On getting what we need

Today, just when I was going through a period of wondering if I’m able to reach and help my students as much as I hope to, I got an email from my supervisor in the English department, asking me to come to his office when I’m free.  So I wandered over just minutes ago to the other side of the department and knocked on his door, only to have him wave me in and pick up his phone and start dialing.  Then he motions me to sit in his chair, and gives me the phone.  He’s dialed his voice mail, and the woman who’s left a message for him is a mother whose daughter was in one of my classes last semester, wanting to tell him how grateful she was her daughter had me for a teacher.  She wasn’t sure if she liked going to college and was borderline ready to drop out, but throughout last semester talked about my class, how interested I was in what everyone was doing, how I took time out to help everyone individually, how I wrote lots of comments and actually cared about their work, and how this has decided her daughter’s mind to stay in school.  The mother then said she looked through her daughters essays and, disqualifying herself as an expert on writing, said she could tell that I went beyond the call of duty with commenting and caring about her daughter’s growth as an individual in the world, and wanted both me and my supervisors to know this. 

Sometimes we hear exactly what we need to hear exactly when we need it.

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What is language?

Via Cory Doctorow at Boingboing, a non-verbal autistic woman presents us with a video at Youtube, in which she speaks her own language, using gestures and sounds we don’t readily recognize as language, and visual cues that aren’t recognized as “normal” communicative cues either.  She then translates the first two sections with the aid of a text-to-speech computer program. It’s beautiful and awe-inspiring.  In it she talks about the definitions of what is considered to be language and what is considered the non-responsive behavior of a person with autism, and compellingly relates the argument that until we are able to recognize the many shapes that humankind has, we will never have equality, nor truly see ourselves, as a species, for what we are.

I was caught up watching this video because my story “The Language of Moths” has within in it an autistic character who may be in communication with the world of nature around her, interacting with it in a way most people don’t recognize as language.  I knew when I wrote this story there would be readers who would inherently dislike the story because it is a speculation on the very idea presented in this video, that perhaps what we are unable to recognize in the array of behaviors non-verbal autistic people display is an actual language, just one we don’t understand.  This is a controversial idea in that we live in a culture that has socialized the idea that anything that departs from “normal” conventions of language and identity articulation, as well as a good many other aspects of being human, is a disorder.  This allows us to believe that we actually have a centralized, unified definition of what is human, what is right, what is normal, and what is real.  In a way, in our attempts to categorize the not-understood as a disorder, we are cutting ourselves off from various avenues of exploration to better comprehend the variations in people among us, and the environment in which we all live.

 Food for thought, if nothing else, is a start.

And also, here is the video-maker’s own website.

Finding myself in Japan

JapanSomething that happened while I lived in Japan was the event most people refer to as “finding” yourself. A lot of theories that discuss what the idea or essence of a “self” is exist. Some proclaim the self is something you are born with, that it is an innate part of the human species, which “grows” as we grow and age. Others proclaim it to be something more like a store mannequin, which can be dressed up in various identity wardrobes. I think perhaps both of these poles can tell us something about what the self is and how it operates, but for a long time, I must admit I was suspicious of the natural, innate-oriented pole of this spectrum. Growing up with media icons like Madonna and David Bowie, perhaps, will aid in this sort of thinking.

It was in Japan that I learned a few things about myself that are very solid, and perhaps are from the nurture side of the “nature/nurture” debate. I learned that I am someone who very much likes being part of a group. Thinking about this now, I realize how far away I’d wandered from the sort of childhood I was given by my family, which was very group oriented. I grew up on a small farm in Ohio. My parents’ home was built next to my grandparents’ home. One uncle and aunt lived two miles down the road, next to my aunt’s parents. My oldest brother built a home next to my parents some years ago, for his family, and my middle brother lives a mile down the road from them as well. This is all very clannish, and looking back I can see how much of a clan we were. And how different an experience of being in the world this is for so many other Americans, who live in nuclear families with perhaps mom and dad and siblings, but whose grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins are far away, both far away in the world from them, and also farther away in their consciousnesses, unless they’ve had the chance somehow to live closely with these other people at some point in their lives.

