My Women of the World Festival Melbourne Opening Talk: ‘3 Priorities’

I had a ball tonight delivering this little speech at Women of the World Festival Melbourne Opening (invite only). Was honoured to present alongside MzRizk, Katrina Sedgwick, Aseel Tayah, Inez Martorell, and Heather Horrocks. We were each asked to respond to this in 5 minutes: “As a woman of the world what are your top 3 priorities?” And end with “as a woman of the world, my dream for our future is…”. I love how different our responses were from each other! And that in delivering my own, I actually found a whole new group of comrades who vibed with what I said 🙂

Much thanks to Tammy Anderson for being our charismatic MC for the evening, Karen Jackson for a beautiful Acknowledgement of Country, the West Papuan Black Sistaz for bringing the music, and to Producer Alia Gabres for inviting me to share my thoughts!

 

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SO. When I received the brief for this talk today, it sounded pretty simple … until I remembered how HUGE and complex the world is, how MANY women there are in it, and how diverse our world views and lived experiences are.

Because of this, I feel the need to preface my 3 priorities by stating clearly that I am a Black Pacific Islander, immigrant citizen of a white settler colony. THAT IS THE LENS through which I see the world.

When I think of diversity feminism, because of the hugeness of the world, I tend to focus on what I know and what I can shape – and that is the societies of white settler colonies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States.

These nation-states have similar histories in terms of genocidal settler violence against indigenous peoples, slavery or coerced labour, waves of white migration, waves of persistent opposition to NON-white migration, and internal histories of struggle to extend civil and human rights to various groups within them – struggles that continue today.

Bearing this in mind, here are my 3 priorities as a woman of the world.

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Priority Number One. Think Globally.

I had the good fortune this year of meeting my hero, scholar, activist and feminist Angela Davis. One of many things I admire about Angela, is her ability to see the connections between social justice and environmental struggles in different parts of the globe; and how they ALL connect to the global economic system, and the decadence of the industrialised world. Corporatism. The profit motive.

Fundamentally, I know that this is CRUCIAL to understand. So my NUMBER ONE lifelong priority is to educate myself, and then others, on these global interconnections. That understanding enables cross border solidarity, strategizing, and collective action, for the liberation of humankind including womankind.

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Priority Number Two. Act intersectionally, locally.

This one is actually a little bit easier for me to get than most; mainly because my own lived experience is extremely intersectional. I’m Black. I’m a Black Woman. I’m a Black disabled woman who lives with a mental illness. And I am on a very low income.

On a weekly basis, I come up against the intersections of various types of marginalization I experience because of structural discrimination against me.

There are a range of structural -isms and phobias built into our colonies’ foundations that INTERSECT to make some people’s lives much harder than they should be. Whilst most women will face sexism and misogyny, focusing only on those issues fails to take into account those other systemic barriers that people who are not part of the power structure, also face: racism, colorism, homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, classism, ageism, to name a few.

Then there is the fact that indigenous Australians – like indigenous peoples in other white settler colonies whose sovereignty has never been ceded – contend with pervasive and deep rooted racism, the intergenerational effects of genocidal actions taken by colonisers over centuries, and present day settler violence against indigenous communities and bodies.

Add to that the plight of the truly vulnerable stateless people, asylum seekers and refugees, who are dealt appalling carceral punishments for committing the supposed crime of seeking asylum and a future on our imperfect but safer shores.

For any woman of the world truly concerned with social justice and liberation, prioritizing the ability to think INTERSECTIONALLY and align our social justice organizing with that vision, is essential.

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Priority Number Three. Make ethical consumer and political choices.

We live in a country that is one of the beneficiaries of the global capitalist system, which relies on the exploitation of whole countries and regions, people, natural resources and animals to create products that all of us who have forgotten how to live in harmony with nature, choose to consume. Those choices maintain demand for products. None of us, therefore, are untainted by the injustice built into the system that we are born into. My phone, for example, was created in part with elements exploitatively mined from the Congo and made by workers under indefensible conditions in China.

I am a writer and also a person with a disability; I need technology to work and live, so giving up the phone is not a choice I can make anytime soon. But there are myriad choices we as consumers living in the West make all the time, particularly if you have disposable income.

