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The Vulnerability of Being Brown – Part 1

I wrote this essay months ago. After the words and thoughts got too loud rolling around in my head.  I think I’ve been waiting to see if things change, if my thoughts shift.  But I’m in a process of working on my novel, Stands Alone. Doing another line by line revision.  (This is to cut 16,000 words to get my debut novel under 100,000, which is another post or more for later).

This morning, though, I’ve decided that there is so much to unpack about vulnerability of being brown, I need to open up this up.  And where else can I do that?  In addition to therapy. Lol.

Maybe it’s the incredible work of current books and TV shows and movies that are prompting me to share my thoughts.  (GO TO NETFLIX AND WATCH WHEN THEY SEE US- NOW!) Maybe this is just time. My time.

I will continue to write more on the subject. But I’m also hoping to hear from others who get this. Who understand what this feels like. Who want to change things for people of color which…get this… is good for all people. See how that works?

Here we go. Part 1:

The Vulnerability of Being Brown – Part 1

I never contemplated vulnerability until Brene Brown’s research and books turned me on to the topic. I remember feeling alive and empowered when I understood more about what it meant to live a whole-hearted life. To be my best authentic self.

Whenever I think about vulnerability I think about resiliency, too. They’re not opposites but I think you may need one to have the other. I learned of resiliency years ago and it shook me wide open. I was in school for my BA in Liberal Studies. My emphasis was on families. I was a child advocate. While studying about how some children ‘make it’ and for others, their struggles overcome them, which I know is a very simple way of breaking this down and in no way is it simple for children born in or living with adversity, the term popped up right off the page. My thoughts didn’t travel to future children’s programs I hoped to create but to myself. My siblings. Our childhood and what we had in our lives that made us resilient. Made us survive.

Coming to an understanding about vulnerability was the same way. I went from reading ‘women’ as a whole to focus on myself. Of course, we all do this. We encounter new concepts that turn on and turn up lights bringing understanding to something about ourselves that we might not even know needed the light. I embraced the term vulnerability just like I did with resiliency. Collected these terms and my understanding of them like weapons and set out on my way.

Lately, though, I can’t get past how difficult it is to be authentic because I am always vulnerable. I don’t get to determine how much. I don’t get a break from it unless I’m home, with the news off and away from social media.

I’m a brown woman living in this country. I’m Mixed. Indigenous and Black. And I can’t hide it. And I don’t want to but yet; I am so damn tired from the weight of the target that being brown carries.

I live in a world where random acts of violence against people of color are no longer so random, where brown men, women and children are targeted, or hunted. However it happens, the man in the white house who bullies, taunts and spews hateful racism, and applauds the minions who carry out his work, sanctions these crimes. He seems so very comfortable in his power to rein havoc, pain and even death on people of color. Sure, he’s at a distance and protected right now but the white person fueled by his words and actions, who is living in fear of losing something, anything, everything to a person of color, will attack. Has attacked.

Being a woman who looks like me is to live in a state of constant vulnerability. I am confused, sad and pissed because I want to be my full ‘give zero F*#ks’ all natural fierce AF badass brown woman. I want to always be okay in my skin with these curls and this body. I want to walk with pride and purpose. And yet, I’m the woman who makes ‘kind eyes’ at people in the stores. I’m the one who makes sure I make no sudden moves around white shoppers and say ‘sorry’ when they bump me. I’m the one who is vigilant about giving space to white people and making sure they’re comfortable with me. I do all that to create armor around my vulnerability. Which also feels futile because I can’t hide my brownness. Or pretend I’m something other than what they see. And that’s what makes me a target.

Too many times, because once was too much, brown women, men, and children are attacked and killed for no other reason than being brown and perceived to be a threat, because of that brownness. And instead of dealing with their misplaced fear, those with power and privilege to harm use it to do so. To kill.

And yes, there are efforts and activists doing incredibly hard work but will that keep me safe today?

I think about these women like me when I venture from my home. My thoughts run a bit wild, wondering who’s scared, who’s running, who’s being attacked right now, and just what am I going to do if it’s me in the next moments. I know, though, that if I let myself stay in those fearful thoughts, I wouldn’t leave my home at all. Ever. So there is a part of me that overcomes this. For bits of time. That’s how I make to Target, the grocery story or the post office. That’s how I get to the movies. Or out for lunch.

