Valerie’s Letter Day

It’s Valerie’s Letter Day, and so I’m posting it again, the way I always do, despite the fact that I have not reread the graphic novel in years or rewatched the movie ever.  Mainly, because I’m afraid to.

Both forms of the story hit at sort of terrible moments in my life.  The college situation, when I first read the graphic novel, I’ve talked about before to probably the fullest extent I’ll ever want to; it leaves out a lot.  The day I watched the V for Vendetta film, alone at a crappy theater in Chelsea, was the day I got sick.

At I first thought was food poisoning, what my baffled doctors suggested might be anything from gall bladder disease to cancer, and what ultimately turned out to be my far less scary but seriously unpleasant celiac disease.  But, for the first week, before all that happened, I thought I was have a psychosomatic reaction to the film’s long montage-based sequences of medicalized torture as political punishment.

When I read Valerie’s Letter, I know grace, poetry, survival, and pride.  When I engage with its larger context, however, I just feel afraid.  As much as that’s terrible, it’s also probably should be.

I’ve whispered I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot to myself more times than I really know how to explain.  I’ve wished that to be something I’ve been less needful of, and over time, it’s even been true; the world as I experience it today is, as relates to Valerie’s letter, barely recognizable from 1989.  And as glad as I am of that, that we have roses (again) and that Valerie never quite was, I am also remain so damn glad of that sentence about a place I’ve never been and a year fifteen before I was born.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

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Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012

978-0-7864-6549-1This snuck up on me because it’s been such a long process but Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012 is finally shipping from McFarland. I have a piece in it on “Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of Media, Public Relations and Marketing in the New Doctor Who,” which, because of the time lines involved in academic publishing, covers the ninth and tenth Doctors, most of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The whole collection is full of really awesome stuff from fans who are also academics/academics who are also fans, and I’m really excited to finally get to read it. While I wait breathlessly for my contributors copy, you can order it from McFarland’s website at the link above.

Hugo Awards: Link me to your stuff, again

So we’re gonna do this just like we did this last year, and I’m mostly rewriting last year’s post word-for-word.

This time of the year is, among other things, nomination season for the Hugo Awards, and general tradition in SF/F circles is for people to post the list of eligible things they’ve been involved with. For me, this year the only thing that I have that’s eligible is actually this blog in the fan writer category.

Meanwhile, although tomorrow is the deadline for acquiring a World Con membership in order to nominate and vote this year, I still have a month to read a ton of stuff and figure out what I’m going to nominate, so please link me to you eligible titles (or recommended titles from others) so I can get started on that process. 

Other than your awesome, I’m particularly interested in your various short-form recs, as I don’t read enough short stories in general, and it’s a pretty neat genre that highlights the beauty of good structure.  We do not give short stories enough love.

So, if you have stuff, please post in comments with links; meanwhile, please go browse the comments which will hopefully be flowing in shortly and check out anything that so moves you.

Calling all Toronto-area Whovians!

I’ve just been added to programming at the Doctor Who Society of Canada’s one day conference, Regeneration, taking place in Toronto on November 17th. I’ll be there in support of Doctor Who in Time and Space, an academic reader forthcoming from McFarland that I have a piece in titled, “Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of Media, Public Relations, and Marketing in New Doctor Who”

I’ll post the schedule of programming I’ll be participating in once I have it (as well as the book’s release date or pre-order info, which is also in that Real Soon Now category).

If you’ll be at the con and spend time in my little corner of the Internet, please do come say hello!

The Land of Stories: When the fourth wall is a doorway

In many ways, I am the worst possible person to review Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories. Not only am I not a middle grade reader, I often loathed books appropriate for my age group even as a child because I felt they were too overt in the lessons they were trying to impart and the narrative tricks they were engaging in to do so.

“Oh look, another book about some girl who communes with wolves that will teach me about the importance of self-reliance, algebra, and offering loving respect to my parents,” I would start monologuing each May when faced with my annual the summer reading list requirements. That stuff made me bitter.

