Wednesday, May 21, 2014


My grandfather's house in Jamaica was a tropical paradise. Mango trees, tamarind, ackee, peppers, lime trees abounded. Long trailing woody tomato plants twined around the columns of the verandah and hummingbirds were always sipping nectar from flowers in the front garden. One day, when I was about eight, my half-sister took me to the back of our grandfather's garden underneath the Julie Mangoes and Number Eleven Mango trees and said, "Carole, do you know why I live at Daddy's house and not here with you and Grandpa? It's because you're too-dark and Daddy loves me because I'm light-skinned."

Well, of course I had not known that. And if I had been an astute kid I would've slipped into psycho-analyst mode and asked her why such a thought had occurred to her.

But I wasn't and I didn't. I sucked in that bit of defensive cruelty as easily as the nearby mango trees and a plant we called "The Shamed Old Lady" drank in the water from the watering buckets we carried. I tell all this now not because I dislike my half-sister. I don't. But it must be addressed I think because of its profound effect on me. I grew to hate the darkness of my skin that day. 

To this day, I have no mirrors in my house. I really don't know what I look like or how I've aged. The only photo of me on the internet is the one taken for me for the back of my first novel. In all my novels, the main characters have some big issue with mirrors.

Of course this is not only my issue. I had a dark friend from India -- who was always on the warpath. Apparently, in India she had been told she was too dark. I had a co-worker from India who --when she got pregnant-- drank a gallon of milk everyday because she wanted her daughter to be pale. It was okay, she said, for boys to be dark. But never girls.  I have friends from Asia and India who are finally coming to terms with accepting how "dark" they are compared to others in their culture.  Of course I don't think they're dark at all, but's all about spectrums and cutural beauty ideals.

It's part of female culture around the world...this fear of being too dark, this sorrow at being equated with poor, country, uneducated, or just plain ugly. I know some folks get annoyed when they see Indian commercials, African commercials, Latin American commercials about skin lighteners. We're all's so ingrained...the love of the light.   

I'm not Sammy Sosa. I'm not Michael Jackson. I don't have the money to set about lightening my skin. Nor would I do it. I'm much too sane to go messing around with chemicals. And yet, even at age 54 I still turn away from mirrors. I still avoid my reflection. All this stemming from a comment made by a sister in my grand-father's yard. To this day I don't remember what all we were planting, my half-sister and I on that day. I only remember the one dark seed she planted in my heart and how that seed took root and has flourished even to this day.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Short story: Feigned Ignorance

Feigned Ignorance

It's a weapon, a communal covering, a defense -- yes, even a charm-- but it is primarily a skill.

Stumbling at first upon a secret, one's eyebrows unintentionally arch, eyes squint, and perhaps a smile of recognition come naturally to the lips. Ah, the soul says, I see. I see now.

But this is where discretion, self-preservation, and the preservation of the other comes in. It is not perhaps needful to appear to see. This is the difficult thing to teach children. Because. . .for humans, seeing is communal. We are taught to share our seeing. 

When older, we begin to understand feigned ignorance...but even then, we ache for honesty. Our eyes still betray us, might hint slyly at adult secrets. And for the cruel among us, those eyes might even. . .vaguely. . . threaten, hinting that we "know."

But. . .even this "hinting" misses the mark. As I've said: feigned ignorance requires skill.

I have been told that I am charming. Not a genetic charm, I think. This charm was honed in childhood. Cruel households create secrets and children reared in them grow to understand the magical power of not seeing. Yes, some evil can lead to good and I was well-prepared for this world. But I am talking about you; it is you I'm advising.

You have told me that you were seated after work in the dim of the local coffee shop when your married boss and his suddenly-pregnant unmarried secretary passed by. Holding hands. Your eyes meet theirs. In a flash, in a moment, the secret was unveiled before your careless eyes. 

Nothing can be done, you say, it is now all out in the open.

Ah, my friend, do not under-estimate your skill. All is not yet lost. I repeat: do not underestimate this charm.

If we had been forewarned of this occurrence, I would have told you that however surprised, however offended you might be at this sudden intrusion upon your must hold your gaze. Fall back inward. Shock is easier to control than the world would have us believe, and it really is quite easy to pretend one has recognized nothing. Steady now. . .keep the face calm. Restrain the eyebrow's instinct to arch. Keep your gaze dull, as if your eyes are turned inward...lost in some personal trouble or glorious memory. Pretend spaciness. Above all else, even if your eyes have met, you must not blush, fumble, or turn your eyes away. You must pretend to be less astute than you really are. Seem to be lost in thought. 

