Cultural Appropriation

As a writer I have watched the conversation around cultural appropriation with a great deal of trepidation. The developments with writer Lionel Shriver at a writers festival in Australia put a nice fine point on the debate as it relates to creativity.

Simply put, the concept of cultural appropriation is that it is inappropriate for privileged whites to co-opt the cultural trappings of other groups, be they Mexicans, LGBT communities, or Australian aborigines in pursuits ranging from Halloween costumes, to restaurant menus and fiction or film.

My name is Ricardo Sanchez. My family is mostly Spanish, German and Irish. But because of the name, I have more than a passing familiarity with anti-Hispanic sentiment that is mainly targeted at Mexicans. So I have a foot in both the privileged white community and a toe in the  disadvantaged minority community (for the record, I’m not saying I am a member of a disadvantaged community, only that I have experienced bias based on my name.) Because of this perspective, I do understand a lot of the arguments of the groups that have championed the fight against cultural appropriation, and as much as I might sympathize with a desire to see marginalized or minority voices heard (in the case of the arts) I think the whole notion of cultural appropriation (CA after this) is bullshit. Particularly in America.

As far as the United States is concerned, there is only one “native” culture and we’ve pretty much decimated it. The dominant “culture” is in fact a culturally appropriated mix of Spanish, French, English, and African (for the most part) influences that permeates everything from our food to our music and literature. Without CA we would not have New Orleans, probably the best pro-CA argument one could make. Creole food alone is 100% American, and %100 borrowed from the Spanish, French and African inhabitants of Louisiana. Rock and Roll got it’s start in blues with black musicians, but would anyone really argue the case that it was inappropriate for the Rolling Stones to make their blues influenced music? What about “The Grapes of Wrath?” Should Steinbeck not have written a mentally challenged character since he, himself, was not mentally challenged? I’ve picked some fairly easy examples of where the CA argument fails, but what about when you push it? A white guy writing about a black, lesbian amputee? There are three distinct cultures there that might be appropriated. Rather than ask if it’s okay for a white guy to write that story, one might ask, is it only okay for a black, lesbian amputee to write that story? The CA argument, taken to it’s logical conclusion, would have to be yes. Because nobody else could understand where the character is coming from.

I’m playing absolutes, which is a little disingenuous, but it helps me make my point – decrying cultural appropriation is a slippery slope, like any form of censorship, and that’s essentially what it is. Writers should be free to write any character that serves their story, regardless of what cultures it might pull from. If I think I can tell a compelling story about a black lesbian amputee, nothing should stop me from writing it. If it sucks (hell, even if it’s good) nobody will read it. And if it does get read, it’s because the story is universal enough that people are engaged, regardless of their own backgrounds.

Yes, we should absolutely do more to help marginalized groups tell their own stories. Yes, white male (and female) writers certainly have some advantages over non-white writers, partly due to education levels, partly due to cultural bias, and partly due to market economics. And we should absolutely work to level the playing field so all creators have access to readers. But when you consider that there are virtually no geographically based cultures (LGBT, or deaf, and a few other cultures are different in this regard, but the anti-CA argument doesn’t distinguish between Mexicans and people with dwarfism) on Earth today that haven’t taken, or stolen, something from some other culture, the whole concept of cultural appropriation seems absurd on the face of it. Mexican culture isn’t unique, it is a mix of native cultures and Spanish influence. Spanish culture is, itself, influenced by the Moors, the Basques, the Catalan, the Castilians, and the Romans. The Romans by the Greeks. And so on and on. Go back far enough and we can all trace our roots to every culture of which homo sapiens is a member. Dismissing CA doesn’t let us off the hook with regards to helping unique, unheard voices reach more ears, but it also doesn’t make someone like me, a cisgendered straight white-ish guy, a villain for thinking it’s fucking idiotic to say “you can’t write that!” because I’m not my character.

Queer (Tragic) Storytelling

Jo Chiang, on the New York Times, has written an article about creative choices and the real world impact of storytelling on marginalized groups that I found really compelling.

The initial thrust of the piece is that characters in queer relationships frequently end up with tragic endings. The author, Jo Chiang, sites a statistic that 35% of on screen queer characters end up dead. I don’t know how accurate the number is and what type of character is being considered (main character, supporting, character of the week) but I would be curious to know what percentage of straight characters also end up dead, for context, as killing characters is a time honored tradition for writers to up the drama and conflict. 

I agree with Ms Chiang’s desire to see more on screen queer romance have a happy ending, but I question some of her assertions about the intent on the part of creators. She singles out a show I really enjoyed, “Person of Interest,” as an example where queer characters are “punished” for their orientation. One female character is shot and presumed dead upon confirmation of her feelings for another woman – but she fails to mention that the actress had to take a break from the series for maternity leave. Is this really a creative choice to punish the character? (Plus we all sorta knew she was going to make a come back) Then later, her lover does in fact get killed. But this takes place in the final culmination of everything the show has been building up to finally coming to a close. The character’s death is also both a noble and reasonable ending for her story in many ways. More importantly, the character is treated with the same narrative respect that the male lead receives. 

