When writing isn’t enough

Ever since I can remember, I have taken to my notebook in times of despair. I remember the night of March 20, 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, because after sitting in the living room with my parents, watching a foreign sky lit up in shades of alien green, I locked myself in my room and pulled out my notebook. I was ten years old at the time. There were tears in my eyes, and fears lodged deep in my belly. I didn’t know exactly what to say, so I just began writing. What came out was a fictional story about a young Iraqi girl, running from her home as bombs fell around her. I don’t remember much else about the story. All I remember is that it mattered to me more than anything else I had ever written. And somehow, it helped me to get through the night.

Writing has always been the place where I feel like my truest self. The place where my tender heart can be at its most tender, and not fall apart. The place where I can watch it breaking, and still feel, somehow, whole.

I have notebooks full of letters to people who never knew I wrote them. There were things I needed to say, so I said them to the page. Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if those words had ever been spoken, or shared. But the truth is, they weren’t meant to be spoken, or shared. They were meant to be honored.

My friend sent me a picture the other day. It was a plaque from an art exhibit she had visited, and the theme of the piece was solitude. “To transit a moment of solitude,” it said, “is to tarnish the ascetic soul. But to let it burrow in and remain private can allow you to learn and unlearn the lessons as dictated only by the self.”

I have done plenty of burrowing, I thought to myself. And my ascetic soul is very much in tact.

But it is also lonely.

What were the lessons? I wondered. The lessons I learned and unlearned, alone with myself?

What was the lesson I learned from writing that story about the young Iraqi girl? Was it empathy? Was it pity? Was it compassion?

What was the lesson I learned from all those unsent letters? How much I had been hurt? How I could have protected myself? How I had failed to protect, and to truly seek, those whom I had so desperately loved?

And what was the lesson I learned when there came a time to stop writing? When there were no longer any words to be put on the page? When I woke up on Wednesday morning and went to my people instead of my pen? When I took to the streets instead of my study? When I sent out donations instead of words?

The lesson I learned was that some lessons can’t be learned alone. Some wounds can’t be fixed by bedrest. Some heartaches can’t be solved by ink.

Our nation is aching, and there are so many lesson we have still to learn. So many lessons I have still to learn.

But when the time comes for me to open my notebook again, it will not be to hide. It will not be to dodge hurt, or quarantine pain. It will be to look within myself for the achings of the world. To look within myself for hatred, greed, and anger. To see these qualities for what they are: human, and eradicable. And by seeing them for what they are, to understand how love is the strongest weapon we have. Not love in the sense of affection, or sacrifice, or possession, but love in the sense of liberation.

Love as all the ways our freedom is bound up with one another’s.

Love as the courage to speak, and the courage to hear.

Love as tenderness.

Love as light.

Some thoughts on the election, in no particular order 

1. I woke up this morning in the arms of my girlfriend, and I thought “how could anyone hate this thing we have, this sweet early morning thing we have, this warmth against my spine flowing to my heart, this love which has opened up wells inside me, so I always have more love to give?” How could they hate us?

2. My mom told me that she couldn’t remember being this distraught since JFK was shot. She’s not a very political person, but she wept when Hillary lost. I hope she sees a woman president in her lifetime.

3. I want to be empathetic to those who feel disenfranchised by American politics but I’m angry that their vote came at the expense of so many lives.

4. I want to be able to utilize my anger, but my heart is broken and I am tired.

5. I can’t stop thinking about my wrists, and how close my veins are to the surface. We are, all of us, so fragile.

6. “Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.” -Edith Wharton

7. Sometimes guardian angels are the people organizing protests and writing petitions and organizing resources and offering money and to walk people home. They are everywhere if you are looking for them.

8. We did not start “making things political.” Sodomy laws made death a punishment for being gay in America. Until 2003 you could be arrested for being gay in 14 states. When white people came to the United States they brought black slaves and committed endless atrocities against them. They committed genocide against Native Americans for land.  Disability was treated with institutionalization which was often violent. Marital rape wasn’t criminalized until the 1970s, around the same time women received the legal ability to apply for credit separately from their husbands. All of this was legal. They made our bodies political, and our ancestors had to fight for our freedom. We are still fighting. We will not stop being political until we are all liberated. (My liberation can not ever come at the expense of anyone else’s).

