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Broken store

Hi there!

Unfortunately my online store is current broken: you can add things to your cart all you want, but you can’t check out.

We’re not quite sure why. We’re working on finding a solution to the problem that is sustainable and doesn’t require Ben spending massive amounts of time trying to fix this website.

I’ll keep you posted when that happens.

In the meantime, if you’d like to order something, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line and we can work something out. I am still more than happy to ship books to people!

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Review: Nightbooks

Netflix, 2021. 1hr 43 min

The creep factor is present from the very beginning of this movie: it is, of course, a dark and stormy night, and 10? 12?-year-old Alex is upset and raging, tearing down posters of shlocky horror films from the 1980s and screaming about how he wants to burn it all. His parents are having an argument about him and some trauma that he’s recently endured. Clearly, they’re worried about him. He runs out of their apartment and into the lift, intending to set his books alight in the building’s boiler room. But instead, with a slice of pumpkin pie and an unattended television screening The Lost Boys, he is ensnared by a beautiful witch named Natacha (played by Krysten Ritter, who looks like she’s having way too much fun) and forced to prove his usefulness to her by reading her a new scary story every night.

Alex is not the only child that Natacha has ensnared: her creepy granny kitsch apartment also houses Yasmin, a girl about Alex’s age who cooks and cleans for Natacha, and a hairless spiteful cat named Lenore, who acts like a spy for the witch and who likes to turn invisible. At first, both Yasmin and Lenore are hostile to Alex. But shared adversity forges powerful bonds, and soon Alex and Yasmin are plotting together to find ways to escape.

I haven’t watched or read that much middle grade horror (Stranger Things and Monster House is about the extent of it), and horror really isn’t my genre. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed this one—perhaps because it was consciously steeped in fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel references abound) and 80s horror tropes. It was fun seeing Alex read his stories (which were dramatised in a heavily stylised way that I thought befit the tale-within-a-tale thing they were going for) and having to endure the world’s worst writing critique group in the form of an impatient, nitpicky and exacting Natacha. (“Writers. Always so insecure.” *Cue snarky giggles from me.*) The way his writers block was depicted made me laugh while, at the same time, I kept yelling at the screen for him to go take a walk or read some of the many tomes that comprised the library he was forced to work in. (Indeed, give it’s Week #15 of lockdown, I rather envied the fact that he had TIME and SPACE to write—time and space UNINTERRUPTED, at that!) It was also very emotionally satisfying seeing him and Yasmin slowly begin to connect, and I enjoyed the spark of cleverness Alex displayed in trying to trick the witch into revealing some key piece of information. The jump scares were a little cheesy, bordering on predictable. But this is a kids movie, and perhaps some leniency is in order.

Indeed, I wondered how much my viewing the film as an adult was colouring my perceptions of the film. There were points at which I felt that the kids were being a bit slow or a bit stupid—that they should have acted and done certain things to help themselves, or done certain things sooner. I wondered how a kid would have found it and whether they would have empathised with the main characters’ paralysis and indecision. In particular, I wonder how they would have responded to the big reveal, when Alex finally answers Natacha’s question about why he was so keen to burn his writing (which he has scribbled in journals he calls his “Nightbooks”). For me, I felt like this could have been seeded better and earlier so that the emotional weight of Alex’s trauma could have hit harder.

Indeed, in spite of some pretty decent pacing, some of the plot twists and character arcs felt a bit predictable (even though I liked some of them), and if you think too hard about the story and its world building, you’ll come across some curious holes. (That said, and given that the movie is based on a book of the same name by JA White [which I have not read], I wondered if the movie would have worked better as a miniseries, with more time and space to allow the stories—and back stories—to breathe a little more.)

Final thing: the production design on this movie is gorgeously nightmarish—from the William Morris wallpaper to the antique porcelain dolls to the cobwebbed spiral staircased library, and even a gingerbread house that looks both mouthwatering, yet sweetly and sickly gross. Natacha’s wardrobe is also fabulously retro and over-the-top, with iridescent fabrics, sequins for days and eye-wateringly high platforms galore. The score was comprised of some rather over-used high strings. But I really like the CHVRCHES cover of “Cry Little Sister” (which comes from The Lost Boys): not only are they one of my most favourite bands, I felt that fit really well with CHVRCHES’ aesthetic.

If you and/or your kids like creepy stories, this one’s for you—and just in time for Halloween.

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Hiveminded Episode 017

Show notes

Queenie Chan’s website

Ryan K Lindsay’s website

Transcript

[Music]

Karen Beilharz: So it’s been three years since our last podcast episode, which was our writing retreat miniseries back in July of 2018. Since then, Bec, Guan and I have been involved with other projects—projects that, unfortunately, haven’t involved this podcast. Since then, other podcasts have sprung up that also have the name “Hiveminded Podcast”. And if you’re listening to this, and it’s not the podcast you were expecting, maybe stop now and look elsewhere.

Then last year in 2020, I was all set to attend my very first WorldCon: the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, which was supposed to have been held in Auckland, New Zealand. And then COVID-19 shut everything down. Things were just starting to open up again in Sydney when the convention was being held via livestream. I was still working at the time, so I couldn’t attend any of the panels live. But I did get up at some ungodly hour just to attend a small group Zoom session with Kieron Gillen, the comic writer. I tried to catch up on as many panels as possible over the weekend, playing them a double, sometimes even 2.5 speed, and I enjoyed the panels I was able to hear.

But while I was listening, I couldn’t help wishing that I could hear comics people talking about the sorts of things that WorldCon panellists were talking about—things to do with creativity and process and influences, and all things to do with making art. There were a couple of comic creators among the guests, but the majority of them were prose writers. I came away from WorldCon with the idea of making something happen myself.

Of course, I was in no position to organise a whole convention, and certainly COVID wouldn’t allow for that. So I thought perhaps doing a podcast would work. I thought perhaps I could revive the Hiveminded Podcast. Furthermore, as COVID had pretty much cancelled all the usual comic and pop culture events where I would normally see my comics friends, I thought this would be a good excuse to catch up with people. And it would give me a chance to ask them all the little niggly questions I’ve always wanted to know (mwahaha!)

And then my website broke, and we moved house, and whatever grand plans I had were shelved.

One year later in 2021 in the midst of the second Sydney lockdown, I found myself thinking about the idea and trying to figure out how to make it happen. And thankfully, I found a way to make it happen.

In this episode and the next episode of the Hivemind Podcast, I talked to comic creators Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay. If you’re not familiar with them, Queenie Chan is a manga artist and comic creator, known for her Picnic at Hanging Rock-inspired horror trilogy, The Dreaming; her collaborations with Dean Koontz and Kylie Chan; the fairytale-inspired fantasy adventure Fabled Kingdom; and a series of children’s non-fiction works about famous queens throughout history.

Ryan K Lindsay is an award-winning writer known for such works as Headspace, which is set inside the mind of a serial killer; Negative Space, in which his main character goes to pen a suicide note and gets writer’s block; Beautiful Canvas, a crime miniseries about a hit woman trying to reconcile her profession with her role as a mother-to-be; and Everfrost, a science fiction miniseries about a woman on the brink of death who comes face-to-face with the son who died in her arms as a child.

Queenie, Ryan and I talk about our comic creator origin stories, the genres and tropes that we are drawn to, and how we actually go about writing comics.

Enjoy!

KB: Hello, and welcome to the Hiveminded Podcast, which today is with me—that’s Karen—and Ryan K Lindsay and Queenie Chan. And we’re doing a miniseries about making comics together. And these next few episodes are going to be about writing comics.

But before we get into the business of writing comics, I thought it would be fun to talk about your comics creator origin story. So Queenie, do you want to go first and tell us: how did you get into making comics in the first place?

Queenie Chan: So my name’s Queenie. I’m a manga-style comic book artist, which means that I draw in a very Japanese style, because that’s what I grew up with. So I grew up reading Japanese manga in Hong Kong. And then I came here when I was a kid. And so just continued my habit, thanks to Chinatown importing a lot of these kind of comics.

And I had this fantasy of becoming a manga comic book artist in Japan. And unfortunately, that was years ago, and it still isn’t really possible these days to do that without moving to Tokyo. But I guess when the internet came into existence, and I just started going online and talking to people and finding a lot of people online that had dreams similar to mine, I thought, “Oh, you know”—that kind of inspired me to sit down and actually give it a try in becoming a manga artist, really, from Australia.

Amazingly enough, it kind of worked out okay, for me—not the way I envisioned, but considering how scary Japanese manga—the industry—can be when it comes to working within it, I’m kind of glad things turned out this way. But—so I guess I started thanks to the internet and just growing up reading manga and just wanting to be a part of the manga-producing world, I guess.

KB:  But you were quite—like, you weren’t in high school, were you, when you started? Is that right?

QC: No, I was in university, actually. I wasn’t encouraged to draw as a child. So it wasn’t until I was in university that I started drawing and writing my own stories, because I didn’t enjoy my degree. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I had gone into Information Systems—so programming—and it was not as I had hoped, you know. So I thought, “Oh, you know, maybe I’ll just do something else.” And, you know, my escape from university life was actually my manga-drawing hobby that I had.

KB: That’s fantastic.

QC: And that’s how it started.

KB: Wow. How about you, Ryan? What’s your comic creator origin story?

Ryan K Lindsay: That’s funny, I was just trying to think of when I decided I wanted to, you know, write comics. I knew I was never going to draw them! That’s certainly never been even something I thought of.

But I was actually trying to think of, like, I know, roughly when I started to write comics, but I don’t actually remember why I thought that was something I should be doing. All I know is from a very young age, I knew I would grow up to write. And I called it early and said I would be an author and a teacher, and have now successfully managed both of those career paths, if you can call the writing, you know, career. But it pays some bills.

But it was—it was after I’d gone to Uni, and I’d graduated and I was teaching at the first school that I was placed at. And a few years in there, my brother sent me The Walking Dead Volume 1, because we are real old-school zombie fans. Um, and he was like, “Oh, apparently this thing’s really good.” And it was probably about three volumes deep at this stage—it was like fairly—fairly nascent days. And I remember reading that and it rekindling this love of comics. And because I was teaching and I had all of this disposable income, I had started to buy comics again, like I did all the way up to late high school. And I think it was that reading lots of comics again, and going on eBay and finding stuff that definitely, like, sparked that passion again.

And I’d been tinkering with writing different things at that time. And I can’t remember why, but I get the feeling it might have been—I was—I was filling in a lot of my Daredevil collection on eBay. And so I decided to write some Daredevil stories in comic script form, which, as everyone knows, is—is not the way to break into comics or to make comics. But as people also know, fanfic is a hell of a way to get yourself to sit down and write stuff.

And that sort of kickstarted me, you know, learning about script format and all that sort of stuff, and finding what I could online, which, you know, 15-odd years ago, wasn’t as much as there certainly is now. And so from there, it took years of writing, um—and I always say, like, I—before I published my first comic one shot, I wrote about 60 issues in script form that just sort of went nowhere, or were just practice or were horrible, or might be diamonds in the rough waiting in my trunk, but I’d never really go back to them. And I’d written a few novels as well. And I count all of that as practice—really invaluable practice.

And then finally in 2013, I put out my first one-shot—22 page comic—and sort of took that around to conventions. So yeah, that was definitely the origin story.

KB: So that was Fatherhood, wasn’t it—the 22-page?

RKL: Yes, that first one that I did was—was Fatherhood, a nice standalone. By the time I got to that point, I realised you don’t write Daredevil, you don’t pitch 60-issue Vertigo-style things—like, it’s just not going to happen. Although if you figure out how young Garth Ennis was when he wrote Preacher, very young, and it’s insane that he was so good and got that opportunity. But he’s Garth Ennis, so I guess he earns it.

But yeah, it took me ages to realise I needed to do something self-contained and manageable to—you know—to engage a creative team and to be able to afford printing, and to make it not like a $50 book that people won’t know who I am and won’t take a chance on, but $5: I could probably get that out of somebody at a show, and did manage to on more than one occasion.

KB: Yeah. Wow. That’s fascinating. So it was really rediscovering the love of comics, then deciding, “I’d like to do that” to having a go and putting stuff out there. And yeah, and then from—

RKL: Pretty much yeah—

KB: Yeah.

RKL: —just having that passion. And I’ve always loved writing, and I’ve always sort of like—even pretty much—for always, if it’s not a short story, it’ll be something else. I’ve always sort of tinkered with stuff. But I think that weaving it all together and then clocking it in with the passion that I have for comics, just sort of, I guess, was the right recipe.

KB: Yeah, there you go. Like for me, I grew up reading the strips in the Saturday paper—like, was it Prince Valiant and Thin Ice and Snake and that sort of thing. And it wasn’t until—I think it was university/late high school that, you know, all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh my goodness: you can get longer novel-length forms of comics.” And I had these friends who would just keep lending me stuff, but their tastes skewed more towards—I guess, more independent Image-type, a little bit of Vertigo, like Sandman, that sort of thing.

But I never thought I could do it myself, because I just write; I don’t draw at all. And then I was reading an interview with Kieron Gillen, because I think it was about the time I discovered Phonogram. You guys read Phonogram? Wow, okay. It’s one of my favourite comics. It’s about basically—

RKL: So good!

KB: Yeah, music is magic. And I was reading interview with him, where he talked about how he got started, which was just to talk artists into doing these five-page things with him for free. And I thought, “Oh, I could do that!” I started writing five-page scripts and—and things and then taking it from there. But yeah, that’s pretty funny because I never thought, “Oh,” like “this is a way you can make comics”. And I didn’t know anybody who was making comics at the time. It was only later, after I’d put out the first anthology, Kinds of Blue that I actually met other comic creators and you guys and stuff like that. Like, I think the first time I met Queenie was at a signing you did it Kinokuniya. I can’t remember what year it was.

QC: Oh!

KB: It was very a long time ago.

QC: I guess I don’t really remember either. That must have been it. I do do stuff with Kinokuniya. But that was a while ago. Obviously, with COVID, nothing’s happening.

KB: Yeah.

QC: And—that’s right: they used to do Free Comic Book Day. And that was really great.

KB: Yeah.

QC: But of course, COVID has kind of ruined that a bit. But yeah, yeah. I mean, the comics industry has changed so much. What can I say: I started working in it in about 2005. Or probably before that: that wasn’t—that, like, okay. So long ago, it’s hard to think—I’ve actually have a think about how long it’s been since I started drawing comics. I’d say about 20 years.

But, um, you see, my first officially published work was with TokyoPop. So that was in 2005. But before that, I was with an outfit called Wire Pop. And I was getting paid for my comics. So perhaps, if we’re going to talk about getting paid to publish your work, I mean, TokyoPop definitely wasn’t my first publishing experience. It was with Wire Pop. But back then, people were actually still willing to subscribe to a comics website to read comics. Nowadays, I don’t think that there is so much willing to—or, at least, if it’s happening, it’s not really happening in, I guess, Western spaces.

I think Webtoons, for example, has a pretty good system where people do pay to read comics. But I’m not putting myself up on Webtoons. The ecosystem there, it’s very different to what it used to be back in 2002 or 2003. Yeah. Okay.

So I guess my first published work was actually a horror story called Block Six. That was what ran on Wire Pop. Yeah, so yeah, there’s that. So just thinking about how much, like, the comics industry has changed over the years thanks to the internet, and how different things are, and how different people are when it comes to doing stuff. Like that’s—that’s—I guess that’s quite interesting and worth talking about.

