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I read a lot. This is partly a byproduct of having grown up a bookworm and partly having taken a course of studied that meant a lot of reading. Like a lot a lot. Since graduating, I’ve kept it up best I can and I’m sitting at fifteen-odd books in the past eleven months.

Like I said, reading a lot.

A side effect of this is that I have a wonderful bookshelf. You’ve got Ulysses there and the first volume of Saga there with CS Lewis’ Of Other Worlds. I like it, in part because it’s an egotistical testament to All The Books.

I mean, it’s kinda why I had a BluRay collection for a while. I love special features and stuff, but there’s also the fun of being able to tell a lot about a person based on what movies, games, books, music they own. But I’ve slowly been relying more on Netflix, etc for movies and tv with only really special things (Star Wars) getting bought. So books is the thing on my shelves.

And I’m moving in a couple months, which means packing everything up and hauling it down six(!) flights of stairs and to wherever I’m off to next. Which means packing up All The Books. And carrying All The Books elsewhere.

Which then begs the question: Why the crap don’t I have a Kindle? It’s light, I can fit All The Books inside and would make things so much easier. Also, once the thing is paid for, arguably cheaper. So there’s no real cons.

But the bookshelf.

And the books.

I like writing in my books. My copy of Ulysses is covered in my scrawls. Some books only have the occasional comment or underline. The Chinese in America has a lot of notes in the margins. Sure, you can do that on a Kindle and typed notes is easier to read than my handwriting, but there’s the process. Pen on paper. Flicking through a book looking for those notes. The feel of the pages.

There’s the bookshelf too. Maybe it’s an egotistical thing where I like having a monument to All The Books I Have Read in my apartment and to make sure people visiting can see All The Books. It’s a way for me to tell any visitor that I have a diverse array of interests (why yes, that is Mark Mazzetti’s study of the CIA, The Way of The Knife, next to Ready Player One; behold for I am cultured). It means that when some friends and I are a few drinks deep and talking about 80s movies or Ulysses I can pull a book off my monument to All The Books I Have Read and point to a passage relevant to our discussions. Like I said, it’s egotistical, but it has a purpose.

But maybe that egotism has a deeper root in a declaration of identity. Books are, to an extent, more personal than, say, movies. You don’t just go read a book at random, usually. Bookshelves represent what you’re into and what you’re enjoy, what you’ve studied and what you read for pleasure. They work as a summation of your interests and are thus reflexive back on you as a person. If you’re someone with The New Bloomsday Book you take reading important books seriously, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy lets everyone know you know how to have fun. By curating a bookshelf, you’re displaying a facet of yourself. You don’t get that on a Kindle.

I think that’s something that we lose when we go digital. Sure, it’s a bit of a luddite’s perspective, but I like recognizing a book a stranger’s reading on the subway or having an immediate icebreaker when you recognize a book on someone’s shelf.

So will I get a Kindle? Maybe. Probably eventually. Let’s see just how much I complain about lugging these books to a new apartment.

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Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

I didn’t learn the term ‘xenophobia’ from the news, the radio, or a textbook. Didn’t come up in class or any place you’d expect. Rather, I learnt the word ‘xenophobia’ from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books.

Was in the context of various political factions being distinctly anti-alien. Now, the xenophobia usually stemmed from the Empire and their staunch humans-first attitude and view of anyone who wasn’t as being intrinsically lesser, but some players in the New Republic also held xenophobic beliefs which made working together harder. Key thing was, these people were either villains or antagonists and their belief that someone who looked and thought differently was worth less than a person was wrong. The heroes, Luke, Leia, and even Han, weren’t about that; it was Emperor Palpatine and his ilk who pushed a xenophobic agenda. For a kid in his early teens recently immigrated to the US, it was a pretty clear distinction: good guys aren’t afraid of or mean to people because they’re different.

Now we all know that aliens and hyperdrives and Jedi are fictitious. But, xenophobia, as I would find out later, is a real term used by real people to describe real issues. The idea behind it, though — treating different people differently and meanly — was something I knew was unquestionably wrong because, well, Star Wars books. That and I was, y’know, a half-Singaporen cultural immigrant to South Carolina. But you get the idea.

I’m loathe to call Star Wars and science fiction in general ‘morality plays.’ Heck, I’m loathe to call any good fiction a ‘morality play’ because good fiction doesn’t preach at you. What science fiction does particularly well is, well, it says something without saying something. Diego Luna, in an interview with Vanity Fair,  said that the wonderful thing about setting Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away was “…whenever you get too personal, you can say, “No, I’m not talking about you. This is a galaxy far, far away.” But with this tool, you can actually make the most effective comments on the reality in which you’re living.”* Learning that species isn’t a demarcation for the capacity to do good is good practice for knowing that skin color and country of origin don’t have any bearing on whether someone is ‘good.’

