Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Perils of the Bookshelf

Pictured above is my bookshelf. Not pictured above are the books, boxes full of books, and envelopes containing books, that have overtaken my floor. I don't really begrudge the loss of space, but my books--or more importantly, the dust--does pose a health problem for me to the point that every time I go through my shelves, I eventually end up with a cold the next day. It's gotten to the point that when the parents renovated the house two years ago, I didn't get to organize my own bookshelf due to the accumulated dust. Instead, someone else organized my bookshelf for me, and my memory of which books I have (and don't have), and where they are located, have been fuzzy ever since. At this point, my only comment is yay eBooks.

Earlier this month, I found myself ransacking my shelves, boxes, and envelopes looking for specific books (which also leads to inadvertent trips to bookstores all around the city) to loan, to give, to present to a friend. I tell myself I won't get sick (I end up sneezing the rest of the night) and reassure myself that my book is somewhere (sometimes, they are gone, either trapped in our basement somewhere, or the book has found a new home months or years earlier in a similar predicament). On one hand, the process is exhilarating, the same thrill a collector might feel upon acquiring an obscure item at the right price. On the other hand, there is the ailment that follows, and disappointment when you fail to find the specific book and fault your aging memory.

More importantly though, this is a rare occurrence, as for most of the year, I am usually content to let my bookshelf idle and gather dust (I can easily imagine communities springing to life when my back is turned, torturing protagonists, giving birth to new settings, and perhaps inventing a new word or two). It was only upon self-reflection that I realize I braved the perils of my bookshelf only when I wanted to impress someone, and by someone, I mean an individual who actually takes the time to read books and appreciates them. A few years back, there was a meme about dating someone who reads, and while not every reader is our ideal partner (I'm a selfish jerk for example), I'd like to think that I'll eventually end up with someone who is passionate about books. There's always a narrative, even if it's failure, when we go about choosing a book for someone; there's the time spent thinking what they might like, going through the process of procuring that specific title, and then convincing them to read it (and even if you succeed, might not lead to the intended consequences, in the same way that readers don't always arrive at the author's intentions). My heart flutters every time I go through this even if this eventually (100% so far) leads to disappointment, heartbreak, and depression.

There are a lot of adages I can console myself with but that's not what matters. There is still that moment, however brief, of joy that is boiled down to possibilities. And that's perhaps the beauty of the bookshelf: that there will always be options and divergent paths that's open and unique to each reader.

Now if only they'd find a cure for my allergies...

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Guest Blog: Way Inside the Story by Karen Heuler

We are each of us residing in our brains, looking at a world we decode with our various brain functions. If we’re lucky, everything works well and we see the world as it is. And one reason I love Oliver Sacks so much is how deft he was at presenting us with people who don’t see the same world we do. His stories in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat are rich and surreal, as tragic and beautiful as fiction. These are stories that tell us how we assemble the world around us; and how the structure can fall apart and we won’t even know it.

In my short story collection, The Inner City, people accept what they see no matter how “unreal” it may be; for them, it’s just part of their day. A woman comes across people growing up out of the soil, and because she’s retired and no longer of use, she finds a new purpose in allying herself with them. I imagined, for a while, writing a bunch of stories called “The League of Invisible Women”—stories that would show the power of women who have become socially invisible because they’re no longer young and lithesome. This could be one of those stories. She might be the only one who understands what’s happening and who chooses what to do about it. And because no one sees her as a threat, she’s invulnerable.

Most of my stories get their start from items in the news or other media. We’ve all seen occasional pieces about science and medicine trying trans-species grafts: mice with “human” ears; transplanted organs from pigs and apes or even dogs. Those transplants haven’t worked yet, but eventually something will work, in some variation that alarms us and then slips by us as it becomes familiar—like genetically modified food. At that point, not only will we grow transplants from “disposable” animals, we might see what happens when we mix and match desirable traits from humans and animals.

Not a nice thought, actually. I used this premise in “Down on the Farm.” We like dogs for their eagerness to please; mix that with male dominance and male desires and you get a very nasty world with an underclass of female human-dog hybrids as a new servant class. How would you feel about it—about using hybrid animals without having to worry about protecting anything like their rights?

