Category Archives: books, movies, tv, music

A book, a movie, a show, a song. Was it amazing? Fun? Did I hate it? Am I now thinking deep thoughts about it? Come along for the ride.

My path to getting woke, part two

At the end of Monday’s post on getting woke, I promised to write about Professor Colleen McElroy and what she taught me while I was in the creative writing graduate program at the University of Washington. I regret to say I am skipping over my entire undergraduate education, largely for lack of time.

She was an amazing professor with a vast quantity of fascinating stories, which she always told with a conspiratorial twinkle in her eye. For a small taste of her life and her personality, here is an article by Bethany Reid on HistoryLink and an interview by Elizabeth Hoover in the magazine Sampsonia Way. I enjoyed her classes a lot but was fairly silent in her classes, partly because I was shy then and partly because of the awkwardness that comes from systemic racism. Now if you’re a person of color reading what I’m about to say, you might be surprised, and if you’re white you might think, “Oh yes, I know what you mean,” but anyhow, for the longest time, for many years, or rather several decades, I had the mistaken assumption that the internalized racial prejudice that I held — that everyone holds, to one extent or another — would be revealed to all the world if I spoke up and said the wrong thing. This has stopped me from speaking up about race, many times, when I should have.

Where I was most mistaken was in thinking that my internal racial prejudice was unique to me, or that most other white people would care about it one way or another. But even more so was my naive assumption that because the civil rights movement had happened, segregation theoretically ended, and so forth, that if a person held back from making some racist comment it was because they were ashamed of it, like I was. It’s clear now, from the enormous backlash against “political correctness,” that a whole lot of white people were silent only because of social conventions.

In other words, I cared a lot more about racism than a lot of other white people, but I was less likely to speak up. I’m still in recovery on that one. I find it much easier to write about racism than to speak about it, even with close friends.

Colleen McElroy exposed me to a wide swath of voices I would never have heard otherwise. To name a few: bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Isabel Allende, and Carolyn Forché. These voices framed my understanding of concepts such as the politics of art, race, and immigration; and they also provided a launching off point for learning more and more and more.

One of the books she taught was:

Points of Departure: International Writers on Writing & Politics, David Montenegro, University of Michigan Press, 1991


From the cover blurb:

In these times of political transformation and turmoil around the globe, Points of Departure offers incisive and passionate reflections on literature and politics by ten of the world’s leading writers. David Montenegro’s interviews with these novelists and poets, some living in exile, focus on the relationship of the writer’s work to political violence and oppression and examine the troubling tensions between art and social responsibility.

There’s an ongoing debate about “whether or not art should be political” and I have to say, after reading this book, I look at people who believe you can separate the two and wonder: What world are you living in?

The texts here put me on the path to getting “woke” not exclusively about racism but also about the lived experiences of people who have endured imperialism, colonialism, and so forth. And the understanding that many terrible realities have been too often whitewashed in our history and our news. This is of course still going on.

Below are quotations from two texts that provided a-ha moments for me, one by Isabel Allende and one by Carolyn Forché. I will leave them as is without discussion or interpretation.

From David Montenegro’s interview of Isabel Allende about the day of the military coup in Chile, in which her uncle, Senator Allende, was deposed and killed, here are some snippets.


Well, I was a journalist at that time, and that day I got up very early in the morning, as I usually do. I prepared my children for school, like any day, and went to my office. I didn’t realize there was a coup. . . .

By two o’clock, more or less, I learned that Allende was dead and that many of my friends were in hiding; others were killed; others were in prison. But at that moment it was very difficult to realize exactly what was happening. It was a time of great confusion. And rumors. On television we only had military marches and Walt Disney movies. It was so surrealistic, so strange. . . .

[T]he very day of the coup, soldiers would cut the pants of women in the streets with scissors because they wanted ladies to wear skirts, which was proper. . . .

(pp 110-115)

And here is a bit from Carolyn Forché prose poem “The Colonel,” which details a poet’s interview with a colonel. It begins in mundane domesticity, with the wife bringing coffee and sugar and the daughter filing her nails. Midway through the interview:

The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. . . .

(pp 75-76)

So then.

Opening my eyes to the world in this way was not the most pleasant gift I have ever received, but is certainly one of the most important. Thank you, Professor Colleen McElroy.


image from awritersalchemy.

– Kristin


Neo-fascism trounced in sci fi, 2016

Last year I posted an essay about neo-fascist goings-on in the science fiction community. To make a long story short, a racist, misogynist troll who calls himself “Voice of God” and owns a publishing house in Finland used Gamergate tactics to hijack the ballot for science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Awards.

