Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On the Prowl for Queer Youth Space

In Seattle, the Capitol Hill area is well-known for its LGBT community. Gay-friendly bars, clubs, bookstores, theaters, music venues, and events scatter the blocks along Pike and Pine. Rainbow flags flutter from many windows of both businesses and homes. But in the welcoming community, a group of individuals feel out of place: young adults.

As a recent article on GoPride.com states, "With so much of the [Seattle] community based in spaces with age limits, alcohol, or costly admission, many events and networking opportunities systematically exclude youths." While more and more youth are coming out at younger ages, fewer and fewer have a central place to celebrate pride in Seattle. Thus the Queer Youth Space project began in 2009.

Unlike the nearby Lambert House - "a safe place for queer youth ages 22 and under", which has provided shelter and resources for struggling LGBT teens since the 1980s - the QYS seeks a place for social community building and events. Kyle Rapinian, who was eighteen when he began the project, set the ball rolling.

After a three-hour forum in 2010, where fifteen youth met to discuss the space problem and related issues, Rapinian set up weekly meetings to put together the QYS goals, set a plan, and begin the resource search. From there, the "Three Wings" idea became official. Three Wings (TW) refers to the name of the coveted new free center for young adults, and was named for the three main goals of the space itself:

1) Cultural Activism Lab: a venue for different kinds of food, art, and culture, and rooms for performances, classes, and community events.

2) Wellness Collaborative: a set of resources (like counselors, peer advisors, academic assistance, and health/legal guidance) to address problems for LGBT youth.

3) Research & Education Institution: a collection of leaders who promote and advocate necessary change in the community.

Mainly, however, the QYS group wants to fight boundaries and open doors. As their website states: "Physical space allows us to challenge entrenched heterosexism in more powerful ways. What the space's form promises to be is something very special and very queer: a space that (by definition) cannot be measured, traced, or pinned down."

In June 2010 (after a 60+ page proposal), QYS was awarded a Large Project Fund grant and the hunt for space began. Since then, the group has tried to obtain at least eight different facilities, but have been met with bad luck, unyielding landlords, buildings lacking wheelchair accessibility, and other frustrating issues.

But Rapinian and company haven't given up. The search continues and the plan hasn't changed. Once a space is secured, the group believes it will only be a matter of months before Three Wings is open, free, and available to "provide queer youth with opportunities to build communities."

To donate to the Queer Youth Space project, click here.

Photo credit: www.capitolhillseattle.com

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Review: Harvard Lampoon's "The Hunger Pains"

For readers sporting "Team Peeta" t-shirts, The Harvard Lampoon's The Hunger Pains might produce a few more laughs, but even those without extensive knowledge of Suzanne Collins' now infamous Hunger Games trilogy can enjoy the outright ridiculous humor in the February 2012 novel.

Because the book is written in jest and parody, commenting on the novel's literary merit would be equally hilarious. But the creativity of the characters, plot, and setting more than make up for any boring sentence structure. The book follows Kantkiss Neverclean, a klumsy, scatterbrained, foolish teenager, who was involuntarily volunteered to compete in the yearly Hunger Games (a competition that began as a hotdog eating contest). She and Pita Malarkey (an obese and whiny Pillsbury Doughboy) are shipped to Disneyland and forced into the games. Effu Poorpeople (an upscale version of Effy Trinket) and Buttitch Totalapathy (a gambling-crazed Haymitch Abernathy) accompany the tributes on their journey.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Hunger Pains is the total tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Take President Mark Bernette, for example (yes, as in the incorrectly spelled name of the British producer of Celebrity Apprentice and Survivor). After the President assures the tributes that they can leave at any time, an officer rushes to whisper into Bernette's ear. The President then turns to the crowd, clears his throat, and laughs. "Sorry, sorry, I was thinking of something else. You can only leave if you die."