KB: So you’ve always been drawn to horror in some way.

QC: Not really, I guess. I wanted to challenge myself. I like all kinds of genres and whatever appeals to me—mystery, horror—I like romance as well, if it’s well written; there’s a lot of terrible romance out there, let’s just say. A lot of good ones. Action—anything that entertains me is good enough. I think.

I don’t do much action comics, because I guess—it’s a lot of effort as an as an artist, I guess—like, who writes and draws—it’s just, like—it’s a constant balancing act of how—what can I write and whether I can draw it. So sometimes I choose my stories based on that.

But then again, I also—like, as a writer/artist, I’m also really interested in pushing comics into new directions—like, pushing the boundaries of what can be considered a comic—the kind of tools you use—you can use to do something that qualifies as comic. I mean, you were an editor for one of my experimentations, Fabled Kingdom, that was mixing prose with comics. And I thought that was interesting.

So right now, I’m doing something in a completely direction—a different direction—for my PhD, which I’m doing at Macquarie Uni. I’m mixing comics with gaming. So I’m creating a comic with a game engine. So it is a digital comic, in my opinion. But I guess, again, it’s about going in a completely different direction to the direction I went in with Fabled Kingdom, and seeing what kind of interactivity you can bring to a digital comic using gaming mechanics and gaming tools, since I’m a huge gamer as well, apart from a comic book reader.

KB: Yeah.

QC: So that’s kind of some of the stuff that I’m doing right now—which is, you know, it’s—it’s really different to what everyone else is doing. So it’s a little bit strange, talking about it on a comic show. But I think that people are always interested in experimentation and new ideas. And so, yeah.

KB: Yeah, definitely.

QC: So that’s what—I mean, I guess I’ve always gone to the beat of my own drum or whatever!

KB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because your work has, yeah, encompassed a whole bunch of different themes. Just—I’m just thinking about the ones that I have read, because I haven’t read all of it. But yeah, certainly like The Dreaming was the Australian gothic—the—Picnic at Hanging Rock sort of thing. And then with Fabled Kingdom, it was fairytales and fantasy, and about governments and queens, and so on, so forth. And then with the—the queens series that you’ve been doing, that’s diving—

QC: Oh yeah, nonfiction as well.

KB: Yeah, nonfiction and history, and all the research that you did for that as well. It’s really, really interesting.

QC: Guess what my theme for my PhD is.

KB: Yeah, what?

QC: It’s capitalism! It’s going—my PhD is on Neoliberalism, and working conditions of comic book creators and  video game workers. So that—so the creative class in a neoliberal world. Again, something completely different, and I’m actually really enjoying it, because it’s a topic that I know a fair bit about, even without being in academia. So again, it’s a completely different direction. But it’s going to be a mix between a video game and a comic, and interactive to boot. So that’s—it’s going to be fun.

KB: Wow! It sounds really cool. Ryan, what kind of genres or stories do you gravitate towards in your own work?

RKL: Bleak ones, it would appear, from most of what I’ve written. I’d actually read a thing recently on crimereads.com that talks about why sci-fi and crime—especially noir—mash up so well together. And it just perfectly encapsulated why I write a lot of sort of that genre, to be honest. It talks about with—with noir, normally, you know, everyone’s a little bit criminal, and the system is definitely against the lead character, but ultimately, the lead character is also emotionally against themselves, which is another fascinating trope. And sci-fi, it’s—it’s quite often, you know, dystopias, and things like that. And so it’s someone against this larger, broader system that’s against them. And when I look through my work and had spoken with—I have a really good mate who’s a—who’s a really analytical reader. And he had pointed it out to me a while ago that a lot of my stories is someone against, like, a system that is—that is corrupt. And so you see in Negative Space, there’s this mega corporation. And you see in Headspace, it’s this sort of shadow government organisation. And so it sort of seems to come through in my work a lot that it’s this—this—I don’t want to say, like, it’s too pessimistic, I guess. I certainly do try to find elements and slivers of hope and beauty in my stories. But usually they are the minority in the world, or in the story or in the character. But it’s that sort of mash up.

And I think it comes—it comes back to, like, a childhood of watching things like—like Blade Runner, and even watching movies like the Alien franchise, where it is, like, there—there is just a thick layer of corruption. And I mean, if you want to talk about capitalism, I mean, it generally seems to be the grounding tenet of it that if you follow the trail that is generally money, that it’s not the best interests of people at heart; it’s the best interest of replicating more money. And so that, I think, makes for really interesting—the story fodder.

And I often wonder, like, “Can I can tell different stories moving forward?” You know, there is an interest to want to experiment and explore different things. But I do wonder how often I will come back to genre tropes within, like, sci-fi, especially, because I do love that element that you don’t necessarily have to make everything believable, and you don’t have to make everything real, and you don’t have to explain everything. You have to make everything make sense within the story engine of the world that you’ve constructed. But if you want to leave something off the table, I think that’s fair game.

And I’ve just this fortnight been reading Frankenstein for the first time. Which is—which has been a really interesting gap to fill. And I’m fascinated by how little science there is in the first science fiction novel. It does not really go into any detail as to how any of the science occurs—how the, you know, the body is really created or how it is really animated. And the story is not any less for that fact.

And I think there are great science fiction authors that build intricate—they build whole languages from whole cloth, and I think that that’s fascinating. But it’s never what I want to do. I want to tell a story about a character, and then some peripheral characters, and I want to build a world, but I only want to show enough of it that shines back on the character arc. So, yeah, it is something I—I think about often, because I want to make sure if it’s a weakness, either I improve upon it or I have enough excuses to get away with it. They’re my two options.

KB: Yeah, yeah.

QC: I think bleakness in pop culture is very—very suitable for the times. When Ryan mentioned the interest in dyst—dystopias, I was like, yeah, you know—I was thinking exactly Blade Runner.

RKL: Yeah.

QC: Basically we’re—like, if you consider outliers right now in COVID lockdown and with the hot mess that we are in right now, it is a lot like—later on, all with, you know, lots of government and corporate corruption, but minus the fancy lights.

RKL: Yes.

QC: It’s a boring dystopia. You know, all the fun stuff about Blade Runner, nothing’s—we’ve got nothing and none of that: no flying cars—

RKL: No.

QC: —no cool neon lights, no radioactive food. You know, no—no weird—well, we have the bullish police brutality, but not any of the fun stuff, like speaking a mishmash of different languages—none of that old, you know, folding little unicorns in front of, you know—

RKL: Yeah.

QC: —people you’re about to arrest or beating them up. We don’t have any of that. We just have the same old boring life, but with all the negative stuff from Blade Runner and none of the positive.

And so I think that, um—other kinds of entertainment, like zombie—like Walking Dead, you mentioned earlier, is another example of this kind of, I guess, alienation people feel from the way our society is now and how much we want to press the reset button and start all over again as well—you know, that—that is kind of fantasy as well, apart from the dystopian one.

So I think um, you know, you’ve—you’ve hit a very good vein of societal alienation there, Ryan, and I think you could continue to plumb that for quite a while, given the way things are going.

RKL: I—

QC: You should write one about the pandemic next time.

RKL: Yeah, I feel like there’s, you know, there’s enough there that people can sort of—it resonates with them. And if—and if you do it right, it can—it—I never want people to feel worse after reading my stuff. I don’t mind if they think more and that they sort of maybe don’t feel great about everything that happens in the story or what’s the lead character about the end. But there’s just, yeah, so much that you can mine in there.

I have noticed a little bit of a trend that my stories are getting a little more hopeful over—over time. The first few miniseries that I published, certainly—I love a good ambiguous ending, and they would do that, but also lean towards, like, well, you fixed one problem, but it’s small in comparison to the very systemic problem you found. But congratulations on winning, you know, the battle; the war will crush you. Whereas now it sort of seems to be, like, well, maybe there’s a chance you can get away from the war. And very rarely do I think I will resolve or solve the war in my stories. But yeah, I have noticed a bit of a trend that—I don’t know if I feel bad for my lead characters. But for some of them, I’m like, “Oh, let’s see what we can do for him at the end of the story” or see how it’s going to work out.

But I think there’s an element of if you do it well and you do it right, and you do it honestly, people—people like a story that’s, I guess, well constructed. And having written Negative Space that is heavily steeped in suicide and—and deep depression, it’s something you want to make sure that you write really carefully and really tactfully and really true within the story that you’ve constructed. And that was the one I’ve certainly put in a lot of effort for. And it’s been, probably—it was one of the highest sellers I’ve had and it’s been the one that won all the awards. So I guess, hopefully, that means I did  tiptoe across that line just right.

KB: Interesting. Yeah, I think for me, um, the—I guess is that the genres that I more gravitate towards is, well, fantasy, on the one hand, YA at the moment and a bit of romance. Like, I do love a really good love story. I’ve been watching Crash Landing on You on Netflix, which is this [South] Korean drama. And it’s about this South Korean woman who gets caught in a storm when she’s paragliding and ends up in North Korea, and runs into a North Korean soldier. And yeah, I like the way that romance genres tend to do with character—like, I feel like it’s a bit more rich and more about their interior lives, not just about, “Oh, great: how do we get these two people together and have that happily ever after?” But that journey to there is really interesting for me.

So I thought what we could do now is talk about one particular project and where the idea came from.

RKL: Headspace is the one where, especially if I’m teaching, like—like, a class about how to get story ideas, it’s often the one that I come back to—in that it’s about a sheriff of a small sort of seaside town who comes to realise that this town is inside the mind of a killer, and the killer’s mind has discovered that this incursion exists and so is going to try to wipe this town out. So the sheriff has to try to survive.

And so if that’s the story, and then that’s the setup, the kernel of that came from me teaching the First Fleet to students at the primary school where I teach, and talking about, you know, why the First Fleet occurred, which was that the overpopulation of prisons in in Britain was causing an overflow on an issue, and that they were even getting prisoners and putting them onto ships that were in the rivers that had been, like, founded there. And they would call—they were called “hulks”, these ships, and they would turn them into mini, like, overflow prisons.

And I thought to myself, wouldn’t that be a cool modern idea if they would take, like, a prison and shrink it and then inject it into somebody—à la sort of like Innerspace, which is that sort of stupid, goofy, classic 80s movie with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan? And so I thought to myself, “That’d be cool if we got, like, a prison and then shrunk it down and just, like, in a pill, almost, injected it? And what if, then, you injected it into a prisoner who’s in a prison? How many prisons could you fit in a prisoner?” And I started [to] spin, like, this idea around and trying to work it out.

And initially, that’s—that’s just a concept. And so I had to sort of dig around. I actually heard a great quote this morning on a podcast, and I—it was like a roundtable thing, so I don’t know the author’s name. But she talked about, you don’t write about problems and the people within them; you write about people and their problems. So I sort of—I had the problem and was creating a solution, and then I needed to flip and go, “All right: who’s my character?”

And eventually, in doing that, I’m—like, semi spoilers: the sheriff in this small town that’s in the killer’s mind, that’s not a prison. Like, it’s—I eventually got rid of that idea. And the only thing I kept from that initial First Fleet/sci-fi rip off was, “What if there was, like, people within people?” But I made it more, I guess, organic, and that they just sort of existed within there and didn’t know they were there. And it then very much became the focus on the sheriff, Shane Garretty, figuring out the brain—that he’s in a brain, that the brain is the brain of a killer, and that he has an opportunity, perhaps, to do something good. You know, if you’re in the mind of a killer, perhaps you could tweak them or kill them.

But then also, in roaming around the memories in this brain, he sees his son who was murdered years before. So you can see he has a very decent personal hook to the story and a reason not to just find the off switch, but to try to figure out—I mean, it seems fairly obvious why your murdered child might be in the mind of a murderer, but you would probably want to track it down—one would assume.

So, yeah, we weave all that together. And it very much then becomes a story of a person and his problems, and we branch out from there.

And so by the time I wrote the story, and it’s now been published, it’s really not that prison within a prisoner thing at all. But through asking questions, and spinning and spinning and spinning, that’s how we got there—which is a fun and for me, sometimes, can take years as a process, which isn’t great for productivity. I know some people can sort of spin ideas out one a month or more. It takes me a while to really percolate on it to get it right. But that one came out, I think, really, really well. I do—I created that book with Eric Zawadzki and Sebastian Piriz, and I absolutely love it. Yeah.

KB: Yeah, some ideas na—need time to kind of gestate or percolate or something, don’t they? Like they—they just need a bit of time to form, in some ways, and they lose the dross. And then the—

RKL: Yeah.

KB: —the diamond shines through, in some ways. It’s interesting.

RKL: Basically, yeah: you’re scrubbing bits off, and then you’ve got to find that extra element supporting that, and that’s usually what I’m missing. I’m like, “Oh, I need something else.” And it was—for that story, it was when he saw his child roaming about in the mind and was like, “Oh, this”—like, that’s heartbreaking for me. Like, that would be a terrible, terrible situation to be in—like, one of the worst. And so once I got that little piece of it, I was like, “Oh, okay: well, everything is going to spill out from that.” But um, yeah, I find it takes me a while to

I had a similar thing with Beautiful Canvas, which is about a hit woman contracted to kill a small child. And I was like, “Okay, well, that’s terrible.” And it sort of sat there: for about three years, I kept pushing it aside, and I would do other stories. And eventually I realised, “Oh, her girlfriend’s pregnant. So she’s going to kill a kid, but she’s going to have a kid.” Now there’s internal conflict. So yeah, sometimes it’s just the right mash-up, just waiting to bump into stuff in my brain, I think—

KB: Yeah.

RKL: —probably more by accident than by any skill, sadly

KB: How about you, Queenie?

QC: Um, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of stories, and all of them have different origins. One of the—I mean, to follow on what from what Ryan said, what—a lot of the time it comes from random research. You know, I like learning about new things. So a lot the time, I’m like, yay, I want to know about this. And then ideas just come from this kind of thing.

Other times it was because I was working for a publisher and they wanted a particular kind of story—like, that’s how The Dreaming came to be, is, like, give me a haunted school story. And I was like, “Yeah, here’s a haunted school story.” Yeah, so that is a good catalyst.

Other times in—it’s stuff, like, you know, I want to do research on something. And then I’m like, “Okay, if we’re going to do research, might as well, you know, give it a go and see, you know, what I come up with.”

And I have noticed—like, I’m going to talk about something that might be interesting to people is that sometimes you come up with entire universes, and they don’t get in—turn into an actual script and, you know, an actual story. That’s happened to me on multiple occasions. And these are stories set in a similar kind of universe.

Like, for example, I’ve had three stories based on Chinese mythology—one that I actually—was published, but it wasn’t written by me; it was written by Kylie Chan and I illustrated it. And here’s the thing: she used characters that pre-existed in Chinese fantasy—I mean, in Chinese mythology—and Taoist religion, so to speak. And I did designs for them. And I said to her, “Look, you know, these characters are—they’re not characters; they’re, you know, gods—myth—mythological beings.” And I’m like, “I’m design—I’m doing a character design for you here. But if I was going to do my own version of the story—my own version of these characters—can I reuse these designs?” And she was like, “Yeah,” you know, she’s all for it. So it’s kind of created a universe where Kylie’s version of Chinese mythology is nothing like mine. But the way that certain characters look is actually exactly the same, if I was going to do that story—my own story.

