Vital Parts

Image courtesy of http://lareviewofbooks.org

Image courtesy of http://lareviewofbooks.org

We just finished watching Season 3 of Game of Thrones last week-end – because we don’t have HBO, we always end up binge-watching it on disk when it’s finally released. I have to be honest though. Binge-watching wasn’t the easiest way to experience this time around. The show keeps upping the ante (which is great), and so this season was fairly relentless as far as bad things happening to EVERYONE goes. Just to give you some perspective, this is coming from the woman whose brain went, “aw, bummer”, and kept eating popcorn when Ned Stark lost his head.

So, for those who have yet to see Season 3:  This post is spoiler-dependant, so if you don’t know what happens, and don’t want to know what happens, (all five of you), be warned. And for those of you who haven’t been sucked into the cultural phenomena that is GoT (possibly a saner life choice), I’m going to give a quick run down of the two plot points I’m going to talk about. They are:

1: Jaimie Lannister’s Be-Handing

2: Theon Greyjoy’s castration and torture

jaime-lannister

Jamie the Kingslayer

Fun times, right? Ok. So for those who don’t know this already, Jaimie Lannister is widely considered to be the deadliest man in the Seven Kingdoms with a sword. He’s a preternaturally good fighter, so much so, that that is, up to this point, who he is – the Kingslayer.  There’s a lot one can say about him, but for the purposes of this post, that’s enough.

Theon Greyjoy, on the other hand, is the weak, insecure, son of

FYI: That's Theon's sister

FYI: That’s Theon’s sister

the Lord of the Iron Islands, a hard-assed enclave of seafaring bad-asses. He clings to this identity because he is hostaged out to a rival family as a boy. By the time he reaches adulthood, he has identity issues, an over-inflated sense of his nobility, and an over-fondness for prostitutes (and pretty much any other woman willing to let him at her).

Now, going back to bad things happening, (because bad things happen to everyone on this show. It’s endemic). So far, since the show began, the apparent protagonist has been imprisoned and be-headed, (Ned Stark, Season 1); an exiled princess has been sold into marriage to a barbarian by her insane, creepy brother; the King of Westeros has been murdered by his wife so that he won’t find out that his children were actually fathered by her twin brother, (love those Lannisters); various women are raped, almost raped, and often killed; babies and children are murdered; and, of course, there’s the Red Wedding, wherein a good chunk of the protagonists are slaughtered at a feast. I could go on.  So what makes what happens to Jaimie and Theon different?

In most of the cases I listed above, the characters are either killed outright, or left intact enough to move on from whatever violin befell them. This is not the case with Jaimie and Theon, because Jaimie and Theon are stripped of their vital parts.

Jamie Lannister, Post Be-Handing

Jamie Lannister, Post Be-Handing

When Jaimie’s sword hand is cut off, he loses not only the hand, but his ability to be the man he had been. In short, he loses his identity. Suddenly, the deadliest man in seven kingdom cannot defend himself against a rag-tag group of course soldiers. He is vulnerable in a way that is unnatural to him, which makes his attempts to fight left-handed so difficult to watch. It’s not the hand that disturbs so much as the dismantling of his identity. Luckily, for Jaimie, this dismantling leads to an interesting evolution as a character and he becomes, arguably, a more complex and nuanced man as a result.

Theon Greyjoy is not so lucky. Through a series of Terrible Decisions ™, Theon finds himself in the custody of a sadist, being punished for betraying the man he swore loyalty to as king. Over the course of days, Theon endures psychological and physical torture that softens his already fairly weak mind, until the day comes when he is fully castrated, and his severed parts are sent to his father in a box. Shortly thereafter, he accepts a new name from his captor. He ceases to be Lord Theon Greyjoy, heir to the Iron Islands, and becomes Reek, a “pile of meat”.

The significance of Theon’s castration has been well-covered. This piece in the LA Review of Books is especially interesting, so I won’t stray too  far down that road. That said, there is a point I want to make.

