Emotional Manipulation Still Sucks, Even If Your Cause Is Just

I recently followed someone on Twitter because a friend had recommended them as a voice to listen to if I wanted to learn more about a particular political issue. But just a day or two later, I found myself unfollowing this new person. They relied heavily on the types of guilt trips and emotional manipulation that I can no longer tolerate, but that are so insidious in activist and social justice circles.

I get it. We want to do the right thing. We want to help people. We get frustrated when we see people ignoring issues that are important to us.

But we can’t use guilt trips and emotional manipulation to motivate people into political action. For one, it opens the path to further toxicity and abuse that feeds off a foundation of anxiety and vulnerability that disproportionately afflicts already marginalized people. For another, I just don’t find it an effective way to form lasting relationships where people are internally motivated to provide support.

Besides, there are many reasons why I may not have taken action, why I might not have made a statement, or why I haven’t retweeted something. I might not have seen it. It might already be all over my timeline or discussed in private. It might include graphic images or recordings of violence, and I don’t want to retraumatize people with that. None of that means that I don’t care about the issue.

These guilt trips take many forms, but these are some of the most common structures I see, along with how I’d phrase the sentiment without relying on emotional manipulation, as well as an explanation of why I think it’s shitty to use that particular framing.

Instead of “If you support x, then you must do y,” try saying, “Here are some ways to support x.”

Even many experts disagree on the best course of action for remedying social issues. Besides, victims may not all agree on what constitutes “justice” for them. Acting like there’s only one way to support a cause puts undue pressure on people to take that particular course of action. That pressure is especially problematic when the support goes toward an organization that doesn’t have a good track record, or when an article to be shared is couched in oppressive rhetoric that further marginalizes people.

Instead of “If this were happening to x group, everyone would be outraged, but because it’s happening to y group, no one cares,” try saying, “This issue is underrepresented in mainstream media.”

Almost every time I see this rhetoric, it’s not even true: that terrible thing has likely happened to x group, and people still don’t care. I see this leveraged a lot against Black people in particular, which is shitty for a couple reasons: (1) It assumes that hypervisibility is a privilege when it is in fact another form of erasure and is not actually preferable to invisibility, and (2) It’s used as a wedge to drive marginalized communities apart, when we should instead recognize our common humanity and struggles and work together to dismantle oppressive structures.

Instead of “No one is talking about this,” try saying, “I’m boosting the voices of some people covering this issue and providing justice for the victims.”

It’s easy to say that no one’s talking about something, but the truth is that most of the time, someone has been talking about it—it’s just that people haven’t been listening. But by saying that no one’s talking about it, you’re erasing the work and effort of activists already on the field. By shifting the focus to boosting voices, you acknowledge the work that’s already been done while bringing the conversation to the forefront.

I believe the best allies are people who are internally motivated to help because they have been given the agency to make that decision for themselves. They aren’t acting out of a fear of consequences, but rather a genuine belief in the cause. Emotional manipulation and guilt tripping only serve to make people act out of anxiety. It’s a shallower understanding of the issue that leads people to feel burnt out and make fear-induced mistakes.

Much as social media has made it easy for opinions to be polarized or turn into all-or-nothing arguments, the truth of the world is that it’s hardly ever that easy. It’s okay to take your time listening, learning, and familiarizing yourself with the nuances of a situation before providing your viewpoint, if you decide to enter the conversation at all. In fact, if it’s not something that affects you—if you are acting as an ally to the community, rather than an affected member—it’s okay to stay in your lane. It’s even the best course of action a lot of the time. You can still do a lot from that position.

Social issues are complicated, tangled, and emotional for many people. It’s fine and normal to feel emotional about an issue. Anger is okay, and using that anger to fuel your support for justice can be productive. But if you’re outraged all the time or angry for the sake of being angry, you can burn out very quickly. It’s okay to tap out for self-care. And because these issues are so emotional, it’s okay to take some time to parse through the nuances and have no opinion or a nebulous opinion as you’re evaluating the situation. It’s okay to take the time to learn. The most effective community support comes from listening to what the affected people actually want and learning about their situations, rather than jumping in assuming you know what’s best for people.