I can’t tell you that Colfer’s book necessarily avoids content that stirs that reaction in me, but I also can’t tell you it should. After all, not only was I cantankerous about these sorts of books as a child, I am certainly not a middle grade reader now, nor am I the parent of one.

But, aside from the necessary content and structural oddities of book designed for this age group, there’s a ridiculous amount of interest in The Land of Stories. Some of it, such as the sure to be endlessly quoted “unicorns don’t have rabies” discussion, is mostly just hilarious, even if I can’t help but link the discussion of one-horned magical creatures and disease to the use of “unicorn” as a way of discussing Kurt Hummel’s queerness on Glee and finding a witty, and unfortunately necessary, indignance in the remark.

Much of it, however, is overtly poignant not only in the context of the book, but unavoidably unsettling in the context of its authorship. One of the first, and most crystalline examples of this comes in the protagonists’ meeting with Queen Cinderella:

“What was it like?” Alex asked Cinderella. “What was it like to go from being a servant to being a queen? What was it like to be saved from a horrible situation? Your life is literally… well… a Cinderella story.”

A sadness came to Cinderella’s face.

“I never thought my life would change so drastically, so I always made the most of what I had,” Cinderella said.

“… living a public life is a difficult thing to do, and even now I still find it a bit overwhelming. No matter what you do, you can never please everyone. And that was the hardest lesson to learn. In fact, I am still learning it.”

The actual passage is several times the length of what is quoted above, and is not necessarily even the book’s most startling moment. In fact, each interaction with the queens of the storybook world can arguably be read on two levels, one of which is fixed outside of the narrative of the novel. In case you’re curious, the kings Charming (they’re brothers) fare less well as attractive and largely interchangeable cardboard cutouts.

The Evil Queen’s remarks on ambition are perhaps the other, most precise moment of double vision the book provides:

“Every driven person comes from a mountain of pain they wish to keep hidden,” the Evil Queen said.

Certainly there is something sly and uncomfortable about the queens of a series of storybook kingdoms serving as the clearest representation of the authorial voice, when that author is the one in question. If this is intentional on Colfer’s part, it’s a delightful and pointed play on expectation and underscores the allegorical queerness in a book that isn’t really queer at all (except perhaps when Conner tells us he really, really can’t let the guys at school find out about his newly discovered ancestry). And, if it is unintentional on Colfer’s part, the reader response to it makes for a no less compelling conversation.

It’s statements like Evil Queen’s on ambition, however, that also make the book interesting regardless of authorship. Among other things, I wonder what it would be like to read that sentence as an eight-year-old. What does that sentiment — which rings very true to me — impart to a person of that age? It doesn’t seem like all those boring lessons about wolves and algebra and loving my mother at all.

Where The Land of Stories excels as literature is in the voices and dilemmas of its adults. Colfer’s ability to juggle multiple narrative voices is interesting, and I probably shouldn’t be surprised that as an actor he clearly has the most fun with the parts of the narration that come to us in the first person.

Much like Struck by Lightning, Colfer’s freshman film effort that I believe will be in general release soon, the adult stories which we see in passing through the eyes of children with bigger concerns linger because Colfer suffuses the adult relationships with loss and longing, knowing that in his fairytale book the ending everyone craves — happily ever after — is innately boring.

Ultimately, while I am reasonably sure that The Land of Stories is a clever, competent, and viciously funny middle grade book that will be deeply pleasing particularly to children who feel peculiar because of how their intelligence manifests, The Land of Stories impressed me for the way in which it emphasizes and exemplifies the infinite nature of story telling: A young man who is living what some would call a fairytale writes a novel about two children who fall into a fairytale and then navigate that world through the journals and stories of others, while the reader, upon noticing these layers of narrative, unavoidably also extends the story in ways that were, if not surely unintended then are, at least, intentionally unacknowledged.

