Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Guten Morgen Berlin


I am here. It took a long time to sink in that I'd been accepted into the study abroad program, and it's taking a little time for it to sink in that I've arrived. Everything is good, everything is kind of how I imagined it from movies and books and such--except that now I am here, too.

The public transportation systems are great (and now I have a monthly pass!) and the streets are pretty clean. Alles in Ordnung!

Everywhere you walk there's history. Yesterday afternoon I found a cemetery with graves from WWI; my homestay dad (a history professor) showed me the church, not five minutes away from where I am now living, where Martin Niemöller preached--Martin Niemöller being a priest who was a major figure in the anti-Nazi resistance, survived two concentration camps, and said,
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
I'm not sure how intensive this quarter will be, academically, since I'm taking three academic classes (intermediate German, contemporary theater, and intro to materials science), but I've heard that the language class is fairly relaxed and that materials science isn't that difficult either. Four out of five days I have just the one class (usually German), so I have plenty of time to go exploring. Tuesday will probably be my "grind" day, and even then I can make an adventure out of it, finding the best places to do work.

I'm very much looking forward to practicing my German more. My host parents have said that they're happy to speak only in German to me (unless I really don't understand); some of the other students are also trying to stick to German, although we are in the minority; and of course in everyday life I can choose to speak German preferentially even if people switch to English for tourists.

At the end of last quarter I thought about study abroad with some ambivalence because I know I'm going to miss people. Most of my friends I won't see until September; a few, who are studying abroad in the fall, I may not see again until 2017. But we have technology, so we won't be completely without contact, and since last quarter (as I said in my previous post) the biggest lessons I learned were about the importance of love, I've decided not to feel awkward in any way about reaching out to people.

Na gut. Tomorrow, orientation; Thursday, classes begin. Looking forward to it!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Winter 2016 Reflections

I haven't been blogging as much this quarter, so I feel as though there's a backlog of things to think about. Writing the Ubermadchen post helped me go through a lot of it, since much of the thoughts and issues I've been working through this quarter aren't new. Issues of identity, of responsibility...


Liebe ist Alles - Adoro

But I am going to be honest. The biggest, deepest, most important lessons I've learned this past quarter are about love. Not necessarily romantic love--but love for friends, and what that means, and how to show love, and how it's not some big showy thing, but rather in the little things. Staying up late because they need someone to talk to. Knocking on their door, for friends in the same dorm, or not being shy about texting "Missing you. Are you free for brunch this weekend?" to friends who aren't. Regular compliments. Referencing in jokes because it's something you share. Sharing cajun fries. Saying hello first. Inviting people along to things. Making plans to do fun things together. To be honest, compiling this list is making me sad because I'm going to be away from campus in the spring, and I have friends over whom I cried because I won't be seeing them for six months or more. Some of them didn't even get a grace period between us saying goodbye and me crying--because I have friends with whom I feel safe enough to cry. Which is, quite frankly, as astonishing as it is wonderful.

Recognizing and receiving love is also important. Telling a cis straight friend about my dysphoria--and being listened to with compassion. Making up with a friend with whom I had been on rocky terrain. Not second-guessing warm greetings. I'm still a Captain Obvious, so this list is shorter, but the idea is to openly appreciate of kind actions.

So: love. Perhaps a cliche. But loving my people--thinking about what I could do to make them happy, recognizing that protectiveness is only unpatronizing when it benefits their well-being as well as my sense of honor, listening and being listened to, sometimes just sitting there, each person doing their own thing, making stupid remarks to one another but mostly in silence--that, I think, is the most important thing I've learned this quarter.

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Okay, what else?

A lot of this is stuff I've begun working through already. But here goes--

Context matters. My very first quarter the words the world is path dependent became a kind of mantra. I think then, I was more thinking in terms of understanding how the world came to be. But understanding context is also important in order to act effective and ethically in the present and future. Look at yourself and ask what actions you may be taking that are hypocritical, that are damaging, that are unethical. For example, I am typing this at night, necessitating use of electricity that is probably produced by fossil fuels. Where did the rare earth minerals in my electronics come from?

I will have lived on three different continents in the past year once I get on that plane to Germany on Sunday. And yet--are there not problems at home to be solved? Am I not better equipped to deal with those problems, being more familiar with the local situation and the local sentiment? Am I even familiar--or have I let myself become too trapped in the bubble?

