Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Fodder for the Media

Everything’s gone a bit quiet on the US Election front – possibly the British media feel that they’ve milked this story so hard that it’s udders are starting to look sore. Now they’re giving it a break for a couple of months until the run up to voting day begins.

I’ve been following the US election for the last six months for the same reason that I might follow a friend who’s drunk and started rubbing himself against the nearest urine soaked alley wall - he might do something hilarious, or get part of his genitals caught in a drainpipe. Possibly both. I’ve witnessed a few of them now, but this year was far more interesting since I was in America for a decent amount of the primaries, and updates showed up every time the TV was switched on. Since we had a General Election the year before, I found my mind trying to superimpose events from May 2015 onto the current events, and vice versa to compare, and the results were surprisingly difficult to envisage.

I don’t claim to be a sociologist, but I can only surmise that this difficulty in reconciling the two approaches to public voting comes from differing cultural attitudes to politics – or more specifically, the attitudes of  the media. To analogise, the US elections are a big Hollywood blockbuster. The graphics are super slick, with battle lines being drawn as candidate photos are smashed onto screen side by side as though their still images are already battling for screen dominance. All the while a deep, dramatic voice, pumped full of adrenaline is proclaiming “It’s your vote! Your choice!”, jabbing it’s meaty fingers at you like a World War Two recruitment poster. It’s amusing to watch the trailers for Captain America Civil War, and mentally replace team Cap and team Stark with the Democrats and the Republicans (I’m not saying which is which) and perhaps most tellingly, it’s not that difficult to imagine the ensuing brawl complete with CGI explosions.

Then we have the UK elections, which come across more like the school nativity play (for the benefit of my American friends, yes you can do that in our schools). The back wall is having scenes projected onto it to set the mood, but it doesn’t disguise the fact that those headdresses are made of cardboard. The teachers run around trying to drum up enthusiasm, and the audience play along and try to get into the spirit of it, but as the students shuffle out and start mumbling their lines, you just know everyone is secretly waiting to see who trips over their dressing gown first. The donkey’s arse will inevitably stand up halfway through, loudly crying because he didn’t get to be Joseph, and will go on to complain about political correctness and the liberal bias of the school faculty, before the teachers can lead him offstage for a sit down and a stern talking to.

We’re not going to get any flashy graphics or star-making performances. And most importantly, we’re not expecting them from our elections. From the very beginning, we expect disappointment, something that the papers and news are only too keen to soak up in cringeworthy detail. TV actually joins in with figures like Jeremy Paxman popping up for hard hitting interviews that seem deliberately designed to make the candidates stumble so we can have a good laugh at them. Debates and TV appearances start to resemble public floggings, designed to make the audience wince, flinch away from the screen and mutter “Oooh! Shouldn’t have said that! That’s going to hurt!”.

In retrospect, we’re coming across as very cruel.

There’s an undercurrent of mockery and snickering behind our hands (also very much like a school environment now that I think about it) that fills our election process, and in two months in America, I never got a sense of that. Americans seem far quicker to believe that maybe - just maybe - this election will be a game changer. That the winning candidate might just keep his promises, and make the country better. Certainly the media does its best to hype up this idea, with it’s dramatic music and quick-fire statements being shot into our ears. News reporters get pumped up, beaming at the screen and practically dancing around the studio when another state finishes voting. Smash-cut to Trump! Smash-cut to Hillary! They’re coming for you, Americans, and they’re going to do the job right!

Meanwhile, over the pond, our media pulls out its binoculars out and starts to peer like a group of peeping Toms. One of them’s going to trip over their dressing gown soon…

Having optimism isn’t a bad thing, but it’s unmatched as fodder for the media.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Sequels, Remakes and Restraining Orders

Sequels, Remakes and Restraining Orders

I feel that I’ve lost some of my pretentious media graduate credibility, thanks to only going to see four movies last year. So for my own reminder, and motivation, I’ve compiled a list of movies for the next year which for one reason or another have roused my interests or concerns. And since I'm off to see the first one in a few hours, the need to get this out was pressing. So without further ado, go 2016!

12th February
I was a little bit thrown off with this movie. You see, part of my initial excitement was based around the fact I mistakenly believe this to be part of the MCU, which I now realise is wrong. I don’t really know what to think now. Believing that it was the next stage of the MCU meant that I could guarantee a certain level of quality to this movie. Without it, I have a character I don’t really know much about, and thus I don’t feel the same kind of hype that most comic book fans do. The trailer also seems a bit too pleased with itself to be here - take it easy guys. You still have to impress me before I declare my undying love.