But it’s exhausting. To be hyper vigilant. To carry the pain of other brown women, my sisters, my aunties and grandmothers. It’s often crushing to be in this battle. To just exist. And yet, I do.

Stacey Parshall Jensen is a Mandan, Hidatsa and African-American writer, storyteller and filmmaker in Los Angeles by way of Minnesota.

 

Hitting send on the query…

It’s hard to believe that what started as an image I couldn’t shake would become this novel years later. Become STANDS ALONE.

They were feet. What I saw. What I felt were feet running. It was night and the ground was a tough terrain but these feet knew how to move over it. Through it. With it. They were women’s feet. Black women’s feet.

I didn’t who they belonged to, where they were running to or who they were running from, but they were running swiftly.

Then I had an image of tall prairie grasses that sway and dance in the wind. Walking through them, tenderly touching the wild flowers was a woman. Then she ran. She had long black hair flying out behind her.

These images stuck with me until I discovered my main character. Tanner Stands Alone. A Minneapolis detective. Half Black, half Native with warrior women for ancestors. And they rise from her body to fight a white supremacist who starts a race war.

As more images and scenes filled in the blanks, ya know the ones, in-between present and somewhere out there, where my imagination brews, I felt something stronger with this story. Something larger.

I sketched out a pilot for it and wrote it summer of 2017. It was okay. Just barely okay. But the story was big.  I hired the brilliant Jessica Blank to read it to help with some development. As we discussed it, she asked if I ever thought of writing the novel. This question made me look at the story in a different way. An even larger but glorious way. At the same time, I was itching to write a novel. I had some chapters of a different story. I had begun to work that prose writing muscle again but whenN November arrived, I did NaNoWriMo and started with a blank page, writing STANDS ALONE the novel.

So many drafts later, I’m here now. I have the query letter, the synopsis and the database.

I woke at 4 am with visions in my head of typing up the emails, of cutting and pasting in the pages, of hitting send. I got up and got ready. Which means I spent some time on Facebook. I played with a different TV project. I cleaned the bathrooms. I pulled weeds in my front lawn. I baked bread. I showered and made myself presentable…for…my computer??  I put on my power Parshall, N.D. t-shirt. (Yes, I’m related to the Parshalls the small town on the Rez is named after). I put on my power turquoise and some 80’s music (Blondie, The Cars, Madonna), lit some sage and a candle for my mom because I really want to call her and tell her what I’m doing with this story. With this novel. And I want to hear her voice tell me how excited she is for me. I want hear her wish me luck. So I’m gonna take a couple quiet minutes to hear her spirit say that. And then…here we go.

Before the search begins…agents

Can I tell from looking at their photo on the literary agency website if they’re going to be my agent?  Is there something there that can give me the extra know, that wink to my future?

I know. I can’t. But yet my thoughts go there. I look at their smiles and wonder what they’re voices are like. What it will sound like when they call and talk about Stands Alone? Is that a voice I can listen to for many calls? For great meetings? For maybe, not so great meetings?

I don’t know for sure what they’ll be saying, since this is will be my first agent. For my first novel. But I’m hoping for a lovely voiced woman who laughs at my jokes and finds me fascinating for writing such a tough hard crime suspense novel about being Mixed, history, warrior women and rape. For writing about fighting and winning.

Can I tell that from just looking at her photo? I sure as hell wish I could.

I’m building my agent database right now. I’ve been searching Publishers Marketplace, Query Tracker, and researching other writers who are in the vein of Stands Alone to find their agents. I’m doing Google searches and reading interviews and Twitter accounts.

I have a couple more super smart people in line to review my query letter and synopsis and then, I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m ready.

I’m anxious.

And feel super vulnerable. But driven and dare I say…believe in my own craft even though I still have so much more to learn and am working and writing every day. I’m creating story and birthing characters that I throw into pits of fire of pain, grief and oppression or dump in the middle of dark wildernesses created by their own fears or by some way their parents fucked them up and then hope that the trail becomes clear to get them out of there. Never unscathed but at least out to where the sun lives.

