Thursday, April 23, 2015

How Does Slavery Happen?


Like most fantasy writers, I've read a great deal of history. When you're trying to create your own world, you have to have some idea how our society evolved. Everything from language to weapons to indoor plumbing to marriage rituals. Unlike historians, who are forced to specialize, I've been able to pick through the human story depending on my research needs for my latest novel. It's been a roller coaster ride through the human experience, and for much of the last twenty years, it's been a fascinating trip. As poorly as we have behaved throughout our history, I've always been able to find find moments or events that displayed the best of human qualities. Moments where mercy and kindness and self-sacrifice were on clear display.

The one caveat to that was slavery. How was it that such an evil thing could be excused by ostensibly good people? How could a religion whose founder preached equality not only protect the institution of slavery, but help start a civil war over it? I'd read long ago that in the 18th Century, Southern Baptist churches would sell slaves behind the church following the Sunday morning service. The evil of that was -- and for a very long time remained -- beyond my understanding.

Worse, as far as I could tell through my twenty or so years of picking through the human scrapbook, it had always existed and had always been excused. My current novel was based on a slave society, and I was tasked with creating likable characters who didn't have an issue with the idea of human property. How the hell was I supposed to do that?

"People Are Sinners"

As I had no idea how such a thing could happen, I started asking my friends and people around me what they thought. How could decent moral humans could allow such a travesty to exist? The answer were predictable but unhelpful. Something along the lines of "people are sinners" or "people suck" or "people are selfish." Theologically, the notion of "sin" may or may not be true, depending on what you believe, but in every other way it was a useless answer. The similar but non-religious view, "people suck" was just as useless. Besides, the word "sin" had been so abused within the church and the surrounding culture that to repeat the mantra of sin as a reason for cruelty made it sound more like an excuse than a plausible reason. And it didn't answer my question anyway. How could a human look at another human in chains and consider them property? Civilization and human growth has never been linear, but the idea that slavery would somehow be accepted within the 21st Century seemed a great stretch.

Slavery Still Exists
Indentured servitude has always existed, in its most vicious form in the American South, the more formalized version in Rome, or the horrors of Ancient Egypt, the notion that certain humans are worth less than others is as old as humanity. One could look at the feudal systems in the Middle Ages, of Europe or China or Japan, for further examples. Now some of those societies did not operate as slave societies per se, but the effect was similar. Large swaths of a population with few (if any) rights, little or no money, and horrific working conditions.

It bothered me that I hadn't considered it earlier, but it only took a bit of research to realize that slavery exists today, in plain sight of the world, and no one (including me) seemed to give a shit.

The China Issue

Most items in the world (that's not an exaggeration) are made in China, where labor is cheap and oversight non-existent. Nearly every successful company has factories there, including Apple, who, like the others, has made its riches off the backs off the 21st century form of indentured servitude.

Foxconn is the largest employer in China, and a few years ago the media caught wind of how these "employees" were treated. To wit: 
"human rights organisations have gained insight into the gated Foxconn dormitories and highlighted some daily practices including full control over people’s working schedules, as well as their free time. Workers are prohibited from using certain devices, their rooms are raided, and if they are found to have broken any of the strict rules, they have to confess their guilt publicly.
Time off is usually only used for rest as people regularly work shifts of 11 to 13 hours. Working hours are so long that people sleep in the factories when a new product is being released. Additionally, if targets are not met, lunch breaks are also cancelled. Days off are rare and trips home to visit family are only allowed once a year. This is particularly concerning as most of the workers are immigrants from distant provinces. They are usually young people who are not in a strong position to find employment in their home
regions. Some of them are attracted by Foxconn advertising campaigns. The largest group of Foxconn employees is between 18 and 21 years old although incidents of child labour have been observed."
And when the media began to expose how they were treating their employees, some changes were made. A few. One of those changes was a slight wage increase. Apple responded by going with another employer who did not alter the way they treated their employees, which allowed them to keep a larger share of its profit. In fact, if you're still buying Apple products after reading THIS report, then I'm guessing you've given up.


