Some Thoughts on Clarion West and Writing

Clarion West 2023 Write-a-thon

Once again I am participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon, which means I’m working on getting my own writing done in support of the current workshop participants.

If you want to donate to Clarion West in support of me, you can do it here on my fundraising page.

I do this every year in part as a way of donating to Clarion West — I always support myself and usually contribute in the name of a couple of other people — but I am not good at banging the drum for fundraising.

At the same time, I am well aware that in this capitalist society people have to do something to bring in money, and that includes nonprofits and artists. So I participate and mention it and hope some people get inspired to send them a few bucks.

There are many things I hope to get better at before I shuffle off this mortal coil, but fundraising isn’t on the list.

Writing better is, though, and the only way I know to get better at writing is to do more of it in a thoughtful way. So I am working on the sequel to my 2021 novel For the Good of the Realm and hope that the Write-a-thon process will help me do that.

Supporting Clarion West brings me to the issue of writing workshops, classes, and the like. Some people find these things incredibly useful; some do not. For me, Clarion West was exactly what I needed when I did it. It made me take my writing seriously in a way that I had never done before.

I’m very glad I did it, so I continue to support it because I know it will be useful to some other people as well. And I like the way Clarion West has evolved and continues to grow.  Continue reading “Some Thoughts on Clarion West and Writing”

A Potpourri of Book Reviews

Here are a few books I’ve read recently.  Some I’ve enjoyed more than others. I’ll start with a rave:


Daughter of Redwinter, by Ed McDonald (Tor) What a great read! From the first page, this book grabbed me and carried me along. Superb action, wonderful characters, ever-escalating stakes, and mystery. The story opens with Raine, our heroine, creeping out the back way from a monastery under military siege, looking for an escape route, only to encounter a mysterious wounded woman who is desperate to get back in. On the woman’s heels are a group of warrior-magicians, bent on stopping her even if it means tearing down the walls. The military besiegers are willing to aid the magicians, but what they’re after is inside — people with “grave-sight” that allows them to see, and sometimes speak with, the dead. Raine is one of those with the talent that means execution, should it be discovered. All her life she has hidden, lied, and run away to save her skin, and she’s made some spectacularly bad choices along the way.

The book was full of drama and poignant emotion, hard-bitten action and sweet romance. The balance between slowly unfolding mystery, lightning reversals and betrayals, and coming of age of a most remarkable heroine was exceptionally well handled. Most of all, from the very first paragraphs, I found myself relaxing into the hands of a master storyteller, confident that wherever the tale took me, it would be a wild and infinitely satisfying ride. I was never disappointed.


Rosebud, by Paul Cornell (Tordotcom) “The crew of the Rosebud are, currently, and by force of law, a balloon, a goth with a swagger stick, some sort of science aristocrat possibly, a ball of hands, and a swarm of insects.” Although they’re not human, at least not in their current form, they’re most definitely people. And they’re fanatically devoted to The Company, which for 300 years has placed them out in the back acres of space. When they come upon a mysterious black sphere, they arrive at a plan, after much squabbling: to capture the object for the Company, thereby earning lots of praise.

But the object is not what anyone might expect; it has the ability manipulate probability and time-lines, thereby controlling the crew of the Rosebud by selecting the futures with the most benign outcomes. As the crew attempts to understand what’s happening to them, their own pasts are revealed, as well as the less-than-benign nature of the Company.

I loved how the crew figures out that their memories are unreliable and what the object doing. In the end, however, I found the “universe-changing” revelations opaque. I wanted to like and understand the story, but ended up just not getting it, which is never a good feeling to leave a reader with.


Dark Earth, by Rebecca Stott (Random House). I requested this book from Netgalley based on the description. I loved the idea of an underworld of rebel women living secretly amid the ruins. Alas, the opening was so sedate and the characters so bland and unrelatable, I gave up in the middle of the second chapter. There simply wasn’t enough to keep me reading. By contrast, the next book I picked up grabbed me right away, so I saw no reason to take another look.

The Hundred Loves of Juliet, by Evelyn Skye (Del Rey) What a great premise — Romeo and Juliet, reincarnated many times over the centuries, always drawn together and always linked in tragedy. In an added twist, Romeo is immortal and remembers all his previous loves. He knows, for example, that whoever Juliet is in any given lifetime, she will die within two years. Juliet, on the other hand, has no idea of their history together. Now in the 21st Century, writer “Juliette” and sea captain “Romeo” find themselves thrown together by fate and consuming attraction. Can they break the cycle?

