**EDIT: I had this post written well before everything that happened in Boston yesterday. Even though this is quite specific to my undergraduate institution, I think the thoughts can still ring true for those touched by tragedy.**
This post has been written well in advance of today. April 16th is always a day that I'm never really sure of. I don't know how to act or what to say. I don't know what it all means, I don't know if anything happens for a reason, and I just...don't know what to say about it, I guess.
I'll preface everything by saying that April's been a tough month for me. Between defending my thesis, job-searching, catching up from the travelling I did in March, and trying to write, it's been a struggle. And today is probably the worst day in April, so forgive me if I sound melodramatic. I don't intend to.
I've talked about it briefly before, but my undergraduate institution was Virginia Tech (Go Hokies!). I am extremely honored and grateful that I was able to call that university and little old Blacksburg, VA, my home for four years. I'm still calling that place home now, as I'm about to move on to the next chapter of my life.
But my school, my home, will forever be known for one thing. It won't matter that we've consistently been the #1 collegiate fundraiser for Relay for Life, that each and every student lives their life by our school's motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). It won't matter that (most) years we're good at football, or that, in the fall, even our trees have school spirit.
No, none of that will matter. Not on April 16th.
My school, my home, my family was subjected to a terrible tragedy on April 16th, 2007. 32 Hokies lost their lives that day, for the mere reason that they decided to go to class, or work. They treated that day like any other, and now they don't have any days left.
I don't believe in glorifying the perpetrators of these crimes --and mentioning the perpetrator's name, while the victims remain in the background, is unfortunately something that occurs whenever the same type of tragedy happens. So, instead, I'm going to post the names of the 32 family members that I never got to know.
Ross A. Alameddine
Christopher James Bishop
Brian R. Bluhm
Ryan Christopher Clark
Austin Michelle Cloyd
Kevin P. Granata
Matthew Gregory Gwaltney
Caitlin Millar Hammaren
Jeremy Michael Herbstritt
Rachael Elizabeth Hill
Emily Jane Hilscher
Jarrett Lee Lane
Matthew Joseph La Porte
Henry J. Lee
Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan
Lauren Ashley McCain
Daniel Patrick O’Neil
Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz
Minal Hiralal Panchal
Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva
Erin Nicole Peterson
Michael Steven Pohle, Jr.
Julia Kathleen Pryde
Mary Karen Read
Reema Joseph Samaha
Waleed Mohamed Shaalan
Leslie Geraldine Sherman
Maxine Shelly Turner
Nicole Regina White
I wasn't there when it happened. I was a senior in high school, already set on attending in the fall and excited about being a Hokie. After the tragedy, people asked if I still planned on going, and I couldn't help but just look at them.
"Of course I'm going," I'd say, full of resolve. "Why wouldn't I?"
They'd look down. "Well, you know, because..." and their voice would trail away.
"But have you been watching the news?" I'd answer.
"Then you've seen how united they are, even with everything that's going on. There's no place I'd rather be."
And that was the answer I'd give. It was the truth. I'd made my choice, and I was moved and impressed by how the Hokie Nation found it's voice in the face of such horror.
I wasn't there when it happened. But I was there a few months later, a fresh face at a place that was forever changed. One of the first things I remember that showed me how my home had changed was during Orientation. It was late, one of the last sessions with my Orientation Leader, and he started talking about his experiences that day, I think as a way to prepare us for what would happen when we started. My Orientation Leader couldn't hold it together. Here he was, this college senior, breaking down in front of us. Here he was, this stranger who'd known us for a few short hours, who showed us that we weren't strangers anymore.
We were part of a family that was hurt. A family that was confused, and angry, and shocked, and sad, and so many other things that I can't even begin to put into words. But our family was also trying to heal. I was amazed that so many people could try to move on together, without forgetting the loved ones they lost.
That is what makes me proud to be a Hokie. Our spirit, our perseverance, our love and support for each other. That's what I found when I was at Virginia Tech. A place I could call home, and friends I could call family. I found love and acceptance. I won elections, joined organizations, made mistakes, did fairly well in classes, and figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
While I was at Virginia Tech I never, for one moment, felt unsafe. The notion that I wouldn't be safe at a school that had seen so much heartache was absurd. It was a tragedy that occurred in Blacksburg, Virginia, yes, but unfortunately we've seen that same tragedy repeated over and over again.
Tragedy has touched us, yes, but it doesn't have to define us. We're defined by our actions, our community, our desire to serve, to make the world a better place, and to invent the future.
Today is always such an interesting day for me, because I wasn't there. For four years of my life, I stood with my friends, my family, as we mourned our lost loved ones. The emotions behind everyone's words, the moments of silence in between names being read, where the victims were announced as mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers, dedicated professor, loving nephew, wanted to change the world. 32 names were read every year. 32 names will continue to be read every year.
I'm still not sure how to deal with this day, six years later. I try to be there for my friends as best as I can, even though we're scattered around the country now. I wear black, put my maroon and orange ribbon on, change my Twitter and Facebook profile pictures in remembrance --and somehow that doesn't seem like it's enough.
