May 25, 2011

Scented beads

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:27 pm by changisme

Walking to work this morning, I had an overwhelming deja vu as my nostrils were suddenly saturated with the scent of a perfume. I looked toward the source. It was a woman coming out of a taxi. She was dressed in a bright pink blouse and lawngreen caprice. Her skin was dark and shiny. I wondered if the sheen was from sweat or rain. I wanted to touch her. (Just on the arm!)

The memory of the smell came to me like a page of crumbled diary drifting through the wind. She smelled like some scented beads from my childhood. In fact, any urban or suburban Chinese, born in the 80’s would know these beads. They were sold in small clear plastic packets less than a square inch in size. The beads were smaller than grains of rice, but they were translucent and shiny. Each packet probably contained 50 of these tiny little plastic beads. They came in a slew of colours, white like diamonds, baby pink and blue like candies. We would put them in pencil cases and backpacks because they smelled so sweet.

Thinking about the beads actually surprised me a little. I have always thought of my pre-puberty self as an extreme tomboy, and so do my family and peers. People around me criticized my above-the-ear hairdo and scar covered legs due to too much climbing (and falling). My mother especially was unhappy with my tanned skin and burned cheeks, and told me that I looked like the offspring of an African and a Tibetan (yes, she’s slightly racist). My cartoon and book choices were not entirely girlish but they were too secretive to be frowned upon. Even my relatively late onset of puberty became a somewhat fascinating topic. For a brief 3 or 4 months, some people in my class thought I was a lesbian, as middle schoolers in the 90’s were understandably ignorant. Soon they concluded that I was a UFO, and the nickname stuck till I graduated from that ghetto.

Just think about it, while all that were framing my identity, I was actually quite girly! I had those scented, shiny beads. I think I’m quite proud, now, to say that, hey I’m really pretty normal here, not at all a wacko. I may carry this sweet scented memory with me all my life. Even if I acquire dementia or get a stroke, and all the confusion among my childhood schoolmates regarding my normality would fade, but the scent of the beads would remain.

May 12, 2011

Violence in Fiction

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:02 pm by changisme

Today, Ryan Britt talked about why Science Fiction needs violence. In essence, the argument is that, if we want to capture real life, authors have to write about violence. Even though I agree violence is definitely part of the world, I don’t think this is why writers of novels, screen play or games use them.

Compare memoirs, biographies, works based on real life stories and works of science fiction, fantasy, which one has a higher proportion of violence? Real life violence definitely have good track record. I recently watched Restrepo. It is good, but definitely not the same kinda “good” as, Kirk fighting with bumpy headed aliens. There are writers who experienced violence and express them in various ways, but many have not. Violence is merely a tool to structure conflict.

It’s certainly possible to have good fiction without relying on explicit violence. Connie Willis uses a LARGE number of clever dialogues structure conflicts. Even though there is no fighting, there is certainly abuse. For example, in To Say Nothing of the Dog, the historians suffer incredible physical discomfort from over work. In Passage, the doctors constantly hover over death with a sense of self-inflicted sadism. Asimov didn’t write much about violence in his I, Robot and Foundation. Like his real world, violence is always there, looking at everyone threateningly, but just beyond reach. George Bernard Shaw didn’t use as much violence as Shakespeare, but I think conflicts among characters are just as compelling.

Some critics say that violence is just a cheap way to make story, but I think writing good action scenes is just as difficult as writing good dialogues or crafting psychological or relational conflicts. I think the reason is that we have a desire to have a sympathetic character, and we want hir to be “good”, but it’s impossible to make an interesting character who does nothing bad. We allow them to get involved and participate in violence instead of participating in fraud, apathy, ignorance or even laziness. It’s all because we have a double standard on violence. It’s a lesser sin somehow. In fact, this is only true for certain violence, not rape for example.

Another way of story crafting that gets around this problem is by letting the protagonist receive all sorts of violence. Some of these stories have a kind of appeal similar to sexual S&M. In other instances, even though the main character is not doing violence, either due to helplessness or out of principle, s/he has someone else does it for him. Miles Vorkosigan keeps on getting beat up and there is always elaborate descriptions of his scars, which in my opinion is borderline sadistic. At the same time, he always have strong friends, commonly female, to rescue the non-damsel in distress.

All these above are observations and I have no opinion on whether they should or should not exist, but there is something I do feel is very stupid, namely, censorship on violence in children’s literature. Censorship might be too heavy a term, because there are definitely authors who write about child abuse and are in school libraries. Quality of these works is an entirely separate issue. What immediately come to mind are A Child Called It and V. C. Andrews books. Neither is what I would call great literature but at least put issues on the table plainly. Libraries and schools allow them because they are realistic and therapeutic. Other stories and movies are not recommended because they have guns, they are too¬†fictitious, they glorify violence. In almost all societies, children are those who experience violence most frequently and in its raw form. They are the ones who receive it, AND also the ones who exert it. If violence has an audience it can relate most immediately to, it’s children and youth. Children not only need to understand violence and all aspects of it, but they also have the right to have characters they can identify with.

Some believe that reading too much about gun fights make children desensitized. In my experience, those who can control violence and have empathy are those who understand people and social contract. Stories, fictitious or otherwise are one good avenue to understand these things.