Gods of Egypt
26th February
Remember back in 2012 when I wished that fanfiction was a more mainstream topic, and the world gave us 50 Shades of Grey just to annoy me? Well Hollywood is having a go too now, with my favourite period of history. Since I’ve already resigned myself to not finding any respect, historical accuracy, or faithful interpretations of my favourite pantheon of deities, I’m going to watch it for the same reason I would go watch a friend who’s copiously drunk - because they are probably going to need rushing to A&E, where the nurses will curiously question me on why they raided the costumes from the movie 300.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny
26th February
So many of my favourite films are getting the sequel treatment this year. To say that I am apprehensive about this is like saying that The Simpsons is getting a little bit tired. Good sequels use the first story as a jumping off point to explore a fresh new angle. A bad sequel rehashes the same story and expects lightning to hit our wallets twice. Fortunately this sequel doesn’t seem to be wallowing in the original story, but only because it doesn’t seem to have much of a story at all, if the trailer is anything to go on. If this is an accurate representation of the true content of the film, then 90% of it will be improbably performed martial arts, and the other 10% will be a character from the last film giving ominous warnings. It’s not a good sign when the story isn’t deemed important enough to tease the audience with. The story is the lifeblood of a movie. Without it you’ve just got white teeth and a fancy haircut.

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice
25th March
Call me uncultured if you will, but I’m just not as excited about this film as every other nerd on the planet seems to be. Part of it might be me being late to the DC party, having never read the comics, seen the cartoons, or watched any of the early Batman movies - the superhero nerd equivalent of showing up to the wedding just as the desserts were being taken away and the amount of alcohol begins to outweigh the amount of common sense. Man of Steel got a resounding ‘eh’ from me, and several hours worth of bile from my DC fanboy fiance. Batman vs Superman is not promising me anything new or better. It’s promising me lots of fights in dark, gritty, rainy alleys, and an appearance by Wonder Woman, which I will bet anything is solely there to titillate the fanboys.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2
25th March
Oh great. Another of my top 10 favourite movies getting the sequel treatment this year. I should probably lock up the rest of them and start filing restraining orders. Okay, I’ll stop dispensing hate. I did get rather excited about this trailer initially, because it actually appeared to have a new story bouncing off from where the last one left off. Sure there is another wedding, but there seems to be a bit of deconstruction going on with the nature of tradition and family. If it’s handled well, it could be great. If it’s handled badly...I suppose I can put some Windex on it and laugh.

The Jungle Book
15th April
Christ on a bike, original thought really is at a premium in Disney right now. Not content to do anything as daring as think of new ideas, they’re instead just rebooting all their old animated movies into live action versions. But The Jungle Book already had a live action remake back in 1994, so either some terrible pandemic has robbed Disney of their memories as well as their creativity, or they quite simply wanted to add another yacht to their fleet. What can I say? They’re redoing the animated movie, same story, same characters, but with real animals and people. At best it will be just as good as the first one. At worst, it’ll ruin one of our childhood favourites. The only point at which I will not regret parting with my money at the cinema will be if they bring some new innovation in, which adds something to the experience. But as I said, original thought is expensive in Disney right now, and they really want that extra yacht to build up their naval fleet.

Captain America: Civil War
6th May
Ah good, more MCU to feed straight into my veins, and a chance for me to scream “Boys! You two kiss and be friends again!” outside of a yaoi panel. Having been quietly tipped off by a friend about what goes down in the comic book civil war, part of me is apprehensive that my heart may be broken at the end of this movie, but since Marvel is becoming a kitemark of quality these days, I will have had a wonderful rollercoaster regardless.

X-Men: Apocalypse
27th May
Let’s get one thing straight - retconning fifteen years of movies is not cool. I don’t care if it’s canon! Fans of the films just leave with a bitter taste in their mouth, feeling that they’ve just wasted fifteen years of emotional investment. So why, why would you continue the series after this? You’ve wiped the slate clean - start over again fresh! Don’t try to pull something out of the leftover chalk marks! I’ve been told that this movie addresses a big thing that comes from the X-Men comic books, but now that I know that the writers aren’t afraid to just wave their hand and dismiss everything they’ve done before, I just can’t get invested in this movie. There’s no enjoyment when you are aware that fifteen years from now, another character may get sent back in time, and render this experience meaningless.

Finding Dory
17th June
Oh God, are we not done squealing our bollocks off yet?

Independence Day: Resurgence
24th June
Obviously not.

1st July
Anyone eavesdropping on my room late last year probably experienced a ringing in their ears when I saw the trailer for this. Finally, a movie I can get genuinely excited about, and with that, comes a certain amount of trepidation. This book and the 1989 animated film were favourites of mine, and thus there is a lot of pressure riding on this film not to screw up a staple of my childhood. I feel a little source of comfort when I remember that Steven Spielberg is directing, and he has a reasonable history of good films (yes I hear you all muttering Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - shut up! You’re not helping!)

The Legend of Tarzan
1st July
Oh sod off...see comments on The Jungle Book and replace the word ‘Disney’ with ‘Warner Bros’.

