The Narrative Disservice to the Revolutionary

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(Spoilers ahead. Beware)

So, Friday February 16th, 2018 will go down as the day my Togolese soul was blessed by the dopeness that is Marvel’s Black Panther.

I can write many, many pages about all the things I loved about this movie. The gorgeous world-building; the the pristine afro-futurist aesthetic; the uplifting of women of color; choreography (Like, Okoye threw her freakin’ wig in a fight. BRUH!); Shuri being one of the best characters in all existence. The list goes on. All the praise to Ryan Coogler for turning a Marvel movie into a worldwide phenomenon for the Black diaspora.

Still, there was one aspect of the movie that, after several days of reflection, really disappointed me.

One of Black Panther’s central themes was how people, on an individual and societal level, grapple with the deeps wounds caused by colonialism and slavery. And yet, the movie falls into a problematic pattern of suppressing revolutionary thought and praxis in favor of a more socially palatable answer to addressing black suffering.  In both Erik Killmonger and Nakia, we find potential schools of revolutionary thought that are sabotaged by the narrative.

Killmonger

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So, I’d like to say Killmonger was right but…nah. You can’t be out here killing girlfriends and choking aunties and still be right. There’s really no defense that can made for that, especially when you’re targeting the people who you claim to be fighting for. So yea, Killmonger was wrong.

That he has constructed in this way in the first place is where the problem begins.

The one character in this movie actively calling for retribution for all the centuries of brutalization black people have experienced is the one whose core traits make him unstable and unsuitable for carrying out that vision effectively. He is too angry, too sexist, too proud.

And so, Killmonger’s ideological battle with T’challa is doomed from the start. Not because Killmonger was necessarily wrong about sabotaging governments build on slavery/black oppression and arming black folks as a means to fight back, but rather because he was targeting his own people in the process. This makes me wonder how different a movie Black Panther would have been if Killmonger was pushing for the same revolution while having a better temperament; if he didn’t attack and threaten his own people. Would we still have seen him as a villain? Would people still have rooted for T’challa?

I’ve seen people argue that Killmonger’s upbringing and suffering made him the monster that he is now. The problem is that he didn’t have to be. This upholds the problematic trope of the radical too consumed by his own rage to function as a reliable, compassionate leader.  They almost always fail as a result of some character traits that sully their philosophy while making the audience less willing to support him. The sheer frequency of this representation sets a dangerous rhetoric that denounces the need for violence in a revolution.

Nakia

Nakia

There’s no question that Nakia is a much more promising leader. We see her on the grounds, bringing about real change in the world and protecting the people who Killmonger only claims to want to protect.

I would have loved to have seen a version of her plan to help outside African peoples on a larger scale. But the movie never allows us to see that.

Instead, we have T’challa set up his own path to helping the outside world and…i don’t know…it gave me some “all-lives-matter” vibes. This dude goes to the UN of all places, talking about how he wants to share Wakandan technology, wealth, and insights with everyone. Not black people exclusively. Everyone. No caveats about African people getting first dibs or anything. Nope! In T’challa’s eyes, we’re all one people.

I mean, it’s like Meryl Streep said, “We’re all Africans.” Right? RIGHT??

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There’s a chance that Nakia supported his plan because, at the end of the day, Wakanda would be taking an active role in helping outsiders, like she wanted. But I can’t help but think that she’d approach change in a more circumspect manner (She’s a spy, after all). I don’t think she would have put her trust in an outside institution, as T’challa has. So in that sense, we get some version of Nakia vision that’s diluted by T’challa idealism and willingness to trust the world.

It’s important to note that both Killmonger and Nakia influenced T’challa to reveal Wakanda to the world. And yet his approach lacks the most powerful qualities of both his influencers.

Judging from the post-credit scene, T’challa’s approach to liberation lacks the steadfastness and ferocity of Killmonger’s plan, along with the subtlety of Nakia’s. Only time and future movies will tell if theres more to T’challa plan, and I hope there is. But what I saw from that scene rubbed me the wrong way.

Reaching across the aisle to work with the same system that profited off black people’s suffering?

