Tag Archives: diversity

Eleanor Davis on “How to Be Happy,” a better “everyman,” and diversity in art

“Maybe when you have enough to be comfortable and you are still unhappy — that’s when you start thinking about gluten, and new-age workshops, and going ‘back to nature.'”

The preceding quote is from the following interview with cartoonist and writer Eleanor Davis, whose new collection of comics, “How to Be Happy,” is a fascinating exploration of people grappling with emptiness and a sense of self, in varied art and narrative styles.            

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 There’s only a few romantic pairings in “How To Be Happy,” but it seems like the least hollow one is because the pair share the same delusion.  

Which do you consider the least hollow one? My favorite romantic pairing is Jennifer and Matt in “No Tears, No Sorrow,” although that wasn’t really implied. I just had it in the back of my mind that they ought to fall in love.

My impression thus far of the least hollow relationship — or rather, least hollow interpersonal relationship — had been between Adam and Eve in “In Our Eden.”

Oh yeah! The Adam and Eve in “In Our Eden” is a pretty interesting and complex relationship. I don’t think it’s a very good one, though; Adam doesn’t ever ask Eve what she wants or needs, he just assumes she will go along with him, and she does. I don’t know if that’s because she shares his utopian beliefs or because she loves him, but in some way love is a utopian belief, I guess.

I feel like there’s this grappling with specific upwardly-mobile approaches to happiness, in searches for authenticity or something purer or the new mantra/motions of happiness. Do you feel that maybe this particular demographic has an obsession with “happiness”?

Well, if you’re struggling just to make ends meet, maybe your focus is going to be on making rent and paying your doctor bills, and that is plenty to be unhappy about. Maybe when you have enough to be comfortable and you are still unhappy —  that’s when you start thinking about gluten, and new-age workshops, and going “back to nature.” The kind of unhappiness I write about is real, but it’s also a luxury, I think.

 Maybe when you have enough to be comfortable and you are still unhappy, that’s when you start thinking about gluten, and new-age workshops, and going “back to nature.” The kind of unhappiness I write about is real, but it’s also a luxury, I think.

After I re-read it a few times, that part with that woman bawling, essentially about feeling the weight of a very disconnected world, only to be told about going gluten-free is kind of strangely hilarious.    

Thank you. I hope there is a combination of empathy and humor in my stuff.

There’s some interesting explorations of strength in “How To Be Happy” — the strong man with the deep cut who pretends like it’s nothing; and then there’s the sort of Hercules figure, the collection’s most jubilant figure. Does this rare example of happiness come from him being strong for others?

Oh man! I feel kind of weird about that story. It’s often cited as the single happy story in the book, while I think of it as one of the saddest ones. In that story, “Make Yourself Strong,” the muscle-man’s strength seems infinite; it’s a pleasure to watch him. But no strength is really infinite. A story about a superhero is only happy until the hero comes up against something he can’t overcome. In my mind, writing it, the strong man wasn’t able to lift that final toppling building. The building crushed him, and the last three images of the rescued people and the strong man’s laughing face are in some sort of happy afterlife.

Graphic novels, literary or otherwise, don’t tend to have a lot of diversity in story form or especially on a production level. Most are generally seen as being universal in nature, but how universal do you think something is that lacks awareness about privilege and the lack there of? I feel like what makes “How To Be Happy” universal to me is the bawling woman acknowledging a sense of disconnection with the world that speaks to, among many things, that divide.

This is an excellent question. It’s one I grapple with a lot.

When I was a young artist, a lot of my fictional stories were about men. I was trying to speak my own truth, but I didn’t feel that everyone could relate to a female protagonist. Especially in the simple allegorical stories I was telling, I thought a male character could be an “everyman” in a way that a female could not. In art, women are wives or mothers or objects for sex. Women are bitches or goddesses or creepy old crones. Men are, simply, people.

As I gotten older I’ve realized how cowardly it was for me to go along with this idea. I’ve realized the harm it causes. I have been fighting the misogyny in my own heart and I’ve rejected the idea that the only everyman is male. More of my characters are women now. I am more willing to be a woman myself.