Suicide Squad
5th August
Any movie where you are supposed to root for the bad guys instantly gets a thumbs up from me. I like stories that celebrate madness. And I like trailers with creepy songs. Once again, comic book nerds probably have a better idea of what to expect than I do. I’m expecting two odd hours of watching bad guys tear up a city and slag off Batman. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed, but I’ve been wrong before, so I'm going to approach this one like it's a lit firework who's fuse may or may not have gone out - it could explode into colour and life, or burp and fizzle on the damp grass.

Pete’s Dragon
12th August
Movies that are part animation and part real life have a very special charm about them that you just don’t get from anything else - I think it’s the fact that because they are part cartoon, they just don’t take themselves that seriously. That’s probably why Space Jam was a childhood favourite of mine, and why Who Framed Roger Rabbit is sitting comfortably in my top 10 favourite movies list. Unfortunately most movies these days do take themselves seriously, because they can’t afford to do so otherwise, and something often gets lost in that. Call me judgmental, but I just don’t think this movie will recover and revive the same smile that the original produced.

Underworld: Next Generation
14th October
I try to be nice. But really Underworld, you’ve massively overstayed your welcome now. The time has come to tie all the plot points together, release this story into the wind, and go pick up a new hobby.

Doctor Strange
4th November
Knowledge is non existent, but this is another for the MCU, so expectations are good.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
18th November
Well I asked for something different and obviously someone was listening. Rather than wallow in the original Harry Potter stories, somebody seems to have gone out of their way to do something new and fun with this world, which I always approve of. I’m dubious of how many magical beasts we can really fit into one movie, and how much attention we can actually pay on them without feeling that we’ve been short changed. Providing that this is handled properly and not blatantly misused, we should be in for a good film.

Assassins Creed
21st December
My sources of video game knowledge report that someone shot the Ass Creed games in the knees after the second one, and though there was some recovery during Black Flag, that wound is continuing to inhibit it’s ability to walk properly. Some ways that this movie will be an improvement on the games include, not forcing us all to build and design our own villas, allowing us to meet some interesting normal people on the street rather than bumping into every famous person in this period of history like we’re trying to check off a celebrity bingo list, and oh yeah - allowing us to actually murder somebody!

Friday, 1 January 2016

A Letter To My Younger Self

Dear Natasha,

You’re seventeen.

You’re sitting in the library or the computer suites at school, not really thinking that much about the future. Speculating about what might be is a waste of time. You could try a hundred times to predict everything that might happen to you and how you will react to it. But there will always be something that you could never anticipate. A change, a twist in the road, that throws everything you planned off course. So why plan ahead? Instead you think it better to become adaptable - to be able to work around these changes and twists in the road, and alter the course depending on what happens now rather than something that may or may not happen in some undetermined future.

Sometimes you wonder if this is a sensible way to look at life. Let me assure you, that this is sound reasoning, my dear. Because boy, has the future got some twists planned for you.

You do feel a little adrift sometimes. Everyone wants to know what you intend to do with your life. That’s okay. You still don’t know now. You will learn pretty quickly that any skills you think you have are not one of a kind. Life is competitive, and any gifts you think you may have right now in photography or film making quickly become far less special than they have. It’s good that you learn this now though - these days, technology has progressed so far, that any idiot with a camera phone can create stunning works of art. The industry that you thought you might make your home in, is under the stiffest competition imaginable, coming from every other person on the planet. That’s not somewhere that you want to be.

You do have one gift that is still special though. You’ve been doing it your whole life, but only recently have you started to take it seriously. Because it makes you feel so alive inside. You slip inside it, away from that horrible mess out there, and make everything happen the way you want it. It’s not at all surprising. It’s just you. You scribble it in the back of notebooks. You write it on scraps of paper at work, which you pocket nervously. You blow off your study hour to hunch over the keyboard and pound words out of it in a fevered rush. And sometimes you wonder if you’re being crazy - surely nothing can come of this?

Well it can. It hasn’t quite yet, but ten years from now, it’s getting close. Tantalisingly close. And the only reason it’s got so tantalisingly close, is because you are good at it. Really good. A lot of it hasn’t changed. You’re still scribbling in the back of notebooks - that one notebook has multiplied into a harem of fucking notebooks, with post it notes, receipts and street maps tucked between each page. You still jot down lines and ideas on scrap pieces of paper at work, which you then pocket nervously and squeeze throughout the day. You always blow off your lunch hour to edit and reread scenes on your phone. And you are still crazy. The only difference is that the quality of all of these things has increased beyond anything you could have imagined.

It is unseemly to toot one’s own horn, but you are good. You are very very good.

Oh stop hiding your face, dear one. You have to learn to take a compliment. It irritates people when you do that.