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Black Panther falls victim to that ‘noble ending’ we see so often, in which the protagonist rejects violence in favor of love and harmony. We can’t slap an ending that black and white to every movie; the context matters. Such a message promotes a faith in the world that black folk really can’t afford to have, when their liberation is in mind.

This isn’t to say the T’challa methodology is without its merits. But his vision of liberation only ‘wins’ as a result of the other two visions never having a fair chance to oppose his own. Killmonger’s radicalism was undermined by the stereotypical character flaws/limitations he’s given, while Nakia’s radicalism has such limited exploration that it is subsumed by T’challa’s.

I love and appreciate Black Panther for what it is. It was groundbreaking in so many ways, so I just wish it had broken the mold of storytelling in this was as well. I would have loved a movie this BLACK AF to champion an approach to black liberation thats something other than brokering peace with colonizers.

With all that said, I can say without a doubt that this is one of my favorite movies of all time, if not my favorite (I’m not sure, but I’ll let y’all know after my 2nd and 3rd viewing).

P.S – Man, fuck that 2nd post-credit scene. Sorry Bucky, but we don’t need more white men in Africa. Just saying.

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Colonialist Themes and Race in The Originals

**This is post from like a year ago (so this covered Season 1-3) . Placing it here as background for my upcoming review of Season 4

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So, I have the most complicated relationship with the Originals. On many levels, it’s a remarkable show. The character are pristine and unique, the dialogue is some of the best I’ve seen; I adore Klaus and Elijah’s characters, their near-Shakespearean vernacular, which , given their age and tastes, fits seamlessly with their characters. The multi-cultural atmosphere of New Orleans is prominent and pervasive. Well, sorta, and that’s where the problems start.

Originals started out a balanced, nuanced imagining of a city in conflict, in which not only the different supernatural beings (vampires, werewolves, witches) but the cultural foreground shared considerable spheres of influence. As the show progressed, you start to see the sidelining of the POC and female characters and the ‘Originals’ swallowing up the city at everyone’s expense, while the show positions their motivations and woes (Klaus and Elijah) as paramount. In a lot of ways, The Originals can easily be seen as a supernatural tale of a white aristocratic power recolonizing New Orleans.

What do I mean? Well I’m glad you asked, reader!

The moment the Original family returned to New Orleans, everything became about Klaus and his unborn baby. To an extent, it makes sense, as Klaus is the main character. However, between his megalomaniacal tendencies and paranoia, his attempts to ‘reclaim’ New Orleans resulted in him making a lot of unnecessary enemies and spilling bucket loads innocent blood. That’s part of the intrigue of the story, of course. Klaus, a monster in his own right, inching his way towards humanity and redemption, nudged (and sometimes shoved) by Elijah and Rebekah. And yet, for all the people he kills, he rarely reflects on the notion, unless his ‘conscience’ Camille forces him to. Still, he sees mortals as beneath him, not particularly worthy of his acknowledgement (Except Camille, she’s one of the ‘good ones’).

Now, I love Klaus. He is a fascinating character. His upbringing and life provides some justification for his violent tendency and extreme distrust of…well, everyone. Getting chased for a 1,000 years by your psychotic dad would bring out the worst in everyone. So the issue isn’t necessarily Klaus, but rather the character’s privilege in the context of the story—this is an issue with the writing of the show. Klaus’ redemption story is cool, but his interest consumes and destabilizes the lives of those who lived in the city for generations. Let’s also not forget his constant “I made the city what it is! I deserve this city” rhetoric.
Let’s focus on the witches first. But didn’t the witches want to kill his baby in Season 1? Didn’t that make them the bad guys? Yes and yes. And there again lies the issue—how the story positions the characters and factions. The witches are literally one with the land, they draw their magic from their ancestors. Why is it that the faction who has lived in the city for countless generations, who have been subjugated by the vampires, fashioned as the villains in season 1? Given, there’s more complexity there, but the core conflict reads as thus; the wealthy, powerful vampire family returns to New Orleans, the discriminated witches try to fight for their liberation, and get squashed. (Yo, can we bring Papa Tunde back? Please?) True, the witches do regain the ‘right’ to practice magic, but they are still carefully monitored. This isn’t even to say that the witches were not on some crazy shit (human sacrifice and all), but the parallels of the Vampires (specifically the Originals) as colonists still ring strong. The habit of coming in, establishing a rule without the other groups’ consent (because fuck what they think), expressly disregarding their customs and needs—that ought to sound familiar.
What bothers me more is the positioning of the PoC Characters, because even if they exist within quasi-colonialist vampires ‘caste’, they find themselves in compromised, unfavorable footing, story-wise.