At the time, I was shocked and alarmed by the blatant neo-fascist rhetoric used by the troll and the normalization that had taken place in the science fiction community. (He had run for president of Science Fiction Writers of America even after using an outrageous racial slur against N.K. Jemisin, and a stunning ten percent of people had voted for him.)

In hindsight, I see that the racist far right has made inroads everywhere. Because about a fourth of the U.S. electorate voted in someone who is looking to be an actual fascist.

But here’s the good news: the science fiction community organized and the science fiction community won. Whatever else happened in 2016 that sucked, a bright spot is that he was roundly defeated. You can read more about that in the IO9 blog article “Hugo Awards Celebrate Women in Sci-Fi, Send Rabid Puppies to Doghouse” by Beth Elderkin.

Science fiction represents the dreams of our community. And dreams are powerful. If science fiction fans can come together to defeat neo-fascism with their own community, then everyday people in the U.S. can defeat white supremacy, actual fascism, and all the rest of that garbage.

We can win.

I’ll finish up by a quote from N.K. Jemisin:

. . . all this anger and discussion reflects a struggle for the soul of the organization, which is in turn reflective of a greater struggle for the soul of the genre, and that overall struggle taking place globally. . . .

Diverse voices are here to stay.


Yes, we can win

Recent events have been a shock, the next four years are going to be a nightmare, and too many of the people I know are discouraged. But we can win. How do I know this? Because of the mass movements that have won, across history and across the globe.

But there are obstacles, including some that are not at all obvious. The two I’ll touch on today are:

  • social anxiety
  • ignorance about our own history

This morning while I was in my children’s school the intercom came on and I heard the story of Rosa Parks changing the world with her one refusal to sit in the back of the bus. It’s meant to be inspirational: look what one person can do!

But the vast majority of people who hear the story think, “I could never do that!” Not even for fear of being arrested. Social anxiety is enough to stop most of us.

Once I stepped far outside my comfort zone and freaked out the entire leadership of a big nonprofit. (It’s a long story but I’ll tell it one of these days.) It took me weeks to recuperate. I could not possibly have done it without social support and collective planning ahead of time. So we need to do scary stuff, but we all need help.

To do that, we need to organize. In person. Face to face. With actual people.

We also need to know our history. Rosa Parks was a great leader, but there are also thousands of unsung heroes who contributed in many different ways. Their stories are buried but not lost.

Here’s the book that tells that story. It has the who, what, where, when, how, and why of a mass movement that won. Go read it. Then tell me something: if you could be any civil rights hero from this book, which one would you be?

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles M. Payne



– Kristin Ann King

Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown

This summer I read the book Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown, and I did a mini-review, but it was in the middle of another blog post, so here it is again:

Wow, wow, and wow! When the Jewish “modern girl” in 1935 New York gets accidentally knocked up, what’s she going to do? Especially since her 42-year-old mother is in the same situation. I feel like I got plopped down right in their little apartment and met all their friends and relatives. Everything about mothering felt genuine to me, too–all the ambivalence, the love, and the hard work. Overall, a remarkable read, fun without being candy, deep and thoughtful–treating some serious issues–without being a downer. I want more.


I went to her reading tonight at Phinney Books, and it was a blast. She pointed out the perk of writing a historical novel: you get to read a lot and it’s considered Respectable Official Work — at least after something gets published. She also talked with great enthusiasm about the period in question. And I learned the difference between Yiddish and Hebrew.

So a confession: I’m a bit biased here. We were in the MFA program twenty years ago. We moved to different states and lost touch, and separately struggled to a) write something good and b) publish it. We also gave birth to our kids at about the same time. Go figure. Anyway, for both of us, persistence does pay off.

It’s a great book. Go read it.

And by the way, if you’re reading this post and you live in Seattle, go get it from Phinney Books. I hear they have some copies.


modern girls cover

– Kristin



On racism, sexism, donuts, and dictionaries

(updated 9/14 to include a little more nuance)

Yesterday I made a trip to the doughnut shop to look up words in old dictionaries.

Guess I’d better explain that. Our local doughnut shop, Top Pot Doughnuts, is decorated with four walls of bookshelves, holding gorgeous old books. Children’s classics, old encyclopedias, dictionaries . . . you name it. It looks like this:

(a picture of the walls of a Top Pot Doughnut shop in Seattle)

The walls of a Top Pot Doughnut shop in Seattle

It’s a lovely place to sit and have a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

But yesterday, I had a question on my mind: how have the definitions of the words sexism and racism changed over time? That question came out of the frequent arguments over whether “reverse sexism” and “reverse racism” exist, which ultimately comes down to the meaning of the words themselves. And of course, people argue about that too.