So my priority going forward is to make sure that my choices, as much as possible, are made consciously. By that I mean, I want to know where my stuff was made, who made it and under what conditions, and what it was made out of. As much as possible, I want to make ethical and educated choices.

And speaking of that, I haven’t yet mentioned the democratic system. Here again, choices must be made, not only at elections, but at all times between them. I want to choose to stay engaged with what is happening in politics on all levels, to remain ACTIVE and support the people and political collectives who champion the values I hold dear, and policies I know to be best for the implementation of those values. If Trump’s ascension to the presidency has taught us anything, it is to stay awake, engaged, and ACTIVE — over 90 million people eligible to vote did not do so, in the recent U.S election.

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To conclude, as a woman of the world, my dream for our future is that we start recognising that DIVERSITY IS REALITY, globally and locally. And that we work hard together to create a world where diverse peoples, diverse women, can live free of structural exploitation, oppression and marginalization.

Thank you.


I will live the life of my dreams… in *this* body.

[sorry this post is a few days late – I’ve been having issues with my wordpress admin page]

 

This post is about living, loving, and joyfully navigating the world in a body that may be culturally stigmatised, socially marginalised, and structurally discriminated against. I experience the pleasure, the privilege of insights, and sometimes the pain of inhabiting one of those bodies.

Because when your body is the target of discrimination, it is a challenge to not internalise some of the nonsense that is directed at you by others. Even when you are a strong individual who powers yourself from within – which I am (most of the time). I re-listened to a podcast earlier this week, that reminded me of the importance of body acceptance work – for people whose experiences moving through the world are coloured by other people’s prejudices against their “different” bodies.

The podcast was Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour, Episode 2. In it, Girls star Aidy Bryant shares what it is like to be an actress happily living in an overweight body. Ethiopian writer Hannah Giorgis discusses the politics, style and magical bonding that connects Black women who embrace their (often stigmatised) natural afro locks. Young musician Mindie Lind, who has no legs and rides around on a skateboard, explains how being a “crip” is a daily creative process (a brilliant description), and talks about being the object of sexual desire.

Episode 2 also features writer, TV presenter and activist Janet Mock, answering questions about her experiences of being a transgender woman of colour; plus filmmaker/writer Rachel Fleit, who has alopecia, sharing truly beautiful insights from her journey of “coming out” as a bald woman. Rachel says the way she handles people’s weird reactions to her baldness, completely depends upon what she calls her “spiritual fitness” on that day – something that really resonated with me, in general.

In fact, aspects of the experiences of all of these women resonated with me: Aidy’s carefree joy in her body and positive professional experiences within it, despite the rampant discrimination people often warn her about; Hannah’s bonding with her Black girl friends over hair and politics; Mindie’s sense of both power and vulnerability regarding her sexual life, and the creative adaptability that being a “crip” necessitates; and Janet’s simple desire for reciprocal love – a loving, public, respectful and equal partnership.

To me, the experiences shared in the episode highlight how people who inhabit bodies that are socially marginalised, often need to develop – through persistent, loving, self-acceptance work – a confidence in themselves and their being that can withstand and transcend the dumb shit they will encounter in the world. The late poet and disability rights activist Laura Hershey wrote: “Remember, you weren’t the one who made you ashamed, but you are the one who can make you proud […] you get proud by practicing”. For me, this simply means to continuously embrace and love your body.

I am practicing doing that again. In my previous post I wrote about how I am in the process of gaining my physical strength back after recovering from PTSD – integrating a new health and exercise routine into my daily life. At the age of 31, I am closer than I have ever been to realising a permanent, unconditional love for my body, that transcends all the harmful false beliefs I have allowed to exist within me in the past – all of which were internalised from negative experiences in the world, related to the way my body has been accepted (or rather, not accepted) by others.

These experiences started from the age of three. This is the age I was when I first experienced racism. A Japanese girl (funnily enough) at my pre-school told me at length and in great detail (quite alarming, given her age) why my Melanesian body – skin, hair, facial features – were ugly and not as lovely as people whose features were Asian or white. I was the kind of completely open-hearted child who believed everything the world told me at that age, so naturally, in that moment, I internalised it.