Season 1. Enter Marcel Gerard, the leader of the vampires in New Orleans and, having subjugated the witches, is the ruler of the city. The writers present Marcel as a brilliant strategist, constantly several steps ahead of everyone, even Klaus, who’s also known for his ingenuity and cleverness. Watching them outmaneuver one another throughout Season 1 was intriguing and, though Marcel ultimately loss, it was hard fought and believable. He remained an amazing character, so it was with great distaste that I watched as his role and importance degrade over the next two seasons. Suddenly, most of his actions are made in service to helping Klaus and his family in whatever problem they put themselves into. He went from the king of the city to a pawn. We see flashes of his brilliance on occasion, like when he manages to seize control of the Strix in Season 3. This arc was particularly interesting because it places Marcel in a dangerous game which he masterfully navigates, which helps remind us of how he was able to bring the city under his control before the Mikaelson incursion. However, we find out that even Marcel’s rise to leadership amongst the Strix was but a move to help Elijah. This would have been fine if Marcel was not constantly called to aid the Mikaelsons at the expense of his position. He had been invited to join the Strix because he was recognized as exceptional, and yet, even at the helm of this ancient vampire sect, he still answers to the Mikaelsons.

“Where Nothing Stays Buried” was an amazing episode for many reasons, one being Marcel’s parting of ways with the Original Family. Marcel confronting Klaus and Elijah about how ties to the Mikaelsons is literally a death sentence, with Camille and Davina’s death (and countless others) being prime examples. The ending had me feeling all types of ways. Vincent and Marcel collaborating to take down the Originals is both exhilarating and terrifying. Their motivations are completely legitimate. They have more than enough reason to want to uproot the Mikaelsons from New Orleans, but those who have challenged the Mikaelsons have historically been eliminated, hence my fear.

Even within the witch faction, you see a problematic positioning of the PoC characters. In season 3, after Davina killed Kara, played by Asian actress Joyce Brew, her son Van, played by Lawrence Kao, gets revenge by having her exiled. Fast forward to now, Van is dead, killed off by a pissed off Kol Mikaelson, who’s angry because Van was unable resurrected his beloved Davina. It’s as though only the white characters in general have the right to be vengeful or protect those they care about. Well, maybe not. Davina does get her soul eviscerated by Kara. So, progress, right? *sigh*

In terms of diversity, the casting for this show is impressive. There is a great array of women, PoC, and gay characters. Yet, this doesn’t do much good when these characters get killed off every two seconds. Certainly, the death count in this show is high all across the board (which is a problem in and of itself), but their deaths hurt more when the ‘diverse’ characters are given subordinate roles in the story. They get used by the Originals, get fucked, try to get even, and then die because how dare they stand up to the all-powerful, uncompromising first family of vampires?

Going back to the PoC death issue, can we stop with Elijah’s long list of WoC love interests that end up dying? Seriously, Celeste, Gia, Aya. That is a profoundly irritating pattern, especially when these characters have so much to offer. Especially when we know they’re most likely going to die because the show has written Elijah and Hayley’s stories in such a way that they’re definitely going to end up together. Let’s stop putting WoC as placeholders until writers deem it the suitable time for those two to get with one another.

Again, I really like this show and all its characters. I’m also of the belief that one should critique what they love, because nothing is perfect. Also, given the roster of writers this show has, I know that they can do better.

Dreamcasting Way of Kings

So, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series is one of my favorite fantasy series. The world-building is remarkably well-constructed, and unique. The lore and history is dense, inviting, and tightly interwoven into the main narrative. It’s not without its problems, but I would highly recommend it regardless.

