Saturday, August 21, 2010

I Write: Loving Relationships

So recently the video by Rihanna and Eminem went big and caused a lot of discussion all over the blogosphere, but browmfemipower's post is the most compelling and is the one I would highly recommend anyone to read. It's challenging to read, because it doesn't speak to me. It's painful to read, because in a way, I'm one of the people she's pushing back against. But these are reasons why it is absolutely necessary I and everybody else have to read it. She doesn't want people linking to it because she gets shit from people who just can't grok with what she writes, because if you want an alternative perspective, she will give it to you, and it will be shoved into your mouth without benefit of the silver spoon that you're probably used to.

I didn't write about Rihanna during the time the spotlight was on her on how she handled Chris Brown's treatment abuse of her, because I had no frame of reference. I couldn't judge how she should have handled it. Part of it is because I was more interested in hating on Chris Brown and thought Rihanna deserved all the support she could get in what she decided to do in her own life. Part of it because I try to stay away from celebrity news. Part of it was because I just didn't know her. 

In her post, bfp writes about the systemic violence against working class/poor people that prevent them from getting out of the cycles of violence that they remain in. That they cannot just "leave". Leaving isn't an option. The violence begins from young; every abuser has been a victim at some point. That we ignore them anyway and judge them and condemn them for what we, middle-class privileged people, perceive as making the wrong choices in life. It's easy to say that, because we've got the choices and the options and the background support. Despite probably being the ones who don't need them. 

Lots of the criticism aimed at the music video has been about what "the video says" and tells and depicts. I haven't seen the video because I'm too scared to. But even I can grasp that it's about Rihanna's story, and about Eminem's story, and the story of many other people in DV situations who love each other to pieces but dole out violence anyway. I don't claim to understand that; I can only theorize that it's because they have a lot of other shit on their plate that violence is their answer; that they aren't given many other options, or taught ways to deal with each other that don't involve violence; that the circle they are in are so hard to get out of, it just carries on repeat, ending with a conflagration that hurts everyone.

When I was growing up, I had ideas on what a loving relationship would look like. I didn't know for sure, because my parents didn't really show each other affection in a way that I thought worked for me. I had some pretty strong opinions on what I wanted, eventually, and when I finally did end up in my first relationship, I spent a lot of time trying to live up to those ideals. Unfortunately for me, these ideals were fed by a diet of romance novels, in which the process of falling in love was depicted, but never the effort of staying in love. I only learned how to stay in love when I was surrounded by loving couples who were crazy about each other and found a strong foundation for their relationships.

I only got this in my twenties. So, I can understand why some people just end up in relationships that are ultimately destructive from any outsider's perspective. No one teaches us otherwise. I wasn't taught to express myself clearly; I was taught how to be snarky. If I hadn't had such a domineering personality to begin with (my mother identified this trait in me from my babyhood), I likely would have grown up repressing myself a lot more, so often was I shut down. But I am domineering, and I am stubborn, and I like having my way, so this is how I turned out. Not everyone turns out this way, and that is okay - we all have to deal with stuff in ways that suit us best, and preferrably without hurting other people. I hurt my parents a lot, just as they hurt me. And as time goes by, we learn how to hurt each other less.

When I write about "comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable", I was also thinking about the power of stories to provoke thought and to educate. In this, also, the possibility of presenting a new way of thinking to the world. Charlotte Perkins Gilman did this with Herland. In the Steampunk anthology I just read, Molly Brown and Rachel E. Pollock did this too with their stories "The Selene Gardening Society" and "Reflected Light". In Gilman's story, she created a society from ground-up. The focus of Herland society is on children; everything that the culture does is geared towards the betterment of the world for the children. Children, who are the most oppressed group in today's society. Gilman's Herland society cannot ever be achieved until we learn to value children, and rebuild society from grassroots level to revamp entire systems. (And this is a necessary caveat: Gilman's Herland does not include PoC, the disabled, and LGBTQ. I do, however, consider Herland to be seminal work in that it at least offers a basis for us to start and improve on.)

I remember, in my short fiction writing workshops, being told, "every happy family is happy in the same way; every dysfunctional family is different." I took it for granted that this was true; that the best, most publishable stories are about fucked-up people, navigating their way in the fucked-up world. I read story after story about blah people dealing with blah situations in certain, quirky, dysfunctional ways. I was supposed to find all this compelling. I didn't. I still don't. Part of it is because I can't recognize myself in these characters. Another part of is that I believe in exploring a problem in-depth with analysis to fix it. Stories depicting real-life... not for me. It's one of the reasons why I write science fiction and fantasy - these real-life perspectives can be presented in a different manner which will jar me and make me think. 

