New Nonfiction Published

This week, Trivia: Voices of Feminism launched its newest issue, which includes my short memoir, “The First Six Months of Survival.” The essay is about loss of fellow writer and dear friend Reesa Brown, and brings to the fold some of the most important books I read during that time.

It’s interesting how things have changed since I finished that piece. For example, in the last section, I talk about wanting to scatter Reesa’s ashes in New Orleans, but I ended up scattering them in Prague when I was there last month. But I made the conscious decision not to change that part of the essay to note what actually happened. This piece is a reflection of where I was at a certain point in time. I’m satisfied with the way it ends; I didn’t want to change it.

I’m also glad this piece found a home with Trivia; they’ve published my work before, and they’re one of my favorite feminist spaces online, and to share this issue with writers I admire so much.

Good Things Coming to an End

I started Literary Austin in 2010 as a way to engage with the local literary community when I didn’t feel that I yet had a place in it. When I was still trying to find my place as a literary citizen, this blogging project allowed me the chance to explore events and connect with people. For a while, it sustained me.

Now, however, the blog is sitting dormant. I haven’t updated since March. The list of regular events is out of date. And while I keep saying I’m going to work on it again, the fact is that my writing life has taken me in other directions. I’ve found other projects. My energies never come back to Literary Austin.

The domain needs to be renewed in November. It’s all through WordPress, and I think it’s something like $26, so it’s not a huge chunk of change. It’s not about the money; it’s that this blog has not been at the top of my priority list in months, and when I think about it, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. It was great while it lasted, but it’s not where my focus is anymore.

That being said, if someone wants to take the reigns, contact me. I’d be happy to pass it on. If not, no worries. It was great while it lasted. But sometimes, even the stuff we love has to come to an end.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, and Empathy

A few years ago, I participated in a reading experience called Infinite Summer, in which one attempts to read all of Infinite Jest between Memorial Day and Labor Day. I accomplished the goal, but did not enjoy the book. I appreciated Wallace’s ambition, his characters, and his psychological and philosophical insights, but the story itself didn’t resonate me. I even ended up giving the book away to someone else who wanted to read it — I figured it should go to someone interested rather than just sitting on my shelf.

Which is not to say that I don’t care for Wallace’s other work. In fact, I adore much of his nonfiction, and feel grateful that I was at the Kenyon College commencement in 2005 when Wallace gave what I still maintain is the best graduation speech in history. I was, in fact, surprised that Infinite Jest felt like a chore, considering how much I found pleasure and insight in his other work.

Today is the fifth anniversary of Wallace’s suicide. It was a sad day in my household when I heard the news. For the past few weeks, knowing that this anniversary was coming up, I have been pondering Infinite Jest and the ways that, despite not liking it as a story, it had a long-term effect on me.

Despite not caring for the story, I can’t deny that the characters Wallace created, and the insight that he gave me, has worked its way into my brain. In particular, Wallace’s portrayals of people struggling with addiction and mental illness were so real that the novel made me understand such disorders better than any textbook or class ever could. Despite being fictional, Wallace managed to make mental illness profoundly real, and as a result, made me far more understanding and empathetic than I might have been otherwise.

This passage, in particular, has remained stuck in my brain, even though I don’t have it memorized, even though I no longer have a copy of the novel.

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. Yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don‘t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

From the moment I read that passage, I could no longer claim that a person who commits suicide is “selfish.” I could no longer describe suicide as a “waste.” I had grown up around such rhetoric. In school health classes, when counselors came to talk about mental health and suicidal thoughts, those who killed themselves were described with shameful, judgmental language, considered stupid or foolish, described as people who didn’t care enough about their family and friends to tough it out and get better. There was nothing from the perspectives of people who had suffered on a level that Wallace, or his characters, or the thousands of people in the world struggling with mental illness. There was no humanity to it, only rhetoric.

After reading Infinite Jest, I could no longer be so abstract about suicide. I could no longer feel judgment, use words like “selfish,” and “stupid,” and “waste.” Such language does a disservice to the memory of the victim, inhibits healing, and furthers the stigma of mental illness in American culture, making it even more difficult for those who suffer to get the treatment they need and survive.

