Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest Discussion: The Defection of Baby Mixo

So...remember when I mentioned that we'd be holding a writing contest for short stories dealing with Mormon experience over four centuries? Well, we picked the finalists and (as of today) have posted 3/4ths of them, with our final century of stories coming by the end of this week. As the stories go up, we've also been wandering from blog to blog to discuss each piece. For today's story, Mark Penny's "The Defection of Baby Mixo," I'll be hosting the discussion. Please take a moment to go read this (very short) story and then come back and join our conversation. 

When my persuasive writing students ask about humor, I tell them to be very careful. Humor can work well to set people at ease, I say, or to shake them up just enough to see a familiar issue in a new way. But it can also be divisive and hurtful and generally unhelpful. So as beginners, I don't advise them to play with it if they want to open conversations up--except maybe for some mild self-deprecating humor to show they're not a threat.

But Mark Penny is no beginner, and his story doesn't limit itself to gentle self-deprecation. This is the kind of satire that seems swing at everything in range.

As an editor, I was sold on this story from the third sentence, when Penny hit my prejudices with a zinger to remember. But as a discussion moderator, I have to admit some trepidation. Will this piece give us a productive way to think about some complicated issues (including this one), or does it cross a line from provocative into offensive?

To phrase this another way: can we talk about this story productively? And if so, what does it seem to be inviting us to consider or talk about?

35 comments:

  1. I think James has done something interesting by prefacing the story this way: he's asking us if fiction is a valid way for Mormons to focus on an issue that has the potential to divide the community. Implied in his preface here is an invitation to think about literature's usefulness--or, to put it another way, the usefulness of make-believe: something, I would say, that's at the heart of James' novel, The Five Books of Jesus.

    But we're talking about Mark's story today. It's a bold story--and the kind of satire that could be read in a variety of different ways and used in support of a variety of standpoints one can take on Mormonism's relationship to LGBTQ issues. It'll be interesting to see what conversation is generated.

    I will say that I think it's interesting that Mark chose to tell this story within the framework of science fiction. Doing so enables the satire, but it also seems to dull the impact the story might have had if it were told in a contemporary setting. In some ways, I think the Martian element, the existence of the two churches, the gene mixing gives room for some emotional distance and allows readers to place themselves outside of the issue.

    That said, maybe we need the emotional distance to be able to engage in the kind of conversation and analysis that James is pulling for here.

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    1. I think part of the email I wrote to James when he sent me a headsup about the imminent posting will fit well here. I hope James doesn't object.

      You won't believe this, I suppose, but I don't think of the story as satire. It's kind of the opposite. I want to show people that there's more to people and their beliefs than just sin or stupidity. The story is careful to neither condemn nor condone anybody. The protagonist has his views and challenges, yes, but he himself says that the only thing he knows for sure is how he feels and how he feels he must act on how he feels. That said, I'm sure many people will see it as satire and, if they bother to read and think about it, react to it as such. But we'll see.


      I'd prefer another term, but I can't think of an extant one that fits, so I'll coin one: compatire. However other people take the piece, I meant it as compatire, an ironic compassionate look at the various sides of an issue.

      "Bold" is a nice adjective to see applied here. Thanks. And I think you're very right that the "[compatire] could be read in a variety of different ways and used in support of a variety of standpoints."

      A contemporary setting, with its moral claustrophobia and technological limitations, would certainly have made the story more immediate, but it would have precluded some important elements, among them removal of what I consider the core worldly argument against homosexuality: the inability to reproduce. James' discussion of Proposition 8 was a gratifying read in that regard.

      "[A]llow[ing] readers to place themselves outside of the issue" (and into the other guy's shoes) was exactly the point, so I appreciate your final paragraph about the necessity of emotional distance to rational discussion of an emotional issue. As I contemplated responses to possible reactions, it occurred to me that literary readers would react pretty much as you have--with a thoughtful nod and, I hope, some compassionate rumination; while ideological readers, with axes to grind and minds made up, would feel I'd either condoned them and condemned their opponents, or condemned them and condoned their opponents.

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  2. It is a good flirt with that line you mention. I think the only time I felt it might've been toed a little too much was the "queer, not sissies" comment. But... I tend to be overly worried about offending, so.

    I do think this will stir some interesting pots & discussion. And Science fiction is a great vehicle to carry a lot of heavy issues, but this particular issue is so hot right now, I'm betting the fact it's science fiction wont' be much of a buffer.

    At any rate, amazing story, Mark. With an awesome title, too. Ten points.

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    1. A "good flirt", eh? Nice phrase.