After I left home for college, not too far away but far enough, I continued to keep on leaving places. After college I spent several years in California and Michigan with only a short stop back home in Ohio in between, then came back to Youngstown for graduate school, and after that I moved to Japan. During the periods in my life that I’ve spent away from my family and the little town where they live, I’ve met so many people who, upon hearing about how I grew up raising beef cows in 4-H and graduating in a senior class of fifty, couldn’t seem to believe people still lived that way. As if it were somehow archaic. I suppose it does hearken back to a mode of family structure that originated further in our past than the individualist, leave-home-and-make-something-of-yourself narrative that encourages so much of what seems to me to be a recipe for national isolation and loneliness. But when I went to Japan, after living more in that narrative that encourages individualism in the years after graduating high school, I very quickly found myself emotional and weepy in a happy way at times without knowing why, until I realized it was because I had found myself being a part of a group, a community, again.

If Japan knows one thing, it’s how to live in a group. Most of the families I met there encouraged their children to stay at home, and for married couples to move into the family house as well. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t meet families that didn’t live like this, of course. But a communal-mindedness felt more present to me there. The people whose children I taught in my school district spoke to me as if I were a part of the community, not just the foreign teacher; I think they responded to me in this way because I had responded to that aspect of their way of life as well, because I’d taken my job seriously and worried over my students as if they were my own children. I’d get frustrated with some of my students and enjoy others’ victories over subjects they’d been struggling with. I’d feel horrible if I thought I’d somehow failed any of them as a teacher. But because of the way I felt a part of the community I lived in when I was in Japan, I learned that I really was a person who feels happiest when I’m doing something for the greater good of whatever group I belong to.

I’ve always been an advocate for the city of Youngstown, Ohio, a city that had its heart broken in the late 70s and early 80s by the loss of its only economic platform–steel–and then spent the past thirty years shrinking in population and becoming a miniature version of Detroit, but since I came home and began teaching at Youngstown State University again this fall, I’ve continued to make that community-minded part of myself even more manifest in how I live here. It’s frustrating at times because one thing the people of this area have lost over the decades since industry abandoned it for cheaper labor in other countries is the ability to come together as a group in order to make the community better. When trust is broken in this particular way, a community breaks down and distrusts one another.  It’s a typical psychology for any town that has suffered a death blow to its economy, really.  We have individuals here that spend every breath on our community, but individuals alone cannot accomplish what groups can, and this is one of the main reasons why, I believe, Youngstown has taken so long to begin the revitalization process. Finally, over a period of several decades, and in a sudden burst of finding each other in unlikely places like the internet, there is a younger generation here who have returned home to this city, or who are advocating for it from afar however they can, or who have never left but never felt they had a social network of other like-minded individuals here with whom they felt they could accomplish change, that is coming together for the greater good of the group now, and it feels good being a part of that.

This is what I call true politics, in the essence of that word’s meaning of community matters. The political is nothing more than the spaces and structures in which we all live collectively, and must define how to best live in together. I think the majority of the spaces in which we live is with others, which means perhaps the narrative of the individual (the particularly American/Western version of this) ought to be revised. In the new narrative of the modern individual, I think there needs to be more about how we, as individuals, must live among others, in a plurality, and learn how to be individuals while at the same time being part of a group. I think it’s something recent generations have had to figure out for themselves without the benefit of a story to help them make sense of that process. It took going to Japan to come full circle for me. Living there, for me, felt like going back home to a place I’d forgotten.  The language was different, but the gestures of kindness and cooperation were the same.

2007 Crawford Award Finalists

The shortlist for this year’s Crawford Award, for best first book by a new fantasy writer, has been announced:

Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer
Alan De Niro, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead
Keith Donohue, The Stolen Child
Theodora Goss, In The Forest of Forgetting
Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora
Naomi Novik, Temeraire
M. Rickert, Map of Dreams

The award will be presented at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Fort Lauderdale in March.

It’s a wonderful list, full of good books and good friends in some cases.  I don’t think there can be anyone who walks away from this list without feeling really good about the book they made. 