And also, I just don't believe that only dysfunctional people are different and unique and compelling anymore.

I haven't been writing much, because I've been busy reading. And I've been thinking about how we frame what is negative and what is positive. Just like how I was brought up to believe that being darker wasn't a good thing, and I learned later on that that's fucking rubbish, that dark skin is just dark skin, it can be beautiful or not depending on the eye of the beholder, and the value we attach to it is what we've been ingrained societally through media and education. Just like how I was brought up to believe that homosexuals were a perversion - and I even wrote this into my stories back then, not something to be proud of - and later learned that they're normal people who just so happen to be attracted to the same sex. Just like I was brought up to believe that kids who didn't have televisions, couldn't afford extra classes, had to help their parents on the farm or around the house rather than dedicate themselves to studies all the time, were worser off than me. 

I'm trying to change my boundaries on what's acceptable and what's not. Trying to frame things not as how I was taught to view them, but in ways that will better me and everybody around me. And framing dysfunctional people as being separate from happy isn't working for me in this new frame. 

It's like saying poor people don't know how to be happy, or if they are, it's because they've blissfully separated themselves from money concerns and what an enlightened life they live as a result! That's stupid. And really patronizing.

So back to writing. bfp writes a lot about how we need to analyse and critique, and we can't stop there - we need to take this analysis and critique further, to offer ways of re-envisioning the world, and how to get there.

I can think of only one book which to me depicts this getting there: The Color Purple by Alice Walker. It was written in a way that challenged me linguistically, because coming from Malaysia, with just about pitch-perfect English (and a classist tendency to look down on people who couldn't speak English properly), the grammar and turns of language Walker utilized in the book were compelling and hard to comprehend. It made me pay even more attention to what was going on in the book. I didn't see myself in the book. I didn't see anything familiar. And yet the book was comforting to me, because it was showing a set of characters who pushed and pulled at each other with hostility and love and alienation and eventually came to an understanding on how to co-exist without hurting each other. 

I was in a very bad place at the time I read the book. I frequently fought with my mother, I felt ignored by my father and neglected by my brother. I Had Needs that were Not Being Met! And I knew I hurt my parents with my continued insistence on doing things My Way, in ways that made other people think that somehow they were shitty parents. We were very different people, with very different expectations in life, but my mother and I were very similar in how we were domineering and stubborn and thought we knew best, and neither of us would back down. And yet, somehow, I went through it thinking, "this will get better. Once I get stuff accomplished and achieved. Once I come into my own and prove myself." And the only thing I can think of was The Color Purple, on how it took Celie and Mister a lifetime to come to an understanding and reconciliation after years of abuse and violence, and how Harpo and and Sofia came together trying to make their lives different, failing, and trying again, and succeeding, and how Shug loved other people besides Celie which hurt Celie and yet at the end of it all Shug comes home and Celie welcomes her. And somehow or another, I internalized this concept that I could come to this place too, where the fight goes out of my family and I go live under my family's roof without feeling like it's a chore. (And I have.)

The thing is, this wouldn't have worked if Walker hadn't portrayed how everyone got along after those long years of abuse. It wouldn't have worked if there had been some pretty, pithy conclusion, wrapped up in simple forgiveness, with an implication that If We Just Said The Right Words, because there were no right words and it was people trying to figure stuff out for themselves. It wasn't a case of unhappy families being unhappy in their own way... the story was about how an unhappy set of people found happiness in between the unhappiness and finding a way they could all work together and help each other be happy. And how they stayed in that place without backsliding into the abuse that hurt them all, despite the systemic problems they faced. 

I want to write stories like that. About finding a way to Go Beyond and finding that places where love happens in its own unique way from the hearts of each person. About finding that love and bringing it out even though it'll be continually shot down and hurt. I want to write stories about people in love and staying in love, or letting each other go out of love. I want to write about people loving each other in myriad of ways.

I'm tired of reading stories about people hating each other and disregarding each other and doing violence to each other and plotting ways to harm each other as if this is the Default State of Humanity. I want to read and write stories that will give readers the thoughts they could use to create tools they need to help themselves. I want to read about stories where people go from blaming to helping each other, the revelations they need to get there, for their own selves, without using other people's hurt and disadvantages as a Teachable Moment. I want to write about complicated, non-pithy ways of getting to a place that achieves reconciliation without big shows of forgiveness or ignoring the past.

This isn't to say that stories that don't do this are bunk and negative and invalid. I'm sure they are, for people who aren't me. Maybe I'm reading in the wrong places, but it doesn't seem to me that most of mainstream literature does this. But I want more literature on love, about love, towards love. And I'm going to do as much as I can to contribute to that, no matter how ambitious that can seem.

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