Good fiction can teach us just as well as nonfiction. I am grateful that Infinite Jest found its way onto my reading list. But I regret that Wallace reached that point of desperation. And I regret that he will never be able to realize the power of his art, and its ability to change people, and save them, and to make the world a better place.

In closing, here’s a video of “This is Water.” (It’s audio only; I tried to find actual video, but I wasn’t able to locate any.) I re-read this piece annually, and the older I get, the deeper it resonates. If you haven’t experienced before, give it a listen.

Introducing Choice: Texas, A Very Serious Game

About a year ago, I became dissatisfied with the lack of political presence in my art. Although a feminist, I rarely enjoy engaging with political issues when creating art. Politics frequently exhausts me, and writing poetry was a way to disconnect from whatever current events were currently distressing me.

But over time, it felt disingenuous to claim the title of “feminist poet” and not have a political component to my work at least some of the time. It didn’t help that my activist life had waned. When I first moved to Austin, I spent several months as a volunteer for the Lilith Fund. I worked the hotline and helped low-income women get funding to help pay for their abortions. I threw myself into the work, but a few months after being named volunteer of the month, I burned out and quit. Listening to stories of women with abusive partners, or who already had 3 kids and couldn’t possibly afford another baby, or who had lost their jobs, or who had life-threatening medical complications, drained me. I wasn’t able to put up a barrier; I empathized with every woman I talked to, and regretted that the Fund’s limited resources meant that I could only do so much.

I went on hiatus from activism, but unfortunately, I let that hiatus go on way too long. Last fall, I launched the Austin Feminist Poetry Festival and committed myself to more active, external engagement both with my art and my volunteer work.

A few months after making this commitment, my friend Carly Kocurek contacted me about collaborating with her on a game she wanted to make about the obstacles facing women seeking abortion in Texas. I was honored that she wanted to work with me, and jumped on board right away. Inspired by serious, educational games like Depression Quest (which shows users what life is like when dealing with clinical depression), we developed the prototype for an interactive fiction game called Choice: Texas, A Very Serious Game, and today is the hard launch of our IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds to finish the project.

Choice: Texas tackles issues that are common to women seeking abortion, but also addresses they ways that certain groups have less access than others. Cost is not the only struggle women have to deal with. Those who can’t take much time off work, or who have to care for children, struggle with making time for mandatory counseling and clinic visits. Those who live in rural areas may have to travel far and take several days out from their normal lives — and this is made especially difficult if they don’t have cars. In addition, recent Texas legislative changes that will cause clinic closures will require these women to travel even farther. Carly and I created a cast of characters that cover a swath of ages, races, economic levels, and geographic locations. Choice: Texas is a game that shows that while women in Texas ostensibly have freedom of choice, some women have less choice than others.

In addition, Choice: Texas is about empathy. From a high school student not ready to be a parent, to an excited mother-to-be facing life-threatening medical complications, these characters are not just avatars used to play a game. They have lives, families, friends, and jobs. They have hopes, dreams, and fears. They are representative of real women in Texas, and they have been created to show not just the difficulties in obtaining an abortion, but also the reasons why women make the choice they do. This is a game about access, but also about understanding.

Choice: Texas has been accepted to the F.R.O.G. (Future and Reality of Gaming) 2013 Conference in Vienna. We will have our working prototype finished by the end of September, and plan to launch the game in early 2014. If you can contribute to our fundraising campaign, you can learn more here. And if you don’t have spare cash but you still want to help, please spread the word on social media. We appreciate your support.

Poet About Town: August Open Mics

I’m excited to be the featured poet at two excellent open mics this month.

First, I’ll be featuring at the BookWoman Second Thursday Open Mic on August 8th. The reading starts at 7:15, and is followed by a round-robin open mic, so bring poems to share!

On August 22nd, I’ll be one of the co-features at NewWorld Deli (Guadalupe location). We’re kicking off at 7, with an open mic to follow.

Both events are free and open to the public (though please consider making a small purchase to help support the venue), and I’ll be selling books at each. Hope to see you there!

