Proselytizing: In Other Lands

Back in the day at Manga Bookshelf, I used to write what I called “Persuasion Posts” intended to convince readers why they should invest their time and money on particular series (such as Ai Yazawa’s NANA or Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish, etc.). I don’t have a platform suited to this for prose novels (and seriously, by “prose novels” I basically mean “YA fantasy” because do I actually read anything else?) so most of my proselytizing on those books has been in the form of feverish conversations with my teen students and the occasional overenthusiastic tweet. This has generally been kindly received. I’ve successfully gotten some of my teens into favorite authors. Once, Rick Riordan retweeted me. But lately these platforms have simply not been enough.

My life’s a bit too crowded these days to put in the time and effort I used to give to those old “persuasion posts” but I’d like to begin using this blog for recommendations now and then. And what better book to begin with than the latest object of my obsession, Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands.

In Other Lands is a book I’m so crazy about that I’ve bought it six times.

1. For my Kindle when it first came out.
2. In hardcover when I realized having it on Kindle was Just Not Enough.
3. For my 15-year-old niece when she was having a rough time at boarding school.
4 & 5. For a couple of my teen students who have enthusiastically followed so many of my feverish recommendations (and I, theirs).
6. A copy for my studio library that can be borrowed by any of my teens.

I’d like to think I’m done buying it, but I don’t like to make promises I’m not certain I can keep.

Why do I so adore this book that I’d buy it six times? First, its author, Sarah Rees Brennan is a writer whose works I’ve long loved. She has a very distinctive voice that is funny and charming in way that particularly appeals to me to an extent that is difficult to explain. Just as I felt immediately akin and somehow uniquely recognized the first time I encountered the works of Annie Dillard (whose memoir An American Childhood spoke to me as though it had been written by my own childhood imagination), and immediately delighted by the voice of B.J. Chute when I read her novel Greenwillow as a teen, I was immediately charmed and frankly besotted within the first chapter of Sarah’s debut novel The Demon’s Lexicon—a reaction that has only increased with her subsequent work. Some writers just get you, and for me, Sarah is one of those special few. It is finding authors like these that convinces me of the vital role of storytelling in showing us how we overlap with each other, not just in the physical world, but in our secret, inner selves. It’s what makes us feel that we’re not alone in the world, and that there’s a point to it all.

Why do I encourage other people to buy this book? It’s a truly epic tale somehow contained in a single volume that both parodies “schoolgirl/boy/person in another land” stories while becoming a beautiful, compelling example of same. It’s got a queer protagonist in a genre that really needs many more. It’s charming and freaking hilarious, while also being dramatic and moving at just the right points. It was my favorite new YA fantasy novel in 2017. And it’s not just me! In Other Lands is a finalist for the Award for Best Young Adult book at the Hugo Awards this year, and I could not be more thrilled to see Sarah getting the attention that is, in my view, long overdue.

You can find Sarah talking about the unusual journey of this book here in her blog. You can buy it for a really great price at Amazon here. You can check out her other books, which are all honestly fantastic here. I highly recommend it all.

Adam Rippon makes me rant. In a good way.

(Warning, this post gets pretty ranty by the end.)

Adam Rippon Is Famous. What Now?

“I’ve done a lot as an athlete. So I don’t want to take anything away from that. But at the same time I don’t think that’s why I’m here today in this room. There are other athletes who are more decorated or more accomplished, but they’re not as funny and they’re not as cute.”

^ This.

Okay, not just that. Not by a long shot. This interview is absolutely worth reading, and it isn’t just full of stuff like that. And as irritating as it can be (to him, I’m sure) that all interviews eventually become largely about his sexuality, I’m mostly glad about that because he’s saying things that have needed to be said, loudly and in public, for a long, long time.

Whenever I watch/hear/read Adam, I’m compelled to think about the fact that my former industry (musical theater) is also one where all the boys/men are assumed to be gay, and similarly, it can put an extreme amount of pressure on kids coming up who actually are gay to try to prove that they’re not—not only by trying to date girls, but more gravely to basically put their bodies and all their instincts into an invisible straightjacket (how apt is that word right now?). Coming into teaching, it’s often been made very clear to me that it’s part of my job to help them put on that straightjacket, and honestly, that makes me sick. I refuse to do it. It’s unnecessary, cruel, and damaging. And it’s not just boys who are affected by the industry’s heavy gender-policing. Girls, too, are expected to look and behave a certain way to be accepted and employable, and this is where it gets even more personal for me. Because I sucked at performing as “girl” every day of my life, and I can personally attest to the long-term damage done by trying so, so hard—constantly suppressing my actual self in an endless battle for the rewards that came with faking it just right, or even close enough. I refuse to be a part of doing to my own students what was done (mostly innocently, by genuinely caring people, who were just trying to help) to me.

Does playing various roles onstage require learning physical and vocal mannerisms that suit those roles? Yes, sometimes. So why isn’t this the way we teach that? Learning to move and talk like someone else is just part of the actor’s toolbox, isn’t it? So why do we treat certain qualities as so desirable that they must also extend to the performer’s life outside of that role? Furthermore, why are specific (rigid, unimaginative, old as the freaking hills) gender-associated mannerisms treated as the default anyway? Aren’t we bored with this yet? I know I am.

Not that the musical theater industry is remotely alone in this. Personal anecdote: One of the reasons I left the business was that I was tired of living in a world where I felt like I always had to dress/make up/act like someone else, both on and off the stage. I started writing songs during my time on the road with Master Class (my last show before I quit the biz), because I saw it as a venue for more genuine self-expression. I was tired of feeling like a cog in someone else’s machine, and I thought this could be a way of building my own machine instead. While I was working on building up my own catalogue & skills as a singer-songwriter, I sang with some other people’s bands, and wouldn’t you know it… one of the recurring conflicts I found myself having within some of those bands was that I didn’t dress up they way they wanted me to on stage. I didn’t look “cool” enough or “sexy” enough. Basically, I still wasn’t girl enough. Message received.

I love Adam for bringing these questions to the surface, not just in the skating world, but in the public eye in general. He’s able to do this as an accomplished athlete who is also a very conventionally attractive white man, and I’m happy that this is how he’s using his privilege right now.

This has turned out to be an unexpectedly long post for something that was just going to be a quick share. Honestly, I could talk on this subject all day, and if we add on eviscerating the gender binary, it could go on for weeks. I’ll stop for now. HMU for more, anytime.