Well, maybe, if he would just sit down with her and have a candid conversation. Clearly, he’s failed to do that before, only to watch his beloved-of-this-century die, usually horribly. You would think he’d learn from his disasters. Of all the failings of a typical romance novel, the stupidity of keeping secrets ranks top of my list. Even if “Juliet” thinks he’s delusional and doesn’t believe him, at least he would have given her a rationale for him walking away from her. Which he tries to do, but because she has no idea why, it doesn’t work.

I had other quibbles, including the passages supposedly diaries and so forth from past centuries but laden with contemporary sensibilities, that the heroine tries way too hard to be likeable, that the hero is an example of “female-gaze” and not a real person. Although the prose is for the most part pretty good, it slips into tone deafness all too often.

I suspect that this is a romance with fantastic elements, rather than a reincarnation/time-travel fantasy with a love story, and that science fiction/fantasy readers like myself will have a much harder time with it than romance readers. Regardless, I gave up around the 24% mark. I simply didn’t care what happened next as long as the characters were being so dishonest with each other and themselves.


Blood of the Pack (Dark Ink Tattoo Book One), by Cassie Alexander (Caskara Press). My introduction to the works of Cassie Alexander was the “Nightshifted” series (in which a nurse discovers a new career path in a secret hospital ward for supernatural patients). I loved how she handled nonhuman characters, great dramatic tension, and smooth prose. So I picked up this first book in a new series without knowing much about it beyond the lots-of-queer sex content warnings. I found many of the elements I’d previously enjoyed, including characterization and great action sequences. The sex scenes were better done than usual for “high heat” stories. There was a nice balance in tension between a satisfying landing level for the first novel in a series on the one hand, and enough of a cliff-hanger so the reader will be left hungry for the next. My personal quibble, and other readers may feel quite differently, was that the sex scenes took up a disproportionate amount of space for what they contributed to the plot. I think this has to do with what different readers look for. If it’s a (in this case) action-mystery with sex scenes that enhance that plot, or if it’s very juicy sex scenes that make sense in terms of character and motivation. As I said, the scenes are very well done, great examples of how to write literate, well-paced intimate encounters. I especially liked the depiction of consent, the mutuality of pleasure, and the care of the partners for one another.

And of course, if that sex comes with vampire and werewolves, oh my, so much the better.


And I’ll end with more raves…


Drunk on All Your Strange New Words, by Eddie Robson (Tordotcom).  I loved this fresh and wonderful take on human-alien cultural clashes! This alien race, the Logi, are approximately humanoid in appearance and possess valuable technology. They’re fascinated by human culture, especially the arts and printed books. The catch is that they communicate telepathically through specially trained “Thought Language” translators. One such is our heroine, Lydia, from a poor British background. She loves her work, the only thing she’s ever been really good at, not to mention her generous salary and her sensitive, thoughtful boss, the Logi cultural attaché. All this makes it worth feeling drunk from translating between Thought Language and English. It all goes to hell when her boss is murdered and she’s the prime suspect. Both her freedom and her ability to solve the mystery depend on her remaining at the Embassy, and the Logi is charge has never liked her.

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words combines alien contact science fiction, a sympathetic heroine, weird maybe-supernatural stuff, and a highly complex mystery filled with surprises and reversals. I found Lydia, with all her insecurities, bravura, and gullibility, deeply sympathetic. I fell for the same deceptions and cheered her on as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. This is a smart science fictional mystery and a wonderful take on how even truly weird aliens and humans can find understanding and common ground. Best of all, a deeply flawed character prevails at the end.