Theon_SexWhile Jaimie’s identity is challenged, it remains, fundamentally, in tact. He is still Jaimie Lannister and his reputation, pre-maiming, is strong enough that it helps see him through afterwards. Theon, however, does not and cannot recover from the loss of his sex organs for two reasons. The first is fairly general. When he is castrated, Theon loses the thing that identifies him as a man – a great loss to any male, but one especially difficult for Theon, who relies on sex to assert his wobbly sense of power and prowess. The second is that, when he  loses his reproductive organs, he ceases to be his father’s true heir, because he can no longer sire children. In fact, his father abjures him on those grounds after receiving the box that contains those organs. So, the loss of a penis is, for Theon, not just the loss of important bit of anatomy, it’s literally the loss of his manhood, of his personal identity, and of his legacy and identity as a Greyjoy, as his father’s son.

Unlike another character, Varys, who becomes a powerful spymaster as a result of castration as a boy, Theon’s identity was established enough at the moment of the loss, that the severing unravels him. He really does cease to be Theon Greyjoy in that moment, and becomes something entirely else. Something far less.

In the end, for both Jaimie and Theon, it’s the loss of these vital parts that disturbs. Beheadings and slaughters, no matter how violent, end in death. There’s a finality there. It’s not personal. There is no specifically ironic justice to be endured. For Theon and Jaimie, their losses are intensely personal to the point of irony, (in a truly Dante’s Inferno sort of way), and they are made to live on after.

It’s interesting, and heart-breaking, and it makes me think about what are, for me, my own vital parts, and what I would do if they were suddenly and violently taken away. I don’t know. I can’t imagine. And I’m grateful to live in a world where it is very like that I won’t have to find out.. that said. if anything is to be gotten from GoT, it’s that no one is really quite safe. Bad things can happen to anyone.

Blind Spots

Blind Spot. Image courtesy of pegasusnews.com

Blind Spot. Image courtesy of pegasusnews.com

Last week-end I had lunch with a friend and, as always, the conversation was great, ranging over everything from books and education to politics and religion. It was a fabulous time, full of recreational thinking and awesome insights, including one that I hadn’t known to expect: My blind spots are back.

I’ve got cultural blind spots so big that I often get lost in them  before I even know I’m off the map.

This isn’t a new realization. I get it every so often, usually when I stop thinking on autopilot and encounter something contextually unexpected. In this case, it was a Coke ad, or rather, the response to a Coke ad.

During the Superbowl, Coca-Cola ran an ad featuring Americans from different cultural backgrounds doing normal people things, like dancing and swimming and laughing, while the song, “America the Beautiful” played in the background. It was nicely done and inclusive. Honestly, I barely thought about it. But a lot of people did and here’s why:

“America the Beautiful” was sung in multiple languages. Apparently, this wasn’t ok, because the response on Twitter was, shall we say, vitriolic. You can see both the ad and a selection of vitriolic tweets over at Public Shaming, (a site that does, I must admit, have a left-leaning slant).

So, all of this goes down and I’m mostly unaware. I’d seen the ad but, like I said, I didn’t really think about it, mostly because I don’t drink soda. So when my friend referenced the openly racist nature of the Twitter response, it took me a second to process it, because it honestly didn’t make sense. I mean, what kind of problem could people have? Right? It’s Coke. Whatever.

See? Blind Spot.

Here’s the thing. I live in California. I grew up in San Francisco  and, for the most part, the only other places I’ve lived were New York City and West Hollywood. In short, I have always occupied a socially liberal bubble. (There was a brief, nine month stint outside of Dallas but, in that time, the bubble ceased to exist, which was interesting. It re-inflated after I moved back to California).

Without imposing a value-judgement one way or the other, let’s just say that I’m not often forced to process differing cultural views. Sure, I went to Catholic high school, but it was in 1990’s San Francisco, so all five teen pregnancies were accommodated without judgement or fuss (right down to special desks) and not one, but two gay male couples went to prom (without getting killed with sticks) in the four years that I was there. Homosexuality, multiculturalism and sex where just part of my landscape and, to a great degree, they remain so.

Which is why when I encounter a response like the one on Twitter, I get thrown off. Because, due to social self-selection (i.e.: having friends with similar cultural beliefs) and geographic location, I’m essentially insulated from opposing beliefs, which is why the media – both social and otherwise – is so valuable.

The Internet is essentially my safety net. Through regular news scrapes and general browsing, it ensures that I’m exposed to the world beyond my ideological nose. I just can’t get lazy – it doesn’t work if I only read my favorites (sorry Slate, Salon and Nerve). My surprise during lunch with my friend was a wake-up call, one that I periodically need, because, for all my talk about discourse, I’ve been getting mentally lazy and complacent. Apparently, to paraphrase Doc Holliday, my hypocrisy knows no bounds.

