Saturday, 12 June 2021

Blogjune Day 12 - Lights up on Washington Heights...

Last night, I went to a special preview screening of In the Heights - the film adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda's first Broadway musical which won four Tony Awards in 2008.

It's been a long time coming, with the cinematic release delayed a year due to COVID-19. You can watch the opening number below...

So, what did I think of it?

There's always a lot of risk when it comes to adapting a hit Broadway musical to film, from Les Miserables to Cats. Incidentally both of those films was directed by Tom Hooper - one was epic and yet forgettable, and the other you can never unsee.

The first thing to know about In the Heights is that this is an adaptation - not a frame-for-frame remake. Which makes sense, since film is a completely different medium to stage. The big scenes are so much bigger, and the intimate scenes are much more nuanced. This film takes every opportunity to make the most of the medium - from the huge elaborate dance scenes filmed on location, to scenes in Abuela Claudia's kitchen, where you could almost smell every delicious dish being cooked.

As an adaptation, things have changed. Characters are fleshed out, and the sequence of events have changed. Some songs and plotlines are cut, whilst other more timely issues, such as racism and immigration, are more prominent. This felt like an organic progression to the work, perhaps cutting some of the weaker elements of the source material, and taking the opportunity to bring more depth and meaning to the characters and the film's ending.

And yes, they changed the ending. To be honest, I think it works so much better - as touching and emotional as the stage version's ending is, this brings a sense of joy and closure to the suenito (little dream) of the central characters.

The cast is an absolutely joy to watch. Anthony Ramos is a star as Usnavi - perhaps a bit too cool and charismatic compared to the passionate-yet-awkward energy that Lin Manuel Miranda brought in originating the role, but still very fitting in the role. Daphne Rubin-Vega - yes, that's Mimi from Rent - is phenominal as Daniela, as is Olga Merediz, who originated the role of Abuela Claudia and whose song 'Paciencia Y Fe' is a haunting and memorable swan song. Jimmy Smits is surprisingly good as Kevin Rosario. And there's a whole supporting cast of young up and coming stars that you should keep an eye out for. Finally, yes, Lin Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson (the original Usnavi and Benny) both feature as rival street vendors. Be sure to stick around to the end of the credits.

Visually, this is where the film really shines. You might know the director John M. Chu for making Crazy Rich Asians,  but it's his work on the Step Up franchise that comes through with the block-party-scale dance routines. The dancing is big - and I thought I knew a bit about salsa dancing, but the scene in the salsa club takes it to the next level. It's energic, raw, authentic - and these people can move.

The soundtrack is also amazing. Before the film, there was a trailer for Dear Evan Hansen, which felt a little overproduced, with not-very-subtle autotuning. However, the sound is very well done here - with some very clever moments, such as the subito piano toward the climax of '96,000' using an underwater shot. And not even an inkling that any of the vocals had been manipulated. Every song is an absolute banger, and I came out of the cinema wanting to play the soundtrack straight away.

Anyway, as you can tell, I loved it. 

If you get a chance, go see it on the big screen, the way it was clearly meant to be seen.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Blogjune Day 11 - more on labels and diversity

In my last post, I reflected on the strengths and flaws of the Own Voices label in identifying diverse works created by those from the same diverse backgrounds.

We also talk quite a bit about diversity in the library sector - but I'm not so sure that we've reached a point where it's necessarily a meaningful and inclusive conversation.

In my mind, diversity is another catch-all term, which both defines and others all that is not the dominant and privileged status, ie white, non-Indigenous, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, neurotypical, without disability, and so on. There's the danger that if we're not careful, we simply define our workforce into 'diverse' and 'not diverse', which runs the risk of excluding those that need more careful consideration.

For example, in recent years, I've seen a lot of resources put into recruiting, embedding and supporting Indigenous people in the workforce - which absolutely is important work. But I've rarely seen similar affirmative measures created for other minority demographics.

At the same time, given that the Australian librarian workforce is made up of 86% of women, you could be forgiven for thinking that gender diversity isn't an issue. That is, until you realise that there is still a wage gap where men are more representative in the higher income brackets. Whether this is because more men are on a higher wage, or more women are working part-time or casual, it still amounts to the fact that there are gender considerations that go beyond simple diversity statistics. Equity is also important.