This collection does tend to notice the animals around us. There are stories about fish that grant wishes; fish that walk and appear to be organizing themselves; there’s a cow that a girl creates from discarded packets of meat she got from the store. In “The Difficulties of Evolution,” people evolve into animals at some point in their lives, and the trick is to discover which one you are. Don’t we all know people who remind us of bears or cats or birds? What would happen if they stopped looking like them and started being them? Would they just be moved from one category to another in our brains?

We know things are going on behind our backs and it’s only a matter of time before it’s evident. It’s only too likely that someone else, behind the scenes, is controlling the parking spaces. Nothing is more inevitable than an ultimate showdown with nature. And haven’t we all been warned to be careful what we wish for? These stories are all based on reality! I wouldn’t be at all surprised if all of them were true.

And now to get back to Dr. Oliver Sacks and his patients.

The brain creates stories. The brain creates plots. The brain constantly tries to create a narrative. Writers are a lot like the brain—noticing, analogizing, finding a pattern, making it into a meaning. Telling a story. And readers like to find the stories that match up with that vaguely uneasy feeling they’ve been having. A good story makes life meaningful rather than random. It takes the memories and observations in our brains and comes up with a structure that rings with authenticity.

But is a story real?

I can only imagine you; I am glad to imagine you; I need to imagine you. Because in imagining you I begin to make up a tale that convinces me that what I say indeed is real.

Karen Heuler's stories have appeared in over sixty literary and speculative journals and anthologies, including several "Best of" collections. She's published a short story collection and three novels, and won an O. Henry award in 1998. She lives in New York with her dog, Philip K. Dick, and her cats, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Best Intentions...

I've come to value perspective and empathy: I don't have it, but over the years, I've become aware that I don't have these qualities.

One of the problems when we talk about topics like diversity, privilege, racism, feminism, misogyny, etc. is that some participants think they see the entire picture. And despite the best intentions, we have shortcomings. For example, in 2012, some prominent bloggers tackle "World SF" in their own way. There was one person who talked about African Science Fiction but only chose to include Mike Resnick in his title. Or another who wanted more Chinese Science Fiction, but was asking to see more space-oriented fiction akin to the "Golden Age" of Western science fiction with China's space program. That's not to shame them, and they had the best of intentions, but it's also ignorant and they're probably unaware of what they did wrong (and I'm guilty of this too).

But what I want to talk about is how sometimes, in supporting a particular cause, we can end up neglecting others. Just look at the difference between third-wave feminism and second-wave feminism: the former addresses a lot of concerns for people who don't conform to the gender binary, while the latter does not. In practical terms, I might produce an anthology highlighting People of Color (POC) for example, but leave out women, or vice versa.

One not-so-recent Twitter conversation I saw for example was a publisher asking for gender stats from a magazine and the managing editor smartly replied that they couldn't just give out stats divided into male/female--at least not based on name alone (which, in itself, isn't exactly the most accurate way). Some contributors identify themselves with different gender identities so the binary statistics model doesn't fit. It didn't occur to me back then, but they made great sense. And again, it's a shortcoming of my existing paradigm.

That's not to say that we should give up on our causes since they're going to be flawed, but rather we need to keep an open mind and progress the conversation. While not all change is necessarily good, if we are to evolve to be better people in general, our ideas and beliefs also need to grow and develop.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Turning Off the Internet

So far in 2013, I've turned off the Internet: no checking of RSS feeds, not browsing Livejournal (showing my Internet age here...), not keeping myself updated on Twitter and Facebook, no checking of stats, etc. And surprisingly, I'm totally fine with that. There's a lot of arguments, debates, and conflict that you end up avoiding--stressors that don't help your productivity (and right now, my productivity is nada).

It's a reminder for me that it's okay to step back, take a deep breath, and devote some personal time for yourself when needed. In the meantime, I'm taking baby steps when it comes to my blogging self (apologies for the lack of updates), hence this short blog entry.

Hope your 2013 is going well.