And that’s the thing about stories: they’re practice. See, folks smarter than me have been trying to figure out why humanity does this whole storytelling thing. One theory is that stories are practice for interactions, a sort of simulation. When we read, we experience it ourselves. It’s science, since there are studies that “…suggest when we experience fiction are neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain” (pg 63 of The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, if you’re wondering). Stories are practice. They’re parables, where you can learn something by living something in a different way. As Gottschall says, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story” (118).

Back to science fiction. Reading stories about the real world can be tough, because seeing the crap we know exists in real life existing again isn’t always the funnest thing. Science fiction (and fantasy, etc) are reality adjacent, and so have more leeway. Ursula K. LeGuin can explore classism and sexual identity without pointing a finger at anyone for being a bigot. It becomes a safe space to discuss complex topics and live experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily. Stories can change you, can impact you because, well, the nature of fiction is that it strives to put you in that place. A good book has you working with the writer to empathize and live the narrative first hand. You can’t read a good book and come out entirely unchanged.

And the fantasy of science fiction means that there is a quick gratification to that hope. You don’t have to wait years and years on the edge to know that good will triumph over evil, that diversity beats xenophobia; you just gotta reach the end of the book.

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Of Stories and Hope

I’ve never been a huge fan of tragedies. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories like Othello, Whiplash, and Sicario; but those aren’t the ones I count my favorite stories.

I sometimes joke that I tell hopeful stories because if I want stories of injustice and despair, I can just read the news. I skim headlines and it’s not hard to see Othello and Chinatown being reenacted in current events. There is, of course, a greatness to using tragedy to comment on the human condition and all that. But sometimes, you need more. As a kid bullied at school for being different, I would find solace in fantastical worlds where, well, things were different.

Having just narrowly avoided a deadly encounter with a Nazgûl, Frodo sits amongst the ruins of Osgiliath devoid of hope; the Ring he seeks to destroy has been taking its toll; nothing makes sense anymore, let alone his quest. But Sam, his erstwhile gardener turned companion, rallies the hobbit: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered” (The Two Towers, 03:21). When things got bleak and everything seemed lost, the heroes pressed on no matter what. These stories were the ones of importance, “Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why” (03:22).

That’s how I opened my rationale (a thesis of sorts wherein I describe the focus of my four years of study at NYU Gallatin). Which, if you read my blog, recounting a scene from The Lord of The Rings in the first paragraph of my thesis really shouldn’t surprise you. I then go on to yammer on for the next several pages about the importance of stories as a means to define identity and convey truths. And something that stories can convey like no other is hope. They’re where we get to watch good triumph over evil and see hope win. It’s the total catharsis that Aristotle talks about in Poetics, or the ultimate boon of John Campbell. It’s that win, that “we did it!”

So why do those moments work? Why is Frodo and Sam preserving – and eventually overcoming Sauron – so powerful?

We know things by their opposite. Joy means nothing if we don’t know despair. In fiction, the bleaker things seem, the greater the catharsis of victory will be. Heck, Sam says it right there in his monologue, “when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”  The plot of The Lord of The Rings is a literal journey into darkness, with Frodo and Sam trekking into Mordor while Aragorn and the others face off an overwhelming army. Things couldn’t really look bleaker. There’s a reason Luke Skywalker only destroys the Death Star when it’s about to blow up Yavin IV: it’s the bleakest moment. The Return of The Jedi illustrates it even better; Luke’s decision to throw away his lightsaber and turn down the dark side doesn’t come when Palpatine is taunting him, it comes after he attempted to attack the Emperor and went on to give into his anger during his fight against Darth Vader. Luke’s rejection of evil only comes after we’ve seen him travel down that path, making it all the more powerful.

I think that may be one reason why The Empire Strikes Back stands as arguably the best Star Wars film. We end the movie with Han in carbonite, Luke missing a hand, and the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father. But then Luke gets a new hand, a reformed Lando flies off with Chewbacca to find Han, and we see Luke and Leia standing in the medical bay of a Nebulon-B Frigate that’s just one ship in the Rebel fleet. As bleak as an ending is, there’s hope. We know that this isn’t the end for them, we know they’ll keep going because they’re holding on to something.

I love stories. I really do. I love how they make Sam’s beautiful monologue in The Two Towers feel perfectly natural and earned. I love how these other worlds — because every piece of fiction, no matter how realistic, takes place in another world — show us things about our own. I yearn for stories imbued with hope because, against it all, that’s how I want to see the world: one where hope and love will triumph. There is a time and place for tragedy, but there are days when you need to be reminded that there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.

