Oscar Schwartz demonstrates why poetry is weird

I feel like this post needs a disclaimer: I don’t like poetry.

The dislike has been a long-standing one, reaching back to middle school days when poetry, reading and writing, was a significant part of my class’s English assignments. I always stumbled on these assignments, because a) directed to find and put together words that rhyme in a way that makes sense, my brain would immediately begin to malfunction, and b) I didn’t understand why I had create a poem when it would be so much easier to just write what I wanted to say in a nice, solid paragraph.

So when the TEDTalks YouTube channel suggested this video to me, “Can a computer write poetry?”, my immediate concern was how this would be applicable to middle school English assignments.

Let me tell you now that this is not what the video is about.

In the video, writer Oscar Schwartz brings poetry into the world of sci-fi, using a computer algorithm that takes words from a selected source and then uses those words to create a “poem.” Interestingly enough, this was one of the first ways software engineers, as early as the 1950s, attempted to test a computer’s capacity for original thought.

The results, which are extremely varied, are really part of a wider philosophical discussion on what constitutes humanity, as Schwartz rightly points. Within that discussion, many questions are raised: What constitutes original thought? What factors lead us to perceive certain things as being innately human, while others are easily mistaken for the work of an artificial being? What does that say about the human who created the latter work? How does our perception of a work of self-expression affect our belief in its value?

More importantly, does this mean we can now eliminate poetry modules from English curricula?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

The case for close-ended shows

Does it though? Image by Brandon Martin-Anderson via Flickr.

You, the reader, probably don’t watch a whole lot of Arabic television, but I do. But this not a list of the differences between Arabic and English television shows. That would be too long.

No, this is the case for incorporating one particular aspect of Arabic drama into the world of Western television, and that aspect is the closed ending.

Consider: the most satisfying aspect of a story in any format is that it’s building towards some kind of climax, followed by a winding down to a sensible end. This is story arcs 101, and there’s a reason for that: it works. When you don’t have a specified end, you force the story to continue in ways that are inorganic and ultimately dissatisfying.

Couldn’t be any simpler. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Think about it, how many of your favorite shows ended up going down the tubes after three or four seasons, rehashing old plot-lines and resorting to obnoxious guest characters to force humor and/or drama where none can grow?

Or even worse, how many shows were cancelled after one or two seasons, leaving the dedicated viewer grasping at straws, forced to resort to that dark side of the Internet, fanfiction, in a desperate attempt to gain some form of closure?

Compare that to your average Arabic television drama, which wraps up in quick and easy 30 episodes. This ensures that the show will have a beginning, a middle, and, thankfully, an end. Within that tried and true structure, you have character development, crisis and resolution, and an overall sense of structure. Even when the end is left purposely open, at least you have a sense that the main plot is wrapped up.

There are, of course, many shows that follow a season format, but that’s usually because they cannot, for whatever reason, resolve the major plot points within 30 episodes. At most you’ve got a story that 90 episodes to end. That’s still much less than the average six-season American television show, which at 22 episodes a season is over 120 episodes! That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that a lot of these episodes involve either a) upping the dramatic ante until it reaches previously unheard of levels of insanity (*cough “Grey’s Anatomy” cough*), b) employing ridiculously convoluted plot twists in an attempt to maintain viewer interest (“Pretty Little Liars” is particularly notorious for this), or c) beating the “will they won’t they” drama to death (“Friends” and, increasingly, “New Girl”).

Stop this plot! In the name of proper storytelling structure!

I’m not alone in thinking our shows go on for way too long: more and more new shows are debuting at just 10 episodes in their first season. In an interview with Variety, television producer and the brains behind Parks and Rec, Mike Schur, says, “…there’s more of a sense that shows should have a number of episodes that befits that idea, instead of just, ‘Let’s do as many as we possibly can.'”

It’s a trend that many credit to networks like HBO, AMC, and Starz. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s not enough. The problem is not the number of episodes per season, it’s the number of episodes overall. So I say it’s time to take a page out of the book of Arabic television and commit only to shows that have both a start and an end.

Goodbye show. We knew ye a little too well.

Watch the “cultural big bang” courtesy of Google Culture Institute

There are times, after three hours have dissipated into thin air with nothing to mark their existence except a few retweets, when I wish the internet was never invented. One imagines what one could have accomplished in that time, what wonders could have been created, what knowledge gained.