I have been fighting the misogyny in my own heart and I’ve rejected the idea that the only everyman is male.

Rejecting sexism in art has also made me more aware of the overwhelming whiteness in art. This problem is huge and it has terrible consequences. Media is the mirror a society sees itself in, and the majority of society is either not reflected, or is transformed into something warped and flat and hideous. This is harmful for the people who are under- and misrepresented, and it’s harmful for the people who think they know their neighbors and countrymen from these false representations. It’s also bad art. Art is a pursuit of truth. The truth is not white, and it’s not male.

 Rejecting sexism in art has also made me more aware of the overwhelming whiteness in art. This problem is huge and it has terrible consequences.

So we have this terrible situation, which is that we are consuming a huge amount of bad and even harmful art, and as artists, we are producing it.

My own comics are very white, and that’s something I’d like to change. I’m also very white, though, so I want to tread carefully. I don’t want to take one of my typical stories with a thinly veiled stand-in for me and just color the character’s skin cocoa and give myself a pat on the back. Cultural appropriation is also something I worry about. And I worry about speaking for other groups without having their lived experience. But in this case I think I, and other artists like me, need to risk f***ing up by trying their best to show diversity, rather than continuing to tell this easy White lie.

So we can try to help the terrible situation we’re in by encouraging existing artists to bring more diversity into their own art. I think that’s great. It is a giant step in the right direction and it could have a lasting impact. However, it’s not enough. For art to be true, not only the characters need to be diverse, the artists making it need to be diverse too.

 For art to be true, not only the characters need to be diverse, the artists making it need to be diverse too.

Making art is often a privilege. Making art takes time; becoming a really good artist takes an incredible amount of time. Time is expensive. Formal art training is insanely expensive. Most art jobs are vastly underpaid. All these factors make becoming an artist an iffy financial investment, and making iffy financial investments is easier if you’re in a position of privilege. And, of course, jobs themselves are often more readily available to people of privilege. Consumers, art directors, and clients are often unwilling to hire artists whose voices are different from the ones they are used to.

Here is what I think can be done. As consumers, we can proactively support diverse creators. As artists we can reach out to diverse creators within our own communities. As artists we can refuse to do low paying or unpaid work which devalues all art and makes art a “hobby job.” We can donate to organizations that support diversity in art, like We Need Diverse Books. We can fight for better funding for the arts in public schools, and for more grants for the arts in higher education. And we can fight for economic justice and equality for all people; for our own sakes, for the sake of our world, for the sake of art, and for the sake of truth.

Check out “How to Be Happy” at http://www.fantagraphics.com/browse-shop/how-to-be-happy-pre-order–5.html. For more on Eleanor Davis, visit her site — http://doing-fine.com.

Much thanks to Eleanor for her time.

Andrea MacDonald on the challenges of diversity in yoga studios and sorting out privilege — interview # 2

Andrea MacDonald

Andrea MacDonald

I’ve interviewed yoga instructor Andrea MacDonald before, but she’s someone who has much more to offer on the vast subject of privilege.   It’s easy for me to disengage when someone with significant cultural capital talks about diversity (it often seems subconsciously more about them being champions of an enlightened concept rather than anything really inclusive ) , but Andrea is mindful of her particular privileges and, more than that, she’s working for inclusion — not the easier, superficial kind, either. A second Words Away interview with her follows below :


Often even the kind of diversity touted most comprises people with very similar sensibilities — the preaching to the choir effect, if you will.  Simply because of the way it’s been commodified, yoga tends to be something one is most aware of within a certain income bracket, within a “nice” town, or with a certain kind of education.  What have you found about diversity within that framework?  And, is Community Yoga Vancouver attracting diversity beyond it?     

 I think our organizing attracts a wide range of folks, both people who are already in the yoga networks and folks who are more activist-oriented — and folks who are curious about yoga but haven’t gone for any number of reasons. We’ve had people come to workshops who have never heard of concepts like un-ceded indigenous territory, or what rape culture is. That said, our organizing has limits. We often advertise through Facebook which means the network of people who show up are connected to us by no more than a few degrees of social connection. We’ve also done some street outreach and poster-ing, and folks have definitely shown up to our classes who either can’t afford yoga normally – or have been told it will help them but didn’t feel comfortable in a yoga studio space. We’re hoping the community will grow larger and more diverse when we open our own space and have some money to commit toward outreach outside of Facebook.

