My Favourite Stories: The Hunger Games

My Favourite Stories - The Hunger Games

This month will see the final movie of The Hunger Games series. It’s another end of an era, and I’m becoming used to the press and emotions surrounding such a thing. I’ve done the usual: re-read the books and re-watched the movies, and somewhat prepared myself for the new installment. I’ve also thought about how the story has impacted me and society.

The Hunger Games is pretty much the primary series that has shaped how I view economic inequality and all of the human rights issues entangled in it. I saw economic inequality as a web, since all of the issues related to it are interconnected, and it’s up to us to de-tangle the web.

These different strands – transportation, income and wages, food security, education, environment, gender, race, and more – are all part of inequality and oppression. And they all play a part in this awful game that we play in order to “win,” whatever that means.

The Hunger Games is probably the only dystopian fiction that I will read or watch for a long time. The stories themselves, while revealing and empowering, are also quite bleak. A lot of people die. If they don’t die, they become broken. And while that is a huge part of reality, especially for those going to war, I don’t like to consume those kinds of stories on an on-going basis.

This might be why I had struggled to complete this blog post. After comparing the themes and plots of The Hunger Games to everything, from Arab Spring to Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the most recent string of ISIS attacks and backlash fueled by Islamophobia… From comparing the tributes to child soldiers who either die or survive and have PTSD… From seeing how this piece of fiction reflects our reality a lot and could potentially become our reality 100%… I had become exhausted.

I work in a non-profit organization in a role that allows me to be an activist and to support people facing marginalization and oppression. I volunteer for a non-profit that allows me to be an activist who uses pop culture to support other fans with their actions. I absorb the news everyday, because I can’t help it, and witness beautiful and terrible things happening around the world. So, naturally I would feel exhausted.

So why is The Hunger Games one of my favourite stories?

Because it made me love first-person novels again (Twilight kind of ruined that for me before). Because it made me feel more hopeful for the future young adult literature. Because I love the characters and how I learned what true strength meant from them.

Katniss taught me how to use the fire within to fight for what I believe in, but to soften and empathize when needed. She taught me the importance of fending for yourself and finding your true self in nature. She taught me that protecting what you find most precious is worth it.

Peeta taught me that humans are innately good. That we all have the freedom and autonomy to be ourselves, our true selves, even in the face of evil. He taught me that love and kindness are far more important than showing off or appearing to be strong.

So, as a farewell to this series, I offer a three-hand salute to The Hunger Games, and to the people all around the world, from the refugees fleeing Syria to the folks being arrested for doing this same salute in Thailand. May we work together towards peace and collaboration in order for everyone to live their lives to the fullest.

Until the odds are in everyone’s favour.

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My Favourite Stories: Harry Potter

Image from fudgeflies, tumblr

Image from fudgeflies, tumblr

It took me a while to figure out how to even begin this. But then I could hear a Captain Obvious-like voice inside my head saying, “at the beginning.”

I’ve mentioned the story of how I got into the Harry Potter series in the post called My Leading Ladies. Since grade four, I’ve always looked forward to a new book or a new movie. It was like that until the summer before my third year of university when Deathly Hallows Part II was released.

You never truly realize just how much something or someone has impacted your life until it’s close to the end and you know that they will leave you. It’s common for people my age (20s) to admit that the Harry Potter series has helped to shape their lives for the better. There are even studies on how the series makes us better people: specifically, it makes us more empathetic and aware of sociopolitical issues, which makes increases our likelihood of civic engagement. There’s even a book called Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation. There are countless ways I could talk about Harry Potter, but I’ll take a page out of JK Rowling’s book(s) and keep it to seven.

1. Imagination

Harry Potter was my gateway into fantasy. Yes, I’d watched Disney movies and watched anime beforehand, but actually reading about another world was, well, magical. It was so cool to imagine hidden neighbourhoods, sending letters via owls, waving wands to transform pretty much anything, and living in a friggin’ castle. I was enthralled. Not to the point where I cried over not getting a letter at age 11, but enough to always hold onto the belief that you can find magic anywhere.