And it is very strange, because I’ve written two—actually, I’ve actually got two stories published. Small Shen was one of them—the one with Kylie. And that came out in 2010 with Harp—yeah, 2011, with Harper Collins, I think—no, 2012 with Harper Collins—and that book did pretty well. So that was part of her White Tiger series—part of that prose fiction, you know, series that sold really well. So that’s a prequel to that. And I also did a story about a scent merchant with Yen Press back in 2008. So that was published in a magazine that was only available in America. And that was called Yen—Yen Plus, I think. I think it’s defunct now. But there’s also another story that I wrote for a competition. It didn’t win. But these characters all seem to share—are from separate stories with completely—like, they don’t connect at all in any way, to be honest. But they share—they come from the same kind of mythological universe.

And so now what I’m doing is that because of the comics game thing that I’m working on, and I’m also working on different game as a way to train myself to program and learn to how to use Unity in programming tools. There’s like, “Oh, I might as well do a farming live sim game and—that’s set in this Chinese mythology universe.” And now all these characters are back! And they’re all actually in the same universe as this game.

And I’m, like—I think it’s really interesting that writers sometimes have these ideas, and then nothing happens. Or maybe something happens, and it’s very small portion of them becomes a story that gets published or, you know, you do some illustration work for someone else. And so these characters do kind of exist in a particular kind of space. And then, years later, these characters all become part of something else. And I think there’s something to be said about these kind of creative universes and how things can spring up years ago, and nothing happens, but years later, they reappear in a different form.

And it’s never the universe as well; it’s always the characters. There are some characters who you really feel connected to when you’re, like, “I’m sorry, I can’t put you in a story” or maybe, “You appeared in the story for two pages, and that’s sad, because you’re so cool” and all that. But then they reappear in other forms in your other stories. And that’s—or that’s how I’ve experienced my kind of created universes. And it’s like—

It’s completely unexpected, because you always expect that you will—you will always be a comic book artist who does comics and that’s it. But I didn’t expect to be creating a game. That was entirely for my PhD so I can learn how to program. That’s it, but here it is: the game has actually made pretty good progress in terms of programming. So I’m just, like, “What?” You know. And maybe this is my life: it’s just unexpected, how these things happen. But what I—my point is, is that when it comes to being a creator of any kind, you can’t expect your work to just stay in one medium or just to stay in one story even. They just kind of blur or blend together after a while, and that character that you couldn’t put in a story kind of reincarnate sometimes in a different form.

KB: That’s really lovely that they’ve come back again—that you’re using them and reusing the designs and things, but also that they have their roots in Taoist mythology, and yeah, they have a history, in a way. That’s really really cool.

QC: Yeah, it’s—it’s strange. Sometimes other characters are born from interactions between these characters. It’s like—it’s all about filling out the edges of a universe when you’re trying to build a coherent world, and you have your main core actors, and then you have all these situations, and new characters are born from these situations.

KB: It also seems like you and Ryan, in a way, approach the whole concept of—of story from the opposite—opposite directions, in that you’re a bit more concerned with the world, and the characters, in a way, just come into it, whereas with Ryan, the world may be there, but what’s more important first is the character, because that is the viewpoint through which the reader will experience the rest of the world. I don’t know if—maybe I’ve misrepresented that but—

RKL: It’s also very important that I do it this way because I’m really lazy. And so—and I think that’s shown between, like, Queenie doing all of this insane work right now, and I am definitely not. But I do: I like to cut corners within things or, yeah, I’m—I’m—I get very stripped back in that, whereas—and I’ve had people ask questions like, “Oh, there’s this thing: tell me all about everything around it.” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” Like, it didn’t come into the story, so I didn’t—didn’t figure it out.

Every now and then, I’ll get on a jag and something will be really known and not end up in the story. But otherwise I’m—I’m just, I think, exceptionally lazy, whereas Queenie, I think, holds a lot more in her head and brings it all together, which is definitely, I think—like, I think that’s a really cool. I’m very jealous of ability.

QC: Oh, thanks. I don’t think it’s an issue at all. Like, everyone’s different. But that’s the whole point of being a creative is that—

RKL: Yep.

QC: —everyone’s got different approaches. And I would say my approach might be from the fact that I actually grew up more with gaming, than with video games—than with comics. And I would say that—like, it sounds strange, but um, sometimes—interactive worlds require you to fill out these kinds of questions, because you have to make maps. And that’s actually the first thing you got to do is that—if you’re talking about Super Mario, the very first game that I really got into—like Super Mario Brothers, it’s like “What is it with this crazy world with mushrooms everywhere and—”

RKL: Yes!

QC: —giant turtles attacking you and this plumber guy jumping around?” It’s like, “What kind of volume did this shear wackiness spring from?” And so, I think for a lot of game creators is that—they do start off with an environment first and obstacles and—before they come up with the characters. And because—I—I started playing video games before I ever started reading manga. So perhaps that had some influence on me, because I was thinking—that the reason why I became a programmer and took an IT degree was because I wanted to be a games programmer. That was my original goal. But, of course, Australia, back then, they didn’t have such—anything such as game companies. That was just—you know, that’s a very recent thing in comparison. So I didn’t—wasn’t able to make my dream—my game-making dream come true. But you go in a different direction. And you know, that’s fine.

But I think it might be because of that—because I did so much gaming—like, there’s a lot of world building in manga and comics as well, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just that when you write a linear narrative, is that you go from point A to point B, which is what most films, movies, comics books are like. It’s like you have a narrative and your character goes on a character arc. If you start off like that way—that way of thinking about your creative projects, then obviously, Ryan’s approach is actually a very good one. Because then you start off with a compelling human story. But I think if you start off with thinking you’re making a game, that’s actually not your first thing; you actually start off with your environment. It’s like, “Is it going to be a platformer, like Mario?”, or perhaps it’s going to be a story-driven RPG and you go around fighting monsters and building up your levels, and then you take on the boss, and that story naturally grows from that.

But if you are actually—well, that’s how it feels like when you’re playing a game. But if you were making that game, well, where would you start? You always start with a map.

RKL: Yeah.

QC: You know, this is my hometown, and you know, buy houses here and then my awful neighbours, and then there’s a town hall and this elder lives here. You know, that sort of thing. So perhaps my approach comes from having a having a background and a childhood—done with playing—playing a lot of this kind of stuff—is that there are all these things that may feature in your story. Well actually, in a comic, it may feature in your story for five seconds or five pages. But in a game, you will probably go back to it over and over again. You’ll go back to your hometown and revisit these people and all that. So these—in a game situation, they have to be recyclable, meaning that they have to come back within the context of the game’s narrative.

And so you have to build it differently. So maybe that’s where it comes from. I actually haven’t really thought about that. I assume that everyone just does things differently and I never really gave it thought. So that was a—that’s an interesting thought—

KB: Yeah, that’s fascinating!

QC: —comparing different ways of storytelling.

RKL: Well, I definitely wasn’t a gamer as a kid. And so that would track. What I was was I would play with, like, He-Man and GI Joe, and we couldn’t afford, like, vehicles and, like, Castle Grayskull. So I would just have these lone things going on journeys. This all makes sense: our entire storytelling thing is rooted in our own origins! This is—this is an exceptional breakthrough.

KB: Wow!

RKL: I’m assuming Karen, you’re charging, like, $180 an hour, because this is some serious therapy. I’m loving it!

KB:  I just like asking people questions.

RKL: It all makes sense!

KB:  Yeah, because for me, it’s different, again, because, often, for me, it starts with a particular idea or concept, like, so my science fiction comic, Eternal Life, it was me getting irritated with reading various bits of science fiction, and the people who were religious were always portrayed as being, basically, lunatics. They’re all crazy, and—

RKL: Yeah.

KB:  —it really annoyed me, because, being a Christian, I just thought, “Well, okay, say the world keeps going for another 2,000 years. Christians are still going to be doing the same thing that they’re doing now, which is basically reading and studying the Bible, going to church, talking to other people about Jesus, and stuff”, and that’s where it began, because I thought, “I just want to write about Christians who are ‘normal’ and not crazy in the future.” And so I had this family of missionaries who were going off to a planet, but the planet get—got blown up by a suicide bomber, and so they were a bit stuck on a—

QC: The planet got blown up?

KB:  Yes! The whole planet.

QC: Wow!

KB:  Yes. So they get stuck on a space station and that’s where they meet this girl named Bri who’s com—basically on the run from her past and stuff.

But a lot of my stories don’t start with characters the way I feel like Ryan’s do. It’s more with this—this weird idea, me getting irritated about something. I wrote this novella a year or two ago and it actually started from an exercise that Ryan got us to do at the Australian Comic Arts Festival a couple of years ago where—I think it’s the one where you get us to write down a whole bunch of different ideas in the span of five minutes or ten minutes or something, and you take three of them and try to develop them further, and then you take one of them and try and develop them further. And it was around the time that Pokémon Go came out, and I was fascinated—

RKL: Yeah.

KB:  —because I’m not a gamer, but I found the whole Pokémon Go phenomenon just fascinating, just because it got people out of the house and going out into the world and meeting people. And I read this story about this—this autistic boy who’s totally into the game and was connecting with other people about the game, just, like, going around his neighbourhood and—and people saying to him, “Oh, you can get”—whatever Pokémon it was—“in this area, if you go here” and his mother was writing about it online and saying how wonderful it was that her son was actually connecting with others.

And from there, though, me being me, I thought, “Oh, what if it was—if you had a game that was, like, for people dating and the game tried to match people up and sent them on different dates? And so I wrote this novella about that, where, in this society, like, everybody is working so hard, they have no time to settle down and meet people and have families, and the government is very concerned about the falling date—birth rate. So then they run this dating program over the summer every summer, and it’s compulsory. And—so the novella was just about this girl going through this—this game—this program and going on different dates, and some of them are completely disastrous and some of them are, “Eh”, okay, and—and so on and so forth. So it’s really fun.

[Music]

KB:  Well that concludes Part 1 of my conversation with Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay about writing and creating comics. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Many thanks to Queenie and Ryan for coming on the show. If you’d like to find out more about them and their work, head to queeniechan.com for Queenie and ryanklindsay.com for Ryan.

Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Hiveminded Podcast!  For links, show notes, a rough transcript and some free comics, head to hivemindedness.com. Audio editing and production was done by me. Our theme music is “I’m going for a coffee” by Lee Rosevere (which is slightly ironic, because I don’t drink coffee). Website design by Ben Beilharz. And special thanks as always to Rebecca Jee and Guan Un of the Hive Mind, whose undying support has made all this possible.

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The problem with BookFace

(Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash.)

The more I use social media, the more I’ve realised there’s social media and there’s social media.

Social media has gotten to the point where it is almost ubiquitous and inescapable. I use the main ones—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (not TikTok)—as well as lesser known/more niche ones, like Ravelry (for all things knitting-related), Letterboxd (for all things movie-related), Clubhouse (mostly so I can listen to comic creators chatting about stuff) and Pinterest. There are ones that are less social and more interest-driven (like Ravelry, but also YouTube and arguably Duo Lingo, Apple Music and Spotify), and there are ones that are more like a private messaging service (like WhatsApp and Slack).

My favourite of the bunch is still Twitter, even after 13 years of being on the platform. I love that through it, I can keep a finger on the pulse of both the comics industry and the publishing industry. I can connect with comic people, writers, editors, publishing houses, Christians and friends. I can tweet and retweet whatever I like, and sometimes the things I tweet/retweet are appreciated by others—even by people I don’t even know.

I should qualify my love of Twitter, though: I love Twitter on Tweetbot, as the way the current algorithm works makes the actual Twitter website the dumpster fire everyone complains about. Viewing Twitter on Tweetbot removes much of the angst: there are no ads/sponsored posts, no Favourites from other people, no algorithm trying to control what you see, and no recommendations of people Twitter thinks you ought to follow. (Which is just ridiculous; why keep adding to your follows? No one could possibly keep up.) On Tweetbot, your feed in reverse chronological order and not much else. (That said, Tweetbot isn’t perfect: unfortunately polls don’t work and threads sometimes break, but if you really care about those, you can always view the tweets in a browser.) I read Twitter every day multiple times a day, and unlike most Twitter users, I read my entire feed (pretty much). But I do read it in actual chronological order—from bottom to top—so it’s not doomscrolling, it’s intentional. And when I reach the top and am up-to-date, I stop, because that’s a natural end point. I don’t need to read anymore.

BookFace

I really wish there was something like Tweetbot for my least favourite social media network: Facebook. (I like calling it “BookFace” because I am petty.) Like I said, there’s social media and there’s social media, and Facebook is the worst of the lot. It’s large and unwieldy. It’s stuffed full of ads. It’s driven by infuriating algorithms that keep showing me stuff I don’t care about, despite my efforts to train it otherwise (and now that they’ve abolished the feed for Friends Lists, I can’t even do that). And it doesn’t always connect me with the things I care about.

Nevertheless, I can’t really excise Facebook from my life. Facebook connects me with a whole bunch of people who aren’t on my other social networks—family, friends, but also people in Facebook Groups. (The two I enjoy the most are the Sydney Comics Guild and the Australian Speculative Fiction Group.) People use Facebook to message me about various things. Also, I have to use Facebook for work as part of my job involves social media marketing.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Facebook. Lately, I’ve been trying to work out what it is I dislike about it, and it’s not what people normally dislike about Facebook. I’m not addicted to it and it’s not a time suck for me; because I don’t enjoy it, my engagement with the platform is cursory, and whenever I find myself doom scrolling on Facebook, I tend to wake up and switch over to Twitter on Tweetbot. I know people post all sorts of trash on there, but I tend not to see it, or if I do, I ignore it; that’s their problem and I don’t need to engage with them. Facebook as a company is pretty awful: check out this eye-opening investigative podcast series by The Wall Street Journal for a behind-the-scenes look at how Facebook plays favourites, fails to restrict and moderate disturbing content, facilitates human trafficking, contributes to the body image issues of teen girls (through Instagram, which Facebook owns), and stokes outrage in the name of engagement. Its track record does make me feel uncomfortable about using it and contributing to its ad dollar revenue. But (unfortunately?) it’s not enough to make me break with it.

No, I think my main problem with the platform is the ways in which I’m forced to relate to people while on it.

Buried

Consider, firstly, their algorithm, which works using a formula the company calls Meaningful Social Interactions (MSI):

Ryan Knutson: What exactly is MSI?

Keach Hagey: It is a number that measures how much a post is interacted with by people who you are close to. The interactions can be things like comments, likes, re-shares, emojis. And then there’s another mathematical part of it that’s measuring how close the people who are doing that are to you. So it both measures the interactions and the closeness of the people who are doing the interacting and that has an impact on the number.

Ryan Knutson: Facebook used the concept of MSI to create a scoring system. The more likes, comments and shares and the more those happened among people who were close to each other, the higher the MSI score.

Keach Hagey: And in the very beginning, the goal was just simply to get as much MSI as possible.

Ryan Knutson: If MSI is high, that means you’re not just a zombie passively scrolling and watching videos. You’re interacting, you’re engaged.

Keach Hagey: You are more likely to post something, to share a little tidbit about your life if you are more likely to get a comment or a like about it.

Ryan Knutson: There’s nothing more humiliating than sharing something on Facebook or Instagram and getting no response from anybody.

Keach Hagey: Exactly.

Ryan Knutson: The documents Keach reviewed actually break this MSI formula down. It provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the algorithm.

Keach Hagey: It’s actually a pretty simple formula. When they rolled it out, a like was worth one point. A reaction or reshare was worth five points. A significant comment was worth 30 points. And then they would add or subtract based on how close the people who were commenting or interacting were. So whether it was a group or a friend or a stranger.

