My house is haunted by a little girl, a waist-length tangle of brown hair, and wide eyes the colour of an angry ocean. Her mother tells stories about those eyes: lids thrown like blinds from the moment she was born, greedy for light and life, tricking the nurses into adding hours to her age. I feel those eyes upon me a lot these days. No one else knows that she is here, but in those rare twilight moments when I am permitted my own company she follows me with questions: Where am I? she asks me, and: tell me a story, and: remember when? I don't know, I tell her, and: I don't know any, and: not anymore. Then she clenches her fists, her tiny body rocking with disappointment and rage. You lost me, she accuses. Maybe, I say. Bring me home, she pleads. How? I ask, even though I know the steps to this waltz, can see the circles worn into the floorboards and feel them in the soles of my feet. Open your eyes, she says. I am. Where is your wonder? Your awe? I gave them away, I tell her. So find more. I shake my head. Open your eyes. They are open! But all I can see is pain and fear and suffering and emptiness and death. Open them wider. It hurts. They cannot open as wide as yours. Be brave. I am not. Tell me a story. My eyes flicker to the bookshelf and the books I can no longer open. To long-expired daydreams left to curdle and rot. How do I tell the girl who loved nothing more than stories that I am too afraid to navigate them? Be brave, she says, but she has never choked on the words of a page, never drowned in the images of a screen. She has yet to learn that she is not the hero. That sometimes the hero leaves people behind. That you don't know until you turn the page who will be lost and who will be left to mourn them. And so she can't understand why I cannot turn the page. Please, she begs. Please, I echo. My house is haunted by a little girl whose greedy eyes, wide and angry like the ocean, devoured so much she forgot how to close them, and became a woman who could only look away. @amnotpoetry
In a recent post, I talked about how I’ve spent the last year on hiatus coping with anxiety and depression. I did eventually get some much needed help for these challenges, but with the ongoing strains of the pandemic, I wanted to share some of the stuff I’ve been reading, watching, playing, and listening to that have really helped me keep going.
At first it was hard for me to take in any sort of media (depression is very effective of robbing you of all your interests), but these are some of the stories and critical thought pieces that have managed to drag me through and, against all odds, remind me of who I am.
Weird, by the way. I am. And some of these things are too.
So yeah… let’s start with:
At the beginning of the pandemic, I pretty much couldn’t function at all. After my kids went to bed I’d become a puddle of dissociation and panic. The only thing that even remotely worked to distract me were video games. Here’s a few of the titles that pulled me in, gave me something to think about, and kept me going.
Nier Automata (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Despite lukewarm reviews, I’m a big fan of the original Nier game, so I have been wanting to play Automata for a very long time. Since I decided to have another kid around the time it came out, I let it pass me by until recently.
I still have multiple playthroughs to get through, but my first run is exactly what I expected: a game about two androids kicking a bunch of robot ass that simultaneously makes you feel absolutely terrible for it. It’s a game that questions morality without making you feel apathetic to any of its characters. It’s at times heartbreaking, at times childlike in its silliness, and both a challenge and an acceptance of everything that defines the human race (especially violence.)
Its gameplay is immersive enough to distract, but its story and characters are brimming with enough emotion to keep it from becoming mindless.
Off Peak/ The Norwood Suite (PC)
I warned you.
The Off Peak games are WEIRD. Visually and narratively, the games are absolutely bizarre… but also absolutely stunning. And don’t even get me started on that gorgeous soundtrack.
These are fairly casual games, lightly puzzle-based with more emphasis on dialogue than actual gameplay, so they’re great if you’re looking for more of an atmospheric experience than a challenge. Also, in a time when many of us feel separated from our fellow humans, the Off Peak games are overflowing with humanity in all of its eccentricities.
Did I also mention they’re fantastically, gloriously, weird?
To quote Welcome to Night Vale:
“There is a thin semantic line separating weird and beautiful. And that line is covered with jellyfish.”
Off Peak is, without a doubt, a jellyfish.
Spiritfarer (PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One)
I mean, it’s like Harvest Moon meets Windwaker, while also being a celebration of life through the acceptance of death (I started playing around the time a close family member was diagnosed with terminal cancer). Charming artstyle, a fairly large world, and relaxing pacing. Oh and you can hug people. But only when they want a hug, ’cause consent is the bomb.
It’s wholesomeness at its height, but with enough melancholy to keep it from being saccharine sweet. If you just need a gentle escape and a way to pass the time, Spiritfarer is worth checking out.
Stardew Valley (PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One)
Animal Crossing has gotten a lot of attention for being a go-to pandemic title, but I personally feel Stardew Valley has a lot more depth, if not as easily accessible customization. Recently updated to include a co-operative mode (which I’ve been playing with my husband), Stardew Valley has the usual tasks: farming, fishing, mining, a bit of shallow combat, but also a fairly robust social simulator in which you can connect (and sometimes date) your neighbours.
