Sep 7, 2016

Kindred Spirits

Kindred Spirits by Rainbow Rowell
Last week I read Kindred Spirits, a story by Rainbow Rowell that was published in the UK for this year’s World Book Day as a little booklet. It’s about Elena, an 18-year-old Star Wars fan who decides to camp out for the premiere of The Force Awakens. For the uninitiated, this means sleeping on the pavement outside the theatre for a few days ahead of the movie’s opening night — not because you need to in order to secure tickets or anything of the sort, but because it’s a unique chance to celebrate the thing you love and the joy it brings you alongside other people who are equally committed. For Elena, Star Wars is most definitely the thing: the thing you love so much it’s come to represent the inside of your heart; the thing that’s so deep in you it can be hard to talk about. Unless, of course, you’re surrounded by your people — people who might love whatever it is that you love in entirely different ways and for completely different reasons, but who nonetheless treat its importance in your life with the reverence it merits. There’s no room for shame or feigned indifference in the queue. Not in theory, anyway.

Kindred Spirits is a lovely and thoughtful look at what fandom means: at everything that’s involved in the process of loving the same things as other people; at what this sort of shared experience says about us and what it doesn’t; at having our identity shaped by communion and separation both. Also, it’s not a facile or rose-tainted story. Elena eventually makes a friend in the queue, but this happens after long, lonely and awkward hours of fear and uncertainty. The moments of human connection, when they eventually arrive, feel earned and significant in their own right. Here are two that made me smile from ear to ear:
Elena bounced up and down, pointing from side to side.
“What’s that?” Gabe asked.
“It’s my Star Wars dance,” she said, bouncing and pointing.
After a few seconds, he joined her. Then Troy’s friends picked it up. The dance travelled down the line. From the street, they must have looked like the Peanuts characters dancing.

“Gabe?” she said.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Why not?”
“Star Wars!”
The second of these exchanges is so much like a memory I have from this summer that it nearly made my heart burst. I’ve just come to the end of an extraordinary year in what I guess I could call my main fandom. It was a year full of opportunities for this sort of shared experience, and as such the subject matter of Kindred Spirits has been very much on my mind. I remember hugging strangers in various cities across the world; I remember sharing neon make-up and tape with a group of people I’d only just met, and laughing as we watched the late afternoon light shine on Colorado’s strange rock formation; I remember how watching one another be excited magnified our own joy and excitement, and how at the end we hugged and exchanged thank yous for making the day even better. I remember the joy of spontaneously jumping up and down while holding hands with a new friend; I remember helping a lovely, quiet, shy teenage girl attract the attention of a member of her favourite band so she could give her a present, because I recognise the impulse and the feeling even in situations where I don’t share it. I remember sitting outside with Clare on a sunny Sunday morning in New York, still achy and exhausted and delirious with joy from the day before, listening as she told me about a perfect moment of communion with a fellow Saturday Night Live fan, and telling her in response to her story, “I live for this shit”.

And it’s true; I do. It’s interesting, though, to think about how my understanding of this sort of experience has changed over the years, and how the internal narrative that accompanies it shape the experience in its turn. I remember being a teenager, posting in the music message board where I met my partner and made several lifelong friends: we were misfits, for the most part, though if you were to ask us to explain what that meant for each of us there would be worlds of difference in the specifics. Still, at the time we all daydreamed — and wrote pages-long threads — about moving to an island where we were the only inhabitants. It was a dream about belonging, of course: we harboured the hope that if only we were among the right people, then human connection would happen naturally, without fear or strife.

There’s something to that idea, if only in the sense that it’s important to find people who are safe, who are kind, who you can love truthfully, with openness and with trust, and who will love you in return. But finding them is far more complicated than just surrounding yourself with people who also love the thing you love. Time made it abundantly clear that you won’t always get along with such people, or even necessarily share a sensibility or an outlook. Sometimes you will, of course, and that’s a wonderful thing. But when I say, today, that I live for these moments of shared connection, what I mean is less about finding kindred spirits and more about appreciating those exchanges in themselves, even if they’re limited in time and in emotional scope. There’s value in human connections that are transient, that don’t necessary take the shape you imagine or expect. There’s value in communion, in reminders of our shared humanity, in not standing apart. What I feel during those moments reminds me of, as Virginia Woolf puts it in Three Guineas, “the capacity of the human spirit to overflow boundaries and make unity out of multiplicity”. It’s also to do with what I wrote about earlier this year: with moving past exceptionalism and finding enormous and unexpected comfort on the other side. It’s important to me.