Ryan Knutson: For example, an RSVP to an event was only significant if it was a yes, that would be worth 30 points. But if you RSVP’d maybe or no, it was only worth five points. Facebook would show these significant interactions to more people with the goal of spurring even more engagement.

(Source: episode 4 of The Facebook Files. Also see this Hootsuite post for more about how the algorithm works.)

“There’s nothing more humiliating than sharing something on Facebook or Instagram and getting no response from anybody”. This happens to me a lot: despite having 804 Facebook friends and 101 followers, I will post something and BookFace will respond with silence. No likes, no comments, no nothing. And then, because the post has failed to elicit a reaction—from the Friends closest to me and perhaps from those a little more distant from me—because it’s scored so low on their social metrics, BookFace buries it. And then no one sees it. (Unless they specifically visit my profile, but let’s not split hairs.)

The whole thing is daft because it relies on people’s engagement with me. I totally understand why those 804 BookFace Friends wouldn’t want to engage. Maybe the thing I posted wasn’t relevant or interesting or funny to them. (My sense of humour is a bit odd, and often most people don’t realise I’m making a joke online—perhaps because I’m usually so serious.) Maybe it was about something obscure—for example, sharing my excitement over the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop series on Netflix , which the majority of my BookFace Friends wouldn’t share. Maybe my BookFace friends were tired or in a hurry or scrolling quickly. The point is, they shouldn’t need to engage with me in order to make piece of content more view-worthy. I shouldn’t need their engagement, their likes, their comments, their whatever in order to be seen on the BookFace platform. I believe that God created humans to be relational beings, which means we’re hard-wired to connect with each other, and the positive side of that is that we can help one another, love one another and care for one another. But the negative side of that is that we can demand things of one another, manipulate one another, and care too much about what other people think of us. I don’t want to be like that on BookFace.

Two years ago, I wrote (on BookFace, of course), “Facebook often feels like a popularity contest I never asked to participate in”, and since then, not much has changed. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to be popular on BookFace. I don’t need thousands of likes and comments; I’d never keep up. I just don’t like being ignored. That’s the problem: BookFace makes me feel ignored. It makes me feel like that person at a party who says something and everyone else turns their back on them and pretends nothing happened. It makes me feel invisible—like I don’t exist. Or if I exist, I am barely tolerated.

Now, it’s really important to note that my BookFace friends are not deliberately doing this. They aren’t the kind of people who would shun me at the party for saying something stupid. In real life, they wouldn’t ignore me when I talked to them. And even if they don’t share my (admittedly odd) enthusiasms, they would still understand them and even tell me about things related to them that I might have missed. (Bless you, my good friends, who went out of their way to make sure I knew that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series is coming to Netflix!) It’s the BookFace algorithm that’s doing this.

And sure, I know I have psychological issues. (I mean, who doesn’t?) I know that I react more strongly to feeling ignored and abandoned because of stuff that’s happened to me in the past. Even so, let us acknowledge that the feeling of being ignored is not a nice one full stop, regardless of who you are.

In July of this year, fed up with the way the BookFace algorithm was handling my posts—particularly my public posts (which you’d think would reach a larger audience than my Friends-only ones), I finally caved and created a BookFace Page for myself. I don’t intend it to be a platform-building sort of thing; instead, I wanted somewhere where I could post stuff publicly and have people follow me as posting Public posts to my profile wasn’t working.

At the moment, only 79 people Like the Page and 84 people follow it, which is obviously not a large number, compared to the number of BookFace Friends I have. Even so, I am liking using it far more than my BookFace profile, because the BookFace Business portal lets you see exactly how many people have seen what:

BookFace Business Page stats

The number of reactions and comments I get on those posts rarely exceeds single digits. But I don’t care because I can see at least I’m not being ignored.

Comparison, the thief of joy

Secondly, BookFace adds insult to injury by seeming to boost my BookFace Friends’ content. I don’t just mean in terms of engagement: from a cursory glance at my News Feed, it seems like my BookFace Friends’ posts attract a higher amount of likes and comments than mine, but I also know that News Feed manipulates what I see because it’s run by BookFace’s algorithm, and that there may be posts of theirs that remain buried like mine. If BookFace operated like Twitter on Tweetbot, I could get more of an idea of whether that’s actually the case.

That said, there have been a couple of instances where BookFace has buried my post and has not seemed to bury my BookFace Friends’ posts. In April of this year (and thankfully way before lockdown!), I went to see Hamilton at the Lyric Theatre with two friends. I took a lovely photo of us in front of one of the posters:

Seeing Hamilton with friends in April 2021.

Then I posted it to both Instagram and BookFace. On Instagram, it garnered 15 likes. On Facebook, it garnered 9 reactions and zero comments and therefore (I presume) was buried. My friends also reposted it (with my permission!) to their Facebook profiles, where one got 25 reactions and the other, 62. (She paired it with her review of Hamilton, which probably helped.)

62 reactions! It’s essentially the same piece of content, but look at that difference. I’m lucky if my reactions ever tally beyond 20. Clearly, BookFace didn’t bury her post.

The thing is, I am not in competition with my friend. It’s nice she got 62 reactions! People obviously liked her review. (It was very good!) But it’s hard not to feel like we’re competing against each other when BookFace’s algorithm buries my post and boosts hers.

Relevant content

Thirdly, BookFace doesn’t actually serve me the content I’m actually interested in. In mid-August of this year, I was trying to think through the issue of Christians and medicine (and the related areas of God’s sovereignty and human civic responsibility vs individual freedom) because of a work email I received. I wanted to reply with something useful—something that outlined how Christians should view medicine and medical procedures, written for a popular audience. I asked my BookFace friends for recommendations and also popped the stuff I found useful that I had found through Googling in the comments to that post (which, by the way, only garnered three reactions).

The following day, I discovered that my brother-in-law—who BookFace knows is my brother-in-law (I am listed under his family members in the “About” section of his profile)—had posted the perfect article for my situation on his wall on the day I asked the question. But not only had BookFace failed to show him my post on the subject, BookFace had also failed to show his post to me.

Furthermore, the article in question was “The Suspicion of Science” by Lewis Jones on The Gospel Coalition (Australian edition) website. I’m actually BookFace friends with Lewis. The article went up on TGCA on 16 August (the day I posted my question) and he didn’t post about it until 17 August. Even so, BookFace didn’t show me his post either.

Which leads me to ask, is the BookFace algorithm broken? Isn’t it supposed to serve me the stuff I’m interested in? If it doesn’t, what is the point of it?

Hellooooo? I’m talking to you!

Fourthly and finally, BookFace does not notify the people I care about about my direct interactions with them. Here’s an example from yesterday: while on Twitter, I stumbled across this tweet by journalist Talia Shadwell

I posted it to Ben’s wall because I knew he’d find it amusing. (You know: Ben, my husband? Arguably the most important person in my life after Jesus Christ?) BookFace knows we’re married. BookFace failed to notify him.

(How do I know this? Because I noticed that Ben didn’t like the post and though that was weird, and so I straight up asked him today and he had no idea what I was talking about.)

The problem with algorithms

Looking over what I’ve just written, I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been included in one of Facebook’s mood experiments (like the one they did for one week in January 2012). I know that makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist. Still, given the age we live in, it’s not that far-fetched.

Anyway, you can see why all of this has made me quite interested in algorithms. They affect so much of our lives now, I think it’s useful to understand how they work and how we’re being manipulated by them.

At this point, let me reproduce part of a post I put up on BookFace back in June (4 reactions/9 comments), which BookFace buried, because it’s relevant:

I was listening to this NPR Planet Money episode on recommendation engines/algorithms and it was fascinating. They interview Doug Terry, the guy who invented the domain name system for URLs and also, coincidentally, the system that would eventually become the “Like” button on Facebook.

But it started with email: basically Doug was frustrated that his inbox was cluttered with all sorts of things that weren’t necessarily important or relevant to his day-to-day job. So he created a system where you could rate emails that would then prioritise certain emails (e.g. ones from your boss) over others (e.g. spam or forwarded jokes [remember those?]). And then he got his colleagues to try it out. And then he realised that he didn’t have to rate all the emails himself, because his colleagues were rating the exact same emails; he could use their likes and dislikes to filter his inbox in a process that he called “collaborative filtering”. It cut the time they were spending on emails in half, which was a big win for all of them!

Fast forward about 16 years: Netflix was using technology similar to what Doug had invented in its own recommendation system. But it wasn’t improving. So they held a contest called the “Netflix Prize”—one million dollars to the team that could improve their recommendation engine by 10 per cent. And a man called Bob Bell and his team won it by building on Doug’s collaborative filtering technique. They did this by looking not just at explicit data points (e.g. what rating you had given something), but implicit ones (e.g. whether you had rated something at all). From there, they could work out, say, whether you had an interest in science fiction films or police sitcoms. And then they added other layers to the algorithm designed to try and reach other people’s interests.

Which was all very well until, in the wider field, research starting noticing how recommendation engines were affecting our decision-making and preferences. A researcher named Jing Jing Zhang started looking into this and found something interesting: she and her team took the top 100 songs from this Billboard chart and then manipulated the recommendations, which was based on a five-star system. They then told students that the ratings were tailored to their preferences. The students had to listen to the whole song and then were asked if they wanted to buy it. If so, they were then asked how much they’d pay for it. And they found that increasing the star rating on a song increased a student’s willingness to pay for it by between 7 and 17 per cent. Here is the most significant part of the entire episode:

Mary Childs (Planet Money host): The students offered significantly more money for higher-rated songs, even when those ratings were totally manipulated. Jing Jing tested this and retested this. And the results were clear. When a machine tells us that we’re going to like something, we trust the machine more than ourselves.

Kevin Roose (Planet Money host): And, like, look, recommendations aren’t all bad. Sometimes they’re great. They save us time. They help us avoid decision fatigue. Sometimes I just don’t want to, like, manually curate my own playlists of vibey electronic music. But here’s what I worry about. These recommendation systems are getting so good that if we aren’t vigilant, we’re just going to end up drifting toward whatever the machine tells us we like.

Mary Childs: This isn’t just a problem of human psychology. It’s also a computer science problem. Jing Jing says it becomes a feedback loop. Those little drifts add up.

Jing Jing Zhang: Over time, this will make the system less effective, less accurate and provide less diverse recommendations. Eventually, I know this longitudinal impact on the system will make the system provide similar items to everybody, like, regardless of personal test.

“If we aren’t vigilant, we’re just going to end up drifting toward whatever the machine tells us we like”: does anyone find this prediction as chilling as I do? Algorithms are affecting our tastes and preferences as much as we are teaching them about them.

Furthermore, algorithms are starting to edit the world around us for us. This Reply All podcast episode about what makes the TikTok algorithm so good had this insightful tidbit:

A lot of our social media today is only positive sentiment oriented. There’s no dislike button on Facebook. There’s no dislike button, necessarily, on Twitter. And when you only capture positive sentiment, the danger is you have a blind spot to things that mildly annoy or disturb people. In real life, humans are very attuned to this. You know, if you’re with your friends or your family or your significant other, and you do something that bothers them, they might not actively come out and say, “Oh, you’re annoying me,” or something like that. But you pick up on their body language and you realize, you know, and you adjust based on that. That’s a really important feedback loop in just the social world generally.

What happens when we live in a world where we never come across anything that affects us negatively—anything that annoys or irritates us—anything we disagree with? What sort of people will we become? Furthermore, what will we do when we’re faced with that sort of content—or even people who believe in that sort of content? How will we treat them? How will they treat us?

There is social media and there is social media. Some of it is changing us. It’s hard to see because we’re currently swimming in this water. But we need to be aware of what it’s doing to us.

(Postscript: I’m currently dealing with my frustration with BookFace by not posting anything to my Profile wall. However, I haven’t completely given up reading BookFace or posting to my Page. That might not be the most mature response, but I’m interested to see what the platform does with that—and also how it affects my Page stats.)

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Rejection and the art of getting over things

Lately I’ve been finding it hard to blog. I plan posts in my head, but don’t ever get to putting them down. I have good intentions. I even clear time to do it. But when it comes to actually putting fingers to keyboard, I often feel like I run out of steam. Or I have nothing worthwhile to say.

So this blog lies here doing nothing when I want so much for it to say something.

I was contemplating this today while doing something I’ve meant to do for a while—which is transcribe the most helpful part of this episode from The Happiness Lab podcast about rejection: “Treating the pain of a broken heart” (Season 3, episode 2). It’s in the section where the host, Laurie Santos, interviews psychologist, speaker and author Guy Winch about practical things people can do to mitigate the pain of rejection:

Laurie Santos: … Guy [Winch] argues that we need to learn how to treat rejection pain right away—the same way we’d grab a first aid kit to put a bandaid on a cut.

Guy Winch: If you leave it up to our mind to make a decision about what’s the best way to heal an emotional wound, it will inadvertently send you down the wrong path. It will do the wrong thing, because it’s just trying to protect you from having that wound again. It’s not trying to heal it in an adaptive way.

LS: When I think of rejection first aid, I’ll be honest: I think of booze, frankly, and ice cream. It’s, like, what I think of—so is this kind of common?

GW: You didn’t invent booze and ice cream. In other words, that is the go to. But, yeah, we tend to numb the pain. That’s our basic response: let’s numb it with sugar; let’s numb it with alcohol. All very well. Doesn’t actually solve anything. You’ll wake up feeling both hungover or nauseous, and still in emotional pain the next day, so it’s not necessarily the most useful.

What would be useful is to counter some of the impacts by, first of all, exhibiting self-compassion—you know, like, we literally go and find ways to beat ourselves up when our self-esteem is at its lowest point. And so, instead of reviving our self-esteem and our confidence, we’re actually doing the opposite. It’s one of the most unfortunate tendencies we have, post-rejection.

LS: So that’s the first step of rejection first aid: stop making all those rejection wounds worse. Don’t kick yourself when you’re already down with all that negative self-talk. But a second step is to fight the urge to lick your wounds in solitude. Healing from rejection requires a dose of social connection.

GW: We’re tribal animals, and part of the rejection is about our need to belong—our need to feel affiliated with certain groups. It can be a church group. It can be our amateur softball league. It can be our clique of friends—our college roommates. But that group membership gives us, literally, this layer of protection—this shield—because we feel part of a group. We feel more protected. In a moment of rejection, you won’t. But then go and reach out to your group and reconnect and have a few chats with people in the group to remind yourself of your fact that you belong—that people appreciate you. And it’s an amazing tonic.

LS: But what if you can’t get that social support in person? What if you’re like [actor] Tim Colceri, stuck in a foreign country, away from your friends and family when you get fired or jilted? For situations like these, Guy recommends a practice he calls “social snacking”: just as we grab a snack when we hungry, but can’t eat a full meal, so too can we ease our social hunger with small reminders that we’re connected to others. Studies show that merely surrounding yourself with pictures and mementos of people you love can make the hurt of rejection subside a bit.

But the most important rejection first aid treatment, according to Guy, is a practice that actively helps you remember your own value. You need to recall that you’re still a good person, but not in the way that self-help books suggest. You don’t need to launch into a bunch of cheesy, positive affirmations.

GW: Like, “I’m beautiful and I’m going to find great love” kind of things, and they often don’t work, because in a moment of rejection, you actually don’t feel beautiful or very optimistic about finding great love. That will actually make you feel worse.