Anyways, last year it was announced that DMG acquired the film rights to Sanderson’s Cosmere books which includes the Stormlight Archive books (and Mistborn).

Soon after, Tor released its Dream-cast for the upcoming Way of Kings movie
(The first of the Stormlight Archive Books), and IT. WAS.…pretty damn amazing actually. BUT, because I’m a huge fan of the series, I decided challenge TOR and do my own Dream-cast. Hubris? Maybe.

Some context: The vast majority of the characters in this series are people of color. Sanderson himself said:

“Alethkar natives other than the Shin have the epicanthic fold, but the Alethi wouldn’t look strictly Asian to you–they’d look like a race that you can’t define, as we don’t have them on earth. I use half-Asian/half-arab or half-asian/half-Polynesian models as my guide some of the time, but Alethi are going to have a tanner skin than some of those.”

This is the criteria with which the Tor used to cast, and so will I. This movie has the potential to be a Lord of the Rings-level blockbuster, easily capable of surpassing it in scale and complexity. That, combined with a majority POC cast, would be this black nerd’s dream come true.

Now then, let us begin:

Kaladin Stormblessed – Hunter Page-Lochard

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The core of Kaladin’s personality and appeal as a protagonist is the weight of guilt and hopelessness he carries throughout the series. In the book, his inner thoughts are described with such clarity and that it oozes onto the reader. Hunter Page-Lochard plays Koen West in the Australian Sci-fi/Fantasy show Cleverman (EXCELLENT SHOW!), a character plagued by the consequences of the selfish life he’s led and seeking redemption. Page-Lochard is amazing at depicting all the subtleties of guilt and depression. Give mah boi some long hair, a few extra pounds of muscle, and we got the perfect Kaladin.

Shallan Davar – Chloe Bennet

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Chloe Bennet was the honorable mention for Tor’s dreamcasting, but I would move her up the my prime choice. Not only does she have the right look (Shallan is one of the few characters depicted as pale despite having Alethi facial features), but Bennet’s cutthroat wit, which she displays in abundance in her role as Skye/Daisy in Marvel’s Agents of Shield, as well as the character’s knack for getting into trouble, would lend itself perfectly to Shallan’s trademark too-clever-for-her-own-good personality. One can trace a similar character trajectory between Skye from Agents of Shield and Shallan. Both were thrown into a new, dangerous world, only to find themselves uniquely equipped to make a difference, and thus forced to step up to the challenge.

Dalinar Kholin – Chow Yun-Fat or Byron Mann

I shouldn’t even have to defend this choice. Chow Yun-Fat is the baddest badass to ever badass. He’s the ‘Bad’ in Migos’ Bad and Boujee. Ok that last part may not be true.

Dalinar Kholin is a Alethi highprince trying to amend his former warmongering ways after his brother, the former king, was killed. He is stern yet inquisitive. Throughout Way of Kings we find him trying to reconcile his warrior’s upbringing to his newfound desire for peace. Chow Yun-Fat could bring that composed wisdom, coupled with an capability of being aggressive and shrewd when necessary. Also, he gives off an aura of command that one would expect from Dalinar.

Similarly, Byron Mann would be a good choice. He doesn’t quiet fit Dalinar’s burly, broad frame, but he can capture the inner conflict and powerful presence of the character. I’m even more confident in his acting chops because he shows range when playing military characters, from a disgraced war hero willing to sacrifice himself for his daughter (Yao Fei in Arrow) to a stern, obnoxious military general (Augusto Nguyen). He could play a troubled war general like Dalinar.

Adolin Kholin – Lewis Tan

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Look at that face, now look at that body. Now look at the face. Now back to that body. Ok, now that we’ve got that out of our system – Wait, one more look! Ok. Done. Adolin Kholin is described as an arrogant, handsome, and dutiful warrior. Lewis Tan checked ALL those boxes in his brief role as Zhou Cheng in Iron Fist (HE should have fucking BEEN Iron Fist, but I digress). Tan brings that easy confidence that I’ve always envisioned Adolin as having. Also, Adolin is depicted as one of the most skilled warriors in Alethkar, and since Lewis Tan is a great martial artist and stunt artist, he’s literally perfect. For the role. But he’s just perfect in general. I mean, look at that body.

