Fat Revolution

I’ve struggled for most of my life with my weight – for awhile with trying to lose weight, with thinking that I had to lose weight, and eventually with learning to love my body as it is, however it is. This journey hasn’t been helped by all of the hate and abuse that I – and most fat people – get thrown my way. I get nasty messages. People retweet my selfies to mock my weight. It’s nearly impossible to find awesome fat YA characters, and people question whether it’s appropriate to include fat characters in books for kids.

This is one of my many attempts to fight back.I’ve had this piece kicking around for months, waiting and waiting to be read. I finally got that chance at the Ball State Writers’ Community’s first reading, and a friend was kind enough to record it.

I’m indecently proud of this reading, so if you like it, please share it.

Content warning for extensive talk about fat oppression/stigma/abuse, and for mentions of rape and rape culture.

Write Fat Kids

To the person who found my blog by searching “should you use the word fat when writing children’s books”:

Yes.

Use the word “fat”. Use it as a descriptor. Use it positively. Say that a kid in the book is fat, along with everything else they are.

ezimba12671253529100I grew up reading books with skinny, heroic kids, and fat, selfish, bratty bullies, fat villains, and fat, lazy kids clearly there to teach a lesson. These were books I loved – books I still love – but you don’t spend your entire life being told you’re the worthless sidekick or greedy villain without it taking its toll.

Write awesome fat characters. Tell fat kids that they’re awesome. Please, please, write books for fat kids, and help them grow up hating themselves a little less.

Write fat kids that are loyal and smart and funny and driven and kind. Write fat kids that love to read and that love to play sports. Write fat kids who go on adventures with their friends and save the day.

Write fat kids that are flawed and confused, not because they’re fat, but because being a kid is hard. Finding yourself is hard, and all kids get lost along the way.

Write fat kids that find their path again and come out the other side stronger, but not skinnier, than before.

Don’t tell fat kids that they’ll only be the sidekick or the villain or a teachable moment. Give them a fat hero to look up to. Teach them to be heroes.

ezimba12671265517700And yes, please, use the word “fat”. Don’t hide their weight. Don’t use euphemisms. Don’t teach shame. Teach them to love themselves, whatever their bodies look like. Teach them to love other people, whatever their bodies look like.

Don’t tell them they’re beautiful just on the inside, but on the outside, too.

Please. Write fat kids.

Sincerely,

A Fat Kid

Happy Birthday, Harry Potter. You Have Problems, and I Still Love You

I’ve spent the last several years working hard to learn about social justice and how to use that knowledge to think critically about media. On some levels, it really sucks, because it means I can’t just simply enjoy something. Even if I don’t see the feminist, racial, queerphobic, or other issues with something on my own, it gets pointed out to me eventually, and it sucks to have to battle with something you enjoy being problematic. But I also think it’s an important part of learning to be a better person and a better writer, because seeing what other writers and creators get wrong helps me figure out how to get it right.

One of the hardest parts of this, though, has been turning that critical framework on the things I love most (like Firefly’s incredible lack of Chinese people).

But the worst to confront is Harry Potter.

I started reading Harry Potter when I was nine. I fell in love instantly. Like many kids in my generation, I went to midnight book releases. I went to midnight movie showings. I dressed up. I read more fanfiction than I can quantify. I lived and breathed Harry Potter all the way through the release of the last movie.

Except – the past tense isn’t honest. It’s still true. I have four sets of the series. When my friends travel overseas and ask what they should bring me, I ask for the first Harry Potter book from that country. I will debate for hours about the attributes of Hogwarts Houses, why Gryffindors are far bigger bullies than Slytherins, and why Hufflepuffs are obviously the best.

When I’m sad, I open Sorcerer’s Stone, read that first line (“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”) and feel instantly safe. When I think of J.K. Rowling saying “Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home”, I cry.

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I’m not crying YOU’RE crying

The only difference is that I’m almost 24 and now people are starting to look at me like I maybe shouldn’t parade this love around, and when I start debates about Harry Potter headcanons, inevitably the conversation turns towards the series’ more problematic aspects. And as much as I’d like to just close my eyes and pretend that these books I love so much are perfect, they aren’t – and I’m not just talking about Albus Severus Potter.

I think there are arguments to be made about why Dumbledore’s sexuality never would have shown up in the books, but he doesn’t count as representation just because JKR said so after the fact and because there’s a lot of subtext in the stories about him and Grindelwald.

