Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Holly Gleason's Woman Walk the Line Receives Belmont Book Award

We are thrilled to announce that Holly Gleason's book Woman Walk the Line has won the prestigious Belmont Book Award and will be honored at the International Country Music Conference on June 1. Woman Walk the Line is the twelfth book in our American Music Series, edited by Jessica Hopper, David Menconi, and Oliver Wang. Jessica Hopper's own book Night Moves will publish this September. 
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NASHVILLE, TN—At a time when women’s voices are being raised, Woman Walk The Line: How The Women of Country Music Changed Our Lives continues resonating. With recent appearances on SiriusXM’s Debatable, Emmy-nominated “Pickler & Ben,” Rolling Stone and Mojo, the collection of personal essays by 27 women of varying ages, races, occupations and orientations has won the prestigious Belmont Book Award. Presented on June 1 during the International Country Music Conference held annually at Belmont University, the conference is the foremost academic gathering devoted to country, roots and bluegrass music in the nation.

“I was startled and thrilled for all of the writers and the artists they celebrated,” editor and contributor Holly Gleason said of the news. “I know how academically accomplished those judges are, and it speaks volumes about the work each of these women did. How music impacts a life, changes a person or even empowers an individual is something we don’t pay enough attention to. At a time when #MeToo and TimesUp matters, this book – and the response to it -- is proof that positive women do listen to women’s art, and find within that art a sense of strength, comfort, inspiration and validation. What’s amazing is how many men did, too.”

Named one of No Depression’s Top 10 Books of 2017 and a selection of Minneapolis’ Public Radio’s Rock & Roll Book club, Rolling Stone proclaimed, “There’s probably no better time for Woman Walk The Line … the groundbreakers continue to strike many chords,” Santa Fe New Mexican declared, “a sisterhood — even a whisper network — in the genre that predates #MeToo by decades,” and Britain’s MOJO offered, “The stylistic line from Maybelle Carter through Dolly Parton on up to Taylor Swift isn’t a straight on, and the intention of this absorbing anthology isn’t to pretend that it is…intimate, inspirational essays.” 

Who is reading Woman Walk the Line? (Click to enlarge.)

Who is reading Woman Walk the Line? Allison Moorer and Hayes Carll, Rhiannon Giddens, Keith Urban, Lucinda Williams, Brenda Lee, Lyle Lovett, Reba McEntire, Brandy Clark, Steve Earle, Tammy Faye Starlite, Kenny Chesney, Jim Lauderdale and Wynonna Judd, Dave Schools, Terri Clark, Darius Rucker, Todd Snider, Kacey Musgraves, Tanya Tucker, Lee Ann Womack, Chris Carrabba, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Elizabeth Cook, Billy Bob Thornton, Patty Loveless, Dolly Parton, and Ronnie Milsap
Fixin’ To Write also put the anthology PASTE called “truly stunning” on their 2017 Books We Loved list with Roxanne Gay’s Hunger, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto, Marie Howe’s Magdalene, Sasha Steensen’s House of Deer, Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply, Jennifer Weiner’s Hungry Heart and Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

“I think women’s art is never as respected as it should be,” Gleason continued. “That’s why this anthology was important to me. Ronni Lundy, who won the top James Beard Award, on the power of Hazel Dickens as a voice of protest and a woman in the 70s? A transgendered writer on Rosanne Cash seeing past the transition to embrace who was going to be as the embodiment of what her music held? Even 17-year old Taylor Swift on Brenda Lee illuminating superstardom as a true artist when she was a young girl? It adds up, and it says, ‘Hell, yeah, we’re here, and we don’t just matter, we manifest!’ This honor recognizes those things in such a profound way.”

As The New York Times wrote, “Each of the 27 essays focuses on the experience of when music was a savior, an inspiration or an acknowledgment of a deep and personal truth.” People seconded that notion with “A rhapsodic, moving look at music’s transformative power” and Oxford American offered, “an exploration of that liminal space between the artist’s intention and the listener’s reception.”

Part of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Author Series, Gleason will be part of a panel in late July in Cleveland. In addition, dates are also being sorted out for a panel at the Country Music Hall of Fame this summer. After appearing at the Southern Festival of Books, the Miami Book Fair, a rogue South by Southwest panel, Woman Walk The Line has also gone to Texas State and the University of Florida.

Even noted memoirist Pamela Des Barres, known for I’m With The Band and Lets Spend The Night Together, enthused, “Awesomely important book.”

“It’s the writers and the way music shaped them,” Gleason explained. “It’s undeniable, and it reminds us how pivotal music is in our lives. In the rush of tech and the convenience of streaming, it’s easy to forget.