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so harsh. You can’t help it. I suppose this is where I move on to the bad news from further down the road - specifically this one geological fault that keeps opening up cracks in the tarmac as you drive over them.

You have a demon inside your mind. You haven’t been formally introduced to it yet, but it’s there. It’s that little voice that whispers in your ear every day, telling you that you are worthless. You are nothing. Nobody cares about you. You have no ability, no virtues, no power, no reason to be alive and taking up valuable space on this planet, that could go to someone more deserving.

It tells you not to try, because there is no way that you will ever succeed. It tells you to just give up, because nobody will care even if you do manage it. It tells you that everyone else thinks it too. They whisper about it behind your back. It’s gently nudged you more than once to consider how much simpler it would be if you just went for a little walk around the cliffs and never came back.

I’m sorry, hun. It hasn’t gone away. And it never will completely. Three times now, it’s burrowed so deep inside your mind that it’s taken months to pull it out again. The last time was the worst - it clawed right down to the bottom, until there was nothing left - but you did come out of it eventually. You have a tattoo now to mark that - and to have something comforting watch your back.

Over time, with help from therapists and support programmes, you will learn to loosen the grip of those claws. Sometimes you manage to have entire days where you don’t remember it’s there. Those are the best days. But part of this is learning to accept that there will be days when the grip is tight, and the claws will be trying to scratch away inside your mind again. Those days will always be around. Like I said, it will never go away completely.

And you must remember this, sweet girl. Whatever that demon tells you. However much of a failure you feel each time it comes back. However much you want to believe all the things it tells you.

It’s not your fault.

You didn’t ask for this illness (and it is an illness). You are not attention seeking. You are not giving up. You did nothing to get this demon. It’s been growing there all your life. All you can do is be ready to build bridges when those cracks start to appear.

As I said before, planning ahead doesn’t really work with you. And it never will, really. Plans will always have to change when the demon shows its face.

It’s a good thing you have very understanding friends.

Yes. Friends.

You’ve gained loads.

It’s probably your most important achievement in the last ten years.

I know right now, at seventeen, there’s still a little girl inside you, who so desperately wants to be popular. Don’t worry. I know it seems impossible right now, but when you go to university, that little girl, and what she wants, stops being important. Instead you realise that it’s quality over quantity. I know, it sounds so cliche. But it really is. You have wonderful friends. Friends who draw out an ease - a lightness - in you. Friends who accept your shortcomings, and do their best to fill in your gaps. Friends who, quite frankly, are a few cards short of a full deck. But that’s great. There’s nothing more reassuring than knowing that the rest of the world is just as mad as you.

You’ve also lost some. Some more important than others. Each time it hurts. You already know how much it hurts. It will keep hurting, over and over and over again, just like it did that first time. But you can live through it. You know you can.

You’ve lost others too, in other ways. And I’m sorry, but one is going to hurt you more than the rest. I wish I could say it was peaceful. But the truth is, it wasn’t. It can’t have been. It went on for so long. I think - I know - that the only relief she had was at the end. You put on a brave face - try to be practical and not get in the way when it happens. But don’t forget to take time for yourself? Please? You need it.

She’s gone too. Both of them are. The last of that generation. You cried less over the second one. I don’t know if that was because you loved her differently, or because the first one hurts more? There’s no sense in asking these questions, really. They’re impossible.

I suppose I should mention the rest of them too, huh? They are okay - still the same as ever. I suppose once you get to a certain age, you don’t really change much anymore. Sometimes that will frustrate you. Sometimes you’ll just learn to let it go. You’re still learning in that regard.

The other one, though? He has changed. You don’t like some of the changes. Not the casual misogyny, or the way he says or does things because he thinks they’re cool. But you have to admit - some of the things he’s done? They are cool. You are never going to be best friends - I think you’ve realised that by now - but secretly, you are proud of him, in a way. He is not the best version of himself by any means, but he is a better version of himself. So that’s progress, I suppose.

Though if he keeps calling every woman he meets ‘darling’ or ‘love’, he’s going to get slapped sooner or later, and part of me really hopes that I’m there to see it.

Yeah, you never lose that sense of schadenfreude. Keep it. You’ll need it. Especially when you get onto the internet.

Yes. The internet. You’re pretty popular in certain circles now - well alright, one particular circle. And I don’t mind telling you that it feels bloody great. You’ve invented a circle of your own too. Those mad people that I mentioned earlier? You’ve met a large number of them here. I could talk for ages about them, but I think there’s one in particular who needs mentioning. He’s special.

Yes. He. I see you lean forwards in your seat. Surely not! You don’t trust men.