And then, there are other times. Times when the internet is the reason for wonders and knowledge. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

THIS!

Okay, perhaps an explanation is in order. In this video, the director of Google’s Arts and Culture Project, Amit Sood, talks about how the project is in essence making art galleries and museums accessible to people all over the world.

The amazing thing about this, as the video demonstrates, is that when you bring art from all over the world together like this, it gives you the opportunity not only to discover arts from different cultures, but to see the connections between those different cultures. You can see how different styles and formats traveled and influenced developing cultures. It’s a “cultural big bang,” as Amit says, but it’s more than that, it’s a cultural Pangea too.

You can see where a thing starts, how it travels, and where it ends up.

What’s particularly great about this is that not only can you see art from all over the world, you can experience it in a way that isn’t usually possible in real life. The zoom feature, for example, lets you see a level detail that’s usually denied to the average museum visitor. Check out this close-up screenshot I took of “The Fisherman Unable to Hold the Giant Fish,” by Manohar Das circa 1595:

"The Fisherman Unable to Hold the Giant Fish" Manohar Das, 1595, Cincinnati Art Museum, via Google Cultural Institute.
“The Fisherman Unable to Hold the Giant Fish” Manohar Das, 1595, Cincinnati Art Museum, via Google Cultural Institute.

Even on this screen, you can see so much detail: the strokes of the brush, the way the colors are blended together to create different shades, the overlay of different textures on top of one another. It’s amazing! As wonderful as it is to visit actual museums in person and see these things in real life, the fact is that such institutions you often cannot touch the artifacts or see them up close. This project, which is still in beta, is an opportunity not just for those for whom museums and art galleries are not easily accessible, but for anyone with fascinated by how art is created and maintained.

There are probably some pertinent questions to be raised at the idea of Google storing all this cultural heritage, given its already in-depth access to so much of our personal information and, of course, purchasing habits. But I have to say, if this is what Google is planning to use its world dominion for, I’m for one am on board. All hail the mighty Google and its artistic database!

Happy Eid! Positive portrayals of Muslims in the media

As some of you may know, tomorrow, Wednesday July 5th, marks the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr. I thought to celebrate, it would be interesting to dig around and find some of the best portrayals of Muslims in the media.

It’s no secret that since 9/11, there has been an increase in hostility towards Muslims and those who appear to be of a racial background associated with Islam – Sikhs in particular, for example, have paid the price for increasing Islamophobia. As a result, the portrayal of Muslims in the media has been overwhelmingly negative. While this is most apparent in the news, it’s also strongly present in creative media as well. This isn’t even just a post-9/11 trend; the documentary “Reel Bad Arabs” incisively demonstrates that degrading stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in Western media goes back decades.

It’s important, then, to highlight and celebrate the movies, television shows, and books that buck the trend. Here’s five titles that prominently feature characters that are prominently and pointedly Muslim and make them active, sympathetic protagonists. I tried to focus on movies and books that are set in a Western environment, rather than those set primarily in the Middle East or Indian subcontinent. Spoiler alerts all round!

1. Ms. Marvel – Marvel Comics

When Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan discovers that she has superhuman powers, she takes on the superhero name Ms. Marvel and goes off to fight crime and the forces of evil! Kamala is not the first Muslim superhero, but she is definitely the first one to be produced by a company with the clout and legacy of Marvel Comics. The comic series marks an important shift in the portrayal of Muslim women in particular.

2. Little Mosque on the Prairie (Six seasons)

CBC’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie” was a big deal when it came out, and no wonder – where else on television can you find Muslim families and in particular a Muslim Imam portrayed so normally? The series follows Amaar Rashid, a big-city lawyer who leaves his lucrative career to become the Imam of a mosque in a small Canadian town. He befriends the many residents, including the Anglican Reverend, whose church basement actually houses the mosque. The show is particularly good in that in showcases a variety of personalities in the Muslim community: there’s the conservative but ultimately loving father, the practical businessman who just wants to keep his costs down, the ambitious, feminist doctor, all part of a larger community of allies and antagonists, who are ultimately united for the greater good of their town.

“Little Mosque on the Prairie” is available on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

3. Arranged (2007)

In “Arranged,” Muslim teacher Nasira feels isolated in the Brooklyn public school where she works – that is, until she meets and befriends fellow teacher Rochel, and Orthodox Jewish woman. The two bond over shared beliefs and values as both go through arranged marriages, arranged here referring to marriages based on introductions set up by family, friends, or a matchmaker. The film not only demonstrates the common ground to be found between Muslims and Jews, but also elucidates religious practices that are often seen negatively in Western society, such as wearing the hijab or dressing modestly in general.