Of course, slavery still exists in other ways. Women and young girls sold as sex slaves is a thriving billion dollar industry. The difference, however, is that the world (mostly) disapproves of that behavior and it is done illegally. The abuse in Chinese factories is different in that it is such a huge and entrenched part of the world economy, it feels helpless to even think about how it can be stopped. Sure, we can boycott Apple (which I will do from now on), but China produces so much product it feels like a pebble in the pond.

Much like the plantations in the American South, where slavery was a fundamental part of the economy, it is difficult to imagine what would happen to the world markets if we suddenly asked these Chinese factories to treat their workers appropriately and pay them accordingly. How would the markets respond? Would everything suddenly become expensive, or worse, would the markets crash and lead us into another depression? On a more personal nature, would we have access to all the things we have now if it happened?


In my quest to understand how to draw a character that lived in a slave society, a moral character who cared about others but turned a blind eye to a society built on indentured servitude, I didn't have to go very far. A fifteen foot walk to the bathroom to check the mirror. Like most of you, it wasn't that I didn't care as much as I couldn't do anything about it. And if I dwelt on it too much, I was struck by a weighted sadness, a helpless feeling that very much led me to the same response I'd recieved from my friends: "people suck because they're sinners."

But I didn't want to go there, because I knew that if I did, I was only that much closer to the devastation of apathy and the blindness that apathy brought with it. And make no mistake, it was and has always been that kind of blindness that led to slavery in the first place, the kind that left us with not only little regard for the pain of others but encouraged us to blame victims for their troubles, using words like "sin" and "lazy" and "undisciplined."

I still don't know what the answer is, but I do know the question. It's the same one they asked a Jewish Rabbi about two thousand years ago. Millenia have passed, and the question hasn't changed...

Who is my neighbor, Lord?

They are. We are. I am.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Writing is Waiting... As It Should Be

Some days I want to stop. Pack in the writing. Try something else. Something faster. The publishing industry has always been slow (an eighteen month wait between selling a book to a publisher and seeing it on the shelves is typical), but in a time of instant everything, it seems slower now. The option to self-publish is always there, of course, something I may attempt in the future, but even that doesn't eliminate the amount of patience required to be a writer.

To date, I have a novel (THE LAST ANGEL) making rounds among literary agents. A spin off of the first novel, (CITY OF SLAVES) is currently being read by my beta-readers. And I'm working on the first draft of the sequel to The Last Angel. (UNHOLY WRATH) It feels like an awful lot of plates to keep in the air, but it isn't the amount of work that I find wearisome, it's the waiting. The daily drag  of hoping that this is the day an agent or reader or magazine gets back to you, and that they like your work. I've sent The Last Angel to forty seven agents so far. I've had some positive responses, including a full manuscript request from an agency in New York. The return time on whether they'll sign me: three months. (Three months!?)

Not that I'm complaining. I'm thrilled my work is getting some interest and I understand it takes time to sort through the thousands of projects, not to mention the time it takes to edit. But still, it's a grind. As a result, I go through the usual battery of writer-neurotic exercises: I'll never be a good writer, I think my work is pretty good, I've been doing this a long time and haven't had success, I'll never make it, my book is awesome, I'm too old, my sentences look like a lumber yard, these books will be bestsellers, I should have been a carpenter, etc...

This is not unusual. All writers (all artists) suffer through varying amounts of anguish when it comes to their work. Art is personal, and we're holding it out to the world to receive the praise or criticism or (worse) apathy, so it should matter. But again, this just makes it even more difficult.

Here's the thing though: writing is waiting.

Through the long haul of producing a first draft, the tediousness of scrubbing through a second and third draft, the waiting as we send the work to our beta-readers, the push through the final edit, the read-aloud edit, and all of that before the push to publish (self or traditional), where the waiting becomes even more intense. (And yes, it is very intense.)

