Website update: Published Articles List

Hey all! While I have not formally published fiction yet, I do have a number of scholarly and nonfiction pieces floating around. I’ve compiled a list for any and all who are interested, which will be updated as things come out here. Below is the list of my work to date:

Sanders, B. “Pregnancy and Parenting While Genderqueer.” Hoax 7: Feminisms and Change. 2013. http://www.zinewiki.com/Hoax_Zine

Sanders, M. R. & Mahalingam, R. (2012). Under the radar: The role of invisible discourse in understanding class-based privilege. Journal of Social Issues, 68 (1), 112-217.

Sanders, M. R., & Mahalingam, R. (2012). Social dominance orientation and John Henryism at the intersection of race and class. Political Psychology, 33 (4), 553-573. 

Edelstein, R. S., Stanton, S. J., Henderson, M. M., & Sanders, M. R. (2010). Endogenous estradiol levels are associated with attachment avoidance and implicit intimacy motivation. Hormones and Behavior, 57, 230-236.

Sanders, Melissa. “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.” Justice 20 March 2008. Print. http://rngton.socialistalternative.org/news/article16.php?id=790

Cheng, C., Sanders, M. R., Sanchez-Burks, J., Molina, K., Lee, F., Darling, E., & Zhao, Y. (2008). Reaping the rewards of diversity: The role of identity integration. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1182-1198.

Darling, E., Molina, K., Sanders, M. R., Lee, F., & Zhao, Y. (2008). Belonging and Achieving: The Role of Identity Integration. In M. Maehr, S. Karabenick, & T. Urdan (Eds.)Advances in Motivation and Achievement: Social Psychological Perspective on Motivation and Achievement, Volume 15. Elsevier Press: NY.

Sanders, Melissa. “A Military Mother Speaks Out Against the War — An Interview with Sara Rich.” Justice 23 May 2007. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=548

Sanders, Melissa. “The Case of Suzanne Swift — U.S. Female Soldiers Doubly at Risk.” Justice 4 April 2007. Print. http://socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=528

Seid, Jon & Sanders, Melissa. “Washington’s racist plan to divide U.S. & Mexican workers.” Justice 15 Nov 2006. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article15.php?id=462

Sanders, Melissa. “Sexism in the Military — What the Army Brochures Wont Tell You.” Justice 1 July 2005. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article16.php?id=70

Sanders, Melissa. “Stealing With the Rich to Pay for the War.” Justice 1 March 2005. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=131

Sanders, Melissa. “Why I Am a Socialist.” Justice 1 Sept 2004. Print. https://socialistalternative.org/news/article22.php?id=1305

Gallup, John & Sanders, Melissa. “The Myth of American Democracy.” Justice 1 Sept 2004. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article10.php?id=1297

Scattered Thoughts On Engels as a Framework for Worldbuilding

Engels: a man with a compelling beard

Engels: a man with a compelling beard

One reason I am drawn to speculative fiction — both reading what others have written and creating it myself — is its potential for radical what ifs. By that, I mean that speculative fiction is uniquely positioned to wonder about and critique the current world in which we live. It offers an alternative to and an escape from existing paradigms. Really good worldbuilding requires a kind of mind that understands how societies are currently structured, how they may be structured elsewhere, and what those structures may evolve into.

I believe I’ve said before that I write fantasy in large part because I love worldbuilding. I like the sandbox quality of spec fic, and specifically fantasy; the possibility of creating a universe from scratch is very exciting to me. But nothing happens in a vacuum. Nothing can ever truly be objective. I see the world through a particular lens, my choices are informed by my experiences and ideas which resonate with me. We all have what I think of as foundational texts — those narratives that define elements of the world to us and can become a lens through which we makes sense of life around us.

I first read Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (click through for full text) when I was 18 years old. Prior to that, I had been reading tons of Marx, tons of Trotsky and Lenin. And I’d been perturbed that Marxist theory never seemed to dig quite deep enough. All oppression is connected — so how do material conditions get elaborated into class structures? And I found this book, devoured it, and it became a primary lens through which I make sense of the world around me.

Engels’ work explores how ecological conditions (scarcity, surplus, the availability of resources) define the social relationships of a group. If there’s not enough to go around, when there’s no surplus, there’s no private property. And when there’s no private property, there’s no inheritance. But when a surplus happens and an inheritance becomes a thing, people want to make sure what they have gets passed to their kids. Now for the one doing the birthing, it’s pretty easy to keep track of who is and is not your kid. For the other parent — the one who supplied sperm and is not directly involved in the whole birth thing — there appears to them to be a reason to control the womb-haver’s body and to make sure their sexuality is kept in check lest all those scraped together resources get passed to kids who are not, in fact, the sperm-haver’s.