Who’s the final authority on such things? Listen to what the Merriam Webster editors have to say in an entry on racism:

Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.

It makes sense when you think about it: a dictionary entry is not an authoritative answer but an attempt to define the actual usage of the word. But by whom? Everybody. So if there are multiple usages of a word, arguing over which usage is correct is foolhardy.

Or is it? When we argue over what a word means, do we change its usage? No one person changes it, but maybe our insistence of one definition over another is one little vote, to be added to the world’s constant project of language-making.

Context for the word “sexism”:

Here are two of many possible usages of the word “sexism”:

  1. “Prejudice or discrimination based on sex.”
  2.  “Prejudice or discrimination based on sex–specifically discrimination against women; behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.”

Which definition is the correct one? Neither, of course. Both are in common usage these days.

A better question: which one should we use?

Hence, my interest in the dictionary. Here are some definitions, starting from today’s and going back in time to when sexism existed, but nobody had a word for it.

Merriam-Webster’s online definition, as of 9/12/2016:

  1. prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially :  discrimination against women

  2. behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex

Webster’s, 1988:

Sexism [SEX + (racism)] discrimination against people on the basis of sex; specif. discrimination against and prejudicial stereotyping of women.

Webster’s 7th, 1967:

(entry not present)

Funk & Wagnalls, 1956:

(entry not present)

Well, of course it’s not present in 1967. It had only been coined two years previously, and it hadn’t made it out of feminist mimeographs. It wasn’t dictionary-worthy. Here’s some background from an online etymology dictionary:

sexist (adj.) Look up sexist at Dictionary.com1965, from sex (n.) on model of racist, coined by Pauline M. Leet, director of special programs at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S., in a speech which was circulated in mimeograph among feminists. Popularized by use in print in Caroline Bird’s introduction to “Born Female” (1968).

And the definition in “Born Female” (from a Feminism 101 blog post) is:

There is recognition abroad that we are in many ways a sexist country. Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter. Sexism is intended to rhyme with racism. Both have used to keep the powers that be in power.

The quotation goes on to say that women can also be sexists, but the definitions provided makes it clear that she’s talking about women being sexist against women, not men.

Of course, the usage of a word in the past doesn’t dictate how it should be used in the present. However, in any argument over definitions, it’s worth noting that feminists coined the term for a specific purpose, and are still using it for that same general purpose. It includes some important context. For example:

  • there is widespread prejudice and discrimination specifically against women
  • people stereotype women
  • sexism is a tool for maintaining unbalanced power relations

When all that context is taken away from the term, something important is chipped away from the feminist movement too.

On the other hand, gender stereotyping and discrimination happens to men too. And to boys. This poster sums it up beautifully:


Another thing that might be changing about the term: its use to describe prejudice and discrimination faced by trans people. There’s definitely some argument about this. Within some feminist circles, people feel that trans women can use the word “sexism” but trans men should use “gender prejudice.” I don’t agree.

All in all, it’s an ongoing conversation, which is as it should be.

At the same time, there are anti-feminists who are using the word “sexism” to refer to slights made by feminists against men. That’s being advocated on ultra-conservative websites such as Breitbart as part of a feminist backlash. It sounds reasonable, but in reality, it’s a way of shutting us up when we talk about sexism.

For that reason, I propose that the moral right to define the word “sexism” belongs to feminists. (Of any gender.)

Context for the word “racism”:

The word “racism” came into popular use after the French word “racisme” was used, by people who were fighting the Nazis in the 1930s. Just to be clear, the Nazis were a group of white supremacists intent on killing off people they considered a lesser race.

There were two earlier words, “racialism” and “race hatred,” both of which were apparently less specific and could refer to racial prejudice against whites. But after Hitler’s rise to power, the use of the term “racism” supplanted both.

You can find out a lot about the word “racism” from a dictionary, but there’s another cool tool: Google Ngrams. It shows the relative frequency of words in all the books Google has scanned, so it’s a nifty little tool for watching the way our collective minds have processed words. It can also give you insights you won’t find in most etymologies – it shows when a word first became popular. It’s not exact science; this Wired article talks about its shortcomings. It also has the amazing ability of linking you to typical publications of the time.

Here are the terms “racialism” and “race hatred” up to 1930.

After about 1940, the term “racism” supplanted both, and then it really picked up during the Civil Rights Movement:

I could look at Google ngram for hours. Try it. It’s a bit addictive!

How about dictionary definitions of the word racism? Here’s something to consider: for most of Western publishing history, the people in charge have been white. So I’m taking their definitions with a grain of salt.