Three Miles Down, by Harry Turtledove (Tor).  At the height of the Cold War and on the brink of the 1974 Watergate scandal, the US discovers a sunken Soviet submarine…and something they didn’t expect. Something they want to keep even more secret. Under the guise of harvesting undersea manganese nodules, they recruit a team of experts, including marine biology grad student and aspiring science fiction author, Jerry Stieglitz. After being sworn to secrecy, Jerry learns the secret-inside-the-secret: the Soviet sub is sitting on top of an alien spaceship. They want Jerry not only to bolster their disguise when Soviet warships come to check them out but to use his writerly imagination in interacting with the ship and its inhabitants, both dead and in suspended animation. His insight (derived from the scene at the doors of Moria, “speak friend and enter”) opens the door to the ship, for example. Of course, all does not go swimmingly. These are the days of anticommunist paranoia, an increasingly embattled POTUS, and paranoid intelligence agencies. The stakes for Jerry are not just being kicked off a lucrative and historic mission, but survival itself.

Turtledove is a terrific writer, combining sfnal First Contact elements, humor, the unfolding domestic political drama, and human interactions, whether it’s Jerry’s friendships with the others on his alien-spaceship team or his difficulties with his fiancée when he goes missing for months. All this is highly enjoyable, fast reading, but what I found most delightful were the many homage-to-science-fiction touches, like a love letter to fans. There’s even a guest appearance by a well-known hard science fiction author (I won’t divulge who!) that had me laughing out loud at how brilliant the portrayal was. (I’d met the guest-appearance author and yet, that’s exactly what they’d say!)


 The Assassins of Thasalon, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Subterranean). I first fell in love with…isn’t that the best way to begin a book review? In the case of Lois McMaster Bujold, the love affair goes back to Ethan of Athos (1986) and Falling Free (1988) Once Miles Vorkosigian burst upon the scene, I was thoroughly hooked. The Curst of Chalion, the first novel set in the World of Five Gods, saved me one convention (I think it was a WorldCon) when I ended up with a concussion from getting slammed in the head by a heavy glass door. I stayed an extra night, reading and re-reading, marveling at the layers of richness. But I digress: Chalion was followed by the equally awesome Paladin of Souls, then The Hallowed Hunt, and—about 100 years earlier in chronology—the Penric and Desdemona novellas. I gobbled them all up, although Chalion retains a special, perhaps concussion-inspired, place in my heart.

Penric is this world’s version of a healer/cleric, both aspects being supernaturally inspired by his god, the Bastard, and the many-generations-old temple demon, Desdemona, who shares his mind and, occasionally, his body. Through her, he can tap into magical powers as well as the experience and memories of her former hosts. “Demon” has a different connotation here than the one typically used. While she is definitely a non-material being, she was born of chaos and has been shaped into a person by her relationships with her human hosts. She’s also sly and sarcastic, although she would never admit to being loving.

Which brings us to the latest adventure, novel-length instead of the previous novellas. The set-up is framed as a mystery: who is trying to assassinate Penric’s brother-in-law, the exiled, brilliant general? In the process of tracking down the attempted murder and preventing further attacks, Pen and Desdemona uncover a plot that goes right to the heart of what makes a person, and what part does the right use of power (or the atrocities of its misuse) play? In too many fantasy stories, characters lack family ties, or they have them, the families are off-stage and forgotten. Not so in this series. Penric lives in a matrix of people he loved and who love him, sometimes as vividly present when he is hundreds of miles away as when they’re in the same scene.

Bujold is such a skillful writer, her work is a joy to read. I’m hooked on the first page, wanting to read faster to find out what happens next and yet wanting to read slowly to savor all the nuances. She plays fair with giving the reader all the necessary information, but she doesn’t berate, lecture, or inflict long explanations. Beneath the mystery-plot, there are layers and layers of story-gold. Although I rejoiced at the novel length, the end still came too soon.

Like the previous Penric and Desdemona stories, this one can be read as a stand-alone, although the references to previous happenings and off-stage characters would be enhanced by having read the adventures that involve them. On the other hand, as an entry drug, it’s a grand excuse to sample this world and its people, and then run off and delve into what has come before.

Highly recommended.

Learning About Our Writing

Sometimes, the best way of understanding our writing is through the eyes of others.

Let’s look first at one star reviews. Some writers read them and fall into a pit of despair. This is not a wise approach to those reviews.

A one star review shows what that reader hates. They’re amazingly good value at telling me that these people are not part of my audience. Five star reviews show the opposite. This is why I need to read all my reviews. I read them to find out where my audience lies and how they read (or don’t read) me.