The movie is available on Amazon Prime and Netflix.

4. The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy 

Set in London, “The Room of Lost Things” features Akeel Khan as the entrepreneurial son of Pakistani immigrants who works in a dry-cleaning shop under the direction of the owner, Robert Sutton, who is preparing to sell it to him. Akeel is ambitious and hard-working, and, as a bonus, his wife is portrayed as cheerful and intelligent. Unfortunately, she doesn’t feature prominently in the narrative, which focuses on the way the lives of the dry-cleaning customers intersect with the life of Robert Sutton. But the relationship between Akeel and his wife is a supportive and happy one, in stark contrast to the forced marriages narrative that is so often peddled by the media.

5. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik

Londonite Sofia Khan works at a publishing house when her boss asks her to write a “tell-all” book about dating and marriage among the Muslim community. She approaches the idea with skepticism (I don’t blame her), having recently gotten out of a relationship with a man who expected her to live with essentially his entire extended family post-marriage. The book benefits not only from a diary-style format, but also from the fact the focus is less on Sofia’s search for love at the personal level, a classic chick-lit topic, but on her search for love at the academic, exploratory level.

Who are some of your favorite Muslim characters? Share in the comments!

 

Creative inspiration from the Internet

You open the Word document, or the Illustrator page, or whatever it may be. It is oppressively white, it’s blankness at once demanding and withholding.

Or, even worse, it’s filled with what you know are wonderful, groundbreaking ideas that are just missing one thing, one little point that would pull them all together and make the work whole, complete, if only you could figure out what that one thing was…Meanwhile, the weight of the content and all its potential, its expectations, weigh on your heart, crushing your defenseless soul…

Wipe the tears from your eyes, for there is hope. Fear not, dear reader! I have scoured the Internet, searching for relief and hope for those of us who struggle and strive, and I have found the LIGHT!

Or, in the language of one less melodramatic…

Basically I compiled a list of websites that I like to use when I’m feeling uninspired and burned out. Hopefully you’ll find them to be helpful as well!

This one is probably obvious, by WordPress.com has a daily prompts blog. These one word prompts are particularly good for when you find yourself reusing the same words over and over again, your vocabulary stilted and stunted. The blog also includes blogging tips and encourages readers to share links to their works.

Another good prompts blog is First 50 Words – these prompts come from author Virginia DeBolt and are really good because she includes her own interpretation, for those of us who need a little more detail, a little more description. Let’s Write puts up quote prompts, which can be particularly helpful when you’re struggling with a character or a scene.

Speaking of uncooperative characters, if you’re having trouble developing the details of a scene or characterization, drop by F*** Yeah Character Development. It’s an ask-answer blog about writing characters, and it also regularly posts information and insight related to world-building and other aspects of the writing process. I’ve never asked a question, and given how many they receive I’m not sure this would be the best idea. Instead, I find that just reading the questions and answers can stimulate my mind and open me up to new possibilities. Some of their latest questions include: “In a zombie apocalypse what threats would there be to humans other than the rabid monsters?” “How do you succeed in making readers like a character who’s actually a total, unapologetic asshole/villain?” and (this is a good question for all of us to consider) “How many main characters do you think is too many?”

Monkey see, monkey do (hopefully)

Sometimes when we’re writing, it can be easy to forego the visual aspect in favor of a focus on the written word. But, not to discriminate against the other senses, but sight is one of the most important ones, and visual stimulation can be really helpful as a source of inspiration, pushing you to step away from the often abstract world of language and really think about how your work, well, works in the real world.

Of course, if you’re an actual artist or graphic designer, visual work is probably crucial for you to get those creative juices flowing, as unfortunate a mental image as that may be.

Photography can be a major source of inspiration, and one really great blog that I found through WordPress Discover is Picturize by Yuki Iwaoka:

“Suck Me In” by Yuki Iwaoka.

Visual Graphc is a design blog that I love for the diversity of what it features. It’s mostly graphic design, but there is a huge diversity in the fonts, the styles, the color schemes – every single entry is different. If you’re creating a poster or a brochure or really anything, Visual Graphc can give you ideas for how put different colors, fonts, and design elements together to create something engaging and unique.

