About that half a year…

So I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of things with my blog, slowly but surely posting again, both life content and stuff that could vaguely be considered literary analysis/criticism, and I’ve mentioned before that I took an unintentional hiatus from my blog. I also said that I’d post something about this hiatus, so here goes.

Basically, to sum it up, I had a very deep post-MFA depression.

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I graduated in June 2015!

I don’t know if I’m a resilient person or not. For the longest time growing up, I was a genki girl; nothing fazed me, I could strike up a conversation with anyone, I could become friends with them in a matter of minutes afterward, I was always full of energy. That changed, and I feel like I’ve always been trying to get back to that genki state ever since, but it just never seems to happen. Instead, the opposite seems to be true.

A couple friends from my MFA, who finished a term or two before me, and I were all chatting one night toward the end of my final residency about life post-MFA. One of thos three guys said something that night that stuck out to me then almost like a premonition. He said that what they wouldn’t tell us was that we might get depressed, very depressed, afterward. That it might take a lot of time to restructure your writing life and social life and everything. I think I was already getting the post-MFA depression hanging around Tampa, no workshops to go to, no one to tell me how much they loved or hated my fiction. After the MFA ended, I applied for a couple of jobs teaching English composition, got a couple of interviews, and got a couple of “thanks but no thanks” follow up emails. I dedicated myself to PhD applications for a while, then I traveled. I went to Hawaii, I went to Argentina, I went to Indiana.

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Some Hawaii for you.

The first six months after my MFA were so occupied with the applications and the travel that I didn’t have any time to slow down. I started a dozen different short stories, only about half of which made it to longer than two paragraphs, none of which reached completion. I wrote five poems related to faith, read a couple of them in my church. When I was in town, I co-taught a junior high Sunday school class that had two students. When I wasn’t in town, I was seeing black sand beaches and sea turtles, my best friend’s wedding, my sister’s cat in a sweater. Up through the holidays, I was going too non-stop to let anything settle.

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Best wedding, guys. Ever.

It was only after all of the travel was done and I was waiting to hear back about PhD programs that I started to sink. I couldn’t find a job, not even at the grocery store. I walked through downtown Huntingdon one day and stopped in at ten places to see if they needed help. None did. The weather was cold, but never quite the deep freeze that it should have been. I fostered a dog for three weeks who had been abused before giving him to his loving new mom. I stayed home, I watched anime, I read books. I made cosplay after cosplay. I got rejected from three programs within a few days of each other in February.

I baked loaves of beer bread and pans of brownies. I got into high quality hot chocolate, made some every day. I stopped reading books. I stopped writing. I stopped watching anime and stayed in bed for hours, always only about three quarters awake but never quite committed to being asleep. I had stories in my head, and I thought through them, but never put them to paper.

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Leslie Odom Jr. AND Daveed Diggs! Plus Javier, who was also my Usnavi.

My job at the IU, which usually starts up at the end of March/early April, didn’t truly start back up until the middle of May, so I was left for an extra two months without work. During these two months, a couple of big things happened. I took a bus by myself for the first time since I was abducted at a bus station. I became one of the lucky few to see Hamilton on Broadway. I got accepted into the PhD at UMass Dartmouth. I went to Zenkaikon and met Dante Basco. Things seemed like they were going up, and they were. I was getting out of my house with friends. I was doing exciting things. Then, of course, on our way home from Zenkaikon, my friend Sam and I were run off the highway by an 18-wheeler in the rain. We rolled three times and landed upside down in the median, alive and without serious injury, but shaken up in our own ways. Back to the bedroom for Maggie.

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I couldn’t find about half of the things for my nice Korra, so I made do with what I could. 

Once the work finally started, a job that usually employs about four people was down to just me, and I did the work of four people by myself for most of the family survey project this year. I was able to bury myself in the family survey work, but as is the case every year, the family survey is a soul-sucking project. And it definitely sucked my soul dry again. I was accepted into the program, waiting to hear about funding. Waiting to hear about funding. Waiting all summer long to hear about funding. I didn’t have a fellowship guaranteed until about three weeks before the start of the semester, so I spent most of the summer convinced that it would fall through, trying to figure out what else I could be doing with my life. To borrow a phrase from Spanish, I’d spent most of the year al pedo, doing nothing and going nowhere. Weeks when the workload at the family survey was lower, I was practically a NEET.

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The big envelope got there about a week after the email.

I didn’t realize until the end of July that I was depressed, because when I’ve struggled with depression in the past, it’s not manifested in this way (at least, not in a long time). This depression is an empty ringing in the back of my stomach, a hollowed-out, cavernous space beneath my ribs. To be honest, it’s still sticking to me like tar. I’m plenty used to anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, anything that falls within the myriad of symptoms of PTSD, but this type of depression isn’t usually a part of my symptoms.

The starkness inside, the vagueness at the outer edges, I haven’t felt like this since my senior year of high school. It took me until three years after my senior year of high school to realize how depressed I had been that year. That was the year I stopped eating lunch because going to the cafeteria was overwhelming and I didn’t have the motivation/energy to pack a lunch each day. That was the year I skipped as many classes as I could every single day to hang out in the computer lab, in the back corner, to take sporkle quizzes and play tetris online. That was the year I learned how to act normal despite internal chaos, and (to my credit?) very few people even noticed I was unwell. I didn’t even notice it. I just thought I was lonely.