When I was younger, I knew a lot of people who wanted to be writers. Many of them have given up. The process was too much. Too long. Why go through that hell when there were other noble aspirations. I understood completely, encouraged them in their new endeavors, and then got back to my latest piece. I've been writing for twenty years, and aside from a few essays in newspapers and a couple magazine pieces, I haven't had a great deal of success. Is that hard? Sure. But it isn't why I write. Every writer wants their work to see the light of publication, every writer wants to produce a best seller, and every writer wants to quit their day job so they can focus on their art. But that's not why I write.

Even the aphorism "a writer writes because they have to," misses the point. And in the process, makes writing sound like a chore. It's not. Hard work, yes. But not a chore.

I write because the agony of the wait is offset by the joy of my creation, and because it's the wait that produces that joy.

Think about it. How much would our work mean if we did it in one night? If our success actually happened over a weekend instead of a lifetime. How would it change us if we DIDN'T have to wait? And what kind of impact would it have on others?

Writers identify as writers when their worldview becomes an observatory, when we allow ourselves to be outsiders. Gradually, our scope widens, our empathy grows, and we begin to identify with people outside our original purview. This cannot happen without the growth and time that comes through the sometimes sluggish process of both creation and publication.

When I think back to those first days, young and eager to not only live the myth but be the myth, I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. I had no idea that it would be eight years before my first novel was accepted by a literary agent (unbelievable joy), and only six months later before the agent dumped me, and did so in the crushingly bland way of simply not returning my phone calls. No explanation. Nothing. (soul emptying) I had no idea that I would spend five years on a failed fantasy novel, and another two before finally hitting my stride.

And yet despite the disappointments, despite the weeks and months and years I've spent waiting, for one thing or another, I do not regret it. The process has changed me, changed me from the impetuous and judgmental young man that had no time for people who believed differently, people who were different. I have been forced for so long to see things through a long scope that it is the only scope that works for me now. I doubt very much that I would have such a healthy marriage without this change, doubt very much I could have spent twenty years as a special needs worker, and doubt that my worldview would focus so heavily on empathy. The waiting has done that. The years have done that. The writing has done that.

Maybe you haven't had as much success as you would have hoped. Maybe you've written a best seller and are finding it hard to reproduce your earlier success. Or maybe you're thinking your work isn't good enough, that you're not good enough, and that it will never happen. My advice? Keep writing, and enjoy the wait. You'll be grateful you did.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Defending Trashing Religious Books (Part 2)

Yesterday I posted a blog to answer some of the criticisms and complaints both in my inbox and on one of my Facebook threads. Sorting through those books mentally was more fatiguing than I imagined it would be, and with my inability to be succinct, I cut it short. (If you want to find the original thread on Facebook, it's here.)

Again, just so we're clear, I don't mind the criticism. If I'm going to post a strong opinion, I have to be willing to back it up. As far as I'm concerned, criticism is nothing more than a door to discussion, evaluation and if need be, change. That's why constructive criticism is a good thing.

Okay, here are a few more:

1. Were you hurt when you were young? Why do you seem so angry all the time?

Yes. I was hurt when I was young. I'm human. As for "being angry all the time,"I can assure you that I don't walk around growling all day. (Okay, sometimes I growl at myself, but I work in a school, this is normal.) I'm actually quite genial. If we spoke in person, I would be kind and interested.

That said, I am angry about the state of the world. We'll never fix it, humans are broken, but that doesn't mean we don't keep trying like hell to get it done. Shit, the whole point of living a #Kindlife is to point out the things that need to be changed and do what we can to change them. That means keeping my eyes open. It also means I'm obligated to wade through a lot of human shit -- be it behaviour or systemic or whatever else -- and when I post about it, I'm not going to sound nice. Am I supposed to be all cool and happy when I find out that Wal-Mart's factory farms use gestation cages, about the cruelest possible fucking way to raise pigs? It's a life of torture. And you want fucking rainbows?! Hell, yes, I'm pissed! And I'm furious that certain people don't give a shit about the lives (both human and animal) around them. Given that I can't punch everyone of them in the face or take a baseball bat to their knees, all I can do is post the information, inform others, and stew. Hence, I will occasionally seem angry.