So Fey

So FeyThis coming Fall, in September if I’m remembering correctly, Steve Berman’s anthology “So Fey” will be published.  My story, “Isis in Darkness”, is included in the contents.  All of the stories in the book are faery stories of some sort, although mine isn’t so obvious at first glance.  All of the stories are also “queer” in some way, featuring characters or themes that are gay, lesbian, bi or transgendered–queer, outside the norm.  Some of the authors with stories in the anthology are Richard Bowes, Holly Black, Laurie J. Marks, Kenneth Woods, Eugie Foster, Sarah Monette, and Delia Sherman.  I’m looking forward to seeing all the contributions.

The cover is by Theo Black (author Holly Black’s husband) and I think it’s gorgeous. If you click on the image, it should open to be viewed as a larger version.

An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton

I wrote this entry at my old blog last weekend, when Hillary Clinton announced she’d be running for the Democratic nomination.  Since then, I moved to this new website, but today a comment from my friend Jeff Ford over at the original post has spurred me to repost it here, too, and I think I’ll do as he suggested and get it into the local papers if possible, and see if maybe a letter writing campaign might not be started. I have no clue who will win the Democratic nomination for President, but my feelings are that Senators Clinton and Obama are the two with the best chances.

 Dear Hillary,

I’m a young thirty-something from Youngstown, Ohio. You may have heard of us here because we’re both a Democratic stronghold in Ohio and also because we are emblematic of the failure of the American Dream.

Years ago, in the seventies and eighties, when I was still too young to understand the extremity and consequences of the situation, the steel industry abandoned my community, which had worked so hard for that economic sector of our country through difficult years of toil and suffering, and the owners of those industries left us absolutely nothing, no resource from which we could draw sustenance and grow as a “nest egg” for the community afterwards. What once was one of the fastest growing cities in America was left to rot and disintegrate. No one cared, and no one stepped in to help us. Our once burgeoning economic climate and population of over 180,000 people is now in 2007 reduced to 80,000 and a flatline on the heart monitor of the economy.

Despite this region of Ohio becoming a virtual land of the living dead, we have held strong to the belief that the Democratic party, if given the chance to lead, would do something to help our ruined community revive. In recent years we have given up this hope because it is now the new millennium, nearly four decades have passed since the steel industry abandoned us to face the void on our own, and we have learned not to rely on our government for help. We’ve begun to do what we can for our community with our own meager abilities and funds. Most of our citizens still feel nothing can be done to save us. Perhaps in the end they are right, and this community, my city, should be allowed to breathe its last breath and go back to nature. Perhaps there is a kind of logic to that.

But I can’t give up on us yet. I didn’t grow up in Youngstown, Ohio. I grew up on a small farm about forty-five minutes outside of the city, in a rural town called Kinsman, where we have a small history of citizens of the United States who are called to leave the countryside and go out into the greater world to try, at the very least, to make it better. Clarence Darrow is one such person from that community, who also began his law practice in Youngstown, the city that provided him with a platform from which a small village boy could go on to defend the freedoms of teachers in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trials. It seems long ago now, but the older I get the more I understand how not so far away from us that point in our shared history is.  I myself have struggled throughout my life to be someone who fights for a better community in whatever way I can. This year I will see the publication of my first novel from a major publishing house and I promise there will be more to come. I’ve dedicated myself to being a voice for a community that has not had a voice for the past forty years. But I understand why others from my community often fail to be able to start their own ignitions, so to speak.

Without an urban base with a strong economy to allow people to become their better selves in this world, it is not just the city of Youngstown that suffers, but the region that spreads out from it as well. We have been growing generations of newcomers to this world, children, who have no hope for a future for the past forty years. This is not America, according to the text books. And it’s not an America I can sit by and accept.

My hope, Senator Clinton, is that, if given the chance, as we’ve hoped of many Democratic presidents in the past, you and your administration will find a way to help our dying community before it is finally too late for us. The only way I can think of to reach your ears is to write you this letter, and plead for the sake of my family and friends and all of the anonymous family and friends that make up a community. It costs us very little to beg in our current circumstances. We are a strong base of supporters for your candidacy and hopeful you will be able to win the presidency. We will work hard for you before the election, during, and afterwards as well.

Will you work hard for us in return? Will you help us, Senator Clinton? We do so desperately need someone of your abilities and stature to help us believe that America still exists, that being a part of this nation means that we are as valuable as any other community. Will you help bring us back into the family of man?

