Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 16: Nisi Shawl

Dropping My Jaw, Warming My Heart
by Nisi Shawl

Most of what I’ve read in 2011 I can’t talk about. Or else I’ve talked about it already. I still review books for The Seattle Times, and occasionally for Ms. Magazine, too. A quick search will bring to light my takes of China Miéville’s Embassytown, Joan Aiken’s collection The Monkey’s Wedding, and other worthwhile engrossments (my favorite of the Times books was Mat Johnson’s Pym, and I explain why here).

This year I also serve as a Tiptree judge. Top, top secret what I think of the nominees. Not saying a word. Yet.

Editing gigs have given me some interesting reading material, too, and about that stuff I can and will share my opinions.

I’ve seen some stellar reviews of books in my capacity as reviews editor for The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Aqueduct Press’s new literary quarterly. Victoria E. Garcia wrote two of the best: one on 80!, the Ursula K. Le Guin festschrift, in which she didn’t even mention my essay, and still so enjoyably analyzed the book’s effect that I just didn’t freakin care; the other an artless idolization of Geoff Ryman’s collection Paradise Tales. I also derived deep delight from Ursula K. Le Guin’s retrospective on Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. Another excellent CSZ piece I read even though I didn’t have to, was Steven Shaviro’s “Hyperbolic Futures;” it makes certain scary capitalist abstractions palpable, funny, and potentially deflatable--what you understand, you can consciously engage with.

MJ Hardman’s essay “The Russ Categories,” which I had the privilege of including in the volume of the WisCon Chronicles I edited, is by far my favorite text of the entire year. Audacious, clear, challenging, rewarding: it was truly Nisibait of the highest order. Drop my jaw and you win my heart, and MJ did this for practically her entire 9000 words.

Musically speaking, my 21-year-old niece Brittany Johnson has led to some of my most pleasurable recent listening discoveries. 2011 saw my whole family getting in on the act when I spent three weeks in my Midwestern hometown, driving kids to school and the Y. The van’s sound system recycled two CDs by a band combining intricate hiphop lyrical play with Beatlesesque harmony and production values: N.E.R.D. “Happy,” my top choice for best N.E.R.D. groove, has no official video, so check out the conflation of romantic love with stock speculation in ”Sooner or Later”.

By far the most engaging viewing experience for me in 2011 has been watching the hundreds of responses to and parodies of Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s “Strong” campaign ad. The original 31-second TV commercial has nearly 700,000 dislikes as of this writing, in the mere two weeks since it was first posted on YouTube.

The first wave of responses to “Strong” consisted primarily of people recording themselves as they watched the ad, their faces showing a mixture of confusion, disbelief, and disgust. Later responses became more polished and often featured costumes, props, and settings along with scripts. But that’s simplifying things a bit: search on “Rick Perry Strong,” perhaps adding filters for “commercial,” “response,” “spoof,” and “parody,” and you’ll find reactions ranging from incoherent to obscene to calculated to sincere--along more than two axes--and produced by queers, atheists, straights, soldiers, teachers, high schoolers, and comedians. Here are some of my favorites:

Two Christian sisters quoting a well-known hymn in rebuttal to Perry’s homophobia
Perry’s spot intermixed with a trailer from the movie Brokeback Mountain
Lesbian activist whose incredibly expressive face pretty much says it all
Raunchy and highly articulate speech by a self-proclaimed “butt pirate”
Presumably deaf lesbian signs her disapproval of Rick Perry’s message
Lovers in Santa hats provide silent commentary on the original commercial
The elegantly simple response of replacing Perry’s head with an ass and his speech with farts

There were also quite a few recordings of people playing first-person shooters while describing how utterly stupid they found “Strong.” One fellow who referred to his enemies in the game as “faggots” and women as “bitches” was still offended by the ad. He admitted to being “10% homophobic,” but declared that Perry had gone overboard. “If I’m getting shot at and you’re carrying me to safety, I’m not going to make you put me down because of your sexual orientation,” he scoffed.

I can’t find the URL for the absolute best of these responses, which consisted merely of three young men standing around together and mocking Perry on their lunch break, showing how casual contempt for him has become.

Perry didn’t have much chance of being nominated by the GOP, much less elected President. Now he has none, because he actually alienated many of the voters he was trying to win with this particularly vicious ploy. Over and over, negative responses to “Strong” remarked that he was attacking our troops. In the minds of hundreds of thousands of voters, the fact that men and women were voluntarily laying their lives on the line in an effort to protect US freedoms easily trumped any discomfort about their bedroom practices. Soldiers are more highly valued than politicians. Even, or maybe especially, among conservatives.

This is why I spent hour after hour watching these things; this is what I found so heartening about them: that such a self-serving manipulator could be so wrong about what and who people are ready to believe.

Also, they made me laugh.

Nisi Shawl is the author of Filter House, which won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, Something More and More, her WisCon GoH collection, and, with Cynthia Ward, the co-author of the celebrated Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, and the editor of The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 5: Writing and Racial Identity, all of which are published by Aqueduct Press. She reviews science fiction for the Seattle Times, is a member of the Clarion West board, teaches writing workshops at Centrum in Port Townsend, WA., and is the reviews editor of The Cascadia Subduction Zone. She was also last year's Guest of Honor at WisCon.

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