 

Eat Sleep Draw and F*** Yeah Illustrative Art are illustration curation sites that post submitted artwork in a wide spectrum of styles. Renee B. is the brains behind F*** Yeah Illustrative Art, using her own artistic background to create an impressive collection, adding new pieces every day. Eat Sleep Draw describes itself as an online gallery, showing everything from classical portraits to more fantastical pieces.

Where do you go for inspiration? Leave your resources in the comments!

 

Racebending vs. whitewashing: Whys, whens, and hows

If you have a Twitter account and a vague interest in movies, you’ve likely heard of the rising furor over recent casting choices in upcoming movies. Specifically, the casting of British actress Tilda Swinton as Asian character The Ancient One of the “Dr. Strange” comics, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in the movie version of the Japanese series “Ghost in the Shell” caused outrage over the whitewashing of Asian characters, culminating in the trending hashtag #whitewashedOUT.

Of course, Asian characters aren’t the only ones being whitewashed in pop culture. There’s a lot that has been written about race and representation in the media (some of it by me). The concept of representation is simple: people should see their world reflected back to them in what they consume. The process of representation, however, can sometimes be more complex, because we can have disagreements over what constitutes representation, particularly when it comes to changing the race or gender of already established characters. For the record, I am all for race and gender-bending – I actually wrote an article highlighting some great examples of it here. But there are times when race and gender-bending is appropriate and fun, and times when it is not.

Context matters

One of the major criticisms of the movie adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” is that the casting of Scarlett Johansson ignores the specifically Japanese context in which the story takes place. That’s not to say that you can’t adapt a story from one culture into another – you can, and that’s a great way to share cultures. But the key is that you adapt the whole story, recognizing that there are some aspects to the original that won’t translate or are not relevant in the receiving culture. A movie like that wouldn’t be “Ghost in the Shell,” it would be something else, something different, that’s inspired by “Ghost in the Shell.”

This is particularly important when we consider manga and anime works. Because of the way they’re drawn, a lot of Western audiences perceive anime characters as being white – they’re not. Anime and manga stories are created in a Japanese context and are often set in Japan. If you’re going to translate anime directly into another medium, you have to acknowledge the characters’ Japanese identity.

See this beautiful setting? It's Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO. via sailormoonnews.com
See this beautiful setting? It’s Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO.
Image via sailormoonnews.com

Where diversity is now

If you’re going to racebend a character, don’t do it to one that’s already underrepresented in mainstream media. Our goal should be to increase diversity, not decrease it.

Although there’s been some improvement in the representation of minorities, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, not just in numbers but in how these characters are presented as well. As this wonderfully detailed post by Nerds of Color demonstrates, major franchises sorely lack in representation of not just people of color, but also women and women of color specifically. What little representation there is often relies on harmful stereotypes and double standards for male and female characters.

The "diverse" world of The Avengers.
The “diverse” world of The Avengers.

This leads to another question – should you switch out one underrepresented group for another?

I’m going to go ahead and say no, and here’s why: a lot of Western culture tends to treat minority groups, especially those from similar cultures or close geographical areas, as though they’re the same and therefore interchangeable. Indian and Pakistani cultures are often conflated, Arab cultures are treated as one monolith, Asian people are seen as “looking the same,” and people deem it socially acceptable to say things like “I went to Africa.” Where in Africa? Apparently, that’s not a distinction that’s necessary to make.

Minorities are not interchangeable. You cannot, for example, replace an originally Arab character in a story with an Indian one and call that a win for diversity. When production companies do this, they’re basically saying, “Well, Indians and Arabs are basically the same.” Now think about it. If someone told you that Arabs and Indians are the same people, wouldn’t you consider that ignorant and racist?

I rest my case.

What purpose does race/gender-bending serve?

When we examine race and gender-bending in the media, we need to ask why it’s being done and to what end. I don’t include fan art in this because a lot of artists use these techniques to see themselves reflected in the works they love and admire, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. But when studios and production companies do this, I think we as an audience are entitled to ask questions.

For example, a good question here would be, "Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on."
For example, a good question here would be, “Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on.” Image via trevorcamis.tumblr.com

1. How does race/gender-bending fit in the original story being presented? In a story like “Ghost in the Shell,” for example, we can see that it doesn’t fit very well at all. In others, it might work better.