Let em give an example. The reader who wanted a more obviously Medieval Middle Ages in Langue[dot]doc 1305 didn’t want a Middle Ages that was written by a Medieval historian who specialised in the cultural and social side of things. He (I’m thinking of a particular review) probably wanted one that touched on all the feelings and images of the Middle Ages that popular culture shares. I was explaining, through my novel, that the actual past is infinitely more interesting and complex and often more subtle than the way the public tends to think about the Middle Ages, so my novel was not for him.

This is not a criticism. The views readers share don’t have to be my views. They don’t even have to be within a half a continent of my views. Different likes and dislikes in books are important.

I like expanding my small world, and so I look out for books by writers who are from vastly different backgrounds to me, but… I still mostly read speculative fiction right now, just as I read mostly Russian authors at one point in my teens. We all have our favourite types of story and ways of telling stories, and these inform our book choices and to criticise someone for disliking a book that’s entirely outside the range of things they enjoy is to waste everyone’s time.

What about critical reviews? The ones by experts who are famous for looking under a book’s surface and pulling them to pieces? They carry the same caveat: I have to know whether the reviewer enjoys my kind of writing to know if they’ve tackled it fairly. Even then, even if they’ve written about me because they must and not because they want to, all critical reviews are very useful to writers. They give insights into what others think we’ve done. At their best, those insights can be profound.

These reviews are why I’m pleased with my little academic study, Story Matrices. I wrote it at an impossible time and so it could have been an impossible book. It’s not visible enough because things are still a bit impossible at my end of things. When it’s visible, the analytical reviews of it show me that I did what I set out to do.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t find problems with my work. One complained about the short chapters, but for me, those chapters were to enable general readers to dip in and out of it and not to be intimated by some of the concepts. I give a nod to the criticism, because the reviewer was right in that the chapters were tiny. He loved one chapter in particular (the one about Irish fantasy) whereas other reviewers have loved other chapters. I used a range of examples to explain my research, and some were really obviously science fiction or fantasy and some were not, but all are important to SFF.

The examples I used echo in so many other stories. Each critical reviewer so far has loved a different set of those examples. This one loves the Irish chapter, and another loves the discussion of Regency fantasy, and still another told everyone about how I explain the Potter universe. So far, not a single critic has panned the work (this will change over time – I rejoice while I may) and none of them have been at all negative about the explanations I use to describe world building and writing and shared experience. So… I’ve learned about how my work is seen from a number of directions, and I hear that it is good.

I didn’t think it was. Being invisibly disabled, has, since COVID, carried a huge price in terms of local visibility and even friendships with local writers. On bad days, it feels as if the world is walking over my grave. On good days, it feels as if I’m a beginner writer starting out and have to contact everyone and let them know I exist all over again.

I don’t want to give up my writing right now because, although I can’t even attend a book launch locally. Why can’t I attend? Most people at book events in Australia don’t take tests, wear masks, or even know what the ventilation is like. In Canberra, specifically, not being visible means I don’t get lifts and there is no public transport near me any more and I can’t do what my sister told me “Walk a few blocks further” because I literally can’t walk even half that distance right now. Loads of reasons and I feel small every time I have to ask, again, about any of it. This is what makes me feel small about my writing, not the one star reviews.

What balances this invisibility? Why, visibility, of course. Every time I attend an online SF convention (Octocon, Balticon, Boskone, Eastercon, Konline, Punctuation and more – these are all full of wonderful people and fascinating programmes) I am surrounded by friends and, through being on panels, get a share of the most interesting discussions. This also applies to academic conferences. I attended one two weeks ago where my paper proposal had been rejected, so instead of presenting, I took notes and thought things through and chatted and… it was lovely. One doesn’t have to be the centre of attention to not be alone and to learn.

The centre of attention. This is a rare thing for most writers outside the launch of their own books. This Friday I will be that. The Australian Studies day conference in Germany, this year run by Muenster University, has invited me to give a reading. A long reading. And to be interviewed by a scholar who studies and who teaches my work. I will learn a lot, that day.

I already feel as if I count, that I have not wasted my time in doing what I love. I’m more than nervous, because I’m more used to being forgotten than this, but I’m reading from 2 of my favourite novels and I intend to make these books come alive for my scholarly audience. This is a rare type of learning for all but the most famous of writers, and I shall treasure every moment.