You trust him. Actually, there are a few of them that you trust now. But like I said, he’s special. He was always going to be special, to stick out five years with you and not want to run away. And of course you were going to meet him on the internet. Where else does someone like you have a chance to make a good first impression? He writes, just like you. That’s more than you could have ever hoped - that someone would not only tolerate your weirdness, but would actively encourage it and participate in it too (he ships Harry/Hermione, but we can forgive him for this).

He’s nothing like the men you invent for your stories. You could never have invented someone like him in a million years. That’s a good thing. Creating someone means you don’t get the same sense of wonder when you explore them. That’s an adventure in itself. And since he handed you a ring a week ago, it seems you will be able to explore this one for a long time yet.

So many special things are coming up for you in the next ten years. A broader knowledge of writing. Eating vegetables. Flying long distance on your own. The discovery of your breasts (yes, they do exist!). Attending conventions, and discovering just how many nerds there really are out there. Learning to dance. If all these occurred in the last ten years, I can only speculate what the next ten years will hold.

I think that you will perform a solo dance.

I predict that you will visit Japan.

I hope there will be marriage and maybe at least one child.

I know that you will get published.

I was never searching for these goals. They just came to me on the road. So you see? You are right. You can’t anticipate the twists that your journey will take. So don’t worry, sweet nerd, about trying to map where you’re going. You’ll find over the next ten years, that the map tends to draw itself.

Or, since it’s us, the story tends to write itself.

They do that, doncha know?

All my love to long ago,
Your twenty seven year old self.

P.S. You’re spelling definitely wrong in your fanfictions. Stop it. It’s embarrassing.

P.P.S. It’s funny that I have used a driving metaphor for this letter, when in ten years you still haven’t passed your driving test!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Steampunk, Victorian and Pirates!

There comes a time in every woman's life, when all she wants to do is put on a dress and pretend to be someone else.

It must be said, that I have these moments more than the average woman.

Halloween is my favorite time of year, hands down. The day where I can wear something that I'm comfortable in, and the residents of Guernsey don't judge, or sneer, or wonder if they should be calling the police because I'm clearly not quite right in the head (because that's how you spot crazy people, apparently).

The aftermath of the meal, mostly consisted of me and my lovely friend Tai, sprinting around St Peter Port to some of the most attractive spots we could find, and snapping pictures of ourselves posing dramatically. In spite of the occasional hiccups of poor light, misbehaving timers, and photobombing men in fluorescent jackets, we had a blast. So much so that we decided that on Sunday, I would dress up in some of my favorite outfits, and we would go take advantage of the lovely Guernsey scenery, and the surprisingly warm weather.

What can I say? Posing is fun!

So in the spirit of sharing, I have cherry picked a few of the better shots from Saturday and Sunday, and compiled them here for your enjoyment. As an aside note (and one doesn't like to boast, but one is going to anyway) but one of my pictures has already been yoinked by my lovely friend Jess, and re-purposed as the cover of her latest novel.

So with that being said, enjoy my latest efforts to be creative!

(what do you mean I'm procrastinating from NaNoWriMo?).

Victorian Halloween
Dress: Made by me
Corset: Corset Story

Steam Explorer
Blouse: Corset Story
Corset: Corset Story
Skirt: Joe Browns
Boots: Joe Browns
Bag: Accessorize
Parasol: Corset Story
Hat: A lovely lady in the dealers room at Ayacon 2013, who's name I don't remember!

(...what do you mean I need a key?)

(Gentlemen! I have a cunning plan...)

(Oh marvelous! My rescue is on time!)

(You are my only hope of escape now, tiny box camera...)

Guernsey Treasure

(...I could be wrong, but I don't think the treasure is here any more...) 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Sequins and Western Values

I love the statement "I'm just expressing my opinion". It covers all manner of self importance and rudeness. Because the truth is, there's no such thing as "just" expressing your opinion. Nobody speaks about their opinions, especially on a public forum, without at least hoping that someone will be listening and perhaps be tempted to change their own thoughts and feelings based on what you have said. Nowhere is this more true than the internet, which contains more opinions than it does pornography. I open my Facebook page these days and drown in a virtual sea of posts about feminism, race and homophobia from my friends, all of which may be 'just' people's opinions, but are none the less designed to change or influence the way you think about these issues, even if it is just to add a bit more fury to an already blazing fire of passionate feeling.

Presumably this is what Randa Jarrar was thinking when she posted her article titled "Why I can’t stand white belly dancers", which I recently had waved at me by a friend. With such an inflammatory title and scathing dressing down of women who are appropriating Middle Eastern culture to fulfill financial or (heaven forbid) personal gain, I can only assume that the whole purpose of publicly posting this opinion piece, was to make any white belly dancer who read it feel horribly guilty.

And to my shame, it worked.

For about an hour I felt like a criminal. Like the worst kind of racist. I'd stolen a social activity and an art form from another country, one which was clearly loved and adored throughout history, and actively supported the appropriation of it into a country that had no rights to it. To quote one of my favorite critics I'd done what western country's always do - muscled in on another country's territory and fucked everything up. To women like me, Randa feels she can only say I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.