There are people of color throughout the cast, but not in the leading characters, and although I love and fully accept the headcanons that Hermione and Harry are black, that doesn’t count as representation, either.

There are also gaps in the worldbuilding about the non-white, non-European world that the fandom questions and fills in.

I joked about Albus Severus, but that’s actually a pretty big problem, too, because while Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape were remarkable men, I wouldn’t call them the bravest people that Harry ever knew.

Dumbledore left a child in an abusive household and then manipulated that child for years. (I think Dumbledore is a complex character and I generally come down on the side of liking him, but those are still indisputably BAD THINGS.)

Snape may have been a war hero, but he was also a really creepy dude that was obsessed with Lily (obsessed with, not loved) and bullied children to the point that he was literally Neville’s greatest fear. He bullied Harry for daring to be born looking more like his dad than his mom. He was a selfish, creepy douchebag, and although JKR has said he’s not a hero, ultimately the narrative rewards him by having Harry name his kid after him.

Seriously, couldn’t he have named the kid Hagrid or Neville or Remus? Dobby would have been a better name.

There is a way more thorough and generally awesome post about being a fan of problematic things that you should 100000% read if this is something that concerns you at all. But here’s my condensed two cents.

You have to like problematic stuff, because that’s all there is. Every person has problems and weakness and privileges, and no one can create something that is perfectly representative of everything without ever using problematic words or ideas.

Our job as viewers and readers and listeners is to recognize and talk about these problems. We examine it against our own values and priorities, and make the choice about if we can continue to like it. If we decide it’s worth its flaws, we enjoy it anyway.

Our job as writers is to recognize our own flaws and privileges, to know that there’s a big chance we’ll mess up, to know that we won’t be perfect, and try anyway.

I love Harry Potter. It’s still a huge part of me. It’s made me a pacifist, it’s made me kind, and although it struggles with representation, it made me and other kids more open and accepting. Harry taught me the power of love. Ron showed me that it’s okay to make mistakes. Hermione let me know that I didn’t have to sacrifice any part of myself or my values for a guy.

So happy birthday, Harry. You have issues, and I still love you more than I can say.

What I Learned Interning at the Midwest Writers Workshop

This year for the second time, I interned at the Midwest Writers Workshop as an assistant to literary agent Bridget Smith. It was an amazing weekend. I met really cool people, I got to see some great friends that I’d made last year, I met the guy at Midwest that looked like John Green (seriously), and, of course, I bonded with my fellow agent assistants and we all joined Starfleet.

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we regretted this when we realized we were all wearing red shirts

As the workshop drew to a close, there was one question I started getting over and over: “Do you feel like you learned anything?”

I never knew quite how to answer. I certainly felt like I’d learned something, but I didn’t know how to quantify that into a list of facts. I spent two days sitting in as Bridget took pitches and critiqued query letters, and somehow I felt like this should have given me a unique insight into the publishing world and I should have been able to come up with clever answers and guidelines for other writers preparing to pitch. I wanted to be able to show the more experienced, published writers asking me these questions that yes, I had learned quite a bit, and now I was closer to being One of Them.

Except that I didn’t have clever answers or guidelines or proof of my legitimacy. Anytime I was asked, “What did you learn?” I floundered.

But I’ve been thinking about it, because I knew I’d learned something and that I’d keep getting asked and I wanted to be able to have that conversation and blog about it.

So here’s my answer.

I learned the importance of preparation.

One of the questions that Bridget kept asking in the pitches – if they weren’t answered in the pitch itself – was, “Do you have any comp titles?” This question tripped a lot of people up. Some didn’t know what comp titles were (they’re books that your book can be compared to) and many others just said they weren’t very good at comp titles. I’d be the latter. I think it can be hard for writers to come up with comp titles in part because you don’t want to think that your novel can be easily compared to something else. You want to be unique.

Doing something new is great, but having comp titles ready in your pitch or query letter does more than just telling an agent what your book is like. It tells them that you’re reading the other books in your genre. You know what’s out there, you know why yours is different and new. You can say, “Here’s where my book belongs.”

Of course, sometimes you don’t know what to be prepared for, and you totally mess up, and that’s just going to teach you what to be prepared for next time.

This is also the section where I value someone else’s preparation. Last year at Midwest, I discovered that the majority of the chairs in the alumni center are not exactly fat-person-friendly. They’re narrow and painful to sit in. This year, it was my #1 anxiety, especially since I had a brand-new tattoo on my thigh that wouldn’t appreciate the bruising pressure of sitting in too-small chairs for two and a half days.