LS: Guy’s work has found that a better value boosting technique is to get really specific.

GW: Let’s say it’s the romantic domain. Your head is going to take you to all your shortcomings and deficiencies. What you need to do is balance them out. So make a list of every quality that you know you have. It’s got to be stuff you know you have, not stuff you would like to have. But things you know you have; it’s got to be real—that make you a good dating prospect: you’re emotionally available, you’re good with in-laws, you bake stupendous muffins, you give a back rub—whatever it is. Make the list long and exhaustive and varied. And then choose one of those things that’s actually meaningful, and write a couple of paragraphs about why that’s a meaningful thing in relationships, how you’ve exhibited it in the past, and how that’s been appreciated or how it might be appreciated in the future. Do one of those a day when you’re feeling rejected romantically.

If it’s about you got rejected from a job, do one about what makes you a good employee: you’re loyal, you’re reliable, you’re responsible, you’re timely, whatever it is. But do the things—you know, write out what you’re bringing to the table—what makes you valuable—to directly counter that tendency to do the opposite in your head.

LS: Guy has found that leaving our emotional wounds untreated without any rejection first aid can have long-term negative impacts on our psychological health.

GW: We do think differently. We become very, very risk-adverse. We withdraw. Our instinct isn’t to then go out and reconnect with the people who we can reconnect with; it’s to withdraw because we then become risk-adverse; we just don’t want to suffer anymore rejection.

I love the idea of having an emotional first aid kit—a go to list of tools to employ when you’re in pain that will actually do something about that pain. I love that part of that kit involves connection and community, which is a very Christian idea (see Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” [ESV]). But I also love that part of that kit involves self-care and pushing back against the negative self-talk with positivity. It sounds quite counter-intuitive, and I dare say that one of the ramifications of Tall Poppy Syndrome is that we Australians feel less incline to talk about our strengths because it sounds like bragging. But I can see how it would be helpful to remind ourselves—particularly when there is no one who will do it for us—of the things that we are actually good at and the positive effect that being good at that thing has had. Surely it will help us become more resilient.

I wrote in my now defunct newsletter once that I felt like I didn’t have much resiliency. Several years and a number of rejections on, I think that’s still the case. I feel like I’ve become more and more risk-adverse—not putting myself out there as much (and blogging is part of this. So is social media, I think; maybe I will blog about that sometime when I feel like I have the constitution to do so), withdrawing, being reluctant to suffer any more rejection.

A good friend asked me not long ago whether I had been through something that had delivered a significant blow to my confidence. I was about to answer “No”, but then remembered that I had: I had applied for a creative development program and had been unsuccessful. But the being unsuccessful part hadn’t been the part that stung: it was the letter of feedback I received. It was prefaced with “the judging panel have some feedback for you which we hope will be helpful”, but the feedback was written in what I found to be a most unhelpful manner. Reading back over it, I think it’s because it was one judge’s comments copied and pasted out of their report; it wasn’t actually feedback written to me as the direct recipient. This meant that the feedback came across as cold and brutal—the very opposite of helpful.

At the time, I posted on social media,

Another rejection with some rather savage feedback on my work. I look forward to the day when this hurts less, instead of leaving me feeling like I’m bleeding all over the floor.

And my community rallied around me, providing encouragement and messages of support.

I wallowed for a while. I reminded myself that the work this judge had critiqued had been shortlisted for a national award, and when it didn’t win, one of the judges for that award had said some nice things about it in private. I added it as another line in my rejection spreadsheet. And I tried to rally.

But I was still very affected by it.

I still am, I think.

I don’t quite know how to get out of this trench I’ve found myself in. I’m reluctant to leave it as I don’t fancy getting shot at again. But I know that if I want to write and put my work out there, I have to.

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Review: Unrest

Netflix, 2017. 1 hr 37 min.

This wasn’t the thing I thought I’d be blogging about today, but nevertheless, the thing I started writing isn’t quite working, so let’s go with another review.

Unrest is a 2017 documentary about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) by Harvard PhD candidate Jennifer Brea, who also gave a TED talk about her condition in 2016 from her wheelchair (16:32 min).

She made the documentary for several reasons: it records her story and her struggle with the disease—the medical appointments; the good days when she is able to walk—when she appears “normal”; the bad days when she can’t do anything except lie there; the days when she has to drag herself along the floor, crying in pain, in order to get herself into bed; the things that she grieves, because the disease has robbed her of so much; the impact of her condition on her relationships (particular her relationship with her husband, Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton); and her own journey in trying to understand the disease.

But it’s also partly a chronicle of the stories and the range of experience of other CFS-sufferers and their carers around the world, whom Brea connects with via video chat. There’s Jessica in England who has been severely unwell for eight years; Leeray, a middle age mother, whose husband did not believe there was anything wrong with her and who left her because of it; Casie, Leeray’s daughter, who was diagnosed with the same condition; Ketty and Per in Denmark, parents of CFS patient Karina, who was taken from them because Denmark does not acknowledge CFS as a medical disease; and Ron Davis, Professor of Biochemistry and Genetics, Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Centre at Stanford University, and father of CFS-sufferer Whitney, who has not talked in over a year and who lives in almost complete darkness in his room. Their stories amplify and highlight Brea’s, giving voice to the many who suffer from this disease, who have all but disappeared from view in everyday society.

In addition, through their stories, the documentary touches on different issues affecting CFS sufferers, such as not being believed; the social stigma of people thinking you’re just making up your symptoms; the blindness of the medical community, most of whom have little idea of what the disease is, let alone how to treat it; historical misconceptions of CFS/ME, and how it is often dismissed because the majority of those affected are women; different treatments that patients try in order to try to alleviate their symptoms (with varying results); and the struggle of those in the field of medical research to attract support and funding for their work. As Ron Davis explains,

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is the lowest funded of any major disease by a lot. Many of the people that are at the NIH [National Institute of Health] and have in the past not believed it’s real. So why would you fund something that’s not real?

This sort of gaslighting highlights the need for Brea’s documentary—as an engine of activism, raising awareness among the general public (see also the Millions Missing global campaign). CFS/ME is bad enough on its own, but compounded with the judgement and prejudice of an ableist society, it can be devastating for those affected. You can see Brea herself struggling with the hopes and expectations that society has placed on her: in one heartbreaking scene, she confesses,

It was like I had died, but was forced to watch as the world moved on … If I completely disappear and I’m in this bed, then it’s like I don’t even exist or that I never existed. And then what was the point of it all—of being born in the first place? You know and honestly there are a lot of days when I just feel like I’m doing a good job by just holding it together and not killing myself. And it’s not—I really don’t want to die—like, I really don’t want to die—but at a certain point, it’s hard to call this living, and I think the grief of all those things I might not do or see or have … yeah, so it’s sad.

I couldn’t help thinking that if the world was less focused on markers of life success and achievement and more understanding and compassionate about the circumstances of those who don’t fit a certain mould, Brea and others like her would be having a slightly easier time of things. It is tragic—and also, I think, a damning judgement on a society that has failed to listen to them—that so many CFS patients end their suffering by taking their own lives. There is so much more that we ought to be doing to relieve their burdens.

If you, like me, know someone or multiple someones with CFS/ME-type symptoms (and there are so many more now in the wake of COVID, which leads me to hope that the disease will receiving proper funding and attention soon), please watch this documentary. If you don’t know anyone with this disease and understand nothing about it, then you should definitely watch it. It’s upsetting and distressing at places, and it contains no easy answers, which many will find frustrating. But it is very much worth it if only to help you understand the suffering of many and the miracle of their resilience in the face of such crushing odds.

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The Rurouni Kenshin live action films: An appreciation

Almost three weeks have gone by since I last wrote a blog post. I keep composing them in my head, but actually committing them to digital ink is another story. One of the things I have been struggling with about this lockdown is the inelasticity of time: my days at the moment have to operate to a strict schedule, otherwise everything falls off the rails—home learning, paid work and that pesky of all duties, housework. This means that things like blogging get relegated to the bottom of my priority list.

But I wanted to write something about the Rurouni Kenshin films because I watched them all recently after the two most recent films premiered on Netflix. (Unfortunately all five are not available on that platform at the moment—at least in Australia; I think they are in the Philippines.) I watched the first one (Origins) a couple of years ago and quite liked it, then went away and watched the anime as that was on Netflix (though it is no longer). With the release of The Beginning and The Final, I thought it was high time I watched all five films together. Plus it gave me something to look forward to during lockdown.

(NB: Perhaps because of the release of the last two films, the first two were going cheap on Apple TV, so I bought them. But I had to rent The Legend Ends as that was $19 to buy. I am hoping that one day, Apple might sell all five as a bundle.)

My interest had mostly to do with the novel, of course, though Rurouni Kenshin is set mostly at the beginning of the Meiji period, not the Edo. Still, I thought it would be interesting to watch it as a counterpoint to Samurai Champloo, plus I kept reading that the live action films were one of the best—if not the best—anime adaptations of all time. (It will be interesting to see how the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop TV show does.) Aside from samurai films (both eastern and western), there isn’t that much on Netflix that is set during the Edo period, even though Japan produces a prestige period drama every year (I’ve read that it’s due to copyright issues?!), and much of Netflix’s original Japanese content is contemporary or sci-fi/spec fic. And while dramas are no substitute for history, the thing that interests is me is how people lived and moved in those spaces—in that architecture—with those furnishings and those everyday household objects. As I said in my post about my novel, there are things I just haven’t been able to discover in my research. But there are also things that research wouldn’t unearth—for example, how people thought about inside and outside spaces (and therefore when to remove their shoes), and how the removing shoes thing works in, say, a restaurant. (I have no idea how it works with their ox-drawn carts; did you know the inside of those don’t have seats, but are covered in tatami mat flooring? I realise those carts were for the rich, but did their servants carry their shoes for them??) These are things that people wouldn’t write about because they’d just do them without thinking. Which then makes it very hard for me to figure out just through Googling.

But back to Rurouni Kenshin. I should say up front: I have not read the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki. I have not seen the prequel anime series Trust and Betrayal, nor the widely panned Reflection or New Kyoto Arc. I won’t be commenting much about how they are as adaptations as I feel quite unqualified to do so. Also, when I rewatched them, I did so in the order that they were made, not in the order of their chronology. (It would be interesting to do that sometime. Maybe one day when I have another 12 or 13 hours to spare!)

Furthermore, this isn’t going to be a thorough review. I just don’t have the time, nor the inclination, for that. I mostly want to share my love for the films as I think most people have never heard of them, and while most of the people I know probably won’t like them (they’re samurai films, after all, so they’re pretty violent), some of my friends might. They do have the most amazing action/sword fighting sequences I have ever seen on film, so from my perspective, it’s worth the extended runtime. (Each film goes for about 2 hours and 15-20 minutes, and if you’re not an action fan, you’ll probably think them too bloated.) That said, there will be probably be a few spoilers in this post, so consider yourself warned.

Right. One more thing before we get started: it helps to know something of Japanese history, because some of the characters are real people, or are based on real people. If you know nothing about Japan, I do recommend this episode on “Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Perry, and Nationalism” on John Green’s Crash Course: World History YouTube channel (11:52 min). (This animated history of Japan on Suibhne’s channel is also helpful, but it goes for 25 minutes.)

I will attempt to give you the short version: during the Edo period, the Shogun (or war lord) ruled Japan while the emperor was more of a figurehead and didn’t have any real power. Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world, maintaining a policy of national seclusion. No foreigners were allowed into the country, except those from the Dutch East India Company, and even they were only permitted to go certain places.

Then Matthew C Perry arrived in 1853 with his black ships from America and fired his cannons over Edo Bay to showcase America’s technological might and to force Japan to open up to trading with the west. From what I’ve read, the Americans were interested in whaling as whale oil powered their ships at the time, but I think Japan’s location was also important to them for strategic reasons.

At the time, the shogun was ill and those in power could not come to a consensus on how to deal with the foreign threat. Furthermore, the treaties that Japan entered into with America were seen as bad and humiliating. The country fractured, with some urging for modernisation and others wanting to return to the old ways. The Boshin War was fought between those who supported the shogun and those who wanted to restore power to the emperor.

The Beginning (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Beginning kicks off in 1864, 11 years after Perry’s arrival, just before the Boshin War. Himura Kenshin (played by the ridiculously photogenic Takeru Satoh) is already serving as an assassin (Hitokiri Battōsai—literally “manslayer”) in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, taking down those who support the shogun. He is nothing short of gifted with a sword: there is a fight scene right at the beginning of this movie where he’s basically holding his blade with his teeth and he still manages to take down an entire room full of samurai.

But even so, he is uneasy with killing: in the next scene, while up against some of the members of the city watch, he strikes down a young guard who is not so easily killed and who keeps crying out that he can’t die because he has someone he loves. He gives Kenshin the first slash in the facial scar that distinguishes him in later instalments.

Kenshin still does his duty and murders the guard, but the act does not sit easy with him, and that shows when he goes to meet up with his handler, Kogoro Katsura, who relates to his mistress the story of how Kenshin was recruited in the first place.

Kenshin goes to drink alone at a local tavern. A young woman named Yukishiro Tomoe enters and sits at the table next to his, intending to drink alone too. But because some other patrons start bothering her, Kenshin intervenes, then leaves.

In the street, he is attacked and quickly puts the other guy down. But his actions are witnessed by Tomoe, who came out to thank him. She faints, and faced with the prospect of being reported as a murderer, Kenshin takes her back to the inn where he is staying with a bunch of other loyalists from Chushu. As Tomoe has nowhere else to go, she earns her keep by helping out at the inn, and she takes care of Kenshin, who is often out doing his work at night, watching over him during the day as he sleeps. Kenshin clashes with the Shogunate’s police force, the Shinsengumi, resulting in a brief encounter with Saito Hajime, a character who becomes more relevant in later films. The conflict reaches a fever pitch, making the city unsafe for the loyalists. Yet in spite of the turmoil of the era and the turbulence of what is happening around them, an odd and unexpected sort of kinship begins to form between Tomoe and Kenshin.

Of the five, I think this was my favourite movie. It’s a shot like an indie arthouse film, not a big budget action movie, and while the action scenes are outstanding—particularly the opening one I mentioned before—everything is muted and subdued, as if trying to keep the rising tension in check. Even though the action scenes are dynamic and amazing, I suspect many might find the plot a little boring: in a sense, not a lot happens. But it’s all about the characters and the subtleties in the way they interact. Takeru Satoh does a lot of acting with his eyes, which are often hidden by his hair in some of the scenes anime-style. (It amuses me how little eye contact the characters make when speaking to one another sometimes.) It’s not always clear what he’s thinking or feeling, but I rather liked that: as the lead figure of the franchise, there was a lot about him that made me think of characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne—characters who are less about personality or charisma, but more about what’s happening around them and how they respond to it.

The way the final act of the story plays out is devastating—like Shakespearean tragedy—and I loved how the various plot threads are brought together in such a way that it brings things full circle. The movie ends in 1868 with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi towards end of the Boshin War. I rather liked this as it set things up to the next movie, which is …

Origins (2012)

Apple TV (2 hours 15 minutes)

Origins begins with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, where Kenshin puts down his killing sword. Here he encounters Hajime once more, but refuses to engage with him. He turns heel and walks off the battlefield. But unfortunately for him, someone else takes up his sword—a man named Udō Jin-e.