Funk and Wagnalls, 1956

Racism – An excessive and irrational belief in or advocacy of the superiority of a given group, people, or nation, on racial grounds alone; race hatred.

Websters 7th, 1967

Racism – 1) A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; 2) Racialism

Racialism – racial prejudice or discrimination

Websters, 1988

Racism – 1) A doctrine or teaching, without scientific support, that claims to find racial differences in character, intelligence, etc. that asserts the superiority of one race over another or others, and that seeks to maintain the supposed purity of a race or the races. 2) Any program or practice of racial discrimination, segregation, etc. based on such beliefs.

In conclusion . . .

It’s fascinating: you can see the hand of history all over these definitions!

The word sexism came specifically from feminists and was apparently once more radical. Once it came into common use, it began more often to refer generally to gender and less often specifically to women.

On the other hand, the word racism probably did not come from the actual targets of racism, but rather from people doing antiracist work (fighting the Nazis). The earlier dictionary definitions were unlikely to have been written by the actual targets of racism. Because, you know, prejudice and discrimination.

When did people of color start having the power not only to define the word racism for themselves, but also to get their definition into common usage? Do people of color have that power?

Another way to put the question: are white people listening when people of color define racism? And if not, why not?

I proposed that feminists have the moral right to define the word sexism. By that same token, I acknowledge the right of people of color, fighting racism, to define the word racism.

Of course, what actually happens to either of these words is under nobody’s control. It’s up to the hand of history to decide.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll go for a donut.

– Kristin




Clara Oswald Series 9 – Moving On

(Part of a series of “feminist takes” on Doctor Who companions. Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 8 and 9.)

When I watch Doctor Who, I live vicariously with both the Doctor and the companions. The Doctor gets to have power and to talk smack to the ruling class. The companions, meanwhile, get to take a break from their regular lives and go on a thrilling extended vacation. That’s my expectation, anyway. And when it’s broken I get seriously pissed off.

I like to see companions take a journey of personal growth and end up somewhere different-and better-than where they started. For me, the bar was set by Nyssa, who departed from the Tardis to hunt for a cure on a plague planet. (I’m deliberately not considering the possibility that the plague kills her.) Few companions have been treated that well, though. They’ve been killed, married off, suffered memory loss, simply been abandoned, or gotten stranded in time. And when I’m living vicariously through the companion, that’s disappointing.

In Series 9, Clara Oswald departs. Does the show do her justice? I’d say yes. She continues on the trajectory established in the Series 8 episode “Flatline,” in which she temporarily takes on the Doctor’s name and token of power to act like him. But as Clara becomes more and more like the Doctor, she’s also punished for it. She’s seen as a danger junkie. And in “Face the Raven,” her actions kill her. Definitively. We watch her die. Many fans are sad. I’m not sad. I don’t get sad when companions have bad endings: I get furious.


But two episodes later, in “Hell Bent,” we see her again. How is this possible? We’re in a time travel show. Clara is snatched out of time, just moments before her death, and in between one heartbeat and the next she has an infinity to explore. (She’s “in-between-finite,” a term I learned from you-tuber Vi Hart in an entertaining discussion of Pi.) She ends up with a Tardis and the ability to defer the moment of her death as long as she likes. In her last scene, she spins off in the Tardis to have adventures. She gets to fulfill her destiny as a wandering adventurer. Sweet.

Even sweeter: fanfiction writers are taking the scenario and running with it. On sites like Archive of our Own, Fanfiction.Net, and A Teaspoon and an Open Mind, people are paring up Clara and her traveling companion Ashildr and writing stories like crazy.

And so the story goes on.



Feminist Take: Clara Oswald Series 8

(Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 8)

In Doctor Who Series 8, companion Clara Oswald came into her own. The actress, Jenna Coleman, simply shone. She was strong, brittle, funny, powerful, beautiful, unique. And she continued to maintain her life outside the Tardis. But the storyline itself betrayed her by pitting her accomplishments on board the Tardis against an otherwise compelling relationship with a richly characterized man. In so doing, it failed both Clara Oswald and Danny Pink.

From the moment we meet Clara Oswald in Series 6, she is something more than human. She’s a human/Dalek hybrid who has resisted Dalek conversion better than anyone ever–so well that she takes over the Daleks’ telepathic world. She is plainly and simply human in the beginning of the first episode of Series 7, but in the middle of the show, she gets a brain upgrade of alien origin that makes her hyperintelligent. She’s off on a hero’s journey, and it’s amazing. Through it all, she never fails to maintain her connection to her “real life,” the life Human Clara had chosen for herself before becoming entangled with the Doctor.