Alright. Let's be honest. Some parts of the book are overdone and cease being funny after the 300th reference. The most looming example? The way Kantkiss can't decide between Pita and Carol (a.k.a. Gale). Yes, the allusion is very funny, particularly because of the ongoing subtle love triangle in the real Hunger Games trilogy. But twice a page for an entire novel? Not funny anymore. The novel's shining aspects lie in actually subtleties, the various settings, the secondary plots, the character names that are off by just one letter (the Peacemakers from Games are the Pacemakers in Pains. C'mon, that's hysterical). In that way, the book is worth the read.

This isn't the first full-length novel Harvard Lampoon has published. While the company is most known for its long-running humor magazine, HL has also released such roll-your-eye classics as Nightlight (based on Stephanie Meyer's Twilight trilogy) and Bored of the Rings (based, of course, on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). Harvard Lampoon has not announced any upcoming book releases, but will continue to publish five issues of the HL magazine annually. Past HL writers include comedians/writers Conan O'Brien and Andy Borowitz.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book Review: Peggy Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter"

When Peggy Orenstein began her writing career, she wanted to help mothers prepare their daughters for an overly feminine culture. For years, she visited high schools, grade schools, and Girl Scout meetings to spread the word on avoiding gender stereotypes. But then Orenstein had a daughter of her own. In her latest, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Orenstein inspects feminine culture from a mother’s perspective, and speaks to the challenges of pursuing strong, independent images for girls across America, particularly for her own daughter, Daisy.

In Cinderella, the author looks at Disney Princesses, American Girls, and Barbies, all of which were originally rebellious counter-culture icons compared to the typical feminine images of their day but, over time, have only succumbed to the same old media-induced gender stereotypes. While Barbie first exemplified a strong, independent woman – a fierce and sassy flight attendant, nurse, and police officer – she now faces the problem many women continue to endure: “struggling to fulfill all the new expectations [society has] for them without letting go of the old ones.” In this way, Orenstein’s writing has a great sense of balance. She points out the red flags in girl’s activities and role models, but plays Devil’s Advocate as needed. Without being accusatory, the author presents the simple facts of why most so-called positive media heroines (like the tomboy Dora the Explorer) have ultimately given a negative or confusing message to girls (like when Dora became a princess anyway and started saying things like, “Vamanos! Let’s go to fairy land!”).

One of the most powerful aspects of Cinderella is the way Orenstein draws connections between genres, products, role models, and ideas. The author compares the way young girls play dress-up (in frilly dresses and boas) to emulate Snow White to the way young adolescents dress up (in mini skirts and fedoras) to emulate Miley Cyrus. And the main difference between the Little Mermaid and Rapunzel, according to Orenstein? The former literally gives up her voice for a man while the latter attracts a man with only her voice. MIND BLOWN.

Not to mention the statistics the author pulls to emphasize her horror – there are currently 26,000 Disney Princess items (pencils, t-shirts, dolls) for sale; pre-teen girls now spend over $40 million a month on beauty products; there were 12,000 injections of Botox administered to girls 13 to 19 in the year 2009 alone. Orenstein has built up a powerful argument regarding the detrimental relationship between the media and young women.

But girls, Orenstein discovers, are not the only ones set into rigid gender roles. In many ways, boys are stuck in just as many identity ruts. The author reminds readers that few serious role models exist for boys who want to dance, wear pink, or aspire to be a Disney Prince (or Princess). And, as Orenstein’s four-year-old daughter points out, “Did you know that girls can choose all kinds of things to wear, but boys can only wear pants?” While the author briefly touches on this double-edged sword of gender identity in the media (and, by extension, real life), she succeeds in teasing the reader with information, but doesn’t expand on her findings. Cinderella could surely continue for an additional 50 pages analyzing the effect of girly-girl culture on growing boys.

Overall, though, Orenstein powerfully dissects that tricky fine line of girly culture. Does removing Disney Princesses protect young girls from giving in to gender stereotypes, or teach girls that femininity – dresses, dolls, the color pink – are inherently bad? The author seeks to prove not only to Daisy, but to every toddler, tween, and teen out there that there are no “behavior[s] or toy[s] or profession[s]” that are unattainable for the female sex, nor “mandatory for [the female] sex.” Throughout Cinderella, Orenstein encourages gender-neutral freedom of choice for both girls and boys, be it the love of tutus or football jerseys.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter was published on January 25, 2011 by Harper.

