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Author finds room for queer inclusion in mythic African fantasy

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Author Marlon James (Photo courtesy CAP UCLA)

Marlon James didn’t start out wanting to be an epic fantasy writer.

His career as a novelist has been built on stories derived from the history of his birthplace, Jamaica, exploring the effects of religion, supernaturalism, sexuality, violence, and colonialism on the struggle to find a Jamaican identity in a post-colonial world. There have always been threads of allegory and surrealism woven into his work, to be sure – his first novel, “John Crow’s Devil,” was a politically provocative parable about the archetypal struggle between good and evil. As for epic, his third effort, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” was a sweeping (and scathing) political thriller that was awarded the prestigious UK Man Booker Prize for its depiction of several decades’ worth of social unrest, violence, intrigue, and instability through the voices of 12 separate narrators.

Even so, it was something of a surprise that his most recent work, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” published in early 2019, turned out to be a surreal, full-blown epic fantasy novel, derived from the folklore and mythology of ancient African culture and jokingly referred to by its author as “an African ‘Game of Thrones.” The joke may have been on him, in a good way, because the book (which he says is the first of a planned trilogy) has garnered raves from critics and fans as all that and more. In the words of New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, it’s “the literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe—filled with dizzying, magpie references to old movies and recent TV, ancient myths and classic comic books.”

James, who spoke with the Blade ahead of an appearance at UCLA on Thursday, February 27, can’t remember a specific inspiration that sparked his ambitious foray across genres – “It was so many years ago,” he says, somewhat incredulously – but he does recall early discussions with friends around the subject of Tolkein-esque fantasy epics in which he argued their irrelevance.

“’The Lord of the Rings,’” isn’t real,’” I would tell them. ‘You can do what you want with [those kinds of stories] – it doesn’t matter if a hobbit is Chinese, nobody cares.’”

Ironically enough, “Black Leopard” has been praised by no less a giant of fantasy literature than Neil Gaiman as containing “a fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made.” And James is now quick to point out that he’s not disrespecting Tolkien – indeed, he now gives lectures on the much-revered author, who created Middle Earth as a realm imagined from the heritage and folklore of its author’s own Germanic roots, partly to provide a gap he perceived in the mythic underpinnings of his family’s adopted homeland of Great Britain.

That’s something to which James can relate profoundly.

“When you’re a black person in diaspora, you don’t realize how big the gap is in that part of your life,” he tells the Blade. “Part of the emotional history of a people and of a country is their mythology, and to grow up without it, which I did, means I never had all of that.”

It was to fill that gap that James began a deep dive into African mythology and folklore. “Before I ever thought about writing a single word,” he says, “I was reading these books just to connect with my own cultural legacy, to fill that void which I didn’t even know was there.”

The book that grew out of that research has drawn praise for filling that void on a cultural level, by creating a gloriously non-traditional, unabashedly African point of intersection in a genre traditionally – and overwhelmingly – dominated by white, Euro, usually hetero male authors writing about themes and characters appealing to white, Euro, usually hetero male readers. Salman Rushdie (another literary lion) called it “a fabulist reimagining of Africa,” in a Time Magazine review, and Entertainment Weekly lauded its “astonishingly realized” precolonial setting that “crawls with creatures and erects kingdoms unlike any I’ve read.”

Another surprise of James’ novel, perhaps, is that its inclusion extends to the LGBTQ experience as well. There are “a number of queer characters” in “Black Leopard,” enough so that some commentators have suggested the author was layering a contemporary statement into his fantastical ancient world.

On the contrary, says James, “it was in going back to the mythologies and the histories that I found a far more open-minded view of African queerness than the present day would lead us to believe.”

Nevertheless, the importance of depicting queer existence in these fictional realms is not lost on James, who agrees that the LGBTQ community has long had to make a leap of mental transference in order to identify with the characters in the stories they were told in their favorite fiction.

He’s also heartened that, even in the short space of years that positive queer visibility has been rising in popular media, the representation is making a difference.

“You see in younger queer people, where there are some things they do take for granted which we didn’t, which I never could, certainly, and it’s kind of glorious.”

He tells a story about speaking recently at a college in Jamaica, where he was addressing a campus LGBTQ association. “I was prepared to give my whole ‘it gets better’ speech to these kids,” he says. “And they were like, ‘We don’t want to hear that bullshit, do you know Beyonce?’

“They refuse to be denied a childhood, they refuse to be denied the fun and the mess of just being a teenager and doing dumb crap.” He laughs, “Where the biggest issue is ‘do you buy Cardi B or do you buy Nicki Minaj?”