Full List of Essays and Authors below:

  • Maybelle Carter: The Root of It All by Caryn Rose 
  • Lil Harden: That’s How I Got to Memphis by Alice Randall 
  • Wanda Jackson: When She Starts Eruptin’ by Holly George-Warren 
  • Hazel Dickens: The Plangent Bone by Ronni Lundy 
  • June Carter Cash: Eulogy of a Mother Rosanne Cash 
  • Brenda Lee: Rare Peer by Taylor Swift 
  • Bobbi Gentry: Let the Mystery Be by Meredith Ochs 
  • Loretta Lynn: The Pill by Madison Vain 
  • Dolly Parton: Long Island Down Home Blues by Nancy Harrison 
  • Emmylou Harris: Common Ground in an Uncommon Love by Ali Berlow 
  • Barbara Mandrell: Lubbock in the Rearview Mirror by Shelby Morrison 
  • Tanya Tucker: Punk Country and Sex Wide Open by Holly Gleason 
  • Rita Coolidge: A Dark-Eyed Cherokee Country Gal by Kandia Crazy Horse 
  • Linda Ronstadt: Canciones de Corazon Salvaje by Grace Potter 
  • Rosanne Cash: Expectations and Letting Go by Deborah Sprague 
  • The Judds: Comfort Far from Home by Courtney E. Smith 
  • k.d. lang: Flawless, Fearless by Kelly McCartney 
  • Lucinda Williams: Flesh & Ghosts, Dreams + Marrow by Lady Goodman 
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter: Every Hometown Girl by Cynthia Sanz 
  • Patty Loveless: Beyond What You Know by Wendy Pearl 
  • Shania Twain: But the Little Girls Understand by Emily Yahr 
  • Alison Krauss: Draw Your Own Map by Aubrie Sellers 
  • Taylor Swift: Dancing on Her Own by Elysa Gardner 
  • Kacey Musgraves: Follow Your Arrow by Dacey Orr 
  • Rhiannon Giddens: A Gift Past the Songs by Caroline Randall Williams 
  • Patty Griffin: Remembering to Breathe by Kim Ruehl 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Hysterical!: Women in American Comedy wins the Popular Culture Association's Susan Koppelman Award

We are delighted to announce that Linda Mizejewski and Victoria Sturtevant's book Hysterical!: Women in American Comedy has won the Popular Culture Association's Susan Koppelman Award for the Best Anthology, Multi-Authored, or Edited Book in Feminist Studies in Popular and American Culture.

Ideal for classroom use, Hysterical! is an anthology of original essays by the leading authorities on women’s comedy. The book surveys the disorderly, subversive, and unruly
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performances of women comics from silent film to contemporary multimedia.

Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee, Mindy Kaling, Melissa McCarthy, Tig Notaro, Leslie Jones, and a host of hilarious peers are killing it nightly on American stages and screens large and small, smashing the tired stereotype that women aren’t funny. But today’s funny women aren’t a new phenomenon—they have generations of hysterically funny foremothers. Fay Tincher’s daredevil stunts, Mae West’s linebacker walk, Lucille Ball’s manic slapstick, Carol Burnett’s athletic pratfalls, Ellen DeGeneres’s tomboy pranks, Whoopi Goldberg’s sly twinkle, and Tina Fey’s acerbic wit all paved the way for contemporary unruly women, whose comedy upends the norms and ideals of women’s bodies and behaviors.

Hysterical!: Women in American Comedy delivers a lively survey of women comics from the stars of the silent cinema up through the multimedia presences of Tina Fey and Lena Dunham. This anthology of original essays includes contributions by the field’s leading authorities, introducing a new framework for women’s comedy that analyzes the implications of hysterical laughter and hysterically funny performances. Expanding on previous studies of comedians such as Mae West, Moms Mabley, and Margaret Cho, and offering the first scholarly work on comedy pioneers Mabel Normand, Fay Tincher, and Carol Burnett, the contributors explore such topics as racial/ethnic/sexual identity, celebrity, stardom, censorship, auteurism, cuteness, and postfeminism across multiple media. Situated within the main currents of gender and queer studies, as well as American studies and feminist media scholarship, Hysterical! masterfully demonstrates that hysteria—women acting out and acting up—is a provocative, empowering model for women’s comedy.

About the Popular Culture Association

The Popular Culture Association was founded by scholars who believed the American Studies Association was too committed to the then existing canon of literary writers such as Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman. They believed that the American Studies Association had lost its holistic approach to cultural studies; there was little room, as they saw it, for the study of material culture, popular music, movies, and comics.

To remedy this situation, Professors Ray Browne (Bowling Green State University) and Russell Nye (Michigan State University) started an organization that would be open to more subjects and forms of cultural studies. The Association’s first meeting was in East Lansing, Michigan at Michigan State University in 1971. Aiding the efforts of Browne and Nye were early pioneers such as Jane Bakerman, Carl Bode, Pat Browne, John G. Cawelti, George N. Dove, Marshall W. Fishwick, M. Thomas Inge, Susan Koppelman, Peter C. Rollins, Fred E. H. Schroeder, Emily Toth, Tom Towers, Daniel Walden, and many others.