I’ll be totally honest, I have been completely invested in growing my relationships with these little bundles of pixels and it’s been a great distraction from my dearth of real human interaction. Do I wish you could date the town moms? Maybe… but I’m alright settling for the dorky town doctor instead.
Reading was extremely difficult for me when the pandemic began. I was exhausted by the end of the day, I didn’t have much patience for sorrow and trauma, and I was scared to invest hours of time just to be disappointed by pointless misery (I’m looking at you Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home). These are the stories, brimming with hope, that helped me ease reading back into my daily routine:
I turn to this manga series whenever I’m overwhelmed. It is exactly what it seems — a story about a teenage witch and her family doing… stuff. It is pure slice-of-life iyashikei with little to no tension to speak of. It feels like a summer afternoon with friends and half the time that’s the extent of the actual plot. I love it and I don’t feel an ounce of guilt about it.
If you’d rather, you can also check out the anime on Crunchyroll (sub) or Amazon Prime Video (sub/dub).
I really enjoy the webcomic Mondo Mango, so I was ecstatic when I found out the creator, Kao, also has a fiction series. Even more so when I found out it is a subversive “magical girl” series where a transgendered man inherits his mom’s magical girl powers. It’s a story about gender/sexual identity, empowerment, and friendship, with beautiful artwork. Some days reading what happened next was the only thing I looked forward to at the end of the day. You can find it behind a small paywall here on Tapas, and it sounds like Scholastic will be bringing it to print soon!
17776: What football will look like in the future
Where do I even begin? This weird little multimedia web serial tells the story of a distant future where humans have become inexplicably immortal and self-aware satellites basically hangout and watch us play… uh… football? At first glance much of the story is silly and absurd, but it’s through these impossible moments that 17776 gets to the heart of what it means to be human. When it felt like the world was falling apart and my life seemed meaningless, 17776 reminded me of the importance of play. Of connection. And damn but it made me laugh.
(By the way, I definitely recommend checking out 17776 here at SB Nation. I am not in any way a sports fan, so if football isn’t your thing — don’t worry, it isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying the story.)
A Wizard of Earthsea
Confession #1: I did not read Earthsea as a kid.
Confession #2: I read it in my twenties and was overall unimpressed and put off by its sexism.
I dismissed it for years until I decided to try again, this time reading it from a complete collection of Earthsea novels. This edition had an introduction from Ursula K. Le Guin discussing how her writing evolved and how the gender biases that she had unwittingly absorbed in her own reading and regurgitated on the page. It intrigued me, and I am so glad I decided to try again with an open mind because I enjoyed it so much more the second time. I understand now why it is a classic and I gained so much of value on this re-reading, especially since Ged’s journey so perfectly echoes the tiring battle against (and necessary acceptance of) depression. The third book in the series — The Farthest Shore — also strongly parallels the experience of depression: “There is a hole in the world and the light is running out of it.”
Music is so important, a fact I often forget. I’ll go long stretches feeling numb and apathetic before suddenly realizing that I haven’t listened to music (not designed for children) in weeks. I think it’s important to make a conscious effort to include more music into our lives, especially when we are isolated/ stuck in an endless loop of lockdown. I also love listening to podcasts; just hearing another human’s voice can make me feel less alone.
Dane Terry Live At Largo
I first stumbled on Dane Terry when listening to his podcast Dreamboy. Unlike Dreamboy, Live At Largo is family friendly, an opener for a Welcome to Night Vale live show. Dane’s work is, in a word, indescribable, but I will do my best.
Through a perfect blend of music and storytelling, and with nothing more than his voice and a piano, Dane manages to immerse his listeners into a world of bittersweet nostalgia. Though many of the stories are solidly believable, often even relatable — from Dane’s first road trip to his sexual awakening as a gay preteen — his delivery is so vibrant and emotional that the tales take on an otherworldly quality.
There were a lot of nights this summer where Volton Destroyer of Worlds was the only thing that made me feel human enough to safely close my eyes and fall asleep. (If you want to understand what I’m talking about, you can listen to it yourself here on his Bandcamp.)
This is basically just a podcast where John Green, award-winning author of The Fault in Our Stars and Finding Alaska, rates different elements of the human era on a five star scale. You will learn a lot of neat facts while listening to Anthropocene Reviewed — like the story of the fascinating birth of the Piggly Wiggly and the harrowing tale of the seed potatoes of Leningrad — but more importantly, John holds a genuine sense of awe for the world that is inevitably contagious.