There is a line of critical thought that suggests the viewer is the final arbiter of meaning, regardless of the creator’s intent. It’s a sentiment I can understand, but have always been somewhat uncomfortable with. Using “Person of Interest” as an example, either the creators did choose to inflict harm on their queer characters, in which case it’s totally fair to interpret it as a cultural bias toward violence against queer relationships, or the creators were writing around external circumstances and just trying to deliver the best story they could. 

Obviously, I believe creator intent is very important. I highlighted this poor example because Ms Chiang cites many other very good examples of queer relationships ending in tragedy in films, where there is no question about the choices of the creators. 

One of those examples is “Thelma and Loise” and their drive off the cliff. But could this story have had a non-tragic ending and still been worth watching? They could have turned around and given themselves up, but then we need to know what happens next and it is either A) a lot of publicity that rips up their lives on the way to a trial where they are acquitted or B) they are both sent to prison for manslaughter. Either alternative is a very different story and perhaps no less tragic.

While I think she over played her hand a bit, there is still a clear case to be made that, historically, Hollywood was able to include queer characters only if their on-screen romance is punished, ”The Children’s Hour” being a particularly good example of hers. She is also at least partially correct when she suggests that for a writer:

“Any character’s death can be shocking and upsetting, but taking a character who attained happiness despite the fundamental struggle of being queer and ripping them from that happiness? Now that’s tragic. And that’s how we’re taught to see the pain of queerness. As fundamental.”

But take queer out of that assertion and replace it with: black, Muslim, Irish, one armed man, a vampire. In the context of narrative, tragedy by definition is setting up a character for a fall. In modern narrative, we see more queer tragedy, but we are also just seeing a lot more queer characters.

There is a lot in the first half of Ms Chiang’s piece I could argue with, but all of this is really the lead up to her second, and more important, concern, which is about whether or not non-queer creators should tell queer stories, and if the industry history of tragic violence in queer stories results in real world violence, and finally what should be done about it.

In her piece, Ms Chiang says:

“The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that 2015 had the highest levels of violence against the L.G.B.T. community since 2011, the most frequent victims being transgender women of color.”

I have no reason to doubt this is true. L.G.B.T. issues receives a LOT of coverage in 2015, between bathroom bills, kids being denied access to their prom, and the litany of characters and TV shows with queer storylines being the central dramatic theme. I tend to believe (without supporting statistics) that the rise in violence may largely be a result of increased awareness – that those who feel threatened by changing social attitudes are lashing out at the people they identify as responsible for a decline in their world view. But it’s entirely reasonable to question whether repeatedly seeing queer characters punished for loving or being loved isn’t a part of the problem. 

Ms Chiang goes on to cite statistics about how white guys essentially dominate Hollywood and are the ones responsible for making most entertainment, including the shows and films telling queer stories. She doesn’t suggest that creators shouldn’t tell stories they don’t (or biologically can’t) identify with, but she does ask for more representation in content creation by the very people who’s stories are being exploited for commercial entertainment. I think she’s right to ask, but I don’t think the solution is to look to big Hollywood for a solution. 

Movie studios are businesses first. Most film isn’t art. Studios will make creative choices in the context of greatest profit at lowest risk. And the most certain way to achieve that balance is to staff the biggest name talent you can afford, which isn’t always going to lead to a lot of diversity, even with plenty of examples showing diversity isn’t a profit killer. 

So what is the solution? I don’t know, but I suspect the queer community will have to fend for itself, at least for a while. Thanks to venues like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, funding for projects no longer has to come from traditional Hollywood sources. A Stonewall movie directed by a more representative individual, featuring a cast more like the actual participants, could probably find crowd support quite quickly and easily. 

But whether you think I am right or being insensitive to queer concerns, Ms Chiang’s piece is thought provoking and a worthy read. As a writer, it certainly have me a lot to consider as I contemplate writing characters I can’t biologically identify with. 

Typing Heaven with Qwerkywriter for my MacBook?

I don’t have one of these typewriters, but I WANT ONE!!!

Qwerkywriter Bluetooth Keyboard

Qwerkywriter Bluetooth Keyboard

I’m a huge fan of mechanical keyboards. I love the extended throw of the keys, the solid tactile feedback of the click…yet I’m writing this on Apple’s diametrically opposed zero-throw keyboard on the newish MacBook. The MacBook is, arguably, the perfect writing machine. No fan, super light, amazing battery life, but the keyboard, with it’s almost non-existent throw, completely turned me off for the longest time.

2015_MacBook_keyboard_thumbBut I read article after article about how Apple didn’t capriciously create a shallow keyboard just to make the MacBook thinner – they did actual research and make a case that their MacBook keyboard will actually improve your typing speed. Out of curiosity, I went into an Apple store and did a few typing speed tests on a MacBook Air (my previous writing platform) and the new MacBook. To my surprise, I averaged about 5 words per minute better on the MacBook. I bought it almost immediately.