In 1979, the American Culture Association became a partner in the study of Popular Culture and the two organizations have held joint conferences since that time. Under the tutelage of Ray Browne, the organization grew. The national conference has over 2,000 participants. Moreover, the organization has seven regional organizations: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South, Midwest, Far West, Southwest/Texas, and Oceanic. The regional organizations range in size from 200 to 1,000 participants. The PCA is closely affiliated with four international popular culture organizations in Australia/New Zealand, East Asia, Canada, and Europe. PCA also supports two prestigious, peer-reviewed journals—The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of American Culture—and maintains an international organization that meets in the summer of odd numbered years.

In 2003, Ray and Pat Browne stepped down as the leaders of the PCA after many years of building and nurturing the organization. Today, the PCA continues to nurture the study of popular and American culture, champion new and established scholars in both their research and teaching, and support the publication of its two prestigious, peer-reviewed journals, The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of American Culture.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Geoff Dyer at the New Austin Central Library

This Wednesday evening, award-winning writer and novelist Geoff Dyer will be in conversation with filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer at the new central location of the Austin Public Library. Geoff Dyer penned one-hundred original mini-essays engaging a masterfully curated selection of photographs to produce the new book The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand. Dyer's book was highlighted as an editor’s choice in the New York Times and reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of BooksSasha Waters Freyer premiered her feature-
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length documentary film, Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable, at this year's SXSW film festival. Join us in celebrating the stunning new library and enjoy Geoff Dyer discussing Winogrand images drawn from his essays and 
Sasha Waters Freyer presenting excerpts from her award-winning documentary. 

Photography, Film & Conversation with Geoff Dyer & Sasha Waters Freyer
Wednesday, May 16th at 7pm
Austin Public Library, Central

In conjunction with the Austin Public Library and the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation

Garry Winogrand was one of the most important photographers of the 1960’s and 1970’s—along with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. Decades before digital technology transformed how we produce and consume images, Winogrand made hundreds of thousands of photos with his 35mm Leica. His “snapshot aesthetic” captured a portrait of America from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, the New York City of Mad Men and the early years of the Women’s Movement. When Winogrand died suddenly at age 56 in 1984, Winogrand left behind more than 10,000 rolls of film. With so many unseen images, it has taken until now for the full measure of his artistic legacy to emerge. Sasha Waters Freyer's film depicts a larger-than-life American artist, full of contradictions and totally unresolved. Watch the trailer for the documentary here.

Take a virtual tour of the new downtown location of the Austin Public Library here, where readers can enjoy reading porches overlooking Shoal Creek and Lady Bird Lake, and a rooftop garden with the largest solar installation in downtown Austin. Co-designed by San Antonio architecture firm Lake | Flato Architects (check out our book Lake Flato Houses: Embracing the Landscape), the library also features a wonderful piece of public art, “Caw” by artist Christian Moeller, a grackle-inspired, 37-foot-tall kinetic sculpture with an LED screen.


Dyer’s many books include The Ongoing Moment (winner of the International Center of Photography’s prestigious Infinity Award for Writing/Criticism), But Beautiful (winner of the Somerset Maugham Prize), Out of Sheer Rage (shortlisted for a National Book Critics Circle Award), The Missing of the Somme, the novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and the essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award). His latest book is White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World. A recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, the E. M. Forster Prize and, most recently, the Windham-Campbell Prize for nonfiction, Dyer is an honorary fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford; a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books have been translated into twenty-four languages. Dyer is currently writer-in-residence at the University of Southern California.


Sasha Waters Freyer creates nonfiction films about outsiders, misfits, and everyday radicals. Trained in photography and the documentary tradition, she fuses original and found footage in 16mm film and video. Past projects have screened at the Telluride Film Festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the film festivals in Rotterdam, Tribeca, Big Sky, Havana, Videoex, and Ann Arbor, IMAGES in Toronto, the National Museum for Women in the Arts, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, Union Docs, the Pacific Film Archive, L.A. Film Forum, and Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin, as well as the Sundance Channel and international cable and public television. She is the Chair of the Department of Photography + Film at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Velvet Light Trap Call for Papers

Call for Papers
The Velvet Light Trap Issue #84: "The 1990s: A Decade of Change"

The internet. Blockbuster Video. Broadcast deregulation. New Queer Cinema. The rise of 
fandom and video game studies. In numerous ways, the 1990s served as an important decade of change for the media and media studies landscape. In industrial terms, the Telecom Act of 1996 helped to drastically change US television ownership rules, while the GATT negotiations of the early 90s helped shape international approaches to film. Technologically, the decade saw the explosive rise of the internet and digital technologies such as CGI, as well as the popularity of a variety of Japanese electronics (the Nintendo Game Boy, the Sony PlayStation and Discman) around the world. In terms of production, the film industry experienced the growth of both smaller-scale movements (Miramax and the mainstreaming of “independent” cinema, New Queer Cinema and the increased visibility of other non-hegemonic groups in film) and larger ones (the blockbuster successes of films such as Titanic and the “Disney renaissance” in animation), while the continued growth and fragmentation of cable channels provided a wider range of potential show types, perspectives, and markets.