Asking for help is important. Go to office hours, go to office hours, go to office hours, you fool. In terms of extracurrics, give people responsibility and thank them for taking it on. Don't be afraid to delegate.

Life is not going to wait for you to finish school. Build the skills you need now, if you can.

On identity: be aware of ways that the system as it stands may benefit you, probably at the expense of another group. I've always loathed the "model minority" stereotype, but thinking about how it is used against other racial groups, such as blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, has given me more reasons to hate it. If you are in a relatively privileged state (for example, an upper-middle class kid in a conversation on SES), monitor how much you talk relative to people for whom the problem is more immediate. Be careful. People don't want to be coddled but they also don't need to hear yet more bigoted garbage.

Re: gender--this quarter I had a day that was pretty horrible for dysphoria (as in, "fantasizing about ripping out organs" horrible). When people refer to me as "she/her" it takes me a moment to figure out who they're talking about. There's this female version of me that I wear like a disguise. That thought is actually kind of comforting: it's okay that all my professional attire is made for women, because I'm putting on a disguise anyway. It's okay. It's not permanent. I've talked to various people about gender identity vs. gender expression, and my discomfort with the fact that I'm both non-female and non-feminine and that I feel the need for the latter in order to broadcast and get social validation for the former trait. As I mentioned in the UM post, my relationship with femininity is contentious and dynamic, and I fear doing something wrong, doing something that is harmful to female and feminine people.

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Mostly, I think this quarter has been a continuation of the message: take responsibility. Take responsibility for your personal relationships--your friends should not have to question whether or not you love and support them. Take responsibility for your deeds and what they mean in the world that we have grown into. Take responsibility for the groups and projects in which you take part.

Take responsibility for your health. This is a chastisement, but also a bit of a celebration. Last winter quarter I neglected my health and took it as a point of pride that no one could tell. This quarter, I definitely did not get enough sleep, but I gave myself enough time to eat a solid lunch and dinner with my friends, and if I had stuff messing with my head (dysphoria, job anxiety, etc.) I would talk to people.

Next quarter's challenges will, I am sure, be something else altogether--in addition to the trends of this quarter. It will be more difficult to support my friends from an ocean away, but I can at least keep up contact. Damned if it seems clingy--these people matter to me. Am I nervous about being in a European capital, given the attacks of the past few months? Yeah, a little. But awful things could happen here, too.

I feel, subjectively, far more comfortable and grounded in myself than I used to. After the seismic shifts of freshman year, I am back to seeing myself as a continuous person on a trajectory. That is good. I am building something.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ubermadchen Fall/Winter 2015-2016

I finished Ubermadchen on Tuesday. It clocks in at something over 230,000 words (sections of the book that were written during the two times my computer broke are still handwritten) and the word document is at 500 pages exactly. For reference, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is 257,000 words (src).

But word count, though easiest metric to measure, doesn't tell anything really useful or interesting. All it says is, "That's a lot of words." What happened in them?

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This story, more than any other that I've written, has struck me by the constant parallels to my own life. This wasn't by design but it could be predicted, given that the story I chose to begin my second semester of senior year was about five clever but sheltered girls who are launched into the real world and gradually become more and more in charge of their path through it. The summer after I graduated high school I produced 100,000 words that brought the girls to the part of the story where they split apart from one another, and from their chaperone; I started college just as they jumped into the void. They made a real, deliberate choice to follow their duty at around the same time that I decided to go to Indonesia. Sophomore year of college has seen them mostly in Graz, working hard and struggling but together again, knowing themselves better and eager to try their strength.

My experience of my first five quarters of college cannot be disentangled from their story. We are, all of us, becoming more independent and more eager for that independence. We are, all of us, digging our heads out of the sand. My characters' emotional arcs and mine both trend toward greater responsibility and greater awareness of structural issues in our worlds. I haven't done as much about it as they have (see my last post), but I am thinking about it.

When I started writing Ubermadchen I did not have all the right words to think through some of their thought patterns, but a lot of their journey is grappling with privilege, class, race, gender--and especially perceptions of such. They are in disguise the entire time; they have to be, because commoner magicians are outlawed. But at various times some of them, the white ones, pretend to be noble; and at other times, they don't.

Mobility/access is there in the background, because they are doing a lot of traveling around. I need to think about this one more, because it may be unrealistic for them to be as mobile as they are in the story, and I might have to change things such that it is feasible. Originally I was going to write the full arc of what happens to Josefina and Suzanne when they are separated from the others, and the Grand Tour fellows they meet could have brought that out more--but they do show up, in passing.