He continues, “There’s a validation you get from seeing yourself, and people like yourself, and seeing that from an early age. It’s one thing to watch ‘Queer As Folk’ when you’re 32, it must be a hell of a thing to watch it when you’re 16.”

Shifting to the subject of his upcoming book discussion at UCLA, he told us, “Sometimes when you are writing, you sit down at a desk, you’re pretty alone, and you have no idea what the impact of your work is. Events like this can be a reminder that I do write for an audience.

“We talk about things, we talk about fantasy, about writing the supernatural or the fantastical. And we talk about who gets to tell what story. Because when you write a fantasy novel, all of it is ‘other,’ all of it is foreign.”

“So, who should tell these stories,” he concludes, “when you’re writing anything, really?”

Marlon James will appear as the concluding event of CAP UCLA’s Words and Ideas series this season, at 8pm on February 27 at Glorya Kaufman Hall. For tickets, visit their website.

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Travel

July 4 travel woes in flight cancellations, record number Americans driving

A record number of Americans are expected to travel by car this upcoming July 4th holiday weekend, per the Triple A auto club

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Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – As the 4th of July weekend approaches, Americans getting underway to travel are facing heavy delays and cancellations amid staffing strains, weather, among other issues with U.S. air carriers.

On Friday according to tracking website FlightAware.com as of 7PM Pacific there were 27,544 total delays, domestic flight cancellations were 2,975 and international flight cancellations within, into, or out of the United States were 571.

(See the MiseryMap for a live visualization of flight delays.)

CNBC reported that consumer complaints are piling up. In April, the latest available data, the Transportation Department received 3,105 from travelers about U.S. airlines, up nearly 300% from April 2021, and at nearly double the rate during the same period last year.

The unprecedented number of airline cancelations and delays is causing travelers to choose to drive and fly. Delta, American Airlines and United are all trimming their schedules even further to accommodate staffing shortages, despite passenger levels hitting post-pandemic highs.

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have sparred over who’s to blame. Airlines chalk up the disruptions to bad weather, their staffing shortages and staffing problems at the government’s air traffic control.

Yesterday, the FAA’s acting Administrator Billy Nolen and other top agency officials held a call with airline executives to discuss weekend planning, including the agency’s use of overtime to staff its facilities, traffic and routing plans, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The call was in addition to regular planning meetings with airlines.

U. S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks with reporters on Zoom call about flight cancellations and expected delays this July 4th holiday weekend.

U. S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg: “It is time for the airline industry to deliver.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters Friday that, “passengers have high expectations from an industry that we have supported with tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer funding through the pandemic to keep it up and running so that it can serve passengers. Now we need them to deliver.”

Concerned about flight cancellation trends, Buttigieg said he has spoken directly with airlines.

“Something I’ve asked them to do so that if you’re selling a ticket, you know you can back that up, that you have the staffing to do it,” he added.

A record number of Americans are expected to travel by car this upcoming July 4th holiday weekend, per a new report from the Triple A auto club.

Screenshot/NBC News

Just in time for that Fourth of July travel, gas prices are continuing to drop from their record high points of two weeks ago as the Energy Information Administration reports that gasoline stockpiles across the country have increased, according to the Auto Club’s Weekend Gas Watch.

Since Monday, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline has decreased by four cents to $4.85.

Despite the highest 4th of July gas prices on record, 42 million Americans are driving this holiday.

Travelers Driving This 4th of July Weekend To Avoid Airport Chaos:

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Sports

Welsh Olympic distance swimmer Dan Jervis comes Out

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming at the Olympics in Tokyo said he was inspired by Blackpool FC soccer player Jake Daniels

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Dan Jervis (Screenshot via British Swimming Livestream-archive)

NEATH, Talbot County Borough, Wales – In a recent interview with BBC Radio Cornwall, 26-year-old British Olympian distance swimmer Dan Jervis revealed that he had given considerable thought before announcing to the world that he is gay.

Jervis told the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast; “I was adjusting to everything else, just trying to fit in — until I thought, Just be you.”

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming for the British team at the Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan, told the BBC he was inspired by 17-year-old Blackpool FC forward Jake Daniels, the professional soccer player who made history as only the second person in the past 30 years to acknowledge their sexual orientation publicly in that sport in the United Kingdom.

The swimmer also told the BBC it was important to be seen as a role model as he readies to compete in the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Jervis has previously competed winning a 1500m freestyle silver and bronze at the 2014 and 2018 Games in Glasgow, Scotland and Australia’s Gold Coast respectively.