At the point where I was feeling like the lowest human being alive, my coping strategies kicked in and I started looking at this objectively, by considering my attitudes and motivations, as well as those of my teacher and the ten other regulars in the class I attend. For the sake of all of our self-esteem, I decided that none of us were racist.

Contrary to Randa’s belief, I did not choose to take up belly dancing in an effort to steal a precious gem from Middle Eastern culture, or to propagate racism in any way. I took up belly dancing because I needed something to get me out of the house once a week, because it's a low impact weight-bearing exercise which I was in sore need of, but most of all, because it looked like fun. And it was so diverse! Baladi, Sharqi, Sha abi (and that’s just Egyptian – I haven’t mentioned the other Eastern styles from Turkey or Lebanon, let alone get started on the Western ones). The moment I discovered Gothic Tribal was like coming home. I was so comfortable doing this.

I had never danced before in my life - not even the two years of ballet which all primary school children seem to endure, but which I somehow missed out on - and this was one of the few dance classes on my tiny island that didn't involve a partner in some shape or form. I certainly did not sign up to the class, cackling with fiendish glee at the thought of taking something historic and beautiful from the Middle East, and slapping sequins and western values all over it.

And I certainly am not dancing for the male gaze - my boyfriend of almost five years has seen me do many things, including going on rollercoasters, cooking interesting things with fermented tuna flakes, and vomiting at the side of a road (not all at once - thank the Gods), but he has never seen me dance before. I've only ever performed in groups at workshops, all of which are usually attended solely by other women. Not a single male gaze to be held.

I cannot claim that the west is entirely innocent. We do have a habit of pinching from other cultures, and thrusting our own values back in the guise of 'exchanging'. But there is no need for such hateful shaming - it speaks badly of all of us. Should I feel guilty when I attempt to sing along to my favourite J-Pop because I have no Japanese in my heritage? Should I inform my American friends that they aren't allowed to play soccer because we had it first? If my brother returns from Australia this summer with a pair of Ugg boots, should I ban them from the house, because he's not in their country of origin any longer?

Of course not. That would be really stupid.

We are not thieves. We are students. I study the western take on a Middle Eastern form of dance - I do not behave as if I own it or it belongs to me. I do not claim belly dancing in the name of the west, or in the name of white women. I merely feel fortunate that I am doing an activity which I get enjoyment out of (and happens to do wonderful things for my core muscles in the process). I get the same enjoyment when I eat yakitori or put on a corset.

Randa published her opinion because she feels disgust towards a white woman doing an activity which is an intricate part of culture in the Middle East. The only motivation towards writing something like this, is the hope that someone will read it, and their opinions will change to reflect hers. In this case, it’s written to make white belly dancers feel a sense of shame – to guilt them each time they perform, and to make them stop feeling enjoyment in an activity that they love.

I can say now, honestly and truly, that the only thing that would ever stop me enjoying belly dancing is the attitude of people like Randa, who seem to regard being white as some kind of barrier that means I am unable to do this dance properly, and indeed, I shouldn't even bother trying, because it's an insult to the millions of Middle Eastern women who did it before me. Reading this article left a sour taste in my mouth that no amount of Thai green curry or Indian tea was going to shift.

But doing my first solo performance in Torquay this September might just do the trick.

So I will go to Torquay. I will do the workshops. I will perform something that I love in front of a group of other like-minded women (most of whom will probably be white), and see which emotion wins out – disgust at my appropriation of a piece of Middle Eastern culture, or the rush of pleasure that I get from enjoying myself.

…somehow, I think I know which one is going to win.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Simple Guide To Fanfiction Research (or How To Write About A Country That Isn’t Your Own)

Oh what trials and treacherous waters we fanfiction readers must endure. Bad plots. Out of characterization. Poor spelling and grammar. Ship-to-ship combat. So many of these are so easily fixable. Engaging plots and sensible character arcs come with practice. To improve spelling and grammar, you read more books, and pay more attention in school. Ship-to-ship combat is not fixable, sadly, and will endure until the apocalypse, along with Nokia phones, Brussels sprouts and the burning hatred everyone feels towards call centres.

Lack of research, however, is something that can be fixed with ease, and yet so very often is not. A lot of fanfiction authors genuinely seem to believe that researching for something that ‘just’ gets posted online is beneath them. I admit, I am not a huge advocate for entire books of research – plotting the evolutional path of your aliens, or the ancestry of your characters right back to the 10th century seems a little extreme unless it’s relevant to the plot. There is a line where research takes over the story, and that is where you need to reign yourself back in. However, there is nothing wrong with a simple bit of fact checking, even if it is ‘just’ the internet.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re reading a very enjoyable fanfiction, and suddenly a fact just jumps out and bites you? That’s wrong you think to yourself. That’s not how you hack a computer/that’s not how you treat a gunshot wound/that’s not how Japanese high schools work. Valiantly you try to shake the fact off, but it digs its teeth in to your suspension of disbelief and you can’t really get into the story any more.