Even sub-categories of diversity are problematic. The one that I always bring up is 'culturally and linguistically diverse' (or CALD), which in Australia is defined based on which country you were born in, and which language you speak at home. It's a measure that's left over from the days of the White Australia policy, and excludes many second- and third-generation migrants living in Australia, such as myself.

Other catch-all phrases, such as ATSI (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander), BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic - often used in the UK), BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color - often used in the US), and FNPOC (First Nations and People of Colour - increasingly used here in Australia), all serve a purpose in defining and drawing attention to underrepresented people, but we do need to avoid the temptation of stopping at that level.

I recently read a piece that criticised the 'Stop Asian Hate' campaign, because it focused too much on East Asian hate, and didn't do enough to create awareness on the experiences of South Asians who were subjected to Islamaphobic attacks.

These are all just examples, but they highlight the fact that words matter, and detail is important.

Ultimately, diversity is just a measure - an indication of how well you are representative of your community. Just as important, if not more so, is considering equity and inclusion. You may have the diversity statistics, but without implementing equity and inclusion measures, many of the existing systemic power imbalances will remain.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Blogjune Day 10 - on #ownvoices writing

On Sunday 6 June, We Need Diverse Books announced that they were no longer using the #ownvoices hashtag, saying that the term 'become a “catch all” marketing term by the publishing industry', which as then been 'used to place diverse creators in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations'.

They have announced that, instead, they will 'use specific descriptions that authors use for themselves and their characters whenever possible (for example, “Korean American author,” or “autistic protagonist”).'

Personally, I first became familiar with the term 'own voices' in 2018 when Fremantle Press published the anthology Meet me at the intersection. Described as an anthology of Own Voices, containing diverse stories written and created by authors of the same diverse group - in this case, people who are Indigenous, people of colour, LGBTIQA, or living with disability.

It felt like an important term at the time - not only was important that we have diverse representation in the stories that we read, but that we provide opportunities for diverse creators to be creating these narratives based on their lived experiences. It was a way of raising these voices and perhaps distinguishing them from writers who perhaps use other peoples' lived experiences as a device for propelling their own creative work.

So, what's changed? I'm actually not that sure, to be honest. I suspect that this decision is, in part, due to the experiences of Becky Albertalli last year, where she was effectively forced to come out as bisexual after prolonged and intense scrutiny and criticism online. She appeals to the literary community: 'Can we all be a bit more careful when we engage in queer Ownvoices discourse? Can we remember that our carelessness in these discussions has caused real harm? And that the people we’re hurting rarely have my degree of privilege or industry power? Can we make space for those of us who are still discovering ourselves? Can we be a little more compassionate? Can we make this a little less awful for the next person?'

Furthermore, there is a danger with catch-all labels, whether it be Own Voices, or even 'diverse', is that it creates a false dichotomy where it becomes the be-all and end-all of what is good and acceptable. There are many white writers who have written awful works featuring people of colour - but there are also those who have researched, consulted and had people of colour as their first readers to help create authentic narratives in what have become excellent works. There are also Own Voices works that are unfortunately not great.

And then, there are those who would claim their work as Own Voices, where that claim is in itself somewhat dubious, and they rely own the label as a way of raising the profile of their own work instead of its individual merits.

Ultimately, whilst measuring diversity is a useful indicator, it's the specific elements that make the industry diverse that is valuable. So, yes, I'm very happy for us to be more specific in the ways that we celebrate cultural and literary works - all the more opportunity to identify those specific voices that are underrepresented and absent, and raise those voices into prominence.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Blogjune Day 9 - on library leadership

Back in April, I attended the ALIA Information Online In-Depth virtual event on Leadership. It was a stimulating session, that reminded me of a lot of the issues that we need to stay on top of in both the Australian library sector and the wider GLAMR sector.