Class/status is of course one of the major questions in the book, because at the time the most important social/legal division was noble vs. common, not rich vs. poor. Missteps that I made in this arena can probably be fixed with more historical research. But I also am listing economic status as something to think about more for revision. All the girls are commoners, of course, but Katya's father is a relatively prosperous merchant. I think Suzanne's class background might be lower than I have been assuming--the disempowerment of her parents is plot-crucial, and would also explain her relatively larger obedience to "her place."

After writing Orsolya I was a little disgusted by myself for having written two very male-centric books. The choice to write about five girls (well, five girls and one nonbinary afab person) was very deliberate. The choice to have them be ethnically diverse was both plot- and conscience-motivated (plot: magic is rare enough that detectably magical commoner children would not be closely clustered). I am unsure of how well I did on this front, since the supporting cast is still predominantly white. And although the main characters have moved beyond stereotypes, there are still aspects of their character that could be read as stereotypical (e.g. Josefina, who is Hispanic and Roma, controls fire).

I was wrestling earlier with whether or not Marilla might be black, but I don't think so. It is a plot- and character development-relevant that Marilla be privileged when she is in France. They do stay with a black noblewoman, though. And I think a new character (who won't make it into this book, necessarily, but may in stories set in this world post-epilogue) is emerging who is black and, like Marilla, a water magician.

The queer identities kind of...happened? I think in an early iteration, when the story was still set in the 1840s, I thought about having them have love interests among the students and realized that Marilla would not be into that. Katya and Levi appeared in my mind as a set, but Katya clearly is not into Levi because of his masculinity. Hence, Katya is bi. She is also the only one with a love interest because...because I shy away from writing romance and lack of romantic subplots is the default for me.

Terez is an interesting case where they were asexual and nonbinary before I realized that I am also those things. I don't remember how or why I came to these decisions. I don't think they're aromantic? Josefina surprised me, because I hadn't anticipated her being anything but straight (since she and Marilla are the most obvious foils--fire vs. water, loud vs. quiet, red oni blue oni), and then I was compiling a list of all my asexual main characters and Josefina appeared. She may be aromantic--I recall feeling very strongly as I was writing the Edinburgh part that Josefina would not get together with the student who seemed to have an interest in her.

If this amount of queerness seems unrealistic, it in fact lines up with the breakdown of the group of friends I chose housing with (1 cis ace, 1 nonbinary ace, 1 homosexual, 1 bisexual, and the token straight friend).

I don't know if my handling of this is historically appropriate. After the story climax, which involves magical and personal epiphanies, Marilla starts using they/them pronouns for Terez. Maria Theresia used male titles in some of her lands without any fuss, but that might be mitigated by the fact that she was a ruler (fun fact: I tried to write Maria Theresia with a Hilary Clinton-esque aura). Re: Marilla's own struggles, I am not religious, so I have never had to reconcile my queerness with a religion that says there is something wrong with them. I also have probably downplayed the role religion has in her life, because I don't know. She prays frequently...but I think, also, that growing up ten years unable to share religious practice with others might make religious congregation somewhat more meaningful to her than I depict. Not sure.

Terez is Jewish but atheist, having abandoned everything their parents gave them when they ran away from home (thought: is Terez even their real name?), and the growing reconciliation with community is something that both they and Josefina go through. I haven't gone through that process yet myself, although I have spent the past two years trying to undo some internalized racism. Something else to consider.

I have been talking about the Ubermadchen individually, but really, the story's schtick is that they are a set. All five of them, working together, loving and supporting one another. In high school I was a low-quality friend and was not often emotionally available. Since coming to college I have realized the error of my ways, and have learned that being a good friend is an active endeavor, loving your friends is an active endeavor, and both giving and receiving support and love is something that needs to be learned. The Ubermadchen end up with a very solid dynamic but they spend a lot of time arguing and being angry at one another. Different people mediate at different times. But they all still care about one another very powerfully.

The climax of the story involves the Ubermadchen solving a problem in a way that takes a very feminine-coded approach--or at least, much more feminine-coded than the way that the "real" magicians were taking. That weirded me out at first, because my relationship with femininity is contentious, fluctuated a great deal during the time that I was writing Ubermadchen, and is still not settled. Did I really want a story from which could be extracted the message that girls should act like girls in order to solve problems?