This summer I saw Kathleen Hanna live, more or less by accident: I was not aware of her latest project The Julie Ruin, but I happened to be camped in front of the stage where she was playing at a festival in New York. I was thrilled to see her — I was too young to be aware of Riot Grrrl when it was happening, but I’ve come to be invested in everything it represents. Anyway, she had the best stage banter, unsurprisingly. At one point she started telling us about how she resents the constant state of suspicion that is forced upon her as a woman in our world. She talked about how she wants to be able to be open and trusting, without having that be taken away from her by power differentials and the way these are exploited. And then she told us that the trust she felt at that moment, standing in front of this crowd of people in that particular space and time, is what she wishes were the norm in our world.

I am aware that this is shorthand in a sense, because it’s not like bad things don’t happen at music festivals, even within crowds of people who all love the same music by a renowned feminist activist. Still, I know the feeling behind that statement, and it’s something I wish I could experience more often too. Even just getting to feel it from time to time sustains me. It’s the opposite of fear, being enveloped in such goodwill. It’s the opposite of the deep sense of suspicion and isolation I felt in the days and weeks that followed the Brexit vote. It’s the “oneness of feeling with others” I was talking about recently. It means something. It means a lot. It’s how I want to be in the world.


  1. I forgot I grabbed a copy of this in e-format at one point. I should read it. lol

  2. This is really well put and I recognize a lot of what you wrote in my own interactions with fandom. On another note, I have yet to read anything by Rainbow Rowell, I have a feeling I should maybe change that.

    1. <3

      I think Fangirl is probably my favourite, it that helps.

  3. I do feel SO resentful of the suspicion being a woman forces on me. It's kind of the same way I feel about my mental illness -- resentful that this external thing, depression, is shoving me perpetually farther away from the state of riotous joy that I think is my natural state. And it's the same with the gendered thing. I think that by nature and upbringing and, I dunno, region of the country?, I was meant for quite an open-faced friendly girl, but just by being a woman, I end up being vastly more unfriendly than I want to be.

    A physical book, this? Or no? I would like to have it but in a physical format if I could! I can't see if that exists!

    1. *hugs* It sucks, right? And I really, really wish things weren't this way :( Immigration status is another one for me, especially in the past few months — with the obvious disclaimer that I'm still one of the most privileged immigrants it's possible for one to be.

      And yes! It was a published as a physical book for Word Book Day in the UK. I wish I'd grabbed a bunch of copies when they were widely available — it didn't occur to me they were UK only and that all my friends elsewhere wouldn't be able to find them. I can still try to track one down for you, though! It wouldn't be hard.

  4. I like Jenny's phrase "riotous joy." It's how I feel when I see her (or any other imaginary friend I don't get to see often). It's how I feel when I get to celebrate one of my fandoms, even if it's just with one other person at a time.
    A knitted cupcake?

    1. The knitted cupcake is part of a set that I got to brighten up my kitchen just after I moved into this house, when it was all empty and there wasn't much around to make it feel mine. Now there's plenty of other things around, but I've grown attached to it :P

  5. "Even just getting to feel it from time to time sustains me." You're not alone in this, and you've described it just beautifully!

  6. This resonates with me a lot. As an anxious, semi-closeted nerd growing up, the two times and places I could find a space to have these moments of connection were the local Renaissance Festival and Dragon*Con. That feeling that here, you might not agree, but you were safe. I cherished it so, so much. Now, as an adult, I actively seek that out and reject spaces where I feel dulled and listless.

    And I also want to put down the story I told you here, just as complement. I hope that's alright, please feel free to delete it:

    I got to be in the audience to see Bill Hader host Saturday Night Live for the first time after he left the show. During commercial breaks, they set up the, well, sets for each sketch. As one of the sets went up, I recognized it as the set for a sketch Hader did on his last show, about a man who uses puppetry as inappropriate therapy. I leaned over and pointed excitedly, and a guy my age a few seats down recognized it too. We looked at each other, so excited about a.) this experience and b.) we recognized it!!!, and wordlessly clasped hands.

    1. Of course it's alright! Thank you so much for sharing it ♥


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