One thing really struck me, during the first section featuring three leaders in the GLAMR sector, was that none of them were qualified professionals in their given field. David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia, comes from a computer science background, Director of the Australian Museum comes from a marketing and communications background. Kate Torney, CEO State Library Victoria, comes from a journalism background. More notably, all of these leaders stepped into these roles without having previously work in the GLAMR sector. We've also seen similar trends in leadership appointments in some of our state and public libraries.

That's not to say that they are not capable leaders in each of their roles - they've all shown a long-standing track record of achievement, and as I've often said, a librarianship qualification is not the be-all and end-all of one's capbility to work in a library, nor should it be treated as a hurdle requirement to do so.

However, it does raise the question: is there a lack or reluctance of qualified librarians who are suitably experienced to step up into leadership positions in the Australian sector? Or is it just that leaders coming from other sectors are far more experienced and capable, and obvious choices when appointing leaders into these roles?

When I think back to some of the best and brightest emerging leaders that I'd met when I was starting out, 10-15 years ago, I'd say that at least half of those who I would have tipped as future library leaders have moved sectors or shifted roles, and no longer associate themselves with the library profession. Some have burnt out, or gone on to do bigger and better things in another sector that they find much more meaningful and rewarding.

There was a time when we used to look forward to that oft-predicted time when all the baby boomers would retire, opening up all kinds of leadership roles. In more recent years, many have bemoaned the lack of new leadership opportunities, due to a combination of said baby boomers delaying their retirement, and shrinking library staffing budgets.

But perhaps this isn't the biggest thing we need to worry about - the fact is that the cultural sector has always been a desirable and competitive option for employment, and there are many very capable professionals out there who are building up a track record of achievements, and would jump at the opportunity to take on the top job in a major library. And they're better at running libraries than the librarians.

So where does that leave the library and information profession?

My view: we need to adapt, and let the strengths of those who join us from beyond the sector be our strengths as a profession. We need to stop pigeon-holing ourselves and the people we work with, otherwise we limit our opportunities to grow professionally. We need to encourage our library professionals to get experience and build better skills outside the sector - experience and skills that they can hopefully bring back. And we need to be a sector that our past emerging leaders might want to come back to in the future.

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Blogjune Day 8 - on musicals

Anybody who vaguely knows me will know how much I love musicals. If there's even just an opportunity to sing showtunes, then I'm in... I'm always the guy at the karaoke bar who'll inevitably be belting everything from Heaven on their minds to Part of that world.

So, on the weekend, I saw that my local cinema was showing the National Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, as part of their NT Live series. I'm familiar with quite a number of Sondheim's shows, but Follies was not one of them - with the exception of the songs 'I'm still here' and 'Buddy's blues', which were both standout performances. But, damn it, why does every Sondheim musical have to be so depressing? Sure, Phillip Quast and Imelda Staunton were both incredible on stage, but I stepped out the theatre feeling like my life was already over and all my youth had been wasted - all I had left were memories and regrets. Yep, it's that kind of Sondheim musical.

On the other hand, this Friday I have tickets to see In the Heights on the big screen. Now this is something that I'm really looking forward to, being the big screen adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda's *first* Tony-award-winning musical (you know, before he went and wrote Hamilton). Yes, Hamilton is a intricately layered work of lyrical and theatrical genius, but In the Heights is still my personal favourite - it just has so much passion and heart... it's raw and honest, full of joy and fear and hope, with its central theme of community. I already know that this will be one of my favourite nights out at the movies this year - there will be much laugher and tears.

As for Hamilton... I'm definitely looking forward to seeing it live on stage next month. I just wish that it'd happened sooner - like six years ago when I was so obsessed with it and I had it playing on repeat for months. Part of me has definitely moved on, but hey, I'll probably be absolutely wowed by the choreography, set changes and surprise reinterpretations by the Aussie cast.

Finally, I myself am going to be in a musical soon. My first musical theatre production in... *counts on fingers* over 15 years! Though it hasn't been for lack of trying. The local community theatre scene is definitely a tightknit community, and I've been occasionally auditioning for a few years now with no luck... until now. So, if you're in the Canberra region, keep an eye out for Oklahoma! in October...

Monday, 7 June 2021

Blogjune Day 7 - my TBR pile

Continuing on yesterday's theme of catching up, I've spent much of the past year catching up on my "to be read" - or TBR - pile of books.