So, more than anything, this post is a reminder for me to get off my mental ass and see what’s going on beyond my comfort zone. Because blind spots are scary. They’re a weakness. Blind spots are where things hide. As someone who hates surprises, I need to reclaim a bit of that territory before something unexpected bites me on the ass. Figuratively speaking, of course. I’d prefer to be the mountain lion, and not the deer.

Agnes, The Maid

This is a short portrait / character sketch. Sometimes it happens that I get a character without a story. Usually it’s a character I quite like and will come back to later, either in their own piece, or as a tertiary character somewhere else. Agnes is one of these characters…

Agnes, The Maid

No one used a feather duster like Agnes. The command with which she wielded a batch of feathers shoved into a stick was truly terrifying. Even the mistress stayed

out of her way, not daring to test the sideboard after Agnes had been through.

Agnes was a narrow sort of woman, rather like an obelisk, with an air of authority that made her seem far taller than she actually was. Even as a child in the first blushes of youth, there had been little of the girl and even less of the blush about her. She was made of serious stuff. Lest you forget, the line of her mouth would remind you, before her shoulders squared off like a coat rack, and she took up arms against the dust.

Serious as she’d been as a girl, Agnes had had hopes – hopes that had been dashed quite early on in her career as a person. As a girl she had wanted to join the cavalry and go to war like her father, who’d been a sergeant in the Boer Wars. When her father had informed her that daughters did not join the cavalry, that this honor was only for sons, and that even if they did join the cavalry, his daughter would certainly not, Agnes had cried for hours. It was the last time in her life she would cry.

Finally, touched by his daughter’s rare show of emotion, Agnes’s father relented upon one nonnegotiable condition. If she were determined to go join the army, it would be the infantry for her. No “prancing about on ponies” – not for his girl. She would charge into war like a man. Though she was by no means un-heroic, the “ponies” had rather been the point. But her father would not be moved. She joined domestic service instead. Agnes never forgot her dream though. It was her one great disappointment. It would affect her, subtly, for years.

Despite her lowly role as maid, she wore her uniform with military precision. The sheer force of her personality endowed her ruffled cap with an air of authority, as if the cap knew itself to be overly frilly, and had tried to sharpen up. She took orders and conveyed orders with the bearing of a much older person. And, of course, the house had never been so utterly free of dust.

Agnes rose efficiently through the ranks to head housemaid after only two years, and it was assumed that when the housekeeper retired, Agnes would take up the helm. With the confidence of authority, Agnes felt this to be true. She was, after all, a nearly perfect servant. Her only flaw was the aggression with which she dusted the house. It called to mind a general, spitting on enemy armies before crushing them in his, (or her), wake.

Tank, or Gentleman Scholar

Image courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org

If there were ever a man like a mountain, Tank was not that man. Physically, he was more of a molehill, though his intellect towered over men three times his size.

Upon his birth, Tank had very nearly been named Theodore for his mother’s favorite brother. But Tank’s father, in a rare burst of filial interest had insisted that he should name his son, and that his son’s name should be Tank, not for any particular reason, except, perhaps, that he’d been drunk.

Despite the name’s dubious implications, it had gone on the birth certificate, and so Tank had been “Tank” for the entirety of his life, save, in quiet moments, when his mother had coo’d “Theo” in his ear. It was the distant memory of his mother’s voice that sallied him through years of quizzical looks and disappointment, (on his father’s part, at least), for the fact that his physical prowess failed to match either his name or his mental acumen.

How he would have loved to be Theodore – perhaps then he wouldn’t have been quite such a disappointment. Theodore’s did not lay bricks for a living, nor did they brawl or curse or spit. Theodore’s sipped brandy in book lined rooms and thought important thoughts, pausing, only briefly, to write the most important ones down. Theodore’s became scholars and architects, and left the brick laying to men named Tank… though not this particular Tank.

In awesome defiance of his father (and to his mother’s quiet pride), Tank excelled academically. His first very good school led to a second very good school, which in turn led to an impressive university career. It was at university that Tank discovered, and pursed, his love of etymology.

Tank’s calling found him one afternoon, as he was researching his own name. It was indeed true that the verb form of “tank” meant “drunk,” and had since 1893, but the noun form held a special light of hope. In the original Portuguese (brought west by way of India in 1616, from the Gujarati “tankh”), the word referred to an underground reservoir of water, and it was to this idea of hidden depths that Tank held firm.

