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A Brief Recomendation

I want to make a brief show recommendation. If you aren’t following Legion on FX, which just started its second season, I would suggest you start. There are a lot of reasons, from its obsessively constructed aesthetic to its engaging acting to its minor details.

But really why I keep watching it’s a show about mental illness that doesn’t make me feel crazy. Reality is malleable, and delusions abound jumping between the characters. Paranoia writhes in the dark corners of these characters lives, and yet they soldier on. Their memoires are suspect but they are not. They fall in love, and get better but they also get worse.

No one is ever cured.

No one is driven off the show or out of rooms because they aren’t cured.

There is a perpetuity to the series’ treatment of mental illness that feels right. It’s not something that goes away.

Of course, there’s something problematic in the portrayal of mental illness coming from super powers. But there’s two things that make me look the other way in this case.

For one, it’s not the super powers themselves that cause the exclusion the characters experience. No, it’s the social markers. It Syd’s dependence on gloves and icy independence that mark her out not her powers, and when she finds people who can see past that then she becomes, not normal, but integrated.

But secondly, and more importantly, they use the language of X-men to express some deeper truth about mental illness. It’s not one thing or another. The mind can become diseased and bear the outcome of rearing and a hard world, but mental illness is “of the genes, of the body”. Like trauma it lives there.

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Hope Deferred

After reading “Hope Deferred” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson I felt both enlightened and enraged. Although I do believe that some of the points being made by the story itself were a little obvious, I realize that I also have to be cognizant of the fact that it was written for an audience much different from me. For someone in the early 20thcentury with little knowledge of the struggle of the African American community I can imagine that this story would be deeply revealing. First off, appreciated the use of Edwards’ relationship with his wife. The fact that this man was unable to catch a break and find a decent job was one thing, but to discover that he was doing it as means of supporting the one he loves made his character even more sympathetic. It was made clear that Edwards was a decent, hardworking man who was willing to whatever it takes, including walking in the hot streets all day, in order to make a living. His wife’s dedication to her husband was also moving. Her willingness to do whatever she could to lighten her husband’s burden made it clear that their partnership stemmed from a place of love.

Although Edwards came to this town as a civil engineer under the impression that he would be able to find work, he is unable to do so. After a year of searching he exhausts all of his options. Dunbar-Nelson makes this characters struggle clear. He has done everything he can but the world around him refuses to give him a chance to succeed. His story is not unique. In fact, it is clearly representative of all African Americans struggling to make a life for themselves in this time. To further this point, that to be black in America during this time is to be disenfranchised, Edwards’ almost doesn’t get a job as a waiter at a restaurant even though he is extremely over qualified. No matter how qualified he is, or will ever be, a white person will always win over him because of the color of their skin. This was the moment when the story began to make me angry.  Even as a person who knew completely well that this was the reality of the time, to read it in print struck me viscerally.

Despite being underappreciated Edwards does his best to do his job as a waiter, in order to maintain a life for him and his wife. He tells his wife that it’s only a temporary job, but the insidious reality is that it probably isn’t. Then, just when the reader is lead to believe that his fate is sealed, Edwards ends up serving the very man that denied him a position in the type of work he was qualified for. In order to cement the point that whites will always see themselves a superior to blacks, Dunbar-Nelson writes the man to say, “I’m glad you found a place to work…which you would be more fitted than engineering”. This was the moment that my anger aligned with the Edwards’, which I think is a testamate to the effective storytelling of the piece. I felt a sense of relief when Edwards decides to attack the man. However this leads to his getting arrested, which is rooted in the reality of what would actually happen (if not worse).

From beginning to end Edwards’ actions are completely justified in my opinion, which gives the story validity. Even if Black people do everything right, their fate is destined for failure. In a final act of defeat, Edwards’ wife visits him in prison and tells him she’ll wait for him, however long it takes for him to go free. Although the characters speak as though there might be hope for them in the future, the truth in that assumption is left purposefully ambiguous. Although I found the story as a whole to be deeply upsetting, I was enthralled all the way through. This story instructed the reader on the truths of the African American experience in a way that was well constructed and effortlessly heartbreaking.

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On Mental Ilness in Art, one example

The Southern Reach Books by Jeff Vandermeer gave me the word terroir. I’m sure I would have eventually stumbled upon it on my own, but they can claim the small honor of having given it to me.

I have been thinking about my personal terroir, the things inherent to me and to my environment that have turned me into this and why they have done so, for a long time with out having a word for it. Except, perhaps, “nature vs. nurture” which isn’t really accurate and far too stark a dichotomy for my tastes. The thing I have become, the person I am, is not separable from either my genetics or my environment; through me they are bound to each other. Terroir to me means talking about the massive web of things that effect me as interdependent and strange rather than clearly distinct. Not that I didn’t do that already, but naming things always makes it easier.

The word also has the implication that my particular god-given grab-bag of disorders and learning disabilities are a desirable and robust vintage rather than a random collection of circumstances and base pairs. An Implication that I am embracing, have been attempting to embrace for a long time, but now have the language for.

