In defense of Sokka

Since I’ve been re-watching Avatar, several people have asked me what kind of bender I am. The S.O. opines often that I am a firebender, but to be honest I’ve never felt completely connected with any of the bending disciplines. The character that I feel the greatest connection to, actually, is Sokka.

sokka

(For the record, the S.O. is definitely an airbender. If anyone was wondering.)

Sokka is the weak link in the Avatar team. Actually, I only use that term because I was listening to the Revisionist History podcast recently and Malcom Gladwell was talking about weak link versus strong link thinking. Specifically, what he said was that some people focus on improving the strong link in a team (in this case, Aang) because they think that will give them the best chance of success. But often, success in a given community or sport will hinge on the weak link – the character that, at face value, has the least power or strength. Despite his skill with a boomerang, Sokka fits.

At first blush, it looks like the plot of Avatar is all about leveling up Aang. He’s the main character, he’s the chosen one, and he’s the person the plot revolves around. But on the rewatch it quickly becomes apparent: Aang can’t succeed at anything on his own. Yeah, the kid is hella powerful, but so what? Power is not the only thing that wins the fight. No matter how much Aang levels up, he can’t do it on his own.

sokka 2

You need strategy. You need your team.

Sokka is not a bender. He’s the oldest, but he’s not the best with people either. His greatest strengths are, ironically, his pessimism and his ability to come up with schemes. Sokka is concerned with the basic aspects of living – money, food, a place to sleep. He’s practical. He’s loyal, too. When he gets the chance to join his beloved father at various points in the series, he chooses not to, knowing that Aang needs him. It is Sokka who discovers the Day of Black Sun, who pushes for them to invade the Fire Nation at that time. It nearly works, too. In the final battle, it’s Sokka who focuses on the bigger picture – preventing the Fire Nation soldiers from destroying the Earth Kingdom – playing an instrumental roll in the action.

Sokka isn’t the only non-bender with exceptional physical skills. Mai and Ty Lee both show that benders are not the only power on the battlefield. He’s also not the smartest non-bender we see. The Mechanist is far more skilled in inventing, though Sokka does his share. He is a generalist, and while that doesn’t mean that he is flashy, the breadth of his knowledge is its own power. Sokka knows what his team’s skills are, and he comes up with strategies that play to those skills. They may not always work out, but at least he has a plan – and he’s always quick to come up with something else. He is not the leader of their group – Katara comes closest – but he is the brains behind the operation, even if his friends sometimes take potshots at his logic.

(And his propensity to drink cactus juice.)

sokka 4

Could Aang have won without Sokka? It’s possible. More likely he would have been captured by the Fire Nation long before without Sokka and Katara’s help. But even assuming he survived, and won the battle with Ozai, Aang would not have been able to protect the people he was fighting for without Sokka’s strategies and support. He may be the weakest link, but that makes him no less integral.


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Ghosts, editing, and bookmarks!

Hello again! It’s your weekly blogpost!

This week I want to chat about what I’m working on currently, including my Patreon project.

Patreon4

I’ve had two goals for the past few months that I’ve been working on. One is to be on submission. This takes a lot more work than you probably think it does, and requires dusting up all the stories I’ve finished in the past few months, researching markets, and sending them out into the world. I have, tentatively, four or five short stories that I would like to find homes and have been finished in the past six months, which is a lot for me. I blame my new proclivity on a recent fascination with the form. Short stories are easier to read when I need a quick break during a busy day than novels, so I’ve been reading a lot more of them. I still don’t know if I’m a great short story writer, but I like to think that I’ve become a lot better in the past year if for no other reason than because my love for short stories has grown.

So anyway, that means I’ve spent a lot of time grooming stories, which can take several passes, and sending missives out into the metaphorical ether.

The other thing I’ve been doing, of course, is writing. Specifically, I’ve been working on the Patreon horror story I’ve wanted to do for some time now under the Black Roses header.

Patreon Bookmark

(Did I mention I made bookmarks? Possibly jumping the gun a bit but I love them so much I don’t care.)

For those unfamiliar, Patreon is a subscription service whereby you can support your favorite creators for as little as $1/month. You can even set up your payments through Paypal. At the moment, my Patreon is sort of fledgling and operates primarily to support my blog posts. I also post excerpts from things I’ve been working on, including the aforementioned short stories, with some explanation of what the story is about or why I particularly liked the excerpt in question. I’ve promised everyone dark poems at $20/month but we’re not quite there yet. If you’re interested, we’ve only got $8 to go to get there. You could be the lucky soul that unlocks this joy! (For a sample poem, click here.)