When I arrived for my first day, fellow intern Jackson Eflin greeted me with, “Oh, and I found a folding chair for you. It’s by the piano.”

tumblr_m29qy29eYO1qj1lh8This simple, thoughtful act of preparation completely changed my conference experience and made me a happier intern.

I learned that it’s worth it to get over my fear. 

Before I started researching the writers that would be at Midwest, I hadn’t heard of Daniel José Older. I found him on Twitter, and followed him, and looked into what kind of stuff he writes. I realized pretty quickly that he was really cool and someone I needed to be listening to and reading (and you should, too). I was thrilled when I got the chance to interview him for the Midwest Writers e-pistle.

I’d actually kind of built that to fangirl proportions by the time Midwest rolled around, and I knew that this was my chance to meet him and talk to him but I was terrified. So terrified, in fact, that I was going to be thrilled if I could just introduce myself to him without sounding like a dumbass. I wasn’t going to get to see any of his sessions because I was too busy being an agent assistant (though I did get to see one and it was amazing) so I figured, okay, an introduction is as much as I’ll get.

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dreams do come true

By the time the workshop and after parties were over, I’d gotten a selfie with him, MFA advice, and pointed him to my much-beloved Alpha workshop.

Meeting Bridget for the first time was also pretty freaking scary. I wasn’t pitching her. I don’t have a completed manuscript. But she’s still a literary agent and she’s still an amazing connection that I could make. What if she didn’t like me? What if she thought I was annoying or had bad taste? What if she found me more annoying than helpful?

Striking up conversations with her was hard, but I did it, and I learned a lot through that. She talked about the frustrations of not being able to place a brilliant book just because it was part of a trend that editors were sick of, about books she really loved, about what she wished she saw more of in books. We had a lot in common and a similar sense of humor, and I, at least, had a great time spending the weekend with her.

I learned not to doubt my contributions in the literary world, however small they may be.

I’m an undergrad college student with one story published in my college’s lit mag. I do this blog, but I don’t really update it enough. I’m working on being someone in the literary world, but right now I barely make a blip.

But those blips still mean something.

When my friends want YA recommendations, they come to me. They trust me to point them towards something good. The agent I assisted at Midwest last year, Victoria Marini, trusted my taste enough that she hired me as a remote reader for the manuscripts she receives. I don’t read loads, but I read what she sends me, and I give her my opinions, and sometimes those opinions make a difference.

This weekend at Midwest, I had writers telling me how much I helped them when I didn’t even realize I was helping. They told me that I provided a positive and supportive atmosphere going into their pitches. Pitching an agent can be seriously scary, and I helped some of those writers feel a little more at ease.

Maybe in the big scheme of things, that’s not a lot. I didn’t get anyone signed. I didn’t get signed myself. I don’t have a book out. But I’m still immensely proud of the small things I’ve done and I need to stop underestimating myself.

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This was my second year at Midwest Writers. Last year, it convinced me that the literary community is where I belong. This year, it convinced me that not only is this where I belong, but I can make a difference here, if I can work past the anxiety and self-doubt and the fear.

Here’s hoping they let me do it again next year.

Trigger Warnings in Art and Academia

Last week, on the Facebook group for the literary citizenship class I took with the amazing Cathy Day, a conversation started about trigger warnings in writing and in a college setting. It quickly became clear that while many students were familiar with trigger warnings and would appreciate them, professors had, in many cases, never heard of triggers, much less trigger warnings.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to come at this topic, because there’s so much to talk about. Ultimately I’ve decided to come at it the way I do most things – rooted in my personal experience.

A couple of current students in Cathy’s literary citizenship class, Haley Muench and Rianne Hall, have already posted about this topic, and you should go read what they have to say. I will not be responding to what they have said so much as expanding on it. Rianne doesn’t specify, but Haley at least is coming at this from the perspective of someone who has no triggers but is raising her awareness of them (which is awesome), and I would like to come from the perspective of someone who does have triggers.

First off: What is a trigger? First, let me tell you what it isn’t. It is not:

  • Something that causes someone to feel kinda uncomfortable
  • The results of weakness or immaturity
Actually not an exaggeration

Actually not an exaggeration

Triggers cause panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, hyperventilating. They cause full changes in mood and can make someone irritable or anxious for days. And not just kind-of-nervous anxious – the kind of anxiety with physical symptoms. Racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness, nausea. Triggers can even cause vivid flashbacks, like the kind experienced by soldiers with PTSD.