(Look out for an extended version of my review in an upcoming issue of The Stranger)

Photo credit: www.goodreads.com

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How They Met: An Interactive Social Experiment

In 2010, artist and director Ian Bell wanted to bring out the raw truth of day-to-day life in his city. He wanted people to experience Seattle through different eyes. The result: Seattle Confidential: Spill the Beans, Seattle!

To start, Bell set up dropboxes all over the city (physically and electronically) for people to both fill out survey questions and submit performance pieces based on a particular theme. Answers and submissions remain anonymous which, Bell hopes, will encourage more truthful material. "Seattle Confidential is...very personal in nature, like peering through a window into what defines ourselves and our city," Bell said in a recent press release. Before each new event, Bell collects responses and chooses the top writing samples. Then a group of the city's best actors perform the pieces in a staged reading-type setting and Bell presents the survey data, giving the audience an honest look at some fellow Seattle-ites. In this way, Bell refers to Seattle Confidential as "part interactive social experiment, part voyeuristic theatre event."

"How We Met," the newest theme in the quarterly series, was Monday, February 13. The evening featured seven unique stories ranging from an ex-prostitute's encounter with a former client to a man bereaving the loss of a good friend. In between segments, Bell presented the survey answers to questions like "Worst place to pick up a date?" and "Best place to have sex?" In an odd twist, the night's MC also asked audience members to take out their phones for live polling, and the room watched a projected graph of responses. For two hours, audience members read each other's answers, saw a snapshot of seven writers' lives, and wondered who among them just wrote "I'm Batman" on the screen as their favorite pick-up line.

"When you collect anonymous written submissions and surveys from the community, add local actors, plus the live electronic polling of the audience, you have a show that is uniquely and completely by Seattle, about Seattle, and for Seattle," Bell said.

Seattle friends - make sure to check out the Seattle Confidential website in the upcoming months to fill out survey questions or submit a writing piece.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Seattle Spit: Queer Spoken Word

In the second most literate city in America (according to CBS), it isn't difficult to find book signings, author readings, used book sales, and slam poetry. One of the area's most cherished monthly events is Seattle Spit, a queer spoken word open mic.

The free monthly evening of poetry, short stories, and performance pieces is entering it's ninth year. The night usually starts with a featured artist, followed by an open space for anyone to get up on stage. The latest Spit showdown, February 9, featured Broch Bender, an incredible trans-poet, producer (Robin Hood Is So Gay), published author (Hello My Name Is Broch Bender and Truth 1), and all-around badass. Bender read several pieces, including a gut-wrenching narrative about his late grandfather and a sexy true-life tale of a white water rafting experience with a (questionably gay) tour guide named Steve.

"Seattle Spit is designed to foster and encourage grassroots Queer community through spoken word, creativity and conversation," Bender told Seattle Gay News. "Events like this one are important for community-building in a supportive, friendly, Queer environment."

In the past, featured artists have included Ann Tweedy and Betsy Iverson (I'm Home: What It's Like To Love A Woman) and Cedar Adison Smith, who, when performing at Spit in January 2012, read a poem about refusing other people's ideas of gender. "I am not both," he said to Seattle Gay News. "I am not one or the other - I am just other."

Do yourself a favor and check out Seattle Spit on Facebook or in person, the second Thursday of every month at Wildrose, easily one of the best queer bars in town.

Photo credit: www.theseattlelesbian.com

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Book Review: Emily M. Danforth's "The Miseducation of Cameron Post"

The young adult world has seen more than enough vampires, wizards, and post-Apocalyptic America. It has seen the typical coming-of-age stories and predictable coming-out stories. Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is both a coming-of-age and coming-out tale, but not typical, predictable, and there are definitely no vampires (well, except for this one scene, but it’s quick and painless).

In Danforth’s 1990s rural Montana setting, you get what you expect. Some kids being kids – breaking into broken down buildings, getting high in the woods – and some conservatives being conservatives, complete with the Gates of Praise worship center, the old-fashioned school dances, and God's Promise, a LGBT “treatment” facility where “the opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It is Holiness.”

