What Should Diversity Mean?

Last weekend, I was following posts and tweets about Maggie Stiefvater (a white writer) being on a panel called “Writing the Other”. You can get some background here, but it’s not necessary for my post. The gist of many of the posts was that Stiefvater, a white writer, had no place on such a panel. There is a certain argument for that — that whatever else she is, Stiefvater still has a certain amount of privilege that means her voice doesn’t need promoting as much. And her definition of “Other” was fairly loose and included “writing about places you haven’t visited” and examples like that, which is not usually what we mean when we’re talking about “the Other”.

To pause and briefly define terms, when we’re talking about “Otherness”, it’s usually (in my understanding) about other identities, rather than other experiences. So gay people, people of colour, people with disabilities, Jewish people — groups of people who are “Othered”, who are treated as a distinct group with common traits.

But I did like something Stiefvater said in her original post, which I’ll quote here:

I assumed I was asked to be on the panel because I’m write [sic] about magic and mental illness, and magic that sometimes is a metaphor for mental illness. As someone who is tired of seeing OCD and suicide treated flippantly in novels, I’m looking forward to talking about how I’d like to see writers who don’t have personal experience with those things tackle them respectfully without making the story an Issues story.

To me, this definitely has a place on a diversity panel. I can tell you that as someone with an anxiety disorder, I’ve definitely been Othered. Even just as a Welsh person, I’ve had experiences that sometimes echo those of people of colour — for instance, when I read Catrin Collier’s introduction to Margiad Evans’ book, Country Dance:

I grew up in Wales in the 1950s and 60s, yet [Margiad Evans’] work was never mentioned at my school or local library. Whenever I asked the eternal question ‘What should I read next?’ I was directed towards Russian, English, American, German and French novelists. I discovered a few — a precious few — Welsh authors for myself, which only added weight to my teachers’s pronouncement that ‘people like you (translate as South Wales valley born) don’t write’.

Sound at all familiar? It did to me — both from the experiences of post-colonial people (which arguably, includes the Welsh) and from my own experiences. I didn’t know there was any Welsh literature. Raised in England, I was vaguely under the impression that writing was not a thing Welsh people did, that we didn’t have a written culture. Or not one worth exploring, at any rate.

Imagine my surprise at university, at the age of 21, when I signed up for a ‘Welsh Fiction in English’ class, and discovered a whole world of Welsh writing!

So what should diversity mean? The assumption seemed to be that Maggie Stiefvater could not be Other, could not represent diversity, because she’s visibly white.

Diversity should mean we remember to look for the invisible stuff, too. The very fact that people immediately assumed that Stiefvater couldn’t be Other is a little worrying — there are invisible illnesses and disabilities, there are people who aren’t out, there are people whose racial/cultural background isn’t obvious. Diversity panels obviously shouldn’t be made up solely of white people, but let’s make an effort to think about the non-obvious forms of diversity, too. Just because you can look at someone and see white skin, a majority culture and a boyfriend, that doesn’t mean they don’t know anything about diversity.

I haven’t read any of Stiefvater’s work yet, nor do I know anything about her mental health; the fact that she wanted to talk about it, though — and that the person who criticised her involvement in a panel didn’t even seem to consider that angle — struck a chord. If Stiefvater has things to say about OCD and suicide from personal experience, then we need to make space for that. If not in a panel about ‘Writing the Other’, then where? What is more Other than a group of people who’ve been literally demonised throughout history?

Now, if there’s a panel made up entirely of white people, we should definitely criticise it. And we should criticise any sign of homogeneity in such panels, if we end up at a point where a panel is all white gay men, or all white women with mental illnesses. But perhaps not by targeting an individual and saying, essentially, ‘you have no right to talk about being Other‘. Maybe, instead, we could ask, ‘Why do you feel you’re qualified to talk about being Other? What do you bring to the table?’ Let’s make a space for people to say, “I have an anxiety disorder, and I wanted to talk about how ‘crazy’ people are represented in fiction.” Or, “Well, I’m a woman dating a guy, but I’m actually bisexual and I’d like to talk about bi-erasure and problems specific to bisexual people.”

And if the answer is, “Well, actually, I’m not from a minority group at all, but I have thoughts about how they should be portrayed in fiction,” then we can say, “Maybe you should step down from the panel in favour of people who’ve lived those experiences.”

Mind you, I don’t know if that’ll work, because some people will always think they have something worthwhile to say, whether they do or not. Some people will always privilege their voices above others. But I’d like it if people would just stop to think about what diversity really looks like — whether it looks like anything at all, or whether we need to hold back on some of our assumptions.