2. Empathy

Imagination and empathy actually go together. In order to be an empathetic person, you need to have to identify with them, or put yourselves in their place in order to understand what they’re feeling. Harry Potter has allowed me to gain more empathy for others. Dobby’s plight as an enslaved House Elf (and how others react, reject, or accept it) reflects slavery in real life; Sirius Black being sent to prison without a trial is a reality in many parts of the world; Harry being forced to stay in the closet because of who he is can represent the struggles of the LGBT* community. JK Rowling had actually worked for Amnesty International, and much of what she had witnessed at this job was revealed throughout the series.

Learning about atrocities and human awfulness can really affect your worldview. Thankfully, I’ve learned that there is so much goodness and love in the world that it can drive out evil and hatred. And we don’t need to look further than the mirror to realize how we can bring about such goodness.

“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
– From JK Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard University, 2008

3. Storytelling

Being able to tell a story really well is a gift. I learned from reading the Harry Potter series that you don’t need pretentious language and complex imagery in order to move people with your words. Harry Potter isn’t an impossible read; in fact, I think it’s pretty accessible. However, it’s not that simple or elementary. I gained a larger vocabulary, an understanding of plot devices – the amount of hints and foreshadowing was riddikulus, and a deeper appreciation of just how much effort authors put into their writing. And I actually enjoyed learning about all of that.

The books have inspired me to share my own story and become a better writer. I’m not quite up to the Rowling standard, but I’m always learning and practising my craft. And it’s become a part of who I am.

4. Personal Growth

Since I started reading the books at age 9, I had to patiently wait for the new ones to come out. Along the way, I was growing up and learning how to be a decent human being despite all of the pressures that come before, during, and after puberty. Once you hit double digits, it’s like a switch goes off and caring about things is no longer cool. Apathy is cool. Not giving a shit reigns supreme.

I thought that I was weird or different for caring about my grades, about what my peers and parents and teachers thought, about what was happening in the world. I thought that reality TV and celebrity gossip was the norm for conversation topics. I thought that having a boyfriend and going to parties were what you had to do to be not just popular, but relevant. But, as I kept reading about Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s journey through adolescence and becoming heroes of the wizarding world, I thought to myself, “Now that’s cool. That’s what I want to be.” And I began to align myself with these characters, and realize that I wasn’t weird for wanting to do good.

5. Identity

Like I’d said before, I really identified with Hermione (big hair, big teeth, big bookworm). I thought that she was The Girl I could look up to and eventually become. And I thought that I was well on my way to becoming Hermione: I learned more about human rights, I loved being in the library, I loved being right and getting good grades, and I became the person in high school asking people to sign petitions. The problem, though, was that I was not and am not Hermione. I didn’t really have a rude awakening or anything like that, but I gained a subtle confidence in who I really was. I have to say that a lot of this confidence came from within, and I had to fight hard for it. I had to really reflect on what made me me. However, I would not have this confidence without the love and support of family, friends, teachers, and peers.

6. Community

I am not exaggerating when I say this: Harry Potter fans are among the nicest people on the planet. I’m sirius; every single person I’ve met who even remotely likes the books – or even just the movies – has turned out to be a kind, funny, and awesome person. I’ve made really good, lifelong friends; friends who reference the books and movies, who can manage to slip in a quote at the most opportune and inappropriate time, who just get it.

7. Fan Activism

A few years ago, I learned about an organization called The Harry Potter Alliance. I was blown away that an actual non-profit is using a story that I love so much and using it as a way to make the world a better place. It’s a real life Dumbledore’s Army! It was like I finally found my tribe: honest to goodness nerds who want to make a difference and have fun doing it. I’ve been with them ever since.