Anyway, the thing I’ve been writing the most on recently has been a draft of a serial horror story about a woman, her ghosts, and the man she thinks to bury them in. A writer I admire said to write ahead so I’ve been working on doing just that, but I can’t wait to share this story. We have to get to $30/month first, but as I get further in the draft I plan to post some fun bits to sweeten the pot. More on those to come!

I hope that you’ll forgive this shameless self-plugging and consider supporting this blog if it’s something that gives you joy. Thank you in advance if you choose to do so! Tune in next week for more Avatar discussions and a soccer reference.


 

 

 

Where are their parents?

The S.O. and I are watching Avatar: The Last Airbender together. It’s a rewatch for me, first time through for him, and we love it a lot. I preface this post with that love, because I’m about to wade into a wide-scale critique of a flaw I find sort of annoying with a lot of YA books using Avatar as our lens. Admittedly Avatar is not a book, but I think it will serve in this instance.

The question that I end up asking myself a lot in young adult books is a pretty straightforward one: where are these children’s parents? And I don’t just mean where physically. The where of a character in a work of fiction, especially one told from the closed perspective of the main character as young adult novels often are, can be metaphysical as well. Specifically, I’m curious about the space that parental figures take up in the psyche of your main character, not just the space they take up in the setting or plot.

Often, writers choose to bypass parental figures in YA because it’s difficult to give a character agency when they have a more dominant figure making choices for them. Perhaps this is why we see so many orphans in young adult and, often, middle grade fiction. But orphaning a character is a lazy way of dealing with the complexity of familial relationships (says a writer who has done it) so I think it’s important to think critically about how it can be approached in a better way. This is one of the things that Avatar is good for looking at in particular. Each of the characters has very unique ways of relating with older relatives in their familial or kin units. There’s such a wide variety of characters from a wide variety of backgrounds that we get a lot of perspective on the different ways that a writer of young adult fiction can tackle this question.

Now let’s look at some of those relationships. Spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

There are five main characters worth exploring here. The first is the titular character, Aang. Aang provides a unique take on the parenthood approach – we never meet his parents at all. Instead, we learn that Aang’s people sent him to study as a monk (there are apparently no lady monks?) at the Eastern Air Temple. He’s never known a mother or father, but the lead monks serve as his roll models, most specifically Monk Gyatso. We see a very good relationship between these two, before time and circumstance lead to Monk Gyatso’s loss. The grief of that loss, however, continues to drive Aang, and his memories of Gyatso remain an important guide for him as his development continues.

Katara and Sokka, Aang’s closest companions, also have absent parents. In their case, however, they knew both of their parents. Katara witnessed her mother killed by the Fire Nation. Their father went off to war. They were then raised by the grandmother – a person that Katara speaks of often as a source of wisdom and guidance. However, when Aang is found, Katara and Sokka make the choice to go with him without any help from any of the remaining adults of their tribe. They do this with the permission of their tribe members. Later, Katara and Sokka encounter other members of the Southern Water Tribe, including their father, during their quest to defeat the Fire Nation. At these points in time, Katara and Sokka’s father is protective, but expects them to contribute as they are able to the fight. One can infer that the Southern Water Tribe has a strong culture of independence for its teens. Mutual love exists, but does not prohibit Katara, Sokka, or their father from each pursuing their own destinies.

Toph’s parents are controlling assholes. Toph has so much strength – she’s come into her own – but her parents refuse to see that so she runs away. In this way, her storyline mirrors what Aang’s might have been, but without a comforting Monk Gyatso to protect her. Her mother is a non-character, and her father is antagonistic at best, and most of the other adults she has interacted with, including her earthbending instructor, have only their own interests at heart. Accordingly, Toph is a somewhat jaded and conflicted character, and often picks up on the ulterior motives of others well before Aang, Katara and Sokka.

zuko ozai

Zuko has a dad but that father is Ozai, a monster. His mother, Ursa, is absent, and though her absence bought his life that doesn’t replace the hole she left. Iroh is a stand-in parental figure. He’s the main source of parental guidance in the whole show, and serves as a parental figure to several of the characters at different points. Iroh, however, has a pretty hands-off approach to parenting Zuko, perhaps because he understands that Zuko can’t afford to be coddled. His father has marked him clearly as an adult and a target, despite his young age.