These changes continue to shape media production and industries today. While many discuss the nostalgia boom for 1980s popular media and popular culture that continues to manifest itself in works such as Stranger Things and It, the 1990s have likewise been undergoing their own boom. From reboots of 1990s TV staples such as Roseanne and Clarissa Explains It All to TV adaptations of 90s films such as Fargo, and from popular film reboots and reimaginings (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Power Rangers) to the continued popularity of key 90s video game franchises (Pokemon, Tomb Raider), the last decade of the twentieth century continues to exert a strong, growing influence on the contemporary landscape.

As we witness these new perspectives on the 1990s, a decade defined in large part by the array of new perspectives it provided for media authors, audiences, and industries, how can we better understand the impact of this decade on today's media and cultural landscape? Are there key moments or issues from the 1990s that have had an especially prominent legacy? Are there underaddressed areas of research that can shed more light on both the 1990s and their role today? For our upcoming issue, we are looking for scholarship that considers a variety of issues relating to the 1990s as a decade of change. Although an entire decade provides for a broad topic range, potential topics could include (but are by no means limited to):

  • The history and legacy of media (de)regulation in the 90s (the Telecom Act of 1996, the end of fin-syn, GATT/NAFTA trade agreements, etc.)
  • The rise and legacy of 1990s superhero media
  • The rise and legacy of queer media in the 90s
  • Changing audiences and audience theorizations in the 90s
  • Digital communications in the 90s and the altering of audience dynamics
  • Trends in 90s children’s toys and merchandising (Tamagotchi, Furby, Beanie Babies, etc.)
  • Domestic and international changes in film exhibition in the 90s
  • The rise and popularity of soundtrack albums in the 90s
  • Adult animation in the 90s (The Simpsons, South Park, Beavis and Butthead, etc.)
  • The role of the 24 hour news cycle in the 90s
  • The importance of film festivals in the 90s (Sundance, the circulation of international art cinema, etc.)
  • Key pop music developments in the 90s (grunge, Britpop, gangsta rap, boy/girl groups, etc.)
  • Major 90s international art cinema movements (Iranian, Taiwanese, Dogme 95, etc.)
  • The international prominence of star athletes and related media in the 90s (Olympic athletes, commercials, Michael Jordan, Space Jam, etc.)

Submission Guidelines:

Submissions should be between 6,000– 7,500 words (approximately 20-25 pages double-spaced), formatted in Chicago style. Please submit an electronic copy of the paper, along with a one-page abstract (no more than 100 words), both saved as Microsoft Word files. While images are not required for submissions, if your submission includes images, please ensure that they are high resolution and included as an image file separate from your Word files. Remove any identifying information so that the submission is suitable for anonymous review. The journal’s Editorial Board will referee all submissions. Send electronic manuscripts and/or any questions to All submissions are due July 31, 2018.

About the Journal:

The Velvet Light Trap is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal of film, television, and new media studies. Graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Texas-Austin coordinate issues in alternation. Our Editorial Advisory Board includes such notable scholars as Hector Amaya, Ben Aslinger, Miranda Banks, Caetlin Benson-Allott, Mark Betz, Michael Curtin, Kay Dickinson, Lisa Dombrowski, Daniel Herbert, Lucas Hilderbrand, Debra Jaramillo, Roberta Pearson, Debra Ramsay, Avi Santo, Jacob Smith, Jonathan Sterne. VLT's graduate student editors are assisted by their local faculty advisors: Mary Beltrán, Ben Brewster, Jonathan Gray, Lea Jacobs, Derek Johnson, Jeremy Morris, Shanti Kumar, Charles Ramírez Berg, Thomas Schatz, and Janet Staiger.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Q&A with Diana Mafe on Black Women in Speculative Film & TV

This week, the highly-anticipated Black Panther adaptation hits theaters. To celebrate this historic production and Black History Month, we talked to author Diana Adesola Mafe about her new book Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV.

When Lieutenant Uhura took her place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek, the actress Nichelle Nichols went where no African American woman had ever gone before. Yet several decades passed before many other black women began playing significant roles in speculative (i.e., science fiction, fantasy, and horror) film and television—a troubling omission, given that these genres offer significant opportunities for reinventing social constructs such as race, gender, and class. Challenging cinema’s history of stereotyping or erasing black women on-screen, Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before
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showcases twenty-first-century examples that portray them as central figures of action and agency. We asked the author about her research.