Fast forward 10 years: it’s 1878 and Kenshin has just arrived in Tokyo. He’s now a “rurouni” (i.e. a wandering samurai) and while swords are banned, the sword he now carries is not, because it’s a reverse blade sword—i.e. the sharp edge is on the top, not the bottom. Even though his work as an assassin has given his position as Battōsai notoriety, he is able to enjoy anonymity as virtually no one actually knew what he looks like. That said, the x-shaped scar on his cheek gives him away to those in the know.

Saito Hajime now works for the police, investigating a series of murders of undercover officers by someone styling himself as the Battōsai. While some believe the Kenshin is back, Hajime is not so sure and suspects that someone is impersonating Kenshin.

Kenshin has a run-in with a young woman named Kamiya Kaoru who has inherited her late father’s Kendo school. The school’s reputation is in ruins because of the Battōsai’s crimes and, desperate to clear her father’s name, Kaoru attacks Kenshin, believing him to be the Battōsai because he carries a sword. When he shows her that it is a reverse blade, she lets him go, but later she has a run-in with Jin-e and is rescued by Kenshin.

Meanwhile, an unscrupulous and wealthy businessman named Takeda Kanryū is plotting to take over the city and enrich his own coffers by making a woman named Takani Megumi invent a kind of opium far more addictive than the regular sort. Megumi is aghast when the others involved in the drug’s creation are killed before her eyes, and tries to escape.

The plot of Origins, as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read this much, is far more complicated than The Beginning and involves so many more characters, it starts to get a little confusing. (I haven’t even mentioned Sanosuke, who becomes Kenshin’s right-hand man, and Yahiko, the orphan and Kaoru takes in.) If you’re familiar with the anime, you can see how the film is setting up the principal characters and their relationship to one another. Kenshin is ostensibly retired and has vowed never to kill again, but because of what happens to Kaoru and Megumi, he gets drawn into the conflict and is almost thrust into his old role again. But unlike Jin-e, he’s not a bloodthirsty killer who enjoys killing for the sake of it; he’s always doing things for the sake of the greater good—in a way, seeking to atone for the lives he’s already taken. He’s attracted to Kaoru’s way of thinking—that the sword, rather than being an agent of death, is, instead, a tool that brings life—and the rest of the movie bears this out.

If you can handle the large cast and the intricate plot, this one is worth a watch—if only the for the fight scenes alone, which are astonishing. Consider this one at Kaoru’s dojo where Kenshin engages his foes mostly with his hands, not even bothering to draw his sword until halfway through:

I love how the fight isn’t just confined to one plane: you see Kenshin rolling and sliding along the floor, doing backflips off the walls, spinning and attacking, taking down an entire gang of thugs. He’s entirely in control of the situation, and he doesn’t need a weapon to establish his superiority over them. It’s all the more impressive when you know that Takeru Satoh is doing it all himself (and in waraji—straw sandals—no less!): he did not have a stunt double, and trained relentlessly to get the fight scenes right.

Emi Takei’s Kaoru is also an improvement on the anime character, who is often played for laughs because of her vanity and strong will. Even though I wondered why Kaoru wasn’t better in combat, given her martial arts training, I admired the way she sticks to her principles and encourages Kenshin towards virtue.

The other thing that really struck me about this film was the visual contrast between the old and the new—the Edo and the Meija eras: while most of the locals dress in kimono and hakama, the police and even Kanryū and his cronies are clothed in Western garb. Kenshin and many of the police carried swords, but some also had guns (which the Portuguese introduced to Japan in 1543), and Kanryū himself is armed with a Gatling gun.

I also liked the ending and seeing how Kenshin struggles with how to resolve his old life as the Battōsai with his new life as a rurouni, who has vowed never to kill, in the face of those who would do harm.

Indeed, the filmmakers could have left it there and I would have been satisfied. But instead, the story continues with …

Kyoto Inferno (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

Kyoto Inferno opens with Kenshin’s world at peace: Kenshin is still living with Kaoru, whose Kendo school is now thriving. Hajime is still working for the police, Megumi is working as a doctor, and Sanosuke is just being Sanosuke. But all is not well: the police are tracking the activities of a man named Shishio Makoto, who, like Kenshin, worked as an assassin during the Boshin War and was even Kenshin’s successor. (He’s mentioned briefly in The Beginning.) Because Makoto’s methods were so brutal, the new regime sought to have him quietly killed as they could not defend his actions. Unfortunately for them, he survived and now seeks to bring down the Meiji government in an act of revenge.

Once again, Kenshin is drawn into the conflict. Although he initially refuses, when a top official and friend is assassinated, Kenshin feels as though he has no choice but to go to Kyoto where Shishio is amassing followers and holding court.

On the way, he meets a young lady named Makimachi Misao, who attempts to steal his weapon, and has a run-in with some of Shishio’s followers—notably, Seta Soujiro, who breaks his reverse blade sword. Kenshin’s actions impress Misao, who takes him to stay with her people—former ninjas who worked for the shogunate—when he reaches Kyoto. However, one of their number—a former lieutenant of the shogunate named Shinomori Aoshi—is after Kenshin, having made it his personal mission to kill him and become known as the strongest man in Japan.

If the size of the cast of Origins confounded you, you’ll find Kyoto Inferno worse as the number of significant characters pretty much triples. It can be hard to keep the relevant people and factions straight, particularly as most of the cast don’t get the same airtime as in the anime series, which had the time and leisure to explore some of their back stories. Even so, I think the script made the stakes and the emotional highs and lows clear, and while some of the characterisations and action scenes border on mawkish in the way of superhero comic book adaptations, they don’t obscure Kenshin’s loyalties and inner conflicts.

Be warned, however: after two hours and 18 minutes, this movie ends on a cliffhanger. Which means you then need to watch …

The Legend Ends (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Legend Ends picks up almost immediately where Kyoto Inferno ends—well, it does after a flashback prologue during which we are introduced to a young Kenshin who has been saved by a man named Hiko Seijūrō. (The anime goes into more detail about that scene, which makes me wonder what newcomers think of it.) Seijūrō, impressed with Kenshin’s tenacity, decides to take him on as his student and teach him his “High Heaven” style of fighting—the style that makes Kenshin so good at killing.

Back in the present day, Kenshin wakes up in Seijūrō’s hut, worried about what happened to Kaoru and obsessed with the idea of taking down Shishio. He begs Seijūrō to teach him the ultimate technique of his fighting style. His former teacher agrees and they begin training.

Meanwhile, Shishio in his battleship drops anchor just off the coast of Tokyo and demands that officials from the government meet with him to discuss the situation, otherwise he will expose their crimes during the Boshin War and completely undermine their authority.

Provided you’ve managed to follow the events of Kyoto Inferno, in my opinion, The Legend Ends is a mostly fitting conclusion to that plot arc. I like Kenshin’s return to his roots: Hiko Seijūrō is one of my favourite characters of the series—mostly because of this scene:

I also liked the realisation Kenshin comes to about himself and how it changes him: it makes his second encounter with Seta Soujiro all the more dynamic and almost joyful. Furthermore, the action he takes to stop Shishio in putting himself in the hands of the fickle Meiji government are very much in keeping with his role as a hero, and while the government does not come off very well, I like that Kenshin very much sticks to his principles in spite of them.

That said, the Shinomori Aoshi arc isn’t quite given enough room to breathe, and I think that audiences might find his plot thread a little exasperating. The final climactic fight scene could be seen as laughable and I’m not sure that the outcome is earned, but I do really like that Kenshin is not alone—that because of his principles and the decisions he’s made as a result of those principles, he’s earned himself allies who are willing to fight alongside him for this new age. The very last scene of the film doesn’t quite land as the plot thread concerning the government isn’t resolved to my satisfaction. But fortunately we now have …

The Final (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 19 minutes)

Just as Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends were released and meant to be viewed back-to-back, so too are The Beginning and The Final, I think. They bookend the series, bringing the story almost full circle. As with Kyoto Inferno, The Final begins with Kenshin’s world mostly at peace: it’s 1879, he is still living with Kaoru and enjoying life with his friends. But a new enemy is making himself known—someone from Kenshin’s past: Yukishiro Enishi, brother of Yukishiro Tomoe, who Kenshin loved. In the intervening years since his sister’s death, Enishi has been living in China and working his way up the ranks of the Shanghai mafia to become their leader. Now he’s hell-bent on revenge: he wants to see Kenshin suffer and he will do it by striking Kenshin’s friends and the city where he’s made his home.

Of the five, this film has the thinnest plot: revenge takes a lot of energy to sustain, I think, and not all of us can be John Wick. But one of the wonderful things about it is seeing old characters return—Hajime Saito, of course; sword-mad Cho Sawagejo, who Kenshin fights in Kyoto Inferno; Shinomori Aoshi; Makimachi Misao, who we get to see being awesome with a blade; and even Seta Soujiro, whose previous encounter with Kenshin left him a changed man. The other wonderful thing that rises out of the frenetic violence is the twin themes of atonement and redemption—the putting right of old wrongs and the breaking of the cycle of revenge. Even though Tomoe only appears on screen in flashback, with footage lifted directly from The Beginning, her character permeates the story, bringing healing and closure to both Kenshin and Enishi.

Oh dear, somehow I’ve managed to write another long one! I’m not sure I’ve done the Rurouni Kenshin series justice, but if you do decide to watch them, let me know what you think.

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Review: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop

Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop

1h 27 min; Netflix.

It’s the beginning of summer. Yuki (or “Smile”) is a teenage social media influencer with buck teeth that she is getting corrected with braces—only she doesn’t like her braces and seeks to hide them behind face masks (in this anime world that COVID hasn’t touched). Yui, otherwise known as “Cherry” because of his last name (“Sakura”), is a shy and retiring teenage haiku writer who is filling in for his mother at the elder care community centre of the local shopping mall and who seems to have some sort of sensory processing disorder as he shuts out most of the world by wearing over ear headphones that don’t actually play music. By chance, they literally bump into each other at the aforementioned mall and accidentally swap phones.

Tangled up in all of this is one of the seniors who attends elder care, Mr Fujiyama, who constantly carries around a record sleeve emblazoned with the word Yamazakura across the front. He’s looking for the disc that used to be in that sleeve, and the mystery behind it serves to bring Smile and Cherry closer together. Meanwhile, the Daruma festival approaches.

There were a lot of things I liked about this: it’s a gentle and simple story, but I liked the nuances given to each of the characters that made them feel less two-dimensional. I liked how Cherry’s haikus popped up as graffiti all over the place (thanks to his friend Beaver, who was using them to practise writing in Japanese), and how the scenes and the story gave his poetry an added weight and meaning. “Haikus help me express things in words better”, he says a third of the way through the film, which means they open up additional insight into what his character is thinking and feeling. Smile could have just come across as a ditzy, too self-conscious and shallow bimbo, but there was also a shyness, a sadness and an anxiety to her that made her relatable. Even though Smile and Cherry are quite different, they shared a lot of similarities, and I liked how often they were portrayed in parallel, their bodies mimicking each other. The other thing that struck me was their relationship with their phones (perhaps because I’m old!): their devices were a near-constant part of their lives and, perhaps, their identities, and much of the movie was mediated through those small screens.

The other thing I liked was the layers of culture and history that the script wove on top of such a simple story—not just in Mr Fujiyama’s past, but also in the history of the shopping mall, Cherry’s haikus, the meanings bound up in the words he looks up in his saijiki (a dictionary or almanac of seasonal terms used in haiku), and even the Daruma festival and its related paraphernalia. (Daruma dolls abounded throughout this film: from what I can gather, they symbolise good luck, but they also encourage people to strive for their goals: they’re sold with blank eyes, and the idea is that you fill in one eye when you’ve landed on your objective, and you fill in the other eye when you’ve achieved it.)

The animation was quite different to what I’ve been used to seeing in other anime like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Your Name and even Studio Ghibli fare: the lines seemed sketchier and less defined; the colours were flatter, brighter and oversaturated; and the movement in some of the action scenes was more dynamic and crazier. I rather liked it and thought it suited the summer/candyland aesthetic the filmmakers were going for.

The ending was sweet and felt earned, though there were still some questions left up in the air that made it feel less resolved. But overall, I enjoyed this one as a light bit of fun and recommend it as a nice escape from lockdown.

3 stars.

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So I’m working on a novel …

I’ve been meaning to write a post about my novel for a little while—if only to have something to refer people to when they ask me about it and I don’t have time to respond.

But I also find it a little uncomfortable writing about it. I’m uncomfortable for several reasons: firstly, it’s still in progress and who knows whether it will ever see the light of publication? Secondly, there are cultural issues involved that make the whole thing a little sensitive, and while I don’t quite agree that I have no right to tell this story the way I am, I am conscious of the issues and how complicated the whole thing is. Thirdly, I’m not sure I have more to say other than, “I’m writing a novel and it’s about this”.

 But anyway. Here’s a post about my novel. Enjoy.

Genesis

To talk about this novel, I have to talk about another one first—one that I started and then stopped, because it wasn’t quite working.

It was during the period Ben and I were going through a trial separation (which is a story I am not going to ever blog about, but I’m throwing it out there because it happened, we are all the stronger for it happening, and just as it’s helpful to know that other people also struggle with depression and anxiety, it’s also helpful for married people to know that other people’s marriages are sometimes difficult and complicated, but that’s not the end of the world for the relationship).

So as I said, it was during the period when we were going through a trial separation. I was quite depressed, and one of the ways I coped with my depression was to lose myself in daydreaming. I had this idea for a fantasy story about a girl chosen by a magician to become his special helper because they shared a magical connection, and I thought it might work as a novel.

I started writing bits and pieces of it while I was working on my novella (which is very close to seeing the light of publication if only I had the time and energy to do the necessary revisions and get it out there). The setting started off as being very European medieval fantasy. But then I read someone on Twitter bemoaning the fact that most fantasy was European and medieval, and couldn’t writers conceive of something else? And something in me shifted.

Mugen and Jin from “Samurai Champloo”.

Around the same time, I had been revisiting one of my favourite anime series, Samurai Champloo, which was made by the same director as Cowboy Bebop. It had just come to Netflix and even though I own the series on DVD, it’s so much more convenient to stream things instead of fiddling with players and discs. (NB: It’s no longer up on Netflix, but you can watch 25 episodes on this YouTube playlist plus episode 26 with an English dub.)

The series is about a teenage girl named Fuu who enlists two rogue swordsmen—Mugen from the Ryukyu islands and Jin, who is a rōnin (i.e. a master-less samurai) to protect her and help her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. The three have little love for one another, but as they travel along the length of Japan and have all sorts of crazy adventures along the way, they develop a bond—something deeper than friendship, something forged of promises and loyalty. A lot of people find the ending anti-climactic, but I think it’s because their expectations are wrong: it’s one of those series that is more about the journey than the destination. The more I’ve watched it, the more I’ve come to appreciate the story and why it ends the way it does.

Edo Japan

Anyway, one of things I really love about it is that it’s set during the Edo/Tokugawa period—that section of Japanese history 1603 and 1867 when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. (Though on reflection, Samurai Champloo probably set more towards the end of that period as it has an entire episode about American baseball.) I find the Edo period fascinating: it was a time of peace as the country had been more or less united under the shogunate; it was a time of prosperity as peace and social stability led to both an economic and a population boom; it was a time of great social change when the ruling classes—the samurai and the nobility—were on the decline while the merchants were becoming more prosperous; and it was a time of artistic flourishing when a number of traditional Japanese arts and crafts really came into their own. (It should also be noted that it was a time of isolation as well, because Japan shut its borders to everyone except the Dutch East India Company. Samurai Champloo episode 6 has an interesting story about a character who worked for them.)