And I think that's because it's not --I don't think it will ever be enough. But that's okay, because I'm trying. I'm remembering. I'm living for the 32 family members I never got to know.
Life is messy, and terrible, and wonderful, and sometimes far too short. So I think I'll take today to reflect on what matters most to me, and how lucky I am to be here. Today I'm going to allow myself to live in the past, to mourn, if only for a day. Today I'm going to cry. A lot. And not understand anything.
Today I'm going to accept that any illusion of normalcy is shattered, has been shattered, I think, for as long as I can remember. Terrible things happen, and when they happen to you or people you care about, it can be hard to try to return to whatever "normal" was. And, in some way, it might be impossible to return to "normal" when loved ones are torn from you so callously. When the place you called home and thought was safe gets violated so thoughtlessly that you don't know what to do. You don't know what to trust, or how to go on. Today I'm going to be fine with being completely lost. With not having the right answers, with struggling over how these things can happen.
But today I'm also going to recognize that, despite all the bad, there's still good in this world.
And then tomorrow I'm going to keep going. Tomorrow, I'll try to move on again. Tomorrow, I'll live my life because my family members didn't get the chance to live theirs. Tomorrow, I'm going to try to make sense of it all, even though I'll probably never be able to accomplish this goal.
But, whatever I do, I'll neVer forgeT.
I think I'll let Nikki Giovanni say everything I can't. She's pretty amazing.
I love you all, and I'm here for you. I want you to know that.
Friends, I'm frustrated. I've seen a few blog posts lately that talked about (and proudly paraded) certain stereotypes that can be associated with your "YA female protagonist" based on what she looks like, and a few blog posts that blatantly assigned archetypes to YA females, putting our favorite heroines into categories.
I just...we're put into SO MANY BOXES already, as real people, that I hate to do the same to our fictional characters. Because it's really not acceptable to put us (or them) into boxes. One of the things I love about our world is that everything isn't always totally black or white. There are so many subtle differences between people and yes, while people can be categorized into being "smart" or "tough" or "hilarious" or "badass" it doesn't mean we should be.
Nor should the color of someone's hair, or eyes, or skin, completely define who they are. Yes, it can be part of someone's identity, and sometimes it may even be the identity someone identifies with most/leads with, but that's not all there is to someone. And please, whatever you do, if you're trying to sound knowledgeable about the ways society assigns stereotypes based on different "physical aspects" of a character, please don't only make your post accessible to one race. It's extremely exclusive and just not okay --or, better yet, just stop perpetuating the stereotypes.
I get it, the whole putting people in boxes/using archetypes thing. Sometimes it's comforting to know that we're part of a group, that there are others like us, or that yeah, we've written someone who's just as badass as Katniss Everdeen. I'm not saying we should all abandon every box we've ever put ourselves into (whether voluntarily or not). I certainly have no problem claiming that I'm biracial, or a Hufflepuff, or that I'm lucky enough to have received a college education, or that I write YA.
I'm just saying that we need to look, to really look, at the way we're characterizing young women in our books. Physical attributes can be helpful to some readers when "picturing" a character, but, at the end of the day, I don't care** about what a person looks like. I care about how a person acts. I can empathize with anyone as long as I care about what they're going through, or can understand why they made a choice (and, even if I don't understand why they made a choice, I'll still care). I want someone that I can root for, or root against. For someone that will make choices I agree with and choices that will make me want to throw a book against the wall.
I want a character who's as well-rounded and real as any person I know.
What message are we sending to girls, or anyone who reads our books, if we're constantly adhering to the same tropes we grew up with, just because they're familiar? If we always have a heroine who sits around, with little agency (or desire for agency) until some really hot guy comes along and then, only then, does she decide it's time to take control of her life? Or what are we telling them if we make things like "smart" and "attractive" mutually exclusive? Can't intelligence be beautiful? And, even if you do happen to be the studious sort, that doesn't mean you can't still have a social life, or that all your free time is spent doing homework.
We need to break the cycle --to let everyone, not just girls, know that it's fine to be just them. No, it's more than fine. It's great, wonderful, amazing, terrifying, beautiful, confusing, and so much more. Because THAT'S what life is. That's what YOU are.
People, and characters, aren't one dimensional.
I want to be more than what I look like. More than my hair color, eye color, skin color. I want to be what I act like. I want to be someone who can love, hate, cry, be angry, crack a joke. I want to be smart, I want to make mistakes. I want to be different, but sometimes I want to be the same as others. But, most of all, I just want to be me.
Stereotypes and boxes exist -- but that doesn't mean we need to use them.
**I'm still a fan of putting more diverse characters in stories. I'm just saying that, if someone doesn't look like me, I'll still be able to empathize with them. I don't care if they have purple skin, three arms, and happen to be a dinosaur/alien hybrid. I'll still care about what happens to them if they're a well-rounded, three dimensional character.
Now that the cat is out of the proverbial bag about my Les Mis/Star Wars mash-up, I get to talk about it quite often! One of the big things in Les Mis is definitely religion --Christianity, if one wants to be super specific about it.