Maybe it does need to look diverse. I just read Justina Ireland‘s post about diversity panels, and the fact that her experiences show that having a person of colour on the panel — just one! — already means a lot to other people of colour. Maybe we need to make sure that the people we have to speak on diversity panels are not just diverse, but intersectionally so. Black and mentally ill. Gay and Jewish. Genderqueer and Islamic.

For damn sure, diversity panels right now are sending a message, and it’s not the right one.

Review – Rewire Your Anxious Brain

Cover of Rewire Your Anxious BrainRewire Your Anxious Brain, Catherine M. Pittman, Elizabeth M. Karle

Received to review via Netgalley.

I didn’t read this from cover to cover, as I’ve read other books like it before. My main interest was in seeing how solid the scientific basis of this is — one of the authors has a PhD, but I could have a PhD in literature, which would by no means qualify me to speak on neuroscience — and how helpful I thought it might be for other people who end up in the same position I’ve been in. The good news is, from my knowledge of science and my intimate knowledge of anxiety disorders, there’s a lot here that’s useful. It doesn’t just focus on targeting the conscious part of anxiety generated by the cortex — which people often try to target on its own, with CBT — but also acknowledges the contribution of the amygdala.

Generally, it seems a sympathetic and credible book that someone with curiosity and determination could work through to help cope with anxiety, whether it’s a full blown disorder or just something that crops up more often than you’d like. It’s not an exhaustive reference book of information mentioning every single disorder, every single type of medication, but it is somewhere to start. And it quite rightly encourages the reader to get the help of medical professionals, and it doesn’t dismiss the uses of medication.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Brain on Fire

Cover of Brain on Fire by Susannah CahalanBrain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan

I didn’t expect to connect so personally with this. On the surface, there’s not much to compare between me and Susannah Cahalan. There are a few correspondences: the start of her illness was marked with an intense fear, almost a belief, that she’d been infested by bedbugs; so was mine. On the other hand, I “just” had GAD: Susannah Cahalan had an autoimmune disorder in which her own immune system was attacking her brain. (She does mention some speculation that obsessive-compulsive behaviours and other psychiatric issues may actually be attributable to inflammation of the brain similar to what she experienced. The more I think about that, the more I want to become a doctor, maybe work in psychiatry, or maybe neurology, and push that research further. And research into epigenetic aspects of mental illness. Or at least get to the point where I can understand all of the existing research.)

(And sotto voce, I can almost hear my mother’s comment: “Well, you should be a doctor.”)

Anyway, despite the vast differences in the actual content of our diseases, I shared some of Cahalan’s feelings about it. I felt like I lost part of myself, the steady logical voice that refutes the brain’s wilder ideas about what’s going on, and though Susannah lost a lot more than that, I know something about the struggle to regain your own mind. I think people often believe that my anxiety was just an emotion like all my others. It wasn’t, though. It felt stronger than anything else, stronger than me. It felt like something from outside of me, subjugating the real me. It was like having another person physically holding me back, sometimes. The sheer courage it took me to step outside the front door, sometimes — it felt impossible, alien.

So I shared with Cahalan some of the feelings of getting my old self back. Self-hate at the things that still aren’t going right. Worry about what people will think of you. Celebration of tiny steps at the same time as feeling they’re not enough, you’re not there yet. Wonder at how far you’ve come. Worry that you’ll relapse. I very directly share that fear Cahalan feels when she thinks she sees a bug or something. My brain conjured ’em where there weren’t any, too.

I was expecting to find this interesting because of the medical content. That is interesting, though because it’s from Cahalan’s point of view, it’s more of a layman’s understanding of the disease, a memoir of dealing with it. I found it unexpectedly much more compelling than that, because Susannah Cahalan lost and regained her identity, and therefore has a lot to say about the whole idea of identity, and maybe some things to teach neuroscience, maybe even psychiatry.

The financial cost of treating a patient with Cahalan’s disease is staggering, eye-watering, jaw-dropping — there aren’t enough adjectives. But to bring someone back from that state, that’s beyond price.

Rating: 5/5

Review – Panic Attacks

Cover of Panic Attacks, by Christine InghamPanic Attacks, Christine Ingham

I never actually finished reading this, because by the time I was halfway through, I was actually getting better. I’m returning it to the library now because I think it may be useful for other people, and right now, I don’t need it.

That said, I did find a lot of comfort from reading Ingham’s assurances that you can get better, and will gladly add my voice to that. The prognosis for someone with panic attacks improves if you know from the start that you can get better, and I’m here to assure you that you can. As my counsellor pointed out, I may always be an anxious person, and that means I have to work a little harder, but it’s possible. See also my Mental Health Awareness Month post for more about my personal journey.