I recognized in the novels something familiar. I have severe Attention Deficit Disorder and severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I get obsessed for days or weeks with one thing or another, but I cannot hold onto it. Focus slips away like something with slimy scales. I fill up with words on one thing or another but I don’t have the executive function to do anything about them. In the Southern Reach Trilogy, I found a semblance of my experiences. The obsessive questions with out answers and well springs of ideas without action, without the the ability to act, with out even the ability to to understand what action would entail. The way words and images in the books disappear only to come back again, more precise, more unrecognizable, like Area X is a grindstone.

I have been thinking of my mind like a grindstone for a long time. I pick at things, turn phrases over and over until they erode within me leaving only their dust. I’m filled with it. I’m full of bits of words and granular phrases who have lost all meaning but that which I give them. Just like Area x takes all meaning but its own. It makes communication frustrating, to say the least.

When I first started to recognize those familiar forms of frustration in the Trilogy I thought, extremely briefly, that I would have to put it down because it was too close to home. However, reading about it was practically therapeutic. It was terrifyingly refreshing to read a book in which brains like my brain could exist (and later when queer characters arrived on the stage, where sexualities like my sexuality are evident).

It was terrifying because had foci of our obsessions not been different I would have said that the author had been in my head. It was terrifying because it was a horror that played to my experiences, that took them to extremes. It was terrifying because in Control and in The Director and in Ghostbird and in Saul and even in poor Whitby I could see what I might become if my brain ever decides that the little respectability I have managed to maintain is not worth the effort.

(This is not my decision to make, one day I will simply wake up and find that it has been made for me.)

Ghostbird in particular rang true to me, because for her there is no separation between her self and the transforming agent. There is no separation between her self and the horror she experiences. She cannot draw a line and say this is where I end and my opponent begins. She exists as a person within the continuum of her environment and her fundamental makeup, she exists as a person only within the disaster that is Area X.

Of course, the impulse for self dissection is compelling; I sometimes catch myself thinking that if only I can peel always all those parts of me that have been tainted by brain chemistry and a discrete series of crises, only then I can be real. I think sometimes that I am not a real person at all. I think sometimes that I will only be okay if can shove my hand through my chest, through the clutter of constructs and compulsions that nestle there, and pull out from somewhere deep within me a bloody core of something that is nothing but me.

Of course this is stupid because I cannot shave away the parts of me that have been transformed. I, like Ghostbird, exist as I am now only in the context of my own ongoing disaster.

She is the futile desire for self-definition given a voice. She is the fear of personal unreality given hands and the ability to act. I think we are not so different, she and I. (Though if she is a ghost bird then I am the ghost something else; something full of teeth.)

This is about my mental illness and my trauma because that is the lens though which I understand horror – the feeling or the genre. To me The Southern Reach Trilogy was an incredible work of horror not because I can so easily imagine something growing inside me but because something already is. The thing inside my chest is hard and crystalline not soft and fungal, but a parasitical family resemblance exists between it and The Brightness. Some days it is nothing but a slight obsession with religious paraphernalia and spinal trauma. Some days it is something that I am absolutely sure is just about to burst through my skin, that granite scales and marble fangs are about to grow from me.

I wanted answers at the end of The Trilogy not just because I was curious but also because I thought that maybe it would be like someone was reaching though words to tell me what was wrong with me, why it was wrong with me. I thought that maybe once I could understand what grew inside the characters, I could name what grew inside of me.

But that would have been untrue. Not least because the thing that is wrong with me is most decidedly not an alien ecological disaster. Not least because the author is not me. It would have been untrue because the thing that has transformed me is not something that has a why and it is not something that has internal logic. It is senseless. It does not work within whys or in any way that is going to be comprehensible toanybody. I cannot tell you why spinal trauma haunts me or why reliquaries call to me. They did not choose to do so. My OCD did not choose them. I certainly had no say in the matter. These things are just things that happen. Mental illness is just a thing that is.

I was desperately grateful for the lack of answers in the book and for the way it portrayed a search for those answers as both sympathetic and fruitless. That’s how my search for answers is, and that’s how I want to be seen. I have spent a large portion of my life scraping and scrambling for answers on the edges of the unfathomable, as desperate as a wild animal. I most likely will continue to do so. This is okay. Its is only natural to need resolution. But I will never have answers that are satisfactory. This is okay too. These two realities do not deny each other’s validity. The balance between being sympathetic and pointing out the pointless is a hard one to strike, and one I am more than glad to see here.

The books reminded me that I am still okay if I cannot trace the lines of obsession and compulsion that spiral through me to their origin. It reminded me that it’s okay if I don’t have a clear cut why within me, like so many characters in so many books that feature mental illness do.

Instead of a why, I can have a terroir.

It also reminded me why I wanted to become a horror writer in the first place. The way that horror lets you come at things sideways but also face on. When done well the normal can become horrible and the horrible normal, and almost comforting. Just as it is for me. The way horror lets the general you and the specific me escape from the confines of the dichotomous and shows all the ways people like me, and people, or not-people, like Ghostbird can exist in, around, and through the margins. We can exist there because horror breaks the prohibition on the ugly and the incomprehensible. And neither Ghostbird nor I ever claimed to be easy people.