My way of reconciling myself to the story outcome is that listening and empathizing are a lot more active skills than commonly assumed, that the girls also rely upon their magical chops, and that feminine-coded traits and activities are denigrated enough as it is without me contributing. I recall reading somewhere that a lot of advice to women to "be more masculine" in order to be taken seriously implies that women need to change to suit masculine-favoring culture, whereas in many cases, the kind of masculinity that has been accepted as the norm leaves no room for compassion or kindness, and maybe the men are the ones who should be acting less like jerks.

I didn't intend to be political when I started writing, but backing up I see how a story with five people who are treated as girls, with the viewpoint character a girl who loves other girls, could be construed as political in its support of girls/women and the feminine traits/skills associated with them. Which is kind of messed up. Andrea Gibson, a spoken word poet/activist that I heard in the city a couple of weeks ago, said that at one point they decided that they would only perform political poems--and then realized that a lot of their love poems were political because they were about loving a woman. "And why does love have to be political?" they asked, to the applause of the crowd.

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Some brief (I'll try to keep it brief, at least) notes on the writing of the book:

Life always intervenes, OR: I am bad at prioritizing non-college things when I am doing the college thing. On the other hand, writing help keeps me grounded.

Bias toward forward motion. This is not a 230,000 word story. I am, empirically, 0/3 for book-size ideas that are under 150,000 words, but I have a long-standing admiration for the authors who can condense a lot of story into a surprisingly small amount of space (Frankenstein has about 75,000 words, for reference). A lot of fluff goes away in revision, but even in writing--sometimes you need the extra words and sometimes you are just dithering.

Good music helps (see below).

For the most part I've stopped thinking too hard about craft, and instead focusing on getting the meaning across clearly. Some places one does have to be more careful about how the words are put together--holding-breath moments, dramatic, tense moments, ends of important sections. I won't start a lot of sentences in a row with the same word (though "the" is more neutral than most others), and if the whitespace of ". " starts lining up too neatly, or sentences are constructed too similarly, I'll change it up. I didn't pay attention to period-appropriate vocabulary, although since the time period is a crucial part of the story (as in, I couldn't begin writing until I moved it from 1840s to 1777) I will take another look at that in revision.

In terms of plot and action--the idea of sacrifice and payoff keeps coming back to bite me. One of the driving forces behind my need to rewrite Orsolya is that the ending wasn't "paid for." The stakes didn't rise naturally. I'm also concerned that that is a problem here, since I stopped doing historical research and so lost the urgent sense of injustice at how society was organized. I think, in general, that a more solid grounding in historical circumstance would benefit the story. The strongest section in the book is the Versailles section, which is also the most historically rooted one. My impatience to write is what lets me get things done, but I need to balance it out against the benefits conferred by a little more research.

My worldbuilding is also inconsistent. Earlier on I put more effort into coming up with little cool details that would signal that this is not the historical 1777. Namely, magic historically acted as a "levelizer," meaning that indigenous cultures and practices everywhere were better able to resist conquerors, and although the power structure that resulted is that of the historical Enlightenment, the suppressed factors are more visible than in real life (although, that is also because the whitewashed view of history that we get might already be undercutting their influence--so maybe I should be more liberal with my inclusion of such non-standard-white-Christian-European elements?). Story and plot took over, as they will, but I could probably find many places where it would be natural to let more of the differences between this world and the historical one poke through.

Characters are my favorite part, and I've talked a lot about my characters already. In writing them, especially in scenes where it's all five of them, I built up more of an intuition for who would speak when, who would do what when action was required. That also stemmed, I think, from just hanging out in groups more often, and observing group dynamics in real life. I tried to balance between character consistency and character growth, and probably was somewhat heavy-handed with it (especially in the changes to Josefina and Suzanne when they reunite). Marilla's confidence fluctuates a lot, but I think I do a decent job of leading her up to her moments of glory.

I am very fond of these people. It's been a good two years spent with them.