If you’re currently scoffing at fan activism and require a scholarly approach, here’s a great read by Henry Jenkins about cultural acupuncture. If you’re still scoffing, might I suggest that you Disapparate out of here?

On Honour and Shame

I found this video from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page. Liz was joined by her dear friend and fellow writer, Rayya Elias, who shared her story about self-discovery. Rayya starts off with a letter she had written to her stumbling block, her head. Right away, I liked her. Here was an honest, raw, sincere, and passionate woman who just gives off a sense of wisdom and love (am I making sense here, or have I delved into yoga/new age/spiritual territory?). She talked about mental health, creativity, failure, fear, and many other significant things that we all experience but hardly ever talk about. There are so many quotable moments in this video that I can’t possibly include all of them, so you might as well hit the play button.

One thing that I do remember, though, is Liz saying that honour is the opposite of shame. Which, of course, being a nerd and an Avatar fan, led me to think about Zuko’s journey of self-discovery. The word “honour” is definitely associated with Zuko (which is an understatement). He’s out to regain his honour. He must capture that Avatar to regain his honour. He needs his honour. He believed that honour was something that his father had taken from him. Zuko came to learn that honour is something that you hold within yourself.

Zuko_with_his_swords

An aside, if you will — Avatar: The Last Airbender is such a beautiful story of love and redemption and forgiveness and growth and compassion that I kind of forget how people dismiss it as a children’s show. If you’re reading this and feel that way, please take some time to reconsider. Children’s stories are often dismissed as unrealistic and fluffy and utter crap, but they’re also universal and true. People tend to forget that.

Anyway, back to honour and shame — I thought it was so interesting that they can be opposites. Shame is like a subtle undercurrent of icky shit that sticks to your gut and weighs down your soul. It is triggered by a disapproving look, a word of caution, a smack on the arm, a billboard ad, a vote. Basically, it’s anything and everything that makes you feel unworthy, and it builds up into that undercurrent. You don’t truly realize that it’s there until something significant happens that makes you suddenly feel it.

For a while, I had felt shame about who I was, as somebody who loved books and stories and could not pull myself away from them. I was ashamed of being such a fan of all of these stories (most of which were categorized as children’s stories), of fantasizing about the characters, predicting what comes next, spending hours looking up fanart and fanfiction – all of it, I kind of hated it. It took some time for me to come to terms with it. I also gained the ability to live with that aspect of myself, to be able to set aside space in my head and my heart with set expectations and boundaries. That way, I could contain this fan without it taking over my life.

It turns out that it wasn’t just the fan taking control; it was the shame. I had let it affect my thinking and how I spent my time. I didn’t sulk for hours on end, though. But I do remember feeling sad and worthless for being myself, which was definitely not healthy.

And it did take time for the honour, or a sense of worthiness and self, to come in. Honour came in the form of the Harry Potter Alliance, and with that a group of people who adore stories and proudly claim that stories have shaped their lives for the better. These people use these stories and the power of fandom to better themselves and the world around them. I was amazed that there were other people like me. They (and yes, Zuko) taught me about honour.

Honour is a source of light and energy that you carry inside yourself. It can grow or fade. It feels clean and centred, lightweight and grounded. It is confident, courageous, and calm. It can also be incredibly fragile, which is why we should constantly work to feed that fire and keep it alive.

Easier said than done, right? Well, we will all feel both honour and shame throughout the course of our lives. Just like we feel intense honour, we can feel intense shame. Neither will completely disappear, and that’s okay. It’s something that we have to remember and learn to appreciate. And we can always change things if we’re not content; we have that choice.

What choice will you make today?

Parks and Recreation

This has become my most favourite television show of all time, and I literally just realized that right now. This show crept up on me. My friends at the Harry Potter Alliance had kept talking about it, and I trust that they have excellent taste, so I watched the first episode on Valentine’s Day last year. I didn’t realize it then, but that marked the beginning of my journey to self-acceptance and self-improvement. That February 14th was actually pretty sad for me: I was unemployed, single, and lost. I believe that this show was the start of a better year and a better me.

