Seasons change, and with it, memories resurface. This time of year, I get introspective, as winter hits and the ground is blanketed in white. It’s a sign for me that life will get dark before it gets light again—and isn’t that the way of things?
I want to tell you all a story, because I don’t think I tell them enough. I let my mind meander on the page, but not often do I pull off the roof to the house and let you all see in.
It begins about a year past my wife’s sudden death. The grief felt like caustic vessels, pinpricks of iron in my blood, leaving me feeling anemic and frail. Family was visiting—to cheer me up? See how I was doing across the country? I can’t remember—but I do remember this moment so clearly.
It was night, cramped in my small one-bedroom apartment. “I’m not really a fan of stand-up comedy,” I’d said as we huddled around my tiny television. And though that’s what came out of my mouth, what I meant was, I don’t know if I can laugh right now.
She was certain, though. “You’ll love it,” she said, typed ‘n,’ ‘a,’ ‘n,’ in the Netflix search until Nanette showed up. Pressed play.
I’d watched the first fifteen minutes with apprehension and belief that I would not, in fact, like it, with all the certainty of someone ready to prove a loved one wrong out of misaligned spite (what good does that ever do?) But as the comedian continued, I became more and more immersed, and something my loved one had said earlier became clear.
This “wasn’t simply a comedy special”. This was a transformation.
Anyone who has seen Nanette, the stand-up performance by Hannah Gadsby, knows that it is as much a confessional and spoken word poem as anything else. It is a transformation of all a stand-up performance can and should be, taking everything that makes comedy and breaks it down to its elements, making it into something completely new by its end.
And just as powerful as Gadsby’s performance, was the why of it. As she explains in the special and in her TED Talk, Three ideas. Three contradictions. Or not. transformation is necessary because she no longer wished to be the punchline of her own story. Comedy needed to change in order to fit what she needed to tell.
Not a lot changed for me that night. I laughed. I needed to, there’s no doubt about that. And I look back on that night with fondness and love. But it’s not until looking back on Nanette, after listening to Gadsby’s TED Talk, that I realize the depth of what she was trying to say, and the impact it can have on more than comedy.
I look at literature and publishing as it has existed over even the past ten years, and realize that it has to change. It can no longer fit the stories it needs to carry. I think of all the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, disabled, and neurodiverse voices that are either not represented or underrepresented and I think, traditional publishing needs to grow, and how we view what’s right and wrong in literature needs to change.
No longer is it enough to have stories where minority voices only exist to inspire or become token representations of their identity. We need stories with diversity as the norm, characters that have multiple minority identities, plots that don’t just revolve around discovering identities or traversing minority issues.
We also need to be aware of our language and how it affects minorities. For example, the complexities of how to tackle non-binary characters, including ‘they/them’ usage, or even the use of alternates, such as Spivak pronouns. The industry is beginning to see a change, but there are those who are standing their ground.
And the crux of it is this: so long as we hold literature, publishing, and writing as a sacred thing that has rules and gatekeepers that are above reproach, these things won’t change fast enough or agilely enough for the stories that need to be told.
We come back to the beginning, in a way. With news of the Big 5 becoming the Big 4, and on the back of the beast that is Covid-19, it seems like we head into a dark and dreary winter of publishing. That change would be impossible when most publishers will be making their safest bets.
My friends, maybe the best thing, the only thing we can do is the same, then, as when I started. Pull back the roof of the house and let others see in. Keep telling your stories. Don’t let yourself become the punchline of your own joke.
There’s always light in the end.