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A brief list of the songs that represent Ubermadchen for me:
  • Team (Lorde) <- this is THE song. I had it on repeat as I wrote the epilogue
  • the rest of the songs on Pure Heroine
  • Numb (Marina and the Diamonds)
  • Underwater (Mika)
  • Winter Fields (Bat for Lashes)
  • Silhouettes (Swimming with Dolphins)
  • Papaoutai (Stromae)
  • Girlfriend (Icona Pop)
  • Take Me to Church (Hozier or the Alice Kristiansen cover)
  • Laura Palmer (Bastille)
  • Yellow Flicker Beat (Lorde)
  • Thanatos (Soap&Skin)
  • Emily/Elle Me Dit (Mika)
  • Burning Out (Thomston)
  • Defying Gravity (Idina Menzel) //I suppose "Let it Go" could also be a contender

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Against Silence

"Es gibt einen Zusammenhang zwischen dem Schweigen der vielen und den Brandsätzen der wenigen."
There is a connection between the silence of the many and the incendiary composition of the few.
 




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Lots of thoughts going around in my head this past week.

My final presentation for German was on xenophobia and the rise of anti-refugee sentiment. Everyone is worried about the rise of Donald Trump and the normalization of what is essentially hate speech. A couple of relevant articles I've read recently: Authoritarian Populism is Rising Across the West, Violence in the American Dream.

For German, we also had to watch the movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days [subtitles auf Englisch]. Scholl, along with her brother and several other students in and around Munich, formed an anti-Nazi resistance group known as the White Rose. They produced anti-war leaflets and distributed them around the University. Sophie and her brother Hans were arrested for distributing these leaflets, given a sham trial, and executed the very same day.

Normally I detest watching movies for class (it's a control freak thing), but this one (aside from being magnificent, cinematographically), was a much-needed sucker punch to the gut. Here I am, nineteen years old and enjoying all sorts of educational and class privileges while not even speaking out against the racism and sexism that do affect me--and there, kids in their early twenties, going bravely to their deaths in the face of actual evil.

At the trial, Sophie Scholl is reported to have said that in her belief, many others thought the way that she and her friends did--they were just too scared to say so. And it makes sense that they would be afraid. But what is my excuse? My life will not be put in danger if I am a little more vocal about what I do and do not think is morally reprehensible.

Saturday I went to the city and saw a performance by spoken word poet and activist Andrea Gibson. One of the poems they performed was "A Letter to White Queers, A Letter to Myself," (above) which they explained they had written after posting to social media expressing their outrage about Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and other black individuals who had been murdered without justice, and receiving in return violently racist comments from white queer people who had been long-time supporters of their work. They spoke about their responsibility, as someone who speaks for a living, to speak out against not only the violence suffered by people in their community, but also other communities.

(Can you tell that I love using they/them pronouns? It's great.)

All of this is to say--I need to do better. An approach of "learn and share what you learn" may work. I've proposed that for myself in the past, as a way to get myself to read the news more consistently, with limited success. But this is an election year and I can vote, and that makes the stakes higher.

If this blog doesn't show me researching and thinking through more political and social issues, then consider me as shirking my responsibilities as a citizen.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Week 9 Update

The past two weeks have been on the crazy end of the spectrum. This weekend is also going to be full of work, but missing two full weeks of posts is not good.

What has been going on? A lot of job anxiety, because I still haven't figured out what I will be doing this summer. Separation anxiety, because in two weeks I leave for spring break and I won't be back at Stanford until September, and I'm going to miss a lot of people.

Time sort of stopped for me at the long weekend three weeks ago. Since then, every successive week has seemed to go by faster and faster. I haven't been writing much; I haven't gone dancing all quarter. Watching the SpaceX launch yesterday was the most time I've spent with some of my friends in a month. Last Sunday, because I needed to get off campus, I took the morning off and went to a local county park. The bike ride there was mostly uphill, so I had to stop a few times because I am weak, but it was worth it.





The world is large and time is long. By the end of the month I will be on a different continent. My sister is about to graduate college.

I want to finish Ubermadchen before I leave. I can do it; the only sections left are Vienna and the epilogue. This weekend my goal is to write the big Vienna scene, and then my exam week I can finish up. Spring Break is my float period.

I've been thinking more and more about the GW/UO world. There's a weird tension between some of the high fantasy adventure elements and the suburban fantasy feeling that I get from the formative writing I did while working out Vin's backstory. I'd like to take a closer look at that.

What coherent thoughts do I have? Not many. I'm thinking through the importance of being vocal or at least public about important things, about how deployment may be a more critical problem than development, about the history behind the world we see or don't see today. About friendship and how it is defined. About the frozen sea, for which books are apparently the axe, and whether or not it is desirable to fall in. I haven't had a drowning dream in a long time.

This song was in my head when I woke up. It seems appropriate.


I've Had this Dream Before - Outline in Color
And I never knew I could be so scared of something so divine