In the end, I still return to the common metaphor I’ve heard for engaging with social justice: You need to put your own oxygen mask on before you help someone else with theirs. You’re no use to anyone if you’re stretched so thin that the lightest touch will snap you apart. We can’t fight every battle or understand everything perfectly; in fact, the more different an experience is from yours, the harder it will be to understand. But it’s more important to listen than to fully understand: You don’t need to empathize with someone so deeply that you can feel their exact experience; you simply need to ask, “What do you need?” and provide that for them.

You have skills, energy, and resources that are more efficient in some places than in others. It’s okay to direct yourself toward certain causes where your support can provide the biggest impact and boost other causes where your energy and resources have less of an impact.

It’s okay to learn, to take breaks, to turn off the outrage machine. You may feel guilty sometimes when confronted with your own privilege, and that’s part of understanding what privilege means and how to use yours to help others. Just beware of people who try to leverage that guilt and manipulate it. It’s hard to spot and would be the topic of an entire book if I had the time and energy to devote to the topic, but I’m still learning, too.

What I can say now, though, is this: It’s okay to take care of yourself. It’s okay to listen instead of speak. It’s okay to learn and make your own decisions instead of doing things only because you feel pressured to.

You got this.

But I Am, Or I Was: Gender in "Her Sacred Spirit Soars"

I just received news that my short story “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” made it on the Tiptree award longlist! I am so excited about this. I’ve been on a longlist before—my translation of “Chimera” by Gu Shi with Ken Liu was on the Hugo longlist for novellas last year—but this is the first time a piece of my own has been longlisted for anything.

I’ve been fascinated by the response to this piece. I drafted it as part of the short story course taught by K. Tempest Bradford that I took back in fall/winter of 2015. The first draft bore absolutely no resemblance to the final draft and was a mess—but drafting is the topic of another post. The second draft was halfway between that first draft and the final version: it had elements that remain in the final draft, such as the body-swapping and experimentation angles, but also pieces that didn’t make it, including an escape from the institution and a passage that explored both characters’ nonbinariness.

I had solidified my identity as nonbinary by the time I wrote this story. In fact, I would probably trace the solidification of my nonbinariness back to around the end of 2014 or so. Before then, however, I was actively questioning my identity and wondering how valid my experience was. So, while “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” did not lead to any new discoveries about my gender, it was probably one of the earliest instances of me trying to incorporate my nonbinary gender into my fiction.

Here are excerpts of the scene in the second draft that was workshopped but later removed:

A screenreader-accessible version of the screenshots is available on Pastebin. Looking back at the actual comments and my critique notes, I notice that no one actually suggested that I remove the scene. If there was any pushback, it was mostly that it didn’t have enough context.

Yet I have a strong recollection that people commented that the scene came out of left-field. Perhaps that was me projecting my own feelings onto the critique, my own doubts, my reluctance to defend something that felt so precarious to me at the time. Note that I didn’t even use the term “nonbinary” or any analogous terms in the text—rereading it, it almost feels to me as if I were hedging the writing myself, too hesitant to say anything about identity outright.

So I cut the scene and revised the story. I don’t know if I regret that move—I think the final product is stronger than this second draft and feels more cohesive and streamlined.

What fascinates me, though, is the fact that this story has been read as a trans narrative by multiple people, to the point where Bogi Takács selected it for Transcendent 2, a year’s best anthology of trans fiction. And note a key element of the book’s theme: the anthology only contains fiction that includes some variety of trans/nonbinary/genderqueer representation; it doesn’t matter whether the author identifies as trans.

And today, I received the Tiptree news. The Tiptree Award is not just for fiction that explores trans/nonbinary/genderqueer themes, but gender as a whole: there are certainly works that have won or been short/longlisted that explore only, for example, cis womanhood.