Thankfully, I have the most amazing wife/teammate in the world, I love to laugh, and rum. Oh, and NBA2K.

2. How could a writer criticize a best-sellers list, when you should know how much work it takes to get there?

I never go after young writers, especially those who write fiction. I won't do it unless the books are destructive with their stereotypes or misogyny or whatever, books like 50 Shades of Crap and Twilight. Most of the books on the "Christian" bestselling list, however,  do not represent "writers." Instead, they represent a bunch of finely tailored junk peddlers selling snake-oil and calling it Christianity. They've all made a tonne of money off people who aren't educated enough to know better. It's disgusting.

3. You use profanity, and yet you claim to be a Christian?

Hell, yes. Honestly, I don't trust people who think swearing is analogous to faith. It always speaks to fear and "being nice," neither of which appeal to me. I think we should enjoy the breadth and depth of the English language, but I don't appreciate people dropping f-bombs like they're playing high school football. And I do have friends who never swear and are completely awesome, but they don't care if someone swears around them. Do you see the difference?

Also, Shakespeare, the greatest writer of the English language ever (yes, better than Joyce) added some ten thousand words to English, a number of which were curse words and insults.

My Shakespearean mug of cursing. Hilarious! (And geeky. Yeah, I got that.)

There are more (believe it or not), but I have to stop for today. Time to work on the novel. 


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Defending Trashy Religious Books (Part 1)

A few days ago I posted this pic (from Pulpit and Pen) on Facebook. My comment? "Don't buy this garbage, and if you're looking for a good Christian book, try Rachel Held Evans' new one." Or something like that.

Because I keep my thread open to everyone, within a few hours I had numerous comments and complaints and criticisms. So many, in fact, I decided to respond with a blog post instead of spilling a few hundred words on a thread.

Before I answer those complaints, let's be clear. I have no problem with people ripping me on Facebook. There are limits, of course, but as long those boundaries aren't crossed, I don't mind people having strong opinions that differ from my own. If I'm going to post something like this, then I'm inviting commentary. (I just didn't think it would happen for these books. Apparently, there are some sacred cows on this list. Who knew?) I'll answer the complaints and criticisms like I would answering a mailbag.


The criticism that I misused KindLife hashtag by calling these books "garbage," and that I hadn't even read them, so how could I comment? 


I use #KindLife  often, and it's tied in to what I do on this site. It's not complicated. I'm simply trying to promote kindness. However, we have confused "niceness" with "kindness." They are different words with different implications. I know a few narcissists who are very nice. The guy down the street beats the shit out of his girlfriend, but he's nice. Kindness implies more than simply being "nice." So, no. My post wasn't "nice." And if I'd used #NiceLife, then that would be a fair criticism. 

Most (not all) of the authours and ideas on this list represent an ideology that is anything but kind. And if I haven't read that particular book, I've read the authour before and are familiar with their worldview and teaching. 

1) Jesus Calling by Sarah Young
This book actually looks interesting. Maybe I'd hate it, but the idea is pretty cool. And the "New Age Spirituality" criticism never bothers me, if only because most Western Christians don't realize that their faith has more in common with Platonism than Ancient Orthodox Christianity. In other words, I disagree  with the first comment.

 2 & 3) Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo

A "true" story of a three-year-old boy who goes to heaven after a near death experience. It's a 'heaven tourism' book, which would harmless if that's all it was, but its not. (I watched the movie, didn't read the book.) In some ways, it's far more pleasant than the inexorable GOD IS NOT DEAD, a movie filled with so many hateful stereotypes  (Muslims, women, atheists) that you understand immediately that only a white fundamentalist could have written it. But for all that pleasantness, it promotes an unnecessary and phony cultural divide between Todd Burpo and everyone who disagrees with him, who must clearly be Satan worshipping devil lovers, or at least, not "real" Christians.

