If you were reading my blog in November, then you know that I coordinated Take Back the Tech!, an international campaign to reclaim ICTs for the prevention of gender-based violence. Our theme was public | private. We encouraged people to see privacy as a fundamental human right, draw their own lines between what is public and what is private, demand privacy, claim public spaces, and connect notions of public and private to gender-based violence.
Fighting mass surveillance was a critical part of Take Back the Tech! How can we expect individuals, employers, and corporations to respect our right to privacy when our own government violates it every day? That’s why I’m participating in The Day We Fight Back, a campaign sponsored by an international coalition of organizations to bring an end to mass surveillance. Join us on February 11 as we fight back against the NSA. Sign up to participate, share the campaign on your social media, blog about privacy, or participate in one of the many events happening in cities around the world.
Privacy is essential for a lot of obvious things, from intimacy to democracy, but it’s also an important part of my creative process. Not everything I write is meant for public consumption. Much of it is trial and error, working through creative and life problems, or a healthy release. Some writers are up for sharing from the get-go, but I’m very private with drafts. I was the same way back in my theatre days. I needed time alone to get comfortable with a scene or song before I’d let anyone see it. I think this is why writing suits me more than being on stage. It’s solitary. I can wander through it as long as I want with no one watching. I like to perform, but I don’t like every moment of working on a performance to be, well, a performance because it’s the process that I enjoy most. It’s the getting there.
That’s what my art is: every moment I’ve put into it from beginning to end, not just what you see when you finally get to look at it. It turns into something else for you, which is fine and as it should be. The process itself lives in my private experience.
I can sit in a packed meeting or buzzing crowd and sneak off into a place inside my mind that no one has ever been, and that kind of privacy is essential to my well-being. It’s where I find peace and it’s where I find ideas. So for me, the right to privacy is as much about the right to explore even when I’m stuck inside as it is about bodily integrity.
The internet has become a key tool for exploration for all of us, hasn’t it? How much do you use the internet for your creative projects? In the past week alone, I used it to find a solution to a knitting problem, inspiration for the bedroom I’m redoing, articles and opinions on a subject for a short story I’m writing, movies that leave me thinking about narrative or character development, recipe ideas for red cabbage, and topics for my blog.
With each click, I left a footprint. Corporations can follow my trail to sell me things; governments can use it to make sure I’m not a terrorist or to do absolutely anything they want. That’s right, anything. You might say, oh, I have nothing to hide. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want anyone inside my head, and following me through my day is pretty damn close to inside my head even if you can never quite get to that place no one else has ever been.
So February 11 is The Day We Fight Back. Let’s make statements, but let’s also think about ways to protect what’s left of our privacy. Take Back the Tech! has several Be Safe strategies for maintaining digital privacy, and we’re working on more. If you have additional ideas, please feel free to leave a comment below. #privacyismyright
The latest on Pussy Riot: Formerly imprisoned members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are coming to New York to talk about political prisoners for an Amnesty International event. Despite Putin’s attempts to silence them, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina remain unwavering in their commitment to social change. Journalist Masha Gessen’s recently published book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot is at the top of my must-read list.
More riot grrrls: Dazed has an excellent A-Z guide to the women who stomped through the 90s, from Allison Wolfe to zines. Love it. (That’s an expression of my love and a demand for yours.)
Art I’m into right now: Lindsay Bottos offers a clever, artistic response to gendered online harassment. ONOMOllywood, an exhibition from photographers Antoine Tempé and Omar Victor Diop, features iconic film shots re-imagined in Dakar and Abidjan. (It’s sort of an ad campaign for a hotel chain.) The photographs Ibi Ibrahim will soon be showing in the Art14 London Art Fair are a sex-positive response to conservative Islam.
From 6 minutes to 24 hours: Tired of being expected to play a terrorist, Iranian-American actor Jemilah King made a short displaying Hollywood’s narrow view and her much broader abilities. If you’ve got more time, the Global Lives Project curates a collection of films that “faithfully capture 24 continuous hours in the life of individuals from around the world.” It’s a work in progress devoted to cultivating empathy, and there’s a two-week unit for educators to use.
Creativity in places you aren’t looking for it but should be: Women’s World Summit Foundation is seeking nominations for the 2014 Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life, emphasizing sustainable development, household food security, and peace.
Lately I’ve been nostalgic for the books I read in my youth. I don’t know why, but I can’t get them out of my mind. Are you ever jealous of someone who is reading one of your beloved novels for the very first time? They’re just stepping into the world of authors like Lorrie Moore or Jamaica Kincaid or characters like Thomas Cromwell or Harry Potter. Oh, to enter the wizarding world anew! If you’ve never had that feeling, my guess is you aren’t a serious reader. You probably didn’t find that book when you were younger, the book that sweeps you away and leaves you losing hours in the comforting hush of libraries, digging through musty used bookstores, piling up books in every nook and cranny of your house, sniffing a brand-new book like it’s a drug.