But I don’t think I did any particularly heavy lifting exploring womanhood in “Her Sacred Spirit Soars.” Which brings me back to the trans/nonbinary nature of this story. When I was writing it, I certainly didn’t intend to explore gender, and if a cis person were to come up to me and tell me that body-swapping is representative of a trans narrative, my reaction would be a polite, “lolwut?” However, when trans people tell me they read the body-swapping as a metaphor, or the entire piece as a trans narrative? Then I feel there’s more to dig into.

I had originally drafted this post as a thread on Twitter, but Safari crashed and lost what I’d written. I was originally angling for a “the author is dead, long live the reader” angle, but, in exploring the thematic content of “Her Sacred Spirit Soars,” I realized that, yeah, I see it.

It’s trans as hell.

Obviously, there’s the explicit nature of the bird–human bodyswap that can be read as a kind of transition. Supernatural fandom was very influential on my aesthetic, in particular Thingstiel fandom. In Supernatural, angels have a “trueform” that can’t be perceived by humans without threatening their lives. So, to allow them to approach humans, angels possess vessels, typically portrayed in the TV series as humans. Thingstiel fandom took that possibility further: What if Castiel were water? A tree? Deer?

At the time, I thought it was a cool fantasy concept, but, looking back and seeing other trans fans who identified with the transformative nature of Thingstiel fandom, I realize that it was an aesthetic that resonated with not only my burgeoning nonbinary gender feelings, but also the heavy depersonalization/derealization that I was experiencing as a result of my undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses.

I explicitly explore mental illness in “Her Sacred Spirit Soars.” But even without the nonbinary exploration scene from the second draft, I realize in retrospect that I explore being trans in more subtle ways in this piece. A key scene in “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” that acts as one of Meisun’s turning points is when the psychologist representing the psychological establishment insists to her that she is not a bird and must abandon those ghost bird memories in order to live as a human:

“You aren’t a bird, Meisun,” Dr. Roberts says, and anger flares in my chest.

“But I am,” I retort. Then, I doubt myself and add, “Or, I was.”

“Then you aren’t a bird anymore,” Dr. Roberts says, his voice level, and suddenly something shifts within me. “You’re human now, and you live with humans now, all right?”

Part of me resents him, but part of me considers what he says.

I am human.

And maybe humans love differently.

I want to unpack this scene from a trans perspective. Dr. Roberts insists that Meisun must choose: that to be human, she must give up any illusion that she was ever a bird. Within the story, this reaction is a natural extension of the premise of this piece. But I want to tie this back to our world: although I feel this is more visible with binary trans people, nonbinary people also experience the narrative of choosing a side. That we were “born this way.” That we “always knew” that we were trans. That our genders are not “a trend.” We must conform to a certain expectation of gender, a rooted understanding of gender that reflects some trans people’s experiences, but not all.

So I read this story as, in part, the experience of grappling with what my previous experiences mean after I had an awakening about my gender. Because I didn’t always know. I identified for over half of my life as a girl and used she/her pronouns without any issue or question. So what does that mean for me now as a nonbinary person? Do I refer to my past self with the pronouns I use for myself now, even though my past self only ever used she/her pronouns? How do I reconcile that, for me, I am nonbinary, but I used to be a girl? How do I reconcile the misogyny I have experienced (and that I continue to experience) even though “misogyny,” by its nature, refers to a hatred toward women, and I no longer identify as one?

I can’t remember where I read it and would appreciate a link if you have it on hand, but there was a tweet from a straight trans man that I saw the other day talking about how he still, to some degree, identifies with media about queer womanhood because that was his life until only recently. But he’s now a straight man. So where does that leave those experiences?

Medical and psychological establishments want us to put these messy experiences behind us and conform to a certain expectation of gender as solid and unwavering. To some degree, Meisun accepts this and resolves to adhere to Dr. Roberts’ admonishment: “I am human. And maybe humans love differently.”