Maybe I’m just very picky. Maybe I just like researching this kind of stuff. Or maybe I just feel the brunt of it, after ten years of screaming at Harry Potter fanfictions, because British schools like Hogwarts don’t have lockers or prom, and our first year of school isn’t called Kindergarten. But I fail to see why it is so difficult to pop onto Wikipedia (or TVTropes, if you want to make the experience a little more amusing) and just quickly check whether this is true or not. You wouldn’t get away with this in a published novel, so why should your fanfiction suffer through it? Do you not put just as much creativity and love into your fanfiction as you do your original work? Does it not deserve the same respect? At the very least you should consider it practise for when you write an actual novel.

A colleague of mine gave me this wise advice recently. “Never assume – it makes an ass of you and me”. I’ve been on fanfiction for ten years now, and I’ve found that assumptions are the biggest cause of incorrect facts – specifically, since the tendency is for fanfiction writers to write what they know, they assume that other countries and cultures are exactly like theirs at a fundamental level. Some things are obvious – Yu-Gi-Oh writers are usually perfectly aware that the odds of rain in Egypt are practically nonexistent, for example. But some things are less obvious – like why it is sometimes impossible to buy alcohol in modern Egypt, and why in ancient Egypt, the beer was treated more like soup than a beverage.

To that end, I invite my readers to borrow some of my top tips to remember when writing about countries that you have never visited before. It doesn’t take long to find most of these out, thanks to the mighty powers of Google, and you never know – you may learn something interesting in the process.

1. Location, location, location

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, irritates me more than opening a Yu-Gi-Oh/Harry Potter crossover, and reading the following words or a variation thereof. "It was sweltering hot in the London International Airport as travellers hurried their way from flight to flight."

I can tolerate a lot of problems in fanfiction – typos, poorly written sex, abandoning your stories – but this has got to be one of my biggest pet peeves. Gods help you if you then have your characters walk from the airport to the Leaky Cauldron because ‘it only takes ten minutes’ – I am liable to start foaming at the mouth.

Let me explain my problem. There is no such thing as London International Airport. London has six airports (in order of largest to smallest: London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London Stansted, London Luton, London City and London Southend). Are your characters flying into Heathrow from Japan? Great – hope they can handle the London Underground through all the jetlag! Are they flying into Gatwick? Excellent! Let’s hope the Gatwick Express is on time, or they won’t get into the centre of London until gone dark! Are they flying into Stansted, Luton, LC or Southend? No they’re not, because those airports are domestic and European flights only, and you’re flying in direct from Japan since we all know that having to change planes is a bitch.

And NONE of these airports are a ten minutes walk away from the Leaky Cauldron – none of these airports are a ten minute train ride away from the Leaky Cauldron! I know that London looks small on a map, especially if you come from the United States, but there is a reason that we have that extensive and well maintained underground system – for the record, it takes about forty five minutes to get from Heathrow to central London by the underground (unless, like my last journey, you get stuck outside South Ealing for thirty three minutes due to a signal failure).

The point I am trying laboriously to get to, is that if you’re going to have your characters visit these places, you need to know a little bit about the lay of the land before you start. Taking your characters to Egypt? Get yourself onto Google maps, pick up the little yellow Street View man, and plonk yourself down into the middle of modern day Cairo. Is it towering skyscrapers or dusty, mud-brick houses? (hint: it’s neither) Sending your characters home to Japan? Google maps has a destination planner – pop the airport and your final destination in, choose your mode of transport, and get an accurate estimated time of journey – you never know, the villain might decide to drop in on them in the middle of their journey. Need a forest in the UK? Switch to the satellite view on Google maps, and look around for a big patch of green (the New Forest is a good one).

Things like this are tiny, but they have the capability to break the reader’s immersion, and they take relatively little time to actually find out. And they mean the world to the readers. There’s nothing like that little warm glow you feel when you read a story, and realise that the author has taken their time to research somewhere that you know so well.

2. Cultural values

Variety is the spice of life. And humans have it in abundance. But from the consumption of most fanfiction set in schools, you could be forgiven for thinking that we all live in America. This of course, isn’t limited to America, and other countries are guilty too – I still have a British brand of aspirin based painkiller being used in the second chapter of my Yu-Gi-Oh!/Harry Potter crossover, even though that scene is set in Japan (oops!).