His desire for Theodore slowly waned beneath the weight of his etymological studies and academic success. By the time he published his magnum opus, a thirteen volume tract called simply, Names, Tank was at ease with himself and his once dubious moniker, signing notes of thanks for various scholarly offers and congratulations, With Most Cordial Regards, Dr. Tank McGuinness.

Let Me Know You: On Pseudonyms, Erotica and the Public / Private Divide

nude on bed

I write erotica under a pseudonym. Many authors writing in this genre do. It wasn’t until recently that I considered why that might be.

When I first started writing erotica, I took a pseudonym for two reasons. The first was down right frivolous – I thought it might be fun. The second, and far more practical reason, was that I freelance in a number of different markets and the pseudonym would allow me to keep the two halves of my writing career separate.

I suspect that, for the majority of authors, the use of a pseudonym is equally practical. Many writers have primary careers that would be negatively affected if the sexual nature of their writing were to become known. People expect their teachers, therapists, and doctors to be morally squeaky clean. Patients do not want their gynecologists to write erotica on the side. Erotica, though mainstreaming, is not yet above reproach.

In addition, the moral / ethical concerns mentioned above can, at times, extend themselves into an author’s private life, particularly when the writer’s parents, children or partner might be negatively affected. No teen-age boy wants his friends to know that his mom “writes porn,” and a father’s custody could be contested if his career as an eroticist were brought to light in court. As a result, it’s easier for many erotica writer to allow the nature of their work to remain selectively ambiguous. Ours is not a widely respected genre, after all.

There is a lot to say about the stigma associated with reading and writing erotica, a genre that is, for many, still negatively associated with historically pejorative terms like “porn”, “smut”, and “dirty story.” Despite the fact that these labels are being slowly reclaimed by those who read and write in the genre, the stigma still remains. There is quite a lot to say about why this might still be true, but I will resist the impulse to digress and, instead, focus on one, specific point, and that is how my pseudonym – the ubiquitous accessory of pornographers, eroticists and writers of dirty stories everywhere – has come to function for me.

Allow me to begin with what my pseudonym is not.

My pseudonym is not an apology for what I do. It is not a way to distance myself from what I write. I am proud of my work in this genre, and I am equally proud to be part of a community of writers that displays a level of causal curiosity that is admirable in an openly cynical age.

What my pseudonym is, is two different things. It is an invitation and a boundary; it is a welcome and a wall. It provides me with an identity that can be publicly shared, while remaining separate from my own. It gives me a persona to extend to my readers, while allowing me to both maintain, and transcend, the public / private divide.

Invitation. Wall.

Why, as a writer, would I need such a thing?

Because when you write about sex, particularly intentionally arousing, fictional sex, people react, often more viscerally than they would to content that is not quite so sexually explicit. My pseudonym invites the reader (or public) to engage and connect with my work, while allowing my non-public self a certain degree of anonymous privacy.

There is a long-standing assumption about writers. The assumption is that, however unlikely, an author’s work must be, in some way, autobiographical. In my experience, this assumption is heightened with eroticists. After all, our work is inherently sexual and very often kinky, edgy or taboo. We write sexual fantasies with the express purpose of arousing the people who read them. Because of this, the perceived intimacy of autobiography, when it arises, can be particularly intense.

For most readers, this perception of intimacy is not an issue. They read a story, they enjoy the story, they move on to the next story. There is, however, a small minority of readers who crave access to the writer beyond the limits of the page. They want the personal connection they made with a story to extend to the author who wrote it.

Some time ago, a reader contacted me in a manner that can only be described as overly attached and profoundly curious. This reader had connected, romantically and sexually, to a story that I had written and published under my pseudonym. He confessed that he wished to gain deeper, truer access to the woman who had written it; he wanted to share my mind and, somewhat chillingly, my “soul”. This reader, caught in the illusion of sexual intimacy that the story had created, wanted exclusive access, not to what I had written, but to me.

What’s more, this gentleman had constructed around my work and pseudonym, a persona that he desperately wanted to believe in – that of the sophisticated vixen and dominant mistress who would grant privileged access only to him. It was a fantasy that he’d spun with no input or encouragement from me, save for the story that I’d written and that he, in turn, had read. This is when my pseudonym became more than a pithy solution to a professional problem. This is when it became a wall. It gave this man something to attach to, without attaching dangerously to me. It gave me the space I needed to diplomatically end his fascination. And so, we were both able to moved on.