When I was writing my story, I had to decide how big a role I wanted religion to play. Star Wars also has it's own religions (Jedi/Sith...the Force, if one believes in it) and it's own group of people/beings who don't believe in any of that. Pon, my MC, very much sits on the fence, and the other characters have varying degrees of belief in religion/other causes.
So I came up with the "Old Stories" to be the main source of religion --but the cool thing was that, when I decided to create a religion, I knew I didn't want to base it in western culture. I had the idea to incorporate a variation of Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colors, into a scene in my MS. I came up with this story as a lead-in to the festival, to explain where the festival came from for people on a particular planet. It's easily one of my favorite things in this manuscript (which is saying a lot, because I love this whole thing), and I wanted to share it because it's cool. And to point out how awesome Holi is :)
There were other things I took into consideration when figuring out how religion would function in this world and how my characters would interact with it...but that's another post, for another time!
was once a man who made a deal with the Stars.
He asked them to make him immune from death. The Stars obliged, but it came with a price,
as these deals always do. The man had to
choose which family member’s life he would exchange for his – for it was only
through death that immortality could be achieved. His wife volunteered in an attempt to save
her children, but the Stars refused. The
man had to sacrifice someone who was related to him by both blood and love.
the man chose his daughter, for she was young, and loved him the
most. The daughter agreed, wanting to
please her father, and fell to her death into the sea. The man’s wife cried for days, then weeks,
then months, then years, until finally the Stars took pity on her and turned
her into a great river that fell into the same sea her daughter drowned in.
man’s son was furious with his father for tearing their family apart. The son plotted with a Dark Star to take his
father’s power away from him, but this, too, came with a price. The Dark Star did indeed grant the son’s
wish, turning the man mortal right as his son thrust a sword through his
heart. But then the Dark Star gave the
man’s immortality to his son, who was left with the thing he hated most in the
the son sat on the edge of the cliff his sister dove off of, tossing stones
into the sea and the river that fed into it.
The stones were all brilliant colors that he had taken the time to
paint, and each had a message on it that would never be read. Every day at sunset, when the colors of the
sky and sea matched the colors of his rocks, the son would fall off of the
cliff, reuninting with his family at the bottom of the sea.
then, every morning, his mother and sister would carry him to the shore, where
he would begin painting his rocks again.
Pon closed the book, placing it back on the
transport’s shelf gently.She’d never
really liked that Old Story very much.It might have explained why the people of Altair threw colors at each
other – to mimic the son’s rock tossing – but there was one small problem with
the tale.It didn’t make any sense that
the man’s daughter would willingly fling herself off of a cliff to please her
Today is a pretty excellent day, and if you'll hop over to my friend Marieke's blog, you'll see why!
I'm very, very excited to help her out with a pretty awesome project called DiversifYA! We aren't officially launching the blog until May 1st, but Marieke typed up an awesome introductory post that I'm shamelessly copy/pasting here (but you should still check out her blog, because she's amazing and this whole thing was her idea)!
DiversifYA is a bit of Dear Teen Me, a bit of the Emotional Thesaurus, and a whole lot of Miniature Earth. It is a collection of short interviews—five questions each. Interviews focused on all sorts of diversity. Racial and cultural diversity. Gender diversity and sexual orientation. Disability and neurodiversity. All sorts.
DiversifYA is our response to that one comment we’ve heard so many times when it comes to writing diversity: “I don’t know what it’s like, what if I get it wrong?” It’s our response to Othering diverse characters, because one sure way to never understand each other is by continuing to talk about “them”, “their kind”, “their world”. Above all, it’s our response to never quite recognizing ourselves in stories.
DiversifYA is a tool, an introduction, for all writers out there who want to diversify their stories, but don’t know how or where to start. Because the only way to know what it’s like, to stop being afraid of offending and to reach out, is to listen.
And for all writers out there who never considered diversifying their stories. Allow us to convince you that the world is so much richer than the world we often read about.
DiversifYA is our way to show you: diversity is all of us. Partly because we all have shared experiences, no matter how different we may be. Partly because it’s those differences makes us all unique and can make this world amazing. It’s about time more stories reflected that.
What DiversifYA *isn’t*
- A cookie cutter solution. Diversity is not simply a case of finding the right paint-by-number method for your stories. It means you have to invest in your story, and research research research.
- An alternative to research. ;) DiversifYA is an introduction to diversity, it’s not a collection of premade character bios you can use. It is not a substitute for research. But don’t mind us if we want to nudge you in the right direction.
- A blog *about* diversity in fiction. There are some amazing blogs about diversity already, and they’re doing a much better job at it than we are.
What DiversifYA *is*
- Inclusive. Let’s get rid of “other” and make it ours. Every experience counts. Do you want in as interviewee? We’d LOVE to have you! Please shoot us an email and we’ll get back to you asap.
Meanwhile, we’d love for you to spread the word, via Twitter, via blogs. (Ohai, you’re awesome!) Or email/tweet us to chat. We’d love to get to know you.