The book itself is easy to read and encouraging, without minimising the fear you may feel if you have panic attacks. I had quite a few pages bookmarked in the half that I read. But really, like I already said, I think the most important thing was that it told me I could get better, when I wasn’t hearing that from a lot of people. And it told me I wasn’t alone.

Mental Health Awareness Month: Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Me

There have been some great posts over at Uncorked Thoughts on Mental Health Awareness Month. Reading Leah’s post about her anxiety made me want to put together something about mine, because it’s important, and because people like me so often feel alone. It takes over and makes everything ten times harder.

If you’re not in a great place yourself right now, read this with caution. There’s a lot of health detail. If you’re just here for the books, feel free to skip this!

Continue reading

If you can afford this, you can afford that

So today Chuck Wendig posted a thing about piracy and why he won’t put out a tip jar, which I’m not interested in arguing with. What I am interested in arguing with is this whole idea in the comments that if you’re reading ebooks, you must have an ereader, therefore you must be able to afford ebooks. Which is complete crap, guys, I can’t even tell you. Here’s some examples of what’s been said — it’s been said in public, so I think it’s fair to copy/paste:

My thoughts on the “but I can’t afford it!” argument are thus –

1. You can’t afford a $5 e-book, but you can afford monthly internet? My internet bill (whether via my computer line or smart phone) is roughly thirty times my cost for an average e-book. Granted, that’s an average. I buy a lot of low-cost author-pubbed items at 99c to level out the $6-10 fare. Still, internet costs a lot more than an e-book.
2. You can’t afford a $5 e-book, but you can afford something to read that it on? Whether it’s a computer, smart phone, tablet, or e-reader, these things out-cost the average e-book by at least 5 times if not more. Yes, the e-reader, etc, could be a gift, but seriously? If I was so broke I couldn’t afford a $5 e-book (or the internet service to download it), then getting an e-reader is pretty crappy and mean-spirited unless they were showering me with gift cards throughout the year. It’s like buying someone a saddle when they can’t afford the pony.

And:

So wait…. this guy ‘can’t afford’ to buy all the ebooks he wants (I know that feeling – I can’t afford to buy all the designer dresses I want either… so sad…) but he CAN afford to have bought whatever ebook reader-thingy he reads his pirated books on? Strange, I thought compared to ebooks those things were WAY more expensive… I had to save up for three years to get mine…

So yeah, the first quote is roughly correct, even given my £25 ereader: let’s say an average retail ebook is £5, going by, say, Angry Robot (who publish, among many others, Chuck Wendig). That comes out about right: my reader cost five times the book. But it’s a window to many, many more books, including free books from a range of sources (Project Gutenberg, Smashwords, my local library, Baen, Netgalley, Edelweiss, publishers, authors) and cheap books. It’s easily worth it.

What really gets me is the sniffy judgement going on here. “You don’t spend your money the way I approve of, how dare you pay for internet and an ereader instead of books” — in fact, phrased like that, it’s downright snobbish. I get that it’s not fair authors aren’t getting paid, and some authors and series have suffered from it. But you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life.

Like hey, let me paint you a picture: me, a year ago. I live with my grandmother; my mother pays her some rent for me. I had no job, and I didn’t go on benefits, so I lived entirely on the kindness of my family. Depressing enough to start with, right? And then there was my grandfather’s death, and my spiral into depression and anxiety that had been going on and getting worse since my second year of university. Guess what I clung onto when I was too depressed and scared to get out of bed?

Yup. Since you’re reading this blog, I’m gonna assume you’ve figured it out: books, and the internet.* I was too damn scared to leave the house some days. Going to the library where there were people, and germs, and possibly the need to communicate with people I don’t know — gah. Buying books in a store? Well, like I said, any money I had was my mother’s. So my ereader was a lifeline, and my grandmother paid for the internet, so it was easy enough to download books from Netgalley, the library, etc, etc.

Those are not the only reasons that scraping together £25 for an ereader instead of five books (or rather, three, given UK pricing for dead tree books, or less than five trips to my nearest library last year) might be more cost effective for someone. You just don’t know. So please stop making these assumptions and trying to police how people spend their money, and go back to making the very fair argument that authors deserve to be paid.

(Not to mention the sensible point someone else is making that you don’t need a dedicated ereader to read ebooks. Your most basic smartphone can do it, your computer can do it, my five year old iPod can do it…)

ETA: Since I’ve been accused of piracy/theft in the comments, I will just point out that every method of obtaining books mentioned in this post is both legal and moral. It’s not an argument for piracy, it’s an argument for getting your nose the fuck out of other people’s financial decisions.

 

*Me: Here’s a thing. Imagine the prospect of me without an ereader, especially during the worst times in the last two years. Is there a quotable quote of your reaction to that idea?
Partner: A damn wreck? You’d have been a wreck going in circles, driving yourself insane.
(Pretty fair assessment.)