The bottom line, the deep truth, the heart of the matter is that all these types of learning matter for writers. They help us know how we are seen by others. Even when the paths look as if they lead to that pit of despair, they’re still important to us. Giddy heights, pits of despair, even sloughs of despond: they all help us understand who we are, why we’re writing and who our audiences are.

PS Sorry for the bits of Bunyan. I read him when I was eleven and he stuck. The local library at the beachside town we visited every August had a limited library and Bunyan as the only writer in the children’s sector whose work would last me more than a half hour. In some ways this is good and in other ways this is amusing. Mostly, though, it means I lean into certain language when I talk about certain topics.

Despite the language, there is no Christian intent. In my world view, none of us move towards heaven by encountering this or that challenge. The challenges are part of our everyday. They’re the best and worst of the learning we need to get by. The best of times and the worst of times are like the best of learning and the worst of learning and … by another writer I read when I was eleven.

Drag in High School

I think the first time I saw guys in drag was when we did the annual powderpuff football game in high school. That was where the girls played football — juniors against seniors — and a few boys became cheerleaders.

Only girls were cheerleaders in my high school, so the boys did their cheerleading in drag. Very comic drag, as I recall. Alas, I have no pictures, having lost my yearbook over the years, but it included very fake wigs and clownish makeup.

That struck me as weird back then, and even weirder today. We girls were not in drag as football players. I mean, we were dressed in gym clothes — this was flag football, not tackle — but we didn’t look like boys. We weren’t pretending to be boys to play.

The boys should have been dressed as themselves cheering, because the whole point of the event was the girls doing something and the boys cheering them on.

That is, if you were one of the girls playing that was the point. We took this very seriously. We practiced a lot. I, who was not much of an athlete back in high school, played both years. And I still remember that my team won both the years we played. (I have at least forgotten the scores.)

I didn’t score any points. I was, then as now, larger than the average woman, so I played defensive line.  Continue reading “Drag in High School”

Beauty and Virtue

My mother, 1967

My mother was a beautiful woman. Full stop. She had straight hair, almost black (in 1920s Nebraska she and her sister Julie, surrounded by Scandinavian and German blonds, were always tagged to play the “Oriental” characters in geography pageants) and expressive brown eyes with a slight epicanthal eyefold which made her look a little exotic. And the bone structure, O! the bone structure. My father could still, years after her death, talk about how beautiful she had been (this despite the fact that the last 20 years of their marriage had been hellish for both of them). 

My mother, 1955



She was also funny and smart, charming and loving and deeply troubled. For the second half of her life she was an alcoholic whose anger at the world drove her to slow self-destruction, a sort of “see! Look what you’re making me do!” message to the people who loved her. I suspect the alcohol was the best she could do to manage a life-long anxiety/depression disorder, but when you’re a teenage girl taking almost the full brunt of the anger of a highly verbal alcoholic–well, that didn’t make it any easier. Whatever I wanted to be when I grew up, it wasn’t my mother. Except in looks.

It was an unspoken truth: in my family my mother was the standard of beauty. I, however, take almost entirely after my father’s side of the family. I recognize now that my paternal aunts and my grandmother were lovely–photos I’ve seen of my Aunt Eva in her 30s show her cut from the lush Ava Gardner mold–but somehow that wasn’t what was wanted. No one said anything to me specifically–“shame you took after the wrong side, kid,” but the message must have been there, because I absorbed it. Almost 70 years later, I struggle with feeling that it’s somehow my fault, as if I chose to take after the wrong side of the family. And because I’m neurotic, I wasn’t content with not looking like my mother, or not being pretty by the standards of the day (late 1960s–think Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton), I assumed that I was ugly, and that it was my fault. My looks were a moral failing.

It wasn’t helped that I got little incentive to believe otherwise: my father, in matters of aesthetics, could not put aside his absolute truth in favor of affection; I overheard someone say “Madeleine is beautiful,” once, and his immediate rejoinder was, “Madeleine? Madeleine’s not beautiful.” Whatever the speaker saw, my father couldn’t even say “thank you” and let it lie. He heard an error and had to correct it. I think my father would have been delighted if I’d looked like Mom and my brother had looked like him–what mattered in his son (to my father) was a carrying on of his artistic skills and vision, and he got that. But my brother also got my mother’s eyes and bone structure, for which I WILL NEVER FORGIVE HIM. Ahem: he’s also a really good guy, and abundantly talented.