“It took me 24 years to be who I am,” he said and added, “You know, we’re just before the Commonwealth Games and there are going to be kids and adults watching who will know that I’m like them, and that I’m proud of who I am.”

The Olympian reflected on his decision to announce he was gay: “For so long, I hated who I was – and you see it all the time, people who are dying over this. They hate themselves so much that they’re ending their lives.

“So if I can just be that someone people can look at and say, ‘yeah, they’re like me,’ then that’s good.”

Jervis then said he revealed his sexuality to a close friend when he was 24: “At that point, I’d never said the words out loud to myself.”

“I said to her: ‘I think I’m gay.’ I couldn’t even say: ‘I’m gay.’ I was basically punching the words out.

“She was quite shocked but great, and it was exactly the reaction I wanted. I’ve had all good reactions, and the way I’ve described it is I’m not going to change as a person.

“Everyone’s journey is different, but I think I’ve always known.

“It was something in the back of my mind, bugging me. I thought I was bisexual and had girlfriends that I loved – but it came to about three years ago where I knew I had to deal with this.

“It wasn’t affecting my swimming, but me as a human being. It sounds quite drastic, but I wasn’t enjoying my life. Yeah, I was smiling, but there was something missing to make me properly happy.

“I’m still the Dan you’ve always known. You just know something else about me now.”

The Commonwealth Games open in Birmingham, UK on July 28.

Listen: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0chqfhn

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Online Culture

FCC asks Apple & Google to remove TikTok app from their stores

Its pattern of surreptitious data practices that are documented show TikTok is non-compliant with app store policies and practises

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Graphic by Molly Butler for Media Matters

WASHINGTON – In a series of tweets Tuesday, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr disclosed a letter sent to both Apple and Google’s parent company Alphabet asking the two tech giants to remove TikTok from their app stores over his concerns that user data from the wildly popular social media platform is disclosed and used by bad actors in China.

In his letter dated June 24 to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Carr noted that because of its pattern of surreptitious data practices documented in reports and other sources, TikTok is non-compliant with the two companies’ app store policies and practises.

“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or meme. That’s the sheep’s clothing,” he said in the letter. “At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”

Carr stated that if the companiest do not remove TikTok from their app stores, they should provide statements to him by July 8.

The statements should explain “the basis for your company’s conclusion that the surreptitious access of private and sensitive U.S. user data by persons located in Beijing, coupled with TikTok’s pattern of misleading representations and conduct, does not run afoul of any of your app store policies,” he said.

Carr was appointed by former President Trump in 2018 to a five-year term with the FCC.

In March of this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a nationwide investigation into TikTok for promoting its social media platform to children and young adults while its use is associated with physical and mental health harms to youth.

The investigation will look into the harms using TikTok can cause to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms. The investigation focuses, among other things, on the techniques utilized by TikTok to boost young user engagement, including strategies or efforts to increase the duration of time spent on the platform and frequency of engagement with the platform.

TikTok’s computer algorithms pushing video content to users can promote eating disorders and even self-harm and suicide to young viewers. Texas opened an investigation into TikTok’s alleged violations of children’s privacy and facilitation of human trafficking last month.

TikTok has said it focuses on age-appropriate experiences, noting that some features, such as direct messaging, are not available to younger users. The company says it has tools in place, such as screen-time management, to help young people and parents moderate how long children spend on the app and what they see, the Associated Press reported.

“We care deeply about building an experience that helps to protect and support the well-being of our community, and appreciate that the state attorneys general are focusing on the safety of younger users,” the company said. “We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens.”

TikTok has also had a problematic relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. Recently The Washington Post confirmed that the ‘Libs of TikTok,’ an influential anti-LGBTQ account regularly targets LGBTQ individuals and their allies for harassment from its more than 640,000 Twitter followers while serving as a veritable wire service for Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media to push anti-LGBTQ smears.

Libs of TikTok regularly targets individual teachers and their workplaces – releasing their personal information that includes school and individual names as well as social media accounts, and leading its audience to harass the schools on social media.

A year ago, an investigation by Media Matters found that TikTok’s “For You” page recommendation algorithm circulated videos promoting hate and violence targeting the LGBTQ community during Pride Month, while the company celebrated the month with its #ForYourPride campaign. 

Numerous LGBTQ+ content creators have shared stories with the Blade about TikTok’s seemingly arbitrary algorithms that target otherwise benign content that is not listed outside of the platform’s polices and removed the content. In many cases restoring the posts after appeals or in the worst case scenarios banning the users.

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