Trump l’oeil–What Happens When Dystopia Arrives Too Soon.

In my headline, I’ve borrowed the French idiom, trompe l’oeil–“something that misleads or tricks the senses”–to make a point about what we’re experiencing in America today. We love this notion of being “tricked” in painting and fiction, and maybe art’s greatest contribution is to fool our senses long enough to get us to believe something that can’t possibly be real. But what happens when reversals to our core principles such as equal rights, healthcare, and immigration happen so quickly that the righteous anger we feel when our freedom is threatened just isn’t enough?

We’re in a state of shock. The center cannot hold. Those values we thought were rock-solid are being destroyed and that makes us feel as if our reality has become, well, unreal. When are reality becomes unreal we turn to fiction, specifically dystopian fiction, because fiction is what we need to confront all those issues that are too difficult to take “in real life.” Sales of the classic dystopian novels–1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, are on the rise.

Dystopian fiction is deeply, cathartically, satisfying. Don’t we all love to read about a world in distress? A world that’s really a wake-up call for all those things we need to avoid. It’s all fun and Hunger Games so long when we close the book we can return to our safe, not-too-troubled world.

What if we woke up and found the most unreal dystopia we could possibly imagine right at our door? (Remember dystopia is only dystopia so long as it stays in the future.)

What we’re feeling now isn’t just righteous anger, it’s fear.

Whenever I turn on the TV, it feels as if I’m watching a reality show that can’t be real. That would be a great compliment to a fiction writer who strives for verisimilitude. But it’s real. At least that’s what we have to keep reminding ourselves.

The YA novel I wrote, Cease & Desist, was supposed to be dystopian, but most of its far-fetched notions will be commonplace by the time you read it. Soon you’ll be able to watch young people have sex and harm each other on digital, interactive, WebTV. You’ll be able to vote on who’ll be the winner, the same way the mob chose the winner in the Roman Coliseum.

Do you think I’m making that up? Think again. The future is coming at us way too fast, and we’ve got to stop it before more people get hurt.

Selena Gomez: A Hollywood Role Model.

For those of you who read my blog and books, you know I teach and try to find role models for my young students. Some of the ones I select lived hundreds of years ago. Some are alive, and giving parents, teachers, and young people better choices than the dismal pantheon of famous teenagers in Hollywood who rely on sex tapes and high speed chases to gain notoriety.

Classes started this week, so I have a lot to hear from my students about who they admire and why. I write the words that are traditionally associated with leaders and role models on the board. “Integrity” “Vision” “Kindness”…but there are other more subtle attributes that we miss, and I think they can be found by looking at two actresses who are making some breakout choices with the roles they take, and some of the off-screen decisions they make about what’s really important in life.

Great leaders and role models share one trait that most of us miss when looking for the next person to follow: Vulnerability. This is an unlikely superpower to most larger than life characters. To make yourself vulnerable is put yourself in a place of risk, to appear weak, to make a choice that tells the world you know the difference between fame and personal achievement, between adulation and respect.

Selena Gomez decided to take three months off to assess her mental health and her career. It was a shocking move to the Hollywood establishment and her fans. Why didn’t she just check into rehab after a wildly publicized and largely manufactured “breakdown.” Instead, she sat down with strangers in therapy and made choices most adults couldn’t fathom. She came back a new different person. What we saw once as a squeaky clean girl with talent and mouse ears has blossomed into a young woman who is ready for a new role. In short, Selena became a real life wonder woman. She made risky choices the way Gal Gadot did in her breakout performance of Wonder Woman.  By showing us her weaker side, she gave us a glimpse into a real superpower we all have the power to possess.

So, Selena is up on my board in the classroom as this month’s young woman to watch. One parent of course took issue with my choice and asked how I could be so admiring of a girl who sings the ultra sultry songs “Fetish”, and “Bad Liar”. How could I endorse an actress who wears a string bikini and sucks off a gun barrel in Spring Breakers. And my answer was because Selena, like any girl who needs to find womanhood on her own terms, is growing and exploring the complex difference between passion and true love in ways that give us the kind of conflicted character who is tired of playing a little girl. The world doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to shoving teenage sex in our faces, why should Selena? Can’t you hear her pain between the lines of those so-called “inappropriate” songs? Can’t you see why she’s supporting 13 Reasons Why as a way to stare down teen suicide? We parents and teachers still have a lot to learn on what it takes to survive as a young person today.

Thank God, Selena is showing the way.

 

“Whitelash” on the day MLK Jr. was killed

MLK jr.

Of all the new words that entered the lexicon last year, “whitelash” was the hardest one for me to share with my students. I felt relief when a local media source in San Francisco chose “Xenophobia” as the word of the year, because that word’s easy to accept. Phobia is a powerful suffix we review in my class because it gives us a lot of leverage to help decipher hundreds of words–it stands for fear, and hatred.

It’s opposite is philia.

“Xeno” stands for foreigners, and it’s easy to admit that many people have a fear of foreigners. We’ve been this way for a long time. (Did you know “Xeno” actually  comes from the name of a Greek general. A guy who lived a long time ago, and you guessed it, didn’t like foreigners.)

Whitelash, however is much worse. According to one news source it means,  “backlash by white racists against black civil rights advances.” It doesn’t hide from it’s racist intent the way a word like “xenophobia” and “superpredator” does. We blame the politics of Donald Trump for this word, but anyone who studies fiction and language can tell you that the fear and resentment of black civil rights advances has been hardwired into our language; into the stories we write, the words we create.

The secret life of racism can be found in words.Words are created to help explain, but the truth is they’re just empty boxcars used to hide our darkest fears. As Toni Morrison eloquently elaborates in her Nobel Prize speech. “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence…it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”

If you’ve been following this blog you know that I think young people have it a lot tougher than most people think. They’re confused; no–they’re downright stupefied–because we give them dangerously conflicting messages on what it takes to be a man or a woman in our world. They come to teachers and need help. We show them facts, have them recite history, and then with all those stupefying words explain the past cannot repeat itself, because we know who all the bad people are.

Instead, we should quote Toni who gave this dire prediction ten years ago:

“There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.”

Pretty heady stuff, but let me boil it down for my students and their parents: Donald Trump may be a racist. Donald Trump may be the antichrist. But Donald Trump isn’t responsible for whitelash. We are. And if you really want to find a way out of the hell we may have to endure; only fiction can save us. because fiction sees all the fears that we’re too ashamed to admit, and Toni Morrison, is a much better prognosticator than those clueless Washington pundits, because only Toni can see that language is little more than a racist straightjacket we hide a lot of our fear in.

Today as we celebrate the life of a great man, some of us will point fingers and wring hands at who is responsible for all these new words that just stand for a timeless hate we should’ve seen coming. Evil politicians didn’t create whitelash. We did. And maybe the only way to see the real truth is to read the fiction of a great writer like Ms. Morrison.

toni

 

 

 

 

Why 13 RW is an important show.

As many of you who read my blog already know I use fiction to help teens discuss topics that are too tough to talk about “in real life.” Teen Suicide is one of the most important topics for young people to share on. Today, I’d like to respond directly the recent criticism about the show 13 RW from mental health “experts.”