CBS's new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery (2017–present), casts a black woman as the lead. Have you followed critical and popular reaction to that character?

I’ve followed reactions to the show in general and the black female lead, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), in particular. When the trailer was first released, there was some racist and sexist backlash from viewers who had a knee-jerk reaction to two women of color in lead roles—and that was before the first episode had even aired. Now, the first season has concluded, and critics and fans can take a more complete and, hopefully, measured view.

Simply in terms of television history, the show is special. No other deep space TV series has ever cast a black woman as the protagonist, which is something I address in the book. I look at examples like Firefly (2002–2003) and Doctor Who (2005–present), which are shows with complex black female characters. But those shows do not take the leap that Star Trek: Discovery has by making the black female character the hero. If Discovery had been released a little sooner (before I finished the book), I would have included it as a vital television case study. The show may have its failings in terms of plot, continuity, writing, and so on. But its significance in the context of race and gender representation in American television still stands.

Do you have any other favorite black female characters subverting stereotypes of black femininity?

I have to mention my favorite black female comic book character, Agent 355, from the series Y: The Last Man (2002–2008). I’ve written on this character elsewhere (African American Review Vol. 48), and I think she deserves to be spotlighted here, as well. Suffice it to say that she is one of the most original black female characters I have ever come across in a comic book universe. Part of her subversiveness lies in the fact that she is the definitive hero of the series despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I argue that the series is really a brilliant example of trompe l’oeil, meaning that none of the characters are what they seem to be. There has been talk over the years of adapting the series for either film or television. And I heard recently that FX might be turning the series into a show. I’m eager to see how 355 would translate to the small screen and if a television adaptation will do justice to her character.

I love that you examine Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Is it that much more impactful to have this character be young, black, and living in poverty in the South?

Hushpuppy certainly provides a different perspective—she is the only child protagonist I discuss in the book. And she adds another layer to the notion of black female erasure and marginalization precisely because she is a young girl living in poverty in the South. If black women are rare in speculative film and television, then black girls are all but invisible. So, the impact factor of this case study is very different. Hushpuppy does not have the same kind of visual agency as the machete-wielding Selena from 28 Days Later (2002) or the mountain-climbing Lex from AVP (2004), but she is no less subversive than these adult counterparts. Her agency lies in reclamation, whether of the cinematic gaze, of narrative voice, or of her lost mother. 

Why do you think psychoanalysis particularly works for this project?

Psychoanalysis has been foundational to film theory for decades. Although it has its sceptics, and some might argue that it has become less relevant with time and technology, I think it can lead to provocative analysis. For genres like horror and SF, which give visual form to our deepest social fears and our deepest social desires, psychoanalysis can be an especially powerful and creative lens. For example, the film AVP imagines racialized and gendered monstrosities in the Aliens and the Predators. The film Children of Men (2006) explores infertility and circles around the question of impotence by way of phallic imagery. Psychoanalysis is a useful tool for engaging with these layers of meaning, which often lie just beneath the surface.

Did anything surprise you over the course of your research?

When I began this project, I was acutely aware of the absence and erasure of black female characters in speculative film and television. In terms of a trajectory or timeline, one tends to begin with Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and then struggle a little bit to think of other key examples. Part of the fun of the research was seeing who else was out there. Although I could list other characters off the top of my head (Lisa in The Omega Man, Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Mace in Strange Days, and so on), I also had certain parameters. I wanted to focus on new millennial examples, and I wanted the characters to be more than just sidekicks or blatant stereotypes. And my research has yielded a range of compelling new millennial black female characters. I was pleasantly surprised by the rich and subversive portrayals that I was able to find by way of these twenty-first-century American and British case studies. Although there is a long way to go in terms of black female representation, both in front of and behind the camera, it was rewarding for me as a researcher and a woman of color to explore the complex roles that do exist.

You have made a deliberate effort to pinpoint “the most compelling and critically complex examples of black female characters in new millennial British and American speculative film and television.” Did you have some favorite roles that you had to cut in service of this project?

Definitely. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009) was one of my initial television case studies—I was going to focus on the character Dee (Kandyse McClure). But in the end, I decided to write just one television chapter and, for that reason, had to limit the number of shows I could discuss. I would have loved to also include Michonne (Danai Gurira) from The Walking Dead (2010–present) and Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) from Westworld (2016–present). For the film case studies, I had an easier time choosing my examples. I did not include the new Star Trek or X-Men films, even though I appreciate the relevance of the “new” Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Storm (Halle Berry). But these black female characters were not quite central or nuanced enough in their respective universes to merit inclusion. I was also going to cut AVP from the project because I was not convinced that the film was strong enough as a case study. Yet it turned out to have some very subversive elements by way of its black female hero, and it became one of my primary cinematic examples. In the end, these decisions are subjective. The fact that there were enough examples for me to work with, and that I had to cut some in service of the project, is a good sign. It means that there are more black women in speculative film and TV than we might initially think and that there is more work to be done.