In my depression that year, another thing I found myself doing was travelling to Japan in my imagination. I have only been there once—in January of 1993 when I was 15 and it was bitterly cold. I remember visiting Tokyo Disneyland when it was snowing; seeing people wearing face masks in the subway because they either had colds or wanted to avoid getting colds; seeing beautifully dressed girls in kimonos in one of Tokyo’s gardens (though I don’t remember why they were all dressed up); going up Mount Fuji and marvelling at how I could see one side of the country to the other; staying at an inn known for its hot spring but not understanding why that was significant; waking up the day we were supposed to go to Kobe and learning about the earthquake, and thinking about the guy on the bullet train the day before who had been going there and wondering if he was okay (I don’t actually remember how I knew he was going to Kobe; maybe he disembarked there before we did?); and catching the bullet train back to Tokyo. I would very much like to go to Japan again, and I had started saving up for a trip when COVID hit. (And then we bought a house, which decimated the fund, so I’ve had to start again.)

Somehow those two things—my novel and my love of Edo Japan—coalesced and I decided to make the setting of my fantasy novel Edo-inspired.

Of course, the moment I decided to do that, I ran into a whole bunch of world-building problems. It wasn’t that I wanted to be slavishly faithful to the Edo era; it was more that as I researched the period, I started to see how different aspects of Japanese culture influence and determine other things. For example, geography and climate: Japan is an island nation that sits on the ring of fire, which means that it is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. (I confess I did know until a couple of years ago that Mount Fuji is a volcano.) Its weather ranges from extreme snow in the winter to soul-crushing heat and humidity in the summer. This is why traditional Japanese houses are built in a particular way—to facilitate air flow and temperature regulation when it’s hot, with the ability to close everything off when it’s cold (though the Japanese are more into space heating with hearths in the floor, instead of heating the entire house). Houses are usually made of wood, which makes them a little bit more flexible in the event of an earthquake, but wood also means that fire is a major hazard, and often it is expected that structures will be rebuilt after a suitable period of time has elapsed.

The more I researched (as much as one can via the internet, and I certainly feel very lucky to have the whole of the world wide web at my fingertips for this, though it makes me feel a lot like armchair traveller Ann Radcliffe), the more I would come across little details that were essential to my story, but that were of no interest to historians. Sometimes I was able to unearth answers after trawling the internet in different ways. (For example, did Japanese sailors use hammocks on board? The answer is no, but you’ll have to read pages 678-679 of the book I linked to to find it.) Sometimes I couldn’t find the answer—even if it was for something that I thought was rather simple. (For example, how often did Japanese people do laundry in the Edo era? Given that cleaning a kimono involves taking it apart, washing it and sewing it back together again, I take it they wouldn’t have been doing that very often. But their undergarments? Absolutely no idea. But I’d guess surely they would change those almost every day, given the Japanese penchant for bathing, which is linked to Shinto and ideas about pollution.)

I know, I know: it’s fiction. It’s fantasy. I could have just made stuff up. But I kind of liked that the research was leading me in all sorts of place to all sorts of things I had never considered before—which is why I stuck with it as an exercise in world-building. Japan is different in just about every regard to the western culture I had grown up. And yet there were parts of it that felt familiar to me because Japan borrowed so much from Chinese culture—Buddhism and Confucianism, of course, but also their writing system, their style of dress, and even aspects of their cuisine and handicrafts. At one point, I read something about Japanese history and was struck by a line saying something about how Japanese society back then was obsessed with Chinese culture. It shocked me because I have never had much interest in Chinese culture, despite that being my heritage. But seeing China through the lens of Japan changed all that. My appreciation for Chinese culture and history, and even my own Asianness, started to grow. (It also helped that around the same time, I discovered xanxia dramas.) Even so, my relationship with my Chineseness is an ongoing journey that I’m not sure I can write about at the moment. (Or ever …)

The thing is, I know that me writing about Japanese culture (even if it’s heavily disguised as fantasy) will be seen as problematic. I’m not Japanese; I’m Chinese. Japanese history and culture is not mine. Furthermore, the relationship between China and Japan is difficult and fraught with traumatic history. (I don’t know how true it is, but I heard that my own grandfather, who died before I was born, became an alcoholic sometime after the Japanese invaded Hong Kong.) The whole situation is complicated and messy.

However, one thing I admire greatly about the Japanese is their ability to borrow things from other cultures—not just Chinese, but Portuguese and even American—and make them their own. I hope they will not mind me doing likewise.

Boring Fantasy Novel

Back to the novel—not the current one, but the other one—the one I called “Boring Fantasy Novel” as a joke when I participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that year. (This is log line I would tell people: “Magician samurai at magic school who need to learn to work together in order to defend their kingdom from an invading empire”. That makes it sound less boring.)

Going through a trial separation meant that I had more child-free time on my hands, because Ben would take the girls to his place every Friday and drop them back on Saturday. I had always wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo, but every year had seemed like a bad time to do it. With more time and a project I actually wanted to work on, participating that year was a no-brainer. And as you can see from the above certificate, I did actually finish.

The following year—2019—I worked on Boring Fantasy Novel—the story about the girl who was chose to become a seer’s helper or familiar. But it branched: initially I had approached it as a single narrator story told from the point of view of the girl, who I named Sia after the musician Sia Furler. (It’s not a particularly Japanese name—it comes from Old Norse—but it is kind of fitting for Reasons that would probably take another blog post.) She lives in the kingdom of Archaia (also not a particularly Japanese name. Reasons. Also, I just liked the name [it’s a comics publisher]) where magic is a part of the natural world. But only the seers—the magic-users—can see it and manipulate it to their ends.

As my cast multiplied, I decided to adopt two other point-of-view characters: a boy named Taika (who is a seer, but not the one who chooses Sia) and a girl named Piper (who is also a seer, but also not the one who chooses Sia). Both Taika and Piper are friends with Caspian, the seer who does choose Sia. You’d think Caspian as a POV character would be the obvious choice, but I didn’t want to make him one. I was drawn to Taika and Piper instead—again, for Reasons.

Anyway, I kept going with Boring Fantasy Novel, telling the story from three points of view—Sia, Taika and Piper. I’d never written a multi-POV novel before, and I dealt with it by switching between the three of them in a set pattern—Sia, Taika, Piper; Sia Taika Piper, etc.

Then I realised I had completely underestimated how much story would fill one novel. That’s what happens when you have three POVs and plot arcs for each of them! I had a rough outline and enough story to fill a trilogy. But what I was calling Book #1 waaaaaaay too long: I hit 80,000 words and realised I wasn’t done. I thought it would work if I split what I was calling Book #1 into two books, thus making the trilogy a quadrilogy. The thing with doing that is that the first half didn’t quite work as a self-contained book. Furthermore, when I started workshopping sections of it with my writing group the following year, I realised from their feedback that it really wasn’t working—that each POV didn’t stand on its own—and that I had to do something quite drastic.

Of course, my solution was to run. I was 67,000 words through what became Book #2 when I did it, and it was because I was writing a Taika chapter and realised I needed more of his backstory.

The Taika Novel

It was around this time the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia—about the second quarter of 2020. In between supervising home learning and trying to do my job, I wasn’t writing much of anything. I was trying to keep it up, but it was fragmented and rough, and I found I was using the time to work things out. I wrote about Taika and Piper’s backstories, trying to trace the trajectory of who they were up to the beginning of Boring Fantasy Novel. I thought it would just be a useful exercise in character development. But as I looked over what I’d written, I realised that Taika’s story could work as a standalone novel on its own. (Piper’s could work, but it’s not quite there yet.) Boring Fantasy Novel/Quadrilogy wasn’t working, and that was partly because I was trying to juggle three POVs. I decided I should learn to walk before I tried to run and attempt just one POV instead.

So earlier this year, I started on the Taika Novel. It starts a few years earlier than Boring Fantasy Novel and it is about Taika, a fifteen-year-old boy who was born into the lowest social class in the kingdom of Archaia (which is analogous to the Burakumin in Edo Japan; that’s something else that might get me in trouble). Taika is discovered to be a seer and made to enrol in the Seer Academy. He must learn to master his powers and make his situation work for him, despite the hostility and obstacles he faces (the Seer Academy is full of aristocrats, you see). The alternative is execution, because the Crown can’t have untrained magic users running around; the law says that everyone who is discovered to be a seer must serve the King and the Kingdom.

I describe the Taika Novel as being a “small” story that’s not aiming to do much. As I’ve been writing it, though, I’ve been drawing correlations between Taika’s story and mine—connections that were largely unconscious until I realised how they were influencing the material. Chief among them is that feeling of entering an existing situation where everyone else has been there a while and is familiar with the way things work, while you feel out of place and don’t know anything. Taika doesn’t know how to read or write, but everyone else at Seer Academy does because they all come from the upper class and had private tutors. It’s a lot like when I was six and I moved from to Canada to Australia. I struggled a lot at school. In Canada, I had completed Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2 at a bilingual school where lessons were taught in English and French. But I didn’t know how to read, and when we arrived in Australia, my age meant that I was placed in Year 1 halfway through. (We arrived in July.) I went from being at the level of my peers to being far below. I have a very clear memory of standing up in front of the class, being asked to write “jump” on the board and not being able to get past the letter “j” while all the other kids yelled the answer. For the rest of that year, I had to sit at a desk right beside the teacher, who set me special work to help me catch up. And for the longest time, I thought of myself as not being particularly smart—until I started excel academically and discovered what I was really capable of.

As I wrote in this post, I’ve outlined the whole novel and written bits of it. I’m currently writing the rest of it rather badly and I’m almost halfway. I’d really like to finish the whole thing this year, but that will depend a lot on the pandemic, us coming out of lockdown and the girls returning to school.

What of the Boring Fantasy Novel Quadrilogy? Well, I do actually have a plan for that, but it’s looking more like two more stand-alones plus a trilogy, according to my current rough outlines. None of what I wrote will be wasted. In fact, many of the characters in that are in the Taika Novel; I’m just writing about them when they were younger.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Learn to walk before I run. Let’s finish the Taika novel first.

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Rest in the time of lockdown

Lockdown + holiday

I am writing this in the middle of the 2021 Sydney lockdown, which started at the beginning of the school holidays. This was bad timing for us as it meant we had to cancel our holiday to Port Macquarie. We were even on our way there when the Premier announced a press conference: we got as far as Gosford when we decided to turn around and come home again, because lockdown restrictions would have followed us there and we agreed it was better to suffer through lockdown in our house instead of our two bedroom flat AirBnb. So that was a long way to go just to eat McDonald’s in the carpark! When we returned home, my youngest complained, “This is the most boringest day of my life.” She did have a point.

For the next week, we stayed home, sleeping in, reading books and binge-watching things. My mother and her partner very kindly gave me my birthday present early, which was a subscription to Disney+, so we caught up on Pixar films, and Ben and I started watching The Mandalorian. I tried to deal my disappointment and subsequent depression but it was very hard: I haven’t had a leave-the-house-and-go-somewhere holiday in such a long time (which I know is such a first world problem)—in almost a year, really, though I’m not sure if I can really count the trip we took to Terrigal with a friend and her daughter during the September break last year as we were solo/tag-team parenting the entire time. I felt like I was on the verge of burnout. I also felt like I was being overly dramatic even saying that.

Still, I made lemonade with the lemons life gave me. After chatting with another friend about what she does with her kids, I made a checklist for the girls that contained a bunch of things they had to do before they were allowed on screens. It includes:

  • Guitar practice;
  • Chores;
  • Exercise/outdoor play for at least 20 minutes;
  • Reading a book for at least 20 minutes;
  • Colour/writing/drawing something for at least 20 minutes;
  • Making/building something creative; and
  • Tidying up.

The girls took to it pretty enthusiastically and didn’t even complain. If they completed everything (which sometimes happened by 11:30am), we let them spend the rest of the day on screens. That helped give us all a bit of a break—even though for me, I was only really taking a break from work work; the normal routine of housework continued uninterrupted.

Lockdown + work

In the second week, the challenge was adding work to the load. The girls continued with their checklists and screen time quite happily, while I fit my hours around everything else that was happening.

Then the Premier extended the lockdown and announced that all school children would be starting home learning. And I fell into a bit of a depression about cancelling all the birthday plans I had so carefully laid—the two-night sleepover the girls were going to do with my in-laws; the night out on the town that Ben was going to take me on; the trip to the cinema with my Marvel movie buddy to see Black Widow—and I feel so hard, I had trouble recovering. The prospect of returning to home learning didn’t help; I still had fresh memories of how that went the last time around. The weekend before, I spent an entire afternoon googling “pandemic parental burnout”, and that revealed two things:

  1. I wasn’t really burned out. (Not yet, anyway.) But I was probably on my way there.
  2. The number one piece of advice people gave to parents in lockdown and to people suffering from burnout was to look after yourself, look after yourself, look after yourself. That means carving out time for yourself and being intentional about doing self-care things.

“Well that makes sense,” I thought. But part of me also wanted to have a tantrum and scream and cry, “BUT WHEN WILL SOMEONE ELSE LOOK AFTER ME?” Being a parent means constant caretaking—giving, giving and giving some more. Furthermore, it’s not a reciprocal relationship: what you put in doesn’t necessarily come back. I love my kids, but I get tired of caretaking, and the thing with lockdowns is that the normal parental supports—school, after school care, grandparents, and so on—just aren’t there. You’re pretty much on your own.

(Except for screens. Thank God for screens. I mean it.)

Even though I bang on about mental health and have written and self-published an entire anthology about depression, I still find it hard sometimes to admit I have a problem. But I did share that with various people who prayed for me and who were very understanding—the sort of people who weren’t going to tell me to suck it up, that other people have it worse than me, and that I have nothing to whinge about it. They were sad for me and expressed their sympathy in helpful ways.

And in the end, my birthday was as nice as a birthday could be in lockdown: the girls and I livestreamed church; I caught up with various church people via Zoom afterwards (who wished me a happy birthday!); we ordered in sushi for lunch; we had a karaoke party in the afternoon in our karaoke basement (which my family weren’t too keen about, so I partied on my own for a bit and even tried doing a Facebook Live video that got pulled down for copyright infringement); we ate and enjoyed the Basque cheesecake I had made the day before; we ordered in pizza for dinner; and then in the evening, my Marvel movie buddy and I had a Teleparty and watched the live action Mulan on Disney+. And that helped me feel better about things heading into the new week.

Lockdown + work + home learning

This week, home learning began. But we had a day’s reprieve as the teachers returned to work and figured out what to do for lessons. I spent Monday getting ready: I made a new “before screen time” checklist for the girls that added the home learning and drop the making/building element (though I did tell them that if home learning tasks overlapped with checklist tasks, they could totally check them off). I got an extension cord and a six-plug powerboard, and set them up at the other end of the dining table to where we eat in the back room of the house where we get the most sun. I moved our laptops there and set them up with headphones. The laptop my youngest used last year for home learning finally died (it was about 11-12 years old—good innings for a MacBook), so I made a separate login for Saski on my home laptop as I figured I’d be on my work laptop during home learning anyway. And then the new term began.

Laptops for home learning.