But it actually didn’t scar me too much, as I grew into a sensitive but confident child, with many a limerence-afflicted boy admirer and a healthy amount of affirmation from the people in my life. Nonetheless, the “bug” of that incident of racism was still embedded in my psyche, reinforced by the pro-white biased culture I was immersed in, and triggered whenever experiences of racism occurred. And when I say triggered, I am not talking about merely remembering the first experience – I am talking about feeling, in the moment, as inferior and uncomfortable in my body as vulnerable 3 year old me did in that pre-school playground.

I cannot pinpoint an exact moment when I started to “de-colonise” my mind, and completely purged it of the white/light supremacism that permeates much of the world. But I do know it had everything to do with connecting with other Black people who already had unburdened themselves of the bullshit. Since racism begins as body-based discrimination, the unburdening process naturally involves a positive reclamation of the body – specifically, of all the traits that white/light supremacism deems unacceptable. Going natural with my afro-curly hair in my mid 20s was not only an aesthetic choice; it was a political act. A freeing, personal expression of both my antiracism and my feminism.

Becoming sick at the age of 13 presented another psychological challenge to overcome – more layers of body dysmorphia, discomfort with my physical form. I was a naturally athletic and sporty child, so losing the ease I always felt in my body was a shock to my system. And, just as my unconscious discomfort with my Melanesian features owed completely to the experience of being immersed in cultural white/light supremacism, my discomfort with the effects of illness (which in my awkward teens included scoliosis, scars and reduced muscle tone) owed largely to the unkindness of other people – and societal attitudes about “different” bodies.

Unburdening myself of that particular form of internalised -ism, happened strangely and miraculously when I became a paraplegic, at the age of 21. Given my medical history (the illness I battled in my early teens affected my spinal cord), becoming disabled was the one thing I was most afraid of. Ironically, though, I became healthier in the aftermath of that particular trauma. For the duration of the year after that life-changing event, I worked out every day, my skin glowed, my appetite improved and I felt extremely present (and, yes, fly as fuck) in my body… until I started full-time work in an office and no longer had time for it. Different story.

So here I am now, 10 years later, recovering from another extended period of trauma. Not only can challenging times in our lives seriously harm our physical and emotional health – they can also seriously damage the relationship we have with our bodies. For me, I think these last six years have really been marked by a desire to take care of and embrace mine… but an inability to do so consistently and effectively. The PTSD symptoms totally depleted me of the energy, stability, and clarity I require in order to be able to take care of myself as a disabled woman.

2016 for me is about giving myself that energy, stability, and clarity. I have designed my new health/body routine to ensure I am maximising the amount of vitality, gratitude and joy I feel within it. Because it is this amazingly resilient form – this Melanesian, disabled, female body – I will live my long, long life and dreams in. And it is by really, truly loving and caring for it – embracing everything the unconscious world around me signals in subtle and overt ways is unacceptable, every day – that I will be strong enough to make those dreams come true.

Just watch me 🙂


“Dating in a wheelchair: Your problem, not mine”

WWW.PHOTOGRAPHYBYALEXANDER.COM

ANNE THOMAS.  WWW.PHOTOGRAPHYBYALEXANDER.COM

I almost never read articles about dating as I don’t find them particular helpful, interesting or applicable to my own life. So many articles on dating discuss trends in online dating I have zero interest in, or discuss the “science” of game – offering grotesque or just plain dodgy advice on how to up your chances of landing a mate or securing a shag (and these aren’t just articles targeting men). No relationship I have ever embarked upon has ever started with “game”, or even effort, so those discussions repel me. The cynicism of it all… repels me.

But THIS article is actually pretty damn amazing.

Now 57, Anne Thomas was 18 when she became paralysed from the chest down – in the midst of an era of eugenics and widespread human rights abuses of disabled people. In this deeply honest piece, she discusses her experience of navigating her sexual and romantic life – and life in general – in the face of a fairly fucked up world that discouraged (and in many ways, continues to discourage) her from acknowledging or satiating a fundamental part of her humanity – the need for intimacy.

Dating in a wheelchair: Your problem, not mine

This article is an educational read for non-disabled people who want to enlighten themselves about diverse experiences.