I started writing seriously because I wanted to write the words that I needed when I was younger, so that maybe some other scared kid can find them. I started writing horror because that was where I could find my self, because that is where I could grow and expand, because that is where I found things about myself being discussed honestly with all their fuzzy edges and horribleness intact.

My life and brain are not perfect, pretty things. I would not wish them on anyone, but that does not mean I want my reality treated with anything other than honesty and sympathy.


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Politics and art

There is a very interesting dichotomy happening for black artist in popular culture. On one side we have Kanye West who supports Donald Trump and believes that slavery was a choice and on the other hand we have artists like Janelle Monae and Childish Gambino who a tacking complex and poignant questions and issues within their artistry, such as police brutality, gun violence and queer identity. I have come to realize that I hold artist of color more accountable than I do white artist and so does society I believe. I think that I have taken for granted that every POC artist in the mainstream is culturally conscious and politically minded. If their art doesnt make a statement it’s not worth the time and effort. And yet white artist are help to a lower standard. Their work doesn’t need to be political in order to be accepted, in fact, if it is political they risk doing the wrong thing and putting their foot in their mouth. I truth I have no idea what its like to navigate this world as someone who is of color and also famous, having all your action and ideas studied with a magnifying glass. I have lost respect in Kanye West as a person but does that mean I should discount his artistry as well? In today’s society we have mention ideas of people being “cancelled” but what does that really mean? If someone has ideas that are wrong or differing from ours do we have an obligation not to support their work as well? I have no strong opinion or argument for either side of the arguement, I’m still trying to figure it out for myself. But I do think if Kanye West was white the narrative would be completely different. But I guess that’s the point.

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Commercial Enterprise

As I enter the entertainment industry I can’t help but wonder what direction my career as an actor will take me. I am and will always be interested in theatre but I have found that a lot of the opportunities I have been offered lately want to steer me away from it. After signing with an agency and sending out a number of self-tapes I have found that I am mostly being put out for film, television and commercials. As an actor does the true “art: of the craft lie solely in theatre. What does it mean to “sell out” when you are a struggling actor just trying to make a name for themselves? As of now I know that I will take whatever I can get, but I am afraid that if I move too far in one direction i might be pulled away from other opportunities that might be more aligned with what I want to do artistically. Only time will tell I guess.

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Big Freedia

Big Freedia is a performer, musician and icon to the lgbtq community. She is a transgender artist who help cultivate a hip-hop style that we now call New Orleans bounce. She has a very distinctive presence and personality. Artist such as Drake and Beyonce have used sound bytes of her voice in their music. Her voice can be heard in some of the most iconic and popular songs of out time, including Beyonce’s Formation, and yet most people still don’t know who she is. This is because, while artist love to capitalize on her bold words and vocal presence, they do not ever feature her in their videos and have her make any appearances in their performances. As a large, black, trans woman she is not part of what popular culture today deems as worthy. Arists have not yet come to recognize her for the artist that she is because she does not fit the most of what a mainstream artist should be. Trans people of color are still struggling to be represented in our society. Even Rupauls Drag Race has made it explicitly clear that trans women do not belong on the show. I think this also play into a larger issue of the appropriation of black, queer culture as a whole. People love to mimmick black queer attitudes, dances, style and catchphrases. All I hear nowadays are people saying “slay, gagged, tea, wig, living!, etc” and yet the very people who say these things have no relationship to the community in which they are drawing from. Queer people fo color are influencing every facet of popular culture today and yet, for the most part, they remain invisible and underrepresented.

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I am currently in a production of Wig Out! by Terell Alvin McCraney. In the play I am playing the role of Nina/Wilson. My character who Identifies as a girl and yet, in when confronted with the interest of pursuing a boy she likes, she takes off her wig and becomes Wilson. Wilson is masculine, and cocky and aggressive, everything that Nina isn’t. Wilson is that name Nina was given at birth because she was born a bay. She hasn’t yet decided if she wasnt to fully transition into becoming a woman and I still am trying to figure out if she identifies as transgender or not. What playing this character has taught me is to accept the fluidity of gender. I am not able to label this character as cis or trans, masculine or feminine, Wilson or  Nina and thats ok. Not everything has to be labeled and fit neatly into the boxed society expects us to fit into. Nina descrbes herself as “non-conforming” which I think is a powerful lesson I can take to heart in my own life.  I too do not know exactly where I fall on the gender spectrum. As of now i identify as a boy and am pretty comfortable with it being that way. However, I also love to play with makeup and girls clothes and want to delve deeper into the art of drag. Just because I do those things doesn’t make me a girl but if I wanted them to that would be ok too. I don;t know yet if I would ever want to consider myself as non-binary but the experiece of playing Wilson/Nina as taught me the true value and importance of such an identity. Gender is fluid, its something to discover and to play with. I realize that now.