9. For all the disagreements I had with her, I feel for Hillary Clinton. The sexism she experienced (has experienced, is experiencing) on a national stage has been an unsettling reminder of how we value ambitious women. I hope I channel her steely perserverence. I hope somebody has hugged her and told her she matters.

10.  You matter. You are valid. You are good. You are not monstrous or disgusting. You are not dangerous, except to the heterosexist white supremecist ableist transmisogynist system. You are a brilliant offering to the world around you. Your resilience is inspiring. Your vulnerability in the face of hate is breathtaking. You are cared for and loved. It is not alright now but I will fight to make it alright to you, wherever you are.

All my love,

Marnie

Living Through a Heat Wave

Let me preface this by saying: I am not someone who enjoys the summer.  Sure, having a break from school is great.  Ice cream is tasty.  Sangria is to-die-for.  But of all the seasons, summer has to be my least favorite.  This has been true ever since I can remember.  For example, I distinctly remember the last day of third grade, packing up my desk in Mrs. White’s classroom and weeping because the school year was over and I just didn’t know what to do with myself.  Two years later, I had a mini-existential crisis as fifth grade came to a close and I convinced myself that this meant “saying goodbye to my childhood.”  In high school, things were looking up.  I busied myself with dance classes and camping trips with my best friends, learned how to bake bread and sew, and became a thoroughly skilled domesticated feminist.  But even that couldn’t save me.  

There was just something about the sun that I couldn’t handle.  I felt stuck in my house, like the world was against me.  When I went outside, I felt like my whole body was under siege.  I felt how weak it was, how susceptible to the elements, how fragile.

In France, they call this kind of heat la canicule.  I remember the first time I ever came across this word.  I was in a translation class my sophomore year of college, and I needed to find a poem to translate for my final project.  Late one night I sat in the empty common room of my dorm, flipping through an anthology of Algerian poetry.  I came upon a short poem by Malek Alloula, a native Algerian poet who had been living in exile in France for most of his life.  Something about the poem struck me, and I tried my hand at a translation.

poem 3The translation was clumsy and inaccurate, especially my rendition of la canicule.  What I loved about this word was that it sounded to me like “canopy”.  I could picture the heat hanging over the city like a large piece of suffocating cloth.  A force that lorded over you, drying you up like a relic of petrified wood.  Of course, the speaker’s primary concern in this poem is not the literal heat of summer.  Instead, he uses the heat (and the “sarcasms of winter”) as a metaphor for the intensity of war—the way it cuts off the past, breaks lineage, destroys families.

And then there’s Albert Camus, probably the most well-known French author to write about la canicule.  You could say that Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, is more than a little bit obsessed with the heat of the sun.  As he follows his mother’s funeral procession, a nurse gives him some sage advice: “She said, ‘If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.’ She was right. There was no way out.”

If we look more closely at la canicule, we begin to see that it really does bring out the worst in people. For Camus’ Meursault, it’s cold-blooded murder.  For the speaker in Alloula’s poem, it’s colonial violence and civil war. Outside of the realms of fiction and poetry, the effects of the heat are no less severe.  In August of 2003, over 15,000 people died in the span of one month during a deadly heat wave in metropolitan France.

So what do these three incidents have in common, besides being related to France?  In all three cases, the fatal effects of the heat (whether direct or circumstantial) disproportionately targeted marginalized populations.  In The Stranger, Meursault (a white man of French origin) shoots an an unnamed “Arab” to death on an Algerian beach.  In Alloula’s poem, he alludes to the Algerian War, fought between 1954 and 1962, which scholars estimate to have resulted in the deaths of nearly 1 million native Algerians.  During the heat wave of 2003, the vast majority of heat-related deaths affected France’s most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the homeless, and those living in poverty.  

This summer, the heat has intensified.  Violent act after violent act, senseless death after senseless death.  And not surprisingly, this violence takes a disproportionate toll on marginalized populations: people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, trans women, people living at the intersections of these and other identities.  As news broke of the shooting in Orlando, and of the murders of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, I felt as though as though mass shootings and police brutality were increasing at a dizzying rate, rushing towards some kind of horrific climax.  

Crime rates have evolved and changed over the past fifty years in complicated ways, just like the weather.  Hot summers, cold winters, unexpected floods.  One hot day in the middle of April is probably not going to hurt anyone.  Three hot days in May might be a bit of a bother.  It’s when the hottest days pile one on top of the other, day after day, that you enter la canicule.  