Though Anne’s life is radically different from mine, I relate to many aspects of her experience – having to overcome ingrained fear of physical difference, coming to terms with your body, allowing others to know that body, dealing with stupid and rude questions about being disabled (sometimes from members of the medical profession), coming up against physical barriers, finding love but then experiencing social barriers (like unsupportive friends, family), unwanted attention from creeps/people who want to treat you badly… it goes on, and on.

I know of people who are transgender and gay who can relate to these experiences too. It is the experience of having a body and/or sexual orientation that is severely stigmatised by society, and trying to find the courage to live fully and openly in spite of it. In describing specific events in her own life, Anne touched on so many universal elements of that experience of stigma, and I just have to tip my hat to her for this refreshingly frank article.

Seriously. I relate to this passage so hard – about the tension of being physically vulnerable, exposed, completely engaged, but wanting to protect your emotions too:

“The man invited me for a drink. The only way out of the building for me was a metal wheelchair lift. I cringed as it clanged and banged on the way down. I felt like the Goddess of Thunder (not in a good way). Side by side, we made it to the sidewalk. It was hard for me to push the chair because of the cross slope for rain run off, but I didn’t want to ask for help and appear weak or needy. We talked until two in the morning and he never asked me anything about my disability. He didn’t see it, and it felt as if I’d known him forever. And yet years of rejection stopped me from showing him how much I liked him.”


…a Cindy Gallop production

“I consider myself a rampant feminist.”

Cindy Gallop

In my (2nd)last post, I mentioned Professor Gail Dines, a leading anti-porn activist and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, after her appearance on the ABC program Q&A. Dines claimed that porn is harmful, addictive, and shaping male and female sexuality in ways it never has before, thanks to the ubiquity of technology and porn’s “mainstreaming” into popular culture. Judging by the number of search referrals, many people are interested in the work and views of Dines – some because they agree, others because they vehemently disagree. Because of this I’ve been reading more about her views online, but am yet to read her book.

Another panellist on that episode of Q&A was Leslie Cannold, ethicist and author of The Book of Rachael. Cannold argued against Dines’ position, saying she did not believe that the “gonzo porn” that Dines referred to (which on the program she described as “violent porn”, but more broadly means point-of-view porn without a storyline), is mainstream at all. Cannold described this type of porn as fringe material. She said that trying to link the use of gonzo porn to violence or predatory behaviour is insulting to men, and warned against moral panic, urging the audience to focus not on pornography, but the underlying inequality and violence against women, which has existed for centuries.

My own views on porn sit somewhat between Cannold’s and Dines’, primarily because pornographic material is so diverse, and so perennial throughout human history. Moral outrage and über conservatism make me nervous. There are many types of pornography, and I reject the idea that they are all harmful (whatever you define “harmful” to be). Surely there are women and men of all sexual persuasions who are both consuming adult material and also maintaining functional, respectful, healthy relationships? Understanding the difference between fantasy, titillation, and real life?

The Porn Report

Was published in 2008. It is based on the three-year “Understanding Pornography in Australia” research project, funded by the Australian Research Council. The project involved a survey of a thousand Australian consumers of pornography, interviews with consumers and producers, and a detailed analysis of the fifty most popular DVD titles from the largest distributors (the first surveys were conducted in 2003. At the time, DVDs were still more popular than internet sites. This has obviously changed).

The surveys in 2003 found that one third of adults in Australia consume some form of adult material in any given year. Across most demographic categories, consumers of porn are more or less like the average Australian in terms of age, geographical location, voting preferences, religion, monogamous relationships, et cetera. About 80% of the consumers are male and about 20% are female.

One of the questions respondents were asked in the survey was whether or not they had ever seen anything that had distressed them in pornography. Most of the respondents were quite clear about what they found disturbing – anything that resembled forced sex, coercion, or performers who were clearly uncomfortable. There was a small minority of respondents who said they preferred that kind of material, which is a sub genre in porn. Generally though, says Katherine Albury, one of reports authors, sexual enthusiasm in both partners was favoured, and the absence of said enthusiasm would diminish a large part of the market. Respondents were also asked what they thought made for good porn. The second top answer? Genuine enthusiasm.