I think that may be what it’s about. I’m reminiscing about what it was like to discover the world of literature. It really is a world. It’s a whole other world you have no idea is out there until you find yourself in the midst of it. And then your brain’s soft explosion leaves you changed forever. There is always another place you can go to even when you are stuck in bed with a fever or frustrated with the way of the world or really just hating life. You realize that as long as you have these places in your mind, you are safe.
Do you have safe places in your mind? Sometimes when everything is crappy, I open one of my Harry Potter books for an hour or so, and then I feel much better. But often my recollection does just as well. And this translates to real-life experiences. When I’m flying and turbulence hits, I go to the number-one happy place in my head, which took place ten years ago. My family was in southern California for a wedding, and we spent a day at the beach. No one wanted to go into the water but my three-year-old niece and me. So I pulled her onto my back and we threw ourselves against the waves, laughing and laughing with each one, until we wore ourselves out. I think it’s years of serious reading that allow me to conjure up that memory so clearly, perhaps embellish it a bit to fit my present need, and forget (mostly) that the plane might plummet to the sea, leaving me the lone survivor floating on a piece of wreckage in a storm surrounded by sharks. In the middle of the ocean. (My imagination stoking unlikely, if not impossible, fears is, of course, the other side of the reading coin.)
Anyway, I’ve been so nostalgic lately that I actually listened to a Judy Blume audio book on my phone the other day while painting the bedroom. It was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which stood up fairly well, better than I expected. And it made me feel like youth was better than I remembered it to be, like maybe middle school wasn’t such a horror after all. It just felt like that at the time, and now that I’m more than twenty years away from it, there are things I can appreciate about it and, dare I say…miss? Don’t you miss that thrill of discovery, of a whole world you’ve yet to traverse?
I think there’s another element in here: the book series. Sometimes a writer creates a world I don’t want to leave, so a series can be the ultimate delight. I miss them, and they are mostly to be found in genre fiction, of which I read little. Young adult fiction is rife with series, and I remember being so immersed in them that I felt like a character. Going on to read the second or third or twelfth book was very much about seeing what I would do next as Nancy Drew or Claudia Kishi or Ramona Quimby.
I’ve mentioned before that I read a lot of Nancy Drew* as a kid, so the first story I wrote was my own version of Nancy Drew. Then I wrote other stories based on books I’d read or movies I’d seen. It was an obvious way to keep those worlds going, and that very desire may have been what got me started as a writer. At some point, I moved away from that to create my own narratives, but they were still very influenced by what I’d read and seen. For instance, I created a fashion book (at age 10, I believe) full of childish designs with descriptions of how and where they were to be worn. In the lengthy acknowledgements, I thanked my boyfriend, Adam Curry, MTV VJ and host of Headbangers Ball, which I was not allowed to watch.
There were other series I loved and that still stick with me. One was The Baby-sitter’s Club. I wanted it to be my life, and I so adored it that I actually watched the movie when it came out in 1995 even though I was eighteen. I have to confess that I’d watch it now. In fact, I’m tempted to find one of the books at the library and see if it stands the test of time. I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed, however, and the Stoneybrook that still lives in my imagination will be silly and dull.
When I think of all those beloved books I read as a kid, I can smell the old library where I met many of them for the first time. My sister and I spent every other weekend at our dad’s, and he would take us to his library branch, which was in a strip mall, but no less special for its sad location. Rather, it stands out to me as a magical place. Next to the TJ Maxx was a room full of books and every book could be mine for a couple of weeks. There was no way I could get through them all. There were always more good books waiting to be taken home and devoured.
I think of that place, gray and plain as it may have been, and the many books I cherished. I look at kids of that age today, and I think, wait until you read this one or that one; your whole world will change. I realize they will also discover fabulous books that didn’t exist when I was young. And I feel good about life and the future.
*Did you know there are Nancy Drew games?
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the US, so I want to point you to some excellent creative work being done to change power relations in different parts of the world. King was adamant about recognizing how injustices around the world are connected, reminding us that the “destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.”
No matter where you are in the world, decide today to make your work less insular. Find similar groups in other countries, explore art from a different continent, and notice how the same themes resonate. Paying attention to what people are doing on the ground thousands of miles away can change the way you see your community, your work, and the world.
First, reconciliation through music! Drumming is traditionally a male activity in Rwanda, but twenty women, both Hutu and Tutsi, came together to form Ingoma Nshya, a powerful drum ensemble spreading a message of healing. These are women who lived through the Rwandan genocide, and they came to the group with no musical background. Now they play all over the world and have even performed in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo several times.
Next, Mary Sibande is a South African artist working in Johannesburg. Her mixed media installations feature Sophie, Sibande’s alter ego, a domestic worker whose fantasy world reveals the queen inside. In numerous countries, women of color are seen primarily as domestic workers, but Sophie shows us layers and depths that cannot be ignored. Full of life and energy, Sibande’s work demands attention, and Sophie’s shocking blue dress stays with me, as though printed right on the brain. I love them all, but particularly Her Majesty Queen Sophie and I’m a Lady.