What expectations do you have for the new film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (2018)?

I first read this young adult novel when I was about eleven and have loved it ever since. So, I’m excited to see the new film adaptation, which portrays the Murry family as interracial, and Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the protagonist, as a child of color. Given my earlier point about the absence of black girls in speculative film and TV, this casting choice is important. How often do we get to see girls of color as protagonists doing amazing and fantastical things? How often is a black girl told, as per the trailer, that she is the only one who can stop the darkness and save the world? The cast also includes Oprah Winfrey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in major roles. The fact that this adaptation is directed by Ava DuVernay, one of the few black female directors in Hollywood, is also significant. The people behind the camera are just as (if not more) important to diversifying the film industry. I think the key thing here is that filmmakers are willing to imagine beloved characters from fiction—like a Meg Murry or a Hermione Granger—as any race or background.

Diana Mafe is an associate professor of English at Denison University. She is the author of Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature: Coloring Outside the (Black and White) Lines. Find her at

Friday, January 26, 2018

How Afghanistan Can Save Its Children

An hour and a half earlier, the New York Times tweeted the following:
In the wake of the latest act of violence in Afghanistan to make major headlines in the United States, we asked contributors to the book Children of Afghanistan: The Path to Peace to comment on the impact of this tragic story in American news media, what conditions are actually like for children in Afghanistan, and how the country's own brain trust is working to take back the country after decades of war. 
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First we will hear from Wahid Omar, an Afghan political refugee who has worked in Afghanistan since 2001 in project development, implementation, and feasibility studies, and as an educational advisor for the United Nations Development Program. Wahid's contribution to Children of Afghanistan, an essay titled "The Parakeet Boys: Performing Education in the Streets of Kabul," is a salute to the street children of Afghanistan, who—through the art of performing classical poetrypreserve their cultural heritage but also improve their literacy skills in the absence of structured education. He dreams of developing "the Parakeet School" where street children could have the opportunity to use and train easily domesticated birds to earn income on the streets while at the same time receiving a formal education. Wahid returned from Afghanistan two months ago and is frustrated by the lack of improvement in early childhood education.

Education in a War Zone

Wahid Omar

Students recite prayers in a makeshift outdoor classroom in the Wakhan Corridor, a mountainous region in northeastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from India and Pakistan. Northeastern Afghanistan, September 2, 2007. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
As I was walking toward a classroom full of children, I had the impression of watching a play. The entire four levels of the school had no windows, no walls; the classrooms could be seen from the outside. Pieces of metal and shattered glass were were the sad décor of the courtyard. I stopped in front of one classroom on the ground level and prepared my camera to take pictures. Inside, a teacher was questioning a child, who could not respond. Angrily, the teacher asked another child to slap the unresponsive one in the face. The teacher then asked again for the child to say the answer. This was Afghanistan in 2002 right after it was liberated from the Taliban.

With international aid pouring into the country, one would think that things might have changed dramatically for the better since then. Indeed, in the following years, millions of Afghan children gained access to schools, and parents began to see hope rising.

In 2017, fifteen years since I witnessed that scene in the classroom, my neighbor’s son was in primary school. He came back from school with a big bruise on his left eye and swelling hands. The Koran teacher had beaten him because he could not recite the holy book correctly. I decided to go to the school with my neighbor to file a complaint. When I entered the school, I saw that each teacher was walking with a stick, and the school director had a bat in his hand. It was a lost cause. In such situations, you wonder what happened to the millions of dollars spent by the international community on improving primary education.

The story of my neighbor’s son is a small symptom of much larger problems. Corruption, ghost teachers, outdated methods of teaching, lack of infrastructure, lack of quality teaching and credentialing, and poor leadership are all impediments toward a healthy system. Many children are dropping out because of poverty or unsafe conditions. Private schools are offering better education, at least on the surface. Nice uniforms and nice school minivans with the school logo are standard featurese in private schools, but the quality of teaching remains very poor. Private schools are only adding to the problem.

Many schools around the country, especially in eastern and southern Afghanistan, have closed because of insecurity and rising attacks by the Taliban. Thousands of boys and girls returned home with no hope to go back to school. The streets of Kabul are full of children begging for money or food. Many of them are becoming drug addicts, or are abused by employers, if they are lucky to find a job. In almost every shop in Afghanistan, there is a child apprentice who works under extremely poor conditions. Children are still abused physically and mentally.

Aid organizations are increasingly targets of terrorism, which does not improve the situation in any way. The recent attack in eastern Afghanistan against Save the Children is one example among many. For the Afghan people, hope is fading as the security situation has worsened in recent years. After three decades of wars and terrorism, how much longer can the Afghan people suffer?