This is clearly not the kind of porn Dines is talking about in her activism. Unfortunately her blanket statements (particularly about men, which understandably annoy people), generalisations, and highly emotive and hyperbolic assertions about pornography tailored for time-limited media appearances and interviews detract from what I think is her most important point, at least to me – that the porn industry is just that – an industry, and an extremely lucrative one at that. Like any industry, their bottom line is profit$. Generally speaking, the industry does not exist to liberate sexual expression or our sexuality, or champion freedom/free speech, but to continually push products to a mainly male audience. To be concerned about the nature of some of those products, the accessibility of those products (particularly to children), and questioning their impact on the health of society at large doesn’t make one an “anti-sex” prude.

Porn and sex are seemingly interchangeable terms these days, but of course, they are not the same thing. You can be quite enthusiastic about the latter and not so enthusiastic about the former. Or kinds of the former.

That being said, 59% of consumers of pornography surveyed in the Understanding Pornography in Australia study thought that porn had had a positive effect on their attitudes towards sexuality. Eg. Making them feel more comfortable with their sexuality, making them more tolerant about other people’s differing sexual preferences, spicing up long term relationships, and fostering discussion between partners about what they did and did not like in their sex life.

All good things.

The study did bring up a few other facts that I find … noteworthy:

  • 58% of porn-using respondents described themselves as religious. That’s right, a majority. And most were able to articulate how they separated their taste for porn from their faith, or combined/reconciled the two.
  • The ABC was the top television station viewed by the porn users who responded to the survey(LOL!).
  • And respondents had a high level of education compared to the national average.

This is possibly because the survey was an extensive written survey.  Does this bring into question the accuracy of the study as a measure of the porn consumption habits of the broader nation?

The type of people who participated in the study self selected themselves for participation. This meant that they already felt comfortable with their porn usage and the material they were accessing, perhaps because they understood their viewing habits to be within the range deemed acceptable (as far as adult material is concerned). Still, the study did dispel some of the old stereotypes about who consumes adult material.

Make Love Not Porn

Now in regards to the distinction between porn and sex, this week I got an email from a reader (I know, shocking, a reader… I was genuinely alarmed) about my (2nd)last post and a website called makelovenotporn.com [18 years and over only].

I had a friend once lament that hardcore pornography was turning the young men she dated into aggressive, lousy lovers with ridiculous expectations of sex, the female body, and intimacy (verbatim). This site reminded me of her lament.

Cindy Gallop, the sites creator, is an entrepreneur with extensive advertising experience, and an older woman who dates younger men. Although a self-professed fan of hardcore pornography, Gallop is concerned with the way porn culture and hardcore skewers young men’s view of sex – those men for whom hardcore is their primary form of sex education from a young age. Why this concern? Because she’s encountered them in her own dating life.

The website is therefore meant to be informative and non-judgemental, by dispelling the myths of hardcore porn, balancing them with gentle doses of reality.  (It’s sad that those doses of reality might actually be revelations to some people, but there you go).

So…… perhaps EDUCATION (not necessarily in this format, but certainly not excluding it) is the best answer to the less savoury effects of porn culture that Gail Dines and people like her say exist, and campaign against?

You be the judge.

Cindy Gallop gave this brief presentation on Make Love Not Porn as part of Ted Talks in 2009. Warning: contains explicit language:


SLUT WALK, & THE ROLE OF THE WRITER

“A man’s mind is a jungle of horror”

– wonderful Man Booker Prize Winner Howard Jacobson, making me LAUGH OUT LOUD on Q&A.

Anyone who watched this weeks glorious, politician-free episode of Q&A on ABC TV would have heard a very interesting conversation around porn, male attitudes towards women, and feminism (as a feminist, I was intrigued). This particularly lengthy discussion focused on porn and it’s effects on society and male sexuality, with a passionate exchange between feminist anti-porn campaigner Professor Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, and a different kind of feminist Leslie Cannold, ethicist and author of The Book of Rachael. Whilst I agreed with Leslie’s stance of being against wowser outrage and the degradation of men, I actually thought both women had good points to make on this issue. Gail Dines did however argue at some point that women are not consumers of porn, which is frankly untrue. There’s no doubt that pornography has and is having an enormous effect on the culture, people’s attitudes and expectations of sex. This is possible because women do consume porn, either on their own volition, or because their partners do (I’m speaking generally not personally here. Whether I do or not is frankly none of your business). Moreover there are so many different kinds of porn. So I did question while watching the episode how much of what Gail stated was hyperbolic.