I feel like I’ve come into my own. And my voice is clear. And I hope to find an agent who sees that. Gets that. And wants to join me for that often blind rushing run through the wilderness.

Pages to go…gulp!

I’m pages to go.  Just 20 or so to get to the end of this round of revisions for Stands Alone. I set a deadline for March 26th because the plan was to go to AWP with this novel ready. Tucked under my arm. Well, not really, tucked there but ready on my laptop and on multiple disc drives. But I got sick. Really sick and by Monday night, I was going down fast. I canceled my trip and hit my couch. I spent the next few days taking soaks for aches and pains, drinking tea, napping and bingewatching Tin Star. Both seasons. And of course, looking at photos and posts of friends in Portland at AWP, making myself feel worse.

AWP was not a golden ticket to landing an agent or finding a publisher. Not at all. There are none. This is hard work. Perseverance. It’s about the stars lining up AND talent AND determination AND craftwork AND networking AND AND AND…. I missed an opportunity. This time.

So this morning, as I opened up the word doc to go back to line edits and rethinking, rejiggering passages, and hopefully deepening my characters, I stopped to think about this journey. How far I’ve come from an image (yes, I’m still beginning stories with a Black woman’s feet running) to a pilot to a novel to multiple drafts to beta readers and now…queries for an agent.

I think about how much I’ve learned about myself, my skill and what continues to drive me to tell the stories that I do. I reread and rewrite painful acts of against women and let my weeping take me through to tell of their triumph, too.  I see the slivers of myself and my story in some of the women. I write their strength, their uniqueness, what makes them cry and shiver, what makes them run and what makes them fight. I am forever changed because of them.

Gulp.

Next step will be sending this story, these women warriors, out into the world.

I’m pages to go to let them fly.

Gulp. Sigh.

Chuckle and grin.

Yeah…  I got this.

 

 

 

Creating a White Supremacist Character

If there’s at least a tiny part of ourselves in every character we create, then what does that mean when it comes to creating bad guys? To creating the narcissist? The evil? To creating the one who wrecks havoc and tears through whatever and whoever is in their path?

Of course, writing to the humanity of these characters is the goal. That’s what gives them flesh. Finding their underbelly, exposing it, and then healing is a goal. Maybe. Destroying them? That’s a righteous goal, too.

I’m thinking about this as I prepare to go back into my novel. It’s been with beta readers and now I’m ready to enter this world again, which means I have to pull up a chair at the table headed up by a white supremacist. Of all my characters, my bad guys, and there’s plenty of them; I write crime suspense so my bad guys do heinous things, creating Raimond Davies has been the toughest.

In Stands Alone, my novel about a Mixed Blood cop who takes on a white supremacist, their ancestors are the soldiers in this war. Which means I wrote their histories, too. I know who Raimond’s father was and what he did to him. I know who his grandma was and how filthy and mean she was. I know who Raimond was as a small boy at the mercy of the adults in his life and how that set him on a course of hatred.

I think that in the many hours I’ve spent with this story, and the many more to come, my own ancestors settle on the loveseat in my office. Native men and women who fought the destructive forces of white men for their families and their tribes. African women who endured unimaginable atrocities and yet never stopped fighting for their freedom. They keep the sage burning, the drums pounding as they wrap their arms around me, whispering that this is the story that I need to tell. That only I can tell. They say it’s okay. That I’m safe from the horror on the page, from the horror in my imagination. They tell me I’m honoring the fight. Their fight.

My fight.

But damn.