But I still miss my long throw mechanical keyboard…$349 is a LOT of money for a keyboard, but I’m nonetheless dreaming about the Qwerkywriter and it’s delightful steampunk aesthetic. Maybe for my birthday…

WordPress <> Facebook Page Cross Posting with PolarFox

PolarFox My blog is a hybrid communication platform and archive. My tweets get auto posted here, for example. Longer form stuff, PDFs, video files, they’re all here too. But some mid-length content, like a quick review of a show or movie, I would like to post to both my Facebook page and here without having to copy and paste. There are a number of apps that can do that kind of thing, but one I recently downloaded and really like is an app called PolarFox.

My main requirement was the ability to send an image and text to both my FB author page and this blog. Of course one distinction between the two is that a FB page has body copy, but no headline the way a blog post would. PolarFox does exactly that. The headline is optional, but whatever you type into the app goes straight to both systems.

PolarFoxThe interface is increadibly simple. You select a source for the image – camera, camera roll, the latest image in your camera roll, or the image on your clipboard – add some copy, select your destinations and hit submit.

In the setup process, when you add your blog, you also select a default category. You can’t, unfortunately, change that on the fly. I also found a bug where it was creating a “null” category and tagging it with that as well. I also usually go in to my wp blog and update info for seo, but my goal with this app was primarily speed and ease of use.

Despite the bug, PolarFox is the fastest way I’ve found to send an image post to FB and this site in one shot. It’s not limited to those systems however. You can connect Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, wordpress.com, a FB group, page or profile or any webhook connected app.

You can try PolarFox for free and it’s available for iOS and Android. And no, I received no form of compensation for this post. I just like the app.

I Try Desk PM for Mac

A fellow blogging friend of mine suggested that I should try an app called Desk PM as a desktop interface for my self hosted WordPress blogs. It’s on sale for $20 so I figured why not? If it lived up to the hype it would get me writing more.

Desk PM

It is a very focused app. It presents a minimalist interface for getting your thoughts down with a number of options to customize your typing experience, like going full screen, adjusting the transparency and typewriter mode.

For markdown enthusiasts (I still can’t break my html habit) it has full markdown support as well. Perhaps the best formatting feature, however, is auto table generation.

iCloud integration makes it easy to keep any local files in sync across multiple devices.

Image embedded via Desk PM drag and drop.

As for using at as an actual blogging interface, Desk is a mixed bag. It’s easy enough to connect to one or more blogs, and it supports a good list of services, ranging from WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress, as well as Blogger, Medium and Facebook (although not FB Pages as far as I can tell.) You can also pull down past posts and drafts to edit them locally. Adding an image is pretty easy, just drag and drop into your document. Alternately, you can import directly from a scanner or camera, and, particularly nice if you are doing online tutorials, you can do screen grabs and embed them directly in your post. There are also good image formatting controls for setting alignment, but oddly no way to set the size of the image.

A couple of other nice features are thinks like running word counts, a timer that tries to guess the amount of time it would take to read your post, and a WYSIWYG view of your content. The coolest blogging feature is being able to schedule your posts.

But what’s missing is support for things like categories or tags. After posting with Desk PM, I find I have to go into the web admin at some point to set the correct category and tags for SEO purposes, if nothing else.

I find I do like the mini-window Desk PM experience for typing a quick post, or maybe a first draft, but given the need to log into the web admin at some point, Desk PM seems to have very limited value. At least for me.

Scrivener for iPad in 2016…is Storyist

I love Scrivener. It is hands down my favorite Mac app and I probably have spent more hours staring at a screen in Scrivener than any other application I’ve ever used. It is hands down the best writing tool I’ve ever used.

Storyist-Scrivener.jpg

My Scrivener novel manuscript shows up in the Storyist file chooser via iCloud Drive.

But I’m spending more and more time writing on my iPad these days – and the long promised iOS version of Scrivener remains the platforms most famous vaporware. This has forced me to look for work arounds.

For a while, I was using Byword, which is a wonderful writing environment in it’s own right. But it is sort of hackey in the way it works and looking at file structure is sort of maddening.

But then I read a feature set for Storyist for iOS that included native support for reading Scrivener files so I gave the app a try. I’ve used Storyist for Mac before as well, and liked it, so I was optimistic about trying the mobile version. I will tell you right now that my small investment has been worth every penny and if you won’t want to read further, just go buy it.

scriv-file-in-Storyist.png

My manuscript file structure – just like in Scrivener!!!

As promised, Storyist will open up a .scriv file and allow you to work with all of the text files in your project – just like in Scrivener. Period. Full stop. No need for weird work arounds. No need to hyper label every text file so you can tell one text file from another. I opened up my latest novel manuscript and picked up right where I’d left off on my computer. It was what I’ve been hoping Literature and Latte would deliver for over two years now.

Storyist accomplishes this by syncing with your iCloud drive, so you have to be on Yosemite or El Capitan. Relocate your working .scriv file to the Cloud Drive folder, though, and you can begin to sync your project between Scrivener and Storyist.

This isn’t a review of Storyist for iPad. I think it is a fine app and it has it’s plusses and minuses. I haven’t tried to work with my comic script files extensively, which might be an example of where the Scrivener -> Storyist compatibility may start to break down. But from as much as I’ve used it on my novel manuscript, the Storyist folks have totally won me over on iOS.