A member of the audience closed the pornography discussion with a question about personal responsibility, suggesting that holding the porn industry responsible for sexual violence against women is like saying that women who wear short skirts are asking to be raped.

Which brings me to the Slut Walk rally.

Originally conceived in Toronto, Canada, as a response to an ignorant comment made by a Police Officer to a university safety forum and then spread on social media (he suggested that women could avoid sexual assault by not dressing in a provocative manner… i.e. like “sluts”), other Slut Walk rallies have been held and are being planned, to protest against the attitude of victim-blaming and shaming that still persists in some corners of our society.

Upon receiving invitation I decided to tentatively support the underlying concept for three simple reasons:

1)   No matter what you wear or don’t wear, no one should feel they have the right to abuse or violate your body. PERIOD.

2)   The emphasis of the attitude of victim blaming is that a woman is responsible for not getting raped by dressing in an “appropriate” or modest fashion. We in the West criticise and judge other cultures who hold woman to be the vessels of shame. If we insist on doing so, we should not tolerate similar notions in our own society.  and

3)   I’ve always been annoyed at WOMEN in particular who use the term “slut” in a serious way to denigrate other women. Female competition is one root cause of this, and it disturbs me to no end. I’m therefore quite comfortable with the idea of reclaiming the word slut or de-stigmatising it.

Certainly there are situations that a person can get into that increase the likelihood that they will become a victim of sexual assault – this is an imperfect world. We all take precautions to ensure our own personal safety in a variety of scenarios and against all kinds of threats. But I think it’s important that we continually and vigilantly affirm that a person’s attire or sexual history is never a cause of or invitation to be violated.

I really don’t think we can say that enough.

Slut Walk certainly has its detractors though. And one of them is Professor Gail Dines.

Currently touring the country to promote her aforementioned book, Gail has argued that the name and concept of the rally reinforces stereotypes and plays into the hands of raunch culture – in essence, men (she says generally) want women to be sluts, and women – young women – are buying into it (perhaps without even knowing it):

“Young women today have two choices,” she said, “to be f—able or invisible. If the only choice is to be hypersexual, you cannot call it a meaningful choice. In the US, even women who read the news, even politicians have to be [sexy].”

She also argues that the people who hold the attitudes that have inspired the rallies don’t get the irony of its title.

I can appreciate her comments, and unlike some women I know in my age group, I do have respect for feminists of previous generations (I’d like to note that Gail took to task the women above who asked the final discussion question for apparently not appreciating the feminist movement, after she said “Why then aren’t you working on all of the factors[causing violence against women] and focussing only on pornography?” Gail responded: “There’s a wonderful feminist movement who is working on all of those things. I’m one person but I’m part of this glorious movement that changed the world, by the way, for you. You are here today thanks to the feminist movement so, yes, we are doing that.” Touche, madam).

Nonetheless, I still support the underlying spirit of the rallies.  For the reasons stated above.

Slut Walk in Melbourne (which I will probably not be attending – health, life is in the shitter right now) is due to take place this Saturday at 1pm at the State Library of Victoria.

Now, it would be great to see a similar rally in support of women with intellectual disabilities who are sexually assaulted in disturbing numbers at the hands of supposed caregivers… and see how many of my fellow sluts show up…

POST SCRIPT: This is a challenging and excellent critique of Slut Walk by The Referral, in two parts:

Not In My Name: Part I

Not In My Name: Part II (WARNING: she discusses her own experience of being raped).

———-

On a different note, I would like to thank the woman in the Q&A audience who asked this question:

“As authors, what responsibility do you think lies at the feet of the purveyors of popular culture to preserve and contribute to the health and moral fabric of our society?”

My favourite response, from Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham:

“My responsibility, and it is the single responsibility but an enormous one, is to write as deeply and completely as I can about what it’s like to be a person who is not you…

….I think part of what the novelist is here to do is to remind us that everybody is the hero of his or her own story. Part of what we’re here to do is to promote the empathy that is inevitable from somebody who reads enough fiction to go deeply enough into the lives of other people, which renders that reader, I like to think, much less likely to think it’s a good idea to bomb the fuck out of some other country. So it is inherently moral in that way.”

Word, Michael.