What’s different about this summer is not that the heat is any hotter, it’s that we’ve had to live through so much of it in such a short span of time.  We’ve reached a threshold, a tipping point between passively waiting for the heat to pass, and actively working to alleviate its deadly effects.  Many of us reached this threshold long ago.  As a white American, the seemingly sudden horror I felt this summer after the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling showed me just how passive I had been about the deaths that have been happening for years, for decades, for centuries.  It was as though I had been sitting in an air-conditioned penthouse, and somebody broke the window to let in the ferocious heat that had always been outside.

The violence of this summer, like the heat of the sun, cannot be solved by short-term solutions alone.  Refusing to leave the house, to walk around in public places, to drive your car—in the long run, these changes are not sustainable.  They fix nothing.  Just look at climate change: inventing better sunscreen won’t fix a hole in the ozone layer.  So why do we think that carrying more guns will fix the epidemic of violence that is taking over our country?

As we work towards long-term systemic solutions to this epidemic, we must also deal with the fact that we are still in the heat of the fire. We are still in la canicule.

But here’s the thing about a heat wave: it doesn’t have to kill. One of the primary reasons why so many elderly, impoverished, and homeless French citizens died in the 2003 heat wave was because they did not receive the care they needed. Many died alone in their apartments, when all that was needed was for a neighbor to walk up the stairs with a cold washcloth and a bottle of water, and make sure their neighbor was okay.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the long-term solutions to the problems we face are… well, long-term.  In the short-term, we need to take care of ourselves and of each other.  Allies need to step up and start carrying water, providing support, checking in on the ones they love. The heat does not affect everyone in an equal manner.  The death of yet another person of color in our country at the hands of police will break some, and pass over the heads of others. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how immediately you feel affected by this violence.  It is your job, it is my job, it is our job, to support and care for anyone who is.  It is our job to go into the heat that some of us can’t escape, and do what we can to keep each other safe.

Further reading:

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1946.

Kaouah, Abdelmadjid, ed. Poésie Algérienne Francophone Contemporaine. Autre Temps: 2004.

Keller, Richard C. Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003University of Chicago Press: 2015.

Gladwell, Malcolm.  “Why mass shootings, like Orlando’s club attack, keep happening.” CNBC: June 14, 2016.

 

 

Keep Your Heart Open

I’d like to apologize for the radio silence these past few weeks. It’s been a hard few weeks to be a person here in the world. Our hearts have been heavy in response to the violence in Orlando, Tel Aviv, Turkey, Istanbul, Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and I’m sure a few more places that I am missing. There is so much to say and yet so few words are forthcoming. I don’t know what I have to offer in response to these tragedies.

I am sad. I am tired. I am doing my best to help in my own small ways though it does not feel like enough. There is always a voice in my head asking “what else can I do? what else should I do? what else do I have the responsibility to do?” I am scared often for the people I love, in this world where people die because of ideological reasons, for their identities, for simply existing in public.

Sometimes I am reminded that despite the breadth of human history, there will always be questions that don’t have neat answers. I wonder if my ancestors felt this in response to the tragedies of their time. I wonder if they chose to act, or if they turned their eyes and closed their hearts, to protect themselves from the confusion and pain.

I hope to keep my heart open, even in these heart-breaking times. To be affected by injustice, even when it is not close to home. To not allow myself to be complacent. To keep helping in my small ways, and hope that if enough people chose to act in small ways, it can become large scale change. I hope that you will too. I hope you will keep talking (and shouting) about injustice, keep donating money and time, keep being kind to those around you, and choosing to accept when you are wrong.

I’ll leave this small post with some articles and a poem that I have found useful these last few weeks.

Love and peace to all of you.

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Full Transcript of Jesse Williams BET Awards Speech 

Racism in America FAQ

Philando Castile Was A Role Model to Hundreds of Kids

In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club

#PulseOrlandoSyllabus

LGBTQ People Can’t Have Safe Spaces But We Still Need Community

After Attacks on Muslims Many Ask: Where is the Outpouring?

Mourning on Ramadan: Breaking My Fast With Queer Muslims After the Orlando Shooting

Love is all we have

There are no words for what happened in Orlando last night; or rather there are too many and none of them are quite right.