It is certainly important to acknowledge that Afghans are fighting for progress and winning positive change. However, the truth is that overall conditions for children have not improved significantly. Significant progress has been made in higher education, but not in primary education. In fact, many donors have retracted their assistance to the Ministry of Education because of corruption. When the system is bad, children face the consequences the most.

A girl looks through the frosted window of a restaurant, hoping to get leftovers. She begs after school to help out her family. Kabul, January 13, 2002. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
Next we hear from Esther Hyneman, whose chapter in Children of Afghanistan is titled, “Children Who Live with Their Mothers in Prison.” While her essay describes a grim side of the Afghan family in crisis,* she writes urgently in response to the Save the Children attack about how tragic news like this may contribute to a "lost cause" mentality and negatively impact policy-making here in the United States.

How We See Afghanistan Matters

Esther Hyneman

I am in the process of making a documentary about progress in Afghanistan. Although the country has a long way to go, describing its shortcomings does more harm to the country than good. Americans get their ideas about Afghanistan from the media, which is addicted to the sensational and the negative. Recently, the New York Times published an article about a young girl who had spent all eleven years of her life in prison with her serial killer mother. It is a terrible story, but the article contained information that was slanted in an even more negative way, making it almost dishonest. It failed to explain that this was an unusual case—or why it was unusual. The article claimed that there were more than one-thousand Afghan children living in prisons with their mothers. In fact, most children over five years old are removed from prisons and put in Children's Support Centersresident and educational centersrun by Women for Afghan Women (WAW).

A few weeks after this upsetting New York Times piece was published, the reporter Rod Nordland published a second article that describes the children's support centers that were omitted from his original story. However, I would argue that the first article did significant damage. In fact, he called the Children's Support Centersa name WAW chose very carefullyorphanages.

I am so upset about how the media writes about Afghanistan that I am in the process of making a documentary on progress in that country. Watch the documentary trailer here. How many Americans are aware that there are highly capable, intelligent, and thoughtful Afghans dedicating their lives to solving their country's problems. 
I don't believe in lying about Afghanistan's problems, but writing about the current situation as if nothing positive is happening isn't exactly the truth.

Finally, we hear from human rights activist Lauryn Oates, who agrees that media coverage in the West greatly skews stories from Afghanistan and affirms stereotypes. She writes,

We shouldn’t see everything through rose-coloured glasses, but we can’t frame it as all doom and gloom or people will give up and check out. At Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan we have aimed to do that here. We acknowledge that progress has been made, but we also point out that persistent problems prevent further progress. It is a call to action. It is a reason to raise the rallying cry and work harder. I think that’s the key message those of us who care so much about Afghanistan need to get across.

Educating for Peace 

Lauryn Oates

In Afghanistan, violence is so common as to have literally become a part of day-to-day life. For the past decade, I have begun every single day by opening my email and reading through security incident reports for areas of the country where my organization is working. Some days there are 50 alerts, some days 20, but usually not less than five on any given day. The violence doesn’t pause for holidays or weekends. It happens mornings, afternoons, evenings and nights. It happens on the street, in stores, in restaurants, at home, at work, in the city, in the countryside. There are robberies, bombs, grenades, rocket attacks, small arms fire, kidnappings, attempted kidnappings, vehicle hijackings, and threats. Every day, lives are stolen: women, men, and children who are walking, dreaming, breathing people one moment, and gone the next. In the language of a report, they are reduced to the language where they can be categorized: casualties, killed, critical condition, injured, missing. There is no getting around it: eventually it numbs you. I skim them, read the aggregated data to look for patterns and changes in the areas where we work, file them away, and move on to the next task on my desk.

However, as the Japanese Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa wrote after the death of his infant daughter,

This dewdrop world—
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet . . .
As a Buddhist, Issa was expected to strive for detachment from the material world. Death should be taken in stride, and not detract too much from meditating toward thoughts of nothingness. But his small daughter was dead, and the mourning crept over him. One cannot help but grieve.

Mahbooba stands against a bullet-ridden wall, waiting to be seen at a medical clinic. The seven-year-old girl suffers from leishmaniasis, a parasitical infection. Kabul, March 1, 2002. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
In this same way, sometimes an “incident” cuts through the numbness, and gives pause. Such was this week’s attack on Save the Children's office in Jalalabad, in which four staff were killed and several others injured. Perhaps this reflection stems from working in the same sectoral space as them in the education field in the country, perhaps it is the organization's decades long track record of work in Afghanistan, or perhaps it is from recognizing the cowardice of attacking an organization that works explicitly to serve the youngest and most vulnerable of society. By attacking those who try to lift up the children of Afghanistan to a better life, this is also an attack on the future of the country—and its best prospects for an eventual peace.