Again, these fundamentalist movies (they aren't written for all Christians, they specifically target a certain niche group of conservative fundamentalist Christians) do far more damage than good. They paint Norman Rockwell scenes and cater to the "remember when" crowd, without ever addressing that whatever progress we've made when it comes to equality has been thanks to overcoming the very group these movies target. There aren't two sides. There are many sides. To everything. If only because they refuse to acknowledge that simple piece of philosophical framing by consistently creating a false dichotomy, these types and movies and books are indeed garbage, particularly when the paint the main character, a white, straight, Christian male, as being persecuted. Maybe he's being persecuted because he's an idiot. He does hold EVERY SINGLE CLASS POWER CARD in Western society.

(Also, Todd Burpo writing about how great Todd Burpo is. Hello, Antoine Fisher?)

4) The Five Love Languages

A useful counselling book unrelated to religion. (I own a copy. I do recommend it.)

5) Four Blood Moons by John Hagee

Hagee promotes a type of faith based on fear and ignorance. (And of course, a non-inclusive faith) Academically, Hagee is a joke. Even if you don't have a degree in Theology and didn't go to Seminary like I did, it shouldn't be hard to spot. Anyone who sells cartoon pamphlets detailing what will happen during the Rapture (ignoring the simple fact that Revelation is describing events that have already happened) and presents it as serious eschatology should not be allowed near a pulpit. I write fantasy, he teaches it as religious fact. (And who listens to an overweight dude who writes a weight loss book or instructs women how to be 'fetching.'.) Garbage.


Hold on, just give me a minute. I'm still contemplating a John Hagee book on a Christian list of any kind. Wait. I need to go to the fridge....

(3 beers and 2 hours later) Okay. Let's get back to this.

6) I am a Church Member by Thom Rainer

Rainer runs Lifeway books. I'm a struggling writer. I resent this, because if you think that his book is on this list based on merit, I have a few acres in Greenland to sell you. Don't worry, it's very warm there.

7) The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey

Uh, yeah. Money management. Why is it on a "Christian" list? (Shrug) Maybe it's helpful.

8) You Can, You Will by Joel Osteen

Anyone who thinks the shallow, commercial and individualistic shit Osteen puts out has anything remotely to do with Jesus of Nazareth is smoking crack. This dude sells Triumphalism and calls it Christianity. So no, it does NOT promote a KindLife.

9) The Daniel Plan by Rick Warren

It's a diet plan. Sorry, it's a diet plan for fundamentalists, with enough "God and faith" thrown in to contribute to the $5,000,000,000 a year that people spend at evangelical/fundamentalist drug book dealers. A diet plan that somehow first stresses "faith in the way we believe in God for change." So basically, Warren wanted to lose weight. And he didn't just do it and encourage his congregation to do it, he got a few big names (like Dr. Oz) to headline a plan that you have to buy, with all the fundamentalist fat (see what I did there) thrown in. It's a way to make money by promoting something exclusively to evangelicals and fundamentalists. Commercialism and religion and exclusivism. No. Not a Kindlife.

10) The Mystery of the Shemitah by Jonathan Cohn

What? Like, what?!?

"God has visited warnings upon the United States in seven year cycles dating back many decades." Listen, there's only so much stupid in this world. If you actually believe that, if you actually believe this type of silly, Manifest Destiny, historically absent, brain-dead trash, then what can I say. It isn't even about living a kind life. This book promotes stupidity, but I understand that half of the world is below average intelligence. I can deal.


I split this blog into two parts because I didn't think it would it would take this long. My failure to be succinct continues. I'll answer the other complaints in my next post. (And if I wasn't "nice" to these books, I'm sorry, I refuse to acknowledge trash. I'd do the same for Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight.) Some things are destructive, and the ideas in many of these books are not only toxic, they teach a faith so far from Jesus of Nazareth that it boggles my mind how many Christians don't even notice. Who the hell needs Jesus when I have Hagee's new cartoon, or Warren's commercial food plan, or the Mystery of the Friggin' Shemitah?! Sigh. I need a shower.


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