I was told by someone in high school that “you act like you’re pretty but you’re not.” I’m not sure what the basis was for the statement, but this much is true: I’ve spent my life acting as if I were pretty and making a fair go of it. Then I had daughters. They are uncomplicatedly beautiful, each in her own way. I’ve made it my purpose in life (one of them, anyway) to make sure they know it. One of them looks like me, which has caused me a certain amount of cognitive dissonance: how can I accept that she’s beautiful when I have all these wobbles about my own looks? Granted, we live in a society where images of the current definition of perfect are everywhere; it’s in the interest of influencers and cosmetic companies and magazines etc. to make us all uncertain about our own appeal. It takes a stronger woman than I am to completely shut it out. And that daughter who looks like me? Has spent hours of her adolescence and adulthood watching grooming videos and keeping au courant with makeup trends and… So she’s not immune to it either. But she does not appear to have fallen prey to my “If I Don’t Match the Dominant Paradigm It’s Because I’m a Bad Person” psychosis, for which I am abundantly grateful.

My mother, 1975

So here I am, pushing 70 and daily more aware that there’s no chance of a do-over where I can opt for Mom’s genes over my father’s. I understand, with the full force of my intellect, that I’m not scare-the-goats ugly. I’m even attractive. Like my mother, I’m funny and smart and charming (sometimes, anyway). I accept, also, that what I look like (beyond niceties of grooming) has nothing to do with my moral failings or triumphs. Mom died at 62–a victim of smoking and drinking and her own anger, which was a product of her anxiety and depression; it took me years to get over seeing those behaviors as moral failings rather than the symptoms they were.

I look in the mirror and see an older woman with the marks of her years and her experience, with humor and adventures and mistakes and the odd triumph here and there. If I get an occasional echo of “it’s your fault you’re not…” whatever,  well, this stuff lodges deep. I expect I will get those echoes until I die. But they’re echoes. With luck and attention they will keep growing fainter with time.

Fairy tales and Privilege

I’m still dreaming about fairytales.

Today’s dream is strongly influenced by a book that’s been on my coffee table for a while. It’s on my coffee table to remind me about certain constructs it discusses. Until I finish thinking through these constructs, it will stay there. It’s been on my coffee table for two months now, because that’s how much is in it that helps me think things through. What is this mysterious book? It’s White Christian Privilege and it’s by Khyati Y. Joshi.

It reminds me (and is a very good introduction to the understanding of) what it means to be from a majority culture background (or not) in the US. I’m not from that background, so it also helps me see how and why I am who I am and have certain in experiences in relation to those who are from that background.

None of this is why I’m thinking about the book today. First off, I’m thinking about the normative nature of American White Christian Privilege in the publishing world, along with that linked (and older) standard White British Privilege. And today, just ‘cos, I’m not thinking about how the White Australia policy’s legacy in Australia mean I’ll never be quite White, or Christian, or American. All these things have had some large ramifications for my life so far, and no doubt will continue to do so but… today I’m thinking about its influence on how we see fairy tales, or, more precisely, fairy tale retellings.

Fairy tales have always been explained using European views. This goes back to the beginning of fairy tale analysis. Folk motifs and tale types revolve around European culture. This cultural heartland for fairy tales has been mostly carried over into US scholarship. Fairy tales are defined by Europe and retold in cultures where we need to factor in White American privilege.

This means that some tellers are valued more than others – it helps a writing career to have privilege. American writers are more heard than Indonesian writers or writers from Eswatini. There is a hierarchy of countries in publishing, where one is in relation to those privileges makes most of us invisible and unless one is visible. A few extraordinary writers are visible regardless. Rabindranath Tagore and Stanisław Lem and Tove Jansson are good examples of this. Despite the Tove Janssons of this world, there are core cultures that are more visible, secondary cultures (like Australian) that are rather difficult but not at all impossible, and then there are writers from most of the countries of the world who, even in English translation, are not visible. How many of us have read Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s work, for instance. Not me… yet – I need to get hold of it and read it. Every year I spend some time identifying amazing writers I haven’t yet read because they’re not buffered by much of that privilege. I keep discovering many great works and brilliant writers and my life is forever enriched but… none of this is what I’m thinking about today.