But Miseducation is not about the protagonist, Cameron’s, cliché struggle with being queer, or at least not entirely. The book inspects the raw parts of acceptance, healing, and moving forward. Cameron isn’t just answering the questions “Am I gay?” or “Who am I?” She must deal with her parent’s abrupt and Final Destination 2-like death, followed by a series of frustrating friendships (some of which turn into relationships). She’s an immediately relatable female Holden Caulfield, but Danforth has created a unique character, a girl who walks out on arguments she doesn’t like, who finds great joy in Bubblicious gum, who turns to every VHS tape she can find for life advice, for “something official to show [her] how all of this should feel.” Danforth's book is straight out of a young adult's stream of consciousness. Her descriptions are teenage awkward and totally accurate:

"Grandma stooped over with a yellow rag, sprinkling out the cleanser, that chemical-mint smell puffing around us, her son dead and her daughter-in-law dead and her only grandchild a now-orphaned shoplifter, a girl who kissed girls, and she didn't even know, and now she was cleaning up my vomit, feeling even worse because of me: That's what made me cry."

In a refreshing way, the author avoids the "religion is so ridiculous" plotline, although uses the appropriate humor to get her point across. Yes, it's absolutely bogus to get sent off to cure your gayness, but the protagonist eventually gets to a place where she can relate a crazy Bible-thumper's faith to her own peace from a mountain jog. My only complaint is the momentum in the book's final section. The narrator kisses another girl, discovers her parents are dead, and hits the ground running (in all senses of the word). But the plot slows way down once Cameron arrives at God's Promise. Other than that, the book is absolutely worth it. Miseducation is real and gritty, and a gem in both the YA lit and queer fiction worlds.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post was published on February 7, 2012 by Balzer and Bray. The book is Danforth's first novel.

(Look out for an extended version of my review in an upcoming issue of The Stranger!)

Photo credit: thebooklopedia.blogspot.com

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Building Literacy Through Graphic Novels

For years, teachers and parents have attempted to get teens more interested in books. There may be a simple solution, however, to making reading easier and more accessible to learners: graphic novels. As Paul Gravett, London-based journalist and comic guru, says, "images and text arrive together, work together, and should be read together." By coupling elaborate illustrations with written word, recent talk among educators centers around the positive effects of graphic novels on literacy problems.

Young readers cite any number of reasons for avoiding books - boredom, little action, or lack of concentrated imagination. "Since struggling readers often complain that they can’t see or visualize text," states Caroline Derksen of the Williams Lake Tribune, "the graphic element of these books helps readers connect and comprehend the material in a way not possible with traditional literature."

Graphic novels like Brian Ralph's Daybreak (2011) Vera Brosgal's Anya's Ghost (2011) take readers on journeys through aesthetically beautiful story lines, settings, and events. The plots feature characters of all different backgrounds, races, and socio-economic lives. Readers can both relate to and imagine the scenes in graphic novels. The genre's audience has expanded in recent years, in fact, or rather gone back to basics, after a whirlwind of steps in multiple directions.

When comic strips began appearing in newspapers in the 1890s, they spoke to a largely adult audience because those were the folks reading the paper. During the rise of the first comic books in the 1930s, the genre trickled into a younger audience and the criticism of comics began. Adults insisted the reading material was no good for youth and had no literary merit, according to a 2009 article in the University of Illinois news journal. In the 1950s, the genre swung back to a mainly adult crowd - the cheap comics became boring and the good comics became too expensive for kids to buy. "Comics became incredibly tame," says Carol L. Tilley, a professor of library and information sciences at U of I, "and the more sophisticate comics were direct sales to adults from the comics publishers."

Everything changed with the graphic novel. By taking larger literary plots and combining stories with illustrations (picture book-style), readers of all ages have the opportunity to embrace literature in an entirely different way. Young learners, teenagers, and adults have begun to choose the latest Frank Miller creation over spending an afternoon parked in front of mindless media.