      I was pretty confident "queer" would go over fairly well with anyone it applied to, actually (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and all that), but we'll see, I guess. Maybe, like a certain racial epithet, it's only okay for the signified to use it. But that brings us back to the type of reader. In the context of the story, it's the son of gay parents using the term--and using it positively. Then again, you could be right: current sentiment could bust my buffers.

      "Amazing" and "awesome" are words I like in connection with yours truly. The positive reviews are piling up. I'll take all ten of those points.

      And thanks for sharing over on Facebook. I'm curious what your people have to say.

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  3. SciFi seems a terrific vehicle for this story. I felt pulled right along by the story, intrigued by the separate churches, the technological developments, the Mars colony, and the notion of leaving one LDS church for another.

    I am not an excellent reader of satire, I admit, largely because I think I work to hard to sort it all out rather than just letting it breathe and be. But the irony of this 'leaving' discussion is not lost even on me. (I only wish my sons' leaving discussions -- none of which was orientation-based -- had been so civil and kind.)

    I agree with Sarah: top notch story.

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    1. Wow, Paul! Any time I need a review, I'll call you! It's definitely nice to see phrases like "pulled right along", "intrigued", "not lost...on me" and "top notch" being used to describe something I made. Thanks a big burgeoning bunch! No irony intended.

      After completing the first draft of "Baby Mixo", I hunkered down to take a good look at the structure. Having just read Paul Gulino's Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, I was especially concerned about what I call "hooks and loops", the question-answer links between sections. I knew that although there was a half-decent narrative within the story, the focus was really the "unpacking of the world", and the trick would be to raise and answer questions about what things are and how they work. Now that you mention it, the civility and kindness are probably a big part of the narrative structure: on what terms will this letter of defection end?

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  4. BTW, can I also add, James, that the artwork for all the stories has been outstanding; this one is especially well matched!

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  5. Paul,I live in a part of the country where we are seeing a significant leaving of one LDS Church for another. Many RLDS individuals are being baptized. It is always a good thing to see a return.
    The part of the story that resonated the most with me is the idea of family based churches and what that does when there is a "defection". I am currently experiencing the disconnect that comes when a child goes their own way. For a long time it was hard for me to separate church and family enough to let him exercise his free agency. Because we are a family based church and we know of the plan, all our efforts and goals focus on that eternal family. I had to realize that he needed to make his own choices even if it took him farther away from that end.
    None of the topics in this story are light or easy still I think that Mark did an excellent job. It is always good to consider things in different ways because it helps us define our own beliefs. Plus good scifi is always a good thing. Melody

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    1. I'm glad the family aspect resonated with you, Melody. I'm not glad you're experiencing defections, but defections do happen and one aim of the story was to put the pain of that on the page. So was "consider[ing] things in different ways" to "help us define our own beliefs". Compassion and respect should figure in there.

      "Excellent job" and "good sci-fi" are descriptions I'm always ready to hear. Thanks!

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  7. I was really curious to see what piece of visual art could possibly accompany this piece of literature. I think the Goldbergs (Jicole? Jamcole? Colejam? Jamole?) picked a good one. Think inversion. Sweet.

    "No beginner." You got that right, brother. 37 years I've been toiling in obscurity. But no more. I'm about to be quietly infamous. Or maybe just quiet.

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  8. Can I put in a housekeeping request? Right now, the incoming link from "Baby Mixo" goes to the Mormon Midrashim blog, but not to this specific post (which may have been necessary, given the order in which they were created).

    However, this post will eventually get pushed off the front page, which means the future readers of Baby Mixo (be they Martian or otherwise) will have a harder time finding this discussion thread. At some point, can you update the Everyday Mormon Writer links for this (and the other stories) so that they go directly to the post discussing them?

    - Katya, wearing her archivist hat

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    1. No, not "Get on it!" :P Just, "Someday, please?"

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    2. Katya,

      Absolutely. I'm trying to get all the links adjusted after the fact. Let me know if we miss any by contest's end.

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  9. Also, I really liked the in-story Asimov reference.

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    1. I'm glad! No one's complained about it yet, not even Scott, so I guess that means it doesn't bother people. But it's sure nice to hear that someone heartily approves. Mind you, I feel like that section, among others, could do with some revision. Anyway, thanks, Katya.

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    2. I just checked your blogs. Your name should have tipped me off, but I see you're studying Russian. I majored in Russian at the University of Alberta, then lived in Ukraine for two years. That was twenty years ago, so I'm a bit rusty, but I still love Russian and am just getting back into reading it. It's a beautiful language, but then so are French and Mandarin and a few others I've dabbled in--and would like to take a whack at.