It just hit me so hard that this show might have possibly saved me from a life without purpose or happiness. The past year and 10 days have seen so much change in me that it cannot be a coincidence. I’ve kind of stopped believing in coincidences.

A lot has happened in 375 days: I got a job, but ended up feeling drained and complacent and unhappy. I volunteered with amazing organizations and felt a higher purpose. I started to write, really write, again. I quit my job and started working toward not exactly a career, but a lifestyle that I would love. I read books that gently encouraged me to keep going. I started doing yoga and have become healthier. Quite a few of my favourite series ended, and left me to pick up on my own story.

I don’t want to recycle my earlier posts about 2014 and my New Years resolution, but I do want to emphasize just how much growth is possible within us if we simply let it happen. It’s something that I’ve learned from Parks and Rec, among many others.

I learned that being kind and hardworking are the building blocks of a successful career and life. I learned that surrounding yourself with people who love and support you create the best relationships. I learned that life is unexpected and often unwelcome. But it will turn around and surprise you again with its warmth and happiness.

This show has made me want to be kinder, more hardworking, more loving and supportive, and warmer and happier. There have been so many reviews of Parks and Rec praising its focus on characters who love each other. Comedies often pit people against each other, and being mean and hateful are used to get laughs. Not with Parks and Rec: being nice and doing things for others are used to get laughs, and it succeeds.

Now, the high emotion from the series finale has finally dropped down, so I will end my ode here. I’ll probably come back to Parks and Rec in this blog to post about other good things like healthy relationships and perfectionism and waffles, so it’s not really goodbye. It hardly ever is.

parks-and-recreation-cast

#myhungergames

It took me a while to figure out what I could possibly write about that would fit into The Harry Potter Alliance’s current campaign. When have I ever faced economic hardship of any kind? I’ve been able to graduate debt-free from university, travel the world, work for good wages without any abuse, not have to worry about where my next meal was coming from, etc. etc. etc.

It wasn’t until I had thought of the people around me, until I had expanded my personal bubble to include other members of society, that I realized that I did have a Hunger Games Story to tell. It just wasn’t mine.

I used to work for a legal aid company. I would be the one answering the phone and determining if callers qualified or not. A lot of the time, I’d be the one saying, “no.” And a lot of these people would be working, living pay cheque to pay cheque, often with other mouths to feed. But at legal aid, paying for groceries and electricity doesn’t factor in whether you qualify or not. These people would be struggling to survive, and once you throw legal fees on top of that mountain of stress, once you have to decide the future of your children once a relationship breaks down, or start to think about what will happen if you end up in jail, or get deported, well… it just fucking sucks.

Mind you, I wasn’t as empathetic at the time. I was “simply doing my job,” as one would say. I was too focused on my own ordeal of sitting on my butt down all day, chained to my phone and desk, and commuting for around 3 hours. I don’t think I realized at the time just how much insight I was getting into other people’s lives, and how broken the system is (or how top notch it is if you’re looking at maintaining inequality).

I remember single dads breaking down crying because they’re still recovering from a divorce and have to figure out how to makes ends meet for their children while trying to get a lawyer. I remember having to tell victims of domestic violence that they make “too much money” to qualify for legal aid. I remember talking to an inmate and asking if I could do anything else to help, and him replying, “Can you be my pen pal?” I remember refugees explaining that their lives are threatened if they were to return to their home country.

There have been good moments, though. Happy tears when somebody finds out that they qualify and won’t have to pay for a lawyer. Cracking jokes about the weather. Getting a sincere thank you and actually hearing the person’s smile. It’s an experience that I shouldn’t forget, and I’ll try my best to remember as much as I can. Because it’s not about me. It’s about getting other people’s Hunger Games stories out – because you may just be the one to help put the odds back in their favour.