It would have been during last year's lockdown that I faced the fact that a large proportion of my bookshelf contained books that I'd never read. Whilst this certainly isn't unusual for many in my social circle, the librarian in me decided that enough was enough, and it was time for some proper collection management.

That is, either I read those books that I always intended to read, or off they go to Lifeline to sell at the bookfair.

The rules are simple:

  • Pick up a book from the shelf that I haven't read
  • Proceed to read the book
  • If the book hasn't grabbed me by page 50, then I'm allowed to let it go in the box to Lifeline
  • If, at the end of the book, I'm unlikely to ever read it again or recommend it to anybody - again, Lifeline.
  • Otherwise, it can go back onto the shelf.
  • Repeat
  • Don't buy any more books in the interim (with a couple of exceptions, ie the next in a series that I'm reading comes out, or I'm at a book launch)
This has been a remarkably effective way of (a) motivating myself to read those books that I never got around to, and (b) realising why I was subconsciously avoiding that book!

I have recently reached the point where I've most of the 'fun' books on my TBR pile... Cormac McCarthy's The Road is still waiting for my attention, but for now I've started moving on to some of my non-fiction collection. After wizzing through Clara Bensen's No Baggage (a particularly nostalgic read, as we count the months before the international borders are likely to re-open), I've decided to take on something with more heft - The Fog of Peace, Jean-Marie Guehenno's memoir of his time as the Under-Secretary General for UN peacekeeping operations.

It's not a light read - especially for somebody like me who doesn't come from an international relations background - though after a while, I begin to get a feel for the blow-by-blow accounts of diplomatic issues in the international sphere, and definitely gain an appreciation for the sheer level of complexity in managing the many relationships involved. But something in his introduction that struck a chord with me was describing how he had come from an academic understanding of peacekeeping, and had a reputation as an intellectual, but needed to assert himself as a capable operator.

Something that I've thought a lot about these past years are these strange dichotomies that we often try to connect. Whether it's between between practice and theory, operational and strategic, support and substantive. For the longest time, I've worked in day-to-day operational roles, whilst trying to make the transition to something more strategic and influential. At the same time, there are plenty of times where I've been critical of those who make the big decisions, because they are based more around practical and operational efficiency rather than upholding idealistic principles of altruism and progressing cultural development.

Everything's all well and good in theory, until I'm the one who actually needs to carry it out - and I realise that by saying that, I'm sounding like an apologist for everything awful that's happening in the world - which is not my intention! So, instead, I'll end with a Hamilton quote: 'Winning is easy, young man. Governing is harder.'

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Blogjune Day 6 - on catching up

I said that I'd catch up by Sunday night... here I am, in the wee hours of Monday morning, but I feel like it still counts. I often feel like I'm falling behind, and catching up.

I was out to dinner with my partner's family and friends, and I was struck by some comments around the importance of making the right career decisions that will help ensure a comfortable retirement. This was from somebody who was only a handful of years older than myself.

I felt that familiar pang of, "So, Andrew. How are you going with that, then?" How long will it be until I catch up with where I need to be to be able to retire comfortably by my mid to late 60s? Yes, I have a mortgage, a moderately sized superannuation - and a sizeable HECS debt - certainly not yet on track for where I "need" to be...

Then again, I feel like the goalposts are always shifting. I hear from those a decade younger than me who feel like they'll never be able to own property. For every person who I hear talk about putting extra money into their super, I hear about others contemplating taking out of the super to pay their daily bills and rent.

Part of me still aspires to try to aim higher, earn more, purely for the sake of being able to hang up my hat in 25 years and not have to worry about these things. But at what cost? If I'm comfortable now, somewhere in the middle, then why should I risk making my life more difficult or miserable, for a few dollars an hour more?

Then I think back to the years that I spent volunteering overseas. There's not a day that I look back and wish that I'd spent that time working in a regular job in Australia, earning more money, getting a mortgage sooner, putting more into my super, etc...

I realise that this is a position of massive privilege as it is. So why do I constantly feel like I'm still at a disadvantage?