But, to me, she subverts that expectation in the end:

She’ll never be you, but she’s not meant to. She had no part in them taking away our bond, and if our bond helped her so, was that such a bad thing? Besides, she’s human, and so am I; we’re not meant to be joined together like kimkim. Love for humans means flying side-by-side in the same direction, two separate beings working together.

I catch up to Yaulan and grasp her hand. She turns, surprised, and a grin spreads across her face. It’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever witnessed, but even so, sadness still lingers in her eyes, in the way she holds herself.

But that’s okay. I’m not expecting magic, for us to live happily ever after. All I want is to be beside her and hope for the best.

I lean in and kiss her forehead, and in that moment I think, I love you.

Thanks to Molly Olguín for helping me figure out that that callback to “you” was the clincher for that last line. I want to unpack that, too: because yes, “you” refers to Yaulan here, but the reason why it’s a clincher is because it also refers to the unnamed kimkim that is addressed as “you” throughout the story. So on one hand, this final scene is a reconciliation of grief and loss as well as an understanding that mental illness is chronic and cyclic. But, on the other hand, it’s a rejection of Dr. Roberts insisting that Meisun has to give up her bird memories: instead, she integrates them with her present experience with Yaulan. “You” is both Yaulan and the kimkim, and, to me, that’s what makes the last line work thematically and resonate.

In the end, that’s what trans people do, too. We can’t just erase who we were before. That’s a necessary part of us: ghostly double-exposures where what we experienced was simultaneously true and untrue, where we were still us, and yet different. Of course, time and experience does this to everyone’s recollections, but I think it’s starker for trans people.

So that’s my take. I don’t know why I’m tearing up writing this, but I am, and I tear up sometimes when I reread this story. It still boils down to death of the author for me: art is magic in that the text can remain static, and yet it transforms depending on what interpretation and background the reader brings to it. I did this for Karin Tidbeck with my interpretation of Amatka, and others have done this for me with “Her Sacred Spirit Soars.”

Thank you for reading my story and this response, and thank you again for making the Tiptree longlist nomination happen.

“Will You Give Yourself to the World?” Unpacking Amatka’s Queer Resistance

Amatka by Karin Tidbeck has been on my radar for a while. When I read Nino Cipri’s review of it yesterday, I decided to pick the book up and was delighted to find that Amatka is available in audio.1

I went into Amatka knowing very little about the premise beyond John Chu’s tweet referencing the book and the fact that the narrative plays with language. Nino’s review also piqued my interest in reading Amatka as a queer narrative:

Amatka’s story feels queer to me on multiple levels, beyond the simple and obvious one: Vanja falls in love with her roommate, Nina, and decides to stay in Amatka after finishing her assignment to be with her. Her love for Nina informs the story, but there’s a more subtle queerness that I’m still struggling to articulate.

So here I am, doing my best to articulate that queerness, because I saw it shining as brightly as the sun through the narrative and had Thoughts about it. Spoilers ahead.

Marking as a collective construction of society

Amatka and its sister colonies exist only because they are willed to exist: the gloop that forms almost everything in Amatka can only retain its shape when it’s constantly reminded of its shape. These reminders are not just verbal, but also physical: each item must be marked in black letters with its identity. Metaphor and creativity with labels are not tolerated. For example, books may only be titled with About followed by their subject, or an otherwise literal and descriptive name.

Marking is strictly enforced. When Vanja so much as lets her naming become rote, pencil-pencil-pencil washing together so that the syllables merge and shift to become cilpen-cilpen-cilpen, the rigidity of the gloop’s form begins to slip, and Vanja is punished for her transgression.

In a conversation with my Clarion West class, Ken Liu described one strategy for making a story resonate emotionally: literalize a metaphor. In his short story “Crystal,” for example, a real, physical crystal is the literalized manifestation of the narrator’s relationship with his grandmother.