One day toward the end of July, it dawned on me that I was depressed. I’d been playing Pokemon Go hardcore and felt better than I had in months, but unless Pokemon was involved, it was almost impossible to get up the nerve to do things out of my house or with other people. Realizing I was depressed didn’t actually change anything but the recognition. Recognizing you’re depressed opens up the option of getting help. If you are depressed, get help.

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The very first time I took over a gym, July 12, 2016. Before Lady Vay even had her nickname.

When I recognized myself, I decided that one thing I needed to do was start blogging again. I hadn’t ever intended to stop, I hadn’t intended to start an album review series only to drop it a couple of posts in. I hadn’t intended for my blog to become a dormant site, only picking up views from the randomly large number of people who really seem to care about Ruth (seriously, I don’t understand why this post gets new comments still. It’s three years old). I want to maintain this space. I want to maintain myself, even while depressed, even while anxious, even while pulling off the greatest act of normalcy this side of my seventeenth birthday at my new university.

So if you wondered why I stopped blogging, or if you didn’t even notice until I brought it up, there you have it. Mental health. Obvs.

You’re an orphan? Of course!

“You’re an orphan? Of course! I’m an orphan. God, I wish there was a war, then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.” — Hamilton, An American Musical

One of my favorite moments in the movie Moonrise Kingdom (2012) happens after Sam and Suzy have pitched their tent in their cove, and they are talking about their futures and their lives. Here’s the scene below:

I love this scene because it hits on something so prevalent in fiction, especially fiction aimed at children and teens, that I noticed a lot as a young reader myself. Many main characters in books written for that age range, especially in fantasy and science fiction, are orphans.

Disney is probably most notorious for killing its protagonists’ parents, and the Disney wiki even has a page dedicated to listing orphans. There are loads of articles available online speculating the reason for this, but most significant is the 2014 interview with Don Hahn in Glamour Magazine. Apart from speculating on the death of Walt Disney’s mother, Hahn says:

One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They’re about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. Simba ran away from home but had to come back. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It’s a story shorthand.

Hahn goes on to speculate that Walt Disney avoided maternal figures after the death of his own mother, for which he blamed himself, which is a touching story but doesn’t really pan out as an explanation. Parentless children are a massively recurring motif in all media geared toward children and teens, not just Disney films.

What gets me about that Moonrise Kingdom scene isn’t just how blunt Suzy is in talking about wishing she was an orphan because her favorite characters are, it’s also Sam’s shocked face and equally blunt, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” So often in children’s and YA fiction, I feel like authors write orphans and just don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s just story shorthand to help this young character become incredibly wise beyond her years as quickly as possible, or it’s just a Tragic Backstory to get instant sympathy from the reader.

What bugs me about the trope the most, though, is the failure to then show the more complicated aspects of life without parents, or life lived in an extended family member’s or stranger’s home. Speculative fiction is most guilty of this, especially epic fantasy and dystopian science fiction. Parents of main characters in these universes may even be seen as a burden and gotten rid of, despite being loving and supportive. Remember when Hermione uses Obliviate to erase herself from her parents’ memory, effectively turning herself into an orphan?

As someone who grew up in a home with both of her biological parents, I’m not sure I should be the one to comment on this. But adoption has played a significant role in my family’s composition (my one sister is biologically my half sister and was adopted by our father as a baby; three of my cousins were all adopted as children) and one of my deepest desires is to get involved with foster care and work with teens that have been screwed over by the system. And even if it was by choice to study abroad, I spent a year of my teens living in strangers’ houses and being subjected to verbal and emotional abuse by one of my host families. The older I get, the more pressing the desire to be a foster parent is for me–and the more I pay attention to the overwhelming and contrived representation of orphans and parents in fiction.

Anime, especially shonen action/adventure, but also mahou shojo and everything in between, tends to be the a huge culprit of orphanhood in the name of fast character development, and I watch a lot of anime, so I notice it a lot. Sometimes the parents are dead, sometimes the parents skip out, sometimes it’s a mix of both. The big problems of “who changed that baby’s diapers?” or “how is this child getting money to buy food to eat?” or “who signs this child’s parental permission forms?” or “where the hell are Child Protective Services????” rarely, if ever, get addressed. Our main characters move into temples to replace local gods or start working as butler/bodyguards or join elite crime fighting organizations or go through a life of exclusion with only the hope of becoming Hokage at the end of the verbal/emotional/physical abuse tunnel.

The most typical case I can think of of mishandled fictional orphanhood is that of Sailor Jupiter. Sailor Jupiter, aka Makoto Kino, is the fourth Sailor Scout to join the senshi lineup. She’s tall, got curly hair, loves to bake and arrange flowers, is massively strong and is probably forever in love with her senpai. Jupes is also a fourteen-year-old who lives completely alone because her parents died in a plane crash when she was two. We learn details about Jupes’s parents’ death in “The Melancholy of Mako-chan,” a chapter in Sailor Moon Short Stories 1, but the details are just there to dress up a general feeling of malaise. She’s lonely, and it’s clear that she’s lonely because she’s a child living alone with no family, but instead of actually delivering some emotional depth or growth, Jupes is given a fear of airplanes, lots of tea and a fancy couch. And unlike a series like Naruto, which is set in a completely fictional universe, Sailor Moon is set in 1990s Japan. Where are Makoto’s guardians?? Why has she been left to live alone her whole life? And she has been, because when her parents’ death is briefly brought up in the main storyline, she says she’s been alone for a long time.

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These panels have been flipped and read left to right, as in English.