Today I’m thinking about how we define certain types of story as fairy tale and we (scholars in the field) generally don’t automatically think “Why is this story classified with these other stories?” It’s culturally problematic to define all story types from around the world in a certain way. It’s great for many reasons (seeing who uses what kind of tale, finding out how stories spread) but it operates in the same way as that White Christian Privilege.

Joshi spends a lot of time explaining that this privilege is not a layer of opportunity and gloss on top of everyday life: it’s the fabric of everyday life. Equally, getting rid of the cultural context for, say, a story taken from the Talmud, or something from the Dreamtime, and reducing it to common denominators, is putting the cultural interpretation of mostly-White, mostly-Western scholars and fiction writers above most of those who tell and use the stories.

They may be fairy tales, and seen as fairy tales, but what if they aren’t? What if they’re part of an immense and complex songlines that cross a whole continent and that predate our knowledge of the fairy tale by thousands of years (at least) and tens of thousands of years?

My questions include the critical one: what do we do to stories when we strip away all of this meaning from them? My answer is that we lose how they’re told, why they’re told, who has cultural responsibility to tell and interpret them and we lose the capacity to see why and how this responsibility is important for the story itself. So many Jews are taught how to read Talmud. We can take stories apparently out of context, and give them relevant contexts in the retelling – this is a part of the upbringing of many of us but… in a world of White Chrsitian Privilege, it’s more likely that someone (even someone Jewish, who lacks this specific training) will see those stories as fair game for retelling from a White Christian perspective. The story derived from this approach will sell better than something with the original contexts still attached, but its culture of origin will be compromised.

There are many ways of handling this.

One is to maintain the commonalities (especially theose that allow the story to be included in those scholarly indices that bring the world of folk tale and folk motif together) but to make sure, as scholars, that the cultural base of all tales are understood. Stories from pre-colonial Australia would, then, always have notes saying where the story was collected, which songline/s it belongs to, and whether the story has been reinterpreted to meet international tale and motif expectations.

Another approach is to read more books by people who come from different backgrounds, and to look for books that address cultural issues as part of the storytelling. My current coffee table book for this is This all Come Back Now (ed Mykaela Saunders) .I was happy to give a story for the Other Covenants volume, sharing my rather peculiar background (ed Lobel and Shainblum) Some of the stories fit within a general normative context (not all, but enough to make it readable) but both volumes as a whole question all contexts and present more varied cultural background.

There are other approaches, but two are enough for one day. It boils down to knowing where we (as readers) fit in relation to various types of cultural privilege and for us (again, as readers) to reach out beyond that and to read work by writers who come from a range of backgrounds. Our reading is richer and our life is more interesting.

Also, and this is my favourite side effect from questioning privilege, when we ask about how we interpret fairy tales and looking at what stories have been drawn into that net that are not actually fairy tales, doors open to enormous numbers of brilliant writers. Many haven’t yet been translated into English, but the more we read beyond our tiny cultural boundaries and the more we question our privileges, the more publishers will say “That sold well. Let me try another translation of a famous writer from this background.” The more we work on living in a bigger world, the more that bigger world has to offer us.

Ways of Learning

A friend of mine is working on a book that gets at the heart of the principles and philosophical side of Aikido. Several of us who have trained in Aikido for many years have been reading and discussing it during the process.

One of the pleasures of this for me is that my friend, who is a philosopher as well as a high-ranking Aikido teacher, is very good at putting into words in both Japanese and English concepts that I understand with my body. That deepens my understanding of Aikido, a valuable thing for me at this point in my life, when my aging joints (not to mention the pandemic) have kept me from training as I would like.

She has also incorporated the spiritual and other influences on Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, usually referred to as O Sensei, and connected them to the principles in a useful way. The book will be out next year and I will write about it more when it is available for preorder.

She sent a piece today — a last minute addition — and it opened some doors for me into deeper personal thought. This particular piece was on ma ai, which is usually translated as distance, or perhaps as spacing and timing, but is much more complex than that. A lot of what I took from her words today had to do with connection.

In reading, it occurred to me how much I apply that principle, on multiple levels, especially in conjunction with the principle of zanshin, which has to do with awareness.