Finally, New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas‘s paintings explore female identity and redefine beauty. Her colorful, pulsing work makes me want to dance, and, in fact, she did the cover art for Solange’s EP True. She’s inspired by the kind of women she grew up around, especially her mother, saying, “It’s what I know and what I respect—someone who believes in herself and stands her ground, who doesn’t act according to what society deems as acceptable and expresses herself, her sexuality, her femininity.” Thomas uses the afro to represent that kind of empowered energy and rhinestones to question beauty standards. I love her 2008 album; A Moment’s Pleasure Number 2 and Tamika Sur Une Chaise Longue are standouts.
So whose work are you celebrating today? What other artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, crafters, and the like infuse their work with themes of justice, equality, freedom, peace, and love? How are you growing your beloved community?
A fellow poet and friend once said to me, “For the sake of your writing, I hope you’re as miserable as I am.” This was a few years after college, and, thankfully, I had matured enough not to feel the need to spend late nights holed up in my room, smoking cigarettes and scribbling as though it would save my life. (Though writing did, and still does, contribute to my sanity.)
Indeed, when I was younger, my creative thrust seemed to come from life’s trials, which led me to glamorize the tumultuous and desperately sad lives of writers like Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Jack Kerouac. I accepted the popular image of the writer’s life–a constant zigzag of madness, inspiration, misery, success, loneliness, and celebration. All the bad things were simply the price of creativity.
Then I grew up and realized I didn’t actually like wallowing in despair. I stared down some pretty tough things I hadn’t expected to happen and found that I only wanted to get through them and move on. And in my work and my travels, I saw a kind of poverty and despair far worse than anything I’d ever experienced, which is something I remind myself of from time to time. I’m not living in a war zone. I’m not starving. I’ve got warmth and love and organic tomatoes fresh from the garden (well, not at the moment since it’s winter, but I’ve got holly cut from the trees in the back yard). Things aren’t that bad.
Over time, I learned to write when I was happy and when I was bored and when I was just whatever. I realized I didn’t need to use writing like a drug; it could be a normal part of my life, like buying groceries or taking a shower. And still something really wonderful could come out of it.
Two weeks ago I wrote about my apartment block in Poland, which was a concrete box. What I didn’t tell you is that it was one of the nicer places to live. What I didn’t tell you is that my pay as an ESL teacher, though certainly not much in US dollars, was higher than the average Polish salary. So while I felt a bit trapped in concrete painted in soothing pastels, I didn’t mention that my life was pretty comfortable despite the lack of aesthetic.
And that got me thinking about how much creativity comes out of poverty, how if you look at the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet, you’ll see some pretty inventive ways to get by. But how is the need to be creative different from the luxury to be creative?
I said in that post that I’ve always needed creativity. But that’s more of a mental thing than a physical thing. As I said above and have said in other posts, it has been a part of my survival strategy, but that’s about my mental health, not about trying to put food on the table or keep a roof over my head. I did spend most of my twenties living in relative poverty, however, so I know how “making do” makes you a special kind of artist. I made do for so long that I was well into reasonable comfort before I realized I could just replace the things in my house that I’d rigged to keep working.
So what’s the difference between creative solutions to one’s own poverty and masterpieces created in prosperity?
Much of the art we cherish most has come from times of struggle, but we have to refrain from glamorizing that struggle. I think we need to recognize creativity as a necessary part of life but also think about what fear does to creativity. Sometimes fear sharpens it and sometimes it erases it.
I think we need to emphasize the important role creativity can play in helping people overcome struggle. But we also need to remember that creativity doesn’t require pain. Creativity can come out of poverty, but it can also come out of pleasure. And, more importantly, it can come from somewhere in between.
On any average day. The sky’s a little cloudy, but the weather isn’t too cool. The neighbor’s dog is barking at the recycling truck. I had some work to do today, but I’ve got the rest of the day off. I’ll mop the floors later and do a load of laundry. I’m thinking about lunch, but instead of the kitchen, I head to my desk. I don’t have anything particular to say, but I’ll start writing and see what comes out.
I do this even when I don’t need to figure anything out or make a statement or feel some specific kind of release. I do it because it’s part of my day. It’s a normal part of life.
As we delve into winter and the holiday season, it’s important to remember what poverty means for so many people in the world. I think about people whose lives are full of fear instead of good things and how that affects their inner world as well as their outer world. We all need self-expression even when we are our own audience.
Even when profound art comes out of struggle, we shouldn’t let that justify poverty and pain. I’ve had good things come out of horrible experiences, but I’d still choose to keep the horrible experiences from happening in the first place. Instead, we should imagine what that artist could have achieved with everything they needed, learn the lesson they are sharing, and resolve to make things better for the next generation. Because my average day would be a blessing for many.