Saturday, June 15, 2013

Beyond FACTS: FIREBIRD by Mark Doty

I recently attended a workshop at Lighthouse Writers Workshop here in Denver in which poet Mark Doty offered tips on how to “force a focus on the language.” My notes include the following gems:
-What you know and don’t say energizes your work.
-Allow your reader to experience a pressure or other outcome without knowing the reason.
-Figure out the relation of the self with what’s being observed.
-Try framing a bit of memory inside something else, as part of another whole.
-Create your own version of reality, your own subjectivity.
-Putting your best lines up front can shift a work’s emphasis and ending.
-When reaching for closure, set it aside.

Then I read Mark’s 1999 memoir, Firebird, and was struck most by its closing, which completely surprised me as he’d seemed to purposefully stretch beyond potential endings involving his parents and his difficult relationships with them. Because this story is not about them, really; it’s about the boy who survived despite them.
When I first started reading this book I was simply amazed by the gorgeous prose. Soon bizarre school and playtime scenes and outings revealed that this child was very much on his own, and eventually his struggles as a gay preteen and teen were complicated by the many obstacles his troubled family constantly provided. Glimmers of hope arrived via music and art shared and appreciated, found beauty in simple things such as Petula Clark singing “Downtown” on The Ed Sullivan Show, steps made toward a life eventually immersed in art thanks to a few gifted teachers along the way.
Thankfully Mark Doty opted to become a teacher himself and continues to share insightful lessons with his own students...and readers. In Firebird, he offers this nugget: “‘What we remember,’ wrote the poet who was my first teacher of this art, ‘can be changed. What we forget we are always.’” Which, with the opening scene of his memoir, ties back neatly with his workshop advice to “frame a bit of memory inside something else, as part of another whole.”
I also treasure this passage, in which the poet celebrates a gift given to him by his mother, who introduced him to the possibilities of art, and by subsequent teachers, some encountered directly, some from an admiring distance:
“The gift was a faith in the life of art, or, more precisely, a sense that there was a life which was not mine, but to which I was welcome to join myself. A life which was larger than any single person’s, and thus not one to be claimed, but to apprentice oneself to. In the larger, permanent community of makers, you could be someone by being no one, by disappearing into what you made. In that life your hands were turned, temporarily, to what beauty wanted, what spirit—not your spirit, not exactly—desired: to come into being, to be seen.”

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Beyond FUMING: What's Really Behind Racist Reactions to Multiracial Cheerios Ad?

I was pleasantly surprised to read in a friend’s Facebook post last Friday that a new Cheerios ad featured a biracial family. “Seems odd that this should still catch one’s attention in 2013,” my high school buddy wrote, “which is a pretty clear indicator of how far we still have to go.”

I agreed and moved on, completely oblivious to the fact that the ad was not only noticed by a lot of people, but was bombarded by so many hateful, racist comments on its YouTube page that eventually the comments section had to be shut down.

Journalist Mary C. Curtis opened her Friday Washington Post column “Backlash greets Cheerios ad with interracial family” with this line: “Here we go again, with more proof, if anyone needed it, that the post-racial American society some hoped the election of an African American president signified is far from here.”

The thing is, many Americans who are white and don’t interact with people of color probably do need this reminder that racism exists. When the first edition of my novel One Sister’s Song was published in 2002 and I visited with book clubs in primarily white suburban neighborhoods here in Denver, I was confronted by some who insisted racism was a thing of the past. One woman even went so far as to insist I must have exaggerated issues faced by contemporary people of mixed-race heritage in my book. Yes, this was ten years ago and no, my mixed-race family has never been wakened in the middle of the night to a burning cross on the front lawn, but I’m fairly certain racism does still exist. And this widely discussed episode of very public, very racist comments is only one example.

I’m intrigued, as usual, by the possible deep-down reasons behind the flare-up. What about this seemingly innocuous ad pushed the buttons of those who reacted so negatively? Is it the fact that the father in this family is black? Would the backlash have been as vitriolic if the father was white and the mother black? Is it the fact that some still consider it selfish of mixed-race couples to have children because such children are supposedly condemned to difficult lives? I addressed this once-very-common argument against mixed-race marriages (and evidence that it holds no water) in an October 2005 post “Beyond FACTS: Debunking Multiracial Myths.”

I still believe, as I wrote back then, that “challenges faced by children in mixed-race families ought to be considered opportunities for discussion and awareness rather than dreaded as difficult and unfortunate obstacles,” but years later many also still believe a child in a mixed-race family is going to face unfair disadvantages as he or she grows up.

I say anyone who grows up to spew racist comments—online and elsewhere and for whatever reason—is at a far greater disadvantage.