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    3. Oh man, that's a very old blog. I was attempting to teach a friend a little Russian, but the effort petered out.

      I majored in French and linguistics at BYU, took a couple of years of Russian (where I picked up the "Katya" nickname) and a semester of Mandarin right before I graduated. (I really enjoyed Mandarin, but it was also about 10x harder than any other language I ever studied. It was also the first non-Indo-European language I studied.)

      I got a complete set of Pushkin's works for my birthday last year, so I'm attempting to get brush up on my Russian. We'll see how that goes. :)

      Was the 2-year stint in Ukraine for a mission?

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    4. Kind of. During my last year of university, I received a lot of revelations. One of them told me to seek opportunities to teach English in the Soviet Union. I eventually met a professor from Ukraine during a visit to BYU and through him I wound up in Kiev. I served my mission in Haiti.

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  10. "No one's complained about it yet, not even Scott, so I guess that means it doesn't bother people. But it's sure nice to hear that someone heartily approves."

    I've read Asimov more completely than probably any other science fiction author and that's one of my favorite of his works. (Also, I mentioned it once in a conversation with one of my physics professors, who appreciated the reference, so that was a nice moment.)

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    1. "not even Scott"...

      Does this mean I'm getting a reputation for being the only Mormon who doesn't like reading sci-fi?

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    2. I didn't realize you disliked sci-fi. I was referring to comment 1, paragraph 3, which, by the way, I do not object to.

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    3. Asimov and Clarke are two enduring favourites of mine. The Gods Themselves was an interesting read.

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  11. Christopher WilliamsOctober 27, 2012 at 3:41 AM

    This was a good article that excavates through Mormon thought. I likewise am not sci-fi fan, so the Mars colony did throw me for a loop. However, what had my mind surging through the whole story was how the LGBT-LDS church would be structurally organized if it truly existed? I could imagine a huge flocking to this church once created, but eventually lead to a colossal demise from a power struggle on doctrine and beliefs from the head. The downfall would be eminent where the spirit lacks. Who knows? It could co-exist in this universe if it was stationed on Mars.

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    1. Christopher WilliamsOctober 27, 2012 at 4:01 AM

      Who knows? It could survive in this universe if it was stationed on Mars. The word (co-exist) did not properly convey the true meaning of my thoughts.

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    2. Two of the short-shorts I wrote for this contest seemed to me to beg expansion. "Baby Mixo" was one of them. The issue of sexuality within the faith and how it is and might be dealt with certainly intrigues me.

      I imagine such a church actually "co-existing" with the "Original" Church, buying its materials from Salt Lake, hanging on the voice of the prophet, striving to keep in step except in one area.

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  12. I have a close friend who left the church some years ago, and is now part of a secular humanist version of the LDS church.

    The way that Baby Mixo resonated with what I've heard her say was very ... powerful.

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    1. Wow! I'm not advocating what happens in the story, but that sounds like an endorsement of the story. Thanks for sharing, Cory.

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  13. This story made me really squirmish -- but I guess that was the aim. In a few short paragraphs, the story articutes a lot of conflict experienced by people who live in the borderlands between various social spaces. It's heart-wrenching. And the futuristic quality makes it safer in one sense and really scary to see formalized factions in another case. God bless those living in the borderlands, and God bless those from ostracizing people into these borderlands. It happens again and again and againg throughout history. May we all find more methods for uniting people than dividing. Thanks for the story, Mark.

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    1. Thanks for the response, Karen. I'm really glad to see that people are taking it more or less as intended. I find I'm very interested in writing about issues of faith and the larger world. It's not the only thing I write stories about, but I do write stories about it.

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  14. Over the last few months, I have spent a lot of time wondering what the future holds in the way of reproductive technology and family formation. What's fascinating to me is the belief that because people are born gay it's unnatural and unfair to ask them to change or to miss out on things like marriage and parenthood. Of course, the opposing belief is that it's unnatural and unfair to force a baby to miss out on having a biological mother and father. As I've mulled over these ideas and reflected a lot on my exerpiences as a mother, I've developed a deeper reverence for biological families. There seems to be no end to the complexity of our bodies and reproductive processes, and I'm fascinated by the spiritual implications of these processes. I think part of our divine nature is to hunger for Mother Nature--for trees, rocks, rivers and mountains, and mommy and daddy.

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    1. Valid. It's all valid. That's why it all hurts.

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  15. In case anybody happens on this discussion in future, here's a link to the first chapter of Jonathan Langford's book No Going Back, about a gay Mormon boy dealing with his religous and sexual orientations. Looks like a worthwhile read.

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    1. It IS a worthwhile read, as I know from reading it.

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