So this is how our days currently go:

  • I sleep in until 8am (which is truly the best thing about lockdown) and then read my Bible and pray before getting up and having breakfast. (I recently started using PrayerMate for the prayer part and it has been incredibly helpful.)
  • I look after the morning routine Monday to Friday and Sunday, which means getting the girls up (usually by 8:45am) and dressed, doing their hair, getting breakfast into them, reading the Bible with them and brushing their teeth.
  • We get stuck into home learning around 9:30am. Miss 10 is pretty self-directed and most of the time, all I need to do is make sure she stays on task instead of watching random things on YouTube or messaging her friends. Occasionally she needs a little help with maths, but that’s about it. I spend most of my time with Miss 7, who needs a lot more help—particularly with the tech side. I load up her Google Classroom and watch some of the videos on double speed on my work laptop just to stay ahead. Sometimes I’m able to do work around them (half an hour to an hour, though my measurements are imprecise), but it has to be more administrative things, like formatting Word documents or converting Word documents to HTML or updating websites—anything that can be interrupted, really, because I am interrupted every three to five minutes. Anything that requires more sustained focus—any sort of editing or writing—has to wait until the afternoon.
  • The girls are usually finished with home learning by lunchtime/1pm. I make them pack sandwiches for the entire week on Monday so that they’re ready for when they get hungry, and then I add some fresh veggies to round things out. For myself, sometimes I make myself something as I prefer a hot lunch in winter (e.g. I’ll do a large chicken soup, freeze half of it and then eat through the rest over the next three or four days). Or I’ll have leftovers or something.
  • Then after lunch, the girls will tackle the last items on their checklists and go on screens while I tackle my job, which I’ve spaced across the week so that it’s roughly 2-3 hours a day. (I also have some time in lieu up my sleeve that I use, plus my boss is super understanding. I don’t know how people who work full-time do it. One podcast I listen to suggested that one parent do the 6am-12pm shift with the kids while the other works, and then they swap for the 12-6pm shift, and I thought that sounded horrible.) In addition, I am trying to keep up the exercise on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays now that we have the space for it: my gym has been making their Zoom classes available to all members, and they’re downloadable, which means I can do them whenever I want. I’ve found it’s worked best when I do them in the late afternoon, and then I can have a shower and tackle dinner, or vice versa. I shudder to think how much muscle strength I’ve lost these three weeks as going back to the gym and handling weights again is going to be painful. But it’s better than nothing.
  • Then comes dinner at 6pm. I stick to my current pattern of making a three-night meal on Monday, a two-night meal on Thursday, a one-night meal on Saturday, and then we order takeaway on Sunday.
  • After dinner, Ben handles the bed and bathtime routine while I finish off any housework I might have been doing throughout the day (e.g. laundry); I make calls to people in my Bible Study group to check on them and pray with them; I catch up with a friend over the phone; I tackle the never-ending admin; and I do other things that are on my checklist—e.g. at least one lesson of Duo Lingo (Japanese), reading at least one chapter of a book, writing at least 100 words on my novel, and staying on top of Twitter.
  • And then after the girls are in bed, I watch TV—sometimes with Ben and sometimes not. (I am currently binging the fourth season of Angel on Disney+.)

Lockdown rest?

All the while I am conscious of what people and those YouTube videos on burnout have been saying to me: look after yourself, look after yourself, look after yourself. So I have been trying. I have been exercising, reading books, watching TV and keeping up with people.

Still, now that a lot of the rest-type things I normally do have been taken away, it begs the question, how exactly do people rest?

Good thing I read this book (very slowly!) a couple of years ago: Rest: Why you get more done when you work less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I agree with his argument in theory (his argument’s in the book’s subtitle), but I also found the book infuriating because he focused primarily on the lives of male politicians, scientists and artists who were able to achieve and create great things in four hours a day while also resting a lot while ignoring the fact that other people were freeing them up to do that. Who was looking after their children, doing their laundry, cooking their meals and cleaning their houses? It certainly wasn’t them. The fact that Pang does not acknowledge the amount privilege involved in living lives filled with rest was so infuriating, I put the book down for a long while.

But I did find a helpful bit towards the end where he talks about things that actually help promote rest:

Sonnentag and her colleagues argue that there are four major factors that contribute to recovery: relaxation, control, mastery experiences, and mental detachment from work. Think of them as a bit like vitamins. Breaks that are high in all four are the equivalent of nutritious and nourishing meals; those that don’t are like empty calories. (p. 166)

Here’s a nice little summary of all four:

Detachment refers to mental disengagement from work-related thoughts. Relaxation implies low levels of mental or physical activation and little physical or intellectual effort. Control refers to being able to decide on one’s leisure schedule and activities. Mastery encompasses learning opportunities and challenges, resulting in feelings of achievement and competence. Of these four experiences, detachment seems to be most consistently associated with positive changes in well-being.

So I’ve been trying to work out how to implement all four into my life:

  • Mental detachment is, in some ways, the easiest, because it happens once I get pulled into a novel, a TV show or a movie (and to a certain extent, my novel). The difficulty is being able to do that for a sustained uninterrupted period of time.
  • Relaxation is harder to achieve because it requires being organised enough to get the stuff that needs to be done—housework, paid work, etc—out of the way to clear the time to actually do it.
  • Control: well, I’m a control freak, plus I’m a structured control freak, so imposing my own timetable on our days has been helpful. Where I need to improve is being disciplined in my use of time, otherwise it all falls apart into time confetti.
  • Mastery: I guess this is where things like knitting and exercise fall. I do like learning new things and getting better at them, and even though I hate exercise, I do get some satisfaction from having improved at something.

It continues to be a work in progress.

I have been becoming more mindful after reading about/researching all this, though. For example, I feel less guilty about stopping and reading a chapter of a book before starting the next thing for work. There’s something freeing about intentionally adding a little padding into the day—discretionary time when I am allowed to do something I enjoy instead of something I have to do.

Towards the end of Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues for shorter breaks more often instead of longer breaks less often:

These results further undermine the idea that our mental energies refill with time, rather than through activities that promote recovery. They also suggest that we should reassess the role of breaks, and the rhythm of vacations, in our lives. Regularly and decisively breaking from our jobs, disconnecting from the office in the evenings and on weekends, and choosing to do things that are relaxing, mentally absorbing and physically challenging—in other words, engaging in a form of active rest—will promote recovery of our mental resources and make us more effective, productive, and focused. Rather than treating vacations as big, annual events that are completely separate from our working lives, taking shorter but more frequent vacations every few months provides greater levels of recovery. As Jessica De Bloom, a psychologist at the University of Tampere and vacation researcher, puts it, vacations are like sleep: you need to take them regularly to benefit. (p. 172)

I take his point. I’ve got holiday booked for mid-November—a housework-free, child-free one, even. God-willing, lockdown will be over, more people will have been vaccinated and borders will be by then, and I’ll actually be able to go. Until then, I’ll keep attempting this rest thing as best I can.

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Review: Mulan

Mulan (2020)
Screening on Disney+

Tonight’s movie was the live action remake of Mulan (streaming on Disney+), and I have THOUGHTS.

Thing is, I don’t know if my thoughts can be pounded out in the time I have before bedtime.

Thing is, I wonder if I don’t do it now, I won’t get another chance. So here goes.

Given the Twitter reaction, I expected this film to be more of a trainwreck of a movie than it was. I had heard various things about it and some of the reasons why people were unhappy with it, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from. I think it’s mainly two camps: one, the people who loved the 1998 animated film and were sorely disappointed because they were expecting something like that, and two, people who love the story of Hua Mulan and who wanted to see it done well as a Hollywood blockbuster in partnership with China, and they ended up disappointed too.

The 2020 Mulan is neither and therefore it’s sort of hard to figure out where it fits. This was symbolised somewhat by the opening credits, which featured the familiar mouse castle in a not-so-familiar Asian landscape with the addition of a great wall.

Firstly, it has some of the trappings of the 1998 film in its characters, storylines and even the music: Hua Mulan is a simple girl who comes from a small village and who struggles to figure out her place in the world that sees her as different. She does not act the way society thinks girls should act, and furthermore, she’s in possession of a very strong qi (which, if I’ve understood this correctly, refers to one’s vital energy or life force—something which is essential to Chinese martial arts). She knows that her role in life is to marry well and better her family’s social standing. But her spirit rails against this, and she somehow can’t help being who she is. (Note that the cricket scene in the original is sort of still there, but now it involves a spider.) Unfortunately being who she is means public shaming.

Meanwhile in the north, Böri Khan is rallying the Rourans and attacking garrisons all along China’s northern border, plotting to avenge his father, who was killed by the current emperor. He is aided by a powerful witch who can shapeshift and disguise herself as anyone she chooses. She is aiding him because she has lived much of her life in exile, rejected by her own people for who she is, and under Böri, she hopes to be somewhere where she can be free.

The emperor, realising that war is unavoidable, sends out a decree that every family must send one male to join the army. As Mulan’s father only has daughters, he consents to go. And as Mulan loves her father and knows he won’t survive a second war, she disguises herself as a man and goes in his place, bearing his sword, which has the characters etched on it “Loyal, brave and true”.

If you were hoping for singing, you will be sorely disappointed: although the music sometimes picks up some of the themes of the 1998 animated film soundtrack and Christina Aguilera belts out “Reflection” over the credits (and Liu Yifei, the actress who plays Mulan also does so in Mandarin), no one in the cast sings about their hopes and dreams, or about how they’ll “make a man out of you” (truly the best song of the original). The soundtrack is mostly instrumental, and I liked that it used a lot of traditional Chinese instruments.

In addition, if you were hoping for Mushu, you also be sorely disappointed: the red dragon has been replaced by a CGI phoenix who answers her father’s prayer and watches over her as the spirit of their ancestors (or some such thing). I rather liked that as Mushu was always a bit of a Jar Jar Binks character for me.

However, no singing, no cricket, no Mushu and even no grandma (who arguably had the best lines in the original) means that the movie is far less child-friendly, lacking much of the comedy and humour of the animated version. Mulan’s army buddies are still there as a bit of light relief (retaining some of the dialogue of their animated counterparts), and I kind of wish we had had a few more scenes with them as I liked the friendship that Mulan develops with them (and more particularly with Chen Honghui, who is the only one in the skinnydipping scene and who sort of slides in the Li Shang role, only he is not a commander). But otherwise, the movie takes itself very seriously (i.e. no cross-dressing in the other direction): the stakes are clear and the cost of Mulan’s choices weight heavily on her as she tries to live up to the creed on her father’s sword.

The last virtue—“true”—gives her trouble, however: how can she be “true” when she is lying to everyone around her? This moral quandary weighs heavily on her and, as the witch points out to her later, it is poisoning her qi and is preventing her from serving the emperor the way she should be. (Commander Tung recognises this in an earlier scene, though of course at that stage, he does not know her secret.) This is interesting as there are plenty of cross-dressing girls in other xanxia dramas I have watched and none of their qi was ever affected. This is also a big change: in the 1998 version, she was just an ordinary girl trying to spare her father and honour her family the only way she could; in this one, she is special.

When she is finally convinced of the value of being herself and is, in a sense, reborn like the phoenix, she suddenly has the power—or the qi—to save her country, her people and even her friends. But of course society is still a step behind, and her shaming and expulsion from the army seems overly harsh for western audiences, who would be more sympathetic towards acts of bravery than eastern audiences who, perhaps, would be more in agreement with values regarding law and virtue. (Something similar came up in the K-Drama Romance is a Bonus Book where one of the main characters is vilified for calling herself a high school graduate on her resumé when she was really a university graduate.)

The final act of the story is, in my humble opinion, where the whole thing gets a bit sloppy. While the action scenes, for the most part, are terrific and exciting, with backwards riding archery, spear fighting, somersaults on horeseback and Donnie Yen being awesome, the characters made some decisions that made no sense to me. Why does Mulan cast off her armour when some of it was clearly instrumental to saving her life? Why does she fight with her hair out? (Wouldn’t that be annoying?) Why do people act like Mulan is the only one who can save the emperor? (Surely she’s not!) And surely jumping onto a plank that’s revolving slowly in mid-air is a bad idea, no matter how awesome it makes you look when you’re doing martial arts on it??

The witch also plays a pivotal role in all of this—both as a foil to Mulan, but also as something of an antagonist in her decision-making. Unfortunately that story thread is given no room to breathe; I imagine that had this been a TV series, the clash of worldviews between her and Mulan would have been developed more over several episodes, not several minutes. As it is, things progress so fast, I had whiplash.

That said, I liked where the film ended—back in Mulan’s village where the opening scenes are book-ended with ones that close out themes of filial duty, honour, and ideas regarding what women can and can‘t do. Although it could be argued that Mulan is a feminist story of empowerment and male recognition of that power, I liked that the ending to this film emphasised honouring one’s family. Perhaps it was a compromise between east and west? For me, it worked. For others, it probably didn’t.

Along with the script, there are many things that could be criticised about this film. The cast was made up of Asian actors, but their delivery of the English dialogue left a lot to be desired and, to me, was jarring after spending so much time watching xanxia dramas in Mandarin. The costumes, props and overall production design was gorgeous and colourful, with nary a synthetic fibre in sight. (I only mention it because that is something that sometimes annoys me about xanxia dramas.) I acknowledge that it probably wasn’t historically accurate; this article notes:

Online reviewers criticized Mulan‘s lack of character development; the actors’ performances; various plot holes; the historical inaccuracy of the makeup and costumes; and confusing, seemingly slapdash references to Chinese culture.

One Douban reviewer laid out a ten-point critique of the movie that included a complaint about one scene in which Mulan’s father sharpens a knife with a piece of jade with “filial piety” engraved on it. “[The jade] is related to military merit,” the reviewer wrote. “Why the hell is it engraved with ‘filial piety’?”

Another Douban reviewer called the film a “car accident” full of famous Chinese actors and “all the features of China that Americans could come up with … it’s full of Western images of China, especially ancient China.”

Also:

Concerns about how faithfully Disney’s latest Mulan hewed to Chinese history and culture started last summer, when Disney released the trailer for the movie. One complaint pointed out that Mulan’s house is a style of architecture that did not emerge in China until several hundred years after Mulan was supposed to have lived and is associated with southern China; the Mulan folk story is set in northern China. The scenes are beautiful, one Douban reviewer wrote, “but it will make any Chinese person who has studied geography go crazy.”

But as it had witches, magic and qi in it, I thought it was like other xanxia dramas I’ve watched that are set in some fantasy version of ancient China, so these things bothered me less.

That article also had this interesting part in it that only further serves to underscore the difficulty of where Mulan sits:

… joint productions between U.S. and Chinese movie makers like The Great Wall and Hollywood movies with Chinese cultural themes like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell have flopped at the mainland box office. Their failures underscore the difficulty of making a movie with Chinese themes that appeals to U.S. and Chinese audiences and succeeds critically and commercially in both markets.

It seems to me that both Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell come from less of an Asian background and more of an Asian American or Western Asian background, which is not the same thing. (It is interesting, though, that Disney chose a director who isn’t Asian. Was Chloé Zhao unavailable?) In my opinion, Mulan (2020) occupies the same space: it comes from Chinese culture, but its story is more Western in flavour, concerned with ideas surrounding identity, authenticity and the expression of those things in one’s society. So I’m not surprised Chinese audiences didn’t like it. I’m also not surprised that western audiences didn’t like it either. I enjoyed it, but one day, I’d also like to see a couple of the 15 adaptations made in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan if only to understand how others view the story.

Okay, perhaps that’s not the most comfortable place to leave a review. But I am out of time and this will have to do.