It will always be a challenge to host a space that draws in the diversity we are seeking to embody in our community – but it’s a challenge worth taking on. Many of our teachers – though I can especially speak for myself with this point – look like “regular” yoga teachers, but find a lot of yoga culture pretty abhorrent. This has lead us to try to offer something really different from regular yoga studios. We strive to have the difference we offer be felt, rather than proclaimed explicitly. That has been a big shift for us, how to make a space feel accessible, rather than just saying that it is – a proclamation which can feel intimidating for folks who aren’t familiar with more radical politics. We have our gaps of course. Our classes often have more white folks than people of colour, and up until now, we haven’t been able to find a space that is wheelchair accessible. We try to remember, though, that we are up against some pretty big systems that produce real barriers, barriers that take time to dismantle and work around.

 Many of our teachers – though I can especially speak for myself with this point – look like “regular” yoga teachers, but find a lot of yoga culture pretty abhorrent.

We’ve recently found a wheel chair-accessible space, and it’s our goal to offer safer space classes when we open the new space. Classes for folks of colour, taught by a South Asian teacher. Classes for queer and trans folks, taught by queer and trans teachers. Classes for folks with fat bodies, taught by a fat teacher. We have to start somewhere and that starting place is imperfect, complicated and shaped by capitalist, colonial, hetero, ableist, white supremacist patriarchy. Those are some big forces to come up against – all we can do is try. That’s our practice – to just keep trying until it works, or at the very least works better than it does now in regular studios. We evaluate as we go and choose not to give up, even when it feels overwhelming and scary and impossible.  We have to breathe and just keep trying.

How has it been finding teachers who are people of color, disabled — generally outside of what’s most commonly perceived as the yoga mold?  It seems pivotal to Community Yoga Vancouver’s goal — which would have your chosen vocation, the way its defined and the way it defines others not dominated by people with your relative privileges.  

I think you touched on a problematic dynamic that certainly exists. At Community Yoga we’ve had to be very vigilant and make difficult decisions with regard to our collective membership. Quite a few people have expressed a desire to teach with us, and we used to have a pretty open door policy. Allowing whoever wanted to teach to do so and not having clear protocol about how to join and what is required, meant we ended up with some teachers who didn’t reflect the values we wanted to embody. Since then we’ve really shifted gears, especially as we look to opening our own space. Over the course of our collective’s existence we’ve had quite a wide range of teachers – some folks of colour, quite a few queer folks and a self-identified fat teacher as well.  Even so recently we ended up with a collective full of white, able-bodied, cis-gendered women, and we had to ask ourselves – is this the kind of collective we want? This was a really difficult question to answer. Eventually we settled on the decision that some of the original members needed to part ways with the new members so that we could create space to build a more diverse group. We’re in the process of rebuilding now and we are very careful and thoughtful with regard to who we work with.

We’re focusing on building a collective that reflects the diversity we hope to cultivate in our space. It’s a really challenging process because we don’t want to tokenize anyone and it can feel wrong turning down talented teachers and healing practitioners (we’re opening a community-based healing space) simply because they don’t reflect the diversity we’re searching for. It’s a good reason, but that doesn’t make it uncomplicated. That said, as our collective has grown we are cultivating the diversity we want to see and it has made a tremendous difference. Even if you just look at our newly created protocol you can see an indigenous influence that was not there before. You can see the wisdom of older folks influencing the younger founders. This balance is contributing to us doing some of the most solid, thoughtful work we’ve done so far. It gives me faith that our project will grow in the direction we’ve always dreamed it would – a truly accessible, diverse space; rich for learning, growth and social justice organizing.

I think it’s also important to mention that at a certain point we just had to recognize and accept that the yoga world/industry/community is inaccessible – so it is going to be harder for us to find teachers with physical disabilities, or teachers of colour. When we recognize that reality, our work becomes about changing the landscape of what yoga looks like in Vancouver. We’re also connected to projects across the country that do great work opening up dialogue and teaching/learning opportunities for a wide range of people. The teacher training at Karma Teachers and the work of South Asian American Perspective on Yoga in America are great examples.