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*general internet frustrations*

Y’know, I had plenty of ideas about what this blog post was gonna be about. The casting choices in Dr. Strange verses Kubo and The Two Strings (with some Uncharted 4 thrown in) or maybe one about how Silk, a comic about an Asian woman with Spider-Man powers, is not a story about race but still tells a uniquely Asian story.

But then internet people had to be spoiled and cruel to Chelsea Cain because she dared write a feminist comic, to the point where she decided she’d rather leave Twitter than deal with that noise.

So this blog post is about those idiots.

Here’s the quick and dirty recap: the last issue of writer Chelsea Cain’s (and artist Kate Niemczyk) wonderful Mockingbird series (which I love) features Mockingbird herself, Bobbi Morse, on its cover proudly sporting a t-shirt that reads “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” It’s a great cover, adding a nice exclamation point to a book with an already decidedly feminist bent. Over the past week since the book’s release, however, The Internet hasn’t been too happy about it, and subsequently people on Twitter actively have been harassing her for it.

The sad truth is, this isn’t new, neither for comics nor nerd culture at large. Marvel as a whole gets a lot of crap for them “pushing social justice down readers’ throats” (that is, promoting diversity in their recent titles), and there was the horrible attacks on Leslie Jones for her role int he new Ghostbusters over the summer. Ultimately, it keeps coming down to the same thing: more people (especially women and minorities) want a more active, representative role in nerd culture and folks (especially straight white guys) don’t wanna share.

And look, I get it.

I really do.

I’m a lifelong nerd, well before it became cool to be one. I got picked on in real life for reading Star Wars books (and reading in general), being good at schoolwork, and spending my weekends playing video games. Online forums were my social sphere. It’s jarring to see a title and its hallmarks go from peripheral to mainstream. In recent years there’s been a steady merging of nerd culture into popular culture.

And I’ll admit, I bristle at it sometimes; I get protective of these stories: they’re mine! These newcomers just getting into Star Wars and superheroes didn’t have to deal with being weird; why do they get to choose to be called nerds? They’re your toys and you don’t like the neighbors coming over and making Darth Vader team up with the Power Rangers to fight the Decepticons. They’re our stories, we’ve claimed them as our own.

But they’re stories in contention are stories we like (hopefully) because they affected us deeply, why shouldn’t I want someone else to have that experience? Star Wars was for me a galaxy of possibility, where, y’know, things were great even if high school wasn’t. If making Rey and Finn the new face of the franchise opens the door for others to have that experience, I’m down. Mockingbird is a book where a woman can be the badass scientist-super-spy without being objectified (and instead the men are!). This summer’s Ghostbusters let women see themselves as the funny unhinged ghost hunters, like how the original let you do the same, my proverbial straight, white, male straw man.

But when every story used to cater to you, my straw man, it seems like you’re being alienated from the fandoms you sustained when more and more stories don’t. When Ms. Marvel is a Muslim, Pakistani immigrant and Iron Man is a black woman, it’s weird, as a longtime fan, to not see yourself reflected as the main character. But the point is, no one group has a monopoly on wanting to connect with stories — not everyone feeling ostracized is a straight white guy. As someone who is an immigrant, it’s exciting to see elements of my own story pop up in a comic book like Ms. Marvel. There has to be space for stories for everyone.

We need diversity. And I love Marvel for pushing it (and, y’know, reflecting the real world).

What we don’t need is this bullying bs that crops up over and over again. White guys aren’t the center of the world anymore; creators like Chelsea Cain can take a character who’s always been a supporting player and spin her into a hero in her own, feminist right. The stories, all of them, never belonged exclusively to any particular person or group of people, they’ve been ours this whole time. It’s time to share.

I wish I could end this post here.

But there’s the fact that Chelsea Cain is targeted because she’s a woman writing in the comics industry, an industry whose fans will protest and harass at any provocation. There’s no ignoring the repulsive sexism at work here (and, in Leslie Jones’ case, the racism too). It’s abhorrent and disgusting; things shouldn’t be this way. Harassing and attacking a woman just because she enters into a sphere usually dominated by straight white guys is childish. It’s stupid. It’s mean.

I don’t rant about feminism as much as I used to (haven’t you heard? This is the year of diversity at Essays, Not Rants!), but this is why feminism is important. It’s ‘cuz of bullshit like this.