I love Sailor Jupiter, she’s my favorite of the Inner Senshi, she was my second ever cosplay. But I’ve always felt that her backstory was unrealistic and irresponsible. She can be a orphan whose parents died in a plane crash, but give her legal guardians. Japan doesn’t have the greatest track record for foster care programs or adoption, and in fact has a general problem with it despite its comprehensive laws and guidelines, but there are systems in place. Even if the systems failed Makoto Kino, let the systems fail.

The fact that so many characters in anime, and in media in general, are orphaned in worlds in which there are no systems in place has begun to really bother me. I find myself asking time and again, “Where are the adults? Where is CPS?” I know these systems are flawed, but maybe let’s write those flaws instead of ignoring them altogether. Instead of using orphanhood as a story shortcut to create mature characters, let’s actually explore what this might mean for our characters.

I can think of two stories off the bat that do just this, and do it perfectly. The first is Disney’s fabulously perfect 2002 film Lilo & Stitch and the second is Yuki Midorikawa’s hauntingly beautiful manga and its anime adaptation, Natsume Yuujinchou. In the first, Nani is trying to make ends meet as her kid sister’s legal guardian while social services is breathing down her neck. In the second, titular character Takashi Natsume has been shuffled from relative to relative to institution to relative all to keep up appearances after his parents die, and the emotional scars this has left on him are dealt with delicately and thoroughly. In both of these examples, orphanhood isn’t used to quickly age up the characters, nor is it used as tragic backstory to garner sympathy from the reader. Their lives, the interference of the State and of relatives, and the emotional maturity of the characters are all at an appropriately explored and realistic level.

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Ohana means family. Now go cry.

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Touko and Shigeru literally had no idea how bad this kid needed rescuing from a failed system, but they did it anyway. My life goal is to be Touko for someone.

And just in case you’re unfamiliar with these stories, neither one is anywhere near realistic fiction in terms of genre. Lilo & Stitch is a science fiction comedy about an alien genetic experiment gone wrong and Natsume Yuujinchou is about a boy with spiritual magic powers who inherits a book that allows him to command a legion of yokai. These are speculative fiction stories, which are so often guilty of orphanhood as fast character development. Yet these stories take the time to do right by their characters and their worlds, even while presenting us with parentless children.

In fiction writing, we talk about killing our darlings, and this trope is definitely our darling when dealing with stories for kids and teens. Don’t kill the parents for a quick characterization fix; kill this trope.

 

 

**I do know there’s an entire subgenre of tough reads in American YA that often deals with these issues more closely, but they aren’t anywhere near as popular and I’m mostly talking toward SF, so don’t chew me out later please.**

Ambiversion & Anxiety

So, for those of you who don’t follow me on Facebook, big news! This week, I moved to Massachusetts to start a PhD in Luso-Afro-Brazilian Studies and Theory at UMass Dartmouth!!

A few months back (but only a couple of posts ago, because unintentional hiatus — more on this to come!), I talked about receiving my first PhD rejection letter and how, despite all of the reasons why going after such a degree might be considered a bad idea, I wanted to do it anyway. So after another couple of months of waiting and two more rejections, I was accepted into this program. Very exciting in and of itself, but I didn’t have funding finalized until like three weeks ago, so everything has been coming together a little more quickly than I anticipated. I genuinely thought this wouldn’t happen.

So now, I’m faced with what is actually a familiar situation: moving to a new place where I don’t know anyone, not even family. For some reason, this has gotten harder as I’ve gotten older, even though I’ve done it several times. I’m not the pure extrovert I was nine years ago when I packed up and flew to Argentina for the first time; I’m not super great at making friends. I don’t know if I’d call myself shy, but something akin to that has gotten stronger in me over the past five or six years. If I’m forced to fall into a Myers-Briggs type, I’d still go with ENFP, but the truth is I’m a pure ambivert, dead in the middle of extroversion and introversion. And more and more as I get older, the introversion comes out when I’m in new places and around new people.

This isn’t a bad thing, and in a way, it is a genuine strength. By taking the time to be quiet and observe your surroundings, you synthesize everything much quicker. Maybe you don’t share all of your life backstory with your brand new friends so that it takes a while for them to get to know you, but you get a better feel for their personalities and maybe get to hear their life backstories first.

I can’t hide the fact that I’m more than a little (but less than a lot) socially awkward, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Hopefully everyone else is just as awkward as me? Maybe. We’ll see. In the past couple of days, when I’ve mustered up my extroversion, I’ve had a good time, and I think that’s at least partially owing to the long amount of quiet time I’ve taken to myself. It’s also partially owing to my new roommate Jaqueline, who is being super kind and helpful.

Fun fact: Jaqueline is Brazilian! I’m personally a fan of Brazilians and Brazilian-Americans, so I find this exciting! I love being around people speaking Portuguese. It’s one of my favorite things, always has been and always will be.

What I find less exciting is how my socially awkward self is falling victim to anxiety surrounding said Portuguese. Let me explain. I speak Portuguese. After a lifetime of being around Portuguese without actually speaking or understanding the language, I went on a personal journey to recapture the language which evaded me. I took a couple of classes and spent a lot of money to be able to spend time with my relatives in Portugal. I used Argentine Spanish as a reference when I got lost because after living in Argentina, I have a very good handle on that language. But as much as I love the pelotudo castellano that is Argentine Spanish, Portuguese is the linguistic love of my coração. So I cobbled it together. My Portuguese is imperfect, it’s second language, it’s messy, it’s sometimes more like Portunhol, but it’s there. It’s real. I speak Portuguese. But here, in New Bedford and surrounded by a cadre of cool Brazilian millenials, I can’t seem to get the words out of my mouth. I can’t seem to respond, and even more frightening, sometimes I feel like I can’t understand. I feel like I’m learning the language all over again, and I know that the culprit behind all of this is my own anxiety.