How so exactly regarding the indigenous influence in the new protocol?

An example would be the ritual that is written into our protocol for when someone leaves the collective. Members who are leaving now have the option to be swept with cedar boughs, and for the boughs to be cleansed in a river so the energy can be released. This ritual ties us to the land and medicine around us, and that is one of the fundamental purposes of our work.

I’m sorry to hear that some potential teachers are being turned away, though it does seem like such comes from genuinely complicated reasoning.  Diversity as a goal is too often conceptual, or something of a mantra,  with both most frequently heralded and crafted by people who are privileged.  How have/do you come to terms with your own privileges in this arena?      

It’s a tough balance for sure. A big part of coming to terms with my privilege has been granting myself the space to make mistakes and take criticism. Part of the reason diversity is so hard to cultivate is that big, huge, seemingly insurmountable systems of power work to keep us segregated and disconnected. When I make a mistake I may not be responsible for the system I’m in that made that mistake feel easy and sensical to me, but I am still responsible for my actions and how they impact people. People aren’t mad because I’m a bad person, they’re angry because my actions fall in line with a system that does violence to them and those they love. Those are big feelings and actions with serious consequences. It’s not about me – it’s about truly and deeply challenging f***ed up power systems. Learning to take meaningful action well is a hard path, but I can’t imagine organizing any other way.

Coming to terms with my privilege has been an emotional, mental, spiritual and political journey. I’m more careful now to question how much space I’m taking up. I try to offer as many opportunities as possible for people to take up space where I am usually relied on for leadership – or spaces where I just feel comfortable talking and teaching, when there may be others whose voices are being ignored. I try to do grudge work with a smile on my face – part of being an anti-racist ally is doing the work that isn’t glamorous, but that needs to happen and lightens the workload of someone whose voice needs to be heard more then mine. I also really take my time to process critiques and have started teaching and learning more and writing less. I do this in order to build relationship with community, rather than fuel my own ego. I basically question myself constantly, but I try to do it in a gentle way, where I’m not attempting to destroy myself to absolve guilt for my privilege.

Coming to terms with my privilege has been an emotional, mental, spiritual and political journey. I’m more careful now to question how much space I’m taking up. I try to offer as many opportunities as possible for people to take up space where I am usually relied on for leadership – or spaces where I just feel comfortable talking and teaching, when there may be others whose voices are being ignored.

Listening more is key – listening and taking action based on what I hear. So when other collective members told me that we need to recruit more people of colour and not more white folks, I stuck to what they said – even though it would be easier in the short-term not to listen.

About the classes Community Yoga offers to specific kinds of people whom are usually under-served, neglected, was there a call from these folks, specifically, about a need for such?

The impetuses for these classes came from a movement that is happening across North America. They also came from people specifically asking for them and from us seeing a gap in services. There are studios and teachers across North America offering populations specific classes, and these classes are changing communities and helping people heal. We’ve also had specific requests through our website and Facebook page. And there is definitely an element of us making an offering that may or may not be desired – an offering that we see as beneficial, that doesn’t resonate for everyone.

My hope is that we can make yoga welcoming, relatable and affordable enough for it to seem desirable to lots of people. Not everyone will be into it – but some people will, and they may even build a rad community with us. And that’s good enough for us.

I’m curious what your experience with crowdfunding for studio space has been like.  Crowdfunding has been praised as a new frontier, particularly for projects that wouldn’t necessarily fit the most commercial model of enterprise.  Your campaign didn’t meet all of its goal, but it was fairly successful (or at least more so than some other relatively ground-level ones are). Any thoughts on crowdfunding in general?

I think crowdfunding, like anything, is a double-edged sword. It’s paving a new path for funding that relies more on community than instructions and the whims of wealthy funders. At the same time, it requires a lot of labour to fulfill perks and keep funders happy. If the people you are getting funding from have more money (and therefore more privilege), you will be funded more easily. It’s not a process that is free of the complications of privilege and power systems – nothing is.