There is the fact that I have already seen people asking not to politicize this tragedy, saying we can not blame the hateful ideology of a presidential candidate, or gun laws for what happened. It’s true there is no one thing that convinces someone to take a gun and use it to kill people he perceives to be “different” and “wrong.” But this didn’t happen without context. There are many ifs. If he hadn’t been able to access a weapon that can kill many people in a short period of time. If he hadn’t been exposed to political agendas that say that LGBTQ folks don’t deserve basic rights and heard the underlying message that queer folks, trans folks, and people of color don’t matter and don’t deserve to be alive. If if if.

There is the grief for the queer folks who died while celebrating their identities. It’s pride month. It was latin night at Pulse. It is a time of joy and community and conversation about how to make our communities stronger. There is grief for the families and loved ones of these queer folks, and the knowledge that family often looks different in the queer community. There is imagining the fear of not knowing if someone you love was hurt because you’re not “next of kin” on government forms.

There is anger that this could happen. Why did this fucking happen? Why did this have to happen? Why has this been happening in smaller, less publicized ways for years and why hasn’t it been stopped? Why is my queerness perceived as such a threat that people debate if me and my community deserve basic rights and safety? Why are trans women considered threats when they want to pee, when they are part of a community that constantly has to worry for it’s own safety?

There is fear for those I love, for copycat attacks that will follow, for losing more queer people, who are just trying to live.

There is a sense of impotence for what I can not change, and for the privilege I have that means I am less at risk for these kinds of attacks because I am white and middle class and cisgender.

And there is love. Love for my queer community. Love for the people who are already organizing vigils and donating blood and writing their representatives. Love for the others afraid for their own safety. Love for the grieving and the bereft. Love for Muslim folks in the U.S. (especially LGBTQ+ Muslim folk) who already are the scapegoats for so many tragedies.

It can feel trite to quote Martin Luther King Jr but since reading about the shooting, what has circled in my brain is this:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We have to continue to love each other as hard as we possibly can. The root of justice is love. The root of our community has always been love. In heartbreaking times like this, love is all we have.

Radical Femininity and Motherhood in the Hunger Games

This article contains some spoilers for Mockingjay Part 2.

Since the beginning of The Hunger Games Trilogy Katniss has been the kind of heroine that I had been waiting to see grace the big screen. Not just a Strong Female Character™, Katniss’s strength came from her natural empathy and fierce protectiveness of those she loved. In a world based around performance, her authenticity is what presented a threat to the Capitol, and her inability to hide what she was feeling is what rallied people to her. In what other blockbuster film do we see a young woman whose bravery and love is used to start a revolution?

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Katniss manages to be both feminine and strong without falling into the common film tropes of the overly sexualized female character (see Black Widow in Iron Man) or the Strong Woman who only portrays masculine ideals of strength (again, see Black Widow). Katniss squeals when her stylist Cinna designs her a beautiful dress, and also enjoys the practical clothes he had designed for her  when she joins the resistance. She hunts and fights, but also has an innate sense of humanity that makes her resistant to taking a life unless it is absolutely necessary. She feels guilty for the lives she takes, and is enraged when she sees others killing indiscriminately. She fights with Gale, her best friend and love interest, when he discusses war tactics that unnecessarily kill civilians. She also cuts ties with the resistance when she believes they killed children (including her sister, Prim) for their own gain.

Watching the films we lose some of Katniss’s internal monologue from the books, but the other choices made by the filmmakers, as well as Jennifer Lawrence’s compelling performance allow us to follow Katniss’s internal struggle as she copes with her trauma from her two rounds in the Hunger Games, as well as the loss of her district, her sister, and temporarily Peeta. By the end of both the books and the movies, Katniss is grieving. She has nightmares and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her relationship with Peeta is built around the idea of healing. The scene where he plants primroses for her is a perfect example of encouraging Katniss to move forward without having to forget what happened to her. Very rarely do we see such a dynamic portrayal of grief and mental illness in a blockbuster like The Hunger Games.

Maybe that’s why the scene where Katniss appears as a mother feels like such a let down.

The Katniss that we see, in her floral dress smiling down at her baby didn’t feel like the same woman I had been following for 3 books and 4 movies. She felt purposely softened, as if her radical femininity and her trauma had been erased by motherhood. 

