Humorous Short Commentary about Serious Social Issues
The daffodils are just beginning to open, brightening Oregon’s February fog as I sit at the computer this morning, prepping to teach at the South Coast Writers’ Conference next weekend. Along with a six-hour workshop on how to write and sell short and book-length memoir–during which I’ll field the usual questions about whether any of my family members still speak to me after the publication of my memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (they do), and whether you can actually make the recipes after each chapter and come out with something delicious (you can)–I’ll teach shorter workshops on how to craft essays, and how to write humorous short commentary about serious social issues.
Here, check out this workshop description:
“This fun and energetic multimedia workshop offers attendees both information and inspiration for crafting humorous short commentary about serious social and political issues. Hart will demonstrate how lucrative this type of writing can be, and how it can do good in the world by inspiring readers to consider a particular social issue and to laugh, then take action.”
This week, there’s been a lot of sadness in the world. Two sweet boys from our local high school drowned at the coast. A student of mine from Egypt e-mailed me periodically to report chaos. And my beloved grandfather, Dale Lefler, who–at 95, was still tap dancing and painting and driving his Miata through the streets of Monterey–passed away. Every time I opened a newspaper to the commentary section, someone reflected in grim prose on threats to our schools, our healthcare, the environment, barred owls. These are real threats, but the human heart can only withstand so much sadness. There’s another way to approach serious issues, through the craft of humorous social commentary.
I’m not talking about slapstick, snort-milk-out-your-nostrils humor or forced levity, but rather, the use of subtle wit and irony and the mining of an otherwise difficult topic for what’s genuinely funny. I’ve written humorous social commentary about my younger brother’s Down syndrome, my lesbian moms’ distaste for the institution of marriage, my inability to remember to bring my stainless steel mug to the coffeehouse and my cloth bags to the market, and South Park as my politically correct colleagues’ (and my) guilty pleasure.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be angry and sad and frustrated with the serious stuff life throws at us, but I do maintain that there’s usually a way to temper fraught topics with a bit of dialogue, characterization, setting, or reflection that makes your readers momentarily smile. Here’s a representative piece inspired by my initial anger over a neighbor’s comment about my adopted daughter, written last year for The Christian Science Monitor.
I attribute my role as Mom to events that have nothing to do with pregnancy or an official seal on my adopted daughter’s birth certificate.
By Melissa Hart
posted May 7, 2010 at 10:00 am EDT
Eugene, Ore. —
I noticed the Hawaiian woman at the local playground right away – admired her gleaming black braids and her orange-plaid rubber boots that she had paired with a blue wool skirt. I admired the three little girls who cavorted in her wake with the same braids and high cheekbones. My own beautiful 3-year-old daughter attracted the other mom’s attention.
She walked over to me as I pushed my child on the swing. “Where is her mother?” she asked.
My husband and I adopted Maia from the foster-care system two years ago, and I’ve grown used to people looking from our daughter to me and then to him as they attempt to figure out how two obvious WASPs managed to produce a gorgeous little Latina.
“I’m her mother,” I told the woman.
She frowned in confusion. “I mean her real mother.”
By “real,” I knew she meant the woman who had given birth to Maia and – unable to care for her – had relinquished her at birth. In the one photo we have of Maia’s biological mom, originally from Central America, I recognize my daughter’s high forehead, her snub nose, and adorable buckteeth.
In a maternal lineup, anyone could tell who shared my daughter’s genes and who was about as far from a Latina as a British-German mutt could get. Still, I narrowed my eyes at the woman on the playground.
“I’m her real mother,” I said.
She walked away smiling an apology, but the question continued to bother me. Every night, Maia and I crowd into our green easy chair to read her favorite book, P.D. Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” The plot’s simple – a mother bird flies off in search of an earthworm for her not-yet-hatched baby. When the youngster breaks out of his shell, he finds himself alone. He leaps out of the nest and walks off to search for his materfamilias.
“Are you my mother?”