If the people you are getting funding from have more money (and therefore more privilege,) you will be funded more easily. It’s not a process that is free of the complications of privilege and power systems – nothing is.

It takes skill and experience to put together a successful campaign. We will be more successful if and when we crowdfund again, because we learned how to be better fundraisers by partially failing the first time around. Crowdfunding relies entirely on relationships and getting full buy-in from your team. It seems these days that everyone who is doing something cool, edgy, meaningful – or even blatantly self-indulgent – has tried or thought about or a crowdfunding campaign. These campaigns are only as successful as their idea is relevant and well communicated. But the bottom line, no matter what, is that you have an idea that can connect with and galvanize a community.

Thanks again to Andrea for her time.  

 Check out her blog at http://moonlitmoth.wordpress.com/

And Community Yoga Vancouver here: http://www.communityyogavancouver.com

Quite proud of this

And you can be, too (well, of having read it).  An excerpt from my piece on Sleepy Hollow and diversity at the great Den of Geek: “What separates Sleepy Hollow from other shows? It doesn’t completely disavow the ethnic backgrounds of characters played by people of colour – and not in the Seth McFarlane way, where without different backgrounds and the general existence of women there would be no one to say ‘Ha ha, you’re ______’ about, thus eliminating a good percentage of the show’s comedic material…”

different notes

musicalnoteWhat I saw in the video for “Wake Me Up” by Avicii: A young woman walks around in a small, possibly southern town — she’s apparently supposed to be an outsider; all the drably dressed townspeople, including a black woman, give her and her sister the stink eye (yay for diversity).  The young woman wears a fashionable variation of a Union jacket.  She walks alone by herself one morning when, in what I imagine tourist advertisements for tropical islands also include, a man with dreads reaches out for her hand and his small group whisks her away to the smiley, safely diverse crowd at some concert (yay for diversity).  Aside from hippie-ish attire, they’re also distinguished by tattoos.  After said concert, she gets her sister and rides a horse to a more urban land of slightly multicultural goodness.

Music videos generally seem like a made-by-corporate-committee affair.  There’s lots of stuff to superficially and profitably appeal to a specific demographic.  Anything with a more singular vision, skewed or not, stands out a little.  The music video for the Black Key’s “Lonely Boy,” featuring the dancing of Derrick Tuggle to the rhythm and blues-drenched tune was a big hit. It wasn’t due on any intentional part of the Black Keys, but I always thought there was generally an undertone of amusement at how Tuggle seemed a bit square and yet his dancing was unbridled — this is mostly due to the way that rock is perceived now, as opposed to when it was rhythm and blues and performed by mostly black musicians whose cool affectations continue to be milked by rockers today.

So it was nice to see Tuggle in the video for Pharrell’s “Happy,” lip-synching on a music video with a kind of diversity not from some “hip” dream-reality.  There’s a swath of different people in there, all looking like they’re having a genuinely happy moment.  I haven’t followed his work too much, but it was the least cool thing I’ve seen Pharrell associated with and maybe it’s the better for it.  The music video for Bruno Mars’ “Treasure,” in which the woman of a crooner’s dreams is black (and not mixed) and portrayed with all the sentimentality and admiration that comes with that, is also not in line with the most superficial notion of cool.

Jackie Chan on villian casting

“When I was casting the pirates, they brought up all black guys.  I said, ‘No!’  I want Japanese, Thai, everybody.  I want to show the whole world that there are good people and bad people everywhere.” —  Jackie Chan, from a Collider.com interview with Sheila Roberts

All too fleeting

Estella Daniels as Nala and Elliot Knight as Sinbad in the Sky One series .

With their 2012 take on Sinbad, Sky1 took the legendary sailor and gave the family-action adventure genre a thoroughly modern spin. Beyond contemporary notions that heroes come in all shapes and sizes (and colors), the casting of Elliot Knight as Sinbad was a rare instance of them being actualized. While the classic stories have always been ripe for adapting with people of African and Mediterranean descent, past iterations have rarely (if ever) seen anybody like that take the lead. Boldly excellent casting didn’t stop with Sinbad; it extended itself to all the members of the show’s ensemble cast. While the show had plenty of action to keep Sinbad and his friends busy, there was also a care given to character- and world-building that’s chief among the reasons the show deserved more than its twelve-episode run.

