of Jeremy Renner’s “slut” comments), Genevieve Valentine (about making Catwoman bisexual), Diablo Cody (about her new film Ricki and the Flash), Zadie Smith (about her upcoming science fiction novel), Jeff VanderMeer (about the upcoming film adaptation of The Southern Reach Trilogy), Lupita Nyong’o (about her mysterious role in Star Wars), Priyanka Chopra (about transitioning from Bollywood to the U.S. in Quantico), and Meshell Ndegeócello, and Jane Campion, and Sofia Samatar.
I never got a reply.
I followed up. I proposed a piece on Nnedi Okorafor about her just-released The Book of the Phoenix, prequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death. I never got a reply to that, either.
So after a week, I wrote in and said, “I’m not sure what happened here, but I’m guessing we’re just not on the same page when it comes to culture. Thank you for your consideration and good luck with everything.”
I hear that the editor is a very nice guy, that he really does “get it” (“it” being problems of systemic bias, I imagine), that he’s just very busy, and that all people in the publishing world are often guilty of FTR—Failure To Respond.
I believe all of that.
But there’s “getting it,” and then there’s the desire to change, and then there’s the will to change, and then there’s the enactment of concrete actions to make the change occur. Like prioritizing writers who understand that “mainstream” means “white gaze” and want to change that. Like responding to them at all after you’ve asked for a column from them. Yes, FTR could just mean he was busy. But if he really “gets it,” he must understand that silence doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. Without a parity policy in place, there’s no way I can know whether he didn’t respond to me because I’m a woman who wants to write about a lot of women. In fact, there’s no way he can know, either. That’s how unconscious bias works.
The time I was waiting for him to respond was not a good time. The idea of having to convince a white man on a weekly basis that women and people of color and the art they make are “worthy” of coverage started to make me feel physically sick. Like repeatedly convincing someone that the sun rises in the east. Who the hell would want that job? A job we already have to do, for free, all the time, just to assert our humanity? I talked to my agent about it, who was really supportive, but referred to me as “powerless” in the situation. I understood what he meant—that I had no leverage with which to make this editor respond to me—but the word struck me, because I don’t feel powerless at all. I feel exactly the opposite: that they need voices like mine. That if they don’t take them, it’s their loss, not only morally and aesthetically but (in the long run) financially, and no one will wait for them to catch up with the new culture we’re creating. We’ll just go ahead and create it. And then who gives a fuck if they cover it or not, because by then, it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll be relevant anymore.
I’ve talked with other writers who’ve had experiences with Wired. My experience is not unique. So as far as I can tell, they don’t cover the future. They produce a white male fantasy of the future. Which isn’t surprising. But I’m still allowed to be disappointed. Because for awhile there, I thought someone was telling me, “If you have something to say, you have the platform.” And I was going to take it.