Anthropocene Reviewed always leaves me with an overwhelming sense of connectedness and hope, which isn’t to say it is always brimming with optimism and good cheer. One episode left me in tears as I listened through my headphones on an evening walk, and I even startled a stranger as I came around the corner and gasped aloud at the conclusion of one of his more personal anecdotes; each story is peppered with these anecdotes as John uses his own experiences to untangle the complicated impact of various facets of human life. His descriptions of existential dread, fear of meaninglessness and purpose, are so similar to my own that, not only do I feel understood while listening to them, it seems to lend greater weight to those moments of awe and wonder. You can check it out here. Or you know, wherever you listen to your podcasts.
City Girl – Goddess of the Hollow
I have to credit my husband for introducing me to City Girl’s unique lo-fi beats on YouTube; now she has become a permanent resident on my writing and walking playlists. With compelling song titles like: “Snow Cloaked Princess” and “Sana’s Gloom,” her album Goddess of the Hollow is modern magic. Thanks to Study Girl and countless video game remixes, most people have listened to at least a little lo-fi, but City Girl’s stands out with its haunting ambiance and occasional melancholic vocals.
Even when I’m walking the same handful of city blocks over and over, Goddess of the Hollow transforms that familiarity into something beautiful and surreal. You can find her bandcamp here.
I’ll be honest here: I don’t watch a lot of television or movies, even when I’m not depressed. I used to before I had kids, but now it just seems hard to sneak in anything that isn’t family-friendly. I do make time for an episode or two of anime each week, and I also have a soft spot for video essays and science news on YouTube.
So since the pandemic started, I’ve noticed an uptick in hits for my blog post about iyashikei. It seems I’m not the only one reaching for soothing stories and gorgeous scenery during lockdown. Thankfully, the second season of Yuru Camp (or Laid-Back Camp) has been running for the past several weeks on Crunchyroll (where you can also find the first season).
Yuru Camp focuses on the adventures and mishaps of a handful girls as they become friends through their shared love of camping. There is humour and endearing moments, but virtually no drama or cattiness that you often expect to see with primarily female casted shows. The high quality scenery is taken directly from real locations in Japan and there are many informative tidbits sprinkled throughout the show. The music is intensely soothing and well-suited to the breath-taking settings. Plus… food. I highly recommend having a snack handy, because chances are you’ll be hungry by the end.
Jacob Geller Video Essays
If you like video games, or just video essays and critical thought about modern media, I highly recommend checking out Jacob Geller. One of the few things I’ve been able to consistently anticipate through my depression are new Geller videos. Like Anthropocene Reviewed, his videos are driven by an awe for the world around him (both real and digital) that is contagious. I also love his knowledge of architecture and frequent discussion of settings as characters in narrative.
There are a lot of titles in this list that I stumbled on thanks to his videos, and each essay is usually peppered with a variety of titles both mainstream and niche, from video games to short stories to silent film. The videos are well-researched and brimming with personality and a level of silliness from Jacob that keeps them entertaining and lighthearted, despite oftentimes serious subject matter. You can watch them here.
From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up on Poppy Hill may very well be the most underrated of all of Studio Ghibli’s brilliant films. Unlike many of the more popular titles (most of which I also love), Poppy Hill takes place in a very real Japan after the Korean War. Its pace is slow and deliberate, almost meditative at times, but that doesn’t prevent it from also being vibrant and full of Hayao Miyazaki’s strong-willed and lovable characters.
While Poppy Hill lacks the fantasy of some of its peers, it doesn’t lack the magic — particularly its ability to reveal the wonder of everyday moments. A meal with friends and family, walking home from school, watching the boats pass from an open window, Poppy Hill reminds us that these are the tiny events that make up our lives, and they aren’t to be taken for granted. I think we could all use a little more of that kind of magic right now.
This isn’t a complete list of all the media I’ve consumed over the past year, but these were the pieces that hit some need I’ve felt: whether that be for social connection or a remedy for apathy. Some made me think, some made me take a break, and some just made me believe there were other people out there feeling this way too. Maybe you’ll find something to connect with. Speaking of connection — what have you been playing/reading/listening/watching that has been getting you through the pandemic? What are your go-to’s when you’re going through a difficult time? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
And until next time, take care of yourself.
The narratives we surround ourselves with inform our world-view, self-view, an our perception of others. If I didn’t believe narratives were important, powerful things, I wouldn’t be writing. Stories change us. Books, comics, film, video games… they reinforce or challenge what we see in our daily lives. They have the power to normalize just as they have the power to criticize and raise questions.
It should easily follow then that representation is important. It’s hard to build confidence when you’re invisible, or worse, constantly depicted as a shallow, stereotypical trope. It’s hard to understand the world you live in, to empathize with the variety of people around you, when you’re always fed the same watered down, censored version of that world. And yet, the demand for representation is constantly dismissed, ignored, or called into question.