Robert Rudney on why he wrote a novel, living with a disability, and pity

rudneynovelIt’s a tale we see time and time again: a man with left-side paralysis joins a self-help group for people with disabilities, and finds himself falling for a woman dealing with multiple sclerosis.  Okay, wait, I may have exaggerated by about 1,000% what we do see of such fictional portrayals.  But with Robert Rudney’s Lovers Lame, there’s one solid story about people with disabilities being all human and stuff — and it’s by someone with a disability. See my interview with Rudney, a defense specialist and former head of an employment self-help group for people with disabilities, below:

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Maybe you weren’t conscious of it at the time, but when you were writing Lovers Lame were there any mainstream books or authors that made you think there was space on that shelf for what you wanted to do? 

There has been no disability novel written by an individual with a real disability.  Temporarily able-bodied authors like Jodi Picoult make an effort in books like House Rules.  But no one has caught how it feels from the inside to have a disability and how difficult it is to form intimate relationships with other human beings.  That’s why I wrote Lovers Lame.

I once heard the sentiment that the reality of society is marginalized people remain marginalized.  What makes it particularly significant is that it’s the only time I can recall hearing that from a person whom was also pretty liberal.  As someone who ran a networking group for the physically disabled, do you think there’s truth to that?    

Lots of surveys these days show an increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth.  People with disabilities are caught in the downward spiral because they are forced to depend on entitlements like SSDI, SSI, Medicare and Medicaid that entrap them in genteel poverty.  That was the case for a lot of individuals in my networking group.  Many couldn’t take a job because they couldn’t risk losing Medicare or Medicaid, and employer health plans (if they existed) were not sufficient for their health needs.

The employment conundrum is a key sub-theme of Lovers Lame.

Have experiences that come just because you’re physically disabled made you empathize with other marginalized people?  Or do you find that there are divisions between you and people whom have similar experiences from different vantage points?

I have been pitied and over-accommodated and advertised as a “poster child” for people with disabilities.  However, I was able to transcend my disability and make it up the career ladder with little or no assistance from legal protections like the ADA.  I was one of a small minority in this respect.  Every disability is different and has its own unique vantage point.  The difficulties in communicating among people with disabilities is another key sub-theme of Lovers Lame.  The narrator, David, has something close to cerebral palsy and falls hopelessly in love with Jessica, a tempestuous artist with multiple sclerosis.  Their failure to communicate is one of the driving forces of the novel.

Every disability is different and has its own unique vantage point.  The difficulties in communicating among people with disabilities is another key sub-theme of Lovers Lame. 

I think, with mainstream culture being what it is, there’s a strange dichotomy between normalcy and having to come to terms with the fact that a certain amount of what is good syncs up with looking a certain way, with taking certain roads home.  David, the narrator of your book, seems like a guy who carries a certain weight with him in this regard.  A quick glance at the guy in certain situations and he may look ordinary enough, but anything beyond that, and his left-side paralysis doesn’t make for someone who looks normal.  As he is initially in your book, he seems introverted and closed off, even to himself somewhat.    

Yes, we have a packaged, programmed view of what people should look like, what is accepted to be ‘normal.’ In  Lovers Lame, David draws a sharp distinction between his condition and that of his brother Ted, an able-bodied athlete, affluent businessman, happily married.

At times, David (like me) tries to hide his disability and usually fails.  Too many experiences like this induce a heavy dose of introspection and introversion, both in fictional characters (David) and ‘real life’ (Bob Rudney).

With how rare they are in general, have typical portrayals of people with disabilities been something that you’ve  found alienating?

All those condescending poster-children portrayals drive me up the wall.  In the immortal words of Ed Roberts, the pioneering disability activist:  “Piss on pity.”

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Thanks to Robert for his time.  Find out more about him and his novel at these links:   

http://booklocker.com/books/6101.html

http://www.loverslame.com