Anxiety is a bitch, and it’s probably the last major holdout of my plethora of PTSD symptoms, the last thing left that I haven’t quite gotten control of yet. Nightmares? Done. Panic attacks? Check. Crippling anxiety? It rears its head in several ways, often hand in hand with the type of depression where your body and heart just refuse to function for hours (or days, let’s be honest) on end while your mind won’t shut up, which can be quite literally paralyzing. Your mind is going a thousand miles a minute, stressing over every detail of every interaction, convinced you’re going to alienate people if you *fill-in-the-blank*. Especially the new people in the new town in New England.

Anxiety is the exact opposite of ambiversion. Anxiety makes your extroverted moments feel like you’re coming on too strong, you’re obnoxious, you’re a pain in the ass, you’re Hamilton and everyone else is Jefferson or Burr. Anxiety makes your introverted moments feel like you’re an aloof bitch, stuck up and incompetent, a waste of space human being who is only good at hiding when she can’t confront reality. It makes you afraid to enter a room with other people in it and furious that you can’t, so you end up tip-toeing in once you’re certain that everyone is gone only to feel lonesome and frustrated as you eat your Sour Cream and Chive Lay’s. Anxiety makes a perfect balance of traits seem like two polar opposite extremes that have no business coexisting, so therefore no matter what you do, you’re living a lie. And it’s messing with me, taking the words from my mouth and leaving me with a desperate silence and a fear of breaking that silence up.

So what do I do? I guess this is the part where I declare that I won’t let Anxiety win, that Anxiety is an enemy to be defeated–and defeat it I shall. That my nerves are some kind of battleground with my “true self” pitted against this darkened extremism. But I can’t honestly say that I feel this way. After all, Anxiety may be a capital-letter other being that just likes to mess things up, but it is also me. Just like Augustus Waters’ cancer, my anxiety is made of me and part of me and it makes me who I am without being the definition of my whole. So I’m not going to fight it tooth and nail just to prove how mentally healthy I can be. Instead, I think I’m going to accept it, and maybe even try to use it in combination with my ambiversion to get myself genuinely comfortable in this new new new town.

Show (No) Mercy?

Ever seen a shirt advertised to you that looks like this?:

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Yeah, they’re advertised to me a lot, especially on Facebook. They’re all really similar, but the character depicted, the color scheme and the text layout vary.  The first one I ever saw had Korra, my favorite Avatar and my first cosplay, from Nickelodeon’s wildly successful The Legend of Korra, which I’ve written about on here before (you know, back when I actually blogged regularly and produced exciting content).

The one above appears to be Naruto. The ones below are that shiny blue Goku.

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I’ve seen it with Natsu from Fairy Tail, I’ve seen it with Super Saiyan Vegeta. I’ve seen it with both Kirito and Asuna from SAO. And the past few days on Facebook, I’ve been seeing it with everybody’s favorite former assassin, Himura Kenshin, the eponymous hero of Rurouni Kenshin.

I guess I understand the appeal. The quote is kinda badass, and the characters are pretty badass, so they go together, right?

Except the entire schtick of most of these characters is to always show mercy.*

Sure, Book One Korra isn’t about to let anybody off the hook, but a huge part of her journey in becoming a fully realized, mature Avatar is to learn unceasing compassion. Instead of killing Amon, she lets him live. Instead of killing Unalaq as soon as she realized his convoluted dark-spirit-worshiping plans, she devotes her time to trying to save him. And yes, members of the Red Lotus die, but Korra doesn’t kill them and she goes out of her way to capture Zaheer and bring him to justice. All along the way, she’s been learning and growing until she finally reaches the point with Kuvira where she sees her enemy for what she really is: an equally weak, insecure person in need of compassion and…that’s right…mercy.

Or how about Naruto? Uzumaki Naruto is the posterboy for showing mercy. How many times has Sasuke tried to kill him and Naruto’s just like, “Nope, I’m fine tho. Let’s be bros again, let’s grab some ramen boy.” Literally all the time. Naruto saves the world based entirely on the fact that he’s good at understanding others and winning them to his side over and over again. Did you watch the Pain Invasion? Have you heard of Gaara at all? (No shame if you’re not a Naruto fan who has never watched the Pain Invasion and has never heard of Gaara at all. Some people prefer Bleach.)

Seeing Kenshin on the shirt really tipped me over the edge, though. Kenshin? Show no mercy? Himura Kenshin, the sakabato-wielding wanderer who rescues orphans from drug lords as his chief hobby, showing no mercy? You could say it was his alter-ego, Battosai the Manslayer, depicted on the shirt. The ruthless killer who assassinated thousands for the ishin shishi during the tempestuous Bakamatsu, now he would show no mercy. He would also show no respect, nor protection. It’s really driving me nuts that no matter how much scrolling I do, I can’t find the same ad again to show you the exact picture I saw. (Plus, and this is just a nit-picky fan thing, but in the picture, his hair was clearly in a low ponytail, which is the primary visual cue that we’re dealing with Kenshin, not the killer inside.) Point is, for a character whose entire narrative arc is the search for redemption for his horrible past deeds and who goes about this by protecting the weak and saving his enemies, pairing him with “Show No Mercy” isn’t just wrong, it’s kind of an insult to the fan base.