Our feathered protagonist walks up to a hen who answers indignantly in the negative.
The baby propositions a cat, a dog, a cow, and a jumbo jet before a bulldozer scoops him up and returns him to the nest. Suddenly, an adult bird flies up; she’s identical to him, only larger and sporting a red kerchief.
“You are my mother!” the baby bird cries, and she puts her wing around him.
I loved this book, too, as a child, but now it reminds me of a DVD that my husband and I had to watch at least twice during our two-year adoption process. In it, a group of Latino, Asian, and African-American adopted teens sit around a room and talk with a sociologist about the difficulties of growing up in a household with Anglo parents who looked vastly different from them.
Previous to bringing Maia home, I’d sat in the adoption agency and sympathized with these young people who felt denied of their racial heritage by well-meaning but obtuse white parents. Now, I feel otherwise. My husband and I are committed to honoring Maia’s South American culture, and we’re planning a trip there next year. I’m teaching her Spanish. But parenting a child means more than sharing DNA or teaching her to fry plantains.
To be somebody’s mother means to perform every day a variety of small tasks – some maddening, some terrifying, and some just plain weird –in the service of a child. While my daughter’s final birth certificate does list my name, I attribute my role as Mom to events that have nothing to do with pregnancy or an official seal.
I’m thinking of the time Maia squirmed out of my husband’s arms and hit her head on the hardwood floor. Sick with fear, we rushed her to the emergency room, where she proceeded to high-five all the doctors and nurses until they told us to go home and chill out.
I’m thinking of the numerous potty-training debacles during camping and hiking trips last year – most notably those involving a luckless tide pool and, separately, a sand dune.
I’m thinking of the time Maia choked on a piece of tofu and turned a faint shade of blue until her daddy hung her upside down and the food flew out. Afterward, I clutched her to my chest, sobbing. Then I knew that this little girl was truly my daughter.
But did she see me as her mother, or did she – like the woman at the park – find our physical differences confusing?
We left the mother pushing her three little girls on the merry-go-round and walked home. I made Maia her favorite macaroni and cheese, then read Eastman’s book to her again in the green chair.
“Why is that big bird the little bird’s mother?” I asked my daughter after the final page.
Maia scrunched her eyes in thought. “She bring him a worm,” she concluded.
“And who is your mother?” I pressed on.
She snorted at my ignorance. “Who’s my mother?” she scoffed and pointed an indignant finger at my chest. “You are.”
I kissed her good night, secure in our bond. But I wondered about public perception. If other strangers questioned our relationship as openly as the woman at the park, how might that affect Maia? I had to concede that outside forces were mostly beyond my control – all I could do was commit over and over to my child.
The next week, I took her to the doctor’s office for a checkup and an elderly couple in the waiting room admired her.
“You’re a cutie,” the man said. “Where do you get that curly hair?”
He nudged his wife and smiled. “Oh, I see,” he said. “From your mommy.”
I glowed with happiness. Not because the man assumed or didn’t assume a genetic connection between Maia and me. No, I beamed because the man had referred to me as Mommy.
Good luck, readers, with your own humorous commentary about serious social issues. Feel free to post your favorites in the comments section of this blog, and I hope to see you at the South Coast Writers’ Conference!
February 11, 2011 - Posted by lissahart | essays, writing | adoption, Dale Lefler, Down syndrome, Egypt, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, humorous essays, lesbian mother, Melissa Hart, memoir, recipes, social commentary, South Coast Writers' Conference, South Park, The Christian Science Monitor, writing workshops
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Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). Her articles and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, High Country News, Orion, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Adbusters, Hemispheres, Horizon Air Magazine, and numerous other publications. Web: http://www.melissahart.com.
She lives in Oregon with her daughter, five cats, and her husband–photographer Jonathan B. Smith. She teaches Travel and Feature Writing for the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. Contact her at melissa(at)melissahart(dot)com.
Become a fan of Melissa Hart’s writing on Facebook and receive regular updates on workshops, new publications, and items of interest to writers.
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