If you are planning on writing a story based in another country, you need to give yourself a crash course of the everyday lives of people who live there. I did this for many of my duellists in my crossover, even though their appearances were limited. Standard of living. Education levels. Religion. Languages spoken in the area. All of these are important. Are the cast of Yu-Gi-Oh driving cars in your story? No they’re not – because they’re still sixteen/seventeen when the series is going on, and you can’t drive until you’re eighteen in Japan. Have your American characters been arrested in the UK? No, you can’t plead the fifth – you’re not in America any more. Sixteen year old British character with a full time job? No they didn’t drop out – mandatory schooling finishes at sixteen in the UK. Your character from the UAE and your character from Egypt both speak Arabic, so they should be able to understand each other, right? So very wrong!

The one that frustrates me the most is Yu-Gi-Oh slash fics that send their recently married gay couples on honeymoons to Egypt – SUCH A BAD IDEA!

And while I’m on the subject, and it’s fresh in my mind: “What do you mean you’re at work today? It’s Thanksgiving”. RAGE!

This isn’t just anal-ness for the sake of story immersion. At best, a native reading your story may simply shake their heads and move on – at worst, you could grossly offend them. Remember, this is another person’s culture – their life – that you’re describing here. To assume that their way of life is identical to your own, does not convey the respect that they deserve, both as a reader and a representative of their country.

This is one of my favourite aspects of research, because other cultures are fascinating. Don’t skimp on it. You are depriving yourself of an opportunity to learn some wonderful things. Don’t believe me? Pick a country, hop onto Wikipedia, and research some of their cuisine. You learn the most about a culture from their food. If your fanfic is set in Japan, don’t just stop at sushi. Go look up soba, udon, okonomiyaki, miso, tempura, sashimi, katsu, sukiyaki, mochi and doroyaki. Go on. I’ll still be here when you come back.

3. Terminology

As some of you may have grasped by now, I’m British. I speak British English, in a mixed accent, and I am not afraid to shout ‘bollocks!’ if something goes wrong.

But a lot of my characters are not British. They don’t speak British English. They have all sorts of accents. And some of them have some pretty creative curses from their home country that don’t involve male genitalia.

I’ve heard a lot of authors on fanfiction explain over the years that they have Harry Potter characters saying pants or freeway because they, the author, are American and that is how they speak. And I understand that – I really do. Every Japanese character in my crossover speaks British English, in spite of the fact that logically they would have been more likely to learn American English in schools (although since they are using Language Patches created and distributed in the UK, I suppose I can get away with this). But this really shouldn’t be an excuse. If it’s not in a character’s nature to swear during stressful moments, then it shouldn’t be acceptable for them to start using an entirely different form of the language.

This might seem like a silly thing to fuss over, but terminology goes beyond simply remembering to say ‘mobile phone’ instead of ‘cell phone’. This ties into the character’s style of speech, and using the wrong words can heavily impact how the character comes about. Changing a single word can alter tone, meaning and politeness. Japanese is an excellent example of this, where a character’s way of speaking, how they address other people and what kind of respect they afford them, is an intricate part of who they are as a character. Simply using an incorrect suffix or even the wrong tone can instantly change an honest statement to an insult. It is the same when writing all characters.

Terminology might seem unimportant when you’ve got a story to tell, but the way it changes meaning should not be underestimated. It’s the simple act of saying the sentence “can I bum a fag?” to an American and a British person (the former will probably be shocked and appalled, where as the latter is more likely to say “Sorry mate – I don’t smoke”). Familiarise yourself with a few common terms and local language courtesies, for everyone’s sake.

4. Current events

The relevance of this tip depends on whether your fandom is one based off the real world, or an entirely fictional world/planet (e.g. is your fandom Glee, or Game of Thrones?). It does sort of hold true for fictional worlds, but for the purpose of explanation, I’ll be using it to describe stories set in the real world.

To use a topical example, if your characters visit Sierra Leone during 2012, great. If they visit during 2014, not great (if you haven’t heard of Ebola by now, there’s this programme you should start watching – it’s called the News).

It might not seem relevant to your story, but it is important to know what the current events are in the country you’re about to plonk your characters into. Just because a place seems idyllic, doesn’t mean it is – that delightful safari you could be about to send your characters off for, might be in the middle of a war zone for all you know.

This doesn’t just apply to modern settings either. I’ve lost count of the number of Yu-Gi-Oh fics I have read, set in ancient Egypt, which refer to Cairo and Luxor, which isn’t correct at all. These are the modern names for the cities that stand on or near the location of the ancient capitals today, and nobody from ancient Egypt would use them. The correct names are Memphis and Thebes respectively, but which one Atem ruled from depends on whether you’re following manga or dubbed anime, as 3,000 years ago would put him in Thebes, and 5,000 years Memphis.

Dates, advancements, events – all of these are important in building your world. Don’t let them slip by. And you never know – some of these events might provide an interesting backdrop for your story.