2. What does race/gender-bending add to the character? A black Superman, for example, would make a lot of sense given the science and the fact that, being an alien, Superman doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have a particular ethnicity associated with him.

3. What are the motives of the production companies in charge of making these decisions? One of the main arguments for the casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton as Asian characters (and for whitewashing in general) is that these names bring in big bucks at the box office. We don’t need studios casting minority actors in an attempt to be edgy or to pacify “angry minority hordes.” Diversity should be reflective of the world around us – it’s that simple.

It’s not the story, it’s how you tell it

Someone once told me I talk like I’m reading a story. They did not mean it as a compliment, but I took it as one.

I like stories and, if you have the right mindset, everything is a story. But not all stories are created equal. Some stories are created particularly unequal in that they are repetitive, obvious, relying on overused tropes and stifling stereotypes. They bore us. Am I really going to suffer through 200 pages of a love triangle so that the heroine can come to a revelatory realization about what true love means and what she was really looking for this whole time?

Well, I might.

As irritating as I often find love triangles to be (is there no other way to introduce conflict into a narrative? Any other way at all? I’ll take literally anything else), there are times when a well-written story can supersede the actual plot. As Ursula Guin writes,

“Romeo and Juliet is a story of the conflict between two families, and its plot involves the conflict of two individuals with those families. Is that all it involves? Isn’t Romeo and Juliet about something else, and isn’t it the something else that makes the otherwise trivial tale of a feud into a tragedy?”

Let’s take Romeo and Juliet for a moment (and I’ll admit now that many long years have passed since I read the story or saw that absolutely awful film rendition, which made the bizarre choice to take the most off-putting part of historical fiction…but that’s a post for another time. Back to the topic at hand.). It’s not a great plot, and especially after a few hundred years of work on the English novel it comes off as rather over-dramatic. The language is nice – for about the first five pages, and then you just want someone to tell you what in the world is going on. This is why we have Cliff Notes.

Teenage angst, 90s band-boy haircuts, and really flowery language. You gotta love it – NOT!

But as much as one might roll their eyes at Romeo and Juliet, there is still an aspect that endears itself to the reader. The intensity, the pace, the desperation of it all, you can’t help but feel heartbroken for this tale of doomed love, even if the whole thing was kind of silly to start with and could have been avoided if the two teens in question had been good kids who listened to their parents. Maybe that’s a part of it, too. The truth is that there are those times in your life where you believe so strongly that you’re right, where you’re so determined to prove that you’re right, you’ll do anything, no matter how unreasonable or extreme or downright insane it may be. And a lot of those times happen when you’re young and/or in love.

The multi-form approach

The medium can help too. Most songs, with the exception of those designed with twerking primarily in mind, are really just stories in lyric form. How many stories have I heard of doomed love in song form? A lot, and I love them. When Abdelhalim sings “Ana lak ‘ala tool, khaleek leya,” I sing along, even though I can’t sing to save my life, and my heart breaks for him, the poor desperate guy. I root for him so hard, and I’m so happy when it works out at the end of the approximately seven minutes.

Yes, I have very old-fashioned tastes.

The song, whose first line translates to, “I am yours forever, be mine,” is essentially the story of man whose love will not give him the time of day. He goes through life with a burdened heart, longing for a soft look, a kind smile, anything to demonstrate that she returns one iota of his feelings for her.

If this were a book, I would not have gotten past the blurb. If someone were telling me this story, my eyes would roll in their sockets so hard they would get stuck back there. Yet in song, somehow, I am so moved I feel an actual pain in my chest. It’s a combination of Abdelhalim’s beautiful voice and the elegant choice of words, I think, that causes this reaction, more so than if it had been just one or the other.

Emojis killed the writing star

For a more positive and amusing example of this phenomenon, check out the TEDTalk below. It tells a very simple, very obvious story, but it works because of the medium, which in this case happens to be emoticons. Watch and enjoy! But please keep in mind that most publishing houses do not accept novels in emoji form.

Like this post? Share your thoughts and come back on Tuesday for more!

What is creativity, anyway?

There’s a particular feeling we associate with the word “creative,” a kind of ingeniousness, a sense of novelty, maybe even of extremism – to go where no man (or woman) has gone before. When I think of creativity I think of Van Gogh, cutting of his own ear and wallowing in this pit of suffering to make something that people would one day look at and say, “Wow!”

Continue reading “What is creativity, anyway?”