Interestingly, this has never happened with any of the essays, articles and reviews that I’ve written under my own name. Nonfiction has never elicited this kind of intensely personal response, though there is far more of me on display in that work than in the fantasies I spin.

Why is this? What is it about erotica and erotic fiction that has the power to inspire such an emotional, sexual and even psychological attachment? Why the need to possess?

I believe it comes down to connection. People crave connection. We want the exclusivity of understanding. We desperately need to be understood. It’s shockingly erotic to be understood, (to paraphrase Mary Rakow). So, when a story resonates with a reader, that resonance can, at times, go beyond the page to creates the illusion of kinship, sympathy and intimate understanding; and that illusion can be a very intense, indeed.

The strength, as well as the challenge, of public / private divide as regards writers and readers, is that the reader gets access only to what the writer allows. Only the writer herself knows the degree to which her mind, soul, psyche or heart appears in her work, and she is under no obligation to say. Because of this, the publication of a piece can be seen as a sort of offering. It is an author’s consent to grant public access to whatever appears, both explicitly and implicitly, in her text. This does not, however, equate to full, private access to her.

When someone reads my work, I want the focus to be on the work, not on whether I am, personally, gay, straight, bi, kinky, vanilla, submissive or dominant. I don’t want my life and predilections to muddy the ink on the page. That ink represents the access that I grant. My pseudonym, and the persona it names, invites the reader to enjoy my work without the distraction of injecting me into it. Just as importantly, it gives the reader a safe avatar to attach to, if only until they move on to the next story.

Authors want desperately to connect with readers. We want our work to be enjoyed and understood. For me, the public / private divide allows me the security and the freedom to pour words, uninhibited, onto the page and strive to make that connection. It frees me up to engage and explore and write with far more abandon, and honesty than I otherwise might. My pseudonym allows me to walk the delicate line between my private and public selves. I could never have predicted the depth of my relationship to my pseudonym, my lark of a second-name, but I am profoundly grateful for it now.

On Identity

I mentioned briefly in the previous post that I have done a lot of things in my not-too-long life. I’ve been an actress, a bookseller, and a graduate student, not once but twice in two different fields. I’ve studied Victorian Literature and medieval romance, Crusade narratives and narrative theory. I’ve developed a dislike of post-modernism and a deep respect for scholarship. I’ve designed story times and assessed historical collections. I’ve helped students learn to read and write critically and, even more importantly, to think for themselves.

During all of this, I taught myself how to write. I did this by reading a lot, and by writing very bad stories for many, many years until I got better and began to get published, much to my surprise and delight. I’ve done a great many things, (a lot of them monumental to no one but myself), but I have done none of them with as much success as I’d have liked.

I’ve wondered, often despairingly, why this was, and I recently realized that it comes down to something very simple and extremely silly. It has to do with identity. We are, in many ways, identified by what we do. Our professional labels carry with them certain societal markers that, for good or ill, place us into categories and boxes.

“What do you do?”

“ Oh, I’m a ____.”

And there. The person you’re talking to subconsciously, or consciously slots you into a box that defines the rest of that interaction, or, potentially, the rest of that relationship.

Doctor = Smart. Fireman = Brave. Teacher = Dedicated.

I’ve never liked boxes. They simplify the inherently complex identity of the person they represent. And yet, my intellectual mind knows how functional these boxes are. My intellectual mind acknowledges that most people know that there is more to a person than what he or she does. And yet, I resisted committing to one field for years. The irony is that resisting commitment to a professional identity does not exempt you from pigeonholing. If anything, that lack of commitment becomes a different kind of marker, one that makes commitment a far more attractive thing.

In fact, it may well be that it is commitment to a particular identity that nurtures and harnesses a person’s full potential. It signals the maturation of ambitions, whether you’re working a day job so you can write at night, or tearing up Wall Street. Commitment to identity signals to the world that you know, at a certain level, who you are, and that you are self-aware enough to pursue your interests professionally and / or vocationally.

It’s that acceptance of public identity, paired with a lack of concern for the illusion of its importance, that frees a person to pursue the depth of their potential in whatever field, or identity, they choose.