I would have told you all that. And if you had -- since childhood-- been skilled at hiding away your true emotions, (or if you had been schooled by me) your boss and his secretary would have believed this.

But all is not lost.

Tomorrow, you must enter your cubicle as you always do. You will do nothing out of the norm. Your boss and his secretary will perhaps hover around you needlessly, spying you out, obviously wondering what thoughts are bouncing about in your mind. The pregnant secretary might even accost you alone in the lunchroom and remind you that you saw her last night. Friend Mine, all this requires skill. At the end of the day, the boss must conclude you are mindless, and the secretary must understand that you saw her but somehow you did not "see." It is not a hard thing to seem unobservant or even stupid in such a situation. For you wish neither to lose your job nor to become your co-workers' confidante and accomplice. It is not a hard thing I'm recommending. You must not straight-out lie. You must not say you did not see them. They would see through such a lie immediately. But you must be utterly ignorant of the hand-holding. Because if they are true to human nature, they would've guiltily unclasped their hands when they saw you. And they will want to believe you did not see. 

Restrain yourself from showing your discomfort. Do not seem to be wanting to "slip quietly away." Do not appear flustered, forgiving, world-savvy. Remember, you did not see anything. You were lost in thought. So there is nothing to be flustered, forgiving, or world-savvy about. And all this is easy enough to do if you feign ignorance well.

Can you do this? Stop worrying and trust me; all will be well. May I tell you a secret? I have feigned this same ignorance when dealing with you. I have, yes. So stop crying. I am not as ignorant or as spacy as I seem.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Remix, Fan-Fiction, Authorship

Right now the big tempest in the fictional world tea-pot swirls around the "art" of fan-fiction. An emerging set of writers who focus on writing stories with already-established characters or established settings and conflicts. These established characters, settings, etc range from Star Trek to Harry Potter to Twilight. On one hand, one can say that the original writer of these stories created such a well-loved, well-made world with such real characters that readers can imagine other/parallel adventures  -- and why shouldn't a reader indulge her own creative skills by writing her own tale based on these characters? Writers such a J K Rowlings have been honored to see fan-fiction based on their stories all over the internet.

But now, fan-fictioners are actually calling themselves "true writers" and many are making money publshing their fan-fiction. One fan-fiction writer who went so far as to write a fan story on real people -- Harry Styles and One Direction-- now has a movie deal. 

I find this problematic.  Not only because some of these folks have remixed the "lives" of real people --and basically created a written record of their relationship fantasy of a real living person-- but because they have leeched off the hardwork and success of other writers. One is allowed to do anything with historical characters if one wishes. Historical fiction is a fun, honorable, and valuable genre. But remixing the lives of living people? No. Tell me, Regular Joe, how creepy would it feel to read a book where someone makes you the object of her sexual stalking juvenile fantasy?

But moving in another direction from One Direction to fan-fiction in general.

Even if the writer of the fan-fic is a good writer (which is rare), even if the fan-fiction writer perfectly imitates/mimics the writing style, wit, and skill of the orginal author, fan fiction just feels lazy and parasitic to me, especially when it's done without the permission of the original creator. At least in the case of "works-for-hire", the original creator or rights owner has entered into a legal contract with the person who is expanding on the original world or using an establshed character.

It seems to me that the original novelists -- J K Rowling, for instance-- spent years suffering in poverty creating their story, their worldbuilding, and their characters. They did all the work.  It takes a lot of hard work, drafting, and re-drafting, to create a world, beloved characters, and an influential book. Why should someone else make money from a writer's hard work? 

Of course, Rowling is famous so it will always be clear to all when her work is being "remixed" and she will always be recognized and given credit whenever a fan fiction is based on her writing. But there are writers who do not get credit. Either because another writer has tweaked the original work  -- changing names, places, etc-- in a kind of imitation. Or because another writer has plain and simply stolen a piece of writing. 

When it comes to "imitation," sometimes it is really the "sincerest form of flattery" but sometimes it is simply plagiarism, intellectual laziness, and greed. I've met writers who think they are being creative or following a trope when they are merely copying another story down to characters, setting, plot. In my work of reviewing, editing, and critiquing, I've seen so many retreads of Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and Harry Potter that if I see one more fellowship, werewolf-beautiful teen human-vampire love triangle, or wizard school I'll scream.