Feminist Friday: Austin Voter Registration Round-Up

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If you’ve been following the news around Texas (and many other parts of the country), you know it’s been quite a week. Rick Perry signed new abortion restrictions into law yesterday morning. I couldn’t make it, but I watched a live feed online, feeling sick the entire time. When Jon asked why I was torturing myself watching it, I glibly replied, “masochism.” Then I less-glibly responded that denial and disengagement won’t solve anything.

There are a number of ways to experience political disengagement. One of the worst? Not voting. Especially not voting during midterm elections. (You know, those elections people forget about because nobody is running for president and shoving ads in your faces everywhere you look that has a screen.) And it’s not just about registering yourself. There are ways to help to ensure that all people get registered and get out to the polls.

Do you need to register in Texas, or update your registration? Do you want to become a deputy voter registrar to help out with the election process? You’re in luck. There are events, both upcoming and ongoing in Austin that will make sure you’re set for the next election.

Saturday, July 20th: Austin Music People Deputy Registrar Training

The training will be immediately followed by a brief press conference with Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Travis County Tax Assessor & Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant, Austin City Councilmember Mike Martinez, and special guests.

Sunday, July 21st:  Austin’s Concerts in the Park Voter Registration
It’s a win-win; listen to the Austin Symphony AND register voters! Join us in front of the Long Center on Sunday evenings in July and August to listen to music and register voters. All you need to bring is your orange VDR card, and we’ll provide the rest. Feel free to bring a blanket so you can stay
Wednesday, July 24th: Austin Blues on the Green Voter Registration
http://join.battlegroundtx.com/page/event/detail/voterregistrationdrive/wrvl

Saturday, August 3rd:

Ongoing: http://www.traviscountytax.org/goVotersVDR.do
Travis County Voter Registration offer day and evening training the first Tuesday of each month at their office at 5501 Airport Blvd. And if you have ten people or more, they will also come to you!

Looking for other opportunities? Battleground Texas has a cool web site that lets you do a geographic search by zip code of upcoming events, and most of them are voter registration:http://battletx.bluestatedigital.com/page/event/search_simple

You can also access the Texas Volunteer Deputy Registrar Guide here.

Feminist Every Day

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Last night was rough.

I arrived at the Capitol just before 8. A security guard told me I wasn’t allowed to bring my water in, which was ridiculous, because I could look into the rotunda and see people with water. But given the number of people already arrested for ridiculous things, I wasn’t about to push it.  I gave up my water, went through the metal detector, and went in.

(The irony that I could bring a gun into the Capitol but could not bring my own water is not lost on me. At least I didn’t need a tampon!)

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I spent just over four hours in the rotunda, chanting and screaming. Because some security guards were not being helpful, I decided to just stay on the first floor. Most of the time, we were all corralled in the middle of the room. There was a brief period where I joined a group marching and chanting around the outer circle, but eventually we were all herded back into the roped-off area.

I stayed until the final verdict was reached. I didn’t leave to try to find water, because there came a point that if I’d left the rotunda, I wouldn’t have been allowed back in. I didn’t go to the bathroom. I stayed after my throat was hoarse and my knees and ankles started to hurt.

Our energy waned, and then it came back. We fought and we fought and we fought.

And we lost. There’s not much more to say than that. I have spent today trying to synthesize things with more depth, but what it boils down to is this: Feminism is not dead. Activism is not dead. We came together. We fought. And too many of our elected officials are spiteful misogynists unwilling to listen.

And this isn’t over.

I was born into a time and place with reproductive choice. I will be damned if I die in a time and place where that doesn’t exist.

And I still love Texas. Because Texas is not the sum of its legislature. This state is so much more than that. Texas is full of brilliant, beautiful, creative, wonderful people. It is an incredible place. Texas enriches me. I love Texas, and I will fight for Texas women.

Just like I fight for all women.

I was raised to be a strong, independent thinker. I was raised to stand up for what I believe in. I was raised to persevere, to keep going without giving up. I was raised to work hard. These were the values my parents gave me. I am tough, I am a fighter, I am stubborn.

I am not giving up. I will not let bigots take away my agency and autonomy. I will fight for the state I love and the people I care about. Because this isn’t just about Texas. It’s about women all over the world. 

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