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I have to wonder what the first person who came up with this phrase was thinking. It sounds cool, yeah, but were they really thinking show no mercy? To what end? I live a faith-based life, and my faith is built around the concept of mercy. A merciful God gives grace to fallen people, merciful people forgive one another, love abounds. Mercy, forgiveness–without them, we wouldn’t be able to survive as people. In fact, if you’re living in the United States right now, you can clearly see that where our society is failing is that we have a complete lack of mercy for anyone, let alone respect or protection. Mercy is love, and I took it seriously when I was told I should love others as a child. That’s part of why I love anime so much, especially shonen stuff like Naruto and RuroKen, because those characters are more often than not all about mercy.

One of Kenshin’s more famous quotes reads: “The moment you find the courage to give up your life for someone would be the moment you understand love.” Kind of the opposite of “show no mercy,” don’t you think?

 

 

*I don’t really know the DB franchise at all, so I can’t comment on Goku or Vegeta, but Kirito straight-up killed three people, so whatevs. Forget everything I just said.

Everything I want is a bad idea

I want a bookstore.

Everyone will tell you that this is a bad idea. Pragmatists say you can’t compete with Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s online store for prices. Pessimists say nobody is buying physical books anyway. Bookstores don’t survive in small towns; you’ll lose a lot of money in a futile endeavor; you’ll never find a way to make it and if you do, you’ll burn out. My friend Robyn owned an independent book store for years in upstate New York and she specifically advised against it when asked. She said that books become things, and you’re selling things. In time, it becomes no different from selling dresses. In short, opening a bookstore is a terrible idea, and I know this.

But, oh the vision I have of this niche little scifi book shop. I want it. I want a bookstore.

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It’d look a lot like this stack of books

I recently received my first PhD rejection letter. It came from my top choice program, where I knew a guy who knew a guy and everything. But I wasn’t even surprised.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted a PhD, but halfway through my MFA when the time came to start applying, I couldn’t decide what type of program or where to apply. At first, back when I still hadn’t even thought about which MFA programs to look into, I figured I would go from the MFA into an English PhD, because that made sense. I built my own minor in women’s studies in my undergraduate, and for a while I wanted to do some kind of gender studies program. Then I looked into joint programs in English and gender studies. The idea really excited me, and I think for two years, that’s what I said I wanted to do. But then one day, I didn’t.

I ended up applying to programs in Portuguese and Brazilian studies instead.

After the 2014 DISQUIET, I started to do some thinking about where I really want to take my writing and the kinds of stories and books I have on my heart, and suddenly the idea of another English degree or even gender studies didn’t seem all that relevant. I wanted (and still want) to write about Portugal, even in my fiction that has nothing to do with Portugal. I wanted to be grappling with the diaspora identity in every turn I took. I still wanted a PhD, but what I wanted to study was already shifting. So when I sat down with a Portuguese-American friend of mine at the end of my MFA career and said I still hadn’t applied to PhD programs because I couldn’t decide well enough what I wanted, he suggested I look into programs in Portuguese studies. The more I looked, the more I fell in love with the idea. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.

This, I think, will pan out to have been a bad idea. I have quite a lot going against me, including but not limited to: having taken no courses in Portuguese history or literature ever, having never written an academic research paper on topics relating to Portugal, only slightly above average GRE scores, a tendency to begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions for the purpose of effect within my creative writing and occasionally forgetting that this is a no-no, an otaku obsession with anime that has no relevance to Luso things*, and the downright fact that I have absolutely no interest in becoming a part of academia as a professor or researcher in the long run.

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Not entirely a Luso shelf, but a large majority of the shelf relates. Especially the Gaelic book.

So why the hell do I want this PhD if I don’t want to go into academia? I guess part of it is vanity; my selfish hearts want the accolades that come with having a doctorate. You worked all of those long years and wrote that dissertation AND defended it and came out alive? Why, yes, yes I did. Bow to me and my superior intelligence. I am, and have always been, a Ravenclaw. There’s also the fact that my mother never got the chance to finish her doctorate, largely because she got pregnant with my sister when she was ABD — and for some reason this has always pushed me toward reaching that level, achieving what was denied the previous generation, finishing what she started (in an emotional sense, since her degree was in engineering and no way could I pick that up where she left off).

But those are the vanities, the reasons that gave me the idea of higher education in the first place. They could be applied to any program, any school. But despite all of the odds against me, why did I decide to invest the application fees and transcript requests in Portuguese studies programs? There are two real, solid reasons:  First, because I need the information for my writing and the best way to learn it would be in a structured program. During the summer of 2014, I basically promised each of my dad’s sisters that I would write a book about the family, which would necessarily also be a book about Portugal under Salazar. I only know what has been told to me by relatives and what I’ve read on the internet. Certainly, it’s possible for me to do this research on my own, but the task is so daunting, so unforgiving when you’re not even sure where to begin. Second, because I love to challenge myself in my learning. Nothing could be more challenging than going into a PhD program with basically no background in the material. Damn straight that’s what I’d decide to do.

Again, everything I want is, in fact, a bad idea.

I truly thought my passion for Portugal, my love of learning and the support of the Portuguese-American writing community would be enough to bump me up. After all, I have great recommenders and an excellent track record with independent thinking and critical analysis and hard work (again, I built my own minor in undergrad). And technically I’m still waiting to hear back from the rest of the programs, so there’s still more hope than none.