Depression Quest

I’m trying to mostly keep my blog about books, since that was what I established it for, but sometimes I come across things I really want to share, and this is one of them. Depression Quest is a text-based game (with audio), based on living with depression. It isn’t an easy game to play, emotionally, though it’s very simple in style — basically choose your own adventure — but I think it’s an important one.

You play as an unnamed, ungendered person who has a girlfriend called Alex, and the world is peopled with a support network — Attic, an online friend; Sam, a co-worker; your mother; your brother Malcolm; a therapist who an old friend helps you find. All of these react in different ways if you turn to them for help with your depression, just like real people.

I played through on more or less the route I’ve been able to take in real life: seeing a counsellor, getting on medication, talking to my partner and family fairly openly about it. Even so, parts of the game made me cry. I don’t want to open it up again and play through a different route. It isn’t perfectly representative of all the possible problems you can have when you’re depressed, but it offers a little taste that does, to my mind, two important things. 1) It tells people with depression that they’re not alone, that that uselessness and darkness they feel is experienced by others, and 2) it can provide a way for them to demonstrate to other people both what it feels like and the obstacles that face you.

Depression Quest is a game, a story, and an important contribution to openly talking about depression. It really makes me wonder if I should offer to write a script for “Anxiety Quest”…

Review – Hyperbole and a Half

Cover of Hyperbole and a Half by Allie BroshHyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened, Allie Brosh

I’ve been a big fan of Hyperbole and a Half for a while, so I was thrilled to get this on Netgalley. It’s not about the art (although I have a certain fondness for that, too — it doesn’t look like much at first, maybe, but it can be damn expressive), but about the way Allie Brosh can shed light on a situation with a few illustrations and a paragraph or two. I particularly loved her posts about depression, because they cut through the bullshit and stated baldly what it’s like.

Like this, actually.

Positivity, hope, joy! -- Are you taunting me? Is this a weird game where you name all the things I can't do?

I can point to her posts and say, this. This is what it’s like. All your sunshine and positive thoughts just sounds like so much bullshit to me, too.

I think you can find most, if not all of the work in this book on the Hyperbole and a Half blog. And there’s a lot of other good stuff there (like alot), too. But this is really worth getting, just so you have it to look at and to remind you that you’re not the only one who is secretly shitty, or who doesn’t feel anything, or who once ate a whole cake to get back at their mother. Whatever your failing is. And somehow, it doesn’t sting so much, presented like this. It’s even pretty funny.

I only wish I was this brave.

Review on Goodreads.

Book prescription

I’ve been planning to be fairly up front about all aspects of my identity here — yes, I’m sure that means that if some potential employers found my blog, that might be a mark against me. But I want to be a whole person, and not compartmentalise stuff where I can’t see it myself half the time. Which, hey, potential employers? That takes bravery, and self-knowledge. Just sayin’.

I started with a new counsellor today. Now, despite all I said above, this blog isn’t about my mental health issues, I promise. What is relevant, though, is that my new counsellor wrote out a book prescription for me. That sounds like a really weird concept, but I promise you, it’s a real thing. You can get more information about the scheme in Wales here. Basically, though, it means that counsellors all over Wales have a pool of books that they can recommend to their clients about various different disorders and emotional problems, and those books are easy to access because each branch of each library has at least one copy.

I’ll review the book I was given here in time — it’s Panic Attacks, by Christine Ingham — but I just wanted to say a word or two about the process, to begin with. I don’t know how helpful this is going to be for me in particular, but I think it’s a valuable service that might help people access books that teach coping mechanisms and show them, most of all, that they’re not alone.

So what happened was that my counsellor wrote out the “prescription” for me. It’s a pretty simple form, just stating your name and address and a code for the book (not the title of it). You then go to a local library and present that. In my case, I had to present it a couple of times while they figured out where in the library I was meant to go! But it’s not so bad, and they didn’t make any comments about the fact that I had a book prescription, or when they found the book for me, what book had been chosen for me. When you get a book out on this scheme, the person prescribing it will suggest a length of time you can have the book. In the Cardiff area, at least, it goes on your library card as one of your total, and you can return it to any branch, but you can’t renew it yourself.

And that’s it. You go home with your prescribed book and… hopefully read it and get something out of it. I think it’s an interesting initiative: if I have any more to say on it, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, here are some of the books on the subject I’ve read in the past that are worth a look:

Loving What Is and I Need Your Love: Is that True? by Byron Katie
Introducing Mindfulness by Tessa Watt
(A Very Short Introduction to) Anxiety by Daniel Freeman