When they announced the cover of Mockingbird #8 a few months ago, I quickly bought my own feminist agenda t-shirt (which I love). And my feminist agenda isn’t just putting more strong, well-written women in my stories and supporting others (and women) who do; it’s not putting up with this crap.

feministagenda

Chelsea Cain responded to this picture on Twitter. But I can’t show you that now because people are awful.

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Am I Making Sense?

Sometimes I wonder about the accessibility of this blog. Not literally, I mean “Essay Snot Rants dot net” is really easy to remember. I’m talking about the content here.

Sure, I talk about movies a lot. And a lot of the times those movies are blockbusters. You’ve got your discussions on why Rey is the best in The Force Awakens, your discussions on how Age of Ultron portrayed masculinity, and the close reading of an epic monologue from Pacific Rim. Popular movies being discussed deeply! But then you’ve got my oddly well thought-out in-depth analyses of dumb, underperforming movie from 2007. So it balances out, there.

But then I’ve talked about comics like Mockingbird, which, alright, comics are kinda mainstream, but not as much as movies or tv, but probably more so than Don Quixote or trying to find the middle of the venn diagram between Borderlands 2 players and those who have read Jacques the Fatalist. And then last week I prattled on about an off-Broadway play that had just started previews in New York.

Now, that last one is where things get tricky. Most everything I talk about on this blog is readily available. Streaming services like Netflix or old-fashioned piracy makes movies and tv easily watchable; video games are sold everywhere, as are comics and books to an extent. But something like Vietgone is trickier; it’s a far more exclusive experience of a story. So if I wanna talk about it and how it uses language to personalize the immigrant experience, I gotta use more words to introduce the work and describe what I’m talking about before I can actually jump in to discussing why what I’m talking about is relevant.

Which kinda of begs the question: how important is it for stories to be accessible? And I don’t just mean plays here, I’m also thinking of video games.

Hear me out.

To watch a play there either has to be a recording of it available (of which there isn’t for, say, Fun-Home or Vietgone) or you have to be somewhere where it’s showing (like New York) and be able to afford the price of admission.

To play a video game there either has to be a recording of it available (which is, but then there’s a lot of gameplay you’re watching, not playing) or you have to have a system capable of playing that game (so, a PS4 for Uncharted 4) and, in addition, be able to beat said game.

But the inaccessibility of a story doesn’t necessarily make it less important. I’ve heard Ulysses jokingly referred to as the final boss of literature, but it’s also one of my favorite books for the beauty it lends to the everyday. It is a shame that I can’t refer to it as casually as I do Iron Man, but it doesn’t make the story any less worthwhile.

So am I making sense? Or is this just me prattling on about where stories get told? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. There are so many stories out there, so many that I love but can’t share with someone due to importance of being there. Fun-Home closed on Broadway, so if you see it you won’t see the one I saw, and watching a video is different than being present. Similarly, a video playthrough of Uncharted 4 won’t do justice to the experience of being able to explore Nathan Drake’s house.

Maybe this is related to what I wrote a couple weeks ago about how books are a conversation with the reader that creates a personal experience. Maybe it’s just about how stories are so related to who and where you are. I’ll never heard the stories your family told you the way they were told, but does that make them any less? Sure, that bedtime story isn’t The Princess Bride, and it’s nowhere near as accessible as that movie, but that doesn’t make it less important.

Because those stories matter and make sense to you, and I guess that’s enough.

Writer’s Note: Woah. This one turned out ramble-er than I expected. Might be because I’m tired from a six day work week and finishing up post on The Conduits (remember that?). In any case, this rant (definitely a rant), is getting the bloggish tag.

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The Give And Take of Books

When I was 13 I visited a slave castle in Takoradi, Ghana. Which is a weird sentence to type, but kinda standard given the whole grew-up-on-a-ship-thing. It was sobering, seeing something you’d read about in history in person. But at the same time, for me, something firmly in the past. What had happened there was firmly in the was.

Now, I recently finished Yaa Gyasi’s exceptional Homegoing. Early on, a slave castle on Africa’s coast plays an important role, setting-wise. Naturally, this conjured up my memories of that old castle. Books have a way of doing that, where the prose merges with the reader’s imagination to create a world in between. Written stores, more so than a more visual medium, rely on a dialogue between the reader and the text. Where film or tv show the viewer what something is, a writer can only describe it and hopes the reader meets them halfway. In a weird way, written stories are a lot like video games: both require the consumer to be an active participant. In video games, if you can’t beat that one boss, you won’t get to continue on with the story (as my years long quest as a child to find out how Mega Man X4 ended proves). Similarly, if you can’t parse a book’s prose, you won’t get through it. It’s very easy for Ulysses to not make sense, given how friggin’ dense it is. The impetus is on the reader to bring what they know to the table, and put the work in to help the writer create the effect.