But the truth is, very shortly after I submitted my first four applications (there was a fifth started, but ultimately never completed), I got a very strong gut feeling that I wasn’t getting in anywhere and that this might not be the right direction for me after all. Call it buyer’s remorse, if you will. Between the GREs and the application fees and the transcript requests, I sank about $600 into the PhD application process — a large chunk of which was funded by my mother, to be honest — but I didn’t and don’t have any guarantee that my applications will even be truly considered. As I fiddled away with that last application, whose fee was $70 and whose program wasn’t fully-funded, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of not right. One day I realized that, even if I got into this last program, I couldn’t afford to go to a school without full funding and I just don’t have the intellectual bravado to sell myself to outside funders every semester or year just to keep above water. I decided not to finish the application, and I haven’t regretted the decision.

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I feel you, Miss Clavel. Especially when my cat decides that 4 a.m. is the perfect time for target practice.

 

For the past couple of months, whenever people have asked me about what I’m doing in my life or what I want to be doing, I’ve said basically the same thing. I’m waiting to hear back from PhD programs, and once I do, I’ll know from there. Which is definitely true. If I get into one of the three remaining programs, you can bet that I’ll be in New England come August. In a sense, waiting for feedback has allowed me to exist in a kind of limbo zone. Until I get the news, my future is out of my control. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t kind of a relief. People stop asking you questions once you say you’re waiting to hear back from programs, and once the applications are in, there’s nothing more you can do. If you can let go of the anxious worrying, then you’re golden. There is nothing you can do.

Getting that first rejection letter filled me with an odd array of emotions. I wasn’t angry or distraught; I haven’t cried. I honestly wasn’t even very upset, and this was my top choice school, the school whose program outline on their website convinced me that I wanted to go for Portuguese studies instead of something more realistic. How I felt in that moment, how I still feel, reminds me of something my mom said when we heard that a friend of mine had passed away. She said, paraphrasing, that she felt like she finally found out what happened to him, as if he had died a long time ago and we were only just now hearing about it. This sense made her feel awful because that friend had truly just died, but I feel like my chances in Portuguese studies might have started dying as soon as I hit the final submit and I’m only just now — finally — hearing about it.

Don’t get me wrong; I want a PhD, but I also feel like this is probably a bad idea. Maybe even worse than opening a bookstore.

*Actually, if you watch a lot of anime, you realize this isn’t true. Example One, Example Two, Example Three. Just sayin’…

Sailor Says! Give Your Future a Chance!

It’s a big risk, but I know I’m going to do it.

When I tally up the application fees for the four programs whose applications I’ve already started and the fifth that I know I’m going to do but haven’t started yet, it comes out to over half of the money I currently have in the bank. My seasonal job has ended for the season and though I’ve applied and landed a couple of interviews, I don’t have another new job lined up yet.  At this point, I have two major trips coming up in the next two months and will be out of state or out of country for a large amount of time, so it’s not even logistically possible to start a new job unless the job is online.  My mother has offered to help me pay these application fees, but something in my gut is still reeling at the thought of spending so much money to apply to these programs.  These programs that might not even accept me for the myriad of reasons that my brain keeps pushing to the forefront of my mind every time I sit down to work on my personal statement.

Minus the personal statement, my first four applications have been done for about a week.  And it shouldn’t be so hard, the question is simple, why do I want to pursue a Ph.D. in Portuguese?  The idea of it really is so natural to me. I’ve always wanted to pursue a Ph.D., and I’ve always wanted to know more and more about Portugal.  I have this notebook from when I was in third grade where I wrote a whole bunch of stories and thoughts, and there are three things that repeat over and over again: science fantasy stories (occasionally starring Sailor Moon), a desire to be a famous author, and a love of all things related to Portugal.  To be honest, my interests haven’t changed at all since I was eight.  I love most things SF, am a major otaku, I want to be a famous author (I’m not ashamed to admit it; someday I want the accolades), and I love all things related to Portugal.  I want to write novels set in Portugal or about Portuguese-Americans.  I want to write nonfiction books about women in Portugal during the Estado Novo. I want to write a family history of the ragtag group of siblings that became my aunts and uncles and father.  I want to write about what it means to be Portuguese-American, why in this country the Portuguese ethnicity is often left out of the Latino identity but in Europe “os latinos” refers to the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Italians — according to my tia Catarina, whose kindness knows no bounds and whose love of literature runs deep.

The only plot I remember is that of Spaghetti Man, whose powers were kind of like Ant-Man, but also involved pasta...

The only plot I remember is that of Spaghetti Man, whose powers were kind of like Ant-Man, but also involved pasta…  Real makings of an all-different Avenger right there…

I want to study all of this so that I can know it all better, more than just the whispered framework of my family history, more than the shreds of memories from the World’s Fair or the lemon trees in the backyard of a house we no longer stay in when we go, more than just the rolling eyes of my frustrated father as his sisters berate him once again for not teaching his daughters enough Portuguese when they were little. I want to sink into my identity, into my cultural heritage so far that someday I might stop feeling like a stranger in my own skin.  And I want to approach this goal in the way that works best for me, the way that I know — academia.

I can’t pretend that I want to be an impressive research scholar for the rest of my life.  I want to write novels and books of creative nonfiction.  But I want my novels to be the best-researched books they can be, with a strong foundation in the literary traditions of Portugal and other Lusophonic nations.  I want to do justice to that little nation by the Atlantic that once ruled the oceans of the world, and to the people who’ve left there and love it still, the people whose saudades run deep.  In my heart of hearts, I know the way to achieve this, perhaps not the only way but definitely the most effective and enjoyable way, is to dive headlong into one of the Ph.D. programs I’m looking at.  To do the research and develop the knowledge and skills necessary to making the books in my head a reality.  So how come I’m finding it hard to articulate all of that in a way that makes me seem like a good candidate?