Jasnah Kholin – Katrina Law or Jessica Camacho

This was the most difficult casting choice I’ve had to make, since Jasnah is my absolute favorite character. Jasnah Kholin is an Alethi princess and renown scholar. She is known for being extremely shrewd and composed, someone who is usually the smartest person in the room and knows it. Any actor playing her would need to exude that regal, intimidating vibe. Katrina Law’s talents and character are wasted on Arrow, where she portrays the deadly Nyssa al Ghul. Her cold, menacing glares are on point. With one look, she can make you feel like you aren’t even worth breathing the same oxygen as her. This is trait is integral to having the right Jasnah, and Katrina Law is the closest to embodying that.

Jessica Camacho would be a good choice too. Her main roles have not allowed her to really have much screen-time and agency, but even then I could see glimpses of a great Jasnah. Her tough, no-nonsense attitude as Sophie Foster in Sleepy Hollow, and her intoxicated confidence bordering on arrogance as Gypsy on The Flash. A merging of those two qualities, supplanted with some scholarly quirks could make her just as good a contender for Jasnah.

Szeth-son-son-Vallano – Wentworth Miller

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THIS. DUDE. RIGHT. HERE. Would make the perfect Szeth. Szeth is the bald, innocent-looking master assassin,, bound by honor to kill but secretly wishing he could meet someone who can kill him. Based on his performance as Michael Schofield in Prison Break, a man trying to free his innocent brother, and the cold, calculating villain Captain Cold in The Flash, Miller can be innocuous and dangerous in equal parts. There’s something about his facial expressions that enable such shifts in demeanor: he can have the sad puppy visage in one second, and a scowl of malevolence in the next. Interestingly, Szeth is the character closest to looking Caucasian (large eyes, pale skin).

Amaram – Sendhil Ramamurthy

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Best known for his work as Mohinder Suresh in Heroes, Sendhil Ramamurthy is excellent at playing a character whose idealism drives him to villainous acts. Amaram, Kaladin’s former commander and the reason he became a slave, is a very easy character to hate, and yet what makes him interesting is his utter lack of self-awareness. He sees his murder and betrayal as stepping stones towards the greater good, similar to Mohinder in Season 3 of Heroes (i think its season 3, it was when the show went to shit). He would bring the right level of nuance to an otherwise one-note character.

 

Tavarangian – Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

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Ah, Tavarangian! One of the most intriguing villians I’ve read in a while. The deceptive king of Kharbranth, seen as a kind, old simpleton to all his subjects, but in reality a supergenius villain(?). His end goals are shrouded in mystery, though his methods are cruel. Cary-Hiroyuki, always great at playing villains, would give Tavarangian the silent, piercing malevolence that the character needs.

 

Sylphrena – Malese Jow

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Sylphrena is Kaladin’s honorspren. She is shown as a small, blue, sprite-like entity only a few inches tall. Needless to say there she will be CGI’ed to hell. Still, Malese Jow has the right look and the playful, mischievous attitude that makes Syl so captivating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talenel’Elin – Yusef Gatewood

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Taln, one of the legendary, god-like Heralds, isn’t a main character at all. He only really appears at the prelude and the epilogue. BUT, given his importance to the world’s lore and the mystery of the story, even his short appearance ought to be crucial. I can think of no better person than Yusuf Gatewood, probably one of the most underrated actors ever. His role and screen-time in The Originals is limited, compared to the main characters, but he manages to steal the show in just about every single god damn scene that he is in.

Cultural Meta-Narratives in SFF: An Introduction

It’s no surprise that conversations about the state of fiction have surged in the last decade. Social platforms have bridged physical distances and allowed nerds fighting for inclusion in Science Fiction & Fantasy to further expose, through sheer numbers and frequency, the issues still plaguing the genres.