"Graphic novels can serve as an intermediary for a teen [or adult] who would rather be watching television than reading a book," says author and librarian, Michele Gorman.

Graphic novels will continue to bleed into mainstream culture, whether it be through big screen adaptations of V For Vendetta or Constantine (both originally GNs) or the newest copy on the library shelf. Either way, the genre is here to stay and making a positive impact on audiences.

Photo credit: www.classroomitemss.com

Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Review: Leslie DuBois's "The Queen Bee of Bridgeton (Dancing Dream #1)"...And Why Free Ebooks Are A Great Idea

I have to be honest - when I downloaded this free ebook at the Kindle store, I forgot about it; nothing about the title or cover enticed me enough to read it. More than that, it was free, so I didn't expect anything spectacular. After finding the download recently, though, I couldn't put it down.

The Queen Bee of Bridgeton tells the story of Sonya, an African American dancer living in a broken down neighborhood. Sonya's sister, Sasha, is the academic of the two girls. She gets them both enrolled in the city's top college-prep school - Bridgeton Academy. But Sonya can't wait to get out of there. Her dangerous neighborhood and the snooty school are places she has never fit in. Then Sonya realizes something strange is happening at school. Pranks begin to pop up, and not the harmless "Girls Have Cooties sign on your locker" kind of prank. Sonya finds another girl crying and naked in the stairwell - the stranger has been abused, her car has been vandalized, and she transfers to another school the following day. Suddenly, Sonya can't be invisible anymore. And she can't keep quiet.

Structure: 4.5 out of 5 stars

What starts out as a story about a lost teen quickly turns into a gut-wrenching drama with a few honest to goodness gasp-out-loud surprises. The author has written Sonya's life in two parallels - her battle to steer clear of her neighborhood (literally her past and present) and her fight to not succumb to the typical teenage life at her high school. To counteract these struggles, Sonya excels at and embraces her ballet career. On the street or in the hall, she may be a nobody. But on stage, she is everything.

Of course, a gentleman caller gets involved - the misunderstood basketball champ, Will. Then things get topsy-turvy when Sonya's life goes haywire and her enemies become friends and her friends become enemies and she doesn't know who to trust. Great plot, even if just a touch ultra girly at times.

Character: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sonya is a great role model for YA readers. She admits she isn't the best at school and she doesn't know how to make friends. She's awkward, self-conscious, and unsure of her strengths and weaknesses. But by God, she can dance. Sonya throws her unknowns, her hopes and dreams and wishes, onto that stage. It is the one familiarity in a big world. I appreciate the way the author uses dance as a metaphor throughout the novel, and not in an obvious way. DuBois takes care in crafting Sonya's character, and her interactions with Sasha, her mother, Will, and the folks at school. The author provides depth, desire, and remains consistent.

In a similar way, Sasha blows it out of the water. Her personality has been particularly crafted, with just enough foreshadowing to prepare the reader for later chapters.

Will, on the other hand, I had a hard time trusting. He makes a huge character shift and the protagonist accepts him without a grain of salt, but the reader doesn't. I needed more reasons to believe in his intentions.

Voice: 4 out of 5 stars

Not only is Sonya a great role model for ladies, but her voice is pure and true. She doesn't hide anything from the reader. To round out her character, though, I would have liked to see more self-doubt, which would have made her arch more powerful. The elements Sonya despises - her neighborhood and her school - remain negative areas of her life, while dance remains the one saving power. If the author had messed with the protagonist a little, made her really struggle with those positives and negatives, it would make her voice and character more believable.

The Queen Bee of Bridgeton was published in March 2011 by Little Prince Publishing, and is the first of a dance series. DuBois's second installment, The Devil of DiRisio (Dancing Dream #2), was released in September 2011. Like the first book, Devil had a short-term free stint in the Kindle store. As such, the author notes that book sales have worked in her favor after the free runs on Amazon.

Don't make the same mistake I did and write-off those free ebooks just yet. It turns out that publicity - and subsequent sales - often skyrocket for authors who release their novels at $0 charge for a few days. But more about that another time...

Photo credit: yaadict.blogspot.com