Today, I want to talk about one of the arguments I’ve personally encountered and one that I find incredibly flimsy and contradictory. That demanding fair representation is detrimental to creativity.
I’ve had a number of people reassure me that by demanding more female/non-white/LGBTQ+/disabled characters, we create a perceived quota and therefore impede the “creative process” by altering the creator’s original vision. As if making a creator feel like they need to include a diverse cast somehow makes their work contrived and less valuable. Apparently, if a story is not exactly what the creator perceived in a moment of stream-of-consciousness it will be less “creative” than it would otherwise have been.
This logic makes me very, very frustrated. First of all… BECAUSE THAT’S NOT HOW CREATIVITY WORKS.
As any writer worth his or her salt will tell you… first drafts/ concept work are very different than the finished result. Because the creative process is exactly that. A process. Asking questions, picking out inconsistencies, switching out/combining characters… these are all necessary in taking the a rough skeleton of a story and making it something believable and immersive.
In essence, the skills needed to make our work more diverse are the same ones that we need to hone a bunch of ideas into a well-formatted story.
If you believe that asking yourself, “What would happen if this character were a woman?” or “Is there a reason this character NEEDS to be white?” will somehow destroy your narrative, then you are doing yourself a disservice. Unique, compelling stories come from our ability to ask questions. What if…? Why not…? If it frightens or frustrates you when people ask you why Character A is white, or if the love interest could have been the same sex, then either your arrogance or your personal biases (e.g. racial) are inhibiting your creativity.
You don’t always have to have a main character who is a trans POC, or a queer romantic interest, but if you refuse to consider these things as possibilities on a regular basis, you are restricting your creative possibilities. (Not to mention missing a crucial opportunity to introspect on your personal prejudices and biases – hint: we all have them). Cliches and predictable plot devices can mean the death of a story, but they are all too common when you refuse to do anything different. When you refuse to make your characters different than the ones you’ve seen your whole life, how can you be surprised when people complain that your work is formulaic?
Disney movies are an excellent example of this. Most Disney princess films follow the same formula again and again and again. Girl is in trouble. (Evil stepmother, locked in a tower, trapped with a beast, forced to marry, enchanted slumber). Girl meets boy and they fall in love. Boy helps save girl (or just straight up rescues her depending how far back we’re going). There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.
I hardly think it’s a coincidence that both Frozen and Moana — stories that break the mold in multiple ways (aromantic plotlines, sympathetic villains, self-saving heroines) — both met with critical acclaim. Not only did they speak to the members of the audience who could finally see themselves reflected on the big screen, but they were different. Unpredictable. Exciting.
And can we please talk about the hypocrisy of saying that diverse media is somehow “contrived” or “forced”?
A video game/book/film with an all-woman or all-POC cast is announced and people shout that it has an agenda. But an all white male cast doesn’t? Why not? If you have an answer to that question… then congratulations! You also have an agenda. Which isn’t surprising because we all do; we all have intricate and pervasive opinions and experiences that seep into our art. Since all media is inherently human and therefore expressive of opinions and biases, when people bemoan “agendas” and “politics” in media, their actual complaint is with the specific intent of the agenda. The media of which they approve isn’t free of social commentary so a rejection of the “goals” of a diverse work signals their rejection of perspectives that differ from their own.
This emphasizes the importance of demanding equal representation in terms of CREATORS and not just characters. One movie, book, or game with a majority white-male cast is not contrived but does speak to the perspective and intent of the creators. A majority white-male cast in a sea of other majority white-male casts tells us something about who is being given a voice. Not only in the sense that we tend to create stories about people like ourselves… but that we are influenced by the environment we immerse ourselves in. An environment that up until now has seen little diversity in its media and fiction. If we want to break free of that mold, if we want to discover new stories about never-before-seen characters, then we need to be actively conscious of representation in our work and we need to embrace creators whose experiences and perspectives differ from our own.
So please. If you’re writing, ask yourself questions. Ask yourself WHY. Ask yourself WHAT IF and WHY NOT. Be receptive to criticism and acknowledge the legitimacy of people’s personal experiences. And as a viewer, a reader, a gamer… demand MORE. Don’t just be content with watching familiar narratives, seek out something new. Narratives that may not relate to your life personally, but relate to your relationship with a growing, global community. Support creators that may have been marginalized. Listen to their stories. You might just be surprised with what you find.
What do you think? What are some diverse pieces of media (books, games, movies, shows) that you wish more people would read? How do you handle diversity in your own work? Do you find yourself falling into stereotypes or tropes without realizing? Let me know in the comments!