The problems of limited representation and toxic depictions of marginalized people are discussed on a daily basis. Thankfully, as a result, things are changing (not nearly as quickly as we deserve, but I’ll leave that for a different blog post). And yet, you’ll still find a legion of people fighting back with the usual half-baked retorts. “Well, there shouldn’t be black people in X fictional world because that wouldn’t be realistic.” “Well, women being sexual objects in X fictional world is totally reasonable because of XYZ.” One thing I’ve noticed about people who give these lines of reasoning is that they really, REALLY don’t get it. Like, on a fundamental level.

(Pst! If you’re reading this and you don’t think SFF has a diversity/problematic representation issue, please read Phenderson Djeli Clark’s work on the topic. Read this. And this. And this)

Don’t get me wrong, there are bigots whose egos and privileges will never allow them to believe that, say, Scarlett Johnson playing cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in The Shell is an issue. Those people are pretty much hopeless.

But, there is another group of individuals who are on a completely different wavelength in how they understand stories. Stories do not exist in a vacuum. They are birthed, distorted, and influenced by the same conflux of culture and personal experiences that shape the storyteller. Cultures themselves are shaped by stories and narratives that those within the community value and retell. Stories have power; they affect actual people, which is pretty much why they intoxicate us. You can’t both expect a story to be powerful, impactful and seep into the cultural framework and not hold it accountable for the cracks and tears it may leave in the bedrock.

But too many people do, and that’s the problem.

Too many people only see a story as the paper within the binding, or the pixels on the screen, not considering that racist, sexist, homophobic tropes affect the larger, real life culture. To them, Game of Thrones having the majority of the Black and brown people as slaves or stereotypical savages does not uphold such strains of racism in our existing culture.

Simply put, they don’t understand a quintessential component of stories,
one that I think can best be called a cultural meta-narrative.

What is a Cultural Meta-narrative?

An overarching narrative that a story tells in respect to an aspect of the culture, politics, and history in the real world. Cultural Meta-narratives are directly linked to the world’s systems of power and oppression. This gets complex when we take geography into account. The Zeitgeist is neither monolithic nor singular. Because meta-narratives they tap into the specific region’s history and politics and cultural values, they tend to differ from country to country. Thus, a Japanese story’s cultural meta-narrative regarding race will not be the same as one in the story from the United States. For the sake of simplicity, I will keep my talk of Meta-narratives to stories in the U.S.

So, for example, {SPOILERS} Veil being killed in the season 2 Finale of Into the Badlands, reinforced the meta-narratives of women as thematic stepping stones for male characters’ development, black people’s lives being disposal, AND (because Misogynoir) black women’s suffering being irrelevant. Also, fuck that show. Moving on.

Understanding meta-narratives requires an understanding the history/culture/politics of the country in which it was written. Many people couldn’t understand the Iron Fist controversy because they did not know shit about the U.S’ history of placing White men in a foreign culture to dominate its denizens (both in storytelling and real life). Our cultures shape our worldviews. Our privileges render those views resistant to change and empathy. Writing stories without checking our privileges yield meta-narratives that help reproduce inequality. Also, fuck Iron Fist.

So, why do I think having a precise term like Cultural Meta-narrative is important? Two reasons.

1) It might be helpful to have a term to encapsulate and identify the concepts we are unpacking when having these conversations because it makes it more tangible in a rhetorical level.

Ideally, our arguments should speak for themselves because racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry should be obvious to pinpoint. But clearly, people are still not getting it, so we need to simplify things. The issue of diversity in SFF is, as Daniel Jose Older once said, a storytelling 101 course. But some people are failing even that so…we need to get remedial.

2) It helps frame stories into two dimensions; the technical elements (Craft), and it’s contribution to the Zeitgeist and its genre (Cultural Narrative). A writer must be aware of both to tell a good story. Many would disagree, but many also have privileges (White, Cis, Hetero, take your pick) that limit their perception of a story to the Craft dimension only. And this prevents them from seeing how weak, problematic cultural meta-narrative taints the craft and reveals the laziness of the storyteller.

But I’ll get much deeper into that next time.

Part 1: How Toxic Meta-Narratives Pollute Craft. (COMING TO A BLOG NEAR YOU)