So Homegoing progresses in a beautiful, heartbreaking fashion, creating a narrative from a series of generational short stories; each story complete in and of itself but stronger from what came before and strengthening what comes after. Gyasi’s prose flows like poetry, making West Africa and Harlem soar. As the book progresses, it catches up in time, eventually arriving in contemporary times. Asanteland is revealed (within the book) to be modern-day Ghana and the slave castle is located in, you guessed it, Takoradi.

I found myself wondering, as the pages ran out and I neared the end, was that castle the same one I’d been to twelve years ago? I finished the book and a quick google search revealed that, yeah, it was.

Woah.

Remember what I said a couple paragraphs ago about written narratives being a dialogue? The thing about dialogues is that they go both ways. For all the information my memories bring to Yaa Gyasi’s words, her words bring their own set of information to my memories.

As such, the ending of the book had a unique effect on me. When I’d visited the slave castle, I’d known the history of the place, but I’d never realized it. Because I brought something — my own memories of the place — what I got out of the book was different than someone else. Likewise, someone who’s spent years studying the ramifications of the transatlantic slave trade would pick up on bits and subtext of the book I totally missed.

Maybe this is a reason why a favorite book feels a lot more personal than a favorite movie, because what you bring to the story deeply affects what you take out of it. The way you feel about The Catcher in The Rye is different if you read it for the first time in your teens or in your twenties, just as someone who sneaks through all of Metal Gear Solid 3 will have a very different experience from someone who just shoots their way through. But it’s books, and their heavy reliance on the reader’s imagination and foreknowledge, that really benefit from that give and take, that dialogue. What you get out of it is all dependent on what you bring going in.

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The Beauty of Pokémon Go

A recent issue of TIME Magazine (a magazine I usually like) ran a small article about Pokémon Go. In an article describing how the game “shows the unnerving future of augmenting reality,” writer Matt Vella describes players in Prospect Park as “a dozen people shuffling about haphazardly, their zombie eyes fixed on glowing phone screens.”

Okay. Fine.

Honestly, I shouldn’t be too surprised. This is the same publication that ran a cover article about how millennials (ie: me) are entitled and narcissistic; Pokémon Go is more smart-phone enabled shenanigans. But that this article essentially dismisses the game is frustrating. Because yes, Pokémon Go is another game, but it’s position as a augmented reality game makes it something really special.


Something beautiful.

The open-endedness of games like Mass Effect make comparing notes with other players a lot of fun. Who did you romance? What did you save? Red, blue, or green? Your choices in the game give you a common ground. Same with discussing responses to The Last of Us or describing that great moment you had in Halo. Video games create (virtual) experiences and memories. Like any memory, these then become things you talk about.

But Pokémon Go exists in the real world. You don’t catch a Seel in the Seafoam Islands, you catch a Seel in Battery Park. You don’t hatch eggs by walking from Cerulean City to Vermillion City over and over again, you do so by walking to work and back. That gym doesn’t exist in your GameBoy, it’s the Washington Square Arch.

Because of this, those memories become physical. My brother and I roamed the East Village together looking for Pokémon, glued to our phones, yes, but also talking and enjoying the outdoors. The outdoors outside, in the real world. In other words, Pokémon Go makes the very act of walking into an adventure. The game augments reality itself (hence the whole AR genre) into a game.

That Pokémon Go exists in the real world is part of its beauty. Players have to go outside to catch Pokémon, collect items, and challenge gyms. So folks are going to parks, museums, and zoos to find Pokémon. Yes, on their phones, but actually out there.

With the game comes a community, one that, in my experience, has been remarkably positive. Stopping at Astor Place to take over a gym and catching someone’s eye, knowing we’d worked together to claim it in the name of Team Valor. Or striking up a conversation with someone at the Garibaldi Statue Pokéstop where someone used a lure. Then there’s my Facebook feed starting to look more and more like a schoolyard conversation about where to find Pokémon and whose is the best.

Pokémon which, remember, you find in the real world.

Look, I’m twenty-five; smack-dab in the middle of Generation Y. I’m one of those who grew up with the internet and social media. We’re those who see technology not as something to be scared but by which we’ll save the world. Pokémon Go, though probably not quite that extreme, exists within that vein. For all the stories of players finding dead bodies in rivers and falling off cliffs, there are many more about the game helping people deal with anxiety or depression and stories of it providing an avenue of social interaction for autistic kids. You can complain all you want about phone-addled Millennials, but a fear of AR as a harbinger of awfulness is unfounded.

‘cuz this present is the future.

Our future.

And it’s wonderful.

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