Eight-year-old Maggie still couldn't spell "Portuguese."

Eight-year-old Maggie still couldn’t spell “Portuguese.” Or “relatives.” Or “would.”

I know that I have the drive and the passion and the intelligence to succeed in a Ph.D. program. That’s not the question.  I’ve wanted to go for a Ph.D. ever since I learned that my mother had to put her doctorate on hold and then never had the chance to go back and finish, but it took me a long time to finally decide what kind of program I wanted.  At first, I thought I’d do another English degree, or perhaps go further with creative writing than the MFA.  Then, for a long time I was convinced that the right course for me was Gender Studies, and I spent two years scoping out programs across the nation that were both fully funded and diverse and interesting, only to panic when it came time last year to begin applying for the Fall 2015 semester.  I couldn’t decide what to do, I didn’t know which route to take. I decided to wait, take a year off after my MFA and apply for the Fall 2016 semester instead.  I hoped the extra year would give me the motivation to pick a direction, and it did.

She couldn't spell Portugal, either...

She couldn’t spell Portugal, either…  Also, I should point out that I loved and love my other tias and tios and cousins as well. We just spent the most time with tia Catarina when I was little because our house is across the street from hers, so I knew her best.  All my love to my other relatives as well.  I promise.

I decided to abandon English and Gender Studies, to pursue something which I hadn’t even fully realized I could do — Portuguese Studies.  Growing up in central Pennsylvania, it was hard enough to find people who even registered that Portugal was a country or that Portuguese wasn’t just a dialect of Spanish, so it had never once occurred to me that a person could study Portuguese history and culture in this country and get degrees in the field.  By the time I knew it was a possibility, I was already halfway through an English degree with my heart set on an MFA, and I believe that this was the right track then.  Just like I believe a Ph.D. in Portuguese Studies is the right track for me now.

But just because my heart is in the right place, that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a gamble.  I’m coming at this thing sideways, whereas other applicants will be coming in headlong.  And it’s a lot of money to invest in something that could easily blow up in my face.  Basically, I’m betting half of my savings that at least one program will take me into their fold.  And if I’m honest with myself, it does scare me a little.

But if I’ve learned anything from Sailor Moon, it’s that we take risks for who and what we love.

Nabari No Ou: Emo Ninjas Everywhere

Miharu and Yoite, Nabari No Ou, 2008

If there’s one thing I love, it’s shonen anime.  I love the crazy action sequences, the battles won by sheer willpower, characters who are totally OP because it’s more boss that way, awkward teen crushes, true character growth from either 1) obnoxious, rude, unpopular kid or 2) well-liked and intelligent but emotionally distant kid to brave and powerful kickass warrior who will save the world with the power of believing in himself and his friends. Technically, this stuff is written for/marketed to teenage boys (hence the title shonen), but I don’t care.  I love it.  From Sword Art Online to Naruto Shippuden, from Rurouni Kenshin to Attack on Titan, most of my favorite anime all fall into the shonen category.

What originally drew me to the genre was the sincerity in the storytelling.  There was no cynicism or sarcasm in the storyline or in the character growth, though the characters themselves might occasionally be cynical or sarcastic.  I started watching a lot of anime during a particularly lonely period in my life, and the constant message that friendship is important and gives you strength was comforting.  I watch a lot of other stuff besides shonen anime, but the shonen stuff holds a very dear place in my heart.  That being said, if you watch enough of it, you start to see the patterns.  A good shonen anime lets you forget that a lot of these stories do follow a specific type of construction, but a bad shonen anime leaves you feeling like you’re wasting your time with this new story and are better off rewatching Naruto totally destroy Pain after the destruction of Konoha.  Basically, if you watch enough shonen, it’s very easy to get bored.

When I started watching Nabari No Ou, I thought it was going to be a typical shonen anime.  I was so convinced that it was going to adhere to all of the stereotypes that, even though Hulu Plus had been recommending it to me for a while, I decided I wasn’t going to watch it.  But then a few days ago, I decided to give the first episode a try.  By the third episode, I knew I was in for something completely different from what I expected, and by the fifth episode, I had fallen unabashedly in love with this series.  Why? What makes it so different?  Well, my friends, the short answer is this: Nabari No Ou is the most beautifully emo thing I’ve ever seen. ***SPOILERS BELOW*** (but really, this show originally ran in 2008 and the manga goes in a different direction, so I don’t care if I spoil things)

Pay attention to the lyrics of the opening:

Nabari No Ou came out in 2008 and ran for 26 episodes.  Hulu describes the show thusly: In the shadows of this modern world, ninjas fight for control of an ancient technique which holds untold strength. This coveted power dwells within apathetic Miharu, a fact the guy really couldn’t care less about – until the clashing rival clans bring their battle to him. Now Miharu struggles to understand the mystery buried in his soul, and must choose a side if he hopes to survive.

This description initially put me off.  When I read it, I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be some kind of modernized Naruto? Sounds boring.” Based on that plot description, I figured the villains would be easily read as villains and one side would clearly be right while the other would be wrong, and Miharu would get over his “couldn’t care less” in order to save the world with his scary ninja powers, and he would probably get the girl. Because guaranteed there’s going to be a girl who has more skills and experience than him, but he’s going to outclass her after one day of training to show how special he is. OP heroes are the best heroes, after all.

About the only thing I got right in that guess was that a girl, Raimei, did show up in the second episode who had more skills and experience than Miharu.