Then the end of Series 7 hits and Clara has another upgrade of alien origin, one that splinters her throughout time and space to live a thousand different lives, playing the hero in each of them. She also literally enters the Doctor’s essence, getting to know him arguably better than any other companion–so much so that in later episodes she starts to become the Doctor.

So what is in store for her in Series 8? A smackdown. She starts a relationship with a man named Danny Pink, a former soldier with his own complicated past and his own heroic journey to undertake. Just as in Series 7, she attempts to keep her home life and Tardis life separate. But two people won’t let her: the Doctor and Danny Pink.

The Doctor, upon regenerating, has become more unstable than usual, and gone farther into an ethical gray zone. Toward Clara, he acts as a toxic combination of jealous boyfriend, protective grandfather, and military commander. He interferes in Clara’s life in “The Caretaker,” where he first meets Danny Pink and first starts to denigrate him by calling him a P.E. teacher when he actually teaches math. (We’re never told whether this is racism–Danny is black–or jealousy or just because Danny was a soldier, but my money’s on racism.)

Danny sees the abusive aspect of this relationship and names the Doctor, accurately, as a military commander. He predicts a moment when the Doctor will push Clara too far, and when that moment does come, he’s ready as a friend with a hug and some solid advice. But he oversteps himself and in so doing enters abusive-boyfriend territory.

Here’s the conversation that takes place after “The Caretaker.”

Danny says “I know men like him. I’ve served under them. They push you and make you stronger until you’re doing things you never thought you could. I saw you tonight. You did exactly what he told you, you weren’t even scared, and you should have been.”

This is a lovely, chill-down-the-back moment. Danny’s right.

Clara shrugs it off: “I trust him. He’s never let me down.”

Danny replies. “Fine. If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me because I know what that’s like. You’ll tell me if that happens, yeah?”

Clara promises to tell him. So far, so good. Stop right here, and it’s a brilliant setup for the drama of the season.

But then Danny says, “If you break that promise, Clara, we’re finished. . . because if you don’t tell me the truth I can’t help you, and I could never stand not being able to help you. We’re clear?”

This is emotional manipulation. Instead of stopping at giving the her emotional support of a friend, an equal, he’s insisting on being her protector. And she never once calls him on it. She spends a fair bit of the season lying to him–going off with the Doctor and telling him she’s not–and I can only assume it’s because Danny has threatened to break off the relationship. This is not acceptable behavior.

Worse, Danny never acknowledges that Clara has been doing anything of import in her adventures aboard the Tardis. And we never see him asking about her past. Apparently, he’s satisfied with the half of Clara that likes to teach and hang out with him. Meanwhile, Clara’s perfectly willing to give Danny the impression she’s something less than she is. That shows a lack of respect for him.

While Clara and Danny are having their strange, dysfunctional relationship, Clara’s heroic journey is charging forward, full-steam ahead. In “Kill the Moon,” she confronts the Doctor to call him on his B.S. A few episodes later, in “Flatline, she literally takes on the role of the Doctor, complete with moniker, sonic screwdriver, and her own companion. She has a moment of epiphany when she asks herself, “What would the Doctor do?” and then corrects herself: “No. What would I do?” She has come fully into herself as a hero.

Then what? Two episodes later, in “Deep Water,” she gets a smackdown. Danny has confronted her about lying and said (finally!) that he’s okay with her traveling in the Tardis, as long as she doesn’t lie to him. So she starts off ready to confess everything. There’s an opportunity for them to finally have it out, for Clara to lay claim to her personal growth and accomplishments . . . but before she can manage it, Danny is suddenly killed (fulfilling the “Black Man Dies First” trope, by the way.). Clara is devastated. She finishes out the season as an emotional wreck. Her heroic journey is cut short.

There’s an age-old question this season appears to be playing out, badly. Can a woman be a good wife/mother/girlfriend and have her own life, too? Apparently not. We should just stay at home and let our men protect us.

This treatment wasn’t fair to Danny, either. It sidelined his own heroic journey, which was actually one of the most moving if you look at it in isolation. As an ex-soldier who left the army after accidentally killing a young boy, he became the one man to defy orders and save the Earth from Cybermen, and then, given the chance to return to life, sent the young boy instead.

I doubt the showrunner, writers, and editors meant to send the message they did. I think Danny’s sudden possessiveness, which destroyed Clara’s storyline for me, was just a slip-up. And that’s embarrassing. The show can and should do better.

Looking forward, in Series 9, it does. Mostly. But that’s a topic for another time.