The thing that draws me to this line of thought most is how Engels deconstructs biological essentialism. No, women are not just naturally nurturing so they should stay at home with babies. Maybe we say that, but that’s not what’s going on. Engels would say instead perhaps we’re sequestering them so there’s little opportunity for men to be cuckolded. Maybe that’s what’s going on.

When I’m embarking on building a new world, I work actively to a) avoid essentialism and b) build a culture (literally) from the ground up.

Avoiding Essentialism
Essentialism — or the belief that differences between groups of people are fixed and unchanging — is a way to reify the boundaries of one group against another. Gender differences are often explained through biological essentialism (men and women do different things in society because they are just built different). Given that essentialism is so incredibly pervasive in our cultural understanding of the world, it’s not at all shocking that I see a lot of essentialism leak into speculative fiction.

The thing about essentialism, both in terms of fiction and real world thought, is that it is lazy. The human mind and the human experience are incredibly multi-faceted. We are enormously complex beings who live in nearly unimaginable complexity with each other. Nothing about us just is because it is. In worldbuilding especially, essentialism is a mark of an uncommitted writer. It signals to me that an author just checked out of that part of their world. “It just is, ok? Don’t look too close” is what they seem to say.

In my own worldbuilding, I am very much drawn to the margins. I like to write about those on the outskirts of respectability, of society, those who don’t quite fit. But in order to do that well I have to make the story about that individual’s positionality against a larger cultural framework. It’s not that this person is just an inherently amazing person, it’s that this person is forced to navigate choppy cultural waters with a sometimes incompetent boat. The drama is in the tension between that person and the context (or their boat and the ever-changing ocean). And contexts are dynamic. They are anything but stable. Why do they change? How do they change? Who changes them, and do they change back? These are the kinds of questions that often have unsatisfying answers if you are relying on essentialism to explicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings.

From the Ground Up
The other major thing I pay attention to is the ecological material conditions in which a culture exists. Cultures are fascinating because they are, in essence, both a tool to shape the environment around you in a collective way and a collective reaction to the environment. Whenever I am building something out and I’m not sure why/how it came to be, I take it back down to the material context. What is the food like? Is it scarce? How dense is the population? What are the resources available — stone, wood, minerals? Sorting that stuff out often gives me an insight into why a population may have moved from one part of the world to another, or what kind of relationship they have with the natural world down the line.

In the case of one of my cultural groups, it has been useful to understand how their culture and their understanding of their culture has changed due to a vicious and devastating war. With a literal fraction of their people remaining, having been disenfranchised and quite technically blown back to the stone age, how do they deal with, say, abortion? Is it possible that it could have been not a big thing before and is a Huge Deal now? The conditions are different, and cultures either evolve or they die.

Engels and Magic
I would advocate this materially grounded approach to understanding cultural development to basically any writer. Want to write characters from a different positionality than your own? Engels might be able to help. Want to explore a cultural context you did not grow up in? Do a lot of research and think about what questions Engels might ask you to push you deeper.

But I think his approach is especially fruitful in spec fic. In Aerdh, I have essentially a secondary earth but one in a universe where there is an additional natural force of magic. The fabric of reality is, essentially, just a little bit more malleable in certain places, which can be capitalized on by those with certain capabilities. Plugging Engels into this idea forced me to think through things like following:

  • what would make one culture approve of magic and another disapprove? how much of that approval/disapproval is related to the movement or access to resources?
  • how can magic be commodified (or not) as a resource?
  • how does the expression of magical abilities interact with other biological processes to create vulnerabilities for a population? (for example, if magic increases longevity, there may be a concordant reduction in fertility rates to keep populations from exploding. and if that happens, the comparatively smaller number of magical beings might be at risk for colonization by mundane beings).

Do you draw on a particular discourse or framework when you are elbow-deep in crafting a world? What thinkers do you return to again and again for insight? I’d love to here from you in the comments!

NaBloPoMo: I am a socialist, and I voted for Obama.