Perfectly sums up Miharu and Raimei’s relationship.

The key to understanding Miharu is accepting his apathy as more than just a general disinterest in the things around him.  At the start of the series, Miharu has one goal in life, and that’s to be as unconnected to other people as possible.  He’s quiet and withdrawn, emotionally vacant, manipulative, and weak.  He’s deeply depressed, uncomfortable in crowds, and feels truly undeserving of any special attention, let alone love or friendship.  Even after Miharu finds out that he has the Shinrabansho sealed inside of him, thus the power to literally rewrite history, save or take lives on a whim, change the make up of the earth itself, Miharu doesn’t care.  Miharu is the kind of kid who would let himself get swallowed by a lion if the lion asked politely.  He never becomes physically strong, never outclasses Raimei or the other members of Team Banten (or anybody, really).  He understands clearly that even those who are protecting him are protecting the Shinrabansho first.  In his mind, they don’t truly care about him and are only using him to get their own desires.  Raimei even early on that the only reason she came to meet Miharu was because she knew that the Kairoshu (painted as the villains initially) would be coming after him, and she’s seeking revenge against her brother, who is a Kairoshu member.

Miharu’s character attributes don’t change all that much until he starts to spend more time with Yoite.  Yoite, a Kairoshu member who uses a forbidden ninjustu that comes with the cost of eating away at the caster’s life force, secretly approaches Miharu without either the Kairoshu or Team Banten knowing and begs Miharu to grant his wish with the power of the Shinrabansho.  His request is to be completely erased from existence, because the world would be better if he had never been born.

This interaction completely changes the dynamic of the show from typical shonen action story where the boy must become a hero to something much more complex, and potentially devastating.  After Yoite threatens to kill the members of Team Banten, Miharu agrees to find a way to control the Shinrabansho in order to grant Yoite his wish.

So, while Banten/Fuma are working together to collect five forbidden ninjutsu techniques from across the country in order to permanently seal the Shinrabansho and the Kairoshu are collecting the same five techniques in order to steal the Shinrabansho and use it to gain power, Yoite and Miharu begin scheming to take the techniques for themselves to create a guidebook for Miharu to use the Shinrabansho himself.

And this is what they are like:

Yoite, it turns out, is just as depressed and lonesome as Miharu.  Neither values their own existence, and both find it painful when someone is kind to them.  Miharu, subconsciously at first, recognizes himself in Yoite.  He recognizes the anguish and anxiety that they both suffer from.  Both constantly blame themselves for things that were beyond their control, for the pain inflicted upon them by others, for the ways in which they are being used by more powerful ninjas.  Miharu makes it his goal to be able to grant Yoite’s request, even as he realizes that the last thing he would ever want is for Yoite to disappear.  He sees Yoite as another Miharu, and in that connection, Miharu is able to find compassion and learn how to care about another human being.  Eventually Miharu leaves Banten and joins the Kairoshu because Yoite is sick, and the only way for Miharu to help Yoite is for the two to be together.

Here’s a scene that made me cry:

Yoite, for his part, stays troubled for much longer than Miharu, wishing to disappear until nearly the final act.  However, like Miharu, Yoite learns how to care for another person and how to connect with others along the way.  In every interaction that they have with other ninjas, Yoite makes it his top priority to protect Miharu, who still has relatively no ninja skills of his own apart from the tempestuous Shinrabansho.  He willingly sacrifices not just his life force through his forbidden art, but also his physical safety.  At one point, they end up trapped underground with some enemies and friends, and Yoite is gravely injured protecting Miharu.  Because of this, Miharu is able to awaken the Shinrabansho and save Yoite’s life.  Later, when they find out that Yoite may have less than a month to live, Yoite panics and Miharu is the one who is able to calm him down. The two go on the run together to find an alternate way to activate the Shinrabansho and suddenly find themselves the targets of the Kairoshu’s most lethal assassins.  Through all of this, Yoite constantly puts Miharu’s safety above his own and Miharu does everything in his power to protect Yoite.

In the end, after the exciting and scary final confrontation with all of the opposing forces, Yoite makes himself scarce while Miharu spends five days unconscious in the hospital.  When Miharu wakes up, he’s desperate to find Yoite before it’s too late and he dies.  Miharu’s other comrades hunt down a lead and give the information to Miharu, who leaves the hospital early in order to find his friend.  Miharu finds him in a church and tells him that he finally thinks he can control the Shinrabansho enough to erase him, and if that is what Yoite truly desires, then he’ll do it. But he wants Yoite to know that he has no desire to erase him because to Miharu, Yoite has become a precious friend.  In fact, Miharu wants to use the Shinrabansho to heal Yoite’s body instead so that the two can be friends for a long time.  Yoite decides that he no longer wants to be erased, that he wouldn’t want to rob his few friends of their memories of him, but that to erase the damage he’d done to himself through the forbidden art would be unfair.  He decides to keep living, sick as he is, but finally knowing what it means to have a friend.

Time for a heart to heart, boys.

There’s so much more that I want to say about this show and how brilliant it is, but this will go on for another three thousand words if I do. Ultimately, this show has little to do with Miharu gaining strength and power in order to stop the bad guys.  This show is about two depressed teenagers helping each other find peace and acceptance.  It’s beautiful and emotional and touching, while also maintaining its humor and action throughout.  In a world of OP teen heroes and fanservicey sidekicks, Nabari No Ou was a well-worth-it delight and you should watch the heck out of it.  Bring your tissues, though, because you’re going to need them to deal with these emo kids.