As for plagiarism. . .I have no patience with it. I once judged a writing contest. Imagne my surprise when I found that many of the supposedly original stories sent to me could be found online -- written by other people. I had to shake my head at the lack of ethics.  There is nothing more annoying than seeing one's words under someone else's byline.   And as for me. . .I once found someone had taken one of my stories -- and although they had given me credit-- they had uploaded it for anyone to download.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Longshot

I've always bet the longshot. Even as a kid. I've never liked the favorites, the preferred, the petted, the perfect. I cannot remember a time ever betting on the champion to win anything. If a contender was insulted, mocked, scorned, I would be there to defend, to praise. I have rooted for and stood beside some of the oddest, flakiest, outcomes --in sports games, award shows, political elections, school battles-- and I'm always there to watch the last marathon runner limp across the finish line. And whenever an unrealistic unpredicted joyful win occurred, I was always wild with joy. For days.

After my son was diagnosed as "Developmentally-delayed, multiply-handicapped, mentally-retarded," this penchant for the far-fetched, the also-ran, the unlikely, the dismissed, the overlooked, the rejected, the slow, the dim-prospect, the come-from-behinders only became more entrenched.  It doesn't help matters that my God loves the outcast and the rejected and is a Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief

And when I taught high school, I was the finish-not-fail teacher. It was my job to somehow get the far-fetched, the also-rans, the unlikely, the losers, the "obviously stupid", and the supposedly "doomed for life," the criminally-inclined to not drop out of school. So I was always there, reading to the kid with AIDS, carrying tests to the house of the seventeen year old mom of two, nagging the lesbian prostitute gang to finish their homework, dragging the truants in for that last test that would enable them to graduate.   

Three times a year I play the horses; I always bet the longshot. I often win. I play the longshot because I hate experts and their smug pontifications. I hate society's normative standards. I hate being on the side of power, the lauded, and the applauded. I'm a bitch like that. 

I don't know what it is about horses but they seem like the very essence of the life force to me. They are vitality and strength. I have no doubt that they understand the joy and purpose and passion of racing. Animals know far more than we think they do. Yes, I think they must rejoice to run -- and win-- a race.

On May 3, 2014, the Kentucky Derby, the first of the three horse races I bet on during the year, occurred. I bet the longshot, Commanding Curve. I bet $2.00 across the board. Win, place, show. $6.00 Splurging is apparently my middle name. ;-) I suppose I could've spent a lot more but for me, the aim is not to win but to see the magic of the longshot. 

I'd missed the game as it occurred -- being at a book launch cum cabaret party for a fellow writer. I couldn't very well hide out in her bedroom watching the game while drummers drummed, dancers danced, singers sang the praises of the publication of her book. But the game was on my mind.

The next morning I zipped on over to youtube to see a video replay of the game. My heart fell when I saw that the favorite California Chrome had won. I think I would've preferred any horse other than the favorite winning. I decided to watch the race. My longshot, Commanding Curve, came in second. Now, depending on the video you watch, you may not see this -- the graphic is found on the official Kentucky Derby video-- but the graphic is telling, and for me wholly inspiring. Commanding Curve --a 50-1 longshot-- is horse #17. The graphic appears about mid-way through the video --jumbled little number squares that represent each horse in the race. Commanding Curve, my sweet longshot  -- the representative to me of all the wall-flowers and the smugly-dismissed, the equine challenge to know-it-alls and oddmakers-- was in the back.

He was in the back a long time.

But then, slowly, subtly, imperceptibly, without pomp, without flash, without notice, -- when most had probably given up on him-- he inched ahead. Step by step, subtly, with committment. He came in second.

I rewatched the video three or four times, getting goose-pimples each time. (okay, okay, I cried and became a weepy mess.) This is not something the nature-blessed or vaunted or smug will understand. It is certainly not something the mothers of perfect, healthy children could understand. But those of us who understand being dismissed, those who have sick children who keep trying night and day even in their twentieth year to read chapter books or to say their ABC's -- we understand.

It is true that some longshots stay behind. It is probable many will always be last in the pack. And it is probably quite silly to hope for unrealistic endings, but there is a joy to coming second that some first placers will never know. 

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