I read marking in Amatka as a literalized metaphor for the collective effort of constructing a society. Amatka is rife with rules and regulations, as symbolized by the paperwork that Vanja has to file, but it is the marking that creates the foundation of society in the colonies.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine a pencil only being able to keep its form as a pencil when given that name. But, when the metaphor here is extended, I also read it as a comment on sexuality and gender: cisheteronormativity is created through the constant reminders that such constructs exist and are real. Despite the fact that Amatka does not appear to marginalize Vanja and Nina’s same-gender relationship, the climate of the colony and the narrative still suggest a comment on heterosexuality to me: everything is done for the good of the commune; individuals police each other for the greater good. So, too, are our sexualities, our performance of gender, policed in the broader context of our society, even if there are pockets of it that feel safe.

The concept of harmony in Amatka, of conformity for the survival of the colonies, further read to me as a parallel to the experience of being closeted for many queer people: we ignore our truths to uphold our obligations to society, to protect ourselves from the consequences of deviating from the norm. It’s not uncommon to see leaders and politicians condemn queer people as heralding the downfall of society in our world; refusing to conform to the rules and regulations in Amatka and its sister colonies literally threatens the survival and existence of this carefully constructed society. Vanja’s initial horror over seeing the gloop in its raw form further reflects marking as a metaphor for social construction: without our rules and labels, we as humans have to confront the senselessness of reality, the fact that things are not as bound and demarcated as we believe them to be.

It also becomes clear to both Vanja and the reader as the story goes on that naming holds the power not only to create a society, but also to restrict it. Here, too, the parallels to constructing cisheteronormativity jump out at me: every time a gender binary is reinforced by people insisting that there are only two genders, every time someone insists on calling a trans person by a gender they’re not, these names reinforce that people are only meant to have one shape—the shape that society agrees is the “correct” shape.

To me, “queerness” as distinct from various identity terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary is an action that transgresses the rigidity enforced by cisheterosexism. Cisheterosexism insists that there is only one correct way to exist: you must be one gender, the one assigned to you at birth, and you must be sexually and romantically attracted to only one gender, the other of the two genders that cisheterosexism recognizes as valid.

Vanja’s discovery of her ability to transform gloop from one shape to another, and her realization that her words have power, is thus a queer act to me. It is the moment when she realizes that the constructs placed on her by the colonies is just that—a construct. She loses her fear of the undelineated gloop and begins to see it as a source of potential. If the gloop can take a different form, then she can, too: there are other ways to live than what has been imposed by the colonies.

This discovery parallels the experiences that I and many other queer people have had. As much as labels can be used to restrict, they can also be used to recognize and create: when I discovered the term “nonbinary,” I realized that I was not the only one who felt this way about gender, and I found a validity that grounded and consolidated the vagueness of my feelings into something more concrete and coherent. There are ways to exist outside of the confines of the one narrative provided by the status quo, ways that validate fluidity and crossing categories.

Art as creative resistance

A key part of Amatka’s exploration of language is the concept of language—and art created with language—as resistance. I don’t think it’s an accident that the leader of the separatist colony is a poet, Berols’ Anna, who shows particular aptitude for language:

Vanja put the book down and opened About Plant House 3. The text was difficult to read at first. Every sentence had been whittled down until only the absolutely necessary words remained. Every one of those words was precise; it could have been lifted out of the text and hold enough meaning in itself. In Berols’ Anna’s poetry, all things became completely and self-evidently solid. The world gained consistency in the life cycle of plants, the sound of a rake in the soil. Breathing became easier.

Amatka, pg. 44

Language not only makes the world concrete, as evidenced by the marking of objects, but also our experiences, as evidenced by the way Vanja’s understanding of the world becomes more consistent through Anna’s words. On a fundamental level, we use art to process our experiences and share them with others.

But we also use art to create different ways of being and understanding:

Vanja drew the book out and opened it. Poetry, on what looked like good paper, handwritten in faded blue ink:

we speak          of new worlds
we speak          of new lives
we speak          to give ourselves
to become

[...]

“What does she mean, to become?”

Ulla looked Vanja up and down, as if she was examining her. “I might tell you sometime,” she said eventually.