These are things I know, but rarely put into words despite being, at my core, an intellectual. And that’s because when I took up martial arts — Karate before Aikido along with a bit of Tai Chi — I gave myself over to learning with my body.

That’s true even though one of the reasons I ended up in Aikido was that the best writing on martial arts in English (at least) has been done by Aikido people. I have done a lot of reading about Aikido, but the truth is that most of my core understanding is in my body.

It is often very difficult for me to put that understanding into words that make sense to someone who doesn’t train. Continue reading “Ways of Learning”

I want so much to know…

Today my mind is full of some rather random material. It’s mostly things I want to know.

1. I want to know if vampires have cold cheeks or merely cool cheeks. If so… why?

2. I want to know if, in the seventeenth century, when people made the fermented liquid that was to one day become borscht (except back then it was mostly made with cow parsnip leaves and flowers, not beetroot) they ate the green stuff when fermentation was done.

3. I want to know if anyone reads my fiction.

4. Equally, I want to know if anyone reads my non-fiction.

5. I want to know why it’s so much harder to sleep on a night when the temperature is merely 4 degrees (Celsius, for I’m still in Australia) than on a night that reaches -6.

6. I want to know why I lost the simple trick I used to have of being able to think in Fahrenheit and Celsius at the same time. I can still think in grams and ounces together, and in yards and metres. It’s only the temperatures that can’t exit my fogbrain.

7. I want to know if it’s possible to cure an addiction to lists of ten things.

8. I really want to know why some people run away as if they’re leaving a house on fire the minute they discover I have invisible disabilities. When I was in my teens I had girl cooties: now I have disability cooties.

9. Linked to this is a wild desire to understand why some people inform me that medical conditions that experts have done much testing to establish (including MRIs, which are good places for considering story, because one cannot move and one cannot go anywhere and the whole world rumbles) is merely me getting older and that I can deal because they are?

10. Finally, why can’t I transfer my illnesses to people who tell me all my doctors are wrong?

PS in good news this week, my heart is fine. It’s completely, completely healed. Everyone was surprised (five experts of various kinds), but no-one was unhappy. Rest assured that if I transfer illness to you because you’ve told me I’m not ill, you will not get a weak heart.

How to Celebrate a Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday. No, I’m not going to tell you which one. I am too old to have exciting milestone birthdays and too young to brag that I’m still here despite my advanced age.

But I did celebrate. My sweetheart and I went on a hike in Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, part of the East Bay Regional Parks. It is about five miles from where we live, with the starting point for the trail we followed in the city of Oakland.

In addition to being a birthday celebratory hike, this is part of a project we’ve undertaken for the year. We’re going to visit all of the East Bay Regional Parks that we haven’t been to before. Actually, we might go back to some of the ones we have visited in the past, but at least one of them — Brooks Island — is only accessible by boat and with an appointment since they are trying to restore it and don’t let people on it except in very limited ways.

We are very fortunate to have these parks. According to the park district website, there are 73 of them, all in Alameda and Contra Costa County. They range from walks along wetlands near the Bay to challenging hikes on rugged hills.

Huckleberry is home to to the rare pallid manzanita, which only grows in one other place. It also has lots of bay laurels and, of course, huckleberry trees. A lot of the area looks like this:

trees and other greenery in Huckleberry Botanic Preserve

It was a typical California hike, which is to say that the trail was very narrow in spots, usually with a steep cliff down one side, and my sweetheart kept saying “Poison oak on the right. Poison oak on the left. Poison oak on both sides.” There were also several steep climbs up and down on the trail where I was very grateful to have good hiking poles and to have learned to use them. Continue reading “How to Celebrate a Birthday”

I Had a Knife

I was on my way to Judy’s house when I was mugged. It was about 7pm, dark–so it must have been early Spring–and I was walking along Green Street in Cambridge, around the corner from my house on Putnam Avenue. I was thinking about going over to my boyfriend’s after dinner, I was thinking about work and some writing. I was not thinking that one of the two young men across the street would suddenly rush at me and grab for my bag.

I did the wrong thing: I held on to it. Somehow the two of us fell to the sidewalk and I found myself rolling around on the pavement with a guy a good 8 inches and 60 pounds larger than I was. And determined, as determined as I was not to lose my bag. But I knew something: I had a knife in my pocket, Continue reading “I Had a Knife”