A pattern clearly emerges from studying these stories. There can be three types of parental figures: the dead or vanished, the antagonistic, and those who choose to offer only gentle guidance. What is missing here is a more normative parental structure. Iroh comes the closest to fitting into what we would consider a normal parental role, and his relationship with Zuko is still fraught. Avatar therefore becomes a microcosm of the common tropes that repeat in the YA genre.

Perhaps the only way that we can see for kids to have agency in a story is to eliminate the adults that could make the hard choices for them. It is always difficult to capture the complexities of life and the diverse relationships we find in fiction. I personally think Avatar does fairly well in answering the question of where their parents are in ways that feel satisfactory within the world and the narrative. That said, these answers work contextually – that is to say, so many dead or absent mothers and antagonistic or absent fathers would not impress me in a different setting. War has the benefit of destabilizing familial structures, and so the answers that Avatar gives us work.

That said, I admonish every writer of children, in whatever genre or work, to think critically about how to give a child believable agency without entirely destroying their parental relationships – or their parents – especially in ways that are not believable to the story you are telling.

And if someone could give me a good, healthy mother-and-child story, I’m always looking.


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The only way out is through

This past weekend was Labor Day, and therefore I got a long weekend. The S.O. and some friends had planned to go on a hike sometime in late summer or fall, and they invited me along. I was slightly skeptical, but I went. I’m glad I did. But that was a humdinger of a hike, friends.

For those unfamiliar with hiking, there’s a couple of different breeds. You have your dayhikers, which I usually count myself among, casual hikers who go for a particular destination and take their time doing it. They rarely sleep outdoors and often take little in the way of gear, hiking in tennis shoes and leggings, secure in the knowledge that a hot meal and shower is waiting at the end of the day.

Then there are thru-hikers, the hardcore hiking aficionados, sometimes soul-searching, sometimes just walking for the fun of it. If you live off of a major trail like the Appalachian Trail of the Pacific Crest Trail, you have met them, or at least seen them on the side of the road. These are the guys and gals with huge packs the size of their torso, infamous appetites, and a general sun-burned and bug-bitten appearance.

In between these two extremes, you get overnighters.

There’s obviously a lot of variability between going on a hike for a day with a bottle of water and some snacks or your packed lunch and hiking a trail for three months, but a common overnight lives up to its name – one to three nights on the trail. At first glance, a backpacker on an overnight may look a bit like a thru-hiker. The packs are large, for example, and there’s a lot of sweating involved. However, an overnighter is better fed and cleaner, as a rule. That’s not saying a lot at the end of summer, with mud everywhere and sweat pouring from every inch of your skin, but it’s saying something.

This weekend, I spent three nights and three days on the trail. By the end I had over twenty bugbites on my exposed arms, ankles, and throat. I had sweated all the way through my clothes, continually, for three days, and the smell could have literally knocked someone over. My feet were blistered, my joints were aching. When I stood up I had to lean on a stick and waddle until the pain could work its way out enough that I could take a step again. There was a point on that trail where I seriously contemplated lying down and not getting back up. That was about 20 miles in. We went 45 miles, all told, over three days.

I didn’t lie down. I didn’t give up. I did this because there was no other choice. I was 20+ miles by foot from any quick or easy fix. There were no ways out except to hitch up the pack on my back and keep moving. The only way out was through.

When I got home, I got a rejection on a story. There are rejections, and there are rejections – I’m sure, if you write, that you know what I mean. Writing means rejection, and some of them are almost expected. There comes a point when, despite all the work you’ve put in, you know you’re just tossing darts blind. Spinning the wheel of fate. Whatever metaphor you want to use, there’s no control there.

Sometimes, however, you get your hopes up. You’re so damn sure that this story, this one, it’s meant to be with this market. They will love this. This will be your sale, guaranteed. And it isn’t. And they don’t love it. And the form letter comes in the mail. The trail is still stretching on forever. You have not reached the shelter. You have not found a summit. There’s only forward, forward, forward, up the mountain.

I do have a choice about giving up on submissions. In some ways, that makes it harder than being on the trail. But I don’t think I can ever stop writing, whether I want to or not. So perhaps it’s not so different in the end.

Hitch up the pack. Keep moving.


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