As S.E. Smith of Bitch Media put it “As a revolutionary, Katniss is a brave and impressive figure. As a mother, she’s just as strong—mothering itself is revolutionary—but the scene has a sense of literally and figuratively putting her out to pasture. Your work here is done, the scene implies, and so too is your value and interest as a human being.”

One of the tropes of the Strong Female Character is that their strength is defined by masculine stereotypes of strength, such as stoicism and violence. Katniss is forced to embody these traits for most of the series, but what makes The Hunger Games unique  is that is always shows how doing these things affects Katniss emotionally. She has nightmares. When she finds out she has to return to the games in Catching Fire she blacks out and breaks into a strange house. Throughout the books she asserts frequently that she never wants to have children and subject them to the trauma she went through. Katniss’s grief is always palpable and serves as a commentary on how war and violence can affect people. In Mockingjay it is made clear that she isn’t the only victor of the Hunger Games to experience trauma, long after the games have finished. Her mentor Haymitch turns to alcohol, several of the other victors are heavy drug users. In the epilogue of the book Mockingjay, Katniss says it took her 15 years to agree to have children with Peeta, and that she still uses coping mechanisms to get through the trauma of what she has experienced.

The final scene of the Mockingjay Part II film fell flat for me because it attempted to gloss over an interesting and honest portrayal of trauma. Instead it chose a shot of a young Katniss smiling while telling her infant child about the nightmares she has, nightmares that epitomize her worst fears for her children. It was a scene that emphasized the softest parts of Katniss’s femininity, instead of giving us the opportunity to see the strength it took for her to decide to have a family, and the fierce protectiveness she would undoubtedly embody as a mother.

From a film series that showed us unexpected empathy in a violent time, I was hoping to see an equally revolutionary understanding of recovery, femininity, and motherhood in a time of peace. On that front Mockingjay Part II did not deliver.

Grateful

November has been rough.

It’s become hard to look at a computer or open a newspaper without finding a new example or terror and hate, a new story to grieve. Our hearts here are going out to Baghdad, Beirut, Paris, the students of Mizzou, the families of the Black Lives Matter activists who were shot this Monday night, the continuous plight of the Syrian Refugees, and the staff and patients of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, as well as Planned Parenthood offices all over the country.

Honestly it can feel like  a lot of places for a heart to be at once.

How do we as feminists and social justice advocates cope with living in a world where it feels like we are facing a new tragedy every day, some of which target our personal identities? How do we sit with the grief for ourselves and for humanity in general? How, this Thanksgiving, do we find anything to be grateful for?

I haven’t found an answer that feels good for me yet. Often I feel split between the desire to join the dialogue and the understanding that my voice doesn’t need to be the most elevated one. Sometimes the only way it feels possible to stay sane is to disengage, but I don’t want to be someone who is apathetic in the face of tragedy. I also know that being able to disengage, especially for issues surrounding racial injustice and Syrian refugees, is rooted in the privilege I have as a white American.

Despite all the terror we have seen or experienced this year, I do feel we have a lot to be grateful for. I am thankful for my communities, where I have found love and support during my own hard times, and anger and solidarity during large scale tragedy. I am forever grateful to my friends and mentors who have educated me and inspired me and taught me how to better my own understanding of social justice.

I am thankful for the activists. I’m thankful for the folks who create apps and petitions and organize protests, and who believe in a better world. I’m thankful for the folks who have reported the facts about injustice being perpetrated, whether it was on Twitter or in newspapers. Without them none of the revolutionary work we have seen this year could have been possible.

I’m also thankful for grief and for anger because feeling them means I have loved. I have opened my heart to the idea of a just world and I continue to believe it can exist.

shaunking

Below are some ways you can get involved with some of the movements discussed in my blog post.

Write to your Governor and members of Congress to support refugee resettlement: http://cqrcengage.com/theirc/app/write-a-letter?0&engagementId=146418

Download Share the Meal to provide meals for Syrian refugees: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/11/app-lets-users-share-meals-syrian-children-151112200450748.html

Get involved with Planned Parenthood: https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/?_ga=1.148159799.1098778570.1448726367

Get involved with Black Lives Matter: http://blacklivesmatter.com/getinvolved/

Show up for Racial Justice (SURJ): http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/stand_with_blm_mn?sp_ref=162720005.300.17012.f.71716.2