Afghanistan is one of the world’s youngest countries demographically, with the majority of the population aged under 25 years. Its youthful population is the source of both its woes and hope. It is a younger population—thirsty for education, opportunity, and jobs—who are a potential destabilizer as they now finish high school in droves but do not always find a place in the country’s competitive public higher education system, or cannot secure a viable livelihood, especially in the countryside. As a result, many of them are migrating, both within the country and from it, with some not surviving the perilous journey across an ocean, and others arriving with the clothing on their back, having given everything they had to smugglers. High fertility rates mean many families have more mouths than they can feed, pushing children into child labour, and girls into early, forced marriage. On the other hand, this unsettled, kinetic population of youth are also the people driving change in the country. They are changing the face of government, they are connecting their country to the outside world through technology and entrepreneurship, they are stimulating an exciting new era of music and entertainment. In Afghanistan, you will find children skateboarding, running their own circus, and generally beating the odds, as they excel in their educations, rising above their lot in life and making it.

More children go to school today than at any other time in Afghanistan’s history. They are sitting at the helm of a dramatic, profound, and irreversible transformation. One thing I’ve learned in working in literacy education is that literacy is intergenerational: literate parents do not raise illiterate children. So, every child who acquires an education represents future descendants who will be educated, too. These kids who have made it to a classroom—amidst violence, poverty, and uncertainty—are the tide turners. They will midwife a very different society to come. They will teach, they will heal the sick, they will build, they will mediate, they will design, and they will plan. They will win, and they will end terrorism. They will reduce their country’s dependence on outsiders.

But first, for now, they need those outsiders. Organizations like Save the Children have given this powerful infusion that has allowed so many of these kids to rise above their circumstances. It is their relentless, dedicated work to the idea that kids everywhere deserve to be kids—to play, to learn, to survive—that has helped fuel this powerful antidote to violence that I think will eventually prevail in the country—allowing these children to take their country back from those who would seek to destroy it.

A grief hangs over me on this day thinking about the three staff and the volunteer working for Save the Children who lost their lives in a senseless act of violence for the crime of working on behalf of children. But over that grief towers my unbreakable hope in the future that Afghan kids will create, as well as my appreciation for those who have made it possible, like the Afghans and their international colleagues who work for Save the Children.

A woman in a white burqa enjoys an afternoon with her family feeding the white pigeons at the Blue Mosque. Mazar-e-Sharif, March 8, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
Wahid Omar was born in Kabul and left Afghanistan shortly before the Soviet invasion in 1979. He lived in France as a political refugee until 1987 and received his PhD from the University of Colorado in 2010. He has worked in Afghanistan since 2001 in project development, implementation, and feasibility studies, and as an educational advisor for the United Nations Development Program, training university professors and building capacity at the University of Kabul. Under his leadership, forty-five projects have been implemented, ranging from school and community centers, teacher training, water improvement projects, and microlending to humanitarian aid and relief efforts. He has won many awards for his teaching and writing, and his work in collecting and preserving Afghan folklore has garnered the attention of the Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of Afghanistan: A Nation in Performance—A Comparative Study between Medieval France and Contemporary Afghanistan.

Esther Hyneman is a professor emeritus of English at Long Island University. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA and PhD from Columbia University. She often spends about six months a year in Afghanistan.

Lauryn Oates is a human rights activist focused on education in conflict zones. It was in 1996 that, at age 14, Lauryn read a newspaper article describing the new regime in Afghanistan called the Taliban, and their treatment of women and girls. She wrote up a petition demanding that the world respond to the Taliban’s misogynist policies, and has continued this work ever since, working in close partnership with a variety of Afghan women’s organizations and international charities. Lauryn is currently Programs Director with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, managing education projects including teacher training, village libraries, literacy classes, schools and training programs. Lauryn is a fierce proponent of the universalism of human rights, and frequently speaks out against cultural relativism and for global citizenship in the Canadian and international media. She is the recipient of several awards and distinctions, including a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal awarded by the province of BC in 2013. She holds a BA in international development (McGill University), an MA in human security (Royal Roads University) and a PhD in education (University of British Columbia), and teaches graduate students at the School of Humanitarian Studies at Royal Roads University. In 2008, The Globe & Mail named Lauryn as the first of Ten Canadians to Watch in 2009.

* In 2008, it was estimated that 226 children in Afghanistan were living with their incarcerated mothers, while at about the same period, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that two hundred children were being held with their parents at one immigrant prison in the United States. 
Child Rights International Network, “Afghanistan: Children in Prison with Mothers,” Associated Press, August 4, 2008,, and “ACLU Challenges Illegal Detention of Immigrant Children Held in Prison-Like Conditions,” American Civil Liberties Union, March 6, 2007, Of interest: Rickie Solinger, Paula C. Johnson, Martha L. Raimon, Tina Reynolds, and Ruby C. Tapia, eds., Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).