People who are triggered are not weak. They are people who have experienced trauma and who are still in recovery. There is nothing weak or immature about people who have triggers.

Trigger warnings are here to help people prevent being triggered. Trigger warnings do not say, “Don’t write about this topic.” They are saying, “Give people a warning.” Give people a chance to make an informed choice. Give them a chance to consent to handling sensitive material.

I’ve seen people saying that this kind of “coddling” won’t help people with trauma, that they need to face it head on. So, here’s my question: Are you my therapist?

No, really. Are you? What gives you the authority to decide what anyone – much less strangers – needs to overcome their trauma? Where does your magical expertise come from? Are you a therapist who has spent hours and hours in sessions with all of these people? Did you use that information to carefully determine what they needed for a healthy recovery?

I’m gonna bet no. And even if you are a therapist, you’re not everyone’s therapist. You cannot make a broad, sweeping statement about what everyone who has experience trauma needs.

If you’re a trauma victim who doesn’t get triggered or need warnings, great! But there are plenty who do, and you can’t discount them just because you experience trauma differently. Everyone does. It was two years after being raped that I suddenly stopped being able to take the bus or go to class without severe anxiety (both involved confined environments with men that were difficult to escape). For many others, that sort of anxiety/paranoia sets in immediately or not at all.

“But wait!” some people say. “There are too many things that upset people! How can we possibly predict everything?”

Well, you can’t. But is that a reason not to try? I don’t think it is. If you’re not sure what to warn for, here are some good ones to start with: Sexual assault and rape, physical and emotional abuse, suicide and self harm, and graphic violence.

“Shouldn’t we be talking about things that make us uncomfortable?”

Absolutely! We should write and talk about the hard topics (though there are discussions to be had on like seriously do we need anymore graphic rape scenes?). We should be free to write about what we want, and people should be free to choose what they want to read or watch.

“The world comes without trigger warnings, so why should anything else?”

Precisely because the world comes without them. Out in the world, I have men yelling at me from cars telling me to join Weight Watchers. I have people calling me a slut, whore, bitch. I have strange men at bus stations touching my tattoos and harassing me. So what’s wrong with making classrooms safer spaces than the rest of the world?

There seems to be this attitude that people who ask for trigger warnings don’t understand that the world is a hard place. I’m pretty sure that the people who need those warnings actually understand that better than most. I understand that, statistically and in my personal experience, I can’t trust men to listen to me saying “no”. I can’t trust them to let me have control over what happens to my body. So what’s wrong with wanting control over what I read and watch? Of wanting to make informed decisions over whether or not I can handle the content in a class?

I don’t think it’s difficult to add a simple statement or warning to a book about what to expect. You can even just include it in the synopsis on the back. Haley Muench’s post uses the book Towelhead by Alicia Erian as an example. It doesn’t explicitly say “this contains rape” but you can tell from the synopsis that something bad is going to happen. And at a reading, you can just say the story you’re about to read contains suicide or extreme violence – then people can choose to walk away for a little bit.

When it comes to how to accommodate students with triggers, I have far, far fewer answers, so I talked to former and current students to ask about their experiences and opinions. Most students said that they’d never been warned for anything, and several described situations in which they were triggered in class and didn’t feel that they could escape the situation. They didn’t want to draw attention to how uncomfortable they were or to ‘out’ themselves as a victim to the entire class.

One MFA student said: “I don’t personally have triggers, but I am a huge supporter of warnings in an academic environment — to me it’s incredibly basic necessity, given that you’re there to learn, you’re in a situation that has no easy escape, and you can’t learn if you’re trapped in a triggered situation.”

Because that’s what it feels like: Being trapped. “Just leave the class” is easier said than done. It’s better to be pre-warned so that you can either prepare yourself for the material or so that you can talk to your professor about accommodation. Ultimately, the student consensus was that trigger warnings would be greatly appreciated.

Of course, it can easily become very complicated. Where do you draw the line on what to warn about? What happens if a student can’t handle most of the material in the class? How, as a teacher, do you balance giving warnings with giving accommodations? I don’t have a lot of answers, but I don’t think that complexity is a reason not to help people.

Trigger warnings in classes are not about censorship, being weak, or asking to be treated like a precious snowflake. They’re about providing a safe learning environment. What’s wrong with that?