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I saw this spray painted on the sidewalk yesterday morning as I walked to work. It is painted in front of a church, which today served as a polling place. Usually in the mornings the homeless take cover on the steps of the church, and the planters around the trees on the sidewalk next to it play host to grocery carts full of blankets and meager possessions. This morning, the homeless were missing. Well-dressed youngish professionals milled around the tree instead, all of them sporting I voted! stickers with tangible pride.

I will paint you a picture of the person who left this graffiti there on that sidewalk, and I would wager this portrait would prove accurate if there was a way to hunt down the artist. This was done by someone young, probably around twenty-three. This was done by a man – a cisgender man who has never struggled with his gender identity but may vaguely know that some other people kind of do. This guy likely has at least a couple of years of college under his belt, even if maybe he didn’t finish, and he’s straight, but you know, totally not narrow. He’s young and unattached, no kids, parents probably in another state. He is able-bodied, and likely in decent mental health, all of that because he’s had consistent access to halfway decent healthcare which he likely takes for granted. And he is white. Lily-white. Snowblind white.

Look, I know this because I know this kid. I have crashed on this kid’s couch and fed him leftovers. This kid is an anarchist or a socialist or both or neither. In any case, this kid believes himself to be the vanguard of the impending revolution. And maybe he is. But my point is this kid is white, and has a safety net, and he has the free time to go painting political manifestos on the sidewalk where homeless folks are trying to get through the night.

What I’m saying, and I say this from a place of personal experience, is that this kind of disdaining lefter-than-thou tagging comes from a place of deep and unchecked privilege. Because in this election the only kind of person who would think that the outcome of Romney being elected and the outcome of Obama being reelected would be the same shit is someone who doesn’t stand to lose all that much one way or another.

If Romney is elected, it will not be the same shit for people of color, or those trapped in poverty, or people who need reproductive choices, or queer folks, of gender variant folks. Shit will be dire. Shit will get deadly.

So full disclosure: I’m totally a socialist. I’m so deep in this that my kid has two middle names, and one of them is Marx, I shit you not. It’s on the kid’s birth certificate and everything. And I have spent a lot of time heavily involved in leftist and ultra-leftist politics in this country. I’m now old enough to have lived through three presidential elections: in the first, under the twin pressures of the party line and youthful indignation, I voted for Ralph Nader even though I have always kind of hated him. In the second, caught in a woefully self-absorbed navel-gazing crisis of conscience, I couldn’t bring myself to vote at all. Within my Marxist group, I’d spoken out against endorsing Nader again. I likened him to a vampire come to leech the nascent thrummings of revolutionary consciousness from the masses every four years like clockwork, a characterization I still stand by, but I was overruled. It left me frozen and indecisive.

Four years is a lot of time to grow. This time around I voted for Obama, though put more accurately, I voted against Romney. In the last four years, I’ve broken from the organization in which I once held a national leadership position. I refocused my politics. The revolution will come, but it’s not coming tomorrow. The revolution will come, but not because a bunch of white kids in college somehow know better than the poor and the exploited. The revolution is coming, but in the meantime a lot of people are just trying to survive.

On the left, there is much discussion of the two-party system as a set of lesser evils, and this is true. That’s what this white anarchist dudebro was getting at here. But the thing is that there are no good candidates – it’s all a set of lesser lesser lesser evils nested like political matrushka dolls. Look, even if there were good candidates out there, I wouldn’t vote for them. Not now. Because this ‘protest vote’ mentality born out of lesser evilism arguments completely ignores two very pertinent facts:

1)      If you are able to cast a protest vote at all, you are in a position of massive privilege. You’re not being targeted by voter suppression. You have the means to get to a polling place. Your polling place is in a location where really shady shit is likely not going on.

2)      Obama and Romney are both drenched in capitalism, yes, but the evil that will be meted out by Romney is worse for a lot of people by a wide margin than the evil that will be meted out by Obama.

What I’m saying is that I don’t feel right casting a protest vote when I know for a fact that there are people of color who are trying to vote for Obama and are getting their votes stolen. What I’m saying is that if you really want to be the vanguard, you have got to have the humility to listen to the people you assume you’re going to lead. Maybe all these poor people of color aren’t brainwashed; maybe they have thought it through and think for truly valid reasons that their lives will be just that little bit easier to lead if Obama stays in office. And maybe my lily-white ass should listen and respect that if I want to live the anti-racist anti-classist values I spout off all the time.

Obama’s not a socialist. This election is, in so many ways, a farce. But I will be damned if I had anything to do with Romney getting elected.