Sincerely yours,

Christopher Barzak

Waiting for the Light

hands-and-world.jpgLast night I watched the President’s State of the Union address.  It was interesting to see who clapped for various plans the President proposed, and who didn’t.  One of the things I find most interesting about political players is the way they talk about their plans for the country.  It’s very broad and general, and if you’re not educated about politics and don’t know how to read this semi-coded, abstract language, you’re not going to understand what is actually being said at all.  I wonder sometimes how many people watch broadcasts like the State of the Union address, and how much by an average American viewer is understood if they do watch.  I know so many people who take no interest in politics whatsoever.  I hear a lot of young people say they’re not “into” politics, but I wonder if they realize how much their lives are bound up in politics whether they like it or not. 

The reason why I question such things is because I can remember being young myself, and claiming to not be a political person.  This is a very naive thing to think, really.  It’s something, I think, that a person feels about him or herself when they’re unaware of how deeply their own existence is molded by the laws and policies by which they’re surrounded.  It’s an especially difficult illusion to recover from in American society, where we raise children on words like freedom, and then provide them with very little actual education of what it truely means to be free.

I can remember when broadcasts like the State of the Union Address were nothing but an interruption from whatever regularly scheduled television show it was I wanted to watch.  I don’t watch TV very much at all these days.  I haven’t watched TV regularly since I was around twenty-two or twenty-three years old.  I gave it up slowly at first, and then it quickly became something I had difficulty finding any interest in.  The shows felt, to me, as if they came between me and the world I lived in.  I didn’t find them to even be entertaining in a way that would allow me to relax from whatever work I was doing at that time in my life, or now.  I like movies a great deal, but television feels ramshackle and meaningless to me.  I’ve tried to sit down and watch shows that are talked about a great deal by the people who surround me–my colleagues and co-workers, my friends and family members–and while I can sit through a show here or there, and perhaps be very mildly entertained, I can’t sustain any interest to come back to the show again for another episode.  I’d rather watch a movie or read a book, to participate in something self-contained that doesn’t stretch over “seasons”.  But if a political address is scheduled for broadcast now, I’m there on the couch with a liter of green tea and snacks, as if I were getting ready to watch a football game with my friends.  And sometimes friends do come over, and laugh or scoff at something the President has said, or say things like, “Did you just catch that shot of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?  They were totally looking at their watches.  What a cold shoulder move!”  Or, “Oh my God, look at McCain.  He’s sleeping!  He’s actually sleeping!” 

I’m not sure what direction our country is heading in.  America feels far too big, in my opinion, to govern very effectively.  I’m glad, though, that I’ve grown into the world as I’ve gotten older, and recognized that we’re all a part of a community, and that it’s actually all of us who are the governors of our country, states, cities, towns and villages.  Being aware is something that isn’t taught very much in schools today, but then not very much is being taught in schools today except how to take tests.  I can’t see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel yet, but I hope that, any day now, one will appear.

Extreme Makeover: City Edition

DowntownAnother article on Youngstown’s 2010 Plan and how it’s slowly but surely revitalizing the area, this time from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Don’t forget to watch the slideshow narrated by our Mayor, Jay Williams. Previous articles about Youngstown’s 2010 Project have appeared in the last year in The New York Times and USA Today as well.  We hadn’t seen our city’s name in a newspaper outside of our city for a couple of decades before now. It’s still a dystopic sort of city, a real mess, but it’s our glorious mess, and we’ve still got enough life left in us to try and turn it around one more time.

And Now Read This…

If you missed it before in the mass of information we call the internet, make sure to read Yoshio Kobayashi’s essay on the new generation of Japanese SF writers. 

I myself wish American SF publishers would give us more international writers to read.  I’m sure it’s probably based on statistics that Americans don’t like to read writers that have been translated from other cultures into English, or some such reason that is probably true and only serves to indicate our insularity at this moment in history as a culture, but I would think there has to be a base of readers that would be interested in what I’m thinking of as Global SF rather than the English language dominated genre it is at the moment.  Maybe someday, the majority of us will care what the rest of the world is having a conversation about, and then a new market will open up for this sort of book here.