Healthy notes for doing Sundance

For all my peeps heading to or landing in Park City to do Sundance, here are some healthy notes based on my amazing trip there in 2016.
1. Take your vitamins. Emergen-C, Elderberry. Zinc.
2. Drink more water than booze. That may sound difficult but dehydration at those levels are no joke. Don’t ignore the headaches or write off dizziness as the fun side effect of whatever free booze you can score.
2. Watch what’s in the air. Whatever line you find yourself in and you will be in lines, chatting up the person next to you is a great idea. Be CURIOUS about them and not just sell yourself. And while you’re doing this are-we-gonna-be-film-friends thang be vigilant of sneezing, coughing and laughing up germs on their drinks and what’s being sprayed back on yours.
3. Carry hand sanitizer for when you have to stand and hold a rail in a packed shuttle bus which is actually a large petri dish on wheels.
4. Eat healthy food. There are some amazing restaurants in Park City.  Make reservations and be patient but enjoy.
5. Layer up against the cold. Big boots, faux fur hats, thick scarves and Smart Wool are the fashion.
6. And try to get some sleep. Again, like the more water than booze note, this one may be hard to do but try.
These first notes are what I learned the last two nights in 2016 when illness came hard at me, Peter and our daughter. At the last screening of our film, Peter got sick. And then later, Bird woke us in the middle night like she was still five and not 24 to tell us she was ill, too. I tended to her and slept in a chair by the pull-out in the living room until the grocery store opened. I bundled up and made the trip on the icy roads for soup, tea, ginger ale and crackers. I remember walking through the store when my hands began to hurt pushing the cart. From deep where a fever brews in the bones up through my skin. Then within minutes a chill tore through my body before I heated up. I was full-on sweating at the register and my voice was gone. I made it back to the condo. Made sure my sick family ate and then crashed. We were hit so hard by this fast moving Sundance illness, we missed the final awards dinner where First Girl I Loved, the beautiful film Kerem Sanga wrote and directed and we were executive producers on, won the NEXT Audience Award.
Peter woke me from a fever induced sleep to tell me about the win. I think I mumbled “cool”, shoved more cough drops in my cheeks and went back to sleep. The next day, we put our sick child on a plane in Salt Lake City to New York City and drove back to LA with Peter having the flu and me with one of the worst throat infections ever. We didn’t speak as he drove except for when he asked if I wanted to stop for food. I said “soup.” and he nodded.
Once home we were wiped the F out! For days! I left only to go to the doctor to get a major dose of antibiotics and reup on cough drops.
So, these first five notes are valuable so you can do the next five ones:
6. Check out the innovations in filmmaking. There are some incredibly smart and exciting things being developed.
7. Screen films with the awe and respect that they deserve. Making a movie is no joke! It’s takes hard work, dedication, and more people than audience realize.  You don’t have to like everything and you probably won’t, but take the time to give credit to all the work it took to get the film from idea to screen.
8. Support the cinematic storytelling of women and POC’s, of LGBTQ filmmakers, of voices, faces and visions that serve the robust canons of independent film but are not often seen. Theres’s beautiful, funky and mind-blowing stories being told and you all need to see them!
9. BE RESPECTFUL TO THE RESIDENTS OF PARK CITY! Remember you’re a guest.
10. But most of all, have a blast!
I hope to see you all next year.
Peace

Too pissed to write…

I just may be. Yes, I’m writing this to get some of these feelings, these big emotions out, but I’m well aware of how I can’t actually get to the page to write creatively. To work on the stories, give voice to the characters I’ve committed to but now I have to ask them to wait. Stand by.

I’m pissed. Life can be truly shitty. For so many of us. For so many.  For the people who are oppressed, those hated because of gender, race, religion and who they love.  I’m pissed for those who fear the world outside their windows and those who fear the monsters in their homes. I am pissed that this country is a shit storm of powerful men exerting their hate on others through legislature or lack thereof.

I’m pissed that the ebb and flow of feeling helpless and rising to the fight is thrashing my poor mind and body around so much so, I’m close to losing my way on the waves.

I’m pissed that the emotion of anger has its root in fear and pain. And that maybe I’m pissed first because I can’t bare to feel the pain down below the surface of my brown skin and I know that’s a false belief because I can still feel it. Saying it isn’t so isn’t truth.

I’m pissed that grief is a mutherfucker. I’m pissed that my mother is dead. And my dear friend died this week. And children are scared. And women are crying. And I can’t eat chocolate the way my heart craves because my full and ill body system is exhausted from just trying to carry me through the day, through the dark times.

I’m pissed that my anger is keeping me from the page because real life is raging so much louder than their stories and try as I might, I can’t find my way out of this world into the other.

I’m pissed that I’m still pissed. And feel like I have been for years. For centuries.