If nothing else The Land of Stories is a unique entry in the annals of transformative work as the narrative performs multiple functions and extends multiple stories for several, often disparate audiences, simultaneously.

The Hunger Games: How decadent! Let’s get cupcakes!

I first encountered The Hunger Games several years ago while serving as a judge for the YA Lit Track’s costume contest at Dragon*Con. An excellent young costumer showed up at Katniss, and I thought she was an elf.  While I recall the costume well and know we gave her at least one award for it, I didn’t get around to reading the book until my recent flight from Warsaw to Hanoi.

Planes are for sleeping, especially since I usually don’t have time to sleep the night before I travel, so it says something that I stayed up to read it.  It’s a quick read, but for me it was a hard book, because no matter how visceral I often found it, I didn’t really connect with any of the characters except perhaps Cinna (who is definitely my favorite, I suspect has more secrets to reveal in the later books which are currently beyond my reach), Rue, and the silent Foxface, who fought for her life the way I always played dodgeball.

But as someone who experiences fiction through identification, the book mostly sort of left me at a loss.  I didn’t identify with Katniss or the boys, and I didn’t care about the romance, true or false; I only cared about whether Peeta was a Slytherin.

But what I have cared about, passionately, since before I even read the book, is the film’s marketing campaign, which makes us all residents of the Capitol, because it’s not us, and it’s not our children.  It’s savvy — insert the audience as the audience, and a little cruel — do we feel like not nice people by virtue of being outside the story? Do we pause to consider that, just like in historical reenactment, none of us would probably be any of the fictional privileged we’re being positioned as?  And do we care as long a we can buy the limited edition nail polish celebrating this season’s Capitol fashions?

Of course, I love it.  And I love it not just as an indictment of our worse natures and our fame culture (who wouldn’t, for example, find Celebrity Apprentice more riveting (or at least finally mildly interesting) if immediately after “You’re Fired!” there was cannibalism?). I also love it as a statement of the obvious: sometimes in fiction it’s fun to be the bad guy.  If you’re a resident of the Capitol, what’s your life like?  Sex in the City with a lot of hot pink eyeliner and a little bit of blood? How decadent! Let’s get cupcakes! Do you like my new wig?

But even through all that (and if you follow my Tumblr you know that good marketing is one of my turn ons), what keeps lingering for me about The Hunger Games is the exquisite nature of some of Suzanne Collins’s phrases.

From the first time it appears on the page the girl who was on fire almost made me weep for the cadence of it, but also for the past tense of it.  Chosen and chosen and chosen again, and Katniss even wins, or at least survives.  But I feel like in that phrase is the book’s greatest warning about ordeal and spectacle: even illusions will change you; and even if you survive, everything ends.

I’ve been assured that the next book in the series is all about the stuff that really gets me going: fame and the construction of it, and I wonder if little girls in the Capitol write RPF about Katniss and Peeta, or if terrible pop songs come out about it all in that world — sort of like how the vampire Lestat has a crappy band (and speaking of the construction of fame, there’s something I need to revisit). I think about how every dress Jennifer Lawrence wears when promoting the film is flame colored; as we ponder whose fame is really being constructed in light of that, I find myself just wanting to whisper sweet nothings at another blurry fourth wall.

Of course, what I’ve said here is probably all ridiculous and trivial in the light of the second and third books, which I won’t manage to get my hands on until probably mid-April.  But I probably will get to see the film in India (after some obligatory and eagerly awaited Bollywood), which excites me beyond measure. With the largest film industry in the world (someone once told me that Bollywood has made more films about the life of Alexander the Great than all the films ever made in Hollywood combined; no idea if it’s true, but it’s my favorite piece of possibly accurate information ever), it seems like a perfect place to see a movie where we’re not just in the audience, but cast as it.

Meanwhile, I can’t believe I thought Katniss was an elf.