Amatka, pg. 46

I also don’t think it’s an accident that one of the pivotal scenes in Amatka is Vanja discovering Evgen being forced to cull library books so that the good paper can be reused by the committee. Vanja later realizes that the good paper used to print concrete descriptions of the increasingly more fragile Amatka came from those culled books. Among the first to go in any authoritarian regime are the artists and intellectuals: our histories of art and resistance are erased, literally in Amatka’s case, and papered over with official narratives of what we’re supposed to believe.

It is therefore vital and inseparable from the narrative of Amatka that the ultimate punishment is forced aphasia:

“Why is she so important, Harri?”

“I’m not at liberty to tell you that. Only that it’s very, very important that she doesn’t speak.”

Amatka, pgs. 208–209

Speaking is an act of creation, literalized in Amatka, but also reflected in our own world: with speech, Vanja and others like her can create alternate realities and ways of living that reject the reality imposed by those in power. With art, these realities can be expanded and memorialized. Imagination is forbidden in Amatka as a threat to the status quo, and art can be the greatest embodiment of imagination and the greatest challenge to the status quo.

Words matter. Our work matters.

Give up or give in

“Give up or give in,” Nina whispered. “I gave in. I gave myself to the world.”

Amatka, pg. 213

“Will you give yourself to the world?”

Anna’s voice crashed into Vanja’s body like a wave, making her gasp for breath. That’s what Vanja was supposed to do. Vanja said it, that she gave herself, that she surrendered, everything she was. A string of syllables dribbled out of her mouth, flat and nonsensical.

Berols’ Anna watched Vanja in silence, her hair floating around her like a living thing. After a moment, she grunted. “A person creates the word. Gives in to the world, and becomes the word.” It sounds like a sigh. “You have no words. You have been separated.”

Separated from her words. The world was built on a new language, and she would not be part of it, only an observer, a watcher.

Berols’ Anna turned her head and gazed out on the chaos. “When all of this has become, you will remain; the people like you will remain, all of you, as you are, separate. But we will carry you.” She stroked Vanja’s cheek. “We will always carry you, little herald.”

An observer, a watcher, but beloved. Nina would be with her; Anna would be with her.

Amatka, pgs. 214–215

The penultimate scene of Amatka holds a power that I don’t know if I can articulate. It’s a scene that defies a single reading and feels complicated in a way that doesn’t allow me to unpack it as easily as other parts of the narrative.

If I read this scene as an extension of the themes of constructing and resisting cisheteronormativity, I see it as a reassurance. Nina’s initial line seems like a simplistic binary: the choices appear to be to live a closeted life and give up, or to be out as one’s true self and give in to the world.

But the reality is never as simple a dualism. Anna recognizes that Vanja can neither give up nor give in. She is, to me, our brethren who are forced to remain in the closet, and our elders who have often been the first to resist, yet are so often forgotten when we forge new paths.

Vanja, however, is not left behind: she has been separated, and she may not be able to participate as fully as the others, but she will be carried, still supported by the ones who see her and love her. This, to me, is a third option: an acknowledgement of people’s limitations, whether enforced by society as represented by Vanja’s forced aphasia, or out of their own reasons. We still see you. We are still here with you, supporting you even if you can only watch.

I don’t intend for this commentary to be an authoritative interpretation of Amatka, or even an accurate interpretation. There is so much to explore and comment on, whether it’s disability in the colonies or a more in-depth review of the worldbuilding. All I’m really offering here is my own reading of Amatka and an attempt at articulating how it resonated with me as a queer narrative, one of discovery not only in the fictional world, but that reflects the discovery and journey that many of us make when moving from accepting the status quo of a cisheteronormative society to carving our own way. Amatka is a quiet, understated read that will linger with me for a while yet.

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1. Kirsten Potter is a fantastic narrator. Often, audiobook narrators will either be too monotone for my taste or have too much of a lulling bedtime story feel to their performance; Potter, however, captures the mood of Amatka well and underscores each character’s personality with subtle variations in voice.